Robin and Marian were married.
Will was happy about that, he really was. Granted, there was a time – up until very recently actually – when he would have rather the little lordling had fallen on his own sword instead, but after all that had passed between them Will couldn’t really hold a grudge. Not when a man very literally saves your neck.
He was sat at a fire with young Wulf, who’d been given permission to stay up late by his father (as long as he stayed out of sight of his mother) and both were drinking ale – making sure the Wulf stayed out of sight of his father too. Will knew if John caught his son sneaking ale that Will’d be the one catching it, but this was a wedding and the boy was nearly a man after all. That was worth a boxed ear or two, even from the likes of John Little.
A heavy hand slapped his back as he went to take a pull of ale, and he choked, managing just barely to save his expensive new tunic from a soaking.
Bull sat down heavily beside his spluttering friend, taking a deep drink of his own flagon.
“There they are, boys,” he said, nodding over to a fire not far off amongst the trees, “Ever thought in all your born days you’d be drinking at the same party as the King of England?”
“‘course he did,” Much said with a laugh, throwing himself down on the log at the other side of their fire. “Our Will Scarlett probably thought he’d be the ruddy King of England one day!”
Will smiled as the men laughed, but then caught Wulf’s eye and straightened up. “Hey now, enough of the impertinence, peasants,” he said, taking on a mock offended tone as he winked at the boy, “I’m practically royalty now, don’t you know?”
All three of them laughed at that.
“How’d you figure?” Bull sniggered.
“The lady Marian is King Richard’s cousin,” Will said with a smug smirk, “now she’s married Robin, and just who is his younger, much handsomer brother?”
Wulf looked impressed. Bull and Much looked at one another, and then back at Will.
“Who?” they asked.
“Me, you clods!”
“So, you’re the brother of the husband of the cousin of the king,” Much said slowly, listing it off on his fingers like someone had asked him to count to five again, “an’ a half-brother at that. Don’t recon that makes you all that royal.”
“More royal than you,” Will sneered and took a deep gulp of his ale.
“If any of us is royalty it’s Robin,” Bull said as Much gestured rudely at Will. “He’s practic’ly a prince.”
“I heard that one,” Wulf cut in, leaning forward eagerly, “‘Prince of Thieves’ is what they called him.”
Will snorted. “‘Prince of Thieves’,” he scoffed, stabbing at his own chest with a thumb. “Everyone knows I’m the best thief here. If Robin’s the prince then I’m the damn king of thieves.”
Bull and Much shared another look.
“I dunno,” Bull said, shaking his head slowly. “We’ve not done much real thieving recently. Just, holdin’ up coaches and killing the sheriff’s men. Ain’t real thieving. When was the last time you picked a pocket?”
“Yeah,” Much chimed in, “bet you couldn’t do it no more. You’re out of practice.”
“I can pick any man’s pocket,” Will said hotly, “and I don’t need any sodding practice.”
“G’wan then, prove it!”
“All right,” Much’s face took on an evil grin. “You think you’re the king of thieves, why don’t you go and steal from the King of England?”
Will faltered at that, his bravado losing its edge. “Steal from the King?” he hissed, drawing into the circle as if there were any king’s men around to hear and cut his head off for even suggesting it. “Are you mad?!”
“What’s the problem, ‘King of Thieves’?” Much jeered, “I thought you could pick any man’s pocket?”
“It won’t matter if you’re not caught, right?” Bull said, in what was a very unfair flash of intelligence, Will thought.
“That’s not the point, it’s… it’s blasphemy!”
“You stole ale from a priest, Will Scarlett,” Bull laughed.
“So was killing the sheriff, more or less.”
“You saying you can’t do it?” pressed Much.
“Of course, I can do it,” Will said pulling himself up, his gaze darting to Wulf, who was watching them with interest.
“Could you?” the boy asked, his eyes wide.
Will considered himself a clever man, at the very least he wasn’t a fool. Stealing from the king was treason, and aside from anything else it was suicide. But Wulf was watching him in something that was close to awe, and Bull and Much were laughing at him again.
“Fine,” he said, jumping up He drained his ale and cast the flagon onto the floor. “Wait here.”
“He’s not really going to do it, is he?” he heard Wulf ask, as he crossed the campsite to the king’s fire.
“Nah,” came Bull’s not-so certain reply. “He’s just funning with us.”
I’ll show you who’s funning , Will seethed.
…This is a terrible idea!
Nevertheless, he plastered on his best, most charming, and – more importantly – most innocent smile, and entered the fire’s circle.
Aside from the King, the married couple, and the lady’s maidservant Sarah, two nobles also sat around the fire. They seemed friendly enough, at least not openly hostile, but watched Will warily as he approached. Both were armed, the hands staying close to their sword hilts.
“Ah, Will!” Robin said, his voice bright with cheer. He stood to greet his brother, clapping Will upon the shoulder and turning to the king with a bow. “Your Majesty, my lords, may I introduce my younger brother, William.”
Will swallowed back his nerves as he too bowed before the king. Richard was sat upon a log like every other man there, though his was splayed with a very fine-looking cloth indeed. Aside from his crown and the expense of his clothing, he could have passed for any man in Robin’s band. He didn’t wear a money purse that Will could see, but something else sat at his hip that was even more tempting than gold.
