Chapter 1: Introduction
Book 1 – Sea
Everything is a choice, everything we do.
Her words, not mine; used to convince me not to kill Gisborne when I found him out to be the traitor he is; when I had the proof – a tattoo on his arm – that he tried to kill the king in the Holy Land and me right along with him.
And I made a choice, in the end; the one that saved Djaq, but spared Gisborne’s life, so that one day he would claim the life of the woman I loved – Marian.
“You’ve got to be joking!” Much snorts.
“What?” Allan says, slinging the heavy leather bag over his shoulder with a tired grunt.
“Well, look at it.” Much waves an arm at the boat in question. “You can’t seriously tell me that hunk of junk will get us all the way to France.”
“It’s floating, isn’t it,” Allan cheerfully observes. “And there are no visible holes.”
“No, not on the bits above the waterline.”
“Look, not being funny, but do you think the crew would be getting on board if they thought the boat was about to sink?”
“Actually,” Much says, “they don’t look like they give a damn.”
“For Christ’s sake you two,” John barks, picking up his staff and a leather bag twice the size of Allan’s. “Shut up!”
“I was just saying.”
“Well don’t, all right.”
I don’t give a damn either.
They think I can’t hear them, but I can. Talking, or should I say bickering, as if I’m not there. And in a way, I suppose I’m not, due to still being hung over and the fact I’ve been ignoring them for the past three days. But the main reason is that I’m still there, with her, or I would be if I could. Except she’s buried under several feet of sand, and I’m sitting here in this blistering heat waiting for a boat to take me home.
I flick my eyes briefly in their direction, in time to catch three pairs of eyes staring back at me. They quickly turn their heads away, but not so fast that I do not catch the embarrassment on their faces. I don’t blame them. But I’m the embarrassment and have been for the past three days – my calm and considered goodbye to Will and Djaq and my bravado in front of King Richard, a complete sham.
This is the real me, the one who’s lost everything. The one who doesn’t give a damn.
They are talking again, but in muted voices this time; all I catch is the odd word, about the heat, and how long the journey will take this time round, and bets on how many times Much will throw up. It’s more likely I’ll be the one to throw up, of course, and long before we even set foot on that boat. The three of them are shuffling their feet, unwilling to look in my direction, but knowing they need to make a decision about getting on that boat.
It’s no good looking at me, I think. Right now, I can’t even decide if I have the energy to stand, let alone get on board a boat that, as Much pointed out, has seen better days. To be honest, I’ve reached the point where I figure they can go without me for all the use I’ll be to them now.
Gazing down at the sand lightly coating my boots, I notice a large black beetle worrying at the edges of my boots’ worn soles. I idly wonder how long a man could sit here for; sit under this merciless sun without shade or water. I ought to know the answer of course; this is the second time I’ve been here. Is it hours, days, weeks even? Don’t be stupid, Robin. Not weeks, not even days. Not without water.
Sweat is pooling under my armpits and trickling down my back. I picture myself pitching forward into the blistering sand, the beetle scurrying away in fright.
Then I hear it, through the dull throbbing at my temples and the heavy heat induced pounding of my heart. One word. One word that makes me come to my feet so fast the blood rushes to my head and I almost end up in the sand – Gisborne. And that one word, that one name alone, is enough to convince me that I have to get on that boat, even if I am to spend the entire journey alone and drunk in my cabin. Because I have to get home to England and kill Guy of Gisborne.
And after that? Well, there is no after that. I will kill Gisborne and it will be over. Ended. Finished. Everything.
Because everything is a choice, and I have just made mine.
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
Three days we waited. Will and Djaq offered us rooms until we could find a suitable passage, but I declined and the others weren’t about to argue with me.
We eventually found lodgings close to the harbour: a largish room for Allan, John and Much and a smaller one for me. Much protested about the rooms, suggesting he and I should double up, but after a few pointed looks from Allan and John, he shut up, realising that I might want to be alone with my grief.
I didn’t grieve, though. I didn’t do anything.
I don’t know how my friends managed; none of them can speak the language, except Much, who has a smattering. I guess they did all right; they never bothered me. I stayed in my room. A boy brought me food, which I nibbled occasionally but mostly threw out the window for the scavenging birds or beggars. I drank, though, an inexcusable amount.
I could actually do with a drink now, to negate the effects of the last one. Because although I’m still hung over, it’s starting to squeeze and twist and ache like some open wound – my heart that is. Until this moment, I never realised that a piece of muscle and sinew could hurt so much; I mean physically hurt. Sometimes I think it will simply stop, that the term heartbreak is not just a figure of speech. Yet every morning I wake up to find I am breathing, while she is not.
I don’t know why Much is calling me that. I’m not master of anything, not even my own spit.
“It’s time to go aboard.”
“I need a piss first.”
“Fine, but you won’t be long will you? I mean to say, the boat will be sailing soon.”
“No, Much.” I smile wearily. “I won’t be long.” I look around me. Few places afford any privacy on the bustling waterfront. Eventually, I spot a couple of rows of barrels stacked near the water’s edge that will shield me from onlookers. With a surprisingly steady gait, I make my way over to them.
It is refreshingly cool in the shade of the barrels and, for a few moments, I simply stand, my mind empty of all thought save the relief of being out of the pitiless sun. But the relief only lasts a moment. Because the relative cool reminds me of shady trees, and trees remind me of home, and home reminds me of Marian. Oh, God, I miss you.
“Robin!” John, calling from the boat.
I rest my forehead against one of the wooden barrels, breathing in its scent and wondering if the wood is oak.
“Where is he?” Allan this time.
John calls again, louder, and I realise I’d better get on with it. I fumble with my laces, panicking that I’ll miss the boat and therefore my chance to get back to England and kill Gisborne. “To hell with it,” I mouth in frustration; wet warmth runs the length of my inner thighs and beyond. As I said – I don’t give a damn.
I stride purposefully back to Much, pushing him out of my way in my haste to get on board. John is standing at the top of the gangplank. He offers me a hand and I gratefully take it. John pulls me out the way as Much thuds onto the deck.
Once again, three pairs of eyes stare at me, waiting for me to organise them. They take great pains to keep their eyes fixed at a point above my empty sword belt. I stare past them, at the tall mast, unable to meet their pitying looks.
Allan says, “Right, things to do,” and marches off, leaving John standing guard over our bags, Much chewing his bottom lip and me sorely regretting my don’t care attitude as one and then several more crew, or maybe passengers, give me bewildered looks.
Much throws down his satchel and plants himself protectively by my side. A couple of deckhands nudge one another, sniggering. Much shuffles closer until he is pressing into my arm. My throat constricts; he still cares for me, despite the fact I’ve shunned his company these past few days.
Compulsively, I grab his hand and lead him away, blindly pulling him to a quieter part of the boat, my throat still so tight it’s hard to swallow.
“It’ll be all right,” Much mutters under his breath. He looks at our clasped hands and whips his away with an embarrassed grin; and, although I can’t explain it, I wish he hadn’t let go.
To hide my tear-filled eyes, I turn my head to look out to sea, watching as the boat pulls away from the harbour, away from the land where my beloved Marian sleeps her eternal sleep. I can’t believe I’m leaving her behind.
Allan and John eventually find us and, once again, they and Much resume their conversation about the likelihood of the boat making it to France, while all I can think is that if the boat goes down, because I’m the only swimmer among us, I might survive while they all drown. The irony of it is not lost on me.
“Allan’s got us cabins,” Much beams.
I simply nod. It doesn’t surprise me. Allan could probably get you the moon if you asked him to. But you can’t get me Marian back, can you?
I walk away. Because I hate them and I don’t want to hate them.
Chapter 3: Chapter 2
“You call this a cabin?” Much splutters.
Allan shrugs. “What did you expect? It’s a boat, not a flipping hostelry.”
“You couldn’t swing a cat in here,” Much says.
“Or a rat,” John remarks, as something rat-like scurries down the near-dark corridor.
Allan sniggers. “There goes tonight’s dinner.”
Pushing past them, I step into the narrow cabin and sit on a bunk, wondering when and where I might find myself a drink.
“I’ll be back shortly,” Much says. With a bang, he shuts the door on me, as if daring me to walk off.
Much is right, though; the cabin is small. There are two slim bunks with a thin grey blanket covering each and a block of greasy-looking leather that serves as a headrest. A tatty straw mat covers the strip of floor that separates the beds and there is a jug of water perched on an upturned barrel between the two bed-heads. There is enough light from the horn-covered porthole to show up the film of dust floating on top of the water jug.
I stare at the straw matting, idly studying its pattern and watching with detached curiosity as a spider picks its way through the numerous holes. I shiver, inwardly cursing my earlier stupidity at the harbour and hope Much thinks to bring back some spare clothes for me once he’s done whatever it is he’s gone to do.
After a while of hearing nothing but the creaking of the boat’s timbers, I find myself listening to some disconcerting grunting noises coming from the adjacent cabin, shortly followed by the low timbre of two male voices. The spider stops by my boot for a heartbeat and then darts underneath it. I lift my foot to see where it’s gone. Moments later, I hear an intense groan, closely followed by a guttural roar, and I realise what’s going on next door.
My heart goes out to the spider as I disgorge the meagre contents of my stomach onto the mat.
I suppose he has seen me at my worst, but even so, I wouldn’t have blamed Much for just leaving me to wallow in my own filth. As it is, he immediately sets to work, covering the offending mess with his own blanket and making me sit on his bunk. I sit motionless, feeling as if the slightest movement on my part might cause me to shatter into a thousand pieces. The jug of water, unfit for drinking, sorts out the worst of the mess and when he has done all he can do, Much shuts the door on me again.
A short while later, he is back, armed with fresh water, clean blankets, a bundle of clothes and a loaf of bread tucked under his chin.
Much sets the clean water jug on the barrel and dumps the blankets and clothes on the bed. Untucking the bread from his chin, he sits beside me. He offers me a cup of water. I take a few grateful gulps and wordlessly hand the cup back. He then proffers the bread. I shake my head no. Shaking his own head at my lack of appetite, Much tears into the misshapen loaf as if he hasn’t seen food for a month. If I didn’t feel so heartsick, I might have smiled.
After scoffing half the loaf, Much puts the bread down and takes hold of my hand, curling his breadcrumbed fingers around my fingers. This is what finally breaks me: not King Richard’s words over her grave, not Will and Djaq’s poignant goodbye; but the hand of my faithful friend holding mine, trying to keep me from going under, reminding me I’m not alone. I start to cry – not quietly and not with restraint.
Gingerly, Much pulls me into his chest. “It’s all right,” he says, stroking my hair. “Let it go, Robin. Just let it go.”
I bury my face in his shirt, trying to stifle the sound of my sobbing lest the men next door hear me. I wonder if they understand love at all.
“I’m sorry,” I say, some while later, easing away from Much’s tear-soaked, snot-smeared shirt.
“Don’t be,” he says, and then, “Are you sure you won’t eat?”
“No, I’m too tired.”
“Then we should sleep.”
“Is it night?” I ask.
I yank off my boots, strip off my dust and dirt-encrusted leather jerkin and linen shirt, my sword belt and my soiled breeches and smallclothes. Then, donning clean undergarments, I lie on the narrow wooden bunk. Much strips down to his own smallclothes and does likewise, grimacing as his head hits the greasy leather headrest. I wait for a flurry of complaints but Much remains silent on the cabin’s lack of comfort.
I shuffle about for a bit, trying to get comfortable. I throw the smelly leather headrest on the floor and smile when I hear Much doing the same.
I do not expect to sleep; however, rather than making me uneasy, the boat’s rocking motion soon has me drifting off. I’m close to much longed for oblivion when something dragging at my neck jerks me fully awake: my outlaw tag has caught on the bunk’s wooden slats where the thin sheet has bunched up beneath me. I ease it free and clutch the carved piece of wood in my right hand. Holding it when I sleep has become something of a habit, as a child might clutch a blanket or a rag doll to chase away bad dreams. Feeling the wooden tag in my palm reminds me who I am, or at least who I used to be.
As I run my thumb along its perfectly smooth edges and over the delicate carving, I think of its maker, Will Scarlett. Tonight, Will Scarlett is closer to Marian than I am. Tonight, Will Scarlett lies next to a woman he loves; maybe she is moaning a soft feminine moan, not like those coarse, unholy men next door.
I recall Marian’s surprised exclamation the first time we coupled, shortly after I’d asked her to marry me. She insisted we should wait, that it was not decent or moral to marry our flesh before being wed; but I’d begged and pleaded with her, using every excuse I could, except the truth: I wanted to be inside her. And then, one night, when I’d finally decided to concede defeat and had quietly made myself scarce of the camp to deal with my desires, she had soundlessly crept up on me, taken my hand and pulled me to the forest floor.
There had been a few more times after that, but none that I would remember or cherish as much as that first time; the time when I taught her what her womanhood was all about; when I made her whimper in delight and how, when it was over, she cried and clung to me, even as she let me have my turn.
The wooden tag digs into my palm. I’m surprised I have any tears left.
I don’t know if Much senses rather than hears my distress, and I don’t know what his thinking is either, because the beds are narrow enough for one person, let alone two.
He presses his warm body against my back and mumbles something. I’m not sure if it is a request or an apology, but either way, when I don’t react, he obviously takes it as acquiescence and snuggles up closer. I have no idea whether he is responding to my needs or to his own, but it doesn’t matter; I’m glad of his closeness. After a while, it stops feeling weird, or wrong, and I drift back to sleep.
I awake with a start, my heart racing, struggling to remember where I am. I’d been having a vivid dream about riding a horse. The ride had begun gently, but then had become increasingly violent. I was having trouble staying in the saddle. My mount seemed determined to throw me off and the more I pulled on the reins the more it bucked and pitched.
I’m not on a horse, but the bucking and pitching continues. I turn over and warm breaths tickle my nose and cheeks – Much.
Clammy with sweat, I wriggle out from under the blanket and edge my way down the bed, taking care not to wake him. I slide my legs over the end of the bunk until I feel the wooden floorboards under my feet. I sit that way for a moment, listening to the creaks and groans of the boat. Then I stand and pull on my breeches. In two short steps, I reach the cabin door.
It was not, I now realise, the disturbing dream, or the wild pitching of the boat that had woken me, but the need to relieve myself. As there is no pail in the cabin for such use, I decide to go out on deck and go over the side; the leeward side, of course, otherwise I might find I need another change of clothes.
The cool night air feels good after the stuffiness of the cabin. However, the decking is full of splinters and I wonder if I’ve made a mistake venturing out in bare feet. I decide to take the risk, not wishing to return to the cabin to retrieve my boots in case I disturb Much’s sleep.
A couple of lanterns hanging in the middle of the boat cast two wobbly pools of light on the deck, but either end of the vessel is close to darkness, lit only by the white circle of moon.
Cautiously, I make my way to the far end of the boat and find it devoid of crew or passengers.
It’s hard to keep my balance, and the boat is rolling enough to suggest it might be prudent to lash myself onto something before I unlace my breeches. I espy a coil of rope and am about to go grab it when something catches my eye. Someone is leaning over the side; a dark figure that I would not have seen but for the moon’s illumination. I back away, wishing to respect the man’s privacy; it is obvious he’s losing his stomach. As I widen the distance between us, he raises his head. He wipes his chin with the back of his hand. His long hair whips about his head in the strong sea wind. He curses.
Something about him is chillingly familiar. I edge forwards for a closer look. Moments later, I completely forget my reason for coming up on deck. The retching figure is none other than my sworn enemy – Guy of Gisborne.
Stunned, I stagger backwards, smacking into a large barrel and catching my heel on something hard and sharp. Even though I’m aware that a nail or some other spike of metal has pierced my flesh, I feel no pain.
I had assumed I would have to wait weeks, if not months, for my chance to kill Gisborne and had resigned myself to the wait. It never occurred to me that he would board the same boat as us. Yet here he is and, in the space of a few heartbeats, I can have my revenge. I can kill him and throw him over the side, job done.
However, although my heart is rejoicing that my chance has come sooner than expected, my head is warning me to take care. In my mind’s eye, I picture myself rushing at Gisborne and knocking him over the side, but in reality, I know I could never perform such a task. For starters, the heavy rolling of the boat is probably enough to take me off my feet before I reach him. It will also require me to bodily lift Gisborne in order to hurl him over the side and I know I’m not strong enough. Most pertinent of all, I can see the great broadsword at his hip, and I am unarmed.
Cursing my powerless state, I turn around. I will return to the cabin, collect my bow, come back and loose an arrow at him, or I will steal Much’s sword and use that. Then I will find the strength to tip him over the side and into the sea. But even as I am contemplating this course of action, a shout rings out. Much, calling for me.
“Hood!” Gisborne screams, his voice hoarse from retching. “Robin Hood!”
Much starts running towards me, arms flailing, but I have no time for my friend.
“Gisborne!” I shout, rushing headlong at him, my earlier caution forgotten with the heady rush of hate that surges through my tired, heartsick body.
Grinning, he unsheathes his sword, doubtless noticing I am unarmed, confident I will back off once I see his weapon. Instead, I slam into him, taking him off his feet. We both hit the side of the boat and crash to the deck. His eyes meet mine, wide with shock. He must think I’ve lost my senses to rush at him in such a manner. And perhaps I have, for there is every chance I could have ended up impaled on his sword just as Marian had.
Staggering to my feet, ignoring Much’s pleas to back off, I kick Gisborne’s arm with my bare foot, knocking the sword from his grasp. It skitters across the deck. He lurches to his feet.
“You murdering scum!” I smash a fist into his cheek, the one that Marian cut with the ugly wedding ring he tried to force on her unwilling hand.
The boat pitches heavily and we both fall and roll. We grapple on the deck a moment before simultaneously regaining our feet. Fuelled by my anger, I punch Gisborne in the face, once, twice, and he stumbles away from me.
“The time has come for you to pay for what you did, Gisborne.”
“No!” he shouts, spittle and a spattering of blood spraying my bare arm. “It was you. You forced me to do it.”
“You murdered her!” I yell. “She didn’t love you. You couldn’t have her.”
“She should have been mine!”
Hot tears clog my eyes. “She was my wife!”
Gisborne lunges at me and manages to grab my arms as I struggle for balance. He swings me round. Abruptly, he lets go. I snatch at the boat’s railings, miss and smack onto the deck. My head hits an iron rivet. I gasp, both with the pain and at Gisborne’s rank breath on my face as he pins me down. I blink to clear my vision, already recognising the futility of it. He slides his powerful arms under me and lifts me up, as easily as if I’m some over-sized rag doll. The chill wind bites at my bare feet and ankles, and I imagine myself laughing – or maybe I am laughing – as I recall the reason why I’d come up on deck in the first place, my need to ‘go over the side’.
Dimly, I hear someone scream, “No!”
Chapter 4: Chapter 3
The smell is familiar: old sweat and onions, bacon, too.
Something cold and wet slaps onto my forehead. My eyelids flutter open. I try to sit, but firm hands ease me back down onto my bunk. I recall my bare feet on the splintery deck; the chill wind snapping at my ankles as Gisborne held me aloft; his split lips snarling accusations: “It was you. You forced me to do it.”
“Robin, can you hear me?”
“Don’t try to sit, not yet.”
“It’s all right. You’re all right.”
His voice sounds scratchy and weird, as though he’s been sick, or crying, perhaps both.
“Gisborne?” I say. “What happened? Did I kill him?”
“Did you kill him?”
“No,” Allan interrupts, “but he gave it his best shot.”
Despite Much’s protestations, I sit. Allan is standing in the doorway.
“Tell me,” I say.
“Much saved your bacon, Robin. Gisborne was just about to chuck you into the sea. Much threw a sword at his legs, Gisborne’s sword as it happens, and he let go of you. Lucky he dropped you the right way mind, else you’d be shark fodder by now.”
“You were there?” I ask.
“Nah, it was John. His stomach was playing up and he’d gone up on deck to...you know.” Allan mimes retching and my stomach roils just a little. “He heard Much shouting and went to see what was going on. Got there in time to see Much flinging something at Gisborne and you dropping like a stone.”
At his name, John squeezes into the cabin.
“Did you kill—” I begin.
“No!” John bangs the end of his staff on the floor for emphasis. “What do you take me for? I...we do not kill, not unless we have to. You taught us that.”
I think of my earlier intention to return to my cabin, recover my bow and put an arrow into Gisborne’s back. The thought is not a pleasant one, but I’m still sorry I didn’t get the chance.
“What happened to Gisborne?” I ask.
“When he saw John charging towards him he made a run for it,” Allan says.
“Allan,” I say, pushing my thoughts of revenge aside for the moment. “Now we know Gisborne’s on board what about the sheriff?”
“Already on the case, Robin. I’ve been doing a bit of snooping while you’ve been flat on your back.”
I eye Allan’s clothes.
“Deckhand,” Allan explains. “It seems the sheriff’s holed up in the captain’s cabin, sick as a dog. The captain speaks good English, by the way. Apparently, the sheriff and Gisborne are not exactly on speaking terms, and Gisborne is sleeping somewhere else on the boat. With the crew I think.”
“Does the sheriff know we’re on board?”
“I don’t think so, at least not yet. What do you think we should do?”
“Just lie low for now. I need to think.”
“Look, not being funny, Robin, but it’s going to be pretty hard keeping out of both Vaisey and Gisborne’s way. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re on a fairly small boat in the middle of a very big sea.”
“I’ll think of something.”
Falling back on the bed, I shut my eyes, and Allan and John take it as a hint that the matter is closed, for now at least. I wait until I hear the soft click of the cabin door and then look at Much.
He folds his arms across his chest, a resolute expression on his face. “I won’t let you do it.”
“You can’t stop me.” I ease myself up and pull my boots from under the bed. My head is still pounding, and there is a disconcerting pain in my right hip, but I’m not about to let that get in the way of what I have to do.
As I drag my bow and quiver out from under the bed, Much flings himself dramatically across the cabin door. “No!”
“I have to do this. You know that.” With trembling fingers, I buckle on my quiver.
“No, you don’t. We don’t kill. You don’t kill. Not even Gisborne.”
It seems Much has deliberately chosen to forget my little killing spree when Marian lay injured in the poxy cave, as he called it.
“What? Did you think I would go back to England and let Gisborne live? That I would not kill him?”
“Yes, I mean, no, but I thought we had weeks, if not months, and that you’d cool down, change your mind.”
“I will never change my mind about this. Besides, what was that in the Holy Land, if not killing?”
“It was different. We were at war. It was in the name of the king. We were defending the king. This is different. This is personal.”
“Damn right it is!”
“No, please, Master. It’ll change you.”
“As if I haven’t changed.”
“Please.” Much kneels in front of me, his grey-blue eyes awash with tears. “It’ll eat away at you, and you’ll never forgive yourself. What would Marian say if—”
“Don’t! Don’t use her to change my mind.”
“I couldn’t bear it if you changed. I couldn’t live with you.”
“Then live without me!” Whipping up my bow, I smack him across the temple. I don’t have the energy to catch him. “Live without me,” I whisper, stepping over his crumpled body and opening the cabin door.
Slipping unseen along the boat’s narrow corridors, I bite back my tears. Much will understand. In the end, he will understand. He loves me, after all.
I recall his hand in mine and how he had pressed into my back, and I guiltily wonder whether I’ve been reading him wrong all this time and how far his love for me really goes. Don’t be stupid, Robin. How could he not care for you after all these years? But it is an unnerving thought.
Cautiously, I step out onto the sunlit deck and make a determined effort to put all thought of Much and our relationship aside. I need to focus. I need to find Gisborne.
I do not have long to wait, and it is clear Gisborne has been thinking along the same lines as me. Even so, as he stands, sword in hand, his back to me, I have a moment of self-loathing. I have an arrow lined up on him and I am too good a shot to miss. It is the act of a coward, but it has to be this way. I’ve already proved that I have no hope of besting Gisborne one-on-one, and I can’t hide from him either. It has to be like this.
I recall Much’s earlier pleas, begging me to reconsider. I don’t care, I think, trying to summon up the resentment I felt towards him, towards all of them, back at the harbour in Acre; I am going to do this thing.
So why do I shout? Is it to warn him, give him that fleeting chance to turn around and face his attacker, to defend himself? Perhaps I have not sunk as low as I fear.
The arrow nicks the sleeve of his leathers. There, I’ve given him a chance and yet he neither runs nor charges towards me. I nock and aim another arrow. This time, I will not miss.
“This is for you, Marian,” I softly say, sure in the knowledge that even through the blur of my tears I will hit him and he will be dead. I draw back the bowstring.
Something claws at my shoulder, jerking me backwards. The nocked arrow flies harmlessly out to sea. “Much,” I snarl, whirling around to face him.
“Captain Jehal, actually. At your service.”
With that, my assailant rips my bow out my hand and thumps me on the jaw.
“This is good. Oh, this is very good.”
I groan and blink up at the pasty but grinning face of Sheriff Vaisey.
“Tell me, captain,” the sheriff drawls. “Do they still do walking the plank?”
The captain gives the sheriff a withering look.
Two of Jehal’s crew haul me to my feet and roughly pull my arms behind my back. Iron manacles snap around my wrists. It seems attempting to murder someone on board Captain Jehal’s boat is against the rules. I think of Much, lying unconscious and bleeding on the tatty straw mat, and wonder how long it will be before Allan and John find him and realise what I have done. If they thought badly of me before, God knows what they will think of me now.
I glance at Gisborne and see he is receiving identical treatment to my own; in the blink of an eye, we have all but become equals. I feel sick to my stomach and it has nothing to do with the up and down motion of the boat.
Jehal barks some orders to his crew in his own tongue and, moments later, two brawny sailors are dragging me down into the bowels of the boat, Gisborne right behind me.
In a dark and dank-smelling hold, I am bundled into some type of cage: presumably, it serves as the boat’s prison. They drag Gisborne to the other side of the hold and shackle him to a beam. Jehal orders the bigger of the two sailors to guard us. The less than happy man squats, places a lantern by his side, and dispassionately regards both his prisoners. Without a word to either Gisborne or myself, Jehal leaves, slamming the hatch behind him.
Gisborne clears his throat as if to speak and I swivel round to face the other way. I have no desire to speak to him, not now, not ever.
We sit in silence, our resentment charging the rancid air in the hold. And we might have stayed that way but for the hatch opening and Much entering the hold. He stammers a few words of grammatically incorrect Arabic to our guard and, when the guard shakes his head in puzzlement, points at me, rapidly opening and shutting his mouth.
“Talk only, yes?” our guard says in halting English.
Much nods and stomps over to my cage. There is a dried trickle of blood running the length of his temple and a smear of it on the edge of his bedraggled skullcap.
I smile at him, glad he has forgiven me for hitting him, has come to my rescue.
Much frowns. “I haven’t come to get you out if that’s what you think.” He wraps his hands around the bars of my cage. There is blood on the backs of his fingers.
“What do you mean, not get me out?”
“You can stay in here and rot for all I care.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“You hit me.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“Yes, you did.”
Gisborne snorts and Much twists around.
“Ignore him,” I say.
“What? Like you tried to ignore him, you mean?”
“Please, Much. You don’t know how much it hurts to see him alive and breathing while Marian...while...” I wrap my own hands around the bars, as once again the world slides out from under me at the thought of my darling Marian lying beneath Acre’s sands.
“What about my hurt?” Much counters miserably.
I meet his glittering eyes and, for the first time, realise that Marian’s death does not belong exclusively to me. “I didn’t kill her,” I say. I nod towards Gisborne. “He did.”
“You did kill her,” Gisborne growls. “If you had never come back, she would have been mine. She was the only thing in this God awful world that mattered to me; the only person who ever tried to understand me. And you took her away from me.”
My resolve not to talk to Gisborne blows apart. “It was your sword that killed her. Yours and no one else’s.”
“You think I don’t know that. You think I don’t suffer every day remembering what I’ve done.”
I stare at the floor. I will not listen to him. I do not want to hear of his suffering. I do not want to feel sorrow or pity for him. Because if I do, then I will be giving something of Marian back to him, and he can’t have her. She is mine. She is my wife.
“Robin.” Much places his bloodied hands on top of mine.
“Get me out of here,” I plead.
“No. Not until you promise not to kill him.”
I shake my head and his hands slide away.
“Then I can’t help you,” he says sadly.
Chapter 5: Chapter 4
“Aww, boyfriend left you, has he?”
I turn my back on Gisborne and hug my knees to my chest, wishing I were still drunk, sitting at the harbour in Acre, watching the boat sail without me. I think of Much, standing protectively by my side after we boarded the boat, and press my forehead into my knees, swallowing a mixture of gratitude and guilt, wondering if I have lost his friendship for good.
By the time I think my forehead must bear an imprint of my knee, I hear the hatch open and someone thumps down the wooden steps and stomps over to my cage. With a grunt, a barrel-chested sailor thrusts a piece of bread and a mug of water through the bars, slopping the water as he does so. Then he stomps and thumps his way back up the steps and out of the hold.
I pick up the blackened piece of bread, take a nibble and toss it in the corner of my cage in revulsion: it is full of maggots. I drink the water, though. I notice Gisborne flicking his fingernails at his own piece of bread and then eating it. I hope he chokes.
At the next change of watch, Gisborne asks our gaoler how late the hour is. The man shrugs, not understanding the question. I have no idea, except that we’ve been stuck down here for what feels like an eternity so it must be well past midnight.
There is a blanket rolled up in the corner of my cage and I shake it out. It smells of sweat and mouse droppings, but I am too cold to care and wrap it around me.
I flick my eyes in Gisborne’s direction. He is slumped against the thick wooden beam, eyes closed, presumably asleep. How can he sleep, I think. How can I? But I am incredibly tired; I simply have to rest. My head is still throbbing from its rivet bashing and my hip is paining me to the point that no matter which way I position myself I am uncomfortable.
Eventually I fall into a cruel doze. Cruel because I dream of Marian – not skewered by Gisborne’s sword as on so many other restless nights, but sliding away from me, into a pit of sand.
“Robin, help me!”
“Hold my hand.”
“I can’t. It’s too far away.”
“Here, take hold.”
“I’ve got you.”
The sand is sliding, a fluid thing. Her hand starts to slip from my grasp.
“Don’t let go,” she pleads.
“I won’t. I’ll never let go.”
I can’t see anything except sand, whipped up by a ferocious, ear-splitting wind. And then, suddenly, it is still. Absolutely still. And Marian is gone.
I jerk awake. Something is shining in my face. It is our guard, holding his lantern over me. His eyes briefly connect with mine. He mumbles what sounds like an apology and shuffles away. I guess I must have cried out in my sleep and he had decided to check on me.
My face feels scratchy and, for a heartbeat, I am back in my dream, sand stinging my eyes. I rub my face with my hands, expecting to find a fine coat of grit. Instead, my fingers come away wet. The last time I cried in my sleep, I was ten summers old.
I hear the scrape of metal against wood and realise that Gisborne is not tightly bound to the beam as I first thought but on a long piece of chain that allows him crawl several feet in either direction.
Right now, he is moving towards me. I think of turning away from him, curling into a shadowy corner of my cage. Instead, I stay where I am. To hell with it. I’m not about to rein in or hide my grief because of Gisborne – he caused it, now he can witness it.
“Are you all right?”
The question is so unexpected I don’t know how to respond.
It is the first time I’ve heard him call me anything other than Locksley or Hood, at least since my return to England. Even when we were children, he used to call me Brat Face or Lick Bottom. Only when I let him beat me at anything, which wasn’t often, did he call me Robin. I don’t understand. I had tried to kill him and he’s calling me Robin.
“Please don’t,” he says, so softly I almost don’t catch the words.
“I want to go back,” I choke.
“I want to go back, to the Holy Land, to Acre. I can’t leave her there all alone.”
“We’re in the middle of the sea in case you haven’t noticed.”
His words are neither harsh nor cruel; he is merely stating a fact.
Her grave should be in England, I think, at Knighton, or in Sherwood, not under scorched sands. She should lie where her shade can walk through dappled sunlight and soft rains, where she can be near to me.
I grab the bars for support and press my forehead into their iron coldness. Why had I let them bury her there? Why couldn’t I have brought her home? I know the answer of course, in all its gruesomeness, and that just makes it worse.
Gisborne moves closer, straining at his chain, until his hands touch the bars of my cage.
That’s right, Gisborne, I think. Take a good look. Watch while your enemy, the people’s hero, the great Robin Hood tries desperately hard not to fall to pieces.
And then I do.
He moves away from my cage, but not so far that I can’t hear him. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I would give my life a thousand times over to bring her back.”
I only need to take your life once, I think. It still won’t bring her back, though, will it?
Exhaustion finally grants me sleep; but all too soon, I come around, awakened by hunger and the need to empty my bowels. Luckily, the answers to my needs come in swift succession. Firstly, as our guard opens my cage and places a bowl of some soupy stuff and a lump of bread, this time without maggots, on the floor of my cage; and shortly thereafter, as my cell door is unlocked and I understand I can go up on deck to relieve myself.
I recognise the two men who manacle my hands behind my back and walk me up on deck; they are the ones who had nudged each other and sniggered when I first boarded the boat. I inwardly blush at the memory.
It is a relief, though, to be away from Gisborne and in the fresh air. However, that relief soon turns to agonised embarrassment when my captors make it clear they are not going to unchain my wrists.
“And how exactly am I going to manage this, then?” I snarl at them.
They shake their heads in puzzlement. I am just about to attempt a translation when I realise that they are deliberately taunting me.
One of the men moves the pail nearer to me and points. His companion guffaws. Angrily, I kick the pail at him. I am considering launching myself into my tormentors, when Captain Jehal hurries over. He takes one look at me and then turns to the men. He barks something at them that is too fast even for my language skills. The guffawing man grudgingly hands over the key to my manacles and clumps away, his companion hot on his heels.
“I am sorry, please.” Jehal unlocks my wrists and places the overturned pail in front of me. He then turns and walks away, giving me some privacy.
When I’ve finished, I simply wait. There is no point in trying to make an escape, not on a boat.
Jehal reappears and I hold out my arms for him to restrain me.
“That will not be necessary, my friend,” he says, with an apologetic shake of his head. “Here.” He removes the iron links from my wrists.
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“I must apologise, Robin Hood, for I did not know who you were, not until this morning.”
Jehal nods. “The big one, called Little John, came and explained. If I had known, I would never have put you in the hold with such a monster.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I reply, thinking of Gisborne’s heartfelt apology.
“If you like, Robin, we could have him tried and executed on board. It would not be the first time—”
“No,” I say. “Let him be.”
Jehal gives me a quizzical look, but I am not in the mood for explaining. To be honest, I don’t understand it myself and I’m not sure that I want to. Already the choice I had made, the reason I boarded the boat in the first place, has slipped through my fingers. I need a plan, but, right now, all I can think of is finding a drink and apologising to Much for my despicable behaviour last evening.
I can’t find Much, for which I am guiltily thankful; I can’t think what I should say to him to make him feel any better about me. I guess he has gone to join Allan and John and, not wanting to face the three of them, I return to my cabin.
And so I sit. I sit in that cramped little space, listening to the sounds of the boat and becoming ever more restless and angry. How dare Gisborne think that a simple sorry could excuse what he’d done; how dare I even let him.
“Come to gloat, have you?”
Gisborne is sitting in the cage. I turn away, unsure why I felt the need to talk to him.
“Wait!” he calls as I start to walk away.
Reluctantly, I swivel round.
He stares at me, expectant. After a moment’s hesitation, I walk over and sit on the floor, cross-legged, facing him.
“I want to know.”
“Want to know what?” he asks.
“Why you killed her.”
Gisborne’s dark blue eyes flicker, but there is no way I am going to spare him.
“She didn’t want me,” he admits. ‘She was the only person in my whole sorry life I ever cared for.”
“You had a funny way of showing it,” I say.
“You don’t understand.”
“No, you’re right. I don’t understand. You say you loved her, yet you killed her. What kind of love is that?”
“The kind that realised I’d lost – lost her to you.”
“That’s no reason to take her life.”
“You took her from me.”
“And to repay me you took her from me.”
And there it is. After all the self-torment, all the whys and wherefores, it all came down to one thing – jealousy. Because I had what he wanted.
It seems there is nothing else to say.
Gisborne wraps his long, slim fingers around the bars, mimicking my earlier actions. I have to applaud him for keeping his dignity when I had so easily lost mine, but he can’t hide a hurt this big.
“Don’t,” I whisper grudgingly.
He raises his tear-filled eyes to meet mine.
“You kissed her?” he says.
“As she was...when she was... dying.”
“Then her spirit is not in Acre, but in you. We talked about it as boys. Remember?”
I did remember. Gisborne had been trying console me when he found me crying over my mother's grave one early spring morning. He'd asked me if I had kissed my mother on her deathbed and if I had brushed her lips with mine. I had replied yes, and Gisborne assured me that a bishop had once told him that a person's spirit lives on after death and can even enter another's living body.
His words have me reeling. Gisborne has given me what days of agonising could not, what the love and support of my friends could not – a reason to go on. And just as Much had done to me, I wrap my own hands around Guy’s and I feel Marian move between us.
“Thank you,” I say.
“You’re welcome,” he replies.
It is the most bizarre moment I have ever known.
Chapter 6: Chapter 5
There are men everywhere: running, shouting, rolling barrels, climbing the rigging.
“What’s going on?” I call.
“Pirates. Boarding the boat. We have to...you have to...” Much shoves my bow into my hands, along with my scimitar. I thought I’d left my blade in Acre but it seems Much, or maybe John or Allan, had it all along. I guess they hadn’t trusted me with it earlier.
“Look out!” Much shoves me aside as something whizzes over our heads.
“Where in hell’s name—” Then I see the ship drawn up alongside.
“They said they were taking in water and needed help,” Much rapidly explains, unsheathing his sword. “I do not,” he says, wrestling with his shield, “want to die on some poxy boat in the middle of some poxy ocean.”
I’m about to reassure him that I have no intention of letting any of us become fish food when Jehal comes pounding towards us.
“Robin, thank Allah you’re here.” Grabbing my arm, he pulls me behind a pile of nets. “We are gravely outnumbered, but your bow will make all the difference.”
“I’m not going to—”
“I know of your principles, Robin Hood,” he interrupts, forgetting or choosing to forget my earlier intention to kill Gisborne, “but these men are cutthroats and will kill you as they would swat a bothersome fly.”
Even as Jehal speaks, a pirate, brandishing a curved blade that makes my scimitar look like a table knife, charges towards us, screaming all manner of threats.
With a motion as familiar as breathing, I draw an arrow from my quiver, nock and loose it. The pirate’s eyes and mouth widen in surprise. He drops his blade and curls his fingers around the arrow embedded in his chest. He is still clutching the ash shaft as he dies.
I scramble on top of the nets and loose two more arrows, killing two more pirates. The crusades may have changed my mind about killing, but for my friends I will kill and kill again.
Much yells, “Robin, behind you!”
Whirling around, I loose another arrow. It smacks into the chest of a burly pirate clambering over the boat’s rail. With an anguished cry, he falls back onto the marauder’s galley. More heads appear, more pirates pour over the rail, too many for me to deal with with the few arrows I have left. I think of Gisborne, in his cage, probably unaware that we are under attack.
Clambering onto a barrel, I shout, “Jehal!” He comes running. I jump off the barrel and a spike of pain shoots through my sore hip. Cursing, I draw my sword. “Release Gisborne from the hold,” I tell him.
“You heard me. There are too many of them. We need every man we can get.” I decide to draw the line at requesting the services of the seasick sheriff.
“He’ll kill you, Robin.”
“Just do it!”
Jehal nods and sprints away.
Moments later, my sword is doing bloody battle with a pirate’s sword. My adversary is slimmer than I am, if that is possible. One of his front teeth is gold, reminding me of the sheriff. He slashes open my shirtfront and gives me a gold-toothed grin. I feint towards his legs and then bring my blade up, severing his sword hand from his wrist. Howling, he crashes to the deck. Not grinning now, are you? I think. I whirl around, ready to take on another attacker.
Several times, I catch sight of Much, John and Allan, fighting either as a team or individually. They seem to be holding their own, and I can only thank God in Heaven that all the training, not to mention real life fighting, we have done over the years is paying off. Unfortunately, Jehal’s crew are not faring so well; already, I can see several dead or badly injured men lying on the deck or crawling across it.
It’s Gisborne, and it appears, so naming me, we are back on our old footing. Perhaps releasing him from the hold is a mistake, one I hope I will not regret.
“Are we winning?” he asks, unsheathing his great broadsword and giving me a shy smile.
“Not yet, Gisborne.” I almost make the mistake of smiling back.
It is becoming clear that Gisborne and I are the biggest threat to the pirates’ success. Certainly, he can match me for sword skills and together we seem to be making some headway. Enough that I have a chance to steal a glance at him, at the way he fights. His blade is doing a job: quick, clean and efficient, much as my own. But there the similarity between us ends. Gisborne is killing for one reason only – himself. Unlike me, Guy of Gisborne has no friends.
I watch as he plunges his sword into the torso of yet another pirate, low down, on the left-hand side. My chest tightens at the memory. How did it feel, Gisborne? How did it feel when she gasped, when she looked at you with that same shocked expression as the man you just killed; that look of surprise when she realised what you had done.
Oh, God, Marian, how did it feel?
In all the mayhem, it would be easy to run him through and take my revenge, blame it on a pirate’s sword.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Not good enough, Gisborne.
I swing around, slashing at another pirate. Unlike the first one I killed, this one is toothless. Our blades clash, parry, scrape and dig. Inch by inch, I force him backwards, towards the pile of nets. His foot tangles in the thick ropes and he stumbles. I hack at his head, miss when he lurches sideways. Freeing his foot from the nets, he charges at me, slashing wildly. He knocks my scimitar from my hand. Cursing, I scramble backwards. With a roar, Gisborne rushes towards me. I duck under a wild swipe of deadly blade and then Gisborne neatly steps up behind my attacker and plunges his sword into his back. The toothless pirate pitches forwards and lands with a thump at my feet. I scoop up my fallen blade. Come on, Robin. This is your chance to get rid of Gisborne, have your revenge. Take it. Take it now.
“You all right?” Gisborne asks, stepping over the body of the dead pirate and lightly touching my arm.
I nod, and my hate falls away. Damn the man. It isn’t supposed to be this way.
The pirates are becoming more cautious, sensing they are dealing with seasoned fighters. Their leader shouts and points, and I realise he is ordering his men to goad us into splitting up so they can pick us off one by one.
“Fight in twos and threes,” I yell, both to my gang and to those of Jehal’s crew who are still managing to hold their own, be it with blades or whatever else they have managed to grab from the deck that will serve as a weapon.
I catch Much’s eye and frantically shake my head when it looks as though he might try to get to me. Turning to Gisborne, I say, “ Ready?” Gisborne nods and we stand back-to-back, his broadsword and my curved scimitar balanced in our respective hands.
“What are they waiting for?” Gisborne asks, eyeing the encircling pirates.
“I don’t know, but—”
With a yell, the bulk of the pirates turn and charge towards Much and the others. In the short space of time since the fighting began, they have worked out my weakness – my friends.
I cry out as a white-hot pain lances through my upper right arm. My sword clatters to the deck.
“Robin!” Gisborne tackles me to the ground. “Keep still, man,” he growls.
Where is my sword? There, on the deck. I can’t reach it. Something is on my sleeve, on my arm. Gisborne is pulling me, hurting me. “What are you doing?” I demand. I try to roll away and he kneels on my chest.
“Saving you,” he retorts. Grabbing my ankles, he starts dragging me along the deck. We reach a hatchway and he shoves me down a short flight of steps, bundling after me. The pain in my right arm is making me dizzy. I turn my head away, thinking I’m about to vomit and, in that moment, catch sight of Gisborne’s fist hurtling towards my face.
I can smell burning. Opening my eyes, I find I’m still sprawled at the bottom of the wooden steps leading down to the hold. I grab a step to pull myself up and gasp as a searing pain rips through my right arm. My bloodied hand slips off the rough wood. I stare dazedly at my injured arm; it is red from shoulder to fingertips. Panicking, I tug at my shirt. My heart feels as if it’s going to burst out my chest. Through my dread, I realise the shouting and clashing of weapons has ceased. Apart from the incessant waves hitting the sides of the boat, I can’t hear anything at all. Is everyone dead, and does the burning smell mean the pirates have set fire to the boat? I claw at the steps with my left hand and inch by agonising inch make my way up to the hatch. Rolling onto the deck, I stare in disbelief as a bloody pool quickly forms on the already blood-spattered wood beneath me. I stagger to my feet.
“Gisborne,” I croak. “The fire?”
“Started deliberately, but under control.” His eyes widen. “My God, Locksley, you’re bleeding all over the place.”
I want to ask about my friends, but the fear that I might lose my arm, clogs my throat. Gisborne starts to slide an arm around my waist. “Let me help.”
“No.” I push him away.
“For God’s sake, man. Don’t argue with me.”
If I weren’t in such a state, I might have grinned at that remark. Gisborne and I have been arguing ever since we’ve known each other.
“Here.” Gisborne holds out both arms, offering to help. I wave him away. “Will you stop being so damn stubborn.” His delivery is angry and rasping, yet, in his face, I see sympathy and a desire to help; and, for a moment, it reminds me of something that happened during our childhood, beside Locksley pond.
The deck wavers in front of me; the masts come in and out of focus. Gisborne moves towards me and I fall gratefully into his waiting arms. He scoops me up and carries me as a father might carry a sleepy child to bed.
“Don’t you die on me, Locksley, you hear me. I need you.” He starts to walk along the deck, his powerful strides and the thud, thud of his heavy black boots keeping time with the dull thudding of my heart. My head lolls against his leathered shoulder.
“I need you.” What does he mean? Need me for what? To save him from the pirates, from the gang, from himself?
I force my eyes open. Blood is pouring from my injured arm, running down Gisborne’s leathers and dripping onto the deck. He could crush me, I think. Yet, here he is, carrying me as one would a child, hugging me to his chest and speaking soothing words as if to chase away a nightmare, carrying me below decks and presumably to safety.
I don’t like it. I don’t like that I am placing my trust in someone whose fault it is I am here in the first place. Marian’s death, and the aftermath of it, has weakened me. My grief has robbed me of my usual edge and left me vulnerable, open to suggestion, to attack and quite possibly to defeat. Yet here I am, trusting Gisborne; trusting him with my life. But I can smell the darkness in him and I don’t like it.
He keeps walking and I give up the fight to keep my eyes open.
There are voices: one commanding, full of authority, the other bewildered and frightened.
“You! Fetch me water and cloth.”
“Over there. And find Salim, if is he alive.”
“A cook, for this?”
“He is good with medical also. Hurry!”
It is Captain Jehal and Much.
“Robin, can you hear me?” Jehal asks.
I think I say something in reply, but perhaps I just imagine saying it.
“It’s fine,” he says. “Be still.”
I attempt to smile, to reassure Much I’m all right, but, in truth, I’m terrified.
Jehal rips open my already ripped shirt. I imagine him pulling away my sleeve and taking my arm off with it. I start to shake, my bladder lets go. Someone’s hand – Much’s, I think – goes under my head, raises it up. Jehal presses fingers and thumb either side of my jaw, squeezes my mouth open. “Drink!” The liquid is fiery and burns my throat, but the momentary distraction from my arm is a blessed relief. It reminds me of the three days I spent in Acre, out of my head with grief and drunkenness.
“Marian,” I croak.
“Shush, Master. Don’t try to speak.”
Another voice, not English, joins Jehal and Much’s. Someone is holding my legs down, another my good arm and head, pinning me to the bed. Something cold touches my injured arm. I cry out, jerk violently.
“He should be unconscious,” Gisborne growls.
I hear a scuffling of boots, and Much saying, “Keep away. You just keep away from him.” I try to tell Much not to interfere, but all that escapes my lips is another agonised cry as someone’s fingers probe my damaged flesh.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Gisborne utters.
I turn my head and open my eyes, in time to see his fist heading for my face a second time.
Chapter 7: Chapter 6
I open my eyes, quickly shut them again. No, I’m not ready. I don’t want to know.
“Master! You’re awake! Shall I get you water, food, anything?”
He leaves me little choice. One eye at a time, I bring the cabin, and Much’s concerned face, into focus. It is not our cupboard of a cabin, I see, but a much larger one, quite possibly the captain’s judging by the furnishings.
Ignoring Much’s question, I ask, “What happened?” I try to push up on my left elbow and fall back down again, weak as water.
“Don’t you remember?”
I can taste blood in my mouth and a residue of the fiery liquid Jehal forced down my throat. My jaw aches. “Gisborne punched me,” I say.
“The boat was attacked,” Much says. “You were injured.”
