It was a cold night, and Guy of Gisburne was glad that he was not out in it. Too often lately he had been riding about the countryside, collecting fines, or delivering the Sheriff's sentences upon the masses. Too often he had been camped outside, crouched beside a quivering fire, forced to eat reheated stew and stale bread. Tonight he was determined to make the most of his return to the castle.
It was a feast day, which helped. Gisburne had no idea which feast day it was - he had never been much of a scholar, and religious matters interested him rather less than most others - but Abbot Hugo had announced that it was to be an evening of celebration, so presumably the date had some significance in the Christian calendar. Either that or Hugo was just taking advantage of everybody else's comparative ignorance, because he fancied a good feast. It wouldn't have been the first time. So it was that Gisburne found himself now regarding a table piled with food, feeling the hardships of those long nights out of doors fading quickly from his memory. He smiled. Roast meats, fruits, wine from the Abbot's own cellar - he might have to endure a few boring tales from the Brothers de Rainault during the course of the feast, but that was easy to endure. He was used to it - the boasting, the exchange of exaggeratedly bad memories of their childhood, and the deeds of their tyrannical eldest brother - and he let it all wash over him. Impossibly big-headed fellow diners were a small price to pay for a magnificent meal, anyway. Guy of Gisburne liked his food, and there was very little that could spoil it.
"Curse this weather!" Striding into the hall, dripping water all over the floor, the Sheriff of Nottingham was an image of bristling rage. "How can there be this much water in the sky?"
"The Abbot Hugo suggested that the Feast of St Adam is often characterised by excessive rain, my lord." Gisburne helped his employer to remove his sodden cloak, and had to duck aside when the Sheriff seemed about to throw it at him.
"Stuff and nonsense, Gisburne. You know as well as I do that there's no such saint. Or if there is, today certainly isn't supposed to be set aside for honouring him. My dear brother just fancied having a feast at somebody else's expense, and is using his position to secure it." He sat down on a huge chair, and gestured for a pair of page boys to remove his boots. Gisburne was rather glad that he hadn't been directed to perform that task himself.
"The feast may be a false one, my lord, but it's sure to do you good after such a soaking. I've had the servants make a large batch of your favourite spiced wine, and it's warming now by the fire. Some of that will soon help you forget the weather."
"It had better, Gisburne." The Sheriff kicked aside a page boy, and put his feet up onto the table. "Where is my dear brother, anyway? I'd have thought that by now he'd be sitting here, waiting to begin."
"He was called out, my lord. Something about a traveller taken ill."
"Last rites, is it? You'd think they could find somebody rather better disposed to perform that kind of thing. Some underling? A proper priest?"
"There was nobody else available, my lord. The local priest is on his annual visit to the nunnery, and won't be back for two days. Your brother seemed happy enough to volunteer when the message came."
"Must be a rich merchant or some such then. He wouldn't go out in this weather for just anybody." De Rainault grabbed a large, meaty bone from the table and began to chew on it, tearing at it with such a fierceness in his eyes that Gisburne was put rather in mind of the castle's large dogs. "Sit down, Gisburne. We might as well begin."
"Without me?" The Abbot Hugo de Rainault appeared in the doorway precisely on cue, as though he had been waiting outside in the hope of finding the right moment to embarrass his brother. "Why Robert I would be quite hurt, if I didn't know that the rules of the Feast of St Adam demand a blessing from me before the dining can begin. I'm sure that Gisburne finds your jest just as amusing as I do."
"Um... yes." Still not entirely sure whether there really was any such thing as the Feast of St Adam, Gisburne decided that it was best just to agree. The Sheriff glared daggers at him, but he was used to that. "Were you in time to help the traveller, my lord Abbot?"
"Oh, there was nothing wrong with him. He was just angling for an invitation to dine with the Sheriff of Nottingham." Hugo waved a disparaging arm. "Damned cheek. You'd think the man was a Saxon, the way he behaved. Calling me out into that foul weather, just to ask for somewhere to stay for the night. What makes him so special that he can't choose a boarding house like a normal person?"
"Probably the fact that the city is closed for the night, and he won't be able to come in to find a boarding house," muttered the Sheriff, annoyed that he had had to stop chewing on his bone. Damned Hugo and his made up religious ceremonies. If he had to declare himself the master of this infernal 'celebration', the least that he could do was declare it already underway.
"Most merchants are none the worst for a night spent sleeping on the ground outside the city walls," Hugo told him. "I see no reason why this fellow should be any different. A night out in all this rain might wash a little humility into him."
"Always supposing that he doesn't get his throat cut by thieves." The Sheriff's dry tone proved that he cared as little as his brother for the fortunes of some anonymous traveller. "Who is he, anyway?"
"A trader. He presented himself as a dealer in exotic goods, which is why I agreed to go out to meet him." The Abbot collapsed into a chair, and the Sheriff's nervous pages came forward to help with his waterlogged boots. "Exotic goods are worth money. Spices, rugs... you've seen them, paraded before the rich by these adventuring types who travel all over the world."
"Or more likely persuade others to do the travelling for them. All the merchants I've seen were soft fools who have probably been no further than London in their lives." The Sheriff scowled at his brother. "Now hurry up and declare this feast open, Hugo. If I'm going to honour a non-existent saint, I want to do it quickly."
"Our tutor, God rest his soul, would be shocked to know that you've never heard of St Adam. All those years you spent in the school room?" He smiled rather unpleasantly. "Or all those minutes, anyway. Never the greatest scholar, were you?"
"Hugo, at present I am humouring you for the sake of the staff. Don't think that I'll carry it on indefinitely."
"Patience, dear brother, patience." Hugo sighed loudly, and poured himself a large goblet of wine. "In the name of St Adam, then, the patron saint of all unfortunate souls lost in bad weather, I proclaim this feast to be open." He drained the goblet with his customary enthusiasm, then sat down and grabbed a roasted pigeon. "Anyway, all that this particular 'dealer in exotic goods' had was a sorry-looking bunch of slaves. Saracens I would say, and looking like they haven't been fed since they left the Holy Land. He'll be lucky if he gets a more than a couple of pennies for the lot of them."
"That's not very charitable talk for the Feast of St Adam." De Rainault tapped noisily on the table with the point of his dagger, then snatched up an apple and began to carve it into elaborate pieces. "Shouldn't you show kindness to wanderers caught out in inclement weather?"
"Do you want to invite them in? A merchant who thinks too highly of himself, and his collection of bedraggled slaves? My dear brother, you dislike guests as much as I do, and I know your opinion of merchants. You rate them barely higher than Saxons."
"You're a fool, Hugo." The Sheriff was staring at the apple in his hands, his expression one of deep thought. Gisburne knew the look well. It spoke of machination and cunning, and he had seen it lead to great profit on occasions - and to great disaster. When the Sheriff of Nottingham was plotting he had little inclination to think of consequences; and the result of that was generally bad for Gisburne. He managed to look polite though, and not too disturbed.
"You have an idea, my lord?" he asked. The Sheriff nodded at him, eyes narrowed so that his whole face looked sly.
"I have. Saracen slaves, Gisburne. What does that say to you?"
"Trouble, my lord. The soldiers in the garrison won't be happy to see them. Many of them have spent time in the Holy Land, and those who haven't have relatives out there."
"I'm not interested in the soldiers, Gisburne." As usual de Rainault made the young steward's name sound like an insult. "There's a band of men not very many miles from here who like to present themselves as liberators of the people. Opposers of slavery. They declare that all their misbegotten Saxon kind are slaves of the Normans, and free them from our prisons and our whipping posts from one end of Sherwood to the other."
"You mean Robin Hood and his men, my lord."
"Of course I mean Robin Hood and his men! And that band of cut-throats, unlike most other Englishmen, have reason to look with sympathy on a group of Saracen slaves, wouldn't you say?"
"Bait, my lord?" Gisburne was aware of the Abbot Hugo's obvious lack of conviction, and tried not to let his own unease show in his face or voice. The Sheriff nodded.
"I think so Gisburne, yes. We allow it to be known that we have Saracen slaves here in Nottingham, awaiting sale to the highest bidder - and if Robin Hood really cares as much for his own Saracen as he seems to, I don't see that he can refuse to make some kind of an attempt to free them. And when he does..."
"When he does, Robert, he'll undoubtedly succeed and get clean away." Hugo rolled his eyes. "Just enjoy the feast, and forget Robin Hood for a while."
"Forget him? Forget him? When my coffers are half empty thanks to his marauding ways? When the scorn of King Richard is still ringing in my ears? How can I forget him?" De Rainault rose to his feet, pacing agitatedly up and down the length of their small gathering. "No, this merchant has been sent to us by fate, Hugo. I won't let an opportunity like this one pass me by. Gisburne!"
"Yes my lord?" Gisburne had a nasty suspicion that he knew what was coming next, and he wasn't proved wrong.
"Find this merchant. Bring him here, and his wares as well. Quickly."
"Leave the city, my lord?" Gisburne thought about merely leaving the castle and cringed in displeasure. It was pouring with rain, and the wind was howling so strongly that the draughts in the hall were strong enough to make the candles periodically blow out. He had no desire to walk abroad on a night like this one, especially when he had been looking forward to staying warm and dry tonight - for the first night in quite some time. The Sheriff glared at him.
"How are you going to find me this fellow without leaving the city? Move, Gisburne. Now."
"Yes, my lord." He rose to his feet, casting a woeful look back at the table. By the time he returned the feast would have been cleared away, largely to be sure that as little of it as possible would have to be shared with the merchant. He would see no more of it himself tonight, and his stomach gurgled in sorry hunger. "Right now, my lord?"
"Right now. Go."
"My lord Sheriff, my lord Abbot." He bowed low, his eyes showing his simmering resentment. "I shall return as soon as I can."
"Glad to hear it." Reaching out for a large chunk of meat, de Rainault began alternating bites of it with chunks of his dismembered apple. "Hurry along now. Maybe we'll even save you a glass of wine."
"My lord." Gisburne spun about and left. Hugo stared after him.
"Is there really any point to this plan, Robert? You know how such things are apt to end."
"It'll be different this time. And may I thank you for your wonderful display of support?" The Sheriff slopped too much wine into his goblet, spilling large amounts of it onto the table. "We'll get that Wolfshead this time, Hugo. Just you wait and see."
Little John wanted to sleep, and was perfectly prepared to stay that way for the next twenty-four hours if he could get away with it. Between hounding Sir Guy of Gisburne, and helping the people of Wickham rebuild several houses damaged by rampaging Norman soldiers, there hadn't been much sleep of late. All of the outlaws had been keeping long hours, and John, particularly, was determined to make the most of the night-time. Night was for sleeping. That was what one did when it was dark, and, more importantly, when one was tired of struggling to stay awake. Asleep, he had decided, was a very good place to be.
Which was why it was so annoying to have to share a camp with Will Scarlet. After the rain had proved itself to be a permanent fixture for the night, the outlaws had headed for the caves where they so often sheltered during bad weather, and beside a large campfire they had eaten, shared merry stories, and then decided to go to sleep. Except that Will - and Tuck, apparently, which was double the trouble - weren't quite so tired as everybody else. Will had started it all, testing the echoes of the cave, claiming that bears - or possibly even the ghosts of bears - dwelt somewhere further back, and generally making a nuisance of himself. Much had looked terrified, Marion had looked exasperated, and Will had been inspired to even greater levels of jesting. Now, as John lay wishing for sleep, Tuck and the indefatigable Scarlet were engaged on a hunt for imaginary mice, pursuing them around the makeshift camp for the sole purpose of making Much jump. When Tuck began burrowing through John's furry jerkin, insisting that he had seen a make-believe mouse dive inside, John finally gave up his attempts at slumber. He growled. Tuck yelled in delight.
"The mouse! We've got it cornered Will!"
"It's in his beard!" His voice loud enough to scare away any mice, real or imaginary - or any ghost bears for that matter - Will Scarlet launched himself at John's head. John rolled aside, and Will landed on top of Robin. There was a loud grunt.
"Yeah Robin?" There was no sign of any repentance in the voice of the incorrigible outlaw, and Robin sat up, very slowly, to fix him with a steely glare.
"You could at least say sorry."
"We were after a mouse," Scarlet told him. Robin nodded.
"So I heard. So half of Sherwood heard. What is it about this place that always turns you into an idiot?"
"He got a touch of the sun earlier," offered Tuck, as unabashedly cheerful as his erstwhile partner in crime. John grunted.
"Lucky him. I haven't even seen the sun in three days."
"Well you know Will. He's unbalanced anyway." Tuck grinned at Will's typically fierce glare. "Oh, we're sorry Robin. It's being cramped up I suppose. The weather's been so bad lately that we've finished up in here more often than not - when we haven't been gallivanting around the countryside annoying Gisburne."
"Some of us have been gallivanting around the countryside annoying Gisburne," John corrected him. "Certain others have been sitting back here tending the fire. That's why certain of us are bouncing around pretending to hunt for mice in my beard, and the rest of us want to get some sleep." He stifled a massive yawn, then lay down. "And speaking of which, if anybody wakes me up before this time tomorrow I might have to break his skull. Will." He glared. Will looked affronted.
"Guess." This last came from Marion, who had raised her head to stare sleepily around at them all. "Can we stop arguing now?"
"Aye." Tuck yawned. "I suppose it is a little late."
"Thankyou." John pulled a collection of furs up over his head, and sighed loudly. "You can wake me up if the Normans attack. Otherwise don't bother."
"Grouch." Will threw a water-skin at him, but got no reaction. Robin had to fight not to smile.
"If you've really got that much energy, Will, you could always go out and relieve Nasir. He must be tired by now."
"Nasir's never tired." Will settled down beside the fire, and threw a few small pieces of wood onto it. "Anyway, it's not my fault if I'm not as sleepy as some of you, is it. I told you you should have taken me along with you, instead of leaving me behind here. You lot went off and had fun, and Tuck and Much and me had nothing to do but refeather our arrows."
"You had a fever, Will. If you'd come with us we'd probably have buried you somewhere along our route." Marion sighed. "Why do I feel that none of us is going to be getting much sleep tonight?"
"I am," came John's muffled voice. Robin smiled.
"Will? Switch places with Nasir. And don't look like that, the rain won't kill you. Goodness knows we all ought to be used to it by now."
"Used to it, and sick of it." Will rose to his feet. "Yeah, alright, I'll go and get wet. You've still got Tuck here to keep you all awake though."
"Why I wouldn't dream of disturbing Marion." All innocence, the unlikely friar settled himself down. "Anyway, I can always use a nap."
"I don't want to sleep." Much looked towards the back of the caves. "Is it true that there are bears haunting this place, Robin? The ghosts of the really big ones that used to live here hundreds and hundreds of years ago?"
"There are no ghosts, and no bears." Robin lay back, thinking evil thoughts about Will. "Go to sleep, Much."
"Are you sure?" The boy was siting up, the firelight shining on his curls, emphasising his already substantial youthfulness. Robin smiled gently at him, although he wasn't sure how far he was visible.
"I'm sure. We checked this cave thoroughly before we chose it, and there are no bears. The biggest animal likely to be living nearby is a rabbit."
"Oh. Alright then." Happy again, Much lay down. "Goodnight everybody."
"Goodnight Much." Marion pressed close to Robin, and he settled an arm around her, resting his head against hers. Will sighed as loudly as he could.
"Yeah, goodnight everybody."
"Will..." Robin couldn't be bothered to turn his head towards his friend, when he had just got it so perfectly placed. Scarlet nodded, unseen in the darkness by the cave entrance.
"Yeah, I know. It's not like I'm tired, anyway." He caught up a firebrand, protecting it as best he could as he stepped out into the rain. It sizzled loudly, but held, and by its light he searched for Nasir. It wasn't an easy task. In his dark clothing the Saracen was well nigh invisible, but would probably have been just as hard to spot had he been clothed in imperial purple. When Nasir didn't want to be seen, nobody ever saw him. Will called him.
"Will." The voice was quiet, as it always was. Scarlet held up his torch, and by the last of its light, before it finally fizzled out, he saw the dark face of his most unusual friend.
"Hey, Naz. My turn out here." He didn't hear an answer, but knew from experience why that was. Nasir generally didn't speak with words so much as with expressions, or with a movement of his head. It was perfect for silence and stealth, but less so when there was no light to see by. "I take it that was a 'Thankyou Will'."
"Thankyou Will." The voice was so soft and so solemn that Will laughed.
"Get inside. They're all behaving like madmen, but you might manage some sleep."
"I heard." Nasir showed no immediate desire to seek the shelter of the cave. "There were... mice?"
"Several. Invisible ones are always the trickiest. They were hiding out in John's beard." Will grinned, and slapped Nasir's shoulder. "Go on, get inside. I can never tell whether you appreciate my jokes, anyway." He watched the faint shadow slide into obscurity, then tossed away his extinguished torch and headed for the relative shelter of some nearby trees. From there the fire was only a faint light, and the rest of the world was a place of black and green. He settled himself down amongst the roots and the rocks, and stared up at the dark, rainy sky. Nobody was coming here tonight. It was as pointless having a man out on guard as it would be to rattle a poor box at the Sheriff of Nottingham - but Will had been a soldier, and he knew what had to be done. Alone in the darkness he sat, his sword in his hand, watching for the morning. There might be nobody coming, but he was going to wait for them all the same.
Dawn brought mist, along with a warm wind and the sound of birds singing their pleasure at seeing the back of the rain. Will rubbed a shower of droplets from his short, spiky hair, and resheathed his sword. It would need drying of course, but until he could actually find something that wasn't also soaking wet, he had no means of getting it dry. Shaking his wet boots, even wetter feet still inside them, he pushed his way out of the trees that had hidden him all night, and squelched back towards the cave. The fire was still burning, and through the haze of the mist, and the accumulated rain still dripping from his eyelashes, he could make out Nasir and Marion sitting by the flames. Nasir was toying with a stick, as was his usual way, turning over the glowing wood, and making the fire spark and crackle. Marion, the gentle red light making her hair glow and shine, seemed almost ethereal beside him; red and white beside his unyielding black. Will blew out a breath. Robin was a lucky man, and no mistake.
"Will!" She looked up at his approach, her smile warm. "You look... wet."
"Soaked." He sat down, holding his hands out to the fire. "Anything to eat?"
"Not really. Our stores are a little low." Marion managed to sound unperturbed, clearly not realising the dangers inherent in allowing Will Scarlet to remain hungry. "Tuck will probably sort something out when he wakes up. In the meantime, somebody else ought to go looking for more wood. This fire isn't going to last very much longer."
"Wood?" Will gestured to himself. "I'm cold and I'm wet and I'm tired."
"Then you'll appreciate the extra firewood, won't you." She folded her arms. "Go on. If the pair of you go, the job will be done much sooner, and you can be back here when the others are waking up."
"Or I could just wake them up now, and send them to get the firewood." Will folded his arms. "I've been up all night."
"And we all know why that was." Marion had to smile at the memory of the previous night's antics. "You know, when he asked me to come to live with him in Sherwood, Robin and I talked about the dangers and the discomforts; but he never thought to warn me about what it would be like living with you lot."
"Well it's a bit late to change your mind now." Stretching luxuriously, Robin opened his eyes and smiled up at his wife. "I doubt that the Sheriff grants pardons on the grounds of Will being annoying."
"Ha ha." Unimpressed by Robin's humour, Will hunched his shoulders and looked grouchy. "Somebody wake Tuck up. I'm hungry."
"I thought somebody said something about fetching some firewood?" Robin rose to his feet, stretching his graceful form and shaking moss from his long dark hair. Even half asleep and dishevelled, he was still the very image of Sherwood's enchanted king. Will scowled, rising to his feet as though reacting to the authority that it often seemed Loxley could not help but exude.
"Yeah. Firewood. Right." Casting a last, sorry look at the warm flames that he was leaving behind, he gestured to Nasir. "Come on, Naz."
"Keep your eyes open." Robin followed them both to the cave mouth. "The weather is already looking better, and that's sure to mean that people are moving about. There's a lot that the local workers have had to put on hold during all that rain, and they'll be anxious to get back to work."
"We'll be careful." Will drew his sword as though to emphasise this, and set off with the weapon resting on one shoulder. Nasir followed after, typically without a word. Marion smiled.
"Not the most obvious pairing," she commented. Robin sat down beside her, wrapping his arms around her waist.
"But one that I'm hoping to encourage. Will's so... so wild. You've seen his temper, and it worries me a little. So long as we can harness it against the Normans, fine; but it just might get all of us into trouble one day. Nasir though... he never seems to get angry."
"Just because you've never seen him that way, Robin..."
"No. No it's not that. He has such self-control, such composure. We're all designed to fit together, you know. It's all part of Herne's plan. The seven of us, just as he directed us to be. We could never be the same without each other."
"Herne." She leant against her husband, her forehead furrowed in a gentle frown of concern. "I've been meaning to talk to you about him. He's told you something, hasn't he. Another prophecy? It's been weighing on your mind for the last few days, and you've hardly seemed to be here with us at all."
"Sorry." He stroked her hair absently, admiring, as had Will, the red glow given to it by the shrinking fire. "He did say something, yes. Something about an old friend, and an enemy, and... well, you know how he is. I'm not sure of the rest of it."
"It was cryptic, I suppose." She smiled. "Sometimes I worry how we're supposed to do the things he wants, when we can't understand what those things are. What was the prophecy this time?"
"He said..." Robin thought back to the quiet place where he so often met with Herne, the better to get the memory straight in his head. "He said that from the past will come a friend, and from an enemy will come a request... and that we shouldn't trust both of them."
"But why would be trust an enemy anyway?"
"I don't know. Because we don't know that that's what he is? Anyway, perhaps it's the enemy that we're supposed to trust, and the old friend that we shouldn't?"
"But seeing an old friend again should be wonderful, surely? Oh Robin, life is complicated since we answered Herne's call!" She smiled up at him. "But that's not all that's bothering you, is it. This prophecy is something to worry about, and we should keep our wits about us of course, but there's something else. Something that Herne showed you?"
"Yes." He stroked her hair again, watching the redness of the light that touched his fingertips. "A glimpse of the future perhaps, or a possible one. Something that might happen if we trust the wrong person."
"The enemy instead of the friend, or the friend instead of the enemy. Perhaps we're not supposed to trust either?"
"So what was it that you saw?
"Us. Our camp, at night-time. Not the cave, but somewhere outside. It was a warm night I think."
"That's not enough to make you so distant, Robin. Besides, it's been such a long time since we had a warm night out under the stars that this prophecy might take forever to come true."
He smiled. "Oh we're heading for a change in the weather, believe me. But you're right of course. The camp itself isn't the only thing that he showed me." His mind drifted back to the visions he had been shown, amid gently flowing ripples of water. A figure creeping through the darkened camp, stabbing down at a sleeping man; the man being turned over, unquestionably dead, his frozen face that of Robin himself. He didn't need to tell such things to Marion. She would only worry for him, and such burdens were for his shoulders alone. "He showed me that it might be a serious threat to us. That we might be defeated or split up."
"That'll never happen, Robin." She hugged him more tightly, anxious to lessen his concerns. "We belong together, all of us."
"I know." He thought again of his future self, lying in the camp, stabbed to death by an unknown, stealthy figure. An enemy? An old friend? Either way it could spell death for more than just Herne's Son - his followers and their cause might easily be at risk as well. "One day I'm going to demand a proper prophecy from Herne. Something that I can understand straight away, instead of having to wait until it all comes true a few days later."
"I don't think he can speak that way." Marion remembered some of the deeply cryptic phrases that she had heard from the forest spirit in the past. She giggled slightly. "It must be hard to be an ancient magical creature. Do you suppose he even understands himself?"
"I suppose he must, since he's the one who thinks up what he's going to say." Robin laughed as well, feeling oddly naughty and childish to be making jokes about his magical father. "We should wake the others, you know, instead of sitting here letting the fire go out."
"We've got no choice about the fire, until Will and Nasir bring back more wood. As for the others, well..." She smiled contentedly. "If they wake up, fine, but why not enjoy the quiet until then? It's hard to be alone sometimes, when we have so much to do."
"I know." He kissed her forehead. "But we should still wake the others. You did sort of promise Will that Tuck would have some food ready for him when he gets back with the firewood."
"True." She sighed. "And I suppose he'll be back soon."
"Any moment, I should think. They won't have had to go far. With the forest being so thick around here, they should be able to find a good supply of dry wood, or dry enough." He sighed. "Wake Tuck. I'll fetch us some water from the stream."
"Alright." She didn't move for a moment though, and neither did he, merely enjoying the last of their early morning tryst. Finally Robin stood up.
"Wake Tuck," he said again, well aware that both of them needed some extra encouragement. It was hard, sometimes, to do what needed to be done, when inaction was so much more inviting. "I'll be back in a moment." And grabbing up one of their empty water-skins, he headed off. Marion stared after him, cold on one side now where had been pressed up against her; then with a little smile that spoke of fondness and warmth, she went to wake up Tuck. There ought to be something ready to be eaten, she supposed, when Will came back with his wood.
Will and Nasir, as Robin had predicted, did not find it hard to collect the wood, and had soon gathered a great deal of it. Will built a small shelter amongst a group of thick bushes, to protect the store from wandering eyes and further rain, so that it would an easy task to later replenish their stocks, then he and his friend loaded themselves up with as much as they could comfortably carry. It was one of the more annoyingly mundane tasks in life, thought Will, and one that he should by rights be exempt from, now that he was a heroic defender of the rights of the oppressed. Couldn't Herne just supply them all with firewood? He tried sharing his irritation at such boring jobs with Nasir, but the Saracen seemed happy enough collecting sticks. He allowed Scarlet a rare smile as he muttered about his dissatisfaction, though, and obliged by carrying most of the wood.
"I'm hungry," Will announced, for possibly the hundredth time that morning. As usual the comment was greeted with a faint tilt of Nasir's dark head. Will sighed. "Rabbit stew," he mused wishfully. "Thick, and made with some of Tuck's herbs mixed in. And bread. Lots of bread." He scowled. "We'll be lucky if there's just the bread. And that'll be stale. There's vegetables of course, but I'm not sure that's proper food, really."
