Author: Katta PM
When Rebecca of York asks the Merry Men to help her father, Azeem's heart is touched in more ways than one. Written for eid fic. Crossover with Ivanhoe, which doesn't seem to be it's own category.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Romance/Adventure - Words: 5,027 - Reviews: 6 - Favs: 4 - Follows: 2 - Published: 09-12-10 - Status: Complete - id: 6318363
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Sherwood Forest, 1194
When Azeem first saw the woman, from a distance, her bearings and the fine cut of her disheveled clothes made him believe her to be a noble lady recently robbed by Robin's men, and it surprised him greatly that they had brought her along into the depths of the forest. For a moment, he suspected the worst of Robin for it – but allowing a young woman to be taken advantage of was so very unlike his friend, and as Azeem stepped closer he saw that Robin's stance towards her seemed more avuncular than anything else. And her hands were free – she was raising one of them in a gesture.
Robin noticed Azeem's approach and gave him a quick nod and a smile, which made the woman turn to look. Her eyes widened upon seeing Azeem, as most were wont in this land, but though her expression showed a hint of fear, it did not seem directed at him, nor at any of the other men around her.
She was quite beautiful, but what struck Azeem most of all was how very familiar her features were. This face did not belong in a damp English forest; its dark eyes and full mouth would have been much more to their advantage in his previous homeland. A Saracen, then? No, that wasn't it.
Heavy strides rustled the leaves. "What do you know?" John's voice said from behind. "He brought a Jewess. First you, now a Jewess. Don't know why I'm surprised. No offence, mate."
Of course. Azeem could quite see her among the other women of her people, gathered around a well in Jerusalem, gossiping. She'd stand out there too, for being so beautiful. He smiled at the thought, and the real woman before him smiled back.
Robin waved at the men to approach. "This is Rebecca of York," he said. "One of the earls captured her father on a false charge; she needs our help to set him free."
"I know it is much to ask," she said, her voice low and controlled despite the anguish evident in her face, "but I spoke to the lady Marian and she said that you were the one to turn to."
"And she was absolutely right," Robin assured her, a surprising heat of conviction in his voice.
"What was the charge?" Azeem asked.
She hesitated, then forced her chin up, meeting his gaze. "The murder of two Christian babies. Baseless slander, of course, as it always is. You must believe me! It was an excuse to get to his possessions."
"They know that," Robin said gently. "You're not the only one."
That was the truth, and Azeem had no doubt of the lady's honesty – nor her father's – but he also had his answer as to why Robin reacted with such passion, and he suspected lady Marian had counted on it, when she sent Rebecca along. This was not a mere call for justice; it mirrored too closely Robin's own circumstances. Unable to save his own father, he might very well go to great lengths to help Rebecca's. Azeem just wondered how great those lengths would be, and if it would be possible to rein him in, should he go too far.
"And where's your father now?" John asked.
"As I hear, in Huntingdon's cellar still. His riches are nowhere near as grand as the Earl imagined. Though I have found it impossible indeed to convince the Earl of this."
"That's probably your luck, lass. It's why the old man's still alive."
"Right," Robin said. "And our luck too. As long as the Earl, or more likely, his son, thinks that he has a fortune to make, he'll hold on to your father, and Huntingdon's cellar is nowhere near as impenetrable as the sheriff's dungeons. I know the family well; their land is next to Locksley land. The Earl was old and feeble even six years ago. One son died in the Crusades, another has taken the cloth. Only the oldest is still a factor, and he's a fool. A greedy, scheming, backstabbing fool, granted, but a fool none the less. Give me the night to plan, and I'm confident that we can have your father well back on the way to York before the Huntingdons have ever noticed his absence."
"I will be ever grateful to you, my lord," Rebecca said with a deep curtsy.
Robin paused. "Don't call me my lord. And you're welcome."
They gathered at the clearing by the river, lit a fire since the night was falling, and started discussing the plan. Rebecca sat down as gracefully as could be done on wet grass, some distance from the others but close enough to hear what was said. Her presence was not mentioned, either to invite or discourage her from participating. She simply joined up, with a quiet certainty that nobody questioned, even though the conversation turned not only to plans of how to help her father, but to grim details of what might currently be done to him by the earl's men.
Azeem watched her take her unassuming pose, and while half his mind was occupied with the intricacies of planning, the other half pondered the many questions he had about her – her past, her daily life, the strength of character that allowed her to remain composed in the face of such adversity. Thus, he was too preoccupied to realize that the topic was not entirely suitable for a daughter's ears, until she suddenly turned a shade paler and winced.
