Robin jerked awake and immediately regretted the sharp movement. His arms felt like they were being pulled out of their sockets. He dumbly stared up at his hands, seeing the blood caked under the ropes and up his arms but not able to comprehend what he saw. His head fell forward with exhaustion. Even thinking proved too strenuous.
His head snapped up. There it was again. A voice calling his name.¼Olwyn?
As if sensing that it had finally captured Robin’s full attention, the voice continued.
"Robin, you are not defeated. You must try to escape."
I can’t, Olwyn, I can’t.¼Silence¼I hurt, Olwyn.¼ So much.
His head drooped as tears began to fall in earnest. He was ashamed of his weakness.
"Young man, I know you hurt. But you cannot let the pain defeat you. Mind over matter, Robin. Mind over matter. The pain is your enemy. Fight it, Robin, and you will succeed."
Determination filled Robin, bolstering his failing energy. With a deep, painful breath, he began to bounce, testing the strength of the branch from which he hung. The pressure on his straining arm and shoulder muscles was beyond bearing. The pull on his flayed skin was too much and the welts and cuts that had begun to scab over ripped open, oozing blood.
Robin fought against the beckoning darkness. With a plea to the Almighty above, he continued to bounce, knowing that if he stopped, he would surely be lost.
Hearing no cracking or splitting sounds from the wood, he used the remnants of his once considerable agility to swing his legs in front of him and behind him. The branch bobbed up and down but remained firm.
Praying that the soldiers would not wake, Robin continued his swinging motion, widening the arc like a pendulum. His breathing became labored, a sheen of sweat covered his chest and gouged back.
A little more, just a bit more—with a superhuman effort, Robin swung his legs upward towards the branch, one leg on each side. Quickly locking his ankles together, Robin straddled the branch from underneath, the pressure of his weight now transferred to his rubbery legs.
Pausing for a moment to catch his breath, Robin then struggled to free the chafing ropes from his wrists. The earlier rain had caused the drying ropes to shrink and bite tightly into his skin. Just when it appeared an impossible task, Robin recalled Marion’s face and longed to cradle her soft cheek in the palm of his hand. To wipe away the tears with his thumb. Marion¼
He renewed his efforts and was rewarded as the ropes slipped their knots and fell noiselessly to the crushed leaves and twigs below. Robin quickly followed when his muscles gave out. He hit the forest floor with a deadened thud and lay there, unmoving.
Robin regained consciousness when he felt something cold and wet on his face. O sweet Jesus! The guards are awake! He struggled to one elbow and froze. Instead of the cruel, sadistic face of a mocking Norman soldier, Robin stared into the most incredibly huge, warm brown eyes he had ever seen, eyes whose color, Marion would have noticed, matched his own. The deer stood not six inches from his body and cocked its regal head as it looked down on him as if to say "Why are you lazing about? You must escape."
With a mighty lunge, Robin stood and somehow managed to stumble into the dense forest beyond, following the deer who stopped every few feet ahead of him, guiding his way. To Robin’s ears, his breathing sounded loud enough to wake the dead yet no soldiers followed him.
He continued to stumble through the trees until he saw the deer leap into the air. Because of pain and dizziness, Robin’s fatigued brain did not alert him to avoid the fallen log as the deer had. Instead, he plowed right into it, landing on the other side in a pitiful heap. Breath whooshed out of him and every ache and pain doubled in intensity. Robin lay there, unable to go any further.
The deer walked back to Robin’s side and nudged him with his nose. In some inexplicable way, Robin understood the animal and, gathering his last ounce of strength, scrunched backward until he was partially lying on his side, his back touching the trunk. The deer leaped away and Robin suddenly felt alone and desolate, as if his best friend had just deserted him.
"Well done, young man. You are safe. Sleep now."
Olwyn? Don’t leave me!
"Sleep, Robin. We will protect you."
With complete trust, Robin closed his eyes but sleep would not come. The night grew colder and, now that he was lying quietly, the chilling dampness seeped into him and the pain throbbed its presence. His entire body shook with tremors, the chattering of his teeth loud in his own ears.
