Disclaimer: Robin of Sherwood and all related elements, characters and indicia copyright HTV and Goldcrest Films International 1984-2006. All Rights Reserved. All characters and situations—save those created by the authors for use solely on this website—are copyright HTV and Goldcrest Films International 1984-2006.
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Author's Note: Set during "The Greatest Enemy". Written for the Yuletide 2006 Challenge for Lys.
Robert of Huntingdon dropped the bow and quiver to the forest floor.
You will return.
Robert turned his back on the man who was a god, standing at the forest's edge with the shadow of a stag's antlers across his brow.
As with many things, it began with dreams of a woman.
It was just after Robert's cousin Isabella had been born. The journey North to William's court for the naming feast had taken forever, and he had taken a fever which nearly killed him. His father David, never one for great displays of emotion, had been frantic. To see his greying father, an aged crusader praying by his bedside and that had frightened him more than the physicians' bloodletting.
At first the fever dream was merely an impression, as if he had fine silk drawn across his eyes like a veil through which only shapes could be discerned. Pale limbs, the pink tip of a breast, the sweet curve of a hip.
He woke two days later when fever had broken, his father by his bedside. He wanted to tell him of his phantoms. Instead, he accepted the cup of barley water to wet his parched throat, and said nothing. Buried the secret as far down as it would fit inside him. The only thing he truly had that was his own.
I am Herne the Hunter and you are a leaf, driven by the wind. What drew you to the forest?
"There was a voice."
The dreams continued long after the fever had left him. Robert would wake at the pearly grey light of dawn, his thighs sticky and his breath coming quick as if he'd run up all the stone steps from the castle keep to the highest tower. He was only fifteen, and believed that phantom lovers were the inevitable fate of all fifteen year old boys.
He spent his days at sword practice, trying to sweat out the dreams with brute force, but they returned each night to torment him with their sweetness. Night after night for months, he would feel her fingers gripping his shoulders the moment sleep overcame him. He dreamt a voice whispering a name between panting, mewling cries of pleasure.
Another man's name. Her name would hover on his lips like the memory of wine, but it was always gone when he woke.
String the bow.
To give it purpose.
Huntingdon Castle was his father's greatest achievement. The original walls had been pulled down and burned by the Plantagenet king when they had dared to stand against him, in support of his rebel son. Time and money had healed some of the animosity between the two kings, and when David returned from the Holy Land it was to build a new fortress upon the ancient site. From the time Robert was a small boy, the motte and bailey had always been thronged with masons and carpenters, apprentices always underfoot as they rebuilt the keep.
It was easy to climb over the half-finished walls at night, and escape his father's watchful eye. His bow in hand, the arrows wrapped in cloth to keep them from rustling, Robert would steal down to the vineyard to practice in the bright moonlight. His arms ached with drawing the bow, and his first attempts were laughable and earned him a vicious welt on the inside of his forearm as his fingers trembled with the strain and the bowstring snapped back with a strangled cry.
But in his dreams, his arms never shook. Each night as he slept, he could draw the string back to his jaw. In his dreams, his aim was true.
While his father David hunted with falcon and hawk, Robert learnt how it could pierce a shield at 200 paces. Dreamt of how it would enter a man at twice that. Saw the cheap woad-dyed cloaks of Nottingham's soldiers fall before the goose-feather fletched shafts every night while David slept.
And still thoughts of the nameless woman and the forest haunted him.
You're Herne's Son. You must lead them.
"Herne's Son is dead."
Robin of Loxley is dead. Herne's Son lives again in you.
"No. It's finished."
For years, when he closed his eyes at night, he lived another man's life. Made love to another man's wife. Saw the faces of another man's friends. Another man's brother. Knew them, each one, even though he had never clapped eyes on them in the flesh.
He saw children with empty eyes, their bellies distended and limbs frail as twigs. Men and women with bare feet as they worked the fields not for themselves but their masters, coins flowing like water into the king's coffers while the serfs starved. Men missing limbs, their faces scarred where eyes had been plucked out or burned away. Not the England his father saw from the great hall of Huntingdon castle, but the England Robert knew existed all around them. Henry, Richard, John. The name of the kings did not matter to them. Only the starvation and deprivation that bled the country dry year in and year out.
Robert had learned Greek and Latin, read all the books in his step-mother's library, but this was the legacy of the Norman conquerors of this island that was not set down to vellum by any cleric's hand. It was written in the blood that soaked the land since before he was born. Robert could recite French poetry, but had no words for the horrors he saw every night when he closed his eyes.
Every day he lived the life of an earl's son. Worked with the sword in the keep, ate at his father's table. Sat at David's side through every policy meeting, listened four times a year as the tenants came forward with their wants and needs. Gave alms to the poor at the hospital of St John in the village. He spoke French with the nobles, Gaelic with his father, and the Saxon's rude tongue with the castle servants.
David never once asked his son where he had learnt it.
Robert never told him that in his dreams, he spoke nothing else.
You were chosen.
"You called and I answered. His followers are safe. It's enough."
You are the Hooded Man.
