The Nobleman’s Son - Part Three

     by Marla F. Fair

 

 

            “Elaine.”

            “Yes, I am Elaine.” The pale young woman sat in the shadows, her face turned towards the fire. Her voice was dull and even, like someone who spoke from a dream. “And you are the wife of Robin Hood.”

            Marion hesitated, but it was the truth: though that Robin in the Hood was dead. “Yes. Are you going to tell them I am here?”

            The young woman remained silent. She didn’t move. “Robert’s wife.”

            Marion began to move towards her and as she did she noticed a curious scent in the air. It was coming from the fire. She shook her head to clear it and moved to face the girl. “We live together in Sherwood, with our friends.”

            The young woman’s eyes were blue as the skies and clear as a mountain stream. Clear in color, but like mud in reason. It was obvious she was drugged. “I hate him,” she continued without feeling.

            Marion knelt before her. “You do? Why?”

            “He betrayed me.”

            Robert had touched on whatever the heart of this matter was. It was why they were here. “Can you tell me?”

            The girl spoke as if from rote. “When we were young, he loved me. Michael loved me too. I could not decide, and knew it could not be, and so I chose to go to the abbey. On the way there, they tried to stop me. It was Robert’s idea. Michael meant only to keep me from going, but Robert had decided that whether I wanted to or not, I would be his. He enlisted the aid of the bandits of Sherwood Forest and they ambushed my train. They killed the priest who traveled with me and several of my maidens. Then, out of guilt for what they had done, their leader took me to Ashwood and left me there. I never saw Robert again.”

            “How do you know all of this?”
            The young woman stood and walked towards the fire. Her movements were mechanical. “Michael continued to love me. He visited the abbey often. One day, he bid me come with him.” She fell silent a moment. “He told me everything then and begged my forgiveness. I have been with him ever since.”

Marion frowned. “You never went back to the abbey?” Did she know it had

burned?

            “No. And then he told me he had found him.”

            “Robert?”

            “Yes. Now Robin Hood. Playing at the bandit still, saving peasants and threatened women on their way to nunneries.” Her voice took on a hard edge that seemed foreign to it. “I want him dead.”

            The other girl stepped close to the fire. “Do you? Or does Michael?”

            Elaine blinked. The movement of her black lashes on her pale flesh was slow, like a dying butterfly’s wings. “I....”

            “Elaine, it is all lies. Robert is not like that. He is kind and good and cares for the people. For all people. Don’t you understand?” She took hold of her arms and shook her. “It is Michael who is evil. You must help me! He has Robert, he will kill him if I cannot find him in time.”

            “Good....” her voice faltered.

            Marion shook her, “Do you want him to die?”

            “No. Neither of us do.”

            Marion pivoted sharply and found another blonde woman standing in the doorway. A weak older man leaned on her arm. He straightened up when her eyes touched him and stepped under his own power into the room.

            “The time has come for this to end,” he said, “now.”

 

            Tuck and Little John had tricked their way into the castle. The friar had explained to those who bothered to ask that they had come on church business, and even though Little John’s stature and clothing had raised a few eyebrows, so far no one had tried to stop them. John carried a large casket they had appropriated along the way and they had used it as a reason for his presence. His great strength was needed, Tuck offered, for the return trip when the box would be laden with the usual donations the master of Brentwood was wont to send to the abbey in his dead wife’s home village.

            Wherever that was.

            “What do you suppose Will and Nas are doing?” Little John whispered as they began to mount the stairs and head for the chapel.

            “Sleeping, most like.” Tuck puffed as they turned and started the second flight of steps. “My dear Lord, they make it hard work for the salvation of their souls. Whoever heard of a chapel on the third level?”

            “Tuck.”

            “What? What is it?”

            Little John had glanced down a hallway and seen three small shadows shift into the light. One of them had blazing red hair. “I think that was Marion.”

            “Was Robin with her?”

            He shook his head. “Should we follow?”

            Tuck tilted his tonsure and felt the chins bunch at his neck. “That’s what we came for. Put it down and let’s go.”

