(I don't own the TV characters. They're just on loan for a while. No profit, just entertainment.)
by White Wolf
Robin walked through the forest along a narrow trail toward the camp where they had spent the last three weeks. He knew this particular path so well, he was able to move easily with little thought. The path was so narrow at this point that he and his band had to move in single file, so they couldn't see the confusion on their young leader's face.
Robin wasn't sure what exactly it was he was feeling, but he knew it had something to do with the old woman he and the others had just encountered. Who was she, and why did he have such a strong feeling of dread deep in the pit of his stomach?
He thought back to the encounter, involuntarily shivering at the memory. The old woman, small, bent and dried up like a leaf in winter, had approached the outlaws as they left the road that led from Wickham. None of them had ever seen her before, but they assumed she was there to request help or maybe thank them for some kindness they had done for her family or her village.
The truth would prove to be profoundly different.
She had walked straight up to Robin and looked long into his eyes. She reached up and touched a gnarled finger to his cheek. It lingered there, and then she pulled it down along his jaw. He felt the rough nail bite into his skin, though there was no blood. The touch sent a tremor through his whole body. Yet, he was unable to summon the will to push her hand away.
"What do you want, old woman?" Will demanded of her. He was ready to intervene until he saw she held no weapon. He still wasn't pleased to see her touching Robin.
Without taking her eyes from Robin's, she said, "You will pay, Robert of Huntingdon, for what you've done." The woman pulled her finger away then and laughed. It was a dry, crackling sound that gave Marion goose bumps.
"What have I done?" Robin asked in a somewhat stiff tone. He seemed to be mesmerized.
"You...will...pay," the old woman repeated, emphasizing each word. She turned and walked back the way she had come, saying nothing more.
John was frowning. "What was all that about?" he asked as he looked from the old woman's retreating back to Tuck and then Will.
Robin shook his head as if waking up from a dream. He knew that, unfortunately, it was no dream. He felt a strange tingling sensation begin to work its way down his spine, ending with a shiver. 'Pay? Pay for what?' he asked himself.
Nasir didn't say out loud what he was thinking: that something bad was in the making. He shook off an icy feeling. 'Not good,' he thought.
When the outlaws reached their camp, Robin sat down against the tree near where he slept. He idly picked up and threw down twigs as he watched each of his friends come in behind him. They sat down around the campfire, though the flames were long out. Tuck began to remedy that.
Each of them had the same thought. Do they try to ignore the incident with the old woman, or do they talk about it? In the end, no one spoke, preferring to wait and see what Robin wanted to do. It was obvious, though, something like what they had witnessed couldn't really be ignored.
Robin didn't want to talk about anything. He thought about leaving camp to be by himself to think. But, think about what? He had no idea what the old woman was talking about. "There has to be more to it," Robin mused.
Tuck was trying to coax the small flame he had started into a roaring fire. He looked up from the attempt. "Like what?" he asked, somewhat puzzled.
Robin hadn't realized he had spoken out loud. "I can't explain it," he replied, just as puzzled. "I just have the feeling there was more to it than maybe her being the relative of a soldier I had killed or of someone that we had robbed like I was thinking on the way back here." He shook his head. "There was something decidedly unnatural about her." Then, his demeanor changed. He gave a mental as well as a physical shrug. He stood up and slapped Much on the shoulder as he walked by the young man. "She's probably just demented. Ignore it."
Dinner was quieter than usual but not awkward. Robin noticed that each of his friends seemed to study him when they thought he wasn't looking. He figured they were trying to decide if he was letting the encounter with the old woman affect him. It had given them the creeps. They could only imagine what he must be feeling.
As usual, Marion sat next to Robin while they are. "Are you all right?" she finally asked, not able to avoid broaching the subject any longer. She tried to keep the concern out of her voice.
"Confused more than anything," Robin answered with a smile. "I don't know whether to be worried or not. I can't shake the feeling she said what she did for a reason." The word foreboding crossed his mind.
"You don't really believe she's demented, do you?" John queried.
"No, but since there's nothing we can do about it, at the moment at least, let's just forget it. We can deal with it later, if need be." Robin's tone held no obvious concern, so no one questioned him further.
Will thought briefly of forcing the issue then decided against it. Maybe, it would all sort itself out. He didn't trust the old woman, but he dismissed her, because he also didn't think any more would come of the encounter.
Robin was the first to go to sleep. The others finally drifted off one by one. It wasn't long before the dream came. He'd had nightmares before, of course, but nothing like this.