I glance down at the thin sheet covering me. “My...arm?” I have to force the words out because the thought I may never hold a bow again is both a sad and frightening one.
“I don’t know.” Much shakes his head. “It was a bit of a mess, but Salim seemed to know what he was doing.”
Great, I think, trying hard not to imagine what he might have used to sew me up with.
“How long?” I ask.
“How long what?”
“How long have I been here?”
“Salim gave you something to keep you unconscious. He thought it best. You’d lost a lot of blood.”
I close my eyes, take a deep breath. “Allan and John?”
“They’re fine, unscathed. Well...a little scathed...as am I, but fine. We’re all fine.”
I exhale a long and thankful sigh, say, “I’ll have that water now.”
Much moves to fetch a jug and cup and my eyes alight on the empty bed on the other side of the cabin.
“When Gisborne carried me in here,” I say, “I thought I saw someone else, on the other bed.”
Much helps me sit and hands me a cup of water. “It was the sheriff,” he says.
“Where is he now?” I ask.
I hand back the empty cup. “The pirates got him?”
“I guess. Who cares.” Much sounds tired. I suspect he’s been with me since Gisborne carried me in here and hasn’t slept at all.
“Back in the hold.”
“Much, you should—”
“I should what?” Much cuts across me, his tone snappish.
“You should know that Gisborne saved my life out there.”
Much averts his head, pretending to fiddle with my bed coverings. He doesn’t want to know that Gisborne was instrumental in preventing my death.
I’m scared. I know I’ve been hurt before, and badly, but not like this. What if I lose my arm, despite Salim’s best efforts? How can I continue to fight for England? Because that’s what I want to do. Because Gisborne said that Marian’s spirit lives on, can live on, through me and I know she would want me to continue the fight against the Black Knights and Prince John. After all, I had promised her as much as I watched her life force slipping away.
Following quickly on from that thought, comes another thought, one I would have said was utter madness a few days ago; yet I cannot dislodge it from my mind: could there be another hope for England? She had moved between us, my beloved Marian. If she had once believed that a good man dwelt beneath all the layers of cruelty and selfishness, could I not also believe in that possibility? After all, Gisborne had saved my life, when he could so easily have left me to die.
When Much comes in later to check on me, I pretend to be asleep. I don’t want to talk to him. I can’t explain why.
He shuffles about for a bit and then Allan puts his head round the door and mentions something about supper and, with a happy sigh, Much disappears.
I sit up gingerly and ease my legs off the side of the bunk.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Jehal asks, entering what I now realise is indeed the captain’s cabin.
“I need to...” I flap my good arm towards my groin.
“Oh, of course. I am sorry.”
It’s not what he thinks, but it doesn’t matter as long as he leaves me alone.
“Can you manage?” Jehal indicates my heavily bandaged right arm.
“I can’t feel anything,” I tell him. The admission winds me, as if someone has punched me in the gut.
“Sit, Robin, sit.”
I do as he says. I have no strength at all.
A smile tugs at Jehal’s expansive mouth and I’m sorely tempted to hit him, until it occurs to me that I will have to use my left arm and it’s not as strong as my right, never has been.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Loosening these bindings. Salim is a good doctor, and an even better cook, but he cannot tie bandages to save his life. They are much too tight.”
I let Jehal work on them and then half-cry, half-laugh when I realise I can move my fingers.
“Good stitches, very neat,” Jehal says.
The cut is long, shoulder to elbow, but I have to agree with Jehal, the stitches are neat.
I wriggle my fingers and a flutter of elation ripples across my chest.
“See, Robin, all is well. Your friends were insistent that the best archer in England should not lose his most valuable asset and I am inclined to agree with them. Your help during the attack was invaluable.”
“I messed up,” I say, recalling Gisborne dragging me along the deck. “By rights, I should have been dead.”
“Perhaps Allah does not want you to die, Robin.”
It isn’t Allah, or a God by any other name, who wants me to live, I think. It’s Gisborne.
Gisborne is asleep. He is stretched out, the soles of his feet touching the bars of the cramped cage, the foul-smelling blanket cushioning his head. His stockinged feet look small, almost child-like, devoid of their heavy black boots.
I quietly study him: his long dark hair and his creased black leathers. Look at him, Robin; dark on the outside and dark on the inside. Best you remember that.
His mouth twitches and he jerks his long legs towards his chest and settles into a foetal position.
What’s it like in there, eh, Gisborne? In all the darkness and fear, in all the blame. What’s it like? I’ll tell you shall I – Hell. Welcome to my world.
Then his face unexpectedly softens. A small smile plays on his lips, as though he is in the middle of a pleasant dream. I don’t remember ever seeing such an expression on his face before, though it’s possible Marian did. He sighs, stretches out his long legs until his toes are sticking through the bars of the cage.
I feel like an intruder and start making my way towards the steps leading to the hatch.
There it is again: my name. It seems only here, in this hold, isolated from the rest of the world, does he drop his guard.
I turn around, make my way back to his cage and crouch in front of the bars.
Gisborne pushes himself off the floor. “Are you all right?” He indicates my arm.
“Not so bad,” I reply. “Why? Were you hoping I wouldn’t be able to fight you?”
“I don’t want to fight you,” he says. “Not any more.”
“Is dead. I know.”
Something is troubling me. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. “I’m surprised,” I say.
“Everyone was fighting on the deck. Yet one or maybe more of the pirates saw fit to leave and go search the cabins. Surely they would not have gone to find plunder until the fighting was done, until they were given leave to do so?”
“Why not,” Gisborne says, rubbing the life back into his sleep-deadened arm. “They were pirates. I doubt they have much of a code of conduct.”
“Even so,” I say. “How did they get into Jehal’s cabin? He told me he always keeps it locked and I see no sign of the door being tampered with.”
“Perhaps Jehal forgot to lock the door in his haste to protect his boat and crew.”
“Perhaps,” I say. “Or perhaps Vaisey opened the door himself, if he thought it was an ally on the other side.”
Gisborne picks at a fingernail.
“It was you, wasn’t it?”
Gisborne raises his head, meets my eyes. “He deserved it.”
“You worked for the sheriff, he was your benefactor.”
“I stopped working for him the day Marian died. If anyone was to blame for her death, it was that black-hearted bastard. He was the reason she was in the Holy Land in the first place. He was the reason she stood in front of an injured King Richard. He—”
“You were the one who stabbed her.”
Gisborne lowers his chin to his chest. “I know.”
“Perhaps it was her fault,” I say.
“What?” Gisborne looks up, pushes his long matted hair behind an ear as if to hear me better.
“Perhaps it was her fault,” I repeat, the words echoing bleakly in my head.
“How can you say that?” he asks, eyes wide with shock.
“Because she made herself vulnerable. She didn’t have to say what she said to you, goad you in that way.”
True, I had not witnessed it, but I had asked Richard – who had heard every word despite the arrow embedded in his shoulder blade – to tell me exactly what had happened and, never one to flinch from the truth, he had.
“You’re blaming Marian?” Guy’s eyes brim with sudden tears. “How could you?”
“Because I want this to end,” I say, grabbing hold of the bars for support, “this hate, this need for revenge. It’s killing me.”
Gisborne slides an ungloved hand through the bars, lightly touches my arm. “Then let’s end it. Let’s end it now. But please don’t taint her memory by saying she was in any way responsible for her death. I held the sword and I dealt the blow. I killed her.”
I can’t stop thinking about him. So much so, that I make the mistake of trying to talk to Much about it.
“What are you saying, that you forgive him?”
“No, Much. I’m not sure I would go that far.”
“It’s just all this hate, all this anger. It wears me out. It’s bad enough I have to get through each day without her.”
“So you do forgive him?”
I’m beginning to wish I’d never started the conversation. “Just forget it,” I say. Let’s just concentrate on getting home.”
“And then what?”
“And then we finish what we started. Without Vaisey or Gisborne around we should be able to clear up the rest of the Black Knights and then get to the real heart of the problem.”
Much seems satisfied for the moment, but I know he isn’t happy. And I don’t know why, but I have the distinct feeling he doesn’t like me so very much.
“It’s good to have you back.”
We are sharing a simple supper, prepared by Salim. I glance across the table at Allan.
I smile. “It’s good to be back.” My smile quickly fades however. Because that’s forever how it will be – before and after. Before Marian’s death, and after. And nothing, not even the fact that I’ve decided not to kill Gisborne will change that.
“You all right, Robin?”
“It’s just my arm,” I lie.
John shakes his head at Allan when he thinks I’m not looking and they make some feeble excuse about stretching their legs. They don’t know how to be around me and I don’t know how to be around them. One moment, I’m thinking things are getting better and the next I’m back to remembering her newly-ringed hand slipping out of mine as she loses out to death. As I said to Gisborne, it’s killing me.
“Well, what are you going to do?”
“About what?” I ask.
Much and I are sitting on our respective bunks, trying to ignore the desperate pitching of the boat. Jehal told us the storm would soon pass and there is nothing to do but wait it out. Poor Much. He’s already spent half the day with his head inside a pail.
I hand him the last of the dry bread. He munches warily. I’m not really in the mood for conversation, but talking is helping to take Much’s mind off his rebellious stomach and I don’t have the heart to leave him sitting there looking so morose.
“About Gisborne?” he splutters. A sprinkling of breadcrumbs joins the contents of the pail.
“At this very moment, you mean?”
“No, when we get back to England.”
Much retches dryly into the pail, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and continues. “You’re going to just let him go on his merry way?”
“I’d hardly call him merry. And you were the one who pleaded with me not to kill him.”
Much carefully places the pail between his feet. “See, I was right. You do forgive him.”
“Complicated? There’s nothing complicated about Gisborne. He sees, he wants, he takes.”
“You’re wrong, Much.”
“Oh am I. Then tell me this. Tell me what’s so complicated that you’ve forgotten he killed your wife.”
Much bites his already much-bitten lip. I know he didn’t mean for it to come out that way, but it still hurts.
“We have history,” I tell him.
“Things in our past. Things I didn’t know about until Gisborne told me.”
“About our families. About my father and his mother.”
Much stares at me intently, waiting for me to go on. I shake my head, trying to indicate that the subject is closed. But he’s like a dog with a bone and I know he isn’t going to let it end there.
“My father and his mother had a thing.”
I glance at my lap, look up and meet Much’s eyes.
“Oh,” he says, eyes widening, “that thing.”
“But that still doesn’t excuse—”
“By rights Locksley should have been his,” I interrupt.
“Oh, please.” Much rolls his eyes. “Can’t you see what he’s doing, Robin. He’s lying to you. He’s—”
“He’s not lying.”
Much gives me a defiant look, grabs the pail and turns away with an exaggerated humph.
I don’t have the strength or even the desire to put him right. Let him think what he likes. On this occasion, I know Gisborne is telling the truth. Perhaps his incarceration has given him time to think, or perhaps he is truly sorry for his crimes. Either way, we now both know some home truths and it seems neither of us comes from the best of families after all.
After a short while of strained silence and empty retching, Much swivels round to face me. “So you share history, so what.”
Much looks as though he’s going to be sick again and I don’t think it has anything to do with the incessant rise and fall of the boat.
“What do you mean, so what?”
“Well the past doesn’t have any bearing on the present, does it,” he continues.
There is a strange edge to his voice. If I didn’t know him any better, I’d have said he is jealous.
“You’re wrong, Much. It has every bearing on the present. “Our past is part of us, of who we are.”
“But you don’t have to be bound by it, do you? Gisborne didn’t have to be an evil, callous—”
“His father was wronged,” I blurt out. I don’t mean to shout, to be angry with Much, especially when he doesn’t have all the facts. “He was wronged,” I repeat, trying to keep my voice steady. “By my father.”
“Gisborne told you this?”
“And you believe him?”
“Trust me, Much. You wouldn’t lie about this kind of thing.”
Much balls his fists and smacks them onto the bed. “But Marian!”
“We both loved her,” I say.
Much makes to take another bite of bread, changes his mind and throws the remainder of the loaf into the pail with a stomach-roiling splash. “I still don’t understand why you even want to talk to him.”
“Because before I started talking to him, all I had was hate.”
“And now I just hurt,” I say, turning my face to the wall.
I lie on my bunk, my tears sliding onto the thin sheet beneath me, and even though my injured arm throbs and burns, pinned underneath my body as it is, it is not reason enough to turn over.
Chapter 8: Chapter 7
I am in trouble. I had foolishly thought the prickling, burning sensations in my arm were all part of the natural healing process, but as I unwind the bandages and stare at the angry red flesh and the yellowish ooze seeping from the edges of the blackened stitches, I see I am mistaken. I know what this means, and somehow I don’t think the cook-come-doctor’s medical store runs to much more than a needle, thread and a few dirty bandages.
Not knowing what else to do, I wash out and rewind the stained bandage around my upper arm.
“Blimey!” Allan exclaims, cracking his head on the doorframe. “I’m never going to complain about living in a forest again. At least the ground doesn’t keep moving under your feet.”
I give him a wan smile.
“You all right, Robin?”
“Fine,” I lie, fastening my leather jerkin over the new chemise Much had found me, one of Jehal’s, I think.
Allan sits opposite me, on Much’s bunk. “What’s going on?”
I’m not sure whether Allan’s referring to my arm, the fact that Much and I have barely spoken to each other these past couple of days, or my visits to Gisborne in the hold.
“With what?” I ask.
“You and Much. Have you two had a falling out, or what?”
“Why? What’s he been saying?”
“Yeah, that’s just it, Robin – nothing. Much never says nothing. Well, I mean he does. He usually says a whole load of nothing, but at least he’s making a noise like.”
“He’s sulking,” I say.
“Because of Gisborne.”
“What? Gisborne’s not offered to do all the cooking in future has he?”
I shake my head.
“Actually,” Allan continues. “Perhaps things aren’t so bad. I mean, the sheriff’s dead, Gisborne’s locked in a cage, and Much is being quiet for once.” Allan sprawls on Much’s bunk, if it is possible to sprawl on something so narrow. “Yep,” he says. “If it weren’t for all this damn up and down business, I’d say life was pretty good.” He cocks an eye at me. “Sorry, Robin, I didn’t mean—”
“It’s fine,” I say.
Allan sits, fumbles in a shirt pocket. “Do you want a game of kings and queens?”
“Why not.” Allan digs out a fistful of tatty scraps of stiffened parchment.
“Because you’ll cheat for starters.”
To be honest, I’m not in the mood for games of any sort. I know I ought to go and do something about my arm, although I can’t think what, but Allan has already started dealing, and it seems churlish not humour him.
We start to play and, surprisingly, I begin to relax. Simple pleasures. I’ve all but forgotten about them in the enormity of my loss. But they are still there, and they help.
“So, what’s the plan?” Allan asks, having won for the umpteenth time.
“I try and get myself a better hand next time.” I throw my stack down in mock disgust.
“No, I mean when we get back to England.”
I sigh and reel off my well-rehearsed line, the one I am using to convince myself of my future intentions: “Make sure the Black Knights are well and truly out of action and Prince John is put firmly in his place.”
“And will we be planning all this from the relative luxury of Locksley?” Allan asks, tidying up the pieces of parchment strewn across the lid of the barrel serving as a table.
“You’re not seriously thinking of going back to the camp?”
“Locksley has memories.” It’s the first thing that comes to mind. Truthfully, I haven’t given it much thought. When I boarded the boat, it had been with no more than the intention to return to England and kill Gisborne and I hadn’t thought much beyond that. Now, everything has changed; the choice I had made wrenched out my hands by the hands of fate.
“Memories,” Allan echoes.
I guess he thinks I’m talking about Marian. He doesn’t know that she only visited Locksley a handful of times before and during our childhood betrothment; that we preferred to spend our time exploring Sherwood Forest, away from the watchful eyes of my father and the house servants.
Allan scoops up the pieces of parchment. “Your deal.”
I shuffle, split the small rectangles of parchment and hand one half to Allan. He turns over a queen.
I turn over another queen and smile. “Snap!”
“What do you mean, snap?”
“It’s the only game I stand a chance of winning.”
“Not if you’re using your weaker arm, you don’t.”
I swap my sheaf into my left hand. “Just play.”
Allan starts laying down his bits of parchment, but by the time we reach the end of the pile, it is clear I’m not winning, at either the game, or the battle with my arm.
“Robin? You all right, mate?”
I look down at the illustrated bits of parchment in my hand, their worth lost to me as I struggle to stay upright.
“Allan, I’m really sorry, but...” I hope he catches me. I’m tired of cracking my head.
“You chump,” Allan chides.
I don’t know how long I’ve been unconscious, but Much and John are bunched up in the cabin, staring at me, and Salim is crouching by my bunk.
“Why didn’t you tell us you were ailing?” John asks.
I wince as Salim presses something cold and rancid-smelling to my arm, and I see that while I’ve been dead to the world someone has taken off my jerkin and chemise.
“Urgh.” Much screws up his nose, but I’m not sure if it’s at the foul-smelling poultice Salim is slapping on me or at me personally. I truly don’t smell good.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t want to worry you.”
“Honestly.” Allan shakes his head. “Have you got some kind of death wish or something?”
John gives him a withering look, but Allan ignores him and stares boldly at me, hands on hips. A small smile tugs at my jaw as I notice Much mirroring his stance.
“Just not thinking straight,” I say.
“You can say that again,” Much mumbles.
John is edging towards the door. I’m surprised at his squeamishness, but then Salim is squeezing my arm and what’s coming out of it looks a whole lot worse than the most awful of Much’s cooking disasters. Even I turn away.
“I’m just going to...er…I’m just going to…” Much is also edging towards the door.
“What?” Allan barks. “Eat?”
Much puts a hand over his mouth and stumbles after a fleeing Little John.
“Allan,” I scold.
“That was cruel.”
Allan grins. “Small pleasures, you know.”
He sits on Much’s bunk as Salim smiles and begins binding my arm again.
“What did you put on there?” I ask him.
Salim gives me a blank look and I repeat the question in his own tongue.
He grins and reels off a few dubious-sounding items. The only word I recognise is egg.
With a nod and a quick bow, Salim shuffles backwards out of the cabin.
“Egg?” Allan says. “Hell, Robin, the cook’s using eggs to try and cure you. I think you’re well and truly scrambled, mate.”
“Yep,” I reply, smiling at Allan’s quirky humour despite my present predicament. “I may well have been fried.”
Allan shakes his head, tuts. “Not being funny, Robin, but leave the jokes to me, eh.” He flicks his eyes around the tiny cabin, crosses and uncrosses his legs.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Look,” he says, “I’ll say it because no one else will. This business with Gisborne. Surely Marian would turn in her grave. I mean, one moment you want to hack the man down and the next you’re virtually best of mates. What’s that all about? Anyone would think you’ve developed feelings for the guy.”
“Come on, Allan, say what you really think.” I shrug on my chemise, despite the fact I’m hotter than a bread oven. “Gisborne’s sorry.”
“Yeah, right. Sorry he’s locked up in a cage more like.”
“No. He’s sorry he killed Marian, and he’s sorry I won’t kill him.”
“That can be arranged,” Allan says.
“I don’t get it,” I say. “One moment you’re all trying to stop me killing him and the next you’re outraged because I’m trying to understand him. So you tell me exactly what that’s all about.”
“It’s about right and wrong, Robin.” John looms large in the doorway. He ducks his head to enter the cabin. “It’s about justice. It’s about all the terrible things the sheriff and Gisborne did in Nottingham. Their plot to kill the king. Gisborne killing...”
I notice Allan surreptitiously tugging on John’s sleeve.
“Gisborne killed the sheriff,” I tell them.
“What?” both Allan and John exclaim in unison.
“Gisborne killed the sheriff,” I repeat.
John and Allan exchange looks and then John turns back to me. “Maybe so, but that still doesn’t excuse—”
“It’s a start!”
“You’re defending him?” John says, incredulous.
“No, I’m just saying.”
I can feel myself becoming inexplicably angry. I don’t know why. These are my friends; friends who have only my best interests at heart. But they don’t understand. Hell, I don’t understand. And I want to. I want to make some sense of it all – some sense of what’s happening to me.
“Robin, you cannot—”
“I’m tired, John, all right.” It’s not entirely a lie. However, the moment both Allan and John leave the cabin, I’m on my feet. My arm is still throbbing painfully and my head feels as though it’s going to split down the middle, but, apart from that, I don’t think I’m faring too badly. Just two small steps and I will be out of this stifling cabin.
One step, and I know I’m not going to make it.
Chapter 9: Chapter 8
“Where have you been? It’s been nearly a week.”
Gisborne crawls over to the bars of the cage.
“I’ve been sick,” I tell him.
“My arm got infected. I took a fever. I’ve been pretty much out of it.”
“Lucky you.” Guy throws down the bread he is holding. “This is like eating a piece of the ship’s mainsail.”
“Try dipping it in your broth,” I suggest. I squat in front of his cage. The broth smells much like the poultice Salim had slapped on my arm. I try not to think about it.
Gisborne grunts and does so. “So, why are you here?” He wipes a dribble of greasy liquid off his unshaven chin with the back of his hand.
“A moment ago you were having a go at me for neglecting you, now you sound as though you’d rather I weren’t here.” I get to my feet.
“No,” he says. “Don’t go. I haven’t spoken to anyone for days. It’s doing my head in.”
“Oh, so that’s it, is it? You just want someone to talk to. I thought I’d be the last person—”
“You’re better than nothing.”
I hesitate, and then sit cross-legged on the floor. “Marian—”
“I thought we were done with that,” Gisborne cuts across me.
“We’ll never be done with it,” I tell him.
“Look,” he says. “I’ve said all I’ve got to say. I said sorry.”
“That was big of you.”
“What more do you want?”
He turns away from me, hugs his knees to his chest, much as I did when I was the one locked in the cage.
“You’re right,” I say. “I don’t know why I’m talking to you. In fact, I don’t even know why I’m within a hundred yards of you. You murdered Marian, the woman I loved. I should have killed you long ago.”
“Why don’t you then.” He swivels round to face me. “I’m here, trapped in a cage. You have a knife, no doubt. Or you could just grab that chain.” He points to the length of iron links previously used to restrain him. “You could wrap it around my neck and pull.”
“What, and make it easy for you.”
He wraps his long slim fingers around the bars. “So you do want me to suffer?”
“Damn right I do. I don’t see why you should get off lightly.”
“Death for me is not getting off lightly, as you put it; not where I’m heading.”
There is genuine fear in his voice. Every man is afraid to die, no matter how they might brag otherwise on the battlefield, but at least the virtuous can meet their death with the hope of ascending to Heaven. Gisborne has no such hope.
“If you’re looking for forgiveness then—”
“I’m not. I don’t expect you to forgive me, any more than I will forgive myself.”
“Then we’re done,” I tell him.
I need to get away from him, far away. More and more of our conversations are beginning to sound as though he’s the injured party. But he never loved Marian the way I loved her; he wouldn’t have known where to start. And maybe he is sorry he killed her, but only because of what she could have given him. Because he believed she could redeem him, save his worthless soul. I am not certain he would have given her anything in return. The only thing he ever gave her were trinkets and baubles and fine horseflesh – pretty gifts.
He thrusts a hand through the bars, grabs my injured arm.
“Don’t call me that. You’re not my friend.”
I try to twist away, but his grip tightens. He yanks my arm into the cage. I thrust my other arm through the bars to try to lever him away, but he grabs that arm as well.
“I’ll call the guard,” I warn.
Swivelling my head, I realise that, not only has Gisborne’s gaoler disappeared, but also that the hatch is closed, the guard’s lantern left sitting precariously on the wooden steps.
“Don’t make me hurt you even more, Locksley.”
I manage to get a leg out from under me and kick through the bars. Gisborne grunts as my boot makes contact with his shin, but he still doesn’t let go. In desperation, I spit at his face and, surprised, he jerks away. I smack onto the wooden floorboards. Gisborne makes a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob and, when I look up, I see why. He is holding Marian’s ring. I’ve been wearing it around my neck in place of my tag, that emblem I no longer feel I live up to.
“Give it to me,” I demand.
He dangles it in front of his face, shakes his head no.
“Give it to me.” I hold out my hand and notice a spotting of blood on my shirtsleeve. Gisborne sees it too. “Please,” I say.
“Only if you promise.”
“Promise you won’t leave me to rot down here, all alone.”
“Give me one good reason why.”
Our eyes meet. He’s close to tears, but that won’t sway me. I hate him. I hate him with all my heart.
“Because you’re the closest I’ll ever get to Marian.” He thrusts his arm through the bars and presses the ring into the palm of my still out-stretched hand.
“What?” I stare at the ring that means nothing without the finger of its owner through it.
“You know,” he says.
I curl my fingers around the ring and raise my head. Gisborne is giving me a look I can’t fathom.
“Keep it,” he says. “You win.”
He moves away from me, into the far corner of the cage. Even though the light is dim, I can make out his shoulders rapidly rising and falling and realise he is silently sobbing.
You’re the closest I’ll ever get to Marian. The words swirl around in my head. I have no idea what they mean. “Guy...I’m...” I’m not sure what I want to say, sorry maybe.
He turns around. His face is wet. “I said keep it!” Spittle hits the bars of the cage, runs down his chin.
Without thinking, I place the ring within his reach. “I’ll come by tomorrow.” I quickly get to my feet and make my way out of the hold, before I can change my mind.
It was a mistake – another mistake. I’ve made so damn many of them lately. I suppose I should be a little more forgiving of myself, but I’m not in a good place. I’m incredibly unhappy. True, I eat and drink and talk with the gang, after a fashion. And now and then I sleep. But that’s all. I’m simply going through the motions.
And one of the reasons is guilt. That’s why I gave him the ring. Guilt because of the way I tried to kill him and guilt that I needed to in the first place, because he killed Marian. It should never have come to that. I am Robin Hood. I should have done better.
After yet another aimless wandering of the deck, I make my way back to the cabin. Much is asleep, snoring, mouth open as usual. I have another pang of guilt about the fact we’ve hardly had a civil word to say to each other for the past week or so and resolve to rectify it as soon as he awakes.
Reaching under my bunk, I locate my bow and quiver. Quickly and quietly I make my way up onto the deck. According to Jehal, we are only a few days away from reaching France and I want to be ready.
As I stand on the near-deserted deck, watching the weak sun pushing its way into the morning sky, I wonder how Jehal knows which way to steer the boat. By the sun and stars I guess, though what he does when the skies are cloudy, I have no idea. He told me he has travelled these seas for many years so perhaps he knows his way by instinct alone, much as I have come to know my way around the forest.
At the thought of Sherwood, I feel like curling up into a ball and sobbing my heart out. In a matter of weeks, we will be home. The people of Nottingham will learn of the death of the hated sheriff and the incarceration of his master-at-arms, Guy of Gisborne. At least I guess that’s what will happen to him; I do not intend to deal with Gisborne myself. And the people will rejoice. But they will still be under the tyranny of Prince John and I have little hope that a new sheriff will be a vast improvement on Vaisey. I suppose I could put myself up for the position, but I don’t want it. I want nothing more than to ensure that the throne awaits King Richard on his return from the Holy Land.
That’s all, I think. Just get it done and then…and then it all breaks down because I can never get beyond this point. The past stretches behind me, full of joys and sorrows; and the present is now, on this boat. All the future can be is one of solitude and regret. Because as far as I am concerned Gisborne took my future from me when he murdered Marian and there is little chance of finding someone to take her place, even if I wanted to.
The mast is a dirty great thing, impossible to miss.
I draw back on the bowstring a couple of times, just to get the feel of it, although I needn’t have worried. The injured arm is good, and even after a week of enforced rest it does not make the slightest difference. The act of nocking an arrow is as unmistakeable and as natural as breathing for me. I can hit that mast with my eyes shut.
“I’m going to keep my promise, Marian,” I whisper to the grey-green sea, in what I hope is the direction of the Holy Land.
The first arrow nicks the mast, falls to the deck. I nock and loose again. Miss. Do it again. Miss again. Come on, Robin, what’s the matter with you?
I keep nocking and loosing until all my arrows are gone. I even close my eyes at one point, but they all miss. They all sail past the thick trunk of mast and fall into the sea beyond, lost forever.
Howling in frustration, I sink onto the deck, the unforgiving wood smacking into my knees.
I can’t do it.
I can tell he has been drinking long before he flops down beside me. It is evident by his unsteady gait, for the sea is as smooth as silk, and his breath, as he greets me, reeks unmistakeably of drink.
The smell reminds me of Acre, of sitting in the blazing sun with my men waiting for me to make up my mind about getting on the boat and me wanting nothing more than to sink into the sand without a trace, to somehow tunnel my way back to the place where Marian lies. Carter rests not so many yards from her. Knowing my luck, I would probably have ended up with him instead. At the macabre thought, I am unable to stifle the sobbing laugh that escapes my lips. Salim gives me a look as if to query which of us has been drinking. I watch as his eyes go from the mast back to the bow at my feet.
“You missed,” he slurs, in perfect English.
I rub a hand over my face and turn to look at him.
“Robin Hood missed.” He takes a slug from the jug he is holding, the liquid dribbling down his heavily bearded chin.
I nearly tell him to fuck off, I don’t want to talk, but the revelation he can speak my language causes me to hold my tongue. Instead, I simply nod.
“This is not good,” he says, offering me the jug.
“No,” I reply. “Not so good, Salim.”
“Is your arm—”
“It’s fine. It’s not my arm.”
“No,” he says. “It is your heart.” He presses the jug into my hands and I can think of no good reason not to take it.
I tip the fiery contents into my mouth and immediately spit them out. “Salim, this stuff is disgusting.”
He cocks his head at me enquiringly.
“Horrible, awful,” I elaborate, in both my and his mother tongue.
He throws back his head and laughs. “Salim agree.”
“Then why do you drink it?” I ask.
“It is good for the heart.” He thumps his upper chest for emphasis. “I know, Robin Hood, what it is to have one’s heart shrink to the size of a date.” Salim grabs the jug back, slopping some of the liquid on both him and me. He takes a large mouthful and swallows it with ease. He offers it to me again, but I wave him away.
Carefully, Salim sets the jug on the deck and comes to his feet. He walks over to the mast and picks up the one arrow that did not end up in the sea. He lumbers back to me and crouches down, placing the arrow in my lap.
I curl my fingers around the smooth ash shaft, the sleek line of it blurring as I stare at its deadly beauty.
Salim touches my shoulder. “There is an answer, Robin Hood. Always, there is an answer.” He gives me a sad little smile. Then, along with his jug, he waddles away.
An answer. I stand up, nock the arrow and take aim.
Chapter 10: Chapter 9
The grey and white goose feather-fletched arrow arcs out over the water, in the direction of the Holy Land, towards Marian’s resting place because, suddenly, it all makes sense. I have my answer.
Since leaving Acre, I’ve been trying to find a way forward. Now, I am convinced the answer does not lie in front of me, but behind, in the place I’ve just come from. Now I understand what my conversations with Gisborne have been all about. I wanted to make sense of her death, so that when I get back to England I will be able to finish what we started: to put England back to rights. But it hadn’t worked, to the point where I can’t even shoot straight. And the reason it hadn’t worked is that there is no sense to be made of it. Because death in such a manner is senseless, – Marian’s death had been senseless – and I know I don’t have it in me to carry on, no matter how much she would have wanted me to, not without her.
When the ship docks in France, I will bid farewell to my friends, and I will return to the Holy Land, on the pretext of helping King Richard make peace, but really in the knowledge that I have returned to be with Marian. For I am certain my death will come swiftly, and then I can be buried alongside her, and, right now, that is the only notion that makes any sense at all.
Feeling calmer, I pick up my bow and empty quiver and make my way below decks. As I walk, I ponder on why Salim had hidden his ability to speak English and guess that he has his reasons.
I still need to apologise to Much, see if I can make up for the way I’ve treated him these past few days; but before that, I decide I could do with a bit of light relief and, certain I can rely on Allan on that score, I resolve to seek him out.
My hunch about where I might find Allan proves correct. When I enter the crew’s galley, I find him sitting in the midst of a group of less than sober men, bandying about the odd word of badly pronounced Arabic, juggling both coins and his tatty rectangles of parchment in rapid succession.
I watch him for a moment, envying his simplistic life, and then smile when I see his frustration beginning to show as he fails to make them understand how the game works.
“Can I help?” I ask, squatting next to him.
Allan turns to me, eyes my empty quiver. “Bad day?”
“Something like that.”
He turns back to the game. Salim is among the group of players. Face screwed up in puzzlement, he is busily studying his bits of parchment and, for the moment, doesn’t notice me.
“Salim speaks English,” I whisper in Allan’s ear.
“He speaks English, and I’m guessing some of the others do, too.”
“But they’ve been gibbering away to me in Arabic.”
“Of course,” I smile. “They want to win.”
“They’re cheating,” I quickly tell him.
“How do you know?”
“Because I played many a game with their kind during my time in the Holy Land and got caught out more than once. That is until I learned their language and turned the tables on them, so to speak.”
“Bent the rules.”
One of the men tugs on Allan’s sleeve. “You play!” I don’t need to translate for Allan to get the message.
“All right, all right, keep your turban on. I was just thinking.”
Gradually, Allan’s dwindling pile of coins begins to replenish itself. I catch one of the crew giving Allan a dirty look, and, after a short while, he sidles off on the pretext of getting a drink. As he does so, I catch him whispering to one of the men in the circle of players and I smile as one by one they each lean in towards their neighbour’s ear. Almost as one, the group lays down its parchment and coin and stares pointedly at Allan.
“What? What did I do?” Allan scoops his pile of coins towards him, doubtless sensing the men’s antagonism.
There is some general growling, swear words from what I can make out.
“It wasn’t me,” Allan protests, inclining his head in my direction.
“Thanks a lot,” I say, giving Allan a poke and uncrossing my legs.
One or two of the disgruntled players rise to their feet.
“Time to fold?” Allan suggests.
I nod and we both leap up and sprint for the door.
“Just like old times, eh, Robin.” Allan laughs.
I give him a sideways grin and then pull him under an upturned rowboat.
“Robin, we can’t just—”
“I think they’re gone,” Allan whispers, when we can hear nothing but the creaking of the boat.
“Wait.” I peer out from under the rowboat. I still can’t forget about the last man, even though these are just ordinary crew and not castle soldiers or part of Saladin’s army.
“They’re gone, Robin.”
I nod in agreement and we creep from our hiding place.
“We don’t seem to be able to go anywhere without trouble finding us, do we?” Allan says.
“I think that’s probably my fault,” I reply.
Allan turns to look at me and stands a moment, hands on hips, as though considering.
Grinning, he beckons me to follow him. We make our way below decks, past the crew’s quarters and past our own cabins. I recall my vow to make friends with Much.
“Allan, I need to—”
Without letting me finish, he grabs my arm – my good one – and drags me down the corridor. “Here.” He pushes open a cabin door.
“It’s Vaisey’s. And seeing as he doesn’t need it anymore.”
Allan kneels in front of one of the two bunks in the room, reaches underneath and drags out a wooden box. Inside, is a small wooden keg, a clay jug and some wooden mugs. “I reckon we could both do with a drink, eh, Robin. Celebrate our—”
“Our what?” I don’t mean to sound harsh, but drink and a reminder of the dead sheriff is the last thing I want right now.
“Survival?” Allan says, ignoring my abruptness.
Unplugging the keg, he pours a blood red wine into the jug and from there into two of the cups.
“No thanks,” I tell him.
“Oh, come on, Robin. You look like you could do with a drink, and I know I could. It’s good stuff. I’ll give Vaisey this: he sure knew how to pick his beverages.”
Allan hands me a cup. I recall Salim’s fiery liquid, but even before the wine touches my lips, I can tell this is going to taste heaps better. I catch Allan watching me and wonder if he is recalling my drunken state back in Acre.
“Give yourself a break,” he says. He drinks, smacks his lips and sighs contentedly.
I take a tentative sip and then a larger gulp. Allan is right; it’s good stuff. I sit on the opposite bunk.
Allan refills his cup. I’ve forgotten what a practised drinker he is.
“I know it’s hard.” He regards me solemnly. “But you could at least make an effort. For Much, if not for yourself.”
I look at Allan in surprise, if for no other reason than the fact he is thinking about someone other than himself for a change, and Much of all people.
“Because,” he continues, “when we get back to England, there’s work to be done. You said so yourself.”
At the mention of England, I tip the remainder of my wine down my throat.
“What’s up?” Allan asks. “Did I say something wrong?”
“I’m not going back,” I blurt.
“Come again?” Allan says, cup halfway to his mouth.
“I’m not going back to England.”
It’s actually a relief to tell someone. I’d decided to keep quiet about my plans until the last moment, in the mistaken belief that I would be sparing them, but, in all honesty, I realise I am just trying to protect my own feelings. Because returning to the Holy Land, giving up the fight, is wrong and I know it.
“Not...going...back,” Allan says. “Then where are you—”
“I’m going back to Acre.”
“Not being funny, but we’ve just come from there.”
“I can’t be in England without her. I can’t.”
Allan stares into his cup, licks his lips. “What gives you the right to the luxury of self-pity when the rest of us just have to get on with it. We’ve all lost loved ones, Robin, not just you.” He downs the last of his wine, tosses the cup on the bunk. “You think because he was a no good cutpurse and a liar to boot and drove me crazy most of the time, that I didn’t love him. Tom was my brother, my own flesh and blood, and I knew him more years than you did Marian. I—” He clamps his lips shut as though regretting the outburst. But it’s too late. The words are out. His blue eyes glitter with unshed tears.
I should feel guilty. I should show some understanding. Instead, all I can feel is an overwhelming anger that he could compare my love for Marian with that of his selfish, stupid brother, Tom. Tom the traitor. Allan the traitor. Standing, I carefully put down my drink, ball my right hand and smash it into his face.
Perhaps it’s just a culmination of all the weeks cooped up on this creaking, rat-ridden boat, or perhaps it’s to do with reawakening the guilt he still harbours over the untimely death of his brother. Either way, Allan’s return punch is so hard it has me staggering back against the cabin wall. “You bastard,” he rages, coming at me again.
I hurriedly sidestep and his oncoming fist crunches into the wooden panels behind me. “Allan.”
“No way, Robin. No way. You think you’ve got some exclusive rights on suffering. You think you can just start something and then leave because it suits you. You think you can just give up on us—”
“Damn right,” I yell. “I don’t need you lot and I don’t want you, and the sooner we part company the better.”
Allan grabs the jug and makes to hurl it in my direction, then thinks better of it and places it on the floor, lunging for me instead. We fall back as one and my head cracks on the edge of the bunk. Incensed, I slap Allan’s cheek, once, twice, leaving bright red marks.
“You don’t mean that,” Allan retorts, crawling away from me and fingering his jaw. “This isn’t you.”
“The hell it isn’t. I’ve had it up to here. I’ve had it up to here with all this we are Robin Hood crap. We are not Robin Hood. I am, was. But not anymore. Robin Hood is finished. He died in the Holy Land, along with Marian, so get used to it. Now get the hell away from me.”
“Oh no.” Allan shakes his head at me, wipes a trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth. “You’re not getting off that easy, no way.” He lurches to his feet and hurls himself on top of me.
A white-hot lick of pain shoots through my injured arm. Cursing, I lash out with my free arm, catching Allan in the neck. Without pausing for breath, I regain my feet.
On his back and choking, Allan swings a leg at me, trying to knock me down. I step back a pace and watch as he heaves himself to his feet.
“You finished?” He spits blood. Without waiting for my reply, he punches me in the stomach.
Winded, I double over.
“Let’s just talk about this, eh, Robin.”
“Let’s do that,” I say, clutching his shoulders and crunching my knee into his groin.
Gasping, Allan crumples to the floor. Without hesitating, I dive on top of him. The jug crunches under our combined weight and, as we roll over one another, I catch the heady waft of wine as it floods the floorboards and soaks into our clothing.
Something sharp slides down my side and I cry out. I drag myself away from Allan. He is leaning against the sheriff’s bunk, a shard of broken jug in his hand. He’s out of control, and so am I.
“Damn you, a-Dale.” I crawl back to him, cuff him about the face, turn around and start crawling back to the other bunk. My empty sword belt digs into my stomach as Allan, his hand wrapped around the strip of leather, yanks me backwards. Instead of trying to break free, I throw my weight back against him. We fall back as one and I all but end up sitting in his lap. Immediately, he whacks his hands into my back and sends me toppling forwards. Trying to protect my injured arm, as well as my head, I thrust out my left arm and a spike of pain flickers through my wrist as my splayed fingers hit the deck. I turn sharply in the expectation that Allan will try to grab me from behind before I’ve had time to regain my breath.
Instead, I find him standing, his arms held out in a fighting stance. “You want some more then?” He fingers the blood coating his chin and grins.
“Damn right,” I reply, staggering to my feet.
I swing for him, my fist connecting with nothing but air. I’m grinning, too. Because this is what I want, and so does he. We’ve been spoiling for a fight for some time now. In fact, ever since Allan turned traitor and hooked up with Gisborne, became ‘Guy’s man’. And it’s intoxicating, this exchange of blows. It’s the first time I’ve felt properly alive since that blast of fear and the burning need to run to try to save my Marian after Gisborne ran her through.
At the thought of Gisborne, I slam headfirst into Allan’s chest. He crashes to the floor. Gisborne is the one I should be trading blows with. But he has denied me that right by showing me his suffering, by confessing his guilt and by saving my life. I want to beat him to a pulp, but I’m doing it with Allan instead.
“You done?” I flick sweat-soaked hair out my eyes.
He shakes his head no. “You?” he asks.
“Good.” Allan pushes himself off the floor.
And so it goes on, the two of us trading punches, kicks and insults. Allan’s a mean fighter, but I’m better. Even so, my injured arm means Allan should have the advantage.
“Come on, Robin Hood. You’re not even trying.”
I clout him round the ear for that and he staggers backwards and falls.
I am not Robin Hood, I silently scream. I am just Robin of Locksley, Brat Face, Lick Bottom, nobody. I left Robin Hood behind, on the bleached sands of Acre, with my dead wife. There is nothing left to tie me to that name, not even my tag that lies forlorn and forgotten under my bunk.
Fists ready, I watch as Allan lurches to his feet, all grins and blood and wine-splotched clothing.
He laughs. “Damn if this doesn’t beat deck skittles.”
Diving at my legs, he pulls me over. I land on my injured arm and cry out in agony.
“Sorry,” Allan mumbles.
Clutching my arm, I make to stand.
“Not,” he says. His fist smashes into my nose.
The shock of it sends me crashing back to the floor. Instantly, a gush of bright red blood cascades down my shirtfront. I’m aware of Allan standing over me, breathing heavily. I try to push myself up, while futilely cupping my nose, and give up as another great dollop of blood spills into the palm of my hand.
“Crikey,” Allan mutters.
As I stare numbly at my blood-filled hand, I picture the sword sticking out of her. So clean she was, so white and composed, as if the blade were no more than a grotesque adornment complimenting her dress. And then she had pulled it out, and when she was gone, I noticed a ring of crimson on the snowy white linen, small at first, almost a perfect circle. Then slowly the circle had fanned out, turning a paler pink as it spread through the fibres of her dress.
I let my hand fall away and watch as the blood drips freely down my shirtfront. And just as her blood had bloomed and fanned out on her dress, so does my grief balloon and fill my chest, still as overwhelming, still as destructive; the grief that caused me to forget my friends, forget myself and forget my promise to her.
You promise me you’ll keep fighting.
I should not have forgotten, but I loved her, and I will never have the chance to love her again.
“Here.” Allan is thrusting a cloth into my hands. I should take it. It is a gesture of kindness and apology. Instead, I wave him away.
The cabin door flies open.
Allan again pushes the cloth into my hands and this time I take it.
“It’s Robin,” I say. “When will you ever learn?”
I raise my head. Much is leaning over me, his skullcap askew, his face full of concern. How can I turn my back on him, on any of them? I glance at Allan and then John, who is standing in the doorway. “It’s Robin Hood,” I tell them.
Much pushes at my shoulders, urging me to lie on the floor in the misconception that it will stop the bleeding, and I swear I hear Allan laughing, but perhaps it’s me.
Chapter 11: Chapter 10
“I’m sorry,” Much says.
“No. I don’t think that I do.”
We are sitting on our respective bunks, my nose having finally stopped bleeding. John had pushed Much away and made me sit quietly, pinching my nose until the bleeding stopped. I still have smears of blood on my chest where it soaked through my chemise. Soon, I will deal with that, but, right now, it seems more important to deal with Much.
“I was jealous,” he says.
“Of you, sharing stuff with Gisborne.”
“We share history, Much. That’s all.” I flex my swollen left wrist. ‘”How can you be jealous of Gisborne?” I ask, examining the ugly slash on my injured arm, devoid of bandages now. The pirate’s blade has carved a jagged line through my tattoo, the one I had burned into my upper arm during my time with King Richard.
Much points at my arm. “Does it still hurt?”
The simple black cross had symbolised my youthful hopes that I could make a better world. It had heralded glory and adventure for a lad who craved more than his humble English home. I touch the ravaged cross with the pads of my fingers. Yes, Much. It still hurts.
Much lies on his bunk and pretends to study the ceiling. Twice he makes a small sound as if he’s about to speak and then goes quiet. I’ve never really known him to be at a loss for words, although I suppose it’s fair to say that the majority of those words, once spoken, were often unwise, uncalled for, or plain idiotic. He clears his throat. “I always thought I’d be the one...you know. The one you’d confide in. I thought we shared stuff.”
“Did we?” I say.
“No,” he says. “I guess not.”
I glance down at my chest, wondering if I should seek out my tag and, more importantly, Marian’s ring. I want it back. Gisborne shouldn’t have it. “I’m sorry. It was thoughtless of me.”
“Then we’re still friends?” Much rolls onto his stomach and drops his head to the floor, rummaging under his bunk. He pulls out a bundle of clothing, including a clean chemise.
“Yes, we’re still friends.”
“Only I thought you didn’t like me any more,” he says.
“How can you possibly think that?” I tentatively touch my bashed nose. It doesn’t appear to be broken. Then I look at my hands, still stained with blood, both Allan’s and mine. No, Much. It’s me I don’t like so very much.
“Shall I get us something to eat?” he asks.
I smile. We’ve made up and that’s good enough for Much; time to get on with the important things in life, like food. He’s so predictable, but I need that. When my life seems to be sliding all over the place, I need ordinary. I haven’t eaten properly in days, or slept. If I am to stand any chance of being ready for what is to come then I have to sort myself out, and fast. “That sounds like a plan. Do you mind if I clean up first?”
“No, clean is good. I’ll go ahead. See if John and Allan have organised supper. Oh,” he says, his hand poised on the door latch. “Just why did you and Allan beat each other up?”
I splash water on my face and gaze at the swirls of blood in the small clay washbowl that Allan had conjured up from somewhere or other. “We were just knocking some sense into each other. Well, me mostly.” I look around for something to dry myself with and pick up the clean chemise.
“Ma….Robin!” Much huffs.
He looks heavenwards and marches out the door.
Allan grins, waves me into his and John’s cabin. His under-eye is already starting to blacken. His bottom lip is swollen and split.
“Nah.” He waves me away. “I had it coming,”
“Sit,” John says, offering me a hunk of bread, “and eat.”
I sit on the edge of John’s bunk and take a small bite of bread. I chew for ages, not certain I can swallow, but I do. I take another bite and then another. Much, his mouth full of food, smiles encouragingly.
I notice there is more food laid out on a small table wedged between Allan and John’s bunks. John catches my eye and nods at me to help myself, while Allan pours me some wine.
“Go on,” he says, handing me the cup. “It won’t bite.”
“No, but I might.”
Allan grins, winces as it stretches his split lip. “No more apologies, Robin. All right.”
“Yes,” Much says. “Just eat and drink.”
Thankfully, he doesn’t add and be merry because although I am feeling a good deal better, sitting here with my friends, I’m not ready for happy.
“So,” Allan says, rubbing his hands together. “Jehal says only a few more days until we reach France and then it’s on to England. Will we be heading to Nottingham, or London, or what?”
Despite everything, they are still looking to me to make the decisions. I understand, but it’s a burden nonetheless, one I had carried happily until I lost Marian. But I can’t back out on them. Their leader has returned, albeit a rather bruised and battered leader and I can’t let them down. They are good men, the best, and I will get through this somehow, for both my sake and theirs.
“Locksley first,” I say. I chew resolutely on a piece of meat and glance at my friends in turn. “Locksley is my home, my village. I have to find out what’s happened to it since we left. After that, Nottingham. Vaisey wasn’t stupid; he’ll have left plans in place during his absence. And no need to guess what those plans might entail. It’s imperative we dismantle the last of the Black Knights.”
“And then?” John asks.
