They'd done it. Somehow, with God's aid—and that of some mysterious group of strangers who they hoped were friends but who had melted away in the confusion in the aftermath of the rescue—they'd saved Marion and Robin from the hangman's noose.
It certainly hadn't been part of the outlaw band's plans to loose a half a herd of cattle into the bailey, scattering guards and civilians alike. Nor had it been part of the plan for all the girths on the soldier's horses to have been expertly sliced, so that the saddles slid off as soon as any equine movement faster than a slow walk was reached. But both unexpected events had certainly paid off, and none of the outlaw's were inclined to question the actions of their unknown benefactors.
Tuck had briefly explained the situation to Robin and Marion, to which their leader retorted that the two groups had certainly acted as if they had planned the rescue together! Then breath had been saved for a mad dash into the greenwood and safety, although no doubt Robin's thoughts continued to brood on the unexpected assistance his men had received in their rescue mission. If there was one thing he disliked, it was not knowing the identity of his potential allies. Unknown help meant unknown reasons for that help, and the idea that ulterior motives might be lurking was an unpleasant thought for all of them.
Once they were well away from the possibility of any of the Sheriff's men finding them, deep in the heart of the greenwood, they paused long enough to pound each other on the back, to offer respectful hugs to Marion, and to begin the process of celebrating yet another narrow rescue. They were all looking forward to hearing Marion's story in particular, since only Robin knew how Gisburne had stolen her from Halstead Abbey and forced her into almost marrying him.
As they finally reached the clearing holding their most recent encampment, they froze at the sight that greeted them, jubilation giving way to anger, fear, consternation, and fury, each according to their various natures.
A man lounged by the fire, his back to them, clad in woodsman's green, curly auburn hair glimpsed beneath his cap. "What took you so long?" he asked as he leaned forward to stir the coals with the branch he held in one hand.
As soon as their momentary shock wore off at the presence of an intruder, the group sprang into silent action. Scarlet and Little John melted off into the underbrush to check for signs of any others while Robin pulled Albion from its sheath, Tuck readied his staff, and Marion and Much raised their bows and nocked arrows with swift efficiency born of long practice.
"Who are you? How did you find this place?" Robin demanded with an edge to his voice to rival that on his blade. He waited for Scarlet's whistled "all clear" before slowly moving further into the clearing, signaling with one hand for Marion and Much to stay back.
"Herne told me how to find it," was the disconcerting answer. Finally the stranger turned around to face them, keeping both hands well within sight.
Marion gasped in sudden recognition and half-lowered her bow. "Thomas?" she asked, disbelief warring with confusion in her eyes. "What are you doing here?"
Robin's confusion was even stronger. As soon as their eyes met, he felt a sudden pull, a kinship with this man he'd never seen before. And if the Lord of the Forest truly had called him… "You said Herne told you how to find us," he cut in before the other man could respond to Marion's question. "How?"
"I saw him in a dream, the Horned Man, Herne. He called me his son and told me I was needed." Thomas continued to meet Robin's eyes squarely, no hint of deception showing in his green orbs. "It was I and my men who aided in your escape," he added with a quirk of his lips. "Fortunately I didn't foul anything up."
"Aye, you did say it seemed as if we'd planned the rescue together, even though we had no idea who was helping us," Tuck reminded Robin. As if reaching a decision he lowered his staff from a defensive posture until it was suddenly nothing more innocuous than a walking-stick for a portly man rather than the wicked weapon it had appeared seconds earlier.
Marion and Robin exchanged glances. "Robin, it's the answer we've been looking for," she murmured, easing back on the bow string and allowing her hands to drop to her sides. Her expression was beseeching. "Herne always makes sure the forest has a protector, and this time he's chosen my cousin to take on the mantle of responsibility when we leave."
"Leave? Why do you want to leave?" Much asked, eyes widened in sudden concern. Beside him, Scarlet visibly stiffened, eyes narrowed into a suspicious glare while Little John and Nasir simply looked to Robin for answers.
He and Marion exchanged glances. Robin gave an almost imperceptible nod and Marion looked each member of their small band in the eyes as she made her announcement. "It isn't safe for me in the forest any longer." Her cheeks flushed suddenly, and she dropped her eyes as her hands hovered over her midsection. "Robin and I are…we're…expecting."
Before she could say anything more, the others were grinning and crowding around her to offer their congratulations, the newcomer at the fire half-forgotten in the new excitement. Tuck was demanding that she and Robin allow him to marry them immediately, his face beaming, Much was openly weeping with joy, and even stolid Nasir and sour Scarlet had smiles on their faces. Only Little John kept a weather eye on Marion's cousin, even as he pounded Robin on the back and insisted that this was the best news a man could have.
Thomas took all this in with amusement. So that was why he'd been called; the old Robin Hood had died, and this one needed to go off and raise his babe in safety. Well enough. Whatever the reason, he was ready to take on the responsibilities he'd been offered.
In the midst of the hubbub, Marion turned to offer him a fond smile. "You've grown a bit since I last saw you, Thomas, but you have your father's eyes."
Then she placed a hand on Robin's wrist, pressing down with gentle insistence until he finally lowered the sword he'd half-forgotten he was holding. "Don't you see what this means, Robert?" She used his old name deliberately, and he started as if she'd splashed him with cold water. "We can be together, safe, without worrying about Sherwood and the people here."
