Her footsteps are unusually loud in the quiet house. She has not known it to be this hushed before – usually it is filled with laughing voices, the sighs of animals out in the barn, the smell of whatever the cook has made for dinner wafting up through the floorboards – but never this. Never this grave, terrible silence. It is making her pulse beat faster with every step, her heart full of anxious dread; she knows that something is wrong, horribly wrong, and there is nothing she can do to remedy it.
Her feet walk with a purpose, and she comes to a heavy wooden door. She can hear soft moans escaping from the crack beneath and her breath hitches in her throat. She has been outside this door before, listening to this woman die slowly, in a time she cannot quite recall. This growing sickness in the depths of her belly is familiar – she knows this time, despite her father's protests against the contrary, there is nothing that can be done. She will die, and leave her daughter behind.
The thought brings tears to her eyes, and she pushes the door slowly open, her eyes searching the room carefully, coming to rest on a thin figure lying on a bed, her dark hair fanned out behind her, her cheeks flushed with fever.
'Mother!' The word spills out of her mouth before she recognises her thoughts; but this revelation is forgotten as the woman turns her head towards her voice.
'Is that you, my dear?'
She takes a hesitant step forward, and her heart breaks to see her mother, such a proud, delightful creature, so fatally ill, wasting away to nothing in this bed. 'Yes, it is me.' She sits down on the covers and her mother's eyes open slowly, squinting at the light coming through the open window, focusing on her.
She has her mother's eyes. She has been told this so often, and understands that she will hear it for a long time to come, even if her mother does pass. But when she looks into her mother's eyes, she cannot see the usual blue sparkle that she knows has attracted men from all over. Her mother's eyes have dimmed to a dull grey, and this, more than anything, makes her realise that her mother is going to die. She cannot stand it; she is barely a teenager, no age at all for her mother to die. She buries her head in her mother's bedcovers, her sobs racking her small body, and despite the almost desperate craving she feels for someone to rub her back in comfort, there is nothing. There is only this overwhelming despair climbing up the back of her throat, to linger always as a reminder of her loss.
She cannot concentrate on the needlework in front of her. The stitches swim in front of her eyes and she lays it to rest on her knees, sighing heavily and rubbing her eyes with the pads of her thumbs.
There is a heavy knock on the door and she instantly stiffens – with fear? With anticipation? She cannot place the heavy feeling in the depths of her stomach – watching as an old man gives her a small smile as he opens the door.
She rises from her chair as he pulls the door open, to reveal a tall, hulking figure dressed all in black. The man's pale blue eyes are disconcerting amongst all the dark leather – if she didn't know any better she would suppose they would reveal his weakness, that somewhere within all that darkness there was something pure about him, but when she looks at him and he at her, his eyes hungry with lust and a bizarre controlled rage, she does not feel anything other than disgust and fear. She knows it is her that has made him angry; his eyes have barely left her since her father opened the door (for that is who the old man is, is he not?) and she can hear him grinding his teeth together in frustration. She tries to recall what she might have done to make him this angry, but her mind is groggy and moves slowly.
The man smiles at her apparent discomfort. 'Do not fret, my dear, I am not going to stay for long.'
Her father raises his voice. 'What do you want?' She thinks that he sounds rude but does not move to say anything; she wants the man out of this house (is it her house?) as much as her father obviously does. His intense blue gaze is making her feel uncomfortable.
'I just want your dear daughter here to learn what she has done, ruining my reputation in the fashion she did,' the man says, his deep voice sending a shiver down the length of her spine.
She wishes she could speak, but when she opens her mouth no words come out. The man looks at her once more, and there is no sorrow in his face.
'You will be sorry for running away with that outlaw,' he says softly, and before she can move, before she can cry out, he has unsheathed his sword and driven it into her father, standing uncertain next to the man.
He gasps quietly, his eyes moving across the room to lock on hers, before he crumples to the floor, unmoving.
