Encounter in Chesterton
(Sequel to Encounter in Sherwood)
Nasir had that rock out and was sharpening his sword… again.
"Nas, if that isn't sharp by now, it's never gonna be," said Little John, one of Robin Hood's men. John was very, very tall; almost a giant, but he had a warm heart. He'd been worried about Nasir ever since he'd returned to their camp. Nasir had always been a quiet sort, but in the last few days, he'd said almost nothing to anyone.
Nasir looked up for a moment, and then went back to sharpening again.
"Come on, man. Isn't there something else you could do?" John asked, but he ignored him. That white band on Nasir's wrist bothered John, especially when he rubbed it and stared off into space.
"It's a woman, John. I'm tellin' you. It's a woman," said Will Scarlet, another of Robin Hood's men.
Nasir turned the sword in Will's direction.
"All right, all right. I'll leave it be," Will said, but then quietly added, "for now."
Robin motioned to the trio and said, "Let's go. We're leaving for Chesterton."
"A little more to the right and up," said Azeem.
Katherine lined up her site and shot the arrow. They were behind her father's castle where they couldn't easily be seen.
"Better, but not in the black. There is still more work to be done if you are to be proficient with the longbow," he said. "You have not told me why you wish to learn to use a forbidden weapon."
Everyday since she had been back from Sherwood, she'd been practicing with the bow and arrow or the sword.
"I'm not going be helpless again like I was when I was robbed. It was just luck that … someone came along and helped me," she said.
Azeem took her shoulders in his hands and looked her in the eye. "More happened in Sherwood than you told your father, did it not?"
"I want to go to Chesterton this afternoon. They've had it so hard lately," she said and started to walk away without answering him.
"Is it the man, the one who helped you?"
Katherine hesitated for a moment. "I'd like to work with swords before I go," she said and went on ahead of him.
He started speaking in a combination of Arabic and English. She laughed to herself. He always rambled when he was frustrated with her.
All she'd told her father about the attack in Sherwood was that she'd been robbed and spent the night in the wagon before coming back home the following day. It was easy to leave out information with him, but Azeem sensed she was holding something back. He would keep at her until eventually she would have to tell him everything, well almost everything, but for now, she wasn't ready.
The village of Chesterton was like many in and around Sherwood. The residents were very poor and worked the land to survive. Their thatched huts were drafty and barely enough shelter to protect them from the elements. Chesterton was near the castle where Katherine lived. As Robin Hood and his men entered the village, Nasir held back a little, but Little John grabbed his arm.
"Come on, Nas. The people here are a friendly lot."
Robin and his men were welcomed when they arrived. They had come to deliver money for the king's taxes because the crop here had been hit hard by bad weather, and they needed help.
When Nasir turned, he saw Katherine treating a villager with one of her salves. The memory of her touch when she tended the wound on his arm returned to him. He unconsciously rubbed the white band on his wrist. Even though she was dressed like the villagers in tatters with frayed edges, she was even more beautiful than he remembered. He put his hand on her shoulder, and she swung around with a knife in her hand.
"Nasir?" she questioned.
His eyes were dark and unfathomable.
Will elbowed John and nodded toward Nasir and Katherine.
"And who is this?" Robin asked.
Nasir didn't answer.
Finally she said, "I'm Katherine. Are you Robin Hood?"
"Yes, and this is Marion, Mutch, Little John, Friar Tuck, and Will Scarlet."
Katherine was fascinated as she was introduced to several of Robin's men. The very rotund Friar Tuck was indeed a brother of the church. Little John, whose name had to be a joke since he stood head and shoulders above everyone else, gave her a big hug. They all seemed so nice. She was having trouble picturing them as robbers and outlaws.
Then there was Lady Marion of Leaford. What a beautiful woman she was with a mane of fiery red hair, bright blue eyes, and porcelain skin sprinkled lightly with freckles. Her father was Sir Richard of Leaford, a nobleman who fought in the Crusades. She and Robin Hood continually exchanged affectionate looks and touches. Katherine wondered if Marion's love for him made it possible for her to face so many challenges including living in the woods and fighting along side these men?
