The Birds Sing of Sorrow
by Amy L. Hull
written for lesbiassparrow in the help_haiti challenge
thanks to havocthecat for brainstorming, and to Ayiana2, Rache, and LadyChi for beta-reading
Marion picked her way through the field, moving slowly. The grasses and heather tugged at her hem, leaving moisture from the morning rain behind. Her skirts were already sodden to the knee.
She'd been walking for a good while, and the leafy heads of a few wild onions and carrots were looped over her belt. Soon she'd have to turn and go back, or one or more of the men would come out looking for her. She pulled another couple of carrots. In spring they didn't go hungry.
She'd almost forgotten, during the long winter just gone, how lucky she was to have food readily available. At Leaford food was brought to her regularly, and a servant or her father made sure she ate at least once every day or two. Everything had tasted like dust, the dust he was now, wherever he was.
Not having something to bury had been almost as hard as leaving him, had made the idea that he was gone unreal, unbelievable. Once she'd emerged from her room, she'd carried out her role as mistress of the manor in a fog. She'd drifted from week to week, performing tasks by rote, barely seeing the people to whom she nodded approval. The emptiness she felt without him never ceased to gnaw at her, but she tucked it and herself away deep inside a hollow shell. It had been easier not to think or feel or dream.
Now she was back in the forest among the smells of bent foliage and dust and broken leaves on the forest floor where they had made love, where the song of the birds and insects who had serenaded them accompanied the sounds of the leaves and branches. The wind blew right through her shell, cracking it like an acorn. She could no longer suppress the expectation that he would step out from behind a tree trunk with that sly, mischievous smile.
She missed him. She missed herself. She missed feeling alive.
Silvery leaves waved amidst the green, and Marion knelt by the sage, drawing her knife and severing several stems. There was no kitchen or cellar where she could hang them, but perhaps there would be enough sun to dry the leaves and she could carry the seasonings as the band moved, staying one step ahead of the Sheriff and his men. She'd already found and cut thyme, rosemary, and dill. Now if only one of the men would bring down a rabbit, they could have stew.
She, of course, would have to cook. She was still everything, just as he had said. Wife, cook, and nurse, she'd fired back. Her hands stilled on the flap of the pouch at her belt where she placed the herbs. Everything.
Not wife anymore, though.
The knife felt heavy in her hands, though nothing like Albion's weight, running from the tor that day, holding it as visions filled her mind, handing it to Robert. Compared to that, the little knife should feel like a handful of rushes. She stared at the edge she'd honed carefully on a stone from the brook. The sun glinted off of the ground edge of the metal. She drew the knife in an arc through the blades of grass and watched as they tipped, bent, half-severed. Half-alive.
With a sigh, she pushed to her feet, wiped the blade on her skirt, sheathed it, and headed back to camp.
Marion wove the end of a reed in and out of the frame she had built for a new basket and reached toward Tuck, who handed her another.
Tuck nudged the reeds around the pot of water. "I've heard the Bishop of Hereford comes through Nottingham every two years on his way to visit the Archbishop of York. He's expected any day now."
"Tuck," Will said, scowling, "it hasn't stopped raining in four days."
"How exactly do you think we can raid his train, just the six of us?" John asked, wiping water from his face. It continued to drip from his beard and off the furs on his shoulders.
Marion had wrestled Robin nearly to the ground for excluding her by rote, and her heart weighed heavily at the memory. She had, after all, survived every raid. Still, it seemed too hard to correct John-John, who had cheered her on as she clung to her husband's back-so she worked on her basket, staring at her hands and the reeds she passed over and under, over and under the frame.
"All we'll do is end up muddy and shot, is all," Will said. "You'd have to be mad to try it."
"An attack will surprise them, then."
Marion fell still as all heads turned to Robert. He'd spoken so quietly that Marion wasn't quiet sure she'd heard correctly. Each man's face was parts nonplussed and unsettled, just how she felt.
He repeated himself. "We have the element of surprise." His voice was deep, even, and sure. "They expect thieves to be lazy, not on the move in a deluge. It gives us the advantage."
"And how d'you reckon that?" Will demanded.
"Because I'm one of them," he reminded them. "I would never have believed this much mud even existed." He leaned forward conspiratorially, water running in rivulets down his face where his hair was plastered to his face, darkened with rain. "Ten years ago, though, I would have paid to know about it and play in it, even if our laundress would never have forgiven me."
