"And one shall know joy, and one shall know pain, and one shall know the greatest
of anguish. For one must again be dead before victory
can come to the Lord of the Hunt."
Prophecies of Gildas
One foot in front of the other, slow but sure, Will Scarlet followed the Baron de Belleme to his den. His eyes were empty, but his heart was confused. Why had the baron abandoned him? Why had he been left behind? He felt betrayed, without knowing why; without having the capability to understand why. Slowly, bit by bit, the baron's control over him began to fracture, inspired by the confused state of Scarlet's mind. De Belleme had never imagined that his once willing servant might be the kind of man to whom anger came so quickly; a man whose emotions were complicated indeed. Still linked to de Belleme; still unable to break free from the man's control, Will was wandering in a fog. His anger was burning, rising unchecked, turning him gradually from mindless shell into a furious, zealous disciple. Far from being unable to act without the baron first directing him, he was recovering his independence - but only in pieces.
On the outside he looked like a tired version of his normal self, but on the inside Will Scarlet was far from normal.
Inside his head, there were demons at play.
The black shape that slipped from Nottingham Castle did not go entirely unseen, but the only eyes that stared after it were dead ones. There had been three guards who had challenged Nasir, and he had killed each of them with his usual ruthless efficiency. Now he rode astride a black horse, swords returned to his back, daggers and arrows returned to his belt, his distinctive bow gripped in his hand. Nottingham disappeared behind him, and soon he was back amongst the welcoming trees of Sherwood Forest. He didn't head for the camp, where he knew he would be able to do no good by now, and instead took another path. He had not had cause to visit Castle Belleme since the day the gang had learned of the baron's return to life, but he planned to head back there now. He knew nothing of its sale to one of King John's lords, and assumed that it would be where de Belleme would go.
He was not far from the castle when he saw a man on the path ahead. Whoever it was had heard his horse's hooves by now, and would know that he was coming, so he saw no need to be cautious. Instead he slowed, ready to draw his sword if it proved to be necessary, and saw the man ahead reach for his own weapon. As he did so a smile played across Nasir's usually more serious face. A faint flash of moonlight had revealed the metal rings on the man's jerkin, and had identified a sword that the Saracen would have known anywhere. He reined in his horse.
"Robin." His voice was soft, as quiet as the hushed forest of the night. Huntingdon looked up at him, amazed and relieved.
"Nasir! I thought-- Well to be honest I was starting to think I was on my own. What happened?"
"We were captured." He swung down from the horse's back, not prepared to continue riding whilst the other man walked. "De Belleme."
"Yes, I know about him. I've seen Herne." Robin ran a hand through his blond hair. "The others?"
"Turned. Magic." He spoke the words with a hatred that came from long experience of the baron and all his nefarious ways; a hatred that had not been diminished by time. "They went to the camp."
"Are you sure?" If the camp was lost to the enemy, presumably Tuck was as well. Huntingdon had been angry at first to see Much and Robin at Kirklees, but he was glad now. At least it meant that they were safe. His suspicions of Robin, abated since his meeting with Herne, had changed into a strange sort of comradeship. Perhaps this was how one always felt about a brother; or, at least, a brother who was not Guy of Gisburne.
"I'm sure." Nasir's voice had a hard edge to it, and Robin didn't bother asking why. Instead he merely nodded, his blond head almost the only visible commodity between the two of them. "I was going to the castle."
"De Belleme's castle?" Robin shook his head. "He's not there. There's another place, big, but probably not actually a castle. I saw it, but I'm not sure where it is."
"Then we must find it." Nasir had no need to ask how Robin had seen it, for he knew that Herne showed things to his son. Neither did it bother him that these things tended to be incomplete; Robin knew what he was supposed to know, and that was all. His companion nodded.
"I was thinking about stopping for the night. Wherever this place is that we're looking for, it might be too easy to miss it in the dark. If you don't have the whole of Nottingham Castle on your tail, it might be best if we started to look for somewhere secure."
"Nobody is following." Nasir knew that there was no need to worry there. Even if they had seen him leave, the guards were not the type to give chase without orders, and there was nobody left in the castle to give those orders. "But to stop..."
"Sometimes it's better to lose time in being careful." Robin frowned at him. "And besides, you look like you could do with the rest. You're limping, and there's blood on your face."
"It's nothing." Nasir had been trying to forget the damage done by Gisburne's men during their aborted interrogation. It was easy enough just to concentrate on every movement; every step; and not think about the pain and the stiffness. That was a skill that he had learnt long ago, back in the war-swept lands of his birth. It was almost an insult to have the injuries mentioned now. Huntingdon understood, but he didn't plan on continuing tonight anyway.
"There's an old house along the road here, owned by a woman who was forced out of her village when she was denounced as a witch. We'll go there." Nasir raised an eyebrow in curiosity, and Robin smiled. "I used to know her when I was a boy, and I wandered about out here on my own without my tutors and bodyguards. The villagers were so afraid of her powers that they didn't even try to have her arrested, but they did try to set fire to her house. That's why she left them. You know, I don't think the poor old woman knows even one spell, but she seems happy enough on her own these days." Nasir nodded, content to follow his leader's judgement, and Robin smiled at a distant memory.
"She makes a wonderful stew."
"Time is short, Robin." Nasir was looking at the sky, searching the stars and the shape of the tree line to pinpoint their position. Robin nodded.
"I know, but we'll be better for some food and a rest. And if you're going to be any good sneaking about the way you usually do, we're going to have to get that chain off your wrist. You're rattling like an angry ghost." He caught sight of the expression on his companion's face, and had to laugh. "Come on. It's not far now."
It was to a strange, low house that they went; a place built of mud and branches, with moss that grew thickly over the roof. A chimney hole sent thick black smoke drifting upwards, curling into strange shapes illuminated by the moon. Robin had never been there by night before, and was startled at the strange atmosphere. For a moment he could almost believe that it truly was the house of a witch.
"I'm sure it used to look a lot more comfortable than this." Tying Nasir's borrowed horse to a convenient tree, Robin approached the low hovel. There didn't seem to be anywhere to knock, so bending down he stuck his head through the roughly cut, square hole that served as a door. Inside a warm, bright fire was burning, and a little old woman sat beside it, stirring stew in a huge iron pot. She didn't look up, but she seemed to know that Robin was there.
"Come in." Her voice was quavering and high, but sounded strong. "There's plenty here for both of you."
"How-?" Robin glanced back at Nasir, who was watching and listening with his usual implacability. The Saracen raised an eyebrow at him, which somehow seemed to say, I'm happy to go in if you are. Huntingdon nodded. "I'm Robin Hood," he told the old woman, sliding awkwardly through the door and into the room beyond. It was surprisingly warm, even cosy.
"I know." She still didn't look up, but began to ladle stew into two hand-carved wooden bowls. There were patterns on the bowls, but he couldn't see what they were. "And your friend is from far, far away. Tell him to come in as well. There's plenty of room."
"I--" Robin shook his head, faintly confused, then gestured to Nasir to follow him. The Saracen slipped in through the door, expressive face asking silent questions. Huntingdon shrugged.
"I used to come here to visit you," he offered, as an attempt at conversation. "When I was a boy. I thought I might come here again, now. We needed somewhere to rest."
"I know." She moved aside to show them that there were skins and fleeces laid beside the fire, with room enough for both of them to sit. "Rest and food, before the battle ahead. I know the signs. I've seen them often enough before."
"Battle?" Robin crouched down beside her, reaching out to make her look up. "What battle is that?"
"You know." She did look up then, although not at his prompting. "The old battle, always the same. One comes, turns the sky black. Another comes, turns the sky light. Always they come, and always they fight, and always the seasons keep on turning." Robin could see her face well, now that he was close to her and to the fire, and he saw bright, bright blue eyes in a sea of wrinkles. A woman older than any he had ever encountered, with hair so white that it would have made the freshest and purest of snow falls seem faded and grey. Strange that, as a boy, he had seen only an unremarkable old woman; but then a lot had changed since the day he had become Herne's Son.
"We do have something of a battle to fight as it happens." He motioned Nasir over, and handed him one of the bowls. In the light beside the fire he could see the blood on his companion's face rather more clearly, as well as the signs of pain that had been ignored for too long. Confound the man, with his pride and his infernal self-discipline. He was going to kill himself like that, one day.
"I know. I know." She turned away from them, pouring water into a third bowl. "I've seen him, riding through the forest as though he already owns it. I've seen him before, too, with you at his side." She nodded at Nasir. "Different then though, weren't you." Nasir inclined his head in a polite gesture that might have been a nod, and she smiled and rose to her feet. Her energy was remarkable, and her movements had considerable grace.
"You see a lot of things?" The stew tasted just as Robin remembered it; rich and strong, warmed by herbs and plants that he couldn't identify. The old woman dipped a cloth into the water and held it out to Nasir, indicating that he should wash away the blood.
"I see things. Some things. Not others." She pointed at Robin suddenly, and her bright eyes danced in the midst of their world of deep wrinkles. "I see you, worrying about your place in the world. And I see you with your brothers. A different father for each, and different mothers. You'll fight alongside both of them before your enemy is defeated."
"I don't know what you're talking about." He stirred his stew, and tried not to think about Guy of Gisburne. Nasir handed the woman back her bowl and rose to his feet.
"I should keep watch." Clearly he felt that Robin and the old woman should be alone together, the way Robin was always alone with Herne. There was something of that quality about the woman; something that was mysterious and wise. Robin shook his head.
"Stay. You need the rest, Nasir. We both do. Nobody's going to come."
"Not tonight, no." Sitting down nearby, the old woman poured away the blood-tinted water, letting it run into the depths of the fire. The flames bent, but weren't diminished. "Tonight he's safe, or thinks he is. In his domain, beyond the forest. High stone walls, and gorse bushes taller than a castle's towers." She nodded at Robin. "You've seen it."
"But I don't know where to find it." He finished his stew, beginning to feel rather hot in the confined space. As if to ease his discomfort, a cool draft floated in from the chimney hole above his head. The old woman poured hot milk into a mug, and passed it across to him.
"Herne waits to guide you. Doesn't he always? Your mind is too full of concerns." She watched him as he sipped the milk. "You came here as a child, Robert of Huntingdon. Sleep here as a child again, and perhaps you'll see what your father is trying to show you. Of the six you have one, and be glad that you didn't waste time searching for the others. What comes next?"
"I..." He remembered Herne's voice, and seemed to hear it again. Nearby Nasir was shifting restlessly, but the old woman reached out one hand to still him. "Someone that I don't trust. He doesn't trust me either, but we both have to trust each other."
"Then sleep." She threw a handful of wood onto the fire, and the flames shifted and changed colour slightly. A sweet smell, like fine incense, rose in waves. "Both of you."
"Yes." It was why he had come here, after all; searching for sanctuary from a woman he hadn't thought about in years. Herne had always guided him well, and he knew that it was his father's hand that had led him here. "She's right Nasir." His friend nodded his acquiescence, but it was clear that he was still ill at ease, toying with the heavy iron cuff that was still locked, with its length of chain, to one wrist. It had continued to defy the efforts of his knife, and therefore remained resolutely attached. Robin thought about drawing Albion, and seeing what he could do with the superior blade, but he felt too tired to wield a weapon tonight. He had spent too long today in wandering restlessly, and now he was too sleepy to be of use to anybody. Part of his mind stirred with thoughts that this old woman might be a witch after all, and here he had walked like a lamb. A sacrifice to whatever god she might worship in company with de Belleme.
"Do you really think that, Robin?" There was a laugh in her voice. "If you were brought here it wasn't as a sacrifice."
"You can see inside my mind." He turned his head, looking towards Nasir, wondering what his friend was thinking about all of this. The Saracen was frowning. In the firelight his eyes were glittering, but there was no obvious distrust in his expression. Just intense scrutiny; watchfulness, as always.
"Sleep." The old woman's voice was deeply relaxing, and the sweet smell from the fire brought relaxation to his limbs. Robin stretched, and felt sleep creeping up upon him. Lulled, warmed, comforted, he let the peace come.
And outside the stumbling figure of Will Scarlet walked on down different roads, eyes unfocused and unseeing, the voice of Simon de Belleme echoing always in his mind. The peace that belonged to Robin and Nasir that night did not touch him. He had no thought of sleep or food or warmth. He had no thought of anything save fury, and no knowledge of anything save pain.
When Gisburne felt fear rise inside him, he knew that he was himself again. The long ride from Sherwood Forest had been a time of recovering senses; of returning memories and crystallising thoughts; and he had been constantly aware of the changes. He remembered de Belleme arriving at Nottingham Castle. He remembered the grand entrance; the confused guards, who didn't understand why they had let the baron pass. There had been a peculiar smell, and a feeling of heaviness in his limbs... And then nothing, with clarity, until he had arrived in the outlaws' camp in Sherwood. He knew the sorts of things that the baron was capable of, and the half conscious, docile Abbot Hugo was proof enough of what had happened. Guy's natural conceit told him that he had withstood the magic because he was the better man, and he let the feeling swell his chest. It helped to blow the cobwebs away, and let his sense of self return. It broke the last chains within his mind.
And now he was sitting on his horse, staring up at the new Castle Belleme, and the fear he felt told him that he was cured completely. There had been no emotion save anger whilst he had been under the baron's control, and it felt good to welcome others back now. Fear was not usually a pleasant feeling, but it was better than emptiness. Better than mindlessness. Now he had to decide what to do next.
"Take the horses, Gisburne." throwing the young knight the reins of his mount, the Baron de Belleme strode rapidly away. Gisburne stared after him, hate drawing his blond brows together, and his mouth into a thin red line. He nodded though, polite and concise, muttering a respectful acknowledgement towards the baron's departing back. Hugo and the Sheriff followed after him, with Little John trailing vacantly along behind.
"Take care of the horses, Gisburne." He waited until they were all out of earshot before muttering the words in mockery. Who did de Belleme think he was? Gisburne would be damned if he was going to stay now that he had regained control of his mind, and he had had his fill of obeying the baron's orders. He mulled over the possibility of burning the place to the ground, and destroying de Belleme in the process, but threw the idea aside almost immediately. It wouldn't work - the baron was far too clever for that. There had to be something though. Some way to defeat the man. Some way of foiling whatever plan he had devised. But the only thing that Gisburne could think of now was escape.
"Take care of your own horses." He raised his voice, but the words had no real defiance about them. He was shaken and anxious, eager to get away before the baron realised that he had broken free of the spell placed upon him. The last thing that he wanted was to be bewitched again; perhaps to a greater degree this time, like the Sheriff and Little John. His hand went slowly to his chest, pulling aside the torn material of his rich velvet tunic to reveal a pentagram smudged and blurred. He wiped away the remains, then pulled the cloth back around him, covering up the faint red stains that lingered. Such freedom might be largely symbolic, but as a gesture it made him feel better. Swinging back up onto his horse, he turned it around and headed back to the gates.
In the ramshackle building behind him, Abbot Hugo saw him leave, but not so much as a frown troubled his placid face. Had he been of a free mind he might have told the baron what he had seen, but instead he forgot it straight away. Had he been aware of it, such irony would have pleased Guy of Gisburne a great deal.
Robin had hoped to walk through the night, but it soon became obvious that they could not. Marion was tired, although she would never have admitted to it, and he could see that even the few short weeks she had spent in Kirklees Abbey had taken their toll. Tuck was also slower than usual, still troubled by the blow to the head. Robin suspected that he had been as hurt by the mere fact of who had struck the blow, as by the blow itself.
They stopped in the end in a hollow, worn away years ago by the passage of a stream that had long since changed direction. There were bushes that helped to shelter them, and although they did not dare to light a fire, they did not feel the cold too greatly. Tuck lay silently, with Much crouched beside him, sleeping despite their unease. Robin didn't sleep at all.
"You need the rest as much as the rest of us, Robin." Marion had picked some berries, and was sipping at some of the juice that she had crushed from them. Mixed with the water that they had brought with them it made a drink that was sweet and refreshing, but she wasn't really tasting it. Robin shook his head.
"I feel like I've been asleep for years. How can I ever need to sleep again?"
"Because you're back with us, that's why. Your needs are different now." She reached out one hand to him, and put it gently on his shoulder. "I missed you so much Robin."
"I know." He smiled at her, and reached up to put his own hand over hers. "And I'm sorry."
"Sorry that you were away, or sorry that you're going away again? Only this time you won't be returning in a few years, when the forest spirits, or the ghosts of Sherwood, or whatever it is that saved you last time decide to bring you back. Will you."
"This time they won't be able to save me, even if I do... even if I do die within their reach. Herne will see to that. Remember the Summer King, Marion. It's a fable, a tradition of sorts, that dates back centuries. He has to die to keep the seasons turning."
"But it's not summer anymore, Robin. The Summer King died more than a month ago. It was supposed to be Robin... Huntingdon... but in the end it didn't have to be. Why do you have to die now?"
"Because I didn't die before." He frowned, trying and failing to remember just how long ago that had been. Not the end of the summer just past, certainly. The one before that? Or the one before that? Even longer ago? "Don't fight it, Marion. Don't try to think about what you'd rather could happen. The world doesn't work like that."
"I thought I'd never see you again. I've lived for two years with the knowledge of your death, and I've closed my heart to all thought of ever seeing your smile, or hearing your voice. But you came back, and I can see you again. I can hear you saying my name, and I can hear the laugh in your voice, and I can see the way that you stand when you're proud to be doing Herne's work. I can't go through it all again, Robin. I can't lose you again."
"Yes you can." He reached out then, urgently, taking her hands in his and holding them close to his chest. "You can because you have to. If I didn't believed that you have that strength within you I'd never have trusted myself to go near Kirklees Abbey. I'd have left you unaware of any of this."
"You'd have returned and not seen me?" Her fury was obvious, and she tried to pull free from him, but he held her close and wouldn't let her escape.
"I'd have tried. It would have torn me apart, but I'd have done it." He smiled, very gently. "But I didn't need to, did I, because you do have the strength. It's the strength to carry on when the world you love is falling apart around you. I know you have it because I know that we all do. Every one of us. We've stood strong while our country is torn down; while every piece of gold it possesses is stolen by foreign kings to pay for their crowns and their wars. We've stood strong while our people are forced into slavery, made serfs to lords with names they can't even pronounce. We've stood strong in the face of cruel laws and oppression, and we've helped others to do the same. Surely that - surely seeing everything that matters to any of us being threatened and hurt - is harder than just to lose me."
"Of course it isn't." She leant against him, and the fruit juice she had been drinking spilled from the water-skin, staining the ground around them like blood. "You know it isn't. The people of England might be the reason for every fight we've ever fought. The oppression of our country might be the spark that brought us all together, and made every one of us mad with fury and a desire for vengeance... But they're people Robin. Faceless people whose names I'll never know. You're the one that I love. You're the one that I'll grieve for. That I've already grieved for. I spent a year away from the forest, barely able to look upon it for the pain it caused me. When Little John sent word that he was going away, to Hathersage with Much, I couldn't meet with him to say goodbye. I knew that I wouldn't be able to look at him. Robin, every day of my life was a torture."
"It'll be different this time." He wished that he believed that were true. "Marion, I'm not doing this because I want to die. I'm not going to face the baron because I want to leave you. I'm going because it's the only way. The only way to save Herne and Sherwood, even England, from the powers that the baron works for. I'm going because someone has to, and that someone has to be me. Herne told me... It's one of the prophecies of Gildas, and how can any of us argue with that? Remember how he saw my coming? How he wrote of the Hooded Man that would come? Well I came."
"And now you find that he's written about your death as well." She lowered her head, no longer wanting to look at the man she loved. "I don't think that's fair, Robin. Why should his words come true? Why does he get to decide what happens? This isn't even his world any more. He's been dead so long nobody even remembers what he looked like."
"Some people have the power to see things. You know as well as I do that the future doesn't happen because Gildas said that it would. He saw it because he knew that it would happen. The way that sometimes I see things that are going to happen. He said that the one that had been dead had to die again. That means me. It's what's necessary to end this."
"I wish I had your courage, Robin." She lay still in his arms, and listened to a hungry owl shriek its rage at the world. Robin stroked her hair, and wished that he really did have the courage she was crediting him with.
"I'm not brave, Marion. I keep wishing that there could be another way. I keep wishing that the whole of time could just be like this, with you and me together, and nothing coming between us. I don't feel brave at all."
"But you are." She closed her eyes, wishing for sleep to take away at least a little of her pain. "If you weren't you'd run away. We both would."
"Fate would find us. Eventually."
"I know." Her voice echoed in the stillness, and she realised for the first time that Tuck and Much were awake. Awake and listening. Much was crying, almost soundlessly. For the first time since she had met the boy, she could think of nothing that would help him. "I just wish..."
"We all wish." He stared up at the sky, with its many stars. Stars that were the same as the ones he had looked at on all those other occasions when he had lain on the ground, with Marion at his side. The same stars he had looked at as a boy, when Marion's name was unknown to him, and he had expected a life no more remarkable than that as a miller, helping his foster father to run the mill that kept the family alive. Did he wish that that had been the life he had ended up with? Did he wish that this destiny had never been his, that this responsibility had never been his? That he wasn't waiting now to go to his death, because of a prophecy written for him long before he had been born? He knew the answer to that, just as he had known it when he had said goodbye to Marion once before. Regret nothing. Forget nothing. Something caught his eye and he glanced up.
"Robin?" Marion felt him moving, and turned her head, but he stilled her.
"It's nothing. I thought I saw somebody."
"Somebody watching us?" She was alert then, as awake as though she had never closed her eyes and tried to relax. "It might be one of the baron's men."
"I don't think so." He moved anyway, bowing to her concern, sliding out from underneath her and standing up. In the distance he thought that he saw a half bent, shadowy figure moving away; a figure that seemed to be an impossibly old woman, with black clothes that swept the ground. She made no sound as she moved, and if she was an old woman her speed seemed impossibly fast. He dismissed it as a trick of the light. If he had seen anything at all it had been some forest animal, scurrying away into the darkness after his movements had disturbed it.
