Encounter with Nasir
(Sequel to Encounter in Chesterton)
Arrows soared through the air.
"Run," Nasir yelled and ducked to avoid an arrow that headed straight at him.
Mutch grabbed his arm after one of the arrows grazed it and ran to Nasir who shielded the unconscious Marion.
"Who are they? Mutch asked.
"I do not know," Nasir said and shot an arrow toward the rustling he heard from the trees.
Arrows, more arrows flew from all directions. Finally one pierced Nasir's left side while another lodged in his back. He spun and fell to the ground.
"Nasir!" Mutch yelled just as everything went black.
"No!" Katherine cried out and sat up with a start. She was bathed in sweat. Her heart pounded and tears poured down her face. A nightmare, it was just a nightmare, but it had seemed so real. Darkness filled the room. It was the middle of the night, but sleep would not easily return, so she put on her robe and opened the window. The air was cold, but it dried her tears and shook off the remnants of the dream.
How many twists and turns could her life take? Over the last few months her beloved Azeem had died at the hands of her father. Her former driver, James, now the head castle guard, monitored every move she made. The residents of the villages she visited with her salves and potions provided her with the only company she enjoyed. She'd used arrows to save Robin Hood and his men from the Sheriff of Nottingham and a sword to kill a Saracen assassin.
And then there was Nasir. Just thinking about him caused a tingling in the pit of her stomach. He could kill with the sword or longbow when warranted, but something in his manner wrapped her in invisible warmth. There was so much about him she didn't know, but he inspired and motivated much of what she did, and yet he wasn't really part of her life.
She sighed and was about to close the window when she sensed that someone was in her room.
"Who's there?" she asked and slowly moved toward her bed where a knife was hidden under the pillow.
"There's nothing to fear, Katherine," Robin Hood said as he stepped from the shadows. She giggled when she saw that he was disguised as a chambermaid, but it soon dawned on her that there was only one reason for him to come here.
"It's Nasir, isn't it? He's hurt."
"Yes, but how did you know?"
"You wouldn't believe me," she answered as she pulled out the clothes she wore on her visits to the village of Chesterton. "If you give me half an hour, I'll meet you just past the gatehouse at the edge of the forest."
He nodded as he threw off his disguise, slipped out the window, and climbed down the wall to the ground.
Two very deep breaths calmed her nerves and cleared her mind as she changed clothes. In her bag, she packed her potions, salves, and bandages along with Azeem's journal, which she never left far behind.
Luckily her father was in Nottingham. She told her chambermaid that she would be leaving for Chesterton and was staying for several days. Those who were curious about her whereabouts would have to be satisfied with that explanation. Then she snuck down the servants' stairs. As she went through the kitchen, she checked behind her to make sure she wasn't followed.
She made for the stables, which were a short distance from the castle, just across a courtyard, and harnessed a horse to a small wagon. Quickly and quietly, she led the horse past the gatehouse and down to the edge of the forest where Robin was waiting. They climbed into the wagon and hurried into the woods.
From the guards' room, James watched Katherine leave the castle. After she was gone, he hastened to the stables and saddled his horse to follow her.
"Gisburne, Gisburne," yelled the sheriff. "Bring me another cushion!"
Sir Guy of Gisburne entered the dining hall of Nottingham Castle just in time to see the sheriff lean back onto the edge of a table and emit a sound that he thought only animals made.
"Here you are, Sheriff," Gisburne said with a smirk while he handed him the third cushion he'd brought him in the last hour.
"It's about time! You'd think after three weeks, this ghastly wound would've healed. The return to Nottingham was torture in that hideous wagon. Every bump was excruciating torment." The sheriff grabbed the cushion and put it on top of the other two already perched on his chair. He sat down gingerly but not without several moans and groans.
"What's to be done about Lady Katherine?" asked Gisburne.
"What would you like for me to do, Gisburne? It's her word against the soldier's."
"My daughter may be many things, Gisburne, but she has never been a liar," said Randolph, the Earl of Chester who entered the hall from the top of the stairs.
"But I'm sure she was involved in Robin Hood's escape. My soldier said she knocked him out."
"Nonsense, Gisburne. She's just a girl. If she says the guard tripped and fell, then that's probably what happened," said the earl.
The sheriff squirmed uncomfortably. "We'll find out who helped Robin Hood escape. It's just a matter of time."
