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Laughing on the Wrong Side of the Face

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Laughing on the Wrong Side of the Face

Barn in the village of Clun, near the town of Nottingham

Robin stopped in the doorway and peered around cautiously. The walls and the floor inside the barn were dappled by the sunlight coming through the disintegrating roof. There was no one there, and Robin strode to the other end of the room. A cloak of anxiety shrouded him as he waited for Carter to appear, his mind sifting through all the possible reasons for Carter’s iron determination to harm his friends and him. He listened, putting his senses on alert, and then picked up the sound of someone approaching the barn.

In a handful of heartbeats, the door squeaked open and then closed, while Robin was nervously tapping his foot as a sense of disquiet creeping over him. Obviously, Carter had come and would now attack him, but Robin would defend himself and unravel all the mysteries of Sheriff Vaisey’s assassin. Guided by the instinct of a warrior to stay calm in the face of danger and death, Robin reined in his emotions and held himself in check. Then, he slowly swiveled to face Carter and tensed, his hand going to the hilt of his sheathed scimitar.

Glaring at Robin Hood, Carter drew his sword and pictured the hero’s dead body falling at his feet. His enemy remained unperturbed, as if they were attending a neighborhood party for nobles instead of preparing to fight to the death. I’ve been numb with grief for so long, thought Carter. Only my fierce craving for revenge kept me going. Now Robin of Locksley is within my grasp! Traveling to the wilds of Nottinghamshire to find him was worth all the efforts I had put into achieving this. A lethal rage bloomed in his heart, and a festering hatred, burning like flames of hellfire and as strong as the wrath of a vengeful god, flourished into the tormented landscape of his soul and goaded him into action.

In a hateful voice, Carter promulgated, “I accepted a contract to kill you. I will fulfill that contract.” He stepped forward, moving to his left, milling his sword.

Slowly, Robin moved forward. His voice dripping with alarm, he asked, “It’s not just a contract... is it, Carter?”

The duel commenced in earnest as the two men sort of slithered across the floor in circles. Carter swung his sword wildly, but Robin lurched to the side and almost tripped on a stone but kept his footing. The outlaw successfully evaded the next attack, which incensed the assassin further. The steely determination to spill his blood and maniacal exacerbation, which Robin detected in Carter’s eyes, left his mind jumbled, for his adversary hated him with a mortal hatred and coveted, with every fiber of his being, his demise for no apparent reason. It was a rare occasion when Robin was so serious during a duel and was not taunting his enemy.

As he recalled what Much had said upon seeing Carter, Robin voiced his friend’s suspicions, “Much was right, wasn’t he? You did meet in the Holy Land.”

“He never met me. He met my brother,” said Carter, his voice layered with animosity.

Uncertainty flickered across Robin’s features. “What was his name?”

Carter’s whole body went rigid with anger as his envenomed eyes bore into Robin’s. “You don’t remember? You should. You killed him.”

His mind probing various tactics to overpower his archenemy, Carter wielded his sword inconceivably fast at Robin and rushed forward. However, the hero of the poor quickly sidestepped, with feline grace, his countenance calm, as if the man threatening his life was not a concern. Carter brought his weapon down in a sweeping arc, but Robin dodged and forced him to step back with a surge of power in a series of defensive strikes. The combatants resumed circling each other; Robin seemed just as composed and calculating as before, but Carter’s ire was depleting him of emotional energy.

An intrigued Robin reiterated, “What was his name?”

“Thomas,” answered the other man, his eyes flickering with menacing shadows.

“Thomas?” Robin shrugged, endeavoring to remember all the men with this name whom he had met in the Holy Land. However, there were several men named Thomas, and he could not figure out straight away who his enemy meant.

Robin heaved a chagrined sigh. Why does everything come back to the Crusades? I do not want to talk about war! I cannot talk about it! I’m not capable of looking back because, otherwise, I’ll lose myself in bereavement and guilt, or I’ll become a soulless soldier again. Often, when his mind traveled to something in the past that was too painful to remember, his memory automatically blocked it as being too horrible to contemplate, and so the scenes of his bloody battles in the Holy Land turned to black and white and then faded away.

The thoughts of his years on Crusade were so disturbing for Robin that he felt the weight of the earth on his shoulders pulling him down to the underworld, every time someone broached the subject of war. Robin avoided discussing it with his friends, and deliberately made war a forbidden topic for everyone in the gang. However, every night, his mind transported him back to the land of Jesus Christ, where he again became a great warrior and a crafty strategist, and the color red tinged his dreams; screams of the dead and dying echoed frighteningly through his head, like lyrics of a never-ending mourning dirge.

Carter cast a withering scowl at his foe. “Yes. This is for him.” He advanced towards his most hated, sworn foe. “I’ve waited for this moment.”