 

            Nasir and Will trailed silently behind the party. They seemed to have no intention of stopping. Moving as quickly as the cart allowed, they were headed off the estate and into the forbidding trees beyond.

            “Now where do you suppose they are going?”

            Nasir gazed ahead and shrugged, then he suggested, “Sherwood?”

            Will frowned. Whatever would they do that for?

 

            Robert awoke to damp and darkness. He opened his eyes and realized he was no longer in the castle. All about him the familiar sound of forest life ebbed and flowed like a living sea. He tried to move and realized he couldn’t. Something was binding him and holding him fast. He glanced at his chest and then his eyes found his arms and hands and he realized he was staked down. Wooden poles rose all about his form and leather thongs crossed over his flesh and thin clothing, pinning him to the soft wet ground. He was lying in some sort of a marshy area and already the soft land had retreated beneath his solid frame and where it gave way, cold water crept in to fill the void.

            Panicking he struggled against the leather bindings and then realized he was not alone as laughter flooded the still night air.

            “So you are awake at last.”

            He pulled hard against his bonds but then stopped as the frigid water began to creep into his clothing. “Where have you brought me?”

            “Don’t you recognize it?” Michael sat astride his horse, his dark head framed by a moonlit tree behind him. “This is the Ashwood road. The way to the abbey. Where it all began.”

            “Where what began? What is this?”

            “The paths we have both chosen to walk. Those of darkness and light. It was here the decision was made: for both of us.”

            “What are you talking about?”

            Michael dismounted and came to stand by him, his lean straight form silhouetted against the shimmering leaves. “Do you remember that night?”

            Robert’s teeth chattered. “How could I forget?”

            “And the dark man who stopped us?”

            “Yes.” The thin blond shuddered as the water began to chill his skin. “It was Robin Hood.”

            “You said that before.” Michael laughed again. “It was not.”

            “Th...then who?”, he stammered as he began to shake uncontrollably.

            “The spirits of the woods have many names. That one was a trickster. Elven and dark. I have seen them many times since, here in this place. That night, when he spared me, I knew.”

“Knew what?”

            “That I had been chosen.”

            Robert felt panic rise in him again. The water was soaking through his heavy tunic and hose and beginning to draw him down. “Chosen?”

            “By the powers of darkness. I became the son of Belial. At that moment our destinies were fixed. You ran from the power that sought to embrace us.” He loomed over him. “I chose to embrace it utterly.”

            “And this is why you brought me here?” The water was over his shoulders now. “To offer me as a sacrifice?”

            His enemy’s face grew hard as stone. “If I had it my way...but that is not what my master desires. The balance is all.” He knelt in the wet grass and took hold of Robert’s chin, forcing him to meet his dark eyes. “I brought you here to give you another chance to accept your true destiny. The one you knew when we were young. You must embrace the darkness in your soul and join with us.”

            “Or what?” He used what little strength he had to wrest his chin free and then regretted it as he settled deeper into the mud.

            “Or die.”

 

            “What do you suppose he’s doing with him out here?” Will asked Nasir as they moved through the trees and over the frost-covered ground. They had fallen a good hour behind the other party. Fortunately the cart had slowed the others down or it would have been two or three.

            Nasir shook his head.

            Scarlet grabbed his arm and stopped him. “I’d like to hear your opinion.”

            The Saracen met his eyes.

            “Nothing good.”

 

            Robert could see them waiting in the darkness, a silent circle of men bearing torches like the ones that flanked him, their forms masked by the wavering leaves that whispered in the cold night air. They were keeping watch, waiting for him to cry out or to die. Michael had left him on some secret purpose and ridden towards the abbey, explaining that his master would come and take him should he call for him. If not, he would soon sink beneath the soft surface of the marshy land and drown.

            He strained against the leather bindings that held him down, noting with irony that in one thing, Michael had been right. It had been in this very place that Herne’s second son had been born, challenged and changed by a chance encounter with a dark sprite of the wood: Robin in the Hood.

