Never before had I felt so uncomfortable, so nervous. Up until this year, my father had always accompanied me to the Sherriff's annual dinner party for the nobles and land owners in his shire, but this time, father was far too sick to make the journey into Nottingham, so I had come alone.
A large, long table had been placed in the largest hall of the Sherriff's dining hall, where the flickering candles created an almost sickening yellow glow throughout the room. All the Lords of the shire were dining upon the table. The Sheriff sat at the head with Guy of Gisborne to his right.
I was sitting between two tall figures decked in jewels and expensive silk, conversation about money and power flowing around me. My two neighbours talked as if I were not there, and any input I tried to make in the conversation was often ignored.
This made me angry – I was proud of my political cunning that had allowed my father and me to keep our land thus far – but I didn't protest too much. I had decided not to draw much attention to myself.
"Yes, my peasants have become rather difficult to deal with," one of my neighbours, Lord Byron, was saying, "When they don't pay their taxes, usually I cut off food supply until they do, but every time I have done so, I have found them eating breakfast as if it's a normal day!"
My other neighbour, Lord Cranston, shook his head, "That would be the work of Robin Hood I'm sure. That man is costing me almost a quarter of my monthly earnings with his robbing and meddling! And what's more, a couple of my best groomsmen have deserted me, gone to join his band in the woods!"
I found myself struggling to hide my smile. In the past few weeks, Robin's band had increased to fifteen people, three of whom I was happy to say were women. I couldn't help but feel a little superior, as I was the one who had alerted Robin to Lord Byron's starvation method of dealing with his people. I doubted he realised that the quiet, apparently incapable girl sitting next to him was a source of his misery.
After dinner, we all migrated to the adjoining room, a smaller, cosier room where plush cushions and crackling fire places lined the walls. The apparent comfortable surroundings did not lessen my unease – I was still acutely aware that this was enemy territory.
The men all grouped off into conversations, but I awkwardly stood to the side, a glass of sherry in my hand. I only pretended to drink, wanting to preserve all my senses to their full extent.
"Hello, Marian," a sudden deep voice came from right behind me. I spun to find Guy of Gisborne standing just a little too close, so he was leaning over me, his cold black eyes piercing mine.
I swallowed and stepped backwards, plastering a smile on my face, "Why hello Guy! It has been how long? Three years?" And in those three years he had not only succeeded in growing broader, but had acquired an intense stare that made my skin crawl.
He nodded in response, then glanced about the room, "It's brave of you to come to this gathering of men," he softly commented, "With your father sick, I would assume that you are taking more and more responsibility for your lands."
"Yes, but he is always there to advise me. We form a strong pair."
His eyes gazed into mine, probing, "All the same, it is a great burden for such...slender shoulders," His stare slithered across my body, and I suppressed a gag of disgust, "Surely your father wants you to marry, so that when he passes, another can look after you and your lands."
I suppressed an angry shiver, "No, I am not quite ready for matrimony yet, for I feel that my duty remains first and foremost with the shire, and this is a burden which I am happy to bear. And my father is not yet dead, he may still recover." I allowed some anger to colour my tone.
He smiled a little, "That's my Marian, always spirited." I didn't like his patronising tone, or his labelling of me as 'my Marian'.
I opened my mouth angrily to answer, but suddenly, three guards burst into the room, preventing me from stupidly saying something dangerous to Guy in my hot-headedness.
"My Lord!" one guard huffed as he reached the Sheriff, "There has been a break in! Robin Hood and some of his fellows have seized some weapons from you armoury and gold from the treasury!"
"What? How?" roared the Sheriff, gap-filled teeth bared, "Well quickly, send for the soldiers!" The guards rushed out. The Sheriff turned to the shocked nobles in the room, "Well? What are you waiting for? Go to your horses before they are gone too!" The room was hit with a sudden flurry of movement, as people raced towards the door.
I rushed to follow, but suddenly, Guy roughly grabbed my arm and swung me to face him. He glowered at me and the full force of his anger bore down upon me. It took all my will power not to cower in fright.
"Did you have anything to do with this? Have you allied yourself to Robin Hood? Are you a traitor?" He spat the words at me, and my arm throbbed where he gripped it.
I gasped and then glared at him, heart pounding, "How dare you accuse me of such treason? Robin Hood is a murderer and a thief, and I know him no longer. We parted ways forever when he broke my heart and left for the Holy Lands seven years ago!"
Guy searched my eyes, and seeing only the pain there, he slowly relaxed his grip. Panting, he turned and ran after the guards. My heart pounded – where was Robin? Was he safe?
I ran out of the room, the last to leave, and headed towards the stables. Perhaps they needed Sophie – she could help him escape if needed.
Suddenly, another hand reached out from around and corner and enclosed around my arm. I gasped in pain as it squeezed my developing bruise from Guy's earlier manhandling, and I was pulled into a small closet. Immediately, the hand was gone, and I found myself facing Robin in the dim light. Panting, I was unable to speak for a second, but relief to see him well coursed through me like a soothing spring.
Robin's hand hovered over my sore arm, "What is it?" he demanded, whispering, "Are you hurt?"
I shook my head, and huffed, "It's fine. Guy just doesn't know his own strength. He thought that perhaps I was in an alliance with you."
Robin glowered and growled under his breath, "He should watch where he puts his hands..." For a second, I felt a twinge of fear as his eyes spoke murder.
I waved him off, "Look, that doesn't matter right now, Robin, considering you're in a closet in the Sheriff's castle! I'll help you get out – I'll get Sophie saddled and distract the guards."
