"GIRLS NEVER KNOW WHAT THEY WANT"

After the tournament, the young squires and pages of King John's court were granted a two-week holiday from training. Rather than go home to Locksley, Rodger accepted Geoffrey's offer to visit his family in Longdale.

He received a warm welcome from Geoffrey's parents, and was treated as a second son for the duration of his visit. Rodger's unspoken anxiety about meeting Geoffrey's sisters disappeared when he saw that they were little girls nowhere near marriageable age, more of an age with Ghislaine, and therefore nothing to worry about. All three were infatuated with their big brother's handsome friend before the first week of the visit was over, but their attentions to him consisted of giggling, tickle fights, hair-pulling and hiding his boots in various places.

During the first couple of days, Rodger was kept busy meeting and dining with a bewildering number of relatives from Geoffrey's large extended family. Later, he and Geoffrey explored the hills and woods around Longdale, and talked of their plans for the future.

They were riding their horses through a wind-swept meadow on the estate one afternoon when Geoffrey broke some unexpected news.

"You're betrothed?"

Geoffrey turned in the saddle to smile shyly at Rodger's astonished expression.

"I guess I never told you, did I?"

Rodger pulled Starlight to a halt and stared at his companion. "When did this happen?"

"Oh, about two years ago."

"What?"

"My parents and hers arranged it all."

An arranged marriage. Rodger was aware that such unions were common amongst the upper classes. They were made for many reasons—to cement political alliances, to settle disputes, to join estates and fortunes. Sometimes the bride and groom were childhood sweethearts, but for others, love had little or nothing to do with the arrangement, and they remained strangers until the wedding day.

Their fellow squire Stephen was betrothed, as were a number of the older squires. Stephen was about to be knighted, after which he planned to marry his young lady and join the king's guard. Geoffrey, by contrast, was only sixteen, yet he had already known for two years who he was destined to marry! Rodger suddenly felt very young and inexperienced and left behind.

"Her folks are friends of my mother and father," Geoffrey added. "And they're all coming here next week."

"So, you're getting married next week?"

Geoffrey laughed. "No! At least I hope not! I mean, I'd rather wait 'til I'm knighted. But that's up to my father."

I wonder why Father and Mother didn't arrange a marriage for me, thought Rodger. Although their own marriage wasn't arranged. They chose each other. I'm glad they didn't make that decision for me. I'd rather choose my own wife. But if they had, who would they have picked?

He knew the answer without having to give it much thought. Eleanor.

He reflected back on the day Eleanor came to the practice grounds, and bested that braggart Stephen in a contest of archery. Tall and slim, in a gown of midnight blue, she'd stood poised before the target with the lithe grace of a fallow deer, and shot arrow after arrow into the center with an almost careless ease. Then she'd turned to smile and wink at him, for he was the only one present who knew her secret—that she was master of the bow.

He had watched the young men's faces change from skeptical smirks to openmouthed disbelief, and laughed at the smug smile she then bestowed on them.

How he'd hated that smile when they were children! It was so often leveled mockingly at him after she'd gotten him into some kind of scrape for which he would be punished. But that day her mischievous smile did not anger him, for he was in on the joke. She'd shown those young men a thing or two, and he'd been there to share in her triumph.

I love her. I've always loved her. She is—Eleanor. She's different from any girl I've ever known. I've met enough other girls to know that. She belongs in my life the way no other girl ever could.

I believed, I hoped, I prayed that she loved me, too.

But, after what happened at the tournament, after what she said and did? I wish I hadn't opened my heart to her. I don't know her now. Her heart is a mystery to me.

Uncertain of how to cross the bridge from friend to lover, and dreadfully afraid of being rejected, he'd held back from telling her how he felt. He'd waited too long, and because of it he'd lost her to another, a young man not worthy of her.

"We, I mean the other squires and I, all think you're betrothed to Eleanor, but you've never said so for sure."

Geoffrey's words startled Rodger out of his brooding.

"You do?"

"Are you? It looks that way. You sat together at the feast, and danced with her. I thought she must be your girl."

