A/N: Hello? Is anyone still out there? I know that this chapter is long overdue and for that I apologize. Once you read it, however, I think you'll understand why it took me so long.

If you're freaked out by the insane length of this particular chapter, let me explain. There were originally supposed to be two final chapters. Chapter 30—in which Djaq gives birth, and an epilogue—detailing the outlaws' lives at some future point in time. But it just didn't work. So I've woven the "future events" throughout this chapter. Which means, of course, that this chapter is more than twice the length of my previously longest chapter.

It also means that this is the end. Oddly enough, today makes a year since I first started posting this story. I hope that you won't allow the length to scare you away. I hope you'll stick around and find out how it all ends. I have really loved writing this story, and this chapter in particular. Thank you to everyone who has commented so far.

And thanks to Wenrom31 for the beta on this chapter! Any mistakes you see are mine and are a result of my final revision after her beta. Below you'll find a few Arabic translations that you may find helpful while reading.

Umm=mother; laa=no; akh=brother; Salma=an Arabic name meaning peace; shukran=thank you; al-kamuwn=cumin, a spice used in a great number of middle eastern dishes; bimaristan=a sort of medieval hospital of the Arab world


Locksley Village, Daniel's Birthday, Late Autumn, 1208

Contrary to his usual habit during this time of year, Daniel awoke before the first sound of the cock's crow, hurriedly yanked back his bedsheets and leapt from the bed...only to regret it a second later when he found himself shivering in the cold air. Of course, it wasn't really cold—seeing as winter was not yet upon them. It was more what his father would describe as 'nippy'. But Daniel couldn't have cared less what you called it...he hated even the hint of cold weather—something that made his father chuckle each and every time Daniel brought it up. Dad said that it proved he was undeniably his mother's son.

Daniel shivered and flexed his fingers and toes in an effort to get his blood flowing. He had half a mind to crawl back into bed and let the day start without him. That's what he usually did on chilly days like this. In fact, on most cool mornings, he ordinarily stayed in bed until long after the sun had pierced the sky and good and decent people were up and going about the their day—at least that's what his mother always said. Many a cold morning, she'd had to practically pry him out from under the blissful warmth of the covers and give him one of her looks which made perfectly clear the fact that she would brook no discussion on the matter and that he had but five minutes to wash, dress, and join the rest of the world at going about their daily activities. Or else. Oh yes...his mother could say all of that with just a look. Ask anyone.

But this particular morning was different and he wouldn't have slept in even if he'd been able. So he stretched, gave himself a hearty shake and stripped off his nightclothes. He poured some water into a basin from the pitcher beside his bed and splashed his face mercilessly until he was well and truly awake. He would ordinarily have heated the water in a pot over the hearth first rather than subjecting himself to such torture, but there was no time for luxuries today.

So he rubbed his eyes clean, rinsed his mouth, and pulled on his work clothes and boots. Then he fastened his tool strap across his chest and at his waist before heading downstairs to start his chores. As his mother would say, the sooner you start, the sooner you will finish. He wouldn't normally care about what time he started or finished on such a chilly morning, but there was nothing normal about today.

After all, it wasn't every day that he became a man...and turning fourteen was a very big deal.

Outlaw Camp, Sherwood Forest, Daniel's Birth Day, Late Autumn, 1194

"Will, enough!" Djaq snapped, shoving his hand—and the cool rag he'd been using to wipe her brow—forcefully away from her.

"Sorry," he mumbled, dropping the rag into the bowl of water next to their bed. He didn't know why he kept trying to sponge off her forehead even after she had told him repeatedly to stop. He just wanted to help but it seemed like he was only making things worse.

"Oh, I am sorry," she said in a pitiful voice, looking up at him from their bed. "I did not mean to get angry."

"No no. Shh. Don't apologize," he said, wanting so badly to reach out and touch her face or run his fingers through her hair in the way that always seemed to soothe her. But he didn't want to aggravate her further. "I just wish there was something I could do. I wish I could make it better somehow...or at least make it go faster."

She nodded and smiled weakly, reaching out and patting his hand briefly before she curled up into a ball and squeezed her eyes shut—overtaken by another pain.

Will hated this!

He'd known that childbirth would be painful for her, but he hadn't understood just how bad it would get. Or how long it would go on. And he really hadn't anticipated just how helpless he would feel either. Each and every time she was gripped by another pain, Will prayed that it would be the last one. That Matilda would say that it was time to start pushing.

But each and every time, the pain would ease and Djaq would have only a few moments of respite before it started all over again. She was trying so hard to be brave about it and she was doing really great—all things considered. Will was really proud of her. He just wished that there was something he could do besides sit here and wipe her forehead while muttering useless platitudes like it'll be alright or there there.

He'd been so glad earlier when the pains of labor had seemed to be something she'd be able to handle without too much trouble. She'd said that it wasn't all that bad. A bit of squeezing in her belly and some back pain. A 'twinge' was how she'd described it. That was all.

She'd said that it was all quite bearable and she'd actually joked with him that she might even be able to get through it without breaking a sweat. He'd known that she was teasing, of course, but Djaq was the most extraordinary woman he'd ever known in his life and he'd figured that if anyone could make it through childbirth in record time with little fuss, it would be her.

But that was before.

Before her pains had grown stronger and more frequent. Before they'd found that she barely had time to recover from one before the next one started. Before she was so winded from the assault on her body that she was lying there panting like a wounded animal. Will hated seeing her that way.

"Why don't you walk her about the camp a bit more. It might help things along," Matilda said to Will once Djaq's contraction had started to ease.

He stood up quickly—immensely relieved to have something helpful to do at last—and helped Djaq get to her feet. He wrapped his arm around her back and paced his steps with hers. She didn't speak at all and he didn't expect her to. She just leaned on him for support as he walked her back and forth over the small surface of their camp, stopping to crouch down whenever she was hit with another pain.

They seemed to be coming on so quickly now and Will knew, from what both women had told him, that it was a good sign and that the labor was progressing as it should. But all he could think about was how unfair it was that poor Djaq barely had time to catch her breath each time before another pain ripped through her small body.

"Do you want to sit back down?" he asked her after they'd walked for quite a while. "You don't have to walk if you don't want to."

He heard Matilda click her tongue at him from where she was seated nearby, but he didn't care. All he cared about was Djaq's comfort and if she didn't want to walk, then no one was going to force her.

"No. Walking helps a bit," she answered in a ragged voice.

Will heard Matilda let out a very loud hmph! but he chose to ignore her. He was well aware that she didn't approve of his presence. She'd made no secret at all of that fact. She said that childbirth was a woman's domain and that men did nothing but get in the way and make things worse.

Frankly, Will would've been inclined to agree with her were it not for the fact that Djaq had asked him to stay.

When Matilda had first arrived at the camp, sometime after Djaq's labor had begun, she'd shooed all of the men outside and told them to take with them whatever they thought they might need because they wouldn't be admitted back in until everything was over...which would probably be hours yet. Will had been about to head out with the others and was just giving Djaq one last kiss when she'd looked up at him quizzically and asked where he thought he was going.

It seemed that Djaq had always assumed that Will would be with her when her time came.

Will, on the other hand, had naturally assumed he'd be someplace else. That he'd wait outside until someone called him in to show him his new son or daughter. That was the way things were always done and it had never occurred to him to do things any differently.

It wasn't that Will didn't want to be near Djaq during such an ordeal. And it wasn't even that he would be bothered by the blood and all of that. It was because he'd just assumed that he'd be in the way. That he wasn't needed. That Djaq wouldn't want him there fussing over her and making everything worse.

So when she said she'd expected him to be there, he'd been surprised and caught off-guard, to say the least. She'd taken his silence as deliberation on the matter, however, and had taken his face gently into her hands, looked him straight in the eyes, and—in a voice that was almost eerie in its sweetness—said, "If you find it so difficult to stay with me while I get your child out of me, Will Scarlett, then perhaps I will think twice before allowing you to put anything into me in the future."

His eyes had widened in shock at the bluntness of her words and even more so because he'd been afraid that she'd meant them. So he'd assured her that he had no objections to staying with her and had only hesitated because he'd been startled because they'd never discussed the matter fully before. That had seemed to satisfy her and he'd been with her ever since.

And he'd been trying to help by wiping her brow, letting her squeeze his hand when she needed to, talking to her in order to take her mind off of the pain, and walking her back and forth across the camp. But mostly he'd just ended up being useless and he was sure that Matilda was right and that he was in the way. But Djaq seemed to need him there—despite her increasingly shorter temper with him and his ministrations—and that was reason enough for him to stay.

"If you need to shout, then go ahead. Please don't worry about being brave, Djaq," he said pleadingly as she came to a halt and doubled over again in pain.

She responded by wrapping one of her little hands so tightly around his forearm that it caused him to wince and then digging her blunt fingernails into his flesh with so much force that even through his tunic he knew that she'd left a mark and had probably drawn blood. He wondered briefly whether the action was a response to the pain she was experiencing or if it was her not-so-subtle way of showing him exactly what she thought of his advice...and his timing.

"That was a big one," she huffed as she exhaled and tried to return to a standing position. "I...I think that we are getting close. Perhaps I should sit in the birthing chair now."

He guided her over to the birthing chair in the center of the camp. The one he'd made especially for her. She hadn't really liked the idea of using the same one that so many other women had used to deliver their babies. She'd said it didn't seem quite sanitary to her. And so Will had made her one of her very own a few months ago, using Matilda's as a guide.

There were piles of sheets and towels covering the floor beneath the chair to make for easier clean-up later on—which had been Much's idea, of course—and Will helped her step around them and get seated in a relatively comfortable position. Then he pulled up a stool so that he could once again sit beside her.

She reached over and ran her hand lovingly over his cheek. "Thank you," she said softly, still trying to catch her breath.

"What for?" he asked, capturing her fingers in his own and pressing them to his lips.

"For staying. I know that this is not easy for you."

"Hush now. Don't talk nonsense. You're the one doing all the work. And now that I know you want me here, there's no place else I'd be," he assured her.

"You know, the others will surely tease you mercilessly for this," she said, grinning wickedly.

"Let them," he shrugged with a smile, relieved that she felt well enough to derive pleasure from the thought of Allan and the gang making fun of him.

But it was all too short-lived as, in the next second she was attacked by a pain so bad that rather than doubling over as she'd been doing, she thrust her feet out in front of her, tossed her head back and arched her back until she was nearly completely unseated.

This time she did cry out and it was the most horrible, most agonizing sound that Will had ever heard in his life. It tore at his heart and he knew that, as long as he lived, he'd never forget the sound of her suffering or the look on her face. He never wanted her to have to experience anything like this ever again.

He and Djaq had already discussed the issue of more children several times. They'd both agreed that while one accidental pregnancy could probably be accommodated in the forest, to have another child after this one—while their lives were still wrought with danger—would be nothing short of irresponsible and cruel.

So they'd decided on a plan of combined methods for insuring that there were no further accidents. Djaq would use her monthly cycle to calculate the safest time for them to be together, and she would also ingest something immediately following every encounter. That should be enough to keep her from getting pregnant again until the king returned and pardoned them all or their circumstances changed drastically for the better in some other way. Then, and only then, would they have more children.

At least, that had been the plan.

But now, after seeing what she had to go through in order to bring their child into the world, Will decided that he would never expect her to repeat such torture after this. And he was sure that she wouldn't want to anyway. This was nothing short of agony for her and he never wanted to put her through anything like it again.

He'd known that childbirth was painful for a woman. Everybody knew that. But he'd never imagined just how much. Maybe this was why men were never allowed in the same room while a woman was giving birth. Maybe it was understood that once a man saw what his wife had to go through in order to bear his children, he'd do all that he could to avoid it in future. Maybe the survival of the species depended on men remaining blissfully ignorant.

He'd been too young to remember when his own mother had given birth to Lukey, but there'd been two babies that followed over the next few years—though neither had survived infancy. Will had been old enough by that time to be aware of what was happening, but all he remembered was spending the night at a neighbor's house and coming home the next morning to find a new edition to the family. It'd all seemed pretty easy to him. But now that he knew what was actually involved, he was surprised that his parents had ever had more than one child. Maybe they hadn't known how to prevent it like Djaq did.

But Will was absolutely certain that this child would be the last one for them. When they had talked about having more children someday, both had been excited and happy about the prospect. But Will was positive that Djaq would never ever want to go through this again and he was just as positive that he'd never expect her to. So this would be it and he was fine with that. They didn't need a big family anyway. One child would be more than enough for both of them, he was sure.

Locksley Village, Daniel's Birthday, Late Autumn, 1208

Daniel bounded down the stairs, taking two at a time, eager to rush through his breakfast so that he could get on with his day.

"Well well. Look what the cat dragged in," came a little sing-song voice from off to his right.

"Do you even know what that means?" Daniel asked, quirking his eyebrow at his youngest sister.

She shrugged and dipped her spoon back into her porridge for another bite. "Nope. But that's what Uncle Much says every time I show up at his house. Soon as he opens up the door he says, 'Well well. Look what the cat dragged in.' So it prob'ly means that cats are always dragging stuff inside," she concluded proudly through a mouthful of her breakfast.

"That doesn't even make any sense, Salma," he said with an amused shake of his head.

"Does so."

"Besides you know what Umm told you about repeating things you don't understand. Remember how much trouble you got into that time you repeated that song you heard Uncle Allan singing?" he reminded her.

The four-year-old's eyes widened in fear and she nodded solemnly. "But...but...I didn't know that song was about bad words. Honest."

"I know. But that's why you're not suppose to repeat everything you hear other people say."

"But Uncle Much wouldn't say any bad words...would he?" she asked, crinkling up her nose the way that Umm always did when she was trying to figure something out.

"Ba' words!" Simon—who was three and in the habit of repeating anything and everything he heard—exclaimed happily.

"No no, Simon. Shh. No bad words," Salma ordered from beside him at the table.

"Ba' words!" he repeated, now more determined than ever after discovering that he had his sister's full attention.

"Laa! Stop saying that please. You're gonna get me in trouble," she pleaded as she tried to shut him up by shoving a giant spoonful of porridge into his open mouth.

"Ba' words!" Simon managed to choke out anyway.

"Who is saying bad words, Little One?"

Daniel laughed at the look on Salma's face as their mother appeared as if from out of nowhere. She had a habit of doing that and Daniel suspected that she had heard the entire exchange.

"Nobody, Umm. Nobody's saying bad words." Salma shook her head emphatically and shot Daniel a pleading look. "I didn't. And Simon sure didn't copy me when I did."

"Oh I see. Well then that is a relief," their mother chuckled. Then she turned to Daniel and said to him with a wink, "And I do not think that you look at all like something a cat dragged in."

Salma gasped and covered her mouth with her hands while Simon mimicked her actions merely because he always wanted to do everything she did.

Daniel rolled his eyes. "It's not a bad word, Salma."

"Ba' words!" Simon shouted gleefully.

"No no, my Little One. No one is saying bad words today." His mother admonished him. "For today is a very special day." And she enveloped Daniel in a great big hug.

"I forgot!" Salma exclaimed. "Happy birthday," she said to Daniel.

"Shukran," he replied.

"I want it to be my birthday too," the little girl announced.

"Well I am afraid that you will have to wait. Your birthday is not until the spring," Their mother said evenly.

"No fair!" Salma pouted.

"Ah, but as I often remind you, Little One, life is rarely fair. And we shall have none of that pouting today. It is Daniel's birthday and we must do all that we can to make it a special day." She turned to Daniel. "Happy birthday," she said, standing on her tip toes to kiss him on the forehead.

"Shukran. But it's no big deal, really. It's just another day, right?" He waved a hand dismissively.

"Just another day, is it?" she smirked at him. "Is that why you are up before the crack of dawn and already dressed and ready for work?"

He laughed.

"Will Mary be joining us tonight?" she asked.

"Uh, no. I don't think so. It's...it's a long way out to the forest and we'll probably end up sleeping out there. Her father won't like that. It...it doesn't matter anyway. I don't really care if she's there or not. It's just for the family."

"And Bart," she said.

"Right. And Bart."

"But not Mary." She said it as a statement, as if she were agreeing with his assessment of things, but really it was a question and Daniel knew it.

"I told you she probably can't go. And that's fine with me. Really."

His mother just stood there with her hands on her hips and her eyebrows arched for a moment or two as if to let him know that she couldn't be fooled so easily so he shouldn't even try. How did she do that?

"Really," he repeated weakly, squirming under her scrutiny.

"Alright," she said after a moment. "It is up to you, of course. But if you like, I can go and speak with her father and assure him that she will be perfectly safe with us and that she is more than welcome to join us. You need only ask me," she said.

"No no, it's alright."

She shrugged. "As I say, it is up to you. Now come and sit down. It is not everyday that I get to have breakfast with a grown man of fourteen," she teased.

"No. I...I can't." He shifted his gaze from hers so that she wouldn't see how conflicted he was.

"You keep so busy lately that I almost never see you anymore. Is everything alright?" she asked, narrowing her eyes.

"Yeah. It's just...I...I'm going to skip breakfast this morning, if that's okay. I'm too excited to eat so I'm going to start my chores early so that I can be done before everybody gets here."

"Oh," she said, looking at him strangely. "I see. Very well then. On your way out, will you poke your head in the workshop and tell your sister to come in here and eat her porridge please before it gets cold?"

"Okay."

"Me and Simon are too `cited for porridge too, Umm. We want eggs instead." Daniel heard Salma declaring—in what she clearly thought was her most grown up voice—as he threw on his coat. He ignored the growling in his stomach and headed out the back door just in time to hear his little brother repeat "Eggs!" and his mother answer with a patient but definite "No!"

When he reached the door to his father's workshop he paused long enough to inhale the deeply familiar scents of wood and metal. Those smells—more than anything else—reminded Daniel of home. Of the hours spent working with his father, either in silent concentration over some particularly tricky piece, or in animated conversation while they applied the finishing touches to something they were both immensely proud of. Or just sitting and talking about the future or the past or even the present as they both whittled away—their hands working with a mind and determination all their own. Those were some of the best times of his life.

He was called out of his reverie by the sound of his sister Janey chatting away happily over the steady scraping of the file as their father was no doubt rounding off the edges on the cradle Uncle Robin had ordered. "And so he ended up drowning all because he thought his reflection was pretty and he wanted to kiss himself. Isn't that silly, Daddy?"

"Very silly," Dad answered in an indulgent voice. Daniel could tell that the six year old had probably told him the same story at least four times already.

Daniel made his presence known. "`Morning."

"Hey! It's the birthday boy. Happy birthday!" Dad said, putting aside his file and coming over to give Daniel a hug. "Wow, you're up early. It's rather nippy this morning so I figured I'd have to get your mother to rouse you about an hour from now."

"Nah. I wanted to get an early start," he answered as Janey leaped off her stool and landed in his arms.

"Happy birthday, akh!" And after she'd finished squeezing the life out of him, she tried to plant kisses all over his face until he finally had to push her gently away.

"Enough already," he laughed.

She had always been that way with him. Ever since the day she was born. Although Daniel had been a mere seven years old at the time, he remembered very clearly the way that she had locked eyes with him and wrapped her teeny tiny hand around his finger when he'd been allowed to hold her that first time.

For some reason she worshipped the ground he walked on. Always had. In fact, the first word she'd ever spoken was akh and her first steps were stumbled right into his open arms. Daniel had no idea what he'd ever done to warrant such love and adoration from her, but it made him incredibly happy and proud none the less.

His parents had been worried that the age difference between him and his siblings would end up creating distance between them. But it never had. He prided himself on being a good big brother—both of his parents having always told him the importance of such a role—and he loved both of his sisters and his brother very much.

"Umm wants you. She said to come in and eat," he informed her. Then, to his father, he said, "I'm about to collect the eggs, feed the chickens, and milk Berta. Then I'll be here to help you finish up the piece for Uncle Robin."

"Did you have your breakfast already?" Dad asked, surprised.

"I'm not hungry. Too excited," he answered evasively.

"Daniel, you can't keep avoiding her. It's not fair. You're gonna have to talk to her about it eventually," his dad said, proving that his mother was not the only one who knew him too well. "Your mother loves you and she'll understand. Trust me. Just do it."

"I know...I just...can't. I mean, I will...just...just not today."

"Are you keeping secrets from Umm?" Janey asked him.

Oh great. "No. Not secrets. Just...just stuff. Don't worry about it. It's not important. Go inside before Umm has to come out and get you."

