THE RUINED CASTLE
The forest was home. It was hard to accept, sometimes, that he had been here little more than a year; that his life before had been so very different. He had been born and raised in a world of castles, rich furnishings, fine foods and real comfort. Now he lived as part of a transient camp in a forest, sleeping on the ground beside a fire, and staring up at a broad expanse of stars where once there had been the canopy of a huge bed. It was uncomfortable at times, and could be cold - horribly cold - and wet; and the wind could blow through the trees as though seeking out men to torment with its touch. There were days when the snow hung heavy on the trees, ready to fall upon those who passed by; when rainwater lingered for days, and it was impossible ever to be dry; when food was scarce and sickness plentiful, and even the strongest of men were laid low in misery. But it was still home, and there were still comforts to be had. The warmth of spring and of summer; the company of genial friends; the dedication to a cause worth any sacrifice. Robert - who had once been Robin, but now was Robert again - was content with this rough and tattered existence. It was the life that had chosen him, rather than a life he had chosen for himself, but it had become what he wanted nonetheless. Even now, with Robin returned, and Herne's first born son once again master of his father's forest, Robert still felt at home in Sherwood, and knew that it was where he belonged. Not that it wasn't difficult sometimes, with Marion in the arms of her husband, and the people from the local villages looking to Robin for guidance, where once they had looked to his successor. He had always known that it would be so, from the moment Robin had first revealed himself, when they had found him driving a cart through Sherwood Forest, and had discovered that he lived again. Life was full of difficulties though, and compared to the hardships faced by the local peasants; by all the English under their Norman rulers; finding his life altered by the return of his predecessor was not so great a trial. It was just a question of growing used to it, and of remembering that they were now eight, and no longer seven.
"Enjoying the view?" Robin had come upon him soundlessly, as usual. Herne's elder son had an unnerving silence about him; an ability to move about the forest like a ghost. Robert glanced back at him, and smiled.
"I love it here. Up there -" he pointed - "is where I first saw Herne. I always feel his presence here, somehow."
"Yes, I know what you mean. His spirit seems stronger in some places than in others. I've always felt that." Robin breathed in deeply, savouring the scent of wet earth and leaves. "We're lucky men, Robert."
"I know. The forest, no master save Herne. A true sense of purpose." He gave a small sigh, of a sort of satisfaction. "I'm glad I didn't leave."
"I doubt Herne would have let you. He chooses his sons for a reason." Robin laid a hand on his brother's shoulder. "Anyway, it's hardly important now. You stayed, I stayed." He turned to look out across the forest, lit by dawn's early light, and smiled with the deepest, warmest satisfaction. "Marion stayed."
"Yes." Robert sat down on the stump of a fallen tree. "It was never the same without her."
"Sorry." Aware that his return had ended for good any hopes that Robert might have had of repairing his own relationship with Marion, Robin lapsed into a tactful silence. "I saw you leave," he continued in the end. "I wondered if everything was alright. Will said that you'd heard Herne calling you, but I knew that wasn't true."
"Everything is perfectly alright." Robert smiled sheepishly. "I lied to Will because I wanted to come out here for a bit, and everybody worries when I leave the camp. I think they all expect me never to come back."
"They need you. I threw everything into confusion when I returned." Robin flashed him a roguish smile that showed he didn't regret a bit of it. "Anyway, I just wanted to be sure. I didn't think you'd go. Not really."
"How could I? Even if I had somewhere to go to, I could never abandon all of this. You can't go back. Not when you've seen what we've seen. What we've been shown." He gestured around him, at the forest, and by association at the land that lay beyond it with its many, many injustices. "I'm staying. But I do want to sit here for a bit, and enjoy the view. Will and the others can be a little too much to take at times, especially when they're playing their games."
"I understand." Having done what he had come to do, Robin turned to go, but he paused for a moment before he left. "Robert..."
"If you're going to tell me that I'm still needed, and that there's no reason to feel that I'm not, you don't need to. Marion tells me every other day, and when she doesn't, Tuck does. It's like a conspiracy."
"There's a moral to that tale."
"I think that's it, yes." They shared a smile, then Robin clapped him on the shoulder once again. "I'll see you back at the camp," he said, by means of farewell. Robert nodded, listening for the sounds of the other's footfalls as he slipped away. He didn't hear them. Robin had left as silently as he had arrived.
"You are troubled, my son." Herne, as ever, moved through the forest as silently as Robin, his voice seeming at first to come from nowhere. Robert wasn't surprised by his arrival, although he certainly hadn't been expecting to see his father here. One never expected to see Herne; his appearances were as unpredictable as nature itself.
"Herne." Robert stood up, reacting as always with deference in the presence of the Lord of the Forest. "Is there something wrong?"
"I see many wrongs, Robert; and I see that there is something wrong with you. Something that troubles your heart." The imposing figure came closer, so that Robert could more readily see the human face beneath the costume. It was Herne's gesture to him, he knew; a sign that he was here on a more informal basis than usual. It wasn't often that they met truly as father to son; wasn't often that Herne spoke to him gently, rather than as his god. "Are you regretting your decision to stay in the forest, my son?"
"No!" Robert was certain of that. He loved the forest; that was why he had come here to enjoy one of his favourite parts of it in the peace and quiet that was so rarely his. "No. I wouldn't walk away from this. Any of this. I just..." He trailed off. It seemed churlish to speak as though he in some way regretted the return of the Hooded Man. It was just that...
"You feel useless," spoke up Herne, neatly finishing his thought. Robert smiled.
"Is it that obvious?
"Only to one who knows you as well as you know yourself." Herne reached out, placing a hand on each of Robert's shoulders. "You feel that Sherwood has need of only one Hooded Man. You feel that there is less for you to do in the world, now that Robin has returned. I expected as much, Robert. It is more than understandable that you should question your place now. The people of Wickham look first to Robin. Your men look first to Robin. Marion chose him, as you knew that she would. But such things are mere cloaks, my son. Not the true substances of life. Do you think that there isn't enough work for two of you?"
"Of course not. There's so much to do that fifteen of us wouldn't be enough." Robert smiled, warmly and reflectively and sheepishly all at once. "I should go back, shouldn't I."
"All men need time alone. All men should find a place to reflect on the beauty of the world. It's good to remind yourself of some of the things you're fighting for." Herne reached out a hand, and released a fluttering of leaves from his fist. They spiralled slowly to earth, and a scent of flowers drifted through the air. "But remember this. When you do return, there will be danger where there appears to be none."
"Danger?" Robert watched the falling leaves, entranced by them without knowing why. "What sort of danger?"
"Danger that pretends to be otherwise." Herne's voice was far away now, and the spiralling leaves were taking on new shapes. Horsemen. Knights. Robert could hear their hooves and their voices, and their laughs of mockery and merriment. "Beware, my son. Beware of those who ride beneath false colours."
"False colours?" But there was no answer. Herne had gone, and with him the images and sounds of laughing, galloping knights. Only the leaves remained, and as Robert watched them, they settled at last upon the ground. All was still now. The forest was silent once more.
The outlaws were celebrating. They had stopped a party of tradesmen the previous day, and as well as several bales of rich silks that would sell for a good deal of money, they had appropriated a chest heavy with coins. It was enough to pay the upcoming taxes for the outlying villages, and should leave enough afterward to buy extra food, and perhaps some tools to make the lives of the peasants that little bit easier. It wasn't often that there was a surplus, and Robin had allowed his men to take possession of the several flagons of wine that had also once been the property of the tradesmen. They had been partying for much of the night, and now that morning had come, the celebrations did not seem inclined to waver. With typical enthusiasm Will and Little John were attempting to out-sing each other, bellowing verses of bawdy songs learnt during misspent youths in rowdy inns, whilst Tuck tried to drown them both out with off-key renditions of his favourite hymns. Much, having long since drunk far more than he could hold, was asleep on the ground, sprawled on his back and snoring gently. Somebody had tied a silk ribbon into his curls, but he had remained oblivious throughout, and slept contentedly on. Marion watched everything with a smile of gentle delight, glad that she had returned to her old life amongst the outlaws, even if they were an uncouth and ribald lot. She laughed at Will's attempt to win the singing competition by trying to push Little John into the river, and laughed harder still when John, man mountain that he was, knocked Will flying in response.
"Robin!" She held out her hand to him as he came back into the camp, and he settled down beside her with one hand in hers, his free arm wrapped around her waist.
"Who's winning?" he asked, nodding towards the various contenders in the raucous competition. Marion laughed.
"I think Tuck is making the most noise, but John is the only one of them I'd listen to by choice. Where's Robert?
"He wanted some peace and quiet." Robin had to laugh, for now that he had returned to the noise of the camp, he was rather wishing that he had stayed in the depths of the forest with his brother. "This lot are a little hard to take when you're feeling reflective. How about Nasir?"
"He hasn't come back yet either." Marion leaned into Robin's embrace, as much just to savour his presence as anything else. She still woke up at night needing to prove to herself that he really was back. It didn't seem possible to be close enough to him, or to spend enough time just holding him, and relishing the fact that he really was alive. "Do you think they're trying to tell us something?"
"Could be." He rested his chin on the top of her head. "I'll give it a little while longer, then call an end to all of this. Celebrations are all very well, but if Will drinks much more, he won't be able to move. We can't take risks like that. It'll be bad enough just having Much out of action."
"Poor Much." She couldn't help but laugh. "He tries so hard to keep up with the others. He's going to feel dreadful when he wakes up, and he can never understand why the others don't feel nearly so bad."
"I'm sure that between the two of us we can find him something to make him a little less ill." Robin smiled fondly at his foster-brother, mumbling under his breath now as he lay sprawled in drunken slumber. "A few herbs should ease his headache and his stomach, anyway."
She laughed. "If we're both thinking of the same herbs, he'd probably rather be ill."
"Ah, well." He gave her a sudden, powerful hug. "But then you've never drunk that much, have you."
"Of course not!" She reacted as though insulted by the mere suggestion, and managed to look uncommonly innocent. Far more innocent than he knew her really to be. "I was brought up properly. I know how to behave."
"Yes. Badly." He laughed at her mock outrage. "Anyway, my point is that when you've drunk that much, and you have to wake up again later, you don't believe that anything could be worse. Much would drink a pint of bat's blood if he thought it would get his stomach to settle."
"Yes, well keep your voice down or we'll have Will suggesting it." She leant against him. "This sun is beautiful. I wish it could be like this all through the winter."
"If it was there'd be no glory to the spring." He stretched out, luxuriating in the warmth of the bright sun, and in the presence of his wife beside him. "It won't last. There's a frost on the ground in places, and they'll only get heavier and more frequent from now on. Winter is definitely under way."
"Nearly. But the sun hasn't abandoned us yet." It seemed to hear her, beating down more strongly through the almost leafless trees, lightening the lazy blue of the cloudless sky. "I wonder what sort of winter we're bound for?"
"Cold." He looked serious all of a sudden. "In my mind I've seen the ponds freeze, and birds drop dead from the sky. But we're ready for it. The last few raids have given us enough money to help the local people through the bad weather. I only wish that we could do the same for the rest of the country."
"We can't help everybody, Robin."
"I know." He looked away, not seeing the camp and the clearing, but instead the memories of the vision that had shown him the winter ahead. "But I want to help everybody. People will starve this winter, and freeze to death in hovels because of the taxes they can't pay. Prisoners in castle dungeons right across the land will die, and we all know how innocent many of them are. There'll be officers of the crown cutting off hands from one end of the country to the other, because desperate fathers need meat for their children. And how will they support their families with one hand missing? Even if they do survive the next few days after the sentence is carried out, they'll still be back where they started, without any food."
"I know." She stroked his hair gently. "But you do what you can, Robin, and no man can do more than that. The time will come one day when everybody has enough to eat, and everybody is warm in the winter. You'll have helped it to happen."
"Always so good at making me feel better." He took her hand, then sighed and let go of her again. "If they've left us any wine, can I pour you a cup?"
"A cup?" She laughed at him, and at his attempt to behave like a nobleman in his castle. "You mean a bowl, if I'm lucky."
"If you're very lucky it might even be a clean bowl." He laughed, then climbed to his feet to retrieve the nearest of the flagons. It sloshed when he lifted it up, so carrying it high, he returned with it to his lady like some conquering hero bearing the spoils of war. Marion welcomed him graciously, playing along with the act, and toasting him politely with the wine. They were enjoying themselves so much that they didn't notice the sun beginning to go behind clouds that had not existed before, and neither did they notice the sudden drop in temperature, or the wind that blew gently around their feet. They should have noticed all of these things of course, whatever the wine or the company, but something was very wrong, and it was affecting everybody's awareness. By the time Robin began to realise that things were amiss, it was too late to do anything about it. Too late for anything save prayer.
By the time that Robert returned from his wanderings in the forest, the world had righted itself again. The sun shone, though perhaps not as brightly as before, and the sky was again mostly cloudless. It was as though nothing had ever happened in that out of the way place. Only a few flagons of wine stood as testimony to the celebration that had been underway, and the fire that marked the centre point of the camp had burned down to little more than smouldering ash. Robert turned it over with one foot, trying to gauge how long ago it had been since the fire had been tended. He discovered a faint red glow at its heart, but the whole seemed too far gone to be saved. He didn't understand what could have happened, for there was no sign of a struggle, and he had heard no sounds of fighting from afar. No particular tracks led to or from the camp. The recent inhabitants might never have existed.
"There is nothing." The voice was deep, though quiet. Robert didn't need to look to know that Nasir had just arrived, melting out of the trees as though he had spent his entire life in the forest, instead of moving there from the faraway deserts of the East only a few years before. Robert turned his back on what remained of the fire.
"No tracks? No sign of anybody?"
"Nothing." Nasir did not ask where Robert had been, nor why he had not been with the others, and gave no explanation for his own recent activities either. He merely anticipated the direction of the young nobleman's mind, and responded accordingly. Robert nodded.
"When did you find that they were missing?"
"Not long." Nasir shrugged. "Long enough."
"It doesn't make any sense. If they had to run for cover somewhere, there'd be some sign of it. Who could they have been hiding from? There haven't been any soldiers here."
"There has been no one." Nasir crossed to the fire, crouching down beside it to try for himself the trick of working out the lapse of time. Robert raised a questioning eyebrow, and Nasir mirrored it with a quirk of his own. It was a standard form of communication for him, although the seriousness of the situation had obviously encouraged him into greater eloquence than usual. "Too long," he said, as he stirred the ashes with a stick.
"The fire. It is too cold." He tossed the stick aside, and turned over the ashes with his hand instead. "I did not go far. Within hearing always. The fire should not be so cold."
"The gold's gone. And the bales of silk." Robert folded his arms across his chest, staring at the empty camp. "How could they have taken all of that away without leaving any tracks? Robin might have ordered a withdrawal if he heard something, but even if they went up into the trees they'd have to have left some sign."
"They did not go into the trees." Nasir, true to form, did not explain how he knew that, and Robert trusted his judgement enough not to ask. "Danger?"
"Danger..." Robert whispered the word, hearing it again in Herne's voice. Herne had told him that there would be danger. Danger where there appeared to be none. He cursed then, and grabbed Nasir's shoulder. They had to leave here. It looked quiet, it looked innocent, it looked empty - but Herne's warnings did not come without reason. If he said that there was danger in a place that seemed harmless enough, then danger there was. "Run," he hissed, with a sudden force. "Now." Nasir's brows lowered in a questioning frown, but he didn't speak to ask Robert his reasons or motives. He merely rose and followed his sometime commander from the clearing. They went fast, running as soundlessly as they could through the forest, until they came to a place where the trees were thinner again. Robert slowed then, pacing in agitation up and down until he regained control of his emotions. Nasir was watching him all the while, face impassive, arms by his sides. He was holding Robert's bow, forgotten by Robert himself, but retrieved in their flight by his companion. The sight of it made the Hooded Man smile.
"Thankyou." He took the bow, glad for its familiar weight in his hands. He had always been a good shot, but since it had become his chief line of defence, the bow had come to mean so much more than a mere possession. "I should hate to be without this right now." Nasir's brows moved again, asking questions that Robert couldn't well answer. "We might as well be ready for a fight," he said in the end. "Herne told me to look for danger where there didn't seem to be any. There didn't seem to be any danger in that clearing - not at first glance - but something had to have happened to the others. Something that might also be intended to happen to us."
"You think... magic?"
"I don't know. Perhaps." It was as good an explanation as any. What else could steal away six people, as well as the gold and wares, and leave no obvious trace? What else could have turned the fire so cold, when there had not been nearly enough time to make it so? Something might have taken the others, and that something might also have taken him and Nasir, if Herne had not warned him to be wary. Robert had learnt to be wary of magic, and of the many enemies he had who used it readily. He thought of the galloping horses he had been shown by Herne. Knights. Knights apparently celebrating some victory, laughing amongst themselves as they rode. Seven knights, on big grey horses. He frowned. Seven tradesmen, on big grey horses. Could it be that their most recent robbery; their great success; had been a trap? Had the tradesmen been knights in disguise, letting them steal the gold and silk in order to... to what? Somehow trace them to their camp? Somehow come upon them in secret, and capture their merry band? Beware of those who ride beneath false colours, Herne had said. In which case, Robin and the others might be anywhere now, and at the mercy of anyone. He looked up at Nasir then, eyes bright and earnest.
"Who could have made such magic? Who could have taken them all away with a spell?" The Saracen's eyes darkened in answer, although the impassive face did not alter its expression. Robert shook his head. "No. Not de Belleme. He's dead."
"He was dead before," pointed out Nasir. That was true enough - Robin had killed him when the band of outlaws had first come together. He had to all appearances killed him again more than once since then. Death was no certainty of his final departure. All the same, Robert was not convinced. They had other enemies; they had met others who dealt in witchcraft; the sorcerer Gulnar, for instance, who had proved just as difficult to kill as the Baron de Belleme. Sherwood was not lacking in sorcerers, any more than it was lacking in threats of other kinds. Perhaps it wasn't important to know who was behind this. Not just yet. Perhaps first they should merely be trying to find out where Robin and the others had gone.