But Robin shook his head, "Won't work. And I don't want Guy to have any evidence for his suspicions." He thought for a moment, "I have an idea, but I don't want to do it." He explained his plan in a hushed tone.
I passed Guy in the corridor on my way to the stables. I was holding my bow, but as soon as he saw me, I hid it behind my back. He saw, and narrowed his eyes suspiciously. Good. I placed a purposefully innocent smile of my face and hurried passed him.
I made sure to saddle up Sophie slowly. I attached to her the gold that Robin had given me to a saddle bag. I then slowly rode out of Nottingham, through the dirty streets and bustling markets, where seemingly innocent passerby's 'bumped' into Sophie, attaching a few more saddle bags of gold and weapons. I pretended not to notice – I would be hard to in such a crowd of swarming people.
Before I exited through the gates of Nottingham, I glanced behind me, and thought I saw a man dart behind a food stall. Good, I thought.
The most direct path home was through Sherwood Forest, which I began at a trot. I could hear quiet trotting behind me in the distance, and I smiled. I listened for Robin's whistle, and slowed to allow my pursuers to catch up.
About fifteen minutes of tense riding, I heard Robin's whistle. As soon as I did, I let out a scream. From a branch above Robin dropped into my saddle behind me (where I had conveniently left space) and wrapped a tight arm around my chest, and a hand hard on my mouth. He was being as gentle as he could, I could tell, but it had to look convincing.
At my scream, my pursuers began to gallop, and as they approached, I saw that the ten or so soldiers were headed by Guy, as we had hoped.
Guy stopped short when he saw me, and he glared at Robin. From all around us, Robin's men emerged, and began to detach the saddlebags. Others surrounded Guy and his guards arrows aimed at them.
I felt Robin grin behind me, and I shivered as his breath touched my neck, "Well, hello, Guy! We meet again! Never fear, once my men are finished here, we shall be on our way."
Guy glared at Robin, and raised a poised arrow. But he wouldn't shoot while I was there, for shooting a noble woman was one crime that even the Sheriff could not save him from.
Within seconds, Robin's men had grabbed the saddle bags, and disappeared into the forest, followed by those with arrows. It was uncanny how fast they moved. As soon as he was able to react, Guy suddenly flicked his hands, and all ten of the guards galloped towards us, swords raised.
But Robin was ready for this, of course, and laughed. He reached one hand around me and grabbed the reins, holding Sophie steady as the guards surrounded us. Then, slowly, he slid us both off her, and he turned me to him.
He grinned wickedly, and then crushed me to him and kissed me, his lips crushing mine. I was so surprised that I kept my eyes open. This was not part of the plan.
But suddenly, arrows were whizzing through the air, and Robin knocked me back under Sophia, shielding me with his body. Two guards went down, and the others scattered. In the short distraction of Robin's kiss, his men had fired into the group. Under the horse, Robin grinned mischievously at me again, and I couldn't help but grin back. He then darted from under Sophie and running into the woods.
Flushed, and not just from all the excitement and fear, I slowly emerged from under the horse, and adopted a frightened and shocked expression. A pair of hands gripped my shoulders, and I saw that Guy was pulling me up.
I let my trembling intensify, and I gripped Sophie's saddle for support.
"I-I didn't know," I stuttered, "I didn't notice them – they must have swapped my other saddle bags! I didn't know!" I continued to babble.
Guy's grip on my shoulders did not loosen, and I slowly glanced up at him, going quiet. He more such a look of hatred, his jaw clenched and ice-cold eyes on fire, that I had to look away.
Suddenly, he pressed me against his chest and his arms came around me. I instinctively cringed, but he held me there. He smelled of sweat and smoke, so different to the sweet, woodsy smell that came from Robin.
"I'm sorry I doubted you," he whispered into my hair, and I stiffened at the feeling, "I'm sorry I followed you, or you wouldn't have had to go through that." He let me go, and tried to meet my eyes, but nodded, unable to look at him. I was surprise my performance had been so convincing.
He helped me onto my saddle, and I accepted his offer to escort me home, feigning fear in meeting Robin again. He and the remainder of his guard rode with me silently until we reached my manor.
I was not surprised when Robin climbed over my window pane and into my bedroom that night. I left my bed and walked straight into his arms. He held me gently for a minute, cheek against my hair, and then we sat together against the wall, his arm around me and my head on his shoulder.
After a while, he turned his gaze to me, blue eyes reflecting the starlight, and whispered, "He still fancies you, you know."
This startled me so much that I scooted away a little to see his face, "What? You cannot mean Guy? He got over that years ago!"
But Robin shook his head, "I saw the way he held you after, how he wouldn't let you go. And I saw his face when I kissed you. If he didn't want to kill me before, he definitely does now."
I sighed and leaned back on Robin, my mind racing. The idea of Guy anywhere near me was...repulsive at the least. I shuddered to think of it. Robin felt this and pulled me closer. This was where I belonged, and I knew that body and soul.
Before he left, Robin kissed me softly, his hands on the small of my back, mine around his neck and in his hair.
When he moved back, I chuckled, "Did you plan that distraction back in the forest?" I asked teasingly.
He grinned, "I just told Will, who was giving signals from above, that he would know it when he saw it."
I laughed, "There must have been hell to pay after."
He groaned, "You have no idea! I'll never hear the end of it! I've developed a permanent bruise on my back from all the fist pumps I've been receiving." But he then snuggled his face into my shoulder, and breathed, "But it's definitely worth it." I could feel myself blush.
He let go and climbed over the pane, grinning and whispering, "Good night, my love," as he went. I grinned after him in the darkness.