And Then There Were Three...
Much and John both rubbed their jaws as they and Allan stood watching Robin disappear up the forest road.
"That really hurt." Much was struggling to hold back his tears.
"You're tellin' me," said Allan.
"He hardly touched you!" Much somehow made it sound like Robin's punch had been a token of affection that only he deserved.
"That's not what Allan meant." John picked up his staff.
"No, no - he shouldn't have said any of those things... but we can't let him go after Gisborne like that - he'll be killed!" Much was already heading after their now-vanished leader.
John sighed as he watched Much run off. Maybe he couldn't run as fast as the younger men but he could run further and for longer. Robin surely couldn't have meant that it was John who was holding him back?
He turned to Allan as they both prepared to start running again. "Allan - would you have got home quicker without me?"
Allan grinned and punched him in the shoulder. "We wouldn't have got home at all without you, John".
Allan stopped smiling. "Really, John. Mate, you literally held that boat back for us at Boulogne. If we'd missed that we could have waited weeks for another."
John gave a soft chuckle at the memory. Allan smiled again, glad he'd been able to reassure the big man, then he looked up the road with a frown. "He shouldn't have said that to Much - that was bang out of order."
"No - that's what convinced me Robin's not in his right mind," John said. Then to Allan's surprise he added, "He shouldn't have said that to you either."
"Well... he wasn't wrong, was he?" Allan couldn't disguise the bitterness in his voice.
"Yes he was - what's past is past. You're one of us again now and you don't need to keep proving it."
Allan looked at John as if to check he wasn't joking.
"Uhhh, thanks... Y'know - I thought you'd be the last one to forgive me."
John raised his eyebrows and nodded - "So did I," he admitted.
With a sheepish smile, Allan offered his hand to John to shake it. John grasped his hand and pulled him forward into a massive bear hug.
"Oi! Almost cracked a rib there!" Allan pushed away, not wanting to let John see how much he'd needed that.
John started to run after Much, leaving Allan standing in the road, then he turned and still running backwards, laughingly called back to Allan, "Well come on, who's holding us back now then?"
"Oho! I'm going to run you into the ground, old man!"
"You're all right, you're all right..."
John clasped his arms under Much's shoulders. They both watched as the Sheriff, realising he was on his own with at least one outlaw on the loose, headed after his Guards, still screaming at them for being idiots.
"Wait a minute and I'll lower you down again."
"I... don't think I can. My arms are pretty sore after all that digging." John suddenly realised how weak Much sounded. None of them had eaten since yesterday and not eating was torture enough for Much but the Sheriff would almost certainly have taken the opportunity for some extra 'entertainment'. John felt his blood boil but said nothing, merely slightly tightening his hold around Much's torso and bracing himself a little better against the trunk of the tree.
He could probably hold Much for quite a long time, but not all night and he had no idea how long it would take Allan to shake off the guards pursuing him. Besides they'd agreed to meet back at the camp, not 40 feet up a tree.
"I've got you, Much. Don't worry about it." He looked around, trying to think of the best way down.
"Did you... did you find...?"
John sighed - he'd been dreading that question.
He felt Much sag a little further into his grip and then start gently shaking with silent tears. John leaned his head against Much's and closed his eyes. He'd only know Robin for a short time but felt his loss almost as much as he would have done his own son. Much had known Robin his whole life and loved Robin with a fierce devotion John had never seen between two men. He knew the grief Much must be feeling at the loss of his beloved Master would be overwhelming.
He waited till Much stopped shaking, feeling the strain growing in his shoulders but ignoring it. He winced however as Much's head suddenly dropped forward and his weight pulled a little more at John's back.
He leaned forward as best he could and looked into Much's face. The younger man had finally succumbed to his grief and exhaustion but his face was a much paler shade than John had expected. Something was obviously wrong. John would have to act more quickly than he thought.
He re-planted his foot again the tree, gritted his teeth and leaned back with a groan, hauling Much further over the branch. He swiftly adjusted his hold, moving his arms down around Much's waist. Much's shirt rode up against the side of John's head and John turned to look at Much's hip as he felt the wetness against his cheek.
The X shaped burn was badly blistered and a steady trickle of blood disappeared down the crook of Much's groin into his trousers.