Will Scarlet was quite handsome, but she could see a lifetime of anger and heartbreak etched in his features. It was he who spoke first.
"Didn't I tell you, a woman," he said to Little John who nodded his head in agreement as they walked off.
Nasir had yet to say a word.
"Are you the lady with the salve?" asked Mutch who was little more than a boy.
"I'd like some more. I've a cut on my foot that won't go away, and we've run out."
She smiled and handed him a new jar.
"Thank you," he said. "She's nice, Nasir. Why wouldn't you tell us about her?"
Katherine looked at Nasir, but this time when their eyes met, he turned away.
"Come on, Mutch," Robin said and grabbed him by the collar. "Let's go help Tuck with the tax money."
Katherine slowly approached Nasir and said, "I'm sorry if finding me here has made you uncomfortable."
When he didn't respond, she started to walk away.
With his back to her, he said, "I missed you," and then climbed to the top of a nearby hut to serve as lookout for trouble.
Katherine took a quick breath of utter astonishment, but then Marion laid her hand on her shoulder. "He hasn't been the same since he came back to us."
Katherine wanted to know more, but she heard Nasir shout, "Soldiers."
A flurry of activity ensued. Robin's men gathered their weapons and made a dash for the woods. When they were all about to disappear, she saw Nasir turn and give her a quick nod before entering the woods.
Katherine recognized the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisburne leading the soldiers who did nothing more than stop in Chesterton for water. They were satisfied when she explained why she was there.
"My lady," said the sheriff, "we are on our way to the castle to visit your father."
Wonderful, she thought. An evening with these two would be slow torture. The sheriff was an odious little man with a moustache who liked to dress in velvets and silks rather than use his considerable money to help the poor. Sir Guy was a soldier who captured and punished people whether they were guilty of anything or not just to show that he could.
It was Guy who said, "My lady, I see you are trying to help these… people." The derision in his voice was clear, "but your safety is at risk. Outlaws have been seen in this area. Please return with us to the castle and to the protection of your father."
"Oh my, outlaws? Well of course, I'll return with you, Sir Guy," she said and smiled to herself.
"My lord, my lord," said James who was flushed and excited. "When I followed your daughter today, she went into Chesterton like she does every week."
Randolph, The Earl of Chester, was sitting at the head of the long dining table that spanned the length of the main hall in his castle.
"And?" the earl questioned.
"Robin Hood's men were there."
He sprang from his seat. "I knew it!" he said his silken robes trailing behind him as he paced while he spoke. "Just think, James, if I'd killed you when you left Katherine alone in the woods with those cutthroats who robbed her, I would never have learned about her new friends. You saved yourself by staying close that day and watching her from the woods. The information you provided about the man that rescued her has proven invaluable."
"And I'm grateful, that you spared my life," James said.
"I have a way in which you can be even more helpful. Let it be known in the castle that my daughter was in contact with Robin Hood's men today. I'm sure you know which chambermaids will spread this kind of information. Make it seem as though the Saracen, Nasir, was a threat to her in some way. Use your imagination."
"Yes," my lord."
"You continue to show promise, James. Keep following Katherine and reporting back to me, and I'll continue to reward you. Now go."
"Yes, my lord."
News traveled fast in the castle, and before Katherine returned from Chesterton, Azeem had heard of her encounter there. He considered questioning her about it, but she would hide the truth as she had before. No, he had to find out for himself about this Nasir. He sheathed his knives and strapped his sword about his waist. He was going hunting.
"Do you enjoy music?" Guy asked.
Katherine rolled her eyes. He had been drowning her with questions such as this since finding her in the village. Why did her father put up with these two? The sheriff told another disgusting joke about a soldier taking advantage of a villager. Her father just laughed.
"Dancing? Do you find dancing enjoyable?" asked Guy.
She looked at him then. His constant babble made her think of Nasir's soothing silence. If she told Sir Guy that she enjoyed practicing sword fighting and shooting arrows, would he leave her alone?
Enough, she thought and said, "Father, may I be excused?"
