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A Life for a Life

Thank you to herne24for her excellent beta, patience and encouragement.
This a Huntingdon Robin fic.
All the characters, except for a few minor original ones, are the property of Richard "Kip" Carpenter.



A Life for a Life

“Robin, Robin!” Matthew ran panting through the trees to Hob’s Cave, scattering the peace along with twigs and leaves.

“What is it, Matthew?” Robin asked the boy.

“Gisburne and soldiers. They’re coming right here; I heard them. Someone must’ve shown them the way here. They’re very close,” Matthew said.

“We can deal with Gisburne and his cowardly soldiers. I’m not running from them,” Will said.

“They’re mercenaries, Uncle Will. Thirty of them, at least,” Matthew said.

‘Right, we’re going now. Will you get home safely, Matthew?” Robin asked.

“Yes, Robin. You know I can run very fast,” Matthew replied.

“Thank you, Matthew. Off you go, now.”

“Get your weapons,” Robin commanded the outlaws. “Nothing else. I can hear them coming.”

The outlaws grabbed their bows and quivers, staves and swords. Meg had a short staff, an ordinary bow and a long dagger. She kirtled her skirt above the leggings she wore for warmth, so that she could run unimpeded.

The outlaws moved further into the forest, running as fast as they could, then settled to a steady pace. They heard shouted commands behind them; they knew they had been seen. They heard the pounding of many feet behind them.

Robin knew they couldn’t evade their pursuers in the naked winter forest. There was no cover and they were badly outnumbered.

“We’ll have a better chance if we split up. Will, Nasir, Tuck, you go one way. Much, John, Meg, you go the other way. John, take Meg to Dexford if you can. Ask Tom to hide Meg. Then make for our autumn camp, where there’s cover.”

“No, I want to stay with you,” Meg protested. “I can keep up.”

“Meg, these are mercenaries. You know what they will do to you,” Robin said bluntly.

“Bastards! I want to kill them all,” Will growled.

“I know, Will, but there’re too many,” Robin said.

“Come on, Meg, Much,” John commanded. The three of them set off one way.

Robin turned to the others. “You three go the other way. I’ll catch up with John.”

Will hesitated. “Robin, you mean to do something. I know you.”

“Will, just go. Look behind us.” Robin pointed to the mercenaries visibly catching up with them.

Will, Nasir and Tuck set off one way. Robin ran the other way until they were out of sight, then he turned back. He knew they would all be run down unless Gisburne had sufficient reason to stop the pursuit. If he cornered Robin, he would probably not follow the others.

Robin jogged on until he found a place to make his stand. This was a hillock with trees curved around the rear of the slope, with one vast old oak tree to guard Robin’s back. Robin notched an arrow to his bow and waited, his heartbeat drumming in his ears. He prayed to Herne to save his friends. He knew he faced certain death; his youth cried out against his fate.

The company of mercenaries reached the small clearing in front of the hillock and stopped in surprise at seeing one man facing them. They spread around the hill in a semi-circle. About ten of them prepared their crossbows and aimed them at Robin.

Gisburne trotted forward on his horse and halted out of range of Robin’s bow.

“Wolfshead, you’re going to die,” he called out. “My archers will stick as many quills in you as a hedgehog.”

“You will die first, Gisburne,” Robin called back.

“I’ll die knowing that you will die next,” Gisburne replied.

“But you won’t be alive to see me die. What satisfaction will you have?”

Gisburne sat his horse, thinking. He would prefer to kill Robin Hood himself and parade a recognisable body through the villages and Nottingham town. He dismounted and commanded one of his men to take his horse behind the battle line.

Gisburne unsheathed his sword and challenged Robin.

“Why don’t you shoot, wolfshead? Are you afraid?”

Gisburne was his implacable enemy and he had nothing to lose now, but Robin couldn’t shoot. He is my brother.

“Gisburne, I could have killed you before this. Have you never wondered why I didn’t?” Robin asked.

“Cowardice, fear, foolish chivalry … I don’t care. I will have no mercy.”

“Because you are my brother,” Robin told Gisburne, his voice full of bitterness.

Gisburne’s face was distorted by shock and disbelief. “No,” he gasped.

