You'll Never Walk Alone by Ness Ayton
This story first appeared in "The Chronicles of Sherwood" quite a long while ago now and I'd be the first to admit that it ends rather abruptly. I had intended it to be much longer but zine deadlines wait for no man or woman and it had to be rounded off. I never did go back and extend it.
One version of the Robin Hood legend has Matilda Fitzwalter as "Marion" and it is this version that I have utilised in this story.
Brother Dominic is based on an extremely good actor in the Royal Shakespeare Company at that time who has gone on to make a name for himself in the Irish TV series "The Clinic".
The dungeons of Nottingham Castle had always been known as hell-holes; but there was one deeper than the rest, the existence of which was known only to a few. It lay beneath the bottom of the moat and, as a consequence, was dark and damp with water and algae streaming from the walls. The Sheriff knew it was there as did the select band of soldiers who guarded it but, to the outside world, it was unknown.
Only one other person knew about it. A huddled figure squatting in the corner; eyes grown so used to the dark that he could see through it; joints painfully swollen and scars not properly healed with the damp. Dark hair, unkempt and tangled, crawled over his shoulders and down his back. A red gash ran across his brow and down his cheek, long since healed as best it could in that foul place, but puffy and aching. There was three years growth on his chin; his fingers were torn and bloody from scrabbling at the rocky walls and there were gaps in his teeth where they had been knocked out from rough handling by the guards.
A sorry sight, he held on tenaciously to life hoping against hope for a glimmer of light, a helping hand, a sign. Time now meant nothing to him. There was no day nor night, just a never ending darkness.
The figure sat huddled in the corner, head drooping, settling into yet another uneasy sleep when, all at once, he sat erect, senses tingling and stretching out through the darkness to where he sensed, rather than knew, the door was. A pale green shaft of light pierced the black, illuminating the filthy straw on the floor. A rat blinked in the unfamiliar brilliance and scurried frantically into a corner.
The man shrank away from what he feared was to come. The open door could only mean more pain and hurt at the hands of the guards though why now, after they had left him alone for so long, it was difficult to say. It was, therefore, almost with a sense of relief that he watched as a bowed figure was thrust into the gloom. It swayed in the disappearing green light and then, as the door slammed shut, slumped to the floor.
Rats scampered across to the still form as the prisoner crawled slowly and painfully from the corner. By the time he reached the newcomer his breath was ragged and he was nearly screaming with the pain. Gently he felt the body, searching for the face and running his fingers over it, trying to visualise the fine chiselled features beneath the swollen and bloody flesh. Slowly his hand moved down to the neck feeling for a pulse. It took a while but, at last, he felt a slow feeble motion.
As he swept the hair from the stranger's face a hand weakly grasped his arm.
"Your face," a hoarse voice whispered.
Carefully he lifted the hand to his own face and knelt in silence as it returned the search, lingering on the badly healed gash.
"Who are you?" the voice asked.
Muddled visions passed through his mind.
"I don't know, now," he answered, the sound of his own voice surprising him after the years of silence.
"I did once, but now..." He trailed off into nothingness.
After a long time he dragged himself from his reverie and splintered memories.
"Who are you?" He returned the question.
"Robert of Huntingdon. Robin-in-the-Hood. The Hooded Man. It doesn't matter now anyway, the Sheriff has won." The despair in the voice silenced them both as yet more memories tugged at the prisoner's mind.
"The Sheriff?" he repeated at last.
"Of Nottingham," the other replied. "Robert de Rainault. You must know. He was the only one who could have put you here."
Silence fell again and his whole body ached as he tried to remember who had thrown him in there so long ago. At last he had to admit defeat.
"I don't remember," he confessed falteringly, even as the other stirred and dragged himself to his knees.
"I know who you are," the man murmured, running a finger across the gash onﾐ the prisoner's face and making him wince.
"Perhaps it's better that I don't," he said.
"Perhaps, since neither of us can do anything now," the other admitted, sinking to the floor again.
The rats grew bolder and started clambering over their legs as the quiet lengthened. At last the prisoner realised that the breathing from the other was growing more ragged. Carefully he unbent his cramped knees and sat down, drawing the man's head on to his lap and cradling it gently. Resting his hand lightly on the other's chest, he could feel the life flowing from the body until it was still.
He sat there for a long time while the body grew cold in his arms, dragging his thoughts together as the glimmer of an idea came to him. Eventually the sound he had been waiting for penetrated the gloom. A small grating opened and a plate of slops was pushed through.
"He's dead," he called out, hoping that he had been heard. There was no reply, there never was, the man's tongue had been cut out years ago so that he could not divulge the whereabouts of this particular dungeon, but there was a slight delay before the grating creaked shut so he was hopeful that his weak voice had carried to his jailer.
Slowly, very slowly, in order to be prepared for anything, he dragged the still form of his erstwhile companion over to what would have been the darkest corner of the hole if such a thing were possible in such a horrendous place. He arranged the body as neatly and reverently as he could and pulled the stinking straw over it.
"Herne, receive him." The thought flashed unbidden through his mind. Wondering where it had come from, he made his way across to the slops that even a pig would have rejected and ate hungrily not knowing where his next meal would be coming from if his plan worked. Then he sank into an exhausted sleep, worn out by his exertions of the last few hours.
The prisoner was rudely awakened by a rough boot in the ribs. Stifling the impulse to roll out of the way, he lay as still as he could, desperately trying to slow his breathing. A pair of gauntleted hands grasped his shoulders while another pair clamped his ankles together and then he found himself being lifted from the damp ground.
The soldiers, thinking he were dead, were none too gentle with him and more than once on the long slow journey he was tempted to cry out. However, he suffered in silence until at last they reached the upper levels of the dungeons and flung him carelessly against a wall in a cold, but dry, room. The sound of footsteps receded into the distance and he cautiously opened his eyes.
The room was small and devoid of life. Weapons lay stacked across the walls, glinting in the sun that poured through a single arrow slit. Quickly he squeezed his eyes shut, unused to the brilliance and waited patiently until he felt it slip away before opening them again. Even the dim greyness stabbed at him but he forced himself to look round for what he wanted.
Having located the whereabouts of most of the things in the room he crept across to one pile on hands and knees, praying that the soldiers would not return too quickly. At last he reached the pile he wanted and, eyes half closed, fumbled amongst the bits and pieces there, ignoring the slicing of blades, until he found what he wanted - a small knife. Dragging himself back across the stone floor and draping his body in a similar manner to that in which he had been left, he secreted the knife in the palm of his hand, hoping he would have the strength to keep hold of it.
He had almost fallen asleep again when the soldiers returned. Leather boots came to a halt inches from his face and a sack dropped beside them. He was picked up once more and roughly manhandled into the scratchy, dusty dark. He felt the opening close after him and, as it was being secured, fingered the knife carefully, forcing down the panic that was welling up inside.
The sack did little to protect him from the bumps and bangs as he was carried to the small postern at the back of the castle and thrown into a waiting boat. The soldiers were not sailors judging by the jolts, changes of direction and muffled swearing, but eventually they ran it aground and scrambled out, dragging the sack after them.
Contrary to the Sheriff's orders, they decided to bury the body near the bank of the moat so that they could get back to the carousing from which they had been rudely called. Hearing the dull sound of spade on earth the prisoner took hold of the knife firmly and began to cut at the sacking. It was slow work but the soldiers had frequent rests which gave him time to complete his task. Quietly he squeezed his head and torso through then dragged the rest of his body out. As he crawled on his belly across the ground he felt the stones and pushed them through the opening into the sack to give it weight.
