Chapter the First: In which a horny monk does his laundry, ruminates upon sexytimes past, and wonders if he has a magic doom peen.
Tod came awake, heart pounding. A damp patch was spreading across the front of his nightshirt, the echo of release fading from his loins. He could not recall the dream, except that it had involved Rook. Tod turned his head to look over at his companion, sleeping nearby on his pile of sheepskins. The gray pre-dawn light entering the small cave was just enough to make out the shape of the young outlaw's body, sprawled naked on the other side of the fire pit.
Lustful thoughts washed over Tod. With an effort of will, he tore his gaze away. Sighing with frustration, he quietly rose from his bedroll, gathering up his monk's habit and his few other items of clothing. Perhaps doing his washing would take his mind off his carnal urges.
The sun crested the horizon as Tod made his way along the rocky path down the tor, limping slightly on the leg he had broken five years before. The summer days were warm, and even at this early hour, Tod was able to strip off his nightshirt without discomfort when he reached the river, adding it to his bundle of laundry. He donned a loincloth, for modesty's sake, in case anyone should happen upon him, and waded in up to his ankles. Dumping his laundry into a shallow pool, Tod swished it around in the cool water, then squatted and began to scrub it with handfuls of sand.
As he worked, Tod's idle thoughts drifted back to Rook. The dream, and his body's response to it, had sent a storm of feverish thoughts and memories whirling through his mind.
The first night after he and Rook had confessed their feelings for one another, Tod had taken Rook in his arms, rejoicing at finally being able to hold him close and kiss him as he had wanted to do for weeks. Rook's body pressed close against his, warm and alive. Tod's hands caressed him, feeling the bones and muscles that moved beneath his skin; feeling Rook's heart beating as fast as his own; Rook's breath on his face and neck; the warm, musky scent of him. Tod was all too conscious of how precious and fleeting life could be — how easily it might be snatched away.
He had nearly allowed his passion to carry him away, hands sliding over Rook's skin, lips tasting Rook's eager mouth and throat. And then Rook had moaned. The soft sound nearly undid Tod right then and there. He stilled, suddenly realizing what they were doing — where this path must surely lead.
Rook had realized it, too.
"Will you show me how two men lie together?" he asked shyly.
The innocence and eagerness of the question had squeezed at Tod's heart. It was all he could do to push Rook away.
"I … no. This is too fast."
Rook's disappointment had showed clearly in the glow of the lamplight. "Why? What's the point of waiting? I'm no maiden whose father you must ask for my hand in marriage. If you're hoping for my father's blessing, you'll be waiting a very long time."
Tod said a brief, silent prayer, as he always did, for the soul of Rook's father, Jack Pigkeep, dead seven years past.
"Not so long as that," he promised, tucking a lock of hair behind Rook's ear. "I just — need some time. Please."
Rook had been patient with him. It was not as if sex was the only thing either of them wanted from the other. Their time together was a joy even without it, full of shared thoughts, laughter, tender looks, soft touches, and kisses, as their affection for one another grew and deepened. There were times when just the sight of Rook stirred feelings in Tod's chest — feelings that frightened him in their intensity. But by night, alone in the privacy of their cave, the feelings that came over Tod as he kissed and touched Rook all too often grew heated; his hunger for the other man threatening to overwhelm him and make him forget that he wanted to take things slowly.
Only a fortnight past, Tod had awakened from a fearful dream of blood and terror, and sought solace in Rook's embrace. Tod had kissed the outlaw, long and rough, a hand tangling in Rook's shaggy black hair, as he reassured himself that they were both alive and unharmed. His other hand slipped down Rook's back and over his bare arse, gripping his thigh, as he remembered Rook was naked. Of course he was; Rook always slept bare on warm nights.
"Please?" Rook had begged, tugging at the thin fabric of Tod's nightshirt, rubbing his stiff prick against Tod's hip.
Tod had wanted nothing more in that moment than to strip off his shirt, pull Rook down on top of him, and let their passion take them as it would. It had been with superhuman effort that Tod instead pulled himself away.
"Why?" Rook had asked again, voice betraying his frustration.
"Because — I don't want to lose you."
Rook blinked at him in confusion. "How could you lose me by lying with me?"
Tod looked away, and spoke reluctantly. "Because of Zaahir."
He had not wanted to speak of his dead love here, in intimate embrace with Rook. Not that Rook ever showed the slightest hint of jealousy over Tod's memories of Zaahir, or any discomfort at hearing Tod speak of him. Still, it did not seem right to invoke Zaahir's name when Tod spoke of bedding Rook.
"What about him?" Rook asked, more baffled than ever.
"I lay with him too quickly," Tod tried to explain, "and he was taken from me, by violence, just as suddenly."
Rook frowned. "That makes no sense. What happened to him wasn't your fault. Why waste time fearing that something bad might happen, when we could spend it loving each other instead?"
"I know," Tod admitted uncomfortably. "I know it's not rational."
"Do you regret it?" Rook pressed. "Loving him, even though it caused you pain?"
"No," said Tod, looking away to hide his grief from Rook. "Of course not."
Rook was not fooled. He had touched Tod's face gently, voice soft. "If you had waited to be with him, you would have waited too long. Wouldn't that regret be worse?"
"Yes. You're right. I know you're right," Tod sighed. "I'm just afraid. I couldn't bear to go through that pain again. I don't want to lose you like I lost him."
"I'm not him," said Rook.
"I know it." Tod had kissed him tenderly on the mouth. "You're Rook, my sweet forest bird. Have patience with me. I swear, I won't make you wait forever."
Tod suspected that was the night Rook had decided to seduce him. Innocent of sex as he was, his attempts at seduction were clumsy, but effective all the same. He cast frequent warm looks at Tod, lashes lowered over his large, dark eyes, and touched him often, taking every opportunity to press his body against Tod's. Two or three times now, by night, Rook had not waited until Tod was asleep, or left the cave, to relieve his carnal urges. Tod had lain facing the cave wall, burning with lust, as he listened to the rhythmic movement of Rook's hand, and the small sounds of completion he made when he found his release. It was the latest such incident, only the night before, that had inspired the dream which had awakened Tod that morning.
Tod did not truly want to wait. Desire ran like liquid fire through his veins. He hungered for Rook, and longed to bed him, as he had once hungered for Zaahir, but the fear left in him by Zaahir's death still held him in its grip. With Zaahir, Tod had never been afraid. Remembering his first lover still made his heart ache, but the pain was less now than it had been when Tod first returned to Sherwood Forest.
Tod paused in scrubbing the rough cloth of his habit, eyes drifting over the sun-sparkling surface of the river, remembering.
Zaahir had been two or three years older than Tod. He was dark and handsome, close to Tod's own height, with a scholar's soft body and gentle hands, and a beard not yet grown to the fullness of manhood. Zaahir's clothing was very fine; his parents were wealthy Jerusalem cloth merchants. He had a lively wit, a fine singing voice, and a poetic way of speaking that captivated Tod from the first. His long-lashed gray-green eyes often sparkled with laughter, and humor frequently curved his soft, full mouth. Tod, seventeen and newly come to the East seeking some purpose for his life, had fallen in love with him almost at once.
He had not guessed that Zaahir returned his feelings, or that his own infatuation was so obvious, until the night of his eighteenth birthday. Zaahir had come after sunset to the small room Tod rented, and took him to the top of a minaret at a nearby mosque, to look at the stars. He had named the constellations in his own tongue, and told Tod their stories. And then Zaahir had kissed him, and called him habibi — his beloved. Tod had immediately forgotten about the stars, and about everything else, apart from Zaahir's arms around him, and the sweet mouth against his own.
They had kissed and caressed each other, murmuring soft words, until the stars began to fade, and Zaahir reminded Tod that they must go, before someone came to call the morning prayers. As they hurried back to his room, Tod felt as if he floated in the air. He and Zaahir kept stealing glances at one another and grinning. In the doorway of Tod's room, Zaahir had kissed him once more, and bade him goodnight. When he turned to go, Tod gripped his sleeve.
"Stay," he said impulsively, barely knowing what it was he asked for.
Zaahir had smiled and closed the door behind him. Tod's heart was in his throat as Zaahir undressed him and laid him down on the narrow cot. Then he had knelt beside Tod and taken his cock in his mouth, and Tod had thought he might die of bliss.
Their love affair had been brief but intense. They found every opportunity to be alone together, and to consummate their love in as many different ways and places as possible. Tod had been giddy with joy, prepared to spend the rest of his life in the East with the man who owned his heart. Only a few weeks later, a single stroke of a crusader's sword had taken Zaahir's bright light from the world, and cleaved Tod's heart in two. Too fast. Too sudden.
In one terrible instant, sex and death had become linked in Tod's mind. If he gave himself to Rook as completely as he had given himself to Zaahir, Tod's newly-healed heart would be in peril. An outlaw's life was chancy at the best of times. Rook might be killed in an accident, or succumb to a winter ailment, or worst of all, Tod's own father, the Sheriff of Nottingham, might capture Rook and hang him in the town square. Tod was not certain he could survive another heartbreak like the one he had suffered at Zaahir's death. More than that, he feared that bedding Rook would somehow seal his doom.
A movement on the path caught Tod's eye. He looked up to see Rook emerge from the shadows of the forest into the bright morning sunlight. Tod stilled, watching him. Acting as if he had not noticed Tod crouching in the shady river shallows, Rook shrugged out of his sheepskin vest and lay down on his front on the flat, sun-dappled rock that jutted over his favorite fishing pool. He lowered his arm slowly to trail in the water, and held perfectly still, waiting. Tod was certain Rook knew he was there. He doubted there was any sound or movement in the forest that Rook did not notice and immediately classify as food, danger, or no threat.
Tod gazed at the still figure on the rock, a strong mixture of tenderness and desire welling up in his chest, as so often happened when he watched Rook in unguarded moments. He longed to go to him — to take him in his arms and kiss him and tell him without words how he felt about him. His eyes caressed Rook's body, from the black whorls of his hair, to the angular shapes and sun-browned skin of his shoulders, along the curve of his spine, over his shapely bottom, and down the sinewy lengths of thighs and calves, to the arches of his bare feet.
Aside from his brown skin and black hair, Rook could not have been more different from Zaahir. He was small and bony where Zaahir was tall and plump, fierce where Zaahir was easy-going, unlettered where Zaahir was an accomplished scholar and poet. His compact, wiry body gave an impression more of toughness than of strength. Tod doubted there was anything Rook could not do with his hands. He was also brave and passionate and loyal and clever, with an open heart and a clear-eyed way of looking at the world which Tod admired.
Rook had been the soul of kindness and gentleness when Tod had first returned to the forest that spring, still deep in grief over the loss of Zaahir. Even then, before Tod had learned that Rook was inclined toward men, he had longed to lose himself and forget his sorrows in his friend's comforting embrace. And then, on the night of Beltane, Rook had kissed him, his lips every bit as soft and sweet as Tod had imagined — and Tod had run away, because he feared Rook's love. A part of him feared it still. But Rook had pursued him, refusing to let Tod deny the attraction that lay between them. Ever since that day, Tod's feelings for Rook had only grown and deepened.
Tod realized with shock that it was Lughnasadh, the first day of August. It had been three full months since he and Rook had shared their first sweet kiss under the stars — longer than Tod had even known Zaahir.
With a sudden explosion of movement, Rook scooped a fish from the water to smack wetly against the rocky riverbank. Tod jumped, then shook himself, jerking his eyes back to his work. He scrubbed busily at his clothing, cheeks flushed with warm feelings, as Rook retrieved the gasping fish, dealt it a swift killing blow against a rock, and returned to his fishing spot, and stillness.
Rook repeated this exercise until six fat trout were wrapped in wet leaves and stowed on the shady bank of the river. Then he stood up, shed his ragged breeches and loincloth, and stepped into the sunlight. Turning his face toward the morning sun, Rook stretched, arms over his head, back arched. Tod forgot about his laundry again, and stared, mouth dry. Rook glanced sidelong at him, smirking.
"Nice day for a swim," he said, a sly smile curling the corner of his mouth, "and not much else to do until your clothes are dry."
Rook was the very image of Temptation, standing naked in the summer sunlight, body casually on display, smiling at Tod in open invitation. Tod swallowed heavily as heat rushed to his groin.
Rook waded into the river, diving into the deep pool behind the rock dam he and Tod had constructed the previous spring. He came up a moment later, hair plastered across his forehead.
"What are you waiting for?" he asked, grinning.
Slowly, as if in a dream, Tod stood, gathering his sodden clothes, and went to spread them over the nearby bushes and branches to dry in the sunlight.
What am I waiting for? he wondered.
Chapter the Second: In which Tod finally succumbs to the thrill of the chase, and sexytimes commence upon a secluded river bank.
Tod waited for Rook to duck his head under the water again, before quickly shedding his loincloth and following him into the river. Perhaps the chilly water would cool his lust. Either that, or he was about to succumb to temptation. Tod was not sure which outcome he hoped for more.
Rook's face lit up when he saw that Tod had joined him. He swam over and kissed him.
"Catch me," he said playfully, and splashed away.