“Yes. You are my father’s son. Your mother told me at Croxden Abbey before she died,” Robin said grimly.

Gisburne’s face was blanched, his fists clenched and his chest heaving. He was stunned, but, at the same time, so overwhelmed by boiling hatred that he wanted only to kill.

He called to the mercenaries, “He’s mine! Move back!”

Robin cast his bow and quiver aside and drew Albion from its scabbard. For a moment, the sword blazed with searing light. Robin commended himself to Herne: Let me die fighting here, not on the gallows.

As swordsmen, Robin and Gisburne were evenly matched. Luck, mistakes or exhaustion would decide who lived and who died. Robin was coldly angry and bitter at his fate. Gisburne was red hot with blood lust and hatred.

“Die!” he yelled, attacking Robin so ferociously that it was all Robin could do to defend himself, parrying Gisburne’s vicious and uncontrolled sword thrusts. When Gisburne slowed somewhat, Robin used his cold-burning anger to attack in his turn.

The two fought each other to exhaustion, Robin slowly gaining the upper hand as Gisburne’s hatred overpowered his discipline. They were both shedding blood from several wounds and growing weaker. Robin stumbled and Gisburne took advantage to bring his sword down in a forceful stroke. Robin put up his left arm as a shield and took the flat of Gisburne’s sword on his forearm; he felt the bone crack. But Gisburne was wrong-footed for a moment. Robin brought down the hilt of his sword on the back of Gisburne’s head. Gisburne collapsed on the turf, unconscious.

Robin slid to the ground, falling against the bole of the oak tree, weak from loss of blood, pain and exhaustion. He tried to brace himself for the crossbow bolts, but they didn’t come.

Robin had been vaguely aware of brown smog and the crackling of flames on the edge of his vision and his hearing.

He looked up to see a wall of fire between him and the mercenaries.

The flames advanced on the soldiers, leaving unscorched earth behind. The mercenaries were driven back into the bare trees fringing the clearing. They were not easily scared, but when Herne the Hunter manifested himself as a gigantic figure of fire, they turned and bolted.

“Herne!” Robin pushed himself up with the support of the tree trunk, standing light-headed and shaking. He pointed his bloody blade at Gisburne’s body.

“I couldn’t kill him, Herne. He is my bitter enemy, but my father’s son. I couldn’t kill him.”

“It is not his time to die,” Herne proclaimed.

“Is it my time?” Robin asked.

“No, my son. Your friends are coming for you. You must leave Sherwood and go to Caerleon. Return for the hunger month.”

“My people …”

“They will be safe until you return. Then they will need you.”

The brown smoke dissipated in the grey air. The fire wall devoured Herne’s image. Robin slumped to the ground and slid into unconsciousness.

* * * *

John had coaxed Tom into hiding Meg in his village until he could return for her.

Meg felt lost and afraid.

What if John never comes back? Maybe none of them will ever come back.

Much was worried about Robin. John had learnt to pay attention to Much’s instincts. He decided that the two of them would make their way back to where they had parted with Robin.

In the meantime, Will persuaded Nasir and Tuck to turn back. Will was uneasy. He did not believe that Robin had followed the others. He had heard no sounds of pursuit for some time and guessed that the three of them hadn’t been followed.

“Something ain’t right,” Will told the other two. “I feel it in my gut. I reckon Robin stayed behind to give us time to get away. He’ll get himself killed. I’m going back. You coming?”

“Yes, let’s get moving,” Tuck answered.

Nasir was already heading back on their tracks.

Will, Nasir and Tuck found Robin first.

“Robin! He’s dead!” Will shouted.

Nasir knelt next to Robin and found his pulse. “He is alive, but there is much blood,” he said.

Tuck joined the other two by Robin and noticed that Robin’s left arm lay at a strange angle. He ran his hands gently over Robin’s body and limbs.

“His arm is broken and he’s lost a lot of blood. He has several wounds,” Tuck told the other two. “We must set his arm immediately. Nasir, find some straight sticks for splints. Will, pull up moss to stop the bleeding.”

Will and Nasir cut strips from their shirts, and Tuck cut strips from the hem of his cassock.