The man wriggled under the nearest bush, feeling the knife, ready to fight to the death if he were discovered. The soldiers downed some more mead and lifted the sack, hefting it into the hole. The crunching noise it made on landing sounded false to his ears but they did not seem to notice and started filling in the grave. Once finished they rowed, just as inadequately, back across the moat and disappeared into the castle.
When he was sure that all was quiet, the man disentangled himself from the bush and crept through the brambles and nettles until he found the stony surface of a road. With the help of a young birch tree, he pulled himself to his feet and set off unsteadily but determinedly.
The sun was going down as the prisoner scrambled out of a ditch and set off again towards a dark green shadow that stretched across the horizon. Everything about him hurt but he knew, once he got there, that some of that would be eased. He was concentrating so hard on walking without falling that he failed to notice the small group of men ahead of him who had come to an abrupt halt.
The man frowned, gathering jumbled thoughts, and looked at the speaker.
"That was my name - once."
"And still is."
He shook his head slowly at that.
"No, not any more."
The man who had spoken to him was of medium height with greyish-brown hair, thinning on top, and stubble on his chin. He grabbed the prisoner by the shoulders and shook him slightly.
"You name is Loxley," he insisted as he let go of the shoulders. The prisoner sank to the ground unable to withstand the shaking. From his knees he was able to look at the other men gathered around him. One, younger than the rest, was being restrained by a giant of a man from rushing over to him. The young man was bubbling with excitement.
"He's back. He promised he would be and he is."
"Much," the giant admonished gently, "look at him. We've got to be gentle, he's not strong enough for your exuberance. And his mind is wandering."
The others nodded their agreement looking down at the fallen man with sympathetic eyes.
"What shall we do, John?" Much asked.
"I don't know," the other replied.
"We must take him to the camp." Will made the decision for them.
"What about Robert?"
They all stopped in their tracks.
"He's dead." Loxley's quiet voice caught their attention.
"What?!" John was aghast.
"He died so that I could live."
"Greater love," Will whispered behind him. Tears sprung to Robin's eyes.
"I'm so tired," he murmured. Immediately John swung him up in his arms and carried him, like a child, back to Sherwood, followed by the others.
Loxley woke the next morning to find himself cocooned in a soft nest of furs. He was aware of people bustling around him but knew the light would hurt his eyes if he opened them so he did not even try.
"He's awake." That was Tuck's voice. He remembered it now.
"Yes, I am," he managed to whisper. "But I can not open my eyes, the light hurts them."
"What did they do to you?"ﾐ Much asked, running a soothing hand over the puffy gash on his face.
"You don't want to know, Much," Robin told him gently.
"No, I don't think I do. But at least you've come back, you've kept your promise." He took hold of his brother's maimed hand and raised it to his cheek. Robin felt the wetness of tears and brought his other hand up to Much's face. The miller's son lowered his head until Loxley was able to cradle it gently, running his sore fingers through the auburn curls.
The two brothers sat like that for a long time while the others moved about their business, steadfastly ignoring them. At last cramped muscles persuaded Much to slip into a sitting position beside Robin's head where he stayed for the rest of the morning, just soaking up the physical presence of his newly returned brother and no one had the heart to move him. Lunch time found him spooning broth into Loxley's mouth with all the gentleness of a mother bird.
When Much was satisfied at last that Robin was not going to die, he allowed himself to leave his brother's side for a while, his place being taken by Nasir. The Saracen sat silent but stolid beside Loxley, bathing the man's swollen joints, carefully teasing the tangles from the hair and coaxing the unruly beard into some sort of order, silently promising the Saxon that he would never leave his side again. And when Robin's body rejected the broth, unused to such richness, it was Nasir who held the shuddering body until the spasms passed and then silently cleaned up. When Much came to reclaim his place the Saracen rested a hand gently on Loxley's chest.
"Welcome home, Robin," he murmured.
For the next few days, the outlaws fussed over Robin like a mother wolf fussing over a lost cub. Too weak to protest he let them assuage their guilt for that last day together, quietly enjoying their pampering of his physical needs. Gradually his stomach came to accept small portions of the forest food and his eyes were able to squint at the green brilliance of the day. At night it was easier, for then he could open his eyes yet not see the hurt done to him and could almost convince himself that the whole thing had been a bad dream. He became aware that he hid behind his beard, not wanting to expose his friends to the weals and sores that he knew were there.
His emotional needs, however, were far from being catered for. The one voice above all that he longed to hear, had dreamed about during his long imprisonment, was not there and no one spoke of her. He wished they would. He needed to know what had happened to her. Would she forgive him for deserting her on the tor? Had she married Robert? Had she found peace and love with him? There were so many questions he wanted to ask yet he was afraid of the answers so he did not speak.
As he lay wrapped in the furs he knew that there was someone else he had to see, another voice he had to hear...but whose? He still had no real idea of who or what he was, and was unsure of what his old friends were expecting of him and whether he could fulfil it even if he did. Perhaps this other person could help as he had, he recalled, in days gone by.
At last he could bear his inactivity no longer and one day, when they had all left him to go and eat, he quietly rolled from the furs, crawled out of the clearing and pulled himself warily to his feet. To his surprise he found that his legs had grown stronger and now held him reasonably securely, although he was not sure for how long.
He walked slowly through the forest, drinking in its cool greenness and luxuriating in the bird song. His eyes started noticing fluttering leaves and small movements in the bracken and he realised, with a start, that his eyes were becoming more accustomed to the light. He felt as if he had come home as his unerring footsteps led him to a small misty lake and a raft. He hesitated slightly before scrambling onto it and grabbing the pole which felt so familiar to his badly hurt hands.
On reaching the other side a tall man stepped from the shadows of a cave to greet him. Taking his arm he gently helped Loxley off the raft and onto the rock, leading him into the dim cave, offering support as they went. A strange sight, the younger man being helped by the elder but Robin felt comfortable in the relationship and knew that he had found the person with the answers to some of his questions.
He did not know how long he stayed there or what they talked about but at last he knew it was time to leave. Feeling strong and alive for the first time in years he stepped lightly on to the raft and poled his way back across the lake to the waiting trees and disappeared into their welcoming shadows.
Wandering aimlessly but peacefully and happily through the forest, he was startled when a young lad jumped down from a tree in front of him. He was even more surprised to see that the boy held a knife and appeared to be threatening him. He spread his arms in a placatory manner.
"I'm unarmed," he pointed out.
The knife wavered a moment but became still again.
"Pity," the boy murmured. "But I've heard that trick before."
"Believe me it's the truth. And I certainly don't want to fight you - you're too young to die."
"Who says I'm the one going to die?" the voice mocked.
"Well, I certainly don't feel as if it's going to be me," Loxley responded casually.
The boy lunged at him but the eyes had given the movement away and Robin ducked from his path, swinging round to face him again.
"Can't we talk this over? Why do you want to kill me?"
"So you can't kill me." The answer was snapped back.
"But I don't want to kill you," he insisted.
"You're in Sherwood. Outlaws live in Sherwood. Ergo, you are an outlaw." The logic flashed back. Loxley frowned.
"This is getting us nowhere," he said gently. "Yes, I'm an outlaw but I don't go round killing people for no reason. Put the knife down."
The boy hesitated, lowering the knife slightly, allowing Robin enough space to grab his wrist and twist the weapon from the boy's grasp. At once the youngster tried to wriggle from Loxley's grip but the outlaw's returning strength enabled him to keep a tight hold.
