Where there is anger, there is always pain underneath.
It happened so quickly. He hardly felt a thing.
He had raised the knife over his shoulder, then Wulf gave a shout of warning and Robin turned. There was a blur, a rush of wind, and suddenly the blade was tumbling from Will Scarlet's frozen hand. The pressure came first, tremendous and crushing, as if his hand were being squeezed in a vise. Then came the pain, blinding, burning, dizzying—as powerful as the stings of a thousand wasps or the blow of a sledge hammer. Will clutched the wrist of his injured hand and tried not to be sickened by what he was seeing: one of Locksley's arrows protruding from his palm, through glove and skin and flesh and sinew, right between his second and third fingers.
He couldn't summon the breath to scream. His shock was too profound.
Trembling, his face drained of color, Will lifted his frightened, bewildered gaze to Robin, who was staring at his would-be attacker with an expression not too unlike his own. Perhaps he was amazed by the young outlaw's silence, for any normal man would be howling on the ground.
With his pulse throbbing around the wood piercing his hand, Will was overcome with an urgent, panicky need to remove the arrow immediately. He turned and ran, stumbling on weak legs, out of the clearing and into the thick trees of Sherwood Forest.
Robin lowered his bow and stared after him, marveling at the rancor that must have driven Will to finally lash out at him. He had taken the young outlaw to be nothing more than a rude, unsociable malcontent with nothing more dangerous than a sharp tongue and an accusing finger. Today had proven otherwise.
There must be a deep well of hatred lurking somewhere within Will Scarlet, Robin pondered. Well, perhaps the cocky rascal would learn to keep a better seal on it after today.
Will blundered through the brush, clutching his hand and gritting out curses under his breath. His cheeks were wet with tears, shed from the pain of being wounded in both body and pride. He tumbled to the ground at the base of a large elm and held his impaled hand for a few moments, trying to steady his breathing and think of a way to safely remove the arrow. Had it gone through bone? How badly would it bleed if he took it out? Should he leave it in? Were his fingers paralyzed? Would there be a hole through his hand for the rest of his life? What if pieces of his glove had gone through? What if the wound became infected and he had to have the whole thing amputated? He was right-handed—he couldn't afford to lose it!
Grimacing, he reached out and touched the arrow, seeing how firmly it was embedded. It hardly moved, and the pain of nudging it made his head swim. He sank back against the tree and tried to fight the uncontrollable urge to sob, kicking at a root angrily. He should never have drawn arms on that conceited, warmongering swine! He should have known it would only lead to trouble. And Wulf, that ignorant little whelp! If he hadn't cried out, there would have been a dagger sticking out of the tree beside Locksley's head and Will wouldn't be sitting here with a bloody arrow through his hand. Had Wulf actually believed that one of the poorest fighters in Sherwood thought he could slay the great and wondrous Robin Hood with a knife between the shoulders? Will Scarlet readily admitted to being a thieving, cheating, unscrupulous scoundrel, but he was no murderer. He relied on his cunning to get him out of trouble, not his strength. Besides, if he'd had it in his mind to kill Locksley, he wouldn't have done it while the man's back was turned—he wasn't as cowardly as that, regardless of the accusations against him.
Swallowing his tears, Will studied the arrow. The point was flush with the shaft. He could remove it without having to break it. One good pull, maybe two, and it would be out . . .
The sound of footsteps rustling through the leaves alerted Will to an intruder, but he had no time to draw his other knife; Azeem, Locksley's painted companion, appeared around the tree and stopped, staring down at the young outlaw dispassionately, his hand resting on the hilt of his broad, intimidating scimitar.
It was perfectly clear: the Moor had been sent to finish him off.
Uttering a weak yelp, Will scrambled backward over the uneven ground, falling clumsily between two large roots and floundering there. The man took a step closer.
Squirming and helplessly trapped, Will raised his uninjured arm in supplication. "Don't kill me, please," he begged. "I never intended to harm him—I was only trying to frighten him, I swear!"
Will's eyes widened, suddenly bewildered. "You do? How?"
Azeem lowered himself onto his haunches. "Because the arrow is through your hand, not your heart. If the Christian truly believed you were a serious threat, you would already be dead." His voice softened. "Here, let me have a look."
Hesitantly, Will sat up and offered his wounded hand to the man, who studied it pensively for a few moments. Then he reached to his belt and pulled out a large, fearsome-looking knife. Will immediately snatched his hand away.
