Marion was a nun when Much first met her. No, she wasn't, Robin explained to him; Marion was going to be a nun because the Baron who enchanted Little John wanted to marry her and she didn't want to be his wife so she'd decided to live in an abbey where she'd be safe. Then Robin rescued her and she wanted to be with him instead so she gave up her lands and became an outlaw in Sherwood.
Much liked Marion, she wasn't scared even after her guards were killed and an outlaw scooped her up into the trees. Then Robin ran off after Gisburne, telling Much to look after Marion. She was beautiful too, in blue and white, and she'd looked familiar. Where had he seen her before? Maybe he'd seen her when he'd been in Nottingham, taking goods to sell at the market. She held his arm like she knew he'd protect her. He would, he was good with a bow and Robin had told Much to protect her so he would.
They talked a little bit, about living in Sherwood and Herne the Hunter. Much was surprised that Marion didn't know more about the forest god, he'd always been there, didn't the high-born know him too? Maybe the Christian God wasn't friends with Herne, that didn't seem fair. Herne had to be lonely sometimes, when his people weren't worshipping him or making offerings. He must have been glad to have Robin as his son.
“Robin's always seen things,” Much told Marion, crouched beside her in a thicket, waiting for Robin's signal. “He gets dreams, you see, the sorts of dreams that tell you things. He told me once that he saw a man who thought he was a god, in animal skins and antlers. Father said...”
Much faltered then because his father was dead. Killed by Gisburne because he wouldn't say where Robin and Much were. Dead.
Marion touched his arm and looked worried and sad. Her hand was warm and Much took a deep breath, trying not to think about his mother's tears as she;d swum in the mill pond and his father's body just lying there in the grass. And the mill had been burning, it'd been so bright and hot, Much had felt the heat from where he'd been hidden. He should go and help bury his father, before dark because it was bad luck afterwards. But Robin had said that the Sheriff would be watching the mill, well that his guards would be, and that if Much or any of them went there, they'd be caught and hurt, maybe even killed. Much didn't think they'd catch him though, he knew that land better than anybody except Robin, nobody could catch him there if he didn't want them to.
But Robin had still said no. Much was still wrestling with that, trying to work out when he could slip away to the mill. Herne would protect him, wouldn't he?
“Father said it was Herne and that Robin's a lot like his father.”
Marion looked confused now and Much told her about Ailric who'd been a leader like Robin and how Much's parents had taken Robin in after the Sheriff had killed Ailric. He was still explaining, because it was complicated if you didn't untangle it right, when Robin himself returned and wanted to talk to Marion. She squeezed Much's arm and thanked him for looking after her.
Much watched her walk deeper into the forest with Robin, her white clothing fluttered and made her look like the spirits in stories that had scared Much. He wasn't scared anymore though, spirits couldn't hurt you like devils could. And there were lots of devils, the kind that waited for you in the darkness and flesh and blood ones like Gisburne.
Robin looked sad when he had to say goodbye to Marion, taking her to her abbey. Marion looked sad too. Much frowned, if they were sad at being parted, surely the Christian God wouldn't mind if Marion stayed here? She could still go to the abbey to talk to him, couldn't she? Much didn't like seeing his brother so sad; Robin had looked all lit-up when he'd been talking to Marion, the sort of happy that Much hadn't seen him wear very often because well, the loss of Much's father was like a hole through Much's flesh, a wound that kept hurting no matter how hard Much tried not to think about it, and Robin had lost people, hadn't he? His parents, his whole village, and now Marion, because you could lose people by them leaving too. Robin had to be full of wounds. Much wanted to stop that from happening.
But when he tried to talk to Robin about it, Robin shook his head and said that Marion was safe in her abbey, because nobody would hurt her on holy ground, and that that was what was most important. Much shook his head and tried to say that Marion would be safe with them in Sherwood because they'd protect her, wouldn't they? But Little John grabbed Much's arm and began talking to him about Hathersage and did Much know how to use a staff? It was useful in a fight.
Later, when Robin rescued Marion from the Baron's castle and she decided to live in Sherwood with him, Much smiled happily. Robin said that Marion was his wife and Much’s sister now. He’d never had a sister before and he'd always felt safe in the forest, Marion would too. And she'd be with Robin so of course she'd be safe. Much nodded, her God would understand.
