It had been the strangest of days. From the moment when he had first encountered Tuck, to the moment when he had driven the silver arrow deeply into de Belleme's richly-clad torso, everything had seemed to be a blur of concern, desperation and action. It hadn't ended there, either - the battle with Nasir, de Belleme's silent Saracen slave; its unexpected ending; and the headlong flight from the castle when Gisburne had arrived with his soldiers. They had barely escaped with their lives - hadn't all escaped, for Dickon and Tom were dead. The six who had survived had stumbled back to the forest together, afraid and in mourning, elated at Marion's escape and by the death of the Baron. There had been tears and anger and recriminations; stirring words from Robin that had hardly seemed his own; then the last service that they could perform for their fallen friends. They had had no bodies to bury, and had merely fired blazing arrows into the river, in illustration of a point. Robin had watched them all, arcing one by one in a spectacular display of light, all swallowed up by the dark water. It had been a moment of peace and reflection - until a seventh arrow had been fired, over their heads, fizzling out in the centre of the river. They had turned... How had he felt, Robin wondered. Had it been trepidation, or even fear? Anger at the interruption; curiosity? And when he had seen that it was Nasir standing there, bow still raised, watching them all - how had he felt then? Strangely he hadn't been alarmed. Nasir had had ample opportunity to kill him back at the castle; and if he had been there watching them during the service to their fallen, when they had all had their backs turned, he could have killed each one of them several times over. He had certainly proved before that he had the skill as an archer.
And now here they were, seven of them. Six men and a woman, alone in Sherwood Forest at the behest of a man they had thought to be a myth. Herne the Hunter led them, through Robin himself - guided them and instructed them and watched over them, appearing when it suited him alone. It was strange, almost ethereal; as though they had stepped out of their own lives and into this odd green world. Everything was different now, and always would be. Whatever they had been, they were no longer.
And what a group they were - a monk, a lady, a shepherd, a convicted killer, a miller's son and his adopted brother - and a Saracen warrior who so far hadn't spoken a word. It felt like an uneasy alliance. Will wasn't sure yet that Robin was right to be leader; John was still confused after the weeks he had spent bewitched as a servant of de Belleme. Marion and Tuck were used to the finer things in life; to strong walls and soft furnishings, to fine food and willing servants. Here in the forest they were going to find life very difficult at first. Much, he knew, would never complain. The boy's life had never been easy, and even if it had been, no hardship would have been bad enough to make him abandon the brother he had worshipped all his life. That left Nasir. Will hated him, John was suspicious of him. Marion was inclined to look more fondly on him, since she had watched him spare Robin's life - but Robin himself wasn't sure how he felt. Tuck seemed indifferent, following Marion's judgement apparently; and Much was just scared. They had all heard stories, spread by those who supported the idea of the Crusades. The Saracens were evil, some said. Others called them ruthless and merciless, others claimed that they worshipped the devil. Most thought of them as barely human, if that. In England they were known only as slaves, and then only rarely, so there was little chance for ordinary folk such as Robin and his companions to form their own judgement. All that Robin knew himself was that he was disinclined to believe such tales of anybody. After all, what were the Saxons themselves, to their Norman overlords, but exactly what so many Christians called the Saracens? Uncultured, uncivilised brutes. Slaves. Barely human. Ranked somewhere below the hawks, horses and hunting dogs that they loved so much.
"It's... Nasir, isn't it." The Saracen had walked forwards, slowly, after calling their attention at the riverbank. Perhaps he had been looking for a gesture with which to indicate that he meant them no harm, or perhaps he had had no better way to express himself, but he had knelt quietly at Robin's feet. Robin had been embarrassed, without quite knowing why, uncomfortable with the gesture. He was no Norman, after all - nobody called him master, nor ever should. He had made the other man rise, and been momentarily thrown by the dark intensity of those watchful eyes.
A nod. It was clearly the only answer that he was going to get to his question. Certainly no words were forthcoming.
"You followed us here?"
Another nod. Just the one up and down movement, without a blink from the eyes that still watched them all.
"Why?" This time the answer was a quirk of one eyebrow. "You know that we're outlaws? That if you join us, you will be too?" Again the nod. Again no words to accompany it. Robin smiled. He remembered the first time he had encountered the Saracen, at the archery contest held at Nottingham castle. He had joked then about Nasir's reticence, to the enjoyment of the gathered crowd.
"You're not going to let him stay?" The eternally suspicious Will, who never seemed to allow the chance of a moment's belligerence to go unclaimed, stepped forward. "He's works for de Belleme!"
"So did I," John reminded him. Will glared.
"Yeah, but that's different, isn't it. I never saw any fancy symbols painted on him, like that one Robin says he washed off you. And he never looked like he was enchanted, did he. Robin said you were confused, after he woke you up. Does this fellow look confused? If he was bewitched then I'm Guy of Gisburne."
"We can talk about it later." Deciding to exert his authority, Robin stepped past Nasir, and pointed back towards their camp. "It's late, and I'm hungry. We all need rest, and I must speak to Herne later. Let's just go back to the camp."
"With him?" Will's voice had risen to its full volume, almost high-pitched with his indignation. "Robin, we--"
"What's he going to do, Will? Tell the Sheriff? Do you really think anybody in Nottingham would listen to what a Saracen has to say?" Robin shook his head. "Nothing's going to happen. We can trust him."
"Because he didn't kill you when he had the chance?" Will looked unimpressed. "More fool him."
Robin smiled. "You can always make your own camp, Will."
"Yeah? And who's going to look after all of you if I do that?" Scarlet pushed past them all, heading back to the camp. "Somebody's got to keep an eye on him, haven't they."
"Somebody is." Robin wondered where Herne was, and whether his mysterious father had always known that they were to be seven rather than six. He remembered what Herne had said to him before, and tried to use the powers of light and darkness to give him guidance. They told him nothing, unless perhaps he was missing the point. Maybe they spoke through his instincts, and what had his first such instinct been? He sighed. Just go back to camp. Eat something. Rest. Worry about who could be trusted in the morning.
The campfire was still burning when they got back, although it was low. Nasir crouched beside it, throwing another couple of logs onto it, before retreating unobtrusively. The flames leapt up, and everybody crowded gratefully around them.
"Somebody fetch the ale." Will threw himself down, narrowly missing the fire. Much, who always seemed ready to do as the others told him, fetched a stone jug which had been standing a good distance from the flames.
"Here." He handed it over. Will nodded his thanks.
"Sit down and get some rest, Much." Robin couldn't help thinking of the boy as he had always thought of him - a child, under his protection, needing to be guided. They were all outlaws now, though, and he had to remind himself that Much would have to be a man in all things. Boys didn't survive as outlaws. Not in towns, not on the road, and certainly not in the wilds of Sherwood Forest.
"Here. Hand that over." Stretching out one large hand, John neatly took the jug from Will and drank a long draught. The liquid was lukewarm, and not quite as refreshing as it could have been, but it cut through the taste of burning arrows and cold, damp air. It made him think of the last time that they had all shared a drink around the fire - when Dickon and Tom had still been with them. Odd that he had known them for so short a time, and yet felt so touched by their passing. That was what it meant, he supposed, to live and fight alongside a man.
"Hey, give that back." Snatching the jug, Will poured a good measure of it down his throat. John tried to take it back but missed, and Much grabbed it in the end. He drank too much rather too quickly, spluttered, and offered no resistance when Tuck took it away. The friar was quite reserved in the way that he drank, or perhaps wasn't used to taking his ale straight from the jug.
"Here Robin. You need it as much as any of us." Handing the jug over, Tuck watched with something of the air of a mother hen as the leader of the band drank his share. They were all still laughing, even though the fight over the ale jug had not really been that funny. It felt good to release a little of the gathered tension.
"Here." Turning to Nasir, who was watching them without a smile, Loxley held out the jug. The Saracen shook his head. "You don't like ale? We've mead, probably some wine. Much, fetch the--" He broke off at another head shake, then watched as the Saracen pointed towards the water-skins piled nearby. "You prefer water?" A nod seemed to indicate that this was indeed the case.
"You can just imagine the conversations we're going to have with him around." Watching without enthusiasm as the silent Saracen fetched a water-skin, Will folded his hands behind his head and gazed up at the sky. John kicked at his foot.
"Idiot. He probably doesn't speak much English."
"Well whose fault is that?!" Will was scowling, but since that seemed to be his favourite expression, John didn't take it too personally. "Anyway, whether he speaks or not, I still don't trust him."
"You don't trust anybody," Robin reminded him. Will glared.
"That's why I'm still alive. The Normans have been trying to kill me since before they even knew you existed. Don't forget that."
"I haven't." Robin sat down nearby. "But that doesn't mean that I think you're right about this. I know he was the baron's man, but I doubt that he had any choice about it. He was a slave, Will. Like most of our people, which makes him one of us. There are as many Normans fighting in the Holy Land as there are other Christians, so he's got no more reason to love them than we have. Less perhaps."
"Robin's got a point." Aware that the taciturn Saracen was undoubtedly watching them, and could almost certainly hear every word that was said, John shifted his position so that he was almost sitting up. "The Saracens have seen their land invaded, and many of their people forced into slavery. Sound familiar? I reckon the only difference is that they're better at fighting back than most Englishmen. They know how to give as well as take."
"Pretty words, John." Will shook his head. "And maybe you're right. I just don't trust easily, that's all." He looked towards Nasir, standing just beyond the fire's circle of brightest light, still holding the water-skin. The outlaw wondered how much the Saracen understood, but didn't doubt that he could hear everything that was said. As Will watched, Nasir reached out to hand the water-skin to Marion, who accepted it with some gratitude.
"We all know that you don't trust easily." Robin still felt in the mood for high spirits. "If you hadn't been so sick of that old prisoner and his pet rat, you'd probably still be in the dungeons at Nottingham Castle, insisting that you didn't trust us enough to help us escape."
"Very funny." Will would have thrown something at Loxley, but couldn't find anything to hand. "Give a man an impressive sword and tell him he's the son of a forest spirit, and suddenly he thinks he's the funniest man for miles." He raised his voice. "Here, Nasir! Come and sit down will you, and stop lurking."
"Yes, sit down." Suddenly seeing the chance to play mother hen again, Tuck started to bustle around. He had been appointed temporary cook, although he wasn't greatly enamoured of the job, and he started to peer at the pots and other bits and pieces around the fire. "Sit down and we'll all have something to eat. There's nothing but vegetable stew and some rather overcooked bread, but it's better than nothing." He looked pointedly at Will. "Perhaps somebody will catch us a few rabbits in the morning?"
"Yeah, yeah." Will's answer was sleepy, although he wasn't really tired. Too much had happened that day for any of them to feel as sleepy as they knew that they ought to be. "Maybe we should just eat Much."
"No." John's laugh was surprisingly light for so large a man. "There's no meat on him. We'd be better eating Tuck."
"Yeah, but who'd cook him?" pointed out Will. "Maybe we should eat you instead."
"I'd like to see you try."
"You couldn't, could you." Listening to the conversation with his usual mix of enjoyment and innocent sincerity, Much grinned broadly as he joined in. "If you were in the pot I mean. You wouldn't be able to see out."
"Well said Much." Pulling Robin down with her Marion sat beside the boy, watching as Tuck began to heat up the pot full of stew. There was a space nearby, and she indicated that Nasir should sit there, although it took him a moment to do so.
"How long before the stew's ready, Tuck?" Encircling Marion in a playful embrace, Robin leaned back to watch the friar at his work. His answer was a shrug of the shoulders, followed by a pantomime of frowning and peering at the contents of the cooking pot.
"Is that a long time or a short time?" asked John. Tuck glared at him.
"As long as it takes to heat through. Anybody would think you hadn't eaten in days."
"Feels like I haven't."
"That's because there's so much space between your stomach and your brain," Will told him. "By the time the food makes it all the way down to your stomach, you've forgotten that you've eaten."
"I'm not that big. It's everybody else that's small." John took the water-skin from Marion and tried spraying Will with it, but missed and hit Much ahead. The boy jumped and Will laughed out loud.
"If that's an example of your aim, remind me never to depend on your help in a fight."
"You're like a pair of children, the both of you." Robin spoke with mock exasperation, and ducked when John's response was to try to soak him next. The water spattered harmlessly onto the fire, which crackled its protest loudly. For a few moments silence reigned, before John started to laugh again, and the spell was broken.
"So." Taking advantage of a feeling of general warmth and good-spirit, Will glanced over at Nasir seated nearby. The Saracen had not joined in the laughter, although a faint smile had appeared briefly on his face when Much had been soaked. "What brings you into Sherwood, Nazzy? Why choose us?"
"Because Robin killed de Belleme," suggested John, thinking about how grateful he himself was for that. Somehow he had always feared, as long as the baron was alive, that he would somehow be returned to that dreadful state of enchantment.
"Yeah, but why come here? Why not go back home?" Will's questioning was nothing if not direct, and it was obvious that he wanted an answer of some kind. Nasir stared at him for several moments, a faint frown showing on his expressive face. Then he shrugged.
"Too far," he said in the end, in a soft voice that bore traces of a strange accent. "Too hard to be unseen."
"People would be sure to notice a Saracen," embellished Tuck. "They'd think he was an escaped slave. Besides, he's known around here. A lot of people were at that archery contest. They came from miles around."
"And I doubt there'd be many boatmen willing to give him passage." John reached out to clap Nasir on the shoulder. "You could well be stuck with us, lad."
"There are worse places." The dark eyes glittered, and John saw what was written in them. That much at least they shared - de Belleme's castle, with its spells and its secrets and its monsters. The memory was blurred almost beyond use to him, but he knew that the castle had been a terrible place.
"I still don't see why you'd want to come with us." Will gestured around them, taking in everything with his rather vague hand motions. The cold night air, the hard, damp ground, the thin stew and tough bread. "This isn't exactly a great place to be. Why choose to be an outlaw?"
"Why did any of us choose that?" Robin had been listening to the conversation with interest, pleased that Nasir had spoken at last. "We all stand together against something, and that makes us outlaws. At least here we're together, even if life is going to be hard." He stared at the Saracen for a few moments, before reaching out to put his hand on the other man's shoulder. "But I don't want you to feel indebted to me, just because I killed the baron. None of us is here because of a debt to anybody other than ourselves. For us it's a matter of our country and our people. If you want to help us then we're glad to have you, but don't choose this life out of any sense of misplaced loyalty."
"My loyalty is never misplaced." Nasir fell silent, apparently searching for words. "I... know why I am here."
"Which is more than I do." Will grabbed the stone jug, and appeared to be trying to pour its entire contents down his throat. "You're a horrible bunch and you haven't got a hope." John threw the water-skin at him, and soon they were all laughing again. Only Tuck's call that the stew was ready brought some semblance of order to the camp, and even then it was a meal full of mock fights and arguments. Nasir watched it all with the air of an outsider, a little awkward perhaps, and aware that his presence might not be fully welcome. He knew that he could be of use to these people, and also that he wanted to be, but he had always known that they probably wouldn't accept that straight away. Never the talkative type, even before he had found himself in a strange country, with a strange language, he stayed silent throughout the meal and listened to them talking amongst themselves. Better to be unobtrusive, and let them get to know him, before he allowed himself to hope that they might welcome him into their midst. Finishing his meal, he therefore slipped away into the forest. He needed time to think, and imagined that so did they. None of them had had much time for that lately.
"Where's he off to?" Staring after the silently departing figure, Will spoke through a mouthful of bread and stew. John kicked at him.
"Away from you. I can't say that I blame him."
"More likely it's you he wants to get away from." Will reached out for the water-skin, but Tuck snatched it away before the fight of earlier could be resumed. Robin laughed.
"Maybe he finds you lot too rowdy."
"Shouldn't have come after us then, should he." Will, certain that he had had the last word, seemed pleased to have got the chance to put in another little dig about the Saracen's arrival. He seemed to get some pleasure out of displaying his suspicious nature.
"Would you rather he'd stayed behind in Castle Belleme?" Trying not to shiver at the mention of that dreadful place, Marion lifted her head from its resting place on Robin's shoulder. "Killing the baron might have given Nasir the chance to escape, but in the eyes of the law he's still somebody else's property. I never heard of Simon de Belleme having any relatives, so he'd probably become the property of the crown - which around here means the Sheriff of Nottingham. Would you wish that on anybody, Will?"
"Of course not." Scarlet looked sulky. "I just wish he was a bit more friendly, that's all. Be a barrel of laughs, won't it. He doesn't even drink ale!"
"Well then we'll just have to drink his share." John stifled a yawn. "I think everything is finally starting to catch up with me. I'm that tired it could be the middle of the night. Who's going to take first watch?"
"Nasir." Will's laugh was playfully evil. "Still wandering about out there, isn't he. Besides, he's quiet, and that's the best kind of lookout."
"You're all heart." John was laughing as he spoke. Robin rose to his feet.
"You can take the first watch, Will. Wake John when the moon's moved over the clearing. Tuck's to get some sleep, since he was injured earlier today. Much?"
"Yes Robin?" Always eager, Much looked excited about the prospect of being given an order, and Robin had to smile.
"Find Nasir. Tell him to get some sleep. There's no telling what sort of a life he's had recently, and I need everybody to be at their best. Then you get some rest too."
"But I can be a lookout!" The boy's enthusiasm was encouraging, and Robin nodded.
"Tomorrow night. We'll both take a turn then. There are six of us, and we'll all split that work."
"Seven," Marion told him, her voice firm. Robin glanced back at her.
"We'll see." His voice suggested that he had no intention of leaving her sitting up at night, and she glowered, but didn't fight him when he took her hand to lead her away out of camp. "Marion and I have somewhere else to be. We'll be back soon enough, but I don't know when."
"Herne's Son going to visit his father?" Will sounded mocking, but it was clear that he was more interested than scathing. Loxley nodded.
"If he wants to see us, yes. Keep the fire going. We'll need it later tonight."
"Of course." Sobering up now that duty called, Will stood up to throw another log onto the fire. Long shadows pranced, and in the diminishing light of the secluded clearing he saw Much returning with Nasir. Nodding a greeting to the other outlaws, the Saracen chose a place not far away, and sat cross-legged on the ground. Apparently he required nothing more comfortable for sleep. Tuck sprawled near to John, and Much nestled close to the fire. Robin rather regretted the need to leave, but with a rueful smile he gave Marion's hand a tug and led her away from the warmth and camaraderie. Only Will and Nasir were still awake to see them go.
"It's embarrassing." Body language screaming his exasperation, the Sheriff of Nottingham turned away and began to pace. "In fact it's more than embarrassing. It's infuriating! How did it happen, Gisburne? Hmm? Explain how exactly this man Loxley was able to kill the baron and then escape from your soldiers? Were they drunk?"
"I don't know what happened, my lord." Abashed, Sir Guy of Gisburne lowered his head. It hurt his pride to behave so subserviently, but he had no choice before his employer. "When we arrived the baron was already dead. You remember how confident he was, my lord. About being able to capture this, this 'hooded man' for us? I suppose he was too confident, and the Wolfshead was more clever than he thought."
"He'll have to be caught." De Rainault ceased his pacing, and stared out of a window slit into the gloomy castle courtyard. "We can't have these people running around free after killing a baron. It's makes us look bad."
"Yes, my lord." Deciding that it was now probably safe to raise his eyes, Gisburne tried his second piece of news. "You were aware of course that he had no relatives?"
"There was a wife of course, the one who supposedly committed suicide some while ago." The Sheriff looked disdainful. "From what we've learnt since I think we can imagine what happened to her."
"Much what he intended would happen to the Lady Marion, if things are as they appear to be, my lord." Gisburne was not at all bothered by what might or might not have been Marion's intended fate, and his tone of voice clearly indicated that. "He has no heir, at any rate, and I assumed that you would like to take possession of his belongings."
"Oh?" The Sheriff brightened, as Gisburne had known that he would. "Was there much, beyond the... magical appendages?"
"Some furniture, my lord, and some gold. The tapestries and candlesticks are worth something, I believe - the more unpleasant items were taken by your brother, for destruction. The servants have been brought here already and put to work, and the horses are already in the stables."