She screams, tears falling unchecked down her cheeks and splashing onto her dress. She makes to move towards him, but strong hands hold her back, undeterred by her squirming. She looks up into the pale eyes of her father's murderer, and realises with a shock that she will not be receiving the swift death her father was subjected to – her fate is to be much worse.
He backs her against the wall, so tightly she cannot move, and, his eyes greedily taking her entire body in, bends his head towards hers. She tries to fight, tries to move her mouth away from his, but it is no use. He is much stronger than she, and she is forced to watch his mouth come ever closer, finally pressing against hers with a hungry desperation that threatens to choke her. His mouth is warm and wet, and as his tongue prises her mouth open she fights the urge to retch. She feels suffocated by her powerlessness against him, and despite her desperation to get away, she cannot escape his wandering hands, one forcing its way beneath the soft linen covering her chest, the other gradually making its way down to her abdomen and even lower.
It is too much; she becomes dizzy and clammy and suddenly the world becomes dark.
She has always felt safe in Sherwood Forest, with the trees and the soil and the birds as her only companions. She knows that she has sat on this same rock many times before, content just to watch the countless shades of green changing, gazing up now and then at the wide blue sky high above her head. The woods make her feel so very small and insignificant, and at the same time, not at all alone.
When she lowers her head back down from the tops of the trees to the soil beneath her fingers, she finds she is not at all surprised to see a man watching her steadily from a tree just across from her rock. He is tall, but not menacing; his eyes, twinkling with cheek, and his position, leaning against the trunk with a cocky effortlessness, causes her to recall a young boy whose features she struggles to remember from a time long ago.
'What are you doing here?' he asks quietly.
He is not a threat, and she looks away from him, playing with the hem of her dress, muddy from the damp earth.
'You should not be here. Sherwood Forest is not a safe place for a young maiden like yourself…Not anymore, what with all the outlaws and the like.'
His mouth twitches into a smile, a smile that she knows she is supposed to share. She cannot understand this strange pull she feels when she gazes into this man's eyes. He is cocky and arrogant and everything she should not like, but yet she craves his touch.
His face becomes serious. 'You best be getting home. Wouldn't want your father, and dear Guy, to worry.' His voice becomes bitter towards the end of the sentence, and his eyes turn hard. 'Go, be off with you. The Forest is no place for a woman. She is best left at home with her embroidery. Not traipsing through the woods by herself.' His eyes inadvertently move towards her dirty hem, but she hardly notices. She is too concerned with the hurt she feels at his previous words.
'Be off! Go back to your precious Guy! You chose him, not me, remember? I'm not yours anymore. I never was yours. Why do you think I went away to the Holy Land? I left you. And I'm not coming back.'
She cannot bear to see the way he is glaring at her, his mouth twisted resentfully and his eyes fierce with something close to hatred. She gets a funny strangled sensation in the back of her throat and knows she is close to tears.
'I never loved you, Marian. I never loved you.'
As she opens her mouth to respond, to ask if all those years together as children meant nothing to him, she hears another sound of leaves crunching together. She is surprised, when she turns back to the man in front of her, that he appears to have not heard the sound at all. This is most unlike the man she knows. Frowning slightly, she opens her mouth to say something, but there is a sudden spinning noise and before she realises what has happened, the man in front of her has collapsed, his face contorted in pain. The arrow sticking out of his chest is deep and she freezes, watching the blood seep through his shirt and onto his hands, so red against his pale skin.
She rushes to him, and she feels as if she too has been shot when he turns away from her, his eyes dark and angry. She cannot stand seeing him like this, writhing on the forest floor, bound for death.
She cries out his name, pulling him back towards her, but he has become unresponsive, his breathing short and laboured. And then, suddenly, he is gone.
She throws her head back and screams.
She forces her eyes open and sits up straight in bed, holding her head in her hands and willing the nightmare to sink through her fingers and soak into the bedclothes so she can stop reliving the pain – first her mother, then her father, Guy, Robin…She feels wetness on her cheeks and realises she has been crying through her sleep.