Carter brought his sword down from overhead, hoping that the blade would dig itself into Robin’s shoulder or chest. Robin sidestepped and dodged the attack, and in response, Carter launched several fierce assaults, all of which were deftly blocked. Robin then swung his scimitar around, and that fluid movement would have seriously injured Carter if the outlaw had been closer to him; it made the sheriff’s assassin think that his opponent was merely trying to intimidate him. Robin’s sword swiped again, and Carter leaned back to escape.

A red cloud veiled Carter’s vision as he looked into the eyes of his brother’s “murderer”. His veins swelled with fury, and a pulse throbbed maddeningly in his temples. My plan was flawless, and I’ve won! This damned man will die – I’ll cruelly slain him. Now! My peace of mind will be restored, then, and my brother’s murder will be avenged.

His lips twisted into a spiteful mockery of a smile, and Carter announced, “I’ve imagined it so many different ways.” He pointed his sword at Robin and continued, “Meeting you.”  Windmilling his sword, he added in a deadly voice, “Killing you.”

The battle continued as the opponents circled one another and traded blows that increased in pace and intensity. Carter lunged forward as the blades clashed again, the metallic clatter mixing with the snarls of the combatants; Robin sidestepped to his attacker’s left.

“Good. Well, I hope it lives up to expectation,” jested Robin with a calm that made the other man itch to separate Robin’s head from his neck.

“It will,” hissed Carter, as he rained down a diagonal strike at Robin who deflected it. “I trained myself,” he enlightened as he swung from overhead, but his blow was again blocked. He ducked from Robin’s counter-attack and then, to his own surprise, managed to grab the hero’s left hand, pulling Robin into him. With as much confidence and arrogance as he could muster, he ground out, “I’m the best, and I exist, Locksley, to kill you.”

If Carter’s speech had any impact on Robin, he did not show it. He pulled Carter’s hands up, brought them down rapidly, and twisted them under his foe’s sword arm. With his right hand, Robin knocked the sword from the grip of his angry opponent, while still gripping Carter’s arm with his left. The inner strain was taking its toll on him, and Robin pressed his lips together for a moment before taking a deep breath to try and calm his racing heart. He then swung at his opponent again, but the unexpected happened: Carter twisted under his left arm and pulled Robin’s back into his chest, then wrapped his right arm round Robin’s neck.

“I didn’t kill him, Carter,” stated Robin truthfully. He then spun his sword and thrust it behind him, upsetting Carter’s balance and breaking free of his enemy’s hold.

“You ordered him into a village.” Carter picked up his sword and windmilled it, and as the blade came down, he sprang towards Robin. As they circled each other again, his hatred for Robin was growing like a roaring fire, and his resolve to destroy the murderer of his beloved brother solidified. “He called for help, but you did not come. You let him die,” he finished.

Like the sun burning through a haze of clouds, recognition finally took hold, and relief lightened Robin’s visage at the memory of Carter’s brother. “I remember him.” He sighed as pain from the death of a comrade in the blood-soaked distant lands penetrated the walls of his heart. How could it take him so much time to figure out whose brother Carter was? He added softly, with a note of deep respect, “He was a good fighter.”

Carter affirmed, “He was a war hero.”

Even though he didn’t want to hurt the other man in any way, Robin felt obliged to reveal the whole truth. “Yeah, and he stopped listening. He thought he was invincible. He led the charge into that village. We told him that it was dangerous. He wouldn’t listen.”

“No,” Carter barked, shaking his head in both disbelief and denial. His hand gripped the hilt of his sword so tightly that his knuckles turned white. He would never believe such a thing about his heroic brother! It had to be the worst lie, and this further embittered Carter.

“We tried to save him,” averred Robin in a tone tinged with regret and sincerity. “I tried,”

A look of disbelief and undisguised disdain spread across Carter’s features. “You’re lying. I was there when they brought back his body. The stretcher-bearers told me everything.”

The blond assassin wielded his sword in an overhead blow, but Robin adroitly blocked it and kicked Carter, then punched him with his fist while holding the hilt. With a cry of fury, Carter fell back on one knee, a look of hateful shock and strange awe etched upon his face.

Robin explained, “I told them to make up the story, so his family would remember him as a war hero, not as a fool who got himself killed.” He ran a hand through his tousled hair. Carter had not even been listening to him, so completely blinded by hatred and engrossed in the battle was he, and Robin feared no word could stir a ripple in Carter’s deliberate ignorance.

Robin lunged at his rival to meet a new powerful blow. Carter blocked and nimbly regained his feet. As Robin swung again, Carter caught his arm and pulled the sword from his hand.

Pierced to the heart by Robin’s words, his eyes wild and glistening with rising rage, he cried, “Rubbish!” He backslapped Robin who reeled and pressed his hand to his cheek.

“He wasn’t the only one who died that day. Morgan Foster died trying to save him. Matthew Kent.” Robin pronounced these words with a sort of melancholic firmness and a deep contrition that he had to cause the other man such distress.

