Author: Nettlestone Nell
Word Count: 8402
Characters/Pairings: Allan, OC Nell Stone, Robin, Little John, Much, DJaq, Will, Marian, Eve, OMC; DJaq/Will, Robin/Marian, Much/Eve, Allan/Nell
Spoilers/Warnings: #8 in the "We Are 2011" universe's Allan/Nell spin-off series, "A True Outlaw Story".
Summary: A story of Allan-A-Dale and Nell of Nettlestone. Set during the reign of King John, when after being pardoned Robin & Co. again must take to the forest. In which not every rescue proves a righteous one. Nor every condemned man wrongfully so.
Disclaimer: Characters and characterizations herein recognizable as those from BBC Robin Hood are BBC/Tiger Aspect's.
Category: Allan!Fic, so...Drama/Romance/Angst (possibly Hurt/Comfort); Epic Short Fic
Posted at: (simultaneously) The *NEW* Robin Hood Fanfiction Archive and LiveJournal community Treat Allan Right
Pardon Me, Please
Scavenger birds wheeled portentously in the air above Nottingham Town. It was to be a hanging day.
Would have rather pleased the old Sheriff, Allan thought, thinking of Vaisey and his 'pet' birds, their master now moved higher up King John's echelon, the post with which he had once been synonymous now handed along to another (equally corrupt and self-serving, it would seem) individual.
Certainly Nottingham (and its shire) seemed to fare little better than it had under the old guard; the old Sheriff, Gisborne, (even) King Richard.
And the country--what a shambles!
Allan spotted a well-known canon--his rich, clerical robes standing out--among the attending crowd, and wondered what it was like to find oneself a man of religion, of God, in a country involved in a political (and therefore spiritual) stand-off with Rome. In a country where the Pope himself had barred the Church from its job and duty--save baptizing, and very few other offices on English soil.
Punish the little people to get to the King? Not a very solid method, that. Take away their Mass--the blessing of marriages, of Holy Communion, Last Rites, other religious necessities he likely did not understand--bar the populace from access to God--the one person--erm--who might actually be on their side. 'Twas no wonder Robin had sent out the call, given the signal two months ago for the lads to drop what they were doing, how they were living, and reconvene in Sherwood.
But it was an odd re-assembling, a strange reunion. King John (Prince John what was) was too busy to immediately realize what had occurred, that the Earl of Huntingdon and his once-infamous gang of outlaws (now celebrated in story and song) had once again taken to the wood, aligned themselves once more with those on the wrong side of the Crown.
So there was yet to be any official re-outlawing of them; their pardons and paroles not yet revoked, Robin's lands and titles--his estate and manor at Locksley, even--still his by law, with no royal order in effect to strip them from his possession.
The six--'merry men' as they had sometimes come to be called--could yet walk freely in the Nottingham daylight without disguise. Still, in the wake of Robin's clarion call they had each forsaken their recently-acquired livelihoods and homes, their acceptable social standings courtesy King John's pardons, knowing that due to the actions they must take, the day could not be too far off when they would again be exiled to Sherwood legitimately.
Allan tried to duck down one of his favorite alleyways nearby the Trip when he narrowly missed colliding with someone coming out of it.
He pulled up short, his distraction turning to vapor as he recognized the woman. "Nell!" he cried upon sighting her face. "You're back!" He smiled with a combination of the 'old days'-style fun he knew was to come (courtesy Robin and the gang's agreed-upon plan-of-action), and now also with the unexpected pleasure of running into her.
Nell's face registered not quite so much pleasure. "I'm here for the hanging," she told him, her eyes appearing somewhat shifty in the bright daylight.
"And who isn't?" he asked, Nottingham Town full to bursting with prospective spectators. "Come," he invited her, extending his arm to shepherd her 'round the corner and into the Trip, "a drink--there's time yet."
"No," she told him, and he attempted to reach out to her to change her mind, but she let herself be swallowed up in the press of the bustling crowd and carried away.
He circled 'round and back trying to relocate her without any luck until the time came that he could devote no further energies toward it, and he, like the gang, like every other human (it seemed) in the shire, assembled in the square.
It proved to be a day of which the residents of Nottingham Town would tell stories for years afterward. The three men at the gallows gallantly--gloriously--saved from execution by Robin Hood himself! The giant Little John snapping the scaffolding's gibbet in half with only his bare hands as though it were no stouter than a gander's wishbone. Hood's Saracen daringly threatening the new Sheriff with her blade. Will Scarlet's axe once again transformed into a weapon for defending the peasantry against the Crown's erratic tyranny. And Allan-A-Dale--
Okay, so no one would tell any particular tales of Allan-A-Dale's exceptional skills on this day, but he had surely done his part and accomplished his mission as much as had any of the others.
Because his role in the mischief was not as flashy as the others', he had gone unnoticed, and was therefore about to stall in his retreat, using that time to attempt to re-locate Nell in the crowd, still intent on sharing that drink, curious as to what she had been up to (absent Nottinghamshire) in a place (as she had once told him she would seek out) with no A-Dales.