"Now, let's talk this over," he said quietly, pushing the boy gently backwards until he came to rest against the gnarled trunk of an oak tree.
Suddenly, through the trees, came the sound of hoof-beats and the boy looked over Robin's shoulder in alarm.
"My Lord Gisburne, I've found our quarry!" The shout made Robin turn his head just as a soldier rode into the clearing. Almost immediately he turned back to look at the boy again, noting the ashen cheeks and eyes filled with fear.
"Follow me," he said, dragging the youngster into the undergrowth just as Gisburne and the rest of his men rode up. As they moved along the secret pathways of the forest, the Norman's dulcet tones berating his men drifted through the leaves.
After a short, but circuitous, route Robin emerged through a curtain of greenery into the outlaws' camp.
"Robin! Where've you been? And 'oo's that?" Will stood gawping at his leader.
"I found him in the forest...," Robin began without bothering to turn.
"'Im?" Will queried in tones that made Loxley spin round. What he saw made him start. At some point during their escape, the boy's cap had fallen off and long raven black hair cascaded down over shoulders which topped a very feminine form. Stupid not to have realised that before, Robin mentally kicked himself.
"Who are you?" he asked gently. She glared at him for a minute then shrugged.
"I can't tell you."
"Why was Gisburne chasing you?"
"Gisburne?!" Will interjected.
"I can't tell you that either," the girl murmured. "Who are you?"
"Robin of Loxley," he replied and knew that, in admitting to that name, he hadﾐ once again accepted all that it meant.
"Robin of Loxley," she repeated. "Well, Robin of Loxley, may I have my hand back please?"
"I'm sorry," he replied, with a start, letting go of her wrist.
"So nice to have met you," she said sweetly, spinning on her heel and disappearing into the bushes like a young gazelle.
"Where...?" Will yelled, leaping after her.
"Leave her be, Will." Robin restrained him with his voice just as he used to.
"But she'll get lost."
"I don't think she will. She'll be looked after."
"By Herne?" Will responded to Robin's positive tone.
"I think so."
"But she can tell Gisburne where we are," John observed.
"Our secret is safe with her," Robin assured them, eyes lingering on the spot where the girl had left the clearing.
With the return of night Robin found his wounds beginning to ache again, the respite afforded by Herne wearing off, and that, combined with thoughts of the mysterious girl from the forest, caused him to toss and turn amongst the bracken for a long time until he slipped, at last, into a fitful sleep from which he woke early and unrefreshed.
At breakfast he turned to Will.
"I've got to see Marion," he said. "I think it's time. Where is she?"
Will glanced at the others before replying as they had all refrained from discussing her in front of Robin, unsure of his feelings towards her.
"At Halstead Abbey," he answered at last, "but, Robin..."
"She's...she's become a nun."
"I know. I just want to talk her, that's all, straighten things out between us."
"All right then." There was still some reluctance in Will's voice. "We'll all go," heﾐ added in a voice that brooked no argument.
"I'll be glad to have your company," Robin admitted, smiling round at them all, but especially Much. "I've missed you all."
The walk to Halstead was longer than Loxley remembered and, by the time they reached the grey, forbidding abbey, everything that could possibly ache or hurt did and he was forced to sit by the roadside to recover his breath and composure before continuing. Much hunkered down beside him, an arm resting gently across his brother's shoulders, and stared openly at the disfigured face.
"What did they do to you?" the younger man asked again.
"They hurt me, Much. They hurt me a lot," Robin replied.
"But your face..."
"Is it that bad?" Robin asked his brother gently.
"Yes...no... It's still you."
"That's all right then, isn't it?"
"I suppose so," Much gulped, tearing his eyes his eyes away from Robin's defiled beauty even as Loxley dragged himself to his feet, pulled at the bell-pull by the abbey door and steeled himself for the conversation ahead.
The sound of footsteps echoed along the stone corridor in response to the bell, each one sounding doom laden to the waiting man. Even the creaking of the door as it opened seemed ominous and it was with a heart full of dread that he greeted the ancient crone who welcomed him.
"I've come to speak with Marion of Leaford."
"And who are you?" she asked suspiciously.
"Her...a friend," Robin replied. "I've been away for some time."
"Then you haven't heard." Her voice was sympathetic.
"Heard what?" he asked, a cold hand gripping his heart.
"She died a few months ago."
Robin's heart missed a beat.
"How?" he managed to ask at last.
"She was low in spirit after she thought her husband-to-be was dead, a sorrow from which she never fully recovered, and, as a result, fell victim to the fever that raged here. She died peacefully in her sleep having nursed several of the sisters back to health. Her gentleness and love is much missed by all."
"I see," Robin murmured. "Thank you."
"God be with you," the nun said kindly as she moved away.
Robin stood, stunned by the news, as the door of Halstead swung shut in his face. Slowly he turned to look at the others who needed no telling, his face said it all. To their horror he sank to his knees, brow bent towards the earth. Then, abruptly, he jerked his head skywards, tearing frantically at his jerkin and crying aloud in raw anguish. The cry, uncannily like a wolf howling at the moon, sent shivers down their spines and they turned away, unable to watch the pain on Robin's face.
At last a quiet sob forced Will to turn once more to his friend. Loxley knelt, bare-chested, arms wrapped round his frail, scarred body, gently rocking himself to and fro.
"She died thinking I was dead." It was barely more than a whisper but Scarlet heard the despair in it and swiftly closed the gap between them. Dropping to his knees in front of the grief-stricken man, he clasped the bare shoulders and shook him. Green eyes lifted to his and then drooped again.
"Don't say that," Will urged with sudden understanding. "Deep down she knew you were alive. That's why she couldn't give her heart to Robert. I suppose, thinking back on it, we all knew he was keeping the memory alive until you returned. We never needed Albion to tell us you were Herne's Son. You just were - then and now."
Robin shook his head weakly, sinking into Will's embrace and drawing his legs up to his stomach. Dark hair hung over his twisted face.
"I don't know who or what I am any more," he murmured.
Uneasy at the open display of emotion and vulnerability, Scarlet patted the younger man's shoulder awkwardly and looked helplessly up at the others. John shrugged, equally at a loss, but dragged his fur from his back and handed it to Will who wrapped it round the cold body in his arms.
"Come on, Robin," the outlaw coaxed, dragging Loxley to his feet and steering him in the direction of the forest. Each step was agony, like knives slicing through his feet. The pain, kept at bay by the thought of seeing Marion again, threatened to overwhelm him. He clenched his teeth, fighting the urge to scream, his whole body shaking with the effort. Will walked quietly with his arms around Robin, shaken by the spasms of the other's body but trying to instil warmth with his physical presence.
It was a long slow walk back to Sherwood but eventually they arrived there and laid Robin to rest amongst the ferns and bracken, covering him with furs and stoking up the fire to keep him warm.
Robin's relapse did not surprise the outlaws. Indeed, they had expected it as soon as he had mentioned Marion. However, the discovery of her death, which had saddened them all, caused him to sink lower than any of them had anticipated and they were worried. He tossed and turned, calling out her name, sweat pouring from him as he re-lived nightmares from the dungeons and felt, once again, the Norman bolts thudding into his body, the stony ground of the tor and the swords slicing at him before the Sheriff had called his men off. Herne's appearances seemed only to aggravate Robin's condition and Much was almost beside himself with grief as he watched his brother slipping away from him again.
"He's going to join Marion,"ﾐ Will whispered one evening after a particularly bad day for Robin, "and there's nothing we can do about it."