"What stuff?" she inquired, hands folded in her lap and a very serious look upon her face.

Sometimes she seemed to Daniel like someone far older than she actually was. She had always been an absolutely brilliant child. She had somehow started reading at the very young age of four—despite the fact that Umm hadn't even begun trying to teach her yet—and she had simply never stopped. She read books that, by all rights, should be far beyond her understanding. But she just couldn't seem to get enough. It got to the point where Dad suggested it might be a good idea if Umm moved all of her medical texts and 'grown-up' books somewhere that Janey couldn't reach just in case her curiosity got the better of her.

She could usually be found either with her nose in a book—the Greek tales being her favorites—or engaged in conversation with people far older than she was. She had little patience for her younger siblings and most children her own age were either intimidated by her manner and vocabulary or simply found her too difficult to relate to.

Adults, however, seemed to think she was delightful and were constantly making a fuss over how smart she was and what a little grown up she seemed to be. So she naturally gravitated towards older people and she never seemed the least bit bothered by the fact that just about every person she considered a 'friend' was twice her age or more.

Umm said that she was too smart for her own good sometimes and that she needed more boundaries, but Dad always argued that they should let her explore the world her own way and in her own time. So everybody pretty much just accepted that she was different—'special' as Umm and Dad called it—and so they ended up talking to her like a grown-up most of the time simply out of habit.

"Just...just man stuff. Okay?" he answered because it was the first thing that popped into his head.

"Umm and Auntie Marian say there's no such thing as man stuff and that anything a man can do, a woman can usually do twice as good," she responded haughtily.

"Well," Daniel corrected her.

"Well, what?" she asked.

"Anything a man can do, a woman can do twice as well," he repeated.

"Yes. That's what Umm and Auntie Marian always say too."

"No, I mean...oh never mind," he said.

Dad laughed. "You know better than to try and argue with that one, son. She's more clever than all the rest of us put together."

"So what kind of stuff?" she pressed on, looking for all the world as if it had never occurred to her that there could be anything in Daniel's life that she shouldn't be privy to.

"Nothing!" he said with much more sharpness than he'd intended. "I told you not to worry about it, it's none of your business, okay?"

Rather than being hurt or offended, the little girl stood up to her full height—which had the effect of being rather comical considering how small she was—and placed her hands on her hips in an attempt to stare him down for a moment. Daniel had to blink and shake his head because she resembled his mother so much at that moment that it was unnerving.

Finally, she conceded. "Fine," she shrugged. "Hey, on the way out to the forest later, want me to tell you the story of Narcissus?"

"Yeah, sure...I guess," he said, surprised by the sudden change in subject. He had to remind himself that, despite how precocious and intelligent she was, she was still just a little girl of six.

"Great! Have you ever heard it? It's about this guy who—"

"Janaan, run along now and eat your breakfast. Daniel's busy. The story can wait until later." Dad was the only one who ever called her by her real name. Everybody else just called her Jane or Janey.

It was weird, come to think of it, because she was named after Dad's mother. So it seemed like he would be the one to call her Jane. But he always called her Janaan.

He said that he and Umm had made a deal a long time ago that their first daughter would have an Arabic name that meant something pretty. And so he always liked to remind himself of that by calling her by her given name, which meant 'heart'. Even Umm called her Janey most of the time, but Dad never did.

"Okay, Daddy!" Janey answered as she skipped out the door with Daniel following closely behind in order to begin his daily chores.

Outlaw Camp, Sherwood Forest, Daniel's Birth Day, Late Autumn, 1194

"Don't push. I know it's hard but you've got wait for the right time. Then you can push with all your might," Matilda said, patting her hand encouragingly.

Djaq knew the truth in what Matilda was saying. It was the same advice she herself had given to laboring women often enough over the past several months. But now she was discovering just how very difficult it really was. It was almost as if her body had already made the decision for her and was trying to expel the baby on its own...without her participation if need be.

And suddenly she had the feeling that everything was moving far too quickly.

For months now, she'd been more than ready to have the whole thing over and done with. The sooner the better, as far as she was concerned. She'd wanted the pregnancy at an end and her baby in her arms. Pregnancy was just too limiting...too restrictive...it kept her out of too many of life's important happenings. But now that the moment had finally arrived, Djaq was once again hit with some of the worries which she thought she'd dealt with months earlier.

That perhaps she wasn't ready to be a mother.

She might one day forget to feed the baby. Or she might set it down somewhere and not be able to remember where...babies were awfully tiny. Or perhaps she would get cross and shout at him or her once too often and the child would grow up frightened and timid and maybe even hating her.

There were so many ways in which she could end up letting her child down.

And it wasn't only that. There was also the fact that for now, while her child was still nestled safely inside of her own body, she could still protect him or her. The dangers of the forest, the Sheriff, war or prejudice didn't really pose a threat.

Not yet.

Not while she could reach a hand down and feel the familiar bulge in her belly that told her that all was right with the world. That everything was ordered and perfect and that her child was exactly where it belonged...cocooned within the warmth of her womb...where nothing could harm it.

But once the baby was born, protecting it would become a whole lot more difficult. Impossible, maybe. And she just didn't know if she—if they—would be able to do it.

She sighed heavily under the weight of it all and Will—who had just reentered the camp after giving the gang an update on her condition— frowned down at her. "Is there anything I can do to help? Anything at all?" he asked quietly.

She was on the verge of snapping that she would find it quite helpful if he could simply take over for her now and finish the labor while she had a nice nap. But she held her tongue and merely shook her head instead.

He looked so incredibly young and inexperienced at that moment. Just as frightened and unprepared as she felt. He, too must have been wondering how on earth they were ever going to be able to pull this off. What had they been thinking? They could barely keep themselves safe some days... How were they ever going to keep a child safe? How were they ever going to give him or her any sort of foundation for a good life? Forget normal... What was normal anyway? But at least their son or daughter deserved to be able to go through childhood without having to perfect the art of running for its life as soon as it took its first steps!

"Marian's here," Will's voice broke into her thoughts. "I told her I'd ask you if it was okay for her to come in...you know, because she's a woman and all...but she said that she wouldn't want to get in the way since me and Matilda are already in here. She said she wouldn't really be any use to you anyway," he explained.

Djaq nodded, not having the strength to do much else.

"John's dozing under a tree and Allan's wondering if you're going to be much longer." She angled her head toward him and knitted her eyebrows quizzically. "I think he was joking. I told him to come in here and ask you that himself. Needless to say, he declined," he gave a small laugh. "Robin's having a ball showing off with his bow now that Marian's here and Much is pacing back and forth and muttering to himself. He's not happy at all. I can't tell if he's upset because I'm in here or because he's out there."

"Both probably," was all she could manage as Will once again took a seat at her side.

He picked up the small piece of wood he'd been working with on and off throughout the day—mostly as a means of keeping himself occupied and channeling his nerves, she was sure—and he turned it over in his hands a few times before choosing a section to plunge into with his knife. But he kept a concerned eye on her all the while, a small frown playing on his lips.

Once again she sighed. She wished she could at least get comfortable enough to rest before the next pain. But her lower back felt like she'd been beaten. Repeatedly. She was nauseous, but her stomach was empty from the number of times she'd vomited already that day. Her throat and mouth were incredibly dry, her lower lip was sore and tasted of blood from biting down on it each time a pain hit her, and her head was pounding horribly.

And she was tired.

So very tired. She was tired of being in pain and uncomfortable. She was tired of thinking...of worrying. She was worn out from trying to keep her temper in check and not grow angry or impatient with Will—who was trying his very best to help. And she was growing weary of Matilda's constant presence, even though she knew that wasn't fair.

The woman had had to make a special trip to the forest and spend all day here because it would have been too dangerous for Djaq to give birth in the village. So the least she deserved was friendliness...but Djaq was tired of being friendly. It was taking all of her effort just to keep from giving in to her body's demands, pushing with all her might, and screaming out at the top of her lungs.

She closed her eyes and tried to think of something pleasant. Something that would draw her thoughts away from the pain and fatigue and help her to relax. Even if only until the next pain started.

Her mind drifted for a few seconds and then landed, seemingly of its own accord, on her homeland. It was a strange thought to have at a time like this because there was nothing particularly calming or soothing about Acre anymore. The happiness and beauty she'd known in childhood had been wiped away by war and death and there was no real reason that her mind should have chosen such a thing to focus on.

But still...she did miss the comfortable warmth of the air just as the sun set each day and right before the cold crispness of night set in. And she missed the strong aroma of al-kamuwn that assaulted the senses with each and every breath one took out of doors around supper time.

She missed the noisy hum of the market at midday—with buyers haggling for the best prices, vendors shouting to advertise their wares, and mothers scolding wayward children. Then there were the foods, the language, the sand...

In that moment, her heart ached for her home—a land she was relatively certain she would never again lay her eyes upon—and she allowed herself to be swept away in the swirl of memories that suddenly and inexplicably brought her a bit of comfort...

Locksley Village, Daniel's Birthday, Late Autumn, 1208

Daniel went about his chores with purpose that morning.

He walked gingerly around and picked up the eggs that lay scattered about the coop. He grabbed handfuls of feed and tossed it here and there, watching as the chickens gathered round and started pecking furiously at the ground wherever it fell.

Then he pulled out his hammer and pounded one of the slats of the chicken coop back into the ground where he'd noticed it had been coming loose—just one of the many ways that the family's home had fallen into a bit of disrepair from being uninhabited for nearly an entire year while they were visiting the Holy Land.

And as he worked, his mind inevitably drifted back to the problem he just didn't know quite how to solve. His Dad was right, though. He knew that it wasn't fair to keep avoiding his mother. But he just couldn't stand the thought of hurting or disappointing her.

Daniel sighed as he set the basket of eggs just outside the back door and went around to the side of the house where the family's goat was kept. He shook his head in order to free his mind from its torturous thoughts, but it was no use. He couldn't stop thinking about it all any more than he could figure out what to do about any of it.

It wasn't just the stuff with his mother either. There was also the problem of Mary. But he knew that that situation wasn't something he could even begin deal with until he'd worked out the other problem he was facing...the problem he'd created himself. There was no way that he'd be able to explore his feelings for Mary as long as there was the very good possibility that he'd be leaving Locksley—leaving England—again. This time probably for years...

Daniel's father had always said that he wanted to be able to take Umm back home for a visit someday. At first, of course, they had been needed in the forest by Uncle Robin. So they'd always known they would have to wait. And then later, when they'd moved into the village, Janey had come along and they'd had to put off the trip until she was old enough to travel such a distance. Then Umm had been carrying Salma, and then Simon shortly after.

Besides, by that time, Umm had patients who relied on her and Dad had built up his reputation as a fine craftsman to such an extent that he had orders coming in from all over. Enough to keep him busy for years to come. And Umm had always said that she was content in England. That she had chosen her life a long time ago and she knew it was unlikely she would ever see her birthplace again.

And it wasn't as if she couldn't keep in touch with her friends and family over there. Ysaac—a traveling merchant who had been a friend of the family for as long as Daniel could remember—came through Nottingham each year in order to bring her letters from the people back home and to carry her letters to them. He always brought Daniel wonderful gifts from all over the world too.

He also brought Dad orders for his special cradles—so painstakingly crafted and decorated that no two were ever alike—and paid him handsomely for the ones he'd already made. Thanks to Ysaac's help, the cradles had earned the Scarlett family quite a decent amount of money over the years...more than Dad could ever have made just selling his crafts in Nottingham.

Ysaac had always spent a few days with the family each time before heading off on another long trip to who knew where, and Daniel had often thought it must be wonderful to get to see so many of the people and places that he had only read or heard about.

But then, the autumn before last, he hadn't come through town. And when he hadn't shown up by that winter either, Daniel's parents had started to worry. Ysaac would never have skipped his yearly trip to see them and they knew that something must have happened. The following spring, Umm had received a letter by special messenger from Bassam—her dear family friend in Acre—telling her that Ysaac had died peacefully in his sleep several months earlier.

Ysaac had been a very old man and had lived a very full life, but still, it was hard to let go of a friend. He'd been a wonderful storyteller and had been a great source of enjoyment for them over the years and they would miss him dearly. But losing him also meant that Umm had lost her only reliable connection to her homeland. It was nearly impossible to find someone who would carry messages back and forth between England and the Holy Land. Even though the war was over, there were still a lot of hurt feelings on both sides.

So Dad had surprised her by planning a trip to the Holy Land.

He had stopped taking on new work—passing off anything that came in to a carpenter friend a few villages over—and had given himself time to complete all of his open projects and orders. And he'd told Umm to make sure that her patients knew that she would be gone for several months...maybe even longer.

He'd asked for Uncle Robin's permission to make the journey and had gotten an admonishment from him instead about how such formalities were not required. But Daniel's father had insisted that it was only right considering Uncle Robin was Lord of Locksley. So Uncle Robin had laughingly given his full consent.

And so, a little less than a year ago, the family—Daniel, his parents, Janey, Salma, and Simon—had finally made the long and very exhausting trip to the East. They'd had to travel by boat from England to the European Continent, then over land for quite a ways, and then on an even larger boat that took them right into Acre's port.

The journey itself was extremely difficult and trying as they'd faced harsh weather, fickle winds and unfriendly people. Daniel's parents had had their hands full dealing with the two little ones on the way, and so Janey had naturally clung to Daniel. Even the dangers they'd faced along the way didn't really seem to faze her very much as she'd seemed completely confident that there was nothing her big brother could not protect her from. And appearing strong for her sake had helped Daniel to keep his mind off of the fact that he was leaving behind everything he knew and found comfort in and was slowly but surely edging closer to the unknown world of his dreams.

But it had all been worth it as from his first glimpse of Acre—from aboard the ship still out at sea—everything in his life had suddenly made complete and utter sense. And when Daniel had taken his first steps onto the cobbled streets of the city of his ancestors—the place that had lived in his imagination for as long as he could remember—a part of him knew that he had come home.

He'd spent his life listening to the stories about the place his mother had once called home. From bedtime stories, to details that had come up while she'd been instructing him on their faith, to her answers to his eager questions while they'd collected herbs or did the washing or just sat by the stream enjoying the peace and quiet.

Her descriptions were always so vivid...so full of colors and sounds and scents. She would always get so involved in talking about her land, her people and her language...their foods, faith, and way of life that to Daniel it had always seemed like the most magical place in the world.

And nothing about finally seeing it in person had belied that feeling.

The first time they'd heard the call to prayer after their arrival, and had prostrated themselves before Allah along with nearly everyone else in the city, Daniel's mother had wept as he'd never seen her do before. And he could certainly understand why. It was the most incredible thing that Daniel had ever been a part of. There was such a feeling of peace and community and when each person had turned and offered Allah's blessings to the person on their right and left, Daniel had nearly wanted to cry too. There was such love in the air...such fellowship. And he had never felt closer to God than he had at that moment.

And the prayers themselves—spoken out in his mother's tongue...the language that had been such an important and unique part of his childhood in England—had sounded so much sweeter when chanted in so many voices at once. At home it had always been him and his mother alone who'd had said the words and made the gestures—at least until Janey had grown old enough to participate. But there it had been nearly everyone. The entire city came to a standstill five times each day as every man, woman, and child took up the prayer and came together in a way that words simply could not describe.

And the people were all so friendly to them too. Daniel had been warned by his parents to expect some suspicion and reservations on the part of some of the people they encountered. Because of Dad being English and a Christian. And there had been a few sideways glances and even a few dirty looks...but, all in all, they were welcomed and treated like long lost family. Especially by Bassam and his household.

And they'd even gotten to visit with some of Umm's distant relations. Daniel's relations. It was amazing. Daniel had had occasion, a few times over the years, to spend a bit of time with Uncle Luke—Dad's brother—and also with Dad's Aunt Annie and her family. And of course, everyone in Locksley had known Daniel's grandparents—Dan and Jane Scarlett—and were always showing him things his grandfather had made ages ago or telling him stories about some aspect of his family's past.

But Daniel's mother had always seemed to exist a little separate from everyone and everything around her. As much as she was a part of village life and an important part of the community, she had no roots there—at least none dating back before she'd joined Uncle Robin and Dad and the others. But to finally actually see her face to face with her relatives, and to know that their blood was some of the same blood that coursed through Daniel's own veins, had awakened in him a pride and a self-awareness he had never known before.

And then there was the very strange sensation of hearing Arabic spoken by nearly every person they met, in every home they visited, on every cobbled corner and in every shop they patronized.

Arabic.

Everywhere.

That very melodic language that had always seemed almost sacred to Daniel. It had been the language of his mother's magical stories, of her lullabies, of their faith. For so long, it had been the special language that only the two of them had shared. His father had learned to understand quite a bit of it, but he wasn't very good at speaking it—having had little opportunity for doing so in Nottingham—and so it had belonged almost exclusively to Daniel and his mother.

Like so many other things.

Like their darker coloring—which, in Nottingham, had always made them stand out a little in a crowd. Even if Daniel hadn't been the son of two of Robin Hood's famous outlaws, he would still have found it a challenge to go unnoticed in the midst of so many light complexions.

And like their faith—practiced quietly, in the privacy of their home. It wasn't a secret, really. Their friends and neighbors knew they were Muslim, of course. But most people simply did not understand it and so it was always easiest and safest to practice it in private.

But in Acre, they had just seemed to blend in...to become a part of the city and its people in a way that Daniel had never imagined possible. It was all so comforting yet wondrous at the same and Daniel had tried his best to commit it all to memory. He'd never wanted to forget a single moment. And he'd wanted to be a source of information for his younger siblings—who were still too young to fully appreciate all that they were seeing and experiencing—in years to come when they had questions.

It was all so different. So marvelous. The libraries, the mosques, the markets. It was incredible and so terribly overwhelming. Daniel's mother, seeing his excitement, had taken him out alone on several occasions to show him the things that she'd only been able to tell him of before. So Dad—having been unable to stand the heat some days—had stayed behind with the little ones while Daniel and his mother had explored the city and beyond like natives.

She'd shown him the places where she'd played as a young girl, introduced him to the street foods that she and her brother had loved as children, shown him some of the hiding places she remembered, high above the city, where she and her brother had sat and watched the market goers for hours at a time.

And she'd shown him some of the land that had once belonged to her father...land that she'd explained to him, for the first time, would one day be his. She told him about the wealth that had been her family's and how some of that was still in her possession. And that while she had no use for it, it was her and Dad's wish that it would one day pass to Daniel...who could do with it as he pleased.

Owning land was something Daniel had never contemplated before.

It was such a strange concept to him. He knew, of course—from studying history and religion—that claiming land as one's own was supposed to be extremely important. Wars had been fought and lives lost over land ownership since the beginning of time—the very city of Acre being a prime example.

And Daniel was well aware of the way the nobles in Nottingham and the surrounding shires measured their worth by how much land they could call their own. Even Uncle Robin, who was one of the most benevolent and generous lords who'd ever lived, prided himself on having recovered his family's estate because he considered the lands to be rightfully his.

But to people like Daniel...to those like Dad and their neighbors, "land" had a very different meaning. They belonged to the land. Never the other way around. They lived and died on that land. They worked it until their fingers bled and their joints ached. They gave it all they had and it took whatever they gave. But it was never theirs. It belonged to someone else and always would. That was understood and accepted. It was how they lived. And died. And no one really questioned it.

So Daniel understood the great honor and responsibility that went along with his mother's gift to him and he'd thanked her accordingly, but he'd also been taken rather aback by the enormity of the whole thing. His mother and father had understood that and had assured him that it was not their intention to overwhelm or put any pressure on him. They'd explained that they just wanted him to have choices.

Choices.

Daniel knew the rarity of simple village folks like the Scarlett family being in a position to offer their son choices. They, and people like them, were born to their lot in life. It was as simple as that. You followed the profession of your father...and his father. Opportunities for change or advancement were few and people like them were almost never given choices.

But Daniel was was now quite certain that his life had been a whole lot simpler before he'd had so many choices.

One of the places he'd visited in Acre on the outings with his mother had been a bimaristan—one of the centers for health and wellness that set eastern medicine well ahead of that in Europe. Daniel had a decent amount of basic medical knowledge garnered over the years by having assisted his mother since he was a very young boy. He'd helped her gather plants, label and organize her medicines, clean and store her instruments, and research symptoms in her medical texts. And he'd often acted as her assistant in emergencies when no one else had been on hand.

