|Primary Characters:||Robin, Marion, Guy|
|Description:||Will Scarlet claims to be Herne’s son, and Robin and Marion try to solve the problem. They don’t have much success, but someone from the past returns to give them a hand.|
Finally, her hair was free of tangles and she was modestly and seemly garbed. It was time to face her father. They would break their fast together, unless Leaford’s duties had taken him further afield in the early hours of morning. At this thought, there was a pang of guilt. Robin ought to be assuming more of these duties now that he was settled at Leaford. Her father was aging, and though his health at this time was good, thank Herne, it was not fitting that he should still be working this hard. Marion knew she would have to assist her young husband in this undertaking.
What could Huntingdon have been planning for his son? Robin appeared to have had very little formal training in the managing of a castle and its lands, such as most heirs would. Had Huntingdon planned a career in the church for his son? A smile greeted this absurd thought. Her husband a man of the cloth? Though their longtime friend Tuck was far removed from what you would expect of a man who had taken vows, Marion’s imagination could not stretch so far as to envision her gentle young husband a clerk, in the service of the church.
These light-hearted musings occupied her mind as she descended the stairs and entered the grand banqueting hall. No sign of her father, but that was hardly surprising. He would not be partaking of any meals here, unless he was entertaining guests. She asked a passing serving boy for the whereabouts of her father, and found that he was indeed, as she had expected, about to break his fast inside the small solar, that served her father as a study and workroom. He would also normally take his meals there.
“Tell my father I will join him there, and let Nellie know I will be breaking my fast with my father.”
The boy scurried off, a shy grin on his face. Just as every other servant at Leaford, the boy was happy to see his mistress safely back from the horrors of Sherwood forest. Was it not common knowledge that gods walked among the shadows of the high trees? Their beloved lady Marion belonged at Leaford, not in such frightful company.
Marion paused briefly outside the door to the solar, to knock and await her father’s response. This was how she had been brought up to behave, and though she knew such ceremony served no purpose, and indeed, her father would have no such fuss, she felt it best to revert to her role as a lady.
She broke off when she espied her father’s worried frown. What could be wrong? The old man held a letter in his hand. Bad news?
“What is amiss, father?”
With an effort, Leaford erased the frown and smiled at his daughter. Time enough to worry her later. He still had friends. This warning from the church need not cause any grave consequences. Now that his daughter was finally home again, and away from the forest and her disreputable life there, he would not cause that happy smile to fade from her beloved features.
“Nothing is wrong, my dear. Merely some tedious business communication. Nothing for you to worry about.”
“Are you sure, father? I am not a child. If there is something -”
Marion was no fool. Her father ought not to disregard her assistance if anything was amiss.
“I assure you, nothing that needs be dealt with at this time. Come, sit down. Have you broken your fast yet, child?”
“No. I was hoping we could do so together this morning.”
“What about your husband? Will he not be joining us?”
“Robin is still asleep, father. He looked so peaceful, I had not the heart to wake him.”
Leaford smiled indulgently. Perhaps young Huntingdon was not the husband he would have chosen for his daughter, but there was no denying that the boy made Marion happy, and that was really all he need concern himself with. Furthermore, he had to admit the boy possessed charm. Leaford found himself more and more taken with young Robert.
Huntingdon was a good friend and this union was desirable in more ways than one, despite the young man’s shortcomings as a peer and his lack of formal training as a knight. There was still time. He would learn. Everything was different today. Perhaps it was not such a bad thing, allowing your son to grow up carefree as a child. As long as his elders were still around to keep a protective hand over his innocent head.
A girl brought bread, butter, apples and honey. There was thick cream in a bowl, and in another, some eggs. There was a tankard of cider for Marion and one with ale for her father. Should young Robert choose to make an appearance soon, there would be more in the kitchen. Leaford’s barns and storehouses were well furnished, even this late in the year, before the first harvest was brought in.
The old man allowed himself to relax. No need to panic. The church was always sending these threats to anyone who was believed not to follow its tenets to the letter. That did not mean the officals of the church would ever be sent to investigate the claims that the lady of Leaford and her young husband were practicing pagan rituals. Should the situation warrant it, Leaford would write to a few of his friends, perhaps even the King. For now, he would wait. The Christian world was vast. Work aplenty for the busy clerks and other officials. Leaford sensed that there was no urgency this time.
By the time the meal was well-nigh finished, young Robert at last appeared, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, his hair still as tangled as Marion’s had been when she woke up. She smiled contendedly at Robin. What a very handsome husband she had. All the girls at the convent would be filled with envy. Marion had been invited to a few of her friends’ weddings and most of the girls had been married to much older men, most of them homely to say the least. No one had been fortunate enough to be betrothed to a man of Robin’s appearance. Shamefacedly, Marion abandoned that train of thought. Robin’s fair face was not the only reason she loved him.
“Good morning, sir. Good morning, Marion. Forgive my tardiness.”
“You slept so soundly, I felt it a shame to wake you. Come. Join us. There is still some bread left -”
“Marion, I believe we can do better than that. We will send for fresh bread and other victuals from the kitchen.”
“Please, sir. No trouble on my account. I am accustomed to much rougher fare.”
“As am I, my dear Robert. All the more reason to fill our guts when the opportunity presents itself, eh?”
“Thank you, sir.”
The soldierly jargon was lost on Robin, and Leaford had a twinge of misgivings. How could this slight lad have led a group of infamous outlaws? Could those slender wrists truly hold a sword or a crossbow? But he forced such thoughts from his mind. The young fool had managed to keep himself and Marion alive over the years. He must have been doing something right.
“Ah, there we are. Thank you, Lucy. Tell your mistress this was fine.”
The old man indicated the remains of the meal he had shared with his daughter.
As the girl’s features were moved by a smile, Leaford began making light conversation with young Huntingdon. At least he was a charming companion.
Marion let her impatience show. She could still not have enough of the bliss of being back at Leaford. Now she got up and excused herself.
“I will take a walk in the gardens, father, Robin. No, please do not get up on my account. If I see him, I will speak to Tuck, or Much.”
“Tell Much I will speak to him later, my love.”