Carter’s brain was processing the incredible things he had just heard; but he dismissed them as falsehood. Without the heat of anger that boiled in his blood and seeped from his pores, he would have been hollow. Swinging his sword twice, Carter growled, “Think I believe this? You’re just frightened to die. You were a coward then, and you’re a coward now.”

Carter swung his sword overhand, the blade heading straight for the outlaw’s heart. Robin avoided the attack and caught his rival’s arm, ducked, and then twisted Carter around.

“He cried when he died.”

“Liar!” rumbled Carter as he twisted back and held Robin’s arm behind his back.

To persuade the enraged man to believe him, Robin cited the most compelling evidence he could. “Ahh! He cried... And he said, “Tell my family I didn’t cry. Tell them I wasn’t crying. I was laughing on the wrong side of my face!”

Robin’s voice boomed in the barn like a cathedral organ in the church. It was a loud, clear, sincere, mournful voice, and each syllable coming from his mouth seemed to emerge from the opaque realm of the past that he would rather forget; yet, today the circumstances forced him to remember the Holy Land again. Now he’ll have to believe me regardless of what he thinks of me. When he calms down, I’ll tell him that Thomas was my friend, and that I would have never caused him any harm. I loved Thomas, and I’ll always mourn for him.  

Carter froze as the pain of the words inundated his whole being. His gaze lost its fervent intensity, and his expression shifted to shock, but he was still holding Robin. His temples exploded with headache, and he claimed hazily, “That’s what he used to say, “laughing on the wrong side of your face.” He faltered and stiffened. As Robin tried to pull away, their eyes met, and Carter inquired in a weak voice, “How do you know that?”

Robin wanted to talk to Carter and to share with him the rest of the story of his brother’s death, but he had to make sure that his opponent would not make another attempt on his life. He threw his right elbow back into Carter’s face, keeping his left hand on the hilt of the man’s sword. He then elbowed Carter again, knocking him to the floor, then reached back and grabbed Carter’s sword with his right hand and Carter’s hand with his left. To neutralize any immediate threat to his life, the outlaw pivoted and pressed the weapon to Carter’s neck.

“I know because I held him in my arms when he died,” admitted Robin.

Carter’s brain registered the words, and he paled in consternation, but he locked his vulnerabilities behind a stubborn denial. “No. He was a hero. You killed him. You’re a liar.”

There was no anger in Robin’s heart at the other man, only understanding and compassion. “If you really think I’m lying, you can kill me. If you think it’ll give you peace...” He lapsed into silence. After a moment’s hesitation, he made up his mind on a course of action; he knew that there was a possibility his prediction of Carter’s behavior would not prove right, but he was ready to take the risk. And Robin put the swordpoint into the dirt and let it fall while taking a step back and holding his arms out. He went on, “... then kill me now.”

A nonplussed Carter beheld Robin for a moment as a wave of shock coursed through him – it was the last thing he expected to happen. Questions circled his mind, and a storm of emotions was brewing within him. What was Robin doing, and why? Did he really surrender willingly, or was it a deception? Was Robin playing because he had a trump card up his sleeve, which he would use to take the upper hand again? Would he back away from his decision to let Carter murder him and then try to take Carter’s life instead? What was Robin’s real strategy? Carter had no answers, and confusion ran through him.

Carter’s world was spinning, and he didn’t know what was real. His mind cracked, and everything shattered around him in a rain of broken beliefs. Suddenly, the vision of Thomas’ corpse flickered in his mind: he was holding his dear brother in his arms, crying for him as if the man’s death were the end of the world. And Carter was again in the grip of black fury, beside which the berserk rage of a trapped animal could pale. His old desire to eradicate Robin Hood from the earth like a weed returned with ferocity.

The final act of a grim drama was unfolding in the barn as Carter stood and stepped up to Robin. He spun his sword and grabbed the back of Robin’s head with the other hand. His eyes full of ire, he moved forward, but stopped short of stabbing his enemy, who didn’t even flinch, and who didn’t break eye contact either. Taken aback by Robin’s calmness, Carter jerked Robin’s head back and stared into the outlaw’s eyes, where he discerned the kind of sincerity that was so striking, so unfeigned, and so palpable that it could move one to tears and change one's entire worldview, and there was also an air of innate compassion about the outlaw.

Intent upon allaying Carter’s sorrow, Robin spoke very gently. “He was a hero... just not on that day.” His voice was woven of pure compassion and cosmic sadness.

Confronted with the ominous reality, Carter shuddered at the sound of Robin’s voice, as if that voice belonged to the Almighty, who would soon judge him for an attempt on the life of an innocent man. Even though Robin spoke so softly and so quietly that at first it seemed to Carter that the voice sounded in the dim reaches of his consciousness, his mind captured the information precisely. Robin did not murder Thomas, and he even tried to save his life!