“And then, my friends, it will be a case of keeping Prince John from getting his grubby hands on the throne. We must find a way of holding England until Richard returns.”
They’re all nodding, but I can tell what they’re thinking. Just us four? What can we do against the might of Prince John?
We still have to reach France and journey across it, but the gang want to talk about England. So we talk about purchasing horses in Portsmouth for the journey to Nottingham and which roads to ride. We talk about whether to keep our return a secret from the populace, or to let everyone know we’re back. We talk about everything except the one thing I know they want to talk about: the camp and the life we left behind.
When I make to go, they implore me to stay a while. There is food and wine aplenty, ale too if I want it. But I can’t eat any more and I’m scared of drinking too much. Most of all, I’m in the way. I make a flimsy excuse of needing to walk off my stiff legs. I’m sure they know I’m lying, but they let me go.
As soon as I reach the deck, I gulp a great lungful of air; it feels as though I’ve been holding my breath the whole time I was with them.
I consider going for a run around the deck, but my old injury – the one a Saracen-dressed Gisborne gave me – is hurting. I do a few stretches, the way the physician taught me to see if it will help. It doesn’t. It’s of no concern. I have become used to it, this physical ache. Sometimes, I even forget it’s there. But it never goes away, not entirely. I’ve learned how to manage it over time. How to move, how to stand, until it has reached the point where I can fool everyone, even myself. Lately, I have come to welcome the sensation, embracing the nagging throb and burn when my thoughts become overwhelming.
But tonight, even though the ache is incessant, it isn’t enough. Even though we didn’t talk of her, being with the gang, or what’s left of it, reminded me of Marian. And along with the familiar ache in my side comes this new ache; I’m beginning not to remember a time when I didn’t have it. I can feel my heart pulling and twisting even as it continues to beat its steady rhythm of life. And still I wonder why it does not stop.
Hearing the soft burble of voices, Salim’s among them, I decide to walk in the opposite direction.
At the prow of the boat, there are two piles of barrels. One half of them contain fresh water, the other ale. I squeeze behind the barrels and lean against them, staring out to sea. As I gaze at the cold green waters, I recall a similar haven of barrels, at the harbour, in Acre. I flush in a moment of private embarrassment.
Quite right, Marian.
I wish I could speak to her. Not these soft whispers in the wind, but properly.
“Always you look the same way.”
I swivel round.
“I have watched you,” Salim continues, switching to English. “On your own, looking back towards the Holy Land. Even though we have changed course many times you seem to know the way to look. I cannot explain how you know, and perhaps you cannot explain it either. But the time to look back is coming to an end, my friend. Now is the time to think of the living, and to pray.”
“Salim?” He looks different tonight and it takes me a moment to understand why.
“A storm is coming, Robin Hood. Can you not see the colour of the sky?”
I know what it is. Tonight, Salim is not holding his customary jug. Tonight, Salim is sober.
“We have already been through several storms,” I reply. “What makes you think this one will be any different?”
“Because already the boat is sinking, my friend.”
I laugh and mock punch him on the arm. It is a joke, I think. One of those jokes sailors make when they are close to landfall.
Salim shakes his head. His dark brown eyes are serious, his face grave. It is not a joke.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Robin. Captain Jehal has men working on it even as we speak, but it will not hold, not this time. Not when that storm hits.”
“I cannot say for sure, but Salim already knows there are not enough boats for us all, and Salim does not swim.” With that, he turns and walks away, leaving me alone.
I slam back against the barrels and sink to my knees.
“Ha! I thought I’d find you here.”
Wordlessly, Much offers me my bow and quiver, the latter full of arrows. I don’t understand. All I know is that Salim said the boat is going to sink, and that I want to scream until I’m hoarse. Because somewhere between the fight with Allan and eating with my friends, I decided I want to go home, to England, and I can’t do that if I’m lying on the seabed.
“Robin?” Much is still trying to push my bow and arrows into my hands.
What good is my bow? I want to shout. What good if we are going to drown? “Much, I need to tell...”
“It’s all right, Robin. I understand. We understand.” He inclines his head out to sea, in the direction I’d been staring.
He doesn’t know, I think.
I look again at the relatively smooth sea and at the sky, which, although darkening, doesn’t look so very threatening. Perhaps Salim is wrong.
I give Much a crooked smile and take hold of my weapons.
“Allan said you’d lost all your arrows so I—”
“I didn’t exactly lose them,” I say, recalling how all but one had plummeted into the sea. Before I can dwell on it any more, I nock an arrow. I aim it at the mast, the same mast I previously missed. I am farther away this time, but the arrow hits true. As if to prove my point, I immediately loose a further arrow. It splits the first one in half.
A small breeze tickles my neck and moments later the first drops of rain plop onto the lids of the barrels.
Much turns his face to the sky and opens his mouth as if to drink the rainwater, ever acting the clown. I feel the boat slip beneath my feet, although I don’t think he notices. Wet-faced, Much smiles at me, while I stare in fascinated horror as the masts begin to lose their vertical line.
“We must be close to land,” Much says. “The rain tastes like grass.”
The wind picks up; the rain falls harder. One of the crew gives a frightened yell. Much doesn’t need to understand the language to realise what is happening.
The crew starts pulling in the sails and scrabbling to untie the few small rowboats lashed to the deck.
“But…but we’re nearly home.” Much tugs at his skullcap, turning his head this way and that. “Surely it’s some mistake.” He turns and starts running, though God knows where he thinks he’s running to.
“Much! Stop!” I catch up with him, grabbing his arm before he can propel himself any farther. “Calm down. Let me think.”
“Think,” he says, his eyes huge and wild. “What’s to think? The boat’s sinking and none of us can swim, except you.”
“Much, listen. We can get out of this. There are boats. But first we have to find John and Allan.”
Much clings to my upper arms, as if for support. I don’t have the heart to tell him he’s hurting me. “Boats, yes, boats are good.”
I already know of his fear and dislike of the sea, so God knows how he feels about braving the elements in a tiny rowboat; that’s if we’re lucky enough to find ourselves in one.
As if to illustrate my point, Much hastily lets go of me, but not quickly enough to get to the side. He throws up at my feet.
“Christ!” Allan skids to a stop in front of us, John bundling up behind him. They both wear the same expression – abject fear. Swords they can do, arrows they can do, drowning they cannot.
Abruptly, my heart erupts into life. I have to save these men, my friends. I have to get them safely back to England. And I have to get myself back to England and keep my promise to Marian.
They are all looking to me and I am determined not to let them down. I will never let them down, I think. Robin Hood will never let them down.
Chapter 12: Chapter 11
“Much, listen to me. I need you to help me here. I can’t do this thing on my own.”
Much wipes his vomit-flecked chin with the back of his hand, nods.
“Allan?” I say.
Allan shudders, as though he’s just surfaced from one nightmare and stepped into another. I’ve never seen him this frightened before.
“Allan, go and find out about the boats, and find Salim if you can.”
“Right. Yes. Boats. Salim.” He turns full circle, and another, as if he doesn’t know which way to go. John grabs his shoulders and propels him towards the stern.
“John, we’ll need water. The barrels.”
John nods, squares his shoulders and strides away.
“Much, go with John. I’m going to—”
“What, Master? Going to what?”
Not like that.
“Robin!” Much calls, as I push past him and charge towards the hatchway. “Where are you going?”
I’ll be too late, I think. Gisborne is sitting in a locked cage, the cage is in the hold and the hold will be full of water. I doubt that whoever is guarding him, if indeed anyone is, will waste his breath trying to get him out.
As I skid to a halt in front of the steps that lead to the hold, a memory blazes: Gisborne and me in Locksley pond, against the wishes of our families, who were constantly warning the young of the village to keep out of its seemingly innocuous waters. We used the pond irrigate the village’s crops. Various waterfowl inhabited its algae-strewn waters and occasionally you would find someone gazing at it in a moment of quiet contemplation. It was not for youngsters to lark about in, but we all did.
Gisborne and I had had another one of our arguments, over the usual thing: his father going to fight in one of the glorious crusades that I had heard snippets of information about, but of which my father would never divulge. Gisborne had been labelling my father a coward and I’d been defending him, while secretly wondering if Gisborne spoke the truth. It had ended in a challenge, as so many of our arguments did. This time to swim the length of Locksley pond.
As we took off our boots, I glanced across at Gisborne. He was both taller than I was and, at three and ten, three summers older, but I knew I was the better swimmer. I’d seen him in the river that ran the outskirts of Sherwood, all arms and legs and thrashing about.
“So, how do we—?”
“On the count of three,” he said.
“And first one across wins?”
He nodded. “Agreed. Ready?”
We both jumped after one.
Some village kids were watching us from the bank. As we hit the water, I heard several shouts go up; some were warnings, others were cheers. Little Robert was there. He was the son of our scullery maid, Magda. He hated Gisborne, said his scowls frightened him. I could hear him calling my name, urging me on.
It was hard going. The pond always appeared much smaller when you were standing on the bank, and I’d not swum in all my clothes before. I flicked a glance at Gisborne. We were neck and neck. There were further shouts from the bank: grownups, my father among them. I did my best to ignore them. I had to beat Gisborne.
We both reached the centre of the pond at the same time. Briefly, I panicked, thinking that if Gisborne tired and sank under the water it would be impossible for me to save him, being so much smaller than he was, but I saw he was still going strong. In fact, he was doing better than me and had begun to forge ahead. I immediately kicked off in earnest.
My water-clogged eyes flicked to the thick stand of reeds that bordered the edge of the pond. I fleetingly wondered how easy it would be to get through them and whether Gisborne and I would end up in a snarl of leaves and roots and both end up having the village men drag us out, with neither of us being able to claim victory. Then I heard a high-pitched squeal. Something was wrong. I needed to see, so I paused and trod water, cursing the fact that I would now almost certainly lose to Gisborne.
The watching children had become silent, but the grownups were still shouting, including Gisborne’s mother. I could hear her shrill French rising above the rest of the adult voices.
I kicked off again, frightened that if I trod water for much longer I might become too tired to make it to safety. I was also frightened about what would happen to me once I emerged from the pond. My father would ban me from playing in the forest, stop me from riding and, God forbid, deny me my bow.
I was surprised, therefore, to find not my father’s strong arms hauling me from the water, but those of the local bailiff. As I choked and spluttered, shivering and feeling none too clever, I still hoped I had beaten Gisborne.
Then I saw him, pushing his mother away and snarling at a couple of younger kids who were jeering at him.
Someone let out a piercing cry and my father emerged from the reeds with a child in his arms: Little Robert had fallen into the pond.
As the bailiff let go of me, I was torn between the desire to run and the desire to find out how Robert was. My curiosity won out, and I crawled across the soggy grass near to where my father had laid Robert on the bank. For a moment, the body of onlookers obscured my view of them both, until the bailiff shouted at them to stand back. I couldn’t believe my eyes. My father should be punishing me but, instead, he was hitting Little Robert.
“No, Father!” I flung myself at him and grabbed him round the neck. The surprise of my landing on my father’s back threw him off his haunches and he fell backwards, nearly crushing me. I fully expected him to turn around and lash out at me and I braced myself. But it didn’t happen. Instead, a wet and angry Gisborne grabbed hold of me.
“You idiot!” he yelled, pinning me to the ground.
“But he’s hurting him,” I cried, trying to squirm out from under Gisborne’s lean weight.
And then I saw my father stop bashing Robert on the chest and bend over, putting his mouth to Robert’s own small one. I didn’t understand, but Gisborne did.
“He’s saving his life, Locksley, which is more than he’ll do for you when this is over.”
And although I didn’t understand, I found myself trusting Gisborne’s words and I stopped wriggling and turned to watch my father.
Magda was on her knees, crumpling her skirts and crying. Robert gave a strangled gurgle and my father rolled him onto his side. Both pond water and sick gushed out of his little mouth.
An audible exclamation went up from the gathered crowd and my father sat back, wiping his face.
I started to crawl away.
“Robin,” my father growled.
I lost more than a race that day.
Realising I had to do the decent thing, I made my wet and miserable way back to the house to await my father. I had a long wait, and by the time he had dragged himself indoors I think some of the fire had gone out of him.
“Robert will be fine,” he said. He tugged off his boots and began peeling off his wet clothes.
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
My father said no more until he was fully clothed. Then he came and stood over me. “Robin?”
“Yes, Father?” I made myself look up at his stern face.
“That was a very foolish thing you did today and after you have been repeatedly told not to play in the pond.”
“I do not want to hear about Guy. At least he had the sense to know how to help young Robert.”
I squirmed in my seat.
“You will be punished.”
“And you will go to Robert’s mother with your apology.”
My father pulled off the belt he’d only just threaded through his breeches. I expected no less and held out my hands. To my consternation, my father hauled me to my feet. “I think,” he said, giving my breeches a tug.
“Yes, Father.” I turned around, pulled down my breeches and bent over.
He’d threatened this punishment before for various misdemeanours, but had never actually resorted to it. And even as I stood there, shivering with cold and more than a little fear, I thought he might not go through with it.
“How old are you, Robin?”
“Ten summers, Father.”
The belt made a whoosh as my father swung it back. Ten whooshes in all. Each a little harder than the last, each hurting like hell. But the lashings were nothing compared to the shame I felt; shame for disobeying my father’s rules yet again, and shame when I realised that if Guy had not pulled me away when he did, I might have wasted precious moments while my father was trying to save the life of Little Robert.
My punishment was nothing less than I deserved – ten lashings, no riding for a month and no playing in the forest until I had completed a list of tedious and non-essential tasks around the estate.
I did not go down to supper that night and my father did not call me. I’m not even sure if there was any supper and I could not have sat comfortably in any event.
I wondered if my father would come to my room to give me a further tongue-lashing. He did not. It seemed he and his belt had said all there was to say.
Stretching out on my bed, I stared at the dark knothole in the wooden bedpost. And I remained that way until I heard the creak of the stairs and the soft click as my father shut his bedroom door.
I half thought about escaping my room using the trellis and house supports as handholds, as I had done on many occasions, of running to the top of the hill above Locksley and sitting in the hollow where my mother slept her eternal sleep. But not tonight. Tonight I had a feeling that this might be one occasion where she agreed with my father.
I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. Then I remembered my prayers. I quickly rattled them off and endured another burst of shame for not being more fervent about them, another reason why my mother might scorn me this day. Then, troubled and exhausted, I climbed into bed.
I couldn’t sleep. I was hungry, ravenously so. I tried all my usual tricks: counting, word games, reciting French, but nothing worked. I needed something to eat.
Judging my father asleep, I tiptoed to the bedroom door. I opened it slowly, trying to avoid its usual squeak.
In the semi-darkness, I could not see what I had trodden on, but I managed to suppress a cry as something sharp dug into my bare foot. I bent down to examine the offending item, and my hunger, all my longings in fact, instantly disappeared when I saw what it was that I had stepped upon.
It had been a work of art, made by Little Robert’s father shortly before he’d died of the pox. A waste of time my father had said, but then was secretly proud of me when he saw how good I was with it.
With trembling fingers, I carefully picked up the shattered pieces of yew that had once been a slender but amazingly strong bow. The bowstring fluttered uselessly from the splintered wood. Even my arrows were snapped in half.
Clutching the pieces to my chest, I backed into my room and shut the door with my bare and bleeding foot. I placed the ruined bow on my bed and relit the bedside candle in order to see what could be done, but on examining the pieces, I knew it could not be salvaged.
My bow. It set me apart from the other village boys. It gave me power over Gisborne, whose height and dark scowls had most of Locksley’s youth following him out of fear, or awe, or a mixture of both.
My bow. It made me feel good about myself and filled me with a sense of purpose and pride. Now it was in pieces. I dropped the broken weapon onto the bed, threw myself on top of it and cried until I could cry no more.
I hated my father.
And I hate you, Gisborne. I hate you for being trapped in a cage in a hold that will soon be full of water, if it isn’t already; and I hate the fact that I’m fool enough to try to save you.
“Gisborne!” Unbuckling my quiver, I drop it on the deck, my bow too; they will be of no use to me now. I yank off my boots, throw them aside. There’s no time to strip further.
The hold is gloomy, the only light that pouring through the open hatchway, but it is enough to see that the waters are rising rapidly.
“Gisborne!” I yell again, guiltily hoping I’m too late and there is no other course for me to take but to try to make my escape with the others.
Damn the man.
I dive from the top step. Hitting the icy seawater, I gasp and then swim the few strokes necessary to reach Gisborne’s prison. Gisborne is upright, his hands gripping the bars, his stockinged feet bent around them. Somehow, he’d managed to pull himself to the roof of the cage. The water is up to his chin and he has only inches of breathing space left.
“You came for me,” he rasps.
Taking a deep breath, I dive under the water.
I manage to locate the cage door by feel alone, but quickly realise it’s hopeless. Without a key, there is no way of opening it. I give the door a few tugs, more by way of convincing myself that at least I had tried. With my lungs close to bursting, I kick back up to the surface.
Gisborne’s face is pressed to the roof of the cage, desperate for a final mouthful of air before the water comes over his head.
“It’s all right,” he says, sounding remarkably calm. “You came.”
“I’m sorry, Gisborne.”
“Don’t be.” He spits water.
“The key?” I ask. “Where’s the key?”
“Forget it. There isn’t time.”
“Answer the question, damn it!”
His long dark hair resembles black seaweed, floating on top of the water.
“I don’t know. The guard usually hangs them on a hook by the steps whenever he leaves me, but it’s too—”
I don’t wait to hear what he’s about to say. I swim towards the submerged steps, arm-over-arm, legs kicking, as I did in Locksley pond.
My thrashing hands hit the wall and I run them over the planking alongside the steps, up and down, floor to hatch. No keys. The boat is creaking and groaning as the merciless water fills its cabins and corridors, the galley and the hold. I have to get out.
Somersaulting under water, I push off from the wall. My toes hit something hard and key-like.
Inwardly cursing, I kick back to the wall. I find the hook this time, farther away from the steps than Gisborne had suggested. Clutching the keys, I surface and swim back to the cage. The water has risen above the cage roof and when I swim down, I see Gisborne, arms out-flung, floating at the top of the cage, his feet still hooked around the bars.
Give it up, Robin, I tell myself as I ease my way down the bars towards the lock. He’s gone. I find the lock and push a key in. It won’t turn. Wrong one. I try a second, but as I’m fumbling with it, thinking it will be the third and final key because that’s how these things work, I drop the whole bunch. If it were possible to scream under water then I’d be raising the roof by now. Gripped by a stubborn madness, I kick towards the bottom of the hold. Finding the keys, I swim back to the lock. If I don’t get it right this time, I will have to give up. I need air.
I ram a key in, praying it’s the right one. The cage door swings open, but I don’t have enough air left to go in and get Gisborne. I kick back to the surface, take a hurried gulp of air and dive under again.
“Don’t die because of Gisborne.”
This is what you’d ask of me, my love, if you were here.
I swim up under Gisborne’s seemingly lifeless body, grab his ankles and pull him down and through the cage door. Surfacing, I manage to flip him over onto his back. I hook my arms under his armpits and kick-swim towards the few steps still showing above the ever-rising seawater.
Draping his inert body on the steps, I place two fingers on his neck, in the soft hollow just beside his windpipe. I can’t feel a pulse, although I’m not certain I would feel it even if he had one; my fingers are numb with cold. I thump him on the chest. “Damn you!” I have wasted precious time trying to rescue a dead man.
Something brushes against my leg. I look down at the seawater swirling about the steps. My bow. It must have slid through the hatchway when the boat started to list.
Another memory blazes.
To be honest, I hadn’t known where to start. My upbringing was geared to becoming lord of the manor, ready to step into my father’s shoes. I was required to master the day-to-day running of the estate, to learn good manners and to acquire a head for figures; and, although I also learned the rudiments of crop farming, milling and of shoeing a horse, in order to understand my peasants better, nowhere did it teach me how to make a decent bow. Dan Scarlett was the man for that and my father had forbidden him to make me another one. Therefore, it was with stubborn determination rather than expertise that I sat in the forest some few days after my punishment had ended trying to fashion a new bow.
It took me the better part of a morning. I had exhausted all the swear words I knew and some that I made up. I had lost a fingernail and taken a chunk out of the palm of my hand, the evidence of which was smeared on my breeches. Most of all I had proved that I wasn’t good with wood. But it was a bow, of sorts.
So why didn’t it work? After what felt like my hundredth attempt to hit what would have previously been an easy target for me, I hurled the thing away in a fit of temper and frustration.
Feeling sorry for myself, I slumped against the expansive trunk of a nearby oak. I stared at the useless bow lying atop the leaf litter and pressed my dirty and bloodied hands to my eyes in an effort to staunch the stupid, hot tears that had begun to spill down my face. I didn’t hear the telltale footsteps until the last moment, when he was right upon me.
I hugged my knees to my chest, pressing my face into the thick material of my breeches.
“Robin?” Guy lightly touched my shoulder.
“Go away,” I sniffed.
I raised my tear-streaked face to look at him. “I said go away!”
For a fleeting moment, I thought I saw the ghost of compassion and the beginnings of a smile on his face, but he quickly rearranged his features into their usual dark demeanour following my brusque rejection of him.
“Up yours, Locksley,” he snarled. He turned on his heel and sped off through the trees.
It could only have been because of some crazy notion of hurting my father that I took the stupid bow home. I think I thought I could shame him into getting me another one.
“Robin, you made yourself a new bow,” my father said, sounding neither angry nor pleased.
“It’s a piece of rubbish!” I shouted, flinging it dramatically onto the floor.
I didn’t wait to hear what he had to say. I hurtled up the stairs, slammed my bedroom door and rammed home the latch. I threw myself on my bed.
After crying myself to sleep, I awoke sometime close to dawn. My bedcovers were dotted with blood from the cut on my hand.
I don’t know what my father did with my hand-fashioned bow, but, two weeks later, a village boy delivered a new bow to Locksley manor. I had always thought it was my father’s way of saying sorry.
You idiot, Robin, I scold myself, thumping Gisborne again. Not in fury this time, but mirroring those images of my father hitting Little Robert by the edge of Locksley pond. I have no idea why I’m doing this when I need to be getting off this sinking boat. Is it because I want him to live, or am I using this as an excuse to physically punish him for killing Marian, even if he may not be able to feel it? Whatever the reason, it isn’t working and the water is still relentlessly rising.
I cease my thumping, remembering how my father opened Little Robert’s mouth and covered it with his own open mouth.
Forgive me, Marian.
“Robin, there’s nothing to forgive.”
I ease Gisborne’s mouth open and lower mine to it. I can’t remember how many times my father breathed his life-giving air into Little Robert’s mouth, I was too frightened at the time, but I know it wasn’t too many times, thank the Lord.
I blow air once, twice, raise my head and shout, “Come on, Gisborne, you bastard.” Nothing. One more time, I think. Just one more time.
It isn’t necessary. Gisborne’s eyelids flicker and his eyes open. Mercifully, he turns his head away from me as he vomits. The boat gives an ominous lurch and I almost lose my purchase on the stairs. My bow is lodged between the wooden steps. I yank it free and tug on Gisborne’s sleeve. “Guy, we have to get out of here, now!”
Amazingly, he manages not only to scrabble up the steps and clamber out the hatchway, but also to scoop up my quiver on the way. When I follow him out onto the sloping deck he hands it to me. Our eyes meet.
“It was you, wasn’t it? You had that bow made for me, not my father.”
Gisborne stares at me in puzzlement. Then his eyes light up at the memory and he nods.
The boat lurches again and I grab hold of a beam. Immediately, a searing pain scorches through my injured arm and I let go. Only Gisborne’s bulk behind me stops me from slipping back into the hold.
“It’s too late,” Gisborne says, his arms about my waist.
“It’s never too late,” I insist. “Now come on.”
Clinging to each other, our stockinged feet slipping on the wet decking, we claw and stumble our way to the upper deck.
The storm had materialised into nothing more than a heavy downpour. But the weather had never been the reason for the boat’s sinking, age and its numerous voyages having finally taken its toll. It could have sunk at any time, even in the silky calm waters of the harbour at Acre.
“You cannot seriously tell me that hunk of junk will get us all the way to France.”
Much, my friend, you were right.
“Where are the others?” Gisborne flicks his long wet hair from his face.
“They went in the rowboats,” I tell him. “At least, I hope they did.”
“Then we’ve had it.”
“No, they’ll wait for us.”
“For you, you mean.”
The boat gives another sickening lurch and I realise what’s about to happen.
“Keep hold of me,” I shout.
I grab a length of sodden rope from the deck. I have no idea if it will reach, or if my injured arm can take the strain, but there is no obvious alternative. I secure the rope to an arrow and aim it at a rail on the boat’s prow. Gisborne slides his arms around my waist, bracing his back against the main mast’s beam, the one I tried to pepper with arrows.
I draw back the bowstring and make some fool noise as another shooting pain rips through my injured arm. I drop the arrow.
“Here,” Gisborne says, picking it up. “Let me.”
“No.” I snatch the arrow out his hand. “I can do this.”
“Always you have to be the hero.”
Not now, Marian.
I nock the arrow, take aim and loose. The iron-tipped shaft embeds itself into the rail.
“Wait here,” I say, looping my bow over my head.
The boat tips at a crazy angle and begins to slide into the sea.
Ignoring Gisborne’s cries to leave him and get the hell off the boat, I inch along the slippery rope, praying it will hold. The arrow dislodges before I’m anywhere near the rope’s end, but I’m far enough along to find a few final handholds and scrabble to the boat’s rail. I watch in fascinated horror as barrels and boxes slide past me. It’s a miracle none of them smashes into Gisborne and sends him crashing to a watery grave. But there he is, still wedged up against the mast, moments away from being swallowed up by the encroaching sea.
I knot the rope onto the rail and wave at him. “Come on, Gisborne. Climb!” He doesn’t move, either because he thinks it’s impossible, or because he’s terrified. I shout again. “Guy, first one to the boats wins.” I have no idea if the rowboats are within striking distance, or whether either of us can swim well enough to reach them: this is not Locksley pond.
Whether it’s me calling him Guy, or the fact I’ve just issued a challenge, Gisborne hauls himself along the rope. I offer him my good arm as he reaches the top.
“You ready?” I point at the choppy sea.
Gisborne nods. He turns to face me and gives me a lopsided grin. “Frightened, Locksley?”
I grin back. “No. You?”
“No. On the count of three?” he says.
We count one, and jump.
Chapter 13: Chapter 12
“I told you it was a hunk of junk.”
Sobbing, Much helps John grab hold of my outstretched arm and together they haul me into the rowboat. Clutching my throbbing right arm, I turn and look out to sea. I can’t see Gisborne and fear that after all my efforts in the hold he has drowned.
Allan points. “There!”
When we raced in Locksley pond, Gisborne was wearing nothing more than a simple homespun shirt, breeches and a belt. His leathers must be a weight, hampering his ability to swim, but there was no time to strip before we leapt off the boat.
“Row!” I shout.
John grabs hold of the two oars and begins clumsily rowing.
“Come on, Gisborne!” I lean over the edge of the rowboat, holding out my good arm. “You call that swimming.”
His arms start flailing in all directions, reminding me of the ungainly way he used to swim as a youngster, while John continues to slap the oars in the water, slowly closing the gap between Guy and the rowboat.
“Robin,” Guy calls, “I can’t...I can’t....” His head and then his arms disappear under the water.
I stand and put a foot on the edge of the rowboat. Salim grabs me round the waist, pulls me backwards. “You cannot save everyone, Robin Hood.”
I crumple onto the deck, defeated.John stops rowing.
“We need to head that way,” I hear Salim say.
John starts heaving on one oar, slowly spinning the boat around.
“I knew you’d fucking leave me behind.” A white and trembling hand grips the rim of the rowboat and, with a reluctant grunt, John grasps it and hauls Guy into the boat.
Guy flops on the deck next to me. He looks like some slick black seal wearing a seaweed hairpiece.
“You should learn to swim better,” I tell him, inexplicable relief flooding my exhausted mind and body.
He spits seawater in my face. “Up yours, Locksley.” He starts laughing, but there are tears in his eyes, or maybe it’s just seawater.
“Where are the other boats?” I ask. I’d been counting on keeping up with Jehal and following his lead in our daunting bid to reach the shores of France.
“Gone,” John says.
He seems to be getting to grips with rowing, the oars digging deeper into the water now rather than just skimming the surface.
“They thought waiting for you was a fool’s errand and took off,” Allan elaborates.
I strain my eyes across the water. The rain has gone, along with the storm clouds, the moon a bright penny of white in the starlit night sky.
“Then we’re on our own,” Gisborne says.
Everyone turns to stare at him. John stops rowing. Salim glances at the faces of my friends. During our time on Jehal’s boat, he learned much of our relationship with Gisborne and the reason for our enmity towards him. Doubtless, he too must be asking himself why I had risked my life to save the man who not only killed my wife but also tried to kill each one of us at one time or another.
“Yes,” I say. “We’re on our own.”
John grunts and resumes rowing.
“Salim did not have time to bring dry clothes, but here.” He hands me a blanket; thankfully not a rat-fouled, sweat-stinking one. I nod towards Gisborne. With an annoyed click of his tongue, Salim passes Guy a similar blanket.
“Thank you.” Guy drapes the blanket across his shoulders.
“What else have we got, Salim?” I ask.
“What about water?”
“Sorry, Robin,” Allan says. “There wasn’t time.”
“Some salt pork,” John says. “Nothing else.”
“Well, at least that’s something. Jehal said we were not so many days from France. Who knows; maybe we’ll get lucky. There’s a good possibility we’ll run into a trading ship or some such.”
“There’s also a good possibility we’ll starve to death,” Much says.
“We’ve got a net.” Smiling, Allan lifts up a piece of netting that has far bigger holes in it than it should have.
“Unless you’re hoping to catch a whale,” I say, “then I don’t think that’s going to be much use to us.”
“Allah will provide.” Salim raises an arm to the heavens and then pats my arm. “Robin!”
I glance at my shirtsleeve. It’s bloody. I must have snagged my injured arm during our scrabble to get off the boat, or perhaps before that, down in the hold, trying to rescue Gisborne. “It’ll be all right,” I say.
“No, it will not.” Salim sighs, right down to his waterlogged boots. “And I have no bandages, no needles, nothing.” He puts his head in his hands. Almost immediately, he looks up, smiling broadly. “A solution, yes,” he says, pulling off the turban he always wears.
“Look, not being funny, Robin, but we’re rowing here and we have no idea if we’re heading in the right direction. I mean, for all we know we’re heading back the way we came.”
Allan has a point.
“Stop rowing,” I tell John. Salim finishes winding the length of turban around my arm, makes to tie it off. “Not too tight,” I say, remembering his earlier bandaging efforts.
“I’ll do it.” Much nudges Salim out the way. Poor Much. He looks pleased to be doing something other than staring morosely at the expanse of sea all around us.
“Much,” I say. “Perhaps you could dish out some of that salt pork now.”
“Food, yes. Food would be good.” He crawls over to the box containing the salted meat.
Salim points at the sky. “We go that way.”
“Are you sure?” I ask.
“Salim may be only cook, but Salim spend many a night on deck looking at the sky. That is the way to France.”
“Many a night on deck,” I say, “and most of them drunk.”
“Salim not so drunk he cannot see the stars and moon, Robin Hood.”
I nod and John spits in his palms, picks up the oars and starts rowing again.
For a while, the only sounds we make are the soft slap of the oars as they hit the water and the odd smacking of lips as we eat the salted meat, each of us preferring to keep our thoughts to ourselves. The sea is calmer than we’ve known for days, fortunately. I turn my face to the night sky. In different circumstances, I might have marvelled at such a glorious spectacle. “My father used to say that when we die we become stars.”
“Rubbish,” Allan mutters under his breath.
“It is true,” Salim says. “Your father must be a wise man, Robin Hood.”
“My father is dead, Salim, and I’m not sure how wise he was.”
I sense Gisborne’s eyes on me and I wonder if he too is recalling the illicit romance between my father and his mother.
“We wouldn’t be out here stargazing if it weren’t for him,” Much says, scowling at Guy.
“Much,” I warn.
“Well, it’s true. If it weren’t for the vile sheriff and that despicable man over there who you could have drowned saving, we’d be home, in the forest, or maybe in Locksley or—”
“Being hounded by Prince John more like,” Allan butts in.
“We’d have food and water,” Much continues. “And we wouldn’t be feeling sick half the time…and…and you wouldn’t have hurt your arm…and…and maybe Marian wouldn’t—” He clamps his lips together, his eyes huge in the moon’s pale glow.
“Stop it,” I tell him.
Gisborne flings the blanket off his shoulders, hand flying to his hip before he remembers he is no longer wearing a sword. “I didn’t ask you to follow us out there, and Marian would still be alive if it weren’t for your interfering, you stupid little man.”
“What do you mean by that?” Much stands, rocking the rowboat.
“Sit down.” I tug on Much’s breeches and, doubtless realising Gisborne could easily push him over the side, he sits.
“You know what,” Guy says. “If you hadn’t come to the church when you did, she would have been mine.”
The pit of my stomach clenches at the memory, at that and a thousand others I’ve been trying to suppress these past few weeks, mostly without success.
“She was never going to be yours,” Much retorts. “She belonged to Robin. She—”
“No more, Much,” I say, laying a pacifying hand on his knee.
“I’m sorry, Robin. It’s just…it’s just...it’s not fair.”
“I know, but we have to focus on the here and now and fighting among ourselves will not help get us home.”
“Fighting among ourselves,” Much says, narrowing his eyes at Guy. “Since when has he been included in our number?”
“Much, we are, quite literally, all in the same boat, and until we get to France we have to work together, and that includes Gisborne.” I give Guy and Much a hard stare. “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Much says, knocking my hand from his knee and turning away from me.
“Agreed,” Guy adds.
“Good. Now, try to sleep for a bit. We’ll take turns rowing. John?”
“I’m good, Robin.”
“You won’t be able to row with that arm,” Allan says.
I won’t be able to do many things with it, I think. Not if it takes another infection, out here, in the middle of the sea.
“I’ll take Robin’s turn, as well as my own,” Guy says.
I nod my thanks. Much’s jaw twitches in suppressed rage. I’m sure if Guy had not spoken first, he would have offered to do a double stint of rowing.
Much, Allan and Salim arrange themselves on some sacking at the stern of the rowboat. Gisborne crawls to the prow and sits, gazing out to sea. I shuffle up next to him.
“What were you planning,” he asks, “when you reach England?”
“Well, originally I was planning on killing you.”
He turns to face me. “And now?”
“I don’t know,” I tell him truthfully.
We turn our faces towards the sea, our thoughts wordlessly ebbing and flowing between us.
It’s been seven weeks. Seven weeks to come to terms with her death. It could easily be seven beats of the heart for all the healing I’ve done.
Without warning, Gisborne grabs my hand and I suffer a moment of disquiet, remembering his powerful arms carrying me, crushing me into his chest. He uncurls my clenched fist and presses something into my palm – Marian’s ring.
“This is yours,” he says. “It belongs to you. I loved her, you know, despite what you may think. She was the one good thing in my life, but, as your snivelling manservant said, she belonged to you. She always belonged to you.”
I curl my fingers around the ring, my throat tight, warm tears filling my eyes, blurring the line between sea and sky.
“God’s bones, it’s cold.” Guy hugs his arms around himself. “It’s enough to shiver you to pieces.”
I’m not shaking with the cold and he knows it, but, aware of the John at our backs, he has chosen to cover up for me. Perhaps some of Marian’s indelible goodness has rubbed off on him after all.
By the third day, I give up telling myself I’m all right. Strangely enough, it’s only Gisborne who realises just how sick I am. John and Allan are too tired from rowing to take more than a passing interest in what is going on, Much too hungry and seasick to care and Salim, for all his astuteness, too wrapped up in his prayers to notice.
When I’d not been feeling so bad, I tried asking Salim why he had chosen to work on board a boat when he was clearly terrified of water. His rather curt answer had been that he wanted to escape his home and some unpleasant memories. It was only some two days later, after having plied him with a copious amount of ale, and having almost reached the point of drunkenness myself in an effort to negate the poison in my blood, that Salim mentioned a wife and child. Both had drowned in a tragic accident that Salim felt he was in some way responsible for. Running off to sea was his way of escape and also a form of self-inflicted punishment, as every day he had to face the thing that scared and frightened him most. After he told me his story, or at least as much of it as he was willing to tell, I understood better why he drank.
“What would you change, Robin Hood?”
“What would you change,” he asks, offering me a cup of ale. “If you had such a choice?”
No water, but you bring cups for ale. Nice one, Allan.
I accept the cup from Salim and fix my eyes on the horizon. I had not been expecting the question and I do not welcome it. I want nothing more than to be free of pain and to forget.
“I would not have gone to war, Salim.”
“You were following your heart, Robin, were you not?”
“No,” I say, watching a flock of gulls flapping and squawking overhead, wondering if it means we are near to land. “I was chasing a dream.”
“And is that not something to be proud of?”
“No, because the dream was shattered by reality and the reality was that I didn’t make a difference.”
“But you did, Robin, don’t you see. The war made you what you are today. It gave you the means to fight and to fight well. And you did make a difference, in the place you call home.”
“If I had never left England, then maybe I would not have had to make that difference.”
“We cannot know the future, Robin Hood. And is it not better to make a choice, even the wrong one, than choose to do nothing?”
He reaches for the cup we are sharing and I press it into his outstretched hand. He accepts it gratefully, making no effort to hide the fat tears that are rolling down his cheeks. I am not surprised for I have seen Salim cry many a time; it does not take much: an empty jug, a lost game of chance, a mournful song. Tonight though, it is a different sort of crying. Tonight, Salim’s tears are for his dead wife and child.
“The price was too high,” I say, “much too high.”
“And so was mine, my friend, so was mine.” Salim rubs his face clear of tears and fixes me with a red-rimmed stare. “But I have learned something from my time spent on this tiny boat, something you have yet to learn.” He raises the cup towards the sea and smiles. “I have learned to face my fears. And now, my friend, you must learn to face yours.”
I’m not afraid to die, I think.
“No, Robin,” Marian whispers to the moonlit sky, to the open sea, to my aching heart. “You’re afraid to live. That is what Salim means.”
I don’t know why I decide to take Gisborne into my confidence. Perhaps because I know how the others will react, or perhaps because it’s easier. Either way, I tell him that if we don’t reach land soon they may well end up with a corpse on their hands. He agrees to keep my secret from the others. Doubtless my saving him from drowning means he feels beholden to me in some way, although deep down I suspect it’s more than that. After all, he saved my life after the pirate’s blade cut me, making us even on the saving life scoreboard. Whatever his reasons, I don’t have the resources to figure it out; just trying to appear calm and hopeful of a rescue is as much as I can manage.
However, by the fifth day, when we have passed nothing but more sea and the last of the salt pork is gone, I can’t hide it any longer.
It had been his turn to row. He silently hands the oars to John and crawls to the back of the boat.
I huddle close to him so the others won’t hear what I have to say. Glancing behind me, I notice Much giving me a filthy look, but he quickly leans over the side of the boat to retch and I take the opportunity to lean into Guy’s ear.
“I want you to promise me something.”
He hands me the blanket I had dropped, but I shake my head. Despite the chill wind, I’m burning up.
“Guy, if I lose this battle, I need you to do everything you can to get these men to France and safely home to England.”
“They won’t follow me, Robin. If anything happens to you they’ll like as not chuck me overboard.”
“I will speak to them, make them understand. Apart from anything else, you speak French and they don’t.”
“You talk like a man who has already accepted his fate.”
“I’m not giving up, just being realistic.” I want to say more, about not taking my body ashore, about casting me into the sea, but the words clog in my throat.
Gisborne flicks his eyes at the others and, seeing them all occupied, takes hold of my hand, this time to shake it. The deal is sealed and when our eyes meet I realise there is no need for further words.
As we settle to sleep, I perform the same ritual as on previous nights, clutching my tag, along with Marian’s ring, and quietly whispering goodnight to her. For some reason it does not upset me so much this night. Perhaps it’s due to my feverish state, or perhaps to the pact I have just made with Gisborne. Whatever the reason, I feel calmer and closer to her than I have for many a day. Maybe, I think, death is not so far off.
Towards the dawn, I awake. I’m as hot as the devil. Sweat is running down my back. I long to be cool.
Pushing up onto my knees, I see that everyone is still slumbering. Guy, his legs bent awkwardly, his long matted hair all over his face. Much, hugging his knees, mouth open, and John, wedged along the side of the boat, trying to make room for us all with little success. I notice that Allan, whose turn it had been to row, is fast asleep, his fingers still curled around the oars, a smile playing on his lips. I decide to leave him be. Salim lies at my feet, his worry beads clutched in his hands. With what little energy I still possess, I ease myself over the side.
The water is freezing and I bite down on a cry, but after a moment or two I grow better accustomed to it and find that it has done the trick, the fire rampaging through my body mercifully quashed. I close my eyes and lean my forehead against the side of the boat. As I do so, I recall the harbour, in Acre, where drunk and desolate I had listened to Allan and Much calling out for me to hurry and get on the boat; the boat it now proves could very well lead to all our deaths.
“Marian,” I sigh into the rowboat’s wooden side and the waves lapping beneath me.
Everything is a choice, Robin. Everything we do.
It is too tempting, and I have no idea how to climb back into the boat without alerting the others. I fumble inside my water-clogged shirt to find her ring and watch in horrified fascination as my fingers slip from the boat’s rim.
“Don’t you dare.” Gisborne grabs my wrist.
“Guy, I wasn’t—”
“Yes, you were,” Marian says.
I offer Gisborne my other hand and he pulls me back into the rowboat.
“I need you,” Guy whispers in my ear, as I tumble into his powerful arms. “I was proud of my feelings for her and of what she made me want to be, until I went and destroyed it all. I want that pride back and you can give it to me. So I’m not letting you get away.” He grips my shoulders. “Do you hear me, Locksley?”
I nod, even though I only catch half of what he is saying, still torn as I am between the desire to end my life and relief that my lungs are not filling with seawater.
Gisborne’s hands slide away as an entanglement of words and shouts crowd over me. Then a heavy blackness fills my vision and my head smacks onto the deck of the little boat.
I know we are still at sea by the telltale up and down motion. However, something is different. Before I have time to work it out, someone presses a foul-smelling cloth to my face. I try to push it away with my good arm, while my legs thrash about on the deck.
I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.
“You promised me, Robin. You promised me you’d go on fighting.”
I didn’t know it would be this hard.
“You’re not alone, Robin. You’ll never be alone.”
I know. But I am lonely.
“I’m trying to, damn it!”
Whoever is holding me wants to help. I stop kicking and twisting and give in to the heady fumes filling my mouth and nostrils.
We aren’t moving; that’s the first thing I notice. The second thing I notice is that I’m not either.
I close my eyes, steadying my breathing, trying not to give way to panic. The last thing I remember clearly is Gisborne pulling me back into the rowboat. After that, everything is nothing more than a patchwork of unintelligible images. However, wherever I am, it is certainly not on a boat and the bindings across my chest, securing me to the bed, means that somebody definitely doesn’t want me to leave in a hurry.
“You cannot go in. I’ve already told you.”
“I just want to see him, that’s all. And don’t think I don’t know what you’re saying just because you’re speaking French. I used to listen at Robin’s window, you know, and I know an insult when I hear one.”
Smiling, I try to call out, but all I can manage is a weak croak and already the voices have grown indistinct.
However, reassured I am in no immediate danger, I take a moment to study my surroundings. A moment is all it requires, as, apart from the bed I am strapped to, there is only a single chair to one side of it and a small table with a jug, a stump of a candle and a washbowl to the other. The one small window to the room is set too high in the wall to see out of properly, although it does afford a view of a pale grey sky.
I hear footsteps and another familiar voice.
“Not being funny, but he’s hardly a danger. You saw the state he was in when we got here.”
“He was a danger to himself and that is why I had to restrain him. But the sedations should have relieved the symptoms by now and—”
The door flies open and Allan and Much tumble into the room. Another man follows them in.
“Ah ha, the patient is awake at last.” Unlike the short, rotund, turbaned Salim, this man is stick-thin, taller than any man I’ve ever seen and devoid of both headwear and hair.
“Why am I tied to the bed?” I ask.
“I am most sorry, but after you had fallen out of bed a second time, I felt it prudent to restrain you,” he says, in stilted but perfect English.
“May I just say,” he says, scrubbing at his puffy eyes. “That you gave us one hell of a fright.”
The physician, for I now guess I am in a hospital of some kind, unties my bonds.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to be a nuisance.”
“Nuisance! Blimey, Robin. We thought for a while you were going to peg out on us,” Allan says. “Lucky for us, Salim knew a trick or two to keep you in the land of the living. And lucky a galley passed by not long after. Anyway, we’re glad you’re back.”
“It’s good to be back.”
I swear I’ve said that before.
The hospital turns out not to be a hospital after all, but simply the house of a physician who resides in Marseille and had learned of my plight.
Allan informs me that another ship had picked up Jehal and those of his crew who escaped the sinking boat a mile or so along the coast and that Jehal had quickly sought passage on a trading galley on its way to the Holy Land. I also learn, much to my regret, that Salim has joined them; I would have liked the chance to say goodbye and to thank him. It surprises me that he is willing to head back to sea so soon after our ill-fated voyage, but perhaps he had meant what he said on the rowboat and has learned to face his fears at last. Certainly, I think he is making a better job of it than I am.
Allan also tells me that Gisborne paid the physician for his services, found lodgings nearby for himself and the gang and acquired five decent palfreys to make the necessary journey across France. I don’t ask where he got the money. Allan tells me Gisborne used his ‘influence’. I can just imagine what that influence might be.
Five days later, we saddle up and begin our journey across France, towards Le Havre, and a boat that will take us to England.
Chapter 14: Chapter 13
Book 2 - Land
“What do you mean, you didn’t like it?”
“I’m not saying I didn’t like it. I’m just saying it didn’t agree with me.”
“Well, I’m not surprised. You’re supposed to eat the main course before the dessert, not with it, you chump.”
“Well, how was I to know it was dessert? I can’t read French.”
“You can’t read English either.”
“Neither can you.”
“I can write my own name. You can’t even do that. You wouldn’t recognise your name if it came up and bit you on the nose.”
“Why don’t you just...”
Allan and Much are bickering. We had spent the night at a small country inn, found by Gisborne who, every day, come late afternoon, would ride ahead to secure us lodgings for the night. On the days when there were no inns or barns at our disposal we would make camp in woods, tumbledown barns or cottages, or anywhere else that offered a decent shelter.
Our hosts at the inn, L'oie et les Plumes had not spoken any English and I’d been too tired and unobservant and Gisborne too intent on causing mischief to bother to translate the offered menu. Still, I find some comfort in the fact they are arguing, proving that, unlike my relationship with Much, some things never change.
“I thought Guy explained it to you.” Allan flicks his eyes guiltily in my direction and I quickly turn my head away, pretend I’m not listening.
Allan, having once been Guy’s man, has fallen into an easy friendship with Gisborne, often ribbing the man for insisting on wearing his leathers even on hot, muggy days; calling him a girl for wearing such long hair and continually threatening to take a pair of cutters to it while Guy sleeps. Guy gives as good as he gets; sniggering when Allan tries to pronounce a French word, pulling him up on his ungrammatical sentences and holding his nose whenever they happen to be riding side by side as a way of saying Allan should bath more.
I have no desire to strike up such a relationship with Gisborne, despite our uneasy alliance on the boat, but I have to admit I’m somewhat envious of Allan and his forgive and forget attitude. Then again, Allan didn’t lose the love of his life because of Gisborne.
Much mostly avoids talking to him, well aware that Gisborne is likely to scoff at anything Much says. Gisborne still frightens him, even though there are four of us to the one of him. However, when Guy compliments Much on his cooking one evening, Much swells with pride and gives me a ‘you never praise my cooking; you don’t even thank me half the time’ look. After that, he seems happier in Guy’s company and I notice he often gives him a larger portion of food than the rest of us.
John simply remains aloof, neither accepting nor rejecting him, his goal to survive this saddle sore experience and get home again, not to work out whose side he is on. Not that anyone is taking sides, but I can’t help feeling that Gisborne is stealing my gang, and I don’t like it.
After having ridden for a week or so, it occurs to me that we could simply decide not to meet up with Gisborne that evening, leave him at whatever accommodation he has secured for us and take a different route. I moot this point with Allan, as we take shelter under a stone bridge when a summer storm catches us by surprise.
“You what, Robin?”
“I’m just saying.”
“But Guy will have found rooms for us. He’ll be expecting us.”
“So?” I say.
“So, not being funny, but what’s he going to do when we don’t show up?”