Replaying John's latest words in his head, Azeem winced too. He hurried to say, before John could offer more stories of what friends of his had suffered in captivity, "We need a wagon of some sort, in case he is injured."
"That wine we stole from the bishop," Robin said thoughtfully. "I don't know anyone who would turn down a wagon filled with free wine – present company excluded," he added with a glance at Azeem, "-whether they know where it comes from or not."
"It could get us in," Azeem admitted, "but it would attract the attention of the Earl as well as his guards. I am not sure we could get back out."
"I rather think the Earl and his son should be elsewhere," Robin said. "The only question is where and how."
"Tell them old Isaac has a treasure buried in the woods," John suggested.
"I think perhaps it would be more credible if I told them," Rebecca interjected mildly.
They all turned to stare at her. Azeem suspected that the others had forgotten her presence entirely.
Robin watched her with great intensity in silence for a moment, before asking, "Are you sure, lass?"
Locks of her hair obscured her face as she bent her head down. "How could I stay behind, knowing that I have the power to help save my father's life?"
"Very well, then. You lure the Huntingdons away into the forest, where your guards proceed to disarm him."
Azeem ached to volunteer his services, but he knew that the rumour of his existence had already started to spread throughout England, and appearing next to Rebecca would only serve to raise suspicion.
In addition to that, Robin had his own ideas of what constituted a good guard. "Much, Bull, you're with her."
"Us?" said Much, taken by surprise.
"You can take them down, easily – but they will not think of it that way. Your skills and strength and skills will come as a complete surprise."
Bull grinned. "You can count on us, Robin!"
"Good. The rest of us wait near the castle, to see how many attending soldiers they bring. We might need to send someone else after you – I know you can handle yourselves," he told Much and Bull, "but better safe than sorry when there's a lady involved. Once that's clear, everyone else will make our way in with the wine. I think I still remember enough of the castle's workings to get us to Isaac and out with as little trouble as possible. There aren't more than two or three places where they could credibly keep him..."
Azeem kept his strategic mind firmly on the plan, listening to Robin's thoughts and from time to time giving a suggestion where he thought it was needed. Meanwhile, his eyes, and his treacherous memories, kept drifting. He had thought his desires dulled by prison time and hardships. Only now did he realize how wrong he had been.
Azeem's position between the wagon's floor and wheels was uncomfortable, yet necessary for stealth purposes, and so he held on tight and tried to remain patient.
He could make out very little of the discussion with the guards, but he recognized the tone of attempted persuasion. Then the balance shifted above him as two of Robin's men – Arthur and Gilbert, by the weight of them – jumped up on the wagon, and again as they carried down a barrel of wine.
The conversation sank to an even lower murmur, and then ceased. Slowly, the gates creaked open and the wagon moved in starts and stops, until it came to a final halt near a dark stone wall.
Three hard knocks on the side of the wagon told him to come out, and he twisted himself into a standing position. They were now in the corner of a large courtyard, between the castle wall and a low stable building which sent out such fumes of ammonia that Azeem rather pitied the animals living therein for having such slack grooms.
"That wine thing worked like a charm," Robin said. "I must remember that for next time. Well. That or something like it – there's always a shortage of good wine to be stolen. Come on, this way."
They proceeded to the door and lifted off the crossbar, when a cry came from behind them: "Oi! Where d'you think you're..."
Robin spun around and fired off an arrow that hit the speaker in the throat, sending him to the ground, where he gave a few quiet convulsions before lying still.
"Oh, and remember," Robin added sheepishly. "This isn't like fighting the sheriff's men. These are just innocent servants. Do keep bloodshed to a minimum."
John snorted. "Who killed that man, mate, you or us?"
Robin gave a grimace, but didn't respond, only proceeded into the stable and motioned for the others to follow.
The stench now had a side of putrescence, and even in the dusk, Azeem could see that one of the horses was in a very poor state, lackluster, with runny eyes and a bloated stomach. Its illness seemed not to have been treated in any way, which was hardly surprising among these backwards people, but that it was allowed to remain next to the other animals, possibly infecting them, was unforgivable. The ignorance and negligence was so staggering that while Azeem did yield to Robin's wishes and tried not to kill the grooms, he had no qualms about how hard he struck them.
At the back wall, Robin picked up a rusty shovel and started tapping it against the wood, until he reached a hollow-sounding spot. "Here we have it, lads."
He hacked at the wall with the edge of the shovel, and the others joined suit with the weapons they had handy. The boards splintered quickly due to the rot by the ground.
"Is nothing in this place taken care of?" Azeem muttered, feeling a surge of annoyance even though the poor management now worked in their favour.
