A/N: Finally, an update! I know I'm a fiend for taking so long - please forgive me! - but I lost the original that was all typed up and ready for update. It's drifting somewhere in the swamp of my hard drive.
As always, a special thanks to my beta buddy, who catches my historical inaccuracies, my grammar mistakes, my word repetitions, and just straight-up calls me on my BS. I owe her big time. :-)
Oh, and thanks to Alison for pointing out that "Your Majesty" thing.
Lastly, a huge thank you to my readers, too, for waiting so long and for reading. I adore you all!
I sat quietly among the ladies, finishing the last bits of a stitching project and listening to the murmurs of gossip. Dusk was falling, and much of the house was mellowing with the sun. However, conversation had livened amongst our group; while the other outlaws were discussing the sheriff's fate, Robin had stormed into the room and fought with his mother, giving us much to talk about.
Elizabeth, now of Locksley, looked so very unlike her son that it was hard to believe they were related. Even at her age, she was a lovely woman – pale and fair-haired, with large light blue eyes and fine high cheekbones. Her nose was upturned and petite, her laugh was high and cultured, her smile was the easy coquettish curve of someone too accustomed to getting her way. But she had a screech on her to rival dying cats.
She and Robin had screamed at one another from nearly the moment Robin blasted through the door. He had been fuming, voice like spitting lightning as he ordered her to "take that kitchen swill back."
Smiling with sardonic calm, Elizabeth had replied: "Whatever do you mean?"
"To the Devil with you! You will bloody well revoke those murder charges against Will!"
Still oozing sarcasm, Elizabeth blinked innocently. "My forester Boarsman Stone was very dear to me. I feel his loss keenly, and would fain see his murderer brought to justice."
Robin's fists were tight balls by his side. "What do you know of justice? This is only another angle of your scheming revenge against me for God-knows-what crime!"
"Nay." Her voice had been soft and calm, and her deadly quiet made Robin seem like a madman. "William of Norwell is and always has been overly violent, bloodthirsty--"
Robin's finger jabbed at her. "Hellfire, you leave Will be! Take my dignity, wench, but you owe him his reputation!"
Another innocent blink. "Pardon?"
"Aye, mother, were it not for Will I'd have been dead ten years ago, and you'd have been held accountable for my death at the gates of Heaven."
Shrugging calmly and smiling slightly at her embroidery, she submitted. "That is your opinion."
"True; most say you wouldn't even make it to the gates!"
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes and lost her coy charade. "And what," she spat, "would you know of morality, murderer?"
Robin snarled. "As much as any whoring noblewoman would!"
The spat of profanities and shouts that followed made everyone in the room gasp or start. She may live in a world of manners and silk, but there were peasant curses coming from the Lady of Locksley's mouth. Robin was even worse, spewing forth as many "colorful" words as he knew in three different languages. I had never seen him like this – cursing and yelling and – cruel. If any word of his could make the lady flinch, he would sneer with sadistic glee and dig his barb in even more viciously. The two of them were so unnatural; mother and son both took such delight from the other's pain.
It culminated when the Lady of Locksley slapped her son full across the face. She barked a triumphant laugh at the mark her ring left, sounding somewhat mad, and without thinking he retaliated. Already furious, he grabbed her arms and shook her ferociously in return.
"I'll see Norwell hang!" she cried vengefully, "I'll see him hung, drawn, and quartered if you touch me again, whelp!"
As if waking suddenly from a dream, Robin released her and stepped backwards. His eyes widened with suspicion, and his head slowly began to shake in denial. Slowly, he opened his lips to mouth a protest. She smirked obnoxiously and leaned forward, arms poised eagerly across her legs. "That's the way, Robin. Beg, why don't you?"
Quickly recovering, he sneered at her. "That's the punishment for treason, and Will's committed no act of treason! Besides, he's a nobleman, you witless harlot. They won't hang him, not even if you slept with every justice in lower England."
She snarled. "He'll hang if the king orders it."
"You are no king."
"But I am the king's friend."
"Ha! You didn't lend a penny to get him out of that Austrian prison, witch, but Sherwood's outlaws did." He smirked with such malice I almost recoiled. "Watch yourself, woman. I am in the king's favor, outlaw or not."
He turned to leave, but she grabbed his arm, sinking in her nails and whipping him around. "The king will hang Norwell! I promised him the use of all Locksley's soldiers in his upcoming war, in return for it."
Robin's face iced over with horror. He met his mother's eyes, and his mouth twisted with pleas and curses doubly. I wanted to slap that devil across her smug face. He was her son, by Heaven, and yet…She laughed outright at his agony. "You can come watch, sweeting."
