"Will you be alright?"

Sir Edward of Knighton, Sheriff of Nottingham, shouldn't have felt any concern over his sole surviving child, the beautiful Lady Marian, as she entered their coach to travel to a Twelfth Night party this snowy winter's night of January 5, the year of our Lord, 1187. Marian, after all, would never give her father cause to worry over her decorum or behavior. Yet worry he did.

Since her sweetheart and former betrothed, Robin of Locksley, had departed to fight alongside England's newly crowned King, Richard Plantagenet, in His Majesty's Crusade to recover Jerusalem, Marian had not been herself. Hiding her broken heart, she had been quiet and withdrawn, preferring to sit unoccupied indoors in complete solitude, which was a complete change from the healthy, active, outdoor lifestyle she'd always favored. Too many evenings, Sir Edward had found her sitting alone in the dark, staring at nothing out the windows, with little appetite and even less joy.

He couldn't understand the depth of her feelings for Locksley, for her extreme youth led him to believe her incapable of such deep, abiding love.

Lady Cecily's party is just what Marian needs, Sir Edward thought, to help her get over Robin.

Edward had no doubt his daughter wouldn't lack for dance partners tonight. Indeed, the young men would be falling over one another, in their efforts to get Marian to notice them. Silently, in his heart, he thanked God for Lady Cecily's love for parties.

Lady Cecily of Edwinstone had never been a close friend of his daughter's, but the two young women were civil toward one another, as ladies of rank should be. Cecily's older brother Stephen was another young nobleman from the shire who had "taken the cross" to fight in the King's Crusade. And now that Cecily was married, albeit to a gentleman Edward's age, she was eager to play hostess and show off her new position as Mistress of her husband's grand estate. Hence, Marian's invitation to the Twelfth Night party, where their coachman would shortly drive her.

"Have a wonderful time," Sir Edward wished his daughter, kissing her on an icy cold cheek.

With a forced shadow of her former smile, Marian stepped into the coach and rode away.

...

Cecily's new husband, enamoured of his pretty blond young wife, spared no expense to make her party a success. Their home was ablaze in candlelight, turning night into day, illuminating tables groaning under heaping platters of the finest holiday foods. Skilled musicians played lively tunes, hidden from the elegantly dressed guests, in an upstairs gallery.

In spite of the merriment in his house, however, Lord Edwinstone soon grew weary. Unable to stifle his gaping yawns, he very politely made his excuses and went to bed, leaving Cecily to entertain the many young people she had invited without him.

"Marian!" Cecily cried with false affection, when the sheriff's daughter at last arrived. Linking her arm through Marian's, Cecily led her to a group of her most intimate friends, where gossip flowed as easily as wine.

"What a pair we make," Cecily boasted, basking in all the pairs of male eyes following them. "You with your rich dark hair, and me with my blond! I wonder how many conquests we shall make tonight!"

Barely perceptively, Marian lifted her eyebrows. She was used to Cecily's love of flirtation, but she hadn't expected it to continue after her wedding.

"I should like to pay my respects to your lord husband," Marian began politely, "but I do not see him."

"That old stiff!" Cecily joked. "He's gone to bed, like an obediant husband, leaving us to have fun. Don't look now, but Martin of Aylesbury is staring at you!"

Marian had no desire to look at Aylesbury. In fact, she began to question why she had come. Her legs felt heavy, her feet like lead. The candlelight hurt her eyes, the fires were too hot, the people too loud. She wanted nothing so much as to climb back into her coach, ride home, and bury herself under her bedclothes.

A few more sips of golden wine made Cecily even more giddy. "It's time to select our Lord of Misrule!" she announced. "Every man here must have a piece of cake, no exceptions, and the one who's unlucky enough to find the bean in his slice, must wear this!"

Ladies' laughter washed over the crowd, as Cecily held up a multi-colored jester's cap, adorned with a trio of horns tipped with bells. All the young men were handed slices of cake, which they greedily devoured.

