Djaq had always taken the last watch before dawn. With one less person to share the duty, she rose earlier now, but she did not mind it. She liked being awake in the forest when Sherwood was deeply still and quiet. It was as if the entire wood were holding its breath before morning and inviting her to partake of its peace.
A rustle in the leaves nearby had her searching the forest with eyes long adjusted to the darkness. At first, she decided it was an animal—a rabbit or a bird startled in its sleep. But there it was again, too regular to be an animal. There was a pattern to the sounds that only a man could make or recognize. She lowered herself quietly from the branch that had been her perch and crept toward the sound of shifting leaves. Whatever it was, it was not moving, and she did not frighten it with her approach.
She was very close now, and she tightened her grip on the hilt of her dagger. She had shed men's blood before, but only rarely. Besides, there were many other, less permanent ways to deal with an intruder, and Robin would want to question him, to know how an outsider had come so close to their hiding place. Also, if their most guarded secret had been betrayed, they would need to move, and fast.
She rounded a boulder half-buried in the ground with her dagger raised. A man was sitting with his back against the sheltered side of the rock, rhythmically kicking at a pile of leaves. She crept closer and tensed for the attack. She would have to be quick. His head was bowed, but he might have seen her at any moment. She took three swift steps toward him. He heard her, and when he raised his head, his hood fell back around his shoulders.
"Allan!" Djaq whispered. She stopped in mid-stride and lowered her knife.
"Sorry… didn't mean to frighten you," he said.
"You didn't," she said.
Out of habit, she knelt beside him and put one hand on the side of his face, forcing him to look her in the eye. It was her experience that no man, no matter how stoic, could keep the pain of a serious injury from touching his eyes. Allan did not resist. After a moment, satisfied that any pain he might have felt was purely spiritual, she let him go. It appeared that the wounds he had received during the earlier fight in the castle's courtyard were not grave.
"You cannot keep doing this," she whispered. Allan had come to find her during her watch once before, two nights after Robin had discovered his betrayal, and though Djaq had been glad to see him, she had thought him foolish. "It was bad enough after Robin sent you away, but now… you are Gisborne's man." There was heavy reproach in her voice, and she made no attempt to hide it. "And I think it would be bad for you if he were to find you here. Why? Why do you keep coming?"
"Just like to know where people are is all," Allan said, which was as close to 'I miss you' as he ever came. When Djaq didn't reply immediately, Allan, as he usually did, saw accusation where there was none. "It's not like I've been set to keeping an eye on you lot! Just… coming to check if Robin had moved the camp."
"You are sure you were not followed?" Djaq asked.
"Certain. You'd have to be… well… one of us to find your way through Sherwood at this time of night." He reached into the satchel he had brought with him and pulled out a small object wrapped in cloth. "Besides, this bit of cake isn't going to keep for another day." He handed her the bundle before she could protest.
"I should not take this," Djaq said.
"Have a taste and you'll think different." Allan flashed her a roguish and completely ineffective grin.
"Perhaps," Djaq said, and she set his gift to one side and slid down to the ground with her back against the rock until she was mirroring his position. "Why Gisborne?" she asked when she was settled comfortably next to him. "Why, of all of the men in England you might have served, did you choose him?"
"Why not Gisborne?" Allan replied. "Where was I supposed to go? Why would anyone else in England take me on? 'Former outlaw' and 'botched spy' aren't exactly accomplishments that recommend me. I could at least convince Gisborne of my usefulness."
"But by calling yourself his man, you have made yourself our enemy, and the enemy of everything we stand for. I do not understand you. Did you want to give Robin more reason to be angry with you?"
"I think he was angry enough already," Allan said. "And the funny thing is, if he just would have given me another chance… We wouldn't be here. Well… we would be here, but I'd be asleep right over there, you'd be on watch, and everything would be like it should be. So really, this is partly Robin's fault, too. He drove me to it."
"Do not bring Robin into this!" Djaq hissed at him. That Allan sounded as if he truly believed what he had said made her even more furious. "He is not the one forcing me to choose between a man—and a cause—that I respect on the one hand and a man I love on the other."