"The tradesmen," he said finally. Nasir frowned at him, and he elaborated. "The ones that we robbed. The ones with the gold and the silks. I think they did this. Herne showed me a band of knights laughing. He warned me to watch out for somebody who wasn't what they appeared to be. I think the tradesmen were knights in disguise."
"Knights?" Nasir seemed to be considering the possibility, but questions still showed in his eyes. Robert could sympathise. If they were indeed dealing with knights, then which knights? Where were they from, and to whom did they owe allegiance? What was their motive, and how had they managed to spirit the others away? One magician acting alone - a man who was already known to have a grudge against Robin and his men - made much more sense as a suspect. All the same, Robert could not easily cast aside the pressures of his own instincts. Herne had taught him to trust those instincts; for the most part he had given them to him. He thought again of the vision in the falling leaves, and was certain that his suspicions were correct. It had to have been the tradesmen who were behind this. There was nothing else that made his blood prickle in quite the same way.
"We have to find them," he mused. Knights had to camp somewhere. They had horses that needed to be fed, and even if they had magic on their side they would still have to eat and sleep. They had prisoners now, it appeared, who would need to be secured somewhere. He nodded, coming to a sudden decision. "Nasir?" He got no answer, but he saw that his companion was listening; saw that he was alert and ready to hear what was coming next. "What are the chances of following the tracks they left yesterday, if we go back to the place where we waylaid them?" The Saracen's dark, expressive eyes narrowed, both in thought and in uncertainty.
"The earth was cold in the night," he said in the end, apparently considering this to be all the answer he need give. Robert quirked an eyebrow at him, intentionally mimicking the other man's almost perpetually wordless method of communication.
"And?" he pressed. Another man would have shrugged, or made a face, or answered in several sentences, but Nasir merely inclined his head in the faintest of nods.
"Perhaps," he allowed, after a moment. Robert nodded.
"That's good enough for me," he said firmly, the resolve showing in his voice. "Come on. And stay alert." His answer was a faint, questioning frown, and he smiled. "Yes, I know. More alert than usual. Whatever is out there, it took the others without leaving a sign. If we're going to help them, we can't let the same thing happen to us." The dark head inclined in a sign of quiet acceptance, and Robert clapped his friend on the shoulder. They were a mismatched pair, he thought to himself, as they began to move once more through the forest. One fair, one dark; one open, one closed; one the son of Herne, the other the servant of Allah. Whatever their differences, Robert was glad to have his silent companion beside him now. Nasir might speak only rarely; might smile even less often, and steer well clear of the kind of merrymaking that the others so enjoyed; but his quiet, steady reliability was valuable beyond measure. Especially now. Robert was glad that he was not alone in this. Without company, this grim and sour day would surely be worse.
"Get your foot out of my face, Much." Will was in much the same mood as always. Robin would have smiled had he not been so worried.
"Shut up, Will," he ordered, without much force to the words. He understood Will's anger, and he sympathised, but he didn't have the luxury of such emotions himself. He had to stay clear-headed. He had to think.
"There's no room in here!" Will was still angry; but then Will would likely be that way for some time. Anger came quickly to Will Scarlet, but it did not leave nearly so fast. "This cell isn't big enough for two men, let alone three."
"Least they didn't put all of us in here," piped up Much, who was not nearly as cowed by Will's anger now as he had been a year or two before. Will grunted at him.
"Go back to sleep," he growled. His companion made a sound very like a moan.
"I wish I could," he said sorrowfully. Much was very definitely suffering the after effects of too much alcohol. Again Robin sympathised, but since there was nothing that he could do about it, there seemed little point in letting the boy dwell on the issue now. He reached out into the darkness, finding his brother's thin shoulder, and giving it a reassuring squeeze.
"The sickness will pass, Much," he said, as gently as he could, then swiftly changed the subject. "We have more important things to worry about now. I'm sorry."
"I know." Much grew more determined every day to play his fair part in the gang, and clearly he didn't want his own discomfort to cause any problems now. "What are we going to do, Robin?"
"Escape," growled Will, who never missed up a chance to use the sharp side of his tongue. Robin glared at him, and even though neither could properly see the other, Will still felt the dark eyes burning into his. He lowered his gaze, faintly humbled.
"I wish they hadn't split us up," commented Robin. "That's the first hurdle. Escaping is all very well, but we're not leaving here on our own. We have to find the others first."
"Tuck and Little John in the same cell." Will smiled suddenly. "They can't be very comfortable. Not if the room they're in is anything like ours."
"Glad I'm not in there too," added Much. "It's bad enough sharing a house with Little John, let alone a cell like this."
"They're probably warmer than we are," pointed out Robin. "It's cold in here. We must be underground. How much did you two see when we came in?"
"Nothing much. I don't feel like I've seen much at all since we were back at the camp." Will suddenly sounded serious. "It was magic, wasn't it Robin. Powerful magic."
"I can't see what else it could have been. The way that we were taken, and then the journey here. It must have been magic." Robin closed his eyes, looking for the quiet place inside himself that always helped him to find answers. "There was no warning from Herne, and I didn't see anything. All of my life, even long before I was chosen as Herne's Son, I've had visions of coming dangers. I've seen things that haven't happened yet. Even when I don't see something, my instincts usually do. This time there was nothing."
"It was powerful magic," reiterated Will. Robin nodded.
"How are we going to get out of here, then, if the magic is that powerful?" Much's voice betrayed a slight tremble, although he was doing his best to hide it. Robin was silent for some while.
"There's always a way," said Will in the meantime. For once he didn't sound argumentative, but instead seemed to be genuinely trying to help. Once again Robin reached out into the dark, searching for the boy's shoulder with his hand.
"We have magic too, Much," he said, his gentle voice betraying the strength that he carried inside. "Never forget that."
"Don't have Albion anymore though, do we." Much liked that almost as little as Robin. The Hooded Man couldn't help but let his free hand fall to the empty place on his belt where the enchanted sword usually hung.
"No, we don't have Albion," he admitted. "But Albion doesn't make us what or who we are. It's just a badge. Like the Sheriff's chain of office. He likes to wear it, but that's not what makes him the man he is."
"No. That's him being a nasty sod," piped up Will, who was never able to resist the temptation of throwing insults at their perpetual enemy. Robin laughed faintly, although his heart was not really in the joke.
"That's as may be," he conceded. "But whoever and whatever makes us as we are, Albion isn't what makes us strong. She's not what brought us together, or what brought us back together. A weapon of any kind would be a help, but we can escape without any. We've done it before."
"Yeah." Will nodded his head, remembering some of the many dangers they had faced and fought; the many traps that had so nearly caught them, and had so nearly been the death of them all. They had always come through in the end, even when it had seemed that they would not.
"Robert and Nasir weren't with us when we were captured," said Much suddenly, his voice a little stronger now. "Do you suppose that they're still free?"
"There's a good chance of that, yes." Robin had been thinking of the missing members of their band for some time, wondering where they were and what they were doing. Always supposing that they had escaped, had they found out that their friends had disappeared? Had they guessed that a spell of some kind had spirited them away? Robin imagined himself in their position, and wondered what clues might have been left behind. He knew that neither man would rest until they found something. What he didn't know was whether or not they would be in any position to look. For all he knew they had been captured as well by now, and were on their way to this unknown place, or already locked up in one of its small, dark cells.
"Robert will find us, won't he." Much was sitting close by now, his attempt to be strong having certain definite limits. He sounded woebegone and tired, and Robin pulled him close for a momentary embrace.
"He'll find us."
"If he's still out there," muttered Will, unable to be optimistic for more than a few minutes at a time. "Don't know, do we. Don't know anything, stuck in here."
"Nasir can find anything," piped up Much, still sounding forlorn. Robin ruffled his hair.
"Of course he can. You don't need to worry, Much. Even if they can't find us themselves, Herne will show them the way."
"Herne didn't help us," growled Will, although he kept his voice low, as though trying to spare Much's feelings. There was little chance that his words would escape the boy's ears, but the fact that he had tried meant that some of his aggression had gone. "Anyway, it's not whether Robert is still free that's important, is it. We need to know why we're here, and who's responsible."
"I rather think that we'll find out in time." Robin leaned back against the cold wall of the cell, and stared out into the darkness that surrounded them. His eyes did not seem to have grown accustomed to it, which bothered him. It suggested that the darkness was magical as well, and if that was true then their unseen enemy really was in the possession of great powers. "Whoever brought us here will show themselves eventually. They'd have to."
"Unless they're just going to leave us here," worried Much. "Maybe they've put us here where no one will ever find us, and we'll never be let out. Then if nobody brings us any food--"
"-We'll have to eat you," finished Will. Robin smiled.
"Don't worry, Much. Nobody would go to this much trouble just to seal us up underground and forget about us. This is about much more than that."
"It bothers you, doesn't it Robin." Much looked up at him, barely able to see any detail, but aware of the seriousness of the expression in his foster brother's eyes. He knew the other's face well enough to know by sheer instinct what was reflected in the strong lines of the face, and in the set of the mouth and the jaw. Robin hated not knowing who had abducted them, or why it had been done. He needed to search for answers, but locked up in here there seemed to be nowhere to look.
"Yes, it bothers me." Herne's Son spoke up again after several moments of silence. Much had given up waiting for an answer, but he was glad when it came. He liked to know that, whatever his preoccupations, Robin still had time for his brother. It was reassuring, especially now. "It's a dangerous thing, for one person to have so much power, especially when they use it for evil. "
"Evil or good," growled Will in answer, "if they don't bring us some food before long, I really will eat Much."
"I'd give you indigestion," Much told him, recovering a little of his spirit. Robin laughed lightly.
"You tell him."
"Huh." Will wrapped his arms around his legs, resting his chin on his knees and closing his eyes. It was warmer to sit that way, and the only way he was going to get any rest was by being warm. Or warmer, anyway. "How long do you think we've been here now?"
"Not long." Robin was relaxing as best he could, hoping for the inner peace that brought him closer to Herne. He might find answers then. "I think we've still got a lot of waiting to do. Best get comfortable."
"And keep hoping," added Much. Robin nodded, slowly and deliberately.
"And keep hoping," he confirmed. "We'll get out of here eventually, and we all have to remember that. We just need to be patient in the meantime." But with the cold and the damp and the constant worry of what was happening here, he didn't really believe that he could follow his own advice. For all his good intentions, patience just didn't belong in a place like this.
Robert and Nasir walked and ran until the sun was low, following the faint tracks left by the tradesmen they had robbed the previous day. Almost nothing remained of the trail, and in some places it petered out entirely -but in others it was strong and clear enough for them to be sure that they were still on the right path. As Nasir had said the ground had been cold, and where it had frozen, even only lightly, the tracks had suffered less erosion from the passage of animals. Every so often Nasir crouched to look more closely at the marks, tracing them with his fingers, able to see them even when they seemed to Robert to have faded away. Neither man spoke very often, and for the most part they just walked, oblivious to the failing light and the fading warmth.
"I wonder where we're making for," speculated Robert in the end, when the tracks appeared to be taking them beyond all of the usual resting places. Their tradesmen did not seem to be staying in the town, or at any of the castles or manors that might usually be expected to give shelter. "We've travelled for miles. When I was a child this was as far as I was allowed to ride. There's nothing else out this way except forest."
"Ruins," commented Nasir, who had wandered far and wide during the short years of his residency in England.
"Ruins?" Robert thought back to his youth when, whatever the orders to the contrary, he had ridden his horse beyond this point. There had indeed been ruins, he remembered - an old, abandoned abbey rumoured to have been built on the site of an ancient Pagan place of worship. It had seemed to the young boy to be a place filled with ghosts, where winds whistled around decaying corners, and light failed to filter through the undergrowth. Raised as a Christian by a God-fearing father, he had not wanted to linger in the place as a child. He wondered how different he would find it now that he walked with Herne. "You mean the abbey?" he asked his companion. "There's no shelter to be had there. The roof fell in long ago, and there's little enough left of the walls now. It's been abandoned for more than two hundred years. Longer, some say."
"Not the abbey." Nasir had been crouched over the tracks again, but now he stood up to point somewhere over to his left. "Further south west. A castle."
"A castle?" Robert did not recall ever seeing such a place, and realised that his companion must mean somewhere that lay further than he had ever been in this direction. "Abandoned?"
"Fallen." Nasir shrugged his leather-clad shoulders. "But there are rooms underground."
"Cellars and dungeons are as good a shelter as anywhere else, I suppose." Robert frowned. "I wonder whose castle it is? Or was, I suppose. Do you know how old it is?" His answer was a twitch of one eyebrow, and he smiled. "Sorry. I don't suppose there's anybody to ask. There are ways of telling, by the architecture." The brow creased again, and once more Robert smiled. "They teach you these things when you're an English nobleman's son. I don't suppose your tutors bothered." This time he received a smile in reply, and a faint shrug.
"There are ruins," Nasir told him. "In the desert. Older than anything in England."
"Yes, I've heard that." They began walking again, Robert glad of the conversation even if Nasir seemed as indifferent as always. "I've spoken to people who have been out there, and they say that there are traces of civilisations older than anything we can imagine. Cities that might have been old and ruined thousands of years ago. I'd like to see them."
"They are dead," was Nasir's considered opinion. Robert laughed.
"Irrelevant?" he asked. The shoulders shrugged again.
"Beautiful, sometimes," he conceded. "Perhaps one day..."
"When there's time to see your country without a war being fought in the middle of it?" The dark head nodded, and Robert returned the gesture. "I understand. Some day I'd like to see England. All of it. The towns, the villages, the places in between. The ancient monuments I've heard about from travellers. It would take so many months to travel around everywhere, and there's just no time. Not with all the work that needs to be done. There's certainly no time to travel to the other side of the world and see your ancient ruins as well."
"When the fighting ends," said Nasir quietly. Robert nodded. It was hard to imagine a time when England itself would be a place of peace, let alone a time when his people would not be fighting Nasir's. But if there ever did come such a time, it would be good to make such a journey.
"When the fighting ends," he agreed. For now, though, they had fighting aplenty to consider. An enemy that they didn't properly understand, and threats that were equally obscure. Time to bring matters back to the present, he decided, although by the look of Nasir's intense eyes, the Saracen had never ceased to be focused upon the issue at hand. "How far is this ruin?"
"On foot... we travel all night."
"That far?" Robert didn't bother asking how Nasir had come to find the place. During the long months of his isolation, perhaps, when the Merry Men had split up following Robin's apparent death. It didn't really matter. "Can you see any newer tracks? Anything to suggest that somebody might have come this way more recently?"
"Nobody comes here." Nasir started walking again, apparently unaffected by Robert's growing uncertainty.
"Then there are no more tracks? Nobody has come this way since the tradesmen yesterday?" The curly head shook a negative answer. "Even when the ground was frozen?" He realised that that last was probably irrelevant, since it was some sign that his friends had been brought this way that he wanted, and that had been after the ground had thawed. "It seems as though we're wasting too much time." There was no answer. "You're going to tell me that we're not wasting time if we're heading in the right direction, I suppose?" There was still no answer, and he found that he was smiling. "Well, no. You're probably not. Robin said that he was impressed by how much you talk now. It makes me wonder what you were like before he went away." Nasir looked back at him, a faint frown showing his perplexity, and Robert sighed, trying to explain his concerns. "It's a long walk, that's all. It has to be worth it or we're just wasting time."
"Listen," Nasir told him in reply. It wasn't the answer that Robert had been expecting, but then he had grown used to getting no answers at all. Reticence was one of the first things one became accustomed to, through association with the ever-silent Saracen.
"Listen?" he echoed, failing to follow the advice. Nasir held up a hand in a familiar gesture for silence.
"Listen," he reiterated, his accent making the word sharper and more insistent. Robert, try as he might, couldn't hear a thing.
"There's only the wind," he said in the end. He couldn't even hear any birds, which suggested that the night was on its way. It was hard to tell the time of day when the trees grew so thickly overhead, and limited the light that showed through.
"No." Nasir was frowning. "One person."
"Coming this way?" Robert could hear something now, and was glad for the sharpened instincts that had come with his appointment as the son of Herne. "I hear it now. Footsteps. Coming fast."
"Somebody used to the forest," added Nasir, and taking Robert's arm, guided him gently into a thicker patch of undergrowth. "And also not." His words didn't make a lot of sense to his companion, until he closed his eyes and listened more closely to the sounds. The owner of the feet ran fast, and with confidence, as though long used to fighting for passage through trees and tangled plants - but at the same time there was a hesitancy, and the occasional slip or trip, that hinted at a lack of practice. Somebody who had once been used to the forest, perhaps, but had been away from it for some time? A thought crept into his head then; a possibility that barely seemed likely, but which he could not help but hope was the case. He was still hoping it when the owner of the racing feet came bursting through the trees up ahead, and he saw a flash of long, red hair. Tightly curled red hair, that swung around a pale neck, bouncing up and down with the speed of the running. His heart gave a leap, and he realised that Nasir had already let go of his arm.
"Marion!" He raced out of hiding, covering the short distance between them in more time than he would have liked, even though it was barely any time at all. She gasped and came to a sudden halt, skidding on the loose leaves that covered the ground, almost losing her feet. Only his grip on her arms kept her upright, though she fought against his hold for several moments, until she realised who he was.
"Robert." Her voice was an intake of breath, surprised, shocked, relieved. "I thought--"
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you." He smiled at her, the delight showing on his face. "You weren't captured with the others?"
"We were all taken together." For a moment she leaned into his embrace, as though gathering her strength, then she straightened up and took a step back. "It was horrible. A black mist... magic, Robert. Cold, horrible magic. It felt as though I was no longer myself. We were taken on a cart, and I managed to jump out, but I didn't really know which direction to take after that. It was too confusing."
"A cart?" Nasir was beside them, and he was clearly on the alert. Marion's sudden appearance had suggested at the possible proximity of the enemy, who might well be out searching for her. With that in mind, he had fitted an arrow to his bow and held it ready, his eyes everywhere at once. "There are no tracks."
"I don't think it was that sort of cart." Marion didn't seem to know quite how to explain. "I didn't see any wheels, and I don't know that there was any road beneath us. It was magic, as I said." She shuddered. "Horrible magic."
"It was the tradesmen, wasn't it." Robert held her at arm's length, anxious to discover as much as he could of what had happened. "The ones that we robbed yesterday. The ones with the silks, and the chest of gold coins?"