“Who cares. We don’t need him. We’re perfectly capable of making our way to Le Havre on our own. Gisborne may be the one with the coin, but we have enough skills between us to barter for our lodgings. Hell, we used to rob from the rich. We could steal Gisborne’s money. You can guarantee he got it by foul means.”
“I understand all that,” Allan says. “What I’m saying is, I don’t get it.”
“Don’t get what?”
“This business with Gisborne. I mean, what was all that stuff on the boat about? You know, us working together with Guy, if not this?”
“It was different on the boat.”
“In what way different?”
“That’s what I’d like to know,” Much says, picking up the ends of his woollen tunic and wringing rainwater onto the muddy ground.
I rake my hands through my sodden hair, wishing I had never started the conversation. “You know how, Much.”
“No, I don’t. I’m as confused as Allan.”
I look from one to the other and realise I owe them some kind of an explanation, although, truthfully, I’m not sure I understand myself why this arrangement with Guy is irking me so.
“Gisborne killed Marian,” I say, the bitter words clawing at my throat. I wait for Allan to say ‘that old chestnut,’ swearing I’ll swing for him if he does. He doesn’t.
“And you tried to kill him,” counters Much.
“And you stopped me.”
“Er…I think you’ll find it was Captain Jehal who did that,” Allan says. “So, why didn’t you try it again? I mean, you’ve had enough opportunities since we’ve been on dry land. It’s not as if we ever stop you from doing whatever you want to do.”
I can think of a few times, I think, recalling the incident with Guy’s tattoo and me tied to a tree. “I haven’t tried to kill him because he won’t let me. He keeps changing the rules of the game.”
“What do you mean, he won’t let you?” Much asks, face screwed up in puzzlement. “What rules? What game?”
“Guy had every opportunity to be rid of me during the pirate’s raid,” I say, “yet, he risked his life to carry me to safety. When we were escaping the sinking boat, he saved me from slipping back into the hold, and on the rowboat, he saved me from drowning. Every time I think I should turn my back on him, he shows a side to him that I thought he’d lost long ago, back when we were boys in Locksley.”
“But I thought that’s what you wanted,” Allan says, equally perplexed. “I thought, that is we thought, you’d be over the moon that Guy had changed...is trying to change.”
“Look at you!” I shout. “All of you, taken in by him because he’s finding you decent food and a comfortable bed at night. Can’t you see what he’s doing?”
“Oh, come on,” Allan scoffs. “You don’t seriously think he’s doing all this just to split us up, do you?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Then what? You wanted us to work with him, to accept him, despite everything he’s done, and now you’re saying you want us to ditch him.”
“I just wanted to understand,” I say. “To make some sense of why he did what he did. I—” I turn away, feigning interest in the torrential rain and a sudden flash of lightning that hits close by. “I didn’t say I wanted to marry the man.”
Much and Allan pretend to laugh, as though I’ve made a joke, and they also pretend to be fascinated by the storm, while I stroke my horse’s mane in a feeble attempt to hide my hurt.
Much, my friend, you were right. Gisborne is coming between us.
Chapter 15: Chapter 14
We meet Gisborne at the crossroads, just outside Saint-Étienne, as arranged. A passing monk had informed us of a farmstead whose owners generously offer travellers shelter and food in exchange for a small amount of coin.
As usual, towards late afternoon, Guy had ridden ahead to arrange our overnight accommodation. I still think it might be a good idea to steal his coin – I hate being beholden to him – but I can’t summon up the energy to do it on my own and none of the gang seem willing to help me, partly because they think Gisborne finds better places to stay than I would and partly because he’s got himself a new sword, which is never off his hip.
“Should my ears be burning, Locksley?” Guy slides the saddle from his dark brown mare.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because you’re late.”
“We were caught in that storm; you must have ridden through it. Our horses got spooked so we took shelter until it passed.”
“Thought maybe you’d decided to part company with me.”
I hurriedly turn towards my mount, untying the pack strapped behind the saddle.
“Talked you out of it, did they?” Guy unbuckles his horse’s bridle and, with a slap on its hindquarters, sends his mare galloping off into a fenced meadow. “So, are you still planning on killing me when we get back to England?” he asks.
I’m not sure whether he’s joking or not.
“Actually, I might do it sooner than that. One less mouth to feed.” I’m not sure whether I’m joking either.
Guy turns his attention to the barn where we are to spend the night. I follow his gaze and see Much standing outside the barn’s double doors. He appears to be complaining about something to our host. Even though he’s learned a few French words from me, it’s obvious he’s making no sense at all.
“He’s heading for a thick ear if he keeps that up,” Gisborne says, a smile tugging at his lips.
Hell, I think, he’s even warming to Much.
Gisborne turns to regard me. “Hurts, doesn’t it?”
Ignoring my question, he starts fiddling with the cinch on my horse’s saddle.
“Leave it,” I say.
“I’m just trying to help.”
“I don’t need your help.”
“I thought your arm—”
“My arm is fine, so back off.”
Holding up his hands in defeat, Guy steps back a pace. As the stubborn saddle finally slides off my horse’s back, I glance at Gisborne across the seat of the animal. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“On the boat...”
“On the boat, what?” I demand.
“I thought we had come to an understanding.”
“Yes,” he says. “Between us. Between you and me.”
I slap my horse’s rump and send him off into the meadow to join Gisborne’s mare.
“I was trying to understand,” I reply. “There’s a difference.” I make to walk away, convinced that this conversation will end as so many others have, with each of us blaming the other for what happened in the Holy Land and neither of us coming to a happy conclusion.
“What difference?” he asks.
“You know.” I swivel round to face him.
“No, I don’t. Enlighten me, Locksley.”
“Locksley now is it, not Robin?”
“You have to earn the right to be called that,” he says. “And, right now, you’re not doing so well.”
“As if I care.”
Gisborne looks me up and down. “That’s just it. You don’t care, do you? Not about anything.”
“How can you stand there,” I say, balling my fists, my jaw clenched, “acting like we’re on some kind of friendly progress across France, when you were the one who killed Marian and—”
“This is not about her. This is about you.”
“You’re sick, Gisborne. Do you know that.”
“Sick of you more like.”
“Why don’t you go then,” I say. “We’re not forcing you to travel with us. You have coin and your freedom, the life you don’t deserve. Just go.”
“I would, if I thought you really meant it.”
“I’ll show you just how much I mean it.” I curl my hand around the hilt of my scimitar, one of the few possessions the gang managed to rescue from the sinking boat.
“Oh, come on,” he says. “Is that the best you can come up with?” He makes no move to unsheathe his sword. “Because I know what this is about, and it’s not Marian, not any more. It’s about you and that gang of yours.”
“What about them?”
Gisborne smiles knowingly.
“What?” I ask, my scimitar halfway out its scabbard.
“You really want me to spell it out?”
Much is calling me for supper. When I don’t answer, he starts calling Gisborne’s name instead – and not Gisborne, but Guy. He’s never done that before. My breathing quickens and a horrible taste wells up in my mouth. Dismayed, I turn back to the meadow, pretending to watch my horse as he whinnies after Gisborne’s mare.
“First they stopped liking you because you tried to kill me, and Robin Hood doesn’t kill, does he. You instilled that in them.”
Leaning against the fence, I turn to face him, even though I have no desire to hear whatever it is he’s about to say.
“Then they stopped liking you because you appeared to like me; and, now, it seems they like me and not you. They’ve stopped loving you, haven’t they, and you can’t stand it.”
“It’s you I can’t stand,” I say, desperately trying to push away the feeling that some of what Gisborne has just said is true.
“But on the boat—”
“To hell with that, Gisborne. All bets are off.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means we end this.” I draw my scimitar fully out of its scabbard.
“Suits me,” he says. “Just name the time and the place.”
“How about here,” I say, “and how about now.”
Much is calling again, louder this time.
“Down there.” I point my blade towards a wooded copse several hundred yards away with an open piece of grassland beside it. Despite my renewed lust for revenge, I haven’t entirely forgotten about the gang and I want to spare them this.
Walking side by side, we wordlessly make our way through the horse meadow towards my suggested battleground and, for the first time since I don’t know when, a surge of purpose runs through me, the blood in my veins quickening along with my strides.
It is both the best and the worst feeling in the world.
“After you.” Gisborne indicates a wooden stile, leading from the fenced meadow to the open grassland beyond. “What?” he says. “Afraid I’m going to stab you in the back?”
“Well, that would be more your style.”
“No,” he says, straight-faced, pointing. “That’s the stile.”
I almost choke. Here we are, about to fight each other, quite possibly to the death, and Gisborne is making jokes, although I have to admit, part of me is raging that I didn’t make the witty retort.
Gritting my teeth, I climb over the fence, Gisborne following suit. Then, swishing through knee-high grass, we stride down a gentle incline, towards the edge of the copse. On reaching an area bathed in shadow, I stop and turn to face him; a black silhouette against the pearly evening sky. With slow, deliberate movements, I unsheathe my scimitar.
“Wait!” He raises a gloved hand.
Shaking my head in protest, I take a small step towards him.
“How do you think you’re going to feel?” Guy asks, unsheathing his sword.
Ignoring the question, I continue to edge forwards.
“How will you feel, when you’ve killed me?” he presses. “Because you will kill me. Even with that arm, you are the better swordsman, and, should I get my blade to you, it will be to do no more than cut or maim. Running you through would be too much like...”
He doesn’t need to finish the sentence for me to know what he was about to say.
I keep advancing, recalling all those painful moments: when I can’t sleep, when I ache to touch her, to hold her in my arms, to see her smile. All those moments, resting in my mouth, until I could scream.
“Will it make you happy, peaceful?” Gisborne continues. “Or will you be guilt-ridden and full of remorse, like me.”
“Like you, Robin. Just like you,” Marian whispers in the warm summer wind.
Keeping his eyes on me, Guy carefully bends his knees and lays his sword in the long grass. Then, with measured steps, he walks towards me, holding out a hand for my weapon. This is your chance, I think. It might never come again. I simply stand, mesmerised, as he prises the blade from my hand and flings it aside.
“We still need to finish this, Locksley.”
Whipping back his right arm, he punches me in the jaw.
I smack onto the sun-kissed grass, sending a sprinkling of seed heads into the air. Without missing a beat, I rapidly ensnare Gisborne’s ankles with my boots, toppling him. He lands beside me with a thump, sending further dust and grass seed into the air. Grunting, his long hair flicking in my face, he frantically rolls away.
I leap to my feet. “Come on, then!”
“No mercy, Hood.” Guy points at my injured arm.
“None expected, Gisborne.” I charge at him and punch him in the mouth, sending him sprawling into the long grass.
Shaking his head, he quickly regains his feet, yanking off his leather gloves as he does so. Then, wiping his bloodied mouth with the back of his hand, he quietly regards me.
“What, lost your nerve,” I say. I am angry because I want him to be angry, because I need to end this. “Murderer,” I taunt.
Head down, Guy charges at me.
Deftly, I sidestep. “Ha, ha!” I exult. Almost instantly, I realise my mistake as Gisborne swings behind me and wrenches my injured arm behind my back.
“I’ll rip it off if I have to.”
I groan, feigning defeat.
“Better. Now listen to me, Locksley.”
Abruptly twisting, I wrap a leg around his. Jerking forwards, our legs entangled, we fall. It’s not one of my better moves.
“There are two ways for this to end,” Guy says, sitting astride my back, pinning me to the ground.
“Which are?” I grunt.
He lowers his mouth to my ear. “I told you before, Robin Hood. I need you. So you’ll either have to kill me, now, or let me be.”
“You heard me.” Guy pushes off my back. I stand, cradling my injured arm. Moments later, he lays my scimitar at my feet. “Go ahead,” he says, pointing at his chest.
“What?” I stare at the blood oozing from his split lip. My sword is mere inches from my grasp. I have another chance to kill him.
“It’s not the answer, Robin. You know that. You’ve always known it.”
I fumble inside my shirt for her ring. It’s gone. Frantically, I start tugging at my clothing.
“Robin? What is it?”
Foolishly disregarding Gisborne, I fall to my knees and begin scrabbling about in the long grass. It’s just a ring, I tell myself.Even so, I start parting the grass, scraping madly at the loose soil beneath my knees. It could be anywhere. I am being ridiculous. Regardless, I keep swiping at the brittle tufts, unwilling to concede defeat, even though I know Gisborne could jump me at any moment. It has to be here, somewhere. How could I have carried it across all those miles of sea only for it to end up lost in a field in France, in a place where I failed to kill Guy of Gisborne, yet again?
“Here.” Gisborne places a bloody hand on my shoulder. I swat it away. “No, here,” he says, holding the ring in front of my face, minus its leather strap.
I sink back onto my haunches and Guy squats in front of me and presses the tiny jewel into my dirty, bleeding hand.
“You really should take more care of this,” he says, reaching out and touching my face, the pads of his fingers as soft as a highborn girl’s fingers. He swipes the corner of my mouth with his thumb and it comes away bloody. “Snap,” he says, touching his own mouth by way of explanation and smiling.
I stare into his eyes, thinking how similar in colour they are to Marian’s, and, blinking away my tears, return the smile.
The fight is over almost before it began. A token gesture to our long held hatred. Just something we needed to do.
It is only as we come to our feet that we see the girl.
Chapter 16: Chapter 15
I have no idea how long she’s been standing there, watching us punching and kicking each other.
She looks to be about eight or nine summers, childishly plump, with waves of brunette hair cascading down to her waist. Her eyes, which are presently staring at us in both fascination and bewilderment, are as blue as the summer skies. I notice she is holding a twist of woven grasses in her hands.
Her bow-shaped lips part, as if to speak, and I anticipate the soft lilt of her native tongue. I give what I hope is an encouraging smile, but she quickly presses her lips together and simply continues to stare.
The girl turns sharply, back towards the farmstead. “Je viens,mère!”
She turns back to me, stares straight into my eyes. My chest tightens, squeezing the breath out of me.
She could be my daughter – our daughter.
If only Marian had lived.
If only I had saved her.
If only I had not become an outlaw.
If only I had not gone to war.
“Marianne! L'heure du souper. ”
The girl drops the grasses and runs.
I had not known Marian at this age; she had already passed four and ten when I first met her. And she had not stared at me in fascination or bewilderment, but rather with disdain, an expression she became very adept at over the years, growing up alongside my childish pranks and occasionally idiotic behaviour. But she’d had the same thick, wavy locks, the same bow-shaped mouth and her eyes were the same perfect blue: not of foreign skies, but the summers of home; the summer skies that bathed the trees of Sherwood Forest, where we would meet whenever we managed to escape from the chaperones and Muches of this world.
We had a favourite tree; The Kissing Tree I used to call it. It should have more rightly been called the ‘missing tree’ or the ‘Robin makes another big mistake tree’, since it seemed to be the focal point for many of the blunders I made with Marian over the years.
We used to meet under its wide canopy of branches. We used to flirt under it, tease each other under it and, sometimes, fight under it. It was the tree where I once foolishly tried to spy on her for a lark and had broken my wrist when the branch I was sitting on snapped off. It was the tree where I showed off my bow skills to impress her, where I failed to tell her how much she really meant to me, and where I told her I was leaving to go fight alongside King Richard in the Holy Land, perhaps my biggest mistake of all. If I had paid more attention to the things she was trying to tell me, I might never have gone to war. But I didn’t pay much attention to anyone in those days.
I had everything I wanted – almost everything. With my father long dead there was no one to tell me what to do and were it not for Thornton and, to a lesser degree, Much, I might well have joked and pranked my way through life. Yes, I had everything I wanted – everything except Marian.
Our tree; the biggest oak in the forest. It’s where I first tried to kiss her. Marian had wanted to talk and I, as usual, wasn’t listening. She wanted to talk about injustices that were occurring even before Vaisey came along and turned our world upside down. Because there will always be injustices in the world and even at that tender age she understood these things, was already the Marian I came to know and love.
Eventually, I did pay her heed. So much so, that when the call to arms came, I ignored her silent plea for me to stay, failed to recognise her needs above my own and left to go and change the world. And, yes, I did want glory and adventure; no one re-invents himself overnight and I still had a lot to learn. But I went a step too far in trying to prove myself to her and I lost her because of it.
I clutch the ring in my dirty, bleeding hand.
That’s where I’m going to take you, Marian, I think. Back to our tree, in Sherwood. Back to The Kissing Tree.
I turn towards Gisborne. He is staring in the direction the girl had run, his back to me.
“We’re going home, to Nottingham,” I tell him. “You and me. I’m going to keep my promise to Marian and finish what we started. And you’re going to help me.”
He grunts in acknowledgement, but makes no move to turn around and face me.
“You are the way we can get to Prince John,” I continue. “He trusts you, thinks you’re on his side. You’re going to be our man on the inside, our spy.”
“No excuses, Gisborne. If you want to come with me, then you play by my rules.”
“You’re going to use me?” he says, still facing away from me.
“I think it’s the least you can do.”
“And when it’s over?” he asks.
I brush away the bits of grass in my hair and on my clothes, replacing them instead with streaks of soil and blood. “I haven’t decided yet.”
Gisborne turns to face me. He’s crying. Now it is my turn to stare in bewildered fascination.
“You should kill me,” he says, “when it’s over, when you have what you want, because I don’t have the courage to do it myself.” He walks to his sword, picks it up and sheathes it. Then he walks to the spot where the girl had stood, bends and picks up the grasses she’d been holding.
I watch as he sinks to his knees, rolling the crudely woven plait of grass between his hands and muttering something under his breath, something in the tongue of the little girl, in the tongue of his mother. Then he says something else, in English, directed at me.
“I didn’t want to...I didn’t mean to—” He falters.
“What?” I ask.
“I didn’t mean to kill her. I just wanted to stop her saying the things she was saying.”
“I know,” I tell him, recalling Richard’s blow-by-blow account of Guy and Marian’s exchange of words.
Standing, he wipes his face and begins walking towards the farmhouse, the woven grasses still gripped in his sword hand.
“I still hate you,” I whisper to his retreating back.
But it doesn’t feel like hate, not any more.
“Blimey. What happened to you two?” Allan asks, a cup halfway to his mouth.
Much leaps to his feet and I wave him down. “We had a fight.” I sit on an upturned barrel.
John growls, reaches for his staff.
“No, John. It’s over. Leave it be.”
I turn to Guy and motion him to sit. He eyes John, Much and Allan in turn and then gingerly perches on the edge of a wooden bench, as far away from everyone as possible.
There are breads, meats and cheeses laid out on a makeshift table, as well as some cups and two large jugs; one of ale, one of wine.
I pick up a trencher, place some bread and meat on it and hand it to Guy.
“Thank you.” He starts eating, wincing when the food touches his split lip. “Maybe just a drink,” he says.
I pour him a cup of wine and one for myself. My friends glance between Guy and me, as though they expect us to leap up at any moment, fists flying.
Allan breaks the awkward moment by saying, “Anyone want to play happy families?” He produces his tatty parchment rectangles from inside his shirt.
I catch Guy’s eye and smile. He smiles back.
After supper, I leave the gang in the barn playing Kings and Queens and make my way outside. Dark grey clouds are scurrying across the evening sky and I guess that we are in for more rain, maybe another storm. Guy is sitting, his back to the barn’s wall, staring at the field where we fought, now nothing more than a shadowy smudge in the setting sun.
Sliding down the wall, I place the wine jug and two cups between us. I pour Guy a drink and he silently accepts it. Then I pour one for myself. I deserve a drink tonight, I think, to celebrate. Guy and I have come to a truce, I’ve made a plan, and Marian’s ring is back where it belongs, around my neck, on a new leather strap provided by our generous host.
The girl, Marianne, is chasing some errant chickens from the farmhouse door. I glance at Gisborne. Even in the waning light, I can make out his wretchedness.
Thinking he would rather be alone, I push off from the wall. Gisborne whips his head around. He thrusts my empty cup into my hands. “Drink?” he rasps, as if daring me not to.
I nod and resume sitting against the wall. He pours me a cup of wine, close to overflowing.
Wordlessly, we watch the girl shooing the last of the chickens back to their coop. Then, on hearing her mother’s call for bed, she hurries into the house.
“What did you do?” Guy asks.
I don’t need to ask what he’s referring to. “I drank,” I reply, staring into my cup.
“As did I.” He stares into his own cup. “What if it had been you?” he says.
“What if she’d been mine and you were the one who killed her?”
Guy takes a swig of wine and turns to me. “No, you wouldn’t, would you. That’s what makes you the better man.”
“I’ve done some not so good things in my life,” I say.
We turn back to the farmstead and the empty yard, lost in our own thoughts.
I yawn. I feel dopey, my limbs heavy. I think I’m a little bit drunk. I’m not surprised since, apart from the few mouthfuls I ate at supper, I’ve not eaten today, choosing to break my fast with a cup of ale and practising with my bow during the midday meal.
It reminds of a time when, much drunker than this, I had sat under a blazing sun, debating whether to get on the boat or to tell the gang to go to Hell. Now, here I am, sitting with Gisborne of all people.
The barn’s hard wood pressing into my back brings a memory to mind: a slashed wolf’s-head tattoo, a ring tossed onto a leafy forest floor, a fight and the woman I loved chastising me.
“Everything is a choice, Guy. Everything we do.”
“What?” he asks, his eyes still fixed on the farmstead.
I can picture Marian standing over me, hands on hips, that familiar look of disdain on her face. And me, slumped against a tree, battered and bruised after a vicious slogging match with Gisborne, over a tattoo and all that it represented. Me, spouting patriotic words that meant nothing to my friends, who feared only for Djaq’s life. I had begged them to see the bigger picture, but eventually I had come to see it was the smaller picture that mattered most.
Marian had saved King Richard from almost certain death by standing in front of him as a crazed Gisborne wielded his sword. She had sacrificed herself for the bigger picture and in doing so she had lost her life. And I had stopped caring about the bigger picture, about England. Because in the end it had all come down to that small patch of sand in a town called Emmaus, where my wife lost her life, and where I lost everything.
I steal a glance at Gisborne. Where we both lost everything.
“Everything is a choice,” I repeat. “Something Marian once said to me.”
“And I figure we have a choice. Either we carry on trying to kill one another, or we work together to try to right the wrongs in England. It was what she died for. Don’t you think we owe her that much?”
When Guy doesn’t answer, I tap him on the shoulder. “Drink?”
He holds out his cup and I fill it.
“To England,” I say, raising my cup.
“To Marian,” Guy says, raising his.
I awake, shivering. It takes me a moment to realise I’m still outside. It’s drizzling. The empty wine jug is lying next to my elbow. I crawl to the barn door, ease my way in and continue crawling past the sleeping gang. No one stirs. I keep crawling until I hit a pile of hay at the back of the barn. Thinking a pile of hay will be a good place to spend what’s left of the night, I start to claw my way up it.
My first attempt ends with me thumping onto the barn floor, a sprinkling of hay falling on top of me. I hold my breath, but no one awakes. Perhaps they’ve all been at the wine as well, I think. I try again and this time I make it to the top only to find myself tumbling down the other side.
“Hood! I thought we’d said our goodnights.” Guy rolls me off him. “What are you doing here anyway?”
“I’m trying to sleep,” I say. “What are you doing here?”
“The same as you. Now push off. I got here first.”
“There’s enough room for both of us,” I tell him. I sit, think about tugging off my boots, change my mind and flop back onto the hay.
“No, I’m not going to tell you a bedtime story. Go to sleep.”
“I was going to say...”
“What?” I open one eye and regard him.
“What about us?”
“You and me. Here. Don’t you think the good sheriff would turn in his watery grave? I mean, the legendary Robin Hood and Vaisey’s master-at-arms, sleeping side by side.”
“Gisborne, you’re drunk.” But I have to admit, he does have a point.
I close my eyes and shuffle as far away from him as the small space will allow.
“What’s the matter, Locksley? Frightened I might jump you in the night?”
“You wouldn’t be the first.” I am thinking of Much, pressing his warm body into my back while I wept for my darling Marian. But my disquiet had been misplaced. Much simply cares for me and Gisborne would never understand, not in a million years. Guilt clogs my throat. If there is one thing I am going to get right on this interminable journey home, it is to make friends with Much again.
“There’s so much I don’t know about you, isn’t there, Locksley.”
“And I’m Robin, or Brat Face, or Lick Bottom, or whatever you want to call me.”
“Ha! I’d forgotten about that.”
“Go to sleep,” I say.
“You too, Brat Bottom Lick Face.”
I take a swipe at his outstretched arm, miss. I push up on my elbows. There’s a sliver of moonlight coming through a broken board in the barn wall. It traces a pale line on his face. Amazingly, he’s already asleep.
“Goodnight, Guy,” I whisper.
I awake the following morning with a pounding head, but, strangely, a lighter heart.
However, it’s not until we are saddling the horses that I realise Gisborne’s dark brown mare is not among them.
He has gone.
Chapter 17: Chapter 16
“Much, if you’re going to sing that song, at least get the words right. It’s bonny blue eyes, not mouth.”
“Who asked you?”
“If it was blue mouth, she’d be dead.”
Allan and Much are bickering, as usual. They certainly don’t miss Gisborne.
Much can sing – if you can call his tuneless ditties singing – without fear of Guy shouting at him, threatening to stuff a gag in his mouth, or worse. Allan can tell his daft jokes without Guy giving him withering looks, and John is at liberty to complain about riding a horse mile upon mile without Guy’s hand twitching towards his sword hilt every time John opens his mouth.
As for me, I am free of the constant reminder that Marian is dead and of the man who killed her. Not that I am ever likely to forget, but without Gisborne’s dark shadow, there are times when I can push the sad thought to the back of my mind; when I can smile because Allan has said something funny, or laugh when Much has one of his ridiculous rants about the lack of killable wildlife for our evening meal. Yet, unbelievably, I find myself actively missing him.
It’s ridiculous. I should have killed him ten times over for what he did. But the nagging hollow in my chest won’t go away and, on a particularly long day’s ride along the edge of a forest that could easily have passed for Sherwood, it occurs to me why this is so.
By killing my darling Marian, he’d taken away my reason for living. Paradoxically, his appearance on the boat had also given it back. Granted, my days are calmer now he’s not around, but, without him, I have started to feel her less and less. While Gisborne rode, ate and slept nearby, Marian’s spirit seemed to ebb and flow between the two of us, as if Guy’s presence kept the essence of her alive. Now, I can feel that ethereal thread starting to fray. It is inevitable, I suppose, with the passage of time, and they do say that time is a great healer. But I don’t want to heal. It feels like a betrayal.
We arrive at Le Havre at evenfall. It is too late in the day to make enquiries about a boat to England. We stable our horses and eat a hurried meal at an inn, after which I order Much, John and Allan to visit every other hostelry and lodging house in Le Havre to check whether Guy is here. I get a few dirty looks for that, but I have to know. When we left the Holy Land, we found ourselves on the same boat as Gisborne and, although meeting him again in similar circumstances would feel like taking a step back in time, I can’t help but hope that history might repeat itself. This time, however, I will offer him a handshake rather than trying to tip him over the side of the boat.
My friends fail to find him and I guess that Guy made for a different port, has already sailed, or is simply keeping his head down. Of course, it’s possible he never made it as far as Le Havre, but stopped at some other town or village along the way, having decided to stay in France; it is his birth home after all. He could make a new start for himself. His journey is over; it had ended in Étienne, staring at the girl, Marianne, and sharing the night, so to speak, with me, whereas my journey feels as though it’s just beginning. I still have ghosts to bury, and I can’t do that until I am back in Nottingham.
We are lucky to get rooms; Le Havre is full to over-flowing, four great trading galleys having recently come into her harbour. Certainly, it’s as different as it can be from our three-day stay beside the Acre harbour-front. For starters, I am sharing a room with Much, unlike my self-imposed solitary confinement in Acre. Also, unlike Acre, I’m neither drunk nor wretched with grief. I still hurt, though.
After breaking our fast, John sets out to sell our horses in order to pay for our passage home, while Allan sets off for the wharf to find a boat willing to take paying passengers. Both John and Allan invite me to accompany them, but I tell them they are more than capable of their task and that I will stay at the inn and look after our few possessions. Much also declines tagging along. I think he is worried about leaving me alone.
At first, I’m annoyed because, in truth, I have this crazy notion about wandering around Le Havre hoping to bump into Guy, but I decide otherwise once Much and I are alone, thinking this is as good a time as ever to repair our damaged friendship.
After a period of awkward silence, I say, “You got yourself some new boots.” I could have said anything at all. Much doesn’t want profound, or political, or psychological. He just wants me to talk to him.
“Yes, I got them back in Orléans. They’re still not as comfortable as the old ones, but at least they don’t leak.”
“Perhaps I should get myself some new ones,” I say. “My stockings were soaked through the last time it rained.”
“If Allan finds a boat quickly you may not have time. Perhaps when we get to Portsmouth you—” Much clamps his mouth shut, fearful, I think, of talking about England, mindful of my loss.
I give what I hope is a reassuring smile. “Yes, I’ll get some then, and I think a haircut wouldn’t go amiss either.”
“What’s wrong with my hair?” Much fingers the brittle ends of brown-blond hair sticking out from under his skullcap.
“Not you, you dingbat.” I smile and ruffle my own shaggy locks. “Me.”
“Oh, right, yes. People won’t recognise you back home.”
“I’m not sure I want to be recognised.” It’s true. Despite my assurances that we will continue where we left off, I’m still not convinced I’m up to the job.
Without realising he’s doing it, Much touches the small dent in his temple, made by my bow when I whacked him. Whenever he’s worried or nervous about something, which is often, Much sticks a fingernail in it. I still felt guilty about it.
“You could cut it for me,” I say, thinking this might cheer him up.
Smiling, Much leaps off the bed and disappears out the door. By the time I’ve washed my face and raked wet fingers through my unruly hair, he is back, brandishing a pair of cutters.
“There,” he says, some short while later. “The master I know and love.”
I run a hand through my shortened hair. There’s nothing in the room I can use to see my reflection, but it feels as though he’s made a good job of it.
“You just need this.” Much crouches in front of my chair and presses my outlaw tag into my hand. Poor Much. He means well. He always means well. And it’s just a piece of wood, after all. A rectangle of wood carefully smoothed and carved by Will Scarlett. A piece of wood on a thin leather strap. We are Robin Hood.
I run my thumb over the carved design on the front and then flip it over and watch as the letter R that Will carved on the other side blurs into another letter and then into nothing at all.
“I’m sorry,” Much says. “I didn’t mean…I just thought.”
“It’s fine, Much. Really. Thank you.” But it isn’t fine and it never will be, because everything that’s happened – the boat, Gisborne, the pirates, the sinking, everything – all count for nothing. Because here I am, at another harbour, about to board another boat and Marian is still dead.
“I’ve still got mine.” Smiling, Much proudly produces his tag from inside his tunic and holds it up. “And John and Allan still—”
I don’t hear any more as, shutting the door on him, I make my way down the stairs in a pair of boots that have seen better days.
John, not normally given to overt displays of emotion, lets out a great whoop at seeing the dark shape of the boat that will take us to England. Allan is grinning from ear to ear, and Much is hopping up and down as though his breeches are on fire, deliriously happy that only a narrow strip of sea separates him from home.
It is just past dawn, a fine mist still lingering after a damp and drizzly night. It will be some time before the boat sails, but I was keen to leave the inn and to make sure we didn’t miss getting on board. Now, I wish we had stayed in town; I am not good at waiting.
“What do you think?” Much asks, eyeing the boat.
“Well, it can’t be any worse than the last one,” Allan says.
I am sitting on the edge of the wharf, my legs dangling over the grey-green water, listening to the gang pointing out the merits of our latest vessel. And I’m not drunk, and it isn’t hot, and I don’t hate them. But I still feel as if I’ve left a piece of me behind.
“What do you think, Robin?” John asks.
I cast my eyes over the boat in question. “Looks good to me.”
“Bit funny we haven’t seen any crew yet,” Allan says.
“It’s early yet,” I say. “The crew will have gone into town for the night and are probably sleeping it off.” I indicate a tavern a few yards behind us.
“Well let’s hope they haven’t had too much to drink,” Allan says, “otherwise we might end up sailing off the edge of the world.”
If I could be bothered, I’d point out the illogic of that remark.
I return my gaze to the sea. Unlike Much, staring at the deep seawater calms me; strange, considering my vivid memory of treading water in Locksley pond, of Little Robert choking and spluttering and of my fraught rescue of Guy and our desperate jump off the side of the sinking boat.
After shutting the door on Much last night, the quayside was where I found myself, staring across the dark waters, thinking equally dark thoughts, my tag dangling from my outstretched arm, ready to be dropped into the sea.
Where are you, Marian?
“Here. I’m here, with you.”
I snatched the tag as it fell and guiltily slung it back around my neck.
A sudden burst of uproarious hoots and shouts had me hurriedly pulling my dagger, but there was nothing to fear. It turned out the noise was coming from a nearby tavern, a favourite watering hole it seemed for a goodly proportion of Le Havre’s populace. The place was heaving, many of the drinkers spilling outside its wood-beamed and cob walls. For a moment, I contemplated joining the throng, if only to forget what a mess I was making of everything, but then I changed my mind, determined not to start the next leg of this journey as I had upon leaving Acre.
The raucous crowd that poured out from the tavern when the innkeep called time had all been too drunk to notice me. Regardless, I quickly vacated my open spot and found a shadowy alley to hide in until they passed me by. I didn’t want to talk to anyone.
When it became quiet, I slipped out from the alley and made my way back to the inn, determined to make things right with Much; but by the time I reached our room, I found him already asleep. I tucked the dislodged blanket back around his knees. Then, pulling off my boots and tunic I slipped into bed, clutching both Marian’s ring and my tag to my chest; the two went together and I despised myself for almost casting the latter into the sea.
I promised Marian I would keep on fighting, and no matter how much it hurts, or how much I don’t feel I have it in me, I am going to do just that – for her, for my friends, but most of all for myself. I am sorry that Guy decided to leave us. I had depended upon having a spy in the Black Knights’ camp, someone to kowtow to Prince John. He had told me that he needed me, that I was the one who could give him his pride back, but I guess that, when the reality of what he was about to do hit him, he decided there were easier ways to regain that pride. I just hope for his sake that he doesn’t find another Vaisey to be his benefactor.
“I hate this,” Much says, morosely throwing stones into the sea, jerking me back to the present.
Catching his eye, I try to indicate that I am sorry about walking out on him last night by running a hand through my shortened locks and smiling to show my appreciation.
Much nods in understanding.
“It can’t be long now,” Allan says, trying to lift everyone’s spirits.
I know I should say something, too. Something to cheer up my friends until the boat is ready to sail, but I don’t seem to have the energy. All I seem able to do these days is to simply keep putting one foot in front of the other, until we make it home, until that day when both my feet stand upon the leafy forest floor where there will be no Gisborne to kill and no Marian to love; just trees, dappled sunlight, soft autumn rains, the chill of coming winter, and my empty heart.
“Tell you what,” Allan says. “How about a game?”
“What sort of game?” Much asks.
John snorts. He doesn’t think much of Allan’s games, which generally involve all manner of rules and which usually result in Allan winning, John quietly fuming, and Much complaining how no one had explained it properly.
“Please, Robin,” Allan says.
I shake my head in apology.
“Suit yourself, then,” he says, stomping towards the tavern.
“He’ll miss the boat,” Much says.
“There’s no crew yet,” John says. “And the tavern’s only a stone’s throw away.”
“I expect he’s gone to play those silly cup games of his.” Much scowls. “I swear there’s never a pea at all.”
Smiling, I decide to take a closer look at a large scroll tacked on the wall fronting the tavern. There’s a picture on it that reminds me of something that used to happen every year in Nottingham.
The piece of parchment is detailing an archery contest, and the contest is today.
Much comes and stands beside me, squinting at the scroll, as if that will suddenly give him the ability to read and to read in another language at that.
Before I can begin to translate, Allan comes bounding out the tavern door.
“Robin there’s a—”
“I know,” I interrupt, pointing at the scroll. The prize is not a silver arrow but a bag of coin, more than enough to buy fresh horses once we reach Portsmouth.
“What? What?” Much is hopping from foot to foot, while John stands patiently, waiting for me to explain.
I flex my right hand. It has been so long, and it seems wrong, a selfish act. Yet I can’t deny it’s still there: the thrill of competition, the heady anticipation of the nocked arrow flying straight and true, and, underneath it all, a fierce desire to win.
Would you mind, Marian?
“Of course not. You’re still you.”
“Tell them.” Allan grins, doing a good imitation of nocking and loosing an arrow.
“Tell us what?” John asks.
“Yes, come on, Master.” Much points at the scroll. “What does it say?”
He glances at Allan, the latter still fixed in a firing stance, and then back at the scroll. Much may not be able to read, but between Allan’s mime and the illustration on the parchment, comprehension dawns. “No, Master, surely not?”
I run a hand over the curves of my Saracen bow and grin.
Chapter 18: Chapter 17
“Are you sure about this?” Much asks. “What about the boat?”
“If I was told true,” I say, unwilling to slow my stride. “Then I think we might find our missing captain and crew, not to mention some coin to line our empty purses.”
An inquiry of the innkeep had revealed that the crew of the Seawind had indeed been drinking in the tavern last night and some had taken rooms there. The innkeep also said that the captain had decided to miss the morning tide in order to attend the archery contest and that they would catch the evening one, all being well. The thought of hanging around the harbour for most of the day was not a pleasant one, so I suggested we should check out the archery contest, if for no other reason than we might make enough coin to buy horses once we reach Plymouth.
“Yes, but what if you’re wrong,” Much says, “and the boat leaves without us?”
“Quit your whinging,” Allan says. “Even if Robin is wrong, there’ll be other boats.”
“And a few more days won’t make much difference, not after all the weeks we’ve been travelling,” John adds.
I know both Allan and John are saying this not because they want to delay getting on another boat, but because they are trying to humour me. After all, I’ve been one hell of a moody bastard for God knows how long. If shooting arrows is going to cheer me up, then I reckon they’d be happy to stand around and watch me until the stars burn out.
“Don’t worry,” I tell Much. “There’ll be time enough to catch the boat.”
“You always say that.”
“There’ll be time.”
“And we always end up getting out just by the skin of our teeth.”
“Would you have it any other way?” I give him an impish grin.
“Well, it would be nice to be early for once. You know, like, hey we’ve saved the village and we’re still in time for dinner, that kind of thing.”
“And where would be the fun in that?”
“You’re impossible sometimes, do you know that.” Much swats at my arm, misses as I dodge to one side.
“Yes, and that’s why you love me.”
We round a corner and I put up a hand. It seems we have found the archery contest.
“Yes, I do love you,” Much says. “And I want you to be happy. So if you have to go shoot arrows to feel better, then who am I to stop you?”
Dear Much. Sometimes his care for me is more than I can bear.
I’m not doing this, I think, half-turning, but Allan, eyes gleaming at the sight of bulging pouches hanging on hips, chooses that moment to nudge me forwards into a line of hopeful entrants.
“Blimey!” Allan exclaims. “Looks like every man and his dog is here, probably his cat, too. I reckon we...” He trails off, the glint of coins catching his eye.
“Typical,” Much mutters, as Allan shoulders his way past a couple of burly entrants talking bow skills and dives headlong into the throng of spectators.
“Leave him,” I say, grabbing Much’s arm. “Allan knows what he’s doing.”
“Fleecing the innocent.” Much scowls.
I chuckle. “Much, what happened to robbing the rich to feed the poor?”
“You don’t know these people are rich,” he says. “For all you know, the coin in their purses might be all they’ll see for a year.”
“That may be so,” I say, “but I told Allan only to lift fat purses. Besides, look at the way some of these people are dressed.” I point. “I’d say those ones eat more than pottage every day.”
“Still,” Much says. “It’s not as if we’ve any poor to feed here. Why take the risk?”
“We’re the poor now,” I say, giving him a gentle clump round the head. “Or have you forgotten that?” I unsheathe my scimitar and give it to Much to look after while I am competing.
The line moves steadily along. Much says he can smell roasting pig and goes off in search of food. John, I notice, has positioned himself on the perimeter of the seething mass of people, standing atop an oxcart to keep an eye on proceedings. For a handful of heartbeats, I can’t see Allan, but then spot his mop of brown-blond hair poking up in the middle of a tight-knit group of men and women. I smile. Allan doesn’t need to speak or understand the language to work out where the rich pickings are. Already I can see coins rapidly changing hands.
As I move nearer to the dais where entrants are giving their names, I catch the odd word about those competing. Philippe Dumont’s name comes up several times. He is good, they are saying, a sure bet.
Clutching my bow, I continue to make my way forward. Once again, I catch sight of Allan, this time gesticulating wildly to a papery-skinned old man and pressing coins into his outstretched hand. I run a finger down my bowstring, wondering on whom Allan is placing his coin.
Finally, I am second in the line.
Dumont, the man who it seems is the one to beat, doesn’t even give his name but simply shakes the name-taker’s hand and whispers conspiratorially in his ear. He turns around and looks me up and down, as if to say, who are you? His eyes flick to my Saracen bow and his brow creases. “You think you can beat me with your woman-curved bow?”
Yes, I think. I can beat you, and I will beat you.
Dumont pushes past me, knocking into my injured arm as he does so. I bite my tongue.
“Name?” the squat, bald-headed name-taker asks.
Who do I want to be? Who would she want me to be?
“Robin Hood.” I wait. Back at home, I had oft heard people say that the name of Robin Hood had spread far beyond England’s shores. Neither the name-taker, nor any of the people standing nearby so much as blink.
“How does one write that?” the man asks.
I spell out my name, disappointment coating my tongue.
“Now, that’s more like the Robin I know and love,” Marian whispers in the wind.
I wait my turn. As I do so, I recall the Silver Arrow contest, held every year in Nottingham. The only times I’ve missed entering it were when I was too young, while I was in the Holy Land and this year. Other than that, I have always found a way to take part, even as an impostor.
“Three arrows.” The name-taker holds up three fingers, points at the target board.
I nod in understanding.
“This is your bow, yes?”
“Yes,” I say. “This is my bow.”
The name-taker glances around, as if looking for someone, Dumont maybe. I quickly move away. I am skilful with anything that resembles a bow, but I will use my Saracen bow if I can, especially as I am still unsure whether my injured arm is up to the job.
I’ve been doing some bow practice on and off ever since we left Étienne, but nothing serious. If I win today, the prize money will be useful, but we’re hardly desperate. To be honest, as I watch the contestants loosing arrows at the target board, I’m beginning to wonder exactly why I am doing this.
“Because you’re Robin Hood and because you can.”
I smile ruefully. I suppose I ought to be thankful her voice still haunts me in my waking hours, but it doesn’t make for an easy life.
As in Nottingham, the target board stands at the end of a strip of wooden planks, flanked on either side by a standing area for spectators. Behind the board, but well away from the flight of even the most errant of arrows, is a small bank of seats, for nobles and eminent merchants. In Nottingham, Sheriff Vaisey and Gisborne occupied such seats. On one occasion – the time I helped young Rowan of Dunne win the silver arrow to avenge his father’s murder – Marian had sat next to Guy, peeling an apple.
I hadn’t missed the target then and I won’t miss it now. Because this isn’t just about being the best, about winning. This is about being Robin Hood. This is about seeing if I can still find him under all the layers of ill-masked pain.
“Robin,” Much splutters, mouth full of roasted pig. “It’s your turn.” He sounds fearful. Perhaps he also knows that more rests on this than hitting that small dot of red in the centre of the board.
I step up to the mark, raise my bow and nock an arrow. The crowd, rowdy up until now, quietens, sensing perhaps that the Englishman with the unlikely looking bow might be about to rob Dumont of his crown.
Dumont’s first arrow had narrowly missed the centre, but his second was spot on and had elicited a huge roar of approval from the spectators, not to mention a further flurry of coin changing hands. His third and final arrow was not necessary and he had carelessly thrown it into the crowd, bowed with a flourish and stroked the pouch containing the prize money as though it were a given.
He is far too heavy, far too florid and far too sure of himself and I am damned if I am going to let him win that purse.
Slowly, I ease the arrow back, the residual stiffness in my arm all but forgotten as I concentrate on the target. But even as I ready myself to let the arrow fly, I am thinking ahead. Dumont hit dead centre. If I do the same, it will be a draw. There is only one way I can be an outright winner and I’ve only ever performed this trick once, on a boat, sailing away from the wife I had buried only a few short days before.
I know, without looking, that my friends are watching and waiting anxiously: Much because he loves me, John because he respects me, and Allan because he doesn’t want the old man to win his stolen coin.
With a warm rush of breath, I loose the arrow. It hits dead centre, as I knew it would. The crowd gasps and the name-taker opens and shuts his mouth without words coming out, unsure how to proceed.
I flick my eyes back to the target board and nock another arrow. I hear a murmur ripple through the onlookers. Ignoring them, I concentrate on the board. I am about to let the arrow fly, when a Dumont clambers onto the dais, demanding a rematch.
“What for?” I ask, in his own tongue so there will be no misunderstanding.
I turn back to the target board, aim and loose.
As the arrow already embedded in the board splits, its feathered fletching ripped apart by the iron-tipped arrowhead, a burst of applause erupts from the nobles’ seating area. I glance up and notice the back of a woman’s head as she turns to a silver-haired man in the seat behind her. She is wearing her dark hair in a clever chignon, fastened by a silver hairpin that catches in the sunlight as she moves her head.
My breathing stutters and stops, my heart thumps like a hammer blow against my rib cage.
The woman turns around to study the man who bested Dumont. Her face is not displeasing, although the creases in her skin show that she has seen many years, whereas the ravages of time have yet to touch her thick hair. She smiles at me, doubtless flattered that a young man might find her attractive enough to hold his gaze.
You stupid fool, Robin. This is not Nottingham, there is no silver arrow, and Marian is dead.
I drop my bow. My breaths come back, ragged and uneven.
“Robin?” Much is pulling my sleeve. I look at him in bewilderment, dimly aware of an angry buzzing coming from the gathered crowd.
“Allan,” Much says, pointing.
“Allan what?” I bark, tugging my sleeve from his grasp.
“I think he’s in trouble,” Much says.
Looking across the sea of heads, I pick out Allan. Several men and women are encircling him, gesticulating and shouting threats. The fat, florid Dumont is pushing his way through them, towards Allan. I glance at the oxcart, where John was standing earlier. He is not there.
“He won it fair and square,” I hear Allan shouting. “The coin’s mine!”
Still reeling from thinking Marian had somehow survived Guy’s blade, I push Much aside and stride towards Allan and the angry mob.
“Get out of my way,” I snarl, in both French and English.
My grief, once immense and unchecked, has since become a steady trickle that ebbs and flows with the days, but now, this act of showing off – for surely that is all it is, no matter how I dress it up – has it ballooning large again.
She isn’t here.
I push and shove my way through the squash of people and animals.
“There are two things that men like to do, Robin,” my father once said to me, “and they both begin with the sixth letter of the alphabet.” When he’d refused to elaborate, I’d asked Gisborne what he meant. One is fight, Gisborne had said, and the other your father does with my mother. The bailiff eventually told me what the word fuck meant.
Someone bashes into my injured arm. Incensed, I whirl around. I don’t care who I hit, as long as I hit someone. However, that someone just happens to be Gisborne.
Chapter 19: Chapter 18
“Locksley!” Gisborne massages his jaw, doubtless grateful that I wear no heavy rings that might have added severity to my punch. “I might have known. Only you would have the audacity to try a shot like that.” He points at the target board and then turns back to me.
I simply stare, not only because I’m surprised at seeing Guy here, at the archery contest, but also because he looks so different from the last time I saw him, and I don’t just mean his clothes, black though they still are.
His face has lost its ghostly pallor and his hair, although still long, is clean, untangled and presently tucked behind his ears. In many ways, he reminds me of the Gisborne of old, the same Gisborne who’d once sat arrogantly astride a black-brown mare as I walked into Locksley village after five years of living hell in the Holy Land. The same Gisborne who declared himself the new lord of Locksley, advising me that my services were, as he put it, no longer required.
“I thought you’d left us,” I say. “Gone back on the deal we made about being our spy back in England.”
“I changed my mind.” He turns away quickly, as though he wishes to leave it at that. “So, what have you started here?” He nods towards the angry, milling crowd.
I point at Allan, presently trading blows with a couple of irate Frenchmen.
“I might have known a-Dale had something to do with it,” he says. “He can smell coin a mile off, that one.”
“Are you definitely with us?” I ask, pushing my way through the mass of swearing, gesticulating, fist-swinging men and women.
“If you’ll have me,” he says, following in my wake.
To be honest, I’m sure how I feel about having Guy back in our midst despite my earlier hope of finding him in Le Havre. However, now is not the time to dwell on it.