Branded him! They'd branded him! John fumed with anger and frustration. He could only hope Allan would get another shot at burying a knife in the Sheriff's back. Only sheer desperation must have given Much strength to hang on to that rope on the way up.
John realised he'd need to have his hands free so he nudged his head under Much's arm and then carefully swung him round so they were now face to face and Much's arms were around his neck. Then he carefully lowered him until he was hanging round John's neck by the chain between his manacles.
He certainly couldn't do this for long so John quickly felt for the rope, doubled it around under Much's arms and then, swiftly pulling upwards on the rope, he dropped his head, flipping the chain from behind his neck so Much's arms dropped to his sides and he was hanging from the rope alone.
John's back and shoulder muscles were screaming at him now. He lowered Much as quickly as possible to the ground, swinging the rope slightly at the bottom to make sure Much landed outside the freshly dug hole.
As he looked down at the ground and Much's still, pale body beneath him, John suddenly thought that the hole looked far too much like a grave for comfort...
John's heart sank as he approached the camp. It was starting to get dark and there was no sign of life which meant Allan was not back yet. He would just have to trust that he was on his way since Much's need of his help was more pressing.
Much was still breathing and his pulse was strong but John had not wanted to risk throwing him over his shoulder and aggravating that wound by having it rub against him so he'd carried Much in his arms as if he were a child. The going had been slow and back-breaking. John frequently had to put Much down "so he could check he was still all right" but he had to admit the last few times had been more for his own sake than Much's.
Thankfully the camp was in much better condition than John had expected. They had left that morning, so many months ago now, expecting to be back later in the day as always. John swept away with his elbow the wooden bowls Much had said he would clean "later" - they were now acting as quite successful plant pots. He paused as his eyes fell on one of Will's axes, the blade starting to rust. Not for the first time he missed Will's quiet reassuring presence and he could really have done with Djaq's help right now but they had stayed in the Holy Land to make a life for themselves as man and wife and John of all people couldn't grudge them that.
He laid Much on the table as gently as possible and then went to inspect Much's bed. It was mercifully dry and the roof above it looked sound, so John knocked the stray leaves from the bedding and then, for what he hoped would be the final time that day, he picked Much up and carried him over to it.
John had been living in the woods so long he could start a fire in a thunderstorm so it only took a few minutes work to get the fire blazing, giving him some better light to attend to Much. He checked him once more before going to fetch some water. Usually he would think nothing of hauling several gallons up from the river to the camp but there was only three of them now and in deference to his rapidly tightening back, John only took what he thought he would need and returned to the camp to put some of the water on to boil.
He paused for a moment as he went through Djaq's things, feeling uncomfortable with invading her privacy despite her absence. Djaq's medicine chest had a few items which would need replenished, the herbs having lost their efficacy over the months they'd been away but there was everything he needed there to clean and dress the wound.
The food stores had not fared as well as Djaq's herbs but Much's colour had at least improved a little and John was too tired to go looking for anything now. He cleaned the blood away from the burn and put some mint and chamomile on it. Only once he was satisfied there was nothing else he could do, did he finally sit down heavily on his own bed... and got straight up again as he realised the roof over his bed had not held as well as over Much's. Far too tired to even think about doing anything else he carefully moved Much slightly closer to the fire then crawled in beside him. His head had barely touched his rolled up coat before he was asleep.
Allan felt like he'd run through half of Sherwood in one afternoon. He entered the camp as quietly as possible, a worried look crossing his face as he noticed John's bed was empty. He looked around to Much's bed and relaxed as he realised what must have happened. John and Much both were lying with their faces to the fire, John behind Much, one arm protectively around the younger man. Allan wondered what had happened after he'd taken off into the woods with the guards after him. He stood for a minute, just watching them both sleep before he caught himself and shivered slightly as he started taking off his cloak. He tried in vain to ignore the subtle feeling of jealousy at how warm and peaceful they both looked.
Much awoke with a start and then a hissing intake of breath as the wound on his hip sharply reminded him of the day's earlier events. He didn't need to turn to realise it was John sleeping behind him, the size of the arm round his upper chest gave that away and after so long together they all knew each others smell as well as their own. It was strange but oddly comforting to feel John's arm around him and in such familiar surroundings, after the horrors of the Sheriffs attention earlier.
