Encounter in Sherwood
From the time of King Richard of England and the Crusades there were many legends told of a hero named Robin Hood and his band of men who lived in Sherwood Forest. They were known for robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Will Scarlet, Little John, Friar Tuck, Maid Marion, and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham were often part of these tales, but in some of them, there was a Saracen assassin named Nasir who joined Robin Hood's band. This is the story of one of Nasir's encounters in Sherwood.
"Please put that knife away," Katherine muttered to the man who dug it into her throat. She'd been on her way to visit her friend, Lady Anne in Nottingham who'd been sick with fever for a week.
"Welcome to Sherwood Forest, my lady, home of cutthroats and robbers. Today ya have the honor of bein' stopped by fine examples of both," the man said. Her cowardly driver had run off when this devil dropped into her wagon as she passed under a tree. An ugly smile crossed his face, which was now only inches from hers. "All I want is yer money." He twisted the knife and she felt a sting on her neck. Reluctantly she gave him her moneybag.
"It's all I have," she said.
"It'll do, but maybe my lady would like some entertainment before I go."
She almost gagged. The only way this man could ever entertain her was if he took up juggling. Dirty, black stains covered his face and hands, while his brown hair was matted. He smelled strongly of ale and old sweat and was accompanied by three other men, all equally disgusting. One of them killed the guard that her father had sent with her.
The man in the wagon grabbed the bodice of her dress and pulled her close. "I bet you're a virgin, ain't ya. You'll see how much fun we can have together. Now don't struggle, my lady, and maybe I'll let ya live." Her loathing for him was only surpassed by his stench, which filled her nostrils. The ties across the front of her dress ripped with each slice of his knife. Just when she thought there was no hope for her, she heard a grunt and a thud that rocked the wagon. Two more grunts followed close behind.
"What's going on out there, George? I ain't finished my business with the lady back here." He appeared more annoyed with George than concerned about him.
A figure silhouetted in shadow appeared at the door of the wagon. It was a man dressed in black. The dark, curly hair on his head matched his closely cut beard and moustache. He wore a dark tunic covered with a regular pattern of studs, black leather pants and shirt with leather boots.
The stranger didn't say a word but drew a knife out of a harness that crossed his shoulders. He and the robber traded jabs until finally the man in black swatted the robber's knife away and shoved him out the side of the wagon. He landed running and didn't look back. When she looked out the windows on either side of the wagon, she saw that the robber's partners all lay on the ground. One had an arrow with black feathers in his arm and another had a knife in his leg. The third was unconscious. Katherine assumed one of the three was George.
The man in black retrieved his knife and replaced it in the harness that not only crossed his shoulders but also extended down his back and held another knife and two swords. He tossed a quiver of arrows with the same black feathers and a black longbow into the wagon. Then he lifted her onto the driver's seat. After that, he climbed up behind her, took the reins, and drove away.
"Thank you," she said
He gave her a little bow, which she took it to mean, "You're welcome." He wasn't holding a weapon on her, but he seemed far more dangerous than the robber who'd held a knife to her neck. So far, he didn't seem to want to hurt her. She leaned forward to look more closely at his face. His eyes were as dark as his hair and held no hint of what he was thinking. His exotic look made her wonder if he was from some other land and couldn't speak English.
"Where are we going?" she asked, but he didn't answer.
They didn't travel much farther into Sherwood, but dusk settled over them and the air cooled. Katherine shivered both with fear and chill. The simple dress she had chosen to wear was good for traveling during the day, but it didn't keep her warm outside in the dark.
He stopped the horses at what she thought was his campsite. The attack on her wagon must have drawn him away because a fire was already burning and some kind of meat was cooking on a spit above it. Juices dropped into the fire and sizzled. The smell was appetizing, but her stomach was still a little queasy from her ordeal. He jumped from the seat. As he helped her down, she leaned on his shoulders for stability. He winced. When she lifted her hands, she saw a tear in his shirt and blood oozing from a nasty looking cut on his arm that he must have gotten in the struggle with one of the robbers.
"You're hurt!" she cried and pulled him closer to the fire. She rolled up the sleeve of his shirt to expose the wound to the light. All the while, he just watched her in amazement.
"Well, it doesn't look too deep, but it is still bleeding a little. Is it very sore?" she asked.
He just shook his head. She tore off two pieces of cloth from the inner lining of her dress.
"Water?" she asked.
He handed her an animal skin heavy with liquid. She poured water on one of the pieces of cloth and used it to clean the wound. Then she selected one of the little jars from the bag she wore across her chest. Ever since she was little, she'd made salves and potions from the plants, herbs, and flowers that grew near her home. Her father had always discouraged this and never allowed her to use what she made on him or any of the other men, but she saw no harm in it, especially when she helped a friend like Lady Anne.