Unnerved, she stands and pads quietly out of her room to one further down the hall. As softly as she can manage, she pushes the heavy wooden door open to see her father, alive and snoring peacefully, on his bed. She sighs, relieved, and brings the door back towards her, shutting it carefully so as to not wake him from his slumber.
She returns to her room and sits on the edge of her bed, trying not to concentrate on the rising panic in her stomach, instead recalling her dream. Her mother has been dead for eleven years, and there is nothing that Marian can do about that. Her father is well and asleep, and she silently thanks the Lord that Guy of Gisborne is not so foolish as to enter Knighton Hall at this hour. But there is one person she cannot get out of her head.
She shakes her head for being so ridiculous, pushing her hair back from her face. Looking towards the window, she can see the faint light on the horizon; dawn is yet to come. She knows that there is no way that she could go back to sleep, and with another shake of her head, gets up and begins to hunt for some clothes.
While she knows it is nonsensical, she also is aware that she will be plagued by unreasonable adrenaline unless she learns that Robin is safe and well. She hates the fact that he can make her feel this way, so vulnerable and feminine. When she is around him she endeavours to seem cool and controlled, but she cannot fool herself – she knows she has failed in that area many times. She is quick with her tongue and knows that despite her small stature she has unexpected strength, but when she is around him that seems to vanish, only to be replaced by foolish feminine desires to have him safe and for him to protect her. She hates him for making her feel that way, but she supposes that she hates herself even more for letting him affect her like that.
Her years as the Nightwatchman have helped her to tread noiselessly on squeaking wood; she is certain that no one hears her as she makes her way down the stairs and through the door to the barn. Not even bothering to saddle Arthur, her magnificent stallion, a present from her father for her last birthday, she swings herself on him and nudges her way out of the barn door.
She is surprised how easily she finds his camp; it makes her uneasy. If she can find them, what of the Sheriff's men? What if someone had come across the camp while Robin's men were fast asleep? She shivers, trying not to think of the carnage that could be lying here if a brutal outlaw had come along this way…
But that is all forgotten as she slides off Arthur and makes her way through the trees to where she can see the six outlaws. Much, obviously the last on guard duty, is a way off from the others, his sword held limply in his hand, his chin on his chest, snoring softly. The fire the other five are positioned around has long since burnt out. They are all snuggled deep within their furs and blankets, and she has to creep around them, assessing their size and shape, to find Robin. That is Little John, the largest of the group, his blanket too small for him by a couple of inches so his muddy boots can be clearly seen; that is Allan, his arm flung to the side of him, meaningless murmurings escaping every so often out of his mouth; that is Djaq, sleeping peacefully and obviously unaware she is using Will's chest for a pillow, his hand cupping the back of her head protectively. Marian cannot imagine them being this close in daylight hours, not in front of all the others.
And finally she discovers Robin, his face peaceful and so vulnerable in sleep.
The relief overwhelms her, and she slowly sits beside his head, content for a little while to just sit and let her breathing slow as she gazes at his face. He looks so young in sleep, too young to have such a large reward on his head for his capture. Although he has never been so young as to not get into trouble – one of her first memories is of Robin stealing her from her cot and taking her outside into the meadow to play with the fallen apples he had taken from a farmer's orchard.
She gazes at him steadily; tracing the lines of his face determinedly so that when she leaves here she can recall him exactly as he is now, serene in sleep. As if he can feel her gaze, he blinks awake blearily. When he sees her there, watching him intently, he sits up, worry written plainly across his face.
'I am sorry…' she begins, but he cuts her off.
'Marian! Are you alright?'
She nods. 'I am fine, Robin. I'm sorry that I woke you up.'
She sees him visibly relax, and, with a shake of his head to reassure her that he does not mind her waking him, pushes the blanket off his shoulders and stretches his limbs, yawning. He is too thin; she wishes there was some way she could get them more food, for they all need more flesh on their bones. Winter is almost upon them – the leaves have begun to fall from the trees, and the night air has turned cold and crisp.