With a quick kiss, Marion bade her father and her husband farewell and hurried out into the gardens. The bright sunshine that had awakened her an hour previously was now making the budding green of the new shoots blinding in their intensity. Marion did not think spring had arrived this early any other year. She must remember to ask her father. He would be able to tell her. Just as she had expected she found not only Tuck but also the boy Much. Much was lying on the grass, half asleep and the friar was wandering around aimlessly, listening to the song of birds and the hum of bees. The friar had never said so, but Marion suspected that an educated man like Tuck must have missed this life more than any of the other outlaws. It was strange to think of herself and her men as outlaws. Now those days seemed very remote, thanks to her father’s and Huntingdon’s timely assistance.
“Good morning, Marion.”
Marion smiled down at Much. Apparently, the boy was more than half-asleep. He had not noticed her approach. She was seized with a playful impulse more worthy of the young schoolgirl all those years ago. But how could she even consider such a childish prank when Tuck was present? Though, why should she not? Was she not Marion of Leaford? She could do as she pleased in her own home. Hastily, she plucked a blade of grass, putting her finger to her lip in a warning to Tuck not to give her game away. Tiptoeing closer to the boy on the ground, she proceeded to use the grass to tickle his nose. At first this did not produce much of a reaction. Much merely used his hand to swipe away the imagined fly from his face. Again. Now he began to scratch the tip of his nose, but still did not wake up. But the game had to be abandoned. At this point, Marion was giggling helplessly, as once she and a young friend had at the convent, when Mother Benedict had fallen asleep in her pew and begun to slide to the floor. Much’s eyes fluttered open but the sun was blinding him, and he did not immediately spot the person responsible for so rudely disturbing his rest.
“Tildy, you will pay for this. I will tickle you mercilessly -”
“Tildy? Now that name seems familiar. I did not realize that you and Nellie’s scullery maid were on tickling terms, my friend.”
“Marion. Lady Marion, forgive me.”
The boy was on his feet in a flurry of excuses. Since his arrival at Leaford, Much had learned to address his old friend with the proper respect she was due.
“You are forgiven. If you tell me everything about this new development. Why did no one see fit to inform me of this?”
The boy’s face turned red and Much began shuffling his feet nervously. Mercilessly, Marion continued to press her advantage. After all, in the past, Much had often enough teased her about Robin.
“When will the wedding take place? Tuck will of course perform the ceremony and – You are not expecting? Quickly, Much, tell me all.”
“Marion – Lady Marion, I -”
Tuck finally took pity on the lad.
“Marion. Leave the boy be. It is not seemly that you should be tormenting him so.”
“Very well. If no one will tell me anything, I shall enquire straight from the horse’s mouth as it were. Tildy shall be more forth-coming, I am sure.”
“Marion, please. Do not speak to Tildy. T’is a new development. She will not be able to tell you much.”
“Alright, Much. Forgive me for jesting with you.”
How could he not forgive her? The boy adored his mistress. And the new life she had given him was wondrous. Everyone at Leaford had accepted him and he enjoyed his new work as a stable boy.
“Tildy and I are talking about marriage, but so far her father has not given his permission.”
“Have you asked him?”
“Well – No. I was thinking since I was once an outlaw -”
“Nonsense. The word outlaw is banned at Leaford. I shall speak to the man myself if need be. I can not believe you are now a grown man, Much. Marriage? Time is a-flying. Soon there will be little red-headed girls and boys in your image, running around Leaford.”
At that, Much’s face turned the same color as his hair and the conversation more or less came to an end.
“I shall leave you now to your rest. You must need it, as you are about to be a married man. Tuck? Walk with me.”
The friar bowed his head in acquiescence.
Today no matters of grave concern were on their minds. Their conversation extended to many mundane topics. With not a care in the world, Marion happily devoured the gardens of her home with her eyes. Somewhat later, her husband joined her and Tuck and walked with them some distance. After a while of pleasant chatting, he excused himself and went to find his young friend Much. Marion intended to join the men later, but first she wanted to pick a bunch of flowers for her room. That simple task seemed to drag out indefinitely. Pleasantly immersed in her musings, Marion nevertheless set off to join her husband again.
The sound of voices raised in anger, froze Marion in her steps. Who in all of Leaford was moved to such fury on this lovely day? As she collected herself and began her approach again, Marion recognized the voices. Robin and Will Scarlet. Now there was a worried frown on Marion’s face. Will Scarlet had long been a source of concern to her and Robin. The man was easily moved to anger, and was by now increasingly hostile to their attempts at making a home for themselves at Leaford. He had chosen to spend time in the village with his wife, but from time to time nevertheless returned, more to cause strife than to keep in touch with old friends, it seemed to Marion. Scarlet had even refused to attend their wedding. Perhaps it was for the best. Scarlet had always been Loxley’s friend more than Marion’s and he had taken a particular dislike to Robert. In Scarlet’s mind, the tow-headed boy would forever be an usurper and an intruder. Marion could hear that today Scarlet was more than usually furious about something.
“Scarlet, Robin, what is this all about?”
Both men turned and stared at the lady of the castle. Marion noted that her husband’s face turned a pretty pink, like a little boy caught at some mischief. Scarlet’s dour look would have made her father want to strike the serf down, or call his commander to have him thrown off Leaford lands.
“Marion. Will and I were just -”
Scarlet’s voice made the term of respect an insult, but if he was hoping to provoke Marion into anger, he was mistaken. She was more than capable of holding herself in check.
“Mylady, I took the liberty of reminding your boy here of his responsibilities to the people of this land. What are we still doing here resting and eating well while there are serfs and yeomen starving?”
“Scarlet, need I remind you that we are here in accordance with Herne’s will?”
“With all due respect, mylady, how do you know that? All we have to go on is the word of this – boy.”
“Will, I assure you, Herne does speak to me.”
Scarlet did not even bother to face Robin, instead choosing to fix Marion with the same respectless stare he had raked her with from the moment she had walked into the garden.
“Do you question Herne’s words, Scarlet?”
It was plain that the temperamental man did not wish to acknowledge defeat. In the end, Marion’s will proved stronger, and Scarlet’s gaze wavered, and he looked away.
“I do not question Herne’s will.”
He placed a great deal of emphasis on the word Herne. The implication was clear. Scarlet was now openly challenging Robin’s authority as Herne’s son. Marion was not quite sure how to deal with this open rebellion.
“I see. Well, Scarlet, I am sorry you feel this way. Do you question my authority as well?”
There was a long drawn out pause. Robin did not know what to do. If anyone was able to handle this situation it was Marion. Defeat was saddening him, but he knew it was no use trying to reason with the man.
