|Primary Characters:||Marion, Robin, Guy|
|Description:||It’s getting close to Christmas and the Winter Solstice and a celebration is being planned. That’s when their enemies choose to attack. Prince John and the Sheriff capture Robin, Marion and their men, and later Guy. The Prince and the Sheriff want revenge. A dungeon is a very good place for brooding.|
“Marion. John is back.”
“Robin, come on, you can do that later. John is here now.”
“Did you get it, John?”
Little John smiled secretively and refused to reply directly.
“Don’t ask. You’ll see. It’s only two more days to go now.”
Nearly all preparations were done by now. The winter solstice was fast approaching and for once life in Sherwood was more about festivities and rest than the struggle for survival.
“Oh, come on, tell me a little.”
“Alright, Marion. I’ll say this: You won’t be disappointed. This will be one solstice we’ll all remember.”
For weeks now, Robin’s and Marion’s men had been busy collecting supplies for the holiday, and ever since Marion had joined them, there had also been a number of decorations obtained from various sources around the countryside. With Robin’s, Much’s and sometimes Tuck’s help, Marion had done what she could to make the campsite look festive and pretty. Naturally, it was nothing like the Christmases Marion remembered from her childhood, but there was only so much she could do with what she at hand.
John disappeared to some secret hiding place and his attitude didn’t encourage any inquisitiveness. Not that Much didn’t try, but Nasir moved to intercept him. Their playful wrestling distracted Much from continuing with his spying. Like the rest of them, he would just have to wait for the winter solstice.
Robin and Marion returned to their last minute preparations. Marion had sent for tinsel and other decorations from Leaford. There wasn’t much more to do, so they were in no hurry.
To Marion’s relief, Robin seemed back to his usual self by now. It had been a long time since the summer when Prince John’s attempt to abduct her had backfired, but at such a price that Marion almost wished she had been able to pay it herself, rather than have Robin reduced to such a state. But now that winter had come, he finally seemed as happy as he had been at the beginning of their time together. His smile warmed her. It wasn’t just the approaching festivities, it was everything. Being together, knowing that Guy had found a home with Robin’s father. All that contributed to the warm feeling of security and happiness.
That night, they cheated a little and tucked into the supplies they had set aside for the celebration of the winter solstice. It was a pleasant enough meal, and all the men were in a good mood. Much was talked into playing a little tune on his flute, and Tuck joined in on his small harp. To their surprise, Nasir fetched the lute he normally kept packed in a thick layer of silk and an outer layer of a thicker cloth. All in all, the evening was quite a success. When Marion and Robin dozed off they shared a feeling of expectation just like when they were children so long ago in another lifetime.
Just before dawn they were awakened by the sound of shouting and the clink of metal on metal. They were under attack. Hadn’t they thought to place a guard last night? The holiday spirit must have lulled them into a false sense of security, trusting in the cold of the season to keep them safe from the Sheriff’s knights who always feared the forest but never more than close to sunreturn.
As Marion well knew, the Sheriff’s men were a superstitious crowd and they believed the forest haunted by all manner of evil spirits. Indeed, she and Robin had done their best to promote such a belief in the hopes of keeping the knights away.
Marion and Robin sprang to their feet, frantically reaching for their weapons, only to find themselves surrounded and outnumbered five to one. How had the Sheriff been able to command such a force? Perhaps Prince John had taken the incident that summer far more personally than they had previously thought. That was the only explanation, Marion remembered thinking, before she was grabbed brutally and flung down on her face on the ground.
She felt her arms being tied behind her back, and a heavy boot hit her painfully before she was once again raised to her feet. By now her eyes were adjusting to the gloom and she saw her men overpowered, all except Nasir who was still offering resistance in the corner of the clearing. A few steps more and he would have been able to make his escape, but he was surrounded by four knights. He was losing. Marion thought she could see blood on his arms and his face. She was right. He dropped one of his swords and his right arm hung uselessly by his side. Even so, he still wouldn’t yield. He would fight to the death. But she couldn’t let him die for her.
At first it seemed they wouldn’t allow her to speak. She felt a stinging blow to her mouth and something warm and wet stained her cheek. A shout from Robin objecting to her treatment was roughly cut off and she almost felt his pain like her own.
“Nasir, yield. Surrender. Don’t get yourself killed. Please.”
For a moment she didn’t think he had heard her. Even if he had, would those knights let him live? It was obvious that they regarded all foreigners coming from further afield than France with the utmost suspicion. But finally, Nasir dropped his other sword and made a gesture of surrender.
At a sharp command from their leader, the other knights moved in to drag him away. Another man might have called out in pain as his injured arm was twisted around with no thought for his comfort. Not Nasir. Not a word passed his lips. At least not until he was brought back and flung down on the ground with the others. He raised his head and seeking Robin’s and Marion’s gaze, he whispered one word.
The word was silenced abrutly and non-too-gently by one of the more superstitious knights.
“Shut him up, quickly, Timothy. He was cursing you.”
If the circumstances had been different, Marion would have laughed at their ignorance.
“You fools. He was just calling on his god.”
“You shut up too, witch. Anyway, that is just as bad.”
“No more talking. Let’s get the prisoners back to Nottingham. I will take the witch myself. Marley, you bring the Hooded Man. The rest of you, take whoever you want.”
There were a few moments of whispered deliberations until one of the men agreed to carry Nasir on his horse. They were all afraid of the Saracen and his alien ways.
Marion could have cried. In one moment, all their hopes and expectations had been brought to nothing. Where was Herne? Why wasn’t he watching over his son? And how could they have let themselves be caught like this? She was able to catch one last glimpse of Robin’s bruised and bloody face before he was dragged off to one of the waiting horses. Within minutes the clearing was empty of all life.
The ride back to Nottingham took less than two hours on the frozen ground. By now the sun was higher in the sky, and some of the peasants had woken up and were going about their work, hurriedly, taking advantage of the few hours of daylight hours this time of year.