            And yet Michael, seeing the encounter and the man through a very different set of eyes, had chosen a darker bloody path to follow.

            Closing his eyes he thought of Herne, of the stern master he served who spoke in riddles and so often seemed remote, and yet who would abandon his godhood to come and tend to a sick and dying man. There was power in that. A power Michael would never understand.

            The water was near the level of his chin now and he knew he was going to die. There was no way he could free himself. His thoughts flew to the others and to the grief it would bring them. Loxley had been dead less than two years...and now him. Would they follow if Herne called another?

            And could Marion survive?

            A voice spoke from the ring of fire. It was not Michael but one of his attendants and he urged him to call on the dark lord of the Forest, on Belial, the wicked and worthless one. He steeled himself to their quiet entreaty, to the chilling voice of the water and the numbing cold that threatened to overcome him. Instead he lifted his voice and cried with all his might, “I call on Herne. I am Herne’s son!”

 

            “Did you hear that?”

            Nasir nodded as twin blades slid silently from their housings. Will touched his shoulder and indicated he should move to the south while he circled north, but as they came to the edge of the clearing, he stopped. He saw the circle of men. There were at least six and they ringed the silvery trees as if keeping watch or working a spell to contain some sort of power in its midst.

            The Saracen beside him growled and inclined his dark head. The cart they had followed was empty. He rose up on his toes and cursed. Will followed his eyes. In the center of the ring, barely visible in the light of twin torches, was the half-submerged figure of a man.

            “Do you think he’s dead?” Will breathed, terrified.

            Nasir shook his head and lifted his blades. There was only one way to know.

            “Right.” Scarlet pulled his own sword from its scabbard. “Let’s get at it then.”

 

            Marion and Alyce propelled Elaine down the corridor. They had left Alyce’s father in the girl’s room, hoping it would bring him some safety. He was too ill to travel with them. Stealthily they moved through the hallways, heading unerringly for the dungeon, intent on freeing Robert from his chains before Michael could do him harm. Just before they reached the cell, Marion realized they were being followed. She sent the other two on ahead and blended into the shadows, lifting the sword the Earl of Brentwood had lent her. A moment later two figures moved swiftly past and she stepped out and raised the blade and then started to laugh.

            The pair before her stopped and turned about. Tuck was puffing heavily but managed to cross himself. A broad smile broke across Little John’s bearded face.

            “Marion! We’re here to rescue you.”

            She lowered the sword and smiled with relief. “Tuck. John.”

            The rotund friar rolled towards her and added, “I see we are a little late.”

            A shriek brought their heads up and sent the three of them running as one towards the darkened cell. Marion’s heart leapt into her throat. Alyce had told them this was where she had left Robert and the scream had come from within.

            If he was hurt... or worse....

            She turned the corner and entered the cell to find Alyce staring at an empty wall and Elaine on the floor, cradling the body of a man with curly brown hair. Tears flowed from her blue eyes and she seemed to have awakened some to her surroundings. Marion knelt beside her but she wouldn’t speak. She looked at Alyce.

            “Her brother,” the pale woman explained.

“And Robert?”
Alyce shook her head, “He was here. Right here. Michael has taken him somewhere.

“We are too late.”

 

Back in the forest Will and Nasir circled round the trees and the guards trying to

quickly decide what was the best course of action. Finally they agreed that one of them would show himself, hoping to draw some of the men off and the other would fight his way through and try to free Robin. It wouldn’t be easy, but time was running out. They could hear their leader coughing as the waters crept between his lips and began to cover his head.

“Now?” Will asked.

            Nasir nodded.

            Now.

            In a frenzied burst of energy Will Scarlet broke through the trees and began to scream in rage, drawing the men’s attention. That part was easy as fear for this high-born lord whom he had fought and argued with, and accused of not being one of them, propelled him forward. In the day that had followed he had realized just how much young Robert of Huntington had come to mean to him. Though he wasn’t like Loxley, the challenge was the same. Here was someone who called him to be more than he was, more than just a revenge-driven bully. Someone who kept him from becoming what he hated most: one of them, one of the ones who had been capable of killing his wife—a beautiful innocent young woman— without thought. Like Robin, Robert made him think. Made him realize each life counted for something, even if there were times when one had to be taken to spare another. As half of the mystic circle turned towards him and the other half headed for his friend, he struck out with his sword slicing the side of one guard’s face and spitting another on the blade.

