disclaimer in part 1
by: Rebecca Carefoot
Much snuck along the outside wall of Leaford Grange as dusk fell. His eyes darted from side to side searching for any signs that he'd been noticed. He scurried to a section of the wall that was crumbling with disrepair. He pulled himself up and over the wall, dropping down silently, with a quick check for any eyes that might have caught the movement. The courtyard seemed eerily still. One stablehand moved across the way. Much ducked down and waited until the boy entered the stable. Then he rose to his feet and hurried through the side door a few feet away.
He climbed up the stairs he'd watched Marion come down the last time he'd entered the Grange to bring her back. That time she'd come because Robin needed help. This time he hoped she'd come for her own sake. A waiting woman emerged from one of the rooms and headed toward him. He ducked his head and kept walking, pretending he belonged there. She passed him, shooting him a look, but continuing. He breathed a small sigh of relief.
"You," she said. He turned slowly; she stood with her head cocked on the other side of the hallway. "I've not seen you before."
"I'm new," Much mumbled.
"If you worked in this house, I'd know you," she said suspiciously.
"I work in the fields," Much said, his brain whirling. He wished Robin or Little John was there with him. They'd know what to say.
"Well, what's your business in here, then?" she said.
"I have to see Mar...the Lady Marion," Much said.
"What for?" the woman asked.
"It's important," Much said. "She knows who I am."
"She's been gone more than a year," the woman said. "How would she know you if you're new?" She opened her mouth to scream, and Much hesitated, unsure what to do. Then he turned on his heel and ran full speed to the first door he saw. He could hear the woman's screams for help as she ran after him. He reached the door and tried the knob. It was unlocked and he slipped inside, slamming the door just before the woman reached it. She pounded her fist against the wood, and he searched the room with frantic eyes while turning the lock.
The windows were too small and high to crawl through, and he still hadn't talked to Marion. He couldn't leave without giving her the message. That would just show Will he was right to say Much shouldn't go. He leaned against the door, pressing against the thump of the woman's pounding, and heard voices and footsteps in the hall. Now what?
"What is happening here?" he heard a woman say. He strained his ears against the wood. "...Richard...ill...disturb...noise..." He could only make out fragments of what she said, but he recognized that voice.
"Marion?" he yelled. "It's me." There was silence on the other side of the door. "Much," he added in case she'd forgotten what he sounded like.
"Much?" she said loudly. "What--" she stopped. "Open the door," she said. "We shouldn't be yelling. My father needs to rest." He hesitated with his hand on the lock.
"Will you tell that woman to leave me alone?" he said. "I told her I know you."
"Yes, yes," Marion said impatiently. "Don't worry about her." Much twisted the lock and opened the door. He hunched his shoulders and looked at Marion through his lowered eyelashes. She looked the same, but paler, maybe a bit thinner, and dressed in her grey nun's robes. She was frowning. She turned to the crowd of four or five servants gathered at the door. "There is nothing to see here, please return to your work."
"Lady Marion," the woman who'd noticed Much said.
"It's all right, Abigail," Marion said. "He's an old friend, and he'll soon be on his way." She entered the room and shut the door in the other woman's face, then she turned to Much, her hands clenched tight in front of her. "Much," she said. "How did you know I was here?" She shook her head. "No, never mind that. What are you doing here?" Her brow wrinkled. "I told Robin I needed to be apart from you all."
"He didn't mean to make you mad," Much said. "It's just that we've heard news that the Sheriff had you watched when you left Halstead. And Robin thought maybe he'd try to catch you."
"I didn't notice anyone following us," Marion said. She pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Surely the Sheriff wouldn't try to capture someone who'd claimed the sanctuary of the church."
"I don't think the Sheriff cares much about all that," Much said.
"I suppose you're right," Marion said with a small smile.
"Nasir saw the prints. I didn't make it up."
Marion nodded. "I believe you, Much. And I know you and the others were just worried about me. I don't know whether to trust these rumors." She folded her hands and gripped tight, to keep her fingers immobile. "I need to stay with my father."
"So you won't come?" Much said, his eyes downcast.
"I'd be safer at the convent than in the woods with you," Marion said. "But father..."
"Lady Marion!" a voice called outside, high pitched with urgency.
