(I own a certain raven-haired woman. All the others belong to other people. No profit, just entertainment.)

Author's Note: This story deals with both Robins. For the sake of clarity, I have called Robert of Huntingdon, Robin, all the way through. Robin of Loxley I refer to as Loxley. Even though I know the outlaws, when talking, wouldn't call him that, I have them do it to avoid any confusion to you, the reader (or myself!).

THE CHOICE

By White Wolf

"Look!" Much said, pointing to a patch of blue mist that was forming about twenty feet from the camp. The young man jumped up and stared wide-eyed. So did everyone else as the mist swirled and then coalesced. The form of a woman stepped clear as the mist vanished behind her. She was tall and slender with long black hair that hung loosely almost to her waist. She wore a white, gauzy dress that hung to her ankles. Her eyes were dark brown, and her skin was alabaster white.

The woman approached the outlaws. Much, whose eyes never left the woman's stunning face, backed up until he bumped into Will, who barely noticed since his eyes also never left the woman.

John stepped forward. "Who are you?" he asked in a tone that implied a challenge though he held no weapon. His size was intimidating enough.

The woman held up her hand, palm outward, "I'm not an enemy," she informed the group. "I have come to offer you a reward."

"And, what might that be?" John didn't attempt to hide his suspicion. He appreciated the woman's beauty and her directness, but he didn't let that lower his guard.

"My name is Havarta." The smile the woman turned on the people who were now grouped around her appeared warm and friendly. "I'll ask each of you a question--the same question. The answer you give will change your lives one way or another."

Will's suspicion finally overcame his initial fascination with the beautiful stranger. "You gave us your name. You didn't really tell us who you are."

"I doubt you would understand," she replied simply. There was no trace of condescension.

Marion wasn't sure if this woman believed they weren't intelligent enough or if her explanation was merely too difficult for anyone to comprehend. Still, she said, "Try us." There was a slight defiance to her tone.

"I am human, though no longer mortal. I 'dwell' mostly in another realm, but I have the power to appear any place at any time. I know things that will happen in the future, here and elsewhere." Havarta surveyed the intense faces. She knew they doubted what she was telling them. It was a reaction she was used to.

"You know the future?" Much asked mesmerized.

"Not everything," Havarta confessed. "There are some things I don't know. This world holds many mysteries for me still." She smiled. "The question I said I would ask each of you for instance. I have no idea what your answers will be."

"This is ridiculous," Will spat with his usual scowl. He made no attempt to hide his total disdain. "What do you really want here?"

"To ask the question," Havarta replied innocently. "And then give you..."

"...a reward that will change our lives." Will finished. "Yeah. Yeah."

"Why?" Tuck asked bewildered. He was interested in the answer, so he ignored Will's sarcasm.

"I travel the world offering people a chance to acquire the rewards that their actions show they deserve. You are heroes. You risk your lives to help others. Your actions haven't gone unnoticed. You deserve to be rewarded with something you would like to have." She looked Will in the eye when she said the last words.

"By who?" Marion wanted to know. She had the feeling this mysterious woman was telling the truth, but she needed to know more.

"That I can't reveal. All I can tell you is that it's someone who truly desires to give you a gift. There's no deception."

"So, we're to answer a question and as a result, we get a reward, but you can't tell us who wants us to have it," Tuck summed up.

Havarta nodded. "There's just one condition."

"Of course," Will spat again. He narrowed his eyes. As far as he was concerned, this whole business was a farce. He just couldn't yet figure out what the real reason for it was. He wondered if it was something that was going to end up costing them.

"It's simple," the woman informed him. "It isn't a separate gift each of you will receive. I must ask each of you alone, and when I have finished, the answers must all agree."

"How are we going to do that?" John inquired.

Havarta didn't answer. She looked at each of them. "Are you willing to abide by that condition?"

"Will we be punished or something if we don't agree?" Much asked. He had the feeling that with Havarta's ability to materialize out of mist, she could probably turn them all into bats if she chose.

"Why, no," Havarta replied, somewhat surprised by the question. "The idea is to reward you, not punish you. If all of your answers don't agree, or if any one of you refuses to answer, nothing will happen. I'll leave. There will be no punishment but also no reward. It's a group reward and must be a group answer."

John pondered the seemingly simple condition. 'Nasir?" he asked. He trusted the Saracen's instincts and wanted to get his opinion. He felt that if anyone could read the woman's intentions, it would be Nasir.

"What have we to lose?" the Saracen replied, shrugging. He. like Marion, saw no cunning in this woman. However, he did remain cautious, ready for action in an instant, if he saw that action was needed.

