THE WAR AT HOME
The breeze through the window gave life to the curtains, the movement allowing moonlight to spill into the room. And she woke from the most delightful dream. Instinctively reaching for her love, Marian's arms found empty air beside her. Opening her eyes, she sighed. Casting her gaze to the window, she was disappointed when the breeze died and the curtains took a prone position to shield the moon.
Many wives would suspect inconstancy or worse at such a regular occurrence. But she knew better. His nightmares drove him from her side each night. Marian hadn't truly known the toll the war had taken on Robin until they shared this bed. He did not sleep. Could not, she corrected herself. At first she held a measure of anger at his disappearances, hating as she did to wake without him. But in time, she came to accept it. What option did she have? Despite her requests, Robin did not speak the contents of his dreams and eventually she stopped asking. It only served to upset him and increase the ferocity of his nightmares.
Stretching lazily, she considered returning to slumber. After ten minutes spent in futile attempts, she propped herself against the headboard and turned her mind to pleasant memories. Gisbourne was cold in a grave, having met his end at Robin's hand. The sheriff had been exiled from Nottingham by a returned King Richard. The tired but grateful monarch had restored to Robin his birthright, all of the land of Locksley. Impressed by Robin's ability to defend and manage the affairs of his people while still an outlaw, the King added to Locksley's borders, including with it all of Nottingshire and the forest he'd called home for well over a year. The Robin of old would have rebelled against the idea of such responsibility. But these hard recent years made settling down a welcome alternative for the restless noble. Of course, she'd had a part in that too. Marian smiled at the recollection of the night the tide turned from playful friendship and hidden attraction to mature and certain love.
Upon entering her room at the castle, she'd shivered harshly. Had she left the window open on such a cold night? The curtain was pushed back and there he waited, perched on the sill. Moonlight haloed his tawny hair, lending him a divinity she knew he neither possessed nor desired. His arrogant grin was firmly in place as his gaze swept her length. Her heart skipped and she wondered if he knew what he did to her? She must have blushed at the attention because his smile turned entirely devilish. On closer examination, she could see something else behind his blue eyes. Exhaustion. He'd been on the run too long.
"Malady," he greeted and she made her steps purposely slow in approach.
"It will not do to have an outlaw on the premises." Her rebuke might have stung had her own grin not struggled to hide behind her neutral façade.
"If my presence frightens you, call the guards." He dared lightly, knowing she'd do no such thing. But soon the playfulness faded from his countenance. She caught the shift and watched him closely.
"Tell me?" Her whisper floated on the chilled air and Robin's gaze fell from her face.
"I just…" he began. "I needed to see you."
It was not an explanation but she sensed she'd get no more from him. He needed her and she would by no means turn him away. Marian held her hand, extending her heart in the gesture. Robin descended from the sill, closing the gap between them to take her offered hand. His free hand rose to her face and she leaned into the touch. When he looked at her this way, as though she were all that existed in the world, she could deny him nothing. However, she gave him no chance to ask, as the new moon emboldened her to take what she wanted. Reaching up, Marian slid her arms about his neck, delicate fingers twining in his hair to pull him down to her waiting lips. If her daring shocked him, he recovered quickly as he gripping her hips firmly. Immediately the kiss deepened and she allowed his tongue to coax hers into response. And she nearly fainted. So good, so right was this that she marveled they'd waited this long. Pressing her body against his, her kiss turned hungry, desperate. Never breaking contact, Robin backed her three steps into the nearest wall, pinning her between it and his strong, lean frame. The unladylike position failed to trouble her, serving only to heighten her passion. But then, without warning Robin pulled away and she felt the loss instantly.
"I must go." The breathless words knocked her own breath out of her. Had she misinterpreted his intentions all this time? Was she too inexperienced for him? Had she done this wrong?
"No, Robin. Stay," she fairly pleaded, then leaned up, ready to capture his lips again. But he stepped away from her embrace and she cursed this new distance. "Why must you leave?" Marian cringed at the childish tone her voice took.
"I assure you, while I remain your virtue is not safe." The chivalrous consideration surprised her, though visibly it had been a difficult decision for him.
For the first time, she saw it; the power she had over him. It was displayed in the pure lust she found in his eyes, mirroring her own. No, this was not rejection. He was protecting her. And though she wanted to throw such caution out the open window, she knew he was right. Not here. Not now.
He climbed back through the window, looking back with a more familiar grin before disappearing from view. Whatever he'd come for that night, she'd apparently supplied. She herself received a great deal as well. Knowledge. He loved her. He wanted her. There was no room for further doubt. And dear God, did she love him.