"Perhaps this Wolfshead has his uses after all." De Rainault seemed amused, and Gisburne smiled as well.
"Yes, my lord."
"And is there anything else?"
"I believe so, my lord. Some trinkets, that sort of thing. Oh - I was wondering what you wanted done with the Saracen?"
"Yes, my lord. You remember the baron's representative in the archery contest? A slave acquired during the Crusades as I understand it, although I don't know how he came to be in the baron's service. Do you want him, or shall I have him executed?"
"Is he tame?"
"I doubt it, my lord. Given the baron's... peculiar tastes."
"Hmm." The Sheriff sat down on his large, suitably impressive chair, and waved a hand in his best imitation of a regal gesture. "Have him brought here."
"My lord." Offering one of his sweeping bows, which usually rather pleased him with their fluency, Gisburne clapped his hands. A guard appeared in the doorway, dishevelled and sweaty from carrying so much of de Belleme's unwieldy furniture into its new home.
"Yes, Sir Guy?" He managed to be polite only through common sense. Most of the guards in the castle, and particularly the majority who were rather older than Gisburne, disliked the young steward intensely.
"Bring the Saracen here." Gisburne was trying to mimic de Rainault's casual attempts to look regal, but wasn't quite pulling it off. The guard's clueless gaping didn't help matters much, and he felt his neck begin to turn pink with annoyance.
"Yes, the Saracen. The baron's man. Have him brought here."
"There was no Saracen in the castle, my lord." The guard's eyes darted from Gisburne to the Sheriff and back again, hoping that this wasn't going to be his undoing. He had lost comrades for less than this, when Gisburne was feeling particularly vindictive, or just fancied trying out a new method of execution.
"Well then where is he?" Angry that his attempt to win favour with the Sheriff had been undermined, Gisburne considered striking the guard, then decided against it. Best not to appear too petulant before de Rainault. Not that the Sheriff himself didn't act that way often enough.
"I... don't know, Sir Guy. I could arrange a search?"
"No, don't bother." The Sheriff waved an arm, dismissing him, and he hurried away in relief. Guy looked affronted.
"You don't seem bothered, my lord."
"Why should I? Did you expect the man to stay, with his master dead? They're a proud lot, Gisburne - but they also stick out in a country like this one. If you really want him I'm sure you'll find him, otherwise why worry? He's not a threat to anybody, and I doubt you'll ever see him again."
"No, my lord. I mean yes, my lord." Guy wasn't sure what he meant, but he tried not to let it show. "I'm just not happy about the idea of a Saracen warrior running about in Nottingham. If he's half as good with a sword as he is with his bow, we--"
"He's got no reason to fight, Gisburne." De Rainault leaned back in his chair, and contemplated the selection of wines lined up on his lengthy table. "You just worry about that gang of outlaws. They're what matters now."
"Yes, my lord." With another of his sweeping bows, Gisburne turned about and left the room. The outlaws - did the Sheriff really think that he could have forgotten them? They had been in his mind all along. He had no idea where to start looking for them, and hadn't a clue what they might be planning to do next, but he intended to track them down in the end. Nobody embarrassed him like that and lived to laugh about it.
It took a while to decide what they were going to do. How they were going to do it. Robin had told them that they were going to fight for the liberty of England - fight back against the tyrannical rule of the local Sheriff, even if there was nothing at all that they could do on a wider scale. Now, however, they were faced with the reality of actually doing it. Robin had gathered them all together, and told of them of his plans; to steal whatever they could from the people who journeyed through Sherwood; taking tolls from the merchants and the peddlers, and the other travellers carrying wares. The money and property would help the local villages to stay one step ahead of the crippling fines and taxes imposed upon them by the Sheriff, and by the myriad barons who insisted on their own laws and tithes. The extra taxes thought up by Prince John, the money taken to pay for the Crusades - all of it was expected to come from people barely able to feed their families. Robin knew that if he could lessen that burden, the villagers for miles around would be happy to shelter him and his men; to protect them, lie for them, and whatever the circumstances, never betray them to the Sheriff. They might not be able to overthrow their Norman rulers, but they could certainly stand up to them, and strike a blow for English pride and glory. As words it sounded wonderful - inspiring. Beyond that things became rather more complicated.
"People are going to know we're out here." Kicking at the ashes of the previous night's fire, Will folded his arms and did his by now familiar impression of a man ready to mutiny. "Anybody coming through the forest with money or gold is going to have soldiers with them. They'll be hiring mercenaries, or getting the Sheriff to send an escort... It's not going to be easy."
"Of course it isn't." As usual Robin was the epitome of patience. "But we're good, Will. You know that. We can all shoot, and we're going to practice to get even better. You've been helping me learn how to use my sword - well you're going to teach everybody else as well. Nasir can help, and John and Tuck will see to it that everybody can use a quarter-staff. It'll work, Will."
"Did Herne tell you that?"
"Not in as many words, no." The leader of the little band looked around at his friends, all awakened now to their first morning together. They were a ragged and unlikely bunch, he was willing to concede that much, but he knew that they could do everything he had planned. All that remained was to convince them of it. "But with his guidance and his blessing, I know that we can do everything we set our minds to. We're together for a reason. Fate, chance, or Herne - something made the guards at the castle put Much and me into the same cell as you. Made me run into Marion's bedchamber during the escape. Delivered John and Nasir into the hands of the Baron de Belleme. We're together because we're supposed to be."
"Yeah." That much Will certainly agreed with, even if he was still suspicious of Nasir. "And I suppose if Herne really did bring us together, he had to have a reason for it."
"Precisely." Glad that this was one battle that seemed to have been won, Robin turned his head to look about at the rest of the gang. "So we're decided then. Herne has a plan for us, and we're going to follow his guidance."
"Of course." Marion's quiet acceptance was nothing more or less than he had expected from her; she wouldn't disagree with him after her own meeting with the Lord of the Forest. Even if she had never met Herne, she would still have followed Robin, for they were joined now in more ways than one.
"You know we're behind you, Robin." John's words were for everybody, for there were no dissenters amongst their ranks. "I'll beat every last silver mark from the coffers of the Norman nobles if it'll help to save a few lives, and I'll do it gladly. I think we all will."
"I'd be happy to beat anything out of the Norman nobles." A bitter humour twisted Will's words just as a bitter smile twisted his mouth. There was no humour in his eyes though. For Will at least there was a personal side to all of this, and one that would never be forgotten. Nobody laughed at his dark joke, and Robin reached out to clap him on the back.
"I can't promise you revenge, Will. I can't promise you that you'll ever feel you've done all you can. All I can promise is that you'll be able to do something to bring a little justice to the country."
"Yeah." Will's soft smile was an eloquent speech of thanks. "So when do we start? When do we attack our first rich abbot, or our first market tradesman? When do we start making the Sheriff's hair turn grey?"
"Soon." Robin drew Albion, staring grimly at its shining, flawless blade. He knew the rudiments of fencing, and with Herne's guidance and Will's recent teaching he knew that he was better than many - but his fight the previous day with Nasir had shown him that there was a great deal he still had to learn. Much had never used a sword, and Marion was not likely to be an expert in such things. He had no idea how skilled a swordsman or archer Tuck was... There were still things that they had to do. There were escape routes to be planned, camps and reserve camps to be decided upon, lookout points to be established. They had to commit every forest path, every byway to memory, and learn how to travel silently through the trees. Much of that could be done once they had begun their work, but one or two things he wanted to sort out first.
"Much." His voice was quick and hard, and carried the new note of authority that had been planted within him by Herne. The boy ran to his side, as eager as ever to do his bidding.
"Yes Robin?" He was nervous, but bristling with excitement. With luck that would soon be transformed into a more useful kind of energy, but for now the enthusiasm was good. They could all do with a little bit of that.
"Do you remember when I made my bow? You were there, and you saw me cut it."
"I remember, Robin."
"Good." He put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Then I want you to go and cut some more pieces of wood like that one. And John?"
"Go with him. Find us anything we can use to make a few quarter-staffs. You know what we need."
"Aye, I do." John's expression had hardened. "Are you thinking of building us an armoury?"
"We might well need one. Marion, I'll show you how to make arrows. We'll always need more of them. It's something that we can all do, when we're sitting around the fire in the evenings." He took a deep breath. "And while all of that is going on, I'd appreciate it if you'd give me a few more lessons, Will. Marion and Tuck as well perhaps."
"Lessons?" Tuck eyed Albion. "Oh. I admit that I rather overlooked fencing when I was studying for my vocation."
"It'll be more use to you now than Bible reading." Will drew his own sword. "Alright Robin, I'll help you. All of you." He nodded at Nasir. "But what's he going to be doing?"
"Scouting." That the Saracen had been able to find them and watch them so soundlessly was a fact still very current in Robin's memory. "Find us some tall trees that give us as good a view as possible of the forest and the roads through it, and keep an eye on who comes and goes. It's early days yet, but if a rich enough target comes along, I'm not going to let it slip by." He watched as Nasir gave a brief nod, then disappeared.
"Man of few words that," observed Tuck with some humour. Will grunted.
"Too much talk never did anybody any good," he muttered. Robin grinned.
"Sometimes, Will, you startle me with your wisdom." Will glared.
"Shut up." His voice, as usual, was harsh and rough, but he was smiling openly now. "We've got work to do, if you want to look like you can actually use that fancy sword of yours."
"Then let's go." Taking up a fighting stance, eyes bright with all his characteristic cheer, Robin gave a broad grin. "What are you waiting for?"
"Nothing." Will hefted his sword. "Let's see what we can do."
For three days it was as though the outlaws had vanished from Sherwood Forest. At Nottingham Castle the Sheriff still fumed, and Guy of Gisburne still dreamed of capturing Robin, and making him pay for all that had happened - but both men were willing to admit that it was likely Loxley had fled the county. None of the villagers tried to claim the much advertised reward placed on his head, and none of the other men he had gathered about him could be heard of either. The giant John, the ferocious Scarlet, the traitorous friar - none had been seen since the death of de Belleme, and the Lady Marion had vanished just as completely. That at least did not bother the Sheriff, since it meant that he and his brother the Abbot had no need to perpetuate their token pretence at caring for her, and were able just to take her inherited fortune openly. They wondered what had happened to her, and nodded their heads in apparent consternation whenever the subject was raised in public, but for the most part they thought no more of it than as a matter of minor interest. They were certain that they would never see her again.
In Sherwood Forest the trees told a different story, for deep within the green interior of the thick and unknown wood, Robin and his band of outlaws were at work. The outside world might believe that they had moved on, and were scattered to the many winds that blew through the north of England, but the truth of course lay elsewhere. From the earliest light of dawn until the darkness became too deep to continue, they practised together in the clearing that was the site of their first camp. Their training was sometimes serious and sometimes playful, sometimes dangerous and sometimes just for fun, but slowly and surely it was fulfilling its purpose. Robin knew - had always known - that it was real battles and real danger that would make them the fighters they needed to be, but the practice sessions; the endless hours of mock fighting and archery practice; had a greater purpose. It was knitting them together, slowly and surely, into a close and self-contained unit. Gone were the petty squabbles of before; gone were the suspicions and the caution. Under the watchful eye of Robin Hood, and through him Herne, the outlaws of Sherwood Forest were coming together.
It began the first day, when Tuck's skill at fighting with a staff so impressed Will that he forgot to be rude about the other man's background. By the end of that day, when they were all sitting together around their fire, the breaking of the ice was well underway. Nasir smiled more often at the jokes, and Will's eyes carried less belligerence. The stiffness of the hard bed that was to be his from now onwards had begun to leave Tuck's bones, and he sat more comfortably on the ground. Nobody seemed to notice these little developments save Robin, and he certainly did not mean to point them out. But he smiled at each one, and was glad of it, for he knew where it would all lead.
He saw more of it on the following day, when he watched Will and John teasing Much during a mock fight. They had both been concerned at the sense in allowing somebody of Much's youth and inexperience to stay with them in the forest, but when he saw them all laughing together Robin knew that that was another obstacle that was ceasing to be a problem; and when Marion out-shot John during an archery session he saw another potential problem end before it could begin. If any of the gang had been worried about carrying Marion's dead weight, they ceased to think of such things when they realised that she could be as useful a part of the team as any of the men. The sounds of laughter echoed through the forest as John stared accusingly at his bow, and Marion danced around him in glee. Even Nasir seemed to enjoy the spectacle. Robin hugged Marion in congratulation, and fended off John's joking attempts to get his own back on the girl.
"Does that mean that Marion will be your deputy, Robin?" asked Much as they inspected the target afterwards. It had been an unspoken assumption amongst the band that John was to have that position, and everybody laughed at the boy's mock-innocent inquiry.
"I don't know Much." Robin pretended to be giving the question genuine consideration. "What do you think, Marion?"
"I don't think I'm nearly degenerate or devious enough to lead this band." Everybody laughed again, but Robin frowned.
"I wouldn't say that."
"Why you-!" She hit him on the head with her bow. "Anyway, I only beat John. Nasir beat everybody except you. And that," she extricated herself from her lover's arms as though removing an offensive object, "was sure to have been blind luck on your part."
"I'm mortally wounded." Robin was still laughing. "So maybe Nasir should lead us then."
"How's he going to do that?" Will's laughter was honest, and there was clearly no ill-meaning behind his words. "He can't hardly tell us what to do when he never speaks, can he." Everybody laughed again, and Nasir once more gave his small, quiet smile.
"We could use sign language," suggested Much. Will threw the straw-filled archery target at him, and the conversation descended into yet another well-meaning scuffle. Robin helped Much out from beneath John and Will, and promptly got dragged into the melee.
"Should we douse them with water?" asked Tuck. Nasir smiled.
"Leave them. We'll eat."
"I like that reasoning." Taking Nasir's arm in one of hers, and Much's with the other, Marion led the way over to the embers of the fire. There was bread cooking in the ashes, and she raked it out with a stick. Lady she may have been, but Marion had never been one to avoid her share of the work.
"Hey!" His head emerging from somewhere beneath John's huge and furry jerkin, Robin's yelp was filled with mock indignation. Marion stuck her tongue out at him.
"Women are fickle creatures, lad." Catching hold of Robin by one shoulder, John lifted him bodily from a tangle of Will's limbs. Robin made a token attempt to tidy himself up, but his hair was sticking up and there was mud all over his face and clothes. Marion looked horrified when he headed over to the fire.
"If you think you're going to eat looking like that..." she told him. He folded his arms, trying to look like a determined leader of men, but she pointed at the river nonetheless. He sighed. Much giggled.
"She sounds like my mother, don't she Robin." He looked as though he was about to become sad again then, but managed to hold it in. Robin smiled.
"She certainly sounds like somebody's mother." Marion pretended to be affronted.
"Just go and wash, before you even think of sitting down next to me." She sounded as prim and proper as she could make herself, and Robin sighed.
"Yes my lady." He gave her a low bow, then with John's gleeful assistance, swung her up into the air and deposited her in the river. She surfaced, spluttering.
"Robin of Loxley that was unfair!" She splashed him heartily, and he doubled up laughing, then gamely dived in after her. It was some time before they were all finally seated together around the fire.
And so it continued. On the third day Robin overheard Will and Nasir discussing fighting technique, and knew that another frontier had been crossed. Scarlet's suspicions had eased noticeably, and when, that evening, he challenged Nasir to a fight, Robin did not feel the concern that he might have done a few days before. With the light failing, and the fire in the middle of the camp leaping exuberantly skyward, the five other members of the gang settled back to watch the pair circling each other.
"Think you can beat me, Naz?" Will was exuberant in his confidence. Nasir smiled his quiet smile, and shrugged an answer. John laughed out loud.
"He's toying with you Will. Course he can beat you."
"Want to put a bet on that, do you?" Lowering his sword for a moment, Scarlet turned to face John with outrage in his eyes. Tuck pretended to cross himself.
"There'll be no gambling in this forest, thankyou very much. Cover your ears, little flower. It doesn't do to hear of such things." Marion laughed.
"It's alright Tuck. There's nothing for them to gamble with, anyway."
"I can find something." Will raised his sword again. "Come on, Nasir. Show me how good you are." The Saracen gave a rough bow of acceptance, then instantly went on the offensive. Robin remembered coming up against those two deadly swords in the castle of the Baron de Belleme, and winced. He didn't think that Will had a chance.
In the event the fight was a well-matched one. Whilst Scarlet did not have as much experience as Nasir, and was only fighting with one sword, his style was unpredictable, and more that of an undisciplined brawler. His furious energy helped him to manoeuvre even when there were two swords to watch out for, and his determination to win was second to none. By the time Nasir finally sent Will's sword spinning away through the darkening air, the stew was ready for the evening meal, and Tuck was starting to twitch.
"Anybody would think you liked your food to be burnt." He began to ladle it out as the pair rejoined the group. Will laughed.
"Good wine and ale makes any meal edible, everybody knows that." He shot Nasir a speculative glance. "Or at least, some of us know that."
"It would probably do us all some good if we followed Nasir's example." Tuck poured some ale into a mug for himself, completely negating his words. Nasir merely smiled. So did Robin. As far as he could tell any awkwardness that there might have been between the silent Saracen and the belligerent Scarlet was dispersing quickly. Their fight had done wonders for their mutual respect, and the edginess had gone from Will's tone when he made jokes at Nasir's expense. Robin began to understand what it must feel like to be a father proud with the progress of his sons.
"Hey." Clapping Tuck on the shoulder and almost causing him to spill his ale, John seemed to be remembering something. "Tell Robin what you told me earlier."
"Oh. Yes." Finding a more secure place to put his mug, Tuck turned to face Robin. The leader of the outlaws was looking comfortably lazy, and smiled in sleepy acknowledgement of the friar's intention to speak. "Well, I was helping John to fish earlier--"
"Ha!" John seemed to find this statement hilarious. "Helping were you? I'd hate to see what you do when you're trying to get in the way."
"Yes, well." Tuck had the grace to smile and look a little embarrassed. "I never claimed to be an expert fisherman. Anyway, I was looking downstream--"
"Where I sent him so he wouldn't scare the fish away," added John. Robin smiled.
"And I met someone." Tuck adjusted his habit, and looked apologetic. "I know we're supposed to be living here secretly, but I can't very well ignore it when villagers speak to me. That would only make them suspicious."
"Of course it would." Robin understood. Nobody would think it strange if an ordinary peasant ran off to avoid conversation, but if a friar were to do the same thing people would soon talk. "So what happened?"
"It was a local. A young apprentice from the abbey. It seems that the Bishop of Leeds has been on a tour of Holy places in the North of England, and he's finishing it with a visit to the Abbot Hugo. His route will probably bring him through Sherwood."
"The Bishop of Leeds?" Robin sat up, immediately taking an interest. "And he's coming here?"
"Tomorrow, apparently." Tuck nodded. "And we all know the kind of riches that bishops are fond of hoarding."
"Don't we just." Will spat the words out. "All that gold taken from scared peasants who think they'll go to hell if they don't hand it over - and that's just the way that the more honest bishops get their money. What do you say Robin?"
"Do you know the bishop, Tuck?" Eager to hear if there was any chance of them making an ambush, Robin leaned forwards. The fire illuminated his face and eyes, clearly showing his excitement. "Does he have a big retinue? Many guards?"
"No more than the usual, I'd say. Perhaps less." Tuck gaily sipped his ale, happy to have been the bringer of welcome news. "The bishop likes to think of himself as something of a fighting man, who can handle most problems himself. They say that he's a good archer, and he's supposed to be good with a sword, too. I think he'll be confident enough to risk Sherwood without too big an escort."
"Course he will." Speaking around a mouthful of food and ale, Will couldn't contain a large grin. "He doesn't know about us yet, does he. Nobody does."
"Yeah." Little John banged him on the back in a show of support, and nearly caused his companion to choke. "But by this time tomorrow it'll be a different story. Everybody for miles around will know about Robin Hood and his men."
"And woman," Marion added with a smile. Robin glared at her.
"If you think that you're coming with us on this raid, you can--"
"Robin, I am not staying here." She folded her arms, glowering in the face of his obvious amusement. "If you make me stay here I might just as well have stayed behind in Nottingham Castle, and not joined you at all."