Over the years of helping his mother, Daniel had become rather good at medicine and his mother—herself understanding how daunting such things could be for a child—had always been very careful never to ask him to take part in anything that made him uncomfortable. But Daniel honestly hadn't minded most aspects of it and, in fact, he'd rather enjoyed it for the most part. It wasn't like carpentry, of course, where you started with nothing and let the wood guide your hands until you had something useful or beautiful or, sometimes, even both. But medicine was interesting in its own way.

But seeing the physicians at the bimaristan had been absolutely amazing and had given Daniel a perspective on practicing medicine that he'd never considered.

Where European medicine was mainly about isolating the sick in order to keep them away from general society, Muslim physicians treated their patients with dignity...all the while providing them with the best possible care. They were concerned not only with the treatment of illnesses, but also—perhaps more so—with prevention. They studied diseases and the human body in an attempt to constantly remain one step ahead of illness rather than simply scrambling to find some means of tending to the body's symptoms once sickness had set in.

Daniel's mother had explained to them who her father was and about some of the work that she herself was doing in England and the staff at the bimaristan had welcomed them and given them a complete tour of the facility. It was fascinating to see the work they were doing and Daniel and his mother had even been invited to observe the physicians as they went about their daily activities—seeing patients, making a record of any progress or setbacks, and consulting with one another over specific cases.

Umm had been so excited and she'd explained to Daniel, not for the first time, that it had always been her father's intention to send her to one of these facilities to learn medicine from some of the greatest physicians in the world. Of course, the war had changed her life irrevocably and studying medicine was just one of the things she'd lost along the way. But seeing her there, surrounded by so many like-minded men and women, made Daniel realize, perhaps for the first time, some of what his mother had missed out on in her life.

And when he and his mother had thanked them for their kindness and said their final goodbyes, and one of the physicians had asked Daniel if he would be following in the footsteps of his mother and grandfather, Daniel—for some reason that he still couldn't quite fathom—had instantly said yes.

Yes.

Yes, he wanted to be a physician. Yes, he wanted to study at the bimaristan with the great minds of the world. Yes, he wanted to leave behind everything he knew, throw aside carpentry as no more than an enjoyable hobby, resign himself to seeing his family once every couple of years at the most, and relocate to Acre in order to live out that dream.

His mother's dream.

And he'd meant it at the time. His mother had been quite surprised by his answer and she and Dad had questioned him at length about his decision over supper that evening. They spoke to him about the loneliness he'd be facing living so far from home...from those who loved him. They spoke about how much they and his brother and sisters would miss him, about the differences between the life he was choosing and the simple village life to which he was accustomed, about everything he'd be taking on...and giving up.

But Daniel wouldn't be swayed. He'd been enchanted by the city and its customs. By the people and the foods and all of the culture that surrounded them. By the libraries, both public and private, that were filled with more books in more languages than Daniel had ever seen before in his life. Even though his mother had a decent little library of books at their home that would rival the finest collection in England, it was nothing compared to what he would have access to in Acre.

And he'd be able to converse with people about matters of far more importance than whose goat or cow was running dry and needed to be bred again before the winter or which wood made for sturdier fencing when the rains of spring were upon them. He'd be a part of progress and learning. He'd be making a difference in the world.

And he'd be in a position to make up for some of what was so brutally taken from his mother so many years before.

Daniel knew all too well of the circumstances that had brought his mother to English shores. He remembered the day, many years ago now, that he had run home crying to his parents—angered and frightened beyond belief—over the nasty things that an older boy had told him about Umm.

Daniel had always just assumed that his mother had chosen her own destiny and had fled the war and devastation of her homeland in order to start a new life in a new country. He'd even wondered, from time to time, if she and Uncle Robin had met in Acre during the war and if perhaps his mother had come to England seeking out the man she'd befriended there.

His mother had never spoken to him of her journey to England and had, in fact, routinely dodged such questions whenever Daniel had tried to speak of it. And Dad and his uncles would always stick to the same story...

That they'd met her while she'd been traveling through their forest and she'd been the bravest woman they'd ever met. That she'd agreed to help them with a plan to foil the old Sheriff—the bad one—and had proven to be a blessing by using her considerable knowledge to save the life of Uncle John. Then she'd chosen to stay with them and join their fight for justice and they'd been glad to have her. End of story.

But Daniel now knew that that was only half the story. The pretty half. The whole truth was ugly and disturbing and it had given Daniel nightmares for months once he'd fully understood its implications. He still shuddered whenever he thought of it. Of her. His mother...chained up like an animal by the English...Dad's people...Daniel's people.

Knowing the truth—as scary and unpleasant as it was—had only made him respect and admire his mother more.

And once he'd found himself in a position to make up for some of that, by training and becoming a physician the way she'd always wanted to, he'd thrown himself behind the idea completely. He hadn't told his parents why it was so important to him...only that it was. And so his mother, finally accepting his decision, had begun making arrangements for him to return to Acre in another year or so—when he was old enough to be on his own, she'd said—in order to live with Bassam and start his training.

During the several months the family had spent there, she'd bought him medical books, instruments and even woodcuts of the human body. She'd begun sharing with him more and more of her knowledge and her experience. She'd been so excited—more excited than Daniel had seen her in as long as he could remember. And he'd been so glad. Her happiness was the greatest part of it and Daniel had had no cause to regret his choice.

That is until they'd arrived back home.

Home.

The Scarletts had come ashore in Essex and had traveled north, bypassing Nottingham entirely, in order to spend some time up in Scarborough with Dad's brother and his family. It had been a nice visit and they had all enjoyed it very much—even if Dad did try a bit too hard, once again and to no avail, to convince Uncle Luke to move his family to Locksley and join Dad in his carpentry business. After a few weeks there, they had journeyed on to Bolsover, where Uncle John lived on the outskirts of town, and had passed a week there before riding on to Nottingham. To Locksley.

Home.

It was only then that Daniel had started to regret the choice he had made. When he'd smelled the trees and felt the rain and slept in his own bed. The bed that he and Dad had built together when it had been decided that Daniel was big enough to have his own room. Their whole house and just about everything in it was made by Daniel's father, with Daniel having helped out every step of the way. From the workshop outside, to Umm's examination room right behind the kitchen, to the little rooms that had been added on as the family had expanded. Every board was carefully chosen and placed. Split and sawed and sanded and nailed. Every part of it was handcrafted with love and care and it was theirs.

His.

And his family was there. And his uncles. And friends.

And Mary.

He'd never fully appreciated how much he loved his home...his village and its people...until he'd been away for so long. And now that he was back, he just didn't think he'd be able to leave again. And he really didn't want to.

While there was, of course, plenty of wood in Acre and the artisans there crafted incredible pieces out of it, Daniel now knew that there was nothing quite so satisfying as spending an evening with his whittling knife and a block of good English oak or birch, and seeing what developed.

And the libraries and mosques he'd visited there—which at the time had seemed so impressive and even vital to his existence—now seemed a distant second to the news his friends and neighbors had to share and the speculation over which courting couple would be the next to marry or which crops were most likely to thrive come next year.

And as much as Daniel had loved his holiday in the east, he now knew that it was only that. A holiday. That his life was here. But he'd already given his word. To his mother, of all people. He couldn't possibly disappoint her now. Not after all she'd lost and given up in her life.

Daniel's father, sensing his preoccupation since their return, had finally coaxed the whole story out of Daniel a few days ago. Dad had said that the only thing to be done was to tell Umm the truth. That she loved Daniel and wanted him to be happy. That she'd understand.

But Daniel just couldn't. He felt like he'd given her back a part of herself and he just couldn't bear to strip her of it once again. To leave her alone, a foreigner, in a strange land. Daniel's love of her homeland and his intention to carry on in the footsteps of her father had reaffirmed her roots...reestablished the connection to her past that must have seemed gone forever. And he just couldn't take that away from her.

Dad had told him—continued to tell him—that secrets between people who love each other never lead to anything good and he'd even offered to speak to Umm on Daniel's behalf. But Daniel knew that part of being a man was taking responsibility for your own choices, and so he was determined to do just that. Whether that meant confessing to his mother that he'd been mistaken about where his future lay, or accepting the consequences of what he'd created and going ahead with his plan to return to Acre, remained to be seen.

Either way...someone was bound to be disappointed.

Outlaw Camp, Sherwood Forest, Daniel's Birth Day, Late Autumn, 1194

"I can't...do it!" Djaq managed in a strained voice as she huffed and pushed through another contraction.

"Well you've got little choice now, love," Matilda told her matter-of-factly from her position near Djaq's feet. "The babe is on its way whether you're willing or not."

"You can do it, Djaq. You're doing really well," Will encouraged in what he clearly thought was a strong and soothing voice. But Djaq could hear the fear and panic there and she didn't find it the least bit encouraging.

"No! No I cannot. It is too...difficult," she groaned as she collapsed back against the chair.

"You can. I know you can. You're doing great," he said.

"Will you stop saying that! I am not doing 'great'." She cursed the way her tongue rolled the "r" in "great". Her fatigue was making her accent heavy and far more pronounced than it usually was. "And I cannot do it anymore. It hurts and I am tired."

"You can," he insisted. "You're strong. You're almost finished now."

"No I am not! You keep saying those things because you think that you are helping me but you do not understand. It is too difficult. I am not almost finished. I am finished now. I will not do it any more. I am done," she declared firmly, folding her arms across her chest.

"What? But...but...but you can't quit. It's...how...but...but the baby's almost here." If she hadn't been so completely miserable, she would have laughed at the perplexed and astonished look on his face and the way that his arms flailed wildly about as he gestured desperately through his panic.

"I do not care," she said stubbornly. She would stand her ground. That was it. She would not allow them to bully her into carrying on with this...this...torture!

"Can't you just give her something? Something for the pain?" Will pleaded with Matilda. "She's hurting and she's not even getting any time to rest between contractions anymore. It's...She's...she's suffering. Give her something. Please."

Djaq saw Matilda sigh heavily before gathering her patience and speaking. "This is why I do not allow husbands in the room. Now for the last time, anything I gave her to ease the pains would only slow the whole process down and delay the labor. We don't want to do that. Besides, it's much too late for that now anyway. The child has made its descent and is coming regardless of what we do at this point. But if Djaq continues doing her part," here she looked pointedly at Djaq, "and pushes these last few times, things'll go a whole lot quicker and it'll be easier on her body and the baby."

"But—" Will tried.

"But nothing. Now make yourself useful and keep on encouraging her. She'll have another pain coming along in just a minute and she'll need to give it all she's got this time," Matilda ordered, essentially ending all discussion.

But Djaq had no energy left to push. She had nearly bitten a hole clean through her bottom lip from all of the effort she'd put into the last one. She was certain that one more pain would kill her. That was it. There was no way she would be able to survive another.

It wasn't just the painful squeezing either. It was the way that her body almost seemed to put everything else on hold and force her to push. She found it very difficult to breathe, the muscles in her throat constricted painfully, she was trembling, and her head ached like nothing she'd ever felt before from all of the straining.

She just wanted to sleep. That would be blissful. For a brief instant she even envied Emma, the mother who'd had to have surgery in order to deliver her child a month or so ago. What Djaq wouldn't give to have someone give her something to make her sleep and then awake later on to find her child being placed in her arms and that the whole ordeal was over and done with.

But of course that was ridiculous. She did not really wish to have her child cut from her body. She only wanted to be able to rest. To perhaps postpone all of this for another day...a day when she was stronger...more prepared. Perhaps if she concentrated very hard she could keep the contractions at bay.

Yes. She would insist that her body put a stop to this. Right now. Surely if she prayed hard enough Allah would have mercy upon her—just as He had always done when things had seemed hopeless—and she could put this off until tomorrow.

She closed her eyes and tried her best to force her body to relax, even as she felt the next pain coming on. It was no use, however. She cried out as loud as she could in an effort to breathe as the intensity of it slammed her against the back of the birthing chair. She couldn't see or even think as her lower body pushed with full force.

"Are you alright?" Will asked timidly after a few seconds. As the pain eased a bit, she opened her eyes to find him leaning over her with a frightened look on his face.

"Oh yes. I am lovely, Will. Thank you for asking!" she snapped.

"Sorry. It's just that...you were calling...you were screaming for your father. I think. You called out 'Ab' over and over. That's father, right? I...I just...I was afraid you were...I don't know..." He sat back on his stool and rubbed the back of his neck roughly.

Had she called out to her father? She did not recall doing so. She had not intended to do so. Why would she call for him? He was long dead and in no position to help her now. Long gone were the days when soothing words from him and a kiss on the forehead could erase whatever troubled her—from nightmares, to skinned knees, to fears over the approaching armies outside the city. It did not make sense. It was not rational. In her pained state she must have gotten confused.

"You...you're doing really well. I know it's hard, but you can do it," Will again attempted to be encouraging.

But this time it was just too much for her. "Stop saying that! You know that this is hard? How? How would you know anything about it? You are a man and you do not understand!"

"I...I know. I'm sorry. I—"

"And will you stop saying that you are sorry! In the name of Allah! What are you sorry for?" she demanded, not carrying that Matilda was still with them.

"I...nothing...er...everything...I...I don't know," he stammered.

"That's right! You do not know." She hissed.

He nodded weakly and bowed his head.

She was starting to hate herself for treating him this way but the truth was that lashing out at someone seemed to make everything a bit more manageable. And Will was there. Besides, she really did not have the strength or the energy to to suppress her irritation any longer. If he didn't like it, well then he could just get out. She didn't really need him with her anyway, did she? What was he really doing? Nothing. That was what. So he could just go.

As if reading her thoughts he said, "Would...would you rather I left you alone?" She met his gaze and the love and sadness she saw mingled there nearly broke her heart. "I don't wanna make things worse for you."

"No. Please do not go. I am so sorry." His face blurred before her as her eyes pooled with tears. She blinked them back and reached for his hand.

"No. Shh shh. It's alright," he said, rubbing his thumb across the back of her hand. "I just want you to be comfortable."

"You are so good. You put up with so much from me. Like before...when I made you think I did not love you...and now...when I treat you so badly. I...I do not deserve you," she sobbed.

"No. Don't you ever say that," he said with sudden determination, leaning in closer. "Every single day I remind myself that this is no dream. That you really do love me and that you're my wife. It's I who could never deserve you. You are the best thing that's ever happened to me and I love you. I know you're in pain and you're tired and I would never hold you responsible for anything you might say at a time like this. Okay?"

Nod.

"Good," he said gently, still stroking the back of her hand.

"Stay with me?" she asked, sniffling.

"Of course I will," he answered, leaning over to kiss her gently on her forehead.

Then another pain was upon her and she squeezed Will's hand as tightly as she could in order to ground herself as she pushed with all of her might. She pushed even as her throat closed and she found it impossible to breathe. She pushed so hard that she was sure the blood vessels around her eyes were popping and would leave her face swollen and red when this was all over. She pushed even though her body and her mind told her that she'd had enough and that she had to stop...to breathe...to rest. But she couldn't stop. Not this time. So she pushed even harder.

"That's it! I see your baby's head. Good girl!" Matilda shouted. "One more after this ought to do it."

But Djaq didn't think she had it in her to make it through one more. So she continued pushing. Even after the contraction had eased. She pushed anyway. She felt the tender flesh of her lower region being stretched beyond belief and she squeezed her eyes shut until she saw stars, but still she pushed.

And she pushed. And she pushed some more. She just couldn't stop. This had to happen. Now. There was nothing else in the world but this. It felt like it would never end and then, suddenly, she felt the child flop from her body. And she stopped pushing. And she was cold and empty for a second...or a minute...or maybe for years. She couldn't tell how much time was passing or even if it was passing at all. Everything just seemed strange...different.

And then there was shouting. Happy and joyful shouting. Matilda and Will and even Djaq's own voice was in there somewhere. Crying and shouting and laughing all at once. Nothing was discernible save for the happiness that was everywhere.

"It's a boy!" Matilda announced, loudly enough for the others to hear her from outside. And Djaq heard their voices too...raised in celebration. "Perfect and healthy."

"Give him to me," Djaq cried out, clawing at the air desperately. Needing so badly to feel him...the warmth of him...he was too far away...he belonged with her.

Matilda must have cleaned him up and dealt with his cord in record time, because, before another second seemed to pass, he was in her arms...and everything was right.

She felt a swelling in her chest as she tried to control her pounding heart and all of the emotions warring and raging inside of her. Will was talking to her, she thought, but she couldn't manage to hear him or to understand. For this brief moment, there was only this. Her and her child. Her son.

Then she felt a chill at her side and realized that Will had slipped away. She heard him rustling about in one of the baskets she kept near their bed, but before she'd had time to question his absence, he was back and handing her something.

She turned to face him then...turning away—for the first time—from her son. "A date? Oh, for the baby. Yes of course." Bless him for remembering what she had told him about the birth rites of her people. She was in such a state at the moment that she would have likely forgotten completely. But Will always wanted to be certain that she honored her roots. He was truly wonderful that way.

She broke off a tiny piece of the date and rubbed it along the baby's gums. He immediately began to move his mouth in anticipation of a meal, making both of his parents laugh.

"Tell me what to say," Will said excitedly from beside her.

"What?"

"Tell me the words. The call to prayer. The Adhan, is it called?"

She was so touched that he wanted to perform this particular rite that she almost couldn't speak. The date was one thing. It did not have any overtly Islamic connotations. But the act of a father whispering the Adhan into his new child's ear was distinctly Muslim and, although they had discussed it from time to time, she really hadn't expected that he would feel comfortable actually doing it.

But as she gazed into his expectant face, she composed her emotions as best she could and recited for him the Arabic words that came as easily to her as breathing. She spoke as slowly and as clearly as she could, and paused while he repeated them near the baby's right ear.

Their child, for his part, did not stir. He did not whimper or squirm. He simply laid there in her arms, eyes closed but fully awake, and seemed to absorb all that was being said and done around him.

The pronunciation was difficult for Will but he actually did extremely well, all things considered. Once he had completed the recitation, Djaq translated the words into English for him so that he would understand exactly what he had just said to his son.

Will's eyes shone with pride and happiness and she knew that it must be mirrored in her own face. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, wishing that she could somehow freeze that moment in time. That the world could remain perfect and joyful and that the feeling of peace within her heart could go on forever.

Then Will was kissing her face and she felt his tears on her cheek.

"I love you so much," he said, reaching out to stroke the baby's little face.

Djaq was unsure whether he was speaking to her or to their child, but she realized that it did not matter...not really...and that he probably meant both of them but could not manage the words to properly convey all he felt at that moment.

She understood completely, as all she could manage was a nod as she glanced back and forth between the two of them. Her family. The two who were everything to her and whom she loved more than she would ever have imagined possible even an hour ago.

"Now, you're gonna feel another bit of cramping soon," Matilda told her, after waiting to be sure she wasn't interrupting anything. "That's just the afterbirth, as you know. Just let me know when you feel it and you can go ahead and push it out."

Djaq didn't look up from her child's face. She merely nodded as, with her free hand, she fumbled with the ties on her top in an effort to free her breasts so that her child could eat.

"He may not be ready to suckle quite yet. The movement of his mouth is just a reflex," Matilda cautioned her. "Remember, he's been through quite an ordeal too. He may just want to rest."

But Djaq knew that he would suckle. She couldn't explain how she knew, she just did. She certainly hadn't become an expert mother in the space of five minutes, but all she knew was that, after months of she and her child sharing a body, holding him in her arms was simply not enough. She needed him to be closer and she knew that he needed it too.

Having finally loosened her ties, she pushed her top down beneath her left breast and shifted the baby until he seemed to be lined up properly. She took her breast fully in her hand, squeezed gently, and then brushed the tip of her nipple over his bottom lip just as she'd seen other new mothers do.

He began frantically moving his head from side to side until he'd latched on, and then let out an enormous sigh of relief as he began suckling away furiously.

The feeling was something that Djaq simply couldn't describe. She was sure that, as many times as she would repeat it in future, she would never be able to fully wrap her thoughts around how it made her feel. The closest she could come right then was to say that it filled her with a sense of purpose unknown to her before that moment.

Her breasts had always been an enormous source of inconvenience to her. They were a nuisance, plain and simple. As a young girl, they'd had to be bound up tightly as soon as they'd started to develop, which had severely restricted her freedom as she'd run around playing and taking part in other routine activities with her brother. It had seemed so unfair at the time that she should have to deal with something so bothersome while he did not.