The figure whose presence had awoken him stepped closer in the glowing firelight. With great relief, more than he'd expected, Much realised it was Allan sitting down on his bed and starting to fold up his cloak. If it wasn't for the pain in his hip and the state of the camp Much could almost have believed he'd dreamt the past few months. The other empty beds round the fire, particularly the one next to his, brought him back to the present with a jolt however.
Allan looked over, saw Much watching him and saw the grief etched on Much's face. He quickly turned away, not wanting to see it and knowing he could never share it. Instead he did the only thing he knew and tried to cheer Much up. He turned back, nodded towards John and grinned, "You two quite comfy there? Was John worried you were goin' somewhere?" He yawned and stretched his arms above his head. "Y'know, I think those guards only kept chasin' me because they didn't want the Sheriff to catch up with them!" He noticed the wince of pain as Much shifted his position slightly. "Here - you alright?" Allan came over to squat beside Much's bed, staring at him with concern. He looked down at where John had carefully covered Much's burn. "Oh... mate - what did they do to you?"
Much was surprised at the feeling in Allan's voice. "It's - it's not bad, just stings a bit."
Allan's hand traced the line of Much's hip in a surprisingly tender way as he nodded in sympathy and Much suddenly remembered that he too had suffered most of the 'joys' Nottingham's dungeons had to offer at Gisborne's hands.
Gisborne. Much didn't know how but as soon as he felt able he was going to find Gisborne and kill him.
Allan saw the look that came over Much's face - it was the same look he recognised from Robin's face recently but on Much it looked even more out of place. Much's face was usually so open and guileless - to see it twisted with such hatred was unsettling.
"Gisborne.", Much spat the name with venom and then looked up at Allan, his eyes blazing. "You used to be his man." Allan hadn't thought it possible but that remark hurt even more deeply than Robin's comments earlier. He hung his head.
"You can help me kill him."
Allan was so relieved he almost cried - so Much too no longer considered Allan to be 'Gisborne's man' - he genuinely saw him as being on his side. Coupled with John's grudging admission of earlier, Allan suddenly felt the three of them could take on the whole of Prince John's army. He looked up and grasped Much's hand in both of his.
"We will, mate - we'll make him pay - don't worry," Allan said fiercely, letting Much know how much his trust meant to him, then he softened slightly, "I think you and John might both need a few days rest first though."
Both? Much's head slowly swivelled round to look at the still sleeping figure behind him. The dim firelight accentuated the lines on John's face giving away his many years. His hair was clinging to his face and Much could see his shirt was still soaked with sweat - he looked exhausted.
Much suddenly realised what it must have taken for them both to get back here without Allan. "We were up that tree... He must have carried me the whole way back here..." Much looked at John with amazement. He was used to astonishing feats of strength from the older man but this one was very personal.
"Yeah and from the look of the camp he had a bit to do when he got here as well. He's done a good job patching you up though." Allan patted Much's cheek as he stood up again and went back to fixing his bed. "I suppose we all forget John managed by himself out here for years before any of us showed up."
Much looked again at the patches of white in John's beard and the lines round his eyes.
"I think we sometimes forget he's not always going to be here," he said softly. He kissed John's hand in gratitude.
Allan flopped into his bed with a sigh of relief. "I'll leave you two lovebirds to it then - you both look so cosy over there, it's a shame I woke you up."
"You're just jealous of me and Big Bear!" shot back Much, jokingly pouting his lip and pulling John's arm a little tighter around him. John muttered something but didn't wake.
They both laughed and Allan rolled over, turning his back to the fire and to Much. "You have no idea, mate," he said, under his breath.
Much looked at Allan's back as he shifted his weight slightly and laid his head back down. Behind him John breathed out deeply as he too shifted in his sleep. Much closed his eyes. He knew he needn't worry about any bad dreams tonight. It wouldn't be quite the same as when Robin held him when the nightmares came, but as long as John and Allan were here for him he knew he had nothing to fear. He promised himself he would make them the best breakfast possible in the morning.
Tomorrow they would say their proper goodbyes to Robin and then... Gisborne.