They all laughed together, except for Marion, who had pounded all their laundry by the brook at one time or another.
"The Bishop and his men will be under a cover, their driver so wet he'll barely look at the road except to mind after the wheels getting stuck. We'll have a clear shot, and they'll never know what hit them."
"Robin always said that, he did," Much said.
John frowned at him, shook his head.
Marion could feel as well as see the sidewise glances they all cast her way. She lifted her chin and forced a smile as she looked at Much. The boy's shoulders were slumped, and he was staring at the ground. "It must be a good plan then, right, Much?"
He raised his eyes, though not his chin, and nodded with her.
They moved through the forest toward Wickham. It was no longer raining, though the rain had continued over an hour after the men had overtaken the Bishop's train, so even if his men would enter Sherwood, any tracks the band might have left were washed away.
Marion held one side of the horse's harness, Nasir the other. It occasionally snuffled and snorted while pulling the small cart of treasure. She stroked its neck, and muscles rippled beneath her hand. She missed riding. Not the measured, proper riding of the Mistress of Leaford Grange, or that of the nun she feared she might end up forced to become, but the freedom of unfettered running, by his side...she missed that. That life had died with him.
"I am glad you are here."
Nasir's voice, gravelly and accented, jerked her out of her reverie, and she looked up at him. He never spoke unless he deemed it necessary. This time he held her gaze.
"I wouldn't be," she said, "if not for you. At Owen's...thank you."
Nasir inclined his head.
"Nasir!" Robert called. "We're getting close. Scout out the village. Make sure it's safe."
Nasir sprinted ahead, his light steps not making a sound. John stepped into his place. Marion watched where she was placing her feet on the slippery path as her mud-soaked hem slapped against her boots
"I don't know that I'd've stayed."
She couldn't help but look up at his face, but John was watching around them, his manner as casual as his tone.
"Even with Robin, and Much so eager, if you'd not have needed us..." John looked at her for a moment, his whole face, surrounded by hair, visible above the horse's head. "I don't know."
Marion's chest felt emptier, heavier, although she'd not thought that possible. He'd been in Hathersage, safe with Much, tending sheep, away from all this. Both of them. "You left home again for-"
"No. It's not that. There's not one of us hasn't lost everything...and hasn't got everything to lose, staying here." Unlike Will, his voice held no bitterness, just the lingering grief of their shared losses. "It's you keeps us together. The others, they think it was him. He inspired us, led us, but it was you soothed tempers and wounds. You made us family, and it's the same now."
John's voice was deep, gentle, like the man himself. "He's our leader. He has Herne's blessing, carries Albion. But we came back to Sherwood from hollow lives because of you."
Ahead, Nasir signaled, and they stopped.
John caught her eye again, earnest as Will after Marion had stopped Jennet from handing them over to the Sheriff. "You saved us all. It's not the first time."
"It is safe," Nasir called, then moved farther ahead, scanning the edges of the village and forest.
Robert walked ahead as John and Marion led the horse into the village, cart clattering and clinking behind. Children ran from huts and cottages toward them, shrieking and giggling, calling for parents and siblings. Women stepped out of dwellings, set spoons into kettles bubbling over fires, laid aside mending and washing, and followed their children. Men leaned on hoes and rakes, paused at hammering over fires.
Edward strode forward, and even the children fell silent. The thane held a hand out to Robert. They clasped arms and a cheer went up.
"You should be safe today," Robert announced. "The Sheriff and his men are unlikely to mount a search before dark."
Marion watched the faces of the villagers, their tentative stances as they kept their heads down, shoulders raised protectively. They leant forward, though, eyeing the coffers in the cart, desperation and hope warring with years of disappointment and despair and then a year on their own.
"Do you think they'll accept you as their leader?" she'd asked.
"Would you?" he'd responded. He didn't need to convince her, though. He needed to win the loyalty of all those faces watching now, waiting for some sign that he was as deserving as Robin had been.
She reached into the coffers Will and Nasir had pried open and filled Robert's hands, then her own, with gold. "Come. Take what you need, then let's feast and dance and celebrate!"
The villagers moved forward and coins clinked into hats and pans and bowls. Much scooped up handfuls, pushing them forward and nodding to encourage people to take the money. John poured handfuls into anything people held out.