“Your brother?” said the King with a note of surprise, “I did not know Locksley had a second son.”
Will’s smile didn’t falter, but he felt the warning way Robin’s hand tensed briefly upon his shoulder. He ignored it.
“I’m a bastard, Your Majesty,” he said cheerfully. He hated the word, but you didn’t spit at a king.
The King barked a laugh. “Are you indeed?”
“Will…” Robin growled a caution in his ear. “My apologies, Sire.”
“He’s only sorry our father saved all his looks for me,” Will said loftily.
Richard laughed again, louder this time. “I doubt my cousin would agree.”
Will looked over at Marian, who was sat serenely in her wedding gown, a playful glint in her eye.
“Handsomeness is certainly a virtue they share,” she said, “if not modesty.”
“Modesty?” Will said, taking the opportunity to step away from his brother’s grasp and take a seat upon the king’s log. He saw that the two nobles looked affronted but the King was still smiling, so he counted his blessings and forged onward. “I take it, Your Majesty, that the lady hasn’t told you of the time she and my dear brother met in the forest?”
“Will.” Robin’s tone was sharper this time, but it was drowned out by Marian and Sarah’s laughter.
“I would very much like to hear this tale,” Richard said with what Will considered was a very regal smile.
Will looked about furtively and scooted closer to the king. “Much? It all began with a man named Much, Sire. He and his friend Bull were patrolling the forest, in search of traitorous nobles to part with their gold…”
Ten minutes later Will Scarlett was taking his leave of a very merry fireside, bowing to the King, who still laughed, and sparing his blushing brother a cheeky wink as he went. When he was far enough from the fire to hide his flight, he changed course and headed straight to his friends’ fire.
“What happened?” Wulf asked pressing forward eagerly. “Did you do it?”
“Course he didn’t,” Bull scoffed. “He was only there a blink, didn’t even get close to ‘im, I’d wager.”
Will flashed a secretive smile and pulled aside his fancy new doublet. There, hidden beneath the red lion, was a dagger. It flashed in the firelight, the jewels on its hilt catching and glinting invitingly.
“Lord blind me,” cursed Much.
“Cor…” Wulf gasped. He reached out to touch the prize but Will leant back. If John Little caught his son with the King’s dagger in his mitts, Will would be in more trouble than just a hangman’s noose. He preened a bit at the admiration in the boy’s gaze, however.
“Are you mad?” Bull hustled close, looking about in case anyone was nearby to see. “What’re you going to do with a fancy thing like that? You can’t sell it! Once the King sees it’s missing he’s going to have us all searched!”
Will rolled his eyes, stepping away from Bull’s frantic grasping. “Which is why I’m going to return it… right after you tell me just who the King of Thieves is.”
“Of for God’s— You are, you fool,” Much said, shaking his head in dismay.
Will quirked a smile at that and backed away, giving the three a dramatic, spread-armed bow.
It was a shame really; the dagger could feed the whole of Sherwood for a year. But Bull was right; even if he wasn’t found out, Will had no-one to sell the thing to. Even if he went all the way to London nobody would ever believe a peasant like him would legitimately own something so expensive.
The problem was how to get it back to the King without him finding out. Will could leave it on the ground in the hope that the King would think it had fallen naturally from its sheath, but that ran the risk of someone else finding it and being accused of the theft. He could approach the King directly, say he’d found it, or better yet, caught someone with it and fought them to get it back; that could even earn him a knighthood… or get him hanged. Going for the same tactic as before was also risky, someone would be suspicious. Will glared at that certain someone as he considered his options. ‘Prince of Thieves’? Huh! Will was a better thief by far and had proven it tonight, all right!
No, there was nothing for it but to be sneaky, and since Will didn’t know any different, ‘sneaky’ might as well be his middle name.
The site behind the King’s seat was cast in darkness, shrubs and trees giving Will cover, while the log Richard sat on did the rest. The only ones facing the King directly were Marian and Robin. The two nobles, who might pay more attention to potential dangers around their lord, sat to either side. The fire was burning low now, and the light drawing in. This was his best chance.
Laying flat on his belly, Will slowly inched forwards, pausing when the conversation slowed or when attention was on the King himself. Finally, he reached the log, trusting to the shadows to hide him. The knife was light in his hand, slipping easily up toward its sheath, which hung conveniently low at the King’s hip. He froze when laughter cut the air, Richard shifting ever so slightly away from him.
Will took a deep, steadying breath and tried again. His heart was hammering in his chest enough to make him dizzy, but the thrill was also there, pumping fire through his veins.
The tip of the knife made contact with the sheath and he slowly began to slip it inside. Carefully he inched it forwards, making certain to move his hand with the King’s breaths.
Will was almost done when he looked up and directly into Robin’s gaze
The fire in his veins turned to ice. For a long, agonising moment he waited for the man to call the alarm. For the cold steel of a gauntlet to land on his shoulder, before the rough hemp of a noose wound around his neck. Would they bother stringing him up proper or would the King, filled with righteous fury, have his men gut him where the stood? Would they torture him first? He’d heard of rebels in far off villages being quartered, castrated, and flogged bloody first before what was left of them was hung up to die. Pulled apart by wild horses, some were, or broken on a wheel.