She had been dressed so gaily, so brightly--like an eye-catching party bunting--as though she wished to be picked out from the crowd, easily sighted across a far distance. It had seemed to him, at the outset, an easy enough task to spot and track her. But luck was not with him, and eventually he had to give way and set his feet to the old, familiar trail back to camp.
Allan was so pleasantly lost in Sherwood, his path twining among the underbrush, his feet instinctively knowing which direction to aim, where to turn. His mind had barely even to function to arrive him at Will's revived camp.
Trees he did not recall and could only assume had sprouted up in their time away enchanted him, as grandchildren might a toothless old gaffer. Streams whose beds had widened or narrowed--even if only incrementally--bubbled and babbled to him what he imagined was the gossip of the forest.
He would ever be a man preferring a bed to a tree root, a proper roof to a mere leafy overhang--but this was the world in which he knew himself to belong. He, and the lads. Together.
It mattered not that Will and DJaq often enough slept their nights in Sherwood distant from the camp. (Much convinced that Will had built them a private 'honey tree' of their very own.) Or that Robin frequently disappeared (far longer than he had in the old days) of a night back to Locksley (where Marian still chose to lay her head as long as possible at the Manor). Or that Much found he now had one more mouth to feed in his likewise-accepting-exile wife of six months, Eve.
Allan again felt home. He felt secure (well, as secure as he ever might). He felt...happy.
Not far out from the camp the dismaying sound of arguing and a struggle met Allan's ears. Recognizing the voices to be those of Little John and the others, he did not hesitate in showing himself, confident the hazard (or whatever it was) came from within, rather than an attack from without.
He pushed aside several eye-level branches to enter the familiar clearing of old, the conceal-able camp nestled between two rock faces.
"Oi!" Much slung at Allan upon sighting his tardy arrival. "Nice of you to join us!"
John, whose hair was wild with what appeared to be some sort of half-thrashing, seconded Much's sentiment with a sneer.
"You could have at least warned us!" Will half-accused him, nursing a cut near the rise of his cheekbone.
DJaq said nothing, but looked intently in his direction, her expression filled with 'what have you inadvertently done now?'.
"Wot?" asked Allan, mystified, his hands thrown open in a gesture of 'search me'.
At this, Robin broke through the trees opposite, toward the opened camp. His eyes registered that he saw Allan had arrived. "I have asked them, again, to reconsider and join us tonight."
Robin spoke to the others on a subject Allan did not recognize, but that Allan took to mean the rescued men.
"And to try to overlook the--unfortunate business. A meal, Much," Robin called. "Before we must send them on their way."
"Well. I'll not cook for that one," Much dissented, gesturing to Allan with a wooden spoon he had already picked up. "...Using our camp to entice wild young women into the Forest to try and eat us like cannibals. Attacking heroes," he protested further. "Heroes who saved the day--saved three lives in a single day!"
"Who?" Allan asked, having had his fill of not knowing what was going on. "Who--and what--are you talking about?"
"The banshee," John weighed in, forbiddingly.
"Allan..." In her direct and efficient way, DJaq cut to the quick of their suspicions. "Did you tell her how to find the camp?"
"Tell who?" Looking about he asked, "where's Eve?"
"At minding her," Robin answered him. "Though, of course, she's restrained."
"'Her', you keep sayin', and I keep hearin'," Allan could think of no further way to illustrate his cluelessness. 'Her'. But who's 'her'?"
"Nell," Will told him, pulling the cloth away from his cheek to see if the scratch still bled. "She said her name was Nell."
His heart jumped.
Nell! Here? Well, she clearly hadn't followed him. He'd only just arrived. She must have shadowed one of the others. But this banshee, this woman who'd had to be restrained, who'd managed to raise John's ire and bloody Will? Didn't sound like his Nell.
"One woman," he asked for clarification, "did all this?"
John gave him a look that would have taken a less-confidant man's skin off. "'Tis not easy wrestling a woman ye don't want to hurt."
"Wrestling?" Allan considered and lightly opined. "That don't sound much like Nell."
The gravity of DJaq's dark eyes were still upon him.
"No," he spoke clearly and specifically to answer her earlier question, "I did neither show her the way, nor direct her--nor anyone else, for that matter--to the camp."
Much, now at the job of the meal, could be heard (as he wished to be heard) muttering, "leave it to Allan to show up with a girl more ready to slit your throat than kiss your lips."
"Robin?" Allan appealed to their leader.
The (at least for the present moment) Earl of Huntingdon spoke. "We had not been returned to camp for long when she burst through the trees, trying to attack and kill one of the men we'd just rescued." He paused and looked at Allan with a bit of apology in his eyes. "Naturally we reacted as we would to any unexpected attacker..."
"She was hardly coherent," DJaq added.
"And what says the man she went for?" Allan asked, half-certain by this point in the story the blood-thirsty harridan the rest of the gang encountered must only share a name with his Nell.
"'Says she's one of the new Sheriff's spies," Much righteously answered, continuing on in his muttering about how the entire Guard would no doubt set upon them directly, drag them back to the dungeon, and him yet a newlywed and not ready yet this go 'round for torture and separation from his new bride.
