The night air was cold and wet. Another breeze swirled about my face, making me shiver, tempting me to hug my arms about myself, whispering to me to go back to my pallet and save this for another time. But there was no other time.
Every move I made seemed to make a huge clamor on the quiet forest floor. John was right; I was not equipped to live here. I just hoped I wouldn't wake the entire camp with my prowling. I didn't want to be interrupted by John's growling again. Not this time.
I have often wondered, in the years since, if it was my good memory that led me to him, or if he had been aware of someone moving in his vicinity for some time. Either way, I was suddenly slammed violently against a tree, callused hand circling my neck, knife pressed against my throat. I couldn't speak, could barely breathe, with the suddenness of it. His voice was in my ear, harsh and threatening, a voice I had never heard from him before.
"Tell me, trespasser, should I slit your throat now, or wait until after you've begged me not to?"
I had never thought I'd be afraid of Robin Hood with the kind of terror that now ran through every inch of my body, making my chest heave and tears prick my eyes. He couldn't see my face, couldn't know that it was to my throat that he held his knife. He would kill me if I didn't say something, do something to make him realize who it was he held to a tree, but for a moment, the panic made me stupid, and I could do nothing but claw at his arm. It was only when the blade was pressed more closely against my neck and I felt the warm wetness of blood trickling down my throat that I managed to find my voice and croaked, "Robin. Stop,"
"Lady Marian?" His tone changed dramatically, and he released me immediately, only to catch me when my knees buckled and I pitched forward away from the tree, still breathing violently, shaking helplessly. "Sweet Christ. Milady, you shouldn't be walking around at this time. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. Are you alright?" His hands, not three seconds ago prepared to choke the life out of me, now so gentle on my shoulders, my back, my hair, stroking, soothing, holding me as I tried to breathe slowly and calmly. He hadn't known it was me. He would not hurt me. But still, the possibility had nearly destroyed me, and I dabbed with trembling fingers at the blood that soaked the neck of my dress.
"I'm sorry. Marian, I'm sorry. Say something. Did I hurt you?"
"Yes. Yes, I'm alright."
"What are you doing up now?" he asked, careful not to upset me again. "What possessed you to come out here now, in the middle of the night? I could have killed you." He sounded mortified, and unhappy, and annoyed.
"I wanted to talk to you." The plan that had seemed so important now seemed childish and naïve.
"Why didn't you wait for morning?" He asked incredulously, matching tone for tone the question running through my head.
"Because," I said defensively, not only to him, "during the day you're—rightly—distracted by the running of the camp. And I want to speak to you without being interrupted."
I couldn't see his face. Much like our first conversations, we sat next to each other in the dark. Except now we were not in the castle, and I found my heart pounding for a very different reason.
As if he had read my thoughts, he said "We do always seem to speak more plainly in the dark." There was a tinge of censure in his voice this time.
"But you already know what I'm here to talk to you about."
"Yes, I do. And my answer is still no. It's too dangerous for you, I wouldn't ask you—"
"But you're not asking me. I'm offering to help you, and this is the only way I know how."
"This is the only way? This is the only way you know to help me?"
"You heard me coming from a long way away. John's right, I wouldn't last very long out here living as you do, trying to help—"
"We can teach you—"
"Only at great cost of time and effort. Neither of which are things you should be wasting at the moment, don't you agree?"
"But you could…"
"I could what? Robin, I'm not going to sit in the cave every day waiting for you to come back. I can't sit still like that when there's nothing else for me to do, because I have no skills here. I 'm not going to be a lady here. I don't want to be a lady here. If I was here, I'd want to be Marian, a member of the group, with all the responsibility that goes with it. But I've never done any of the things common women have grown up doing. I'd be no help to you."
"Elizabeth's life will be very different from mine. She has time to learn to work, and her husband is not in constant danger of being killed. They are happy, and for now they're safe."
"So you don't want to be happy?" The harshness was back in his voice, but this time it was not deadly. Perhaps it was what had happened earlier, or that we were alone in the forest and I could not see his face, but he was letting his emotions change his voice now. I wished, more than anything, that I could see him.
I sighed, and reached out to where I knew he was. My hand came into contact with the front of his shirt, and I gripped it lightly, leaning toward him. "No, I want very much to be happy. But this…you won't be happy unless you're fighting the Sheriff, and I couldn't take that from you. It's your fight to make, and it needs to be made, I see that."