"The tradesmen?" She frowned at him, surprised, perhaps, that he knew. "Yes. Yes, it was. It was the chest of coins that did it all. The magic was in there, I think, or the chest was somehow the focus of the spell. I think it's how they found us."
"And how they didn't find us," added Robert, shooting a glance at Nasir. The Saracen didn't appear to be listening, but undoubtedly was. His eyes, still, were everywhere. "I felt something in the camp when I found that you were all gone. Danger."
"It's possible. I suppose if they were able to find us because the chest showed them where the camp was, there could have been... something... waiting there for you as well." She shivered, although not quite as noticeably this time. Apparently she was recovering her poise. "Well, I'm glad you didn't stay there. Otherwise I don't know what I'd do."
"What were you planning to do anyway?" he asked her. She smiled, looking faintly sheepish.
"Just run. Run until I thought of something, or maybe Herne appeared. He's spoken to me before, although it's not happened often. I don't know what I was going to do, not really."
"Well in all honesty we don't have much of a clearer plan ourselves." Robert echoed her sheepish smile. "We were working on instinct, really. Trying to follow the old tracks left yesterday by the traders after we robbed them, and that was just theory, too. We didn't really know that they had taken you."
"Your instincts should never be underestimated, Robert." Somehow she didn't sound entirely as though it were a compliment. "But that doesn't matter now. You were right, it seems. But what do we do next?"
"We might as well keep going." He let go of her, finally realising that he had been holding her all along, and suddenly embarrassed by it. "The tracks have led us this far, and Nasir thinks that there's somewhere further along the trail where they might be hiding. The tradesmen, I mean. Not that they really are tradesmen."
"They're not?" She didn't sound surprised - just interested. Robert nodded, approving of this apparent perceptiveness on her part.
"Herne showed me a vision of knights on horseback. Knights who were celebrating something. He told me to beware of something that wasn't what it appeared to be. Our tradesmen friends were really knights. I just wish I knew where from."
"I don't know. Perhaps. When Herne showed them to me I didn't see any coats of arms, at least that I recognised, so Condottieri would certainly fit. I'd still like to know who hired them, though. Mercenaries always have somebody in command, somewhere. Who hired them, and does this magic come from him, or from the knights themselves?"
"Him?" she queried. He smiled.
"I can think of far more men that we've angered than women. But you're right to question me, I suppose. If we can find these knights then we may find out for sure."
"Perhaps." She drew in a deep breath. "How far is this place that you were heading for? This place that Nasir knows?"
"Some way still, apparently." He turned her about. "And we're not getting any closer to it standing here. Are you up to the walk? We were running before, and we probably should be again."
"Robert of Sherwood!" She sounded incensed, and he laughed. It was good to tease her again, after the days of being so careful in her presence; the days feeling so awkward now that she was, once again, Loxley's wife. "How dare you!"
"Just checking." He brought his amusement under control. "Lead on, Nasir." The dark head nodded once, silently, before the Saracen set off once again. He made no concessions in the speed that he set, confident that Marion could keep up, although it seemed to Robert that she was finding it difficult in places. She was out of practice, he realised. Just as her earlier footsteps had suggested at somebody who was familiar with the forest, but had lost some of that familiarity of late, now her time of greater leisure in the convent of Kirklees was undermining her old strength and resilience. She was not yet the old Marion of Sherwood. That would only come again with time.
"Are you sure of this place that we're heading for?" she asked him eventually. She hadn't spoken for some time, as though she had needed all of her energy just for walking. Robert looked over at her, surprised.
"Nasir thinks that it's a good possibility. Or at least I think he does." He shrugged. "You know Nasir. It can be hard to tell what he thinks."
"And you trust his instincts?"
"Of course I do.' He frowned at her. "Why wouldn't I?"
"No reason I suppose. It's just that there's nothing out here. Nobody lives out this way. What makes him think that we're heading in the right direction?"
"I don't know. I didn't ask. He's Nasir, not Will. And anyway, I've always valued his opinion, you know that."
"All the same, Robert... It seems like such a long way, just for a theory that you can't prove."
"I can't prove it yet, no. I believe that we'll see it for ourselves when we get there, though." He glanced at her askance. "Have you been away that long, Marion? There's no reason to discount Nasir's suggestion. I'd prefer it if we only had a short walk ahead of us, but I'm not going to back down now. And it's not as if we have any better ideas, is it."
"I suppose not. I just thought..." She trailed off, and walked on for several moments in silence. Robert glanced over at her again.
"You thought...?" he prompted. She shrugged.
"We've made so many enemies, but there's only one who's always there. Only one who keeps fighting us, and keeps losing to us. We've humiliated the Sheriff so many times."
"True." The Sheriff was certainly a more likely suspect in this than de Belleme, or Gulnar, the sorcerers they had fought before. "But the Sheriff has no magical powers, thanks be to Herne."
"He has no powers of his own, no. But did you ever wonder what might happen if he found somebody who did? The Abbot might disapprove of magic officially, but you know as well as I do that he's no more pious than his brother. If the right person came along, with the right sort of powers, they might try almost anything."
"I know. I've thought about it before. We can fight the Sheriff because we can meet him on equal ground. We have the upper hand often enough. If he turned to magic, the way that so many others have done, I don't know that we'd be able to win. Certainly not nearly as easily. But there's no reason to think that the Sheriff is behind this."
"It's a possibility. In which case we're heading in entirely the wrong direction. We should be making for Nottingham Castle, not for some place in the middle of the forest that neither of us has ever seen."
"You really think that?" He was amazed to hear her voice such doubts. She looked away, either into the thickening forest that awaited them, or at the dark figure of Nasir that preceded them.
"I just want Robin back," she said in the end. Her voice was quiet, and although it sounded steady, Robert knew her too well not to hear the faint quaver in her words. "I don't want to waste any time."
"I know." He almost reached out to squeeze her hand, but he held back in the end. It wasn't his place to do things like that anymore. She was no longer the girl he had tentatively tried to court; the girl he had begun to win over. She was another man's wife now. "Nasir's right though. I know he is."
"Your instincts?" she asked. It sounded almost like an accusation. He nodded.
"My instincts. And I should never underestimate them, as somebody very wise once told me."
"Then I suppose I shall have to abide by them too." She stared at Nasir's back once again, then looked away. "I just hope that you're right, Robert, that's all. If you're wrong then we might not find Robin before it's too late."
"We'll find him. We'll find all of them." This time he did reach out, though not for her hand. Instead he touched her briefly on the shoulder, then let his hand fall back to his side. "I haven't lost a man yet."
"Or a woman," she shot back, her tone haughty. He smiled, conceding her point, but fell back as she quickened her pace to hurry along down the trail.
"You're wrong, Marion," he whispered, staring after her with a torn expression in his eyes. "I have lost a woman." But he made sure that his words were not loud enough for her to hear. His feelings were his own. He had no right to make them otherwise. That was the way it had to be between them now.
The great hall had no roof, but it retained its grandeur nonetheless. The walls were high, and arches still reached over to show where the roof might once have been. Huge pillars stood at intervals, crumbling at the tops, but still strong closer to the ground. Some were carved with images of angels and gargoyles, and old Celtic patterns stood out on massive stone bosses that stared down from the tips of the arches. A fire roared in the huge fireplace, great stout logs burning up in a tremendous orange glow in front of which rabbits roasted, and birds hung on makeshift spits. It looked like a feast for kings or princes, but there were only five quite ordinary men who sat before it, drinking rough red wine from heavy tankards. They laughed and talked as they drank, two of them singing a raucous chorus of an ancient song. Every so often one of them leaned over to check the meat, or to pour more wine. The rest of the time they were little more than a tableau of drunken carousal.
"Isn't that blasted rabbit roasted yet?" Hauling himself to his feet, one of the men snatched at the nearest chunk of meat, swearing loudly when he burnt his fingers on the bubbling juices. "Confound it, I need food!"
"Magic is hungry work." A second man also staggered to his feet, snatching at a pigeon, and tearing it apart to let it cool. "Do you suppose our guests are hungry?"
"It doesn't matter if they are. I'm not taking them any food." The first man had finally managed to swallow something without scorching his throat in the process, and he washed it down with a draught of wine so large that the red liquid trickled down the sides of his chin. "We don't know if they're even going to be alive this time tomorrow, so why waste good meat on them now?"
"True enough." Another of the men yawned fiercely, then rose to make his own assault on the array of dead animals. "Where do you suppose our employer is?"
"He said that he would contact us when the time was right." The first man, who seemed to have some seniority within the group, sat back down on the floor beside the fireplace to nurse his tankard and roasted rabbit. "We don't have them all yet. Perhaps he won't speak to us again until we do."
"He'd better pay us, however many of them we do or don't have." Another of the men yawned a jaw-cracking yawn, then sprawled on his back to devour a sizeable partridge. "The wine won't last forever."
"Don't you ever think of anything but your stomach?" One of his companions threw an empty wineskin at him, but missed by some distance, earning himself a derisory laugh from the others.
"Call yourself a knight?" shouted one of their number. "You couldn't hit a horse with a broadsword."
"I've always been a finer swordsman, and a finer shot, than you." Swaying on unsteady legs, the insulted knight drew himself up to his full, not inconsiderable height, and glared down at his accuser. "How about it, Edmond? A little competition, to make the meal more interesting? Whoever shoots the furthest, and with the greater accuracy, wins the other's share of our payment for this venture."
"You'd risk losing that much?" Edmond, who had considerable faith in his own abilities, sounded interested. "I might just be willing to take that wager, William. In fact why don't we make it even more interesting? All five of us should compete, and the winner takes all of the money."
"The rest of us aren't stupid enough to compete in your foolish engagements, Edmond." The leader of the men fetched another wineskin, and poured a generous measure of the contents into the enthusiastic knight's waiting tankard. "Drink that and shut up. If we go battling each other for the money, we'll end up at each other's throats. We can't afford that. There's too much at stake to risk losing our friendship now."
"He's right, Edmond." Another of the men held up his own vast drinking vessel. "A toast, brothers, to all of us. To our friendship, and our fellowship. And to staying one step ahead of our pursuers."
"Pah." Edmond, nonetheless, sounded good-natured. "We left them behind long ago. The king has no idea where we are, and probably no reason to care, either. He has other enemies to worry about, and other battles to fight. I doubt we're much more than a mild embarrassment."
"He's the king. Kings don't like embarrassments. They send armies out to see that the embarrassments are brought to an end." The apparent leader seemed to be saying things that he had already said more than once before. "We stole from the King of England. No matter how many dissenters he has to contend with, and no matter how hard it is for him to hold out against the Norman landowners and their demands, he won't want to let us get away with that. So don't stop thinking about pursuit, and don't go taking stupid risks with unnecessary contests that could split us all up and scatter us to the four winds. If that happens, King John's men will have our heads in a matter of days."
"Always the level-headed one, Simon." William smiled sardonically, clearly not quite believing his own words. The leader glared at him.
"Level heads don't save lives. Strong arms, sharp swords, and quick wits - that's what'll keep us alive. That and the money we need to get ourselves out of the country. So drink your wine and eat your meat, and keep your head down. If word has followed us to this benighted place, it might meet with the ears of the Sheriff of Nottingham, and word has it that he'll do anything to curry favour. Needs it too, if the stories of his legendary failures are anything to go by. The man's job is permanently in the balance, so the rumours say, and if he thinks there's any chance of capturing us and delivering us to the royal court, he'll do it without waiting to see if there's the chance of a bribe first."
"I never did like Sheriffs." Another of their number sipped speculatively at his wine, as though it were some marvellous treasure from the cellars of Europe, rather than a rough, local concoction. "Too damned unpredictable. You never know which side they're on."
"You only say that because your father-in-law is a Sheriff, Hugo." Edmond hid a grin as he spoke, but the others were not nearly as circumspect. Hugo glared around at the assembled company.
"Was," he corrected. "Dear Helen has been dead nine years, so he's not my father-in-law anymore. And no great sadness for anyone."
"I'd bet all the wine in this room that he still has the arrest warrant he had drawn up for you." William laughed as he spoke, and Hugo flung an empty cup at him.
"He probably does. The arrest warrant, the reward all set aside ready and waiting, and the gallows still strung. I wouldn't be surprised if he tars the rope himself every week, to make sure that it doesn't rot whilst it waits for my neck." He rubbed at his throat as he spoke, as though imagining the bite of the rope. "And all for what? Twenty gold pieces and some silver candlesticks."
"And Helen strangled on the floor of her own bedchamber," added Simon. Hugo shrugged.
"She had a ready tongue, but the only thing she seemed inclined to use it for was nagging. Her father knew what she was like. It's the twenty gold pieces he missed, not his daughter."
"What happened to the silver candlesticks?" asked the fifth member of the party. Hugo smiled.
"Melted down and given to a blacksmith in exchange for this." He slapped the sword that hung at his side. "The finest weapon I've ever handled. Finer than yours, Charles. Finer than any other."
"Not any other." Charles was sitting beside the pile of weapons and belongings that had been taken from the prisoners in the dungeons underground. He held up Albion, still sheathed, but magnificent nonetheless. "I'd bet that this sword could break yours in two and not suffer a mark in the process."
"That thing? It was in the possession of a peasant." Hugo rose to his feet, slightly unsteady from the drink, and crossed over the ruined floor to snatch Albion from the hands of his cohort. "If it's special then it must have been stolen, in which case we'd better see about selling it. A little more money can't hurt." He drew the sword from its sheath, and held it up so that it glinted in the firelight. The runes set into the blade glowed - and he knew that it was not the firelight that had caused it to happen. His face paled.
"Fool." The voice came from nowhere - or rather from the patch of darkness that had once been nothing, but was now inescapably a man. A tall man, dressed in black, with a ring on one finger that glowed with an unearthly yellow light. "Put that thing back in its scabbard before it's seen."
"Seen?" Hugo obeyed automatically, although he wasn't sure quite why he had bothered. "There's no one to see."
"I don't mean any local. What could some peasant or wandering soldier care for a sword in a forest? I mean Herne the Hunter. He knows when that sword is drawn, and he might just take it upon himself to find out who has it. I want Herne to come here; but only when I'm ready for him. I've waited too long to risk letting him stop me now."
"Herne the Hunter is a fable. A peasants' tale told to make the winters seem less harsh, and the nights less oppressive." Edmond snatched Albion from Hugo's hands. "This is just a sword like any other."
"No. Not like any other." Hugo couldn't forget the glowing runes in the blade. "There's magic in it. Powerful magic."
"Magic that belongs to Herne, and to the man he chose as the bearer of the weapon." The man in black was at Edmond's side without any member of the gang being aware that he had moved. "You can believe in Herne, or you can dismiss him as a legend, but if that sword is drawn carelessly, he will know about it - and man, ghost, god or hallucination, he'll come here. His servants already approach."
"What does that matter?" William rose lazily to his feet. "Why the panic? You've magic enough to fight Herne the Hunter, and we can deal with the two men who are still out there. They're just men. They don't have any magic."
"One has more than any of you. One of them is the son of Herne, and carries his protection with him wherever he goes. The other, my simple friends, is a Saracen. Never one to die easily, as I'm sure that you're all well aware." The man in black threw Albion back onto the pile of other confiscated weaponry, then turned to face Simon. "Are the others secure?"
"Locked in dungeons beneath your feet. They can't escape."
"There's no such thing as 'can't', Simon. You'd do well to remember that." The new arrival looked away for a moment, into the depths of the forest. It had tried many times over the years to encroach upon the fallen castle, and although it had so far not succeeded, it was clear that soon the stone floor would break, and what remained of the walls would begin to disappear beneath the creeping greenery. Nature would reclaim the ground, and this place of stone and decaying beauty would become just another relic of bygone times. There would be nothing that he, or anybody else, could do to keep Herne from this place then. He could only hope that his work would be finished in time. "Your prisoners are safe for now, but the other two are on their way here. They don't know that you're here, but they suspect. Soon they'll see your fire and know for sure, and all you do is sprawl here and get yourselves drunk, as though your work was over. I intend to delay them, and perhaps win you a few hours - even another day - but if they come here, and they find you drunk, you risk ruining everything. I won't pay you if you fail me. I won't waste my energies on drunkards and fools."
"We were celebrating." Charles lowered his eyes, chastened. "We've been on the move since Dover, and we needed a rest. A little relaxation. We captured the man that you wanted, and those that followed him. We thought-"
"You thought that you could rest on your laurels. You can do that, Charles of Wessex, when I have the whole of that gang under my fist. When Herne the Hunter is defeated. When all that I am is all that it should be. Then, my querulous friend. Then you can relax. Then you can count your gold coins and drink yourselves into oblivion, and try to save your sorry little lives from the king who would see you dead. Until then you keep your part of this bargain, and you do as I tell you, and you do it well. Otherwise with one snap of my fingers I could put you in King John's bedchamber, shackled and ready for his executioner. Do we understand one another?"
"We understand one another." Simon spoke through his teeth. "Where are these two men now?"
"On the way here, as I said. Following your tracks."
"Tracks? We left no tracks. Your magic brought us here." William sounded faintly accusing - as accusing as he dared to sound. "There should be no tracks to lead anybody anywhere."
"The tracks you left yesterday, when you came here after letting Robin Hood steal your wares." The man in black had a voice like thunder. "Be very careful before you accuse me of making mistakes, William of Brittany. Especially when those mistakes are yours."
"Our tracks from yesterday are still visible?" Trying to calm the situation, Hugo spoke up quietly. Their dark benefactor nodded his head.
"To a man who has eyes for such things. A man who was taught to read signs when he was younger than the tiny son you abandoned when you strangled your wife and left to join your friends."
"The Saracen." Edmond spat the words out, his face showing his distaste. "We killed as many of them as we could when we were out in the Holy Land. It's never enough."
"Never mind that." The man in black moved to prowl around the fire, and the ring on his finger glowed and flashed as it caught the flames. "Just be sure that you see them before they see you."
"Bring them here by magic, as you did their friends. Surely if you know where they are it should work." Charles, mindful of having been referred to as 'querulous' earlier in the conversation, was trying to keep his voice steady. The man in black shook his head.