And then, of course, while she'd been masquerading as a boy during those few years she'd been a soldier in her homeland, her breasts had been a constant threat. Always coming free of their bindings at the worst possible moments, forcing her to wear loose and impractical clothing, acting as a constant reminder that she was a fraud...an impostor...and that her very life was dependent upon keeping their existence under wraps.

Even in the forest as a member of Robin's gang, her breasts were what had initially given away her gender. Oh how she'd cursed them that day! And later, she'd had to wear that uncomfortable bodice over top of her tunic in order to keep them in place while running about with the others. It had been embarrassing and had drawn attention to the fact that she was a woman, when all she'd really wanted was to be one of the gang.

Only when she had become intimate with Will did she finally begin to see her breasts as anything other than an annoyance. Will had spent a great deal of time exploring them over the past several months and she had derived a great deal of pleasure from the sensations such explorations had elicited in her.

But that was nothing compared to the feelings stirred within her now as they finally served their purpose. They had existed all of this time, just lying in wait, in order to do what nature intended and Djaq was at once struck by the wonder and completeness of Allah's world.

Obviously thinking the same, Will whispered, "There you go, Daniel. It's all for you. Eat your fill." His voice was filled with the same awe that Djaq was feeling at beholding such a miracle.

"Daniel," she repeated, trying it out, as Will lovingly ran his finger along the light smattering of dark hair that covered the baby's head.

"That's what we chose for a boy, right? Do...did you want to call him something different?" he asked with a tinge of disappointment.

"Oh no! Of course Daniel is fine. It suits him, I think." And she looked down at the sweet little face of their son.

Daniel Scarlett.

His skin was not nearly as dark as hers, but he was darker than Will by far. He seemed to have Will's long face and his straight nose. But his eyes, which were open now and staring at her intently, were dark and wide. They were they eyes that she had looked into every day of her childhood. The eyes of her beloved lost brother. Probably identical to her own.

He seemed to be studying her even as she was studying him, and she wondered if he was searching her face for some resemblance...some sign of familiarity. But of course he was not. She knew that. He probably could not even see her properly yet. Still, he was so alert and so focused on her face that she couldn't be quite sure.

"Just look at him, Djaq. Look what we made," Will said in a voice so filled with wonder and pride that it made her nearly want to cry.

"Yes. He is perfect, is he not?" She smiled at her husband.

"Just like you," he said, kissing her lightly on the lips before returning to being mesmerized by his son. "And look at the way he's looking at you. Do you think he knows you're his mother? He must know."

"I do not know. But he will figure out who we are soon enough. He is a clever boy. I can tell. He will be very intelligent. See? It is in his eyes," she explained.

"Hm. You know, it hasn't escaped my attention that he has your eyes. So why am I not surprised to hear that's where you think his intelligence can be found," he teased her.

"Will Scarlett, are you suggesting that I am arrogant?"

"Oh no. Not you. Never," he laughed, leaning in again to kiss her cheek. "I was only agreeing that he's going to be very clever just like his mother."

"Well he is already beautiful just like his father."

"He is beautiful, isn't he?" he said in voice full of reverence.

"Ah. Now which of us is arrogant?"

"That's not what I meant. I meant—"

"I know, silly. I was only teasing you," she said.

Then there was silence, as the two of them were content to watch their son enjoying his first meal. And enjoy it he did. He suckled so furiously that Djaq wondered for a moment if he would suck her completely dry. But then he seemed to have reached his limit as his eyes slowly lowered and he allowed her nipple to slip from his mouth as he fell into an easy sleep.

Just then there was little a twinge in her lower abdomen. It was not very painful—not nearly as excruciating as the pains of labor had been—but it was distinct and definite and she knew that it must be her afterbirth.

"I feel something. It is the afterbirth, I think. Should I push now, then?" She asked Matilda, who'd been washing up and tidying some of the mess left by the delivery.

"Alright, go ahead," she said, settling herself once again between Djaq's legs at the end of the birthing chair. "Sometimes feeding the baby helps matters along a bit."

Djaq gave one big push, never releasing Daniel from her arms, and Matilda removed the afterbirth and discarded it appropriately. It was incredibly quick and easy when compared with the hours of pain she'd just experienced and Djaq was relieved to have the labor finally at an end.

"I think that I am ready to get cleaned up and move to the bed," she announced. "Then we should check the baby over thoroughly. Make certain that he has all of his parts," she added in Will's direction.

"I told you he was whole and perfect. Do you think I don't know what parts a newborn babe is suppose to have after all these years of birthing, girl?" Matilda asked her impatiently.

"I am certain that you do," Djaq answered, chuckling. "I just want to see all of him for myself, thank you very much."

She and Matilda had a friendly habit of verbally sparring with one another from time to time. Both women were stubborn and sharp-tongued and neither of them ever hesitated to say what was on her mind. Because of that they had developed a healthy respect for each other and got on quite well together.

"Alright then. Give the child to your husband and we'll get you cleaned up," she ordered.

But Djaq felt a sudden panic at handing him over. It was foolish, she knew. Will was his father and he would protect Daniel with his own life a thousand times over. Besides, he must be be so anxious to hold his son. He probably hadn't wanted to interrupt her initial bonding with him and he couldn't have taken him while he'd been feeding, but now he must surely be dying for the chance to take his son in his arms for the first time.

But she just couldn't let him go.

She knew that she should. That she had to. She was being ridiculous, of course. But it was so very hard. He had been in her body for his whole existence, and just having him out in the cold and unfamiliar world was frightening enough, but having him out of her grasp seemed the most torturous thing imaginable at that moment.

"It's alright. I'll be careful, I promise," Will said gently, seeing her hesitation.

She realized that he must think that she didn't trust him with their son. He must have assumed that, perhaps because he was a man, she would think he wouldn't know what to do or wouldn't use appropriate care. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, so she gathered every ounce of courage she possessed, swallowed past the lump in her throat, and shakily handed her son over into his father's eager arms.

She waited for a second, but everything was fine. The earth did not seem to cease its turning, the sky did not suddenly fill with fire, and the child did not even wake from his peaceful slumber. She was not certain what she had expected to happen, but she finally breathed a sigh of relief as it became clear that all was well.

And when Djaq took in the perfect sight of Will holding Daniel with confidence and yet so much tender care, it suddenly felt as if her heart would burst.

"There. You see?" Matilda smirked, shaking her head, and Djaq was sure she heard the woman mutter 'new mothers' under her breath as she prepared a rag in order to help Djaq wash.

Locksley Village, Daniel's Birthday, Late Autumn, 1208

Daniel looked down into the nearly empty pail and sighed.

"Come on, Berta," he coaxed the reluctant animal. But he knew that it was not the goat's fault that she seemed unwilling to be milked to her full capacity this morning. She was obviously sensing Daniel's tension and impatience. So he released her teat and allowed her to get comfortable once again while he did his best to clear his mind before resuming.

There was just so much going on inside of him. Particularly today. His decision about Acre. His anticipation and excitement over seeing his family again this evening for his birthday celebration—it had been so long since they'd all been together in one place.

And then of course there was Mary. It seemed that she was never far from his mind these days.

Mary was about a year older than Daniel and had been one of his best friends for as long as he could remember. Even long before he and his family had moved out of the forest.

She and her family were the next door neighbors of Emma, a friend of Daniel's mother and the woman with whom his parents had always left him on the occasions the whole gang had been needed for some mission or plan back when they were all still a part of Uncle Robin's gang. Umm had once saved Emma's life—forming a bond between the two women—and Daniel's parents had felt secure enough to entrust her with his care.

Emma's son, Bartholomew—or Bart, as he was often known—was Daniel's age and the two had practically grown up together. Mary, being just a bit older and inclined towards the same sorts of games and activities as the boys were, had almost always been a part of their playtime.

Daniel had other friends too, of course, but Mary and Bart were different.

They never asked dumb questions about his religious beliefs the way that other kids sometimes did. Daniel didn't really object to people being curious—they were bound to be—but sometimes their questions could get downright rude.

But Mary and Bart never acted like it was weird that Daniel had two faiths. They had sometimes asked him about how things were done and why, but they always knew when to give it a rest too.

They also understood how hard it was for Daniel sometimes because of his parents and his uncles.

Everybody knew them and loved them and just seemed to feel as if Uncle Robin, Daniel's parents, and the others just sort of belonged to them in a way. Like they were somehow the property of Locksley, or Nottingham, or even all of England, instead of just being regular people.

Folks were always telling Daniel how lucky he was. And how great 'Robin and His Merry Men' were and how much they meant to Nottingham and to England. They were always asking him questions and telling him stories about the 'good old days'. It was as if they felt like they had to clue Daniel in on who his family was and what kind of people they were.

It was frustrating at times because he could never seem to make them understand that the legends and the songs were only a small part of who they were and what they were all about. And Daniel knew that he was lucky. Luckier than most. But not for the reasons most people seemed to think.

He was lucky because he'd always been so loved and so happy that he hadn't even been aware of the constant danger his family must have faced when he was just a boy. His parents and his uncles and Auntie Marian had always managed to make him feel safe and free...like the world was one big playground that existed solely for his amusement. And now that he understood so much more of what had been going on at that time, he knew just how lucky he was to have people in his life who loved him that much.

But most people would never understand that. Daniel's father had told him once that people sometimes needed to believe in something bigger than themselves and so they tried to turn ordinary men and women into heroes. But Dad always said that anyone could be a hero...all you had to do was act on what you believed was right. That was all it really took.

But most people didn't care about that. They just wanted the world to know that they were laying claim to Robin Hood's legendary band of outlaws. The former gang and its members were Nottingham's prize, and that was all that seemed to matter sometimes.

But Mary and Bart never acted that way. They accepted Daniel—and his family—for who and what they were...and were not. And they never acted like it was strange that Daniel's 'family' included the famous Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Much, Little John and Allan A Dale. In fact, they hardly mentioned it at all. So spending time with them was sometimes the only time that Daniel felt like he could breathe or be himself outside of his family.

Bart's father had died in the same war that had taken the lives of Umm's father and brother. That fact alone should have made any friendship between the two boys awkward at best. But things like Holy Wars and battling kings were nothing when compared with the days of playing and laughter that the boys had grown up sharing. They had always been good friends and they both knew that they simply always would be.

And then there was Mary.

She was...well, she was just Mary. That was all. There was no better way to describe her.

She wasn't like most girls. Or even most boys. She liked to run and fish and skip stones and she couldn't have cared less about getting her dress dirty or her hair full of twigs and leaves. She was funny and always up for some sort of prank or adventure.

Nothing was too daring or too outlandish for her either.

She often shocked the boys with her courage and even with her sharp tongue. She could sometimes be wild—even wilder than Daniel or Bart—but she was always a lot of fun. She had four older brothers and she'd had to learn to be tough and to hold her ground at a very early age otherwise she would've been trampled by them or left out of the fun altogether. She wouldn't have tolerated either scenario, so she'd made herself just as rough and tumble as they were.

And she had the best sense of humor of anyone Daniel had ever met. She constantly had the boys in fits of giggles.

It wasn't just that she always told the best jokes—which she did. It was also the way that she said things. She could be relating some incredibly unremarkable story or event with the straightest face you'd ever seen, but there would be this almost imperceptible twinkle in her eye that told you—if you knew her well enough—that she was about to say something so outrageous that it would have you rolling on the ground laughing for an hour.

She just had this extraordinary wit...this sarcastic manner of speaking about things and people that seemed to paint the whole world in a different light. She was quick and she was clever and she seemed to have the ability to know just what you were expecting her to say or do, and then she would turn around and do the exact opposite just to throw you off balance. She was wild and funny and full of spirit and life.

But she could be serious, too, when she had to be. There was nothing Daniel couldn't confide in her. Nothing she wouldn't understand.

But ever since Daniel and his family had returned from the Holy Land, things had changed. She had changed.

Funny thing was, Daniel just couldn't figure out how.

She didn't seem particularly different. She still walked the same...and talked the same. She'd been there when the Scarletts had first arrived back in Locksley and she'd been just as friendly and spirited as ever. She'd wanted to hear all about Daniel's trip and everything he'd seen and done and he'd wanted to tell her...he really had. But every time he looked at her he just felt...strange.

She was strange. She acted like the same person and, for the most part, she still looked the same...but something was just...different.

Sure, her hair was a bit longer and seemed to shine a bit more in the sunlight. And maybe, if Daniel weren't mistaken, her eyes were a deeper blue than he remembered. And he'd started to wonder if her bottom and her bosom hadn't perhaps grown a bit bigger and a tad rounder in his absence. But, the truth was, that he'd really never noticed such things about her before so he really couldn't be sure.

All he knew was that when the three of them were together—Daniel, Mary and Bart—things were mostly as they used to be. They joked, they laughed, they talked. Daniel was able to slip right back into his place with them and everything seemed right. And when it was only Daniel and Bart, Daniel could detect no differences to speak of either.

But whenever Daniel found himself alone with Mary, his brain just seemed to shut down and all he could manage to do was either stare at her like a complete idiot, or expend every ounce of energy and sense he had trying not to stare at her like a complete idiot. It was embarrassing and stupid and it made Daniel feel like a ridiculous child.

He wasn't a fool. He knew perfectly well that his new feelings and behavior where she was concerned were the symptoms of some sort of romantic attachment. That much was obvious. What he couldn't quite fathom was why.

Why her? Why now? He'd never considered her in that light before. She was a friend. Nothing more. Sure, she was one of the most important people in his life and always had been, but that just made this all so much more complicated.

He'd certainly found himself infatuated with different girls from time to time. Nottingham was full of pretty girls and Daniel had never been shy about appreciating them. But Mary had never struck him as someone to be thought of in that way. She just...she was different than all the others. And he was pretty sure that she only thought of him as a friend anyway. So it was all rather maddening, to say the least.

And he really couldn't even begin to allow himself to contemplate the possibilities of what it all meant because he had the whole issue of Acre and studying medicine hanging over his head.

How could he approach Mary and tell her what he'd been thinking...why he'd been acting the way he had...while there was every chance that he would have to turn around and leave her at some point in the very near future? That he would not only have to leave her, but that he wouldn't be able to return for years. Long enough for her to marry someone else and start a family.

She was a year older than Daniel as it was, and he could hardly expect her to sit around and wait while her life and prospects passed her by as he pursued a dream that wasn't even his own. No. He wouldn't dare ask that of her. Even if she was one day able to return his feelings—which was probably unlikely at any rate—she would surely want a man who was actually around.

It was all hopeless and Daniel just couldn't think about it anymore. But he couldn't manage to stop thinking about it either. So he avoided being alone with her. Just like he was doing with his mother. And he hated himself for being such a coward.

Outlaw Camp, Sherwood Forest, Daniel's Birth Day, Late Autumn, 1194

It had taken all of Will's and Matilda's powers of persuasion, but they had finally managed to convince Djaq that she needed her rest and that the baby would be fine without her for a bit. She had fought them long and hard, insisting that she was fine and that she wanted to hold her child for a while longer, but she had finally—albeit grudgingly—given in to the inevitable and allowed sleep to overtake her.

Will was glad. She had been through so much and he knew how absolutely exhausted she must be. So now he sat, with the baby in his arms and the rest of gang seated with him around the fire. Allan had escorted Matilda home some time ago and had since returned, and Marian was still at the camp.

Will stared down in awe at the perfect little bundle in his arms. Wide brown eyes stared back at him, blinking. The baby seemed fascinated, studying his face. Watching, as if he expected Will to do something spectacularly entertaining at any moment and wanted to be certain not to miss it. Will couldn't help but smile.

Try as he may, he still found himself not quite able to fully believe it. He had a son. He was a father. It wasn't as if he hadn't been expecting this all along, of course. Obviously, come the end of Djaq's pregnancy, there would be a child to love and to care for. He'd known that. But he simply hadn't been prepared for the way that it would make him feel.

He was suddenly a part of things in a way he'd never thought about before. He was now a part of the past and of the future and he was struck by the thought that life—in its mystery and wisdom—seemed as if it almost folded over onto itself in an effort to bring the past forward.

For in his son's face, Will could see traces of every single person he had ever loved.

There was Djaq of course. The baby had her eyes and her coloring. But Will could also see his own mother and father when he looked at his son. Lukey too. And there were even hints of his grandparents—whom he barely remembered—mingled in there as well. He could just make them out when Daniel knitted his brows or moved his head a certain way.

It was amazing.

And he knew that Djaq's own family must be mixed in there somewhere too. It was just all so miraculous. So indescribable. That this one tiny infant could be the link that brought them all together. That this one child carried them all forward into the world and secured for them a place in it long after they were gone.

All of these people were bound up in this new life and loving him meant loving and honoring them as well.

And it was so much more than Will's heart had been prepared for. He'd expected to love his child. In fact, he'd loved him ever since he'd learned of his existence and he'd been impatiently waiting for the day he could finally take him in his arms for the first time. But he hadn't anticipated all the emotions that would be stirred up inside of him at the sight of his son.

"I just don't think it's fair. That's all," Much grumbled from across the fire.

"Aye. So you've said," John rolled his eyes.

"Yeah. Over and over. We get it already," Allan added.

"Well I know. But it's just that—"

"Seriously, Much. Just give it a rest, would you?" Robin cut him off impatiently. "Besides, you're aggravating Daniel. And I think he wants to come back over here with his Uncle Robin. Is that right, Daniel? Is that what you want?" And he reached over and held his arms out in Will's direction.

Will hesitated for only a second before carefully handing the baby to Robin. It wasn't that Will didn't trust Robin to hold the baby. In fact, Robin had already proven himself more than capable with him. He had held him several times already and seemed perfectly comfortable with Daniel in his arms.

No, the problem was that each and every time Will got his son back into his own arms, someone else would decide they wanted another go at holding him. They were all having a ball getting to know the baby and Will was glad, but it would have been nice to have Daniel all to himself for more than two minutes at a time.

He wondered how quickly the gang's fascination with their newest member would falter once he started crying or needed his wrappings changed. But Daniel seemed to be enjoying the attention for now. Or, at the very least, he was tolerating it.

"Look at that. You've got nice long fingers. That's gonna make for greater precision when drawing a bowstring. And faster release too," Robin informed Daniel as if he assumed the baby would be quite pleased with this news. "You're gonna be quite the archer."

Marian rolled her eyes. "I really must be on my way, but I would like to hold him one last time before I go if I may," she said, reaching over and taking the baby from Robin's arms.

"Be careful, Marian," Robin cautioned her. "Be sure to hold his head up a bit."

Marian rolled her eyes again. "For the last time, Robin, it's not as if I've never held an infant before."

"Yeah, but you gotta admit you were pretty panicked the first time Will handed him to you," Allan laughed. "You shoulda seen your face. Like you thought he'd turn into a snake any minute and bite you."

"I did no such thing," she responded defensively. "I just didn't want to drop him is all."

"You look good with a baby in your arms," Robin said, smiling at the sight.

"Oh no. Don't you get any crazy ideas, Robin."

"Crazy ideas? Me?"

"C'mon now. You see how easy it is. Djaq did it," Allan told her. "You could too."

"Easy?" Will demanded in exasperation.

"Well...yeah," Allan shrugged.

"I'd like to see you try it," John challenged.

"Anyway," Allan said, ignoring the others and turning back to Marian who still held the baby. "You outta move back out here to the forest and then the two of you can have a few of your own. Then Daniel can have playmates."

"That's...that's...she can't do that!" Much exclaimed.

"I meant that she and Robs could get married first, you old biddy," Allan amended.

"Oh. Well...I suppose that could work." Much seemed to think it over for a second or two. "Yes. Why not? If Djaq and Will can do it, why not Robin and Marian? Okay. I'm on board. When do we start?"

The others burst into laughter and Much—realizing what he'd said—blushed profusely.

"Not bein' funny, mate, but I don't think they need your help for this," Allan nudged him with an elbow.

"That's not what I meant and you know it!"

"I wouldn't be too sure. You're always sticking your nose where it doesn't belong," John ribbed him further.

"Yeah, but it's not his nose that'd be gettin' in the way this time, is it?" Allan couldn't resist.

Marian turned her face to hide her crimson cheeks and seemed to be trying her level best to ignore the men while Robin laughed heartily at her discomfort.

"Allan! Don't say things like that in front of the baby!" Will chided him.

"What? He can't understand. Anyway, he's gotta learn the facts of life sometime and who better to teach him than his Uncle Allan?"

"Why don't just wait and corrupt your own kids," Will said with a good-natured roll of his eyes.

"Oh no. Not me, mate. I'm not the fatherly type."