They never got the chance to bury Tom and Dickon but Much slipped away the next night to the mill. He wanted to make sure that his father was buried as he should be. He wanted to say goodbye. The mill was all burnt; ash hung in the air and coated every breath that Much took. He couldn't see his father or mother, his mother had to still be alive, didn’t she? There were people who'd look after her, people who'd hide her if Gisburne came looking for her.
Something was squeezing hard in Much's chest. It made him gasp and he could feel tears falling down his cheeks. He wiped them away because he could see moonlight glinting off a guard's helmet. The Sheriff was having the mill watched, well Much wasn't going to get caught. His mother had probably buried his father once Gisburne had ridden off, she wouldn't have waited to do it, no matter how much she'd been crying.
Much would find out where his father was buried. Robin would help, Little John might and so would Marion. Robin had said that their friends who'd died wouldn't be hurt again, hadn't he? They were free and they were in Sherwood, like the trees and the sunlight, they were part of it now. So Much's father would be too. The Sheriff couldn't hurt him anymore.
When Much scrambled quietly back into the forest, no guards followed him. He was getting close to the camp when he realised that he wasn't alone. There was a very distinctive figure standing to his left. The figure wore animal skins and antlers. Much's eyes widened, his fingers tingling as he stared for a moment before remembering to drop to his knees. Herne wouldn't punish him, would he? Much hadn't done anything to damage the forest, he loved Sherwood, he always had.
There were wisps of smoke curling everywhere and nothing hurt so Much peeked upwards and saw Herne raise his arms like he was giving a blessing. Much stared, watching until Herne lowered his arms and walked away, slowly, until he disappeared completely. Had Herne blessed Much or his father's passing? Maybe both.
Before Much could move again, a hand grabbed his jerkin and hauled him to his feet. Robin had found him.
“I told you not to go to the mill.”
Much struggled against his brother's strong grip. “Nobody saw me.”
“How do you know that?”
“I'm not dead, am I? And neither are you.”
Robin loosened his grip at that but stayed close and didn't look happy. “The mill?”
Much frowned, still tasting ash in his mouth. “The fire took everything.”
Robin nodded, his hand a warm comfort at Much's shoulder. Neither of them spoke on the way back to camp, both wrapped up in their thoughts. Much was too distracted to remember to tell Robin that he'd seen Herne. When he slept though, he found peace. Maybe he had been blessed.
Robin was different sometimes now. He was still Robin, Much’s brother, but he was Herne’s son too. Whenever he left to talk to Herne, he came back all quiet and thoughtful. Then someone would say something and he’d suddenly jump up, knowing what they needed to do. Herne told him things, prophecies, images and words that told him what was going to happen, what Robin needed to know. But it wasn’t always clear; they were like riddles that Robin had to figure out.
Robin had dreams too; they must have been even more vivid than the ones he’d used to have back when Much was younger. Robin used to shout, so loudly that everybody in the mill got roused awake. His eyes were always scared and wondering. Much’s parents would talk to him softly and help him try to find peaceful sleep again. He had Marion beside him now to soothe away whatever grabbed at him in the darkness.
Tuck said that Robin had a lot of responsibility now, he wasn’t just leading the group that lived in the forest, so many people in nearby villages needed him too. He was their hope, they could suffer for helping him or not telling the Sheriff what he'd been doing, and Robin probably felt like he couldn’t ever let them down. That made sense and explained Robin's quiet solemn moods. Tuck was good at explaining things, he never called Much simple or half-witted when he asked questions either. He was funny too, even if he liked the Christian God more than Herne.
He worked like they all did – getting wood for the fire, helping to make shelter, skinning and cutting up the animals. Tuck milked goats happily and taught Much how to prepare Nasir's food, because Nasir believed in a different god who liked his people to eat things in a special way. It wasn't so strange, Tuck told Much, after all Herne's followers observed the Time of the Blessing, didn't they? And Christians didn't. Tuck talked about a lot of different things with Much, like the order of monks that he’d been part of before he'd become the Sheriff’s chaplain. He was full of interesting stories. Of course he was, commented Little John, he was big enough.