His eyes never left Robin’s. He was too proud even now to beg, but he wished very hard indeed for the man to turn his gaze aside.
A movement at Robin’s side distracted him: Marian, leaning in to whisper something naughty if her smile was any clue. Robin grinned and bent his lips to her ear to reply, the pair laughing softly at a shared joke.
Will blinked, then let himself breathe once more.
Had Robin seen him? It was unlikely, given the dark. Perhaps he had just been lost in thought, chance having him turn his gaze in Will’s direction. Before Robin could turn back and prove either way, Will had finished the deed and slipped backwards into the shadow of the night.
“You have the devil’s luck, Will Scarlett,” Bull said with a deep, relieved sigh when the young man made his way toward the three conspirators.
“You did it?” Wulf asked, his face lit up with admiration. “You really stole from the Ki—mmpf!”
Will lifted his hand away from the boy’s mouth, resting his hand on his shoulders.
“Aye, and we’ll hear no more about it until our lord has gone on his way,” he said firmly. He let himself break into a grin. “After that, you may tell anyone you please, as loud as you please.”
“I’ll say this, Scarlett; you do have balls,” Much said, slapping his friend heartily upon the back. All four laughed at that, though it sounded near hysterical for more than one of them.
“Good evening, gentlemen.”
“Lord, preserve me!” Bull shrieked, leaping into the air.
“Robin!” Much squeaked, his smile turning instantly to a sick grimace. “What are you doing here?”
“He means to say,” Will said with a roll of his eyes, “why are you not with your lady? Or are you bored of one another already?”
Robin gave a smile that they all recognised well, one their leader used when greeting soldiers and stuck-up nobles on Sherwood’s road. It was not a pleasant smile.
“Can’t a man walk among his guests on his wedding night?”
“W—well, we only thought that you might have had something else on your mind this evening,” Bull said with a suggestive waggle of his single bushy brow.
Much gave a dirty laugh but turned it to a cough under Robin’s impassive stare.
“I came to see how you were all fairing,” Robin said in that quietly ominous, friendly way of his. He broke into a smile, clapping Will heavily on the shoulder, “and to have a word with my dear brother here. In private.”
Will felt the power behind that grip, one that said if he didn’t stay right where he was there was going to be Trouble. And trouble from Robin always deserved that larger ‘T’.
“Wulf?” Robin said, making the boy startle, “shouldn’t you be in bed?”
Wulf opened his mouth, beginning to shake his head in protest before quickly changing it to a nod. “I… ah, better go find father,” he said meekly before turning on his heel and scampering away.
Much and Bull glanced at one another and took a quick step backwards.
“Right you are, Robin,” Bull said, with a hasty tug to his forelock. “Er… buh—blessings upon your union.”
Much muttered his own blessings, the pair tripping over each other in their hurry to retreat. Will watched them go with a mixture of disgust and despair. Still, what was there to be worried about? It wasn’t like Robin had any proof.
He turned to Locksley and gave him a wide-eyed, innocent smile.
“What can I do for you, dear brother?”
Robin smile melted away like tar on a firelog. His eyes narrowed he leant forwards to say, still in that deadly-calm voice:
“Come with me.”
Will resisted when Robin began to walk away, his hand still on Will’s shoulder.
“Why, brother, whatever is the matter?”
Robin halted, his jaw working for a long moment before he fixed his fierce gaze on his brother.
“Come with me now, Will, or I’ll thrash you where you stand.”
Will considered his options. While he might not be able to beat Robin in a fair fight, he had all the same never fought fairly. However, staying here meant a crowd, while out in the woods in the direction Robin was aiming there was plenty of opportunity to make his escape. He gave an easy shrug and began to walk.
They didn’t go far into the woods, not so much that the light of the campfires could not still be seen. All the same, the moon was bright that night and they had plenty enough to find their way by.
They stopped in a small clearing made by a set of fallen trees, the husks of which lay upon the ground to one end.
Robin released his hold of Will but stood close enough that grabbing was still a threat to Will’s escape plans. He widened his stance, arms folded over his broad chest, and levelled Will with a stern frown.
“Explain? Explain what, brother?”
Robin’s expression hardened, his mouth flattening into a thin line. “All right, we’ll do this the hard way.”
Will expected the punch that was thrown, but not that the hand he easily ducked would instead grasp his collar, or that a leg would sweep his from under him. In a shamefully short space of time he found himself at Robin’s mercy, his arms locked behind him in Locksley’s grasp. He was dragged upright and shuffled forward where Robin drove him, gasping and cursing at the painfully strong hold. Will kept his cries low, however; the idea of drawing witnesses to his drubbing distasteful... though Robin seemed to have a funny way of going about a punch up.
They didn’t stop when they reached the log pile, the momentum sending Will over the top of them, landing on his chest that sent a whoosh of air from his lungs. Robin’s free hand grasped his britches and the next moment Will was hauled upward, his feet leaving the floor. He ended up folded over the topmost tree log, a considerable amount of Robin’s weight to his back keeping him firmly in place.
