"Have another mug of wassail, Robin?" Little John held a sloshing mug in front of his friend.
"No, thank you, John. I’ve had enough." Robin continued to sit on the log in front of the roaring fire. It was the eve of Christmas. Celebrations were taking place all over Christendom. But the celebration in Sherwood was rather subdued this year.
Fall into winter had been bitter and snowy so far. Thus, traveling by rich noblemen was kept to a minimum, eliminating most opportunities to "rescue" their pouches of gold from their fat, be-ringed fingers. The hunting was almost nonexistent. Not only were the animals scarce, but Prince John had cracked down on poachers, hanging first, asking questions later. It was practically a suicide mission to foray into the forest to find meat for the camp. A risk Robin, Little John, Sean and others were willing to take for their people. Yet, their courage often went unrewarded as they returned empty-handed. Their inventories of grain and other food stuffs were dangerously low. No wonder there was little joy of the season in camp this night.
And no one felt the burden more than Robin Hood. These people looked to him for safety and comfort. He was failing them and didn’t know what more he could do. Even praying seemed to offer no relief lately.
"I don’t know how we will last the winter," Robin thought aloud as he sat on the log, staring into the flames forlornly.
"What was that, Robin?" Tuck asked, turning his attention from a conversation with Mrs. Dobbins about the proper herb to use with mortrews, a dish made with meat, eggs and bread crumbs and rarely served this winter. "Did you say something, my melancholy friend?"
Robin looked up at the friar, grimacing at the gauntness of his friend’s usually pleasantly plump face. "I said, I don’t know how we will last the winter, Tuck. I just don’t know what to do."
Tuck laid a supporting hand on his worried friend’s shoulder. "Robin, we’ve had rough winters before. And we’ve made it through, haven’t we. We must trust in our heavenly Father to provide for us."
Robin chuckled bitterly. "Right, Friar. He’s done such a wonderful job so far."
Concern etched lines on the friar’s face. He was very worried about Robin and prayed this burden would not be too much for him to bear. "Robin, you must have faith."
"I’m afraid I’m almost all out of that, Friar. When I see the ribs of the children in camp and the old people who are sick because we can’t give them enough nourishment to make them well, I…" Robin shook his head. "I can’t make food and clothing appear like magic. If only I could."
"Robin." Marion interrupted as she ran up to him and grabbed his hand, pulling him up and towards the center of the festivities. "Come with me. They’re starting to play Hoodman’s Bluff."
Marion’s enthusiasm was catching and Tuck leaped to his feet to join in.
Robin resisted Marion’s pull. "No, Marion. I’m going to my tent."
"Robin, you can’t! It’s still early yet." Marion tugged harder.
Robin disengaged his hand from hers. "I know, Marion, but I just can’t pretend any more tonight. My heart just isn’t in it." He looked around to those still sitting around the fire. Little John, Kemal, Tuck and several others he considered family. "Christmas blessings to all of you."
With that, Robin walked away from the warmth of his friends and the fire, disappearing into the cold darkness beyond.
Marion started to follow him until a hand on her arm restrained her.
"Let him be, Marion. He must come to grips with this himself."
Marion plopped down on the log between Tuck and John. "I’ve never seen him like this, Friar, even in the worst of times."
"Me, either, Friar," John agreed. "What can we do to help him?"
Tuck looked around the fire at the concerned faces of his friends. "I don’t know what to do except to pray for him."
Robin thrashed back and forth on his pallet, sweat sheening his body. His sleep no more restful than his waking hours.
"Robin! Help me."
Robin awoke with a jerk. Propping himself up on his elbows, he addressed the darkness. "Who’s there? Who is calling me?" He searched his tent for the owner of the voice. What little light filtered through the flap revealed no one. But it seemed so real. A young woman’s voice.
Settling back down on his cot he closed his eyes, fully intending to toss and turn for the rest of the night, yet hoping he wouldn’t be plagued with strength-draining dreams. Then he heard the voice one more time.
"Please, Robin. Please. You must help me. My time draws near."
No longer trying to find a logical explanation, Robin tossed back his thread-bare blanket, armed himself, and left the tent.
Later he would realize that he had no idea how he knew where to find the owner of that soft, plaintive voice. But for now, he simply continued to ride through the eerily quiet forest, mindful of the dangers to man and beast when riding in the dark, especially with snow blanketing the ground and hiding downed branches and other obstacles. Wet snowflakes dotted his sable hair and clothes and clung to his eyelashes.
Finally, several yards in front of him he saw a soft, suffused glow amid the trees. He silently dismounted and advanced on foot, sword at the ready. But nothing could have prepared him for the sight he came upon.
There, in the midst of the clearing lay a young woman, almost a girl, wrapped in homespun robes. Yet, even the bulkiness of her unusual clothing could not disguise the distended abdomen and the expression of acute pain on her beautiful face. Her hands lay protectively on the swell of her stomach.
At Robin’s approach, the girl/woman opened her eyes and speared Robin with her glance. "You’ve come, Robin." Her breath came out in puffs of white. "I knew you would." She extended a small hand, beckoning the stunned man to come to her.