"What is it now?" Marion answered.
"Soldiers," the voice said. "Riding toward the Grange." Marion pulled open the door, and faced a disheveled page. "Gisburne's leading them." Marion threw a look backwards at Much.
"You see!" Much said. "You've got to come with me, you can't sit and wait for Gisburne to take you. He'll kill you!"
Marion half-smiled. She reached out a gentle hand and placed it to Much's cheek. "All right, Much," she said. "Can you come with me back to Halstead?"
He nodded nervously. "Robin won't be happy I didn't bring you to them, but he'll be all right if you're safe inside."
She turned to the page. "Tell George to saddle my horse and another for my friend. I must say good-bye to Sir Richard." The boy nodded. "Much, you go with him."
"I think I should stay with you," Much said.
"I'll meet you at the gates as quickly as possible," Marion said. Much hesitated. "Please go. Hurry!" Much sighed through his nose and trotted after the boy who was heading for the stables.
Marion gathered her skirts with her hand and rushed to her father's room. She knelt beside his bed and grabbed his hand. He opened heavy eyes and turned his slow head to look at her.
"What's all this commotion?" he asked, his voice thick with pain and the effects of the doctor's sleeping draught.
"I'm sorry, father," Marion said, her head bowed. "I must go. Sir Guy is headed here with soldiers, and I must return to the safety of the convent."
Sir Richard attempted to rise, heaving his body up slightly. "You'll be safer here," he said. After a brief moment, his weakness forced him back down on the mattress.
"We both know what kind of man the Sheriff is," Marion said. "I'm no safer here than Nottingham." Sir Richard touched her hand, then grasped it tightly in his own.
"You're right," he said. "You must go."
"I wish I could stay," Marion said. She brushed her lips to the back of his hand.
"As do I, child," her father said softly. "But we will meet again when I am well." He smiled through the lie, and Marion smiled back, her eyes bright. She rose to her feet, then leaned over the bed to kiss her father's forehead.
"I'm sorry, father," she said.
"I must be a great disappointment to you," she said.
"No father could be prouder," he insisted. He met her eyes. "I have seen more bravery and strength in my only daughter than could be found in a hundred sons." He smiled broadly, and Marion cast her eyes down in embarrassment. "Do what you must, girl. And you will do right." She nodded. "Now go, before we talk you to the gallows." She touched her hand to his hair, then turned away and hurried to the door.
In the doorway, she paused. "I love you, father," she said.
"I love you, Marion," he whispered.
Much waited in the courtyard with two horses' bridles in his hands. "Hurry," he called when Marion emerged from the house. She broke into a run, and he handed her one of the bridles when she reached him. She swung up into the saddle, and he followed suit a moment later. George, the stablehand, stood by the gate and eased it open. They rode through at a trot, darkness falling around them.
The group of soldiers riding toward Leaford was still a fair distance away, but closing fast. Marion and Much both ducked low, pressing their bodies against their horses' necks, and urged their mounts to a faster pace. "Who's there?" Gisburne called. But they were already disappearing into the trees.
Gisburne clenched his fist as he watched them go. "That's her. I know it," he spat. He pointed to three of the men. "You. Head on to the manor. Make sure she's not inside." He turned his gaze on the five remaining men. "You. Come with me."
"But my lord," one of them began to protest. "It could be anyone on those horses."
"It was her!" Gisburne snapped. He viciously dug his heels into his horse's ribs, and the animal leapt into a startled gallop. After a moment of hesitation, the soldiers broke into two groups and rode to follow his orders.
Marion glanced behind her. It was getting too dark to see much of anything. But she didn't hear any hoof beats behind them. Not that her senses were particularly sharp these days. She shook her head in disgust at the thought that she'd completely missed one of the Sheriff's men following her. Still, even she would have been able to hear Gisburne's soldiers if they were closing. Either he'd not recognized them, or they had enough of a lead to make it to Halstead.