For a handful of heartbeats, I lose sight of Allan. When I spot him again, I see that Dumont has changed his mind about attacking him personally. Perhaps John’s great staff, Much’s upraised sword and shield, or my deadly aim had put him off. Either way, he is presently standing on the dais, cursing my name and yanking my arrows from the centre of the target board. The dark-haired woman I’d fleetingly mistaken for a raised from the dead Marian has vanished, along with the silver-haired gentleman and the rest of the seated nobles, doubtless deciding to let the rabble get on with it.
I continue to press through the throng, trying to get to Allan and the others. Something hard, like an iron bar, bashes into my injured arm. I spin round and, without looking at the culprit, slam my fist into a lad who doesn’t look old enough to trim whiskers let alone take part in a bloody punch up. Howling, he drops the pitchfork he’d been holding, the one that had undoubtedly collided with my arm.
“What was it your father used to say?” Guy says, appearing at my elbow.
I pick up the pitchfork and offer it to the boy with a quick apology. Guy repeats the apology in the boy’s own tongue, further shaming me. Giving Guy a quick nod of acceptance and me a rude hand gesture, the boy scurries away.
“Sixth letter of the alphabet, wasn’t it?” Guy says.
“I would,” I say, amazed Guy has remembered a conversation from our childhood and that one in particular, “but I’m busy fighting right now.” I put up my fists as a broad-chested Frenchman wearing a white cravat and a deep purple waistcoat barrels towards me, red of face, lips curled in anger. I can only guess that my win might have cost him more than a set of smart clothes.
Guy throws his head back and laughs. “Now that’s what I like about you, Locksley.” He raises his black-gloved hands and together we make short work of my well-dressed adversary.
By now, the fight has turned into a disorganised brawl, with kinsmen fighting each other, my win and Allan’s profiteering all but forgotten in the thrill of fisticuffs and mayhem.
I can no longer see Allan, or John and Much, and sincerely hope they can’t see me either; I can be a nasty piece of work when I want to be. In the Holy Land, I had to be; it was the nature of war. But on arriving home, I’d always done my best to keep that side of me under control. Only once had I unleashed it – when I’d discovered Gisborne’s tattoo and had begged the gang to let me kill him. But here, in this place, my viciousness is totally unwarranted. I’m simply taking out my anger on people who’ve done me no wrong because I thought I’d seen Marian and because I am happy about Guy finding me when I know I shouldn’t be.
These sobering thoughts effectively stop me in my tracks and, as quickly as the potent need to lash out spiked me, so I now want nothing more than to walk away.
I turn to tell Guy it is time to get out of here, but he’s gone, swallowed up in the sea of raucous brawlers.
Between flying fists and various bits of weaponry, including belts, boots and even a wheel of cheese, I catch sight of the florid face of Dumont, doubly puce with rage as his kinsmen, doubtless angry that he’d lost them their hard-earned coin, drag him from the dais. Desperate to point the finger of blame elsewhere, Dumont waves an arm in my direction. Seeing a body of men, brandishing both weapons and fists, heading towards me, clinches my decision to leave the fighting behind and make my escape.
Weaving and ducking, I wend my way through the mob. A flailing hand catches me on the forehead and an unseen object smacks into my back. I keep my feet and push on. Dumont is shouting, “Follow him. Catch him.” He bellows other words too, sorcery among them, no doubt referring to my miraculous arrow-splitting win.
I dash down a shadowy alleyway, only to find I have made a mistake and it is a dead end.
Someone shouts, “He went down there.”
I scan the immediate area, looking for a way to get onto the rooftops, but there are no roof supports, beams or trellises. Without my bow or blade, I cannot hope to fight my way out of it and I have no idea whether Guy or the gang noticed which way I went.
Desperate, I turn and rattle a door-latch. The door opens and I slip inside, latching it behind me. Someone gasps. I turn to find a young woman, clutching a baby to her chest.
“It’s all right,” I assure her. “I won’t hurt you.”
She gives me a puzzled look and I correct my mistake, repeating my placations in French, and holding up my hands to show I have no weapon.
“You are hurt?” she says.
She points and I touch my mouth.
Shaking her head no, she touches her forehead, and I mirror her action. My fingers come away bloody. I guess the flailing hand that struck me must have been wearing a studded ring or something similar.
The baby starts to wail and she strokes its bald little head, reducing demanding cries to a whimper.
“What are you doing here?” she asks. “What do you want?”
I quickly explain my predicament. Satisfied I am not going to hurt her or the child, she beckons me farther into the room.
“Here,” she says, pulling a piece of cloth from her shoulder and handing it to me. The material is warm and smells milky sweet. She smiles apologetically and I smile back, dabbing at my forehead. Rather stupidly, I hand the bloody cloth back to the girl.
Hesitantly, she touches my arm, asks if I would like some water or ale. I am keen to find the gang, but reckon that my pursuers may still be scouring the alleyways for me and it might be prudent to keep out of sight for a while. I tell her that would be most welcome and she settles the baby in its crib and sets about fetching and pouring me a mug of ale.
“Dumont is not used to losing,” she says, handing me the drink.
“Neither am I,” I say.
The baby starts to cry and she goes to change its smallclothes while I sup my ale.
I glance around the room. It is sparsely furnished but what furnishings there are, although worn, look comfortable. The room smells of lavender and pot roast and the slightly less pleasing smell of the baby’s soiled clothing. I guess the girl to be about six and ten years, though I am not good when it comes to judging ages. Certainly, she is younger than Marian is – was. She is thinner, too. Green eyes instead of blue. Brown-blond hair, down to her waist.
Marian had been disinclined to have a child at such a young age, perhaps one of the reasons why she remained free when I returned from Palestine. She would have deemed it a curtailment to pastimes more often considered suitable for men – riding, fighting, bow skills, of which she not only managed to do well in, but to excel. However, had we had more time, I’m sure we would have had a child together. It was what we both wanted, or at least what I wanted. I never had the chance to find out how Marian felt about having children. I never had the chance to find out many things about Marian.
The girl picks up the baby, turns and stares at me, while rocking the infant in her arms, swaying from side to side the way all new mothers seem to. I stare back. Only the baby’s sudden jerk and subsequent cry embarrasses me out of my audaciousness.
Mumbling an apology, the girl unlaces the bodice of her dress and guides the infant’s head to an exposed nipple. Immediately, he or she latches on and quietens.
I want this. I want this humble abode and the mother of my child feeding our baby, while I am busy at some honest labour. But I will never have it, can never have it. Not while I am still Robin Hood and craving the arms of my dead wife.
“I should go,” I say, placing my empty mug on a table.
“Be careful,” she says, glancing from her feeding infant to me. “Dumont has a terrible temper.”
I back out the door, not caring that I might fall straight into the clutches of the men who had been chasing me. Thankfully, I am alone.
I walk to the end of the alleyway, check the coast is clear and then slump against a nearby wall. The ground is damp, but I pay it no mind. I am thinking about the girl and her baby.
Marian would not want me to live out the rest of my days alone. She would want me to be happy, to fulfil the dreams we must have had, but never dared speak of. And even if I fail in that respect and simply lurch from one female to another for those basest of reasons, she would understand and forgive. But I will not. I cannot. So where does that leave me?
It is Guy. He is holding my bow.
“Dumont got hold of it,” he says. Crouching, he places the ruined weapon in my hands. “I’m sorry I wasn’t quick enough to stop him. Perhaps it can be fixed.”
I clutch the splintered pieces of bow to my chest, the way I had after my race with Gisborne in Locksley pond, after my father had whipped me and sent me to my room.
“No.” I raise my eyes to meet his. “It can’t.”
He holds my gaze. I feel as if he can see into my very soul. I think of Marian and experience a sudden yearning for I know not what.
Guy places a hand on my shoulder in a gesture of understanding. I turn and stare at his long, slim fingers with impossibly clean nails, resting on my worn and filthy shirt.
I should swat his hand away. I don’t want his pity. But I don’t. Instead, something akin to desire swoops low in my stomach. How can this be? I think, sickened. A memory of a terrible time dances in front of my eyes when, drunk and grieving, I had listened to something I would rather not have heard coming from the cabin next to Much’s and mine. Yet, even as I have this thought, and as Guy’s hand slides from my shoulder, the want does not go away.
“Can I come with you?” he asks.
I know what he means. He means back to England, to Nottingham, but, right now, I cannot help but wonder if I am on the road to Hell.
Chapter 20: Chapter 19
Book 3 – Home
“Are you all right?” Much asks, for what seems like the umpteenth time.
You’re the closest I’ll ever get to Marian. That’s what Gisborne had said. Now I think I understand. And it frightens the hell out of me.
I had put my unholy thoughts and desires down to exhaustion, to grief, to an overwhelming need to lose myself in something or someone. Even so, the moment we walked down the gangplank onto dry land, I told Guy I had changed my mind about him being our spy and that I wanted him to go. I didn’t care where, as long as it wasn’t Nottingham. He did not put up any resistance. Perhaps what had happened or, more rightly, nearly happened in the shadowy alleyway in Le Havre had frightened him too.
My friends think it’s because of Marian and I am content to let them think that. After all, the closer we get to Nottingham, the more likely it is that my grief over her death will reassert itself. They cannot know how wrong they are.
Leaving our horses tethered on the edge of Sherwood Forest, and checking no one is about, we emerge from the trees and look towards Nottingham. With its surrounding walls, we can only see rooftops, but the castle, built on a hill, is in plain sight.
“Not being funny, but can anyone see what I’m seeing?”
Atop every turret is a pennant, flying Prince John’s colours.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Allan says, “but I think I’d sooner see Vaisey and his hapless guards than that. If Prince John’s men are half as good as I’ve heard tell, then we’re in big trouble.”
Nottingham Castle. That great stone fortress where we spent so much of our time trying to break in to and out of. That fortress where Allan and Will nearly lost their lives, shortly after my return to Nottingham. And later, where Djaq almost lost hers, because I lost sight of what was important in my desire to punish Gisborne for the traitor he was. That fortress where Marian had spent so much of her time, living her duplicitous life, attempting to help me and, at the same time, pretending to care for Gisborne.
But it wasn’t all pretence, was it, Marian? It couldn’t have been.
“What do you think, Robin?” John asks.
“I’ll admit it doesn’t look good. We’ll find out what’s been going on in Nottingham soon enough. Right now, I want to go to Locksley, see what’s happened to my village.” I slide my bow back onto my shoulder. A bow-maker in Portsmouth made it for me and it’s a fine weapon, but I miss my Saracen bow. I wonder if the ruined weapon is still lying in the alleyway where I left it, too choked by my heinous desire to get up close and personal with Guy to remember my own name let alone pick up the shattered pieces of bow. It was beyond repair in any case, much as my first childhood bow was irreparable after my father destroyed it.
We have done this before, Much and I; stood atop this grassy hill overlooking Locksley, the village and home I had lost to Gisborne and now, it seems likely, to Prince John.
Much is pulling the tops off the tall grass, afraid to speak, lest I have a go at him for saying the wrong thing. You speak every facile thought. It had been a cruel thing to say, even if it was mostly true, and I have always regretted it.
Much coughs and glances at me. He waits, coughs again.
“I’m not going to bite your head off,” I tell him. “Say what you will.”
Smiling, he gestures at Locksley. “Look at it, Robin, just look at it. Do you remember the first time we stood here, after we got back from the Holy Land? It felt good then, but now. Now, after all we’ve been through.” He shakes his head. “I can’t believe we made it.” He pauses, and when I don’t speak, carries on. “I’m glad he’s gone. Gisborne, I mean.”
“I don’t want to talk about—”
“I mean, I know he was going to help us defeat Prince John,” Much says, ignoring me, “but we still don’t know if he might have betrayed us, in the end.”
“He has qualities, Robin,” Marian had said. “I believe his feelings for me are genuine.”
His feelings. For me. God, strike him down. Strike us both down.
“And it means you have Locksley now, without the sheriff, and with Gisborne gone. It’s yours again, Robin. No more smelly camp. Proper beds. Just think of it.” Much is in full flow. He doesn’t realise my thoughts are elsewhere.
“I suppose I kind of liked him, well, got used to him, in the end. But, you know, it’s good, that he’s gone. Gisborne, I mean.”
I glance at Much, wondering if he suspects something. No, surely not. Not unless he can see inside my head. I shift uncomfortably, recalling last night. I’d been dreaming about burying my hands in Marian’s long, dark hair. At least that’s what I told myself when the vividness of the dream pulled me from sleep. But now, in the cold light of day, I know it wasn’t Marian’s hair.
Why am I so fixated with him? Is it because I am home again, in the place where this whole sorry mess started? Is it because I still harbour thoughts of revenge? Or is there a more sordid reason for it, the one I seem less and less able to ignore?
Oh, God, Marian. Where are you? Please don’t abandon me now, in what feels like my darkest hour.
“I won’t miss him, not at all,” Much says, shaking his head from side to side for emphasis.
I remain staring at Locksley, ashamed to look at him, frightened something in my face might give me away.
“Are you all right?” Much asks. “With this, I mean.” He points down the hill, towards the home I would have shared with Marian, my wife.
“Much, could I…could I just have a moment to—”
I nod towards Locksley.
“Oh, yes, of course. I’ll go check on John and Allan, tell them—”
“Just a short while,” I tell him. “To gather my thoughts. Then we’ll go down, I promise.”
“I know it’s not what you’d hoped for.” Much picks up his satchel and slings it over his shoulder. “But it’s home, and we’ve still got a chance to make England right. A chance…I’m talking too much, aren’t I?”
“No.” I give him a reassuring smile. “You’re talking just right.”
“It’s all right. I understand, Robin, and you can—”
“I can what?”
“I don’t know. Curse. Cry, maybe. I wouldn’t blame you. Not after all we’ve...you’ve been through.”
“Well, I can’t now, can I?”
“Not now you’ve said it.” I clump him gently on the arm.
“It’s all right,” I say. “Really it is. Stay.”
“Yes, Much. I’m sure.”
We turn our attention back to Locksley, to its crofts and barns, the pond, the village well, and the manor house itself, where I was born and where my mother died of a wasting illness and my father took out his heartache and frustration on me, his only child.
A girl comes out of the manor, carrying a washing basket. She is laughing and calling over her shoulder to someone out of view.
“I’ve changed my mind,” Much says.
“About you crying. Because if you get all sad on me, then I’ll get sad, and I don’t want to be sad today. Because we’re home and I thought for a while I was going to be fish food.”
“You are filthy and you stink.” Smiling, I look him up and down. “The fish probably would have spat you back out.” Impulsively, I grab his hand.
“Robin? What is it?”
His hand is warm, his palm sweaty.
“It’s nothing. I’m fine. Come on, let’s go home.” I let go of his hand. Not Much then, I think. Only Guy. I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse.
We start walking down the hill. On the way, Much muses over what he will eat first: pork or beef. I tell him we’ve had this conversation before and as long as he doesn’t threaten to sing, he can have pork, beef, fish and a cake with a cherry on the top if that’s what he so desires.
We are about twenty yards or so from the manor house door, when a lanky lad holding a full-size longbow rounds the corner of the house. Immediately, he jerks an arrow from the quiver on his back, nocks and points it in our direction. “Stop, or I’ll loose!”
Much, busily going on about his stomach, crashes into my back preventing me reaching for my own arrow.
“I just want to eat,” Much says, raising his arms in surrender. “Is that too much to ask.”
The young lad turns out not to be a lad at all, but a long-legged girl in tan breeches, a homespun shirt and a battered leather jerkin. She has a small, heart-shaped face, a thick crop of short, unevenly chopped coppery-brown hair and wide-set deep brown eyes. She reminds me of a fawn. I must be losing my touch, I think, in mistaking her for a boy.
“Who are you?” she asks, pointing her arrow unwaveringly at my chest.
“We could ask you the same thing,” I say.
“I asked first.”
“It’s true,” Much says. “She did. She definitely asked first, although as this is your house, then technically she should be the one...I’m talking too much, aren’t I?”
“Yes,” I say.
I smile at the girl. “Don’t mind Much. He tends to babble when he’s nervous.”
“What’s to be nervous of?”
“Well, that arrow you’re pointing at me for starters.”
“Oh, sorry.” She un-nocks the arrow, lowers the bow. “I thought maybe Prince John sent you.”
“And what makes you think he didn’t?” I ask.
She looks me up and down and then Much. “Wrong clothes, no device on your chests and you’ve obviously been travelling for some time judging by the dust and dirt on your clothing and boots.”
“Astute,” I say. “And who might you be?”
“Rowena,” she says, forgetting she’d yet to learn our names. “Rowena of Locksley.”
“Rowena of Locksley,” I repeat. “I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure. Have you lived here long?”
“I only came back to my village a few months ago.”
“Your village,” I say, raising my eyebrows at her.
“That’s right,” she says. “It used to belong to my brother, but since he’s disappeared, presumed dead, then—”
“And what brother would that be?” I assume she means Gisborne, but, apart from the name being wrong, this girl looks nothing like the young Isabella I remember from my childhood. Not that I can remember much of Isabella other than she wore a constant pout and liked to throw things at me.
“Robin,” Rowena says. “My brother was called Robin.”
“Would that be the same brother who was later called Robin Hood?”
“Yes,” she says, surreptitiously re-nocking her arrow.
“Robin,” Much says, poking me in the ribs.
The girl looks confusedly from Much to me. “What’s so funny?” She whips up her bow. “Why are you laughing?”
I hold up a placating hand. “I am Robin of Locksley, Robin Hood. And the last time I looked, I definitely didn’t have a sister.”
“Oh.” She regards me for a moment, and then says, “I don’t believe you. Prove it.”
I un-shoulder my bow, pluck an arrow from my quiver.
“No tricks,” she says, aiming her arrow at Much.
“No tricks,” I tell her. I nock my arrow, turn and aim it at a sapling some yards away. I take a deep breath, concentrate and loose.
Rowena stares. Then, carefully taking aim, she looses her arrow. It embeds itself neatly next to mine, their feathered ends touching.
“Impressive,” I say. “But that still doesn’t make you my sister, or this your village.”
She smiles. Her teeth are white and perfectly straight. And there it is; that recognisable feeling of boy wants girl, low down in my gut. Relief floods through me. Perhaps my desire to be intimate with Gisborne had been nothing but a moment of insanity. However, no sooner do I return the smile than I catch myself trying to remember how Guy looked when he smiled.
“So who are you really?” I ask, struggling to push away my cursed thoughts. Unlike Marian, this girl has no breasts to speak of. I notice her ears stick out a little.
“My name really is Rowena.”
“And where do you come from?” I ask.
“All over,” she says. “My father used to travel a lot, buying and selling things.”
“What sort of things?”
“All sorts. Anything that he thought he could make a fortune from. He never did, though. He ended up in London. Lied and cheated his way into Prince John’s court. That’s where I was before I came here.”
“With the prince?”
“Yes. Working in the kitchens. When the prince came to Nottingham, he brought most of his household with him, including me.”
“And your father?” I ask.
Rowena shrugs. “He got caught stealing stuff, trying to sell it. They locked him up. I heard he escaped. I don’t know how. It wasn’t me. I hate him. I’ve always hated him.”
“And are you working for the prince now?” I ask.
“Not bloody likely. Can’t stand the man.”
“So,” I say. “What’s with the bow and dressing in boy’s clothing?”
“I wanted to be like you.” She fingers her short hair. “I wanted to be the legendary Robin Hood. Is that so bad? You should take it as a compliment.”
“Believe me you would not want to be me.”
“Why not? Everyone talks about you; everyone loves you; everyone’s been praying for your return. You and your lady.”
Marian’s ring presses coolly against my chest, the ring that would be lying at the bottom of the sea, and me along with it, were it not for Guy. “My lady is dead. She died in the Holy Land, protecting our king.” I push past Rowena, heading for the manor house door.
Guy and I have been through so much together these past months – in the hold, in the rowing boat after the boat sank and then travelling across France. I’d saved him and he’d saved me. We’d become dependent on one another. And he had become my link to Marian – not the cold, inanimate object hanging around my neck.
Come on, Robin, I berate myself. You’re just tired and not thinking straight. You cannot hang on to Marian through Gisborne. You have to let her go. You have to let him go. Then I think of Guy crouching in front of me, his hand on my shoulder, his blue eyes boring into mine and wonder whether I am using Marian as an excuse. She had said that Guy’s feelings for her were genuine. So, does that mean his feelings for me are also genuine, or me for him? Because there is no denying, my want had felt very real.
I reach the manor house door. This is the moment I’ve been dreading more than anything; stepping back into my home, knowing that Marian will never walk its floors, touch its contents or clutter it with her clothes, her hair ornaments, or our children.
Rowena steps up beside me. “It’s open,” she says, giving the door a gentle push.
Locksley Manor, where it had all started. Where, one fateful day, I chose glory instead of Marian. And where had that glory led me? It had led me to a dead wife and a hankering for something abominable in the eyes of God and man. It had led me to Hell, that’s where.
Welcome home, Robin Hood.
Chapter 21: Chapter 20
“We’re quite alone, Robin.”
For a moment, I wonder what Rowena is implying, until I realise she simply means there is no one else in the house.
“The girl I saw, with the washing basket, coming out the door earlier?”
“That’s Elisabeth,” Rowena says. “A Locksley girl. She helps me keep house.”
Taking a deep breath, I step over the threshold and into my home.
Familiar smells fill my nose: wood-smoke from years of fires burned in the main hall’s great hearth, the fatty animal stink of tallow and the herbs mixed in with the rushes covering the outer hall floor; smells of my childhood, of a time I would give anything for to go back to so I might start again. I push my fingers into an egg-sized knothole in the frame of the great oak door. When I was little, I could fit my whole hand in there.
I half expect Thornton to suddenly appear, saying, “Welcome back, sir,” a wide smile on his face. But Thornton, along with the rest of my house staff, is gone; either driven out by Prince John on his arrival in Nottingham, or by his own volition, realising that to stay and tend a house that has no master to pay him will mean ending up a pauper. Thornton was too prideful a man to ask for charity.
The door closes behind me, plunging the inner hallway into shadow. Rowena has left me alone with my sorrows. I was not wrong about her being astute.
I lean my bow just inside the door along with my quiver and sword belt. Walking past pegs for cloaks, a wooden snow shovel and a pair of old boots I’m sure were there in my father’s day, I step into the main hall. All the shutters are open and sunlight is pouring into the room. The furnishings are much as I remember them, with some additional pieces that must be Guy’s and a bowl of flowers on the big oak table, denoting a woman’s touch.
I wait for the deluge of emotions to hit me. Nothing. I feel nothing but tired and empty.
A quick tour of the house proves Rowena correct: there is no one here. No women past childbearing years scrubbing the floors or scurrying back and forth with bed linen. No Magda banging pots and pans in the scullery and barking at Little Robert, who I guess will have dropped the ‘Little’ from his name by now, to stop hanging on her skirts and go play outside. On my way down the hill earlier, I noticed no stableboys mucking out the horses in our stables, which means no horses either.
The house is full of empty rooms – rooms that Marian and I would have filled with our laughter, our footfalls, our countless arguments and our muttered apologies. Rooms we would have filled with our love.
My bedchamber has not changed. The large wooden bed still dominates the centre of the room. The washstand remains in the corner, near to the window. The ladder-back chair I used to toss my clothes onto, when I didn’t drop them carelessly on the floor that is, is still sitting by the bed-head. The only thing I don’t recognise is the small table on the other side of the bed and a further one sitting just inside the door.
The bed is neatly made up with blankets I don’t recognise and I realise this is where Rowena has been sleeping. I picture her long limbs stretched out upon the sheets and her boyish crop of coppery-brown hair peeking out from beneath the thick covers as she snuggles down for the night.
Now it does hit me. Everything I could have had, everything that is lost to me, is symbolised by that bed. I dig my nails into the palms of my hands in an effort not to weep lest Rowena or the gang decide to seek me out. To be honest, I don’t know whether my distress has more to do with the fact that Marian will never grace the bed’s sheets or that Guy won’t.
I’m sick of doing the right thing. I’d said that to Edward, Marian’s father, when he’d insisted I must allow Marian to marry Gisborne so I would be free to help prevent the assassination of King Richard, the King Richard who turned out to be an imposter. So, I think. Am I still sick of doing the right thing? Do these shameful desires mean I want to do the wrong thing? Because there is no denying this shadow side of me is agonisingly seductive.
I start at a distant whoop from Much. I guess someone has just offered to feed him. I hope he gets his pork, or beef, or whatever it is he wants. I wish the only things I desired were food in my belly, a wine or ale in my hand and a pillow to lay my head upon.
Choked by my despicable thoughts of bedding Guy, I grab a clay jug from the small table sitting just inside the door and hurl it at the wall next to the bed. Shards of thick pottery smack onto the bed and floorboards while water runs down the wall. It reminds me of my fight with Allan on the boat.
“I hope that helped.”
I swivel round. Rowena is standing in the doorway, right behind me.
“Not really,” I say. “It was a stupid thing to do.”
“It’s your house, Robin. You can do what you like.” She touches my arm. “I’ve never lost anyone I’ve loved, mostly because I’ve never known such love, but I do understand. I came back too soon. I’m sorry. I’ll leave you alone.”
“I think I’d prefer not to be alone,” I say. I walk to the bedside with the intention of picking up the pieces of broken jug, change my mind, and sit on the edge of the bed. After a moment, Rowena comes and sits next to me.
“Tell me about yourself,” I say. In truth, I just want her to talk, to take my mind off my empty house and my empty heart and the images of Guy that keep flitting through my mind. She could talk about the weather for all I care.
“There’s not much to tell,” she says. “My mother died before I was old enough to remember her and I lived with my father, if you can call spending most of one’s life trudging along cart tracks, or sitting in the back of a wagon, living.”
“At least he fed and clothed you,” I say.
Rowena studies her chewed fingernails and I realise her father is a sensitive subject.
“So,” I say. “What made you decide to come to Locksley, other than the fact there was a fine house standing empty?”
“I was being silly, wasn’t I, pretending to be your sister. Everyone knows everyone in Locksley and everyone knows you and your family before you. They know you’re an only child. I don’t even look anything like you.”
“But they went along with it?” I say.
“Yes, or at least they didn’t say otherwise. I’m good with the bow, you see. My father tried selling them once, when everyone was heading off to the crusades. When I had no chores, I used to sneak off and practice. I think when I got my bow out it reminded them of you and they liked that, so they let me stay in your house and didn’t bother me none. I’m sure it was more out of pity than anything, but I didn’t mind. I made friends with a boy called Luke Scarlett. Do you know him?”
“Yes, though not well. I knew his brother Will better. He was one of my gang.”
“Luke told me how you became Robin Hood and what you did for the people of Nottingham. That’s when I decided I wanted to do the same.”
I turn to look at her. Despite her slightly sticky out ears and lack of curves, she’s an attractive girl.
Is this what my indecent thoughts are about, I wonder. Do I simply need a physical release and then they will go away?
She wants to be me, I tell myself, not bed me. Besides, that particular kind of salve hadn’t worked when I was alone, so why should it work any better with her, with any woman, in fact?
“So you decided to become an outlaw,” I say, “and risk getting yourself slapped in the castle dungeons.”
“I wasn’t planning on getting caught. Anyway, I was much better at it than you by all accounts.”
“How so?” I ask, a smile tugging at my lips.
“You’d be amazed how easily castle guards are won over by a pretty dress and some whispered endearments.”
I recall the time Djaq wore a dress and uttered, “Men are so easy.”
“Amazed,” I say.
“The villagers told me about...” Rowena shakes her head. “No, it doesn’t matter.”
“What did they tell you about?” I ask.
“They told me about this person called the Night Watchman. They said he used to deliver food and coin and medicines. They said he was an angel. Some of them even thought it was the Lady Marian, especially after she went to the Holy Land and the gifts stopped coming.”
“They were right,” I say, seeing no reason not to tell her. “Marian was an angel, and now she is with the angels.” I glance heavenwards. Forgive my wicked thoughts, my love. I am lost without you.
Rowena stands, walks to the door.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m intruding,” she says. “This is your home, not mine.”
“Rowena, you are more than welcome to—”
She disappears out the door. I hear her lightly tripping down the stairs. The front door slams.
I fall back onto the bed and stare at the ceiling. I’m not sure what to do now. I’m hungry, but my stomach feels too full of knots to eat. I’m tired, but I doubt sleep will come easily.
In the end, I make my way down to the wine cellar and bring a jug of wine and a single cup back to the bedchamber. One large cupful is enough to make me drowsy. Sleep, I think. That’s what I need. Once rested, I will be able to think straighter.
I take off my boots and leather jerkin and stretch out on the bed. It feels good to have a decent pillow under my head. After a while of turning this way and that, trying to get comfortable, I get out of bed and strip down to my smallclothes. Then I get under the blankets. It still doesn’t feel right, so I take off my smallclothes and then slip under again. Now it feels right. In the camp, we slept fully clothed, or as near as, but this is how I used to sleep in my bed in Locksley no matter what the weather. I close my eyes.
Several hundred sheep later, I’m still awake. I try other things: word games, reciting French, even poetry. Nothing works. I roll onto my stomach and stare at a blackened knothole on one of the wooden bedposts, something I used to do as a boy in my own, much smaller, bed. That’s when I see the long, dark hair clinging to the tapestry hanging behind the bed-head. There is no mistaking whose head it came from. Reaching through the bed struts, I pluck the hair from the wall hanging.
I have to put this thing to rest, I think, winding the hair around my index finger, so tightly it makes all the blood run to my fingertip.
Heart thumping, I pad to the door and latch it. There’s a key, too, which I turn. As a boy, I used to wonder why my father would want to lock his bedchamber door, keeping me out. Since I learned from Guy about my father bedding Ghislaine, Guy’s mother, I think I now know.
Safe from interruption, I climb back into bed, unsling my tag and Marian’s ring from around my neck and pull the thick covers over my head.
When I awake, much later, the room is full of shadows and I see that it is close to evenfall. I also see the strand of dark hair, still wrapped around my index finger, wet with my spilled seed.
“Master! Robin. Are you there?”
I rip the blanket off the bed, wrap it around me and pad across to the window. “What is it?”
“Men,” Much says, gesticulating.
“What men?” I follow the line of his pointing finger. There are horsemen, coming down the hill towards Locksley. Something makes me think this is not a welcome home party.
“I’m coming,” I say. “Wait there.”
Tossing the blanket aside, I hurriedly pull on my smallclothes, shirt and breeches. As I am lacing my breeches, I notice the hair still wrapped around my finger. Consumed by remorse, I tie off my laces, tug on my boots and make for the door.
I am about to turn the key when I remember my tag and Marian’s ring, lying on the bedside table. I snatch them up, tangling their leather straps together in my haste to slip them over my head.
“I’m sorry, Marian,” I whisper, staring in dismay at the stained bedsheet, that stark reminder of her absence and of my abhorrent desire to fill it with someone else.
“Robin,” Allan shouts from downstairs. “We’ve got company.”
“I’m coming,” I yell. The key won’t turn. I take it out and try again. Still no good. Damn it. I have a hair wrapped around my finger, but no hairpin. The world is all wrong. I’m all wrong.
“John!” I shoulder the door in an effort to open it and get nothing for my pains but jarred bones.
“Here,” he calls, thumping up the stairs. He bangs on the door.
“I’m locked in,” I say.
“I can’t open the door. It’s jammed.”
John cracks his knuckles. “Stand back,” he warns.
A heartbeat later, the door is on the floor, John standing on top of it.
“What happened?” He glances around the room in puzzlement.
I can guess what he is thinking: Robin locked the door because he was with someone, Rowena perhaps. Even with all that’s happened, I’m certain they still think I’m the same old Robin underneath, ever the ladies man.
“Nothing,” I say, pushing him out the doorway before he has a chance to scrutinize the bed. “I was sleeping, that’s all.”
John doesn’t question me further. He knows how tired I’ve been so my sleeping in the daytime wouldn’t strike him as an odd thing to do.
“I think Prince John knows we’re here,” Allan says, as I buckle on my sword belt and quiver.
“I don’t see how,” I say. “We’ve only just arrived and I doubt any of my peasants would have given us away. They know we’re no friends of the prince.”
“It’s not you they want,” Rowena says, stepping into the room, bow in hand. “It’s me. This is between me and Prince John. There’s no need for you to show yourselves.”
“You can’t fight them all by yourself,” I say.
“You just watch me.” She strides across to one of the windows facing Locksley and the hill beyond.
“Why does he want you so much?” I ask. “I thought you said you worked in the kitchens.”
Rowena fiddles with her knife belt, ignoring my question. I have a feeling there’s more to this little lady than meets the eye.
“Did he use you other than in the kitchens?” I ask. “Did he touch you? Did he—”
“No, he didn’t,” Rowena says staring out the window. “I told you, my father bought and sold things.”
“He sold you to Prince John?” I say, incredulous.
Rowena nods without turning around.
“Which is why he’s sent men to take you back?”
“Yes,” she says. “But he’s not having me. I’m not going back. Not ever.” She nocks an arrow.
I stride to the other window and do likewise.
“Fighting,” Much says. “I hate fighting. All I wanted was some food, a bed, a bath, maybe. That’s all. Is that too much to ask for?”
John thumps his staff on the floor. “Shut up, Much.”
We wait and watch as the knights guide their horses through the village towards the manor house. As they do so, I steal a moment to glance at Rowena. Even side on, I can see the determination in her face, the burning need to fight back, not to be cowed by bullies, by men. So like Marian.
Abruptly, I feel so fiercely protective of her that I want to tear her from the window and lock her away, keep her safe, prevent what had happened to Marian happening to her.
“Come on, girlie,” one of the knights shouts. “Don’t make us come in and get you.”
“Stay away from me,” Rowena yells back.
The knights rein in their mounts and I guess this isn’t the first time they’ve come across Rowena’s bow skills. They confer for a bit and then split into groups of twos.
“How many?” Much asks, sword and shield in hand.
“Two a piece, then, not counting Rowena.”
I motion John and Allan to cover the front door. Then, leaving Much at my window and bending low, I make my way across to Rowena.
“This isn’t the first time they’ve tried to take you back to the castle, is it? What happened the last time?”
She turns and smiles at me. “I gave one of them a black eye he’ll never forget.” She nods towards her nocked arrow.
“I still don’t see how you’ve managed to evade them all this time,” I say. “The old sheriff’s guard I can understand; they didn’t have a brain cell among them. But Prince John’s men are another matter.”
“Well, it hasn’t just been me. I have my gang.”
“Yes. You can’t be Robin Hood without a gang.”
I can’t argue with that. “Who are your—”
She puts a finger to her lips, points. Creeping towards the unsuspecting knights is what I guess to be her gang; two young men I don’t recognise, but one I do – Luke Scarlett, Will Scarlett’s younger brother.
I watch as they ready their weapons. For a heartbeat, I’m tempted to ask: if you’re Robin Hood, then which members of my gang are the others? I hold my tongue.
Rowena raises her bow, sights on the nearest knight.
I hate to deny her this moment, and I don’t doubt her abilities, but I’m tired of losing people I care about. Because, even though we’ve only just met, I realise I care about this girl very much, although whether it’s because she reminds me of Marian, or of myself, when I first became an outlaw, I cannot say.
Bow and arrow at the ready, I make for the door. It’s time for the real Robin Hood to make an appearance.
Chapter 22: Chapter 21
“Now!” Luke Scarlett cries, aiming his nocked arrow and charging towards the mounted knights, the other two young men right behind him.
My God! When did Luke grow up? Is that the beginnings of a beard on his chin?
“Fools,” Rowena says, appearing at my elbow.
“Get back inside,” I tell her.
“Not bloody likely.” She nocks and looses an arrow, hitting a knight’s upraised shield and drawing their attention away from the reckless threesome. “You watch out for your gang and I’ll watch out for mine.”
I can see that arguing with her will get me nowhere.
“Get away from my house,” Rowena warns the advancing knights, quickly giving me a sheepish look of apology.
“You heard the lady,” I shout. “She doesn’t work for Prince John any more. She’s with me. Now leave my village, or you’ll have my arrows to answer to.”
“Robin Hood!” Luke whoops.
I have to admit it’s a pleasurable feeling, watching the knights turn to one another and then rein their horses to a slow walk, doubtless wary now they know England’s finest archer has them in his sights.
Unsheathing their swords, four of the knights wheel their mounts around and canter towards Luke and his two friends. Unlike the mailed, helmed knights, Rowena’s gang are not wearing anything more than their workaday clothes. They don’t stand a chance against the knights and their warhorses.
“Luke,” I shout. “Run. Leave this to us.”
Luke and his two companions skid to a halt. The knights are almost upon them. Rowena smacks into my bow arm as she rushes out the door.
“Damn,” I curse. Just my luck to run into another woman who thinks she can fight like a man. Heart pounding, I leap out the door and run as my recurring nightmare meets the light of day. Marian!
“To arms,” I yell.
Moments later, Much, John and Allan are at my side, weapons drawn.
“Go, go!” Little John shouts, waving his staff. Luke’s two companions quickly turn tail. Luke hesitates a moment, his nocked arrow still aimed at the rapidly closing knights. Then, with a quick nod in my direction, he lowers his bow and sprints after his two friends doubtless realising he cannot hope to best the mounted knights.
The four knights, seeing their adversaries fleeing, turn and gallop back to their fellow knights. We are outnumbered and on foot.
“Shoot the horses,” I shout to Rowena.
She raises her longbow and starts loosing arrows at the knights’ destriers and I do likewise. I hate maiming or killing such fine animals, but I figure we stand a better chance if our enemy is on foot, hampered by heavy mail, padded jacks and flapping surcoats while we are free to move with alacrity.
Our deadly iron-tipped shafts of ash pierce neck and chest. Alarmed horses neigh and rear. The knight nearest to us tumbles from his arrow-struck horse. He does not rise from the ground, knocked out by the fall. Another knight, his heavy boot caught in the stirrup of his frightened, snorting mount, skids and bumps along the ground as his horse bolts. The six remaining knights, struggling to quieten their unnerved horses, quickly dismount and ready their weapons.
I yell at Rowena to run back to the house. She shakes her head no.
I’m sorry, but it’s the only way. I loose an arrow. She cries out as it nicks her arm. I aim a further arrow in her direction. Shaking her fist at me, she turns and heads back to the house. I fling my bow aside and unsheathe my sword.
A knight pelts towards me, couching a lance. I wait until the last moment, dodge to one side and bring my scimitar round in a wide arc, hacking into his mailed back. The knight stumbles and smacks, face down, onto the ground. I pull my dagger and waste no time in finding a small gap between the base of his helm and the mailed coif at his neck.
Another knight is quickly upon me. Our swords clash and clang. He’s huge, this one, with fat lips and a short ginger beard. There is no finesse to his swordplay. He grips his great broadsword with two gauntleted hands, swiping at me. I duck and weave. Sweat stings my eyes. As his slashes become more laboured, his legs slower in moving, I throw a taunt in his face and scuttle backwards, towards the pond. Angered by my insult, he charges. I throw myself aside and he plunges into the murky pond waters. His gloved hands flail for a moment and then sink along with the rest of him.
I race back to the others.
Much is standing over a felled knight, without his round patterned shield, but still clutching his sword, a self-satisfied smile on his face. John is trading blows with a short, barrel-chested knight, wielding his great wooden staff as if it were nothing more than a twig. An almighty crack to the head, and John’s assailant crumples to the ground.
“Robin!” Much shouts, pointing.
I glance back towards the house. Allan is fighting with his customary two swords, dodging and parrying. One of the knights he is fighting has lost his weapon, but he is swinging his kite-shaped shield at Allan in an effort to knock him down while his companion slashes at Allan with his sword.
Then I see Rowena duck out of the house and run towards Allan, bow in hand. Damn her.
Allan cries out as the shield knocks one of his swords from his hand. Screaming abuse, Rowena looses an arrow. It hits the shield-wielding knight in the leg. He pays it no mind and continues to swing his shield from side to side, aiming for Allan’s head. Deciding to let his companion deal with Allan, the other knight, the one with a sword in his hand, advances on Rowena.
You should stick to embroidery, I silently admonish, or crocheting, God damn it. I pelt towards Rowena’s attacker, calling him craven for threatening a woman. My name-calling does the trick and the cowardly knight whirls around to face me. Sword outthrust, he charges.
He is almost upon me, when he cries out, lets go of his sword and staggers forwards. Gripping my scimitar with two hands, furious with Rowena for endangering her life, but at the same time thinking how like Marian she is, how fierce, how brave, I swing the curved blade through the air, the whole of my weight behind it. The arrow Rowena planted in the knight’s mailed back may not have killed him, but my blade slicing through his neck, taking his head off, certainly does.
I want to go to her, take her in my arms and bury her heart-shaped face in my chest so she might not have to look at the work of my brutal assault, but Allan still needs help.
I whirl around, my bloody scimitar clutched in my trembling hand. Just as quickly, I lower it. The shield-wielding knight, doubtless seeing the battle lost, has turned tail and run.
The knight who first fell from his horse, lurches to his feet and totters towards an uninjured destrier. As the shield knight climbs into the saddle behind his dazed companion, I shout, “You tell Prince John there’s more where that came from. You tell him Robin Hood is back.”
Wearily, I turn back to the gruesome scene behind me.
“Bloody hell,” Allan says, staring at the decapitated knight.
“Are you all right?” I ask.
Allan nods. “You?”
Before I have time to answer, Rowena walks unsteadily towards me, arms outstretched. I move forward and catch her. She goes slack in my arms. There is blood on her shirt.
John throws his staff aside and comes running.
“She’s hurt,” I say.
“Let’s get her inside.” John slides his powerful arms under Rowena’s knees and behind her back, lifting her into his arms. She looks like a child’s doll cradled against his great bulk.
I start to follow John into the house. My legs feel as if they are full of rocks. One step, two steps and I bang down onto my knees, imagining Rowena lying on the ground, a sword protruding from her body. The grisly head of the knight I slew is close by. I bend forwards and retch onto the blood-splattered ground.
“Robin.” Much kneels beside me. He starts rubbing small circles on my back, making shushing noises, telling me all is well, but all I can see is Marian dying before my eyes and the knowledge that I failed to save her.
“We should go inside,” Much says. “The knights that rode off might be fetching reinforcements.”
I nod, wipe my mouth on my sleeve. “You go in. Give me a moment.” The buzz of flies settling on the dead knight’s bloody neck brings fresh bile to my throat. Much’s soothing hand slips from my back and he heads into the manor house.
Unsteadily, I stand and walk, not into the house, but around and behind it, heading for one of the barns. I skirt behind it and, when I am sure no one has followed me, cave into my hurt.
I had thought the journey home, the whole business of travelling all those weeks, would help to heal my shattered heart and that when I finally reached Nottingham and Locksley I would be able to find some sort of peace. I had thought that Gisborne would be long dead, killed by my own hand, and that I could finally say goodbye to Marian. But instead of finding peace, I have found conflict. Conflict at home in the shape of Prince John and conflict in my heart, as I battle with my red-bloodied desires and my black despair.
We have escaped relatively unharmed today, can claim first blood over Prince John, claim victory. So why do I feel as if I’m losing the battle?
Rowena is sitting on my bed. The shards of broken jug are still on the floor. The door, knocked off its hinges by John, is leaning against the wall. A blade had not made the blood on her shirt as I first feared. On running back into the house, she had tripped over the wooden snow shovel and cut herself.
The cut was not deep and needed little more than cold water and time to dry off. Under her sleeve, I can make out a strip of linen wrapped around her upper arm, where my arrow nicked her.
“Are you all right?” she asks, propping herself up against the strutted, wooden bed-head.
“I’m fine,” I say. “How about you?”
“Feeling stupid,” she says, a blush reddening her pale cheeks. “I don’t usually faint at the sight of blood. I forgot to eat today and a severed head is not the most appetising of sights.”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“No need to apologise. Those men were trying to kill you.”
“There were also trying to take you back to the castle,” I say. “What will you do now?”
“I suppose I will have to leave Locksley, but I’d really rather not. I don’t have anywhere else to go.” Rowena fiddles with the silky laces crisscrossing the front of the dress she is wearing. I prefer her in a shirt and breeches. I think they suit her better than a dress, or perhaps it’s just because I find her strangely attractive in them.
I walk over to the window, on the pretence of looking out. Don’t do this Robin, I tell myself. This girl isn’t Marian.
I remain that way for ages, simply staring into the distance. Rowena does not say anything. In fact, she is so quiet that when I turn around I half expect to find her asleep. Instead, she is studying me intently.
“What?” I ask.
“I used to imagine...” She shakes her head and giggles, as though whatever she was about to say is some silly girlishness.
“Used to imagine what?” I ask.
“You,” she says. “Sleeping in this bed. Which side did you sleep on?”
“Neither really. In the middle.”
“Except when you were with someone else.”
“You have a reputation for being something of a ladies’ man, Robin. Don’t tell me there’s never been anyone else in this bed.”
“To be honest, I’ve spent more time on a pallet in the Holy Land sleeping next to Much and, after that, on the forest floor in Sherwood, than I ever did in that bed.”
And then I recall what happened earlier. Me, in the middle of the bed, with his dark hair wrapped around my finger and my ignoble, inconceivable want. Me, all alone in the bed, with only my shameful desires to keep me company.
“I guess he slept in it more than you ever did,” Rowena says.
“Guy of Gisborne. The former sheriff’s master-at-arms. The one who stole this house from you while you were in the Holy Land.”
I look down at my boots, notice there’s a splodge of blood on them.
“I’m sorry,” Rowena says. “That was insensitive of me. I know he was a horrible man, cutting out tongues and doing the sheriff’s dirty work.”
I turn back to the window, hating myself for contemplating lying not only with a man but also with a man that had committed such terrible crimes.
Rowena is shuffling about and, thinking she might need help, I turn around, only to find her down on the floor and wriggling under the bed.
“What are you doing? You should be resting.”
“Getting you this,” she says, worming her way out from under the bed. She is holding a bow – a recurve bow.
For a heartbeat, I think it is mine, even though I know that’s impossible. I recall the shadowy alleyway in Le Havre and Guy’s hand resting on my shoulder, his eyes staring into mine. My heart speeds up as I imagine him lying on the bed, arms open, legs wide, waiting for me.
“To be honest,” Rowena says, offering me the bow, “I think you’re better at being you.”
“Where did you get it?” I ask.
“Despite my father’s many and various foolhardy schemes for making money, he always seemed to know someone who could get him what he wanted. In this case, a bow maker returned from the Holy Land. I told him I knew a wealthy archer who would pay handsomely for such a weapon. Really, I wanted it for myself because I’d heard tell that Robin Hood uses such a bow. But I was never as good with it as I was with my trusty longbow.” She presses the bow into my hands.
“Thank you,” I say.
“You’re very welcome.” She smiles and stares straight at me, her brown eyes inviting me to do more than smile back.
I don’t want her. I want Guy. But he’s not here and she is. And I long to kiss something other than the back of my arm.
Chapter 23: Chapter 22
I know it is wrong, just as I know how I feel about Guy is wrong, but I can’t help myself. I’m weary of tearful goodbyes, of travelling, of fighting. All I want to do is to wrap my arms around someone, press into their willing flesh and surrender to my body’s demands. All I want to do is to lie on my bed with someone next to me and, right now, I really don’t care who it is, male or female; I’ll take whatever is on offer. I am an animal, I think.
I ease Rowena away from me. “I’m sorry. I can’t. This isn’t right.”
“It is right,” she says, clutching my shirt.
“No,” I tell her. “The kiss was a mistake. We’ve had one hell of a day. You’ve been frightened and hurt. I should not have taken advantage of that. It was wrong of me.” I prise her fingers from my shirt.
“I think perhaps you’re the one who’s frightened and hurt,” she says. “It can’t have been easy coming back to your home without your betrothed.”
“Marian was my wife. We married in the Holy Land just before she lost her life.” I should tell her that Gisborne, the man she’d heard much about but had never met, had murdered Marian, but I can’t say it, can’t think it even, not now, not when I ache to touch him, to kiss him, to... Heaven help me, no.
“And you miss her,” Rowena says. “And being with me seems too soon, I know. But life goes on, Robin, it has to.” She slips her hand into mine, pulls me towards the bed.
“Rowena, I told you, we can’t—”
She shakes her head. “Just to talk. Nothing more. Not unless you want to. That’s all right, isn’t it?”
I nod yes even though I’m not sure I want to talk. I truly think it would be best if I went away, or if she did. But this is my home and my people need protecting from Prince John and I can’t simply turn Rowena out; she has no home, no family, nothing.
I sit next to her, her cream-coloured skirts touching my blood-smeared breeches. Her hands are small and delicate, although the pads of her bow fingers are callused, as mine are. She is still holding my hand, gently caressing the back of it with her thumb. It’s soothing, just as Much rubbing my back outside was soothing. It makes me realise how very fragile I still am, even after all these weeks.