"The old fool is very old," Robin said, breaking off some more boards from the old unused door. "The young one is very foolish. So, no."
The hole was now big enough for them all to crawl through, into an abandoned scullery. From there, a narrow stone stairway led down to the cellar. Arthur brought his steel and flint out and made a torch from one of the broken boards, lighting their way ahead.
"Blast!" Robin whispered. "More walls than there used to be. This could take a while."
They moved slowly through the rooms and corridors, listening for movement. When they heard a low scraping sound from the other side of a wall, Robin whistled a low tune.
"What's that?" asked a high, frightened voice. A child's voice. Azeem shook his head in dismay, and one of the men cursed under his breath.
Even Robin bit his lip, hesitant, it seemed, to fight a child. Yet when the approaching maid saw them and opened her mouth in the beginnings of a scream, he lunged forward and grabbed her, putting his hand firmly over her nose and mouth. She was a girl of no more than twelve or thirteen, and though she struggled valiantly at first, she soon fell down unconscious, and he lowered her onto the floor.
"Well, then," John said, the first to break the silence. "Let's hope they're not all little girls."
They were somewhat subdued as they proceeded through the cellar, but became much more lively when the next people to appear were two burly young men.
"That's more like it," John said after taking down his opponent. He rested his club on the shoulder and looked down the corridor, where the sound of running feet was echoing towards them. "Now if only we could find the old man. Not that I don't appreciate a good fight, but that's not really why we're here, is it?"
"Try to catch one of them and make him talk," Robin suggested.
Said and done. The next man to approach found himself in an armlock as John amiably asked, "Where've you got that old Jew, then?"
"Who?" the man asked, swallowing hard. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but had nothing on John.
"Just how many old Jews do you have around here?" John shook a bit, and the man paled. "Here now, don't waste our time!"
"D-down there, third to the right."
"Much obliged," said John and knocked him out.
As they rushed down the end of the corridor, Azeem thought about the first few men they'd fought, and how they might very well have regained consciousness by now. Or someone might have found the man Robin had killed. Either way, retread would be tricky.
The door they'd been pointed to was very sturdy compared to the earlier ones, but with joined efforts they managed to break it open, revealing the storage area inside, and an old man pressed against the back wall.
"Isaac of York?" asked Robin.
"Yes?" said the old man faintly.
"We're here to get you out. Can you run?"
A glint came into Isaac's eyes, and he stepped away from the wall, wrapping his coat tighter around himself. "As fast as I have to."
"Good." Robin glanced out the door. "You'll have to."
They returned to forest tired and bruised, but mostly unscathed, and though they had not entirely managed to follow Robin's request to avoid bloodshed, few of the wounds they had inflicted on the Earl's men were likely to be fatal. As for Azeem, most of the blood on his sword was not even human. On their way back out through the stables, he had opted for the only kind of quick mercy he could bestow on the wretched horse.
As they reached the camp, Wulf came running up to them. "Did you do it? Is he here?"
"Of course he's here," John said, tousling his son's hair. "Do you think we can't handle a measly little mission like that?"
"Well, you're so quick. The others aren't back yet."
The men exchanged startled glances at those alarming news. The other mission was supposed to have been the quick one. If they still weren't back... Azeem's stomach churned at the thought of what might have happened to Rebecca. What had they been thinking, to send a woman out on such a task?
Robin bent down by the front of the wagon, unharnessed the horse, and mounted. Before anyone had time to react, he was off.
"Christian!" Azeem called after him, and getting no answer, turned to the others. "Get me a horse! Where are the horses?"
As he stormed off to find a horse, he caught sight of Isaac's alarmed expression, and he could only hope that the old man had not yet realized the full scope of events. He managed to find the horse they had got from Lady Marian, and after he had saddled it and was on his way, he heard Isaac's quivering voice shout: "My daughter!"
Riding off, Azeem wondered how they would ever be able to hold their heads high again, if in their effort to save the man, they had inadvertently killed the girl.
He followed Robin's tracks, the speed sending his heart apace, but he had not yet reached the end of his trail when he saw Robin returning towards him, on foot, with a smallish figure sitting slumped at the horse. A male figure, as was the person on the other side of the horse, so where was... And then he saw her, half a step behind, disheveled but with a cheerful tilt to her head. When they came closer, he could see that she was smiling.
"Oh, Azeem," Robin said, showing no surprise upon seeing him there. "Bull took a horse's kick to the head, he's got a bit of a goose-egg. It doesn't look too bad, but you can probably tell better than I can."