“I mean no disrespect, but I did not join Robin, my Robin, to end up following a woman and a boy. My loyalties lie with the Hooded Man. As he is now no longer with us, I must do as I see fit.”
“What of the oath of loyalty you swore to me and Robin, this Robin?”
This was weighing on Scarlet’s mind, Marion could tell. He had sworn to follow them in Herne’s name. Would he now break his oath? Marion had always suspected he was a man without honour.
“That was a false oath. No man can be held to it. There is no place for me here. I will return to where I belong.”
“Very well. You must do as you see fit. I am sorry to see you go, but if that is how you feel, nothing I can say or do will hold you back. Go in peace, Will Scarlet, and may Herne grant you wisdom.”
Together, Robin and Marion watched one of their men walk away from them. Was this how it was going to be from now on? Would they in the end be left with nothing but each other? If so, they would accept their fate. As long as they had each other nothing else mattered, but Robin had never felt as strongly his own shortcomings. Once again had he let Marion down.
“I am sorry, my love. This is all my fault. If I could only be the kind of man the men will follow. Like Loxley.”
“Never say that again, Robin. You are nothing like Loxley, that is true. Nor do you need to be. You are good enough and in every way as good a man as Loxley was. Besides, you are my husband and I love you more than life itself.”
That brought a smile to Robin’s distraught face, but he knew that he needed more than his wife’s approval if he were not to lose his standing as Herne’s son. And he could not let Herne down.
“What do I do if all the men feel this way?”
“They will not. Scarlet has always been a troublemaker. Robin – Loxley – could hold him back, but I doubt if anyone else could. That is not your fault. This has been waiting to happen for a long time. Do not blame yourself, my love. Come, let us walk back and talk to Tuck, and Much.”
“They have always been our truest friends.”
“Little John and Nasir will still be loyal. You will see. The others as well.”
“Perhaps. I must speak to Herne tonight.”
“Better wait until the full moon. That will give us time to speak to the others.”
By the time the full moon was hanging in the sky like a great Roman silver coin, Marion and Robin had spoken to their men, and found that indeed, just like Marion had predicted most of their men were still loyal. However, Scarlet had managed to entice three of them away to the woods, and they had been joined by others. Discontented men, convicted, escaped thieves and robbers and killers. None of Leaford’s own had had reason for such grudges, nor had any men from Huntingdon, but many others were only too happy to find a reason to strike back at the rich.
Marion wondered where Herne’s plan could be found in all this. For a moment she even wavered in her resolve. Had Robin misconstrued Herne’s words? Was it really right that they live in such comfort while people starved, villages burned and women were attacked in the street on the way to market? No. She must not doubt Herne. He had never deceived them, though oft his words were vague and confusing. There had to be some purpose to all this.
So she kissed Robin, and asked that he take care as he set out into the forest to commune with their god. Silently, she prayed for her husband’s safe return, as she watched Robin’s silhouette dissolve in the cold hard light. When there was no trace of him to see, she returned inside to her lonely vigil. There would be no sleep for her until she had her husband safely back in her arms. It was a long wait. Finally, when the fire had burned down low and Marion’s head had begun to nod to her shoulder, Robin was standing in the doorway. She could tell with a mere glance that he had been unsuccessful. Would they be sent back to the forest now?
“Robin? Do not keep me in suspense. Tell me what Herne had to say.”
Robin shook his head wearily. It had been a long night, taxing on his strength and in the end frustratingly fruitless.
“I could make no sense of his words tonight, but we are to remain here for the time being. This must all be part of some plan of Herne’s. I had an impression of waiting.”
“Yes. We or Herne seem to be waiting for something or someone.”
“That I could not understand.”
Marion sighed. Herne was not easy to understand at the best of times. They had to be patient and trust in his wisdom.
“I see. Come to bed now, my love. You must be cold and tired. Can I get you anything? Cider? Ale?”
“No. Nothing. You are right. I am weary. Will you lie with me?”
She smiled. When would she not lie with her husband? She would warm his frozen limbs and comfort him.
“Sunrise is still some time away. Let us sleep together.”
Come what may, it was such a comfort to have each other.
It was as well that they were so happy at Leaford, for in the days to come, more and more trouble was reported to them. Scarlet and his men were raiding and robbing and striking fear into the aristocracy and the wealthy merchants of the towns, drawing down the Sheriff’s wrath on them. It would now not be long until the men who had been pardoned by the King once again had prices on their heads, but more was to come.
One day, a disturbing rumour reached Robin’s and Marion’s ears. A travelling minstrel brought it. Marion could hardly believe she was hearing correctly, but there was no mistake about it, though the man was from Provence. His accent was hard to follow, but what he had to say could not be misconstrued. Scarlet was now claiming to be Herne’s son, and the Hooded Man. Had the man taken leave of his senses? Did he truly believe that Herne would let such presumption go unpunished? Not long after the disturbing news, another letter arrived to the lord of Leaford. The Sheriff of Nottingham openly accused Robert and Marion of being behind the uprising. Leaford travelled into Nottingham and had words with the Sheriff, and returned slightly relieved of his anxiety. He might not have managed to convince the Sheriff of the happy young couple’s innocence, but Leaford’s word still carried weight.
For the time being, the Sheriff’s wrath was stalled. But Leaford was not fooled into believing his family safe. It was only a matter of time until the Sheriff had summoned his protector, Prince John, to the county. Before then something had to be done about the troublemaker Will Scarlet. Leaford was a gentle man, but this time, he could not but agree with the Sheriff that the gallows was the place for such a man. On his return, Leaford had a sombre conversation with his daughter and her husband.
“If you have any hold over this man, I suggest you use your influence now, before Prince John returns.”
Robin felt hopelessly inadequate as a leader and as a man. Turning to Marion for aid, he said nothing in reply to Leaford’s plea.
“Father, we have tried to reason with Scarlet. To no avail. We are at our wits end.”
“I see. Then I suppose the Sheriff and Prince John may do as they see fit in this matter. I thank the Lord that the two of you are safely away from that kind of life. Promise me you will stay away from this Scarlet.”
Marion contemplated her father’s request for a moment. Yes, why should she not set his mind at ease? What could they possibly achieve by meeting Scarlet?
“Yes, father. We shall have nothing further to do with him, unless we can somehow sway him. We must consider this most carefully and discuss it with Guy.”
Leaford smiled. His friend Huntingdon’s oldest son was a good man. His advice would not be amiss. It was fitting that his daughter and her husband consort with their peers and not these outlaws.
