Little John had been out of camp for nearly a week with no word, and tempers were fast becoming short with worry. Robin and Marian had been bickering all morning, until finally Tuck suggested they channel their energy into sword practice--"less likely to draw blood." Taking their weapons far enough from the camp proper to avoid attracting an audience, they had been at it for nearly an unbroken half hour, neither able to take and hold the upper hand. "You'd best yield before you take ill with the vapors, milady," Robin teased as his lateset thrust was neatly parried. "Methinks you're beginning to glow."
"Glow, Locksley?" Marian retorted. "This lady does not glow, sir. She sweats." She swung her blade toward him in a strong lateral arc, then watched, dismayed, as he sent it spinning from her stinging hands. "Damn!"
"You still don't have the strength in your wrists to follow that one through," Robin said, wisely swallowing any hint of triumph. "Here, try it with the heavier sword."
Biting back an angry retort, she obeyed, taking his sword and holding it out in front of her. "I don't see how this can help, unless you plan to stand there and let me take a free whack at you," she grumbled.
"No thanks," he answered, moving behind her. "Learn the motion with the extra weight, and your own sword will feel that much lighter when you swing it for real."
"I already know the motion," she muttered.
"Actually, you don't," he shot back. "You're coming at your opponent with the flat of the blade, with your wrists turned up, like this." He reached around her to demonstrate. "Then, just before you make contact, you try to snap into a slice, turning your wrists down, like this." He turned her wrists sharply downward. "Little John can get away with that, but you don't have the strength to brace the blade as it turns. That's when your opponent gets you--he catches the arc and glances it away."
"When you got me," she corrected, trying to concentrate on being annoyed and the sword in her hands--anything but Robin's arms around her.
"Exactly," he said. He let her go and took a step back. "Shall we try again?"
"Robin," she began, turning. "I've been meaning to tell you . . . "
"What?" he asked with a smile.
"The other day, when Alisande first got here." Her blue eyes met his brown ones for an embarrassed moment, then swept quickly away. "I know it must have seemed like I was jealous, but--"
"Marian, stop." Some of the humor had faded from his expression. "I liked thinking you were jealous."
"Yes," he admitted. He reached up and barely touched the tendril of hair curling down her cheek. "It made me happy. Don't explain it away."
"But . . . " She watched, hynotized, as he leaned closer, then closer, until his lips barely brushed over her own. "Robin, wait," she said,pushing him gently away.
"Sorry," he muttered, withdrawing.
"No, don't be sorry," she insisted. "Just don't . . . not now." She laid a hand on his cheek and made him face her. "I want to, I promise. But right now, I just can't."
* * * * * *
Southhampton. After midnight.
Little John prided himself on always sleeping with one eye open. So he was shocked to awaken and find a dagger at his throat. "Wha--?"
"Keep still," a man's voice ordered in the dark. "I've had a lifetime's worth of killing, friend, but I think I could stomach one more slit throat if I had to." A sudden flare of torchlight revealed a man with aclose-cropped blond beard and piercing, lake water blue eyes. "Who are you?"
"Who wants to know?" Little John shot back. As if he could be intimidated by this midget, dagger or no dagger.
"Who sent you?" the man demanded, pressing his blade tighter to the woodsman's throat. His shirt was ragged and streaked with brownish stains, as if from rusted armor. "Who is your master?"
"I serve no master but myself and the Lord God above," Little John answered.
"Who sent you to find word of Edward Wakely?"
"His wife, the Lady Alisande."
The man's eyes narrowed. "Liar!"
"Be careful, *friend*," Little John said, imitating the other's noble inflection. "I'll not bear such insults long. Lady Alisande is cousin to my friend, and he asked for my help on her behalf."
"And this lady's cousin," the man asked, relaxing his stance a bit, straightening up. "Has he a name?"
"Robin of Locksley," Little John replied.
"Robin of the Hood," the man mused. He turned to the boy with the torch and sheathed his dagger. "Then the tavern tales are true."
"Not quite all," Little John admitted. "But most, in the main, anyway." He sat up and twisted the kink out of his neck. "So now that you know me, sir . . . "
"Edward," the man smiled. "Edward Wakely."
* * * * * *
Sherwood. The next day.
Robin found his cousin spinning wool into the finest, smoothest thread he'd seen since his mother died. "May I watch?" he asked, dropping to the ground beside her.
"Only if you promise not to help," Alisande retorted.
"Mostly solemnly," Robin agreed with a grin. It was an old joke between them, dating from the days when he and Alisande and Marian had spent long months together at the Locksley manor with only his father's often-distracted supervision. They had each taken an interest in one another's activities far beyond the norm, and Marian had proved far more adept at Robin's lessons in combat than he had at woman's work. "Though you never know, cousin; my spinning might have improved."
"After what I've seen these past few days, I can almost believe it," Alisande admitted. "Marian has become a regular pagan Diana, hasn't she?"
"She's amazing," he agreed. He plucked at the grass at her feet. "Alisande, may I ask you a question?"
His cousin concealed a smile, keeping her head bent over her spindle. "Certainly."
"When you and Ned--when Ned was courting you," he began. "Did you play hard to get?"
"Robin!" she laughed. "Honestly . . . . You were there, were you not?"
"Not every minute," he pointed out. "Besides, that's not really what I meant . . . I meant when the two of you were alone . . ." He let the question die unformed. "Never mind."