The earl laughed. "If you both weren't so incompetent, the outlaws would all be dead by now. No, this time I've taken the matter into my own hands."
Katherine thought the wagon would never get to the camp.
Robin said, "Nasir's injuries are the most severe, but Marion is also hurt, and we've done all we can. Mutch has…"
"A cut on his arm," she said, "and Nasir was shot by two arrows."
Robin turned to her and placed his hand on her forearm. "You'd be surprised at what I might believe," he said. "Tell me how you know these things."
"A very vivid dream," she said.
"The powers of light and darkness inhabit the world beyond what we can see and touch. You were either given a warning or have been called to help," Robin said.
She thought about what he said as they rode the rest of the way to the camp in silence. What she saw when they arrived frightened her. Tuck tended Marion who laid on a tarp near the fire with a cloth pressed to her head. Robin jumped from the wagon and rushed to her side. Will wrapped a bandage around Mutch's bloody arm. Katherine grabbed her bag from the back of the wagon as Little John appeared from a make-shift shelter built from tree branches and animal skins located at the other side of the camp and nestled in some trees.
He helped her down from the wagon. "I'm so glad you're here, lass." She smothered a sob when he hugged her. Inside the shelter where John led her, it was dark. Nasir was lying on a tarp, the left side of which was covered in blood along with his shirt. He was unconscious and his ashen skin made him look so frail.
Once she got her bearings, she said, "John, I need water, both hot and cold, and I need a small fire in here."
He nodded and on the way out, put his hand on her shoulder. "You'll do your best. We can't ask any more than that."
She looked up at him, "But what if it's not enough?"
He squeezed her shoulder and left to get the water and wood.
Katherine took a moment to tenderly touch Nasir's beard and to run her hands through his hair. His skin was cold. She noticed the white band on his wrist. Could this be part of the bandage she'd made from her dress the night they met? Her hand flew to her mouth, and a soft gasp escaped.
It frightened her to think she might lose him, but she had to stem her fear or she wouldn't be able to help. First the bleeding had to be stopped. Over the next few hours, she used every skill she had to try and save his life.
James rode hard through the night and into the next day to get to Nottingham Castle. He was led to the main hall where the earl sat with the sheriff and Sir Guy of Gisburne. The huge dining table was covered with food, which the three of them were enjoying.
After James was announced, he said to the earl, "My lord, your daughter has gone to the outlaw's camp. She is trying to save the Saracen.
The earl shoved his chair backward so hard that it toppled, and he stomped around the table to where James was standing. "Then he's not dead." He smacked James with the back of his hand. "You said those men would do the job."
"You see, Randolph," said the sheriff, "They're not so easy to kill."
The earl ignored him. "Find the men I hired and tell them they will lose more than money if they don't succeed in finishing him off."
Holding his mouth, James mumbled, "Yes, my lord," and left to find his horse.
Katherine had done all she could for Nasir. "John, will you stay with him?" she asked.
"Will he make it, Lass?"
"I don't know," she said and left to check on Marion and Mutch.
Their wounds were not difficult to treat and would heal quickly. While she applied her potions and salves she asked, "How did this happen?"
Through her dizziness Marion said, "Mutch and I went into the forest to collect fruit. Nasir went along to get water from the stream. The last thing I remember was all the arrows and then one creasing my forehead."
Mutch added, "We didn't see who they were, but when Nasir got hurt, they left."
Katherine wondered if the attackers could have been more assassins like the ones who fought with Nasir the night they met, but those robed Saracens had not used longbows or arrows.
When she was finished, Will grabbed her wrist. "What about Nasir?" he demanded.
She put her hand on his and squeezed. "I don't know yet."
Katherine returned to the shelter. "I'll stay with him, John. There isn't much to do now except wait."
After John left, the emotional strain of the night took its toll. She laid her head down for just a moment to rest, but soon was asleep. The next thing she knew, a hand was stroking her hair. When she saw that it was Nasir, tears of happiness found their way to her eyes.
"How do you feel?" she asked.
"That will pass with time and rest." She was almost giddy. "Oh, and if you'd wanted to see me so badly, you could've just arranged a visit. You didn't have to get yourself hurt."
He smiled, and she left to tell the others the good news.
In the days that followed, Nasir's recovery was swift. Katherine continued to tend to his wounds, but also enjoyed the time she spent in camp with Robin Hood's men. They included her in everything.
She didn't do well in the spitting contest.