He was walking through what looked like a swampy, mist-laden forest. There was a strange blue light all around that gave the black, twisted trees the look of grotesque, tormented things. Figures darted in and out of the shadowy mist. They were too quick to identify. All he knew was that they were human. At least, he thoughtthey were human. As chilling as the place was, he had no feeling of malevolency.
Suddenly, he saw Much standing a few yards in front of him. Robin started to say something to him, when he felt his bow and an arrow in his hands. He gradually notched the arrow and raised the bow. He knew what was going to happen. He fought with all his will to lower the bow. His body wouldn't obey his command. His mind screamed 'NO!' Still the bow came up, and he pulled back on the string, feeling every ounce of the tension. He aimed down the arrow's shaft until he saw it pointing directly at Much's heart. Robin couldn't understand why he was doing such an unthinkable thing and why he wasn't able to stop.
In horror, Robin watched as the string seemed to release on its own, and the arrow flew towards Much.
Robin jerked awake. Sweat poured off of his face, the damp hair on his forehead clung to his skin, and he was trembling. He looked around, expecting to see six pairs of eyes staring at him. Everyone was asleep. He realized the screaming he had heard had been in his own mind.
It was a long time before he lay down again. For the rest of the night, he barely blinked. He tried to figure out what the dream could mean.
Robin got up quietly and walked into the woods. Why would the dream have him do such a thing? Why Much? Why anyone? The only people he felt no compunction in killing were soldiers or any others who threatened him or his friends. He thought of Much the same way he would have a younger brother.
He had never really spent much time analyzing dreams. Some people he knew believed every dream had a deep meaning, a few even let dreams rule their lives. Others, like his father, thought they meant nothing. The Earl could never explain to his curious son just where dreams came from or why they existed at all, but he insisted none of them, even nightmares, were to be feared or relied upon. Robin was never sure what to think of them. However, this one was much too intense not to mean something. And, it was much too frightening to be ignored. He thought of the old woman.
It was the middle of the night and very dark, but even so Robin didn't pay much attention to where he was going. His mind was far from his physical location. Over and over he kept saying, out loud, "What does it mean?"
Robin didn't know how long he had been walking, when he suddenly stopped and looked around him. He was back at camp. The sun was just beginning to lighten the eastern sky. He could clearly see his friends, all sleeping peacefully. The banked fire had a little puff of smoke curling into the crisp, morning air. Robin had no idea how he had gotten back. He decided he had probably been so deep in thought, he had simply gone in a large circle. 'Must be it,' he thought.
With resignation, he lay back down. The ground had gotten cold, though he barely noticed. He was still trying to figure out his dream. As much as he wanted to know the meaning behind the whole thing, he was more concerned with the fact it was Much he was trying to kill. He was no closer to figuring it out, when he finally fell asleep with a plea not to have any more nightmares.
* * * * * * * * * *
Nasir was the first to awaken. He looked toward Robin and saw that his eyes were closed. Whether he was actually asleep or not, the Saracen didn't know. He watched, and it appeared that Robin's breathing was steady. The Saracen nodded, though he didn't believe Robin had slept very much. Next to Robin, he was the most uneasy by the old woman's words. With a sigh, Nasir leaned over and shook Tuck.
The friar stirred and then sat up. Nasir shook his head slightly in Robin's direction. Tuck nodded acknowledgment. Quietly he got up, took the iron cooking pot and carried it to the nearby stream.
While Tuck was gone, Nasir stirred the fire, adding a few of the twigs he had gathered, until the fire came to life. The warmth was welcome. When Tuck returned with the pot a quarter full of water, he set it on the stones surrounding the now crackling flames. He pulled several herbs from his pouch and threw them into the pot. Once the water began to boil, he added the grain he kept in the food sack. He set the leftover bread on the stones at the base of the pot to let it warn.
During this process, John and Much woke up at almost the same instant. Tuck put his finger to his lips before either of them could speak. Tuck pointed to Robin. They understood.
John kicked Will on the foot and got down in his face. "Not a word," he whispered. "Robin's still asleep, and he doesn't need you waking him up."
"Well, I'm not gonna wake him," Will hissed. "Why does every one always think I'm the one that's gonna mess something up?"
"Because you often do." John replied with more than a little humor in his voice. He grinned at Will and then moved away, standing up and stretching. The big man looked like a huge bear.
