THE DARK ONE

Click Here For Part Two

~~~~~~
"In the days when the lion has ceased to roar, but the devil's brood still holds sway,
the one shall come. And he shall be old and he shall be new,
and his enemies shall quake to see him."
Prophecies of Gildas
~~~~~~

They had taken him at what he had believed to be the moment of his death, and had carried him away to a place where even Herne never walked. There had been mists and still waters, and the sound of endless bird song; and he had lain there, whilst summer had died around him. Whilst autumn and winter had walked their eternal path; whilst spring had come again to fill the world with flowers.

And he had lain on, knowing nothing. Not even his own name.

**********

Robin, once heir to the Earldom of Huntingdon, breathed deeply. Smoke filled his lungs, strangely scented and calming; a smoke that did not make him cough. His vision swam.

"Look hard, my son." Herne's voice sounded the way it always did; commanding but gentle; urgent but relaxing. A voice to be listened to, and a voice to be obeyed. "See what you will see."

"I see..." He didn't see anything yet. Just smoke, and the smouldering twigs and mosses that were the source of it. Somewhere nearby a bird sang, and the clear sound awoke the second consciousness within him. A long breath exhaled itself, and at last his vision cleared.

And he saw... A figure, hidden by a dark hood... A pair of cupped hands, filled to brimming with diamonds that sparkled like white fire... Marion, her arms outstretched, imploring, her face wet with tears... He choked, the strong scent of the billowing smoke catching in his throat at last. Marion. Was there something wrong with Marion? Did she need him? He wanted to go to her, but Herne was not finished with him yet, and he knew that there was still more to be seen. The clashing sound of swords filled his ears, and he let his mind tell him more... The Sheriff of Nottingham, laughing aloud... A pentagram, burning in a room of cold grey stone... And Will Scarlet, his eyes wild and mad, stabbing Nasir in the back... The images faded. Robin fell forward onto the ground.

"Sometimes it is hard to see what must be seen." Herne's voice sounded faint; a distant noise somewhere above him. He raised his head.

"These things... are they going to happen soon?"

"That is not for us to know." Herne made no move to help him up. Robin had never thought that he would. "But there are other things that I can tell you."

"And will I understand them?" He made it back to his knees, and tried to concentrate on the world around him. His heart was beating faster than he had known it to do for a long time, and his body felt washed in cold, cold sweat. The last thing that he wanted was to listen to more cryptic prophecies, but he knew that he didn't have a choice. Such things were all a part of being the son of Herne.

"You will understand what is necessary, when the time comes to understand it." A hand fell onto his shoulder, briefly. "A man will come. A man with whom you share a father."

"Gisburne?" Robin stared up at the smoke-shrouded figure above him. "Gisburne is coming into Sherwood?"

"A man will come." Herne's voice was quiet and patient, and showed no sign of any concern for the import of his news. "He is all that he appears to be, and that must not be forgotten."

"Oh I know everything that Gisburne is, believe me." Robin still couldn't believe that he really was related to the Sheriff's young steward. Gisburne was everything that he hated; everything that Herne had chosen him to fight against. How mad and inexplicable that they should share a father.

"With him comes a new time; a new stage of your destiny. There will be changes. Danger. Perhaps death."

"When?" He stumbled to his feet, anxious now to return to the others. "When is all of this going to happen?"

"Summer is long over." Herne's answer was hardly helpful, but even in his frustration Robin understood that it was the best he was going to get. "Autumn is a time of the greatest of change. Choose wisely, Robin i' the Hood. Choose wisely."

"I'll try." He lifted his eyes, meeting Herne's for the first time since he had arrived in the hidden grove. "Is there anything else that I need to know?"

"Much." Herne was smiling at him, in the gentle, paternal fashion that still managed to be cryptic, even beneath the warmth. "But no more that I can tell you. Go now."

"Thankyou." It was part of the ritual to thank his father; even though at times he felt that there was little to thank him for. Surely it was better, on occasion, not to know some of the things that he saw and heard at Herne's behest? He dismissed the thought. The Lord of the Forest always had his reasons. Sometimes they just happened to be harder to see.

"Go with my blessing, my son." The smoke swirled. Robin knew that when it cleared his father would be gone. He always was. The birds still sang, and the wind still blew, but a part of his reality had changed. Something had been altered without his awareness. Such was always the way when he was with Herne.

**********

The camp had been a quieter place since Marion had left. Much was subdued, missing the girl who had been so kind to him for so long. She had been his last link with his foster brother, and he didn't understand why she had left. Even Will Scarlet was obviously affected by the loss. Marion was a lady of high birth, and he had been suspicious of her once, but he had softened his attitude long ago. She had been a part of the gang, and her departure, after Loxley's death, had been one of the reasons why he had left Sherwood. Robert of Huntingdon had brought the gang back together again, Marion amongst them, but even his presence as the new son of Herne had been unable to make her stay. There was a hole amidst them now, and it disturbed the equilibrium. They all wanted the girl back.

"We need to get moving." Robin came from the west, striding into the camp with a step that suggested urgency. Little John glanced up from where he was restringing his bow.

"Are we moving camp?"

"No. No, I don't think so." Robin rubbed his brow, wishing that he could make sense of a few of the images he had seen, and wishing that he was allowed to speak of them to the others. "Herne said that Gisburne is coming. Why he's coming I don't know, but apparently he's heading this way."

"Could somebody have betrayed us?" Will couldn't think of anybody besides Marion who knew the location of their camp, and he certainly didn't suspect her; but somebody else might have discovered something. Robin shook his head.

"I doubt it. Besides, Herne seemed to be suggesting that he'll be travelling alone. It's more likely that he's delivering something."

"Something that we ought to intercept?" John was on his feet in an instant. "Then we're heading for the road to Nottingham?"

"I think so." Robin looked around at the other members of the gang. "Listen, about Marion..."

"It's alright." Will was already on his feet, eager to be off. The chance of ambushing Guy of Gisburne was enough to dispel all but the worst of sorry feelings, and his characteristic spiritedness did not usually stay away for long. "We know that you probably miss her more than we do, but it's not as if she's definitely gone for good, is it." He grinned. "Maybe if she hears a few good stories of the things we get up to without her, she'll come back."

"I'd like that." Much, sitting on a low tree branch, was swinging his legs disconsolately. Will threw a stick at him.

"Come on, Muchy. Let's go and catch us a Gisburne. We could all do with the exercise."

"Alright." Jumping down, Much made a fair stab at looking eager. Little John cuffed him playfully around the shoulders.

"So it's roasted Gisburne for dinner tonight. Think you can manage to fit a whole one in the pot, Tuck?"

"I think I can try." Laughing contentedly, the friar rose to his feet. "If you can catch him."

"Oh we'll do that." Shouldering his bow, Will turned to Robin. "Where are we going?"

"Due north. The old road where they used to take the fleeces to market." Robin glanced at the sky. It was early morning still, and the vision he had seen of the man in the black hood had been lit with the light of midday; but it was best to be there in advance, and be sure of catching Gisburne when he came. "Where's Nasir?"

"On watch." Will put his fingers to his mouth, and emitted a shrill whistle that sent several birds fleeing for cover. Robin winced. Wherever Nasir was, there seemed little danger that he would have missed that signal; and of course, with his exceptional hearing, he hadn't. With hardly a sound the almost perpetually silent Saracen dropped out of the branches of a nearby tree, where he had apparently been roosting for some time. Robin had known Nasir for some months now, and the taciturn foreigner seemed to have spent at least half of that time up a succession of trees. Clearly he liked it.

"Right." It felt strange going off on a raid without Marion there, but Robin tried to dismiss the thought that something was missing. "Let's get moving."

"And catch us a nice tasty Gisburne." Will had had a fair amount to drink the night before, and apparently quite a bit of it was still in his system. Robin smiled.

"If you want to eat him, Will, that's fine. I just want whatever he's carrying. And remember - Gisburne is always ready."

"Oh he's always expecting us to attack him, that's for sure." Picking up his large quarter-staff, which had the size and appearance of a whole stout tree trunk, Little John laughed loudly. "He's just hopeless at stopping us."

"That's titled Normans for you. All money and no brains." Will banged Robin on the back. "Right Robin?"

"Very funny." Rolling his eyes, the former heir to a Norman Earldom began to lead the way into the forest. Some days it wasn't just Herne who risked sending him mad.

**********

He didn't remember eating or drinking anything. He didn't remember moving or speaking or even breathing. For the passage of so many months he simply was, without knowing it. And then, gradually, things began to change. The birdsong became clearer, sharper. The wind became more tangible; more fresh against his skin. He could smell the moist earth and the fruit beginning to grow on the trees. He could feel the rushes, the mosses and the grasses on which he lay. And finally, when he was at last beginning to realise that he was truly alive, he could see the blue sky above his head. He watched the cloud patterns change from day to day, and he watched the birds make their passages to-and-fro.

And finally, when he knew that it was truly autumn, he remembered at last how to stand. And he knew then that it was time to go.

**********

The cart had been rattling along the old north road for some time, and the man driving it didn't look as though he was particularly anxious to get anywhere. Wrapped in a shapeless black cloak, his face hidden by a thick hood, he might have been young or old, strong or weak. The cloak gave nothing away, and the hood covered his head completely. The only parts of him that were visible were his hands, and they gave nothing away; only the fact that they were strong, and that they seemed to be young. A longbow lay at his feet, and a quiver of arrows was beside it. They were fine arrows, made from silver birch, evenly feathered and straight. To be caught in Sherwood Forest with such weapons would mean a summary imprisonment or maiming, but the man in the black hood had made no attempt to hide them. Anybody who stopped him would see them, and for him not to worry about such danger meant that he was either Norman nobility or very brave. Perhaps he thought that he had every right to bear such arms. Perhaps he thought that he had been given that right by an authority higher than any Norman law.

Or perhaps he just didn't care.

**********

Robin and his gang saw the cart almost exactly at noon, just as Robin's vision had led him to believe. The driver didn't stop as they stepped out into the road, but when the young leader of the band stepped out in front of him, he reined in the single, aged horse, and brought the lop-sided cart to a halt. The axles creaked in protest and the horse stamped its feet. Robin laid a gentle hand on its neck, and it quietened immediately.

"Where's your escort, Gisburne?" It bothered him that the man was wearing a hood, just as it bothered him that he had remained so still and silent. "Surely even you wouldn't be fool enough to come through Sherwood on your own?"

"I'm not Guy of Gisburne." The voice within the hood was too soft to be properly heard, but it seemed to belong to a man who was well spoken and sure of himself. The certainty of nobility perhaps; definitely not that of most of England's downtrodden peasantry. Robin smiled, keeping his patience just as he always tried to do.

"What are you carrying?" Nodding to Will, he gestured at the back of the cart. Whatever was in there was covered with a piece of material; home-spun and heavy, like the cloth that clothed most of the poor. The hood moved slightly, as though the man within it was turning his attention to the cart.

"A gift." He spoke the words very precisely, with perhaps a touch of humour. "For the people of Herne."

"A gift?" Robin thought about all the possibilities. Was the cart big enough to hide several soldiers ready for the attack? He didn't think so, but he couldn't imagine anything else that Gisburne might be carrying. He almost called Will back, but by then Scarlet had already laid hold of the cloth. With a powerful flick of his wrist he tugged it free, and all of the outlaws turned to see what lay beneath. What had this man come into Sherwood, risking the many outlaws that dwelt there, in order to transport? Robin remembered the cupped hands filled with diamonds that he had seen on his vision - but diamonds were not what lay before him now. Instead, sprawled as though asleep, and still warm to the touch, was a magnificent deer. A single arrow, fashioned from silver birch, protruded from its neck. Robin frowned.

"One of the king's deer..." Not Gisburne then. Whoever this man was, he couldn't be the sheriff's insufferable steward. "Who are you?"

"And what's going on?" Looking about as though he expected some hidden enemy to come dashing out of the undergrowth, Will raised his longbow. An arrow was already fitted to the string, but he didn't point it at any immediate target. John was ready with his staff, eyes surveying the road in wary readiness, and Tuck and Much, close together a short distance away, also looked decidedly uneasy. Only Nasir remained impassive, but Robin knew that he could draw his twin swords in the blink of an eye, and would be ready for battle as quickly as any of them.

"Nothing's going on." The man in the hood sounded as though he was smiling, and Robin wished that he had Albion in his hand. The sword had always given him confidence and strength, but now he felt adrift. He wasn't sure why. Why should an anonymous man in a hood make him feel so ill at ease? Herne's words from earlier were loud in his mind, and he couldn't forget them. Change was coming, and this man triggered the start of it all. Change that might mean death. Change that made Marion cry tears of deepest anguish. Change that was going to lead Will to stab Nasir in the back. He tightened his jaw and stood his ground, and stared at the black space within the hood. Somewhere in there was a face, and he had decided that it was long past due for him to see it. He stood a little straighter, and let his natural authority power his words.

"Who are you?" It was a polite demand, but a demand nonetheless. Nasir had come to stand beside him, arriving as silently as always, adding weight to Robin's own implied threats. The hooded figure moved slightly closer, and Will's bow whipped up to point directly at him. A low laugh, joyous and light, made gentle fun of their forceful behaviour.

"One who shares your father." The words were so close to Herne's own that Robin could not help drawing in a breath. His eyes snapped up a fraction, staring unerringly straight into the other man's eyes. He couldn't see them, but he knew where they were. His instincts always led him to know such things.

"My father?" He was thinking of the Earl of Huntingdon, and inescapably of Guy of Gisburne, but he realised now that he had been wrong. The man in the hood touched him on the shoulder; the action of a brother or a friend.

"Your father," he echoed, and his voice was gentle and strong. "Herne the Hunter." And he pushed back the hood, and they all saw his face for the first time.

And even though it was a face he had never seen before, the man who had once been Robert of Huntingdon knew that he was looking at the man who had once been Robin of Loxley. And he felt as though he was staring into madness.

**********

For a long time nobody spoke. The wind blew gently, and the horse tossed its head. Robin - Robert - laid his hand back upon its neck, but this time it did not quiet down as it had done before. It could sense his unease far too clearly, and its agitation grew. The same was true of all of them, for whatever unrest and uncertainty the horse was experiencing, it couldn't have been as great as that felt by the men grouped around it.

"Who are you?" It was Will who spoke first, belligerent and forceful, bow still pointed at the man on the cart. Loxley grinned, and the expression was one of such familiarity to them all that there wasn't a man amongst them who didn't respond to it. Even Nasir relaxed a little, although his eyes were unreadable.

"You're a demon." Will didn't sound entirely sure of that, but he had never been a man who trusted easily. Loxley shook his head.

"No Will. I'm no demon."

"But you're dead." Much's voice had a faint quiver to it, though his eyes were filled with yearning. He had dreamt of this, ever since the day that Robin had walked away from him, and left Albion in Marion's keeping. "You... you must be a demon."

"What does your heart say, Much?" Loxley had climbed down from the cart without any of them being aware that he had moved. With one hand he stroked the horse into restful silence, and with the other he reached out towards his foster brother. Will made as though to intercede, but a look from the man who had once been his leader stilled him in his tracks. Much looked panicked.

"You're a demon." The whimper had made his voice rise to a higher pitch than normal, and his face was very pale. Loxley shook his head.

"The horse doesn't think so. Horses know, don't they. Remember your father's horse?"

"I remember." The childish grin that Much possessed, which usually made everybody who knew him smile in return, stole briefly across his face. "Horses do know. Animals know all kinds of things, don't they." He took a step forward, and Will moved to stop him.

"Don't be a fool Much. It's a trick. Some trick of Gisburne's, or something magic. Remember Gulnar? Remember how he made another Robin?"

"Always suspicious." Loxley's smile was warm and friendly; the bright smile they had always known. It brought to mind joking around the fire, and fooling around during weapons training. Of his play arguments with Marion, and his gentle mockery whenever he had faced up to the Normans. Demons didn't smile like that, no matter how anxious they were to fool the world. Much's grin grew bigger.

"It's really you, isn't it Robin." His trusting face was transformed, the fear leaving it, replaced by radiant joy. Loxley looked faintly relieved.

"It's really me." He stretched out his hand that little bit further, and stepped past Huntingdon and Nasir. "Hello Much."

"Oh Robin." Running forward, heedless of any of his earlier fears, the boy threw himself into the arms of his adopted brother. Huntingdon fell back a pace, uncertain but intrigued.

"I don't understand." It was John who spoke, his gentle tones showing concern and confusion. "You're dead, Robin. You've been dead for so long. We said our goodbyes like we said them for Dickon and Tom, and Herne sent another son in your place. You can't be here."

"I thought that I was dead." It was clear that it was not easy for him to explain. "Maybe even Herne thought that I was. All that I know is that I was taken deep into the forest; beyond the forest; by somebody that I never saw. I don't remember whatís happened since then. But I know that I'm supposed to be dead."

"And yet you're not." More words of Herne's were returning to Huntingdon now. He is all that he appears to be, and that must not be forgotten. Certainly this man did not appear to be anything so much as Robin of Loxley. The first Robin i' in the Hood. In that case, since Herne had spoken of it, surely that was exactly what he must be? So the man in the black hood truly was at the start of the changes Herne had predicted. The great change that was to come with the autumn.

"No, I'm not." Releasing Much, though keeping him close, Robin turned his attention back to his successor. He saw a young man, younger even than himself, blond where he was dark, Norman where he was English, clearly an aristocrat, where he had always been a peasant. Herne had chosen somebody very different, it seemed, to be his second son. "At least, I don't think so." His head turned, as he looked at each of his former friends in turn. There was mistrust in all their eyes, but he didn't really blame them. How could he when he didn't understand himself? And so it was that the first born son of Herne, as lost in Sherwood Forest as he might have been in a uncharted, foreign land, allowed them to blindfold him, and take him back to their camp. His mind was still floating some paces behind, but his heart was several steps ahead for, in the midst of his confusion, one thought was paramount. Marion.

