THE THREE SISTERS
Sherwood Forest had been quiet for days. Deep within the hidden green world that they had made their home, the outlaws rested together, telling tales, playing games, and dealing with the lack of activity in their own, characteristic ways. Robin had been expecting trouble; fighting caused by frustration perhaps, or just problems caused by their natural boisterousness and general lack of restraint; but there was none. Will grumbled of course, but then Will always grumbled. Robin would have been more worried if the moody and restless former soldier had behaved.
"I'm hungry." It had been an active morning of sorts, or at least as eventful as mornings had been lately. John's words made them all think of food.
"Yeah. Me too." Robin had been doing little all day save enjoying the sunshine, but he felt hungry all the same. Will scowled.
"If all we're going to get to eat is more of the weird muck we've been having lately, you can keep it. I'd rather be hungry."
"You've got no sense of adventure." John stretched his powerful muscles, and threw down his quarter-staff. He had been practising one-on-one combat with Tuck, who was also skilled with a staff, and both men were exhausted. Tuck laughed.
"That's not a charge you hear pointed at our Scarlet very often."
"With good reason." Will pointed a stabbing finger at John. "Just because I don't like weird food, doesn't mean that I don't like experimenting. I'm just not some... foreigner, that's all."
"Well so long as it's food, I don't mind what it is." Rubbing his tired shoulder muscles, Tuck went over to the fire. There was a pot of stew there, hanging from a spit above the low flames, and some dark coloured flat bread warming nearby. The bread was his own, made from wheat that had been given to the outlaws by local villagers. Tuck had been hopeless at cooking with it at first, when they had all moved into the forest in the early days of their companionship. Now he was making bread as though he had done it for years. "What do you say, Much? Is it ready?"
"Don't know. Suppose so." The youngest member of their little family, and Robin's adopted brother, Much was ever enthusiastic - but was not necessarily the best person to choose for cooking duties. He had a habit of forgetting when he had put things on to cook, and no idea at all when it came to remembering to remove them. With his usual patience and good nature, however, Tuck had been happy to let him help out lately.
"When did you put it on, half wit?" Striding over, Will rapped the boy on the forehead with his knuckles, then peered hopefully at the bubbling contents of the pot. "Looks done to me. Going to be hot anyway, isn't it. Must be ready."
"I suppose so." Tuck reached for the ladle and a pile of wooden bowls. "Call the others, someone. I'll start serving out."
"I'll call them." Bright and eager as ever, Much put his hands to his mouth and uttered a loud, shrill whistle that echoed throughout the trees. Tuck winced.
"Do you have to do that when you're right next to my ears? Now go and fetch the ale barrel, there's a good lad."
"Sorry Tuck." Not looking particularly abashed, Much scurried away on this latest errand. Robin laughed.
"Can't fault him for his energy, anyway."
"Which is more than can be said for you." Clapping the smaller man on the back in a manner guaranteed to cause weak knees and breathlessness, John threw himself down by the fire. It was too hot for such proximity, but he wanted to be close to the food. "The rest of us have been practising all day, and you've just been lying about."
"I was tired!" Robin grinned good-naturedly. "Hard work, you know, being the son of Herne."
"He was out all night again." Coming back with the ale barrel, Much set it down near to Tuck. "Did Herne call you, Robin? You went off just as I was going to sleep, and I didn't hear you coming back."
"Yes, Herne called me." Robin stifled a yawn, thinking back to his night's meeting. "I wish he'd wait for daylight. We might not have had much to do these last few days, but it's still nice to get some sleep."
"What did he say?" Sitting down nearby, Will began pouring the strong ale into the wooden mugs that were waiting nearby. Robin shrugged.
"The usual. Strange things I don't understand; prophecies that don't mean anything to me until they come true." He smiled. "I don't think that it's anything we have to worry about now though - at least, he didn't sound too urgent. If there's danger coming, we'll just have to face it like we usually do."
"True." Will leaned over to sniff at the stew as Tuck began serving it out. "Although the only danger I can see around here is in whatever we're supposed to be eating. Much, what is it this time?"
"Stew." The boy looked very happy about it, oblivious to Will's displeasure. "With carrots and onions and... some green things that Marion found."
"And..." Wilting slightly under the force of a glare that had often made experienced Norman soldiers quake, Much hesitated. "Some... other things."
"I knew it!" Throwing up his hands, Scarlet turned away. "It's a conspiracy. I knew we should never have robbed that merchant. Should have let him go. Instead we wind up with a box full of weird foreign spices, and no decent food in a week."
"Don't grumble." Happily beginning to eat, John grinned through a mouthful of stew. "I like it. It's different."
"You'd eat anything," Will reminded him. "It's not even proper food, is it. Damn stuff bites back."
"It's interesting." Defending his hit and miss cooking, Much took a plate from Tuck, then sat cross-legged beside the fire. "Nasir said they eat this sort of thing all the time where he comes from. He showed me how to use it."
"Yeah, but he's not here to eat it, is he." Taking an experimental mouthful of the stew, Will winced. "Who'd think up food like this, anyway? I mean, it's no bloody wonder the Saracens have been fighting off all those Christian armies for so long, if this is what they've been eating."
"All the more reason we should eat it then, isn't there." His mouth full, John laughed at his friend's complaints. "Eat a couple of plates of this, and we'll send you off to storm Nottingham Castle single-handed."
"Very funny." Will tried to quell the fire in his throat with some of Tuck's bread. "I just think it's suspicious, that's all. When we found those spices in that merchant's cart, Nasir looked about as pleased as... well, as pleased as he ever looks. But where is he now, hey? Much gave the signal, but he and Marion certainly aren't running back to join us."
"That's true." Robin's eyes drifted away to the hidden path along which Marion and Nasir should have been coming. There was no sign of them; no rustling of trees or bushes, no sound of voices, no whistle of greeting or identification. "I wonder where they are."
"Lost," suggested Much. Tuck laughed.
"That's not likely to happen, lad. I'd never have imagined it a year ago, but Marion's fitted into this forest as though she's been here all her life. I don't think she could ever get lost."
"You don't suppose something's happened then?" The young miller's son looked pale and worried, and his eyes opened wide. Robin clapped him lightly on the back.
"Of course not. There isn't a soldier in Nottingham Castle who isn't afraid of Marion when she's got a weapon in her hands. They'll be along."
"Alright." The boy nodded, although he didn't look happy. Will stuffed the rest of his bread into his mouth as though to bring his meal to a close, and then spoke incoherently around the large obstacle now impeding his tongue.
"Want me to go and look for them?"
"No." Robin was quietly confident, which was enough to put them all at their ease. "There's nothing wrong. I'd know if Marion was in any immediate danger."
"Robin's always known things," piped up Much. The pride was obvious in his eyes, and Robin smiled at him fondly.
"It's a gift that can be hard to take sometimes," he answered softly, but the possibility of pathos in his voice was not matched by the smile in his eyes. "Now hurry up and eat. I feel like a wrestling match."
"But we've been working all day!" His protests only half serious, John tried to sound genuinely indignant. "It's not our fault you've been lazing about in the sunshine, is it. You should have done your wrestling earlier like the rest of us."
"And fought you before you got tired?" Robin laughed. "Not likely. Is there any ale left in that barrel?"
"Just about." Tuck poured him some of the strong liquid. "I'll tell you what, Robin. We'll have another fight if that's what you want, but we do it with quarter-staffs. The two of us against John and Scarlet. Much can see that we play fair." He laughed. "And he can fight the winners."
"Sounds good to me." Will jumped to his feet, as always ready to be off. He did not tire easily, and even the meal that he had just eaten didn't seem to have slowed him down. "Come on then."
"You're a bloody mad man." Groaning as he rose to his feet, as though all of his muscles were protesting against the movement, John stretched his back and arms. "I don't know that I feel up to this right now."
"If you think you're going to fool me into underestimating you, you can think again." Heaving himself to his feet, Tuck tightened the rope belt around his cassock and lifted up his sizeable quarter-staff. "I'm not daft, you big oaf."
"We'll see about that." As they moved away from the fire, already lost in the spirit of the game, Little John let his biggest and most mischievous grin take over his genial face. "We'll see."
Marion had soon come to regret her insistence that she be allowed to stand guard with the others in her turn. Robin had tried to make her waive such responsibilities, but in her eagerness to be a proper member of the gang she had demanded that he agree to her pulling her weight. Standing alone in the bushes, a long way from the company and good cheer of the camp, with cold grass soaking her ankles, she almost felt like admitting that Robin's side of the argument had had its merit.
"I'm cold and I'm wet," she told an equally soggy looking rabbit that was hopping about nearby. It froze at the sound of her voice. "I'm cold and I'm wet, and I'm bored."
"Not for long." Nasir had come from nowhere, and the sound of his voice almost made her jump. Only her nerves, already hardening after the months of wilder living as an outlaw, prevented her from showing how startled she was.
"There's somebody coming?" She couldn't hear anybody, but her instincts were not yet as sharp as she hoped they would some day become. Nasir raised an eyebrow, and gave a nod to indicate the road that snaked its way past them. "Many of them?" She was already reaching for an arrow, although she wasn't sure whether its best use would be for protection or for warning the others back at the camp. Would they see an arrow shot into the air? Robin had told her to use such a signal if she needed to contact him from a distance, but she wasn't sure how effective it was likely to be. Nasir put out a hand, lowering her arm and her bow.
"Not yet," he told her, and she frowned at him. There were times when his reticence was welcome, even endearing, but at other times she wished that he was as chatty as Scarlet or Little John.
"Not yet? When?" He held up a hand for silence and slipped away from her, following the road a little way. She trailed after him, wishing that she was wearing something a little more practical than her dress. It clung to her now, the hem heavy with dew that the filtered sunlight was determinedly failing to dry up. A familiar whistle sounded through the trees, very faint and distant, but recognisable nonetheless. "That's the call from the camp."
"Food," he told her, voice no more than a hiss. "They eat."
"I'm hungry." She said it as though she wanted to hurry back immediately, and in part she supposed that she did. In the clearing where they had set up camp the sunlight would shine down directly, and would be a good deal warmer than in this overgrown, clammy place. The fire would add to the warmth, and her clothes, sodden from accumulated rain that must have been waiting for her in these bushes since the last downpour several days ago, would soon dry. The chill in her bones would ease; she might even start to feel more human again. All the same, she knew that she was going nowhere.
"How far ahead?" Aware that Nasir was taking no notice of her apparent desire to return to camp, she caught him up, trying all the time to mimic his stance and his manner of movement. He cocked his head on one side, listening.
"Not far. Two horses."
"How do you know that?" She was amazed, but he merely frowned at her, his expressive face showing surprise that she would ask such a question.
"I went ahead." It was an obvious answer, and one that made her smile. "One man, one woman. Not rich people."
"They might be in disguise." People did disguise themselves, sometimes, especially when they had to travel long distances. Places like Sherwood Forest had long been filled with outlaws, many who were little more than cut-throats. Pretending that you were poor, and that you had nothing that was worth stealing, was often the best and only way of surviving a journey unmolested. Nasir nodded.
"Then we're going to rob them?" She was excited. Robin often denied her the chance to play a full rôle in things, and this was the perfect opportunity to prove that she could be as valuable a member of the team as any of the men. Nasir's eyes narrowed.
"We watch," was all that he would say. She sighed.
"We're perfectly capable of handling the pair of them. If one's a woman then they're probably not going to put up much resistance."
"You would," he reminded her, and for a second one of his rare smiles flickered into being. She scowled.
"Then we're not going to do anything? We should at least signal Robin."
"No." His eyes were everywhere, and her nerves were beginning to behave in a similar fashion. Maybe it was the known proximity of the two strangers, but never before had she felt so sympathetic to the old adage that trees had eyes. She smiled to herself. She had been alone out here for too long. "No time," Nasir was telling her, eyes now hard. "Look."
"Look at what? I..." She trailed off, watching as the bushes up ahead began to move. Three men, of roughly Scarlet's build, slipped soundlessly from the undergrowth, breaking out onto the road just as the sound of approaching hoof beats became audible to Marion. She gasped.
"Isn't that the gang that the people of Elsdon are so scared of? The man with the patch over one eye?" Her answer was the brief nod that had fast become so familiar. "Then we should do something." She might have been surprised by her own resolve, if she had stopped to think about it. "Whoever those two people are, they don't deserve that bunch. They'll be killed."
"Halt!" Up ahead the leader of the malevolent threesome had fitted an arrow to his bow, and was facing the pair of unfortunate travellers. Marion raised her own bow. If there were just the three to contend with she couldn't see any danger; but if there were other members of the infamous gang hidden nearby, things might get out of control. For a second uncertainty floated through her mind; then she dismissed it and made her decision. She was the wife of Robin Hood, son of Herne - and it was her duty to protect these people from the three men who would certainly kill them.
"What do you want?" The man on horseback stared down at the threesome with arrogant eyes. "Who are you?"
"Just give us your money." One of the men stepped forward, roughly pulling the rider from his horse. "Do what we say and we'll kill you both outright. Otherwise... I don't think you want to know what might happen to your companion." His single cold eye, its cruelty undiminished by the fact that its twin was covered by a rough patch, sent an unpleasant threat towards the second rider, a girl no older than Marion. Hidden by the trees the two less objectionable outlaws exchanged a glance.
"On my mark." Marion wondered if she would be quick enough to reload her bow after loosing her first arrow. She would need to make the first shot count. Beside her Nasir was ready, his eyes fixed unblinkingly on the scene before him. Marion wondered briefly what would happen if they were both aiming at the same man. Would they still have time to take out all three of the enemy? She frowned to herself, and stilled her querulous mind. Herne would guide them, and she had to trust in that, especially if she was ever to prove to Robin that she was as capable as she claimed to be.
"Don't hurt us." The girl had been dragged from her horse as well now, and one of the men was holding a knife to her throat. Her male companion struggled to reach her, but was unable to break free.
"Leave her alone!" His anger was powerful, despite his obvious fear. Marion took a deep breath.
"Ready?" It was an unnecessary question of course - Nasir was always ready. Out on the road the girl was struggling desperately, beginning to cry. Marion thought briefly of a time when she had been attacked by armed men, when the Baron de Belleme had demanded her capture. She knew how that girl felt, and her eyes hardened. As her wrist tensed behind the bowstring, she gritted her teeth and whispered the order to fire.
Her arrow caught the nearest of the three, almost before she was entirely aware that she had loosed it. The man fell, the imprisoned girl tumbling from his arms to land in a heap on the road. She stared at the dead man, and at the arrow protruding from his back, and gave a startled cry. Beside her a second man fell, this time the cruel eyed leader with the patch. Nasir's arrow had struck him in the chest. The girl's cry became a sob of fear, and in desperation she turned to her companion, still held by the third member of the gang. The biggest of the three, this unpleasant fellow was pressing his knife harder and harder against his captive's throat, a warning for anybody who might be about to attack. His eyes roamed the trees, searching for a glimpse of the unseen archers.
"Keep back!" There was a high-pitched edge to his voice, brought on by fear. "I'll kill him! Keep back!"
"No!" Trying and failing to struggle to her feet, the girl also stared wildly about. She had no idea if the arrows had come from likely allies or just from rival thieves, and her face was the colour of chalk. "Don't kill him."
"I'll kill the pair of them!" His eyes blazing with fury, the one remaining member of the gang spun his captive around, knife pressing so hard that the blood was beginning to run. "I'll kill--" He got no further. As the girl's already wide eyes widened further, two arrows struck together into the outlaw's back. The knife fell from his hand, and as he and his pinioned captive collapsed into a heap, the girl made a panicked grab for the weapon. She held it up, a manic gleam in her eyes, as though she felt that the small blade could protect her from whatever threat might still be waiting in the trees. Marion lowered her bow.
"It's alright." She stepped out onto the road with the bow held at arm's length, indicating as best she could that she was no threat either to the girl or to her companion. "Nobody is going to hurt you now."
"You - you're a woman." The girl was still holding the knife up ready to fight. Marion smiled gently.
"That's right. But my arrows are as good as anybody's."
"I don't understand." Standing up, doing his best to look proud despite the blood and the dirt on his clothes, the man frowned at her. "Why - I mean who-?"
"We're simply people of Sherwood." As she spoke, using her clear and gentle voice to attempt to put the pair at their ease, Nasir also stepped out onto the road. He appeared to have no interest in the people that he had helped to save, and instead his eyes were on the road, and on the undergrowth that lined it on both sides.
"There may be others," he said simply, and Marion nodded.
"Good grief." The man, a proud looking type perhaps halfway between forty and fifty, stared with unbridled surprise at the black-clad figure before him. "A Saracen. A Saracen in Sherwood Forest... and a girl no older than my own daughter..." He smiled a little faintly, obviously still shaken from the attack. "When the arrows came I expected soldiers from Nottingham Castle... but I confess that I find this more interesting. Is all of Sherwood peopled by such unexpected people as yourselves?"
"I suppose I can understand why you'd think so." With a smile Marion extended her hand in greeting. "I'm Marion of Sherwood, once of Leaford Grange. This is Nasir."
"I'm pleased to meet you, Marion of Sherwood." He shook her hand, and offered Nasir a polite nod. "My name is Leofric, once of Loxley, and this is my daughter May."
"Loxley!" Marion's eyes widened, and the man smiled sadly.
"That's right. Once a beautiful village, as villages go. A pleasant place filled with pleasant people - but to mention it in these days is almost a heresy."
"I know." Marion thought of Robin, still clinging so fiercely to an ideal passed on from his father, a man he barely remembered, who had lived in a village long ago lost to history. "But you won't find anybody around here who'll stop you talking of it. There are many people in these parts who remember Loxley, and who remember what happened to it as well."
"Brave words, Marion of Sherwood." He smiled at her, eyes warm. "I can see that I've come to the right place. But now... we're forever indebted to you, but I think that we must be saying our goodbyes. My daughter and I must find somewhere to sleep before nightfall, and I've no idea how much longer we shall be searching for. Night is never quite as far away as one thinks."
"But you shall be our guests, surely." Shocked by the idea of her two new acquaintances heading off alone into the middle of the forest, Marion looked towards Nasir for support. He remained silent, but his eyes showed a measure of caution. Nasir, however, was always cautious, and she decided to take his silence to mean that he saw no immediate threat. "We can't let you go off again after what you've just been through. At the very least your daughter should rest among friends, and you can have something to eat and drink."
"Well I must say, it would be extremely welcome." Leofric looked from one to the other of the unexpected pair. "If I wouldn't be intruding... There aren't many people these days who are happy to take in strangers."
"That's because too many people live in fear, of the world and of each other." Marion turned a friendly smile to May, who was still subdued and uncertain. "Anybody who knows the importance of remembering a place like Loxley, is friend enough to most of the people of Sherwood. There's no reason to be afraid here, so long as you're with us."
"Then we would be delighted to go to your... camp? Or do you have a village within the forest?" Leofric was beaming, a warm and amiable smile that made Marion warm to him even more than she had already. "How many of you are there?"
"Seven." Part of her was warning that she shouldn't say too much, but he would soon see for himself anyway. Besides, it was her duty to welcome these people. She certainly wasn't expected to abandon them to the dangers of Sherwood, after what they had just been through? "We've been together now for several months."
"And you chose to live in a forest?" May had found her voice, although she used it only quietly. Marion smiled.
"It's the best place to be free," she said gently. "In the villages, and the places between the villages, we're told what to think, do and say, and not given any means to provide for ourselves. The alternative is to try to find a new way, and then face the same fate as Loxley for daring to try it." Her eyes lowered, for in her long ago life in the safety of Leaford Grange she had known no such hardships. "Here in Sherwood we hold our own counsel."
"You speak of dangerous things." Leofric's face was serious, though his eyes showed the warmth of sympathy and understanding. "And I think we really have come to the right place. Lead on Marion. If your friends will welcome us, we couldn't be happier than to accept your invitation."
"Then it's settled." She was happy, without quite knowing why. "Nasir, follow on behind us, just in case there's somebody watching." He gave a nod, and without another word Marion took the reins of the nearest horse and began to lead it back along the road. Robin would be worried about her, and perhaps a little cross that she had not answered the whistle, nor returned to camp at the sound of it. What would he say, however, when she introduced her guests as natives of Loxley?
"This is very good of you." May seemed to be recovering now, and Marion was glad to see it. She was a pretty girl with a bright shine in her eyes that was starting to assert itself again. It would be good to have another woman to talk to, thought Marion. Somebody of her own age. She couldn't remember a time when she had had that, for even in the days before her virtual imprisonment under the guardianship of the brothers de Rainault, her only female companionship had been in the form of servants. A nurse old enough to be her father's mother; a pair of giggling girls several years older than herself... none of it the stuff of true friendship. Here, however, was the promise of something different; and Marion found that she was looking forward to the conversations that might be to come.
Robin ducked another blow that had come close to shattering his skull, and glared his annoyance at his attacker. Scarlet grinned at him.
"You're just not quick enough Robin."
"It doesn't help that you have more enthusiasm than all the Sheriff's men put together." Brushing his hair from his eyes Robin smiled wickedly, and tried a swift blow of his own. Scarlet stumbled back, taken by surprise, and almost dropped his staff.
"So you can fight dirty!" He sounded delighted at this discovery. "There's hope for you yet, Loxley."
"But not for you, Scarlet!" Coming up behind the smaller man, Tuck hit him lightly on the stop of the skull with his own staff, a mock blow in place of the decisive one that would have ended the fight for good. "You're too easily distracted. If I was one of the Sheriff's men you'd be dead by now."
"Yeah, but you're not." Scarlet had no intention of playing dead no matter how obvious Tuck's victory had been. "If you were one of the Sheriff's men you'd be dead already. No soldier from Nottingham Castle is going to creep up on me like that."
"He might. One day." Robin stood his staff up on one end, and leant on it heavily. "We can't always count on the Sheriff employing fools and cowards. He's not as stupid as he looks."
"And neither is his brother," pointed out Tuck. "The abbot has always been a dangerous man to cross, and we've crossed him rather a lot just lately."
"That's because it's fun," said Will, with his usual lack of gravitas. "He gets so angry, and his face changes colour."
"Yeah." John beamed as a happy memory sprang to mind. "All we did the last time was to hang him from that tree branch by his ankles, and he went as red as his Communion wine. If he doesn't want to be bothered by us, he shouldn't be so much fun to torment."
"All the same," continued Tuck, in the same spirit of semi-serious caution as before, "we can't be getting slack. The de Rainaults aren't all about temper tantrums and bad judgement you know. They're both intelligent men, and the Sheriff at least has the ability to make life very difficult for us. If he ever takes it upon himself to really come after us, instead of leaving most of the work to young Gisburne, we could have a serious problem."
"None of which means that some soldier from Nottingham Castle is ever likely to be able to creep up on me." Will threw his staff to Much, and picked up a jug of wine. "I'm getting hungry again. Can we finish that stew?"
"Marion and Nasir haven't eaten yet," Robin reminded him. "Besides, I thought you didn't like it." Will's answer was mumbled indistinctly through a mouthful of wine, but it was audible enough for Robin to be sure that it was something rude.
"Marion will be coming back soon, won't she Robin?" Reminded by the mention of her name that her return was well overdue, Much laid aside Scarlet's quarter-staff and turned wide, questioning eyes upon his half brother. Robin smiled at him.
"Very soon. She knows I'd worry if she stayed away for too long."
"You're not the only one who'd worry." Tuck was looking meaningfully towards the surrounding trees, obviously searching for some sign of his approaching charge. Marion's spiritual well-being had been entrusted to him a long time ago, and even though she was now married, and technically no longer his responsibility, he still considered it his special duty to watch over her.
"I hear voices." Ignoring the fact that his words had made Much jump and look pale, John laid down his quarter-staff and pulled the wine jug away from Will. "Could be Marion."
"It could be anybody. Could be the Sheriff." Robin took the wine jug away from John, and set it to one side. "Either way perhaps we'd better not all be drunk."
"Hey, who's drunk?" Will's indignation was genuine, although he had good humour enough to pretend to slur his words. "I never get drunk."
"Marion?" Ignoring Scarlet's clownish objections, Robin walked to the edge of the camp. Despite his earlier words he did not really believe that whoever was approaching would be a threat; but he knew that if they were there was no need to fear them. John's hand now lay upon his bow, and Scarlet and the others were always ready. His own fist gripped the hilt of Albion, and he was confident enough that his skill with the sword was defence against any intruder. His instincts, however, didn't lead him to believe that such skills were about to be used.
"Robin!" She appeared out of the greenery the way he had taught her to do; invisible at first, then melting into vision as though from nowhere. "I'm sorry we kept you waiting."
"You're worth waiting for." His eyes had already drifted away from her, and now were a little harder. "Although I wasn't expecting you to bring strangers..."
"Friends." She spoke reproachfully, for there was a part of Marion that was still used to the manners of a rich castle, where guests were always welcome for entertainment and hospitality. "Nasir and I found them in the forest."
"Saved us in the forest," corrected Leofric. He smiled warmly at Robin, and extended his hand in greeting. "I'm sorry. Ordinarily I wouldn't come to you like this. I understand how careful all sensible men are in these times, but my daughter is tired, and she's been through a great deal. All that we ask is some time to rest ourselves."
"We never turn weary travellers away." The sight of Leofric's daughter, clearly exhausted, had had the necessary effect upon Robin's conscience. "I am Robin Hood, and you're welcome to stay with us here."
"And you'll stay for the night, of course." Bustling over to lead May towards the fire, Tuck immediately clicked into his mother hen persona, his round face bright with a warm and gentle smile. "I'm Tuck, a friar of sorts, though I have my arguments with the Church these days."
"My name is May." She smiled back at him, though wearily, and looked back to her father for reassurance. He came instantly, looking rather abashed.
"Yes of course. What must you think of me, leaving my daughter to introduce herself? I am Leofric of Loxley, and it's a pleasure to find myself amongst free men."
"Loxley?" His face showing a seriousness that his friends recognised, Robin crossed over to where the older man now crouched by the fire. "You're from Loxley?"
"I was, yes." Leofric smiled sadly. "But nobody is from there nowadays, are they. It was wiped from the map, and we're not even supposed to remember that it was ever there."
"Not 'there'." Robin's eyes were intense in their passion. "The centre of Loxley is no more than a good bow's shot from where I stand. Loxley is here, and all about us."
"You speak with true feeling, friend." Leofric's eyes narrowed as he rose to his feet. "Do I take it that this particular village is of importance to you?"
"Yes." Lowering his eyes the outlaw let his memory run back over the too few things that he remembered of that long destroyed place. "Long before I was Robin of Sherwood, I was Robin of Loxley. My father was head man there."
"Ailric." The word was a whisper, a dumbfounded gasp. "You're Ailric's boy? By all that's holy I never thought to see this day. Another survivor of Loxley... and to think that it should be little Robin."
"You knew my father well?" It was no surprise to Robin to discover that Leofric had known Ailric, for in a place the size of Loxley all people knew each other. They depended on each other for their very survival, and were closely connected in many ways. But to think that this might be a friend; somebody who could remember his father with greater clarity than Robin himself could... He found that he was filled with a curious sense of urgency to hear more.
"Yes, my boy, I knew your father well." Leofric passed a hand over his face, as though wiping away a sudden and unexpected sweat. "He was my... my cousin, I suppose. Our fathers were related, the way so many people in such places are. I forget the actual details of the blood tie, but at any rate he was my closest friend. We did everything together as boys, and even once intended to marry sisters. Their father rather objected as I recall, and we ended up settling for a pair of cousins." He smiled, and Robin felt himself smiling too. He could almost imagine the two young men going about their courting, making the most of the little freedom and fun available to those as poor and oppressed as themselves. "I remember your mother well. A fine woman, but you were so young when she died. There had been little enough food that year, and the winter was harsh. The fever took many of the villagers before spring came." He shook his head, weariness showing in his eyes. "My own wife died the same year, when May was no more than a day old. It was a difficult time for all of us. A very difficult time."
"I don't remember." If he tried hard, Robin could picture his mother, with her long dark hair and her wise smile. His gift of seeing the future came from her, or so his father had said. It had been a common enough trait, once, in the very long ago days before the Romans had arrived.
