Chapter 32

Following Tuck's administration of the Last Anointing, the four unlikely ex-mercenaries collected their few belongings and prepared their departure. Few words were exchanged, and the entire farewell was a decidedly awkward and subdued affair.

Robin gave them permission to take the horses, despite Much's protests. If anyone else possessed misgivings about Robin's surprising generosity, they did not voice them. Then, Robin briefly advised David of the quickest route through Sherwood Forest and wished David and the others a safe journey.

As David, Sarah, Wat, and Tuck took their leave, Sir Edward approached Robin. Without preamble, the older man simply stated, "Marian is unwell."

Naturally, Robin had noted Marian's hasty departure, much as he noted everything that occurred around him with the keen eye of a man accustomed to battle where the smallest detail, however insignificant it might appear, could be the difference between survival and death. Though instinct always told him to follow Marian, he had, for once, checked that impulse. He trusted that she would not wander far, and he assumed that she merely needed a moment alone with her thoughts.

"She said that she would return shortly," Edward continued when Robin did not immediately respond. "But … I am worried for her." He sighed, looking pale, tired, and weary. In fact, he looked as if the past few days had aged him further. "I never wanted this for my daughter. I expected so many things for her, but never this."

"I will see to Marian," Robin offered. He was not entirely certain what Sir Edward was asking of him, so he provided the only solution that readily came to mind. Marian would not likely appreciate the intrusion, but Robin was more than willing to overlook that slight complication.

"She is my daughter," Edward murmured. "And I do not even know what to say to her." He paused, shaking his head. "They made us watch, you know – the Sheriff and Gisborne. Your friend, Allan, was laid out upon a device the Sheriff called the rack. Each time the lever was pulled, it stretched his limbs further. At one point, the Sheriff told Marian to make a choice. She had either to pull the lever or watch the Sheriff slit Allan's throat."

Robin closed his eyes and gritted his teeth against a fresh wave of rage over the Sheriff's seemingly limitless capacity for cruelty. Damn it. He had not known.

"Allan told her to pull the lever," Edward explained quietly. "It was that pull that tore the man's shoulder."

"I had no idea." Robin was at a loss to say anything else.

"I did not expect Marian would tell you that," Edward replied. "But I do not know what to say to her." The older man sounded lost, and he looked utterly defeated. "She is my daughter, and it is not easy for me to ask you to help her because I cannot. I fear I cannot say what it is she needs to hear."

Robin understood the significance of Edward's pained confession. Of course it was speculation on Robin's part, but he did not imagine that Sir Edward had viewed him favorably when he all but deserted Marian and sailed with King Richard. And that was putting it mildly. More likely, Edward hated him for leaving Marian – for hurting his daughter. Therefore, by offering to trust Robin in his stead, he was professing a renewed faith in Robin and his ability to care for Marian. Unfortunately, it was not that easy. He could not simply make this go away with a few well rehearsed words, and he could not, in good conscience, take Sir Edward's faith in him without warning the man of that very fact.

"I will try," Robin finally said. Then, he added, "But I have already told Marian she cannot hold herself accountable for the Sheriff's actions."

"You have told her," Edward pointed out. "You have told her what she should or should not feel. You, more so than anyone, should realize that Marian cannot be told anything. She is no less stubborn than you, and the both of you will persist in your beliefs despite what anyone else simply tells you." Edward stared intently at Robin, his earlier dejection replaced by vehemence. "Before you left, you and Marian always knew how to talk to one another. Has that changed so much in five years?"

Robin glanced away from Edward's scrutiny, unnerved by the man's question.

"She is vulnerable right now, and vulnerability has never sat well with my daughter – much as I assume it does not sit well with you." After a short pause, Edward repeated, "She is vulnerable, Robin. Can you not, for once, show that you are as well?"

So he had.

Of course, it was easier for Robin to simply tell rather than actually relate. After five years of war, he sometimes forgot that there was more to communication than giving or receiving commands.

Sir Edward had helped remind him of that fact.

Robin's arms tightened around Marian; his lips grazed her hair. Maybe she did not respond vocally, but Robin sensed he'd somehow said what it was she needed to hear. Naturally, the guilt and the grief would not miraculously disappear. But sometimes the greatest burden to bear was the weight of feeling alone and suffering in isolation with the shadows of sorrow and despair. By sharing his own experience, Robin believed he'd managed to alleviate that burden for Marian. At the very least, he showed her that she was not alone.

