USA Today bestselling author Jean Rabe has penned about a hundred short stories and thirty-seven novels. When she isn’t writing, she tosses tennis balls to her assortment of dogs, visits museums, slays goblins and trolls in her basement, and works on her ever-growing stack of to-be-read books. She lives in an itty bitty town in central Illinois, surrounded by train tracks and cornfields. She is currently working on a romantic mystery set in Italy. Jean is a member of LadyKillers and Sisters in Crime, and this is her first appearance in Heart’s Kiss. Visit her at: jeanrabe.com.
by Jean Rabe
The green of the meadow was so bright it hurt Marian’s eyes. So she tipped her head up and focused on the tops of the trees that marked the beginning of the blessed forest she ran toward.
Damn the dress, she thought, nearly catching her legs in it as she tried to increase her pace. At least she’d loosened the corset a few minutes past, else she’d not been able to manage anything more strenuous than a Maltese Bransle in this fluffery. Her shoes were little more than fancy slippers, the soles so thin she felt every clump of dirt bite at the bottoms of her feet. She slammed her teeth together when a rock—as sharp as an arrowhead she swore—jabbed into her heel.
Faster, she demanded. Don’t let him catch me….
She heard voices calling to the man who chased her—encouraging and taunting him.
Faster! Almost there!
She held her right arm against her side, as if that gesture might lessen the ache that had started there, and she sucked in one great gulp of hot summer air after another. The scent of Sherwood was so strong she could taste it. She lowered her gaze, seeing now only patches of the hurtful bright grass between the shadow lances of the massive trunks and the smeared colors of wildflowers.
The tall hardwoods seemed to stretch toward her, their branches like crooked fingers beckoning her to escape into their ancient embrace.
Then she was beyond the meadow and into the woods. The light was softer here, the canopy high and thick and keeping the sun at bay, the air noticeably cooler. Still she ran, though not quite as swift now because of the closeness of the trunks. Her braids slapped against her back.
In spurts she darted between oaks and chestnuts. She leapt a stump and slipped on a patch of slick ground; it had rained hours ago, and this fiery July day had not yet chased all the moisture away from the woods. Her arms flailed as she pitched forward, and her hands caught at a low-hanging branch. She dropped to her knees, and she heard her overskirt rip, snagged on something she didn’t take time to look for. She gave the material a vicious yank as she regained her feet and plowed ahead.
Marian heard him, her pursuer; he’d reached Sherwood, too, and was thrashing through the underbrush, sounding clumsy in his haste.
Don’t let him catch me….
She darted headfirst through wide-spreading ferns and bushes. Twigs and thorny vines clawed at her, but she pushed them away and thrust the pain to the back of her mind as she continued her maddened dash. The snort of a startled wild pig cut through the clearing ahead, followed by the flutter of wings from ground-nesting partridges.
The thrashing behind her grew louder.
She closed her eyes for just an instant, seeing flashing motes against the black. Then she opened them and with more determination grabbed up her skirts and picked up her knees as she charged across the clearing and to the cluster of birches on the other side. He might know these woods better than she, but she spied something familiar up ahead, a tall limbless ash bright white with death. She raced toward it.
Not much farther, she told herself. Don’t let him win this time. He can’t win. Not again.
The greens of Sherwood blurred around her, like an artist’s watercolor left in the rain. She felt lightheaded from the exertion, yet at the same time she felt invigorated and was lifted by the prospect of success. Marian ignored the constant jabs of twigs and rocks against her thin soles, the scrapes of branches, the ache in her side—much worse now, and the burning that centered in her chest.
She focused on victory.
And victory was hers as she barreled into the Merry Men’s camp and thudded to a stop.
“I won,” she gasped. She bent over, hands on her knees, sucking in air that smelled of the forest and of men and of extinguished cook fires. Then she straightened and thrust her chin out proudly. “This day is mine, Robin. I won.”
