Chapter 1: Hello the Road
It wasn't an entirely unusual occurrence for Marian to come visit him at Huntington. Robin knew that his father loathed her visits, claiming that rumors would spread, while his mother had always enjoyed the times when Marian would come. For almost four years, she had been arriving at Huntington Hall as she pleased, always accompanied by one of the women who worked in her father's manor. Typically, Joan would enjoy a meal and gossip in the kitchens; it was a small holiday from her usual work.
On that day, Robin was surprised to find a rather wild looking Marian waiting for him. Her dark hair had come loose of her braid and was in a flurry all around her face, obviously windblown. There was mud splattered on the hem of her dress, and she was still catching her breath. From the appearance of things, she had ridden her horse nearly into the ground to get there.
"Marian? Is something wrong?" He noted that Joan was not with her and she was quite alone.
"I hope you're not busy, because I need to—" She broke off, clenching her fists. She exhaled before continuing. "I need to release some anger. Can we go somewhere?"
Robin was familiar with Marian's moods, and knew what she needed. "Of course. Wait here." Within a few minutes he had ducked inside the kitchen and collected a satchel with fresh apples, cheese, and few meat pies. He hadn't missed the looks the women there had given him. They didn't say it, but he knew that people were beginning to regard his time with Marian as inappropriate. They had reached an age (she at fifteen and he at seventeen) where spending time together outside of social requirement could be considered unacceptable. He wasn't unaware of it, but he chose to ignore it.
With a gesture for Marian to follow, he left the hall by the back door with his friend close behind him. Huntington was situated near to a small woods. England had deep, old forests as well, but the small woods near Huntington Hall was much safer and closer. He and Marian had spent many hours in this woods. Now, it welcomed them back into its cool and quiet cover. The colorful leaves of autumn crunched underfoot, and there was slight chill in the air. Once they were far enough in that the world outside could be neither seen nor heard, the pair of them sat against separate trees, facing each other.
"Did something happen?" he asked, breaking the silence.
She began working her fingers through her hair, setting it free of her braid entirely. "The sheriff and his son came calling on my father." Her fingers went through her hair one last time before she shook it free entirely. "I've never liked his son, as you know."
Robin nodded. They had been through a few disputes with the sheriff's son, Edward, before. He was an entirely rude young man without any noticeable good qualities to offer.
Marian looked uncomfortable, upset by what she was trying to say. "He told me today that he planned on marrying me." Her fists clenched, and she shook her head, rejecting the thought of it. "Once you're old enough, he said. I told him I wouldn't. I told him I didn't… want to. I was close to raising my voice, but my father would have heard. I was so angry, Robin. I wanted to hit him, but I knew I couldn't. So I left."
Robin couldn't express his thoughts. He didn't know how to express them. "He's a filthy bastard." His voice was low, in an attempt to mask over the emotions underneath. In one aspect, his father had good intuition. He might disagree on the opinion that he shouldn't be seeing Marian alone, but the rumors that he seemed to suspect wouldn't be unfounded. Robin would be a fool if he didn't notice Marian for the beautiful girl that she was, and the thought of Edward saying those things to her made him feel sick.
Suddenly, he realized the implications of what Marian had told him and felt a panic rising within him. "Wait, was that the reason for the visit? Did your father make an agreement with the sheriff?" His stomach turned at the thought.
"No, but I think he made his intentions clear enough." It was quiet for a while and then Marian slammed one fist into the bark of the next tree over.
Robin got up, taking her injured hand in his. One side of her palm was scratched and bleeding. "Don't hurt yourself over this. It's not worth it."
"Not worth it?" She jerked her hand away from him. "Did you not hear me? Just before I ran, he told me it didn't matter if I wanted to be his wife or not, because I'm going to belong to him!" She stood up, turning away and then whirling to face him again. "It's worth it to me, because I don't want to belong to Edward, but I don't have that choice. I don't get to choose, and I hate it! I can't choose to visit you, and I don't get to choose how to spend the rest of my life."