"Do you not want me to remove the arrow?" Azeem asked.
"I can do that on my own!"
"It would be less painful if I helped, and I have medicine to keep the infection away."
Will considered his options with a dubious frown. The Moor sounded sincere enough, even if he was a foreign savage. The promise of medicine was attractive, too. Surely it would be advantageous to let a more experienced person deal with a problem of this nature. At the very least, Will would be able to lay back, close his eyes, and not have to see what the inner workings of his hand looked like. He feared the sight of his own bone and tissue would turn his stomach inside out.
"All right," he agreed reluctantly. "What do I have to do?"
Azeem gently took Will's hand and laid it lengthwise on a broad, exposed tree root. "Sit still and brace yourself."
Will shut his eyes tightly and looked away.
With careful precision, Azeem neatly sawed through the arrow's shaft with his knife, leaving a clean cut and at least six inches that would not have to pass through flesh again. Holding Will by the wrist, the man gently began to ease the arrow out.
"God!" Will choked, digging his heels into the dirt and writhing in pain.
"Be still!" Azeem commanded.
"Hurry up and I'll be as still as you li—ahh!"
With one final tug, the arrow came free. Azeem tossed it to the ground and peeled off Will's glove, pulling the injured hand closer to his face. He picked up his knife and inserted the tip into the bleeding puncture, nudging aside mangled flesh and ragged skin as if searching for something.
Will was in supreme agony.
"Ah, shit! Christ! Fucking hell!" he wailed. "What in God's name are you doing, man!"
Azeem ignored the sobbing youth and continued to examine the wound for pieces of glove—none on that side. He turned Will's hand over. Ah, here was a fiber or two. Working quickly, the Moor removed tiny shreds of wool and put his dagger away.
"We must get to water," he said flatly.
"Th-there's a stream nearby," Will said unsteadily. His whole body was trembling and his face was a waxy, deathly pallor.
"Come," said Azeem, pulling the outlaw to his feet. "Show me where it is."
On the rocky bank of a cold, shallow brook, Will bit his lip and kept his hand submerged in the crystal-clear water. Thin ribbons of blood flowed downstream, but the bleeding was gradually beginning to slacken. Thank God. Will felt as if he'd bled half of his body weight and cried out the rest.
Not too far away, Azeem sat by a small fire and tended the concoction he was brewing in a battered steel pot. He picked up another strip of bark and added it to the boiling water, then stirred the coals to make the fire hotter.
"Are you almost done over there?" Will asked over his shoulder.
"Almost," the Moor answered crisply, picking up his mortar and pestle and whisking the sticky paste he had made. "You can come dry your hand now. Do not use cloth! Let the fire dry it."
With the tempered obedience of a well-behaved child, Will sat himself down by the fire held his hand over the warm flames.
"You were lucky," said Azeem at length, mixing the paste. "The arrow did not pierce bone or tendon. It will take time to heal, but you will have the full use of your hand again."
Will heaved a tremendous sigh of relief. "That's the best news I've heard in my life."
"I do not doubt it. Here, give me your hand."
Will held out his hand and allowed Azeem to coat his wound with the thick, gelatinous ointment from the mortar. Then he picked up a long strip of linen he had cut from his own robes and began binding it expertly, as if he were accustomed to wrapping injuries such as these.
"Are you a medicine man?" Will asked, unable to contain his curiosity.
"No. But I once knew one," said Azeem. "He was a great teacher in my country. I was schooled by him when I was a young man."
"Did he teach you to do this?"
"No. He taught me to make the medicine. I learned to bind wounds when the Christians came."
Will fell silent and allowed the Moor to finish his work. When the bandage was tied off, he passed a grateful smile to Azeem. "Thank you," he said. "You're . . ." The first person who has ever really cared for me since my mother died. ". . . very kind."
Azeem returned the smile. "Kindness comes naturally. It takes more effort to be a man's enemy than to be his friend."
Bowing his head sheepishly, Will stared down at his bandages. "I would like to believe you," he murmured, "but there is no love in my heart for Robin of Locksley, and there is no love in his heart for me."
"People do change, my young friend."
"He hasn't," Will muttered.
Across the fire, Azeem raised an eyebrow. "You knew him before?"
Will glanced up nervously. "No! I mean, ah . . . I knew, knew of him, of course, son of a wealthy lord. Everyone knew. He was, ah, that is, I heard rumors of him being a spoiled little tyrant, and, ah . . . and they were absolutely right. Imagine that!"