“Very well. I should not mind speaking to my old friend Huntingdon myself. Shall I write them or will you?”
“If you please.”
“Very well. I shall do so at my first convenience.”
It would be good to see Guy again, and Robin was pleased with the prospect of meeting his father again. At least now, their meeting would take place under circumstances more fitting a nobleman.
Once again alone together, Robin decided to tell Marion what had been on his mind since the last unsuccessful meeting with Herne.
“I think I need to speak to Herne again. Perhaps this time the message shall be clearer.”
The last thing Marion wanted was for Robin to be trailing around Sherwood at night all by himself, but she knew he had reason to persist in trying to reach Herne. If anyone could solve this situation it was Herne.
“I agree. You must try again, much as I would prefer to keep you here with me, but I must not be selfish.”
Robin loved that brave smile. She was a thousand times braver than he was. How could a lady like Marion love the likes of him? Herne had been kind to him, no matter what else befell him.
“Thank you, my love. I will hurry back to you, and I do not need to leave until night falls. We still have many hours to spend together.”
“Let us waste no more time then. Come. I feel somewhat weary despite the early hour. Shall we retire to our rooms?”
“Whatever you say, mylady. Your will is my command.”
This time it was much harder to tear himself from Marion’s arms. The night was cold, and the moon was hidden by a thick layer of cloud. As soon as he set foot outside Leaford’s sturdy walls, a slow rain began to fall. Robin was wondering if he would have any success this time, or if he would once again return emptyhanded. He knew he walked under Herne’s protection, but for all that it felt as if the night had eyes. The bow and quiver he carried were more or less for show, or for the eventuality of running into one of Scarlet’s men. He did not think Scarlet would harm him, but many of his followers appeared to be beyond control. Some people said that the outlaws had taken to abducting young women from the villages, and to prey on the larders of other serfs and yeomen. In this garb, Robin knew he would be taken as a nobleman foolishly straying from the safety behind stone walls, and rightly so. But he carried no gold and he did not know if that would count against him. Would they slay a helpless man for belonging to the Estate he did? He prayed not. And Herne would protect him. When he reached the clearing he was seeking, a wind blew the clouds away from the moon and its cold harsh light enveloped him. There was a chill in the air, but he knew that tonight he would hear Herne speak to him.
“Herne what shall we do? Scarlet is drawing the Sheriff’s wrath down on us.”
“My son, you must learn to get along with Scarlet. He will be the hand where you are the head. Let him fight. He is strong, he is sure. You have other work to do in the world you know. Make your peace with Scarlet. That is my will.”
Robin bowed his head in acquiescence. How could he argue with a god? This was so hard, but if Herne said it had to be so, he would struggle to fulfill his will. He was his son, the Hooded Man. If only he could make Scarlet understand.
Herne had spoken. He was gone. The clouds once again covered the moon and it was bitterly cold for late spring. Robin longed to be back in Marion’s arms. This was no night for lingering in the forest. He turned and retraced his steps back to Leaford. Home. The word warmed him against the cold of the night.
Marion was awake and eagerly awaiting his return. He slipped under the covers and she opened her arms and pulled him close. Soon the wonderful warmth began to permeate his cold limbs. They would discuss Herne’s command later. He merely explained briefly what he had learned.
The following morning, Robin and Marion spoke at length. Robin hoped that if he was unable to reach Scarlet, Marion might do so. This time they were under a direct command from Herne. Surely if Scarlet knew he was chosen to be Robin’s deputy he would desist in the foolishness of claiming to be Herne’s son?
Leaford sent word that the man who had taken the letter to Huntingdon had returned, saying that Huntingdon and Guy would come within the next few days.
Robin and Marion decided to confer with Guy before approaching Scarlet again. The delay served no other purpose than allowing them some time to prepare and gather their strength for the confrontation. Scarlet would never listen to Guy. In fact, should Guy ever venture into the forest without Robin’s and Marion’s protection there was no telling what Scarlet would do. In any case, they were both eager for news from Huntingdon.
It appeared that both father and son Huntingdon had heeded the invitation eagerly. The following day saw the arrival of both men and their entourage.
Leaford greeted his guests in the grand hall. The visit of an old friend and his son was the occasion for some festivity, despite the potential threat that had caused the invitation to be issued. Robin and Marion looked closely at Guy. Surely he seemed subtly changed? The normally so sulky features were now more often moved by a slight smile. Despite the ceremony that was involved on such an occasion, Robin ran to embrace first his father then his brother.
Leaford clasped his old friend’s hand in both his own. This was indeed a happy occasion. It was the first time they had met since the wedding. Leaford could not help but wonder if his friend had been successful in his search for a wife for his new son. No word had come about a betrothal so far. That was on Marion’s mind also. She wished Guy could find the same happiness she and Robin were enjoying every day. This, however, was not the time for such small talk.
Leaford proposed a toast to his friend and his son. Huntingdon drank to his friend and host. Later when such ceremony was dealt with, the young people were free to indulge in carefree conversation.
“You are looking well, Guy. Life at Huntingdon must agree with you.”
“Thank you, mylady. Huntingdon is very kind to me.”
“Well, go on. Tell us all. Father tells me Huntingdon is trying to find you a wife.”
Guy blushed slightly at the mention of this matter that was the cause of some contention between him and his new father.
“Oh. Yes. That is so.”
“And I feel this is no time for me to waste time on such frivolous undertakings. I must establish myself as the heir to Huntingdon. Much needs be done.”
Robin knew well that Guy’s heart still belonged to Marion. He could see that the topic of this conversation was causing his brother distress.
“Marion, shall we tell Guy about our troubles?”
“Oh, very well. Go on.”
They found that Guy already knew about Scarlet’s preposterous claims and the strife and rebellion that was stirring among the peasantry. He had no suggestions to offer, however.
“As you know, I was never able to rout the other outlaws. If the Sheriff has no more men at his disposal now than he did then, I doubt if he will be successful either. Did you say that your god is supporting Scarlet?”
“No. Not the way he is carrying on now. I was to make Scarlet accept my leadership.”
Guy was too polite to point out that Robin’s leadership had always been weak and now that Scarlet had seen a way of breaking free of it, he didn’t see any way for his brother of bringing the man back under his influence. Marion might have some chance of swaying Scarlet, but Robin? This was a task that seemed to be too much for the gentle young man. Not that Guy felt he would be up to the challenge himself. The only way he knew was force. If Robin asked him, he would kill Scarlet, but that was as much assistance he could offer.
