Robin of Locksley slunk up the stairs, trying hard not to let his teeth chatter together from the chill lest he be perceived as he passed by his father's study. He had learned to walk like an animal in the woods, without rustling a leaf or snapping a twig. But somehow old Lord Locksley seemed to have a sixth sense about such things. All of two decades old, and he still felt like a little boy sometimes when he returned late like this, trying not to be caught and sent to bed without supper.
"Cold enough for you in the night? Eh?" came the old man's voice, his face still buried in his the account scrolls. "I know that's where you've been."
Robin exhaled and turned to him. "Well, thank God you're not a royal forester then. How could a poor poacher endure with you on the scent?"
"I'm serious, boy. You take too many risks in the forest. What would you do without even my name to protect you? The tides are changing now. Lackland's administration is clamping down on the poaching laws, watching everything that moves."
Robin adjusted his bow on his shoulder and moved towards his father's desk. "The tenants still need red meat, especially with winter coming on. It's better for one man to take the risk than many. Just look at the accounts, father; how else can we provide for our own? It's not your fault; you've tried your best, but these fiends keep pressing you, pressing us all, waiting for us to break. But we still have a duty to our people. You're the one who taught me we're as much bound to them as them to us. We owe them this much at least."
"But you're my son…my only son and heir," he reminded him, standing up resolutely. "You're the future, for all of us. I've watched you grow up into the man you've become, and into the lord you surely will be when I'm dead and gone. That means something to me, Robin. It means there's some part of myself, my better self, that will go on in this world, and for the good. I've trained you in what you know, and I'm proud of what I see. You're a fighter, a survivor. I've watched you match my skill with the sword, and exceed it with the longbow."
"That's not true, father," countered lightly. "We broke a little less than even at the last contest, with you in the lead."
Lord Locksley smirked. "Yes…because you let me do so to keep face in front of my friends."
"Are you accusing me of letting myself be beat in a test of arms?" his son exclaimed, feigning shock, but only further confirming his father was on the right track.
He shook his head indulgently. "And this is one thing which I am grateful for. A youth of your ability might easily let it go to his head, and rule over him. But there is something you have in you stronger than your skill, yea, even your cunning…"
"Good teeth?" Robin offered teasingly.
The lord slapped a hand on his son's shoulder as an affectionate rebuff, then said earnestly, "It's your compassion. It's always been the chief thing about you, even as a child. You see all people as somehow worth your while, especially the vulnerable ones so many others pass by on the other side. You can't rest with yourself unless you help them, even at great risk, at great cost. I fear it is a very rare trait in this world, and one that charges a high price to maintain."
Robin shrugged. "Did you not intend to raise a Christian son?"
"Yes, but… there are many sons of the Church who do not hold the same heart as you."
"But are we not in the heart of Christendom? I've heard it called that, called Our Lady's Dowry, in fact…and yet has basic compassion really become such a rare, foreign concept? Does that make any sense, father?" The young man exhaled. "How many tears she must shed over this place, then…even, or especially, the clergy…"
"It's the truth, everyone knows it. The bishop's bought and sold, finery fattened and wine-drunk, and we all know about his indiscretions with the ladies. The Abbot of St. Mary's is little better, pocketing most of the collection plate for…personal emergencies…"
"There are still good priests about, lad," his father sighed.
"Assuredly," Robin agreed. "But you notice they are rarely reach positions of power, because the rotten ones block them out on account of their sincerity. Too often they find themselves wandering about as mendicants until some noble house takes them on as chaplain or hires them for tutoring. And with most houses in the area, that rarely happens. They'll take the bishop's appointees instead. Sink it to hell, the Lady must be sick watching such a charade, and them bandying about her fair name to boot."
The older Locksley tilted his head, noticing the little string of wooden beads hanging from his son's belt, a testament to his private devotion. "Been talking to her a lot lately, hmm?"
"Never really stopped."
"No, not since the death of your dear mother, grace to her soul." His eyes saddened. "You're just as stubborn as she was, you know. Stubborn and noble and blue-eyed…the Lady's color…"
"And don't tell me you didn't love her for the lot of it," he shot back. "And for sooth, are you not at all stubborn, my lord?"
He snorted, then grinned. "Heaven help you, lad, with both our bloodlines running to your heart. You'll be as unyielding as…" His eyes fell back to his beads. "As wood, my boy. Good English oak."
"But there's still the yew," he added. "That will teach me how to bend, as all men must bend to it."
Locksley looked down, purposely ignoring the double meaning, for they both knew it to be the tree of death, as much as the tree of the bow. "She'd be glad to know…you haven't forgotten how to say your 'aves'."
"I think the Lady understands me best, after all this time."
"I'm sure she does. You've given her enough forest flowers over the years, as soon as you were old enough to go hunting for them deeper in the woods." He raised an eyebrow. "Think she approves of your methods?"
"I think she gives me hints sometimes," he replied with a grin. "Besides…she had a son who got into trouble with the law too."
The lord winced. "Don't say that."
"Didn't mean to be too blasphemous," he chuckled softly.
