Marian knew something was wrong as soon as she rode into camp. For one thing, she'd been gone almost a week at Robin's request, she'd been announced quite loudly as soon as she came into view of the lookouts, yet Robin was nowhere to be seen. For another, every man, woman, and child she did see in the makeshift forest village broke out in a nervous grin as soon as they saw her face.
"Where's Robin?" she asked Little John as she swung down from her horse.
"How was your trip?" Little John asked brightly, offering a belated hand.
"Fine," she answered, unfastening the laces on the saddle. "The Guilford's are doing well, settling into their new home quite nicely, I think." She tugged the saddle from the horse's back and handed the reins to a waiting boy. "Now where's Robin?"
"Down by the river, I think," he allowed slowly. "But I'm sure he'll be along--"
"Oh, I think I can stand the walk," she interrupted. Little John stepped quickly in front of her, and she stopped. "Little John, what's going on?"
"Marian . . . " She couldn't remember when she'd seen the big man look so uncomfortable. He took a long breath and stepped aside.
Moving down the barely-discernerible path, she got a few more anxious looks from a group of women coming back the other way with buckets of water. "Welcome back, milady," one of them said loudly--shouted, in fact, though Marian couldn't have been more than a yard away from her.
"Thanks," Marian answered, giving them a curious glance before continuing on.
Emerging into the clearing at the top of the riverbank, she suddenly knew what all the weirdness was about. Robin was there, just as Little John had guessed, but he wasn't alone. Clasped in his arms and looking quite comfortable there was a woman. A young, beautiful woman with long, blonde curls flowing down her back and a fashionable gown of delicate white trimmed in gold to match.
Catching sight of Marian over this beauty's shoulder, Robin had the audacity to grin. "You're back."
"Yes, I'm back," Marian retorted, scrambling down the embankment. "After spending a solid week in the saddle doing you a favor while you dally here with this . . . some . . . " The woman turned as Robin's grin broadened.
". . . . Your cousin," Marian finished. She managed a smile of her own through a fiery blush. "Hello, Alisande."
* * * * * *
Little John and the rest of the camp were relieved but shocked to see Lady Marian and the mysterious blonde woman come back arm and arm with a smiling Robin trailing behind them. "Little John, allow me to present Lady Alisande Wakely," Marian said. "Robin's cousin."
"Cousin?" Little John echoed.
"Alisande, this is Little John," Marion went on.
"Little?" Alisande laughed.
"Your cousin's idea of a joke," Little John grinned. "Well met, lady." He took the hand she offered and kissed it.
"You can save this unaccustomed gallantry," Marian laughed. "Alisande is the most happily married woman I know."
"Marian," Robin interrupted, laying a restraining hand on her arm.
"How is Ned, by the way? Any news?" Marian went on, turning to find tears welling in her friend's wide blue eyes. "Oh no . . . . what have you heard?"
"Alisande's husband, Edward, was one of the Saxon lords who agreed to accompany King Richard on his crusade," Robin explained to Little John.
"Was he captured?" Marian asked.
"For a time," Alisande answered, swallowing a sob. "Then I received word that he was in France with the King. I sent a message to a friend there, asking her to help me come to him. She wrote me back that he wasn't there any longer, that he . . . " The tears escaped at last.
"I'm so sorry," Marian said, hugging her close. "Come on, let's go inside and talk."
Robin and Little John watched them disappear into Marian's hut. "Say, Rob," Little John ventured.
"That thing with your cousin's husband . . . is it just me, or does it sound a little strange?"
"More than a little," Robin agreed. "She said she wrote this Frenchwoman a little more than a month ago."
"And she's already heard back?" Little John asked.
"A week ago."
Robin grinned. "I smell a rat."
Little John grinned back. "A rat named John, perhaps?"
"Could be." Robin turned away from the hut. "You don't have anything pressing to do for the next day or so, do you?"
Little John pretended to wrack his brain. "Nothing springs to mind."
"Then do you think you might ride over to Southhampton, see some old friends . . . ."
"Ask if they've heard tell of any Edward Wakelys?"