Carter shuddered again, this time violently, as if in an arctic chill, and the fierce cold of shock and affliction in his soul was driving him into the previously unknown waters of shame and regret. Before this day, every plan and action, every thought and word, was just another natural milestone, marking his path to revenge, but now he could see how grievously wrong he had been. I will not be content with just killing Robin of Locksley – I’ll viciously slaughter the fiend and then cut his corpse to pieces, Carter had thought in the dead of night while dreaming of revenge, but it was so before today.

A chasm opened beneath Carter, and he plummeted helplessly into it. In the space of a few heartbeats, Carter’s eyes wandered around the barn. He then trained his gaze on Robin, but as his cheeks were now burning with shame for his misdeeds, he hurriedly dropped it.

“What am I doing here?” The assassin stilled for a moment before muttering, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” He released the outlaw and tumbled to his knees.

The past seized upon the two men with its shadowy hand, sending them into a harrowing journey they would rather not undertake. Laboring to catch their breath, they stared at one another in utter desolation, like persons condemned to forfeit their lives, and each of them was thinking of the Third Crusade. They instantly felt like they were cut from the same cloth: two soldiers, comrades who had both lived and burned in the inferno of war and sustained losses, whom ghosts of the past would haunt until their dying breath.

The borders of reality shifted: suddenly, Robin and Carter were not in the barn but in a distant land ravaged by death and marauded by Crusaders. The vault of the cerulean sky was over them, the yellow-tinted sands, vast and stretching, lay all around them, and there were piles of corpses riddled with arrows and sword-cuts everywhere in the desert. Their minds conjured the gut-wrenching picture of a wounded Thomas staggering backwards, his vision filled with red sparks as the blade of a Saracen crashed into his chest. Then the image changed into the vision of Carter’s brother dying in the arms of Robin Hood, a shadow of death looming over him. At this very moment, in omnipresent, sinister silence, Carter and Robin felt as if they were ghosts of their former selves who came to connect through the shambles of a dead world.

A sick weariness assailing him, Carter entreated, “Help me. My brother...” Robin knelt in front of him, but he was too absorbed in his grief, feeling like a man burdened by the shackles of mortality. In a voice that was close to breaking, Carter supplied, “I loved him so much.”

Carter dissolved into tears, and a solemn Robin spoke with a nod. “It’s all right.”

The distressed man was trembling all over, as if an earthquake had him in its grip, shaking his body to and fro. Carter put his forehead to the hilt of the sword and sobbed quietly like a lost child. His grief crashed over him with a colossal strength, pulling him down into its murky depths as he clung to memories of his brother. Tears blurred his vision, and he was falling into darkness, spiraling down, away from reality. A distraught Carter found himself in a seasonless world, where he could experience only excruciating pain, lifelong sorrow, and ghastly silence, where he was alone with his grief over Thomas’ tragic fate.

Robin’s empathy was so intense that he could physically feel the suffering of Carter. “Hey... come on.” His voice sounded like the soft rippling of water.

As Carter didn’t react in any way, Robin sighed and stroked the other man’s hair.

Carter was thinking of holy things: Robin should hate him and yearn for revenge, but instead his compassion for the man, who did nothing to deserve it, was so sincere and so generous that it could only be of a heavenly nature. Robin Hood was a great man of compassion, faith, and conviction, more a man that he could ever be, mused Carter. A flood of shame and remorse swept over the repentant man.

Robin pressed Carter’s head to his shoulder. “It’s all right. It’s all right,” he repeated, as if hoping to extract some new meaning.

In the next moment, Much and Djaq burst into the barn, their swords at the ready. As they viewed their leader from top to toe, searching for injuries, their faces evolved from bewilderment into worry. A fleeting smile touched their lips as they adored Robin’s kindness, but it vanished just as swiftly. Witnessing the hero’s compassion to the assassin was like seeing broken plants bloom after watering and tender care.

“You all right?” asked Much, his eyes full of worry, focused on Robin.

Robin cast a quick glance at his manservant and gave a nod while still hugging Carter. Then the hero wrapped his arms tighter around the crying comrade, hoping that his distress would not amplify in the presence of the others.

Troubled by this bewildering turn of events, Much and Djaq lowered their weapons, their puzzled gazes focused on Carter, questions jostling madly in their minds.

“Why is he crying?” Much wanted to know. He was not only worried but also suspected that Carter’s breakdown would foist on them something they would not want to deal with.

Without looking at him, Robin responded, “He’s not crying. He’s laughing on the wrong side of his face.” He chuckled to himself: probably, he should have jested that in the cruel world in which they lived one should laugh, but not all of their laughter, and weep, but not all of their tears. He regarded that idea as an infinite folly, because it could insult Carter, who seemed to be intent on watering the floor of the whole barn with his tears.