"Will..." Nasir's soft voice was easy enough to ignore, and Will did just that, muttering disconsolately on.
"I'd settle for hot porridge, but some sort of stew would be better. Or broth. Broth is good. With mutton, maybe, like in winter time. What did you eat back home, Naz? Apart from all those blasted lethal spices, I mean. You get sheep there too?"
"Will." There was a little more insistence in the quiet voice this time, but still Scarlet seemed oblivious.
"You get some kind of weird animals out there, like the ones that there are pictures of in tapestries and stuff? And where is it that you come from, anyway?"
"Will, quiet." Nasir lowered his pile of sticks, and edged forward, one hand on the hilt of a sword. Will frowned.
"I didn't hear anything."
"Because you talk." Nasir's free hand shot out, bursting thorough a line of bushes to reappear a second later gripping the shoulder of a pale-faced youth. He was about Much's age, certainly no older, with shoulder length hair that was thick and unkempt, and murky grey-green eyes roughly the colour of the many puddles that studded the ground.
"I wasn't spying on you, honest!" He looked terrified, which was understandable. Sherwood Forest was full of the kind of people that nobody would want to be caught by - people who had many reasons for wanting to avoid spies. "I was just out checking my traps, that's all." He blinked suddenly, staring at Nasir, and fell silent. Will couldn't help grinning.
"Don't mind him," he said, pushing Nasir's hand from the boy's shoulder. "He has that effect on people. Proper lethal looking monster, isn't he?"
"He's..." The boy frowned, looking very unsure of himself. "He's like them back at the castle, isn't he. Not English, and not Norman neither. One of them that's from the Crusades, with Sally... the one that the knights all went to fight against with King Richard."
"Back at the castle?" Will glanced up, eyes meeting Nasir's. "What do you mean? There are no Saracens at Nottingham Castle."
"Saracens, that's it!" The boy nodded, and his tousled hair flopped about. "There's about five of them. Arrived last night they did. Slaves I think. I hear talking sometimes, though I don't suppose anybody knows that I do. Anyway, this man came yesterday with these Saracens, and he's a merchant, so I suppose he's going to sell them." He scratched his head thoroughly, and ignored the wet leaves that fell out of his hair. "I don't think I'm supposed to tell people what goes on in the castle."
"Well don't worry about it. We're not going to tell the Sheriff." Will tapped his feet on the soggy ground, thinking hard. "How would you like some breakfast? Nothing special, but enough to be going on with."
"Breakfast?" The boy brightened immediately, as boys his age invariably did when food was mentioned. "Where?"
"Never mind where. You'll have to a wear a blindfold, and you'll have to keep quiet about whatever you see or hear." Will's eyes, which could be the wildest and most vicious eyes ever to gaze upon anybody, fixed the boy with a terrible stare. "Understand?"
"Yes. Yes of course." The boy looked uncertainly into the fearsome face, and paled rather, but his enthusiasm for the idea of food was undiminished. "Is it far?"
"Not that far, no. You want to lead the way, Nasir?" There was no answer, but so used to this was Will that he didn't give it a thought at first. Only when the dark-clad shape failed to move into position did he wonder, and stop to look back towards his friend. But there was nobody there. As silently and as unobtrusively as ever, Nasir had gone.
"What do you mean, gone?" Robin looked from Scarlet to the boy and back, eyes wide with the full glow of his authority. The boy looked at the ground and shuffled his feet rather awkwardly, and Tuck quickly led him away in search of food. There was no sense in scaring the boy, after all - or scaring him any more than he was already, at any rate. When Will had pulled the blindfold from his eyes, to reveal a collection of ragged outlaws - all no doubt looking particularly desperate and bloodthirsty to a nervous and imaginative boy - they had all thought that the scrawny youth would bolt. That or faint. Now, with Robin obviously furious, he was once again looking like he might try either option.
"I mean gone, like I said! Robin, I barely took my eyes off him, honest, but I was talking to the boy, and thinking that I should get him back here so we could all talk this over, and I didn't want to panic him and have to bash him over the head or something, did I?" He saw the boy jump, and cast Tuck an apologetic shrug. "And then Nasir just wasn't there anymore. Look, it's pretty obvious where he must have gone, isn't it, and I could have gone after him. Would have had myself some fun then. Instead I came back here to tell you, and what thanks do I get?"
"We're very glad that you came back to talk to us instead of going to Nottingham Castle, Will." Marion took Robin's arm, trying to impress upon him a little of her steady calm. "Aren't we, Robin?"
"Yes. Yes, I suppose so." He turned away. "All this time he's the most level-headed one of the lot of us - when there aren't any Templars around - and he chooses now to turn into another Scarlet. It's obviously a trap."
"It is?" Not seeing the obviousness of it at all, Will looked confused. "How?"
"I... well I don't know exactly." Robin ran a hand through his hair, head suddenly hot under the tumble of worries and thoughts. "It just feels like a trap, that's all. Somebody just happens to be in Sherwood, who just happens to have seen these Saracens at the castle... And what are they doing there anyway? Everybody knows that the Sheriff never gives shelter to anyone who isn't a personal friend; and the Sheriff would never be friends with a slave dealer. Far too distasteful. Anyway, he believes in labour that you never have to pay for. Labour that has to pay you for the privilege of staying alive." He sighed. "No, it just doesn't seem right."
"I hope you're wrong, Robin." Marion stared about at the close knit trees of Sherwood. "How far could Nasir have gone?"
"Nasir?" Coming over to stand beside them, John exchanged a worried look with Robin. "A long way. I doubt we could catch him before he reaches the castle. Not without a miracle."
"Miracles don't happen to the likes of us, John. Not even with Herne to guide us." Robin turned sharply about, heading back to where their guest was seated, nervously watching the approach. "You. What's your name?"
"Ned," the boy told him, voice much quieter than it had so far been. "I didn't know, honest. I didn't know about any of it!"
"Any of what?" Despite his youth and slender build, Robin was more than capable of making himself into a figure to be reckoned with, and his stance now, coupled with the burning look in his eyes, made the boy start to quiver.
"The trap. I mean, I didn't - well I didn't want to say anything. The captain of the guard told me to tell everybody I saw in the forest about the Saracens in the castle. He said that way the message would get to the right people in the end. But I didn't know who the right people were, and I didn't want to do it. You don't know what it's like working in the castle!"
"I can imagine." Robin sighed. "We're going to have to do something."
"But Robin, if it's a trap we'll all be heading into it." Tuck stood up, trying to quell the rising storm. "Nasir's bright enough, and I'd count on him not to dash straight into trouble. Besides, they wouldn't spring the trap for just the one of us. If the rest of us go hurrying off to rescue him, though, well then we'll all be in a fine state, won't we?"
"Perhaps." Robin looked all set to hurry off anyway, but in a moment the tension broke. He turned away, beginning an irregular, annoyed pacing. "We can't stay here though. We can't do nothing."
"We could split up," offered John. "At least that way if we do get caught in the Sheriff's trap, there'll be somebody left to get us out again. Hardly something we've never done before, is it - sneaking into Nottingham Castle to get a few of us back out again."
"True." Robin smiled wryly. "Alright. A small party. You and me?"
"It always has to be you, doesn't it Robin." Marion's voice was halfway between a fond exasperation and a genuine concern. "You always want to be the one to put yourself in danger."
"I won't send somebody else to do something that I'm not prepared to do myself." Robin pointed at Ned, still quailing at everything around him. "Watch him. He's not to leave, but don't hurt him unless you have to. I don't think he really wanted to cause any trouble."
"I'll watch him Robin!" Much had a grim look on his face, which made the outlaw leader smile. He ruffled his young brother's hair, and nodded.
"Alright, he's your responsibility. Be careful. Come on John."
"Don't I get to go?" Scarlet looked considerably less than impressed. "I want to go to Nottingham and break a few heads."
"Which is precisely why you're not coming." Robin loosened Albion in its scabbard, avoiding Will's angry gaze. "We've got to be quiet, Will. In and out in a flash, with as few people seeing us as possible. That doesn't mean racing on in there, trying to kill as many Normans as we can. I'm sorry."
"Yeah." Will turned away, looking disgusted. "I knew I shouldn't have bothered coming back here to tell you what had happened."
"Will..." The never-ending battle to assert his authority over the unruly Scarlet was just another one of the many trials of being Herne's Son, and Robin dealt with it as such. Something to be patiently confronted and overcome, one day at least. Scarlet glowered.
"Yeah, I know. Stay here and do nothing. Watch the camp, whatever. Just don't go having too much fun without me."
"Would we do that?" Clapping Scarlet on the shoulder with rather more force that was appreciated, John grinned hugely, before lowering his voice with abrupt gravity. "Keep your eyes open. Stay alert."
"Yeah." Will's eyes travelled briefly to Ned, sitting over by the fire, and wilting slightly under the force of Much's steady scrutiny. "Don't worry. I'll keep an eye on things."
"Good." Eyes suddenly hard, Robin turned away. He waited only to smile faintly at Marion, and even then it was distantly, his mind already at Nottingham Castle. Then he was gone, and John hurried after.
"They'll be alright, little flower." Appearing at her shoulder, Tuck reached out a gentle hand in comfort. She smiled at him, as faintly and as distantly as Robin had smiled at her.
"This time. Maybe." She looked away towards Ned, then back to the path that Robin had taken, her eyes troubled and sad. There was a proud lift to her head though; a look that befitted the wife of Herne's Son. The look of a deputy ready to take charge. "We should leave here. Make another camp somewhere else in the forest. If Robin is right, and the Sheriff has been making plans against us, we need to be extra specially careful. Even a de Rainault can't go wrong all the time."
"I suppose you're right." Tuck's expression suggested that there were new dangers in the trees, and spies hiding behind every bush. "I hope Robin isn't heading into more danger than he realises."
"So do I." Marion thought of her husband's earlier unease, and his worries over yet another prophecy that he couldn't understand. They were safe this time, though, surely - for how could an old friend surface during an escapade in Nottingham Castle? She shook herself from her wonderings, and returned her mind to the present. "But we have to be ready for whatever might happen, so let's get the fire out, and then move out of here. Robin is counting on all of us to be safe, so that we can rescue him if anything does go wrong." She gave Tuck's hand a squeeze. "Heaven forbid."
"I'm sure somebody is watching over Robin." Tuck considered some of the things that had happened to the little band since they had first come together, and had to smile, if a little grimly. "Over all of us."
"Yes, I know." She turned away, ready to help with the task of dismantling the meagre camp. "But sometimes that isn't nearly the comfort it should be."
"Is Robin in danger?" Breaking off his constant vigil over Ned in order to ask the question, Much gazed up at Marion through rounded eyes. She smiled at him, as gentle and as reassuring towards him as always, despite her own concerns.
"Robin is fine, Much. There's nothing to worry about." The boy smiled happily and turned away, and Marion avoided Tuck's concerned and kindly gaze. Nobody could really understand how hard it was to be the wife of the Hooded Man; the wife of so fearless a hero. Even amongst these closest of friends, it seemed that she was destined to be forever alone with her fears.
Nasir had no immediate plan, but instinct had guided him often enough in the past for that to be no cause for his concern. Such worries did not generally enter his mind anyway - what would be would be, and that belief was one that kept most concerns to a minimum. With his usual speed he easily covered the distance to Nottingham, as perfectly at home in the once alien terrain of Sherwood as he had always been in the deserts of his homeland. Adaptability was nothing if not a useful survival tactic.
Nottingham was just as it always was; noisy, dirty, and full of people. An angry tinker struggled to drag his cart down a narrow street teeming with gossiping market traders, and two women armed with a vat of dye did their best to get in everybody's way. It was a scene of typical confusion, and it served Nasir's purpose perfectly. If anybody wondered who the grey robed figure was, who walked so purposefully, so quietly through their midst, none bothered to ask the man himself. Nasir was glad of that, for he knew that his accent was always sure to give him away. Many local residents were friends of Robin Hood and his men, and would no more give away Nasir than they would their own families; but others were not to be trusted. So the Saracen went carefully, unobtrusively, dark head hidden beneath the thick material of his borrowed robe.
The castle, needless to say, was a different matter to the town, and rather harder to get into. Despite their dubious record, the guards prided themselves on their ability to watch over the place and discourage intruders, and certainly they kept close scrutiny over the main gates and other doors. Nasir's quick eye spotted many sentries hidden away from prying eyes, as well as those planted in full view, and his calculating mind ran over the possibilities. He could walk in openly, trusting in his disguise, hoping that he would not be asked any questions, or he could risk a more surreptitious entry. All of Robin Hood's outlaw band had experience enough of Nottingham Castle's few weaknesses to be able to break in when required, but usually they waited until dusk. Early morning was a different question, when light filled every corridor, and all but the darkest shadows refused to give any cover. Nasir kept close to the walls, looking for one of the less obvious entry points, surprised by unexpected gaps in the usually tight security. So it was a trap - the boy had been sent to spread a message of captive Saracens. Hidden by the hood his dark eyes burned with fury, at himself as much as at the Normans who had come up with such a ruse. It was not nice to think that the outlaw band had such weaknesses to be exploited, and he fumed at their apparent predictability. Somebody, clearly, knew that his involvement with Robin Hood made this a suitable way by which to capture the whole band. He wondered if there were really any Saracens trapped within the castle, or if it had been just a lie. It didn't really make any difference. Trap or not, he couldn't risk leaving them here, where anything might happen to them. He knew only too well what it could be like for a Saracen in the hands of a Christian. Briefly he considered returning to Sherwood, and seeking the counsel of Robin and perhaps Little John - but that would make it impossible for him to return to Nottingham alone. If this was indeed the trap that he increasingly believed it to be, he had no desire to put anybody else at risk. The Sheriff might think this to be the way to lure in the whole gang, but Nasir was not going to be the cause of that.
His sharp eyes spotted many concealed guards by the castle's various, more sneaky entrances, but the soldiers didn't know their home nearly as well as they thought they did, and it wasn't hard to find a window that was not guarded at all. Most of the windows, of course, were designed merely for archers, and were not big enough to climb through, but there were a few that had been made bigger. Some were designed to let in more light or more air, or to allow a better view of the castle grounds; and it was to one of these that Nasir made his way, climbing a low wall and scaling the leaning roof jutting out below one of the guest rooms. There were big windows here - large squares covered with hangings of almost transparent cloth, looking in on rooms that tried to be rather more grand than they were. It was in one such room that the Baron de Belleme had stayed the night, shortly before his fatal encounter with Robin of Loxley, and so Nasir knew what to expect. The huge wooden chest at the foot of a spacious bed hung with faded curtains; the cramped space given the illusion of more room by a careful arranging of the minimal furniture; the plain metal candlesticks that might have been golden or silver in a richer, or less thrifty, household. Nasir pulled off his borrowed robe and threw it onto the bed, then went noiselessly to the door. It opened easily into a deserted corridor - nobody expected intruders to break in through the guest quarters, especially when they weren't even on the ground floor. He saw nobody at all as he made his way down the winding back staircase, and only had to hide once on his way to the dungeons. He could almost have believed that he had been wrong to think this a trap - until he saw the extra guards on duty by the dungeon door. There were five of them, where usually their would have been only two, their swords already drawn and their helmets making them coldly anonymous. Nasir slowed to a halt, considering his options. He had two knives and two swords, and with that little arsenal it should be an easy task for him to kill five men before the alarm could be raised. All the same, he hesitated. Something, an inner instinct perhaps, was warning him not to make a move. He didn't know why, until his ever active mind forced him to think harder. If this was a trap, he was expected, and the dungeons were the most likely place for the guards to be lying in wait. If there were Saracens here, surely it was therefore more likely that they were being kept somewhere else? He smiled grimly at the five faceless guards. They would never know how lucky they were - for clearly today was not their day to die. Nasir melted back into the shadows.
He had to think hard now, with his obvious target ruled out. Where was the most likely place to keep a captive if not a dungeon? A storeroom perhaps? A stable? He had been locked up in both before, whilst in the travelling household of the Baron de Belleme. The stables of Nottingham Castle were badly designed to serve as a prison, though, and the many storerooms were for the most part too small. That left an assortment of other rooms; guest bedrooms, the chapel, the servant's quarters - any of which might do just as well. Nasir barely considered any of them, for his mind had already settled on another place. A place where the Sheriff could keep a personal eye on things, and play his favoured rôle of the lord of the manor at the same time. The dining hall. It had space for prisoners and guards besides; there was only one real door to speak of; it was in a part of the castle where the corridors were always full of soldiers; and it boasted a huge wooden chair on a sizeable dais, both part of Robert de Rainault's assumed image of lordliness. He liked to look important, and everybody who had ever seen him at home in the castle knew that that large, throne-like chair was a favourite of his. It all added up to the most likely location; and the hardest to reach, let alone rescue somebody from. Once again Nasir briefly considered going back to Sherwood for help, and once again he discarded the idea. He had taken harder positions; fought more men than he was about to face; and if Allah willed it, he would succeed now. Keeping to the meagre shadows, as silent and as cat-like as any man could be, he made his way towards his goal. It was impossible to go unchallenged now, in this most populated part of the castle, and three times one of his little knives flew from his hand; three times he retrieved it from a dead guard, cleaned it deftly, swiftly, and returned it to its proper place. There was no room for mercy, not that Nasir was ever all that inspired to offer it.
He reached the dining hall by the mixture of luck and judgement that always guided his step - and, for that matter, those of Robin and all of his men. There was no chance for a disguise - the sort of quickly assumed cloak and helmet that had stood him in good stead once or twice before, at dusk or in the dead of night, would be of no use in a bright corridor, or the sun-filled dining hall. His grey robe he had already abandoned, for no guard would allow anybody to enter when their face was hidden. That left very few options. He wondered if he could somehow slip in, and work his way around the room secretly eliminating guards; but had to abandon that plan almost immediately. There was such a circle of guards about the perimeter that his victims were sure to be seen. A frontal assault then? Running in and throwing caution to the wind? For the first time he wondered if he was doing the right thing; faith and fate night hold sway, but foolhardiness was something altogether different. Working into the best position from which to see through the door, however, he got his first true glimpse of the people he had come here to save. Real people, not just lies sent as tricks. They were sitting together in a small group, not bound or chained but helpless none the less; the last remnants, no doubt, of a much more impressive haul. Five men dressed in the familiar robes that were so often the clothes of choice in his desert homeland, ragged now, faded, as grey as the faces of the men wearing them. Familiar faces, he realised now, though it had taken some time to register. These were faces that belonged in ancient memories long buried in the back of his mind; faces that made his heart suddenly race, and his instincts struggle over whether to be glad or uneasy. They didn't look like the men that he remembered; not now, after long weeks of travel and probable abuse. To look at the state of them it was a wonder that they had been left alive for so long, rather than just being declared a bad investment and killed. Part of his mind wondered if he might come to wish that they had been.
Creeping forward, no more than a simple shadow against the wall, he slit the throat of the first guard that he came to. The man fell backwards into his arms, and Nasir, ever practical, dragged him carefully and soundlessly out of sight. Another guard patrolled past, wandering about on his rounds with the usual slightly lax attitude of all Nottingham soldiers - when Guy of Gisburne wasn't shouting at them to wake up. Nasir's knife slid into the man's ribs with consummate skill, and another body landed silently on top of the first. Nasir thought again about the possibility of borrowing one of the uniforms, but again he decided against it. Perhaps, if he had waited until nightfall - but he had no idea where the prisoners would be by then, and that risk was not his to take. Edging out of his gory hiding place, he peered cautiously through the main door. The situation had not changed inside - nobody had heard his killings, or noticed that there were now two fewer guards than there should have been. Slowly he cleaned his knife on a piece of tapestry hanging beside him, only afterwards noticing that it depicted scenes of battle against his own people. The shining knight leading the charging Christian warriors was easy to identify, for there were many pictures that showed Richard the Lionheart that way. The great leader, the brilliant, pure soldier of God. Nasir's lips curled in a cruel imitation of his rare smile. He had met Richard the Lionheart, and knew what kind of a man he really was. Which version of the truth would history remember?
But right now he couldn't think too hard on such issues. Stowing away his now clean knife, he took his bow from his belt and fitted at arrow to the eager string. There were so many potential targets. He could probably kill the Sheriff, or Gisburne - a quick shot, with nobody looking - and confusion enough then for a hundred getaways. He didn't make the shot though, even when he had the bow aimed beautifully, right at de Rainault's perpetually sneering face. Kill the Sheriff and there would be retribution - horrible retribution, for all the people of the region. Instead he turned his bow around, fixed his steady eye upon the guard nearest to the Saracen prisoners, and let loose the arrow. A flash of wood, a blur of fast flying feathers, and the man fell. Somebody let out a cry.
At once it seemed that every man in the dining hall had turned to face the door. Nasir didn't let it bother him. Swinging into full view for the first time he let fly another arrow, and another, each one finding its target unerringly. A soldier, more brave perhaps than the others, ran at him from his right, but in a move that seemed almost casual, Nasir caught up a heavy candlestick and hurled it. It was a makeshift weapon, and would have been no more than a mild distraction, had his aim not been quite so good. The soldier collapsed, felled by a powerful blow to the head.
"Well don't just stand there!" Despite the fact that this was precisely what he himself was doing, Gisburne was furious that his men seemed determined to do likewise. "Get him!" There was a hesitation, a general moment of restlessness and confusion, and a lot of obvious hoping that somebody else would make the first move. Nasir's bow raised again, and another guard fell. The Saracens, one by one, began to rise to their feet.
"My prisoners!" The merchant, a snivelling little man with a moustache of almost ridiculous size, seemed apoplectic, and the sound of his voice spun Nasir around. A guard rushed forward, but the bow pointed at his chest froze him in his tracks instantaneously. Keeping him at bow point, a hostage against any other assault, the Saracen moved forward, further into the room.
"My prisoners!" The merchants was still screeching, but Nasir ignored him now. He had guessed who the man was, but he had no care for him. If he had been a bigger man perhaps; a stronger or a braver man; then he might have been worth challenging to a fight. A contest to prove exactly what Nasir thought of men who kept others as goods to be sold. As it was this pointless wretch wasn't even worth looking at, and instead Nasir edged his way, slowly but surely, towards his fellow countrymen. Another guard made a move towards him, but he shot him down with due speed, another arrow in place at his bowstring before his prisoner had a chance to react. A hush fell over the room.
"I thought you said this was a trap." His voice rising above the silence even though he had obviously intended to speak in a whisper, the slave merchant's outburst made everybody turn to look at him. He froze, pale face now noticeably paler. The Sheriff rolled his eyes, then languorously, casually, rose to his feet. Nasir watched him, although he kept one eye on his prisoner.
"My... welcome... guest is right." His forever sneering voice was filled with oily self-satisfaction. "There's no way that you can leave this place. Drop your weapons, and stand very still." There was no answer, and Nasir moved steadily onwards. The prisoners were moving towards him now, surprised and confused.
"You're letting him get away!" The merchant was babbling like a madman now, voice rising in pitch until it was almost a squeak. "You said it was a trap! You said you wouldn't let them get away!"
"It's only one man, damn it!" Roaring the words out in a sudden fury, the Sheriff hurled the goblet he had been drinking from onto the floor. It hit with a loud ring of metal against stone, and splashed red wine all over the merchant's feet. He stared down at it, furious and too scared to complain. "You want me to spring my trap for one man, and miss catching any of the others who might be nearby?"
"He's not going to get out of here." Gisburne had snatched up a bow from somewhere, and was fitting an arrow to it with cool precision. "Not alive, anyway. One man, in here with fifteen soldiers? He'll never make it back to the door."
"Don't be so sure." Rather enjoying the show, particularly since he had already predicted something like it, Abbot Hugo leaned back in his chair to watch the proceedings, his face lightened considerably by a surprisingly humorous smile. "Looks like he's doing alright so far."
"Shut up." Pushing the merchant roughly aside, the Sheriff stalked a little way down the length of the dining table. "If you don't lay aside that bow now, I'll have my guards kill each and every one of these slaves. You may be fast, but you're not fast enough to prevent that. All I need do is give the command and you'll all be dead before you can fire one arrow." Nasir's eyes flicked over to him, hard and cold as ice, If the threat had bothered him, it didn't show. Gisburne moved to stand next to the Sheriff, readied arrow levelled straight at the lone outlaw.
"You don't have a chance," he announced, the familiar smugness in his voice enough to drive most men to violence. Nasir pushed his hostage away, and levelled his own bow at Gisburne in return.
"That certainly worked well." Hugo stretched his legs, still enjoying the spectacle. "He might not be getting out of here alive, but it looks like you won't be either."
"Nonsense." Gisburne's characteristic snarl burst out before he could stop it, and he wilted slightly at the realisation of who exactly he had just tried to belittle. "He's trapped. He can't get out."
"Which, I seem to recall, was the general consensus when you tried to lure Robin Hood into a trap using that absurd trinket at the archery contest." Hugo poured himself another sizeable measure of wine. "He's not scared of you, you know Gisburne. You or your archery skills. I told you this wouldn't work."
"It'll work." Whatever kind of a man the Sheriff of Nottingham was, he wasn't a coward, and he sauntered closer to Nasir as he spoke. "Did you come alone? Loxley not care as much about the rest of your kind as he claims to care about you? Or are the rest of your little band waiting outside? Well?" The only answer that he received were a few words of Arabic, obviously directed at the ragged bunch of prisoners standing nearby. Very slowly they began to inch towards the door.
"Oh, and I suppose you think that we're going to let you do this? Just walk out like this?" De Rainault snapped his fingers at his guards who, after a moment's embarrassing consideration of the situation, finally drew their swords. A number of them moved towards the door, taking up positions to form an effective barrier. "Now what are you going to do? Shoot us all?"
"No." It was the first time that Nasir had deigned to reply, and as always his soft voice carried real dignity, as well as enough force to make even the hugely confident Sheriff flinch slightly. In all this time his aim had not wavered, and he still had Gisburne squarely in his sights. De Rainault laughed.