Tod laughed and gave chase. He was not as strong a swimmer as Rook, but he was more than a head taller than the outlaw, who had barely grown since they were fourteen. Tod's long legs gave him an advantage, allowing him to push off from the rocky bottom, and close the space between them. It took him only a few moments to catch a laughing Rook about the waist and steal a kiss from him in turn.
Letting Rook go, Tod turned and swam away, as they switched the roles of hunter and quarry. The sunlight and the rush of the water over Tod's skin felt good, the exercise warming him more than the water chilled him. Pausing for breath, he pushed sodden brown hair out of his eyes to gauge Rook's position, then pushed off again, shooting across the deep pool and out of reach.
When Rook caught him at last, it was because Tod let him. As he clung to Tod's freckled shoulders and claimed the forfeit of a kiss with enthusiasm, Rook's body slid against Tod's for an instant, quick and slippery as a fish. He swam away, leaving Tod's skin tingling. Tod shook off the feeling, and dove after him.
They were both panting by this time. Rook evaded capture by waiting for Tod to push off from the side or bottom, and quickly changing direction, swimming out of his path. Tod was wondering whether he would ever manage to capture Rook again, when his quarry ducked under the hanging curtain of a willow tree that leaned out over the water. Tod followed quickly.
He immediately realized that Rook was trapped, hemmed in by the mossy bank of the river. With a triumphant grin, Tod lunged. Laughing, Rook scrambled backward out of the water. At the last instant, Tod's hand closed around a slender ankle, and he followed Rook up onto the bank. They collapsed onto the moss, gasping and giddy.
"Will you claim a forfeit, My Lord?" Rook asked, leaning back on his elbows.
Tod looked at him, naked, panting, skin glistening wet in the dappled sunlight that danced between the swaying screen of willow, cock half-hard in its nest of sparse black hair, and swallowed.
"A — a kiss," he said hoarsely. "I would claim a kiss."
Rook tilted his head, an inviting smile playing on his lips, and Tod pulled him into his arms, delighting in the cool wetness of his skin and the heat of his mouth, as he kissed Rook, long and deep.
"Is a kiss all you would have of me?" Rook murmured when Tod released his mouth.
Tod's heart pounded. His resolve evaporated. He could no longer think of a single reason to delay the thing they both desired.
"No," he said, voice low and rough. "Lie with me. Here. Now."
Rook's dark eyes widened, his face alight with excitement. "Show me what to do."
Somehow, Tod had always known that the first time he bedded Rook, it would not be in the cave. It felt right that it should be here, on the mossy river bank, surrounded by the cool, green light of the forest, as if the sun and the water and the trees themselves gave blessing to their union. Tod kissed him again, reveling in the feel of Rook's body, pressed flush against his own. Rook's face tilted up, eagerly returning the kiss, yielding himself to Tod's desire.
After imagining being with Rook so many different ways, Tod had thought that perhaps, when the moment arrived, he would not know what he wanted to do with him first — that he would want to master Rook and serve him and surrender to his lust all at once — but now that the moment had come at last, Tod felt sure of every touch.
"I've wanted this for such a long time," he confessed, bending his head to drop hot kisses onto Rook's throat and shoulders, hands exploring Rook's back from nape to thighs. "Seeing you every day, I could hardly keep myself from you."
Rook hissed as Tod took a flat, brown nipple between his teeth and suckled it. "I w-would not have stopped you," he panted.
"I know," said Tod, nuzzling his chest, tasting his skin. "I was a fool to wait so long, and you so willing. There were times, even before you first kissed me, when —"
He broke off, distracted by the sight of Rook's cock, standing stiff and ready, eager for his touch. With a reverent hand Tod cupped him gently, delighting in the feel of skin like hot silk against his palm. Rook made a small sound in his throat, eyes fluttering closed, as Tod's delicate touch explored every square inch of him, from root to tip.
"W-when what?" Rook asked shakily, hips rising to press himself into Tod's palm.
Tod's thumb found a bead of slippery wetness, and he slowly rubbed it over the blunt head of Rook's cock
"When I wanted to make you gasp and cry out with pleasure at my touch," murmured Tod, as Rook did just that.
"Ah," gasped Rook, back arching. "I think you could've done whatever you liked with me, from the very first."
"Wanton," Tod chuckled. He breathed on the sensitive skin of Rook's concave belly, making him shiver with delight. "How was I to know your virtue could be so easily won?"
Rook half-opened his eyes and smiled down at him languidly. "Wanton, am I? Of the two of us, who has bedded a man before, and who has lived chaste and virtuous all of his nineteen years? If anything, my youthful innocence was seduced by a degenerate monk with a handsome face, strong arms, and a sweet smile. How can you kiss me, if you're all the way down there?"
Tod gave Rook a lascivious grin. "Oh, I can kiss you from here."
He bent his head, and let his lips caress the head of Rook's cock.
"Oh!" gasped Rook, eyes going wide.
"Shall I kiss you there some more?" Tod asked, voice low and hungry.
"Yes! Please —" Rook begged, breathless.
Tod rolled onto his belly between Rook's legs, pushing his thighs apart. Eyes never leaving Rook's face, he teased his tongue along the underside of his shaft, and flicked the tip of it over the sensitive slit. His mouth watered as he tasted salt and musk. As Rook stared, wide-eyed and panting, Tod drew his balls into his mouth, one by one, and sucked them gently, pumping Rook's cock in a loose fist.
"Please," whispered Rook again.
Tod could not deny him a moment longer. Gaze intent on Rook's flushed face, he took the thick, blunt head into his mouth, sucking it deeply.
The sound Rook made was something between a moan and a whimper. His head fell back against the moss, eyes fluttering closed once more. His fingers dug into Tod's shoulders, as his hips rose in mindless need of deeper penetration.
Tod gave it to him gladly, taking as much of Rook into his mouth as he could manage, delighting in the feel and taste of him on his tongue. His own erection twitched against the moss as Tod thought of that sweet, eager cock penetrating him somewhere else, but that could wait for another time. For now, he surrendered his mouth to Rook's pleasure, sucking him long and deep, working his shaft with one hand.
As Rook began to thrust his hips in earnest, sobbing gasps tearing from his throat, Tod increased the pace and pressure, urging Rook on. Rook's back arched sharply, and he gave a shuddering cry, his seed flooding Tod's mouth in long pulses. Tod swallowed joyfully, suckling Rook clean, as the outlaw shivered and moaned.
At last, Tod released him, sitting up to survey the results of his work with satisfaction. Rook lay sprawled on the moss, limp and panting, eyes closed, face and chest flushed, his sated and softening prick retreating into its foreskin. He looked like a man whose pleasure had been well and thoroughly served.
After a moment, Rook's eyes blinked open, and he looked up at Tod shyly.
Tod could not help grinning. "For a stealthy woodland creature, you make a lot of noise."
Rook gave a shaky laugh. "And whose fault is that?"
Tod lay down beside him, pulling Rook into his arms for a kiss. Rook tasted his lips curiously, then let himself be kissed as long and as deeply as Tod wanted to.
"Is that the way it's done?" he asked a moment later. "Do you want me to do that to you now?"
Tenderness for Rook's innocence squeezed Tod's heart, and he smiled. "It's one way, of many. You don't have to do it if you don't want to. You don't have to do anything."
Rook's chin was set with determination. "I want to do something for you."
Tod nuzzled Rook's hair. "I should like very much for you to touch me. Here."
He took Rook by the hand, and guided him to his own hard and wanting cock. As Rook's warm, calloused fingers explored him, Tod sighed with pleasure. How many times had he dreamed or imagined Rook's hand on his cock? The reality of Rook's touch was better than any fantasy.
"Yes, like that," Tod breathed, pressing himself into Rook's palm as his grip firmed.
He buried his face in Rook's hair, and wrapped his hand around Rook's, guiding his movements, showing him how he liked to be touched. Not that it mattered this time; the mere sight and feel of Rook's hand on him after wanting it for so long was enough to bring Tod to the edge of climax. He let go Rook's hand and gripped his shoulder, anchoring himself as he thrust his cock into Rook's fist with abandon.
"Oh — oh, Rook," he panted helplessly. "So close —"
For an instant, Rook released him from his grip, pulling away slightly. Tod's bewilderment turned to amazement when Rook raised his hand to his mouth, and looked into his eyes as he gave his palm a long, wet lick, before returning the hand to its work.
Saliva-slick skin slid over the head of Tod's cock, and he groaned, thrusting into it. Rook's strokes were sure and quick now, making Tod dizzy with need.
"That's it," Rook murmured in his ear, low and rough. "Give me your spunk. Take your pleasure."
The sound of Rook's voice urging him on sent a shiver down Tod's spine that went straight to his groin. With a sob, he thrust himself hard into Rook's palm, wave after wave of intense pleasure breaking over him, his seed spilling over Rook's fingers and onto his thighs. Tod clung to Rook tightly, trembling as the echoes of orgasm faded from his loins.
At length, their embrace relaxed, and they lay face-to-face on the moss, their legs tangled together.
"What did you think?" asked Tod, a little shyly.
Rook's smile was just as shy. "I didn't expect there to be so much talking, or that I would like that part of it so much."
"I like that part, too," admitted Tod. Bawdy talk during bed-play was one of his favorite things, and he was delighted that Rook enjoyed that part of it, too.
Rook traced a finger down the center of Tod's chest. "You said there are other ways of doing it?"
Tod nodded. "There are many."
"You'll show me?"
Tod chuckled and kissed him. "As many as you want to try. With great pleasure."
"I should hope so," Rook smirked, then looked down at his spunk-smeared hand thoughtfully. "It's a messy, sticky business, isn't it? I wonder how people manage in the winter, when there isn't a handy river to wash in, after."
Tod laughed outright. "I expect we shall find out in a few months' time."
"Perhaps if we practice some more, we'll have the knack of it by then," Rook grinned.
"I'm glad to practice as often as you like," said Tod, kissing him again.
They were quiet for a time after that, exchanging kisses and soft touches, still lost in the wonder of what they had accomplished. In the course of their caresses, Tod's fingers brushed the silver ring that Rook wore on a leather thong about his neck.
"Do you always wear this?" he asked dreamily, picking it up and turning it over. He could not recall ever seeing Rook without it.
"Ever since Rowan gave it to me," said Rook. "It's the symbol of the Rowan Hollow band."
"I know," said Tod.
Rook was silent for a moment, watching Tod turn the ring over in his fingers. Then he lifted the leather cord over his head, and pressed the ring into Tod's hand.
"I want you to have it."
Tod stared down at the little silver circlet, then up at Rook's face, dismayed. "But — it's yours. It's important to you."
"That's why I want you to have it," said Rook. "Ring or no, I know I'm a member of the Rowan Hollow band. This way, you'll know that you are, too."
Tod's fingers closed around the ring, moved. "I — thank you, Rook. I'm honored."
"Anyway," said Rook practically, "don't sweethearts usually give each other love tokens? Now you'll have something to remind you that I love you, even when I'm not there to tell you myself."
Tod bit his lip and looked down at the ring again.
The sound of rocks falling against one another across the river saved Tod from having to make a reply. They froze, listening intently. Quiet as a shadow, Rook sat up, peering between the willow branches. Then he relaxed, laying a hand lightly on Tod's arm.
"It's only Little John," he whispered.
They watched as the big outlaw looked from Tod's washing, to the pile of Rook's clothes, to the carefully-wrapped parcel of fish, an amused smile tucked into his bushy beard.
"I'll go see what he wants," said Rook, getting up.
Tod hid behind the willow screen, blushing furiously, even though Little John could not see him, as Rook stepped out.
When he caught sight of Rook, naked, with bits of moss clinging to his tousled black hair, a grin split the giant's face. "I see you and Brother Tod have figured things out at last," he rumbled.
Rook shrugged, face giving nothing away. "Did you want something, John?"
"Aye," said the outlaw. "Rowan said I might find you and Brother Tod here. We're having a midday meal to celebrate Lughnasadh. You're welcome to join us."
Rook nodded. "Our thanks for the invitation. We'll be along presently."
Little John's eyes twinkled as he turned back toward the path. "It's good to be young," Tod heard him say to himself.
Rook ducked back under the shelter of the willow, and fell into Tod's arms. They laughed until their sides ached.
"Come on," said Rook, slipping the leather cord over Tod's head, and kissing him one more time. "Let's go eat. I seem to have worked up an appetite, somehow."
Chapter the Third: In which Tod's embarrassment gives way to joy that he need not hide his relationship with Rook.
Rook's parcel of fish was greeted with appreciation by the outlaws gathered in Robin Hood's glade. The outlaws greeted Tod and Rook as well, many of them with twinkling eyes and poorly-concealed grins. None of them said anything outright, but their amusement told Tod as plainly as speech that his dalliance with Rook on the river bank was no secret.
Little John sat down beside him on a log while they waited for the fish to stew in a berry sauce Rowan had made.
"I must beg your pardon, Brother Tod," the big man said sheepishly, stretching legs like tree trunks out in front of him. "I didn't mean to make your private affairs public knowledge. It's only that it so gladdens the heart of an auld bugger like me to see two lads in love, that I fear I may have let somethin' slip."
Tod glanced up at Little John in shy surprise. "You have my forgiveness, John. But I didn't know that you …."
Little John beamed. "Oh, aye. I appreciate a man with shapely legs to … spar with."
