Oh dear, I know it's been so long since I've updated, but I just found an evening to myself and decided I wanted to start writing again. I'm not really expecting anyone to read it anymore; I'll re-draft it all again once it's finished, but part of the fun of finishing a chapter is putting it up where anyone can read it (:
The copper coloured mare from earlier shot me dubious looks as I attempted to pull myself into the saddle. Will, who happened to already have vaulted himself up easily onto his horse, glared at me with obvious impatience. In the end, I managed to haul myself up, though it took a few moments to regain what balance I possessed. As I glanced up, my knuckles white from gripping the reigns, I realised Will had already trotted off through the gates. When and where he had learnt to ride like that was beyond my knowledge, though his father had always though it useful to be able to ride; unlike my own father, who had sneered at such things. 'God gave us two, healthy legs to walk on; who are we to scorn such a precious gift? It had only been after his death that I had first ridden a horse, and sometimes I still felt a twinge of guilt, as if I were betraying my father by riding. I could ride well enough, and even gallop if the need took me, though that did not by any means make me at ease upon the horses.
"Robin," Will's sharp voice interrupted my thoughts. As if that was my cue to speak, I held my chin up and glared levelly into Will's eyes.
"What is the meaning of this?" I asked; for a fleeting moment, I felt as if I was trying to regain my authority with him, but then the moment passed. Fool, I told myself. What authority? You lead the outlaws; you do not rule them.
"The meaning of what?" he asked me, gazing coolly into my eyes, as if he had no idea what I was talking about.
"You, telling him, about Marian! You know very well that she does not want to meet her father, and with good reasons too. You had no right-"
"I had every right," he snapped, face flushing a pale red. Will never blushed. "Trust me, Rob," he spoke, more gently this time, "She will do as we ask."
"Will," I replied abruptly. "He didn't even know Marian was alive before now. Though he seemed to take it pretty well, unless you told him before hand?" I sneaked a suspicious glance over at Will, but he stared determinedly out onto the open fields and rolling hills that marked our passage towards Sherwood. "Just listen Will; I think I would know Marian better than you-"
"Do not say that," Will cried suddenly, rearing his horse around to face me. His eyes would not meet mine for more than a second, though what I did glimpse was anger, and, something else? Why was he avoiding my gaze? What did Will ever have to hide from me? "Do not say such a thing, Rob," his breath came out in heavy pants, but he seemed to regain some control over himself as his voice turned to a more normal tone. "Do not assume what we cannot be sure of." With that he clicked to his horse, and galloped off, leaving me struggling behind, attempting to catch up as we raced across the hills covered in late autumn leaves.
We stood against the trees, cloaked in their leaves and the shadows that accompanied the night. The gentle trickle of the nameless stream we had been waiting beside was one of the few sounds I could hear. The other animals had fled, in good sense, from the galloping horses that were heading in our direction. Though we had heard them long before they were even inside Sherwood, for our meeting place was located right near the eaves of the forest, and was a common spot for foresters to pass; but it had been the easiest place to reach for when they came with news. We had no choice but to risk it.
I flexed my fingers as they wrapped around the bowstring that was pulled back to my cheek, an arrow fitted in, ready.
As I peered through the leaves I let out a sigh of relief, for Will and Robin had come riding into our clearing. I stepped eagerly out of my hiding place, barely holding in the anxiousness I felt. Robin looked down at me in slight surprise, and then a small smile flitted across his face before being replaced by a frown. "Where are Lara and Fawne?" he asked curiously, looking around; I too turned to look for them. They had been hiding only a few meters away from me, where could they have gone?
"You did not wait," Lara's voice drifted out sternly from a nearby tree as she crept out, followed by Fawne. "You do not just jump out at the sight of a friendly face. It could easily have been a trap." I winced visibly, and blushed, hoping that the night would hide me cheeks. It did not; I heard Lara shake her head at me in a mixture of disgust and exasperation. For all my hard work, even the bow in my hand and the ragged clothes I wore did not make me a true outlaw.
