Assumptions: The journey to the Holy Land never happened. Vaisey and Guy remained instead in Nottingham, still planning to commit regicide. Consequently, Marian remained in the castle, very much alive and still engaged to Robin.
Robin had waited so long for this.
Every day, every hour of his fight, every passing cart he had raided, every scheme he had plotted, every inspiring word he had spoken to the hearts of the peasants of Nottinghamshire and to his own men, had been in faith that this day would come. And it had been just as he had dreamed it would. Vaisey, Sheriff no longer, and Guy, stripped as well of his title, were to be executed for high treason, their regicidal plot having been laid on the table practically the moment King Richard the Lionheart had set foot on English soil. With peace finally reached abroad, the monarch had turned to the matters at home that had come to his attention. It had not taken much searching for evidence to prove the offenders' guilt-after all, they had been kind enough to leave with Robin a lovely, colorful list of names of participants in their dastardly design, signed in their own hand!
So the traitors were to hang for their crimes in two days' time. He, Robin, would be allowed to return to Locksley and marry the waiting Marian. The people of England would be free from the oppression that had rendered them downtrodden for far too many years. Yes, this day was everything Robin had hoped it would be.
The Great Hall of Nottingham Castle was empty but for four people: two guards in waiting by the door, King Richard himself perched in what had up until very recently been Vaisey's favorite chair, and Robin Hood, who was standing before him, relegated to an only slightly inferior position by the presence of the platform on which the king's throne-like seat rested.
"Your Majesty, I ask you to please reconsider." Robin fought to keep his voice even. Though the expression in his eyes was hidden by his respectfully bowed head, his distress was evident by the way his fingers trembled as he clenched and unclenched the fists by his sides.
The king sighed wearily, but his voice held genuine regret. "I am truly sorry, Robin, but I have no choice."
Court etiquette momentarily forgotten, Robin's head shot up, and his green eyes blazed.
"With all due respect, Your Majesty, you are the king of England. You do have a choice."
Richard did not reprimand his most loyal subject for this breach in conduct. Instead he tried to provide him with an explanation-he felt he owed him that, at least, for all that Robin had suffered for him.
"Robin, I have been away from my country for many years. I have countless cases to evaluate in the months ahead, and I must set a precedent. I cannot go around pardoning treason-what sort of image would that project to the people?"
"And what sort of image does it project to sentence to death a man who has long repented of his crimes, and since then given a year of loyal service in your name? Allan A'Dale saved all of our lives when Vaisey had us surrounded by mercenaries at the barn in Clun! If he hadn't shown up in time to convince Ellingham that the Sheriff wanted us for questioning, then I and my entire Gang would have been lost!"
"That does not nullify or change the nature of his crime!" The king's voice rose in volume along with his frustration and exhaustion-it had been a long three days of dealing with traitors and plots of regicide. "His name has been tied to a planned attempt on my life..."
"...he was never a part of any such plan!"
"He was working closely with both Vaisey and Guy of Gisborne at the time of the planning, and that alone is overwhelming evidence against him. I am sorry, Robin, but there is simply no way around this. But if it helps to ease your mind, I will not have him put on the gallows with the others." The king raised his voice to give the order. "I hereby banish the outlaw Allan A'Dale from the realm of England under pain of death. He has twenty-four hours beginning at this moment to leave this country and never return. After such time he will be a hunted man. Any person found to be aiding him in any way or any person who should contest the word of the king will also be put to death."
The stone walls of the Great Hall reverberated with the proclamation. The icy expression in Robin's eyes reminded the king of a spring under frost as the Earl of Huntingdon said quietly,
"Very well. I will not protest. For once in my life, I will not protest. Because when I did protest, I protested against the pain, the tyranny, and the oppression that the people of this country were facing because I thought it went against what you stood for. You, for whom I fought, both in England and in the Holy Land, for whom I took a near-mortal wound. But you are not the King Richard I knew, the King Richard I fought for. The King Richard I fought for would never have sentenced a repentant man to a life of outlawry and isolation from those he loves to set an example. The King Richard I fought for believed in true justice, not just the appearance of justice. The King Richard I thought I knew would never have sacrificed his principles like this. And your betrayal is far worse than Allan's ever could have been."
Robin's stony expression met Richard's injured yet stubborn one for a moment, before he turned and walked silently from the Great Hall. The guards, having heard Robin's disrespectful words from their posts, advanced on the former outlaw, but at a word from King Richard, backed off.
"Let him go. He has enough to deal with already." The King slumped back exhaustedly in his chair. What he would not have given for life to be easy.
"He's back! Everyone, Master Robin is back!"