"No, I will not see how far I can spit," Marion said.
Mutch was jumping up and down, "Please Marion, everybody else did it. Even Katherine."
"Leave me out of this, Mutch," Katherine said. "I came in last, and it made me feel a little sick."
Marion wisely didn't participate. Apparently, spitting for distance was something that only men could do well.
Katherine taught Mutch and Marion how to make some of her salves and potions. Marion was a quick study, but it took Mutch longer to remember the formulas.
The afternoon that Will challenged everyone to sword-fighting practice provided Katherine an opportunity to surprise them with her skill.
"Come on," said Will. "Who wants to give me a try?"
Katherine, who had been sitting with Nasir near the campfire, stood. "I will."
Nasir grasped her wrist, but she said, "It's all right. I know what I'm doing. He won't hurt me," but who was she convincing?
Nasir gave a tense nod of consent when Will glanced in his direction.
"You'll need a sword," Tuck said and tossed his to her.
"Thanks, Tuck," she said.
"Oh, I haven't done you any favors," he said.
She grabbed the hilt of Tuck's sword and took her position. She and Will circled each other. He struck her sword with a succession of blows, each increasing in intensity. Several powerful impacts of his blade jarred her arm. A shiver of panic gnawed at her confidence. Finally their swords crossed, and he shoved them both over her head as he forced her back into the trunk of a tree.
His face was inches from hers when he said, "Give up, Katherine. I don't want to hurt you."
Azeem's voice rang in her ears, "Use your advantage."
What advantage did she have over Will? But then it hit her. She kissed him - fast, hard, and square on the mouth. He was so stunned that he lost his balance. It was easy then to sweep his ankles with her foot and knock him onto the ground. She pointed her sword at his throat.
The onlookers were laughing and applauding, but Will didn't like being bested by anyone, especially a woman. As she took her bows, he slammed her sword aside with his own, wrapped his free arm around her ankles, and pulled her down. She fell onto her back with a thud, the wind almost completely knocked out of her. He quickly got up and pressed the tip of his sword into her throat.
"Will," John yelled.
In a flash, Nasir and Will were nose to nose.
The tension was fed by the silence until Katherine asked, "Could one of you handsome gentleman help me up?"
Nasir's face spread into a smile of approval, but Will roared with laughter. They both offered her a hand. She took one in her left and the other in her right, and they pulled her up. Will shook the hand he held and said, "My lady, you can fight with me anytime. Longbow, and now the sword, maybe we should make her one of us, Robin," he quipped. "All she needs is to learn the staff. You up to it, John?"
The sheer terror that appeared in John's expression made them all howl.
Soon she sensed that Nasir was tiring.
As they left the campsite, they could hear Will bragging to John, "Did you hear that? She called me handsome."
When they got back to the shelter, Nasir said, "You kissed him."
"Azeem always taught me to use whatever advantage I had," she said.
"I did not like it."
She kissed him on the cheek and chuckled, "Neither did I," but then she sobered and added, "I'm going back to the castle tomorrow. My father should be home any day now. I think you're well enough if you take it easy and let yourself heal."
As if on cue, he started to sway. She helped him to lie down and said, "I'll get you some water."
It didn't take her long to get to the stream. She leaned over to fill her animal skin, but someone grabbed the collar of her dress and yanked backward. It nearly strangled her.
"Well, my lady, we meet again," said a familiar voice. Katherine couldn't place it until he spun her around, and she saw that it was the same villain who had robbed her the night she first met Nasir. He placed the point of a sword against her neck.
"It seems we're right back where we started," he said.
She looked around and saw that the same three men accompanied him, and they all wielded knives and swords. She had no hope of overcoming all of them.
"I don't have any money," she said.
"Oh, we don't want your money. We've got your father's money. He hired us to kill the Saracen."
She was shocked. Her father had hired these men… the ones who robbed her, but why?
Before she had a chance to ask, the cutthroat said, "George, what do you think of the lady?"
A dark-haired, brutish looking man with brown teeth limped up to her and started to pull up her dress. She smacked his hand away.
The first man said, "No entertainment for George? Well, then you ain't no more use to us." He closed his fist and hit her with the back of his hand. The last thing she heard as she fell to the ground was the cutthroat saying, "Good night, my lady."
Nasir had dozed off again. He hated feeling so weak and tired. Katherine had gone to get some water, but he did not know how long ago.