"Is there anything there?" Much was beside him, staring out into the night with worried eyes. Robin shook his head.
"No. Just my imagination, or maybe a fox. You know what the forest is like at night."
"Full of ghosts." The boy looked pale in the moonlight. Robin clapped him on the shoulder.
"Ghosts of Sherwood never hurt the people of Sherwood. You have nothing to fear from anything that lives within these woods, Much. You should know that."
"I do. I think." He turned away, intending to go back down to join the others, but stopped before he had taken a step. "What's that, Robin?"
"What?" Herne's Son turned, looking to where the boy was pointing. In the pale gleam of the shining moon, something was flashing. Something that seemed to be made of metal, that lay where he had first seen the shape he had taken to be an old woman. He moved towards it, cautious and slow. What strange metal object had been left here? He knew before he was even halfway there, and could not stop the cry of surprise that burst from his lips.
"What is it?" Tuck and Marion were coming towards him then, and he stretched out, grabbing the shining object just as they reached him. When he turned to face them, the white, reflected light of it was bright within his eyes.
"Albion." He didn't know how it had come to be here, or what must have happened to Huntingdon to cause it to be brought, but he was glad to have it in his hands. The sword of Herne, his weapon, just as it had been his weapon before.
"Albion?" Marion recognised it too, knowing every inch of its perfect blade almost as well as did Robin himself. "But how?"
"And why?" added Tuck. Robin shook his head.
"I don't know. I don't suppose it matters." He slid the sword into his belt, into the place that had always been ready for it. "But it does mean that we know we're on the right track. As far as he's able, Herne will be with us, and will protect us."
"But he won't save your life." Marion's voice sounded bleak against his new hope, and he didn't bother trying to reassure her. He couldn't.
"It's not about living, Marion. It's about fighting the battle." His hand wouldn't leave Albion's hilt, and he felt the joy of its touch dance through his mind. "It's just about winning."
And for all his secret sorrows, he believed that; and for the first time since he had learned he had to die again, he knew that he was strong enough to face that death. He knew that he would meet the baron without fear.
Fate, the world and his father could ask of him nothing else.
In the giant, ramshackle house that he had taken for his own, the Baron de Belleme was making magic. The hall had once been a grand place; a massive room lined with shields and tapestries, filled with oaken furniture and statuettes. Now it was empty, the walls bare and running with water, the floor strewn with sawdust and rotting straw. A pentagram, fashioned from copper, stood firm and upright, daubed with oils that burnt without scarring its polished surface. Bowls of water and wine, of blood and scented oils, stood in a carefully arranged pattern, and fires burnt in a circle around the centre of the floor. The baron stood within the circle, dressed from head to toe in black as was his custom, all but his pale white face hidden by the thick black robes that covered him. His gloved hands made strange symbols in the air, and his head was thrown back, eyes closed, facing a world that existed beyond the true one. His lips moved in silent mutterings, rhythmical but ugly. It was a sight often seen in Castle Belleme in the old days, though in that dreadful place there had been no witnesses. Here there were three.
The Abbot Hugo was the abbot no longer, his mind snatched away from him, as that of his brother had been taken before. With Robert and Little John, oblivious to the antagonisms that should have existed between them, he stood now, a circle within the circle of fire, surrounding de Belleme in an honour guard. All three were dressed in dark red clothes of heavy material, their feet wrapped in sandals of scarlet leather. Hugo carried a staff carved from the thigh bone of a horse, his brother held two crossed swords, and John a goblet filled to the brim with thick, dark blood. They were chanting together, unaware of the words, unknowing of the tongue in which they spoke. De Belleme's thin frame swayed to the rhythm of their words.
There was a large wooden goblet on the floor at his feet. Plain and unadorned, it had been fashioned for him by a carpenter in France, and the baron had kept it by his side ever since. There had been something about that carpenter, and he had known then that the goblet had possessed powers. Many times he had drunk from it at table, and many times he had made others drink from it, on less auspicious occasions. Now it was filled with diamonds; the ones lost and recovered by Hugo, heaped in a pile in the exact centre of the room. Rich velvet cloths draped the stem of the goblet, and the diamonds reflected their scarlet colour, as well as each flicker of red and gold from the many fires. A thousand candles, arranged against one wall, burst simultaneously into light. Something laughed, but it wasn't any of the four people who were present. Simon de Belleme lowered his head.
"Soon." His voice was hoarse from the long hours of whispering, and from the smoke and heat from the many fires. He could taste the strong incense and oils that filled the room with their sweet and sickly odours, and his throat felt heavy with their cloying presence. It didn't stop him smiling, and raising his voice to join the chanting of his companions. At his feet the diamonds began to move, rattling like bubbles in a vat of boiling water, and the fires round about began to burn brighter, faster, wilder. One by one the thousand candles keeled over and fell, and their flames ran like tiny snakes across the floor. The spattered wax made shapes and runes on the flagstones, and the oil painted onto the pentagram started to hiss. Loudly, violently, with as much apparent glee as though he were still in control of his senses, the Sheriff of Nottingham began to laugh; a mad, satisfied laugh that was taken up by his two companions in bewitchment. Only de Belleme remained sober; and as the laughter of his mindless slaves finally died away, at last he opened his eyes. Where once had been coloured irises, and bright, cold whiteness, now there was nothing but blood red intensity. Wide, dark pupils sank away to nothing, and each orb glowed with an unearthly light. With a mighty crack the pentagram burst into furious flame, and Hugo, Robert and John began to chant once more. The noise filled the room; filled the building; brought a darkness to the place that had never been seen before.
Outside it was nearing dawn, but there was no dawn in the halls of de Belleme. There was no sunlight, no breeze, no fragrance of the approaching winter. There was only choking incense and, surrounding it all, the flickering flames of hell.
Robin awoke feeling refreshed, although he had not expected to feel that way. He opened his eyes, blinking up at the low roof of the hovel. He could see straight through the chimney hole, for the fire had burnt itself out.
"We should be on our way." He spoke the words before he was fully awake, sitting up as though still in a dream. It was dark in the hut without the fire to light it, but in the pale glow from the doorway he could see Nasir, already awake, sitting cross-legged nearby. The Saracen's dark eyes were open, watching him. Of the old woman there was no sign.
"Nasir." Stretching his arms, Robin looked around. "Have you seen our host this morning?" His answer was a slow shake of the head. "We must have been deeply asleep not to have noticed her leave. Are you hungry?" Again the head shake. "No, me neither. That stew that we ate last night must have been more filling that I realised at the time. I feel as though I've already eaten this morning. I'd like to say thankyou to old Peg, but I suppose we should just leave."
"Something strange has happened." Nasir was rubbing his left wrist as he spoke, the fingers of his right hand moving across the skin as though searching for something. Robin didn't make the connection at first.
"Plenty of strange things have happened. That's why we have to get going." His hand fell, as it always did before he set out anywhere, to the sword hanging at his side. "We must--" He broke off. Albion was no longer beside him.
"It was gone when I awoke." Nasir's slow, quiet explanation hung in the air of the dark, empty room. "I went out... but there was nothing."
"But Albion?" Huntingdon's fingers searched his belt, as though there was some chance that he might have missed the sword the first time. "It can't just have disappeared. And how could that old woman have taken it without me noticing?"
"The same way that she did this." Nasir raised his left wrist then, and Huntingdon realised that the manacle had gone. Where before there had been the iron cuff, with its length of chain attached, now there was simply a wrist. A few grazes remained on the skin, showing where the metal had been, but aside from that it had gone without a trace. "I did not see or feel it. It was just gone."
"I don't understand." Robin felt a shiver run through him, and wished that he was wearing warmer clothes. The coming winter felt closer this morning, and he did not feel ready for it. "I don't understand a--" His sudden silence and obvious shock must have suggested the approach of danger, for Nasir was beside him in an instant as though ready for battle. Robin gestured to him to stand down.
"It's alright." He had merely noticed something; felt something inside his shirt that had not been there when he had lain down to sleep. He pulled it out. Whatever it was, it was long and thin, wrapped in a soft grey cloth. It felt warm in his hand, and his fingers tingled with the powers that he knew came from Herne. His hands shook a little as he unwrapped the cloth, even though, by now, he knew what to expect.
"The Silver Arrow." He whispered it as though he were staring at an object of great reverence, which, in a way, he was. Unlike the first Robin he had been raised without knowledge of the arrow, and of its significance; but he knew of it now, and his fingers curled around it in a protective caress. "Herne must have sent this, in exchange for Albion. Loxley must need the sword." His eyes snapped up, staring excitedly at Nasir, who remained silent. "We have to go, Nasir. We have to get to wherever it is that we're going. We're needed." Nasir's answer, as always, was a brief nod. Huntingdon stowed the arrow away again, handling it as though it was made of china, whilst his companion went out into the weak morning sunlight. The strange events of the night had unsettled the silent Saracen, but he had a calm acceptance of all things in the world that helped to keep him focused. He decided to tend to the horse.
Huntingdon left the hovel a few moments later, running a hand through his unruly hair. It smelt of smoke and damp earth, a scent that seemed to fit on this dreary and faintly misty morning. Nasir handed him the sword that he had stolen from the dungeon guard the previous evening, and which he had brought with him from the castle without quite understanding why. There was a reason for all things, he told himself as he pulled it free from the stolen horse's saddle. Robin nodded his acceptance.
"Thankyou. I might have Herne's arrow with me, but I feel better with a sword as well. There's no telling who we're going to have to fight." His eyes narrowed slightly, and he regarded his companion with thoughtful eyes. "You seem a little stiff, Nasir. Are you going to be alright if it comes to a battle?"
"I am fine." Nasir turned away, adjusting the reins of the horse. "We should go."
"Nasir..." Regretting the question now, Robin reached out to put a hand on the other man's shoulder. "I didn't mean to insult you. It's just... well you're obviously not yourself, that's all. What happened at Nottingham Castle?"
"Gisburne." Nasir turned back to look at him, and his dark eyes were bright with hatred. "I think perhaps they hurt Will more. They were... more angry by then."
"Damn." Robin spun around, walking away a few paces. "And who knows where Will is right now, or what he's doing. If he's still under the baron's spell he's probably not capable of taking things easy. We need to find him. If I--" He broke off at Nasir's hand gesture, and frowned. "What is it? Is there somebody coming?" Nasir nodded, already drawing an arrow to fit to his bow. He motioned with one hand towards the road leading from the north, then indicated that they should retreat into the bushes near to the old woman's carefully camouflaged home. By now Robin could hear the approaching hoof beats as well, and his heart quickened in response. Who was it? One of the baron's men? Some innocent traveller? In the current climate he wasn't quite able to believe that anybody was truly innocent. Whoever it was that was coming was bound to be tied up in all of this somehow. Beside him Nasir raised his bow, lining up what was sure to be a perfect shot just as soon as the target became visible.
He came in that instant; a blond figure on a big black horse, riding so fast that it seemed he must have a pack of ravening wolves on his tail. Robin caught a glimpse of a pale, determined face beneath a fringe of sweat-drenched golden hair, and his eyes widened in surprise. Beside him Nasir tensed, and his wrist moved to loose the arrow. Robin jumped.
"No!" He swept his arm aside, knocking his companion and making the arrow go wild. Startled, the horse reared up, causing its rider to swear in a loud voice. He fought with the beast, at the same time drawing a long, well-cared for sword.
"Who's there?" His voice was unmistakable, even if he didn't look quite himself. Nasir glared at Robin, clearly furious. The outlaw leader managed an apologetic smile.
"Sorry. I thought he might be useful." The only response that he got was in Arabic, which he didn't understand, but his companion's expression clearly said Him?!
"What is going--" Gisburne's angry inquiry broke off when he saw the two men, and his brow darkened into a furious frown. "You!"
"Gisburne." Nodding politely, Huntingdon stepped out into the open. "Going somewhere?"
"I don't have the time to fight you, Wolfshead." Climbing down from his horse, the young knight brandished his sword. "But don't think that I won't if I have to."
"Believe it or not I don't want to fight you." Robin was watching him carefully, on the look out for any sign of enchantment. "We're looking for the baron."
"You? You've no chance of defeating him." Gisburne's scorn stung, but Robin didn't allow himself to react to it. Instead he kept his slight smile steady on his face, and wished that he could see what Nasir was doing.
"Somebody has to stop him. He has two of my friends in his power, and I'd like to help them. I also want to make sure that he doesn't go through with whatever he's got planned this time." Ignoring the instincts that were telling him to draw his sword, Robin kept his eyes on the expression on the other man's face. Gisburne was worried; desperate even. But was he desperate enough? "Do you know where he is?"
"I might." The Norman's sharp eyes flickered from Robin to Nasir and back again, although he showed no sign of any surprise over the fact that the Saracen wasn't safely locked away back at the castle. "Are you saying that you want me to help you?"
"Are you offering?" Robin wanted to cast a glance over his shoulder and make sure that Nasir was not about to shoot Gisburne down, but didn't dare take his eyes off the knight. Sir Guy smiled sardonically.
"Do you honestly believe that that would work? Me, help a Wolfshead? a Saracen? I'm going to Nottingham Castle, and I'm going to get an army to follow me back here. We'll deal with the baron. He'll die for what he did to me."
"If you go back to the castle to get help he might have the chance to finish whatever it is that he's trying to do." Robin took a tentative step forward, wishing that he could trust Gisburne not to try something. "If you want to defeat him, maybe it's me you should be talking to."
"Work with you?" Gisburne shook his head. "You are an outlaw, and I am the steward of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Now if you're planning on fighting me, I'd be happy to oblige you. Otherwise you'd better just let me leave."
"Guy..." Robin tried to forget how much the man annoyed him, and concentrated instead on Herne's words, echoing in his mind. Trust one who trusts you, even if neither truly trusts the other. There were few people in the world that he trusted less than Guy of Gisburne. "You know that we're on the same side here."
"All I know is that you're wanted by the law I am sworn to uphold." The knight could not have sounded more self-important if he had been trying, and Robin fought the rising irritation.
"Desperate times, Sir Guy." He held his hands out from his sides. "I don't have my sword in my hand. I'm not trying to fight you, or to get in your way. If you want to leave, nobody is going to stop you."
"Tell that to him." Gisburne's eyes flicked towards Nasir, and Robin raised his voice slightly, addressing his words to his companion even though he kept his eyes fixed on his enemy.
"Put the bow away, Nasir." He used his most authoritative voice; the one that most people tended to respond to without question. Nasir was not most people, but he was one of Robin's most faithful followers; and Huntingdon knew that the weapon had been lowered even before he saw the change of expression on Gisburne's face.
"Now." He folded his arms, and tried not to think about his secret relationship to this man; tried not to think about anything save what he was saying. "You know that I'm a man of my word, Guy. I might be an outlaw, but I'm also the son of an Earl. My father has always been known to be an honourable man, and I can assure you that he raised me to be the same way."
"I'm not convinced." Gisburne was practically pouting, his familiarly petulant expression making him look like a spoilt child. "You are my sworn enemy. Why would I help you? And more to the point, why would you want me to?"
"Because there are only two of us, that's why." Robin didn't add the rest of that thought - the fact that Nasir was well below his best at the moment. "We have no idea where our friends are. There was a silence, and he tried not to be too impatient. "Look, there's plenty of time for hating each other. If you want to throw down the gauntlet when this is all over, I'll fight you anywhere you choose - but right now I need another sword on my side. You know that you don't have time to get back to Nottingham Castle. Whatever de Belleme is up to, he must be near the finish of it. Do you plan to rescue the Sheriff?"
"Of course I do!" Gisburne looked insulted. De Rainault treated him appallingly, and often gave the young knight considerable reason to hate him; but Sir Guy, for all his cruelty and petulance, had been raised to the knight's code of honour. He would do anything to help the Sheriff and his brother to escape from the Baron de Belleme.
"Of course." Robin nodded, understanding a little. It was hard to imagine wanting to risk life and limb to save a man as repugnant as was Robert de Rainault, but he had grown up with the same codes as Gisburne, and sympathised with the theory at least. "Then do we have a deal?"
"A deal?" The knight's face was a picture of insult and disgust. "I wouldn't make a deal with you if the king's life depended on it." He nodded slowly. "But I'll help. You can be trusted I suppose, even if the rest of your band can't."
"If that's the most gracious acceptance we're going to get I suppose we'll have to go with it." Robin looked back at Nasir, who was watching without a flicker of emotion. "Naz, Sir Guy was going at quite a speed, so he should have left a trail that we can follow easily enough. Why don't you go on ahead?" His answer was a nod, extremely wary and slow. Nasir's eyes had not left Gisburne, and clearly the Saracen did not think highly of Huntingdon's attempt at an alliance. Naturally enough, though, he said nothing, and merely walked away. The stiffness he had been displaying earlier had gone; no doubt because he was loath to allow Gisburne to see such weakness. Huntingdon frowned, concerned. How much longer could his friend keep going, given his obvious injuries? He turned to the Norman who still stood nearby.
"Do you have any idea how far we've got to go?"
"Not far. I stopped for the night, or most of it. The forest was too thick, and I couldn't see my way through it in the dark. If we can make good speed we should be there by noon." He frowned. "It won't be easy to follow my tracks though. Some stretches of road were rather dry and unyielding. There won't be much in the way of signs, and I confess that I wasn't really taking notes."
"Nasir will find us the way." Always supposing that he can keep going that long. Robin took the reins of Nasir's 'borrowed' horse, and began to lead it away down the road. "Come on then, if you're coming."
"You're leading the beast? For goodness sake, Huntingdon, we have the horses, so why don't we ride?"
"Because there are only two horses. Besides, Nasir will find it easier to follow your trail if he's on foot." Trying not to sound too frustrated, Robin sighed at Gisburne's impatience and lack of thought. Was he really related to the man? It seemed impossible to believe most of the time. "If you hadn't been in such a hurry yourself, you might have noticed a few more landmarks, and then we wouldn't need to rely on following your tracks. As it is, you'll just have to put up with the lack of speed." His eyes narrowed. "Although if Nasir is going at all slowly, I think we both know who's to blame."
"That wasn't my fault." Ordinarily the idea of beating up a defenceless man wouldn't have bothered Gisburne too much, but for some reason Huntingdon's disapproval rather got to him. "I was bewitched."
"I wish I thought you'd have behaved differently otherwise." Robin bit his lip, angry with himself for saying too much. He wasn't supposed to care what sort of person Gisburne was; what sort of things he did. The last thing that he wanted was for anybody, Sir Guy included, to suspect that there was a link between the two of them. Gisburne, however, was blind to any subtext.
"This is war, Huntingdon." For once the familiar petulance was not audible in his voice. "It's us against them, and they shouldn't expect any mercy. It's not my fault that you chose their side instead of your own."
"You think that you and I belong on the same side? That I'd want to be a part of the things you do?" Robin shook his head. "Having titles, being noble, does not give us the right to treat people like animals. Sometimes I can't believe how different we are."
"Is there any reason why we shouldn't be?" Gisburne scowled. "You're a fool, Huntingdon, and the sooner we deal with de Belleme and part company, the better."
"Maybe you're right." Turning his eyes back to the road ahead, Robin tried not to let himself feel too disappointed; and tried to tell himself that he had no reason to feel such disappointment anyway. Gisburne shared his blood, but that didn't make him a brother. It didn't mean that they had to share anything else.
"Of course I'm right." Sir Guy was looking about, frowning at the scenery around them. "It all looks rather clearer by day, you know. Perhaps it won't even take us until noon to reach the baron's stronghold."
"Good." By the look of things they could not arrive too soon. Nasir had slowed noticeably, and it was now clear that he was in a lot of pain. Damn Gisburne, and every guard who had ever obeyed his orders.
"Good?" Guy didn't share his satisfaction. "Do you have any idea what we're going to do when we get there?"
"Not really, no." Robin thought about the Silver Arrow, safe within his jerkin. How would he know when to use it? And who would he have to go through first?
"I won't let you hurt the Sheriff." Gisburne's voice was soft, and filled with the notes of warning. "He isn't himself, and even if he was..."
"I don't plan on hurting the Sheriff." Robin didn't bother warning the knight not to do anything to John and Will either. "I just want de Belleme."
"Good." Gisburne seemed prepared to accept that, and Robin's mind drifted back over Herne's prophecy. Trust one who trusts you, even if neither truly trusts the other. Would Gisburne trust him if he knew the truth about what lay between them? Could he ever take the risk of telling him? But that would be foolish, and he knew that it would lead only to disaster. Guy of Gisburne could never find out that they were brothers, and Robin himself had to stop thinking about it. Had to stop looking at him now as though searching for a family likeness.
Time now to think of nothing but the Baron de Belleme.
The further they walked, the clearer the image grew in Robin's head. He saw a building, old and in a state of disrepair, yet still displaying all of the wealth and splendour once attached to it. Huge bushes covered in unpleasant thorns grew up around the outside walls, and the building itself was a mass of creeping ivy. The greenery splintered the bricks and tore holes in the roof, and had splintered the glass in the little chapel off to one side, but the main building itself was still in good shape. Robin saw it all through a fog, blurring the images around the edges, but he was certain enough of what he could see. His instincts were surer still, and when they came to a fork in the road, he didn't even hesitate before choosing which path to take. It took them through thick forest, but nobody suggested that he might have chosen wrongly. There was nothing about his pace or manner that suggested at any uncertainty.
They arrived in the late morning, when it should have been bright and sunny, but wasn't. Here, in this desolate and overgrown place it seemed that the coming winter had already arrived. The few trees that grew nearby had lost their leaves, and there were no birds in the big gorse hedges that surrounded the place. Tuck looked up at the building and shivered.
