My father always said that curiosity is one of the most useful traits that someone can have. Science is driven by curiosity, and learning takes place by wanting to know what is going on in the world around you, and why these things are occurring. He taught my brother and I to question everything, and to constantly seek answers, knowledge, and wisdom. When we were small, both Djaq and I took this to heart, as did we all of our father's words. But as we grew, Djaq gradually stopped asking quite so many questions, and started accepting that things simply were the way they were. But I was never happy with that. And although I could see my father's pride that I embodied his philosophy so thoroughly, sometimes I wonder if he did not worry that one day I might open some doors that might have been better left sealed shut. But he need not have been afraid, for I am not a little girl anymore. I have learned to redirect my questions so that, even though they may sting a bit in the short term, I use the knowledge I gain from them to help wherever I can.
But sometimes, I must admit, I am a bit selfish. Because sometimes, I am not curious for the purpose of helping. Sometimes, I just want to know answers for myself.
I think it was that sort of curiosity that led me to follow Tom A'Dale that night when he left alone to go down to the stream to fetch water. I thought that he seemed grateful that Robin had given him yet another chance to remain in our group, and was perhaps trying to prove himself a useful, functioning member of our Gang. But after his foolish actions today, I wondered if perhaps it might be a good idea to make sure he did nothing to bring himself or others to any harm.
As he disappeared from sight, I furtively positioned myself near the trail to the stream, and glanced around to see if anyone was watching me-it would be no good if I developed a reputation as a spy. While I was fairly certain that I did not have much to fear on this account, my time as a slave had engrained within me a need for constant vigilance.
Much was tidying up his kitchen, more quietly than normal. Tom's companions, seeing that he had left to perform his task alone, were settling down for the night, as were Will, Robin, and Little John. Allan had already done so, and was leaning against his favorite tree, his cloak tucked up underneath his chin, his blue eyes hidden by his long lashes. He seemed to have fallen asleep surprisingly quickly and easily, especially given the circumstances-obviously, a hard day of chasing after his brother had left him exhausted. I was confident that I remained undetected as I snuck out of the camp.
I managed to catch up to Tom just as he reached the stream and knelt down at its bank. The moon was just beginning to wane off of full, so it was easy for me to observe him from my hiding place behind one of the two giant oak trees that grew a few long paces from the waterline. Tom held the bucket underneath the surface of the water, breaking the sparkling reflection of the moon that danced in time with the gentle current, before replacing the filled vessel on the bank beside him. Though his task was finished, he did not rise to his feet. Instead, he cupped his hands and, interrupting the dance of the moon and water once more, splashed his stubbled face and scrubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. I thought that he moved his right arm a little more gingerly than the other as he did this, and my suspicions were confirmed when he rolled up his sleeve and, removing the scarf from around his neck, soaked it in the stream and then cautiously touched it to the inside of the upper part of his arm, visibly wincing as he did so. I recalled Much's description to me of the day's events, and how impressed he had sounded when he spoke of Marian's, or should I say, the Nightwatchman's, fighting skills.
I realized then that I needed to transition from observation to interaction. Stepping out from my hiding place, I asked as gently as I could in the language that was still somewhat unfamiliar to me,
"May I have a look at that?"
Tom jumped, looking momentarily surprised before masking the expression with a well-practiced ferocity and instinctive suspicion.
"Why, so you can whisper some magic words at me, turn me into a toad?" His voice was a derogatory sneer.
These English! I was not exactly sure what a toad was, but I did not let my uncertainty show on my face. It was obviously something Tom A'Dale had no interest in being turned into, and that was all I needed to know. I rolled my eyes sarcastically. "Oh, I would not worry about that. I have plans to turn you into something much worse than a toad. A snake, I think. May you slither unknowingly into someone's garden, and they chop off your head!" I said this in my best impression of a witch, and waved my fingers at him for effect. Illuminated by the unforgiving moonlight, Tom's eyes widened with real fear for just a moment. Could he possibly be genuinely afraid of me, and believe that I really did possess magical powers, simply because I was Saracen? What ignorance will do to a person!