Azeem stared. Will hunched his shoulders and looked the other way. He couldn't help it—he was the worst liar who ever lived. His mother had whipped him for lying when he was a boy, and he hadn't been able to keep the stammer out of his voice ever since. Lord! who had ever heard of an honest thief?
"I don't want his friendship, anyway," Will added feebly. "Not after today. He's arrogant and vain and he thinks everything is so simple. He has no idea. John and Bull and Much, we've all been outlaws for the past two years. Then Locksley shows up and calls himself one of us, and the next day he's taken over and everyone is bowing to him as if he were God's gift to mankind. He starts a war that none of us wants to fight, he brings misery down on an innocent village, and still they follow him like sheep!"
"Are you envious of him?" asked Azeem levelly.
"No. I'm furious."
"Because he—" Will stopped himself before the truth could spill from his lips. "B-because, ah . . ."
"There is corruption in this kingdom, is there not?"
"Yes, but it's not his job to—"
"Do you enjoy living as a thief?"
"No, but I can't help—"
"Would you not like to see an end to your poverty and suffering?"
"So does Robin," said the Moor. "He fights for you. He wants a better life for you and your people."
"Really? Or does he just want revenge for our dead fath—" Will froze, unable to breathe. Unable to believe what he had just done.
Azeem's eyes widened a little, but he remained otherwise motionless. "You are brothers," he said after a long silence.
Will lowered his head and shielded his eyes from view with his uninjured hand. He didn't respond.
"How does he not know of you?" Azeem asked incredulously. "Do you share the same mother?"
"No," Will muttered, massaging his forehead. "My mother was a commoner. His mother was a noblewoman."
"So your father was unfaithful?"
"In Robin's eyes, yes. But his mother had already been dead a year when Thomas Locksley fell in love with my mother, and Robin would not tolerate their union. Lord Locksley called off his marriage to my mother, even though I was already growing in her belly, and he sent her away . . . all so that his selfish brat of a son would love him again." Will clenched his left hand tightly, his knuckles turning white. "I was born a bastard because of him. My mother was branded a whore and a temptress. My whole life was ruined, all because of Robin of Locksley. Don't you dare tell me that I haven't every God-given right to hate him for what he's done to me!"
"I would never tell a man what he should feel," Azeem said calmly. "I am sorry that you have endured such misfortune, my friend."
"Not as sorry as I am."
Azeem let his eye fall upon the pot. "It is finished. Here, give me that vessel."
Stirring himself out of his angry reverie, Will picked up the wooden cup beside him and held it out. The Moor filled it with the clear, steaming liquid.
"What is this?" Will asked, gently blowing over the rim to cool it. "What does it do?"
"It is a tea made from the bark of the willow tree. It will taste quite bad, I am afraid, but it will help numb the pain a little."
Will took an tentative sip and grimaced. "Ugh!"
"Drink two or three cups a day, and no more. You will feel better soon."
"I'll feel better later, when I don't have to drink this bilge. Yech."
Will fell quiet and wrapped both hands around his cup, staring into the fire moodily. The occasional swallows he took evoked the same humorous expression of disgust from him. Azeem studied the outlaw wordlessly, noticing how young and small he appeared now, sitting cross-legged like a child, his posture hunched and his face still capable of bearing the full range of his emotions. He had not yet learned to conceal them like a man. He would, perhaps, in a few more years. Azeem wondered how much older the Christian was than his unknown half-brother.
"You must tell him," he said after a while. "However painful it will be, he must be told."
"He would kill me," Will muttered. "At the very least he'd beat me within an inch of my life. Maybe he'd put a hole through my other hand so I'd have a matching pair."
"You do not know that. Perhaps he would be happy to embrace you as his brother."
"After today, I doubt it. He will never trust me again . . . Not that I ever wanted his trust to begin with."
Azeem folded his arms over his chest. "What do you want, Will Scarlet?"
When Will raised his head, his eyes were filled with hatred—and also sorrow. "Revenge," he muttered.
"Revenge for what?"
Will blinked and turned his head so that the Moor would not see the tears glistening in his eyes. "Everything."
They spoke no more after that, but sat in each other's company until the fire was dying and the sun was sinking low in the cloudy sky. Azeem rinsed his wares in the stream while Will doused the coals with water, and together they walked back to the Sherwood camp in silence.
