The man the jailer half-carried towards the cells sagged, mumbling, as he staggered along. Edward watched, clutching the weapon so tightly that the gems bit into his palm. He didn’t know if he was ready.
He’d killed a man before, once. It was unavoidable, in times when violent and lawless men made prey of the innocent. He’d done it to protect Kate.... his beloved Kate. The thought of what might have happened had he not arrived home haunted more nights than the deed itself; it was the reason he’d made sure Marian had been taught to fight, when it was time. But he couldn’t deny it changed a man, and he’d wished he need never do it again. Being sheriff had entailed harsh decisions; he’d been fair and just but even so, he’d needed to order punishments. That was different, though, to taking the law into his own hands. Like this. Edward was no coward, but the act of killing - brutality sickened him.
You make me ashamed. Words said in anger, Edward knew, but oh, how that hurt! The very antithesis of what a parent wishes to hear from their child. Was Marian right, though? Had he hidden in the shadows for too long, taking the path of least resistance until it became the only way for him, until what was right became subject to what was expedient, self-preserving? But he’d done it for her, to keep Marian safe and secure in the only way he knew.
Edward gripped the hilt tighter. Had Marian left it on purpose? Had her harshness been a distraction, designed to cover the subterfuge? He’d considered this possibility occasionally since she’d left, but it brought only a small consolation. The words themselves wouldn’t go away. Only his own actions could make that happen.
He’d been prepared to act, once, on the occasion when the sheriff had faked the king’s return. Edward clung to that, a salve to his self-doubt. That he’d survived the revolt that day had been solely due to Robin. This man, this outlaw, who his daughter had once loved. Whom she still loved. Edward could see what Marian was doing, and what she would keep on doing; the risks that she was taking to help Robin. It was a dangerous game she played and, if he allowed it to go on, Edward knew that it would end up getting her killed.
He must put an end to it. Sir Edward knew what he had to do. The jailer didn’t expect anyone so aged and frail as he to be able to haul him up against the bars, and to shove a blade in between his ribs. It took force. It had been messy. Edward’s hand was shaking, when it was done. He stood gazing at the slumped figure, until he realised that if he were caught like this it would all have been for nothing. It wasn’t done yet. Edward wrestled the key from the man’s belt and, his breathing laboured - and with one or two stops for rest - he manouvered the corpse into his cell and onto the bed, hastily arranging it so that the wound and the man’s face were hidden. Edward stood back, his breath rasping, to see if anything else needed doing. He tweaked the blanket, so that to an observer it would look like him. And then he escaped, stumbling up the stairs, pausing part way up to lean against the wall, wheezing.
Since then, the day had gone to hell.
So close - he’d been so close! And then the goblet, waking the sheriff....Robin’s urgent diversion....and now here they were, rushing through the corridors, through the streets, exhilaration and pride in what he’d done - “I have the pact,” he’d proclaimed, showing it to Robin - vying with the tiredness in his limbs, and the rasp of his lungs. It all reminded him - as if he needed any reminder - that Edward of Knighton was no longer a young man.
But if this was what it took, if this would get Marian out of the reach of the sheriff and Gisborne, then it was worth it. Robin would keep her safe.
And it felt good, he couldn’t deny it. To act....to strike. To refuse, any longer, to bow down, to keep silent, while evil stalked and strutted and mocked in the guise of this balding, jewel-toothed little man. It felt good, to show where his true loyalties lay, like ripping a shroud from a body believed to be dead, only to show that you were mistaken, there’s life in it yet after all.
Edward knew, in the back of his mind, that soon he would have to deal with the practicalities of what he’d done - of the changes this would bring to their lives. Discomfort and no doubt danger - for where was life free of that? - awaited them in the forest. But for now, it felt good to be amongst like-minded men, ones with common purpose; amongst good men. Like being able to breathe again. Like being free.
Robin had led them to a yard hung with laundry. They stumbled to a halt by the well, he, Robin, and the young couple with them, pausing to regroup. Edward leaned against the rim, sucking in air. The pursuit would only allow them a few moments; as soon as the portcullis was raised, the guards would be on their heels.
Not even that long, as it happened. Shoving aside sheets and linens, the Canon of Birkley appeared, startling them all. He grabbed Robin, pressing a knife up against his neck.