He looked across the cook-fire to where Robin sat with Rook, Rowan, and a tall, dark-skinned outlaw named Brahim, playing with the child Smudge. The outlaw chief must have felt Little John's eyes on him, for Robin looked up and gave him a warm smile, the corners of his eyes crinkling.
"You and Robin?" said Tod, his amazement making him momentarily forget his own self-consciousness.
"Well, not all the time," admitted Little John. "But every now and then, we find one another's company agreeable, of a night."
"Does Rowan know? What about Rowan's mother?"
The big outlaw shrugged. "I don't know whether Robin has told the lass. As to the other, we're free men of the greenwood. Robin may do as he likes. I consider myself fortunate that, from time to time, it pleases him to share my bed."
"I am glad for you, then," said Tod. "He's a good man."
"Aye, that he is," said Little John fondly.
Tod's eyes sought Rook across the fire. The thought of sharing Rook's affections with someone else was not a comfortable one. He found Rook's eyes fixed on him, alight with some strong emotion. Tod smiled, putting the troubling thought out of his mind. Rook wanted him. That was all Tod needed to know.
Little John followed Rook's gaze, and chuckled. "Ah, young love! I'll tell ye, lad: there's nothin' sweeter than havin' a lover who's also a boon companion."
Discomfited by the big outlaw's easy use of the word love, Tod drew his eyes away from Rook, and looked down at his own shoes, flustered. He wondered whether he himself would ever again be able to say the word easily, after what had happened to the last man he said it to.
Little John departed to join in a game of dice. His place beside Tod was soon filled by Princess Ettarde and Beau, of the Rowan Hollow band. Etty pushed a trencher of food into Tod's hands, and he suddenly remembered how hungry he was.
"Little John said that you and Rook were … fishing, down at the river, Brother Tod," said Etty, cheeks dimpling, a wicked glint in her eyes. "Did you have a pleasant morning?"
Heat flushed Tod's cheeks. "It was well enough," he mumbled, scooping a too-hot piece of fish into his mouth, and nearly choking.
Beau pounded him on the back, a broad grin on his face.
"Alors," he said in his affected way. "It took you long enough to find your way into cher Rook's trousers. I began to think one of us would need to draw for you a map!"
"We mustn't tease poor Tod too much," Etty scolded him affectionately. "He deserves to be happy. There's no shame in it."
Beau snorted and kissed her on the nose. "And what would be the fun in that, chère Etty?"
Etty laid a gentle hand on Tod's arm, her eyes warm and sincere. "We are glad for you and Rook, Brother Tod. Truly. Please don't feel that you must hide your happiness from your friends, who love you."
Tod's embarrassment faded a little as he realized the truth of Etty's words. He marveled at the wondrous freedom of the place in which he had found a home. The ability to live openly and share his affection for another man, without fear of judgement or punishment, was a rare gift indeed. Tod's heart lifted, and he let go some of the burden of fear he had been carrying. The rest of the world could be a cruel and terrible place; Tod need not bear its judgements with him into Sherwood Forest, where people lived free, and love ruled all.
"Thank you, Etty," he said humbly. "I shall try to remember that."
Tod and Rook left the glade with the other members of the Rowan Hollow band late in the afternoon. It thrilled Tod to be able to take Rook's hand as they walked with their friends. Etty did the same, holding the hands of her two lovers, Rowan and Beau, while the child Smudge rode on Lionel's lofty shoulders, and the wolf-dog Tykell dashed ahead.
It had been a pleasant afternoon of fellowship with Robin's outlaw band, but for the last hour and more, Tod's thoughts had turned with increasing frequency to Rook, and how soon they might find some privacy. From the glances Rook gave him beneath lowered lashes, Tod suspected that he was having similar thoughts. He halted on the path, tugging Rook's hand to draw him in for a kiss, for the sheer joy of being able to do so openly. Rook returned Tod's joy in equal measure, smiling against his mouth.
The others noticed they had fallen behind, and stopped a little way along the path to wait for them, with expressions ranging from Beau's broad grin to Lionel's rolling eyes. Sex and romance bored Lionel, except when they made for a good song.
"We're going berry-picking this evening," said Rowan innocently. "Would you care to join us, or …?" Heo trailed off, eyebrows raised.
Rook stepped away from Tod, but did not let go of his hand. "I — ah — I need to check my snares."
"I'd best go with him," said Tod, a little too quickly.
Rowan hid a smile behind heore hand. "Yes, of course. Safety in numbers."
"We'll hope to see you soon, when you're less … busy," said Etty with a sly wink.
"Oui, indeed," said Beau, grinning wickedly. "Was it not Saint Gregory who said, 'Idle parts grow stiff with neglect, but those who overexert themselves may get a cramp in a place trés uncomfortable'?"
"Beau!" cried Etty in mock outrage, tugging at his hand. "Saint Gregory never said anything of the kind!"
They went on their way, laughing. Lionel gave Tod and Rook a long-suffering grimace and a wave of farewell before following the others.
When they were out of earshot, Tod asked, "Do you really need to check your snares?"
Rook smirked, shoving him playfully against a tree. "There are other things I'd rather check," he said, tilting his face up to capture Tod's mouth.
Tod leaned back against the solid trunk, returning the kiss, hands sliding under Rook's loose sheepskin vest.
"Mmm, any things in particular?"
"Oh, things …." said Rook, sliding a hand up Tod's thigh to cup between his legs.
Tod made a low sound of approval in his throat at Rook's boldness. "And how are you finding things?"
"I find them most agreeable."
"I'm pleased to hear it," said Tod with a grin, sliding his hands down over Rook's bottom and kissing him again.
"Do you know," Rook murmured a moment later, "Rowan made a bawdy jest this afternoon about the size of a man's hands."
"What about them?" asked Tod, nuzzling at Rook's ear.
"Heo asked whether it was true that the size of the hands hinted at the size of … other things."
Tod flexed his own large, blunt-fingered peasant's hands thoughtfully, squeezing Rook's arse, and glanced down at the small, fine-boned hand toying with his rapidly-stiffening cock through the fabric of his habit.
"It would seem that it's not true," he said. "After all, you and I are not that much different, down there. But I suppose Rowan would not have much experience with such matters."
"Well, I wasn't about to tell heom that," said Rook. "I don't discuss my manhood with just anyone."
Tod caught Rook's unoccupied hand and pressed it to his lips. "I hope I am not 'just anyone'."
"Certainly not." Rook assured him. "I'd gladly discuss my manhood with you any day,"
Tod chuckled. "Any news to report from that region?"
"Only that he's feeling sorely neglected," said Rook, "and pining for lack of attention."
He rubbed up against Tod's thigh to demonstrate the sad state of affairs in his breeches.
"Oh dear. You are in some difficulty, aren't you?" Tod chuckled. "Come on. If we hurry, we can be back at the cave in a quarter of an hour."
"Can't wait that long," muttered Rook, tugging at Tod's belt rope. "Rather have you right here."
Tod gave a breathless laugh, his heart speeding up. "Oh, well, if the situation is truly that dire .…"
"It is," said Rook, pulling Tod down to the forest floor.
When at last they made it back to the cave, they remade Rook's pile of sheepskins and the rough blankets of Tod's bedroll into a bed for two. Tod looked at Rook, kneeling naked at the center of it, eyes shining in the glow of the lamp light, and felt like the luckiest man alive.
What they had done on the river bank, and that afternoon on the forest floor, had been play. This was different. Their movements now were slower; their touches more deliberate. Tod touched Rook everywhere, learning which soft and sensitive places could elicit a sigh or a gasp or a moan of pleasure, and guided Rook's explorations of his own body. They did not speak much during their lovemaking. They did not need to.
After, Tod held Rook in his arms, head pillowed on his shoulder. Rook was silent, his expression pensive.
"What is it, dear one?" Tod murmured.
"It's nothing," said Rook softly. "Only — I didn't expect it to be like this, after."
"How do you mean?" asked Tod, concern catching at his throat. "Is it not good, or —?"
"It's very good," Rook assured him quickly, turning his head to press a kiss to Tod's shoulder, fingers toying idly with the patch of reddish-brown hair that grew at the center of Tod's chest. "I just never imagined that I would want so much to lie with you again so soon. I thought perhaps in a day or two — but by the time I looked at you over the cook-fire, I wanted you as much as I did when you first touched me on the river bank. Perhaps more."
Tod lifted Rook's face toward his, and kissed him softly. "I feel the same. Is that such a bad thing?"
"I just wondered," said Rook, frowning, "is this what it's like? Wanting all the time?"
"I don't know," Tod admitted. "Certainly at first it is."
"How will we ever get anything done?" asked Rook, dismayed.
Tod chuckled, settling Rook more firmly against him. "I expect we'll manage somehow."
Rook was silent for a moment. Then he asked softly, "Was it like this with him? With Zaahir?"
Tod bit his lip, fighting back a sudden onslaught of complicated emotions. There was no jealousy or anxiety in Rook's voice; only shy curiosity. Still, Tod did not wish to conjure Zaahir's ghost here, in the bed he shared with Rook.
"It's the same in some ways," he said reluctantly. "Different in others."
Rook turned over, resting his chin on Tod's chest, peering up at him. "It's all right if you speak of him. I don't mind it. I only thought, you must be thinking of him today."
"A little," Tod confessed. "But it feels … disloyal, for me to think of him so when I'm with you." His fingers caressed the back of Rook's neck, and he raised his head to kiss Rook on the brow. "You're the one I want to be with now. No one else."
"But you loved him."
"Yes," said Tod softly, not meeting Rook's eyes.
He wanted to tell him then — to say the word to him. But when he tried, fear rose up in Tod's throat once more, choking him. He pressed his lips together and breathed deeply, forcing the panic back down. Love was a fearful thing, with the power to wound deeper than any sword, in a way no healer could touch. Besides, if he told Rook now, it would sound like poor consolation, brought on by guilt over Tod's lingering feelings for Zaahir.
"It's all right," said Rook, mistaking the cause of Tod's distress. "You should think of him. I would hope that, if it were me, you would think of me sometimes."
Tod's arms tightened convulsively around Rook's slender body, the panic he had tried to push away returning to clench like a fist around his insides, stifling his breath.
Burying his face in Rook's hair, he rasped, "I pray every day that I will never have to think of you like that."
Chapter the Fourth: In which Tod's giddiness over Rook makes him careless, and he seriously fucks up.
The weeks that followed were nothing short of magical. Tod had never felt so free. It was not difficult, in the vastness of Sherwood Forest, for Tod and Rook to find privacy in which to enjoy each other. Initiating Rook in the ways of the flesh was an extremely pleasant business, and Tod embraced the role of teacher with enthusiasm. He rejoiced in giving Rook pleasure, and in showing him how to give it, in his turn. Rook, for his part, was an eager student, quick to learn, and ever ready to practice his new skills. As summer began its long, slow slide toward autumn, the pair cavorted amid the greenery of Sherwood, as carefree as a pair of Adams in their own Eden.
Being around others was a mild strain. Tod had only to look at Rook to imagine him naked and panting, and to want to make such imaginings an immediate reality. Still, knowing that their friends were aware of their relationship, and were pleased for them, added to Tod's overall happiness. At night, in their cave, for the first time in almost two years, Tod knew the sublime joy of falling asleep in a lover's embrace.
Even though they were distracted by frequent urges of the flesh, Tod and Rook did not neglect their duties to the Rowan Hollow band. Soon, the season would begin to turn, and nothing was more important than building up their stores of food and other supplies to see them through the winter.
"Do you recall where the woodsman's hut is?" Rowan asked, one particularly fine day in late August.
Tod had never been to the place where Rowan and Etty had found the child Smudge the previous winter, but Rook nodded.
"I remember seeing some apple trees there," Rowan continued, handing Tod a bundle of sturdy cloth sacks. "Some of the apples might be ripe by now, and it's worth checking to see if anything else useful grows there."
"We'll bring back as much as we can carry," Rook promised.
"Go carefully," warned Rowan. "The hut isn't far from the walls of Nottingham."
They managed the long walk there without becoming too distracted by each other. Though the days were still warm, they were shorter now, and it would not do to waste too much daylight when there was work to be done. Tod breathed deeply. He could almost taste the approach of autumn in the air. He would miss the freedom that the long summer days afforded, but there were long winter nights to look forward to, with Rook in his bed, finding pleasant ways to keep each other warm.
The forest had already begun to reclaim the hut that had belonged to Smudge's parents. Brambles and vines twined around the walls and chimney, and grew through the ruined door. Tod beheld the place, feeling the weight of sorrow that hung over it.
"Where are they buried?" he asked quietly.
Rook showed him a low mound of earth on the east side of the hut, where the Rowan Hollow band had laid the woodsman and his wife to rest. He waited while Tod bowed his head and said a brief prayer for their souls.
"Rest in peace," he murmured. "Know that your child is well loved and well cared for. If God wills it, you will meet again one day."
He felt the weight of a comforting hand on his shoulder, and turned toward Rook, putting his arms around him.
"Life is short," said Rook, "and we have apples to gather."