John looked at Much and Marion. They both nodded.

"Will?" John asked the hotheaded Scarlet.

Instead of answering, Will asked another question. "What about Robin? He isn't here. He probably wouldn't like this whole business."

Havarta said, "This question is not for Robin to answer. You will soon understand why. Only the six of you can do this, and time is short. You must do it now." Her demeanor was that of someone who possessed infinite patience. She stood with her hands by her sides, a slight smile on her face.

"Tuck?" John inquired of the portly friar.

"I'm curious what kind of reward we can get for just agreeing on an answer to a question," Tuck asked, looking at Havarta.

"One that will change our lives," Marion reminded him.

"The question will explain everything," was Havarta's only response. She waited calmly. They all had to agree or there wouldn't be any reason to proceed.

After a minute of contemplation, John said, "All right," We'll answer your question." He didn't really know what they were getting into, but it was for sure they wouldn't find out unless they went for it.

Havarta nodded. "You must all separate. I will come to each of you in turn. Don't attempt to discuss your answer with anyone else. I'll let you know the result when I've finished. Agreed?"

John nodded. He and the others moved several yards apart. They made sure that no one was within hearing distance. Marion was the only one who walked away with her back to Havarta. Everyone else kept their eyes on the woman. Of them, only John and Much didn't take a weapon.

Havarta surveyed the group again. There were still doubts and confusion on their faces. She approached Marion, who was standing, still with her back to Havarta. "Marion, tell me who you would rather follow as the only true Robin Hood, Robin of Loxley or Robert of Huntingdon?"

Marion whirled around. "That's the question?" she asked startled. "Why would you ask such a thing? You must know that Loxley, my husband, is dead. We follow Robin now. He is Robin Hood, Herne's son."

"Yes, I know. But, you must answer the question according to what is in your heart at this moment, Marion. Who would you rather have here, Loxley or Robin?"

Marion gave her answer as she turned back around and put her hands over her face. She fought to stop the tears that were beginning to form. Havarta walked away and approached John.

"What did you do to Marion?" he demanded, rising up from the seat he had taken on a log. His face was dark with barely suppressed anger.

Havarta asked the question, and John understood Marion's reaction, though he still wasn't pleased. He tried to figure out why that question was being asked. What did it have to do with a reward? The woman insisted on an answer, so, after taking several deep breaths, he gave her one.

Havarta went to each of the others. None of them answered without hesitation, taking time to consider, as confused and upset as Marion and John had been. Will asked more questions and finally gave an angry answer. He still didn't know much more than he had in the beginning. Or more accurately, he hadn't taken the time to sort out the information Havarta had given them.

Havarta called them all together. "It seems all of your answers are the same. You each chose to have Robin of Loxley as the only true Robin Hood. So, that's how it'll be."

"What are you talking about?" John asked. He was beginning to get angry again. "You know Loxley's dead. Why are you bringing up old grief? It isn't fair, especially to Marion." The big man moved a step closer to Marion as if to protect her, though he wasn't sure from what.

"I assure you what you want can be delivered." Havarta waited.

John stared at her. "Are you saying you can bring him back?" To life?" His anger was replaced by total disbelief.

"Yes. Well, I personally can't, but it can be done, if you choose, which seems to be what you've done." Havarta waited, knowing that the full impact of what she had told them would take a moment to register. "Loxley can be returned to you."

They all looked at each other and smiled. John, Will and Tuck shook hands. Much jumped up and whooped, waving his arms in the air. Even Nasir had a broad smile on his face.

Havarta smiled to see their joy. "Then, it'll be done."

"When?" Will asked excitedly. His suspicion had been completely wiped away. All he could think of now was seeing Loxley again.

"Now," she told him. "Wait here." The woman walked away and disappeared into the waiting blue mist. She vanished just as she had arrived.

Tuck sobered up somewhat from the revelry. "Do you think she really means it?" He was almost afraid to hope it was true.

"She does," Marion replied. She couldn't be absolutely sure, of course, but she had looked into Havarta's eyes and saw honesty there. Marion's heart sang at the prospect of seeing her beloved Loxley again. To feel his arms around her and his lips on hers once more was more joy than she thought she could contain. It was the answer to the prayers of so many lonely nights. She closed her eyes and saw in her mind's eye the last truly happy kiss they had shared. Dare she believe that she would have that kind of happiness again?

When the mist came again, the outlaws stared hard into it. They fully expected Loxley to appear with Havarta or maybe instead of her. Only the woman stood before them

"Where's Loxley?" Much asked, disappointment evident on his young face.