"He's only just come back to us," Much wailed. "He can't die - not now. Do we mean so little to him? Robin! Robin, don't leave us." He shook the delirious man, weeping openly, his tears pouring onto Loxley's face. John, too, was crying even as he tried to comfort the young man.
"If it's what Robin wants," Tuck murmured sadly.
"But what about us?" Will demanded as hurt as Much.
"Herne's will be done," Nasir observed quietly.
"But it is not my will that Robin of Loxley dies," Herne said, entering the camp. "There is still much for him to do." He bent over his son. "He has lost the will to live and even I can not help him find it. His faith in me has gone as well. There's only one hope left." He beckoned towards the shadows.
A slender figure emerged from the trees and the outlaws recognised the girl that Robin had brought to the camp.
"What's she doing 'ere?" Will demanded.
"Trying to help, if you'll let me," she replied softly moving towards the place where Robin lay.
"Please, bring him back," Much implored her. "If I lose him again..."
"I understand," the girl whispered, giving him a reassuring hug. "Now away all of you. I'll call if I need you."
Reluctantly the outlaws left Robin with her and gathered around the fire. A silent Herne joined them moments later.
Left on her own the girl knelt down beside the bed. Loxley's face was pallid and damp, his breathing shallow and harsh and, from time to time, he muttered under his breath and his roved wildly round the clearing as if he were desperately searching for something or someone. She took the cloth from the bowl of water at his side and bathed his forehead gently.
"Robin," she whispered and then repeated his name more loudly when he did not respond. The second time stirred.
"Robin, listen to me," she said firmly, taking his hand in hers and giving it a squeeze. "What would Marion say if she knew you were giving up?"
"Not giving up," the reply came back.
"What would you call it then?" she asked. "I mean, look at you. Lying here when there's work to be done; feeling sorry for yourself. Marion kept going, you know, after she thought you were dead. What would she say to you now?"
"Yes, I'm sure she'd be cross if she knew."
"So tired. Can't go on."
"Yes you can." Her voice softened. "You don't have to do it all on your own. There are people to help you."
"Will, John, Nasir, Tuck and Much - they're all here to help - and you can't let Much down again."
"Much? Yes...no...I don't know."
"Yes you do. Much needs you here - alive - don't let him down again."
"But Marion?" A frown creased the pale brows.
"She wants you here helping your people like she did."
"Sure?" Robin's eyes focussed on the girl.
"I'm sure," she murmured confidently, smoothing his hair down.
"Perhaps I will stay then."
"Good, that's what I hoped you'd say. After all why did you escape from prison if you didn't intend to resume your forest life? But rest now, get your strength back and then you can get back to work." She took the goblet that was standing near him and carefully poured some of the liquid down his throat, then wiped his lips.
"It's a shame about your face," she murmured, lightly brushing away lifeless locks to reveal the ugly scar. "Perhaps I could..."
Robin grabbed the hand that was now running down the length of the scar.
"Who are you?" he hissed.
She laughed, extricating her hand from his weak grasp.
The outlaws looked up as the girl came over to the fire and warmed her hands.
"He'll stay," she told them, "but he'll need all the help you can give him." She accepted the goblet of warm mead that John offered her as Much jumped up and ran over to his brother. He came to a halt at Robin's side and looked down at him.
"Hello," he said shyly.
"Hello yourself," Robin replied, freeing a hand from the furs and holding it out to Much who took it firmly and sat down.
"I'm glad you're staying."
"I'm sorry, Much. Dying is the easy way out. It was selfish of me."
"No it wasn't. I know why you did it but I'm still glad you're not going."
"So am I - now."
"Go to sleep, Robin."
"I can't. The nightmares."
"Drink this." John put a goblet into his hand. "She says it'll help you forget."
"Who is she?" Robin asked, downing the tawny drink and pulling a face at its bitter taste. John shrugged.
"No idea," he admitted. "No one has, except Herne of course."
"That's no surprise," he murmured, feeling his eyelids drooping. John caught the goblet as it fell from his hand and waited quietly.
As soon as Robin's breathing had deepened into healing sleep John and Much slipped back to the others only to find that Herne and the girl had disappeared. The outlaws ate their evening meal with lighter hearts before settling down to sleep.
Short cool spring days lengthened into warmer summer ones. Robin's strength increased and he regained his purpose in life. The outlaws began harassing the Sheriff again in small ways. The villagers welcomed Robin's return with feasts and dancing. As for the soldiers who had removed a far from dead body from the dungeons, they went to help King John's war effort in France. Of the mysterious girl there was no further sign.
The summer solstice came and went and Robin grew restless. The others tried not to notice but at last Will took him aside.
"Go," he told his friend.
"Go?" Robin asked, puzzled. "Go where?"
"Halstead. Go and see Marion's grave. It'll put your mind at rest."
"I'd like to, of course, but what about the Abbot of Newstead who we're robbing tomorrow?"
"We can manage him. You go. You're no use to anyone while your mind is on other things."
"Are you sure?"
Yes. We've talked it over and we're all agreed. Go to Halstead - now."
"Thank you. I will."
Stopping only to thank the others, Robin set off for the convent graveyard at Halstead. The walk was easier than that of the previous time but his heart was heavy as he reached the grey walls. The nuns let him in and showed him the path leading to the graveyard.
Robin walked slowly along the overgrown path, reluctant to see the final confirmation of life without Marion. Eventually he reached a small gate and lifted the latch. He was about to move through the opening when he spotted someone kneeling by the simple white stone that he had been told marked his wife's grave. He stopped in the shadow of a willow and watched the person whose face was hidden by a large hood.
"I'll take care of him for you, my lady, I promise." The hooded figure placed a small bunch of rosemary and rue on the grave and moved away. Robin barred its path.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"Is that the only question you know?" familiar tones asked as the figure threw back its hood. "I am Matilda Fitzwalter."
"The girl from the forest," Loxley gasped. She threw him a filthy look.
"What are you doing here?" he continued, unperturbed.
"Visiting Marion," she replied. "I've heard so many stories about her - some true, some lies - that I wanted to find the truth out for myself. But the only person that can tell me the truth is lying there, dead, so I'll never know. She must have been very brave, though, leaving everything for life in the forest with Herne's son."
"What do you know about that?" Robin interrupted sharply.
"More than you think and less than I should," she replied cryptically.
"But you know Herne?" he pressed.
"Yes, I know Herne," she acknowledged. "I've known him all my life and he's asked me to do some very strange things, but taking care of an outlaw who is quite capable of taking care of himself is the strangest." She smiled at the thought and Robin laughed.
"Ah yes, Herne moves in mysterious ways."
"A bit like God," Matilda rejoined, looking at the grey walls of the convent. "Poor Marion, ending her days here rather than in the forest."
"And what about you?" Robin asked, changing the subject. "What about your life?"
"Oh that's easy. King John wants me and I don't want him so I've retreated up here to stay with my Uncle Robert, the Sheriff of Nottingham."
"De Rainault!" Robin was aghast.
"Yes. Awful isn't it? Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. But I think Uncle Robert is the lesser of two evils, don't you?"
"I don't know much about the king so I can't really say," Robin admitted. They fell into a companionable silence and turned back to Marion's grave. Loxley knelt beside the stone and rested his hand on the grassy mound.
"Herne protect you, my love," he whispered as Matilda looked on.
Robin looked up sharply at the sound of the voice, expecting to see his auburn haired, green eyed wife. All he saw was Matilda.
"I love you and I know you love me but do what must be done here - for my sake."