After a moment’s hesitation, Robin neared the woman, his hand automatically reaching toward hers. Placing his sword on the ground beside her, Robin enveloped the cold hand in his warmer one and knelt beside the shivering figure. Pain ripped through her small frame, causing her to cry out and squeeze Robin’s hand in a punishing grip.
"He’s coming soon and I am alone and frightened." Her pale blue eyes held Robin’s liquid brown ones. "Will you help me bring him into this cold world, Robin?"
He swallowed deeply, his prominent Adam’s apple bobbing up and down the strong column of his neck. He moved closer and, with his free hand, ever so gently smoothed the limp brown hair off her damp forehead. "I will help you, my lady. May I have your name?"
"My name is Mary." And then another contraction hit and her anguished scream rent the brittle night air.
Time lost all meaning as Robin knelt in the small clearing, protecting her from the elements as best he could, whispering encouragement to the writhing figure, taking the brunt of her pain in his now bruised hand, stroking her hair away from her sweat-soaked face, praying to God that he would know how to help Mary deliver her precious burden.
Finally, after a particularly severe contraction, she screamed out. "Help me, Robin. He’s coming now."
Feeling no embarrassment at the intimacy they were forced to share, Robin positioned himself and, after a ear-shattering scream and a gutwrenching push, a downy head emerged and a small body slipped into his hands.
Robin had never in his life experienced a moment like this. He literally held a new life in his hands. He marveled at the perfection of the baby who squalled loudly, as if angry for being taken from the warm cocoon inside his mother.
Using the edge of Mary’s cloak, Robin gently swabbed the baby’s face and laid him in the arms of his mother. The baby immediately quieted and smiled contentedly. Robin was brought to his knees at the beatific vision in front of him. Never had he seen such radiance in the face of the young mother as she looked down upon her precious child. Robin’s eyes appeared to sparkle from the unfallen tears that gathered. Even the clearing seemed to reflect the joy and blessedness of the moment as it glowed with a warm luminescence.
As Robin began to back away, intending to give the mother and child a private moment, Mary reached out and touched his arm. "Robin, stay and share my joy. You are responsible for I would not have been able to do it without you."
"I really did not do much, Mary. You would have been fine without me." A crooked smile appeared on his tired face. "And you did all the work."
She reached out and lightly touched his cheek with her finger tips. "No, Robin. Without you, your strength and encouragement, I would have been lost. Never underestimate how important you are to others. Just your very presence bolsters those around you, giving them the courage and the will to go on, even when you cannot provide material things for them."
Robin knelt beside the mother and child. "If only I could believe that, Mary. But I’m afraid I have little faith left."
"You are a good, kind man, Robin Hood, and you must never give up hope. Look at me."
Robin did as she asked. "My lady?"
"I prayed to God for help in delivering my child. And you were sent to me. God provided for me, just as He will for you and your charges."
"How do you know abo.."
She interrupted. "I would reward you for your kindness, Robin. What may I do for you?"
Robin lowered his head, inexplicably embarrassed at the praise from this gentlewoman and confused at her words. "I require no reward, my lady. I didn’t help you for a reward but because you needed my aid. You’re baby is strong and healthy. That is enough reward."
Nudging his chin upward, Mary gently forced Robin to meet her eyes. "There must be something that you want, Robin. It would please me."
Robin clasped her wrist, bringing her hand down and placing it on her child. "All I would want is food for my people. They starve and, on this night of nights, are sorrowful because they have nothing to offer their own children, not even enough food."
"But nothing for yourself, Robin? Nothing to make you happy?"
A sad smile lit his face. "That would make me happy, Mary. More than you know." He leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead.
As he pulled away, he felt a feather touch on his cheek. He stared down in wonder, from the tiny hand that had caressed his cheek to the face of the newborn, so innocent and yet so wise. A feeling of serenity suddenly filled him and he felt as though all his burdens and worries were suddenly lifted from him. His spirit soared upward and he remained kneeling at their side, peaceful for the first time in so long and thanking God for hearing his prayers this night.
"Robin, are you awake?"
Marion, Tuck, Little John and Kemal stood outside Robin’s tent.
"Come on, sleepy head. It’s Christmas!"
Still no response from within. Looking at one another, they silently agreed that someone should go in. Marion lifted the flap and entered slowly. "Robin? Robin!"
Her cry brought the others rushing in. Marion knelt beside Robin’s pallet, her hand on his forehead. "He’s shivering and feels as cold as ice. Find something more to cover him."
As Kemal and John searched the small tent for blankets, Tuck stood on the other side of the cot. "His face is reddened and so cold, it looks as if he’s spent the night out in the wind and snow."
Little John came over with Robin’s cloak. "This is all I could find. No wonder he’s so cold. His blanket is practically worn out and he has nothing else in here."
Kemal stood beside his tall friend. "He would rather see that others have such comforts."
"It’s true, Kemal. No sacrifice is too great for Robin."