            Now was one of those times.

            Nasir moved like a shadow towards the remaining three men who had taken up positions about the nearly submerged form of Robin. He gazed at the forest floor and realized the young man had stopped struggling.

This was not a good sign.

            The Saracen watched closely as the men turned nervously, searching the darkness, unnerved by Will’s battle-cries. Most likely they were followers; not here because of their own beliefs, but because of those of their master. Most likely, they were more than ready to run. Drawing near, staying hidden in the tall grasses, he waited until they pivoted towards the sound of Will’s sword piercing the third man and then he rose up like a dark spirit, his double-blades flashing in the moonlight to take down two at once. The other man looked at him and tossed his weapon and began to run.

            Nasir let him go and turned towards the torches.

            Robin had disappeared.

 

            They had gathered Much at the bridge and mounting horses Alyce had secured for them, flew into the night. They had all agreed. Michael must have taken Robert to the area near Sherwood, to the place where they had fallen out and their paths had diverged. The young woman who was the center of all of this rode behind Marion, her eyes wide open now. She still had the blood of her brother on her. The two women had talked softly and Marion had assured her she had been drugged and was not responsible for the things she had said or thought. Crushed with regret anyway, she had insisted on coming with them. Alyce had stayed behind with her father, on the off-chance her brother might return. They had not seen him yet on the road and so it did not seem likely, but she understood the other woman’s concern.

            Moving with the speed of lightning, they covered the ground the cart-bearing party had passed in a tenth of the time, so that—just as Will and Nasir were deciding how and where to make a stand—they entered the forested area near the abbey of Ashwood where once upon a time a young girl had passed and the lives of three friends had become inextricably intertwined.

 

            Will Scarlet pulled his blade from the third guard and wiped it on the grass. Sheathing the sword he moved through the darkness towards the center of the circle of trees. Breaking through the tall grasses he opened his lips to call but stopped dead at the sight that greeted him.

            Nasir stood in the wet grass poised between the smoking torches, a sodden limp form in his arms. Robin’s head hung back, his mouth was open; his hands dangled motionless at his sides.

            They had run out of time.

 

            Nasir bore him forward like a fallen prince, moving outside of the circle from the cold wet ground to where the forest floor was solid and overgrown with grasses and dry gorse. There he lay his leader’s body gently down and stepped back. Will had palmed one of the torches and knelt by his side, laying a hand on the young man’s chest. It might have been the night and the moonlight, but he didn’t think so. Robin’s skin was blue. And he wasn’t breathing. Scarlet planted the torch in the ground and looked into Nasir’s face. There were tears in the Saracen’s eyes. He hung his head as he heard the sound of horses moving through the woods. He didn’t even care anymore.

            Let them come. He thought. Let them come.

            A moment later he felt Nasir’s hand on his shoulder and his head came up. Marion stood at the edge of the circle, her face a ghostly white. Another woman lingered close behind her and Tuck and John brought up the rear along with Much.

            Will stood and looked at her. “Marion, I’m sorry. We were too late....”

            For a moment she stood frozen. This couldn’t be happening. She looked at the body lying on the forest floor in disbelief. Then she fell to her knees. All about her the world broke into chaos, but one voice spoke quietly beside her. “Don’t give up hope,” it said, “there may still be a chance.”

            Then it fell silent and there was nothing but the night.

 

            She awoke sometime later to find herself under a thick blanket of skins, lying next to Robert. For a moment she thought she was in the castle once again, but then she remembered: he was dead. Horrified she sat up with a shriek and began to strike at the thin air.

            A pair of strong hands caught hers and held them. A moment later she looked up into Little John’s face. He was pale and worn beyond endurance, but he held her eyes and forced her to listen to his words. “Marion, he’s not dead. Marion! Look at him.”

