The Last Battle by Ness Ayton
Another of my "Robin of Sherwood" stories that appeared in "The Alternative Robin of Sherwood Zine" many moons ago.
"Did you really believe you could overthrow me?"
Even as he lay on the tor, his body pierced through with Norman arrows and the life flowing from it, Belleme's voice rang in his ears. In his mind's eye he saw Marion and Much fleeing to the safety of the trees and tried to think on that, but the voice spoke to him again.
"Did I not tell you to break your bow and throw away your arrows? You are mine now."
"No!" His whole body screamed the denial even as swords hacked at him. "No," he whispered, "not yours."
Herne's voice rustled to him through the grasses and around the rocks as the Norman blades bit deeper.
"Who is the greatest enemy? Always near you; sometimes at your shoulder. You must face him. Listen. Each man travels along one path. At the end of it, if he has the courage, he will meet himself and find his power." At last he understood. Death itself was not the end, there was one final challenge he had to meet.
"I am not yours," he repeated as a misty form began to materialise beside him.
"You summoned me from the dead with the silver arrow – you are mine."
"That was Lilith," he protested desperately, feeling his body sliding across the rough scree and over the rocks. The mist followed him down the slope.
"Do you really want to spend eternity asleep in a dark hole?" the voice wheedled.
He felt his body fall a short distance and then stop with a bone-shattering jolt.
"Come!" the voice commanded and, before he had time to think about what he was doing, he had accepted the proffered hand and sprung lightly from the hole. He turned and saw his body, bloody and broken, lying in the ground and could almost feel the dirt as it hit his face which was calm and serene even to his own eyes. He shivered and the silently turned and followed the misty form into the trees.
Once away from the exultant Normans and in the shelter of Sherwood, the mist took on the solid form of the Baron. Robin followed him deeper into the wood, unsure of what to do with his newly found freedom and unwillingly compelled to keep the dark figure in sight.
"You restored me to life with the silver arrow, I can do the same for you," Belleme told the spirit behind him.
"No!" But his voice was listless and uncertain. He was tired, hurt and disillusioned. Herne had not been there on the other side as he had thought he would be and he was alone. All he wanted to do was sleep in peace and forget, but the Baron worried away at him like a gnawing canker.
"You've already accepted my help once, why not accept it again?"
"I must accept my destiny." Even to his own ears the reason sounded weak.
"Your destiny is with me."
He tried to deny it but was unable to find the strength he needed. He was like a new-born babe in the spirit world, still trying to find his feet, and it suddenly hit him that by accepting the Baron's hand he might already have placed himself in Belleme's power. But if that were truly the case, then why did the Baron still want him to accept the silver arrow's help?
"Come!" The command caught him unawares and he followed meekly, caught up in a breeze that swept him through the trees to Wickham. Passing through the wall of a hut he found himself face to face with Will Scarlet. Looking around he saw John, Nasir, Tuck and Edward. Their faces told him that they already knew of his death.
"You bastard, Gisburne," he breathed, the urge to comfort them strong.
"They are to die," Belleme whispered, "but if you let me use the arrow you could save them."
"Another will do that." Where the knowledge came from he was uncertain and the conviction in his voice startled him, but he knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they would be safe. For the first time since he had left his grave he felt assured and in control of himself and he breathed a sigh of relief which rippled unnoticed through Scarlet's hair.
"How can you be sure?" Belleme taunted him.
"I know," he replied quietly but with a strength that made the Baron flinch.
"Pah!" Belleme spat, wrapping them both in his black cloak and sweeping Robin from the hut and back to a leafy glade in Sherwood where Marion and Much sat forlornly.
The sight of the two of them sitting there in huddled silence brought tears to Robin's eyes and he longed to hold his wife in his arms and comfort her.
"You could heal her hurt if you let me use the arrow," the Baron murmured. Robin bit his lip knowing that this was the greatest temptation he had ever faced.