"You wouldn't." Leofric's eyes were warm, and perhaps strangely yearning - then abruptly he smiled and shook his head. "I'm sorry, I'm forgetting my manners again, aren't I. Robin and Tuck I've met, and Marion and Nasir introduced themselves earlier, but I should meet all of you properly. Do you all live here in the forest?"
"Aye, we do." Shaking the hand that was offered, though perhaps showing the task a little too much enthusiasm, John beamed at the older man through the ragged bush of his beard. Leofric blinked in surprise. The giant man, with his loud voice and obvious strength, had been a bit of a surprise. "I'm Little John."
"I can see why you came by that name." Smiling despite the pain in his shoulder that John's energetic greeting had caused, Leofric managed to extricate himself whilst he was still capable of shaking hands with Will. "And you?"
"Will Scarlet." As usual Will's own greeting was less welcoming, for he was always suspicious of a stranger until given real reason to feel otherwise. He smiled though, and was polite enough. "And this is Much."
"Hello Much." Seeing the nervousness as well as the eagerness in the boy's eyes, Leofric adjusted his smile to one of more obvious gentility. "I'm pleased to meet you."
"Did you really know Robin's father?" Never one to be terribly subtle, Much didn't want to wait before finding out more about the new arrival's strange link with Ailric. "I never knew him, but my father and he were friends. My father looked after Robin, so we're brothers."
"Then you must be the miller's boy." Leofric nodded slowly, then eased himself down into a sitting position beside the fire. His legs, it seemed, were stiff after his travels. "Yes, I knew Ailric. It all seems so long ago, but much as I would like to talk about it, my daughter and I should be on our way. We've a long distance to travel, and even if we are going to stay here for a while there are other things I should be doing. The horses..."
"Nasir will take care of the horses." Sitting down beside Leofric, Robin gestured for somebody to serve the guests some stew. The older man turned his head, looking towards the edge of the clearing, where the Saracen was indeed engaged upon looking after the two animals. The former resident of Loxley smiled gratefully, and allowed himself to relax a little.
"You're very kind, Robin. All of you are. May and I never hoped to find such hospitality."
"Where are you heading?" asked Tuck, handing over a full plate. May took a sip of wine, and smiled up at the friar, her eyes bright and warm now that she was recovering so well.
"London," she said, with a fair amount of pride. "My father thinks that we can make the king listen to us. Once he knows how bad things are under the Sheriff of Nottingham, he'll be sure to demand changes."
"Now May, you shouldn't simplify matters so." Leofric shook his head, the weary look returning to his eyes. "I don't really know what we're going to to do in London, but even if the king is there right now, he probably won't agree to listen to the likes of us. We're only going because... of a dream that I had. You'll think me a fool for it, but if I'm right there's more than a little of your father in you, Robin, so perhaps you believe in such things..."
"What things?" Robin's voice was gentle and steady, the firm and reassuring voice that had so often chased away the fears of simple villagers and frightened children. "Everybody gets a fair hearing here, whoever they are, and whatever their claims."
"Good." Leofric nodded. "That sounds like your father speaking. The truth... the truth, no matter how strange it sounds, is that Herne has spoken to me. He came one afternoon in a dream. Oh I know what you're probably thinking. He's a spirit, a legend... but for what it's worth he's a legend that your father believed in the way that most men believe in the trees, and the flowers, and every other unquestionably real thing that they see around them. I'm not sure that I used to believe all that much myself... We heard stories, about sightings at festival time, but I wasn't sure. Not really. And then just a few days ago I had a dream. I fell asleep beside a river at the edge of another forest, two days' walk from here. He told me that I had to go to London. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do when I get there, except that it has something to do with the Sheriff." He shrugged. "And so there you have it. I suppose you think that I'm a fool? If the weather was better I'd think that I'd had too much heat, but it hasn't been quite that hot lately."
"No." Robin stared into the fire, thinking about his own meetings with Herne. It made sense, surely, that this relative of his would also be able to see the Lord of the Forest, and would be receptive to one of Herne's strange messages? "No, I don't think that you're a fool, or that you've been touched by the sun. There are very few people around here who deny the existence of Herne, and if you say that he spoke to you, I believe you."
"We all do." Marion sipped at her wine, and thought about the good fortune that had brought this man and his daughter to the home of the outlaws. "Robin..."
"Yes." He nodded slowly, not needing to ask what she had been suggesting. "Leofric, if you have a mission that Herne has given to you, and if it means that you and May have to make such a long and dangerous journey, we won't hear of you going through it all alone. You'll wait here for a day or two perhaps, and rest properly, and then we'll go together. You need the protection. There are a lot of thieves and cut-throats between here and London."
"Robin..." John's voice carried warning, and a plea for a little thought. "Is that really a good idea? We have responsibilities here in Sherwood."
"Yeah, and you know what King Richard thinks of us." Will shook his head. "We can't go running off to London, whatever dreams somebody's been having."
"We'll talk about this later." Robin's eyes threw daggers at the others, and they knew him well enough not to try continuing the argument just yet. "Much, John, take the watch. Don't go too far from the camp, and stay close together. I'll send somebody to relieve you as soon as it gets dark."
"Right." Clearly still dubious, John rose to his feet. He might disagree with the things that were being said, but Robin was still the leader. "Come on Much."
"I'm coming." Much scrambled to his feet with his usual display of merry haste. "Are we going to London soon then Robin?"
"Not now Much." John hurried him away, although it was obvious that the boy did not appreciate being treated in such a fashion. Shaking off the bigger man's firm hold, he scowled and lowered his voice. Even so the others could still hear him, as he traipsed off out of the clearing and into the trees.
"I was only asking, wasn't I. And besides, maybe it'd be good to go to London. Never been that far. How will we find the way, John?"
"Shut up Much." The voices faded, and Robin turned away from watching the place where his two friends had disappeared. The resolution on his face had not lessened.
"We'll have to make plans," he said evenly, not meeting Scarlet's eyes. The former soldier scowled at him.
"You bloody are planning to go there, aren't you. Robin, we don't know the first thing about these people! You can't go leaving Sherwood, and running off to London, just because somebody that you've never met before claims he had a message from Herne."
"Will!" Although anger showed in Robin's eyes, it was Marion who admonished Scarlet. Her old training in matters of courtesy and proper behaviour came into play, increasing her indignation at his outburst. "Not in front of our guests!"
"No, that's quite alright." Leofric smiled at her, and at Scarlet. "He's entitled to his opinion, and it's an understandable one. You people don't know anything about me, and yet here you are offering to follow me all the way to London. I don't mind in the slightest if some of you are suspicious. I'm sure that I probably would be, if I were in your position."
"That's very understanding of you." All the same, Robin glared at Will. He was rather of a mind to send the inflammatory fellow off to stand guard with John and Much, but decided against it. Scarlet was already angry, and there was no point in making things worse. Instead he turned around, looking to where the two horses were happily grazing at the clearing's furthest edge.
"Nasir? Come and have something to eat. You haven't had anything yet." There was no answer, and he looked around for the quiet black figure. "Has anybody seen Nasir?"
"Not in a while." Tuck looked up in surprise. "You know him. He often wanders off."
"He'll be back." Marion gave Robin's arm a squeeze, and rested her head against his shoulder. "Don't worry about it now."
"There are things I want to discuss." Robin was cross, without quite feeling that he had the right to be. "London's a long way away, Marion. We can't just get up and go."
"Then I'll go and look for him." Obviously in a huff, Will rose to his feet. Robin sighed.
"Sit down Will. There's no reason for you to go off as well."
"Yeah, I know." Scarlet took a last drink of wine from the jug, then flashed a smile at the obviously subdued May. "You make your plans, Robin. You can tell the rest of us about them later."
"Will..." Loxley wasn't sure whether to be angry or just frustrated, but he could see that neither would have any effect. Scarlet was already walking away.
"Oh dear." Leofric stared unhappily at his untouched plate. "I seem to have caused a few problems, don't I. I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault." Putting his arm around Marion, and smiling reassuringly, though distractedly, at his guest, Robin thought about the clearly angry Scarlet. As usual they had collided head on, without trying to talk things through properly, and as usual he was left feeling frustrated. All the same though, surely in this case it was Scarlet's fault and not his own? When fate brought him a man who might even be a relative; a man who was on a mission for Herne, who could expect him to refuse to offer his help? Admittedly he wasn't really thinking straight just now, but that would clear. In the meantime all that he wanted to think about was the fact that here was a man who had known his father; a man who could tell him things that he had never known.
"Perhaps we'd better leave." Leofric reached out for his daughter's hand, ready to lead her away from her comfortable place beside the fire, but Robin moved quickly to stop him.
"No." His smile was as gentle and as genuine as ever, even though his thoughts were still a little troubled. "Stay. Please. You were meant to come here, and Marion was meant to bring you. Don't leave now."
"If it's what Herne wants, I'll be happy to stay." Leofric smiled back at him, in a way that, strangely, brought long buried memories of Ailric rising to the surface of Robin's mind. The outlaw chief nodded in certain confidence.
"It's what he wants. Of course it is. Why else would he have sent you here?"
"Why else indeed." Leofric nodded. "Thankyou Robin. In that case we accept your invitation - and in the morning we'll head for London. Your father would be proud of you."
"Thankyou." Robin was thinking of his new father as much as of his old, but whether Leofric had been speaking of Ailric or of Herne didn't matter. All that mattered now was London, and whatever it was that Herne wanted done when they arrived.
Will wasn't sure exactly why he was so angry. Leofric was a genial enough sort, and his daughter was pretty and seemed sweet. Robin had every right to want to help them, especially since they were relatives of his. Will wondered how he would feel, if relatives he had never known about had suddenly appeared one day; especially if he had been raised, like Robin, with few memories of his home and family. He would probably want to help them, he decided grudgingly, particularly if they came on work of Herne's. So why did he feel so angry? It wasn't jealousy, surely? He didn't feel this way because Robin seemed to have shut the rest of them out so readily, in order to focus himself upon the new arrivals. He wasn't threatened by Leofric's presence - or at least he hoped not. Nothing lasted forever, after all, and if this was an indication that their time together here in Sherwood was soon to end, he shouldn't allow himself to get too sentimental about it. Will was a loner, and had been ever since the death of his wife. He didn't need these people. He didn't need the fellowship of the band within Sherwood Forest. He didn't need to worry about what might happen if Robin really did decide to head off down to London.
The afternoon was growing older, and the shadows thrown by the trees and bushes were longer than they had been. Dusk was a long way away, but Will still felt a little cold, as though he could already feel the day's heat diminishing. He didn't want to go back to the camp though, with its hearty fire and friendly company. Right now he didn't feel like being there, with Leofric and Robin, listening to them discussing their plans. Just because he didn't understand why he felt such anger towards them was not reason enough to stop feeling that anger, at least in his opinion. He wanted to be angry for a while longer yet; and with that in mind he wandered off towards the river. It was quiet there, and he could fume and simmer as much as he liked, without the need to calm down.
He came upon the river at the place where he and the others most often went to swim; a natural widening of the waters, with gently sloping banks and thick tree cover. Much, taking a break from his usual timidity, had been the first of them to try leaping out of the trees and into the water, and since then it had become a frequent game. Even the usually reserved Nasir joined in with the games of daring, and over time the mutual goading had led all of them to climb further up into the branches, looking for increasingly dangerous heights from which to leap. Will might have smiled at the thought if he had been in a better mood; instead he let the happy memories of the most recent set of water games make him even more angry with Robin. What did he think he was doing, suddenly deciding to leave all of this behind for a voyage to London with a man he knew nothing about?
"Will." The quiet voice of Nasir might have made another man jump, but Will merely froze briefly, then spotted the dark clad figure and let himself relax. Marginally. What was Nasir doing here? he wondered; then realised how angry he was to find that he wasn't going to be alone. He scowled.
"What do you want?" It was a pointless question, since it was the kind that Nasir never answered, at least not verbally. True to form he heard nothing in reply, and sighed. "Robin wants to discuss London," he continued sulkily, remembering his hasty excuse for leaving the camp. He had actually been supposed to be looking for Nasir, not bemoaning the fact that he had found him. "We're supposed to go back to the others and talk it over."
"London?" Nasir frowned, and Will could well understand the mixed emotions behind the expression. He was having enough problems himself with the notion of heading down to the capital.
"Yeah. I thought you were still around when we were talking about that? Leofric is on some mission for Herne, and Robin wants to help him. It's going to be quite an excursion by the sound of it. Crazy. They're all crazy."
"In London nobody knows we are wanted," Nasir reminded him. Will nodded.
"No danger, that what you reckon? I don't know. There's always danger in our lives, Naz. Always. Who knows what this mission of Herne's is, anyway? Leofric reckons it's something to do with King Richard, and if that's the case we're all in trouble. He hates us, and he knows that we're wanted. So do half his retinue probably." Nasir's only answer was a nod, and Scarlet scowled. "Bloody London. Who wants to go there, anyway? Passed through it once back when I was a soldier, and it's pretty depressing. Like Nottingham, only maybe a bit bigger. Full of animals and beggars, and Normans pretending that they're in control of it all. Horrible place."
"If Robin believes that Herne wishes it, he will go." Nasir's dark eyes turned back in the direction of the camp. "But you will not?"
"No. I've got no reason to go to London. I reckon if Robin wants to go there, and if Herne really does want him to, then they've both got to have their reasons. Doesn't bode well for what we've got going up here though, does it."
"You think that Robin will not return?"
"I think he probably doesn't have much reason to, no. Why would he? You know how he feels about his father, and now this other relative turns up, with as many stories as Robin wants to hear about Loxley and the people who lived there. If he thinks he can do the work Herne chose him for down in London, or wherever else Leofric leads him to, that's what he'll do. They've been together less than an hour, and they're already acting like they've known each other all their lives. I'm telling you, Naz; Robin won't be coming back here, back to all of this. He'll stick with his family."
"Perhaps." They stood for a moment on the river's edge, then Will sighed heavily and threw himself down to the ground. Perhaps it was Nasir's usual implacability that was annoying him, or perhaps it was his own attitude. Either way he was beginning to feel drained. He wanted to be happy for Robin, and he wanted to share Nasir's attitude - or apparent attitude - towards it all. Instead all that he could feel was this continual sulky fury. He was bored with it, but it didn't seem about to leave him alone.
"So how about you?" Trying to get comfortable on the river's bank, wondering why he was being plagued by all of the lumps, bumps and unevennesses that he would usually not notice at all, Will picked up the first stone he saw and hurled it into the water. It hit with such force and such noise that he was momentarily startled, and was surprised with himself for having thrown the little missile so hard. Beside him Nasir made no sound, but Will could imagine the angle of lift of one eyebrow, and the glint of a question in the eyes. He didn't bother looking, to see if his imagination was as accurate as he thought.
"Will you go to London?" Qualifying his question unnecessarily, he picked up another stone, and threw this one rather more gently. It skipped only twice before sinking, and he scowled. "Marion will go, so Tuck is sure to. Much will want to go as well, but I'm not sure about John. Usually he'd follow Robin anywhere, but I don't think that he likes the idea of London any more than I do. I don't trust this Leofric character."
"Robin does." Nasir had faith in Robin's judgement, and so, usually, did Will. If truth be told he didn't really mistrust Leofric so much as dislike - and perhaps resent - him. As Nasir's words sunk in, he nodded his head.
"You'll go then? Even knowing what King Richard's welcome is likely to be? London isn't like Sherwood you know. You can't hide so easily, or rely on the loyalty of the locals." He glanced up and saw the steady eyes looking down at him; the expressionless face so typically unreadable that he almost smiled. It had been a stupid line of questioning from the beginning of course; naturally Nasir would go with Robin, just as Marion would, and Much and Tuck, and John; and, for that matter, probably Scarlet himself. Even though it had turned out, in the end, to be for the best, Will still felt guilty for not having gone with the others into Nottingham, when they had been summoned there by King Richard barely a month or so before. Whatever his convictions and doubts, he didn't think that he wanted to break ranks again so soon.
"I still say it's a horrible place," he muttered to himself, apparently trying to convince himself that he truly did want to remain behind in Sherwood. "It's depressing. And it's full of Normans. Been there?"
"Yes." Nasir sat down beside him. "When I first came to this country."
"If my first sight of England was a grimy little port full of Norman soldiers, I think I'd turn around and go right back to where I'd come from." Will grinned, a sure sign that he was recovering from his earlier sulk. "Provided I wasn't a guest of the Baron de Belleme, I suppose." Nasir's eyebrows flickered in a display of something that might have been amusement, or might just have been despair at Scarlet's warped sense of humour, and Will's grin grew even bigger. "Come on. We'd better get back to camp before the others head off to London without us."
"I thought you did not want to go." The questioning frown was more a gentle mockery than a real lack of understanding of Will's motives, and Scarlet knew it. He clapped the other man on the shoulder.
"I don't want to go; but I'll be damned if I'll be left behind and let Robin lead the rest of you into danger. You need me to look after you all." Nasir's eyebrows swivelled into another subtle expression of amusement, and Scarlet scowled at him. "Come on. But if it turns out that this is a trap, I'm holding you responsible. You found Leofric." The dark head nodded in acquiescence, before Nasir rose smoothly to his feet. Scarlet sighed.
"You can be a difficult man to have a conversation with, you know that?" Again a slight nod; a slight movement of dark eyebrows, and Will had to laugh. "Honestly - if all Saracens are like you, your country must be the quietest place there is."
"Not when it is full of Normans." Nasir began to lead the way back to the camp, and Will followed in his wake. The afternoon was still ageing, the shadows still lengthening, and evening was growing ever closer. Will felt hungry again. Being angry was hungry work.
"Maybe Leofric and his daughter have gone," he muttered hopefully, thinking how much nicer it would be if there was no more need to think of London. "Robin might have seen sense." There was, as ever, no answer, and he kicked a few small stones out of his way. Maybe sulking had been the better plan after all. "Maybe--"
"They will not leave now." Nasir's eyes were on the sky, which was showing signs of darkening. Dusk might not yet be upon them, but apparently a rainstorm soon would be. Will groaned. Not just rain, but the necessity of sharing their meagre shelter with a pair of travellers he had quite convinced himself of the need to dislike. Could this day get any better?
"Maybe it won't rain much," he offered optimistically, even though a fool could have told that they were in for a deluge. They would be lucky if the forest paths would even be safe to use by tomorrow, and the likelihood of Leofric and May leaving soon was fading as fast as the brightness of the sun. "Well maybe--"
"Maybe we should set our thoughts to London." Nasir did not sound especially enamoured of the idea, although admittedly he rarely sounded enamoured of anything. Will nodded. His friend had a point. Whatever the weather did, and whatever doubts there might be, the signs all pointed resolutely towards one fact. They could think what they liked, and worry to their hearts' content, but it seemed likely that they were going to London.
And if Robin had made his decision, then that, inevitably, would be that.
Robin made no comment when Will and Nasir finally arrived back at the camp. Wordlessly Nasir went to the fire, stamping it out with leather-booted feet that were apparently heat resistant. With Tuck's help he was already stowing away the remainder of the food, along with their cooking gear, in the large strong box that had become the repository of all their stolen goods. Leofric watched, obviously impressed, as they hoisted the box, on a rope, up to Marion, already waiting in the branches of a large tree. Their actions had all the expertise that came from long practice, for although they had had few enough real rainstorms since coming into the forest, Robin had been insistent that they prepare for such eventualities. He had the experience of a man born and raised in the locality, and he knew the vagaries of the weather only too well. It could be a dangerous enemy as much as could the Sheriff, and Nottingham's whole contingent of soldiers.
"You're expecting rain?" asked May, just before the first drops began to fall. Robin smiled at her.
"Looks like it. Don't worry. Getting wet always seems bad when you've got a dry house that you'd rather be in, but once you've got no alternative you soon realise that it's not as bad as you thought it was going to be."
"It's the snow that we're really looking forward to," piped up Tuck with a smile. "Can't wait for the winter, can we?!" Will glared at him, and he sighed. "Well some of us like to remain cheerful, anyway."
"Cheerful's for when the sun comes out again, and we know everything's alright." Will didn't add that cheerful was also for when the talk of London was over, and their guests long gone. He just thought it.
"Some people don't like being optimistic." Well aware of the thoughts that were running through Will's mind, the way that he always seemed to know such things, Robin began to lead the way into the trees. There were caves near the river; small ones, but adequate enough where most showers were concerned. The rain was coming down thick and fast before they reached this minimal sanctuary, and May did not look encouraged when she saw the only shelter that she was likely to have.
"I wish we hadn't left home," she said miserably. Her father laughed, and led the way inside the most easily accessible of the caves. It did not go far back, but it was big enough for all of the outlaws to sit down, without anybody being too cramped. Will and Nasir led the horses to a second cave, tethering them to some heavy rocks, and checked the place over for its rainworthiness. The horses would be comfortable enough - and just for a while Will contemplated remaining with them. They, after all, would not have to listen to unending chatter about London. He followed Nasir in the end though, heading back to the main cave, where the others were just getting comfortable. Shaking some of the water out of her hair, Marion smiled kindly at May.
"It's only rain," she said sensibly, with the air of one who had long ago become used to it. In point of fact she wasn't sure if she would ever become inured to the sensation of cold water pouring down her back, and no likelihood of warmth and dryness returning any time soon. "Robin, should we call John and Much?"
"Rain isn't really a reason to abandon the watch." Robin sighed, staring out at what was rapidly becoming a sheet of water beyond the cave's entrance. The air had been feeling increasingly thick, and he could tell that a storm was probably brewing. Much would be terrified if he was caught out in the middle of a thunder storm, and that was reason enough to make a hurried decision. "Alright. It'll take a special kind of signal though. They'd never hear a whistle even if they were only a stone's throw away."
"An arrow?" She was already pulling one from her quiver. Robin eyed it speculatively, and then nodded.
"Tie something around it. Something bright." He grinned. "But do you know which direction to shoot it in?"
"Very funny Robin." Giving him the kind of withering glare that had saved her more than once from would-be suitors summoned by her guardians the de Rainaults, Marion set about the task of tying the brightest piece of material available around the shaft of her arrow. May had offered her the piece, torn from the hem of her dress; a loose, flapping piece of mud-soaked, crimson wool. She watched with interest as Marion peered out of the cave mouth, struggling to get an exact bearing in the rain. Robin, she knew, was grinning, waiting to see if she could manage the task unaided, but fortunately she had had time enough to come to know this part of the forest well. Her forestry skills were still developing, but she was outlaw enough by now to be able to do this relatively simple task; and setting the arrow to her bowstring, she fired off the single shot. The arrow arched beautifully through the deluge, and she smiled proudly as she saw it heading in just the right direction. Robin nodded.
"I know." She smiled up at him, then set the bow aside and went back to May. It felt strange playing the part of weathered and experienced archer whilst in the company of a girl who reminded her so much of how she herself had been just a few short months before. She had been pretty miserable too, the first time that she had been caught in a downpour. May had perhaps not had the privileged upbringing that Marion had enjoyed for so long, but she was clearly no hardened peasant. Her father had obviously brought her up far more gently since the fall of Loxley than he would have done had the village not been destroyed.
"You must think that I'm terribly silly." Guessing Marion's thoughts, May smiled up at her, embarrassed. "It's just that I've not had that much discomfort in my life. I know it's nothing but a rainstorm, but... well. It's still not very nice."
"I don't think you're silly. The first time I got caught in the rain I wanted to run straight back to Nottingham Castle and ask for my old rooms back." Marion laughed at the memory. "The only room I'd have been offered was the castle dungeon, but I didn't care. The cold I was used to. Castles are horrible, draughty places at the best of times. It was just being so wet, and never being able to get dry. The rain must have lasted for three days, and I was wet all that time, and cold, and we couldn't start a fire, because the wood was all too wet, so there was no respite at all. We didn't have much food then, either."
"I can see why you decided to stay on then." May managed to laugh, then turned her attention towards trying to make herself look more presentable. Her hair would have to remain straggly and wet, but she made a fair stab at gathering her clothes more neatly about her. "I hope we don't get caught in rain like this when we're on the road."
"If we do then we'll just have to walk faster, won't we. Keep warm that way." Leofric smiled, sitting down beside her. "Never look for troubles when you don't have to, May."
"No, father." She nodded firmly. "Herne will guide us, and keep the path clear."
"Precisely." Her father seemed delighted. "And now Robin. About London."
"Yes." Robin caught Will's eye, and wondered briefly how much support he could count on from his little band of men. They hadn't really known each other all that long, admittedly, but they had been through enough since then to have become close. Could he have underestimated their bond? Will didn't look as though he was prepared to follow him anywhere, and even Tuck looked doubtful. He opened his mouth to speak, but a peal of thunder, already almost overhead, prevented him. In the confined space of the cave the noise was terrific, and made conversation pointless.
"Oh dear." Looking towards the door, Tuck spoke up as soon as the thunder had died away. "Much won't be happy."
"They'll be here soon." Robin felt rather bad for having made the boy go to stand guard with John, even though he hadn't had any idea at the time that the storm was on its way. It wasn't usually hard to see the telltale clouds in the middle of the forest, but obviously this time they had escaped him.
"Are you sure they can find their way in this weather?" Clearly concerned, Leofric rose to his feet and went to the mouth of the cave. Vision was severely limited, for the rain had by now reached truly impressive proportions. Robin opened his mouth to respond, but was once again interrupted by thunder. It was Will who answered in the end, as soon as the world was more or less silent again.
"They'll be alright. Find their way around blindfolded, no problem." It was rather an inaccurate boast, for John was still learning the many paths of Sherwood, and in weather like this Much's own impressive knowledge of the area wouldn't be a great deal of use. He would be too frightened to lead the way. Leofric seemed satisfied though, and nodded his greying head.
"And in the meantime," he observed, with an air of determination in his voice, "perhaps this rain isn't such a bad thing after all. We've got the chance to get to know each other, while we're trapped in here. If we're planning a journey all the way to London, when we don't know a thing about each other, it's only going to lead to conflict between you and your friends, Robin."
"Wise words," said Tuck, with the suggestion of relief in his eyes, and Leofric smiled.
"You don't quite trust me, do you." There was amusement in his voice, but also the hint of a certain satisfaction. "You're a sensible man, friar."
"I hope so." Tuck returned the smile. "So what is there to find out? Talking in the rain doesn't necessarily guarantee truth."
"No." Leofric's steady gaze took in the others in the cave, from Robin, who had accepted him from the outset, to Will and Nasir, waiting by the entrance and showing little interest in the conversation. "But I'd like to clear the air. A lack of trust is self-destructive, and I feel sure that Herne wishes us all to get along. Why else would he have sent me to you, or sent two of you to rescue me?"
"Too much trust is just as self-destructive as the lack of it." Turning away from his fixed stare into the rain, Will let the heat in his eyes blaze upon Leofric for a moment. "It doesn't pay to trust too many people."
"In this world few truer words can be spoken." Leofric shook his head sadly. "I'm sure it wasn't always so, but the Normans have brought many bad things with them. Good things too though perhaps. Hatred unites us, and we were never that united a country before. Perhaps, if we can get around the lack of trust, we can all come together some day to strive for something better. Wouldn't that be a fine thing, Scarlet?"
"Maybe." Looking shifty, as he always did when he knew that somebody had bettered him in an argument, Will glanced away again. "But I still say that it's not always a good idea to trust too much."
"And you're probably right." Leofric's calm eyes turned next to Nasir. "And what of our Saracen friend? What do you think of my daughter and I, and our plan to go to London?"
"You must do what you think you must do." Nasir's soft voice sounded faintly eerie in the close air of the cave, but his words were spoken placidly enough. "As must we all."
"Sounds to me as though we've all made up our minds, as much as they're ever going to be made up." Robin was toying with a piece of stone that he had found on the cave floor, one of the strange chunks of rock that turned up from time to time, with weird creatures caught inside, or perhaps carved by some anonymous craftsman. It wasn't any animal that he recognised, but he found it pleasing to the eye. Leofric nodded.
"I don't want to tear you away from your work here, Robin."
