It was as well, Robert thought, that he had always been a quick learner. He had known that life in Sherwood would be very different from life in Huntingdon Castle, but he had not expected to find quite so many pitfalls. He had – arrogantly, he now realised – thought that he knew the forest, that he was accustomed to its ways, but it had turned out that a couple of days living rough with a royal hunting party was not the same as calling the forest home. In the past month, he had managed to twist his ankle quite badly sliding down a moss-slick slope, step into a sinkhole in Dark Mere that had left him mud to his hips, rip his skin on countless brambles and lose the campsite twice. It was more than a little embarrassing. If he had been only a little less determined, he would have given up in disgust and begged his father to take him back.
Will Scarlet, of course, took great pleasure in his failings. He also, to Robert’s surprise, seemed to have a growing respect for his tenacity. The last time he’d managed to get himself lost, it had been Will who had come to find him. The man had grumbled all the time over the meal he was missing but he hadn’t called Robert “earl’s son” or “my lord” once. Instead, he’d shaken his head with a wry grin and said, “You don’t fucking give up, do you?”
Robert didn’t, if he could help it. He had learned most things he’d ever set his mind to, even the ones his father had thought nonsense – why would a nobleman ever need to wield a quarterstaff, for example, or shoot with an English longbow? But Robert had harassed and cajoled the castle’s stable master into teaching him what his weapons master would not, and he had practiced until his body ached, enduring bruised ribs and cracked wrists and raw knuckles until he learned what he was doing. The longbow had been the same, endless hours of draw and hold, draw and release, until his fingers bled and his arms shook, but he now he could shoot with the best of them. He had learned those things; he could learn this too. He was already improving.
The villagers were warming to him. They had been uncertain at first, wary of the highborn lordling in their midst. Probably they had thought him only playing at outlaws, and that he would go home when he got bored with his game and leave them no better off. Now, though, they seemed more willing to trust in his sincerity. He wasn’t Loxley, and he wasn’t one of them, but he was Herne’s Son all the same. In Wickham at least they were starting to accept that, and welcome him. He hoped to be worthy of that, one day.
The outlaws were starting to accept him too. No, that was wrong – they had accepted him almost from the first, once they had got over the shock of things – but they had kept a distance between them and their new leader. Robert had not pushed. They were good men, but if they were slow to trust they had their reasons, and his father’s titles and lands did not make him easier for them to understand.
With, Robert thought, one rather startling exception. Nasir the Saracen, disengaged and aloof, understood him very well – and that in spite of the years between them, and the distance in culture and language. The reason for it was simple enough, once one got right down to it: Nasir understood him because in many ways Nasir was the same – displaced, disconnected, and noble born. It had been Nasir who had recognised his struggle in those early weeks in Sherwood, trying to find his place and his way, trying to fit in. It becomes easier
, the Saracen had told him. As long as you remember who you are.
That had been the key to it, really. In fact, it seemed so obvious that Robert wondered that he had needed to be told. He had been trying to be someone else, to become the myth of the Hooded Man, and he had felt like a blind man trying to catch the reflection of the moon. Even his name had changed – he had answered to Robert all of his life – but names, as Nasir had pointed out, meant only so much. And Nasir should know, Robert thought; the man had a string of names and honorifics to chose from, each with their own meaning and each one a part of who he was. Robert supposed he could cope with two names and still keep track of himself, faced with that.
Today had been a good day. The outlaws had intercepted a courier that morning, a wiry, wary man in the livery of Kent, who had handed over his satchel with a glum expression. “His lordship won’t be happy,” was all he’d said as John had tipped the satchel up and set a pair of money pouches clinking to the ground. “That’s to settle a gambling debt with the Abbot of St Michael’s.”
Tuck made a disapproving sound. “Gambling money is the wages of sin,” he said, doing his best to sound sorrowful. “The Abbot should know better.”
“We’d best take it, I think,” Robert put in. “We’ll find a worthier use for it.”
“That’s all very well,” the courier objected, “but what about me? My lord of Kent will blame me for this. He might claim I stole the money myself.” The man sighed. “Look, if this is a robbery, the least you could do is make it look convincing. Knock me around a bit, that kind of thing.”
“You’re joking, aren’t you?” John looked at the man as if he’d just turned blue. “You’re not really asking to be beaten?”
“Well, I’m going to need some proof for his lordship, aren’t I?” The courier eyed the money pouches gloomily. “Otherwise he’ll give me worse than you would.”
“He’s right, you know.” Will gave Robert a gleaming-eyed glance. “His lordship’ll have his hide. Might even have his neck.”