"Of course I do. I've been there myself. Take care, my love."
A slight breeze rustled through the trees.
"Marion!" he whispered.
"What is it?" Matilda demanded, worried by his fey expression.
"Nothing." He dragged his thoughts back to the present. "How strange. Herne wants you to look after me and Marion wants me to look after you. I wonder what the future does hold."
"No idea," Matilda giggled.
"Why don't you come and live with us in Sherwood?" he asked suddenly. "It would be easier for both of us to fulfil our promises then."
"I'm not as brave as Marion," Matilda replied softly. "Not that I don't want to but I can probably do more for you from the castle."
"Well come back anyway and meet the others properly."
She hesitated slightly before replying.
"All right, but we take my horse. I'm not walking all that way!"
"Agreed," he grinned before bending and touching the turf gently. "I'll be back," he promised his wife.
The voice floated off through the trees. Robin paused momentarily before following Matilda to where a large chestnut mare stood patiently under a tree. He lifted her onto its back and then swung himself up in the saddle behind her. They trotted back through the verdant countryside with poppies and cornflowers growing wild on every side, and into the cool lushness of the forest, laughing and talking all the way.
The Abbot of Newstead, on the other hand, was not in the mood for laughter. The outlaws had humiliated him in front of his monks as well as stealing his chests of gold and the young novice at his side was getting a very un-Christian earful.
"I'm sure it's all going to be given to the poor," the young man stammered. "Isn't that right? Helping the poor?"
The resultant oath caused him to hastily revise his point of view.
"If you're so sure of that," the Abbot snapped, "go and ask them for it back. After all, we're poor now aren't we?"
The novice remained silent, staring at his sandals and studiously ignoring the man on horseback.
"Well, go on then. We'll see you at Nottingham Castle with the gold or not all."
"You're serious!" the young man gasped.
With mixed feelings of horror and relief the novice stopped in his tracks and glanced back down the way they had come. The forest stood forbidding and eerie in the twilight.
"Move!" the Abbot snarled at him, lifting his horsewhip. The novice moved.
Despite his assertions of the outlaws' good intentions the novice was not too happy at the thought of meeting them. Like most people he had heard the stories of their deeds and no body was too particular about stating which group was the subject of which story and so, it was with an increasing sense of dread that he re-entered the forest.
Clutching his rosary and praying silently but fervently he hurried on down the nearest pathway, wondering where, if at all, he would find the Abbot's gold. The slightest rustle made him start and he glanced nervously from tree to tree, now looking amongst the leaves and then around the trunks, unsure of what to expect.
Uncertain of where he was going or what he was going to do the man made his way deeper and deeper into the secret heart of the trees led, it seemed to him, by some unknown hand. Despite all his caution, however, the novice eventually found himself surrounded by a group of outlaws. Drawing his cowl tightly round his face he stood and awaited his fate. Unable to see his captors he willed himself to display a calmness that he was far from feeling and, as there was no movement form them, he fancied that his stillness was unnerving them.
At last the novice allowed himself to peep out from under his cowl and his blood ran cold.ﾐ Far from being unnerved they stood bows poised and arrowheads unwavering, in a circle, just as still as he himself. At length the silence was broken.
"'Oo are you then?"
"Brother Dominic. I'm confessor to Lady Matilda Fitzwalter."
"Lady Matilda Fitzwalter? 'Oo's she then?"
"It's me." A clear voice rang through the trees. Dominic turned to look as Matilda and Robin walked towards them out of the gloom, chestnut mare in tow.
"My lady," the novice exclaimed and fell to his knees. Matilda exchanged amused glances with Robin before addressing the kneeling man.
"Oh get up, Dominic, do."
The novice got to his feet and threw back his cowl. Unruly dark curls fell down around a cheerful face, framing twinkling blue eyes and a mouth that seemed to perpetually grin. The outlaws lowered their bows at last as they saw that Robin was at ease with the two strangers.
"Well? 'Oo is she?" Will demanded again, eyeing Matilda up speculatively.
"Daughter of Robert Fitzwalter of Dunmow in the county of Essex; favoured by King John and, at present, guest of the Sheriff," Robin stated.
Silence fell as they all digested the information while Dominic traced patterns in the leaf mould with his sandalled foot. Robin glanced across at the young man and smiled gently.
Matilda's laugh brought them all back to the present and Tuck motioned that they should leave that particular bit of the forest since it was uncomfortably near to the place where they had ambushed the Abbot. As they travelled down the dim pathways, Dominic and Matilda fell naturally into step with Robin. Will raised an eyebrow but said nothing as the three chatted away as if they were old friends, while Much wormed his way under his brother's arm so that he could be close to the man he had so nearly lost again.
As they entered the camp each of the outlaws had the distinct impression that someone had just left it and Robin was sure that he heard familiar laughter ringing through the trees.
"Marion?" he whispered as they all came to an abrupt halt. Matilda rested a hand gently on his arm.
"She'll always be with you, Robin," she murmured softly.
Tuck skirted the quiet group and made straight for the cooking pot. The scent of meat and rosemary mingled with the rising wood-smoke although he did not actually remember putting the herb in.
As they ate Dominic told them about the Abbot of Newstead and the outlaws showed him the riches that they had acquired from that same Abbot.
"And what will you do with it?" the novice asked.
"Distribute it amongst the poor villagers," Tuck told him gently.
"I knew you would." Dominic was almost smug at having been proved right.
"Where was he headed?" John wanted to know.
"Nottingham," Will answered, "That's why we robbed 'im on the Nottingham road!"
"All right, why was he headed that way?" John continued after glaring at his fellow outlaw.
"We were going to stay with the Sheriff for a few days before they travelled on to London to present the gold to the Queen in return for her patronage for the abbey. When they left I was going to stay as Lady Matilda's confessor."
"A hard job with wayward girls," Tuck told him. "Little Flower was a lot of trouble, but worth it."
Silence fell over the camp as each of the outlaws pictured the wayward Marion. It was broken at last by Matilda.
"I'm not wayward," she declared indignantly, having thought the matter over.
"Oh no?" Robin laughed. "In that case what were you doing dressed as a boy, threatening me with a knife and running away from Gisburne not so very long ago?"
"Trying to find some peace and quiet away from the castle and you interrupted me," she snapped.
"And Gisburne?" Nasir asked.
"Oh, he'd appointed himself my protector," Matilda giggled. "Not that he was very good at it; and, of course, once I'd got out of the castle, it was a matter of pride for him to find me and take me back."
"And did he?" Much asked. "After you'd left us?"
"No. I found a nice secret path that took me back almost to the postern gate andﾐ then used the secret passage under the walls - known to no one except the Sheriff, myself, most of the soldiers and the rats. It was easy to slip in under Guy's nose, change into a gown and swan in for the evening meal right in the middle of Guy trying to explain to Uncle Robert that I wasn't in the castle. Poor Guy. He hasn't lived that one down yet."
"He hasn't lived a lot down if I know Guy of Gisburne," Tuck observed.
"He could be quite dangerous," Matilda said, "if he only stopped to think once in a while."
"I seem to remember someone else commenting on that." John grinned at Robin and Will.
"Well," said Matilda, rising to her feet, "I hate to break up this happy group but it is getting very dark and I think Dominic and I ought to put in an appearance at the castle some time tonight."
"You're right, of course," Robin agreed. "Thank you very much for coming and I hope we'll see you again."
"I'll keep my ear to the ground and let you know if I hear anything of importance," Matilda promised. "Come on, Dominic."