"My work is wherever there are Englishmen. Perhaps it doesn't even have to be that limited." Loxley thought about the pledge that he and his companions had made, to help anybody who needed them, and had to conclude that Herne could just have easily have intended him to fulfil his purpose on the other side of the world, as here in Sherwood. When he thought of it like that, London was not so far away after all.
"Then it seems that we're decided." Tuck shook his head from side to side, comically woeful. "But London's a long, hard walk, Robin. A very long, very hard walk."
"I know." Loxley shrugged. "But there's no need for us all to travel together. In fact several groups might be better, for security."
"Or might make it easier for us to be picked off," added Will, who was still in an argumentative mood. Robin shook his head.
"Who'd be trying to? For that to be a concern, somebody would need to know that we're making the journey. And besides, we're as capable of defending ourselves in small groups as we are in a larger one."
"Will has a point though. We both have enemies Robin." Leofric looked towards his daughter, huddled into a ball beside Marion. "Perhaps if my daughter was to remain here. That way she would be safe, and if one or two of your people stayed with her, they needn't be a part of the trip to London. Certain amongst them don't seem entirely happy with the idea anyway."
"I'm not staying behind." Looking worried by his words, May reached out a hand to him. "Don't ask me to do that, father. I'm coming with you."
"It could be dangerous. It could be a fool's errand." He smiled at her kindly, and patted her hand. "But you're right. I shouldn't leave you behind."
"Who's being left behind?" Appearing in the mouth of the cave like some giant, shaggy dog, John shook a cascade of water droplets from his hair and beard, before stripping off the layers of fur that hung about his shoulders and chest. His face was all smiles, although he was obviously cold. "I thought that we were all going to London?"
"We are." Robin raised a hand in greeting, then ordered Will to make a fire. It would have to be a small one, given the limited size of the cave, but anything would be a help to John. Beside him, looking as though he had been dragged from the depths of the sea, Much was even more bedraggled.
"We're not going now are we Robin?" he asked. John laughed, banging him on the back with such gusto that a fresh shower of water flew from both of them.
"Bit of water never hurt anybody, lad."
"It's not the water I'm worried about." Wringing out his clothes as best they could, the hapless miller's son began stamping his feet in an effort to get warm. "We're not going yet are we Robin? We will wait until the storm ends?"
"We're certainly not going in the dark." Robin leaned back to watch as Scarlet collected together some of the dry wood that they had left stored in the cave, and began to try to light it with a pair of flints. Nasir was helping with a steady supply of tiny twigs and dry leaves, and soon a gentle glow was visible "It would be mad to start now. How was it out there? Was the going good?"
"Lousy." John crouched down beside the new fire, wishing that it was already big enough to make him feel warm. "The mud's ankle deep, and it's sure to be worse in a lot of places."
"The soldiers will all be safe in Nottingham tonight though," pointed out Will. "I'll bet that not a single one of them will set foot outside the castle until the rain has long stopped. They certainly won't be coming into Sherwood for a day or two."
"True." Robin nodded. "Which means that it's less likely we'll have to worry about being seen if we start out in the morning."
"But what if the storm is still going?" Looking very pale in the firelight, Much was doing his best not to shiver. John banged him on the back.
"Don't worry about it lad. There's few enough people get killed by thunderstorms you know. You're only usually in any danger if you're near tall trees when the lightning comes."
"We're in a forest!" pointed out Much, entirely unreassured by this attempt at bolstering his courage. "There are tall trees everywhere!"
"True." Will ruffled his hair, almost knocking him into the fire in the process. "But look on the bright side, Much. If you get struck by lightning, at least it'll dry you off nicely."
"Will..." Marion rolled her eyes at Scarlet's warped humour. "So will we be travelling in two groups, Robin?"
"Three I think." Loxley was frowning at the sheets of water beyond the cave mouth, wondering if they were supposed to be an omen, or a message from Herne. He had soon learnt that the forest spirit had many ways of contacting him, but at the moment he could hear nothing inside his mind; no faint words, no summons to some quiet and secluded corner. Perhaps it really was just rain. "I'll go in the first group with Leofric. We can lead the way, and check for likely troubles ahead. The two of us together can probably move faster than a bigger group could."
"Just the two of you?" Marion was obviously disappointed, and he smiled as he reached out and took her hand.
"I know. And I'm sorry, but I think that it's best if you travel with May. She needs you, and you needn't be that far behind us. We might even meet up when we make camp at the end of the day. Nasir, you're to go with the second group. John as well. That leaves the rest of you to take the rear. You'll watch to see if we're being followed, and be our lifeline if it turns out that we're walking into a trap. It could be very dangerous for us in London, and I want somebody watching our backs."
"In that case, we don't have to travel very quickly." Tuck obviously liked that idea. "A lot more civilised than dashing down there with the wind behind us."
"I thought you'd approve." Robin shared a smile with Marion. "And no, you don't have to travel very quickly. In fact it might be better if you didn't. If the rest of us meet with trouble in London, you have to be well clear of it, so that you're sure to be free, and in a position to help us if necessary. Don't risk being close enough that you get caught in the same trap."
"You are expecting trouble then?" Still belligerent, although apparently now relinquishing a little of his anger, Will finally deigned to sit down beside the fire. "You agree that this could be a trap?"
"Whatever we do and wherever we go, Will, there may be traps waiting for us." Robin's voice was reasonable and accommodating, for the last thing that he wanted was to stoke Will's anger up anew. "Herne has many enemies that we have to watch out for." His eyes acquired a new gentility. "But that doesn't give us the excuse to be rude to those who claim to be our friends. Sometimes an imagined threat is just that. Imagined."
"Huh. Maybe." Scarlet sat down, facing Leofric and May. There was something in the way that the girl was looking at him that made his attitude begin to soften, and he managed to summon up a sort of a smile. "But it's still a hell of a thing to do, Robin. All the way to London, for we don't know what..."
"I thought you liked a challenge." Marion, who had had the presence of mind to bring some food along with her, was beginning to share out some of Tuck's flat bread. It was fairly fresh, and the welcome sight of it made Will's smile grow.
"I do." He was crumbling, and they all knew it. "I just like to be careful, that's all."
"Always suspicious." Robin caught Marion's eye, and they both smiled. "Take the first watch, Will. Think things through. If you still feel this way later, nobody is going to blame you for wanting to stay here."
"Huh." Reduced once again to single syllables, Will took the proffered bread and headed back to the mouth of the cave. By the light of the fire the rain, backed by the darkening sky, looked almost pretty, and rather relaxing. Nasir was still standing there, still staring out at the wet, thunderous world. He was obviously thinking, for his expressive brow was furrowed into an eloquent frown. Will didn't need to ask what he was thinking about.
"London," the Englishman muttered without enthusiasm, as he settled himself down again. The Saracen cast him a sidelong glance, but didn't say anything. Will nodded, fairly certain that he had read the other man's expression correctly.
"Yeah," he growled, in answer to the unvoiced opinion. "My sentiments exactly."
Robin was used to dreaming. Most people dreamt, he knew, but most people didn't remember their dreams with quite as much clarity as he did. He almost always awoke in the morning with clear pictures in his mind; a clear idea of the things that his subconscious, his precognitive powers, and Herne, were all trying to tell him. Sometimes the pictures were cryptic, and he had to think things through before he understood them fully, but he would still always be more or less sure of what the messages were.
But that night, as he lay restlessly in the cave, with the thunder tearing the sky apart above his head, his dreams were anything but clear. Herne was there, though not in the forefront. His shadowy shape, recognisable only by the massive head-dress, hung in smoke that drifted in the corners of Robin's eyes. Always in the corner, never where he could see clearly. He tried shouting to his mentor, but the replies were always too distant, too faint, to hear properly.
He didn't know where he was, either. Not at first. There was a road; a wide one, dirty, covered with mud. His feet were slipping and sliding on it, before he was even aware that he was walking. Walking where? Where did the road lead? He found that out almost immediately, when he came upon a milestone, hidden in undergrowth at the road's edge. It was hard to see through the tangle of branches and thorny leaves, but when they were all gone the milestone's simple message was easy enough to read. London, its small, regular script ran, along with a figure that didn't seem feasible. Was it really that far to London? He stared along the road that led south, and wondered if perhaps he was making a mistake. Such a long journey, and all for what? His mind was trying to make one last thing connect, but it wouldn't come; the thoughts unable to form, just like words that wouldn't properly complete themselves on the mornings that followed feast nights. It was frustrating, and his sleeping mind called out for the answers that were denied it.
"Take the boy. I'll come for him by night." His father's voice, speaking the last words that Robin had ever heard him say, echoed through the mist that filled the dream world. Robin turned his head, but Ailric was a long way away, just as he had been when he had turned, that last night, to wish him goodbye. He was galloping away into the darkness, hooves silent, a dark shape huddled over his horse. Yet again something drifted into Robin's mind. Something vague that he couldn't quite hold onto, yet something that was clear enough for him to be fully aware of it. He tried reaching out his hands in his sleep, seeing if the things that eluded him might catch in his fingers. They didn't. What was it that was bothering him so? Why wouldn't Herne come to him tonight? He tried calling again, but his mysterious father had vanished completely. Tired and troubled, Robin didn't see that he had any option but to give up.
It was only when he was sleeping peacefully again; when his mind had ceased to work and his thoughts had ceased to circle, that Herne stepped out of the rain into the mouth of the cave. Nasir, sitting on watch, was frozen as though Time itself had stopped, and his staring eyes didn't see the dark and powerful figure. The other outlaws all slept, as unaware of the presence in their midst as they were of the passing storm. Herne didn't approach them. Instead he merely stood where he was, looking towards the sleeping form of his son, lying with his arms wrapped about his wife.
"Robin i' the Hood..." Herne's voice was soft, like that of a man who has lost his voice to a fever, and cannot make himself heard. Robin didn't stir. Only Leofric moved, and Herne's wise eyes turned to stare sharply at this stranger to Sherwood Forest.
"Speak to your dreams, Robin i' the Hood." Herne's age-old voice rose with an effort to drown the roaring thunder. Robin moved, muttering something.
"My dreams..." A shiver ran through him, and inside his mind the pictures began again. He saw Herne, standing in the distance, staring at him as though through the thickest of fogs. He saw Ailric, riding towards the horizon, without so much as a wave for the son he would never see again. And he saw a village. Loxley, as it had been in the earliest days of his memory. A world he had once known well, but which now he barely remembered. There were people there, working, talking, eating, laughing; men, women and children who were all now dead and gone. All faces that he remembered, when his mind was empty and relaxed. All people that he had once lived amongst.
But not one of them was Leofric.
"Robin?" Woken by his restlessness, Marion reached out a hand to touch her husband's troubled face. He flinched, eyes snapping open to stare around at the darkened cave. By the light of the fire he could see Marion, bent over him in concern; could see the others, all peaceful in their rest. Nasir was sitting by the cave's entrance, methodically sharpening one of his swords, and the rest of the world seemed to be empty. Only shadows moved and breathed.
"Marion." He smiled up at her, apologetic. "Did I wake you?"
"Were you having a nightmare?" She didn't care about her own rest having been disturbed, and her only thought was for him. He squeezed her hand in gratitude for that.
"I don't know. I don't remember."
"I thought that you always remembered your dreams?"
"I know." He shrugged, then pulled her close, glad of Nasir's tact. "But not this time. It wasn't anything important I suppose."
"I suppose it can't have been." She lay down again, settling her head against his chest. "You didn't see anything then? No warnings, or visions?"
"Nothing." He could remember only the shadows, and the thunder that he was sure must have been the cause of his unrest. "Everything is fine."
"Good." Closing her eyes, she turned her mind to London, and to all that they might be called upon to do there. "Then we'd better get back to sleep. It'll be morning soon."
"Yes." He smiled contentedly, happy now that he was relaxed once again. "And we've got a long journey ahead. Goodnight Marion."
"Goodnight Robin." She let sleep take her, as beside her Robin did the same. Soon, once again, the cave was silent and still, and all was at rest there. Beyond, standing motionless in the rain, Herne still stared towards the sleeping figure of his son, but no more words came from his stilled tongue. All that he did was stand, until Nasir's instincts caused the Saracen to look his way. Herne's powers kept him invisible from even the sharpest eyes, but still the Lord of the Forest melted quietly away. He had done all that he could do, and there was nothing left to trust in but fate and fortune.
It was up to Robin now.
Dawn came late, the heavy clouds keeping back the sun until the morning was already well advanced. Yawning primly, and stretching her stiff arms, Marion slowly sat up. Robin was awake, lying still beside her so as not to wake her up, and he smiled down at her.
"Not that good." She sat up, rubbing her back. "I've just about got used to sleeping on the forest floor, but I don't think I'll ever get used to sleeping in here."
"With luck the weather won't be so bad that you'll have to." He glanced about, looking around at the others. John had replaced Nasir on guard, and the Saracen had disappeared on one of his periodic wanderings. Will was stretching and yawning, growling that he hadn't slept a wink even though his snores had rivalled the thunder at various points during the night. Leofric was awake as well, rubbing at his jaw as though surprised to find that he was in need of a shave. He smiled ruefully at Robin.
"I'm afraid that it's been too long since I last slept in a place like this. Or perhaps I'm just too old."
"It's nothing to do with age." Rising to his feet, Tuck kneaded his back. "Ouch. Carpets and four poster beds, that's what this place needs."
"I thought monks were supposed to be used to the hard life." Heading over to the fire, Will threw another log onto it, then stared out of the cave's mouth. The rain had stopped, but the world was still wet enough for a faint haze to hang in the air. Mud was everywhere, and every movement of the trees sent more water cascading down. It looked grey and cold, though strangely clean and fresh.
"This monk never thought much of the hard life." Joining Scarlet by the fire, Tuck held his hands out to warm them in the glow. "And he thinks even less of a ten day walk to London."
"It needn't take that long." Shaking Much awake, Robin began sharing out what was left of the bread. "Not unless the weather stays bad."
"Even if it doesn't rain again, it'll still be heavy going at first. The roads will be little more than mud lakes at the moment." Remembering the torrential storm that he had been caught in the night before, John could only imagine how flooded much of the ground must be.
"Water dries. So does mud." Leofric joined the little group in peering out at the world. "We've all seen worse weather than this and lived to tell the tale. Besides, it won't rain again. Not after last night. How could there be any more water left in the heavens?"
"It will rain again." Nasir came from around the side of the cave, his arrival heralded only by the faint swishing of water that swirled around his feet. Clearly the river had flooded its banks. Leofric shook his head.
"The sky is clearing."
"But it will darken again." Nasir, used to a desert life, had learnt to read the unpredictable weather of this alien country very quickly, as an exercise in self-preservation if nothing else. Much scrambled past the rag-tag assembly, and peered unhappily up at the sky.
"He's right," he said sadly, with all the authority of one who had spent much of his life out of doors within the locality. "Probably rain almost as much as it did last night. There won't be thunder again though Robin, will there? Not if we're going to be outside. I hate being out when there's thunder, especially at night."
"It'll be alright." John cuffed him gently around the shoulders. "Tuck and Will won't let anything happen to you. Besides, it'll be exciting making the journey to London. All that way, to a place we've never seen before? You'll not have a thought for the weather once you start thinking that way."
"But won't London be very frightening?" Much could not imagine what the place could be like. Nottingham was frightening, certainly, and London was another town just like it. He had heard tales from wandering traders and old soldiers, of a place with a mighty river full of boats, and well-travelled men from all over Europe and the strange lands beyond, who talked about the weird sights they had seen in far off places. It had to be a special sort of town, if the kings from ages past had chosen to live there. The thought of kings made him remember Richard, and that did little to bolster his confidence. Richard hated all of them, and would kill them if he knew that they were nearby. John shrugged.
"I don't see why it should be any more frightening than anywhere else in the world. Will's been there, haven't you Will? Was it a frightening place?"
"No." Will's words meant little, since he was hardly the type to admit to any fears he might have experienced. "Just horrible. Dirty and smelly and crowded, like any other town. Full of pigs and sheep and far too many people."
"Not to mention far too many soldiers, I'm guessing." John looked back to Robin. "So when do we start out?"
"Leofric and I will leave soon." Handing Nasir some of the bread, Robin stood by the fire for a moment. The doubts of his men had touched his mind and made him think... but he still couldn't find any reason to abandon his quest. Leofric needed his help, and Leofric was, in some way at least, family. Snatches of his dreams the night before floated back, but none of it meant any sense to him. Had there been something about Leofric? He didn't remember. If only Herne would send him some message, no matter how cryptic and strange, then perhaps he could dispel these last lingering doubts. Herne, however, had chosen to keep to himself.
"So it's your last chance to say so if you're staying behind." Marion took Will's arm, as though daring him to say that he wanted to do just that. He sighed.
"I'm not staying behind. I think this is stupid, and I think that we're probably all going to wind up dead or captured; but I'm not staying behind."
"Good." She squeezed his hand, smiling triumphantly, though when she turned to look at Robin her expression was rather more serious. "I still wish that we were all travelling together though. It feels safer that way."
"We'll be together in London." Robin toyed with the bread in his hand, still troubled by the idea that there had been something in his dream the previous night that he was supposed to remember. It wouldn't come, and he had no choice but to throw the thought aside. "But in the meantime..."
"In the meantime you're leaving." She turned her bright eyes to Leofric, realising with a jolt that this was the last moment she had to make her objections. Why hadn't she stopped to think before about how little they knew of this man? Why hadn't she thought before that Robin had trusted the stranger too much and too soon?
"Yes." He had eaten most of the bread, stowing the rest away in case of food shortages further on down the road. "It makes sense, Marion. We should get as far as we can before the rain starts again, in case it's too heavy for us to continue. You're to follow at noon, the others tomorrow morning. Speak to no one on the road, whether they're friends or not. Tell nobody that we're leaving, or where we're going. And don't take risks if you come across soldiers; hide, and let them pass. Nobody is to fight unless they have no alternative, understood?" A mumbled chorus of agreement, some considerably less enthusiastic than others, answered his firm order. "Good. Leofric?"
"I'm ready when you are Robin." The older man turned to his daughter, taking her hand and pressing a quick kiss against her cheek. "I'll see you soon, my dear. Stay close to Marion, and everything will be fine."
"Yes father." She smiled at him, clearly worried. "Be careful."
"Of course my dear, of course. But I'm sure that there's nothing to worry about. I have Robin to look after me." He gave her hand one last pat, then turned about. "Are we ready?"
"Yes." Pulling Marion into a hasty, heartfelt hug, Robin lowered his voice to whisper his own farewell. She smiled to hear it.
"Take care, Robin."
"You too." Stepping back, he raised his voice to address the others. "I'll see you all in London. Herne protect us."
"Herne protect us." The chorus was ragged, unlike the warm chant from camp fire ritual, but Robin didn't find fault. He merely nodded his head in acknowledgement, before walking briskly away.
The Lord of the Forest was restless. Confused. He had a son, but where had that son gone? He couldn't sense the young man's presence any more; couldn't feel him within the boundaries of Sherwood Forest. Something had come between them, interrupting their connection, closing Robin's mind from that of his mentor. It bothered Herne, and it sent the powers of light and darkness into disarray. Thunder roared, and lightning flashed across the sky, matching the darkness and unrest of Herne himself. He closed his eyes and tried to summon Robin; tried to send him the subliminal messages that would ordinarily have brought him running even if he were miles away. This time, however, nobody came. Herne was still alone, standing in an empty forest glade, listening to the storm of his frustration as it split the sky asunder. The rain poured down, flooding the ground at his feet and turning all to mud, covering his feet with water. It soaked his robes and his head-dress, although if he felt any discomfort he didn't show it. His eyes remained closed, staring into the innermost parts of himself, where there should have been the power to contact Robin.
But still Robin didn't come.
"All is not right in Sherwood." Bowing his head, the great antlers seeming suddenly to weigh him down, Herne opened his eyes to the world. The rain might have blinded anybody else, but it was not a hindrance to him. He saw through it clearly; saw the camp where the outlaws had been so recently; saw the cave where they had spent the night. The outlaws themselves he couldn't see at all. They were there and he knew it, but something prevented him from seeing them. Something was hiding them from him; keeping the son from the father. A flicker of anger crossed Herne's ageing face, and the thunder overhead crashed louder than ever.
"My son..." Herne's voice was like the rain; a sharp flow of words with a harshness beneath it. "My son." There was still no answer though; and still no explanation for the silence. Angry and concerned, Herne closed his eyes again, preparing to wait as long as need be; as long as it took to find out what was wrong.
And in the meantime, in answer to his turmoil, the rain beat down harder still.
There were three of them, in the darkest, thickest part of Lincoln Forest. Three women, one old, one middle-aged, one young; all dressed in grey robes, and gathered around a pitiful fire. The oldest of the women, a toothless crone with a voice as ragged as her clothing, turned her increasingly sightless eyes to stare into the flames, jabbing at them with the long staff that she carried. They crackled and spat at her, but they didn't rise up against the wooden staff. Even if it had not been treated to withstand the fire, still they would not have dared burn it.
"They're coming." Her voice was high-pitched and manic, like the screeching of an owl, but it broke from her dry old throat as if disused for so long that it had barely remembered how to work. "All of them."
"We only need two." The middle-aged woman, a dark, raven-haired figure just turning to grey, gripped a book with blackened pages. "Herne's Son, and his wife."
"But we might have seven." The youngest of the women was extraordinarily beautiful, with long red hair, and green eyes that blazed with fires more powerful than they seemed to have any right to be. Her voice was clearer than those of her companions, and an Irish inflection was more obvious within it. "Seven is a good number."
"Seven is a powerful number." The oldest of the women threw back her head and laughed until she shook. "But what of Herne? With Herne himself it could be eight. It could be more than eight."
"With Herne himself..." The youngest woman smiled, nodding her head. Her seniority amongst the group was more plain now, showing in the height of her head and the lift of her shoulders. "Herne's time will come. When we have the son, and the son's wife; when we have their five followers, and all that they can give us... then comes Herne's time." She bent over the fire, raking over the hot coals with her hands, and stirred the cowed flames up into something much greater. "And after that comes his end."
"And then?" The middle-aged woman might have been the voice of reason, but for the excitement in her endless eyes. Her redheaded companion turned her bewitching face towards her, and smiled her own excited smile.
"Without Herne, the magic of England collapses. Norman or Saxon, it'll all fall apart. Without Herne the pitiful powers that keep this country from tumbling into chaos won't have a chance. It'll all be ours."
"To do what we want with," muttered the oldest woman.
"To recreate," added the second.
The young beauty nodded her head in agreement, before stamping out the flames that lapped around her feet. "Or to torment," she said curtly, as she kicked away the glowing ashes, and watched the grass around her smoulder and smoke. "Or to destroy."
When noon came it found the remainder of the outlaws still waiting at the caves, sheltering from another violent downpour. The rain had begun again shortly after Robin and Leofric had left, and it had continued without a break ever since. It was hard to see now; hard to be sure of anything through the sheets of hammering water, and the wind and intermittent thunder made hearing almost redundant. Marion stared out at the vista before her, as she stood in the mouth of the cave. It didn't look to her like good weather to send her on her way down to London. It didn't look like good weather for doing anything save hibernating.
"Perhaps we should wait," she suggested, although every part of her was yearning to start out after Robin. "What do you think, John?"
"I think we'd be crazy to start now," he told her. "But then I think we're crazy for going at all."
"You'd rather stay in Sherwood." She nodded, wondering why she now thought the same herself. It was almost as though, as Robin and Leofric got further away, so her opinion of their venture changed all the more.
"Aye, I'd rather stay here." He smiled at her, as gentle as ever. "But I won't. Robin's expecting us, and this trek is important to him. He'd be hurt to think that we didn't feel the same way he does, at least in part. It's up to you, Marion."
"Then I think we should go." The last thing that she wanted was to set out in the midst of the downpour, but since there was no sign of a change, and since she was not prepared to put her departure off indefinitely, she saw no alternative but to start out now. May nodded in gratitude.
"Thankyou. I'd rather go now. I don't want my father to get too far ahead."
"They won't be moving fast in this weather." John looked over towards Nasir, who was standing towards the back of the cave, idly sharpening one of his throwing knives. "You ready Naz?" An eyebrow quirked itself in answer, and sliding his knife back into its sheath, Nasir joined him at the cave's entrance.
"You don't have to come." May was looking up at him, as though seeing something in his eyes, or reading something in his face, that was invisible to the others. "You're probably not all that used to rain. If you'd rather wait..."
"I have become very used to rain." Offering her the slightest of smiles that somehow managed to say a lot, and yet barely exist at all, the Saracen stepped past them all, out into the heavy storm. Thunder rolled, and Much jumped.
"The forest spirits must be very angry," he whispered, to nobody in particular. Marion put an arm around him.
"I'm sure that's not true." She smiled as she said it, but even so she was beginning to wonder. The ferocity of the storm was unseasonable, and its unrelenting violence had to mean something, surely? Much turned wide eyes to her.
"They are you know. They're angry. Do you think they're angry with us?"
"Why would they be angry with us?" Will ruffled his hair, rather roughly. "We're on their side, remember?"
"Maybe they don't want us to go to London." Much still sounded miserable, and none of the others could offer him any suitable rejoinder. It was May who closed the discussion in the end, stepping out into the rain, and walking away down the path that her father had already taken. She didn't call back, but her actions clearly stated that she was going to London, whatever they were thinking of the task. John rolled his eyes.
"Somebody's keen." He pulled his furs close about him, hoping that they proved to be at least in part waterproof, then smiled around at the others. "I'll see you in London, I suppose."
"Yeah. Good luck." Will clapped him on the shoulder, then nodded a farewell to Nasir. The Saracen inclined his own head in response, then turned about and headed off after the girl. Marion sighed.
"I wish the weather was better."
"So do I." Giving Much a hug that threatened to break the boy's back, John turned about to repeat the process with Tuck. "But something tells me that it's not going to be getting better for a while yet. We're in for a long wet walk."
"A very long wet walk." Marion smiled sadly. "But I suppose it could be worse. At least it's not too cold."
"It could be snowing," agreed Tuck, stepping up to hug her fondly. "You'll take care, won't you little flower."
"Of course." She returned his hug with warmth. "And you must take care as well. I'm expecting to see you again soon."
"Just as soon as we can get to London ourselves. We'll be setting off at first light in the morning." Tuck released her, stepping back. "But for now you'd better be going. Robin's waiting, and you mustn't forget that."
"To think that I ever could." She turned around to look out into the rain. May and Nasir had already disappeared. "Well, goodbye then. And Herne protect all of us."
"Aye." Tuck watched as she and John both hurried off after their companions. "And may the good Lord protect us all as well."
Robin and Leofric spoke little as they walked, the rain battering them both into a tired sort of silence; the thunder rendering speech useless anyway. Leofric's warm demeanour had been dampened somewhat, and the stories Robin had been hoping for; the tales of life in the village he barely remembered; were not forthcoming. He supposed that it was for the best, since he was not really in the mood for straining his ears to catch the words anyway, but he was disappointed nonetheless. His companion seemed different now; more withdrawn, more reserved, and more hostile. Robin put it down to his own imagination, overworked in this peculiar world of descending water, when all save a few illuminated inches seemed invisible. The rest of creation might as well have ceased to exist, for all that he could see or hear of it, and he was finding that this unfamiliar state of affairs was having strange effects upon his senses. Sometimes he thought that he heard the sweet voice of a beautiful woman singing soothing songs; at other times he could have sworn that the raucous cackle of an old crone was floating above the wind. Absurd of course, and he told himself so; yet still the illusions persisted. All he could do was repeat to himself that it was mere foolishness, and that Leofric was still the man he had been before, but in his heart of hearts he was beginning to wonder if he really believed it were true. Again he tried to find Herne within his mind, but again he had to give up in failure. He was on his own, and for the first time since Leofric had arrived in the camp the previous day, he wondered if he could truly be trusted. Was this trip to London really the best course of action? And yet, even as he was doubting the older man, his mind was telling him that all was well; that Leofric was the finest of men. He might have wondered at that, had his mind been working properly; but it wasn't, and hadn't been for some time. All that it could competently grasp, as he plodded on through the fathomless storm, was the firm conviction that Marion was safe. She wouldn't have set out in this rain. She would be back at the caves, warm, dry and secure. That at least was something to hold on to. He managed a thin smile, and was glad that he had set out alone. If Leofric truly was someone to be afraid of, then Robin would be facing his dangers alone. Only when this last reassurance had had time to calm some of his heart's disorder did he think of something else, and renewed his worries and unrest. If Leofric was not to be trusted; if Robin's instincts had indeed failed him on that count; then what of his daughter, May? Quite suddenly it seemed that perhaps Marion wasn't so safe after all, but Robin didn't have a clue what he should do about it. Confused and alone he made one last appeal to Herne, shouting out his questions in the quiet places inside his mind; but still no answer came. Instead, although that might have been merely his imagination, the rain began to beat down harder still.