Last summer, they'd married in royal fashion. All of the court turned out to witness the nuptials. The following day there was a more intimate affair with the people of Locksley and Robin's faithful men. Her beloved father had died just after the ceremony, and her solace was that he was finally content where he was. Robin had secured his blessing while still an outlaw, a miracle in itself.
Robin had been accused of multiple murders, women and children unspared. It wasn't the first time the sheriff had employed this tactic, but the brutality was of one who'd been hardened by war. Again the townspeople turned against her love and even her father believed him guilty. Guarded in her house's doorway, she'd watched in horror as several men stood with her father before Robin.
"I will turn you in this day. And you'll hang by nightfall." Her father's venom startled her.
Robin's stance was defiant, but she could read the sadness in his eyes. "I cannot allow that, Sir Edward."
"Then you will fight me." Approaching with sword drawn, her father angled the blade's tip under Robin's chin. Her outlaw was resourceful; an escape artist always finds a way out. And an ailing old man posed no challenge. But he might allow Sir Edward to kill him rather than risk inflicting pain on a man he respected so deeply. Robin gave voice to her concern.
"I would accept death by your sword before I'd raise a hand to you."
"Then you will not defend yourself?"
"My defense is my innocence." Robin's eyes never left her father's. "You've known me since I was a child. Do you truly think me capable of these murders?"
Sir Edward's hand began to tremble as he indeed considered Robin's capability. Yes, he could do it. No one in all of England possessed his skills of both bow and sword. But he would not. He'd proved it time and again. Clearly arriving at this conclusion, her father thrust his sword upon the ground, having every appearance of a man most repentant.
"No, I think not," Sir Edward agreed with a shaky voice. Marian's guards, seeing this resolution, let her pass.
"Father?" She called softly to the elderly man.
Sir Edward looked to his daughter, then cast his eyes back to Robin. "Forgive me, my son."
"I know of nothing to forgive."
"Ask anything of me, and it shall be granted," her father's voice grew stronger. "Horses, supplies, men. Anything."
"I have only one request. When this is finished and I'm free," Robin paused, catching Marian's approach. "And if she's willing, I ask for your daughter's hand."
The old man smiled. "I could do no better by her. If she is agreeable."
Marian's arms were around Robin's neck before any thought of public propriety could halt her. "She is." And the manifestation of their commitment was revealed in the kiss that followed.
But it wasn't only the villagers' eyes upon them that day. Sir Guy of Gisbourne had looked on from the woods, viewing the woman he coveted openly declare her acceptance of marriage to the outlaw he despised. Marian could only shudder at the rage he must have felt in his dark heart. The following morning, he announced to the court his vow to stop at nothing to bring the murderous Lord of Locksley to justice. True to his word, he hounded the outlaw, hunting him so treacherously that Robin no longer dared to visit her. His absence was made worse by the various stories of his death. She left court altogether to free herself from the tales.
Late into the night, rumblings were heard that a battle had been waged between Robin and his men and Gisbourne's army. John Little was rumored to have been killed. They said that Robin had been wounded and lay near death. The story came from a guard friendly to her father, which gave him more credibility than most. With each passing moment her hope crumbled, but something deep in her heart told her he yet lived. She'd paced her father's halls, offering prayer after prayer for his safety. And she could barely contain her hysterics when he appeared in her window a night later. Throwing herself into his arms, she froze upon hearing a sharp hiss of pain. Quickly stepping back, Marian inspected her love, noting how he bit his lower lip as if to stifle a groan. His right arm shielded his torso and she moved to grasp his wrist. Robin stepped back to evade her probing, but in the face of her persistence, he resigned to let her pull his arm aside. The bloodstain at his left side greeted her eyes and caught her breath. A sword thrust?
"It's nothing." He assured her in a hoarse whisper, refusing to allow her access to the wound.
Taking further inventory, Marian could hear his shallow breathing and detected the unsteadiness of his stance. How had he managed to climb into her second story window when he could barely stand? But it was the sorrow in his gaze that hit her hardest.
"What happened," she ventured and he cast his eyes down, shaking his head.
"John is gone. Killed trying to protect me." The fury radiating from him as he spoke was surpassed only by guilt.
Tears sprung at the confirmation of the big man's loss. "You cannot blame yourself, Robin. Your men would all follow you into death."
The sentiment did nothing to sooth him. "That doesn't mean they should."
"The cause is right." She countered.
Robin backed away from her almost imperceptibly. "John's death was not. How many others must die for my cause?"
"To save so many lives, some will be lost. You've known that from the start." The bloodstain grew slowly on the fabric of his shirt, but reason told her Robin would not let her tend to it now.
"This must end. The King is rumored to be on our shores but we can not wait."
And there was no question what he meant to do. Holding her hand to his stubbled jaw, she was assaulted by the heat of his skin. Fever had set in. Raising her other hand to his shoulder, she could feel the deep trembling of his body.
