This is quickly turning out to be one of the most exciting days I have had in quite awhile, and it promises to get even more so soon enough. Here I am, riding through the forests of England with a beautiful woman beside me, listening to her sweet voice-strange, inviting, and so full of passion-speak of outlaws who fight for justice and how we are going to help them. Though I know I should be concentrating on forming our plan, I cannot get past the intoxication, more lovely than any wine, I feel at the sheer luck that has placed me in my current situation.
"Friedrich." Her voice saying my name startles me into a more grounded state of mind. She is smiling at me with those blue eyes-there must be German influence there somewhere-looking more lovely than a rose in her red riding attire. I have always fancied red in combination with blue eyes, but it is not merely Lady Marian's appearance that draws me to her. The more I listen to her talk of this "Robin Hood," the more certain I become that I have no chance of convincing her to return to Bavaria with me. But just to be near her, to absorb her enthusiasm for justice and good, the same enthusiasm that she has so recently awoken in me, is more than enough.
"Yes, my Lady?"
She does not respond, but rather smiles, lifts two fingers to her mouth, and whistles. Ah! The woman whistles, too! Will her accomplishments never cease to impress me?
"Are you sure you know how to find these friends of yours?" It could just be my daydreaming, but it seems to me that we have been riding in circles. All the trees in this unfamiliar, untamed place look the same to me.
She smiles slyly. "I'm hoping they're going to find us."
Out of the trees, a new voice speaks, clear and confident. "They already have!"
Suddenly, the Lady Marian and I are surrounded by outlaws. I am vaguely surprised that I feel no fear, not even when a small Saracen woman lays a blade against my neck. I have spent a large portion of my life within the sheltered walls of a German castle, always assigning my guards to deal with rogues and other such unsavory characters. But unprepared as I am, I trust the Lady Marian. These people will not harm me-we have a common interest.
I introduce myself, and as the man who had spoken, undoubtedly Robin Hood from the air of leadership about him, pulls Marian aside to speak briefly with her, I cannot help but let my curiosity get the better of me. I allow my eyes to roam over the small group of "freedom fighters", as Marian had described them. She had said that, other than the Saracen woman and the young earl himself, the band consisted entirely of peasants. I can count only four-less than I had expected, but it must mean that they are all the more devoted. My gaze alights on a familiar, welcome combination-blue eyes, paired this time with red hair that looks lighter than is probably natural in the filtered forest sunlight. The young man is staring at me with his weapon in hand, as all the outlaws are, but with an almost palpable intensity that sets my until-now calm heart to pounding.
Meanwhile, Lady Marian is having a rather difficult time convincing her Robin Hood of the necessity of robbing the strongroom tonight rather than at a later date. I force my gaze away from the auburn-haired outlaw, an action that takes an almost physical effort, and back to the band leader and his lady.
"The Sheriff will divide the money between the Black Knights, and they're coming tomorrow. After that, the strongroom will be empty." Marian's tone allows no room for argument; I cannot help but smile at her determination and willfulness.
The man with the odd hat speaks from just behind Robin Hood, upon whose face a sly smile has risen. "I don't like that look. That look means trouble."
"Robin, it's certain death." This new voice sounds tense, perhaps even a little desperate, and I suddenly realize that, from its direction, it must have come from my young, blue-eyed outlaw. There is something else hidden in that voice, some need. I am insatiably intrigued by it-its sound and its mystery.
Robin's smile persists. "Well, if that money's going to be used to finance weapons and men to kill the King, then we're dead already," he states with a click of his tongue. His voice grows matter-of-fact suddenly. "Right. I'm going to let Marian fill me in on the details, and then we'll all form a plan."
"Master, surely..." Funny Hat sounds quite frustrated. The rest of the team looks uneasy, Pretty Eyes perhaps even more than the others.
Robin shakes his head. "We don't have a choice, Much." He motions to Marian, and they turn their backs. Much-what strange names these Englishmen have!- gives an affected sigh and flops down next to a tree, resting his stubbled blonde chin in his hands. The rest of the outlaws begin to talk amongst themselves, save for Pretty Eyes, who stalks off into the woods. After taking a moment to ensure the horses are grazing calmly-it would not do for a guest to allow his host's horses to gallop off into a rugged forest, no matter how unpleasant the host-I follow his footsteps.
I am several yards away from him when he quite suddenly becomes aware of my presence. He stops, shoulders stiff, and whirls around with the speed and nimbleness of a cat, his right hand on the hilt of his sword, his left clenched into a fist in response to being startled. He stares at me for a couple of seconds, those brilliant eyes enormous, before he seems to realize who I am. Upon doing so, he removes his hand from his blade, but his body does not relax.