She at least would know him for what he was.

**********

"Gone?" He had taken off the blindfold, not needing to be told that they had arrived at their destination. "What do you mean she's gone?"

"She's left us." John answered the question automatically, then clammed up slightly. Clearly he was still suspicious. "Didn't want to do it anymore."

"But she was the heart of us. The... the soul." Loxley - or whoever he was - shook his dark head in disbelief. "She can't have just changed."

"These things happen." Huntingdon's voice was sharp, for the loss of Marion was something that he felt keenly. It still hurt that he had had to let her go, and it seemed to him that Loxley was apportioning blame.

"Aye." John was remembering the time, after the death of their first leader, when the band had fallen apart; when they had been flung to the four winds and abandoned the task that had chosen them. He still felt a bit guilty about that, and for that reason even if no other, could not really blame Marion for her departure. Will was not so understanding.

"Went back to being a lady again, didn't she. Back to doing what she used to do. Maybe living in a forest didn't suit her anymore."

"Will!" Huntingdon's powerfully authoritative voice startled them all, but far from reacting angrily, Will was gracious enough to look faintly abashed. They all knew that he didn't really believe the things that he had said. Loxley smiled.

"She'll come back, Will. I'll find her. Speak to her. She belongs with us in Sherwood."

"Who's us?" Scarlet was still deeply suspicious, as were they all. "And you're not going anywhere until we find out who you are."

"I'm Robin of Loxley." The words were simple, the voice gentle and calm. "Don't you remember, Will, how we spent so much time here in Sherwood together? How I first told you who I was, in the dungeon at Nottingham Castle? You said that there was no such place as Loxley, but I told you that nothing's forgotten. Nothing, Will."

"You see?" Much had moved, and was now standing alongside the man who had been his brother. "You see? He is Robin. Just like he used to be. He knows, see. I was there too in that dungeon, and I heard him say that. Just like you did Will."

"Yeah, I heard him." Scarlet was looking confused. There were possibilities of course - people could know about that. Somebody could have overheard, and could now be using that knowledge in an attempt to fool them all. And yet part of him could not really believe that. His eyes turned to Huntingdon - another man that he had once doubted and suspected, and even hated at first, and yet who he had now come to respect almost as no other. "What do you think, Robin?"

"I..." It was more than merely confusing, and Huntingdon was more than merely torn. A man who was dead, and yet wasn't. A man who had been gone for so long and yet, without explanation, was here amongst them again. He remembered when Herne had called him, as the successor to the first Robin i' the Hood. Was it possible that the Lord of the Hunt himself had not known that his son had still lived? "I don't know Will. Except--"

"Except what?" John was ready to believe, through sheer desire for it all to be true, and they could all see that. Huntingdon smiled. It certainly wasn't for him to persuade these people to deny their hearts' desire.

"Herne said that someone would come, and that he would be all that he appeared to be." He frowned. "So I suppose the question is... who does he appear to be?"

"Robin," said Much, with the firm determination of a child who would not be dissuaded. Tuck smiled at him.

"Aye lad. I don't think there's much doubt of that."

"Then you believe me?" Loxley was relieved, although his own confusion still lingered. He didn't know how he came to be alive, any more than did his friends. "John? Will? Nasir?"

"Aye. Aye I think we do believe you." John's voice was gentle, just as it always was when he spoke to his friends, although there was something else behind the words. Will didn't say anything. A little of the hostility had gone from his eyes perhaps, but he had not relaxed his stance. Only Nasir was yet to react in any way. Loxley, who had always been able to read thoughts and emotions that might have been invisible to anybody else, found himself at a loss to identify the look in those dark eyes now.

"I suppose the question is," Will commented, for once taking up the more thoughtful stance, "if you are Robin - how do you come to be here? Who brought you here? What kind of magic did they use, and what did they do it for?" The famous Scarlet belligerence was coming back into his voice, and his eyes were hot once again. Loxley shook his head.

"I wish I knew, Will." The sadness in his voice was almost tragic, and they all felt for him - even if they couldn't yet trust him. "I don't remember being dead, but I know that I was supposed to be. If this is part of somebody's magic, they must be very powerful. It could upset the balance that Herne brings to the forest."

"I should talk to him." The decision formed in Huntingdon's mind in the same, quick way that a summons from Herne usually manifested itself; like an idea that felt as if was born in his own mind, but might just as easily have been put there by another. The mention of going to Herne brought a look of yearning to Loxley's face, but the first Hooded Man didn't ask if he could also go to meet with the Lord of the Forest.

"Why can't he just be Robin?" Much was looking confused, feeling that his joy had been cruelly curtailed by all of this continuing suspicion. He wanted his brother back, and for him that overruled all else. Tuck laid a hand on the boy's shoulder.

"Pour us some ale lad," he said kindly, and the boy, as always, went willingly to do as he was told. Loxley watched him as he complied with the friar's request, remembering so many other times; so many other jugs of ale, beside so many other campfires. Could he really have been brought back to life by some ill-meaning magician, who sought to undo Herne's work in the forest, and tip their world into chaos? He had met so many evil sorcerers in his time, and he had even witnessed one of them return from the dead. If the Baron de Belleme had done it, surely somebody could also do it to him? The thought would have made him shudder, if he had been of a weaker disposition.

"Here Robin." The wooden mugs were exactly as Loxley remembered them - why should they have been any different? He took the one that was being offered to him, smiling his thanks at Much. The boy had changed, and he wondered why he hadn't noticed that straight away. He had not grown taller especially, but he looked less the boy and far more the man. The innocence was still in his eyes though. That much at least had not changed.

"Not for me thanks." Huntingdon shook his head at the mug being offered his way, and turned to leave the camp. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Tuck, stay here and keep guard with Much." He didn't say what it was that had need to be guarded, although the inference was clear. "John, Nasir, Will - if you think you can face leaving when there's ale being poured, get back out and watch the road. There's always a chance I read things wrong and there's somebody else out there."

"Gisburne?" Will's eyes flashed with hope. Huntingdon gave a nod.

"Yes, perhaps. If so, try to leave him in one piece?"

"I'll try." Will's grin was practically from ear to ear. "But I'm not promising anything. Come on lads." He turned and headed away, without so much as a look back at the man seated by the fire. Loxley stared at his back, and longed for the days when this easy camaraderie had been something he had shared. John cast a lingering look in his direction, a frown puckering his forehead, before he cast a brief, half-wave at Tuck and strode off. Nasir too walked quickly away. Robin wished that it was not so difficult to interpret the silent man's thoughts, for it would be nice to know whether or not he had at least one more ally within the camp.

"Will you be alright here alone?" Huntingdon was toying with the hilt of Albion, as though the weapon suddenly weighed heavy upon his belt. Loxley's eyes were drawn to it, and he remembered holding the weapon in his own hands, in the days when he had been its guardian. Would it still know him? Surely the surest and best way to test his good faith would be to see how Albion reacted to him? He was about to suggest it when the young blond man who was now the sword's keeper turned smartly on his heel and moved away. He was gone so fast that the branches of the trees barely moved.

"Are you alright?" Coming back to sit beside Loxley, Much gazed at him over the rim of his mug as he drank. Robin smiled at him.

"I'm fine Much. And don't drink that so quickly. Remember what happened when we ate at Nottingham Castle that time?"

"With King Richard." Much looked a little embarrassed, and lowered the mug. "I remember. I think I remember. Did I slide under the table?"

Tuck guffawed, his round face lighting up with good humour at the memory.

"Aye lad. You slipped right down. Not that the rest of us did much better." He sighed, and his eyes drifted away to look out into the forest. Loxley knew that he was looking after Huntingdon, and he realised that the band that once had followed him were now just as surely devoted to their new leader. This must be very difficult for all of them.

"Why doesn't Robin like Robin?" Much frowned as he asked the question, realising the clumsiness of it, then turned questioning eyes to Tuck. The friar's now serious eyes began to look sad.

"It's complicated, lad." He glanced briefly at Loxley, who looked away. "When a man who's supposed to be dead turns out not to be, it's important to find out how and why. Even if he really is who he says he is, he might be part of somebody's evil plans."

"Robin isn't evil." Much was not the simpleton that he was so often accused of being, but his emotions and opinions were always simple enough. Tuck patted him on the shoulder.

"I know that, lad." He couldn't meet Loxley's eyes though, and kept his gaze upon Much alone. "But it takes a good deal of magic to bring somebody back to life."

"Maybe he was never dead. We never saw his body, did we. Marion and I were there, sort of. We never saw his body. We know the Sheriff's men never found it. Why can't he have survived?"

"Maybe he did." This time Tuck did look at Robin, but Loxley was no longer looking at him. Instead he was staring into the fire. "But there's still something going on here, and we have to hope that whatever it is, it's not going to be a threat to all of us."

"Robin isn't a threat." Much folded his arms, looking cross and upset, but Tuck didn't know what to say to reassure him. Inside he couldn't help feeling worried, and he knew that his feelings were the same as those felt by Huntingdon - and probably by Loxley as well. Whatever they had begun by meeting the hooded man that day, it was something that was going to change the lives of all of them. He only hoped that there was some chance of that change being for good.

**********

"So what do you think?" Having elected to forego secrecy, John, Will and Nasir were striding down the middle of the road together, walking three abreast even though the thoroughfare was hardly wide enough for that. Will sighed, frustrated at his lack of a proper answer to John's question.

"I don't know what to think." He kicked hard at a stone, and the little piece of rock flew into the air and sent a bird flying angrily from its nest. "He didn't look like a ghost."

"Didn't look like a demon either." John shrugged his massive shoulders. "So does that mean he's what he says he is?"

"I don't know. How do you come back to life, or stay alive when everybody knows you're supposed to be dead? Doesn't work, does it. What if somebody else had to die to bring him back, or there's some price that has to be paid now he is back? Nothing I wouldn't pay for that to happen, but... well it doesn't work that way, does it. I never did like magic." Shooting a glance back over his shoulder at Nasir, who was starting to trail behind, Scarlet asked him what he thought. The Saracen was silent for a moment, and both of the other men assumed that he was not going to answer. Eventually, however, he raised his eyebrows in what appeared to be a placid indication of the facts.

"Robin died for us," he said simply, his quiet voice barely carrying in the still air. "For all of us, to make the seasons continue to turn. It was... necessary."

"Then you think he's a ghost, or a demon?" John always felt himself going by the decisions of the taciturn Saracen - when they could actually get him to voice his decisions that was. There was something about the man's quiet wisdom that was strangely compelling.

"No." For once he voiced the word, instead of merely indicating it with a shake of his head. "He is alive. What is important is to know what comes next."

"What price there is to be paid." Will nodded, his own opinion, voiced so recently, now apparently being underlined. Nasir nodded.

"Fate demands payment."

"You're a confusing sod at times, you know that?" Will shook his head, annoyed with everybody for no particular reason. He just wanted to be angry, because he didn't know what was going on. John smiled at him.

"He means that if something is supposed to happen, but for some reason it doesn't, something else will have to happen instead. And it's a good point. We're all worrying about whether Robin's a ghost, or has been brought back to life for some horrible reason - but the truth is that it could be just as bad if he's none of those things. Maybe he never died. Maybe nobody's brought him back from the dead. Still could be dangerous having him back though, couldn't it."

"Well what do you want to do? Kill him?" Will shook his head, exasperated with everything. "What do you think we should do, Naz?"

"Hide." The Saracen had stopped, and was standing in the middle of the road, apparently listening to thin air. "Somebody is coming."

"Huh?" Scarlet froze, also listening. "Who?" His answer was a withering glare, and he grinned. "Yeah yeah, alright. How many are there?"

"One wagon. Three men on horses." Neither of Nasir's companions thought to question his judgement, and together they hurried into the bushes that lined the road. John rubbed his beard, his mind racing ahead of itself as he tried to think what they should do next.

"Do we try to ambush them?" he asked. Will rolled his eyes.

"No John. We hide here and let them go on past. Of course we ambush them. Are you going soft?"

"Keep your voice down." John peered over the bushes, and was pleased to see that there was still no sign of whoever was coming. "I just meant, there's only the three of us. Shouldn't we play safe?"

"You can if you want to. I'm going to go and rob me a wagon." Will frowned. "Shame there aren't a few more of us though. Might be a bit rough if there's a lot of people riding in that wagon."

"A bit rough?" John shook his head. "Look, if Nasir goes back to the camp he can get the others and be back here before they've gone too far. We can lay a proper ambush further down the road."

"There won't be anybody back at the camp, remember? Robin's off looking for Herne, and Tuck and Much can't leave... the other Robin. It's up to us." Will scowled, doing his best to think hard. Planning had never been his strongest suit. "What about the net that Robin had us put up in the trees near here? We could use that."

"The net is for emergencies, Will. I'm pretty certain Robin had plans for--"

"This is an emergency! Robin's not here, we're on our own, and somebody who could be carrying loads of gold is going to get past us unless we do something." Will seemed determined to win the argument through sheer volume alone. "Nasir, where did we put the net?"

"Ahead. Not far." Pointing upwards and onwards, the Saracen indicated where the hidden trap was secreted. As always he made no comment about the sense of Will's plan, but merely answered the question as economically as was possible. Scarlet nodded.

"Good. Get up a tree and get ready to spring it. John?"

"You're crazy." The big man was smiling though, and it was obvious that he was not going to pull out. "Alright, alright. I'll get into position. But no unnecessary risks, Will."

"I'll behave." If it was actually possible for Scarlet to do so then he had given no indication of it over the last few years of his acquaintance with John, but his friend was not the sort to point that out. "I'll even promise not to kill anybody who gets tangled up. So are we ready?"

"Yeah." Nodding at Nasir to get on his way, John hefted his heavy quarter-staff. "Lead on Will."

"Over here." Running at a crouch Scarlet led the way towards a likely piece of cover. The bushes were thicker, the trees taller, and the road rather narrower than further down, and it all looked very promising. John still thought that they were daft for making the attempt, but he didn't say anything. Will was not nearly so circumspect, however.

"You think we're nuts, don't you."

"Yeah." John grinned at him. "And if this doesn't work, you're the one who's going to explain to Robin that we've ruined his net before he even got the chance to use it."

"We'll tell him it got eaten by squirrels." Will's face became grim as the sounds of horse hooves became increasingly loud. "Ready?"

"Are you kidding? I'll never be ready for this." Laying down his staff he fixed an arrow to his bow. "You know, I'm certain Robin had big plans for that net."

"Hard luck." Will's eyes were narrow as he tried to judge timing and distances. This was definitely the reason they usually had somebody else to give the orders. The convoy was in view now; three men on horseback, just as Nasir had said, one riding ahead of the other two, all preceding a slow, heavy wagon.

"Look at that!" Will was delighted, and John could understand why. Distinct in his colourful robes, the man driving the wagon was clearly identifiable. Abbot Hugo de Rainault, older brother of the Sheriff of Nottingham, was driving with both his eyes on the bushes to either side of the road. Of all the churchmen in the locality he had suffered the most at the hands of Robin's men, for they had all taken a great delight in tormenting him. Clearly now he was nervous and expecting trouble.

"Poor old Abbot Hugo." John grinned hugely. "He's looking in the wrong direction."

"And you didn't think that the net was a good idea." Will raised his bow. He had a perfect bead on the lead rider, but he didn't want to fire until he knew when and where the net was going to fall. His eyes drifted up. He couldn't see Nasir or the net, but he knew that they were both up there. The net was camouflaged against the reddening leaves, and Nasir would be somewhere to the left of it, where they had hidden the mechanism that would send it falling to the ground. The timing had to be perfect, but the net itself would not let them down.

"Not yet, Naz." The Saracen could not hear him of course, but it made Scarlet feel better to talk aloud. "Not yet. Not yet..." The horses were coming closer, and the wagon would soon be level with them. If Hugo was being as vigilant as he appeared to be, he could not fail to see them then - and would give a warning that would make the best of ambushes hopeless. John glanced up.

"What's he waiting for?"

"The right moment." Will tightened his grip on his bow and its readied arrow. "Not yet Naz, not yet, not... Now!" And in perfect tandem with his whispered word, the leaves above them blossomed out into a burst of downward motion. Hugo looked up, clearly expecting to have a multitude of outlaws descending upon him from the trees, only to see the net. He let out a startled squeak and tried to whip up the horses, but trapped behind the less alarmed guards he was unable to get out of the way. The net fell, and the horses whinnied in startled fright as it folded itself around them. Trapped as well, the two rearmost soldiers fell from their mounts in a fury of lashing fists and kicking feet. Will stood up in the same instant, and with one ruthless shot, killed the guard in the lead. His horse made as if to bolt, but Nasir's quiet form melted out of the shadows in just enough time to catch hold of its bridle and calm it.

"Well well well. Abbot Hugo." Striding up to the wagon, John put his hands on his hips and regarded the furious churchman with sparkling eyes. "Anybody would think you liked being ambushed."

"Yeah. Isn't it about time you looked for a road that doesn't take you through Sherwood?" Grinning at the trapped abbot, Will swung up onto the back of the wagon. Hugo began to struggle furiously, winding himself up in the net so securely that it looked as though it would have taken a whole army with their swords to cut him loose.

"Let me go!" His voice was about one part fear to two parts anger, and of course only served to make Will's spirits rise. The incorrigible outlaw began rummaging through the contents of the wagon, making as much noise and mess as he could. Trapped as he was the abbot was unable to see what was going on, but the noises were clearly horrifying him. Will, who was uncovering nothing but coloured silks and large books, did not really see the point of such anguish.