The apple trees stood on the south side of the hut, in a space that had been cleared for them. It was apparent that, if nothing was done, they, too, would soon be swallowed up by the forest. For now, their bounty was free for the taking. The branches weighed heavy with small, unripe apples, and a few larger ones that looked ready for eating or baking or drying or pressing into cider. Others already lay scattered upon the ground.
Tod and Rook filled the sacks with as many apples as they would hold, and investigated the overgrown garden patch on the hut's west side. Animals had been at many of the plants, and others were still unripe. There was not much, since there had been no one to plant there the previous spring, but there was a little from seeds that had fallen and found purchase in the soil on their own. They also gathered a wealth of berries from the brambles that grew beside the cottage walls, eating most of them as they picked.
Rook's mouth tasted of dark purple juices when Tod kissed him. With stained fingers, they undressed each other in the shade of an apple tree. When Rook had finished fucking him, Tod rested with his back against the tree's rough bark, Rook's head in his lap, feeling utterly contented. As Tod stroked his hair, Rook hummed the melody of a song about two lovers meeting in the forest, his sleepy eyes blinking closed.
"Rest, dear one," murmured Tod fondly. "I'll keep watch, and wake you when it's time to go home."
Rook turned his head, rubbing his cheek against Tod's thigh, and sighed sleepily.
Gazing down upon him, Tod was overwhelmed by feelings of tenderness. Had he ever looked upon Zaahir so? As time passed, it became harder to remember. Zaahir had inflamed Tod's youthful passions, and dazzled him with his charms. He had introduced Tod to the pleasures of sex, and made his heart beat faster with the giddiness of first love. Zaahir's love had been an exciting adventure. But Rook — Rook was home.
They knew and understood one another in a way Tod and Zaahir never had the chance to. That understanding, and the bond they shared, grew stronger and deeper with each passing day. Making love to Rook was like making love to the spirit of Sherwood itself. He was as wild as the forest, as free as the birds, as steady as the turning of the seasons. His love flowed as freely as the rushing river, and he held nothing of himself back. Tod envied him that. He wished he could live fully in the here-and-now, without dwelling on the past, or worrying what tomorrow might bring.
He gently smoothed Rook's tousled hair, tucking it behind his ear, his throat tightening with strong emotion. Tod had never expected to love again after Zaahir was so cruelly taken from him. That he could love someone more than Zaahir awed him as much as it terrified him.
"Your love is a wonder to me," he whispered, bending to kiss Rook's sleeping brow. "I never thought to be so blessed."
The jingle of a bridle woke Tod an instant before rough hands grabbed him, hauling him to his feet. He flailed in panic. Nearby, Rook struggled in the grip of a second man. A blade kissed Tod's throat, and he stilled.
"Well, what've we here?" said the man who held Tod, twisting an arm painfully behind his back.
"Looks to me like a pair o' filthy sodomite outlaws, Harry," sneered the man who held Rook.
"This 'un's a monk," chuckled the one behind Tod. "Look at 'is hair!"
His companion did not seem to find it so amusing. "Filth. Makin' a mockery o' God's law." He spat squarely on Tod's bare feet.
Tod recognized the insignia stitched to the man's surcoat. Sheriff's men.
"Please," said Tod, swallowing his terror. "We've harmed no one. Let us go."
The man holding him — Harry — laughed. "Let you go? You hear 'im, Denys? What's in it for us?"
Tod licked his lips, thinking fast. He and Rook had little enough to bargain with in their present position.
"A — a prayer for your souls. Absolution for all your sins."
"Tell you what," said Harry. "You get down on your knees and … 'pray' for us, and perhaps we'll think about lettin' you go." He twisted Tod's arms harder, forcing him to his knees.
"You'd let a sodomite suck yer cock?" said the other man — Denys — voice filled with disgust.
"Well, it's not my first choice," Harry admitted, "but I do like havin' it sucked, and this 'un has a soft-looking mouth. Not t'other one, though; he looks like he bites."
"Bring it here, and you'll find out quick enough," snarled Rook, struggling against Denys's grip on his arms.
"That's enough from you, scum," snapped Denys, jerking Rook's arms up.
There was a sharp crack, and Rook stiffened, eyes wide, face gone suddenly pale — but it was Tod who cried out in anguish.
"Have mercy, sirs," Tod begged, heart pounding, eyes fixed on Rook's face. "I'll do whatever you want, if you'll only let him go. You may arrest me, if you like. I'll go quietly."
He was prepared to do whatever was needful, if it would save Rook. If they took Rook back to Nottingham, and presented him to the sheriff, he would hang. The punishment for outlaws and bandits was death. But if they only took Tod, there was a chance that his father would not have him executed, and that he might somehow contrive to escape back to the forest.
The sound of hoofbeats approached on the path, and hope died in Tod's throat.
"What've you found, men?" the Sheriff of Nottingham asked gruffly.
"A pair o' sodomite outlaws, one o' them a monk," replied Harry, still finding the information amusing.
The sheriff gave the captives no more than a cursory glance. "Hurry up and bind them so we can get home."
Tod swallowed heavily, fighting the dryness of this throat and the sick fear the gripped his belly. It felt like a bad dream: he was naked, unarmed, and helpless before his father, who had Rook in his clutches. The sheriff would recognize him sooner or later, and the last thing he would want would be for his men to know it was his own son they had caught in the act of sodomy. Perhaps the sheriff would let them go, rather than face such dishonor to his family. It was a poor hope to gamble on, but it was all Tod had.
"Please, sir. Have mercy. I beg you."
"Why should I —" The sheriff broke off his growl, staring at Tod in dawning horror.
The man binding Tod's hands paused, intrigued by the sheriff's sudden speechlessness.
"Let us go, sir," Tod pressed, "and I swear you will see us no more."
"D'you know this degenerate monk, sir?" Harry asked.
"No," snapped the sheriff too quickly. "I've never seen him before."
But it was too late. Both sheriff's men were now staring at Tod, trying to puzzle out his identity.
It was Denys who recognized him first. "Why, that's never Tod Sheriffson!"
Harry let go of him, stepping around to get a better look at his face. "It is! We was told you was taken by Wanderers."
Tod said nothing, and did not move. His eyes remained locked with his father's, trying to divine what he might do, now that the cat was out of the bag.
The sheriff's face turned purple with rage. "What're you two fools waiting for? Finish binding the other one, and gag him."
"Please, Father," whispered Tod, as the men hurried to do the sheriff's bidding.
"You dare to call me that," the sheriff growled. "You're no son of mine."
In the blink of an eye, the sheriff's sword left its sheath, slashing Denys in the neck, before running Harry through. Hot blood spattered over Tod's face and chest. Before he could react, the sheriff grabbed Rook about the waist, and slung him over his saddle. Rook's face was gray with pain, but he made no sound. His eyes burned fiercely into Tod's.
"You've cost me two good men today, boy." The sheriff's voice was cold with rage. "I should've drowned you at birth, when you killed your mother. Go. Do not let me lay eyes on you again, or I swear by Christ I will geld you, then drag you to the deepest part of the forest, and leave your body for the wolves."
With that, he turned and galloped away, leaving Tod swaying behind him, two dead men at his feet.
He did not remember being sick. He did not remember pulling on his habit and shoes, or gathering up Rook's clothes in his arms. He did not remember his headlong flight through the forest. He did not remember all the times he stumbled, fell, got up, ran on.
The next thing Tod was aware of was staggering into the clearing of the Rowan Hollow cottage, his habit torn, his knees bloody, the sour taste of vomit in his mouth, Rook's clothes clutched to his chest. His legs gave way in the dooryard, knees buckling.
He was dimly aware of a large hand on his shoulder, holding him up — of Lionel calling out for Rowan — of concerned faces around him.
"Tod? What's happened? Where's Rook?"
Tod's vision swam. He gasped for breath, trying to make his tongue work to form words inside his dry mouth.
"Gone," he croaked. "Taken. Sheriff —"
His eyes rolled up, and he collapsed in a dead faint.
Chapter the Fifth: In which Tod blames himself, fearing he has caused Rook's death, and the beginnings of a plan are hatched.
A cool hand touched Tod's forehead, and a rough, urgent voice said, "Tod, you must wake up now."
Tod's eyes blinked open. He stared up at the blue sky between tree branches in confusion. For a moment, he did not know where he was, nor could he name the sick dread that tied his belly in knots and set his heart pounding in his throat.
Then suddenly he saw it again before his eyes as clear as day: A man on a horse. The downward slash of a sword. A spray of hot blood.
Tod sat up with a cry, struggling against the hands that reached out to him. "Zaahir! He's killed Zaahir!"
But that was not right. This was no sun-baked Eastern marketplace. This was the forest. And the faces around him —
Hands gripped Tod's, steadying him, and the urgent voice spoke again. "Tod, you must tell us. What's happened to Rook?"
Rook! Shock hit Tod like a blow to the chest. He stared wildly into Rowan's face.
"I — is he … dead?" he asked in a voice he barely recognized as his own.
"You said 'taken'," Rowan reminded him, squeezing his hands. "You must try to remember. If the sheriff has him, we can't afford to delay."
The sheriff. Yes. Tod remembered his father. He tried to fight through the storm of panic in his brain to recall what had happened. There was a high-pitched buzzing in his ears that seemed to drown out all thought.
"I — we were at the woodsman's cottage. We collected some apples. Then … we slept." A fresh wave of sick horror broke over Tod. "Oh, God! I told him I would keep watch, but I fell asleep."
Rowan's expression turned grim. "Then what happened?"
Tod shook his head, trying to remembered. "Sheriff's men seized us. Two of them. They — Rook's arm was broken in the struggle. The sheriff came. I thought, if he knew me, he might let us go …" he trailed off.
"It seems he let you go, for a certainty," Lionel said sharply.
Rowan shushed him as Tod hung his head, awash with guilt and shame. Lionel was right; Tod had saved only himself. And now Rook would die because of his thoughtlessness.
"Tell us the rest," said Rowan. Tod did not miss the cold note in heore voice.
He closed his eyes. "He knew me. But the men recognized me, too. The sheriff wanted no witnesses to — We were … embracing when they took us. He slew his own men," he whispered, horrified all over again at the callous brutality of the act. "He told me he would kill me if he ever saw me again. And then he rode away with Rook —" His voice broke, as he thought desperately, Oh, God! Rook! I've killed him!
He took his hands from Rowan's grasp and buried his face in them, shaking, too sick at heart even to weep. The voices continued around him, but Tod no longer heard them, lost as he was in a mire of guilt and grief.
Images flashed through his mind in disjointed sequence. Rook in the hands of the sheriff's men. Zaahir dying in his arms, blood soaking into Tod's tunic. Rook, naked on his knees before Tod, eyes alight with mischief. Rook, face gray with pain, slung over the sheriff's horse. Zaahir smiling in the doorway of Tod's room, Tod's hand gripping his sleeve. Rook lying on a flat rock, arm dangling in cool water, waiting. Rook lying alone and injured in an enemy dungeon. Zaahir bent over a merchant's stall, inviting Tod to feel the quality of the cloth for sale. Rook's soft mouth, the night he kissed Tod for the first time. Rook, skin gleaming with sweat in the dim lamplight of their cave, back arched in ecstasy as Tod rode him. Rook's body hanging from the walls of Nottingham, crows pecking at his eyes.
"No. No," mumbled Tod, shaking his head violently.
A hand touched his shoulder, and a gentle voice said his name.
He looked up from his misery to see Etty standing over him, a steaming earthen cup in her hand.
"Drink a little of this," she urged him. "Rowan says it's good for nerves."
She noticed that his hands were trembling, and she wrapped them around the cup, steadying them with her own, as he obediently took a swallow of the hot infusion of herbs and honey.
Tod glanced over to where the others sat around the table outside the cottage door, heads bent together in heated conversation. Robin Hood and Little John sat with them, grim-faced. Tod wondered when they had arrived. He had lost all sense of time.
"What hour is it?" he asked Etty hoarsely.
"Late afternoon. Three hours, perhaps, since you came back."
Three hours since his return. Perhaps four since Rook had been taken. How much of a hurry would the sheriff be in to hang him? Would he wait a day? Or would his rage and his desire to silence Rook drive him to act quickly? The thought filled Tod with horror: all of Rook's warmth and passion snuffed out in an instant — his body, so precious and full of life, left for carrion. Tod swallowed heavily, trying to keep the herbal infusion down.
"It's my fault," he said quietly. "He's going to die, and it's all my fault."
Etty sat down beside him, and took one of his hands between hers. "You made a mistake."
Tod squeezed his eyes shut and nodded. "Is that all I did, though?" he asked hollowly. "Or is God punishing me? He took the first man I loved, and this time, I broke a vow of chastity. Is Rook paying for my sins?"
"That's foolishness," said Etty, a touch sharply. "God has never punished me, nor my loves, for unchastity. On the contrary, He has blessed us with love and family. You must not blame yourself on that account, Brother Tod. God does not punish love. This was only ill luck."
"I cannot forgive myself, Etty. I told him I would keep watch." Tod glanced again toward the conference at the table. "I thank you for your kindness, but I know the others are angry with me, as they have every right to be."
Etty pressed her lips together. "They are," she said reluctantly. "But once Rook is rescued, they will forgive you quickly enough."
Tod's heart skipped a beat. "Do you believe a rescue is possible?"
