Sorry about the wait! Works has kept me busy as has the coming holiday seasons. Let me know if you are still reading!
Thanks to Kegel for not only the beta, but her inspiration in finishing this story.
Chapter Four: Home
It wasn't easy to wait. To hide amongst the shadows, safe from harm while one of their own teetered between life and death. Every second that passed by was one that was lost, and for a time they neither saw nor heard from Allan. John had begun to fear that they would have to rescue the rescuer. And if that had been the case…Robin may not even be alive.
Yet when John and the others were ready to go in, to search the castle in hopes of bringing about an answer, Allan was spotted. Finding them had brought everyone much relief, and yet more worry. It did not matter to their attire, although Allan had apologized breathlessly as John gathered Robin into his arms.
A trine of horses had been their salvation. Indeed after their earlier distraction had allowed Allan to slip in unnoticed, John and Much had busied themselves preparing to flee. If they were to be successful, they would need speed behind them.
Much and Allan had taken to their own steed, John keeping a hold on Robin as he had mounted his own. Leaving behind Nottingham had been a blessing, the trees of Sherwood an encouraging sight as they moved closer to their goal. Within the trees they abandoned the horses, giving them the ability to cut through the foliage using the narrow paths and saving precious time.
Still, the nervousness between them all was amplified by the worry they felt. For John it felt little more than carrying a departed man back to his family. There was hardly any indication that Robin was even still alive, and more than once he found himself stopping, lifting the man's head near his ear as he bent, if only to hear the soft breaths. Each time he did so, it sent Much into a panic. The other man would remind him harshly that they couldn't stop. At one point he had even physically grabbed a hold of John , and pulled him along.
They sped through the trees, as quick as their steps would take them, encouraged by the coming sight of the hill that led to camp. Allan trailed behind, taking note of any possible followers, obscuring their trail as they went. Entering camp they were met with the same worry they felt. Will stood at one side, face pale and hardly moving as John lowered their leader to the ground. Where he left off, Much took over without question.
There was no hesitation, the man gathering up his former master in his arms, filth and all, wrapping him in a tight embrace. He chattered on, quiet words as though the man was awake, and could hear. John didn't have the heart to tell Much otherwise. What little hope they did have, it had to be enough. It had to help.
Djaq was at their sides now, fingers seeking out a pulse, her hand monitoring Robin's fever. It was difficult to read her expression, and she said nothing in response to Much's question. After the pause had come and gone, his voice had grown more worried, escalating as she turned away.
"You do have it ready? You said that you would. He will be alright."
The last part had been said in statement, with no hint of questioning lingering in his voice. Djaq's concentration was on the bowl at her feet. The flames of the fire danced in the approaching dusk, light playing over her features and casting an eerie glow about her. It felt as though they were trapped in a dream, of something that could not be real. She had said less than a day…and that time was almost up.
Though he didn't agree with it, John could understand why Robin had done it. He had been trying to protect the people…had been trying to protect Will. The other man still stood at the other side of the camp, mouth hanging open ever so slightly, the marks on his eyes betraying the fact that his time had been spent shedding tears. Robin had been trying to protect him…but at the same time he had hurt the very man he had been trying to save.
"We should give him more than the others," Much spoke hurriedly as Djaq moved back to them. "We should give him a lot, just in case…to be safe."
"Too much, and it will kill him," she warned him. The bowl now sat at her feet, the liquid dancing on the tips of her fingers. She paused, steadying herself.
"Come on! What are you waiting for?!" Much cried, trying to urge her along.
She nodded then, finger tracing over Robin's lips, pulling back shortly after. There was no change, the air between them so still that it felt as though time itself had come to a halt. Much shook his head, trying to deny it, his soft cries weighing all of them down.
"More, give him more! It didn't work, you have to try again!"
"It will only kill him faster," she breathed as she moved back. The utter helplessness in her voice wrung John's insides so that there was nothing left. Even his heart felt as though it was failing. He gripped his staff tighter, the wood blemishing his hands from the pressure. This was not how it was supposed to end. It was not a good day to die.
They could afford to lose any of them. But they could not afford to lose Robin. They were nothing without him. They were not Robin Hood, as the man had once tried to convince them. It was Robin who came up with the plans, Robin who saw them through. And it was Robin who was now dying in the arms of his best friend.
