Finally posted this, which will be the last chapter. There was going to be further chapter but my inspiration has died I'm sorry. Hopefully you'll accept this final chapter as consolation.
Chapter 8 - Engagement
Lord Robert of Locksley and Earl of Huntingdon rose from his seat at the head of the banquet table set up in Locksley's main hall.
"My friends, lords and ladies, thank you all for coming. As many of you will know, my son Robin and the daughter of my good friend the Sheriff, Sir Edward of Knighton, the Lady Marian of Knighton, have been intended for each other since Marian was born. That time has passed so quickly to me; it seems only yesterday they were annoying little anklebiters always running amuck and disrupting my work…" he paused for a moment, considering.
"Actually, that's probably because it was!" The audience laughed dutifully. Lord Robert was a popular man, but once he got stuck into the wine flagon, his penchant for bad jokes shone through in earnest.
"No, the truth is our children have grown up. And I'm sure you'll all agree that it's high time their engagement was made official."
There were more chuckles from the audience, this time in earnest. Rumours of the antics of the young couple in the last few weeks had spread, despite Sir Edward's tireless efforts to control the pair - and suppress the gossip. Seated to his father's right, Robin grinned wickedly. Marian, next to him, at least had the good grace to blush. Sir Edward's smile turned slightly wooden. The implied slight to his daughter's reputation had not gone unnoticed. It was also common knowledge that he thought Marian, just shy of her fifteenth birthday, was too young to enter into an official engagement. Only Lord Robert's wish to see his son married before his departure to the Holy Lands, aided by constant badgering by Marian, had convinced him to allow it.
"I propose a toast!" shouted Lord Robert to make himself heard over the noise. "To Robin and Marian!"
He downed the entire wine goblet in one gulp.
"To Robin and Marian!" the audience echoed, copying Lord Robert's gesture with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Sir Edward looked faintly disgusted at this display of voracity, but the couple in question did not notice. They had eyes only for each other as they symbolically linked arms to drink. They were both rather flushed with wine already; Robin had insisted they practise the gesture several times before the rest of the guests arrived. It would not do to get all tangled up at the critical moment, he had said with a perfectly straight face. Marian, ever the willing accomplice, had concurred.
Sir Edward made the next toast. He rose from his seat and looked at Marian fondly. "To my darling daughter. I know you think I've been overprotective at times, but I only ever wanted the best for you. May you have great sex –" Sir Edward stopped, horrified, at his slip of the tongue. A shocked silence crept over the crowd which was shortly broken only by a loud guffaw from Lord Robert.
"Good lord, Edward," he laughed. "You tell it like it is, don't you! Didn't think you had it in you!"
Emboldened, the crowd joined in the laughter and a nervous tittering arose in the hall.
"Success, I meant success – in your marriage!" spluttered Sir Edward loudly, trying to drown out Lord Robert and the noise of the crowd.
Robin smirked widely and raised an eyebrow at Marian over their glasses of wine as she blushed prettily. The toast over, Marian unlinked her arm a trifle reluctantly. Robin noticed, and let his hand dangle by his side under the tablecloth which she grasped gratefully. Sir Edward, on Marian's other side, narrowed his eyes. Marian's chaperone, Lady Miriam, had warned him to keep Robin and Marian's hands in view at all times.
He tapped the table lightly to claim Marian's attention. "Hands, please."
It was not a request. Marian rolled her eyes and deliberated deposited her and Robin's linked hands on the table in full view.
Sir Edward glared. Marian glared right back.
Robin resisted the urge to smile; it was plain to see where Marian's stubbornness came from. Still, it's probably not best to push things so soon. He gently disengaged his hand. Marian, however, would have no such thing. She turned her glare on Robin, and snatched his retreating hand back into hers. Robin sent his best apologetic look towards the fuming Sir Edward. This time it was a real effort to control his smirk, but he managed somehow. After all, it didn't hurt to cultivate the 'who-can-argue-with-her' defence for a time of future need.
The music started up and Robin led Marian onto the makeshift dance floor in the Locksley's main hall. It was a slow piece; and the pair relished the opportunity to hold each other in their arms. Robin stepped close to Marian, so that his chest brushed against hers. One arm snaked around her waist to rest firmly on the small of her back, while the other grasped her hand tightly. Marian's other hand slipped around his shoulder to rest on his shoulder blade.