“I wish you luck, little brother.”
“Thank you. Now, please tell me about life at Huntingdon.”
Again, Guy blushed slightly. The people of Huntingdon accepted the new heir and showed him respect, but that could not be said about the other lords. His neighbours seemed to regard Huntingdon’s notion of raising one of his bastards to such a station was nothing short of madness. In the time he had spent with his new father he had been forced to listen to many barely concealed insults and reminders of his former life, but he was determined not to comment on any of that. Instead he chose to give his brother and Marion a lighthearted account of everyday life at Huntingdon. He had taken to breeding beagles and was for the first time in his life able to indulge a fondness for racing horses. Why should he complain? His past would be forgotten and the life he now had was far better than any he could remember since his mother had died.
The first day and evening was spent in pleasant conversation. Already the following day, however, Robin knew he had to make an effort to reason with Scarlet. He told Marion about his intention, and though he had had a forlorn hope that for once she would agree to remain safely at Leaford, he knew she would have none of that.
“Come, you know me better than that, Robin. I will accompany you and that will be the end of it. Shall you ask Guy to join us? We will take Tuck, Nasir and Little John if they will come.”
“Why not Much?”
“Much is to become a respectably married man. I do not think it would be advisable to let him consort with outlaws at this time. Not if Tildy’s father is to give his consent to the marriage.”
“Tildy? The scullery maid? I see. Much is a lucky man. By all means, let us not ask him. And I really think Guy had better -”
“What had I better, little brother?”
Guy had entered the garden so quietly they had not noticed his approach until he was upon them.
“Yes. It is I. And what are you planning, if I may ask, little brother?”
“We shall have to talk to Scarlet.”
“I see. When are we leaving?”
“No, Guy. You are not to accompany us. Remember how Scarlet feels about you.”
“Indeed. How could I forget? But I do not fear Scarlet or even your strange god. How many men are you taking?”
“Just Tuck, Nasir and Little John.”
“Is that really advisable? From what I hear, Scarlet has gathered quite a following. Someone mentioned he might command as many as two dozen men.”
“If we come with a large number of armed men, he will assume we are seeking battle. We must come in peace.”
“I see. In that case, you will need me even more. Mylady, I hope you will help me make Robin see sense in this matter.”
“Robin, I must agree with Guy. Another sword would be a help. Should we run into some of the new men, it might be safest to -”
Robin’s eyes held a sadness that tore at Marion’s heart. She knew he regretted not being the warrior his brother was. But Robin’s feelings aside, she would feel much safer with Guy at their side. And Scarlet would never attack his former brothers-in-arms, Nasir, Little John and Tuck. They would be safe, as long as they met Scarlet and not his new men.
“Very well. Let us begone this very instant. The sooner we can talk to Scarlet, the sooner we can be on our way back.”
“Guy. I appreciate your help.”
Robin knew it was not Guy’s fault that he was such a poor soldier, and he forced himself to smile. In any case it felt good to have his brother by his side. As a child he had often wished he had an older brother. Now he did. He must not continue to act like a child. Just like they had guessed, Little John, Nasir and Tuck were only too happy to accompany them. Marion knew that they would do their utmost to plead with Scarlet themselves, if nothing Robin could say might sway him. Little John had some idea of where to seek Scarlet and his followers. The village where Little John’s wife lived had lost many men to the outlaws. Their mothers and sisters and sweethearts still kept in touch with their men.
It did not take Robin and his men long to be found by the band of outlaws. One moment the silence of the deep forest was unbroken, the next they found themselves surrounded, ambushed the way they had cornered so many of the Sheriff’s men in the past. About half-a-dozen scruffy, unkempt men faced them. Half-a-dozen arrows were nocked and aimed at their hearts. All the men were strangers to them. For a moment, even Marion despaired of their ever finding their way back to Leaford in peace.
“What are you doing, trespassing in the Hooded Man’s forest?”
“We have come to have word with Will Scarlet.”
“Is that so? And what would the likes of you be wanting with the Hooded Man?”
Robin wanted to shout at them that he was the Hooded Man, not that impostor, but he realized that their lives depended on his silence, so he held his tongue. Time enough later, to set matters straight.
“That is for his ears only. Please. Take us to him.”
“Oh, we’ll take you alright. In a moment. Now let’s see what you have.”
Two men began to paw at Marion’s gold chain and the ring on her finger, the ring Robin had given her on their wedding day. But Marion checked herself. Let the peasants play with the baubles. Today they had much graver matters on their minds.
“Here. Take the chain, but I would appreciate if you let me keep my wedding ring.”
“Your wedding ring?”
As if that was a splendid jest, the man threw back his head and laughed rudely in Marion’s face. In the end, however, he did leave the ring. Quickly, they were all disarmed and stripped of any valuables they were carrying. Guy ground his teeth at this humililation, but he let Marion’s judgment guide him. They were here to parley, not fight. Without resisting, they allowed themselves to be herded to Scarlet’s camp.
“Will, these folk say they have business with you. Do you know them?”
“Robin, Marion. So you have come to pay your respect? Nasir, Little John, Tuck. Are you here to join me?”
“Scarlet, will you tell your men to let us go?”
With an impatient movement of his hand, Scarlet complied. The men gaped but did not question their leader’s command.
“We have come to discuss an important matter with you.”
“Alright, I’m listening. Talk.”
“Can we have some privacy? This is for your ears only.”
For a moment they did not think Scarlet would agree, then he nodded grudgingly. He waved for them to follow him some distance away from the clearing.
“Now what is it that is so important?”
Robin decided to try, even though he knew that Scarlet might be more inclined to listen to Marion.
“Herne has spoken to me.”
“Oh, really? Herne speaks with me now.”
“Yes. I know, but perhaps you have not understood him correctly. What he told me -”
“Wait a minute. Are you saying I don’t speak for Herne?”
“No. I am merely pointing out what Herne told me a few nights ago. He says you are to be my deputy. You are the stronger warrior -”
Scarlet smiled triumphantly. It was plain that he had only listened to the words he wanted to hear.
“I’m glad you finally acknowledge that, boy. Will you bow down to me and admit I am the Hooded Man?”