"There's nothing here worth having." He threw a pile of silk at John, who played up to the rŰle by wrapping a length of sky blue material around his head and taking up a coquettish stance. Will laughed.

"Very fetching. Not going to pull in the money though, is it. How much do you reckon these books are worth?"

"Do I look like a cleric?" John threw one of the books to Nasir, who flicked through the first few pages with a look of brief interest.

"Greek plays," he told them, with the air of one who knew exactly what he was looking at. Will and John, who had long since ceased to hope that they would ever have all their questions about their Saracen friend answered, merely exchanged a look.

"But is it worth anything?" Will asked. Nasir shook his head.

"No more than any book." He turned over a few more pages, and a frown flickered across his forehead.

"Something wrong?" Fighting his way out of the blue silk he had wrapped about himself a little too tightly, John went to join his companion. Nasir held out the book. About a third of the way through, the pages had been stuck together with some sort of gum, and a large hole had been cut into the middle of the thick wad. It turned the book into a neat little box, clearly designed to be a clever hiding place for something. It was empty, but perhaps the others were not. With a growing smile upon his face, John tossed the book to Will, who glanced at it, raised his eyebrows, and began searching through the rest of the wagon's previously uninteresting cargo. Hugo's struggles became more furious, and John knocked him out with a blow from his quarter-staff.

"What is there?" he asked eventually. Will was still rummaging.

"Couple of necklaces," he announced in the end, holding up a book in one hand and two golden chains in the other. Both bore sizeable crosses decorated in coloured quartz and jet; nothing terribly valuable, but enough to take care of one or two of the financial burdens placed upon local villages. John took the chains, stowing them away inside his tunic.

"That the lot?" It was a little disappointing, given the enthusiasm of their ambush, but the chains were at least worth the weight of the gold that made them.

"I don't know." Will burrowed on, skimming through the pages of several dozen more books. Most of them had not been doctored, and were just what they appeared to be - long volumes written in languages he didn't understand, including at least one alphabet that he couldn't even begin to decipher. "Books are worth something if they're old, aren't they?"

"Probably only to a bookseller." There were not many of them in the local area, and John couldnít imagine it being worth their while trying to sell any of these volumes. None of them looked particularly old, anyway. "Come on Will. We ought to be moving on. Quick in and out, that's always been Robin's rule. You never know when somebody might come along."

"Just a bit." Will was still turning pages, turning books upside down and shaking them, throwing them all aside when they proved to be empty or untampered with. For once Nasir was not keeping watch, browsing instead through one of the abandoned texts. John rolled his eyes. Here he was trying to hurry things along, and both of his friends had suddenly turned into unexpected bookworms. The abbot was beginning to stir, and he considered taking out his frustrations by clobbering the poor fellow again.

"Leave those alone." Trying and failing to sit up, Abbot Hugo glared daggers at Will. "They're the property of the Church."

"The Church does interesting things to its books." Will waved one of the doctored texts at Hugo, who turned a very uncomfortable shade of purple and tried to feign a lack of concern. Nasir was frowning.

"Something wrong?" Well used by now to having to prompt the Saracen into speech, John climbed up onto the wagon to try to speed things along by helping Will. Nasir held out the book he had been reading through, and John nodded knowledgeably.

"Very nice." It wasn't a good start when you couldn't even be sure of the language that a book was written in. "What is it?"

"Not the property of his church." Nasir's eyes narrowed, as though wondering whether Hugo really was part of the same religion as Friar Tuck. "I know this book, from the library of the Baron de Belleme."

"So itís devil stuff?" John took the book, shaking his head. He recognised two distinct alphabets, one of which appeared to be Greek - the language of learning, or so it was said. He didnít think much of this kind of learning, certainly. The other alphabet looked like the one that he had seen Nasir use once or twice, and he took it to be Arabic. The over-all effect was one of remarkable aesthetic appeal, but wasnít much of a help since he didnít understand either language. "I never thought you'd be into all that, Hugo."

"Who said that I am?" Hugo was wriggling again, entangling himself so completely in the mesh of the net that he was becoming practically invisible. "You'll not get away with this, you, you--"

"Shut up." Will hurled a couple more books aside, shaking his head. "I think we've had all we're going to get."

"Then let's leave." John was already climbing down from the wagon, eager for the off.

"I'm coming." There were only three more books. Will turned the first one upside down, and was rewarded with a small handful of silver marks; no great sum, but enough to feed the village of Wickham for at least a month. The second book appeared to be a copy of some epic poem, its neat rows of hand-written script familiar in pattern at least, even if Will Scarlet, like most of his fellow Englishmen, was incapable of understanding Latin.

"Come on!" Losing patience, John caught Will by the scruff of the neck and hoisted him out of the wagon. The last book, slightly bigger than the others and bound in black leather, fell from Scarlet's hands and landed heavily on the ground. John let out an oath.

"What-?" Unable to see what the book had contained, Scarlet had to wait until John had dropped him, unceremoniously, onto the ground. John was still gaping, and Will, intrigued, turned to look. What he saw made his mouth fall open in stunned amazement.

Lit by the high sun above them, the road at their feet was a blaze of brilliant white light. Spilling from the book in a torrent of magnificence was a pool of diamonds - shimmering fire, that dazzled them with its purity. John seemed to have forgotten how to breathe.

"By Heaven." He couldn't think of anything else to say, and neither could Will. Had they had Tuck's faith they might have crossed themselves, but as it was they merely stared. It was Nasir who stirred them into action once again, stepping past them to scoop the diamonds back into the mutilated book that was their hiding place.

"We should go," he told them. He looked unsettled by something, although neither man could see any definite reason for it. Perhaps the thought of the Baron de Belleme had bothered him.

"Yeah." John took the book, wrapping a length of spare bow cord around it, to ensure that the diamonds couldn't escape. "Don't worry, Hugo. I'm sure somebody will be along to get you out of that lot soon enough."

"You'll pay for this." Still struggling furiously, with an energy that he did not usually possess, Hugo was fighting to get to them. Will laughed at his fury.

"I don't think he wants us to take the jewels."

"You could be right." John tucked the book under his arm. "Come on. We'd better get back. Robin is going to want to see this lot."

"Yeah." The situation back at camp once again becoming the centre of his thoughts, Will raised a questioning eyebrow, lowering his voice to ask a question he had no wish for de Rainault to overhear. "But which Robin?"

"Huntingdon." It had been a long time since any of them had thought of Robin that way, let alone called him by that name, but it seemed the only one to use now. "We'll worry about the other one later."

"Yeah." Will nodded, trying to recapture a little of the cheer he had been enjoying before his thoughts had been turned back to the newly rediscovered Loxley. It didn't quite work, which annoyed him. "Yeah, I guess we'll have to."

**********

Back at the camp Huntingdon had returned before the other three, wandering out of the forest with the frustrated, quickened stride that he always used when he was ill at ease. He had been searching for Herne in the forest, and had not been successful in his search. Wherever his ethereal 'father' had gone, it was not somewhere where his son could follow. Huntingdon felt uncertain without Herneís guidance in the matter now before him, for he had no more or less as counsel than he had been told earlier - that the one who had come was everything he appeared to be. He still couldn't decide whether Loxley appeared to be a threat or a friend, though, which didn't help him to work out whether or not he could trust his predecessor. Much's opinion didn't help matters, and Tuck was as confused as Huntingdon himself. It didn't bode terribly well.

They had put together a simple of meal of bread and fruit, hoping that the others would be returning soon. Loxley dozed beside the fire, dreaming restlessly of old times; of the insidious autumn that had crept up on him when he had last lived within Sherwood, in the days immediately prior to his 'death'. He saw himself swimming with Marion, laughing with the gang, roasting meat over the fire. He saw himself talking with Herne, and heard his shadowy 'father' pronounce the final prediction that he had made, that last, fateful time. One comes, one goes... The images swirled into disorder in his mind, and he felt himself beginning to wake up. He saw trees turning red and gold, and himself, lying on a bed of flowers beneath a canopy of hanging ivy. He saw a man - himself - hidden by a black hood, riding on a cart through Sherwood. He saw a pair of hands, holding a pile of dazzling diamonds; Marion, holding out her hands, imploring, anguished, with tears rolling down her face; Will, stabbing a black-clad man in the back - a man who could only have been Nasir.

"No!" With a yelp he jolted awake. Tuck frowned.

"Are you alright?"

"Dreams." Loxley's dark gaze sought out Huntingdon. "Messages, if I remember the feelings."

"What messages?" Huntingdon was struggling with his own prophecies that needed deciphering, and would have welcomed the help of anybody. Loxley frowned.

"You should know. The stones. Marion. Will and Nasir. You must have seen them."

"Yes." Huntingdon looked at the ground. "I just wish I knew what it means."

"Danger." Robin straightened up. "We should speak to Marion. If something is going to happen, she should be warned. This obviously concerns her."

"The last thing that Marion needs is to be dragged into this right now. She's not going to know anything about you being here until... well until we find out if you really are here." Sounds approached them through the forest, and the leader of the band of outlaws turned his back on his predecessor. The others were returning, and that was his priority now.

"Hey!" Will was in high spirits, bursting through the trees at the edge of camp as though anxious to make as much noise as possible. "We've got special gifts from Abbot Hugo."

"Oh dear." Tuck couldn't help smiling. "Poor old Abbot Hugo. He's been robbed so many times he's going to give up travelling at all before long."

"I hope not." John slung the two gold chains down onto the ground beside the fire, along with the few silver coins. "He's worth too much to us for that."

"Yeah, and that's not all." Will held out his hands, and using his large frame to block the view that the others had of him, John poured the diamonds from the book into the waiting, cupped hands. They fitted, just; a pile of white fire within the doubled palms. "What do you think of this?"

"Good Heavens." Staring unbelievingly at the diamonds, Tuck shook his head and whispered something reverent in Latin. "Well that'll feed a lot of peasants."

"Aren't you going to say anything, Robin?" Will was holding out his hands, but Huntingdon could only look at Loxley. They had both seen the pile of diamonds, and they were both unsettled by what was happening now. Scarlet was a little disappointed.

"This is one of the best hauls we've ever had. Maybe the best. Can't you think of anything to say?"

"Well done. All of you." Huntingdon was staring at the ground, his mind filled with the other images that had gone with the prediction of the diamonds; Marion; Will and Nasir. What did it all mean?

"You're even less fun than Naz." Will poured the diamonds on top of the rest of their takings from the day, and Tuck began to load it all into a wooden chest that they kept for the purpose. "The way he's been acting you'd think we'd found ordinary stones, instead of that lot."

"Something wrong?" Huntingdon had learned to trust Nasir's instincts, and with everything else that seemed to be going on at the moment he was willing to listen to just about anything. The Saracen's dark eyes lingered on the diamonds as they were stowed away; then he took the book they had been contained in from John, and handed it to Tuck. The friar turned it over in his hands, and his eyes nearly leapt from his head.

"This is a copy of the Bible! It's - it's - it's a sacrilege! It's--" Words clearly failed him, and he held up the book for all of them to see. The pages, stuck together; the hole through the middle. Only the first few pages had escaped mutilation; the title page, and the first few chapters of Genesis. It was in Hebrew rather than the more familiar Latin, and although Tuck did not speak the language, he knew enough from his studies to recognise the names of the books of the Bible as they were listed on the title page. Still apoplectic with indignation he did not continue, but merely put the book down on the ground.

"The Bible?" Will picked it up and glanced at it, deciding that the unfamiliar alphabet had been the reason why he had failed to recognise the book. "Why would Abbot Hugo have allowed the Bible to be treated like this?"

"Precisely!" Tuck seemed to have faced quite a struggle to get that one word out, but it had apparently broken his period of furious wordlessness. "What did he say? Where was he heading?" He shook his head. "I knew that he was hardly the most pious of men, but I never thought he would stoop to this."

"He was heading back to Nottingham Castle, I'd say." John sat down beside the fire, pouring himself some wine. Now that autumn was well underway there was a creeping cold within the forest that was not always noticeable until it had taken a firm hold on the limbs, and the wine helped to warm him up even more quickly than did the fire. "That wasn't all, though, was it Nasir. There was that other book."

"Nasir?" Tuck looked up, his indignation still showing. The Saracen's quiet gaze strayed towards the two Robins, as though he was deferring to both of them, rather than either one of them in particular.

"A book from the library of de Belleme." Long sentences were not his forte, and the number of his words served to indicate the degree of his seriousness. "A book about devil worship. I saw the baron use it."

"And our friend Hugo said that it was Church property." Will threw himself down beside the fire. "I can't say as I've spent much of my life in churches, but I reckon things have changed a lot if that's the sort of thing they're into now."

"It's not." Tuck's eyes, uncharacteristically sharp, flicked back up to look at Nasir. "You're sure?" His only answer was a nod, but it was a resolute one. "Then I'd say that something is most certainly wrong."

"But what? I know Hugo de Rainault's hardly the most holy man in the Church, but he's certainly no devil worshipper." Loxley couldn't help smiling at the image of the Sheriff's irascible brother daubing blood on himself - and he certainly didn't want to think about him dancing naked, whether it was at midnight or at any other time of the day or night. Tuck nodded, agreeing with his opinion.

"The Abbott de Rainault is definitely in the job for the money, but he still takes his position more seriously than a lot of other abbots I've known."

"Perhaps he didn't know that that book was in the collection, " suggested John. His expression was one of dry amusement. "There are one or two people in the world who don't read Arabic and Greek."

"I might believe that if I hadn't see this." Tuck gestured at the Bible. "Any man of the cloth would know it for what it is. You don't have to understand Hebrew to recognise the layout, and the reverence of the script. The question is, who around here would have a copy of the Bible, in Hebrew, on their bookshelf?"

"A Jew?" suggested Huntingdon. Like most educated men, he was aware of the parallels between Christianity and Judaism. Tuck nodded.

"Perhaps. But not a practising one, if he's prepared to do this. These chapters are as sacred to the Jews as they are to Christians, and no man who puts any sort of value on either faith would do this to them. I wouldn't do it if I had a hundred other identical copies." He shook his head. "I think it's something else, Robin, though it pains me to say it. There are those who would find it amusing to use such a book for a purpose like this."

"The sort of people who would also have books on devil worship." Will shook his head. "We do find them, don't we."

"They're attracted to the area. Sherwood has its spirits and its centres of power." Huntingdon frowned and turned back to Tuck. "Why would a person like that have a copy of the Bible anyway though?"

"Some spells call for it." Tuck crossed himself, and changed the subject slightly. "But a Hebrew Bible? Hebrew is such an ancient language, far older than Latin. Any spells that call for it would be..." He shivered. "They would be far stronger, more terrible than others, I'm sure of it. Hebrew Bibles aren't easy to come by in England though."

"But somebody who learnt his devil worship in a country where it's a common language could easily have got that Bible while he was out there." Loxley was conscious that his contributions to the conversation would not necessarily be welcome whilst everyone was still so suspicious of him, but he spoke up anyway, looking around at them all as he did so. "We all know at least one man who fits that description."

"And according to Nasir the book came from his library." John shook his head. "De Belleme. I keep hoping that we've seen the last of that one."

"Then go on hoping." Will grabbed for the wine, and took a long drink. "I'm not convinced though. There's no reason why old Hugo would be working with a devil worshipper like that. Although if de Belleme is causing trouble again, it might just explain why Robin is back. Always had a special regard for you, didn't he."

"Yes." Loxley remembered the Silver Arrow, and its part in the death and resurrection of the evil baron. Both events had been at his own instigation, although he had been bewitched on the second occasion. He wondered if Will's suggestion was the truth, and he was back here, alive, because the Baron de Belleme had caused it to be so. The thought made him cold to his very heart.

"If the baron is back, won't he be coming to get his diamonds?" Much's quavering voice made them all draw their minds away from thoughts of larger issues, and returned them to the more immediate present. It was Loxley who answered.

"Maybe. It would help to know why he needs them in the first place. Theyíre no good to him as currency, and heís not the type for collecting jewellery for its own sake. Any ideas, Nasir?" The dark head bowed slightly, though hesitantly, in its customary single nod. It had been a long time, but the things that Nasir had seen and heard in the castle of the Baron de Belleme were not things that he would ever easily forget.

"He had many jewels. They were for powerful magic. For focus." Clearly he didnít understand the workings of it all, but as far as Huntingdon was concerned they had heard enough.

"Then we should get rid of them. I doubt he can follow them here, but once he hears from de Rainault who it was that stole them, he'll have a pretty good head start."

"And if he's got something planned for them, it seems like a good idea for us to get them out of the way." Scarlet appeared to be volunteering for the task. "There are all kinds of folk tales about this sort of stuff, so there's no telling what he might use them for in his spells. Why not sell them right away and have done with them?"

"Sounds like sense to me," put in Tuck. Huntingdon was silent for a moment.

"Yes," he said finally, although apparently with some reluctance. "Since they let the Jews back into Nottingham we've been making one or two friends among them. They're probably the best people to go to. Nasir, you'd better go. They don't all speak English." The Saracen inclined his head in quiet acceptance of the mission, and rose smoothly to his feet. Will also jumped up.

"He's not going alone," he said firmly. "It's not safe. Not for any of us." Nasir's ever-expressive face queried the suggestion that he might not be capable of looking after himself, but Will was unrepentant. "We don't know how many people might be out there, and we don't know who they are, or what they want, or what they're capable of. It's crazy to send one man off alone."

"Yes. Yes, you're right." Huntingdon nodded, although he still didn't seem very happy with the situation. "Go ahead Will. You too John."