Tuck bound the splints in place with Nasir’s help.

Will was desperately trying to staunch the bleeding from Robin’s wounds.

“Dammit, Robin, stop bleeding or you’ll die.”

John and Much, close by, heard Will’s voice and hurried to join the others.

“You were right to be worried, Much,” John said grimly.

Despite the cold, he and Much tore strips off their shirts to bind Robin’s wounds. John wrapped his fur mantle around Robin, who opened his eyes.

Will stood up, wiping the sweat from his face. He saw Gisburne lying where he had fallen, still unconscious and bleeding into the soil.

“Gisburne! He did this to Robin. He’d better be dead or I’ll finish him off,” Will said.

“No,” Robin gasped, clutching John’s arm.”Stop him.”

“Wait, Will,” John called.

“Why? Robin may die. I want to make sure this bastard is dead.”

“No. Herne said … not his time to die,” Robin murmured.

Will reluctantly sheathed the dagger he had drawn.

“What happened to the mercenaries, Robin? Why didn’t they kill you?” John asked Robin, crouching close to hear Robin’s faint voice.

“Herne … fire and smoke. Cut them off,” Robin replied.

“They will come back,” Nasir said.

“The Sheriff will come for Gisburne,” added Tuck.

“Maybe he’ll die before then,” Much said. He was cradling Robin’s body to keep him off the cold ground.

“Now what?” Will asked.

“We can’t stay here. The mercenaries aren’t afraid of the forest. We’re not safe in Sherwood,” John said.

“We have to get Robin looked after,” Much said anxiously. “Let’s go to Meg in Dexford. We can ask Tom to let Robin stay there until he’s better.”

“We can ask, but it’s too dangerous for them,” John said. “We’ll have to find shelter outside Sherwood.”

Robin touched John’s arm and muttered, “Caerleon … Herne said … till July.”

Will didn’t like that idea. “Caerleon! You’ll never make it, Robin.”

“We’ll go to Dexford first,” John decided. He lifted Robin gently in his arms and carried him, with the other four taking turns in pairs to help.

John sent Much into Dexford to fetch Tom, while they waited on the outskirts of the village. Tom was horrified and moved by Robin’s condition, but… “We can’t keep him here, John. It’s too dangerous with Gisburne and the mercenaries around.”

“Gisburne won’t be going anywhere for a long time. Robin almost killed him,” Will told Tom with satisfaction.

“We understand, Tom. But you should be safe just for the one night, so Meg can take care of him. We’ll come fetch them both tomorrow morning. Please, Tom,” John begged.

“All right. This one night,” Tom agreed. “Bring Robin to the barn.”

The outlaws carried Robin to the building. Tom called to Meg when they walked in. She emerged from the hay piled at the back.

“Oh, John!” She hurled herself into John’s arms.

“Steady, Meg. Robin’s bad. He and Gisburne almost killed each other. You must look after Robin. We’ll help. Then we have to leave you two here till tomorrow morning,” John said.

Meg turned immediately to where the others were laying Robin down in the straw, with John’s mantle under him. She was shocked, but knelt to examine Robin and quickly issued orders.

“Tom, we need straight branches to splint Robin’s arm. Can you find some spare clothes? Whatever you can manage? Robin’s soaked with sweat. He’ll catch a fever if he’s left like this. I also need boiling hot water, please.”

Tom went out with Tuck: Tuck to choose sticks from a pile of firewood, and Tom to beg odd bits of clothing from his people. An old woman gave Tom a pot of water she had boiling over a fire.

Meg turned out the pouch she always carried with her. It contained some bandages and basic healing salve for green wounds.

She had no skill with broken bones, so she asked Nasir and Tuck to change the splints and bandages on Robin’s arm. Then she had the men strip Robin, so that she could thoroughly clean every wound with the boiling water, then dry them, rub salve into them and bandage them. One particularly bad wound had to be cauterized, which Nasir did with a knife. They then clothed Robin in the mostly ragged old clothes Tom had managed to get, wrapped him up in the couple of thin blankets the villagers could spare and made him a nest in the hay. Robin had not lain passive under this treatment, but had tried to get up and help himself, constantly protesting in whispers that he was a danger to them all.