As if unwillingly, Robin dragged his eyes away from Thomas, still sitting quietly by the fire, looking first into Marion's eyes and then to her mid-section. "We could be together," he whispered.
It was as if the rest of them ceased to exist, Thomas noted with a feeling somewhere between amusement and incredulity. As if they held no more importance than the chirping of the birds in the trees. And it was obvious the other members of the small group felt just as bemused as he did, although to be fair, he was the only one who had any inkling of what kind of chaos his presence and announcement would have before he'd spoken.
Herne's son. He'd awoken from a sound sleep, from dreams of facing a man in the forest with an antlered head and staff raised in one hand, to the feeling that he was needed, to find that the dream was more than that. You are Herne's son. The words echoed through his mind even now. And you are needed. Then the antlered figure had appeared in his room, raising his hand and beckoning him forward before vanishing again.
He'd stumbled out of bed and into his sturdiest clothes, lacing up his hunting boots and slipping out of the manor house as quietly as he could manage. It was well past the midnight hour, but not yet so close to dawn that even the earliest rising of the servants would be stirring. He couldn't manage a horse, not without waking the grooms who slept in the stables, but he did pilfer his father's best hunting knife from the armory. He ignored the swords, knowing somehow that he wouldn't need one. Albion, some unknown voice whispered in his mind. Albion will be yours.
Albion would be his; that is, if Robin didn't sheathe it in his gut first.
He'd made it half-way down the stairs leading from the armory when his younger brother, Edmund, had made an appearance, half-frightening Thomas to death before he realized who it was. "Edmund, you startled me," he said, hoping the youngster would hear only the annoyance and not the spurt of fear his presence caused. "What are you doing up and about at this hour? Get back to bed!"
Edmund had simply stared at him, then slowly, wordlessly, shaken his head "no". When Thomas tried to bluster his way out his predicament, Edmund had pointed at his knife. "You'll need more than that, you know. To rescue Robin Hood and Cousin Marion. You'll need men, and someone here who can keep Father from finding out what you're up to."
Edmund, it turned out, had heard Thomas muttering in his sleep, and being the brightest of the four brothers, had figured out what his elder sibling was up to the moment he stumbled out of bed. Feigning sleep, he watched as Thomas clothed himself for travel and ghosted after him as he made his way through the sleeping manor house.
The rest had happened as if God's own hand was on the proceedings. The men Thomas had approached had all agreed, every last one of them, without hesitation. Edmund stayed behind to muddy the trail.
And then the rescue had happened, with no casualties on their side, and here he was, guided to this place by Herne's silent, ephemeral presence, and not a moment too soon. He certainly knew how to give a man a proper dramatic introduction.
The only question now was whether he would be leading the rest of the old guard along with the men he'd brought along, and who were even now setting up a different camp deeper in the forest. Would the others stay or leave to keep their old leader and his soon-to-be wife and child safe, or remain to carry on the fight? He certainly hoped the latter for some of them, if only to help show the news hands the ropes.
Only time would tell, but now was not the moment to ask. Now there was an impromptu wedding to prepare for. The morning would be soon enough for plans to be made.
The Next Day
"It still doesn't seem right, just…running away like this," Robin—no, Robert now, Robert again, no longer Robin Hood—protested, but weakly.
"It's not running," Scarlet interposed impatiently. "It's takin' a gift you've been given. You're not abandoning us, we're sending you away, is all." The question of leaving or staying had been decided without discussion; not even Much would leave with the bride and groom. He'd adapted to the life of an outlaw, and the idea of settling back into farming, as he and Little John had done for a year after the death of the man he'd always considered a brother, held no appeal.
Marion and Robin were going north, and that was all any of them needed to know or hear. The decision had been made, with Herne's blessings on them and their unborn child. They were being given the chance to be together, to raise their child in what safety they could find, and still leave Sherwood and the fight for the downtrodden in capable hands.
Robert of Huntingdon brooded on that as Marion made her final farewells. Who was he to turn his back on the future Herne had made possible when he called young Thomas to the forest? Who was he to ignore the urgings of his friends and comrades-in-arms to find what happiness he and Marion could, together, far from here?
Their child would have a future, no matter how grim. To stay here was tantamount to suicide; there was no way Marion could birth their son—or daughter, but somehow he felt it was a son—in the forest, and it would bring danger to them all to approach a village when her time neared. Gisburne knew about the babe, and by now the Sheriff had no doubt been informed. Thomas had promised to come up with a plan to keep both villains too busy to chase after the fugitive couple, and Robert believed him.
He was leaving the fight in capable hands.
Marion slipped up to his side, entwining her fingers with his, and all doubts and feelings of guilt slid away. This was right, this was his future. He smiled lovingly and pressed his lips to hers in a sweet kiss, the first of so many they would share.
A/N: Well, there it is, the full story. I have a rather different Robin2 & Marion story, also involving Gisburne as villain, a darker story than this one, but that's for another time. I hope everyone enjoyed this (and if you did, for Herne's sake, please leave a review! If you do, I'll give you a preview of the next story, promise!).