"I should have guessed we were looking for somewhere like this. Simon de Belleme was a strange fellow even before he turned to the dark arts."
"And this place makes Castle Belleme look warm and cheerful." Marion stared up at the broken roof, and let her eyes trail back down again, over the many windows. "I wonder if he saw us arrive."
"I doubt it." Robin's confidence was familiar, even if it had been a long time since they had seen it in action in this way. "He'll be busy about his spells."
"Conjuring demons." Much was clearly unhappy with the situation. "Why are there so many people who want to do horrible things with magic?"
"Because there are always people who want power, Much, that's why." Robin smiled at him, his face gentle and his eyes sad. "And around here, with all of the ancient powers that exist in Sherwood, there's a lot of power to be had. There are other places in England that must be the same."
"It's horrible." Much couldn't help staring up at the narrow window slits, imagining that the baron was watching them out of every one. Tuck squeezed the boy's shoulder, agreeing with him but anxious not to show it.
"What do we do now, Robin?" Now that they were here it felt awkward; no more talking, no more wondering. He wondered how Robin was going to die. For the first time in some while Loxley hesitated. He didn't know what to do any more than did his friends. How was this supposed to work? How could he stop de Belleme if he died? How should his death come about? Was he to allow the baron to kill him? But that would mean that his enemy would win, which certainly could not bode well for Sherwood or for England. He had hoped that all would become clear when he arrived at this place, but now that he was here, nothing was any clearer than it had been when he had first come to realise he was still alive.
"Keep watch," he said finally. "There could be servants, bodyguards, anybody. I'm going inside."
"On your own?" Marion shook her head. "No, Robin. I'm going too."
"Marion..." He sighed, remembering many other arguments, particularly in the early days of their relationship. Marion would not be dissuaded, and perhaps it was unfair of him to expect her to be. He nodded. "Alright. But you others wait out here, and keep your eyes open. Don't let anybody into or out of the building." He paused, and smiled at them both. "Be careful."
"You too." Tuck wanted to say something more, but Robin clapped him on the back, making the definite point that this was not a time for meaningful words and long goodbyes.
"Look after him, Much," he said, as brightly as he could manage. "His head won't be healed for a while yet."
"Alright Robin." Pleased to be given the extra responsibility, Much blinked back tears. "You'll be careful, won't you."
"Of course." Robin's smile was warm and all too brief. Taking Marion's hand, drawing Albion as he went, he headed off into the dismal building. Tuck shook his head.
"Headstrong," he murmured sadly. "Always so headstrong. Both of them."
"And brave," Much told him. "Braver than I am."
"And braver than I am as well." Tuck sighed. "Come on, lad. We've got work to do. There's no telling how many doors a place like this has, and we're going to have to watch them all."
"What do we do if it's demons trying to get past us?" Much's eyes were wide. Tuck hefted his stick, and wished that his head didn't hurt so much.
"Then we stop them, Much," he said, in a fair attempt at matching their leader's calm confidence. "We stop them."
Inside his crumbling home, the Baron de Belleme was in an ecstasy of spell-casting, his usually solemn face split by a wide, horrible grin. If he was bothered by the disappearance of Guy of Gisburne he gave no sign of it, for such trivialities could not be allowed to interrupt his work. Head thrown back, eyes shut tight, he was bellowing his spells towards the high, cold ceiling. Stationed around him, unmoving in their places, Little John and the brothers de Rainault chanted the words in echo. All three were deathly pale, for the baron alone among them retained any of the colours of the living. Almost all other colour in the room - all other life - seemed to have been sucked into the goblet at the baron's feet. The diamonds were barely contained by it now, bouncing and rattling madly, the uppermost ones almost ready to leap free. They were flashing with the light of every colour of the rainbow, though the goblet itself seemed soaked in shadows. As the baron's chanting reached its highest pitch, around its rim the goblet began to smoulder.
"I shall give you form." Switching to English at the end of the last verse of chanting, de Belleme spread his arms wide and faced the pentagram before him. The flames that doused it were burning with a furious strength now, although the pentagram itself seemed in no danger of beginning to melt. A plume of smoke rose from the goblet full of diamonds, and the outermost stones fell to the ground. They skittered about on the flagstones, striking sparks with every bounce, and for a second that was the only noise that filled the room. Then John stepped forward, pulling from out of his robes a large, heavy book. It was a Bible, written in Hebrew, ancient and bound in cracked, decaying leather. With a deep bow he handed the book to de Belleme, before returning to his place.
"Soon." De Belleme did not need to search for the right page, for the book fell open in his hands. Voice deep, he chanted the words that he found there, in a language that was more ancient even than the one in which they were writen. At the bidding of his spells the dark shape beside the pentagram began to take form. In time it was possible to discern the shape of a giant winged creature, powerful and furious, massivly strong. Whatever it was it had a beak more fierce than that of any falcon, and talons as long and as hooked as scimitars. As de Belleme's voice continued, a pair of as yet still insubstantial eyes began to glow red.
"It's coming." As the shadowy shape grew before them, the three mindless servants broke into gleeful, excited laughter, the mouthpieces of de Belleme's own mirth. Approaching down the corridor, Robin and Marion heard the noise, and recognised John's voice amongst the others. They exchanged a look.
"Poor John." Robin knew how much his old friend had hated de Belleme for bewitching him once before. When he was freed from the spell this time he would be mortified were he to find out what he had been a part of.
"We can help him, can't we Robin?" Marion looked pale in the bad light inside the corridor. Robin held her close, walking onwards all the time.
"Of course we can. Maybe not straight away, but we'll do something." He lifted a hand to his mouth to indicate that she should be quieter now, and pulled her close to the wall. "Keep back for now. I'm going to challenge de Belleme. Try to keep the others from interfering."
"You want me to shoot at them?" She was incredulous, but she was already fitting an arrow to her bow. He smiled.
"Not at them. Near them. Warning shots."
"Do you think that'll do any good in their current state?"
"Yes. I hope so." He looked grim, and took a moment to peer around the corner at the end of the corridor, so that he could see out into the hall. "The baron seems to be using them for something. It's as if he needs them to complete this, and he won't let them risk their lives."
"I hope you're right."
"So do I; but it's not as if we have any choice." He pulled her towards him for a quick, impulsive kiss, then let go of her and stepped away. "Shoot straight, Marion."
"It's been a while." It hadn't been long since she had left the band, but archery was a skill that could grow rusty very quickly. He smiled at her.
"Are you saying that you've forgotten?"
"No." She answered his smile with one of her own, and raised her bow ready to shoot. "I haven't forgotten anything. I never will."
"Good." He gave a brisk nod. "Then get ready." And with that he was gone. Marion hurried around the corner after him, waiting where there was some cover, watching his lithe form as he ran across the floor of the great hall. De Belleme was turning to face him, although he could not possibly have heard any sound of footsteps. Even though she was some distance away, Marion could see the unpleasant smile that took over the baron's face.
"Well well well." He had a sword at his waist, but made no effort to draw it. "I knew that Robin Hood would come to me if I waited long enough, but I never expected that when he came he would be wearing your face. I was told to expect Robert of Huntingdon."
"If I know him, he'll be along." Robin's expression was hard, for he fully hoped to have all of this dealt with before his replacement found this place. "You had something planned for him I take it?"
"Him, you, what's the difference?" De Belleme was still smirking. "You know, before I wiped the Sheriff's mind, he told me that you were dead. I thought at the time that he was lying, but I couldn't see any reason why he should be. Tell me, were you restored to life with Herne's Silver Arrow just as I was?"
"We share nothing in common, I assure you." Robin hefted Albion in his hand. "Now let's end this."
"Oh I plan to. Your blood is all that I need to make my spell complete." De Belleme clicked his fingers and his three servants became to approach. Marion stepped out of the corridor, and levelled her bow. Robin smiled.
"If you want my blood you'll have to spill it yourself. Now draw your sword."
"You always were insufferable." De Belleme took a step back, watching his men close in - then let out a shout of rage when Marion's first arrow hit the ground just inches from John's feet. The big man slowed to a halt, staring at the baron in search of guidance.
"She won't let them get anywhere near me." Robin's gaze had not left de Belleme. "If anybody is going to stop me, it'll have to be you. Now draw your sword."
"You can't hope to beat me. I learnt sword-play before you were even dragged screaming into the world." De Belleme pulled his sword free, holding it up so that the weird lights from the burning pentagram reflected off its scarred surface. There were runes written on the blade, and Robin could read them without trying. Unpleasant verse, with unpleasant meaning. In his hand he felt Albion tingling.
"One drop of blood, Hood. One drop of your blood spilt and my creature becomes flesh. The most powerful creature this world has ever seen, ready to suck the life and soul from every living thing that stands before it." The dark blade pointed straight at Robin's chest. "One drop, and there won't be a man or woman left alive in England who doesn't belong to me utterly."
"Your magic risks the stability of Herne's forest." Robin pointed his own weapon at de Belleme, matching the other's stance. "You can spill as many drops of my blood as your sword can manage, but I won't let you give that creature life."
"You won't have any say in the matter." With a sudden leap de Belleme came towards him, and Robin felt the power of his strength behind his blade. He winced, feeling the inactivity of the past two years in the bones of his wrist. Fortunately for him his body did not seem to have forgotten all that it had once done. Behind him another arrow rang against the stone as Marion dissuaded another attempt by the baron's servants to come to their master's aid. The shadowy demon creature hissed in response, and all the light in the room dimmed. Robin saw the diamonds begin to bubble, as though somehow they were beginning to melt. He wondered what it meant, and decided not to clutter his mind with such thinking. He had a battle to fight.
"You can't win, Hood. And you won't." De Belleme's eyes were narrow. Robin smiled. How many times had he heard that, during the one short year of his time as the King of Sherwood Forest?
"Maybe not." He wasn't expecting to come out of this in one piece. If truth be told he wasn't expecting to come out of it at all. "But by all the powers of Herne, and all the spirits of Sherwood Forest, neither will you." He slashed out again with his sword, and watched de Belleme fall back. "Now be quiet and fight me, baron. It's time to get this settled."
It was a hideous building. Behind vast bushes of gorse that seemed to stretch up to the sky, the twisted, cracked building pointed its broken roofs into a permanent cover of grey cloud. The overgrown courtyard, a mass of poisonous plants and dead weeds, had the stench of death about it, as though every animal that crawled or flew through it had dropped dead somewhere in its midst. An overflowing well dribbled stagnant water onto a clump of mosses, turned black and rotten long ago. Robin stared upon it all, feeling his heart sink. Somehow a place like this sapped the spirit, and made any task seem impossible.
"De Belleme is busy." Maybe it was his link with all that was Sherwood, but Robin could feel the unease in his mind. The unease of the spirits and ghosts and powers of the forest, as well as the tension and fear of the animals. Whatever the baron was about, it was already well underway.
"We have to find him before we can kill him." Gisburne looked up at the large building. "I didn't go inside. I don't know where they're likely to be."
"The main hall." Nasir sounded strained, although his fierce pride made him try to hide it. "They will all be there."
"John and the others?" Robin wondered what part they played in de Belleme's conjurings. Nasir nodded, and Huntingdon returned the gesture. "Alright. Gisburne, they're your responsibility - and I mean John as well as the de Rainaults. Get them out of there. I'll handle de Belleme. Nasir, I need you to keep watch. Are you up to it?" His answer was a darkening of that expressive face, and a glitter of reproach in the bright eyes. He smiled. "I know. But I had to ask. While you're on watch, look out for..." His eyes drifted towards Gisburne, whose back, fortunately, was turned. "Look out for the others. If they're not here yet they'll be on their way. I'll feel better when I know that they're still alright." Nasir nodded again, and without another word he fitted an arrow to his bow and moved to search for likely cover. Gisburne watched him go.
"Talkative fellow, isn't he."
"Shut up Guy." Robin turned his attention back to the building before them. "Well, it shouldn't be too hard to find the main hall, if this place is built to the usual pattern. Are you ready?"
"I'm always ready." The superior air was back in Gisburne's voice, but this time it was not quite matched by the glint in his eyes. "He's one man. One old man."
"Hmm." Robin could still feel the worries of Herne troubling his mind, and he wished that he could share in Gisburne's confidence. "One old man with a lot of power."
"Are you scared of him?" The disdain in Guy's voice was as clear an indication as any that he himself was terrified, even if he was too proud to show it. Robin nodded.
"Yes. Aren't you?" Gisburne frowned, his haughty expression not softening in the slightest.
"Of course not. If you've forgotten how to be a nobleman after all this time living amongst Wolfsheads in the forest, that's your own fault. But I'm not afraid of an old sorcerer."
"Even one that returned from the dead?" Robin had heard the tales; the stories that the outlaws told around the campfire in the evenings in Sherwood Forest. Many of them revolved around the baron, and how Loxley had killed him with Herne's Silver Arrow. Gisburne looked uncomfortable.
"What do you know about it? You've never even met the man." Irritable now, the knight pulled ahead, leaving Robin behind as he moved towards the building. Huntingdon rolled his eyes. There had to be a better way to do this. Why, in all of England, was there nobody else in a position to help him now save this insufferable man? He hoped that Fate at least found it funny. Pushed past the point of mere frustration he was about to say something unpleasant to Gisburne, but as though to quell the coming friction, a sound nearby distracted him. Suddenly alert, he lost all thought of his anger.
"Somebody's coming." Gisburne heard the footsteps at the same time as Robin, and drew his sword with a flourish. Robin pushed him into the shadows by the wall.
"There's no need to announce yourself. Keep quiet and maybe we can get in without anybody stopping us." His eyes travelled to the walls, where somewhere Nasir was hiding. He could see no sign of the Saracen, but knew that wherever he was he would already have levelled his bow. Gisburne struggled.
"Don't presume to order me about, Huntingdon." He pushed off the other man's hold, and stepped away from the wall. "You may be the son of an Earl, but you're also an outlaw, and naturally of forfeited rank."
"This isn't about rank." Robin drew his own sword, listening carefully. Two sets of footsteps, one light, one heavy. Servants of de Belleme? The heavier set of steps didn't sound like those of Little John, but the man was no longer himself. He certainly couldn't be expected to behave as he usually did.
"I heard something." The voice that reached them was timid, and thick with a local accent. Robin smiled, at the same moment that Gisburne stepped forward to fight.
"Get back you fool." Pushing the young knight back, Robin sheathed his sword. "Much? Is that you?"
"Robin?" The young man came around the corner at a greatly increased speed, eyes bright and face full of smiles. "Robin, it's you! We thought you were demons or goblins or something, didn't we Tuck?"
"Aye lad. Something like that." Also coming around the corner, Tuck clapped Robin on the shoulder, then blinked in surprise at the sight of Gisburne. "Um..."
"Don't ask." Robin pushed the knight's sword away, for it was still levelled at the two newcomers. "Put it away, Gisburne."
"What are they doing here?" Gisburne's eyes were narrow with suspicion. "How did they know to come here?"
"We came with Robin." Much frowned then, apparently deciding that it wasn't a good idea to be so forward in the company of an enemy. "I mean--"
"Never mind." Huntingdon gestured towards the big main door before them. "Has he already gone inside?"
"Aye, and Marion with him." Tuck shook his head sorrowfully. "And John's in there too, although there's no telling what sort of state he's in. Maybe Will and Nasir as well."
"Not Nasir. He's with us." Robin gestured towards the wall, where the dark-clad Saracen had appeared as if from nowhere, and was heading their way. "According to Sir Guy here, Will was left behind somewhere. He couldn't keep up, apparently."
"Will?" Tuck turned to greet Nasir, and blinked in surprise at the obviously compromised strength of the younger man. "Good Heavens, Nasir. What happened to you?"
"He had an argument with the guards at Nottingham Castle." Robin purposely did not look at Gisburne, although he didn't for a moment think that the other man would be the slightest bit ashamed. "It looks as if you've been having arguments of your own, Tuck."
"Just a slight disagreement." Touching his head rather gingerly, Tuck smiled. "I don't think that you should be walking around though Nasir."
"I am fine." The Saracen's voice was rather taut, for he did not appreciate having his weaknesses discussed. "Robin, listen."
"Listen?" Robin cocked his head on one side, guessing that it was to the sounds of the manor that he was supposed to be paying attention. He thought, distantly, that he could hear the clashing of steel. "Swords?"
"Robin went to challenge the baron." Tuck shook his head. "He thinks that he has to die to end this, Robin. I don't like to think that he's right."
"Robin?" Gisburne looked from one to the other of them. "This is Robin, or so he likes to call himself these days."
"I doubt that you're the only man alive called Guy." Robin's free hand travelled to the Silver Arrow, hidden within his clothing. "Alright, the plan stays as it was before. You others get back to what you were doing. Come on Gisburne."
"Be careful Robin." Tuck shook his head as the second of Herne's Sons ran after the first. "He's as bad as the other one when he wants to be."
"Why's he with Gisburne?" asked Much, his brow crinkled into a typically deep frown. Tuck glanced towards Nasir. Sometimes he wished that he wasn't alone in sharing Huntingdon's secret.
"A necessary evil in a difficult time, lad, that's all. A common enemy will bring the unlikeliest of allies together." He saw the dark frown that passed across Nasir's face, and felt a burst of sympathy. "We'd better do as he said, and get back to our patrol. Nasir, are you sure you're--"
"I am fine." The words were repeated with rather more force than before. Even so it was obvious that it was a lie, for the Saracen was not standing with anything like his usual poise. As he turned to walk away it was clear from his movements that he was stiff. Tuck wondered what had happened, and decided that he was probably happier not knowing.
"We're not doing too well, are we Tuck." Some of Much's bright innocence had gone from his voice, and Tuck knew that the boy was terribly worried. "John and Will bewitched, and nobody knowing where Will is. Both Robins and Marion in there with nobody knowing what they're going to have to fight. You with your head hurt, and Nasir looking like he can hardly stand. Does that mean we're not going to win this time?"
"We always win." Tuck hurried him off, eager to get back to watching the perimeter. "Good always wins in the end, Much. Men like the Baron de Belleme always lose. It's the nature of the world."
"Oh." The boy nodded, apparently mollified. "Does that mean that Robin doesn't have to die?"
"That's something that only the Good Lord knows." Tuck cast a last look back at the door through which he had seen three of his closest friends disappear. "In the meantime it's not for us to question."
"That's because we wouldn't like the answer, isn't it." Much lowered his eyes. "It was nice to have him back."
"Aye lad. It was." Tuck remembered his conversation with Loxley, back at the camp in Sherwood, when he had still suspected that his old friend might be some dangerous spirit. How wrong he had been. "But don't lose hope. None of us knows what's coming, Much. It could be that we're all in for a surprise."
"I'm not sure that I like surprises." Much smiled at him, his eyes showing the bravery that he was trying to summon. "But I hope that you're right."
"So do I, lad." Wishing that he knew what was happening inside the crumbling building, Tuck tried to clear his mind of worry, so that he could focus on the job he had been given to do. "So do I."
One foot before the other, each step an agony, Will Scarlet followed in the path of his master. He could see nothing but burning pentagrams, and thought of nothing at all that made sense. Instinct alone told him which way to go, and he didn't feel the thick branches of the forest knocking into him, slapping into his face, tearing his skin. His breathing was becoming laboured, his ribs ablaze with pain, and with each step his head grew heavier. He was walking at a pace that shouldn't have been possible given his injuries, for it should hardly have been possible for him to walk at all.
And yet walk he did, his sword now drawn, his confused mind boiling away beneath the surface. He needed de Belleme to take the pain away, to bring back the clarity of those first few minutes of enchantment, when there had been no problems at all - but de Belleme had left him behind. The baron was the only friend that he had; the only one that could stop the pain. Everybody else was an enemy.
Enemy. It was the only word that really made sense to Will now. The only concept that he could truly grasp; anybody who was not Simon de Belleme must be his enemy. His enemies were Normans. His enemies were evil. His enemies were the people who had raped and murdered his wife. A different kind of pain flooded Will's mind, but he knew that it was just another thing that the baron could take away. He had to find de Belleme.
And he had to kill anybody who stood in his way.
Inside the great hall, Robin was in trouble. De Belleme's sword moved like a living thing; something with a mind of its own; and possessed all the speed and deadly accuracy of a striking snake. If he had not been fighting with the powerful sword of Herne, Robin knew that he would have fallen before now, and he thanked whichever power had brought the weapon to him. In his hand Albion felt strong and capable, and he blocked each blow as it came. There were close calls though, and he knew that it was only mere chance which had prevented de Belleme from drawing first blood. Behind him he was aware all the time of the three servants; his friend and his two enemies; all trying to get at him past Marion's arrows. She could not carry on for long, he knew that. He had given her his own arrows as well, but even so she would soon run out. What would happen then? He had not expected the fight to last so long, and had made no plans for having to fight four foes. Marion would come to his assistance, he knew; but she had never been as good with a sword as the others in the band, and would be at a disadvantage straight away. John had his quarter-staff, and was deadly enough with it even when fighting a person of equal height and strength, who was armed in the same way as himself. Marion would have little chance; and neither, given that he could not risk hurting John too badly, would Robin. He wondered if he could bring himself to use his sword to wound either de Rainault fatally, and had to conclude that he couldn't, which greatly increased his disadvantage. How could he kill them when they were bewitched? It would not be the right thing to do; and there was always a chance that, given their relative innocence, Albion would refuse to kill them anyway.
"Your death will be quick, Hood." De Belleme's words were not the usual mad threats of an angry enemy, and Robin knew it. He heard fierce hissing from nearby, and knew that the creature born of the flaming pentagram was growing excited. In the corner of his eye he saw its mighty wings flap, as it tried to break free of whatever chains still held it. One drop of blood spilt, de Belleme had said. Robin wondered what the creature would look like when it was alive, and decided that he definitely didn't want to know. Behind him another arrow thudded into the ground, and he tried to remember how many Marion had already fired. How many could she have left?