“We’re not thugs, Will.” Robert set his jaw stubbornly, prepared to argue if he had to. “We have the money. We don’t need to hurt anyone.”
“Make my life easier if you did,” the courier said dolefully.
“Shut up, you.” Will glared at him. Turning to Robert, he said, “Well, then, what do we do? You got any better ideas?”
“Actually, I do.” Robert tipped his head to the courier’s satchel. “John, is there a writing box in there?”
“What, you’re going to give him a note?” Will looked non-plussed. Tuck laughed. The courier sighed.
“Yes. From Robin Hood.” Robert’s grin was white and quick as he took the narrow box John held out. He glanced to Tuck, eyebrows raised. “French, do you think, or Latin?”
The courier had gone on his way with the note, and the money had gone into Wickham to help the villagers buy new livestock, after they’d lost half a dozen goats to bloat from bad feed. Edward had been grateful in his usual dignified way, and Alison had offered them a small barrel of her home-brewed ale by way of thanks. She had also threatened to box Robert’s ears for him when he’d tried to refuse; Alison, he was learning, was a force to be reckoned with.
Will, who would also have boxed his ears for turning down good ale, had put the barrel to good use that night, sharing it around the campfire. Robert had indulged sparingly, listening to Will and John exchanging tall stories of ambushes past, and to Much mixing up his fingering on his flute, and laughing in all the right places. Tuck, who believed in celebrating God’s generosity with every meal, had matched Scarlet drink for drink. Now they were all sprawled about the fire in sleep. Much still had his flute between his lips; it gave a thin, half-note with every breath. He would, Robert thought, feel horrible in the morning.
A faint movement at the edge of the camp brought Robert’s head around quickly, and he felt his hand start for his belt knife before he recognised the compact shape of the Saracen slipping from the trees. Robert blinked. He hadn’t even noticed that the man had left.
“Salaam.” The Saracen came to stand nearby, moving as quiet as a cat, and as casual. He surveyed his companions and gave Robert a rueful look, one eyebrow raised. “A good night?”
“They won’t think so come morning.” Robert stretched and shifted, making room for Nasir on the spread of deerhide. “Where have you been?”
A vague flick of the hand answered that. “Not far.”
“Prayers?” There was something oddly fascinating to Robert in the Saracen’s quietly steadfast adherence to his faith; clearly it meant more to him than only words and rituals. The others were used to his strange ways, it seemed, but they didn’t understand them. Robert knew that, because he had asked. He had, in fact, asked a lot of things about Nasir, and found surprisingly few answers. A part of him found that baffling, and even a little worrisome. How could the outlaws have lived with this man in their midst for so long and know so little about him? “He doesn’t like questions,” John had told him when he had wondered at that. “Especially questions about himself. He never answers.”
Then you’re probably asking the wrong questions, Robert thought but did not say. He was inclined to think that a poor excuse. After all, Nasir had already told him more about himself than he had told any of the others – his noble blood, his landed family, his father’s death, the house in Aleppo with its garden and its bright birds that he hoped to see again – and he had asked the man nothing at all.
Now Nasir nodded, the barest dip of his head. “Na’am. Yes.”
Na’am. Robert had noticed Nasir’s habit of offering words in his own tongue; he had noticed too that none of the others seemed to pick them up. He filed that one away with the scattering of others he had learned, recognising a gift when it was given to him. Now, though, he only smiled and said lightly, “What, again?”
“Again.” Nasir sounded faintly amused. “And too, Will talks. John sings. Tuck does both. My head …” He made another gesture, sweeping his palm up near his temple, indicating discomfort. “I go.”
“They can be a rowdy lot.” Robert grinned. “Are they always like this?”
Nasir seemed to think about that, then shrugged and nodded. Robert laughed quietly. “What have I got myself into?”
Nasir didn’t answer that, seeming to sense the question was not for him. He padded through the sleeping men to find himself a waterskin and came back with it, stopping once on the way back to nudge Will onto his side with his foot as the man’s snoring started to rumble. Will sputtered and snorted, then settled back quietly.
“He snores like a bull camel,” Nasir observed. “Worse when he is drunk.” Indicating the space on the deerhide, he said, “May I?”
“Yes, of course.” Robert waited until the other man was settled, then said, “I’ve never seen a camel. I didn’t know they snored.”
A quick glimmer of eyes answered that, but Nasir said nothing. Robert nodded all the same. “My father’s seen them. He drew me a picture of one, once, when he came back from the Holy Land. To show me what he was talking about.” He smiled, remembering. “Either he’s a terrible artist or they’re very strange beasts.”