“When I was with Prince John, in London and then in the castle, it opened my eyes to a lot of things,” Rowena says.
“Most of them not good, I’m sure.”
Rowena’s circling fingers still, and I wonder whether I should be the one giving her comfort. Perhaps we both need comforting, I think.
“When I was serving table,” she continues, “I listened to the big fat nobles with their big fat stomachs and their big fat wives talking about you, and, despite the fact you are an outlaw and against John, they couldn’t hide their respect for a man willing to fight for his people, die for them even. That’s when I decided I was going to get away, come to Locksley. Even though the villagers knew I wasn’t your sister and that I had no right to live at the manor house, they let me stay, made me feel welcome. When I heard about the Night Watchman, I decided that I could carry on where he left—”
“She,” I interrupt. “It was Marian, remember.”
“Oh, yes. She, I mean. I decided to carry on her good work. There were a few incidents with John’s men; nothing I couldn’t handle. Your people called me the Night Watchman and Robin Hood rolled into one. And then you came along and spoiled it all.”
“Well, there can hardly be two Robin Hood’s can there? Anyway, it doesn’t matter. It was fun while it lasted. And I’d much rather be kissed by Robin Hood than pretend to be Robin Hood.”
It’s an invitation, and to do more than kissing if I’m reading her correctly. I can think of a handful of reasons why bedding her is a mistake, but none of those reasons is enough to stop me from sliding my hands around her small waist and pulling her towards me.
“We can’t, Robin. Not in here.”
“Why not?” I ask, dotting her neck with soft kisses, breathing in the sweet scent of her freshly washed hair.
“Because there’s no door.”
Damn. I’d forgotten.
“What’s behind that door?” Rowena asks, wriggling out of my encircling arms.
“It’s a dressing room,” I tell her. “We can’t possibly—”
“Yes, we can.” She grabs my wrist and pulls me towards the door. “There’s even a key so we can lock ourselves in. No one will know we’re there.”
I think of John shouldering the bedchamber door down.
“See.” She opens the door. “There are only a few clothes in here and there’s plenty of room.” She sounds like an excited little girl about to go on an adventure.
This can’t be her first time, I think, recalling my younger days, when my only cares were avoiding chores, winning the Silver Arrow contest and bedding willing peasant girls, or the daughters of visiting nobles.
I follow her into the small, windowless room.
She’s right; there is very little in here – a pair of old boots in one corner, some clothes that must have belonged to my father and one or two items of mine, long since forgotten.
“We might be able to—”
“To what?” Rowena asks.
I am staring at a rail of clothes at the back of the dressing room, my eyes having adjusted to the gloom. There is a black leather doublet, two black shirts and some heavily buckled thick black belts. Guy’s clothes.
My heart speeds up, my cock twitches. Wicked, unspeakable thoughts swirl through my head. No, Robin, you can’t. Even if Rowena has lost her maidenhead. Even if she wants this as much as you do. You can’t.
“Here,” I say. “We can lie on these.” I yank the doublet and shirts off the rail, dump them on the floor.
Rowena gives the clothes a puzzled look, doubtless querying why I don’t grab the coverlet off the bed instead, which would surely offer greater comfort. I spread the clothes out, ignoring the warning voices in my head telling me to stop now before I do something unpardonable.
I pull off my boots and wedge one of them in the doorway. “For a bit of light. Just until we’re ready.”
Rowena turns away from me and starts unlacing the front of her dress.
When I am down to my smallclothes, I stand behind her and gently kiss each knobble of her spine. “If you don’t want to,” I say, “then we don’t have to. I won’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do.”
“I do want to,” she says. She slips the dress from her waist; it puddles at her ankles and she steps out of it. She is naked, apart from the strip of linen wound around her upper arm.
I hurriedly strip off my smallclothes. My tag and Marian’s ring join them on the floor. I press into her back, my hardness digging into the cleft of her neat little buttocks. Guy’s leather doublet is under my bare feet.
She’s slim, with little hip to speak of. I can feel her ribcage under my hands. I want to ease her onto the floor, still facing away from me, and take her from behind. I can’t bear the thought of meeting her eyes when my head is full of Guy.
This is wrong, I tell myself. I’ll no less go to Hell for this than I would if I were actually with him.
Rowena turns around. She stares at my chest, as if she is afraid to look elsewhere.
“Yes,” she says. “I’m sure.”
“I will pull out in time,” I tell her. “I wouldn’t want you to fall for a child.”
Rowena leans her warm forehead against my chest, slides her hands behind my back. “I cannot fall. It is the wrong time of the moon.” She sighs into my chest, warming the hollow where my tag and Marian’s ring normally rest.
“Yes,” she says. “I’m sure.”
“I will still pull out.”
I kick the boot-wedged door shut and ease her down onto Guy’s clothes. She immediately opens her legs. I don’t know whether it’s because she is brazen, or whether she is simply doing what she thinks I want. Either way, I am happy about it. I have no wish to spend ages whispering honeyed words in her ears and plying her with kisses. My need is too great.
Gently, I ease into her. She hisses and I hold still.
“Am I hurting you?”
“No, no. Keep going.”
In the darkness, I cannot see her face. I am glad. With my face buried in her neck, I can smell Guy’s leather doublet, which is cushioning her head. As I get closer to tipping over the edge, I try to concentrate on Rowena, on the swell of her small breasts, on her soft lips and smooth skin, but, for all my efforts, I am unable to ignore my shameful secret longing.
Rowena winds her legs around my back and whimpers. I break and empty my seed into her.
If it had been Guy underneath me, I wouldn’t have needed to pull out before I spilt. But it isn’t. It’s Rowena. In the moment of exquisite release, when I imagined him beneath me and silently spoke his name, I had forgotten. I hope she’s right about it being the wrong time of the moon.
I sort out the broken door out after that. There is a spare sheet under the bed, which I manage to secure above the doorframe so it hangs down like a curtain. While I am busy with this, Rowena sits on the bed, wearing the dress she wore earlier, watching me and smiling. I hate myself more than I thought possible.
I pull on my breeches even though I am sure everyone must have gone to bed by now. I wonder why Much or one of the others didn’t seek us out earlier. Perhaps they knew I was with Rowena and decided to leave us alone. I wish they hadn’t.
Rowena will want to talk about it, I think. Women always want to talk about it afterwards. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t even want to think about it. I’ve done my share of bedding girls with no promise of a ring at the end of it and I’ve felt guilty. But not like this; not with someone else on my mind at the time of doing it and certainly not a man at that. The only way I can reconcile myself to it is by the fact that Rowena seemed to want it as much as I did.
I tell Rowena I am thirsty and am going to fetch a new jug for the room, maybe something to eat too.
“Don’t be long,” she says, patting the bed.
The half goblet of wine I find left on the hall table is warm. There’s a fly floating on the dark red liquid, drowned and lifeless. I flick it off and tip the wine down my throat. It reminds me of the boat, where this whole thing with Guy started. I wish I could go back to the time when I wanted nothing more than to pierce him with an arrow rather than the cursed thing between my legs.
The half goblet is not enough to dull my senses and I pad to the wine cellar to find some more. The damp, earthen floor of the cellar chills the soles of my bare feet.
Two full goblets of wine later, I’m still unbelievably sober. Worried Rowena might come looking for me, I make my way back to the bedchamber. It is only as I am pushing the door-curtain aside that I remember I was going to fetch us a jug of water.
Thankfully, Rowena is asleep. I am not cruel enough to go seek a bed elsewhere, even though I know I probably should, and I crawl under the blanket, careful not to touch her with my goose-pimpled arms and my dirty feet. This is not how I envisaged my first night back in Locksley.
Rowena stirs and rolls over to face me. Despite the chilly air, the bedchamber’s shutters are open, allowing the moon’s soft glow to fall upon the bed. I notice a cluster of small freckles on her nose and cheeks. Her wide-set brown eyes stare into my eyes. I wonder what it would be like to be lying here with Guy as close as she is, staring into his deep blue ones.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “What we did earlier, what I did, should not have happened.”
“Are you saying you did not like it?” Rowena asks.
“No, no. I’m saying that I should not have taken you like that. It was not honourable.”
“Do you say this to every girl after you’ve bedded her?”
“Shush.” Rowena puts a finger to my lips. “I am not a little girl. I knew what I was doing. If anyone should be saying sorry, it is me. I wanted to sleep with Robin Hood.”
“I’m not sure I’m the Robin Hood you had in mind.”
“Well, I’ll admit I was expecting a bit more sitting backwards on a horse, galloping through Locksley and firing arrows at the bad men while rescuing a fair maiden from a burning barn, but what you did today was still pretty amazing.”
“You mean taking the skin off a courageous girl’s arm and then lopping the head off a knight because he got my hackles up.”
“Even heroes have their off-days,” Rowena says, smiling and lightly kissing my cheek.
“I’m not a hero.” I wait for Marian to whisper in my ear that I will always be a hero in her eyes, but no. The ethereal thread has snapped. Like Guy, she is gone.
“Look,” Rowena says. “We’re in the middle of the bed.”
“So we are,” I say, swallowing the lump in my throat.
“Do you really always sleep in the middle?” Rowena asks.
“Then I pity the poor girl who sleeps with you, always being pushed to the side of the bed, in danger of falling out.”
“I won’t let you fall out,” I say.
“Perhaps you should hold me, just to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
It’s another invitation. This time, I do find some words of endearment. I also make sure to stain the bed sheet.
I awake to the smell of eggs and bacon wafting through the house. I turn over. Rowena is gone.
“Master, are you in there?”
“Come in,” I say, sitting.
Much nudges the door curtain aside. He’s carrying a wooden tray laden with bread, eggs, bacon, cheese and a cup of ale.
“Er...sorry. I...er...would have knocked, only you don’t seem to have a door.”
“John had to bust it down yesterday.”
“For practise?” Much asks.
“No. I couldn’t open it. It got stuck.”
“Oh. Here.” Much lays the food tray next to me.
“Thank you,” I say. “I could eat a horse this morning.”
“Well, there’s a couple still on the ground outside if you...oh, right. You didn’t literally mean you could eat a horse, did you?”
“No.” I recall the headless knight and feel my appetite slipping away.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” Much asks.
“No. I’m not as hungry as I thought I was. Just the ale, maybe.”
Much passes me the cup and proceeds to eat my meal.
“We should do something about the mess we made,” I say, “before my peasants are up and about.”
“In case you haven’t noticed,” Much says, “it’s late morning and your peasants have been up and about for ages. But don’t worry. John and Allan went out earlier and cleared everything away. You wouldn’t know anything happened. Except for a bit of blood on the ground and the...er...horses, which will take a lot more shovelling.”
“Don’t eat all that, will you.” Rowena steps into the bedchamber as if it’s perfectly acceptable for her to be entering a man’s private room without asking his leave. She perches on the edge of the bed and picks up a piece of crispy bacon.
“I’ll...er...just go then, shall I?” Much says.
“I think you’d better,” Rowena says.
Much flicks his eyes at me and, with an embarrassed smile, backs out the doorway, tangling himself in the curtain as he does so. Rowena laughs. I do too.
She has swapped the dress for the clothes I first saw her in: breeches, shirt and a leather jerkin. She’s combed her short hair, though there are still a few unruly bits sticking up on top of her head. The only adornment she wears is a simple silver ring on the middle finger of her right hand, the hand that is presently offering me both my tag and Marian’s ring.
“I think,” she says, her smile gone now, “we need to talk.”
Here it comes, I think. The ‘where do we go from here?’ talk.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” she says, before I can make any sensible sounding protest. “Last night was perfectly wonderful. But it is not going to happen again.”
I wasn’t expecting that. I do my best to look hurt. “Of course,” I say. “I understand.”
“No, I don’t think that you do.” She walks to the door, pushes the curtain aside and, satisfied we are alone, continues. “I know you did not mean to. I know you cannot control what you dream about. But when you are sharing a bed with someone, when your arms are wrapped around them and the name you speak in your sleep is not the name of the person you are holding, then I think perhaps you are not yet ready to be with that person.”
“Much says I’m always talking in my sleep. You should pay it no mind. I often—”
“I cannot compete with a ghost,” Rowena cuts across me.
I had called her Marian. Thank God for small mercies.
They are whispering again, the way they often do around me. It really has to stop.
“Where’s Rowena?” I ask.
“She said she had something to do and went off,” Allan says. “Look, not being funny, but Prince John is hardly going to leave it at that, is he?”
“No,” I say. “He sent those men to fetch Rowena yesterday; I’m certain of that. But it won’t be long before he learns we’re back, and when he does, he’ll send more men than he did yesterday. Vaisey always wanted to make a showpiece of our deaths, but I doubt John wants anything more than to get us out of the way and quickly. We need to make a plan.”
John, Much and Allan nod their heads and wait for me to speak further.
“We need to find out what’s going on in Nottingham, but we need to do it from a safe distance. Definitely not here.”
“The camp,” John says.
I nod. Slipping my hand inside my shirt, I clutch Marian’s ring. I will bury it in Sherwood Forest, beneath the Kissing Tree.
Chapter 24: Chapter 23
Rowena is loosing arrows at the sapling we embedded our arrows in yesterday morning. She is lost in the discipline and doesn’t see me watching her. My God, I think, was it really only yesterday? It feels like a lifetime ago.
As I watch her, my thoughts turn to Sherwood and my decision to move back to the camp. Even though the camp is weatherproof, it is hard living in a forest in cold weather. Although the days are still mild, the leaves are starting to brown and fall. Winter is on its way. However, I see no other option. Prince John will not delay in sending men to hunt us down. We will be safe in the camp and can make plans. Of course, that also means leaving my people and I have no doubt they will be made to suffer because of what we did yesterday. Prince John is unlikely to take the death of his knights as lightly as Vaisey used to take the death of his inept guards.
Yesterday. A day of anger and bloodshed. A day of agonised longing and clouded reason. In the world playing out in front of me now – women hanging washing, men working the earth, children playing – I can hardly believe yesterday happened.
Much had told it true. John and Allan have cleared away all traces of the dead knights, including their dropped weapons. Even the dead horses are gone now. I wonder about the knight who drowned and suspect he remains at the bottom of the pond. I think of my swimming race long ago with Guy and hope to God today’s children of Locksley stay out of the pond, at least until the body has rotted away.
The only signs of the fight are the numerous hoof and boot prints on the ground and traces of blood. The autumn rains will soon wash those away. And, like the rains, I will wash away all thoughts of the men I killed, let them pool in the farthest reaches of my mind, just as I did the atrocities I saw and did in Acre. What will be harder to ignore is what occurred in my bedchamber, especially with Rowena close at hand.
“Grief can do terrible things to a person,” my father once told me. It was not long after my mother’s untimely death. At the time, I thought he meant that that was why he was so often angry with me, why he lashed out. However, since learning about my father’s illicit romance with Guy’s mother, Ghislaine, I think perhaps I misunderstood.
Terrible things, I think. But not this, surely not this.
I flick my eyes back to Rowena, still happily loosing arrows. I was not her first, I am sure of it, but she still trembled beneath me like a maiden. And I do not think it was out of desire.
Rowena said she wanted me, but I believe it was the idea of bedding Nottingham’s hero rather than my flesh that she craved. She is a young girl, without a home, her only living relative having deserted her. What better way of securing her future than to win the heart, and therefore the hearth, of the Lord of Locksley, Earl of Huntingdon. If she had known my true purpose, my sinful thoughts as I slid into her, I’m sure she would have run back to the castle and Prince John as though fleeing the very devil himself. No wonder Marian has forsaken me. If, from her place on high, she can read my mind, she must surely know how far from grace I have fallen.
We had coupled only a handful of times, Marian and I. Despite her bold and spirited nature, when it came to lovemaking, she was reserved and shy, not the fervent creature I thought I would find. But given time...
As Rowena walks to retrieve her spent arrows, I dodge into a nearby barn so she will not see me. I have no desire to talk to her or anyone else right now.
The barn is deep and dark, enough to hide a multitude of sins, even the one I’d been contemplating before my thoughts of Marian had rendered it impossible.
“Robin? Are you there?”
I might have known Much would seek me out. He hates not knowing where I am.
“Yes, I’m here.” I step into the middle of the barn where he can better see me.
He gives a nervous cough, something he often does when he’s anxious or when he thinks he is about to say the wrong thing. “Why are you hiding in here?”
“I wasn’t hiding. I just came in here to think for a bit.”
“Oh…right…fine. Only, I thought we were going…you know…to Sherwood.”
“We are. We will. Soon. I just need to speak to my peasants first and then we will go.”
“Well, you won’t find them in here,” Much says.
“No, I know.”
Much bends down and picks up a piece of straw, rolls it between his hands. “Er...I just wanted to say...”
“To say what?” I ask.
Much drops the straw, looks me in the eye. “This.”
I wait. Much drops his gaze.
“Tell me,” I say. “I won’t get angry with you, I promise.”
Much squares his shoulders, straightens his already straight skullcap. “I know her death is eating away at you and I know there’s nothing I can do to change that and I know you probably don’t want to talk about it, but I just want you to know that I’m here, that I’ll always be here, if you ever want to...you know...talk.”
“Thank you, my friend. I’ll try to remember that.”
“Right...well, I’ll go pack then, shall I?”
“Yes,” I say. “You go pack. I’ll be along shortly.”
Poor Much. After yesterday’s fight, I can just imagine how anxious he must be to leave Locksley.
He turns and strides out the barn. I am alone again with nothing but my wretched thoughts to keep me company. I have to end this. Someone will have information on Guy’s whereabouts. He, almost as much as the late sheriff, is too notorious to escape recognition, especially if he insists on wearing his black leathers. With no home or family, other than a sister I am sure he would prefer never to see again such did she tease and torment him as a child, I feel certain he will try to seek out Prince John in order to secure his future. And Prince John is here, in Nottingham. I will find Guy. And when I do, I will either kiss him or kill him. Either way, I have to put an end to this shameful longing.
Feeling better for having made a decision, I step outside, into the bright sunlight. If only all of life were as easy as that.
Rowena doesn’t need to practise. She’s a fine archer. Nearly as good as me.
Come on, Robin, I tell myself, just look at her. How can you possibly contemplate lying with a man and Gisborne at that when you have this gift staring you in the face?
Despite my misnaming her in my sleep and her saying that we cannot walk out with each other, I’m certain that with enough cajoling I can win her. With her as my wife, in my bed, bearing my children, I’m confident that, in time, I will forget Guy. He will become nothing more than an abhorrent desire borne out of grief, soon overcome by the love of a good woman.
Forget finding him, I think. Pray instead that he never crosses my path again.
Startled, she whirls around, arrow nocked and aimed at my chest. “Robin. Don’t creep up on me when I have a bow in my hand. I could have killed you.”
“Sorry. Are you well enough to ride?”
“Of course. Your arrow no more than scratched my arm and the cut to my side was similarly nothing more than a scratch. I’m fine. But why should I be riding?”
“Because we, and you, have to leave Locksley. As soon as John finds out we’re here, he will be back, and with more men than he sent yesterday.”
“But this is my home,” she says.
“I think you’ll find it’s mine,” I say, a smile tugging at my lips.
“Oh, yes, of course.”
“And we will come back here. I promise. But, for now, we have to stay out of sight until we can work out a way of fixing things in Nottingham. The forest is no place for a woman, but it is better than ending up in the castle dungeons, or worse.”
“Do I have time to collect some things?” she asks.
“Bring only what you need,” I tell her.
Rowena nods, shoulders her bow and heads towards the manor house.
While the gang are busy collecting provisions, I decide to make good on my earlier promise and visit my peasants. I need to let them know that although we are leaving we are not abandoning them and that if John should threaten or harm them in any way we will come running.
I had expected smiles and whoops of joy at my return. Instead, the villagers greet me with lowered eyes or hard stares. My people have had it tough for a long time – first with Vaisey and now Prince John – and their loyalty to me will only stretch so far. They have families to feed and houses and livestock to protect and already, in the space of one day, I have brought trouble to Locksley.
I notice Rowena, a pack slung over her shoulder, making her long-legged way over to Thomas Cartwright, a simpleton who has lived in Locksley for as long as I can remember, relying on the kindness of others for his daily bread. She says something to him and he gives her a toothless grin. Whatever Rowena was to these people, it was good, and I am about to take her away because she is one of us now and in more danger than she was before.
I make my way over to them. Thomas transfers his grin to me and waggles a finger at my bow.
“All right, Thomas,” I say, giving him a broad smile. Nocking an arrow, I wait for him to point. “The bucket,” I ask, “standing on the side of the well?”
“How many shall I use, Thomas?”
Thomas puts up three fingers. I nock a further two arrows, aim and loose. The arrows thud into the bucket; one, two, three in a row. Thomas claps and does a little jig.
“It’ll leak now,” Rowena says.
I shrug. “It could be worse. Last time, Thomas pointed at Much.”
Rowena laughs and Thomas laughs too, though I’m sure he doesn’t know what he’s laughing at.
“I will miss being here,” Rowena says as we head back to the house.
“And they will miss you being here,” I say. “But it has to be this way, surely you can see that.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“What you did here was wonderful,” I tell her. “You gave them hope when they needed it.”
“I didn’t do much,” she says. “Not really. The thing with the bow was mostly showing off, although I guess it kept the flame of Robin Hood alive and that is what they needed. More than anything, they wanted to believe you would return to them.”
“And now I am leaving them.”
“It’s not your fault,” she says, taking hold of my hand.
“Aww, now that’s whats I like to see.”
“Nessa.” I tug my hand from Rowena’s considerable grip. “I didn’t see you there.”
“I don’t see how not. I’m as big as a house.” She runs her hands over the swell of her belly. “Now don’t you be looking at me like that, Master Robin. And before you go saying anything, just you remember: my dear husband never could count.”
“How soon?” I ask.
“A few weeks yet, thank the Lord.”
“And how many will that make?”
“Seven.” She turns to Rowena. “Want one do you, dearie? I’ve more than I can handle.”
Rowena shakes her head. “Not right now, thank you, no.”
“Eh, you’re young,” Nessa says. “There’s time enough.”
“I should go do things,” Rowena says, striding away.
Nessa regards her for a moment, then looks at me. “Reminds me of the Lady Marian that lass does. I always thought you and she might marry, but folks say she went off with that Gisborne fellow. Can hardly believe it myself, but then again she’d not be the first to have her head turned by a good-looking man who insists on giving pretty gifts.”
They have to know eventually. It might as well be now.
“Marian didn’t go with Gisborne. Sheriff Vaisey imprisoned her and then took her with him to the Holy Land. He was going to kill the king.”
“All the saints preserve us!” Nessa places her reddened, fat-fingered hands protectively over her unborn child.
“My gang and I followed them out there. Marian died defending King Richard. Vaisey drowned in a shipwreck on the way back to England.”
“Oh, lad, I’m so sorry. Not about the sheriff. Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say. But that lovely lady. That fair breaks my heart. Yours too by the looks of it. Come on.” She grabs my arm. “Come to me house and I’ll get you some of me fruit bread. You always used to love it and you look as if you could do with a bit of eating.”
The gang are waiting for me to join them so we can go to the forest. Even so, I let Nessa lead me to her cramped cottage.
“Here, Master Robin. Sit you down. I’ll be but a moment.”
I look around the main room, where most everything goes on apart from sleeping, and probably even that. It hasn’t changed. There are clothes everywhere; clothes that Nessa washes and clothes that she sews for her family and for others. And little bunches of dried lavender in pots scattered about the room. She used to buy it from a pedlar that visited Locksley every so often and I guess still does. Whenever I come across the aromatic plant, I always think of Nessa and this house, where I escaped to in my darker moments: after my mother died and after my father chastised me for some wrongdoing. And later, when I was grown up, after Marian cursed my stupidity at choosing to go to fight in a war thousands of miles away, instead of staying here, instead of marrying her.
Nessa hands me the thickly buttered fruit bread. Before I can take a bite, however, there are children jumping all over me. Children of all ages and states of dress.
“Now, now. Leave Master Robin be. Can’t you see he’s eating.”
As quickly as they had descended, so they scrabble away.
“You can have one or two if you like, Master Robin. I’m fair running out of space here.”
One of the younger children, a girl with scruffy blond plaits, is peeking round the doorway, sticking her tongue out at me, while an older sister is pulling her dress to come away. I smile.
Nessa presses a cup of ale into my hand. “That’s more like it, lad. Right handsome you are when you smile, even with that scruffy beard covering half your face.” She shoos the peeking girls away. “And now I remembers that’s why I have ‘em.” She gives her swollen abdomen a loving caress.
I drink the ale and eat the bread, content to let Nessa chatter on. Gradually, the knot inside my stomach starts to unravel.
“Thank you, Nessa.” I hand her the empty cup and plate.
Shouldering my bow, I am about to take my leave when I notice the dress. It’s a green dress, hanging on a hook on the wall, doubtless awaiting Nessa’s sewing skills. It’s hanging alongside several other dresses with fancy brocades and frills, dresses that don’t belong to the womenfolk of Locksley.
“Them’s for the folks up at the castle,” Nessa explains. “For all their fine ways, they don’t know one end of a needle from the other ‘cepting for their embroidery. And Prince John—” She pauses to give a robust spit. “Prince John he pays good money to keep the ladies looking fine. Not that there’s anything wrong with the dresses. It’s their waistbands what’s need the altering. All the food they eat. Tis scandalous.”
A green dress, lacing at the front. Surely it can’t be. I go to take a closer look and my breath catches in my throat.
Marian kept many dresses in the castle, maybe more than she kept at Knighton; she would not have known she would never return to reclaim them. Some noble woman had obviously found and taken a fancy to this particular dress and had charged Nessa to alter it in some way.
I press my face into the silky fabric, but all I can smell is lavender. Marian’s perfume, just like her whispered words, is gone.
Nessa lightly touches my arm. “Do you want to talk, lad?”
I shake my head, manage to say, “No, I should be going.” I stride out of the house without looking back.
Nessa, Rowena, Much – they are all there for me. And I do want to talk. Except of the people I want to talk to most, one no longer lives and the other I had sent away.
Chapter 25: Chapter 24
I turn around at the sound of someone approaching, lower my nocked bow when I see it’s only Allan. Sweat beads his brow, as though he’s been running far and fast and I have a sudden fear that Prince John’s men are back already and attacking Locksley.
“Is everything all right?” I ask.
“I could ask you the same thing.” He bends over to catch his breath, hands on his upper thighs for support. “We’ve been looking for you for ages. Much was convinced you’d thrown yourself in Locksley pond. He was talking about diving in and searching for you until he remembered he can’t swim.”
“I was visiting my peasants.”
“And your peasants just happen to live in the middle of a field, do they?” Allan indicates the freshly turned earth, the striped furrows stretching in front and behind me.
“Locksley is my home,” I say. “We’ve been travelling for months to get here and now, in the space of two days, we are leaving. You’ve never lived in one place for a long time. You wouldn’t understand.”
“I understand that Prince John’s not going to invite us to his next banquet unless we happen to be the main course. I thought we were going to Sherwood, Robin. At this rate, we’ll be lucky to make the camp before nightfall.”
I look at the sky. Allan is right. We should have got moving ages ago. Instead, I am standing in the middle of a field fretting over a dress. “I’m sorry. I lost track of time.”
“Are you all right?” he asks. “Is it Rowena? I don’t want to pry or nothing, but have you two had words or something?”
“No. Nothing like that. It’s fine. We’re fine.” I shoulder my bow. My fingers are still buttery from Nessa’s fruit bread.
Allan scratches his head and then his nose. He toes a clod of earth until it hits another clod and then crushes them with his booted foot.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Nah, it’s nothing. Only...”
“Only what? Come on, Allan. Speak your piece.”
“I would, only the last time I did that I got a ruddy great smack for it.”
I recall our punch up on the boat: fists and insults flying, a broken jug, me on the floor with a bloody nose.
“Whatever it is, I won’t hit you. I promise.”
Despite my assurance I won’t put a fist in his face, Allan steps back a pace.
“Thing is, you told us you were going to use Gisborne as a spy and then, as soon as we got back to England, you sent him away. I’m not saying that it wouldn’t have been a bit...well, weird, him being on our side, but after yesterday I would have thought we could use all the help we can get.”
“I felt differently about it when I got home.”
“Because of Marian?”
“I get that. It’s just you changed your mind so quickly and—” Allan’s eyes widen.
My heart starts thumping wildly. He can’t know of my shameful thoughts about Guy, surely.
“You didn’t kill him, did you?” Allan says. “I mean, after we got off the boat. You didn’t kill him and not tell us about it? Is that it? Gisborne’s dead and you didn’t want to tell us because you thought we’d have a go at you.”
“No.” I smile, relief flooding through me. “I didn’t kill him.”
“That’s good. At least, I think it is.”
“Come on,” I say. “We should get going.”
“Look,” he says. “Do you want me to go to Nottingham, you know, suss things out? Maybe we’ll be all right for tonight. Maybe there’s no great rush to get to the forest.”
“I don’t know. It’s a bit risky.”
“No more risky than riding through Sherwood in the dark.”
“You may have a point there.”
“You know me, Robin. I can mix and mingle, find out what’s going on. Might be safer, just one of us going. If I’m clever, I could get inside the castle, snoop around a bit. I still remember where all our secret entrances are.”
I give him a pointed look.
“What?” Allan says, affronted. “I didn’t tell Vaisey about all of them. What do you take me for?”
I hold back any cutting remark I might have made, instead pretending to think Allan’s offer over. In truth, I’ll be glad of another night in Locksley. I might even be able to convince Rowena that I am prepared to court her properly. Certainly, we’ll have precious little chance of talking privately in the camp.
“All right,” I say. “But be careful and whatever you do, don’t get caught.”
My hope of talking to Rowena ends in disappointment. When I eventually return to the manor house, I find her already abed: not in my bed as I’d hoped, but in Thornton’s old room. Much tells me she was feeling unwell, assuring me it was nothing serious: women’s things, as he put it. She told him to wish me a good night. I rather think she is deliberately avoiding me, but I decide against knocking on her door in case she was telling Much the truth.
I once caught Isabella crouched in the corner of her bedchamber, a trail of bloody splodges leading from the doorway to her trembling little body. When Guy came crashing through the door moments later, cursing me for cheating at hide and seek, I don’t know who was the more embarrassed, him or me. Isabella screamed at us to get out. United by the incident, Guy and I spent the rest of the afternoon together, speaking in hushed tones, neither of us really knowing exactly what was happening to Isabella other than she had somehow, at the tender age of nine summers, become a woman.
I don’t know how old Rowena is; younger than Marian is – was – but certainly old enough to have bled many times over. Pushing aside the image of her crouching in the corner of Thornton’s old room, blood seeping through her tight breeches, I bid Much and John a good night. Both of them head for the servant’s quarters to sleep.
I know I should go to bed too, enjoy what may well be my last sleep for some time in a comfortable bed, but the effort seems too much. Instead, I pour myself a goblet of wine and make myself halfway comfortable in the fireside chair, even though there is no fire to warm myself by or to stare into.
I awake still in the chair, the empty goblet at my feet and morning sun streaming through an open shutter.
After a hurried meal of watery oats and a mug of ale – minus Rowena, who tells Much through a closed door that she’s fine, but doesn’t feel like eating – we gather up our weapons, water and wine skins and some bread and dried meat and start the long ride to the camp.
Within sight of Sherwood, Allan joins us.
“What news from Nottingham?” I ask, hoping Allan hasn’t spent the whole of his time there drinking and performing tavern tricks.
“I couldn’t get into the castle,” he says. “There were guards everywhere. But I did learn from a knight supping at The Trip that Prince John isn’t in Nottingham.”
“Where is he then?”
Allan shrugs. “The knight didn’t know, or wouldn’t say.”
“Anything else?” I ask. “Has a new sheriff been appointed yet?”
“Yeah, Murdac I think his name was, or it could have been Murdock.”
“Never heard of him. Much?”
Much shakes his head.
“This knight,” Allan says, “said the new sheriff was laid up with some kind of malady and that the master-at-arms was running things in his absence; a nasty piece of work by all accounts. That’s all I got, I’m afraid. The knight had had one too many and spent most of the time telling me how he hated high places and what rotten luck it was he’d pulled double guard duty on the castle battlements.”
“That’s all right,” I say. “You did well. And it sounds as though we have some breathing space for the time being without John or a sheriff around to hound us.”
I push away the niggling thought that the ‘nasty piece of work’ Allan mentioned might in fact be Gisborne.
Motioning everyone to move off, I draw up alongside Rowena and, when she doesn’t acknowledge me, I tap her on the knee.
“You were at the castle before you came to Locksley,” I say. “For how long?”
“A few months.”
“Then you’ll have met the new sheriff, this Murdac fellow?”
“I was in the kitchens, remember.”
“But you must have seen him, when you served table?”
“Now and then.”
“So, what’s he like, this new sheriff of ours?”
Rowena shrugs. “Short, bow-legged, fat-stomached.”
Allan laughs. “Doesn’t sound like too much of a threat.”
Rowena reins in her mount, rounds on Allan. “He’s a power-hungry tyrant and you’ll do well not to cross his path.”
“Blimey. Sorry I spoke.”
Rowena shakes her head. “No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you. I’m a little out of sorts this morning.”
“Here,” I say. “Let me take your pack and bow.”
Rowena hands them over with an apologetic smile. I guess me reminding her of her unhappy time in the castle was not a good idea. She has been through a lot these past two days and now I’m asking her ride to a camp in the middle of a forest when she is not at her best. She may act tough, but this girl is neither Djaq nor Marian. I should have found somewhere else for her to stay, somewhere safe, with Matilda maybe.
“We can stop and rest, if you like,” I say.
“No, I’m fine, really.”
As if to prove she is indeed in good health, she whacks her boots on her horse’s flanks and gallops across the open grassland towards the forest.
I whack my own horse’s flanks and speed after her.
As we make our way through the forest, Rowena’s eyes dart this way and that.
“Relax,” I tell her with a smile. “The only threat in the forest used to be us.”
“What about boars and wolves and things?” she asks.
“Don’t worry,” Much says. “If anything like that comes rushing at us Robin will...” Much lets go his reins, mimes nocking and loosing an arrow. “And then we’ll have something for supper.”
“But if that doesn’t happen,” I say, “then Much will shinny up a tree.”
“Why?” Rowena asks.
“Because that’s where the squirrels live.”
Rowena glances between Much and me, puzzled.
“Ha, ha,” Much says. “Very funny. You should be grateful you get anything at all.”
Any witty retort dies on my tongue as we ride by a great oak, quite possibly the largest oak in the forest. It’s our tree. Marian’s and mine. The Kissing Tree. I slip a hand inside my shirt and finger Marian’s ring, tears crowding my eyes.
“I could do with a moment to...you know.” Rowena nods towards the trees.
“Of course,” I say.
“You can go on ahead,” she says.
“Don’t be daft,” Allan says. “You’ll never find the camp without us.”
“I meant just Robin.”
“Thank you,” I mouth, taking off before anyone has time to protest. I may not know much about Rowena, but of one thing I am certain: unobservant she is not.
After a short while, I find myself in an area of forest that looks more familiar than most. Reining in my horse, I look about me. As I do, a memory of a time I’d rather forget comes back to me so vividly it’s as if it happened only yesterday.
It had been just Gisborne and me; kicking and punching, spitting angry words, beating each other bloody. Because I’d seen that tattoo on his arm and I knew I had the proof that he was a traitor, proof that he tried to kill the king in the Holy Land.
“Is this what you’re after?” I said, holding up the betrothal ring he’d earlier pressed on Marian and then tossing it onto the fallen leaves. “Who else, Gisborne?” I demanded. “You do not travel to the Holy Land to try and kill the King of England on your own. At least you don’t. You’re not that clever.”
He didn’t tell me who else, but I was confident Vaisey was behind it somehow. I told him I’d see him and whoever else was involved hang for treason when the king returned, to which Guy reminded me that if the king returned he would still win. He would win Marian.
That’s when the rage I’d been keeping a lid on boiled over. As Guy bent to retrieve the discarded ring, I lashed out with my boot, sending him sprawling. A heartbeat later, I had my blade to his throat and I was incensed enough to use it. Little John and the gang stopped me.
“Killing we do not do.”
“He’s right. At least that’s what you taught us.”
“We do not take part in bloodshed...unless absolutely necessary.”
Two days ago had been necessary. Rowena’s life had depended on my killing the knight who’d been going for her. True, I had let my anger and fear get the better of me, but the result had been the desired one. Because ever since Guy stabbed Marian, when she was in her Night Watchman guise, my story had changed – Robin Hood does kill.
However, on the particular day I am thinking of, I had chosen not to kill. Because if I had killed Guy that day, then it was quite likely Djaq would have lost her life, which would have meant not only losing a valued and much cared for member of my gang, but also the woman Will Scarlett loved, the woman he now shares his life with, back in the Holy Land. If I had killed Guy that day, I might have changed all of that. But I would still have had Marian. However, if I am honest with myself, I think Will is the more deserving of the two of us.
I know I should stop; it is senseless going over the past. Yet I find myself continuing to play out the fight, going over every moment of it, like some delicious kind of torture. It’s only shame and the thought that the gang and Rowena might come across me that keeps me in my saddle, uncomfortable though it is.
“Make no mistake,” I said, flinging away my fire-heated sword, the one I’d been about to brand Guy’s face with. “This ends here, traitor.” I put up my fists.
The fight was a long one and as we punched and kicked, we traded insults – about the war, about the king, about my returning to Nottingham. And then Marian appeared, along with poor Much who I’d callously told to leave me when he would not condone my torturing Guy. She had stood at the top of the slope, near to where I am now, shaking her head at me, at us, as we lay on the ground, dirty, bloodied and beaten.
That was the end of the fight. With Guy once more tied to a tree, so I slumped against another tree while Marian chastised me for my behaviour.
I tried to explain to her about Guy’s attempt to kill the king in the Holy Land, but she didn’t believe me. She thought the fight was about me and her. Maybe it was. But even when she began to have doubts, recalling Guy’s so-called contagion, she forbade me to kill him.
“Of course,” I said. “He is to be your husband.”
She had countered with the argument that she had agreed to the engagement under duress and that she had to play things from the inside, for her father if for no one else. She had said she did not have the option of just running off into the forest.
“Everything is a choice,” I replied, throwing her words back at her.
What would I do then, if Guy appeared right now, here in the forest? What choice would I make? Would I still want to thump and kick and beat him bloody? The answer should be yes. But I can’t forget everything that’s happened since Acre: the pirates, the boat sinking, him saving me from drowning, the meadow in Saint-Étienne and our drunken night in the barn. All those moments leading up to that one defining moment in a shadowy alleyway in Le Havre when an unholy want overcame me and I imagined myself lying with a man, with Guy.
My horse whinnies and I let go the reins and fumble for my bow. When I see it isn’t Guy riding towards me, I almost can’t breathe for disappointment.
Much canters over. Feeling as though I must have guilty etched on my forehead, I loop my bow over my head and shove it behind my back.
“Is everything all right?” he asks. “Only we’ve been waiting for you for ages.”
“Waiting, why? Where?”
“Near the camp, by Will’s carving of Dan. We would have gone on, but we thought...that is I thought, we should all be together. But if you want to be alone for a bit then—”
“No, it’s fine,” I say. “I got lost.”
Much gives me a puzzled look. I can understand why. I know the forest better than all of them.
“After you,” I say.
Much wheels his horse around and I follow him up the slope.
“I swear we shut that before we left.” Allan is nodding towards the cunningly disguised doorway to our hidden camp. It is wide open.
Keeping my eye on the open doorway, I dismount. The gang and Rowena do likewise.
“Master, why should the door be open? Do you think—?”
“There could be any number of reasons,” I cut across Much. “We’ve been away a long time and people are curious. It’s hardly surprising they might seek out the lair of Robin Hood, especially if they think there might be wealth hidden inside it.”
“Not being funny, but it could have just been the wind or something.”
“It could,” I say, “but somehow I doubt it.” I nock my bow.
Rowena stands beside me, bow in hand.
“Wait here,” I tell both her and the gang.
Much, John and Allan ready their weapons, but do not attempt to follow me as I creep towards the open doorway; they know better than to question my decisions. Rowena, however, decides otherwise and follows, her boots swishing the leaves underfoot.
“I said to wait,” I hiss.
She gives me a sullen look but stays where she is.
Slowly, I make my way through the open doorway and into the camp. I look around. Everything appears to be as we left it all those months ago: Much’s cooking pots; empty mugs and wooden bowls; a frayed belt of mine, still on the ground. The chest we kept trinkets of little value in is unmoved. Certainly, there is no sign that anyone has disturbed our forest sanctuary. I breathe out, turn around and motion the others to come in.
I walk towards my bed, remembering the many nights I’d slept there dreaming of a time when Marian and I would be together, as man and wife. As I stare through a blur of tears, I realise my blanket, the striped one, isn’t on my bed. Neither is Much’s.
Someone coughs. I whip up my bow and hastily nock an arrow. The cough came from in front of me, not behind. Someone is here.
Chapter 26: Chapter 25
He is under the missing blankets, my striped one over his head with just the smallest amount of bearded face showing, Much’s similarly striped one tucked around his long legs.
I lower my bow and step towards him, wary. He looks unwell, his face pasty, his eyes bloodshot and unfocused. But a part of me still distrusts Guy of Gisborne, despite everything we’ve been through, despite my want of him. The knight at The Trip told Allan that Prince John is not in Nottingham, but for all we know that could be a lie spread by John himself. Since dismissing him at Portsmouth, Guy has had ample time to make contact with the new sheriff and Prince John; if he wants any chance of bettering himself what surer way than to rid Prince John of the thorn in his side, namely me. Under those blankets, Guy could be holding a blade.
“Look at the mess,” Much groans, doubtless thinking of the tidying up he will have to do to make the camp spick-and-span once more.
“Nothing a decent bonfire won’t put in order,” Allan quips. “Or a woman’s touch.”
“Bugger off,” Rowena says. “I’m not here to clean up after you lot.”
None of the gang attempted to follow me into the sleeping area, doubtless thinking I might like a moment to myself.
Guy coughs again, a phlegmy, chest-rattling cough, and I realise my foolishness at thinking he might be concealing a weapon, about to plunge it into my heart. The man is sick, dreadfully so by the looks of him. I suspect he hardly has the strength to wipe the mucus from his upper lip let alone take on not only me but also the rest of the gang.
“Guy.” I place my bow on the ground and crouch in front of him. “It’s me. Robin.”
He stares at my face, a flicker of recognition lighting up his sleep-depraved blue eyes and then leans forwards as another spasm of coughing overtakes him.
I reach out to pull the blanket from his head and recoil as he retches up a watery mess onto the one covering his legs.
“Robin?” John calls.
Moments later, the curtain dividing our sleeping area from the main camp flaps open.
It’s not John but Rowena, a hunting knife in her hand.
“It’s all right,” I tell her, holding up my hands, warning her off. “This man is very sick. He means us no harm.”
Another bout of coughing dislodges the blanket from Guy’s head and shoulders. His dark hair is still as long as ever, but, unlike when I left him at Portsmouth, it is unwashed and tangled, the ends stuck together from previous retches. He stinks, too, doubtless too ill to manage to relieve himself anywhere other than where he is sitting. My heart goes out to him, even as I wrinkle my nose in revulsion.
“He means us no harm, my foot!” Rowena says advancing, knife pointing at Guy. “I’ve heard enough talk in Locksley to know exactly who this man is. And even if I didn’t recognise his face from the villagers’ descriptions, those black leathers can only mean he’s that tongue-cutting, misery-making bastard.”
“He is not that man anymore,” I say. “Put the knife down.”
“Blimey!” Allan exclaims, stepping up behind Rowena. “Someone looks like they’ve been eating too many under-cooked squirrels.”
“Not that man anymore,” Rowena repeats. “Much told me, Robin. Much told me what he did in the Holy Land. He tried to kill the king, he murdered your—”
“I know what he did,” I say, throat tight, heart fluttering in my chest. “I was there. But there are things you don’t know. Guy saved my life – twice. He repents his crimes and would do anything to—” I shake my head. I don’t want to have this conversation, not now when Guy appears to be gravely ill, not ever, if I can help it. Talking about the past will not change anything. Although I will never forget Marian lying on the scorched sands, a sword protruding from the bodice of her white dress, neither will I easily forget my thoughts of him of late, not least my most recent thought: the two of us lying atop the leaves and debris of the forest floor, where we weren’t exactly discussing the weather.
“Robin is more forgiving than the rest of us,” John says, pushing Allan aside and gently wrapping his big hand around Rowena’s small one, urging her to drop the knife. “If I had my way, Gisborne would have been in Hell long ago. But Robin taught us that we were not to kill, not like this, and he is right. If we take a knife to Gisborne’s throat, when he is in such a wretched state and cannot defend himself, then we are no better than him.”
“Much,” I say. “Get me a water-skin.”
“I’d keep back if I were you,” Allan says. “Who knows what sort of malady he’s got.”
“Much?” I bark.
“Water, right, yes.” Much scuttles off to do my bidding.
Ignoring Allan’s warning, I turn back to Guy. “I’m not going to hurt you.” I lay a tentative hand on one of his stockinged feet. “How long have you been here, like this?”
Guy looks at me blankly for a moment and then says, “Locksley?”
“It’s Robin now, remember? We’re...” I’m about to say friends, but in truth I have no idea how Guy sees our relationship. The last time we spoke more than two words to each other had been at the archery contest, when he helped me escape the irate Dumont and his fellow kinsmen; and, of course, those few words in the alleyway when he laid his hand on my shoulder, stared deeply into my eyes and asked, “Can I come with you?” His face had been mere inches from mine; I could feel his warm breath on my cheeks. All it would have taken was for one of us to lean towards the other and our lips would have touched. When I nodded yes, unable to speak for the ache of desire running through me, Guy had risen so abruptly that he’d almost lost his footing. “Thank you,” was all he mumbled before turning tail and striding away, leaving me sitting on the damp ground, my ruined bow in my lap, my head in turmoil. Could I have misinterpreted the look in his eyes, the fingers that briefly massaged my shoulder? I don’t think so. He wanted me and I wanted him and now here we are.
“Robin?” Guy croaks.
“Yes,” I say, giving him an encouraging smile.
“Here.” Much shoves water-skin into my hand and quickly hops backwards lest he catches whatever sickness Guy has.
I unstop the skin and gently press it to Guy’s dry and cracked lips. He manages a small swallow, though much of the water dribbles down his unkempt beard. He leans back and closes his eyes, a grunt of relief escaping his mouth before another coughing spasm jerks him upright. His eyes snap open, flood with tears that spill down his cheeks. He clutches the blanket covering his legs, as though afraid I might pull it off him.
“Whoa,” Allan says. “That’s too much smell for this big conk of mine.”
“Fuck off!” I shout, incensed. “The man is very sick, possibly dying for all we know. Just...go away.”
I turn to John. “We need Matilda.”
“No.” John stubbornly crosses his arms.
“We can’t just leave him like this. He needs help. If Djaq were still with us it would be different, but she’s not.”
“No, she’s not,” John says. “She’s in the Holy Land, with Will. And I’m not saying that isn’t a good thing, but if it weren’t for him,” he jabs a finger at Guy, “they’d both still be here, with us. God’s teeth, Robin; he was probably the one who told Prince John we were in Locksley. You can’t tell me he sent all those knights just for one little lady.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Rowena mutters.
“You said it yourself,” John continues, ignoring Rowena’s remark. “How could word about our return have gotten out so quickly? Well, there’s your answer.” He crosses his arms again, perhaps to keep them from throttling Guy.
“Prince John is not in Nottingham,” I retort. “And Guy has been here for several days by the looks of him. Now I’m asking you for pity’s sake to fetch Matilda; but as I don’t trust you to make haste, then Much can go.”
“Me?” Much says. “Why me?”
I don’t blame him for not wanting to leave the safety of our forest camp after our clash with the knights in Locksley, but I am not prepared to leave Guy to the mercy of the gang while I go myself, and I don’t wholly trust Allan not to get sidetracked by fictitious nuns.
“Because you’re—” I bite my tongue, remembering Much is a free man and has been for some time.
“Because I’m what?” Much asks, hands on hips. “Your servant? Your slave? Your cook and back-scrubber? Your—”
“My friend,” I say. “You’re my friend.”
“Oh, right, sorry.” Much eyes Guy. “Are you sure you don’t want to just quietly roll him into a ditch or something? Might be better for all of us. Almost certainly be better for him if Little John has anything to do with it.”
“Take my horse,” I tell him, as though he hasn’t spoken. “It’s the fleetest of all our horses. And Much?”