Before long they were thrown into the dungeon. All of them were familiar with the dismal place. At one time or another they had all spent time there, miserable and without hope. This time it was even worse. Little John was still tied up, and two of the knights shackled him to the wall. The rest of them were allowed their comparative freedom. When the last of the knights had left and the grille had slammed shut behind them, Marion rushed to Nasir’s side to see to his injuries. Fortunately, the knights hadn’t thought to search her. In a her pockets, she always kept a supply of healing herbs, clean cloth and other commodities that might be useful.
She was able to ease his pain and dress the wounds to her satisfaction. After seeing to him, she circled the dungeon, tending all the others. Fortunately, no one was as seriously injured as Nasir, and even he would heal in time, if they had time. Marion forced that thought down. She would do what needed to be done, one thing at a time. Worrying about the future wouldn’t help, so she wouldn’t do that. To her relief, Robin wasn’t badly injured either. Only after she had seen to all the others, did she allow Tuck to examine her. His verdict was the same as hers had been. No serious injuries. That done, there was nothing else for her to do except hold Robin’s hand in the darkness and pray silently to Herne to get them out of here again, as he had in the past.
Time passed slowly. When no one came for them, eventually they drifted off to sleep one by one. A sudden noise from above awakened them. The grille was opened and another prisoner was brought down. The knights dragging him were busy taunting and tormenting him. Listening to their raucous laughter, Marion realized that it was Guy. Like Little John, he was shackled to the wall, and left crouching there, not quite able to sit or lie down. His face seemed to bruised, just like Robin’s and her own, but the uneven light cast by the knights’ torches made it difficult to tell.
“How dare you lay your hands on me? My father -”
“Yes, yes, we know all about your ‘father’. Your ‘father’, the Sheriff, has been missing you so much he had to get you back. If you’re lucky there’s a place in his bed waiting for you even now.”
“When you answered to me, you wouldn’t have dared to speak like that to my face.”
“You’re right. Not to your face. But were you really stupid enough to think we respected you? The Sheriff’s catamite? Any authority you thought you had came from him, and Prince John.”
“My authority? I would have thought I had earned that in battle like any other man. William Duprez, you were never the brightest of my knights, but surely even you -”
“Shut your face, pretty boy, or we’ll shut it for you.”
Their treatment of Guy, left Marion seething with anger. She moved towards the knights standing over Guy and made a few meaningless gestures, reciting something in rapid latin, far too advanced for the men to follow, even had they known any in the first place. With any luck, she would have them believe she was cursing them. In reality, she was merely quoting one of the gospels, a harmless enough activity. She knew Tuck would appreciate the irony.
“Strike the witch down before she curses you for all eternity.”
The man raised his hand and would have struck Marion unconscious. She had no wish to be brutalized that way, so she thought quickly, and came up with a reply to ward off the blow.
“Too late. I already have, and unless you treat us all with a bit more respect, I shall not remove the curse and you will have to face the consequences. You and your descendants. That is if you already have some. I rather doubt you will after today.”
The man’s face drained of all colour and to her satisfaction, it seemed he believed all she had told him. Now an impatient voice from above was calling the knights back. She sighed inaudibly with relief. One moment more and their anger might have overpowered their fear and she would really be struck down, unless poor Robin would make a misguided attempt to protect her.
“For shame, men. Didn’t I tell you the Sheriff wants the girl left alone? What do you think the serving girls are for? And leave the Hooded Man alone too, pretty though he is. The Sheriff has other plans for him.”
“We were only having a bit of fun with Gisburne.”
“That will have to wait. I have other work for you. Time enough later, if the Sheriff’s plans succeed.”
The knights overcame their fear and vindictiveness and obeyed their orders. As soon as the grille had slammed shut, Marion stood over Guy, inspecting his wounds. The knights must have taken him by surprise, for there was nothing more serious than a few bruises. The wounds to his pride must have been far worse. His face was the colour of blood. Marion’s light touch caused him to flinch, and not in pain, if her guess was correct.
“Thank you, my lady. No need to concern yourself. I am fine.”
“I was on my way to see you in Sherwood forest.”
Her suprise must have been plain to see on her face this close up. Despite the awkwardness of the situation, Guy couldn’t help smiling briefly.
“I’m not as wary of that place anymore. Your god seems to have forgiven me and allows me passage these days.”
Marion nodded. It certainly seemed that way.
“Go on. You were saying -”
“Yes. My – uh – Huntingdon was sending you some gifts and I offered to take them.”
“I see. And you know nothing about the Sheriff’s intentions?”
“No, but what can it be, other than revenge?”
“And Prince John would be somewhere behind all this too, wouldn’t you say?”
Robin’s voice sounded more firm than Marion had expected. It seemed he was more pleased to see his brother than she would have guessed, considering the circumstances under which they had met the last time. He must be eager for news from his home. As was she.
“Yes. Who else would have offered him all these men? He was always complaining about how little the Prince was sending him, in money or men.”
“I see. Well, all we can do is wait.”
Marion was filled with admiration and love for Robin. His voice sounded almost as confident as the other Robin’s once had. He was right too, there was nothing any one of them could do in this situation. Marion had vowed not to dwell on their gloomy prospects, so she didn’t. Instead her thoughts returned to her own past, and the way her life had turned out. She was young, her father was a peer of the realm and the girls she knew from convent school were all married and settled in circumstances fitting to their birth and station, but here she was, huddled on the filthy floor of the Sheriff’s dungeon, her dress in shreds, her face and hands dirty like a scullery maid’s, and her husband – no, in the eyes of the church, Robin was no more than her lover – on the same floor in the same dungeon with her. If anyone had told her, when she was returning home from the convent to once again live at Leaford, that she would be the leman of an outlaw, that there would be a price on her head, she would have laughed. Yet, here she was.
Again she dwelled on the grief she had caused her dear father. Most fathers, she knew, would have renounced her, given her up as dead, but not sir Richard. He still loved her and gave her his continued support, despite her disgrace. But he was getting old, and to her knowledge he still hadn’t made any arrangements concerning the estate. She knew he wouldn’t want to marry again, and though de Crecy would gladly have filled the position of heir, she knew that her father would prefer to turn the estate over to her and Robin if only there was a way. Her heartfelt sigh alerted Robin to her state of mind, and he squeezed her hand encouragingly.
“What’s on your mind, my love?”
“I was thinking about my father, and what a grave disappointment I am to him.”
