Joan T. Woodcock
For two days, the troop of soldiers marched through the forest, careful to avoid any of the villages that dotted the more traveled roads.
The trees provided cover and a modicum of coolness from the overbearing heat and humidity that had plagued the countryside for over a week. An occasional stream allowed the men to fill their water skins, alleviating the worry of dehydration from the awful heat.
But water and shade were not the reasons they avoided the hamlets and main roads. Sergeant Planter didn’t care a whit for the comfort of his men. In his opinion, they were nothing more than a pack of mongrels to be lead by a superior officer. Planter harrumphed as that thought crossed his mind. All his life he had dreamt and planned of rising through the ranks of the military. His promotion to captain had been the pinnacle of his career. Not bad for a farmer’s son. Once he tasted the power that came along with his promotion, his appetite was whetted for more. By this time, Planter should have surpassed even a captaincy. But, now he was a mere sergeant, a very fine line separating him from the rabble under his command. A lowly rank far beneath his superior skills.
Anger welled up within him, anger that was always simmering in the pit of his stomach, in the very core of his soul, since his ignominious demotion. The rage that flared to the surface at a moment’s notice, unpredictable and sudden, one of many reasons his men deathly feared him. Feared him enough to follow his every order, no matter how cruel or monstrous.
Planter was proud of his control over these pathetically stupid lemmings Prince John called soldiers. And that very pride that filled him with a perverted pleasure was the same pride that lashed out at the man staggering behind him. The man who caused his disgrace. Who forced him to steer clear of the villages, thus depriving his men of the fresh rations they needed. The man called Robin Hood.
In the very first hamlet they had encountered, the people recognized his prisoner and had the audacity to try to free him. Bah! That ill-advised effort had been quashed effectively, so effectively, in fact, that there wasn’t one structure still standing amid the smoldering rubble. He ordered it burned to the ground just as he had the village north of Sherwood several days ago.
Viciously yanking on the rope he was holding, Planter took delight in causing his prize
prisoner to stumble to his knees with a grunt of pain.
"Get up, you bastard. Get up and walk like the hero the peasants think you are."
He tugged again, even harder, gleefully anticipating the result. He smiled when Robin Hood fell face forward onto the leaf- and branch-strewn forest floor.
The soldiers trudging behind the prisoner grimaced to a man, knowing full well what would happen next, just as it had so many times over the past two days.
The sergeant never slowed his mount, having no intention of allowing the prisoner to right himself. He was careful not to go too fast. He didn’t want the outlaw to strangle or die. After all, he thoroughly enjoyed hearing the bastard drag along the ground behind him, and the grunts of pain every time he hit a rock or exposed tree root.
Life would finally be good again for Josiah Planter. All he need do was collect the reward money for the capture of England’s most wanted man and, even if they didn’t return the rank of captaincy to him, he would have the means to buy the commission.
Deliciously mindful of the agony he was inflicting upon his prisoner, Planter suddenly barked out a laugh, so loud and unexpected that it caused the birds to flee their safe haven of the trees.
Private Thurgood was taking no chances with Derrick and had ordered him to march behind the soldiers. Up until this point, Derrick had been as good as his word to Robin and had bided his time, looking for an opportunity to escape. But, when Robin was deliberately pulled down and dragged yet again, it proved too much for the young man. His promise be damned. He had to help his friend.
Derrick bolted from behind the ranks but was stopped mid-stride by a strong grip on his arm. He spun around to see who was holding him.
"Don’t do it, lad. Stay put."
Derrick tried to pull out of the unbreakable hold, which only became stronger the more he struggled.
Corporal Angus MacAfee, Planter’s second-in-command, yanked the boy back to his side. "You’ll only make matters worse, boy. For you and for your friend."
"How can it get any worse for Robin?" Derrick spat out. "Look at him, dragged around like an animal." Derrick gulped back the sob that threatened to erupt. God! Robin was so hurt. He had to do something. And soon.
Derrick gave Corporal MacAfee a sideways glance and, seeing the corporal’s attention diverted, bolted again. Or tried to. For a big man, MacAfee was quick and he caught the boy. Only this time, he was far from gentle.
"I won’t be tellin’ you again, laddie. If you charge up there, Planter will make everything a hundred-fold worse for Robin Hood. Just continue what you’ve been doin’ to help him. Feed and water him, help him take a piss, and tend to his wounds when you can."
Derrick turned and looked fully into the battle-worn face of the corporal. "How did you know that I -- I-I mean -- " Derrick stumbled to a stop, afraid the rouse was up.
MacAfee chuckled softly. His grip on the boy’s arm changed to a gentle clasp. "Laddie, anyone with even one eye workin’ can see you worship the ground he walks on."
Derrick winced. And he thought he had been so subtle. "Please, Corporal MacAfee, don’t say anything to the sergeant. Please."
MacAfee stared intently at the boy for several moments, making sure he had Derrick’s undivided attention. "If I was goin’ to turn you in, would I have bothered to stop you now?"
Derrick avoided the corporal’s penetrating gaze. "I-I guess not. I didn’t think."
The soldier clutched Derrick’s shoulder harder and Derrick fought not to flinch.
"What’s your name, laddie?"
"Well, Derrick, you’d better as hell start thinkin’. You keep your head about you if you want to keep your friend alive."
Alive? Oh my God.