Robin heard Much's voice before he saw the five anxious faces that greeted him as he emerged from his private audience with the king. One in particular was quite anxious.
"Master! What did His Majesty say? Are we pardoned? Do I get Bonchurch? Will we..."
"Let him speak, Much!" Little John's irritation, amplified by his nervousness over his fate, was evident in his voice.
Djaq's soft brown eyes peered with concern into Robin's, and he saw on her face that she knew that all was not well. He could not have hoped to hide anything from her.
"Robin? What is it? What is wrong?" Her voice trembled slightly, and Robin saw Will draw her close to him as though his touch could shield her from whatever grievous tidings Robin might bring. He truly could protect her now, Robin thought. King Richard had granted the young couple property on Locksley's large estate, complete with a wood shop and a house with two sections, one of which would work perfectly as an infirmary where Djaq could see patients. They no longer had to live each day as a marked man and woman, and could start a life together in peace.
Little John's eyes, now regarding Robin with a nearly insane uncertainty, only made him seem even more like the wild man the people who did not truly know him thought him to be. But his worries would be put to rest when he learned that he had been granted property as well: a cottage at the edge of Sherwood Forest, set off a bit from the bustle of Locksley Village. Robin had his suspicions, however, that it might remain unoccupied for a time-no doubt John, now that he was a free man, would want to go in search of Alice and Little Little John. He would not interrupt their new life with Luke the Cooper if they did not wish it-he cared too much about them for that. But Robin knew that John could never truly rest until he knew that the two people whom he loved the most were safe and well.
Much, of course, had been given his beloved Bonchurch. He could finally be the master of his own estate, and he would have servants and all the food he could ever eat and more. Once he was settled into his new home, Much would no doubt take off in search of Eve, doing everything in his power to find her and not stopping until he did. Then they, too, would raise a family, sharing their excess with the serfs who lived on Bonchurch's property, and Robin knew that the peasants would soon come to love the kind-hearted Much. After all, what was there not to love? Much, who was now regarding Robin with impatience and anxiety, had a purer heart than any man he had ever known.
For several moments, Robin could not bring himself to look upon the face of the final member of his Gang. How strange, he thought, that not so long ago he would sooner have spit in Allan's face than look upon it. However, over time, Robin had come to see that insecurity and despair were for the most part what had driven Allan to his desperate action of betraying them all, not the loathsome selfishness that Robin had at first, in his anger, accused him of possessing. Then Allan had proved Robin wrong by risking his own life to save them all when they were trapped in the barn at Clun and had consequently been gradually accepted back into the folds of their team. Will and Djaq had made a special effort to make him feel accepted and rekindle their old friendship. Seeming to take strength from their belief in him, Allan had thrown himself whole-heartedly into the cause, working far harder than he ever had before he had left them. Allan had been so eager to show them all how much he had changed. And now Robin had failed him utterly.
You have to look at him sometime.
Slowly, Robin turned his gaze to meet Allan's, a look so piercingly blue and expectant and anxious and hopeful all at the same time. How could he tell this man, after he had worked so long and hard to prove both to himself and everyone else the domination of good within his soul, that all of his efforts had been for naught? How could he squelch that kindling hope with the awful, harsh, and unjust truth?
Robin swallowed, but the action brought little relief to his dry and lumped throat. He felt he might choke on the man's name as he forced it from between his lips.
At the hoarseness and pain in his leader's voice Allan's expression suddenly grew fearful and disbelieving, and his eyes searched Robin's desperately for some sign, anything, that might suggest that what he believed what was about to come out of his mouth was not true.
Though he still could barely speak, Robin managed to utter an apology, though it seemed insignificant given the circumstances.
"Allan, I'm sorry."
Much and John stared at Robin in confusion, and Will in disbelief. Djaq immediately reached over from where Will held her to lay a hand on Allan's arm, tears already shining in her honest, expressive eyes. Allan did not seem to feel her touch; he had gone still, rigid where he stood, the force and weight of the implications of Robin's words setting in gradually.
"I tried everything..." It was still no easier for Robin to talk, but he was saved by an interruption from Allan, who quickly put on a facade to hide his shattered state.
"It isn't your fault." His voice was even compared to Robin's, but he could not hide its weakness and grief. He shook his head as he spoke, the emotional force of the yet unspoken, life-changing news still sinking in.
Robin lowered his eyes. He knew that the king's word was final, and he knew Richard well enough to be certain that he never changed his mind once a notion entered it. Allan's case was a hopeless one; yet, Robin still could not help but feel as though this were his fault. And yet how was it that Allan, who had been sentenced to a life as a hunted man because of Robin's failure, could hold him blameless? Robin wished that Allan would yell at him, accuse him, even hit him. That acceptance and absorption of the news and pain that accompanied it made his shame a thousand times worse.