He had known that same helplessness. He had watched a boy little more than thirteen summers scream, cry, and beg. The boy had screamed until he could not scream any longer, his voice ruined from the bloodcurdling cries of agony. Every terrible detail was etched into Robin's memory as if a master sculptor had chiseled the imprint of that abominable morning into his mind.

The squire's torture was only one of many atrocities he'd witnessed, and, like the boy's flaying, each one was burned into his memory with startling clarity. Despite returning to England, the vivid nightmares persisted – nightmares that sometimes plagued him while he was awake. It left Robin to realize that a part of him never truly left the Holy Land. The memories of all that he had seen and all that he had done would haunt him until the end of his days, he knew. Not only that, but it was a weakness that would forever infect him like a disease; some might even call it madness.

Of course, he was not crazy; he knew that. Still, it was something he'd never wanted to openly admit, least of all to Marian. He never wanted Marian to understand how greatly his experiences had affected him. Therefore, he should have been appalled by what he had confessed to Marian.

Instead, strangely, it felt like an absolution. Obviously, Robin could never forget. That was impossible. Even now, after reliving Hugh's torture in words, Robin felt the familiar tightness in his chest. His breathing became labored as he forced down the tide of panic that momentarily threatened to overwhelm him. He hated that memories alone could affect him this way. It was something with which he knew he would always struggle, though returning to England had, at least, clearly tipped that ongoing battle in his favor.

Now, Marian knew of that continuous internal conflict that afflicted him. And, somehow, realizing that he no longer needed to conceal that part of himself from her made it easier. He subdued the mounting dread with far less effort than usual.

Marian slowly lifted her head from his chest then, though her arms remained around him. Her gaze met his. "We really should return to camp," she said, but her words lacked conviction. Robin knew that she, like him, was reluctant to abandon this small respite from the sorrow that suffocated the camp.

"We should," Robin replied. He raised one hand, his fingers twining gently, almost reverently, through her hair as he tilted her head back further.

"The others will wonder where we've gone," Marian whispered. Yet her eyes closed, and her lips parted slightly, inviting him despite her half-hearted insistence that they return.

"Maybe," Robin murmured before his mouth met hers.

Marian responded with the same urgent desperation that compelled him to kiss her when, in good conscience, he should have been escorting her back to the camp. They were alone, in relative sanctuary, and nothing was right about this except that they needed each other.

That very reality was why, reluctantly, Robin pulled back. After all they'd recently endured and all that yet awaited them, it would be far too easy to lose themselves in this moment and find comfort where they could, forgetting about the world around them if only for a little while.

"We need to go back," Robin said.

Marian nodded, glancing away from him. "I know," she whispered.

Robin and Marian walked in silence, and when they reached the camp, Marian immediately left his side and joined her father in order to assure him that she was all right. Robin watched her and Sir Edward for a moment before he approached Djaq, who was in the process of slowly removing Allan's soiled bandages in order to rewrap his wounds with clean ones. Meanwhile, Will sat close by, absently carving a block of wood. Despite the pile of wood shavings at his feet, the block still appeared relatively shapeless, and Robin suspected Will was simply carving for the sake of keeping occupied rather than with the intention of creating anything.

But it was not Will with whom Robin needed to speak.

Just as Robin had noticed Marian's abrupt departure, he also noted Djaq's earlier reaction to the Last Anointing. Djaq did not acknowledge his presence, and Robin said quietly, "Will, could you leave us for a moment?"

Djaq never even looked up from her work, her attention devoted solely to Allan. Will lowered the knife and wood as he glanced between Robin and Djaq. Slowly, Will stood, but before he left, he looked at Djaq. "Djaq?" he asked softly. Will's question explicitly informed Robin that Djaq was, in fact, angry with him. Otherwise, Robin doubted that Will would have hesitated to comply with such a simple request.

"It is fine, Will," Djaq replied. "Please ask Much to make some broth for Allan."

When Will departed, leaving him and Djaq alone, Robin studied Djaq, waiting to see if she would speak to him. When she did not, he said, "I did not intend to upset you."

"I was angry, not upset," Djaq said. "But it was irrational. You did what you thought was right."

Still, she refused to look at him. After a stretch of silence, she added, "But you believe it is over."

Robin shook his head. "No," he replied as he suddenly understood now why his decision so deeply affected Djaq. "I would not trust Allan with anyone but you, Djaq. If no one else can save him, you can."

"I told you last night that I believed Allan would die."

She thought he had betrayed her trust. Robin briefly closed his eyes. It had never been his intention to imply that he'd used her dire prognosis to provide Allan with the closest to divine absolution as he was likely to receive.