"We'll talk about it tomorrow." He leaned back, staring into the fire. "It might not be easy, you know. We haven't really done anything as a group before. Escaping from Castle de Belleme was a shambles, and we lost two of our men on the way. We're going to have to do better than that."
"We will." Scarlet sounded quietly confident, a change from his usual loud bluster. "We know each other now, and you've had a chance to get to know all our strengths. It'll work out alright."
"I suppose so." All the same Robin felt a strange feeling of nervousness within him, almost like the day, years before, when he had first been called upon to operate the potentially deadly machinery of the mill wheel for his adopted father. It was a feeling that sharpened his senses, and left him suspecting that he was not likely to get much sleep that night.
"Will they send many soldiers after us, Robin? If we attack the bishop I mean?" Much sounded nervous. Little John ruffled his hair.
"Don't worry about that, lad."
"They'll send soldiers after us. Of course they will." His voice ever gentle when speaking to Much, Robin looked the boy directly in the eyes. There was no point hiding from the issue, and he knew that Much would be thinking about the other experiences that he had had with the local soldiery. He had seen his home burnt and his father killed by Gisburne's men so recently that he had not yet even had enough time to come to terms with it all. Robin wondered what the guards had done to the boy's mother, and hoped that it had been mercifully quick. Much, at least, did not seem to be thinking about that too much as yet.
"But the soldiers won't catch us, will they?" Pale in the firelight Much was trying to look as though he wasn't as scared as he was. If he was worried that the others might have thought less of him for his fears, though, he needn't have been. Nobody spoke unkindly to him, and none of the eyes that stared back at him were hostile.
"They won't catch us." Robin smiled reassuringly. "We've lived around these woods all our lives. Remember the rabbits we've hunted here. And the deer, from time to time. We know every inch of this place, and no soldier from Nottingham Castle can say the same thing. I've seen you climb trees like a squirrel, and you're quick on your feet. We all are." There was a muted chorus of laughter, and Will couldn't resist muttering, "Except Tuck."
"I may be slower, but I'm a good deal more dignified." Tuck smoothed out the increasingly shabby material of his habit, and smiled primly. Much managed to laugh alongside the others.
"They won't catch us then?" he asked, just to make sure. Robin shook his head.
"How can they? We'll have to be careful, and we'll be in danger during the times when we have to leave the forest - but as long as we're inside it nobody will catch us. This is our world, Much. It's all that the Normans have let us have, but we'll make the most of it, and keep it our own. They'll not catch us."
"They caught us before," the boy couldn't help pointing out. Robin nodded.
"But we were just peasants then. Just ordinary people. Now we're outlaws - men of Sherwood Forest, under the protection of Herne himself. We're safe. Now go and get some sleep. In the morning there'll be less to worry about."
"Alright Robin." He rose to his feet, crossing to the space some paces away where they had spread their few thin blankets to make beds. Marion took Robin's hand.
"We should all get some sleep," she told him, her voice filled with a wisdom and good sense of which he was profoundly glad. "Can we go without a guard tonight?"
"I think so." He smiled at her, and gave her hand a squeeze. "Just for tonight."
"Then I'm for turning in." Rising to his feet, John towered above them all, momentarily blocking the moon from Robin's vision. It suggested that the giant was possessed of a vastly exaggerated height, making him able to stretch up and touch the moon itself - but the illusion did not last long, for he soon moved away and the moon shone freely once again. All the same, Robin was glad that he was on the same side as the mighty John. Surely such a presence would only help him tomorrow, when he robbed his first victim?
"I think I shall get some sleep as well." Tuck scurried off, in as much as he ever scurried to do anything. Robin and Marion nestled down together close to the fire, and Nasir wandered off into the trees. Will drank the last of his ale.
"Going to be fine weather tomorrow," he commented, to nobody in particular. Robin nodded, his head rocking gently in its resting place against Marion's shoulder.
"Looks like it."
Will smiled at him. "Goodnight Robin."
Robin smiled back, trying not to think too hard about what was to come the following day. Marion rested her head against his, and muttered sleepily into his hair. Everything seemed quiet and peaceful. Friendly, in a way that the forest had never felt before, in the days when Robin had still lived in a house.
"Yeah," he muttered, filled with the sensation of goodwill to all that came with the knowledge that he was embarking upon his destiny. "Goodnight Will."
The pink light of dawn found the outlaws already awake. Nasir and Much made a rough breakfast for everyone, whilst Robin paced about trying to make his plans, and John and Will argued about whose turn it was to fetch water. Marion and Tuck sat together, sharing worries about anything and everything that might go wrong, and trying not to believe that anything would.
"We ought to get moving." Daylight was showing properly now, and breakfast, for what it was worth, was over. John was restless, and Robin sympathised. "We don't know when the bishop will be coming, and we ought to be ready."
"I know." Robin took a deep breath. "Alright. We're assuming that he'll be following the main path through the forest. There aren't many routes that allow carts to pass, and only the one that's open and clear enough for most travellers to feel safe. We'll set things up where the trees are thickest along that route."
"Fine." Will slung his bow over his shoulder, and picked up a quiver full of arrows. "There's plenty of cover. They won't see us until it's far too late."
"Exactly." Robin glanced around at all of his friends. "Much, Marion - I want you to take the watch. There are a couple of tall trees that ought to give you a good view in either direction. Will, Nasir - you need to find a good vantage point about halfway between Marion and Much. Don't spare the arrows. John and Tuck will deal with anybody who tries to fight back on the ground, and I'll handle the bishop. Everybody clear?" There was an assortment of nods and murmurs of assent. Robin thought that Marion looked a little mutinous, but he had at least given her something to do where she could be useful. He hoped that that would be enough. There would be plenty of time, in the weeks and months to come, for her to risk her life at his side if she really wanted to. For now, when he was able to ensure that she was safe, he planned to do just that.
"Good." He nodded, and wished that it was later in the day already, and that the bishop was already in his sight. "Then let's get moving."
Robin was sure that Herne had not mentioned his destiny being this boring. Shifting restlessly in the undergrowth, he stretched his legs and hoped that they didn't cramp. Wasn't it supposed to be exciting, being the son of a forest spirit, and striking a blow for the freedom of Englishmen everywhere? Herne certainly hadn't told him about the sitting around on cold grass, being nibbled on by large mosquitoes, and getting a stiff neck from trying to see the road whilst staying out of sight himself. Nearby John and Tuck were arguing in exaggerated whispers, trying to get more comfortable, and clashing over which of them was the least happy with the situation. Some distance away a tree branch twitched, clearly showing the position of Will Scarlet, who was supposed to be hidden from view. Nasir was invisible, but that much didn't surprise Robin. He had never met anybody with as much patience as the Saracen, and it seemed a pity that some of it couldn't be shared about amongst the rest of the gang. Drat the bishop. Clearly he had overslept.
It was nearing noon when the faint sound of Much's whistle floated through the trees. Robin sat up straight, and caught his head on a low hanging branch. He winced.
"Did you hear that?" His voice far too loud, John's head popped up above the bushes. Tuck hissed him into silence, himself being far too noisy, and Will's gruff voice rose in answer.
"If you two don't shut up the bishop would be able to hear you even if he was still back in Leeds."
"Quiet." His new air of authority taking over, Robin readied himself. "Keep out of sight until the last moment, and for goodness sakes, nobody speak from now on." He waited for a noisy cacophony of understanding, and was relieved when none came. Instead all that he heard was a second whistle, telling him that the moment was fast approaching. He thought that he heard a horse's hoof striking something hard along the road, and felt every muscle in his body jump into awareness. Gone was the nervousness, gone was the worry. He was Herne's Son now, and the change was complete.
Nasir fired the first arrow, from his invisible position somewhere in the trees. Robin saw one of the guards beside the bishop's wagon fall from his horse, and heard a shout from somebody else. A second guard fell as Will unleashed an arrow of his own, and a horse whinnied in fear.
"Show yourselves!" Standing up in the wagon, the bishop glared into the trees. Robin saw a tall, powerful man with a sizeable golden cross hanging about his neck, and a sword with a bejewelled hilt poking out from beneath his thick black cloak. Fierce eyes glared from under massive brows, and large, gnarled hands opened and closed into fists. Robin stepped out into the road.
"Here." His voice carried impressively, although he didn't raise it much. The bishop turned to look at him, and the little company slowed to a halt. There were three men left on horseback, all looking decidedly nervous now, and a fourth man in the wagon with the bishop. All four were holding drawn swords.
"What do you want of us, serf?" The bishop's voice had all the authority and conceit that Robin had come to expect from Normans. He didn't like it, but he didn't let that show.
"I'm not a serf." He kept his expression more or less blank, but allowed his eyes to smile. "I'm Robin Hood. The Hooded Man."
"Is that supposed to mean something to me?" The disdain in the bishop's voice was clear. This time Robin allowed more than just his eyes to smile.
"It will, soon enough. And when you make it through to Nottingham, you could try remembering me to the Sheriff. He might even embellish the tale with one of his own."
"I'm sure I shall have better things to discuss with the Sheriff than the exploits of some thief who hides himself in Sherwood Forest." The bishop let one of his large hands fall onto the hilt of his sword. "Perhaps you'd like to meet me weapon to weapon, and talk things through that way?"
"And perhaps you'd like to stop distracting me." The slow reaching of the driver for some secreted weapon had not escaped Robin's attention. Neither, it seemed, had it escaped Will's. As the driver reached out one hand for something hidden beneath the seat, a single arrow dropped him in his tracks. He fell from the cart and landed in a heap on the ground. The horse that was harnessed to the wagon jumped at the sound, but there was no other reaction. A wave of rage passed across the bishop's face.
"Coward!" His voice rang out, carrying clearly down the road. "Where are you?"
"Over here." Will stood up, bow levelled at the belligerent bishop. "Throw down your sword, and your money."
"This is a jest of some kind." The bishop looked from Robin to Will with disgust in his eyes. "You two? Peasants, thinking that you can take the treasures of my church? You're much mistaken if you think that you can bully me into giving up so much as a coin."
"And you're much mistaken if you think that you're leaving here with that money still on you." An arrow fitted to his bow in readiness, Robin advanced towards the wagon. The bishop stared down at him, disdain showing in every line on his face, and in every flicker of ill-meaning in his eyes. He was itching to draw his sword, that much was obvious - but equally obvious was his unwillingness to chance anything when he still didn't know who else might be hiding in the trees. Not losing that half-smile that still played about his lips, Robin whistled a shrill summons that echoed above his head. John and Tuck arose from the bushes, and from somewhere nearby the black-clad figure of Nasir stepped into view. The bishop started so violently at the sight of the Saracen that he almost lost his footing and fell.
"You're outnumbered." Robin was beginning to lose patience with this pointlessly posturing fool. "Throw down your money bags."
"You're wearing the uniform of the church." Noticing Tuck for the first time, the bishop blinked at him in surprise. "A friar? With this lot? With a band of cut-throats and Saracens?"
"I decided it was time that I started doing the Lord's work, instead of the work of the Church." Tuck moved out of the bushes, swinging his long staff. He almost hoped that he would get the chance to use it. "Do as Robin says and throw down your money bags, Your Grace. It would be a shame to put a hole in your expensively scented hide."
"Especially since then we'd take the money anyway." John looked up at the three guards. "These lads don't look ready to die for your riches."
"Cowards! Peasants!" The bishop turned, staring towards the three men on their bony steeds. "Well? Are you going to let them talk about you that way? Attack them damn you! Attack!" The three men exchanged a sheepish look, and as though to tilt the balance that little bit more, Nasir took another step forward. His distinctive bow pointed its readied arrow at the unfortunate man in the middle of the threesome, and his mouth twisted itself into a cold, taunting smile. As one all three men raised their hands. The bishop spat fury.
"I think you're alone." Robin moved forward a little further, taking up a position from where he could clearly see into the cart. There were several bags and chests inside it, and he wondered what lay within them. Clothing was a certainty, and probably some food, but surely there would also be enough money to see the local villages good for some while. For a second his eyes left the bishop, and he didn't see the man tensing his muscles ready to spring.
"Damn you all!" With a bellow that sounded strong enough to carry all the way to the Sheriff's castle, the bishop drew his sword and leaped. Taken by surprise Robin gaped up at him, seeing a massive shape dressed in a billowing cloak hurling itself towards him. He took a step back, too surprised to draw Albion or raise his bow. The sunlight flashed on the sword raised above him - before the bishop gave a cry of pain and collapsed to the ground. One of Nasir's arrows was sticking into his sword arm, piercing it all the way through. He whimpered, white as death as the pain took hold.
"Thankyou." Aware that he had almost made a serious mistake, Robin kicked the bishop's sword away. Galvanised into movement themselves, John and Tuck also advanced, dragging the three guards from their horses. Marion and Much arrived then, bows at the ready, apparently eager to help.
"Is everything going like it's supposed to, Robin?" Much's eyes were bright as he scurried over. Robin smiled at him, although his eyes were still grim with self-reproach.
"Everything is fine, Much. Why don't you and Marion help Will to empty the cart? Don't take anything we can't use. It'll only get in the way."
"Alright." Hurrying over to the cart, the boy clambered excitedly aboard. Marion lowered her bow and went to help, although Will looked as though he would rather have been keeping a vigil over the prisoners. Lying on the ground, spitting fury and gripping his arm in considerable pain, the bishop muttered violent imprecations into his beard.
"You'll not get away with this." His eyes were narrowed slits as he glared up at Robin. The Hooded Man looked around.
"I don't see anybody coming to stop me, Your Grace."
"Somebody will, confound you. All of you. You'll be dead or in the dungeons of Nottingham Castle before a week is out. Every last one of you. You'll be hanged, drawn and quartered as well, if I have anything to say about it."
"Your views are duly noted." Robin turned back to Nasir. "He's got a point though. You'd best keep watch." The Saracen nodded, then turned and disappeared back into the trees.
"You trust him?" The bishop obviously thought that to do so was an act of the greatest stupidity. "A Saracen?"
"With my life." Robin towered above the fallen man, now a dusty shadow of the impressive figure who had first tried to bluff his way out of the ambush. "Is there anybody that you trust that much?" The smoky grey eyes turned away from him, and he smiled to himself. This new way of life looked as though it was going to be very satisfying.
"We're ready, Robin." Leaping down from the wagon, Will lugged a pair of leather bags along with him. Marion and Much struggled with a weighty wooden chest that jingled teasing hints about its contents.
"Good." Stepping back, Robin nodded to John and Tuck, who together hefted their three bound and dishevelled prisoners into the back of the cart. The bishop climbed to his feet, clearly afraid that he was to be tossed in as well. John grinned down at him though, eyes bright with good cheer.
"Don't worry, Your Grace. We wouldn't treat a friend of the Abbot Hugo like that."
"You wouldn't?" Suspicious, the bishop turned his gaze from John to Robin and back again. John's sudden answering laugh made him jump, and he realised then that his unpleasant experience was not yet over. With barely a grunt of effort John hoisted him up and sat him on the saddle of the nearest horse, settling him there back to front. Tuck tied his ankles to the stirrups.
"That should keep you nice and secure, Your Grace." His smile was one of pure mischief, even though he felt a little awkward behaving in such a fashion towards a bishop. His old training exerting itseff, he thought, and didn't need to remind himself that things were very different now.
"You'll pay for this." As John gave the horse a hearty slap to send it cantering on its way, the bishop's voice echoed back along the road, even after he had gone from the outlaws' sight. "Every one of you! You'll pay for this!"
"I think he expects us to pay for this." Will's grin was one of pure enjoyment.
"But it's him that's paid for it, isn't it." Much was excited. "How much do you think we've got here, Robin?"
"A lot." Whistling for Nasir, Robin took Marion's end of the chest. It was heavy, but not painfully so, and the feel of the weight of it buoyed up his spirits even more. "Maybe even enough to pay the taxes and other levies and let the villagers put some away for emergencies as well."
"That much?" The boy's eyes widened in delighted amazement. "How much money is that, Robin? More than a hundred marks?"
"There's more than a thousand here I reckon." Will hefted his bags. "And that's just in these. We could be rich in days if we decided to keep this lot ourselves. Really rich I mean. Like Normans."
"Then we're going to have to make sure that we're not tempted, aren't we." Robin thought about the money, and was gratified to discover that he did not covet a penny of it. That was good, for Herne's Son should not be tempted by such things. Will grinned at him.
"Don't worry. I'm not planning to run off with it. I'm not in this for the money."
"None of us are." John knew that he was speaking for them all. Looking around at them as they headed back to the camp, he knew that the same thought was in all their minds, from the youngest to the oldest, from the inspired son of Herne, to the mysterious, secretive Saracen. Not one of them wanted so much as a coin.
"Here, you know what this means, don't you." His stride growing jauntier despite the weight of the bags that he was carrying, Will spun around to face the others as he walked. Nasir had come from somewhere to join them, although none of them had heard him arrive.
"What does it mean?" Tuck was feeling high-spirited himself, even though he was sure that he would feel bad later, when his conscience faced up to the fact of the theft.
"That we make a good team." Will couldn't have been more cheerful if he had been drinking all day. "The Sheriff isn't going to know what's hit him."
"Maybe we should feel sorry for him," suggested John. Everybody laughed.
"I think we'll just forget about him for the time being." Robin was thinking about Herne, and what the Lord of the Forest would have to say about this first step on the path he had created for them. Perhaps later he would go looking for him, when he had first taken a little time to celebrate with his friends.
"Do you think that the Sheriff will forget about us?" Marion pressed against him, and they both laughed. Robin wished that he had a hand free, with which to pull her close.
"Not as long as he lives," he told her, the amusement and satisfaction making his heart swell. "He's not going to get the chance."
And so it proved. As the days slipped by, and Robin and his gang averaged at least one ambush a day, the Sheriff of Nottingham grew steadily more furious. Taking the brunt of his employer's rages the way that he never seemed able to enjoy his good tempers, Guy of Gisburne sank into a determined sulk. He didn't see that it was his fault, but Robin's successes seemed to have been blamed on him anyway.
"Damn it Gisburne." Throwing aside a piece of parchment that he had been given to sign, which set a hefty reward for the capture of Robin Hood, the Sheriff realised that he had got ink all over his hands, and swore. "Why can't you catch this man? How hard can it be to round up a gang of outlaws?"
"Sherwood has always been home to outlaw gangs, my lord." Gisburne didn't dare look the older man in the eye. "It's almost impenetrable in places, and filled with pitfalls. You have to know your way through it to stand a chance of navigating--"
"I don't want to hear your excuses. I want these men caught." Slamming one fist into his table, the Sheriff sent his ink pot flying. It spattered dark liquid all over the floor, and a servant scurried to clean up. De Rainault roared at him until he fled. "Peasants, Gisburne! We're taking about peasants! Saxon peasants, like the ones that you seem to enjoy killing on such a regular basis. Why can't you just kill these ones?"
"Not just peasants, my lord. There's the Lady Marion, if the bishop's description is to be believed, and that Saracen, and the friar--"
"Not reason enough to make it impossible for you to kill them, Gisburne." De Rainault was looking angrier than ever. "Peasants, priests, a girl. What's wrong with you man?"
"I'm... working on it, my lord." Flushed to crimson with embarrassment and stifled rage, Gisburne almost choked on the words. "I've been enquiring in the local villages, and it seems that the money that was stolen has been redistributed amongst the villagers. With Robin Hood's blessing, the people are told. It's gaining him a good deal of support amongst the peasants."
"Of course it is. If he needs any more support that is. Goodness knows he's getting enough of it just by the number of soldiers he's killed. God's feet, Gisburne! This is getting well beyond a joke. This 'Hooded Man' must be stopped!"
"Yes, my lord." Wishing that his bullying commander would come up with a few ideas instead of just berating other people for not having any, Gisburne kept his eyes fixed on the ground. "Of course, my lord."
"Yes, well don't just stand there agreeing with me." Rising to his feet, the Sheriff began to pace up and down. His path took him through the puddle of ink, and he began to tread irregular footprints over the stone flags. "Get out there, with however many of your men that you've managed not to get killed yet, and bring me Robin Hood!"