"I'm sorry, gentlemen. Ever since Katherine was robbed by outlaws in Sherwood, she has taken to helping the sick and injured and ignores her social obligations. Really, my dear, I don't know why you bother with those people. They aren't worth your time."
She gave her father a look that told him she didn't appreciate his interference.
"All right. Good night then," he said.
After she left, the earl relayed the tale Katherine had told him about her encounter in Sherwood and added the information that James had provided later.
The sheriff said, "So Randolph, your daughter has had contact with Robin Hood and his men."
"Yes, and I have set a plan in motion that will allow you to capture all of them."
"Tell me more, Randolph. Tell me more."
Azeem began his search in Chesterton where Robin Hood's men had last been seen and tracked them from there. He easily avoided the young man he saw in the tree serving as sentry and hid on the outskirts of the camp where he watched and waited. He did not see anyone who looked like a Saracen. There were three men, a friar, and a woman sitting around talking and eating.
Suddenly someone grabbed him from behind with a knife at his neck. He jabbed him with his elbow, grabbed his arm, and threw him on the ground. By the time Robin and his men got there with their longbows, Azeem had a sword pointed at the throat of the man who had attacked him. This man could definitely be a Saracen.
Robin was amazed. Very few men could put Nasir on the ground the way this man had, so he asked, "Who are you?"
"My name is Azeem. I have come to see Nasir."
Nasir said, "I will speak with him," and nodded to Robin telling him that it was all right. Azeem helped him up, and Robin and his men left them alone.
"Do you know why I am here?" asked Azeem.
"Yes, but I owe you nothing. I will tell you what you want to know because of her."
The rest of their conversation was in Arabic, so John and Robin, who had been listening, could no longer understand.
John said, "I don't like this, Robin."
"I know. We'll stay close by."
Azeem asked Nasir, "Who are you and what brought you to this country?"
Nasir took a deep breath. What he was about to say had never been shared with anyone, not even Robin. "I was orphaned during the Crusades and trained to become an assassin. After a time, I was sent to kill the man who taught me. When I could not bring myself to complete my mission, I wandered through the desert for days until I was nearly dead from dehydration. The sorcerer, Baron Simon De Belleme, found me and brought me here."
"I have heard of Belleme. How long did you stay with him?" Azeem asked.
"I am not sure. Belleme's witches, Lilith and Lydia nursed me back to health. Each time I was with Lydia, something took control of my will. Belleme then used her power to make me his pawn."
Azeem pondered what he had learned. "I understand," he said. "My journey here was also with an evil man who save my life, the earl, but by the time I knew what he was, I could not leave Katherine's mother. He was cruel to her in so many ways. Then Katherine came along, and I vowed to never leave her to his cruelty."
"Why did you join Robin Hood?'
"When Robin came to Belleme's castle to rescue the Lady Marion, he drove a silver arrow through his heart, and Lydia's hold over me was broken. As long as the hooded man lives, I will be loyal to him. Katherine knows I can never be a part of her life."
"Perhaps," said Azeem, "but after two meetings I think you are already a part of her life."
Finally, Robin came to check on them. "Azeem, would you like to join us for dinner?"
"No, I must be getting back," he said. He looked back at Nasir. "There may come a time when I can no longer keep her safe. I have taught her as much as I can, but someday she may need your help. Can I count on you?"
"I will do my best," said Nasir.
"That is all I can ask." Nasir and Azeem bowed to each other and Azeem left.
"What was that all about?" asked Robin
"Katherine," was all Nasir said before he walked off into the woods.
Before Azeem could return to the castle, he encountered an enemy he had not expected.
"I'm so sorry, Katherine. I know how important he was to you," said the earl as he handed her Azeem's sword.
She could hardly believe what her father had just told her. Azeem was dead, killed by Robin Hood and his men. Tears ran down her cheeks.
"Apparently Azeem went to see the Saracen, Nasir," the sheriff said. "He is one of Robin Hood's men"
Her heart sank. Could she have been the cause of Azeem's death? Robin and his men couldn't have killed him, but what if Azeem had gone looking for Nasir? She had to find out what happened.