Sensing rather than hearing, Robin knew he was no longer alone. But, he was helpless to defend himself as the chills took brutal control of his body.
Suddenly, there was a warm pressure on his lower legs. And then more on his upper legs. Robin’s glassy eyes looked like saucers as he watched several wolf cubs wrap themselves around his limbs. My God, they smell the blood! He attempted to back away then froze when a she wolf circled in front of him several times before she too rested beside him, the upper part of her body draped over his naked lower torso. Their body heat warmed him immediately and Robin’s chills began to weaken. Finally, a massive male wolf, as white as the driven snow, appeared and lowered its head to stare directly into Robin’s terrified eyes. "Sleep now, my brave young friend. Sleep."
Olwyn? Robin sobbed with relief.
The wolf watched as the human’s eyes fluttered shut and his breathing evened out. Chills no longer wracked his beaten body. The wolf stepped closer and lay its nose against the human’s cheek.
"You were never unworthy, Robin. Never. You are pure of heart and of good intent. And have surpassed all my hopes for you. You have served England well."
The human smiled in his sleep and the great wolf lay down, his huge body covering the remaining expanse of the man’s mottled skin.
The forest slumbered once more.
"This is the spot where we separated."
Marion moved to stand beside the crouching Little John, her hands on her hips as she surveyed the forest that surrounded them. It was already the nooning hour, far later into the day than they had hoped to arrive at this spot.
"Are you certain, Little John? Absolutely certain?"
John raised to his full height and looked down his nose at Marion with his mighty arms folded across his broad chest. Marion was upset, as they all were, so he bit back the sarcastic retort that was ready to spring from his mouth.
Seeing the expression of annoyance on his friend’s face, Tuck intervened quickly.
"Marion, you know Little John is the best tracker in Sherwood Forest. If he says this is the spot, then this is the spot."
"Thank you, Tuck," John acknowledged smugly.
Marion sighed and put her hand on John’s stiff arm. "I’m sorry, Little John. I know you’re the best. It’s just that Robin is long overdue and if we don’t find him—"
Little John unfolded his arms and draped one around Marion’s shoulders, hugging her to him. "We know, Marion. We’ll find him."
Taking the reins of his horse, John moved further into the small clearing. Again he crouched and studied the ground, touching a blade of grass, examining the rutted path. He pointed to the west, away from Sherwood Forest.
"The wagon went this way. Let’s ride."
After several miles, John halted the party and dismounted to examine the path once more.
"Soldiers traveled this way. I can’t tell how far behind Robin they were, but they definitely followed the wagon."
As the others stayed mounted, John flipped the reins of his horse to Tuck and continued ahead on foot while his friends followed at a discreet distance. They traversed about a half of mile in that fashion when Little John ran ahead to a densely populated grove of birch trees.
Gigging their horses into a gallop, Marion and Tuck quickly caught up with Little John just in time to hear him swear.
"Sweet Mother of God!"
Marion ran to his side as Tuck puffed along behind her. "Little John! What’s wrong? What have you fou—"
Marion stopped so quickly Tuck narrowly missed plowing into her from behind. Marion stood frozen, her hand covering her mouth as she surveyed the scene before her.
With an awful sense of foreboding, Tuck quickly stepped around her. The sight that greeted him rooted him to the spot like a statue.
"No. It can’t be. Tell me it isn’t the same wagon, Little John. It’s a different one, right?"
John turned and faced his friends, his face leeched of all color.
"It’s the same wagon. The horse is over there." He pointed a few yards away to the bloated, fly-infested corpse.
Both men ran to Marion when her knees began to buckle. She had never fainted in her life but she was on the verge now. Robin. Robin! How could this have happened? Was he lying crushed under the wagon?
Tuck gently guided her to the base of a tree and helped her to sit down and lean against its trunk until she caught her breath. Tuck stayed with her while Little John searched the area further, hoping against hope that he would not find what he was looking for.
"Tuck! Come quickly. I’ve found something!"
Marion started to rise but Tuck gently pushed her back. "Marion, you’re still upset. Wait here for now."