What would they do without him? What would they be? There were only six of them, against an army that was slowly being brought together, the Black Knights. They would kill the king, take over England perhaps, and the suffering they saw today would be a minor blemish in comparison to what might actually come. John hung his head, trying to come to terms with all that was happening.
The first time he had met Robin had not been on the best of terms. An outcast of Locksley, he had hardly recognized the lord when he had trapped the man in the forest. When he did learn of the man's true heritage he had taken it upon himself to drag the newly exiled man back to Locksley. He had never planned on one day following the man. Had never planned on being friends. That was something that had simply happened. And now all of that was going to be lost…
There was a shout then, a bit of a clamor and the man glanced up to where Much still held their leader. At first he feared the worst, that the time had finally come. They had brought him all this way, had risked their lives, only for the man to die in the end. At least he was home, surrounded by the people that were more or less his own family. He saw it then, just the slightest of movements, before his vision was blocked entirely as Djaq moved back in.
In hurried paces he found himself closer than he had been before, watching as the Saracen trailed her hands down the archer's face, speaking to him quietly. The man managed a groan, opening his eyes only slightly, a pale white in comparison to his face that was still splattered with a generous layer of muck. His expression was dull, a vast array of confusion as he glanced around at his companions, each face holding a magnitude of relief.
He coughed then, Robin scrunching up his face as he closed his eyes, like a sudden thought that had caught up with him all too late as he buried his head in the front of Much's tunic. The man had yet to let him go, still cradling him in a protective embrace. There was nothing said on his part, but Djaq sat back on her heels, a soft expression lining her features.
"He will be fine."
It was as if a great weight had been lifted from him. The sighs could be heard around the camp, the breaths of relief escaping into the air. There was something murmured then, sounds barely heard but it was enough to catch all of their attention. Much still held Robin close, but the archer's lips were moving, trying to form words in-between heavy breaths and a few erratic coughs.
"What is that smell?"
It was weakly said, Robin reaching up with one hand to wipe at his face. From his side Allan let out the softest of chuckles, timidly pressing the toe of his boot into the dirt. "Well…it's a long story really…"
Reality wasn't something he fully grasped. It was lingering on the edges of his mind, within reach but never fully there. At first Robin was sure he was dreaming. How could one survive something such as this? The poison was meant to kill, and it already had been far too long. How his men ever managed to get him out was beyond his comprehension. All he did know was that he wasn't inclined to move.
Never before had he felt so safe; held locked in an embrace that wasn't willing to let him free, he did not mind the contact. It reminded him that he was alive; that we he was indeed safe. The happenings that had taken place earlier nothing more than simple memory, like a nightmare fading from conscious thought.
He must have fallen asleep again. Memory wasn't on his side, but he noted the passing of time. And that when he woke he was wrapped in blankets, stretched out on his own bed within the walls of the camp. He lay quietly for a time, unsure of what it was that had woken him. The others were sleeping; he could hear their steady breaths, easing in and out in different times. A sound he had thought for a time he would never hear again. Convincing himself that nothing was out of place he closed his eyes, his body still desperate for rest despite the amount he had already slept. It was like a fever, sapping his strength as his body battled with everything it had gone through in the passing day. Then he heard it again.
This time he was certain. He was not the only one awake. And the other was moving. He could feel the wind, the breeze slipping through an open crack. It was gone in the next moment, something that was enough to prompt him to move despite how little he wanted to. It was hard at first, stiff and sore from being confined for so long, but he took care to move quietly, not wanting to disturb any of the others. Surely if they caught him now they would never let him rest. True, he was grateful for what they had done, but Robin knew they could sometimes be a bit too overprotective.
He followed through the same small opening, stretching his legs with more ease once outside, the leaves crunching beneath his steps as he followed the other form. Robin crossed his arms as he moved, trying to stave away the chill and wishing for a moment that he had with him a heavier jerkin, but not willing to risk going back in and waking the others. He also wasn't willing to lose sight of the other. The man wasn't moving fast, and it would have been easy for Robin to stop him then, to reason with the other. But it wouldn't work. If caught tonight he would try again. The man would wait, bide his time until it was convenient. Then Robin would not be able to do anything to convince him otherwise.
