The warm light of the summer dawn cut through the misty air, shedding beams of radiant gold through the trees. The air was still cool and damp from the night before, and Will Scarlet shivered as he stood on the banks of the River Trent in nothing but a thin linen tunic and a pair of short braies. He tried not to dwell on how cold those waters must be, but the wet grass beneath his feet was doing a fine job of chilling his imagination. He crossed his arms over his chest and tucked his hands into his armpits, the only warm part of his body that remained.
Suddenly there was a gentle weight on his back: a hand. He half-turned and saw Robin of Locksley—formerly the wanted outlaw, Robin Hood—pass him a mischievous, fraternal grin. "Is the morning not suiting you, little brother?" he teased.
"The morning suits me just fine," Will muttered, rubbing the gooseflesh on his arms. "I only wish I were less naked."
"Yes, I'm sure that water is terribly cold. There's probably still ice in it from—"
"Oh, Robin, do stop teasing him!" Marian chided, stepping to her fiancé's side. She smiled kindly at her soon-to-be brother-in-law. "Don't worry, Will. There are plenty of blankets on the shore and a hot breakfast will be waiting for you at home."
"God bless you, Marian," Will cooed, then let his eyes drift to his brother. "And the Devil take you, Robin."
"You're such a dear in the morning, William," sighed Robin. "I could just shoot you and skin you."
"All right, belay thy bickering, you wretched sinners!" Friar Tuck announced, ambling past the small group. "This here is baptism, for heaven's sake! Show a little kindness and Christian mercy!"
Behind Tuck's broad back, Will nonchalantly reached out and punched Robin in the arm, who shoved him back, and finally Marian had to insert herself between the two to keep more blows from falling.
"Is it almost time?" Wulf yawned, standing with his parents, John and Fanny Little. Bull and Much and a few of the other Merry Men were there as well, dressed in their best clothes and eagerly awaiting the baptism of Will Scarlet. There was a running bet on how loudly he would scream when he was dunked (or if he'd start steaming and smoking) but this was kept strictly confidential.
"Keep your breeches on, Master Wulf," said Tuck, waddling over and rolling up his sleeves. "These rites are delicate things, you know. It's a much different thing to baptize a grown man than it is an infant. Why, you were probably baptized the moment you came into this world."
"Aye, he certainly was," said Fanny proudly, putting a hand on her eldest son's shoulders.
"And just as well! But young Will Scarlet over there was born a bastard, you see, not to mention in secret, and his poor mother was too ashamed to bring him before the priest and ask for a blessing on the seed of her sinful loins. He was never baptized, not even properly christened! Without a name, his soul is unknown to Heaven. If he were to drop dead at this very moment, he would go screaming straight to Satan and burn in the Lake of Fire for all eternity!"
Will narrowed his eyes at Tuck's ample rear end. "I hate that fat, drunken—"
"Be nice," Marian soothed.
Robin, meanwhile, was laughing as hard as a man silently could, covering his mouth and turning away to catch his breath. Azeem, standing not too far away, watched the proceedings with great interest. These Christians certainly had some unusual rituals when it came to ensuring the reception of a soul into Heaven. Personally, he was glad he wasn't the one who had to ford that frigid-looking river this morning.
"Let's begin, shall we?" Tuck said, and immediately the crowd grew quiet, leaving only the sound of chirping birds and flowing water.
Robin and Will ceased their playful antics and sobered up, walking over to stand before the friar side by side.
Tuck clasped his hands together and beamed at the brothers before launching into the ceremony with a long, rambling prayer about the goodness of God and the blessing of resurrection that Christ had bestowed unto His followers through the rite of baptism. When he had finished, everyone raised their heads and uttered a unanimous "Amen", then the friar turned to Robin and nodded.
Robin smiled at his brother and laid his hand on his arm. "I present William Scarlet to receive the Sacrament of Holy Baptism."
Tuck turned to Will. "Dost thou desire to be baptized?"
"I do," Will answered, his heart beating nervously.
"Then let us proceed to the font!" Tuck turned around, hiked up his robe, and waded into the river.
On the bank, Will, who dreaded this part, slowly reached up and pulled his shirt over his head. The wounds he had received in the Nottingham dungeon were still red, not yet faded to the white marks he would carry for the rest of his life. Earlier he had expressed his dread to Robin at revealing his ugly disfigurement, but Robin, in one of his rare moments of heartfelt tenderness, had opened his tunic and shown Will what several years in a foreign prison had done to his body. Will had been consoled somewhat, but he was nevertheless shy and terribly self-conscious of how he must look to others.
As he dropped his shirt on the ground, Fanny put her fingers in her mouth and gave a lusty whistle. "Woman!" John hissed, and Wulf burst into a fit of giggles. A murmur of chuckles rippled through the gathering and Will smiled at Fanny, who gave him a reassuring wink. Confidence restored, Will followed Tuck into the river and tried not to grimace as the cold water rushed up over his hips. God, it was freezing.
With his jaw beginning to tremble, he stood adjacent to the friar, who laid his hand on Will's bare shoulder.
"Dost thou believe in God the Father Almighty and His Son Christ Jesus?"
"Dost thou renounce Satan and all evil powers in this world which oppose God?"
"I d-do renounce them," Will stammered. He wondered how badly he was shivering.
Tuck went on, his rich voice filling the morning air: "Dost thou believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy church, and the Resurrection?"
Supporting Will's back with one hand, Tuck leaned the young man backward into the river's embrace, submerging him completely under the clear, cold water. "Then I baptize thee William of Locksley, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit!" He brought Will back up again, hair plastered to his head and streaming into his eyes.
Tuck stood the lad upright again and gave him an affectionate shake. "You're saved, son! Go forth and let the transgressions of your sinful, sordid past wash away with the river's—"
But Will had already torn away and was plowing toward dry land. Cheers and applause greeted him as he hauled himself onto the bank and beat a path straight to Marian, who was holding open a thick blanket for him. He practically threw himself into it, and Marian laughed as she wrapped him up like a swaddling babe.
"Welcome to the family, Will," Robin said tenderly, pulling his little brother into an embrace and rubbing some of the warmth back into him. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
"If I were as f-fat as the friar, I would have f-fared better," Will muttered, smirking.
John and Fanny and the rest of the spectators approached, shaking Will's hand and congratulating him on his transition from a thievin' heathen to a good, proper Christian with a good, proper name. Azeem clasped Will's forearm in a gesture of friendship.
"I am not quite sure what happened here," said the Moor, "but I hope it has strengthened your heart and spirit."
"I don't know about heart and spirit," Will quipped, "but it's certainly strengthened my tolerance of the cold."
"Come along, my flock!" Tuck bellowed, leading the congregation from the riverside. "T'would be a shame to leave the Lord's breakfast waitin'!"
Robin and Will glanced at each other, sharing a wide grin and a helpless laugh. Still chuckling, Robin put one arm around his brother and the other around his lady, holding them close as they made their way back to Locksley Castle.
It was good to have a family again.