"Yes, my lord." Bowing low, Gisburne turned and swept from the room. He was almost spitting with rage as he stormed along the corridors, and servants and guards alike ducked out of his way rather than meet him as he passed. The rages of Sir Guy of Gisburne were more famous than those of any other man - save, needless to say, for the Brothers de Rainault.
As Gisburne walked, however, so did his rage begin to fade. An idea was forming in the depths of his mind that actually began to make a smile edge its way out of hiding. It was an idea that might work, provided nothing went wrong. An idea that might just bring him the head of Robin Hood. His smile broke free at last, and soon grew into a fully fledged grin. Robin Hood might think that he was the King of Sherwood right now, but Gisburne had a plan to dethrone him. A plan that ought to end this foolish talk of Hooded Men once and for all.
The inhabitants of the many small villages surrounding Sherwood welcomed Robin Hood like a brother. Herne had predicted as much, but it was gratifying to see it anyway - the cheerful smiles, the heartened look of people cowed for too long. Robin and his men brought money, which meant food, and a lessening of the terrible threat posed by the Sheriff's tax-gatherers. The children need not be quite so thin, the work need not bend so many backs. Robin knew that the recovery would be a slow one, but from the moment when he and his gang made the first delivery of silver coins stolen from the Bishop of Leeds, he knew that a blow had been struck for the people of England. More importantly, he saw that the people themselves knew it. From the very first day, when the bishop had finally made it to the castle with his surviving men, there had been talk of rewards, but nobody seemed to have any desire to collect them. As Edward, headman of the little village of Wickham, once said to Robin - why take one large pay out in exchange for who knew how many smaller ones, spread out reassuringly through the year?
Wickham was a tough little village. Robin had known it reasonably well during the days before his outlawry, for it was within easy reach of the mill where he had grown up, and it seemed sensible to make it a base of operations of sorts now. Of all the villages with which he shared the Bishop of Leeds' ill-gotten money, it was Wickham that needed it the most. They had borne the brunt of several of the Sheriff's money raising programmes, and had lost several men to Gisburne's petty accusations and trumped-up charges. They were a brave group of people; unbowed by hardship and eager to help Robin where they could; and so it was that he found himself visiting them more often than anywhere else. Not everything could be stolen, and even desperate outlaws could not live on venison and rabbit alone, so it was Wickham that was chosen to supply certain other needs, such as flour and arrowheads. Marion, in the few days since first being introduced to the locals, had become a firm favourite with everybody, and talked happily to Edward's wife. Nobody seemed to mind the fact that she was a lady, for it was almost as if they had been expecting the Hooded Man to come amongst them one day, and to bring with him an unusual choice for a consort. Perhaps they had been expecting it. Marion had learnt in her first meeting with Herne that there was knowledge and wisdom which none of the wisest men she had met amongst the Normans could ever have explained.
It was not just Robin and Marion who were comfortable in Wickham. When the outlaw band descended upon the village, everybody seemed happy to make them welcome. John and Will flirted with the wide-eyed young women who were eager for tales of daring exploits that hadn't even happened yet; Much played with children still too young to understand who and what he was; Tuck talked to the older women, or gave blessings where they were needed, easing his conscience with thoughts that he at least could restore a little of the people's faith in a Church that had become too corrupted. Even Nasir, who seemed to spend much of his time in the village keeping watch sitting on the roof of the tallest barn, was relaxed enough there. None of the villagers cared that he was a Saracen, and from the beginning had made him as welcome as the rest of the band. Whilst he sat up on the barn's towering roof, keeping a much needed eye on the roads leading from the castle, the older children challenged each other to try to climb up alongside him. It was a cheerful situation - a friendly one - and one that, perhaps predictably therefore, was doomed to change.
They had been outlaws for nearly a fortnight. Robin was keeping track even though he doubted that the others were. He knew from the phase of the moon and by the length of the grass, and from the size of the young rabbits that played near the camp. He knew it from the changing skies and the sound of the birds, and from the number of meetings that there had been with the Lord of the Forest, his enigmatic 'father'. Ten days of successful raids, of mock battles and chases through the forest to sharpen their skills; ten days of tales around the fire, of taking turns at cooking rough meals; of teaching Marion to fight with a sword, teaching Much how to fight with a quarter-staff, and helping Nasir fill in holes in his English vocabulary. Ten days that seemed like forever, and happily so. They had spent three, perhaps four afternoons in Wickham, drinking ale - or in Nasir's case water - sharing the venison that they had killed, and helping re-build houses that were periodically destroyed by bored soldiers from Nottingham. Robin was looking forward to spending another few hours there, for he had promised to judge an archery contest for the younger boys, and knew that Marion was looking forward to it as well. Nobody ran to meet them as they left the cover of the forest, but that wasn't unusual. The inhabitants of Wickham had little time to spare if they wanted to keep the fields well tilled - and yet there didn't seem to be anybody tilling the fields. Will pointed it out first, and as one the seven quickened their steps. A horrible suspicion was beginning to form itself in Robin's mind.
"Edward?" He called the name of the headman as he hurried forward, looking for the familiar figure of Edward's son. Somebody had usually come to greet them by now; a woman, with a child in each arm, or a band of children with toy swords, and riding imaginary horses. Today there was nobody at first.
"Edward!" Banging on the door frame of the headman's house, Robin wondered if his friend was ill. Perhaps all of the villagers were. "Edward!"
"He's not there." A woman had come from nearby, where she had apparently been watching them in the shadows of the large barn. Robin recognised her, although he didn't know her name.
"Where is he?" Edward was always in Wickham, or had been so far. There was no reason for him to be anywhere else except on feast days - and today, like almost every other day in the calendar, was not one of those. The woman's dark eyes ran over the seven, sharp and unfriendly.
"All of the men were taken, and all of the boys above fourteen. Most of the women and the smaller children are hiding."
"Taken?" Robin knew that he sounded stupid, but at first he couldn't quite take it in. He had seen villages put to the sword before; the buildings burnt to the ground and the men left sprawled in bloody heaps; but this was different. The men and boys taken? Taken where?
"Gisburne." The woman understood his question even though he hadn't asked it. "He came with his men. They took all of ours." Her eyes glittered, and her muddy fingers stroked the hand-carved wooden cross that hung around her neck. "Your fault. All your fault."
"Gisburne knows about us coming here?" Robin exchanged a worried look with John, who tried to take a step towards the woman. She backed off instantly, spitting words of rage and hate.
"Your fault!" She was gripping the wooden cross with tight fingers that were bone white at the knuckles. "How could Gisburne not know that you come here? How could he not wonder where we got the money for our taxes? The Sheriff doesn't mind that it's stolen - all he cares about is that it comes to him in the end. But they want you all the same, and they're using our men and boys to get to you. They think we'll betray you to get our men back, but the other women wouldn't agree to it."
"They wouldn't--" Robin felt humbled. He had done so little for these people, even though he had such plans to do more. "I'm sorry. Really."
"Being sorry won't help the men of Wickham." Her eyes were full of pain as she stared at them all. Accusation made her lips tight and pinched, and her brow was heavy and lined with a frown as dark as her sorrow. "They took my son. He's all that I've got since my husband was hanged by Guy of Gisburne. All that I've got."
"We'll get him back." John wanted to put an arm around her, for he was a gentle man despite his great size, and liked to care for people. He kept his distance though, respecting her pain. "Won't we Robin?"
"Of course we will." The leader of the band had tortured eyes, hurt by the misfortunes of these innocent people. To think that it was all his fault - that his rebellion had caused other people who were not of his band to be punished. Herne had never said anything to make him think that something like this could happen. He tried to think of something, but his mind was too caught up in thoughts of horror, and wouldn't work immediately.
"How?" Will, he knew, would be as ready as anyone to get the men of Wickham back, but that didn't stop him from having his doubts that it was possible. "They'll be in the dungeons at Nottingham Castle. You know what that place is like."
"I'll never forget." Robin's words were heartfelt. "But we have to try."
"We can't storm Nottingham Castle, Robin." John remembered the towering walls of the place, and couldn't see any way that they could break in, rescue so many people, and get them all out again safely. Even in the dead of night it would be impossible.
"We can't storm it, no." Turning his back on the others, Robin stared thoughtfully across the fields. The people of Wickham were his friends. They had been good to him, and it touched his heart that the women of the place were still unwilling to betray him, even with their men in such danger. Something had to be done.
"We have to get into the dungeons." Marion had never been down to them before, but she could guess what they were like. It didn't seem likely that it would be possible to get in without the alarm being sounded. Breaking out of the dungeons was one thing, and had been managed before - but nobody had ever yet managed to break in.
"Yes." Robin took her hand, smiling at her worried face. "We do."
"The only way we're going to get into those dungeons is if we get taken there." Will's naturally belligerent voice made them all listen. Much's eyes widened.
"Robin? Are we going to be captured?"
"It'll be a rough job to manage that without getting yourself killed." John's eyes were narrowed into an expression of shrewd thought. "You'll need us all there with you, too. There's no way you'll get out of there by yourself."
"I know." Robin hated to ask them to do something as potentially deadly as this, but he knew that they all owed it to the people of Wickham. "If anybody's got any better ideas, you need to speak up. John? Will? Nasir?" Nobody answered. Nobody could think of anything.
"You want us to surrender to Gisburne's men?" Marion felt a cold chill run through her. She wasn't sure that she herself had any reason to fear execution, but the same could not be said of the man that she loved, or the others that she had come to care so much about as well. "They'd never believe it. They'd expect a trick, and probably just kill you outright."
"She's right, lad." John turned away, looking about at the deserted village, with its quiet, empty houses, and its ragged goats and snuffling pigs. Where were the women who usually flocked to meet him, and the laughing children eager for stories and games? Surely it couldn't be impossible to put it all back to how it should be?
"They'll think it's a trick if we surrender." Robin was frowning, thinking hard and hoping that Herne was still with him. "They won't think it's a trick if we walk into a trap."
"A trap?" Will's eyes lingered on the woman still standing nearby, watching them with eyes that switched their way through fear, hate and sorrow. "You want one of the women to set us up."
"Nobody would blame them if they did. Gisburne doesn't understand loyalty, and he'd never suspect anything if one of the Wickham women agreed to lead us into an ambush in the hope of getting her husband or son back. The Sheriff doesn't want them all in his dungeons when they should be out here working the fields. He'll let them go. All of them."
"And then all we'd need to do is get ourselves out." Will hated the idea, but he agreed with it. Getting himself out of trouble was something that he had been doing for years, and he had broken out of Nottingham Castle before. "It's a lousy idea, Robin, but a brave one. I'll grant you that much."
"You don't have to come with me." Robin had that look in his eyes again; the bright, warm light of a man on a mission. The light of Herne's Son. John clapped him on the shoulder.
"You try to keep us away, lad. Besides, what makes you think that the Sheriff will be satisfied just by catching you? There are seven of us in this gang, and he might not agree to release the people of Wickham until he's got all of us."
"More than likely, I'd say." Tuck was smiling, as usual unperturbed by all that was going on. Whether it was his faith or just his character that gave him such courage Robin didn't know, but he appreciated it either way. He smiled back.
"Thankyou. But we have to be united in this. You all have to understand what we're risking. Once we go into those dungeons, there's a chance we won't be coming back out alive."
"We will." Much was looking at him with trusting eyes. "You'll get us out Robin. Just like you did last time."
"I hope so." Knowing that he didn't have to ask the boy if he was willing to follow him, Robin turned to the others instead. Marion also did not need asking, and therefore neither did Tuck, but it was common courtesy to ask the others. "Will? I know what you think of the Normans. If this is too hard for you, I'll understand. And Nasir. It could be more dangerous for you."
"No." Nasir shook his head, using a rare sentence to show his support. "I'll come with you."
"Me too." Will's eyes were dark, but his voice was firm and determined. "Don't be a fool, Robin. Of course we're all with you."
"Then we're decided." Turning to the woman who still waited beside them, Robin used all the power of his personality to address her in gentle, warming tones. "Do you understand what we're saying?"
"Yes." She nodded, and her dirty, straggly hair flopped around her neck. "We... we wouldn't have asked you to do it."
"I know." Robin's voice was gentle; so gentle that everybody listened, marvelling at the power of the man who had been chosen as Herne's Son. "Will you help us?"
"You want me to lead you into a trap?" She had hated them, and had berated them for their part in what had happened to her son, but it was clear that she didn't like the idea of betraying them - even when it was at their own instigation. "If you were to be killed--"
"Well we won't come and haunt you if that's what you're worried about." Will saw a flash of fear in the woman's eyes and sighed. He really was going to have to learn not to mock the fearfulness of these people. "We can find somebody else if you'd rather."
"No." She looked revolted by the plan and by her part in it, but clearly she wanted to do something to help save her son. "Thankyou. All of you."
"It's the least we can do." Robin meant it. He knew how hard and unpleasant it would be for any of the locals to go before the Sheriff; the mockery that would have to be faced, not to mention the possible physical assault. This woman though, for all her earlier belligerence, seemed trusting of him now. Her eyes had regained a little of their life, and lost a little of their hopeless pain.
"You really are the Hooded Man, aren't you." She reached out for him, stroking his face for a second, looking deep into his gentle eyes. The change in her was remarkable. "My mother was a Seer, and she told me such stories, but I never expected to see you come."
"I'm nothing special." He felt terribly embarrassed, but she was not ready to let him off the hook just yet.
"You're everything that the people have waited for, Robin Hood. Everything we ever looked for. You must promise me that if you go to Nottingham Castle, you'll come back alive."
"I promise." It was the sort of vow that it was foolish to make, but something made him make it anyway. She nodded then, apparently satisfied.
"Then I'll betray you. Tomorrow at dawn."
Wickham seemed even more deserted at dawn. The faint mist that rose from the grass hung ethereally above the ground, almost as though the ghosts that seemed to fill the place had finally begun to be visible. The village should have been waking up, but instead the silence persisted. A mournful clucking from the wandering hens added depth to the emptiness, and filled Robin Hood with a sadness that he couldn't quite explain.
"We must be mad." Will was wandering along at his side, stride surprisingly jaunty for a man who professed to dislike the whole plan. The chance of a good fight obviously appealed to him.
"Can you see anybody?" John was just behind them, trying to scan for Gisburne's soldiers without being too obvious about it. Robin shook his head.
"They'll be keeping out of sight. Gisburne may be a useless sort, but he's fairly efficient when it comes to being sneaky. They're probably hiding in some of the empty buildings."
"Ready for us to walk into their trap." Marion leaned against him. "I hope you know what you're doing."
"So do I." If it had just been him he wouldn't have felt so bad. Walking to what might prove to be his death would be almost acceptable, especially when it was for the good of so many innocent people. He had been an outlaw for so short a time, but he had managed to do so much good. Maybe dying wouldn't have been so bad if he hadn't been taking his friends along with him. Only the fact that he trusted in Gisburne to want to parade them before the Sheriff kept him leading his band onwards into the trap. He didn't think that he could have led them into a possible massacre even if all the villagers in England were held hostage.
"The barn." Nasir had spotted somebody. Robin nodded.
"Then we'll head for the centre of the village. There's more space for a fight there anyway. Remember everyone. Act as if we're not expecting it. Make the fighting look good, but don't forget that we're supposed to lose."
"That won't be easy." Will let his hand fall unconsciously to his sword, and John's fingers curled more tightly around his heavy staff. Losing on purpose hurt the pride of both men. Robin smiled.
"It doesn't have to be easy. We don't want to do Gisburne any favours. Now keep quiet. They'll be able to hear us soon."
They walked on in silence, listening to the distant birds and the grunting pigs. The mist curled around their ankles, as though trying to pull them down beneath the ground, and the grey morning sky hung overhead, filled with the promise of rain. It was the colour, observed Will without enthusiasm, of Norman armour. His eyes flicked towards the barn, but he could see no sign of anybody within. Whatever Nasir had seen was invisible now, at least to him.
"Hello?" Striding forward, leaving the others behind, Robin raised his voice. "Edward?" Understandably there was no answer, and forcing himself to sound relaxed and unconcerned, he lifted his voice to call again. "Edward! Wake up!"
"The headman isn't here, Wolfshead." The voice was hot with malice, and it made Robin freeze in his tracks. He didn't jump, and even though he wanted Gisburne to believe that he hadn't expected the interruption, he couldn't bring himself to act as though he was surprised. Instead he smiled, and turned slowly around.
"Gisburne." His voice was pleasant. "Have you decided to live amongst the people now, or has the Sheriff finally seen sense and thrown you out of the castle?"
"You'd better throw down your sword." Bristling from the insult, Gisburne looked as though he was struggling to keep his temper under control. It wasn't something that he was terribly good at.
"Why?" Looking about him Robin saw the many soldiers who were emerging from the barn. Others came from nearby buildings, tripping over chickens in a mockery of their attempt to be silent. There were a lot of them - far more than Robin had expected. Gisburne's smile grew.
"You see? You're mine, Loxley."
"Am I?" For a second an exquisite, furious pride washed through the outlaw - a reaction to Gisburne's use of his name. He remembered the first time they had met, when the lofty steward had told him that he couldn't be Robin of Loxley, for Loxley didn't exist. "Why don't you come and get me."
"You can't win." Gisburne seemed pleased at the chance of a fight. "It's hopeless. We've got you outnumbered five to one."
"You might be surprised." With a reckless grin the leader of the outlaw band drew his sword. Albion's blade glittered in the sunlight, and as one the others fell in. Nasir's two swords hissed as they swung through the air, and John's long staff beat out a brief rhythm on the wall of a nearby building. He was grinning, huge and strong and powerful, enough to worry even the most experienced of soldiers. Behind him Will was ready with his own sword, watching warily as the guards advanced. He still thought that they were mad for walking into all of this - but as he watched the hated Normans moving towards him he threw all of that from his mind. The old blood lust was upon him, and he no longer cared what was mad or sane. He just wanted to fight.
Much fell first, borne to the ground beneath the weight of two soldiers. He struggled furiously, but his hands were soon bound. Tuck got a little carried away trying to rescue him, and laid out three or four of the guards, then remembered that the band was supposed to be losing and felt a bit guilty. Wading into a second scuffle in an attempt to assist Marion, he allowed himself to make a foolish mistake with his staff, and soon the two of them were also in the hands of the enemy. Robin kept an eye on them all, wondering if it might be better just to surrender before any of his friends were hurt. He saw John fighting furiously against five or six Normans, and couldn't suppress a smile, but was worried by Will and Nasir. Neither man had adjusted his fighting style to allow for their planned defeat, and indeed were doing a fine job of evening out the odds.
"You can't win, Wolfshead." Spitting fury, Gisburne thrashed about with a sword that bore several battle scars. Robin was beginning to think that he might do just that, if Will and Nasir didn't slow down.
"Don't be so sure of yourself Gisburne." He heard somebody coming up behind him, and ducked to avoid a sword aimed at his head. Two other soldiers fell into the fight, and he struggled to keep up his rhythm.
"Oh it's you that's too sure of yourself." Gisburne was grinning like a wolf. "But soon enough you'll be lying in a dungeon at Nottingham Castle. Surrender and maybe your friends will live to see the dungeon with you."
"My friends?" Robin glanced back, his attention stolen by the fighting going on nearby even though he knew that such a distraction could prove fatal. He saw John barely conscious, finally overpowered by an excess of guards; Much, Marion and Tuck with their hands bound; and Will backed up against a wall by five angry soldiers, not one of whom was without an injury caused by Scarlet's sword. Gisburne lowered his blade.
"Surrender, Loxley. Or I'll have my men put your friends to the sword. You I want alive, but they're nothing. The Sheriff might even prefer it if the Lady Marion wasn't to make it back to the castle alive. It would solve one or two problems for him regarding her inheritance."
"You wouldn't." Robin's eyes darted over his friends once again, and he felt cold fingers trace themselves up and down his spine. He couldn't have been wrong, could he? Had he really led his friends to their deaths? He caught sight of a triumphant smile on Gisburne's face, and knew that the despicable man meant every word. If Robin didn't surrender, he really would give the order to kill Marion.