"Well," Allan shared a moment of eye contact with each of the gang, bringing his eyes to rest, finally, on Robin's. "Let's have a look at this girl, then, for from your descriptions I do not think she can possibly be the Nell I know."
Robin walked with him to the neighboring clearing where they had subdued the girl and tied her to a slender tree to prevent her from hurting herself--or anyone else. She was blindfolded, but not gagged.
Eve was indeed sitting with her, but neither woman spoke, and their silence hardly struck Allan as companionable.
He did not have to get very close to correctly identify the gang's attacker as, disappointingly, his Nell. The merry frock of bright patterns and festive colors was an immediate give-away, as he had only just seen her in it mere hours ago.
Robin had been able to track the disenchantment of this realization as it dawned upon his face. Clapping a hand on Allan's shoulder, and beckoning to Eve to return with him to the camp proper, Robin spoke to Allan in an undertone. "If you can, sort her. But by all means keep her well clear of the camp--particularly until the hanged men can leave. If you find you cannot sort her, you must lead her off in such a way she cannot find her way back to us again."
Allan nodded his agreement, knowing the truth (and necessity) of such instructions.
He heard Eve and Robin retreat into the foliage behind him, knew them to be gone for some time. Yet he did not speak out to be identified. He took a seat in the spot Eve had vacated on the ground, and took his time at contemplating the figure before him.
Mostly, he was surprised to note, after his initial surprise, he felt cross. Irritated and disappointed that the first time she ever encountered the gang she had gone and...come off as crazy. Insane. Bent, they said, on murder.
Allan did not pretend to know everything about her, surely, but none of those words had ever come to his mind when he considered Nell--when he at times had shared stories of her with the gang.
As he surveyed her where she was tied to the tree, he noticed an uneven rip in her skirt as if won in a struggle, noticed that one of her fingernails had torn to the point that it was (or had recently been) bleeding.
So she had been sincere in the conviction of her attack. She desperately wanted one of the three liberated men dead. Enough to lash out at the gang in order to accomplish the doing of it.
He thought back on what he knew of the three. A coming-on-stout baker the new Sheriff said was eating more of his own meat pies than he was delivering to the castle, as was in his contract. A well-turned-out youth everyone in the shire knew had been keeping company on the side with the Sheriff's best girlfriend. And a dye seller from Nettlestone, whose cerulean dyes were said to have caused the Sheriff--and his Guard--an embarrassing rash.
A dye seller from Nettlestone.
Allan walked up to the tree and (thinking it best) first removed her blindfold before slitting off her restraints with his knife.
He had had to step in quite close to her to pull away the kerchief that had served to cover her eyes. In his height, were he to look straight ahead, the point of his chin would be just below her eye-level, his eyes seeing only tree bark above her forehead. But he bent his neck, slanting his nose toward her, in the last strong rays of daylight noticing three heretofore-undiscovered freckles that played along the base of her nose below where the blindfold covered.
For reasons he did not examine, his usually nimble fingers stumbled in the untying of the kerchief's uncomplicated knot, and he found he had to abandon that task for one of simply sliding the fabric up onto her forehead, where it sat, covering her brow.
While Nell's eyes were at coming into focus and filtering the forest's light so that she might see, he witnessed the tumult of drama within them, near like a spinning Catherine's Wheel.
Upon recognizing him, they blurred for a moment in their greenness, and snapped-to in settling. But still, what had been there before remained in the background; hypnotizing, magnetic. Intense as an arrowhead into soft flesh.
As he cut her free from where she was tied, she said nothing. Offered nothing.
She stepped clear of the tree and asked, "where are they?" while rubbing at her wrists. She did not complain of her prior treatment, nor share her side of what had occurred.
With a degree of uncertainty, Allan looked at the forest floor, at the bindings lying now-impotent there. Hoped his trust in her would pay off--and that if not, it would not be him who would be tasked with seeing to it she was again restrained.
"He is your husband," Allan declared, rather than asked. "That's right, isn't it? The dye seller--from Nettlestone?"
It felt to him as though the name of that village hung in the air between them like still fog of a Sherwood morn.
"Not every man the Sheriff condemns to hang is innocent," was her reply, spoken like a challenge, its sound a half-retch in her throat.
"Come," he told her, reaching for and taking her by the hand.
Her arm--her hand--proved taut, brittle to the touch, though she let him have it.
"Night is coming on." Despite the tension in her, he gave her hand a warming squeeze. "And we must find somewhere to make our fire."
If he must sort things (and it did seem he must) then he would do so in his way, not Robin's.
He built the fire with kindling he gathered himself, produced what he had of bread and cheese from a pocket within his tunic.
Nell sat away from the fire, refused the food. But what he saw when he looked to her was not a person shunning fellowship. Rather, he saw fear. Uncomplicated, childlike fear, to which his own early life had left him no stranger. He knew well that the comfort and companionship of others was the best solace (if not cure) for such, but he also innately felt that pushing her toward an interaction with him might well scare up another, more intricate emotion he'd have less of an understanding in dealing with. So he waited.
And when he did speak, he danced around the subject of the hanged men.