“Let’s try that again, shall we?” Robin said, barely out of breath, damn him. “What in God’s name do you think you were playing at?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Will sneered, then a moment later cried out as a sharp, stinging pain exploded across his backside. The shout was from surprise mostly, though the blow had been quite hefty. Surprise and horror, turning quickly to violent rage.
“What the fuck are you doing, Locksley?”
Robin gave a haughty laugh that had him kicking and cursing. “I would have thought that was obvious. Don’t try to tell me you’ve never taken a hiding before, Will?”
Will exploded with furious energy. How dare he? How dare he? He said as much and more, spitting curses as if they were daggers. They had little effect, save for a half-dozen more cracks of Robin’s palm against his bottom.
“I saw you,” Robin growled.
Several rapid and heavy swats. “I saw you, boy.”
“Saw me do what? And don’t call me ‘boy’!”
Robin pressed in close, his weight upon Will’s back, breath hot against his ear. “You tried to steal from the King,” he said, his voice a hiss of disbelief.
Will jerked his head back, hoping to knock the senses out of the man – or perhaps back into him since he’d plainly gone mad – but Robin pulled away with ease.
“Got any proof? You’re balmy, you are!”
Another round of swats fell, this time across his thighs. Will ground his teeth together and fought against the yelps that tried to break free with each stinging blow. It hurt. Shite, it hurt a whole damned lot! But he’d be buggered if he was going to let the bastard know it!
“Don’t. Lie. To. Me.” Robin punctuated each word with a thundering swat, right on the peak of Will’s backside.
Will huffed, sucking in the breath that Robin had driven out of him with those blows. “I’m not lying, you brute!”
“I saw you try to take that knife!”
“Shows what you know!” Will spat back. “I didn’t try to take anything.”
Robin paused; hand raised high. “What do you mean?”
“I mean—” Will said, trying unsuccessfully to shake himself free, “—that you might be the spoiled little princeling, but I am the king of thieves, and don’t you forget it!”
Robin was quiet above him for a long moment. The silence was foreboding and Will began to ponder that perhaps his outburst had been a mite unwise. He turned his head, shaking the hair from his eyes where it had wildly fallen, and tried to get a look at his brother.
“You were putting it back... You took it before,” Robin’s voice was a dreadful monotone, “when you were telling that ridiculous story.”
Fear made Will’s chest surge with false bravado. “You were the ridiculous—AH!”
In one swift movement, Robin had grasped Will’s breeches and ripped them down to his knees, sparing no time before laying down a powerful volley of swats to Will’s bared backside.
Will gasped and bit his lip hard, his eyes squeezing closed as the force of the blows brought tears to the corners of his eyes.
“Why?” Robin snarled, never stopping as he talked through his own reasoning. “Why would you do such a thing? Did someone force you? No. More likely it was a wager. Or perhaps you just wanted to show off. The high and mighty Will Scarlett, King of Thieves!”
Will growled, though it came out more like a whimper. Somehow the title didn’t sound near as impressive when Robin spoke it. And to have him guess the reasoning so accurately and with such swiftness... Will wondered what was stinging more, his pride or his rear.
“Fu—fuck off,” he gasped, his cheeks burning.
“Have you any idea what they’d have done to you if you were caught? How they would have—” Robin’s voice caught in his throat, the hand that pinned Will’s arms in place clenching painfully.
Sensing danger, Will whipped his head around, twisting his torso to look up at the man in apprehension.
Robin’s eyes were shadowed, staring at and through Will with a piercing gaze, as if focused on something far away and long ago. His face was ghastly pale, teeth bared, breath coming out sharp and shallow. His hand, raised high, clenched into a fist, dropping slowly to hang limp at his side.
“Uhh…” Will felt his throat go dry. Wherever Robin was in his mind it was not a pleasant place at all. “Robin?”
Robin didn’t reply.
“Are you quite done?” Will pressed, feeling mightily uncomfortable under that sightless stare. He tested the man’s grip again, finding it unrelenting. “You can let me up now.”
Light sparked in Robin’s eyes, his gaze fixing upon Will with a fury that had him shrinking away. Robin’s jaw clamped tightly closed and he gave an almost animal-like snarl. His free hand went to his belt, and Will watched with growing horror as he unfastened and ripped it free.
“Wait! Wait! Can’t we talk about this?!”
Will thrashed about but Robin lifted him only slightly and then slammed him back down, knocking the fight out of his lungs. Still pressing down upon WIll back to keep him still, he doubled the belt over and raised it high.
“NO!” Will wheezed but a moment later his world exploded in pain. A line of fire burned across his already scorched arse, the end of the belt licking around its curves and catching the soft skin from hip to hip. He barely had breath to shriek his protest before the second stripe landed, just below the first, and again, and again until the belt reached mid-thigh. Will tried to twist away from its sting but Robin’s grip was steel and his strength seemingly infinite. He couldn’t help the pitiful yelps that were driven from him with each blow, or the tears that pricked at his eyes, though he managed to keep them from falling. His jaw ached from clenching it, sweat sticking his hair to his face.