He measured her with a cool, appraising look as she dipped her finger into the small jar of salve. Before she could apply some to the cut, he grabbed her wrist. She understood. He didn't trust her anymore than she trusted him.
The spot on her neck where the robber had held his knife was stinging relentlessly, so she knew the skin there must be broken. She pried her wrist from his hand and applied the salve to her neck. It immediately soothed the sting.
"See, it feels better," she said not really knowing whether he understood or not.
He picked up the jar and examined it. Carefully, she reached over and put her fingers into the jar to acquire more salve. Very gently, she applied it to his cut. She took her time. He was hurt because of her. She didn't want to be the cause of any more pain.
Relief washed over his face. This salve had soothing qualities as well as those that heal. When he smiled, it brightened his eyes and softened his features. The warmth it gave his face belied his actions, and she found that intriguing
"Who are you?" she asked.
"Nasir," he said, but his warm smile faded.
Finally an answer, she thought, and he did know some English, but she already missed his smile.
"I am Katherine," she said. "My father is the Earl of Chester."
He offered no more information and their momentary connection was lost. She used the remaining piece of cloth from her dress to bandage the wound.
He inspected her work, and when he was satisfied, walked over to the fire. After slicing some meat, he handed her a wooden plate. Her stomach had settled and now growled with hunger. She realized she hadn't eaten since that morning, so she accepted what he offered. He then sliced off some meat for himself and sat down to eat. He watched her with growing fascination as she devoured what he served.
"Could I have more, please?" she asked and handed back her plate. One corner of his mouth pulled into a slight smile when he served more meat, but when he heard a little burp, he was barely able to contain his amusement.
With subtle sarcasm he said, "My lady!"
An unwelcome blush crept into her cheeks.
"I was hungry," she said in her defense.
"I think you have had enough," he said.
It was the most he had said to her, and she just stared at him until he added, "Time for sleep"
He put her hand in the crook of his arm and led her to the wagon. Was this why he'd saved her life, so that he could have her for himself?
Her eyes grew large and her cheeks burned.
After pulling back the curtain that hung across the doorway, he said, "I will not be joining you."
"You shouldn't have gotten my hopes up," she quipped, but they both knew she was relieved.
She sighed and climbed inside. Maybe it was because he had saved her from a terrible fate, but for whatever reason, she felt safe knowing he was nearby. She made herself a bed in the back using the personal items she had brought with her. Her stomach was full and the tension of the last few hours had eased. She was soon asleep.
Nasir knew of the Earl of Chester, one of the worst of the tyrants, he was allied to the Sheriff of Nottingham. It was hard to believe that Katherine was his daughter. What a beautiful woman she was, slender and delicate with long hair almost as dark as his own that tumbled carelessly down her back. Her brown eyes were warm and inviting. He leaned against a tree near the fire and thought about her touch on his arm. Never had the tending of a wound been so pleasurable for him. She made him smile. Maybe he should have sent her home. But it was after dark, and her guard was dead. He had a right to be concerned about her safety. However, she would be no safer here with him if those he was expecting came for him tonight.
For weeks now, in every village where Robin Hood and his men stopped, Nasir had heard stories of strangers asking about him. How many times would they come after him? Years had passed since Templars killed his parents in the Crusades. After that, those who had trained him as an assassin became his family. He could not forget how many lives he had taken before he realized how easily some members of his "family" were corrupted by greed.
Robin, Will Scarlet, Little John, Tuck, even Mutch and Marion, the band of Robin Hood, could all be killed trying to save him from those who were not willing to allow him to withdraw from their ranks. They would kill him and all who got in their way if he was not willing to return with them. Would he ever be free of his past? He had thought that leaving his friends behind would protect them. Now he had put this innocent woman in the same danger.
Something woke her… voices in the dark. She sat up and saw four strange horses tethered to a tree near her wagon. Their owners, who were dressed in robes that hid all but their eyes, were arguing with Nasir in Arabic. They were Saracens. Nasir must also be a Saracen, she thought. She tried to listen more closely. They wanted him to return with them to their homeland. He told them that Sherwood was his home now. Before long, they seemed to come to an understanding, but their voices lowered to whispers and she could no longer hear what they said. They shared some water and food. Nasir smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. That made her wary.
Two of the robed men wandered over to their horses. Maybe they were leaving. She crouched down in the shadows at the back of the wagon so she wouldn't be seen, but she could still see and hear them. She understood enough Arabic to know that they were whispering about an attack. With their backs turned to Nasir, they each drew out two swords and a couple of knives.
One of them quickly spun and flung a knife at him.
"Nasir," she shouted
He ducked. The knife barely missed him and lodged in a tree. The other robed man began to search for her hiding place in the wagon, his dark eyes set in a vicious expression.