Nasir tipped his head to one side, considering that, and then he picked up a small twig and scratched a brief sketch in the flattened dirt – long legs, sinuous neck, proud head, humped back. “Jamal
Robert looked at the picture thoughtfully. Jamal. “Or perhaps you’re both terrible artists,” he remarked, gently mocking.
That won him a low, soft laugh, barely more than a breath. “Perhaps.” Shifting his foot, Nasir scuffed out the sketch then sat back, cross-legged, and sipped from the waterskin. For half a moment, it was on the tip of Robert’s tongue to tell him there was a little ale left, but he stopped himself before he said anything and chuckled inwardly at his own carelessness. Nasir’s eyes slid over him, bright in the darkness. “Yes?”
“Nothing. I was just … Nasir, can I ask you something?”
“Yes.” There was a certain guardedness to the Saracen’s tone that Robert thought he understood. He could ask, it seemed to say; but he might not be answered. Robert nodded, accepting that. He asked anyway.
“When you came here, how long did it take for you to get used to this?”
A raised eyebrow greeted that, bemused. Robert grimaced. “Sorry. The forest, I mean. Living like this. All this … green.”
“Ah.” Nasir’s lips curved slightly. “Green.”
“It’s just … sweet Saints help me, but I’ve lived in this land all my life, and I’m still tripping over tree roots and falling down banks.” Robert gave a self-effacing grin. “Will I can deal with – he only insults me every other day now – but this forest …” He shook his head, fair hair pale in the dim light of the fading fire and the distant, dappled moon. “This place has better defences than anything we had at Huntingdon.”
Nasir was watching him, eyes thoughtful. “No,” he said, after a pause. “You do well. You judge yourself harshly, I think.”
“I’m getting better,” Robert allowed. “But I’m a long way from doing well.”
Another pause. Then: “Today was done well. The note.”
Nasir might have been sparing with his words, but Robert caught the tone of that and chuckled at the compliment. “Well, I am an earl’s son. Education has to be good for something.”
“Education is good for everything.” No pause at all that time; the Saracen spoke as if he meant it. “To learn, to seek what is good through knowledge, this becomes a man. Ignorance and savagery do not.” Nasir very deliberately did not look at anyone when he said that, and Robert silently applauded his manners. “And for getting used to this,” the Saracen added, with a twitch of his hand that took in the forest and his sleeping companions and all of England beyond, “I am still getting used to this.”
“But you make it seem so effortless.” Robert’s mouth twisted sideways in a wry grimace. “You all do, but you … I’d wager that before you came to England, you’d never even laid eyes on a forest.”
“There are forests in my land,” Nasir said mildly. “Cedar, laurel, pine. But they are not like this. Not so …” He made a flattening motion with one hand and quirked a questioning brow at Robert. “Heavy?”
Robert supposed he understood what the man meant. He chuckled gently. “I stand corrected. But still, I’ve never seen you fall down a bank or scratch yourself to pieces on brambles …”
Nasir gave a wordless smile and skinned back the sleeve of his shirt to show a broad swathe of welts on his olive dark skin. Robert flinched in sympathy. “When did you do that?”
“Today. Falling down a bank.” The Saracen let the sleeve drop, drawing up his knees and wrapping his arms about them, relaxed, still smiling. “Into brambles.”
That made Robert laugh out loud. Nasir’s eyes flashed briefly in a silent laughter of his own. Robert shook his head. “I wouldn’t have thought a renegade assassin would have such a sense of humour.”
At once, he knew he had said something wrong. Nasir, already quiet and still, seemed in a breath to have turned to stone. There was no laughter in his eyes now; there was nothing at all. Mirror cold, mirror flat, they did nothing but reflect the light around them. Whatever was inside, Robert could not see at all. He felt his stomach go tight and cold, as if he’d swallowed ice.
“Where did you hear that?”
“The others told me.”
“Why?” Robert frowned, baffled. “Because I asked, I suppose.”
“Because I was curious.” The young nobleman answered slowly, unsure of the flatness in his companion’s voice. “Because I need to know the men I’m fighting alongside. The men I’m leading.”