“I can not do that, Scarlet. Much as I wish to be free of this burden, I can not. I am still Herne’s son, but he wishes you to act for me, in my name. Will you do that for me, Scarlet?”
“You didn’t hear me, did you? I am Herne’s son.”
“You know better than that, Scarlet.”
Scarlet’s face contorted with rage, and before he exploded Marion decided to attempt to mediate. In the past, he had always submitted to her will, albeit grudgingly.
“Will. Why do you not do as Herne asks you? It is a great honor to be the deputy of the Hooded Man. We need your help. If we work together -”
“Mylady. It pleases me that you come to me for help, but how can you expect me to go back to shameful servitude to a woman and a boy?”
Now Guy could not hold his tongue any more.
“Do not speak to the lady Marion that way. She is a lady and should be addressed accordingly.
“And how would you know? From what I hear you are quite a stranger to the ways of both women and ladies.”
Guy ignored the insult. He realized that his input had only made things worse.
Scarlet regarded Guy as a minor disturbance, nothing worth paying much attention to. He turned his gaze back onto Marion.
“There is nothing shameful about serving us, Will. It is Herne’s will.”
“I mean no disrespect, mylady. But as far as I’m concerned ladies like you should stay in your parlors and halls. Leave the fighting to men.”
“Nothing would make me happier. Fight for us, Will, and we will leave you and Sherwood forest alone. Just keep your men in check. I have heard it said that they sometimes attack their own people.”
Scarlet ignored her comment and instead turned to Robin. This time he would finally say all the things that had been on his mind since Herne had chosen this boy, this weakling, to succeed Robin of Loxley.
“My men will never follow a boy like you. We need a real man to lead us. Oh, why did Herne take Robin of Loxley from us?”
The distress in Scarlet’s voice tore at Marion and Robin. They had never realized how much Scarlet missed his friend.
There was a rustle in the trees to their left. A ray of sunlight hit the spot the noise had come from. They saw a stag run away. How had the beast come to be so close to the sound of men’s voices? But someone else was there. A man. Herne? No, surely not. The god only appeared in darkness.
“He took me away so I could learn many things. What is the matter, Will? Do you not recognize me?”
Scarlet fell to his knees in shock. Was he seeing things? Had he lost his mind? The man who came out of the forest towards him seemed very much like his lost friend.
“Yes, it is I, my friend. Come. Stand up.”
The dark stranger grabbed Scarlet’s hands and pulled him to his feet.
“Look closely. Who am I?”
“Robin. Robin of Loxley. But how can this be? I saw you die. You were hit -”
“Yes. I was ailing for a long time, but Herne healed me. Will, you must tell me what’s been going on in my absence.”
Not until now, did Robin look around and perceived the presence of his old friends.
John ran to Robin’s side and enveloped him in a fierce bear hug. This was unheard of. Had his old friend really returned from the dead like Christ, as the village priest had taught him as a child? Not that John’s family had ever been faithful followers of the church.
Both men greeted Robin, but had nothing much to say. The shock had struck everyone dumb.
Finally, Robin’s gaze turned to Marion.
She felt her face turn red. How was she to explain to her old lover that she was another man’s wife?
Helplessly, she felt herself be drawn into Robin’s embrace. It seemed to take a very long time before her passivity filtered through to him. He let her go, to study her face more closely.
“What is wrong, Marion? Are you not pleased to see me?”
“Yes, Robin, I am. I can not believe you are back with us, safe and sound. But there is something I must tell you.”
His voice sounded imperious as always. But the Marion of today did not react as she used to. Loxley’s Marion had been a child. She had looked up to her lover in everything. Now she was a grown woman and she knew that even if she had not been Robert of Huntingdon’s wife, she would not have been able to return to being Loxley’s Marion.
“Robin, I am married.”
This time, the disbelief was clear.
“I am married.”
“Robin – Robert of Huntingdon.”
She feebly indicated her husband.
“That – boy? You are married to a nobleman? Well, I see there have been great changes.”
Not until now did Loxley spy his hated old enemy.
“Gisburne? At least Marion did not marry you. Have you taken him prisoner, or why else is he here? Tuck, Little John, can anyone explain?”
Marion once again tried to explain.
“Guy is no longer serving the Sheriff. He is Robin’s brother.”
“Brother? You married Gisburne’s brother?”
Now Loxley laughed hoarsely. His return had not turned out as he had expected.
“Guy isn’t Gisburne’s son. Huntingdon is his father too.”
“I can speak for myself, mylady. Let Loxley have his say.”
“You are certainly not going to stop me. So the Sheriff let you go? Did your father pay handsomely for you?”
Though Guy’s face turned a vivid red, he did not rise to the taunt. He was growing used to such insults by now.
“We are here to bring your man back to heel. Scarlet is telling people he is Herne’s son and is stirring up the peasantry.”
“Is this true, Will?”
The question shot out quickly. Apparently, Loxley was willing to let personal matters wait.
“Yes. With you gone, there was no one else, so I thought -”
“You thought you would usurp my position? We will discuss this further, later. I have come far and I am weary. Get me some food and drink.”
“Of course, Robin. This way.”
Marion was wondering how Scarlet intended to explain this sudden change in leadership. Would he be willing to relinquish his position even to his old friend? But for the moment her mind was more preoccupied with the return of Robin of Loxley. It must be a terrible shock to him to come back only to find her married to another man.
The newcomer was allowed to eat and drink his fill. It was plain that wherever Loxley had been, he had come a long way and was hungry and thirsty as any mortal man. He looked the same as when he had been taken from them. Why had Herne kept this a secret? In many ways Herne’s ways were as mysterious as those of the Christian god.
When Loxley had finished his meal, he stood up, clearly intending to address his followers. It was immediately obvious that Scarlet did not wish this to happen. He put a hand on Loxley’s arm to stall him, but Loxley shook Scarlet’s hand off and cleared his throat.
“My friends. I have returned. The Hooded Man is back. We will work together -”
There were shouts of dismay from among the outlaws. This was not the Hooded Man they had come to follow. Many of them appeared to have forgotten about Robin of Loxley entirely and looked to Will Scarlet for guidance.
Robin fixed his old friend with a merciless stare. All it took was one look, and Loxley assessed the situation correctly. Now there was a challenge in his eyes. And though it was plain that Scarlet did not wish to accept it, he finally squared his shoulders and stood up to face his old friend.
“In your absence, Robin, Herne appointed me his son and the Hooded Man -”
“I see. If Herne -”
“Are you calling me a liar, my friend?”