Tuck was crowing, "Archbishop Geoffrey can be almost as generous as his brother the king, don't you think?"
Will handed the last few coins, one each, to some children, who stared at him, giggling. "Get on, then," he said, shoving at the largest boy's shoulder.
Nasir unhitched the horse and Marion stroked its nose. She looked into its eyes, but they didn't hold the sorrow that she saw in the eye of her own horse at Leaford, just a wild unease. It stamped its hoofs and she drew the harness over its head and stepped away. Nasir gave it a sharp slap on the rump, and it ran into the distance.
The blacksmiths dismantled the cart and coffers, taking them to bits for salvage.
A few villagers had begun to play music and some of the older girls and women were serving up stew and bread. The littler children were dancing around and unwrapping the ribbons of cloth from the Maypole, already erected and ready for the upcoming May Day celebration. A boy of no more than five grabbed Robert's hand and dragged him toward it.
The children adored him. Much had told her eagerly of "the new Robin's magic tricks," and how the small ones gasped with delight as small items disappeared in his hands. The glee on Much's face showed it wasn't just "the small ones." Out of respect and habit, though, Robert behaved somewhat formally, almost stiffly, with the adults, unable to shake his noble bearing entirely, and the result was their wariness.
The boy-Halston, if she remembered correctly-placed a ribbon in Robert's hand, grabbed one himself, and started jumping and skipping, pointing to the pole and the ribbons. Robert glanced over his shoulder at Marion.
She could not keep from giggling. He looked truly terrified. This man, who'd faced down Welsh Marchers and the Sheriff's men, who was the inheritor of the title of Earl of Huntingdon, who could dance a candle pavane without a singed hair or a missed step, was about to be defeated by a child's game. She set aside her bowl and grabbed the hands of two girls, whispering to one to pull in Matthew.
She ran over and picked up a ribbon next to Robert, giving him a cheeky grin she'd not felt on her own face in too long to remember. On the other side of him, Maud was grabbing a ribbon for herself and shoving one into a grousing Matthew's hand.
"I've never done this before," Robert protested.
"Just follow Matthew!" Marion called.
As the last of the ribbons were claimed, the music picked up, and the villagers-turned-dancers started skipping and ducking in and amongst one another.
They danced until the ribbons wrapped the pole in bright hope, and they danced the ribbons free again, on and off, until everyone was pink-cheeked and breathless, even the musicians. The sun dropped behind the treeline, and they danced around a balefire those not dancing had built up for them, holding hands and circling and twirling together in the freely joyful country dances. All of Wickham was gathered, clapping, or dancing, or humming, or drinking, but together, and it was clear that any reservations about "the new Robin" had been quashed.
This was what he would have wanted. When she'd seen Herne, she'd known. When Robert had come to the arrow ceremony a year before. When Albion had sent her visions. The god had given his blessing. This was what Robin had meant when he'd told her one day she'd understand. They were carrying on as they'd been meant to before they'd let their grief and fear guide their feet away from their hearts.
Very late that night, as the band stepped back into the forest, Marion heard a robin sing.
"He should have been there last night, Tuck," she said as they gathered wood. "He would have loved that. Stealing the Archbishop's money, dancing in Wickham."
"I know. Will would have drunk him under the table, though."
"His head would have ached terribly today." Marion laughed, though the skin across her face felt tight from holding her face neutral.
Tuck chuckled and his cincture swayed with his gait, bouncing where it was tied against his rounded belly. "Maybe you could have poured water over his head as well as Will's and John's."
She managed to smile at that, and then fell silent. They piled their wood by the temporary encampment and headed back through the forest, leaves crunching and slipping underfoot.
"He promised." She hadn't been going to say anything else, and it had slipped out. Now she felt sick. Tuck was looking at her, eyes wide with curiosity. "He promised me we'd face things together, but he's gone, and I'm here without him."
He had no response, and they walked for several minutes, bending to pick up branches, standing on them and pushing against them to snap them, then gathering up their bundles of wood again.
"He made me leave."
"I know he did, child."
"I would have stayed. Much could have delivered Albion, and I would have been with him and he wouldn't have been alone." It came out in a rush and she risked looking at Tuck. He was watching her.
"And now you wouldn't be alone here?"