If that was meant to be a reminder of something, a statement of rank, Nasir did not so much as acknowledge it. He was finished with following leaders he struggled to believe in; he’d done that for half his life, and paid for it dearly. Robert had not proved himself yet. Perhaps he would, given time – he was not easily discouraged, that much was clear, and his intentions were good – but he had not yet earned the right to command. As to the other, Nasir was not sure how he felt about that. His past was something he had kept to himself, revealing only as much as was needful at the time. He wouldn’t even have told the others as much as he had if his Brothers of the Order hadn’t come looking for him, with whispers of power and promises of amnesty on his return, or if Will hadn’t been so painfully suspicious. It was not shame that stilled Nasir’s tongue – Sinan may have run mad and turned faith into something flawed, but underneath the Old Man’s corruption and lust for power, the Teachings still held true – but there were some things his infidel friends were safer not knowing. Now he said, in a voice like stone, “Do you? Know me?”
That wasn’t fair, perhaps. He saw how Robert stiffened at the challenge in his voice, and then how he sank back into himself, uncertain. His pale skin was clear in the moonlight, almost glowing.
“No,” Robert admitted. “I don’t.” His tone was gentle, no challenge at all. “But I would like to. If I can. If you’ll let me.”
And that wasn’t fair either. Nasir suppressed a smile at that; Robert could, it seemed, be clever when he needed to. He was all blue-eyed sincerity, and an innocence that was almost compelling … had it only been a little less clumsy, Nasir thought, it might even have seemed artful. Yet somehow, in spite of that, he found he believed Robert anyway. After all, what was he but a well-bred young Frank, too brash to know there were some questions he should not ask? He felt himself nod, briefly, once. “It does not mean what you think it means.”
Robert furrowed his brow, puzzled. “What doesn’t?”
“Assassin.” Nasir made a dismissive gesture. “Your word, not ours. Frankish. Franks do not understand.”
“I’m a Frank,” Robert pointed out. “Part a Frank, at least. But I’ll try to understand, if you’ll tell me.” He had no idea what he was asking for, but at least Nasir was talking. He’d seen this man go for days in silence; Robert knew he would learn nothing from that. “Will you tell me?”
There was a pause, then a sigh as Nasir’s brows came down and the man rubbed one hand over his face. “It is difficult to explain. Yes, we kill, we who are made Guardians of the Secrets. We kill to defend, because sometimes one must die so that many might live.”
“I think I understand that,” Robert said, his voice carefully neutral. The idea was distasteful to him; death dealt on a battlefield was one thing, clean and honest, but a knife in the dark … it seemed like cowardice. Like simple murder. And yet this man was not a coward, and though he killed with unthinking efficiency, Robert did not think him truly a murderer either. There was a core of calmness and strength in Nasir that put the lie to that. He would – and clearly had – kill for a cause, but no one had ever died at this man’s hands out of simple spite, or because he had lost control. Robert was sure of that.
Nasir gave the young man a long, assessing look. Any fool could understand killing; that was the simple part. But there was a faint complexity to Robert’s tone, a conflict that he had failed to hide. Oddly, Nasir found he approved. Well, at least the boy was a thinker. He wondered how much to say. His words came slow and thoughtful, carefully chosen.
“It was pure, once. The Teachings were given to us, and the fida’is were sent only against those who would do harm against our people and our faith. But Sinan wanted more than that. He made it a game of politics, of power. He turned from the path, and would have taken us with him.”
Nasir sighed. “No one.” No, that was a very great lie. He made a face. “The Sheikh al-Jabal. The Franks call him the Old Man of the Mountains.”
“I’ve heard that name.” Robert stared in surprise. “I thought it was nonsense, a myth. Like … like ifrits, or jeh – djah-”
“Djinn?” Nasir shook his head in disbelief, both at Robert’s ignorance in dismissing the djinn, and at the thought of Sinan forming himself out of a pillar of smokeless fire. “No myth. And Sinan is not of the djinn, alhamdulilah. He is a man like other men. But,” he said, tapping the tips of two fingers to the side of his head, “he is also mad.”
Robert had the good grace not to ask the obvious question: why had Nasir numbered amongst his followers, then? He didn’t know the man well enough for that, not yet. Later, perhaps. When his response would not be so unpredictable. Instead, Robert focussed on something easier.
In spite of himself, Nasir smiled at that; Robert’s accent was shocking, but at least he was trying. “All praise belongs to God,” he translated. “Alhamdulilah. Where did you learn of the djinn?” It seemed a good time to change the subject.
“Stories. My father’s friends.” Robert’s voice was soft, remembering. “I never knew how much to believe. They spoke of the fighting, but also of what they saw and what they learned, about the land and the people.”
