Much had been dreaming in the night. Robin had lain awake, staring at the branches that scraped the sky. Scattered stars had peeped through the veil of trees. In the Holy Land, they had been unveiled. They had stared down unblinking. They had seen everything.
Robin rolled onto his side, pulling the rough blanket up to his throat. A leaf tickled his lips. He pawed it away, then stared at his hands, at the mud behind his nails. All colours were grey in the bleached light of dawn, and the darkness on his hands could have been blood. When he closed his eyes, it was blood, warm and red, flowing onto the desert sand.
He sat up. Across the camp, John glanced at him, but said nothing. Much stirred in his sleep, moaning a little, but did not wake. The noisy dreams had passed, but Robin knew that he was still dreaming. He always did. Robin always did. It was why he so seldom slept, now.
Robin threw the blanket off, and stood up, stretching to clear away the stiffness that came from sleeping on the ground. John watched him as he walked to the dying fire and prodded it until it flared up again. Robin crouched down for a moment, warming his hands. "I'm going," he mouthed at John, making the decision suddenly. He gestured to his bow. "Breakfast."
John nodded, and closed his eyes. Treading softly, Robin snatched up his bow, and headed away from the camp.
It was less lonely in the empty forest. Life with the outlaws would offer no privacy, he could tell that. They slept close, and the night-time air carried every sound. Much had not been the only one to moan and toss in the torment of a dream. All these men bore grief and secrets. There was no hiding, and yet no sharing, either. This was only their first night with the outlaws, but Robin knew that no-one would ever speak about the dreams. He knew these sort of men. He had become this sort of man.
He walked. A rabbit darted away, to hide in the undergrowth, but Robin's bow remained untouched on his back. A rook called from a tall tree, like a dying man's scream. A robin sang, and a squirrel rustled the leaves, its tail a flash of orange in the green.
He wondered if Much was stirring yet. Robin pressed his lips together, imagining the questions that would ensue. "Has he gone? Where has he gone? When will he be back? Has anyone gone with him?" And all the time the unasked question: "Why didn't he take me with him?" Or maybe not unasked, after all. Much no longer knew how to be subtle. What once was secret was now open, as if being outlawed had robbed him of the need for propriety. The others tossed quietly in the torment of their dreams; only Much sobbed aloud.
When will he be back?
Robin did not know the forest well, despite living on its fringes for most of his life. He could walk for hours, and never be able to find his way back. The outlaws, by their very nature, did not want to be found. There would be no-one to ask, no-one to point him the way. He could walk for hours, and keep on going, and never return. He could walk, and find himself in Nottingham, in the hands of the sheriff's men. It would not matter. Others would do his work. He had seen the fire kindled in John's eyes, and knew that gifts would be given to the poor even if Robin was not there to do it. Nothing would change. Robin would just be… gone.
A twig cracked; leaves rustled. Robin stood still, very aware of his bow. His hands felt like stone. In that moment, he was not sure what he would do if armed men emerged to attack. He did now know if he would try to defend himself.
In that moment, he was not sure of anything.
A pig blundered snuffling from the undergrowth. Robin let out a slow breath. Still he did not touch his bow. He clenched his fists at his sides, feeling the minute tremble in his fingers. What's wrong with me? he asked, but he knew. He had known for years.
He came to a stream, and knelt to wash away with dirt of a night spent on the ground. He scooped handfuls into his mouth, feeling its coldness dribble down his chin and onto his chest. When he had finished, he watched the water return to its near-stillness. The middle of the stream was flowing fast, but at the edge, beneath the overhanging bank, it was a smooth dark mirror. He caught a glimpse of his face before it flew into a thousand pieces, fractured by drops falling from his hands.
He stood up quickly, blundered on his way. He thought of soft hands on that face, of women across a dozen lands, who said they found him handsome. He knew he did not look like a proper noble. His face was not refined; his hands body did not know how to wear soft clothes. More, he did not act like a noble. Nobles did not let their peasants call them by their Christian name, or tease them about their childhood antics. Nobles stood aloof, as far away as God himself, and ordained by Him to rule.
In the eyes of the world, Robin was a failure. He was neither fish nor fowl. He was a noble who did not know how to be a noble, but the blood in his veins would not allow him to be a peasant. He had been trained to lead. He could not bend his head and accept tyranny, but he was not noble enough to command it to stop. All he could do was fight it with bow and sword.