"You're not well. Until you've healed, direct your men from here. Let them…."
"This is my fight." He insisted firmly, then took a deep breath to temper his next words. "I must finish this. For my father's honor, my freedom... for our future."
"We have no future if you die tomorrow." Her raised voice should have signaled her father's guards, but luckily it failed to merit their attention.
"We have no future if things remain as they are." He turned to the window, prepared to depart. Marian quickly grabbed a fistful of his shirt, desperate to stop him.
"Don't leave. You need to rest."
"I can't." But he remained still, as Marian hadn't released her grip on him. She was determined to not let go.
"You're bleeding, shaking and dangerously feverish…."
Robin removed her hand forcibly. "And while I stay here, more could be dying."
"Perhaps. But you can do nothing for them while on the verge of collapse." Suddenly aware again of her increased volume, Marian forced her tone to lower. "You'll be more effective if you'd sleep a little." Reading the conflict in his expression, she readied her demand. "One hour. That's all I ask."
But he shook his head. "Marian, I can't…"
Resorted to her favorite tactic to silence and distract him, Marian pulled him into a lingering kiss. Though weakened by injury, his passion was not diminished and he responded immediately. Reluctantly breaking away, she bore her sternest gaze into him. "I am your future wife, so you need to trust me. Let me watch over you tonight."
Her hands slid behind his head, bringing his forehead to rest against hers, the contact renewing her awareness of his fever. His eyes closed and she nearly missed his whisper.
"So tired." Though obvious, it was a show of trust for him to confess it.
"Lie with me. I'll wake you in an hour."
"Let me go. S'not safe." His words were beginning to slur and he swayed on his feet. Obtaining his compliance was now vital.
Brushing her lips to his, Marian felt victory approaching. "Let me worry about that."
Robin considered her offer in silence before allowing the smallest nod. Taking his hand, she coaxed him away from the window, his escape route, and watched him sink onto her mattress. Her hand pressed against his chest, giving him a gentle push. Stifling the groan movement caused, Robin submitted and lie back. Leaving him for a moment, Marian blew out most of the candles around the room, save the ones by the bed. She was still hoping to tend the wound. And of course she had no intention of waking him. No, she'd let him sleep as long as possible before daylight arrived to reveal his presence. In the span of the few minutes it took to return to his side, Robin had succumbed to his exhaustion. Right in the middle of the bed, of course. She smiled; it was so him. It was the most still she'd seen him in her life. Robin had been a furious bundle of energy since his childhood. Now, they seemed so far removed from those days of innocence and privilege. Remembering their commitment to marry one day, she let go her prudish inclination and allowed herself to stretch beside him, mindful of the wound. But the distance was too much for her liking and she found her body scooted closer of its own accord.
Rather than awkward, laying curled up with him felt entirely natural, as though her body was made to be here. A yawn reminded her of the hour, but before she could drift off, a light tapping at the window caught her attention. Turning slowly, she made out the form of Robin's ever-loyal friend, Much, taking in the view before him. She should have known he wouldn't be far behind. Though Robin had given the manservant his freedom, Much refused to let Robin out of his sight.
"How did you manage it?" Much asked softly.
"With a surprising amount of convincing." In truth, she hadn't expected it to be so hard to get him into bed.
"Well done, Malady."
Despite their hushed tones, Robin stirred. Shushing him gently, she caressed his cheek until he calmed. He was pale and shivering despite the room's warmth.
Much watched with interest before speaking. "I'm entrusting him to your care. Do not fail me." The bravado was a bit overblown but she understood. He turned to leave, but threw over his shoulder, "he spoke your name."
Marian recalled the first time Much had told her that. When she'd refused to help Robin, Much had shaken his head. 'In the holy land, my master had dreams. He spoke your name.' It was a condemnation and one she never forgot.
Throughout the remaining night, Robin had moments of agitation that she worked to soothe. He did not call out for her, but she believed he knew she was there. The fever had gripped him hard and it was several hours before he calmed enough for her to sleep as well. When she awoke to the morning sun, she was alone.
It was a spring night like this when they'd first shared a bed together. And it was a similar longing that found her whilst she lay alone, a pattern started from that first night. She remembered getting word that Gisbourne had been dispatched for what he did to John Little. Robin had made a vow to end the tyranny and he saw it through. The Sheriff was made to answer to the King, who had greeted his subjects in Nottingham. Robin did not venture there to see his ruler. Rather, he'd immediately returned to her. King Richard issued a proclamation to right the wrongs done to Lord Locksley, former member of the King's private guard. But all Robin sought was her.