Marion was sure that there was a valid reason for rain; she knew that it was necessary for making plants green, and getting crops to grow for instance, and there was certainly something to be said for the pleasant feeling of freshness in the air after a thunderstorm - but surely there couldn't be any reason for rain this heavy? Could anybody honestly claim it served any useful purpose that the countryside should be summarily drowned? That the constant echo of thunder, and furious slashing of the lightning at the sky, was doing anything any good? On the contrary - to her it seemed as though something somewhere was angry, and this mad unleashing of so violent a tempest was nothing but the raging of an unchecked temper. She scolded herself for letting her imagination run away with her, and for coming dangerously close to wallowing in unregulated superstition, but still she couldn't quite shake the worries from her mind. Robin would have laughed, she thought, and told her off for behaving like Much. She would have laughed too then, and let all of the tension flow away. But Robin wasn't here, and nothing that she could think of would take away her uneasiness now.
"This is madness." From his position by her side, where he had been doing his best to act as windbreak and shelter for her, Marion heard John's exasperated voice. "We're all soaking wet, and we can hardly see the road. Much more of this and the mud will be up to our knees. We'd best look for shelter, and try again later when the weather's a bit less angry."
"It does seem rather annoyed, doesn't it." Glad that somebody else had noticed the feelings of anger inherent in the storm, Marion strained her eyes to see through the sheets of water. May was still marching ahead, without so much as a backwards glance at her travelling companions. Of Nasir there was no sign. "I'd like to rest for a bit. Robin has probably decided to find shelter as well, so I doubt we'll be falling far behind."
"Aye. We were mad to even think about starting out with the rain coming down like this." John hurried forward a few steps. "May?"
"What?" She didn't look at him, but just kept on walking. John was a little thrown, but he persisted, voice as gentle as ever.
"Marion and I were thinking that it might be best to stop for a while. Just until the rain lessens. Robin and your father are sure to be doing the same, so it makes sense that we don't risk killing ourselves in all this cold and wet."
"Fine." She turned to look at him, and even through the almost impenetrable rain he could still see her eyes, shining at him. "If you want to rest, go ahead. I'm going on."
"But--" She cut him off before his protest could continue, her level voice rising above the pounding water that had otherwise filled his ears.
"My father won't stop, no matter how bad the weather is. Neither will Robin. I don't want to be left behind. They'll be counting on us, come London. We have to be there."
"There'll be plenty of time to catch up before we reach London." He frowned at her. "What makes you so sure that they won't stop?"
"Because I know that they won't. I know my father." Her voice had acquired an edge; almost begun to sound harsh; but abruptly she smiled at him, and he felt his heart glow. "Our mission for Herne means a great deal to my father, and I know that Robin will feel the same way. They won't rest. Neither will I until nightfall." She smiled again, and this time he thought that he saw her eyes shining more brightly, almost as if they possessed a light of their own. "Please feel free to do what you think best for yourself."
"I..." Something about her single-mindedness was very infectious. "Where's Nasir?"
"I have no idea. Does he often go off?" For a second she looked concerned, and her bright eyes roved about, searching as far as they were able given the limited visibility. John smiled.
"You could say that. Probably off watching the road ahead." He sighed. "Alright, if you're sure. We can carry on a bit longer I suppose."
"I don't want to force you." She turned back, looking to Marion. "I have to go, because my father expects it, and I'd imagine that Marion will want to do the same for Robin, but there's no reason for you to accompany us if you really don't want to. Find somewhere dry, rest for a while."
"No." Embarrassed without quite knowing why, almost as if his strength had somehow been questioned, John managed not to blush only by sheer willpower. "I'll stay with the two of you. There's no telling what other fools might be out and about, even if the weather is fit only for fishes." May nodded.
"As you wish. In that case thankyou for your company."
"My pleasure." Well no, not really, he thought, wishing that the girl had had the sense to agree to stop. It was madness to continue. But then, to be honest, it was madness to have started out in the first place; madness to have even thought about heading for London, whatever the weather. Heart heavy, he slowed his pace, and dropped back to rejoin Marion. She looked at him expectantly.
"We're not stopping, are we."
"Not any time soon, no." He scowled, either amused or infuriated by the situation. "She said that I could wait for the storm to end if I wanted, but that you and she would be wanting to go on. The girl's strange, Marion. Very strange."
"I know." She shook her head, and her long, wet hair added its own drops of water to the many falling from the sky. "It all seems so strange, John. It's as though I haven't been thinking straight lately. As though it's only now that I'm waking up again. Could Leofric have used some sort of magic?"
"Aye, I've been wondering that myself. Certainly this all seems a good deal more foolish since he left." John frowned, his brows beetling together to give him a quite fearsome appearance. "But suggesting that means that this is all a trap, and that we're walking pretty neatly into something that's been set up for us. Robin could be in real danger."
"I know." The girl was pale, even more so than the cold wind could excuse. "He seemed so nice. They both did."
"I know. Looks like Will was right to be so suspicious." John shook his shaggy head. "And to think that we've split ourselves up so nicely. If the Sheriff is behind this, we've put ourselves in a pretty little mess, haven't we."
"I don't think it's the Sheriff. It doesn't feel like him. But you're right about us splitting up." She sighed. "Oh John. Do you really think that Robin is in danger?"
"Depends what they want us for, I suppose." He put a hand on her shoulder, trying to make her feel a little better. "I should think he's safe for the time being. It strikes me that we're being led somewhere, and if that's the case, we might all be safe until London."
"I don't think that this has anything to do with London. That was just a nice story. I think that whatever trap this is, it'll be sprung long before we get anywhere near the place. If only the others were here..."
"But they're not." His hand fell away from her shoulder, for he was aware that it was not doing its intended job of reassuring her. "We're fairly capable of handling things ourselves though, Marion. We could overpower that girl without any trouble, and see what this is all about."
"But if there is magic involved, that might put Robin in more danger." She rubbed at her eyes. "I don't know. It's all so confusing. I wish that Herne would tell us something. Surely if Robin was in any real danger, Herne would have been to speak to him by now? He didn't say anything about a vision or a dream last night, and he didn't go off on his own at all."
"I know. But if there really is magic involved here, perhaps there's nothing that Herne can do about it? It would have to be a strong enchantment I would think, but I doubt that it's impossible to separate Herne from his son." John scowled into the rain. "Something's wrong with the world. I can feel it."
"So can I." She looked up at him, and he saw that her eyes were bright with the fierce determination that had always impressed him so much. "We have to get a message back to the others. Warn them of our suspicions."
"Do you think any of us will be allowed to leave?" His eyes focused upon May, striding forward at furious speed. "I don't know what she can do to stop us, but we don't know what she might be capable of, do we."
"But she said that you could rest a while." Remembering that fact with sudden excitement, Marion caught hold of John's arm. "She said that you didn't have to come with us, remember? And earlier it was almost as though she was trying to persuade Nasir to stay behind. I think that she wants me to go with her, just like Leofric wants Robin - but perhaps the rest of you aren't as important."
"You want me to go off back to the others and leave you alone with that... that witch? Marion..."
"We don't know that she's a witch, John. To be fair we don't even know that she's an enemy. She and her father might have been telling the truth from the beginning, for all we know. We might be doing them a great injustice with all this suspicion."
"You don't believe that?"
"No, not really. I'm right though, and you know it. If there is a trap being sprung here, it seems to be for Robin and myself, rather than for the rest of you. And somebody has to tell the others about our suspicions."
"I'm not leaving you alone." His eyes were fierce, for he was determined not to be ordered away. She smiled.
"I'm not alone. Nasir is probably nearby. If something happens I'm sure that he'll be here in seconds, with the speed he has. Besides, he's bound to return before long anyway."
"Then send him. He can get back a lot quicker than I can."
"But you can go now." She laid a hand on his arm. "Please John. If we're right and there's something terrible going on here, somebody should go back. She's already given you an opening."
"I suppose." He covered the hand on his arm with one of his own, much larger, hands. "But you'll have to promise me that you won't tell her about our suspicions. Don't go trying to get anything out of her. Alright?"
"I'm not a fool, John." She stopped for a moment. "Good luck."
"And to you. Try to get a moment with Nasir to discuss things with him, but not if it draws too much attention to you. He's probably got his own suspicions anyway. Canny fellow is Nasir."
"I know." Stepping back, distancing herself from John, she smiled at him one last time. "Go quickly. Don't stop for anything."
"Or anyone. Don't worry." He knew that he should have been turning away, but he lingered for a moment longer anyway. "No risks, Marion."
"Nor you. Goodbye John." Her tone was firm now, and he knew that it was time to leave.
"Goodbye." He turned and disappeared into the rain. Marion watched after him for a moment, even though he was no longer visible, then hurried to catch up with May.
"You're alone," the girl observed without emotion. Marion nodded.
"John's never liked the rain. He's gone in search of shelter for a bit. He wanted me to go with him, but I told him that keeping pace with Robin and your father is more important."
"It is. He'll catch up with us later then?"
"Yes. When the rain's lessened a little I should think. You don't mind?"
"No." May smiled a gentle smile, one that was accompanied by the kind of merrily sparkling eyes that could have killed off all of Marion's earlier suspicions in one go, had she not been so very uneasy about everything. "I've seen you shoot, remember? And I feel safe enough with Nasir around. We'll be fine, I'm sure of it."
"You're probably right." Marion thought about John, hurrying back through the appalling weather to tell the others - what exactly? She wondered what they would do when the message reached them. Whether they would come rushing to the attack, or follow more slowly? If only she could be sure of Robin's position in all of this. Was he aware of the possible dangers yet?
"Of course I'm right." May was smiling again, shyly now, as she had when Marion had first taken her to the camp. It made her look terribly young, and very pretty, and not in the slightest bit dangerous. If it hadn't been for the storm Marion might never have doubted her sincerity. "We should hurry though. There may be no dangers, but it'll help us to keep warm if we move quickly. Perhaps then we'll catch up with Nasir."
"Not if Nasir doesn't want to be caught up with." Marion wondered where he was. Far up in front, or close by, watching? There was no way of knowing if he was suspicious, or was merely doing what he considered to be his job. Perhaps he had just gone to find somewhere warm and dry. If so then she wished she was with him; that they all were. She would rather be anywhere than lost on this road, in the middle of the storm, and she wished that she had never stopped to help the two unfortunate travellers. Next time she was standing guard in the forest, she would be very happy if all that she had to do was stay bored.
Nasir was oblivious to the rain. His environment, as usual, was irrelevant; something to be acknowledged, then put aside and ignored. Right now he had eyes only for the road.
The fierce weather had obliterated all usual tracks almost immediately, but he was aware of other signs. Little things that indicated the passage of other people fairly recently - areas where the mud had been slipped upon, and had remained pushed out of shape; an overhanging branch partly snapped where somebody had grabbed hold to stop themselves from falling. It wasn't much, but he took it to mean that he had almost caught up with Robin and Leofric. He had made good time, and he knew that he should be able to see more certain evidence of their passing by now. He should more than likely be able to see them. So where were they? His plan before had been unclear, for he did not know what he had been intending to do when he caught up with Robin, but now he was at a much greater loss. Nasir could read tracks on the ground as well as he could read any written word, and what he saw on the ground in front of him now was as clear as day - or as clear as the day would have been, if it had not been for the persistent storm. Robin had disappeared. Just a few paces ahead, along the road where he had apparently been walking without concern, his tracks ended in an empty blur. It was as though he had ceased to exist. Nasir's eyes scanned everything, hoping that his growing unease was foundless, but he had been trusting his instincts for long enough to know that something was very wrong. He didn't know what strange intuition had made him suddenly suspicious - had caused him to come out here to look for the truth, but he was glad that he had listened to it. Now he had to decide what to do next.
He was still now, standing in the middle of the road, the vicious rain sending up a fine spray of mud that drew patterns on the black leather of his trousers. With the noise of the wind and the water he could hear nothing, no matter how keen his hearing - nothing save the weather itself. A crash of thunder seemed to make the world shake, and he thought, inescapably of Much. The boy would be terrified, and he wouldn't be alone. Most of the villagers for miles around would be quaking, afraid that they had upset some ghost or demon, cowering in their houses with their animals, and muttering prayers in the unnatural dark. Being both a Saracen and high born, Nasir was better educated than most Westerners, but even he could begin to sympathise with such feelings of fear and superstition in this storm. And why, lost in the midst of the howling gale, did he seem to hear the cackling laughter of women? He turned slowly in a circle, listening to the mad cacophony of sound, then froze abruptly. The brief moments between rolls of thunder brought relative peace, and during those short seconds, other noises became just a little bit clearer. The teasing hints of laughter; the suggestions of somebody's distant mockery; became more tangible, and infinitely more real. He thought that he heard three voices, joined as one.
"We're getting closer!" It was a triumphant shriek, and the wind blew it so close that it could almost have come from directly behind him. He whirled, but the thunder crashed back again, and once more he was in the midst of too much, too impenetrable sound. he listened again, waiting for the storm to pause for breath, and this time heard a second voice, coming from somewhere else. It spoke words in a language he had never heard before, but he recognised the tone of it. The excitement and the manic satisfaction. It reminded him of the Sheriff of Nottingham, during one of his mad rants, but female and older. Shriller, more forceful, more intense. Nasir listened intently for more of the same, but the thunder was all about him once again, and this time it was many minutes before it faded.
And then the voice really was right behind him. A whisper, rising above the pounding rain; vicious, hissing words in that same, unfamiliar tongue. He spun about, staring into the wind, unable to see anybody but still hearing the voice. He knew then that all of this had been a trap, but he still had no idea who the enemy was. Before him the wind was whipping itself up into a swirling mass of mud and water, and in the midst of it, their mouths simultaneously chanting those strange and foreign words, he thought that he saw three women. They were shadows really; suggestions of people that his eyes were not sure they were seeing. An old woman, her face heavily lined; a middle-aged one, with angry eyes beneath greying black hair; a young one, red-haired and hopelessly beautiful, with an expression that spoke of the worst kind of malice. As the thunder crashed down again, and once more the noise obliterated everything, the spinning morass of whirling wind and impossibly powerful rain churned the three insubstantial faces into one. It was old and misshapen and quite repulsively ugly, and yet its eyes were the bright, malicious green of the beautiful redheaded woman who had been there before. Nasir dashed the blinding water from his eyes and saw that terrifying face staring back at him, reflected in a hundred thousand slanting raindrops. He reached for his swords - but the faces were gone. He was left alone in the road, with no further sound of laughter, no further whispering voices. Even the faces had gone. He stood there for a while, once more blinded by water, surrounded yet again by the crushing weight of thunderous sound. He wasn't sure what he had seen, and was even less sure of what he had heard, but he knew enough now to know that things were very wrong. His eyes travelled uncertainly down the road, back towards the last place where he had seen Marion, John and May. For a moment he was uncertain whether to return, or whether to stay and look for further clues of Robin's fate, but the answer did not take long in coming. Robin had Herne and Albion to protect him, as well as the powers of light and darkness that supposedly were his. Marion had nothing so significant. Turning back the way he had come, Nasir began running, instinct alone allowing him to keep his feet on the treacherous mud. Behind him, standing at the edge of the road, a bent old woman watched him go. Her back was so crooked that she could never have stood upright had it not been for the crutch upon which she leaned. Covered in mud it was all but unrecognisable, but had he looked back Nasir would have known it at once - for no mud, nor even magic, could hide the grace of Albion from anyone who had cause to know it well.
"I don't like this." Arms folded, Will stood at the entrance to the cave, kicking a succession of small stones out into the rain. Much stood behind him, shivering slightly.
"Neither do I." He was referring of course to the thunderstorm. Will glared back at him.
"I don't mean the storm, stupid. I mean this. All of this. Robin going off like that, and the others going after him. Us being back here. Talk about a clever way of splitting us all up."
"You've got to learn to trust people, Will." Tuck was trying to keep the fire going, although they had long ago reached the end of their limited fuel supply. They had finished the bread as well, and he was beginning to feel extremely hungry. "It's was Robin's idea to split up, not Leofric's. Not everybody is an enemy."
"Yes they are, especially with the reward on our heads." Will kicked another stone, much harder this time. "London. Who in their right mind would agree to go to London?"
"Robin's not a fool." Suddenly angry, Much glared at Scarlet with all of the force he could muster. His serious face might have made Will smile, had he not been feeling so troubled himself. He sighed.
"I know. I'm not saying he's an idiot, Much. I just think that there's more to this than we know. It's the perfect trap, isn't it. Somebody turns up claiming to be on a mission for Herne, and saying that he's from Loxley. What better way to get Robin's attention? He'd be sure to listen. Robin doesn't always think straight where Loxley's concerned. You know that better than anyone."
"I suppose so." Much looked back towards Tuck, eyes very wide. "Do you think they're all in danger?"
"I think that it's foolish to jump to conclusions, is what I think." Giving the fire one last poke before giving up on it, the monk joined them by the cave mouth. "But it does seem rather foolhardy to go anywhere in all this rain. I can't help but think that if everything had been right, Robin would have returned when the storm started up again."
"Exactly. They've been lured away. It's a trap, and I can smell it." Will made to kick another stone, and realised that there were none left. "There's something weird going on. Something that stopped Herne from warning Robin."
"Don't let your imagination run away with you Will." Tuck was talking now mostly for Much's benefit, trying to put the boy's obvious fears at rest. "For all we know that man really is some relative of Robin's from Loxley, and he really is going to London because Herne told him to. Just because things seem strange, doesn't mean that they are. It's not good for the soul to always expect the worst."
"Huh. My soul is as suspicious as I am. It likes expecting the worst." Scarlet sat down on the rocky ground, glaring at the almost impenetrable rain. Something moving out in the trees caught his attention, but he dismissed it as a deer at first. "And anyway, what if Leofric is telling the truth? Doesn't make going to London less stupid, does it. Honestly, sometimes I swear I'd be better off alone than staying around with--" He broke off.
"Keep talking, Will." Tuck's sharp eyes had also spotted the movement out in the trees, and just as Will's own suspicions brought his flood of cranky words to a halt, so too did the monk's instincts tell him that this was no time for silence. "Talk to Much."
"Yeah, well." Suddenly at a loss, Scarlet stared moodily back at what was left of the fire. "You know what I mean, Much. Crazy, staying around here, scratching for a living, when there's far better pickings to be made over Lincoln way, or maybe towards York."
"You don't mean that, Will?" Half aghast, and half convinced that it was just words to help them feign indifference to the intruder, Much was gaping. Will rolled his eyes.
"Just shut up and agree with me, you fool," he snapped back, not bothering to notice the inherent contradiction in that order. Much opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again.
"How-?" he began, but Will was spared the question by Tuck's shout. Remarkably quiet when the moment called for it, the friar had taken advantage of the noisy weather, and had slipped around behind their lurking visitor. A shout lifted itself up for a moment above the wind, then was abruptly cut off by more thunder. Will broke into a run.
"Tuck?" It took him a moment to find his friend in all of the rain, but he reached him in the end, slipping and sliding in a sea of mud. "Are you alright?"
"Perfectly." Tuck thrust something at him. "We've got a guest."
"So long as he's not wearing armour and the Sheriff's insignia I don't mind." Will caught the stumbling figure, sent off balance in all the water by Tuck's unceremonious shove. "Edward?"
"Edward?" echoed Tuck, apparently not having noticed this before. Will rolled his eyes.
"We have few enough allies in this world, Tuck, without you beating up the ones we do have." He pointed Wickham's decidedly soggy headman in the direction of the cave. "Are you hurt?"
"No." Edward had to shout above a sudden increase in thunder. "Just cold. I'm sorry to have startled you all, but I couldn't tell who it was at such a distance. I saw the firelight, but I didn't want to announce myself to just anybody."
"A sensible enough attitude." Embarrassed now, Tuck began hurrying him over the cave. It wasn't the best course of action given the supremely slippery terrain, but they managed it in the end without incident, and Tuck huddled Edward as close to what remained of the fire as he could. "You're wet," he observed, somewhat redundantly. Edward laughed.
"Me and all of Sherwood, aye. Somebody is angry with us today, and no mistake."
"Looks that way, doesn't it." Pushing Much aside, and glaring at him for his failure to leap into the flood as well, Will dripped abundantly onto the fire. The already low flames showed their displeasure with some copious hissing. Tuck tried to shoo him away.
"What brings you to these parts, Edward?" he asked, looking around to see if they had anything to offer their guest. Edward pushed wet hair away from his face, and looked around at the dingy cave. If the lack of other outlaws surprised him, he didn't show it.
"I was hunting," he said matter-of-factly. That such an admission might well have won him a flogging at the very least from anybody in a position of authority was irrelevant. Nobody who followed Robin Hood cared for such breaches of a law that they all knew was unjust. "The storm was something of a surprise. I knew we were in for some rain, but this?!"
"Aye, it was a little more than we were expecting, certainly." Tuck rubbed his hands together, already regretting having tried to play the hero by sneaking out into the rain. "Not the best of times for journeys of any sort."
"That's why I was so surprised to see Robin out. What's the hurry? I wouldn't have thought that he'd be fool enough to set out in this weather."
"It seemed like the right thing to do at the time." Much was looking subdued. If Edward didn't think that travelling right now was a good idea, then maybe Will had been right. Maybe something really was wrong. It wasn't an option that he was especially happy with. "Will, did Leofric enchant us?"
"I think he might have tried to enchant some of us, yeah." Will sighed. "You remember Loxley, right Edward? Did you know any of the people who lived there?"
"Loxley? Loxley is a place that I'll never forget, Scarlet." A curious look had come into Edward's eyes, bringing a hard edge to his voice that suggested there was an insult in Will's implication. "Do you think that I'd ever forget a place like that? The people in it, the lives? All that happened to them?"
"No, of course not." Soothing as ever, Tuck shot Will a sharp glare. "That's not what he meant. We were just wondering, that's all. Did you ever hear of Robin and Ailric having a kinsman called Leofric?"
"Leofric?" Edward smiled, a distant look replacing the affront in his eyes. "Yes, of course. He was Ailric's cousin I think. There are a lot of relations in any village, especially one the size of Loxley, but those two were close. Leofric was a young man, not much above my own age. And no matter how old I might look now, I wasn't all that old back then." A frown made his gentle expression darken. "Is all this to-ing and fro-ing in the rain to do with Loxley? Who was that man with Robin?"
"You didn't recognise him?" Although Will spoke slowly, his mind was racing. Edward shook his head.
"If you're trying to tell me that he was Leofric of Loxley... well you're wrong, Will. He wasn't."
"You're sure of that?" Tuck's question was clipped and precise; the succinct words of a man who needed the truth. Edward nodded.
"It's been a long time," piped up Much. "People change."
"True." Edward spared him a smile, acknowledging a fair point well made. "But I knew Leofric well. My older brother fought with him in Normandy for a time, and I remember him. I'm not mistaken. Leofric died in Loxley, with everybody else."
"The night of the Sheriff's attack?" Will had become very serious, and Edward no less so as he nodded his head.
"I was no more than fourteen the night of the massacre, but I was there. Many of us from Wickham went, as soon as we were sure that it was safe. We went looking for survivors, but we didn't find any. I helped my brother to drag Leofric's body from the ruins, and we buried him that night. He's dead, and that man isn't him."
"Oh." As a rejoinder it was unimpressive, but Will didn't know what else to say. Loudly doubting Robin's judgement, and providing a voice of dissent, was one thing; having his suspicions proved right was another. "Then it looks like Robin really is in trouble."
"I doubt it. Robin isn't the type to make mistakes." Edward's voice didn't quite disguise his own concerns. "Look, what is all of this? Where are the others?"
"Gone after Robin." Will stared at the ground. "We were... well, enchanted maybe. Whoever that man is, he had us all believing in him, and thinking that it was a good idea to follow him wherever he said to go."
"He didn't enchant all of us." Tuck's words were gentle, and were a subtle compliment to Will that Scarlet chose to take with quiet grace.
"We don't know we were enchanted." Much was rubbing his head. "Does this mean that Leofric lied to us?"
"Yes." Tuck shared a look with Will and Edward. "It does."
"Oh." The boy, as usual, didn't quite seem to have a proper grip of the situation, although his companions were in no doubt that he would understand it well enough if need be. "Then what do we do?" Will scowled.
"Forget Robin and Marion, and go to live on the other side of the country," he muttered. Tuck hit him.
"This is no time for your stupid jokes. Robin is certainly in trouble, and I doubt that that man's daughter is any more trustworthy than he is. Who knows who they both are? They've lured four of our friends off to goodness knows where, and it's quite likely that not one of them suspects a thing."
"Well then where's Herne? Supposed to know when Robin's in danger, isn't he." Much folded his arms, and glared out of the cave's entrance. "He always contacts us when things aren't like they're supposed to be."
"He always has in the past." Tuck shook his head. "But what if--"
"What if what?" Edward was beginning to look extremely concerned. Will hung his head, shaking it to-and-fro.
"What if Herne can't get in touch," he supplied, apparently without emotion. "What if something is stopping him from contacting Robin, or us? The same something that let Leofric bewitch us all into believing that he was telling us the truth?"
"Anything that's strong enough to hold off the Lord of the Trees would certainly be able to talk a gang of outlaws into travelling to London." Tuck was fingering the cross that hung on a long length of cord around his neck. "It's not something that I want to consider, but we all know that something's not right."
"This storm, for one thing." Edward gestured at the permanent deluge. "There's not this much water in the skies. And this storm. I've not seen anything like it before."
"It feels like there's magic behind it right enough." Tuck met Will's eyes, holding them in a fierce and steady glare. "Bad magic. But what does whoever is spinning it want with us?"
"Not us." Much was looking very young and very small, but his words were strangely wise. "We were left behind, weren't we. They said we could follow, but what if they knew their magic would wear off us, once they'd been gone for a while? Didn't care, did they, whether we followed them or not."
"Didn't care whether we worked things out or not as well, in that case." Angry, Will kicked out at the fire, sending showers of tiny red sparks into the air. "They're pretty sure of themselves."
"And they're not planning to wait to reach London before springing their trap, either, I'd say. Not if they don't care that we might work things out and go after them." Tuck looked towards Edward. "How fast do you think a man can walk out there?"
"Not fast, but probably fast enough if he wants to." Edward shrugged. "It's difficult to say, especially if we're to believe that there's magic involved. Marion's a different matter though. She's tough, but she's not as tough as Robin. When did she start out?"
"Around midday." Will peered up at the bruised and darkened sky. It was difficult to judge what time it was, but certainly the others had been gone some considerable time. "They've got a good lead."
"But not necessarily good enough." Brushing mud and wet leaves from his robes, Tuck rose to his feet. "We have to go after them. Maybe we can't catch them up before the trap is sprung, but we have to at least try to reach them before... well. Before things get unpleasant."
"Even more unpleasant," corrected Scarlet. The former soldier was looking even more angry than usual, and it was clear that he was looking forward to a fight with somebody. "We'd better get going. There's no telling how much time we've got."
"I'll help of course." Edward was already rising to his feet, but Tuck shook his head.
"No Edward. You stay here. You've got a family to look after, and they'll be a lot worse off without you than they will be without us. Thankyou for the help that you've given so far."
"But you don't know what you might be facing." Edward tried to push past Tuck, but the burly friar held him still.
"No." His voice was firm, and it was clear that he would not be argued with. "This is for us to deal with. You stay here. There's a pair of horses in one of the other caves. Look after them. If we're right about our suspicions, you're welcome to the pair." He smiled gently. "And when the rain stops, go back to your family."