"You're tiring, Hood." De Belleme's voice had acquired a sing-song quality; something mocking and unpleasant. It didn't suit his smooth, pale face, but it seemed to fit the moment. He attacked again, and the shocks of his blows vibrated up Robin's sword arm. Again Albion came to his rescue, guiding his hand and giving him strength, but he knew that the sorcerer was right. He was tiring. His enemy's sword was slashing closer and closer, coming nearer and nearer to drawing that one drop of blood. Behind him he heard one more arrow strike the ground, and then the sound of running feet. Marion had loosed her last arrow, and was coming to join him. Nearby, hissing and growling as though sensing its coming victory, the great creature of shadow conjured by de Belleme began to rise and grow and beat its ethereal wings.
"Marion!" Throwing a glance over his shoulder, Robin tried to manoeuvre the fight around so that he could see her properly. "Get out of here!"
"You need my help." She was slashing almost blindly with her sword, trying to make all three of the servants back away. It seemed so strange so see her fighting John, but Robin couldn't think of such things. It was all that he could do to fight his own battle, without worrying about hers as well. Behind him the hell creature screamed and slashed the air with its talons, and he was sure that he could feel the breeze of the movement. Surely that meant that it was beginning to gain true substance? Boiling, bubbling diamonds splashed across his feet, and he heard echoing whispers of the spells of earlier. The goblet was burning with a fierce green flame.
"Robin!" Marion's voice, high and loud. He didn't turn; forced himself not to; but heard the sound of her sword as it skittered away across the floor. A swish of a quarter-staff created a draught that he felt even as far away as he was, and Marion gave a cry. He swung then, seeing her stumble, seeing the great, towering creature that was not yet alive bend suddenly towards her. Its beak opened, and she threw up a hand to protect herself. De Belleme laughed.
"Marion!" Not caring about anything else, throwing aside all thought of his opponent, Robin leapt instead towards his wife. Even as he moved he felt the sharp pain in his arm, and knew it for what it was. De Belleme's sword had cut him, and he felt the blood flow. One drop of it, flying free, splashed onto the flagstones at his feet.
"Robin." Her face a ghostly white, Marion stared at the blood, then her eyes travelled upwards to the creature above them. Even as they watched it they could see the life growing within it; could see the substance forming where before there had been only mist. Its eyes flared in a burst of pure red flame, and for the first time its open beak showed signs of curved yellow teeth. De Belleme's laughter echoed in the room, and seeing nothing that he could do to save the situation, Robin grabbed Marion and held her close. She held him just as tightly in return.
"Robin!" The voice came from nowhere; young and strong and unfamiliar. Robin turned his head. There was a figure standing at the end of the corridor, where Marion had been just a few moments before. He saw blond hair, and a bow upraised, and felt a surge of hope; then lost it again as the creature above him bellowed its birthing rage from a throat now whole and solid. Its wings tore at the air, and he felt the heat of its breath.
"Robin..." Marion's voice was close to his ear, and he thought that she was calling him, but in a moment he saw that it was not him at all. She was addressing somebody else; the blond figure, standing so near but so far from them. He shook his head.
"Get back!" Was Huntingdon a fool? The three servants of de Belleme was converging on the young man, and he was making no move against them. Instead he merely stood, bow ready, arrow held to its string. A glint of light reflected of the shaft, and Loxley frowned to see it shine. What kind of arrow shone? It must be a trick played by his eyes. He was still wondering as Huntingdon loosed the arrow, and it flew towards him. At the same moment John and the de Rainaults fell upon Huntingdon, bearing him to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs. Robin thought that he saw another man, equally blond, equally young, moving as though to help one side of the battle, but his attention was held by the arrow. It was beautiful; a shaft of burning silver, the air singing with its passage. The beast gave a howl and lashed out with its clawed feet, and Robin threw himself and Marion out of the way. They rolled across the floor, seeing nothing but a blur of cold stone and leaping flame, until with a blow from Albion as an anchor, Robin brught them to a halt. He looked back, seeing the Silver Arrow crash home into the centre of the burning pentagram. There was a flash of hot white light, a rush of air, and a scream so hideous that Robin felt his blood turn cold. Then there was nothing.
"Robin? Marion?" Huntingdon was crouching beside them, although how he had managed to fight off his three attackers Loxley couldn't imagine. He stared up at the other man, and managed a faint smile.
"The Silver Arrow? Inspired."
"Inspired by Herne." Huntingdon returned the smile, at the same time reaching out to haul the duo to their feet. "He always seems to know what to do."
"De Belleme." Marion was looking around. "Where is he?"
"De Belleme? All that I could see was flame, and that - that creature." Huntingdon also looked around. "Where was he?"
"Here, with us." Loxley sighed. "This can't be over until he's been dealt with."
"For now I'm just glad that we're alive." Marion took Huntingdon's hand. "Thankyou Robin. How did you get free?"
"Of John and the others?" Huntingdon's head lowered slightly, as though in faint shame, and he smiled at her. "I had a little help."
"I wouldn't call it help." As ever Gisburne's voice was filled with hatred. "I'm only here to see that the Sheriff is safe, and that--" He broke off, and Loxley looked into wide, disbelieving eyes. "No. No, it can't--"
"Gisburne." Robin's eyes burned. "If there was one good thing about being dead, it was not having to look at you again."
"The feeling is mutual, I can assure you." Recovering his composure with admirable speed, the young steward let his voice return to its usual belligerent sneer. "Some vile black magic no doubt, created by that pagan myth you claim to serve."
"No." Huntingdon's words might have seemed to be directed at Gisburne, but by the tone of his voice and the direction of his gaze it was clear that he meant them for Loxley. "No black magic. Just Sherwood looking after its own."
"And that's supposed to be a suitable explanation? I'm not some damnable heathen, to believe talk of the forest as if it were alive." Disgust clear in his face, Gisburne turned away from them, anxious to hide the fear that he was sure must be clear in his face. Loxley, returned to life? Or perhaps never killed? He wondered if the Sheriff had ever really even seen the body, as he had claimed to.
"We have more important things to worry about than whether or not you approve of our beliefs, Sir Guy," Loxley seemed to be listening to something. "I don't think the baron intends to let us leave after what we just did. We should get out of here while we still can. Listen."
"Listen to what?" Guy turned his head this way and that. "I can't hear anything."
"Well I can." Loxley had always had better hearing than most; a better awareness of the world around him. "Something is coming this way, and I don't think we want to be here when it arrives."
"Then we'd better leave." Huntingdon's eyes travelled to John, slumped with the de Rainaults near the entrance to the hall. "What about them?"
"We leave them. There isn't time." Robin sounded firm, but Huntingdon looked dubious. Gisburne sneered at him.
"You're imagining things. This place has got to you, both of you. There's nothing to be afraid of here." Loxley rolled his eyes.
"If you think that then you're a bigger fool than I always believed. Listen Gisburne. Tell me that you don't hear a hundred reasons why we shouldn't waste our time here."
"Nothing's coming." Gisburne cocked his head on one side. Far in the distance, as though from miles away, he could hear the sound of baying hounds. "Some local lord out hunting I'll warrant. You might be afraid of a man like that, but I have no need to be."
"A local lord?" Huntingdon frowned. "That's not what that is. It's not hounds. It sounds more like wolves."
"There aren't that many wolves in the whole of England." Gisburne folded his arms, looking as though he would not be moved whatever happened. "You're talking of running, when we should be going after the baron. He can't be allowed to get away with what he did to the Sheriff of Nottingham. The king's sovereignty has been directly--"
"Damn it Gisburne, that isn't the sound of hounds! It isn't any pack of wolves from an English forest, and neither it is anything else from this world. Those are creatures sent after us by de Belleme, and if we don't get somewhere safe they'll tear us to pieces before you can finish protesting."
"I won't leave John." Galvanised into action both by the tone of Robin's voice, and by the fierce barking that he could now hear clearly, Huntingdon ran to his fallen friend. Loxley joined him.
"We probably only have a few moments," His tone was gentle. "The baron won't hurt his servants, so John and the others will be safe. We won't be."
"And you're prepared to leave him?" Huntingdon was surprised, but of course he did not yet know Loxley very well. The first King of Sherwood smiled at him, and without another word seized hold of the big man and began to haul him up. Huntingdon grinned, catching hold of John's other arm.
"I never realised he weighed so much." Gasping for breath he and Loxley began to manoeuvre the ungainly form back along the corridor that led to the main doors. "He weighs more than a cart horse."
"Cowards!" Standing behind them, face pale now that he was beginning to believe in the danger, Guy of Gisburne was clearly furious. "I knew you'd want to leave the Sheriff behind! I came here to help you, and you're breaking our agreement."
"I meant what I said, Guy." Loxley was not prepared to stand and argue, especially with a man like Gisburne. "He and the abbot won't be in any danger."
"So you say." The knight turned away from them, struggling with the two unconscious men as the others disappeared. Weighed down by Little John, Loxley and Huntingdon were finding it hard to move with the speed that they both knew was necessary, and neither of them really had the energy left to worry about the Nottingham trio left behind.
"Gisburne isn't going to leave them." Marion was running along next to Loxley, hanging back unnecessarily to try to offer her assistance to the beleaguered pair. The sound of baying and snarling was now so loud that it seemed they would soon be overwhelmed. "I think he's trying to carry both of them out of there."
"He's a fool." Loxley seemed to remember that he was taking a similar risk for John, and sighed. "Perhaps I should go back to help him."
"You can't. There no way that I can carry John on my own." Huntingdon was finding it difficult even with Loxley's help. His half brother in Herne flashed him a breathless smile.
"I doubt anybody could." His mind was filled with the sudden vision of King Richard, the massive figure of Little John held impossibly high above his head. "Gisburne will come soon enough, when he sees what's on it's way. Marion, go on ahead."
"I'm not leaving you. Any of you." Her voice was filled with that furious stubbornness that had annoyed him and delighted him so many times before. He glared at her.
"Filthy cowards!" Back in the main hall, Gisburne was trying to drag the two de Rainaults after the departing outlaws. It was an impossible task to move both of them on his own, but he didn't feel that he could leave either. Behind him the barking was growing louder, and over the top of it he could now hear the sound of paws. His blood ran cold.
"Confound you all!" Shouting his anger at the world in general, he let go of Hugo and used all of his strength to drag the Sheriff upright. Letting the oblivious man fall across his shoulders, he turned tail and ran, or tried to. He could manage little more than a stumble down the corridor, righteous anger powering him along. Up ahead he saw the two sons of Herne, and glimpsed the light that was beyond the main door. It was a long way to go, but the corridor was smooth and straight, and there were no obstacles in his path. He should make it. No sooner had he allowed himself this moment of optimism when a terrible roaring sound filled his ears. He looked back.
Behind him the corridor was alive with slavering beasts. They looked like black wolves, but were far too big, their evident strength showing in the remarkable musculature of their shaggy, hideous bodies. Gisburne paled.
"Good God." He took a step back, stumbled and nearly fell. The creatures seemed to bark with delight, bearing down upon him with a speed that seemed impossible. He looked up, and behind them, riding on a chariot pulled by a massive black horse, he saw the baron. Sparks flew from the metal wheels as they struck the stone of the floor and walls. Gisburne gulped, but he did not drop the Sheriff. Perhaps he hoped that de Rainault might reward him for such loyalty, or perhaps the loyalty was true and for its own sake. At any rate he staggered on, the weight across his shoulders slowing him down. Up ahead Huntingdon glanced back.
"He's not going to make it." They were so close to the doors now. He had no idea why escaping from the manor should make a difference, but at least his friends were out there, and might be able to help. So close... It would be foolish to risk everything by going back now.
"We can't go back for him." Loxley felt some sympathy for Gisburne - would have done so for any man who was about to be torn limb from limb by such beasts as were following them now - but the man was an enemy, and his main thought was for Marion. "Come on!"
"Of course." Huntingdon watched the rectangle of light that was the exit as it loomed up ahead of them. He could see Tuck now, silhouetted there, his bow upraised. Behind him there was no sound of Gisburne anymore; just the creatures, and the sharp scraping of the chariot wheels. Unable to resist, he threw a glance back over his shoulder - just in time to see the young knight fall.
"Keep going!" They were close enough to the exit now for Loxley and Marion to manage with John. That much he was sure of. He threw off John's arm, draped around his neck like a yoke, and turned back towards the fury that was following them. Loxley tried to grab hold of him.
"Don't be a fool! You'll both be killed."
"I hope not." Huntingdon shook his head. "But I can't leave him. I'm sorry." And with that he ran. Loxley shook his head.
"Marion, help me." With her assistance he was able to run the rest of the way to the doors. Tuck helped as well, hauling John clear of the building, and towards the relative cover of a rotting cart that lay in the courtyard. The daylight was wonderful after the gloom of the building, but it was cold outside, and the sky was as grey as the roof of the main hall they had just left. It was hardly a scene of great encouragement.
Back inside the building Huntingdon reached Gisburne almost as time ran out. The eyes that stared back at him were filled with hatred, but he ignored that, and with the greatest effort that he could summon, pulled the Sheriff from his half brother's stubborn grip, and let the unconscious form fall onto the floor. He hoped that Robin was right, and that the baron's creatures would not harm his servants, or he was going to feel rather guilty about this later - but there was no time to worry about such things now. Grabbing Gisburne's wrists, he hauled him to his feet. The sour breath of one of the wolf-like creatures blew hot upon his neck, and with a mighty pull that finally galvanised Gisburne into action, he broke into a run. The knight stumbled along beside him, the baying creatures chasing on at their heels. It seemed impossible that they would make it. In the rear the baron was laughing, the dogs were growing louder, louder --
And then suddenly they were bursting out into the daylight, and falling over the others, collapsing into the pitiful cover of the broken cart. A volley of arrows marked their safe arrival, and the first few creatures fell. Huntingdon gasped in relief.
"That was... close."
"Too close." Loxley pushed a bow into his hands. "Now shoot."
"Right." He made it up onto one knee, the best position it seemed, and fired as best he could. Beside him Gisburne was adding his own arrows to the volley, showing all of his usual deadly skill. Tuck, Much and Marion were clustered beside the prone form of Little John, their own accuracy at least the equal of Gisburne's own. Tuck was pale, but the after-effects of his head injury didn't seem to be stopping him from shooting straight. Seconds later, into the midst of this slaughter of his slavering hell creatures, the Baron de Belleme rode forth, his hurtling chariot speeding out of the doors as though he too were being chased by something terrible. Standing beside him, quiet, still and noticeably unscathed, were the two brothers de Rainault. Nearby John began to stir.
"Watch him." Anxious that his friend should not return to de Belleme's service, Loxley gestured towards the fallen outlaw. Tuck snatched up one of the water containers that they had brought with them from the camp, and with a tail end of his robe, washed the pentagram from John's chest. The big man mumbled and muttered in his sleep, but did not wake.
By the gates, where he had been standing on watch, Nasir was viewing events with his usual calm detachment. He had joined his own arrows to those of his friends straight away, but the arrival of the baron gave him a different target. Felling one more of the wolf-like beasts, he turned his bow to point at the baron instead; and saw the man's deep, hard eyes staring straight back at him. He seemed to be challenging Nasir; daring him to make the shot. The Saracen's expression hardened, but he didn't fire yet. Be sure, his mind told him. Be sure of the aim. The baron was drawing his sword, and it was clear that his intention was revenge upon the people who had foiled his plans. If Nasir's arrow missed, that wicked looking weapon would be turned against his friends before he had a chance to fire again. De Belleme was laughing, at the tumult around him, at his own plans, at a hundred likely madnesses within him - but in the blink of an eye his expression changed, and he swept the chariot around. Nasir's fingers tensed on the bowstring, watching as the hated figure bore down upon the cart that was the outlaws' only shelter. Somebody shouted, somebody fired. The shot went wild. Nasir settled his aim - and at that moment he heard a footstep behind him. His muscles tensed, but his mind remained calm. He knew the options without needing to consider them. He could fire, or he could turn to meet whatever foe might be at his rear. He couldn't do both. Ahead of him the baron was sweeping down upon the cart, his horse and chariot providing too much cover for the outlaws to stand any chance of hitting him. There was no real choice to make. The huge curved sword raised itself high, Loxley and Marion inescapably in its path, and Nasir loosed his arrow. Not waiting to see where it had landed, he grabbed for another - but was not surprised when, before he could set it to the string, the sharp bite of a knife struck him hard in the back. The bow fell from his hands.
"Nasir!" The voice was Much's, but Nasir barely heard it. He stumbled, trying to remain upright, waiting for a second blow that never came. Behind him Will Scarlet, bloodied knife upraised, caught sight of the Baron de Belleme and let out a shout of relief. Stumbling forward, pushing past Nasir, he tried to reach his lord and master. Nasir grabbed at him, tackling him in a fury of desperation.
"Will!" The word was barely audible, for Nasir was losing strength fast. Not the type to allow such things to slow him, he ignored the pain and locked his powerful arms around the Englishman's neck. Will, also weakened by the injuries caused by Gisburne's guards, fought with the strength of the possessed. He tore free at last, staggering a few steps whilst barely remaining upright, then with a sudden burst of energy began to run towards de Belleme. The baron was not aware of him. Startled, though apparently not hurt by Nasir's arrow, he had dropped his sword, and was struggling to keep control of the huge horse. Neither de Rainault was of any use to him, and Will's plight was the last thing on his mind. Relying on the ferocity of his horse and the strength and number of his wolf-like beasts to keep the outlaws at bay, he swung the chariot around and set it towards the gates. Loxley and Huntingdon tried to stop him, but the chariot was too large, and the number of creatures to be fought still too great. The baron swept past them, sword left behind, casting furious curses about him as he went.
"Tuck!" Seeing that the friar's position was relatively secure, and that he was not in any immediate danger from the creatures still attacking them, Loxley caught his attention and waved an arm to indicate the plight of Scarlet. He was still heading towards the baron, and now seemed in imminent danger of being crushed by the pounding wheels. Tuck's eyes widened.
"Will, get back!" Hurrying as fast as he could, he ran towards the younger man. Scarlet paid him no attention, instead keeping his eyes fixed upon the baron. He was sure that, if he could just be reunited with the man who had enchanted him, all of his confusions and pains would disappear. His chest was on fire, his shoulders, arms and head a constant barrage of agonies. Every breath hurt him. There had been none of that at first, when the baron had chanted his verses and painted his symbols, and first directed Gisburne to free Scarlet from his chains.
"Baron--" Will stumbled a few paces more, arms outstretched. Tuck made a grab for him, missed, and looked up for a terrifying second into the mocking face of de Belleme. He crossed himself, whispered a short prayer, and swinging his stick caught Scarlet a resounding blow on the back of the head. His friend toppled over and lay still, and Tuck, powered now by blind instinct, caught hold of him and dragged him out of the way. The chariot thundered past.
"By 'eck!" Wiping the sweat from his brow, Tuck sat up, staring after the hurtling vehicle. He saw Nasir, lying face down on the ground right in the chariot's path, and his heart leapt into his throat - but the Saracen was aware of the danger, and rolled out of the way just in time. Over and over he spun, his path taking him at speed, until he crashed into the wall. De Belleme passed by. A few seconds later the last of the creatures chased after him, no longer concerned with the humans they had been summoned to kill. Loxley leant against the by now well broken cart, gasping in wretched exhaustion.
"We should go after them, shouldn't we? They might kill innocent people." Marion was staring after the ungodly parade. Huntingdon shook his head.
"Most of them were badly wounded. Mortally so I should think."
"We should still get after them." Loxley raised his head, the fierce light of determination in his eyes. "De Belleme has to be stopped. I have to stop him."
"There's time for you to rest first, surely." Marion, as usual, was worried for him, and he smiled at her sadly.
"Not really. I'd like to, for a while, but I can't risk it. He could get too far ahead, or disappear altogether. I can't let that happen."
"I don't see why not." Restringing his bow, for it had been damaged during the fight, Huntingdon glanced up at him. "I know that you're not planning to win the fight, Robin. if you're that determined to die, why go after de Belleme at all? Why not just kill yourself here?"
"It's not like that, and you know it. Do you think I want to die?" Infuriated Loxley turned away. "De Belleme is our enemy. He has to be stopped. If the prophecies of Herne and Gildas are right, my death is as important to the safety of Sherwood as is de Belleme's downfall. My death is perhaps the trigger for his end. I don't know. I have to find out." He drew in a deep breath. "Where's Much?"
"Much?" Fear glanced through Marion as she looked around for the boy, then relief when she saw where he was. "Over there. With Nasir." It struck her then that the Saracen was not moving, and with a worried exclamation she hurried forth. Tuck looked up at her as she ran past him, startled by her speed and obvious concern, but he finished his task of washing the pentagram from Will's chest before he followed her. By then Loxley and Huntingdon had arrived as well.
"Nasir?" Marion was crouched beside the fallen man, but as though considering her worry an insult, he was already trying to sit up. She moved to help him, and discovered the blood on his back. "What happened?"
"It was Will." Much was almost in tears. "He didn't know what he was doing. Honest he didn't. He was bewitched, wasn't he Robin."
"Of course he was." Answering in tandem the two Robins looked at each other awkwardly. Marion ignored them both.
"How deep did the knife go?" Trusting Nasir to know, with his own knowledge of medicine and such like, she asked him the question direct. He shook his head.
"Not... deep. The leather protects..." He tried to stand, but fell back with a mutter of something angry and Arabic. Huntingdon stilled him.
"It's not just the knife wound," he said, conscious of the fierce stare Nasir was giving him. "He was already badly hurt. Will too as far as I can gather. They were interrogated by Gisburne's men."
"Interrogated." Marion's voice was dark. "That man was always boasting about his interrogations." She cast a look back at the young knight that was so cold it might have turned him to stone had he seen it; but he was still over by the cart, examining the bodies of the fallen beasts.