"But what about the Abbot's gold?" the novice asked. "He didn't want to see me again if I didn't bring it back."
"I'll handle the Abbot," Matilda assured him. "Now come on."
Slightly comforted Dominic followed Matilda from the camp.
"Poor Dominic," Tuck sighed. "I wonder if he has the strength to do what is right."
"Like you did do you mean?" John wanted to know.
"Oh I think he'll do what is right but probably in a different way," Robin told them. "Come on, let's to bed. I'm exhausted."
They all looked at him, worried that he was heading for another relapse, but his face told of health and fitness and they decided that it was the long walk and fresh air that had worn him out. Happy and contented they arranged the ferns and bracken and settled down under the softly smiling face of the full moon.
"Robin, watch," Marion's voicecalled. Ripples from a skimming stone broke into thousands of pieces of light which turned into pouring gold. An empty sack was flung onto a table. A parchment fluttered to the floor where it was grabbed by a pack of dogs and torn to pieces. A woman wept in a corner. A stone effigy lay on top of a cold grey tomb. Somewhere angels sang and an icon of Christ on the cross bled.
Robin woke in the dark. It was a long time since he had had a vision and for a moment he was unsure what it was, not that it was any clearer than it would have been in the past, but the fact that it involved Marion made it different. Matilda, too, had been there. It was she who had been weeping but what it foretold he did not know.
With a throbbing head Robin scrambled from his resting place and fetched himself a goblet of mead. Deep amongst the trees he could see eyes watching him and knew that the wolf and stag who had been near him since childhood were still present at his side. It was comforting to know that they were there, an affirmation of who and what he was.
"They should be watching Matilda," he thought aloud.
"Matilda has her own protectors," Herne told him, stepping into the dim light of the dying. "Did you not see the hawk flying high above you this afternoon when you visited Marion? And even now the old owl in the castle is sitting on her window ledge."
"Good," Robin muttered, wondering why he had ever doubted that it was so.
"Herne always protects his children," the Lord of the Trees reminded him.
"Who is she?" Robin asked the god.
"Matilda Fitzwalter, daughter..." Herne began.
"Yes I know all that," Robin interrupted. "She told us that. But how does she fit in with us, with...Herne's son?"
"She is my daughter," Herne replied simply.
"Well, that makes everything clear," Robin commented.
"Listen and I'll tell you."
Robin hunkered down over the glowing embers fire, clutching his goblet and fixed his eyes on Herne.
"As Herne's son is reborn, the birthright passing from father to son where possible, so is my daughter. She is there in case all else fails."
"So, if both Robert and I had died, Matilda would have taken over our mantle."
"Yes. But luckily it has not come to that. It is always harder for the women to lead. If you hadn't responded to her gentle persuasion, however, then she would have stayed as leader of your outlaws."
"I think Will might have had something to say about that," Robin observed with a grin.
"That's true," Herne responded. "But the need did not arise. You are still here with us."
"Desperate rather than gentle persuasion," Robin murmured, his mind going off at a tangent.
"Well, whatever it was it worked. Welcome back Robin-in-the-Hood and may you walk the Sherwood paths for a long time to come."
"Oh I hope so," Robin agreed fervently. "There is still so much to do. And nextﾐ time, I don't want to know when my greatest enemy is creeping up behind me unless it happens to be Gisburne lost in the forest yet again!"
Herne gave a short laugh.
"Agreed," he said as he melted away into the trees leaving Robin to try to return to sleep.
Matilda erupted into the camp next morning followed, at a more sedate pace, by Dominic. Robin blinked owlishly at them and yawned, having been awake half the night or so it seemed to him. Will grabbed a piece of sacking to make himself respectable and
Nasir threw a pile of bracken over the sunbathing Much.
"I'm sorry," Matilda said, not sounding in the least bit sorry and with a glint in her eye as she watched the unfortunate Scarlet struggle with the sacking. Tuck raised an eyebrow at her companion as if to say "I told you so".
Dominic sat down on the nearest tree stump with a sigh and helped himself to a lump of bread. Tuck passed him a bowl of potage and the novice ate hungrily.
"No breakfast?" John asked sympathetically.
"No. She insisted we left at first light," the novice moaned, devouring the last drops. Tuck threw him an apple.
"Here lad, eat that. You look as if you could do with it."
Dominic muttered his thanks as Robin got to his feet and crossed over to the young man's charge.
"What happened when you got back yesterday?" Loxley asked.
"Well," Matilda replied with excitement, ignoring the bowl Tuck was offering her, "firstly, the Abbot was in an absolutely foul mood and Dominic had to stay in his room all evening so he didn't get anything to eat then either, poor lamb. Uncle Robert wasn't much better. You've really upset him you know."
"Good," Will interjected.
"He was hoping for a quiet old age," Matilda reflected.
"So?" Robin prompted.
"Well, they didn't say much, just kept whispering together and glowering at Guy. But I found out from one of the Abbot's men why his master was so cross."
"And?" Will asked, nearly dropping his sacking.
Matilda hurriedly averted her eyes.
"Will!" Robin exclaimed in mock horror.
"Shouldn't 'ave barged in 'ere then, should she?" Will snapped back. "She 'as to take us as she finds us!"
"Do you want to hear what I found out or not?" Matilda asked impatiently.
"Of course we do. Carry on, Matilda," Robin encouraged her, glaring at Will to silence him.
"Well, it seems that amongst the gold there is a list containing the names of all the barons and clergy who are plotting to curb the powers of the king by getting him to sign some sort of charter. Uncle Robert and the Abbot are intent on sending the list to King John in the hopes that they will be rewarded in some way. The question is, what do we do about it?"
"Anything to upset the Sheriff," Will volunteered.
"What is morally right?" Tuck asked
"Perhaps if John's powers were curbed, life would improve for the poor," Robin suggested.
"Unknown," Matilda told him. "The charter hasn't even been written yet so what the consequences will be is anyone's guess."
"How do you know so much about it?" John asked suddenly.
"My father is involved with it," Matilda admitted.
"If John were to find that out he could have a hold over both you and your father," Robin pointed out.
"I know," she murmured softly, dropping her eyes. Dominic quickly stood up next to her.
"And that's why I think we ought to find and return the list to Matilda's father," he offered aggressively, glaring round at them all.
"I agree," Robin concurred quietly.
"You do?" Dominic was obviously relieved. "I thought I might have to persuade you."
"Oh no. Anything that keeps Matilda safe and annoys the Sheriff has our support. Right?"
The other outlaws all nodded enthusiastically and Dominic relaxed, grinning at them all.
"Suppose we'd better find the list then," John added.
"But where do we start?" Much asked turning to look at the chests andﾐ discarding the bracken all over the place. Dominic clasped his hands over Matilda's eyes as John and Nasir fell about with laughter. Robin threw some clothes over to his brother.
"Well, you and Will can start by getting dressed," he told them. "Now."
Much and Will grabbed their clothes and disappeared behind the nearest bush just as Matilda pulled Dominic's hands away from her face.
"Thank you but I'm quite capable of looking after my own modesty," she told him. Dominic smiled shyly at her as she followed Robin over to the Abbot's chests.
There were six chests in all, stuffed full of gold and jewels and they sifted through every single piece looking for the list. At length the chests were empty, the ground covered in a shining carpet and there was still no sign of any parchment. Matilda kicked one of the chests in frustration.
"Where is it?" she stormed.