“I know. It’s all my fault. If it hadn’t been for me -”
“No, Robin. You know that I chose this life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I only wish that -”
“Yes, I understand. My father too has been caused much grief over this. Herne’s ways are difficult to comprehend.”
Marion let her head rest of Robin’s shoulder and silently continued her brooding.
Her comment had reminded Robin of how much he had hurt his own father. Even sending him his other son, Guy, couldn’t possibly begin to atone for his betrayal. He might not have been the sort of son a father could wish for, but he would dutifully have taken up his duties as heir to Huntingdon. Now, he was stuck in this role as the Hooded Man, a position he would never willingly have chosen, especially had he known what he was letting himself in for. From the start all he had ever wanted was Marion. The rest had followed from the first rash act of misguided chivalry. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to regret it. For better and for worse, this was who he was now. And he liked to think that he had grown into his role as Herne’s son and the leader of his men even though Scarlet would be quick to prove to him how wrong he was. But Robin knew he had learned and was every day growing more worthy of having been chosen by Herne. Herne’s ways truly were hard to fathom. But brooding like this didn’t accomplish anything. Now that Guy was here, he might as well take the opportunity of inquiring about his father’s health and any news from Huntingdon. Who knew how long they would be left in peace down here? Gently he disentangled himself from Marion and murmured a few words of explanation, before walking the few steps over to his brother.
“How is father?”
“He is doing well.”
“I was wondering -”
Robin’s voice trailed off uncertainly as he was trying find a tactful way of posing the question about how his father had received Guy as heir.
“What did father think about the suggestion that you take my place as heir?”
Guy’s face betrayed nothing, but his otherwise so gruff voice softened slightly as he tried to convey how his father had greeted him the day he had returned from rescuing Marion.
“He was very gracious and apologized for not taking more of an interest in me sooner. I couldn’t have asked for a more cordial reception.”
“That was a relief. Did he – I mean, did he mention me at all?”
This time it was Guy’s turn to hesitate. He wasn’t used to mincing his words, but this was his brother, not one of his knights, so he owed Robin some consideration. In reality, Huntingdon had sworn over his wayward younger son, more perfunctorily than with any real conviction. In fact, Guy thought Huntingdon must love Robin a great deal, to still care that much about a son who had so badly disappointed his father.
“Well, he didn’t say much, but I had the impression he still thinks highly of you. And he misses you. That’s why he was sending those Christmas gifts, I mean, Winter Solstice gifts for you and for Marion.”
“I’m so sorry, Guy. But for them, you might still be safe back at Huntingdon.”
“Perhaps. But not for long. I overheard the men talking about the Sheriff’s plans. He would have sent them to Huntingdon to pick me up some time today, with authorization from Prince John.”
“Are there any charges?”
“Yes. For you, the usual, and for me high treason.”
“I must have angered Prince John more than I expected, meddling in his affairs.”
“I’m truly sorry. This is all my fault.”
To Robin’s surprise, a faint smile spread over Guy’s normally so sulky features.
“Don’t be. All in all, I would much rather be down here, than upstairs. I don’t regret a thing. Even if Prince John has my head for this, I don’t care. It’s been well worth it. If anything, I should thank you and Marion. You have given me back some of my self-respect.”
“Don’t mention it. I’m glad you’re my brother.”
“As am I. There’s no one I would rather spend my last hours with than you and Marion.”
As Robin returned to Marion’s side, reassured about his brother’s state of mind, Guy reflected wryly, that Robin was easy to fool. He might be glad to have found his real father and brother, and he might be happy to free of the Sheriff, but he was by no means as carefree as he appeared. If he was to die now he wished his life could have been different. His own men insulting him to his face, and finally knowing how they had looked upon him even while they were under his command, had wounded him deeply. Who was he fooling? He would never be free of the stigma. The Sheriff’s catamite – so that was how his own men referred to him. He had fought back to back with them, facing his own death as bravely as any other man, and still, what would be remembered after his death would be that epithet.
What woman would marry such a man? Not that he wanted to marry anyone. Not after knowing Marion. The truth was, there was no other woman for him. Ironically, Guy thought that Marion might very well have been willing to marry him, had she not already given her heart to Robin. Guy hoped he hadn’t offended her when he pulled back from her touch. He knew she only meant to examine his wounds and perhaps offer some comfort. But her touch, the sweetest thing in all the world, was the last thing he could allow himself to enjoy. Not now, not ever. Besides, he wouldn’t have much time to miss her touch anyway. Once Prince John had arrived, he had no doubts the execution would follow shortly. He would be beheaded, a nobleman’s privilege, unless John had his nobility questioned, and Robin and Marion would hang. That would the end of all their hopes.
The messenger had arrived not twenty minutes earlier, but Huntingdon was already in the saddle and heading for Leaford. Sir Richard deserved to know what fate was awaiting his daughter. Though the church’s blessing was missing, Huntingdon liked to think of Marion as his daughter-in-law before God. And if so, surely he ought to confer with her father. He feared there would be nothing they could do about the situation, but he would still prefer to hear sir Richard’s counsel before acknowledging defeat. Leaving Huntingdon in his commander’s capable hands, he only took two men along as escort.
Arriving at Leaford shortly before nightfall, Huntingdon turned the reins over to one of the grooms, leaving his men to see to the horses. A servant boy had run ahead of him to inform his master of the guest’s unannounced arrival. Sir Richard sent word that he would be meeting his guest in the main hall where supper was being served. Huntingdon allowed himself to sit down at the table and let a serving wench bring him some beer to wash down the dust of the road, before getting to the reason for his sudden arrival. Bad news always keeps, he mused to himself, while part of him remarked on the excellent quality of the beverage. As good as his own beer, though with a slightly different taste.
“Sir Richard, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news -”
“Marion. Something has befallen my daughter. Do not think to spare my feelings. Just tell me what is amiss.”
“The Sheriff, acting on Prince John’s orders, has taken our children captive. They are to stand trial for their offenses, along with all the outlaws of Sherwood forest.”
Huntingdon refrained from mentioning that Robin and Marion were both counted among those outlaws. Sir Richard knew that as well as he did.
“I see. Then we must act quickly.”
“You still have hope then? Something could still be done?”