"What? Don't you want a family someday?" Much asked as if had never occurred to him that any man wouldn't.

"Now what would I do with a family, Much?" Allan asked.

"Well not now. But someday. Right? When the king returns?" Will asked.

"Uh-uh. Nope. Not me. Kids are okay when someone else is raising `em, I suppose. Like Daniel here. But—" Allan stopped and looked at John. "Sorry. I didn't mean..."

Will couldn't believe Allan could be so insensitive. While he was sure that nothing had been meant by the comment, they all knew how difficult it had been for John knowing that his own son was being raised by another man. He had come back from checking up on Alice and Little Little John not even a week ago and hadn't said much about the experience other than to say that he'd stayed out of sight while watching them and that they were happy and well cared-for.

He said that their happiness and safety were all he wanted, but the gang all knew that it must have cost him a big part of himself to admit that another man was able to look after them in a way that he couldn't. So Allan's comment was ill-timed, to say the least.

"Children are a blessing," John answered simply.

"Yeah, I know," Allan responded, now rather sheepishly. "I just meant that I wouldn't be very good at fatherhood. That's all. You know me. I'd probably lose my kids in a bet or something." He tried to laugh it off, but his discomfort was clear.

"Children are a blessing," John repeated pointedly. And then to Will specifically he said, "Don't you ever forget that. You cherish this time, for you'll never get it back."

Will nodded solemnly. "I will."

"John's right, Marian." Robin said, leaning closer to her and the baby. "Children are a blessing and we should cherish the time we have. You've proven that you can live out here with us, and it would only be until the king returned anyway. What'd you say?"

"What I say is that I would never leave my father, as you well know. Besides, if my time out here with all of you taught me anything, it was that I greatly rely on the comforts of a civilized life. So let us put all this talk of marriage and children aside until the king has indeed returned and you are fully pardoned."

"But, Marian—"

"Now I really must be off," she said, attempting to hand the child back to his father, only to have him intercepted by John. "And if you promise to drop this topic completely, I will let you escort me to the edge of the forest."

"I make no promises, Marian," Robin said with a grin as the two of them readied to depart and Marian took a final wistful look around the camp before exiting.

Will looked across the fire to where John held Daniel. It was a strange sight. For such a big and burly man, John was incredibly gentle with him. He cradled him carefully and tugged his blankets around him snuggly to be certain that he was nice and warm. Daniel fidgeted a little in order to get comfortable, but then seemed to settle in, trusting in the security of the hands that held him. He even reached a tiny fist up as if to examine John's scruffy beard, but then seemed to think better of it and withdrew it almost immediately, making John chuckle softly.

Djaq had warned Will months ago that they must not be offended if John seemed disinterested in the baby once it was born. She'd said that they had to be careful not to place any pressure on him to hold or interact with him either.

Will knew that she'd been afraid that having a baby around would make things even harder for John, but Will had secretly hoped that the opposite might be true. That perhaps the baby—while never replacing his own child—would give John that sense of peace that always seemed just beyond him. He smiled now to see that he'd been right.

"I don't see how you can not want children someday! What about this Rebecca that you're always on about?" Much—never knowing when to let a subject rest—demanded of Allan. "Does she not want marriage and a family someday? Perhaps she'd do better to find it elsewhere."

"Hey! Never you mind about her. I'd marry her if I could. I would. And someday I probably will. But kids are a different story."

"Yes but once you get married, children are inevitable, aren't they?" Much said rather than asked.

"`Course not. There's lots a ways to keep it from happening," Allan answered with a shrug and Will hoped that he would not get into specifics with Much. Luckily, he left it at that.

"Well, that's fine for you, I suppose. But I plan to find Eve as soon as the king comes home. We're going to be married right away and move into Bonchurch together. Oh how happy we'll be. Me and Eve and all the children we can manage."

"How can you be sure you'll find her so quickly? You said you don't even know where she's gone," Will asked.

"Well I...I don't need to know, do I? Because...because she'll hear that the king has returned and she'll probably come and find me. Yeah. I bet she'd do just that. She's a resourceful woman, my Eve. She'll probably have a plan in place just waiting for the day the king comes home. Then we can be married and start our lives together. I can just see it now. A house full of warm beds, good food and all of our fair-haired children running about. I bet the girls will all be sweet and gentle little flowers just like their mother."

From what Will had heard about Eve, she was neither gentle nor particularly sweet and it always amused the gang when Much spoke of her that way. Will was never sure if Much was just remembering her as he wanted her to be or if he had perhaps seen a special side to her than she rarely showed to others. Either way, Will was certain that she was a good woman and would take good care of him.

Much deserved that, probably more than anyone else and Will was glad that he had found someone who understood him and could make him happy. Perhaps she would even act as a sort of buffer from the baseness and cruelty of the world that at times seemed to baffle the man.

"And the boys?" Allan asked. "Chatty little thorns in my side just like their father?"

"Oh shut up, Allan," Much huffed. "I'm going to go and check on Djaq. See if she needs anything. I bet she's hungry."

"No, Much. Just let her sleep. She'll eat when she wakes up," Will told him.

"Fine, I won't wake her. I'll just peek in to see if she's alright."

"No. Please. Just leave her be. She's exhausted and she needs her rest," Will said more firmly.

"But that's not fair!" Much whined.

"Aye, so you keep saying," John said.

"Well it's not. Will always acts like Djaq just belongs to him. Well she doesn't. She belongs to all of us."

"Oh Lord. Not this again," John grumbled.

"It's true," Much continued. "All I want is to go back and check on her. She might need something. I promise not to wake her. But oh no. I can't because Will says not to. It's not fair."

"Fair or not, leave her alone," John ordered.

"Well...well I'm going anyway. What do you think about that? Hm?" And he started to get up.

Will made to stand up too but stopped when he saw Allan place a hand on Much's shoulder. "Much, mate, you're being ridiculous. He's not trying to keep you from her, but you've already been back there five times to check on her. And every time she's fine. You pull back her curtain, straighten her covers, and fluff her pillows. One of these times you're gonna wake her up. Is that what you want? Will's right. She's tired. Just let her be."

"Well I...I...fine," he huffed. "But then it's my turn to hold the baby."

Locksley Village, Daniel's Birthday, Late Autumn, 1208

Once Daniel had completed his morning chores and assisted his father with putting the finishing touches on the cradle, the two of them set off to deliver it to Locksley Manor.

Auntie Marian was expecting a child very soon and Uncle Robin had ordered the cradle as a special surprise for her. Six years ago, when she had been expecting the first of the Locksleys' five children, Daniel's father had made a cradle for the child and presented it to them as a gift. He had done the same for Uncle Allan and Rebecca's first child that same year.

Dad's cradles were coveted and spoken of all over—not just in Nottingham—and it was something that he enjoyed making for special friends when the occasion arose. So all of Uncle Robin and Auntie Marian's children had slept in that first one when they were infants. But, sadly, when the Scarletts had returned from their trip to the Holy Land, they were informed that the youngest Locksley child had passed away in his sleep during the winter.

Daniel's mother had felt incredibly guilty over not being around to prevent it. She took her responsibilities as Locksley's physician very seriously and she took a special interest in the families of her fellow former outlaws. So she felt that she had let them down by being away just when she might have been needed. Of course, infants died in their sleep sometimes. It just happened. No one knew why and no one could have prevented it, but that didn't make it any easier to accept.

But Auntie Marian had—naturally—taken little Samuel's death very hard. According to Uncle Much, she'd refused to leave her bed for weeks and had seemed to lose interest in just about everything. Uncle Robin had been truly worried about her.

But, by the time that Daniel and his family had returned to Locksley, she'd seemed to be doing much better and was already expecting another child. Uncle Robin had thought that perhaps a fresh start with a brand new cradle might be in order for the new baby and so he'd commissioned Daniel and his father to make her one.

"Well if it isn't the birthday boy! Happy birthday, sweetheart," Auntie Marian said, giving Daniel a hug and kiss as they arrived. "I didn't expect to see you until this afternoon."

"Where is everybody?" Daniel asked. The Locksley house was usually bustling with activity.

"The children are out back playing. I needed a bit of a break. Rose is watching them. And your Uncle Robin is up—Is that what I think it is?" she asked, noticing the cradle for the first time as they set it down.

"That depends on what you think it is," Daniel's father answered with a grin.

"Robin!" she called up the stairs. "Is this your doing?"

"What's that, my love? If it's something brave and wonderful then I'm sure that it was my doing, but if it's something you're unhappy with then it was probably Much," he answered as he descended the stairs grinning.

"I heard that!" Uncle Much yelled from the kitchen.

"Hey! Birthday boy!" Uncle Robin said, shaking Daniel's hand and then pulling him into a hug. Then, noticing the cradle, he said, "Oh! I didn't expect it to be ready so soon. Do you like it?" he asked Auntie Marian.

"Yes, it's lovely. But now I'm confused. Do I owe a thank-you kiss to you or to Much?" she asked cheekily.

"No no! It was all my doing," he told her, moving forward with a smile to claim the promised kiss. "I thought it might...make things a bit...easier."

"Thank you, Robin. And thank you two. It's truly lovely. Oh my, these carvings are different, aren't they? So intricate. Is this something you learned in the east, Will?"

"Uh, well, actually...you have Daniel to thank for that part. He planned and carved the design all on his own this time," Dad answered, patting Daniel on the back.

"You are extremely talented, Daniel Scarlett. You take after your father." And as he and his dad both blushed and ducked their heads at her praise, she added with a smile, "in more ways than one I see."

"Don't be modest now," Uncle Robin admonished Daniel. "I've been telling your father this for years. False modesty is no better than arrogance, I say. If you're good at something, then be proud of that and take proper credit. There's nothing wrong with that. You're a talented young man."

"He's right about one thing. You're very talented and you should be proud of that. But your Uncle Robin is not the best one to give advice on modesty," Auntie Marian laughed.

"You can say that again!" Uncle Much yelled from the kitchen.

"Much, what are you doing back there?" Dad called.

"I'm working on the food for tonight's feast," he answered, coming out of the kitchen. "Happy birthday!"

"Thank you," Daniel answered as he was suddenly crushed by Uncle Much's exuberant hug.

"Are you excited about tonight? I am. It'll be so nice to have everyone together again, won't it? And we'll all be back at the camp too. Just like the old days. Except that..well...not like the old days. I bet you can't wait. Is John bringing his grandchildren, do you think? I wonder if he'll bring all of them this time. There's gonna be a lot of people to feed. Luckily, I've prepared plenty," he rattled on, as usual.

"But why are you cooking now? I thought you were gonna roast something once we got out there," Dad asked. "Something simple."

"I wanted to get an early start. There'll be a lot of us this time and I want to make sure there's more than enough for everyone," he answered. "And something simple just won't do. No sir. Not for such a special occasion."

"What are you making?" Daniel asked.

"Roasted geese. I know it's your favorite," Uncle Much beamed.

"That's your favorite, Uncle Much," Daniel laughed.

"Oh. Is it? Hm. I suppose it is." He appeared to be thinking. "What's your favorite then?" he asked.

"He's teasing you, Daniel. He's making lamb because he knows it's your favorite," Auntie Marian explained. "In fact, he went around the market yesterday and ordered up every bit of it he could get his hands on because he was worried there wouldn't be enough and he's been in that kitchen since early this morning."

"Well that's the least I can do for our boy, isn't it?" Uncle Much responded with a shrug. "Oh, do me a favor would you? On your way home, would you go by my house? There's some meat pies and cakes cooling on the window sill in the kitchen. Would you take them back to your house with you so you lot can load them up and take them out to the forest later on when you go? I'll have all this meat and such to deal with."

"Yeah. Sure," Daniel answered as Uncle Much shuffled back to the kitchen.

"We'd better be off then," Dad said. "The A Dale brood will be pulling into Locksley any time now, causing a ruckus, and we oughta be there to greet them. And I expect John will be along soon too."

"Very well. Will we all head out to the forest together then?" Auntie Marian asked no one in particular. "I think we ought to take a cart for the very little ones. It's a long walk, after all. But in my condition, I'd rather walk. A cart ride would be too bumpy. I imagine Rebecca will feel the same way."

"You're right. A cart for the little ones would be best. The rest of us can walk. But we can still all go together. It'll give us all more time to catch up," Dad said. "Why don't we meet at our house about three hours before sunset?"

"Sounds good," Uncle Robin answered as Daniel and his father departed.

Daniel walked into Uncle Much's house a few moments later—Dad having continued on his way home—and marveled at the difference between that house and the one he'd just left. Although Uncle Much's house was hardly more than a few steps from Locksley Manor's front door, it may as well have existed in another country. Where the manor house was a hub of activity with children, laughter, guests, and general liveliness, Uncle Much's home was small, dark and gloomy.

It was the epitome of solitude and loneliness. There was a bed in the corner, a small table, a hearth, and a small food preparation area. That was it. No comfortable seating arranged about the hearth for pleasant conversations after supper, no big bed large enough to share with anxious little ones frightened by the thunder and lightening on a stormy night, no scuff marks left on the furniture by rowdy children at play. It was at once obvious, to anyone entering, that this house—as opposed to Locksley Manor or Daniel's own home—sheltered no family between it's sturdy walls.

It was hardly a fitting abode for the Lord of Bonchurch.

But Uncle Much preferred to be near his friends and especially Uncle Robin. And, as far as Daniel could recall, he had never spent more than a few nights at his Bonchurch lodge for as long as he'd been its master. He still saw to it that everything ran smoothly and that his people were well-cared for, but he simply didn't want to live there.

At least not alone.

Daniel still remembered how, when they'd all moved out of the forest at last in order to settle in the village, and all of the newly-pardoned former outlaws had been so nervous about making such an adjustment after surviving so long on the fringes of society, Uncle Much had been the only one who'd been truly excited. The others were grateful for their change in fortune, of course, but they'd spent far too long living like hunted animals to be able to ease into a normal life so quickly.

Daniel had found their behavior so terribly odd at the time. His parents and the others had spoken to him about the changes that were taking place and told him how wonderful it would all be and he, for his part, had been overjoyed at the prospect of moving into the village and living nearer to his friends. But then, Daniel supposed, children are often so much more adaptable than adults. He was ashamed now whenever he remembered how he'd snickered over their strange behavior—seeing it as some grown-up quirk.

Like the times that Uncle Allan had instinctively pushed him between two stands and blocked him from sight whenever there had been any sort of loud noise or ruckus in the market place, and then tried to laugh it off as a game when Daniel would question him. Or the way that Uncle Robin had maintained the habit of wearing a hooded cloak regardless of the weather anytime he'd gone outside Locksley village. Or how Uncle John had always preferred using side streets or back alleys to main roads and crowded squares and had avoided going into town at nearly all costs.

And of course, the way that Daniel's own parents had automatically pulled up their hoods and reached for the weapon at their side—the weapons they no longer carried—anytime someone called their name or approached them on the street. Or the way the faintest creak of a floorboard would start their eyes darting about for a place to hide before they would catch themselves and laugh at their silliness.

And how, for at least the entire first year they'd lived in the village, Daniel was certain that his parents had never once slept through a whole night together. One or the other of them was always up, seated at the window or just off to the side of the back door, with a weapon in hand. All night, every night. "Keeping watch" they'd called it.

Just in case.

Daniel had rolled his eyes at their nervous over-protectiveness back then. But looking back now, he realized just how naïve he'd been. And just how difficult that time must have been for them. All of them.

Except Uncle Much.

He was the only one—besides Daniel, of course—who'd slipped right into village life with nary a care. He'd walked about Nottingham with a song on his lips and a spring in his step back then and had cheerily greeted each and every person he'd come into contact with each and every day. He'd been recently knighted and had taken possession of Bonchurch—both gifts from Uncle Robin for years of friendship and faithful service—and he'd acted as if he were on top of the world. The only thing left for him to do, he'd explained, was to locate Eve and then they could settle down as Lord and Lady of the manor and start their new lives. Together.

But she never came.

And—despite all of his efforts—he'd never managed to find her. He'd tried his best and had even hired people to extend the search all over England. He'd offered rewards for any information that anyone could provide—something that had upset Umm very much at the time, Daniel remembered. Umm had been afraid that people would take advantage of Uncle Much's trusting nature and bring him false information in order to secure the reward. And they had. Over and over again. But he'd never given up.

Months and then years had gone by and—although Uncle Much's smile would sometimes falter and the sparkle in his eyes would dim from time to time when he spoke of her—he'd always maintained that he'd find her one day. He'd refused to move into Bonchurch until they were wed—insisting that it just wouldn't be the same without Eve there—and so he'd settled in Locksley in a little temporary home on the outer edge of the manor house. The home he still occupied today—although he spent the bulk of his time at Locksley Manor.

Daniel had never met this Eve, but he'd heard quite a lot about her from Uncle Much—who'd spoken of her almost constantly back then—and also from the others—who spoke in hushed tones when he wasn't around. But Daniel was certain that she must be an extraordinary woman to be able to hold such a place in his uncle's heart even after all this time.

It was not as if Uncle Much hadn't had other prospects. He was a man of property, after all—not to mention one of Robin Hood's famous merry men—and wealthy lords were always parading their daughters in front of him hoping to entice him into proposing marriage. Everybody—including Daniel's own parents and Uncle Robin—was certain that, given enough time, he would move on and do just that.

But Daniel suspected differently.

He still recalled the way that Uncle Much had spoken about her—even way back when they'd all lived in the forest and Daniel had kept him company while he'd prepared supper or mended Uncle Robin's socks. His eyes had lit up in the same way that Dad's did every time he looked at Umm. Every single time. Like she was his whole world and no other woman could compare with her.

And though Daniel was, admittedly, not terribly inclined toward romantic notions, he doubted whether a man could ever fall out of a love that deep.

Presently, he pulled back the curtains in order to let in some much-needed light and fished around Uncle Much's pantry until he found a crate to put the pies and cakes in. Balancing the now-full crate in his hands, he took a final, sad look around before heading out the front door—using a foot to pull the door shut as he backed out.

And right into Mary.

"Sorry, I—" he started, whirling around to face her, then stopped and stared stupidly as he took in the rosiness in her cheeks from the cool autumn weather.

"What the hell is the matter with you?" she demanded, her hands on her hips and her face inches from his.

Okay, so maybe it wasn't just the weather making her face flush. Clearly, she was angry. He tried to back away from her but found himself up against the closed door.

"I...uh...What d'you mean?" he stammered nervously.

"What do I mean? You know perfectly well what I mean! You've been acting like a complete idiot ever since you got back! At first I figured you just had to get back into the swing of things. Fine. Then, I thought that maybe you'd changed over there what with all of the differences and everything and that maybe you just didn't have anything in common with us anymore. Okay. I guess I might be able to understand that. Things happen, people change." She exhaled in a long huff.

"What are you—" Daniel began but was interrupted as she continued in a louder voice.

"But now I find out that Bart is going to your party tonight! The party that—according to you—your parents have insisted is only for family. Family! Yet Bart's invited. So what does that make me? Huh?"

"I...I uh..."

"I'll tell you what it makes me? It makes me mad! That's what! For weeks now I've been trying to figure out what's wrong with you, Daniel. To figure out what's changed between us," she said in an increasingly desperate voice. "And now I think I finally get it."

All of a sudden her lips were on his and he had no time to react or even any idea of how to react. The kiss, rather than being sweet like a first kiss probably ought to be, was forceful and searching and he wasn't sure how he was meant to respond.

He'd never kissed a girl before and he'd certainly never been kissed by one. And even if he had he didn't think it would have prepared him for this. He was thankful that at least he still held the crate which prevented him from having to guess where to put his hands. Or where not to put them.

The kiss seemed to last a long time and Daniel realized after a moment that his eyes were closed and that he wasn't kissing her back. But by the time he'd gathered his wits enough to attempt it, it was over. It had ended just as abruptly as it had begun.

He opened his eyes to find her glaring at him with her arms folded across her chest and a self-satisfied smirk across her face.

"I...I...what was...I...that...you...why..." He couldn't seem to force anything more coherent out of his mouth.

"My my. You're quite the smooth talker there, Daniel Scarlett," she said wryly.

"You kissed me," he finally said. Stupidly.

"And so observant too," she teased as her smirk widened and became a huge grin. And Daniel realized that he was grinning too. Like an idiot. "I like you, Daniel. A lot. And you like me."

He nodded his agreement, trying to recall again why he'd been avoiding her...avoiding this...all this time.