"Robin, you must remember what our situation was then," Alisande said gently. "Edward and I were considered to be an excellent match in ways far more practical than mere attraction. He had already received his inheritance and was fast becoming a favorite of the King--"
"And I have nothing," Robin finished. "But Marian doesn't care about that kind of thing--"
"Of course she doesn't, not really, or she couldn't have come here," Alisande agreed. She paused, letting the spindle fall idle in her lap. "But she is still a woman, and a very smart one."
"Of course," Robin agreed, confused.
"She has learned to take care of herself quite well, and she understands your situation, Rob, maybe better than you do. You depend on her, not only to help you defend these people--"
"But to defend herself," he interrupted, beginning to understand.
"And you," Alisande added. "If the two of you were sweethearts, can you honestly tell me you wouldn't change, that the way you depend on her wouldn't change? And if you were married . . . "
"I'd feel even more protective, and very likely let my guard down at the worst possible moment," he admitted. "Do you really think that's why she's keeping me at arm's length?"
"I don't know, Robin; I'm not Marian." She took up her spinning again. "But I do know she cares for you and you for her." She glanced up at him and smiled. "Even a silly girl who can't fight her way out of a rainstorm can see it."
* * * * * *
Marian went out at midnight to take her turn at watch and found Robin waiting for he rinstead of her accustomed partner. "Where's Tuck?" she asked, climbing into the crow's nest and pulling the rope ladder in behind her.
"Sleeping," Robin explained. "We traded shifts. Do you mind?"
"Of course not." She rested her bow against the railing and settled into the seat opposite his.
"About this afternoon," he began. "I just want you to know I think I understand."
"Really?" she asked, wondering if it could be possible, hoping against hope that it was.
"Yes," he promised, reaching for her hand. "And you know, things won't always be this way. Richard will come back, and my father's lands will be mine again, and we can be safe--I'll be able to keep you safe--"
"Robin, what are you talking about?" she demanded, more horrified with every word he spoke.
"I'm talking about us," he answered, taken aback. The look on her face was unmistakeably unthrilled, even in the cloudy moonlight. "Being together when things get back to normal. Alisande said--"
"Alisande? What does Alisande know about it? Did she tell you I wanted to be safe?"
"She told me you cared for me," he said quietly, his jaw clenched tight.
"Oh Robin . . . " If they'd been anywhere else, she would have gotten up to pace, collect her thoughts, let some of this fire inside her burn itself out. But she was trapped . . . "I do care for you, Robin," she promised. "I love you." He started to say something, but she put a gentle hand to his mouth. "Wait . . .let me finish." She stayed leaning close, one hand braced on his leg. "When I came here, I came because I wanted to be with you--I couldn't stand the thought of losing you, no matter what. But once I was here and saw this place . . .Robin, look at me."
"I am looking," he said, pressing a kiss to her wrist.
"Sherwood is probably the only place in the world where I can be everything that I am," she said, willing him to understand. "I'm not Alisande; I never have been, and if she's what you want--"
"Of course she's not what I want," he cut her off. "Marian, I want you, just as you are this moment, just as you'll be in ten years or twenty or a hundred."
"I thought we were happy here," she pressed. "I thought you loved it the way I do, that you liked my fighting beside you--"
"I do like it--I love it," he promised. "But every once in a while…I don't know. Maybe it is Alisande's being here--I just remember what it was like before. I had plans . . . "
"So did I," she admitted. "But plans change, Rob."
"No kidding," he muttered. "So what are you saying, Marian? That you don't believe in marriage any more or love . . . . ?" His voice trailed helplessly away.
"I'm not saying that at all," she promised, thinking he had never seemed more beautiful to her than he did now when she had made him so unhappy and confused. What sort of gentle lady could think that? "But I see now that my life can be more than that, that I can be more, and I have to try."
Robin started to answer, then stopped, swinging his attention toward the forest. "Do you hear that?" he asked softly.
Marian listened, too. "Riders," she agreed in a whisper. "Two . . . no, three, I think. Shall I sound the alarm?"
He picked up his bow and notched an arrow toward the shadowed path. "Absolutely."
* * * * * *
"You see, sir knight?" Little John laughed as torches flared on every side. "Did I not promise you a hero's welcome?"
"Little John!" Robin swung down from the lookout as soon as he heard his friend's voice. "Have you lost your mind?" The second rider was a young boy, the third a blond man somewhat older than Robin himself, wearing a ragged jerkin with the faded emblem of Lionheart. "Ned?"
Alisande flashed past both Robin and Marian like a streak of golden lightening, nearly tumbling her husband to the ground in her eagerness to fly to his arms. "You're alive," she wept, clinging to him hard. "Or am I dreaming?"
"This is no dream," Ned promised, kissing her cheek, her chin, her eyelids. "I could never even dream of such a place."
"Sorry about the midnight raid, Rob," Little John grinned. "I tried to tell him we'd be raising a general alarm, but as soon as he heard his wife was here, he insisted we push on through. I don't think he trusts you with her."
"Yes, I'm certain that was it," Marian retorted, joining them. She watched, smiling, as Ned swept his wife up in a kiss that lifted her feet from the ground.
"Poor souls," Robin sighed. "They actually believe they're happy."
"They are happy," Marian answered. She turned her smile on him.
"And you're right, Robin . . . things won't always be the same as they
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