It cost Rodger an effort to reply. "No, we're not betrothed. She's a friend, Geoffrey, nothing more."

"Oh. Sorry. We were mistaken. I did see her dancing a few times with another man. Who's he?"

Rodger grimaced and shook his head. "He's someone I wish would just go away."

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Rodger met Geoffrey's future bride a day before he departed to return to London. Rose was a girl of fifteen, rather ordinary looking except for her smile, which brought such a vivid sparkle to her eyes that Rodger was surprised he thought her so plain at first. It was clear that they knew each other quite well. It was also obvious that she was very fond of Geoffrey, and he of her. They chattered away happily with one another upon being reunited. Rodger was thankful he was to leave the next day, as he soon began to feel he was in the way.

Geoffrey gave him a comradely embrace before he left, however, and promised he would be back in London before too long, to finish his training. Rodger had time to mull over the events of the visit on the ride back to London—especially that which concerned his friend's good fortune, and his own lack thereof—but Archer was there to greet him and whisk him off to the nearest tavern as soon as he arrived, and Archer would not tolerate broodiness.

"What's bothering you?" his uncle asked over a pint of ale. "Don't tell me it's nothing—I know better."

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Sure you do. Here, drink up, and I'll order us another round. That should loosen your tongue."

"You're nosy, Archer. You're as bad as any woman."

"Oh, so it's girl trouble, is it?"

"I didn't say anything!"

"You don't have to, Rodger my lad, it's all over your face. You're just like your father. So, who's the girl? Let me guess. Eleanor."

"How did you know?"

"I told you, silly, you don't hide your feelings very well. Anybody can see you're madly in love with her. What's the problem, then? Did you have a row with her? Just kiss and make up."

"Very funny. That's the last thing she wants from me."

"How do you know unless you try?"

Rodger was silent.

"Ah. You already tried, I take it. Didn't go well?"

"You could say that."

"If this is about Robert, I wouldn't worry about him. Her parents don't approve. And you're ten times the man he is, and Eleanor knows it."

"Does she?" Rodger shook his head.

"Come on, talk to me. I understand women. I can help."

When Rodger remained silent, Archer pried further. "What happened when you tried to kiss her?"

Rodger sighed. Archer wasn't giving up. He told him the story.

"Ouch!" Archer exclaimed as he finished. "Well, here's your problem. You grabbed hold of her, just like that, and laid one on her? And then she slapped you?" He threw back his head and laughed.

"It's not funny, Archer," muttered Rodger.

"Al'right, I'm sorry. But, you poor dunce! You're in sore need of some lessons in courtship. You can't just kiss her without warning. No wonder she slapped you. That's no way to treat a girl. You've got about as much finesse as your father."

"Thanks. That really makes me feel better."

Archer grinned. "Well, you punched Robert anyway. Good. He needed it."

"Yeah, but now Eleanor hates me."

"She doesn't hate you. She's a girl, Rodger. Girls never know what they want."

"She wants Robert."

"She only thinks she does because he sweet-talks her. I overheard him at the feast. He tells her what she wants to hear. He's very practiced."

"How do you know?"

"Because I know."

You know because you're practiced, too, thought Rodger. You sweet-talk women into falling in love with you, and falling into—

He stopped his train of thought. This wasn't about Archer.

"There's something I didn't tell you. I saw Robert, with another girl."

He related the story to his uncle. Archer's grin faded.

"I told Eleanor, but she refused to believe me. Should I tell her parents about Robert?"

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The tournament was over, the much anticipated trip to London was over. Eleanor was back in quiet, predictable Locksley. Summer stretched before her. Long, lazy days of doing—nothing.

Oh, yes, there were her daily two hours of archery practice. That was more fun than chores, and much more fun than learning from her mother how to prepare for her adult responsibilities as "Lady of the Manor".

Robert was with his uncle in the north of England once again, where he would remain for the summer. She had only occasional, clandestine letters from him, for visits were impossible while he was so far away.