There was a different mood in the air than when they had left. The homeless villagers were getting settled, campfires burning and quick shelters being constructed out of branches and crude thatch. Freshly-caught rabbits and fish were roasting on spits over some of the fires, tended by wives or older children. The little ones played nearby, laughing and squealing, their misery temporarily forgotten. Most of the men, Merry or otherwise, seemed to be preoccupied with building; Will noticed John Little walk by, carrying a huge log on his broad shoulder as easily as if it were a twig. Bull and Much were stripping vines and green saplings to braid into rope. Arthur and Dave busily chopped down young trees to broaden the clearing. Three or four villagers would then move in and carry the fallen trees to the growing stack of timber. There was no crying, no wailing, no arguing. The families who had arrived at the camp in tears were now optimistic and hopeful, working together with the outlaws of Sherwood to rebuild what they had lost.
For a brief moment, Will's heart swelled with pride for his fellow countrymen. Never was there a people more resilient to destruction than the English. For the first time in days, a smile blossomed on his face.
Then he caught sight of Locksley, helping a young family tie together the supports of their rustic lean-to, and his smiled abruptly faded. Of course. Saint Robin at work, Will thought sourly. If only they knew the real Locksley, the cruel, greedy, swaggering tyrant that he kept hidden beneath his mild—
"I must make my prayers now," said Azeem, stepping away. He was halted by a hand grasping his sleeve, and he turned to see Will gazing at him tensely.
"Please, don't tell him," he said softly.
Azeem placed a soothing hand on the young man's shoulder. "You have my vow, Will Scarlet, for that is no man's task but yours." He gave a reassuring smile before he walked away, his blue robes standing out among the brown and beige of the bustling villagers like an opal.
Will sighed and ran a hand through his hair. He should probably work on setting himself up for the night. It was going to be a few days before any of his fellow outlaws would want to look at him, much less accept him back into their circle. Anyone who drew arms on Saint Robin obviously wasn't to be trusted. Will scoffed. He had no problem with being on his own. He was more than capable of taking care of himself. It wasn't as if John was all that fond of him anyway. Bugger the whole lot of them—Will Scarlet didn't need anybody.
The young outlaw stalked off into the trees, but he didn't go unnoticed; Robin was watching him out of the corner of his eye, and he quickly finished roping the shelter together as Azeem approached.
"How is he?" Robin asked concernedly.
Azeem's brow rose slightly. It was rare that the Christian surprised him, and he certainly wasn't expecting such a question at this time. "His hand will be fine. His spirit, however, is another matter."
"Did you learn anything from him?"
"Only that he is young and full of anger."
"Even a blind man could see that, Azeem. What angers him?"
"I cannot say."
Robin rolled his eyes and threw his hands in the air. "Fantastic help you are. I should have just gone to him myself and spared you the trouble."
"If you are finished whining, Christian, I have my rituals to attend."
"Fine, fine," Robin sighed, kneading the bridge of his nose. "Go, have a nice prayer."
The Moor strode past Robin, who put his hands on his hips and spent several moments staring at Sherwood's new settlement, pondering the enigma that was Will Scarlet. Then John called to him from across the clearing, and all other thoughts were pushed aside as Robin focused his mind on more important matters, such as helping all these displaced families establish new homes. He would worry about surly young outlaws later. Right now, these people needed him.
Will was accustomed to living on the edge of society—of any society, be it village life or the ragtag band of thieves he'd taken up with ever since his mother had died. Most of them were from Laxton or Annesley or one of the neighboring parishes. Will himself hailed from Mansfield, on the west side of Sherwood. He had never been able to fit in anywhere; he was too defensive, too mistrustful, too resentful of authority. And because of his solitary nature, he was often misjudged as being dangerous and sneaky, a lone wolf circling the edges of a flock. His cleverness didn't alleviate any of the nervousness folk felt around him, nor did his waistcoat, upon which were embroidered two red wolves snarling at each other. Added to the knives he carried on his belt and his studded warrior's trousers, Will Scarlet looked about as friendly as a two-headed snake.
He added more kindling to his tiny fire, blowing on the flames to help them spread. He could hear faint voices from the camp, and he could almost see the orange glow from the fires dancing on the trunks of the black trees. But for the most part, it was cold and dark where he squatting, feeding his only source of warmth and trying not to think about his act of blind, stupid rage that had landed him out on the fringe yet again.