"You think I care about whether you shoot him? He's just a steward, and stewards are ten a penny, especially when you hold a rank like mine." His eyes narrowed, unpleasant and shrewd. "You have my congratulations for getting in here. Heads will roll, and only one of them will be yours. But you must have known that you would never get out alive." He moved slightly to one side, effectively blocking Nasir's aim, then reached out and slowly lowered the tip of the Saracen's arrow. "You must have known that you couldn't win?" For a moment there was no answer, and de Rainault's blood boiled. If there was one thing worse than being accosted in his own dining hall, it was being insulted. Then Nasir's bright, dark eyes burned into his own, and he saw the calmness there; the readiness to accept whatever fate might await him.
"Inshallah." It was a single word, the Sheriff thought; although since it was one that he had never before heard, he couldn't be too sure. Whatever it meant it had been spoken with an air of easy readiness that the Sheriff found strangely disturbing. People were supposed to be scared of him. He liked it when they quaked and quailed, and begged for forgiveness. At least then he could act in a lordly manner, and remind them all just how much power he had over everybody. He could do nothing, though, to make Nasir look even the slightest bit subdued. Gisburne was getting restless, and clearly wanted to give the order to shoot down the lot of them.
"My lord." He was coming closer, bow still raised, eyes darting madly about between the dark-clad outlaw, and the five dishevelled prisoners standing in a row before the soldiers now blocking the door. "You're not thinking of keeping them prisoner? Better just to get rid of them, surely?"
"Only if you're prepared to pay me what they're worth." The merchant, finally regaining a little of his courage, was standing up on the dais, fidgeting and rubbing his hands together. "You said that you only wanted to borrow them for a while, not kill them all outright."
"I'd be happy to pay you what they're worth if it'll shut you up." Gisburne's disgust at the wretched little man was very clear. "I've never seen such a sorry bunch. Together they're not worth the cost of the food it takes to keep them alive."
"Maybe. Maybe." The merchant took a step forward, then hesitated and retreated again. "But this other one... You said that you'd pay me for my services, Sheriff, but money is of less use to me than goods. Give me this man, and you can do what you want with the others."
"This man? He's due for the block at the earliest opportunity." The Sheriff's lip curled in a mocking snarl. "Although when we've finished displaying his head on the castle walls you can feel free to do what you want with it, certainly."
"That's not very sporting of you Sheriff." The voice rang out, clear and loud, from behind the guards by the door. "And besides, I rather think Nasir might prefer to keep his head where it is."
"Loxley!" Fire burning in Gisburne's eyes, the young steward spun about to face the door. Sure enough there stood Robin Hood, Little John beside him, both with their weapons raised. The soldiers were edging away from them, unwilling to challenge them unless the Sheriff made it a life or death issue. "How?"
"Well it wasn't difficult, Sir Guy. With the noise you've been making in here just lately, most of your guards seemed to be heading this way. Nobody was really watching the rest of the building at all." Loxley smiled, putting an insulting casualness into his stride as he moved past the guards by the door. "Most of them are locked up in rooms along the route, in case you were wondering."
"You'll never get back out of the castle." Suddenly realising that he was facing the very real prospect of watching his plans crumble yet again, the Sheriff began to lose his temper in earnest. Robin smiled.
"I suppose you've been clinging to that hope all along. Really Sheriff - you should know us better than that by now." He nodded to Nasir. "Get your people moving."
"Moving where? There's no way to escape, Loxley." Gisburne spat the name out as though he hated to have it near his tongue. "This is a castle, and one of the finest in England. You're a handful of men against an army."
"But we're a handful of men against your army, Sir Guy." John couldn't resist the insult. "That gives us the advantage, I'd say." He moved aside, his bow keeping several soldiers at bay whilst the gaggle of ragged prisoners moved out into the corridor. They had all taken swords from dead guards, and the remaining soldiers looked terrified at the idea of armed Saracens in their midst. "You've really got to stop trying all these little plots and plans of yours. It's not getting you anywhere."
"On the contrary." Rather drunk by now, Hugo poured himself another goblet of wine. "It gets him increasingly angry, and makes his eyes pop out."
"My lord!" Exasperated, and not a little hurt, Gisburne shot the Abbot a look that carried rather more anger than it might have done had his employer's brother not been so decidedly wobbly. Robin laughed.
"If you really don't want us to leave, Guy, you can always try to stop us. Just remember that we're all much quicker than your sorry excuses for fighters, and you - and most of them - will be dead long before we are." He cast an expansive look around at the various guards. "Swords and bows on the floor I think, please." There was not much hesitation, and Gisburne bristled noticeably. "Thankyou. Now much as we'd like to stay and insult your steward, Sheriff, I think it's time we were leaving."
"You'll die for this, Loxley." Gone was the air of irritation in the Sheriff's voice, and in its place was a tone of real anger; real danger. Robin nodded.
"I've no doubt you'll try to see that that happens. Until then - good day, Sheriff. Abbot Hugo." He smiled, as insolently as he possibly could. "And Sir Guy."
"Damned peasant." Gisburne moved forward, but John sent an arrow flying into the ground at his feet, and he froze in his tracks. "Damn all of you! You'll all die! Every one of you!"
"Oh do shut up, Gisburne." The Sheriff folded his arms, watching the little band as they departed. The soldiers watched them go, shuffling their feet in obvious embarrassment. "Well get after them then."
"I... Yes, my lord." Breaking into a run, Gisburne dashed for the door, but so slow were the soldiers in retrieving their weapons, hampering each other all the way, that it was far too late by the time that they had got moving. Gisburne reached a wide open side door just in time to see a cart moving swiftly away. He fired a few arrows after it, but the jolting of the wagon, coupled with his own rage, made his aim go wild. He scowled, and took out his rage on the foremost guards as they raced to his assistance. Damn them for their lack of speed, for their clumsiness, for their failure to follow his lead as faithfully as he felt that they should. He hated them all.
"Should we follow, Sir Guy?" A very nervous young guard, so new to the job that his uniform was still more or less clean, spoke up in a worried voice. Gisburne shot him a scathing look.
"If you want to try getting to the stables and getting underway in time to make a difference, be my guest - but I've no doubt that they're ahead of us there as well. They've probably emptied the stables."
"Then the horses..."
"Will all be rounded up, eventually. In time enough to see the stable guards flogged for letting all of this happen." Gisburne thought about punching the nearest wall in his frustration, but decided that he wasn't angry enough for that. Yet. "Just get back inside, the lot of you. And keep out of my way for the rest of the week, if you know what's good for you. Keep out of everybody's way."
"But my lord, it might still be possible to catch them..." The young guard backed away slightly, but his voice sounded a little less quavering that it had at first. "I just think that--"
"Don't think. It's not what you're paid to do." This time Gisburne did hit the wall, though not as hard as he might have done a minute before. "Just shut up and go away. We won't catch up with them now."
"Forget about it, alright?" Gisburne's heel skidded on the ground as he spun about to march away. "We'll get them, eventually. Just not now."
"You have plans, Sir Guy? Another trap to spring?" Apparently gaining in confidence all the time, the young soldier sounded interested; maybe even a little enthusiastic. Guy wondered how long that would last.
"Maybe." He cast another look back at the route taken by the now vanished cart. "You'll just have to wait and see."
It was a long and jolting ride back to Nottingham Castle, and nobody spoke throughout the trip. John concerned himself with driving the cart, and the recently liberated band of Saracens sat close together, looking at nothing and nobody. Nasir seemed to be ignoring them, after having risked so much to set them free, and sat at the back of the cart watching out for signs of pursuit. It was clear almost from the beginning that there would be none, but watched anyway, staring back at the dusty road, brow furrowed in deepest concentration. Or deepest thought, mused Robin, wondering what was going through that most secret of minds. If there was something bothering Nasir, there was very little chance of finding out what that was. Words were going to have to said though - that much was obvious.
The camp by the caves was deserted, but Much had left signs for them to follow. He used a language that Robin had taught him; that Robin's father had been taught by his own father and brothers; a simple arrangement of twigs and stones that said which way the band had gone. Abandoning the small cart there, and setting the horses free to return to their stables at Nottingham Castle, Robin and his companions proceeded on foot. Nasir gave no instructions to his fellow Saracens, nor indicated in his usual wordless way how they should continue. He left them to their own devices, and wandered along far to the rear. Robin and John exchanged a look, but neither spoke. The silence within the little party was fast becoming a burden that none of them could shake off.
It was not the most comradely walk of Robin's life. John went ahead, so there was not even him to talk to, and the Saracens watched him, if not with hostility, then certainly with distrust. He wondered if any of them could speak English; but now was hardly the time to find out. They seemed to want to be left alone; or were too scared, or confused, or wary, to want to communicate. They followed on behind him though, unquestioning if not without suspicion, until the faint sounds of a not entirely natural birdsong told Robin that they had almost arrived. John came back to rejoin the group.
"Camp's just ahead," he announced, rather redundantly. "What now?"
"I don't know." Robin cast a look back at the Saracens, still following on; and at Nasir far behind them all. "Make them welcome I suppose. We always welcome people who are in trouble, or who are escaping from people like the Sheriff."
"True." John scratched his beard in thought. "Its just not what I imagined we'd end up with, that's all. A whole gang of Nasirs."
"At least we don't have to worry about whether we've got enough wine for everybody." Robin smiled. "Go on ahead. Tell the others to... look less threatening than they usually do. I don't know what these people have been through, and I don't want to scare them."
"If they're anything like Nasir, they won't get scared." John looked back towards the still advancing little band, fatigue ravaged and slow, haggard and pale. "They don't look like much, but there's something in their eyes. Given where they're from they were probably fighters, at least once upon a time."
"With the fighting that's been going on out there all these years, I wouldn't be surprised." Robin nodded. "All the same, I want to make them welcome. Tell Will to try smiling. It won't kill him."
"I'll try." John grinned at the thought before turning away. Robin watched him go, then looked back once again to the men he had just helped to rescue.
"We're almost there," he told them, deciding that it didn't matter if they didn't understand him. There had been enough silence. Five unkempt faces stared back at him as the ragtag band came to a shuffling halt, and he saw the quiet scrutiny in their eyes. The pride at least he recognised, and perhaps the haughtiness. There was something of Nasir in that; and of himself as well - he could not help but acknowledge that.
"You're more than welcome among us," he offered. "We have food and water, a fire... you're safe here, and free. The Sheriff's men have never found us, and they never will." There was no answer, and he had not been expecting there to be. "Nasir has his own food, so your beliefs won't be compromised." He hesitated there, never entirely sure what those beliefs were, or why they guided Nasir to do the things he did. He should find out sometime, he knew - but there were always other things to claim control of his mind. Somehow he had never got around to asking the questions. Five sets of eyes stared back at him, watchful, waiting, and he glanced over to where Nasir was still coming onwards, catching up. The Saracens didn't look back he noticed - but neither would Nasir have done, in the same circumstances.
They entered the camp more or less together; to a smiling welcome and curious stares. Tuck, ever the eager host, was already ladling stew into bowls, and Marion hurried to Robin's side, trying out earnest lines in scant Arabic. She knew only a little, but it was enough to say a basic hello.
"Do they speak English, Robin?" asked Much. Robin shrugged.
"I've no idea. I don't suppose they've any reason to."
"Nasir does," pointed out Much, eyes swivelling to their Saracen friend as he broke through the trees. "Do they speak English, Nasir?"
"Probably. A little." Nasir headed towards the fire, pausing to throw on another log. "There may be soldiers."
"There aren't." Robin's eyes narrowed, for it seemed obvious, to him at least, that Nasir was trying to find an excuse to leave the camp. For some reason he didn't want to be here with his countrymen. "Sit down Nasir. We could do with a rest." He saw an eyebrow quirk, and smiled. "Well I could do with a rest, anyway. And I'd like to talk to you. I'd rather you didn't go off." He gestured to their guests. "Besides, I could use an interpreter. I need to explain to these people that there's no need to be afraid."
"They are not afraid." Nasir hesitated, standing at the very edge of the camp. "They merely... watch. And wait."
"Wait?" Will, not sure that he liked the idea of sharing his home with five silent, staring strangers, wandered on over. "What for?"
"Nothing sinister, I assure you." One of the five, speaking in a voice barely coloured by an accent, smiled very faintly at the ever hostile Scarlet. "It is sometimes easier to assess a situation by keeping quiet, and observing. We have no intention of appearing... impolite... by our silence." He looked around at the group. "You are surprised by my English, I see. Where I come from, education is prized most highly by all. Many of my people speak a good many languages, and to speak the languages of one's enemies can be as useful a skill as learning the languages of one's friends."
"Well I hope that we're not your enemies." Robin gestured around at his friends, introducing all of them in turn, and himself last of all. "Do your companions also speak English?"
"They understand a little, but most of them don't know enough to speak it." His guest's smile strengthened slightly. "We would all like to offer our thanks to you, Robin. Your help at the castle was greatly appreciated. We had been ready to accept an uncertain future, but now we have a chance to return home."
"That won't be an easy trip." Helping Tuck to distribute the bowls of stew, Marion gestured for the five to sit down near to the fire. "It's such a long way, and there are a good many obstacles."
"No amount of distance or obstacles can stop us from returning. We have people to return to - a fight that must be continued. Enemies that must be defeated. Staying in a foreign land - whether or not there are friends there - is not an option for us." He looked at the bowl he had been given. "I'm sorry. What is this?"
"Just vegetables," piped up Tuck. "Nasir eats my vegetable stew, don't you Nasir." He looked to where their companion had been moments before, but he was no longer there. Once again Nasir had vanished. "Well now, where did he go?"
"Into the forest," Ned told him, speaking very quietly. "Just a little while ago. Didn't look happy."
"He never does," muttered Will. The spokesman for the little band of Saracens looked faintly abashed.
"My fault, I would imagine. I'm sorry, I should have spoken earlier, but... well, perhaps I preferred to wait, and see if Nasir would do the talking for me. My name is Asam. For many years I have been a soldier in the household of Nasir's father. I'm not sure that my old friend is too happy to see me."
"Oh." Marion looked towards the trees, wondering at that. Where had Nasir gone exactly? And why had he not given any indication that he knew these men? "Well Nasir is a very private man. He often goes off by himself."
"Yes. Yes, he does. There's no reason to assume that it's your fault." Robin smiled reassuringly. "You should eat now. It's probably been some time since you last had a good meal."
"More than long enough. Thankyou." Asam nodded to his friends and spoke a few words of Arabic. The little group began to eat immediately. "You've already done a great deal for us, and for that reason, and for the friendship you've shown us, we'll trust in you now. Ordinarily we would choose not to eat food prepared by... by one who is not like us."
"We understand." Robin also began to eat. "But if Nasir was with us, he'd be able to show you that this is all perfectly safe for you."
"Perhaps." There was a world of subtext in that one word. "Thankyou Robin."
"There's no need for thanks. Rescuing the oppressed and the unjustly imprisoned is the task that we were all chosen for." Robin rose to his feet "Now if you'll excuse me, I'd like to find Nasir."
"You won't. Not if he doesn't want you to." Tuck was clearly eager to play the mother hen again. "You just stay here and finish that stew, Robin. You can't eat two mouthfuls and then give up. Went off without breakfast, didn't you."
"I'll find Nasir." Marion gave her husband's arm a squeeze. "You should stay here and be a charming host. Besides," she smiled wryly. "He doesn't want to be shouted at just yet."
"I'm not going to shout at him. Exactly." He smiled, swayed, as usual, by his wife's quiet strength and gentle certainties. "Alright. You go and find him. But like Tuck said, if he doesn't want to be found..."
"I'll find him. Eventually." Marion stood, planting a quick kiss on Robin's head as she rose. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Don't get lost." He laughed at her apparent outrage, and dodged a joking blow. "We'll keep the stew warm."
"Thankyou." She strode off. Asam watched her go.
"Your wife?" he asked. Robin nodded.
"You're a very lucky man," his new acquaintance told him. "In war, many women become jaded, often so very much more quickly than the men. She still has her heart."
"We're not exactly at war," Tuck commented. Asam fixed him with a peculiarly intense and meaningful gaze.
"Yes you are. You're fighting a war just the same as the one being fought in my homeland. I'm not sure that our goal is very similar, but I think that perhaps our situation is." He nodded. "This is indeed a war. I saw it in your eyes, Robin, at the castle."
"I'm afraid I think that you're right." Robin set aside his stew. "It shouldn't be a war, but the truth is that the Normans just won't let us live in peace, as our own masters. They have to own us or kill us. Perhaps it'll always be like that."
"Like my people, and the Christians." Asam also laid aside his stew. "We each fight our wars, Robin, with so many parallels. We even fight a similar enemy. And yet we can never join forces. War is, perhaps, a truly great divider of men."
"I'm not sure I understand your sentiments, Asam." Robin frowned, mulling over the words. "But I think that I understand your meaning. Perhaps now isn't the time for discussing philosophies though." He rose to his feet. "You're our guests, and we'd like to offer more than just food and water. Entertainment perhaps. We like to practice our fighting skills amongst ourselves, and sometimes it can make entertaining viewing. You're welcome to join in of course."
"Play fighting? A favourite sport of mine." Asam gestured politely at the outlaws. "Please, begin. I may join you, when I've got your measure."
"Sneaky type, huh?" John stood, pulling Scarlet up as well. "Come on then, Will. Let's show them what we can do."
"If you say so." Will caught up the nearest quarter-staff. "Although there won't be enough of you left to try fighting any of them."
"You reckon?" John swing his own staff in a lazy, but well controlled, circle. "We'll see. Just do your worst."
"Oh I think I can do better than that." Will grinned wickedly around at his assembled audience. "I hope you're not squeamish."
"Will..." Robin shook his head in amused exasperation. "Just fight."
"My pleasure." Will spun his staff about, obviously enjoying being the centre of attention. "That's what I do best."
Marion was not expecting it to be easy to find Nasir, but in actual fact he had not gone that far away. She found him a short distance downstream, sitting on the river bank and staring into the sluggish water. He didn't look up at her approach, but she had no doubt that he knew somebody was there. He probably knew exactly who as well.
"Nasir." She sounded as bright and cheerful as she always did, no stranger to soothing ruffled feathers, or easing irritable minds. "Why did you leave the camp?"
"Prayers," he told her, without looking up. It was a stock answer, and one of the first things she had ever heard him say.
"It's the wrong time of day for that," she pointed out. "And besides, if that was why you came away, why didn't the others come as well?"
"It is not necessary always to pray only... only for Salat. Set times." He glanced up, watching as she seated herself next to him. "Tuck does it all the time."
"That's Tuck. He's a friar." She frowned. "And besides, you know very well that you're lying. Why did you really come away?"
"It..." He shook his head, turning back to look at the river. "The words... Sometimes it is best not to see people again."
"You mean Asam? He told us that he knew you before. That he was a soldier in your father's household." The idea of it rather interested her, although she didn't want to push things. Nasir was notoriously reticent, and if she asked too many questions he was likely just to get up and move away. He would do it politely enough, but the conversation would be over just the same. "I'd have thought that you'd like to see him again. Talk over old times, find out how things are back home."
"Old times are old times. They are gone."
"Well yes, but..."
"You do not understand." He was silent for a long moment, and she searched for something that she could say to keep the conversation open, hopefully preventing him from going back into his shell. "Asam... Asam believes in duty. I believe in duty. In doing what must be done. Asam will go back, as soon as he can."
"Because he has to continue fighting the war?" She flinched a bit at that, thinking of her father dead and lost in those far away lands. "Well what's wrong with that? Oh. You mean he'll think that you should have done the same?"
"He will... wonder. He will suspect I have lost faith."
"Then tell him that you haven't." She still spoke in the same jolly, friendly tones of before, but it was getting harder to keep the frown from showing in her voice. It wasn't easy trying to understand others, especially when her world and Nasir's could often be so very different. Nasir turned his head slightly, looking at her askance.
"It is... not easy. I am... was... of an army. As a Saracen, I defend my faith, the Shahada. In the war I defend my homeland. For the Hashishyun, all becomes more."
"Oh." She hadn't really understood, and wished that his steadily improving English would improve a little more. "Becomes more what?"
"I..." He shook his head, which didn't surprise her. Gestures were far more comfortable for him, and he had already spoken more in the last few minutes than he had in the last few months. "You understand... in my own country I fight the soldiers from the West. I fight because of my faith, I fight because of my country, yes?"
"That much I do understand, yes." She sympathised too in a way. Perhaps it had something to do with Tuck's influence over her in recent years, and the characteristically liberal education he had attempted to give her, but she didn't agree with the idea of invading a far off country, trying to impose a different religion, and demand control of certain cities. It was all dangerously close to the sort of ghastly mistreatments periodically visited upon the Jews in English cities. She thought again of her father, and felt a moment's regret. "But you said it was more?"
"All Saracens fight," he told her. "Since the Crusades came. For some of us there is more, yes. More fighting. More reason for fighting. More faith perhaps, or different. Like a... a different group within the other?"
"Sect," she guessed, not really certain that she was giving him the right word. He paused and considered it, then seemed to decide that it would do whatever it meant.
"Sect then. Those in all sects must fight, those in some sects must fight more."
"And you and Asam belong to one of those sects?"
"No. Not Asam. For him just the fight is enough. For that he will think I should have gone back. But this other thing, that is more reason why I should have gone. Even greater reason. Even greater failing."
"I see." She was beginning to, at least. "But Nasir, it's not as though you chose to stay here because you didn't want to go back, or because you've stopped thinking that there was anything worth fighting for out there. You stayed because you found something else to fight for here."
"Asam will not understand. There should be no other cause." He sighed, and started to rise to his feet. "Go back. I will find fish. More people to feed. They will not always want to eat what Tuck can give."
"You've got to come back to the camp eventually you know. They might be with us for days, and you can't spend all that time hiding here." She smiled at the gleam in his eyes. "Not that you actually are hiding of course. Perish the thought."
"You should go back." He was standing now, staring down at her with eyes that, as usual, she couldn't read. She nodded.
"He might understand you know. You see things a different way now. Why shouldn't he?"
"It is... not likely." He started to walk away, and she didn't bother trying to stop him. In the last few months she had become very used to dealing with stubborn men. Robin, Will, John, Nasir... they were all as bad as each other as far as she could see. Swallowing her disappointment, she headed back to the camp. Robin looked up questioningly.
"Well I found him." She looked across at the group of Saracens, sitting beside the fire, talking amongst themselves in their own language. "He's gone to catch some fish."
"Fishing's my job," objected John, in a voice that suggested he was actually glad that he wasn't going to have to get up. He was rather comfortable, having played the part of returning hero to full effect, and earned himself a particularly satisfying drink of wine. "Why did he go running off? The fish aren't going anywhere."
"I think he was feeling uncomfortable." She couldn't help looking towards the rescued Saracens, all of whom had their backs to the little group of outlaws. "Maybe you have to be one of them to really understand. I think he'll be back later."
"It's all my fault, isn't it." Everybody had forgotten Ned, save the ever dutiful Much, and the sound of his voice came as something of a surprise. "If I hadn't let them back at the castle push me into coming here, your friend wouldn't have walked off, would he. And you nearly got killed."
"That's hardly your fault, lad." Tuck reached over to ruffle the boy's copious hair. "Besides, those fellows over there needed rescuing, and there's none of us that are sorry about getting it done."
"Precisely. Facing up to the Sheriff is just a part of the work that we do, and he didn't come nearly as close to killing us as you might think." Robin smiled kindly at the nervous boy. "When people are unfairly imprisoned, or if somebody thinks that they can be bought and sold, we have to do something about it. Herne chose us for that task, amongst others, and it doesn't matter to him if those people in need of help are English, Saracen, or anything else. Possibly even Norman."
"Normans don't get pushed around like that," pointed out Will, rather sourly. Robin shrugged.
"Maybe not so often. But if we ever find a Norman in need of help, Will, we can't turn him down. Not if it's clear that Herne's work needs to be done." He tossed a wine-skin to Ned. "So don't blame yourself. You were a big help to us."
"Too much of a help." The boy looked away, rather downcast. "I was supposed to tell you about the Saracens so you could be captured, but you weren't. The Sheriff's going to be angry, and when he gets that way..." He shivered violently. "Not going to be good for me, is it, back in Nottingham Castle."
"Then don't go back," John told him. "It's a big country. Do you have relatives anywhere?"
"Yes." The boy didn't meet his eyes. "In Nottingham Castle. My mother works there, and the Sheriff will have her thrown in the dungeons, I know he will." He toyed with the wine-skin, but didn't drink anything. "I have to go back, whatever he's going to do to me, don't I. Otherwise I'll never know what's happened to my mother. Probably won't anyway."
"Your mother?" Marion hurried over to sit beside the boy, putting a gentle arm around his shoulders. "Robin..."
"Yes, I know." The outlaw leader sighed. "Getting back inside the castle won't be easy. Not so soon."
"They won't be expecting us to come back," pointed out Will. "Should make it easier than ever."
"It still won't be easy. Not in the middle of the day." John sighed. "But I suppose we've got to do something, haven't we."
"We can't very well do nothing." Robin offered Ned another smile, worried that the boy might be feeling bad about drawing them into yet another rescue attempt. "What's your mother's name?"
"Emma." Ned stared at the ground. "But I can't let you risk yourselves for her. I'll go back. The Sheriff might let her go then. He'll be angry with me, that's all."
"We all know the Sheriff and his temper tantrums. If he thinks that you warned us about the trap he'll kill you, and any other members of your family that he can get hold of." Marion remembered many things that she had seen and heard whilst living with the Sheriff in recent years. "You have to let us sort this out. It's no hardship. In fact certain of us positively enjoy this kind of thing."
"I get to go along this time then do I?" Still smarting rather over not being included in the last assault on the castle, Will was clearly expecting no greater luck this time. Robin nodded.
"You're coming. Marion, Much, you stay with Ned."
"I beg your pardon?" Deeply indignant, Marion started to stand, but Robin reached out an arm to pull her back down again.
"Marion... look I know that you can fight, and I know that you hate being left behind, but I need somebody here. I can't leave Much and Ned alone with that bunch over there. You're good with people, and you're far more able to look after them than these two are. I've no idea where Nasir is, so I can't get him to stay with them."