Again and again the stripes fell, more than Will could count, and nearly more than he could bear. Finally, finally, his tolerance overcame his pride.
“St—stop!” he gasped, but Robin gave no sign of having heard him. “Please, R—Robin. Stop!”
His backside was on fire, no part of it spared from the blows, raw and stinging. His chest and head ached, his throat tight and sore.
“Please,” he gasped, voice wet with the tears that he refused to let fall, “…Brother.”
The grip on his arm loosened and a moment later Will was being hauled upright. Robin held him in place, thank God, ‘cause his head was spinning something awful and he felt he might be sick. Still, the moment he thought he was steady, Will tried to break free. They struggled for a moment, but Robin’s strength won out.
“Listen to me,” Robin said, his voice heavy and firm. Will shook his head, anger flaring once more, overwhelmed with pain, and shame, and that same bitter resentment he’s tried to leave in the past. He refused to look up at the man, glaring daggers into the forest floor.
“Listen to me,” Robin repeated, giving Will a rough shake, his hands gripping Will’s upper arms tightly. “You think I’ve treated you unfairly? Well you’re wrong. What did you think would have happened if someone else had caught you sneaking around the King, a knife in your hand?”
Will’s blood ran cold. Merciful God, it hadn’t even occurred to him! He felt his legs grow unsteady, bile rising in his throat, but Robin’s strong hands were there to support him.
“I’ve seen what happens to traitors and believe you me, you’d beg for death long before they’d give it to you. I have—” Again Robin’s voice caught and Will looked up to see his face etched in terror and sorrow. “I have not lost everything I had, fought so long, and found you, only to lose you now,” he said, his voice thick with tears. “I will not lose you, Will. Not to the Sheriff, or the King, or even yourself.”
Will was stunned, unable to resist as Robin pulled him into a rough, tight hug.
“I am your brother. You are my blood,” he said, voice muffled from where it was buried in Will’s hair.
Indignation flared. “You b-beat—” Will started.
Robin pulled away, his hands coming up to cup his neck as he had done a week ago after Will’s confession, when Robin had stared with wonder and growing love into his eyes. Eyes which were now shining with tears.
“I am your brother,” he said again, touching their foreheads together, their eyes locked. “I will do anything in my power to keep you from harm. If that means giving you a thrashing when you richly deserve one, then so be it.”
Will bit his lips together, unable to stop the sob that escaped from between them, or the heavy, treacherous tears that fell, scattering on his brother’s hands. He felt himself pulled into Robin’s embrace once more and let himself be held. His hands came up, desperately clinging to Robin’s tunic as he pressed his cheek into his chest, squeezing his eyes tightly closed as his feelings overwhelmed him. Robin’s hand was on the back of his head, alternating between gently gripping and stroking through his hair. The man was crying too, but softly, not the raw sobs that burst from Will as if his whole world was falling down about him.
He felt as if he’d been adrift, sat in a rudderless boat floating down a river, taken where the current flowed, ignoring his attempts to steer it or paddle against the flow. And here was Robin, who’d flung him a rope, and pulled him safely to dry land. An anchor to moor against, steady and unyielding. His poor backside throbbed in time with his racing heart, keeping him grounded in the present, however much he wanted his thoughts to drift.
A long time later they broke apart, Will wiping his face roughly against his sleeve with one hand while the other reached for his fallen breeches.
“Sorry,” he muttered sheepishly as he tugged them back into place, very glad that the night hid his blush as well as providing him some modesty.
“It’s done,” Robin said, a hand resting gently against Will’s neck. “Just remember this next time you think of showing off.”
“It was a fool thing to do,” Will admitted with a sigh. He was exhausted, his body aching not just from the whipping but his struggles during it. He made a note to never to get in a wrestling match with his brother again.
A warm feeling flared up inside him, and Will let himself be guided, limping just a little, back toward their camp.
The morning dawned bright and clear, and King Richard’s party were risen early to take their leave.
“Must you go so soon?” Marian asked, clasping her cousin’s hand with true affection.
Richard bent down, kissing her cheek. “A King’s business is never done,” he said with a smile. “There is much to do before I must return to France and the crusades.” He turned to a manservant, taking a purse which was held out, and passed it to Marian. “A personal dowry, my child. I hope it goes some way to compensate for the injustices which have befallen you.”
Those who had gathered murmured at the heaviness of the purse and Robin smiled to himself. Knowing Marian she would save not a penny for herself; the money would go far in rebuilding what the townsfolk had lost.
“And to you, Lord Locksley,” Richard continued, holding out a second purse, “to the restoration of your lands. Consider it back-payment for your duties thus far.”
Robin took the heavy bag, bowing his head in gratitude, but frowning a little at the King’s strange words. “Duties, sire?”
“As High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and the Royal Forests,” Richard said, voice laced with humour, “you’ve been playing the part of this county’s protector for long enough, you should at least be fairly compensated.”
“I…” Robin began to form a refusal but stopped at a sharp jab in his side. He looked down to see Marian staring up at him with a stubborn set to her jaw. “…it would be an honour, Your Majesty,” he said weakly.
Richard smiled widely, chuckling to himself. But then his smile melted away. “With that, there is only one matter left to conclude.”
