"He should have returned by now, Tuck," Little John said for the tenth time as he wore a path in the ground around the campfire where the friar and Marion sat waiting.
"Please, Little John, try to calm down. I’m sure Robin is—"
"Don’t even say it, Marion. You’re not sure he’s fine. I’m not one of the children who needs to be placated." He sat down on the log with a heavy plop and ran his fingers through his blond mane. "I’m worried, damn it. I’m worried."
Marion laid a hand on John’s forearm. "I’m sorry, John. I didn’t mean to treat you like a child. It’s just that—"
She stopped as her voice cracked. Tuck watched silently as this maiden warrior fought to master her raging emotions. "It’s just that—" Again, she stopped, an escaping sob betraying her fragile self control.
Little John placed his bigger hand over hers where it still rested on his arm. "We know, Marion. We feel the same way."
Marion lowered her head when she felt her face heat up. She had been fighting tears since their return but now one escaped and cascaded down her blushed cheek. She hastily swiped it away. Damn! She didn’t lose control like this. She forced herself to continue speaking, if only to prove to herself that she was under control once again.
"If he’s hurt— It’s just that a body can only take so much punishment. Robin is still a young man yet he has suffered injury upon injury since he came to Sherwood. He never thinks of his own health or welfare."
"Robin wouldn’t be Robin if he did, Marion," Tuck added. "He would never allow someone to be hurt or remain in danger as long as he has breath left in his body."
Marion jumped up and paced. It was her turn to wear a path around the fire. "That’s my point exactly, Tuck. If this keeps up, Robin will never reach old age."
Hearing her most secret fear voiced aloud froze Marion in her tracks. He may never reach old age with me! Sweet God in Heaven. Robin may die from an injury or be killed because he cares too much about everyone but himself.
Both men stood, one on either side of their distraught friend, each offering comfort in their own clumsy way. Marion didn’t appear to be aware of them, so engrossed was she in her own private hell.
"Every time he leaves the village without me, I wonder if he will return or if a messenger will come to tell us that he’ll never be coming home."
Little John and Tuck enveloped Marion within the comfort of their arms while John stroked her hair awkwardly. "Don’t do this to yourself, Marion. He could simply be delayed by the storm. But, if Robin isn’t back by first light, we will find him and bring him home to you."
The body hanging from the tree twitched, the only movement in the silent, still forest. The moon’s light filtered through the ancient trees, illuminating the bared torso with an eerie glow. A loud snore ripped through the silence, followed by a flurry of rustling and grunting as sleeping soldiers squirmed for a more comfortable position on the hard forest floor. The body twitched again and then silence blanketed the night once more.
Robin opened his eyes with a start and blinked. Where was he? He blinked again, trying to clear the fog and cobwebs from his brain. He moved his head to look around and froze, biting his already bruised lip to squelch the cry of agony that sprang from his very soul. Jesu, it hurt! His memory returned at the exact moment his tortured body screamed its acute, agonized torment. Again, he bit down on his lip to muffle the sounds of his excruciating pain. Fresh blood snaked its way from his mouth to pool in his beard, mingling with the dried and stiff blood shed earlier.
Flashes of the last few hours flooded his consciousness—the raging storm, the ground coming up to meet him when the wagon hit something, mailed fists and booted feet pounding his body unmercifully, the bite of the bull whip as it scored his skin, ripping off strips of flesh with each deadly kiss of leather. He thought they’d never stop. He’d actually wished for death to end his anguish.
Robin inhaled slowly but caught his breath when his broken ribs voiced their protest. Hot tears gathered in the corners of his purple and swollen eyes, tears of overwhelming pain and deep shame. He was helpless, beaten, defeated. The mighty Robin Hood who had had the temerity to believe he could make a difference in this senseless battle between the Saxons and Normans. He was so filled with bravado that he thought he could goad the sadistic captain with his cocky remarks, could laugh in his face, and still escape retribution. Now, the mighty hero was reduced to a quivering, broken carcass hanging like a side of beef. A sorry end indeed.
Regret and shame burned behind his eyes. I’ve failed, he railed to himself, at himself. I’ve failed everyone. A tear escaped from one eye and coursed its way down his face, its saltiness stinging the abraded flesh.
With great difficulty, Robin raised his head, seeking the moon’s light. I’m so sorry, Olwyn. So sorry. All of your training has been for naught. I wasn’t worthy enough to live up to your expectations.
Beloved faces swam in front of him. Little John, the gentle giant of a man. Friar Tuck, as earthy as he was pious. And Marion¼his beautiful Marion. So much time wasted denying what was between them and now time had run its course. There would be no more.
His eyelids began to flicker as fatigue fought to regain its control. His head dropped to his chest as oblivion claimed him.