"I knew it," Will declared smugly. "It was all a trick."

"No, Will," Havarta replied. "I had to deliver your answer. Loxley will be here shortly." Then, her demeanor changed. "It's too bad Robin won't be here in time for you to say goodbye to him."

"Goodbye?" John said, confusion creeping in again. He felt ashamed that in all the excitement, he hadn't even thought about Robin, at least not consciously. He supposed he had thought, in the back of his mind, that after Loxley returned, both men would be with them.

When John voiced this idea, Havarta shook her head. "Remember, I asked which of the two you wanted as the only Robin Hood. They cannot both be here. When Loxley is returned, then Robin must take his place."

"Robin must die?" Nasir asked, showing more emotion than was normal for him.

"No!" Marion recoiled in horror. "That can't be true. You never told us Robin had to die."

"He'll be lost to you, yes, but it isn't a physical death, as you know it. It's another kind of existence. He'll have a good life," she assured them. She was well aware of the transition Robin would make, as so many others had before him. "It'll be a life of mysticism and light, full of wonders none of you can imagine." To her, it was a far better life than the one he had been living as a hunted outlaw in Sherwood Forest, though she had no intention of making that comment to them about the life they lived. Instead, she said, "I thought you understood that when one comes back, another must go."

"How are we supposed to know that?" Will demanded. "We've never had anyone come back from the dead before."

"I want my brother back," Much told the woman, "but I don't want Robin to die or whatever you call it."

"He'll be very happy," Havarta insisted. She knew they didn't really understand the kind of life Robin would have, but she had assured them it would be a good one. She couldn't understand why his friends wouldn't want that for him.

"It still isn't right to take this life away from Robin without his agreeing to it," Tuck said. Actually saying the words brought their full meaning home to him. Havarta was talking about Robin being banished to someplace they couldn't begin to comprehend.

Marion offered a small smile. "Knowing Robin, if he believed it would bring Loxley back because that's what we wanted, he'd do it to make us happy."

Every one of the outlaws nodded their agreement.

"I really thought you knew." Havarta shook her head then turned to her right. "It begins. Look." She waved her hand, and a scene appeared. It was a road with trees on one side and a small meadow on the other. Robin was walking down the road. He had a smile on his face. He stopped as a man approached. The man was tall with long, dark hair and intense eyes.

Robin frowned. It was obvious he was trying to remember something. "I know you, don't I?" he asked as the man reached him, though he was sure they had never met before. Still, the man was familiar somehow.

"No, nor will you," the man replied angrily. He pointed to Albion. "That's my sword, and I want it back."

Robin frowned again, this time in confusion. Why would this stranger claim Albion as his own? "Who are you, and why do you think my sword belongs to you?" Anger overriding his confusion.

"It all belongs to me. I'm Robin of Loxley, or more accurately, Robin Hood. You've been using my name and my sword. I'm here to get them both back, as well as my wife. You tried to take her, too, didn't you?"

"Herne..." Robin began.

Loxley laughed. "Herne is an old man. Besides, he chose me first." He held out his hand, evidently expecting Robin to just hand Albion over to him.

Robin didn't move, except to grip Albion tightly in a gesture of both protection and readiness.

Before Robin knew it, Loxley had pulled a knife and plunged it through Robin's leather tunic into his ribs. It went in all the way to the hilt, but Loxley pushed harder, trying to ram it in deeper. "I'll have what's mine!" he raged. He gave the knife a twist and then jerked it out forcefully.

Robin was slightly bent over, a look of total disbelief on his face. The look was quickly replaced with a grimace of pain, contorting his handsome features. When the knife came out, he fell forward. Loxley stepped out of the way, and Robin hit the ground hard.

Loxley kicked him over, reached down and took Albion out of its scabbard and put it in his own empty one. He then wiped the blade of his knife on Robin's sleeve and sheathed it. He looked down at Robin and laughed. "Norman pig," he spat scornfully. Then, he continued down the road as if nothing unusual had happened. There was a cruel sneer on his face.

The outlaws were horrified. Seeing Robin murdered at the hands of Loxley was too horrendous to accept.

Will was the first to voice the group's feelings. "That's a trick!" he shouted. "You're trying to trick us."

Havarta was just as shocked as the rest of them. "That's never happened before," she whispered in a stunned voice. "They were supposed to meet, shake hands and exchange Albion. That's all." Seeing Robin savagely killed by the man who had personified goodness was absolutely the last thing she could have imagined.