“I pray so. See this letter? It just arrived by messenger a few hours ago. King Richard is coming home for Christmas. His ship could be landing in Dover as we speak. Perhaps he is already ashore. If we make haste, we can catch him and petition him for our children’s release.”
“Then we must not tarry. If you will be so kind as to loan me some horses for me and my men we shall -”
“Certainly, but we gain nothing by leaving without supper. I will have arrangements made for our imminent departure. Remain here at my table and let my men see to everything. I will have a meal sent down to your men in the meantime. A soldier is only as strong as his stomach, eh, Huntingdon?”
Sir Richard was right. Nothing would be gained by rushing off blindly. What little time they lost now, they would gain later if they planned wisely. If sir Richard was right about king Richard’s arrival, and there was no reason he wouldn’t be, since he had served as a young man at King Richard’s court, and was even now counted among the King’s friends, then perhaps Prince John might not be aware of his brother’s arrival. There was no love lost between them, or so rumour had it. The King might well consider a surprise arrival an advantage in dealing with his headstrong younger brother. And it was also said that Prince John had developed a taste for power in his brother’s absence. If Huntingdon had been King Richard, he would most certainly want to check that taste before it grew to insatiable levels.
The soldier sir Richard had sent ahead to scout for signs of the King and his entourage came back with good news at last. Huntingdon and sir Richard had ridden all night and a good part of the day before finally catching up with the King. Now everything depended on sir Richard’s friendship with the King and on sheer luck. Normally, the King wasn’t inclined to leniency towards the peasantry.vPerhaps he would feel differently about the children of two peers of the realm. But the verdict could easily go against them. The King might feel that the betrayal involved was all the more heinous when committed by two children of the nobility. But they could only hope and pray that the Lord was with them and would protect their children regardless of their youthful sins. They decided to approach the King’s party openly and call out to him rather then sending a messenger ahead. Anything to save time. It didn’t take the rear guard long to hear the sound of their horses and challenge them.
“Who goes there?”
“Sir Richard of Leaford wishes to have word with the King.”
The guard was back so soon, sir Richard suspected they had been watched for some time before they made their move.
“I’m pleased to notice that I am still remembered.”
“Naturally I remember. You have served me well on many occasions, not the least in the Holy Land. Now, I am weary and I need to get back. What can I do for you – and your friend – Huntingdon, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sire, our children in their youthful folly have fallen foul of the Sheriff of Nottingham and, forgive me, sire, your brother, Prince John.”
“I see, my brother has been overreaching himself yet again. What is he going to do to your children? I do seem to recall you having a lovely redheaded daughter, and you Huntingdon, a rather pretty towheaded boy? Do I remember correctly?”
“Perfectly, Your Majesty. And our children will be executed shortly, unless you would graciously pardon them.”
“If you please, Your Majesty, there is also the matter of my other son, Guy.”
“What about him? I didn’t realize there was another son.”
“Discretion is the better part of valour, but since the lady is now departed, I might hint at the real truth.”
“By all means. We are all men of the world here, are we not? Speak up, Huntingdon.”
“Lady Margaret of Gisburne -”
“Gisburne? By God, you are a brave one. Gisburne was one of the most jealous of all my nobles. I see. Gisburne’s youngest is in fact your son? And I seem to recall the Sheriff of Nottingham -”
“Yes, quite. So you may understand that I am pleased to be able to get him away from the Sheriff.”
“Yes, yes. And what can I do about this son of yours?”
“If it wouldn’t be too much to ask, could I now acknowledge him as my heir, since he is in fact older than my son Robert?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“I’m afraid there is more. The Sheriff didn’t take kindly to having Guy taken away from him, and there was an incident last summer when -”
“What Huntingdon is trying to say is that Prince John was very taken with my daughter and arranged to have her taken away. Guy helped Robert get her back, and it seems your brother took it personally.”
“Of course he did. Oh, well, I seem to remember hearing something about your younger son and and this Marion. Am I right? It appears my brother got there too late. Very well. I shall see what I can do. Now if that is all, perhaps we can continue our journey. I would like to be indoors before nightfall.”
“You are too kind, Your Majesty.”
In the early afternoon the Sheriff and his esteemed guest arrived in Nottingham. The Sheriff, as usual, was grovelling around the royal guest, but the Prince wasn’t impressed. All he wanted was to punish the upstarts, the audacious, impertinent fools who had dared to thwart him in his plans. Even now he wasn’t sure if he was going to go ahead and have that witch executed or not. He had a feeling he would take one look at her and decide to take her with him instead, but the thought of what his enemies would have to say about such weakness made him want to see her swing instead. He especially wanted to have the two men punished, no matter how much the effeminate Sheriff begged him to spare them and turn them over to him. Not that it would be a bad punishment all things considered. John’s eyes traveled over the Sheriff’s short and far from appealing figure and had to quash a shudder of distaste. Yes, if Gisburne and Huntingdon were turned over to that man, they would know humiliation like never before. It would be best to take some time to consider the best course of action. The realm needed him to stamp out all resistance to the crown, but his own need for revenge impelled him to make other arrangements.
“Yes, Sheriff, what is it?”
“When would you like to begin the trial?”
“Soon. I just want to get out of these travel-worn clothes and have something to refresh myself with.”
The Prince was staring pointedly at his host, who was squinting cross-eyedly at him. Finally, the Prince’s meaning filtered through to the pompous little man, and he hurriedly called for a servant to make the arrangements. Before long, the Sheriff and his guest were soaking in their baths. Under Prince John’s disapproving eyes, the Sheriff wisely refrained from sharing his bath with the young man currently in his favour. Soon they were dressed and ready to sit down to their meal. As always, the Sheriff kept a well-stocked table, but his guest appeared unimpressed.
“So this is how you spend my – hm – Our money, Sheriff? On delicacies better suited for the Royal table?”
“Your Highness – The oysters were a gift from my brother Abbot Hugo.”
“I see. Well, if you say so. Now shall we have the arrangements made for the trial?
“When better? You don’t think I want to waste more time here than I have to?”
“Quite. Very well. I shall have my men see to it at once. Shall we say two hours from now?”