"They have nothing of mine to act as a focus. My powers are limited, as well you know, and they grow more so with every inch that these damned roots and grasses creep closer to this building."
"Then we'll cut the forest back," suggested Edmond. He drew his sword, turning it so that its keen edge showed clearly in the firelight. "This will see to any trees and creepers that dare to grow where they shouldn't."
"They'll still grow. Unless you're planning to spend the rest of Time in this place, cutting back the greenery every day, you'll do no good at all." The man in black turned away to look into the forest. It was more black now than green; a mass of sinister shapes that seemed to illustrate every old legend and fearful tale told of forests all over the country. "Now be ready, and stay that way. My distractions may not work, in which case they'll be here soon enough and trying to find answers. So be alert. Until Herne's second son is imprisoned alongside his brother, you'll get none of the money I agreed to pay." A chorus of complaint rose up, but he smiled a self-satisfied little smile, and turned away. "Mutter amongst yourselves all you like. You can't do anything to me, and you know it. I could behead every one of you with one little flick of a finger. I don't care what our deal was, or what you thought it was. The whole gang, or I don't part with a single coin." He swung around suddenly, and for the briefest of moments his eyes seemed to flash with the same yellow gleam as his strange ring. "Goodnight."
"You're leaving?" asked William, surprised - but the man in black had already gone. Nothing remained of him, and no footprints showed his movements. He might as well never have been present. The others exchanged glances, trying to show their bravado, and make a mockery of the man who had just frightened every one of them. The pretence didn't work. Before the moon had risen a little higher, and the full complement of stars had come into being across the skies, all five men were crouched around a newly extinguished fire, and every one of them was sober. They waited now for a sign from their employer. They waited to hear what they should do next.
The forest had grown thicker, and the undergrowth more close and impenetrable. Somehow Nasir still seemed able to lead the way forward, although it was only on occasions now that Robert could also spot the trail they all followed. The sun had long gone now, and even though many of the leaves had fallen with the onset of winter, only a limited amount of the moon's white light filtered through the roof of the forest. Marion had suggested that they make torches from the drier branches that littered the ground, but Robert shook his blond head, and refused to agree. He wanted to keep his progress a secret, and was all too well aware how far a light could be visible at night. Even in a forest as close as this one, it was still possible for a flaming torch to be seen from far away, and he was determined not to give their enemies any further advantages. Marion had surprised him with the suggestion, for she had long ago become a practised outlaw. Sometimes it seemed that her time in the convent at Kirklees had changed her in ways that he was still only just discovering.
"We seem to have been walking for so long." She was pressing close to him, shivering faintly in the cold. He sympathised. This was not the sort of night when people wanted to be out walking, especially when the forest was wet as well as frosty.
"It's been a long time, certainly." He wanted to pull her closer, for she really did look cold - but he didn't dare. It didn't seem proper, and he knew that she had no regrets about choosing Robin over him. In all honesty, since she had never stopped loving Robin, there had been no choice to make. She might take offence if he was to hold her more tightly, and he didn't want to risk that. He couldn't bear to think that he might lose her friendship.
"Do you still believe that we're on the right track?" she asked. He frowned. That was a question that he had been asking himself for some time. He had perfect faith in Nasir's ability to lead them correctly, but with the passage of time, his concerns increased. Were they right to waste so much time in following a possibly cold trail, when anything might be happening to Robin and the others elsewhere? Marion obviously interpreted his hesitation correctly, and frowned up at him.
"You're having doubts, aren't you."
"Not doubts exactly, no. I'd just hoped that we'd have found something by now. That we'd have met those tradesmen, or knights, or whatever they really are, and found out whether or not they're the ones who captured the others."
"It's certainly a long way to come for a dead end. We'll have a long walk back again as well, which doubles the time that we'll have wasted." She looked so pale, he realised; her skin was so very white, her eyes somehow dark and sunken. He could only begin to imagine what a strain this must be for her - how very worried she must be for Robin.
"We can't think that way," he told her. She smiled faintly.
"I'm sorry. I can't help it. I suppose I'm a natural worrier."
"I don't think so. You're not the nervous kind, Marion. You never were. It's the cold, and the dark, and the magic. That's all."
"It's everything." She looked away. "I really am sorry, Robert. I know that you think you're doing the right thing. I just... I just don't think that you are. We're out here, such a long way from anywhere, and by the time you finally agree that we're not going to find anything, and we've got back to the camp, so much time will have passed. So much time will have been wasted."
"You really believe that, don't you. You really do think that we're wasting time."
"I do, yes. Robert, I've never doubted Herne." She smiled. "Well, not since I got used to it all, anyway. He actually told you that those five tradesmen were really knights?"
"No." Robert felt a little uncomfortable. "You know Herne. He never says anything as directly as that. He showed me five knights, and he told me that there were people who weren't what they appeared to be."
"Then you don't actually know that those tradesmen were knights?"
"No." He lowered his eyes. She had such a straightforwardness about her - it was one of the things that he had always admired. She was always so sensible, so level-headed. When Marion spoke, everything made sense. "No, I don't. I was just... just trusting my instincts."
"And I do know that your instincts are usually worth trusting." She looked away. "But you're not Robin. You don't see things the way that he does, do you."
"I don't get visions, no." He looked away as well, knowing that it was wrong to feel hurt by such a comment, since it was certainly not meant as an insult or accusation. "But Herne does still show me things. I'm sure that I'm right, Marion. Those tradesmen were knights. Why would knights disguise themselves that way, if it wasn't a trap of some kind?"
"Perhaps you're right. But knights - unknown knights - would have no reason to capture the others, would they? They must be working for somebody, or there would be no purpose to this. I just think that it's wrong to follow a trail all the way out here, when the person we really want could be miles away."
"You have a theory about who might be behind this?"
"You know that I do. We talked about it before. Robert - the Sheriff of Nottingham hates us more than anybody else. He'd do anything to see us killed. He'd resort to any measures. Just because he's never used magic before - that we know of - doesn't mean that he isn't using it now, or that he doesn't have friends, or employees, who can use it. He's a dangerous man, even if he does seem incompetent at times."
"You really believe that he'd turn to magic?"
"And you really believe that he wouldn't?"
"I don't know. He's so... so conventional. So predictable."
"And clever too, Robert. Don't forget that. And a clever man can realise that he's predictable, and try to change it. Besides, even if it isn't him, what about those close to him? The Abbot wouldn't be the first Churchman to turn to magic, would he. And then there's Gisburne. He's a man with such drives. Such ambition. He'd do anything to better his position. Anything at all."
"Gisburne?" The young steward was, certainly, capable of almost anything. He definitely would stop at almost nothing to get what he wanted, and he had all manner of ambitions. Marion was right in that. But to turn to magic? To learn so much, so quickly, and to use something that he had shown himself in the past to be afraid of? It didn't seem likely. A part of Robert wanted to insist that Gisburne wouldn't do such a thing anyway; that he wasn't that ambitious; wasn't that deadly. It was wishful thinking really. Gisburne might be his half-brother; they might share the same, honest father; but Gisburne was not the man that Robert could wish him to be. Not by any stretch of the imagination.
"You don't think it's likely?" asked Marion. Robert shrugged, feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
"I don't know. I don't think so. I think..." He trailed off, and shook his head. "I don't know, Marion. I really don't know. But I do think that we ought to stop talking now. There's no telling when we're likely to come to the end of the trail, and there's a chance it'll lead us right to those five men. We don't want to give away our position."
"Then you're certain? You're certain that we're going to find them? That we're going the right way?" She sounded almost desperate, and he sympathised. How could he face her if he was wrong, and this detour - this long, long detour - proved fatal for Robin and the others? How could he ever look Marion in the face again? It was too horrible to think about.
"We can't turn back," he said, feeling wretched. "We can't. This is the only real theory that we have."
"But it is just a theory." She came to a halt then, and turned to stand in his path, clinging to his arms so that he had no choice but to stop as well. "Robert, listen to me. You've walked for hours. You've found nothing. Doesn't that say anything to you? It's possible, isn't it, that Nasir is wrong? That you're wrong? It's possible? And meanwhile there's the Sheriff, who could have Robin and the others in his dungeons, and could be planning to execute them at dawn, the way that he's tried to before."
"Robert, listen. Can you see a trail? Can you see any sign that anyone has come this way before us? Much less five men on horseback. And even if they did come this way, there's nothing out here. Knights wouldn't ride all this way just to camp out in a forest, or in some old ruined castle. Why would they want to? Knights would stay in Nottingham, or at a house with servants, and all the wine they can drink. Somewhere where there's somebody to pay them for their services."
"I know." They were worries that had been bothering him too - all save the question of Nasir perhaps being wrong. That was almost as absurd as the idea that Herne could be wrong. "But we've come this far. We might as well see these ruins. Robin and the others could be close by even now."
"But they're not. I know that they're not." She took his hands. "Robert, you're wrong. Robin and the others are back at Nottingham Castle. The Sheriff is behind this, and you know it. You must know it, if you really look deep inside yourself. You're listening to Nasir. You're letting him and his theories lead you astray. You're trusting him without even thinking about it. Do you really want to find Robin? Can I trust you?"
"Marion?!" For a moment he couldn't believe what she was saying - then suddenly he found that he could believe it. That he did, almost, believe it. He could certainly see how it must seem to her - that he was taking such risks with Robin's life because, deep inside, he didn't want Herne's first son to be found. To be saved. Perhaps life had been better before Loxley had returned. Before Marion had chosen Robin, first and foremost, and abandoned all possibility of repairing her relationship with Robert. Now here he was, having lost his position of authority, his position as the chosen one of Herne, having lost his gang to a usurper, and the woman he loved, all to the same man. Even he wasn't sure that he didn't resent Robin. Even he wasn't sure if, perhaps, he might prefer it if Herne's eldest son was never seen again. But the others... He shook his head. "No Marion. You're wrong. Whatever you're thinking, you're wrong. I'd never risk John and the others, even if I did hope not to find Robin."
"You're sure?" She was looking deep into his eyes, and he was questioning himself all the more. Wondering more and more at his motives, and hating himself for them. Was she right? Could she be right? Did he hate Robin? He shook his head, but he wasn't sure how much he believed in himself anymore. She was holding his hands, and pressing them against her cheek, imploring him with the eyes that he had loved for so long. Begging him to find Robin. Begging him to turn back before it was too late. And she was right - he could see it now. He had come so close to risking the lives of his friends, just because of his own hurt pride; his own resentment at the way in which his life had changed. Even now it might be too late to correct his mistakes, and save the lives he had put in such jeopardy. Marion clearly saw the change in his face, and joy brightened her eyes for a moment. He smiled at the sight of it, and felt his heart beat a little faster. She was still pressing his hands to her face; the face he had thought that he would never touch again. She kissed his fingers, very lightly, with all the tenderness that he had missed. She was so beautiful - and he had been such a fool. He hated himself. More than anything now he wanted to turn back; to run as fast as he could back towards Nottingham, and do what he could to put things right. He was certain that it was what he must do.
Decided now, he turned to call out to Nasir, to signal the end of their march, and the beginning of the long journey home, but the Saracen was no longer up ahead. He had been there for so long, keeping up the same, steady pace, that it seemed impossible that he should not be there still - and yet he had gone. A black shadow lurked somewhere on the periphery of Robert's vision, but the young nobleman was too confused to see it clearly, or to react as he might once have done. His instincts and his reactions were dulled by his own mixed up thoughts; by Marion's desperate, pleading eyes filling his vision. He couldn't even hear properly, for the girl's words were echoing in his head; her accusations and her theories, battling it out with his own protestations and final acquiescence. The first clear sound that he heard was the scrape of leather against wood; the sound of one single step on the thick tumble of leaves underfoot - then the unmistakable, dreadful hum of a sword singing in the air. He saw the blade - saw Nasir's black-clad arm propel it with unstoppable, terrible speed, almost invisible in the darkness. For one second more Marion's bright, clear eyes stared up at him, with all their accusations and requests, before the sword severed her head cleanly at the neck. It tumbled from her shoulders in a cascade of red hair, rolling through a mess of leaves and mud before Robert's own foot brought it to a standstill. He stared down, horrified, transfixed, confused - saw her eyes still staring at him, although all trace of life was gone - then lifted his own eyes to Nasir. The Saracen was cleaning his sword blade, very slowly and deliberately, on a handful of leaves. He met Robert's gaze, but he showed no emotion. He seemed indifferent to all that he saw.
"What... How..." The words would not come. There were no words. Robert gaped in disbelief, before jerking to life in a rush of sheer, desperate pain. He groped for his sword, starting forward with a strangled, wretched cry that seemed born of a part of him he had never known was there. For a moment his feet were tangled in Marion's body, and it was only Nasir's strong arm that kept him upright. He fought to free himself from the other's grip, drawing his sword as he did so, and swinging it with a violent energy against the man he had always believed to be his friend. One of the best friends that he had ever hoped to make. Nasir raised his own blade, but only to defend himself, matching the other man stroke for stroke without any force of his own - not that Robert noticed. His emotion was all that he knew. Only when Nasir disarmed him, and caught hold of his wrist, did his violence cease; and even then he raised his free hand, tightened into a fist, to strike at the leather-clad shoulders of the man who had killed the woman he loved.
"Look!" Nasir's voice was heavy with an emotion that Robert had not heard from him before. "Look at her!"
"I've seen her, damn you!" Robert was still confused. Horribly so. He could barely think straight, and his own self-doubt was still at the heart of that. He had betrayed Marion. Betrayed Robin. Betrayed all of the Merry Men - and this was the result. This was his punishment. Betrayed now himself, and having to see Marion pay the price. "I trusted you!"
"And you trusted her." Nasir caught hold of his other arm, spinning him around in a neat manoeuvre that forced Robert to look once again towards the body left lying on the forest floor. He stared for one horrible moment at the beautiful head, with its staring, desperate eyes, and felt a sob of pure rage and grief welling up in his throat. A sob that turned almost at once to disbelief; to shock; to wordless, breathless gasping. The body was Marion's no longer. As he watched it the outline changed; the details changed. The beautiful face was rotting even as he looked at it, fading away into black sludge that stank and bubbled and stained the ground. Soon there was nothing left of Marion but a black pool of liquid, that swarmed for an instant with wriggling, writhing maggots. Robert turned away, fighting the urge to be sick.
"How did you know?" he asked in the end, when he could speak again. For a second Nasir didn't answer, then Robert saw one shoulder shrug slightly.
"Marion would not believe such things," he said in the end, and even though the voice was softer even than usual, the accent was stronger and thicker. "You should not believe them."
"But I did." He remembered believing them, and knew then that they had been ideas put into his head by magic. He had believed that he had wanted Robin dead. He had believed that he had hated Loxley for returning, and stealing all that Robert himself had once had. "I believed it all."
"And now you do not." Nasir bent to pick up the sword that he had knocked from Robert's hand. "This is not the Sheriff."
"No. No, it's not. This is... this is terrible magic, Nasir. Powerful magic." He couldn't tear his eyes from the black mass that he had been fooled into thinking was Marion. "Dreadful magic." Nasir nodded. "And somebody doesn't want us to go to those ruins." Again the dark head nodded. "And whoever it is, they know that we're coming."
"Yes." Robert took the proffered sword. He was angry and confused, and perhaps, somewhere inside, deeply embarrassed - but there was time for all of that later. Much later. There were other things to worry about first. "Come on," he said, with sudden resolve. "They're waiting for us. Let's not put this off any longer." This time his answer was not a nod, or a word, or even a quirk of an eyebrow. It was merely a smile. Robert smiled back. He still felt terrible, but there were ways to allay such feelings - he had learnt that the first time he had crossed swords with an enemy. Whoever was waiting for him in the ruins he knew now that he had to reach, he was looking forward to meeting them. He couldn't remember ever wanting anything quite so much.
"Where do you suppose the others are?" Huddled up in a tiny cell, Little John though gruff thoughts about his own mammoth size, and wished for a little more room in which to stretch. Tuck shrugged his shoulders, and shifted about hoping to get comfortable. Both men were trying to give Marion more room, in an attempt to display some gallantry, and the effort was making them even more uncomfortable still.
"I don't know," he sighed, almost to himself. "Stuck in some other cell like this one. Probably not very far away."
"I doubt they're that close. If they were very near we'd have heard them talking." Thankful of the rabbitskin wrap that she had been wearing around her shoulders when they had been taken, Marion pulled it more closely about herself now. The cell was cold, despite the cramped conditions, and the damp stone that surrounded them made her colder still. Her clothes felt damp wherever they touched the floor and the walls, and only the wrap provided any relief. She felt sorry for Tuck, in just his rough habit. "I wish they'd locked us all up together."
"I don't," John told her with feeling. "This room is too small for the three of us as it is. If the others were in here as well we'd never be able to breathe."
"Be a lot warmer though, wouldn't it," pointed out Tuck. He reached out for Marion, smiling at her in the gloom. "Don't worry, my little one. I'm sure they're safe. I'm sure that Robin is safe."
"I'm sure he is, at least for now." She smiled back, although it wasn't a particularly warm or convincing smile. "Nobody would do this just to kill us straight away. They must want something, and of all of us it's Robin that they're most likely to need."
"Aye. Everybody has plans for the son of Herne." Little John had been thinking long and hard about that, and the obvious magical elements involved in their abduction pointed at sinister undertones to all that had happened tonight. That could only bode ill for Robin, and perhaps for Herne as well. "I wonder what happened to his other son?"
"Yes." Marion's already pale face looked paler still. She cared a great deal for Robert of course, and not knowing what might have happened to him was almost as bad as knowing what had happened to Robin, and being kept from him now. "How will he ever find out where we are?"
"I don't know." Tuck thought about their magical journey, fast and disorientating as it had been. "I don't see how we can have left any trail to follow."
"Maybe it's best if he doesn't follow us," suggested John. "He could walk straight into a trap, and that wouldn't be any help to anybody."
"Aye, that's true. For all we know, these people could be expecting him to follow us." Tuck fumbled for the cross that hung around his neck. "With luck, and God's good grace, he'll find a safe way to help us."
"Luck." John nodded his shaggy head. "He'll need plenty of that. Even we don't know who's got us. How's he going to find out?"