“And where do you think you’re going?”
“Birkley!” Robin said, disgusted that they’d been caught out.
“That girl stays here,” the Canon ordered. “She belongs with the Earl of Durham.”
“No, she belongs with me,” said the young man, standing protectively in front of her.
Edward, managing to remain unnoticed, had sidled closer during this exchange.
“Hand her over or say goodbye to your friend,” the Canon was saying.
“Don’t listen to him,” instructed Robin.
For his part, Edward knew that this was a risk he must take. He lunged, the sudden movement catching the Canon unawares. He knocked the blade away from Robin, grabbing Birkley’s thick wrists.
“Robin, go,” he urged.
The younger man broke free. As Edward tussled with the clergyman over the weapon, Robin snatched up his bow.
“A mistake, old man. I will kill you,” the Canon threatened.
Birkley was younger than he, and solid, and Edward realised that the Canon might make good this threat. He was at a severe disadvantage. His arm was weakening, and his grip against the Canon’s wrist was starting to slip.
“Leave it, Birkley! You are a man of God. You cannot kill!” called Robin.
“And you, Hood, are a man of war that cannot kill.”
The pain, when it struck, confused Edward.
An arrow loosed. The plunge of a knife. The Canon dropped, felled by the arrow, but Edward scarcely noticed. What would normally have registered in his mind as an orderly sequence of events seemed, inexplicably, to just slip and slither away. Time took on a surreal quality. His awareness of the world, and the day around him, suddenly became sucked up in a vortex of pain and incomprehension.
He didn’t know how, but Edward found himself on the ground, his head leaning against the well. There were urgent voices.
“Don’t remove the knife. I’ll prepare my instruments.”
The Saracen was there. Edward couldn’t recall her name; couldn’t recall if he’d ever known it. And it didn’t matter. Not when there were more important things that he needed to remember. His mind grasped for them, reaching up through the agony like the flailing hand of a drowning man.
“Robin, leave me,” he said. That was one of them.
“I will not, sir.”
“I will slow you down.”
Robin, aware of the closing pursuit, sent the manservant on his way. But he stayed himself. Edward nodded; he’d have expected no less. Robin’s hand came round to support his neck.
“I’ve never quite understood my daughter’s feelings for you,” Edward began.
Robin gave a rueful chuckle.
“Well, I probably don’t deserve them.”
“No. I think perhaps you do.”
There, that was another of them. Edward knew he was dying. Marian. My dearest daughter. He had no hope of seeing her again; there was nothing more he could do for her. But this young man....he would see her safe. Robin would look after Marian in his absence. And it was right, and it was good, and Edward wanted Robin to know it. But he could see that the younger man was struggling not to weep.
There was one more thing, though, that he could do for Marian. It’s what had started all this: he could help them in their fight.
“You’d better take this....the pact,” he told Robin, fumbling for the document.
It frightened Edward, that he scarcely had the strength or the co-ordination to hand it over. I’m dying. A hard fact, as cold as the numbness that was creeping through his body.
“You will not give up your life for mine.” A desperate protest. For all Robin’s bravery and resourcefulness, Edward knew he was as helpless in the face of this thing as he was.
“For England,” he assured Robin.
There. If he was to die, then Edward wanted it to be counted a patriot’s death; to be known that he’d died in service of his King. But, of course, there was more to it than that. Another layer of truth lay beneath his next words.
“Robin, listen to me. For Marian to lose both of us would kill her.”
“Edward.....” Robin paused, struggling against his sorrow. “Edward, that is not going to happen.”
“Give her a message from me.”
Edward spoke urgently now. Time, and breath, and his life, were leaving him. He needed more, more of all of them....
perhaps not. Maybe he’d been gifted just enough for his next words.
“Tell....tell her...it is good to dream,” managed Edward.
So, there it was. The final thing that he needed to say, and the most important.
“I will,” Robin assured him.
And with that, Edward knew that he could let go. He’d been gifted enough time after all. Because although Robin wouldn’t understand the significance of this message, Edward knew that Marian would. And for a father, what better use of a final breath than to give his daughter his blessing? One which would wrap up within it all the love, and the understanding, of which so few words were capable?
And on such a breath, with his hand grasping that of the man who would henceforth care for her....on such a breath, did Edward of Knighton finally surrender.