"If it stops," muttered Will, rather grimly. Tuck nodded.
"I rather think that if it does, then we'll have done what we set out to do."
"Then I'll pray for a change in the weather even more than I have already." Edward gripped Tuck's arm. "Be careful. All of you. And may Herne protect you."
"He'd better." Will thought about everything that they might be letting themselves in for, and wondered again if it wasn't too late to go solo. "He'd damn well better."
Nasir rejoined Marion and May just as the light was beginning to fail. It had been less than bright all day, so it was not easy to know if the night would soon be upon them, or whether the sun's already pale glow had merely ceased to be visible. The evening might still have been young, but as in winter the darkness was falling early, and it was clear that it would soon be hard to see the way ahead. Certainly the two women did not see the black-clad man approaching, and even though he made no particular effort to be quiet, above the rain his passage was inaudible. Marion almost jumped when he loomed up out of the shadows, and then smiled with relief when she saw who he was.
"Nasir! I was beginning to think that you'd left us."
"I was looking ahead." He fell into step beside her, looking about. "John?"
"He's gone to look for shelter." Mindful of May's presence, Marion did not try to tell him the truth. "I think the rain got a bit too much for him." Nasir didn't answer, but from the way that his dark eyes lingered on May, Marion was sure that he had guessed the truth. "Did you see anything?" He shook his head. "No sign of Robin and Leofric?" He nodded then, and she saw the change of expression on his face, albeit only dimly. Fighting the urge to press him for further details, she kept silent.
"They went quickly. No waiting. No talking." He had come to his answer in his own time, as she had hoped that he would. "Not hurrying, but... determined."
"Anxious to get to London I suppose." She kept her eyes on May, eager to relay to Nasir the nature of her feelings about the young woman. The Saracen's bright eyes followed hers, and she saw the frown that passed across his face.
"London is a long way away," he observed in the end, at the same time slowing his pace just a little. Marion did likewise, and soon, almost imperceptibly at first, May was pulling ahead. Marion laid a hand on Nasir's arm.
"You think that there's something wrong, don't you. With Robin and Leofric."
"As do you." He hesitated for a moment, and bent to the ground as though helping Marion to free her foot from the mud. She played along, and when May glanced back to see where they were, she showed no sign of suspicion. She didn't even slow her pace. "John has gone back to the others?"
"To warn them of what we think, yes. Something isn't right. We think that we're being lured away; specifically Robin and myself, since she didn't seem to mind you and John disappearing. Did you see any sign that Robin is in danger?" His answer was hesitant, and came with a darkened frown.
"I saw tracks, marks on the ground. Then nothing. There was no sign of fighting, of others on the road, but something happened. I heard... something. Saw something." He hesitated, uncertain of what exactly it was that he had seen and heard. His ears still rang with the sound of a woman's laughter, but the words that had seemed to be lost in the rain still had no meaning to him. "There were strange things."
"Such as?" She wished that they didn't have to keep up the masquerade of him freeing her foot, for she wanted to be able to hold this conversation properly, eye to eye. Too much of Nasir's conversational skill was based on expression, rather than on words. "What happened?"
"Faces. Voices." He paused again, but she was used to his erratic speech patterns by now. It couldn't have been easy, she thought, to have to translate everything, before you could put it into words. Rather like her, struggling as a child with her French lessons.
"Women, in the storm. Not lost. Not shouting for help, but... mocking." His eyes snapped up to hers very suddenly. "A strange language. I did not recognise the words."
"You're sure? It couldn't have been a group of Normans perhaps?"
"No. The language... it was not French, or Greek or Latin. It was not Hebrew, or Arabic, or English. These languages I know. It was something else."
"Did it remind you of anything?" Mentally she ran through the languages she had heard spoken during the course of her life; French, German, Latin... All of the usual ones and more, that had been used by the many people who had visited Leaford Grange. There had been tradesmen, knights and wandering scholars, and they had opened her mind to the world beyond England and France; but her formal education in such things had been limited, for girls weren't expected to learn much. Besides, climbing trees had always had much more appeal. Nasir shook his head, at a loss.
"Are you two alright?" May had come upon them without warning, no more than a blurred shadow in the maelstrom. "Do you need a hand?"
"No." Managing a smile, Marion took a step away from Nasir. "I'm free now. Sorry about that."
"The mud is pretty thick." May smiled her dazzling smile, looking sweetly shy as always, and as innocent as it was possible to be. "Try walking more to the middle of the road; the rain is washing most of the mud towards the sides."
"Good idea." Glancing back to Nasir, Marion saw that he had already risen to his feet. She wanted to carry on their conversation, but he was as silent as ever, waiting for the women to make the next move. "But perhaps we can rest soon? It seems silly to continue once it's dark."
"I don't know." May was looking around as though searching for some familiar landmark, but her expression soon changed when she remembered that the others were still watching her. She smiled. "I'm tired as well of course, but I doubt that there's anywhere near here where we could make a suitable camp."
"Did you see anywhere, Nasir?" As they started to move onwards down the road, Marion asked the question pointedly. She wanted to keep the Saracen in the conversation, anxious that he might disappear again. Whatever might be coming, she didn't want to risk facing it alone. Nasir shook his head.
"Nowhere is dry," he commented, apparently without concern. "Better to keep moving."
"We won't be able to see where we're going for much longer." Surely, though, it would be better to stumble onwards through the dark than to try to spend the night perched up some tree, just to avoid being swept away by the floods? Part of her thought so, but the rest of her just wanted to curl up somewhere and rest. Surely there had to be somewhere where the rain was not so heavy? Somewhere where the wind didn't blow so hard, and the noise of the thunder would at least be diminished?
"It'll be alright. There's always more or less enough light to see by." May seemed brighter all the time, her shyness receding in a wave of confidence. "If we stay on the road we could keep going for a while yet." She seemed eager, but with her wide eyes and innocent smile it was easy to believe that she merely wanted to keep struggling onwards to help her father fulfill his mssion in London. Marion shook her head.
"We don't want to risk anybody getting hurt. Besides, do you really think that the others will be trying to travel all night? We might risk overtaking them."
"Yes, of course." It seemed for a moment as though May's eyes flashed in ill-controlled fury, but the sudden dazzling display of lightning that the storm had hurled their way effectively blinded all three travellers. By the time the resultant sparks had finally faded, and left her vision clear, all that Marion could see was the placid face of a harmless girl. She managed to smile.
"Perhaps a place where the trees are thicker? We can't get out of the rain, but with luck we can minimise its effects. If only there was a chance of lighting a fire."
"There may be, later." May turned her delightful eyes to Nasir. "Nasir... could you lead the way? Everything is starting to look a little threatening."
Not that it bothered you before, thought Marion, uncharitably. She smiled though, ignoring the feeling that, whatever May thought of the darkness, it certainly wasn't that it was threatening. Despite her demure front, and still charming smile, she was beginning to give the impression that she was perfectly at home with the night. In response to the request Nasir quirked an eyebrow, apparently asking Marion's permission before agreeing to go on ahead; and coming back to herself with a jolt, she nodded stiffly, unwillingly.
"Yes. Go on Nasir. Just don't go too far." He gave a deep nod that was almost a bow, then vanished smoothly into the storm. May watched him go.
"He's from the desert, I assume?" she asked. Her voice did not seem as friendly as it perhaps once had, although Marion put that down to her own imagination. Since she had convinced herself that May was an enemy she had been imagining all sorts of nuances in her tone, and dangers in her eyes.
"I don't know." It was a surprising admission to make, but when she stopped to consider it she realised that she had never actually thought to find out. What was the name of Nasir's country? What was it like? The Saracen Empire stretched for some distance, and in all honesty he might be from any part of it, at least as far as she knew. May frowned.
"You should ask," she said quietly, as she began to move onwards again. "If you don't ask the right questions, you don't know the right answers. That's the way that friends are lost."
"Not necessarily." She felt annoyed now. "Anyway, it's not like that with Nasir. You never know if he's going to answer, for one thing. He doesn't really like conversation."
"But if there are questions that he'd like you to ask, and somebody else asks them first..." There was such sweetness in May's voice that the implicit threat was beautifully disguised. Marion wondered if perhaps the time had come for her companion to reveal her hand, but no further threats came, and the smile did not waver. Composure a little unsteady, Marion stared after the friend that she hardly knew.
"He wouldn't turn against me just for somebody who thought to ask him about himself. That would be stupid."
"I'm glad that you think so. After all, you'd be alone without him." The innocent eyes were sparkling like a child's, bright and filled with fun. "It's important to have friends when you're lost in a storm."
"I thought you were my friend." She could have kicked herself for sounding so sarcastic; she was supposed to be pretending that she believed in the girl's innocence, not letting on that she hadn't done so for some time. May laughed lightly.
"Look about you, Marion. Listen to the storm. Is it your friend? Because if it isn't, why should you expect me to be?"
"The storm?" For a moment the question seemed confusing, until drawn by a strange compulsion she did stop to listen. To listen to the storm, and to look into it, to search it as though she really were searching for friendship. She couldn't see anything but the rain at first, cold and grey before her, and vanishing into invisibility further ahead. Only after a moment, when her eyes were filled with water, and her ears were ringing from the thunder, did she begin to notice something else. Something that gave the impression that it had always been there, but had only just now allowed itself to be seen.
It was a woman, although she thought at first that there were three of them. At first glance she had thought that she was looking at an old woman, twisted and bent, with a face so heavily lined it was hard to tell her facial features from the wrinkles, but as the wind blew softly, and some of the raindrops moved aside, she realised that she had been mistaken. Were there really so many lines, was the hair really so white? Instead it seemed that she was looking at a younger woman, one of middle age perhaps; less bent and twisted, less wizened and pale. Marion frowned, wondering if she should shout out to Nasir, and took a step towards the woman. Again the wind blew and the raindrops shifted, and she realised that again she had been mistaken about what she was seeing. It was not a middle-aged woman who stood before her, any more than it had been an ancient one. Instead she was young; very young and very beautiful, with hair so bright and red and wonderful that even Marion's fine red hair was put to shame. She saw bright green eyes that blazed strong even against the wet mists and spray, and the most alluring, captivating smile that had ever been imagined by a mortal mind. She froze.
"Marion." The woman spoke with a lilting voice, although when she opened her mouth again the words were not ones that Marion recognised. It was a language that she could not name.
"Who are you?" Casting a worried look back at May, Marion tried to take a step forward. She found that she was incapable of moving a muscle. The redheaded woman before her laughed lightly, and turned her powerful eyes towards May.
"She's alone." May spoke as though in a dream, all the sparkle and warmth gone from her. Marion would have turned to look at her in surprise, if she had thought that she could. "One of the men turned back, and the other has gone on ahead."
"Really." The green eyes hardened, and Marion's pulse quickened. She didn't know why. Instead her mind turned to other challenges, confusing itself with the realisation that the woman had switched languages, whilst wondering if she was just imagining the change. Maybe she had been speaking English all along, but Marion's rain deadened ears had been unable to catch the words. There was an accent though, thick and musical, that troubled her understanding still further. "She doesn't feel alone."
"What do you want?" A little angry, Marion struggled to put force into her voice. Her throat muscles didn't want to work, and the words had to fight to raise themselves above the storm. The redheaded woman didn't seem to have any problem hearing, however, and smiled a dazzling smile that might have made the sun come out, had it been day instead of night.
"I want you." She came closer then, almost appearing to glide over the wet, muddy ground. The rain moved aside for her, like a curtain, and Marion saw then that she was dry. "You and your husband, the so called King of Sherwood. Herne's people, for the taking, ready to lead me to Herne himself."
"Who are you?" This time Marion's voice shook slightly. This was all about Herne? She and Robin, fooled by a nice tale from an old man and his innocent-eyed daughter, had helped to spin a web that might capture the Lord of the Trees? No wonder there had been no message from him, no word about Leofric and May. He must have been blocked from them, and by a magic that would have to have been powerful indeed.
"Who am I?" The question was a mockery that frightened Marion as well as angering her. "Who are we?" She moved aside, and immediately Marion saw two other women, although where they had come from she could not have said. It was almost as if they had come from inside the redhead herself. One was old and bent, with snow white hair and wrinkles, and the other was middle-aged and dark. Marion recognised them, from the images she had seen before.
"We are three," cackled the old woman, straightening her bent back for a moment, in order to look at Marion with startlingly bright eyes.
"We are one," whispered the dark woman, in a voice that was throaty and deep.
"We are the Mòrrìgna," finished the redhead, and turned her beautiful smile towards the confused Queen of Sherwood. "And together, we are the Mòrrìgan." Marion, finding that she could move again, rubbed the rain from her eyes in the hope that things would make more sense, if only her vision could be a little clearer.
"The what?" Where was Nasir? In all of this talking and weirdness, the only question that made any sense to her was about the Saracen. How far ahead could he have gone? Was there any chance that he would hear her above the storm, if she called for his assistance now? "I don't understand."
"You will." The redhead moved closer, her astoundingly beautiful face composed into an expression of kindness and gentility. It reminded Marion of the mother she barely remembered. "We are the most powerful force that ever wandered the shores of Ireland; we wield the strongest, the mightiest, of magicks. And now we have come to England."
"To take what has been Herne's," added the oldest of the women.
"To take it for our own," clarified the dark-haired one.
"We take, and we shape, and we corrupt," completed the redhead, and she smiled her most captivating smile yet. "Soon England will be ours, and with Herne gone, there will be much for the taking."
"You can't possibly defeat Herne." She said it defiantly, even if she wasn't entirely sure that it was true. Herne was just a man, after all, or at the very least, a magical spirit that inhabited the body of a mere man. Kill the man, and what would happen to the powers of Herne? She didn't like to think. Panicked somewhat, and beginning to wonder what might have happened to Robin, she drew her sword.
"A fight!" The white-haired old woman sounded excited, and her wrinkled hands clenched into jubilant fists. "Can I fight her?"
"No one fights." The redhead held out her hand, and as another bolt of lightning lit up the dark, wet place, Marion saw her sword appear suddenly in the hand of her enemy. She blinked, shaking her head. She hadn't felt the weapon leave her. She hadn't felt her own fingers losing their grip.
"Nasir!" The name disappeared into the wind and the thunder, and even she could not hear it. She shouted again, but again the weather conspired against her. The peals of thunder were closer together now; louder and more furious; and it seemed that the rain itself was coming down harder. It hurt now, each drop striking home like a little knife. Marion felt her senses whirl.
"Robin." She could hear herself then, although she hadn't shouted. It hadn't been a plea for help, or even a cry of warning. She didn't know what had made her say her husband's name, but somehow the frantic storm seemed to sympathise with her, for just that one moment. Where was Robin? Had the three women already captured him? Marion feared so - but now that she could no longer see or hear a thing, she knew of no way that she could even save herself, let alone the King of Sherwood.
Little John was not a man built for running, or at least he did not appear to be. After leaving Marion he had taken up a brisk walk, heading back to the caves where he had left the others without any more than a sense of faint anxiety. There was no proof of danger, although his instincts were telling him differently, but even if there had been the need for a swift return to the others, he wasn't sure that he could manage it. In the treacherous conditions it was hard to keep his footing at any speed above a normal walk, and the constant assault of rain and wind, coupled with the ear-shattering thunder and confusing flashes of lightning left him disorientated and uncertain of his bearings. It had seemed a simple task at first, to follow back the path that they had taken on the way; but now he found that, not only had their tracks been obliterated, but the path itself seemed to have vanished as well. Wherever it had been, it now lay beneath thick mud and racing water; many speeding streams that in places were several inches deep. His feet slipped and skidded, much more than they had done on the way out. The thunder seemed louder now as well, although he was sure that the storm had been overhead for hours. It could not be getting closer, and his mind told him that the only other option was that it was growing increasingly angry. He might have laughed at such a thought at any other time; told himself off for sounding like Much; but now, trapped in the raging storm, he could have believed anything. Time and again he dashed the water from his eyes, hoping that by doing so he could improve his vision, but nothing that he tried seemed to do any good. He might just as well have kept his eyes closed. He stumbled onwards of course, but as the light dimmed and the storm became progressively worse, he came to realise that he was going to need luck, in no small measure, to help him find his way home.
"John..." The word echoed, but so lost was it in the depths of the storm that he assumed he had imagined it. He stumbled on.
"John..." Again the voice came, again he heard it. This time, however, it didn't sound quite so much like a trick of the wind. He slowed his stride, but did not stop.
"John..." Louder now; more certain. Now he knew that he had heard it. He turned about, looking for the source of the call, but could see nobody. In point of fact he could see nothing, for whichever way he turned it seemed that the rain was hitting him in the face, blinding him even when he tried to shelter his eyes with his hands.
"Who's there?" The words were whipped away by the wind, but he shouted them again nonetheless. If somebody out there could make themselves audible to him, surely he sould be able to make them, in turn, hear him? He could barely hear his own voice though, and it seemed unlikely that anybody else would be able to catch it.
"Marion?" He knew that the voice he had heard had not been hers, but he thought that it had been female. Who then? Somebody from one of the local villages, who might have seen him as he passed? He was no longer sure where he was in relation to the villages. Had he travelled past the places he was familiar with? Had he gone too far to make it likely that somebody here would know him? He had thought that he knew the land; that he could find his way around much of the county blindfolded, just as he could find his way around Sherwood itself. Now, though, he knew that that was not true.
"John..." The voice was clearer now, and came from close behind him. He turned. Nobody was there. Again he shouted, but there was no answer. He took a step away from whoever was there - only for the voice to come again. And even though he was now facing in the opposite direction, still the voice came from just behind him. He whirled around, but still it seemed that there was nobody there.
"Who are you?" He was angry, which seemed to him to be a sensible alternative to fear. A low laugh answered him, and for a second it seemed that the rain lessened; that the thunder crashed about him with a little less intensity. He took a few steps forward, and saw, looming out of the darkness, the face of a bent old woman.
"You shouldn't be out here in this weather!" Not caring that he didn't recognise her, John leapt immediately to the woman's aid. She seemed so old that it was a wonder she was out at all. Nobody should be out in this weather, he thought to himself, least of all a woman too old to stand properly. The woman laughed at him, and as he caught hold of her, intending to sweep her into his protecting embrace, he felt sharp, taloned fingers digging into his arm. He looked down. The wrinkled face was changing; smoothly at first, then with ripples that might just have been the rain that still filled his eyes, the old woman turned into a younger one. John let out an oath and stumbled backwards, watching with open-mouthed shock as the wrinkles fell away, and the back straightened out. Dark, dark eyes stared at him now, and the voice that spoke his name was deep and throaty, and horribly unsettling.
"What are you?" He was hit by a strange desire to make the sign of a cross, but he quelled it. He was not given to acts of superstition. He was Little John, lieutenant to Robin of Sherwood. He did not let his enemies know that he was unsettled. A laugh echoed in his ears, a noise that once again came from behind him. He turned. For a second he thought that he saw a beautiful face, peering at him from amidst the trees; then caution took over and he knew that it was time to go. It made no sense to stay, when he had something that needed to be done. Whatever was going on here seemed to be an attempt to hold him up, and he knew that he could not allow that to happen. He spun away; away from the dark eyes and the middle-aged face that had once been old; away from the pretty face hidden in the trees; away from the disembodied laughing, and the mad voices that called his name. He had to get back to the cave.
"John..." The name was echoing all around him, coming from all directions at once; three female voices whirling into one, ragged shout. He tried to ignore it, but somehow no matter how loud the thunder became, still he could hear the voices. Head down, telling himself that he could ignore whatever he chose to ignore, he broke into a run. His feet skidded and slipped, but he managed to stay upright. He had to stay upright. Ahead of him the raindrops swirled and whirled, forming faces that mocked him with their laughing. An old woman, a middle-aged woman, a beautiful young woman with hair like flame. He saw each of them distinctly, just as he heard each of their voices.
"There's nowhere to run." The accent that coloured the words made him think of music. It was strong and lilting, and might have been attractive at any other time; but screeching at him out of the unnatural storm it had no beauty to it. He flinched away, trying to find a direction that he could take where the voices were not behind him, and in front of him; were not echoing all around his head. It was impossible. Whichever way he turned there was no escape.
"John..." The voice called his name one last time, and infuriated by its persistence he slowed to a halt. His feet slipped and he almost fell, staying upright only by pure chance. He threw his head back, yelling his anger into the descending rain. For some reason it made him feel better - until he felt the rushing of the wind behind him. He turned. For a moment, standing in the rain, he could see three women; the same ones that he had seen before. One was old, one middle-aged, one young. He frowned, wondering what to expect, and was just considering the possibility of confronting them when he felt his vision beginning to blur. He put up his hands to rub his eyes, feeling the stinging of the salt in the raindrops, and as his vision cleared once again he thought he saw the three women ripple and blur. He took a step towards them, and watched in open-mouthed amazement as the three women blended and whirled into one. John's eyes widened, the strength to which he had become so accustomed momentarily deserting him, for standing before him was the most hideous figure that he had ever seen. A grossly misshapen face, the skin like creased leather; a mass of warts and stiff hairs; small, beady green eyes that mocked him from beneath a tumble of coarse grey hair. Rotting teeth gaped in a crooked smile, and a flickering, hissing tongue darted about, dribbling down the jutting, pointed chin. For the first time that he could remember, a real, cold fear flooded John's mind. He stumbled backwards.
"There is no escape, John Little." The woman, if she could still be called that, was coming towards him. John stumbled backwards, sinking past his ankles in cold, black mud. Once again he almost fell as he tried to turn quickly, trying to tear his feet loose. Behind him a sucking noise marked the progress of the hag as she came towards him, her own feet sinking and rising through the muck. Briefly John closed his eyes, concentrating, forcing himself to ignore the woman as he struggled to free himself. He fancied that he could almost feel her fingers reaching out for him by the time that his feet were finally clear of the mud, but it was only his imagination. He broke into a run, listening to the horrible sound of the hag shrieking his name. Bushes ripped at his clothing, and the tumult of the storm blinded and deafened him, stealing the last of his bearings. He didn't care. All that he wanted to do was to put as much distance between himself and the horrific vision he had just seen. He forced his way through thickly growing trees, through brambles and gorse bushes and swathes of mud that clung like quicksand. He no longer had the slightest clue where he was, nor in which direction the cave lay. He no longer cared. All that he wanted was to run; and to keep on running until the horrible vision of the hag had faded from his mind. At that moment he didn't care if that meant he would be running forever.
Nasir was unwilling to go far ahead, even though Marion had told him that it would be alright. He trusted her judgement almost as much as he trusted Robin's, but the disappearance of their leader bothered him. He could still find no sensible reason for the sudden ending of the tracks he had followed, and the idea that Marion might likewise be spirited away, perhaps by magic, was enough to prevent him from going too far. With limited vision and hearing thanks to the storm, he wasn't sure that he could be of swift assistance to Marion, but he was determined not to leave her entirely unprotected.
Given his unease, in the midst of his storm-racked solitude, it was with no great surprise that he heard again the echoing voices of before. There still seemed to be three of them, all female and quite distinct from each other, all chanting unintelligible words in the language that he couldn't identify. He knew the mockery, for the tone of voice was clear even if the words weren't; but still he had no idea what was being said. Head cocked on one side, listening intently to the sing-song insults that so easily out-voiced the storm, he tried to gauge distance and direction. He couldn't. The voices, it seemed, were coming from all around him; from above and below as well as round about. They were right beside him, and they were some distance away; three voices rushing all around, defying the laws of nature in their determination to unsettle him.
He wasn't sure how long he had been listening, half-heartedly, before he realised that the voices were speaking Arabic. It had been some time since he had heard any voice save his own speaking the language; so long since he had had any opportunity to conduct a conversation in it. It had become the language of nothing more than his thoughts and his prayers, and so it was that the change in the voices at first went unnoticed. He thought that perhaps he was hearing his own consciousness speaking to him, until the words became clearer, and with them his mind.
"Why are you here?" The first of the voices asked him. He didn't answer, and had no intention of doing so.
"Why are you still here?" came the second voice. "Why didn't you go back home?"
"Why did you stay with these people?" shouted the third voice. "You have your own battles to fight elsewhere."
"We can send you home." The first voice had changed its tone, and sounded quieter now, and more gentle. "We can take you there."
"Just close your eyes," muttered the second. "Trust us, for just a moment."
"Just one moment," rejoined the first.
"And we'll send you home," added the second. Nasir turned away, even though the voices were not coming from any one particular direction.
"Not that way." The second voice seemed to be closer to him now, but still he couldn't see where it was coming from. "Look at us. Look at us and we'll take you home."
"Back to where you belong," came the first voice.
"Back to where you should always have been," came the second.
"Back home." The third voice came from so close behind him that, despite himself, he spun around. A woman stood there, dressed in grey, and dry in the midst of the rain. She was smiling at him, her bright green eyes shining with the warmth of friendship, her flaming red hair moving gently, as though in a soft warm breeze. It should have been soaking wet and lashed by the rain, but somehow such detail didn't seem immediately important.
"You should never have come here," she told him, her lips not seeming to move. He heard her words clearly inside his mind, still in his own language, and his eyes narrowed in suspicion. "You didn't want to come here. Why not go back?" She pointed, and he turned his head without thinking about it, looking into the trees. The green of the leaves and the brown of the slick mud seemed faint somehow; distant and vague. He was seeing other things instead... hot sun... dry sand... billowing white tents, and men carrying curved swords. Horses galloped past, and he heard their hooves pounding in his ears; the unmistakable sound of hooves on the sand, bringing with them the familiar smell of heat and warmth. He smiled, though faintly.
"Home," The woman told him, and the word sounded wonderful.
"Home." There was another woman there too now, older and darker.
"Home." Yet another woman, older than any he knew. He frowned.
"Who are you?" His voice sounded strange, for unlike theirs it could not rise so easily over the storm. As one, the women shook their heads.
"Just go." The youngest of the women tried to take his hand, and for a moment he almost took it. His mind felt lulled from its usual sharpness, seduced by the combination of his own language and the visions of that warm and sandy place waiting nearby. He wondered if this was how Robin's tracks had ended so suddenly; if he too had been shown some place that he had wanted to go to, and had stepped towards it. Except that Robin didn't get fooled.
"No." It took an effort to say the word in English, after using his own language again, but somehow it seemed a symbolic move to make. Turning his head he shut out the sight of that alluring warmth, closing his ears to the jumble of comradely voices and horses' hooves. Three heads whipped around to stare at him, and he felt the chill in their eyes.
"Go home." The bent old woman spoke with a voice that sang of hatred. Nasir's hands flashed to his swords.
"Where's Robin?" His soft voice had acquired its own means by which to rise above the storm; by sheer force and power, despite its characteristic lack of volume. The redhead laughed.
"Gone." She snapped her fingers, and when the next flash of lightning lit up the space around them, it showed all three women now dressed in black leather, holding swords that matched Nasir's own. "Your choice is whether to join him, or not to join him."
"Bring him back." It felt like a futile threat, especially against three women who obviously possessed remarkable magical powers, but Nasir was not the type to admit defeat under any circumstances. The redhead laughed again, the sound sharp and ugly, in contrast to her outward beauty.
"There is no 'back'. Not for him. There's only us. Our use for him. Our power. The end we bring for Herne."
"The others will be here soon. You can't fight all of us." Actually they probably could, and he was well aware of it, but there was no sense in showing that now. The cruel cackle of the little old woman made his fists tighten around the hilts of his swords.
"Your friends aren't coming. Not in time. We sent your big friend running in circles that he'll take a while to find his way out of. He'll find your friends in the end, and bring them straight back here, and it'll be just in time for our trap to snap shut - but they'll be too late to help you. Too late for Herne, too late for Robin and Marion, too late for anything." Nasir's eyes flashed in rage, and she laughed again. "We feed on anger, little warrior. We feed on fighting and battles and hatred. We always have."
"For hundreds and hundreds of years," added her dark-haired companion. "Whenever men fight, we're there. In our own country, and now here too. With Herne gone the battles will rage across the country. Fight us now and begin it all."
"Or go home." The redhead gestured once again to the vista of sand and sunshine still waiting amidst the rain-sodden trees. Nasir shook his head.