“Don’t tell Matilda who the patient is. She might not come otherwise. And see if you can bring some spare clothes. Matilda may still have some of her late husband’s clothes and I recall he was a similar height to Guy.”
“Don’t tell Matilda. Clothes,” Much mutters.
“And hurry,” I tell him.
John scowls as Much pushes the curtain aside and makes his way over to the tethered horses.
“If Marian were here,” I say, looking John in the eye, as close to pleading as I dare get, “she would do the same thing.”
John drops his crossed arms to his sides and nods because, for Marian, he will forgive me anything. “Come on, lass,” he says, patting the hunting knife he’d slipped into his belt and wrapping his fingers around Rowena’s upper arm. “With Much gone, it’ll be up to us to go hunt for supper.”
“What about him?” Rowena says, glancing at Guy. “What if he tries to hurt Robin?”
“He doesn’t look as if he could hurt a fly right now, and Robin’s a big lad; he can take care of himself. Come on.”
John and Rowena leave and I am alone with Guy. Now is my chance. I can tell Guy that I was wrong to send him away, that it had nothing to do with Marian and everything to do with me.
“Guy,” I whisper, knowing that Allan might be within earshot. I touch his blanketed leg, gently shake it. He groans and opens his eyes.
“More water?” I ask. “Ale?”
Guy nods; to which, I’m not sure. I offer him the water-skin and he shakes his head. Allan had some ale on him. I step outside. Allan’s nowhere in sight, but the skin containing the ale is.
The brew seems to perk Guy up a little. After several mouthfuls, he says, “I didn’t go to Prince John. I didn’t even go to Nottingham. I came here, straight here.”
“Why would you do that?” I ask. “Why not Locksley? You must have known that’s where we’d go first.”
“I wasn’t sure you would want me there, not after you told me to get lost. I had this foolish notion I could find your camp and live in it.”
“I thought you hated the forest.”
“I do now.” Guy shifts uncomfortably, glancing down at his soiled leathers.
“How did you find—”
“Berries,” Guy interrupts. “Shouldn’t have touched them; but a sword’s no use for taking down a deer or a rabbit and I’m a piss-poor archer.”
“If you stay with me,” I say, daring to shuffle closer, so my knee is lightly touching the underside of one of his feet, “I can teach you to be a better one.”
“Thank you,” Guy says, a grateful smile gracing his sore lips. “Though I’ll have to stay on this earth first and, right now, death is crooking its finger at me.”
“Rubbish. You just ate something that didn’t agree with you. Matilda will put you to rights, you’ll see.”
“That witch will more than like feed me more berries,” Guy says. “I recall the last time we met I was standing at the edge of Locksley pond, giving the count, and she was roped to a ducking stool.”
Guy’s right. Matilda is just as likely to spit on him as she is to heal him.
“Matilda will do what I say.”
“I think you’ll find,” Guy says, “she’s not part of your gang.”
“She won’t refuse me.” But will you refuse me if, when you are well, I make my feelings known?
“No, no woman ever refuses you, does she?” Guy says, somewhat bitterly. He shudders and wraps his arms around his stomach as another griping pain takes hold.
I back away. He’ll be mortified when Matilda finds him in such a sorry state, but my imagining lying with him doesn’t include stripping him of his leathers and cleaning him up.
The afternoon is wearing on. The clear blue skies of earlier have turned slate grey and there is a depressing drizzle in the air.
Allan, seemingly oblivious to the weather, is slumped against the trunk of a wide oak, eyes shut, presumably asleep. John and Rowena are still off in the forest somewhere, seeking supper. I listen. Apart from the usual forest sounds, all is quiet. Matilda’s cottage is on the far side of Sherwood, towards Nettlestone. It will be some time yet before Much reaches and returns with her.
I turn back to our sleeping area. I’ve done bloody battle many a time, seen men lose their stomachs, their bowels and their entrails; watched men hang, kicking, piss running down their legs; swallowed back my own bile while men burned and screamed. I can deal with some soiled clothing and some cringing embarrassment, both his and mine.
Guy is lying down with the striped blanket pulled up so only the top half of his head is showing. His eyes are closed. He is asleep. Guiltily, I slink away, mouthing silent thanks to God for giving me a reprieve. Matilda has seen many sick folk in her time and will deal with his pitiful state in her usual no-nonsense manner. That’s if she comes. That’s if Much doesn’t blurt out whom she’s to deal with.
With nothing to do but wait, I try to make myself useful by picking up and washing out the empty wooden mugs, scraping blackened remains of food from Much’s pans and skimming off detritus floating on the top of the water in our water barrel.
When I can find nothing else to do, and the anxious wait is gnawing at me too much to consider fletching or loosing arrows, I take to pacing.
“Where is he then?” I hear Matilda ask.
“Lying down, moaning and groaning,” Allan replies. “And I’d hold your nose if I were you; it ain’t exactly a rose garden in there.”
“No, you chump,” Matilda says. “I meant Robin. Where is the love?”
“Here,” I say, stepping around the tethered horses and striding towards her.
“Oh, Robin, you poor fellow,” she says, dropping her bulging leather satchel and bundling up to me. She hugs me and then holds me at arm’s length. “Here, let me look at you. You’ve not been eating. I’m not surprised.” She shakes her head sadly from side to side. “The poor lass.”
“I know what happened,” she says, her kindly brown eyes bright with a wash of tears. “Much told me on the way here.” She rubs her backside, uncaring that we’re watching her. “Couldn’t ride smoothly if his horse had wings, that one,” she says, nodding her head at Much.
“Robin said to make haste,” Much pouts. “So I did.”
“He didn’t say displace all me internal organs, though, did he?”
Much opens his mouth to reply, but Matilda has already turned her attention back to me.
“I can’t believe I’ll not see the sweet girl again,” she says. “She was a good ‘un and no mistake. But here, we mustn’t be getting all sad and weepy when there’s a sick man to see to.” She gathers up her bag and her long skirts.
“Now I hope it ain’t that John Little what’s needs seeing to, because I’ll be needing ropes and pulleys to turn that one over, not to mention a bucketful of medicine to—”
“It’s Gisborne,” I interrupt.
“Am I hearing right?” Matilda halts in her tracks. “Much said as how you had someone sick here, though no amount of wheedling would get it out of him who, but never in me born days did I think you meant that scumbag. I wouldn’t have him squashed under me boot, let alone under me roof, the murdering dog.” Hands on hips, she issues a robust spit.
“He’s very sick, Matilda.”
“He should be very dead,” she says, making a stabbing motion with her fist. “What on earth can you be thinking, Robin, tending to him when your lady love is lying—”
“Please,” I say. “Don’t.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, love.” She grabs both my hands, pulls them into her generous bosom. “Me and me big mouth. But tell me: why you would want to help him, after what he’s done?”
“A lot has happened since the Holy Land. Guy saved my life when pirates attacked our boat; and he again saved my life when I went overboard. If it weren’t for him, I’d be lying at the bottom of the sea.”
“Two rights don’t mend a wrong, at least, not the wrong he did you.” She lets go of my hands.
“He deserves a chance,” I say. “A chance to redeem himself, to prove that Marian was right when she said there was good in him.”
“He deserves a red-hot poker up the backside,” Matilda says, doing a good imitation of shoving something hot and nasty up where the sun don’t shine. “And as for finding any good in him, well that’d be like finding a needle in a haystack.”
“I’m not going to risk the chance of him dying on me,” I say. “And if you won’t treat him, then I shall have to dig out a bag of coin and fetch Blight to—”
“The gravedigger’s best friend, the maggot’s mate! Not bloody likely!” Matilda again hikes up her skirts. “Blight will like as not wipe out the lot of you with his turdy potions and his slimy leeches. And if he doesn’t, and happens to save that steaming piece of horseshit, then folks might get to hearing Blight proclaiming how he’s a miracle worker.” She strides towards our sleeping area. I smile. No amount of pleading, it seems, will change her mind about leaving Guy to the Fates; but the mention of Blight, her adversary in the world of medicine, does the trick. I’d been counting on it.
I suspect from Guy’s angry grunts and foul-mouthed curses that Matilda is taking great delight in seeing a man she’d like to push into a cauldron full of hot oil reduced to a helpless piece of bone and flesh, doubtless prodding and poking and humiliating him to the limit of his endurance. If – and please God let it happen – Guy recovers, I will have to do my utmost to ensure he never crosses Matilda’s path again, certainly not when he’s wearing a sword.
“More water,” Matilda shouts, poking her flushed face around the edge of the curtain.
“Much,” I say.
“Water, right.” He scoops up the empty bowl Matilda has set on the ground and marches towards the water barrel. I catch the words, “Fetch this, do that, do this.” In times of stress, I always seem to forget Much is no longer my manservant. Actually, most of the time if I’m honest about it.
Much places the bowl at my feet, slopping water on my boots as he does so. “John and Rowena are back,” he says, unnecessarily. “Obviously, I will be the one cooking supper, so if you want any more water you’ll have to get it yourself or ask someone else.” Without waiting for my reply, he stomps away.
“That’s telling you,” Matilda says, grinning. She picks up the water bowl, deliberately tipping another decent splash on my boots and pushes through the curtain. I wait outside. A handful of heartbeats later, I hear a yelp followed by, “God’s hairy bollocks, woman. Touch me there again and you’re dead.” Matilda emerges from behind the curtain, face and hair wet.
“How is Guy?” I ask, attempting to keep a straight face.“Do you know what’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing a disembowelling won’t fix,” Matilda grumbles, wiping her face with her hand.
“I’m sure you deserved it,” I say.
Matilda nods, conceding the point, says, “As far as I can tell, he’s caught a chill that has gone to his chest. As to the stomach cramps: he’s eaten some sort of berry, no idea what; his plant identification is no better than his dress sense. I’ve given him a mix of wormwood, mint and balm. The symptoms should ease in a day or two. Meanwhile, be careful not to drink or eat from the same vessels as him. Oh, and I’d burn those leathers if I were you. I’ve chucked them over the back, on the deer track that leads to your privy.”
“How do you know that’s where it leads?”
“I’ve got a nose, Robin, though I wished to God I didn’t when I was in with Mr Shittybreeches.”
“Thank you,” I say. “For coming, for helping him. And for the love of God please don’t go calling him that when next you see him or wet under-wrappings will be the least of your worries.”
“You’re the one who should worry, love. No man changes overnight. Are you certain you want to risk having him around? I could easily slip something into the remedy I made up for him.”
“Matilda, are you suggesting...”
She nods, eyes gleaming, a wicked grin on her face. “Just a drop or two; that’s all it would take. Quick and painless. I promise he won’t feel a thing. Be just like going to sleep.”
Matilda shrugs. “Suit yourself. If you change your mind, you know where I am. Now,” she says, sniffing appreciatively, “I believe Much said something about supper.”
Chapter 27: Chapter 26
Matilda flicks tangled strands of dripping hair over her shoulders, picks up her heavy skirts and strides towards our supper table; hewn tree stumps and a couple of fallen trunks in this case.
I remain where I am, dithering about whether to risk speaking to Guy with the gang close by, wondering if I, too, might get water, or worse, dashed in my face once I’ve spoken what’s on my mind.
Heart thumping wildly, mouth chalk-dry, I flap the curtain aside.
“Robin,” Matilda calls.
I pause, one booted foot across the threshold of our sleeping area.
“Come and eat, lad.” She waves a grease-dripping piece of meat at me. “This leg’s got more meat on it than you have and that’s after I’ve stripped it to the bone.”
“I was going to see if Guy wants anything to eat,” I say.
“I wouldn’t be feeding him just yet,” Matilda says. “Not if you’re wanting to get a decent night’s sleep.” She pats the space next to her. “Come on over here before Much scoffs the lot.”
I doubt I’ll be able to eat with my stomach tied in knots as it is, but Matilda has that determined look on her face that I know very well. Even if I do manage to gain a quiet word with Guy, I’ll probably find her hunkering down beside me trying to shove a spoon into my mouth.
Reluctantly, I let the curtain flap closed.
Once seated, Much hands me a trencher with the words, “It’s not squirrel, all right.” I simply nod, too agitated to think about making a witty remark.
“Ale?” Allan says, handing me a wooden cup.
“Thank you.” I take a nibble of meat and then put it down in favour of the drink.
A muffled groan comes from behind the curtain. Matilda places a staying hand on my thigh. “He’s going to be fine,” she says, somewhat gloomily. “I may loathe and detest the no-good lump of shit, but a sick man is a sick man and I’ll not risk ruining my reputation as the best healer in Nottinghamshire by having him die on me.”
She holds out her trencher for a refill. Scowling, Much slaps another piece of meat on it. “But I meant what I said earlier, Robin,” she continues. “You should think carefully about trusting Gisborne. He’s weak as water right now, but when he’s well again, who knows what mischief he might get up to. Things have been mighty quiet in Nottingham of late, what with the new sheriff being unwell – ha! Blight’s treating him, so he’ll not be long for this world – and that pompous prick, Prince John, keeping himself hidden away. But my waters are telling me that something’s brewing and whatever it is, it ain’t good. Gisborne may have mended his ways since robbing this earth of your sweet lady, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to throw in his lot with you filthy beasts and become an outlaw. Power and coin, that’s what the prince is about, and I can’t believe that a penniless, landless Gisborne won’t chase after a bit of that. He doesn’t strike me as someone who’d be happy to spend half his life avoiding capture and the other half smelling like a cat’s bum.”
“Oi,” Allan says. “You calling us smelly?”
“Trust me, lad. There’s not a lot to choose between leather-pants and you lot right now. You all smell as though you’ve been—”
“Travelling for months,” I interrupt.
Matilda does me the good grace of looking contrite.
“We’d be smelling of roses if we’d had the chance to stay in Locksley,” Much says.”
“Why? What happened in Locksley?” Matilda asks.
“I’m afraid it was my fault that we had to leave,” Rowena says.
Matilda appraises the slight girl with the boyish clothes and hair. She flicks her eyes at me and then back to Rowena. I can almost hear the matchmaking cogs in her head clunking and whirring. Too late, I think. In less than a handful of days, we’ve met, coupled and said our goodbyes, or at least I have; I don’t know how Rowena feels about me. I guess that right now she’s still smarting over me calling her Marian by mistake. If she only knew the wicked things running through my mind as we lay on Guy’s clothes, legs entangled, my cock buried inside her, she’d have been waving that hunting knife at me and not Guy.
“I doubt it was all your fault, dearie,” Matilda says. “Robin’s middle name is trouble, has been ever since he were a lad, hiding under tables and looking up little girls’ skirts.”
Deciding to change the topic of conversation lest Rowena says something out of turn, I say, “I don’t believe Guy will turn traitor on us. Not after everything we’ve been through of late.”
“The promise of coin can turn a weak man’s head as easily as the promise of a lady’s lower lips can stir his manhood,” Matilda says.
I notice Much and John are giving Allan pointed stares.
“For crying out loud,” Allan says. “Will you never let me forget that?”
“No,” Much says. “We won’t.”
Allan lays down his meal.
“What news of Rosa and your granddaughter, Alice?” I ask, waving Allan down.
“Keeping me run off me feet,” Matilda says with a happy smile.
She proceeds to tell us, in detail, about Alice’s first steps, first teeth, all manner of firsts, in fact. I let most of her words wash over me, thinking instead about what I might say to Guy once I get the chance to talk to him; it’s hardly something I can slip into a conversation about the weather, after all. Hey, Guy, I reckon those dark clouds up there means it’s going to rain. Oh, and by the way, can we please get naked together soon because threshing the corn by myself just isn’t doing it for me anymore.
“Robin? Are you all right?” Much is standing over me and I suddenly realise that my supper is no longer on my lap.
“What? Yes, sorry. I’m fine. Tired.”
“You should go to bed,” he says.
I pick up my spilled trencher and stare at a spider scuttling around the greasy meat lying on the ground. As I watch its spirited passage, a memory blazes.
I’d been sitting in the cramped cabin, hung-over and hurting, watching a spider pick its way across the piece of tattered straw matting separating Much’s bunk from mine. Even now, after all our travels, I can still recall the boat’s creaking timbers as it pulled away from the harbour and headed out to sea. I can also still recall the disconcerting grunting noises coming from the neighbouring cabin, the whimpers and moans that ended in a throaty exclamation and a guttural roar, leaving me in no doubt what the two men were up to. It had repulsed me at the time; I thought it was nothing more than carnal lust, the work of the Devil. Now look at me, hankering after Gisborne. Doesn’t that make me the same as them?
Rowena is saying something about who’s sleeping where, and I drag myself back to the present.
“I’ll bed down here tonight, if it’s all right with you, Robin,” Matilda says, gesturing at the night sky.
“Of course,” I say, standing. “Much, help the ladies with their bedding, will you.”
Still busily gnawing on a piece of gristly-looking meat, Much leads Rowena and Matilda towards the far end of the camp where a curtained off sleeping area had been made for Djaq when she was with us.
“Well,” Allan says. “I don’t know about you lot, but I’m going to pitch up here next to the fire. I don’t fancy spending the night next to Mr Berry Breeches.”
John says his goodnights and ambles off, uncaring about where he sleeps. Allan fetches his bedding and plonks himself next to the fire, after having made sure he has a generous supply of ale at his side. I think it might not be a bad idea to drink some more myself; with any luck, I will pass out and spend the night in a dreamless, dead-to-the-world sleep. I quickly dismiss the idea: one person out of sorts in the camp is probably enough.
The women settled, Much lights a small candle to see by, takes off his belt and boots and tumbles into his bed. Within a score of heartbeats, he is snoring lightly, knees pulled into his chest.
Guy is sleeping in my bed. By the light of the candle, I can make out his face, partly obscured by his long hair. I crouch beside the bed and lean in close, worried that Matilda might have ignored my earlier command and slipped something into his medicine after all. But she hasn’t. Guy is breathing steadily, if somewhat nasally.
His top half is exposed and I can see that he is wearing a simple woollen tunic, doubtless the one Matilda supplied. I think of his leathers lying soiled and forlorn out in the forest. In the morning, I will take them down to the river and clean them for him. I, of all people, should be glad to see him wearing something other than those black leathers, a reminder of his time as Vaisey’s master-at-arms, and yet I know he will be grateful to have them back.
Carefully, my hand shaking, I lift the long strands of hair from his face and flip them over his shoulder. He doesn’t wake.
I could kiss him, I think. I could kiss him right now and slip away into the shadows before he is fully awake, watch as he touches his lips, eyes widening in the knowledge that Robin of Locksley, the Earl of Huntingdon desires the man he has hated for as long as he can remember.
My stomach growls in protest of too much liquid and too little food. I shuffle backwards and away, heart banging in my chest.
Will’s bed is not as comfortable as mine and the blanket is thinner and rougher, but it will have to do, at least until Guy is well and we sort out our future sleeping arrangements.
In the distance, an owl hoots and another answers. The trees rustle and creak in the soft breeze. The telltale tread of a woodland creature nears and then fades away.
The forest is sleeping its gentle nighttime sleep, while I am lying in bed wide-awake and restless.
Tomorrow, I think. I will tell him tomorrow.
Chapter 28: Chapter 27
I crouch beside the bed and gently touch his bare wrist. Guy opens his eyes, blinks to clear them of sleep.
If I’d taken Matilda up on her offer to poison him, right now I could be hiding behind some tree, arrow nocked, ready to rob some passing nobleman of his coin, instead of squatting here with a bundle of damp leathers resting on my knees, heart pounding, my throat tighter than a taxman’s purse strings.
Guy pushes up onto his elbows. He glances at the closed curtain. “No mad girl with a hunting knife coming to slit my throat? No foul-mouthed medicine woman about to castrate me?”
“I was jesting,” he says, lips curling upward into a genuine smile. “I heard you sending them on their way earlier, along with the rest of your gang.” He wriggles farther up the bed, until he is sitting. He eyes the folded leathers resting on my thighs. “I can’t believe you managed to persuade your pudding-headed servant to wash those, even though he’d probably lick your boots if you asked him to.”
“Much is not my servant, and he didn’t wash them. I did.”
“Why would you do that?” Guy eyes both the leathers and then me suspiciously.
“I haven’t filled them with creepy crawlies, if that’s what you’re worried about.” I lay them on the ground, beside the bed. “I figured you’d prefer not to go around wearing Matilda’s late husband’s cast-offs.”
“True enough,” he says, plucking at the course woollen tunic. “These clothes itch like buggery.” He looks at the neatly folded leathers. “The witch told me she was going to cut my breeches up into very small pieces and make me eat them.”
“Matilda is not a witch,” I tell him. “And she says a great many things that she does not mean.”
“Trust me,” Guy says, pulling the woollen tunic over his head and scratching his bare chest. “She meant it.”
I notice his chest is hairless and wonder what it would be like to run my hands over it and if I did whether he’d chide me for daring to stroke him with calloused bow fingers and many a broken fingernail.
“You can’t blame her for disliking you, not after what you and the sheriff put her through. If it hadn’t been for us, she would have drowned.”
Guy scowls. “I always knew you were behind her escape somehow.”
“Never mind all that,” I say, not wishing to hark on the past when it’s the future, his and mine, that I want to talk about. “Matilda came here and fixed you up. That’s all that matters.”
“Only because you asked her to.” Guy peels back the blanket and swings his legs over the edge of the bed. I see he’s wearing hose cut from the same rough wool as the tunic.
“How are you feeling?” I ask.
“Surprisingly better.” He again glances at the curtain and then at the empty beds nearby.
“I’ll let you get dressed,” I say, standing.
Don’t be craven, Robin. This is why you sent the gang off on various errands: to be alone with him.
“No,” he says, pushing himself off the bed and coming slowly to his feet. “Stay. I want to talk to you.”
“You make it sound serious,” I say, running my tongue over my teeth in an attempt to unstick them from my lips. Now that the moment to speak to him candidly is here, I’m as nervous as a maiden on her wedding night.
“Maybe,” he says, unlacing the ties at the top of his hose, “that’s because this is serious.” He nods at his leathers. “Do you mind? I haven’t eaten properly for several days and am a little light-headed. If I bend down, I may well end up staying down.”
Feeling like some squire on his first day, I pick up Guy’s clothing. When I straighten and turn to face him, I find him standing in a pair of braies – spare ones of mine – hand outstretched.
Disappointment coating my tongue, I hand Guy his breeches, followed by his undershirt, doublet and sword-belt. I watch as he does up the heavily embossed fastenings, maddeningly slowly, and wonder if I should start up a conversation about the weather.
“Much better,” Guy says, running an appreciative hand over his doublet. “Though they’re a little damp for my liking.” He threads the thick sword-belt through a plethora of leather loops.
“Sorry. I thought they’d dry out on the walk back from the river but I guess they didn’t.”
Guy tucks his long matted hair behind his ears, sniffs his fingers. “I should probably go down to the river myself. I smell worse than the castle privies.”
He meets my eyes, grins. “You like that idea? Me in the river, naked as my birthing day?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know.”
“I think you do know,” he says, moving towards me until we are only an arm’s-width apart. “I think this isn’t the first time me being naked has crossed your mind. Certainly, I’ve imagined you in a state of undress.”
His gloveless hand shoots forward and snatches up one of the lacings securing my breeches. I take an involuntary step backwards. “The gang—”
“Are not here,” he says, yanking me into his chest. “And will be gone for ages with the long list of tasks you’ve given them. It’s just you and me. That is what you wanted, isn’t it?”
Run, I think, before it’s too late. Go jump in the River Trent and stand there until your balls shrivel to nothing and this despicable want goes away.
Instead, I simply stand while Guy unties my laces, not knowing where to look, where to put my hands.
“The girl with the short hair and the common mouth,” Guy says, flapping my breeches open. “Who is she? Another one of your waifs and strays?”
“You want to know this now?” I glance down, mortified that even just the thought of him touching my private parts has aroused me to such a degree.
“Yes,” he says, crossing his arms. “I want to know this now.”
He steps backwards, until his shins connect with the edge of the bed.
Feeling a complete fool standing there with my arousal evident through my smallclothes, I quickly re-tie my breeches in an effort to regain some composure. Then, acutely aware of the passage of time as well as my demanding flesh, I manage to tell him, in as few words as possible, about finding Rowena in Locksley, the fight with the knights and our subsequent flight to the forest.
“So,” Guy says. “Robin Hood to the rescue, as always. And is this girl part of your gang now? After all, I imagine it gets very cold in the forest in winter, and now that your Saracen bitch is gone—”
“If you’re implying—”
“I’m not implying. I’m asking.”
“Whether you’re intending to bed her.”
“Do you think I’d let you touch me like...like you were about to, if I were interested in her?”
“I think,” he says, “that the noble Robin Hood would go to any lengths to keep tongues from wagging, to preserve his reputation as a ladies’ man.”
“Bollocks! I loved Marian. I would have spent the rest of my life with her if you hadn’t—”
“Did I say anything about Marian? I was talking about all the other young girls you’ve dallied with, all the hearts you stole only to toss away without even a backward glance.”
A heated shame creeps up my neck at the truth of his words, a truth I’ve known since my time in the Holy Land, on crusade with King Richard, a truth I have pushed to the farthest reaches of my mind, just as I have the faces of the men I’ve killed in battle and elsewhere.
“I did love Marian,” I say.
“As did I.” He glances at his sword, leaning against an upturned barrel, turns back to me. His blue eyes glisten with tears. “This is a mistake. No matter what I say or do, it will always come back to her, to what I did. Her ghost will always come between us.” He turns and stumbles in stockinged feet towards the closed curtain.
“Wait,” I say, rushing after him and grabbing a handful of leather to prevent him escaping me. “This is not a mistake. Well, it is a mistake, but I want to all the same.” I let go of his arm and wait, deciding to let Guy determine what happens next.
He takes a couple of deep breaths, knuckles his eyes and turns around. “I asked about the girl because I want to know you’re not going to play me for a fool the way Marian did. That you’re not doing this because you’re fresh out of strong rooms to break into, or silver arrows to win, or pigeons to snaffle and need some other excitement in your coin-thieving life.”
“I want to know,” he says, placing a hand on my shoulder. “Whether this is what you truly want.”
I glance at his hand, notice his ever-clean fingernails are dirty and bitten. “You know it is. You’ve known it since you handed me my broken bow in that alleyway, maybe even before then. That’s why I sent you away, when we got to Portsmouth.”
Guy nods. “I guessed as much.”
He stares into my eyes and I stare into his. It is going to happen. Now. Here. In the camp.I should be happy, but all I feel is sick and frightened and ashamed.
I want to kiss him, to taste his lips, his mouth, but when I lean in, hoping he’ll get the hint, he presents me with the top of his head, intent on dealing with the ties on my breeches.
A quick fuck, I think. That’s all he wants. I’m a fool to think it could be anything more than that.
“Must you tie these things so tightly,” he says. “Anyone would think you were worried about someone stealing your jewels.”
I lightly kiss his hair, say, “I’ll make sure they’re looser next time.”
“And I’ll make sure to avoid the berry starter next time. It’s not good for the stomach or the breath. My mouth tastes like...no; I don’t think you want to know.”
You stupid idiot, Robin, I tell myself.Even as a boy, Guy was fastidious about how he looked, how he smelt. I will get my kiss when Guy is ready to bestow it upon me.
With a small grunt of triumph, he slides a hand into my braies and cups my ballsack.
Clumsily, I grapple with his belt buckle.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” he asks, stroking the back of my hand and wrist with his free hand.
“Do you?” I ask.
He grimaces, as though at some unpleasant memory, quickly masks it with a smile. “I think so.”
His belt buckle comes undone.
Chapter 29: Chapter 28
“I think,” Guy says, wrapping the fingers of his free hand around my hand, the one I have presently buried inside his leathers, tentatively exploring the length and weight of him, “that I’ll just do you this time. I’m not sure I’m really up to the occasion right now, all things considered.”
“All right,” I say, pulling my hand free and letting it dangle by my side. Then, feeling awkward, I hook the fingers of both my hands over the top of his thick leather belt. I always knew where to put my hands when I was with a woman. I thought this would be similarly easy, but it’s not.
“Good.” Guy places the warm pads of his fingers under my chin, lifting it so we are eye to eye.
I nod, even though I’m not sure whether his ‘good’ is a question or not.
He slides his hand from my cock, licks the back of it and gives me a predatory grin. Lowering onto his knees, he pulls my breeches and braies down with him.
Don’t look, I think, closing my eyes. Imagine it’s some other man doing this to you, anyone but him. I take a deep, shaky breath. The smell of damp leather fills my nostrils.
“First time at my mercy, Hood.” He gives me a teasing lick. “I think I’m going to like this.”
I open my eyes, daring to look at what he’s doing, and stare straight into Matilda’s shocked face peering around the curtain that divides our sleeping area from the rest of the camp.
“Fuck!” Stumbling backwards, I trip over the clothes bunched around my ankles and end up on my back, legs spread.
Guy whirls around. “Witch!”
Screwing up her face in disgust and disbelief, Matilda yanks the curtain closed.
“I’ll have her,” Guy snarls, eyes alighting on something above my head and behind me: his sword.
“No. I’ll deal with her,” I say, pushing up onto my elbows. “Don’t—”
“You can’t lie your way out of this one, Hood. That witch is no fool.”
Untangling a leg from my dropped breeches and braies, I kick out as Guy strides past me, toppling him. Still fumbling to do up his belt buckle, he is unable to save himself. With a sickening crunch, he smacks onto the wooden edge of my bunk. His eyelids flutter and then close. Blood oozes from a gash on his forehead.
Quickly regaining my feet, I tug my braies and breeches up trembling legs. Two attempts and I give up trying to tie my laces sensibly, knotting them instead.
I kneel next to Guy and brush his long hair from his face. He is out cold.
I call again but she doesn’t come. Leaving Guy where he is, I charge outside, almost taking the curtain with me.
She is standing some yards away, one of Much’s frying pans in one hand and a paring knife in the other. One look at her face tells me that Guy is right: there is not a lie on this earth I can use to explain away what Guy and I were about to do.
“He won’t hurt you,” I say, blinking away sudden tears. I don’t know if I’m more upset about her finding us like that, or because she’s denied me his mouth on my willing flesh after craving it for so long. “I won’t let him.”
“It’s not me I’m worried about.” Matilda lowers her improvised weapons, shaking her head sadly from side to side. “It’s you.”
“I’m all right, but Guy isn’t. He’s fallen, bashed his head. He’s unconscious and bleeding.”
“I can see he stays that way, too.” She strides towards our sleeping area, frying pan and knife in hand.
“No!” I grab her arm as she passes me and prise the knife from her hand. “Leave him be.”
“Maybe,” she says, shaking me off her, “you’re the one I should be smacking over the head with a frying pan. Someone obviously needs to knock some bleeding sense into you. Whatever are you doing, Robin?” She holds up a staying hand. “No, don’t answer that. It’s obvious Gisborne weren’t knelt down there saying his prayers.”
“I can explain.”
Matilda tosses the frying pan aside, puts her hands on her generous hips. “I’m waiting.”
“Actually, I can’t explain. I don’t know how or why it happened, it just—”
“Oh, Robin, Robin.” Matilda comes closer, until we are only inches apart. She takes hold of my hand, the one I’d briefly touched Guy with. “You, of all people. And with him. Whatever can you be thinking? Aye, well obviously you weren’t thinking, least not with your head. Come over here. You and I need to talk.”
Gripping my hand, she drags me over to our eating area.
“Sit!” She points at the fallen tree trunk where we sit and eat most of our meals.
I do as she says. I’ve never been able to refuse Matilda. She sits beside me.
“Listen to me, love.” She grasps both my hands and pulls them into her lap, the way she did when I was a child. “God knows I’ve—”
“Why did you come back?” I snatch my hands from hers. “You told me you were going home.”
“And so I was. Then, as I was walking, I got to thinking and then to worrying. I’d heard you telling everyone to go off and do this and that errand and I realised that you were all alone in the camp, with Gisborne, the man who’s tried to kill you countless times. What if he’s not as weak as he’s making out, I thought. What if he jumps Robin when you’re not looking? Something in my waters I said, and I was right, wasn’t I?”
“We weren’t hurting anyone.”
“Not yet you weren’t, you great lummox.”
She slaps me round the side of the head, so hard it hurts. I bite my lip to keep my tears at bay, but I never could fool Matilda.
“Oh, lad, don’t take on so. I do understand. A lot more than you might think. I know men have such urges. I’ve had young and old alike asking me for potions to drive out the Devil’s Itch, as some call it. Heaven help me, but it happened at me own hearth.”
She fiddles with her skirts as if to gather her thoughts, or maybe she is waiting for me to ask her to explain. When I don’t speak, she continues. “My husband was a good man and we had our fair Rosa, but that didn’t stop him. Nor could I. I couldn’t cure him any more than I could the others that came knocking on my door. I think he was glad when the pox took him. He certainly didn’t fight it. Weren’t nothing but a mild case. I reckon I could have saved him. But he wanted to die, wanted the curse lifted, to spare me and Rosa, spare us from the shame should it ever come out.”
She lets go her skirts and cups both her hands around mine, drawing them back into her lap. “Is that what you want, Robin? To live under the shadow of knowing what people will say and think of you if they find out? You, Robin Hood, the stuff of legends, your name dragged through the mud. And would you trade your gang, your friends, for an urge, for that black-hearted piece of horseshit? Think about it, eh, love. It’s for you to work out, nothing I can say, I know that. But make the right choice, I beg you.”
Matilda sighs and stands. “I should have slipped him that poison when I had the chance, said nothing. It’s not too late, Robin. I could still do it on your say so. With Gisborne as weak as he is, it’ll be easy work for you to hold him down while I do it. Just a drop or two on his tongue.”
For a handful of heartbeats, I consider it. With Guy dead, this shameful longing can die with him. The gang need never know what happened, will think whatever was ailing him before has struck anew, finished him off. And even if they do suspect that I had a hand in his death, especially when they see his bruised and cut forehead, I doubt very much that they’ll care. They tolerated him on the journey home to England because I asked them to. I know they’ll be happier not to have him around, especially John and Much.
“No,” I tell her.
“You’re making a big mistake, love.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time.” I stand and turn my back on her, the disappointment on her face more than I can stand.
Matilda steps up behind me. Laying a soothing hand on my back, she says, “I’m not going to pretend I can live easily with this. I’ve known you since you were but a happy glint in your dearly departed mother’s eye. We used to talk, her and me, while you used to run around in nothing but your under-wrappings, with your curls and your big blue eyes. We used to talk about all the hearts you’d break, all the maidens who’d be swooning over Robin of Locksley. And they did, didn’t they? But there was only one girl for you. Only one girl who could win the heart of my favourite boy. Would you sully her memory by—”
Guy groans, clearly coming to his senses.
“You need to go,” I say, turning to face her. “Now. I will make sure he doesn’t come after you.”
Matilda spits. “You think I’m afraid of that leather-bound dog turd.”
“I know you’re not afraid of anything. You’re one of the bravest women I know. But Guy has a temper and—”
“Aye, he has temper, all right. You’re the one who should be afraid, Robin.”
“Please,” I say. “Go home. Let me deal with Guy.”
She gives my arm a squeeze. “All right. I will. If that’s what you want. But think carefully, lad. Because he’ll not live up to her, not in a million years. There are other people to love you, you know. Other people who can help you get over your heartbreak. Why choose him, especially since he’s the one what caused it? Why I could tell you stories—”
“Don’t,” I say. “Please...don’t.”
Guy reels off a string of foul-mouthed curses. I cringe. Only moments ago, that mouth was about to do a lot more than merely rant and swear.
“Come on,” I say, grabbing Matilda’s hand and dragging her towards the trees.
“Wait! My medicines.”
Letting go of her hand, I rush over to her dropped satchel, snatch it up and pelt back to her.
“I won’t say anything, love. Not to nobody,” she says, stumbling along behind me, one hand gripping her voluminous bag, the other holding up her skirts. “But I will say this: they are your friends and they’ve stuck by you through thick and thin, but just because I understand this, don’t mean to say that they will.”
She is right. If they find out about Guy and me, I can kiss the gang goodbye. John’s respect for me will fall away in an instant, right after he’s clobbered me with his staff. Allan will find it amusing at best and detestable at worse. And as for Much, my loyal and loving friend, this will shock and sadden him beyond measure. What little of our friendship I have managed to claw back since leaving Le Havre will be lost in a single blow. And losing him, I now realise, is unthinkable.
I need these men, my friends. Despite the rough ride I’ve given them since leaving Acre they have always been there for me. Without them, I can’t be Robin Hood. And sharing Guy’s bed means I can’t be Robin Hood either. And if I’m not Robin Hood then I don’t know who I am.
“I will deal with it,” I tell her.
“I know you will, love. Just promise me one thing.”
“I will. I promise.”
“Oh, and one more thing.”
“No. No more things. Go,” I say, glancing in the direction of the camp, fearful that Guy is about to come bursting through the trees, sword in hand.
“I was going to say,” she says, “that you’d do well to remember how ill Gisborne has been these past few days. I’d be watching where I was putting my mouth, if I were you.”
I can’t tell whether she’s jesting or not, but if she’s trying to dissuade me from getting up close and personal with Guy then, for the present, she’s succeeded.
Giving her an awkward hug and foregoing my usual kisses, I say goodbye.
“Such a waste,” she says, shaking her head and backing away from me. Then, turning her back on me, Matilda bustles off in the direction of Nettlestone.
I return to the camp, my head in turmoil.
Guy is nowhere in sight. I assume he is seeing to his bleeding forehead; either that or sharpening his blade ready to run Matilda, or possibly me, through. I take a deep breath and stride towards our sleeping area. It is obvious that he and I need to talk.
I am halfway there, when Much emerges from the trees, shouting, “Robin. Look what we’ve got for supper!” Beaming, he holds up a deer, an arrow embedded in its neck and another protruding from its breast. “Bit better than rabbit, eh?”
“Harder to get in the pot, though,” Allan jests, dismounting.
I’d sent him on horseback to Nottingham to do some more nosing around and guess that he had run into Much and Rowena on his way back to the camp, along with John who’d been to check that our food store and drop off points were still intact.
“Ha, ha, very funny,” Much says.
“Here,” John says, switching his staff to his left hand and offering his right. “I’ll give you a hand.”
“I can manage, thank you.” Much swings the deer enthusiastically over his shoulder.
I don’t think anyone is surprised when he ends up in a heap on the ground, deer carcass on top of him.
Allan laughs. “You’re supposed to cook it, not wrestle with it. You’ve gotten used to squirrels, mate, that’s your trouble. Lost all your muscles.”
Grinning, Rowena drags the deer off Much’s face. “Don’t pay any attention to them. I think it was wonderful of you to carry this for miles, even if my arrow was the one that killed it.”
“Thank you,” Much says, his smile turning to a scowl when he realises Rowena has just belittled his hunting prowess.
Despite the hollow sick feeling in my stomach, I can’t help but smile. My funny, beautiful, exasperating gang. Would I risk losing all this, them, on an urge, as Matilda put it.
“The food store’s still there,” John says, “but most of the grain sacks are empty. Rats or mice or some other—” He eyes me suspiciously. “Robin? Are you all right? Has something happened?”
I’d been picturing what it will be like: all of us, sitting around the fire, eating, drinking, talking, and all the while Guy and I will be casting furtive glances at each other, wondering how and when we can escape the gang so we can have our wicked way with each other.
It’s no good. I can’t do this. I need to think, to get away.
“Robin, where are you going?” Much calls. “Aren’t you hungry? You must be hungry.”
I keep walking, waving a hand in dismissal of his question, trying to appear as though I am doing nothing more than taking myself off for an evening stroll.
But the moment I am out of both eye and earshot, I begin to run, hurtling through the forest as if the very beasts of Hell are after me.
I have no idea where I’m heading. I only know that I have to get away before I do something unforgivable, if indeed I haven’t done it already.
Behind me, I can hear someone running and guess it is Much. He hates not knowing what I’m up to.
I keep going. Moments later, I realise it’s not Much but Guy. I know it’s him not only because he calls my name, but also because of the way he runs. He’s run the same awkward way since he was a boy.
“Robin! Stop! Where are you going?”
He will not catch up with me, I think. He is still too weak and he is not as fast as I am, never has been. He also doesn’t know the forest as I do. He will soon get lost.
And that is what I should do: get lost and stay lost.
Chapter 30: Chapter 29
The running helps. Concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, on not tripping over tree roots or fallen branches or plunging into a hidden bog, helps keep my wretched thoughts at bay.
I speed past Dan Scarlet’s carved likeness, eerie-looking in the twilit forest. Guy is still chasing me, calling my name, but his shouts are growing more distant as I continue to outrun him.
As I pass the poxy cave, as Much calls it, I think about holing up in there. I change my mind, recalling the last time I’d been in that cave, struggling to tell Marian that I loved her as she lay injured and, as I thought at the time, dying. I can’t bear to be anywhere that reminds me of the woman I promised to love forever and have betrayed in the worse possible way.
My breaths are blowing out in raspy puffs and my throat is as dry as age-old parchment. I should take a breather. Up ahead is Dead Man’s Crossing.
Guy calls, “Robin. Please. Stop,” his words punctuated by harsh coughs.
I reach the big twisted oak marking the crossroads, lean against it. I wonder whether it would be better to stay here and let Guy catch up with me. We need to talk, after all, and running will solve nothing. However, I’m not great when it comes to talking about matters of the heart and I can’t believe Guy is much better. So where will that leave us? Will we carry on where we left off earlier: him on his knees and me with my breeches around my ankles, here in this chilly, near-dark forest?
The thought sickens me, just as the thought of one of the gang stumbling across us, the way Matilda had, sickens me.
I push off from the tree and start running again.
By the time I reach a part of the forest I am less familiar with, I can no longer hear Guy.
It’s fully dark now and I can hardly see my own hand when I hold it out in front of me. I slow down, realising the madness of running fast when I can’t make out the path properly. The last thing I want to do is to trip up and injure myself or knock myself out. What I need now is shelter. Late autumn still offers some mild days, but the nights are cold. I don’t even have a cloak to keep me warm.
I look around, trying to work out where I am and realise I’m heading in the direction of Kirklees Abbey.
At this time of night, the monks will have locked the abbey. I’m not sure I want to go inside in any case. Somehow, I don’t think God will look too happily upon this sinner, even if I were to confess my sins and ask for absolution. But the abbey has barns where I can spend the night. Tomorrow, I will think about Guy, who, if he has any sense, will have headed back to the camp or found somewhere else to shelter for the night. Please God, he doesn’t end up at Kirklees. I have no wish to deal with him tonight. Tonight, I want to sleep – alone.
I wish I had a drink on me. Not water, something stronger. I quickly change my mind; the last time I tried drinking myself into oblivion was in Etienne, outside a barn where I later spent the night lying in the straw next to an equally drunk Gisborne.
“Frightened I might jump you, Locksley?”
Oh, God, I wish he had. I wish we’d done the deed there and then. I wish we’d done it and I’d hated it, so I wouldn’t be running through a cold, dark forest with Matilda’s disappointed face dogging my every step.
My scarred side is starting to ache, as it often does when I’ve been running for ages. I slow to a walk, cursing. The journey from Acre to England has robbed me of my previous robustness.
Even you’d beat me in a running race now, my love, I think, recalling the many times, as youngsters, Marian and I had challenged each other to a race; her with her skirts tucked and tied around her waist and me bragging how I could outrace her even if I had my legs tied together.
I slide my hand inside my shirt, find and clutch her ring. I’ll give him up, Marian. I’ll keep my promise to you to keep on fighting, for the king, for England. I will tell Guy that he cannot have me.
Feeling better for having made a decision, I skirt around the dark, rather forbidding-looking abbey and head towards the barns some short distance away.
By the near-full moon’s light, I can see that the barns are not the solid, well looked after buildings they had once been. One of the two barns has its door hanging off and the other has a sizeable hole in the roof. I choose the one with the missing door, thinking the other might have damper straw on which to sleep.
Finding a spot as far from the open door as possible, I drag a pile of straw into a makeshift bed, pull off my boots and prepare to settle down for the night.
Sometime later, I’m still wide-awake, my food-hungry belly growling and burbling. I think about trying some of the sleep-inducing games I used to play as a boy in my room back in Locksley: reciting French, naming the counties of England and the Angevin Empire, listing all the nasty or teasing names I used to call Marian whenever she was being bothersome. I don’t. Mostly because it won’t work, not while I’m picturing a cold and hungry Guy stumbling about in a dark forest, lost and alone.
Resigning myself to sleeplessness, I pull on my boots and stand at the open barn door, peering out into the night.
The shadowy outline of the abbey reminds me of the time I stole from the poor plate. I wanted to buy Marian a hair ornament in order to win back her favour after I belittled her bow skills during the children’s archery contest at the Nottingham Fayre. When Marian found out, by way of a loose-tongued Much, what I’d done, she threw the cleverly twisted silver pin into the River Trent and made me return to the abbey every coin I’d taken. What she didn’t know was that I picked a pocket to do so. It seems a minor misdeed now compared to the one I was about to commit with Guy earlier.
Whatever happens, I think, I must not let my rejection of him push Guy back into his old ways. I must keep him from throwing in his lot with Prince John. If Marian were here, I know she would ask this of me.
I awake, cold, stiff and wet, my back leaning against the broken barn door, my legs sticking outside, a drizzly rain soaking my boots and breeches.
Rubbing my face and stretching out the kinks in my side and back, I start the long walk back to the camp.
Along the way, I consider what I will say to the gang on my return. When they ask me why I ran off, I’ll tell them that finding Guy in the camp, even though I had asked Matilda to tend to him, had brought back too many painful memories and I needed to get away for a bit, to be by myself.
As I’m walking, it occurs to me that Much quite likely spent the night staring at my empty bed and sniffling, Allan doubtless complaining about not being able to get his beauty sleep and John telling them both to shut the hell up.
But the thought that occupies my mind more than any other as I pass Dead Man’s Crossing, the poxy cave and Will’s clever carving, is whether Guy is still out in the forest searching for me.
A foul-mouthed curse and an angry smacking of branches soon answers that question.
I half-stumble, half-slide down the leafy slope into the hollow, the one where Guy and I punched and kicked and hurled abuse at one another upon my discovery of Guy’s slashed tattoo and all it represented. He is pissing, cursing both the rain and the wind, and has his back to me.
For a heartbeat, I consider creeping away, but, even as I am thinking it, he turns around and sees me.
I guess we’re about to have that talk, after all.
“What part of stop,” Guy says, buckling his belt, “do you not understand?”
He sweeps his long, wet hair from his face. There is a large purplish-black bruise on his forehead.
“I needed to get away, to think.”
“Did the witch tell you to leave?”
“Matilda said a great many things, mostly after she whacked me round the head, but leaving wasn’t one of them.”
Guy rests his ungloved right hand on the pommel of his sword. A stab of fear goes through me. He ran Marian through for refusing him. Will he do the same to me?
“I’ve been trudging through this fucking forest all night looking for you, fool that I am. Where were you?” He rubs his eyes, blinks furiously. I doubt he’s had a wink of sleep.
“Does it matter where I was? You’ve found me now.”
Guy unsheathes his sword and starts walking towards me.
“That’s your answer to everything, isn’t it,” I say.
“You wanted it as much as I did.” Guy continues to advance, his sword pointing at my chest. “Your leaking cock was proof of that. But your snivelling gang and your good name come first and always will.”
I take a step backwards, and another, glancing around for something to defend myself with, a branch, a rock, anything.
Several paces from me, Guy stops. He weighs the sword in his hand for a moment or two and then throws it into the air. We watch as it flips end over end. Expertly, he catches the blade’s hilt. “I should have let that pirate’s blade slice your head off. I should have let go your hand and watched you disappear under the sea.” He wipes his eyes again; tears not sleep this time blurring his vision. “I should have murdered the sheriff instead of her.” Once again, he throws the sword up in the air, higher this time. As before, he catches the hilt in his hand with ease.
I am uneasy. Is he doing this to torment me before he tries to run me through? Tired though I am, I lightly bounce on the balls of my feet, ready to run.
Guy glances heavenwards. “She was my world and life wasn’t worth living after she stomped on my heart and left me with nothing. And my life will be nothing now, not without you.” He hurls the sword into the air once more. Diving onto the ground, he rolls over so he is facing skywards.
“No!” I hurl myself on top of him. Briefly, I imagine the gang finding us, one on top of the other, Guy’s broadsword through the both of us, pinning us to the forest floor.
The blade thuds into the ground, an arm’s-width away.
“So you do care, then?”
I let out my indrawn breath, open my eyes and lift my face from his sopping hair. The sword hit the ground pointed end first.
“You fucker, Guy. You could have been killed.”
“Proved my point, though, didn’t it?”