Franks who had learned from what they had seen. Nasir tipped his head, conceding. He supposed it was possible. Robin said, “I heard a tale about the Old Man of the Mountains. It said that he once ordered one of his followers to leap to his death from a tower, to prove his faith. And the man did it. Is that true?”
Nasir grunted disapprovingly at Robert’s persistence – safer to speak of the djinn, or even Iblis himself, than of Sinan – and curbed a shudder. He had seen Sinan do worse things than order a man to jump to his death, and for less reason than merely to prove a point. His answer was short, curt. "Yes. Probably.”
A strange sound floated through the campsite, making the pair of them start and look about. Robert was the first to see what had caused it. He laughed, feeling both foolish and relieved. “Much. That damned flute.”
Nasir let out a low breath and exchanged amused glances with Robert before getting to his feet and padding over to where Much lay. He flicked the flute away from the lad’s lips, setting it softly on his chest. Much snuffled like a puppy and murmured something in his sleep. “… Robin …”
Robert’s smile died at that. Another reminder that he was walking in another man’s shoes, that he was not the one these men had chosen. Nasir, who did not seem to have noticed either Much’s muttering or Robert’s unease, came back to sit closer to the fire. After a moment he said, “Don’t, Robert.”
“Compare yourself to what is past.” Ah, so he had noticed. “He was here; he died. Now you are here. It is enough.”
Robert heard what he was being told in those quiet words. The past was gone, whether that meant Loxley or Nasir’s mysterious Order. Fretting over them made no difference. He nodded. “As you are here. I understand. It’s enough.”
That won him a flick of dark eyes and the shadow of a smile. “You learn.”
“I try. Alhamdulilah.”
A low laugh answered that. “Good. And do not be so hard on yourself, my friend. You do well.”
Robert found he could take a certain comfort in that; he did not think this man was one for saying things just to salve another’s feelings. He would say what was true, or he would say nothing at all. “Thank you, Malik.”
Nasir’s head swivelled towards him, his expression surprised. “Malik?”
“I’m sorry.” Robert hadn’t thought before speaking; he wondered if he’d said something wrong again. “I thought … you told me that in your father’s house …”
“Do not apologise.” Nasir gave him a small smile. “It has been long since I have answered to that name, that is all. It is … good to hear it spoken again.”
“Then I’ll speak it where I may.” Robert dipped his head, in unconscious imitation of the Saracen’s courtly mannerisms. “With your permission, of course.”
“You have it.”
That was a gift too. It called for something in return. Robert offered what he had. “When I was young, my father called me Rob. ‘Robert’ usually meant I’d done something I was going to get a dressing down for. Like putting toads in my tutor’s bed.”
“Toads?” Nasir quirked an eyebrow. “I used frogs. And once, a scorpion.”
“A scorpion? Don’t they sting?”
“With poison, yes.” Nasir shrugged. “My tutor had made me stay and translate Greek poems when my brother went with my father and uncles on a hunt. I was angry. My father was angry too, when he found out.”
“I got a beating over the toads.”
“As did I, over the scorpion. And the frogs.”
They shared another smile, as of fellow conspirators in some distant joke. Then Nasir shifted, glancing up at the stars. “It is late. You should rest. I will take watch.”
“No, you rest too. We’re fine out here.” Robert grinned. “If I can’t find the camp in daylight when I know where it is, no one’s going to stumble over it at night without a clue.”
There was something wrong with that logic, but Nasir found he didn’t care. He stretched and nodded, rumbling low in his chest as the knots in his back let go, and offered his companion a shallow, seated bow. “As you say. Rob.”
Robert scuffed a hand through his hair and yawned. “One more question, if I may?”
Another raise of the brows. Robert interpreted that as permission.
“How do you say ‘good night’ in your language?”
Nasir’s lips twitched. “Tisbah ahla khayr.”
Robert did his best, trying to twist his tongue around the strange alien sounds. “Tjiz-bah ahlaker.” He grinned. “That was awful, wasn’t it?”
“No,” Nasir told him, mostly truthful. After all, he was sure his English had been horrific to start with, odd lop-sided language that it was. He hid a smile, gratified that Robert had even made the attempt. “Nothing tried honestly can be ill done.”
And that meant more than only his hack-handed attempts at Arabic, Robert knew. Oh, this man answered questions, all right, and on all sorts of levels. It was only a matter of finding the right ones, and then shutting one’s mouth and listening.
“Thank you,” he said. “Shokrun. Thank you.”
“The pleasure was mine,” Nasir told him, with another small bow from the waist, watching the young man move off to his sleeping furs on the far side of the fire.
It surprised him how much he meant it.