"He has Herne to guide him." Marion shivered, suddenly cold as though at the mention of her husband's spiritual father. This damp, dark prison seemed to react to Herne's name, and she could almost believe that the building itself hated the forest god. "He'll find us."
"Which could be just what our gaolers are counting on." John heaved himself to his feet. "Well I'm not going to sit here in the dark, waiting for my friends to walk into a trap just to help me out. If Robert and Nasir are going to try to rescue us, I say that we do something to meet them halfway. We should try to get out of this dungeon. At least that way if it is a trap, there might be something that we can do to stop it being sprung."
"I'm not going to argue with that." Tuck also stood up, and it seemed that the cell was almost ready to burst apart with the two huge men now filling it so completely. Marion ducked down, unable to stop herself from laughing faintly.
"Next time we're locked up, I'm sharing a cell with Much. At least he's little."
"Aye. I suppose we should be glad it's you in here with us, and not Nasir." Tuck grinned broadly, although the other two could barely see it in the darkness. "What's your idea, John?"
"If the prison is as magical as the means that brought us here, we're stuck." John rested his hands on the door. "But if it's just an ordinary room, then perhaps our size isn't as much of a problem as it seems. Be glad the dungeons here aren't like the ones at the castle, with those infernal hatches overhead. This door is easy to reach."
"Aye. Which makes it easy to put our strength behind it." Tuck hitched up the belt around his waist. "Or weight, in my case. Alright John. It's a better idea than sitting in here getting cold, and waiting for something else to happen." He rested his hands upon the door, near the massive lock, and tried not to be put off by the thickness of the wood. The tiny barred window showed just how large the door was, and the size of the hinges was further proof that this place had been built to resist a forcible escape - but they couldn't think like that. Not now. Beside him John pressed his shoulder against the wood, and braced his feet on the stone of the floor. It was damp, and it would not be easy for their feet to find purchase, but like the thickness of the door that was something of which it was best not to think. Marion moved to one side to give them as much room as possible, wishing all the while that there was something she could do to help. She had strength, and a good deal more than most people supposed - but she was by no means strong enough to be of any use here and now. It was best just to keep out of the way. She hated herself for it, but she had sense enough to know that she was right.
"On three," muttered John, grunting as he moved himself into a better position. "One, two, three!"
"Push!" shouted Marion, caught up in the moment. John almost laughed at her enthusiasm, distracted from doing so only by sheer effort as he strained against the solid door. It was hopeless - he knew that almost as soon as first he applied his strength to the task; but he didn't stop pushing. He felt something move; knew that he had achieved some minor part of his goal; knew also that it was not nearly enough. The door was far too strong, and his strength, and Tuck's strength - the strength of another such pair also ranged against it - would not be enough. Could not be. Even so he didn't stop trying until his muscles screamed for rest, and Tuck had sagged hopelessly against the wall.
"It didn't work," said Marion. She sounded sad and tired, almost as though she had been fighting the door as well.
"No." John dragged up a smile to throw at her, but it was a weak one, and almost invisible anyway. "It didn't work. This time."
"Maybe if we were to try again in a little while," suggested Tuck, although he didn't have much faith in the chances of a second attempt. John shook his head, and his thick hair and beard emphasised the gesture with their own further shakes.
"There's no sense in hurting ourselves in a fool's task, Tuck. This door isn't moving." He considered kicking the thing, but reined in his temper just in time. It would only hurt, he told himself. It would certainly do his foot more damage than it would the door. "There must be some other way."
"You can't expect to get out of every prison, John." Tuck looked away, not wanting to look at the others now, and let them see the despair that he couldn't help but feel. "Just because we've always escaped in the past..."
"We've always escaped in the past because we've never given up," John reminded him. "There's always a way, if you just keep looking for it. Robin showed me that. Aye, and Robert too. Sometimes we've needed outside help, I'll admit that, but every time it just needed there to be somebody who didn't give up. So I don't plan to give up now."
"You're right." Tuck nodded, although the conviction was not quite there. "But the door is solid, John. Perhaps the lock?"
"It's big. Heavy." John peered through the keyhole. "And we've nothing to force it with." He sighed. "I felt something move, Tuck. When we were trying to push open the door, I felt something move. This place is old, and it must have some weaknesses. We just have to find one of them."
"We can't break the door or the lock." Tuck's eyes trailed over the hard, stout wood. "What about the hinges?"
"The hinges?" John also glanced over at them, disinterested at first, then with sudden excitement. "The hinges! Tuck, you beauty! That's what must have moved!" He contrived to bound the tiny distance between them, and clapped the monk heartily on the shoulders. "We push up, not out. Do you still have the strength?"
"Aye." Tuck nodded, although the earlier exertions had left him tired. "Aye, I'm up to it John. You just tell me where and how to push." He smiled, faintly embarrassed. "I always knew this size would be in my favour one day."
"Right." John was amused, and made no attempt to hide it. "Here now. Put your hands beneath the upper hinge. I think I'm the stronger, so I'll take the lower one. Brace your feet as best you can, and if you feel like praying... it might be a good thing to do."
"There's never any harm in a prayer." Tuck put his hands where he had been told, and braced his arms and legs as best he could. "I'm ready."
"Good." John also positioned himself, wishing for more room, but excited now, and more sure of himself than he had been before. "Just remember. We moved the door a fraction the last time. We can do it again. One."
"Please..." whispered Marion, although she had no idea if she was asking for help from God - Tuck's God, and the one that she had been raised to worship - or from Herne. It was never easy nowadays to be sure of which faith she followed more closely. John's count continued, and she closed her eyes and watched the pair no longer.
"Two. Three." She heard the sudden sound of their effort; heard creaking and groaning, and the scrape of metal moving. She opened her eyes then, not wanting to hide from the proceedings any more. The door was moving, she was sure of that. Something was moving. Tuck was gasping, unable to keep up the struggle for many more minutes, but forcing himself to try as hard as he could. John was breathing hard, muttering to himself as he did so, spitting angry words in a rush of fierce breath. The creaking continued, the groaning, the scraping, the screeching of metal being forced to do something that it did not truly want to do. The door was certainly moving though. She could see it now, as clearly as she could see anything in the darkness. It was lifting up, and scratching against the huge stone lintel, its great weight almost impossible for two lone men to support. Tuck's legs were wobbling, and John's massive shoulders were beginning to shake; the eyes of both men were bulging. Marion wanted to tell them to stop, for their own good, but she didn't really want them to stop. Instead she bit her lip and watched the door as it strained and swayed, and the hinges trembled and squealed. One of John's feet shot out to the side, finally losing its purchase under the strain, and for a second it seemed that all would be lost - then with a mighty roar that was too incomprehensible to be at all clear, but which Marion was sure John would not want her to have heard anyway, the huge outlaw threw the last of his strength into the effort. The hinges at last gave up the fight, and the massive door rocked outward. Tuck grabbed at it; John grabbed it; it wobbled and swung and tumbled - and fell at last to the floor. Their grabbing at it stopped it from landing with all of its force, but still the impact rang loud and clear. Marion gasped.
"Somebody will have heard that."
"Aye. Most likely." John pushed her through the door. "But there don't seem to be any guards. Come on."
"We don't know where Robin is, and until we're sure that there's nobody coming to see what that noise was about, we can't take the time to look for him." He pushed her on down the tiny corridor that they found outside their cell. "Come on, Marion. We have to see what's what first. Robin will wait."
"He's right." Tuck took her hand. Marion nodded, seeing the sense in it herself, even though she wanted so very much to be sure that her husband was well. She let them hurry her to the door that waited at the end of the corridor, then on through it and into the bigger corridor beyond. It was roofless, and stank of age and decay, and of the sadness of a once great building reduced to a mere ruin. Marion gasped in surprise. Behind her, staring up at the gaping black sky, so did John.
"I thought it looked old," he whispered. "But I had no idea."
"Not a house or a castle," added Tuck. "At least, not anymore. We must be in some forgotten old place. And underground, too - or would be, if this corridor had a ceiling."
"Aye. It's an odd place right enough. And it's nowhere I can think of off the top of my head." John pressed them all to hurry further. "Still, all hat might be in our favour. There's more places to hide out in a ruin, and less places to board many men. It may only be a small group behind all of this."
"It doesn't have to be a big group. Not with the sort of magic they've got to help them," pointed out Tuck. "Come on now. Let's find a place to hide, and see what we can see. I'd like to know if there's any familiar faces here."
"I don't think there are." Marion was thinking of previous encounters with sorcerers and witches, none of whom she had any great desire to meet again. "If this was about revenge, wouldn't somebody have come to see us before now? You know how the Sheriff likes to gloat, and that's not exactly a unique personality trait."
"True enough." John nodded slowly. "Aye, true enough. If it was somebody we know, chances are they'd have showed themselves by now."
"Maybe they have," suggested Tuck. "To Robin."
"And that's true enough as well." John shrugged. "But there's no point in speculating. Better to find out for sure, one way or the other. You two stay here, and be sure that you keep out of sight. I'll find a way up to ground level and see where we are."
"John..." Marion's protest was almost expected, and he smiled over at her.
"It's best if only one of us goes up," he told her firmly. "I know you can move quietly, but if there's any trouble I feel happier about being the one to handle it. That's all." She nodded, and he slipped away almost immediately, moving as fast as he could whilst still being quiet. He vanished from sight almost as soon as he had left them, swallowed up by the darkness. Tuck took Marion's hand, and pulled her into the cover provided by the aged wall.
"He'll be back soon enough, little flower. And he's right. It's best that he does this alone."
"I know." She was still on edge, still with so much to worry about. "I just want to find Robin and the others. I have such a bad feeling about all of this, Tuck. It's as though there's real danger, very close by."
"Yes, I feel it too. This place has the feel of death about it. Perhaps it's just the decay, but it could almost be something else." The big monk shivered slightly. "Something evil."
"Something hiding." Marion closed her eyes for a moment, listening to the world around her. There were no sounds of night animals; no sounds of any life, or wind, or even of the forest that she knew so well. This was a dead place right enough; a place where nothing moved and no animals seemed to roam. Even had she been brought here as a welcome guest rather than a prisoner, she was sure that she could never have felt safe here. She could feel her unease in the air around her, adding to the chill from the crumbling stone.
Up ahead, Little John was thinking much the same thing. He was a man of great courage, but he could feel his resolve weakening as he walked, as though the cold, damp ruin were sucking the strength from his limbs. It was a horrible place, and he wanted more than anything to be rid of it, and hurrying away back to the safe, welcoming forest that was his home. To be locked up once again in the dungeons seemed a fate that would be almost worse than death.
"Who's that?" The voice drew him to an immediate standstill, and he looked about in shock. Who had spoken? There was no sense of a threat in the words, so it could not have been a challenge, but it might have been a guard calling out to one of his fellows. As he hesitated, however, the voice came again, too querulous to be a sentry or a soldier. It sounded like the voice of an old man, speaking in genuine fear.
"Who's there? I see you. I see all of you, going past my cell. You like to taunt me, always hiding in the darkness, but I know that you're there. Aye, and I know why you're there, too. I've heard your plans. You shouldn't just ignore me."
"Who are you?" Moving very slowly, John edged closer to the source of the voice. It was hard to see anything in the darkness, but he could make out the edge of a door; a solid one, with a barred window set into it. A twin to the cell he had just left, he realised, but this time he was on the outside of it, and could see a key that hung on a hook within his reach.
"Who are you?" The voice showed sudden strength in the demand for an answer, and John smiled.
"Friend or foe, you mean? That depends on who you are." He moved closer, and could see the outline of a person now, just visible through the tiny window. His eyes picked out detail; straggly grey hair and shabby, worn clothes. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm a prisoner. I've been locked up in here so long I can hardly remember not being here." The dark outline came closer, until bony, misshapen hands were gripping the bars of the window, and sunken, intense eyes blinked curiously at John. "Harold, I am. Or was. How about you?"
"John." John stared back at those hooded, oddly fierce eyes. There was so little light that it seemed strange he should see the eyes so well, but somehow they contrived almost to gleam. "Why are you locked up, and what is it you say you've heard?"
"Let me out and maybe I'll tell you." An almost toothless mouth grinned at him in obvious challenge. "You've escaped, haven't you. They had you here as a prisoner too. Well let me out, and I'll tell you what I know. How about that?"
"You'd better not be trying to trick me." John seized the key, and quickly unlocked the door. "I could break your neck like a twig."
"I don't doubt it, lad." The thin, dark shape scuttled closer, pressing out through the door almost before John had opened it. The outlaw saw black clothing hanging limply over a wasted frame, and shoes that were little more than scraps of material tied around crooked feet. He caught the hurrying man by the shoulder.
"Not so fast. You might well know things that I want to know too. Now we're going to talk to some friends of mine, and then we're all going to see if you know enough to get us out of here. Understood?"
"Certainly. Certainly." The wizened head nodded up and down. "Certainly. Lead on, lad. Lead on."
"This way." Keeping a firm grip on the old man, John guided him back to where he had left the others. This could be a stroke of the greatest luck. He couldn't be burdening himself with an old man who was of no use to anybody, but he knew that it was a chance he had to take. The curious old soul could be the saving of them all - and that was something that he could not bring himself to overlook. So ignoring the unease that wouldn't leave him, and the anxieties that seemed to seep from the very stones surrounding him, he quickened his pace still further, and hurried the old fellow along. The silence was oppressive now, swallowing his footsteps as he went, seeming to hide even the sound of his breathing. His heart was racing, and he knew that this godforsaken ruin was to blame. He needed to be away from it, and somehow he felt that this old man was the key to that. The old man was important; necessary; vital. They all needed him, if they were to get away from here. He possessed an aura, somehow, that transcended his battered appearance. An aura of power of sorts. John kept close to him, and the old man, he saw, was happy to keep close himself. He had no desire to get away from his captor-rescuer, and John was reassured by that. It was the only reassurance that was to be found in this dark, damp ruin, and John clung to it. The old man could be trusted, he was sure of that now. A few more paces further through the oppressive, insidious corridor, and John would have believed it if the old man had told him that the sun was shining. A few paces more, an unseen gleam from the stranger's yellow ring, and he no longer cared that it was not.
There was a greater wind now; a coldness rushing through the trees, that whipped up the branches and showered many of the remaining leaves down onto the two men hurrying along beneath. Robert's long blond hair blew into his eyes, and he wished for a thicker coat than the sleeveless leather jerkin he wore by habit. If Nasir was cold he gave no sign of it, though Robert often suspected that the exiled foreigner must feel the English winter more keenly than did his friends. The dark head was bowed against the wind, the boots finding steady purchase on the frozen, and sometimes slippery ground. The growing gale stole all other sounds from their ears, preventing them from hearing anything but the whistling and the roaring, and the sound of branches creaking and rustling. Robert cursed the weather, annoyed that it would prevent him from hearing if there were others close by, and wondering if the wind might have risen for just that reason. He had seen the magic that had been ranged against them; had seen it in Marion's tumbling, severed head; and knew that the power behind it was almost certainly capable of calling upon a change in the weather as well.
"Ssh." It was the tiniest of sounds, but somehow Nasir managed to make it heard above the wind. Robert was surprised that he had even bothered, but in the darkness it was possible for his usual signs and gestures to be missed. Robert came to a standstill, wondering why he was being told to be quiet when he hadn't thought that he was making any noise.
"What is it?" He asked the question so quietly that he didn't think Nasir would hear him, but the dark shape, almost at a crawl, came back to his side.
"Stone," he said, and gestured at the ground. Robert looked down. He saw something then, caught amongst thick roots and undergrowth - a piece of broken grey stone that could only have come from a building of some sort. There was little likelihood of many such buildings having been built out here in the forest, and this could only be a part of the ruins they had come to see. Crouching down then, almost on all fours, Robert followed Nasir a little further, until they came to the edge of the trees.
"I don't see any sign of life." Straining his eyes to see into the darkness, Robert succeeded only in seeing shadow, and the hulking walls of the collapsed manor house. "You?" The dark head beside him shook slowly, before a hand caught Robert's wrist, raising his arm to point at something slightly off to the left.
"What is it?" asked the young nobleman, unable to discern anything of particular interest.
"Fire." Nasir's curly head nodded in the relevant direction. "Smoke."
"Somebody's recently put out a fire?" Now that it had been indicated to him, Robert could make something out; some faint wisp that might well have been smoke. "I see it. They knew we were coming." His answer was a nod. "But I suppose we suspected as much. Can you see anybody?" The head shook, but Robert could see that the dark, bright eyes were still searching. If there was any chance of spotting the knights they had come here to find, Nasir would be the one to do it. Robert wished that the visibility was better, but what little light had graced them before, had vanished with the moon. He could barely see his companion now, let alone anything further away. More magic perhaps - or just nature herself turning against them.
"We have to get closer," he hissed. Nasir gestured to him to remain where he was, clearly intending to scout out the area, but Robert shook his head. "No. We stay together. They could be ready to spring some kind of trap, and splitting up will only make things easier for them." Nasir nodded, then pointed away to the right.
"Then that way," he said. Robert followed the pointing hand with his eyes, and saw a place where the falling walls reached the trees, where the cover was complete. It was his turn to nod.
"Don't forget. They know we're coming." He didn't have to make the warning, and he knew it; but he did it anyway, just to be sure. Nasir nodded, once, but was already moving. Already running at a silent crouch that Robert matched with a faint smile. Wordless action was something that he had never quite got the hang of.
Behind the wall, they edged their way along, able to see the remains of the fire more clearly now. Its dying embers were barely visible, and certainly had been impossible to see at a distance, but close to they could discern the clear signs of a blaze recently stamped to its death. The distinct debris of a meal was just visible too - a spit incompletely kicked over, where meat of some kind had been set to roast. The faintest scent of it gusted over with unpredictable blasts of the cold wind.
"This place is like a labyrinth." Robert ran his eyes over the many sloping, tumbling walls of the old house. There were so many places where an enemy might be hiding. So many places where his friends might have been hidden away. An indescribable coldness lurked in the stones, and in the dank moss and fungi that grew in their shelter. The place made him uneasy, though for no particular reason that he could understand. It wasn't the unease of unfamiliar terrain, or from the labyrinthine mess of the place; not from the unknown position of his enemies or of his friends. It was something else, that played upon his instincts, and made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. Somehow this was a place that could not be trusted. A place that wished him ill.