“Maid Marian!” The voice was clear and strong that came from behind her. “Well done, my love! This race indeed is yours.”
She glanced over her shoulder to see the outlaw leader grinning at her, his eyes sparkling with mischief.
Marian spun and faced him. “You let me win, didn’t you, Robin?” She noted that despite the summer heat and the distance of their run, he wasn’t winded. He’d clearly not put as much effort into this race as she had.
“Let you?” He raised an eyebrow. Then in two long strides he was on her, hands wrapping around her small waist and lifting her above his head, twirling both of them so that the shades of the forest and of the clothes of he and his Merry Men—who’d just now joined them—became a swirl of green that made her dizzy.
Robin brought her down and held her close, nuzzling his face into her neck and giving her a gentle kiss.
Marian practically gagged.
Robin stunk of sweat, of going too many days—perhaps weeks—without a bath. The scent of greasy venison clung to a tunic and leggings he hadn’t changed out of for God-knew-how-long. The oily pong of his tangled hair hung in her nostrils and threatened to bring up the meager breakfast she’d enjoyed a few hours ago. The bits of food that had dried in his beard scratched against her cheek.
“Aye, Maid Marian, I must confess that I let you win this race,” he said finally. “But only because you’d already won my heart.” He shifted and brought his lips against hers, and she sagged against him because the odor of his breath was so foul it nearly made her pass out.
After a moment, she found the strength to push him an arm’s distance away. He gave her a lopsided look and gestured to the center of the camp where the Merry Men had drifted.
A Norman noblewoman, daughter of the late Lord Fitzwalter, Marian wondered how she had allowed herself to fall so hopelessly in love with this filthy, striking rogue. Handsome, Robin was that and more, even in his disheveled state. So handsome she never tired of staring at his face.
“A rest shall we take, Maid Marian?” He extended his arm the way a gentleman would at court, and she lightly placed her hand on it. He guided her to a blanket that Friar Tuck had laid out for them and flopped down on it. He looked up at her and smiled broader. “You need to rest after that race.”
“A rest, yes, Dear Robin, gladly. But first I must change out of this ruined dress and these shredded shoes. I was a fool to suggest such a romp wearing this.” She crossed the camp to a small thatch hut that practically blended into the foliage. It was one of a half-dozen one-room homes that the Merry Men had constructed and slept in during inclement weather. She had a few changes of more practical clothes there, along with some other personal possessions, and a large jug of water and a cake of perfumed soap that she was quick to wash with.
“Do not be too long, my love!” he called. “I’ve the prospect of wealth to share.”
“Aye, Dear Robin, I’ll not tarry,” she cheerily returned.
Marian had met Robin Hood a little more than a year ago, when he entered an archery competition in Nottinghamshire. It was those flashing brown eyes that had first caught her attention, large and inviting and oh-so-easy to lose herself in. She couldn’t remember how long she’d gazed into those eyes that first day, though she knew it was much longer than proper. When she had finally forced herself to look away, she took in the rest of the man. His face was all angles and planes, as if sculpted by an artist, his skin tanned and smooth and soft against her fingertips. His curly russet locks shone warmly in the sun; the slight breeze teased the strands over his forehead, while his rakish wink tugged at her heart.
She’d never seen a more perfect-looking man.
Of course, Robin had bathed before the event, and had washed his green tunic and leggings, and perhaps had found a place to press them, as not a wrinkle could be seen. He had smelled of sweet musk, she recalled, and his teeth glistened like wet pearls. And when he drew her close and kissed her that first time after she presented him the trophy, his breath tasted of honeyed mead and wholly intoxicated her.
That night when he scaled the castle wall and precariously perched outside her window, he kissed her again and wooed her with poetry. A few days later she went riding and ‘accidentally’ found herself in Sherwood. Now she practically lived there, appearing just often enough in court to satisfy the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, her legal guardian.