"Well?" Fawne turned, impatiently to the men; she leaned in, listening avidly, and even Lara watched, interested. I, on the other hand, could not keep still. My heart beat faster and faster, as if it were about to bound straight out of my chest. Robin threw me a puzzled look as I chewed my lip nervously. I did not know what I was expecting, but my body trembled, my eyes wide with anguish, as if I were awaiting a final death sentence. But why? I could not figure that one out.
"-but he wishes to see you first." I glanced up, lost as everyone stared expectantly at me. "Your father wishes to see you, Marian," Will repeated with exaggerated patience. And that was it. Neither Robin, nor Will said anything more; maybe I had just been imagining it after all.
"Is this the only way?" I asked in vain hope. I knew the man my father was, and he would not run, nor hide, unless he got his way first. Will nodded, staring intently at me. "Then I guess I have no choice,-"
"Maybe you would like to think this over, alone?" Will cut me off, eyeing me with a meaningful gaze. "Meeting your father could have a great risk on you; if your father decides to play the traitor, and decides to betray you, the moment you step into this castle. We could all be placed in danger. It would be best if you went away, for a few moments, to think." I shuddered at his cold tone, the hidden meaning of his words jumping out at me, as I finally realised that he knew.
Without another word I leapt up, and stumbled away from the clearing, my chest rising faster and faster, as I felt panic set over my mind.
As I watched her stumble off, into the trees, I began to wonder what on earth Will was playing at. Sending her off, alone and unprotected, in the middle of Sherwood as night fell was maybe as dangerous as wandering into her father's manor. Marian is a grown woman now, I reminded myself, she can look after herself. As the minutes dragged by, we all sat, uncomfortable, silent and alert in the clearing; Will, suddenly and without warning, sat up and announced that he would go to find Marian, to see what she had decided. A peculiar twinge of jealousy stirred inside of me; why should Will go to bring her back? It should have been me; after all, I was courting her. I ran a hand through my dark hair, fussing out the tangles that were always there, no matter what. Watch what you're thinking, Robin, I told myself sternly. Will would never... and Marian wouldn't even think of... but even so, I watched carefully for their return.
A good time later, Will strode into the clearing, his face composed and detached, dark hair casting ghastly shadows over his eyes. Before I could even open my mouth, Will turned to us, his tone cold and still. "Marian will be along in a moment; she is... sorting herself out." The strain in his voice made it obvious that we were not to question him, nor make any comment. Sometimes it seemed as if Will was leading us, and for the hundredth time, I wondered why it was me, and not him.
I rose suddenly as Marian stumbled towards us, but hesitated as I saw the expression on her face. Her cheeks had turned a colourless, ghastly shade of white, but her features were set in a determined way; her decision was obvious. "I'll see my father," she whispered, her voice strangely hushed, yet clear.
The two horses that had brought Will and I to the edge of the forest were all we had to get us back. Marian and Fawne settled onto one, and Lara and I onto another, though Will had to lead our mare, as neither of us were very skilled at riding horseback. As the sun set over the distant fields of Holt's land, setting them a' light, the hills themselves were a' blaze with fire. An ill omen, I thought, despite myself. Meanwhile, I glanced over at Marian, wishing it was just her and me, wanting more than anything to draw her close and hold her tight, to comfort her and tell her that everything would turn out well. But, alas, all I had was wishes and hopes, nothing more. As the manor walls drew close, the white-wash walls loomed over us, seemingly threatening to me. Yet, for Marian, I realised, it was a different story. I glimpsed the unshed tears shining in her eyes as she gazed up at the sturdy walls of her father's manor. After a long, trying year, she was home.
The gates were thrown open, rather majestically, and Oliver rushed through, apparently oblivious to the gentle pattering of raindrops as the dark clouds, which had briefly held back their torrent, released it again. The cobbled courtyard swooned dangerously close as I attempted to slide off my saddle, and getting my foot caught in those god-damn stirrups in the meantime. I half fell into the mud, which had already started to form along the ground, but the stable boys paid me next to no attention, as they urged my mare into the dry stables. Oliver hurried past me, and extended a hand to help Marian off, and, without thinking, she took it, gracefully dismounting. She had barely noticed that no one else was being helped, or the awe-filled gazes aimed in her direction from the peasants gathering around us.
