“Don't forget this, Master.”
Much hands me my scimitar. It had been lying under my pallet, along with some torn hose and a missing gauntlet.
“Thank you. Let's hope I will not need it again for some time to come.”
“Amen to that,” he says.
Much resumes gathering up and packing our possessions, few though they are.
We had come to the Holy Land with little more than our clothes, our weapons and the blood of glory and adventure pulsing through our veins, or at least I had. Much had simply dragged along in my wake, scared witless, but too loyal and loving to leave me.
We are leaving with clothes torn and mended many times over and weapons pitted and scarred. And the blood pulsing in our veins does not sing of glory and adventure but simply that we are alive, we escaped death. In my case, only just. The assassin's sword in my side came close to finishing me, the fever that followed closer still. Somehow, I survived both.
Much hands me my quiver, stuffed full of arrows. I start to buckle it on, wince as I tighten the straps – one of them is digging into the still raw scar in my side. Much notices.
“Perhaps you should let me carry that until we get back to England. You won't need it on the boat in any case.”
“Thank you, but I think I should wear it, at least until we reach the port. Even though the Saracens appear to have retreated, I dare not drop my guard until Richard has left the camp. Talking of whom, have you seen the king today?”
Much licks his lips, flicks his eyes about the tent.
“Er...no, I mean, yes. Yes, I've seen him.”
“And he...er...seemed quite busy, you know, doing, well, kingly things.”
“Yes. I'm sure he's far too busy to worry about us leaving or anything.”
I finger my recently washed hair. It’s good to feel it dry and soft after several days of being plastered to my head by sweat, drying crusty. “Much. We have been in Richard's personal guard for the better part of five years. I nearly died saving his life. I think he might leave his kingly duties long enough to come and say goodbye.”
Much has a strange expression on his face. It looks like fear.
I am about to ask him what's the matter, when Brom comes in with our evening meal. Much drops the mail he is holding and snatches the platter of food out of Brom’s hands.
“He thinks he won’t get fed on the boat home,” I explain.
“More likely he’ll heave everything up,” Brom says. Much has spent the past three days talking of little else.
“Is the king about?” I ask.
Brom shakes his head and, with a final grin at Much, departs.
Much sits and starts eating like a man who hasn't seen food before; partly because this is how he always eats and partly, I think, because with his mouth stuffed he can avoid talking about whatever it is that is worrying him about the king seeking us out.
“Are you concerned Richard might change his mind about sending us back to England if he sees I am much better?” I ask.
Much shakes his head no and then shakes his head yes.
“It is true I am on the mend,” I say, “but my injury is still paining me and there are still nights when I wake hot and feverish. The last thing the king needs is me keeling over, especially if the Saracens choose that moment to attack. We will be going home, my friend.”
Much nods and smiles, his mouth too full to answer.
The meal over, Much resumes cleaning my mail and then moves on to my boots. I had thought to go find the king, or maybe see if a game is going on, but I'm too tired to do either. Instead, I quietly watch Much at his task, at the way his hands move up and down the length of my boots, polishing them to a high sheen. As he does so, I have a sudden flash of memory, of something that happened, or that I think happened, when my fever was at its peak.
Most of what I can remember after the assassin stabbed me is vague, incomplete. There was pain, of course, and burning skin and shivers, and clothes soaked in sweat and worse. There were voices, too. Some I recognised, like Richard's and Much's, others I didn't.
Occasionally, in my more lucid moments, there were faces: Much's concerned one and Richard's smiling one. I don't remember speaking, although I imagine I made plenty of noise when people were prodding and poking me. I certainly cursed in my head, if not out loud.
Much picks up the second boot, starts polishing.
At some point, when my skin felt as hot as the inside of a bread oven, yet no amount of blankets could keep me warm, someone removed all my clothes. I thought it was to better see to my wound, or to cool me down, but perhaps it was because I had soiled them; I don't know. Gentle hands had washed my body with cool water. They'd touched me, too. My arms, my legs, in between my thighs. I think I thought it was Marian, even though she has never touched me like that. I know I wanted it to be Marian. The hands touched my cock. And even though my body was as weak as water, I know I stiffened. The hands kept sliding up and down, just as Much's hands are doing now, and I knew what was going to happen because I wanted it to happen; I’d tempered my desires too long in the weeks leading up to the attack. So I moaned a soft moan to let whoever it was touching me know that they should keep on touching me, and I uttered Marian’s name over and over because I wanted to let whoever it was touching me know that I thought it was her doing this to me.