"What do we do?" asked Much. Tuck straightened up.
"We find somewhere sheltered where the pair of them can rest. There's no point in trying to move them just yet, and I can't see there being any further danger here now. Marion and I can look after them."
"Tuck, you're barely able to stay upright yourself." Loxley nodded. "I agree though. Marion, Much, you look after them. Tuck, you take it easy. Don't do anything too strenuous." He looked over at Huntingdon. "I'd appreciate it if you were to stay here as well, just in case something does happen. There might be more of these creatures, or the baron might come back. Gisburne... Well, perhaps he'll help."
"He might." Huntingdon glanced back towards his hated half-brother, who needless to say was still managing to look sulky and furious. "You're going after de Belleme I take it?"
"Yes." It was a calm decision, determined and certain. Loxley took Marion's hand for a moment, but she didn't meet his eyes, and he didn't know what exactly he was supposed to say to her.
"Not alone, Robin." Much sounded as though he was going to volunteer to go as well, but Loxley smiled at him.
"No, not alone - but you're needed here. John?"
"Robin?" Clearly groggy, expression showing the fog that still filled his mind, the big man had come up behind them all. Despite his lingering confusion his face made no secret of his feelings for the man who had called his name. He might have had his doubts before about Loxley, but those doubts were now clearly dispelled. Loxley smiled at him.
"Fancy a ride?" It was an innocuous question, given that it was an invitation to join what might well prove to be a one-way mission. John smiled broadly, and nodded his shaggy head.
"Aye, Robin. I reckon I'd like that." The two old friends shared a moment's silent communication - then Robin nodded curtly and headed to the two horses brought in by Huntingdon and Gisburne. They were still waiting patiently, just beyond the gates, grazing on the rough and stringy grass.
"Robin, wait!" Marion was staring after him, and he saw the tears rising in her eyes. It was the picture he had seen in his sleep; the dream that had been a vision of the future. Her face was a mask of anguish and pain, beseeching and desperate. He felt his heart cry out to her, but there was nothing that he could do. Everything that he had seen and heard since his return had pointed to the fact that he had to go now, and face the baron for a final time. What other choice was there?
"Goodbye Marion." He was smiling at her in just the same, gentle way that he had smiled so many times before, in the too short year of their life together in the forest. She opened her mouth to say something to him in return, but whatever it was to have been they were never to know. Suddenly overcome she dropped to the ground. Tuck put a hand on her shoulder, but she didn't react to him. Loxley stared at her for a second more, then with a nod to John he turned and mounted one of the horses.
"See you all soon." John raised a hand in a brief farewell, conscious that it might be forever, then climbed up onto the second animal. He was still dizzy, still sick, still angry following his release from the baron's spell, but such things did not slow a man like Little John. Thinking only of the revenge that would come with the baron's death, he swung the horse about and galloped off after his old friend. Those left behind stared after them. For a long time nobody spoke, and when at last somebody did, it was Marion.
"We need to get Nasir and Will somewhere sheltered," she said, her voice low but steady. "There's rain coming, and wind too. One of these half ruined outbuildings perhaps."
"Not inside." Huntingdon thought about the oppressive feel of the main building, and couldn't help feeling that de Belleme's spell was probably upon the whole place. She nodded her understanding.
"Over here then. Beside this wall." It was the outside wall of a shed or stable that she was pointing them to; a place with the sounds of horses inside. The wall was leaning, providing adequate cover from the prevailing wind. Nasir made no objection when they half carried him over there, and Will was still unconscious. Marion checked him over with great concern.
"Did I hit him too hard?" Tuck asked her. She smiled at him.
"You did what you had to do. It's the other injuries I'm worried about. He's been walking around when he should have been lying down. He has several broken ribs, and I've heard of injuries like that causing other ones inside. There's sure to be a lot of bruising as well. As for Nasir..." She glanced back at the Saracen, who was clearly listening. "He's not much better. Less severe injuries perhaps, but he should still have been resting instead of wandering around the countryside. And that knife wound will take some healing."
"It is... not bad." For somebody who was claiming to be only slightly injured, Nasir did not look at all well. Marion smiled at him.
"I'm not saying it's life threatening necessarily - although if you don't mind I'll look at it properly before I decide that. I'm just saying that it needs looking after. I'm not doubting that you've probably been hurt worse before, but I'm the healer here." She looked at the blood on her hands, stained from her first cursory examination of his wound. "I just wish that I could concentrate properly."
"You will. If anything needs to be done, you'll do it." Huntingdon had meant to be comforting, but Marion did not respond well to the sound of his voice. He understood. To her he was a reminder of the last time she had lost Loxley, and now that she faced losing him again, the last person that she wished to see was the man chosen to take his place. She managed a detached smile, which hurt him more than any physical blow, then turned her attention to Tuck. Now that the action was over, the friar's head injury was beginning to be more obvious. He had relaxed, and with that relaxation came the weaknesses that he couldn't hold back. He looked pale, and his familiarly cheery eyes had lost a good deal of their sparkle. She pressed him to sit down, close to Will, and sent Much to look for some herbs. There was little that she could do for Scarlet save ensure that he was kept comfortable, but the herbs might help Tuck, and perhaps Nasir. Gently she touched Will's head, and hoped that he would awaken soon. If he didn't, it might well be a sign that he would never recover.
"Robin, could you light us a fire?" She felt bad about not quite looking at him as she spoke, but she knew that he would appreciate the chance to be useful. He nodded, and called to Gisburne to help. The young knight glared at him, but did as he was asked. Marion wondered how long he would stay. When would he turn his back and leave, and head for Nottingham Castle? He would probably bring soldiers back here, and she couldn't think about moving Will and Nasir yet. Perhaps she should suggest that he be tied up? And yet Huntingdon was speaking to him in almost friendly terms, almost as if he was trying to involve the man in all that was going on. It made her shudder to think it, but then Robin had always been the genial sort.
For his part, Huntingdon was restless. Deeply so. The chance to build a fire gave him something to do for a few minutes; the company of Gisburne was something to distract him; somebody that he could argue with, who was more than happy to argue back. He wondered why the knight had remained, and had not chased after the baron. Scared? Weary? It probably didn't matter. Robin wondered what the upshot of this most peculiar alliance would be. How long before Gisburne was trying to kill him again? The infuriating man had not said anything about what had happened inside the manor, when Robin had saved his life. He hadn't even asked why Robin had done it. That didn't matter either. How could he ever tell the truth? How could he tell Guy that he had been unable to allow him to die, because in truth they were brothers? That would be ridiculous, and would probably the undoing of them all. So, secure in mutual antagonism, the brothers collected wood and built a fire, and watched the others around it. Much returned with the herbs, and Marion turned her attention towards making a healing potion from them, crushing and chopping, grinding and mixing. She didn't speak. Will didn't move. Tuck sat quietly, head tipped back against the wall, eyes closed. It was a scene of silence and stillness, filled with a very real sense of dejection. Only Gisburne was at all mobile, pacing up and down some distance away. He looked like he wanted to leave. Huntingdon hoped that he wouldn't. He had a plan that was forming in his mind... an idea that might well require the sort of help that right now only Gisburne was healthy enough to give. There was much to think about first, perhaps... much to talk about. Much to unravel in his mind.
It was the gentle acceptance of his fate that Loxley had displayed, perhaps, or more likely it had been Marion's anguish, but Huntingdon found that he couldn't settle no matter how hard he tried. He had thought at first about helping Marion tend to Will, but the awkwardness between them was something that he wasn't sure how to handle. Marion knew that he loved her, but having Loxley return had changed everything between them. That wouldn't resolve itself quickly whether or not Herne's first son managed to survive this latest encounter, and the girl was too preoccupied to want to deal with her feelings now. Huntingdon decided to leave her to it, but it was too hard to do nothing at all. Tuck was tired out, clearly needing rest, and Much was tense and nervous. He wanted to be with Loxley, but didn't want to have to see him die. Marion was doing the best that she could to keep his mind off things, but it wasn't really working. He helped her in stops and starts, jumping at every noise, and clearly wasn't in the mood for conversation. Robin sighed. He needed to talk to somebody. His head was full of what ifs and maybes; ideas that wouldn't just go away. It was no use. He needed somebody who could help him to sort out the issues rolling around inside his brain; and if that somebody was half dead and should really be sleeping, it was just hard luck. Keeping an eye on Marion to be sure that she wasn't about to stop him, he went to crouch beside the apparently sleeping Nasir. It was a shock to see how pale the Saracen's usually dusky skin now was, and if he hadn't been desperate he would probably not have stopped to talk to him at all.
"Nasir?" His friend's dark eyes opened immediately, although he wasn't expecting an answer. The faintly arched eyebrow was, as always, as vocal a response as he was likely to get. In all honesty he doubted that it was a good idea for the Saracen to be talking anyway, given his condition; but even Nasir couldn't answer every question with a change of expression. Huntingdon smiled at his friend, and wondered how best to phrase all that he wanted to say. He lowered his voice.
"Naz, listen. I know you should be asleep, but there's something I want to know. Something that I might have to do. Are you up to a conversation?" The nod as an answer was entirely expected of course, for Nasir would have to be dead before he admitted to being incapable of doing anything. "Good. I was wondering... Listen, if I was Robin of Sherwood..."
"You are Robin of Sherwood." Nasir's accent sounded thicker than usual. Robin frowned, then shrugged.
"Loxley then. If I were Robin of Loxley. Would that be better?" The answer was a puzzled frown, and he sought a better explanation. "The others. You. Marion. Would you prefer it? Would it be better if he had never gone away, and I had never joined you?"
"But you did." Such speculation was not Nasir's way, and Robin should have guessed that. He sighed.
"You know what I mean. You'd go anywhere for Robin, and you know it. Do anything for him. You all would. Everything's changed now that he's come back."
"Yes." Nasir fell silent, thinking his own thoughts. It was true; he would, and had, follow Loxley anywhere. He remembered King Richard, who had shown from the beginning that any friendship offered to Robin was not to be extended to the Saracen. Nasir had followed Robin to Nottingham anyway, in answer to Richard's invitation; but then he had followed Huntingdon into plenty of dangers as well. He shifted his position awkwardly, and let his eyes drift towards Will Scarlet, unconscious and possibly near to death. Scarlet's plain talking would put Huntingdon's fears at rest, if he were conscious. Nasir himself didn't know what to say. He saw the flicker of uncertainty in Robin's eyes at the one word answer he had just received, and found a reassuring expression to use in place of his frown.
"Robin... you lead. You are... Herne's Son."
"I know." Huntingdon couldn't keep his mind from Loxley, supposedly riding to his doom right now. It didn't seem right that he himself should be back here, waiting to take up a dead man's mantle once again. This ragged band, sorry looking now, and much depleted in strength, surely deserved to keep the leader that had brought them together in the first place? "But so's he. I saw it in your eyes when you looked at him. I don't need to even ask what Much and Marion think, and Tuck's made his feelings plain. John couldn't wait to go off with him, and if you'd been able to..."
"I would have gone." Nasir's eyes narrowed. "He was more than... the leader. I was a slave. He ended that." His voice was losing strength, and it was obvious that he should no longer be talking; and yet with typical determination he was speaking more now that Robin ever remembered him doing before. The outlaw leader nodded his head, decisions already confirming themselves in his mind.
"I understand. You owe him. That's fair enough."
"And you... Robin." The dark eyes closed for a moment, and as if reacting to the pain that she couldn't possibly have seen or heard, Marion glanced in their direction. Her nursing instincts must have been given some warning, for she frowned at Robin, and gestured that he should leave Nasir alone. He nodded, but didn't move away. There was still something that he wanted to ask.
"Remember... Owen of Clun." The eyes opened again. "But this isn't... about debt, Robin. It never was, for... any of us. It is... something more."
"Maybe it is." He felt better, without quite knowing why. "Nasir? Have you ever felt that there was something you had to do?" The answer was a smile, and he smiled back. "Alright, that was a stupid question I suppose. We've all felt like that. It's just... just look at her. Marion I mean. I'd do anything for her, you know that?" A nod, stiff and clearly painful. Robin was beginning to feel bad about keeping the man from resting, but he needed to talk to somebody. Who else was there? Gisburne was sulking, and was hardly the right person to speak to anyway. Much, Marion, Tuck - they would all try to stop him. No matter how much they loved Loxley, they would try to stop him. Nasir at least might understand.
"I've been thinking. The prophecy that said that the one who dies must be the one who's already been dead. Well that's Herne's Son, Robin of Sherwood. And I'm Robin of Sherwood. I'm Herne's Son. Why does it have to be Loxley who dies?" There was no answer at all this time, and for a moment he thought that Nasir might have lost consciousness; then the dark eyes opened and focused on him once again. The Saracen's expression was empty though, and Robin could not read anything in it. "You understand what I'm saying?"
"Yes." Nasir's eyes narrowed. It was not for him to dissuade somebody from taking the path they believed was right for them, but he didn't like the idea. Robin looked away for a moment.
"I think it'll work out for the better," he said in the end, in a tone of voice that clearly said he was not looking for reassurances or denials. "For Marion, if nothing else. I... I need to know if you've any idea where the baron might be heading for. It's a long shot I know, but you knew him once. If I'm to find him before Loxley I'll need a head start."
"I don't know." A deep frown passed across Nasir's face as he tried to think. "He was... not well known to me. But perhaps..."
"You know of somewhere?" His friend nodded, though slowly and without much conviction.
"A church. Ruined. To the south west, beside another forest. Follow... Roman road..." He broke off with a cough, which was clearly painful. Robin gestured for him to be silent.
"Thankyou. I appreciate it. If I can get there before Loxley does... well I'll be glad, that's all. Very glad."
"There is a chance." Nasir stared up at the sky. "You are... the better horseman. His horse... was not rested. But to go alone..." He struggled as though to sit up, but Robin held him down.
"Don't be a fool. You wouldn't make it ten paces - and don't tell me that you won't have to if I'm going on horseback." His eyes flicked once again across the other people who were with him, settling finally upon Gisburne. "I'll take somebody with me."
"Gisburne." It sounded more like a curse than a name. "Why?"
"Because..." Because why exactly? Because he needed somebody, and for some reason he was beginning to trust the twisted Norman bully? Perhaps a man was always supposed to ride to his death with his brother by his side. "Because there's nobody else. Besides, he wants the baron dealt with just as much as we do, and he's good with his sword. He can probably out-ride any of us."
"Gisburne." This time it was more of a mutter of disgust, but the hatred was just as clear as before. "Watch... your back. Remember... you do not have... Albion."
"No, but I've got a perfectly good sword instead." Huntingdon clapped him on the shoulder. "You'd better rest now. Do what Marion tells you. I've got somewhere to be."
"Robert--" He paused, surprised, not sure that Nasir had ever called him that before.
"Just..." The eyebrows moved, and the expression changed. Robin smiled, remembering the many times that such flickers of expression had been the only contribution the quiet Saracen had made to a conversation. "Just... good luck."
"Thankyou." He smiled again, more broadly this time, and cast his eyes about once more. Nobody was looking his way. He wished that he could say goodbye to them, and particularly to Marion; but to do so would only cause trouble. He had decided what he was going to do, and now it was time to go and do it. He called to Gisburne.
"What is it?" The haughty knight was not in the mood for small talk, or for being called into discussions with his enemy. Huntingdon beamed at him, enjoying the fact that his just being friendly annoyed the man so much.
"Come on." He picked up his bow and slung it over his shoulder. "We're going on a little ride."
"Don't go far, Robin." Tuck's words were a bright little warning. Robin nodded at him. Not far, no. Just as far as it took.
"Where to?" Gisburne was spoiling for a fight. Perhaps that was a good thing. Huntingdon smiled grimly, and knew that Guy would get his answer from that.
"Are you with me?" It was the stupidest of questions to ask a man who would cheerfully take his head without a thought, but Gisburne, for once, didn't seem too hostile towards him. He nodded.
"Yes. For now. But only for now."
"Now might be all that we've got." Robin let the knight lead the way to the stables, wondering all the while if somebody somewhere; some heavenly power or forest spirit; thought that this was funny. Funny or fitting. Here he was, riding into battle with his older brother - but nobody knew it save him, and his brother hated him with a passion. He was going with the intention of giving his life for another man with whom he also shared a father; a man that he didn't know, and had barely spoken to. Such was the world of Herne.
"Where are they going?" Much looked up as the two men rode away; a strange pair, with their blond heads held high as though in partnership - and a thick air of animosity hanging between them. Tuck frowned.
"A ride, Robin said. Although why he'd choose to go with Gisburne..." He looked back to Marion, surprised by the pinched look that had suddenly taken over her face. "Marion?"
"Oh Robin..." She pushed past the monk, apparently about to chase after Huntingdon on foot, but in the end merely ran to Nasir. "Nasir... Tell me he hasn't gone after Robin." There was no answer, but the dark eyes raised to hers were full of meaning. She couldn't stop a sob breaking free from her throat.
"What is it?" Tuck was crouching beside her, his arms on her shoulders. She leant against him.
"He's gone. He's gone after Robin, and now I'm going to lose them both." She shook her head, trying to stop the tears. "He's going to try to take Robin's place."
"He wouldn't be such a fool." Even as he said it Tuck knew that Marion's suspicions were right. Of course it was what Huntingdon had done. A last gesture; perhaps the only gesture that he could make for Marion now that he knew she would never be his. The monk turned his head, looking after their vanishing leader, wondering what both of Herne's Sons were about to face. Whatever it was, he knew that it wouldn't be an easy challenge for either of them. He wondered if he should ride after them, but knew that to do so would be foolish. His head injury had slowed him down, and the mere act of moving sedately about was leaving him dizzy and sick. He looked down at Nasir, seeing his own helplessness mirrored in the other man's eyes, and in the end had to look away. Marion was crying openly now, and nearby Will Scarlet was beginning to stir. Tuck wondered what they would tell him, and wished that they didn't have to tell him anything at all.
"Will we see Robin again?" Much's voice was quiet and uncertain, making him sound more like the boy he had used to be, rather than the man he had recently become. Tuck couldn't answer, but Nasir did, although fatigue made his accent twice as thick as normal.
"If Allah wills it, it shall be." They were strangely comforting words, even if they didn't really help. Tuck nodded slowly, acknowledging the wisdom of the simple sentence, but Nasir didn't see him. Strength finally spent, he had drifted off into unconsciousness. Such was his stillness and silence, and such the new atmosphere of sorrow, any onlooker would have imagined him to be dead.
John and Robin had started off at speed, but they had not gone terribly far before it became clear that at least one of the horses was not up to it. Whilst they had only been walked to the manor, and not ridden, they were still tired, and the one that Nasir had stolen from Nottingham Castle had clearly not been well looked after by its previous owner. Consequently the pace became much slower, until before long they were barely averaging much more than a trot. Robin glanced skyward, trying to gauge how much time had passed since de Belleme's escape, and tried not to look too frustrated.
"The trail's still clear, Robin. We won't lose him." John was recovering his senses well, and was finding that he could think clearly again now. It was a familiar feeling - the awakening as if from a deep, heavy sleep. He had hoped never to know it again.
"It's going to rain." Robin was watching the approaching dark clouds with trepidation. "If it's as heavy as it looks like it's going to be, we won't be able to tell which way he's gone."
"And you don't think that Herne might help out there?" John smiled at him. "Don't worry Robin. If we really are supposed to find him, I'm sure that we will. We both know how it works in cases like these. Herne lets us know what we need to know."
"Yes, and not a whole lot else." Robin managed to dredge up a smile of his own in reply. "Look, I appreciate your being here. Really."
"I know." John fell silent for a few moments, then glanced towards his leader once again. "Robin? I... I just wanted to say sorry. For doubting you."
"There's no reason to apologise, John. I doubted me, and if I couldn't be sure of myself, there's no reason why you should feel any differently. What changed your mind?"
"I don't know. It's hard to say exactly." He remembered the moment of waking, when all the thoughts that had been locked away inside him by the baron's spell had suddenly and at once been set free. It had been a deluge of astounding clarity, and he had know then, somehow, that Robin of Loxley was not the conjuring of some madman or evil sorcerer. He shrugged his powerful shoulders. "So what convinced you?"
"Herne." Robin remembered that meeting, and the relief it had awoken in him. The feeling of being allowed back into the fold. "We talked. It felt just like before."
"Except this time he told you that you have to die." John's face was very serious, although his voice retained a note of gentle humour. Robin frowned. Even after all this time, he knew John well enough to be sure that there was some meaning to his words. John's eyes softened.
"It's just strange, Robin, that's all. He's your father. Why is he so quick to tell you that you have to die?"
"Because some things are necessary." Robin remembered the words of the prophecy. It had made sense, even if it had been hard to listen to. "I was supposed to die before, and I didn't. That threw things into disarray. It's not so bad, really you know. Not so tragic. I was ready for it once before, and it never came."
"And that's it, I suppose." John whistled softly. "I hope I can be so calm about it, when the time comes. You're a brave man, Robin."
"I don't feel brave. I don't want to do this, you know. I'd much rather be with Marion, and the rest of you. Living in Sherwood, just like before, with all the fun and the games, and the wine we used to steal from the traders. But this is my responsibility. You didn't see, John, how close he was. The baron. This... this thing that he summoned, straight from hell. It was horrific, and it was so nearly born. I don't know if he'd have been able to do that, if things hadn't been so unbalanced by me. By the fact that I didn't die." He took a deep breath, and absently stroked his horse's head. "My death was written a long time ago; predicted, by Gildas. His prophecies have always been supported by Herne. Why should this one be any different?"
"Gildas?" Like all the outlaws, John was aware of the supposed importance of that most highly regarded of prophets. Gildas had predicted the coming of the Hooded Man, after all, as well as lots more besides. "Even prophets make mistakes, Robin. Gildas never claimed to be infallible."