"An outrage!" said the sheriff. "I promise, Lady Katherine, we will hunt these men down and make sure they never hurt another person again."
She nodded, but what he'd said only made her fear grow.
Between her tears, she said, "My lord, may I be excused?"
"Yes, of course, my dear."
The sheriff added, "My condolences."
Once she was gone, the sheriff said, "Will she take the bait?"
"Most definitely," said the earl. "She'll want to know what happened."
"Let's make sure she has no problem getting away from the castle," said the sheriff. "I don't want her to have any second thoughts about finding the outlaws."
Katherine went to Azeem's bedchamber in the lower levels of the castle. It was one small room with a table, chair, and bed. She'd been there many times especially when she was a girl. He would tell her stories from and about his homeland.
There were things she wanted that would be gone if she waited. Azeem didn't have any family that she knew of, but if someone ever came, she would have some things to give them. Each item she touched brought back a memory, a piece of clothing he'd worn on an outing they'd had together, his books with stories of his homeland written in Arabic that he'd read to her as a child, but what she was looking for, she found next to his bed.
He'd always kept a journal written in Arabic so that others from the castle who wanted to spy on him wouldn't know what was written there. It contained not only the important events of his life, but also the recipes for the potions and salves he'd taught her to make. He would want her to have those.
A beautiful sash hanging near his bed caught her eye. Azeem had worn it many times on formal occasions at the castle. The maroon background was inlaid with gold thread that created several designs. She'd never asked him if the designs held special significance. Now she would never have a chance to ask.
With Azeem's sword and the things she had taken from his room safely stored under her bed, she changed into the clothes she wore on her trips to Chesterton. She paused a moment to look at her longbow and the arrows in her hand. It saddened her to think that there would be no more lessons from Azeem.
There would be more time later for remembering, she decided, as she slipped easily past the gatehouse and down the road to Chesterton. For now, she had to get to Robin Hood.
Where to look? She decided to start at the place where Nasir and the others had entered the forest.
Creaks and groans followed her in the woods. Panic rioted within her. Was that someone behind her? She shot arrows randomly in every direction until they were all gone, dropped her longbow, and ran. By the time Nasir found her, she was crying almost hysterically. He put his arm around her and led her to their campsite where they sat down near the fire.
"What is wrong?" he asked.
After a few deep breaths she said, "Azeem is dead, and they're saying you and Robin's men killed him."
By the time she finished, they had all joined Nasir and Katherine around the fire.
Will said, "Well, we didn't do it."
"I know that," she said.
Nasir whispered in her ear, "I'm so sorry, Katherine," and held her close.
Robin asked, "Who said we killed him?"
From the woods a familiar voice said, "I did."
It was the sheriff. He rode into the camp on horseback accompanied by Gisburne. Soldiers appeared and surrounded them.
"They didn't do it," Katherine cried.
Robin said, "He already knows that, don't you, Sheriff?"
"Yes, of course. It was all part of a wonderful plan, your father's plan," he said to Katherine.
"My father's plan? But I didn't tell him anything about Robin Hood."
"You stupid girl," said the sheriff. "Your driver, James I believe is his name, has been keeping a close eye on you ever since the night you were attacked in Sherwood by robbers and has been reporting back to your father. It's rather refreshing to find an earl who is so devious."
"And Azeem's death?" she asked.
"I believe your father took a great deal of pleasure from that."
Katherine felt as though the air had been knocked out of her. Nasir could no longer contain his anger and darted forward for the sheriff. It took four of the soldiers to bring him to his knees.
"Gisburne, have one of your soldiers escort the earl's daughter to the edge of the forest. After all," laughed the sheriff, "we wouldn't want her ambushed by outlaws."
"Yes, my lord," he said and signaled one of his guards to take her.
As she left camp, she heard the sheriff telling them his plans for a public execution.
She had to do something. The sheriff had followed her and now all of them, including Nasir, were going to be killed.