"Wot're you doin'?" Everything about him conveys suspicion and defensiveness. Am I such a threatening persona? I have never been reacted to in this way before-usually people think I am someone who can be easily deceived, a rich gambler who knows nothing but his money and his games. This man seems to think I am someone to be feared-it seems almost a shame to me that such expressive eyes should be wasted on such a troubled look.
"My apologies. I did not wish to startle you, Herr..." I await his name, but he only looks at me as though he does not understand. But of course! Why would an English peasant have any knowledge of German titles or customs? "What is your name, good sir?" I have to call upon the recesses of my memory for a proper English way of addressing a gentleman.
He snorts softly but answers me all the same, his posture easing ever so slightly at the apparent breach I have made in social etiquette by over-addressing him.
"I am most pleased to make your acquaintance, Herr Allan," I say with a slight, courteous bow. "I am Count Friedrich Berthold Otto von Wittersburg, from..."
"...the German Duchy of Bavaria." I am taken aback as he finishes my sentence for me in a nearly flawless imitation of my own voice and accent, but the effects upon him are well worth my astonishment-a slight smile creeps toward one corner of his lips, and the unrest in his eyes softens nearly imperceptibly. Those eyes increasingly draw me into him now that we are physically closer-they are even more intense and piercing now than they were from afar-and I feel an unquenchable desire to know this man better.
"Ah! You have quite a talent for impressions, it seems. Tell me, do you find it useful in your craft of outlawry?"
He gives a dry chuckle. "I wouldn't exactly call it a craft. But yeah, I suppose it's useful to be able to put on someone else's clothes to get what you need." He seems to be recovering himself now, actively trying to put on an unfazed expression.
I raise my eyebrows conspiratorially. "So you are a trickster then, ja?"
His pause before answering my question is indicative of the fact that he is still wary through the veil on nonchalance, but then he just shrugs his shoulders. "Like I said, it's useful."
I suddenly find myself giving into my irresistible desire to touch him, grabbing each of his hands in one of my own before he can react. In his shock, he tries to pull away from me to reach for the sword at his side, but I grip his wrists firmly, examining the appendages attached to them.
"You have very well-formed hands. Your fingers must be...very nimble. Now, I know that you are most likely not sewing out here in the forest, nor are you playing any musical instruments. So tell me, what are hands this fine used for?" I loosen my grip upon asking the question, and he yanks his body parts from my grasp.
"What d'you want to know for?" He glowers at me, rubbing his wrist.
I shrug casually. "I am merely curious...about your life here in the forest." This is only somewhat truthful, I will freely admit. He studies me closely-I can tell that he does not fully believe me, that he is someone used to not fully believing or trusting anyone. But suddenly he gives a sly grin consistent with my guess at a penchant for trickery.
"All right, if you really want to know, 'ow about I show you?"
I nod eagerly, thrilled that I finally seem to be getting somewhere. He reaches into the pocket of his jerkin and pulls out three small, golden cups, their surfaces worn and scratched from repeated handling and from traveling stacked together in the small compartment. Kneeling down beside a nearby stump, he places the vessels on the wooden surface with their bottoms facing upward in a straight line and turns back to me with one eyebrow slightly raised, a new air of familiarity in his voice.
"They say you're a gamblin' man. Fancy a little bet?"
Aha! I knew there was something I liked about this man. I smile in what I have been told is a conspiratorial manner.
He returns my smile and motions to the cup. "All right, then. 'ere's 'ow it works. You give me one gold piece, and I'll place it under the middle cup. Then I'll shuffle 'em around some, and when I'm done you tell me which cup you think the money's under. If you're right, I give you back your coin along with one of my own. If you're wrong..." His grin widens. "But you know 'ow this works already."
I chuckle. "That I do, Herr Allan. But I can never resist a game of chance." I withdraw a coin from my pocket and place it into his outstretched palm. "Work your magic." He beams a little at the phrase as he lifts the center cup and, making sure that I see him lay the gold coin beneath it, places it back on the tree stump.
Then his hands begin to move. The action is fast, fluid, with both hands grasping, sliding, and letting go of cups in fractions of moments. I know for certain that this will be one bet I will lose, but I do not care, for the thrill that I get from watching those lithe, sinuous, strong, perfect hands is far greater than that from any gain of gold. I wonder what else he can do with those hands, perhaps with tavern women whose company he might buy with the coins that remain hidden under that golden cup. I could not still my imagination even if I had wanted to-but to quell those thoughts was the last thing I wanted right now.
Suddenly the rhythm and flow of his hands' movements is interrupted, startling me out of my less-than-innocent daydream. Had I been watching the cups instead of his hands, I never would have seen him whisk my coin from beneath the cup that housed it and palm it in his right hand. He shuffles the golden vessels around a few more times before turning to me, not a sliver of evidence of the trick he has just pulled present in his eyes.