"Tricks," he said darkly, hissing the word with all of the anger of the world behind it. The redhead smiled at him, her smile as alluring as any he had ever seen. The green eyes glittered and shone, charming and cold in equal measure.
"Yes," she said simply, and he knew then that, whatever he would find if he walked into that illusion, it would not be his desert home. It would be the place where Robin had been taken; the danger that he had been taken into.
"Marion?" he asked, not needing to place the word into a proper question. The three woman shook their heads all at once.
"That would be telling," answered the dark-haired one.
"Telling too much," said the oldest one.
"And besides," completed the redhead, "in the end, it doesn't really make any difference. Does it?"
"You can't fight us," prompted the old one.
"That is, if you do, you can't win," clarified the middle-aged one. She pointed with her swords towards the desert vista. "So choose."
And so Nasir chose, and putting away his swords with all the dignity that came so naturally to him, he headed towards the magical image of his homeland. The sound of distant voices, speaking his mother tongue, faded the closer he came to them, and the warmth and brightness that shone from the image faded as well. He kept on walking. Logic told him that Robin had been spirited away somewhere, and this was his best bet for finding him. Whatever might be waiting through the door, that alone made it a risk he was willing to take.
The world had changed. Marion rubbed her eyes, feeling the shock of silence after so long in a world ravaged by thunder, wind and rain. The ground underfoot was solid, not slippery with mud, and although it was night time the darkness was not as complete as it had been before. There was no impenetrable blackness punctuated by eye-searingly bright lightning; no furious black clouds sealing out the moon. Instead there was merely a purple-grey sky lit by thousands of tiny, white stars. It was cool, but not nearly so cold as it had been in that other place. She shivered, the fact that she was soaking wet suddenly becoming more apparent to her than it had been before. She had ceased to notice it, when there had been no hope of getting dry; but now that she was in this place, the gentle breeze blew at her wet clothing, and made her remember. She wondered where she was; whether she had been transported to some other part of England, or to somewhere else entirely. Certainly she was no longer in a forest. The trees grew only sparsely, and the rest of the ground was covered with grass and intermittent bushes. There was no sign of the three mysterious women, or of May.
"Robin?" She knew that he was here somewhere. He had to be. She had been sent here as part of some plan to attack Herne, and that meant that it was certain Robin would be needed as well. Nasir had said that it appeared as if their leader had disappeared, and the possibility that he had been brought here solved that problem perfectly. Now she was faced with the task of finding him, and of finding a way to get them both home.
"Robin?" Again she shouted, louder than the first time. The silence that greeted her call seemed horribly intense, for her ears were still adjusting to the idea of such quietude. "Robin!" Again the silence lingered, and unnerved she pulled out her bow and fitted an arrow to the string. There was no target to shoot at, at least as yet, but she felt better knowing that she was ready for anything that might turn up.
She didn't bother calling again as she walked onwards. The oppressive silence discouraged her, making it hard to believe that there would ever be an answering shout to break the unasked for peace. Instead she simply walked, looking about her with confused eyes. She wished that she knew where she was, but she couldn't even begin to guess. Clearly there was magic involved, which could only complicate matters. Her eyes returned to the star-filled sky, searching for anything that might help her to guess where she was. Robin had been teaching her how to use such things as guides, and she was a competent enough pupil, but the new skill was of no use now. The stars were familiar enough, but all that they could do was give her a rough approximation of how far the night had progressed, and in which direction she was currently facing. Any more than that could be nothing but guesswork. Giving up on the stars, she turned her attention instead to the ground. Perhaps there would be tracks that she could follow, or clues of some kind at least. She thought that she saw a footprint, but it was too indistinct to be sure that it truly was a mark left by a foot, let alone work out which way it might be pointing.
"Oh Robin." She spoke the words softly, so as to disturb the quiet world as little as possible. Where was he, and why had they ever agreed to separate? It seemed so foolish now, but Leofric had been convincing from the start, and there was no point in lamenting that fact. Not now. Her energies would be better spent on working out what had happened.
She had been talking to the three women, that much she remembered well. They had spoken of her father, and claimed that he was still alive; that they could take her to him, if she would trust them, and do as they said. They had shown her images, floating in the trees, like paintings that she felt she could walk into, and had told her that all she had to do was step forward, and she could be with her father again. She had closed her eyes and refused to move; refused to look at the pictures. The three women, the Mòrrìgna, had circled her, calling to her, shrieking, singing - but she had kept her eyes closed until they were silent; until she had known that they had gone, and that the floating images of her dead father would no longer be hanging before her. Only then had she looked again, and found herself in this place. If the same trick had been tried on Robin, she reasoned - if perhaps he had stepped into some inviting dream - then she might have the answer to her question of his whereabouts. He had been taken somewhere; somewhere where the Mòrrìgna had intended for her also to go. Somewhere where some evil magic was perhaps to be performed.
And yet she had been taken somewhere, even though she had not given in. Was it possible that she was close to Robin now? That by refusing the temptation she had escaped being placed under some spell? It didn't make any sense to her, but her theories were helping to keep her mind from wandering down far less pleasant routes, and that at least seemed reason enough to keep thinking. To carry on walking, in the direction she had been facing when first she had opened her eyes. Wherever she was, that had to mean that she would find something eventually; arrive somewhere perhaps. It seemed too much to hope that she might eventually meet with Robin, but the further she walked, and the more that she thought, the more convinced she became that that was exactly what would happen. Robin was here somewhere, she knew it. He had been brought here, by much the same magic as herself. She didn't know how she knew it, but she knew it nonetheless.
She tried calling Herne as she walked along, although she doubted that he would answer her. He so rarely spoke to anyone besides Robin anyway, but he had not even done that much since the arrival of Leofric and May. He had not made an appearance to warn of the threat posed by the two newcomers, which was unusual. Usually he would have told Robin something, no matter how vague or cryptic. Now here were these three women, claiming that they planned to destroy Herne, and yet Herne himself did not seem prepared to do anything about it. Either that or he couldn't. She remembered the storm, and its stunning ferocity, and then knew for certain that it had had the force of magic behind it. She stopped calling him in the end, certain that he was not going to answer. Calling Tuck, and Little John, and the others brought a similar lack of response, and she wondered what had happened to them. Had John got through yet with his message? Were the four of them coming to help out? She wondered if they would be able to find her, or whether they would meet merely with the Mòrrìgna. It would be easy enough for the three magical women to lure the men in, with promises of taking them to Marion; and then they would be ensnared just as Robin had been. The thought was discouraging to the extreme, but she knew that there was no point in hiding from it. She could be certain of help from no one, and knew that it was best to accept that. Better than always hoping for something that was never going to come.
Through the darkness she walked onwards, tripping sometimes on bushes and roots, at other times able to see clearly as the moon shone down on a landscape almost empty of vegetation. A dusty path came and went beneath her feet, so that sometimes it was as though she was following a road, whilst at others she might almost have been the first to travel there. The cool wind blew, gently drying her rain-soaked hair and clothing, lulling ears that still ached from the ferocious noise of the storm she had left behind. She could almost have forgotten it now, it seemed so long ago. That terrible other place, with its sheets of water and its bitter slashes of lightning. An ugly place, not like here. Here was peaceful and calm, and she felt herself relaxing little by little. It didn't matter so much that she didn't know where she was, or how she had got here; much less did she know of where she was heading. All that mattered was the silence, and the chance to at last get dry.
It was the hooting of an owl that drew her up, some time later, when the moon had ceased to rise and had begun once again to sink. She slowed, listening to the creature making its eerie sounds close by. For a moment she envied it for its night vision, and strained her own eyes to see ahead. The bushes had returned to lie strewn on the ground at her feet, and she could see that the undergrowth was coming together, forming a little grove that seemed intended to shut the rest of the world out. It was a dark place, forbidding and oppressive, and she knew at once that it was the place she had been heading for. It looked like a place where magicks might be performed. She wondered how she could get closer without giving herself away, and smiled at the thought that she might spend hours sneaking up to an empty place. She had no proof that this was the goal for which she had been searching, after all. It might just as easily be nothing more than an atmospheric piece of undergrowth; a jumble of trees and bushes that happened to grow crookedly and with an air of menace. She didn't hesitate though, whatever the grove might truly have been. Instinct had drawn her here, and Robin had always shown her that instincts were to be trusted and embraced.
She went softly, bow still at the ready, arrow loose enough to prevent the bowstring from becoming a burden, yet not so loose that she couldn't fire immediately if the need arose. She wanted to be ready for anything, even though she didn't feel as though she would ever be that. Her movements were quiet and smooth, much more so than they would once have been. Had the circumstances been different; had this been merely one of Robin's training games in Sherwood, she might have smiled to think of the way she had been first; how clumsy she had been in her early days as an outlaw. There was no time for such thoughts now though, and she was merely glad of how much had changed. Her feet found the way even when she could not see the ground, searching out the least noisy path. Her shoulders twisted and turned, avoiding branches and rustling bushes, helping her to move onwards as the going grew harder, and the bushes became thicker. Soon she was deep inside the thicket, and the world seemed a quiet place indeed.
The owl had gone, or perhaps had merely ceased to call. Perhaps it was watching her, perched on some nearby branch. The thought nearly drew her up short, but she smiled to herself, and carried on pressing forward. It was foolish to think frightened thoughts such as that; so what if the owl was watching her - what was it going to do? Still she couldn't entirely shake the feeling of unease though, and the sensation of being watched lingered unpleasantly. She told herself not to be a fool. There was nothing to be afraid of here; just bushes, and trees that pressed in close...
And smoke. She realised that just as she was beginning to believe that she had wasted her time in coming here. The faint odour of smoke, bitter and caustic, floated through the trees towards her on the gentlest breeze. She slowed, listening carefully, but could hear nothing. Could it be a natural fire, burning in the midst of the grove? It was dry here, but she wasn't sure that it was dry enough. Fires did not often start themselves unless the ground had been hot and dry for weeks, and here the cool air was bringing signs of moisture to the hanging greenery. Somebody must be nearby, she decided; somebody with a campfire - and in a place like that, so dark and tense, where her instincts remained so resolutely on edge, she was sure that the somebody could have only one purpose. Perhaps they had intended her to find them in this place, or perhaps they had been hoping that she would not, but she was sure that she had found the Mòrrìgna - and perhaps she had found Robin as well.
The smoke became thicker as she pressed onwards. Crouching down, she made herself smaller, hoping to become less visible as she came nearer and nearer to the place where the fire must have been lit. Other scents were noticeable too now; a smell of spices and herbs; of different kinds of wood, and of incense. Edging forwards slowly she caught her first glimpse of the smoke; gentle white tendrils rising upwards, travelling in straight lines despite the breeze. A moment later and she could see the glow of the flames, burning in several different colours, illuminating the centre point of the grove. Sparks spat their way into the sky, and moths danced in jubilation around the light source. It might almost have been any welcoming campfire, just like the one that Marion had sat beside every night since joining Robin in the forest. Except that it wasn't. She saw that as she moved closer still, and peered out into the clearing, seeing the dark shapes that populated the smoky tableau.
They were all there; Leofric and May, standing motionless on either side of the unearthly fire, their eyes closed and their skin pale; the three women, the Mòrrìgna, shoulder to shoulder with the beautiful young redhead in their centre, her green eyes catching all the light from the flames. She was smiling, her blood red lips moving gently as she whispered words that Marion could barely hear, and certainly could not understand. She looked past them, even though her eyes felt torn towards them, and saw what she had expected to see; what she had wanted to see and yet hoped not to, all the time that she had been weaving through the tangled thicket. Robin stood on the far side of the fire, tied to the centre most of a row of seven white posts. They were curious creations, carved from pure white wood tinged with silver, the designs that had been cut into them with skilled hands depicting scenes of the most terrible battle and strife. She could see such detail even from a distance, the torn, screaming faces of wooden men and women crying out to her from across the clearing. Robin had been struggling, and she could see his blood trickling down his post, running from where his wrists had been cut by the ropes that bound him. His dark hair had fallen over his face, and he looked tired and worn. Marion was delighted to see him even though it was in such terrible circumstances. At least now she knew where he was; at least now she knew that he was alive. Not safe perhaps, but alive. She peered closer, seeing another figure tied to another of the posts, further away and barely visible in his dark clothing, away from the greater part of the firelight. Nasir had also been struggling, and appeared still to be doing so. Clearly his attempts were getting him nowhere, but Marion knew that he would not give up. It surprised her that Robin had, until she saw the slight furrow in his brow, and guessed that he was searching his mind for Herne.
"This has been so easy." As the redheaded one of the three ceased her silent whispering, the three women moved away from each other, spreading out across the clearing. Marion shrank back into the shadows, but was still able to see all three women in rather more detail than was entirely pleasant. It was the middle-aged one who had spoken, her deep voice as distinctive as a voice could be.
"As we knew it would be." The old woman was circling close to Robin, peering up at his closed eyes and superficially calm expression. "They were easy to take. Split them up, lead them out of Sherwood, then snare them in traps of their own making. What could be easier?"
"We lost the girl." The redhead glared at the other two, angry that they should think their task so easy when part of it had gone wrong. "She didn't take the bait, and now we don't know where she is."
"She'll come. She'll be led here, by whatever links her to Robin i' in the Hood." The middle-aged woman was circling Nasir, her expression predatory and cold. "Just like the others, she'll come."
"If we don't have her before the others come, we risk her finding them first. Then none of them will take the bait, and we'll never have them." The redhead was furious. "My plans. My carefully created plans. All in peril. We isolated her to ensure our success, and look where it's got us!"
"She'll come." The old woman's bright eyes scanned the trees, almost as if she knew that Marion was there, crouching and watching. The girl pressed herself back into the undergrowth, horrified. "We'll have them all."
"Maybe we should have kept them all together. Taken them all at once." The middle-aged woman turned away from Nasir, looking back towards her fellows. The redhead glared at her.
"How would that have worked? They would never have listened to us; never fallen into the snares. We made Herne's Son see his wife in peril to bring him here - how could we have done that if she had been with him? We needed all manner of other trickery to take the Saracen, and the best of those tricks didn't work on the girl. If they'd all been together we wouldn't have got one of them. No, we were right to split them up. We just have to make sure that we get that girl!"
"We'll get her." The gentle confidence of the old woman was beginning to tug at Marion's nerves. It was as though there were some horrible inevitability; as though the women believed that she could not help but be caught. As though her battle was already lost. She thought about firing her readied arrow, and showing the three women just how wrong they could be about her, but she held off for the time being. She wasn't sure that she could shoot all three quickly enough, and it was beginning to press upon her mind that perhaps her arrow would do her no good anyway. These women might well not even be human; and what then? She envisaged her arrows having no effect, and wondered what would befall her should than happen. There seemed few other options though. Beside the fire Leofric and May stiffened suddenly, and she became, if it were possible, even more tense herself.
"Voices." May was rocking backwards and forwards now, eyes still closed, lips barely moving. "I hear voices."
"Voices?" The redhead turned sharply, staring at the swaying girl. "Whose voices?"
"Herne's followers. Looking for their friends." The closed eyes seemed to be seeing things that were not apparent to anybody else. The wizened little old woman turned eager eyes onto the girl and her motionless father.
"Are they leaving Sherwood?" she asked excitedly. May stared on into her secret world.
"Soon," was all that she seemed able to say. The three women shared a meaningful smile, then gathered back together into a group and took hands. Even as Marion was watching them their individual outlines blurred, until soon they had become one. The hideousness of the joint creation was even more apparent in the fire lit dark than it had been to John in the storm-lashed madness of the thunderstorm, and it was all that Marion could do not to gasp in shock. She watched the misshapen head turn and turn about, the bulging eyes seeming almost to be searching for her. Then with a great flash from the fire the loathsome creature was gone, and a gust of white smoke floated upwards in imitation of the moon.
"John?" The voice was gentle and very welcome, but it seemed to come from a long, long way away. John wasn't altogether sure that it was worth opening his eyes for somebody who was obviously on the other side of the forest. He flickered his eyelids though, just so that they would know that he had heard. The voice persisted, growing in volume a little, and he imagined that the speaker was coming closer, rushing towards him through the trees. He groaned.
"Go away." His own voice sounded faint as well, which was confusing. He couldn't be half the forest away as well could he?
"John..." A different voice this time, and considerably less gentle than the first. In fact it was decidedly belligerent. He groaned.
"Go away Will. It's not my turn to go on watch tonight. Wake Tuck." The words tumbled over one another, and even as he was saying them he realised that he was not being woken up to go on watch. The taste of salt water filled his mouth as the rain rushed in, and he became aware once again of the storm. So that was why his voice had seemed so faint. With that noise to contend with the whole of the Sheriff's amassed household of soldiers would have sounded quiet. He opened his eyes.
"Well hello." Will was grinning down at him, in the lop-sided way of his that was half amiability and half ferocity. "What the hell happened to you?"
"I don't know." He blinked, looking around. It was not especially easy to see in the heavy rain, but he seemed to be lying in a muddy puddle, half beneath a fallen tree. Weighed down by the mud, his beard felt twice as heavy as normal, and his thick hair was just as bad. He ran his hands through it, and a thick muddy spray splattered itself all over his companions. Will swore, and earned himself a reproachful glare from Tuck. Much grinned.
"You looked like half the forest fell on your head," he piped up. John smiled at him.
"I feel like that's what happened. The last thing I remember..." It came to him in a flash, and he had to fight not to shiver. "There were these three women, except there turned out to only be one of them. The most horrific creature... She'd been so beautiful too. Well, one of them was." He shook his shaggy head, and wondered if he sounded as confused as he felt. "We thought that Leofric and May were up to something, so Marion sent me back to warn you lot, get you moving a little more quickly." He stretched, rubbing his eyes and trying to work some life back into his unwilling muscles. "I was heading back, and then suddenly there were these women. I had to get away from them." He looked embarrassed, for Little John was not a man to run away from anything, ordinarily. "I haven't felt that way since I was first taken before the Baron de Belleme."
"Dark magic." Tuck crossed himself. "Three women, you said, or just one? Did they introduce themselves?"
"Both... I mean, there were three women, but there was a rushing noise, and wind, and then they all came together into one new one. The ugliest thing I've ever seen walk the earth. And no, they didn't introduce themselves. It wasn't exactly a formal meeting, Tuck." John tried to remember, but despite the levity of his answer he was disturbed, and the encounter was confused in his mind. "But when they spoke... they had accents. I've heard them before, when I was a shepherd. Sometimes I'd go to markets on the coast, and I'd hear those accents then." His shaggy head shook again. "I always thought it was rather a pretty way of talking, musical like, but there was nothing attractive about the way those three women spoke. I think they were Irish."
"Mad women turning themselves in hideous hags. Just our bloody luck." Will made a few practice swings with his sword, looking as though he could think of nothing more entertaining than a chase through the forest and the chance to decapitate a few mad witches. "I suppose whoever they are they've got Robin and the others by now?"
"Not necessarily. We were on to them at least, so there's a chance Marion and Nasir are still free. I don't know about Robin." John frowned. "Actually I don't know about Nasir. He disappeared off somewhere - looking ahead probably. He might be anywhere by now."
"Well you could hardly have helped having to come back for us." Tuck, as usual, sounded eminently sensible. "We were fools ever to allow ourselves to be split up in the first place. All that talk of quests for Herne, and travelling to London. It all sounds so foolish now that I can't believe we ever agreed to it."
"Some of us didn't," Will reminded him. Tuck nodded.
"Aye, but then some of us are twisted and suspicious, aren't we Will." He smiled. "There's no sense in standing here worrying, or in talking about what might have happened if we'd listened to you, anyway. We should be getting a move on. Getting after Marion."
"Aye, you're right." Wondering how easy that was going to be given the disorientation from which he was still suffering, John clapped Much on the shoulder. "Come on, lad. We shouldn't waste any more time standing around here."
"And there's no need to look so pale. We'll deal with these three, just like we've dealt with everybody else who's threatened us in the past." Tuck fixed John with a particularly piercing stare. "Always supposing that John knows the way. Were you on the main road to London?"
"We were going by a pretty direct route. It shouldn't be too difficult to find it again." Shouldering the bow he had dropped in the mud, John chose a direction. He was almost positive that it looked familiar, and hadn't been just a random choice. "We'll need to travel fast though. They could be a long way ahead by now. I'm not sure how long it's been since I left them."
"They could be anywhere though, couldn't they." Much's voice was a little quivery, and his eyes were even more round than usual. "If they were taken away by magic I mean."
"Maybe." John frowned at him, knowing the tremor in the boy's voice to be more than mere nervousness. "What is it? You're looking like you know something the rest of us don't."
"I don't know." The boy was starting to stammer, although he was keeping his voice as level as he could. He looked up, meeting John's eyes with a stare that showed fear, as well as a determination not to give into it. "My father used to tell me and Robin stories at night. Old stories he said. Things people had been telling each other for centuries. One of them was about three women who could become one. They were Irish. It's not like the Baron de Belleme, John. This is really old stuff. Really powerful, like Herne."
"You know about these women?" Gripping the boy's arms, John stared down at him. His expression was very earnest, and Much reacted accordingly, chasing away the shakes and trying to stand a little straighter.
"They're called... called the Mòrrìgna. Or something like that. It's not easy to say it properly. There are three of them, and one's very beautiful, and there's one of them... or all of them when they're joined together maybe..." He shook his head, angry with himself for not remembering the childhood tales. "Anyway, she's called the Mòrrìgan, and she's like a god of war. Goddess I mean. She flies over battlefields, and eats the dead. Turns herself into a raven, and brings shadows and things. Bad things. Some people worship her, and say she's not so bad, but I think it's a horrible story. It's not true, is it John? This isn't really the Mòrrìgan who's come here? She could be as strong as Herne."
"Which would explain why he didn't send Robin any messages of warning about Leofric." Tuck shook his head sadly. "They might be too strong even for him."
"And that'd be why they'd come to a place like this, isn't it. To do battle with Herne. One god against another." Will groaned, leaning against a tree trunk and looking unimpressed. "They've come here, and they're going to use Robin to get to Herne, and they're going to... to do what?"
"There's a lot of fighting going on, isn't there. In England I mean." Much spoke nervously, as though embarrassed by his own thoughts, and assuming that his theories were probably wrong. "If they like wars, this is a good place to be."
"That's true. With the way things are here right now, any goddess of war would love to be in England." Staring over the top of Much's curly head, John's eyes met with those of Tuck and Will. "In fact it's probably only Herne that's standing in their way."
"Not just Herne." Will's words were sharp and cold. "There's us. Now come on."
"Come on where?" John shook his head, angry at their uselessness. "Much is right. They could be anywhere."
"True." Never one to admit defeat, no matter who or what the enemy, Will was brandishing his sword with every word. "But if we go after them, and make enough of a noise about it, maybe they'll come to us. It's a possibility, right?"
"Right." Tuck didn't look as though he had much faith in the plan, but he was determined enough for anything. John rolled his eyes.
"You're crazy. It'll never work."
"Might." Will shrugged, apparently careless. "And it's better than doing nothing. We don't know how much longer we've got, before things start happening. Herne couldn't contact Robin - or didn't try to. Maybe these women are already beating him."
"Yeah." John reached out to absent-mindedly ruffle Much's curls. "Come on then. I'll take you to the last place I saw Marion."
"We're going after the Mòrrìgan?" Much's voice trembled a little, despite his best efforts to stop it. "She'll kill us and peck out our eyes, just like in the story."
"No she won't." Tuck beamed at him, his warm smile enough to chase away some of the boy's fears. "We're not in a story, and things are never the same in real life."
"No." Will's voice was filled with bitter humour. "Usually it's worse. Now come on. It's time to go."
"Yeah." Wishing that he didn't feel quite such a sense of trepidation, John nodded his wildly hairy head, and began to lead the way. The rain had washed clean what tracks might have remained, and he had no idea how far he had run before collapsing, but he trusted himself to find the way. He had to find it. Whether or not it did any good in the long run was simply for fate to decide.
Only when the three women had departed did Leofric and May come to life. Moving away from their stations at the fireside, they stepped together to stand before Robin. The outlaw was furious, and even hidden where she was, too far away to see any detail, Marion could see his anger. She heard his voice, as cold as he could make it, telling the two impostors to release him, but neither showed any intention to comply.
"I suppose it's my fault for believing you." Shaking his head in exasperation, Robin struggled momentarily against his bonds. "All that talk about Loxley... I wanted to believe that you were who you said you were." His eyes narrowed. "Did you even know my father?" There was no answer, and he did not bother pressing the issue. Both of his former 'friends' appeared to have been enchanted, and he had learnt from experience that it was not easy to converse with somebody who was in thrall to a spell. Such people knew only the instructions they had been given. The rest of the world was no longer of importance.
"Can you get free, Nasir?" Certain that Leofric and May had no interest in anything he said, Robin decided that there was no need to be careful. "I can't loosen these knots."
"No." The sounds of the Saracen fighting against the ropes was plain even to Marion, but clearly such struggles were to no avail. Robin sighed.
"Do you have any idea what they want?"
"You." It was a typically no-nonsense answer. "And Marion."
"And Herne." It was the obvious conclusion, and it came to Robin as such moments of insight so often did. "They want to... kill him? They must be planning to get to him through me." He twisted his head around, finding it hard to see his companion. "What happened to Marion?"
"She was with May." Nasir was watching the girl, busy with Leofric in arranging a collection of knives before the fire.
"Not anymore." It was a form of torture, being left to wonder what might have befallen his wife, but Robin knew that there was nothing he could yet do to discover what had happened. "I've been such a fool. I didn't realise what weaknesses I had. One mention of Loxley and I believe anything." A silence greeted his bitter words, and he smiled. Nasir, of course, was not one for empty words of comfort, and the leader of the outlaws was grateful for that. There wasn't anything that could have been said to make him feel better anyway. He turned his attention back to the arrangements being made, and smiled a sorry smile.
"I wonder what they're planing to do with those knives."
"Nothing yet." Nasir's philosophy tended to mean that he showed no concern until the danger had actually arrived - and usually not even then. "They need Marion."
"Yes. They did seem to want both of us to leave Sherwood." Staring up at the star-speckled sky, Robin wondered how far away that ferocious storm was; whether it was still threatening to drown Sherwood, or had finally tired itself out. "They'll be back soon. There'll be less chance of escaping when they're here."
"You know them." It was a quiet observation, and one that made Marion tense. Robin was silent for several moments though before he answered, oblivious to any sense of tension.
"I think so. From a story though, nothing else. They're Irish, and there's an old tale... I'd have thought it was nothing more than a legend, if I hadn't once thought the same of Herne." His eyes scanned the trees. "Do you feel that we're being watched?" There was a long silence, and Marion froze, wanting to pull back further into cover, but afraid to do so without attracting further attention. She did not yet feel that the time was right to make a move; especially when she had no way of knowing what action Leofric and May might be capable of taking against her. She fingered her bow, still ready to shoot, and wondered if she could kill both guards quickly enough to prevent one of them from escaping, or attacking. Could she kill either? They, or perhaps the clearing, might be protected by spells. Their weird employers might be back at any moment, and besides... she imagined shooting them both down, dispassionately, just as she had shot down the outlaws who had once menaced them. It seemed cold, somehow. Nasir would have done it, and she would not have questioned such actions from him; wouldn't have given them a second thought. That didn't mean that it was something she could easily do herself. Shifting her position, moving as quietly as she could past rustling bushes, she made her way round behind the seven white posts. She didn't know what she could do there either, but at least she might be in a better position to see what was going on. She was hoping that Robin would continue with his explanations about the possible identity of the three women, but his attentions seemed to have been irrevocably distracted, and true to form Nasir was not pressing the issue.
"Maybe I was mistaken." Robin's voice sounded very close, now that she was hiding in a different place. The sound of it made her feel better, inexplicably perhaps, and she had to fight a sudden urge to slip closer, and try to cut him free. Leofric and May might have been bewitched, and they might appear to be paying no attention to what was going on, but that didn't mean that they would fail to notice a rescue attempt.
"I could have sworn that I'd seen something." He shook his head, and Marion saw his long dark hair moving to-and-fro, darker still against the gloom in the air.