Carter was glad to be in Robin’s welcoming embrace, although it felt strange to be so close to the man whom he had hated more than anyone else. Muffling his sobs against the other man's chest, he let the tears he seemed to have held in check for many months since Thomas’ passing flow freely. A small part of him was ashamed and alarmed at the idea of allowing Robin to see his misery, but he was too broken to control himself. As minutes passed, Carter finally ceased shaking from the force of the emotions that ripped through him.

When he calmed down, Carter extricated himself from Robin’s arms and scrambled to his feet. Much and Djaq strode forward and surrounded Robin, keeping themselves on alert, so Carter knew that he was going to be  facing drawn daggers if he dared attack their leader. Robin solicitously offered to sit and talk, sending the other man an encouraging smile. Carter managed a wan smile, trying very hard to act unconcerned about being at the outlaws’ mercy, probably without even the solace of a friendly ear, except Robin’s.

Robin settled himself on the floor next to Carter; Djaq seated herself at Robin’s right. Much was still standing, his arms folded over his sheathed sword.

For some time, Carter hesitated. Slowly, his emotions settled, and his mind cleared to allow for honesty. “Thomas was my hero. Whatever he did, I had to do, too. And when he joined the Knights Templar, I knew I had to follow. I’d only just joined when... when he died.”

Much scrutinized the blond man and verbalized his observation, “Thomas! You look like him. That’s why I recognized you.”

Instantly, Carter envisioned his brother’s young, clean-shaven face framed by luxuriant blond, slightly curvy hair that fell in waves to between his ears and shoulders. Thomas’ azure eyes could be as hard as ice or warm as a balmy summer day, depending on his mood,  which could change as fast as a snap of the fingers. Like many youths, Thomas dreamed of glory and recognition by his peers and the king, which he could get by fighting against heathens for the liberation of Jerusalem. After rigorous training, he joined the order of the Knights Templar in the Holy Land, but his dreams stretched further. Thomas coveted to serve in the king’s private guard! After accidentally saving the Earl of Huntingdon’s life in a local skirmish during the siege of Acre, Robin invited Thomas to join the private guard, where he showed dauntless bravery on the battlefield and was elevated to the rank of captain of his own unit.

His visage poignant with grief, Carter murmured, “I was determined to carry on for him, to be as good as him, to get to the very top. I joined the king’s private guard.”

Much nodded. “Like us.” A smiling Robin glanced at Much and winked at him.

Turning his head, Carter studied the handsome face of the legendary Robin Hood. The hero’s face was honest and friendly, but his strikingly blue eyes conveyed wisdom. While Thomas served in Acre, he sent several letters for Carter to England, where he described Robin as a talented general and a god with sword and bow, as a man who was kinder, braver, more loyal, and more honest than others. Now, looking at Robin, Carter found it difficult to understand how such a young man – most likely, his coeval – could become the king’s beloved captain and the famous hero of the downtrodden at such a young age.

The answer immediately came to Carter: Robin earned greatness and fame by being better and stronger than others, and by sacrificing the privileges that he had by birthright for the sake of the poor. And what did Carter do? Instead of assisting Robin in his fight against the sheriff, he had come so close to murdering Robin! Double damn him for the terrible time he’d caused Robin, thought Carter, and guilty remorse coiled through him.

Carter began to reminisce. “And that’s where I heard about you.” He paused for a moment, and Robin flicked his gaze to him. “Robin this, Robin that. How great you were.” The hero nodded, a bit embarrassed. “And it made my blood boil. Every time I killed, I imagined I was killing you, the man who took my brother away from me. And when I returned, I came straight to Nottingham, where the sheriff has a contract on your head: £500.”

An offended Robin questioned, “Just £500?” He veered his gaze to Much, tilting his head ever so slightly. “Can you believe that?” From the smirk on his lips, it was obvious that he had been confident Vaisey would offer more for his head, and Carter’s number disappointed him. Much raised his eyebrows in response.

“So, I figured... his plan to lure you to the village, I’d get to you quicker,” supplied Carter.

Djaq insinuated, “So, all this death was for personal revenge?”

An ashamed Carter averted his gaze. In his blackest moments, immediately after Thomas’ burial in the desert outside the walls of Acre, he blamed himself for not saving Thomas: if he had been with his brother, he would have done anything to avert the man’ death. It was in those moments that his savage, unquenchable thirst for vengeance against Robin of Locksley would be most intense and fiercest, clawing its way up through his body, until it became as alive in his heart as he himself was.

Yet, Robin was innocent, and Carter’s revenge was not only senseless but also unjustified! Now more guilt piled up on his conscience on top of his previous guilt, and he wondered bleakly if he would ever be free of it. Carter had lost his moral compass in his quest for vengeance, and now he felt as if fate had slapped him hard across the face, causing him to rock back with the force of the blow. His battle with his conscience would last forever.