Much watched him do this almost every morning, and each time he expected John to let out a growl. Much turned his head to keep from laughing out loud. However, he couldn't suppress a big grin.
Marion woke up to the smell of Tuck's meatless breakfast stew. She looked down at Robin and was so glad to see that he was sleeping. She had no way of knowing, of course, that he had been up most of the night. Marion leaned down and gave him the lightest of kisses, barely touching his cheek with her lips. "I love you," she whispered softly in his ear.
By the time she got up, straightened her clothes and combed and rearranged her hair, Tuck handed her a bowl of the steaming stew. "It smells wonderful, Tuck."
"Should we wake Robin?" Much asked.
Tuck shook his head. "Let him sleep a little longer."
Halfway through the meal, they heard Robin ask. "Don't I get any?"
Tuck filled a bowl and handed it to him along with a chunk of warm bread and a cup of cider. He smiled at Robin, but his eyes searched the fair-haired man's face and saw weariness there. Or was it worry? He decided it might be both.
"So, what are we going to do today?" Will asked. "Work or play?" He rubbed his hands together gleefully as he said the word play. It was an attempt to avoid the subject on everyone's mind. Will wasn't oblivious to the subtleties of what was going on. He just thought a break was in order. He still felt the uneasy feelings the old woman had brought about would go away, especially if they were ignored. Robin had seemingly dismissed the old woman, so he would, too.
"What kind of play do you have in mind?" Robin asked. He silently thanked Will. He really wasn't in the mood to discuss the old woman again. He also didn't want to tell anyone about the dream. Play sounded like the perfect way to drive the undercurrent of foreboding from his mind, for a while at least.
"A contest." Will answered. "We haven't had one in a while. Before you ask, I'll tell you. A hunt."
"What kind of hunt?" Tuck asked. Then he frowned. "I imagine whatever we end up hunting will be something I'll end up cooking."
"Always," Marion laughed. She also mentally thanked Will, feeling a distraction was definitely in order.
"All right, Will, tell us the rules of this contest," Robin said, anxious to get started on something that could prove to be a happy event. He found himself looking forward to it. He always cherished the happy times they were able to snatch from the dangerous times in their lives.
"I haven't thought it all out yet," Will admitted with a frown.
"What?" John said, taking a fake swing at Will but ending up barely missing his jaw. "It was your idea."
A sheepish Will shrugged. "It was just something for us to do. I haven't figured anything out, yet."
"All right. How about this?" Robin said. "Let's divide up into two teams and each go after something in the forest. Each team has to get, let's say, five rabbits. The team that gets them in the shortest time, wins."
"Wins what?" Marion asked.
"A new bow." John piped up. "I need one."
"And who says you'll win?" Will wanted to know.
"Does everyone on the team get a new bow?" Marion asked. "My bow is fine. I want something else."
"We can each name something we want, within reason, of course, and those on the losing team have to give those on the winning team whatever it is they asked for." Robin thought that was the most fair thing to do.
"There are seven of us," Tuck pointed out. "One team will have four people and the other only three."
"I don't have to be on a team," Robin said. "I'll just enforce the rules."
"No, Robin," Much said. "You have to join us. It won't be any fun if we don't all do it."
"He's right," John agreed. "We all have to go." The big man said it with finality. One look at his stern countenance showed Robin there was no room for argument.
Robin was actually pleased. He wanted to be fair about the teams but at the same time, he really did want to participate. "Next question then. Who goes with who?" Robin asked.
"Stones." Nasir said. When all eyes looked at him in question, he explained. "Three brown stones and four black ones. We each draw one, and we'll have two teams."
"Good idea, Nasir." Robin said. "Much, will you go get them?"
Much ran toward the stream and bent down near the edge of the water, picking out and carefully counting the little rocks. He ran back and held out his hand for Robin's approval. When Robin nodded, Much smiled. He got a clean, empty bowl and dropped the stones into it. He shook the bowl and held it out toward Robin.
"No looking until we've all chosen," Robin said. He reached into the bowl as Much held it up above his head. Each one in the group took their turn. Nasir pulled out the last stone. They all held their closed hands out in front of them.
"Let's see." Robin said as he opened his hand, revealing a small brown stone.
"Black," Will announced.
"Black, also," said John.
Much 's stone was dark but definitely, "Brown."
"Black." It was Tuck.
"My stone is black," Marion told the group, trying not to sound too disappointed that she wasn't on Robin's team.