It was much too dark to get a proper look at Bull's eyes, but judging by the lump on his head and his general demeanour, he would be quite ill for a few days and fully recovered beyond that.
"There appears to be no damage to the skull," Azeem told Bull. "You were lucky."
"Don't I know it!" Bull said. That horse could have killed me!" He started shaking his head, then, with a groan, seemed to reconsider that move.
"And you, my lady?" Azeem asked across the horse's back. "Are you unharmed?"
"Yes, thank you." Rebecca's smile was wide and surprisingly full of mischief. "Robin says my father is unharmed too."
"He is indeed, and back in the camp waiting for you."
The width of her grin at that would have been more expected on a boy of Wulf's age than on a young woman, and it brought Azeem more joy than anything he could think of since he had come to this country.
The successful mission was followed by some good luck in the next day's hunting, which put everyone in a celebratory mood. John and Fanny prepared a boar for the roasting spit, and Wulf, with nonchalant pride, tossed a pair of pidgeons to Azeem. "These are for you."
Azeem turned the birds over in his hands. The shots had been expertly made, and the preparations were just as he'd taught the boy. "Thank you. Have you given anything to our guests?"
Wulf's face fell. "They need special food too?"
"This will be plenty," Azeem assured him.
Indeed, he was grateful to have an excuse to make his way over to Rebecca and her father. Bowing his head down before them, he said, "These birds have been chosen to suit us. Will you do me the honour of sharing my meal?"
Like Azeem himself had done, Isaac too turned the birds over, to make sure, and then nodded. "Thank you. Rebecca, will you cook them?"
"Yes, father." She stood up and, as she passed Azeem, asked him quietly, "May I have your assistance?"
"Always," he replied, in a voice just as soft.
Through the preparations, and the beginnings of the meal, all three of them spoke about this and that, sharing in the conversations of the others as well as having some of their own. But as the celebration continued, somehow Isaac became more involved in what Robin and the others had to say, while Rebecca and Azeem drew back a little and spoke in low voices to each other.
"I must admit," Rebecca said. "I had thought Robin Hood a simple rebel, a man of action, not..."
"Not of thought?"
She blushed a little. "Well. One does not expect a mere thief to speak with such eloquence on military strategy."
Before Azeem had time to wonder if this admiration was cause for concern, Rebecca smiled and added, "Nor does one expect a thief's hired man to follow the medical instructions of Avicenna."
"Ibn Sina? You know of him?" he asked, surprised.
"Oh, yes. I find his methods very useful."
They continued in that vein for a while, sharing stories about their attempts in their field of medicine, some amusing, some instructive, and a few tragic. After one such tragic story, there was a pause, both of them thinking of remedies failed and lives lost.
Rebecca broke the silence, asking, "How did you come to join Robin Hood?"
"I owe him my life. Until my debt is paid, I shall stay with him."
He shrugged. It was a question no one had asked of him, and he had tried to avoid asking it of himself.
"Will you return home?"
"I don't know. To Jerusalem, I cannot return. My life is forfeit there. To Kanem, where I was born... perhaps. But I have no family there, nothing to return to."
"I'm sorry. You lived long in Jerusalem?"
"Quite some years, yes." The images came unbidden, and while he tried to wave away the ones involving Jasmina, it only served to make the rest of them all the more pressing.
"Tell me about it?"
The request was anything but idle. There was a longing in her voice that made him want to share his memories, and so he spoke until his voice was hoarse and choked, and tears glistened on both their faces.
"Daughter?" Isaac had ended his own conversation and came towards them, looking none too pleased with their proximity. "I think it's time for us to return to our journey."
"Of course, Father." She stood up and gave Azeem a last smile. "Once your debt is paid, if you ever find yourself near York... I'd love to hear some more remedies."
"I'll keep that in mind," he replied softly, bidding her farewell.
He watched them leave, certain that he would never see her again, but that her memory would be another cherished one, to plague and comfort him forever.
Huntingdon Castle, 1195
Azeem was still trying to get used to the notion that the Earl's castle was a place to live in, rather than a place to sneak into. He quite understood both the King's reasons for giving it to Robin and Robin's for accepting it – it was an easier solution than rebuilding his old Locksley home, the lands bordered on each other, and with the only heir hung for treason there was no one else to lay claim to it. Even so, for Azeem the new environment served to alienate him further from his surroundings. Poverty was similar all over the world, but riches in England were nothing like riches in Jerusalem.
Still, this was his home more than any other, and so he remained and did his best to share the joy Robin's men felt at their freedom. This day was court of the manor, with people coming before Robin to share their grievances, to which he responded with decisions that would never rival Sulayman's, yet were more than sufficient for the cause.