A dismal silence fell after Djaq’s question, but Carter couldn’t force himself to voice his thoughts. Much stared uncertainly across at Robin, waiting for his friend’s decision regarding the assassin’s fate. While Much assumed that Robin would do away with Carter, who had betrayed them, Djaq supposed that their noble leader didn’t have the heart .for such an act.

Robin’s gaze flicked to Djaq and then back to Carter. “When did you last see the king?”

Carter’s eyebrow shot up. “Why?”

“Well, because... we sent him a message,” explained Robin, his gaze oscillating between Carter and Much, who finally sat down next to him. “A very important message. The messenger was a man called Roger of Stoke. Do you know him?”

“I know Roger,” Carter confirmed. “No, he was expected, but did not return.”

Much heaved a sigh, and so did Robin. They both were conscious of anxiety and uneasiness building within them. King Richard hadn’t received Robin’s letter, and, therefore, his life was in danger! The king would not return to England, and, thus, Prince John would not lose power; Vaisey would not be ousted, and peasants would continue suffering. Robin was sure that Allan betrayed Roger of Stoke to Gisborne for coin, and his features contorted with ire. Roger was likely to be dead – killed by Guy and buried somewhere in an unmarked grave, and at the thought that another friend was dead, chasmal grief engulfed Robin.

Robin’s face took on a look of dark irony that masked his pain. Looking down, he muttered with a note of bitter sarcasm, “Great. So, the king knows nothing about Shah Mat.”

Carter didn’t comprehend that. “Shah what?”

Much shot a quelling look in Carter’s direction. “That doesn’t concern you.”

This hurt Carter like the whip of a lash. He understood the negative sentiments of the outlaws towards him: they had taken him to their camp, but their trust turned out to be ill-founded. “What can I do?” he inquired, hoping to atone for his misdeeds.

“What can you do?” Robin drawled. He stilled for a moment, his expression pensive. “You can do what you set out to do. Go back to Nottingham, give the sheriff back his pact and one... dead... outlaw.” A smile curled the corner of his mouth at the last words.

There was a sly smile on Djaq’s face as she figured out what their leader meant.

In the next several minutes, Robin spoke enthusiastically about the hazardous stratagem devised against the sheriff by his quick-witted brain. He  outlined all the things he was going to do in Nottingham  that day, which caused Djaq to smile and praise him for cleverness, Much to start fretting about Robin’s safety, and Carter to assess Robin as a competent and fearless leader, and a strategist who was both wise and yet a bit too bold and audacious.

Robin’s humor and well-timed jokes diffused the others' bad mood. Much grumbled, with quivering frowns on his forehead, that one day his friend would be the death of him. Robin countered his former manservant’s concern with arguments in favour of his plan, but Much was still worried; his gaze was unhappy whenever it strayed to Carter. Djaq reassured Much that the whole idea was not farfetched, and that Robin would not be in too much peril.

Soon Djaq and Much exited the barn and headed to the outlaws’ camp to notify Marian and the rest of the gang about their leader’s intention. Using the chance, Carter resolved to have a frank conversation with Robin while they were not distracted.

“Robin,” called Carter.

Robin veered his gaze to him. “You want to talk, don’t you?”

“Yes. About Thomas.” Carter seated himself on the floor.

“Of course.” The outlaw followed suit, and settled himself next to the other man.

“You meant that my brother wasn’t a hero on that day. What else happened?”

Consideringly, Robin regarded the other man. "What would you have me do? To tell you the whole truth, even if you don’t like something?”

“I prefer the truth,” underscored Carter.

Robin glanced away, collecting his thoughts. As memories of Thomas danced through his mind, a tight ball of pain coiled in his chest. A bubble of guilt was forming in the pit of his stomach as he recalled that fatal evening for Thomas, thinking that he could probably have done more for the man, although in all honesty, he was not being fair to himself. The man’s death had hit him hard, like a member of his own family. Actually, among the deaths he had witnessed in the Holy Land, the death of Carter’s brother was one of the most dramatic and one of the most foolish as well, and the latter fact both irked and saddened Robin.

Robin of Locksley was not only a commander-in-chief of King Richard’s private guard, but also a genius negotiator. The king had often sent him on meetings with Saracens, because his favorite was always armed to the teeth with information and had an arsenal of intelligence to turn the odds to their favor. Once Robin was returning to the camp from negotiations with an Arabic sheikh and was attacked by a contingent of Saracens. He and his companions were outnumbered so significantly that he would have been captured or killed if Thomas hadn’t appeared, as if out of the blue, and aided him to defeat them. On that day, Thomas rushed headlong into the struggling mass of Robin’s men and the heathens, and delivered the final blow to the Saracen who was about to murder Robin. Robin survived thanks to Thomas!