With the remainder of the Gang too shocked and saddened to speak, Allan seemed to feel that it was his responsibility to keep at bay the uncomfortable silence which would put him in danger of reflection and consequent despair. He spoke once more.
Robin nodded. "You have twenty-four hours before you will be hunted to the borders of England. You can never return." Robin barely paused before putting forward what he considered to be a sorry attempt at mitigating the problem, but it was all that he had to offer. He reached into his cloak, the same cloak that he had worn during his outlaw days, so very recent and yet, with this news that had rent his little Gang limb from limb, so very distant. Removing a filled purse, he pressed it into Allan's grasp, and did not remove his own hand until he felt the young thief's fingers close around it.
"I truly am sorry."
Now it was Allan's turn to nod, and he did so in a manner that indicated that he accepted the apology, the offering, and his own fate. Swallowing hard, he glanced around at the small group of friends and said, a bit hoarsely,
"I guess this is goodbye, then."
Much and John looked at the ground, seemingly ashamed of their own good fortune in the midst of their companion's adversity. It was all Robin could do not to do the same. Will stared at Allan, still seemingly paralyzed by shock. Djaq's eyes were upon him as well, her own sadness mingled with the pain she felt for her friend. For a moment, no one spoke, not a single one of them wanting to bring to an end the last moment that Robin Hood's Gang would ever spend all together, except perhaps for Allan, who had never been one for goodbyes. But they could not stay forever, suspended in time, however much they wanted to, and Robin knew that he had to be the one to press forward. Stepping toward Allan, he reached out and laid a hand upon his friend's shoulder and squeezed it.
"Goodbye, Allan, my friend. Know that, though the law might not forgive you, I do, with all of my heart. You have done nothing but serve our cause loyally-anything else is erased in light of this."
The gratefulness and relief in Allan's eyes and the near-smile that pricked at the corners of his mouth was enough to calm the turmoil in Robin's mind ever so slightly. Tenderly, he reached out and embraced the exiled man, and was glad to feel his action returned.
Much and John followed Robin's lead, each encircling Allan in turn, Little John extra tightly in an attempt to combat the force of his own emotions. Then Allan embraced a still-stiff Will, who barely seemed to know what he was he was doing as he returned the gesture. But as Djaq pulled Allan close, Robin heard him murmur to her and Will,
"I'll be spendin' the night in the camp."
She nodded, understanding and releasing him. Without another word, Allan turned and started down the corridor that led out of the castle. Will suddenly seemed to snap out of his numbed state of disbelief and made to follow him, but Djaq took her beloved's hand.
"Peace, Will, my love. We will go to our Allan, but we need give him some time alone first." She reached up and stroked Will's stubbled face, wiping away the tears that had begun to fall there. He glanced at the place where Allan had vanished, and then nodded, pulling Djaq into his arms as they shared quiet tears of grief for their exiled friend. The others, even Much, tactfully averted their gazes, each lost within the mingling of emotions brought on by this news, its joyous implications for them overshadowed by the lamentable ones for their comrade.
And Robin still could not help but feel as though he were somehow to blame.
They found him exactly where he had said he would be. The others had retired to Locksley Manor for the night, where Marian awaited them and their news. Much was to set off for Bonchurch in the morning, and John would begin to follow leads concerning the whereabouts of his family. That left the camp as silent and still and dark as the only person who now occupied it.
Startled out of an obvious state of deep thought by the rustling of leaves as the door opened, Allan turned to regard them with mild surprise and a terrible sadness from where he sat on the bunk that had been his. He offered no word of greeting-no words needed be said. They came to sit on the bunk with him, Will on his left and Djaq on his right. Silently, Djaq gathered Allan's larger form into her arms as best she could, running her hand repeatedly over the back of his dark chestnut head. He nestled his face into the crook of her neck, and it frightened her how dry it was. But then, she had only once seen him weep during the entire time they had dwelled together, for the loss that had slowly began his soul's breaking. Since then, that fracturing had been completed, but the pieces had been fastened back together. Now there had been a second breaking, and Djaq knew that this time, Allan had been ready for it. Or perhaps he had already exhausted the small supply of tears that he had allotted for himself over the course of his life, and his eyes could cry no more.