Nasir didn't have to say anything as he held the last brown stone up between his thumb and forefinger.
"So, it's me, Much and Nasir against the rest of you," Robin laughed. "Sounds about even, I'd say."
"We'll soon see about that." Tuck informed his leader indignantly.
"Now, what do we each want?" Much asked eagerly, now that they were getting into the really important part of the game. "John's the only one who's named anything." His face changed to one of frustration as he had to admit, "I don't know what I want."
"A scarf," Marion announced.
"I don't want a scarf," Much protested, looking at Marion with a screwed up expression.
"No, silly. I want a scarf. A dark green one." Marion had a dreamy look on her face as she wrapped the invisible scarf around her neck and pretended to stroke it.
"I need a new cooking pot," Tuck informed the group. "This one's got a rusty handle."
"Will?" Robin asked.
"I want a new leather belt," then he added, "with a silver buckle."
"Good," John said. "I've been afraid that the one you're wearing will break, and your pants will fall down."
Will reached over and hit John on the arm. "I guess our team will just have to win, then, so I don't offend you."
"I don't know," John mused, "I could use a good laugh."
"Nasir?" Robin asked, ignoring the vicious look Will shot toward his big friend, who was grinning back at him.
The Saracen shook his head.
"There has to be something you want, and you'll have to tell us. After all, we're going to win this contest." Robin grinned.
"I'll let you know before we leave," Nasir said.
"Much, " Robin said. "Have you thought of something?"
"I really need some wool leggings. Winter's coming, and mine are full of holes." Much looked at Robin. "Now, it's your turn."
Robin's expression changed for just an instant. He would love to say he wanted to go back to the time before the old woman showed up. Since no one could give him that, and bringing it up would spoil the mood of the moment, he gave his friends a broad smile. "I've really got everything I need right here," he said, sweeping his arm wide to encompass all present.
"Oh, no," Marion said. "You can't get away with that. Come on, Robin, there has to be something you want or need."
Robin surveyed the faces all looking intently at him. He knew they were going to make him choose something. He looked around to see if something in camp would give him an idea. He spotted a pile of blankets behind Tuck. "All right. I would like to have a new woolen blanket, good and thick, to put on the cold ground this winter."
Tuck nodded his approval at the practical choice. He was sorry he hadn't thought of it himself.
They all got up and began gathering their weapons. Even during times of relaxation, they had to be prepared for any danger that might show up.
"What are the rules about the rabbits?" Much asked.
Robin thought for a moment. His face brightened. "Each team has to catch five rabbits. We bring them back here---alive. Whoever gets here first with the rabbits, wins," Robin explained. "One more thing: No one person can run ahead with all the rabbits. The whole team has to show up together. Are we all agreed?"
Each one in turn either nodded or said yes.
"John, your team goes west. We'll head east."
"Thank you, Robin. Don't you know all the rabbits are west of here?" The big man laughed as he picked up the well-worm bow he hoped to replace.
Robin's team moved to the east side of the camp. John's team moved over to the opposite side.
Just before they headed off in their respective directions, Much said, "Nasir, you haven't told us what you want, yet."
Nasir frowned and then said, "No camp chores until the day after the Winter Solstice."
"That's over two months!" Will yelled.
"I know," Nasir replied with a humorously evil grin.
Much nodded. "That's a good one, Nasir."
Will began thinking of the new leather belt he would soon be wearing.
Marion looked at Robin. "We are going to win," she said haughtily.
"Not today, you won't," Robin teased, though he fully planned on collecting that new blanket.
Marion made a face at him and then turned to go. "Come on, we've got rabbits to catch," she urged her teammates.
After Marion, John, Will and Tuck left, Robin led his group of three into the trees behind him.
"There are rabbits near Julie's Leap." Nasir said as they marched in that general direction.
"I know." Robin said, grinning broadly. "In all fairness, though, there are rabbits in Hampton Run as well." It was a place due west of the camp.
"We'll still win," Much declared with no room for doubt. "I really need those new leggings."
Robin laughed, putting his arm around the young man's shoulders. "Well, Much, I'm sure we'll win, but just in case we don't, I'll get you leggings for your birthday."
"My birthday's not until February. I'll freeze long before then." Much gave an involuntary shiver just thinking about it.
Robin clapped a hand on Nasir's arm. "Well, Nasir, I guess we better win, or we'll have a frozen Much on our hands."
The Saracen declared, "Then, we will win."