"Much will be fine here with them. They don't need looking after. Asam speaks English, so there's no need for somebody who speaks Arabic, and they're perfectly capable of throwing extra logs on the fire, or heating up some of that vegetable stew."
"Marion..." Robin took her hand. "No arguments. I'd like to leave more than just the two of you here, in case something goes wrong in Nottingham, but it was a mistake to take so few people the last time. We barely made it out. Gisburne will have given the guards a stiff talking to, and they're bound to be more conscientious, at least for the time being."
"You argue your points well." She sighed. "Alright Robin. I'll stay here, again. Just understand that I'm not doing it happily."
"I know." He drew her in for a quick kiss. "We'd better be off. When Nasir comes back, tell him where we've gone, but say that he's to stay here. There'll be no point trying to catch us up by then."
"I should come with you." Looking extremely timid, young Ned raised his head long enough to offer his services in a quavering voice. "I know what my mother looks like."
"I doubt there'll be more than one woman in the dungeons, and if necessary the guards can help us." Tuck smiled gently at the boy. "You don't need to come with us. It would be best if you never set foot in that place again."
"But what if she isn't in the dungeons? She could be anywhere."
"Oh she'll be in the dungeons. That's the way the Sheriff works. If he thinks you betrayed him, he'll want revenge. We've seen it before."
"So have I." Ned hung his head. "I just don't want you to think that you have to fight my battles for me. I'm not brave enough to do the sorts of things that you do, but I don't want you to think that I'm not prepared to help rescue my own mother."
"Nobody thinks that you're a coward. But you're not trained the way that we are, and we'd have to waste time watching out for you." John ruffled his hair, far more powerfully than Tuck had done earlier. Ned looked faintly dazed. "Don't worry, lad. It'll all be alright, and nobody will be thinking any the less of you, least of all your mother."
"I suppose." Ned glanced up, slightly embarrassed but smiling again. "I work in the kitchens at the castle. While you're gone I'll make something for you. I'm a pretty good cook, and I don't know how else to say thankyou."
"You don't need to thank us." Robin smiled at the idea of the boy eagerly cooking them food. "But we appreciate it."
"And food is always welcome." Will stood, stretching his muscles. "We should be off."
"Yes, we should." Robin also got up. "I didn't think I'd be seeing the castle again so soon. Can't say that I'm excited about it."
"But on the other hand it's always fun to spend time annoying the Sheriff," pointed out John. Will nodded with enthusiasm.
"And doing more than just annoying him," he muttered, clearly looking forward to the prospect of breaking a few Norman skulls. "Come on. I want to get started."
"Be careful." Marion meant her words for everybody, but she was looking at Robin alone. He smiled at her, as gentle and determined and as infuriatingly carefree as ever.
"See you soon."
"I hope so." She watched them gather their weapons, listening to their joking talk, hoping that she was not hearing it for the last time. There were never any guarantees, no matter how easy something sounded, or seemed to be. All too soon they were moving away, and all that she was left with was an after image of Robin's last, merry wave. Asam rose from his place by the fire and came over to join her.
"They are going somewhere?"
"To rescue another prisoner." She smiled, proud of her husband and his men, but wishing that she was with them. "They'll be back soon. Then perhaps you can talk about what you'd like to do next. We can help you to get to the coast, perhaps, so that you can see about beginning your journey home."
"Yes." He nodded, although his dark eyes held as many secrets as she so often saw hidden in Nasir's face. "We would like to go home. It is our duty, and our will."
"Of course." She thought about Nasir, and his talk of duty, and wondered if Asam really believed that her Saracen friend should long ago have left England to return to his own country. She hoped that there weren't going to be any arguments about that, once Nasir returned from his fishing. "Robin will be back by nightfall. It's probably best to rest up until then anyway. There might still be soldiers out looking for you."
"Of course." He nodded, and offered her a smart little bow. "I will tell this to my companions. And Nasir? Where is he?"
"He'll be along." She thought about his dark and troubled eyes, and wondered if he would come back at all today. "Any time now I should think."
"Good," Asam beamed brightly as he thanked her again. "Good. I should like to speak to him. There is much to tell him, and.perhaps much to ask."
"It's always nice to see old friends again." She watched him head back to the fire, then thought about what she had just said. Old friends. Herne had mentioned an old friend in his most recent prophecy, linking it with possible danger. One more thing to worry about, she mused, and wondered if she should go after Robin. She decided against it. He was certain to have considered it anyway, and right now he had enough to think about. If there were any dangers to be faced here in the camp, she and her friends would just have to handle them alone.
Nasir returned to the camp in the early afternoon, carrying several fish and looking typically inscrutable. Marion told him where the others had gone, and his sharp, dark eyes snapped immediately to Ned. Then he nodded.
"We weren't sure where you were," Marion told him. "Otherwise Robin would have asked you to go as well." Again a nod. "Although why you should be allowed to go along and not me, I can't imagine." There was no reaction, save his obvious polite attention, and she frowned. Her frustration at Robin's refusal to involve her in so many of their exploits was a source of some amusement amongst the gang, and Nasir was not usually an exception to that. Today he seemed to barely notice what she had said.
"Fishing was good then?" Typically cheerful, and oblivious to Nasir's train of deep thought, Much looked over at the collection of fish. Nasir nodded absently. "Where did you go? Did you go to the place that John found, near the waterfall?" There was no answer, and Much frowned. "Did you find somewhere new?"
"Why don't you clean the fish, Much?" Marion took them from Nasir and handed them over. "Ned can help."
"No. I must." His voice returning to life with sudden gruffness, Nasir looked up sharply. "The others..."
"The others are hardly an issue, Nasir. We won't necessarily be here long enough to share your fish. When we are certain that we are rested, we shall be leaving." Asam favoured Marion with the most charming of smiles. "Not that we wish to seem ungrateful of your hospitality, but other things await us. It is our duty to begin our journey home."
"You could stay." Much rather liked having such exotic guests. "For a while, anyway. Nobody will find you, and we'd like to hear all about your home, wouldn't we Marion?"
"There is little to tell, young man. Little, perhaps, that you would understand, in this place of many green trees. It is very hot in our homeland, and very dry, and sometimes there are winds of sand that could strip the skin from your face if you were not dressed correctly." He smiled slightly, amused by Much's widened eyes. "There are poisonous creatures, and buildings more ancient than you can imagine. Great relics of a long gone age."
"It sounds... interesting." Marion smiled at the images thrown up - more in a few words than she had ever heard from Nasir. He never spoke of his homeland, and almost seemed to actively avoid the subject. "Although I don't know about the poisonous creatures."
"One man's home is another man's prison, perhaps." Asam shrugged. "The desert is my home, even with its poisonous creatures, and its terrible war. So, my young friend - no, we couldn't stay. This is not where we belong."
"Nasir stayed," piped up Much, who was beginning to think that it might be nice if these foreigners became permanent additions to the band. They might be ageing, but even if they turned out to no longer be the fighters they had once been, he suspected that they could turn out to be fine storytellers instead. Asam's eyes narrowed.
"Yes," he acknowledged, with a sharp look over at Nasir. "Nasir has stayed."
"And we're glad that he did." Remembering the things that Nasir had said to her earlier, Marion spoke up now in his defence. He glanced her way, but she saw no reaction to her words.
"Perhaps you are." This time Asam's smile was tight, though still courteous. "But this is not a matter for discussion. We are gratified to think that we are welcome here, but we shall not be staying."
"Then come nightfall Nasir will show you the best route towards the coast." Marion couldn't imagine how hard a voyage these five obviously weakened men had in front of them, but she knew that to argue would be fruitless. Asam's smile vanished, and something new flickered briefly across his face.
"We do not need Nasir's help. The coast lies to the east of here, and we know which way is east. We will find our way."
"If you're sure." A little worried, Marion felt the tension rise, and tried to do what she could to lessen it. "Well, you're welcome to whatever stores you can carry. We have water, and there's some bread. Not much, I know, but it'll travel well."
"Your kindness is appreciated." He offered her a low bow. "And now, if you do not mind, we must rest."
"Yes, of course." She gestured towards Much and Ned. "Come on, we'll leave them in peace. You can help me to collect some plants and herbs for our stores. We need some more for healing poultices and general medicines."
"Alright Marion." Ever amenable, Much clambered up. "How long do you think Robin will be?"
"He won't be back very soon. If they're being especially cautious there's no telling how long it will take them even to enter the castle." Her eyes drifted towards Nasir. "We shouldn't be long." He nodded. "Do you want to help?" A head shake, and that was all. She sighed. "Alright. Come on, you two." They headed off at an easy pace, all six pairs of eyes watching them go, Only when they were sure to be out of earshot did Asam speak, even though he talked in his own language, which he was certain they would never have understood.
"So," he commented, keeping his voice easy, "Nasir has stayed." There was no answer, and he frowned. Gone was the easy-going, polite guest, and in his place was a man of obvious authority. Somebody who commanded - and demanded - respect. "You were never a very talkative person, Malik Kemal - even as a boy. One of the reasons perhaps, that you were such an ideal recruit for the Hashishyun." Still there was no answer, and his dark, fiery eyes narrowed. "How were you captured?"
"A battle." Nasir looked at the ground, pride still stung by the fact of that particular failure. "Many of us. Many of them. I was hit from behind."
"Unfortunate, but not necessarily dishonourable." Asam looked away, towards the fire. "Not so very far from events leading to my own capture. What then?"
"A prison. A long march. A market." Nasir thought about the first time he had set eyes upon the Baron de Belleme. "It was complicated."
"I dare say." Long moments passed between them. "You were always a promising boy, Nasir. Your father was proud of you. Your brothers were proud of you, even before you joined the Hashishyun. And yet you dishonour all of that now. The war continues. Our cities, our homes, are still attacked. But you stay here, far from it all, with people who do not share your beliefs. People you were once sworn to fight."
"It's not as simple as that." It should have been pleasurable to speak in his own language again. To hear it from somebody other than himself, to listen to and say words that required no effort in translation. Instead it was anything but enjoyable. "In our country we fight soldiers who want to kill us, enslave us. They are not these people. These are not Crusaders, or knights. Robin isn't even a Christian. He follows his own god, one of... of forests and streams, and green things that grow."
"You are Hashishyun, Nasir. That means more than the fight that the Crusaders brought to us. More than just fighting for our country. It might have begun as that, but it has become more."
"You know nothing." Nasir stood up, beginning to pace in agitation. "You were not one of us."
"But I know of you. Many people fear the Hasishyun, Nasir. They don't just call the invaders their enemies, do they. They fight all whose beliefs differ from theirs - are not as strong as theirs. Even the great Salah al-Din has been said to fear them. I know that your father did, even with you amongst them. By their code you should never have considered remaining amongst these people, these non-believers. You should have left this country at the earliest opportunity."
"Perhaps." He stood still now, staring down at the ground rather than meeting Asam's eyes. "If I were still Hashishyun. But I am not. I left them some months before I was captured, a long time before I came here, and met these people. I was just an ordinary fighter, like you. I had no greater loyalties." He glanced up, challenging now, pressing Asam to accuse him further. "And yes, I chose to stay here. I was called to do so. I fight for righteousness, just as before. I believe this is how it is meant to be."
"You left the Hashishyun? That's not possible." Asam stood, his companions muttering and scowling amongst themselves. "Nobody leaves them. Ever."
"I did." Nasir's mind drifted back over many months. "There was a betrayal. A friend, Sarak. I was ordered to kill him. It didn't seem to be the right thing to do, so I didn't do it. Afterwards I couldn't stay. I found another group of fighters, ordinary men from a besieged city, and I joined with them. Nobody asked who I was, and nobody came to make me return. Still nobody has come."
"And so you hide here?"
"Hide?" Nasir stepped forward, less than a foot away from the older man, staring back at him with steady eyes. Respect kept him from using anything more than strong words, but he was confident that Asam knew who would win, without question, if there was to be a fight. "I was brought here. There was a reason for that."
"So you believe." Asam shook his head. "Return with us, Nasir. You have responsibilities. To your country, your countrymen, your family. Responsibilities that should be fulfilled. You may not be the eldest son, but that doesn't mean that you have no duties, especially if you're no longer to be with the Hashishyun. You could rejoin your father's household. Think how glad your family would be to see you. You were so young when you went away, and there's so much that you don't know." He waited, trying to gauge Nasir's mood, and saw the flickers of interest that the younger man couldn't hide from him. "You're an uncle, you know. Several times, and for quite a while now. Jamal has two sons. The oldest is seven, and he's already quite the archer. And Sofia. She has four children now; three boys and a girl. She named her eldest son after you. He's a wild little thing." He caught the smile that was trying to grow on Nasir's face, and had to answer it with one of his own, though it wasn't one that lasted. "Nasir... you know that your father is dead?"
"Yes." Nasir looked at the ground, thinking back through the years, and trying to remember the last time he had seen his father. It had been on the day he had left with his new 'family', the Hashishyun, and there had been no opportunities since then to return. Perhaps he would have done so, since leaving the warrior sect, if he hadn't been so promptly, and perhaps permanently, waylaid.
"You know?" Asam was surprised, though glad, to discover that his news was not really news at all. "When did you find out?"
"King Richard." He spoke the name with displeasure, for even before Richard's true character had become clear to the outlaws, Nasir had disliked the man intensely. "He came here, into the forest, trying to turn Robin into his man. He told me that Salah al-Din was dead. I knew that he couldn't have died if my father was still alive." He looked away for a moment, then back at Asam. "He died in battle?"
"Cut down by soldiers. Jamal was with him. It was very quick. How Jamal himself escaped injury is a miracle perhaps. We were able to retrieve the body for a proper ceremony, but the family was still in mourning when I went to join the battle that saw me captured. Brought here." He smiled sadly. "I should be there with them. We both should."
"Asam..." When the older man had first spoken to him Nasir had felt like a child again, a boy taking early lessons in swordsmanship from one of his father's men. Now those years fled away, and he felt like a child no longer. The stories of his family made good listening, perhaps, but there was more going on here than a simple exchange of news, and Asam's constant onslaught was beginning to wear him down. He shook his head and turned away.
"Nasir. Don't turn your back on what you are. Return with us." Asam gestured to his friends, also now on their feet, still murmuring their chorus of support for their leader. "We leave soon. With your help, your strength, we can get home faster than we can alone. We'll have more chance if we have to fight. Think of the welcome you'll get; of the good you can do back home. Think of the war, of the enemy, of our need to defend our faith against the incursion. Come with us."
"No." Nasir turned, staring back at the five men, seeing a little of the places he had missed reflected in their eyes. "I am supposed to be here. I help to save people. I do important things. It's not easy to explain, but I have to do this. I have to fight alongside these people. It is what I was chosen to do." He turned again, marching away across the clearing, heading in the same direction that Marion had taken moments before. Asam didn't follow, but he called after Nasir, loudly and commandingly.
"Where are you going?"
"To help." Unconsciously he had reverted to English, enforcing his choice perhaps, or just underlining his wish to end the conversation. "Marion does not always see the best herbs. Her eyes... see other things."
"Picking herbs is the great work that you were chosen to do?"
"If those herbs help to heal the wounds of the Hooded Man then yes, perhaps." He had let himself use Arabic again, uncertain that he would have been able to phrase his answer properly in English. "You don't have to understand. Just accept." With that he left the clearing quickly. Asam scowled and muttered darkly under his breath.
"Do we leave him?" one of his confederates asked. Asam glared.
"No, not yet. There's a while yet before we have to leave. I mean to try again."
"I don't think that you'll change his mind." The second man, an old soldier who had once fought alongside the great Salah al-Din himself, turned sad eyes to stare after Nasir. "I think he'll choose to stay, whatever you say to him. Kill him or forgive him, Asam. Then leave."
"Don't be so quick to see defeat." Asam threw another log onto the fire, then crouched down beside it, cursing this strange, wet country for being so cold. He needed the heat of his desert home, especially now that he was no longer a young man. "There are still ways to convince him."
"His mind seems made up to me. If you have a plan it'll need to be a good one."
"Perhaps." Asam's eyes stared deep into the fire, the heat he saw there matching the heat of his own simmering rage. He hadn't invested time and energy into helping to train Nasir only to see him abandon everything to fight alongside foreigners, non-believers, in a strange place like this. "When we leave this country, Nasir may yet come with us." A smile flickered into life on his face, and he reached for another log for the fire. "There is still much that is yet to be said."
Marion was glad to see Nasir coming to join them, although she wasn't quite sure why she felt so relieved. He didn't speak, but fell to the work with quiet efficiency, picking the herbs and other assorted greenery that made the best medicines. Much and Ned soon wandered off, although she could still hear Much repeatedly explaining to his clueless charge which plants he should be picking.
"Been talking about old times?" she asked eventually. Nasir shook his head. "But there must be things that you want to talk about? The sand, and the poisonous creatures perhaps?" He glanced up, ever expressive eyebrows showing a certain degree of humour, but still there was no verbal response. "They want you to go back with them, don't they."
"Yes." He tipped a handful of roots into her bag, then moved on to another patch of ground.
"We'd understand, you know. This is a strange country, and this isn't really your fight. If your friends think that they can get back home..."
"No." He didn't elaborate immediately, and instead turned his attention to examining a series of plants. "I will stay. And perhaps they will die."
"They're not that old and weak. It must be possible for them to get back there."
"Yes. But it is very hard. They are too... tired. Ill perhaps."
"Yes, they are." She remembered something. "You once said it was too hard a journey to make. Did you really mean that?"
"Not... exactly. It was hard to explain why I wished to stay. But for them? Yes, the journey may be too hard."
"Perhaps if they rested for longer. Got their strength back." She smiled faintly. "But they won't do that, will they."
"They are..." He wasn't sure of the numbers in English. "Fifty... sixty years old. All that time at war. For them... there was never anything else. Just war. They do not know how not to fight it. They must get back."
"But you feel differently?"
"It is different here." He held up another assortment of vegetation for her bag. "It is... hard to say why."
"I suppose it must be." She imagined having to explain such things as her loyalty to Herne, especially if she had to do it in a foreign language. "I think we have enough now. We should find Much."
"That way." The sounds of voices had faded now, but typically he still knew which direction to choose. She followed him, trying to judge his mood by his body language. Robin would not want to lose his Saracen friend, but if Nasir did choose to go, that would have to be that. They had all wondered before now what had caused him to join them, let alone stay for so long, and the appearance of these five others made those questions ever more relevant.
"Much?" Impatient for no good reason, she called her young friend, surprised that he didn't answer immediately. "They can't have gone that far can they?"
"No." Nasir came to an abrupt standstill. "Listen."
"I don't hear anything." She frowned. "Why can't we hear them talking?"
"Ssh." He advanced slowly, head cocked to one side like an inquiring animal, then stepped suddenly to one side. A thick bush barred his way, and he crouched beside it, reaching underneath its leafy tangles. Had Marion been able to see his face then, she would have seen it darken suddenly in a frown, for there was no mistaking the softness and warmth of a person lying hidden beneath the bush. He dragged the form out, as carefully as was possible, and glanced up at Marion.
"Unconscious," he told her, but she was already crouching beside him.
"Much?" The boy was insensible, and showed no reaction. There was blood on his head, although he didn't seem to be too badly injured. He was certainly breathing steadily enough. "Much, who did this?"
"No extra tracks." Nasir was examining the ground. "Two come. One leaves."
"Ned did this?" She shook her head. "You must be mistaken, Nasir. He's such a sweet boy."
"Who then?" He rose to his feet. "Wait here."
"I'm not planning on leaving Much." She turned her attentions back to the boy, wishing that she had some water to wash the blood from his forehead. Nasir struck out quickly, although Marion didn't see which direction he had taken. She concentrated solely on the unconscious boy lying beside her, and did all that she could to make him comfortable.
Nasir ran through the undergrowth with little regard for stealth, although even in his noisiest moments he was quieter than most men. Ned's trail was clear enough, and it didn't take much thought or care to follow it. When he broke out of the trees, however, and into a patch of simple grassland, he was unprepared to find the boy waiting there for him. Ned was standing in the middle of the clearing, a large branch in his hands, expression cold. This was not the simple kitchen boy of before. This was something else.
"Don't come any nearer." His thick local accent had gone, and he sounded very different now. More like the Sheriff, or Guy of Gisburne. Nasir didn't know English regional accents, but he knew the difference between the Sheriff's voice and that of the local Saxons. He allowed himself a small smile, and drew one of his two lethal throwing knives.
"You'll never hit me with that. Not at this distance." Haughty and over-confident, Ned had the air now of a boy raised to money and power. "Now just back away, and I'll leave here without a fight. I've been trained by respected men in most of the arts of hand to hand fighting. I think you'd rather not clash with me." Nasir's head cocked on one side, as he regarded Ned with faint amusement. "You'd best drop those knives, and those swords, and we'll say no more about it. Your lives are all forfeit, but there may be deals to be made; if you don't cause trouble now."
"Fine words." Nasir moved forwards slowly, faintly impressed that the boy did not immediately retreat. By now he could easily have killed Ned, for whatever the boy thought, Nasir's knives could find their targets at much great distances than this. He didn't attack just yet though. Instead he waited. "Your mother?"
"Is in London, where she belongs, at the king's castle. A necessary falsehood, since Robin escaped from the first trap. A sham, really. I thought that the Sheriff's idea of using those slaves as bait was rather ingenious." His lofty smile vanished. "Keep back. You're advancing. If you come any nearer I'll have to fight you."
"Then fight." How the boy hoped to do anything with a tree branch against two knives, two swords, or even the most basic of Nasir's unarmed combat skills was impossible to guess, but Nasir had seen Norman arrogance at work before. If the boy, like so many others, had been raised to be certain of his own superior position, he would be sure of himself whatever the circumstances. Norman nobles seemed to see all other men as stupid and slow, no more than uneducated beasts of burden. It was one of the greatest failings that the Normans had, in their unending struggle against the native English. Nasir's lip curled in a mocking smile. The Normans' conceited philosophy had been built upon the crushed backs of Saxon peasants, and a Saracen was in very different league. It might be enjoyable to demonstrate. Ned's obviously pompous upbringing allowed no chinks in his impressively confident demeanour, however; rather he gave the distinct impression that he would have gone to his grave still declaiming his own amazing superiority against anyone. With a coldly sardonic grin, Nasir threw his knife.
It struck Ned's forearm, glancing off as it had been intended to do, causing him to drop the branch without doing too much damage. Nasir was upon him in seconds, catching hold of his suddenly flailing arms, recognising the moves of somebody who had been trained to fight well. All of Ned's strength did him no good against Nasir, however, for the Saracen knew tricks that few Westerners had ever learnt. Spinning the boy about, twisting the injured arm around behind his back, he forced Ned to his knees. The boy struggled, protesting loudly but incapable of breaking free. Nasir smiled in satisfaction.
"Don't fight," he told the boy, though he said it in Arabic. "It'll only hurt more." Unsurprisingly Ned's struggles didn't cease. Nasir wasn't sorry. If he had wanted to spare his prisoner any further suffering, he would have spoken in English. Ned swore at him, loudly at first, then with increasing pitch as his hands were secured behind him with a length of spare bowstring. Nasir warned him again not to struggle, and this time, Arabic or not, Ned got the message. Nobody struggled too much when he was tied with a cord like that - unless he wanted to risk losing his hands.
"You should let me go." Recovering his voice when the initial pain in his wrists subsided a little, Ned made a fair stab at being stoic. Retrieving his knife, Nasir hauled the boy to his feet, amused when the stoic act evaporated into a yelp. "Let me go, damn you."
"Move." Pushing the boy ahead of him, Nasir ignored the rising tide of bluster, interested only in returning to Marion. There was obviously a story here that needed telling, and it was sure to be important for Marion to hear it too.
"Ned! Nasir!" She was still crouching beside Much, just as she had been before. Nasir tripped his captive up, so that the boy landed heavily on the ground. Much's eyelids flickered.
"Ned?" he asked faintly. Marion laid a hand on his forehead, trying to calm him.
"We know," she told him, before turning steely eyes onto the boy she had thought was a friend. "You hurt him. Why?"
"It's the first time I've been more or less alone. I had to get away." His lips curled into a unpleasant smile. "I could have killed him, you know. It would have been just as easy as knocking him down."
"Consider yourself lucky that you didn't kill him." She looked up at Nasir, cleaning his knife with his usual detachment. "You know what this means?"
"A trap." His eyes looked instinctively in the direction of Nottingham Castle, almost as though he expected to be able to see it. "Clever."
"The Sheriff is getting quite sneaky in his old age."
"The Sheriff?" Ned was clearly incensed. "This was not the Sheriff's idea. It was mine! Mine and Gisburne's. The Sheriff might have thought of the first trap, but that's the end of his involvement. A clever little plan that failed."
"And you, meanwhile, thought of something a little more complicated." Marion shook her head in disgust. "Congratulations, Ned. I hope that you're proud of yourself."
"I am." Fire ignited in his eyes for an instant. "And my name is not Ned. It's Edward. Edward of Kent, of the direct bloodline of King William, the Duke of Normandy. I demand--"
"You'll demand nothing." Marion helped Much to sit up, careful to watch that the boy did not move too quickly. "Much, can you stand?"
"Of course." He got to be more like Robin everyday, she thought, amused. Determined not to admit that he was hurt, determined not to give in to his injury.
"Good." She watched him struggle for a few moments, then leant a helping hand, letting him lean on her surreptitiously as he got to his feet. "Why did Ned hit me, Marion? I'm sorry I wasn't watching him properly."
"It's alright. It's not as though he got very far." She turned her young friend about, pointing him back towards the camp. "He hit you so that he could get away. I suppose he considers his work to be done now."
"On the contrary." Ned tried to look as grand and as dignified as possible. "I was going back to the castle so that I could tell the soldiers where your camp is. Capturing the rest of the gang isn't enough. I want all of you, and those escaped slaves, before the day is up."
"He's got Robin?" Much was horrified. "Really?"
"It's quite likely, yes." She caught Nasir's eye, trying to guess what he was thinking, as a single, desperate plan jumped into her head. "Much, how badly hurt are you? Really?"