            Tears streaming down her cheeks she forced herself to turn and look and noticed that Robert’s color had returned to something close to normal. She stopped then and realized he was sweating. So was she. All about them small fires raged and the two of them were buried in a nest of skins and soft woolen capes.

            “What?” She felt all the strength go out of her at once and fell limp against his side. “I thought—.”

            “So did we all. He wasn’t breathing.”

            “Then how?”

            She heard movement and Elaine knelt beside her. “How are you, Marion?”

            “You?”

            The young woman nodded. “In the years I was at the abbey we had several women brought to us. They had been staked here, in the marsh-lands, as witches. One died.” She glanced at Robert and laid her hand on his forehead. “The other we managed to warm soon enough and she survived.”

            Marion glazed at the pale face beside her. He looked so very young. “Will he be all right?”

            “He should be. Though he should rest when he wakes. It would not be wise for him to move right away.” Elaine laid her hand over his and added, “The sisters warned of other who dropped in their tracks soon after waking, if they did not remain still. We must keep him prone to make certain he survives”

 

            Some time later Little John returned to the others. He had left Marion sleeping beside—and the other woman sitting— with Robert. The moon had fallen and the earth had taken the first breath before the new day, waiting for the sun to rise. Much was busy drying the clothes Robert had been wearing. Nasir was standing guard. Tuck and Scarlet watched him approach and the friar asked, “How is he?”

            “He should be all right. But what are we going to do about the devil that did this to him?”

            “We didn’t pass him on the way here,” Tuck answered. “Where do you suppose he went? Back to the castle?”

            “He’s gone to the abbey.”

            Four heads pivoted as one. Robert stood before them like one risen from the dead, a woolen blanket wrapped about his unclothed form, his skin pale and still tinged with blue and a determined look on his boyish face.

            “Robin!” Little John stood and crossed to him. “You shouldn’t be up.”

            “We told him that.”

            John looked beyond the slender man to find Marion watching him, her cheeks wet with tears. “Lass...”

            “He wouldn’t listen.”

            “This has to end. Now.” Robert turned to the young man who held his tunic in his hands. “Much, I need my clothes.”

            Will Scarlet walked over to him and stared him in the face. “I could knock you over with a feather, I could.” He pushed the other man and watched him sway and almost lose his balance. “Let us handle it.”

            “No. Michael is my business. And Herne’s.”

            “Herne? Well, it wasn’t bloody Herne who saved you, was it? Where was he when you were lying there blue as a nobleman’s coat-tails?” He looked at Elaine where she waited near Marion. “If not for her....”

            “Will. That’s enough.”

            Scarlet frowned. The tone was a familiar one. He had his orders and like a good little page he was to obey the lord of the castle. “And I was worried about you,” he whispered, poking him. “I was right before. You don’t belong....”

            “No, you were wrong. We were both wrong.” Robert swayed again and Elaine caught his arm before Marion could move. He glanced at her and then back to Will as he momentarily leaned into the girl’s strength. “I am not saying I don’t need you. I do.” He glanced from one to the other, ending with the copper-haired woman he had come to love. “I would be dead without all of you. But this is between the powers of light and darkness. Between Herne’s son and a son of darkness. I must go.”

            “Even if it kills you?”

            Robert nodded. He felt Marion’s eyes on him. “Even so.”

           

The ruins of the burnt abbey were dark and silent, silhouetted against the dawning sky. He stepped into them alone. The sun had just passed the top branches of the whispering trees and its rays painted their leaves a golden-red, signaling the hour of rebirth.

            Raising his head he called out boldly, “Michael! I challenge you. If your master is strong and mighty then why do you hide?” He listened to the words echo from the burnt and scattered stones which bore mute witness to the horrors that had played out before them, not so long ago. “Come forward and face me! Michael!”

            A shadow shifted near the ruined altar and his old friend stepped out of the cloaking darkness to stand revealed in the blood-red light. Several other silent shadows followed, bearing arms.