"Then why?" she asked, dropping her arms to her sides, her courage visibly faltering for the first time. "Why shut me out? Am I not...sophisticated enough for the likes of you? Because I don't read books and speak other languages and such? Because I'm not like the girls you met over there? Is that it?"

"No! No, Mary. That's not it at all," he insisted, placing the crate on the ground beside the door and reaching for her hand instinctively—the first easy and natural contact between them in a long long time. "I...I think you're amazing. I really do. I've just been so confused about so many things since I got back. And I haven't wanted to bother you with...with my feelings about you until I'd figured out some other stuff. Not about you, just...other stuff. That's all. I'm so sorry."

And slowly and carefully he leaned in to kiss her. She kissed him back and this time it wasn't forceful or searching, but soft and yielding. And suddenly everything else in Daniel's life slipped right into perspective. Everything suddenly just fit and he knew what he needed to do.

The kiss was over far too soon for his liking but he remembered—for the first time—that they were out in the open where anyone could see them. He wouldn't want anyone to get it in their head to carry tales about Mary, so he stepped back from her a little and released her hand.

"I know it's kind of late notice, but um...would you like to come out to the forest with us tonight?" he asked tentatively as he retrieved the crate from the ground near his feet—more to distract himself than anything else.

She waved her hand at him somewhat dismissively. "I was gonna go anyway whether you asked me or not," she announced stubbornly. "Since when do I let anyone keep me out of the fun?"

That made him laugh because truer words were probably never spoken.

"That's my girl," he said offhandedly—as it was the sort of thing he often said to her in admiration whenever she was particularly blunt or pushy—without thinking of the new implications.

"I am, you know," she whispered to him after a moment in a voice that was almost shy in its contrast to her earlier actions.

Daniel smiled and placed a quick kiss on one of her rosy cheeks. "I'll come get you when we're ready to go. Okay?"

"Don't be late," she ordered with a smile as they parted—with Daniel heading toward his house and Mary toward hers.

As he made his way through the village on his way home—his mind a buzz of new thoughts and plans—he found a renewed comfort in the people he passed along the way. The folks going about the hustle and bustle of everyday village life. He thought about how lucky they were—himself included—to live in Locksley. It was a happy and productive village. In fact, all of Nottingham was prosperous—one of the most prosperous shires around.

Of course, it hadn't always been that way.

Daniel knew that there had been a time, in the not too distant past, when things in Nottingham—and Locksley in particular—were dire indeed. When families starved and cruel men ruled. When expressing dissatisfaction was tantamount to asking for death and just trying to survive often ended in a lashing, a spell in the dungeons or even the loss of a hand.

Thus had been the fate of Daniel's own grandfather—the kind and brave man whose name he carried—as well as many others. There had been no one to protect them back then, with Uncle Robin away fighting in the war. No one to stand up for them or encourage them to stand up for themselves.

Daniel had grown up hearing the stories of Uncle Robin's return to his beloved home, only to find that nothing was as he'd left it. That a cruel man and his 'lapdog'–as Uncle Robin referred to the man—had taken over. Then the day had come—the day which now lived on in song and story—when Uncle Robin had had to make a choice. He had done the only thing he could do, according to his own recounting of the tale, and had saved the lives of Dad, Uncle Luke, Uncle Allan, and a young man named Benedict. Thereby giving up all rights to his freedom and his lands and having to live outside the law as a hunted man.

But he hadn't given up. He'd recruited a few like-minded, brave souls and had started a crusade of his own. One that he'd hoped would feed people and keep them safe...give them hope...until the King returned to make matters right.

As it happened, the King finally had returned shortly after Daniel's birth. At last the war was over. Peace had been declared and the time for healing could begin. And, although Daniel was far too young to have any memories of that time, he knew from all that he'd heard that the outlaws had rejoiced that their time in exile had at long last come to an end.

They had celebrated and feasted and made all sorts of plans. The King was their savior and his return meant that all wrongs would be righted and that the good men and women who had fought the good fight in his absence and in his name would be rewarded with pardons and lands and titles galore.

Or so Uncle Robin had always told them. And so he had believed.

But the reality had turned out to be something very different. When Uncle Robin had ridden out to meet the King, anticipating a reception befitting—if nothing else—their former association when Uncle Robin had served him faithfully in the war, he had found himself barred from the King's presence.

He was an outlaw, after all—England's most famous one, at that—and there were very few who were unaware of the lengths to which he would go in order to tell his version of recent events to the King. A King who had been apprised of his lawless activities and warned that he might try something. In fact, Uncle Robin had barely escaped being caught and executed by the King's own guards—some of them men Uncle Robin had once served with.

He'd returned to Nottingham angry and nearly defeated. He'd felt betrayed, naturally, but also concerned and fearful over the fates of his lads. Men who had trusted him and believed what he'd promised. Men who—despite a bleak existence and deeply-felt losses—had placed their faith in their leader and fought for his King.

Uncle Robin had then made several more attempts to get a message to the King, but had been thwarted at every turn.

But finally, Auntie Marian's father—being a titled man and the former Sheriff of Nottingham—had succeeded in securing a meeting with King Richard. He'd been made to wait several weeks at the King's court before being granted an audience, however, and even then he'd had to speak his piece in front of dozens of other men—many of them known supporters of the King's brother. But he had spoken without fear of reprisals—having had complete confidence in the protection and good judgment of his King.

He'd told of the hardships in Nottingham, of the deaths and imprisonments with little or no foundation in the law. He'd told of the plotting and scheming by the then-Sheriff and others to remove the King from the throne by any means necessary and to place his brother, John, upon it in his place.

And he'd told of the brave and selfless actions of Robin Hood and his men. Of how they fought for the King—in his name and for his people, fed the poor, and worked for the restoration of justice.

The king had listened to all that he was told and then Sir Edward was thanked for his 'evidence' and told to return to Knighton. And so he had—confused and worried, but optimistic. And weeks passed. And then weeks became months.

And nothing was done. Then at last, the news had got around that the King had forgiven his brother—for everything—and that he had left him in charge once again as he'd set off on another foreign campaign.

Uncle Robin had taken the news quite hard, naturally. As much as he'd been fighting for the people and for justice, he'd also been fighting for his king. And his king had not only abandoned him, but had left the very men in charge who had made such a mess of things in the first place.

The bad Sheriff, Vaisey, and the false Lord of Locksley—a man named Gisbourne—were not only left in their positions, but they now had no reason to fear reprisals when the King returned. For it was fairly well understood that the King had no intention of setting foot on English soil again. Ever.

Things only got worse from that moment on.

If possible, life became even more perilous for the outlaws. And they'd had no reason to believe that things would ever get any better. They were hunted relentlessly, as always. But many of the common people had even turned against them and their efforts during that time after realizing that Uncle Robin was no longer able to guarantee any sort of happy future for Nottingham. Traps were set for them in the most unlikely of places and good men and women—those whom they'd once considered friends—had given in to temptation and accepted rewards for information on their whereabouts and activities.

Daniel had been aware of none of it, however. He had been shielded from the fear and despair by the people who loved him most and he still marveled—to this very day—at the lengths they must have gone to in order to make him feel safe and content. Even in the worst of circumstances.

But the one who'd fared worst of all was Sir Edward. He and Auntie Marian were now seen as open opponents of the Prince and Vaisey due the testimony Sir Edward had offered to the King. The two were stripped of any family wealth they had managed to hold onto and were essentially kept prisoner in their own home. They were watched day and night and their few servants were replaced with others who were loyal only to Vaisey.

They'd known that it was only a matter of time before they were hauled off to the dungeons or hanged and they'd lived in constant fear that they would be killed in their sleep or that their food would be poisoned before that day even arrived. They were trapped, without friend or ally—any who might have sided with them having run for cover after the King's departure.

Uncle Robin had been able to do very little to help and had begged them both repeatedly to leave Knighton and come into the forest. But Sir Edward had refused to consider it and Auntie Marian would not leave him. She feared for his life and his health. He'd stopped eating, barely slept, and hardly even left his bed on most days. He grew weaker and his mind began to desert him.

Auntie Marian had sent for Umm—despite the danger to all of them that such interaction posed—because she feared he had been poisoned. Umm had concluded, after a thorough examination, that there was no evidence of foul play. That he had simply given up. He'd lost the will to go on in the face of so much defeat and he seemed to be merely waiting for death to claim him.

Umm had explained that there was nothing she could do if he refused to help himself and that—at the rate he was deteriorating—his days were few indeed. As it turned out, he was dead within a year of his audience with the king.

Auntie Marian had been devastated and she had finally decided that there was nothing left for her but to join the outlaws in Sherwood Forest. She'd come to the conclusion that she could do far more for her people from the outside than the inside at that point. So she and Uncle Robin had married in a small, secret ceremony—marriage being one of the privileges forbidden to outlaws—by a priest who was a loyal friend.

Again, Daniel knew all of this only because he'd heard—and overheard—the stories so many times growing up. He'd still been far too young to understand any of what was happening around him. As far as he recalled, Auntie Marian had always lived with them and had always been an important part of his life. He didn't remember her father at all—although he had no doubt that he'd been a brave and honorable man in his day.

Those years had been bleak ones indeed. The outlaws had been betrayed and abandoned by their king and shunned by many of the people for whom they had worked so tirelessly. Uncle Robin had felt it only right to make sure that his men knew that they were under no obligation to him and that they had his blessing to flee Nottingham and try to start over elsewhere.

But where could they have gone? They were known all over. Artists' renditions of them were distributed and posted all over England. In every tavern and market and port. Their faces and their names as familiar to most as the names of their own children.

There'd been nowhere to run and no place they could even hope to hide. They were trapped. Cornered. Staying in Sherwood was at least safer than being out in the open. And besides, the people still needed them—even if many of them refused to acknowledge that fact. And so they had chosen to stay. To fight. To aid the poor and downtrodden of Nottingham just as they always had.

They'd still stopped passing nobles and took any and every opportunity to rob the Sheriff of his ill-gotten wealth. They'd looted his food stores and stolen his money. And they'd given every bit of what they took to the starving villagers.

The outlaws themselves had been forced to live on money that Ysaac brought to Umm from Acre during his yearly—and now much more dangerous—visits. Using Umm's money was something that had not sat well with the men of the group. They were proud and saw it as charity. But Umm had insisted, arguing that they had taken her in when she'd had nothing and they'd given her an equal share of what little they had. The very least she could do, she'd told them, was to share what she had. That's what families do.

Even so, finding someone willing to trade with them was extremely difficult at times and more often than not, they'd had to rely on the kindnesses of the few peasants who had not forgotten their earlier sacrifices. Daniel knew that he'd never—as long as he lived—be able to fully comprehend what those years had been like for them. Part of him felt guilty for that and part of him was immensely grateful that he hadn't been aware of most of it.

In a great many ways, they'd had it even more difficult than the people they'd helped and they must surely have assumed that there lives would always be that way. That there was no light at the end of the tunnel and they would always be hunted, scared, and on the outside looking in at a world that had no place for them.

When they'd received word that King Richard had died—some five years after leaving England—Daniel remembered how Uncle Robin had mourned. But he'd been the only one. The other outlaws had had very little patience for his grief. Even Uncle Much—who'd been very sad and worried over Uncle Robin's state of mind at the time—had long since let go of any affection he might have held for King Richard.

But Uncle Robin had always held out the hope that the king might come back one day and realize he'd been mistaken. That he might pardon all of them at last and stop the oppression and heavy taxation that claimed the lives of more and more good people every day. But with the King's death, all of his hope was finally lost. And he'd at last joined the others in accepting their fates.

But as it turned out, salvation had come from an unlikely source.

After a few years on the throne, King John had, apparently, decided that the long-coveted crown was not enough to ensure his happiness. He was unloved and unpopular. A bad king—many said. And yet, through everything, Robin Hood and his men were still praised and remembered in ballads and stories all across the land. This was what the king craved. This adoration, this devotion. The kind of passionate following that guaranteed one immortality.

And so a messenger had come to the forest with an unlikely offer. If Uncle Robin would cease speaking out against King John, and if he would instead speak of his virtues, his righteousness, his God-given right to the throne...then he would be pardoned. His lands and titles restored.

Uncle Robin, of course, had scoffed at such an idea. And he'd placed the edge of his blade at the base of the man's neck and warned him never to return to Sherwood Forest.

But the offers had continued. Each one sweeter than the last. Pardons for all of his men. Rewards. Lands. Security. Freedom from prosecution for any deed done while they'd been outlawed or before. A fresh start.

But the outlaws could not be swayed by such pretty promises. They had lost far too much that could never be recovered. A wife and child, a brother, a father. And time. So much time. Time that they could never get back. And they had no reason to trust in the King's promises at any rate. Even if they had been tempted.

But the final offer was the one that had made the difference. The King—clearly thinking that freeing and pardoning Robin Hood was a sure way into men's hearts—would remove the Sheriff from office and see to it that he and his supporters payed for their 'crimes'. Never mind the fact that the then-Sheriff had been taking his orders directly from King John himself and all that he'd done had helped secure the King's position. None of that mattered to a king who wanted—needed—to be loved. By the people.

Like Robin Hood was.

The outlaws had had to seriously consider the people of Nottingham. The people who had lived under tyranny for so long that most of them were barely surviving day to day. But wouldn't the next Sheriff likely be just as harsh as the last? King John had anticipated such a response and had offered Uncle Robin the job himself. Or—if he declined—the authority to choose the next Sheriff. To choose someone to his liking. Someone who would do things the way Uncle Robin believed they should be done.

So in the end, the outlaws had taken the chance on accepting his terms. They'd refused his titles and his offers of land and lofty positions—having no desire or need for such things—but they'd accepted his offer of a pardon and a new sheriff. Not for themselves—for they'd long since become resigned to their fate—but for the people for whom they fought. The people who deserved a better way of life.

And though it pricked their pride a bit to be seen aligning themselves with King John—a man who had been a thorn in their sides for so long—there was no denying the fact that he was the rightful king and saying so—which was all they were prepared to do as his virtues were something none of them had any intention of touting—was a small price to pay for a safe life for themselves, their loved ones and the people of Nottingham.

And so it was settled—all very secretly, of course. And within days the King's guards had moved in and seized Vaisey—taking him to London to await 'trial'. But his most loyal 'lapdog', the false Lord of Locksley was nowhere to be found. It was later assumed that he'd been tipped off somehow as to the unfolding events and had fled to France—in the dead of night—with his wife and children in tow and nothing but that which they could carry upon their backs.

Uncle Robin had been furious. He'd suspected some sort of trick and had threatened to back out of his arrangement with the King. So finally, Auntie Marian had confessed that she had been the one to warn Sir Guy of Gisbourne of his impending arrest and likely execution. According to what she'd explained at the time, she'd crept into his home very late one night and begged him to think of his family. Of his wife and children. To take them far away from England immediately without telling anyone—particularly Vaisey—what they were doing.

She'd admitted that his first instinct had been to kill her on the spot—as apparently he had at one time been rather fond of her and had felt deeply stung by her desertion of him in favor of an outlaw's life. But she'd managed to convince him to hear her out which he'd reluctantly done. And then he'd simply allowed her to leave the way she'd come. He hadn't called for his guards and he hadn't tried to follow her. He'd just let her go.

Upon learning of what she'd done, Uncle Robin had been angrier than Daniel had ever seen him. Angrier than Daniel had ever seen anyone. Auntie Marian had maintained that she'd done the right thing. That Sir Guy wasn't like the Sheriff. Not really. That she was certain that she owed him her life. That when she and her father had been on such precarious ground with the Sheriff, after King Richard's departure, she felt sure that it was Sir Guy's influence that had kept them from the hangman's noose. Otherwise, she was certain that Vaisey would have done away with them immediately.

But Uncle Robin had not been convinced nor had he been appeased by her attempts at soothing him. He'd ranted and raved like a madman and then he'd stormed out of their camp and hadn't returned for weeks. Weeks! None of them had known where he was or even if he intended to return. That had been a terrible time. Daniel didn't need stories and whispered conversations to fill in the blanks of what had happened during that time. For he remembered that part for himself. How could he forget?

He'd been used to Uncle Robin and Auntie Marian arguing. It was something they did quite a lot, even back then. But it was always good-natured and it was usually over very quickly. But that time, Daniel had been truly scared. He'd missed his uncle horribly and had been very worried that he would never see him again. Everyone had tried not to let on to him how concerned they were, but he had known just the same.

Finally, a few weeks later, Uncle Robin had returned to them. Just like that. Looking thin and scruffy, but thankfully in one piece. He'd never mentioned the row again and, as far as Daniel was aware, neither had anyone else. Things were frosty between him and Auntie Marian for a while after, but they eventually got back to normal.

So, when Daniel had been about six years old, the outlaws had moved into Locksley Village. And all of a sudden they had normal lives. Just like that. They could go to the market, walk about the town, openly converse with their neighbors. It must have been so hard for them at first, but now it was almost as if those years in hiding had never happened. As if they really were just stories swapped around the fire at night or ballads thought up and sung by drunks in crowded taverns.

Almost.

In any event, they had a good Sheriff now. A man hand-picked by Uncle Robin and the rest of his men. Someone who understood justice and who did more than simply collect the taxes and man the jails. He looked out for his people and made certain that things ran smoothly. That good men were not taken advantage of and that people had enough to live on. Nottingham was a good place to live and its people were safe and prosperous.

And as Daniel looked around his village now, he couldn't help but be proud of the role his parents and their friends had played in ensuring that it was so.

As he neared his house he noticed a cart parked along the front road and he quickened his pace. As soon as he walked through the door and set down the pies and cakes he carried, he was grabbed from behind and spun so high in the air that he was glad he'd skipped breakfast. "Uncle Allan! Put me down!" he said, unable to suppress a childish giggle.

"What, too big for that now, are ya?" he chuckled, setting a swaying Daniel back on solid ground.

"Yeah. For some time, I'd say," Dad said, coming in through the back door.

"Nah. Never too big to horse play with your uncle," Uncle Allan answered. "Ain't that right, Danny Boy?"

Daniel smiled and nodded as Uncle Allan mussed his hair affectionately. He'd missed his uncle.

"Seems you're the one who never grows too big for horseplayin'," Uncle Allan's wife Rebecca chimed in as she entered the room along with Umm and a whole line of small children following.

"Daddy! Daddy! Show me again how to do that trick with the coin! Please?" little Beatrice begged excitedly. "Salma don't believe I can do it!"

"That's 'cause she can't," Salma said, folding her arms across her chest and eying her friend skeptically. Her actions were immediately mimicked by Simon who was always her shadow.

"Can so! Just wait and see. My Daddy knows all the best tricks and he shows me how to do 'em," Beatrice answered indignantly.

"Hey hey, now. None of that. I'll show you the trick again, but you have to play nice," Uncle Allan told his four year old daughter.

"But she—"

"Enough, Beatrice. You've been looking forward to coming here for weeks now so that you could play with Salma. Now don't spoil everyone's good time with such nonsense," Rebecca said sternly.

"And the same goes for you, young lady," Umm told Salma with a look that everyone knew meant business.

"Sorry," the girls said in unison before throwing their arms around Uncle Allan's legs and begging to see the trick. Simon, of course, followed suit.

"If ya give me a coin and close yer eyes, I bet I can make it disappear," Thomas, Uncle Allan's five year old son, announced proudly.

"Oh I bet you could," Umm laughed. "There was a time when your father was quite good at making people's coins disappear."

"Still is," Rebecca added. "You should see what he's charging for a pint these days."

"Man's gotta make a livin'," Uncle Allan answered with one of his cheeky grins.

"My dad says there's nothin' wrong with chargin' a man fer his voice," Thomas informed the group, who laughed.

"I think you mean his vice," Daniel's father offered.

"Yeah, that," Thomas answered, looking quizzically at the laughing faces of his parents and their friends.

"You take after him more and more each time I see you," Dad said, chucking the little blond-haired boy under the chin and earning himself a scowl for it.

"Ma!" Saffiya called, coming through the back door with her baby brother on her hip. "I can't get Muriel and William away from that goat and I think Colin's hungry again."

"Alright, alright. Allan, you see to the two little ones while I feed the baby," she said, taking her youngest son from the six year old's arms. She set herself down at the table and undid her top while Uncle Allan headed out into the yard with Thomas, Salma, Beatrice, and Saffiya in tow. Simon tried to keep up but stumbled and fell on his way out the door and began to cry.