"There's no way Loxley would do something like that," Marion said firmly. "I don't know who that was, but it wasn't Loxley."

Tuck came and stood before Havarta. "Why are you doing this? You said we would get a reward. This is no reward. It's a nightmare."

"Loxley didn't do this," John echoed.

Havarta closed her eyes and shook her head. "I don't know what happened. I can only guess that the forces of darkness must have taken control of Loxley's spirit as he crossed over, when he was most vulnerable. He was wanted, no doubt, because of who he is. Once converted, he would make a powerful force for evil."

Much turned toward Havarta. "Not Loxley. Not ever!" he insisted. He was desolate over what he had just witnessed.

Havarta had sympathy for these people, but she felt the need to point out that Robin had just lost his life, and they appeared to have overlooked that fact. "You seem more disturbed about the fact it was Loxley that did it than the fact Robin was just brutally killed in front of your eyes."

"You have no right to say that to us," Marion said, indignation momentarily replacing the shock.

Much said. "I love my brother, and I know he would never kill anyone like that." The young man wasn't going to accept any of it. "Robin isn't dead," he stated flatly. He was trying really hard to convince himself that Havarta was trying to trick them just like Will had said.

"This isn't happening," John groaned.

"Regrettably, it is. However, I can offer you one chance to change it." Havarta knew that the choices people made could be reversed under special circumstances. This turn of events definitely qualified.

Will narrowed his eyes. "You're trying to trick us again."

Havarta ignored him. "If you wish, you can change your mind. But, you must do it before Loxley gets here. Once he sees you, there'll be no going back--ever."

Even seeing the cold-blooded way Loxley had killed Robin, they each had a hard time making the decision that would send Loxley away, this time forever.

Marion, especially, couldn't come to grips with saying one word and never seeing Loxley again because of it. "Can't I see him just once? There are so many things I need to tell him. Please."

"No, Marion," the raven-haired woman said softly. "Unless, of course, you want him back permanently. I do understand your pain and longing. But, as you just saw, he isn't the Loxley you loved."

Tuck had a fierce look in his eyes. "You knew this," he accused.

"No, I didn't. I told you there were things that I don't know. This was definitely one of them. I was compelled to come and make this offer to you. Your answer to the question had to be your honest desire. You want Loxley back, but you see what he's become. Can you live with him the way he is? Are you willing to sacrifice Robin's life here to do it? Unfortunately, you don't have much time to decide. Loxley will be here in a few moments. Does he stay, or does he go back?"

Much couldn't bring himself to voice an answer. He really wanted Loxley back, and he couldn't believe his brother had turned into a murderer. His expression was one of infinite sadness. Then, an idea occurred to him. "Herne would never let Loxley become what we saw."

"Herne has no hand in this," Havarta explained. "This goes far beyond his power."

Nasir voiced what everyone knew deep in their hearts when he said, "This isn't the Loxley we knew. If Robin can be saved, we must do it."

"And, give Loxley peace," Marion said to the surprise of all of them. Her arms still ached to hold him, but Nasir was right. Loxley was no longer Loxley, at least in this world. Seeing what he now was made her think. What evil would he set loose once he got back to Sherwood? How many more would die at his hands? And far from last, could she live with herself if they traded Robin's life of goodness for Loxley's obviously evil one?

They had all decided, reluctantly, that they must change what had happened. They were partly responsible for it. It was Marion who had been married to Loxley, so it was really her opinion they had needed to be sure about. Marion couldn't voice it any more than Much could, so she nodded, her eyes brimming with tears.

"Then, do it," John told Havarta, though his heart wasn't in the words he spoke.

"Are you sure? This decision is final. You won't be able to change your mind back again."

"Yes," John replied grimly. "We're sure." He let out a big sigh.

This time when Havarta vanished, no one said anything, preferring to keep their thoughts to themselves. No one even noticed when the woman returned. "It's done."

There was a long silence, broken only by the sound of Marion softly sobbing. She was sitting on the ground, her head bent over her knees with her hands once again over her face. Tuck walked over and put his hands on her shoulders. It was like losing Loxley all over again for all of them.

After a while, Nasir asked, "What about Robin?"

"He's on his way back here, with Albion. He won't remember any of this. To him, it never happened."

John looked at Havarta. "Are you going to tell him what we did?"

Havarta looked into the big man's eyes, but it was obvious she was speaking to everyone, when she said, "No. What would be the point? How would it help to tell him that you prefer Loxley to him, and he's only here because you couldn't live with what Loxley had become? He loves all of you so much, and the feeling isn't returned. I won't hurt him like that, and if you care anything about him at all, you won't ever tell him either."