Keeping his distance he followed the other. It was easy to do so, despite the night that shrouded them in a dismal darkness that was hard to see through without the aid of a torch. The paths they used were well known, they had to be in order to enable them a safe escape in the time of need. It was one particular path the man kept to, Robin doing the same, catching fleeting glances of the other when the moon dared to shine.
It was when they reached the road that the first came to a stop, glancing one way and then the other as if trying to decide which route to take. Robin slowed his pace, coming to a rest next to a tree as he watched him. He presumed the other would make up his mind soon, or at least hoped he would. It was getting colder out, and moving was about the only thing that was keeping him warm. And awake…
"Do you think Luke went back to Scarborough?"
The question surprised him. He had thought that Will hadn't noticed him. But it was a silly notion, for he had taught all of his men to be observant. With a simple shrug he moved closer, taking a long look down the road as it faded away into the night.
"Do you think he needs a keeper?"
Will was silent for a moment, his head hanging in a shameful expression. "I don't know where else to go. He is the only family I have left."
"What about us?" Robin inquired, nodding his head back towards the camp. The man glanced in the direction, but turned away quickly.
"I can't stay…not after…" he shook his head, unable to finish.
"You did the right thing, Will."
"I nearly killed you!" he cried, the color draining from his face at the remark. He paused a moment, gathering his breath then. "How is that the right thing?"
"The sheriff lived, didn't he?"
"Has everything to do with it," Robin nodded towards him before the other could continue. "You know what would have happened if he died."
There was a nod after a moment, the man's voice quiet when he spoke next. "I also know what would have happened if you died."
"The rest of you would have carried on, together," he emphasized.
This was something they had already discussed. The stakes were rising, and each and every passing day they found themselves in situations that were more pressing, that were deadlier. It was only logical to assume that one day, not everyone would make it to the end. He didn't expect them to be happy with that decision, but he did expect them to honor it.
"You should have seen him, Much, I mean," Will responded, turning to look at him. "He was ready to kill me with his bare hands. Part of me wished that he would. I couldn't live knowing that I had been responsible for…for what had happened."
"That choice was mine," Robin reminded him firmly.
"A choice you made because of me. To make me prove that I still believed in the right thing. That's what you said."
"And you do."
Will shook his head, "No, Robin. That's the point. If I did…if I believed in it…then you wouldn't have had to do that. I would have…I don't even know what the right thing is anymore. Are we doing the right thing here? Are we even making a difference, or are we just prolonging false hopes?"
"Hope is what keeps us strong. Every day, we hope we have enough food to feed the hungry so they do not starve, or that we have enough money to give to the poor, so that they can pay taxes and stay home with their families. Most of all, we hope that with every day, word of the king's return will come through. To put an end to this madness. Hope is all we have, Will. If you give up on that, then there isn't anything left."
There was nothing said in response, leaving Robin to wonder if his words had affected the man at all or if he was simply trying to find another way to argue for his departure. Things would not be the same without him. He let out a sigh, reaching out with a hand and placing it on Will's shoulder.
"Come back to camp. I did not follow you all this way just to wish you well."
"I do not know if I can. The others…they wouldn't want me there. I can't blame them."
"I want you there," he stressed, keeping a firm hold on the other. "And I would like to get back to sleep. You can save us both the trouble and come back with me now. Or you can keep going on your own, forcing me to return to camp and wake up everyone so that we can drag you back. It's probably wise to not make everyone angry with you for a second time within a single day."
He said nothing for a moment, leading Robin to believe his ploy had failed. If Will did not come then he may just have to wake the others. Perhaps it would just be easier to knock the man out, and carry him back to camp…
To his relief the other nodded, clasping a hand over his own before moving. "As long as you promise to not do anything like that ever again."
"No worries there," Robin pursed his lips at the memory.
"I'm serious. You had us all worried…"
"Trust me, doing that once was more than enough for me," he grinned, falling into step beside the other. "But if I have to do that again, then I will. So do not give me any reason to do so."
"That's a fair enough bargain."
It was good, he decided, despite the weariness, the chill that was creeping up on him, and the painful reminders that were all still too fresh. He had his friends that were more of a family, and all of them were safe. And soon…very soon, he would have his nice warm bed back.
And maybe a bowl of Much's stew…