"They'll be in the dungeons." It was the only logical thought that came to him at first, but since he had no idea where to look for an entrance to the dungeons that surely lay beneath his feet, the theory was not much use now. "You've been here before, haven't you?" The curly head nodded its customary affirmative. "Then have you ever seen anything that might be an entrance to a dungeon, or a cellar? Everything up here seems so crumbled. If the others are locked up it'll have to be somewhere underground, I'm sure of it."
"Perhaps." Nasir lead the way forward, heading over uneven ground, strewn with fallen stones and bits of rafter. In some places the walls were as high as they must always have been, but even those that seemed complete carried no roof above them. In other places the walls were no more than a few feet in height, sad and broken, and losing their fight against the forest. At every step Robert expected to be attacked, but nobody leapt out from the many places that might have provided cover, and no swords sang out in the air. No arrows flew. It was disconcerting, for he was sure that the attack must come eventually, and he was tense enough now to wish that it would come sooner rather than later. The thought made him wonder if he was being watched now, and if perhaps his enemies were waiting to strain his nerves that little bit more before coming in for the attack. It was a tactic he had used himself when stalking targets for robbery that he knew had detected his close presence. He didn't want to think that it might be the case now though. He didn't want to believe that he did not have at least some small element of surprise.
They did not walk a great distance through the ruins, but it seemed to take some considerable time. Since time itself seemed skewed here it was hard to be sure, but Robert did not think that it had been a quick walk. It came to an end in a place where the ground sloped sharply, showing an underground corridor with much of its roof caved in. The walls and floor remained, and some of the collapsed roofing appeared to have been cleared away, allowing better access. A space that had been used then, though not necessarily recently.
"Somebody's been here," observed Robert. Nasir nodded, leading the way down the steep slope and into the sunken ruin that awaited them. It was colder than ever there, and although the wind had now fallen away, the temperature seemed to have dropped still further. Once again the stones seemed to seep with cold, and the cracked floor tiles beneath their feet were coated with an ice that did not seem entirely of nature's making. Robert knew then that they were indeed in a trap; and that it was about to be sprung.
It came in a blaze of light, as the undergrowth above them ignited in a rush of fire that marked out the entire length of the corridor. For a second the fire reached up high, high above their heads, high enough perhaps even to reach to where the building's roof had once been. After that it dropped, clinging close to the ground and filling the sunken corridor with a bright, furious yellow and orange light. Nasir's swords were out, scything the air in readiness for whatever might come to meet them, and Robert's hand gripped his own sword hilt. He didn't remember having drawn the weapon, but it was there all the same; a familiar weight that he trusted, and yet couldn't believe would be any use at all to him now. Not here. Not with everything that he knew was ranged against him. Up above him a single voice laughed a chilling, mocking insult that made his blood boil, but he knew that he had to keep a level head. Tearing into anything just now could be fatal, even though he wanted very much for something to happen. At his side Nasir gave a faint growl, but the Saracen was a warrior to the core. He knew when to fight and when to wait. For that, right now, Robert was profoundly grateful. Had Will Scarlet been at his side right now, this might already all be over.
"The son of Herne." How was it, Robert wondered, that some people proved so capable of making that into an insult? To him it was the greatest honour, which was exactly how it should be. He stared up at black silhouettes; all that he could see of the people beyond the flames.
"Who are you?"
"Knights." One of the silhouettes loomed closer, and the fire moved to allow him to pass. "But then you guessed that, didn't you. You guessed that we weren't merchants or you'd never have followed us here."
"We guessed." Robert took a few paces forward, staring up at the black shape of the man who was speaking. He saw somebody who appeared to be tall and well built, although it was hard to be sure when he could see no detail, and when the man in question was at the top of a slope. "I am Robert of Sherwood. You?"
"Simon. Knight of Saxony. Formerly of the Hospitallers, until an independent life became more appealing. They say that you were once expected to become a knight."
"I did become a knight." He knew that he sounded haughty; probably looked it too. He certainly didn't care. Simon of Saxony laughed, and Robert recognised the same mocking sound as before. He decided that he disliked Simon intensely, which hardly came as a surprise.
"Call yourself a knight? A Pagan following the command of a forest god, dressing in rags and keeping company with a Saracen?" It sounded like a childish insult, but the venom in the voice was deep and real. Robert felt his hackles rise. The implied insult to Nasir was nothing new; the insult to Herne was something that Herne himself would tell him to ignore. Yet somehow, when taken both together they made his blood boil. He knew that Simon was awaiting a riposte, and allowed himself a smile that he knew would go unseen.
"I would hardly call these rags," he said in the end, gesturing to the leather jerkin with its decoration of silver rings. Admittedly it was no longer new, and had seen a good deal of hard wear, but it was still in good condition, and he had grown to be extremely fond of it. Simon laughed.
"It'll be a rag by the time we've finished with you. A bloodied rag."
"Yes?" Moving slowly forward, Nasir lowered the two swords in his hands. It looked almost to be a surrender, but Robert knew that his companion was ready to make his move. He considered intervening, but decided against it. They had walked into the trap - they were not now going to take the consequences quietly. Besides, the Saracen's quiet challenge to Simon's arrogance was a pleasant thing to view. Simon came closer, finally showing some detail to his features as he moved away from the overpowering brightness of the firelight.
"And here we have our second guest. I can't decide whether I'm more offended by the Pagan or by the Saracen, though my Christian education tells me to despise you both. Since I ceased to care much for Christianity a long time ago... I think I'll settle for the Saracen." He held up a sword; a long bladed affair that looked truly wicked in his hands. "I always did like painting the world in Saracen blood. There's a sense of satisfaction to it." The only reply he received was a small, tight smile with which Robert was extremely familiar. He allowed himself a small smile of his own in return. There were five of them, and five was nothing. He and Nasir could handle that many alone. Weighing his own sword in his hand, he nodded an affirmative to the barely restrained man beside him, and saw the glimmer in the dark eyes turned to his.
"You think you can fight us?" Simon saw where this was heading before Robert moved; before Nasir moved. His own long, wicked sword gleamed as he swung it in warning, but Nasir knocked it aside with one sharp blow from the sword in his right hand, swinging the left one to tap, insultingly, on Simon's leg.
"We think," he said, his voice a sharp hiss. A flash of anger burned its way across Simon's face, but when he slashed out with the sword once again, Nasir disarmed him with a quick movement with both of his own swords at once.
"Curse you!" Simon tried to snatch up the fallen weapon, but the Saracen tripped him easily, swinging up one of his swords with the clear intention of killing the fallen knight. An arrow struck the tip of the sword before it could complete its fatal arc, and Nasir almost lost his grip on the weapon. He recovered it just in time, glancing up at the four black shapes just visible in the glow of the firelight. As he watched, the firelight died away, and suddenly the silhouettes were human, and mobile, and each one was armed with a loaded bow.
"Did you think that we'd fight fair?" Struggling back to his feet, Simon laughed unpleasantly. "This isn't a contest. This is a trap."
"Why do you want us?" Moving forward, Robert pushed Nasir's swords down, warning him by the action not to try anything else just yet. Simon smirked.
"Us? We don't want both of you. We have no need of both of you. Our orders were to capture the whole gang, but this is only about the sons of Herne. No magician in England has use for a friar, or a scrawny boy, or a Saracen. The others are nothing."
"But if you were told to capture them as well, there must be a reason for it." Robert might have left the trappings of his old life behind him, but he had been raised to the aristocracy, and had spent his formative years amongst people who had turned disdain into an art form. He called on those old experiences now to look at Simon with pure, powerful condescension. "You won't take the risk of killing any one of them, so put down your bows and stand down. Whoever is employing you has a power that you won't dare to question."
"If you believe that we're not prepared to kill, you're very much mistaken." Simon made a cutting signal with one hand, and the four men up on the rise lowered their bows in a perfectly choreographed motion. "But if you want a fight, perhaps we should be prepared to give you one. You won't win, and at the end of it the lives of your friends will still be mine."
"We'll see." Once again Robert weighed his sword in his hand, and his cool blue eyes surveyed the four men up above him. They were advancing now, walking in unison down the slope, crystallising into human detail as they approached. He saw four distinct individuals; one with sandy, thinning hair, another with long, dirty blond hair - one was big, one stocky, one marked with heavy scars. Their clothes had once been rich and fine, but were threadbare now, and faded. Their heavy boots had seen better days, and the chain mail that they wore bore the marks of many battles. All four of them had drawn their swords, and all four swords were the weapons of professional soldiers. Simon smiled in clear satisfaction.
"My companions," he announced, although he gave no formal introductions. Presumably he saw no purpose to it. "We seem to have you at a disadvantage in terms of numbers."
"That's fine." Robert once again let his eyes and smile drip with superiority. "We'll try to go easy on you. Now enough talking. That was never why we were here."
"True enough." His own eyes glittering, stung by Robert's easy manner and air of authority, Simon retrieved the sword that he had lost earlier to Nasir. "Then there'll be no more words. If you think that you can fight us, then by all means - fight."
"My pleasure." Robert moved before the last word had finished escaping from his mouth, jabbing forward with his sword and leaping to one side in a cut and thrust movement almost guaranteed to disorientate an opponent. Simon swore under his breath and lashed out, calling his men on without really having needed to do so. They were advancing together, closing in on the two men until the seven of them were all little more than a jumbled blur - a conglomeration of tangled colour and flashing weaponry. Nasir's two swords whirled in their deadly patterns, outmanoeuvring the larger swords of his opponents and his friend, and threatening serious damage to the knights ranged against him. They fought to stay back from the blades, but soon Robert and Nasir were back to back, and there seemed to be no opening anywhere for their opponents to attack them with success. It was a fight that might have continued all night, had not two new figures come suddenly along the underground corridor, fading into view like ghosts arriving out of the darkness. Two large figures, built powerfully and with obvious strength. Their arrival was like a signal, for at once Robert and Nasir split apart, breaking open their back to back formation to take the initiative with a flourish. Robert ran to the right, disarming Hugo with one almighty blow, ducking Simon's sword and letting the little group's leader take the full force of a sword hilt to the side of his head. Over to the left Nasir had similarly disarmed William, ramming Charles with one sizeable, forceful shoulder, and catching Edmond in a deadly headlock, one curved sword on either side of the knight's all too vulnerable neck. Robert grinned crookedly.
"I'm glad to see you," he said, turning to the two approaching figures. There was heat and exhilaration in his eyes, and his hair stuck out in jagged spikes from the sweat that soaked it so thoroughly. "You managed to escape?"
"Escape?" Simon's grin was cooked and breathless; a triumph re-awoken in his once sullen and angry eyes. "None of you is escaping from here."
"You never give up, do you." Robert flicked Simon's sword out of reach with a quick, effortless jab of his own weapon. Simon just laughed.
"Take them," he said simply, and moved back out of the reach of Robert's sword. Robert moved to stop him, at first, then realised that the two so familiar, so welcome, so glorious figures, were converging upon him with fierce purpose. He saw Tuck's eyes gleaming with a hatred that could not have been his own; saw John's cold smile and eyes of ice; and gasped in sudden shock.
"John--" he began, unable to believe what he was seeing. Enchanted - of course. He had already seen the magic that existed here. They had been enchanted, or they always had been, like the false Marion he had met in the woods. "Tuck...?"
"What...?" Nasir was turning, seeing the ill intent in his friends' eyes a second later than Robert. He watched with characteristic dispassion as Tuck swatted Robert's sword from his hand with one blow, then he stepped back and allowed Edmond to live. His twin swords had a different target now.
"Don't hurt them." Dodging a second blow from Tuck that would easily have knocked him to the ground, Robert risked only the briefest of glances in Nasir's direction. "We don't know that they're fakes. They could really be our friends."
"Friends?" John laughed the word. "Friends? I thought you were my friend. I thought Loxley was my friend. Now I've seen different."
"You're enchanted, John." Robert had no idea how to get through to him, and knew only that he had to try. "It's magic, and you have to fight it."
"Enchanted? No." John's large, shaggy head shook with force. "I was enchanted, but now I'm free again. Loxley said that he'd freed me from enchantment when he took me away from Simon de Belleme, but all he did was cast his own spells instead. Now I'm free again at last. And you are my enemies." He smiled coldly. "I can see that now."
"John--" It was the last chance that he had, and Robert was all too well aware of that. He racked his brains for something to say, but he already knew that it was too late. Tuck was coming at him again; John was racing for Nasir; and it was all that either of them could do to dodge. Nasir met John just as he had met him before, in their play fights beside a hundred campfires in Sherwood. Airborne, propelled by his own speed and weight, John crashed to the ground in a disconnected heap - but it was already too late. Edmond and William threw themselves upon Nasir from behind, fighting to capture his arms, and tear away the swords. John joined them then, adding his own strength and weight to reduce the struggling Saracen to no more than an impotent, raging captive in the grip of too many men. Nearby Robert tried valiantly to keep Tuck at bay, but already knew that the battle was lost. No more than a few seconds after Nasir was overpowered, so he too went down, beneath the sizeable force of a once gentle priest, and a grinning, triumphant Simon of Saxony. The ground rushed up to meet him, and the whole of the universe seemed to close in, choking and suffocating, and pressing in on his head.
"Still think that you can fight us?" Simon's smile filled Robert with a hatred that seemed to burn his mind, but he could do nothing as he and Nasir were hauled to their feet. There were other figures coming now - Will and Much, with Robin between them, his hands tied behind his back. Marion was there too - a wonderful sight to a man who had last seen her body collapsing, headless, to the ground. She looked pale and tired, and didn't seem to be enchanted like the others. There was compassion in her eyes, he was sure, and she looked upon Robin so tenderly that it did not seem possible that she had also lost her mind. There was a man with her, gripping one arm so tightly that Robert's blood boiled. He could do nothing though. Nothing save fight, briefly, and then give up once again. He turned his attention to the man holding her instead. Here was somebody worth looking at; here was information that needed to be gained. His anger was not important now. It couldn't be.
"Who are you?" He asked the question with a ferocity born from his anger and his pain. "What do you want with us?"
"What only you can give me." Still holding Marion; dragging her along with him like a rag doll in his hand, the stranger came closer to the captives. "You and the other forest totem. Herne."
"Herne won't come here." Loxley, somehow, was calm. Robert envied him that. There had always been a serenity of sorts to Robin, and it showed now, particularly when viewed in contrast to Robert's simmering rage. The dark eyes were cool and inscrutable; the well-defined face showing no emotion. If the treatment of Marion and the bewitchment of his friends meant anything at all to him, he kept it well hidden. 'Do you think that we're important to him? He can replace us easily enough."
"He replaced you once before, Loxley." The stranger turned. to look at the eldest of the sons of Herne, and Robin saw eyes darker than his own, glittering out at him from beneath a heavy hood. That was all that he could see clearly, for shadow hid the rest of the face. "One day he'll replace you both again, and so on until the people of England care nothing for him anymore, and he's as forgotten as all the other gods that once meant so much to the people here."
"Then why do you need us now?" Robert might envy Robin for his self control, but he made no effort to emulate it. "And what do you want from Herne?"
"So many questions." Turning away from Robin, the stranger took a few steps back towards Robert. It was hard to see him in the darkness, for he was wrapped in a cloak that was as black as could be, and the night seemed determined to hide him. He pushed back his hood now though, and they could all see him then, as well, at least, as they could see each other.
He was not a young man, and his hair was white and grey. He was not a tall man, or a short man, nor yet a fat or a thin man. Instead he seemed average in all things save the appearance of his face. Scarred and wrinkled, it was the face of a man several hundred years old, and yet at the same time no older than Tuck or Little John. A face full of life, but coloured by the approach of death; the eyes sunken but ferociously bright; the skin tainted yellow, but the lips still full and red. He smiled under the weight of the scrutiny, and ran a long, bony hand through his mane of straggly hair. A yellow ring flashed on one finger as he did so, and as though summoned by its signal, the moon came at once from behind a cloud. All was bright and white then, and suddenly the details that had been missing for so long were as faultlessly clear as though it were sunlight now streaming down upon them. The stranger gave a mocking laugh, and his mouthful of teeth all showed themselves, like the teeth of a skull grinning wildly. Robert met his gaze, trying not to let his own, far less unusual face show his surprise or his sudden unease. There was magic and mystery in a man like this one; there could not help but be. Ordinary people simply did not have such madness and contradiction displayed upon them; did not have such age and such youth all at once. The yellow ring flashed again, and Robert wondered at the powers of that simple, highlighted band. Certainly it had already proved itself to be no ordinary ring.
"My name is Aethelric, and I was lord of this place when the Norsemen still terorised the coastlines. I inherited it from my father, when he was killed by a wild boar sent against him by the forest itself. Nature always feared my family, and Herne was no exception. He knew that my powers, like my father's, were tied to this castle, so he sent all the forces of nature against it, and had it torn down. Look about, at the way that the forest encroaches upon it, still trying to swallow it up and reclaim the land where it stood. A stone castle, from the days when all others were built of mud and sticks. It was always a strong place, and it still resists. I still resist. Every year the forest strengthens its hold, and every year my magic fades a little more. Every year Herne gets closer to winning this place back. So, do you still need to ask what I want with Herne? What I want with you? I want the forest gone from this place, and my powers restored. I want to be free of all that has held me these hundreds of years. Forty years old still, but also four hundred. Young and strong, but old and weathered. All the powers I inherited from six thousand years of magicians, fading every year because of one jealous god who fears what I might become. And that, my friends, is why you're here, and why I will not allow any one of you to leave. Perhaps you understand me now. I think you do."
"If Herne wants your powers gone he'll not come here to grant their return." Robin still sounded calm, as though Aethelric had stated his purpose to be something mundane and unthreatening. "Holding us will make no difference. You've already admitted that we're easily replaced."
"Herne has one great weakness, Loxley." Aethelric smiled at him, an unusually feral and inhuman smile. "He may be a god, but he is at least in part a mortal man. A mortal man inhabited by a god, perhaps? The how and the why of it have always been unclear, but the truth at the heart of it remains the same. There is a side to Herne that remains mortal, and that side has the feelings of a mortal man. As I said, he's already replaced you once, with young Huntingdon here - or Sherwood, if he prefers. His first born son, dead and gone and replaced with a younger brother, and then suddenly found not to be dead after all. I'll make a wager with you, Loxley. Herne grieved you once, in his own way. He'll not want to lose you again."