"We do care," Marion said, as she sat up straight and dried her eyes. "It's just that..." Her voice trailed off. How could she possibly voice feelings that kept tripping over each other? She wanted Loxley back. She also cared deeply for Robin and certainly didn't want him to be taken away. Yet, she now understood that both men could no longer exist together in this world. She wished she had never set eyes on Havarta or heard her awful question. "You should never have come here," Marion told the woman bitterly.

"I see that now. We truly believed we were giving you a gift," Havarta said with genuine sympathy.

Will walked up to Havarta and said, "You kept telling us that we would get a reward. Well, that got screwed up, didn't it? What if we had chosen Robin? How would that have been a reward? He's already our leader." Will almost defied the woman to give him an answer.

Havarta obliged. "You would not lose him the way you lost Loxley."

Will glared at her and then walked away. He stopped next to John and looked back with a sneer.

Havarta and Nasir exchanged looks. She saw that the Saracen recognized the implication of what she had just said. When she looked at the others, there was no such recognition. 'Just as well,' she thought. There was no need to explain as long as they didn't ask. They had enough to deal with already. Instead, she said to them, "Perhaps now, you will appreciate Robin for the man he is."

"We always have, despite what you may think," John informed her with more than a little sarcasm.

Will nodded his approval, a smug look on his face. 'Put her in her place,' he thought.

"Robin's coming now," Havarta said. "I must go." There really wasn't anything else to say. Apologizing again would be useless. For once, Will had been right. It had somehow gotten all screwed up. Always before, when she gave out a reward, she had left amid smiles, thanks, and sometimes kisses. This time she was leaving with grief and guilt in her wake. She definitely would have to talk to the one who sent her. This couldn't be allowed to happen again. Perhaps, to make amends, the outlaws could be given the reward they would have received had they chosen Robin to begin with: That he wouldn't have to be taken away from them before... She shook her head. Right now there was work to be done, so without another word, she vanished into the blue mist that once again waited for her.

* * * * * * * * * *

Robin waved as he approached the camp. His face was lit up with a big smile. He always felt happy when he got back to his friends. The smile disappeared when none of them returned it or the wave.

"Did something happen?" he asked with concern. He gave a quick look around but saw nothing amiss.

"We're all right," Tuck said, trying to sound as cheerful as he could manage. He didn't attempt a smile because he knew it would look fake, and Robin would see through it.

"Are you sure?" Robin questioned. "You all look kind of...sad."

"We're fine," John said. He hated lying to Robin, but there was no way he was going to try to explain what had just happened.

Everyone was avoiding eye contact with Robin and each other. Very few times had there been such awkwardness among the friends.

"I'm missing something, aren't I?" Robin asked, knowing his friends well and sure they were holding back.

"No," John said much too quickly.

Robin looked at him. "John?"

"It's all right. Really." John saw that the look on Robin's face was one of concern for all of them. John totally agreed with Havarta. Robin must never know.

Tuck thought it best to change the subject. "Let's eat."

Robin looked at him and then at the others. He wanted to question them further, because he was sure there was something they weren't telling him. He decided to let it go for now. He didn't want to start an inquisition of his friends. They were entitled to their private feelings, and he knew they would tell him if it was important. He said, "Sounds good to me."

Several days later, Robin had his knife out, cutting on a small piece of wood. He had recently seen a little statue of a horse cut out of a piece of wood in one of the villages. It had fascinated him. He had seen woodcarvings before at his own home at Huntingdon and at other castles. They were large, expensive, and usually imported. He supposed that people who did those things were craftsmen who spent years learning to do the intricate carvings. He had never stopped to consider that anyone with talent, even a humble villager, could do something like that. The more he had reflected on it, the more he thought, why not? He decided to try and see if he could do one himself. It didn't take long for him to realize he hadn't the first idea of how to carve anything.

Robin was laughing at his attempt when Much walked by. The young man had a somber look on his face. Robin put his knife back in its sheath and set the wood down. He followed Much into the trees on the far side of the camp.

Much had stopped. Robin approached him, and when he put his hand on Much's shoulder, the young man jumped.

"Much, it's only me."

Much pulled away but didn't turn around.

"Talk to me," Robin said as he went around to face Much.

Much tried to turn away, but Robin put both of his hands on Much's shoulders and held him in place. Robin asked him, "Are you upset with me about something?"

Much shook his head. "It's not that."