"Not far now," she said. Much tightened his strained grip on the reins and nodded. He wasn't used to riding by himself, most of his encounters with horses he'd been riding either in front or in back of a more experienced rider. He wasn't sure he liked this. He hunched forward, and let the wind rush against his face. He wished she'd agreed to come back with him to the forest. He just knew she'd come back for good if she joined them for a little while. But now he'd have to tell Robin she refused to come. He tried not to imagine the look of disappointment the young leader would quickly try to hide. Maybe if he'd been smarter he could have convinced her... He watched her back as she rode slightly in front of him. Bits of her hair escaped from her habit, but otherwise she was a dark grey shadow. He didn't feel he'd changed in the months she'd been gone, but he wondered if it was the same for her. Maybe even if she had come back with him to meet the others, it wouldn't have made a difference.
He chewed his lip anxiously, and clenched the sweaty reins in his fingers. He reminded himself that the most important thing was to keep her safe. Robin had told him to let her make her own decisions, even if they weren't the decisions he wanted. His job now was to keep her safe.
He could see the faint lights of Halstead, and knew they were almost there. She was almost safe. He twisted his mouth in a moment of confusion. He was relieved, but his heart was sinking. If she didn't need them, she wouldn't stay.
"It's just ahead," she called over her shoulder. He kicked his horse cautiously and pulled even with her. Together they headed for the gates.
"Soldiers," Much hissed, peering at the shapes of five men in front of the gates.
"There she is!" one of the men called, and motioned the others forward.
"Turn back!" Much said. He turned his horse awkwardly and galloped back down the road, Marion right beside him.
"We can't stay on this road," she said, her eyes darting into the trees. "We're heading right for Gisburne and the others."
"What do we do?" Much asked.
"We'll have to hide in the forest," Marion said.
"We should have met up with Robin," Much said. "They're still camped near Leaford."
"It'll be all right, Much," Marion said, with a weak smile. "We'll meet up with them after the soldiers leave." Marion pointed at a break in the trees. "We'll enter the forest there, and when it gets too dense, we'll go on foot." Much nodded.
Their horses crashed through the underbrush, moving quickly over the fairly even ground, then quickly slowing as the shrubs grew more dense and the ground uneven. "We should dismount here," Marion said. Much slid down the side of his horse and stood with the reins limp in his hand. "They won't be able to track us in the dark," Marion said. "We'll send the horses off to distract them from our trail." She slapped her horse's rump and the animal whickered, moving deeper into the forest with startled speed. Much followed suit, with a slap and a yell. They listened to the two horses flee, then turned to each other.
Much stared at Marion with wide white-rimmed eyes. She closed her hand around his, in a tight, comforting grip, and pulled. "It'll be all right, Much," she said. "We camped just a mile from here a year or so back. Don't you remember?"
Much shook his head.
"It was after we robbed those two fat merchants. Right near a nice stream. You fished there for a week."
Much smiled. "I remember." He almost laughed. "Tuck burnt one of the fish, and John called him a fat lump. They started wrestling right there, and the other fish burnt too."
Marion's teeth shone white in the dark. "That's right. Now you know you're not lost, and there's no reason to be scared."
"You're sure they won't find us?"
"Not tonight," Marion said.
"And we'll go to Robin and the others tomorrow?"
Marion hesitated just a moment. "Yes," she said. "We'll find the others tomorrow."
Robin crouched beneath a tree, with his eyes on the stick he rolled from one hand to the other. He clenched his hand, and the wood snapped with a hard crack. He looked up, but the men remained asleep around the small fire at the center of the camp. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned a startled face to see Nasir lower himself to the ground beside him.
"You worry," Nasir said, the soft words a statement.
"They should have been here by now," Robin said. "Even if she refused to come with him, Much should have been back." He tossed the broken fragments of wood to the ground. "Something must have happened. Maybe we were too late... Or there was a trap..." He shook his head. "I never should have sent Much alone."
"It is too soon for doubt," Nasir said.
Robin pressed the back of his head to the rough bark of the tree trunk behind him. "I don't like it," he said.
"Rest. We will track them," Nasir said. He grasped Robin's shoulder briefly as he stood up, then he moved away, to maintain a silent watch. Robin scrubbed at his eyes with the palms of his hands. How many hours left until dawn? How many hours to think uselessly of the things that could have gone wrong? He shut his eyes, but there was no darkness behind the closed lids, only images his imagination conjured full of helpless fear and terrible possibility.