“Herne said … must go … they’ll be back … Sheriff …” he whispered.

Tom brought broth and water for Robin and some ale, bread and cheese for the outlaws. The villagers were afraid, but they remembered all that the outlaws had done for them, so gave what they could. After eating, the outlaws left.

Meg stayed to look after Robin. She took him in her arms to keep him warm. Her heart contracted with love and pity as she held him. He was her friend and her leader. He had been prepared to give his life to save them all.

The outlaws risked sleeping the night in the old charcoal burner’s hut, one of their winter quarters. They constructed a rough litter from lengths of wood and animal skins. They took what supplies they had stored in the hut, including some of Meg’s herbs and remedies. Most of their spare supplies were in Hob’s Cave, but they couldn’t chance going back there.

“So, where do we go from here?” Tuck asked, looking to John for guidance.

“Herne told Robin we must go to Caerleon, but how? It’s a long way and Robin isn’t fit to ride, never mind walk,” John said.

“We must first take Robin to a physician,” Meg said.

“What? You reckon we can just walk into Nottingham or somewhere and take Robin to a physician?” Will said, anxiety making him quarrelsome, as usual.

“No, we need to go to another town, of course,” Meg answered. She was not nervous of Will anymore.

“Newark’s too close to Nottingham. It will have to be Lichfield or Burton,” Tuck said.

“How do we get Robin there?” John asked.

He and Will argued over this question until Nasir said, “The river.”

“Good idea, Nasir,” John said, “but where do we get a boat?”

“We can get a raft at the Ablethorpe crossing,” Tuck answered. “There’re two brothers who take people across the Trent for a fee. We can pay them to lend us the raft. Let me see how much money we have.”

Tuck had a scant handful of silver pennies in his purse.

“This should be enough to pay for the raft and a physician. Then we’ll have nothing left.”

“We’ll manage somehow,” John said.

The outlaws went to Dexford early the next morning to collect Meg and Robin. Robin was slightly feverish. Meg was pleased to have her medicines and made Robin drink an herbal infusion to counter fever. His friends lifted Robin onto the makeshift litter and prepared to leave. Robin was conscious, but weak. Tom was relieved to see the outlaws go, but wished them well. He gave them what food and blankets his villagers could spare. Tuck gave Tom a couple of silver pennies in return and asked him to let Edward of Wickham know that they had needed to leave Sherwood for the winter.

“Tell Edward that Herne promised Robin that his people would be safe until our return.”

* * * *

It was a long and slow walk to the River Trent. Nasir scouted ahead, while the men took turns pairing up to carry the litter, trying not to jolt Robin. They came to the Ablethorpe ferry where the two brothers augmented their living by carrying paying passengers across the river. Tuck negotiated with the men. For three silver pennies, the brothers agreed to lend the outlaws their raft. Tuck arranged to leave the raft on the river when they reached Lichfield. The brothers would follow the river on foot to reclaim their raft.

Most of the outlaws would have to follow on foot as well because the raft couldn’t carry them all. With Robin lying down and Meg tending him, there wasn’t much room. They agreed that two of them at a time would take it in turns to ride on the raft and pole it along.

The outlaws were glad of the blankets, furs and skins they had with them. Most of them they wrapped around Robin because the chill of the river seeped up through the planks of the raft, and the morning and evening mists lasted for hours. Robin obediently drank whatever potions Meg gave him. He was restless, worried about his friends and his people.

The outlaws were relieved to reach the landing near Lichfield. They camped and rested, reasonably sure that they hadn’t been pursued. The owners of the raft caught up with them and poled the raft back the way they had come.

For the visit to the town, the outlaws had decided that Robin would pose as a man attacked by robbers. Meg would be his wife, and Much would be her brother. They needed one more man to help carry Robin in the litter. They were trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, so Tuck, Nasir and Little John had to be excluded. That left Will to pose as a helpful neighbour.

“You’ll have to look more respectable, Will,” Little John told him.

“What do you mean, more respectable?”

“You’ll have to wash, even shave,” John replied.