"I'm alright." He rubbed his head, then flashed her a typically wide grin. "Will says I'll always be alright, so long as I only get hit on my head. Why? Are we going to rescue Robin?"
"There's a chance he might not need rescuing." She bit her lip, hoping against hope that that would indeed be the case.
"But we're going to find out?" Much wobbled slightly, then tried to pretend that he hadn't. Marion smiled gently.
"Nasir and I are going, yes. You have to stay here and guard Ned. We'll tie him up properly, and you're not to untie him, whatever he says. Understand?"
"But I want to come with you." He wobbled again, and she wondered if he was even healthy enough to be left on guard duty. "Nasir's people can look after Ned, can't they?"
"Edward," hissed Ned. Marion glared at him, before turning back to Much.
"Those men aren't staying, Much. As soon as it gets dark they're planning to leave, and it wouldn't be fair to ask them to stay. Not when they've got so far to go. Besides." She took his shoulders, so that he had to look at her. "Are you really fit to come with us to Nottingham?"
"I will be." He tried to look strong and resolute, but his face was horribly pale, and his eyes looked bloodshot and distinctly unfocused. She wanted to ruffle his hair the way that Robin did, and flash him that same sort of smile that always seemed to make him more relaxed. Instead she squeezed his shoulders gently.
"Seriously Much. It's no good to us if you can't keep up. You'd be no use to Robin either. Wouldn't it be better to stay here, and be sure that Ned can't follow us?" Ned opened his mouth, presumably to object to her continued usage of the alias he so obviously hated. Nasir glared him into silence.
"I suppose I should stay." Much hung his head. "But I want to help rescue Robin."
"You will be helping." She looked up, her eyes meeting Nasir's. There was none of her own concern in the largely impassive face; just the hint of real seriousness in the dark eyes. There was impatience there too she realised - and that much at least she knew that her face also showed. Anything might have happened to Robin - might be happening now. Gently, but with a trace of anxious speed, she began to usher Much back towards the camp. Nasir followed on behind with Ned, the boy protesting loudly all the while. It was no surprise that the others back at the camp heard their approach, and all five were looking out for them when they arrived.
"Trouble?" There was a polite interest in Asam's voice. Marion left it to Nasir to answer, and settled Much down beside the fire.
"Perhaps." Nasir didn't look at his old friend, focusing instead on Ned. He dragged the now furiously struggling boy over towards Much, and tied him to one of the smaller, young trees that encroached upon the edge of the clearing. Ned scowled and snarled, the insults rolling off his tongue with practised ease. It was easy to ignore them, for the opinions of a teenaged aristocrat meant nothing to Nasir, and many of the words he did not really understand.
"It is not advisable to be so impolite." Asam's soft tread had gone unnoticed even by Nasir, and it was a surprise to hear the other man's voice from so close by. He heard the smooth rush of a drawing sword, and glanced up to see a flawless blade descending slowly. Ned's eyes widened.
"Help!" The word came out as a squeak when the sword's gleaming point touched Ned's neck. He pressed himself back against the tree, and his eyes stared wildly up at Nasir. If it was a plea for help against the threat of the sword it was directed at the wrong man. Nasir stood up, after checking the rope a second time, and turned away.
"You should watch your language." Asam's voice was quiet, though it was pleasant enough. "And find out who you're talking to before you use insults like that. He's no peasant." The sword moved in a little closer, pressing hard against the skin. "Now are you going to tell me why your friend here is suddenly the enemy, Malik Kemal, or do I have to persuade him to tell me instead?"
"It was a trick." Marion handed Much a water-skin, before standing up and pushing Asam's sword away from its target. "The story about his mother, his request for our help... all just a trick."
"Then Robin is in danger." Asam sheathed his sword, and offered Marion a brief but courteous bow. "My friends and I will be delighted to help save him."
"You?" Nasir stepped around him, already setting out for the castle. "Help unbelievers? Westerners?" His voice, bitter and cold, was louder than usual. Marion didn't understand what he had said, for he had spoken again in Arabic, but that tone of voice surprised her.
"Nasir, the help would be useful." She turned to Asam, smiling in faintly confused gratitude. "But I'd like to know why you want to help us."
"Robin rescued us." Asam's tone of voice suggested that it hurt his pride to be asked to explain such a thing. "Nasir will tell you that we have no love for these parts, or for a man who follows a Pagan faith - but we repay our debts with honour."
"I see." She looked over at Nasir, asking any number of questions in just the same, silent way in which he preferred to talk. He looked unhappy, but he nodded. Whatever Asam might think of this band of Christians and Pagans, he would do what he could to save the life of a man who had saved him. Marion returned the nod.
"Then we shouldn't waste any more time. We don't know what's happening, or what the Sheriff might be planning to do with the others."
"Kill them, at a guess." Asam's eyes had a faraway look. "The Sheriff is not a man that I knew for very long, but I think I have his measure. He would fear people like you. His life is the regimen of the castle, like many of the Crusaders who come to my land. He knows only his own ways. Not a coward, perhaps, but he still won't want to keep an enemy alive unnecessarily. He'll want friend Robin out of the way."
"You're right." Marion had gone terribly pale, lost in the horrible thought that they might already be too late. If only they had seen Ned's deception earlier - instead of failing to keep Herne's warning in mind. An enemy had made a request, and they should have thought twice before answering it, even if they had not at the time known him to be an enemy. When Herne made a prophecy he had to be listened to carefully.
"Is Robin dead?" Much, of course, had picked that one possibility out of millions, and Marion was not in any position to be as reassuring as she would usually be. She forced a wobbling smile onto her face, but took a moment before she could confidently turn around to give the boy his answer.
"I don't think so Much. You know the Sheriff. He'll want to kill Robin, yes, but he'll want a chance to gloat about it. He'll want to make a show for the local people to watch. A public execution, as a warning to others. He may even want to wait until he's got the rest of us before he does anything."
"Then he might be expecting you."
"Yes." She hadn't really considered that until now, and it made her stop and think. There was every chance that, realising he did not have the entire gang, the Sheriff would sit back and wait for a rescue attempt to deliver him the rest. Since it had not been his plan that had won him Robin, he would be especially eager to complete the collection as soon as he could.
"You will be careful, won't you." Much sounded very young, very subdued, and Marion at last managed to summon a smile that looked as though it meant something. She nodded.
"We'll be careful. You be careful too. Don't underestimate your friend there."
"I won't." Much reached for his bow, setting it across his lap. "But hurry back."
"If we can." Marion looked around at her associates, well aware of the sensation they were likely to cause once they were seen at Nottingham Castle. Asam and his friends might be old, but they were still very obviously Saracen warriors - legendary enemies from far across the world. The effect on ordinary citizens ought to be interesting enough, but if word ever got to London, things could prove to be extremely awkward for the Sheriff. Smiling faintly to herself, she threw on her quiver of arrows, shouldered her bow, and took a last, fond look around the camp. Memories of Robin were everywhere, even though they had been together here for only a very short time. If the unthinkable happened, and they were too late in their rescue mission, it was easy to believe that she would never be able to look at so much as a tree again, without remembering unbearable things.
"Take the lead, Nasir." He moved off at her bidding, wordlessly accepting of the authority that was hers as Robin's wife. Asam went next, and Marion herself, leaving the others to follow on behind. At the rear, a large sword in either hand, was the biggest of them, old and much weathered, though clearly still a man of some strength. He looked terrifying even to Marion, who was reasonably sure that he would do her no harm. Nottingham, she thought wryly, was in for a surprise; either that or she and her companions were. She would just have to wait to find out which it was going to be.
"Robin? Robin?" The voice faded into hearing slowly, but only after several further moments did it gain real meaning. Robin groaned loudly.
"Robin!" A different voice. So there were lots of people asking for him. Rather uncharitably he wished that they would leave him alone. He had a dreadful headache, and he would far rather lie still and sleep it off.
"Robin?" A third voice. Will's. He sounded less than his usual hard and angry self, and Robin looked up at him in faint surprise. Memory returned then, and with it all thought of pain fled away. He sat up.
"Take it slowly, take it slowly." Tuck tried to hold his shoulders, but Robin wouldn't be slowed. He rubbed at his head and groaned softly, then looked around.
"The dungeon," he said, with remarkable spirit. "How nice."
"Getting to be more like a homecoming every time, isn't it." John banged him on the back, rather harder than Tuck would have liked. "I think they've even changed the straw recently."
"Some time in the last fifty years, anyway." Will kicked at it. "Back in this confounded place! They were waiting for us. It was all a trap!"
"Looks like it." John hauled Robin to his feet. "Don't mind him, Robin. He's been muttering the same few sentences since we were thrown down here. I thought we were in for trouble when I saw that he'd landed on his head."
"Hey!" Will seemed to be spoiling for a fight, but Tuck interceded with a friendly cuff across his shoulders.
"Now now, Scarlet. We're all cross, but it doesn't do us any good to argue about it. We'd be better putting our energies towards worrying about Marion and the others. If this was a trap, there's no doubting that young Ned was behind it."
"Aye. That boy fooled all of us right and good." John sounded disgusted, and certainly looked as much. "A plan of the Sheriff's, I suppose."
"I doubt it. Robert de Rainault, come up with two plans in one day?" Tuck shook his head. "Not that it really matters who thought it up."
"Oh it matters." Will was still fuming. "It matters so that I can find out, and so that when I find out I can beat somebody head against a tree till something pops."
"I wonder who Ned really is." Gingerly touching his head to find where he had been hit, Robin discovered only a minor swelling. The pain had mostly ebbed away now, and he thanked Herne for his health and strong constitution. "Something tells me that he's not really the kitchen boy."
"Might be. He might have been made to come. A good person to send for this kind of job, somebody who looks so innocent." John seemed to review his own thoughts, then shook his shaggy head. "No, you're right. They tried that sort of trick with Jennet of Elsdon, and it failed. I doubt they'd try it again."
"Somebody's relative, somebody's friend. Either way it doesn't get us out of the big hole." Will was pacing restlessly about, looking as though he might be about to start punching the walls. "What do you suppose the next bit of the nice surprise is?"
"Execution, probably." Tuck beamed at him, apparently as cheerful as always. "I should think we'll all get taken out for a nice public beheading."
"We might even get hanged, if we behave ourselves." John smiled faintly. "We'd better come up with something. I'll bet that the Sheriff isn't planning to hold his horses on this one."
"Yeah, not to mention the fact that we've got to get out of here before Ned manages to pull another trick to get hold of Marion and the others." Will kicked a great shower of damp straw into the air, and watched it settle again. The movement caused a powerful smell that he would far rather not have unleashed, but at least it provided a little variation from the usual choking stench of damp and decay.
"Maybe they'll realise it's a trap and come after us?" Tuck's clearly unyielding good cheer earned him a fierce glower from Will, but from above them a more cheerful observer clearly approved of the optimism.
"I do hope so." It was the Sheriff, staring down at them through the barred hatch that was their only point of contact with the world. "In fact I'm rather counting on it."
"You're counting on it?" Gisburne was there as well, although he clearly didn't share his employer's glee. "My lord, I thought that--"
"Gisburne..." Sarcasm dripped from the Sheriff's tongue. "How many times do I have to warn you against that? All kinds of problems arise when you try thinking."
"It was my thinking, my lord, that got this dungeon filled." Gisburne was simmering, and in the darkness of their quarters Robin and his friends shared a grin. The Sheriff snorted.
"You think so do you Gisburne? Because I rather thought that this was all Edward's idea. He got lucky, and if he makes it back here in one piece I'll congratulate him on it - but he won't get that lucky twice. Those three good for nothing outlaws that are left out there with him aren't nearly as stupid as we might like to believe, and something is sure to happen sooner or later to prove that Edward is anything other than their friend. When that happens, they'll mount a rescue operation. I intend to be waiting for them."
"My lord, if they realise that he's one of us..."
"All kinds of horrible things could happen to him, yes I know." The Sheriff laughed quietly. "And it would be such a shame if they did."
"Sounds like you two have things to discuss." The habitual courtesy in his tone guaranteed to annoy the Sheriff, Robin raised his voice politely. "Why don't you go somewhere private, and leave us in peace?"
"Oh you'll be getting all the peace you want soon enough, Wolfshead." The Sheriff kicked at a loose piece of stone, hoping to catch Robin with it when it fell. It missed by a good distance, and landed in a pool of rancid water, splashing Will's shoes. His glare dared John to laugh.
"My lord..." Gisburne seemed agitated. "If anything were to happen to Edward..."
"If anything were to happen to Edward, I should think that his father would come to you about it, wouldn't he Gisburne. You're the one who agreed to take the boy under your tutelage for the time being." The Sheriff's thin smile was nasty. "It serves you both right for getting too clever for your own good, doesn't it. Now come on. I have guards to post, and you have three filth ridden outlaws to prepare for. See that they don't get away." With that his footsteps echoed away across the heavy stones, and the prisoners could only assume that he had gone. Robin laughed.
"I don't think he really appreciates you, Gisburne."
"Shut up, Wolfshead." Gisburne, as usual, sounded as though he was sulking. Robin's laugh grew a little louder.
"Always the same, isn't it. Unappreciated, put upon. Perhaps you should leave it all behind and become an outlaw?"
"No gang would have him," spat Will. Tuck's own soft laugh joined Robin's.
"Aye, you could be right there."
"If I wanted to be an outlaw, I would be the best in England." Gisburne's habitual haughtiness made the boast into something absurd. "The Sheriff's just cross because his own plan didn't amount to much. A few more dead guards and a very angry slave merchant who wants his wares back. That's all that we got for that little escapade."
"Now now, Sir Guy. That's bordering on disloyalty." Tuck crossed himself with an air of amusement. "I shall pray for you, my son."
"Leave your prayers for yourself, you pitiful excuse for a priest!" Finally realising that they were engaging him in conversation solely to annoy him, Gisburne turned away. "The next time that you see me, I'll be bringing you the rest of your miserable little band. Then the seven of you can wait for the executioner's axe together."
"He always says such nice things," muttered John, only half in jest. Robin nodded.
"He likes us really. He just pretends that he doesn't."
"See how much I'm pretending when I watch that axe come down, Wolfshead." Gisburne's boots made angry noises as he made for the door. "Enjoy your quarters. I'd say enjoy your last meal as well, but we won't bother feeding you. What's the point?"
"That's alright. We're used to rather better fare than a Norman castle can provide." Still in typically jaunty spirits, Robin smiled up at the retreating figure, watching him move out of his narrow line of sight. "Do I get to ask a last question though?"
"Depends what it is I suppose." The footsteps had stopped. Perhaps Gisburne was interested to know what a last question might be.
"Ned." Right now it was all that mattered, for if Marion didn't unmask the traitor in the camp she would be in just as much danger as if she did. A no win situation, unless somebody thought very fast. "Who is he?"
"Ned?" For a moment the name didn't register, then Gisburne reappeared in the grate. There was a smile on his face, as unpleasant as always, smug superiority highlighted in his pale eyes. "You mean Edward. Lord Edward, that is. He's the son of a man I fought with out in the Holy Land, who was killed a few years ago. Edward inherited some massive estates in the south of England, and his family recently asked me to take charge of him for a time. A few more years and he'll be able to take over the running of the estates. They don't think he's ready yet." He drew himself up to his full height. "It's quite an honour. The boy is closely related to royalty."
"I suppose royalty will be delighted when they find out that you've got him killed then." Will's sullen tones came in sharp contrast to Gisburne's oily pride. The knight stared down at him much as he might have stared down at a rat which had just crawled across his dinner table.
"Killed?" he spat. Will smirked.
"Killed. If Sheriff High And Mighty is right, and Marion and the others are on their way here, it's because they've worked out that Ned's a traitor. Which means that right now he's probably dangling in gory strips from half the trees in Sherwood. That ought to take some explaining."
"You're not killers." Gisburne didn't sound completely sure of that, but he had a certain conviction. Will smirked.
"You don't know Nasir."
"Happily true." Gisburne shook his head, disgusted with himself for having remained behind to talk to these inferior creatures. "But you can smirk all you like, Wolfshead. By this time tomorrow you'll be nothing more than a sorry memory. Whatever happens to Lord Edward, I'll still be responsible for that."
"We'll see." Robin's eyes met the other man's, holding them, matching the easy confidence so perfectly that it was Gisburne who looked away first. With a growl filled with threats and petulance, the young knight once more walked away, this time leaving completely. John sighed.
"Wonderful. What are we going to do, Robin?"
"Escape, eventually." Robin thought hard, staring up at the grate above them. He had climbed up there before to escape from this godforsaken place - more than once, which not only made something of an expert of him, but also made a mockery of the Norman sentries.
"And Marion? And Nasir and Much?" Will's eyes carried their usual challenge, but Robin wasn't going to deny him that now. They were all worried about their friends.
"They'll come up with something."
"And do we hope that they see through Ned and walk into a trap, or don't see through him and walk into a trap?" Will looked disgusted. "We're slipping, Robin."
"It'll all work out alright." Robin's mind drifted back to Herne's warning, about old friends and enemies with requests. Why couldn't he have been more straightforward, and told him who that enemy would turn out to be? That was a past concern now though, and a more important question remained. Herne had warned of the old friend as well as the enemy. Was Asam also going to turn out to be a threat? Robin dearly hoped not. If the day was not going to be lost, Marion was going to have to contend with Edward and his machinations, the Sheriff and his latest trap, and any number of Norman guards. She didn't need any further difficulties.
"It'll all work out alright will it?" Scarlet went back to kicking at the straw, shoulders hunched in frustrated fury. "You'd better be right, Robin. No way am I going to the executioner's block knowing that the last thing I'll ever see is the Sheriff of Nottingham smirking at me."
"Then we'll have to make sure that we don't go to the executioner's block, won't we." Robin gestured to John, indicating the door above them, ready to put their usual plan into action. "Think you can lift us up?"
"Probably." Sighing at the idea of such exertion, John positioned himself directly beneath the grating, and prepared himself for the method of escape that was fast becoming a speciality. "But there's no way I'm lifting Tuck all the way up there."
Nottingham Castle. Not a place that Nasir often had cause to visit twice in one day, and certainly not a place that he especially wanted to visit at all. Crouching in the bushes that stood thickly some distance from the city, he stared up at the towering height of the dark walls, and frowned. He had already run blindly into one trap today. This time there was no chance of Robin appearing at just the right moment to rescue him, if it turned out that he was running into a trap once again.
"I didn't imagine I'd be coming back here." Asam's tone showed dry amusement, and Nasir smiled faintly. It took several moments to realise that his old friend was speaking in their shared language, and when it had at last registered, he frowned.
"English," he said, voice quiet and forceful. Asam sighed, and speaking further, didn't comply.
"Trying to be one of them in every way, aren't you. You have your own language, Nasir. Your own religion. Your own land."
"I use my own language. For myself. It's nothing more than a courtesy to use English now. For her." He nodded at Marion, moving quietly up to join them, then switched to the foreign tongue himself. "Polite. Yes?"
"Ah yes. Her." Asam was still speaking Arabic, for he had no desire to let his English companion listen in on his conversation. "Them. Who are these people, Nasir? Why do their beliefs lead you astray from yours?"
"They do not." Speaking English always made Nasir sound more forceful - for the thought required, perhaps, or possibly because of the strength of his accent. His own current anger gave the words even more force still, and Marion glanced up sharply.
"Problems?" she asked. If these two were going to be arguing all the way into Nottingham they didn't stand a chance of getting into the castle undiscovered. Asam smiled warmly, though not, she suspected, entirely genuinely.
"No problems. Just a difference of opinion."
"Oh." She answered his smile, then ordered Nasir on ahead. They needed somebody to find them their best entrance, and it was best that it should be him. The only other person who knew Nottingham was herself, and she didn't feel inclined to leave Nasir and his countrymen alone together. He and Asam seemed to have a particular ability to drive each other to distraction.
"It's good to see him still using the skills that I taught him." Asam stared after Nasir, moving so fast towards the castle walls. Even though his black clothes were far from a camouflage, there was little chance of the city guards seeing him. "They seemed long years, training him and his brothers, all of them so eager to be finished with it all, so that they could join in with the fighting."
"Boys always look forward to becoming men." Marion thought of Much, so desperate to be as big and as strong as Robin and the others, and always objecting when they tried to watch out for him.
"I know." He smiled, apparently fondly, though there was a glitter in his eyes that spoke volumes. "Especially in a country at war, invaded by people of one faith who take exception to the one already there. It's madness, perhaps, but the war has become a way of life for generations. It has become life. We train our children to fight it, raise them in a world of hatred and death. They see your knights killing all that they come across. As children they see death and destruction, walk through streets that run with blood. They understand that their duty is to end it, once and for all. I trained Nasir as I trained his brothers, to continue the fight, and drive out the enemy. It is what he should be doing - and what he will do again, once we've helped you to free your friends."
"If Nasir wants to leave, nobody is stopping him." It was hard to keep one eye on her fast moving friend, whilst simultaneously concentrating on Asam's determined words, but she knew that Asam deserved a hearing. "He may have been brought here against his will, but he's not being kept here that way.
"It might be better if he was." Asam turned his back on the distant figure, looking directly at Marion. "Perhaps it's the war - the threat to eradicate our faith making us more devout. Perhaps it's our inherited determination not to be disloyal to the One God who made us all - but if he's lost faith, Marion, it's a death sentence for him, and as a man who is proud to be devout, it would be my duty to carry that sentence out. If he has chosen to stay here, and let his people suffer without his assistance, it looks very much as though he has chosen to abandon everything. All his loyalties, and worst of all, the Shahada. You know what that is?"
"Yes, and you're wrong." She turned, returning her full attention to Nasir. He was signalling to her, one of his many hand and arm gestures that he used instinctively, never quite seeming to remember that his English friends didn't really know what they all meant.
"Perhaps." He saw the flicker of he frown, and turned his head to look back towards the castle. Nasir's brisk sign language was as clear to him as carefully spoken words, and he beckoned to his people to start heading their way. "The coast is clear," he told Marion. "We're to go over in pairs or singly, when he signals us. And stay alert."
"You taught him the signs too?"
"No, his father taught him that. He taught all of us, just as once Salah al-Din taught him." He smiled at her, and for the first time she saw real fondness and real warmth crinkling the corners of his eyes. "An important man, Nasir's father. The Templars themselves were said to have put a price on his head." He nodded at the distant figure. "We should go now."
"... will have seen the signals, and understood them. We were all warriors together, Marion, just like you and your friends." He started to edge forward, and she saw something else for the first time; the way that his body moved, well schooled despite the weaknesses from recent ill use. It was not easy to follow him step for step, matching his speed and his stealth, copying his low, steady run. A reminder, perhaps, that underestimating a man because of his age was never to be advised.
"Are they watching the gates, Nasir?" It was rare that they avoided Nottingham's main gates, for generally they were not watched closely by the generally lax guards. So easy was it to slip into the city under the cover of some basic disguise, that it surprised Marion to see that Nasir had settled on the wall itself as the best route. He nodded, once, as though suddenly anxious to be as sparing with movement as he usually was with words.
"Extra guards. Some hidden."
"Then this is a trap too. They were expecting us to come after the others."
"They must have realised you would eventually, when they didn't go back to the forest." Asam eyed the wall, a childlike enthusiasm that glowed in his eyes rather destroying his attempts at gravitas. "It's been a long time since I stormed a castle."
"We have to get into the city first," Marion reminded him "And don't be too anxious to go storming things once we're inside. We'll need to be reasonably secretive, at least at first."
"I'll not put your friends' lives at risk,. Not with all that I owe them." Asam gestured to the wall. "So how are we getting in, Malik Kemal? We have no ropes, there are sure to be guards watching, at least intermittently. How is this wall better than the gates?"
"The bakery." As an explanation it lacked much, but Marion caught his meaning. Nottingham possessed several bakeries, but one particularly large one was built very close to the city wall. Not only was it the kind of building guaranteed to provide good cover, and was generally all but abandoned at this time of day, but it was owned by a man who owed much to Robin of Sherwood. When a gang of marauders had once ridden off with Peter the Baker's wife and daughters, Robin and his outlaw band had moved heaven and earth to get them back, and had been promised unconditional assistance in the future. So far they had never had cause to call upon him for his help, but it seemed sensible to do so now. Marion only hoped that he didn't want to help too much.
"Are you sure we can get over the wall without being seen?" she asked. Nasir's answer was to immediately swing himself up .If there were footholds they were invisible, but since becoming an outlaw Marion had learned that walls were never as smooth as they appeared, especially old city walls like this. At the top he looked over, keeping low, taking in the guards patrolling along the paths between buildings; the places where it was possible that more guards might be hiding; and judged the risks accordingly. From the top of the wall it was an easy jump over to the roof of the bakery, and to get down from there, through an air-vent or window, should be no trouble at all, especially since they could be certain of nobody inside raising the alarm. He glanced downwards, to where Asam was signalling over the rest of the band. They might mean trouble, Nasir was prepared to concede that. Peter the Baker was ready to do anything for Robin and any of his men, but a group of Saracen warriors was a little different. Just so long as Asam's men didn't try their usual trick of meeting any potential threat with a swift arm and a sharp blade.
"Everything clear?" hissed Marion. Nasir nodded, easing himself up so that he was lying flat along the top of the wall. The guards had a rhythm to their movement, and it was easy to gauge when would be the best time to jump across. Certain, he rolled over, and slid back down to rejoin the others.
"Climb up," he told them, in his staccato English. "When the guards go, count ten, then they come back. It is enough time."
"Enough time to jump over to the bakery?" Marion thought about the baker's family, and hoped that none of them proved too nervous. "Alright, that should work. Once we're inside Peter will help us. We can stay in his house until dark if we need to, although I'm hoping we can get going before then. Poor old Sheriff. He plans for every contingency, but he never imagines that we'll have inside help."
"A man so unpopular cannot imagine others having friends." Asam looked up at the wall. "You trust this man Peter?"
"With my life. With anybody's life. He's a brave man, and his heart is in the right place. He owes us a favour."
"Ah. A man who assists for much the same reason as myself." Asam smiled at her. "But are you sure that he doesn't also owe the Sheriff a favour?"