"Then, what? Please tell me." Robin's genuine concern was evident in his gentle manner. Much was only a year younger than he was, but intellectually and experience-wise, Robin was so much older. He respected Much and cared for him the way he would have a younger brother.

Much twisted and broke Robin's grip. He turned and walked several feet to a large oak tree. He put his hand against the rough bark and his head on his hand. He looked to be close to tears.

"I'm a good listener," Robin reminded him. "I'm also stubborn. Just ask my father." He walked over to where Much stood and again put his hand on Much's shoulder. "I won't go away until you tell me what's bothering you. Unless, of course, you tell me to go away," he added.

Much shook his head.

Robin waited.

Finally, Much turned around. "There's something I need to tell you. I don't want to, because it'll hurt you." He paused a minute, then continued. "You've never lied to me, Robin. And, keeping this a secret is like lying to you. I can't do it anymore. You have a right to know."

Robin frowned. He couldn't imagine what Much could possibly say that would hurt him. He had the distinct feeling, though, that it had something to do with the subdued atmosphere that seemed to pervade the camp lately. Everyone was acting like they were in mourning, as if they had lost someone or something dear to them. "I'm listening." He waited patiently for the young man to begin talking.

Much blurted out everything. He began with the appearance of Havarta and ended with her final disappearance. He never once looked Robin in the eye. He felt ashamed, so he told the whole story while looking at his hands. When he finished, he did look at the blond outlaw leader. He quickly turned his head away.

Robin had a stunned expression on his face. He looked like someone had just hit him in the stomach. "That explains it. I knew there was something wrong. No one would tell me what it was. I see why. You thought you were getting Loxley back. Now, he's gone for good. No wonder all of you look so sad all the time."

Much was afraid to say anything more. When his eyes had met Robin's, he had seen the pain there. He now began to doubt that he had done the right thing in telling him. He should have just forced himself to live with it. He should have thought about it more. He should have asked the others. He should have done anything but what he did. It was too late. Robin was hurt just like Havarta said he would be. "I'm sorry," Much said at last. It was much too inadequate a thing to say after what he had just done.

Robin looked at Much and gave him a melancholy smile. "You don't have to apologize, Much. Loxley was your brother. You have every right to want him back."

"I'm sorry I had to hurt you."

"You told me the truth, Much. Never apologize for doing that."

"It doesn't mean we don't want you here," Much hastily added.

After a few minutes of silence, Robin said, "I think I need to be alone for a while. Tell the others I'll be back later." He turned and walked away before Much could apologize again. He was soon lost to sight, rounding a bend in the trail through the trees.

Much hung his head and walked into camp. He slumped down on a log. Poor Much looked miserable and felt even worse.

"What is it, Much?" Tuck asked in his best fatherly tone.

Much took a deep breath before saying anything. He knew the reception his confession would get. As bad as he believed it would be, it was nothing compared to the look he had seen in Robin's eyes. He was sure that look would haunt him. "I told Robin."

"Told Robin what?" John asked as he set the lunch plates out near the fire. He was thinking about the rabbit stew that was in the large cooking pot, so the question was asked with only half his attention.

"I told Robin about Havarta and what we did." Much scrunched his eyes closed, waiting for the verbal barrage.

John's attention was suddenly jerked away from the stew and riveted on Much's pitiful countenance. "YOU WHAT?" he roared, the flaming red color of anger spreading across his face.

"Much, we all agreed we'd never tell Robin about that," Tuck said. This time his tone was much less fatherly.

Will glowered at Much. For once, he was speechless.

"How could you do that?" Marion asked. She didn't raise her voice, but she was clearly upset.

"I didn't want to," Much replied, trying in vain to defend himself. It was an automatic response, because he knew he deserved whatever accusations the others wanted to heap on him. "I just couldn't stand it any more. He knew there was something wrong. He kept trying to get me to tell him what it was. It wasn't fair to him not to tell him."

"FAIR?" John roared again.

"He was hurt, wasn't he?" Marion asked. She could visualize Robin's face at hearing the news, and it was awful. She thought for an instant about going to find him. Then, she realized that he had left to be alone, away from those who had hurt him. She had been in on the secret, so he wouldn't want to see her either.

"How was hurting him fair?" John demanded to know. He towered over the contrite Much.

"Much is right," Nasir said from the edge of the camp. "We should have told Robin the day it happened."

Much got little consolation from the unexpected support.

"You should have discussed it with us first," Tuck told Much. "It's something that affects all of us."

"I'm sorry." Much seemed to be doing nothing but apologizing.