Suddenly it was very quiet in the clearing. Every eye was on the two friends, locked in this combat of wills.
“I am saying that I am back. There would seem to be no doubt as to who is the rightful son of Herne and the Hooded Man. Will?”
Loxley took one step closer to his old friend. Neither man was armed, but it was plain that if one word more was said there would be a fight. But Scarlet yielded. He acknowledged Loxley as the rightful leader of the outlaws. There was a gasp from every man present. They had agreed to follow Will Scarlet. Now their leader was kneeling to another leader. In a second there would have been open rebellion. Loxley acted quickly. He grasped both Scarlet’s hands in his, just as he had less than an hour earlier, and raised his friend to his feet. Pulling Scarlet into a hard embrace, Loxley then took a firm hold of Scarlet’s right hand.
“I thank you, my friend, for filling my position in my absence. Now we need to get back to our work.”
Now addressing the entire crowd, Loxley raised his voice somewhat.
“Will Scarlet and I shall make plans. Return to your meal, my friends. I will speak to you later.”
Thus dismissed, the new outlaws lost their will to challenge the newcomer. When they put their minds to it, they did remember Robin of Loxley. To them it mattered not greatly who was their leader, as long as it was no weak aristocrat. With the open rebellion averted, Robert decided to inform Loxley about his own standing as Herne’s son. He had no wish to challenge Loxley’s authority. All he wanted to do was to dispel any misconception concerning Scarlet’s position.
“Actually, Loxley. I was named Herne’s son in your absence. Herne has merely appointed Scarlet my deputy.”
“You? You were named my successor? Surely you are jesting.”
One look from her old lover, and Marion faltered. What right did he have to look at her like that? As far as they all knew, he had been killed. How was she supposed to know he would one day return?
Instead of listening to Marion, Loxley turned to Little John for verification.
“T’is true, Robin. Robin – Robert of Huntingdon was chosen by Herne.”
Loxley shook his head in disbelief, but apparently was now convinced all the same. He knew his friend Little John would not lie to him.
“I see. What now? Did Herne tell you that, sir? Or should I say my lord?”
“Call me Robin – Robert.”
“Robert. Very well. What did Herne tell you would happen now?”
“He did not say. All I know is that Scarlet was to be my deputy.”
“Yes. You did mention that. Good. We do not have need of such as you out in the forest.”
Robin did not know what to reply in the face of all this hostility. He could not understand what Herne’s intentions were, but if this was the true Hooded Man he would gracefully withdraw any claim he had to that position. All he wanted was Marion. It was getting late. Robin really could not see what they were still doing out here. This rightful Hooded Man, Robin of Loxley had brought Scarlet to heel as he himself never could. What else did Herne ask of him? He took Marion’s hand and spoke softly to her about leaving, and returning to Leaford. If Tuck, Nasir and John Little would come with them, all the better, but he would leave with or without them. Seeing Marion get up, Tuck and the others walked some distance with them.
“We are going back to Leaford. It would make us very happy if you were to join us.”
Tuck instantly declared his intention of returning to Leaford with Marion. To their surprise, the normally so taciturn Nasir now spoke up. He bowed respectfully towards Guy.
“Effendi. Your father has been generous enough to offer me a position among his troops. It would be an honour serving with you, Huntingdon.”
“Thank you, Nasir. You are most welcome at Huntingdon.”
Robin turned enquiringly to John Little, the only member of their group who had not spoken.
“I am sorry, Robin – Huntingdon. My place is here, with Loxley. I will not return with you.”
“Then we must bid you farewell, my friend. I hope we will remain friends despite -”
“Of course. Have no fear on that account. Robin – Loxley – might feel a bit confused right now. It is only to expected after his long absence, but I am sure that in the end he will understand, Marion. Lady Marion.”
As if the mention of Loxley had conjured him up, the dark-haired man walked up to Robin and faced him.
“Huntingdon. I believe we should speak to Herne and try to ascertain his intentions. It is not for me to question his will. Will you come?”
“Gladly. Loxley -”
“Later, Huntingdon. Let us go.”
“Very well. Marion, Guy, I will be back shortly.”
Guy looked as if he might object to seeing his brother vanish into the woods in the company of this man whom he had fought so bitterly for so long, but he held his tongue, contenting himself with watching over Marion in Robin’s absence. These men did not look as if they would treat a lady of Marion’s standing with any more respect than they were said to treat their own women.
As always, when he approached Herne’s abode, Robin felt a chill. This was not a place for mortals. He knew he would not long be able to abide the presence of a god. They waited together for what seemed an age, but in the end, they felt the sudden hush come over the clearing and when they turned around, there he was. The stag horns were clearly silhouetted in the moonlight.
“My son, both my sons -”
This was unheard of. They were both Herne’s sons? How could this be? But as both Robins knew, arguing with a god was useless. Silently they awaited the next revelation.
“The time has come for one of you to do my bidding in the halls of your peers, and for one of you to move among the common people and ease their burdens. Only in this manner can my work be completed. For this reason, I must prevail upon you to keep the peace among you. I must be able to rely on you both.”
Faced with this divine edict, Loxley found himself unable to protest further. He bowed his head in acquiescence and noticed that his new brother did the same. The audience was over. They could both sense the god withdrawing. His words had been heard. Now all that remained was to fulfill his will regardless of their own wishes. They did not say anything on their way back through the forest, until they approached the clearing. Loxley knew he and the other Robin needed to discuss their new situation before rejoining their friends. Now that the god had returned to wherever gods existed, a more personal matter needed to be addressed.
“Huntingdon – Robert.”
“I think we need to talk.”
“I agree. About Marion -”
Loxley found that he was able to discuss this in a sensible manner, after all. He had been absent a long time. What he and Marion had felt was in the distant past. If only she had not chosen a nobleman. That angered him more than the betrayal in itself. After all, she had had no way of knowing he would ever return. Naturally, she would one day be faced with the decision of whether to marry or to remain by herself for the rest of her life. Was it fair of him to expect her to choose solitude rather than the companionship of another man? And Loxley knew that had he found her with his old friend Will Scarlet that might have pained him more.
“Ah, yes. You seem to know me already. Alright. We must have this out in the open, I think. You are truly married? In a church?”
“Well, Tuck performed the ceremony at Leaford, so I suppose we are married. He made it simple. No reference to which god was blessing our union.”