"How could anybody owe the Sheriff anything?" She gestured to Nasir, telling him to go back up the wall, and he went quickly. "Make sure your friends understand that they're not to kill anybody we meet inside that house."
"They will understand. But if an alarm is raised, Marion, we will stop it in the quickest and the best way available. Your friends are not necessarily ours."
"This is no time for a difference of opinion!" She looked up to Nasir, just disappearing from the top of the wall. "I mean it, Asam. We're glad to have your help, especially since you seem to think that you owe it to Robin to help out. But you must agree to do this our way. This is not your land, and you're not fighting your war here. These are English peasants, not Christian knights."
"They are still Christians. They still hate us because we are not." He bowed his head in a courteous gesture of acceptance. "But as you wish. Will you go next up the wall?"
"Yes. Thankyou." She accepted his offer of a boost, though she climbed the rest of the way easily enough on her own. From the top she saw, as had Nasir, the patrolling guards certain in their own vigilance. None of them looked at the top of the walls, and none of them seemed to be watching the bakery. Waiting patiently until they moved out of sight she crouched up, and leapt across to the bakery roof, all the time counting softly under her breath. No sooner had she flattened herself against the flat roof of the bakery when, on the count of ten, the patrol came marching back. She heard their stamping feet, and a mutter of disgruntled chatter.
"Nasir?" She barely whispered his name, too anxious that the guards shouldn't hear it to be properly certain that he would. He waved to her from behind the central chimney.
"Any sign of anybody?" He shook his head, and she crawled over to join him. "Nobody at all? Can you hear anyone?" Again he shook his head, and she sighed. "I hope the Sheriff isn't gathering everybody up already. He'll want witnesses for the execution." She looked up at him, eyes wide in an echo of Much's plaintive expression of earlier. "What if we're too late, Nasir?"
"Not yet." He pointed at something, and she saw, over the rooftops, the usual hustle and bustle of the market place. There was no massing audience yet then. Not that that didn't mean that Robin hadn't been executed in private, but it gave her something to hope for. Asam scurried over to join them.
"A good vantage point," he said approvingly. "Do we go down the chimney?"
"No." Nasir pointed to a hole in the roof, cut for extra ventilation. A shutter lay across it, but it was easy enough to pull it back. Marion climbed down inside.
"I can hear talking," she called back. "It sounds like Peter and his wife. They must be downstairs."
"Is there any chance of getting past them unseen?" whispered Asam. Marion shook her head.
"There's only one room down there. There's no way to get outside without them knowing. Not unless we go out of a window, and there's not enough cover for that. We'd be seen." She stepped back out of the way as Nasir swung down to join her. "Wait here. Get the others down. I'll go to talk to Peter." He nodded, and she glanced up at the hole above them, where other faces were appearing to stare down at them both. "Nasir..."
"It is alright." He also glanced up, then looked back at her. "They will do nothing."
"Right." She hesitated a moment longer, then crept carefully away down the stairs. There was another floor below the top one, where sacks of coarse flour lay about in untidy piles, and hand-carved wooden toys showed evidence of Peter's youngest child. She went through it all quickly, to the hole, accompanied by a ladder, that led through to the main room beneath. The voices were much louder now; some minor argument of domestic life that Marion felt bad for overhearing; the sort of argument that she and Robin might have, perhaps, if they were an ordinary couple living in a house somewhere, instead of a pair of freedom fighters hiding in a forest. She leant down through the hole.
"Peter?" Her voice was loud and clear, though tinged with a hint of apology. The voices fell silent. "Peter? It's Marion."
"Marion!" He sounded amazed, but delighted. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for help, I hope." Climbing down the ladder, she went to him, smiling a greeting at his suddenly embarrassed wife. Mary was a good woman, but she was always awkward around Marion; finding it hard, perhaps, to accept that here was a woman who was so capable of looking after herself, whereas she herself had been proved to be helpless during her abduction.
"Are you in some kind of trouble, Marion?" she asked. Marion nodded.
"Sort of. Now listen, this is important. Is there anybody else in the house?"
"No. Not at the moment." Peter frowned at her urgency. "My daughters have taken young Mathew to the market. I'm not expecting them back for a while."
"Good. Robin and most of the others have been captured by Gisburne and the Sheriff." She held up a hand to stop Peter's exclamation of shock. "They're sure to be facing execution, and I have to get to them before then."
"On your own?" Mary's eyes were wide. Marion shook her head.
"No. Nasir is here with me, as well as... well, one or two other people who are helping us. Friends." She smiled rather awkwardly. "Peter... I know that you spent some time in the Holy Land before you became a baker, but you've never felt differently towards Nasir because of that, have you."
"Of course not. He's a friend, Marion. Just as you are." The baker was beaming at her, his lined, sturdy face a picture of amenability and cheer. "Um... are you telling me that you've found a few more stray Saracens somewhere in Sherwood?"
"Five of them. We rescued them from the castle earlier today." The words came out in a rush. "They're helping us to rescue Robin, and I wanted to give you some warning. They look like... something of an invasion force."
"Should raise a few eyebrows in the castle." He shook his head slowly, obviously still taking it all in. "I said that I'd always be available to help you, and I'm not going to go against that now, but it won't be easy getting a band of Saracens into the castle unseen. Perhaps if I was to come with you instead..."
"Peter! You'll do no such thing!" Mary looked shocked, if not terrified. "Marion, you don't need him, do you? That's not why you came here?"
"No, don't worry. We won't have civilians helping us, and putting themselves in danger." She flashed Peter one of her most charming smiles, and saw his initial dismay fading into acceptance. "We just need a little help to get from here to the castle. We couldn't get into the city the usual way. There are guards everywhere waiting for us, expecting us to try to break in. This place was our only real chance of getting into the city unseen. Do you have any bread deliveries today?"
"We've done all of our deliveries. We do them early in the morning." A sound above them made him look up, to where Nasir was just appearing in the hatchway leading to the corridor above. He swung down to join them, looking from Peter to Marion and back again. Peter nodded a greeting.
"Nasir. We were just talking about the deliveries. They're done for today, so you can't get in to the castle that way. I'm not sure that I can suggest anything else."
"Storm the castle." Climbing down the ladder, Asam sounded as though he was probably only joking, but he spoke with a definite seriousness. "You have the core of an army at your disposal. Why not use it?"
"Enthusiastic type." Peter smiled a belated welcome at Asam. "You speak fine English, stranger, but perhaps there are other things that you don't understand so well. Nottingham Castle is one of the finest in the land. It was built to withstand repeated attacks from the north, and strengthened over the years when the Norsemen were attacking as well as the Scots. Slipping in unseen is one thing, and everybody knows that Robin Hood and his men have perfected the art, even if the Sheriff still denies it. But to attack openly? A fully sized army wouldn't manage it, let alone just a few men."
"That depends on the men." Asam called out an all clear, and one by one his companions joined him. They made a sinister bunch, somehow, all with swords drawn and eyes a-glitter. A silent, determined line ready for anything. Mary looked rather shaken.
"Do they, er... I mean are they..."
"They won't hurt you." Marion put a hand on the woman's shoulder, appreciating her fear. There were such tales told of the Saracens; such foolish rumours spread by those who knew no better, as well as by those who should have done. Tales told to make the war seem more necessary, more honourable, more urgent. It was no wonder that Mary was afraid to see them here now.
"We don't have long," Asam reminded her. "Attacking the castle head on might be difficult, but it's better than doing nothing, and letting your enemies kill your friends. I've attacked well defended strongholds with fewer men than this."
"You were also captured," Nasir told him. Asam raised an eyebrow.
"Perhaps because I was supposed to come here to find you. All is as Allah wills it. Never forget that."
"I have not." The two men stared at each other for a moment, before seeming to remember their audience. Abruptly Asam smiled.
"Perhaps it would be foolhardy to attack the place outright, but to stand here discussing it is more foolhardy still. We don't know what has happened to our friends."
"There might be a way that I can get you into the castle." Peter was looking thoughtful, although his announcement had made his wife look terrified. "Although we've made our deliveries for the day, I could always claim that I'd forgotten something. It's not exactly something that I make a habit of, but I've done it before. Sometimes the cook at the castle orders more than just the bread from me; sacks of flour, for instance, for making certain dishes. Perhaps if half of you were to hide in barrels, the rest of you could pretend to be my assistants, and carry the load in? I can't make any guarantee that the guards would believe the excuse, but I've never given them any reason to distrust me. As far as the Sheriff knows I'm loyal to his household. He thinks if he pays me enough I won't question the way he treats my fellow countrymen."
"The Sheriff often makes mistakes like that." Marion looked around at the others. "It sounds to me as though it could work. If it does, we'll finish up in the kitchens. I've been there often enough in the past, and I can lead the way to the dungeons easily enough. It's not the shortest distance, but there aren't so many guards in that part of the castle."
"You needn't worry about guards. As soon as we're inside my companions and I will provide a distraction that should allow you to reach your friends unhindered." Asam had a wicked smile on his face that made him look oddly like Will Scarlet. "We can take the castle apart before they'll have a chance to stop us." He spoke a few words of Arabic to his fellows, clearly asking them if he spoke the truth, and they answered with a rowdy chorus of approval into which even Nasir joined. Marion couldn't help raising an eyebrow, Nasir-like, at such a display.
"You'll go with them?" she asked him. He hesitated, catching Asam's eye.
"He'll be useful. We work well together, and it's been a long time since we fought side by side. You were how old Nasir? Fifteen? Younger perhaps."
"Much time has passed." He bowed his head to the older man, then looked back to Marion. "You should not need help. Perhaps you would be better alone."
"One person might stand more chance of being unseen." She was a little nervous at the idea of going alone, but knew that she was more than capable. For one thing she knew the castle better perhaps than anyone, having spent so much of her time exploring it, once upon a time. "Besides, soon enough I'll have the others free, and then I'll be far from alone."
"Then it's settled." Asam's hand dropped lightly, though with a vaguely proprietary air, onto Nasir's shoulder. "Today the Saracen army takes Nottingham Castle."
"Oh." Peter looked a little put out at that. "This won't have any further reaching consequences that I need to worry about?"
"No." Marion had to smile, although it was not always easy to so directly before going into action. Asam smiled too, showing all the many laughter lines of his striking face as he let the good humour take over.
"A small operation, my friend, nothing more. We're not here to invade your country, and steal you all away to foreign parts. Even Nasir and I cannot manage that with so few men." His smile became wider, brighter, and Marion felt herself warm to it, even if he had not been the best of companions as yet. "Although I dare say we could make a fair attempt, do you not think, Malik Kemal?"
"Perhaps." Nasir lowered his head in another of his deep, slow nods, then met Marion's eye and smiled slightly. She raised an eyebrow again.
"I think you might find this country rather harder to take than that, thankyou very much, but I accept your offer of a diversion. Lead the soldiers away from the dungeon - Nasir knows which way to take - and try to avoid the main hall. The Sheriff will not be in the best of moods, and I don't want him tearing half of the local villages apart in some maddened attempt at revenge."
"He would kill innocent locals as revenge against Saracens?" Asam raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps it is time the people demanded a new Sheriff?"
"We're not actually governed by those who care what the people think." Peter seemed interested by this loquacious foreigner's opinions. "But I can imagine there'd be plenty of people who'd be willing to suffer a little retaliatory oppression if it came in response to de Rainault's... retirement."
"I'm surprised at you, Peter." Marion frowned at him. "There'll be no killing on those terms. Robin would be furious, and you know that the recriminations would be terrible. Not a village would be left standing. I know you're a man of war, Asam, but I don't want that war brought here. You provide your diversion, you fight the knights and the soldiers that you come across, but don't go looking for that kind of trouble."
"Your word, my lady, is my bond." He bowed most gallantly. "But I warn you that this will not be pretty. My men will not be restrained after the injustices they have been forced to suffer. You have ways that are strange to us, but we will agree to your terms... in our way. That is all that I can promise."
"Then I suppose it will have to be enough." She nodded to Peter. "What do we have to do?"
"Well..." He eyed the Saracens, all foreign looking and clearly not residents of Nottingham. It wouldn't be easy to disguise them as his assistants, but both Marion and Nasir were too well known within the castle, quite likely even amongst ordinary servants. It would have to be these others. "I have some spare clothes I think. If you're to look like the men who work for me, you can't wear those robes."
"True enough." Asam barked out a few sharp orders, and three of his men ambled forward. They looked rather unenthusiastic, but they followed Peter to the large cupboard where he kept most of his supplies. In loose white trousers and tunics they did not look any the less foreign, but perhaps if nobody looked too closely... Marion didn't feel very hopeful.
"You can't wear your swords too openly," she pointed out. All three men exchanged an unhappy look, suggesting that Asam was not the only one amongst them to understand some English, and she felt the need to smile. A whole gang of Will Scarlets, all desperate to race into the castle with swords waving cheerfully.
"Hassan... all of you... give me your swords." Nasir addressed the nearest of the men in English, and earned a rueful look. "They will be safe."
"Disguises." One of the men spat the word out as though it might have been a rather vicious epithet, then one after the other the three of them handed over their weapons. Asam smiled.
"And now we hide in barrels, yes? Or sacks?"
"Barrels. Here." Peter gestured to the large front door, shut for the moment. Beside it were a succession of barrels, mostly dusty from flour. He lifted the lid of the nearest, and indicated how much space there was inside. "If those four of you who are left climb inside... I should think we'll be able to carry you all well enough. Just... keep very quiet." He was looking very pale now, and Marion felt sorry for him. He had risen to the occasion remarkably well, but she hoped that he wasn't going to fail her now.
"Thankyou Peter." She climbed inside the barrel, settling herself inside it. "You're to leave as soon as possible. I don't want you to get mixed up in the fighting. If anybody sees us climb out of the barrels, look shocked. I don't want anybody to know that you helped us."
"And I'll second that." Mary took his arm. "Please, Peter. Promise me."
"Oh I'm no fighter." He looked a little sad, as though he would very much like to have been going with the others on their adventure, then put the lid down on top of Marion. Around him the others were climbing inside other barrels, Nasir still holding the three extra swords. Just another in a long list of sneaky ways inside Nottingham Castle, he thought, crouching down at the bottom of the barrel. There had been less comfortable ones in the past. There was a jolt as one of the men tipped the barrel slightly on its axis, and began rolling it slowly through the large, creaking door. There was a jerk, a moment of weightlessness, then the jolt of a landing in the bottom of Peter's cart. Dust fell. A horse whinnied. The cart jolted forward.
It was not a long journey, though it felt it to Marion. It was hot in the barrel, and there was not a great deal of air. The cart jolted, and she wondered what would happen if one of the barrels fell off the cart. It was sure to break open upon impact, and the sight of anybody hiding in a barrel would be enough to raise the alarm. Even if it was her or Nasir, known as friends by so many, still there was sure to be somebody who would inform the local soldiers. The game would well and truly be up then. She wondered how well Peter had tied the barrels down, and felt a quick burst of guilt at the thought of the honest baker. The poor man had probably never thought that his offer of help would be called upon, though he had risen to the challenge well enough. Almost a natural, one might say. Just so long as nobody ever found out about his involvement, so that he had to put that natural talent to permanent use.
It was something of a surprise when they came to a juddering halt. Marion felt her barrel hoisted up into the air, and swung down from the cart, before being lifted again into the powerful arms of one of the others. Peter or one of the Saracens, she wondered, not that it made much difference. All that mattered was that they get her and her companions into the castle, without being challenged.
It was terrible to have no active role in that; to be able to do nothing to help them gain entrance to the building, to get past the guards, and she felt the frustration build. Only when she felt her barrel being set down did she breathe a silent sigh of relief, and wait with anything like patience to see what would happen next. For quite some time nothing did. She heard distant shouts, and knew that she was inside the castle. The shouts were those of castle guards; of haughty Normans demanding service; of harassed and lowly workers trying to get their jobs done. She knew their voices, and could even put faces to some of them. The deep booming voice was the chef; that much she knew with real certainty. She had liked him, in the days when this had been her home. He hadn't exactly been a friendly face, but he had been a nicer one than many. Strange how he felt like an enemy now, when it was important for her to get past him unseen.
"Marion?" Peter's voice came quietly, hoarsely, through the sides of her barrel, filtering through the many tiny holes and cracks that provided her with light and air. Somebody had made the barrel badly, and she was grateful to them for it. "Marion, are you still alright in there?"
"Fine." She tried the lid, but it was still tight. "What's happening?"
"We're in the kitchens. One of your friends is checking to see that everything's safe." There was a loud thud and a strangled cry, and Marion heard Peter wince. "I think somebody might have seen something."
"So much for not looking for trouble." She tried the lid again. "Get me out of here, Peter. I have to start looking for Robin."
"If you're sure." He struggled for a moment, then heaved the lid off and gave her a hand out. "Things went pretty well. I don't think they suspected anything."
"Even when it turned out that your assistants couldn't speak English?"
He smiled. "That problem didn't arise. The guards only talked to me."
"That was lucky."
"Yes." He smiled again, with less humour this time. "I was terrified."
"Good. If you hadn't been, you might have ended up taking risks." She directed him towards the other barrels, then went quickly to the door. Hassan and his two fellows were in view, standing as rock solid sentinels against the threat of discovery. She was glad to see them there, even if they were something of an unknown quantity.
"You should go." She hadn't heard Nasir's approach, which naturally enough didn't surprise her. His voice did though, coming from so close behind her, the accent even stronger than usual.
"Yes, I should." She glanced back at him. "Are you ready?"
"Always." He had already drawn his swords, and with the three additional weapons belonging to Hassan and the others he looked fearsome indeed. "Start for the dungeons."
"The distraction will be underway before I get there?"
"It will." He slipped past her then, heading for Hassan, and she heard them speaking together quietly. Hassan slapped him on the back, laughing at something, taking the three swords and handing them around.
"Are you ready Marion?" Asam's voice, so smoothly lacking in accent compared to Nasir's, made her jump. She frowned at herself for it, and turned around to face him.
"I'm ready. Has Peter gone?"
"He's on his way. A fine man, perhaps, if inexperienced. I can't quite get used to this place where men have no fighting skills."
"It's a good way to be." She moved aside to let him pass, but he didn't go immediately. He gestured for his remaining men to go first, watching them as they joined the others, listening for a moment to the buzz of their quiet conversation. "Do you understand what they're saying?"
"No. I have some Arabic, but only a little. Not enough to understand them, especially when they speak so fast. Why? What are they saying?"
"Discussing which way to go, remembering other assaults, in faraway places. When Nasir was a boy he once helped Hassan to take an enemy outpost. They're talking about that, and about escaping afterwards, when reinforcements came to roust them."
"If you're trying to prove something, Asam..."
"No." He smiled, charming once again. "Good luck, Marion. We'll see that the guards leave the path to the dungeons clear."
"Thankyou." She moved away from him, taking a different corridor, not casting another glance back at Nasir and the others. Robin was her priority now; if he was still alive. She couldn't quite shake the thought that she might break into the dungeons only to find him already dead in his cell. The Sheriff's desire for vengeance could be terrible, and she had seen it in action too many times to be complacent now. Behind her, echoing through the corridors, she heard shouts that could only have been Saracen war cries; the yells of men no longer travelling in secrecy, determined to announce themselves to the world. She felt almost sad that she wasn't able to see it; to watch them chase through the castle, waving their swords and leaving the household guards hopelessly outmanoeuvred. At least she hoped that was what was happening. It would be six against dozens, but she was more or less certain that Nasir and his friends would prevail. As certain as she was that Robin was still alive, anyway.
The dungeon door was unguarded, but there were two sentries sitting at a table just inside. They were arguing about whether or not to see what the noise was about, but neither one of them was making any attempt to move. A bloodcurdling scream echoed through the air, and both guards jumped as if hit. She took a deep breath, levelled her readied bow, and stepped through the door.
"Don't move," she ordered the pair. Nether of them did. "Are there any other guards down here?"
"Um... not right now. They went to investigate..." One of the guards, speaking in a shaky voice, stared up at her in obvious terror. "I... I know you. Are you... those noises..."
"Saracens," she told him, mostly just to see what sort of effect it had. "Bringing the Crusades to England I should think."
"The castle is under attack?" The second guard started to rise to his feet then, and she swung her bow around to point at him. "Well you're not going to shoot me! You're English, a Christian, surely? You can't let them take the castle?"
"They can have the castle for all I care. I'm here for Robin Hood." She kept her voice clear and firm, aware that she had to keep the upper hand here in all things. Another horrendous scream came from somewhere above, and she had to steel herself not to jump. Both guards did, and she wondered if she was going to be able to keep them from panicking. If they bolted she might be in for trouble.
"What do you think is going on up there?" She knew that they were wondering anyway, and saw how her question made their skin pale. They really didn't want to find out. "Well if you'd rather stay down here and not have to worry about it, you'd better show me where Robin Hood is. Yes?"
"Yes. Of course." One of the guards was on his feet in seconds, pointing towards an inner door. She remembered it; remembered being pushed through it herself, to be locked up in one of the ghastly cells beyond.
"Open it," she ordered. He grabbed a set of keys from a hook on the wall, then stopped short, clearly gripped by a sudden attack of conscience. His friend stood up slowly.
"If we help you, who's to say that we won't end up being put to death anyway? If those Saracens come here... if they take the castle..."
"As soon as you've helped me to free my friends, I'd suggest that the two of you take the quickest route out of here. Don't talk to anybody, and don't stop until you're well out of the way. Otherwise I can't guarantee what might happen to you." She drew a little nearer, trying to smile in the same, coldly dangerous way that Will so often used. Her own gentle face wasn't quite designed for it, but it clearly had some effect. Both men took a step back, and another yell rang out from somewhere in the castle. Whatever was going on, Marion was sure it must be terrible. She felt rather sorry for the soldiers of Nottingham Castle, for they had never, for the most part, been terribly good at sustained fighting.
"Here. Let me open the door." Suddenly pathetically eager to please, the guard who had fetched the keys dragged open the inner door and gestured inside. "There you are, you see."
"Inside, both of you." She followed them, keeping her bow levelled. "Now where are they?"
"Over here." It was the second guard who spoke this time, with more of a sense of spirit than his associate. He crouched beside a grate, and pointed. "In this one."
"Then open the door." She followed him over, peering down. Only then did she realise just how tense she had been; how afraid she was that she was not going to find all of her friends safe and well - but the scene that met her eyes was not one of horror or misery, but rather one that made her begin to laugh. John stood directly beneath the grate, Scarlet astride his shoulders, Tuck struggling to lift Robin in similar fashion. They were wobbling badly; and when they saw her they looked decidedly sheepish. John even blushed.
"Er... hello Marion." Robin smiled, actually managing to look as though he would rather that she wasn't there. "Um... we were just escaping."
"Well I'll go away and let you do it on your own if you'd like." She directed her two prisoners to open the grate, then lower the ladder that was used so rarely to set a prisoner free. Robin scrambled up it, and gave his wife a wildly enthusiastic hug.
"You're wonderful," he told her. The two guards looked uncomfortable. Clearly freeing so notorious an outlaw was restoring something of their sense of responsibility.
"Who are these two friendly fellows?" Tuck came next up, delighted to see Marion, and apparently full of his usual good cheer. "Nice of them to be so helpful."
"Isn't it." Scarlet glared at the pair as he came up the ladder. "Maybe I'll only kill one of them, just to show my gratitude."
"Yeah, but which one? By the time you'd decided the alarm might have been raised." John was the last to climb out of the hole, and with a complete lack of ceremony he immediately tossed one of the guards down in his place. The other one squeaked in fear.
"We were going to escape!" he objected, eyes wide. "She said we could!"
"I did," Marion agreed. Robin smiled.
"Always the nice one. Why exactly didyou do that?"
"And what were they going to be escaping from?" added Will, who didn't much like the idea of letting Norman soldiers escape from him. In answer a dreadful scream tore through the air. Apparently Robin and his companions had been unable to hear the previous shouts, down in their hole with the extra thickness of ceiling and wall, and they stared around them now in shock.
"What in Heaven's name was that?" Crossing himself furiously, Tuck looked about with eyes nearly as wide as the terrified guard's. Marion looked rather abashed, not altogether certain that Robin would approve of the distraction that was helping to see to his escape.
"Saracens," babbled the remaining guard. "Attacking the castle. A whole army of them I shouldn't wonder. They're coming here, from the Holy Land. Hundreds and hundreds of them, to take over the country. It's not safe here!"
"It's never been safe here for most of us." Will pushed him down into the hole after his friend, then helped John to pull the grate back across. "Shut up and stay out of sight for the time being, and they'll probably not notice you." He wiped his hands on his clothes, as though ridding them of any contamination that he might have picked up from the Norman he had touched. "Come on. Let's get out of here. I don't much like dungeons."
"Yes, I rather think we'd better hurry." Robin looked at Marion, still in his embrace. "Saracens?"
"Asam wanted to help free you. We thought it was probably a trap, so we had to do something that the Sheriff wouldn't be expecting. Asam suggested a diversion..." She lowered her eyes. "Robin, I didn't think you'd disapprove. It's not as if we could ask these people to let us in."
"I know." He gave her a squeeze. "I'm sorry to say that they're fair game, all of them. I won't shed any tears for the guards here, but we ought to get up there. Nasir and the others might need our help."
"Which sounds like a good idea to me." Will marched past them, heading for the outer room of the dungeon. "Where'd they put our weapons?"
"Out there somewhere." Robin was anxious to have Albion in his hands again, and he followed Scarlet immediately. "Where's Ned, Marion?"
"At the camp. Much has him under guard." She remembered how worried she had been about the boy earlier, and hoped that he was still alright. "We tied Ned up, so everything should be alright."
"Yes. Yes, Much is sensible enough to keep him secure." Robin took the sword that was passed to him by Will, and smiled in satisfaction. "All the same, I'd rather not leave him alone there any longer than necessary. Come on."
"You don't have tell me twice." Will's look was so fierce and so grim that it might almost have been funny. "Did Nasir and his bunch say where they were heading?"
"Just that they were going to draw as many guards as possible away from the dungeons." She tried to think. "The living quarters maybe. One of the more populated areas, certainly. Asam wanted to meet the Sheriff. I tried to dissuade him, but he was determined. I think he's hoping to run into that slave merchant."
