Watching Robin's back

 

Much had almost lost him.

 

Lying there, caught between dreams and waking, he had heard a scuffle. Master! His eyes had snapped open, the word tearing from his throat. "Master!" A knife at his master's throat; betrayal at the hands of an ally. But I always knew he was an enemy. I always knew he was no friend of mine. There had been none of that at the time, though. There had been no justification, no smugness because he had been proved right. All there had been was terror.

 

He has almost lost him.

 

Much had been losing Robin all his life. Hugging himself against the cold, he stood and watched as Robin talked to people who were not him. He saw Robin's back. He saw smiles that were not for him. There had been tears earlier, too, shed for someone who was not him. Robin and the outlaws had held each other and hugged and grieved. Much had just watched.

 

One of his first memories was of Robin's back. Much had been six years old, lost in the forest, dirty and weeping. His parents had gone to sleep and never woken up. A dog had bitten his hand. He didn't know how to get home. A lady with a sharp face had cuffed him when he cried, saying, "I have sons of my own to feed. I have nothing to spare for my sister's brat." Then tears and mud and terrible cold and dreams of mummy, until a boy was looking down at him with wide eyes. "Are you one of the fair folk from the woods?" the boy asked. "You don't look fair. Stay there. I'll get my father." And then Robin's back, walking away. Much had blinked, but it remained real. Robin's back, walking away.

 

He knew now that Robin's father had made enquiries about his family, and discovered something that meant that Much could not go home again. "He can be my servant," the boy said – Robin said. His father had laughed, but indulged him. So Much had become, at six, the personal servant of a boy half a year younger than him.

 

Servant meant play-mate, Much had soon discovered. It meant ally. It meant partner in crime. It meant slave. It meant devoted follower. Where Much was cautious, Robin was adventurous. "You have to keep up with me," Robin would say, as he headed into the dark place that they were never supposed to enter. "You're my servant. If you don't come with me, father will throw you out." And Much, trembling, would follow, pinning himself to Robin's back with the force of his gaze.

 

He had followed Robin through mires and ditches. He had followed him into bowers and cells. He had followed him into the earl's solar, for a clip around the ear. He had followed him up trees, and he had followed him into middens. With Robin, he had lurked outside doorways and listened to things they were not supposed to hear. "We can't…" he had always whispered, but Robin had grinned, and said, "We can, Much. We can do anything."

 

Then the King had gone to war, and Robin had followed his King. And Much…? Much had followed Robin. Much had always followed Robin. Robin was his sun and his stars, and he would be lost without him, like a ship without a rudder, without a star to steer by.

 

"Much?" His sun came towards him, and he was given the gift of a glimpse of Robin's face, and a smile just for him. "It's getting late. I'm surprised you haven't mentioned dinner yet."

 

I'm not hungry, he thought. "Yes. Dinner." Much grinned. "Can we eat now? You're the one with the fancy bow. Get us some rabbits. Please, Master?"

 

Robin patted his shoulder, as briefly as he would pat a horse. "Is that all you think about?" Then his back again; Robin's back, as he went to talk to Will, to John, to anyone but Much.

 

Roy was dead. Much had hated him, and now he was dead. He had died nobly, letting the others escape. But he tried to kill you, Master! He would have killed you, if I hadn't stopped him. He pretended to be sorry. Oh yes, he cried prettily, but only because I caught him. He…

 

Much turned his head to the side, blinking away the bitter sting of guilt and hatred. Roy had died, and earlier he had taken a wound for Robin, saving his life. He had given himself up so that Robin could be saved. Because he was in league with the sheriff all along. It was all an act. He was never in any danger. His mother was never in danger. He's still alive, feasting on venison and wine in Nottingham Castle, laughing at how thoroughly he's tricked us. I'm the only one who…

 

He kicked a stone away into the leaves, stifling his sob. Roy was dead. He was not a traitor, but he had saved Robin's life, and that was the worst sin of all. Because that's my job. I want to die for Robin. No-one but me.

 

"I'd better make some more arrows," Much heard Will Scarlet say. "How many did you throw away with the bread?"

 

"Shooting with bread." John shook his head, half disapproving, half amused. "Only you could think of that."

 

Shooting bread? Much thought. Why didn't I know about that? Why didn't he tell me? I thought he told me everything.

 

He remembered the laughter of their early days in the Holy Land, when campaigns were like games, and blood was a distant dream. Then winter had come, and they had walked into the valley of the shadow of death, but it had always been Robin and Much, Much and Robin. They had comforted each other in the night with memories of Locksley, and then, on the darkest night of all, they had comforted each other with touch, and no words at all. In a distant desert beneath the stars, forsaken by God and man, they had become one.