The ice cracked with rage, and Robin swore at her. "To Hell with you!" he screamed, long fingers clenched in tight fists. A few ladies covered their ears as the curse echoed off the walls. "He'll not die! They'll hang me first!" He whirled around and tore towards the door.
Elizabeth of Locksley crossed her arms and smirked derisively. "Nothing, brat, would please me more."
As dusk approached, we were still whispering about it. Elizabeth, seeing our faces, had snapped her fingers at one of her ladies and marched through the door hissing in Norman French. She was still out there wandering about the halls and complaining in the language of nobility. The rest of the ladies in the house – myself, Sir Richard's two daughters, and a young cousin of theirs – were sitting quietly in the older sister's chambers and chatting.
"Is Robin Hood really her son?" someone whispered.
For the hundredth time, I answered everyone's favorite question. "Aye."
My questioner put her hand to her mouth, even though she knew the answer. "Oh, dear heavens," she whispered. "I would never have guessed." Hearing her surprised tone, I almost rolled my eyes, but a huge crash outside the door stopped me. In an instant, our gaggle had thrown open the door. We squirmed around one another for a view. I thrust my head past a particularly obnoxious elbow just in time to watch Robin and Will sprint past us.
Robin latched into Will's wrist and swung him off into another corridor. After taking a nervous look back at his growing audience, he followed. Guards flashed past us, obscuring the view as their quarry sped round the corner. I ducked under sweeping sleeves and darted after them. What was going on?
The two fugitives ran at breakneck speed across the stone, their pursuers shouting loudly for reinforcements. Everything was a rush of havoc as guards and their masters burst into the halls to discover the cause of the commotion. Sir Richard and his son came up behind me, the latter rubbing his eyes and mumbling complaints like a child. I turned to them, and the knight's eyes were full of worried questions. "He didn't, did he?"
I nodded. "He broke Will out and they're running."
The knight sighed, staring ahead at the chase. "Faith, that was what I feared."
The three of us sprinted towards the runaways. Shoving through the horde of frightened serving wenches and a few ladies-in-waiting, we met the broad backs of the pursuing guards. Ahead of them, Will and his cousin scrambled into the crowded kitchens. The serving lads and lasses made some serious obstacles for the ranks of guards, but they adapted pretty quickly.
Robin hopped onto a table, scattering bowls and vegetables. He threw some at the guards as he tripped along the planks, managing to land an apple in a captain's eye.
Will slipped through the servants' door, escaping into the main
hall. They slammed the door behind them, and the guards could not
"They've jammed something up against the door!" The captain yelled, gesturing frantically, "Go to the other entrance – and bring torches!"
Sir Richard and I trailed after his men as they ran to follow orders. The other doors of the hall were flung open, suggesting that the two outlaws had already made their escape. The hall was deserted, black as a raven, and its rafters creaked when the wind blew through the doors. Half of the guards flashed their torches under tables, hoping that Robin and Will had been stupid enough to hide in here; the other group spread out to search the manor.
As it became clear that no one was in the room, the guards moved to search other rooms and a patrol was sent to scour the fields. The captain sighed, running a thick hand through his hair. "My apologies, Sir Richard. We should have been quicker."
His master smiled forgivingly. "Ah, 'tis no fault of yours. You were up against Robin Hood, after all."
The captain frowned at the ground. "I still failed you, milord."
Sir Richard shook his head. "Even the king's own men were slower than you, Eallard. I cannot ask you to be swifter than the servants of royalty."
Eallard still looked guilty. "I must admit, milord," he gulped, "that I was not as vigilant as I could have been. Robin Hood gave food to my sister in Nottingham." He steeled himself, as if he expected to be struck.
"That is to be expected," the knight answered dismissively, holding out his hand, "Please give me your torch, so that I might find my rooms. Good luck with the rest of your search."
Eallard blinked in surprise at the quick forgiveness. "Aye, milord." He quickly jogged outside, calling for an update on the chase.
"Will?" Robin whispered his cousin's name, but it still seemed to echo in the hollow hall. He shook with terror, balanced delicately on a rafter.
Will whispered "Aye. What do we do now?" from his own rafter.
Robin didn't know. They had to escape this room before daylight betrayed their hiding places; they'd been lucky enough not to be caught already. But he had no idea where the guards were. They could have given up the chase, or they could be waiting outside the door. "I ought to look outside," he answered finally.
On the east wall, just below where the roofing timbers made a triangle, there was an arm's length of bare timber frame. It looked as if the carpenter had simply forgotten to fill in that part of the wall. However, this seeming lapse was meant to provide an escape route for smoke that would usually dally around people's noses.