"Neither did Herne, but we've always taken his lead. We always trust him to know what's best, what's right. This makes sense to me. A life was needed, and wasn't given."
"Balance, Fate, I don't know." John shook his head. "That was always your department Robin, and I can't claim to know half as much about it as you do. You're the son of Herne, and that seems to come with an understanding of mysticism and magic that the rest of us can't hope to keep up with. But that doesn't mean that you're always right, any more than Herne is or Gildas. Nobody can know that much about what's going to happen."
"If you're trying to tell me that you're not going to stand back and let me die, I appreciate it. I never expected anything else. I just want you to understand why I'm doing this. Why I feel that it has to be me who goes to face de Belleme, and why I'm so sure that I'm not going to be going home to Sherwood again. I don't want to die, and I'm not going to throw my life away. Why else would I have asked you to come along and help? I'm not going to let him kill me."
"I'm glad to hear it." They shared a smile, although the moment was somewhat strained. "So what did Gildas say this time? That the Hooded Man was going to die for the good of us all?"
"Nothing that clear. You know what his writings are like." Robin could still hear them resounding inside his head, and he spoke them aloud with a detached air, as though they were words of little importance, written about somebody else. "One must again be dead. It makes sense."
"I suppose so." John was frowning, staring at the road ahead. A faint rain was beginning to fall, and promised to become much heavier soon. It had brought the sky closer, lower, heavier. It wasn't helping his mood. "But you were never dead, were you. How can you have been, since you're here now?"
"You're splitting straws. Okay, I wasn't dead. Herne said that I was taken by the spirits of Sherwood. They must have healed me, although either it took them a long time, or they didn't want me to leave them until now. Either way, I might as well have been dead. I don't remember that time at all."
"But you weren't actually dead." John nudged his horse to go a little faster, for Robin was drawing ahead. The former leader of the outlaw gang had the determined look on his face that meant no rest, no waiting, no hesitations, until he had got where he was planning to go. "If you never died, why would you be the one that has to die again? How can you die again?"
"John..." Robin fell silent, searching for the words that would allow him to explain. "I was supposed to--"
"So you said. You were supposed to die two years ago, and you didn't. You think that's got something to do with why de Belleme is able to tap into such powers now."
"It created an unbalance. These things can lead to greater chaos. Men like de Belleme, able to do greater and greater things, because the universe is no longer in harmony. You know that nature calls for balance."
"If that's the way that Herne speaks, no wonder you and Robin always look so confused when you've finished talking with him." John flashed his old friend a smile. "Just think about it, that's all I'm asking. You say that somebody has to die, who was dead before. Well de Belleme was dead before, and is alive again now. Why can't the prophecy be about him instead? He's a powerful man, so surely he'd be a suitable sacrifice, if that's what you want to call it."
"De Belleme?" Robin was silent for a while, riding onwards with his head bowed in thought. "I hadn't thought of that."
"But you admit that it makes sense?"
"I suppose so. He did die, admittedly. But Herne..."
"Herne never says anything that direct. He might not speak to me, Robin, but that much I do know. And even if he had told you that you were the one who had to die, well you've said yourself that he's never claimed to be infallible. He's just a man, whatever force, or power, or god he might represent. All men make mistakes, and that includes him, and Gildas... and you."
"Point taken." Robin smiled, mulling the idea over in his mind. De Belleme? It did fit, in a way. Robin himself had been chosen once because of the strength within him of the powers of light and darkness, but those powers were just as strong within the baron. The only difference was that he had only ever used the darkness, rather than the light.
"Then you'll consider it." John reined in his horse, reaching out to catch hold of the bridle of Robin's own mount. "Promise me, Robin. Don't go in there expecting to die."
"I promise." He didn't feel as though he had got a reprieve - not yet. But it was certainly something to consider. Could it be the baron who had to die, and not him? Could it be that he still had a future in Sherwood Forest, with Marion and all of his friends? The more that he thought about it, the more likely it seemed to become. The one who had already been dead. The one who was at the centre of this current wave of darkness. He couldn't deny that it made sense. Maybe this wasn't the end for him after all.
Huntingdon reined in his horse as soon as saw that the trees were thinning out. Before the animal had stopped he dismounted, leading it slowly to the edge of the forest, staring out into the dull, wet world beyond. The heavy rain made it difficult to see far ahead, and he knew that it would be impossible to tell whether anybody was watching for signs of pursuit. Gisburne stared down at him, contemptuous as always.
"I doubt he's expecting anybody to follow him. We could probably just ride straight up and attack him."
"You never wonder why my men keep beating you, do you." Managing not to sigh and roll his eyes, no matter how much he wanted to, Huntingdon turned his back on his half brother. He could see the ruined church now, standing just as he had imagined it to, in the midst of clasping undergrowth and twisted bushes. Several of the beasts that de Belleme had summoned lay around outside, like guard dogs watching out for thieves and raiders. Gisburne finally deigned to dismount, tethering his horse to a nearby tree.
"I can shoot those dogs before they know we're here." It was a shameless boast, but Huntingdon did not doubt that he believed it was the truth. He nodded.
"Perhaps, but we'll take two each. Shoot clean. They mustn't make a noise."
"They won't." Sounding grim, Gisburne unslung his bow and fitted an arrow to it. "We should get a little closer. My bow doesn't have the range of your Saxon monstrosity."
"You really can be a snob at times, you know that?" Moving away before the knight could reply, Huntingdon slipped silently out of the trees, running at a crouch to a better position, rather closer to the church. One of the great beasts moved slightly, but it gave to sign of having heard him. Rain was a useful camouflage for unexpected noises, and he was glad for that even if the constant deluge was a hindrance in other ways. A few moments later Gisburne arrived.
"I don't see what's wrong with disapproving of longbows." He looked flushed from the awkward dash, for he wasn't used to moving so fast or so quietly. "They're the weapons of peasants and poachers, and they have no place in the armoury of a gentleman."
"They do if the gentleman wants to be able to shoot over long distances, or stand a chance of killing a man protected by decent armour and shielding." Realising that he was allowing himself to be drawn into a pointless argument, Robin scowled and gestured towards the beasts nearby. "Take the two on the left."
"Ghastly creatures, aren't they." Gisburne levelled his bow. "Nearly got us earlier. I, er..."
"I didn't save you so that you could thank me. Especially not now." Robin sighted along his arrow, hoping that de Belleme was not yet aware of them. He wondered what the sorcerer was doing inside the church, and whether he had already begun new magics.
"Well if that's the way you feel." For a second Gisburne looked hot and angry, then his face went back to its usual sulky expression, and the haughtiness returned to his eyes. "What do we do when we've killed these creatures?"
"Get inside. I'll handle de Belleme, you worry about the Sheriff and Abbot Hugo. If the baron tries to use spells, you'll have to get them to safety. I won't be able to help you."
"I don't need your help." Gisburne gave a brisk nod. "Alright, we'll follow your plan. Just remember that the baron might turn out to be more than you can handle. Being the son of a pagan legend doesn't make you invincible you know."
Huntingdon couldn't help smiling. "Does that mean that you're worried about me?" His answer was a glare so ferocious that the smile might have faded from his lips, had he been a man of a more nervous disposition. So much for the idea that two brothers might find common ground through a shared purpose. Gisburne gestured at the animals still lying so close by.
"Are we going to kill these creatures or aren't we?"
"I suppose we are." He felt strangely guilty about it, even though the beasts were creatures straight from hell. Killing the unwary was never the best way to feel good about one's self. He checked his aim.
"Ready when you are."
"Then fire." Gisburne's shoulders tensed, and Huntingdon reacted likewise. At the same moment they loosed their first arrows. Without a sound, two beasts keeled over, but there was no chance for the two men to celebrate. Snatching up a second arrow, Robin fired it after the first, less than a heartbeat before Gisburne did the same. In the act of rising, the second two beasts also rolled over.
"He might know what's just happened." Slinging his bow back on his shoulder, Robin started forward again. "We should get inside quickly."
"If you say so." Guy followed at a crouch, his movements mirroring Robin's own. They looked like brothers at that moment, and Huntingdon was acutely aware of it. Perhaps it was no small wonder that Guy had been able to shake off de Belleme's spells, when he shared the blood of one of Herne's Sons. For a moment Robin wished that he could say as much, and tell the knight of their connection. It seemed as good a time as any, if he was to die soon. He didn't say a word. Even if this had been the right time; even if there had been a proper opportunity, he knew that he still couldn't do it. Gisburne would never find out the truth by his actions. The arrogant knight probably wouldn't believe it anyway. Would anyone?
"I can't see anybody." Peering in through a window hole, Gisburne was trying to see something of use in the interior of the building. Huntingdon chose another window. Inside there was a darkness that was far too complete for a place that didn't have a roof, let alone proper walls. Why wasn't the daylight illuminating it? He decided that he probably didn't want to know.
"Maybe they're in the crypt." Where else would de Belleme be? It seemed the ideal place to look for him. Gisburne made a face.
"Great. And now I suppose you're going to say that he probably knows we're out here?"
"He probably expected somebody to come after him, yes." Robin drew his sword, surprised momentarily by the difference of its weight to the weapon that he had become used to. It wasn't Albion of course, and his fingers closed more tightly around the hilt at that thought. Of course it wasn't Albion; Albion was elsewhere, with another man. Herne had obviously thought that Loxley needed it, which seemed to Huntingdon to be proof that he was doing the right thing now. He could come here, and he could fight de Belleme, and he could die with the knowledge that the sword was safe. If de Belleme survived, or any of his summoned minions, they would not get their hands on Albion.
"That's a good sword." Gisburne had drawn his own, a typically expensive Norman model, presumably a family heirloom. Huntingdon nodded.
"It is." Presumably Nasir had managed to steal it from the one guard in Nottingham who actually cared something for his weaponry. Odd that a Norman guard would have a Saxon sword, but then Fate had a way of working out like that. He smiled, and gave the blade a quick polish on his sleeve. "So are you ready?"
"Yes." Gisburne led the way to the door, a rotting chunk of wood hanging by one hinge. "If we survive this, Huntingdon..."
"I just want you to know that I don't feel indebted to you. You might have saved my life earlier today, but it was nothing compared to the lives that you've taken since joining with Herne's rabble. You've turned against everything that people like us are supposed to stand for, and there's nothing in this world or the next that could ever make me forgive you for that. Just so we're clear."
"Oh we're clear. We're very clear." So much for the chance of getting to know his brother better; of maybe lessening a little of the hostility. "If we survive this, you'll try to kill me."
"Not today, no. I'll let you walk out of here. I'll get the Sheriff and his brother back to Nottingham, and see that they're safe. And then I'll come after you, just like before. Nothing changes."
"Nothing ever changes with you." He smiled, though it was not with much humour. "I understand."
"Good." Gisburne switched his sword to his left hand, then held out his right. "Then perhaps you'll shake my hand, before we go in there. You could have made a good soldier, Huntingdon."
"Thankyou." It wasn't much of a compliment to a man of Robin's beliefs, but he understood the context in which it was meant. Shaking his half brother's hand, he matched the other's smile with his own. "But I won't say that we could have been friends."
"I don't expect that we ever could have been, no." Gisburne took his hand away, and crossed over the threshold into the darkened church. "They say that Huntingdon blood has always been bad. Now how do you suppose we get into the crypt?"
"Look for steps I suppose." Letting the comment about Huntingdon lineage pass unremarked upon, Robin followed his brother into the darkness. Inside the church it was almost impossible to make out any features, save the altar at the far end. It looked as though it had been struck by lightning.
"Why is it so confoundedly dark?" Tilting his head back, Gisburne tried to search for some light. He could see straight through the rafters, towards a sky that was lit by a pale, wintry sun, but no light nor rain managed to get into the church. It was dark enough inside, even in the daytime, for bats to be fluttering and squeaking. A rat ran across Robin's foot.
"Don't worry about the light. Just worry about de Belleme. And keep your voice down!" Using his sword the way he had seen blind men use their sticks, poking and sweeping the ground ahead of him to look for obstacles, Robin tried to find a safe path across the church floor. Gisburne followed suit, making rather too much noise.
"There's no need for you to try to sneak in, gentlemen." The voice startled them both so much that they jumped violently. Gisburne nearly dropped his sword, shocked by the familiarity of the voice as much as by its unexpected arrival.
"My lord Sheriff!" He hadn't heard the other man speak more than a few words since his enchantment by the baron, and it seemed hopeful to hear him now. A low laugh came in answer, and Robin threw out an arm to stop Gisburne rushing forward.
"He's not himself. Keep back." Gisburne glared at him.
"He sounds it. You're not the expert on these matters that you like to think you are."
"He's right you know, Gisburne." The mockery in de Rainault's voice was so very much like he was used to that he frowned in surprise and confusion at it now. "I'm still very much under the baron's control. And it feels... wonderful!"
"My lord, you don't know what you're saying. We're here to help you, and--"
"You're here to help yourself, as usual Gisburne." Feet clicked on the floor as the Sheriff walked towards them, and seconds later they were able to see him at last. Only because their eyes had adjusted to the gloom were they able to pick out any real details of his appearance, but it certainly seemed that he had been telling the truth. He clearly was not himself. His hair was matted, he was in need of a shave, and his clothes were far more dirty than he would ever usually allow them to be. Although his smile was familiar, from the mocking humour to the suggestion of malice, his eyes were hot and unnaturally bright. His clothes had been torn, probably during the stampede of the hell creatures back at the manor, and the pentagram was visible now, glowing softly with an eerie red light.
"The baron is expecting you. He doesn't want you to throw down your swords, or surrender especially. I think he's appreciating the chance of a fight." He gestured off into the darkness, presumably towards the place where de Belleme had hidden himself. "Please don't keep him waiting."
"I don't plan to." Stalking past, the hairs on the back of his neck standing straight up and quivering, Huntingdon peered ahead into the gloom. He could see steps now, just past the ruined altar, surrounded by a broken railing covered with fungal growth. The steps were of stone, already well worn, and faintly slippery beneath his boots.
"Loxley?" The voice below was the baron's, and Huntingdon smiled grimly. Then he had reached this place first. That at least was cause for some feeling of triumph, whatever was to come next. He ran a hand through his damp hair, pushing it out of his eyes, and carried on down the steps.
"No, not Loxley. Huntingdon. Disappointed?"
"Not really." There was a burst of low light, and suddenly the flickering of many tiny candle flames illuminated the room. Somehow the place looked more menacing now than when dark, but Huntingdon did not hesitate in going down the rest of the steps. He looked about, taking in the grim, damp room, and the grinning, mad-eyed baron. Nasir's arrow still protruded from de Belleme's shoulder, and the exposed flesh around the sunken tip was discoloured and distended, like the skin of a dead man. It seemed to cause him no great pain however, for he did not hold his arm awkwardly, or flinch at necessary movements. Instead the injury just seemed to make him more at one with his unpleasant surroundings - a hideous place, decorated with grinning argoyles and real skulls. They were of all kinds, including human, and were piled on wooden shelves upon the walls. At least a thousand empty eye sockets stared at Robin as he faced de Belleme, and he felt the scrutiny of every one.
"You know why I'm here." Sword at the ready, Huntingdon met the baron's stare with steady eyes. De Belleme nodded.
"I imagine you have the curious idea that you can defeat me. You have all the arrogance to be expected of a son of Herne, at any rate."
"I'll take that as a compliment." Robin pointed his sword at the other man. "Are you ready?"
"Ready?" De Belleme laughed. "My dear boy, that sword is nothing to me. I can take it away from you without laying a hand on either it or you. I could cut your throat with one flick of my finger from half the room away, and not need to whisper so much as a spell to make it happen. You can't beat me with that pitiful weapon."
"Huntingdon?" Gisburne's voice, filled with its usual authority, interrupted de Belleme's tirade, and the baron's head snapped around in anger to face towards the stairs. "Huntingdon, are you alright down there?"
" For now." Robin kept his own voice calm, trying to suggest that he was in control of the situation. "You worry about your end of things."
"Oh you don't need to worry about that." There was the sound of footsteps from above, as Gisburne circled the Sheriff of Nottingham. Hugo had come from the shadows as well, armed with a long stave that he would ordinarily never have been seen using. It would not be easy, Gisburne realised, to fight the pair without hurting them, but he was certain that he was up to the challenge.
"Sir Guy of Gisburne." De Belleme's eyes flashed as he turned back to Robin. "When I've finished with you I'll enjoy flaying the skin from his worthless body."
"He's not worthless." Huntingdon was surprised to realise that he actually meant it. "He managed to break the control that you had on him. You couldn't keep him under your spell."
"We all make mistakes. Mine was in not keeping full control of the fool. Believe me, Huntingdon, I'll not make that mistake again."
"You won't be making any mistakes again." Robin squared his shoulders, wondering how exactly he was supposed to make the first move. "You won't be doing anything from now on."
"Oh I wouldn't be so sure if I was you." De Belleme moved his hands, painting pictures in the air. "You're the one who's making mistakes now, Hooded Man. Coming here, into my trap, like a lamb to the slaughter. Except that it's not a slaughter that I have planned for you exactly. More a slow, lingering death."
"Whatever it is you have planned, I think you might be disappointed." Robin began to edge forward, eyes firmly upon de Belleme. The hands, long and pale, were still painting their curious images, and Huntingdon didn't like it. With every strange stroke it seemed to him that the very air was buzzing, and the many candles in the crypt began to flicker.
"And I think that you're wrong. Look around you, Huntingdon. Tell me that you don't see my triumph written on every stone in the walls."
"I'm not falling for an old trick like that one." Angry that the baron wouldn't fight him, Huntingdon took another step forward. De Belleme started to laugh.
"The only old trick here is in the ancient magic that I'm invoking. You destroyed the creature that I was trying to summon, Huntingdon. A creature capable of sucking every drop of energy from Sherwood Forest; of destroying the spirits that have guarded it all of these years. I could have broken Herne's empty husk of a body over by knee, but you destroyed that. The curious thing is that I'm finding I don't care. I have other plans, Hooded Man. Other spells." He pointed a finger at Robin, and the young man felt his strength begin to waver. He wobbled uncertainly on his feet, and the sword in his hands became suddenly heavy. He struggled to concentrate.
"Cheap parlour tricks." His bravado was wavering, but he struggled to remain firm. "I won't let you succeed, baron."
"You don't have any say in the matter." Raising his arms above his head, de Belleme began to chant. Robin tried to reach him, to shut him up, but found to his horror that he could not move. Around him the many skulls and bones began to rattle. Many of the candles went out, and from the room up above Gisburne's voice again floated down.
"Huntingdon? Huntingdon?!" Robin tried to answer him, but couldn't make his mouth work. He knew that he was about to drop his sword, but he couldn't seem to keep hold of it. De Belleme loomed closer.
"Still think that you can beat me, son of Herne?" He was moving away now, reaching into his robes to pull out a bag of coloured powder. Robin watched helplessly as the evil sorcerer scattered the powder onto the ground, forming hideous symbols and patterns. Sparks flew up from the ground, and several of the candles melted together into a pool of flaming wax. The patterns made of powder were forming words in his mind; words that he knew he could translate because of who he was. They struck at his heart like daggers, and he knew now that he had made a grave mistake in coming here. This wasn't the way to defeat the baron and save Herne and his forest. This wasn't the way to balance the scales of Fate. All that he was doing was making matters worse.
"And now, Herne's whelp, you die." There were shadows flickering in the corners of Robin's eyes, like liquid enemies running down the walls. He tried to turn his head to look at them, but all that he could see were snaking fingers and black, oily hands. Laughter hissed and spat at him, and the glowing powder symbols on the floor caught fire in a rush of heat. Gisburne's voice was fading; sounding further and further away as he continued to shout Robin's name. De Belleme drew a long, bone-handled knife from within the folds of his robe.
"Still think that you can defeat me?" The mocking laughter that filled his voice made Robin's blood boil, but the furious outlaw found that he could not move a muscle. He could no longer even turn his head to watch the creeping shadows. De Belleme touched the knife to his throat, but didn't allow it to cut the skin. "What's the matter? Nothing to say? No defiant last words?"
"My death... isn't unexpected." It was all that he could get out, through lips as numb and immovable as the rest of him. He realised that he wasn't afraid, even if he was apprehensive. His death - the death of Herne's Son - was what was called upon to end all of this, surely? He didn't know how it would work exactly, but he knew that it should. Let de Belleme do his worst, work his spells, make his sacrifice. Robin was staring death in the face more surely now than he had ever done before, but he was at peace. He trusted the predictions that he had heard Herne give, and right now, in this dark and oppressive crypt beneath the ruined church, he was certain that nothing else mattered. He was ready to die.
The rain had all but obliterated the trail, and it took Robin and John's best skills to follow de Belleme to his destination. It had taken them a long time to decipher the muddy tracks and blurred prints, and when at last they drew up outside the church the day was advancing towards evening. There were no longer any birds singing, if indeed birds ever sung beside that enchanted place. They came from a different direction to Huntingdon and Gisburne, and didn't see their horses tethered at the edge of the forest - so it was with surprise that John reined in his horse.
"Robin, look." He pointed to the four creatures, all lying dead with arrows in their throats. "Somebody has been here."
"More than one somebody. No one person could have shot all four of those things. They'd have ripped his throat out before he could manage it." Robin dismounted, running to the nearest dead beast. The creature was still warm, and clearly hadn't been dead for long. Less than an hour, certainly. "Who would come here and do this?"
"I can think of one person." John's voice was quiet and gentle. "Robin..."
"What?" Loxley looked up in answer, then realised that John had not been addressing him. He paled. "He wouldn't."
"Yes he would. For Marion, for Herne... for all of us. He came here to take your place."
"But..." Robin stared towards the church, momentarily uncomprehending. "But if you're right..."