Despite all of Robin’s odious faults, Marian dearly loved him. And despite the insects and the night-hooting owls, the naps on hard ground and the hunting and foraging for her own sustenance, she adored this massive, beautiful, seemingly endless forest.
Changed into a tunic, leggings, and knee-high boots, she emerged looking every bit like one of the Merry Men. Marian joined Robin on the blanket and stuffed her hair under a hat he offered. A bowl of fruit had been placed near them—filled with cherries and blueberries, raspberries and early peaches. Robin bit into a peach and let the juice run down his lips and mingle with an assortment of crumbs that had collected in his beard.
Tuck was a few yards away, sitting on a felled log and stuffing his fleshy face with bread that must have come from one of the nearby villages. Marian was fond of the friar. Though far from refined, and terribly overweight, lecherous, and an alcoholic, Tuck bathed more often than the rest of them. Too, he was the most devout of the lot—generous, courteous, and deceptively dangerous with a sword.
Tuck had told her once that he hailed from Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, that his given name was Michael, and that until five years ago he was the Sheriff of Nottinghamshire’s chaplain—that was just before she came to live in the castle. Then he’d fallen in with Robin Hood, and he began preaching to the outlaws of Sherwood instead. He promised to preside over the upcoming wedding of she and Robin—an event Marian looked forward to with an equal measure of delight and foreboding.
Robin had proposed to Marian that first night—when he’d climbed the castle wall and clung outside her window. She’d thought he was teasing her then, but he asked her again a week later, and a week after that; he’d not yet begun to reek. Marian accepted on the third occasion, giddy with the prospect of marrying the most dashing, muscular man she’d ever seen—the man whose name was on the lips of everyone in Nottinghamshire and beyond. Robin was the most famous and infamous man in practically all of England.
He was even royalty, in a fashion, her Robin Hood—Robin of Locksley, the Earl of Huntington. So she had assuredly selected a mate that would place her in the history books on multiple counts…if she could stomach this continued closeness.
She did love him, didn’t she?
To buy her time to make that decision she had argued that they should wait to wed until the outlaws were pardoned and Richard the Lionheart had returned from the Crusades and could bless the union. Then she could have an elaborate wedding in the castle, in a dress decorated with yards and yards of lace and precious seed pearls. Perhaps she could get Robin to bathe and shave before the ceremony, and put on something…cleaner.
Robin had agreed to wait, and hence she was still Maid Marian, rather than Lady. Merry Maid, he affectionately called her.
Robin interrupted her thoughts. “Marian, I’ve learned that taxes are being collected in Eaton in three days.” He finished his peach and reached for another.
“And we shall collect from the tax collectors!” This came from the peddler Gamble Gold, cousin to Little John and one of the several tradesmen who were part of the Merry Men.
“Aye, collect in full!” echoed George Green, the pinder of Wakefield in Yorkshire. Marian remembered his voice as being the loudest in urging Robin to catch her during their race.
Arthur Bland nodded in agreement. He sat on the ground next to Green, staring into a mug of what she suspected was ale. Bland shared Tuck’s love of spirits.
“Eaton’s a poor place, for the most part,” Gamble Gold said, “but it’s been a while since the taxman’s been there. They’ll have some coin saved up.”
“Coin and sheep and fine, wool blankets. Eaton has weavers,” Tuck added.
“I could do with a new blanket,” Robin mused.
“A thick one for me,” George Green said. “I don’t take the cold well, and that’ll set in come a few months.”
“Eaton won’t be the only place the taxman’ll be stopping.” Bland finally said something. “Should be some heavy purses ripe for plucking from him, eh Robin?”
More Merry Men filtered into the clearing, drawn by the talk of gold and goods. Most all of them were yeomen, carrying swords rather than a peasant’s quarterstaff. Some said Robin’s band numbered a hundred, but Marian knew it to be half that. She also knew that Robin wanted to increase his force so they could cover more roads coming into Nottinghamshire.