"Do you want to risk finding out?" Gisburne's smile turned into a leer of pure mockery, and Robin fought a strong urge to beat the Sheriff's steward into a pulp. Why did it feel so bad to have to surrender, when he had planned to do so all along? Somehow, when he had been planning this with his friends the day before, he had managed to overlook the sheer unpleasantness of Gisburne's character, and how much it would sicken him to have to let the steward win. Struggling to contain his temper, sick to the pit of his stomach, he threw his sword to the ground. Albion seemed to be glaring at him accusingly, but he ignored the fine weapon and turned away from it. Gisburne's men were upon him in seconds.
"It's over!" Striding towards the fight that still continued beside the barn, Gisburne put more of a swagger into his stride than he had done in all of the time since the day he had been given his knighthood. "Surrender or die!"
"Oh yeah?" Whirling his sword with a ruthless, ferocious energy, Will cut down one of his opponents. Now that it was time to go through with the plan he was finding it even more difficult than Robin had done, and the lights in his eyes showed the seething rage that kept his sword a swinging. Robin groaned.
"Surrender!" Gisburne's voice was almost squeaky with rage. The body of one of his guards, killed with typical skill by Nasir, landed at his feet and he roared his command again. Will hesitated. His pride was badly stung, but in all honesty he had agreed to the plan. If Robin could give himself up... the idea wasn't pleasant but perhaps it wouldn't be so bad for him to do the same. His eyes met Loxley's, and he saw that the other man understood his feelings and sympathised with him. Somehow that seemed to make things a little better. He lowered his sword.
But the sound of clashing weapons had not ceased. Robin turned his head, looking away from the subdued Will to the fight that still raged nearby. Nasir showed no sign of slowing, even though the odds against him mounted with each surrender. Robin was learning a little more about the Saracen all the time, and he realised now that he was learning perhaps the most important lesson of all. It didn't matter what their plan had been, and it didn't matter how futile the fight had become, nor how close he must be to defeat and death. None of that mattered at all. It was then that Robin realised, with alarm, that Nasir was not going to surrender. The Saracen was lost in a crowd, cutting swathes through Gisburne's men, apparently unmoved by the vast superiority of their numbers. Sir Guy looked on with eyes boggling, in a fit of one of his usual apoplectic rages.
"Loxley!" The fury filled his voice, although coming from him fury seemed more a thing of comedy than of drama. "Call your dog off!"
"Nasir!" Striding forward Robin ignored the guards that moved to stop him. The last thing that he wanted was to see the Saracen cut down, as seemed the eventual inevitability. It hurt to obey a command of Gisburne's, but for now at least it seemed better to acquiesce. "Nasir, it's over." The warrior swung around, eyes blazing with heat and rage. With his swords held out to either side, stopped in mid-swing, the blood dripping from their fearsome blades, he looked like a figure from some campfire tale. Certainly the image was enough to make Robin glad that they were on the same side.
"Give up, Nasir." He spoke more gently this time, aware of the Saracen's furious pride. For a moment he thought that the other man might refuse - and indeed the thought did enter Nasir's mind. In the end though, he chose to obey his leader. Slowly he lowered his arms, and dropped both of the swords.
"Well take him then!" Gisburne was still furious, but his soldiers were too afraid of the fearsome Saracen to want to take hold of him. Guy considered taking up his bow and shooting a few of them, just to get the point across. Damned soldiers. If they weren't getting themselves killed they were being an embarrassment in some other way instead. "Guards!" His voice took on a note of real authority, finally cutting through the petulance he had displayed before. "Arrest that man!"
"Sir." Several of the men moved forwards, with extreme caution, taking hold of Nasir's arms as though they expected him to draw another pair of swords from somewhere about his person. He offered no resistance, and stood with his head bowed as they tied his hands behind his back. Robin felt strangely guilty for having ordered him to surrender. He knew how much he himself had hated to do so - could still feel the indignation and anger burning within him. Nasir, he now saw, apparently felt such things more strongly.
"So now I have you." Enjoying the position of elevation given to him by his horse, Gisburne stared down at the captured outlaws. His haughty stare was almost too much for Will, but even bound as they were the close presence of John and Tuck was enough to keep him from throwing himself at the Sheriff's insufferable steward. They pressed against him, holding him still between them, and making him mutter and growl at them furiously.
"Now you have us." Robin still managed to be calm and collected, staring up at the other man with all the poise of landed gentry. The son of Herne did not cast down his eyes before any Norman soldier, and certainly did not bother showing any anger or self-reproach. Gisburne seemed almost unnerved.
"But now what are you going to do with us?" Like Robin, Marion held her head high and showed no anger. She was a lady of high birth, and had no intention of appearing as anything else before the upstart of a steward who towered above her. Certainly Robin had expected nothing less.
"Now?" Guy looked a little unsure of himself, then let his natural conceit take over. "Now I shall take you to Nottingham, and throw you at the feet of the Sheriff as a gift." He turned his horse's head, preparing to take up the lead of what he fully intended would be a glorious procession. "Fall in everyone, and keep up the speed. I see no reason to be slack when there may be peasants watching."
In the event it proved not to be quite so glorious an entry into Nottingham as Guy had planned, although his chest was so puffed up with pride that he didn't let things get to him as much as he might have done. At the gates a small child of uncertain identity threw a rotten apple, which glanced off the Norman's lofty helmet, before hitting his horse on the head. The animal started with surprise, and before Guy was entirely sure what was happening, he was picking himself up off the ground. Children dispersed, laughing, and large groups of adults suddenly found something very interesting to look at amongst the market stalls. The outlaws laughed out loud.
"I can ride better than that when I'm drunk." The gleeful disgust in Will's voice made it carry, and Guy glared daggers.
"We'll see how well you ride soon enough, Wolfshead - when they whip the horse out from under you, and leave you hanging by your neck from a tree." He spun on one heel and almost tripped on a corner of his cloak, eliciting further giggles from the prisoners at his rear. Glowering at the cobbles, he strode onward, and the subdued guards, none of whom quite knew where to look, followed on.
It was quiet and dark in the castle. One or two servants scuttled out of sight at the appearance of Gisburne, although for the first time, perhaps in his entire career, he didn't throw his helmet at any of them. Instead he merely pulled it off, tucked it under one arm, and proceeded along the corridor as fat as he could walk. The guards hurried after him, pushing the prisoners along, ignoring Tuck's inability to keep up quite so punishing a pace. Tough though the monk might try to be, his life had been too soft for too long, and the hard march through Sherwood had left him exhausted. He made no protests, however, even as he was being manhandled through the castle that had so recently been his home. He had made his choice, after all, and no matter what happened next, he knew that he wasn't going to regret that.
"What is it Gisburne?" The Sheriff sounded bored, or possibly just tired. "No, don't tell me. You've lost half of your men again in another damned tussle with that infernal Wolfshead. Do you know the excuses I've had to make already? Five men gone from my dungeon, half of my garrison either dead or wounded - which is the same thing, given the talents of our local healer - and the Baron de Belleme murdered in his own castle when he was supposed to be under our protection. We'll be lucky if Prince John doesn't decide to come up here and have us all hanged!"
"I--" Gisburne was rather at a loss for words. It wasn't his fault, was it, if his men kept getting themselves shot down or hacked to pieces? "I have just returned from Sherwood as it happens my lord, but--"
"Oh? And how many men did you lose this time?" The scathing tone of the Sheriff's voice was quite off-putting. Gisburne glanced back at his guards, just arriving in the doorway, and wished that de Rainault would look up.
"Um..." How many had he lost? Was he really supposed to keep count? It hadn't seemed all that much, really, thanks to sheer force of numbers - but then he remembered the damnable Saracen, and the trail of blood that he had left in his wake. He sighed. "Probably... in the approximate region of twenty, my lord." It was a conservative estimate, but with luck the true number wouldn't have to come out. "But I have good news."
"Oh? You've got another job somewhere else?" De Rainault at last looked up, his expression one of a lazy lack of concern. His stare fell upon the guards in the doorway, and he glared at them. "What are they all doing hanging around out there? Don't they have jobs to go to, or are they too afraid of marauding Wolfsheads?
"They're guarding my gift for you, my lord." Now that he was able to turn the subject to the one that pleased him most, Gisburne's poise had returned. His eyes shone with pride and self-congratulation, and his chest swelled accordingly. De Rainault saw the change and raised an eyebrow.
"Yes, my lord." With a sweeping gesture of one arm, Gisburne ushered the guards into the chamber, beaming with delight upon the prisoners that were forced along in their midst. They spread out, standing in a long line before the Sheriff; seven pairs of bright, determined eyes; seven hard, set faces. De Rainault at last sat up straight.
"What's this?" His gaze took in all of them - Robin, straight and proud, with a bearing that belied his peasant's origins; Marion, every inch the lofty beauty, even with her hands tied behind her back; Tuck, solid and nervous, as close to Marion as he could be, his shaven tonsure rather pink, as though from embarrassment; John, huge and powerful, like a bear who might break free at any moment, his shaggy head and equally shaggy clothing seeming to add extra inches to his frame; Will, filled to brimming with cold fury, every hair on his head seeming to bristle with ill-contained rage; Much, uncertain and more obviously afraid than the others, looking very small next to John; and Nasir, dark, intense, even sinister, his unreadable eyes seeing all. Gisburne on the other hand was bright with uncontainable good cheer.
"Your gift, my lord." His expansive gesture took in all seven bound prisoners, and his smile seemed intended to take in the world. "From Sherwood Forest."
"Hmm." Rising slightly from his chair, the Sheriff studied the seven. He had not yet had a close look at Robin Hood, for the one time when they had come face to face had been at the recent archery contest, when the outlaw had been wearing a disguise. All the same, it was not hard to spot him amongst the group. That bearing, that lofty gaze, belonged to no one else. "So, perhaps your periodic massacring of your soldiers has finally paid off, Gisburne." Never the man to give a compliment unless his life depended upon it he had been unlikely to say anything else, and his steward had been expecting no more. He nodded graciously.
"Thankyou my lord."
"And have they given you any indication as to the whereabouts of all the money that they've stolen?"
"I haven't had the chance to inquire yet, my lord - but I believe that the stories we heard were true, and they really have..." Gisburne hesitated, the truth of the matter rather beyond his comprehension, "...given it all away, my lord. To peasants."
"All of it?" Being the brother of an abbot, de Rainault was well acquainted with the meaning of charity - but, again being the brother of an abbot, had had little actual experience of it. "Well, each to his own I suppose. And was it worth it, Wolfshead? Your life, worth giving a few silver coins to a few peasants?"
Robin smiled, for all the world like the prince being Herne's Son had made him. "Yes. It was. And it will be again."
"You think you'll escape?" The Sheriff enjoyed the apparent joke. "Nobody escapes from my dungeons, outlaw." A scowl broke out on his face when he remembered that Robin had already done just that. "Certainly not twice, anyway."
"As you say, Sheriff." Patience and good humour coloured Loxley's voice, but he kept his words polite. Needless to say that angered the Norman more than any amount of ill manners. He looked away in disgust, glaring at Gisburne as though the steward himself were responsible for some gross insult to his person.
"Get them out of here then Gisburne. I don't want a group of filthy outlaws cluttering up my dining hall."
"Er... yes, my lord." Rather annoyed at how his moment of glory had been snatched away so quickly, Gisburne gestured to the guards. "Shall I have them executed immediately?"
"No, Gisburne." De Rainault spoke with some frustration, as though he were always having to prevent his bloodthirsty aide from killing his prisoners. "Not yet. I may want to speak to them, and I haven't decided what to do about the good lady Marion." His lips formed a thin smile, and he let his eyes linger upon his former ward. Her gaze in return was stony, and it stung his pride. As a technicality she was his social superior, given the position of her late father, but in his opinion at least she had no right to look at him that way now that she was nothing but an outlaw, and consort to a peasant. "Get them out of here."
"My lord." Deprived of an immediate bloodletting, Gisburne indulged his growing anger with a little unnecessary brutality, almost knocking Much from his feet as he pushed him towards the door. John and Will rounded on him immediately, but the sheer number of guards, all as eager for violence as Gisburne, prevented them from getting at the young steward. Gisburne turned his violent tendencies to Tuck instead, harrying the friar across the room and up the steps.
"Alright, alright. I'm going as fast as I can." Tuck had known Gisburne for a long time, and had no intention of showing any fear that he might have felt for the younger man. Gisburne glared daggers at his back, and considered turning on Much again, but John and Will had contrived to close ranks on the boy even though they were enduring their own rough handling from several of the guards. That only left the Saracen within reach, and Gisburne's courage did not stretch quite that far. He let the guards vent his fury for him. Not quite so satisfying perhaps, but better than nothing.
It was a decidedly dishevelled band of outlaws that arrived in the dungeons in the end. A fat gaoler, with a bunch of keys almost as big as his head, and clothes so dirty that there was probably not enough water in Nottingham with which to wash them clean, bowed low to Gisburne when they entered the main room. His greasy hair, broken up by a bald spot so central and so circular that it could almost have been a twin for Tuck's tonsure, brushed the ground during the course of the bow, and Robin was almost certain that he saw a couple of spiders fall out of it and scurry away.
"A large dungeon you'll be needing for all these prisoners, Sir Guy." Straightening up again at last, the gaoler shook his keys with a rattle. "A nice big strong one, perhaps?"
"Just lock them up and make sure that they don't get out." Gisburne walked haughtily over to a heavy grid that covered a hole in the floor - something that Robin remembered only too well as a particularly uncomfortable sort of cell. There were sounds of movement from inside, and a burst of hope danced inside his mind. He knew now who was inside the cell, and knew that he had done the right thing in allowing himself to be brought here.
"The Sheriff of Nottingham has had a change of heart," Gisburne told the dark blur beneath him. "A most magnanimous gesture. You're not to be executed after all. You'll be released in the fullness of time, and I would suggest that you use the extra years this may add to your lives to reconsider the way that you've behaved towards the man who protects your families and village."
"Who's that then? Robin Hood?" inquired some overly courageous jester from within. Will laughed, and earned himself a half-hearted clout over the head from one of his guards. Gisburne's lips went thin and white.
"Get those men locked up." He turned on one heel, his cloak billowing out behind him in the dramatic way that he so loved. Robin and his friends watched him as he stormed from the room.
"Poor old Gisburne." Will couldn't help grinning, and glared at the guard who had hit him before. With one hand raised to repeat his earlier gesture, the guard froze and stepped back. Will's grin came back out for an encore.
"Better bring them this way." Bustling on ahead, unmoved by anything that was happening around him, the gaoler stopped at a second grid, larger and heavier than the first. Beneath it was a world that might as well have been filled with black soup, for all that it was visible to the men above. Much remembered the dark cell that he had been thrown into before, and edged a little closer to Robin.
"Don't like the dark," he muttered miserably. Robin smiled reassuringly at him.
"It'll be alright, Much. You won't be alone down there." He stepped back, watching as three of the guards fought to lift the huge grid, after first heaving back a massive bolt so squeaky that it seemed unlikely anyone could ever open it in secret. Beneath the raised lid, the darkness of the cell loomed like the mouth of a vast, unknown creature from an ancient tale.
"Enjoy yourselves." One of the guards gave Marion a hard shove in the back, and without her arms free to steady herself she tumbled down into the dungeon beneath. Robin made as though to protest, but the violent blow he received cut his words short, and hurled him down into the depths. He didn't know how he managed to avoid landing on Marion, or how he managed to get to his feet again so quickly, but somehow he was able to push her to safety before the mighty figure of John crashed down to join them.
"Ow." John wasn't nearly quick enough, and Much landed squarely on his chest. Clearly he appreciated the fact that his fall had been broken, but he managed to look bashful and apologetic as he stumbled out of the way. John rolled to one side.
"That bloody hurt," he said wrathfully, in a voice that was not intended to carry to the guards above. Robin nodded in sympathy, then stepped back by reflex as Will was also tossed down. The violence of the guards was almost unbelievable, as though they were actively trying to break their prisoners open upon the hard stone slabs of the cell below. Coughing and spitting in painful rage, Will struggled out of the way, well aware that the next person coming through the hole was Tuck. Sure enough the friar came next.
"Not the friendliest group of men, are they." Perhaps because of his title he had not been flung into the hole with nearly as much force as the others, although neither had he been treated with quite as much dubious gentility as Marion. He sat where he was for a second looking a bit dazed, then squawked in surprise as John knocked him out of the way - a difficult task to perform with both hands tied. "What-?" He broke off as Nasir was hurled down, landing with a thud right where he had been sitting. "Oh."
"Everybody alright?" Fighting off the feeling of disheartenment as the heavy door of the cell crashed shut upon them, Robin addressed all of his friends. Nasir answered first, though wordlessly, sitting up and nodding a bleeding head.
"I'm just bloody angry." Will looked as though he was trying to break free of the ropes through sheer anger alone. John nodded.
"I don't know about angry as such, but I'm certainly a little uncomfortable." Tuck looked about him. "I had no idea things were so unpleasant down here. Do all dungeons have such discouraging decorations?"
"Decorations?" Robin looked about. His attentions until now had been focused on his friends, and he hadn't taken the time to examine the cell. Now he saw that there were three skeletons, all dangling by their wrists from the walls of the cell, and all dressed in the coarse, patchy material that was the uniform of the peasantry everywhere. He winced. "Oh. I wonder who they were?"
"No point bothering yourself with it." Will walked over to one of them, looking it over with a detached gaze. He could see that whoever the long deceased prisoner was, he had not been old. Probably sixteen or seventeen at the most. "Past our help, aren't they?"
"It's horrible." Noticing the horrified look on Much's face, Marion changed her tone. "But Will's right. We shouldn't think about it."
"No." Robin was also aware of Much's feelings, and smiled his thanks at Marion for thinking the same way. "For now we just have to concentrate on getting rid of these ropes."
"That shouldn't be so difficult." John's usual cheerful, confident manner somehow didn't seem out of place even in the darkness and damp of the depressing cell. "Here, Nasir. You're an agile fellow. See if you can reach under my jerkin." He turned his back on the Saracen, lowering his shoulders slightly as though to bring something within the grasp of the smaller man. Nasir frowned, but as was his way didn't voice his questions, and merely did as he was asked.
"Got it?" Wiggling about slightly, John felt strong fingers search his back, just above the broad belt he had made for himself years ago, from wolf skin, during his days as a shepherd. There was no answer, but he felt something slide against his skin, and the others saw the smile that crossed Nasir's face. Seconds later the ropes that bound John's wrists fell apart.
"Told you it'd be easy." Rubbing his wrists John went straight to Marion, freeing her as quickly as he could. She managed to smile her thanks at the same time as she glared at him for coming to free her before the others, and he smiled his reply. He had got the measure of Marion quickly, and understood.
"But we've still got to get out of here though, haven't we." Rubbing woefully at his wrists as soon as they were free, Much stared up at the faint smear of light above them, studiously avoiding any view of the three dead men hanging from the wall. Will clapped him on the shoulder, still trailing bits of severed rope.
"Don't worry about that. We'll get out when the time's right." He looked about at the others, all now untied, all looking about at their new surroundings in more detail than before. They saw yawning blackness, rats, old chains, and bits of black and soaking straw, but nothing that spoke of escape. "You do have a plan, don't you Robin."
"More or less." Any planning that he had done had seemed so much more straightforward in the airy, leafy surroundings of Sherwood Forest. In here it all seemed rather different, but Herne's Son wouldn't allow himself to think defeatist thoughts. "We wait for the night, and we make our move then."
"Night?" Much seemed to be thinking this over. "When's that?"
"A long time yet." John sat down, rather gingerly, trying to avoid the worst of the damp patches on the floor. "Why not get some sleep?"
"Or sing a song," suggested Tuck, well aware that the suggestion would not be a popular one. Will glared at him.
"You wouldn't want to sing the only songs I know," he told the friar, his eyes glinting with all the bawdy humour that undoubtedly filled the songs. Tuck raised an eyebrow.
"Probably not, no."
"We don't need to sing." Robin looked rather serious, an expression that sat well with his natural grace, but not with the more carefree side of his nature that the outlaws had come to know so well. "Now that we're free - in a manner of speaking - I'd rather talk. To Will and Nasir."