Marion had agreed to keep the secret to spare Robin the pain he was feeling now. Had that really been the right thing to do? Isn't he more hurt now than he would have been had they leveled with him in the beginning? She closed her eyes and said, "What's done is done."

"So, we have to decide what to do about it." Will said resolutely.

"What is there to do?" Robin asked as he entered the camp.

"Robin," Marion said. "We're so sorry. We..."

Robin held up his hand. "You don't have to say it. Believe it or not, I understand. Loxley was your husband, Marion. You loved him. You still love him, and you always will. I know that. He was Much's brother. He was friend and leader to all of you long before you ever even heard of me. Why wouldn't you all want him back? I really do understand that." Robin stopped because he didn't want his voice to crack. The tears were too close. After a minute and a deep breath, he continued. "He was Herne's first choice to be Robin Hood. I was Herne's second choice. It's never easy to admit you're second best."

"That's not true," Tuck protested. "It never was about who was best."

"No. It was about preference." Robin sighed. "I've been able to carry on well enough. At least, I believed I had. Loxley casts a long shadow. In the end, I guess I've never really been able to escape it, have I? I never wanted to take his place. I always wanted to make a place of my own. It looks like I haven't been too successful at doing that."

"You have, Robin," Marion insisted. "You've accomplished so much since you came to Sherwood. Perhaps, we haven't told you the way we should have."

"What can we do to help?" Tuck asked kindly.

"Nothing." Robin sat down and shook his head. "Maybe, I don't belong here. Maybe, I never did."

"So, you're going to just run out on us," Will said with a bitter edge to his voice, putting his own interpretation on Robin's words.

Robin gave a short, humorless laugh. "I can always count on you, Will, to jump me no matter what. I'd think you'd be happy to see me go."

Will really got hot then. He jumped up and leaned down until he was in Robin's face. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"See? No matter the situation, you find a way to try to start an argument with me. Next, you'll be throwing in my face the fact that I'm the son of an Earl and probably should go ahead and go back to Huntingdon. You usually do." Robin said it softly, his voice tinged with a sad resignation. There was no anger, no bitterness.

Will opened his mouth to say something and then shut it, pressing his lips tightly together. He glared at Robin a moment, and then turned away. He stopped at the edge of the camp with his back to everyone. He was fuming. "Think what you like," he said angrily over his shoulder. He refused to admit that everything Robin had said was true. He also refused to admit that he cared and was also sorry for Robin's pain. Will's anger was deep-seated, but it sometimes masked genuine feelings of compassion.

"If you understand, why are you leaving?" Much asked Robin.

"I didn't say I was leaving. That was Will's idea. Listen to me, Much." Robin spoke to the young man as if they were still alone in the forest, but he was really talking to all of them. "I didn't want to assume the role of Herne's son in the beginning because I didn't think anyone could take Loxley's place, so I told Herne no. It was a year before I changed my mind, when Marion was kidnapped, and I rounded you all up to rescue her. Mostly because of Herne, I think, each of you seemed to accept me, and the people started to call me Robin Hood. I felt awkward because it was his name. Marion was the one who told me it was right to take it. It was also Marion who insisted I take Albion, even though I didn't feel worthy to carry it. I've grown to love all of you. We've been great together. Then, I find out you would prefer to have Loxley back. Understanding that in my head and accepting it in my heart are two very different things. It's not who he was that's the problem. It's learning how you all feel toward me."

"That hasn't changed," Marion told him. She tried to smile but the look was more sympathy than reassurance.

"Then, it must not have been much to begin with."

The Saracen had been sitting silently by and listening to the conversation. Now, he felt compelled to tell Robin, "You're wrong.

We feel the same. You do belong here as much as any of us."

"You wanted him not me," Robin pointed out. He shook his head. He didn't really want to get into a debate about the degree of affection they did or didn't have for him.

John said, "We wanted you both."

"Both of us here," Robin laughed. "Both of us called by Herne to be Robin Hood. Both of us loving Marion. That would never have worked, even though I'm sure I would have liked him." He looked at the faces around him. What he saw upset him. "Please, don't pity me," he pleaded. "That, more than anything, I couldn't stand."

Nasir decided to try a different tack. "What about the people you gave up everything to help?"

Robin's face fell. He had been so concerned with himself; he had completely forgotten everything else. He closed his eyes. How could he have been so selfish? He had left his home, shamed his father and given up his inheritance all for the people. "You're right. Thank you for reminding me, Nasir."

"You're staying?" Much asked hopefully.