"And who can blame him," muttered John. "Come on. We'd better get going before that little lot get themselves hacked to pieces by the guards. Nasir may be good, but the six of them against the whole castle don't have a chance."
"I'm not so sure about that." She remembered the way that they had all headed off together, so practised, acting almost as one. The shrieks and howls she had heard were further testimony to the likely success of the little group. "But you're right, come on."
"You should stay here, " Robin told her. "Maybe head for the doors, and wait for us outside. Get some horses together."
"No!" Infuriated, she pushed past him and raced for the door. "We don't have time to argue about this, Robin. Just come on!"
"That's telling her Robin." Grinning broadly, John raced off after the girl. Robin sighed.
"How am I supposed to keep her safe?" he asked the ether. Will clapped him on the shoulder.
"Worry about that later. Come on!"
"Aye lad." Tuck also hurried out, if somewhat more slowly. Robin sighed and followed on. He didn't know where they were going, but if nothing else it should be easy enough to follow the screams.
Nasir and his companions had made excellent time through the castle. They had met many guards on their way, and had made as much noise as possible in fighting them. At first they had fought back with rel energy, and it not been hard to make more noise, attracting other guards with the clamouring and shouts. Later the guards were less willing to play along, and came forward with lowered swords as often as not, begging to be allowed to go free. It was a pathetic sight, and not one that met with much mercy.
For Nasir there was little sport in cutting down surrendering men, even if he did share his companion's distaste for the cowardice of the guards. He made no mention of it though, and simply ran on in their midst, fighting with all those who would fight, and revelling in the sense of camaraderie. It was wonderful to be with his friends; to hear their shouts around him, the language that he loved, seeing the others moving in such familiar patterns. They used the shorthand they had learnt and perfected over the years, used the signs he so often forgot that his English friends didn't understand. It was like a homecoming; a violent, blood-soaked homecoming, but a welcome one nonetheless. He felt his heart lighten; felt the natural reserve flow away with each slice of his twin swords. Men fell, men screamed, metal clashed against metal. There were guards everywhere; soldiers coming from all directions, none of them able to strike a decisive blow. Many were veterans of the Crusades; he saw that much in their eyes. They recognised the language, the clothes of his fellows; they raised the alarm, either as they ran to the attack, or as they turned tail and ran away. Soon there were more soldiers, coming to see the sight for themselves - and with them, far at the back where he was sure that he would be safe, was Guy of Gisburne. Nasir saw him, and yelled to his companions. Gisburne, who had spent enough time in the Holy Land to have picked up a few words of Arabic, paled immediately and fled.
"After him!" It was just a simple command, but to those many soldiers who didn't understand a word of the foreign tongue, Asam might just as well have shouted an order to massacre everyone. Everybody was running then; a mad tangle of terrified soldiers and furious Saracens; a mass of battling forms all hitting out at each other, and slashing with swords. Several terrified screams rent the air as a pair of guards fell beneath the stampeding feet of their companions. The cries were cut off, and nobody stopped to find out why, least of all the Saracens. Word was spreading fast about their attack, and Asam was worried that certain people he very much hoped to meet might attempt to flee before he could get close. It would be a crying shame if he had come all this way only to have missed the man who had brought him here in the first place.
The Sheriff was listening to tales of attacking Saracens in a fury of disbelief. It was clear to him at least what must be happening, but all his violent tirades couldn't convince his guards that they should go down to the dungeons and prevent the escape of Robin Hood. Most of them seemed ready to quit the castle altogether, and make a dash for freedom outside the city walls. He screeched and screamed at them until his face was bright scarlet, but all to no avail. Their natural fear of Saracens, built up by years of propaganda to raise support for the Crusades, was backfiring now quite spectacularly.
"There are only six of them!" Trying to back up his employer, his own face nearly as bright a shade of red, Gisburne waved his sword at the guards, only to be pushed aside. "Damn you, we can defeat them easily. Who's with me?"
"None of them are with you, Gisburne. They've never been with you, and you can't expect to change that now." The Sheriff drew his own sword, and looked across at the slave merchant, cowering in a corner with an expression of abject fear on his face. "It's him that they're coming for. Bound to be. Perhaps if we chop him up and threw them the pieces they'll leave the rest of us alone?"
"The former slaves might want him, my lord, but what about Nasir? He's with them, and there's no telling what he might want by coming in here." Gisburne thought about trying to cross swords with the Saracen's two whirling blades, and tried not to blanch. "We could always leave, my lord."
"Leave?!" Robert de Rainault was a bully and a tyrant, but he could never be accused of cowardice. "I'll not run from my home like a snivelling fool because six foreigners want to help a man escape from my dungeons. And I'd suggest that you not try to leave either."
"Of course not, my lord." He managed to sound insulted, as though the last thing that he wanted was to run away, but the truth was rather more obvious than he would have liked. "Do you have a plan?"
"Wait for them, meet them, kill them." De Rainault made a few practice swings with his sword, and headed for more open ground. The milling, panicked guards were thinning out now, but whether they had run out to safety, or merely into the arms of the approaching enemy, the Sheriff neither knew nor cared. He would find out eventually, he supposed, when he left this room later to survey the damage. Blood everywhere, no doubt. Hell to clean up, especially if it been splashed on the tapestries.
"Here!" Hassan was the first to burst into the room, his sword dripping blood, his hand and arm red from it. The single word had been in Arabic, but Gisburne understood it. De Rainault, who had never been to the Holy Land, and knew no more Arabic than most of his guards, didn't care what the word had been. He hefted his sword in his hand.
"What do you want, heathen?" he demanded. Hassan smiled, and moved aside to accommodate the arrival of his companions. They came through the door one at a time, fanning out to stand six abreast, forming a line that looked more than merely fearful. Asam was in the centre, his white robe spattered with blood, his figure grand and proud. Gisburne tried to match his stance, but failed dismally.
"How did you get inside the castle?" demanded the Sheriff. "There were guards everywhere."
"Not now," Nasir told him, pacing forward slowly. There was a smile on his face that the Sheriff had never seen before. "Your traps cannot catch us, Sheriff."
"You'll be eating your words soon enough, Saracen." De Rainault pointed his sword at him. "If you're going to kill us, the way you've no doubt killed my men, I assume that I'm to have the chance to fight back at least?"
"We're not going to kill you, Sheriff." Asam sauntered forward, looking away in disgust at the kneeling soldiers who were begging for their lives. "But I might not be so lenient towards your men. You have a castle full of cowards."
"I know." The Sheriff kicked one of them aside, distaste showing clearly in his voice. "So what's it to be then, if not death? Do you think you can ransom me? Hold the castle and send for reinforcements from abroad? The place will have been burnt to the ground by Christian forces long before that can happen."
"We're not here to take the castle, either. Just to see that Robin goes free, just as he helped us to the same end." Asam came closer still. "I've been wanting to meet you, Sheriff. I've heard stories - your cruelty, your stupidity, your stubbornness. I suppose I'd been expecting more, but at least you're no coward like your men."
"My lord, I could take some men, make a dash for the dungeons," suggested Gisburne. De Rainault glared at him.
"Fool. He's long escaped from there, and on his way here too I shouldn't wonder. It seems that your wonderful plan has been no more effective than mine after all, Gisburne. I'm only glad that my brother isn't here to see all of this, and gloat at yet another opportunity to mock." He walked forward, coming face to face with Asam. "So you're not going to kill us, or ransom us, or take our castle. What are you going to do?"
"Give you your freedom. You, your guards, your servants." Asam smiled, enjoying the humiliated look on the other man's face. "Or some of you at least. Nasir, Hassan - why not fetch me our friend over there. The one trying to hide behind the table."
"No!" Making a last ditch bid for freedom, the slave merchant scrabbled his way across the floor on all fours. The two men caught up with him easily, dragging him to his feet and hauling him back to Asam. He collapsed onto the floor, shaking like a leaf in a high wind, muttering indistinct noises that might have been pleas for salvation. Nasir turned away, disinterested, and kept watch over the Sheriff and Gisburne instead. Their hate was very real, but he didn't think that they would try anything - not when they were outnumbered, with their men of so little help.
"Well now. The dice seems to have rolled against you this time, Thomas." Asam dragged the man to his feet, although his legs didn't seem likely to hold him for long. "I should kill you slowly, but I'm willing to do it quickly. Maybe even painlessly."
"Please." Thomas spoke so quietly that it was barely possible to hear what he said. The Sheriff looked away, disgusted at such craven behaviour.
"Face your fate like a man, if you are one," he muttered impatiently. A quiet laugh sounded from the doorway.
"Perhaps you're willing to take his place, Sheriff?"
"Wolfshead!" De Rainault spun about, automatically raising the sword that he knew he would never get a chance to use. Nasir knocked it from his hand immediately, leaving the Sheriff glowering ever more. "So you've escaped my dungeons once again. Just know that this is the last time, Loxley. The very last time."
"You love our escapes really Sheriff. You know you do. What would you do with your time if you didn't have us to chase?" Grinning broadly, Robin gestured to the others. "Come on. We're grateful to you, Asam, for helping us to get free, but now it's time to leave."
"This man brought us here, Robin. Chained us, beat us, dragged us here from our homeland." Asam had his sword at Thomas's pale throat. "He should die."
"Perhaps." Robin put a hand on the other man's shoulder. "And perhaps he thinks you should die, for all the men you've killed. Here, and back in your own country."
"Different circumstances, Robin. I was at war, fighting for a cause. He's not a fighter. Just a man who trails the real soldiers, picking up the pieces."
"Then he's not worth the energies of a real warrior, is he." Gently Robin pushed the sword blade down. "Come on, Asam. There's no need to kill any more men. Not here."
"Perhaps you're right." Asam let Thomas go, pushing him away so that he collapsed in a quivering heap on the ground. "And you're right, we've got what we came for. You're free, and these people have seen that my men and I could take the castle with the barest effort. I think our work is done."
"Good." Robin's bright, mocking gaze swept the room. "Then we'll be going. Thankyou for the entertainment, as always Sheriff. And Guy, I'm sorry that we've not had the chance for our usual chat. I know that you enjoy that almost as much as I do."
"You're a dead man, Wolfshead," growled Gisburne. Robin's smile grew.
"You're nothing if not predictable, Guy." He patted the young steward on the shoulder. "Have a nice evening. It'll be dark soon, so beware of marauding Saracens. They like the dark, and there's no telling how many of them there might still be about the place." Gisburne didn't react, but the gasp that came from numerous soldiers was reason enough for Robin's smile to becoming yet more mocking, and for Gisburne and de Rainault to fume in desperate humiliation. The Sheriff fingered something buried beneath his cloak.
"You'll not make it out of the castle," he announced. Scarlet laughed.
"You think your men will stop us?" he asked. His own sword was nearly as red as those of the Saracens, despite his shorter fight, and he was in very high spirits. "There's not a soldier in the castle that'll dare to get in our way right now. You need some better men, Sheriff. Men like us!"
"Aye, we'll guard your castle!" John's laugh rang out around the room. "Especially the dungeon and the treasury."
"I'll see you laugh in hell, Wolfshead!" Striding forward in sudden rage, Gisburne made a dash for John. The big outlaw turned, surprised, and Robin moved to intercept. He grabbed Gisburne, spun him around - and in the same instant the Sheriff drew a dagger from within his cloak. He lifted it, aiming it in seconds, and let it fly. Marion screamed, Will shouted in warning, Robin turned - and saw the blade coming towards him. There didn't seem to be any way to move aside, and he found himself wondering, strangely, where the Sheriff had learned to throw a knife. It wasn't the sort of skill a Norman nobleman would usually possess.
"Down!" It was a familiar voice - Nasir's - but not a familiar word. The Saracen had spoken in Arabic again, used to it through recent reuse. The word itself didn't matter - what counted was the sword that was flying suddenly towards the knife - towards Gisburne who stood in its path. He dropped in a sudden panic, feeling the weapon fly over his head, hearing the clang as it intercepted the dagger in mid air. Both weapons bounced away across the ground, and Robin grinned.
"Nice shot, Nasir." Nasir bowed his head in reply.
"Aye, nice shot!" John pounded his Saracen friend on the back. "Damn shame you had to get Gisburne out the way first though. You could have skewered him nicely!"
"There's always a downside." Will picked up Nasir's sword, throwing it back to him, not seeing that Asam had already picked up the knife. He wasn't sure why he had taken it - a souvenir perhaps? Soon he would be leaving this place, this country. He didn't really want to remember it when he was gone, but still he couldn't help picking up the knife. Perhaps he had a purpose for it in mind, though he couldn't yet think what it might be. Gisburne climbed shakily to his feet.
"I'm sorry, my lord," he muttered, clearly apologising for having let the sword go past him, and stopped the knife. De Rainault scowled at him, but didn't reply. Robin sighed.
"I think we've stayed here long enough. This lot are starting to spoil my good mood."
"You won't get far," Gisburne told him, more for appearances sake than because he believed it. Scarlet laughed.
"Don't give up, does he."
"That's why we like him so much," commented Tuck, already at the door. "Goodbye everybody."
"Aye. Until next time." John gave a cheery wave. "It hasn't been much fun, but I suppose it ended well enough." He also left, Marion and Will close behind, and Robin immediately after. Only the Saracens hung back for a moment, mostly just for effect; then they too departed. They went as one; six deadly shadows flitting through the blood-soaked corridors, leaving a castle too shocked to be properly relieved.
And already the word was spreading - an English castle besieged by a Saracen army. Robert de Rainault knew that he would never be able to explain it to the king. Scowling and blaspheming, enraged beyond all measure, he ordered his guards to take Thomas to the dungeons. There would be one execution today, even if it wasn't to be that infernal Wolfshead. Somebody would pay; and, as always, it was to be anyone but him. Since first encountering the Hooded Man, the Sheriff of Nottingham had become very good at nominating scapegoats. Very good indeed.
It was a long walk back to the camp. Robin rather enjoyed it, walking arm in arm with Marion, and basking in the vastly improved weather. A hot, though sinking, sun was doing its best to dry out the waterlogged grass, and the tree tops were filled with a clamour of merry birds. It was the sort of day that he had come to love even more since Marion had come into his life. They smiled happily at each other as they walked, and ignored the jeers of Will Scarlet walking behind them. Having been newly freed, and given the chance to break a few Norman skulls, Scarlet was in a finer mood than anybody, and between jokes at Robin's expense, mock fighting with John, and frequent attempts to wrestle Tuck, was causing a great deal of noise in their ragamuffin band. Nobody else seemed to mind, and there was no especial need for stealth, so Robin let it continue. He didn't notice that there were some amongst them who were using the noise as cover, for things that they did not want to be overheard. Nasir and Asam were at the back of the group, encircled by the rest of their number, talking as quietly as they could given their agitation, and forgetting that there was no great need for such secrecy. None of the English people present would have been able to understand them, save perhaps for the isolated words known to Marion and Tuck. Asam and Nasir had a lot to say to each other, and much of it was by no means good-natured and calm.
"We leave tomorrow morning, Nasir. All of us." The bright, wide smiles and shared delights of earlier had gone, and Asam was once again an angry teacher, trying to coerce a rebellious pupil. "You are coming as well."
"No." Nasir spoke the word in English through recent habit, then looked angry with himself and spat it out once again, in Arabic. "I am not coming. I'm staying here, where I'm supposed to be."
"Where you're supposed to be? How can you be supposed to be here, in a strange country, fighting alongside people who know nothing about you? Understand nothing, care nothing about your way of life, your religion, the history that made you what you are?" Asam shook his head. "Nasir, you don't belong here. You belong on the other side of the world."
"Perhaps." Nasir looked up, fixing Asam with the sort of sharp, bright stare that had weakened many a Norman soldier's resolve. "But I am staying here."
"Is in the grip of a terrible war, invaded by men who claim to be liberating the Christians and Jews from our rule, and yet who kill almost as many Christians and Jews as they do us. A terrible war that's gone on longer than my father's father could remember, beginning again each time we think it might be over. A war of more violence than any of our histories seem to remember." He sighed. "But I'm still staying here."
"It is your duty to Allah to defend the faith He gave to us, Nasir. To see that the infidel do not try to take it from us; to force their own religion onto our people. It is your duty as a member of the Hashishyun--"
"I am no longer one of them. I told you that."
"Perhaps." Asam didn't look happy with the assertion, but he didn't press that particular point further. "But you are still, I assume, a loyal believer? A loyal follower of the One True God?"
"You shouldn't need to ask that." The anger in Nasir's voice was suppressed only by sheer force of will, largely due to the respect he would always have for his old teacher. "Do you know how difficult it is to follow the teachings here? Performing my prayers chained to a wall in a filthy Norman cell? Called upon to be polite to King Richard, while he pretends to be polite, and calls me his guest, and all the time laughs and jokes about his 'noble crusade'? Explaining every time we go somewhere, or every time we have guests, or every time that Scarlet gets drunk, why there are rules about what I can eat and drink? None of them understand, no matter how hard they try to pretend that they do. But do you think that any of that could make me abandon our ways? I am proud to be who I am." He took a deep breath, so much unaccustomed talk ringing heavily on his ears. Nasir had never been a man for long monologues, or indeed for anything beyond the mere minimum of necessary speech, and it surprised him to hear so much of his own voice now. He summoned back his powerful reserves of self control, and inclined his head politely to the senior warrior. "I have remained faithful. I will always remain faithful. Why do I have to keep explaining that to you?"
"Because your choice goes against all that you claim to be. Because you are fighting another man's war, in another man's country, and swearing allegiance to a forest god! Because you show signs of Paganism, worrying signs, and follow the orders of a man who leads this dangerous faith. Your friend Robin seems to do good things, but so do many others who are sent to lead us astray. The world has many temptations for us, Malik Kemal. It is our duty to see them for what they are, and turn our heads away from them. Your friend Robin is just such a temptation. A man who seems to do good, but in reality is keeping you from doing what you should really be doing! A man who will break your faith, then your spirit, then your soul."
"Robin is a good man." Nasir's eyes narrowed in a rush of sudden fury. "I see him prove that every day."
"And the people of our country? Are they not good people? Why do you insist that Allah wishes you to remain here, to help this 'good man'? Why doesn't He want you to return home, and fight the war that your father, your teachers, your leaders, have always shown you that He wants you to fight? Duty, Nasir. It comes before personal choice. It comes before everything except the Shahada."
"I was sent here."
"As was I. And yet I feel no desperate need to stay. I hear no orders to remain and continue this foreign fight."
"It is different for you, clearly. I only know that I am supposed to stay. Don't ask me to return again, Asam. Otherwise I shall begin to think that it's you who provides the temptation I'm supposed to ignore." He quickened his pace in order to catch up with the others, only to find his way blocked by Asam's men. Momentarily they stayed locked - the four weathered veterans and the one determined other - before Asam gave a small, faint nod. The four men moved aside, and Nasir stormed past them. For a second there was no further noise save that of the birds, and the distant hullabaloo of Will Scarlet in high spirits - then Asam cursed loudly; in English, Arabic, and several other languages for good measure.
"Are we still beginning our journey in the morning, Asam?" The oldest of his companions, a man of such valour on the field that even Asam was in some awe of him, seemed restless for the off. Asam didn't blame him. He didn't like this country, with its rain and its grey skies, and its thick, green vegetation. He didn't like its strange ways, and its people that he could not understand. Where Asam came from soldiers didn't beg for their lives, as the men he had encountered in Nottingham Castle had done. They remembered their dignity at all times, and hid their dissatisfaction.
"Yes, we are still heading for home. At first light, I think. I've had enough of this - this land of Pagans and self-serving Normans. If we have to walk for the rest of our lives, we will find our way back home."
"And Nasir?" The man who had asked that question did so hesitatingly, mindful of his commander's mixed feelings. "You said that he would be coming with us, but it seems that--"
"It seems that Nasir has changed. He has been too long in a strange land, and has lost his singularity of purpose, his straight path of truth. Our good friend Robin has led him astray."
"Robin." The oldest of them spoke with a certain sadness. "He did us a great service."
"Which we have now repaid." Asam himself felt sorry for the mistrust that couldn't help but exist between himself and the young man who had helped to free him from slavery - but some loyalties were more important that others. In Asam's increasingly long life he had never once met a Westerner who could be trusted; who wanted anything more than to slit his throat or sell him to the highest bidder. Why should this Robin be any different in the end?
"You really think that you can convince Nasir to come with us?"
"Yes. There may be a way, though not perhaps the one that I'm happiest with." Asam's hand closed on the dagger he had taken from Nottingham Castle. "By this night's end I think I can ensure that Robin will cease to have a hold over Nasir. It will not be the most honourable night of my life, but I will do what needs to be done."
They celebrated in the usual way, with a feast less bounteous, perhaps, than any laid on in Nottingham Castle's grand dining room; but far more cheerful and convivial for all that. Since nobody had been able to go hunting that day their options were limited, but there was still bread and stew, as well as Nasir's fish from earlier. With some of Marion's collection of medicinal herbs to add extra flavour, and copious amounts of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of wine, they enjoyed themselves wholeheartedly - or some of the company did. Ned in particular was less than jovial, sitting to one side of the fire and still bound to his tree, whilst further away, and always a little aloof in such situations, Nasir was not joining in even as much as usual. Silent and solemn he sat back from the others, alone with nothing but a mug of water for company. He was obviously deep in thought, and Robin was not sure whether to leave him, or try to bring his problems out into the open. Asam and his company - the others still nameless, still strangers - left the clearing together, and, after a while, Nasir followed them. It was the time when he always left the group to go to pray, but still Robin was worried. His Saracen companion had proved to be a good friend, as well as helping to give the gang an edge in battle that was practically unmatched. It would be a sad day if he chose to leave Sherwood with his countrymen, and Robin realised that he had always assumed his taciturn friend would never attempt the journey. Somehow it had become an unspoken agreement - a settlement of sorts - that he would always be here, in Sherwood. It was Herne's will, Robin was sure of it.
"You're worried," Marion told him, giving his hand a squeeze. He smiled, and nodded slowly.
"Yes. Do you think he'll leave us?"
"Nasir? No." John caught the subject of their conversation even though he hadn't really been listening. "He likes it here. Can't go fishing in the desert, can he."
"He's just thinking, I reckon. Got to be weird, hasn't it, meeting people from before. Maybe he's tempted, but he won't go." Scarlet upended a wineskin and scowled when it proved to be empty. "I won't be sorry to lose those others, mind. I suppose I've got used to Nasir, but a whole bunch of them doing the silent thing when we're supposed to be having fun - well, it's off-putting, isn't it."
"Not really," Tuck told him, with a trace of reproach. "Just think how they feel, raised to be quiet and reserved, and then stuck here with you. Makes you look like the great, uncultured lout that you are."
"Uncultured?" Scarlet looked momentarily insulted, then shrugged. "Well yeah, maybe I am, but how's that my fault? They'd be uncultured too, if they hadn't been kidnapped and forced to see other places, and I'm not planning on being dragged off abroad."
"It's not quite that simple." Marion rather enjoyed teasing Will, and joined Tuck in the sport with a certain degree of pleasure. "It's different for them. I used to meet a lot of Crusaders in my father's castle as a child, and they'd tell me such stories. Fortunately his guests tended to be the less bloodthirsty type, who could appreciate what they saw out there. There are supposed to be libraries the size of which we can only dream of in this country. Vast collections of writing dating back centuries, in any number of languages; works of maths and science, astronomical treatises; the works of ancient philosophers." She sounded entranced by the very idea of it, and Robin slid an arm around her shoulders, amused by her vast enthusiasm. "They're very different to us, Will. All of them. Perhaps there are similarities, and it's only the richest ones who get the best education, but they all learn far more than we do. They don't need to be kidnapped and brought to Britain to learn about other cultures. Do you have any idea just how many languages Nasir speaks?"
"Huh." Will folded his arms, looking grouchy. "Who wants to learn languages? Spent my childhood learning how to fight, and be a good soldier, didn't I."
"And Nasir didn't?" John had to laugh at Will's heavy frown, and he ruffled his friend's spiky hair. "Calm down, Scarlet - we're just the same ourselves, aren't we. I've never even seen a proper library, unless you count the ones I must have been in when I was with the Baron de Belleme - and I think I'm glad I don't remember them."
"I should love to have a proper library. I've always dreamt of collecting one like those I used to hear about; the ones of the Holy Land. Copies of stories and poems written by people who died long before Jesus was born." Marion smiled suddenly, looking self conscious. "Not that it's not just as nice to live in a forest, and collect feathers for arrow-making instead."
"You're wonderful." Robin kissed the top of her head and she laughed, then sighed.
"None of this is helping us to work out Nasir's problem, though, is it."
"He'll stay or he'll go." Robin couldn't think of anything else to stay, and knew that there wasn't anything. "There's nothing we can do that won't seem like trying to exert an unfair influence."
"True." Tuck nodded, hard and slow. "It's a crying shame to lose him, but I'm sure he'd be glad to go home. I know there must be people there who'd be very glad to see him."
"His family." Marion frowned into the fire. "Asam mentioned brothers. I'd never really thought..."
"Neither had I. But then we don't know a great deal about each other, really, do we." Robin's line of sight drifted off towards the trees. "And him even less so. He's still learning the language, and we're still learning how to make him relax. Maybe we'll not get the chance now."
"Oh I think we will." John was thinking of other firesides, other camps, other conversations. "He'll stay."
"I hope so." Robin hugged Marion close, and she returned the embrace.
"You're still thinking of Herne's prediction, aren't you. It's come true, Robin. You don't need to worry about it anymore. He said that we'd encounter an enemy and an old friend, and that we weren't to trust them both."
"He didn't say that we were to trust either of them. I can't help but think that Asam..." He sighed. "He's Nasir's friend, although there seems to be such tension between them... I just can't help thinking that there's still trouble ahead."
"Your instincts tell you not to trust him?" That at least was reason to worry. Robin's instincts were not to be dismissed.