"I have to," Etty's voice quavered, her eyes filling with unshed tears. "He's my brother."
"I'm sorry, Etty." Tod hung his head. "I'm sorry my family has visited such grief on yours. I wish there was something I could do, but I'm no quick-witted outlaw full of tricks, who can steal a man from the sheriff's dungeon."
"But there is something you can do, Brother Tod," she told him, squeezing his hand. "You can pray."
A shadow fell across them, and Tod looked up to see the bulky figure of Little John standing over them.
"It's a terrible day, lad," he said, not unkindly. "But wringing your hands and feeling sorry for yourself won't do Rook a speck of good."
"I know," said Tod, ashamed. "I just don't know what else I can do. I betrayed him. I can never forgive myself for that."
Etty stood. "I should see how the plan is coming along. Will you sit with him a while, John?"
Little John took Etty's place beside Tod, folding his long legs as he sat down.
"You must try to save him lad," he said. "It's a certainty you'll never forgive yourself if you don't."
"Do you think he can be saved?"
Little John shrugged. "Men have escaped the noose before. Robin himself a time or two, and him a sweet prize the sheriff was keen on keeping. It takes cunning and bravery and a willingness to risk all for the sake of a friend. Or a lover."
"Then you know what it feels like."
"Aye, I do," Little John said softly.
"If there was a way to trade my life for his …" Tod whispered.
The big outlaw patted him on the shoulder with a heavy hand. "I know that feeling all too well. But there isn't. We must do things the hard way, and know that we may fail."
"I'll do whatever is necessary," Tod swore. If Rook died, Tod's own life had little value left for him. "I owe him that much. It's my fault he was taken. Not only because of my carelessness, but because my father seeks to punish me through him. The sheriff knows that I — that Rook is dear to me."
Little John put a comforting arm around him, squeezing his shoulders. "Rook knows you love him. Do not despair for him yet."
"Does he?" Tod asked quietly. "I've never told him so."
"You do, though, don't you, lad?"
Tod closed his eyes as tears came to them for the first time since Rook was taken. He nodded.
"It don't do to put things off in the forest," Little John admonished gently. "But if we can save him, you'll be able to tell him then."
Tod shook his head miserably. "And if he blames me? He won't want my love after this. And I don't deserve his."
"As long as he's alive, there's always the chance of forgiveness."
As long as Rook was alive. Which might be only hours. A day, at the most, if he could not be saved. Tod could not bear the thought of Rook dying without telling him how sorry he was.
He let out a shaky breath. "I have to see him, at least. If I can."
Little John nodded. "If you do, tell him," he advised. "Your love will be a comfort to him, if we should not succeed."
Little John might believe that Rook would forgive Tod, and be glad of his love, and Etty might believe that the others would forgive him, too, in time — if Rook were saved — but Tod could not convince himself. To Tod, Rook was the beating heart of the Rowan Hollow family. If Rook died, that heart would be ripped out. Tod would not be able to remain in the forest. Even if Rook were saved, Tod could not stay if Rook blamed him for his capture.
It seemed something had been decided among the plotters at the table. Robin Hood stood and came over to where Tod and Little John sat, his usually-smiling face grim.
"Go easy on the lad, Robin," said Little John gently. "He's suffered enough today."
Robin's face softened. "We have the beginnings of a plan, we think," he told them. "But we must learn when the sheriff plans to … make the next move. Someone must go into Nottingham and find out."
Tod stood up, heart pounding. "Let me do it. Please."
Robin nodded. "Have you any friends in the town? Anyone who might be inclined to help us?"
Tod shook his head. "No. I've not spoken to anyone in Nottingham since —" he broke off, suddenly remembering.
He swallowed and looked around at the others. "There might be someone."
Chapter the Sixth: In which Tod seeks the aid of an old friend.
Tod, Etty, and Rowan stood in the shadow of the trees at the edge of Sherwood Forest. Like Tod, Etty wore a monk's habit, quickly hemmed for her short stature, her chest bound to hide her plump bosom and rounded feminine figure. Their cowls were pulled up, hiding their faces in shadow.
"Don't be too long, or we shall worry," Rowan admonished them.
"We won't, Love," Etty promised, rising on tiptoe to kiss heore cheek. "We'll meet Tod's friend, learn what we need to know, and come straight back here."
Tod nodded in agreement, feeling tense and distracted. His eyes were fixed on the gates of Nottingham in the distance. What if they were too late? What if Rook's body already hung from the town walls? Tod's stomach turned over at the thought, and he swallowed heavily. If Rook still lived, he could not afford to waste time being sick.
"Archers will be waiting here in the trees to cover your retreat, if need be," said Rowan.
Heo did not need to tell them that, if that happened, there could be no rescue attempt, and Rook was doomed.
"We won't fail you, Rowan. Or him," Tod promised, trying to sound sure of himself.
Rowan nodded solemnly. "Bring back word of our brother, as soon as may be."
With that, heo moved silently away, melting into the greenery.
Tod took a deep breath, trying to get a grip on his frayed nerves. Etty gripped his hand.
"Will you pray with me, Brother Tod?" she asked in a low, tense voice.
Tod turned toward her, taking both of her hands in his, and bowed his head. He prayed silently, while Etty spoke aloud.
"Lord God, if it is Your will that we should succeed, I pray You will guide us in our mission. Be with us, especially our brothers Tod and Rook, in their time of fear and uncertainty. Hold them in Your hand. Lift them up. Let them know Your peace. Thy will be done."
"Amen," Tod whispered.
Something very like peace stole over him. A sense of certainty settled in his heart, steadying him. There was only one course of action for Tod to take, and only two possible outcomes: He would save Rook, or he would die trying.
Every step of their journey together, Rook had pursued Tod. Rook had kissed him first. Rook had come after him when he had fled. Rook had eagerly sought consummation of their relationship. Rook had told him, often and frankly, that he loved him. Through it all, Tod had held back, like a fool and a coward. But now he would pursue Rook, and show him how much he was loved. He would bring his lover home safely, or he would follow him to the gates of Paradise, where the sheriff could not touch them.
Placing his trust in God, Tod turned his face toward the walls of Nottingham.
There were no bodies hanging over the gates, nor from the gallows which stood in the town square. That was some relief. The guards at the gate glared at them suspiciously. They and their fellows had been fooled by outlaws dressed as monks before. They made Tod and Etty recite the catechism in Latin, and say a blessing over them, before they were satisfied. Tod and Etty obeyed with heads bowed, feigning French accents, French monks being that much less likely to be English outlaws.
As they walked along the main street, Tod's eyes were drawn to the walls of Nottingham castle, knowing that Rook lay on the other side, alone and in pain, in some dark and filthy dungeon. For one wild moment, Tod felt the impulse to bluff his way inside, to find Rook for himself. But he knew that was foolishness. If he were caught, any possible rescue attempt would be put in jeopardy. He was of more use to Rook out here, where he could help make a plan for his escape. Still, Tod longed desperately to see Rook's dear face, to give him the comfort of a touch, and the knowledge that help was coming.
"Come along, Brother," Etty murmured to him in French. "Show me the way to the inn."
As he led Etty through the marketplace, Tod noticed several knots of people, their heads bent together over market stalls and around the well in intense discussion. He could not overhear what they spoke of, but he did not think it was the price of grain. Something about their faces made him uneasy. He sensed that this was a town on edge.
Nottingham was large enough to support two public houses. It was the smaller of the two, beside the church, that Tod and Etty entered, blinking in the sudden dimness. It was coming on to evening, and many townsfolk who had finished their work for the day stood or sat about, drinking beer and dining on the inn's hearty fare.
Tod stopped a serving girl with a light touch on the arm and the flash of a silver coin.
"A table for me and my companion, s'il vous plait," he said, narrowly remembering to maintain his French accent. "Somewhere quiet. A jug of beer and three cups. If Hugh Innkeep is about, please inform him we invite him to join us for a drink."
The girl bobbed a curtsy, eyes wide as she took the silver coin. It was more than enough to cover the price of a jug of beer. She led them to a dark corner where a small table stood, partially obscured by the open door of the kitchen. They nodded their thanks and sat, as the girl bustled away through the crowded tavern.
"How certain are you of this innkeeper?" Etty asked quietly in French.
Tod's mouth tightened. "Not certain at all. I've not spoken to him in nearly six years. But I doubt he would betray us to the sheriff."
His eyes lit on a stout young man with brown hair and a ruddy complexion exiting the tavern's cellar, and Tod's pulse sped up, his belly a wild tangle of nerves. The last time he had seen Hugh Innkeep was in the sheriff's stables, when they were both fourteen years old — the day Tod's father had caught them kissing. When Tod had asked carefully after the family who owned the inn, Little John informed him that the old innkeeper had died the previous winter, and his son had taken over the business. There was a chance, however, that Hugh would want nothing to do with Tod. He might well consider their youthful affection for one another nothing more than childish folly, and have no wish to be reminded of it.
The young innkeeper approached their table, an earthen jug in one hand, and three leather jacks in the other, his expression friendly but puzzled.
"Welcome, Brothers," he said, setting the beer and mugs down on the table. "How may I be of service?"
"You look well, Hugh," Tod said quietly, dropping his feigned accent.
The man looked back and forth between the two monks, frowning. "Do I know you, Brother?"
Tod tilted his chin up, letting his cowl fall back a little from his face. He gazed up at his former friend, his expression tense and solemn. "Do you?"
The puzzled frown remained a moment longer as the innkeeper studied Tod's face. Then his eyes widened, and his ruddy complexion paled.
"Tod Sheriffson?" he breathed, sitting down heavily on the bench opposite Tod and Etty.
"It's just 'Brother Tod' now," Tod informed him, watching his face.
Hugh stared at him as if he could not believe his eyes. "Your father put it about that you were stolen by Wanderers."
"A lie," said Tod tartly. "Wanderers do not steal children. Please, have a drink with us. We must talk."
Remembering the beer, Hugh lifted the jug and poured the three jacks full.
"I did not believe the story, truly," said Hugh. He hesitated, then added quietly, "I feared that perhaps he had killed you. On account of —" He broke off, hazel eyes flicking toward Etty.
"Brother Etienne is but newly arrived from France," Tod lied, inclining his head toward his companion. "He understands little English."
Etty smiled brightly at the innkeeper. "No — Anglaise," she affirmed, lowering and roughening her well-bred voice as much as she could manage.
Hugh's shoulders relaxed a little. "It's good to see you, Tod," he said shyly.
"And you, my friend," said Tod, with some relief. "As you can see, I was not killed or stolen. I ran away. But I often wondered what became of you."
Hugh winced, glancing around to make certain they were not overheard. "Your father beat me so that I could not sit comfortably for weeks. He told me if I ever breathed a word of it to anyone, he'd have my tongue, and make certain that my father lost the inn."
Tod bowed his head. "That sounds like him. I'm sorry, Hugh. I never wished you any harm."
The ghost of a smile tugged at the corner of the innkeeper's mouth. "I know it. But the business in the stables wasn't entirely your idea, was it?"
"Not entirely," agreed Tod, too tense to return the smile. Rook's life might depend on where Hugh's sympathies and interests lay. "So now you are innkeeper here. And your sons after you?" he asked carefully.
Hugh gave a humorless chuckle. "I doubt very much I shall be getting any sons. But my sister Matilda and her husband help look after the place, and they have two." He glanced sidelong at Etty, who sat drinking her beer, staring across the room as if bored. "And what of you, Tod?" he asked tentatively. "Is this one your … companion?"
"No," Tod said bluntly. "Another man holds that honor. An outlaw who lies even now in my father's dungeon."
"Ah," said Hugh, as if he now understood something that he had not before.
"What have you heard?" Tod asked, pulse quickening.
Hugh's mouth twisted bitterly. "That the sheriff and his men caught an outlaw in the act of defiling a priest. That the outlaw slew two sheriff's men before he was captured. I take it you are the debauched priest?"
Cold rage filled Tod at the enormity of the lie. "The man is innocent," he snapped. "They came upon us sleeping. The sheriff slew his own men when they recognized me. He wanted no witnesses to the 'stain' on his family's honor."
Hugh looked grim. "I'm sorry to hear it, but I cannot say that I am much surprised."
Tod steeled himself. "Has a time been set for the — the hanging?" He swallowed heavily as the word threatened to choke him.
"Aye," said Hugh. "Two days hence, at midday. Market day."
Tod could not hide his surprise. He had not hoped for so much time in which to formulate a rescue plan. It was the first good news he had heard since Rook's capture.
"Why the delay?" he asked.
Hugh's expression darkened. "Have you not heard? Your outlaw is not the only one set to hang."
"Who else?" asked Tod. Another execution set for the same day might complicate matters — or provide a useful diversion.
"A craven youth who gained access to the castle disguised as a scullery maid, and attacked Lady Marian." Hugh spat on the floor in disgust.
Tod crossed himself, horrified. Lady Marian Fitzwalter had been little more than a child when he had left Nottingham. They had met on a few occasions, and she had seemed a bright and virtuous girl. For anyone to wish violence upon her was unthinkable. Tod saw Etty's knuckles go white around the handle of her jack, but she kept her expression carefully disinterested.
"A vile act," said Tod. "Was the poor girl ravished, then?"