"Oh." John guessed what about, and made an elaborate show of turning away, and redirecting his attentions somewhere else. Tuck did likewise, whistling in an overly-emphasised casual manner as he began to inspect the nearest dangling skeleton. Robin glared at them both.
"We had a plan." His words turned his attention back to Will and Nasir, shutting out the rest of the gang. "We agreed to surrender."
"I did surrender!" Will was glowering. "Eventually, anyway. Make it look good you said, and I couldn't exactly make it look good if I threw my sword down before we even got started, could I."
"You know as well as I do that you weren't thinking about the plan." Robin kept his irritation in check. "Will, when we decide on something like that, we have to stick to it. I need all of you, alive and in one piece. You're no good to me or to the people of Wickham if you get yourself hacked into bits by Gisburne's men."
"I know." Will turned away. "I was angry. I always get angry when there are Normans around."
"I know." Robin sighed. "Just... just try not to get too carried away in future. A plan is a plan. Which brings me to you, Nasir."
"He surrendered too," Will pointed out. Robin's quick glare silenced him surprisingly effectively, but his expression still said, Well he did.
"What happened?" His gentle eyes rather more steely than was usual when addressing his friends, Robin stared at the silent Saracen. The dark eyes that looked back at him were emotionless and cool. "We agreed."
"It is..." Looking about, Nasir seemed to be searching for the words in the darkness of the cell around him. "...difficult."
"So I saw." They were different, and Robin had never seen it so clearly as he was seeing it now. "And I sympathise. But they would have killed you, Nasir. No man - not even you - can fight against those kinds of odds and expect to survive. You have to fight by different rules in Sherwood. I need you alive." His eyes flickered backwards and forwards between the two men. "Is that understood?"
"Yes." Will sounded sulky, but also understanding of Loxley's view. Nasir merely gave his familiar nod. Robin smiled.
"Thankyou. This isn't the sort of thing that I plan to ask you to do very often, if that makes it any better."
"Just as well." Will seemed to have recovered his sense of humour. "So come on then, Robin. Why don't you tell us how we're going to get out of here when the time comes?"
"Much as we got out before." Robin's eyes scanned the door above him, hearing and seeing, for a brief moment, that first dungeon, with Dickon and Tom at his side. "It's just as well I didn't come alone. I'd forgotten how deep these places are."
"We weren't planning on letting you come alone." John joined him, staring up. "If a couple of you stand on my shoulders you can probably reach that. But how are you going to get it open without anybody hearing?"
"I don't know." His thoughtful deliberations before setting out had not included the presence of squeaky bolts. "But we've got until nightfall to think about it."
"Provided Gisburne doesn't come down here and behead a couple of us before then." Will seemed determined to be cheerful. "Why wait that long anyway?"
"I'm not leaving until I'm sure that the men of Wickham are safe. We'll hear when they leave, and until then we stay here." Robin looked around at all of them, expression firm. "Even if that does mean that Gisburne tries something before then."
"What if he doesn't let the villagers go?" John's own voice and eyes were as steady and serious as Robin's own. Robin shrugged.
"He will. I'm sure of it. Wiping out a village is a pretty serious business even for a Norman, and they don't want another Loxley. The time isn't right for it, and they've learnt that it's not the way to increase the amount they get in taxes. They'll free the villagers alright."
"Before or after they execute us?" asked Tuck, eyebrows raised until they almost met his clean-shaven tonsure. Robin glared at him.
"I did suggest that you all stayed behind in Sherwood. My original idea for me to come alone."
"Aye lad, but you've said yourself that you'd never be able to get out of here on your own. We all knew the risks, and we know them now." John's smile was as gentle as any that Robin had ever seen. "We're just thinking aloud, that's all."
"Yeah." Will nodded his agreement. "And my thoughts say that we should be making some preparations right now, just in case. There's no sense in waiting for the dark if we've got to give the villagers a chance to get clear first. We don't even know if they'll be gone by nightfall."
"Which leaves us where?" Marion sounded worried, and Robin wished that he had left her at least back in Sherwood. Damn her determination and courage! He smiled at her.
"People have escaped even when they were being settled on the execution block. There are seven of us, after all."
"We'll be chained up if we're taken to the execution block," John reminded him. "Wouldn't it be better to escape before then?"
"Or at least have an idea about how to escape?" added Will. Robin sighed. It seemed to him that since taking command of this little group; since the very first moment when he and Much had been captured by Gisburne and been started down this strange and dangerous path, he had mostly been acting on instinct alone. Herne had told him to do as much; to trust in his feelings and do what they told him to do. He had not yet had the chance to get any real practice in planning anything in great detail. He nodded.
"Alright. We climb up there. One of us stands on John's shoulders, and another on the shoulders of that man. Then we reach up and open the bolt. We did it before, Will."
"That dungeon wasn't quite so deep as this one. I don't know that we'll be able to reach that far." Will was trying to judge the distance, and failing dismally. The gloom made it too hard to see properly, but to experiment might well be too dangerous if there were any guards above them, watching. Too dangerous for the people of Wickham, as well as for the outlaws themselves. "Did I mention that I really don't like this plan very much?"
"Next time a whole village gets kidnapped we'll just storm the castle shall we?" Robin sighed. "Alright, what do we do? Can you hold three of us John?"
"I'm not completely sure that I can hold two of you." John eyed the others speculatively. "It'd depend on which of you it is I suppose. I could probably manage--" He frowned. "Where's Nasir?"
"Nasir?" Robin looked around, but could see no sign of the seventh member of the gang. "Well he's got to be down here somewhere, hasn't he."
"There." Will pointed, just as the black-clad Saracen, excellently camouflaged in the dark room, emerged from the shadows at the other end of the dungeon. He had clearly come at the sound of his name being called, and his expression carried a certain amount of amused innocence.
"Have you found something?" Interested, Robin looked in the direction that the Saracen had come from. Nasir nodded back into the shadows, clearly indicating that he had indeed found something of use. Whilst the others watched he stepped up to the nearest of the dangling skeletons, and gave it a sharp pull. It came free from its chains easily enough, the stout iron rings having been designed to fit snugly around wrists that still had some flesh on them. Much squeaked.
"That's not good, that isn't. You'll make the ghosts angry."
"No he won't, Much." Robin's voice was not much above a whisper, but the resonance that it carried seemed to calm the boy immediately. "The ghosts want us to escape. They don't like the Normans any more than we do. What's your plan, Nasir?"
"Here." With a sharp twist that made Marion flinch and Much look away, Nasir broke off one of the lower arm bones. It snapped with a sound like dry wood.
"You're a grim sod, aren't you?" Will's voice was filled with amusement, although even he was a little dubious about putting the skeletons of fellow victims to use in some way. Nasir glanced up at him, expression hard, though not without a certain humour of its own. Without answering Will's charge he began to tear the clothing from the skeleton, using John's knife to cut it into strips. The material was old, but like all peasant clothing it was strong stuff - needed to be, since it was hardly ever replaced. It still seemed to have a good deal of its original strength, and after a few quick knots to connect some of the strips, showed the makings of a fine and usable rope. Robin began to smile.
"And with that bone as a sort of hook to catch up on the door..." He nodded. "It could work. But will there be enough material to make a rope?" In answer Nasir pointed onward into the darkness further down the dungeon.
"There must be more bodies." Will headed off into the darkness, disappearing from view almost immediately. In this part of the room the air felt horrible; almost poisonous; noticeably damp and cold. He coughed, and peered carefully into the murk.
"Anything?" John's sudden appearance made him jump violently, and he glared daggers at the bigger man. John laughed at him. "Not easy to see anything back here, is it?"
"No." Will was thinking about the many people who had probably lived out the last of their days locked up here, and his heart stirred with fresh hatred for the Normans. He walked on further, feeling wetness at his feet, and hoping that whatever it was, it was no more noxious than more damp-blackened straw. Finally he saw what Nasir had seen; a pile of skeletons, all tossed together into a heap, as though some earlier resident had been trying to make the cell more habitable by clearing away the dead. It was a truly unpleasant sight; some six or seven men, all tumbled together into a jumble of bones. Nearby, leaning against the pile, was another body, clearly a little more recent, and undoubtedly that of whoever was responsible for building the pile in the first place. Will imagined him dragging himself back here, knowing that his last moments had come, and wanting to take his last sleep in the company of his friends. Was that the sort of end that might come to him, and the six people who meant so much to him? He dismissed the thought, angry with himself for such melancholy.
"Well there's certainly enough material here to make at least one rope." Turning his back on the scene, John returned to the others. To return to the slightly lighter, slightly less dank part of the cell was almost a pleasure, and he wished that it were a little warmer as well. The damp and the cold that he had just experienced did not feel as though they would be easily dispersed, and perhaps could not entirely be until he could feel fresh, free air upon his body again, and bask in the warmth and green-tinted sunlight of Sherwood.
"Good." Robin clapped Nasir on the back. "Although we still have to deal with that squeaky bolt. Is there enough of this damp mess on the floor to act as some kind of lubrication?"
"I don't know that it would work." Bending down, Will rubbed his fingers on the mass of strewn straw and running water. "We need to be sure."
"We certainly won't get a second chance if it doesn't work," observed Tuck.
"Maybe we don't need anything." John was beginning to get an idea. "Maybe we already have what we need."
"What?" Marion's voice was encouraging, her interest piqued. All of this invention and discovery was exciting to her, and helped to keep her mind off the unpleasant surroundings. John felt a little awkward at the sudden large audience.
"When I was a shepherd," he told them, "I used to have to improvise. You're out alone for months at a time, and sometimes hardly even see another person, let alone a peddler who can sell you something worthwhile. Still need to grease string sometimes though, don't you. And oil a blade, all that sort of thing."
"So what did you use?" asked Robin. John looked uncomfortable, for he was unwilling to go any further for fear of upsetting Marion. Nasir finished his tale for him in the end, though in typically mute form. He straightened up from where he was still working on his rope, and mimed using John's knife to cut his own skin. Marion winced. John smiled a little apologetically.
"Well I'd use sheep's blood, or maybe the occasional wolf's. But that's the idea, yeah."
"And it works?" Robin supposed that there was no reason why it shouldn't, and nodded his head without waiting for an answer. "Alright. So we've got our rope, and possibly a way of getting it up to the hatch - always supposing we can make that bone stick up there without making too much of a clatter about it. We've got something to grease the bolt... All we need now is the right moment."
"Which shouldn't be long now." Tuck was standing directly beneath the trapdoor, listening intently. "Do you hear that?"
"Lots of footsteps." Marion tried to find a place from where she could see something of the world above, but could see nothing at all save a faintly lit grey ceiling. "Voices too."
"They're letting the people of Wickham go." Robin thought that he heard one or two voices that he recognised, although it was impossible to make out individual words. There seemed to be an argument of sorts going on, which made him smile. Wickham had always been a spirited village, and he could easily imagine Edward telling the Norman guards exactly what he thought of them.
"Yeah, well I hope they appreciate all of this." Will had discovered that one of his shoes had a hole in it, and cold, wet, black liquid was beginning to make his foot feel decidedly less than happy. "When we get back to Sherwood there had better be plenty of venison left. And lots of ale."
"Don't talk about food." Much looked miserable. "I'm hungry."
"We all are." John had been trying not to think of food for some time now, a strange concern, he couldn't help thinking, when there were so many other things to worry about. "Perhaps they'll feed us."
"I doubt it. The execution date has probably already been set." Robin had managed to miss meal time in the dungeon the last time he had been incarcerated there, and had no wish to discover what the prisoners were fed on. Probably whichever of the inmates had died within the last week. "Can you hear something else?"
"Footsteps." John seemed able to hear a little more clearly, which might have been through naturally good hearing, or might just have been because his head was closer to the roof. "Not a big crowd though. Guards?"
"Maybe." Robin didn't sound sure. "Get back everyone. Away from the door."
"They're not coming for us already?" Marion stood beside him, peering up as the heavy door of the cell was raised. It took two struggling guards to lift it, which wasn't encouraging from the point of view of the prisoners who were trying to escape. Seconds later a round, pink face appeared.
"Company," announced a revoltingly cheery voice. "Stand back."
"Company?" Robin wondered who had been badly behaved enough to deserve being locked away with them in this particular cell. Surely there couldn't be anybody else who had annoyed the Sheriff that much? His question was answered almost immediately, for in the square of pale light there appeared a shape - a man, and one that Robin knew.
"Edward!" Shocked he took a step forward. "But you can't put him down here. He hasn't done anything."
"Doesn't have to have done something." The guard poked at the headman with his outsized bunch of keys, and leaning over the hole, Edward lowered himself down as best he could. The shock of the sudden chill in the deep dungeon showed on his face as he landed, and he shivered.
"Not exactly de Rainault's finest guest chamber, is it." He looked back up at the guard, and watched as the grinning face moved away. The door crashed shut again, and immediately, if it were possible, the chill was increased. Footsteps faded away into muted echoes and then silence.
"What's going on, Edward?" Crowding around Wickham's headman, the outlaws all seemed to ask the question at once. He shook his head, looking serious.
"I know what you've done for us all, and I appreciate it. More than you'll know. It can't have been easy, giving yourselves up like that. Gisburne think that he caught you through his own skill, and he came to crow as much to us all, but none of us believed it."
"We wanted to make it look good." Robin shrugged, a little embarrassed by the effusive thanks. "With Gisburne the way he is, the best and quickest way to get you out of here seemed to be to let him have his moment of glory."
"And speaking of which..." John clapped Edward on the shoulder. "Why exactly are you still here?"
"Ah." Edward looked apologetic. "They, er..."
"Oh let me guess." Throwing his hands up in the air, Will turned his back on them all. "They want you to witness our executions."
"Yes." The headman looked as though he was trying to find an excuse for himself. "To make sure that the message gets across I suppose. Does it... complicate matters for you?"
"Not necessarily." Robin smiled at him, being as confident as he knew how. "It just means that you'll have to escape with us, that's all."
"And become an outlaw. That won't help his family." Marion sounded earnest, but Robin shook his head.
"I don't think it'll be a problem. They'll be angry for a while, and the Sheriff will make a lot of threats, but they won't do anything. They'll probably be too embarrassed. I hope."
"Robin's right." Tuck was remembering his long association with Robert de Rainault, and knew exactly how he could be expected to react. Edward would be the last thing on his mind when he discovered that Robin and his men had escaped. Marion nodded.
"Of course." She too had plenty of experience of the Sheriff and his moods. Not that it helped, for even if they didn't have to worry about Edward being re-arrested, they still had to worry about getting him out. Leaving him behind when they escaped certainly wasn't an option. Edward looked uncomfortable.
"I'm sorry. I suppose you have an escape plan, and I'm getting in the way."
"I shouldn't think so." Robin had problems enough worrying about his own men, to whom he was only just getting used. The last thing that he needed was somebody else along for the ride - somebody that he had never seen fight, or even run. Edward was a farmer, which didn't necessarily mean that he would be of any use at all during the escape. "Do you have any idea when they're planning to carry out the execution?"
"In the morning, as far as I know." Edward remembered the guards, and everything that they had said to him. Their mocking and their jokes, and their assurances that he would be back home by this time tomorrow. "At first light." He smiled uncertainly. "If it makes things any better, I don't think they're planning to kill Marion."
"Oh well, that's alright then." Will sighed. "Great. That doesn't give us much time, Robin."
"I doubt it's noon yet. We can make our preparations while there's still light to see by, and then wait until nightfall, just like the original plan." Robin hoped that Edward could keep up. He was the sturdy sort, so there shouldn't be too many problems, but it did add complications to an already far from simple situation.
"Nightfall." Will rolled his eyes. "Why does it have to be nightfall? They might not be able to see us so well, but we can't see them either. We can't see anything come to that, and we're not exactly familiar with our surroundings."
"I've lived in this castle for years," offered Tuck. "And so has Marion."
"And you spent a lot of that time down in the dungeons did you?" Will shook his head. "Look never mind me, I'm just grousing. Just remember that we've got a long way to go before we get out of here, and we don't know how many people we're going to have to get through before we reach open ground. We got lucky last time."
"Then maybe we'll get lucky again." Robin turned to Nasir. "How's that rope coming along?" The Saracen held up a length, made from most of the clothing worn by the three skeletons that were hanging from the chains on the walls. It was a good length, but not yet long enough.
"Keep at it. And work on that hook." Nasir nodded his acquiescence and Robin turned to Will. "Get the rest of the material. Help him make the rope. If possible we're going to want two. I don't think one person will be able to lift that trapdoor on their own."
"Right." Will thought about the dank, dark furthest reaches of the cell without enthusiasm, and clapped Edward on the back. "Come on. You can help."
"Of course." Edward seemed eager to be of assistance, which presumably was a reaction to his being indirectly responsible for the whole situation. Robin watched them depart.
"Worried?" asked John. The band's young leader smiled ruefully.
"I think we need to make an agreement that we'll never get captured on purpose again."
"Well look on the bright side - it's all good practice. By the time we get out of here we'll have every right to call ourselves the best in Sherwood."
"Always supposing we get out." Robin grinned. "You're right of course. I have a sneaking suspicion that Herne might have planned a fair amount of this."
"Then let's hope that he knows what he's doing." John raised an eyebrow. "You know, if they're not planning to execute Marion they just might turn up at any moment and take her away. Then where would we be?"
"Good point." Robin's eyes travelled up to the hatchway. "Do you think we should make our move now? Is Will right?"
"Will doesn't really think we should move now. Like he said, he's just grousing." John also looked up at the heavy door. "Our best chance is at night. The difficult bit is going to be in waiting that long." He grinned. "And keeping Scarlet entertained. I wouldn't put it past him to test out Nasir's rope by climbing up there and killing a few Normans, then dropping back in here to wait for night with the rest of us."
"I wouldn't be surprised." Robin smiled at the thought. "Night is a long time away though, and it's true that anything could happen before then. The Sheriff could decide to have us all killed right away... Marion could be taken somewhere where we'd never find her..."
"Or England might revolt against her Norman masters, and we might be released by a new king elected by the peasantry." John grinned at him. "Anything's possible Robin. Hasn't meeting Herne shown you that?"
"Yes, I suppose it has." The leader of the group sighed. "You're a wise man when you want to be, Little John. Maybe you should be Herne's Son instead of me."
"Ha. I'll settle for being Herne's Son's friend. I may have a reasonable brain in my head, but I'm no leader of men or inspirer of the oppressed masses. Yours is the name that'll be remembered a hundred years from now Robin. Yours are the words that everybody stops to listen to."
"Herne's words. Herne's name."
"He chose you for a reason." John banged him encouragingly on the shoulder, and in the process nearly broke his collar bone. "Come on. How are you at making ropes?"
"I don't know. I used to be fairly good at milling corn, and I think I'm getting pretty good at stealing money from merchants. I haven't had much experience beyond that."
"Then it's time you learnt." The big man guided him back to Nasir, who was beginning to work on the first set of battered clothing delivered by an unhappy looking Will. "It's an easy knot. Quick and simple, but strong. See?"
"I see." Robin tried to copy the movements, and found it easy enough. It felt good to have something to do besides think, and he welcomed the work. Marion hovered behind him, and Tuck chatted to Much nearby. If it hadn't been for the all-pervading chill, and the noticeable dampness in the air, they might almost have been back in Sherwood. Robin wondered if they would all make it back there, and then forced himself to concentrate on nothing but the rope. They would get through this. They had to. It was their last test as a band, and they had to make it through. Surely Herne would see to that?
"Here." As usual Nasir used a single word where any other member of the band would have used at least half a dozen. Robin glanced up. He had abandoned the rope making some time ago, when they had reached a respectable length, and had been using the time to sit quietly and try to plan an offensive. All that he was able to come up with, no matter how hard he thought about it, were variations on 'run very fast and try not to get shot'. The theory was sound, certainly, and hopefully it would work.