"You'll be alright here?" John didn't like the idea of leaving so few people behind in the camp, for Loxley's rŰle had not yet been established, and Much was still not much of a fighter. Huntingdon nodded.

"We'll be fine." It seemed sensible to send three of them with such a valuable cargo, and he didn't want Nasir and Will to be alone together following his vision of them. Preventing Will from going would likely be counter-productive though, for it would almost certainly lead to resentment on his part. He was eager for the mission, and would be better suited to it than either Tuck or Much. "Travel as fast as you can, be careful, and wait until night before you enter the town. You know where to head for once you're inside."

"Aye, we know." Fishing out an old sheepskin pouch, John filled it with the diamonds, drawing the string tight so that they were sealed inside. "We'll be back by morning if we can, but we might have to hide somewhere until tomorrow night, and make our way out then."

"Just play it safe. If there's any chance that the Baron de Belleme is in Nottingham I don't want any of you being seen by him. He won't be fooled by disguises, and he won't let you go if he's got any chance of preventing it. You know the sort of man that he is." Loxley's words seemed natural given the circumstances, and had it not been for Huntingdon sitting beside him they might almost have forgotten the extraordinary circumstances of his presence. It felt just as it had always done, when he had led them in the days before his departure. The days before his death. Uncomfortable, uncertain, the threesome nodded their understanding and turned to leave.

"I don't like this." Tuck stared after them, the look on his face suggesting that he expected the baron to leap out at them at any second. "None of this seems right. The Abbot Hugo of all people..."

"I know." Pouring himself a drink, Huntingdon looked around at the untouched meal that they had prepared. He certainly didn't feel like eating it now, but life in the forest over the past year had taught him to eat when food was available. If they were facing the prospect of getting caught up in something unpredictable, there was no telling how regular meals would be from now on. He toyed with a piece of bread. "Perhaps I shouldn't have let the others leave."

"What else could you have done?" Tuck shook his head. "Don't worry about it Robin."

"I can't help worrying." Throwing the bread aside, he got up and headed away across the clearing. "I'm going for a walk. I need... I need to think."

"Be careful." Tuck's gentle warning made Huntingdon smile, and he nodded.

"I will. I'll be back soon. Stay on watch, Much, and if you see anybody who isn't one of us - no matter who it is - youíre all to stay hidden until they've gone. Understand?"

"Alright Robin." The boy headed off into the branches of the tall tree that they had chosen to be their watch point. Robin watched him go. Why did he feel so uneasy? What was this lingering unrest that would not leave his mind alone? Perhaps a quiet walk in the forest would cure it. Something had to. The way that things were going now, if the tension didn't break soon he felt that he would surely go mad. Shouldering his bow, he paced restlessly away into the forest. Tuck watched him go.

"I wouldn't be in that lad's shoes right now," he commented idly. Loxley stared at him, then lowered his eyes.

"I'm sorry," he said flatly, and lay back on the short grass. "I should have stayed away."

And Tuck didn't have an answer for that.

**********

Will, John and Nasir were striding down the middle of the road again, the two Englishmen doing their best to lighten the situation with a conversation. They had settled on the topic of a recent feast day in Wickham, which was the least contentious subject they could think of, and were trying to enjoy reminiscing over their drunken experiences of the day. It didn't work, and their thoughts kept returning to the two Robins, and the difficult question of what was to happen.

"I wish Marion would come back." John shouldered his quarter-staff, moving it about awkwardly as though looking for the most comfortable position in which to carry it. In reality he was just restless. "She'd know if Robin - the first one - is who he says he is."

"How? She's not magic." Will shook his head. "Anyway, she's not going to come back just like that, is she. She was in love with him."

"Well then you'd think she'd want to see him again, wouldn't you." John frowned, remembering the situation that had existed between Marion and the second Robin. "I would. I think."

"Yeah, but you're not a woman, are you. She lost the love of her life, and then sort of fell in love with his replacement, and then--" Will broke off, for he still wasn't entirely sure what had happened there. Marion had loved Loxley, that much had always been clear, but it had become obvious to all of them that she would soon have fallen for Huntingdon, if she had spent much more time in his company. Huntingdon certainly loved her, and always had. "Mess everything up, that would I reckon. Having Marion coming back, getting Robin jealous, and making Robin... well it would all be a mess, wouldn't it."

"Yeah, I suppose." John wandered along for a bit in silence. "Confuses matters, doesn't it. Having two men in love with the same woman."

"You're telling me." Will grinned, finally thinking of a way that would help them to change the subject to something less disturbing. "The last woman I fell in love with was when I was back in Lichfield - you know, before Huntingdon got us all back together. Alice, her name was. She was a kitchen maid."

"Pretty?"

"Yeah. Then one day I went to visit her a bit earlier than usual, and I found her in bed with the cartwright."

"Poor old Will." John banged him on the back in an faintly conciliatory manner. "Bad shock?"

"You're telling me. He wasnít even a decent cartwright. None of his axles were straight, and he had bad breath." Scarlet shrugged. "We're not all good at getting loyal women, the way you are. How is Meg, anyway? I haven't seen her in a while."

"You won't." John had a smile on his face that wasn't entirely genuine, although there was no real sadness reflected in his eyes. "She's going to marry her cousin, from the next village. They've got a child on the way already, apparently. Seems she decided to look elsewhere, after I called off our wedding that time."

"Doesn't want to be waiting forever for an outlaw that won't leave his forest?" Will shook his head. "Sorry John."

"It's alright." The big man was silent for a while, then smiled. "Maybe they'll name their first child after me."

"Well then I hope it's not a girl." Scarlet grinned, casting a glance back over his shoulder at Nasir. "How about you, Naz? Who was the last girl you fell in love with?" His answer was a small smile, but he was not expecting words. Nasir never joined in with conversations of a personal nature. He shrugged slightly now though, and surprised both of his companions with a few words.

"A long time ago. In my own country."

"And there were we thinking you'd been celibate all your life." Will laughed his raucous laugh. "What was her name?" He was answered with a pause so long that he began to think Nasir had decided to end his contribution to the discussion; then the Saracen frowned slightly at some distant memory, and smiled a very small smile.

"Sumina. She was from the Moorish lands. The widow of a general who fought with my father."

"And?" John was eager to hear more, but as always Nasir was not one for words. His eyebrows moved, showing the shadows of several conflicting emotions. "Well how did you meet?"

"And was it romantic?" added Will, although he was probably the least romantic of the lot of them. Nasir's eyebrow arched, in a familiar expression of faint humour.

"When I was first captured, before I was sold to the baron. She was already a prisoner."

"Oh, well." John couldn't help laughing. "Nothing more romantic than a crowded dungeon. The bad food, the slime on the walls. Never fails to turn a lady's head."

"Yeah, but what happened?" Will wanted to hear the end of the tale, but had to wait some time before Nasir spoke again.

"I was taken away," he said simply. The other two shared a look, before John erupted into a shout of violent laughter.

"We're a sorry bunch, aren't we. Tuck's probably had better luck with women than we have."

"Course he has. Women like bald men." Will shook his head. "We're going to have to think of something more cheerful to talk about, or we're all going to be depressed long before we reach Nottingham."

"Speak for yourself." John was still laughing, though quietly now. He was feeling better for it, even though they were all still uneasy. Showing plenty of that unease himself, Will waved a hand at him suddenly, trying to hush him.

"Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?" Managing to be serious, John looked backwards and forwards along the road. "There's nobody coming."

"I'm not so sure." Will listened again, then shrugged when he heard nothing further. "Maybe I'm wrong. Did you hear anything Nasir?"

"Yes." The dark eyes were looking every way at once. John recognised the wary look within them. "But I don't know what."

"Think we should leave the road?" Will's inquiry was at half his usual volume. John nodded.

"Yeah. Might be for the best. Move easy, we--" He didn't finish the sentence, for up ahead, moving out of the bushes the way Robin's men themselves so often did, were three soldiers. They carried bows ready levelled, arrows pointing straight ahead. John's face hardened.

"Back into the trees," he hissed, keeping his voice low. "Get ready to run. We'll find a higher position and take them out."

"Right." Easing an arrow from his quiver, Will slid it into his bow, walking backwards slowly all the time. His progress was soon stilled, however, when Nasir laid a hand on his shoulder. Scarlet turned. Coming towards them from the opposite direction, also with readied bows, were three more soldiers. They looked dirty from their wait in the undergrowth, their blue cloaks spattered with mud, and they were clearly eager to fire. Scarlet's expression darkened.

"What now?"

"We still head back into the trees." John darted a look over his shoulder. "Don't waste time shooting. Just run. Ready?"

"You'd better believe it." Will took a step, trying to see every which way at once. There were other noises coming from around them, all of which bothered him greatly, but right now there was no chance of finding out what was their source. He got ready to run.

"Now! John's voice echoed clearly, and the three friends moved as one, dashing to where the trees crept up to the road's rough edge. Something loomed above them; something well camouflaged. Something that instinct told Will deserved his full attention. He glanced up - to see a net come dropping towards them. Nasir gave a shout of warning and tried to push John clear, but weighted down as it so clearly was, the net moved too fast. In the blink of an eye it was upon them. Nasir fought briefly then fell still, and trapped beneath John, Will could do nothing at all. He saw a shadow fall across them, and looked up into the amused eyes of Abbot Hugo de Rainault.

"Well well well, isn't this nice." Beaming at them in the placid way of a benevolent old monk, Hugo allowed a flash of something considerably less pleasant to burn in his eyes. "Never let it be said that I don't learn from example."

"How-?" Will fell silent, determined not to give de Rainault any enjoyment from his futile anger. Hugo smiled at him.

"You'll recognise the net of course. It's a little patched in places perhaps, but definitely still serviceable. Now which of you has those diamonds?"

"We left them back at our camp," John told him, voice furious in its defiance. A soldier kicked him.

"I don't believe you." Hugo shrugged. "But no matter. I'll find them soon enough. Men?" There were more soldiers now; obviously some kind of relief group that had chanced upon the entangled abbot, and had swelled his forces accordingly. Several of them bent to take hold of the net, whilst several others aimed their arrows at the captured trio. Struggling to avoid the hampering mesh, John managed to lay a hand on Nasir's arm, warning him not to try anything. It was not easy to quell his own instincts for battle, but he knew hopeless odds when he saw them. He had lost his bow when the net had fallen, and his quarter-staff was no longer in his hand.

"Don't bother trying to fight," warned Hugo, making Will seethe. "You wouldn't have a chance, and it's so much more enjoyable to have live prisoners. Dead ones only clutter the place up, and Gisburne would want to display you somewhere inconvenient."

"Well we'd hate to get in the way." The net had lifted slightly, and John found that he could move his foot. He wondered if there was something, perhaps, that he could do, but decided in the end that there wasn't. Furious at his own impotency, he tried to focus his mind beyond what was happening. It wasn't easy.

"Robin's going to kill us for this." Will's voice, in his ear, helped to ease the tension a little. Seconds later the net lifted away, and they could move again. John tightened his grip on Nasir's arm.

"Get off me then!" Struggling under the weight of his friend, Will tried to stand up. John moved slowly, carefully, keeping his eyes on the soldiers. None of them had made a move as yet but he didn't want to be the last to do so. Hugo was still beaming at them all. He didn't seem quite himself, but clearly he was in an extremely efficient mood.

"Take them." He pronounced the order quickly, sharply, then turned on his heel and walked a few paces away. John steeled himself as the soldiers grabbed him, dragging him to his feet. His two friends were treated the same way, hauled upright by mailed hands determined not to be too gentle. Their weapons were taken with ruthless efficiency, their quivers stripped off, their swords removed. It took the soldiers a few moments to relieve Nasir of the unfamiliar harness that fixed his swords to his back, but they worked fast and without patience, and soon the task was done. All three outlaws had daggers hidden about them, but there seemed no point in trying to use them yet.

"Very good." Striding back over, smoothing the flowing purple folds of his robe, Hugo surveyed the scene with obvious pleasure. Will fought the desire to punch the smile right off the abbot's face, and contented himself was glaring back at the other man with the sort of force that usually worried the toughest of soldiers. Hugo, however, didn't seem to register it at all.

"Tie them up." His interest was waning, as though now that he had the outlaws he didn't care about them anymore. "And find me those diamonds."

"Sir." One of the guards saluted, then nodded to his men. One at a time, first Will, then Nasir, then John, the three prisoners were thrown against the surrounding trees, forced to lean there, held immobile, whilst they were searched. A couple of daggers joined the pile of weaponry on the ground, before finally a young looking soldier came up with John's sheepskin pouch. He held it out to Hugo.

"Excellent." Peering into the pouch, the abbot looked rather relieved. "Now hurry up and let's get out of here, shall we? I'd prefer to be back in Nottingham before the King of Sherwood finds out we've borrowed his men."

"He won't catch us, sir." The leader of the soldiers gestured to his men once again, and the three outlaws were quickly and securely bound, then dragged back to the road. Another few of Nottingham's blue-cloaked finest had brought up the abbot's cart, and he climbed onto it with a rather muted display of his usual, would-be regal splendour.

"A fast march, I think." The captain nodded, although his eyes glowered a different sort of answer. Why was it that these people only wanted a fast march when they themselves were riding? He directed his men to fall into formation behind the cart, the three prisoners, separated as much as they could be, secure in the middle of the square.

"On your command, sir." At the back of the group, conscious of the threat of attack, he turned his eyes away from the forest and back onto the Abbot de Rainault. He had been confident of escaping, but now he felt that the forest was watching him with a thousand hidden eyes. Hugo nodded, and whipped up the reins of the horse that pulled his cart. Together, at a fast and uncomfortable speed, the soldiers and their prisoners marched on in the vehicle's wake. Despite the captain's fears there was only one pair of eyes watching them as they left, and those belonged to a large black crow that circled far above. Waiting until they were well on their way, it ceased its watchful revolutions, and with a screeching, strangely triumphant cry, headed with purpose for Nottingham.

**********

Loxley had been dozing for some while; the trouble, restless sleep of a man with little peace of mind. Tuck left him alone, bothered by his own thoughts, sipping from a mug of ale without any real appreciation of the taste. The day was growing older now, and Huntingdon still had not returned. Tuck felt sorry for the boy, but he didn't know how to help him. They were all feeling the strain, and he was certain that Loxley was no exception.

"It all seems so different." The voice of his former leader intruded into his thoughts, and he turned back to look at the young man. He had changed so little, and he couldn't help thinking - wishing... But that was foolish. Loxley was not supposed to be here, and there seemed no way that he could stay.

"What does?" He tried to inject a little cheer into his voice, as though they were merely having an ordinary conversation, under ordinary conditions. Loxley gestured around.

"Everything. The forest... the... the camp... Didn't we make camp near here once before?"

"Very early on. Not long after we'd first come together. Nearby is where we ducked Guy of Gisburne in the river." Tuck smiled at the memory, but the smile soon fell. Robin nodded.

"I thought so. I wasn't sure. I don't... I don't feel like I know the forest quite as I used to. I don't feel... quite like myself. I suppose it's because it's the first time I've been here without Herne being near."

"I'm sure he hasn't forsaken you." It was the only thing that Tuck could think of to say, and Robin nodded.

"Thankyou. I hope you're right. If he ignores me... well then I'll know that I'm lost, won't I. I'll know that I have no right to be here - and what happens then? Do I have to die all over again? Do I just... cease to exist? Am I really here at all?" He shook his head. "It's all so confusing, Tuck. I wish I knew why I came back."

"Maybe you never went away."

"That's what I keep hoping. I tell myself that somebody must have found me, looked after me all this time. But how, and where? And why? Herne's prediction told me of my death, even if I didn't realise it at the time. If somebody did find me, and nurse me back to health - well it doesn't change anything. I should still be dead. Fate has rules, and the son of Herne has no place breaking those rules. Even Herne himself couldn't save me."

"I know, lad. I know." Tuck poked at the fire, feeling the need of added warmth. Winter was creeping in so slowly, like some insidious foe ready to spring a trap. "You must have a lot of questions that need answering. I know that I do."

"A lot of questions." This time, though, Robin managed a smile. "But perhaps you can answer some of them. I want to know what happened. So much has changed among the gang, Tuck. I can see it - feel it. Much for instance. He's... grown. Not in size perhaps, but in other ways."

"Aye." Tuck nodded fondly. "He's grown up alright. Turning into a fine young man I'd say. Still a mite nervous, and he's not found all his strengths yet, but he's growing up well. You played a fine part in that, Robin. He learnt a lot from you."

"Maybe." Robin remembered those tentative early weeks, following the death of Much's parents and the destruction of his home. He hadn't felt that he was teaching the boy anything then, except hardship and pain. He had blamed himself for turning Much into an outlaw, even though he had known that he wasn't really responsible. He had blamed his own unusual destiny for dragging his brother into the bitter quest against injustice. Now he wasn't sure anymore, for it was too hard to imagine what else might have been.

"There's no maybe about it, lad. He learnt a good deal from you, and he's put it to fine use. I see it every time I look at him, and I know that Mar--" He broke off, and a frown creased Robin's brow.

"What? You were going to say something about Marion."

"Foolish of me." Silently Tuck was berating himself for having so loose a tongue, and broaching the one topic of conversation guaranteed to make Loxley feel even worse. "I was just going to say that I know Marion saw it as well. She told me once, how proud you'd have been of him, and I saw how proud she was herself."

"Oh Marion." Robin couldn't stop the longing that welled up inside him. Everything that he had done had been for her; every arrow that he had taken, when he had believed he had been facing the end of his life, had been for her. So that she could go on living, so that she could go on fighting, so that she could go on remembering. He could feel each of those wounds again now, tearing his flesh just as the pain of being away from the girl he loved was tearing at his heart. Tuck looked away.