Being in charge of the private guard, Robin not only led his men in battles and issued orders, but also felt that it was his responsibility to ensure that unwarranted risks were not taken unless it could not be avoided. Unlike many other generals, Robin cared for his men and did all he could to help them. One of the most brilliant knights in the Christian army and the best archer, he trained his comrades with bow and sword on a regular basis, trying to make sure that they were in the best possible shape.

King Richard claimed that the Earl of Huntingdon had an unrivalled military talent and lauded his favorite with praise. Indeed, Robin had no competitors! Several people, who served under his command, were unquestionably experienced in military affairs; Thomas was one of them. As a military tactician and a strategist with supreme skills, Robin appreciated these skills in others and talked to these comrades from time to time, asking for their opinion on the subject of an upcoming battle; he also trusted them to carry out his orders according to their own judgement and experience. This might have caused Robin to set his hopes too high on Thomas’ ability to assess risks, which on that one occasion proved to be fatal for the man.

Robin remained adrift in his reverie until his companion tugged at his sleeve. He felt dismayed at the eager anticipation he distinguished in Carter’s eyes, for the realization that he would have to discuss the topic of war left him bereft, as always. Furthermore, although he was not on the friendliest of terms with his almost-murderer, he was not willing to twist the knife of distress in the other man’s heart. If Carter wants to know the truth, I will reveal everything to him, even though he will not like it, as it will break his heart, mused Robin.

“Thomas,” the hero of the poor uttered after a short pause, a note of wistfulness in his voice. “He was my friend. Do you know that once he saved my life?”

Carter nodded. “I know this; he wrote me about it.”

Robin reminisced, “In the skirmish where he saved my life, your brother demonstrated outstanding sword-fighting skills. His courage on the battlefield was beyond question. The king needed more men like Thomas, so I recruited him to the private guard.”

“Thomas wanted a military career, and he also felt it was his duty to fight for England in the Holy Land. Soon after his enlistment in the order of Knights Templar, he realized that it was not enough for him. It was Thomas’s dream to serve the king, and it came true.”

Nothing would efface the memories of Thomas from Robin’s mind. “Your brother proved his fighting skills and his dedication to his duties in many battles.” He paused, sighed, and went on, “On another occasion, we infiltrated a village that, according to the reports of our spies, was abandoned by the local populace, but we were mistaken. My men were well armed and primed to fight off all foes, but some of them were defeated – war casualties, you know. I was in the heart of the battle when I saw a fallen comrade: he was trapped under a horse, with enemies closing in. I was surrounded by Saracens and could not save him. Thomas rushed to his aid despite being wounded in the left arm; he got there first and defended the soldier.”

Carter didn’t know this story and was moved by it. “He was a brave man,” he commented in a voice laced with undeniable pride, "and a foolhardy one too."

“That’s true. What he did was so amazing, so foolhardy, that almost no knight could have thought of it, except for me and my friend, Robert de Beaumont, the Earl of Leicester.” The pale blue eyes full of sadness, Robin continued, “You must be aware that I’m famed for my unusual plans – oh, no, my half-plans – and my battle escapades, as well as for my humanity and the mercy I sometimes showed to enemies.”

 “Your humanity has made you so famous!” enthused Carter.  “Your career as a solider… in the Holy Land was incredible. But your compassion to Saracens surprised me the most.”

The moments stretched on as Robin didn’t want to speak about his service to the king and war. “What happened?” probed his befuddled companion.

“Nothing. No worries.” A funereal glint lit the pale blue eyes as Robin maneuvered back to the previous subject. “King Richard told me once that one day my extravagance or my recklessness might result in my death.” He fell silent for a moment. His voice thick with dejection, he got out, “I remember the king saying that I must never be envious of anyone’s courage as my own courage exceeds anyone’s. Richard also added that I should be happy that I’m brave and bold but not as foolhardy as our Thomas.”

Carter's reading of the matter unleashed the demon of unbearable anguish in his chest. He stated gloomily, “And that foolhardiness doomed my brother.”

“In a way,” Robin breathed. Unnerved, he stared off into the emptiness, and the brief silence that followed had a calming effect on him.

A solemn Robin Hood recounted, “On that day, we were very close to capturing Acre, and all of our forces were involved in battles near the walls of the city. Unexpectedly, King Richard received news that one of the nearby villages was being raided by a squad of Saracens, but he decided to focus on the task of subjugating Acre. It is not that I could not break the king’s order – actually, I often did that if it fitted into my strategy. However, on that day, we just did not have enough men to defend the king because many were wounded or killed in previous battles. So, we needed all the able-bodied soldiers, and I could not spare any men for a raid into that village.”

“But why didn’t my brother stay in the private guard to protect the king?”

“Carter, your brother was a Knight Templar. When one joins the order, he adopts a strict code of conduct and becomes trusted by pilgrims across Christendom. Your brother never disregarded or failed to fulfill any of the responsibilities he had as a Knight Templar.”

“Did Thomas go to that village to defend innocents?” deduced Carter.

“You are correct.”