She felt her eyes fill with tears and looked away as they spilled over. The woods, as usual, were full of sounds she associated with him. Wrens and nuthatches sang, crickets chirped, leaves rustled, the breeze blew and made foliage whisper his name. She brushed at her cheeks with her sleeve.
"You are not alone. We're all here with you."
"I know," she whispered. "I know. But, Tuck, I miss him so much."
"I know you do."
She snuffled. Sometimes it seemed all she could smell was her own mucus. She gave in and sat down, setting her armload of wood beside her.
"He promised," she said again. "He said he couldn't die if I keep alive what we believed in. But he did die, didn't he? And I'm here without him, and I miss him."
Tuck joined her, putting an arm on her back. "I know, child. I know." He patted her shoulder and she leaned into him.
Marion knelt on the stream bank, her skirts soaked to the knees again. She'd forgotten how rarely they'd been dry in the forests. She held their blackened cooking pot in the water. Dried reeds and ashes removed most of the sheen of fat from the pot's inner surface. The reeds were splitting the skin on her fingertips, and she held them for a moment in the cool, gently-moving water.
It was Will's begrimed hands that joined hers. He filled his cup, then took a long drink, sitting back on his heels.
"I kept to myself, too, after," he said, eyes fixed far across the opposite bank. "But you knew that."
Marion froze then leaned closer to the pot, letting her hair fall forward to veil her face.
"I'd give anything," he continued, "to get to do what he could, to have sent my wife...have sent her away, stayed in her place, to have spared her that."
Marion breathed slowly and the water flowed over her hands and wrists, wetting her sleeves.
The anger that always vibrated in his voice ground and crackled into bitterness and he spat is words like poison. "But this living...it's harder. Every day."
She nodded, though, and whispered, "He knew it."
He shook his head. "They ask everything of us. Everything."
She couldn't look at him and only saw the water he flung from his mug across the stream.
The water gurgled at them, sounding like a gasp for death and a babbling of life. Will reached toward her, drew back, then laid a hand on her shoulder before stalking away.
Robin had refused to sacrifice Much or her, and she couldn't deny his last wish. She couldn't sacrifice Much to die with him, either, but some days, to her shame, she could imagine it. Instead her last gift had been not to make him watch her die-or worse-alongside him. Living was harder, and took more courage than even Robin knew he was asking of her.
Even so, she thought, what kind of wife did that make her? She'd obeyed...by abandoning him to die alone.
Then she'd betrayed him, keeping alive nothing they'd stood for. She'd left the forest, abandoned the land, the people, returned to her father's manor. Pardoned. Paid and pardoned. Leaford ransomed for her safety. How much that coin could have bought, not wasted on her. How many villages it could have supported. Then doubly wasted when she'd turned wolfshead again, negating any pardon, throwing away any illusion of safety.
Everything he'd done to save her, and it could all be for naught. Unless this was what he'd meant was "meant to be," even at the cost of the coin, at the cost of him, at the cost of the time lost.
She looked around her at the trees, felt the breeze against her face along with the hints of sunlight peeking through the canopy, the water flowing over her hands, and the earth beneath her. Much had told her Robin had promised to be with him later. There was a plop in the water and she heard him trying to make up to her, "It's a fish!" A white-throated dipper bobbed nearby, looking for the real fish that might have made the sound. It paused and cocked its head at her, its bright eye seeming to look straight through her, and she looked away.
The wind lifted her hair, and she lifted her chin, closing her eyes and facing the source of the breeze, breathing in sweetness of flowers. For the first time in a year, she felt him there with her and smiled. Maybe it was finally "later." Nothing's forgotten, the wind whispered. She'd forgotten these little moments for far too long.
Warmth suffused her, and more of her shell crumbled. The void was still there, the constricting pain of loss and loneliness and despair. She couldn't bring him back or change that she'd left him to die and never buried him. She had buried his dreams, though, but that time was over.
For the first time in a year she felt certainty through the pain. No matter how hard this life was, especially without Robin by her side, no matter keenly she missed him here, she belonged in the forest, belonged in this fight. This place and the people to whom it rightly belonged, they were the ones he died protecting, they were the ones she would stand up for, with the others, with Robert.
She'd see to his work, see Robin Hood living on, fight alongside, and part of him would be with them.
She turned back to the pot, scrubbing and watching the dipper fishing on the rock, bobbing in time to the stream's burbling.