"Isaac of York is here to see the Earl," said Alan, chosen among the men as herald for his quick tongue.
The name cut straight through Azeem's thoughts and made him look up, startled. There was old Isaac before him now, and there – yes, there was his daughter. His eyes met hers, and she gave a very small nod.
As soon as he could, he escaped out into the corridor, where he remained, waiting, until soft footsteps told him Rebecca was on her way.
"It is good to see you again, Azeem," she said warmly.
"And you, my lady. I had heard you were on your way to Granada."
"So we are." She leaned against the balustrade, looking down. "We are only here to pay our respects, give our congratulations."
"Thank you," he said, though the congratulations could hardly be aimed at him, nor would they be in place there.
She bent down even further, the veil falling in her face. "You never did come to York."
"There was no time. So much has happened."
"Yes." There was a strange tone to her voice. "So much has."
He longed to take her in his arms, to beg her to stay. Jasmina's face came to his mind, her inviting smile and the self-assured cock of her head. But Rebecca was not Jasmina, nor would he want her to be.
"I have heard good things about Granada," he said. "You could be happy there."
Against his will, his words came out as a question.
"I would be safer there," she said, avoiding the subject of her happiness. "I'd have the comfort of my people."
"The king owes Robin a great deal," Azeem pointed out. "He has some influence. You could be safe here."
She shook her head. "It's not the same. My father can't trust any man's charity."
"I'm not speaking of charity."
"Then what?" she asked, finally meeting his gaze. Her voice was exasperated – but did it also hold some hope?
"Stay with me," he said. "I can keep you safe."
She bit her lip, a tinge of pain passing across her face. "There was a man... quite recently. A Christian man. I... He never asked. But if he had..." She looked down on her hands, soft as a lady's, yet with traces of herbs under her nails. "I wouldn't have given up my faith for him. I would not for any man."
"I'd never ask that of you," he said, shocked at the idea of taking anything from her, least of all something that mattered so much.
"What are you asking of me?"
"I don't know. I suppose... I'm in a strange land. I answer to no one but myself anymore, not in these matters. A Jewish woman, a Christian woman, it's all the same, now. Of course, I know it's different for you."
"Yes," she said with quiet heat. "Yes, it is."
"I never thought I'd see you again, and I can't stand..."
A page passed by – one of the villagers' sons, Azeem remembered his father, a good man in a fight. They fell silent until the boy was gone once again.
"You could always go to Granada, at some point," she said. "To meet with your own people there."
"These are my people now," he said. "I have no other."
She made a helpless gesture.
"Can you at least speak with your father? Ask him for... a little while longer under Robin's roof, enjoying his hospitality and protection. Give you some time to think."
She closed her eyes, and after a beat, nodded quickly. Her hand quivered on the balustrade, and he lifted it up, kissing it gently, drawing in the scent of garlic and coriander.
"I don't know what I can and cannot give," she whispered. "But... I want..."
"It doesn't matter if it's just an hour discussing medicine," he said, "or a night, or a whole life. Anything would be a blessing."
He led her to a corner behind a pillar and kissed the tears from her eyelashes, and in return she took both his hands in hers, kissing them near the base of the thumb.
Parting, even to return separately to the same hall, was slow and painful. A whole life apart seemed impossible.
Well. His hope may be faint, but last year there had been none at all.
"Robin," Azeem said, that night after the court was over. "How did things turn out with Isaac of York?"
Robin frowned, still taking down notes from the various grievances. "Good, I think. Poor man's in a bind, but I offered him to stay here with us, and it seems he'll do so for a week or two, at least."
The next bit was hard to say, but Azeem forced himself. "Could you speak well to him of me?"
"I always speak well of you," Robin said, crossing out a sum and writing it over.
"Thank you. But can you do so to Isaac of York?"
"Why would you..." Robin looked up, and at the sight of Azeem's face, a smile slowly spread over his face, every bit as self-satisfied as when he'd first discovered his friend's weakness for women. "Oh. Well, this was unexpected. Not a bad choice, though, I must say."
Azeem endured his comments for a while longer before asking, "Are you quite done?"
"Testy," Robin said, getting up. "Don't worry, I'll sing your hallelujahs, old fox. Lord knows you deserve it. Let's just hope we can lure this bird into your sack."
He patted Azeem on the shoulder and headed out of the room, calling for Marian. Azeem sighed. Sometimes Robin, for all his fighting skills and experience, had less maturity than a boy half his age. Still, that was part of his charm, and if he could work that charm on Isaac of York while Azeem talked things through with Rebecca, it was definitely worth the needling.