“What in heaven’s name will take you so long to set up? You did tell me the prisoners were already here? What’s wrong with this room, and this very table? I’ll have eaten my fill in half an hour, and what else remains to be done?”
“I will need my scribe -”
“So send for him. Is there a problem?”
“No. No problem. I will have the scribe brought here at once.”
“Excellent. Now I think I shall have some more of that pheasant, that I believe your brother the Abbot sent you as well?”
“What? Oh, certainly. He is most generous to me.”
By the time the Prince had impatiently waved off offers of more wine and stronger beverages, contenting himself with merely finishing his beer, he declared that he was ready. He pushed back his chair and leaned back comfortably, if slightly less regally than before.
“Well, Sheriff? Shall we have the prisoners brought in ? I take it that boy over there is your scribe?”
“You could have fooled me, you old pervert.”
The Prince’s murmur was just soft enough not to fully reach the Sheriff’s ears.
“What, Your Highness? I didn’t quite catch -”
“I said, let us begin.”
Both Prince and Sheriff enjoyed seeing the three most important prisoners dragged in, hands and feet securely shackled together. For a second, Prince John contemplated getting up and move closer to Marion. Even now, with dirt on her face, she was far more lovely than he remembered. His resolve was wavering. What harm could it do, as long as he tamed these outlaws? He would make an example out of the serfs and other commoners, then turn the handsome young men over to the Sheriff, and that would be his Royal Justice. But first he would make his prisoners squirm. No need to tell them the verdict before the court proceedings were over.
Since he employed men like the Sheriff to dispense the King’s justice, he let the little toad get on with it. Formalities bored the Prince. Instead he studied Marion’s face as she heard the charges read. When her lover’s turn came, he let his eyes travel over the fair-haired boy. How in the world could Marion have chosen to give herself to such a boy when she could have a man far more suited to her loveliness? How he would love to see her dressed in precious silks and velvet from the Orient, perhaps wearing a flimsy veil like the ladies rumoured to be hidden away in the Sultan’s harem.
Now the Sheriff was getting to his former catamite. Gisburne, wasn’t that his name? The Prince was totally without interest in any of that, but he could tell how much the Sheriff still wanted the young man back in his bed. Conflicting emotions played on his face and the Prince could hear them alternate in his voice. The Sheriff still desired the young man, and couldn’t quite decide if he wanted to punish him or not, but that wasn’t Prince John’s problem. If only the little toad would get on with it. What now? Would they be delayed even further? What did that pathetic little boy want?
A young messenger was frantically trying to get the Sheriff’s attention.
“Yes, what is it, boy? Can’t you see we’re busy here? Important business.”
“Forgive me, sir, I know. But the King’s men -”
“I said the King’s men are waiting outside and want to have a word with you, sir.”
“The King? My brother is here?”
Before the boy could bring himself to answer the royal guest, a booming voice from the doorway did it for him.
“I can see you didn’t expect to see me, brother. Aren’t you pleased to see me? What about you, Sheriff?”
It was a while before the Sheriff had recovered himself sufficiently to observe the proper courtesies. Finally, he rose to his feet, and bowed deeply.
“Your highness, this was an unexpected pleasure. We are most pleased to see you in good health. Please, share my humble table.”
“You are entertaining tonight? And are those three young people entertainers or guests? What about you, brother, aren’t you pleased to see me?”
“Yes, of course, Richard, I am most happy to see your face again. Please, do join us. We were holding a trial against these two infamous outlaws from Sherwood forest, and this traitor to the realm.”
“Ah, I see. It has been Our pleasure to meet the lady Marion before. We shall see. You will both be relieved now that We are back and will take over these proceedings. Justice will be done.”
“But, your majesty -”
“Brother, I -”
“No. Assuredly not. We are most grateful.”
“We thought you might be. Now, let Us proceed. In the meantime, surely you wish to have your best rooms prepared for your king, Sheriff?”
“I – Certainly, Your Highness.”
“Don’t let Us keep you. We assure you this trial rests in capable hands. Unless you doubt Our ability to conduct a trial?”
“Certainly not, your highness. If you will excuse me, I will see to your accommodations personally.”
“Excellent. Now, brother, perhaps you would like to fill me in on the case at hand.”
After the King’s arrival, the trial went ahead speedily, but when the verdict was delivered, Prince John couldn’t hold back words of protest.
“Brother, surely you jest -”
“Jest? What are you referring to, little brother? It is my assessment that this young man, Huntingdon -”
“Huntingdon? All we know is that he was Gisburne’s son, until it was discovered that -”
“Yes, and now the true father has come forward. I have no objection to allowing sir Guy to assume his rightful place as heir to Huntingdon. As for these youthful follies – well, it is Christmas, and anyway, boys will be boys, and occasionally, so will girls, I suppose.”
“But brother -”
“That was a little joke. Do try to laugh at my jokes, little brother, if you wish to remain heir to the throne. After all, I might marry again and try for a new heir.”
“Yes, very funny. But that girl -”
“I can see what you see in the lady Marion, but it seems the lady has made up her mind already. There’s no arguing in matters of the heart.”
“Very well, I’m sure the lady accepts your apology. Let’s get on with the proceedings. We hearby declare an amnesty for the aforementioned crimes. All the outlaws of Sherwood forest are pardoned. And as for you, sir Guy, We declare you not guilty on all counts. Furthermore, regarding that other matter, We hearby grant your father’s petition to have you acknowledged as his heir. There. These proceedings are officially closed. Get you out of my sight before I change my mind. Your fathers are waiting for you outside this hall. As for you, my brother, I want to speak to you in private. We have matters to discuss. You, have those prisoners released and turned over to their fathers.”
The knights who had been guarding the prisoners throughout the proceedings looked doubtful as to the wisdom of disobeying the Sheriff’s orders, but not obeying the King’s orders would be far more unwise. Eventually the knights moved to carry out their orders.
Marion and Robin supported each other as they hobbled out of the room. At the door, they turned back, when they saw that Guy was in even worse shape than they were, having been shackled to the wall all the time in the dungeon. For once he didn’t pull away from their touch, but merely accepted their help. They didn’t see the Sheriff about anywhere, but as soon as they set foot in the hallway outside, they heard their names called. It all seemed too good to be true. After all their fears this was the way the Sheriff’s and Prince John’s plans ended. Herne must have been watching them after all.