"You said you had questions." It wasn't much of a way to distract Robin, but it was a start. Loxley dragged his mind away from the pit inside him, and nodded his head. If he could concentrate on the friar's words, maybe he would feel a little less pain.

"I wanted to know what happened. When I... When I died. This other fellow..."

"Huntingdon." Tuck was smiling now. "Aye, Huntingdon. You'd like him, Robin. He'd like you too, if you could just... well if you didn't have all these worries hanging over you both. He's the son of the Earl of Huntingdon; royal blood you know. Herne chose him even before you left us, apparently. He rescued us from Gisburne. Remember how you were on your own?"

"I could never forget." Not one moment of that day could ever be erased from Robin's memory. How could it be? The look he had seen in Marion's eyes, at the moment when he had given her Albion; the last time he had held her in his arms. Tuck nodded.

"Of course. Well the rest of us were in a right mess. Gisburne had us tied up in a building in Wickham. Suddenly this hooded fellow came in, cut us free, and went hurrying off somewhere, like he'd disappeared in a puff of smoke. Then later - quite some time later - he came to us, and said it was time for us to follow a new leader. Herne's orders I suppose. He's a brave lad. The people love him."

"Good." There was no jealousy in Loxley's mind, although it hurt a little to see how popular his successor was amongst the band. "And before then - before he came back to lead you. You were continuing the work?"

"No." Tuck's eyes drifted downwards, staring sheepishly at the ground. "We let you down, Robin. We let everybody down. After we realised you were... dead... we argued. Everything seemed to go wrong, and we sort of... well we drifted apart I suppose. Grief does strange things to men, and even stranger things to friends..." He shook his head. "Marion couldn't stand it. She went back to her father, and he got her a royal pardon. She tried to live a proper life again, but she never really adjusted to it. I stayed here, in Sherwood, to be close to her. But I didn't carry on your work, Robin. I might have robbed a few people here and there, but it was nothing. Nothing at all."

"And the others?"

"Much and John went off to Hathersage to become shepherds. Will - Will went to work in an inn of all things, up in Lichfield. As for Nasir, well who can tell what he got up to? All I know is that Robin - Huntingdon that is - found him in the castle of Owen of Clun, the day that he rescued Marion from the same place. How long he'd been there, and where he'd been before... well you know how Nasir is."

"Yes." Robin couldn't help smiling. "Although he's changed too. I can see it in his eyes."

"Aye, maybe. He speaks a little more now I suppose." Tuck smiled. "Still more likely to get blood from a stone than you are to get anything like a conversation out of him though. I suppose he's a bit more relaxed these days. The time we spent apart, after you went, changed us all. Made us realise how much we needed each other."

"And it was Huntingdon who brought you back together." Loxley wondered if it was jealousy that he was starting to feel now, and wished that he could be sure that it wasn't. The dead had no right to feel jealous of the living, and Huntingdon must be a good man if he had been chosen by Herne. He didn't want to dislike him. "He convinced you all that he was the new Hooded Man."

"Aye, he did. He fought me, right here in the forest. And he found John and Much and Will. Then he went off to rescue Marion, and found Nasir as well. And back we all came to Sherwood, all feeling like things would never be the same again. But the people wanted you back, and the Sheriff had never really believed that you'd gone. It was like... well it was almost like you hadn't." He smiled. "We soon had things back to normal. Everybody afraid of the shadows in the forest, the Sheriff losing his taxes, the people getting them back again. Aye, Huntingdon knows what he's doing I reckon."

"Good." At least he knew that his friends were safe, and his people, and the destiny he had given his life to. It was comforting, in a strange, detached sort of way to know that, in his absence, everything was looked after. When he went away again, back to wherever it was that dead men went, he could be sure that things would continue to be well. Tuck reached out to him, laying a fatherly hand on his shoulder.

"We'll find out why you're here, lad, I promise you that. We'll find out what's going on."

"What the Baron de Belleme is up to." Robin felt a pricking on the back of his neck, and rubbed absently at it. It was his sixth sense toying with him, and he recognised the feeling; the sensation that he was being watched. He frowned and looked about, but could see nobody. Perhaps he was merely feeling the presence of Much, somewhere up in the trees.

"I wonder where John and the others are?" Tuck poured himself another mug of ale, and offered one to Robin as well. Loxley shook his head. He didn't feel thirsty, just as he didn't feel hungry. He didn't remember having eaten or drunk anything since the day he had died, and he didn't feel the need for anything now. More evidence, surely, that he had no place in this world. Again the prickling sensation bothered him, and again he could find no source.

"Something's bothering you." Tuck was frowning at him, and Robin saw no point in denying it. He nodded.

"I feel that there's somebody watching me. Watching us."

"You're anxious. All this talk of the baron..."

"No, it's more than that." He felt the thoughts within his thoughts; the stirrings of that power that had always been his. The power of foresight; of seeing what had not yet happened. He saw a pentagram; saw fires; saw the Baron de Belleme chanting his terrible prayers. He heard shouting and animals howling; the clash of steel; the crackling of powerful flames. He felt uneasy, and he knew then that something terrible was coming. Suddenly he could no longer see the forest; could no longer see Tuck's concerned face, or smell the warm ash of the campfire. Instead he was in the dark grotto; the place where he had first been taken by Herne.

"Have you forgotten me my son?" Herne's voice was just as he remembered it; just as powerful; just as ethereal; just as magical whilst yet still human. "Have you forgotten who you are?"

"Nothing is forgotten." He could hardly speak, so great was the joy in his heart. "Nothing is ever forgotten."

"Good." Herne came towards him, his presence so real that it no longer felt like a dream. "The tides are changing, Robin i' the Hood. And we must change with them, before it is too late."

"I don't understand." He could hardly see, for the grotto was too dark. Smoke was rising; a smoke with a familiar smell. "Why am I here, Herne? Why aren't I dead?"

"Not dead, not yet alive." The voice was all around him, comforting and unsettling, reassuring and disturbing. "The Fates must be paid. There must be a sacrifice. Nothing can be whole again until all is balanced."

"You mean I have to die." Robin lowered his head. Would he be permitted to see Marion again before he had to leave, or would that make it harder for both of them? "Will it be soon? What about the Baron de Belleme?"

"The baron feeds on powers awoken by misfortune, and with every day that he does so, I grow weaker. He has begun to suck the strength from my very essence, and his powers still continue to grow. He will become stronger still, Robin, and nothing will stop him until balance is restored. Nothing can stop his powers from consuming Sherwood, destroying me, destroying perhaps the whole of England, except the achieving of the balance that has been lost. Nothing can be whole until all is balanced. The one that was dead must die again." Herne's hands were on Loxley's shoulders, and words were dancing before his eyes; a vision of parchment, inscribed with ancient ink: One must again be dead before victory can come to the Lord of the Hunt. "The words of Gildas, my son, written in the suffering of all of us. There is much for you to do, Robin i' the Hood. Too much, perhaps, for you alone."

"John, Will and Nasir..."

"Have need of you. But they must wait. They have their own paths to travel."

"They're in danger. I see... I see darkness. The baron--"

"Concern yourself only with de Belleme, my son. He is the great unbalancer; the one who brings the powers of light and darkness to the point of greatest chaos. Stop him."

"But Herne, I have so many questions. I--"

"There must be balance, my son." Herne's voice was fading, and the smoke was beginning to rise. "Nothing can be whole again until all is balanced. The one that was dead must be dead again."

"Herne!" His eyes snapped open, and everything was gone. He was in the clearing again, in the camp with Tuck, where only an ordinary fire was burning. The friar was looking at him with concern in his eyes.

"Are you alright Robin?" His gentle voice was filled with worry, and Robin was touched to hear it. He laid a hand on the loyal friar's arm.

"Tuck... Tuck I have to go. I know that Huntingdon told you to keep me here, and I'm sorry. I don't want to fight you, or to make things hard for you... But I have to go."

"Aye, I know." Tuck was nodding. "I knew that as soon as I saw the look that just came over your face. Such resolution, lad. The look I saw a hundred times, when I thought you were rushing headlong off to your death." He smiled. "I should try to stop you."

"Will you?"

"Of course not." Tuck's eyes narrowed. "But there's danger, isn't there. For all of us."

"For the whole of Sherwood. Perhaps for the whole of the world, I don't know. Tuck listen. John and the others, they've been captured. I'm not sure, but I think they've been taken to Nottingham. You have to find Huntingdon, and tell him."

"And you?"

"I have to go to Marion." He knew it now, and knew that he wasn't acting just out of desire. He needed her at his side, just as he had always needed her in the past. "She'll listen to me, and she'll believe me. I know she will. She'll help me."

"She always was the other half of you, Robin." Tuck rose to his feet, hauling the other man upright as well. "But you'll not go alone. You should take Much."

"Yes. Yes, I think I should." Much had been there as well, that last day. It had been the three of them, together and alone, who had faced the end. They should be together again now. Maybe they would both be seeing him off to his death again, just as they had done before; but that didn't matter. What mattered was that he do as Herne had asked.

"Where are you going? After you've found Marion I mean. Where will you head for?"

"Back here, if Iíve heard no different from Herne. Iíd like the rest of you to come with me if thereís any chance of it, but if thereís need for a greater hurry... I canít be sure. I just know that the powers of light and darkness will lead me to de Belleme, when the time comes." In his mind he could see where the baron would be found, or so he thought. A building that was as magnificent as a castle, yet as run down as a crumbling shed. A place where the shadows were more real than the walls, and where a giant metal pentagram, lit by hot, red fires, burned in the central hall. He would know it, and he would find it. Herne's magic would lead him there.

"Good luck Robin." Tuck couldn't help feeling that it was the end again. He hadn't had a chance, the last time, to wish his friend on his way. He hadn't known then that he was seeing Robin for the last time. This time might be different, but he still had nothing that he could say. How many times had he wished that he could have said goodbye before? Why then was he so tongue-tied now?

"Thankyou. And good luck to you too." They embraced, briefly, and in the eyes of his old friend Tuck saw resolution and peace; the same, steady strength that he had always seen in the past. He knew now, without a shadow of a doubt, that it was not evil magic that had brought Robin of Loxley back to them. This truly was the son of Herne the Hunter. He clapped the young man on the back, and whispered, in his heart of hearts, a prayer to the God that he knew watched over them all. Robin walked away.

He walked quickly, with strong, even strides; no unnatural hurry, no unnatural rhythm. If he suspected that he was going to his death he didn't seem to be shying from it; and when he called out to Much there was no irregularity in his voice; no quaver or suggestion of fear. He was merely Robin, calling to his foster brother, striding back out into the forest that had always been his. Tuck watched them go, and felt himself smiling. If the Baron de Belleme truly had some evil purpose; if he truly was planning some new reign of evil; there was no shortage of hope that he would be defeated. No evil had ever stood a chance in Sherwood Forest when once the son of Herne had made up his mind to fight.

**********

Little John was uncomfortable. He was cold, he was stiff, and he was beginning to get rather hungry, even though he realised the essential oddness of that last. How he could even think about food was a mystery to him, but he couldn't deny that he felt hungry nonetheless. He had no idea how much time had passed since his capture, and even less idea how much longer it had been since he had eaten anything. His stomach thought that it was too long, and that was all that was important.

They had been taken straight to Nottingham Castle, where Hugo had delivered them into the waiting hands of an oddly subdued Guy of Gisburne. John assumed that the insufferable steward was just feeling cross that he hadn't been the one to capture them. Hugo didn't seem in the mood to gloat, though, and had wandered off as though content that his own part in the proceedings was done. It had made John suspicious, but he had never had any idea how the mind of a man like Hugo de Rainault worked. He didn't particularly want to understand the man, and so didn't bother trying.

After a few preliminary mutterings about the impossibility of escape - the usual speech, which Gisburne didn't seem inclined to change even though he was forever losing his prisoners these days - the threesome had been marched down to the dungeons. For once they had qualified for the proper cells - no more deep pits with barred lids where they were incarcerated together in companionable discomfort. Perhaps Gisburne had finally learned from past mistakes. Instead he had ordered that they be split up, and each locked into one of the ordinary cells, the kind with a simple door fitted with a small, barred window. The doors were made of oak, and were several inches thick, the walls were fashioned from immense chunks of grey stone, and the whole was a cold, damp affair decidedly lacking in cheer. The cold and the damp were a particular issue, for the three outlaws had been chained to the walls, and there was therefore no escaping their clammy, chilled presence.

Shifting awkwardly, John tried to ease the stiffness in his shoulders and arms, and wished that they could have found a more comfortable position to leave him in. At least his feet were touching the ground; he'd seen prisoners before who didn't even have that comfort. Here the iron ring fixed to the wall above his head was so low that it would have allowed a much smaller man to stand squarely on the ground; with the result that John was rather stooped. It made his back ache, and did nothing to improve his mood. The fact that they had been searched again on arriving at the dungeons, and his carefully secreted dagger had been confiscated, had certainly done nothing to cheer him. He had had high hopes for that knife, and even though, as it had turned out, there wouldnít have been much he could have done with it, he still felt its loss rather keenly. He felt helpless, and that wasn't something that he was used to.

It was partly due to Will that he felt so bad. He could hear the sounds coming from the cell next door, where he knew that Scarlet had been incarcerated, and it was clear that an interrogation was well underway. Gisburne and a team of soldiers were trying to find out where Robin was, and where their camp was situated. They had tried with Nasir earlier, and John knew that it would be his turn next. He felt nothing about that, which surprised him, but after listening to all that had happened to his friends he felt that it would be better to suffer himself. It would be easier than hearing, and imagining. He heard thuds and blows as the soldiers set about with their cudgels and their fists, and heard the occasional grunts of pain that Scarlet could not hold back. He was not telling them anything of course, and John knew that, when it was his turn, he would not tell them anything either. They probably expected that - must have suspected it, yet they seemed anxious to persist none the less. From the outset their interrogation had been doomed to failure, which made it all the more fitting that it had been Nasir they had chosen to speak to first. He had, predictably enough, made not the slightest sound during the proceedings, and John could only imagine the frustration that such a reaction had engendered. He could only assume that his Saracen friend was still alive, for he had heard nothing from him since then. He tried to tell himself not to be so morose, and that of course Nasir was still alive; but he couldn't be entirely sure, and that hurt him. He wished that the soldiers would hurry up and come to his cell. At least then he would know what his friends were being made to face.

Guy of Gisburne was furious, in the stiff, wordless, frustrated way that he experienced so often. He had been delighted at the idea of having three of Robin Hood's infuriating outlaws in his grasp; delighted at the idea of finding out where the infernal Hood was hiding. They would tell him, he had been sure of that. How could anybody resist his men, with their metal gloved fists and their heavy sticks? People always caved in in the end. Always.

Except these men. It had begun with the Saracen. Gisburne had chosen him to be the first simply because his was the first cell they had come to. He had walked in, with his men behind him, to find Nasir standing motionless, staring ahead with the same disturbing expression of quiet acceptance that Gisburne had seen him show before, when he had captured him on the day that the first Robin Hood had died. Gisburne had paced about, asking questions, receiving no answers, and wishing that the confounded man would at least blink. There had been no answers of course, but he had been expecting that. Nobody spoke without a little persuasion. He had ordered his men to move in, and had repeated his questions - repeated them until they had become tired even to his own ears - and still the Saracen had not moved, or even turned his head. Gisburne had been extremely unsettled by that impassive face; by the utter silence; by the eternally calm, steady eyes. When the worst that his men could do had not won him so much as a gasp of pain, he had called a petulant end to the proceedings, and had led his men on to the next cell instead. Will Scarlet's insulting smirk had been annoying, but at least it hadn't been as unsettling as that unbreakable stare.

They had started simply, just as they had started before. From the outset Scarlet's response had been different to Nasir's. He had made a few jokes, thrown a few insults Gisburne's way. There had even been glimmers of fear in his eyes, which had been something. Just not enough. He had muttered and raged at them, threatened them and sworn at them; but he didn't tell them a thing of any use about Robin Hood. Only once did he seem to crack, when the pain became too great, and he cried out. Gisburne was delighted, finally given the satisfaction denied to him by Nasir. Breathless, Scarlet gasped that he would tell them what they wanted to know, and Gisburne stepped forward, proud and pleased, to hear where Robin of Sherwood was hiding himself. He was not pleased with the answer. Even if it had been possible for Huntingdon to have hidden in the place that Scarlet described, Gisburne felt sure that he would have noticed the outlaw arriving there. Disgusted, he turned on his heel and marched out of the room. A soldier who was doing his best not to smirk pulled the door shut behind him.

"Come on." His fury showing in every echo that his boots made on the stone floor, Gisburne strode out of the dungeons. "We'll deal with the third one later. Perhaps you'll be a little better at your job if you've had a chance to rest first." He knew that his words would sting the soldiers, and he hoped that they didn't forget that insult. They would need every bit of their indignation and rage if they were to stand a chance of breaking Little John.

"You alright Will?" Worried, John raised his voice as soon as he was sure that Gisburne and his solders were gone. The cough that he heard in answer didn't encourage him any, but Will's voice came soon enough. It sounded as strong as ever, if noticeably hoarse and dry.

"Never been better." There was a clank of chains, as though Scarlet was trying to find a less painful way in which to stand. "Don't take no for an answer, do they."

"I doubt they'll give up, either." John raised his voice. "Nasir? You still there?" For a second there was silence, then the voice of the Saracen came faintly to him.

"Yes." There was no emotion in the voice, and the well-schooled Saracen would never allow any pain to display itself. John had expected as much.