"Marion?" It was an off-hand question, but it made both Leofric and May glance up; the first sign of interest that they had so far shown. Their eyes travelled together to her last hiding place, where Robin's own eyes were currently lingering. Marion held her breath, raising the bow in case it was about to become necessary to defend herself. The pair soon turned away though, convinced, it appeared, that there was nothing worth looking at. Robin looked away as well.
"My foster father used to tell stories, when I was a child." He spoke clearly and loudly, almost as though he were raising his voice for the benefit of a distant listener. "They were for Much really, but I used to stay and listen because he was afraid to listen on his own. The story is about an ancient witch, or goddess, of war and strife, or possibly a more basic form of darkness. She has an opposite figure, a character named Angus Òg, who's sort of like Herne is to us, I suppose. She's called the Mòrrìgan, but she has three other forms, the sisters. Different facets of herself, perhaps. The miller probably didn't know the whole tale. It could have been passed down through his family, and changed in every generation. You know how these things do."
"No." Nevertheless Nasir sounded understanding. "In my country, often when a word is changed, the story no longer makes sense."
"Well that's not the way it works with folk tales in this part of the world, that's for sure." Robin thought back to the dark nights listening to the old stories, with Much's mother shaking her head in exasperation as her husband terrified their timid young son. "Anyway, the Mòrrìgan - if that's what she is - will hang like a carrion crow over the country, if she manages to defeat Herne. She'll bring despair and death to every family in England, and perhaps even beyond. Life under the Normans will seem happy in comparison." He closed his eyes, leaning back so that his head hit the white post. "And it'll all be my fault. I wish I knew what to do next."
"Fight." If Nasir was discouraged by the fact of his close imprisonment, certainly there was no evidence of it. His eyes were fixed on the two servants of the Mòrrìgan, now returned to their arranging of the ceremonial knives. They had laid them out in order of size, and were painting them delicately with aromatic oil. Marion could smell it from her hiding place, and it surprised her with its potency.
"Oh we'll fight." Robin's head turned, looking out into the night as though expecting the Mòrrìgan to reappear at any moment. "But it's all up to Marion now. I just hope that she chooses her moment well. She won't get a second chance."
"The great queen is returning." Stopping his preparations for a moment, Leofric looked up, apparently reacting to a call only he could hear. "We must be ready."
"We are." May held up the largest of the knives, and the starlight shone irregularly on the glistening, oiled blade. "Do they have Marion?"
"I don't know." Leofric lifted up the second largest of the knives, and used its point to carve a symbol into the wood of Robin's pole, just above the outlaw's head. Robin felt the oil dripping onto him, and smelt its strong and sickly scent as its ran down his face. It was a relaxing smell in a way, despite its unpleasantness; a smell that spoke of heavy, enchanted sleep, and dreams that had no place in the minds of men. "But we'll be ready if they do."
"Good." May was playing with her own large knife as though captivated by its very existence. "It'll be light soon. We'll start then."
"Start what?" It was in vain hope that Robin asked the question, for he did not in the least expect an answer. Leofric's sharp gaze drifted towards him for a second, lingering on his determined face.
"Your death," May broke in, answering where Leofric had not. "The collection of your power, and the depletion of Herne. By noon the wings of the great queen will block out the sun all over the country, and Herne will be nothing but a memory." She ran her fingers over the knife blade, smiling at Robin all the while. "But you won't know it. You'll be dead."
"Not until you have Marion." Robin's voice was calm, almost mocking May with its firmness and gentility. She glowered at him.
"We'll have her. She's close, and there's nowhere she can hide when the Mòrrìgan searches. When she spreads her wings across the sky, and hangs above us, she uses the eyes of birds of prey. She'll see your wife, and she'll bring her. Soon enough." Shutting Robin from her consciousness she turned back to preparing the knives, but nearby Marion was not nearly so cool. Robin knew that she was here; he had seen her - surely the Mòrrìgan could do the same, especially if she had such magical powers as Leofric and May were suggesting? Surely she really would be captured, and brought to assist in Herne's murder? Shivering, she pressed herself back into the shadows, and wondered how she was supposed to guess when the time was right. Robin had said that she would get only one chance, but how was she to know when that chance had come? Time was short, that much was clear, but just as clear was the risk in making a move now. Leofric and May were dangerous, and with the oiled knives ready before them they were more dangerous still.
"I wish I knew where Herne was." Robin sounded strangely reflective. He was not generally given to moments of introspection or of sombreness, and Marion recognised the concern he must be feeling. She felt for him, and again resisted the urge to creep closer, and try to free him from the post. She knew that she would not manage it without being discovered, but still it was a strong temptation. "I don't like not being able to feel him. He's usually not this far away."
"He's gone into hiding." Leofric clearly enjoyed insulting the mythical man's honour. "He fears the Mòrrìgan."
"He's not hiding." Marion could tell just by the hard edge in her husband's voice that his eyes were narrowed and his gaze cold. "Something has come between us, but he's still there. He was trying to talk to me all along, but I didn't manage to understand his messages." His voice raised again, just as though he were trying to pass on some important point to a listener who might not be able to hear him clearly. "The storm was his doing. His message. I should have listened, but it might not be too late for somebody else."
"There is nobody else." May returned her attention to the knives, effectively cutting Robin out of her consciousness. Leofric nodded.
"Soon there will be nobody but the Mòrrìgan," he observed, although without any sense of triumph or regret. "The great raven, with a world of misery to gorge herself on." Robin turned his head, so that his bright gaze stared steadily at the man who had claimed to be his kin.
"You'll answer to Herne for this. Both of you. Not even Herne's Son will be able to speak up in your defence." His voice showed sadness, perhaps, for the past was too recent for him to forget the fondness he had once felt for Leofric. The older man was unconcerned, however, and his mocking smile was a glittering testimony to ill-will.
"Herne is dead, Wolfshead; or as near as makes no difference. Your death will precede his, and then everything changes. There's no stopping it. No defeating the Mòrrìgan."
"There may be." Robin did not bother struggling against his bonds, even as a display of defiance, for he knew how useless it would be. Instead he merely turned his angry thoughts inward. "The battle isn't over yet."
"It was over as soon as the great queen chose to come here from Ireland." Leofric spoke like a man puffed with pride, yet also strangely devoid of any real emotion, and Robin knew that there was no point arguing the point with him. The man was a vessel, and little else; a victim probably, or a weak fool taken by the three women when they had first arrived in England. He was a nothing.
"It's never over." It was all that he was prepared to say now; all the breath that he was prepared to waste on a man who could no longer argue meaningfully. Instead Robin's thoughts were on the one person present who might still be able to do something decisive. Marion was here somewhere, he knew, and he hoped that the help he had given her had been enough. It seemed pitifully little, but closely watched and listened to, there was nothing else that he could have done for her. Now he could do nothing else at all. Hiding nearby Marion knew that as well, but she couldn't think what to do next. All that she could think of was her solitude, and the scraps of advice she had been given that she barely understood. And from this was to come Herne's salvation? Herne's and Robin's, she corrected herself, not to mention the rest of the outlaw band. She didn't need to believe in luck to know that she was going to need every last bit of it that remained in Sherwood if she was going to succeed. Every last bit of it - and more besides.
The Mòrrìgna, ecstatic with their own power, found the remaining followers of Robin just as they left Sherwood behind them. As the three witches had planned all along, the outlaw band was weaker when divided; weakened not so much in strength of force, but in spirit. The powers of light and darkness were divided amongst them, and once they were beyond Sherwood, and Herne's link with them was no longer so immediate, they were an easier target. Herne was still too strong for any one of the Mòrrìgna to enter Sherwood, and even the powers that the Mòrrìgan herself possessed were not enough to let her pass the forest's magical threshold, but once the four men had left its thick green borders, they were easy targets for the conniving, powerful women. Joyous, and shrieking their triumph like the raven that was the Mòrrìgan's grim symbol, they spun out of nothingness into the path of the outlaws, and all the birds for a mile or more flew skywards in a maddened cloud.
"By heaven!" Crossing himself quickly, Tuck stared at the three figures, all miraculously dry despite the frantic rain. "Or perhaps not. Not by heaven, I think. Not you three ladies."
"Wise reckoning, priest." The threesome had spread out, forming a line that blocked the path ahead. Standing in the centre, her red hair billowing like a cloak about her head, the beautiful one of the three smiled coldly. Even the most unpleasant expression could do little to mar the beauty of her face, but not one of the outlaws was charmed by her presence. Will drew his sword.
"Who are you?" As always he was unimpressed by power and splendour, and the magical appearance of the three women did not seem to have impressed him. The redhead laughed.
"We are your defeat, my angry friend." She frowned, eyeing the trembling Much. "But you already know who we are. The little one has told you." She reached out a hand to the boy, crooking a finger to indicate that he should come to her. "Come here my little one. Play your wooden flute for the Mòrrìgna."
"Leave him alone." Putting his large bulk between the three sisters and the boy, John brandished his large stave. "We know who you are, perhaps, but we'd rather know what's happened to our friends."
"Your friends?" A cruel smile played about on the lips of the impossibly beautiful face. "Ah yes. Your friends." She held out her hands - and the four outlaws saw that she was holding Marion's sword. Beside her, her middle-aged compatriot was suddenly holding two very familiar short, curved blades, and the ancient third leant on the proud shape of Albion. The runes engraved on the clean, smooth blade blazed white for a moment, but if the sword was trying to free itself from her grip, it was not able to do so. Will let out an oath.
"Where are they?" Stepping past John, he pointed with his sword at the redhead, the easiest and most obvious target in her central position. She smiled back at him, seductive in her pose and her mannerisms.
"Alive. Safe. For now. We can take you to them, if that's what you want."
"What do you want with them?" Letting his hand fall to the wooden cross he wore around his neck, Tuck moved out into the front of the little group. There was barely a stave's length between him and the foremost of the Mòrrìgna now, but he kept his head up and his eyes determined. The women unsettled him, but he was not a weak man by any means. "What evil acts do you have planned?"
"Evil?" The beautiful young woman looked affronted. "We are not evil. We are the Mòrrìgna."
"You feed on misery and death." John's tone of voice showed how he felt about that. "Doesn't sound very friendly to me."
"We all have our place in the world." She turned her shining green eyes towards him. "There are folk tales that paint your beloved Herne in very unflattering colours. They tell of his cruelty, of his involvement with the darker powers. They say he steals the souls of young children."
"Rubbish put about by the Church, to discourage old beliefs." John could see her point though, even if his heart told him not to trust the threesome. "He's no more cruel than nature."
"We are all the sum total of our place in the world." She moved closer, eyes moving about from one to the other of the three outlaws still visible to her. Much was still cowering in the back, muttering prayers to himself, and wishing that Robin was with them. That the three women were dry in the middle of the storm; that the soft voice of the redhead rose so effortlessly above the howling wind and crashing thunder; that their very presence recalled to his mind nights being terrified by his father's well told tales - all had conspired to leave the boy wishing that all of this was a nightmare, and that he would soon be waking up.
"We didn't ask for you to explain yourselves. Just to know what's happened to our friends." Tuck kept his voice level, although it was hard to do so whilst having to shout above the storm. The water swirled about his feet, but he ignored it, determined to stand firm even though the ground was too soft, and the wind too hard. The redhead smiled at him.
"You're right. And if you want to see your friends you need only look for them." She stepped aside, indicating the trees behind her. A patch of clear moonlight shone there,from a sky empty of rain clouds, and the ground showed no sign of flooding. A fire stood on the grass, dry and burning well, illuminating a gleaming white post to which Robin was tied. John let out an oath and started forward.
"Don't go over there." Putting out a hand to stop the bigger man, Tuck scrutinised the three women with his bright and beady eyes. It was clear that what they wanted was for the outlaws to head towards their leader, but Tuck was not quite ready to give in just yet.
"But it's Robin." Peering around John's large arm, Much gazed longingly at the figure tied to the post. He called, but his foster brother showed no sign of having heard him. Perhaps it was the storm that drowned his voice - or perhaps what he was seeing was not Robin at all, but merely a trick. He blinked uncertainly. Above them another searing burst of lightning rendered the world temporarily bright, but the small patch of dry, fire-lit earth where Robin was standing remained dark. The only illumination there was from the fire, and the accompanying burst of thunder did not make him flinch as it did his four watching friends. John glanced back at Tuck.
"He could be anywhere. We've no way of finding him without going there."
"But that's exactly what they want." Gesturing at the three grinning women, Tuck searched for a better argument. They didn't know what would happen if they walked forward, but he was as anxious to go there as were the others. Marion might be there somewhere - almost certainly was. He hated not knowing where she was, or how she was, or what might be threatening her.
"We've got no choice though, have we." Having remained uncharacteristically silent for some moments, Will now glared challengingly at Tuck. "They want us to go through, and we want to find Robin. If we go over there we're getting what we want."
"And so are they," muttered John, although not in a tone of voice that suggested he was completely opposed to the plan. He rubbed at his soaking beard, trying to think. "It looks safe enough. Leofric and May might be lying in wait, but there are four of us, and we're expecting trouble."
"And if one of them is waiting with a knife at Marion's throat?" Tuck played helplessly with the cross around his neck. "We just don't know, do we."
"We can't know. Not unless we go there." Will squared his shoulders. "I say we try it. If we stay here we might lose any chance we have to save Robin."
"I doubt we'll have that chance if we go over there. Why would they show us the way if we had any chance of spoiling their plans?" Tuck's shoulders slumped. "But you're right. I can't see any other options. Perhaps if one or two of us were to stay here..."
"And split our forces any more than they have been already?" John shook his head in a firm negative answer, showering them with added rainwater as he did so. "No. We go together or not at all. We were fools to split up in the first place, and we won't make that mistake again today." He glanced back at Much. "You have a say too, lad. What do you think?"
"Me?" His mind running over all the things that his father had once told him about these three terrifying women, Much remembered the missing Marion and Nasir, and let his eyes rest on Robin, bound and apparently helpless. He couldn't keep the quiver from his voice, but he knew that he could keep the fear from controlling his actions too much. He took a deep breath. "I think we should go. It's probably a trap, but... but it's what Robin would do for us, isn't it. He came to save me from the Templars that time, didn't he, even though he knew he didn't have much of a chance of not being caught himself." He drew in a second, less shaky breath, and wished that he could look as resolute and strong as his friends. "We've got to go. And - and I'm going."
"Aye lad. You're not half as timid as the world thinks, are you." Beaming fondly at the boy, John reached out to ruffle his hair, then stopped and clapped him on the shoulder instead. It seemed only fair, after all, to acknowledge his courage with a less patronising gesture. "Then we're decided?"
"Decided, no. Resolute, yes." Tuck drew himself up to his full height, and smiled ruefully. "I hope Robin appreciates this."
"More likely he'll tell us off for not staying back here." John grinned at Will, remembering the time when, at the beginning off their friendship, Robin had shown just that kind of anger when they had followed him into danger at Castle Belleme. "Come on."
"You'll not regret it." The self-satisfaction in the redhead's voice was enough to turn all their stomachs, but not one of the foursome looked back at her. Whatever fate she might be leading them towards she was no longer of any importance, for all that mattered now was joining Robin. Finding Marion. Bringing them home. Striding four abreast in the torrential rain, they headed onwards, and as one they stepped into the image of the distant clearing. The last they heard of the place they were leaving behind was the echoing laughter of the witches - and then there was nothing but silence.
For a moment it seemed as if the world had blurred. Marion, crouched in her hiding place, saw Leofric and May glance up, then saw the three sisters reappear before the fire. They were laughing, clearly in a celebratory mood, and as the blur caused by their reappearance faded, Marion saw why. There were now six figures tied to the white posts, and only one post left empty. She heard Will's bellow of rage, and flattened herself down into the dark bushes. Things would start to happen now, surely.
"Nearly." Grinning madly through her wrinkled lips, the oldest of the women was rubbing her hands together. It seemed as though sparks flew from her fingers all the while, like friction caused by rubbing flints. "Nearly, nearly, nearly."
"Nearly?" Her middle-aged companion sounded disbelieving. "What's nearly about it? We still don't have the girl."
"But we have the others," pointed out the older one. The redhead came between them.
"The others are a welcome extra," she said coldly, "but no replacement for the girl. We need her."
"Then we'll get her." The old woman glared up at her through bright and beady eyes. "She can't be far."
"She could be anywhere," snapped the middle-aged one. The elder glared harder still.
"Can't have left England, can she." She looked haughty. "Can't have gone far at all. Sent her somewhere, didn't we."
"Not us." The redhead was toying with the sword in her hands, listening with one ear to the struggles and angry yells of Robin's captive gang. With her head cocked on one side she had a wild look about her, like an animal listening for some sound of its prey. "She didn't walk into the image, so she didn't come here, but something made her disappear."
"Herne." The oldest of the women spat the word with disgust. "He's supposed to be powerless against us."
"Herne could never be powerless." The redhead had narrowed her eyes to inhuman slits, that glittered with frenzied malice. "He's just not supposed to know where we are. His power stops us from entering Sherwood, but that doesn't mean that we're immune to his influence elsewhere." She muttered to herself in some language that might have been Irish, or might have been something more ancient. "But I don't think that he can be hiding her. He can't have that kind of influence here."
"She must still be back in the storm then, mustn't she." The middle-aged woman sounded argumentative. "We should go back and look for her. Properly this time. Sniff out the scent. It's worked before, with other prey."
"Perhaps." Her younger companion was looking about, apparently listening to the silence of the night beyond them. "But perhaps we don't have to go so far to catch wind of her scent." She cocked her head on one side. "Perhaps..." Sniffing the air cautiously, clearly scenting something beyond the obvious smells of trees and fire, the redhead ran a tongue, flickeringly, across her lips. "Perhaps she's not that far away at all." A cruel smile took over her face, turning the devastating beauty into something unspeakable. Marion's breath froze in her lungs.
"Do you think so?" Excited, the old woman also sniffed the air. "I smell... fear."
"Fear and roses." The middle-aged woman laughed softly, harshly, and turned her head this way and that. "What do we do?"
"We hunt." The redhead flashed her eyes around the clearing once last time, then centred them finally, heart-stoppingly, upon Marion. The girl stifled a gasp. She couldn't be seen - could she? The darkness was too complete, the bushes too thick and tall. It couldn't be possible for anybody to see her. But then, the darkness told her, this woman was not just anybody. As slowly and as quietly as she could, she began to back away.
"We have to get her." The middle-aged woman moved forwards, almost to the edge of the clearing. "We have to get her quickly."
"Then come with me." Reaching out her hands to her sisters, the redhead grasped them tightly, pulling them close to her. Marion and the rest of the outlaws watched, horror-struck, as the three woman began to change. Their faces rippled and blurred, their bodies lengthened and bent. For a moment they seemed almost invisible - darker even than the night - and then they were gone altogether. In their places, breathing heavily, were three giant hunting dogs. One was grey, one was black, and one russet; and all three were on a scent. Marion began to shake.
"Run!" Yelling the word with all of his might, Robin threw back his head to shout at the moon. His skull connected heavily with the post to which he was tied, but he seemed not to notice. One of the hunting dogs regarded him momentarily, then began to paw at the ground. Marion stared from one to another of them, then throwing caution to the wind she turned and fled.
With a howl from one and an excited barking from another, the three dogs came after her. She heard them crashing through the undergrowth, snuffling and growling, and doubled her pace. It did no good. How could she hope to keep ahead? It seemed impossible to outrun a dog, and there was nothing else to try. She could shoot perhaps one of them, before the others were upon her - but what good would it do to try even that? She doubted that she could kill them, for the Mòrrìgna were magical creatures, ancient and powerful, and were undoubtedly immune to the effects of any ordinary weaponry. There didn't appear to be anything that she could do.
Her pace faltered, confounded by the uneven ground. Almost falling, she heard the dogs behind her coming closer, hearing the sound of their clawed feet scratching inevitably nearer. Her readied arrow fell from her hand. She almost stopped; almost tried to recover it; then realised the foolishness of such a move and carried on running. Desperate as she was, the trees and bushes tearing at her mercilessly, it was all that she could do to keep hold of her bow. Behind the growling sounded more triumphant, louder and happier, until suddenly it was the fully fledged barking that she remembered from hunting trips in her youth. She knew the cry of a hound close to its prey; terrible, she thought now, although she had never done so before. But then she had never been hunted by dogs before. She tried to run faster, but she knew that she was already going as fast as she would ever be capable. Her heart felt as though it might stop.
And then suddenly she was breaking free of the copse, and was back out in open territory, and knew that she was lost. There were no more bushes to slow pursuit; no more trees to take a last chance and hide in. No more shadows to provide a desperate refuge. Instead she was alone and exposed in a cruelly empty place, picked out by the cold, pale moonlight. Behind her the dogs no longer needed to bark, for they were close enough to be able to see her easily, their breathing as loud and as terrifying as the barking had been before. Marion fumbled for an arrow, fitting it to her bow, slowing to a halt and turning to face her pursuers. They were spreading out, staring at her through wild eyes flecked with red. Saliva dribbled from three sets of open jaws, and the hackles on all three necks rose stiffly. Marion turned her single arrow to point at one dog after another, and wondered what she could possibly do next. The dogs came closer, and she was almost certain that the long face of the russet-coloured beast was twisted into an unspeakable grin.
"I won't come back with you." It was probably a pointless thing to say, but it made her feel better, albeit only a little. Helpless she might be, but a small measure of defiance helped to stop her from being just a victim. "I won't help you to kill Herne." The dogs came closer, and their hoarse breathing became a vicious, lingering growl.
That stopped abruptly. Almost as though the creatures had been real hunting dogs, called to a halt by their master, they fell silent and took a step back. Marion brandished the bow, seeing nothing else that could have caused the change in their attitude. Were they scared of her after all? Could her arrows harm them? All three dogs took another step back, and a quiver ran through the grey one and the black one. Only the russet animal managed not to shake, but even it had lost the immediacy of its earlier ferocity.
"Keep back." She took a step towards them, but they didn't retreat. The russet dog growled quietly, and Marion stopped. It wasn't her that they had been afraid of? Then what? Cautiously she looked about her, conscious of the possibility of a trick. She saw grass; a broad sweep of grass, with a tiny silver stream running nearby; a sprinkling of clover leaves and thyme; daisies and patches of mud showing through. No religious icons, or any of the things usually presumed capable of scaring off dark powers. The three dogs were backing away though, that much couldn't be denied. With a shiver and a shake the hounds were gone, and in their place were the three mismatched women. Marion frowned uncomprehendingly.
"We will get you." Her voice sibilant, horrible, the redhead who was so clearly the leader pointed a long-nailed finger at Marion. "You can't stay here forever."
"I don't plan to." She was still wondering what the women could possibly be so afraid of. "Now leave."
"We will." The three women joined hands. "But you'll come after us. You'll have to, unless you plan to leave your husband behind. Well have you yet, Marion of Sherwood."
"Maybe." She watched as their individual shapes blurred and merged, until once again she saw the dreadful, ghastly hag that she had seen once before. She was closer to it this time, and could better see the hooked chin, the long nose, the skin like the bark of an old tree. Ghastly eyes bore into her like knives, and she felt her stomach churn. She couldn't recall ever having seen anything so terrible, save perhaps for the smile of the Baron de Belleme.
"Oh it's not 'maybe'. We all know that." The hag's voice was as terrible as her face. "Soon, Marion of Sherwood. Soon you'll be mine - and then nothing in the world will save you or Herne." With that the creature threw back its head and its arms, and with a crack like that of a whip, became a huge, black raven. It flew upwards, climbing high into the air, crying its chilling cry - then disappeared into the dark sky. Marion stared after it, then sank, trembling, to the ground. She was no coward, and she knew it - but something about the Mòrrìgan scared her badly. The arrow fell from her numb fingers, and suddenly panicked that she might need it again, she fumbled to pick it up. Her hands brushed the soft petals of the daisies that carpeted the ground, and for a second she appreciated the sensation. It was strangely comforting. Then, struck by a thought, she pulled her hand away and looked down.
Daisies. They were everywhere - a carpet of white and yellow that stretched out all around her. That was nothing unusual - daisies grew everywhere in Britain, covering every piece of available earth. They were the first flower that every child learnt to identify; one of the most familiar sights to be seen. But now, in the darkness, when the only illumination was the ghostly white light of the moon, that carpet of simple little flowers should have been closed up. The petals should have been curled, the flowers asleep, but instead they were staring up at the sky just as they did in the full glare of the day. All those flowers, all awake, all aglow with life. That, at least, could be no coincidence - but could something as simple and as tiny as a daisy possibly have made the Mòrrìgan take flight? It seemed so ridiculous. But then of course, even the tiniest thing had its strength, its purposes, its powers. Gently she picked one of the flowers, and held it up. Now was the time for Herne to emerge from the shadows - to say his cryptic proverbs, or to send images into her mind. He had done it once before, when Robin and the others had been in danger. He could come forwards, into the moonlight, the massive head-dress casting its eerie shadows - but she knew that he would not come. He couldn't. Whatever powers the Mòrrìgna were using, they were enough to keep Herne at bay, and had been all along. She sat alone; alone to work out the significance of the daisies, alone to decide how best to use this strangest of weapons. Afraid of what might be happening to the others, certain for now only of the safety of Robin, she knew that she had to work swiftly. Quickly she emptied her arrows onto the ground. There were only seven, but if her aim was good she should not need even that many - and she knew that, usually, her aim was amongst the best. On a good day only Robin and Nasir could out-shoot her.
"I have no idea if this is going to work, Robin." She spoke to him as if he were with her, for it helped her to feel not quite so alone. "But I think perhaps it might." It was certainly the most positive sign since she had first begun to suspect that Leofric and May might not be all that they had claimed - since she had said goodbye to John, just outside Sherwood Forest - and had heard Nasir's tale of a vanished Robin. She felt her heart begin to lift as she began to wind the daisies around her arrows, tying them into the flights, fixing them close around the tips, tying long chains of them around the long wooden shafts. It was like a childhood game, and for a second she was back in Leaford Grange, making daisy chains to make her father smile, and hanging them around the stable of her favourite horse. It made her relax a little, and she wondered how powerful the magic of the flowers might be. Strong enough not only to drive the Mòrrìgan back, but also to stave off the feelings of despair that the horrible creature so loved. And all her life she had seen them as one of the least significant of all flowers.
It took some time to finish her task, and when it was completed she returned the arrows carefully to the quiver on her back. Fixing one last daisy, for luck, to her bow, she took a final look around at the carpet of flowers. They were starting to close now, their job clearly done. Only the ones that she had fixed to the arrows and to her bow remained open, staring boldly on with their little yellow eyes. She whispered a brief word of thanks to Herne, certain that he was responsible for this somehow. Perhaps he could not be here himself, could not contact her directly, but he had still been able to help. Heartened, though still afraid, she turned her head back towards the distant thicket where Robin and the others still waited. The Mòrrìgna would be ready for her, she knew - but if she was ever going to be able to defeat them, the chance was likely to come now. When else would she be better prepared? Wondering if the sky would ever lighten - if the daylight would ever return to replace the night - she started off on her journey. It wasn't until the thick clump of trees was before her once again that she realised she was no longer afraid.
The Mòrrìgna were angry. They had descended from the sky in their joint, raven shape, splitting apart even before they had landed, three women landing on all fours like the hounds they had so recently been. They had snarled and growled and spat, screeching and whining in their native tongue, then turned in a fury towards the fire. Robin and the others had watched Leofric and May back away in fright as the threesome had converged upon the flames. There had been a crackling and fizzing that was almost as loud as the thunder that had so deafened them all in the other place, before they had been brought here. The flames spat green and white, blue and orange, then died back to a dull red.
"We've waited long enough. Eyes hard, the redheaded leader of the three swung around to face the six captive outlaws. "Perhaps we can't be rid of Herne until we have the girl, but there are other things we can be doing."
"Other magicks." The other two crowded round, and, reassured, Leofric and May began to stoke up the fire once again. "Other powers."