"To hold her again, wipe away her tears, love her. You have but to say the word and you can."
Somehow the Baron managed to make their love seem tawdry, but he still felt his resolve wavering. Marion's distress touched his soul as nothing else could. He took a tentative step forward and then stopped, aware that he was being watched. Slowly he turned to look back through the trees. Belleme, too, turned to see what had caught Robin's attention.
Amongst the ancient gnarled oaks and the younger beeches he could discern an opening in the air, a door with light pouring from it into the forest. A figure stood silhouetted in the radiance and Robin's heart leapt inside him as he recognised his father.
"I looked for you on the tor but you were gone," Ailric said sadly. His son hung his head.
"I'm sorry, father," he whispered. "I would have waited if I'd known."
"I know you would, Robin; but why are you here with that man?"
"His soul is mine," the Baron snarled.
"Not yet," Ailric smiled. "He has not yet made his final choice. Robin," he turned to the young man, "despite living your life in the light, even now in death you must choose between the light and the dark."
A quiet sob drew all eyes back to Marion and Robin found himself moving towards her until an evil laugh stopped him in his tracks. Glancing back he saw tears of understanding in Ailric's eyes and a wolfish grin on Belleme's face. Marion stirred and his attention was once more focused upon her. She was speaking to Much.
"He is dead. Why do you think he gave me Albion?"
The words told him that she had accepted his death and all that it meant and suddenly it seemed as if he had been released from earthly bonds and could think and act for himself – and he knew what he had to do. Casting a pleading glance at his father, willing him to understand, he turned to the Baron.
"All right," he agreed. "I'll get the arrow."
With a cry of triumph Belleme wrapped himself in his cloak and disappeared. Ailric stood silently in the doorway and regarded his son sadly.
"I hope you know what you are doing, Robin."
"Yes, father, I do. For the first time since I passed through death I do know." The outlaw threw back his head and laughed, the sound mingling with the bubbling stream in the glade.
The slippery slope down to Herne's cave was no longer a problem to Robin as he glided silently over its pebbly surface. Noiselessly he drifted past the antlered god, experiencing a strange tingle through his body as he noticed that Herne was talking to a cloaked figure. The dark of the cave was no obstacle to him as he passed into the inner room. The silver arrow glowed as he took it from its resting place. He noticed that the figure had gone.
Back in the clearing Marion and Much sat just as he had left them. Quickly he made his way towards the door to be as close to it as possible when the Baron returned, as return he must.
"I have it," he cried, holding the arrow aloft.
"If you have truly chosen…" Ailric began sadly.
"Father, wait." The strength in the son's voice held the father rooted to the spot even as Belleme shimmered into view between them.
"Give me the arrow," the Baron cajoled.
"And you will restore me to life?" Robin asked.
"Ah, but to what sort of life? Your slave? I don't think so." Summoning all his courage and strength of will Robin hurled the arrow straight at Belleme.
Silent and sure the thin silver shaft sped on its way. The Baron turned pale as he realised what Robin had done and tried to escape from its path. Too late, the arrow ploughed into the dark form. Slowly Belleme crumpled and fell, fading away as he lay helplessly on the ground. Robin fervently hoped that he was gone for good; he didn't want his successor meeting Belleme. Realising that he had finally admitted his death to himself, he looked up at his father.
Ailric stood watching him quietly; in his hand the silver arrow nestled comfortably as if it had finally come home. He smiled at his son.
"Well done, Robin, he whispered. "Now come, we are waiting for you."
Robin nodded and moved towards the door. At the lintel he stopped and turned. Birds sang happily as his friends entered the glade. His resolve almost wavered again until he felt his father's hand on his shoulder. He watched as Marion held Albion for all to see and knew it was the final confirmation of his death for all.
"Nothing's forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten," he whispered into the wind that soughed through the trees and then stepped through the portal into the light. Behind him the door to the Blessed Isles closed silently. His last battle had been fought and won.