"You alright? Everything still attached where it's supposed to be?"

"Yes." A pause. "But something is wrong."

"I'll say. It's a wonder either of you can still talk." John, who had readied himself for similar treatment, felt a little guilty. "I wonder when it'll be my turn."

"No." Nasir was not the type to shout, and his voice, barely above its normal volume, did not carry well. John had to strain to catch the words. "I meant... something is wrong with Gisburne."

"Yeah, wrong in the head." Will laughed painfully. "He's always been like that."

"Not like this. Not so... empty." Nasir was silent for a while, something to which the others were more than used. "He was angry, yes. But he was... different."

"How do you mean?" Having heard Gisburne's voice rising in pitch and volume as he had screamed his repetitive questions at his prisoners, John was inclined to think that the Norman knight had been much the same as always. Admittedly, though, he hadn't had any first hand experience as yet. Again there was a long silence.

"I don't..." Not often did Nasir feel quite so incapable of expressing himself in the foreign tongue. "He was not himself. But it was... familiar."

"I suppose he was a little bit stiff, yeah." Now that he thought about it, Will didn't think that Gisburne had been exactly the way he usually was. There had been no real gloating for one thing; none of his usual superiority and snobbishness. He had not attempted to insult his prisoners, and instead had merely launched into the interrogation. Something else struck Scarlet, and he smiled. "You know something? He didn't once call me Wolfshead. It's usually his favourite word."

"I noticed that." John wasn't sure that it could mean anything, but it was something to think about all the same. "He rarely calls us anything else."

"He was not himself." Nasir was firm on that point, even if he couldn't explain himself further. John nodded.

"Not that that really helps us. We should be concentrating on getting out of here. If Abbot Hugo really has made some kind of a deal with the Baron de Belleme, the whole of Nottingham could be in danger."

"Yeah." Will gave his chains a demonstrative jangle. "But how are we supposed to get out of this lot?"

"Don't ask me." John leaned back against the wall, and tried to come up with a sensible idea. "Plans are Robin's thing."

"Great." Will sighed loudly and flopped back against the wall, regretting it when his bruised body was jolted painfully. "Well in that case we're stuffed."

**********

Guy of Gisburne wasn't sure that he was supposed to have a master, but he was happy about the situation anyway. He vaguely recalled a time when he had been answerable to the Sheriff of Nottingham, but those days seemed like a dream now. Had there been a time when he had been capable of injecting true clarity into his thoughts? He didn't remember, and knew that he wasnít supposed to care. Whatever had come before, he had a master now, and it was to that master that he went to report.

"I tried to get the prisoners to talk," he said sulkily, wishing that the baron would look a little more impressed. Just because it had been Hugo who had captured the outlaws didn't mean that he couldn't have a share of the glory. "They wouldn't tell me where Robin Hood is hiding out.

"Fool. Of course they didn't tell you." The Baron de Belleme was angry with him, but Gisburne couldnít work out why. "And did I tell you to interrogate them? Did I tell you to go anywhere near them?" He sighed and turned away, pacing across the room that had once been the Sheriff's dining hall. It was a study room of sorts now. Books were piled all over the table, and stood in heaps on the floor. Candles burned everywhere, and puddles of wax scarred the table top. A pentagram, the five-pointed figure so beloved of de Belleme, had been drawn crudely on one wall with paint, and a fire burned green in the grate. Any familiarity that the room might have held for Gisburne, who had spent so much of his time there with the Sheriff, was gone now. It was de Rainault's room no longer.

"I don't understand, sir. I thought you'd be pleased if I was able to find Robin Hood for you." Gisburne tried to remember why he had thought that, but couldn't. What was de Belleme so angry about anyway? The prisoners were still in the dungeons weren't they? And having now kept them there for some hours, Gisburne was approaching a personal record.

"Perhaps I was a fool to allow you such freedom of thought, Gisburne. The last thing that I need is you making mistakes and letting those men escape. I won't have my plans ruined by your over zealousness." He wandered over to the green fire, waving his hands above it a few times, and muttering incantations that were designed more to worry his audience than to actually accomplish anything. Nonetheless the green flames sparked and spat obligingly. "Just remember what Iím capable of, Gisburne, and see that you avoid any more displays of initiative. Otherwise Iíll turn you into the same sort of mindless creature as your dear Sheriff has become these days." Behind him, staring at the flickering green flames, Gisburne's eyes flashed in sulky rage.

"Now." De Belleme turned, his movements brisk, his anger gone for the moment. "I have my own means of extracting information. Take me to the prisoners."

"My lord." Gisburne's voice had changed; lost its usual resonance. He wasnít as much of a fool as he was so often inclined to appear, and he had no desire to lose what freedom of thought remained to him. The spell that controlled him did not allow him enough liberty to remember how he had been, or to let him consider escape, but it did allow him some degree of thought. Enough, at least, to be careful now. "They're in the dungeons."

"Yes Gisburne. They would be, wouldn't they." Taking the lead, de Belleme strolled on out of the hall, heading towards the stairs that lead to the castle's lower, far less pleasant, quarters. The brothers de Rainault were standing by the dungeon entrance, expressions as blank as that of Gisburne. De Belleme had summoned them with a single thought, and they stood in waiting now, the Sheriff holding a bowl of red wine in his hands, and a blood-red cloth folded over one arm. He was waiting with the patience of the bewitched, ready for the next order from his master. De Belleme glared at him. The Sheriff was a necessary evil, required to ensure that the castle guards believed things to be more or less as normal, but the baron would far rather have killed him. Instead he had turned him into the same sort of mindless slave that Little John had once been long ago, which created problems of its own. Sometimes it was better to have attendants like Hugo and Sir Guy, who retained some ability to think. They had to be watched more carefully, but they could at least do some things for themselves. The Sheriff was just an empty shell who needed to be guided at every turn.

"Master." De Rainault bowed low, getting in the way as he did so. De Belleme nodded at him.

"We're going to talk to the prisoners. Follow us."

"Master." The Sheriff bowed low again, almost spilling the wine in the process. Annoyed, de Belleme considered returning some power of rational thought to him, but cast the idea aside. Robert de Rainault had irritated him deeply from the moment they had first met, several years before, and it had been rather an enjoyable experience to wipe his mind and personality away. His older brother retained some degree of independence only because of the possibility that he could be of some use, and even then he was less aware of the world than was Gisburne. Addled or not, though, it was he who took the lead as they entered the dungeons.

"There are three of them, sir." He spoke as though he were preaching from the pulpit, his voice smooth and precise. It didn't bother him in the slightest that his younger brother had been turned into a vegetable, for he was no longer capable of caring.

"I know." De Belleme had known that there were three of them before they had been brought to the castle, although his screeching crow had not been able to tell him any more than that. Hugo chatted on, undaunted.

"The one that they call Little John was your slave once before." He had a faint memory, through the fog that now filled his brain, of seeing John with de Belleme before. He had worn a pentagram painted onto his chest, like the one that Hugo himself now wore, and he had walked like a man in a stupor. De Belleme nodded.

"A useful man for portents and foretellings. We'll see him first."

"As it pleases you." Hugo nodded at a guard, a bemused individual who had no idea why his former masters were now walking around as though asleep, and were obeying the orders of a stranger. Since it was not his lot to ask, however, he merely carried on as usual, and led the way to the indicated cell. John looked up at the sound of a key. So now it was his turn.

"The one called Little John." Hugo made it into an announcement, and John blinked in amazement. The abbot was behaving just as he had done when he had first captured them; like a more stilted version of his normal self. Behind him, carrying a bowl and a piece of cloth, stood his brother. John knew the empty look in his eyes, and his blood ran cold.

"Not the name I used, but yes, I recognise him." Strolling into the cell, feet clacking on the stone flags, de Belleme looked about as though examining something of great interest. "Very well. We'll begin in here."

"No." John had thought that he had no memory of his time with the Baron de Belleme. He had believed that he remembered nothing beyond his capture; nothing between that terrible moment and his reawakening beside the river where he had tried to take Robin of Loxley's life. Now he knew that he had been wrong.

"Silence." Hugo took the cloth from his brother, and spread it on the floor, stroking it almost reverently. De Belleme stood squarely upon it.

"No. You can't do this to me." Angry, terrified, desperate, John tried to back away. There was, of course, nowhere to back away to. The manacles bit into his wrists, the wall pressed into his back; and he could go nowhere and do nothing. De Belleme dipped his hands into the bowl of wine, and muttered a few words under his breath. John pulled with all his strength upon the chains. Perhaps he would get lucky, and something would break, something would give. He would only need a few seconds. But the chains didn't break, and the wall held firm. De Belleme sprayed wine in his face, and reached out with his fingers to touch John's head. John tried to shake him off, but de Belleme was too fast. With a whisper of strange words that made the green fire back in the dining hall burn with a fiercer glow, he pressed his thumb against John's forehead. Horror-stricken and helpless, the outlaw felt his thoughts beginning to fade away. He struggled and fought to keep his mind intact; concentrated hard on remembering everything. It didn't seem to work. As his mind drited away, clouds of floating smoke rose to fill his vision.

"Excellent." Reaching into his robes, de Belleme produced a stick of coloured wax. "Excellent."

"No." It was the only word that John was sure he could remember how to say, and he repeated it until it rang in his ears. De Belleme laughed at him, and clicked his fingers over the stick of wax. A brief flame shot forth, sickly green in colour, melting the end of the wax, and making it drip blood red drops onto the floor.

"Mine again." De Belleme was clearly enjoying himself. "Just as before."

"No." John tried to fight him off, but could not prevent the evil sorcerer from pulling open the top of his jerkin. He felt the hot wax pressed against his skin, but didn't notice any pain. All that he felt was the pentagram, as it was drawn upon his chest. He struggled without strength, and fought without co-ordination, and finally felt the last of his self slip away. By the time that de Belleme had finished painting the pentagram, Little John had ceased to be a man at all.

Nasir had seen the baron go past his cell, and had wondered what the evil man was doing here. It made sense to him that he was within the castle, for it answered one or two of his questions. Hugo and Gisburne had been bewitched by him - he saw that now, recognising the symptoms that he had seen so many times before, in varying degrees, in others who had been bewitched by Simon de Belleme. When he heard John's cry he guessed what was happening to his friend, but knew that there was nothing he could do about it. In the darkness and solitude of his cell he stared into emptiness, and tried to will John the strength to face this. John had been bewitched by de Belleme before, and he had been freed before. There was no reason to suppose that it would not happen again. Despite this optimistic thought, however, Nasir did not feel hopeful. He listened to the sounds of footsteps, and the mutter of low voices; heard the door of Will's cell opening. Scarlet, in typically loud form, asked what was going on, and what the hell had just happened to John - then fell abruptly silent. Nasir didn't need to wonder why. He knew how many sets of footsteps had entered John's cell, and he knew how many had entered Will's, and the numbers did not tally. Will had fallen silent because he had seen Little John, and had begun to realise what had been done to him.

"You can release him as well." Stepping away from Will, the baron wiped some of the hot red wax from his fingers. The Sheriff and the increasingly confused guard stepped up to do his bidding, and soon Will Scarlet was standing free. He didn't rub his wrists when the manacles were removed, nor stretch his painful arms and shoulders. In its current state such things did not enter his mind.

"And now, Gisburne, they'll tell us where to find Robin Hood." De Belleme rather enjoyed belittling Gisburne, even though the young knight was not really in a position to care about such things any more. Nonetheless, Gisburne looked faintly mutinous.

"Yes, my lord."

"And the third man, Lord de Belleme? Your Saracen?" Hugo was not capable of real curiosity, but he asked the question anyway. The baron cast a disinterested glance at the wall that separated Scarlet's cell from Nasir's, almost as if he could see straight through the solid stone. Perhaps he could.

"Ah yes. Nasir. Forget about him Abbot, I canít use these spells on him. He's too devout; too faithful to his God. My own gods have no power over him."

"Then what--"

"I don't know. I don't care. He's secure enough here isn't he?" Leading the way to the door, de Belleme let his train of faithful followers wander on in his wake. It amused him to have them all traipse after him in such a way; all incapable of clear thought, all incapable of escape. They fought it at first, but they had never been as efficient as this before. Never been as competent. It seemed a shame that they couldn't appreciate that fact for themselves.

"Yes sir." Hugo nodded his head in conformation, although had he been in full possession of his faculties he might not have been nearly so confident. Nottingham Castle did not, after all, have a great record in keeping the men of Sherwood Forest safely locked up.

"Then I'll let the guards worry about him. I'm more concerned with the Hooded Man. There are powers stirring in the forest, de Rainault. The many powers of autumn. Robin Hood is the key to those powers, and these two men are the key to Robin Hood."

"Yes sir." Happy to agree, Hugo trotted along behind his lord and master. "As you say, sir." And hurrying everybody onward out of the dungeons, he didn't spare even the briefest glance for the man watching them pass the door of his cell. Will saw him; registered the presence of a man whose name he knew. Part of him knew that Nasir was a friend of his, but the larger part of his mind was incapable of caring. Turning away, he didn't even notice when the memory of the Saracen left the recesses of his mind completely. Little John didn't think about him at all.

**********

Robert of Huntingdon wasn't sure where he was going, but he knew that he was not ready to return to the camp as yet. He didn't know if he was hiding exactly; whether it was his unrest that was keeping him away, or whether he was just trying to avoid being there, with Loxley. Hiding from Loxley. Hiding from... from what? From the possibility of seeing how much his men preferred their first leader? From feeling the powers of Herne draining away from him, as his mysterious spirit father returned his gifts to his first born son? Huntingdon shook his head. He didn't know. Didn't seem to know anything anymore.

"Why are you here, my son?" Herne's voice startled him. Usually he was aware of his father's presence; knew that he was coming because of the link that they shared. Today his mind was too confused, and he bit his lip in annoyance. It could have been anybody who had come up behind him; a soldier, an outlaw from a rival band - anyone. Then what?

"You seek peace. Answers." Herne moved closer, and Robin knelt down before him. The mossy ground felt cool beneath his knees, where once it had felt warm. Autumn grew older, and it would be winter soon.

"You won't give me the answers I seek." He bowed his head, wondering if he had come to Herne, or if Herne had come to him. "All you ever give me is riddles."

"Riddles are answers, my son. You just have to try a little harder before they become clear to you." Standing above him the forest prophet looked very tall, the huge antler head-dress giving him extra height. "And I have three such answers for you now."

"Why now and not before?" It had stung that he had been unable to find Herne before. He had been worried that his father had abandoned him. Herne shook his head, in the gentle manner of a faintly despairing parent.

"You ask for answers to questions that should already be clear. Use your mind, Robin. Think with that instead of with your confusion. Where might I have been?"

"I don't know." He tried to think, but all that he could think of was Robin - the other Robin. Herne laid a hand on his shoulder.

"I didn't know he was still alive." For once the answer was sincere and straightforward; a clear phrase, without any riddles. "Even I don't see everything, Robin. There are moments when all things must ebb as well as flow, and sometimes it would pay for you to remember that." There was a pause, during which the sounds of birdsong faded away, and the mists began to creep in. "It was written, Robin. I had to send my son to his death even though I would gladly have done anything to save him. I watched him leave knowing that I would never see him again, and knowing that I was powerless to prevent that."

"But he didn't die."

"No, he didn't. But it answers many riddles, to know that it was not so. A lot has happened since that day. Witness the rise of de Belleme, that should have been tempered by the sacrifice Robin made. Remember Owen of Clun, and the powers sought and found by Gulnar? Remember the strength of the magics that you have fought, time and again? There has been unbalance, because a necessary price was not paid."

"Then Loxley was saved by the dark powers?" It seemed unlikely. He had sensed nothing dark touching the other man, not matter how much, he suspected, he had wanted to sense it. Again there was a silence, and the mists swirled in closer.

"I don't think so. The forest is full of spirits, Robin i' the Hood, and their powers are with you just as are mine. Some call them the ghosts of Sherwood, and that isn't too far from the truth. Ancient spirits, part of something as old as the metal that was once worked into the sword you carry beside you. I can't always see them, or know what they are doing, but there is nothing that happens within Sherwood, or to the people of Sherwood, that escapes them. They care nothing for balance, or for the powers of Fate and Life that move in wider circles. They care only for Sherwood."

"Then I've done Loxley an injustice." Feeling the deeply ingrained sense of honour stir within him, Huntingdon hung his head. "I thought--"

"What you thought does not matter. I have discovered the truth, my son. Now it remains to discover the conclusion. I said that I had three answers for you."

"Three riddles." Robin nodded. "What are they?"

"Words of counsel I would hope. Perhaps a way to balance the growing chaos. And so to your first answer, Robin. Of six, you may choose only one."

"One what?" He knew that he wouldn't get an answer to that, but reflex made him ask it anyway. Herne smiled.

"One of the six," he said simply, as though that made everything clear. Robin smiled back.

"And the second answer?"

"Ah yes. The second answer. Trust one who trusts you, even if neither truly trusts the other."

"Even if neither truly trusts the other." Whispering the words to himself, trying to be sure of remembering them, Robin frowned at that one. Why would he trust someone that he couldn't trust? But he had long ago ceased to look for immediate understanding, and nodded his head in acceptance of the second answer. "And the third?"

"The third." Herne reached out with gentle fingers, taking Robin's chin so that the young man was looking up at him. "The third answer is that one must die. One in whom the powers of light and darkness are strong. The Fates will accept no lesser sacrifice. And for now, that is all that I can tell you."

"All?" It didn't seem like much, but then when was it ever? Prophecies were not meant to be straightforward. Releasing him and stepping back, Herne nodded his proud head.

"All. Go now, you have much to do."