"I know. Forgive me. I didn't mean that what happened doesn't matter." He stayed where he was, looking at his distressed friend, unsure how to console her. She paced for a few moments, before he spoke again. "What would be your choice?"
She stopped and looked at him, before gesturing to the surroundings. "This. You. Peace and quiet where I can feel happy."
"I'll keep him away from you, I promise." It was an impulsive promise, perhaps impossible, but he didn't know what else he could say to console her. He stepped closer to her, once again taking her scratched hand between both of his. "But don't hurt yourself, yes?"
They spent the rest of the afternoon in their wooded sanctuary. They talked about calmer topics, ate their meal and threw some of it to an over-curious squirrel. When the sun began fading, Marian returned her hair into a neater braid than the original and Robin tucked the empty satchel into his belt. When they neared the edge of the wood, Marian stopped and turned towards him. "You asked me what I would choose, but I have to wonder if you know that I was serious when I gave you my answer."
"I know you were serious," he responded.
She smiled. "Are you sure?" Rising slightly onto her toes, she brushed a light kiss against his cheek. "If I could choose, I would choose you."
Seven Years Later
Marian received the message on a hot afternoon. She and her few servants had been working to change the rushes in the hall of the manor which she shared with her husband. It had been a part of her dowry, and as a child she had once looked forward to becoming like her mother and tending it. The idea of being in charge of something of that importance had excited her, and she'd watched everything her mother had done in anticipation of the day the responsibility would pass on to her.
Now, she found little joy in it, despite that it was the greatest joy in her life. Considering her husband's status as the son of the sheriff, one would think she might lead a life of small luxuries. But the sheriff's greed and ill-temper had been passed on to his son. Marian no longer cherished life in the way she once had, and simple everyday pleasures were her solace. Her life before marriage had been much better; she had spent the first seventeen years of her in happiness.
"My lady Marian," the steward said from the door. "A messenger is here to see you."
She straightened, patting the top of her head to smooth her hair. Her hair was pulled back and braided, with a kerchief tied over it to keep the dust away. She didn't look much like a lady that day, since it was a day of work. Better to keep busy than to keep still with no conversation to turn to. Better to have something else to think of than what would happen when Edward returned home. Despite all these reasons, however, she was still the lady of her manor; its upkeep was her responsibility and one of the few things she could take pride in.
Marian followed the steward out into our small yard, where there was a man still on his mount just inside the gate. A young man in the colors of the Earl of Huntington.
She felt her heart come alive for the first time in months. Once, she had known the earl's son, and it had been a precious friendship. Her relationship with him had eventually evolved into a courtship before he left on Crusade with the king. She had known love and then lost it. She feared letting her mind wander too far into those memories, however, lest she forget how far she was from ever achieving that happiness again
The messenger inclined his head, and which she returned. "Lady Marian, I come bearing invitation to a reception to be held at Huntington Hall, next Saturday evening." The horse lifted his feet, stepping slightly to the side, both man and mount seeming eager to deliver the news and be off. "It will be to honor the return of the Earl's son, Robert of Locksley. What answer might I give to my lord Huntington?"
Marian stared at the messenger, her hand covering her mouth. Fearing what she might say by mistake, she was afraid to answer. Robin was home. Her Robin. He was home, in England again. She hid a growing smile behind her hands, thinking of what it would be like to see him again. She wondered how he might have changed since the last she saw him. What it would feel like when he put his arms around her? He would embrace her, wouldn't he? Marian could still remember their farewell kiss all those years ago. The promises they'd made to each other in the dark had seemed so tangible at the time.
"I'll wait for you." She grasped his face between her hands, trying to hold on to him for what time they had left. "I'll be here when you get back and we can be together again." She planted a kiss against his bare shoulder before laying there, with her hands about his neck. "I'll wait."
Her smile faded. Those promises were broken; life's demands had shattered them. She was married to a husband who cared only for the pleasure he could force from her. If she accepted this invitation, not only would Edward go to the reception as well, but he would be furious. She cringed to think of the rage he would show her. Her only choice was clear: She had to reject the invitation. Had Robin sent the invitation personally? Would he be the first to hear the response?