There was a commotion in the crowd, a pair of knights pushing through those who had assembled to see the king on his way. When he saw who they held between them, Robin’s heart froze.
“William Scarlett, known commonly as Will,” a noble beside the King spoke, his voice foreboding, loud enough for all assembled to hear. “You are accused of theft from the person of the King and as such your life is forfeit.”
The crowd gasped and beside him Robin heard Marian whisper a “No!”. His own head was ringing, his vision blurring all else but Will into inconsequence. His brother had been pushed to his knees by the knights, his arms were held in their gauntleted grasp as one hand roughly tugged at his hair to keep his head raised. A bruise blossomed around his left eye, a cut above the temple showing he had not come quietly.
“Cousin,” Marian said, her voice breathless with horror as she stepped toward the King, “Surely… Please, there must be some mistake.”
“There is no mistake, my lady,” the noble said in his King’s stead. “His Majesty himself bore witness to the crime, and held his peace until now only so as not to mar the happy occasion.”
Robin pressed his eyes tightly closed and took a steadying breath before the situation could overwhelm him. When he opened them he turned to face the King.
“Your Majesty, what my brother did was beyond foolish and I give it no sanction, but please, I beg you, grant him leniency.”
“The man stole from his King,” the noble snapped, “yet you dare to beg leniency?”
“Surely…” Robin started then paused a beat to gather his whirling thoughts. A misspoken word now would have more than Will in a hangman’s noose. “My brother did not steal out of greed but an ill-considered test of nerve,” he explained, trying to keep his voice level and respectful. “There can be no doubt that his offence warrants punishment, but he returned what he took willingly.”
The crowd muttered in shock and beside him Marian whispered a fond yet dread-filled “Oh, Robin.”
“So, you knew of his crime?” the noble demanded.
“I did,” Robin nodded, his head held high. “He confessed to me himself last night.” That it was under duress, he did not feel the need to disclose.
The noble jerked his head to two knights, who made toward Robin, hands upon the hilts of their swords, but were halted by the King’s raised hand.
“And what did you do, when he did so?” Richard asked, a stern glint in his eye.
“I thrashed him, Sire,” Robin said grimly, “thoroughly, on his bare backside.”
Several of the knights and nobles assembled smirked at this, some coughing to hide their laughter whilst others openly scoffed. Even among the villagers there was an amused muttering. Robin silently apologised to his brother, who hadn’t moved a muscle or reacted at all, save for two high spots of blush upon his cheeks.
“A fitting response from an elder brother,” Richard deadpanned.
“Though insufficient against his crime,” the noble countered, who seemed to be acting as king’s advocate. “Were it any other man perhaps, but the property of the King is as sacrosanct as his person.”
“That is and must be so,” Richard said with a grim nod. He turned to Friar Tuck who had hurried to the fore at the commotion. “What says the good Friar? What does God make of this?”
Tuck, who had paled under the King’s gaze, now began to turn red and sweat with so many eyes upon him.
“Well, Your Majesty,” he blustered. “One should not only consider the deed itself, but the intent. The boy had only mischief in mind, that’s plain, there weren’t no maliciousness to what he did, and so… perhaps… it warrants leniency. As for our Lord, all sins shall be laid bare before Him. That the boy is penitent stands in his favour. Though the Lord’s will is yours, of course, Majesty,” Tuck finished hurriedly with a gulp.
Richard gave an agreeing rumble. “So, what of the guilty party, what say you in your defence?”
Will had not taken his eyes from the King since his arrival. When the knight released his grip of his hair, Will’s head stayed resolutely raised. When he spoke, his voice rasped and he paused a moment to wet his lips before saying:
“Nothing, my lord.”
“You are given a chance to beg His Majesty for mercy,” the noble said sternly as around them the crowd muttered in surprise. “I advise you do not waste it, or add insolence to your crimes.”
Will swallowed thickly and gave a small shake of his head. “I have no defence, my lord. What I did was wrong and I must be punished for it. If… if I am to beg it is only that you please spare my brother any part in it. He wanted only what’s best for me, and showed me the error of my ways…” he took a shaky breath, his eyes meeting Robin’s for a quick moment before darting away, his cheeks darkening, “…quite thoroughly so.”
Richard made a considering noise, his frown resolute.
“That was well said,” he commended, and for a moment Robin’s chest surged with hope. “But such a deed can only be answered in one fashion. I have heard your pleas and I shall not discount them. You shall have a quick and merciful death, spared the rigours of a traitors fate.”
Will took a shuddering breath and bowed his head deeply. “You have my thanks, Majesty. But… my brother?”
“Has shown himself unsuitable in protecting the Kings law and shall be relieved of that duty,” Richard said sternly. “No more or less.”
Will relaxed, his shoulders loosening. “Then I go gladly,” he said with a resolute nod.
Robin’s head buzzed, his breaths coming short. Was there nothing that could be done? His mind raced back to the Sheriff’s castle, Will’s head tied to a keg of powder, seconds away from death. Only this time he had no bow, and the axeman was the king of England himself, surrounded by dozens of armed men.
“Please, my Lord, I beg you,” he said desperately, flinging himself to his knees. “If a life must be taken then take mine.”