“That you care enough to risk your life for me.”
When I don’t answer, he smiles, says, “Much as having you lying on top of me is something I’ve long dreamed about, this ground is cold and wet and I’m also tired beyond belief.”
I should kiss him, I think. Right now while he is under me. I know Marian would not want me to spend the rest of my days embittered and alone. I know she would be happy for me to forgive him for what he did, albeit sharing a bed with my former enemy is taking forgiveness to the extreme.
Trembling, I roll off him and stand. Guy holds out a hand. I grasp it and pull him to his feet. His hand is freezing.
“Were you really looking for me all night?” I ask.
Guy nods. “If we’re going to make a go of this, can I suggest that we find somewhere other than the camp to...you know.”
I think of the cave, its entrance hidden from view by bushes and trees, of an empty Locksley Manor, with shutters we can shut and doors we can latch. Away from the gang, we might have a better chance of finding out whether it’s just the male, male sex we’re after, or whether it’s something deeper than that. “I don’t know, I—”
“You have to choose, Robin. Them or me.”
“Does it have to be that way? Can’t I tell the gang the truth about us?”
“Can you really see them accepting that? Wouldn’t it be better to keep it a secret?”
“I don’t want to continually lie to them, to go behind their backs, to pretend I’m something I’m not.”
“They’ll hate you for it. They already hate me.”
“They don’t hate you. They don’t know you.”
“Neither do you.”
“I’d like to get to know the part of you that Marian seemed to understand, to care about. I’d like to find the boyhood friend I once had.”
“We were hardly friends. We spent most of the time either arguing or fighting, that’s when you weren’t gloating over some shot you’d made or some girl you’d impressed. I certainly hope we can move on from that.” Guy bends over and slides a hand inside his boot.
I take an involuntary step backwards.
He scowls. “You know, you’re going to have to learn to trust me if we’re ever going to trade bodily fluids.” He moves closer, our faces mere inches apart. “Will you wear this for me?”
He presses a small, hard object into the palm of my hand. It’s a ring; a silver band embossed with alternate stags and wolves on a leafy background. “I once gave a ring to someone I cared for and she put it on her right hand and punched me in the face. I’d be very grateful if you didn’t do the same.”
I slide the ring on the middle finger of my left hand.
Guy says, “A perfect fit. As I hope we’ll be.” Putting icy fingertips under my chin, he tilts my head so we are eye to eye. “I’m not sure about the beard, but I expect I’ll get used to it.” He kisses me. Unlike his hands, his lips are warm. I open my mouth slightly and he pushes his tongue past my teeth. I can’t taste berries or any other trace of his recent sickness. All I can taste is need and want and maybe even I love you.
A chill blast of rain-drizzly wind cuts across the back of my neck, but, right now, I feel as if I’m basking in sunshine.
Chapter 31: Chapter 30
“Robin!” Much drops the pan he is holding and sprints towards me. Wrapping his arms around me, he crushes me into his chest. He smells of animal fat and wood ash. “You’re alive and well.”
“And why wouldn’t I be,” I say once he lets me breathe again. “It’s not as if this is the first time I’ve been out in the forest after dark.”
“Yes, but when you were a boy you didn’t have Gisborne chasing after you, a great big sword at his hip.” Much glances past my shoulder, towards the stand of trees that partially obscure the entrance to our camp, his hand reaching for his sword and then dropping to his side when he realises he’s not wearing it.
I half turn, following his look, relieved to see that Guy has done as I asked him to and concealed himself.
After a lengthy period of kissing and touching and embarrassed smiles, Guy’s and my walk back to the camp had been a near silent one, each of us lost in our own thoughts at the enormity of what we were about to embark upon. When we did speak, it was about whether or not we, meaning I, should tell the gang about us. Guy had insisted it would be a mistake and I had argued that skulking around behind their backs was not something I felt comfortable with. He’d thrown back his head, laughed, and then grabbed me, shoving me back against a tree. “So you’d be more comfortable with them seeing this then, would you?” he asked, after he slid his tongue out my mouth.
“Don’t be an idiot,” I replied, thinking perhaps I was the idiot for imagining the gang would simply shrug their shoulders and then go about their business as though I’d said nothing more than I’d decided we should all start wearing yellow and call ourselves the sunshine gang. “We’d be discreet.”
Guy hadn’t pressed the point, deciding to leave the decision up to me. Although he’d warmed to my friends somewhat on the journey across France, Allan in particular, Guy did not regard them as his friends and, I suspect, couldn’t give a damn what they think of him or his behaviour. I am the centre of his universe, just as Marian had once been, and, as far as he is concerned, everyone else can go to Hell. If we are to stand a chance of surviving beyond our first night together, Guy must understand that my friends are part of the bargain of having me; I will not give them up for him. Which is why I am standing here now agonising over what to tell them.
“My father and his belt came pretty close, though,” I say in response to Much’s remark about Guy chasing after me, armed with a sword.
“Your father didn’t spend most of his waking life plotting your death though, did he?”
Pushing off the tree he’d been lounging against, Allan saunters over, John and Rowena following. Allan grins. “You look like how I feel after I’ve spent the night with the buxom Betsy Miller and had a jug too many. What happened? One moment Much is smooching with a dead deer and the next you’re taking off and Gisborne is chasing after you, blood running down his face.”
Much scowls at Allan. “I fell over and the deer fell on top of me. And I didn’t see you contributing to the supper table.”
“Robin sent me to Nottingham, you dolt. While you were thinking about your stomach, I was trying to find out if Prince John is busily building us a matching set of gallows with some nice dangly ropes to loop around our necks.” Allan gives me one of his penetrating spill-the-beans stares.
“We didn’t fight, if that’s what you’re thinking,” I say. “We were talking and Guy was still a bit wobbly after not feeling well and he keeled over and hit his head.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you took off.”
I think of my earlier idea, of telling the gang that having Guy in our camp brought back too many painful memories and that I needed to get a way for a bit, to be alone. I open my mouth and then shut it. Is this to be the first lie of many? Every time I sneak off to be with Guy will I make up some implausible story until the day my lies catch me out, or one of the gang follows me and finds out the shocking truth. Matilda’s face, screwed up in disgust and disbelief dances in front of my eyes. Surely telling them the truth, shameful though it is, is better than that.
Rowena, who has been quietly listening, asks, “Did Gisborne catch up with you, then?”
Tell them now, I think. Get it over with. “Yes, he found me, eventually.”
John nudges Allan aside, stands in front of me and places a gentle hand on my shoulder. “I know I argued against you killing him, though God knows it pained me to do so. But I want you to know that we forgive you. What he did to Marian was unforgivable and—”
“I didn’t kill him, John. For a start, I don’t have any weapons on me and secondly...” And secondly, I’ve just spent a goodly part of the morning kissing him, my hands caressing the back of the neck you’ve long desired to put your great hands around and squeeze until his lips turn blue.
“And secondly?” John asks.
“Guy,” I call, my heart banging in my chest.
As Guy steps out from behind the trees and starts walking towards me, I feel as if all the blood in my body has spilled into my boots, that at any moment I might crumple to the ground, though whether it’s from fear of what might happen next or the fact I haven’t eaten in ages, I can’t say.
I take a couple of steadying breaths and turn back to the gang. “Guy is not our enemy any more. He is with us. He is...with me.”
Without turning around, I motion Guy to come closer, my heart thud, thudding with every mud-squelching, leaf-crunching step he takes. He stops at my side, a half arm’s-width away.
Blindly, I reach for and grasp his ungloved hand with my newly ringed one.
“Are you sure?” he asks, half-pulling his hand out of mine, giving me the chance to change my mind.
I grip his fingers.
Despite our long walk back to the camp and the drizzly rain giving way to a weak sun, his hand is still freezing. It’s as cold as it was the time he dragged me off my father’s back when my father was trying to breathe life into Little Robert; as cold as the time he hauled me back into the rowboat, saving me from drowning; as cold as a short while ago, when he pressed the ring into my hand. No matter what I do and don’t know about him, of one thing I am certain: he cares for me and has done so since we were children; I just never saw it, or wanted to see it.
Much is staring at our clasped hands. “I don’t remember that ring. Did Marian give it to you?”
“I’m not being funny,” Allan says, rolling his eyes at dear, uncomprehending Much, “but what you said, about Guy being with you. You’re not just talking about him being part of the gang, are you? What I mean is, if it was a choice between Betsy Miller’s generous charms and...er...whatever charms Guy has, you’d take him over her?”
“That’s one way of putting it,” I say, heat creeping up my neck, my face feeling as though I’m sitting mere inches from the camp’s fire.
“Who’s Betsy Miller?” Much asks, still clearly missing the point about Guy and me.
“Blimey, Much,” Allan says. “You have led a sheltered life. She’s that big lass at The Trip. She—”
John slams the end of his staff into the ground, so hard I can almost feel the vibration coursing up my arm. “It’s a sin, Robin.” He glares at Guy and bares his teeth.
“Is it a sin, to love a fellow man?” Guy asks, his voice remarkably calm despite John looking as though he’s about to tear him limb from limb.
“It is if you’re talking about that kind of love, you dirty, wicked, perverted—”
“John!” I let go Guy’s hand and step in front of him, my fists clenched. “Whatever you say about him in this matter, goes for me too.”
John shakes his head from side to side, disbelieving. “No. Not you. Not with him. It can’t be.”
“John, I’m sorry, but it is.” I take a step towards him. “Now, put your weapon down. Hate me if you must, spit on me, call me every nasty name under the sun, but I am pleading with you, no bloodshed.” I take another step, arm outstretched for his staff.
John backs away. He raises his staff and holds it horizontally in front of his chest, as if to ward off the Devil.
Tears prick my eyes. “You don’t know how I’ve agonised over telling you this, all of you. But I made up my mind not to lie to you, to go behind your backs. I thought it would be better this way.”
“Better,” John says, “that he should have drowned, with the sheriff. Better that you had never returned to Nottingham in the first place.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“How can you lie with that...that...” John spits, unable to think of a word bad enough to describe Guy.
Much’s jaw drops, his eyes widen. “You mean that Robin and Gisborne...they...they...” He glances at Guy and then at me. “Together?”
“Bleeding heck,” Allan says. “Catch up.”
Much stares at my ringed hand. His lower lip wobbles.
“We haven’t...we haven’t done anything yet,” I tell him.
Much swallows. “By yet, you mean not yet?”
I don’t have the heart to concur with his words.
“But...but...you like girls...you’ve always liked girls. Remember all the times I used to keep watch while you...” Much looks at Guy, his expression similar to the one he wore in the Holy Land when I’d explained that the stains on my bed sheet had nothing to do with me ignoring the call of nature.
“I’m sorry. I should have told you. But I didn’t know, not for sure, not until... Please, don’t hate me for it. It doesn’t change things, us, our friendship.”
Blinking rapidly to clear his tear-filled eyes, Much says, “That’s like saying that if John starts wearing dresses and jewellery we’ll treat him as we always have. It changes everything, Robin. It...it...” Much sweeps his skullcap off his head, chucks it on the ground and turns his back on me.
Guy touches my arm. “I told you they wouldn’t understand.”
I think if he’d sounded smug about it, I might have hit him, upset and frustrated as I am. But he doesn’t. If anything, he seems genuinely sorry that things have not gone the way I hoped they might go.
He is right. I had expected too much from my friends. Only Rowena, standing calmly, arms folded across her small bosom, seems at ease with my revelation. Perhaps she already guessed, even before Guy and I held hands. Women do seem to have this uncanny knack of knowing things before us men do. Then again, perhaps it’s because she has not known me as long as my friends have so is less shocked by the fact I want to bed a man.
“Well, I don’t know about you lot,” Allan says, running a hand through his hair and rubbing his face as if he’s just woken from some strange dream, “but I could do with a drink, or two, or three. Perhaps spend a bit of time sampling Betsy’s delights. Much, you up for it? Betsy’s not averse to threesomes, so I’ve heard.”
Much shakes his head, tells Allan he’d sooner poke his own eyes out with a stick than partake in such wantonness. The look he gives me straight after he’s spoken leaves me in no doubt that I should consider doing the same. I’m sure if I handed John a couple of sticks, he’d be happy to oblige.
“Suit yourself,” Allan says. Then to me, “I’ll take one of the horses, if that’s all right?” Without waiting for my leave, Allan helps himself to the mare I rode from Portsmouth on, easily the best of our horses. He swings into the saddle and canters off in the direction of Nottingham, tossing the words, “Don’t wait up,” over his shoulder.
“Eggs,” Much mumbles, scooping up his skullcap, a leaf clinging to it, and ramming it on his head. “I need eggs.” He walks a few paces, stops, shakes his head at his absentmindedness, spins around and heads towards his pots and pans.
With a grunt, John stomps towards our sleeping area, emerging moments later with a sack slung over his shoulder. Without giving me so much as a glance, he strides off into the forest.
“Sorry, Robin,” Rowena says, watching John go and not sounding sorry at all, rather that she thinks I deserve John’s revulsion, Much’s sad dismissal of me and Allan’s supposed indifference.
She walks over to Much, who presently has his head buried in a wooden box, no doubt looking for eggs. I watch the sway of her hips, those long legs of hers that, for a brief time, wrapped around me. A pang of regret spikes my chest.
She whispers something in Much’s ear and he straightens and nods. Kissing his cheek, she produces a small square of cloth from inside her shirt and hands it to him. Much takes it and blows his nose. Rowena waves it away when he tries to give it back to her. I half-smile at my good and loyal friend who, after today, may no longer be my friend.
After fetching her cloak, water skin and bow and arrows, Rowena makes for the horses. She is leaving. I don’t blame her. She made it clear that she did not want me while my heart cried out for another, even though she presumed that other was Marian, my dead wife. But I’m certain she hoped, in time, that I would leave my ghosts behind and be hers completely. It is clear she doesn’t want me now.
She chooses the horse she rode to Sherwood on. The horse nickers as she strokes its sleek flank. She mounts and then, clicking her tongue, she heads away from the camp. I have no idea where she’s going, perhaps she doesn’t either, but she’s a resourceful girl and I’m certain she’ll be all right. Just before she is out of sight, I sprint after her.
“Take this,” I say, untying my money pouch and pressing it into her hand.
After a moment’s hesitation, she accepts the purse, tucking it inside her shirt.
“Where will you go?” I ask.
“I have friends in Clun. I will go there, to start with at least. Do not worry about me, Robin. Worry about yourself. Worry about what you’re getting into.”
She tugs on the reins, moves off. I stand and watch her, wondering if her assurance of having friends in Clun is a lie to make me feel better, feeling guilty that I don’t chase after her and press for more details. Moments later, I hear the pounding of hooves as she urges her mount into a gallop and know I have no chance of catching her up.
Guy is still standing where I left him, his ungloved hands fiddling with the fastenings on his doublet, clearly unsure what to do next.
I look across at Much. He wipes his nose with the back of his hand and then starts cracking eggs, smacking them onto the sides of a blackened pan and dropping them in, quite probably shells and all. Licking his lips, he whistles a wobbly tune. He does not fool me. I know he is crying.
Guy lays a placating hand on my back. I shake him off.
I have lost them, all of them.
Chapter 32: Chapter 31
“Do you want some help?” I reach for an egg, my sleeve brushing the back of Much’s hand. He recoils as if he’s been stung.
“I can manage.” Sniffing, he cracks another egg on the side of the pan. The white, yolk and bits of shell land on top of all the other eggs he’s already broken into the pan; there must be at least a dozen in there already.
“That’s going to make one hell of an omelette,” I say, hoping to coax a smile out of my friend.
Much’s reply is to pick up a rather blunt-looking knife and start hacking at a one of the apples from our apple store. Chunks of apple join the eggs in the pan; peel, core and stalk included.
I glance behind me. Guy has thoughtfully made himself scarce, no doubt realising I would like some time alone with my friend.
“It’s not an omelette,” Much says, casting around for something else to throw into the pan. He finds a lone carrot and starts to chop it up. Uneven orange slices, along with the leafy green carrot top, join the eggs and apples. “It’s a mess of a mess, that’s what it is.” He picks up a wooden spoon and stirs, faster and faster. Raw egg flies out the pan, splattering us both. I take a couple of steps backwards.
Much flings the spoon into the pan, wipes his face with the back of his hand and looks up. “No Marian, or Will, or Djaq, Prince John in Nottingham, Gisborne in our camp.” There’s a blob of egg yolk under his right eye; it looks like a yellow tear. “I thought it couldn’t possibly get any messier than that.” He picks up the laden pan with two hands. Even as he brings it round in an arc, like some kind of comedic bat with which to strike a ball, I stand my ground. I’ve seen Much’s throwing prowess, or rather lack of, and fear more for the pan than I do for my head.
Much puts the pan back onto the iron bars straddling his fire pit, muttering something about it being a waste of good food.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “You’re always moaning about me not talking to you, so I decided to talk.” I finger the ring Guy gave me with the pad of my thumb, running it over the raised design, turning the thick silver band around and around my middle finger. After Rowena had ridden off, I’d worked it off my left hand and put it on my right. It felt too much like a wedding ring wearing it on my left even if it was the wrong finger.
Much picks up an iron poker and jabs at the smoking logs under the pan. “And when you finally decide to take notice of what I’m saying, it’s to tell me that you’re going to...” Much gives the logs another vicious poke. “I don’t even want to think about it, let alone say it out loud.”
“Then don’t,” I tell him. “Don’t think about it. This is between Guy and me; it doesn’t involve you, or the rest of the gang.”
“Doesn’t involve me,” Much says, waving the ash-covered poker at me, adding a dusting of grey specks to the sticky egg splats on my shirt. “Since when does anything you do not involve me? Much, fetch this. Much, do that. Much, don’t tell my father, Marian, the village priest. You’re always using me for your own ends in the name of friendship when you know it’s because I’m your servant and always will be. So what now? Am I to keep a look out while you and he do whatever it is you’re going to do?”
“It won’t be like that, I promise.” I step forwards and make to lay a soothing hand on his arm.
He backs away, brandishing the poker at me. “Don’t you touch me.”
I let my raised arm fall to my side.
Much drops the poker, picks up his spoon and continues to stir the unappetising-looking mixture. “Why did you have to say anything? You must have known how we’d feel about it and more so because it’s him, Gisborne.”
“You’re right. I didn’t have to say anything. But I know how lying eats away at a person and how those lies will always catch you out eventually. Marian lied to keep her father safe, to keep me safe and look what happened.”
“But her lies were good lies, necessary,” Much retorts, scraping the eggy mess towards the middle of the pan and then tipping the pan from side to side in an effort to get the rest of the sloppy mixture to congeal. “She did what she did for you and for England. You could have lied to not hurt me.”
“I didn’t tell you the truth to hurt you, Much, you have to believe that. I thought if you all knew how I felt about Guy then you’d accept him more readily into our midst. Despite what you think, he does want to help us, to redeem himself.”
“Well you could have just said that. You didn’t have to tell us about the other thing.”
“No, I didn’t. It was a mistake. But it’s too late to take it back now. Besides, my plan is for Guy and me to go to Locksley, and I knew I’d have a hard job explaining that one away.”
Much gazes down at the mess in the pan. I watch as a tear runs down his nose and plops into the mix. “You’ll go to Hell, Robin. Aren’t you afraid of that? We won’t meet in Heaven. What am I supposed to tell Marian when I get there and you’re not with me?”
“Is that what the tears are for?” I ask, suspecting that Much has little idea what two men might get up in order to satisfy their sexual cravings.
Much nods and gives up trying not to cry.
“To be honest, my friend, I’m not sure there is a Heaven or Hell. I’m not even sure that—”
“No!” Much cries, glancing heavenwards and hurriedly crossing himself. “Don’t say it. Don’t even think it.”
“I prayed,” I tell him, in an effort to justify my blasphemous thoughts. “I prayed in Acre that Richard would change his mind about massacring all those Saracens, but he didn’t. I prayed that Marian would live, but she didn’t. I prayed that this thing in me would go away, but it didn’t.”
Much picks up the poker and jabs at the feeble fire, coaxing it into life. “Well you should have prayed harder.”
We watch as the egg, apple and carrot mix bubbles and hisses. When it starts to smoke and blacken, Much slides a wooden spatula underneath it. The non-omelette breaks apart as he lifts it up, but he manages to get a piece of it onto a nearby trencher. “Here,” he says, shoving the trencher into my hands. “Take this to your...to him. I hope he chokes on it. You too.”
“You don’t mean that.”
Much drags the pan off the heated bars and starts chopping the egg mix up with the edge of the spatula. “No, you’re right. I don’t mean that. I don’t want you to die. I feared for your life after you lost Marian. I even thought about tying you to the bunk in our cabin because I thought you might throw yourself overboard.”
“I considered it, believe me.”
“In the rowboat,” Much says, wiping his runny nose on his sleeve. “You didn’t fall overboard because of your fever, did you?”
“No. I wanted to cool down, but once I was in the water it seemed an easy thing just to let go. If Guy hadn’t pulled me out, I would have drowned.”
“Is that when this thing with him started?” It is obvious that Much’s curiosity is beginning to outweigh his hurt.
“I don’t think so. I was still missing Marian too much.”
Much picks up a piece of the burnt egg mixture and pops it in his mouth. He chews and nods to himself as if to say it doesn’t taste as awful as it looks. He tears off another piece.
“May I?” I ask.
He nods and I help myself. I chew and swallow with difficulty; the sole of my boot would probably taste better. Much smiles and gestures for me to take some more. I do so, not because I’m hungry but because it feels like a peace offering.
I suggest that we might wash the food down with some ale. Flicking the apple stalk off the piece of egg he’s just about to eat, Much says that sounds like a good idea and follows me over to the fallen tree trunk. The bark is still wet from the earlier rain but we sit on it anyway.
I glance over to our curtained-off sleeping area, where I suspect Guy is concealing himself. I wonder if he is listening to our conversation, though at this distance it is unlikely he can hear what we are saying.
Much sits beside me, but makes sure to leave a big gap between us. I pick up a skin containing ale, take a mouthful and offer it to him. He has to shuffle nearer to me to reach it.
After a period of uncomfortable silence broken only by our drinking, Much says, “Maybe it’s just a phase.”
“Yes, you know. Maybe when we’re back doing what we normally do, robbing the rich, feeding the poor, that kind of thing, maybe then you’ll—”
“Maybe,” I interrupt, a lump forming in my throat. Guy and I have hardly begun and already Much is talking about it ending.
“I just don’t understand,” he says after another protracted silence. “Surely you can’t...what I mean is, why him?”
I think of Much pressing into my back on the boat home from Acre and wonder if his why him means why not me, but then I recall the repugnance on his face as he looked at my ring and then at Guy and me and I know he doesn’t mean that at all.
Much has asked a fair question. Why indeed did I hanker after Guy? If I wanted a man so badly, couldn’t I find someone else? The only answer I have is Marian. She is the ethereal thread that draws us together just as she was once the earthly flesh that came between us.
I shake my head, not certain that I can explain it or even that I want to explain it.
“You are stirred by him.”I’d once said that to Marian. She’d denied it. Ask me the same question today and the answer would be yes, but I’m certain it’s not something Much wants or needs to hear.
“When did you...” Much begins, plugging and unplugging the ale-skin, refusing to meet my eyes but clearly determined to question me while he has me to himself and before his courage deserts him.
“When did I what?”
“When did you know?”
“When in France?”
“I don’t know. After the archery contest, before then even. I don’t know. It just crept up on me. Is it important?”
“Why didn’t you tell me? We shared a cabin on the boat to Plymouth. You could have told me then.”
“And what exactly was I supposed to say to you? That after all these years of wanting to stick Guy with an arrow or a sword I wanted to—” I bite my lip. I once called Much a simple man, but, to be honest, I sometimes think he is better off not knowing all there is to know.
“Wanted to what?”
Be vague, I think. He doesn’t need the sordid facts. I feel rather like an over-protective parent. “Be friendly with him,” I say, hoping Much will leave it at that.
“And do you?”
Much blows out a long breath, says, “Well, if it makes you happy, who am I to stop you.”
“You think I’m making a mistake?”
“I don’t know what to think. A few months ago you were trying to chuck him into the sea and now you want to...” Much clears his throat, carries on determinedly. “It’ll change things.”
“Us. You and me.”
“It doesn’t have to. Not if we don’t let it.”
“Yes, it will.” Much glances up as Guy flicks back the curtain dividing our beds from the rest of the camp and strides over to our water barrel. We both watch as he drags his long hair behind his head with one hand, keeping it from falling into the water. With his free hand, he splashes his face.
My heart thumps against my rib cage and a warm rush of desire floods my groin as I imagine lying next to him, running my hands through those dark locks while his long slim fingers are intent on making me come.
“We need more firewood,” Much says, jumping up. “It feels like it’s going to be a cold night tonight.” He stomps off towards the trees, returning moments later for an axe.
“Do you want some help?” I ask.
He tells me he can manage and it occurs to me that we had this same conversation only a short while ago.
When Much is out of sight, I turn back to the camp. Guy is crouching by our rapidly dying campfire, warming his hands over the glowing embers. He frowns and then picks up a handful of kindling, throwing it onto the fire. As the flames start to lick at the dry wood, he stands and fetches some larger logs from our well-provisioned log pile.
Tears fill my eyes at the thought of Much, alone in the forest, savagely swinging an axe, collecting wood we don’t need.
Guy turns his head at the sound of the axe biting into wood and sees I am alone. He beckons me over.
Slowly, I walk towards him, the first small tendrils of regret snaking up from my egg, apple and carrot-filled belly and curling around my heart.
Chapter 33: Chapter 32
We are standing side by side, staring at the now roaring fire.
“They’ll come around,” Guy says, lightly touching the back of my ringed hand. “Give them time.”
I can feel my tears gathering, wet on my lashes. I have messed up everything and I’m not even sure why.
Another woody clunk echoes through the forest as Much takes out his hurt and frustration on the trunk of a tree. Several heartbeats pass and then the axe bites again.
“He’s not going to gather much firewood at that rate,” Guy says.
Keeping my eyes fixed on the fire’s flames, trying hard not to blink, I reward his attempt at levity with a forced smile.
Guy laces his fire-warmed fingers in between my cold ones and breathes out a contented sigh when I don’t pull away. Our fingers curl together.
“You won’t send me away, will you?” he asks.
I swallow the lump in my throat. “Why do you say that?”
“Because I know what your friends mean to you, and I think if you had to choose, you would choose them over me.”
“I told you,” I say, tugging on our clasped hands as if to emphasise the point. “I have no intention of choosing sides. You have to accept them and they have to accept you.”
“And if they don’t?” Guy asks, making it clear he is more than willing to accede to my wishes if it will make me happy.
“I don’t know,” I tell him truthfully.
The axe rings out once again, nearer to us this time. Much utters a disconsolate, “What are you made of, iron?”
“Do you want to go and talk to him?” Guy asks.
“I already did.”
“He thinks I’m making a mistake.”
“And what do you think?”
I twist towards Guy, take his other hand in mine. “I think this is the first time I’ve felt something was right in a long while. It feels like...like...” I shake my head, unable to find the word I’m looking for.
“Home?” Guy suggests.
I look up and meet his eyes, dark blue in the grey winter’s afternoon.
Guy gently but insistently pulls me into his chest. Then, stealing a glance towards the trees and seeing no sign of Much, he kisses me; softly at first, but then with an increasing ferocity that takes my breath away, that leaves me wishing the world would disappear and there were only him and me and we could give in to our desires.
“A little help,” Much calls.
I jerk backwards, dismay and guilt slicing through me.
Much is dragging a huge branch towards the camp and has his back to us. The fact that he is continuing to advance, albeit slowly and awkwardly, tells me that he didn’t see us kissing. More than ever, I know Guy and I have to leave the camp, if not tonight, then first thing in the morning. If I have to wait much longer to get into his breeches, and indeed have him in mine, I think I might tie rocks around my waist and jump into the River Trent.
Guy nods at Much. “Go on. Go help the half-wit. I will make myself scarce.”
“No,” I say, more angrily than I intend. “You are part of this gang now. You stay.”
“In case you hadn’t noticed,” Guy says, “this gang presently only has one member, other than yourself.”
Much slips on the wet leaves underfoot and plonks onto his backside, dropping the branch onto his foot with an exaggerated yell of pain.
Guy shakes his head, smiles wryly. “How that man didn’t end up in the castle dungeons, I’ll never know.”
“We spent nearly five years fighting in the Holy Land,” I tell him. “Much never left my side. I broke the bones in my left foot, suffered numerous cuts and bruises and an arrow in my leg, and yet he came through unscathed. What does that tell you about him?”
“You forgot to mention the dagger in your side; the injury that could have been the death of you.” Guy walks away, clearly angered by the turn in the conversation. He doesn’t want to know about Much’s constant companionship. He wants to be the one by my side now. He wants to tend my hurts, help fight my fights and share my hopes and dreams, whatever they might be.
I glance between Much and Guy, torn.
Moments later, Guy reappears from our curtained-off sleeping area. He is holding my bow.
“I’m not much of an archer,” he says, as though nothing more than a conversation about the weather had just passed between us, “but I reckon I might be able to hunt down something with Robin Hood’s bow.”
I frown in puzzlement.
“Supper,” Guy explains. “From the expression on your face earlier, I’d say whatever you and he were eating it wasn’t anything close to edible.”
“Oi,” Much says, stomping towards us, wiping his muddy hands on his breeches. “I’ll have you know I’m a very good cook. Can I help it that—”
Guy waves him away. “I’ll be back soon.”
I glance at the sky. “It’s coming on evening. This is a big forest. Are you sure you’ll be able to find your way back to the camp?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll mark the way.” Guy pats the dagger in his belt. With that, he strides towards the trees.
“What’s going on?” Much asks, staring after him. “Is he going to hunt for our meals now? Maybe cook them too? Is he replacing me?”
“No one is replacing anyone,” I say. I can’t help smiling as an image of Guy standing at Much’s cooking pit, ladle in one hand, frying pan in the other, comes to mind. “Guy is part of our gang now. He’s just trying to help. To make things right.”
Much scowls. “That doesn’t sound like the Guy of Gisborne I know.”
“That’s because you don’t know him.”
“Oh, and you do?”
“I’m beginning to.”
Pulling a face, Much says, “I would rather not know about that, thank you very much.”
“I don’t mean like that,” I say, whacking his arm. “I meant that Marian was right; there is another side to him, a better person underneath all those layers of anger and insecurity and hatred.”
“Well, you’re going to have to do a hell of a lot of shovelling to get down to it,” Much says, somewhat petulantly.
“Much,” I say, my patience ebbing. “I know you think I’m on the slippery slope to eternal damnation, but you have to believe me when I say that whatever happens between Guy and me, I am still Robin Hood. I still intend to feed and help the poor, to protect my people, to prevent Prince John from stealing King Richard’s castle, not to mention his throne.”
“That may be true,” Much says, nodding towards my ringed hand. “But you can’t do it without the rest of us. You’ve always said so yourself.”
“Allan will be back, when his money or luck runs out.”
“And John?” Much asks.
I think of John, sack over his shoulder, a look of grim determination on his face, heading off to God knows where. “I don’t know.”
Much glances around the camp. “I’d rather not be here with just Allan. You know what he’s like. You’ll probably come back to find he’s strung me up in a tree or something.”
“I have no intention of abandoning you. I’ll come to the forest as often as I can, every day if you want me to.”
“Guy might not like that.”
“I can’t help that. He knows what I do. He will have to accept it.”
Much chews on his lower lip, clearly worried.
I punch him lightly on the arm, smile. “Come on. Since when did Guy ever best me, eh?”
“True,” Much says, ceasing his chewing and looking a little more content, if not exactly happy.
I walk jauntily towards the large branch he’d been struggling with earlier in an effort to disguise my own worry.
Despite the cold, Much and I have built up quite a sweat splitting logs by the time Allan rides into the camp.
After tethering his horse, he saunters over to us. His cheeks are glowing and he has a self-satisfied look on his face.
“No need to ask if you’ve had a good time,” I say.
“Nope.” Allan surveys the camp. “John still not back?”
I shake my head.
“And Guy. Is he—?”
“Gone hunting, for supper,” Much cuts across him.
Allan’s eyes widen. “No kidding.” He runs a hand through his tousled hair. “Strange days indeed. So, er, what’s the plan then Robin, other than building a log pile the size of Nottingham Castle?”
“The plan,” I tell him, “is to eat whatever Guy brings back for supper and then go to bed.”
“So, starvation and a night of naughty whisperings, then.” Allan grins and winks at Much.
Much starts chewing on his lip again.
I’m about to tell Allan he can go follow John’s example, when Guy emerges from the trees, a quiverful of arrows on his back, my Saracen bow looped across his chest and a dead rabbit clutched in his right hand.
“Blimey,” Allan says. “If I knew we were going to be role-playing I’d have got myself an outfit. Betsy’s always got some spare items of clothing knocking around; mostly men’s belts and breeches after they’ve had to flee their wives banging on the door and yelling at them that the game’s up.”
I notice Guy is limping. His leathers are muddy and there is a nasty-looking cut on his cheek.
Allan grins. “Rabbit put up a fight, did it?”
“Very funny,” Guy says, handing Much his catch.
When it is clear Much does not intend to accept it, I snatch the rabbit from Guy’s hand. “I appreciate you doing this. Thank you.”
Rounding on Much, I shove the bloody carcass into his chest, hissing, “Skin and cook this before I do the same to you.”
Much gives me a venomous glare. Then, swinging the rabbit back and forth, he stomps off to his cooking pit.
Allan glances between Guy and me. “I’ll leave you two to talk, or whatever, then, shall I?”
“You do that,” I tell him, my jaw tightening in anger.
When Allan is gone, Guy brushes a finger over my egg and ash-splattered shirt and then fingers his mud-streaked leathers. “Shame there are no baths in the forest.”
“This is where we live because of what you and the sheriff did,” I say, unable to suppress my mounting fury. “If you want baths, you should have stayed in the castle instead of going to the Holy Land and—” I turn away from him, gulping great breaths of cold, mildewed-smelling air in an effort to regain my composure.
“I thought we could make this work,” Guy says, a tremor in his voice. “But it is clear we cannot.”
My bow thumps at my feet, followed by my quiver. I hear him walking away.
“Wait,” I call, turning and running after him.
Grabbing his arm, I swing him round. His eyes are bright with the wash of tears.
“Ignore me,” I tell him. I didn’t mean what I said. I’m just angry with my friends, for the way they are treating you.”
“Can you really blame them?” Guy says, blinking rapidly. “After all the things I did.”
“You told me they’d come around,” I remind him. “And they will, in time.”
“And you?” he says. “Will you also come around?”
“You don’t need to win me.” I grab his hand, thrilled he either has lost or is choosing not to wear those leather gloves of his. I recall the few times I held Marian’s hand, but I do not remember it arousing me as much as it does holding his hand. With her, it felt warm and comfortable, but with him, it feels sexy and dangerous. I suppose it’s because he’s a man and because men don’t usually hold hands.
“You won me back in France,” I say. “Or maybe I won you. Either way, I’m not letting you go.”
This time, I’m the one who provokes the kiss. When I finally pull away, he seems almost startled, as if it’s only just dawned on him that I want this as much as he does.
“Tomorrow,” I tell him, “we will go to Locksley. For tonight, the gang, such as it is, will have to put up and shut up.”
The temptation to unfasten his leather breeches and show him just how much I want him is so overpowering that it’s all I can do to turn around and walk back to the camp, trusting Guy is following.
Tomorrow, I tell myself. Tomorrow we will be alone, behind closed doors. Not Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, but simply Robin and Guy, our longings satisfied; an exciting, frightening, life changing journey ahead of us.
I slow my pace and Guy catches me up. I offer him my hand and he takes it, giving me one of those rare smiles of his as he does so.
I wish it were tomorrow already.
Chapter 34: Epilogue
My fingernails fill with earth as I scrape away the rock-hard soil, digging a hole in which to bury Marian’s ring.
It is time to say goodbye, to let go of her. I have made my choice. I have turned my back on the freely offered love and affection of a young girl who, in many ways, reminded me of Marian, in spirit if not in looks. I have chosen, instead, to lie with a man: Guy of Gisborne. My friends don’t understand, cannot accept it. I don’t believe Marian’s shade will understand or accept it any better. After all, Guy professed to love her and then murdered her, albeit in a fury-filled moment of madness. The best I can hope for is that she will find it in her eternal heart to forgive me, forgive us.
I glance up at the spread of branches above my head. I am kneeling among the gnarled roots of The Kissing Tree, as I used to call it and still do. Our tree; Marian’s and mine. The one we used to meet under, flirt under, kiss and fight under. The tree beside which I said my brusque and inadequate goodbye to her before I headed off to the Holy Land, battle-hungry and filled with vain dreams of glory, to help King Richard reclaim Jerusalem.
My eyes travel from the upper branches, their winter leaves tearing off and whirling away in the stiff breeze, to the thick, fissured trunk. Our names, Robin and Marian, are still visible in the bark of the oak, cut by my blade in my carefree youth, when the only things I was concerned with were escaping chores, playing with my bow and pursuing pretty maidens, Marian especially.
For a moment, I picture her, laughing and tossing back her dark curls, when she surprises me at my labour. I can still make out the uneven letter R in her name where my knife slipped when she poked me in the ribs, catching me unawares. I remember being annoyed with her; I’d meant the carving to be a surprise. I had told her not to come to the forest until I sent her word. As ever, she had wilfully ignored my request. I recall I thought about carving the letter Y after the R in order to pay her back. I didn’t, though, because she kissed me and promised to let me have a peek under her skirt at her un-stockinged legs in exchange for me letting her practise with my bow.
I hadn’t planned on this being a tearful farewell, but memories, both good and bad, have a way of breaking down my defences; it’s why I try never to look back.
I let my tears fall; warm tracks on my freezing face. It seems only fitting. I’d been too shocked and angry, still reeling with disbelief, to weep over her grave in the Holy Land, only able to let go afterwards in my solitary room on Acre’s harbour-front. I am certain Marian’s shade followed me back to England, to Sherwood, so she might roam through the forest, a place she loved dearly when alive. This, as far as I am concerned, is her true resting place; my tears should fall here for her.
The ground is hard after last night’s heavy frost. I unsheathe the dagger hanging from my belt. Jabbing the point of the blade into the earth, I dig a hole that would accommodate a medium-sized goblet, putting off the moment when I must drop the ring into it and say a final goodbye to the woman who was my wife, albeit only for a heartbreakingly short space of time.
When I can put off the moment no longer, my legs aching from crouching, my fingers numb from the cold, I loop the thin leather strap holding Marian’s ring over my head, snap the knot apart and hold the delicate ring between my soil-smeared thumb and fingers.
As my hand hovers over the dug hole, a sudden gust of icy wind blows across me, stinging my wet cheeks, sending a few more winter-browned leaves to the ground.
I whip my head around, half-expecting to see a vision of her, wearing the white dress she died in, devoid of the crimson circle of blood that fanned out across the bodice shortly after she pulled Guy’s sword from her body. I see nothing but trees and shafts of early morning sunlight casting bright pools on the forest floor.
I turn around and drop the ring into the hole.
“I will always love you,” I say, scraping the loose earth over the ring, filling in the hole. As I pat the earth down, I stare at the heavily embossed silver ring encircling my middle finger; the ring Guy asked me to wear. “We will always love you,” I say, correcting myself.
The wind gusts again and a snapped-off branch smacks into my ribs. I smile. Perhaps her shade is here after all.
Last evening, I had expected Allan’s smutty innuendo and Much’s dark scowls and unhappy mutterings to continue after Guy and I walked back into the camp. To my surprise, they hadn’t.
Perhaps somewhere between me shoving the dead rabbit into Much’s hands and my running after Guy, they had come to the conclusion that nothing they said or did was going to change my mind over this matter and they could either accept that and get on with it, or tell me to get lost.
Upon entering the camp, Guy went over to our water barrel to wash his hands and dab at his cut cheek. I picked up my bow and quiver, still lying on the ground where he had flung them down earlier, and laid them on my bed, returning to the outer camp a moment later, feeling as if I were about to step into battle.
But rather than having a further go at me, Much contented himself with cleaning and cooking the rabbit, while Allan retrieved a couple of skins hanging from the saddle of the horse he’d ridden to Nottingham on and proceeded to find cups in which to pour a crimson wine, doubtless wheedled out of the buxom Betsy.
With a mumbled, “Here’s your supper,” Much handed out bits of cooked rabbit that burned our fingers.
I glanced across at Guy, sitting on a tree stump directly opposite me, intending to shoot him a warning look about commenting on our lack of serving plates or accompaniments to go with the meat. He caught my eye, grinned and then continued gnawing on his piece of meat, licking his lips as he did so.
“My word, that was excellent,” he said, tossing a bone into the trees and giving Much one of his rare smiles.
I stared at Guy. When he smiled his whole face lit up, came alive. If he had smiled this way at Marian, it was no wonder he stirred her, as I once accused.
“I...er...you’re...er...welcome,” Much stuttered, clearly not expecting to receive such seemingly heartfelt praise from Guy.
While Much was busy picking at the remains of the carcass, I nodded my thanks. Whatever it took, Guy was going to try to win my friends over. To please me.
Allan poured us all some wine. Raising his overflowing cup, he said, “To...er...”
I saw him flick a nervous glance between Guy and me.
“To friendship,” Guy said, raising his own cup, coming to Allan’s rescue. “And to England.”
“To England,” we echoed.
Guy asked how we usually did things. I explained about the village drops and the handing out of coin to Nottingham’s poor. He listened intently, asking questions as they arose. Meanwhile, Much and Allan sat quietly, drinking their wine. From the expression on their faces, I could tell it was gradually dawning on them that Guy wanted to be more than just my bedmate. He wanted to help us. He wanted to be part of our lives, to join our small band of outlaws, to be one himself if that’s what it would take to keep me from turning him out of my bed and my life.
“Are you sure?” I asked, after I finished explaining about the risks we would be taking. “The new sheriff, at least according to Rowena, is something of a tyrant, possibly no better than Vaisey, possibly even worse.”
“I cannot believe,” Guy said, “that there is anyone on this earth worse than black-hearted piece of shit.”
I noticed he shivered as he spoke of the dead sheriff. It made me wonder just how much, and what, he had suffered at that man’s hands.
“There is also Prince John,” I told him. “No one has seen him for a while, but there are rumours that he’s holed up in the castle. You know as well as anyone what he thinks of us. Now that he knows we’re back in Nottingham, I’m sure he will do his utmost to destroy us. Unlike Vaisey, I believe John has no desire to make a showpiece of our deaths.”
Much downed a huge mouthful of wine and choked.
Allan slapped him on the back. “Not too much to worry about, then,” he said, laughing.
Guy told me he was sure. We finished our wine and then it was time for bed.
With a mumbled, “Night gents,” Allan was the first to head to our curtained-off sleeping area, quickly followed by Much.
I looked across at Guy, his eyes fixed on the dying campfire. With Much and Allan out of the way, I thought it might be possible for us to talk, to share an intimate moment even, but as I stood, intending to join him, he lifted his head, yawned and bid me goodnight.
Allan and Much were already asleep by the time I pulled off my boots and finished unbuckling my various belts.
I slipped under my blankets hoping sleep would come quickly so that today would come quickly and Guy and I could be on our way to Locksley. It was not to be.
I tossed and turned, worrying about what the future might hold for us. How would I explain our living together in the manor house to my peasants should they ask? How would we manage the house and estate without servants? Did we even want any, risking the possibility of them stumbling over our shameful secret?
These questions and more churned around in my head, while Allan rattled off unintelligible sentences in his sleep and Much snuffled and snored.
There was no question of us staying in the camp: we would find little privacy, and I could not contemplate bedding Guy under the noses of Allan and Much. Nor could I contemplate living anywhere other than Locksley Manor. True, the house held many memories for me, a number of which I’d rather not revisit; but I always believed that, one day, with Vaisey gone and King Richard returned to England, my outlaw status revoked, I would finally settle there and call it home. Of course, it was with Marian that I thought to live, not a man, and certainly not Guy, but that doesn’t change the fact that I want to spend what is left of my life living on the estate my father intended me to have.
In the end, I decided that losing sleep over it wouldn’t help me find my answers. I would simply have to do what I have always done: improvise and hope for the best.
A decision, of sorts, made, my thoughts turned to Guy, lying just a few feet away from me.
Throwing my blanket aside, I slipped out of bed and padded over to him. I knelt by his bed, my face mere inches from his. His breaths blew warmly across my cheeks and nose. He was asleep. I lightly touched his hair, my heart pounding, my arousal pressing against the edge of the bed. He didn’t wake. Then, I guiltily remembered: I’d snatched some sleep in the barn, at Kirklees Abbey, but he’d been up all night, stumbling about in the dark, looking for me. He must have been shattered by the time he tumbled into bed.
I crept back to my bed, pulled the blankets over me and, reluctantly, saw to myself. Shortly after that, I fell asleep.
“Goodbye, my love, my wife,” I whisper, standing and wiping my dirt-caked hands on my breeches.
A leaf flutters past our carved names and lands on top of the freshly dug earth. I lightly kiss Marian’s name, the bark rough under my lips, and walk away.
As I near the camp, I hear Allan laughing and Guy cursing the camp and everything in it.
I jog the final few yards and emerge from the trees to find Guy standing near an overturned water barrel, his face, leathers and hair dripping wet.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
Allan can’t speak for laughing, so Much says, “Guy was trying to stick his head into the water barrel to wash his hair, but he lost his footing and...and...” Much’s lips twitch and I can see that he’s trying not to laugh himself, the sword at Guy’s hip doubtless giving him pause.
“I think I can guess the rest,” I say. I turn to Guy, ask, “Are you all right?”
Guy bunches a clump of long wet hair in his hands and wrings it out. “I did say I wanted a bath, I just wasn’t counting on it being quite so painful.” He looks to be on the point of smiling himself and I guess that he has chosen to be amused rather than angered over this particular piece of misfortune.
I see that, along with the cut on his cheek, there is a nasty gash on his temple.
“We seriously need to go to Locksley now, Robin,” he says. “This forest has it in for me.”
“We’ll go right away,” I tell him. “I just need to gather a few things.”
“Here,” Much says, throwing a sack at my feet. “I packed for you.”
“Thank you,” I say, uncertain whether he’d done it out of habit, or whether he was just trying to speed up my leaving.
“I’ve saddled the horses,” Guy says, tucking his dripping hair behind his ears and shifting uncomfortably in his wet clothing.
I shake my head. “No, we’ll walk.”
“Because I want Much and Allan to have the horses in case they need them.”
“But there are still two horses left,” Guy says. “One for each of us.”
“One is John’s horse,” I tell him. “And we might set tongues wagging if we are seen sharing a horse.”
“I hate to say this, Robin,” Allan says, his merriment quickly fading at the mention of our missing gang member, “but we don’t know that John is coming back.”
“Give him time,” I say, inwardly praying that time is all it takes for John to calm down and decide to return to us, to help with our cause if nothing else.
Guy eyes the leaf-strewn ground. “I don’t like walking.”
“Well get used to it, along with running,” I tell him, “because outlaws tend to have to do a lot of it.”
Guy’s eyes narrow and his gloveless fingers curl and uncurl as he struggles to bite back an angry retort to my barely-concealed spite.
I’m instantly sorry. He’s doing his best to accommodate me and I’m having a go at him at every turn all because my friends are giving me a hard time over my revelation about the two of us, none of which should come as any surprise.
“We can easily get ourselves more horses once we are in Locksley,” I say, trying to make amends.
I pick up my belongings. Much looks as though he’s about to cry.
“No need for that,” I say, dropping the sack and swiftly giving him a hug. “This is not goodbye, my friend. You know that. Give me a day or two and then come to Locksley. Find John if you can. Tell him...”
“Tell him what?” Much asks, sniffing.
“Tell him not to hate me for this. Tell him we need him. I need him.”
Much nods and wipes his tear-filled eyes. “Be careful,” he says, glancing past my arm at Guy.
“I will, don’t worry.”
I pick up the sack again and beckon Guy over. “Let’s go to Locksley,” I say. “Let’s go home.”
I hold out my ringed hand and he takes it.
Much groans. Allan mutters something about black being the wrong colour for a bride.
I make a rude hand gesture with my free hand and turn towards the track that will take us to Locksley.
As we walk through the sunlit forest, frost-hardened leaves crunching under our boots, I glance across at Guy.
Everything is a choice, everything we do.
I still have my doubts; still don’t know if this will prove to be my undoing. But looking at Guy, a smile on his face, a bounce in his step, I think I made the right choice in the end.
I guess only time will tell.
~ fin ~
Author’s Note: sequel to follow. Well, you didn’t think I’d leave it there, did you?!