Hugh shrugged. "The official tale is only that an attempt was made. But what else might one expect them to say? The lady is betrothed to Lord Geoffrey of Gisbourne. It would be unseemly for him to wed her if she were not a maiden. She holds many rich lands from her late father. Lord Geoffrey wants those lands, therefore the lady must be a maiden still. But whether the attacker accomplished the act or not, the end result is the same, for him."
Tod nodded. He could find no pity in his heart for rapists, attempted or otherwise. He felt sorry for the girl, though. She was in an impossible situation. With her own parents dead, and her betrothed little more than a boy himself, the lady's guardianship fell to the sheriff. God help her, Tod thought grimly.
"The town is in an uproar of outrage," said Hugh.
"We noticed people talking when we arrived."
Hugh leaned closer, lowering his voice. "Some are saying that the sheriff has lost control of law and order in Nottingham. The lady should have been safe within the castle walls, under his protection. What with that, and outlaws debauching priests and slaying sheriff's men —" his mouth twisted wryly, "— and the forest full of outlaws, people are saying it won't be long before Prince John sends a new governor to oversee the town. He left it in the sheriff's hands after Sir Guy was killed, but if the sheriff cannot keep the peace, and if Lord Geoffrey is too young and too weak to govern effectively, His Highness may feel the need to make changes."
"Hence the big, public market day executions," said Tod, understanding.
"Exactly," said Hugh. "How better to show his effectiveness than a hanging witnessed by multitudes? And who better to draw a crowd than a noblewoman's rapist and a murderous, sodomite outlaw?"
"Indeed," said Tod, his mind racing.
He wondered whether a large crowd would be a help or a hinderance in a rescue attempt. Either way, it was information worth knowing, as was the sheriff's precarious position.
"What will you do?" Hugh asked, interrupting Tod's thoughts.
Tod squared his jaw. "I mean to save him. I must. His only crime was in loving me. If he dies for it, I shall never forgive myself."
Hugh's hazel eyes were full of sympathy. "Then I pray, for your sake and for his, that he may be saved."
Summoning up all his courage, Tod slid a hand across the table and gripped the innkeeper's hand. "Will you help us, Hugh? Please? Rook and I have friends in the forest. I think you know who I mean. But having a friend in the town might make all the difference in the world."
Hugh frowned. "It would mean my life if your father found out. Still, if it were only myself to consider, I would help you gladly. I am sorry for you and your man, Tod, but I will do nothing that puts my family in jeopardy."
"If there were a way to keep you and your family and the inn safe, would you help us?" asked Tod, eyes pleading.
"Aye," said Hugh. "If you think that could be managed."
"I'll talk to my friends in the forest," said Tod. "We'll figure something out, and send someone to you tomorrow with a plan. Just promise me you'll hear him, and think about it."
"I will," Hugh promised, turning his hand over to squeeze Tod's. "For the sake of friendship, and a good turn or two that a certain man of the greenwood has done me and mine over the years." He paused, then added softly, "And for the sake of the love you and this man Rook bear for one another."
"Thank you, Hugh," said Tod sincerely, letting go his hand and standing up. "I had hoped to find that I still had a friend in Nottingham. I did not expect to find such a good and true one."
"Ah, well," said Hugh, ears turning pink. "I think you've maybe had a harder time of it than I have, and at least some of that was on my account, so perhaps I owe you a favor."
"You owe me nothing," said Tod warmly. "But I'm glad of any help you might give."
"Happy meeting," said Etty in rough, thickly accented English, bowing to Hugh, as they turned to go.
A thought occurred to Tod, and he turned back. "Hugh … are you happy here?"
Hugh smiled wryly. "I do well enough. I've a prosperous inn, and family to share it with. What more could a man want?"
"Companionship," said Tod frankly. "Love."
"Ah, well," Hugh shrugged. "Not everyone gets to have that."
"That sounds like a lonely way to live," said Tod with sympathy. "Have you truly no one? No … visitors at all?"
"The sheriff keeps a close watch on me still," said Hugh, mouth twisting in a bitter smile. "I wouldn't dare risk it."
Tod hesitated, then said, "There's a good life to be had in the greenwood. You could live as you like. Love as you please. There are many men there like you and me. And a man who brews beer as fine as yours would be most welcome. Think on it."
Hugh blinked in surprise. "I shall. I thank you, Tod."
Tod gripped his shoulder. "Then I shall hope to see you there, when all this is behind us."
Hugh smiled, and squeezed Tod's shoulder in return. "May God have many blessings in store for both of us. I should like very much to meet your man one day."
"I should like that, too," said Tod earnestly. "God willing."
Chapter the Seventh: In which a daring rescue is attempted.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Tod knelt before the altar of Nottingham church and prayed for a miracle he did not deserve. Much of his time during the past three days had been spent in prayer, and now there was nothing else he could do but wait, and pray.
I've been such a fool. You sent me a good man, and I did not love him rightly. I beg You, give me a chance to rectify my error. Do not punish him for my sins.
The edges of the small silver ring strung on its cord of leather bit into Tod's palm, as he squeezed it in his fist, Rook's words echoing in his mind. "Now you'll have something to remind you that I love you, even when I'm not there to tell you myself."
He remembered a night by Robin's fire, Rook leaning back against his chest, in the circle of Tod's arms, a look of dreamy contentment on his face — the night Tod had realized he was in love. How easy it would have been to bend his head and whisper those sweet words in Rook's ear. There had been at least a hundred occasions since realizing the truth of his feelings when Tod might have spoken, but he had held his tongue. Now Rook might die without ever knowing how much Tod loved him.
A hundred times a fool! he lamented bitterly. Let me say it to him once, at least. Even if it is too late, and he no longer wants it. I owe him that much honesty.
The unexpected delay of Rook's execution had proved to be both a blessing and a curse. While it meant more time in which to plan a rescue, it also meant two more days during which the knot of cold dread in Tod's belly grew, turning over on itself, winding ever tighter. He could neither eat nor sleep. The night before, he had fretted himself into such a state that Etty had begged Rowan to use heore powers to help him rest. Tod would not have asked on his own account, when Rowan was nearly as exhausted as he, but he was grateful for what little respite heo could give him. They all needed their wits about them today, if they were to have any chance of success.
Tod had entered Nottingham that morning with the stream of market-goers, and went at once to the church. It would have been impossible for him to wander the marketplace, pretending all was normal, with the shadow of the gallows looming over him. No one would find anything amiss in a monk at prayer, however, and if the sheriff was watching for him, he was unlikely to venture inside the church. There, Tod waited. And waited.
At last the bell in the church tower clanged, jolting Tod from his vigil, as it tolled its dire summons. He only just kept himself from leaping to his feet and rushing outside. He must not draw attention to himself until the moment came.
At the church door, Tod covertly scanned the gathering crowd, looking for the familiar faces he knew were hidden there. Hugh Innkeep, standing by a cart containing two hogsheads of beer, caught his eye and gave him an almost imperceptible nod. Tod was too tense to return the greeting. His sweating palms clenched into fists. If the plan went wrong, Tod might be about to watch Rook die, helpless to do anything to prevent it. Taking a deep, shaky breath to calm his frantically hammering heart, and saying yet another brief, silent prayer, Tod stepped into the milling throng, and made his way to the foot of the gallows.
The sound of the church bell died away, and the crowd fell quiet as heralds blew a fanfare on their trumpets. A drummer began to beat out a steady, grim march. Tod craned his neck toward the castle gates with the rest of the expectant mob, heart in his throat.
A small procession issued forth from the castle, led by the sheriff, dressed in a fine doublet of dark blue velvet with silver embroidery, astride a gleaming black horse. Behind him marched a pair of guards, with two more guards flanking each of the two prisoners, and a final pair bringing up the rear. They moved slowly across the town square, the prisoners' ankles hobbled with ropes. The crowd parted to make way for them. Some jeered and spat at the prisoners as they passed.
Cold rage choked Tod when he beheld Rook. His love held his head high, staring fiercely forward out of the one eye that was not bruised and swollen shut. The gag that bound his mouth was filthy, his cheeks rubbed raw around it. His hands were bound behind his back, broken arm held at an awkward angle. He walked with a limp. Blood had dried on his stubbled chin and the ragged tunic that he wore. His arms and legs were speckled with large and small scrapes and bruises. Not content to hang his son's lover, the sheriff had clearly taken out his rage on Rook, beating the bound and injured outlaw until he could barely stand.
Rook passed so near that Tod could smell the filth of confinement on him. He wanted to reach out — to wrap himself around Rook and shield him bodily from the cruelty and injustice of the world. It was all he could do to make himself stand still and watch as the prisoners climbed the gallows steps. The other prisoner was a slim youth who wept ceaselessly, head bowed so that his long hair hid his face. Tod hardly spared a thought for Lady Marian's attacker. All his attention was fixed on Rook.
Rook stumbled, falling to one knee. One of the guards poked him roughly in the injured arm, making Rook wince with pain, but he did not make a sound as he struggled to his feet. Tod's heart swelled with pride at his lover's bravery as Rook finished the climb to the wooden platform, and turned to face the mob who had come to see him hang. The executioner, a big man whose face was hidden by a hood, stepped forward to placed the nooses around the necks of the condemned.
The guards took up their stations at the foot of the gallows, where serving girls from Hugh's inn gave them drinks and flirtatious smiles, while the sheriff took his place in the banner-draped box reserved for nobility and other important persons. Not far from the sheriff sat Geoffrey of Gisbourne, the weedy fifteen-year-old lord of Nottingham, leaning forward eagerly in his seat, eyes alight with excitement. Beside him sat his betrothed, sixteen-year-old Lady Marian, her back straight, jaw clenched, as she stared toward the gallows. Her eyes were red from weeping, but she shed no tears now. Her face was still as stone.
A herald stepped forward and read out the charges. "The prisoners stand before you: the one, no true name given, a youth who entered Nottingham castle by deception, and attempted the ravishment of Lady Marian Fitzwalter; the other, no true name given, an outlaw caught in the act of defiling a man of the cloth, who then foully murdered sheriff's men Denys Tanner and Harry Fletcher, in the course of their duties. Both prisoners are condemned to die upon this day for their crimes, in the sight of the people of the Shire of Nottingham, and the representative of the king's justice." He bowed to the sheriff and stepped back.
The cheer that went up from the crowd sickened Tod. Not one of them knew Rook, and yet all called for his death. Tod realized that if Rook did not hang, the crowd might well tear him to pieces — and anyone else who tried to stand in their way.
The sheriff raised his hand to signal the executioner as the drummer standing at the foot of the gallows began a drumroll. Now was the moment. Tod took a deep breath, commending his soul to God, and stepped up onto the bottom step.
"Have these men been given their right to a priest?" he called loudly, over the noise of the crowd and the rattling drum.
"That one's already had his 'right' to a priest!" jeered someone, to a smattering of rude laughter, but most of the throng quieted out of respect for Tod's habit. The drummer faltered, and stopped, uncertain what was happening.
The sheriff stared at Tod, jaw clenched with rage. He was trapped. He could not publicly show disrespect for a man of God, but he did not want anyone looking closely or long enough at Tod to identify him.
"They were offered an opportunity to make their confessions," the sheriff said at last in a tight voice.
Tod stared his father down, willing a neutral expression onto his face. "This man is gagged."
"So?" Hatred burned in the sheriff's eyes.
"How then was he able to speak to a priest?"
The sheriff scowled. "He refused confession."
Tod turned and looked up into Rook's face. "Will you make your confession to me?" he asked, swallowing as his voice threatened to break.
Rook hesitated, then gave a sharp nod.
"Very well," growled the sheriff. "But be quick about it."
Tod climbed the steps to the gallows platform. He knew that all eyes were now fixed on him. That was good.
"Remove his gag," he commanded the executioner, trying not to look too hard at the big man. Had Little John succeeded in making the switch? There was no way of knowing without drawing dangerous attention to the man in the hood.
The big man drew a sharp knife, shoved a thumb between the filthy rag and Rook's cheek, and cut the cloth away. Rook took a ragged breath, and began to cough.
"Water!" Tod called, eyes fixed on Rook's face. "Bring this man some water."
"The condemned has a right to confession," said the sheriff smugly. "He does not have a right to water."
Tod cast about helplessly. Then he remembered the small flask of holy water that hung from his belt. He unhooked it, taking a step nearer. With hands that shook, he cupped Rook's chin, tilting it up, and trickled the precious water between his lips, praying all the while that this would not be the last time he touched his beloved. His fingers were tingling when he took his hands away.
"I hoped you would come," said Rook in a raspy whisper, so quiet only Tod could hear him. "Is this a rescue, or a farewell?"
"If it is not one, it must be the other," Tod murmured, lips barely moving.
Rook's lips twitched in what might almost have been a smile. "Must I make my confession now?"
"No," whispered Tod humbly, "I must make mine: I beg your forgiveness, Rook. For my carelessness that brought you here — and for not telling you sooner that I love you."
Rook's good eye brightened with strong emotion. "There is naught for me to forgive," he whispered. "I love you."
Tod looked at him. His Rook. Filthy, stinking, shaking with exhaustion, battered face drawn from pain. Tod had never seen anything more beautiful. He swallowed the tightness in his throat, blinking back tears, and made himself turn away to face the increasingly-restless crowd.