Much stops polishing, looks up.
“Did I...did I say anything when I was in the grip of my fever?”
“Such as what?”
“I don't know. Did I call out a name or maybe cuss somebody?”
Much drops the cloth he is holding. He picks it up, mumbling about being clumsy. He pours a brownish mixture onto it and begins rubbing my boot so hard I swear he'll make a hole in it. I've always known Much cared for me, loved me even. I did not think it was in that way and I don't want to think it is in that way, but I can't hate him for it what he did. He thought I didn’t know; maybe he even thought he was doing me a kindness – letting me think Marian was tending to me. Maybe he thought it was the only chance he would ever get to be that way with me. I can still hardly believe it of Much; not dear, bumbling, ever-hungry Much. But facing death every day, facing my death, who knows how far he may go.
“Only when I was being...cared for, when I was in my fever, I think maybe I was dreaming of Marian and that maybe I hardened because I thought she was—”
“These boots really are a mess,” Much says, the cloth flicking back and forth. “You must have been walking through a swamp or something to get them this bad.”
Poor Much. I should not have said anything. I just wanted to know whether it had been nothing but a feverish dream, or whether I had actually spilled my seed at the hands of a man. Now I know.
I glance at Much’s hands. His fingernails are bitten to the quick and the hand holding the cloth is stained brown from whatever he is using to clean my boots.
Another memory spikes. The hands that touched me, that brought me off, were warm but there were also cold bits, hard bits, like stones or metal. Rings, I think. Much does not wear any rings.
“I think that’ll probably do,” I say, shuffling closer to Much. “I’d like to have some boots left to wear.” He smells much as I do, not unpleasant, but not exactly clean. It's hard to keep clean in war. The person that touched me smelled of war, too, but also of rosewater. Much doesn’t smell of rosewater.
“Give me your hand,” I say.
Much puts down the cleaning cloth and offers me his hand. “Do you want me to close my eyes? Is this a trick, or a present, or something?”
I shake my head no and bring his hand to my nose. It smells of onions and whatever it is he's using to clean my boots.
The tent flap opens. I drop Much’s hand.
“Please, Robin. Don't get up on my account. Save your strength. You will need it for the journey home.”
The king turns to Much. “You may pay me respect, of course.”
Embarrassed, Much lurches to his feet, dropping my boot as he does so. He bows. The king laughs. I can just imagine what Much is thinking: ha, ha, very funny.
“We're about to march, Robin, so I have come to say goodbye. I am glad to see you looking better than the last time I saw you.”
“And I am glad to see you, Sire. Standing here, alive and well, when you could so easily have been slain by that assassin.” Despite the fact he told me to stay seated, I stand.
“It is thanks to you that I am,” Richard says. “God speed, Robin.” The king offers me a hand. I grasp it. His hand is warm, but the many rings he wears are cold and hard. He pulls me into an embrace. “Safe journey, my friend. Look after my England for me, until I return.” The king smells of rosewater.
“I will, Sire,” I say, with some difficulty.
“And you, Much,” the king says, releasing me. “Make sure you look after this man, the man who saved the life of his king.”
Much gives a stiff little bow and says, “Of course, Your Highness. It is what I was put on this earth for; to serve and protect my master.”
Richard raises a ringed hand in salute, turns and walks out the tent. Much stares daggers at his back when he thinks I’m not looking. Much knows, I think. Much knows what the king did; maybe he saw it, or walked in on the king when Richard was taking advantage of my fevered state. Much is loyal to the king. He would die for the king, if he had to. But he loves me more. He will never admit that the king molested me. He will let me go on thinking it was my feverish imagination, or worse, that it was him. Because Much knows that I have long revered the king, despite the atrocities we have had to commit in the name of holy war.
Like Much, I will keep up the deceit. I will pretend it was nothing more than the wild imaginings of a fever-addled mind, or simply a betrayal of my weak flesh at another’s touch. Perhaps, one day, I might even come to believe it myself. I will never bathe in rosewater, though.