"We have to stop him." John broke into a run, bursting into the church several moments before Robin did the same. They were expecting to see Huntingdon, caught in a last struggle with de Belleme, but all that they saw was Gisburne, sword drawn, circling the brothers de Rainault with a wary look in his eye. He didn't turn at the sound of the new arrivals, but he did speak to them.
"Keep back." There was a warning in his voice, as well as the usual haughty determination to be obeyed. "I won't let you kill them."
"We don't plan to." Robin was taken aback to see the young knight there, but was not inclined to question his presence. "Where's Huntingdon?"
"Down in the crypt." Gisburne slashed out with his sword as Hugo tried to take advantage of his momentary distraction. "I can't get him to answer me anymore."
"We've got to get down there, Robin." John was advancing on the entrance to the crypt, his concern obvious. Robin drew Albion.
"I'll go first. This was always supposed to be my fight." He put one foot on the top step, then froze. "Do you hear something?"
"Rats." John looked about, but couldn't see anything. "It sounds like rats."
"No. More than that. It's like... like something scratching at a door." Loxley spun around, staring about at the broken walls of the old church. "He's summoning something, John."
"And I think it's starting to come through." John was staring up above them, where the broken roof gaped like a yawning mouth. Shadows were gathering there, taking form as large, black creatures. They were thin and spindly, but their fearsome claws and teeth were unmistakable. "What in God's name...?"
"I have to stop him." Loath to leave John, Robin hesitated at the top of the stairs. "Can you keep these things off?"
"Yes." It was Gisburne who answered. Loxley bit back a sharp retort, his hatred for the Norman almost costing him precious seconds. Nodding his head, he left the two ill-matched allies to defend his rear, and dashed down the steps.
"Loxley! How good of you to join us." De Belleme's eyes were burning with a light that was almost feverish. Robin stared about. The crypt was alive with weird lights, and the walls were crawling with creatures just like those in the room above. They were hideous, deformed beasts, their arms and legs disproportionately long, their eyes bright and hot. Black, slimy skin left trails on the stones that glowed in the unearthly lights. In the centre of it all, unable to move, was Huntingdon. His sword lay at his feet and his face was deathly pale. Remembering the hardship of their earlier fight, Loxley ignored his enemy for now, and ran instead towards the Norman outlaw.
"Huntingdon!" He shook the young man, but got no response. "Huntingdon, can you hear me?"
"He can hear. Don't expect an enthralling conversation though." De Belleme was coming towards him, and Robin whipped around to face him.
"Keep back. You're not going to kill him."
"Him, you, your friends up above... I'll kill you all before I'm done. The rest of your gang, everybody else in Sherwood and Nottingham, the nuns of Kirklees Abbey, Herne... Why stop there?" He snapped his fingers, and Robin felt an invisible sword slice through the skin of his chest. He winced, but did not retreat. He had faced de Belleme's tricks before, and they seemed old to him now. The sorcerer might be stronger now than he had been when they had first met, but he was still the same man, performing the same magic, aiming at the same twisted ends.
"I don't think so. I've worked it all out now. I thought that I knew how to stop you, and I came here for the same reason Huntingdon did. Neither of us expected to get out of here alive, but that was just what you wanted, wasn't it. The real way to stop you isn't the way we thought it was. It's something different."
"You haven't got a chance, Loxley. Throw down your sword. Help me instead of hindering me, and I'll give you more than Herne ever could. Be the son of my gods, instead of following that fool in the forest."
"No." Loxley put a hand on Huntingdon's shoulder and stared deep into the blond man's clear, light eyes. "Robin. Robin, you have to come out of this."
"You're wasting your time." De Belleme clapped his hands together, and a wave of heat blazed its way up Robin's sword arm. He almost dropped Albion, but clung on even when it seemed that his palm must blister and burn. "You can't win. It's beginning, Loxley. My powers are consolidating themselves. I can taste the chaos. It's all around. Look at my creatures, breaking through, coming to engulf your pitiful lord and master. Herne the Hunter will be a memory by dawn."
"No." It took all that Huntingdon had within him to speak the one word. "You can't win."
"And what can you do about it?" The mockery in the baron's voice should have hurt, but neither of Herne's Sons was listening to it enough to be stung. Loxley glared at him.
"More than you think." His hand dug deep into Robin's shoulder, and he raised Albion. De Belleme tried to stop him with a hiss of suppressed fury, and the creatures dropping from the walls began to converge. Loxley turned the blade around, capturing as much of the candlelight as he could to flash a burst of white light into Huntingdon's eyes. His companion blinked, choked, and finally moved. He seemed winded and weak, but he reached down and snatched up his sword, turning to face de Belleme with a terrible fury in his eyes.
"You're not leaving this room alive, Simon. Not even if it means that the rest of us don't either. Call your creatures off."
"Why? You can't beat me. Your friends above will already have been over-run, and soon you'll go the same way." He laughed as one of the beasts leapt at Loxley, and the outlaw only just managed to knock it aside before it reached him. "That weapon is nothing, Huntingdon. I've told you that before. I've been dead. I died, and came back to life. You think that you can kill me with that pitiful blade?"
"No." Huntingdon was still advancing on him. "It's not you that has to die. It's me. Me or Loxley. That'll end this. It has to."
"No!" Horror-stricken Loxley dashed forward, kicking aside the grabbing creatures as they tried to pull him down. "That's just what he wants! I was wrong, Robin. We were both wrong! It's not one of us that has to die."
"Don't listen to him, Huntingdon. He wants to save your life, because he thinks that it's him who should die. He doesn't want you to die for him." The baron reached out, holding his hand out for Huntingdon to take. "Don't listen to him."
"Huntingdon!" Loxley made a grab for the other man, but was too late. De Belleme had already caught hold of him, his pale, strong fingers gripping the young man's throat. Huntingdon began to choke, his face paling, his knees buckling. Loxley tried to drag him back, but the creatures summoned by the sorcerer were snatching at him, pulling him away. He fell, losing his hold on Albion. Above him he saw Huntingdon fighting back at last, struggling to bring his sword to bear on the baron. He slashed with it, finally managing to stab his attacker. De Belleme laughed.
"I told you that that weapon was no use against me, fool, any more than is this worthless missile embedded in my shoulder. Why are you still fighting me? Give up and die, and end this pointless struggle. Let me take you, and be glad."
"No!" Loxley could hardly move, weighed down by the creatures snapping and tearing at his legs and arms. They were dragging Albion away from him, but he knew that he had to get the sword again. He struggled forward. Huntingdon was on the last of his strength now, barely upright, his arms drooping uselessly at his sides. De Belleme's eyes began to glow, and the lights of all the candles converged together into one bright, cold flame. One of the walls began to crack, and Loxley's eyes widened. He knew that he didn't want to see what was about to come through.
"Get off me!" With the last of his strength he pulled an arm free and snatched at Albion. He almost missed it, for the creatures made one last effort to pull it out of his reach, but his fingers caught the hilt at last. He gripped hard, then swung the sword in a clumsy circle. The creatures screamed and fell back.
"You can't win, Loxley!" De Belleme sounded worried now. Loxley stumbled to his feet.
"No. It's you that can't win, baron. I won't let you. Huntingdon won't let you. Herne isn't going to let you." He started to advance. De Belleme pushed Huntingdon at him, but Robin side-stepped the tumbling figure. The sorcerer started to chant spells, but Loxley raised his sword, and used the enchanted blade to fend off the evil trickery being hurled against him. De Belleme paled.
"No!" His voice rose to a high pitched wail of fury. "No!"
"It's the end, de Belleme." Robin pointed Albion at him, aware that the ancient and magical blade of Herne's sword would do what Huntingdon's more ordinary blade could not. The sorcerer glared at him, furious and bitter.
"No. Never the end. Never the end. I'll see you yet, Loxley. You and all your pitiful band. I'll see you yet!"
"Maybe." Robin raised the sword up high. "And maybe not." The sword fell. De Belleme choked. Shrieked. Fell. There was a rush of hot air - and with a scream of fury and pain the scrambling, snatching creatures disappeared. Suddenly weak, suddenly drained, Loxley fell to the ground. Nearby he could hear Huntingdon moving, and as the burning symbols on the floor around them blazed up into a rush of green flame and vanished, Herne's first son heard a tired, wondering voice speak his name.
"Yes." Loxley was too tired to sit up, or to turn and look at his companion.
"How... how did you do that? You killed him. I couldn't."
"It was Albion. It's no ordinary sword, remember? I'm glad that I had it, but Herne could have killed you sending it to me instead."
"No." Huntingdon lowered his head. "I wouldn't have used it. Perhaps he knew that all along. I never even gave a thought to killing de Belleme until you came here. I was so certain that it was one of us that had to die, and I couldn't see anything beyond that." He rolled over, staring up at the ceiling. "I was wrong though, wasn't I. Very wrong."
"We both were. It was de Belleme. De Belleme was the one that had to die again." Loxley flashed Huntingdon a broad grin. "It was staring us in the face all along, and we missed it. We both nearly threw our lives away for nothing."
"Then it's over." It seemed an anticlimax, after preparing himself for the approach of death. Huntingdon sat up, rather slowly, examining himself for injuries. He felt stiff and sore all over, but there did not appear to be any blood. "Isn't it?"
"I think so." Loxley stood, offering his companion an arm to help him up. "He's dead at any rate."
"So Herne has his balance. The Forest isn't in danger any longer." Huntingdon stared dispassionately at the dead body of the feared sorcerer. "Do you think he'll come back?"
"We should burn his body. See that he can't." Loxley also stared at the sprawled figure, eyes betraying his anger and hatred. He had encountered the baron on several occasions now, and on each occasion his dislike for the man had increased greatly. "I'd do it quickly enough, if I was sure that it would be the end of him."
"But you can't be sure that it will?"
"You weren't raised to the same traditions and superstitions as I was." Loxley smiled to remember some of the tales he had been told as a child; things that would have been omitted from the more noble education of the Earl of Huntingdon's son. Sometimes it was a good thing to forget those old tales, for many of them were no more than fiction; but sometimes, as Loxley had learned, one ignored old traditions and legends at one's peril. "In the old times they used to think that it was dangerous to burn witches, for fear that their powers would escape in the flames when the body was destroyed, and that they'd be able to return to the Earth by perhaps taking another host." Loxley coloured slightly. "I don't know if it's true, but I don't want to take the risk. Not without being able to talk to Herne first."
"Then what do we do? Incarcerate him down here?" Huntingdon paced about the small crypt, eyeing the many heavy tombs. They were fashioned from great chunks of stone and marble, and certainly seemed to be secure. Loxley nodded.
"He won't get out of one of these without help, whether he returns to life or not. Of course he had help the last time..."
"He won't get it this time." Huntingdon used the point of his sword to begin levering off the lid of one of the tombs. "Not if there's anything that I can do to prevent it."
"There may well be." Loxley indicated Albion, lying on the floor where it had fallen. "The last time it was the Silver Arrow that resurrected him, probably because it was the Silver Arrow that killed him. This time he was killed by Albion, and it's up to both of us to make sure that it never gets used to bring him back."
"Both of us." Huntingdon smiled, although he felt a little uncomfortable with the idea that there were two of them now. "Well them maybe it should be both of us trying to open this tomb. The lid weighs more than Tuck."
"Sorry." Laughing, Loxley hurried to lend a hand, and between them the two young men were able to slide the heavy lid to one side. The tomb was deep and lined with lead, and bore a quantity of ancient bones. At least three people seemed to have been buried within the stone casket, all of them dressed in what appeared to be simple robes, although the clothing was so worn that it was hard to see what it had once been. A silver cross hung around a dilapidated neck, suggesting some religious personage, and Loxley nodded in satisfaction.
"This is as good a place as any. Help me to lift him."
"With pleasure." Together they hoisted the dead body of their hated enemy, and heaved him into the casket. He landed with a heavy thump amidst the old bones, scattering them to the four corners of the tomb. Loxley felt rather guilty for disturbing their rest, but hoped that, whoever they were, they wouldn't mind too much.
"I'll be glad to get out of this place." Struggling to replace the lid, Huntingdon cast a final glance around at the eerie crypt. "I wonder what the others are doing?"
"Resting, if they've any sense." Loxley settled the lid into place, and gave it a satisfied pat. "Will looked in a dreadful state."
"Gisburne." Huntingdon shook his head. "Him and his soldiers. Sometimes it seems that there isn't a decent man amongst them."
"I doubt that there's a decent man in the whole of Nottingham Castle." Loxley frowned at him as they began to mount the slimy stairs that led to the main body of the church. "Why did you bring him with you? I was meaning to ask before, but there wasn't much opportunity."
"Ah." Robin flushed a little. "He was handy, at the time. Nasir and I were alone, and we didn't know where anybody else was... and you've got to admit he was useful. He watched my back when I came to help out at the baron's manor. If it hadn't been for him I'd never have been able to use the Silver Arrow to send that... that creature back to hell. I'd have had my throat cut by Little John and the others."
"The strangest of allies." Loxley stepped out into the church, surprised to feel the soft fall of rain on his face. It seemed that the baron's spells had been broken, and he could see the darkening evening sky now, its faint light at last shining through the broken roof. Water splattered on the stone floor, making little puddles and rivulets that trickled through the holes between the flagstones.
"He was useful here, too. I couldn't bring anybody else to help out, and I'd never have got past the creatures that were guarding the entrance without him. He kept the de Rainaults distracted so that I could face the baron, too." He looked around, thinking about Gisburne again for the first time in some while. "But speaking of our favourite wretch, where is he?"
"Gone, obviously." Loxley smiled at him, eyes teasing. "Looks like your ally wasn't as allied as he could have been. He probably took off with his masters. Freed them, or waited until the baron's death did it for him, and then ran."
"Charming." Huntingdon frowned. "Then where's Little John?"
"There." Loxley's sharp eyes had spotted a large figure lying sprawled on the ground near to the door. "Looks like he was laid out by something."
"Gisburne no doubt." They hurried over, in time to hear the first sounds of reawakening from the unconscious form. "He must have hit John when he left with the Sheriff and Hugo." His face turned serious. "We're lucky John wasn't killed, with those three against him."
"The de Rainaults wouldn't have been up to it, and maybe Gisburne was still being a good ally." Loxley smiled teasingly. "He must like you."
"I doubt that." Huntingdon answered the smile with one of his own, and gave John a hand to climb to his feet. The big man seemed rueful, and he blushed when he greeted his two friends.
"I don't think this is my day."
"Well it feels like it's mine." Loxley clapped him on the shoulder. "It's over, John, and you were right. I was a fool not to think of other possibilities. I could have got myself killed for nothing."
"Aye, well. You always did need looking after, Robin." John laughed at him, throwing a burly arm around the neck of his old friend. "And you too Robin. Why Herne chose a useless pair like you two to be his sons is anybody's guess."
"I think I agree." Huntingdon couldn't help grinning, and felt sure that he was probably beginning to look rather daft for doing so. "I'm sorry John. If you've got a headache it's probably my fault. I can't believe I was fool enough to trust Gisburne."
"I'm glad you were." John rubbed his head. "It wasn't him that hit me. It was the Sheriff. He was going to run me through, but believe it or not Gisburne stopped him. I was barely conscious, so I suppose I could have dreamt it - but I could have sworn that I heard him saying it wasn't right. Did you have some kind of a pact with him?"
"Maybe I did." Huntingdon whistled softly. "Well I never. Maybe there is a shred of decency in him somewhere. I'd be glad if there is."
"Well I doubt it's a big one, if it really is there." John stretched his big frame, recovering his strength all the while. "Still, I suppose I shouldn't speak ill of him, at least for the rest of the day."
"Which isn't very long, fortunately." Loxley grinned at them both. "So what do you say that we get on back to the others, always supposing that our Nottingham friends have left us any horses?"
"I think they took the chariot. The de Rainaults might not have been up to riding." John led the way out of the church. "It's a strange experience, waking up out of something like that."
"And I'm sorry that you had to go through it again." Loxley put a hand on the other man's shoulder. "But de Belleme's gone now, and with luck he'll stay gone." Little John nodded.
"I hope so. But enough of being so serious, Robin. Let's just get ourselves back. I have a feeling that Marion is going to be especially pleased to see you. Both of you."
"All of us." Huntingdon wondered how it would feel to see Marion's greatest pleasure being in the safe return of somebody other than himself, and smiled sadly. She was lost to him now, for good and all.
"Aye, all of us. I reckon you're right." They reached the edge of the trees, where their horses still waited. Gisburne's was gone, but sure enough the others still remained. They looked disgruntled at having been left alone for so long, and in such inclement weather, but they showed no sign of unwillingness to be ridden. The three men gathered the animals together, and started them off on the journey back. It was cold, it was wet and it was growing progressively dark, but not one of the three felt at all uncomfortable. Far from it.
Night had fallen before they reached the baron's dilapidated mansion. A fire burned near to the gates, and Much was huddled close to it, clearly standing watch. He looked up at the sound of approaching horses, but didn't look especially happy. It was clear that he was not expecting all of his friends to return, and both Robins felt a pang of guilt for that fact. They slowed their horses, entering the firelight together; a threesome soaked and muddied, weary but triumphant. Much gaped up at them, and they saw the shock and delight that raced across his expressive young face.
"Robin." He didn't sound as though he believed what he was seeing. "Robin."
"Hello Much." Loxley dismounted, hugging the boy close. Much pulled away.
"But I thought-- But you said-- How, Robin?"
"I was wrong." It was easy enough to admit it, especially to his foster brother. Much stared up at Huntingdon and John, eyes bright with tears.
"All of you. You're back. Then is the baron dead?"
"Aye lad." John almost threw himself from his horse's broad back, clapping the young man on the shoulders in a hearty display of affection that looked almost as violent as one of Gisburne's interrogations. Huntingdon laughed.
"Leave him alone John. You'll kill him!"
"He's stronger than he looks." John ruffled Much's hair. "Come on lad. There's no need for you to stay over here all on your own. It's time for us to head back home now anyway."
"Good." Much scurried along after them as they headed over to the makeshift shelter where the others were waiting. It was hard to make them out, silhouetted as they all were in the light from a second fire. Marion was asleep, held in Tuck's gentle arms, and Will and Nasir were talking together in low voices. Both men looked up at the approaching figures, but neither showed great surprise at the sight of both of Herne's Sons arriving together. Tuck's whispered expression of delight made Marion awaken with a jerk. She blinked around, surprised that she had fallen asleep - before her eyes fell on Loxley, towering above her.
"Robin?" She didn't believe her eyes, that much was obvious. She thought that she was dreaming. "Robin, is that really you?"
"Yes." He crouched down beside her and Tuck willingly loosened his embrace, letting Robin replace it with his own. "It's really me."
"Both of you." She reached out a hand to Huntingdon too, but he merely smiled at her, and didn't make any attempt at contact. Her expression was gentle, and he knew that she understood why he was keeping his distance. As Robin heaved her to her feet, she turned her smile towards John, her sparkling wet eyes showing her affection for him as well.
"We thought we'd lost you." Tuck was bustling around, stoking up the fire, wishing that he had something other than water to offer the returning men. Huntingdon nodded.
"We thought that we were lost too."
"Aye. More than once." John laughed loudly, already remembering the deadly expedition with a certain amount of humour. "But it's all over now."
"For good?" Tuck didn't want to think about a man like the baron returning from the grave yet again, but he knew that neither Robin could put his fears at rest there. Loxley shrugged his shoulders.
"Who can tell? We've won the battle for now, and that's as much as anybody can ask. It's certainly all that Herne wanted. I'd just as soon go home and forget all of this. I feel that I have a lot of catching up to do."
"Home." Marion leant against him, enjoying just the feel of his presence. "That sounds wonderful. But Will and Nasir..."
"Are fine." Will couldn't even sit up straight, but apparently his injuries had not affected the volume of his voice. He grinned up at Robin. "I've been hearing a lot of things. Things that mean we all owe you an apology. We thought you were a devil or something."
"Whatever it was that you thought, it was justified." Robin didn't want to remember how he had thought those same dreadful things, and had felt so horribly lost and alone. "It's not something that we have to talk about, Will. There are no apologies that need making." He pointed a stern finger at the other man. "But Marion's right about you. You can't walk."
"I'm not bloody staying here." As though to make a point he tried forcing himself upright, but had to stop halfway. Nasir, who was sitting beside him, leaning against the stable wall, helped to ease him back down again. The Saracen seemed none the worse for his own injuries, but there wasn't a member of the gang who was fooled by that performance. Well schooled he might be, but that didn't make him invincible.
"We'll make a stretcher. It's no bother, and we can take it in turns to carry him." John was already looking for likely tools, in the midst of Will's heartfelt objections. Loxley nodded.
"How's your head, Tuck?" he asked. The friar smiled ruefully at him.
"It's been better, but then it's been a whole lot worse before as well. I can take my turn carrying one end of a stretcher, don't you worry about that. I take it that there's no need for speed?"
"None at all." Loxley was staring into the forest, wishing that it was Sherwood, and not just some nameless other place. "But it'll be good to be back, no matter how long it takes."
"Why walk at all?" Marion pointed towards the stables. "There are quite a few horses in there. Maybe even enough for one each, with the three that you've got. If we could find some kind of a wagon for Will and Nasir to travel in..." Nasir's dark look told her what he thought of that idea, but she was already beginning to organise things. Loxley kissed the top of her head.
"Sometimes I wonder why Herne didn't choose you instead of me. You always were the one with all the sense."
"I know." She smiled up at him, then slid out of his embrace and pulled open the stable door. There were four horses inside, all strong looking animals, and all looking as though they had come originally from Nottingham Castle. Huntingdon moved past her, beginning the task of saddling the creatures.
"It looks like there's some kind of a cart over there." He pointed into the darkness, and Marion went to investigate. Sure enough, partly covered by straw and a good deal of dust and cobwebs, was a small, open wagon. It was little more than a wheeled board, with rusting axles and several missing spokes, but when she climbed onto it, it seemed sturdy enough. John hauled it out into the courtyard, and set about fixing one of the horses to it. The animal objected, but he told it in no uncertain terms that it was just going to have to do as it was told. Loxley laughed.