"Yes. Yes, I think I do." He rose to his feet, still thinking hard. "And thankyou. I thought--"

"You thought that a father might turn his back on one son, just because another son had come to him again. Never ask a father to choose between his sons, Robin. Never expect him to know how such a choice can be made."

"Even when he knows that one of them has to be lost?" It was a dangerous question and he knew it, but it had to be asked. Herne's eyes flashed.

"You ask me for prophecies that I cannot make. Go, Robin."

"I'm going." He turned away, wondering about that look on the face of the Hunter. Who else but the sons of Herne were strong with the powers of light and darkness? Who else but one of his sons could be a worthy sacrifice? He felt cold, though not with the fear of death itself. More of the inevitability of it; the certainty that, if he was the one that was destined to die in order to end this, nothing that he did would change that fate. Searching, perhaps, for one last answer, he turned back to look towards Herne - but it was already too late. The forest god had gone.

"And now what?" He asked it to the trees, who were always his friends and companions nowadays. He asked it to the sky that hung above him, and to the birds that were beginning to sing again. None of them could answer him, but he was beginning to answer himself. Of the six you may choose only one. That could mean only one thing, for there was only one six in his life, and that was the number of his companions. But which one of them could he choose? There was no decision to make, and he knew it. If there had to be only one, who else but the one who meant everything to him? And without another thought, even to consider Loxley, he set off for Kirklees Abbey.

**********

They made slow progress along the paths that led away from Nottingham. De Belleme did not like to ride fast, preferring instead a sedate pace that allowed everybody he passed to see him. Gisburne was just behind, his usual impatience destroyed by the spell on his mind, and Hugo de Rainault was beside him. Neither man spoke, for neither man thought of speaking. Behind them, no longer capable of any kind of thought at all, was the Sheriff of Nottingham. An empty cask, devoid of even the most basic signs of independence, he was less than the animal on which he rode. The horse at least could have changed direction, or stopped if it chose.

The outlaws were in no better a state. Taking the lead, striding ahead of de Belleme's horse as once he had done before, was Little John. He carried a quarter-staff again, and his sword was once more in his belt. His head was as high as ever it had been when he had walked alongside Robin. But his eyes were empty, and his brain was dulled, and he walked as a man in a dream. He was heading towards the camp within Sherwood, but he wasn't aware of it. He wasn't aware of anything.

At the back of the party, quiver full of arrows returned to his back, longbow gripped in his strong hands, Will was aware of even less. His step was slow; slower even than the pace set by the others, for Gisburne's guards had done a good deal of damage earlier, and his body was not up to the long walk. Unable to think of such things, able only to follow on behind his new lord and master, Will was not conscious of the pain. He didn't know that his chest was screaming at him to stop, and that his legs were weakening with each stride. He didn't know anything, save the steady rhythm of the walking, and the calm certainty that he had to carry on. Gradually though, forced by the weaknesses of humanity that even Simon de Belleme could not control, his pace slowed still further. Gisburne cast a quick glance over his shoulder.

"Scarlet is falling behind." He didn't go back to spur the man on, for in the presence of de Belleme he could do little without the other's say so, but he felt some impatience. That much human feeling was still granted to him.

"I'm not surprised." De Belleme did not bother turning to look. "After you had finished with him, Gisburne, it's a wonder he managed to make it this far."

"Then youíre not worried, my lord?" Gisburne was, or thought he was. He frowned. Maybe he wasn't. After all, he told himself, it wasn't as though he had any reason to fear Will Scarlet. His old concerns had left him now, along with his old responsibilities. The idea of Wolfsheads and Robin i' the Hood was something that lay behind a barrier that de Belleme's sorcery had built in his mind.

"Of course I'm not worried. He doesn't have a free thought in his head, Gisburne, what's he going to do? Leave him, I only need the one of them. Perhaps he'll watch our rear."

"You're expecting trouble, my lord?"

"I'm expecting all kinds of things. The question is which of those things might actually be a threat? Scarlet will follow on, given time. I can control him whether he's under my fist or on the other side of Sherwood, have no fear of that. You just think about following his companion here, and finding me Robin of Sherwood."

"My lord." And so Will Scarlet passed out of Gisburne's mind, and out of the parade of de Belleme's followers, though not out of the sorcerer's control. Eyes focused upon nothing, he wandered alone along the dusty road. One man, unseen and unexpected, following in his master's shadow. A man whose only thought was to kill.

**********

Robin and Much had travelled quickly at first, but as time went by their pace soon slowed. Robin was nervous; the sort of nervousness that he had never felt before. This wasn't like leading his men against an unknown foe, or facing new difficulties or challenges. This was something else.

"What if she doesn't want to see me?" he asked. Much frowned.

"Why wouldn't she? She loves you Robin. She always did."

"Yes, but she loved Huntingdon as well." Robin's intuition had always been strong, and there were some things that had been obvious to him. Huntingdon's eyes, at the mention of Marion's name. The thoughts that had been troubling Tuck. It made sense to him. Huntingdon was handsome, and his heart was obviously in the right place. He was a part of Herne's vision, which had always been dear to Marion. He was probably closer to her age than was Robin, unless he was younger even than he looked. Robin knew that he would have been Huntingdon's friend, had they been led to meet under different circumstances. It stood to reason that Marion would like him too.

"Did she?" Much sounded vague, and Robin couldn't tell if he was being deliberately so, or if he genuinely hadn't noticed any attraction between the pair. He smiled.

"Much, don't try to spare my feelings. It's alright, you know. I've been gone a long time, and... well living our... your... lifestyle is bound to bring people together. You know what it's like. Comradeship in the face of danger. I didnít expect her to spend the rest of her life alone."

"I think she did." Much slowed to a halt. "She'll see you Robin. She and Robin... Huntingdon... were close. We all saw it. That's all that there was though. She was grieving, and then she left us. I don't know why, but I think it was something to do with something that Herne said. She thought Robin was going to die, so she left."

"Poor Marion." His heart heavy, Robin stared onwards through the trees. It must have been terrible for her, to have lost one lover, and then to have faced losing another just as she had begun to allow herself to have feelings for him at last. His fault, for leaving her in the first place. If it hadn't been for his destiny... But then if it hadn't been for his destiny he would never have met Marion in the first place, and certainly wouldn't have spent so wonderful a year in her company, serving Herne by her side.

"We should get on, Robin." Much had quickened his step, his determined figure striding on ahead. Loxley smiled. Tuck had been right; the boy had become a man, in some ways at least.

"You'll have to get her. If I knock at the gates she'll... well knowing our luck she'll probably faint right away there on the steps, and we'll never get to speak with her. She'll be whisked off to bed, and we'll be excommunicated by the Mother Superior."

"Exc- exco--" Much frowned. "Can nuns do that?"

"I don't think so, no."

"Oh." He nodded, clearly not entirely sure of Robin's meaning. "I see."

They walked on for some time, neither of them speaking. The forest felt warm despite the coldness in the air, and the developing autumn didn't seem to have done anything to diminish the amount of animal life around them. Birds sang from the branches of the trees, and a deer stalked fearlessly across the path in front of them. Robin brought Much to a halt to watch it, certain that it was an omen. It was Herne's symbol after all.

"What does it mean, Robin?" Much sounded troubled. Omens, in his experience, were rarely good.

"I think it means that we're doing the right thing. That we have Herne's blessing." Robin smiled in satisfaction. "I was worried that I might be doing this for selfish reasons. That I should have been looking for the baron instead." Much shivered.

"The baron. Why does he keep coming back, Robin? You killed him didn't you? You said you did, when you went into his castle to rescue Marion."

"Yes, I did. At least I thought I did. Maybe he wasn't dead, or maybe his magic was stronger than we thought." Robin had played a large, if unwilling, part in de Belleme's resurrection, and he still wasn't entirely clear on what had happened. Herne had been unable to tell him much.

"But Nasir said he was dead. He went to check, he said, before he came after us. Before he came to join us. And Nasir should know dead people when he sees them shouldn't he?"

"Yes." Robin smiled. Yes, Nasir should certainly know death. "De Belleme has strong powers I suppose. Strong enough to bring him back. But we'll find a way to stop him."

"Well we have to, don't we." Much was slowing his step. "The forest ends just ahead Robin. Do you want me to check there's nobody watching?"

"No. No, weíre not splitting up now." Robin walked forward, coming to the edge of the trees and peering out beyond. He did not often have cause to come near to Kirklees Abbey, and he couldn't help remembering how he had once brought Marion here himself, at her request, before she had joined the outlaws. They had joked together as they had travelled, and he had tried to convince her to stay behind in the forest. She had tried to play the part of a proper lady, but had been unable to keep her defences from crumbling. Soon enough they had crumbled forever.

"It looks safe enough." Sure enough there was nobody in sight, not that there would have been even if there had been a hundred people lying in wait. Robin broke cover, striding out of his world and into the clear daylight. His nervousness had increased to a relentless churning in his heart, but he knew that he had to act now, or risk not acting at all.

"I'll call her out then, Robin, and I'll bring to you." Much frowned. "What do I tell her?"

"Anything you like." Robin had no idea what the boy should say. The truth was something that she wouldn't believe, no doubt even after she had seen it with her own eyes. "Maybe you should just tell her that you have to talk to her. But don't scare her. I don't want her thinking that Huntingdon is in danger, and risk breaking her heart even more than it's been broken already."

"I'll smile a lot." Much beamed as he said it, and Robin had to smile in return. Much was always smiling a lot, and at times it could be almost impossible not to be touched by his spirit.

"I'll hide around the corner." He tried not to imagine what would happen. Would she run into his arms, or scream and run away? Would she come with him, or - more likely - tell him that she couldn't face it? If she had come to Kirklees because she couldn't stand the thought of one day losing Huntingdon, then would she leave it now? or ever?

"It'll be nice to have Marion back." Unaware of Robin's tortures, Much chatted on. "I've missed her. It's been like when we all split up, after you left. I missed everybody then. We didn't know where anybody was, Little John and me. Will and Nasir had disappeared, and Marion had gone off to be with her father. It was horrible."

"We're back together again now Much. All of us."

"Yeah." Much turned to look at him, and his innocent eyes carried a degree of wisdom and experience that was not usually present there. "But for how long, Robin? Are we going to lose you again? You were supposed to die, and we all know that." He looked away, casting his eyes downward. "If you die, it'll kill Marion I reckon. Break us all up it would. More than before even. Promise you won't leave us again."

"I can't do that, Much." He laid a hand on the boy's shoulder, and thought about Herne's words. His death seemed inescapable, if he was to defeat Simon de Belleme and bring Herne's much vaunted 'balance' back to Sherwood. Nature needed balance. Life needed balance. Without it Sherwood itself risked a terrible end.

"I don't want to lose you again, Robin." Much didn't look at him as he spoke, and Robin, at first, could not look at him either. There was only one person in all of the world that he was closer to than Much, and that was the result of a bond deeper than any other. He smiled, and put a hand on the boy's shoulder.

"If I have to die, Much, it'll be for all the right reasons, just like it was the last time. Thereís no better way to die than that. It's nothing to grieve for."

"Yes it is. Death's always for grieving. You always missed your father, and what better death could he have had than trying to keep the Silver Arrow safe? If it was Marion that had to die to sort this out, you'd grieve for her wouldn't you?"

"Marion?" If Marion should die his world would end. There would be no anything. No light, no hope, no future. He closed his eyes briefly. "Of course I would. But this is different Much, and you must never forget that. Wherever I've been these past months, wherever my destiny leads me to go, I am the son of Herne. I would never want to change that."

"I know, Robin." The boy's heart was clearly heavy, but his smile was as it always was. "We're nearly there. You'd better get out of sight."

"Yes, I think I'd better." He drew into the shadows of the wall of Kirklees, and thought about everything that he had just said. Much wasn't the only one that would grieve his death - he would grieve it himself, if the dead were capable of such things. Although he had been unaware of the passage of time when he had been away, he was aware of it now. Of the long months when he had been away from Marion, of the sharp pain that her absence had caused. He needed her, the way he had always needed her, from the moment he had blundered into her bed chamber in Nottingham Castle. His heart sung with the thought that he was about to see her again, but at the same time it was heavy with the knowledge that he would soon have to leave her forever. If only there was some way that he could escape that; that he could stay with her, and be with her as things had used to be. They were still so young, and there should have been such things ahead... He bit his lip and forced his mind into silence. Why think of like that? It did no good. Instead he pulled back further into the shadows, closing his eyes and concentrating on thoughts of Much. He would be knocking at the gates now, talking to the nun who waited there for such eventualities, asking to speak to the Lady Marion. The nun would be walking away, heading off into the retreat to fetch the girl, her sedate pace taking time, drawing out Robin's anguish, making him mad with the length of the waiting...

"Much?" Marion's voice. It came like a bolt from the blue; like a shot straight through Robin's heart. He felt the tears welling up, hot and unexpected, and dashed them away. "What is it? Is there anything wrong?"

"No." Robin could hear the triumphant grin in the boy's voice, and had to smile. "Nothing's wrong. I just had to come and see you. Had to show you something."

"What?" Marion was clearly smiling at the boy, and Robin could see her face in his mind, that smile lighting up her eyes. "What is it?"

"You've got to come with me." Much's excitement was that of a child, as though he was having to keep from bouncing up and down. "You've got to see something. You'll like it. Honest. Come on Marion."

"Much..." She sounded faintly exasperated. "I'm not leaving the abbey. Did Robin send you?"

"No..." His voice was bright with excitable cunning. "Not exactly. Not like you mean, anyway. Come on Marion. You've got to see. I've brought you something."

"Oh Much." She was giving in, and Robin could hear it in her voice. He held his breath. So close now... She was walking towards him, and he could hear her soft steps on the grass. He couldn't breathe now; was certain that his heart had ceased to beat. Everything was still and hot and cold and confused, and he wasn't sure that he would be able to speak when the time came. Didn't think he would even be able to move.

And then she was there, and Much was grinning, and she was staring at them both with no expression on her face at all. Robin gaped at her, not knowing what to say, despite the practice sentences he had mulled over in his mind on the way here. He was helpless. Incapable of doing anything save stare at her. Stare and remember...

"Robin." Her voice was very small. Shaky. Much nodded.

"That's right. Told you you'd like it, didn't I? It's not magic Marion. It's real. He's really here. Not dead, see?"

"I--" She rubbed her forehead, as though preparing to swoon, but as always she stood firm. "I--"

"Don't try to speak." Finding his voice at last, Robin managed a step towards her. "There are so many things to explain. I know what you must be thinking..."

"No." She shook her head, staring at him all the while. "You can't begin to imagine. Nobody could imagine. And..." Her shoulders gave a quiver, and he saw tears race through her eyes like a curtain of ancient grief. "Oh Robin. There's nothing to say. Nothing at all." And with a sound that might have been a cry of delight or just the sound of her choking back the tears, she ran to him, and threw herself into his arms.

**********

Nasir had made up his mind to escape.

It was dark in the cell, and cold, and he was uncomfortable with his hands chained above his head - but he hadn't given a thought to any of those things for some time. Little John and Will had been his first consideration, but they were gone now, and there was nothing that he could do to get them back whilst he was locked up in Nottingham Castle.

And so he decided that it was time to leave.

It took a great deal of manoeuvring to begin with. Inside his left sleeve, strapped to his arm just above the wrist, was a dagger; a small but sharp weapon with a broad, strong blade. It was not in the easiest of places to reach, but experience had taught him that it was less likely to be found there; and, sure enough, it had not. He was angry with himself for not trying to use it earlier, although he knew it would have done no good. Certainly there would have been nothing he could have done to save his friends when there had still been so many people around; guards moving to-and-fro, people always looking through the window in the door. Only now, when there was no danger of interruption, was the time right.

The chain connecting his wrists was not very long, but it was almost long enough to allow him to reach the knife. His fingertips brushed the hilt, at its very tip, refusing to give him any chance of purchase. He struggled on, stretching as much as he could, putting every inch of his strength into reaching out for the knife. The idea of failure was not one that he was familiar with. Around him the cell grew darker as the already limited light began to fade. Nobody came, so there was no need to stop. He merely struggled on.

He had no idea how long it was before his fingers caught hold of something. He had been fighting to reach for what seemed like most of the day, but at last, when he could no longer see as far as the door, his manoeuvring and struggling paid off. With a mighty effort that made his wrists feel as though they were about to break, he managed to loosen the knife. It almost fell, but his fingers caught the hilt just in time, and with a flick of one much abused wrist he managed to pull it free from its sheath, and from his sleeve. Now all that he had to do was to decide how he was going to use it.

He tried the left cuff first; one of the heavy iron manacles that were snapped around his wrists. He tried attacking the hinge and the clasp with the point of his knife, but succeeded in doing nothing more constructive than slipping and cutting himself. Changing tactics, he tried to push himself up the wall slightly, so as to lessen the tension on the chain, and with unyielding, dogged determination, began work on the right cuff instead. Stone dust showered down where the chains grazed the wall, and his wrists sang out their protests, but pain meant nothing to Nasir. He felt it, accepted it, and then ignored it. It didn't work especially well, but it served to keep him from slowing.

Around him the cell darkened further. He knew that, if it was not night yet, then soon it would be. How long was it since Will and John had left? It had been well past noon when they had been taken, but there had still been time for them to travel some considerable distance. He didn't believe that they were still in Nottingham Castle. Gisburne had wanted to know where Robin was, and that pointed clearly to de Belleme's main reason for bewitching the two prisoners. He had wanted that question answered, and had decided to get his answer in the best and most effective way available to him. Now, without doubt, de Belleme had gone to Sherwood. It didn't take much to work that out, just as it did not take much thought to realise that John and Will would lead him straight to the outlawsí camp. Nasir doubted that he had any chance of being in time to help Robin, but he knew that he had to do something.