"Whose cake has the bean?" Cecily asked, eager to "crown" this year's Lord of Misrule.

With abashed good humor, Martin of Aylesbury stepped forward, holding up the bean between his thumb and forefinger. Most of the ladies applauded.

Aylesbury knelt on one knee before Cecily, allowing her to place the jester's cap on his sandy colored hair. "I crown thee, Lord Misrule!" Cecily announced.

According to Twelfth Night custom, everyone was required to do whatever the Lord of Misrule ordered, until midnight struck, signalling the end of his reign.

Summoning his courage, Martin gave his first order.

"Lady Marian," he said, nervously. "As Misrule, I command you to dance with me."

Marian obeyed as if in an unhappy trance.

Normally, she adored dancing and all kinds of festivities, but tonight, desperately missing Robin, she simply didn't have the heart.

Aylesbury found her dull company, lovely to look at, but too serious for his tastes. Besides, the sparkle that used to light up her eyes was gone, like the flame of a candle that had been extinguished.

When the dance was over, Marian absently rejoined Cecily and her friends.

"We were just discussing how frigid it is tonight," Cecily informed her. "Of course, my brother Stephen and your Robin must be loving the weather in Sicily!"

"Cecily?" Marian repeated blankly, barely hearing anything after Robin's name was mentioned.

The other ladies burst into a mad fit of giggling.

"Sicily, you goose!" Cecily teased her. "You know, the kingdom where King Richard's sister Johanna is Queen. That's where the King's army is spending Christmas, you know!"

"No, I didn't know," Marian admitted.

I don't know anything. Are you in Sicily, then, Robin? What is it like? Do you ever think of me? Thank God you are safe, and haven't yet begun fighting.

"My brother writes they saw quite a battle, freeing Queen Johanna from her late husband's brother! Did you know, Tancred, his name is, thought he could have his dead brother's wife, as well as his throne? Imagine! He locked Johanna in a castle tower, expecting she'd give in and agree to marry him. He didn't count on her brother Richard arriving, with his army!"

"A battle?" Marian asked, alarmed. "Was anyone hurt?"

"Of course! But our side didn't suffer too many casualties. Stephen wrote me King Richard called Tancred's army 'a lot of toy soldiers!' "

Robin, are you alright? I know you took risks you shouldn't!

"Will Princess Johanna return to England, now that she's free, and a widow?" another of Cecily's friends asked.

"Surprisingly, no," Cecily explained, proud to be the bearer of knowledge. "Before she left for Sicily, she made her father, King Henry, and her brother Richard agree, that if she ever became a widow, they would let her choose her own husband the next go-round. Can you imagine? I wish I'd known before I was married! I'd have gotten my brother to agree to the same bargain!"

"That shouldn't stop her from coming home," another lady suggested.

"It should, if the man she wishes to marry isn't here!" Cecily told them, archly.

The ladies gasped and giggled, as if they'd just been told a piece of scandalous gossip.

"Do you mean, she's planning to marry another Sicilian?"

"Wrong again," Cecily answered, with an all-knowing smile. Turning to Marian, who was standing idly by, barely listening, Cecily said, "Marian, don't be too upset, but my brother writes that Princess Johanna appears to have set her sights on Robin! She's going to accompany her brother and his troops to the Holy Land, seemingly, to keep Richard's soon-to-be bride company! For my part, I wouldn't be at all surprised if there wasn't a double royal wedding!"

"Robin of Locksley!" another giggling girl exclaimed, not noticing Marian's face lose all its color. "Who can blame her? He always was delicious!"

"Yummy!" Cecily agreed. "Why ever did you let him go, Marian?"

"Excuse me," Marian said, vacantly, her heart and mind racing.

Pushing her way through the throngs of revellers being led to perform ridiculous tricks as the Lord of Misrule commanded, Marian strove to get outside into the cold night air, where at least she could breathe.