The crisp air lingered at night, requiring the blankets she now burrowed into. Still, were he with her, she'd have sufficient warmth to stave off the chill. Where was he tonight? Early in their marriage, she'd sought after him when he'd vanish from bed. Finding him pacing the halls or grooming his horse, Marian came to learn how quickly he could shut her out. Questions were not welcomed. Even her presence, her touch, did not soothe him. Rather, more than one argument had been wrought by her prying. Throughout the winter months, Marian opted not to go to him. Difficult as it was, he appeared to prefer it. While it restored harmony, it did not solve the problem.
Tonight she could not force her body to comply with her mind. Limbs moved to dress, then out the door they carried her. Traveling the worn path to the stables, she shivered but pressed on. Robin liked these nights, claiming they cleared his head. Judging by how many times she'd had to wake him from his dreams tonight, she knew he'd need more than a brisk night. As she peered inside the heavy stable doors, her love was found. His horse was freshly brushed and Robin was now sitting on top of the 3-foot tall stone divider, eyes raised to the stars. Hesitating to disturb him, Marian tried and failed to gauge his mood. Reminding herself that fighting with him rarely worked in her favor, she simply wandered quietly to her husband, standing between his legs. Slowly his gaze lowered to meet hers and she studied the blue depths carefully. A small smile played on his handsome features even as his hands moved to hold her face. Tilting her head, she rose on her toes to grant him a brief kiss.
Her lips strayed to his ear. "What were you thinking about?"
"You," Robin whispered, leaning down to nibble on her neck.
Eyes fluttering closed, Marian nearly forgot why she'd come out here. He could distract her as no one else. Forcing herself to focus, she stepped back marginally to catch his eyes.
"Liar." She reproached gently.
Robin paid no heed, instead taking on a look of concern. "You're shivering."
A master of misdirection, she acknowledged of her love. "It's cold," Which made her the mistress of the obvious. "I'll go inside if you join me."
"I will." But he made no move to do so.
"And how long will I wait?" She tried to frame her question with tenderness but could sense tension taking residence within him.
"Marian…" He took a calming breath before continuing. "I just need a little time." Hopping down from the wall, Robin moved a few paces away from her and resumed his study of the sky.
"Time to think about your dreams tonight?" His shoulders visibly tightened at her words yet her better angel failed to keep her mouth shut. "If you would only talk to me…"
"I've no desire to have this argument again." His cold tone told her she was shut out once more. The subject was an unbreachable barrier between them and though she knew better, she persisted in her attempts to break through.
"I need you to tell me what you see in your dreams." It was an oft-repeated request and she could see his frustration rise.
"Don't. Don't ask this of me." There was warning in his stance, as though he was ready to bolt.
"How long will you let this stand in our way?"
He spun to face her. "How long will you refuse to understand?" Rather than anger, his voice contained pleading so foreign to his nature.
A single tear coursed down her cheek. "I have no basis for understanding. Do you think me blind to the scars you carry? I see signs of capture, torture, God knows what else. You can't sleep. You won't talk to me. And it leaves my imagination to create the reasons."
Her words must have made an impact because Robin hung his head. "Whatever you've imagined won't do it justice."
Despite her previous resolve not to argue, she'd gone too far. Guilt welled within her and she bridged the distance between them, careful not to touch him. "Forgive me, my love. I didn't come here with the intention of fighting. I just…hate waking alone."
Looking back to her, remorse stole across his face. "I didn't realize…I don't mean to hurt you."
"It hurts me when you hurt. And I don't know how to save you from it."
Does nothing touch you? I do not think I've ever seen you hurt. These were words she spoke in anger long ago. How wrong she had been. You think it strong not to feel. She'd come to recognize that he felt deeply but hid what he could.
Slipping into his arms again erased the chill of the air. With her head pressed to his chest, his heartbeat calmed her nerves. If only she could do the same for him. He was silent for some time as she stayed contently in his embrace. It surprised her when he finally spoke.
"When I was young, I memorized the star patterns from this property. I missed them when I was away. They're so different in Jerusalem." She felt him shudder but held her tongue. "I memorized them from the window of the prison." More tears left her at her suspicion's confirmation. "I couldn't wait to return to the stars of my home. But even now…I can't see the patterns I used to love. I try, but I always see those despised stars of Jerusalem."
It was the most he'd ever said about his time away and the information pained her. Her imaginings would take a vicious turn from here and she wondered now why she'd wanted to know such things. Being certain he'd been captured sent a deep shiver through her body, which Robin must have felt. He dropped a kiss into her hair, his hands rubbing at her cold arms.
"Come back to bed," she pleaded quietly, prepared for the battle. Everything with him had always been a fight. It was just his nature.
Amazingly, Robin simply nodded in submission. With one last look at the heavens, he took her hand and led her back inside. Marian vowed to the same stars that she would help him see them again. After all, this was his home. There was no war here. And he was hers.