“I see. Perhaps I should have thought of that too. Wait. All that is in the past. You will not have to watch out for arrows or daggers thrown into your back. Marion did not know I would return. You may – please tell her I understand and that I forgive her. Nay. No forgiveness is needed. One day I might even be able to face her myself and wish you both the best. As for now, I think you and I need to discuss our work together. This is truly amazing, but Herne’s ways have ever been mysterious.”
“Indeed. This was nothing I could have anticipated. For all that, I am willing to try my best. I was never very good at fighting or at the life of an outlaw. Oh. Perhaps you need to know that until Scarlet took it upon himself to assume your role as Herne’s son, and mine, we were all pardoned by the King.”
“What? How did this come about?”
“Leaford and my father are old friends of the King. They fought together in the Holy Land and for this reason, the King was generous enough to pardon us for our crimes. I think that if you keep these new men of Scarlet’s under control, you might continue to stay on the right side of the King’s justice.”
“How can I do that, while men like the Sheriff continue to bleed the people dry?”
“That is perhaps where I and my peers could help. You must not imagine that we look upon the Sheriff with any more approval than your people do. There is widespread discontent among the aristocracy. Men that the Sheriff has crossed. However, as long as the King leaves the realm in the hands of his brother – you do not know this, but the Prince has already tried to get his accursed hands on Marion again.”
“Again? I wish I could cut his heart out with my own hands.”
“With my brother Guy’s help, I was able to save her.”
“For this alone, I suppose I owe Gisburne, Huntingdon, some thanks, but after all these years of being hunted like a beast by him and his men -”
“You must not think that Guy was gladly doing the Sheriff’s bidding.”
“Really? I can not imagine how any man, especially one as strong as your brother would willingly submit to being used by such a man.”
“Please do not judge Guy too harshly. Gisburne knew of his wife’s betrayal and where he was too enamoured of the wife to extract vengeance he instead took it out on her son. Guy was left to fend for himself from an early age.”
“I did not know that. It is strange that an enemy should turn out to have such human traits after all. Very well. As it is Herne’s will that you and I shall be brothers, I must learn to embrace your brother too. In a manner of speaking. Do not expect me to truly take your brother into my arms.”
“He would not willingly submit to that even if you should want to.”
At this, Loxley astonished Robin by suddenly laughing out loud. This man who had stared at him with such hatred in his eyes, was suddenly transformed into a much more approachable person. Perhaps it would not be so difficult to work alongside of his new brother after all.
“I must return to my men and bring Scarlet under my heel. It appears he has been allowed to run wild for far too long. Let us make it known that you and I are doing Herne’s work together.”
“Scarlet will not like that.”
“True, but he will get used to it. Come. There is work to do. When morning comes, you and your brother must escort Marion back to Leaford. This is no place for her. I realize that now.”
“For accepting me so gracefully.”
“How can one fight a god? I might as well try to fight the forces of nature.”
To Robin’s astonishment, Loxley now held out his hand and Robin found himself taking it.
Back in the clearing, the men were still eating and drinking. Apparently, the new Hooded Man had met with their approval. Scarlet too appeared to be reconciled to his new position. With his friend back, he no longer felt compelled to usurp the position as Herne’s son. Robin of Loxley would do nicely.
Robert of Huntingdon found his wife and his brother, sitting with Nasir and Tuck, peacefully making conversation together. None of the outlaws had been presumptuous enough to offend a lady, after all. Perhaps they feared the forces of both Huntingdon and Leaford combined, or perhaps they merely contented themselves with the ale and the venison. When Robin approached, Guy looked up.
“Is all well, little brother?”
“Yes. Everything is fine. Loxley and I will be able to work together quite well, I think. We have resolved our differences and -”
Now Marion joined the conversation.
“I should go and speak to him.”
“No need, my love. He accepts our marriage, but I do not think you should attempt to speak with him just yet. He needs time to get used to the idea. And Guy -”
“I believe he is burying his hatred for you.”
“How is that possible? Oh, well, I suppose I have you to thank for that as well, little brother.”
Guy reached out a hand and quite gently ruffled his brother’s hair.
While Marion and the two of their men who were accompanying them back to Leaford were bidding Little John farewell, Robin had a chance to speak to his brother alone. He had noticed that while Guy always tried to keep up a cheerful or at least untroubled front, the eyes betrayed his true inner distress.
“Thank you for coming with us. I know how little you love this forest -”
“I have overcome most of my fear of it, or perhaps it has overcome its loathing of me. Do not mention it. How could I not do what I can for you? You are the one who gave me this new life.”
“It is only your right. My father owes you -”
“Yes, yes. I can not wait to get back to Leaford and later to Huntingdon. Scarlet and his men have no love for me, even if Loxley truly has undergone this startling change. It is so infuriating to have those words hurled at my face again and again.”
Naturally, Robin knew what his brother was referring to, but he tried whenever he could not to comment on Guy’s past. He knew how painful those memories were. This time, however, his brother had chosen to bring up the topic himself.
“Scarlet is at my throat as well. I suppose he can not abide the sight of a man of noble birth.”
As if he had not heard, Guy went on unheeding.
“I have bedded as many women as he has, I am willing to bet. Each time the Sheriff was travelling on his own, I would bring a servant girl or a girl from the town into his room. They would laugh at me behind my back, but I needed someone, even a girl who would make bets about my prowess or tell tales about me to her friends the moment she was out of my sight.”
“I had never been with a woman until I met Marion -”
But that was not the right thing to say to soothe Guy’s ruffled temper, although it did amuse him somewhat.
“I am not surprised. Now you must forgive me for this outburst.”
“No forgiveness is needed. Let us forget about Scarlet and his rabble. I am sure that Loxley will gather a more worthy following. Now that he is back, I think many of my old men will return to him. Those who wish to. They are still pardoned by the King. Hopefully they will wish to remain in their villages.”
“Indeed. Shall we retire for the night, little brother? Tomorrow we will return to Leaford.”
“Yes, let us be away from here.”
Robin’s head was still spinning from the night’s revelations. He would be allowed to remain at Leaford. Marion and he were to continue Herne’s work in surroundings more fitted to their standing. No longer would he need to strain his feeble abilities as a leader to hold men like Scarlet in check. Herne had truly been merciful when he sent Robin of Loxley back to them. He only wished Guy would be able to outrun his past and finally find the bliss Robin and Marion shared. That was all he asked.