            “So you live.”

            Robert nodded. “Yes. No thanks to you.”

            “And you have not accepted him?”

            “No.”

            “But you survive.” Michael pulled at his leather gloves and laid his hand to his sword. “My master will not be pleased.”

            The blond shifted on his feet. “Nor is mine.”

            “You are alone?”

            “Yes.”

            The dark-haired man came forward and circled round him. He noted his pallor and the way the other man seemed to be holding himself together. “But you are not well.”

            “Well enough to best you.”

            “We shall see.” Michael’s dark eyes sought his. “Do you understand why I am here?”

            “This is where it all began.” Robert gazed at the broken altar and the shattered cross planted upside-down by its side. “This is where you chose your path.”

            “Yes. And it is where it shall end.”

            “Your path?” Robert put his hand to Albion.

            “Or yours.” Michael nodded and one of his men stepped forward. He held out his hand and the man placed a sword in it. He held Robert’s blue eyes and then commanded, “Leave us. Return to the castle.” As the man hesitated, he struck him with the flat edge of the sword and shouted, “Go! All of you! Go!”

            A moment later, they were alone.

            “Elaine is free of you now,” Robert said suddenly.

            Michael’s dark brows lifted. “And you have filled her head with lies.”

            “With the truth. Have you lived with the lies so long you don’t know one from the other anymore?”

            “I know this. There can only be one master. One path that is right.” He lifted his blade and nodded, signaling he was ready. “One of us must die.”

            Robert nodded and freed his sword.

            “Let it begin.”

 

            The others watched from within the woods as the two men began to circle one another, testing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The early morning light shone off their blades as they flashed and the sound of metal striking metal clove the air. Marion watched horrified. She wanted to, but she couldn’t turn away. At her feet the other girl knelt in prayer. Her fingers gripped the cross she wore about her neck and her lips whispered fervent words. Little John held Scarlet back as Tuck and the others stood by helplessly.

            “You want him to die, John? Cause that’s what he’s going to do. He ain’t strong enough to fight him on his own.”

            “God will protect him,” Elaine spoke into the silence.

            Will scowled at her. “Which god? His or yours?”

            She rose to her feet and gazed at the two men. Robert had fallen, but had rolled over and was regaining his feet.

            “In the end, there is only one.”

 

            They had moved about the desolate church yard, gaining ground and losing it, until they actually fought on the sanctuary floor. The early morning light was streaming through the burnt and broken ceiling above their heads, illuminating the nave and the shattered altar. Robert was breathing hard. His heart was racing. Any energy he had was long gone. His foe on the other hand seemed renewed and refreshed and fought like he could go on for hours. He stepped into the shadows and rounded a broken pillar, catching a moment’s respite. How often was it like this? How often did the darkness like an impenetrable tide rise up to shut out the light, crashing down to extinguish it, only to have it ignite again in another place, another time.

            Another form.

            Michael’s shadow fell across the moss-covered stones. Robert stepped back only to catch his foot in a crack and fall. As his head grazed the edge of the broken altar, stunning him momentarily, Albion flew from his hand and out of reach. Michael moved between him and it, a great black shadow which threatened to swallow him. His enemy’s sword was in his hand and he raised it high above him, meaning to skewer him.

            Robert’s hand encountered a metal object shoved into the ground. He grasped it with both hands and pulled it from the dew-soaked earth. His fingers found a purchase on the three-prong handle and he held it before him with the jagged end up and shook as every bone in his body was jarred as the other man’s weight fell upon it full force.

            Impaling him on the cross.

            Michael’s eyes opened wide. His hands clasped and unclasped. He opened his mouth and a sound came from it that was not human, and then a dark shape escaped as a breath and rose up momentarily blotting out the sun. Robert stared at the broken body as it fell to the earth, its life extinguished, and then, leaning back against the rose-tinted stones, surrendered to unconsciousness.

 

            Three days later he stood on the same spot, his hands in the hands of the woman named Elaine.

            “You are certain?” he asked her. “You mean to stay here?”