Nasir drew his two swords. The other three attacked him. The four seemed to be engaged in an intricate dance. Katherine was mesmerized by the flurry of Nasir's blades. He would lunge and retreat; thrust and spin, all the while keeping his opponents at bay. It was beautiful. She should have been afraid, but what she witnessed fascinated her.
Her trance was broken, though, when the robed man found her in the wagon. For the second time that night, she had a blade pointed at her neck. Her eyes frantically searched for anything she could use as a weapon. That's when, in the corner, only a few inches away, she saw the knife the robber had left. She grabbed it and jammed it into the only part of his body she could reach… his foot.
"Ahhhh," he shouted and sprang up. In the cramped quarters of the wagon, he hit his head on the ceiling brace and knocked himself out.
All the while, Nasir continued fighting only a few feet away. She picked up the unconscious man's sword by the hilt. She could see Nasir was tiring. He was going to be killed, and she would be left at the mercy of these robed men.
Something inside her snapped. She grasped the sword with two hands and dove forward, ramming the blade into the back of one of the men. His stunned expression as he fell mirrored hers. She collapsed, and remembered nothing else until she was lifted from the ground. She started to struggle, but saw that it was Nasir. He gently put her down on a tarp near the fire. She was still in a daze as she watched him pull the dead bodies of four men into the woods.
When he had finished his task, he sat down beside her and asked, "How did you know?"
There may have been tears on her cheeks, but the feeling in her face was gone.
In Arabic she answered, "Azeem taught me."
"Who is Azeem?"
She took a few deep breaths and continued in Arabic, "A Saracen, like you. My father brought him back from the Crusades to serve as bodyguard." She laughed, but there was no humor in it. "He's been more of a father to me than the earl. When I was young, he taught me to speak Arabic and to make the salves and potions like the one I used to treat your arm. He also taught me a little bit about how to use a sword."
He nodded once and smiled. "I would like to meet this Azeem,' he said. "I owe you my life." His head drooped.
"Then we are even. Are you hurt?" she asked.
He shook his sagging head.
"Who were those men?" she asked.
"Assassins, guardians who kill for their beliefs." He hesitated for a moment before raising his head to look at her and added, "I was one of them once."
She put her hand in his and tried to smile.
He slipped his arm around her and started whispering reassuring words in Arabic in her ear that soothed her nerves and calmed the shaking of her body. She laid her head on his shoulder. Before long she was asleep.
The next morning he woke slowly. Katherine was in his arms. He could still picture her with seemingly no fear and a sword in her hand charging a deadly assassin and killing him. Nasir had been outnumbered, but her actions had changed the battle in his favor and saved both their lives.
He felt her first waking movements and looked down at her. She was so beautiful, looking up at him with sleepy eyes. Her rosy lips beckoned him. He gently touched them with his. They were so soft; he deepened the kiss and immediately felt her opening for him. Something tight in his chest, unwound.
She gave herself to the kiss and it consumed her. When his tongue touched her lips, she freely allowed him in. It was as though they were melting into each other. She slowly curled her fingers into his hair and felt his moan all the way to her toes.
More… she wanted more, but he suddenly jerked himself away from her.
"No," he said and retreated into the forest leaving her alone and confused.
When he returned, he harnessed the horses to the wagon and helped her up to the driver's seat. He climbed up beside her, but said nothing as they drove away toward her home. When they reached the edge of the forest, he stopped the wagon.
"I am not for you, Katherine," he said.
He was telling her goodbye.
"You're a good man, Nasir," she said.
"A good man does not do the things I have done," he said.
She took the jar of salve out of her pouch and closed his hand around it.
"For your cut," she said. He shook his head, but she added, "I can make more."
His finger tenderly traced the line of her cheekbone and jaw. "My lady," he said and handed her the reins before jumping down from the wagon.
"If you ever need me, leave word in the village of Wickam," he said.
"Do you live there?" she asked.
"No, but they will know how to find Robin Hood. I will be with him."
Before she had a chance to ask anything more, he smacked the bottom of one of the horses to send them off toward the castle.
He was one of Robin Hood's men. She'd heard the stories, but thought most of them were untrue. Her father ranted about how they created chaos and disorder. What a shame she hadn't known before. There were so many questions she longed to ask. She looked back at him and wondered if she would ever see him again.
The earl was in for a shock. His daughter had killed a man and shared a kiss that lit a fire all the way to her soul. Azeem would have questions. She would have to be careful what she told them.
As Nasir watched Katherine go, he touched the bandage on his arm. It was from her dress, a part of her.
In the days that followed, Nasir returned to Robin Hood and his men. They were all amazed at how quickly the salve he brought back with him healed their wounds, but he refused to tell any of them who had given it to him. Robin noticed a strip of cloth on Nasir's wrist.
"What is that?" Robin asked.
Nasir replied, "It is in memory of an encounter in Sherwood."