"How long's it been since you slept?" he finally asked, helping himself to the bread and cheese.
There was a very long pause. Long enough for him to think that she had not heard his question.
"Four days," she answered. There was within her a flash of clear surprise that her not having slept would be so apparent to him.
He finished what he had decided to eat, licked his fingers, and grabbed for a water skin he'd taken down to a stream while gathering kindling and filled.
"Four days, since you 'eard of the 'anging." He gave up expecting her to answer, carrying on conversation with himself instead. "One can get rather far afield from Nottinghamshire in four days. Especially if one manages to catch rides with friendly carters."
He went on to suggest the names of several places approximately four days' journey from Nottingham Town. Towns she may have left in order to return here.
Her only response was to let him finish and lay herself down as though planning to sleep.
His mind hit upon understanding. "And your frock--your bright colors. You meant him to see you--even out, across the crowd. Meant him to know you were there. Witness to it."
There was only her back to speak to. Rather, at.
It told him nothing.
The night came on as it did, like something creeping slowly into Sherwood. Whereas in the day there had been one-thousand differences of light creating innumerable shades of green, Sherwood now became a landscape of grey and black, the scarce moonlight calling out a single, blanketing shadow--a dampening of all color--with soft, uncertain edges, rather than the stark contrast of shadows thrown by flare of candlelight.
He did not know how long it had been since either of them had spoken (her back to him) when he heard her say, "Your forest is cold."
"No," he disagreed gently, citing the present mild weather of early summer, "'tisn't."
"Well, I am cold," she went on. "To my very marrow."
He thought he may have heard a shiver in her voice.
"Then come here, Love," he invited her, using that general-purpose endearment, but too wise in the moment to attempt approaching her.
She did rise, though slowly, and crossed by the fire toward where he lay half-reclined on the forest floor, propped on a single elbow. The way he might on a night when the lads sat around and chose to chat about the day's happenings.
"I suppose you will pretend it is innocently back-to-back you had in mind?" she asked, her tone too raw, her expression too vexed, to be mistaken for teasing.
Again he reached up for her hand, which still felt of brittleness (better, he told himself, than to feel of brokenness), gave it a welcoming tug, and she acquiesced to her knees lowering her to the ground, accepting a position on her side, where his front was to her back, his relative warmth along her length, facing the small fire.
They watched the fire awhile.
He tried not to fall into the trap of smelling her hair.
"Wot have you been doing?" she finally asked.
So they would talk, he noted. But not about the matter--the conflict--at hand. Very well.
"I have been existing," he told her, knowing she meant; 'since your pardon, since your gang disbanded--since you last called Sherwood home'.
He thought of the last time they had seen each other--their encounter at Merton Hall shortly before John's coronation. Suddenly he felt his body respond to the memory of that time in a way entirely inappropriate at the moment.
"Ignore that," he instructed her, sternly through his teeth, knowing it was an insistent enough sensation that she had doubtless felt it. "I'm trying to."
He had his right arm along the ground so that she was able to make use of his biceps as something of a pillow against the hard-packed earth.
Up came her left hand to his mouth. "Don't kiss me," she said, her fingers and thumb pressing against his lips as if to stopper them. "I do not know if I would comply, or sever your head as a trophy." She swallowed with great effort. "I no longer feel--like myself. I no longer feel right."
And then she did shiver. He felt it, like a spark of static jumping between two fingers.
"Hush," he assured her, when she had withdrawn her hand. "I said, ignore that. It will go away."
He let his left hand stroke under her chin, and wrapped it in something of a slight embrace meant to comfort, settling about the underside of her neck.
In the doing of that, though, his last two fingers inadvertently slipped behind her frock's neckline on the right side, into a spot below her collarbone toward her right shoulder, where they encountered an imperfection there.
His eyes narrowed in the darkness. He trusted his skilled fingers too much to doubt what they had discovered--re-discovered.
"You lied," he told her, his tone incredulous, referencing the time she had convinced him the Sheriff's Mark (Vaisey's brand of all Treeton residents) was simply part of a disguise she had manufactured. "There is no reason for you to fake this here. Why? Why lie to me about it? When I were honest with you?"
Nell felt the muscle in Allan's upper arm stiffen with contraction where she had rested her temple. The embrace he had tucked her into (this undependable, uncircumscribed embrace of a man such as Allan-A-Dale) felt solid. It felt protective. The sort of cuddle one longed for as a child scared of bogeymen (real or imagined). The nearness of another person in your fear, your hysteria. The sharing of emotion somehow making its intensity bearable. Surmountable. Endurable.
"Why? Why lie to me about it? When I were honest with you?" she heard him say, the tones coming to her as though they were one-thousand years old.
She did not have to clear her throat, but struggled to give noise to the words nonetheless. "It was a truth you could not have borne."
"And now?" he dared her, "Now you think me stronger? Better able?"
"No." That was all she had meant to say, a colorless 'no'. And then an end to it. But her lips and tongue continued to move. "Now I am too wrought to worry about you," she heard herself say. "I am too cold," it was a half-gasp, "to think of much else."