Tuck explained that for a long time his order of monks had been his family because when he'd lived with them it'd been important for him to focus all of himself on God, even the bits of him that loved who'd raised him. Much was quiet for a bit, thinking about his own family. The only person he really had left was Robin and he belonged to Herne now too and Marion and his people. Things weren't the same anymore, not at all.
“Do you think your God and Herne, do you think they talk a lot?” he asked suddenly.
Tuck didn't look exactly surprised; he sort of paused though and then looked thoughtful as he began carving up a deer carcass. “I'm sure they do. I mean, my God brought me to Nottingham, to Marion and then to Robin and you lot. The way I understand it, Herne's been calling Robin since he was young, he called him right into Nottingham Castle, all the way to Marion's door. They must have talked, mustn't they?”
Much thought about that for a good long time. He always had questions but sometimes they got forgotten in the rush of keeping an eye out for the Sheriff and making sure people got enough money to feed their families. Sometimes people didn't want to answer him. But Tuck usually did and Marion didn't seem to mind, neither did Robin though he didn't have much time for that anymore. Because he was Herne's son and he had to look after his people. Yes, Much remembered now but it hurt sometimes, to have to share the only real family he had left even if he did understand why.
He settled back and thought about what Tuck had said. Tuck was good at giving Much a thought that sort of stayed in his head for a while. Much lay there thinking until Little John smacked him heavily on the thigh to alert him that it was his turn to help with dinner; there was deer meat to be cooked. Much swiped back at John and then scrambled out of the way, careful not to tip over the nearby bucket of fresh goat's milk. John tumbled after him. Tuck's words had been good thoughts to grasp and turn over, Much was going to hold onto them.
It couldn't be true, Robin's death. But Marion never lied to Much and she was cradling Robin's sword and she was crying. She hadn't even cried like that when she'd heard that her father was still alive. Much pressed his face against her shoulder and felt her hand in his hair.
It couldn't be true because there were the others, talking about a Hooded Man freeing them. They'd been sure that it was Robin. But Marion had Albion and everyone just stood there, trying to make sense of it and Tuck was crossing himself and his lips were moving like he was talking to someone who wasn't there. Praying, he'd said before, he was praying. Who for, them or Robin?
Marion was the first one to move, saying that they had to find Robin before the Sheriff did. The others looked grim and Much didn't understand why until Little John pulled him aside and said that they'd collect Robin so Much wouldn't have to, because the Sheriff would display Robin so that everybody could see that he'd killed Robin Hood.
Much shook his head “I need to see him.”
“Much, you don't-.”
“I do,” Much was loud now but he didn't care, he had another ache like a hole through him, a pain that felt like it was never going to end. “He lied, saying that he'd come after us and I never got to say goodbye. He was my brother.”
Little John looked at him, Much could feel himself trembling and clenched his fists, but Little John nodded. There were tears in his eyes as he turned away. Will looked so angry and Tuck was staying close to Marion's side. Nasir stood behind them all, his swords drawn in case of more trouble. Much clenched his teeth and walked near John, not looking anywhere but ahead. He didn't see Herne but he wasn't looking for him.
Sherwood was supposed to be theirs; it was supposed to be where they were safe. But Robin hadn't died in Sherwood, had he? He'd died out on a hill, the sky turning to blood. Much couldn't stop thinking about that, how the sky had looked when he'd left Robin's side. Now they had to bring Robin back, into the forest where he belonged, to the place that had been his kingdom. That was what Edward had called it, Robin's kingdom.
Much had believed what he'd been told; that Robin was the king of Sherwood, that he was special and strong enough to take on the Sheriff and win. He'd seen what Robin could do, he'd heard Robin cry out since childhood because of the dreams he'd received. He'd stood in Herne's presence and had felt...well he'd felt something that had always made his fingers tingle.
What good was that when his brother was dead? What good was any of it?
They quickly found Robin's body; it'd been dumped in a forest clearing, still full of arrows. Marion gasped and sort of tumbled forward, her tears falling freely again. Much couldn't stop staring, his fingers weren't tingling now. There was Robin, his brother, Herne's son, dead. Herne hadn't saved him. Herne hadn't done anything at all.
It was a strange feeling that Much could feel spreading through him, it was like an iciness, a cold wave that ran through him from the inside out. He was still riddled with wounds, even more now, like he was made of them and nothing else. But something had to be holding him together, maybe it was the cold. Apart from the cold, all he could feel now was anger, like his pain had turned into that. Was this what Will felt like all the time?