Allan's eyes widened, and they flashed blue and silver in the moonlight as he turned to face her. She had surprised him. That was good. She'd found Allan was at his most honest when he'd just been knocked off balance.
"That's not fair," he said in a strangled voice. "You can't tell me that. Not now."
"It is truth Allan," Djaq said. "Truth has no season, no proper time or appointed place. It is just truth."
"And this… this truth is still true even when I go back to Nottingham?" Allan asked, almost as if he were already resigned to losing her.
Djaq sighed. "You know very little of love if you have to ask that question," she said. "It does not fade or go away just because the one who is loved is making stupid choices."
"Not really a choice, not exactly…" Allan said again.
"But it is," Djaq insisted. "You choose to go back to the castle. You choose to serve the men who hanged your brother. You choose to be less than the man I know you are."
"Less…" Allan repeated, chuckling bitterly. "Do you know what it's like, being somebody for a change? Having respect? Having people touch their brows to me because they know who I'm with? Being able to ride into town openly instead of skulking about with hoods drawn up? Having people, important people, look me in the eye and see me?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Djaq said. "First: any duty paid to you is paid out of fear, not respect. Not one man in Nottingham likes you any better than he did before. All of them simply fear reprisal. Second: I see how much the Sheriff values you, risking your life as if it were nothing. You had more respect from better people as an outlaw in Robin Hood's gang."
"What would you have me do, then?" Allan asked.
She worked her hand into his and held on tightly. "You don't have to go back. Stay here. Tell Robin that Gisborne was too cruel a master for you to serve. Ask forgiveness."
Allan lowered his eyes. "I already did that, and we all know how well it went," he said. "And that was before the Sheriff had us try to kill each other."
"I would speak on your behalf," Djaq offered. "Robin trusts me, and I do not think that you would make me a liar."
"No!" Allan said, a little too loudly. A frightened bird that had been sleeping nearby broke its cover and fluttered frantically into the darkness. "I mean, yes, I wouldn't make you a liar, but no, you don't need to go speaking up for me. I don't want bad feelings between you and the others on my account."
"I can take care of myself," Djaq said. "In case you have forgotten, here we are not punished for speaking our minds. And I am not the only one who misses you. Will is angry, but I think he would speak for you as well."
"Nah, you still don't need to do that," Allan said. "I'll think of something. Don't worry. I always land on my feet."
"Then you are planning to come back?" Djaq asked.
"Well… maybe. I mean, if the timing's right," Allan said. Though he tried to hide it, she could hear the eagerness creeping into his voice.
"Don't wait too long," Djaq said. "Truth may have no season, but I think Robin's mercy might."
Allan went still and quiet then, and when he moved at last, it was to stand up and brush off his cloak.
"I should go," he said. "I'll be missed if I'm gone much longer."
"Much will be waking soon to prepare our meal," Djaq added in agreement. She moved to stand as well, and he offered her a hand up. She took it, and he pulled her up and into his arms. She let him hold her for a long while, though she was sorry that their first embrace should be so bittersweet.
"Be careful," she said, her face pressed against his shoulder.
"I will." He kissed her hair, and then he leaned in to kiss her lips, but she put her fingers between her mouth and his.
"No," she said. "I might have kissed Allan a Dale, outlaw of Sherwood. But I will not kiss Gisborne's man." Her face was inches from his, and she could see terrible need and loneliness written there. She drew in a deep breath. "No matter how much I might want to."
"Would it be enough if I told you I was never Gisborne's man in spirit?" Allan asked, stroking the side of her face with his thumb.
She removed his hand gently, but firmly, and she took a few steps backward in the direction of the camp. "No, Allan. Our actions give voice to what we truly believe, so show me," she whispered, "by what you do."
She knew it was a hard thing for him to hear. But it was a lesson that he, for whom intention was everything and deeds were inconsequential, needed to learn. And when he learned it, she would be waiting.
He nodded, and she turned her back on him and headed back to camp. She did not hear him leave, but when she looked back over her shoulder, he was gone, and the forest had already closed in behind him.