Our ragged group was ushered towards the entrance hall, its doors swung wide, warm and inviting. But before I could step inside, a dozen or so handmaids rushed forward and seemingly grabbed Marian, pulling her inside. Within moments, she was surrounded by women, young and old alike, fussing and clucking over her. As I tried to dodge around them and get inside, I realised that I had had quite the wrong impression about serving women. Where I had thought that they would meekly abide their lady's commands, these took command and ignored Marian's meager protests. It still amazes me how effortlessly Marian managed to revert back to her old ways, as her boots were slipped off and her dripping coat whisked away; soft slippers appeared instead, and a fine cloak was swept around her shoulders.
It seemed that Lord Holt wished his daughter to be treated with all the respect and comfort that Lady Marian would have expected, and this thought worried its way into my mind as Edward, the steward, and the short, rounded stable boy of earlier herded our group towards Holt's study.
For the second time in as many hours, I walked past the portraits of Holts long departed, and I had the peculiar sensation that each and every one of them was glaring down at me in disapproval. A man of my status, an outlaw no less, a rogue and as lowly born as possible courting a lady of Marian's position was, well, unthinkable.
Marian's handmaids melted into the background as we paused in front of the pine door that led to his study. I stood by Marian, wishing I could whisk her away from all of this, but knowing that I could do nothing but stand aside, and let her open the door. Yet she did not seem to want to, and simply stood and stared at it, almost in disbelief.
Edward, however, did not seem to care for the tension building in the air. He stepped forward, and with all the regality expected of him, threw open the door and announced their arrival.
"Lady Marian has arrived, my lord." With a light shove, he pushed Marian forward so that she was the only one inside, whilst the rest of us hung around the door, listening carefully. My first thought was that Holt had not heard us, but then his gnarled hand clenched tightly onto his oak cane as he pulled himself up and turned to her, his voice strangely weak as he whispered her name.
"Father," Marian greeted him in return, but her answer was cold and formal, grating against his warm welcome. The raw emotion obvious behind her strained voice, yet her eyes blazed in a way I had never seen before.
I could not believe it was him; after all this time, I thought I had broken the bonds that held me to my family - but I was wrong. My tone was cold, my words formal and tight, but it was all I could do to hold back the cries that tore at my throat. I could feel their eyes on me, their gazes burning into my back as the outlaws watched us. For once in my life, I wished that they would all just leave me, all of them; this was private, this was family.
"Marian?" My father struggled to his feet, his withered hand clutching with despair at his familiar oak staff; he had change. I gazed at him as his eyes widened in disbelief and he took a step towards me, yet his legs trembled as if they could not support his weight, and his face was far more careworn than when I had last set eyes on it. "My Marian, can it really be you? All this time, you're still alive; you've come back to me." My throat still contracted, keeping words I wished to say down. I simply nodded as I felt the cold front I was holding desperately onto slip away from me, and yet, in the back of my mind I felt a nagging worry. Would he let my secret slip out? Would he use that deadly knowledge to outcast me from the outlaws and keep me with him, with no where else to turn? It seemed that that was already a likely possibility; my secret had already caused enough damage.
"You lied to me." Anger flared into my voice, replacing all my other emotions as I allowed it to take control; anger was a far better feeling to experience than worry or sorrow. "You told me that Edward and Rosalin had been murdered by Robin, you tried to use that to make me-" I caught the following treacherous words before they escaped my lips; anger could quickly take away a person's sense. "To make me hate them, to turn against people I had known my whole life. If it was not for that marriage you set, if it was not for fate binding us together, I would still hate them." I was gambling a lot here, I knew that this could end badly, but something inside me told me that my father would not tell my secret, not to anyone else. I felt hot tears well up in my eyes, and I did nothing to stop them. "You lied to me, and for that I can never forgive you, father." I spat the last word at him with such vengeance, such ferocity that I regretted it almost immediately.