The soldier's name was Hugh. He'd returned with his father from the Crusade to find his wife and children dead from a harsh winter, and he had stayed on as one of his father's men ever since.
When Robert asked him to teach him how to use a quarterstaff, he'd laughed and tried to send him back to the master-at-arms and his sword practice.
Robert came back every day, a rough-hewn staff he'd cut from an oak tree that grew outside his chamber's narrow window in his hands. Eventually, Hugh showed him simple blocks and sweeps. Day by day, as summer melded into autumn, and the first frost touched the land, he worked with the staff. He even laughed, the first time he swept the old man's feet out from under him, and he tumbled to the hard-packed earth.
In his dreams, he fought a giant and won.
The Hooded Man shall come to the forest, there to meet with Herne the Hunter, to be his son and do his bidding.
Robert dreamt of a lake, sunlight dappling the water. He leaned forward to use the stillness as a mirror, but a stranger's face gazed back at him. Dark hair framing a pale angular face. His eyes were green as the forest. He reached out, his fingers almost brushing the reflection, when he heard the voice.
When he woke, he knew where he had to go.
Just not why.
It should have taken him days to reach Sherwood from Huntingdon, even riding his father's best horse. But the forest closed around him like a lover, the trees flashing by as he crouched over the horse's neck, its long stride eating the miles like something out of myth.
He thought he could hear voices urging him on. Every call of a bird seemed to him to be the song of steel against steel as he urged the horse on faster and faster. His throat ached, but he never stopped for water. His stomach reminded him he had missed dinner and breakfast twice over, but he ignored it.
At dawn a servant would have gone in to stoke the fire, and found his bed made, his head having never touched the pillow. By noon, the alarm would have been raised, and his father would curse him for being a wastrel and a fool.
He kept riding toward Nottingham, racing against his own growing feelings of dread.
His knife cut through the wattle and daub hut like it was air. He saw their faces, grimy with sweat and blood but grinning as if it were all a joke. Men he had never known, yet knew like his own brothers. Scarlet closest to him, John, the tracks of tears still wet on his cheeks. The Saracen crouched by the door, his black eyes following his every move as he worked the blade against the hemp ropes which bound them. Tuck, the priest, leaves and moss still caught on his homespun robes.
"They told us you were dead."
They looked right into his face, but it wasn't him they saw. It was a dead man.
A voice. What did it say?
"It said nothing's forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten."
His arrows hit their marks. The sheriff's steward dropped his sword as an ash shaft pierced his arm, the gleaming arrowhead soaked in red from where it protruded out the other side.
"You told me he was dead," the other man spat as Robert fitted another arrow to his bowstring, trained it on the slight, greasy, weasel-like man who was moving behind the line of guards slowly and awkwardly as if he were in his cups.
Robert de Rainault, the king's appointed sheriff of Nottingham. He had never attended the council of nobles in Nottingham, and should not have known his face. Had known De Rainault only through his father's curses and the horror stories that filtered up from the villages of men blinded and maimed for stealing bread to feed their families. But he knew the spectre as a child's nightmare made flesh. Knew him just as he had known the outlaws faces. Knew him from dreams.
"Kill that man! Kill!" Spittle flew from the sheriff's lisp as he screamed, but Robert's aim was true. His arms never faltered as he heard the outlaws crashing through the underbrush behind him. Heading deep into Sherwood.
Safe. The ghost that rode him was at peace at last.
Safe in Sherwood.
Robert held his breath as the soldiers lowered their crossbows. He let it out softly as he turned and melted away into the forest like smoke.
This was like one of his dreams, he kept repeating to himself as the sheriff's shouts followed him in the twilight.
Just a dream, and soon he would wake.
The body had been left to the carrion eaters. Limbs hewn by the soldiers swords and pikes, red blood soaking the grass at the base of the hill. Robert tasted bile in the back of his throat as he knelt there in the gore.
"Who are you? Who were you?" he asked the dead man.
Robert began gathering stones to make a cairn. Sweat dripped into his eyes , running down his neck beneath the leather hood as he piled them one atop the other until he stood next to a monument for a brother had had never known except while he slept.
"Who am I?" he asked the sky, and his only answer were the calls of the owls in the forest.
He had no answers, and that frightened him more than the soldiers had, with their crossbows trained on his heart in Wickham village.
Her hair was bright as a new copper penny, tumbling down her back in a tangle of curls. Smoke rose from the bundle of oil-soaked rags fixed to the shaft of the arrow.
Marion, he whispered for the first time, as the arrow was swallowed by the lake, the flames extinguished with a hiss.
Finally he put a name of his phantom. He wanted to step out of the shadows, put his arms around her. Brush away her tears with the back of his hand as he had always done. But he was frozen by her grief, mired in her sorrow. He knew every curve of her body, could recall the scent of her hair. But he was a stranger. Not the husband she had lost. Not the leader she had followed. Her courage shamed him, as he let his own arrow fly before he ran through the trees as the outlaws startled cries followed him.
Who are you? they called.
He wasn't sure he knew any longer.
Robert of Huntingdon dreamed, and was afraid to wake.
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