"So is this why," and she could tell he was now at coming at the question face-on, "you will not tell me the truth of why the dye seller from Nettlestone deserves to die? If not hanged by the Sheriff, then by your own hand? Because you have judged me incapable of facing it?"
His tone was not judgmental, not petty or irritated, or even pleading--those would have seen her lash out in response. It was only...curious. Desirous of understanding. Fathomlessly kind.
"No," she confessed, her throat half-closing on her. "'Tis because I cannot face it." She turned herself into his upper arm, closing her eyes against the rough tunic fabric there.
She felt his hand increase its embrace of the side of her neck.
This was ridiculous. He was...she was...a stranger. A come-lately acquaintance. She had meant to see-to her business in Nottingham Town and leave. Back to where she had been. Not have such a rare stroke of good fortune mucked-up by Allan-A-Dale, and Robin Hood and--the total nervous breakdown she seemed to be nearly in the throes of.
She wished fiercely for greater warmth in her bones, on her skin. She felt certain that would be the first sign she had returned to her effective, dependable self.
"Then tell me a truth," Allan asked of her, the breath of his words prickling against her bared skin. "A truth you can face." His hand smoothed back some of her barley-bree hair behind her ear, out of her face.
"I could never--" she nearly stalled out at his tender gesture, but continued with renewed determination, "I could never kill a man I'd loved." She watched the heart of the fire. "Not even loved for a moment. It would be like killing--like murdering--a part of me."
She felt his exhale. Felt him squeeze her incrementally tighter when he asked warily, "Have you ever killed a man, Love?"
She did not answer right away. She counted six heartbeats. "Not by my own hand."
"Not by my own hand," she said, tremendous relief (more than he would have expected) flooding into him.
He understood the distinction she chose to make. There were, after all--he well knew--ways to precipitate a death other than by one-on-one violence. Other ways in which to be guilty of, be party to--murder. Yes, he understood.
Inopportunely, his stomach made a moderately loud grumble, missing (surprisingly), it would seem, Lord Much's fabled camp stew.
"You should go back with your fellows," she told him, making a motion as though she might move away, out of his arms.
"No," he shook his head, "I cannot."
"Why?" she asked him.
"You know," he told her, not needing to recall to her mind that she was technically the gang's prisoner, not to be left alone.
"Are they also there?" she asked, brusquely, clearly referencing the three 'hanged' men.
"Yes." He saw no reason to hide the truth from her. "Robin is at feeding them before they will be sent off. To new lives."
"And so he feasts?" She of course, did not refer to Robin.
Allan felt another shiver.
"While we huddle in the dark?" A strangled scoff left her throat. "You are wise not to leave me alone. I would hear their noisy mouths and find him."
She shook, and in her neck he felt her pulse quicken in its pace like that of a spooked stallion.
"D'ya trust me?" he said, making quick work before she had a chance to protest of turning her to her opposite side, her back to the fire, so that she might face him eye-to-eye.
Her eyes showed him that was not the best-phrased question for him to ask.
"Very well," he backed-off. "Right. Let me give that another go: in this, do you trust me? Will you trust me?"
Her eyes looked up into his. He could tell it took effort on her part to keep them steady, the chaos in them earlier held only just at bay. She nodded her head incrementally, as though asking the dealer for two more cards.
Perhaps it was a gamble, after all, betting on him.
"Then sleep now, and tomorrow we shall seek out Robin."
"Why Hood?" she asked, not fighting against his new, more overtly intimate hold on her.
"Because I trust him."
He found his mouth wanting to pull into a small smile. He settled for allowing an approving twinkle to grace his eye. "Because someone I believe in once reminded me that not every man the Sheriff condemns to hang is innocent."
At this he relaxed certain of his muscles, and let his position on his side collapse, so that he was on his back against the forest floor.
Nell remained on her side, facing him, his arms still at holding her, far more gently than her prior restraints.
He could not say exactly when she had dropped off, finally, to sleep--though he had deliberately lain awake until that moment.
But later in the night he awoke to find her still so, curled into his side, her head near his heart, as though she wished to hear it beat--took strength, even, from it--her hands having sought out the warmth of his chest underneath his tunic.
Before dropping off again, his sleepy, satisfied mind thanked what powers that might be for Sherwood, for outlaws. For home.
"Why have you brought her back here?" Robin's voice skated along the narrow edge between shouting and demanding. "When they have not yet gone?"
The next morning the three 'hanged' men were still at the outlaws' camp, not yet disappeared into their new lives.
At Robin's display of annoyance, Allan held his position where he had just stepped through the tree cover and underbrush that ringed the campsite. He had managed to convince Nell that the gang would feel better if she arrived somewhat restrained to begin with, and she had let him bind them together at the wrist, their hands clasped there, making the stout hemp cording seem more like matching bracelets.
Upon sighting the three men (and, he assumed, the one in particular) she had again gone brittle as early winter's ice.
"Hear her," Allan asked, believing reasonably that they would.
"Hear her?" Little John protested, "I can still hear her battle cries ringing in my ears!"
"Hear her?" Much sputtered. "When what she wants would undo all the good we accomplished yesterday?"