"Herne is a pragmatist," insisted Robin. He loved the forest god as a father, but he had no illusions about that love being returned. He was a walking prophecy - a man foreseen by Gildas, and appointed as demanded by fate. It was a matter of what must be, not what anybody particularly wanted. Herne smiled at him sometimes, when all was well with the world, and they were safe in the peace and quiet that came between dangers and threats. That wasn't love; it was camaraderie, of a kind. Perhaps not even that.
"Herne, my friend, is a god with the heart of a man." Aethelric shrugged. "And if he's not then you'll die. I have no use for you if he doesn't."
"You talk too much." Simon seemed impatient, as though the conversation was slowing things down too far for his liking. "You've got them all now, Aethelric. You promised that you would pay us when you had the whole gang."
"Money. All that you care about is money, Simon of Saxony." Aethelric's eyes glittered with contempt, but he kept his voice level. "You'll have what you were promised, and a head start to get yourselves out of the country before the king catches up with you. Have no fear of that."
"There could be soldiers coming for us now. If we were seen at all on our journey north, then the king's men could already be after us. You might be willing to take that kind of risk with our lives, Aethelric, but we're not."
"No soldier can come for you here unless I wish it. This place is mine, as long as the forest is held back. You're safe here."
"Safe? I can see the forest grow as I look at it. You have power, Aethelric, and what there is of it is impressive enough, but by your own admission it's fading daily. Perhaps by the hour. I'm not entrusting the safety of my men to a man who can't defend his own castle. Pay us."
"If I must. With their own men as guards, I don't need you anymore." The enchanted lord of the fallen castle let his eyes trail lazily over all five of the knights, all still employed in holding Robert and Nasir. So many men were unnecessary, for Tuck and John were more than strong enough to perform that task alone. "Your gold is in the dining hall. Leave quickly."
"There's no gold in the dining hall." Hugo sounded accusing, as though he suspected his magical employer to be attempting some kind of betrayal. Aethelric merely smiled, an oddly unreadable expression that carried hints of mystery.
"There wasn't before," he said simply. Edmond smiled.
"We should take him with us," he said, with obvious delight. "Gold whenever we want it."
"Except that his magic only works when he's here," pointed out Hugo. Aethelric smiled at him.
"Fond of other people's weaknesses, aren't you, Hugo. You should leave now, before I point out a few weaknesses of your own. My powers might not work if I leave this place, but whilst I'm here, they're stronger than anything you can possibly imagine. Soon enough they'll be stronger still."
"Which makes it time for us to leave." William was already backing away, beginning to struggle up the slope back to ground level. "We should collect our payment and go."
"Don't you want to be here when the great forest god arrives?" Edmond seemed to be laughing at him, mocking his apparent nervousness. Charles shot him an irritated look.
"You stay if you want to, Edmond. I'm leaving. We're knights, that's all, and all of this magic has nothing to do with us. If he wants to fight some Pagan godhead, then we should leave him to it, and be glad that it's no affair of ours."
"Pagan godhead? You don't believe that? Gods don't walk about in forests, speaking to people. Gods don't choose 'sons' from amongst the local peasantry - or from misguided aristocracy who have forgotten their real station in life." Hugo shook his head in disgust. "You're a fool, Charles, and you always were. Magic is one thing. Living, breathing gods are quite another."
"Herne is real enough." Glancing back over his shoulder at Tuck, who still gripped him by one arm, Robert tried to get through to his enchanted mind. "Isn't that right, Tuck? You've seen him. You've spoken to him. Even a Christian can accept that he exists. Remember?"
"Herne?" Tuck frowned at him, but showed no sign of sudden solidarity. "Herne is the enemy."
"Herne risks our lives in tasks he's afraid to perform himself." Will spat the words out, his voice not sounding entirely like his own. Robin smiled sadly.
"You won't get through to them that way, Robert. We were talking about Herne when Will suddenly turned against me. I think it has something to do with the spell that was cast over them all."
"You have a good mind, Loxley. A bright mind. Argue about Herne all you like, Robert of Sherwood. It won't bring your friends back to you. On the contrary, it will only push them further away." Aethelric smiled in obvious satisfaction. "They do as he says through you, and they follow him because you do, but they don't trust him. Not completely. They don't quite believe that he is who he claims to be. They don't quite trust in his powers, or in the truth of his prophecies. A man whose belief is not absolute carries chinks in his armour, and I can widen those chinks. I can exploit them."
"Is that true, Tuck?" Still speaking quietly to the man at his shoulder, Robert twisted his head around to try to see the other man. "I never doubted your belief before. Even as a man of God you seemed able to believe in Herne well enough."
"You're wasting your time, Robert. I can see inside his mind, and all I see is doubt. Doubt in your god and in his own. He sees his Church hurting the people, bleeding them dry and claiming to do it in God's name. Doubt is a powerful weakness. It creates a powerful weapon."
"But those who pray upon the doubts of others risk laying open their own weaknesses to be used against them in turn." Marion's voice held a slight tremble, though she seemed more upset than afraid. "I'm sorry Robin, Robert. He pretended to be a prisoner, and John trusted him. Then it was too late."
"It's hardly important now." Robin smiled at her in his usual fond fashion, but he was clearly distracted. If he cared how or why his friends had been overcome, it was only in order to understand how he might come to free them again. He took the time to ask her, gently, if she was alright, and when she answered in the affirmative, he nodded his head in quiet relief, then turned to other thoughts. Other concerns. Hugo sneered at him.
"So the famous god of the forest chooses for his son a man who wastes time worrying about women and peasants? No god would be such a fool."
"Or perhaps," spoke a loud, powerful voice from above them all, "no god would be fool enough to choose a man who cares for nobody at all."
"What the-?" Already half way up the slope, William froze, wobbled, and all but fell back down again. "Who's there?"
"Herne." Aethelric moved forward, his eyes gleaming with a manic light. "Show yourself, Herne the Hunter."
"Show myself?" The voice was disembodied, and it seemed almost to come from half a dozen directions at once. A trick of the wind, perhaps, or of the terrain, with its trees and half-fallen walls to reflect the sound. "You claim to be a magician, Aethelric. Why not make me show myself?"
"Stay back, Herne." Robin's hands were still tied, and with Will looming beside him he looked more slight of build than ever, his slim dark form almost negligible in the darkness - and yet still he had an aura of authority about him; a strength of personality that made him seem taller, larger, louder, than anybody else present in the ruined castle. "You shouldn't have come."
"You fear for me, my son?" There was a rustling of leaves and twigs, and in the glow of the moonlight suddenly Herne was visible to them all; a tall, imposing figure in full head-dress; little more than a silhouette, but one with inner light. Robin looked slightly abashed - but only very slightly.
"He wants to kill you," he said, as though in explanation. Herne laughed lightly.
"Aethelric has no secrets from me, Robin. I wouldn't have come here if I hadn't known everything. I knew that he had captured you, and I knew why. I knew about his five friends, and their fear of pursuit - just as I know also of the twenty strong men who are in Nottingham as we speak, sent by the king in search of these very five. Twenty fine soldiers, with the fastest of horses, and the finest Spanish mail. They can't be out run, they are almost impossible to kill, and they know exactly where to come."
"They can't know." Charles looked pale, but his eyes held the glint of a man who was determined to believe he was hearing lies. "There's no way that they could know. Nobody in Nottingham could tell them."
"Perhaps." Herne's huge, antlered head turned slightly to acknowledge the man standing below him. "But there are two here who followed you. Others can do the same. Especially now that the trail is more easily seen."
"You've led them to us?" Hugo's hand flew to his sword, but he stopped before he had more than half drawn the weapon. Something stilled his hand - some realisation that whatever his earlier show of cynicism, this was no ordinary man - some inner sense or instinct that warned him to be careful. Herne didn't answer him.
"He's lying." Edmond, unaffected by whatever had caused Hugo to think again, drew out his own sword and pointed it at the outlaws standing around him. "He won't bring soldiers here. These people are outlaws. If we're arrested, so will they be."
"If we're captured then we'll escape." Robert spoke quietly, perfectly content to trust in Herne. If the forest god had indeed caused soldiers - the king's men - to come here, risking the capture of all of the outlaws, then he had done it with confidence in their safety. The men of Sherwood were adept at escape, and had proved that often enough. It was worth the risk of their temporary incarceration, in order to have a real threat to use against Aethelric's five mercenaries. Charles paled still further.
"I don't think this is a trick," he told the others. William nodded slowly.
"He's right. I don't care whether that man up there is a god or a man, or even a walking tree. I believe what he says. And he's right - our trail was followed before. If these two can do it, who says that a brigade of the king's finest men won't be able to do the same?"
"Because a brigade of the king's finest men isn't anywhere within a hundred miles of here." Hugo looked over to Simon. "Are you going to stand there saying nothing, or are you going to tell us what you think?"
"You don't care what I think." Simon's eyes hadn't left Herne since the arrival of the domineering figure above them all. "You've made up your minds; each of you knows what you believe."
"And I believe that this is a lie." Edmond began advancing upon Herne, his sword outstretched. "This is a man, not a god. He breathes. I can hear his breath between his words. He can't know who's following us. He can't know about soldiers in Nottingham."
"Twenty men. Not in Nottingham anymore, though. They've left." Robin spoke quietly, but with all his usual authority. "The leader is a man called... Yves. He's from Normandy. Tall, with brown hair, and..." He frowned, closing his eyes as though to look inside himself. "A scar on his face. Below his left ear."
"How do you know that?" Hugo turned on him like a beast suddenly turning on its prey, his eyes seeming to spit sparks in their fury. "How can you know that? Are you a magician?"
"No." Robin shook his head, his eyes soft and gentle, his smile slight and kind. "No, I'm no magician. Sometimes I see things, and I see Yves now, heading this way I think. He's very determined, but I can't tell why. I see... a woman."
"Magic." Hugo spat the word with a viciousness that seemed entirely warranted. With a speed that caused his boots to skid on the broken flagstones underfoot, he closed in on Robin, and backhanded him with a stunning force. Robin was thrown backwards, landing on the ground with a jolt that made Marion cry out. She tried to run to him, but Aethelric held her back.
"There's magic in him," growled Hugo, without looking at anybody. "It's not natural to see things like that. That's not something you learn from books. He's touched."
"I'm inclined to agree." Letting go of Marion, Aethelric strolled closer to the scattering of prisoners. "Is it true, Herne? Is your son touched with dark powers? I've seen women burned alive for being able to see things that are happening elsewhere, or those things that haven't yet happened at all. Did you choose your son from the dark side? Is he a witch?"
"Your outrage might be more convincing if you weren't a sorcerer yourself." Running to Robin's side, Marion helped him to sit up. Aethelric shot her the sort of look that told her, without question, that she was nothing here. She counted for nothing, and was of no worth at all. The black-clad magician turned his attention back to Herne.
"And what of your other son? Is he a witch too? Does he have illicit powers that might have led to a bonfire for him, if he'd been a lonely old woman with a cat for company?"
"I don't have any powers." Motionless in Tuck's strong grip, Robert held the sorcerer's gaze, his own expression heatedly defiant. Aethelric smirked at him.
"The runt of the litter, Herne? What did he do that attracted your attention, then? If he doesn't have any powers, and he has no black magic causing his heart to beat?" He reached out, gripping Robert's chin with one hand, turning his head from side to side as though better to examine the face. "You don't have much about you, boy. There's no stillness within you, no dark depths in your eyes. You have the look about you of a puppy whelped too soon. But you'll do." He reached into his clothing with his free hand, and drew a long, thin knife. It was black, its blade barely visible in the darkness. "What say you, Herne? Surrender to me, or first I kill the whelp, and then the witch. I know fathers who'd not lose any sleep at the death of their sons, but I know that you're no such kind. If you won't save this boy, I think you'll be ready to save the other."
"All death is life," proclaimed Herne. He didn't sound angry or afraid, and he made no move to intervene. Marion's eyes widened, but she didn't speak. Instead she concentrated on freeing Robin from the ropes that bound his wrists. Aethelric laughed.
"Is that so, old man? Well then perhaps to die is to live. Shall we find out?" He lifted the knife, angling the long blade so that he would be able to drive it, with little enough effort, into Robert's exposed neck. Around him the five knights still stood, apparently transfixed by events, or just unable to decide what to do next. Only Nasir moved, struggling uselessly against John's greater strength. Aethelric moved the knife closer to Robert's neck.
"A man or a god, or a magician like me? A man who walks for a god, and talks for a god, or nothing more than a dreamer who likes to toy with legends? Why not prove it, one way or the other, for your detractors here, Herne? Free me from your spell. Banish the forest from my castle. Come down here and surrender to me, or lose your son." Robert could feel the metal against his throat now, pressing with a sharp point that threatened to draw blood. "Give me back my inheritance, Herne."
"Your powers threatened the balance of nature, Aethelric son of Uthelstane. As did your father's. To return them to you would destroy the forest, and all the creatures in it. It would render the earth beneath our feet barren and worthless. Barely a plant or a creature would remain alive, and the people would not last much longer. Famine would be certain."
"I don't care. It's my birthright, and I've waited a long time to find the means by which to have it restored. You'll give me what's mine by rights, Herne, or you'll lose what's yours." He drew back the knife, and the muscles in his arm tensed. He was ready for the thrust now, and all could see that Herne was too far away to do anything. There was no way that he could reach Aethelric in time. He didn't try. With the sound of air being spat from between clenched teeth, Aethelric rammed the knife upwards, waiting for the moment of resistance, the hot splash of blood, the struggles of a dying man. It was not something that he especially enjoyed, but he had killed many times before, and it held no mystery for him anymore. He felt no pity or sympathy; no sorrow or regret. None who lived were important to him, save himself; and if Robert of Sherwood was to choke out his life in a deluge of blood, Aethelric would watch it without passion. But the knife never got the chance to strike home.
With a yell that startled everybody, such was the silence, Much the Miller's son threw himself forward, feet stumbling clumsily on the uneven ground, arms moving in a typically ungainly fashion. He crashed into Aethelric, knocking the knife to one side so that it caught at Tuck's arm, instead of piercing Robert's throat. Tuck let out a cry, as did Aethelric, and regaining his balance in a flailing of arms and a whirl of black material, he clubbed Much aside with a closed fist to the side of the boy's head. Much fell, but he didn't lose consciousness. Instead he fought his way back to his feet, clearly in the grip of real fury.
"Much." The ropes at last falling away, Robin put out a warning hand to the boy, but Much was not to be stopped. He rounded on Aethelric like a man possessed, his strong accent and naturally slow demeanour adding extra force to his words.
"Who do you think you are?" he asked, his eyes as bright as ever they had been. "You call yourself the lord of this place, but this place has fallen down. It's dead. Dead like you should have been, hundreds of years ago. This isn't your place, see. Not now. This is the forest, and the forest belongs to Herne. To Herne and his sons."
"Is that so." Aethelric was smiling, the glint of mockery in his eyes. "I underestimated you, boy. I thought you were under my spell like the others. I won't make that mistake again."
"I doubt you'll have the chance." It was Herne's voice, and it came from behind him - close behind him, with barely an arm's length between them. When he had come down the slope, nobody knew. Nobody remembered seeing him walk over to join the group. "I'm here, Aethelric, just as you wanted; but not to surrender, and not to give you back your powers. I can't do that."
"You will do that." Aethelric lashed out, catching Much by the scruff of his neck and shaking him furiously. Herne merely reached out a hand, and covered Aethelric's with his own, forcing him to release Much with barely an effort.
"I won't," he corrected. Aethelric snarled in rage, and turned then upon Herne. To his eyes this was an old man; a man of no great strength or build; just a man in a head-dress that must surely be too heavy for him. If there was a god inside that body too, then perhaps that god was as old and as weathered as the man. Aethelric didn't care anymore. His hands closed around Herne's neck, and squeezed with a terrible force.
"Help him!" Marion was horrified at the sight of the two struggling forms; the manic, dark Aethelric, and the earthy, green-brown blur that was Herne. There was a glow to the air around them; a pale, but deepening blue glow that outlined each form, and picked out the mania in Aethelric's eyes. Herne's head-dress had fallen off, but his pale, old face showed no sign of distress. As one, Robin and Robert started forward, but the glow of blue light grew brighter in that instant, and they found that they could not approach it.
"He'll kill him." Much's eyes were wide with horror. "Robin, he'll kill him! We saw Herne get hurt before. He's just a man, isn't he? On the outside, he's just a man."
"And any man can die." Marion gripped Robin's arm. "What happens if Herne's body dies?"
"I don't know." Robin tried again to reach the battling enemies, but could not get any closer than before. He was horribly conscious of everything in that small, dark arena, and his unease made everything sharper still. Herne and Aethelric. The five knights, apparently frozen, caught in indecision or confusion, or perhaps just enjoying the fight. John still holding Nasir; Tuck wandering in unsteady circles, blood running down his arm. Only Will was invisible, but Robin could sense his presence, standing just too far away to be seen.
"We have to try something." Robert snatched up Aethelric's fallen knife, but when he tried to use it; tried to stab through the blue glow; the knife was repelled, and the glow grew stronger. He staggered back, unable to stay close by. The blueness was bright in his eyes, and it seemed to him that Herne was growing weaker, fighting back less and less against his assailant. Suddenly, with a flash that made them all flinch; made the castle itself seem to vibrate to its very foundations; Aethelric forced Herne to his knees. A wind rushed through the trees; a sudden, howling, fierce, terrible wind; and a cacophony of owl shrieks raged all around. It was a fearful noise, as though the forest itself was screaming in anger and desperation.