"This man says he is innocent of the crimes laid against him."
"They always say that!" bawled a voice, to raucous laughter.
"What is the evidence against him?" asked Tod. "Who are the witnesses?"
"I am the witness," growled the sheriff, rising to his feet. "It is not your place to try this case, or to dispense justice, Friar. Now, do your duty, so that the law may do ours."
Tod squared his shoulders and set his jaw. "What of the priest this man is accused of debauching? Is he not a witness to the case?"
The sheriff could barely contain his rage. "No right-thinking man would wish to have such shame publicly known. I would never reveal the identity of a man so foully degraded, and I would never allow his identity to be revealed by anyone else."
Tod raised his voice to make certain he was heard and understood by as many people as possible. "And if I wish to reveal my own identity, Father, how will you prevent me?"
Three things happened all at once as Tod spoke: The sheriff made a quick, impatient hand gesture which Tod took for dismissal, a few gasps and cries of shock arose from the crowd at Tod's words, and Rook stumbled into him from behind, mumbling, "Archer!"
As Tod turned toward Rook, something hit him, nearly knocking him off his feet. He looked down in surprise at the shaft of an arrow protruding from his shoulder, blood soaking through the rough cloth of his habit.
Chaos erupted in the town square.
"They shot the monk!"
"I know him! That's Tod Sheriffson!"
"It can't be. Wanderers —"
"Where is the archer?"
"There! He's dead!"
The buzzing in Tod's ears drowned out the noise and panic. He sank to his knees, feeling strangely calm. Someone was calling his name. He looked up into Rook's face and smiled.
"I'm glad I got to see you, at least … to tell you …."
"Stop that," rasped Rook, looking frightened for the first time that day. "You're not going to die."
"No," mumbled Tod, shaking his head to rid himself of the buzzing. "No, of course not. Sorry."
The executioner had his back to them, trying to prevent anyone from storming the gallows. Tod realized dimly that this was the chance he had been hoping for. Drawing a small knife from his belt, he clumsily sawed through the bonds on Rook's wrists and ankles one-handed, ignoring the growing pain in his shoulder. When the ropes gave way, Rook threw off the noose. Then his knees buckled, and he sat down heavily beside Tod.
"Come on; we have to go," Tod slurred.
Rook shook his head. "I don't think I can. I'm sorry. You must go without me."
Tod wrapped his uninjured arm around Rook's waist, and struggled to rise. He winced as pain lanced through his wounded shoulder, but that did not matter now; the only thing that mattered was getting Rook to safety. Rook tried to stand, but he was weak as a new kitten.
The executioner rounded on them, tearing off his hood. Little John grinned down at them.
"Are you boys going to sit there all day?"
"Rook can't walk," Tod informed him. "I'm not sure I can either."
"I'll help you. Up, up, lads!"
"Take me with you!" cried a desperate voice from behind them.
Tod had forgotten all about the other prisoner.
"There's no place in Sherwood for rapers," Little John scowled.
"I didn't! I swear it!" the youth pleaded. "Have mercy!"
"She visited him," Rook rasped. "The lady. She paid the gaoler in gold. She did not seem to think him a raper."
Little John hesitated, then cursed and cut the boy's bonds. "Go," he said roughly. "Do not make me regret this."
With that, he scooped Rook up in one arm, pulling Tod to his feet with the other, and hurrying them down the gallows steps into the panicked crowd.
Fights had broken out all around them. The sheriff bellowed to his men to restore order, and to seize the escaping prisoners, but the guards appeared slow-witted and confused. One of them snored beneath the gallows. Another soon joined him as Hugh thumped him over the head.
"What did you put in the beer?" asked Little John, amused.
"Nothing," Hugh chuckled grimly. "It's just a little stronger than what they're used to."
Etty fell in beside them, a loaded crossbow hidden in the folds of her skirt. Hugh frowned in puzzlement, trying to place her.
"Later," she said with a grin, pointing the crossbow at a well-dressed merchant who looked as if he might be tempted to play the hero by recapturing the fleeing prisoner. He quickly changed his mind.
A man stepped into their path, and it took Tod a moment to recognize a disguised Robin Hood, flanked by Rowan and Beau, all three of them armed with crossbows. They turned as one to flee toward the town gates — and came face-to-face with a row of sheriff's men, armed with clubs. The outlaws raised their crossbows.
"Put down your weapons and surrender!" roared the sheriff. "I have archers on every tower of the castle with arrows trained on you!"
Tod's heart sank. They had failed. He had not saved Rook, and now all these friends would die, too.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, eyes fixed beseechingly on Rook's face.
Rook reached out his good hand, and Tod gripped it tightly. There was some comfort in knowing that he would die with the man he loved. If God was merciful, they would find each other, and their friends, at the gates of Paradise, where the sheriff could not touch them.
I had to cut a scene from the beginning of this chapter, because the action got bogged down. I was especially sorry to lose this bit, but I will share it here:
Etty scowled. "Why does God allow such men to gain power, while good people must suffer?"
Tod shook his head. "God gave us free will. Those who crave power will do whatever they can to gain it, where just and moral people would balk. So the unscrupulous rise in the world, then hand their power over to sons raised to hold it as jealously as they, and the rest of us must just live under them as best we can. On Judgement Day, God will decide who is punished and who is rewarded. Eternity is much longer than this brief life."
"It still seems so unjust," complained Etty.
"I know," said Tod. "But what makes good people good is that they strive for justice, even when there is none to be had. When our families are unjust, we leave them, and make our own. When the law is unjust, we live outside it. When an unjust sentence of death is handed down, we try to rescue the condemned. And we pray that God will guide us to do right, and inspire others to do right by our example."
"Are there enough good people in the world, Brother Tod?" Etty asked wearily. "Can we ever truly change anything?"
"I've been blessed to know a great many good people." Tod squeezed her hand and gave her a thin smile. "As to the other, all we can do is try, and hope."
"I've been lucky to know some good people, too," said Etty, returning the squeeze, "and it does give me hope."
Chapter the Eighth: In which an unexpected ally comes to the rescue.
A high, terrified voice broke through the clamor of the crowd.
"L-let them go! I order you to let them go free!"
All eyes turned to find the source of the voice. Even Tod's eyes were drawn away from Rook to stare in bewilderment up at box where the nobility sat.
Geoffrey of Gisbourne stood clutching the railing, face pale, eyes wild with fear. Behind him stood Lady Marian, looking almost as frightened, holding a small but wickedly sharp-looking blade pressed to the throat of her betrothed. The crowd fell still with shock. Even the sheriff was momentarily struck speechless.
"You heard him!" cried Marian, voice high and thin with desperation. "H-he said let them go! Do as he tells you, or I swear by all the saints I will k-kill him."
"Do it!" howled Geoffrey.
"My lady," said the sheriff, finding his voice, and attempting to saddle it with a soothing tone, "you are overwrought. You know not what you are doing. Here, give me the blade, and all will be well." He took a step toward her, holding out his hand.
"Don't move!" the girl shrieked.
A drop of red welled up at the point of her blade, and ran down into the collar of her captive's silken doublet in a thin trickle. The boy squeaked and cringed, looking as if he might faint. The sheriff froze, trapped in an impossible position. Geoffrey was his liege lord. His word carried the weight of law in Nottingham, coerced or no. The sheriff could not disobey a direct order, and he could not order the death of a lady of noble blood, in order to free his lord.
Robin understood this, too.
"My lady," he said, with a gracious bow, keeping one eye on the row of sheriff's men, "we are most grateful for your intervention. We shall go forthwith, and trouble you no more, but I must beg hostages to take with us, for assurances, else we shall be hunted the moment we leave the town. I swear that no harm shall come to them, if we are not followed."
Marian gave a curt nod. "Choose your hostages, sir. If any man here attempts to interfere, or any archer looses an arrow, my lord will suffer for it."
Another drop of blood rolled down to stain Geoffrey's collar. "Do as she bids you!" he wailed.
Robin stepped toward the sheriff, taking a braided rope from his belt. "Your hands, sir."
The sheriff's face was dark with rage as Robin bound his wrists. Rowan and Beau chose two sheriff's men, as Etty held her crossbow on the rest.
"We will take your hostage, too, my lady, if it please you," said Robin.
"Yes, of course," Marian agreed stiffly. "And you must take me as well."
A murmur of shock ran through the crowd. Even Robin looked taken aback. "My lady —"
"You must," insisted Marian. "None will dare hurt you, for fear of harming me."
"Very well," said Robin reluctantly. "If you will come with us peacefully, you will not be bound, and you will be free to go once we are safe in the greenwood."
Marian let Robin approach and take her captive from her hands. She was trembling as she lowered the blade.
"My lady!" called a voice from behind Tod.
Marian blinked, as if coming out of a trance, her eyes seeking the speaker. "Magda?"
The second prisoner flew past Tod and up the steps into the box, and into Marian's arms. They clung to one another, sobbing.
"Is this one coming with us, too?" asked Robin with a frown.
Marian glared at him fiercely through her tears. "She is under my protection."
"So be it," said Robin with a shrug. "Let us be on our way swiftly."
The outlaws drew together, and headed toward the city gates, their hostages held close to shield them. Hugh fell in beside Little John, who still supported Tod and Rook.
"Traitor!" screeched a voice from near at hand.
Hugh turned to face his sister and her husband. "Matilda —"
"I should have known you would find sympathy with outlaws and sodomites!" spat the woman. "Filth! How dare you drag my family's good name through the muck?"
Even Tod, who knew it was all an act, half believed the woman's rage, and her husband's scowl. Hugh, too, looked a little pale at hearing his sister say such things.
"Stand aside, and you shall come to no harm," said Robin in a warning tone.
"Stand aside and let the good sheriff think that we, too, are traitors?" growled Matilda's husband. "Not bloody likely!"
He made a feint toward Hugh, who ducked, then swiftly came up and punched him in the belly, winding him. Tod was close enough to hear Hugh mutter, "Sorry, Jack," as the man fell to the ground.
"How dare you?" shrieked Matilda, flying at her brother.
Hugh caught her by the arms. She struggled, but not very hard, cursing him.
"We'll take her with us, too," said Robin, motioning to Rowan to bind her hands.
A moment later, they were out the gate and hurrying toward the forest. Tod's heart was in his throat. What if something went wrong? What if the sheriff's men decided to come after them, in spite of the hostages? But when he glanced painfully over his shoulder, he saw that none followed them. At the edge of the forest, more outlaws met them, armed with bows, to cover their retreat. Tod breathed a sigh of relief, and reached for Rook's hand, giving it a squeeze, which Rook weakly returned.
Once Robin judged they were deep enough into the forest, he ordered a halt.
"Tie the hostages to that tree," he ordered. "Not too tightly. They should be able to work themselves free in an hour or two. Then let us be on our way."
Tod drew himself out of Little John's grasp to stand on his own. "A moment, since this is the last time I shall see the man who sired me."
Tod turned to look at the sheriff, who seethed with silent rage.
"Did you ever love me, Father?" he asked coldly. "Do you now hate me so that you must punish those who bear me love? That you would seek to silence me with an arrow for speaking the truth?" He took a step nearer to Rook. "You know as well as I do that this man is innocent of the crimes of which he was accused. He is no killer. You condemned him for the love I bear him, as you condemned those two dead men for the crime of knowing that your son loves a man."
"Filth!" spat the sheriff. "No son of mine would lie down with outlaws! They are beasts, not men. They know only vice and violence."
"Is that so, Father?" Tod asked mildly. "Then what prevents them from cutting your throat, here and now? Only their sworn word. I have come to know more of justice, loyalty, and love since making my home among outlaws than I ever knew before."
"You know nothing," the sheriff growled. "You've been corrupted and befouled by their villainy. If they don't murder me, it is only because they fear rousing the king's wrath. There is no righteousness in you, either. You are a disgrace to the habit you wear!"
"My righteousness is between me and God," Tod informed him. "What you think matters little. I wish to make a declaration, and then you will see me no more."
The sheriff made a suggestion concerning what Tod could do with his declaration. Tod ignored him. He turned to Rook, and knelt before him. Though it made him dizzy with pain, he took Rook's good hand in both of his, looking up into his battered face. Little John stood behind Rook, a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
"Rook of the Greenwood," Tod said, though his voice shook, "I make my oath unto thee, here, before these witnesses. Thy love is a wonder to me. Thou art the David to my Jonathan. My heart, my life, and the strength of mine arms are thine, as long as we both shall live. Never again will I withhold aught of myself from thee. Any who seek to do thee harm needs must destroy me first, for I will not allow it while I live." His throat tightened with emotion. He swallowed, and continued in a fervent murmur that only Rook could hear: "I love you with all my heart, Rook. More than I have ever loved anyone else. I will love you for as long as my soul endures."
Turning over Rook's hand, Tod reverently kissed his palm, sealing his pledge. Rook stared down at him, speechless, his one good eye bright. He squeezed Tod's fingers.