"Patience," Robin advised. "Perhaps the chests themselves..." He and Dominic started examining the chests, tapping at the sides, bottoms and lids, but to no avail. They had almost given up hope when Much wandered over to them.
"That chest looks very shallow inside," he observed.
Robin and Dominic stared at him and then fell to the ground one each side of the chest Much had pointed out. They pushed, pressed, pulled and threatened all the carved protuberances until, at last, the chest gave up its secret. The bottom slid back and a piece of yellow parchment fell to the ground. Tuck took it up and unrolled it.
"This is it," he declared at length.
"At last," John said. "Can we eat now?"
The outlaws all dived onto the food leaving Robin, Dominic and Matilda pouring over the list.
"There are some really powerful names here," Robin observed.
"Oh good," Will mumbled through his mouthful of food. "So now what?"
"We take it to Lord Fitzwalter," Dominic said.
"After we've got rid of this lot," Robin added, indicating the gold and jewels strewn all over the clearing.
It was a long and tiring job distributing the Abbot's wealth to the villages. Many of them were a good hour's walk away at the best of times and, laden down as they were with their gifts, it took the outlaws most of that afternoon and the next day to dispose of it all. On the second day Matilda lent them her horse to try and speed things up but it didn't make much difference. Being the nearest village to the camp, Wickham was left until last.
It was early evening when the outlaws finally arrived at Wickham, making their weary way through a strangely silent village to the headman's house where they were met by a distraught Alice.
"They've taken the children," she sobbed over and over again before Edward emerged from the dark interior and put an arm round his wife's shoulders. He looked at Robin, pain etched on his face.
"They want the list," he told the outlaw, "and they won't return the children until they get it."
"Damn!" Will exploded.
"What list?" Edward continued.
"It's better that you don't know," Robin told him. "But we'll get the children back somehow."
"Why did you have to come back?" Alice suddenly snapped. "It would have been peaceful with you both gone!"
"She doesn't mean it," Edward apologised, watching her run back into the house.
"I know," Robin assured him, resting a hand on his shoulder. "And we will get the children back, I promise."
The outlaws walked slowly away, each lost in his own thoughts, forgetting their aching muscles in the pain of knowing what had happened to the villagers. Silently they made their way back to the camp and settled down to eat.
"So, what do we do?" Will asked, breaking the silence at last.
"Return the list?" Tuck suggested.
"That doesn't mean that the Sheriff will let the children go," Robin pointed out. "He could hold on to them and ask for more in return."
"So, what do we do?" Will repeated.
"Matilda and Dominic will have to get them out while we take the list to her father."
"But the children don't know them. They might be frightened and not do as they're told," John observed quietly.
"I hadn't thought of that," Robin admitted. "In that case some of us will have to go as well. We'd better talk to Matilda."
"Oh yes, and she'll come just like that when you want her," Will muttered. "Whatﾐ is she? A mind reader or something?"
"We'll send a message," Robin grinned rising to his feet. Gently he raised an arm aloft and from the shadows of a nearby oak a tawny owl glided down to land on it.
"Tell Matilda we must talk soon," Robin instructed the bird while Will turned away to hide his laughter.
"And you think that'll work?" the ex-soldier asked.
"I know it will," Robin replied with conviction.
The next morning brought Matilda and Dominic to the camp causing Will to mutter an apology to his leader. Dismissing Scarlet's disbelief, Robin explained the problem to their friends. It was quickly decided that Tuck and Much should take the list to Lord Fitzwalter whilst the others helped rescue the children. Matilda had been unaware of their capture but assured the outlaws that she would find out their whereabouts as soon as possible. The time for the rescue was fixed as dusk and the two departed leaving the others to discuss their plans once they were in the castle. It was up to Matilda and Dominic to get them in.
Dusk arrived bringing the outlaws to the castle walls. Robin shuddered as memories came tumbling back. The walls looked even more forbidding to him than they had in the past. The quiet hoot of an owl drew their attention to where a small cloaked figure stood by a clump of bushes. Quietly they made their way over to where it stood. Without a word it pointed to a small opening and John gasped.
"We've used this once before," he muttered under his breath to Will who nodded.
"Ssh," the figure admonished and led the way down into a damp passage. Robin took a deep breath and plunged in after it, followed by the others. An eerie green light came from spluttering torches on the walls as they moved down the stone pathway.
"I know where we are," Robin muttered, panic rising in him as he recognised the state of the walls.
"It's all right," the figure assured him, gently taking his hand and leading him over the rough floor, encouraging him when he would have faltered and turned back, until at last they came to a small dry room with a hole in its roof. As they arrived beneath it a rope ladder was let down and they clambered out to be met by Dominic.
"You all right?" Will asked gruffly, noticing Robin's pale face.
"I am now," the young man replied, swallowing hard. "Too near to where Robert died; where I..." His voice trailed off. John laid a hand on his arm.
"Easy, lad," he rumbled.
"Good thing Much wasn't with us," Robin continued at last.
"Follow me," Matilda whispered, throwing her hood back and beckoning to them. "We haven't got much time. Come on, Dominic." She led them through the lower dungeons and past silent guardrooms until they came to a large stone room. From inside came the sounds of muffled sobs and then a voice clearly announced;
"My father and Robin won't let anything happen to us."
"I hope not," the Sheriff's voice replied. "I do so want to meet Robin of Loxley again and this time it will be for good."
"You'll never kill him," the first voice answered stoutly.
"Quiet, Matthew. Don't push him too far," John muttered as they all melted into the shadows.
The sound of a bolt being drawn caused them to turn their faces from the light and they felt, rather than saw, de Rainault leave the room. As soon as his footsteps had ceased to echo along the passageways Robin ran over to the door.
"Matthew? Matthew! Are you all right?"
"We are now," the boy replied. "I knew you'd come Robin. I knew you wouldn't let us down. I knew..."
"That's enough." Robin cut him short. "We're here. I don't know how long it willﾐ take for us to get you out but be ready."
"We will be, I promise," Matthew assured him.
"Good." Robin turned back to the young girl at his side. "The keys?"
"On de Rainault's belt I'm afraid," she replied.
"Great," Will muttered as his fist connected with the wall.
"However, Dominic and I do have a plan. Stay here."
Time passed slowly as they waited for the two to return. Memories flooded back of imprisonments and tortures suffered there. Robin talked cheerfully to the children to keep them awake and prayed that they would not have to wait too long; the place was depressing them all.
At last Dominic returned and in his hands he held the keys.
"Where's Matilda?" Robin whispered as they unlocked the door.
"Cornered by Guy," the novice replied unable to keep the anxiety from his voice.ﾐ
"She'll be all right," Robin tried to reassure him.
"Will she? If you saw the way he looks at her..."
Their attention was drawn back to the children by a lot of whispering. One little girl was standing by the hole, petrified with fear.
"I can't," she wailed.
"But you have to," Matthew said, pushing her. Robin grasped his arm.
"No one has to. It would be easier that way but if she is scared then we'll just have to find another way out."
"Just like a girl," Matthew sneered as Will and John pulled those up who hadﾐ already gone down and replaced the flagstone.
"You don't have to prove yourself to me," Robin told the boy quietly, picking the child up. "Now, leave her be. Dominic, a back door would be a good idea I think."
"Follow me," the novice grinned leading them up more flights of stone steps to the kitchens where he gave the children an apple each before they continued on their way.
They had almost reached the small postern gate when Gisburne appeared, an arm round Matilda's waist. At the sight of them he snatched his arm away and scrabbled for his sword.