At the moment, Robin was intending to use it as a window. He scurried to the end of his rafter closest to the north wall. Squatting, he planted his feet on the beam between roof and wall, which ran the length of the room. He fumbled above him for two of the timbers that supported the roof. When he'd gotten a decent grip, he yanked himself upright. His body was now hanging at the same angle as the timbers, and the wood was older than he was. He gulped and reached out blindly with one hand, fumbling for the next roof timber. It was a slow journey, pulling himself along timber by timber and shuffling along the beam.
Finally, he reached the smoke hole and peered through the slats.
It was too dark to make out faces; he saw only torches, and counted each one as a guard. They were clustered on the tower, keeping watch on the meadow between Sherwood and the manor. There was no one below him, so he knew the door was unguarded.
He ducked back down and called to Will. "We can get out through this door. There are no guards there. But what after that?"
"We could steal some horses and ride to Sherwood."
"They'd notice that."
"Knock out two guards. Put on their uniforms?"
"We could. Then they'd let us have the horses. We could say we'd been sent out on patrol."
"We'll have to split up, though. Say they sent you to the south, and I'll say I was ordered to the north. They usually don't send them out in pairs."
"You can't ride a horse, though."
"I'll only need to get out of the gates for them to believe me. Then I can jump off and run."
"Who'll go first?"
"You. You're a better liar than I am, and you look more like a guard."
They climbed down quickly from the rafters and made their bumbling way through the dark hall to the doors.
"YOUR MAJESTY!" Someone was shouting through the halls, and it woke me.
I threw a mantle about my shoulders and pushed my door open. Elizabeth followed quickly behind me, tugging a blanket around herself. Captain Eallard was manhandling one of his own, sticking a dagger to the fellow's throat. Three other guards followed, swords drawn in case the captive should try to escape. I followed him, confused by what I was seeing.
King Richard stormed out of his room. "This had best be damn important," he snapped.
"I caught the outlaw, Robin Hood. He was pretending to be one of my own men."
Eallard looked sheepish. "Norwell, unfortunately, got away. He was also dressed in a guard's uniform, and managed to procure a horse by telling one of my men that he'd been ordered out on a search for the outlaws. This one here tried the same trick a bit later, but he told the lie to me. I give the orders to go out on patrol, so I knew he was lying."
"Good work, Captain. I commend you for your vigilance."
Eallard looked neither satisfied nor proud. "What should I do with him?"
"Hang him tomorrow morn. For now, call Sir Richard and have him thrown in the foulest dungeon here."
Robin shuddered violently at the word 'dungeon' and looked nervously around him. More people were coming out of their rooms to see the spectacle, some sad and others surprised.
Only one was outright happy. Elizabeth ran towards the king and captive, her face radiant. "Ah! The outlaw is caught," she exclaimed pleasantly, "I can sleep at last."
Robin spit at her. "Will's free."
She shrugged. "For now." Then she turned to the king. "When is his hanging to be?"
King Richard scowled, not sure whether had heard enthusiasm or concern in her voice. "You are a lady. It would not be fit for you to witness such a scene of violence."
Her mouth dropped open, but she quickly shut it and nodded obediently. "Of course not. That was my reason for asking, Your Majesty. I should not want to be present when such a thing was happening, and so I wished to know when to avoid the yard."
The king clearly didn't believe her, but he let it pass and retired to his rooms.
As soon as his door shut, Elizabeth grabbed Robin's chin and tugged it close to her face. "I've won, wretch," she boasted, grinning hideously. Her voice dropped to a hiss. "Choke slowly."
"Devil take you," he answered.
She turned on her heel and entered our rooms. I followed her slowly, feeling sick in the pit of my belly.
Lady Elizabeth turned to me once the door was shut and a few torches had been lit. "I can't sleep now," she told me, "I am so frustrated. Am I supposed to miss this hanging?"
"It is not fit for ladies to witness such scenes of violence," I quoted heatedly, planting myself in a chair. I could not believe that Robin was going to hang again.
She looked me up and down, snorting with disdain. "I am sure that you are the very picture of ladylike behavior."
I glared at her, a bit surprised at that burst of rudeness. "I am no harlot, if that is what you are suggesting."
She laughed outright at that one, tilting her head to the ceiling and holding a long hand to her chest. "Oh, my Lord," she finished breathlessly, a taunting smile still plastered across her aging face, "You a lady? You, who associates so freely with outlaws?"
Fighting the retort I wanted to give, I calmly replied, "I betrayed one to the sheriff, Milady, and can hardly be accused of harboring any sympathies with them." Now stop your tongue.
She snorted disbelievingly. "You nearly tore your selfish heart from your pretty little chest in doing so, Marian Whitby. You cannot deny that." She shook her head condescendingly. "You nearly drowned in your tears over my wretched, repulsive son."
Still maintaining my front of composure, I returned: "I was duped by the sheriff and his devil's scheme into harming one of my fellow men. How else could I react?"