“I can understand him.”

 A bitter curve to his mouth, the outlaw elucidated, “I told Thomas that we could not take unjustified risks when the king’s life was in peril. We could not leave the king unprotected! I also explained to him that we did not know how many Saracens were in that village, and, thus, we were not able to estimate the threat they would pose to us. I prohibited Thomas from taking someone from the private guard and ordered him to stay by the king’s side.”

“But he did exactly the opposite.”

In a low voice, Robin lamented helplessly, “True. Thomas did not listen to me, and joined a handful of other Knights Templar who were heading there. He led the charge into the village.”

Carter concluded, “He stopped listening to you, his commander, not only because he was foolhardy but also because he was too overconfident.”

Robin hoped that his words would not sadden Carter. “Thomas was a brave, honest man – a hero loyal to the king, who held him in high regard. He was also loyal to the code of the Knights Templar, and the culture of the Templars spurred him on – you know they are known for acts of heroism.” A sigh tumbled from his lips as he divulged, “However, sometimes, your brother could be too impulsive, just a too-foolhardy soldier without enough strategy, who could one day meet his death in some minor engagement. His successes on the battlefield and the praise from our liege and from me went to his head, and he became too cocky.”

A spasm of pain crossed Carter's face. He swallowed heavily, and anguish filled him as his mind conjured the picture of a mortally wounded Thomas. Indeed, success might be too intoxicating, and fame might steer someone away from the right path, blinding them by overconfidence into abandoning the necessary alertness. As a soldier, Carter also knew that foolhardiness in battle might make a soldier deaf to perils and get him killed. He did not have even a shadow of a doubt that all had happened just as Robin described.

Meanwhile, Robin was fighting off the onslaught of depression that had smitten him while they chatted about Thomas. Memories of the Holy Land flashed through his head, but he was not able to tamp them down before they overtook him. Everything turned into a rapidly moving whirlwind of images: soldiers in Crusader uniforms swarming everywhere and attacking the defenders of the beleaguered city like ravening wolves, the sounds of swords clashing and men's dying screams, Robin’s own blade clanging powerfully against the countless blades of his foes, and the smell of blood burning in his nose and stinging the eyes. His heart a painful lump in his chest, Robin momentarily shut his eyes in anguish.

There was an air of tenseness about the barn, as the attention of the two men was briefly diverted to their inner struggles. Seemingly oblivious to it, Carter asserted in a philosophical undertone, “A foolhardy knight seeking glory and justice at any cost is doomed.”

The outlaw dipped his head in agreement. “And that's the gospel truth!”

For a short while, Carter was staring into Robin’s eyes, a silent apology in his crestfallen gaze. He then articulated, “I’m sorry, Robin. I’m sorry for what I did to you.”

“It’s all right.” A pleasant blend of compassion and mirth glimmered in the blue eyes of Robin Hood, who didn’t anticipate hearing that. Carter could gain redemption from his sins by showing affection for others and doing good deeds; bearing a guilty conscience would be his penance. Robin thought of the former assassin with an overwhelming kindness from which the negative sentiments, caused by his war recollections, had been purged.

“Really?” Carter’s eyes flashed with disbelief.

“Yes, my friend. Be at ease,” the hero reassured him, as much for Carter’s peace of mind as for his own. “We all make mistakes. But how we correct them – that defines us.”

“Thank you, Robin,” murmured Carter quietly. His whole being glowed with gratitude, and no tumultuous emotion now disturbed him as he dwelt on the image of Thomas.

“You are welcome.”

Carter earnestly avowed, “I cannot undo the past. I cannot change the present. At this moment, I can only hope and look for the opportunity to help those in need and all others less fortunate than me."

“Hail the mighty, but don’t forget to help the weak!”

“I suppose being kind to the weak would not demean a soldier.”

“For sure.” A gleam of laughter in his eyes, Robin proclaimed facetiously, “Then, Carter, by all means, smile and take that sad look off your face.”

Carter’s lips curved in a crooked smile. “Better?”

A grin tugged at the corners of Robin’s mouth. “No! There is too much gratitude in your eyes! It’s good to be grateful, but not too much. Every experience of gratitude is like a drop into the pool of your life, sending ripples in all directions. How far might these ripples spread?” He jumped to his feet and took a step back, jesting, “I don’t want to be affected!”

Carter broke into a gaily laugh. “A mocking devil tormenting others from morning till evening, if he isn’t fighting. That’s what they said about you in the private guard.”

The conversation lapsed after that, and Robin announced that it was time to return to the camp. Life was never simple: the choices one is occasionally compelled to make are not always easy, but people cannot manufacture excuse after excuse in order not to make decisions. Today, Carter made the choice to not kill Robin, who decided to give a second chance to the former assassin. This divine justice was such that enemies can sometimes become friends, who today would make Sheriff Vaisey laugh on the wrong side of his face.