He watched the indignation at being treated like a helpless woman momentarily race across her pale face. But, to Tuck’s surprise and concern, she didn’t argue with him but continued sitting, holding her head in her hands. He had never seen Marion like this. Dear Father in Heaven, please let them find Robin alive.
"Friar. Over here."
"I’m coming, Little John, I’m coming."
Puffing like a landed fish, Tuck finally reached the taller man’s side, dread unlike any he had ever before experienced filled his soul. He was almost too afraid to even ask what his friend had found. "Wh-what—"
Little John slapped him on the back, sending Tuck sailing several feet in front of John. "He’s not here, Tuck. I’d swear on my life that Robin is not here."
Tuck was afraid to hope. "Have you searched everywhere, Little John? Could Robin have crawled off somewhere for shelter?"
In response, Little John shook his blond hair and led the friar over to a clearing. "Look here, Tuck." He handed Tuck pieces of darkly stained rope. "From what I can tell, Robin was most likely thrown from the wagon before it crashed. Over there," he pointed. "Do you see how the leaves and mud have been disturbed?" Pointing in another direction, he added "The hoof tracks stop right back there and boot marks lead from there to here."
"Does that mean Robin is alive?" Tuck asked eagerly.
"What it means, I’m afraid, is that Robin has been taken. That rope you’re holding?" Tuck held it higher and nodded questioningly. "Those stains look like blood."
"Then Robin is either hurt ¾ "
"¾ or dead." Neither man had heard Marion approach. For a moment, Little John considered downplaying the discovery. No, he wouldn’t do that to Marion. She of all people deserved the truth, no matter how ugly.
"I see no other possibilities."
The three friends stood silently among the trees, staring at nothing, the possibility of Robin being dead too much for them to deal with. Time passed unawares as each dared to hope yet, at the same time, mourn the devastating loss of not only their friend, but their hero.
Little John snapped out of his stupor first. He pounded a fist into his other hand. "I’m not going to stand here and simply accept that Robin is gone." He began to pace, mumbling to himself. Suddenly, he ran across the clearing towards the west. "See here. The soldiers took off this way." He ran back to his gaping friends and waved his hand around them. "But, see here? Boot marks move off in every direction. As if the soldiers are searching for something¼ or someone." He looked expectantly at his friends. "Don’t you understand? They were looking for Robin!"
Finally, comprehension dawned in Marion’s and Tuck’s eyes. "You mean he could have escaped?" Marion and Tuck asked simultaneously.
Little John grabbed each by the arm. "That’s exactly what I mean. Our Robin wouldn’t have just surrendered to them. He escaped!! Let’s start searching the area. Leave no stone unturned until we find him."
The threesome split up and began their search, hope again warring with the dread lodged in the pits of their stomachs.
The fallen log looked like every other log that had become a fatality in the harsh world of the forest. The soldiers had passed it by dozens of times that morning as they searched for the escaped prisoner. There was nothing out of the ordinary to merit a second look. Just a log covered with moss and weeds and branches.
When the alarm was sounded at sunrise, Robin snapped awake with a jerk, instantly cognizant of his whereabouts and his dire situation. Some time during the night, the cubs had spread out and were now covering him. The she-wolf and the white wolf were gone yet he was still toasty warm, thanks to his living blanket. Despite the warmth that comforted him, though, Robin trembled uncontrollably as fear sliced through him. His breathing became shallow and fast, awakening every damaged area on and in his body. He knew he was dangerously close to losing control as panic took over.
The young wolf curled on Robin’s chest opened a sleepy eye and looked at him. Robin’s breath caught in his throat when the cub opened both eyes and pinned him with its stare, a stare that penetrated through him, into him. Robin was mesmerized as he gazed into the feral eyes that reflected almost human intelligence and compassion. A languor stole over the outlaw, creeping into his very pores like fog stealthily overtaking the forest. His eyelids began to droop and finally close. His chest rose and fell in an even, easy cadence, gently rocking the wolf cub who remained awake and alert, protecting its human charge until the return of its parents.
The End Of Chapter Four
To be Concluded....