Much watched as Robin was secretly buried in the greenwood, deep in the forest where nobody but Robin's men ever went. The grave wasn't marked, just in case. Much stayed for a bit after everybody else had gone. He hadn't been able to touch Robin after they'd found him. He would have been cold, wouldn't he? He wouldn't have been Robin, not at all.
Much sat there until Little John came looking for him, because they were going to shoot lit arrows into the lake, like they had done before for Tom and Dickon. Everybody was so quiet, the flames sounded very loud, like they were close to Much's ears. Much thought about the last time that he'd seen Robin, on that hill, so few arrows left. Robin had promised, his words were ash now. Everything was.
Then another arrow sank into the water and a Hooded Man stood behind them, hidden by trees.
For a moment, just for a moment, Much thought that he recognised Robin's eyes and the way that he tilted his head. But then the man was gone and even though they tried, they couldn't find him.
Everything went cold after that. Marion went back to her father. She looked the same as Much felt and hugged him, holding him like her arms were trying to tell him something. He understood, of course he did, and they nodded at each other. Both of them were adrift now, she had her father but Much couldn't imagine living inside a stone house, especially not now, the thought made something in him move. Marion would be all right though; she'd lived that way before. Maybe she’d really become a nun now and be safe in her abbey. Her safety was what Robin would have wanted.
Soon after Marion was gone, Will left, angry and spitting after arguing a lot with John. His wounds had always been raw but they were worse now, without Robin. Much understood. Little John wanted to leave too, to go and be a shepherd again. He told Much he could go too if he wanted. Much looked around him, at Sherwood and didn't feel anything but anger. If pain was still there, it was right at the bottom underneath everything else. Fresh wounds were running through him now, more loss, but the wounds that he'd carried for some time felt less this way, buried under anger.
He said goodbye to Nasir and Tuck and left with John. Tuck had told them that he'd be staying in Sherwood, there was no life out there for him and if Robin's people wanted someone to talk to, then he'd be there for them. Somebody needed to stay in Robin's kingdom. Much's stomach lurched, he was glad that it wasn't him. Nasir had shrugged slightly when he'd been asked what he would do now. Maybe he didn't know yet.
Much didn't either. All he knew was, he had to get away. His fingers still weren't tingling.
The world where John and Much settled down to become shepherds was very hilly and without forests. Much kept looking around because there was always somewhere that someone could run in from, firing arrows. John did it too but he got Much to help build a place that they could sleep in, a place that they could defend. But who would want to kill some shepherds all the way out here?
Much got used to herding the sheep and shooting the wolves that cried to carry them off. The man who owned the land and the sheep paid them enough to buy bread and whatever else they needed to live on. There was always something to gather up in the hedgerows that could be put into the pot hanging over the fire. John cut his hair and didn't laugh as much as he had before. Even in the summer, Much felt cold.
He dreamed of Robin a lot, standing in Sherwood or carrying the deer that Much had killed the day that they'd met Will, Tom and Dickon. Then he was walking with Marion, dressed all in blue and white then in her Sherwood green with flowers in her hair. The flowers became a circlet and then...then Robin was on the ground full of arrows and holes and he was free, no more pain. Nothing at all.
He often wondered if Will was fighting with his brother, if Nasir had decided to stay in England, if their friends in Wickham had needed Tuck's help in Sherwood. He thought about Robin's grave and thought vainly about his mother. Nobody had ever been able to tell him if she’d lived or not, because the Sheriff had often kept a strong eye on the remains of the mill and the surrounding area. Robin hadn't thought that she'd lived. Much wondered where his father's grave was and where his mother’s was too. He wondered if Marion felt as cold as he did.
Sometimes when he dreamed, Much saw Herne and the Hooded Man who'd fired the arrow. But when he dreamed like that Much always forced himself awake, opening his eyes resolutely until the images completely faded.
When Tuck crested the hill on his horse, Much felt surprise course through and something move gladly in his chest. Under his ever-present anger and coldness, he’d missed Tuck and his stories, he’d missed everyone. But why was Tuck there? He’d once said that he’d never leave Sherwood but here he was, actually here, and he wasn’t alone.