Robin met his eyes. "Exactly."
"I think I could be persuaded . . . . still, that's an awfully pretty widow, if she is a widow."
"And rich, too," Robin agreed.
"Quite a prize." Little John started off toward the stables, then stopped. "It's a lucky thing, she and Marian being such old friends."
"Why do you say that?" Robin asked, the soul of innocence.
Little John smiled. "No reason. Just watch yourself until I get back."
* * * * * *
"Alisande, I am so sorry," Marian was saying as Tuck came into the hut carrying a heaping tray of food. "I had no idea . . . "
"Of course you didn't," Alisande answered. "Hello, brother--do you attend the souls of these outlaws as well as their stomachs?"
"Far better I hope, my lady," Tuck answered. "At least as best I can."
"All the comforts of home," Marian agreed. "Tuck lives here with us."
"Amazing," Alisande said. "A whole little world hidden in the trees—if Robin and his friends hadn't stumbled over me, I could never have found you."
"Were you looking for us?" Marian asked, tearing apart a loaf of bread, still starving from the road.
Alisande's eyes widened, but she quickly regained her composure. "Yes, I was," she answered. "I had heard the rumors about Robin, and I'd hoped to convince him to give up this madness and accompany me to France--and you, too, of course."
"Of course," Marian echoed, blushing again as she tried to take smaller bites.
"Marian, I'm sorry," Alisande said. "Please forgive me--I've become a hopeless little prig since I've been married."
Marian smiled. "There's nothing to forgive," she promised. "Tuck, you should have seen us when we were children--Alisande could bash both mine and Robin's skulls into the dirt without so much as mussing her gown."
"My cousin exaggerates," Alisande insisted, including Marian in her relation to Robin just as she had as a child. "But we were all rather little hellions, weren't we?"
"The best," Marian agreed. "Until Edward . . . " She broke off and squeezed the other woman's hand.
"Forgive my asking, my lady," Tuck said kindly. "But do you still mean to go to France?"
"I don't know," Alisande admitted. "Now that I see the life you all have here, I know you can't just pick up and go with me, even if such a thing were possible at all. Prince John . . . " Her voice trailed off into a shudder.
"What about Prince John?" Marian pressed, shooting Tuck a look.
"Prince John thinks I should remarry," she admitted. "He has just the man all picked out."
"I'll just bet he does," Marian muttered.
"You know I couldn't possibly do it," Alisande went on. "I had thought about taking holy vows, so the Church would get the money instead of the Crown."
"Believe me, my lady, some of the bishops are as bad as the Prince," Tuck said with a sigh.
"And besides, I don't really see you as a nun," Marian added.
"Don't you?" Alisande said with a tiny smile. "No, neither do I." She looked around at the cramped but cozy hut. "I wish I had your bravery, Marian."
"It's not bravery," Marian answered.
"No, it's love," Alisande replied.
"Well . . . I think I shall see if I'm wanted," Tuck said, clearing his throat. "If I can be of any help at all, Lady Alisande, please don't hesitate . . . " Giving Marian a hasty glance, he beat an equally hasty retreat.
"Did I embarrass him?" Alisande asked. "I thought surely since he must have married you--"
"What?" Marian asked, forcing a laugh. "Married who?"
"You and Robin, of course," Alisande answered. "Isn't that why Robin brought him here in the first place?"
"Robin didn't bring him; Tuck's an outlaw, just like the rest of us," Marian explained. "And we're not . . . . what I mean is . . . Robin and I aren't . . . . we're friends, Alisande, just as we've always been."
"Oh," her friend replied, obviously confused. "Forgive me, Marian. I thought . . . "
"Yeah, well, I've thought it, too," Marian finished for her. "But thinking is as far as it's gone."
The china blue eyes narrowed into the speculative look of the experienced matron. "That's hard to credit, dear heart, when he so obviously cares for you," she said slowly.
"Apparently your great wisdom allows you to see things I can't," Marian shot back. "Now let's decide what to do about you."
End of Chapter One
Home / Story Page / 5th Edition