"All right then, where's the gold?"
As much as I want to let him have his glory, I cannot have my reputation lost over tavern trickery.
"In your right hand."
His eyes widen momentarily before he regains his composed manner.
"Sorry, mate. I think you're missin' the point. Tell me which cup you think the coin's under."
I sigh, trying to sound more frustrated that I really am. "No, Herr Allan, I think you are missing the point. You are holding the coin in your right hand."
He studies me suspiciously for a moment, then, realizing that I am not bluffing, lowers his eyes and opens his right palm upon the stump, revealing my gleaming wager.
"Take it," he murmurs, shoulders sagging.
I shake my head. "That is all right, my friend, you may keep it. I have plenty more where that came from."
He looks up, evaluates me visually once more, then slips the coin into the pocket from which the cups had emerged, a confused expression upon his face.
"Do you do this often? Cheat innocent people?" I try to sound disappointed to hide my fascination, but I need not have worried. He jumps immediately to his own defense.
"Yeah, well it's not like I 'ave a choice now, do I? Robin doesn't let us keep any of what we steal off o' rich folk like you. The bags and bags o' money we'll take from the strongroom tonight, assuming it doesn't take our lives first? The rest of us'll never see a shilling of it. It all goes to his Great Cause, to the poor and the glory o' King Richard." He snorts, and I am taken aback at this sudden expression of disillusionment. From what Lady Marian had told me, I had envisioned Robin Hood's Gang as an utterly selfless, saint-like group who gave freely and asked for nothing in return. But the man in front of me was merely human, someone who wanted a few simple comforts and was not afraid to be a bit less than honest to gain them. Upon this last thought, it suddenly struck me how much he reminded me of...me.
"Ah. So, you are a player, then?"
He looks surprised again-obviously he had been expecting some sort of reprimand, lecture, or disapproval. Then, his surprise turns to confusion. "A wot?"
"A player. Someone who pays attention and looks for opportunities, and uses circumstances to their advantage. They play the games set up by other people without letting them know which role they have taken. Some look at it as a way of survival; others, like myself, see it as a way of truly living."
He blinks at me skeptically-I can tell that he is interested, that my words have rung true for his own life in some way-but he is uncertain of the validity of my final statement.
"How d'you mean?"
I sit down on the log that had once been attached to our makeshift gaming table and motion with my hand for him to join me. After a brief moment of consideration, he does. I place my hands palms-down behind me on the wood and use them for support as I stretch my legs, stiff from riding, out in front of me.
"All of my life I have been rich, Herr Allan. Very, very rich. So rich that even other rich people are jealous of my wealth. Being so rich, though it is advantageous in many, many ways, as I am sure you can imagine, has a price of its own, and that is that jealousy. Jealousy can make people do terrible things, say terrible things. I have been called greedy and selfish more times that I care to count. But, I know that they are wrong. Do I stay in my estate, hoarding my money every day of every year? No! I use it to travel, to go to places both near and far. Most times when I travel I gamble, yes, but not for monetary gain-the art of gambling brings me pleasure, and it helps me to meet new people, sometimes even make new friends, like Lady Marian. I use what opportunity I have been afforded to enhance my quality of life. Now do you understand?"
He nods slowly. "Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Grab ahold of what comes your way."
I smile. "Exactly!"
He grins at me again, but it is a different sort of grin this time. It is not sly or deceitful, but rather honest and interested, maybe even a little grateful. Then he is quiet for several moments, the smile sliding away and his eyes distant, his mind elsewhere. I am searching for something to break the silence when he speaks again.
"Friedrich...Have you ever...gotten into trouble when you..." He searches for the right word, settling on my own. "...play?"
I chuckle. "Oh yes, Herr Allan. There are risks involved in any game. That is why it is called 'gambling'." I wink at him, but he does not respond. I continue. "Once, when I was young, younger even than you, I traveled to Aachen to play the tables as a guest of a great, well-lauded general. He was a very strict man, as all military men are, but he was an avid gambler. The morning before we were to play, I was walking in the gardens of his estate when I came across the general's daughter, Karla, sitting on a bench in the rose garden. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, though I have seen many to rival her beauty since then. I went to sit beside her and gave her my name, and we began to talk. We spoke of everything you could think of: ourselves, our past lives, our dreams, and what we planned to do with our futures. Our plans were much the same-we both wished to see the world, travel far and wide, meet new people, try new things. She was incredibly outgoing, as am I, I must admit. And, though it was against my better judgement-I knew the risks, oh yes-we became...rather familiar amongst the roses, if you understand." He raises his eyebrows and chuckles.