Robin. Both Robins, either Robin... He wondered if they had worked anything out yet; discovered where the other one had come from, and how. Nasir's instincts had failed him there, and gave him no help in deciding whether Loxley was to be trusted or not. De Belleme's presence suggested foul play, but it was hard to imagine what he hoped to gain from such a ploy. Nasir had once known the baron well, and had learned to anticipate his thoughts and actions, and he felt sure that Loxley's return was nothing to do with him. There was so much to be understood... so much to sort out...

With a click that sounded abnormally loud in the still, silent room, the cuff at last fell open. The chain rattled loudly as it slid through the ring holding it up, and Nasir's arms fell heavily to his sides. He didn't allow himself to breathe a sigh of relief, and like Will before him he made no concession to the discomfort or pain - albeit for different reasons. Instead he crossed immediately to the door. There was no way to get at the lock from this side, and the tiny window would not have been big enough to reach through even if had not been barred. He considered banging or shouting, but knew that that would accomplish nothing. More to the point, it wasn't his way. With nothing else suggesting itself, and knowing that somebody was bound to come to him sometime, he folded his arms and leant against the wall. He would stand here, in the silence and the darkness, in the damp and the freezing cold, and he would wait.

Wait, in wretched helplessness, whilst Simon de Belleme laid waste to his friends.

**********

Robin had run all the way to Kirklees Abbey, and didn't stop until he reached the edge of the trees. Cautious now, aware that there was much that was going on in the county that might be dangerous to him, he peered out of the forest, looking towards the crumbling old wall that surrounded the ancient retreat. He could see figures moving there, near to the gate, and recognised the flash of red hair that could only mean Marion. His heart gave a jolt at the sight of her, and he began to move forward - then he saw her, quite suddenly, run into the arms of one of the other people present. He froze. He recognised the man now; could see who it was from his long brown hair, and the easy pride and grace of his standing. Robin of Loxley, come at last to reclaim his queen. Slowly, without him being aware of it, Huntingdon's shoulders slumped. Marion, it seemed, had no choice to make.

"Marion..." He watched her for a moment, seeing her radiant joy even at such a distance. He could imagine the smile on her face, and the sound of her voice as she welcomed her visitor. He remembered how close, for so brief a time, he had come to having her love him in almost that way. It was a memory, and a fantasy, that he allowed himself to think about for one brief moment, before he put it from his mind forever. Then without another glance their way, he turned around and headed back into the forest.

**********

The camp never felt lonely, even when everybody else had gone. Tuck enjoyed the silence, listening to the bird song and the wind in the trees, watching the coloured leaves spiralling gently to earth. Before long there would be none left, and then winter would be upon them. It was hard, spending winter in the forest, but he was a lot more tough these days. It made him smile to remember his first winter, when he had almost been ready to abandon the forest and head somewhere warmer. These days he found that the changing of the seasons held no worries for him, even if he did look forward to the eventual return of summer.

Throwing another log on the fire, Tuck wondered about the others. He had searched for Huntingdon without luck, and was worried about the young manís continued absence. He was worried, too, about John and the others, for there was no telling what might have become of them since their capture, and there seemed to be so little that he could do for them on his own. He knew that things were happening, in the forest and beyond; things that they would have to stop. He knew also that it was likely that all the gang would be needed to achieve victory. They were in danger, and he could see no quick solution; but danger at least was nothing new. With two Robins to fight Herne's battles, surely they could not lose, no matter what they were up against?

The day was growing older, although it had not yet begun to grow dark. Tuck listened out for Huntingdon, and wondered when he would return; whether Loxley would come back to the camp or go straight to face de Belleme. He should be keeping watch, he supposed, and then he would know if either of them was coming; but he had never been very good at climbing trees, and was not the greatest of watchmen. There was little likelihood of anybody coming to the camp, and nobody outside their group, save Edward of Wickham, knew where it was. He felt safe enough.

De Belleme had ordered his companions to dismount as they approached the camp. Gisburne was muttering about the lack of men that they had brought with them, but the baron was confident that, with Little John on their side, not to mention the benefit of surprise, they would be more than able to subdue Robin Hood. He only knew of one, for John was in no state to volunteer any information that was not directly requested, and the number of Robin Hoods in the vicinity was not a question that had occurred to either the baron or his allies. They were expecting no more than four people in the camp - and it came as something of a disappointment to find only one.

"John!" Tuck rose to his feet as soon as his friend entered the clearing. He had heard the approach of somebody, and had been on the verge of hiding himself away. Little John strode towards him.

"Robin," he muttered, in what was supposed to be an inquiry about their leader's whereabouts. Tuck frowned.

"He's not here. What are you doing back, John? Where are Will and Nasir? I thought that youíd been--"

"Robin." It sounded more like a threat this time. Tuck's frown deepened.

"He went off somewhere. Herne's business I shouldn't wonder, and when did he ever share that with us? Sit down now. Have some ale. Tell me what's been happening."

"Robin." It was a voice now empty of all thought or feeling. Tuck looked up into empty, lifeless eyes, and felt his stomach churn.

"John?" He knew that something was wrong now, but he didn't know what he could do about it. The big man towered above him, eyes wide and unnaturally bright, lips moving in soundless repetition of his earlier question. "Listen, we have to--" But he got no further. As de Belleme whispered an order from his vantage point some distance away, John raised his heavy quarter-staff and knocked Tuck down. The friar fell without a sound, and lay still.

"So there's nobody here." Unimpressed, Gisburne marched around the clearing, peering at bushes and trees as though expecting Robin Hood to leap out of them. "Where are they all?"

"We've accounted for four, and rumour has it that Marion has left them." Hugo de Rainault stared around at the camp, incapable of caring about the whereabouts of any of the gang. "That only leaves Huntingdon and the half-wit."

"And I want Huntingdon. Herne's Son is important to me." Clenching and unclenching his fists, de Belleme stared down at Tuck. From the expression on his face it was clear that he was thinking about doing something unpleasant to the friar, but in the end he turned away and left the unconscious man alone.

"Perhaps if we waited here?" suggested Gisburne. De Belleme shook his head.

"No. No, Hood knows by now that I'm back, and he'll be on the look out. He may not know me the way Loxley did, but Herne will guide him, and he'll not come back here yet. We've wasted enough time. I have better things for all of us to be doing than traipsing around Sherwood Forest looking for a man we've no chance of finding." He crouched down beside Tuck, and with barely an effort hauled the friar into a sitting position, resting him against the wooden chest that was the repository for the band's stolen goods. "With the Lord of the Hunt to guide him, he'll soon find me. In the meantime I think we'll leave him a message."

"A message?" Anticipating what sort of message it would be, Gisburne drew his sword. De Belleme glared at him.

"I really am going to have to review my decision to let you carry on thinking, aren't I Gisburne. Now get out of the way."

"My lord." Stung by the words, even though de Belleme's spells were supposed to make such feelings impossible, the young knight backed off, watching with faintly mutinous eyes as the baron pulled a jar from inside his black robes. There was a red paste within the jar, that looked like blood mixed with sand. De Belleme dipped his fingers into the stuff, and with a dexterity that added a real sense of artistic talent to his actions, he painted a series of symbols on Tuck's broad forehead. Gisburne frowned.

"What's that?" His curiosity was returning, and it surprised him to realise that he had been without it for some while. De Belleme stood up.

"A message. Hood will understand it, if Herne's powers are as strong with him as they should be. Now come on. We have a long way to travel, and I want to be home before nightfall."

"Nottingham's not that far away. We'll manage it easily." Gisburne turned to head back to the horses, but de Belleme shook his head.

"We're not going back to Nottingham. We're going to my castle."

"Castle Belleme isn't yours anymore. It was appropriated by King John, and sold off to the highest bidder." Once upon a time Hugo had remembered the auction without enjoyment, for he and his brother had hoped to reap the rewards of the sale themselves. Johnís actions had been out of the blue, and an unpleasant shock for both de Rainaults. Now Hugo didn't even remember that money was something he liked to collect.

"We're not going to Castle Belleme." Standing up, the baron stared down at his handiwork without evidence of satisfaction. "Fetch the horses, Gisburne."

"My lord." Gisburne wasn't sure why he turned so smartly to do the baron's bidding, but he went anyway. Something was different, and he knew it. Something about the way that his thoughts were working. He was remembering... But the Baron de Belleme expected his obedience, and he knew that it would be dangerous to fail him. Swallowing his pride, and doing his best to prevent his returning emotions from showing on his face, he went quickly to do the baron's bidding. Around and above him the soothing green light of Sherwood Forest shone down, bathing his mind and calming his confusion, and he felt everything begin to grow clear.

The Baron de Belleme was not his lord. At the moment he could not quite remember who was, but he knew that the memory would return. All that he knew right now was that he was not supposed to be here; and if he could be sure that the baron would not guess he had recovered the freedom of his thoughts, he would do his best to escape. Guy of Gisburne might be a cruel man by most standards, but he was not a devil worshipper; and neither was he a coward. He knew that the baron had to be stopped - and he had every intention of taking a hand in doing just that.

**********

It was well into the night before somebody came. Nasir had not lost hope, and had not moved from the position he had taken up by the door, but he allowed himself a moment of something like excitement when he heard the prowling footsteps. Silent as a ghost he waited, listening as the patrolling guard checked up on the other prisoners in the dungeon. There was no sound of speech, further proof beyond that of the solitary footsteps that this guard was alone. Nasir listened to the steps coming closer, and knew that at any second the hapless denizen of Nottingham Castle would look through the window of his cell, and see that he was gone.

It happened just as he had envisaged it, as he had waited there alone in the darkness. A muted oath, one of a number that still remained beyond his power to translate; a rattling of keys on a ring of iron; then the sound of the lock being opened. Nasir tensed, the knife gripped in readiness in his hand. The door began to open, and a second later a mailed fist held up a candle - a light by which to see; a light by which to spot his prisoner; and an unfailing guide for Nasir's patient dagger. Soundless and swift, he stabbed upwards and outwards, and heard and felt the impact. The guard had no time to speak, and the noise of air escaping his lungs was the only farewell he had for the world. Nasir caught his falling body and dragged him into the cell, then took his sword, kicked out the fallen candle, and pulled the cell door shut. He locked it, hung the keys on a convenient hook, and listened carefully. There was no sound, save that of one or two other prisoners shifting fitfully in their cells. Them he ignored; some of them might well deserve freedom, but he had no time for them now. Turning his back on the whole sorry place, he ran for the steps. With luck he would find his own weapons on the way out; if not then he at least had his captured sword. There was still a long way yet to go before freedom was his.

**********

Loxley was still torn about whether or not to return to the camp before heading off after de Belleme, but Marion had insisted on going back for a weapon of some sort. He had tried arguing with her, but she had made her feelings very plain. This was one battle that she was not going to let him fight alone, and he knew that he had no right to prevent her from taking part. They had been without each other for too long, and if she wanted to go with him to face the baron it was only right to allow her - especially once he had told her of the prophecy of Gildas - so with Much following on behind them, giving them a sort of privacy, he led the way back to the camp. Marion held his hand all the way, leaning on him with the air of one who would never let go. She had not asked him once how he came to be here; how he had survived, or perhaps returned from death. She had not doubted that he was who he said he was, and he had seen from the look in her eyes that her trust in him was absolute. It made his heart sing, and he knew that he was blessed indeed. If he truly was to lose all of this; if the price of defeating Simon de Belleme was inescapably to be his death; he felt deep inside that perhaps he would not mind so much after all. How could he object to death when it came after a moment as perfect as this one?

The camp was quiet when they arrived. Robin was surprised, and a little concerned to see no sign of anyone, but concluded that Tuck and Huntingdon were probably trying to free the others from Nottingham.

"Tuck?" He headed towards the fire, feeling a little chilled now that the afternoon was drawing to its close. There was no answer. "Hello?"

"Robin!" Much's voice was filled with shock, and Loxley turned instantly. He saw the boy running towards a figure lying slumped against a chest, and saw at once what had happened. Somebody had been here. He could feel them now; sense their earlier presence; see their footsteps in the earth. Had Nasir been there he could have told Robin that there had been five of them, all men, one of whom had been without any certainty or clarity to his movements. As it was he knew only that somebody had been here; somebody who had left Tuck unconscious on the ground.

"What are these markings?" Marion touched the red stuff on Tuck's forehead, and found that it had dried. Robin scanned the symbols. They were those of a language that he had never learnt, but which he had understood ever since the day he had been greeted for the first time by Herne.

"It's a message." He reached out for a water-skin, gently washing the markings away. Almost immediately Tuck began to stir.

"A message?" Marion poured a little wine into a mug, holding it out for the recovering friar to drink. "What did it say?"

"It said..." Robin hesitated, then sighed and looked away. He couldn't lie. Once he might have refused to translate the message, but now he knew that he could not keep the truth from any of his friends. They had a right to know. "It said By the blood of Herne's Son, night shall fall. It sounds like one of Herne's riddles."

"Not Herne's riddles." Marion shivered. "He wouldn't say something like that."

"What does it mean?" piped up Much. Robin glanced over at him, gratified to see the greater courage that now shone in the boy's eyes. Times had, indeed, changed greatly.

"It means that the baron has a plan that calls for my blood - or more likely Huntingdon's. I doubt that he knows I'm back, so it'll be the other Robin he's really looking for."

"We have to warn him!" Horrified, Marion stood up straight. "Where is he?"

"I don't know. I think he went to find Herne. He was very confused. We both were." Robin remembered how awkward they had been, something that had been as much his fault as it had been that of the younger man. "I think he was worried, like I was, that Herne might only want one of us. That he might abandon the other one."

"Poor Robin." She smiled sadly. "What do we do?"

"About Huntingdon? What can we do? It's a big forest, and without Nasir to help us track him I don't think we'd find him quickly. We need to find the baron."

"The Baron de Belleme..." Rubbing his head, Tuck moaned the words out. "He was here... I heard him... like in a dream..."

"Yes, we know. Take it slowly Tuck." Robin tried to calm the friar, but the other man would not be calmed.

"He was here with the Sheriff, and Abbot Hugo... and Gisburne. They weren't themselves. But Little John..."

"John?" Robin frowned, "What do you mean?"

"He was here. He was with them. His eyes, Robin... He wasn't himself. Not at all. There was a five-pointed star, painted on his chest. He hit me..." He groaned, and drank the rest of the wine that Marion had poured for him. "I feel terrible."

"You look it." Robin smiled gently at him, and patted him on the shoulder. "So the baron has John under his spell again. Poor John."

"We'll free him." There was a hard, determined light in Marion's eyes. Robin nodded.

"Yes, we will. But we have to find him first. I saw a castle, or... a manor house... Huge and crumbling."

"Then we'd better find it, hadn't we." She smiled at him. "I trust your instincts, Robin. When you see things, they're real. Think about what you saw, and we'll know where to look."

"Tuck should stay here. He needs to rest." Robin knew that it was impossible even as he said it. They couldn't leave one of their number behind. The friar struggled to his feet.

"I shall be fine." He wobbled, but managed to stand firm. "A proper state we're in, aren't we. If the baron has John, he must have Will and Nasir as well. We're on our own."

"Yes, we are." Robin couldn't help remembering another time when the other three had been prisoners - when he and Much and Marion had had to stand alone, with Tuck barely able to keep up. The parallel was not one that he liked, for it had not ended well the first time; and he could see his thoughts mirrored in the expression on Marion's face.

"There's so much to do, Robin." She took his hands, staring at him with troubled eyes. "And so few of us."

"Would you rather we did nothing? Run away from it all and leave Sherwood to its fate?" He pulled her into a hug, and felt a shiver run through her.

"No, of course not. I almost wish that we could, but... I'd never suggest that. Even if you weren't Herne's Son, we couldn't just run away."

"Then there's only one choice, isn't there." He held her at arm's length. "We have to face the baron, and we have to defeat him."

"And we have to survive. All of us." She was holding his hands so tightly that it hurt. He wished that he could give her a proper answer.

"Weíll do what we have to do Marion. Whatever it takes. It's what we've always done."

"I know." She smiled at him, and nodded her head. "I know. So we'd better get underway."

"Yes." He pointed at the tracks in the earth. "We may be able to follow these for a while; give us a start in the right direction. Are you up to it Tuck?"

"Of course I am." Picking up his quarter-staff, the friar leant heavily on it. "Just lead on, Robin. We'll follow. Wherever it takes us."

"Then let's get going." Robin shouldered his bow, and gave his troops a smile that they had all believed they would never see again. "I have a feeling we've got a long walk ahead."

"Should we leave a message? For the other Robin I mean?" Much was looking around as though for something on which to write. Loxley hesitated, then shook his head.

"We won't need to. Herne will tell him what he needs to know."

"Are you sure?" Marion was evidently worried about the forest god's second son, and Loxley found that he didn't mind that at all. He smiled at her.

"I'm sure. He's my brother, Marion. Herne has joined us together. By now he'll know more or less everything that I do, and I doubt he'll be coming back here until this is over. I wouldn't, if I was him."

"Then perhaps we'll meet him along the way." She slung a quiver full of arrows onto her back, and picked up the bow that Robin had taught her to use in that other lifetime. Was it really just a few years ago?

"Perhaps we will." Keeping a close eye on Tuck, Robin turned his attention to the blurred tracks on the ground. It wasn't much of a start, but it was all that they had for now, and he would follow the marks as best he could. If he trusted in Herne, he knew that he would find the place he sought. It was when he had found it that he would face his greatest challenge - a challenge that Fate had apparently already decreed would be his last.

Click Here For Part Two