Forgive me, Robin. Please forgive me.
She took a quavering breath. "Please tell my lord Earl that I have a prior engagement. I convey my deepest apologies, but welcome his son back to England." Marian looked to her steward. "Take this messenger to our kitchen and see to it that he is fed before his return to Huntington." Tears threatened to overspill, so she hurried to retreat indoors.
As she passed back through her door, she felt more grief and joy than she had thought possible to feel at the same time. Leaning against the wall beside the doorframe, she closed her eyes. She wanted to see him, and yet couldn't. Not yet. She would wait for the right moment, and she would go to welcome him home. The next time Edward left for a few days, perhaps. But for now, Robin was home, and that was enough.
Thank you, God. Thank you for bringing him home. Even though I cannot love him as I once did, thank you for his safety.
By dinner that night, she was composed and acted as usual while she and Edward ate in the daily silence. She couldn't even remember the last time they'd had a real conversation. Glancing up at him over her cup, she tried to appraise his mood, but couldn't read his expression. He was not a large man, her husband. He was only just taller than she was, and dark hair and a beard framed his rather unattractive face. Yet, people feared him. He had his father's reputation to precede him, a cruel heart, and the power to harm those who displeased him. She hated him, and yet it had become her duty to care and look after him.
Edward looked at his wife with a measured gaze. Marian gave him a small nod, continuing her meal, uncomfortable under his scrutiny. She had not told him about Robin's return, and did not plan to. She didn't want him to ruin the happiness it had given her, and she knew that he would if he had the chance. Years ago, Robin had been the only thing to stand between Edward and herself. There had been more than a few angry words between them; and she had been glad at the time. On one particular occasion, Robin had humiliated Edward, and had gained his hatred ever since.
But then Robin had gone and there was no one there to keep him away from her. As a woman, her place in society didn't allow her to refuse easily, and especially not when her father had accepted Edward's bid for her hand.
"Marian," he said suddenly. "Have you heard of Robert of Locksley's return? I heard he's back from crusade."
Inwardly, she sighed. She didn't want to have this conversation. "I did. We were invited to a reception to welcome him home. I declined, thinking that it would not please you," She kept her eyes down, taking a sip of wine while focusing entirely on the action.
"You're my wife, of course it wouldn't please me." His voice was harsh and angry. "You've done right to refuse. That whoreson can have a reception without inviting my wife to join."
Whoreson, indeed. Robin held more rank than Edward and had a fine lady for a mother, God rest her soul.
Marian continued eating, not tasting the food. She wanted to excuse herself, but it was hardly the time. Silence continued until he broke it once more, with an order that made her stomach turn. "Come to my chambers after dinner." He smiled at her, his smirk cruel. There was an unspoken message within his demand, and he knew she understood. His words were smugly possessive, reminding her of his claim to her life.
She only nodded, not wanting to respond.
The meal continued in silence, although Marian hardly ate after that brief and painful conversation. When he set his knife down at last, he stood, saying, "Ready yourself and come to me."
She was obedient, and did as he had asked. She didn't want to, but over the years her spirit had worn away, and she didn't have the fight left that she used to. There had been a time she might have locked the door to her room and refused, but not anymore. Better to accept her fate than have him force himself upon her and be left with angry bruises to punish her for her disobedience. At first, she'd fought and taken his anger; now she only wished for it to end quickly. Taking herself into her room, Marian took down her hair and washed herself. She would suffer this night as she had all the others: With her eyes fixed on the rafters above her husband while she took her mind as far away as she could.
Robin was waiting in the courtyard when his father's messengers returned. He had been back on English soil for nearly a week, but this would be the first time he'd have the opportunity to hear from Marian. For six years, he had waited. For six years, he had survived on only the memory of her.
He picked Hugh out from the mounted men, and hurried to meet him. "Hugh, what did she say? What was her response?"
Hugh looked at him with poorly concealed pity. "She declined, my lord Robert. She conveys her apologies, but has an engagement she must attend." In a single motion, Hugh dismounted. "I wish I could give you happier news."