A fallen tree blocked his path. As he went to step over it, he saw that its bark was seeped with dark red blood, covered with flies. Two fingers lay on the ground beneath the tree, already turning green.
Robin stood very still. Tyranny, he told himself. He tried to speak into the void of his mind. Cruelty. This is what I fight against. This is why they need me.
The dark red sheeted across his mind. The fingers became a rotting eyeless corpse. Then eyes, dark and dying, staring at him in reproach. You killed me, and I was the same as you. You killed me. Why? Black hair clinging to his sword blade. A king's hand on his shoulder, telling him he had done well, but if he had done well, why were there dreams? He had not done well, because he had killed. He had not done well, because in the end, he had curled shivering in his pallet, and said that he couldn't do it again, he could not, and please could he be freed from his oath, please could he go home. His commander had found him, and made up some lie for him. A broken man is no use to us, and I have seen men break. From the king, though, it was honour and a purse, a pat on the back and a wave home.
He scraped his hands across his eyes, fingers digging deep. He saw green again, and birds in the trees. He saw a white flower at his feet, life growing beside death and decay. He walked on, shoulders like a statue, heart like stone.
He did not like to kill; the sheriff had seen that. The sheriff had read it in his eyes, had reached into his heart and knew him. Robin shot around people, but did not draw blood. He did not know if he could ever draw blood again. He did not know if he could close his eyes ever again if he did.
The sky was lightening in the east, sunlight burning away the morning mist. He wondered if the others were awake yet, if Much was stirring, turning towards his empty bed, asking where he was.
A bird stood on a high branch, calling out two notes in mournful voice. The leaves whispered their need for the sun.
Cold leaves separated their beds in the forest. A world away, they had lain side by side on a blood-soaked wilderness, both staring up at the same remorseless stars. They had killed, and there were dreams. They had seen the same sights, lived the same horrors, and there had been no women there to soothe them in the night. A hand had bridged the gap between them, and then more than a hand. Sometimes a man needed affirmation that he was not alone. Sometimes he needed to be held by someone who understood.
Afterwards, they had never spoken of it. By day, they joked and talked, and saved each other's lives, and trusted each other more than any man alive, but at night the gulf between them was the length of two arms, and the width of the world. Sometimes Much looked at him with mournful eyes that asked "why?" In sleep, he called for his master. He spoke of love. He wanted more than Robin could give.
Robin did not know what he wanted. The war was past now, and he was home. Home was the softness of women who knew nothing of horror. Quick kisses showed that he was still alive. Marriage would show that he had survived. He said the right thing, and flirted with girls. Much watched. Perhaps Much knew that none of it touched Robin's heart.
Dark wings rose flapping from the undergrowth, as a wood pigeon flew off in alarm. A deer darted away, antlers showing above the fern. A blackbird sounded an alarm call, high and urgent.
Someone's coming. Someone's watching me.
Robin readied his bow, watching the dark shape approach. It was a horse. He frowned, for it was a horse without a rider, but still saddled and bridled. Robin edged towards it, and it shied away, but he knew how to deal with horses. "Here, boy. Steady, boy." The horse let itself be secured, and Robin checked it quickly over for injury, and found none.
"So who do you belong to, boy?" Robin asked it. It was a good quality horse, and its trappings did not speak of poor man. "Did you throw your master?" Robin was an outlaw now, he reminded himself, so, chances were, this horse belonged to one of his enemies. He could take it as a gift from his enemies to himself, or sell it for money to give to his people.
But even as he considered it, he found himself following the horse's trail back through the forest. An enemy, perhaps, but an enemy in need. A healthy man would have pursued his fleeing steed. This horse's master was hurt, perhaps even dead. It was not the human thing to do, to walk away. It was the sheriff's way, perhaps, but not his.
He thought of the sheriff's dungeon – of the open door he had chosen not to walk through. He had given himself up, then, surrendering himself to the sheriff, with neither hope nor regret. A fool, Marian had called him. The sheriff, though, had looked into his soul and understood. The sheriff knew. The sheriff knew what led him to kiss a girl in the sight of her vengeful father, and what led him to stay in a place of death.
Because I have killed. I have committed horrors, and what does a murderer deserve but horrors in return? He would atone if he could, but if he could not atone, he would seek his punishment.
The horse whinnied. "Bayard?" a voice called, weak at first, then angry. "Bayard, you brute! Come here!" The horse stopped, but Robin continued, letting the reins fall from his tightening hand. "You!" spat the fallen man.