"Can you not see that all I did, I did for you, to keep you safe?" His gaze burned with such intensity that I nearly stepped back in alarm; what secrets did he hold? Why had he lied to me? It did not make sense, had Gisbourne threatened him? Had it been Gisbourne who had murdered young Edward and sweet Rosalin? Had he threatened to kill me too? All these questions made their way through my mind, each demanding to be answered, and each I could not.
"Can you not grant an old man just one conversation with his last child?" Shame flooded through me as I avoided my father's eyes, and to think I had said such harsh words to him. I stepped into his easy embrace, allowing his arms envelop me as they had so many times in my life.
"Do you trust us now, my lord?" Will's harsh, yet perfectly polite tones rudely interrupted my moment of calmness. My father reluctantly let me go from his embrace as he nodded to Will, and everyone gathered round the two of them to discuss details of him going into hiding. I stepped away carefully, and glanced towards Robin, leaning against the sturdy frame of the door as he gazed out of the window, the rain persistently beating away at it. I felt a wave of gratefulness for Robin, for everything he was doing to help my father, for all the dangers he was putting everyone in, for me. Watching him, I felt a small, soft smile cross my lips as I mentally traced the curves of his face, his lips, his neck; all I wanted was to curl up in his strong arms, feel his skin pressed firmly against my own, and to feel his lips on mine. I needed him, I needed the safety and the way he soothed away all my worries and fears, in the way only he could.
"Marian?" I jerked round as they all stared at me, Will raising an almost amused eyebrow at me. "Do you or do you not know someone who can help your father? We're running out of ideas." I felt the heat rising in my cheeks as I realised I had completely disappeared into my own world, and fought to find words or ideas. And then I knew.
"Richard, Richard of the Lea." This was the only friend I could think of, the only friend we really had. Our family and his had been tied for years, or they had been when I was a little girl, whether that was still the case I did not know. "He seemed... compassionate, to your cause." Or so he had seemed at the banquet earlier that day. My father's eyes narrowed suddenly, even deeper folds appearing in his brow.
"How would you know?" He questioned curiously. "Have you seen Richard recently? Does he know you are alive?" I could almost hear the spark of hope in his voice, that I would still be in touch with Richard; my father had always hoped for me to marry him one day, for our lands lay next to one another.
"No, father, but I have heard tales, rumours." The lie came easily from my tongue; I was becoming too good at lying. But it was for the best I assured myself, my father could not know I had been at the competition.
"Richard has, indeed, been compassionate. Both he and his father have made many visits her over the winter; I even spent Christmastide at their manor." My father nodded, as if reassuring himself that this was all true. "I believe he may be our only hope; Marian, you may have just saved your old father." A smile sprung over his face, as he gazed warmly at me.
I smiled back with equal warmth; "But father, you must not tell him about me," I urged, "Simply say that you need protection, and he would offer it. And say to the rest of the world, say you are traveling back to France, to your birthplace. Say you are leaving your lands in Richard's hands and that you will never come back." This tale spilled from my lips as I fought desperately to make this plan perfect, to protect my father for once last time. Maybe the time would come when he truly would leave for France, and then I would never see him again.
The details were arranged and agreed on, the message sent to Richard and his father, and horses called to stand ready for their departure for my father wished to ride on his horse one last time. And before too long we were being ushered out of the door by Will who seemed intent on getting us out of Holt Manor as quickly as possible, his eyes constantly coming back to me, and the flitting away. They had faded from the coldness of earlier, to more curiosity, wariness and, I thought, a drop of pity.
"Marian," I felt a heavy hand on my arm as I turned to face my father. He pulled me into a final rough embrace, his arms, surprisingly strong, gripped me tightly and yet gently as he whispered softly in my ear, "I am proud of you, my darling little girl, but be careful." As we pulled away from each other, I glanced once more as he watched me carefully, with a strange, contemplative look resting on his face.