They revolved slowly on the spot; lost in each other's eyes. Robin leaned closer and murmured in her ear, "Your father is glaring at us. I swear I can feel his eyes burning a hole in my back."
Marian twisted slightly look over Robin's shoulder at her father's infuriated expression.
"I don't care what he thinks," she whispered back. With that, she took a small step towards him and pressed herself firmly against his chest. Robin tightened his hold and smothered his laugh in her hair.
Robin glanced up again at Sir Edward. "Now, he looks like his eyeballs are going to pop out."
Marian stifled her giggles with difficultly then observed, "Your father, on the other hand, is just smirking at us!"
"He's probably caught between laughing at Sir Edward's eyeballs, and staring at your wonderfully revealing red dress."
"He is not!" she said indignantly. "Lord Robert would never … And my dress is not that revealing."
He laughed, "Fine, your slightly revealing red dress. It's true about my father, though. He's incredibly jealous of me!"
"Truly?" she sounded surprised.
"Mmmm," he murmured into her hair. "My father is still young, you know. If I recall rightly, Sir Edward was older when he married your mother, who was only 16. And it's been nearly five years since Mother died; my father's been very lonely…"
He raised an eyebrow suggestively, "You being my step-mother would be … interesting…"
"Stop it, Robin! It's not funny!" Her eyes widened warningly.
"Sorry," he apologised quickly. A moment later, the grin was back, pulling at the corners of his mouth.
Marian sighed, exasperated. "You're impossible!"
"But you love me for it, don't you?"
They shared a smile. Marian leaned forward to rest her head on Robin's shoulder, content to feel safe and secure in his arms. She was lost in the music and the comforting security of his arms.
The music faded away as the musicians finished their piece. Sir Edward came hurrying over to claim a dance with his daughter. She still wrapped in Robin's embrace, unaware that music had stopped.
She looked up surprised and finally realised the piece was over.
"Spare a dance for your poor father, will you? I'm sure Robin will not miss you for one dance."
His words were joking, but his tone was most decidedly not. He glared at the two of them, as Robin relinquished his hold on Marian and handed her over with a mocking flourish.
The next dance was a lively one. Marian was grateful, as it gave little opportunity for talking. She had no wish to listen to her father berate her for her forwardness with Robin. After all, he was old, not like Lord Robert, and had probably forgotten what it felt like to be young and in love. Sometimes, Marian doubted her father had ever been young and in love. Oh, she knew he had loved her mother; he often spoke of her fondly, with a kind of wistfulness in his eyes, but she could not imagine him feeling the kind of passion she felt for Robin.
Thinking of Robin made her automatically raise her eyes and scan the room. He was not on the dance floor, she realised, and was unaccountably pleased he had not danced with another girl. Then she spied him talking to his father up at the banquet table. They exchanged identical roguish grins. Robin glanced her way, and dropped her a cheeky wink. Uh oh, thought Marian, as Lord Robert rose from his seat and began making his way towards her. Robin, I will get you for this …
Robin was lounging by the banquet table with Much, who was stuffing yet another sweetmeat into his mouth. Marian walked over to them, fully intending to give Robin a piece of her mind for encouraging Lord Robert's attentions.
"M – ady Ma –e – on." Gulp. "I'll just … er … go now."
Possibly Much had noticed the look on her face.
"So, how was the dance with my father?"
Robin, at least, had no fear of her angry moods. He had the exceedingly irritating ability to treat everything as a joke. In fact, Marian could've sworn he took every opportunity to tease her. As he was now, she noted, taking in his slow, lazy smile. Despite the fact she knew he was provoking her, she couldn't help but rise to his bait.
"Your father has had far too much to drink! He insisted on not one, but two dances! In which he kept getting the steps wrong and treading on my toes! And I could not think of a single thing to say to him, because you, yes you, planted all of these … disturbing notions in my head!"
"Ah, but was entirely proper in his dancing? Was your father as concerned as he was when we were dancing?"
"Robin, you're my fiancé now. Aren't you supposed to protect me from behaviour like that?"
"Well, yes, but – it's my father. It's funny!"
She snorted inelegantly. "Well, lucky for you, Lord Robert was no more improper than he usually is."
Robin took her hand, suddenly serious. "I'm glad. You know, if he truly bothered you, I would be the first to –"
"I know," Marian broke in softly.