Will rubbed his hands together, mindful of his bandage. His right hand ached like hell and his fingers were as stiff as wood, but it certainly wasn't the agony he'd been expecting. Azeem was a good man to help him, he thought. Wise, kind, reassuring, gentle . . . Why he chose to keep his company with a prick like Locksley was a complete mystery to Will.
The outlaw's stomach grumbled emptily and he winced. Yet another day with nothing but half a loaf of bread and a few old pieces of venison to fill him. He knew there was food in the camp, but he couldn't bring himself to steal from those just as desperate as he—perhaps he truly was an honest thief. In any case, Will was accustomed to doing without; whenever a bounty was brought in, he was often the last to be served. Men with families got the first pick, then the old, crippled and sick took their share. If there was anything left after that, it was divided up among the bachelors, who were often too large in number to afford any one of them a decent meal. Split a loaf of bread six ways and it's barely more than a mouthful. There were other options, of course: Will was an accomplished burglar and he'd raided many a rich man's pantry in the dead of night, but right now he simply didn't have the energy to creep into the nearest town just to appease his appetite. Rest and healing was more important.
With his fire now crackling strongly, Will leaned back against a mossy old stump and tucked his hands into his sleeves to keep them warm. He sighed tiredly, his breath forming a mist in the cold air. Perhaps tomorrow he would go to Rufford Abbey and filch some eggs from the chicken coop, then stop by the village of Clipstone to see Eyra Tiller. Maybe she will have overcome her shyness by now and wouldn't run from Will's offerings of wildflowers, like she had last week. He smiled to himself and closed his eyes.
He had almost fallen asleep when a twig snapped, provoking an automatic response: his eyes flew open and he went for the dagger tucked under his belt, drawing it out and holding it before him defensively.
In the shadows beyond the fire stood Robin of Locksley, holding a small cloth sack.
Will immediately let his dagger drop to the ground and held his hands up in surrender. The look on his face was pure poison. "Don't shoot," he glowered, "I'm unarmed."
For a moment Robin felt like smiling at the pun, but judging from the resentful curl on Will's lip, the lad clearly wasn't trying to be humorous.
"I didn't come here to quarrel," said Robin, stepping over and crouching down beside Will, who made a point of moving away from his unwanted guest. He crossed his arms over his chest and purposely looked the other way.
Robin began haltingly, "I thought you might . . . I have some . . . Well, regardless of what happened today, I brought . . ." He trailed off, gazing at Will's turned head and unfriendly posture, and gave up. He set the sack on the ground and rose to his feet.
"I don't need your charity," Will said icily.
"And I don't need your permission," Robin retorted. "Whenever you're finished feeling sorry for yourself, there's a place for you at our table."
"Not under it? My my, I shall be the envy of all the other dogs."
Robin clenched his fists and closed his eyes, drawing in a deep breath and praying to God for patience. When his rage had passed, he pointed himself toward camp and strode away, leaving Will to have the last word, just like the rotten little brat wanted.
After waiting a few minutes to make certain Locksley had gone, Will picked up the sack and opened it hurriedly. In it he found a bread roll, two small roasted fish, and even a few plump wild cherries.
For a few moments he was too stunned to believe what he was seeing. When his mind finally succeeded in convincing his eyes that they weren't deceived, he tore into his gifts with gusto, savoring the smoky flavor of the fish and the tart juiciness of the cherries. What a feast! He couldn't remember the last time he'd had such a meal. The thought crossed his mind that perhaps Locksley might have poisoned the fish, but Will had already eaten a lethal helping by this point. He reckoned that if he were going to die, at least he'd die on a full stomach.
The food wasn't poisoned, of course, and all too soon there was nothing left but crumbs and pits. His hunger sated, Will stretched himself out by the fire and sighed contentedly. Maybe he ought to try throwing knives at Locksley more often. The man plainly had no concept of how to treat his enemies—just look at his Moorish companion, for God's sake!—and he seemed to genuinely believe that loyalty could be bought with a sack of food.
Well, thought Will stubbornly, it was going to take more than a few vittles to atone for all of the hurt that had been inflicted upon him, physical or otherwise. In fact, he was certain there was no way, in this life or the one after, that such injustices could be rectified, let alone forgiven. Let alone forgotten.
As he continued to mull over his thoughts, an irresistible sleepiness soon overtook him and his eyes fluttered closed. In a matter of moments Will was fast asleep, his little fire glowing like a tiny spark amidst the towering, silent darkness of Sherwood Forest.