For a moment, just for a moment, Much thought that Robin was there beside Tuck. Much’s heart lurched. But it couldn’t have been Robin.
It was the Hooded Man, the one who’d saved the others the day that Robin had died. He was Robert, fair-haired, sad and angry, with determination that reminded Much of Robin. He wasn’t Robin though, even if he was now Herne’s son, the Hooded Man. Things weren’t the same anymore, were they? They never were. Everything always kept moving and Much wanted to stay still, he didn’t want any more pain or any more loss. He was riddled with enough wounds already.
Robert was high-born, the Earl of Huntington’s son, and he brought news of Marion who’d been taken by a warrior lord, Owen of Clun, against her will. Much’s stomach dipped at Robert’s words, Marion had been one of them, she’d been his sister. Now she needed them and Robert wanted to help.
Much watched as Robert and Little John fought with staffs. Robert hadn’t wanted to help before, had he? Oh he’d freed the outlaws but he hadn’t stayed, he’d left them without Robin, without any Hooded Man. Much hadn’t wanted anybody to replace Robin, he’d just wanted answers – who was the Hooded Man? Why had he helped them? Why had he run away afterwards? Robert hadn’t even given them that. He’d left them, just like Robin had.
Now he was talking to Little John, their staffs forgotten once Tuck had told them to stop. Much watched Robert and John walk away. He looked at Tuck in his patched robes.
“Still think Herne and your God talk a lot?”
It wasn’t what Much had expected to say but it'd still slipped out, raw and chipped. Tuck nudged a shoulder gently against Much’s. Much stared at him, blinking because it was strange suddenly to see Tuck there, real and not just part of Much’s thoughts. Seeing Tuck made him think of Sherwood and his mind quietened, full of dappled sunlight and cool mist, all the little hideaways and stories that they used to use to keep themselves out of the Sheriff’s reach. It’d been home and Much had tried not think about it until now. There was a different kind of pain growing in his chest in response.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Tuck replied, quiet and warm. He never hid how he felt and Much was glad of it. “And so is he.”
He nodded towards Robert who was emerging from the shelter beside John. John looked tense and like he was deciding something when his gaze slid over to Much. Much’s hackles rose, he wasn’t a child; he could decide his own path. He wasn’t John’s; he wasn’t anybody’s, not anymore.
He made his own choices.
Much quietly and quickly made his way to the lake at the edge of Sherwood Forest. Marion was free though she’d chosen to live with her father again. She’d looked at Much and hadn’t had to explain herself. He’d recognised the look in her eyes. Robin had died for both of them and Marion was still cold, still unable to call Sherwood home again. Much was glad to be back amongst familiar trees but he couldn’t drop into that feeling as easily as he once had. Robert was leading them but Much was still looking for Robin every other moment. Wounds took time to heal, didn’t they? Sometimes you had to bleed them to get well again.
He glanced down into the lake. Marion had told him about how she’d been given a vision of Herne once before when she'd stared into the lake. Robert had said that Herne had called him to rescue them and lead them once Robin had been killed. But Robert hadn’t believed that he could and he’d left. But here he was now, Herne’s son. He probably wouldn’t see his own father again.
Much stared and thought for a moment that he saw Robin, a shadow with long dark hair and faraway eyes, his shape sharp enough to cut someone. But when Much looked again, the shadow was just a shadow and Robin was still dead.
Robert had told Much quietly that he wasn’t trying to be Robin; he was another Hooded Man, another son to Herne, another outlaw leader. But he wasn’t Robin. It was good that he knew that. Maybe it was one of the reasons why Robert had run in the first place.
Much still felt angry, it was still the strongest feeling running through him. It helped him move, it was the thing that made the most sense to him. The pain was still there too, wounds ripping into him under the anger, wounds that he wanted to give to somebody else, to the Sheriff. But there was something moving underneath everything else, something that was there whenever he looked at the others, something worth following and holding onto. Much hadn’t felt it when he’d been living as a shepherd with John.
Much still hadn't found his father’s grave. He’d been told more than once that he should look for his mother’s as well. Maybe he would.
He sat there, crouched by the water for a long time, the day's light waning behind him. It wasn’t red this time.
Much’s fingers started tingling. He didn’t turn around though; he stayed right where he was.