"As we were lost in our intimacy, who should come along but the general himself? He saw us and screamed for me to get my hands off of his daughter! Then he threatened to have me thrown from the highest window of the tallest castle in Germany. It took a very, very great sum of money to persuade him not to do so, but no amount of gold would convince him that it was really all just one big misunderstanding, though Karla and I would always know that it wasn't. Alas, I forfeited the gambling experience of a lifetime that day, but I must say that that lovely girl was more than worth it." I feel it prudent not to tell my listener that "Karla"'s name was actually Karl; instead, I choose to close my eyes for a moment, wistfully remembering that morning so long ago and not stopping myself from wishing for a similar experience right here, now.
"Is that why you're helping us rob the strongroom? To impress a girl?" He is regarding me with a hint of amusement.
"Lady Marian does a play a role, that much I must admit." It is the truth. "There is also, in small part, the desire for revenge against your Sheriff, who seems to think that I am someone who is to be taken advantage of." I lower my voice-I have not spoken until now of this matter since my initial, angry reaction to Marian, and I realize how infuriated I still am by it. "Had I known his intentions, his plans to exploit and humiliate me, I never would have come."
"What if you 'ad known about Marian? Or about us? I thought you said the reason you did this was because you liked to meet new people and see the world."
I shake my head. "Sometimes a player must make a judgment when it comes to how much he is willing to risk. Sometimes there is just too much danger of hurting oneself, or worse, of hurting others. One must choose one's games wisely, Herr Allan."
Upon saying these words I detect a change in my companion. Gone is the relaxed manner that I have worked so hard to uncover, and in its place is that original state of anxiousness and distress. His body stiffens, and there is fear in his eyes-not directed at me, but at the forest around him. He looks nervously over his shoulder in the direction of the clearing where the other outlaws are gathered. Uncertain as to what I have said to cause such an alteration, I decide to spare making him answer to me and continue as though I have not observed anything at all.
"But you asked why I choose to help you. The real reason is that I admire the work that you are doing here. This stealing from the rich and giving to the poor business appeals to me very much." Of course I had seen poverty elsewhere in my travels, including my own country, but never before in such large amounts. The sheer depth of the problem made me want to help, a spark that had been set to flame by Marian and her tales of Robin Hood. "I would like to contribute to your cause, to help the needy who are downtrodden by their own monarchy. Riding through this country in my carriage, I have seen the little shacks in which the poor live, have seen them working hard in the fields, watched them comfort their hungry children..."
Now he is looking at me, confusion and maybe even a little anger in his eyes, though whether or not it is directed specifically at me I cannot discern. "That's the thing, see. You see 'em, you watch 'em, but you can't know. You can't know what it's like not to 'ave food in your belly. And I'm not talkin' about bein' ready for dinner after a long day. I'm talkin' about goin' days without a bite to eat! You can thrown around important-sounding words like 'business' and 'monarchy' all you like, but none of it matters when you 'aven't got so much as a blanket to keep you warm at night!" He pauses and shakes his head, incomprehension furrowing his brow where bitterness has hardened his features. "Why are you so eager to 'elp when you don't even know what it is you're fightin' for?"
Speechlessness is a novel state for me, but that is my condition as he stares at me, those incredible hands trembling ever so slightly. All I can think is that he is right-I should have known.
"I am sorry, Herr Allan. I had...no idea." For once, I am unable to properly express myself using words, and instead I reach out to lay a hand on his arm. Jerking backward, he glares at me, and I withdraw to prevent upsetting him further. "Your cause just seems like such a worthy one, whether I know what I am fighting for or not. But your words have humbled me, and I apologize for my ignorance and naivete. You ask why I am so eager to help? Because you are right-your description of the life of the impoverished has proved to me that your cause is the one I should be supporting."
"You mean Robin's cause." His voice is ice, and I barely have time to ponder the meaning of the statement before a rustle of undergrowth startles the both of us, and Lady Marian emerges from the direction of the clearing.
"There you are, Friedrich! And Allan-Robin's been looking for you. I think we've got a plan for tonight, come on!" She smiles eagerly and motions for us to follow her back to the group. Without taking his eyes from the forest floor, Allan slides past her. Marian sends me a puzzled look and I return it, still attempting to understand the meaning of his final words. It would not be until the next day, after all of the excitement of beating the Sheriff and robbing the strongroom had subsided and I was riding in my carriage back to Portsmouth to take a ship home to Germany that it would occur to me that I had been terribly mistaken-Allan A'Dale was not like me in the slightest. While I fought for people whose plight I did not truly understand, he was fighting to keep ahead of being one of those people. And he was, rightfully, willing to do whatever it took to stay in the game-because he had already experienced the awful consequences of losing.
I hear Marian say my name once more, gesturing again for me to follow her back to where Robin and the other outlaws are gathered. I want to call after Allan, not because of an unrequited physical desire, but just to tell him to be careful tonight. But when I turn around, I find that he is already gone.