"You," Robin said. He crouched beside Guy of Gisburne, too far away for a sword to reach him. "Are you hurt? Do you need help?"
"Never from you," Guy snarled.
"But I think you do." Robin smiled. Inside, he felt strange, as if he was floating above his body, watching this, but not really part of it. "Your leg's broken. And the blood there, on your head… Knock yourself out on a tree root, did you? Ah." He nodded in realisation. "You've been lying here all night."
"But I can still defend myself." Guy spat in the ground. Blood was smeared in the spittle from his mangled lip. "I can defend myself from you, outlaw."
Robin edged forward. Guy lunged forward with a cry, ripping a sword out from behind his slumped body. It nicked Robin's wrist, drawing blood, but he was already moving in response, hurling himself at the fallen man, pinning him down with a knee on the chest, and a knife to the throat. "Defend yourself, can you?" he laughed.
Guy struggled. His body squirmed against Robin's. Robin squeezed his hand until Guy dropped his sword with a cry of fury that was closer to a sob. There was blood on the hilt, and open gashes on the naked palm.
"Are you going to kill me?" Guy asked. There was nothing broken in the look he fixed on Robin. His voice was harsh but low.
"I should," Robin said. He leant forward, pushing all of his weight onto the knee on Gisburne's chest. The dagger crept forward, pressing into skin that was surprisingly pale and smooth. "You have my land. You rule my people. You have my lordship."
"And your girl," Guy sneered. "The lovely Marian. She will be mine within the year. By winter, I will have laid my hands on everything that is yours, while you are freezing in a forest, alone."
"I will take back what is mine," Robin promised him. The knife dug deeper. A bead of blood welled up from the tip, red against the smoothness of the skin. It trickled down Guy's throat, and slipped beneath the black fabric of his tunic. Spilled blood. Robin's own blood rose in return, pounding in his ears.
"Oh?" Those dark eyes pinned him. "I think you will not, outlaw. I have your measure now. Like a dog, you will slink away, and yet come back again for another kicking. Another beating, again and again. Do you know why you do it, outlaw? Far easier to bow to the sheriff when you must, and live like a lord. And yet you rejected that. Why?"
"I will never bow down to such a one." Robin pushed himself off Gisburne's body, and crouched beside him, wild and panting. "I should walk away and leave you to rot."
"But you will not." Guy smiled a one-sided smile.
Robin slapped him. His hand snapped Gisburne's head to the side, then stopped. He felt stubble against his palm, and softness beneath the calluses of his thumb. His enemy's breath was warm against his wrist. Eyes met his, dark and burning.
Hoof beats sounded, like the beating of his heart. Harness rattled, and a voice was calling out a name.
"My men," Gisburne said softly. Robin felt the words on his hand as he snatched it away. "You had better run, outlaw, for you will have only minutes before I send them after you."
Robin stood. He looked down on his enemy, almost dignified as he lay wounded in the dirt. You will not, he thought, but he did not say it.
He walked away, his step firm and steady. No-one followed him, and soon, beyond the trees, he saw the sun, shining on the first morning of this new world.
It was time to go home.
Author's note: It is possible that this might be the first of a sequence, if I continue to enjoy the series, if people like this, and if I continue to fail to resist the temptation of a shiny new fandom. I'm rather tempted by the idea of doing a new short story after each episode, each one advancing the character arcs of this story. However, if I did this, I suspect it would get more and more AU as the series goes on. I've never written in a fandom that's so new. It's a strange and exciting experience.
Anyway… This was inspired by the Radio Times article from a few weeks ago, when it mentioned that Robin is possibly suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This made my little angst radar perk up instantly, and made me want to dig beneath all the jokes and banter to wallow in the angst beneath it.
I was also wondering why Robin came home from the Holy Land, given that the king is still crusading away. I decided to give him a form of shell-shock. Now, of course in the real Middle Ages, there is no way at all that someone suffering from shell-shock (or the equivalent) would have been gently sent on their way home with a "get well soon" and a blessing. But I reasoned that we are in the world of folk tale here – a world where sheriffs wear dressing gowns, outlaws wear vests and brooding villains wear biker gear – so I would wave goodbye to any thought of historical accuracy.
Plus, of course, there's the whole hotness of Guy of Gisburne. (I'm still drooling over the Radio Times cover). I wanted to set up some possible scenario for some future slash… because I cannot entertain the thought of writing Robin Hood slash without including Mr Gisburne in it.