"Will?" Allan petitioned his friend, hoping to find in him an ally.
Will returned a studied look with a shrug. "It is hard to take this seriously, Allan. You. A pretty girl, accused of spying. A night alone in the woods? And now you readily believe all you've been told?"
Of course this was no time to admit that, in point of fact, Nell had told him nothing. Nor to mention that despite that fact, he would nonetheless believe her. Believed her even now, in her silence.
"John went to check on you--see if you needed any help," Much all-too-happily pointed out. "And he found you--asleep. In. Each. Other's. Arms."
"Even now, you, holding her hand," DJaq pointed out sensibly.
"They fear she has turned your head, my friend," Robin needlessly elaborated.
"We've none of us forgotten your tale-telling where she's concerned," John reminded him. "What mischief she gets up to, this Nell."
"Turned my head? Turned my head?" Allan proceeded to storm, not liking the welcome he--they--received.
Without realizing it, he stepped forward one half-step in front of Nell, as if to shield her from what the gang was saying.
"I'll tell you about heads bein' turned," he went on. "All o' yours! Gone soft in your paroles. You've forgotten why we do what we do--not to be heroic, Much. Not to simply spite the Sheriff's will. Look at the rescue yesterday," he reasoned. "A near-disaster. The Master-at-Arms all but managed to slit DJaq's throat." He looked at Robin. "Sloppy arrows loosed everywhere--'twas a miracle no peasants were struck! Little John--climbing on the gallows, after the men were already freed, to grandstand? Showy enough to get yourself killed, Mate. And deserve it, at that!"
He turned back to Robin to see that their leader had to ruefully agree with his cutting assessment of the day prior.
"You have forgotten your understanding of others--of the people we're meant to be fighting for! DJaq--you knew soldiering. You knew slavery. Will! Were your actions any worse when the Sheriff killed your dad? Are we so full of ourselves now that we are beyond questioning ourselves? Beyond the doing of all good things?" He looked to John, caught his eye. "Making sure that what we've purposed is all good things?"
Allan looked back at Nell for a moment and then declared, "not bein' funny, but perhaps I'd best get us to Locksley. The Earl wot was Robin Hood, I'm certain will hear our grievance--"
Nell's eyes flashed at his unexpected use of the plural possessive.
"...and if he is not at home I am certain his lady wife will judge fairly our complaint. That's wot true nobles are supposed to do, ain't it? Mediate? Tend to the 'little people'?"
Allan gave their still-joined hands a determined shake.
"Stop," said Robin, before they could turn around and re-enter the forest. His voice was now colored with resignation, chastened. "Come closer. I will hear." He nodded his head with acceptance, and instructed the three freed men to hold their places.
Allan brought Nell closer toward Robin.
"Against which man is your accusation?" Hood asked her.
"Wynrick," she said, her voice so soft the other outlaws likely could not hear her answer. "The dye seller."
The man in question gave her a slick sort of a leer.
"And what relation is he to you?"
"He is my husband," her volume increased as she voiced Allan's earlier conclusion, but also went on, "and my step-father."
Throughout the clearing, eyebrows raised. In surprise, Much exhaled loudly through his nose.
"And your evidence against him?"
At this Nell looked at Allan. He tried to will his eyes to communicate to her that it would be fine, she could tell Robin. That she could trust him.
Allan felt her take her hand from out of his (though they remained joined by the length of strong cording), and she stepped away from him, closer to Robin, whispering into his ear in low tones that did not carry.
When she was finished, with a squint Robin queried the dye seller, a man whom he had not only recently rescued from the gallows, but with whom he had shared a meal and a night of camaraderie in the forest. "Wynrick, do you dispute this?"
The man laughed. "I dispute anything this little girl says."
It was apparent to Allan the man felt secure in the time he had spent with Robin and the gang. And fatuous in the belief that they would side with him over any proof Nell could offer as to his guilt.
The dye seller scoffed. "I never married her slut of a mother." His eyes came to rest on the ground between Robin and Allan, where Nell stood, her face half-blanched.
"Nell always did have trouble telling the truth," Wynrick shared, as though it were the opening lines of a dirty joke. "'Course, she is good for quite a few other things..."
"John," Robin called, far from finding humor in the dye seller's inappropriately vulgar treatment of the moment. "See to it Wynrick of Nettlestone does not leave the camp. Will, DJaq, talk with the other two--see if he may have shared anything of note with them during their time in the dungeons." At this Robin rose, planning to get himself shortly clear of the camp, and its current distractions. "I shall take some time to think."
At that the sound of a large horse racing (as best as it could) through Sherwood came to the ears of all, and momentarily a mounted Lady Marian broke through the trees.
"Nell?" she cried in surprise, upon sighting the woman beside (and still tied to) Allan.
Allan's head snapped 'round in genuine surprise at this undeniable proof that somehow Marian was acquainted with his Nell.
"Robin!" Marian shouted next, her words tumbling out one on top the other. "You have made a grave mistake I am told. Half of Nettlestone Village has come to the Manor in search of you for freeing the condemned dye seller--is it too late? Have you sent him along his way?" Her eyes scanned the clearing, but she did not know the man she was sent to look for on sight.