“Marion? Are you hurt?”
“Father? No, I’m not. This is nothing. My feet are just cramped from the shackles.”
“We’ll have you out of here in a minute, my dear.”
Guy broke off uncertainly when he realized that he had spoken at exactly the same time as his younger brother. Robin nodded for him to go on, and after a moment’s hesitation he did.
“How did you manage to come to our aid like this?”
“It wasn’t I, son. You owe Sir Richard your thanks. All I did was call the situation to his attention.”
“Don’t mention it, Guy. Now, I’m sure we would all of us rest better tonight if we are far away from this house. Huntingdon?”
“Yes, let’s leave at once. I have brought horses for my boys, so if -”
“And I have brought a mare for Marion. We will head for Leaford, I think, though I am not sure whether we will get there before we have to stop for the night.”
“Father. We must have our men released first. They are down in the dungeon and -”
“No. I saw some of the Sheriff’s knights setting off in that direction a few moments ago. I think you may expect them any second now. Ah, yes. These are the men you were referring to, my dear?”
“Tuck, Little John, Much, Nasir, Scarlet. Are you all alright? And the rest of you?”
“We’re fine, Marion. Oh, I mean, lady Marion.”
After a glance at sir Richard’s face, Much hurriedly amended his statement. But it seemed the elderly gentleman wasn’t seriously offended at the boy’s familiarity.
“We will find horses among our men to share with yours, Marion. And if there aren’t enough, I’m sure the Sheriff has some he will let us use. Let us all go to Leaford. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and I invite you all to celebrate the holidays.”
Within minutes the considerably larger party were out in the yard, making arrangements about the horses. A sharp look from Marion silenced any less than polite remarks that might have spilled from Scarlet’s lips. Everyone else appeared more than pleased at the outcome of the situation. Robin and Marion were able to fill their men in on how they had been pardoned. Less than half an hour after the close of the court proceedings everyone was on their way. The elderly men had ridden for more than a night and most of the next day without sleep and with very little rest, so as soon as they were safely out of the way of the Sheriff’s men, they found a secure campsite to spend the night.
Soon a cheerfully blazing fire warmed them, and Huntingdon’s and Leaford’s men produced what supplies they had been carrying. The meal was meager at best, but no one seemed to mind. There was far better awaiting them at Leaford. Under her father’s disapproving eyes, Marion dared not sleep too close to Robin, and instead chose to make her bed close by her father’s side. His health had steadily improved since this summer when she had rashly returned to Leaford to tend him. Soon she drifted off to sleep.
Her father slept for a few hours, but in the way of the elderly, he awoke long before dawn and got up to sit by the fire. There he discovered himself not alone. Sentries moved back and forth to warm their hands but sitting close by the fire was Huntingdon.
“Ah, my friend. You cannot sleep either?”
“Alas no, the ground is somewhat hard on my back these days. It’s funny, it never seemed that way when I was a young knight, before my marriage.”
“That is only too true. But no use regretting the passage of time.”
“As you say no use indeed. Since we find ourselves alone here, I thought we might discuss a matter that has been on my mind for a long time. My daughter and your son.”
“You wish to discuss marriage?”
“That is what I wished to propose, yes.”
“I have no objection. And it seems our children have already made up their minds. By all means, nothing would make me happier. You do know that Robert has lost his status as my heir?”
“I am aware of that. No matter. Leaford stands without heir unless Marion and her husband agree to fulfill that duty.”
“And will she?”
Sir Richard sighed. That was the problem. Always the same problem. Not who she chose to love, though naturally, he would never have sanctioned her marriage to Robin of Loxley. No, what worried him, was that pagan god they claimed not only to worship, but also to have met in person. Would they agree to return from Sherwood and spend their lives under circumstances more fitting to their station? He was by no means sure of the answer to that most burning question.
“I do not know. I would have hoped so. But there is this god they claim to worship.”
“Do not tell me. Herne. It is beyond me how any child of mine can fall into such superstitious beliefs. However, that need not trouble us. I know of at least one lord of the realm who worships the dark forces. As long as no one is the wiser, our children might still rule at Leaford. Talk to her, see if they cannot obtain permission from this Herne creature to return to their former lives. Now that the King is back, I see no need to fight the likes of the Sheriff and Prince John.”
“Perhaps not. I pray that I will have success in this. I am an old man. My health is once again good, but I cannot live forever. It is my fondest wish to see Marion settled in marriage before my time comes.”
“And so you shall. I shall speak to my boy about it as soon as he wakes. Now tell me, what do you think of my new heir?”
“Young Guy? A fine warrior. Excellent choice.”
“You are very gracious. As if you and everyone else did not know about his reputation.”
“That is not your responsibility, Huntingdon. Blame the Sheriff, blame Gisburne. It has always seemed to me that boy was doing the best he could under the circumstances.”
“But I can’t just blame them. He is my son, he was always my responsibility. While Gisburne himself was still alive, I could do nothing, that is true, but when he died – I could have done something – offered to handle the boy’s training. Yet I did nothing. I stood by while my own flesh and blood was dragged in the mud, used as a mere -”
“Don’t say it. What is done is done. I almost caused my own daughter’s death, by neglecting another child of mine, merely because my grief at her mother’s death made it difficult for me to emerge beyond my own selfish feelings of loss.”
“I suppose you are right. What is done is done. All I can do is try my best to be a good father to Guy now.”
“A wise decision.”
“But how will he ever be able to forgive me?”
“You do not need to worry on that count. No one who sees the two of you together can doubt the love and respect he feels for you.”
“You think so?”
“I do. Just as he loves his brother, and sadly, my daughter too.”
“So you’ve noticed? I’m sorry about that too, but I will try to find him a suitable wife. One day I hope he will forget his feelings for Marion.”
“As do I.”
“Look. The sun is almost up by now. It is late and we must make arrangements to break camp. Today is Christmas Eve. Tonight we feast together and with any luck there will be a wedding to celebrate as well.”