Nasir rubbed his face as he emerged from the shelter to see Robin Hood and his men sitting around the campfire.
"If you're looking for Katherine, she went to get water about an hour ago," Marion said.
Nasir strapped the harness that held his knives and his swords across his shoulders and down his back.
"She could've gone for a walk," Marion said.
He put the knives and swords into the harness.
"You're still too weak. What if you run into trouble?" Marion asked, but talking Nasir out of looking for Katherine was useless.
"Tuck," Robin said, "stay with Marion and Mutch. John, Will, let's go."
Nasir was in a cold sweat by the time he tracked Katherine's footprints to a clearing near the stream. The four of them arrived just in time to witness the same cutthroat who had robbed Katherine hitting her in the face.
"He is mine," Nasir said.
Nobody argued. Nasir drew his swords and stormed toward the one who had hit Katherine.
"Well, we don't have to create a distraction," Robin said. "That just leaves three sides to cover. Will, circle around to the back. John and I will take the left and the right."
The cutthroat didn't seem surprised to see Nasir.
"Ah, the Saracen. You're a hard man to kill. I bet you've come for the girl again even though the odds are against you. What devotion," he smirked.
Nasir menacingly raised both his swords and Will, Robin, and John appeared from the woods with their longbows pointed at the other three robbers. Nasir circled the man who had hit Katherine. His vision started to blur so he barely dodged the other man as he came at him with his sword. John, Robin and Will glanced uneasily at each other. They could all tell that Nasir was not at his best, but the cutthroat was clumsy.
Nasir spun out of the way and swung his blades in a circular arc that tore the villain's shirt and cut his arm. Nasir was dizzy, but even in his condition his opponent was no match for him. Their swords clashed, but Nasir shoved him away and kicked him in the ribs. The violent nature of the impact took the cutthroat by surprise, and Nasir was able to deliver a rising cut with the back edge of one of his blades that turned out to be the fatal blow.
Nasir stood over the cutthroat's dead body and said, "It is finished."
He was bent at the waist breathing heavily while Robin, Will, and John sent the other three villains into the woods and warned them to never return.
Nasir dropped to his knees near Katherine who was unconscious. The bruise on her cheek had swollen and was turning color. Nasir gently cupped her chin and looked up at Robin.
"She'll be all right, Nas. We'll look after her," John said as he gently picked her up and carried her back to camp. Nasir wished he could kill the man who had done this to her all over again.
Once they arrived at the shelter, Nasir said, "I will tend to her wounds."
When they left, John winked at Will and Robin who already had impish grins on their faces.
When Katherine awoke, her face hurt, and she had a headache.
She started to sit up, but Nasir gently pressed her back down onto the tarp.
"The men who robbed me the night we met, they attacked me in the forest. My father hired them to kill you." Fear, stark and vivid, glittered in her eyes.
"It is over," he said. "You are safe."
"Do I have you to thank for that?"
His mouth curved into an unconscious smile. "Rest now, Katherine."
She sighed. "Are you all right?"
"You were in no condition to rescue anybody."
She reached inside his shirt. Her intention was to check his wounds, but this wasn't the same as when he was weak and injured. His smoldering eyes watched her from above. Heat radiated from his body and his heartbeat quickened with her touch. The roaming of her hands quickly turned into a caress, and she explored the contours of his chest.
"No," he said and grabbed her wrist.
She felt the sting of rejection and turned her head away, but he put his hands on both sides of her face and gently turned it back to him.
"If I take you, I will always be your first," he said.
"They touched me, Nasir."
"I don't want my first time to be at the hands of some cutthroat or even with somebody I don't…"
She stopped herself, but it was too late. One of his eyebrows arched mischievously and a devilish grin crossed his face.
In Arabic he said, "Well then, my lady. I will give you what you want."
When she awoke, it was early the next morning. She was stiff and sore, but she couldn't blame it all on the cutthroats.
Nasir was sound asleep. She smiled to herself. He'd had a very active night.
She quietly slipped out of the shelter. It was time to return to the castle and face her father.
When she arrived back at the castle, she went upstairs to her room. Her father was waiting for her.
"So you finally decided to return," he said. She started to speak, but he held up his hand to stop her. "It's too late for lies, Katherine. James has already told me of your escapades over the last few days. And I told the sheriff you would never lie." He shook his head. "I suppose you are the one who helped Robin Hood escape."
She didn't answer.
"And now you've defiled yourself with that Saracen."