But then I recalled the day that I had first met Tom's brother, and his hurtful accusations against me that had been born out of nothing but fear-fear for the life of his friend and fear of this new person who he knew nothing about, from a strange place and culture of which he had no knowledge but uninformed rumors. While I had originally thought Allan to be judgmental and prejudiced, I had since come to see the goodness in his heart. I berated myself for falling into the same trap and jumping to the same conclusions about Tom, and I felt guilty for having frightened him. I lowered my voice, making it gentle again.
"It is all right. I will not hurt you, I promise. I am a physician; I heal people. With herbs, not magic."
He studied me warily before shaking his head.
"I don't know what it is you want to do with me, but I won't let you!"
All right then, fine. I threw up my hands. "Suit yourself. Let the cut get infected and die of a fever. Is it really worth being afraid?"
He glowered and scoffed. "I'm not afraid. Especially not of you. You're a girl." He finished more quietly, eyes cast downward. "It's only bruised, anyway."
I almost mentioned that the person who gave him that bruise that was causing him so much grief was also a girl, but I stopped myself, realizing that it was probable that Marian had chosen not to reveal her true identity to these strangers, even after Robin, Much, and Allan had arrived at the scene of the fight. Anyway, it was of no use arguing with him.
"All right then, you are not afraid. But it is obvious that you do not trust me, nor any of us here."
"Why should I? I don't trust anyone but myself 'n my mates. Period."
I could nearly touch the nervousness in his voice behind his fabricated confidence. I tried to offer him a bit of my own experience in hopes that it might make him feel more at ease. "I understand how difficult it can be to trust someone, especially when you have not known them very long. I myself only came here to the forest a short time ago. But we all need to put our trust in someone, or else we are all alone in this world."
He snorted in disgust. "I am alone, 'n I like it that way. Everyone 'as to take care of themselves-only the strong survive. Can't be burdened down by anyone else, either. They'll only get in the way."
Before I could stop myself, the question slipped out. "In the way of what?" There it was, that irrepressible curiosity whose expanse my father could never have estimated.
Tom straightened up, squaring his shoulders. "Of provin' yourself to the world, to the big man on top. Somebody's got to show the people who think they're so important who really oughtta be runnin' this show!"
I raised my eyebrows. "And you think that you could do this all by yourself?" Even though I tried not to let the slight notes of condescension slip into my voice, I found them to be unstoppable. He noticed, and his pale blue eyes pierced through the darkness like arrowheads aimed at me.
"I know I could! I did it today, or I would've if that lot 'adn't stopped me! They don't understand what they could learn from me! But they won't listen, they only get in my way..."
A realization suddenly hit me with such force and meaning that I felt an unpleasantness grow in my stomach. I interrupted his tirade to voice my thought, cautiously.
"Is that why you left Allan? Because he got in your way?"
He stopped talking, and I saw pain flit across his moonlit face for a fraction of a moment. Then,
"My brother is too soft for 'is own good." Tom's voice was low and harsh. "When you're fightin' for your life every day, when you've got no choice but to steal to eat, you don't be picky about who you're stealin' from. Allan was. Said we shouldn't be stealin' from those who could 'ardly put food in their own mouths." There was volume to his speech now as the righteousness of his tone and words increased. "Well I say if they care about their food 'n money so much, then they should keep a better eye on it! It's either we take care of ourselves, or we go 'ungry. 'Cause the world certainly i'nt goin' to take care of us. Allan needed to wake up and see that, 'n I woke 'im up." There was an intensity in those pale blue eyes that showed that Tom truly believed that he had done his older brother a favor by this. It was probably the most honest aspect of Tom I had observed, and I had to admit that it scared me a little.
"And did you ever stop to think how Allan might have felt about you stealing all of his belongings and leaving him without a word of where you were going? How he must have worried about you?" I nearly shuddered as I tried to imagine how terrible and betrayed I would have felt if Djaq had ever done something like that to me.
There was that quick, barely noticeable flash of pain over his features again, but his words were as arrogant and cold as ever.
"It doesn't matter. I did 'im a favor, and if 'e's too thick to realize that, then 'e's the one that'll pay for it! It was for 'is own good, but apparently a chap can't even 'elp 'is own brother 'round 'ere without getting smacked around for it!"
He broke off suddenly, eyes widening, but it was too late to undo what he had said. Tom A'Dale, who did not seem able to open his mouth without lying or talking in circles, had made a grievous mistake. I tried not to smirk as I asked,
"I thought you said you believed that everyone should look after themselves?"