She said to the guard, "All of this excitement has made me feel a bit ill." She put her hand to her head and sat down. The rock was within reach, but was she strong enough? When the guard bent over to help her up, she grabbed the rock and hit him over the head. After he fell, she took his sword and slipped back to where Robin and his men were being held. She had a plan of her own, but it would all depend on whether she could get close enough to the soldiers without being seen to get her longbow and some arrows.
The sheriff had dismounted and pointed his sword at Robin Hood.
"Finally, I have all of you. This is the end of Robin Hood."
At that moment, an arrow whizzed out of the trees and landed in the right cheek of the sheriff's rump. Another arrow quickly followed and hit one of the soldiers. Robin grabbed a sword and knocked the sheriff's away. The melee created enough of a distraction for Robin's men to attack the soldiers.
One after another, arrows continued to fly from the trees.
"Gisburne, get me out of here," the sheriff yelled.
Gisburne dropped the reins, grabbed the sheriff by the collar, and pulled him across his horse on his stomach with the arrow sticking up in the air from his rump like a flagpole.
"Ouch!" the sheriff yelled when Gisburne hit the arrow while retrieving one of the reins. "You idiot. Be careful."
Arrows zipped past from the trees. "Come on, get this horse away," but Gisburne only had one of the reins. When he reached down to grab the other one, he accidentally pulled the one he already had in hand. The horse started spinning in circles. Gisburne's efforts to grab both of the reins only resulted in the horse spinning faster.
"Gisburne, Gisburne stop this! I'm going to be sick," but it was too late. What had been the contents of the sheriff's stomach was now all over Gisburne, the horse, and the sheriff.
Finally Gisburne retrieved both reins and the horse galloped away, but for quite some time, shouting could still be heard, "Gisburne, Ouch! Don't touch that. Wait until we get back to Nottingham. This is not my fault. Oh! that smell."
By then, the rest of the soldiers had run off. Little John was bent over at the waist his hands on his knees laughing.
Will was making fun of the sheriff. In a mocking voice he said, "Ouch! Gisburne, don't touch that. I'm gonna be sick."
Marion had her hand covering her mouth.
Finally when their laughter subsided, Robin called up the hill, "Come out. We want to thank you for helping us."
John said, "Yes, lad, let us thank you."
Holding her longbow and toting a quiver of arrows on her back, Katherine stepped out from the trees. More than a hint of pride crossed Nasir's face as Katherine slipped and slid down the hill.
"Marion," said Will, "I thought you were the only woman who could shoot like that."
"I guess I'm not," she said.
By the time Katherine made it to the bottom, they all graced her with hugs and pats on the back, but she said, "How can you all treat me so well? This is my fault."
John said, "No, lass. Your father and the sheriff, they're to blame."
"How can we thank you?" Robin asked.
She kissed Nasir on the cheek and said, "Keep him safe."
If she hadn't known better, when the ooohhs and ahhhhs started, she might have thought he blushed.
Robin put his hand on her shoulder and said, "We'll do our best." To the men he said, "We should be going," and all but Nasir started off into the woods.
When they were some distance away, Nasir said, "Any more surprises?"
"You'll have to stay around to find out."
His smile faded, "You know I cannot."
"Yes," she answered, "I know."
He pointed to what she held. "Longbow?" he questioned.
Tears welled in her eyes. "Azeem taught me. After I met you, I wanted to learn."
He gathered her into his arms, and she relaxed in his comforting embrace. His powerful heart beating against her chest gave her strength.
In Arabic, he whispered, "Azeem came to see me because of his love for you. To honor him, you must not forget all that he has given you… taught you."
She said in Arabic, "I will not forget."
He held her snugly for a few moments longer, but Little John yelled from the trees, "Come on, Nas. Let the lass go."
Hot tears rolled down her cheeks not only for Azeem, but because Nasir was leaving again.
"Will you be all right alone with the earl?"
"I know what he is now, what he has done. I can take care of myself." She swiped the tears with the back of her hand and stood tall. "Azeem gave me that."
As he ran off toward the woods, Nasir said, "You know where to go if you need me."
Yes, he would be with Robin Hood and his men. She just wondered if there would ever be another encounter with Nasir.