When Tod looked up, he saw that the others were watching them. Rowan had heore arms around the shoulders of Beau and Etty, smiling. Robin, standing near Little John, gave the big man a fond look. Hugh's eyes shone with wonder, as he exchanged a glance with his sister, who tried to hide a smile, though her hands were bound. The sheriff and his men pretended not to notice them, but Tod knew word would spread when they returned to Nottingham, too fast for the sheriff to prevent it. Soon all would know the truth of Tod's story. The sheriff's authority would be weakened, perhaps beyond repair, and any others in the town who longed for the freedom Tod had found would know where to look for it.
"Come," said Robin gently, "we must be on our way." He bowed to Lady Marian. "Here we leave you, my lady. No doubt someone will be along presently to escort you back to the town."
"I'm going with Magda," Marian informed him, clasping the other girl's hands so tightly that both their knuckles were white. "I have to make sure she's all right."
Magda bowed her head shyly, so that her hair hid her face.
"We are bound for the deep forest, my lady," said Robin, frowning. "It is a rough place, unsuited to one so gentle as yourself."
Etty stepped forward and laid a hand on Marian's arm. "If a princess can make her home in the forest, surely a lady can, Robin. I'll look after these two."
Robin hesitated, then nodded. "Very well, Princess."
The outlaws blindfolded the hostages, so that they would not see which path the outlaws took, and turned to go, melting into the forest in ones and twos.
"Yes, run away, craven scum!" the sheriff bawled after them. "I have ropes aplenty waiting for you, when next we meet."
Tod paused. "We shall not meet again, Father. I go where I am wanted. I trust that God is just, and will judge each of our hearts fairly."
He turned away, and left the sheriff spitting curses behind him.
Chapter the Ninth: In which love, forgiveness, and healing abound.
The flight through the forest seemed to take an eternity. Tod's shoulder throbbed with pain at every step. Rook lost consciousness, and hung limp in Little John's arms. The others hurried on in grim silence, wanting to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the town of Nottingham before they rested.
In the clearing of the Rowan Hollow cottage, Tod fell to his knees beside Rook, clasping his limp hand to his chest. Lionel and the wolf-dog Tykell, who had been ordered to stay behind and look after Smudge, ran out to meet them.
"Will he be all right?" asked Lionel anxiously, alarmed by Rook's still, battered form.
Rowan nodded, intent on heore examination of Rook. "He's very weak. He's had nothing to eat or drink for three days, and little rest. One of you, bring me some water. Not you, Tod," heo said, when Tod made to rise. "You sit still until I've seen to your shoulder. Though you ought to drink some water, too."
Tod was only half aware of the flurry of activity taking place around them, as the others fetched water, bandages, ointments, and other necessities. Etty took Marian and Magda into the cottage to find more suitable clothing.
"We did good work today," said Little John, smiling, arm draped around Robin's shoulders.
Robin sighed happily, leaning against the big man. "Aye, we did."
Little John noticed Hugh watching them, eyes wide with wonder, and grinned, clapping him on the shoulder. "Welcome to the free brotherhood of the greenwood, Innkeeper."
Robin, too, gave Hugh a broad smile. "Our thanks for the aid you gave us today."
Hugh blushed and mumbled a reply.
"If we're not needed here, we should be away home," said Robin.
Rowan glanced up. "Thank you, Father. We'll do."
Before they left, Hugh rested a hand on Tod's good shoulder. "I'll see you soon," he promised.
Tod tore his eyes away from Rook's face for a moment to look up at his friend. "Thank you, Hugh."
Hugh gave him a crooked smile. "Take good care of him. And yourself."
Rook began to revive after swallowing a little water. Tod continued to give him small sips as Rowan cut away the filthy tunic he wore, to continue heore examination. A large, dark purple bruise on Rook's side made Tod gasp and Rowan scowl as heore fingers gently explored the tender spot.
"Two broken ribs. No, three," heo amended. "He kicked you?"
Rook nodded. "More than once," he croaked. "I don't think he liked me very much,"
Rage bloomed in Tod's chest again. His jaw and the hand that held Rook's clenched.
"Monster," muttered Rowan. "We treated him too kindly when he was at our mercy. Luckily, your insides seem unhurt. I'll have to strap those ribs, but not before you've had a proper wash. I'll set your arm and splint it now, though."
Tod braced Rook against his chest, murmuring soft words into his ear, as Rowan set his broken arm.
"I'm here, my love. I've got you. All is well."
When Rowan straightened the bone, Rook gasped, and Tod squeezed his eyes shut, thanking God that Rook was alive to feel pain.
After his arm was well splinted, Rowan sent Rook with Lionel down to the spring in the Rowan Hollow to wash. Tod would have gone with them, but Rowan made him stay, so heo could take care of his shoulder. Being separated from Rook, even for a short time, sent a wave of irrational panic through Tod, but he did as Rowan bade him, and sat still while heo cut away his habit from his shoulder. Beau braced him while Rowan cut off the arrow's fletching and drew the shaft through the wound. Tod would have been sick, if there had been anything in his stomach. As it was, he briefly blacked out from the pain, and was almost glad that Rook was not there to see his momentary weakness.
When his wound was cleaned and bound, with a strong healing placed on it, Rowan sent Beau to find a spare shirt of Lionel's for Tod to wear, and fashioned a sling for his arm.
"Try not to use that arm much for the next few days," Rowan said tiredly. "You needn't wear the sling all the time, but you should wear it as much as possible, to rest your shoulder. I'll need to check the wound and re-bandage it tomorrow."
"You should rest," said Tod, concerned for the dark circle under Rowan's eyes and the slump of heore shoulders.
"I'll rest when Rook does," heo said grimly.
Tod was sipping a bowl of hot, nourishing broth when Rook and Lionel returned from the spring. Rook wore one of Beau's shirts, and walked under his own power, but he swayed with exhaustion, and looked pale and shaky. Rowan let him drink a little broth, too, before binding his broken ribs and dabbing healing ointment over his numerous scrapes and bruises. Heo placed a healing on Rook's arm and his side, then sat back on heore heels with a sigh.
"That should do, for now," heo said. "What you need most is rest. I'll help you sleep, both of you, once you've had a bit more broth."
"You should eat, too, love," said Etty, coming out of the cottage, a pot of stew on her arm.
Marian, Magda, and Smudge followed her like goslings, carrying bowls, spoons, and bread. Marian wore a dress of Etty's, more suited to the forest setting than her own silks had been. Magda, her hair neatly braided and tucked under a modest veil, was dressed in one of Rowan's serviceable dresses, though it was a little short on her. She peeked shyly at the others from beneath lowered lashes.
They sat in the clearing in front of the cottage and ate in silence. Even Lionel, whom Tod expected to beg for details of the rescue, in order to write a thrilling ballad about it, said nothing. The unusual silence might have just been due to weariness, after the strain of the past few days, but Tod felt a tension in it, too. He still had a reckoning to face. When he finished his broth, he set the bowl aside, and cleared his throat.
"I must beg your pardon, all of you," he said humbly, head bowed. "Because of my carelessness, a beloved brother of this band nearly lost his life, and the necessity of rescuing him put you all in danger." He drew the cord which bore the silver ring over his head, and held it out to Rowan. "I submit myself to your judgement. If you cannot forgive me, so be it. But if you cannot, then I cannot be a member of your band. I will go and see if I can find a place among Robin's men. I've been happy here among you, and would remain, if you will have me."
Rowan contemplated the ring in silence for a moment. Then heo sighed. "We've all had a long few days. I think perhaps you've punished yourself enough, Brother Tod. Your error was a small one, for all its consequences were grave. No doubt you've learned your lesson. You will not be so careless again. You have my forgiveness."
"I thank Brother Tod for his mistake."
Everyone looked at Marian in surprise.
"If not for his error, there would have been no rescue," she pointed out, chin set stubbornly. "You gave me the opportunity I needed to save my darling Magda, and escape a distasteful betrothal. I could not have accomplished so much on my own."
"That's true," said Etty, smiling at Tod. "As much good as ill came of your accidental nap."
Tod realized she was right. A burden lifted from his shoulders, and he gave Magda a hesitant smile. "I'm glad that everything has come out all right in the end. This is indeed a blessed day."
While the others cleared away the remains of their picnic supper, Rowan led Tod and Rook to a grassy place in the shade, and bade them lie down. Heo spread a cloak over them for a blanket, and knelt at their heads.
"I'll help you sleep now," heo said. "You'll feel better on the morrow."
Tod reached for Rook's hand under the blanket, and turned to look at him, wanting Rook's face to be the last thing he saw before he slept. Rook's eyes were already blinking closed.
"I love you," Tod murmured, pressing a tender kiss to Rook's cheek.
"Love you," Rook sighed, resting his head on Tod's shoulder.
Feeling at peace for the first time in days, Tod slept.
It was dark when Tod awoke. Moonlight illuminated the clearing. He guessed it was sometime past midnight. A movement had awakened him: Rook rising to relieve himself. Tod, too, felt the call of nature. He waited a moment, then rose and went a little distance away. When he had finished, he turned to see Rook not far off, struggling to piss one-handed, while keeping his long shirt out of the way. Tod waited for him to finish before approaching him.
"Rook," said Tod softly.
Rook turned, and leaned against him, face pressed to Tod's chest. He was trembling.
"Are you well?" Tod asked, alarmed.
Rook nodded. Dampness seeped through Tod's shirt, and he realized with shock that his fierce, brave Rook was weeping. That shook him. He had not seen Rook cry since coming to terms with his father's death five years before. Tears sprang to his own eyes, and he swallowed a lump in his throat, holding Rook as tightly as he dared, mindful of his broken ribs.
"It's all right," Tod murmured. "You're safe now. I won't let him near you again."
"It's not that," said Rook thickly, voice muffled in Tod's shirt. "All I could think about was you being left alone again, grieving for me. I knew you would blame yourself. I didn't want you hurting like that on my account."
"Oh God, Rook!" Tod sobbed, tears falling into Rook's hair.
He tilted Rook's face up, and kissed him fiercely. He kissed him for all the times he had missed kissing him over the last three days. He kissed him for all the times he would kiss him in the future that had nearly been stolen from them. Rook was warm and breathing and his heart was beating and Tod never wanted to let go of him again.
"I thought I had lost you," he panted, bowing his head and pressing his forehead to Rook's.
"You could never lose me. Not truly."
"How can you ever forgive me? You nearly died because of my carelessness, and because of my father's hatred for me."
"I can forgive you easily, because I love you."
They found a place to rest under a nearby tree, and sank down onto a bed of leaves and moss in each other's arms. Tod removed his sling. His shoulder hurt dreadfully, but being able to hold Rook properly was more important just now.
He hesitated a moment, then said, "I — I want to feel you with me, Rook. Your skin next to mine. Please?"
"Me too," Rook whispered.
Tod helped Rook take off his shirt, then removed his own. Rook lay on his back, and Tod bent over him, resting on his good elbow. He kissed Rook's mouth, then one by one, bent his head to press his lips reverently to each bruise and scrape, murmuring, "deo gratias," over and over again. Tod cupped a hand between Rook's legs, thanking God that Rook was unhurt there. He stilled in surprise when he felt a stirring against his palm.
"You can't possibly," he said.
Rook sighed. "I don't suppose I can. Try telling that to him, though."
Tod was not certain he could perform at the moment either, though now that he had thought of it, he was desperate to lie with Rook. He wanted to feel their bodies pressed close together, to ride Rook until he cried out, to know that they were alive and together, and that the sheriff had taken nothing from them but their momentary peace of mind. He moved up Rook's body to kiss his mouth again.
"Soon," he promised. "Soon, my beloved, my dear one, my Rook, my own true love …."
Rook's good arm wound around him, fingers tangling in Tod's hair, returning kiss for fervent kiss.
"I love you," murmured Tod, lips moving against Rook's. "I love you, I love you. Oh, Rook, I never want to let a day go by again without telling you so."
"I'll know," Rook whispered, nuzzling the corner of Tod's jaw. "Even if you don't say it, I'll know."
Tod drew away, his eyes finding Rook's in the moonlight. "But I want to say it. I love you, Rook. I love you so. My heart aches with loving you."
Rook reached up to cup Tod's cheek in his hand. Tod leaned into the caress, rubbing his stubble against Rook's palm.
"Did you truly mean it?" Rook asked softly. "All those things you swore today?"
"Yes," said Tod, turning his head to kiss Rook's fingers. "Yes, of course. My heart, my life, whatever you want of me, it's yours, Rook."
"Are we … betrothed, then?" asked Rook shyly.
Tod's mouth dropped open. He had not thought of it that way. "I — if you wish it, then yes."
For the first time since his capture, Rook gave him a sweet, sublime smile. "I do wish it. Very much."
He drew Tod down for a long and tender kiss that left Tod trembling, feeling as if Rook held his heart in his hands.
They settled into their nest of leaves and moss, Rook cradled against Tod's side, in the circle of his good arm, head resting on Tod's shoulder.
"D'you suppose Friar Tuck would marry us?" Rook asked sleepily. His splinted arm lay across Tod's chest, fingers toying idly with the silver ring.
Tod smiled, not opening his eyes, and kissed the crown of Rook's head. "We'll ask him. Tomorrow."
When at last he slept, he dreamed of Rook with silver in his hair and lines around his eyes and mouth, smiling and reaching out a hand toward him, and Tod knew that they would be together for a very long time.