“We were better off in the other cave,” Will said. “It was bigger, less damp.”
Much shifted, pulling a fur pelt more tightly around himself. “Aye, less drafty too.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “How long do you think we’ll have to stay here?”
“For as long as Robin says.” John’s tone brooked no argument, but Will, being Will, argued with it all the same.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Will said. “Why’s this cave so important?”
Tuck smiled. “Because of the vision.”
Will snorted. “A vision that’s led us nowhere.”
“Yet. You must have patience, Will.”
“It’s been three days!”
“And we’ll wait another three days if we have to.” John tossed a twig on the fire, ignoring the spark that almost landed in his beard. “When Robin knows, he’ll tell us.”
Outside the cave, Robin turned his head away from the entrance and sighed, watching his breath gather in a cloud of mist before being carried off on the wind. He had returned to the cave after walking around the perimeter, and had been looking forward to returning to the relative warmth of their shelter, when he’d caught a snippet of his friends’ conversation. Robin had stood outside, hidden from sight, debating whether he should enter or not. When he’d picked up on the topic of their discussion, he decided to remain hidden. Robin didn’t like eavesdropping on his friends, but, up until that point, they hadn’t shared their feelings with him and he had seen their frustration building. It was one of the reasons why he’d volunteered to take watch when it hadn’t been his turn.
Robin couldn’t blame them for being unhappy with the situation. His own patience was growing thin and he was feeling increasingly helpless. After that initial vision, there had been nothing. Worse than that, he’d lost all connection with Herne. He hadn’t heard Herne’s voice or felt his presence. Even when Robin had gone to seek out Herne, he hadn’t been able to find him. Herne had disappeared.
“Will’s always angry about something.”
Startled, Robin turned sharply towards the voice. He had been so engrossed in his thoughts that he hadn’t even seen Nasir leave the cave. Robin grimaced to himself. He was lucky that one of Gisburne’s men hadn’t snuck up on him.
Misinterpreting Robin’s expression, Nasir said, “Herne’s meaning will become clear. It always does.”
Robin slumped back against the rocky outcrop. “I’m not so sure.”
Nasir raised an eyebrow and tilted his head curiously.
“I seem to have lost him, Nasir. I haven’t felt his presence since the vision. I’ve searched everywhere I could think of and I haven’t been able to find him. I don’t know what’s happened to him.”
Nasir frowned thoughtfully. “He’s old and has been sick before. Maybe…” He trailed off as if even he, the former assassin, didn’t have the courage to speak that thought aloud. However, it wasn’t anything that hadn’t crossed Robin’s mind already, unwilling as he was to face such a prospect.
“Herne would have told me if he’d been dying, wouldn’t he?” Robin asked. “Why send me a vision of this cave – and all of us on a wild goose chase?”
“It is not a wild goose chase.” Nasir’s voice had gone even quieter than usual. It had a hushed, almost reverent quality to it. Then Nasir was tugging on Robin’s sleeve and directing his eyes to the line of trees on their right. With the blanket of snow covering everything, it was a moment before Robin spotted it. When he did see it, he gasped, his mouth almost falling open in surprise.
It was a white stag. There was no other way to describe the creature. The thick, pale coat blended entirely with the surroundings. Even the majestic pair of antlers faded into the background of bare trees. Only the stag’s dark eyes stood out, eyes that seemed to be watching them.
“Don’t shoot him,” Robin whispered.
Nasir nodded absently, apparently too transfixed to even consider reaching for his bow.
The white stag turned towards the trees and began walking slowly, tossing a look back at the outlaws.
“I think he wants us to follow him,” Robin said.
Nasir shook his head. “No, you go. I’ll get the others.”
“Yes, all right.” Robin could see the wisdom of Nasir’s plan. If this was a message from Herne, it might be for his son alone. Besides, two men were more likely to startle the deer than one.
Robin moved quickly over the snow. The stag had paused as if waiting for Robin to catch up. Then he continued on his way.
If it had been another deer, Robin was sure he would have frightened it by now. The sound of the snow crunching under his boots was loud to his ears. Only the tree branches creaking in the wind seemed to dull the noise. Robin studied the ground for any signs of a man’s tracks, but he could only see the hoofprints left in the snow by the white stag.
They hadn’t travelled far when the white stag began to slow down, and Robin was so close he could almost touch him. When the deer stopped on the edge of a ravine, Robin looked around in confusion. Is this what I was meant to see?
The white stag stomped a hoof, bowing his head so low that his antlers almost scraped the ground. Robin allowed his eyes to follow the movement, scanning the gorge carefully. Then, in a small recess, he noticed a man curled up on his side. Robin skidded down the steep hill and knelt beside the man, turning him on his back. As Robin had suspected, it was Herne.
Robin clamped two fingers against Herne’s neck, feeling for a pulse. He closed his eyes for an instant in relief when he found one then pulled Herne into an embrace, rubbing his back feverishly, trying to warm him up. When Robin lifted his eyes to the top of the ravine, the white stag was gone.
“Robin!” It was John’s voice and, even from a distance, Robin could hear the note of concern.
“Down here!” Robin shouted. “Hurry! It’s Herne!”
A moment later, Robin saw his friends scrambling down the hill. Tuck was panting from the strain and fell, more than sat, on the ground beside Robin. Tuck ran his hands over Herne’s limbs and torso, searching for wounds or breaks. Herne groaned when a hand landed on his shin.
“I think it’s broken,” Tuck said. “He must have got trapped down here. He looks half-frozen.”
Robin started rubbing Herne’s arms. “We have to get him somewhere warm – and fast. Duxford would be closest.”
“I’ll run ahead and tell Tom,” Much said, taking off up the hill.
Tuck shook his head. “He’ll slip and fall himself if he’s not careful.” He gazed down at Herne and frowned. “I don’t think there’s time to make a litter. John, can you carry him?”
“Aye. If I can lug you around, I reckon I can carry Herne to Duxford.” John bent over and hauled Herne across his shoulders. Tuck and Nasir hovered on either side of John as he made his way out of the ravine. Robin stood slowly, wondering why his legs felt like jelly.
“’E’ll be all right,” Will said.
“Yes, I’m sure he will be.” Robin forced a smile and took a step. Will’s arm shot out, barring Robin’s way. Then he was standing directly in front of him.
“You wouldn’t ’ave been guided ’ere if ’Erne was beyond saving now, would you?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“There’s no supposin’ about it. That vision you ’ad, the white stag you and Nasir saw: it couldn’t ’ave been for nothing.” Will squeezed Robin’s shoulder. “Come on. Get going. ’Erne needs you and the others will kill me if you start freezing to death too.”
Robin grinned. “Well, we can’t let that happen. Come on. It shouldn’t take long to catch up with them.”
The white stag appeared one last time before the outlaws reached Duxford. They had been about to head up the trail leading to the bridge when they found the deer blocking their path. Everyone stopped and stared at the white stag, barely daring to breathe. An instant later, they heard several horses galloping over the bridge. Once the soldiers had passed, the white stag dashed off the trail and back into the trees.