"What?" He rejoined the little group, whose ranks had now been swelled by Much and Edward. Will was hovering, as impatient as ever, and Tuck appeared to be asleep. Nasir didn't elucidate, unsurprisingly, but merely held up the finished product. Robin was impressed. Having shaped the length of bone as well as he could, Nasir had bound it tightly with strips of unused material, thereby hopefully ensuring that it would be more or less silent when it was thrown up at the trapdoor overhead. Fixed firmly to it by means of a length of spare bow cord that somebody had been carrying, was the home-made rope. A second such set, a lack of material making the rope several feet shorter than the first, lay nearby.
"Perfect!" Taking the adapted piece of bone, Robin tested its weight. The balance wasn't quite right, but he wasn't inclined to worry about something like that. Now all that remained was to get it up to the door. Uncertain of his own aim he offered it back to Nasir, but the Saracen shook his head and pointed at John.
"Me?" John shrugged. As a shepherd he had developed an excellent aim with a variety of weapons that were considerably less sophisticated than a bow and arrow - most shepherds did. Slings and stones and catapults were, naturally enough, rather easier to acquire when living on the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere.
"Do you think you can do it?" Robin asked him. He nodded.
"I think so. Give me a moment."
"Take all the time you need. We don't want any accidents." Robin watched as the big man climbed to his feet and began to pay out a practical length of rope. "Do you think that the holes in the grille are big enough to get that thing lodged in?"
"They'll have to be, won't they." John smiled at him. "Otherwise we're back to the old plan, of me having to lift two or three of you up there. I never did think much of that idea."
"It's not exactly efficient." Robin thought about how he had used just that method to escape the last time that he had been a prisoner, and smiled to remember it. The wobbling, the desperate whispers, the constant danger of the awkwardly balanced piles of wriggling people toppling into a helpless tangle... Not to mention the decidedly unhelpful mutterings of the elderly man who had shared the cell, exalting in his own inability ever to escape. He was probably still here somewhere, undoubtedly still muttering sweet nothings to his pet rat, and being very cheerful about the fact that he would never again see the light of day. Still, each to his own.
"I think..." Staring up at the trapdoor, John tried to pick a likely spot where the grappling hook would be liable to hold firm. "I think about there, where the hinges are, it might just catch."
"Only one way to find out."
"Yeah." John seemed about to throw the hook, then paused. "If this doesn't work, and I make a hell of a noise, and all of the guards come running and see to it that we're executed immediately... well I just wanted to say that this has been the strangest fortnight of my life. And definitely the best."
"Yeah." Robin thought back over the events of recent days - the deer that Much had shot, the first encounter with Gisburne, the beginnings of their life as outlaws, and thieves on the roads through Sherwood Forest. Certainly the strangest of times, but probably the most fulfilling. "No regrets?"
"And there never will be." John took a deep breath. "Well here goes then." He weighed the hook one last time in his large, strong hand - then let it fly. It soared up in the air, dragging its rope behind it in a train of muted green and brown; and stuck fast just beside the hinges of the door far above them. Robin grinned, and Will gave a much hushed whoop. John gave the rope a tug.
"It's secure." He glanced around at them all. "So who's going up?"
"Me." Robin could see that both Nasir and Will were volunteering, but he was determined to do this much himself. So far he didn't seem to have contributed much beyond getting them all captured in the first place, and that hadn't exactly required a great deal of skill. "Where's that knife?" Nasir handed it across.
"Cut here." He pointed to his forearm, just above the back of the wrist. Robin nodded, then putting the knife into his mouth, he took hold of the rope and began to climb.
It was easy going, for the knots made good hand holds, and his arms were strong. In no time at all he was at the top of the rope, and was peering up into the semidarkness of the chamber above. He could see nobody, although he could hear the voices of nearby guards. They were playing some kind of game as far as he could tell; something that seemed to involve arguing, and some kind of gambling stakes. Wherever they were and whatever they were doing, clearly they were not able to see into Robin's cell, or at the very least not clearly enough to be a threat to him. Keeping one eye open in case somebody did come, he changed his grip on the rope, took up the knife, and gritted his teeth. This had better work. Drawing the knife across his arm he cut into the skin. The blood welled up immediately, and he reached forward to let it run onto the bolt. Thicker than water, and with a texture more suited to the task of lubrication, the blood was easy to smear across the length of the bolt. He rubbed it on as well as he could, then gently pulled. Nothing happened, and he pulled a little harder - then with a faint scratching noise that was a mere whisper compared to the screech of earlier, the bolt slid back. He grinned, then lowered himself back down to join his friends.
"It works fine. Get the other rope up John. I don't think we're likely to get a visit today, and we might as well be ready. We won't get anywhere if we can't see to get the other line in place."
"If you're sure you want to take the risk." Concentrating hard, John hurled up the second padded bone hook. This time it took several tries to make it fix itself somewhere secure, but his attempts were soundless enough not to be a problem. Meanwhile Nasir cut a length of material from the end of the first rope, and used it to fashion a bandage for Robin's arm. Marion hovered nearby whilst it was tied on, worrying about the need for proper herbs and poultices.
"It's only a cut," Robin assured her. She smiled.
"I know. Will you be able to fight?"
"It's only a cut." All the same, climbing down the rope had not been pleasant, and he knew that climbing back up again would worse. Perhaps a rest in the meantime would do it good.
"You should rest," Marion told him, as though reading his mind. He nodded.
"You're right. We all should. We'll take it in turns to keep watch at the top of the rope. If anybody comes, tug the ropes free, and drop back down. It should be possible to stay up there safely enough if you hold on to the rope. I'll take first watch."
"No." Will was already heading towards the rope. "I will. You're not much good to us one-handed, Robin."
"It's only a cut." It was the third time that he had protested that, but he still didn't quite believe it himself. Still, the discomfort had been worth it. Marion jabbed him in the ribs.
"You'd say that if Gisburne beheaded you. St Peter would try to admit you through the gates of Heaven, and you'd be insisting that you're not really dead because it's only a cut. Rest Robin."
"Alright." He gave her hand a squeeze, then sat down on one of the drier bits of floor. She sat down beside him, listening to the gentle buzz of conversation as Will and Nasir discussed the best way to stay up the rope with as little effort as possible. It was a strangely reassuring noise, and although she didn't believe that she would able to go to sleep, she wasn't terribly surprised to find that she was drifting off. She wondered what time of day it was, and tried not to think of what was scheduled to happen early tomorrow. In the end, holding tight to Robin's uninjured arm, she let herself relax and tried to think of happy thoughts. Once upon a time that had meant memories - of her father; of the days before he had gone away to fight in the Holy Land, when they had still been together; of her life in Leaford Grange before she had become the ward of Abbot Hugo de Rainault. Now, however, she had a new set of happy thoughts to think of, and as her head drooped onto Robin's shoulder she thought instead of Sherwood; of watching the fish in the river; of listening to Will and John argue; and of walking hand in hand with Robin through the trees. Lost in the beginnings of deep sleep she smiled. No matter the difficulties, she liked her new life. It was, she now knew, all that she had ever wanted.
She awoke to the sound of voices, and the realisation that even the partial light of earlier had gone. Far above her, a dark shape against the latticework of the trapdoor, was a figure on watch - Edward, to judge by the size. She stood up, a little stiff from sleeping on the cold floor.
"Ow." Trying to work some life back into her body, she rubbed her arms. Her friends were also beginning to stir; Much wriggling to get rid of the kinks, Tuck groaning, and Will pretending that nothing hurt. Nasir was already awake, seated quietly nearby in the way that he always seemed to be whenever she awoke. With his remarkable instinct for the passage of time he had probably been awake for some while, performing his prayers silently so as not to disturb his friends. John yawned and stretched.
"I could eat a horse," he pronounced thoughtfully, and rubbed his head as though feeling that it could probably do with being even more tousled than it already was. Marion glared at him.
"Aren't you stiff?"
"No." He shrugged. "Maybe I'm less used to comfort. I don't remember anything about my life with de Belleme, but I get the feeling that I probably slept somewhere very like this. Anyway, what's being stiff got to do with wanting to eat a horse?"
"Everything. I couldn't eat a thing." She rubbed the back of her neck. Nearby Nasir rose to his feet, predictably unaffected by the uncomfortable sleeping arrangements.
"The castle is asleep," he told them, with quiet confidence. Robin nodded.
"We're probably not going to get a better chance than this."
"Then what are we waiting for?" John gave one of the ropes a tug, and Edward slid back down to join them. "I'll try to get the door open, but I won't be able to get much leverage. It's not going to be easy."
"I reckon me and Nasir can fit up there as well." Will was rubbing his hands together, ready for the off. "Might take a bit of manoeuvring, but we'll do it. Between us we ought to be able to get it open."
"Well just remember that you have to do it quietly." Robin wondered if he should volunteer instead of the inescapably noisy Scarlet, but knew that his arm would hold him back. He consoled himself with thoughts that he had done what needed doing. He still hadn't been able to think of a better way to stop that confounded bolt from squeaking.
"When I want to I can be so quiet I'd make Nasir seem noisier than a royal pageant." Will's boast was meant in jest, but he seemed serious enough. "Come on. Let's get that door open."
"Right." Unsure how easy he would find it to climb the rope, John took hold of the longer one and began to climb it. It swayed and spun in a lazy circle, but he managed it easily enough. As soon as he had got some way ahead, Nasir jumped up to catch hold of the shorter rope, pulling himself up with relative ease, and reaching the top before John did. The bigger man glared at him, and Nasir smiled back in lofty innocence. A few minutes later Will had joined them, hanging awkwardly onto both ropes in an attempt to fit in between the other two men.
"Get your elbow out of my face, John." Pushing closer to the trapdoor, Will tried to get a firm grip on it. John edged out of his way, experimenting with the best way to avoid falling whilst not actually holding onto anything. He settled in the end on bracing himself against the door, and holding on to the cold metal latticework from which it was made. Nasir had obviously found a handhold as well, and at Will's whispered word they began to push. The ropes swung and swayed, John nearly fell, and the lid barely lifted. John swore softly and pushed harder.
"Keep at it." His voice showing the strain even at such a low volume, Will wobbled dangerously and clung grimly on. They all pushed as hard as they could - and slowly, very slowly, the door began to raise. Having been holding on to nothing but the door, Will suddenly found himself slipping. His feet braced against the ceiling, but that was not enough to prevent him from falling. As the trapdoor lifted further up he himself started to drop. Between them Nasir and John caught him, and pushed him up into the widening gap. He wriggled through, and with John's help from underneath, managed to hold the door open so that Nasir could also slip through. Together the two men hauled the door open the rest of the way, whist John clung to the edge of the hole.
"Well help me up then!" He had had to relinquish his hold on the ropes in order to allow the door to open, and was left dangling, without anything to push against to help him climb out. Will grinned down at him.
"You look rather good where you are."
"Ssh." Nasir was looking towards the night guards - three men who at present were asleep. He had retrieved John's knife, and was clearly mulling over the idea of killing the three guards before they had a chance to awaken. He had begun to learn that Robin didn't always approve of such actions, though, and had apparently decided to grant them a temporary stay of execution. Will nodded.
"Alright. I don't think they're going to wake up in a hurry though. Probably drunk. Who wouldn't be, if they had to be sitting up on guard duty at this time of night?" He shrugged. "Well, except you of course." Nasir rolled his eyes in response to the jibe, then crouched down to help John pull himself up. Will also leant a hand.
"Thanks." John stretched, beginning to discover that his muscles were rather more stiff than he had imagined. Clearly he wasn't all that immune to the trials of sleeping on cold stone floors after all. "How secure are those ropes? It's not going to make the door slam shut again if the others climb up them?" Nasir shook his head.
"Too heavy to shut if they climb one at a time." It was a long sentence for him, and he moved away as though anxious to resume his usual silence. Will leant down through the hole so as to reduce the need to raise his voice.
"One at a time," he hissed. Robin waved a hand in answer, although Will couldn't see a thing in the cell below. A few seconds later Edward joined him at the top. Assuming that it would only be the longer of the two ropes that would be used, John cut the other one free and directed the others to help him overpower and tie up the guards. They gagged them as well, then rolled them over to the trapdoor.
"Nice work." Having made an admirably quick ascent, Marion scrambled out of the hole and smiled at the sight of the bound guards. Much came next, elated and anxious, and beaming at the slap on the back that he received from John.
"Are there any more guards?" he asked. Will shook his head.
"Not here. Maybe in the corridor outside."
"We'll deal with them soon enough if they're there." John bent down, hauling a struggling Tuck up the last bit of the climb. "Just make sure that you all keep quiet, or the alarm will be raised before we can get twenty paces."
"And we want surprise on our side for as long as possible, especially if I'm going to stand a chance of getting Albion back." Showing a good deal of agility despite his wounded arm, Robin climbed up and stretched his limbs. He hauled up the rope and tugged it free, then watched in guilty enjoyment as the three guards were dropped down into the cell. He hoped for the sake of the first one down that he had had the presence of mind to roll clear before the other two landed on him, then dismissed the thought and helped John and Will to lower the trapdoor back over the hole. The blood was dry by now, and no longer doing its work as a lubricant, so they did not bother drawing the bolt. The likelihood of it squeaking and raising the household was too great.
"Will, how much do you remember of the route you took out of the castle from here?" The initial part of their escape now over, Robin was turning his mind to the next step. He smiled fondly at Marion. "I took a different way out, and I don't think we'd better try that one again."
"I don't know. I suppose all we did was get out of the building by the quickest route and then run for the gates. But the gates won't be open at this time of day, Robin."
"Then perhaps we can go over the walls." He wished that he could believe it would be easy; that the small number of guards on duty at night would put up no real resistance; that they could overpower them without raising any alarms. In practice, of course, it could not be that simple. Knowing that they were going to be captured they had left camp without their bows - not that they would have been left with them anyway in the dungeons - and their swords and other weapons had of course been taken away; bar John's rather small knife. The three guards, according to a rough heap now assembled on the floor, had been armed with two swords between them, one of which had a chipped blade; three daggers, two of which looked as though they had never been cleaned, and had therefore gone rather rusty, and a short handled, leather-bound club, that looked as though it was fashioned from a length of hard wood. Just the thing to lay out recalcitrant prisoners, he supposed, but not necessarily a lot of use against soldiers.
"What we need is a hostage," suggested John. "Somebody that we can use to get the guards to open the gates for us. That way we can walk straight out of here without needing to fight anyone."
"It won't be easy to get to the living quarters from here," Tuck told him. "There'll be some guards to go through first. I'd imagine that they've been overly cautious since the last breakout from the dungeon."
"Not cautious enough to do something about their cell doors only being locked with a bolt," pointed out Will, with a certain amount of derogatory amusement. John laughed.
"Norman cunning," he said wryly, "usually relies on the idea that nobody else is cunning enough. They're conceited."
"Which is good news for us." Robin was thinking fast, and beginning to realise that he was actually quite good at it. "Alright, here's what we're going to do. Will, take Edward, Marion and Much and head for the main gates. Try to be inconspicuous. Deal with any guards you find there, but only if you can do it without raising the garrison. Here." He handed over the undamaged sword, and gave Marion the club. "Sorry Edward, but you can't be seen fighting with anybody. Just in case."
"Of course." He looked sad, almost as if the idea of running off into outlawry with these men as his companions was a tempting idea. "What will you be doing?"
"I have to get my sword back. When Gisburne made us his gift to the Sheriff, he didn't include our weapons in the presentation. Tuck, you'll have to show us the way to his bedchamber."
"Certainly." The idea obviously appealed to the friar, and Robin clapped him on the shoulder with a comradely smile.
"Alright, we'd better not waste any time. We might be due for another patrol through here before long."
"How do we get past the guards in the corridor outside? There are sure to be some." Will quite fancied the idea of engaging somebody in a little swordplay, even if he was supposed to be being quiet. Robin hesitated, then handed Nasir the two least tarnished of the knives.
"Deal with them," he said quietly. The Saracen gave a brisk nod.
"He'd better be quiet," observed Edward. Will grinned.
"He will be." Nasir had already moved ahead of them, approaching the door as though it were some wild beast that was not to be disturbed. His feet made no sound on the flags, and the rest of the group remained equally quiet. Will's instincts urged him to go and help, but he hung back. Killing might be one of his greatest talents, but he had a long way to go before he was Nasir's equal.
The door was stout and heavy. Nasir laid a hand on it, apparently trying to judge just how much of a noise it would make when opened. It was little more than a barrier; an extra obstacle to close the dungeon off from the rest of the world, and had no handle to turn. It was kept shut merely by an outsized latch made of wood; another reminder that the Normans seemed to consider the depth of their dungeon pits, and the locks on the doors of the smaller, conventional cells, enough to keep their prisoners locked away. More fool them, Tuck thought grimly, unable to keep his mind from the inevitable fate of whatever guards waited beyond that door.
"What if there's more than two of them?" asked Edward. Robin raised a hand for silence.
"Once that door is open any sound we make could carry throughout the castle corridors," he whispered. "That's why it's there - to stop the screams disturbing the lords and ladies too much."
"It doesn't work," Marion told him, looking faintly pale. He took her hand.
"Ssh." His eyes were sympathetic and consoling, but he pushed her into silence anyway. She understood.
Up ahead Nasir had pulled the door open without a sound. The corridor beyond was lit by several flaming torches clipped to the walls, giving a good, if shadow-patterned, view of what lay ahead. Sure enough there were guards there; three of them, dressed in the Sheriff of Nottingham's coat of arms, but wearing it without an ounce of pride. Typical Nottingham soldiery, slovenly and not in the least conscientious, interested only in the pay and the perks of their job. Nasir didn't give a second thought to any one of them as he slipped up behind the first and slid the knife, neatly and quietly, into his ribs. The body close to his stiffened and arched, and Nasir pressed his hand over the gaping mouth. No sound escaped; and, seconds later, no further breath. He lowered the body to the ground, eyes never once leaving the two other guards stationed nearby.
They began to turn at the same moment, inspired by a sixth sense, perhaps, or just by chance. Nasir was easing the knife from the dead man's back, crouched beside the body in a position that did not make it easy to fight, but didn't hurry his movements or react with anything other than his usual deadly cool. His wrist flicked once, and a guard fell with a knife embedded in his chest. The second guard froze, mouth opening to shout. Whether it was in fear or in sudden remembrance of his duty to the rest of the castle didn't matter a jot to Nasir. He merely threw the other knife.
"Nice work." Will's words were almost soundless, but Nasir heard them. He glanced up, not answering, nor even acknowledging the compliment with one of his usual expressions or gestures. Instead he merely retrieved the two knives, and cleaned them judiciously on the sleeve of one of the dead men. Robin moved past them, eyes on the end of the corridor.
"We split up now," he told them, although so quiet were his words that they could hardly hear them. "Count to a hundred, Will, before you take your party out."
"Right." Scarlet rather liked the idea of confronting Gisburne in his chambers, but was secretly rather touched that Robin trusted him to take charge of Marion's safety. Besides, with luck he could have a little excitement of his own by the castle gates. Marion didn't look quite so happy with the arrangement, but she smiled sadly, and gave Robin a quick hug.
"Good luck," she whispered to him. He nodded.
"And you. Make sure that Will behaves himself. We'll meet you by the gates as soon as we can."
"Hurry." It wasn't a plea exactly, but he understood the emotion behind it, and nodded gently; then gesturing his group onwards, he disappeared on down the corridor. Marion watched them go, thinking about those long lengths of bare rooms and interconnecting passages, all door less, most without decoration, all acting to emphasise and transmit the slightest sound. In the dead of night there was no other noise to mask those made by the escaping outlaws, and it seemed impossible that they should remain undiscovered. She heartened herself with thoughts of Robin's skill, and tried to summon a smile for the benefit of Much.
"Come on." Ushering them back into the shadows, Will began to count, and Marion turned her own mind to the same task. It was better than allowing her mind to wander. Better than thinking always of the worst.
The castle seemed to be dead, which was good in Robin's opinion, but didn't say a lot for security. The Sheriff had probably never had to bother about intruders before, and hadn't given a thought to the possibility of night-time assaults from either inside or outside the walls. It would be interesting, the outlaw mused, to try this all again another day, and find out whether or not the Sheriff had learned from his mistakes. Such was the conceit of the average Norman lord that he doubted it.