*** *** ***
"I knew it! I just knew it!"
Marion felt no pleasure being proved right. The summons by Robin’s stepmother must have been a trap. What else could explain why they had yet to hear from Robin? When it was agreed that Kemal’s services would be needed more by the unfortunate villagers, it was also agreed that Robin would have Mary send a messenger to a neutral site to let them know he arrived and was safe. Four days ago he left. One day, maybe one and a half, to reach the castle. A similar period for the messenger to arrive. Still nothing.
Marion turned to her companions, hands on hips, fire in her blue eyes. "Well, gentlemen, are we just going to sit here and wait or are we going after him?"
Little John answered for his friends. "Kemal, if you could get the horses ready, I’ll gather provisions for the journey."
"And I’ll go make sure I have adequate herbs and cloths for bandages in my medical pouch," Tuck offered.
Three sets of eyes latched onto his. The identical expression of worry clear on each face.
"One must be prepared. Perhaps, with the Lord’s help, I won’t need them."
"Amen to that, Friar," John responded as each left to attend to their assigned tasks.
The foursome left the hidden village within the half hour, riding hard
towards Tadcaster Castle.
Robin was no stranger to pain and hardship. His previous experience with Planter alone had cost him four months of his life to recover. Four months of helplessness, of pain and weakness. Four months of being unable to help the very people he had vowed to protect those many years ago when he was a mere lad of sixteen.
And now it was happening again. Josiah Planter, the evil bastard who scarred him for life, was back and wanted vengeance. Who was, even now, deriving perverted pleasure by leashing Robin like a dog and dragging him like so much refuse.
Pain was Robin’s constant companion over the past two days. Pain, confusion. And fear. Fear that he would never again see Marion’s sweet face. Never again feel Little John’s exuberant yet tender bear hug, or feel the gentle ministrations of Friar Tuck as he treated an injury. He would miss Kemal’s stoic yet powerful presence.
Confusion clouded his head and he lost the thread of his thoughts. Was he praying? He couldn’t remember. Left. Right. Left. Right. Olwyn’s face kept swimming before him but...he couldn’t remember what to do. Left. Right. Keep walking. Don’t fall. Left. Right. Left. Ri --
Robin must have passed out during this last dragging episode because he suddenly found himself being helped upright, untethered from Planter’s horse, and led by his neck leash to a tall shade tree. With a push, he slid down with a plop at the base of the tree.
He kept his eyes closed when he felt the pressure of a water skin on his cracked and bloodied lips. He drank greedily, savoring the first water he had had since yesterday, enjoying the feel of the cool liquid dripping down his chin.
The refreshing moisture revived Robin enough to become aware of his surroundings, although his vision was blurred. He unsuccessfully tried to shake the hair out of his face to see the identity of his benefactor. He peered into a pair of the saddest eyes he had ever seen. Derrick’s eyes.
"Shush, Robin," Derrick crooned as he gently pushed the filthy, matted hair off his hero’s bloodied face. "You can rest now, Robin. We’ve stopped for the day."
Robin attempted to speak but a croak was the only sound that came from his battered throat. The noose had shrunk from his sweat and the intense heat, causing even greater pressure on his vocal chords.
"Don’t speak, Robin. Save your strength." Derrick again held the skin to Robin’s lips and allowed him only a few more sips, not wanting him to get sick from too much at one time.
Robin nodded and mouthed a "thank you" to his young friend, then tried to shift into a more comfortable position, an almost impossible task with his arms bound behind him. Robin strained to look down at himself. The front of his jerkin was in shreds and his suede pants had gaping holes, revealing layers of grime over raw, scraped skin.
Derrick then hand-fed Robin some morsels of moldy cheese and stale bread, all the while nervously glancing around him.
As Robin finished another drink of water, he tried his best to speak to his courageous young friend. Derrick was forced to lean forward to hear.
"He...doesn’t know...you’re helping...?"
Derrick stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Don’t speak anymore, Robin. Please. And no, he doesn’t know."
Seeing Robin attempt to speak again, Derrick stopped him. "I know I promised you I wouldn’t let on we were friends, Robin, but I couldn’t keep it." He looked at Robin pleadingly. "You understand, don’t you?"
Robin nodded and smiled crookedly, the motion setting off a bout of dizziness. Yet he was still pleased by the relief that flooded Derrick’s face as it swam in front of him.
*** *** ***
The camp was settling down for the evening. Derrick had gone back to the soldiers shortly after he fed Robin, afraid Private Thurgood would miss him if he lingered any longer. Derrick knew Corporal MacAfee was correct. If Planter did discover that Robin was being helped, he’d kill Robin in a fit of uncontrolled rage, reward be damned.
But, with the light fading and Thurgood seeing to his own needs, now was Derrick’s last chance to help Robin into the woods to take care of his bodily functions. He crept back to his friend as stealthily as possible. With his arms constantly tied behind him, Robin was unable to relieve himself without help. Derrick knew by the dull red that would creep under the smudges and blood on Robin’s face that it humiliated him to require help with such a personal and intimate function. But there was no way Derrick would allow Robin to be mortified any further by soiling his clothes and giving the insane sergeant just one more chance to take sick pleasure out of another’s pain and degradation.
Derrick then helped Robin settle against the tree for the night and then crept off to his place with the soldiers.
End of Chapter Three
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