"Herne!" Robin cried the name aloud, his strong sixth sense making his heart race with sudden fear. For a second it seemed that the old eyes turned to look at him, but they were closing now, and he wasn't sure that his spiritual father had really seen him at all. Aethelric's arms were shaking with the force of their furious squeezing, and the more they shook, the more pale Herne seemed to become; the more he seemed to sink downwards towards the ground. With the desperation growing within him, and a sick feeling deep in his stomach, Robin grabbed for the knife that Robert had just used, and ran with all the speed he could gather towards the two struggling men. There was a tremendous flash of light; more powerful even than the one that had preceded it, and the terrible, terrible wind grew stronger. The owls screamed again, and this time they were joined by the bats; the many, many bats that had adopted the ruined castle as their home. They filled the air with their thrashing wings, squeaking and squealing in competition with the owls, and turning the sky into a writhing black sea. For a moment Robin seemed frozen, the tip of the knife touching the blue corona that surrounded the fight - then the knife lit up, and he was hurled backwards with terrific force. A cracking sound broke through the screaming of the owls and the bats; a sound as of something breaking, deep underground; then the blue light burned brighter until it was a cold whiteness impossible to behold, and suddenly all was brightness. Like a shockwave of pure light, the whiteness engulfed them all, knocking them all from their feet, and driving the owls and the bats into silence. Forcing all into silence, and impenetrable darkness, that left everyone gasping and blinking, and fighting for sight. The stillness that had gripped the knights before was shattered in that instant, and as they stirred themselves to movement at last, and once more regained their feet, they ran straight away for higher ground, and were gone.
"Herne?" called Robert, his voice a breathless, shaky first sound in the uneasy silence. There was no answer. He struggled back upright and looked around, but at first could see no sign of Aethelric or Herne. He could see Marion, clinging to Robin as they both fought their way back to their feet; could see Tuck rubbing his eyes and staring about in obvious confusion. The pain of the knife wound, and the shock of the burst of light, had perhaps then been enough to drive away the spell that had won him over before. His companions in bewitchment, however, were clearly still far from themselves. With a growling, choking roar, Will lumbered out of the darkness, his eyes fixed upon the fallen, black knife. Robert's own vision was improving now that the flash of light was no longer echoing quite so powerfully in his eyes, but all too obviously, Will's eyesight was a good deal better. By the look on his face it was clear that the spell still held him, and that his loyalty lay still with Aethelric. It was not a reassuring sight.
"Will?" Still confused, but rapidly returning to himself, Tuck moved to apprehend the incendiary outlaw. "Oh heck. You're a curse you are, Scarlet."
"Wake up, Will!" Robin also hurried to intercept his hot-headed friend, but Scarlet threw him aside with barely an effort. Nasir stepped forward then, a knife held ready in one hand, but Marion went quickly to intercede.
"I do not kill!" The Saracen sounded almost hurt by the very idea. Will's bright eyes snapped over to look in the direction of their voices, then turned quickly back towards the long black knife. Tuck quickened his step, capturing the wiry outlaw in a bear hug of impressive proportions.
"Get after those knights, Nasir." Robert's eyes did not leave the struggle before him, but the sharp command in his words was not lessened by the divided attention. Nasir gave a brief half-bow, before snatching up his swords and running off. He had no qualms about abandoning the present situation, for to his eyes the five knights were a far more tangible concern than the complex affairs of Herne the Hunter. Such things were the affair of Herne's Sons.
"Blast you, Scarlet. You always were a right one for trouble." Tuck held the other man as tightly as he could, but Scarlet showed no sign of giving up. If his single-mindedness was impressive when he was himself, when he was enchanted it was even more remarkable. His eyes remained fixed upon the knife, and a growling sound rumbled from the depths of his throat. Nearby John also gave a growl, and started forward with a muttered oath. Much and Robert converged upon him, but before they were halfway there, a blue light lit the air around them once again. It froze them all for a moment, and one by one they turned at last to look to the source of the light. Robin was the last to look, his eyes already seeing the fallen body of Herne, long before he turned his head to face it. The light came from Aethelric, he saw then; a triumphant, glowing Aethelric, standing tall over the fallen form of the defeated Lord of the Forest.
"Herne." Robert's shoulders slumped, and he seemed to lose inches in height. Aethelric smiled, aglow with joy at his success.
"Your father is worth nothing now," he crowed, and kicked at the motionless figure lying sprawled at his feet. "I won. This is all mine now. All the power is mine. Everything is restored as it should be. Everything."
"He can't be dead." Marion's shoulders were beginning to shake. She looked to Robin for comfort, but he wasn't looking at her. Deathly pale, his eyes unnaturally dark in comparison, he had eyes only for Herne - Herne and the other sights deep inside. He saw darkness, chaos, tumbling brick and cracked and broken walls; an old, old man, crumbling and collapsing into dust. His breath came then in one, deep, sharp intake as though he had not breathed at all for many minutes.
"Herne." The word seemed to break from his lips; a sound that was dry and gasping. Aethelric laughed at him.
"Your precious Herne. Join me, Robin of Loxley. Become my son. With your gifts and your power of Sight, you'd make a fine addition to this place. Join me. Herne is gone."
"No!" With a flare of sudden, uncontrollable anger, Robert hurled himself at the towering magician. Aethelric barely raised a hand, swatting him aside without an effort.
"That two sons should be so different," he muttered. Robin walked forward slowly, hauling Robert to his feet and pushing him over towards Marion and Much.
"You say you've won," he said, keeping his voice as steady as he could. "You've beaten Herne, and you've won back everything that he took from you. This castle is yours again, and Herne's powers no longer touch you."
"That is right." Aethelric threw back his head, clearly revelling in the freedom he felt again at last. Robin knelt beside Herne, and bowed his head over the pale, broken figure. The forest god looked impossibly old now, his skin like parchment, his cheek bones far too prominent. Oddly, as he crouched there looking at his dead father, Robin's mouth twisted into a tight, tight smile.
"Then the world is yours again." He reached out, the move sudden and harsh, and grabbed hold of Herne's outflung right wrist. "But you're four hundred years out of date, Aethelric. You've stayed alive all of this time only because of Herne's magic. The forest has fought you every inch of the way, every day, every week and every year of that time, but it's been keeping you alive as well. Now what, Aethelric?"
"What?" The magician's eyes widened in shock, and the black-clad figure stared down at him, shaking his head. His face was rejuvenated by the reclaimed power; but superimposed over that image of restored youth, there seemed to Robin to be a second face; one marked by impossible age. Robin smiled, and rose then to his feet.
"Robert." It wasn't a command so much as a call; and as he spoke he held out one hand. Robert knew through sheer instinct what he should do, and taking up the long black knife, he threw it over to Herne's first born son. Aethelric stepped back, but when he reached out to swat away Robin, as he had previously knocked aside Robert, he found that he could not do it. Robin was still holding Herne's wrist, and around them both a green, warm light was beginning to burn.
"No." Aethelric tried to back away further, but there was something stopping him. He couldn't see what at first, but it became clear to him when the green light shone a little brighter. The forest. It had come upon him when his mind was elsewhere, and it gripped him now by the ankles; long tendrils of green and brown that wrapped themselves around his feet and his calves, and held him tight. He began to shake. "No. This cannot be happening. I will not allow it! I won! I have won back all that was taken from me!"
"Including those four hundred years." Robert understood now, and he moved to join Robin, crouching down to take Herne's other hand. The green light took him as well, and slowly, inch by inch, the black knife began to turn silver.
"It's not fair." Aethelric was ageing fast, his skin shrivelling, his hair turning grey and white, and falling from his head in clumps. "It's not fair."
"It's not supposed to be fair." Robin watched him with more than a little compassion as he aged still further; as the body became bonier and more withered, and began to shrink in stature. "It's just nature, Aethelric. Just nature."
"No. No, I won!" Aethelric's voice was little more than a dry, husky whisper. He was shaking his head, but his body was trembling so much that it didn't look like a demonstration of refutation; more the last, collapsing strength of a body that could no longer stand upright. Only then did Robin truly take pity upon the man, and use the now bright blade to stab him through the chest. The magician died without a sound; without further complaint or struggle; and his body collapsed into itself. It was just a husk at first - then after that it was nothing but dust. Robin threw down the knife and sank to his knees.
"Robin!" Worried, Marion started forward, but her husband waved her away with a curt gesture. The green light was brighter than ever now, half blinding him, and enfolding him, Robert and Herne into its weird embrace. It was a reassuring embrace somehow though; a warm, welcoming touch that told Robin that this light was a part of himself; a part of the forest; a part of Herne. As the strength faded from his body he felt no fear; just the warmth of the light, and the stirring of his father under his hand. He gave himself to the light then, and with it gave his life to the man who lay at his side.
"What's going on?" Awakening to the realisation that he was being held fast by Tuck, Will stared around. Robert, Robin and Herne were glowing bright green, and nobody seemed to be doing anything about it. Nearby John was swaying, and without the benefit of a sizeable monk to hold him up, crashed suddenly to the ground at Will's feet. Scarlet stared down at him, blinking and rubbing his eyes.
"What the hell are you doing, John?"
"Shut up." John tried to fight his way to his feet, but found it unexpectedly hard. Pushing away Tuck's encircling arms with sudden frustration, Scarlet reached down, hauling his big friend to his feet.
"What the hell is going on here?!" he bellowed. Much began to laugh.
"Much!" Marion was scandalised, but Much couldn't help it.
"I'm sorry, Marion. They look so confused."
"Aye, well maybe if somebody would tell us what's been happening. Where's Naz? And what is going on over there?" John started towards the glowing trio, but as soon as he drew close to them, he felt the same warm sensation of peace that Robin had welcomed into himself. His confusion faded, although the questions still remained. "What's been going on?" he asked in the end, with considerably less force than before. A low laugh answered him, lighter and with more mischief than Much's earlier, spontaneous chuckle.
"Ah. What has been going on? So much, John Little. So much." With a move that was almost sprightly, Herne rose to his feet, pulling his two sons up alongside him. The glow faded and was gone, and they stood now untainted by the light. "A borrowing, I suppose you could call it. My sons were good enough to offer me a little of their energy. They're young. They replenish such things so easily, as I'm sure I did once. Once, yes. Perhaps." He smiled again. "But now? Now all is well."
"It is?" Tuck wasn't convinced, but Herne seemed more than happy.
"Everything is more than well. More than well. I would suggest that we did not tarry here, though, my children. This castle is as old as the misfortunate soul who just preceded it into death and decay. The forest will claim it now."
"He's right." Remembering the crumbling, falling stones that he had seen before, Robin nodded his dark head. "We should get out of here. Find our weapons, and be gone."
"Your weapons await you in the banqueting hall." Herne gestured in the rough direction of the room in question, then smiled in gentle thanks when Much retrieved his fallen head-dress. "Thankyou, my boy. Thankyou."
"Nobody's going to tell me what's been going on, are they." Will sounded resigned. This time it was Robert's turn to break into spontaneous laughter.
"Get up the slope, Will. Nasir is up there somewhere, and he's fighting it out with five knights. It's all their fault."
"Yeah?" That was the sort of talk that Will Scarlet liked; the sort of thing that he could understand. He grinned, and his eyes flashed with satisfied glee. "Right then. He'd better have saved a couple for me." And without further ado; without further questions or confusion, he tore off in pursuit of the Saracen. Mindful of Herne's warning, the others were not far behind.
They regrouped on the far side of the castle, in a natural glade where a stream had once provided Aethelric's family with their water. The sound of breaking, tumbling masonry followed them for a while, but it didn't last. The castle that had stood for so long did not tarry in its final collapse, and soon there was silence again. It was a strange kind of silence, in the darkness of a night that neared its end; but it was also a restful silence. It meant that things were back to normal; restored to what had been meant to be, many hundreds of years before. Nasir and Will were there too, flushed with unspoken success, Will carrying a heavy bag of gold. Those of the gang who had not been bewitched remembered the talk of the knights' payment from Aethelric, and Robin nodded in satisfaction. Gold was always welcome. The people of the villages around Sherwood would have good use for it during the long winter months just begun.
"It has been a good night," said Herne, as the others gathered around him. He was sitting on a fallen tree, enjoying the sounds of the approaching dawn. They were sounds that as yet only he could hear, for he was more in tune with nature than any man.
"A good night?" Marion didn't think so. She had been more afraid that night than she had been at any time since returning to the forest, after Robin's return from death. They had come close to losing Robert tonight, when Aethelric had threatened him with the black knife, and it had seemed that Herne had not been prepared to intervene. Herne smiled patiently. Kindly.
"I would not have let him die, Marion. I would not have let either of them die. They are my sons, and they were kind enough to lend me some of their strength. There was never any danger."
"And when Aethelric was about to cut Robert's throat? There was no danger then?"
"Marion!" Robin was shocked, but Herne held up a hand for silence.
"No, Robin. She has every right to ask." His smile took in all of them for a moment, before settling once again upon Marion; kind, gentle, and very warm. "There was never any true danger, Marion. Not for Robert, not then. Aethelric threatened to kill him if I didn't surrender, but I knew that he would kill him anyway. If I had given myself to him then, it wouldn't have stopped Aethelric from using that knife. But Robert was safe."
"It didn't look like that to me." Marion was still upset, her eyes showing the remembered fear of that moment. Herne smiled gently again, and was less than ever the impressive figure of myth, and more an ordinary, ageing man.
"Faith, my young friend. Faith. It was the lack of it that allowed Aethelric to turn our friends against us, whilst your own faith stopped his spell affecting you. I could see it in your eyes, just as I could see it in the eyes of one other." He turned his smile then to Much, who suddenly looked extremely nervous. "He was strong when the others couldn't be, my sons, and it was his loyalty to you that caused it. I think such are times when boys become men."
"I think you might be right." Robin reached out, fondly ruffling his brother's hair. "You saved Robert's life, Much. We'll not forget that."
"You've both saved mine hundreds of times." Blushing with embarrassment at the attention, but bursting with pride, Much didn't meet Robin's eyes. John looked somewhat abashed.
"You did better than me, lad," he said with a faint laugh. "From what little I remember, I'm glad I can't remember anything else. All I know for certain is that I didn't believe strongly enough. After everything I've seen, and everything I've been a part of, I didn't believe enough. I'm sorry Robin, Robert. And you too Herne."
"We all have our doubts from time to time, John Little." Herne rose to his feet, apparently now restored to full health. "There was a time when I didn't believe in the Lord of the Forest. A time long, long ago. People were almost hurt then, too. But when we survive, we also learn. And when we learn, we grow. Next time, you won't doubt quite so much."
"Aye." Still a hearty shade of red, John nodded and looked away. "Aye, well. I hope so. For now though, something tells me that we have a long walk back to our camp."
"Yeah, and twenty soldiers heading this way," piped up Will Scarlet. Robert shot him an incredulous look.
"You heard that? I thought you were still bewitched when we talked about the king's men?"
"I don't remember any talking." Will shrugged, apparently unconcerned. "But me and Naz saw them when we were fighting those knights. Right Naz?" The answer, predictably enough, was a deep nod.
"That way," the Saracen added, in a rare elaboration, and pointed. Robert's shoulders slumped.
"Perfect," he sighed, half wishing that Aethelric was still alive, and perhaps willing to be persuaded to send them all home by magical means. He turned to Herne, to bid him farewell before beginning the journey through the forest, but the old man had vanished. There was not a trace of him anywhere, and no footprints marked a trail out of the glade. Robin smiled.
"It still surprises me when he does that. Even after all this time."
"All this time? It's not so very long," Robert thought, briefly, of the normal life he had been leading only just over a year ago. Robin nodded.
"No time at all. Or all the time in the world. It's all the same."
"Ain't the same now," pointed out Scarlet. "Not with twenty soldiers getting closer all the time."
"Twenty soldiers. Right." Robin gestured in the opposite direction to the one indicated before by Nasir. "Then take the lead, Will, Nasir. Take us home."
"Don't know the bloody way, do I." Scarlet shrugged, apparently none too bothered by this mild handicap, then struck out for home all the same. Nasir overtook him rather pointedly, but it looked as though it was going to be a battle all the way back over which one of them was leading the way. Ignorance had never been much of an obstacle for Will Scarlet. Marion couldn't help but laugh.
"Is it a very long way, Robert?" she asked. He nodded.
"Longer than you might think." Would he ever tell her, he wondered, about the copy of her? About how she had tried to seduce him, and how heartbroken he had been at her death? Probably not. Some things were best kept secret; and Nasir, certainly, would never tell. She smiled at him oddly though, almost as if she guessed that there were unspoken tales hanging in the air.
"So did you mean what you said earlier?" asked Much, as they began the walk home. Robin frowned at him.
"What did I say?"
"About me being a man now." Much glowered at the suggestion that Robin might have forgotten, but his foster brother was only teasing him.
"Of course I meant it. It means responsibility though, Much. You proved yourself tonight, in more ways than one, but there are many other things that still need proving. Many things. When we get back, Will and Nasir are going to teach you to fight properly with a sword. The next sword we take is yours; but that brings responsibilities as well. You're not big, so you'll probably never be a powerful fighter the way that John is, but he and I will teach you to fight better with a staff. You're wiry, and that's in your favour when it comes to fighting with a sword. There's a lot to learn, Much."
"I know." The boy was almost glowing with pride. "I know that, Robin. I do. But I want to learn."
"Aye." Tuck slapped him on the back, almost knocking him off his feet. "Things are changing alright. Much growing up, Robin returned from the dead. Next we'll have Scarlet writing love poetry, and Nasir chatting nineteen to the dozen."
"I hope not!" John's laugh rang out, rather too loudly given the apparent proximity of twenty of the king's finest men. Robin laughed too. Quite suddenly he couldn't help it.
"I think I'd like to read Will's love poetry," he said. Marion took his arm.
"I think it would give me nightmares," she commented.
"I should think it would give anyone nightmares," laughed Robert. Marion smiled sweetly, and reached out to take his hand.
"You see Robin, they teach you to appreciate good poetry, when you grow up the way that Robert and I did."
"And to think that the rest of us were busy being taught useful things instead." Robin gave her arm a fond squeeze, and she pretended to scowl at him. None of them were in the mood even for the pretence of bad spirits though, for it had been, just as Herne had said, a good night. And as they walked on through the forest, towards landmarks that were more familiar, and tracks that he had walked before, Robert forgot all about Marion's hand in his, and thought about other things instead. He was moving on without even realising it; learning and growing, just as Herne had said. One day he wouldn't even wonder any more, at what might have been for him and Marion; which, of course, was how it was supposed to be.
And they went on, hand in hand, towards home.