Marion heard the sounds of the men getting ready and sat up, trying to smooth her hair and remove little bits of twigs and dead leaves from it. She pressed her lower back where the knight’s boot had hit her, and where inexplicably a small rock had embedded itself during the night. Finally she gave up. Back at Leaford she would have a bath and change her much dishevelled dress, and have a girl see to her hair. This holiday she would look her best like in the old days. Robin seemed not to be up yet, so she wandered off to find him. He was lying on the ground and at first she thought he was still asleep. She smiled lovingly at the sight of him lying there, his hair in a worse tangle than her own. Reaching out a hand to shake him gently awake, she was startled to realize his eyes were open.
“I’m alright. Marion, I had another vision. Herne spoke to me. He said our time in Sherwood was over for now. We can return home, for the time being. While king Richard is in England we don’t need to fight the Sheriff and Prince John.”
“Is it really true, it is over?”
“Yes. There can be no mistake about it. Marion, will you marry me?”
“Of course I will. Tuck can perform the ceremony. That should satisfy both our fathers and Herne.”
“I was thinking the same thing. Marion, I love you so.”
“I love you too, Robin. Come on, get up. We’re breaking camp. Before dark we will be back at Leaford. Back home. It will be your home too, if you want to.”
“Yes, I will love to live there with you. Huntingdon belongs to Guy now.”
Marion was right. Shortly before darkness fell, they crossed Leaford’s drawbridge. She was finally home. Most of the servants were gathered in the courtyard to welcome their master home. Nellie was standing on the steps outside the kitchen and when she saw Marion she rushed forward to embrace the girl she had almost raised as her own daughter. Marion whispered a few words about the upcoming wedding, and Nellie beamed at her. Anyone would think that she had already known about it in advance, but Marion knew that all arrangements for Christmas could easily be adapted to suit a simple wedding with only the people she cared the most about as guests.
All she needed to do was find a moment alone with her father to inform him about the wedding. She knew her father well enough to know how pleased he would be to finally see her safely married. But now all she could think about was getting out of her dress and into a nice warm bathtub. After a few words to Robin over her shoulder, she ran upstairs to her old room. No one would see her for hours until she had dealt with her appearance thoroughly.
In the meantime rooms were found and made ready for each of the guests. Little John sent for his wife and children and everyone prepared to enjoy the holiday spirit to the full. Sir Richard gave the order that even the former outlaws of which many used to be serfs, would be served at the long table in the great hall along with the more noble guests.
Robin and Guy were given adjoining rooms, and after the most perfunctory of hair brushing and washing, Robin left his room in search of his future father-in-law. He knew Marion meant to discuss the matter with her father in private, but he wanted to observe some of the formalities. He also wanted to have a word with his own father. Both men would be pleased at the news, at least he hoped so. After asking a serving girl the whereabouts of her master he finally found sir Richard in his own rooms. Robin waited a few moments to gather his courage, then knocked on the door.
“It’s me – Robin. Robert of Huntingdon.”
“Sir – I would like to -”
“Yes, boy, get on with it, I’m not going to bite your head off.”
“I would like to ask for your daughter’s hand.”
“Sir, I realize that we have -”
“Yes, yes. I know all that. You are serious about this? Do you know what it is you’re asking?”
“I do, but you must know that I am no longer heir to Huntingdon so -”
“Oh, yes, I know all about that, and I don’t care. Surely Leaford is enough for both of you.”
“Oh, yes it is. I just meant, I realize I’m not the sort of man you would wish for as your daughter’s husband.”
“How do you know what kind of husband I want for my daughter? You are the son of an old friend. What man can ask for more? I was referring to your responsibilities.”
“You will be making Leaford your home, I hope?”
“Yes, certainly. Marion wouldn’t have it any other way, and neither would I, as long as I am welcome.”
“Oh, you are. Do not worry on that account. My son, you have no idea how happy you have made an old man.”
Stunned at how easy the conversation he had dreaded finally turned out, Robin mumbled a few incoherent polite phrases, then turned on his heel to leave, adding as an afterthought a few words of farewell.
“Now if you’ll excuse me, sir, I think I need to talk to my father.”
“By all means. See you at the celebration tonight. Oh, I do hope you and Marion will allow me to announce the good news to everyone.”
“We would be very pleased if you would.”
It didn’t take Robin very long to find his father, resting in a suite almost as grand as the one occupied by Leaford’s own master. Again, Robin timidly knocked on the door, anxiously awaiting his father’s reply.
“It’s me – Robert.”
“Come in, boy.”
When Robin had closed the door behind him, he remained standing, hesitatingly by the door until his father impatiently waved him inside.
“Go on, sit down.”
“I have asked Marion to marry me and she accepted. It would make us very happy if you would attend our wedding here at Leaford.”
“I see. This was unexpectedly good news. I suppose you have discussed the matter with Leaford first?”
“Yes. I come from him now.”
“Excellent. Does this mean you will give up all that pagan nonsense now and live as is befitting a nobleman, and most especially my son?”
“Oh, don’t tell me. I am sure you will anger me again, and I don’t want any quarrel to come between us at a time like this.”
“Marion and I will be living here, at least for the time being.”
“Now, that was a a relief anyway. Good. You have no idea how much you have tried my patience, Robin.”
Robin stared unhappily at the floor. If he told his father that he had been well aware of how much grief he had caused him, it would only make matters worse, so he wisely held his tongue.
His father’s voice softened somewhat, and Robin could see in his eyes how much he still loved his wayward son.
“I have worried about you, Robin. Do you think it is easy for a man to know his son has a price on his head?”
“I’m sorry, father.”
“When you have a son of your own you will see for yourself. Marion isn’t expecting, is she?”
The thought had never crossed Robin’s mind. He didn’t know how to tell such a thing but surely Marion would have told him? Could that be the reason why Herne was releasing them from their oath to him?
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“Good. Excellent. Then we shall have no grandchild of mine born out of wedlock.”
“Father? What about Guy?”
“Yes, what about him?”
“Are you happy about your new heir?”
“Yes, certainly. He’s an excellent warrior, and that is something I could never say about you. Don’t worry though, I love you both equally. Wouldn’t trade you for another son for anything in the world.”
“I’m so pleased.”
“And you don’t feel cheated out of your birthright?”