His eyes flitted from side to side, as though he were searching frantically for an escape route, but the only place he could go without passing me was into the stream. Did he still not realize that I had no intention of harming him? But I had revealed his story, and now he felt cornered, trapped. Still, even now that his facade had crumbled, he tried frantically to talk his way out.
"But, that's different, see. Allan's family. We always looked out for each other, me 'n 'im. Someone 'ad to, I mean, we never 'ad any...anybody else." He swallowed, obviously cursing himself for once again letting go of too much information.
I could tell that Tom was not accustomed to sharing knowledge of his personal life with anyone, so I kept my voice very gentle and sympathetic when I asked,
"You never had anyone else?"
He finally lashed out, reminding me once again of a enclosed, frightened animal.
"Oh and I suppose you know all about what it's like, eh? I'll bet your parents were always there to hold you when you fell 'n scraped your pretty little knees. I'll bet your dad never got so roarin' drunk that 'e 'it you, or beat you with whatever 'e could get 'is 'ands on. I'll bet your mum didn't up 'n leave without ever sayin' goodbye, or even comin' back for you! And I suppose you never 'ad to steal your supper, or shiver yourself to sleep because it got cold before you could get enough to buy yourself a blanket! So no, I 'aven't ever 'ad anybody else." Tom's eyes blazed furiously in the moonlight, and his breath came laboriously. The silhouettes of his nimble pickpocket's hands trembled, nearly imperceptibly.
"And Allan understood. Because he also had no one." I hoped that by making a statement rather than posing a question, Tom would be less suspicious of my curiosity. It seemed that he was lost enough in his past by this time that it worked.
"'E promised me, that first night we were on our own, after Dad died, that everythin' would be all right if we stayed together. 'E'd look after me. And 'e did, o' course, like he always did." His voice was softer now, more thoughtful. "'E took a beatin' for me once. Dad came 'ome drunk one night, like every other night 'e actually came 'ome, and demanded to know which one of us 'ad stolen vegetables from the neighbor's garden. It was me, o' course, 'n Allan knew it, but 'e told Dad it was 'im anyway." He swallowed and winced at the memory, staring past me into the trees, and I began to wonder if he was even aware of the fact that I was still standing there. "Dad was so angry. Said Allan'd 'umiliated 'im. And then 'e went out to the shop 'n got a strap from the cart 'arness, one with a big buckle on the end..." Tom shook his head. "Allan never told 'im it wasn't 'im that did the thievin' that time. 'E was sick for a week after that, but 'e never told."
It did not take much for me to guess who had cared for Allan during that awful week, but I did not say anything, did not want to risk shattering the trance of openness and honesty that had befallen Tom A'Dale, even though doing so would mean drawing attention to his own positive traits.
"I've always looked up to 'im. 'E was always so brave, no matter what we were goin' through. Too serious sometimes, I always thought, but 'e always was the one to say we'd be all right. When I was a lad I always 'oped one day I'd grow up to be brave like my big brother. That's what I'm trying to prove." He snorted softly, his eyes finally refocusing on me. "But 'e doesn't appreciate it, can't see it. 'E's as blind 'n stupid as 'e is brave."
I shook my head and said quietly, "Your brother loves you, Tom. He stood up to Robin for you, did he not?"
"Yeah." Tom's voice was very nearly a whisper. "Yeah, 'e did. And I've got to prove that it was worth it."
He bent down, picked up the water bucket, and headed back toward the camp without another word. I let him go, fearing that my questions and curiosity had opened one of those doors that my father had always worried were better left sealed shut.
Had I been able to foresee the result of Tom's attempt to prove himself, I would have gone after him and tried to reason with him, to convince him that there were other ways of reciprocating his brother's love. Had I known that, in less than two days' time, those pale blue eyes would no longer see, and that another set of blue eyes would run over with tears of grief, I would have spent the whole night telling Tom how a true, loving family worked, and that real love never need be repaid or proven.
I could not have known these things, of course, but I did learn one thing from my conversation with Tom that night. Months later, when Allan A'Dale would stand before me, fighting within himself the beasts of error and self-doubt, I would tell him that I believed he was a good man. And although he would not believe me, I would know for a fact that it was the truth.