There was moment of silence, and I realized how close I had come to telling Robin how I felt for him. Well, I had wanted an uninterrupted moment with him.
"But I'm in this now. I want to help, not sit by and wait for news to come back to me. I need to be a part of this, Robin. An active part. And since my particular brand of skills doesn't lend myself to living in the forest, I think there's really only one option for me to consider seriously."
"You don't need to be in this, you could—"
"I want to, though. I want to help you. This isn't even my country, not really, and I want to help you," I chuckled a little, though it was not really funny. "That should tell you something about your persuasive powers, if nothing else does." I let my hand fall, brushing against his leg on its way to earth. I wondered if he felt the little shock that ran through my body at the contact. He had touched me before; not two minutes before, his hands had stroked my back to calm the tremors that still ran through me in little starts. But this brush of hand to leg was more intimate, and it terrified me. My need for him filled me with fear of what I did not know.
And yet I did not know him. I had thought I did, had thought I had gotten the measure of this quiet, serious, honest young man with the calculating gray eyes. I had thought I could judge his character through our meetings, our few conversations. I was that good, I had said to myself. I could figure anyone out.
But he had been a completely different man when he had threatened me. True, he had not known who it was. True, it was in the defense of his own camp, and his men. But he had sounded like something out of a nightmare—a creature who would kill, and who might take pleasure in it. And yet I knew he did not enjoy spilling blood. He did it when it was necessary, but he did not do it gladly. For all that I felt for him, I did not really know him. Not yet.
"You're bleeding," he said, his hands reaching out to touch the column of my throat, which hitched under his fingers. "I cut you. God, I am so sorry, Marian, I just—I was…" it was the first time I had ever heard him lost for words.
"Now tell me, Robin Hood, how does a man who seems so even become so angry?" With all my experience charming and being charming, my voice should have been steady, should not have betrayed how shaken I felt. But his fingertips smoothing the skin of my neck were every bit as unsettling as the knife had been.
There was a silence as he pressed a corner of his sleeve onto the wound to staunch the blood. Then he said, "This is my home."
It was not really an answer. "And if I hadn't been me? What would have happened then?"
"This won't do either of us good, Lady Marian."
"It may help me to know you better."
"I can hardly see how that would be desirable."
"Well if you are going to insist on being slippery, then I'll say that it will help me understand how not to make you press a knife to my throat again."
He sighed in frustration. I had been trying to make him feel guilty, to open up to me. Apparently, it worked, for he opened his mouth to speak. What he said in that quiet voice of his, however, was not what I had expected. "You'll think worse of me if I tell you."
For a moment, I did not know what to say. I had never heard him sound so cautious before. I reached up with my trembling hands and laid them over his. "You are a man, not a god. No man is perfect, Robin, and I would imagine that living the life you do has required you to do some things you aren't proud of. You needn't fear my judgment."
"I don't know what to—to say, exactly." His voice was little more than a whisper, and I wondered, for a second, if that was due to his uncertainty or if he was as affected by my touch as I was by his.
"Tell me a story about yourself, like I told you. That might make it easier." I let my hands fall to my lap, giving him space, and time to think.
"Well…My father died when I was young, and the lands were left in charge of my brother-in-law, John a'Green, until I was old enough to run them. He was a good man, and good to my sister, too, so there was no doubt that he'd stick to his word to my father. I wasn't suspicious back then. I thought that what had been promised would be. I ran a bit wild, for all my sister—Kate—tried to reign me in. She was older than me, and she and John had a little son already. I would often disappear for days only to come back sunburned and dirt covered. To keep me occupied and near the house, John taught me how to shoot and fight, but I still couldn't stay in one place for very long.
"One day, when I was about fifteen, I went off on my own, and ended up miles and miles away on some adventure or other. I forget what it was now. Anyway, when I finally decided to make my way back home, I'd been gone for about two months. What I came back to was…To understand this, you have to understand that Locksley was an estate on legal rent from the lords of Birkencar. It had been that way since the lands were first given to the lords by King William himself, only to be given to the monks of St. Mary's Abbey when the last lord had died. Our lands were fertile, and well-kept, and everyone wanted them, but as long as we paid our dues, no one could take them from us.
"But the monks formed a plan with Guisborne, and when it seemed that I, the rightful heir, would be gone for some time, they killed John a'Green and threw my sister and my nephew out. Will Scarlet and his wife had taken them in, but Kate fell ill and died. All in the time I was gone.