Mama and Papa still don't approve of Robert as a suitor. I'm beginning to doubt they will ever approve of him. He's become a forbidden subject in our household. I can't bring up his name without getting a lecture.

Rodger had stayed behind in London with Archer, and had spent his holiday with a friend rather than his own family. He hadn't said goodbye to her. He hadn't sent her a letter, and she hadn't written to him.

'I love you, Eleanor.' Did he really say those words to me? And, does he mean it? Does he love me? Is it true?

He kissed me, and I slapped him. Even if I didn't want him to kiss me, to slap his face like that, to humiliate and hurt him! He must hate me for it. We can never be friends now.

Therein lay the problem for which Eleanor had no answer. Here were these two young men. On the one hand was Robert, of the golden hair and handsome face, the tender gaze and soft, low voice that spoke ever so eloquently of his devotion to her. And on the other was Rodger, her lifelong friend and companion. Quiet, serious, even somber at times, and yet possessed of a passionate fire in his soul that glimmered in the depths of his eyes and burned upon his lips.

'He'll hurt you, Eleanor,' he'd said of Robert, 'and someday you'll be sorry for it.'

Rodger's accusation troubled her more than she wanted to admit. He wasn't one to lie.

Will I be sorry? Does Robert truly care about me, or is Rodger right?

She retrieved Robert's numerous letters, and Rodger's scant handful, from her little golden box, and sat down on her bed. Robert's flowery missives were full of adoration for her, but somehow the initial thrill she had felt upon first reading them was not there with a second reading. Rodger's brief accounts of his life in London could have been written to anyone, except for that one line in his last letter. She read it over and over. When she finished, she put the bundle of letters back in her box and locked it.

She felt no closer to an answer.

Maybe I should just forget both of them. Who says I have to get married right now, anyway? I'm only seventeen! I don't want to be Lady Anybody yet. I don't want to spend my days sitting in my house supervising servants and embroidering pillows and having babies. No!

I wish I could become the next Nightwatchman instead. Sneak out at night with a mask over my face, and have some adventures. Mama did. Why can't I?

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The harvest celebration at the end of summer came and went. Rodger did not come home to join in the festivities, nor did Archer.

"They've gone with Tuck to settle a dispute between two villages on the northern edge of Nottinghamshire," Guy informed the Locksleys one evening over supper. "It's good training for my son. He needs all the experience he can get if he's going to run this estate after I'm gone."

Meg reconciled herself to the situation, and no longer entreated Rodger to come home with every letter she sent him. Her husband was right. She had to give her son room to grow up. Besides, his absence gave Guy the opportunity to pay more attention to his younger children.

As for Eleanor, she thought about writing him a letter. Four times she started one—'Dear Rodger, I'm so sorry, please forgive me'—and four times she tore it up. The day after she tore up the fourth letter, a note came from Robert.

'Dearest Eleanor,' it began. She read it eagerly, and sat down to write a reply. But she thought of Rodger, and she put Robert's letter away, and did not answer it.

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One day late in the autumn, a visitor arrived in Locksley village. He called on the first house he came upon, and was directed to Locksley Manor. Robin, Marian and Eleanor had just sat down to the mid-day meal when a knock sounded on the front door. Robin got up to open it, and saw a young man standing on the threshold, a nervous smile on his face.

"May I help you?"

"Are you Robin, Robin Hood?"

"Well, I don't go by that name anymore, but yes. And you are—"

The man's smile relaxed. He reached out his hand. "I'm John Little. My mother is Alice. She used to live here in Locksley, many years ago. I've been told that you knew her, and also a man who went by the name of Little John. I've come to find him. I'm his son."

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Author's Note: My apologies again for the long delay! Just a word on this chapter-I'm not advocating teenage marriage in any way here. But the customs outlined above are a reflection of medieval times. Teenage marriages, and arranged marriages, among the nobility were typical of the time period.

Also, sorry about the chapter title. I don't happen to agree with the sentiment, but those are Archer's words, not mine! :) More story to come. Thanks again for reading and reviewing, and a thank you to my anonymous reviewers as well!