"Bring two of them." The redhead gestured vaguely at the white posts, clearly not caring which two prisoners were to be the first. Her two sisters scurried forwards, and using Nasir's confiscated swords, they cut Will and Much free from the posts. Will struggled furiously, but no matter his strength he found that he could not break free from the woman holding his arms. A power greater than he could imagine held him helpless, and he felt the despair that was the Mòrrìgan's lifeblood tugging at his heart. He shook it off as best he could, but it burned at him nonetheless. Nearby Much was whimpering, the sorry sounds almost drowned out by John's furious bellows.
"Leave them alone." Robin's voice, powerful and cold, made John fall silent. The redhead came close, smiling at the angry young face.
"Your time will come, Robin i' the Hood." Her eyes glittered mockingly, and he struggled briefly against his bonds. Around him the others were doing the same thing, with equal futility.
"What are you going to do with them?" He controlled his anger, knowing that an outburst would only serve to entertain the witch. She smiled.
"Magic," she told him. "Two of you might help us to defeat Herne, but the others have been touched by him too. Their blood has its own uses. She turned away from him, stroking Much's pale face. "Blood spilt by moonlight, onto stuttering flames... spells written centuries ago by mortals just like yourselves, who claimed to follow their own gods and goddesses. Some of them even honoured me with their spells. Many still do." She smiled at Much so beautifully that he almost smiled back. The spells work for us as well. Even deities can increase their powers through magic."
"You're no deity." Determined to keep the women distracted, Tuck raised his voice. "There's only one Deity, and He's not a trio of creatures living on the misery of others."
"You think so, priest?" The redhead stepped away from Much, almost as though she were considering taking matters further with Tuck - then she smiled her dazzling smile once again, and waved her impossibly long nails in the air. "You can try to distract me - try all the tricks you have between you - but none of them will save your friends, or you. You'll all stand before the fire in your turn, and your blood will all be spilt, in the end. Nobody stands against the Mòrrìgna."
"Except, perhaps, for little white flowers." Where Marion had come from, nobody knew. Robin's mouth opened in surprise; in the instinctive desire to tell her to run; to save herself. Then he merely smiled. She smiled back, though with less of his carelessness. Trust Robin to show no fear, no concern.
"You?" The redhead laughed. "You should have kept running. What do you plan to do?"
"Release my friends." She pulled one of the arrows from her quiver, and fitted it to her bow. The old woman and the middle-aged woman both flinched. Will felt some of the powers that gripped him fade away, and wondered if he might almost be able to make a move.
"You have no idea what you're doing." Spitting the words from her mouth, the redhead fixed Marion with a terrible stare. "You can't hope to defeat us alone."
"I'm not alone." For a second Marion allowed her gaze to run over all of the gang. "There are seven of us - and something else."
"Herne? Herne is powerless here. We're miles from Sherwood, in a place visited only by dark powers and wandering fell beasts. Herne is back in Sherwood, drenching his world with storms in rage over his own impotence. Why do you think the storm can't reach us here? You're alone."
"No I'm not." She levelled the arrow, not at the redhead, but at the middle-aged woman holding Will. "Now leave."
"She has the flowers." The middle-aged woman looked as though she wanted to hide behind Will. The redhead glared at her.
"Be silent." She made a gesture with one hand, and Leofric and May began to converge upon Marion. Keeping her head, her mind working fast, Marion swung the bow around.
"Stay where you are," she warned the approaching duo. It seemed almost a shame to kill them, when once she had saved their lives, but it was something that she was prepared to do. Neither Leofric nor May showed the slightest sign of having heard.
"You can't fight all of us." The redhead clicked her fingers together, and Tuck was before her, freed from the post but still bound with white ropes. Her arms were around his neck, and Marion's own sword pressed close to his throat. "Now decide, girl, and quickly. Shoot me and your two friends die. Shoot one of my sisters, and your monk dies. Do nothing and my two servants will be upon you in moments."
"Marion." Robin's voice was very calm, very steady. "Do you know what you're doing?"
"I'm choosing the right moment." It was what he had told her to do, when he had suspected that she was nearby, and listening, just a little while ago. "I only have one chance."
"You have no chance." The sword at Tuck's throat was pressing so hard against him that he seemed to be having trouble breathing. Quite how it had managed not to break the skin yet, Marion didn't know, but she knew that it could not possibly be longer before it did.
"One chance." She took a deep, steadying breath, looking from one to the other of the Mòrrìgna, and one to the other of their servants. Leofric and May were almost upon her now; so close. Her eyes travelled around them all again. To the middle-aged woman and her ancient sister, together on the far side of the fire; to the impossibly beautiful redhead, standing to the left of the fireplace; to Leofric and May, advancing steadily. Together the five almost formed a circle around the glowing, spitting flames. A circle that would soon be a circle no longer, as the mortal duo continued to bear down upon her. She wanted to wait, suddenly afraid that this would not work - after all, it was the plan of desperation and blind faith, not of careful consideration. She had no idea what might work - what might be the best way to let the daisies use the strange and unexpected magic that they seemed to possess. But she knew that if she waited any longer the circle would be lost; the moment would be lost - and the sword would cut Tuck's throat. Changing her aim to the stuttering, spitting heart of the fire, she loosed her daisy-woven arrow, and watched it pierce the glowing, gleaming centre of her target.
And it seemed as if the world had screamed. With a shriek of rage the three sisters hurled aside their hostages, staggering away from the fire as its suddenly yellow and white flames tore through them. Confused, Will pushed Much clear, and crossing himself madly, Tuck hurried away as fast as his legs could carry him. A fountain of angry sparks flew up into the air, raining down on the clearing in a hot parody of the storm back in Sherwood.
"Pain... pain..." Hands clasped over her eyes, the oldest of the women was standing beside the fire, clothes smouldering. Her hair was a mass of sparks, and she was swaying from side to side as she cried aloud. Nearby her sisters were beating the flames from their own clothing, shouting in their own language and fighting off the spiteful sparks.
"You'll pay for this!" Emerging at last from the incandescent corona, the redhead pointed a finger at Marion. Her red hair was glowing as fiercely as the flames, and her eyes were red as well. Even her teeth seemed to be glowing.
"Marion! Look out for Leofric!" Still tied to his post, Robin was struggling now. Marion turned about, looking for the man she had once held in such regard. She couldn't see him, for as soon as she turned away from the mad glare of the out of control fire, her vision became a useless patchwork of ghost flames. She rubbed at her eyes, hearing footsteps, and threw up her hands to protect herself. From nearby there was a shout - and as her vision at last cleared she saw Much, a burning brand in his hands, beating back Leofric and May. Will gave a whoop of delight, and pounding the boy heavily on the back, he caught up his own brand and joined in the torment of the vengeful pair. Marion muttered her thanks, and went to help Tuck free the others.
"You'll not get away." Arms up-thrown, the redheaded leader of the witches was trying to cast a spell. Her glowing eyes burned brightly, but the louder she shouted the more furious she became, and the more obvious it was that her spells were not working. The flames were all around the three now, binding them with magic so that they could not get away. The white light was becoming stronger, and as the multitudinous sparks rained on, it seemed as if the three women were beginning to shrink.
"You'll pay for this..." Still gasping her furious threats, the redhead was still struggling to cast her spells. Her two sisters had ceased to fight now, and were swaying sadly from side to side, muttering in their ancient tongue. Robin caught up Albion, abandoned close to the fireplace. The powerful sword still felt cold, even though the madly dancing flames had touched it more than once.
"We'll pay for nothing," he told the age-old beauty, and he pointed the sword towards her. "Now leave this place. Leave this country. And don't think of coming back."
"We're not done yet, Robin i' the Hood. Do you think a posy of daisies thrown on a fire can destroy the Mòrrìgna?" She was drawing herself up again, once more trying to cast her spells. "This isn't over as long as the three of us stand on the soil of England - as long as Herne is trapped back in Sherwood, and can't lend his strength to yours. I'll kill each of you yet."
"That's where you're wrong." Robin did not advance towards her, for he did not see the need. Around him his friends had all recovered their weapons, and stood in a protective half-circle around their leader. Leofric began to laugh.
"You can't defeat the Mòrrìgan, Robin. They've existed since before Ireland was first populated by mankind. They're as old and as powerful as Herne, and even with him standing right beside you, you're just a mortal."
"And the fire is burning itself out." May was beside her father now, her face as pale as any face had ever been, her eyes dark and deep. "You fight a good fight, but you'll lose all the same."
"And we will be triumphant." Emerging from the ebbing glow, the redhead threw her arms above her head once again and began to chant. Sparks flew from her fingertips, but unlike the ones caused by Marion's magical arrow, these were coloured a deep blood red, and crackled with a sound like thunder. Eyes as fierce as were hers, Will and Nasir leapt forward. Nasir's twin swords sliced the air, and Scarlet, his single, larger sword more like a quarter-staff in comparison, swung in a hard arc towards the middle-aged woman's dark head. She laughed, low and cold, and blocked his sword with her arm. The metal bounced off the cloth of her sleeve as though she had been wearing the finest Spanish armour. At the same moment the redhead, responding to Nasir's advance more with irritation than real anger, hurled him aside with a bolt of red fire. He rolled across the ground as if lifeless, and John's bellow of anger reverberated through the trees. Redhead laughed.
"Are you looking for revenge?" She was mocking him, and the big man started forward with an oath. Robin caught at his arm.
"Don't be a fool." His eyes were as hard as John had ever seen them, but even so the big man began to object. Robin pushed him aside.
"This isn't the time for heroics." It was clear that no argument would be tolerated, and John turned away. He was still glowering, but he made no further objections. Leofric laughed.
"At a loss, Robin Hood?"
"Shut up." Much, who was still attempting to guard the mortal duo, sounded shaky in his defiance, but his loyalty to Robin would not allow him to remain quiet when his supposed prisoner was insulting his foster brother. Leofric smiled at him, sardonic and cruel.
"You'll all be torn apart," he told the boy, and Much brandished the still smouldering branch he had used to beat Leofric away from Marion.
"I said shut up!" He sounded increasingly afraid, and the laughter of their five enemies resounded about the clearing. Robin thrust Albion into its sheath.
"Enough." He spoke harshly, his fury controlled only in part. Nearby Nasir was climbing to his feet, but Robin was not fool enough to think that any of them would recover so quickly from any further direct assaults. Their redheaded friend had lowered her arms now, but the whole of her body crackled with hot, red energy. It sparked from her teeth as she smiled widely, and the pupils at the centres of her eyes were a fizzing mass of tiny red sparks.
"Enough?" Her smile became seductive, and around her her two sisters gathered. Their smiles echoed hers, their red fires matched hers. A wind was building, and it felt as though the threesome were sucking all of the air from the world; pulling it towards them, drinking it in. "It's not enough until you're nothing but firewood, each and every one of you."
"And Herne's is dead. Yes, we know." Almost casually Robin lifted his bow, testing the ready string. "But I think perhaps you forgot that Herne trusts us to fight people like you - powers like yours. I am Herne's Son." His back seemed to straighten, even though he had never been the type to slouch. "I won't let you defeat him."
"You have no choice." She pointed at him, and tendrils of flame leapt from finger to finger. Robin stared coolly back, and at the same time, he reached for one of Marion's floral arrows.
"Those might have given you a few minute's grace before, but they'll give you no more than that now. A few minutes to do what? To think that you're winning like you did before?" Her voice as cackling and mad as it had always been, the oldest of the women grinned widely at Robin. She had no teeth, and the red fire that seemed to fill her mouth looked all the more terrible for it. Robin took a step forward, and the others fell in around him.
"The last time was a distraction," he said, almost polite in his defiance. "This time nobody is going to be aiming at the fire."
"And what makes you think we'll be letting you aim at all?" With a sudden throwing motion, the middle-aged woman hurled a red ball of fire at Robin - but almost without thinking he raised the arrow before him. The flames struck the daisies and shattered, showering the ground with tiny beads of heat that made the grass shiver and shrivel. Robin smiled.
"Getting desperate?" Slowly, easily, he slipped the arrow into its place against the bowstring. Leofric shouted in rage, and clubbing an inattentive Much out of his way, he ran for the outlaw. Robin didn't spare him a glance; didn't flinch; didn't let his gaze waver for an instant from the glowing, glowering trio before him. Leofric leapt at him, spitting curses as he came - and John raised his staff, meeting the attacking man in mid-air, driving the huge piece of wood into Leofric's stomach. The would-be attacker collapsed in a heap, and with a cry similar to her father's, May also hurled herself forward. This time it was Will who met the assault, his rock-like fist colliding with the girl's jaw, dropping her like a stone. Tuck offered her a quick blessing, and glared at the unrepentant Scarlet, who flashed him a grin and massaged his knuckles. Marion rolled her eyes, amused by his cheerful, and handy, lack of gallantry.
"You'll not succeed." Angry at the dispatch of her servants, Redhead began to glow with a fiercer light. Again she threw a bolt of fire at the outlaws, and again the arrow Robin held somehow deflected it. He began to draw back the bowstring.
"We will destroy Herne." Redhead was reaching out for her sisters, taking their hands. Firelight crackled from one to the other of the three, and Robin felt a wave of despair wash over him. Beside him Marion gasped, throwing up her hands to her eyes, and Much let out a moan of fear. Sights ran before all their eyes - of battlefields through the centuries; of ravens pecking sad, dead eyes from fallen men and boys. Widows cried as they crouched in the mud, and black clouds blocked out the sun.
"Tricks." Closing his mind to the images, Robin refocused on the three women. At his feet Leofric was stirring, but he was not a threat yet, and Robin was not going to be distracted by future opponents. Before him the three women began chanting, and a fierce wind began to blow. Beneath his feet Robin felt the ground starting to shake.
"More tricks." This time it was harder to ignore; harder to pretend that the wind lashing him was no less a hallucination than the battlefield. The arrow in the bow seemed to have been in his ready grip for hours - seemed to be becoming a part of his hand. In his mind's eyes he saw it as such; a hand and arm of wood and daisies, and a body the same. It made him queasy with the weirdness of it all.
"Robin, I can't see..." John was rubbing his eyes, still troubled by alien images. Only Will and Nasir, neither a stranger to true battles, true battlefields, seemed unaffected. Wordless, Scarlet seized a pair of arrows from the quiver on Marion's back, and threw one to the waiting Saracen. The Mòrrìgna screamed in rage, and with a sound like the crack of a whip, all three hurled forth their fire once again. The skies darkened, and a flock of ravens flew before the sun. Robin senses rather than saw them flying towards him, and knew that this time it was not just a mirage. His hand upon the bowstring still did not feel like his own; still felt as though it were made of wood; and he had to struggle to tell himself to release the string; to make the shot. He was no longer even sure of his aim.
"Robin?" Will was ready, his own bow waiting, his own target chosen. He waited only for a signal from his leader, but Robin found suddenly that he could not speak. Once again he was lost on that long ago battlefield, where Irish soldiers had fought against Roman centurions. He felt the blood on his skin, and the mud beneath his feet, and heard the wailing of widows at the field's edge. But through it all, betraying itself with its mockery, he heard the laugh of his enemy, and drew himself back from the brink. Furious with himself for having waited so long; for having allowed the powers of the Mòrrìgna to hold him in check, he released his arrow. He heard Redhead scream in fury - felt the assault of her fire upon him as his shield of before left his possession - felt pain rise and burn within every inch of his body - and opened his eyes. He saw three women, their bodies wreathed in red fire. He saw three arrows, their floral decorations streaming in the breeze. As one they struck - each in a different target, even though there had been no conferring over who was to shoot at whom. Overhead the flock of ravens screeched and dove closer, attacking the seven followers of Herne in a tumultuous beating of wings. Robin struck out with his bow, driving back the birds long enough to get a view of the Mòrrìgna. Their fires had ebbed, and as he watched he saw white smoke rise up around them, pouring from their eyes, their mouths, their fingers. Daisies sprang up from the ground around their feet, growing fast, rising up to entwine themselves around the feet, the legs, the bodies, of the three women. One by one the Mòrrìgna screamed, the sound rising to a lingering note of a pitch too high to be properly heard - then the women were gone, vanished in a burst of green. For a second the ravens fought on, screeching, pecking, clawing. Then they too were gone. Robin dropped his bow. At his feet Leofric was moaning, reaching for his legs, intending to drag him down. Robin turned to meet him head on, and was just in time to see both man and daughter fade away into nothingness. Only their outlines remained pressed into the ground. A scattering of daisies rose up, turned their bright heads to look skyward, then closed up their petals and slept. Robin smiled. He was still smiling a few seconds later, when the skies opened up, and Herne's storm at last broke though into their secluded niche.
Sherwood was a mess. Most of England was the same, although Robin and his friends knew little enough of that. They saw only the places that they walked through on their way home, and their home itself once they arrived back there. Seas of mud had uprooted the smaller plants, arranging piles of debris in scattered places. The streams and rivers for miles around had burst their banks and flooded the land, and the ebbing waters had turned the ground to bog. Many of the leaves had been torn from the trees, and many branches had fallen. The lightning had found more than one target, and smouldering hulks that once had been proud trees stood as sorry testimony to the power of the fire from the skies. Will whistled.
"Remind me not to get on Herne's bad side. If this is what he'll do to a place he loves..."
"He was desperate, Will." Robin remembered the power of the storm, and wondered at how Herne must have been feeling. He would have been anxious to contact his son, to give warning of the coming of the Mòrrìgan, but when he had found himself unable to do so his anger had been terrible. It was a sobering reminder of the true power and ability of the man they held as their figurehead. "I'm lucky that he did all of this to the forest, and not to me. I made such a mess of things."
"How? You didn't bring the Mòrrìgan to England. All you wanted was to know about your father, and that's no crime." Busying himself around the fire that Nasir had already lit, Tuck sent Much to fetch down some of the stores that they had secured in the trees. "We'd all likely have done the same thing as you."
"I certainly would have done." Marion thought of her own father, dead in the Holy Land, and wondered what she would do if she were offered the chance to see him again for once last time. Will nodded. He was not one for comforting words ordinarily, but he managed a smile that was almost gentle.
"If they'd come to me, Robin, and told me that they were friends of my wife, I think I'd have listened to anything they said."
"Maybe." They had walked a long way, and all of them were tired, but Robin seemed more tired than anybody. He was drained physically and mentally. "But you tried to warn me not to head for London. I didn't listen."
"We all make mistakes, lad." John clapped him on the back. "Do you think you're supposed to be infallible, just because you're the son of Herne?" You're still just a man, Robin. And men make mistakes."
"When most men make mistakes they make fools of themselves, and that's all." Robin threw down his bow. "My mistake might have got Herne killed, and brought death and destruction to the whole of the country. I'm supposed to protect England, and instead I came close to allowing the Mòrrìgan to plunge it into chaos. She lured me out of Sherwood, so that she could use me to do more damage than the Sheriff or Gisburne could ever manage."
"It was still just a mistake." Marion could see that their reassurances were having no effect, and she hated to see her husband so troubled. "You won, Robin. You sent the Mòrrìgna back to where they came from. If you made a mistake, you accounted for it."
"Only because you saved me." He smiled at her then, gently and beautifully, but with eyes that were terribly sad. "I couldn't do anything, tied to that post. They were going to kill Much and Will, and then the others, and if it hadn't been for you they'd all be dead by now. You won, Marion. You accounted for my mistake. It was you who learnt how to defeat the Mòrrìgan, and you who gave me the chance to end it. All that I did was stand and wait to be cut free."
"We're a team. We're supposed to help each other, protect each other. You've saved me before, Robin. You saved me from the Baron de Belleme, and from Gisburne. I don't tear myself to pieces about it. We all look after each other."
"Maybe." He smiled at her then, though without much true happiness. "Right now I'm not sure. I need to think things through."
"Robin..." She let her words trail away into silence as he turned and left the camp, striding away into the forest. She might have followed him, were it not for Nasir catching her arm. He shook his head at her questioning expression, before retrieving Robin's fallen bow, and returning it to its proper place near to the camp fire. Tuck smiled kindly.
"He's right, little flower. Robin is bothered by his pride, and by his thoughts. He needs to sort that out by himself."
"But he shouldn't be alone. He's hurting himself with his thoughts." She sighed, knowing that Tuck was right. "He expects to be perfect. He doesn't believe that the son of Herne should make mistakes."
"He's just embarrassed. We've all felt that way from time to time. All made mistakes that might have hurt ourselves, or others." John was thinking of the early days of his relationship with Meg of Wickham, when he had put the whole of her village in danger by meeting there with her. "Don't worry about him, lass. Only time can make him feel better. He'll realise in the end that there's nothing to feel so bad about; but it won't do him any good to have us fussing around him."
"But he'll be alright, won't he?" Lugging a bag of food down from a nearby tree, Much asked his question with a customary look of wide-eyed concern. John clapped him on the shoulder.
"He'll be fine, lad. And he'll want something to eat when he gets back, so that food better still be edible."
"I think it is." Much stared after Robin for a moment, then came back to himself as the others began to bustles around him, helping Tuck to get a simple meal ready. Soon only Marion was left watching, looking to see if Robin would soon be returning, but as Nasir brought her some wine, and the smell of warming bread reminded her of how long it had been since she had eaten, she allowed herself to relax. The others were right, and she knew that Robin would return to them in time. There was no sense in worrying herself over things that she knew were beyond her control.
In a sea of rolling mist, Herne the Hunter stood before his young visitor, and lowered his head in greeting. Robin was troubled, and his mysterious father felt the young man's unrest as if it had been his own.
"You are bothered by your thoughts." He said it almost brightly, although by his very nature Herne was almost never that cheerful. Robin pulled Albion from its sheath.
"I came to offer this back to you. If you want to choose another son, I'm happy to relinquish my place."
"You would abandon the people of England so quickly?" Herne's voice had become more serious, and Robin looked up at him in surprise.
"Never." His determination was fierce. "But I was a fool. Two people came to me, and made me believe their tales. I didn't even question them."
"Robin..." Herne moved closer, and Robin felt the mist rising around them, cold but not damp like conventional fog. "If I expected my son never to make a mistake, I would never have chosen a mortal man. But a god could not do the things you do, and walk among the people of England. A god couldn't suffer alongside them, not in the same way. I chose you with all of your faults, and I never expected you to be anything other than flawed. This isn't the first mistake you've made, and it won't be the last."
"I nearly got you killed - you and all the others. If it hadn't been for Marion..."
"And there's dishonour in being saved by your wife? So she saved you this time. That's something else that wasn't happening for the first time. You didn't offer back Albion when Marion saved you from Jennet of Elsdon's poison, or after you wrongly trusted the Lionheart. Why now?
"Because..." Robin thought of his eagerness to believe Leofric's tales. "Because I have a weakness I never thought of before. Loxley is my weakness. My father is my weakness."
"And Scarlet's wife is his; Marion's father is hers. For Much it is his fears, for Nasir it is his pride. If I wanted a son without weaknesses I would spend the rest of time searching for him. Robin, if you're looking for an excuse to give up your destiny, you'll not find it here. England needs heroes, now more than ever. The people need somebody who will stand up for them, to combat crooked and unfair rule, disorder, misery, poverty, hunger. Somebody who can win their battles for them. Nobody is looking for someone without faults."
"I feel like such a fool." He stared at his father, Albion now hanging at his side. "They made a fool of me."
"Yes." Slowly Herne reached up, pulling off the heavy head-dress that made an ageing mortal man into the personification of a god. "But they won't again. A true fool doesn't learn from his mistakes. A true fool doesn't climb back to his feet and return to the fight. Are you a true fool, Robin?"
"No." Jaw set, Robin returned Albion to the sheath at his side. "Thankyou."
"Thankyou. Perhaps you needed Marion to help you achieve it, but you fought off the Mòrrìgan for me, and won me back my full strength. I doubt that she'll be returning here again for a long while."
"She? Or they? I wasn't sure." Robin saw the gentle smile, and knew that he was in for an answer that was far from satisfying.
"The one is the three, my son. And the three is the one. It has always been so." The smile grew bigger. "Just as you are seven, perhaps. Seven of you, working together as one. Seven is a powerful number."
"I... see." He returned the smile then. "Thankyou."
"Don't thank me yet, my son. I have more riddles for you, and you won't be happy to hear them. Danger comes, and you must be ready to face it."
"Danger?" Well that was nothing new. Herne laid his head-dress on the ground, and led Robin to the edge of the river that flowed past his lair.
"From the past comes a friend. From an enemy comes a request. Trust the friend and the enemy, and victory may be hard to reach."
"Oh." Robin stared into the still waters of the river, wishing that Herne would speak to him clearly more often. He had been lucid enough earlier, after all.
"Watch, my son." Herne waved a hand at the water, and in the depths of it Robin saw his reflection blur and fade. In its place was a man on horseback, and a line of chained figures. Somebody shouted something in a foreign language that Robin didn't know, before the picture changed again. There was a campfire now, and sleeping figures gathered around it; a vista of peace and quiet. A dark shape moved - silent feet fell as the shape moved onwards, towards one of the sleeping figures - then a knife flashed in the firelight, and Robin saw it strike home. He heard his own voice cry out in pain, and saw the stabbed figure roll over under the force of the blow. His own eyes stared sightlessly back at him - and then were gone. He was looking at his reflection again, and Herne gestured for him to move away from the water's edge.
"Watch for messages that interest you," he said quietly, and the mists rose more thickly. "Not all pleas for help are real, even when those in need of help truly are in need of help." The mist had risen high now, and Robin could no longer see Herne. The voice still came to him though, briefly.
"Return now, my son. Go back to your friends. Rest. You won't be resting for long." Then the mists were gone, and Robin was alone. He sighed, having expected nothing less. Sometimes working for a god could be annoying to say the least.
It was late before he returned to the others. They had eaten, and were sitting around the fire sharing comic tales of long ago exploits, from the days before they had known each other. Robin walked soundlessly into their midst.
"Did you save me any food?" It was with much more cheer that he spoke to them now, than when he had spoken before. Tuck handed over a bowl of dried meat and vegetables, along with a piece of bread.
"Are you feeling better now?" Coming to sit beside him, Marion leant on his shoulder as he began to eat, and he smiled at her in just the way that she liked best.
"Much better. Marion..."
"Thankyou. For saving me. For being so clever, and quick, and rather wonderful."
"I do my best." She poured him some wine. "You don't mind then? I thought that you did?"
"Mind being rescued by you?" He smiled. "I don't mind. There's nobody in the world I'd rather be rescued by. There's just one thing."
"If anybody ever claims to have known my father, or to be from Loxley, or to be on a mission for Herne..."
"Beat you over the head until you see sense and refuse to have anything to do with them?"
"Well I was going to say remind me of Leofric, but I suppose your way works too."
She smiled. "I promise."
"Good. And I'm sorry, all of you, for putting you all in danger."
"That's alright Robin." Little John smiled at him - a giant of formidable form, with the beaming smile of an innocent child. "We all made our own choices. We all put ourselves at risk."
"And probably will again." Will poured himself more wine. "Is it too late to find something else to do for a living?"
"I think it was too late on the day we were born." Robin raised his drink into the air. "To... mistakes, and the people who make them."
"I'll second that." Tuck raised his own mug in salute. Marion laughed.
"And to daisies," she added, with more than a touch of humour. John nodded enthusiastically.
"Aye, to daisies."
"And to winning every battle." It was typical of Will to make such an addition to the toast, and everybody laughed. Robin alone looked sober, for he remembered Herne's latest riddles. Soon there would be another battle to be fought - but that was the future, whether near or distant. Now was for laughing, and for being with his friends. And raising his mug high into the air, he echoed Will's toast. Battles, after all, were his business, and as long as he had his friends to support him, he intended to win them all.
Mòrrìgan = 'Morr-ee-an'
Mòrrìgna = 'Morr-ee-na'
Angus Òg = 'Òg' to rhyme with 'rogue', or 'vogue'.
A lot of people will disagree with my interpretation of the Mòrrìgan, her nature and who she is. Irish legends hold her to be a being of great power, beloved of war and misfortune, but there are plenty of people who don't consider her to be unpleasant, and still honour her today. Just as many think of her as an evil character, though, and a good many old tales talk of her in such a way. It's a matter of personal taste I suppose. As for the daisies - they are allegedly the flower of Angus Òg, and can supposedly see off his foes. I like the idea of little flowers winning the day, so that's another thing that we'll put down to personal interpretation!