He smacked her with the back of his hand. One of his rings gashed her bruised face and she tumbled to the floor. Pain shot through her already throbbing head.
He sighed. "Like mother like daughter, I suppose."
"What do you mean?" she asked, but she was afraid she already knew.
"Azeem never told you? No matter. It was obvious after you were born. At that point, your mother became nothing more than a liability to me."
"You killed her too?" she cried. Was there no end to his treachery?
He continued. "Azeem was of value to me, though, and having you here kept him in line, until you took up with those outlaws. That changed everything. I will still have to deal with Nasir, you know. You've just put off the inevitable."
"No," she cried. "You can't."
"Of course I can." His expression bordered on mockery. "James will just hire more men."
Nasir still wasn't safe. He'd killed her mother and Azeem… her father. Something feral grew insider her. Her breath burned in her throat, and her nostrils flared with fury. Azeem's sword shone brightly, so she snatched it from under the bed. When he reached down to drag her up from the floor, she stabbed him. Fitting, she thought, that Azeem's sword should be what killed the earl. Utter disbelief darted across his face as he fell.
She should have felt remorse, but instead, there was nothing but relief. She was never coming back here, so she took Azeem's things from under the bed and grabbed a couple of moneybags she'd hidden in her room. The last thing she did was to extract the sword from the earl's lifeless body. She wasn't about to leave behind something so precious to her.
"My lord, my lord, what is going on?" James yelled, his footsteps pounding up the stairs.
Katherine pushed him aside and ran past him. She took a horse and wagon, escaped the castle, and returned to the forest.
When James arrived in Katherine's bedchamber, he saw the earl lying on the floor bleeding. She'd stabbed him…his own daughter and left him there to die.
"James," the earl groaned, "summon a physician."
"Yes, my lord."
"And get the sheriff. I want Katherine dead right along with her outlaw friends."
"But, my lord, she's your daughter."
"I killed him," she said. Marion treated the wound on Katherine's face as she told Robin Hood and his men everything that had happened between her and the earl. "He was an evil man."
"What will you do now?" asked Robin. He was quick to add, "Since you're an outlaw, you could stay with us."
She paused and then looked Nasir in the eye. "Thank you, but no. I'm leaving."
He turned away from her and slowly walked to her wagon where he started harnessing her horse.
Will asked, "Where will you go?"
"Azeem had many friends. In his journal, he wrote of people he trusted. I'll go to them. I want to visit his homeland to learn more about the culture that shaped his life…," she quietly added, "and Nasir's."
Robin said, "Then we wish you health and happiness. Just know there will always be a place for you here with us."
"I will remember," she said, "and you will all be missed."
John's embrace nearly crushed her. "Be careful, lass."
Mutch looked like he was going to cry. Katherine handed him some of her salve. "You'll have to make sure that Nasir takes care of himself, Mutch. Check his wounds to make sure they're healing."
"You won't forget us, will you?" he asked.
"Of course not."
"That's all right then," he said.
Tuck blessed her, and Will waved his finger at her and said, "Be good."
Marion hugged her. "I'll miss having another woman around."
They left her alone with Nasir. How was she going to say good-bye to him?
When she approached him, he leaned his forehead against the side of the horse. "Stay," he said. His voice was low and raspy.
"I can't," she whispered. "I never knew Azeem as my father. I need to find out who I am."
"I could go with you," he said
"No, your life is here with Robin Hood and his men. They're your family. I'll be all right," but there wasn't much conviction behind her smile.
Finally he turned to face her and took her shoulders in his hands. "What you are planning will be dangerous. You will need to hide who you are. Go to Wickam and ask Edward for the white robes and black mask that he is holding there."
It surprised her that he was so adamant. She stared at him in astonishment.
"Please, Katherine. I fear for you, and this is the only protection I can give."
"I will go to Wickam," she said.
His tight expression relaxed into a smile and she brushed her lips against his as she spoke. "Maybe we will find each other again one day."
"I will hope for that day," he said while holding back the sadness he was feeling.
He stepped forward and clasped her body tightly to his. She buried her face against his throat. In Arabic, he whispered words that filled her eyes with tears.
At last, they reluctantly parted, and he helped her onto the wagon. She rode away biting her lips to control the sobs.
Nasir knew she was doing what she had to, but it was hard to watch her go. As he returned to Robin and his men, he wondered if there would ever be another encounter with Katherine.