“No. It seems to me it was Guy who was being cheated out of his birthright, and I’m truly happy that has finally changed.”
“Good. Everything is fine at Huntingdon, and I want you to know that you and your lovely bride are always welcome. And – if sir Richard can find no place for your men, they are welcome too. Be sure to tell them. Even the Saracen. I have met good men in the Orient, no matter what God they believe in, and no matter how dark of complexion.”
“Thank you, father. That is such a relief to know. I think I will return to my room now and freshen up for tonight.”
“By all means, go ahead. It’s my curse, having a son as pretty as a girl, and just as vane. Oh, don’t look so sad, boy. I am only jesting. Of course you must look your best for the celebration. I take it that renegade friar will be performing the ceremony? Oh, well, one can’t have everything. Now run along and do something about that hair.”
Outside Guy’s room, Robin ran into his brother.
“Hello. Guy, can I ask you something?”
“You don’t have any clothes I could borrow?”
“I might, but they wouldn’t fit you very well, little brother. Fortunately for you, I think father carries some spares in the hopes of finding you in decent company. Some of your own clothes from Huntingdon. And fortunately for me, he brought me some too.”
“Guy, I asked Marion to marry me. We will have the wedding here at Leaford. It would make us both very happy if you would attend me.”
“Oh, alright. I suppose the best man did win.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. She has always loved you, from the moment she met you. I will be just fine. Think nothing of it. And I’ll send a servant for your clothes later. Will that be alright?”
“Thank you, for everything.”
“No, thank you, Robin. If it hadn’t been for you, I would still be with the Sheriff.”
“Guy, I love you.”
“I – feel the same way, Robin, but don’t go around telling anyone, you hear? Wouldn’t do anything for your reputation or even mine.”
“We will make sure those rumours are stamped out.”
“I appreciate that, but it’s no use. As you well know, they’re not just rumors, it’s all true. But I suppose people forget.”
“Never mind. I have to go. See you tonight, little brother.”
“Yes. See you soon.”
Marion was even able to snatch a few moments of sleep before she made her appearance downstairs in the great hall. She was wearing a lavender watered silk dress. Her hair had been dried in front of the fire, and dressed in a complicated and very elegant fashion. As soon as she walked in, all eyes followed her across the floor, as she proceeded to take her place at her father’s side. In the guest of honor’s seat, Huntingdon sat, his sons flanking him.
Robin and Guy looked their very best, and Marion was so filled with love for them both her eyes filled with tears for a moment. Then she turned back to face her father, and took his outstretched hand.
“Ladies and gentlemen, everyone. I would like to announce my daughter’s wedding to Robert of Huntingdon. The ceremony will take place after the New Year. Now I want you all to join me in a pledge. To my daughter. To young Robert. And to my old friend Huntingdon and his new heir, Guy of Huntingdon. Let’s drink to the happiness of the young couple. Let’s drink to everyone’s health.”
After the entire hall had toasted Marion, Robin, Robin’s father and Guy, sir Richard bade everyone enjoy the celebration. No one needed more encouragement than that. Soon all the guests were eating, drinking and making merry. After all, whatever you called the holiday of the season, Christmas, or Winter Solstice, Sun Return or something else, it was a season to be happy and to rejoice at one’s good fortune.
Much later, when everyone was sated, the guests left the hall to go into one of the galleries for music, dancing and various games. At each small table by the walls, there were hazelnuts, almonds, dried fruit and candied sugar. Tankards of ale, mead and cider were thoughtfully provided to quench anyone’s thirst. In each doorway, someone, Marion suspected Nellie, had hung a sprig of mistletoe. Marion danced with each of her men, and with her father, her new father-in-law, and finally, Robin. When they retreated to a strategically placed chair for some rest, Robin saw Guy standing in one of the doorways, watching the dance floor with such a lost, forlorn look in his eyes, it all but killed Robin’s holiday spirit.
“Yes, my love?”
“Look. Do you see Guy over there?”
“Yes. How sad he looks.”
“Why don’t you go over there and ask him to dance? After all, you have danced with everyone else here.”
“Do you think I should? He is standing under the mistletoe.”
“I know. I need to rest my feet anyway, so I couldn’t dance anymore if my life depended on it. Go ahead. Guy can take over for me.”
“Alright. I’m sure your brother is an excellent dancer.”
When Guy saw Marion heading his way, she knew he would turn and leave the room, but she couldn’t let him. Not this time. He mustn’t be allowed to drown in his own self-pity any longer. It was time he banished the Sheriff and everyone else from his memories and began to enjoy his new life.
“Guy, wait. You are not dancing?”
“Soldiers don’t dance.”
“That’s funny. Both your father and mine were excellent warriors in their day, and yet they dance equally well. I’m sure you are too modest. Or are you telling me you don’t know how? To dance, I mean.”
“No. That’s not what I’m saying. I do know how to, uh, dance.”
“Good. But first we must make sure we don’t offend the god.”
Marion indicated the mistletoe above his head. Before her meaning dawned on Guy, she had managed to steal a brief kiss. For a second she even thought she detected a hint of a smile on his lips as he pulled away.
“Now, since you won’t be polite and ask me, I shall ask you. Will you give me the honour of this dance, sir Guy?”
Caught like this, Guy saw no way of refusing and gracefully gave in, his features for once serene.
“Nothing would please me more, lady Marion.”
For a while, Guy and Marion danced in the brightly lit gallery. Everywhere there was holly and ivy, and more mistletoe. Branches of evergreens were hung with silver and gold ornaments sir Richard had brought home from the Orient. A number of musicians from the villages surrounding Leaford were playing all kinds of merry tunes. The music was interspersed with the sweet voices of children and a man and a woman with voices as golden as the ornaments.
This truly was a holiday season to remember. How the Sheriff and Prince John spent their Christmases Marion neither knew nor cared. At this happy time the memories of their enemies had no place, and when the holidays were over, she would celebrate an even more joyous occasion. She couldn’t wait for her marriage to Robin to begin. Thank you, Herne, Marion silently prayed, as she whirled around with her brother-in-law. Over by the wall, Robin did the same as he watched his brother for once betraying the slightest of smiles. Thank you for Guy’s new life, and for Marion, and for everything.