Despite the lack of weeping, Djaq could feel the immense pain emanating from her friend, could sense his hopelessness and his desperation. He had been in a position in which these feelings had overwhelmed him so completely that he had been their captive once before, and it had ended in disaster. She had to tell him, before they lost him for good. Djaq glanced over Allan's back at Will, who had laid his hand on his friend's shoulder and was rubbing slowly up and down his arm, hoping to contribute what little comfort he could with his touch. Their eyes met and he nodded. Djaq placed a light kiss upon Allan's rough cheek and murmured,
"Wherever you go, we are coming with you."
To her shock, Allan immediately wrenched himself from her arms to stare at her, a distraught expression on his face.
"No," he said emphatically, shaking his head from side to side.
Obviously attributing Allan's reaction to emotions and stress, Will clarified gently.
"We want to make sure you're well, Allan. We'll all leave England together, and start again somewhere new. We couldn't live not knowing if you were safe, and it just wouldn't be the same without you."
Allan swallowed and looked to Djaq, who took his hand into both of her own and pressed it.
"You do not have to be alone, Allan. Will and I are your friends, and we will be there for you, no matter what happens."
She saw a flash of hope flicker in his eyes for a moment, and she could tell that he was thinking about how lovely it sounded. Had she not known him so well, she might have thought it to be just a trick of the light-when she looked back at him, he looked overwhelmingly, almost dangerously exhausted. But to her surprise, after a few moments, he nodded.
"All right." His voice was barely audible.
With a newfound joy, Djaq exchanged a smile with Will, who clarified,
"You'll have us, then?"
Allan cocked a half-smile in Will's direction. "O' course I will. It's just I've never 'ad friends anywhere near as good as the two of you are to me. You're too good, really." His voice grew soft and reflective with the final sentence.
"Do not be ridiculous." Djaq's tone counteracted her reprimand, and she leaned her head against Allan's arm, relieved that this would not be the last time she would be able to do so.
Will nodded. "Right then. We sleep tonight, and set off early in the morning. We'll need to take shifts for a watch, though. I know the camp is sheltered, and I know the king said twenty-four hours, but after all of this I don't trust him. I just think it's better to be safe than sorry. I'll go first, if you two would like."
Djaq nodded her acquiescence, but Allan spoke up.
"I'll take first watch. I'll not be able to sleep, anyway."
Djaq regarded him with concern. "Are you sure, Allan? You look terribly exhausted, and you have had quite a day."
"'M sure." His voice was soft, but his tone was firm. "There are...some things I need to think over."
Djaq was reluctant to allow Allan to deprive himself of rest, but she did not blame him for not feeling as though he could find solace in slumber this night.
"All right, then. Good-night, Allan." She wrapped him tenderly in another embrace, and he returned it with such strength and longevity that it nearly took her breath away. When he finally released her, he forced a half-smile and murmured a soft good-night of his own. Will squeezed his arm, and the couple retired to their bunks, leaving Allan alone with his thoughts.
Allan A'Dale had never been much of a thinking man. But tonight, as he sat alone in the darkness at the edge of the camp, staring out into the peaceful depths of Sherwood Forest with a bittersweet grief in his heart, he could not help but wonder how it had all come to this. He couldn't hardly have been born bad-he must have had a shot at some point at getting things right. Ah, well. Obviously he had missed that one.
Despite what he'd done at the barn in Clun, when he had first come back to the Gang, he could still feel the suspicious gazes and hear the whisperings of his comrades. He had borne their covert hostility quietly, knowing that he deserved it, until one night Djaq had finally stopped trying to let him work it all out for himself and reacted to what he had thought was his well-concealed melancholy. After everyone else was asleep, she had come to sit on the edge of his bunk, and asked him why he allowed the others' words and actions to affect him so. At first he'd thought about asking what she meant by that-but then he remembered that this was Djaq, after all, who could see right through his cheerful exterior. Then he'd nearly given into his instinct to lie to her, but right then she had laid a hand on his arm and pressed it so gently and yet so comfortingly that he'd known it was no good to try to keep anything from her. The funny thing was, it actually made him want to tell her the truth. And so he had-he told her that he thought he deserved what the others doled out. With sadness in her eyes, Djaq had shaken her head and told him that she did not believe that at all, and that she knew someday, he wouldn't either. And all the while her hand had still been on his arm, and somehow that touch had healed the tiniest piece of him. The progress had been infinitesimally small, but he had been more whole in that moment than he had in months. Over the next couple of days, Will had softened to him as well, even vocalizing his opinion that maybe they should lay off Allan when the others talked. Soon he had openly begun to be a friend to Allan, and whenever they were laughing at a joke or off setting traps in the forest together or with Djaq or just talking, Allan believed that he really was back where he belonged. He had doubted that he would ever truly be able to escape the consequences of what he had done, but the presence of people who genuinely loved and cared about him was something he had never experienced before, and he could not have known just how much they would help him, how safe they would make him feel.