Richard raised a brow. “And make my cousin so soon a widow?” he asked sternly.
“Exile then! I’ll shall take him wherever you will it, to the Holy Lands and beyond.”
“You would go with him?”
“And your lady wife, what of her?”
“I go wherever he does,” Marian said, falling to her knees beside Robin. “Please, Your Majesty… cousin. William is a good boy, misguided, yes, but brave and true. Without him I would be in the Sheriff’s tower, and Sherwood still under his rule!”
Richard gave his cousin a look that plainly spoke of his doubt. Robin conceded it was a stretch to mark’s Will’s efforts singular against all the others in the rescue.
“I have made my decision,” Richard said and turned away toward the knights and their captive.
Robin dared not look away, but was vaguely aware of those gathered at the edges: Much and Bull, clinging together, faces sickly pale; Wulf, held back by his grim-faced father, tears streaming down his grubby cheeks, pulled quickly away to press his face into John Little’s chest; Fanny clutching her newborn tightly to her breast, weeping silently. Somewhere close, Friar Tuck was reciting the Lord’s Prayer; whilst the noble reiterated his brother’s crime and sentence for the crowd to hear. But all Robin heard was the sound of the King’s sword sliding from its sheath, and his tread upon the crisp autumn leaves. He looked to Will as the king stopped before him, and their eyes met. Terror stood out in his brother’s gaze, but a moment later he drew a tight breath and stiffened his jaw, giving Robin the barest of nods.
Robin, his own breath stuttering, could do nothing but respond in kind. He felt Marian’s hand clutching for his and entwined their fingers, resolving for his brother’s sake not to look away.
Will gave the slightest twitch of that same roguish smile Robin had seen that first day at the river, his mocking song playing about in Robin’s mind. His eyes softened, the fear slipping from them to something more solid and bold, and he turned his gaze away to look his king and death in the eye.
Richard swung his sword.
Around the clearing several voices shouted out Will’s name. A fleeting thought came to Robin, that at least his brother could die knowing he was loved; that he wasn’t alone.
The sound the sword made would stay with Robin forever, slicing through earth and air alike, as easily as butter.
The clearing was silent, save for some weeping, and the Little baby’s wails.
“By King’s hand and Decree, Will Scarlett is dead,” the king intoned.
Robin could not move, could only look at his brother’s body, still kneeling and… and whole.
“On your feet, William Locksley,” the king said, withdrawing his blade from the earth at the boy’s side and replacing it within its sheath.
William, frozen in place before then, rushed to stand, as wobbly as a newborn calf. Richard caught his elbow, steadying him.
Around them the forest erupted in a flood of chatter, whoops, and exclamations of surprise and disbelief, so loud that is was only those closest to the pair who heard the King’s next words.
“Count your blessings, this and every day, lad,” he said. “For you have friends who love you, and family who would die for you, and not every man can be so fortunate.”
William said nothing but gave a jerking nod. King Richard seemed to take no offence, chuckling to himself as he strode to where his servant and horse were waiting.
“Let it be known that today the King’s Justice was served,” the noble called out, mounting his own steed. He appeared unruffled by the sudden upset.
“The thief, Will Scarlett, is dead, and his name shall be struck from the annuls of history. Such is the Kings Decree, and so it shall be honoured.”
As the rest of the King’s retinue mounted, Robin came to his senses and his feet, Marian rising with him.
“Your majesty, I—” he foundered, no words suitable for everything he felt.
Richard pressed his horse forward until he was level with the newlyweds, bending to kiss Marian’s offered hand. She was still crying, but happy tears now, her smile the breaking sun on a rainswept day.
“Treat her well,” the king said, a smile on his lips.
Robin fixed the king with a gaze filled with as much gratitude and sincerity as he could muster.
“I shall,” he said, hand over his heart, bowing deeply.
The king nodded and turned to his retinue, calling for them to be away. The crowd watched the soldiers depart, cheers coming from all sides.
“Will!” Robin heard Wulf cry, and saw the boy break free from his father. He ran over to William’s side but pulled up short, his beaming smile falling into uncertainty.
Robin crossed quickly to his brother, placing a hand upon his back. One look at his ashen face told him all he needed to know.
“All right everyone, show’s over. Be about your business now,” John Little bellowed above the noise. He came up to Wulf’s side and wrapped an arm about the boy’s shoulders. “Come on my lad.”
“Later, boy. Give him peace for now.”
John looked around at the rest of those who had gathered as he spoke, his instruction clear. Robin gave his second a grateful smile and waited until the crowd had melted away before stepping in front of his brother. For her part Marian briefly laid a hand upon the boy’s head and shared a loving smile with Robin, before heading to console Fanny, who still stood, distraught.
William stared at the floor, seeing nothing, his face grey. He gave no reaction when Robin took his arms but a moment later he leant forward, forehead resting heavily upon Robin’s chest.
Robin placed a gentle hand upon the back of William’s neck, and then the lad was clutching him, desperately, Robin’s name a wet gasp on his lips. They sank to the ground as his legs failed him, Robin’s arms wrapped tightly around his brother’s fragile body, William trembling, silent tears pouring from him. Robin pressed the boy’s head against his heart, and buried his face in his messy hair.