"Say your prayers, Loxley," he snarled as he finally liberated metal from leather. Nasir and Will unsheathed their swords in response but Robin was hampered by the girl in his arms. Instantly aware of their plight, Dominic grabbed the great metal key from the door and swung it round on the end of its chain, striking Gisburne on the side of the head and felling him like an ox. At once John grabbed the key back and unlocked the door, hurrying the terrified children out into the night.
"What were you doing there?" Matilda hissed as she followed them. "I was trying to keep Guy away from the passage and then I find you here."
"Some of us didn't like the passage," Robin explained quietly.
"I see," Matilda replied, ruffling the hair of the nearest child.
"What about Gisburne?" Will demanded.
"He'll have a headache when he wakes up. Why are you so concerned all of a sudden?"
"But won't he tell the Sheriff that Dominic was helping us escape?"
"Oh no. Dominic was saving my honour. If my father ever heard that then Guy'sﾐ life wouldn't be worth living. I think we can safely say that Guy's silence is assured."
"If you're sure..." Robin sounded doubtful.
"I know my father and I know Guy. Of course I'm sure," Matilda replied firmly. "Now go while they can still walk."
Robin, Dominic and the outlaws led the children out into the night. Half carrying some, half dragging others, they bullied the older children into helping the younger ones until at last the cheerful lights of Wickham twinkled through the gloom and the children were restored, tired but safe, to grateful parents. Matilda stayed behind to try and keep things quiet in the castle for as long as possible.
Long before the parents of Wickham had finished thanking them, Robin suggested that Dominic had better begin walking back to the castle. Unsure of the way in the dark, the young novice persuaded the outlaw to accompany him. The walk was silent, each man wrapped up in his thoughts, but companionable.
"You know," Dominic said at last, turning to the man at his side, "she's right in a way. It was her honour rather than our safety that I was thinking of when I grabbed the key."
"I know," he said. "But does it really matter what you were thinking? After all everyone escaped didn't they?"
"Yes they did," Dominic agreed as the castle's silhouette hove into view on the hill.
"I'll say goodbye here," Robin said drawing to a halt. "Thank you for your help, yours and Matilda's."
"I doubt you've seen the last of her," Dominic told him.
"No I don't suppose we have. Nor of you. But what about you?"
"Oh I'll try and help in my own small way. Teaching the children - that's where ourﾐ hope for the future lies. Goodbye Robin-in-the-Hood and thank you for everything."
Robin watched until Dominic disappeared in the dark and then returned to the camp to find Tuck and Much saddle-sore and weary after a hard but successful ride and well rewarded for their pains.
The voice danced in his head.
"But what of my vision?" he whispered to the trees.
"That is yet to come. Keep caring, Robin, keep caring."
Magna Carta was signed in 1215 on Runnymede Green after much scrapping between the various parties involved.
Lady Matilda Fitzwalter took part in many of the outlaws' adventures eventually weaving her way into the stories but it was not to last.
One hot summer night when Robin had been missing Marion more than usual the vision came to him again. He sat bolt upright clutching his cloak around him for he suddenly felt icy cold. The movement woke Will who rolled over and looked at him in surprise.
"What's the matter?" he yawned.
"We have to go to Dunmow," Robin muttered, scrambling to his feet and pulling on his boots.
"Wha'?" Will demanded, sitting up and staring at him in alarm but, seeing that Loxley was in earnest, he woke the others and they got ready for the journey.
After a hard fast walk they arrived in the county of Essex and made for the Fitzwalter's manor. The door was bolted but Robin ignored it and glanced around.
"A weeping cross," he muttered.
"The chapel?" Tuck suggested leading the way over to the small building which stood nearby only to find that the door was locked there too.
It was Much who found the open side door of the chapel. The outlaws poured through quietly and crossed the small ante-chamber to the chancel. Seated on the floor in front of the altar they found Dominic cradling the still form of Matilda. Tears were streaming down his cheeks and he was oblivious of everything.
"Dominic." Robin's voice was scarcely more than a whisper and, for a moment, they thought the young man hadn't heard.
"She's dead, Robin." The anguished murmur came back at last. "She was too young to die; too full of life. She shouldn't have died."
Robin closed the gap between them and hunkered down in front of his distraught friend. Gently he pushed the raven black hair aside and looked at Matilda's face, serene even in death. Dominic choked.
"She was so beautiful."
"Yes she was."
"And I loved her so much," he admitted both to them and himself.
"I know. How did she die?" Robin's quiet understanding brought more tears to Dominic's eyes and he buried his face in Matilda's hair, shoulders shaking. The outlaw let him weep for a while and then took him firmly by the shoulders forcing the monk to look into his face.
"Tell me, Dominic, how did Matilda die?"
With a shudder the young man tried to bring his emotions under control so that he could answer.
"Two of King John's men came again to take her to London whether she wanted to or not. She came to me in great distress. I can still hear her voice. `I can't and won't go with them. I'd rather die than that,' she told me and I, God forgive me, reassured her that it wouldn't come to that. She collapsed in my arms, sobbing. I'd never seen her like it before. All I could do was hold her tight, smelling her fresh, clean hair, wishing..." His voice trailed away as he was overtaken by memories.
Robin shook the young man again and blue eyes focussed on Loxley's green ones.
"I'm sorry," Dominic murmured, "only I..."
"I know," the outlaw assured him.
"Do you think she knew I loved her?" the monk asked suddenly.
"Yes, she knew," Robin replied remembering how Matilda had confided in him during her time with the outlaws.
"Yes, she knew you loved her," he repeated glancing down at the body in Dominic's arms, wishing that he had had the opportunity to bid farewell to his wife.
"They poisoned her." The statement brought Loxley's thoughts back from the treetops.
"'Ow?" interjected Will breaking the self-imposed silence of the other outlaws.
"Does it matter how? She wouldn't go to London with them so they poisoned her. She dragged herself here so that she could make her peace with God. I found her when I came to prepare for vespers. She died in my arms."
"But she looks so peaceful," Much observed.
"I think she was glad it was all over," Dominic told him. "For her, perhaps, but not for those left behind."
They sat in silence for a while, lost in their personal memories, each mourning the passing of the vivacious Matilda, until, gradually, they became aware of someone knocking at the main door of the chapel.
"It's the steward," Dominic whispered.
"You'd better take Matilda out to them," Robin advised. "We'll hide in the ante-chamber until they're gone."
Dominic nodded and stood up. Carefully he gathered the lifeless body into his arms and walked towards the door. As he did so the outlaws slipped out of the chapel and made their way to some nearby trees where they concealed themselves from prying eyes.
They stayed for the funeral, watching from afar and sending their fiery arrows of remembrance into the nearby lake when all the mourners had departed. Dominic joined them for that last ritual, firing an arrow from Robin's bow, before returning with them to Sherwood and then on to Newstead Abbey to hide, once again, behind closed doors, content that he was doing both God's and Matilda's will.
Lady Matilda Fitzwalter was buried in the small church on her father's lands visited by none save the field-mice and voles.
On arriving back at Sherwood, Robin pilgrimaged to the grave at Halstead. Gently he laid a small bunch of poppies and cornflowers on the grassy mound.
"Marion, how can I go on without you?" he murmured, hunkering down.
A small breeze ruffled his hair as if Marion were running her fingers through it as she used to.
"Because you must," the trees whispered.
"I'll be with you even unto the end of time."
Robin got to his feet. Still sad, but strangely comforted, he made his way backﾐ down the overgrown path and out into the countryside. A warm wind embraced him as he set off for Sherwood determined to justify Marion's faith in him.