"We have to pick up the pace, Friar," Marion yelled over the wind to her friend in the rickety hay wagon bumping along beside her. "Else we won’t outrun the foul weather."
In response to his friend’s request, Friar Tuck clucked the reins of the sway-back nag that was barely plodding along. "Hold on, children," Tuck instructed the seven youngsters huddled together amidst the hay. He snapped harder at the reins, finally getting the horse to show some spirit.
The cold wind raged through the forest, whipping leaves and branches everywhere, its fury sounding like a legion of banshees come to claim the travelers’ souls. Premature darkness surrounded them in anticipation of the rain to come. Tuck glanced back at his young charges. Ranging in ages from three to eleven years, the boys and girls held on to each other tightly. The terror emanating from them was almost palpable. Pitiful moans and whimpering could be heard faintly over the wind.
Tuck’s heart clutched at the sound. How much more must these poor waifs have to endure? Their village burned, their parents either slain or taken prisoner by Prince John’s soldiers. Thank God they had arrived when they did. Tuck clucked the reins harder, determined that nothing further would happen to them.
As if by magic, Robin Hood appeared beside the wagon, his thick sable hair swirling around him like a dark halo. Reining in his horse, he shouted to Tuck but his words were lost in the gale-like winds. At Tuck’s signal that he couldn’t hear, Robin pulled closer, shouting with all his might.
"The soldiers are getting closer. You must go faster. Stop the cart and have the children ready to ride."
With that he whirled around and galloped after his friends. Tuck stopped the wagon immediately and ran to the back, trying in vain to calm the terrified children.
The three riders joined Tuck.
"The soldiers are no more than an hour away in the weather holds off. Take the children on horseback with you. Tuck, you take my gray. I’ll stay with the wagon and lead the soldiers away from you. Hurry!"
Robin clumsily slid from his horse, quickly clutching the bridle to steady himself. John and Marion ran to his side.
"Robin, what’s wrong?" Marion cried as she touched his left arm, only to pull back quickly when she saw him flinch.
"Robin, you take the children and I’ll drive the wagon," Little John pleaded. "You’ve done more than your share."
"No, John. I’ll drive it."
Marion touched Robin’s arm again. He hissed in pain at the contact and he grabbed his arm above the elbow with his right hand. He tried to yank away from her grasp, only to be stopped by a concerned Little John. He gently lifted Robin’s injured arm, alarmed at the dark stain oozing from a rip in his sleeve near his shoulder and running down his arm. Blood dripped from Robin’s limp fingers.
"My God, Robin! You’re hurt! You must go with the others."
With Marion’s agreement ringing in his ears, Robin pulled away from his friends. "No. I’ll take the wagon."
Marion clutched at his uninjured arm. "Robin, you need to get that tended to as soon as possible. You’re losing too much blood. Please let John or me take the wagon."
"NO!" he shouted, pulling away once again. "I can’t, Marion," he gasped. "I don’t have the strength to ride much further, especially with extra riders. Quickly, now, away with you."
Robin hurried to the back of the wagon where Tuck was trying to coax the frightened children into his outstretched arms. They steadfastly refused to move.
At the sight of her hero, little Beatrice fairly leaped into Robin’s arms. "Wobin! Wobin! We’re so scared!"
He gently smoothed the child’s straggly hair off her cherubic face. He kissed her on the forehead. "I know, Bea. But you children have to be brave now and go with Marion, Tuck and Little John to Sherwood Forest. Can you do that for me? Can you be very brave and do what they tell you?"
A unanimous "Yes, Robin" filled the forest and the children scrambled to the rear of the wagon, reaching their skinny arms toward the waiting adults. Bea lay her head near Robin’s injured shoulder. Seeing Robin pale at the innocent touch, Little John quickly took Beatrice, steadying a wobbly Robin with his large but gentle hand. He knew how useless it would be to try to talk Robin out of his chosen course of action. And it made sense, damn it all.
As the children were hoisted onto the skitterish horses, one in front of each rider, and one behind, with two sitting in front of Little John, Eleanor, the baker’s daughter, asked "Aren’t you going with us, Robin? You’ve got to."
Robin reached up and touched the child’s arm to reassure her. "I’ll be right behind you, luv. I’m just going to hide the wagon."
Giving him her best no-nonsense expression, an exact duplicate of her mother’s stern visage, Eleanor commanded, "See that you are, Robin."
With a bow that would make any gallant proud, Robin, with a devilish twinkle in his laughing brown eyes, agreed. "You’re wish is my command, my lady Eleanor."
Giggles could be heard as Robin gave the last child a one-handed boost onto the lead horse.
As if on cue, the wind gusted, almost blowing the horses on their way.
"Go!" Robin shouted as he stumbled toward the front of the wagon. The wind was so strong it took his breath away as he awkwardly hauled himself up onto the seat and took the reins in his good hand.
Tuck watched his friend’s unnaturally awkward movements with alarm. He’s not going to make it, he feared. Tuck hung back for one more moment to make sure Robin was securely settled. He watched the younger man with a mixture of concern, pride and awe. As good as Little John is with young ones, only Robin could coax the children to be so brave. They want make him proud of them.
"Say a prayer for Robin, children, that he will return safely to us," Tuck shouted as he made the sign of the cross. "Yes, Friar," the children responded, blessing themselves. "I wove Wobin. He’s so pwetty," little Beatrice offered. Tuck couldn’t help but laugh at her sweet remark. "I’m sure Robin would appreciate your compliment, Bea. Just say your prayers for Robin and he’ll join us soon." Come back to us, Robin.
Gut-wrenching emotion rocked Tuck as a future without his young friend suddenly appeared in his mind’s eye. He blinked his eyes to clear the sudden tears pooling there. God, please, keep him safe.
The End of Chapter One