"Uh oh, maiden aunt alert," Robin said, regretfully dropping her hand. The podgy Lady Miriam had just wandered over to them, staring pointedly at their linked hands.
"You have an unseemly number of female relatives staying with you, you know that, don't you?" muttered Robin under his breath, before exclaiming, "M'lady Miriam! How nice to see you. So glad you could make it tonight."
Marian whispered to Robin, "I don't know where Father dug them up from – I barely know most of them. I'm just glad 'Dear Aunt Miriam' is hard of hearing."
"What was that, dear?" asked Miriam loudly.
"Oh, I was just saying to Robin he must ask you for a dance. I promised Much a dance, and that leaves Robin without a partner." She smiled sweetly at Robin, who looked aghast. "Excuse me, Robin, Aunt Miriam."
Marian hurried over to Much, who was on his way to the kitchen.
"Much, I need you to dance with me!"
He looked at her as if she was crazy. Marian said hastily, "I made Robin dance with Aunt Miriam because he was being so rude, but I think Lord Robert will ask me to dance again if I don't have a partner!"
"But, but I can't dance with you! You're a noble, and I –" his face became slightly desperate. "I'm supposed to be serving guests!"
"You will be serving me," Marian replied. "And besides, I didn't notice you serving before when you were stuffing yourself with Robin. Come on."
She grabbed his hand and pulled him back onto the dance floor.
"No!" Much said more loudly than he intended. Marian turned back to look at him, surprised. Softening his voice, he continued, "I can't dance like that."
"Oh, Much, don't worry some much! It's no different to the barn dances in the villages."
"No, I mean I can't dance at all!"
Marian stopped and looked back at him blankly.
"Well, I've never been asked to dance before – how am I supposed to know how to do it?"
"Oh, Much, you're supposed to be the one doing the asking!" she exclaimed. She could not believe that Robin's best friend could be so clueless about girls. Surely some of Robin's charm must have rubbed off on him. She sighed, "Not to worry, I'll teach you as we go."
Nervously, Much stepped out onto the dance floor with Marian. He had never felt more out of place. At any moment, someone was sure to tell him to get back in the kitchen where he belonged. And what would Robin think of him dancing with his fiancée? He scanned the hall for Robin's face. When he found it on the other side of the hall, he did his best to convey silently that Marian had dragged him out here, not the other way around. At first, Robin looked alarmed at his wild gesturing and terrified face, but after seeing Marian roll her eyes he got the message and gave Much an encouraging nod and a wink.
"Okay. Now, you place your left hand on my waist, and hold my hand with your right," Marian instructed.
Much reached out hesitantly to hold her, so that his fingertips just barely grazed her dress.
"Much, you actually have to hold me. Go on, I won't bite," she said, encouragingly.
"Um, well, okay. Like this?"
He stepped closer and wrapped his arm around her waist as he had seen Robin do. Marian jumped back hastily.
"Um, no … That's just how Robin does it …" she muttered, going red.
"Never mind," she said. She took his hand and placed it correctly on her waist. "Right. For you, it's one step back, two to the right, one step forward, then you spin me back to the left."
"Got it," said Much, far more confidently than he felt. He did exactly as she instructed, quite fast, it must be admitted, but he was nervous, after all. He even remembered which way was left and which was right. Consequently, he was confused when she stopped him, struggling to hold back a smile.
"Much, you know, dancing usually implies you step in time with the music."
They met again after the next dance. It was a lively group dance, with everyone swapping partners. Marian was still wincing slightly from her dance with Much (who, even sober, was a far worse dancer than the drunken Lord Robert), but she joined in anyway for the chance to dance with Robin, however briefly. She finally reached Robin, who spun her round once and tugged her out of the dance. "Come on, nobody will notice us missing now."
He led her out of the hall and down the corridor, looking pleased with himself. "I convinced Dear Aunt Marian that Sir Edward has a similar interest in knitting tea-cosies – she'll be nattering to him for hours now."
"You," she poked him in the chest, "are entirely too charming for your own good."
"Is that so?" he replied, leaning closer to capture her hand. He brought it to his mouth and kissed it, working his way from her fingertips all the way up to her wrist.
"Definitely so," Marian whispered huskily. She slid her hand around to the back of his neck and pulled him closer. He slipped his arms around her and kissed her softly. Marian melted against him; swaying forwards into the kiss. He drew back a moment to study her beautiful face. Her eyes looked up at him, filled with confusion as to why he was not still kissing her. Robin drew in a ragged breath; he found it incredibly alluring. Then, smiling, he bent his head and obliged her unspoken request.