"Here." They had come to a fork, and Tuck gestured down one side of it. So far they encountered only one guard, laid low very swiftly by a single blow from John's large right fist; but they were beginning to notice changes in the corridors now, and were ready for a change to the routine. An occasional rug brought a touch of colour to the drab stone; here and there a tapestry hung from the walls, or a painting of somebody's ancestor. A large battle axe was clipped to a bracket further along, but it proved impossible to move without making a noise.
"I'm glad I'm not a Norman." John gestured about as they walked. "There's no soul to this place. Better to live in the forest."
"It's less wet in a castle," pointed out Robin. John smiled.
"But with all the ghosts and spirits and demons that supposedly live in Sherwood, it's still not as creepy as this place. How much further Tuck?"
"Nearly there." The friar brought his fingers to his lips. "Gisburne usually has a guard or two on patrol near the living quarters. Around this corner there's a flight of stairs, and there'll probably be somebody at the top of it."
"Nasir?" Robin didn't need to say anything further, but merely gestured ahead. The Saracen vanished.
"Handy fellow to have around," John observed dryly. Robin smiled.
"Isn't he just." He listened, waiting to hear some sound of his friend's progress, but could detect nothing. As quietly as he could, he edged towards the corner - and jumped violently when Nasir appeared around it. John laughed, trying hard to be quiet about it.
"Is the coast clear?" he asked. The Saracen nodded his curly head, then gestured back the way he had come, holding up three fingers. Robin frowned. Three guards waiting for them? It wouldn't be so easy to deal with them without making a noise. He nodded though, and followed Nasir's lead. Just as Tuck had said there was a flight of stairs up ahead; a vast, broad flight of shallow stone steps that swept upwards and downwards in a mighty curve. Halfway up it lay the body of a soldier, a neat knife hole in the middle of his chest. Nasir's work, clearly enough.
"Up or down?" asked John. Nasir's hand whipped up in a cutting gesture to be silent, then signalled for the others to copy his actions, pressing himself against the wall and edging softly up the steps. Nobody argued, and they followed on in a train. It seemed foolish to speak now. After a few seconds Nasir halted, and pointed on around a shallow corner, again holding up three fingers. Robin nodded, then pointed at the knives that Nasir held. Could he deal with two of the guards, his eyes were asking. Nasir nodded, then twitched his fingers in what must, once, have been a sign language he had used frequently with his fellows back in the East. Robin could only guess that it meant that the guards were positioned too awkwardly, or were too spread out, to be dealt with all the same way. He nodded, and hefted his sword in his hand. He was still far from being an expert with such a weapon, although he had become adept enough at handling Albion. That was a perfect sword, created by a master in the art of metalwork, finely balanced and anxious to please Herne's Son. This one was an ill cared for cheap blade, damaged and showing signs of rust. It would have to do though. He lifted his free hand and mimed counting down with his fingers - five, rhythmically down to none.
They broke cover at the same moment, bursting around the corner as though fired together from the same cannon. Nasir's arm was already moving, flinging a knife with all of the deadly accuracy at his disposal. One of the guards fell before he had even had the chance to turn and see his attackers. Robin ignored him, leaping over his body and hurling all of his weight at the second of the guards. A blade whistled past him, and he trusted it not to touch him. Nasir's aim was better than that. Beneath him his opponent wriggled, but Loxley was ruthless. He stabbed him as quickly and as cleanly as he could, then rolled off and stood up. Sweat stood out on his forehead, and he felt his body reacting to the tension. John clapped him on the shoulder.
"We'll turn you into another Nasir yet."
"Ssh." Tuck pointed at a heavy door which stood in the wall right beside where they were standing. "Gisburne's never been a heavy sleeper."
"So this is where the beast has made its lair." John tried the handle of the door, and it moved easily under his hand. "No lock."
"He doesn't think he needs one." Tuck held a finger to his lips. "Watch him. He'll pretend to be asleep, and then slit your throat with the knife he always keeps beside him in bed. He's full of charming little tricks like that."
"Great." Pushing the door open the rest of the way, John peered inside the room. He could see Gisburne's bed, illuminated by a single, guttering candle. The blond head was still, and the only sounds that he could hear were the deep breaths of a man asleep. "Looks alright."
"Don't you believe it. He stabbed one of his own servants to death just a few months ago, because he mistook the poor fellow for a thief. That's why he doesn't have as many guards patrolling the corridors as he might; he's certain that nobody can creep up on him."
"Then we won't creep." Losing the silent gait that had carried him throughout the castle, Robin walked briskly into the room. It was clear before he was halfway to the bed that Gisburne was awake.
"Wolfshead." He sat up, eyes spitting hatred. "You're a dead man."
"I feel rather well for a dead man. Perhaps you're getting the two of us confused." Robin gestured for the others, and they followed him in. Tuck pulled the heavy door almost shut, and settled himself to watch the corridor through the crack.
"I'll have the guards in here before you can even think of getting away." Gisburne was already reaching for a bell beside his bed, presumably there for him to summon a servant in the morning when he awoke. Nasir let fly with one of his knives, and it embedded itself in the shelf beside the bell, a mere finger's width from Gisburne's hand. The steward gasped.
"Naughty naughty," admonished John, striding forward and taking the bell out of reach. "We didn't tell you to ring for the maid."
"You won't get away with this." Gisburne was too angry and too proud to show fear, but he was not immune to it. Robin smiled.
"We plan to get right away with it. Back to Sherwood, preferably. Now where are our weapons? You didn't give them to the Sheriff. We all noticed that."
"They're in the armoury." Gisburne sounded defiant, even though he was certain that they were planning to kill him. Robin shook his head.
"I don't believe you. A fine sword like Albion? You'd take it for yourself before you let anybody else get hold of it."
"Here." Nasir had been searching the room whilst they talked, and he had clearly found what he was looking for. Gisburne paled, backing up against the headboard with as much pride as he could maintain, as the Saracen stalked towards him with Albion outstretched. He made no move with it against Gisburne though, and instead, with the slightest of smiles, flipped it to point hilt first at Robin. Loxley smiled.
"You know I think he thought you were planning to kill him. What's wrong, Gisburne? Not ready to die yet? Too much that you still want to accomplish?"
"Yeah. He wants to be Sheriff before he dies." John shook his head. "Shame. After tonight I doubt de Rainault will even let him stay on in the castle, let alone keep any chance of succeeding him." He threw a heavy, tapestried cushion at Gisburne's head. "Never mind, lad. You can always run away into the forest and become an outlaw."
"I--" Realising that any threats he tried to make would lack conviction, Gisburne fell into silence. John laughed.
"He's speechless with delight."
"Never mind that." Hauling the steward from the bed, Robin laid Albion against his breast bone. "We're leaving the castle, Sir Guy, and you're going to lead the way."
"I'll make a noise and rouse the garrison." The steward was furious, and growing more so all the while. Robin smiled a thin smile.
"Then you'll be the first to die - and probably the last, given the speed of my men. Do you really want to die for nothing, and know that we'll escape anyway?" He pushed the livid Norman towards the door. "Coast clear Tuck?"
"Seems to be." The friar edged the door open and peered out. "Nobody's coming."
"Then let's go." Robin pushed Gisburne out into the corridor, letting him go first in case there was somebody waiting out of sight, ready to attack. John came next, holding Will's recovered sword, and Nasir brought up the rear. He carried himself with a new fluidity of movement, as though the restoration of the twin swords to their place on his back had somehow improved his balance. Tuck edged along just ahead of him, unaccountably nervous now that their goal was so nearly in sight.
They made it from the castle without incident, although Gisburne's foot dragging and time wasting nearly caused a catastrophe outside a room filled with sleeping guards. Robin pushed him ahead, wondering if perhaps it wouldn't have been simpler to leave him trussed up in his room.
"You'll never get out of the grounds." The steward's conversation had become decidedly limited, but the outlaws ignored him. He was full of threats tonight, and none of them carried any weight.
"You're like a minstrel that only knows one song." Little John cuffed him over the head. "Now shut up and head for the gates."
"Dead men." Gisburne was spitting the words with venom to spare. "You're all dead men."
"Oh do shut up." Rolling his eyes Robin began to coerce him across the yard. Shapes moved in the shadows, and he was more than aware that they were being watched.
"Robin!" Marion broke cover just ahead, a bloodied sword in her hand and an elated smile on her face. "The guards..."
"I know." Loxley pulled her into a one handed embrace. "Just stick close. I don't think they'll dare put Gisburne at risk."
"Shoot them!" Suddenly recovering his wits from the pit of his rage, Gisburne turned his head towards the lurking shadows and spat the words out in a fury. "Shoot them all! Guards!"
"Shut up!" Robin gave him a heavy push, then broke into a run. Nobody fired, but the guards had begun to move in. John grabbed Gisburne's arm, keeping him in place as a cover of sorts.
"We were starting to think you'd gone home without us." Taking his sword, Will flashed a grin at the others. "What took you so long?"
"Sir Guy insisted on a chat and a goblet of wine." John looked about. "How do we get out from here?"
"This way." Working on pure instinct, Robin led them along the length of the wall. Behind them were clear footsteps. "Just how many guards are out here, anyway?"
"Not many. There were a couple that tried to stop us, but we killed them." Will was keeping one extremely suspicious eye on Gisburne as they ran, but he took the time to answer Robin's question. "We might have made a bit of noise..."
"Just a bit," offered Much. Will glared at him.
"I'd like to see anybody else do it quieter," he spat. Robin shook his head.
"Never mind that now." They had reached the gates, which towered above them in testimony to the pride and strength of the walls of Nottingham Castle. A couple of figures were just discernible standing close by, but neither of them made a move. Robin pushed Gisburne forward.
"Open the gates," he ordered. Gisburne shook his head.
"Not if the king himself ordered it. I won't help you to escape, Wolfshead."
"I wasn't talking to you." Laying Albion's glittering blade along the back of Gisburne's neck, Robin raised his voice so that all who were close by could hear it. "Open the gates, or Guy of Gisburne dies!"
"Dogs! If you do as he says I'll have every one of you flogged!" Gisburne's fury was growing. Robin pushed hard enough with the sword to draw blood, and the young steward fell silent.
"Did you hear me, guards? What do you think the Sheriff will say if he knows that you let his steward die here tonight? There won't be a single one of you left alive by this time tomorrow. Now open the gates!"
"No!" Seeing that the guards were moving to do Robin's bidding, Gisburne let out a tortured cry. Robin clubbed him with Albion's hilt, and the Norman collapsed at his feet. The guards hesitated.
"Open the gates," Robin told them, no longer raising his voice. Slowly, with clear uncertainty, one of the soldiers did just that.
"No..." Gisburne was trying to rise to his feet, but couldn't manage it. The anguish and humiliation in his voice might have been affecting were he anybody else, but as it was Robin was not inclined to feel any sympathy.
"We should take him with us," Will muttered. Loxley shook his head.
"Too difficult. Just run."
"Just run." Taking a deep breath, Robin gripped Albion with both hands. Sometimes fighting was the answer. Sometimes strategy. Sometimes there was only luck to be trusted in. With a yell that undoubtedly awoke the whole castle, and brought the Sheriff tumbling from his bedchamber, he led the charge.
They ran as one; a mass of seven with Edward in their centre, Marion keeping up with a pace that seemed glorious in its mad speed. She heard shouts and roars of anger behind her, and knew that there were arrows thudding after them. People were calling, asking questions. Shouting in anger. She imagined the many people who lived within the walls that might intentionally be getting in the soldiers' way, and smiled to herself. It seemed as though they didn't have a chance - but she knew that they did. Of course they did, when they were led by the son of Herne.
"Where are the horses?" His breath sounding tortured, John gasped the words out. Will grinned.
"Ask Much. I sent him to wedge the stables doors shut."
"It won't keep them for long." Much sounded embarrassed, and John banged him on the back so hard that he nearly sent the boy tumbling.
"Good work!" They were gathering speed all the time, and the angry noises of the castle were fading. The soldiers were coming after them, they were all aware of that - but Sherwood was ahead, and nobody was going to stop them now. It was as if all the world was celebrating with them, and the pure, bright white light of the moon set them all a glowing with its triumphant cheer.
And then it was over, with only the smallest details to deal with. They took Edward to Wickham, and from there to the place some way away where the villagers were waiting in hiding. Edward's wife was weak with worry, and it took Marion some while to enure that she would be well again given time. Already the vilagers were anxious to return to their homes, although it seemd sensible for them to keep out of the way for the time being. Edward had already decided that he and his family would spend the next few days with relatives of his wife in another town. It was just a precaution, but it sounded like a sensible one to Robin. Gisburne would be fighting mad for the next couple of days, but it would probably be his own men who would experience the full venting of that rage. Tired out, and happy to spend a few hours relaxing before heading home, Robin let Marion see to his arm, whilst the others enjoyed Wickham's gratitude to the full. It was rising dawn before they finally took their leave.
Sherwood was warm and bright. Robin took the lead, walking ahead of the others at a surprisingly unhurried pace. The danger, he felt sure, was over, and now that he was back in the forest he felt as though he were safe from anything. The birds seemed glad to see them back, and even a pair of deer wandered their way as though in greeting.
"Home at last." John tipped his head back, enjoying the early sun as it filtered through the trees. Marion smiled.
"Home," she commented wryly. "It really is, isn't it. I never thought that I could think of a forest as my home, but I certainly never thought of Nottingham Castle this fondly. Even Leaford Grange didn't feel this wonderful when I came back to it after being away."
"Maybe you never came back to it after being locked up in a dungeon for the best part of a day." Striding into the lead Will sent rabbits and the two deer scrambling for cover. "I'd feel at home anywhere where I know there's some roast venison and a jug of ale waiting for me."
"You're not telling me you aren't happy to be back?" John was still basking in the sunlight, his bearded face a mask of radiant joy beneath its fringe of shaggy hair. Will smiled.
"Of course I'm happy to be back. It may be a soggy forest, but it's home, isn't it. Always will be, so long as we're all in it."
"See?" John banged him on the back, and turned around to address the others. "He really does care. Says he doesn't but he does."
"Oh I care alright." Will didn't look back. "I care about that ale and roast venison."
"Why you--" John tried to catch up with him, but Will broke into a run, jogging backwards and taunting the bigger man with rude gestures. John chased after him, and the others, following on behind at a more sedate pace, heard them crashing onwards through the trees. A bird squawked indignantly. Robin laughed and pulled Marion into a hug.
"Are you alright?" he asked her. She smiled up at him.
"I'm fine now."
"Good." He hesitated. "I didn't mean to put you into any danger you know. I thought I was doing the right thing."
"You were." She rested her head against his shoulder. "And I was never really in any danger. None of us were. It just seemed like it at the time because we didn't know what was going to happen."
"Precisely." Tuck was walking along with a swing in his step, looking rosy and jaunty and generally pleased. "You have good instincts, Robin. You always know when you're doing the right thing. Don't lose sight of that. We're all safe, and so are the people of Wickham. Thanks to you, Edward and all the other men are back with their families."
"But if it hadn't been for me they would never have been taken away." Robin was staring into the trees, a thoughtful expression on his face. "There was a lot I didn't think of, when I agreed to accept the destiny that Herne planned for me. I knew about the dangers to myself, and I thought about all of you as well, and how you would be affected. But I never gave a thought to the ordinary people."
"They know the risks, Robin." Marion thought about Wickham, as well as all of the other villages that had shared in the takings from various robberies. "You're helping to make their lives better. Saving their children from starvation, protecting them from being arrested for not being able to pay their taxes... They're not going to blame you if it gets them into trouble occasionally."
"I suppose." He ruffled her hair, smiling at her squeak of protest. "I'm lucky I ran into your room that day, aren't I."
"Yes." She straightened up so that he could see her smile. "I'm glad you realise it."
"We're all lucky." Much sounded shy, but was clearly anxious to have his say. "Must be, mustn't we."
"I don't know." Tuck's expression was very serious, although he couldn't quite keep the smile from his eyes. "I won't feel very lucky if we get back to the camp and find that Will has eaten all the venison. Come on Much. Let's hurry on ahead and see if we can rescue some."
"Alright." Happy at the suggestion Much broke into a rough jog that Tuck could just about keep up with. Robin watched them go, glad to see that Much was in such good spirits. It had been so short a time, but clearly the boy was already growing tougher. In the days before his father's death he wouldn't have handled that terrible dungeon nearly so well, and would never have been able to keep up during the hair-raising escape. Now he was growing fast.
"Where's Nasir?" Marion was resting her head on his shoulder again, her arm around his back. She sounded sleepy, and he could almost imagine that she had her eyes closed. He glanced back, certain that the Saracen had been behind them just a short while ago. There was no sign of him now though.
"Gone." He smiled. Trust Nasir to make a quick and silent exit. Perhaps he had just been hungry, and had decided to take his own, quicker route back to the camp - or perhaps he had decided to let the two young lovers have a little time alone. Either way Robin was grateful to him. "Well at least we don't have to worry about him not leaving us any ale."
"Ale." She gave a little laugh. "I'm actually quite getting to like that stuff. I thought it was horrible the first time I tried some."
"I'm corrupting you." He managed to sound as though he regretted it. "You were a proper lady just a few weeks ago. Back then you'd never have been looking forward to a drink of ale after running headlong away from all those soldiers." He reached up and brushed something from her hair. "You wouldn't have had twigs in your hair, either. Or leaves."
"I've woken up in the morning with worse things than twigs in my hair." She gave a small laugh. "Spiders, ants, a centipede or two... But I don't mind."
"Just as well. I can keep the soldiers out of Sherwood, but I can't keep the insects out even for you." While they were both still laughing he slowed to a halt and held her at arm's length. "Marion..."
"What?" She knew that he was being serious now, but didn't let it worry her. He hesitated, then let everything come out in a rush.
"They weren't going to execute you, you know. It's not too late. The rest of us don't have any choice, and probably never did, but you do. You could be safe again. Warm at night. No more spiders in your hair, no need to get used to drinking ale, or eating stale bread. If you want to go back, I'd understand."
"Idiot." She punched him on the shoulder, none too gently. "If I wanted to keep the spiders out of my hair I wouldn't have stayed with you in Sherwood in the first place. You all have your reasons for being here. Will hates Normans; Tuck hates injustice; John would stay with you if Herne decided that your destiny is to discover if there really is an end of the world to sail to, and so would Much... And so would I. I might have a big inheritance, and a big family home, and my father might have had a title, but I can still see when people are being wrongly treated. I want to help the people of England just as much as you do."
"I know." He pulled her back into his embrace. "I just wanted to be sure. We've started now, you know. From now on there won't be any let up."
"I know." They could hear the sounds of the others now; Will's voice raised in cheery chatter as he sprawled by a new fire in the nearby camp. John was laughing at something, and Tuck's own distinctive laugh joined with his. The sounds of home; the sounds of family. Marion smiled, but one thought stopped the smile from being as big and as carefree as it might have been. She cocked her head on one side, listening to them all, then glanced up at Robin.
"Are we ready, Robin? All of us? There's no turning back now, but can we really do what Herne wants us to?"
"Yes." He hadn't been sure himself until today, when he had seen his men in action against the soldiers. Even the handful of robberies that they had committed hadn't convinced him as much as that escape from Nottingham Castle. "We're ready. We can do this."
"Good." She took his hand and led him onwards through the trees, pulling him through the last of the undergrowth and into the camp. The scene before them was one of easy camaraderie and merriment, and Robin smiled to see it. He had had so many doubts, from the moment he had first spoken with Herne, to the moment when he had led the escape from Nottingham, but now the doubts were fading away, and he knew that he would not see them again. He didn't even stop to wonder whether he had any regrets about the life he might have led. There would have been no point, for this was his life now, and always would be.
It had been the strangest of fortnights, but it had led them all on to its inescapable conclusion. They might have been diverse, and they might have distrusted each other to begin with, but they were a team now. For better or for worse. And as he moved to sit down beside the fire and join his loyal friends, Robin didn't need to look to know that Herne was watching. From now on, perhaps, he always would be; because from now on, nothing was ever going to be the same again.