"He is still here, my love," Robin assured her, pointing to where Wynrick stood, held in abeyance by Little John.
"Thanks be," Marian said sincerely as she dismounted, hurrying to Robin's side to share with him all that had happened overnight in Locksley.
When no one appeared to be looking, Allan withdrew his second-best knife and discreetly severed the rope binding his and Nell's wrists.
She did not immediately drop his hand.
"What's to be done, then?" Will was the first to seek a solution to their present quandary.
"I've the lengthy list of charges, as dictated, and all corroborating evidence from the Nettlestone villagers, here," Marian suggested, incompletely, producing a parchment from within her traveling cape.
"'Could always drop him off back at the castle," Allan offered. "'Make the Sheriff happy."
"Yes," DJaq agreed. "It would be tidy, one supposes, but can the wronged villagers truly receive an act of proper justice at the hands of one so corrupt? The Sheriff would still be at executing him for the rash his dyes caused. His more grievous charges would not even go publicly heard."
"And Robin Hood would come off looking like a man who couldn't free someone and make it stick," Will agreed.
As was his way, hanging back from the discussion, Robin listened as they debated, and chewed on his lower lip.
"Kirklees!" Much spoke up.
"What?" Allan could not believe his ears. "Give him sanctuary at the abbey? A man such as that?"
"Not sanctuary--" Much dissented, "send him along with Marian's list of offenses to Lord Manxborough, whose estate is nearby Kirklees. He is a fair-enough baron, after all, acquainted through trade at the mill with the people of Nettlestone. He can be trusted to publicly air the accusations and pronounce a fair verdict."
"Agreed," Robin smiled at his friend. "An excellent solution all 'round. Now. Who will go and tell this Wynrick of his fate?"
"I will," Allan heard Nell declare.
A moment passed, the air all but buzzing with each individual's curiosity.
"Very well," Robin agreed, putting an end to the buzzing. "Be mindful, though," Robin cautioned her. "John will stay in attendance."
It was after she had left the clearing that Allan realized he was missing his first-best knife.
Not sure what to do--what he wanted to do--about Nell having lifted his weapon on her way to confront a man she had less than twenty-four hours earlier wished desperately to kill, Allan moved several steps away from where Robin stood, and gave himself a moment to reflect.
Did he truly want to stop her if she were still intent on killing this Wynrick? After all, at Marian's own word, half of Nettlestone Village had likewise given evidence condemning him.
Did it matter how he met his (obviously deserved) end?
Did he wish to alert the gang, who already thought Nell was half (if not entirely) out of her mind in a blood-thirsty fury? To further estrange her from them in their minds?
Torn, and unable to decide, Allan let the others quickly fall to planning the coming journey to Lord Manxborough's, and quick-as-you-like tracked off in Nell's footprints toward where John had earlier removed the doubly-condemned man.
He arrived too late.
That is, he arrived as Nell was departing.
His heart fell. It was quite suddenly apparent to him (the gut-feeling coming at him tardily but yet with impressive force) that he was certain he did not want her to kill this man--whatever it was he had done to her--done to anyone. He, Allan-A-Dale, most sincerely wished to keep Nell from acting executioner in this instance, no matter her own, opposite desire.
She came through the forest toward him on the narrow path, her eyes down, seemingly captivated by his first-best knife, still in her hand. Her grip opened, and it fell away from her, into the underbrush, before she had come close. Not even close enough for him to sight Wynrick's life's blood on the blade.
As this happened, her eyes came up and saw him there, met with his.
Heaven above but he wanted to be the kind of man in that moment that would know what to do--how to step forward in the daylight, when the childlike fear was gone, replaced by something colder and more complicated, more incendiary--a man who could take Nell into his arms and simultaneously fix things--the long ago past, the immediate past, the future to come. The kind of man who could give his word--make promises that would be believed. That could be acted on.
Why were his arms not that place? Why had he not paid more attention in life? More attention to men like Robin? Women like DJaq? Who seemed to have a gift for such moments, such terribly, terribly important intersections of life? Where a single gesture, a single word, could mean the difference between a meeting of the souls--of the minds--and an utter rejection of such.
He was reduced, he thought, to a jester. The man with snappy repartee who knew how to leave a party before anyone got too bored with him or saw through his put-on facade. The man he had become--the personality he had cultivated--though efficient and effective in his work, and up 'til now in his personal life (all of which was usually quite satisfying) simply fell apart here in the Forest into something counterfeit. If he were not ready, not prepared to aid her in this moment--anything in life he'd experienced before it, anything he'd learned or suffered through, had all been for nothing.
And so he could only look at her, at her jolly frock, the neck he had only hours ago been allowed to caress, the body he had been allowed to hold. He knew his mouth hung open. He knew it would seem as though some words ought to be spilling out of it, some comfort, some precious wisdom. Some genuine expressions of tenderest affection, of legitimate--. Legitimate-- He could not think of what word ought to go there. Well, something like love, he supposed.
But he made no sound, though his lips, perhaps still hoping for the best, did not close.