His gaze is back on hers, wordlessly asking her why she is here, so early in the morning, watching him sleep.
'I…' she begins, and then realises the complete stupidity in her coming here. Why couldn't she have stayed at home? It was just a nightmare – of course Robin was all right, dreams were not real… 'I should not have come,' she whispers, and makes to move up.
His hand comes to rest over hers, and as she looks into his eyes she sees that they are anxious. 'Are you sure you're all right, Marian?'
She nods a bit too forcefully. 'I told you before, Robin, I am quite all right. But coming here was foolish…'
He bites his lip. 'What happened?'
She looks up at him, surprised.
He raises his eyebrows. 'You would not have left Knighton in the early hours of the morning to come and see a band of outlaws for nothing. Not in your position.' He smiles slyly. 'Sherwood Forest is not a safe place for a young lady like yourself, not with all the outlaws running around here.'
His words are so close to those spoken by her dreamed Robin that her heartbeat begins to speed up again. It was just a dream, she repeats over and over in her head. She looks down at her hands, cold in the crisp morning air.
'I do not know why I came, Robin. It was really nothing.' She sighs heavily. 'You will laugh, and call me a fool, a silly woman with nothing but anxious fears…'
He is watching her carefully. 'You had a nightmare.'
She cannot hide her shock. Her mouth opens, but she cannot find the words. 'How…?'
His eyes are tender. 'You are not the only one with night terrors, Marian. There have been so many times…' He looks away for a moment, and Marian knows he is referring to his time in the Holy Land, surrounded by merciless killing and no escape. His words are soft. 'I know what it is like to wake up and have to make sure that it was all just a dream…Be thankful that at least here you can check up on the people you dream about.'
For a moment she thinks that he is being his usual arrogant self, determined to tease and flirt with her, but she sees that his eyes are serious. The Holy Land has changed him.
So instead of a quick reply, she nods. 'I dreamt that my mother was dying. I felt that same despair – there was nothing I could do.' Robin nods at this and squeezes her hand a little tighter. He was there when her mother died; he was the one who held her while she cried for those long months afterwards. He had been the one who made her laugh, made her smile, made her realise that life still went on no matter what tragedies transpired. 'And then…Guy…' She can feel Robin tense but goes on. 'He killed my father, and then…' She cannot escape the imagined memory of his hot mouth on hers, his hands eager and reaching for undiscovered parts of her body…She shakes her head. 'It was horrible, Robin. And then I found you, and you were bitter and resentful and you told me you left because you hated me, and then before I could do anything you had been shot and…'
She knows she is rambling, but she cannot help it. New tears are falling, and she is drawn into Robin's arms, his embrace warm and feeling like home. Her tears slowly dry up as she breathes in the deep scent of him – of earth and fresh air and grass and lavender and something else she can only identify as Robin. She hiccups unexpectedly and he chuckles softly, his chest reverberating with the sound. She sighs and closes her eyes, feeling safe here in his arms.
He pulls away from her and pushes her chin up to look at him. 'Know this, Marian: my leaving you was not at all because I did not love you. I wanted to prove myself to you – it was because I loved you that I left. But it was the wrong thing to do. If there is one thing I regret more than anything, it is that.' He places a curl of hair that has fallen from her hastily made braid back behind her ear gently, and smiles. 'I promise that I will never leave you again willingly. And I will do everything in my power to never leave you unwillingly, either.'
She manages a weak smile. 'Thank you, Robin.'
He rubs her cheek with his thumb, loving her so much in this one moment he feels too heavy, too full of emotion. He leans forward and captures her mouth with his, kissing her softly. She smiles against his mouth, and as he pulls away she reaches for the back of his neck, drawing him back down for another, more passionate, kiss.
She knows the words don't need to be said, knows that the feeling is mutual, but when they finally come up for air she smiles at him and whispers in his ear, 'I love you, Robin.'
He grins back, pulling her into another hug. 'I know.'