Both of his parents rushed forward but Dad got their first and righted the little boy before brushing him off and giving him a quick once over to make sure he hadn't really hurt himself.

"Shh. You're okay. You try so hard to keep up, don't you, son? But Salma's just too quick sometimes," Dad said soothingly, picking the three year old up and giving him a kiss on the forehead. "You know? I bet you're tired out from so much activity, aren't you?"

Simon nodded, rubbing his tear-streaked face sleepily and laying his head on Dad's shoulder. So Dad carried him off into one of the back rooms to lay him down for a nap.

Daniel took a seat just outside the back door to watch what was sure to be very entertaining as Uncle Allan attempted to round up all the children. He wondered where Janey was and then realized that she was probably up in her tree house, by herself, reading one of her books.

Whereas Salma was an extremely social little girl and made friends wherever she went, Janey just wasn't comfortable around other kids. She didn't seem to have anything in common with them and he wondered sometimes if they were doing her a disservice by not trying to coax her out into the world a bit more. But, at the same time, she seemed perfectly content and he wouldn't want to do anything that would make her uncomfortable.

"Goodness, Rebecca! Do not tell me that you are still giving him the breast? You are much too far along for that," Daniel heard Umm say in astonishment as she took a seat near the other woman.

He had his back to them and was a few feet away, but he could still hear them clearly through the open door. He wondered for a moment if it might not be worth the effort to go out and assist Uncle Allan in corralling the children rather than remaining within earshot of a conversation that was sure to turn to children, husbands and other womanly matters that Daniel had no interest in hearing.

"I know. I know," Rebecca said and Daniel could just imagine her patting her round belly. "I'd meant to have him weaned by now but there just aren't enough hours in the day sometimes to get done with everything I have to do," she sighed.

"But Allan said that the tavern is doing so well. He was telling us that he just hired an extra man to tend the bar and one to keep order on busy nights. Could he not afford some help for you with the children?" Umm asked.

"He's offered many times. But I don't really like the idea of them thinking of somebody else as their mother, you know? If she's feeding 'em and bathing 'em and keeping track of 'em while they play, how're they suppose to know which of us is their ma?"

"That would not happen and you know it. Of course they would know that you are their mother. How could they not? Marian is quite happy with the girl she and Robin have looking after their children. Rose is her name and she is very good with them, but there is never any doubt as to who their mother is."

"Maybe I'll talk to Marian about it tonight," Rebecca said after pausing to consider Umm's words carefully. "You know, I should have done what you told me years ago and spaced the babies out a little better. It's just that sometimes I'd get so busy what with trying to help Allan get the tavern up and running and chasing around after the little ones all day that I'd forget to take the seeds you gave me. Not often, but once is all it takes."

"Very true. How do you think we got Simon?" Umm said and the two women laughed. Daniel rolled his eyes and was once again grateful he'd skipped breakfast as he scooted his stool even further away from the house. "That is why I always tell women to keep them by their bedside so that there is never any chance of forgetting,"

"But I'm not complaining. Really I'm not. I love having a houseful. Me and Allan had to wait so long to marry and start a family that I guess we just tried to fit as many kids into the past seven years as we possibly could," Rebecca laughed.

"And Allan is so good with them. He has such a way with children. I remember when Daniel was just a little boy back in the forest, Will and I never had to worry about getting him to sleep at night because Allan would spend the last hours after supper each night tiring him out with stories and tricks and every game he could think up," Umm said wistfully. "I always knew that he would make an excellent father one day."

"Yeah. He's a good dad, he is. I'll give him that. A bit too soft on the children for my liking sometimes, but there are worse things, aren't there?"

Daniel watched his uncle as he ran about trying to gather up every one of the children, only to realize, just after getting his hands on the last one, that the other ones were not where he'd put them. It was true. He was a great father. He never seemed to lose patience. And he was always quick with a song or a story in order to soothe a cranky child—his or someone else's.

One of the saddest days of Daniel's young life had been when Uncle Allan, Rebecca and their—then three—children had moved from Locksley over to Barnsdale to open up a tavern. Uncle John had left Locksley not long before, but Daniel had at least understood his reasoning.

Daniel knew how much Uncle John loved his own son and how much he regretted missing seeing him grow up. Uncle John spoke to him often of Little Little John and of how much he wished he could be a part of his life. Although he loved Daniel and the rest of the children of his fellow former gang members, not a day went by when he didn't think of his son and wonder what he was up to.

So when Little Little John had come to Nottingham a few years back to seek him out and ask him to consider moving out to Bolsover to be near his grandchildren, Uncle John had been surprised and very touched. It was more than he'd ever expected and must have seemed to him like the second chance he'd so often prayed for.

Daniel had been so sad to see him go but he'd understood. He'd known that he would miss Uncle John's piggy back rides and the long quiet walks they shared through the forest—with Uncle John speaking only to point out the different edible plants or best fishing spots—but he'd also known that Uncle John needed to be near his own son. And that it was a wonderful thing that he would get the chance to watch his grandchildren grow up after missing out on his son's childhood.

But Uncle Allan's departure had felt like abandonment. It had felt to Daniel as if his whole family was leaving him. First Uncle John, then Uncle Allan and Rebecca. And all to open up some stupid tavern! It had seemed so unfair at the time.

But Daniel now understood how hard it must have been for Uncle Allan in Locksley. He didn't have an estate with an income like Uncle Much or Uncle Robin. And he didn't have a craft like Dad or knowledge of healing like Umm. And where Uncle John had been able to do odd jobs in order to earn enough to feed himself—being vehemently opposed to accepting charity from his friends, Uncle Allan had had several mouths to feed and another on the way.

His skills ran more along the lines of making people feel at ease and showing everyone a good time. So a tavern in Barnsdale had seemed to be right up his alley and Daniel now understood that it had been the right decision. He also knew how hard it was for Uncle Allan to leave him—having been a part of Daniel's life since day one.

He had probably spent about as much time with Daniel as his own parents had and Daniel knew that—despite the fact that Uncle Allan had had children of his own by that point—the separation had been just as difficult for him as it had been for Daniel.

"Anybody home?" came a booming voice from the front door and Daniel peeked in to see Uncle John stepping inside after stomping his feet to remove the soil from his boots.

"John!" Umm said, getting up and running to throw her arms around the big man. "Come inside. Sit. Can I get you anything?"

"Cup 'o water'd be nice," he said sitting himself down at the table and politely averting his gaze from Rebecca as she now hastily fastened her top after feeding the now-sleeping one year old in her lap.

"John," Rebecca nodded in greeting. "I thought Will told me you were bringing a couple of your grandkids."

"Just the two oldest boys this time. They're sleeping in the back of the wagon. I was gonna wake 'em when we pulled into Locksley, but I thought better to let 'em sleep. They're bound to be up late tonight and a nap now might do 'em good," he answered.

"Hey, Uncle John," Daniel greeted, coming to sit beside him.

"Well, look at you! I think you've grown since last I saw you."

"You just saw me a few weeks ago!" Daniel laughed at the fact that Uncle John accused him of growing taller every single time he saw him. No matter how little time passed between visits sometimes.

"I think that you are right about that, John. You know, he is already nearly as tall as Will and yet I think that he has not finished growing. It is possible that one day he will pass even you," Umm said, setting a cup of water in front of him.

"Aye. I wouldn't doubt it," he replied. "So how's it feel to me a man now?" he asked Daniel.

"Same, I suppose," Daniel shrugged, making everyone at the table laugh although he wasn't quite sure why.

"Granddad?" came a small voice from the doorway. They all turned to see a skinny boy of about seven standing shyly at the entrance.

"David, come in boy. Come and sit with Granddad. Is your brother still sleeping?" Uncle John asked the boy as he slowly edged closer, being careful not to make eye contact with anyone.

"Mm hm," the little boy answered as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes and parked himself on his grandfather's big lap.

"The other children are out in the back with Allan if you want to go out and join them," Umm offered. But David declined with a quick shake of his head.

"He's a quiet one, my David. Stays out of the fray for the most part. But he keeps his Granddad company, don't ya boy?" Uncle John said, giving the boy an affectionate pat on the back.

"Well then, he may do better to stay in here with us. They are a rowdy bunch out there," Umm said.

"And I wonder what on earth is taken Allan so long to get those children rounded up?" Rebecca said.

"Last I saw, Thomas was trying to ride the goat and both William and Muriel were trying to figure out what would hatch if they sat on the chickens. At this rate, Uncle Allan's gonna be out there all night trying to settle everyone down," Daniel answered.

"Sounds as if it's a good thing Little Little Little John's still asleep in the wagon. He's a rambunctious one and he'd surely add to the chaos," Uncle John chuckled.

"Good Lord, John. Tell me you don't still call the boy that?" Dad said as he reentered the room after getting Simon off to sleep.

"What? Little Little Little John? That's his name. At least, it's what he's called." Everyone laughed and rolled their eyes at that. "It is," Uncle John insisted, somewhat bewildered by their reaction.

"Well then let us hope that the boy chooses some other name when he has a son. For I do not know how anyone could manage a mouthful like Little Little Little Little John," Umm said through her laughter.

Outlaw Camp, Sherwood Forest, Daniel's Birth Day, Late Autumn, 1194

Will silently pulled back the curtain that ran along the front of their bed and peered in. He was met with the wide open eyes of his wife.

"There, see Daniel?" he whispered to the child in his arms. "I told you that I heard Mama moving around in here. Or Mummy. Or...what do you want him to call you?" he asked Djaq.

"Will Scarlett, if you are telling me that I have been sleeping for so long that Daniel is now talking, I shall be very upset with you for not waking me sooner," she teased.

"No, silly. You have been out for quite a while. Just not quite that long," he laughed.

"You should have woken me," she admonished.

"I didn't have the heart to. I knew how tired you were and you looked so peaceful. Have you been awake for long?"

"I only awoke a moment ago," she said. "But you should not have let me sleep so long. I did not mean to leave you to tend to Daniel all on your own."

"You needed your rest," he told her. "Besides, we were fine. Everybody took turns holding him and playing with him. He seems to really like John's beard but Much tried singing to him and he wasn't having any of it."

"See? I knew that he was a sensible child," she laughed.

"Of course, as soon as he needed changing, they all decided they were ready for bed. Didn't they, son?" he asked the squirming infant. "But that's okay. We managed. He actually slept for most of the time you were resting anyway. I think he's hungry now, though," he told her.

"Ah yes. I suppose that is the one thing you cannot do yourself, eh?"

"Nope. I just don't have what it takes," he teased. "Do you need help sitting up?"

"No no. I can do it," she said, pulling herself up into a sitting position and reaching out for the baby.

"There we go," Will said, handing him over and taking a seat next to them on the bed before closing the curtain so they were shielded. Even though most of the other outlaws were asleep, he figured that it was a good idea to get into the habit keeping the curtain closed while Djaq was feeding the baby. For everyone's comfort.

As soon as Djaq had untied her gown and placed the child near her breast, he started making little sounds of frustration and frantically searching with his mouth. "My goodness! You are hungry. Give me a moment," she said, using her free hand to place her nipple against his mouth. As soon as he felt it, he settled down and began sucking contentedly.

Will, too, suddenly felt completely content. This was all he would ever want as long as he lived. This. A family with the woman he loved.

"So you didn't answer my question," he said quietly, brushing a strand of hair away from her face and watching in fascination as she fed their son.

"What question was that?" she asked, turning her head to look at him.

He immediately forgot what he'd been about to say. God help him she was so beautiful. Those eyes! He tried to gather his wits in order to speak, so caught off guard was he by her gaze. He wondered if she'd always have that effect on him.

"Er...What do you want him to call you? When he's older, I mean," he managed.

"I think that he will call me Umm," she said decidedly, turning her attention back to the baby.

"Oh right. Arabic for "mother" right? That makes sense." She had been teaching him some Arabic words over the past few months. He was finding the pronunciation of most words rather difficult, but she was very patient with him and she seemed confident in his ability to learn it by the time Daniel was ready to talk.

"And you?" she asked.

"Do you think he should call me the Arabic word for father?"

"It is up to you, my love. What would you like to be called?" she asked him.

"I was thinking of "Dad". That's what we always called our father. Luke and me. What do you think?"

"Yes. I like it. It suits you," she said as he watched her run a finger along the baby's cheek lovingly.

"You think so?"

"Yes, of course. It gives the feeling of strength and protection, yet at the same time, it is not too formal like "father" would be. It denotes comfort and familiarity. It sounds just right for you," she answered with a smile, never taking her eyes off their son.

And Will never took his eyes off of her. She never ceased to amaze him. The fact that she could pull so much meaning out of one simple word just boggled his mind. He supposed that was one of the benefits of being able to speak many languages. Perhaps she had learned ways of seeing the subtlety in names and words that most people missed. Perhaps that was how she was always able to choose the perfect words to express just what she wanted to say.

"Thank you, Djaq," he whispered, leaning in to kiss her face.

"What for?" she asked, turning toward him again.

"For this. For him," he said, indicating their son. "For loving me and giving me a family."

"Oh Will. I have not given you any more than you have given to me. You and Daniel mean everything to me. You know that." She appeared to contemplate something for a moment. "Would you do something for me?"

"Anything," he answered without hesitation.

"Would you bring me that small chest that Ysaac brought to me? The one with the—"

"I know the one you mean. I'll get it now."

He'd been wondering if there would ever come a day when she'd feel ready to open that chest and examine its contents. The two of them had spoken of it only once or twice during the weeks since she'd received it and he knew how afraid she was of the feelings that would arise in her at seeing the personal belongings of her departed loved ones.

When he returned with the chest, the baby had finished feeding and had drifted off to sleep.

"He looks so peaceful," she said softly, looking down at their son as she wiped away the milk from the corners of his mouth. "For now, he has no worries. But life is often so unkind."

Will noticed that her eyes darted very briefly over toward the chest he held as she said this and he thought for a moment that she was changing her mind. That she would tell him to take it back because she was not yet ready to fully face the past.

But instead she motioned for him to set it down if front of her—which he did—and she gently transfered the sleeping baby into his arms. He took a seat across from her on the bed so that he was facing her as she readied herself for a task that was likely to be extremely painful for her. The symmetry of her choosing to delve into the past and confront any unresolved feelings she may still have on the very day that they had welcomed a new life into the world was not lost on him.

He didn't want to pressure her either with words or glances, so he avoided looking both at her and the box in front of her. For a few moments she did nothing. She didn't move and she didn't say a word. Part of him wanted so much to find something he could say or do that might make this easier on her, but he knew that it was simply something she had to face on her own.

That thought made him wonder if she might not prefer to be alone when she opened it. That maybe she was not making any move to say or do anything because she was patiently waiting for him to take Daniel elsewhere in the camp, giving her some privacy.

As he looked up into her face to ask her if she wanted him to go, he saw that she was looking at him with an amused expression on her face.

"Whatever thoughts are dancing behind those eyes, Will Scarlett, will have to wait for at least a month," she said as she retied her gown.

And he realized that he'd been staring at her still-open top. Not staring really. It was just that his eyes had been resting there while he'd been deep in thought. It hadn't been intentional. He hadn't even noticed that her breast was still partially exposed until she'd called his attention to it. He blushed slightly and opened his mouth to try to explain himself when she spoke instead.

"Are you actually blushing?" she asked incredulously with a laugh. "After all that you and I have done together?"

"But I wasn't... I was just..." he stammered.

"Well, look at it this way. Yes, we will have to wait for a whole month before we can be together, but since I am no longer with-child, once we resume our...activities, I will no longer have to be so inhibited."

He was about to protest again and try to explain himself lest she think that he was some sort of animal who could not even control his urges on the day his wife gave birth, but then the meaning of her words registered somewhere in the back of his mind and he blanched.

"Wait. What?" he asked, swallowing hard.

"Well I have had to be somewhat...reserved...in our lovemaking, naturally. Because of the child in my womb. But now that he is born, I will be able to give myself to you more fully," she answered matter-of-factly.

Will was absolutely floored and he had no idea how to respond to that. He thought of the way that she routinely attacked him the moment they were alone together, clawing at him and nearly ripping off his clothes. Of the way that the things she did to him always made his eyes roll back in his head and his fists clench and had him pleading for mercy even as she left him begging for more.

Now she was telling him that there was more where that came from? That she'd been holding back? He really wished she hadn't told him so, for now the next month would surely feel like a year crawling by.

"What are you thinking?" she asked, breaking him out of his thoughts—which was probably a good thing—and causing a new blush to creep up his cheeks.

"I'm trying to decide if I'm the luckiest man alive or if I should start running for my life," he teased.

"Probably both," she answered evenly with only the tiniest glint of laughter in her eyes.

Her mood seemingly lightened, Will watched as she ran a shaky hand over the top of the box before unlatching it and pushing back the lid.


Later that night, Djaq jolted awake when she heard little Daniel begin to whimper lightly from his cradle at her bedside.

"There there. Everything is fine now. I am here. Shh shh," she lulled soothingly as she reached down and scooped him up.

"S'at the baby?" Will asked sleepily, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.

"I have him. You go back to sleep," she whispered.

"I'll stay up with you," he yawned.

"It has been a long and tiring day for you too, Will. There is no point in both of us being up. You should rest," she told him quietly. "Besides, Daniel and I have not had the chance to spend any time alone together yet. We have much to talk about."

Will chuckled. "Are you sure? Because I don't mind," he asked.

"I am sure. Go back to sleep," she encouraged him. He yawned again before turning over onto his stomach and resuming his slumber.

As the baby squirmed and fussed, she told him, "Now then. Let us get you some dry wrappings and then we can find a quiet place to sit together while you eat."

A few minutes later, she opened the hatch very quietly—careful not to wake anyone else—and stepped out into the bright, clear night. Daniel was still whimpering softly in frustration over being made to wait for his meal.

"What's the matter?" Much—who was on watch—asked anxiously the moment she stepped outside.

"Everything is fine, Much. I thought that I might sit at the base of that big oak and feed Daniel. But I do not want to interfere with your watch," she explained.

"Hi there, Daniel," Much cooed, peeling back the blanket from the infant's face. "It's your Uncle Much. Remember me? Want to hear a song?"

"Perhaps a song is not such a good idea while everyone is asleep," she said, hoping he would not decide to sing anyway.

"Oh. Perhaps you're right. Can I hold him, then?" he asked hopefully. "I hardly got to hold him at all while everyone else was up. And I have to make sure I spend enough time with him to counteract Allan's influence. Otherwise, Daniel will spend the rest of his life calling me Auntie Much."

"He is hungry right now but after I feed him you may hold him as long as you like," she told him. "And I promise you that he will never call you Auntie Much. He will love you and be proud to call you his uncle."

"Are you sure it's safe to have him outside so soon?" he asked worriedly all of a sudden.

At this, she laughed. "Our whole camp is outside, Much. Besides, the fresh air will do him good."

"But it's a bit chilly," he continued and Djaq marveled at how many worries one man could carry.

"He is nicely bundled up, I assure you."

"But then—"

"He will be fine, Much," she said a bit more pointedly. "And he is hungry. So I will sit over there and feed him now if you do not mind."

"Oh right. Of course. I'll just give you a bit of privacy then. I was just about to walk the perimeter of the camp anyway," he said.

Djaq took a seat by the big oak and began to feed her son. As she did so, she looked down into his determined little face as he took her milk as if he believed it might be the last time he would be fed. "No one is going to take it from you, you know," she laughed as she ran her finger over his face and head, struck by how much he seemed to resemble both her and Will.

"Today is your birth day, Daniel," she told him. "A very exciting and special day for you. You are starting your life."

He, of course, payed absolutely no attention to her words at all. For the moment, his whole world was wrapped up in being fed and clean and dry. But one day that would change. One day he would grow to be a man and he would no longer need her. It was natural and right that it should be so, she knew. But it frightened her none the less. The world was so big and full of so many cruelties and she just couldn't bear the thought of him being hurt or even disappointed.

"I am sure that you will have many ups and downs throughout your life," she continued. "But I hope that you can look back one day and say that you have had more good times than bad. That is the measure of a life well-lived."

He closed his eyes and his suckling began to slow. She thought that he was probably growing sleepy and she wondered how long it would take for her to learn all of his different cries and moods. How long before she became a good mother—like the village women she had seen who seemed to know instinctively what their children needed and wanted.

She wondered if there would ever come a day when she'd be completely confident in herself and her abilities with him. If she'd ever be worthy of him. He was such a blessing—one she had never asked for nor ever expected to receive—and she knew that she would spend her whole life trying to deserve him.