Will was indignant, but washed as much as he could bear in the icy water. Nasir shaved Will as best he could with his knife, without soap.

The group of four felt vulnerable in the town and had difficulty getting directions to the one physician in Lichfield. Once there, their charade was accepted without question by the physician. He examined Robin’s arm and felt that the bone was knitting well. He replaced their rough splints with professional ones.

“Your husband is young and strong. He will mend,” he said to Meg, who was hovering anxiously.

The physician approved of the care Meg had taken of Robin’s wounds. He gave Meg some more salves and ointments, fresh bandages and a potion against the fever.

Will paid a short visit to his brother Amos and came back with a sack over his shoulder.

“What’ve you got there, Will?” Much asked.

“Food from my brother: a flask of ale, a wheel of cheese, three loaves of bread, a small bag of meal and a freshly killed chicken.”

“That was kind of him,” Meg said.

“Well, we are family, but I reckon he wanted to get rid of me quickly,” Will said. “I asked him for money too. He gave me only a couple of pence. Mean bastard.”

Robin, Meg, Much and Will returned to the others to find a good fire burning. Tuck was grateful for even two pence to put in his empty purse. The outlaws were all pleased with the provisions Amos had given them.

Tuck built a spit over the fire to cook the chicken.

Will had been restless and discontented on the way back from Lichfield. As soon as Robin was propped up in front of the fire, Will confronted him.

“Right, so you’re not going to die. Are you going to tell us what in hell you thought you were doing back in Sherwood? Trying to get yourself killed?”

“Will, leave Robin alone,” Meg protested.

“We would all have been caught if I hadn’t stopped them, Will. You know that,” Robin answered softly.

“You were going to sacrifice yourself for us.” Will glared at Robin, his fear and anger making him aggressive. “I don’t want you to die for me. Do you hear me?”

“Will …”

“You swear now that you’ll never do that again,” Will insisted.

Robin looked up at Will and saw that his anger was covering his fear.

“I can’t promise that, Will.”

“Leave it, Will,” John said, taking Will’s arm.

Will shrugged him off and paced up and down to relieve his feelings.

John knelt down by Robin. “None of us want you to die for us, Robin.”

* * * *

The sky was ominous. The scent of snow clung to the chill air. They had no idea of the next step to take. Robin was too weak to walk and was exhausted from the visit to Lichfield. They had to find shelter to ride out the coming storm.

Nasir went off to scout and was gone for over an hour, by which time the others were anxious. The first flakes of snow were drifting down and the wind was rising. Nasir crouched before the fire, warming himself.

“Old stone building, back there.” Nasir gestured the way he had come.

The outlaws followed Nasir down a neglected, but clear, path, carrying Robin in the litter. The path ended in an overgrown clearing with an abandoned, but sound, stone hut.

“This was a hermitage,” Tuck said.

The hut was roughly built, with a packed soil floor and no furnishings. Meg made Robin comfortable, while the men went about getting what extra food supplies they could. Folds of snow were already settling on the trees, bushes and ground. Nasir went out to see what game he could find. Tuck discovered some vegetable plants still growing amongst the weeds in the overgrown garden and salvaged some carrots and onions. The others collected bracken for bedding and ample wood for a fire.

Nasir came back with a few wood pigeons. Tuck improvised by cooking them and the vegetables on stones heated in the fire. The resulting meal was hot and filling. They would soon have to ration their food.

The sky shook a cloud of snow over the landscape, to drape the trees and hedges and bury the earth. The storm lasted for two days. The outlaws kept the fire going. They lay close to it, huddled together, and tried to sleep most of the time. They couldn’t leave immediately the storm ended because they had to wait for some of the snow to clear.

Robin sat propped up against Will and Nasir by the fire and stared, mesmerised, into the flames.

Herne sent him a brief vision of Caerleon Castle, with the green of summer in the surrounding landscape. The outlaws and some other men were gathered on the ramparts watching a small, but clearly hostile, force threatening them.

Robin told the others. “Caerleon will fall under threat in summer. I think the rest of the time we may spend preparing, but, otherwise, in peace.”