"I was never his," she spoke, her words coming out as though they were formed in boiling oil dropped on her tongue. Her left hand went to her right shoulder, and she beat her fist there. "I am not the Sheriff's," she went on, her eyes flashing at him, "and I am not yours. As my mother is dead, I belong to no one."
She was as furious as he had ever seen her. Like something wild trapped in a bottle. He wanted to say that he had found, in the end, that belonging was not such a terrible thing. That she needn't pronounce it so venomously. He belonged with the gang. He would like it no other way.
And it wasn't limiting. It wasn't possessive or imbalanced. It simply meant he and the gang shared a connection. A responsibility with each other. Cor-blimey, it was maybe even--if Will and DJaq's was any by which to judge--a bit like a marriage. The right kind of marriage.
The kind of relationship to which even a thief--even the very man that betrayed Robin Hood--could commit.
But he said none of these things aloud, and so they went unheard, unless she were somehow able to read them among the turning facets of his eyes.
"Do not follow me," she warned him, holding her fist out in his direction. "This is not a ploy, this is not a flirt." She began to back up into the woods, her fist, her elbow still extended to separate them. By the time the she was waist-deep in underbrush, she simply choked out, "not" one more time, wheeled about, and ran.
She was out of sight in no time at all. But he could still hear her noises as she crashed through the undergrowth. His right heel raised and his body pivoted to go after her, but he froze mid-motion when he heard DJaq's shout coming from the direction in which John had taken Wynrick.
Allan's head swung toward the direction of Nell's flight--then back to DJaq's shout. Knowing it must mean the gang had found Wynrick dead, he took off in that direction, believing he might be able to stall them--to be of some help to Nell--before they decided to go after her.
He saw DJaq hovering over Wynrick's motionless body, Little John nearby still brandishing his staff. Will, Robin and Marian had all found their way to the clearing as well.
"There will be no need of a trip to Manxborough-by-Kirklees, after all," DJaq declared.
"'S'alright though, right?" Allan tried to sound chipper, while delaying their pursuit of Nell. "Universally acknowledged bad man meets bad end. Hmmm?"
"It would have been nice to have seen him publicly brought to justice," Will commiserated.
Allan opened his mouth to try and belay anyone else seconding Will's sentiment when Little John broke in with irritation.
"Well I did not know I hit him so very hard, now did I?"
"Wait." Allan interjected. "Wot's that?"
Marian looked at him as though he were one of the slower children in the schoolroom. "Well, I for one am grateful for your quick reflexes, Little John."
"As am I," agreed Robin, grabbing Marian with one arm and hugging her to him.
DJaq alone saw that Allan was still two steps behind. "Wynrick threw himself at Marian, with a weapon we had failed to seize. He seemed to wish to kill her for having been the one to bring the news that would re-condemn him."
"Okay," Allan began. "Wait. Again. Little John sent this bloke into eternity. Not Nell? Nell didn't kill 'im?"
John looked at him. "Hardly."
"What'd'ye mean, 'hardly'?" Allan asked.
John explained. "Well, she came, certainly, with murder in her eye. But I watched her close, and even when she raised a knife to his throat I waited to see. Gave her benefit of the doubt on account of you," he nodded his head to his friend.
Little John shook his head. "She told him she forgave him. Told him someone had once told her that it was the only way to live. With that, she lowered her knife and left the clearing without another look back."
Allan felt like someone had landed a combination double-blow to his solar plexus. He had no air for a reply, nor for further questions. His eyes skittered and scattered, taking in everything about the clearing before him, committing it to memory as though something monumental had happened there.
With this information he felt like John had just gifted him with a foolproof skeleton key--but to what he could not quite say. He had the answer, and yet in the getting of it he had lost the question.
Will spoke up. "What was her evidence, Robin?"
"Dunno," Robin answered. "She simply asked me if we couldn't step out in private for her to give it me."
Will replied with curious incredulity, "And yet you asked Wynrick if he disputed it?"
"Well," Robin twinkled with the mischief of it. "He did not know that. 'Twas his reaction to her that first clued me into something being wrong."
Allan's mind was still racing when he heard DJaq speak to him. "You ought to go after her, your Nell," DJaq looked from gang member to gang member, as if collecting their approval. "I think we should all like to...re-meet her."
Robin nodded his head.
"Nah," Allan replied, attempting a tone of indifference. "Can't."
He realized that he could not. Had she killed this man, had she gone through with what she set out to do, he could have chased after her. Could have caught up with her (despite her having told him not to pursue her). Could have reached out to her, scolded her--something.
As it was, being that she had not only spared Wynrick--but had forgiven him--quoting Allan's own hard-learned philosophy in the doing of it--he knew that if he did nothing else he had to honor her wish. That one followed the other.
Like a betting man seeing that the table has gone cold for him, he knew that going after her would be the worst thing he could possibly do.
"Shall I go, then?" Will asked, as always, helpfully. "Tell her, you know, that she's now a--widow and all?"
"No," Allan shook his head, each of his friends in their own way noticing an unfamiliar depth of regret settling upon him. "She, um, she wants to be alone."
He had not expected to find it such a hard thing to say.
- Current Mood: disappointed