Robin walked with a definite air of complete resigned depression, scowl weighing upon his face.
John meanwhile smiled continuously and talked enough for the both of them. He had insisted that the two leave camp for a while, get some fresh air and most importantly give the others a break from the misery.
"You see the sunny day. Birds are singing, trees are growing, it's not raining for once; Doesn't it make you feel brilliant to be alive?"
"It makes me not want to give a damn," Robin said snarkily.
John grunted a laugh. "A wise man once said, the only to move is forward is to stop looking back."
"John, you can't keep making up speeches to prove your insignificant points."
"Actually, Thomas said that one. The boy gets very deep when he drinks. Spurts all sorts of nonsense."
Robin refused to laugh.
Sighing, John asked, "so how long are you going to keep this going?"
"Keep what going?" Robin said, in that same irascible fashion.
"That! Look, Rob, we understand. You are going through a difficult time. And we sympathize. But this has to end."
"No, what has to end is you telling me what to do! I couldn't give a damn about Marian. She can do whatever she wants. Happy? Can we return to camp now?"
"Ah. But see, I am one the few who realise that is about so much more than Marian. You've been at this a year and a half and you can no longer see the good you do. Because it is overshadows by your loss. Not only have you lost Marian but also you have lost Leon, one of your best friends. And you blame yourself. You are angry. You are angry with yourself for allowing this to get at you. You are angry with the others for being able to move on. You are angry at the whole bloody situation! And it is time that you confronted it."
"And how do you propose I do that?"
John slowed his walk and turned to face Robin, arms outstretched in invitation.
"I don't want a hug!" Robin said with a snide look.
"And I don't want to give you one. That was Amelia's idea. I have a different approach." Arms still outstretched, he said, "hit me."
"Hit me! I'm serious."
"All through early life a man is taught a valuable lesson. He learns that violence will never solve his problems for there is always another way. Well that is complete shit. So come on. Hit me! Free your anger!"
Robin still looked perplexed but half-heartedly struck John on the shoulder.
John looked positively repulsed. "I don't recall asking you to hit me like a child. Actually no. Too kind. I don't recall you asking you to hit me like little girl."
"Look John, I'm not – "
"There it is! There is the attitude that made you lose her."
Robin may have been irritated by such words but he still had his wits. "You are just saying that to make me angry and it won't work Johnny."
"True. But I also think it is completely well-deserved."
"And that is your right."
"No. This needs to come out! You left your life of comfort. You left the woman you loved. And a small part of you always regretted that. And then she was back and you simply assumed things would work out between the two of you. But all the while, she was sneaking around for months with some pretty boy Lord. And what do you. You sit by and moan because that is the coward you are. And you know-"
His words were cut off when Robin's fist pounded into his face. John was a large man and little could penetrate him. But the force sent him stumbling. His hands leant against a nearby tree as he turned his face away.
Panic overcame Robin as he raced around, trying to see the damage. "Oh God. John? Johnny? Speak to me!"
A hand covered John's nose as he turned back. When he moved it, there was a lot less blood than Robin had expected.
"You call that a punch?" John chortled.
Robin laughed nervously and pretended to not see his friends wince of pain.
"Well look at that. I actually did it. I got you to laugh."
Robin paused. It was against his nature to admit when someone else was right. But John's method had actually done him some good. At the very least, it gave him perspective.
"And you know what? Since I am such an amazing friend, I will grant you one more free blow. Just not the face."
"John, I don't need-"
Robin's eyes were physically raging.
"Not-the-face!" John said in on quick breath.
Robin did not hesitate in kneeing him in the groin.
It had been so long since Robin could remember himself genuinely laughing. And it felt good to feel happiness again, even if it came from enjoying the pain of one of his friends. "Allen?" he said in surprise, seeing his friend approaching down the trail.
All good humour was gone when he saw the state of his friend. He was covered in ash and bits of debris. The skin that was visible was covered in an array of deep red burns. "What happened?" Robin asked urgently, racing forward.
Allen took a deep breath, fighting exhaustion. "Fire in Doncastor. Someone burned down the local tavern. I did the best I could but… But five people still died."
Robin clasped a hand on his friends shoulder, looking concerned. "I'm so sorry. I should have gone with you." Allen barely noticed. He was too busy studying John, watching for his reaction.
"It wouldn't have made a difference," Allen said quietly to Robin. "It was someone's intent to burn down the tavern. You being there wouldn't have changed things."
Robin was still baffled. "Do you know who was responsible?"
Allen looked directly at John. "No. I don't."
"We should get back to camp," Robin said, looking to John. "We can organise the funds we have and take them directly to Doncastor."
"Much went on ahead to camp," Allen told them. "You should go and supervise though Robin. John, do you mind staying a moment? I'd like a quick word."
Robin looked between the two men, assuming the word would be about him. He rolled his eyes. News of a fire had begun to put things into perspective. So he let them have their word, hurrying off down the trail.
"So what is this about?" John asked, looking nervous.
Allen was done beating around the bush. "Why didn't you tell us that you lived in Doncastor?"
John was clearly confused. "Because I never did? You know full well that Amelia and I resided in Mansfield before she gained her job in Nottingham. Then I lived there with her until I was outlawed."
"But you were once well-known in Doncastor. From visiting Roger."
John dropped his bewildered look, suddenly calm. "What exactly is this about Allen?"
"People are dying John! Every time I look deeper into this Godwinson business, more people die! Makes me think that I am being watched. That we all are! And I have a few suspicions over who exactly is the one passing on the information."
"Allen. You must know that you sound mad."
"I don't care! Why are there secrets? What are you keeping from us?"
John remained eerily firm. "Allen. My hand to heart, I have never betrayed Robin and I never would. And neither has Roger. I don't know what you think you know, but I suggest you leave it."
"Just tell me this; did Roger kill his family?"
Allen had known John for almost two years and in all that time, he had always had a soft spot for him. He was always so kind and jolly. But when John glared at him then, Allen was a tad frightened. "That is a horrible thing to accuse someone of Allen. Don't you dare ever say something like that to him! Or anyone, for that matter. He has been through enough! What happened to Belinda and Wrenne was a tragedy. I only thank the Lord that by some mercy, Polly was spared. You may think Roger was being secretive by not revealing himself to her all those months ago but do you not realise how noble and difficult that was? He gave her the greatest gift possible, an escape from this dangerous life. The memory of that fire haunts Roger every day. But I can assure you, Roger was with me the whole night. I do not know what caused the fire, and neither does he."
"If he was with you the whole night, how did he know of the fire in time to return to Doncastor?"
"That is none of your concern! But as you are are insensitive enough to ask, we were nearing the area when news was spreading. This was back when Roger thought he could keep his family safe whilst continuing with the work of the Merry Men. He never spoke of his family to you because he wanted to keep them as far from danger as possible."
"Guess that didn't work now, did it?"
The breath was knocked out of Allen as John clutched at his tunic, sending his sprawling into a nearby tree trunk. "I don't know why you have been looking into this. Nor do I know why you think it even slightly acceptable but…"
He broke off when he saw Allen use his free hand to draw the broach from his pocket. Allen held the broach high, watching the other man study it.
Even in the light of the rising sun, John squinted, looking closely. "And what is that?"
Allen was astounded. He had always considered himself a strong judge of character. He also had an ability to easily tell when people were lying. But from John's reactions, he somehow believed the confusion. It seemed that John had never seen the symbol in his life. "You don't know…?" Allen asked, slowly.
John released him, but was still menacing. "Just leave this, Allen. Do something decent for once."