The outlaws were willing to follow Herne’s instructions, but the problem of the journey to Caerleon remained. With the shortening days and the deteriorating weather, it might take ten days to walk to Caerleon. Robin certainly could not do so. They had scant food supplies and inadequate clothing, with no money to buy more.

“We’re going to have to waylay someone and ‘borrow’ a horse and cart,” Will said.

“We don’t steal for ourselves,” Tuck protested.

“Got any better ideas? You want to sit in this hut and starve?”

“We could take a wagon from someone rich and then give it back,” Meg suggested.

“Don’t be a fool, Meg. How would we do that?” Will said irritably.

“I think it’s possible,” Tuck said. “It depends on who we find with a cart. There won’t be many travelers now.”

The outlaws watched the road for a couple of days, becoming increasingly anxious. Food was scarce, although Nasir and Much had managed to kill more pigeons and a pair of unwary rabbits. They also knew that Robin might not survive under their current living conditions.

Two poor carters went past, but the outlaws let them go. Eventually, a small wagon, drawn by two stocky horses, came into sight. The outlaws decided to investigate. They stepped out into the road, surrounding the wagon, with their bows ready.

The driver stopped, looking around in fear at the outlaws.

“We won’t harm you, friend. We have need of your wagon,” John said. “Who are you and where are you bound?”

“We’re bound to the priory in the next town,” the driver replied. “The prior and sub-prior and a couple of the brothers.”

The Benedictine brothers and the sub-prior alighted from the back of the wagon and huddled together. The prior remained in the wagon, loudly demanding what was going on.

“And you? You’re not a monk.”

“I’m a lay brother, master,” the driver answered John.

“Right. Now how long will it take to walk to the priory?”

“Walk? A couple of hours.”

Will went to the back of the wagon and peered in at the prior, a jowled, sour-faced man.

“You, get out. You can all start walking,” Will said to the clerics.

The prior threatened them with the displeasure of the church and the revenge of the nearest watchmen. Will was unperturbed.

“Get going. We need the wagon more than you do.”

Tuck intervened. “Friends, your layman will come with us and he will bring your wagon back to your priory. We won’t take any of your belongings except food.”

“How dare you? You, a man of God,” the prior hissed in fury.

The brethren had some silver plate and vestments in the wagon. Will bundled these up and reluctantly gave them to the monks.

In the meantime, John had asked the driver to travel with them.

“Don’t be afraid. We won’t harm you. When we’ve got to where we’re going, you can drive back to the priory. What’s your name, friend?”

“Aelfric.”

“Right, Aelfric. Much will share the driving with you. He’s good with horses.”

Much jumped up onto the seat cheerfully. Robin was carefully lifted into the wagon by the others, who then pulled themselves up. Aelfric chirruped to the horses to get them moving. The prior and his companions were left standing miserably in the middle of the road, with their bundles at their feet.

“They were ordinary churchmen, not wealthy,” Robin protested weakly. “We shouldn’t do this.”

“Robin, we’re going to get you to Caerleon alive. We’ll do what we have to. They can walk,” Will answered.

Much chatted to the driver, Aelfric, and soon made friends with him. When his fear had worn off, Aelfric found himself enjoying the adventure.

The outlaws took it in turns to keep watch for pursuit while the others rested. They travelled during the short days. When the sun set, they drove the wagon as far off the road as they could and set up camp, always keeping strict watch. Robin was growing stronger, although he was still weak and his wounds ached.

There was one alarm when a small party of armed men drew level with them. Aelfric and Much greeted them amiably, while the others gripped staves and drew swords under the wagon’s cover. The men went on without pausing. The rest of the journey was long and uncomfortable, but, otherwise, uneventful.

Once Aelfric knew their rough destination, he was content. It turned out that he had friends in a village not far from Caerleon and would stay with them. He would return to his priory by a longer, but safer, route, hopefully joining fellow travelers on the way. John presented Aelfric with a staff for protection and as a small gift of gratitude. The outlaws left Aelfric at the village. They walked the rest of the way to Caerleon.

Robin refused to be carried in the litter again, but needed to rest frequently. For the last stage, John insisted on carrying Robin on his back. Fortunately, the weather was relatively mild.




Part 2

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