"I'm not sure if it's my instincts or just my suspicion." He sighed again, thinking of something else; of a shadowy figure sneaking through the camp, stabbing to death Robin's own sleeping form. Herne showed him things with good reason, but he had been seeing visions since long before he had become Herne's Son. He knew which sights were true warnings or predictions, and which were only flashes of possible futures, and the way that this most recent image still resonated within his mind told him that he still had to beware. He was sure of it.
"Hey, you two." Will was getting frustrated at the serious tone that things seemed to have taken. "Have a drink, and stop worrying about... whatever it is that you're worrying about. We're supposed to be celebrating."
"I know." Robin took the wine-skin that was thrust at him, though if Will's current demeanour was anything to go by, there probably wasn't much left in it. "We should be drinking to Gisburne, I suppose. He's probably getting a hard time of things from the Sheriff right now."
"He deserves it," slurred Will. Everybody else nodded, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Marion started to laugh.
"Poor Sir Guy. Every time he thinks he's got a good plan, something comes along to spoil it. He must have thought that he was really going to come out on top this time, and maybe even win some respect from the Sheriff."
"Aye." John was laughing as well. "Wasn't counting on Nottingham Castle being besieged by an army of Saracens, was he! I'd love to have seen the look on his face when he realised what was happening."
"I think we've all seen that very look, at least half a dozen times." Tuck mimicked it as best he could; the bulging eyes and expression of shock and outrage. The chorus of laughing grew louder.
"Somebody should fetch Nasir," Robin said, feeling bad that their friend was missing the fun. Much offered to fetch him, although with his smaller physique and lesser strength he was rather more drunk than any of them, and decidedly less steady on his feet. Tuck shook his head.
"Leave him, lad. Don't let's interfere. He'll come."
"Aye, he'll come." John leaned over to throw another log onto the fire, ruffling Ned's hair in passing. The boy glowered furiously, but since Much had gagged him some time previously, that was all that he did. It seemed almost a shame. Will in particular quite fancied listening to some irate Norman posturing. It would help to cement the victory. Moving over to take the gag off sounded too much like hard work, though, and he really couldn't be bothered. Instead he stretched out on the ground.
"I'm tired," he announced. John kicked at his foot.
"I seem to remember saying much the same thing myself last night. Not so sleepy then, were you."
"That was different." Will folded his hands behind his head. "There were invisible mice to catch then. Wouldn't have wanted me to leave them, would you, the way they breed? Didn't want an infestation on our hands."
"Either you're drunk or just plain mad." John yawned. "It should be a lot later. Look at us - it's hardly getting dark and we're practically asleep."
"It's been a rather eventful day," pointed out Marion. Tuck laughed.
"Aye, that it has. That it has. I'll be happy if nothing at all happens tomorrow."
"That's tomorrow." Stretching out one arm for the nearest wine-skin, Will yawned hugely, then growled when he realised that he couldn't reach. "We've still got a lot of celebrating to do until then."
"If you can stay awake," joked Much. Will tried glaring at him from his prone position, then made another vain grab for the wine-skin.
"We'll see who falls asleep first," he said, blissfully unaware that the reason he couldn't get the skin was because John kept edging it out of his reach. Somebody was giggling, but Will couldn't see who. He was too tired to lift his head and find out. He stifled a yawn.
"Feeling sleepy?" teased John. Will tried to get up, and flopped back down before he had made it more than an inch.
"I refuse to go to sleep," he growled unconvincingly, then tried to crane his head up to look towards the skin that was his goal. "Now will somebody give me the bloody wine!"
It was quiet by the river. In a patch where the thin grass had long dried out, and where hardy flowers grew in erratic patterns, Nasir and his fellow countrymen sat together. They had finished their prayers and were sitting in silence, listening to the river and the birds. They were unfamiliar noises to Asam and his friends, and had once been so to Nasir. He had come to enjoy them, though he was thinking now of other noises that he enjoyed just as much, and missed greatly.
It had been good to pray together - to be with others, and listen to the hum of chorused verses. He had missed that. Had missed the social exercise of it, the shared enjoyment and experience. He was beginning to realise how isolated he had been lately; perhaps the only one of his kind in the country, and a hostile country at that. Now, with the warm evening and sense of peace lulling him into welcome relaxation, he wasn't sure what he wanted anymore. Sherwood had become his home, but maybe somewhere else had a prior claim to his loyalty. Asam was talking quietly, about the sunset in the desert, and the hot wind over the sands. About the white minarets towering over the cities that flanked the hot wastelands, and the long musical cries of the muezzin that rang out over it all. He spoke of the scents of their land, as well - the verdant trees around an oasis; hot, spicy foods cooking over an equally aromatic fire. The noise of tents flapping in the breeze as a backdrop to the lazy hours when the sun was at its highest. His words made Nasir relax still further, and he lay back on the grass, hands behind his head, to stare up at the sky with strangely sleepy eyes. It was the same sky as the one that hung over the East of the world, but it certainly seemed very different. The stars were drifting out, and he tried to remember his childhood astronomy lessons. Were the stars so very different here? It didn't seem so. Not so foreign after all then.
"You don't have to decide yet, Nasir. Dawn, perhaps, is early enough." Asam had stopped his restful intoning of places and things far distant, but his tone of voice hadn't changed. Nasir closed his eyes.
"I'd like to go home." It was the first time he had admitted it properly even to himself, and he was surprised at how good it felt to say it. "But I'm not going. I'm sorry, Asam."
"That's your final decision?"
"Yes." Despite his newly acknowledged homesickness he felt no regret at that decision. Allah had guided him to this place, at this time, and therefore this was where he would remain. There was no reason to feel regret about that. It was simply what was, and what had to be.
"I'm sorry to hear that." There was no animosity in his old teacher's voice though; no suggestion that there might be future trouble. That was good. It would have been a shame to have had to hurt the older man, or even kill him, if he attempted to make things difficult.
"I should go back to the camp," Nasir said, although he didn't move. "There's still Ned to deal with. Robin will want us all there to talk about that."
"Robin will let him go," Asam commented, not too impressed by such evident charity. Nasir shook his head.
"Not straight away. A ransom perhaps. The Sheriff won't dare use the local villages as leverage to get him back for fear that we'll hurt the boy. We should be able to get a good price for him."
"And you'll use the money for what?"
"We'll give it to the poor. It'll be spent on food, mostly, and paying rents and fines." Nasir smiled. "We don't keep it, Asam. Any of it. We give more than just Zakat. You should approve of that, especially given how much of it is stolen from the Church."
"Malik Kemal, it's beneath you to suggest such a thing. You know I bear Christians no real animosity." Asam smiled. "Although I'll admit that I like the idea of their Church losing funds. If it's as corrupt as its so-called Christian Knights make it appear to be, I've no doubt that it deserves every theft." He sighed. "Life is complicated, Nasir. We all kill each other because of the name we choose to call the One God, and because of the way we choose to pray to Him. By old laws I should also kill you."
"Only if I have abandoned the faith." Nasir's eyes were dark and hard. "I have not, and I will not."
"I'm glad to hear it." There was a long silence, during which the dawdling river seemed to grow louder in its watery journey; then Asam sighed again.
"If life is complicated, I've no doubt it's that way by our own doing. Alright Nasir, so you haven't broken your vows to Allah. Now go back to your friends before they come looking for you. They're sure to be celebrating the rescue, and you should be there for that, even if you can't eat their food or drink their wine."
"I still enjoy the celebrations." It would have been impossible to explain why, even with the luxury of his own language to help express the thoughts. "Will you come back to the camp tonight?"
"Perhaps. We might stay here, so that we won't disturb the others in the morning."
"You won't, especially if they've been drinking. I never disturb them, when I leave at dawn for prayers."
"Maybe." Asam smiled. "But you, my friend, are one man - and one who was always soft of foot. We are five men, who perhaps are not so good at sneaking about. We'll see. Goodnight, Nasir."
"Goodnight." He bowed slightly, in respectful salute, then melted away. Asam stared after him, the furrows of his frown both deep and dark. Hassan, his second-in-command, came to his shoulder.
"You did say that he would be coming with us, Asam."
"And I hope that he shall." Asam held up the knife he had stolen earlier, watching its short blade glitter in the early starlight. It wasn't a work of art; more a typically practical piece of Norman design; but the blade was sharp and the point was deadly. "There's one thing that we must do first, and then he will have no reason to stay. And perhaps he will thank us for it."
"Somehow I doubt that." Hassan was looking after Nasir, thinking of the determination that had been on the younger man's face. He had had the look of a man who had been given a purpose as great and as honourable as the defence of his homeland, and that was perhaps something to be envied, not condemned - but Asam was resolute.
"Always so quick to doubt, Hassan?"
"It's not about doubting. Not in this case. You're going to take advantage of the things he said. About them not being easy to disturb, especially when they've been drinking. You're going to kill them."
"Yes." Asam glanced up at him, surprised. "We've killed before. Many men, in many ways. You feel worse about this death? A group of Pagans keeping your cousin here, in a foreign land? These should be the deaths you celebrate most."
"Perhaps." Hassan didn't look convinced. "I hope that Nasir sees it that way. Otherwise..."
"Otherwise? Do you really think he'll raise his sword against any of us? All we have to worry about is dealing with Robin and his friends. If we fight them and win - it can only have been the will of Allah."
"I know. But if he really doesn't want to come back with us, Asam... I don't want to fight him." Hassan still sounded troubled, but he knew that there was no point in arguing further. Asam was one of the most stubborn men he had ever known, and that stubbornness had seen them all through many a battle in the past.
"I have no desire to fight him myself, but I'll not leave things half finished. If our attack works, we know that it was supposed to. If it doesn't... if it doesn't then perhaps Nasir is right, and he really is destined to remain here. Understand, Hassan, that that man means a great deal to me. I knew him from the very day of his birth, and I'll not leave this place without making a real bid to reclaim him first. I don't want to fight any of them, not now that we've all fought together - but we have to do this." Asam offered him an encouraging smile. "One attempt, Hassan. One final try to bring your cousin home." He weighed the knife in his hand, glad of its compact size and obvious strength. It was the perfect weapon for so stealthy an attack. "We'll go when we're sure that they're asleep. I'll handle Robin. The rest of you take care of the others."
"Yes, Asam." Hassan couldn't help but think that his old friend and commander was wrong, but he had followed him for nearly forty years without questioning him. He wouldn't question him now. If Robin and his friends had to die tonight, then so be it. With luck, Nasir would understand.
The camp was silent; the world was silent. The birds had at last stopped their singing and gone to their nests, the fire had burned down low, and even Ned, trapped in so uncomfortable a position, had drifted off to sleep. Will lay where he had collapsed earlier, the finally captured wine-skin still gripped loosely in one hand. Much was sprawled near him, face turned towards Ned, still trying to fulfil his promise to guard the troublesome boy. Tuck and John, who usually snored loudly, made not a single noise, lying one of either side of the fire, and casting huge shadows with every flicker of flame. Even Nasir, so often the sentinel, was asleep, his bow and two drawn swords within easy reach. So it was when Asam and the others entered the camp. They moved as silently as ever they had moved, even the largest of them managing not to make a sound. They moved past Tuck and Much, past Nasir and Will, and finally drew level with Robin and Marion, side by side as ever. Just a stone's throw away, John stirred but did not awaken, and Asam drew out the knife he had chosen for his task. The firelight caught it, emphasising its cruel blade, highlighting the plain but serviceable contours, shape and edge. The faint moon went behind a cloud, hiding itself away perhaps, as Asam stood gazing at the gentle sight of the sleeping couple. Marion's red hair was all that he could see of her, the rest just a dark shape. Somebody snored. Nobody moved. He edged closer.
There was a shape before him now - a recognisable, reachable shape. A man, half on his side, half face down, resting against Marion's back. Asam raised the knife, and soundlessly said a prayer. Now that he was here it seemed a harder thing to do, but he didn't doubt that he had to do it. Robin Hood had to die. He focused his eyes on the place where the knife must strike; the point where instant, silent death would be most likely - and slammed the blade home. Beneath the rough fur that covered Robin's sleeping form there was the sound of escaping breath - a last lungful of air rushing back out into the world - and Asam reached out to turn the body over. He wasn't sure why he did it, but he needed to see - to know that the man was truly dead. Marion stirred as her husband turned away from her, but she stayed sleeping. Asam was ready to tear the knife from Robin's body to silence her if necessary, but she gave him no trouble. All that he needed to worry about was Robin.
The young man was still in death; as still as ever a man could be; his face already much paler - though perhaps that was the moonlight. His eyes stared up, sightless, empty, his mouth hanging open... and beginning to twist into a smile. A hand shot out - and even as Asam's own swift reflexes made him move back, Robin's hand was closing around his wrist. Asam shouted, ordering his friends to the attack, making a grab for the sword at his waist; but Robin again was quicker. Pulling the knife from his own body, he held it up as a threat. There was no blood on the blade.
"Not very polite," Robin told his captive, and released him slowly. "Guests don't usually try to murder their hosts."
"How did you...?" Asam let the question trail off, and looked around to see what had happened to his friends. John and Tuck had risen, bows at the ready, and Will Scarlet was holding a large sword. Together they were a barrier through which no sensible man would try to break.
"I don't think you'll be waiting until the dawn before you leave," Robin commented gently. Asam's eyes blazed, but he didn't reply. Will glanced over in obvious shock.
"You're not letting them go?"
"What do you think?" Robin threw the knife away and climbed to his feet, reaching out a hand for Marion as he did so. She took it and they rose together. "Nasir?" There was no answer, but he heard the sound of a step. The black-clad shape of his strangest of friends came alongside him. He wasn't carrying his swords, and he held his bow only loosely, without an arrow fitted to the string. Asam glared at him.
"We don't ask for charity, or for forgiveness. We don't ask to be set free."
"This isn't charity." Robin's voice was cold. "I'm not letting you go as an act of kindness - or at least, not for you. We've done you no harm. Why would you want to kill us?"
"I don't wish to kill you." Asam's proud eyes showed no regret, either for what he had tried to do, or for the way in which it had ended. "I answer to a higher cause."
"Then I think you misheard Him." Nasir left Robin's side, going instead to Asam. "You think if you kill him, I will follow you instead? You kill them all, it changes nothing. My work is here."
"You've been bewitched!" Asam made as though to draw his sword, but hesitated when Tuck and John turned their loaded bows to point at him. "And now you hide behind your friends. Friends who corrupt you, and taint you with their Pagan doctrines."
"This is an old argument, Asam." He had switched to Arabic, no longer sure that he wanted the others to be able to hear what he had to say. "If Allah wills our land to be freed, it will be. If He wants the war there to end, it will. My sword makes no difference there. But here? Here I free people every day."
"Got a lot to say, hasn't he," remarked Will, rather surprised at hearing so many words coming from his quiet friend. "Shame we can't understand him."
"He sounds angry," added Much. Nasir glanced back their way.
"Go now," he told Asam, glad of the luxury of his own language. For so long he had been unable to express himself clearly, but now, when he really had need to do so, it was to people who were of the same nationality as himself. Fate was kind that way, sometimes.
"Go. That's all?"
"You want to fight? You want one of us to die? You gave me my first sword, and even though I lost it many years ago, I'll not raise its replacements against you now." He sighed. "Just leave. I'd have followed you anywhere, Asam. Into any battle in any country in this world or the next. But for now I have to be here." His eyes held those of the older man. "Do you really want to kill these people? Do you really want to kill me?"
"No." There was an unmistakable pain in Asam's dark eyes. "I my heart I believe that these are good people. I never really wanted to raise my hand against any of them. Nasir, try to understand... I thought only to bring you home, not to hurt you. Not to hurt anybody." He reached out, putting a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "We had many good times, my friend. Many years of companionship. I don't want to leave you here, so far from home."
"Perhaps I am home."
"No." Asam smiled gently, his eyes sad. "I don't think so. I don't think that you'll ever be at home here. Perhaps that makes you a very brave man to stay."
"It's not a matter of courage. It's just what's meant to be." Nasir frowned slightly. "You understand then? You'll leave?"
"Understand? No, Malik Kemal, I don't understand. I'm not sure that your family will either, when I finally get back to them, and tell them what I've seen here." He frowned, shaking his head very slightly. "But the truth is that I now know I can never kill you, and if there truly is no chance of changing your mind... I see no other explanation than that this must be His will."
"I've been trying to tell you that all day." They shared a smile, briefly. "Thankyou Asam. I was afraid that things would end badly between us. It's better that they don't." He stepped back then, and let the other's hand fall from his shoulder. "And now it's time to leave."
"Yes. So it seems." Asam's gaze went past Nasir, to the rest of the gang scattered around nearby, but especially to Robin. "Watch them, my friend. They may not be the enemy, but they are not like us."
"They are alike enough." He smiled. "I think."
"Well then I hope that you're right. Otherwise, Malik Kemal, when their war here is over, it may be you that they turn against next. Good luck."
"And you. Have a good journey."
"A long and difficult journey." Asam smiled. "But they say such things are good for the soul." He switched to English suddenly, and offered the outlaw band a swift, respectful bow. "Goodbye. We'll not meet again. I would apologise... but the truth is that I see no need. Perhaps you understand. Perhaps not. Come, my friends." He turned to leave, his companions behind him. Hassan alone paused at the edge of the forest, to turn back and hold up a hand in farewell - then they had all gone. Will blew out a long, unhappy breath.
"And that's it, is it? We're supposed to believe that they won't sneak back later on and finish us off?"
"They will not come back," Nasir told him, more than an edge to his voice. Will scowled.
"Yeah? Well I'm not so sure. Seemed to be over pretty quick to me. How long have you two had to talk things through, but you couldn't convince him all that time, until one quick conversation now? Sounds to me like we might be having to watch out for them all the time from now on. Who's to say that they've really gone?"
"I think they have." Robin had seen something in Asam's eyes; the look of an honourable man, he thought, and reason enough to believe the man's words. "He wanted something specific. He believed that killing me, or all of us, would get it for him. But you made it clear that it wouldn't happen, am I right Nasir?" His answer was a slow nod, and he smiled. So much for Nasir being the new man of words. "You really don't want to go back with them? You really wouldn't have chosen to, if the rest of us were gone?"
"The work would not be gone." Nasir's dark eyes held his gaze briefly, but if there was more that he wanted to say, he was clearly not going to say it. Robin nodded. He and Nasir would probably never be close, but at least he was beginning to understand the man's silences.
"Time we were getting back to sleep," he announced, as much to bring the standing around and worrying to a close, as because he was at all tired. Will sighed.
"So we can all get our throats cut? No thankyou."
"Will, the only reason they were able to get into the camp in the first place is because we'd all drunk too much to be properly awake." Robin didn't mention that he hadn't been asleep at all, but had been lying awake and waiting for them to attack. For some reason that he did not fully understand, he didn't want the others to know about that. Perhaps he didn't want Nasir to know that he had always suspected Asam. "If anybody else comes here, I think we're all sober enough now to be a little faster in waking up."
"Maybe." Will sat down, looking faintly grouchy. "So I take it you're staying then, Nasir. We're stuck with you permanently now?" John hit him on the top of his head with his bow, and he glared. "What? He knows I'm joking!"
"I am staying." Nasir spoke more slowly than before, very precise, having got rather too used to speaking Arabic again of late. In all likelihood, he thought, it had set him back in his attempts to become more fluent in English. He would probably have to work harder to compensate.
"Well some of us are glad about that," Tuck told him. Will scowled.
"Who says we're all not? Just because I'm not all soppy about things like you lot are. Anyway, I think he's crazy. It's about to rain again, isn't it, and he's just given up the chance to go somewhere where it probably never rains at all. Don't you miss that, Nazzy?"
"Do you miss... what was?"
"What was?" Will frowned, thinking about his wife. Of course he missed that. But the rest of it? Having to be polite to the Normans, having no real self respect, unable to help the people around him to fight the injustices they could none of them escape... He could see the same thing in the eyes of the others in the gang as well. All of them had something that they missed of their old lives, before they had come together. Much missed his parents; Marion missed the happy days of long ago, with her father in his manor; Tuck missed the high hopes he had had of using his position in the Church to do some good. But now they all had something that they could never wish to lose. A way to help fight for freedom; to redress the balance; to do good work and fight the world's many evils. He smiled at Nasir.
"No, I don't miss what was. I'd like my wife to be here with us, but that's all. Beyond that... everything is better now."
"What was will not be again." Nasir threw another log onto the fire, then sat down beside it. Nearby Ned was stirring, having apparently managed to sleep through everything that had just happened. They would have to do something about him in the morning.
"You mean you'll never go home?" asked Much, also sitting down beside the fire. Nasir looked across at him.
"Never is too long. Today, the next day... no. A month, a year? Maybe." He thought about Asam's words, insisting that he would never be at home here, in this place, with these people. "Now, here is home. Tomorrow is... tomorrow."
"Tomorrow is for Herne to decide." Robin joined them by the fire, and smiled at Nasir's faint frown.
"Herne? I do not think your god speaks to me. Another perhaps."
"Perhaps." This time their smile was shared. "Thankyou Nasir. Whether it was Herne who brought us together, or some other power, we're all here for a reason. If you'd left; if any of us left; I'm not sure that the remainder could get things done nearly so well. It might be the undoing of us all."
"Well that's not much pressure on the rest of us." muttered Will. John threw a wine-skin at him.
"Shut up Scarlet," he growled good-naturedly. Scarlet threw the wine-skin back.
"Keep it. I'm not drinking any more tonight. You lot can be as charitable and as warm-hearted as you like, but I'm staying awake until I'm sure that that lot have gone for good."
"Until a carrier pigeon arrives from the Holy Land with a letter from Asam, you mean." Tuck made a swipe for his head in passing, causing the other man to duck. "Don't be a fool, Scarlet. Go to sleep."
"What is this, get at Will day?"
"Every day is get at Will day." John ruffled his hair, largely because he knew that it made the other man furious. "You get so cross. We like it."
"Well then maybe we should all be mean to Robin instead for a change. Or Nasir. Nobody ever insults Nasir, and it's not bloody fair."
"Nobody in their right mind insults a fellow with two swords." John threw himself down, narrowly avoiding both Much and Scarlet. "Besides, we like him better than you. He doesn't go keeping us all awake hunting for invisible mice."
"Yeah, and I don't go bringing back lethal old friends who want to kill everybody." Will seemed to think this the crowning point of the argument, and grinned accordingly. John gave him a withering look.
"Only because you don't have any friends."
"I think this could go on for some time." Marion took Robin's hand.
"We could find somewhere quieter to sleep," he told her, but she smiled and shook her head.
"I rather like it. Don't you?"
"Strangely yes." He leaned against her, his heart warm with the gladness of another prophecy faced and conquered. Another threat overcome. "You realise this is bound to end with somebody getting wet?"
"These things usually do." She settled herself even more closely to him, and sighed a contented sigh. "Robin, do you miss the old days? Being Herne's Son means so much responsibility. I see the way that it weighs you down sometimes. I see how hard it can be."
"Whatever I had then, I didn't have you." He kissed the top of her head. "Admittedly I also didn't have this annoying bunch to worry about, but you're reason enough never to want to go back."
"I think that was an insult." Will looked over at John. "What do you think?"
"I think you're right." John rose to his feet. "Of course he might say that he's sorry."
"I'd rather not give him the chance." Will also stood up. "Do you feel insulted, Tuck?"
"Oddly enough, yes I do." Tuck's round face was alight with smiles, and Marion giggled.
"Maybe we should have found somewhere quieter to sleep after all," she told her husband. He sighed, and rose to his feet.
"I'm not playing this game. It's late, and we're all supposed to be asleep. I have a ransom demand to deliver in the morning."
"What do you think we should do?" asked John. Will smirked.
"He said one of us was bound to end up getting wet."
"Yeah, he did, didn't he."
"Now wait just a minute." Robin dodged a grab from Will, and ran straight into Tuck's waiting grip. "I take it back."
"You don't think we're annoying then?" asked Will. His leader glared at him.
"Of course you're annoying. Some of you more than others."
"Wrong answer, Robin." John strode over, and with the barest of efforts hoisted the young man over his shoulder. Robin was wiry and strong, but he was no match for the brute strength of Little John. He struggled uselessly.
"Put me down!" He saw where he had been carried to, and immediately realised that he had shouted the wrong thing. "But not here!"
"Can't hear you." Grinning from ear to ear, John swung his friend around, and dropped him without ceremony into the water. There was a remarkably loud splash. Marion laughed. Surprisingly, given his usual reserve, so did Nasir. Robin surfaced with a splutter.
"If it was me," he announced as he struggled to clamber up the wet and slippery bank, "and somebody offered me the chance to leave this lot behind and go anywhere, I'd take it. Tell me again why you stayed, Nasir."
"Destiny." Nasir went over to pull him out of the water. Will tried to retaliate by pushing him in, but Nasir ducked easily. Scarlet wasn't sure how he came to be flying through the air, but the splash that marked his landing was easy enough to understand. John laughed uproariously. He was still laughing when a neat push from Tuck sent him tumbling after Will.
It was some hours later when the night at last began to show signs of departing from Sherwood. The outlaws had fallen asleep at last, the troubles of the past twenty-four hours forgotten, their clothes now dried by the fading fire. Ned was awake, staring about him with the sort of furious desire for vengeance that might have bothered Robin and his friends, if they had been awake to see it - although the chances were that none of them would have cared much for his anger. Certainly Nasir didn't spare it a second thought, when he awoke and headed off to say his prayers. He did pause though, and look back before he left, something that he had never bothered to do before. His sharp eyes surveyed the little group, silent and still, all of them oblivious as to where he was going and why. Strangers, Asam had called them. People who didn't understand him, and never would. He had thought of them that way himself more than once, but knew at last that he never would again. They were his friends, his companions, just the way that Asam and Hassan were, and the Hashishyun once had been. For the first time since he had been stolen away from his homeland, he went to his prayers with no feeling of sorrow that he was doing so alone. In trying to persuade him to leave, Asam had left him feeling far more at home, and he smiled at the gentle irony of that. He might have smiled even more if he had known that Robin was awake, watching him leave with a smile of his own. Nasir wasn't the only one thinking thoughts of friendship and brotherhood. Robin certainly was - and, in their dreams, so were the rest of his friends.