Her lips arched to the left in a twisted and arrogant smirk. "Ah, the sheriff's plan. Of course, my dear." She cupped her hands round her knees and leant forward, the smirk suddenly deadly. "But of course."
I glared at her, eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What exactly are you saying?"
"Do you really think the sheriff knew you were associating with outlaws?" Her flaxen brows were hefted in mocking twin crescents above her pale blue eyes as she leaned back smugly. "Do you honestly believe that he knew Robin Hood was smitten with you? Are you under the impression that he even knew the other members of Robin Hood's band?"
I stared in dumb amazement at her, and she laughed coldly.
"Stupid girl. I told him. Who else could have possibly known that my wretched son was infatuated with you?" I started in surprise. Did he really? And then I had---
Elizabeth saw my expression and grinned maliciously. "Oh, aye, he was besotted. I haven't set eyes on the brat in ten years, but I knew he'd still have his lusts set on you. It wasn't as if any girl would be interested in marrying him, the hideous thing. You were the only one who ever even spared him a glance." She snorted out a laugh. "And even that glance was one of contempt."
I formed a protest, lifting my finger, but she cut me off. "I knew you well, too. I knew you didn't love him in return – how could you? How could anyone?"
"But how did you---"
Obnoxiously pleased with the success of her plan, Elizabeth reclined a bit. "Know that Robin was outlawed? Norwell had a slip of the tongue. Know that he was Robin Hood? That wretch robbed my coach, and I recognized the scar I gave him on his left hand as he took my rings. Know that you still visited them? All your mysterious absences added up, and I found a Lincoln green cloak under your pallet. Know that Robin would try to save Norwell? I've seen that creature take beatings for William; I've given him some of them. William always has and always will be that misshapen beast's only defender. And so like the servile dog he is, my foul son would flay himself alive to save William any pain."
I was so overcome with horror that I could barely form sentences. "Why in God's name did you--"
Her casual smugness broke and collapsed into an indignant frenzy. "Why in God's name not? He and that nasty Norwell destroyed whatever happiness I could have salvaged from my marriage with the Lord of Locksley!"
"Robin never did a thing to you! How could he have done--"
"Aye, but Norwell cost me more alliances than I can number, and now I'll get them both, won't I? William will slit his wrists when he hears he brought about his cousin's death; he always feels so guilty, and that unsightly animal that some call my son will have his neck stretched on the gallows."
I stared at her in shocked silence. The cold way she spoke of her son, of her nephew, of her wicked revenge – it was more disturbing than I could voice. It was a cool plot to murder, and if not to murder than to twist life into a worse Hell than any that waits in eternity. Thinking of the way she had manipulated me, the crooked paths she had taken to inflict her demented punishment on Robin and Will—
I tackled her, knocking her and her chair to the ground. She cried out in surprise and flailed as my fist went hard into her cheekbone. Her nails raked across my face, and I dug my knee into her stomach. Our screams of anger had the other ladies backed against the wall and crying for help. To Hell with them. I mashed my fists immaturely in her eyes, and she howled like a cat on coals. Her hands locked in my hair and tore a chunk from my skull so quickly that the shock made my eyes water. We went on clawing, slapping, punching, tearing, tugging, scratching--- To the devil with it, I was going to tear her eyeballs out or go bald trying.
Suddenly, Richard hauled me upright, his fingers a firm grip on my forearms. I immediately stopped fighting, deep shame welling up inside and heating my face. Sir Richard was standing in the doorway, staring at the two of us in shock.
Elizabeth stood, and I was mightily pleased to see that she looked like she'd been in a bar fight. I could feel a scratch on my own forehead oozing a bit of blood, but I smirked triumphantly. Her lip was so swollen, I doubted she could smirk.
Richard drew me to his chest in that same possessive way he always held me, and Elizabeth was left standing alone. I took a grim satisfaction in that, and I sneered at her.
She started towards me, incensed, but Sir Richard shot her a warning look, and she stopped moving. But there was a raging hatred in her eyes.
"I-I won't have my future wife sleeping in a room with that banshee!" Richard cried suddenly, frightened by the devilish look on Elizabeth's swelling face. I had punched her hard.
Sir Richard sighed, hand on his forehead. "Very well. It seems these ladies are none too fond of one another. Lady Marian, pray come to the northwest rooms."
"Aren't those near the dungeons?" Elizabeth sneered. "We wouldn't want milady disturbed by the outlaw's screams."
Sir Richard trapped her in his level and critical stare. "I do not order innocent men tortured."
A/N: If you were able to understand that whole rafter bit, I applaud you sincerely. I used the word "rafter" far too liberally, I know. There are actually specific terms, like "cross-beam" that might have made it easier to understand. However, my ability to describe architecture is nonexistant. I promise to rewrite that part if I ever develop said ability.