"I did not base my decision on that," Robin said. That was the truth, though he doubted whether or not he could convince Djaq of that fact. Regardless of what Djaq admitted to him the previous night, he'd contemplated asking Tuck to perform the Last Anointing since the moment David of Doncaster and John had carefully lowered Allan's limp body to the very blanket upon which he now laid. In Robin's mind, Allan deserved no less, and Tuck, though not a priest, was an easy solution to offering the administration of the sacrament.

Finally, Djaq sighed and met Robin's gaze. "It does not matter," she said. Of course, Robin suspected she was lying merely because arguing was not the wisest course of action, all things considered. "I admit that, at first, I was angry, but what matters now is Allan."

"Has there been any change?" Robin asked. Even as the question slipped passed his lips, he realized how foolish it sounded.

"He is warm," Djaq admitted. "He has contracted a fever."

The fever was, naturally, the inevitable outcome to Allan's injuries. Despite comprehending that, it did not make Djaq's statement any easier to swallow.

While Robin attempted to digest that declaration, Djaq continued, "If Allan stands even the smallest chance of fighting the fever, I must remove the dead skin. It is feeding the infection." She paused, glancing down at Allan before looking at Robin once more. "It is an agonizing process that will wake him. But for all the pain he will suffer, I must tell you that there is little hope the method will work. Perhaps if I had tended his wounds immediately, it would be different."

"Is there another way?" Robin asked.

Robin did not expect a positive response. Therefore, it surprised him when Djaq responded, "Yes."

When Djaq did not immediately elaborate, Robin suspected that her alternative method was highly unorthodox. "Djaq?" he prompted when she held her silence.

"By this point, Allan is beyond conventional means," Djaq replied. She hesitated but continued, "My father made preliminary observations before his death about the benefits of ... maggots."

Robin's eyebrows raised in a moment of utter disbelief and genuine disgust. "Maggots?" he repeated.

"In war," Djaq began, "many injured soldiers are left for a day or more with open wounds. It takes time to scour the battlefields, searching for survivors. During that time, open wounds can often become infested with maggots, who primarily feed from dead flesh."

"Yes," Robin said as he unwillingly recalled those particularly revolting memories from his time in the Holy Land.

"Well, my father documented several instances where the men whose wounds were infested fared far better than those men who had their wounds cleaned and dressed prior to infestation."

Robin's gaze shifted between Allan and Djaq before he finally said, "If I understand this, you are suggesting that we search the forest for an animal carcass, collect the maggots, and then put them on Allan's wounds."

"Is it any more horrible than leeches?"

"Yes, slightly," Robin returned, though he certainly had no fondness for leeches either. Robin sighed, trying to digest the fact that they were contemplating putting maggots on Allan. It seemed completely unnatural, but he trusted Djaq and her knowledge as a physician. Still, Robin felt compelled to ask, "Is there any chance this could make Allan worse?"

After a moment of thought, Djaq replied, "My father's observations were only preliminary. It is, mostly, an untested practice, and it is, admittedly, extreme. I would not even consider it if Allan's condition was not beyond normal remedies. His skin is badly damaged, and that is where the infection enters his body. But to answer your question, I do not believe it could worsen Allan's condition."

Robin nodded as he silently considered Djaq's words. Finally, he said, "If you think it is best for Allan then do it."

He could not predict how the others might react to Djaq's unusual treatment. Yet, ultimately, Robin knew each and every one of them respected Djaq and her knowledge. No matter how repulsive the treatment, if she believed this was necessary, no one was likely to challenge it.

Maybe no one said it aloud, but Robin knew each of the outlaws felt the same.

If Djaq could not save Allan, no one could.

A/N: Please remember that I make no serious claims to historical and/or medical accuracy. Maggot Debridement Therapy (MDT) is the medical use of live maggots (fly larvae) for treating non-healing wounds. Maggots clean the wounds by dissolving dead and infected tissue; they disinfect the wound; they speed the rate of healing. Maggots have been known for centuries to help heal wounds. Military surgeons noted that soldiers whose wounds became infested with maggots had better outcomes than those not infested. The flies used most often for the purpose of maggot therapy are "blow flies" (Calliphoridae); and the species most commonly used is Phaenicia sericata, the green blow fly. MDT is used today in certain situations with disinfected, medical grade maggots. Whether or not the practice of using maggots to heal wounds would have been used in Medieval England, I have no idea. Again, I only research so much, and I never make any serious claims to historical accuracy.