But it had been a false sense of security. He ought to have known. A thief can never stop watching his back, because the moment he does, either some observant victim recognizes him, or a target feels the long fingers swiftly removing his purse from his belt, and the game is up. Allan had never been able to stay in one place for very long, even the house where he had grown up. Though he had lived there until his father's death when he was eighteen, that little shack had never been a home to Allan, because he had never felt safe there. After they left Rochdale, he and his brother had roved from town to town, never able to stay put for more than a few days, often living on the edge of the forest to avoid detection by outlaws and the targets of their thefts. He had never been able to call anywhere "home", until he met Robin and the Gang. But who was he, to allow himself to think that he could stay in the forest with his new friends, to believe that this newfound bliss might just possibly last forever? His own betrayal had destroyed any possibility of that ever happening, no matter how much he tried to prove himself, and now his lies and his actions were catching up with him.
He knew Robin blamed himself-Allan appreciated this, though he knew the blame was unnecessary. Robin had wronged him in the past, yes, by not listening to him or assuring him that he would be taken care of should the king come back. But Allan realized now that this was because Robin himself did not know whether he would have been able to protect his men should the thin glass pane of their lives shatter, from forces benevolent or malignant. The main thing was Robin had tried, in the end; he had even stood up to the king he loved so much in Allan's defense, and in the wake of that Allan could feel nothing but gratitude.
And now he realized that he had no other choice-he would take this sad turn of events just like he had the countless others in his life. He knew there was no use in protesting or fighting back. It got you nowhere, and it cost valuable strength needed for the long road ahead. But he would be all right, just as he always was.
He heard the soft rustling sound of a sleeping person adjusting their position and turned to glance with a fond sadness at Will and Djaq. They were both snuggled up in Will's bunk, with Djaq nestled close to her beloved, his arms wrapped protectively around her small body, his face in her hair as though he had fallen asleep in mid-kiss. Where there had been worry etched upon their faces before, worry over him, there were now peace and comfort. They looked so right together, he thought, and he felt his heart ache. Not for any longing to be in Will's position, with his own arms around Djaq, but for the fact that he would never get to see their perfect little family, or have their children call him "Uncle Allan", or settle down on the piece of land next to theirs and come over for dinner every night and then, after the children were in bed, while away the hours just sitting and talking in front of the fire, like three old friends should do. That was the life they all wanted-he knew because they had confided in him. It had been their deepest, most precious dream, one they had shared only with him. It had given him something to look forward to.
He wondered if they would be angry with him. Will would be at first, he decided, but he would recover in time. Djaq would just be sad, probably terribly so. In his mind's eye Allan could see them both kneeling on the forest floor, Djaq with her face buried against Will's chest, her tears staining his shirt and his falling into her hair. Allan hated making Djaq sad, he hated making the both of them sad, but he knew that it was for the best this time. He had spent the past several months learning what was best for him by striving to be the man his two best friends thought he was, for he thought that if they believed it was possible for him to be good, it must be. Now it was time to repay their unwavering faith in him. Never mind what was best for him now, for Allan-he was a lost cause anyway. But they, they had their whole lives ahead of them, and now a place to raise the family they had always wanted, to live out the quiet, peaceful, happy lives they dreamed of. Who was he to get in the way of that?
Using the years of practice at silence that being a thief had afforded him, Allan rose and walked over to where his friends lay. He longed so much just to be able to reach out and touch them one last time, but he knew that if he did he risked waking them. And he couldn't have that, he couldn't explain. They would never understand, for all of Will's love and Djaq's empathy, or at least not yet. But they would someday. They would weep, yell, maybe even try to go after him, but when all was said and done, their pain, too, would gradually ease. And after a time, they would have what they wanted, what they needed. And Allan was glad that he and his problems would not hinder that, and that thought brought him peace because he realized that finally, after all this time, he was able to look out for the people he loved before himself.
This was the feeling that Allan A'Dale held in his heart as he left his friends, still enclosed within each other's embrace. He did not turn to look back, for he knew that if he did that peace would be shattered with the realization that he would never see them again. But even then that would be all right, because he knew that no matter what happened to him, Will and Djaq would be just fine.
His only hope was that, as they gathered around the fire years from now, laughing and talking and reminiscing the night away, that he would cross their minds every once and awhile. He did not want them to constantly be reminded of him, only that if they happened to be recalling a tale of long ago that they would remember that he had been there, too, and the good times that they had shared. And that when they did, they would not feel sad any longer.