"You always did have a way with animals, John."
"This one's got a way with me." John finally secured the animal, then gestured towards the cart. "It won't be very comfortable, but it'll be better for both of you than walking or riding."
"Great." Will had another go at sitting up, but again had to abandon the attempt. His ribs felt as if they were on fire. "Ow. Damn. Somebody tell me that I got my own back on Gisburne for this."
"You will, one day." Loxley helped him up, and with John's help got him into the wagon. He edged himself into a half sitting, half lying position against the side, and smiled to pretend that he was comfortable. Nasir was already on his feet, and although he looked pale, nobody suggested helping him. He sat down beside Will.
"You look like death warmed up, Naz." Will would have laughed in other circumstances, but rather suspected that to do so would be too painful now. "If I look half as bad as you do, no wonder Marion keeps fussing around."
"I do not 'fuss'." Swinging up onto one of the horses, the young woman glared at him as fiercely as she could. Struggling to get his own horse to point in the right direction, Much managed in the end to bring it alongside the wagon.
"And he only looks as bad as he does because he got stabbed," he piped up brightly. Now astride his own mount once again, John deliberately swung it around so that he almost knocked Much from his saddle. The boy objected indignantly, until he saw John's meaningful glare and fell silent. Will's expression darkened.
"Yeah." John's grin was matched by those of the others. "He's a right one alright. Needs something very painful doing to him I reckon."
"Oh that's nice." Inspired by his usual sense of misplaced family loyalty, Huntingdon felt obliged to stand up for the infuriating - if, in this case, actually innocent - young knight. "I thought you were grateful to him for not letting de Rainault skewer you back at the church."
"I've decided to forget about that." Taking up the reins of the horse harnessed to the cart, John began to lead it along. The big man was clearly in high spirits, and as usual it was extremely infectious. "Besides, there's nothing that isn't worth doing to Guy of Gisburne - whatever he might have done."
"Good point." Loxley had had reason enough many a time to hate the vicious steward. "I'd suggest drowning, but we already nearly did that once."
"There's always roasting him alive," suggested Tuck, sounding uncharacteristically vindictive. Much began to giggle.
"You're getting too complicated," put in Will, voice gruff. "Just give him a taste of his own medicine. I reckon I could do as good a job on him as his guards did on me. Just as soon as I can stand up without falling over, anyway."
"That won't be for a while yet." Her tone suggesting that she thought he might be thinking of going after Gisburne right away, Marion brought her horse alongside the cart. Will opened his mouth to make a rude reply, but the cart jolted over a rough piece of ground, and he yelped instead.
"Ow." Flopping back down, he stared up at the grey and wintry sky. "Bloody Gisburne. I vote we do something to him, anyway. Something painful."
"The rack," answered John immediately. Loxley shook his head.
"Thumbscrews. More satisfying. Or there's always hot oil."
"And flaying," added Will.
And as their suggestions grew increasingly gory, and their spirits rose accordingly high, so it carried on throughout the night.
Loxley awoke in darkness, which surprised him momentarily. They had arrived back in Sherwood in the late afternoon, having taken the journey slowly, and after the most cursory of meals had all fallen asleep around a hastily built fire. Loxley wondered how long he had slept, realising as he looked around him that it was now early on a dark and wintry morning. The only sound was that of the first and earliest of the birds, and the only light that from the fire. He sat up, staring around at the featureless silhouettes of his friends, and wondered why his left side felt so cold. It came to him in a rush - Marion was gone. Slowly he stood and looked around him. All was quiet in the camp, all was still. Everybody else was apparently asleep.
"Marion?" He called her name quietly, not wanting to disturb the others. "Marion?"
"That way." He almost jumped at the sound of Nasir's voice, then smiled. Trust him to be awake, when everyone else was asleep.
"She's gone?" He was surprised by the news that she had left the camp, although there was no reason why she should not have done so. "How long ago?"
"Did she say anything to you?" Robin wondered where she had gone, and how long she would be. It had disturbed him more than he would have thought likely, to have awakened and found her gone from his side. Nasir nodded.
"Lie down. Rest." The Saracen pronounced these wise words with such distaste that Robin had to smile. He clapped his old friend on the shoulder, trying to be gentle without letting it show.
"You should listen to her. You were stabbed."
"Not deep." Nasir pointed past him, indicating once again which way Marion had gone, and Robin took the hint. He smiled again.
"Thankyou." The answer was a faint incline of the dark, curly head, a gesture that brought back so many memories. It felt better than he could ever have imagined to be back, a part of all of this once again. Nasir melted away, and Robin followed suit, though in a different direction. The forest was dark, but he was certain enough that he could find Marion, if she was still in Sherwood to be found.
He found her down river, standing beside a large bush, where she had apparently come with the intention of collecting what berries the birds had consented to leave. She wasn't picking anything though, and was merely standing still, twisting several grass stalks around her fingers, apparently thinking about something that was troubling her. Robin smiled, struck, as ever, by how beautiful she was. She glanced up at him, and her face softened at his approach.
"Here you are." He realised that he had been afraid she had gone; headed back to Kirklees Abbey without any attempt at a goodbye. He should have known, of course, that even Marion wasn't strong enough for that.
"Here I am." She sounded troubled, and he knew that she was facing a difficult decision. Against every wish and every instinct, she had chosen once to enter Kirklees, and turn her back on the life she had loved. Now she was thinking of going back there.
"Are you alright?" He wanted to go to her, but felt that he would be disturbing her too much if he did that now. She smiled at him, and nodded.
"I'm alright. I feel like I was asleep too long, that's all. I needed to walk for a bit."
"I know what you mean. We must have been pretty tired when we got back to the camp. We've slept for hours."
"No wonder I feel so stiff." She smiled at him, but there was a distance in her eyes. "Will slept well, anyway. He was very peaceful when I left."
"Oh Will's alright. He always is, you know him. Tough as good boot leather."
"I know." She thought about some of the other times when she had seen him injured, although never before as badly as this. He always bounced back, sooner rather than later. "Nasir will be fine too, although he'd be better if he'd let me look after him properly."
"Nasir knows his limits. He's been fighting battles since he was younger than Much was, when we all first got together. Don't worry about him."
"I suppose you're right." She smiled suddenly, and stopped toying with the grasses wound around her fingers. "So why did you come looking for me, Robin? What was it that you wanted to say?"
"You know what I want." He moved closer to her, closer than he had allowed himself to do since finding her here. "I wanted to know what you're planning to do now. Are you going to stay here in the forest?"
"I don't know." She hung her head. "I left before because I couldn't stand to lose another man that I'd loved. Having you back doesn't change anything, Robin. If anything it makes it harder for me to stay. How can I ever cope with losing you again?"
"Because if you go to Kirklees then you already have lost me, that's how. Because if you stay here with me, losing me is a possibility. If you leave and go back to the abbey, you'll be losing me for sure." He took her arms and held her tightly, although he didn't draw her close. "I can't promise never to leave you, Marion. I can't promise still to be here tomorrow. But I am here now."
"And when next summer comes, and ends? Herne took you at the end of one summer, and at the end of another he tried to take the other Robin. What happens next time? There can't always be a clever resolution, or a miracle."
"Marion, next summer is next summer. It's a lifetime away. How can any of us worry about that, when even the winter hasn't begun? How can you worry about next year, when we've still to survive this one? Life isn't supposed to be about worrying over what might happen. It's supposed to be about living with what is happening now."
"I can't lose you again, Robin." She pulled him against her, and he wrapped his arms around her waist instinctively. Her head rested on his shoulder, and he closed his eyes.
"And I could never live without you again, either. But that's not for us to decide, Marion. Don't say anything now. Don't make your decision yet. Live today."
"Live today and worry tomorrow." It was so like him. He was always so carefree, and that, of course, was one of the reasons why she loved him so much. "I don't know. I made my decision once, and it seemed so simple. So perfect."
"But that was then." He pushed her away from him, very gently, so that he could look into her eyes. "Tell me now that it's simple. Tell me that it's easy for you to walk away from me, and not look back. Tell me that you want to spend the rest of your life in Kirklees, instead of spending it with me."
"I can't." She was weakening, even though she had, before his arrival, been about to make the decision to go back to her life at the abbey. It had seemed right; the only way. Now nothing seemed that simple anymore. "Oh Robin. Why did you always make things so complicated for me?"
"Because life is never simple, and love certainly isn't." He stroked her hair. "You're my wife, Marion."
"I know." She smiled up at him. "And that's why it's so very hard. I can't--"
"Then don't." Whatever she had been about to say didn't matter. "Come back to the camp with me. Spend today with me, and tomorrow and the day after, and everything will be alright. I'll never try to stop you, if you decide that Kirklees is your future, but in the meantime... just be with me, Marion. I love you."
"And I love you." She held his hands, and stared at each of them in turn. The hands that had taught her to shoot, and to skin rabbits, and to mend the broken flights of an arrow. She knew them as well as she knew her own, and felt that she could hold them forever.
"Then come with me back to the camp." He pulled gently, and at first she resisted. It felt as though she was taking a huge step, and it was one that she wasn't quite sure she was ready to take. He pulled harder, and she felt herself caving in. He was right. How could she turn her back and go to Kirklees, and leave him behind? She really would be losing him then, even if they both lived to be a hundred. With the faintest of smiles, that soon became the broadest of grins, she let him lead her away. There was plenty of time for decisions tomorrow. Kirklees would still be there then.
The camp was different to before, although perhaps it was only Robin's view of it that had changed. It didn't feel like somebody else's home now; it was his. The warmth and camaraderie that he remembered had come flooding back, and all was as it had always been. The others were awake, moving around, and he heard the beginnings of the mock arguments that he had always enjoyed so much. Will was of course still badly injured, and although he wasn't supposed to be sitting up was still managing to play a full part in everything that was going on. Marion had forbidden him to drink any alcohol, which was rather like telling Tuck not to pray, or Nasir not to be so quiet, and he had contrived to get a drink from somewhere. Much and Little John were fighting an ill-matched wrestling bout in the centre of the clearing, and Will cheered them on with gusto. Tuck, now fully recovered from his blow on the head, dodged around the battling pair, tripping them both up with the end of his quarter-staff every time their feet came too close. Close by Nasir was sharpening his swords, just as he had always done in the days that Robin remembered, sparing a smile every now and again for the clownish antics going on around him.
"Home." Marion leant her head against Robin's shoulder, unable to stop the smile from stealing across her face. "It really does feel like coming home."
"Of course it does." He gave her hand a squeeze, and led her over to the fire. "What else is it going to feel like?"
"I don't know. I thought I'd left it all behind me. I thought..." She shook her head. "It doesn't matter, does it. However long it's for, and whatever happens tomorrow, this is home now. And I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be."
"I'm glad to hear it." Will toasted her with a flagon of ale, and she glared at him.
"I thought I'd put that out of your reach."
"You did, but I told Much to bring some to me." He grinned at her, and tipped a long draught down his throat. "It's better medicine than all your herbs, Marion. That sage and fennel and whatever, they don't taste like this stuff does."
"You're incorrigible." She smiled at him anyway, and moved to check his bandages. The ribs would have to heal in their own time, but everything else seemed to be doing alright. The many small cuts had escaped poisoning, and the battering his head had received had apparently not caused any lasting damage. Why that surprised her she couldn't imagine. Will was as tough as a cart horse.
"I keep telling you I'm alright." He didn't try to get up though, which was proof enough that he was not yet as strong as he would be. "You let Nasir walk around like nothing happened to him, but he got himself stabbed."
"True." They still hadn't told Will what he had done, and he had showed no signs of remembering. Nasir certainly bore him no ill will, although there was a scar on his back that would probably be with him for months. "It might even have been fatal if he wasn't wearing all that leather."
"Careless of you Naz." Will saluted him with his ale. "I thought you were supposed to have eyes in the back of your head?"
"I was distracted." Nasir set aside his swords and stood up, stretching slightly as though to prove that he was fully healed. He wasn't, but only he and Marion knew that, and she was discreet enough to allow him his pride. They would all be glad of the chance for a rest before their next skirmish, but some of them definitely needed it more than others.
"Where's Robin?" Finally deciding that he had played with Much long enough, John lifted the squirming boy up into the air, and dumped him in the nearest bush. The bush wriggled furiously for some time before Much was able to crawl out.
"He left camp in the night." Brushing leaves and twigs from his hair, the boy climbed to his feet. "Said something about thinking. He's not going to leave us, is he Little John?"
"I don't think so." John couldn't imagine Huntingdon doing anything else with his life. Whatever he had once been, he was a part of them now. He belonged with them just as much as Loxley did. "Did he say anything to anyone?"
"He was talking to Nasir when I woke up." Much grabbed Will's ale, and took a long drink, rather too fast. Fighting off a fit of coughing that caused Little John to bang him gleefully on the back, he sat down on the ground beside the fire. Nasir raised an eyebrow.
"He will be back," was all that he would say on the matter, largely because it was all that he knew. Huntingdon had spoken to him because, as always, he had been the first one awake, and had been sitting up when the former noble had decided to set off. Marion nodded.
"I'm sure he will. He's not the type to walk out on us."
"I should think not." Striding out of the trees wearing his familiar smile, Huntingdon had a look about him of relaxation and contentment. He had clearly been swimming, and his hair was only just beginning to dry. "I just wanted to think for a bit, that's all."
"What about?" Will looked serious, for the first time since he had woken up that morning. Huntingdon headed for the fire, standing before it to let it warm his damp clothes. For the first time it felt like true winter, and even though the morning was now advancing, it was still quite dark. Tuck handed him a mug, and he nodded his thanks.
"Oh, you know. Life." He took a drink of warmed wine, and let it do its work before continuing. The swim had not been the best of ideas given the chill of the morning, but it had helped him to clear his head more than anything else he had been able to think of. "About what happens now."
"I'll leave the forest myself before I let you do the same." Loxley's voice was quiet, but it was filled with meaning. I won't be the usurper, it said, and Huntingdon nodded.
"I don't plan to leave. I don't think that either of us needs to. Nobody ever said that Herne couldn't have two sons, and he seems quite happy with the situation himself. He spoke to me..." He was silent for a second, and his gaze rested on Marion. "In any family it's the eldest son that has seniority, and I'll stand back and let you be the leader. But don't expect me to be an uncritical second-in-command."
"I would never ask that." Robin stepped forward, his movements slow and smooth. "But Albion--"
"Albion is yours." Huntingdon looked away, to where the sword was lying in its sheath just beside the fire, basking in the reflected glow of the adjacent Silver Arrow. How that ancient silver token had been returned to them none of the gang could say, but there it lay nonetheless, as beautiful and as flawless as ever. "In as much as it ever belongs to anybody other than Herne, it's yours. You were the first born son. I heard him quite clearly when I was walking through the forest, and it's his choice. His guidance. I have the guardianship of the Arrow."
"And you don't mind?" It felt awkward, like when Robin had first been settling in to the Miller's home, when it had become clear that his father wasn't coming back to fetch him. Like he had to try to find the right things to say, and couldn't quite be relaxed. Huntingdon nodded.
"I don't mind. It's a compliment, Robin. To guard the Arrow is the greatest honour I can think of - and besides, I have a perfectly good sword. Don't try to find problems before we even begin."
"I'm not looking for problems." He saw them, but he wasn't looking for them. Problems like Marion, for instance. Huntingdon was smiling, although his eyes showed that all was not quite as well as it could have been.
"You're worried." He stepped forward, holding out his hand for Marion to take. She did so, and he pulled her gently to her feet. "You're worried about Marion. Well you needn't be. I realised long ago that I could never have her, and that... that I wasn't the person she would always want." His voice changed, as his words addressed themselves to Marion instead of to Loxley; a voice that hid most of the pain he couldn't help feeling. "I shall always love you, Marion. Always. But from now onwards I shall be your friend, and your comrade, and your loyal companion. No more."
"No more." She smiled, then leaned over and kissed him gently on the cheek. "Thankyou Robin."
"Robert." It was a gentle correction. "I think we can do without the extra confusion, don't you?"
"Robert." It felt strange to call him that, and yet oddly familiar. It recalled the early days, of his insecurity at taking up Robin's mantle. So much had changed since then. So very, very much.
"So now Herne has two sons." Seeing that the moment needed lightening, Tuck picked up the wooden bowl that they had always used for their shared blessing, in the evenings around the fire. "Sounds like a good thing if you ask me. The taxes go up every year, and we're going to need the extra manpower if we're to stay one step ahead of the Sheriff's men."
"Aye. And once he's got over being bewitched by the baron, he's going to be hopping mad." John's loud laughter dispelled any concerns they might have had about that state of affairs. "We'll have to keep our wits about us if we're going to carry on fighting him."
"Oh he's always angry about something." Will didn't give a damn whether the Sheriff was angry or not; he was the enemy whatever his mood was. Marion nodded.
"He's been angry about something for as long as I've known him. Always ranting at Gisburne or at Hugo, or some unfortunate serving girl. He'll be livid when he finds out that there are two Robin Hoods to be fought now."
"Maybe he'll resign," suggested Much. John laughed.
"Somehow I doubt it."
"So do I." Pouring water into the bowl, Tuck held it out to Loxley. "The Sheriff of Nottingham may be a fool at times, but he's still a very tenacious man. We haven't seen the last of him, and I doubt we ever shall."
"But in the meantime..." Loxley held up the bowl, looking at each of them in turn. At John, straight and tall and proud; at Much, small, bright and eager; at Will, stubborn and strong and determined; Huntingdon, loyal, steadfast and true; Tuck, stout, firm and gentle; Nasir, devoted, intense and resolute - and at Marion. Beautiful, sweet, brave Marion. His family. His friends. And his wife.
"Herne protect us." They were familiar words, and it certainly didn't feel as though it had been two years since he had last said them. Two years, cared for and protected by powers that were well beyond his understanding. He sipped the water, and tasted its coldness and purity. The stuff of life - a life that he had finally won back. He handed the bowl to Marion.
"Herne protect us." She had missed this as much as he had, and he knew that she wouldn't be leaving again. Whatever happened, she was here now to stay. They all were. He wondered if any of them would still be fighting this fight when the next winter started creeping around them. It didn't matter. You fought whilst you could, and you did the best you could, for as long as you were able to do it. That was all that counted, for Herne's sons, or for anybody else's. Marion held the bowl out to Huntingdon.
"Herne protect us." Oddly Huntingdon felt that the ceremony had never meant as much to him as it did now. It wasn't a question of passing the burden across, or of losing the responsibility. He was as much Herne's Son today as on the day when he had first accepted his destiny, believing that Loxley was dead. It was simply that he knew he had done the right thing, and that the world would be a better place for it. Albion might no longer hang at his side, but a man could fight with any sword, especially when he knew that he was fighting for the right reason. He handed the bowl on, and watched in silence as each of his friends echoed the simple phrase. John drank last, and set the bowl gently down beside the fire.
"And now..." Robin was comfortable - delightfully so - but he knew that that was not good enough. "There seems to be an awful lot of inactivity around here. Are we an army or a bunch of sick and weak convalescents?"
"Can't we be both?" Managing to actually look sick and weak for the first time since he had regained consciousness, Will did his best to sound sick and weak as well. Robin smiled at him, and aimed a playful blow at his shoulder.
"Well you're the only one who has a proper excuse. Tuck, fetch me a quarter-staff." He rose to his feet, and offered Huntingdon the wickedest smile that any of them had seen in some while. "Let's see what you're made of, brother."
"Oh I can hold my own, believe me." Grinning broadly, Robert snatched up his own staff, lying unattended nearby. Marion shook her head.
"Haven't you two had enough of fighting just lately?"
"No." The pair were making for clearer ground nearby. Not to be outdone, John had snatched up his own staff, and was challenging Tuck. Marion sighed. If she knew this lot, the fight would end in the river.
"You're mad." She turned her back on them, as though wanting nothing to do with their games; then snatched up another staff and joined in. It was a free for all before it had ever had a chance to be a proper contest, and laughing loudly Will watched it all descend into chaos. Much dodged around, trying to catch the unwary with a staff of his own, and Nasir stood watching, arms folded, smiling in his usual quiet way. There might be arguments yet, between the two sons of Herne, and there might yet be moments when both of them wished that they ruled this gang alone - but the troubles would be small, and the good days would far outweigh them. There was trouble in any family, after all.
If any of the eight felt the presence that was watching them, none of them reacted to it. Herne stood at the edge of the clearing, his massive head-dress and flowing robes helping to hide him amongst the many trees and bushes. He had come here on a whim, to see how things were. He had his answer now, and he was content.
"One comes, one goes..." They were words that had spelled the end for Loxley once, but now they heralded something new. "One comes, one goes, and one returns again. But still there is much to do." He smiled as the battle nearby reached its inevitable conclusion, and a loud splash rang out as somebody threw Much into the river. Seconds later another splash heralded somebody else's ducking. Will cheered.
"Still much to do." Herne turned to leave them then, heading back into the forest before he was seen. He didn't want to interrupt their play, and distract them when they were having a good time. It was something that they had earned, and something that they well deserved. The Lord of the Forest disappeared as soundlessly as he had come, and headed back into his realm. He knew what was coming, just as he had known it for centuries. He knew of the battles still to come, and the hardships still to be faced. Many of them had been written of when even the oldest of the trees of Sherwood had still been acorns growing on the branches of their ancestors.
"One comes, turns the sky black. Another comes, turns the sky light." It was a battle that had continued since the beginning of time, and it was no different here in Sherwood. On the surface the fight might be about liberating England, but there was more to it than that, and always had been. It was an ageless fight; a vital one.
And in Sherwood it was only just getting started.
In memory of Terry Walsh, damn fine stuntman and all round nice bloke.