“I’m here, brother,” he said, as William's tears grew heavier, “I am here for you.”
Night drew in around the merry campsite, a hasty second banquet having sprung up. The collective decision had been made to stay another day in the forest after that morning’s upset. Several parties had set out hunting, whilst Friar Tuck had begrudgingly broached another few kegs of wine. The women had baked bread and dressed what was brought back from wood and stream, a simple fare created from folk accustomed to such.
“I can’t believe you missed it all!” Bull was saying to Azeem who was sat, straight backed and as formal as ever, still dressed in his finest clothes. Robin was beginning to suspect the man was something of a peacock given the chance, and made a note to raid Marian’s house of any bolts of silk or damask his lady would not miss.
“I was giving my praise to Allah,” Azeem replied calmly.
“Surely you heard the commotion?!”
“Allah is more important,” Robin said over the din, “believe me.” He met eyes with the Moor and the pair shared a solemn nod, Robin barking out a laugh right after. Azeem, for his part, showed no sign that he was amused or offended, simply blinking passively at the man before returning to his meal.
“I hope you saved some wine for me? I’m parched.”
Robin turned to greet William, Marian jumping to her feet to offer him a kiss on the cheek. The boy had been sleeping all day and looked it, his hair and clothes well tousled. The wound on his head had been washed and dressed, the bruise around his eye having blossomed into spectacular shades of purple. He blushed at the lady’s attention, and smiled sheepishly as several about the fire called his name in greeting.
“Ah! Not so fast,” John said, throwing out his arm to stop him as William made to join the circle.
Where they had found it, Robin did not know, but from the undergrowth, hidden away, a pillow was produced.
“There you are, lad,” John said, laying it down with care, a sparkle in his eye. “Nice and soft.” He gave the thing a pat as the circle erupted in laughter.
William’s face flamed nearly as red as his old name, and he looked about ready to fight or run. Robin raised a hand, catching his brother’s arm.
“Sit,” he said quietly. “Please?”
William looked about to object but he took a deep breath and then sat, barely wincing as his backside met the cushion.
“Aye, best do as big brother says,” Much sniggered, “wouldn’t want another thrashing, now, would you?”
Several there laughed, but it died out as Robin, grim faced, rose slowly to his feet.
Much’s smile fell to his boots. He stammered a little but complied with haste, swallowing back his nerves. The rest of the circle grew silent, watching uncertainly.
Much darted forward; even drink addled he knew not to cross Robin’s orders. The man might look calm on top, but his voice had that same tone to it. Trouble.
“Get your trousers off.”
Much’s eyes bulged. “R-Robin! It was just a bit of fun…”
Robin remained silent, his gaze expectant.
Much gulped, his face flushed with drink and embarrassment. His hands dropped to his laces, fumbling to undo them and then letting his trousers fall, quickly cupping himself to keep his modesty.
Robin raised a hand, palm upwards.
“Give them over.”
Much blinked several times and then readjusted, stepping out of his trousers and sinking down into an awkward squat to grasp them. Those behind the man winced and swore at the sight.
Robin tsked at Much held the trousers out toward him. “Folded, man!” he scolded.
Several titters could be heard amongst the silence as the circle watched Much’s dilemma. The problem was plain; both hands were needed to fold the trousers but this left him rather… exposed. Eventually Much made a half crouch, managing with both hands close to his crotch to somehow preserve his dignity, such as it was. He handed the folded trousers over to Robin with a look of profound relief, his other hand back to its place service of modesty.
Robin took the trousers, his face impassive. “I think we’ll need a watch tonight,” he said. “Find a good, tall tree.”
This time the laughter was louder, rising as Much ducked his head and scurried away, bare arse flashing in the firelight.
“You should not shame your men, Christian,” Azeem called from across the fire as Robin sat back down, slapping William upon the back before taking up his wine.
“He shamed himself,” Robin said mildly.
William returned his brother’s smile with a bashful grin, accepting the cup that was passed to him and a bowl of stew.
John leant in, nudging the boy upon the shoulder. “No hard feelings, eh, Locksley?”
Robin caught the smile as it tugged a little higher on his brother’s lips at the name, feeling a similar warm rush in his gut that was not all to do with the wine.
“You ought to watch yourself ‘Little John’,” William sassed, “my big brother’s in a fighting mood.”
“Is that right, lad?” John scoffed, wrapping a tree trunk of an arm around William’s neck and pulling him into a headlock.
Robin joined in the laughter at William’s grimace and the colourful language he employed, content to let his brother face a little gentle tormenting.
He felt a nudge in his own side and looked over at Marian, who smirked at him and gave a playful wink.
Robin rolled his eyes and returned the wink. He turned and called out to Bull, throwing the trousers across to him.
“Go and find the poor fool before he gets a splinter somewhere he shouldn’t,” he said to a chorus of sniggers.
It wasn’t long afterward that Marian and Robin bid their leave of the party, Marian leading Robin toward their tent to a chorus of whoops and friendly jeers. Loudest of all was William, who laughed, and bantered, and grinned at the world, his troubles buried with a man named Will Scarlett.