            She nodded. “It is the least I can do. I mean to rebuild.” She stared at the graveyard where they had placed as many of the scattered bones of the former occupants as they could find. “They were kind to me. Kind as was my God for sparing you.”

            “Elaine....”

            She raised her hand to his lips. “No words. I have my God and you have someone waiting for you.”

            He glanced behind and saw Scarlet and the others. Marion was with them. She sat on a white horse and her glorious hair blazed like molten metal in the sun. He released Elaine’s hands. “I don’t know. Marion....”

“Loves you.”

The blond head shook. “But she’s frightened. And I don’t blame her. What we do is dangerous. It is not safe to love—.”

            “It is never safe to love, Robert. If it is, then it is not love.”

            She reached up on tiptoe and kissed him then.

            He touched her face. “Do you forgive me?”

            She tilted her head and gazed into his eyes. “There is nothing to forgive. Marion explained....”

            “I came with him willingly. I didn’t want you here.” He indicated the abbey. “I meant to stop you no matter what. I couldn’t accept the fact that you didn’t want what I wanted....”

            “But I did.” She smiled at his look. “But this,” she touched her cross, “was the higher calling. I think you understand now, Robin in the Hood.”

            “Then you are happy?”

            She reached for his hand and turned to the altar which had been restored. They had buried the broken cross on top of Michael’s corpse and a new one now stood in its place.

“I am more than happy. I am home.”

 

            On his way back to his men he met Alyce. Upon returning to the castle she had found her father dead. Now with her brother’s passing she had become the mistress of Brentwood. In penance, she had forsworn all former allegiances and pledged to restore the abbey. Now she was here to speak with Elaine and to plan.

            He smiled as she stopped to look at him. “Robert, you look well.”

“And you.” He took her hand and kissed it. “And do you no longer wish to live in Sherwood, lady Alyce?”

            She glanced behind at Marion. “You already have your May-queen. I must be content to make good the harm done by my brother. Goodbye, Robert. God’s blessing on you.”

            “Herne protect you, my lady.”

            She nodded. “And you.”

 

            That night as he lay resting, Marion came to his side. She stared at him and her young face was sober. He sat up and began to rise, but she stopped him with a look and sat instead beside him. The men were all asleep except for Tuck who was two dozen yards away keeping watch. She bent her knees and drew them up, resting her chin on her hands. A moment later she sighed.

            “Marion?”

            “Twice now in as many weeks I have thought you lost. You know that?”

            He nodded. First from the poison in the torturer’s arrow and now this. “I’m sorry.”

            She laughed. “As if it was your fault. You have too good of manners, Robert.”

            Robert. Still Robert and not Robin with her. Not when they were alone. “It’s bred into my bones.”

            “Yes,” she agreed. “That and other things.”

            He shifted and fought a yawn. He was weary beyond words, not yet recovered from the ordeal in the marshes. “Meaning?”

            “Goodness. Hatred of injustice. The powers of light.”

            “I am only a man....”

            “No. You are much more. As was Robin.” She pushed a tangle of reddish curls back from her forehead. “You can’t belong to me anymore than he could. I have to share you with the world, or have none of you. There is nothing in-between.”

            “Marion—”

            She shook her head. “You’re shaking.”

            He realized he was. “I’m all right. I just need to rest.”

            “Lay down,” she commanded, “and I will hold you. Elaine said you need to keep warm.”

            His blue eyes sought her hazel ones. “Really, Marion, you don’t have to—.”

            “I know I don’t. I want to. But that’s all I can say for certain for now. Can you accept that?”

            He continued to stare at her for a moment and then shifted and laid on his right side. She placed her arms about him, reaching through his to clench him tight to her warm body. He murmured something but it was lost in the sleep that overtook him almost instantly.

           

            “What do you think of that?” Will Scarlet whispered, poking Little John in his side as he watched the two of them lay down beside the tree. “What’s that mean?”

            The big giant of a man struck him on the head and answered, “I guess it means he really belongs.”

 

                                                            —end—