"Well, I was young, and angry, and used to having the run of things. Losing Kate and John was like losing a mother and father. I lost all guidance, and, it seems, all common sense. Guy of Guisborne was in my house, had killed my family, and I thought I wanted vengeance at all costs. I thought that would be what John would have done.
"I gathered a small group of people, maybe four or five villagers, and we tried, inexpertly, I might add, to fight against Guisborne and his men. When we failed, time and again, and Guisborne lashed out at my people, I decided that it was better he was dead than I had a home to go back to. I set fire to the manor. Guisborne escaped, and killed three of my men. I got an arrow in the shoulder for that gem of stupidity.
"All this time, I'd been neglecting my nephew. I thought, Will's wife has her, he's safe. I thought I could do what I wanted to do without needing to think about child rearing. Again, I was stupid. I did not protect them enough, and when Will and I were out, the men came to find my nephew. Molly, Will's wife, had hidden Gilbert in the—"
"Gilbert?" I could not help interrupting. "Gilbert is your nephew?"
"Yes, that's him. She had hidden him in the paddock behind the house, but when the men set fire to her home, she tried to stop them, and—"
"Will told me. I know."
"Well, there are other stories like that. Stories of my own stupidity, of my foolhardiness. I've gotten so many people injured, or killed, by helping me. People who shouldn't have been following me, people who would have been better off being led by someone older and wiser and smarter. Everything I learned about fighting I've learned through the death of someone else. I've been wounded, true, but never fatally. And I've gotten wiser, as time went on, but it took a long time. And men still follow me. People still tell stories of my bravery and my triumphs over the Normans. I've been called a hero all my life and I can't bear the shame of it."
"How is this going to make me think less of you?" I asked, incredulous.
"Why shouldn't it? I'm not a hero, Marian. I'm not a good man. I'm the most selfish person alive, allowing other people to die for me, and not thinking through my plans at all. I don't deserve the life I have right now; it's all because of what other people have given that I'm even alive. Now that I can finally see that, I'm doing my best to make sure no one else dies for me. And you, it seems, were on the brunt end of that decision." He sounded so tired, so angry, and so full of self-loathing that I needed to do something, anything, to help.
"You were young, Robin, and—"
"Only two years younger than you are now. The same age Elizabeth is now. And both of you show greater sense and courage than ever I did."
I sighed. Clearly, he was not going to make this easy. I pondered briefly the oddity of the situation, of me trying to soothe the feelings of a man who had nearly slit my throat. But this was Robin, and there seemed no other choice.
"But you led a different life than either of us. We were always forced to obey, and sit quietly. We were not allowed to be children. You regret what you did, and that's good. That shows strength, and humility. You were a boy before, and now you're a man, and a good one. None of us can live perfect lives, not you, not Elizabeth, not me. There will always be something we regret. And that's a good thing. Regret means that we are not like them, not like the Sheriff and Guisborne and the Prince. Whatever happens, you have that. You are not them, Robin."
His lips found mine then, in the dark. The hand that had stopped the flow of my blood now slid up to cup my face, as he kissed me again and again. Shocked with the suddenness of it, I did not respond for a moment, but then my hands found his chest, and I was pulling him closer to me, and he was responding, touching my face, my hair, my shoulders. I began to tremble again, but this time it was not through fear. I had longed for this moment since the first time he had sat next to me in the dark, and I had felt the stirrings in my own body. We were playing with fire, the two of us, and pulling him closer and closer to me, and feeling his tongue slip carefully between my lips, I found I did not care. I wanted this too badly to think of the consequences.
As women, girls like Elizabeth and me had been taught that to enjoy the things a man does to you is sinful and wrong. They happened for the men, and not for us. For us it was to be borne, not sought after or desired by proper young ladies. But I found, as he untied the laces at the back of my dress, and as I pulled his jerkin over his head, running my hands over the smooth, slightly sweaty skin underneath, that the concerns of every nurse, every governess, every priest, and even of my own father no longer mattered here. Here, I could love the way Robin touched my legs, the feeling of the forest floor against my back. Here, I could give the man I could never marry the one thing I had had to offer a husband, and give it willingly. Here I could moan, and cry out in pleasure without being thought wanton and wrong.
All of the daydreams I had had, at the castle and in the forest, too, had been pale, weak, and un-extraordinary things compared to the reality that was Robin. We lay still in each others' arms, until, kissing him lightly, I got up and slipped away, back to the cave and a sleepless night.
There was no turning back now. I had changed things, and I could not change them back