 

Now, on the other side of the world, they lay side by side again, but trees veiled the stars, and other men snored beside them, and watched them. Except for that one time, there had barely been a touch.

 

In dreams, Robin turned into dust in Much's arms, and floated away to the heavens, never to return.

 

By day, they talked as other men talked. Robin clasped Much's hands, just as he clasped the hands of other men. And every dawn, every night, Robin was further away than he had been the day before.

 

"You are no longer my servant," Robin had said, a few weeks after that night beneath the stars.

 

"You don't want me to be your servant?" The earth had lurched beneath Much's feet; the stars fell from the skies. You don't want me?

 

"Not that." A hand on the shoulder, brief and cold. "I should have freed you long ago, Much. Forgive me for being so thoughtless. I made you come to this hellish place because you were bound to me. I should have given you the choice."

 

"You're sending me away?" He had no idea how his throat had managed to produce words.

 

"No." Robin shook his head. "I am giving you the choice to stay, or to go, as you wish, and I am rewarding you for all your long years of service. I couldn't have survived this without you, Much. This is the least I can do. I grant you the manor of Bonchurch, to hold as your own, for you and your heirs forever."

 

For years, Much had slept at Robin's doorway. He had curled up on the floor at the foot of his bed, or slept in a pallet in his chamber. They had shared bed rolls, and slept with nothing between them but skin. Bonchurch was ten miles away from Locksley. At night, he would be alone.

 

"You look so tragic, Much." Robin had laughed. "No, this isn't a dream…"

 

Because dreams were dark and red and full of loss and blades and fury. In dreams, Robin died a hundred times over, beneath a blood-red sky, and Much wept tears enough to fill an ocean. Then, a week later, the dream had almost come true, and Robin had tossed in fever for weeks, until even the Saracen doctor had been driven away from the smell, but Much had never left his side. Don't leave me, Master, and the dreams became real. Dreams for the night, and memories for the waking hours. Eyes closed forever, and tears like poisoned claws on his cheeks.

 

"Come on, you." John's voice broke through the wall of memories. "There's firewood to gather."

 

"I answer to my master, not to you," Much told him.

 

He knew the others did not like him. Not that he cared. They were strangers, interlopers, and any one of them could conceal a dagger beneath their smiles. He would not trust them, no matter what Robin said. He would watch Robin's back until he died doing so.

 

"It will be a quiet night." Allan sighed. "No baby, snivelling. I'll still have to listen to you lot snoring, though, especially Much."

 

"I hope the baby will be all right," Will said softly.

 

"Poor lad," said Allan, "with Gisburne as his father."

 

Much had felt less pain than he had expected at the sight of Robin with the baby. He had always known that Robin would marry - all noblemen did. He would marry and he would have children, and perhaps he would even love his wife, but a woman could not share the dreams and memories that two men shared, who had gone through hell together. Much could share Robin with a woman, even if Robin loved her. Perhaps Much would marry, too, and their children could play together, Much's following Robin's as Much has once followed their father. Then, when the children were grown and had children of their own, Much and Robin would sit by the fire, and chat about years gone by, and the life they had shared together. 

 

Robin had called Marian's name in his fever. Much understood that. Marian was home and normality and safety. She was hope for the future. She was a house and lands and children to bear Robin's name. She was soft skin and a smile, untouched by horror and war. He knew that Robin had loved her. He knew that Robin still loved her. He felt no jealousy. Robin would never tell Marian about the horrors he and Much had shared. Marian would see the mask – the carefree boy who never got hurt – but Much knew the truth. Much aspired to a different part of Robin's heart.

 

He did not mind if he was never touched again. That had been born from desperation and loneliness, far from women and hope and life. He did not mind if Robin succumbed over the charms of a silly woman, or even if he pined for the love of a worthy one. He did not even mind if Robin flirted with danger, his eyes smouldering as he traded threats with a black-clad enemy. None of those things threatened the part of Robin's heart that Much hoped to lay claim to.

 

But Robin had turned to other men for friendship, for loyalty, for trust. They were walking off now, and Much remained behind, leaning against his tree, and none of them had noticed that Much was not following them.

 

I have followed him for twenty years, Much thought. If I stopped following him now, would he notice? Would he be bereft, or would he feel relieved to be rid of me?

 

He heard Robin's laughter. He remembered Robin giving himself up, walking away, asking other men to come with him, leaving Much behind.

 

John vanished, lost in the trees. Will followed, and Allan. Robin was still visible, but he did not turn around. In a few steps, he would be gone.

 

Much gave a strangled sob. He felt as if hooks had been placed in his heart, and he was being stretched, torn apart, shredded.

 

"Master!" he gasped, and he hurried after Robin, anchoring himself on the sight of his back.

 

I am losing him, he thought, but then he shook his head. I have already lost him.