The sound of footsteps approaching from around the corner somehow penetrated the fog that entered Robin's head whenever he was alone with Marian. He squeezed into a conveniently placed dark alcove, dragging Marian along with him. It was a tight fit to be hidden from direct line of sight of the corridor. Robin was acutely aware of Marian's chest, her thighs, her whole body pressed up against his own. Marian held her breath as the footsteps walked past. Lady Miriam's voice called out, frighteningly close to their hiding spot, "Marian, dear, where are you? Marian?"
Marian let out the breath she was holding as the footsteps retreated. "Thank the lord she's half-deaf; I swear my heart was beating so loudly."
"Mine too," said Robin, a little too quickly. Well, it was, he thought to himself, but it wasn't for fear of being caught.
Marian looked at him askance and suddenly became aware of their closeness. "Well this is cosy," she said softly.
She tilted her head sideways to allow him to kiss her. He did so, deeply and passionately. His tongue explored her mouth, gently probing. He let it trail along her jaw and down to her neck, where he nipped then sucked at her skin gently. She squirmed slightly in his arms, moaning quietly. Robin gasped as she unwittingly pressed right against his groin. She looked up surprised, then her eyes were drawn downwards as she felt his body's inevitable reaction pressing against her hip. Embarrassed, he moved to jump away from her, but she grabbed his shoulder to stop him. More footsteps echoed down the corridor, accompanied by a voice, "Master … Marian? You do realise that I will get in trouble for this if you don't turn up soon? Actually, I'll probably be in trouble anyway."
There was a rustling noise as Much checked behind the drapes of the window opposite the alcove. Marian looked up at Robin, who, blushing furiously, kept his eyes determinedly focused on the middle distance. While feeling not a little uncomfortable herself, she had to bite her lip to stifle a giggle. She so rarely saw Robin embarrassed before.
"Perhaps in the kitchen…" muttered Much from the corridor.
As soon as Much's footsteps faded into silence, Robin jumped away from Marian.
"Sorry," he muttered, still not looking at her. She laid a hand on his arm. "Don't be."
He drew in a deep breath, then nodded once, finally meeting her eye.
"We should be getting back to the hall," she said eventually. "Much will be in trouble soon, and we will be in even worse strife."
"You go first. I'll follow you soon." He paused. "I just need to … to get my breath back," he finished rather lamely.
"Of course." She kissed him quickly, then moved past him into the corridor, flashing him a smile over her shoulder as she left. Robin was left leaning against the alcove wall, alone with his thoughts.
A minute later, Much came cautiously back up the corridor. Seeing Robin alone, he came to stand beside him, silently taking in his slightly dishevelled appearence.
"You knew we were there," Robin observed to break the silence.
Much shifted uncomfortably. "We have hidden there too many times as boys for me to suddenly forget about it…"
"Thankyou, my friend," Robin said sincerely, clasping Much's shoulder briefly. "Let's get back, shall we?"
After a couple of steps, Much stopped and tugged Robin's shirt straight. Exasperation tinged with envy showed clearly on his face. "Master … I shouldn't cover for you, really. She might not act it, but Marian is young and …"
Robin ran a hand through his hair. "I know, I know. It's just –" He paused and couldn't help but grin, "Well, that alcove is a lot smaller than it was when we used it."
"Marian, where have you been?" Sir Edward asked, annoyed. "We missed you – and Robin…"
"I was just getting a drink from the kitchen," she gestured vaguely in that direction.
Sir Edward did not look convinced. He grasped her shoulders and said seriously, "Marian, you cannot simply go missing with Robin. People will talk … more than they do already."
She put on her best innocent expression, tilting her head slightly, "Father –"
"What's that?" he interrupted, pointing at a red mark on her neck.
Marian reached a hand up and guiltily rubbed the mark Robin's teeth had left on her skin. "Nothing," she said quickly. "Just a – a spider bite."
Eyes narrowed, he brushed aside her hand and leant forward to inspect it. He jerked backwards as he realised what it was. "Is that – For heaven's sake, Marian!"
Marian looked down, flushing. Sir Edward stared at her hard for a moment. Finally, he said, "I've changed my mind. The sooner you're married, the better."