"Of course," Robin answered.
Hugh nodded, and then led his horse to the stables, leaving Robin with his thoughts. He knew already of her marriage to the sheriff's son. His nephew, Will, had told him the day following his arrival at Huntington Hall. It had hurt, but he hadn't expected her to wait for him. That would have been a ridiculous expectation. Ridiculous or not, he still wanted to see her. Even if it was a corrupt wish in light of her married state.
He'd already lost her, and he knew that. He'd known as at nineteen as he was carried away aboard one of many crusader ships. He hadn't chosen to leave her behind, but there had been obligations to take care of. His late brother had been determined to go and seek victory and honor. Robin's father had been proud, and without worry for either son had instructed Robin to go as well. It had been a matter of pride, giving him the ability to boast of two sons who had gone to fight for God, king, and country.
To Robin's mind, there was no valor in war and there was nothing to boast about. Almost any man on that battlefield would have agreed with him, and Thomas would have as well if he'd been given the chance. He'd died in gruesome bloodshed, and in the end he'd only wanted to be home.
Robin had only ever longed for home. Now, he breathed it in – the damp air of England. It smelled of green and growing life, where not too long ago there was only the stench of sweat, blood, and dry heat. No more.
He set off with a brisk pace back into Huntington Hall. He was home, and, for him, a woman of his past was a part of that. He would see her. If she had to decline his invitation, then his remaining option was to visit her personally. He could still remember how her hair felt in his fingers, and the softness of her arms. Was it wrong to still feel so strongly towards her?
In honesty, he didn't know.
A week passed by, and Marian worked through her days, as she had done before. She kept records of the larder, mended her husband's clothing, cared for the few animals. It was an industrious routine; and it took her away as it had for the long years she'd been married to Edward. It would have been a lie to say that her life hadn't been uprooted by the news of Robin's return, but until Edward left the manor for a few days, there wasn't anything that she could do.
On that day, she was outdoors looking at the loose cobblestones of the path leading to the manor with the steward. "Lady, these 'ere are the worst of it," he said pointing to a few cracked stones which were no longer set into the ground in the least.
"Have you tried setting them again?" she asked, hoping for a quick solution.
"Aye, Lady. I did just two weeks past. They've come loose again. 'Tis the break in the stone that's the problem." He ran his fingers over the damage, and Marian nodded in agreement.
With a sigh, she said, "There's no sense in trying fix what's already broken. Replace these, and reset the others." She straightened, resting her hands in the dip of the small of her back. The sun beat down overhead, and she was eager to return indoors, although she doubted that it would keep the sweat from her neck. It was then that she heard the hoof beats on the road, and she closed her eyes for a moment. She had been hoping for a few more hours of relative peace before Edward returned.
Turning towards the road, she lifted a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. It didn't take long to recognize the rider wasn't her husband, but it wasn't until horse and rider stopped outside her gate that she realized who it was.
Robin. He was there. She took a few steps forward, but stopped, hesitant. The lines of his face were harsher than before, matured. His shoulders were wider, and he seemed different in the way he carried himself. She didn't know how to respond, and it seemed as though he was just as unsure.
It had been too long. There were things she wanted to say to him, things she wanted him to know. She'd rehearsed them all week, and suddenly the words seemed wrong. Her friend was home, while so many others had died fighting in the holy war. Yet here he was, and she didn't know what to say. He was the one person in her life who had actually listened to her, and suddenly she didn't have the words.
Robin had dismounted, and stood, holding his horse by the reins, returning her gaze. His eyes hadn't changed, she realized; the way he looked at her was the same as before. She wanted to run to him, but she'd broken her promise and knew she'd lost that privilege. But he had been her friend before he'd been her lover.
"Hello the road," she finally said. It was an echo of her first words to him. She'd been an eager nine-year-old waiting by the road to greet her father's important guest. She'd seen them coming, and stood up to wave and shout her greeting. The earl hadn't responded but his son had.
By her gate once more, he responded with a familiar smile, "Hello the manor."
Thank you for reading! If you have any thoughts, I'd love to hear them in a review.