Marion began to lay the gray/black cloak over Robin when Tuck stopped her. "Look at his hand, Marion. It’s terribly bruised. What happened to it?"
Marion took Robin’s hand in her own and examined the discoloration. "I don’t know, Tuck. He never mentioned an injury to me and I don’t recall seeing it last night. Do you know anything about it, Little John? Kemal?"
Both men shook their heads. Just then, Robin’s eyes opened, an expression of surprise on his face.
"Why are you all here?" He immediately sat up. "Is something wrong?"
Marion placed a hand on Robin’s shoulder and nudged him back down on his bed. "Nothing is wrong, Robin. We were calling you and you didn’t answer."
"That’s right, Robin," Tuck chimed in. "We found you freezing cold and shivering."
Robin disengaged himself from Marion’s hold and sat up. "I was out all night delivering a baby. I never experienced anything like it before."
The four friends looked at one another, concern etched on their faces. "Uh, Robin. The watchman didn’t report anyone taking a horse during the night."
"And your boots are dry, Robin. If you had been out in the snow, they would still be wet."
"True, but I.."
"It was most likely a vivid dream, my friend."
Robin looked puzzled. "I don’t think so, Kemal. I helped a young woman, Mary, deliver her baby. Right in the woods." Robin looked at each of his friends and raised his hands in front of him. "She held my hand through her contractions and I thought she might break it, so strong was her grip." He held his injured hand in front of him, flexing it as he examined the bruises. He looked up at his friends, a look of wonderment and joy on his handsome face. "I was the first person to hold that baby. In these hands, I held new life. It was- it was the most wondrous thing!"
Marion smoothed the hair from Robin’s face. "It sounds like a wonderful dream, Robin. Maybe after you break your fast, you’ll remember more clearly."
"Maybe, but-she wanted to give me a reward. All I asked for was food for the village."
"Well, that explains it then, Robin."
"Explains what, Tuck?"
"Don’t you see? You have been consumed by worry since the winter began and the food stuffs have been so low."
"I agree with you, Tuck," Marion added. "Robin, you were really depressed last night. You dreamt about what’s been bothering you."
Tuck nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, that explains it, I’m sure."
Robin shook his head in confusion. "I don’t know, Friar. It seemed so real¼ and my hand. How do you expla…"
"Robin! Robin! Come quickly!"
The shout from outside brought Robin to his feet. And as Tuck handed him his cloak, he followed his friends out of the tent.
"It’s the most wondrous sight, Robin! None of us can understand where it all came from or how it got here without the watchmen seeing or hearing something."
The group stopped at the inside of the hidden entrance. There in front of them lay bundles and baskets brimming with food and sacks of grain, winter squash, corn, greens, skins of wine, barrels of ale, even dressed meats. Bolts of cloth and crates of toys were mixed in with the vast array of goods.
The stunned villagers had gathered round, whispering excitedly among themselves, exclaiming the good fortune that had visited them during the night.
"We have enough food here to last the winter, Robin!" one of the villagers cried out.
"And gifts for our children," another said. "It’s a Christmas miracle!"
The friends walked toward the goods with the same dazed expression on their faces.
Little John turned to Tuck. "How did this happen, Friar? Do you think maybe Robin’s dream wasn’t a dream?"
"I don’t know what to think, Little John. All I know is that it truly is a miracle from our Lord on this Christmas morning."
Robin lagged behind and stared while the others went forward to touch the miraculous bounty. "She did it. Somehow Mary did it."
Marion watched as Robin, after proclaiming these words, dropped back. His expression was one of such unabashed joy, Marion had to blink back the sudden pooling of tears. Robin had been so distraught and worried lately about those in his charge that she had rarely gotten a glimpse of the sheer beauty of his soul when lit from within by his happiness.
She was ready to walk up to him when, with one last lingering look, he turned and strode towards the center of the village. Puzzled, she waved to her friends and they followed Robin at a discreet distance, ducking behind trees and bushes when he knelt in front of the crudely but lovingly fashioned figures of the Virgin and Child, lying serenely in a shallow crate lined with pine boughs.
He knelt in front of the nativity and bowed his head. Believing he was alone, Robin voiced his prayers aloud, his melodious voice carrying to his hidden friends. "I know they don’t believe me, my Lady Mary, but I know. You and your Son did this for my people. And you have restored my faith."
He bent down and placed a kiss on the baby’s forehead and another on the hand of the baby’s blessed mother. Robin then looked up into the virgin’s eyes and smiled. Mary’s kind eyes glimmered as they stared back at Robin Hood. Her hand came up and caressed his face. "Remember, Robin, my Son is always with you. Never fear."
Robin took her hand in his and held it to his cheek as he lowered his head and cried unabashedly. His shoulders shook as the healing sobs wracked his body.
Witnessing this miracle before them, Marion, Tuck, Little John and Kemal left their hiding places and slowly walked towards the trio now enveloped in a soft light. As one they fell on their knees in awe.
One by one the villagers joined them in silent homage. No one there would ever forget this Christmas miracle and the legend of Robin Hood grew.