"I wonder if you will ever know how much I love you. How much your happiness means to me. I am going to try my hardest to give you the best life I can. Full of love and hope and family. I wish that I could promise you no worries or pain. But I cannot. Know this, though: You are my heart, Daniel Scarlett. And I will always love you more than anything in this world."

And she leaned down and kissed the top of his head as he drifted off to sleep.

Outlaw Camp, Sherwood Forest, Daniel's Birthday, Late Autumn, 1208

Daniel sat by himself off to the side and looked around the camp. He looked at all the people he loved and who loved him. The camp itself—the one his father had designed and built before Daniel was even born—was still in pretty good shape. Daniel and his Dad came out every once in a while to replace old boards or retie loosening beams. But it was well made and had proven that by standing the test of time.

This had been Daniel's first home and, although it was rather cramped at the moment due to all of the people within, there was a time when Daniel had been quite comfortable here. The former outlaws, too, had felt at home here. At times, Daniel was sure this was the only place they'd felt that way.

Daniel had lost count of the number of times over the years that they had gone out to the old camp for some sort of celebration, private meeting or even just for a break from village life. In fact, during their first year of freedom—back right before Umm, Auntie Marian, and Rebecca had started having babies—Daniel remembered that they had probably spent nearly as many nights at the old camp as they had in Locksley.

He recalled the way that one of them would come up with some reason for going out to the forest at least once per week—to check that everything was secure, or to see if any roof beams needed replacing, or to check if any animals had gotten inside. Any excuse. Then all of the others would volunteer to go along and they'd make an evening of it.

Things would start out awkwardly at first, but then slowly but surely, everyone would start to relax and the conversation would flow more readily until at last they were back to their old selves. If only for the night. They'd all sit around the fire, drinking and eating and talking. And, more times than not, it would grow late and someone would suggest that they all just sleep there. Which they would.

Despite the freedom and wonder of their new lives, the small camp deep within the forest had still been their true home back then. The one place where they could be themselves. Where they knew what to expect and where everything was familiar. Daniel now understood how hard a 'normal' life was for them during that first year. How difficult it was for each of them to find their place. How the villagers would routinely crowd around them and talk about the glory days or ask them for advice on some matter or other. Or just how strange it was to sleep in a regular bed or walk down the street without fear.

Although Daniel knew that his parents and the others were grateful to be free and especially to be so readily accepted by everyone in Nottingham, he also recognized now how those evenings spent at their old camp were probably the only times they felt like they could breathe easily. Even for a short while. It must have been so comforting for them to spend some time surrounded by no one but the only other people on earth who could possibly understand what they were feeling.

Of course, as the babies came, work got busy, responsibilities grew, and people moved away, the trips to the forest became fewer and further between. They would still come out sometimes for a celebration or just a break, but hardly ever with all of them at the same time.

In fact, Daniel couldn't remember the last time they'd all been together anywhere. But they'd all come together for his fourteenth birthday. They had left their homes and work and come out with him to celebrate this very special day. Because they were his family and they loved him. And he'd never felt luckier.

On this particular night, they'd all been at the camp for several hours now. Food and drink had been passed around, jokes and stories shared—some old, some new—and a good time was had by all. The very little ones had fallen asleep at least an hour ago and everyone who remained awake was snuggled up in a blanket or huddled about the fire.

The adults were all in one corner of the camp, having a quiet conversation of which Daniel could hear only snippets or the tinkling of laughter from time to time. His parents were holding hands—as usual—and Uncle Allan had his arm around Rebecca while Uncle Robin and Auntie Marian were huddled together and sharing a blanket. Uncle John and Uncle Much flanked the group on either side.

The children who weren't asleep were on the other side of the camp—in the old sleeping area—and were gathered around Janey as she told them story after story. All eyes were on her and no one dared speak a word as she cleverly wove tales so lively and intriguing that Daniel himself almost forgot that he'd heard each of her stories numerous times before. She seemed to know just when to pause for effect or when to drop her voice to nearly a whisper to add just the right amount of suspense.

She certainly took after Umm and even, Daniel thought, Uncle Allan—who was a gifted story teller in his own right. Janey kept everyone on the edge of their seat and David—Uncle John's very quiet and shy grandson—sat very close to her and seemed to be hanging on her every word with rapt attention. Even Bart and Mary were listening to her colorful tales as they fought off sleep.

If Bart had noticed anything different between Daniel and Mary tonight, he hadn't mentioned it. Although, frankly, there would have been little to notice. Nothing had really changed except that Daniel was more comfortable around her than he'd been in the past several weeks. But that only meant that things were back to normal between them...not different.

Daniel didn't know what he'd been expecting to change. It wasn't as if he thought they'd spend the entire evening kissing or anything. Certainly not with everyone around, anyway. But he had thought that there might be something. Some sign to indicate that they'd reached an understanding with one another. That they were on the same page regarding their feelings.

But there had been nothing to speak of. The three of them had laughed and talked like they always had. In a way, Daniel was glad that nothing had changed. He cared for Mary in a special way and she felt the same for him. And knowing that was more than enough for the moment. Surely they would clue Bart in on everything sooner or later—that is if he didn't already have his suspicions—but for now, things were just as they should be.

"So, John?" Daniel heard Umm say. "What is this that your grandson is telling everyone? That you have a lady friend back home?"

Daniel could not see Uncle John's face from where he was, but he had no doubt that the man was scowling. Daniel was also sure that his mother was smirking and enjoying Uncle John's discomfort a bit.

"Come on, Big Man," Uncle Allan joined in. "You can tell us. What's her name?"

"Leave him be, Allan," Rebecca scolded him quietly.

"Ann," nine year old Little Little Little John announced from the other side of the camp where he was seated with the other children. Daniel often marveled at the incredible ability children had of hearing only that which wasn't intended for their ears. "Her name is Ann. She comes to the house every day to bring him a fresh pie or some other treat. And she calls him Johnny," he rolled his eyes.

"Ah, Ann is it?" Umm said. "Why did we not meet her when we were at your house recently?"

"She's not a 'lady friend'. She's a friend," Uncle John grumbled.

"Who just happens to be a lady," Umm pressed him, making the other adults giggle like children.

"Sounds like a lady friend to me," Uncle Allan said.

"Can't see what else you'd call it," Uncle Much agreed while the others all nodded, enjoying making Uncle John squirm.

"Aye, but it's nothing like what you're all thinking," Uncle John said gruffly.

"How do you know what we're thinking?" Uncle Robin asked slyly.

"Just drop it, would you? And you, boy," he shouted over to his eldest grandson, "stop talking about things you don't know nothing about."

"Shh," everyone said at once.

"You'll wake the children, John," Auntie Marian warned him.

"Then stop talking nonsense. All of you," he growled in a lower voice.

"Alright. We won't push you, John," Dad said. "But you know that we just want you to be happy."

"That's right, Johnny," Uncle Robin couldn't resist putting in.

If Uncle John made any reply, Daniel didn't hear it as the other adults tried and failed to suppress their laughter.

Daniel turned back once again to look at the group of children huddled about his sister. He was so relieved that she was having such a good time. And especially that she'd found a way to interact with the other children. She'd spent the first part of the evening with either the adults or with Daniel and his friends.

She'd laughed and chatted along with everyone else, but Daniel had seen her eyes sweep over to where the other children ran about playing tag or having races or some other activity and he'd seen how left out she'd felt. She just didn't have a knack for doing those sorts of things and Daniel had felt so bad for her—though he'd never tell her that, seeing as her pride was something she protected fiercely. But now she was doing what she loved and was good at and the other kids were enjoying it immensely.

Daniel started when he felt a hand on his shoulder and he turned to see his mother taking a seat beside him on the floor.

"She is quite the little storyteller, is she not?" Umm said quietly, smiling toward her eldest daughter.

"They're eating it up too," he agreed.

Neither of them said anything more for a moment. Daniel wondered if this was a good time to speak to her about the decision he'd made. But maybe it wasn't fair to throw something so upsetting at her while they were in the company of so many people. She would surely be heartbroken when she learned that he wouldn't be following her dream and he didn't want to make it worse.

"You have been avoiding me," she said simply, after a moment.

It would have been foolish to deny it so he nodded, avoiding her gaze.

"Does this have anything to do with Mary?"

"Mary?" he asked, turning to look at her.

"The two of you seem...closer," she said and he wondered how on earth she could tell that when Daniel himself could hardly detect any difference in their interaction.

"We...that is I...like her," he answered haltingly.

"Yes. And she likes you," she stated matter-of-factly.

"No, I mean I like her. Like a girl."

At that his mother smirked at him. "Yes, Daniel," she said in an amused tone. "You like her like a girl."

"I...I think I love her," he admitted quietly.

"Of course you do. I do understand such things, you know. Have you been avoiding me because you are afraid that I will not approve?"

"No. No, I never even thought about that," he answered truthfully.

"Good, because you know that I like her. She is a lovely person."

He nodded again. His mother seemed to be waiting for him to say something more, to offer some explanation for how strangely he'd been behaving. When he didn't, she reached behind her and brought out a small box.

"I wanted to wait until you and I were alone to give this to you," she said, placing the box between them on the floor. "I have been trying to find a quiet moment with you for the past few days but..." her voice trailed off and Daniel felt an enormous pang of guilt. His mother must be so hurt and confused over his avoidance of her. She didn't deserve that. She deserved the truth...no matter how painful.

"Umm, I should have told you this as soon as I was sure of it myself, but I don't want to go to Acre to study medicine. I want to stay here and study carpentry with Dad. I want to live in Locksley. With my family...and Mary. I'm so sorry to hurt you this way," he said, hanging his head. It had all come out in one long rush of words and now that it was out he felt strangely relieved...yet horrible at the same time.

"Hurt me? Why should I be hurt? I only want your happiness. You know that," she said in a gentle voice.

"I know that you're disappointed in me though," he responded, still not meeting her eyes.

"Daniel Scarlett, look at me!" she demanded. He did. "I could never be disappointed in you. Not ever. I have been so heartbroken over the thought of you moving so far away. I knew how badly I would miss you. And you think that I would be disappointed to hear that your are not going?"

"But...but you've been so excited ever since I told you that was what I wanted to do."

"Yes, because I want you to be happy. And once you assured me that it was something you truly wanted, I was so happy to be in a position to make it happen for you. Despite my own sadness over being separated from you."

"So you don't feel like me following in your father's footsteps would give you back what you lost?" he asked, now rather confused.

"Why would you think that? Is that why you said that you wanted to study medicine? To honor me?" she asked incredulously.

Nod.

"Why Daniel? What is it that you think that I have lost?"

He met her gaze firmly. "I know how much was taken from you and how much you've had to give up in your life. I wanted so badly to be able to do what you wish you could've done. Study in the bimaristan and become a real physician. Doing real work. Important work." He shook his head. "I thought I could do it. I thought I wanted to do it. But once we got home I just..."

"Daniel—"

"It's not that I don't love your homeland," he insisted. "Because I do. Going there was amazing and better than anything I'd ever even dreamed about. But—"

"But this is your home," she finished for him.

Nod. "I like medicine and everything and I like helping you, but carpentry is...well it's different than anything else. I feel like...when I have a block of wood in my hands I'm...well I just...everything makes sense. I can't really explain it. I know you wanted me to be a physician and I'm sorry I made you think that's what I wanted too."

"I honestly never really expected you to become a physician, Daniel. Not until you brought it up. You have always been a great help to me, yes, and you are very good at it, but I always assumed that you would follow into your father's line of work. You seem to have such a passion for it. That is why I was so surprised when you announced that you wanted to study medicine in Acre. If you recall, I even tried to discourage you from it. But you seemed so certain and so I wanted to help you in any way that I could. I knew that I would miss you terribly, but I did not wish to stand in the way of something you seemed to want so badly. I did not understand that the reason it was so important to you was because of what you thought it would represent for me. I wish you would have simply come to me and told me your reasons. We could have avoided all of this."

"I know. It was childish of me. I just hated the idea of letting you down," he said.

"You are not letting me down. I have lost things throughout my life, it is true. But I have gained so much more than I have lost. And if you think that I am somehow...settling for my life here than you are very much mistaken. I love your father. And you and your sisters and brother. I love my friends and our neighbors. And what I do everyday is real and important, Daniel. I provide people with the care they need. And I have learned things here...from them...that have proven invaluable to me. I am very happy with my life and my choices."

"You don't sometimes wish that you could have followed your dreams?" he asked her.

"Which dreams would those be? My dreams have changed so many times over the years. People cannot go backward, Daniel. It would be foolish to try. You do not know this, but your has father offered to move to Acre many times over the years. He, too, thought that he was offering to replace some of what I have lost. But my life is here now, just as I have always told you. We lead simple lives, yes. But I have learned the value of a simple life. And from what you are telling me, your life is here too. So you should understand."

"I do. Now I do. I thought that I could make up for your past. It was foolish."

"No. It was very sweet. I thank you for wanting to do that, but believe me, it is not necessary," she said seriously. "I just want you to be happy."

"Thank you." He had imagined this conversation so many times over the past several weeks, but never had any of his imaginary conversations with her ended this way. They always ended in sadness and bitter disappointment. He'd been a fool. He'd built this small misunderstanding into something huge rather than facing it head on. Like a man should do.

"So now that we have settled that, will you not open your gift?" she prompted him.

He picked up the box and set it on his lap. He recognized the craftsmanship at once. It had been made by his father's hands. When he tipped back the lid, what he found inside was not at all what he might have expected.

There were but three things in the box. A book, some sort of coin attached to a rope made of gold, and something that resembled a very small boot, only it was made of silver and covered in jewels. He looked at his mother expectantly.

"As you know, where I come from, the fourteenth year is a very important year in a young man's life. It is then that he begins to be thought of as a man and no longer a boy. You may have noticed, while we were in Acre, that all of the men wear something like this at their waist," she explained, reaching in and picking up the boot-shaped thing from the box.

"It is a khanjar." And she used both of her hands to pull it apart, revealing that it was in fact a dagger of some sort. The boot-shaped piece was only its sheath. "It is presented to a boy when he reaches the age of fourteen as a rite of passage. It is to be worn at all times and is considered a symbol of strength and pride. Families often try to outdo one another by presenting their sons with the finest khanjars money can buy. Even poorer families invest in having the best khanjar that they can afford to have made for their sons, so important is it in society."

"So you had this made for me while we were in Acre?" he asked, stunned by the beauty and obvious expense of the thing.

"No. This particular khanjar was made many years ago. My father commissioned to have this made by the finest craftsman around. He paid a great deal of money for it and took great care in choosing exactly which jewels would be placed in the hilt and scabbard. The blade itself is of the finest quality steel and is made through a process of combining water and metal that ensures that it will last a lifetime or longer."

"Your father had this made?" he asked, puzzled.

"Yes. For my brother's fourteenth birthday. My brother wore it always. He was very proud of it, as you can imagine. I doubt that the son of the Sultan himself carried a finer one. I thought that it had been lost when my brother was killed...in the war. But, a few weeks before your birth, Ysaac came to us for the first time and he brought me a small chest filled with a few personal belongings of my family. I found out that some of my brother's personal effects were sent to our home shortly after his death. I was not aware of it because I had left home by that point."

"You're giving this to me? Even though it was your brother's?" Daniel asked over the lump that had formed in his throat.

"You should have it. As I say, it is a rite of passage and it is only fitting that this one remain in our family. You do not have to wear it as you would if we lived in Acre, you can simply keep somewhere safe if that is what you wish. I know that it may not be practical here to display such wealth."

"Thank you, Umm. I will cherish it always," he said solemnly as he tried to fasten it to his tool belt. She saw the difficulty he was having—due to the strange design of the thing as well as his trembling hands—and reached across to fasten it in place for him.

"There," she said once it was on.

"And what of these?" he asked, indicating the two other items in the box.

"See that? Take it out," she said, pointing to the coin. "Turn it over. See? That is my family's crest."

"Your family had their own money?" he asked in astonishment.

"No. It is not a coin though it does resemble one. It is a medallion. You wear it around your neck. When I was growing up, my father used to sometimes travel to very remote villages in order to take his skills to the people whom he believed had the most need of them. Many physicians of his stature did not bother with such things. They felt it was beneath them. They treated their wealthy friends and neighbors and had little regard for those who may not have otherwise had access to good care."

"You've told me before what a good and honorable man your father was. I'm sorry I never knew him," he said a little sadly.

"So am I. And you are right, he was a good man. And as I've told you, he would often be away from home for weeks at a time. My mother was long dead by that point and we were all my father had. And he loved us very much. So sometimes, when he knew that he would be away for a longer period than usual, he would take us with him. The traveling was dangerous and the risks were very high. Especially when you consider that there was a war going on. We always traveled in a group—a caravan—and so the risks were less than if we went alone, but still it was dangerous."

She reached out for the medallion and ran her finger along the picture carved onto its face—which looked to be a serpent wrapped around an olive branch.

"My father had these made for us—my brother and me—in case we were ever separated from him for any reason. So that people would know who we were. That we were his children. Many people knew my father and they would recognize his emblem and return us to our home if he were unable. Then, even after his death, we never took them off. They reminded us that we belonged to him and to each other."

"Like your Robin Hood tag," Daniel said.

"Yes, very much like that," she smiled a sad smile. "Mine was taken from me when I was...captured. I had always assumed that my brother's was buried in the sands of some long-abandoned battlefield in Acre. But, as with the khanjar, it somehow miraculously found its way back to me. Again it was amongst the belongings of my loved ones that I received shortly before your birth. It is yours now. So that no matter how far from me you go, you will always know that you belong to me. Although, I am very relieved to know that you will not be going so far as I feared."

"Thank you. Again."

She nodded. "And now the book. This journal was among my father's journals. You have seen my father's journals and medical texts many times over the years. You know how invaluable they have been to me in my work. Just like his instruments. All of these things were delivered to me from Acre just before your birth. That delivery also included a few pieces of jewelry of my mother's. Those, too, you have seen before. I keep them in a box in my room. The thing is, I was actually afraid to open the chest containing those items for fear that it would be too painful," she explained and Daniel reached out and patted her hand.

"But I finally opened them on the day you were born. I wanted to confront the past and make a new start on that day. And I was glad that I did. The other items I have found uses for throughout the years, but these three things were special. I knew on that day that these things would be for you. So your father made this box especially to hold these three items until you reached an age when I thought you would be able to appreciate and understand their significance."

Daniel opened the book, eager to soak up the words that his mother had waited so long for him to read...the wisdom of the grandfather he had spent his life admiring. But it was empty. Every page was blank.

"I don't understand," he said.

"Your grandfather's final journal—the one he'd most recently written in when he died—was filled nearly to the end. I suspect that he had ordered this one in anticipation of needing a new one very soon. But he never got the chance to use it," she said. "I want you to have it. Not because of its ties to the past, but because of its hopes for the future."

She leaned closer to him and took his face in her hands. "Today is your fourteenth birthday, Daniel," she told him. "A very exciting and special day for you. You are starting your life. I am sure that you will have many ups and downs throughout your life, but I hope that you can look back one day and say that you have had more good times than bad. That is the measure of a life well-lived."

She reached down and flipped through the empty pages of the book. "These pages are waiting for your words. Your thoughts and experiences. Fill them well, my son."

She wrapped her arms around him then and for that moment, he didn't feel like a nearly-grown man. He felt for all the world like a little boy who still believed that the whole world existed in his mother's arms.

"I hope that you know how much I love you. How much your happiness means to me. I have tried my hardest to give you the best life I could. Full of love and hope and family. I wish that I could promise you that your future will hold no worries or pain. But I cannot. Know this, though: You are my heart, Daniel Scarlett. And I will always love you more than anything in this world." And she kissed the top of his head lightly. "Now stop sitting in this corner all by yourself. This is your party, so go back over there with your friends where you belong," she said, nudging him playfully.

He stood up to comply but then turned back to where she still sat. "Thank you, Umm. For everything."

"Happy birthday, my son."

The End

A/N: I manipulated the historical portions of this chapter to fit with my story. King Richard did return to England in 1194 and promptly forgave his brother before departing once again. He died in 1199 and Prince John became King John. Or Bad King John, as he is sometimes known. I left out any mention of King Richard's capture or the fact that he was held for ransom. You can infer it here if you like, as it could, technically, fit my time line. But I've sacrificed historical accuracy in order to tell what I hope has been a full story. Please tell me what you thought. Thanks for reading.