"It's not that, it's…I don't like to think of the outcome." He eyed Robin intensely. "Try to remain within the law, son, even if it's a hard thing to swallow. You've sown the seeds of envy in this shire since your first win on the tournament field. What do you expect, besting men twice your age with half as much effort? They will not forget or forgive what you are. They will try their best to bring you down if they can…and with you the Locksley estate. And where will the shire be without us to check the powers of our fine Norman neighbors, feeding off the slavish labors of their bondsmen, who they treat far worse than their dogs? We've always stood against this. We've always treated our tenants with justice and equity and not abused our rank. But we need to keep the law on our side, or else with through as any force for good in these parts."
"The law…" Robin blinked. "What is it, exactly? And how can I promise to keep from breaking it? For is it not the law that prevents the common man from hunting in a forest teeming with game because his blood is too bad according to high and mighty royal standards? Well, then, off with his forefingers and out with his eyes should he be caught! And is it not the law that causes his wife to go a-begging, or prostitute herself in the town? But if she be caught with a begging bowl in her hands, then brand her on the face, so the law says! Then what will happen when the children are made for to go stealing a slice of bread or an apple to quell the pain in their bellies? Well, now…we might chop off a hand, or perhaps, to make a better example, hang them up from the neck until dead. That should cure the problem, to be sure…"
"Robin…" his father rasped.
"You and I know the truth; it's only a matter of time for me," his son stated grimly. "I respect you, my lord, far beyond anyone in this world. But we are not the same man. You gave me my Locksley honor, and have fought hard to keep a good grip on what's ours by right. But I fear we're all on borrowed time here, and inside myself, I feel I'm called to go…beyond marked off plots of soil. I know you wish to make a lord of me, but…the way things are going, it may not be for me in the end."
"But you were born to lead…"
"Perhaps. But if the law serves only to beat down the weakest among us, I know I shall not be able to long abide within it. And if such me my fate, I will have to lead in my own way. I cannot turn a blind eye, not for my name, not for my estate, not even for you, father. I must travel my own path."
The lord shuddered. "Then that path will lead into the forest, and the powers that be will crucify you at the end of your days. If you will not conform, you will be crushed."
"So be it then," Robin responded. "But I shall live for as long as I may according to my wits, and in such as will haunt the law, keep it from slumbering peacefully while others suffer, and perhaps shake it to its roots until its judgments are just. Perhaps a thorn in their side would do them some good."
"But don't you understand?" he blurted, exasperated. "This is what they want, so they can pluck you out, and all of us with you! If you put yourself outside the law, they've got the excuse to destroy us for good. You're prophecy will be self-fulfilling, then, and we'll be the last of the Saxon lords in Nottinghamshire!"
"Father, are we living to preserve a legacy long ago lost? It's been over a hundred years since the Conqueror came…"
"And still the genocide continues!" the lord insisted. "More subtle now, but they still push us to the fringes, striving to wipe out all that we've been and continue to be. We've led by their own example, bound to our people as family. These Normans…they don't understand us, or our ways, or our bonds. They treat their people like filth, and lord their rank over them with an ever heavier hand."
"Yes, we've seen much of it, but it's not so clear cut," Robin retorted. "The FitzWalters are Norman, and they treat their people well. So does Sir Richard of the Lea. And we both know there have been Saxons who let power corrupt them just as well…"
"Agh," Locksley spat. "This is the root of it, Robin, that you feel head over heels for a Norman lass and can't get her out of your head. Well, mark me, they'll not let her wind up wedding and bedding any Saxon, and she'll have put you out of her heart in short course. I may have played at cordiality with her father, even spoken of joining our houses in the past, with the two of you being close as you were, but let's face the truth. They've washed their hands of us now, think they're better than us. You knew that when they sent her away to London."
"She never wanted to go, though."
"Oh, and you've been flooded with letters from her, I suppose?"
"You think they let her write at will?" he challenged.
"She's been presented at court for over two years now, and she'll have been made a fine city lady, used to her fancy silks and satins far beyond the like seen in this place. It'll be no more boyish mischief and tattered tunics for her. She's left behind the greenwood, lad, and you with it. She'll marry a wealthy lord far away, or if worse comes to worse, they'll wed her to squeamish Young Cavendish. She's gone for good, and there'll be no returning the same as she was. When push comes to shove, she'll play her part as any Norman would…"
"Not Marian," he responded quietly.
"Think you people are all as steadfast as you in their devotions?" his father scoffed. "Think you know women so well?"
"I know Marian. That's what counts. Her heart's a part of the forest as much as mine, and she'll be called back to it, to this place. And when she is, nothing will stop her from returning. She's as stubborn as the sturdiest oak and as free as the wildest stream. And she'll come back. "
"Can you not hear your own tongue?" his father exhaled. "It's not tuned for French, like hers was! It's rough, like the language of the common folk on their farms. Because they, with their Saxon blood, are more a part of us than our lordly neighbors on their thrones."
"Father, listen," Robin tried to reason. "It doesn't matter to me whose grandsires or great-grandsires fought under Harold or William. We're all here in England now, living alongside each other, and it's ours to do with as we will. It matters more to me what people, Saxon, Norman, or any other race, want to do with it. It's not about blood, but soul." He looked down. "That's it, that's what it's about with her and me. We're bound by that."
"They'll not stand our friends in the hard times coming," the lord predicted. "Mark my words, it's us against them, no two ways about it."
"Well, perhaps I'll do something to bring us together in the end."