"Of course, I am, Much. Helping the people is the important thing. They're the reason we're here in the first place." Robin was silent for a moment. "I need to talk to Herne," he said suddenly. "I may or may not be back tonight." Without another word, he stood up and hurried away.

"That was hell," John remarked, staring at the campfire.

"Can you blame him?" Marion asked. "Look what we did to him."

"Why is everything about him?" Will wanted to know. "He said he understood our wanting Loxley back, but then he acts like we were the ones that tried to kill him." As usual, Will's thoughts went from concern to accusation in a very short amount of time.

Marion let out a long sigh. Arguing with Will was futile. But, she had something to say, and she was determined to say it. "You never try to put yourself in anyone else's place and see how they feel about something that's upset them. Yet, when you find yourself in a similar situation, you're impossible to live with." Marion hoped Will would at least consider what she said. "Think about it."

Robin headed toward Herne's cave. All the way there, he vacillated between feeling sorry for himself and chiding himself for the selfish way he had behaved. He had said he understood, and he did. So, why was he feeling so betrayed? Maybe he hadn't come to terms with being the second Robin Hood. He had tried not to think too much about it, concentrating instead on the day to day efforts it took to survive. Yet, he did sometimes find himself trying too hard. Was that an attempt to break out of what he perceived to be Loxley's shadow? His father had always taught him to be self-reliant. He was definitely stubborn. Those are two of the traits that made him confident enough to come to Sherwood and not just survive among the outlaws but gain their respect as well.

Herne was waiting when Robin got out of the little boat at the edge of the lake. "Do you think I didn't know what I was doing when I chose you?" Herne asked as Robin approached and stood facing him.

"It isn't you I doubt. It's me."

"You found out that Marion and the others wanted Robin of Loxley back."

"It's a hard thing to accept."

"You've known about him from the beginning. You knew they wouldn't just forget." The old man spoke sternly to his son.

"Of course, I did." Robin lowered his head. "I told them that. Yet, having them actually--bring him back. I can't explain it."

"You were considering leaving all the people of Sherwood behind." Herne felt for Robin's pain, but he needed to restore the young man's belief in himself.

"Until Nasir reminded me," Robin confessed. "That's just another thing to feel guilty about. I forgot the people I came here to help. Is it any wonder I doubt I'm good enough to lead anybody?"

"You're human. You can't be expected to make all the right decisions all the time, or never to have doubts."

"Isn't that what you want from me?"

"No. I want you to do the best you can. It is good enough. I chose Loxley first because he had what I needed at the time I needed it. He broke the ground you now tread. The two of you are equal, but you are different people. Don't doubt yourself or the love of your friends simply because you weren't called first. You were too young then. Now is your time."

"I sound so childish when you say it like that." Robin shook his head. "Maybe I'm still too young," he muttered with an uncharacteristic lack of confidence.

"I called you to be my son. I knew what I was getting. You have taken the legacy that Loxley left, and you have grown beyond what even I could have believed. His spirit is with you, as I am."

"Then, I'll do my best never to disappoint either of you," Robin said with determination.

Herne noticed the subtle change in Robin's expression. "You have questions. Ask."

"What Much told me, about Loxley killing me and taking Albion, is that true?"

"It was a reality that did not happen."

"Had my friends not changed their minds...?"

"It would have been a reality that did happen."

Robin fought the urge to make a comment about Herne's riddles. Instead, he asked, "Is Loxley at peace now?"

"He is at peace. He exists in another realm, one you cannot imagine."

"The one where I'd be now if he'd come back the man he had been?"

"Yes. " Herne made no attempt to explain further.

Robin would have liked to question Herne more on that subject and others, but he decided they would have to wait for another time. He was now anxious to get back to his friends. Robin nodded. "Thank you."

Herne nodded in return. "You are my son. Go and do as I have bidden you. You live under no one's shadow. Remember always, you are Robin i' the Hood."

An hour later, Robin returned to the camp. The smile on his face eased the tension he saw on the faces of the six people who were waiting for him. "Herne set me straight on a few things," he said happily before anyone had the chance to ask.

"You're all right with what we did, then?" John asked somewhat cautiously.

"I'm all right with what you did and why you did it. In fact, I'm better than all right. I'm hungry." Marion kissed him on the cheek and the others each shook his hand. The big smile Robin had arrived with never left his face.

Camp that evening was a happy one and showed no signs of the trauma that had occurred that day. The friends discussed the ambush of a tax wagon the Sheriff was reported to be sending out the next day. Robin Hood and the Outlaws of Sherwood Forest were back in business.