“Marian, greetings!” called Much, the Miller’s son. With him was Little John, who towered over all of them; David of Doncaster; Gilbert, who for a reason Marian had never deduced was called Gilbert with the White Hand, and who was nearly as good as she and Robin with a bow; Wat O’ the Crabstaff; Will Stutly; and Will Scathlock, or Will Scarlet as he preferred to be called. The latter Will rivaled Robin for looks, Marian judged, perhaps even surpassed him. But Will Scarlet didn’t seem to favor women, neither was he at all fastidious, and so Marian’s eyes had not strayed.
Robin continued to talk about the tax collector’s route, which would take the reviled man through Milton, West Drayton, and Gamston, before reaching Eaton. Marian stretched a delicate hand forward and plucked several ripe blueberries from the bowl, eating them whole, careful not to stain her lips or fingers.
Robin started talking tactics.
Robin and the Merry Men were said to “rob from the rich and give to the poor,” but that wasn’t precisely true. He was known to waylay poor men, such as tinkers, as easily as he’d go after men known to have good coin. No matter his mark, he planned each attack meticulously and cleverly.
Marian interrupted him. “That’s three days from now, the taxman.” She rubbed at a spot of dirt on her leggings. “I know of something happening tomorrow, a good distance north of Sherwood. Something better.”
Friar Tuck’s eyes widened, and he thumped one fist on his knee and raised the hunk of bread high with his other hand. “Something without as many guards as the taxman will have?” Tuck was always worried about the guards.
“Coming south from Barnsdale and Pontefract, this something is,” Marian tempted. “Coming from the large abbey in Yorkshire.”
Tuck’s eyes widened further.
“Tell us more, fair maid,” Robin leaned against her and brushed her with his lips, getting peach nectar on her cheek. “If this ‘something’ is tomorrow, we can strike it and then the taxman two days later. Richer, we shall all be.” Robin’s expression grew dark. “It has been some time since we’ve had a significant haul.”
She reached for another handful of blueberries and popped them in her mouth, chewing slowly and noting that all eyes were on her, waiting. The blueberries were sweet, and their taste helped cut the stench of her beloved. Oh, if only he would give in to her request that he occasionally take a dip in one of Sherwood’s many ponds, she thought.
“I mentioned the abbey,” she said finally. “For decades gold crosses and goblets, jewels and more, have been in storage in the cellar. Not enough room in the chapel proper to put them all on display, I guess.”
Tuck sat down his loaf of bread and leaned forward. The friar was well aware of the large abbey’s resources.
“When I was in court yesterday, putting in an appearance to satisfy the sheriff, I accidentally overheard that the abbot had ordered some of those trinkets brought to the castle in Nottingham, an offering of sorts to help fund the Crusades.”
“They’ll be funding the sheriff’s next endeavor instead, I reckon,” Little John said. “That despot cares not a wit about the Crusades. He’ll see that only a smidgen reaches King Richard, if that much, and he’ll take the best of the gold for himself.”
“The best gold should be for us,” Robin whispered.
“The sheriff cares only about persecuting the poor and demanding more taxes.” Will Scarlet’s voice was rich and melodic, and Marian liked listening to it. “Guy of Gisbourne will get his share of the abbey’s gold, too, I’m certain.” Scarlet spat at the notion of Gisbourne, who had sent another outlaw, Richard the Divine, to hunt the Merry Men two months past.
Scarlet and Robin had killed Divine—with the aid of Marian, who dispatched Divine’s lackeys with her precise bow shots.
“What about guards?” Tuck persisted. “Marian, did you hear anything about guards?”
“None from what I gathered,” Marian said. “Guards draw attention, good friar, I heard the sheriff say. A lone carriage carrying a priest or two does not.”
Robin kissed Marian again and rose, dropping what was left of his peach and setting his sticky hands against his hips.
“Gisbourne and the sheriff will get none of that abbey’s riches,” Robin proclaimed. “Neither will King Richard get a whiff of it. He has enough for his Crusades.”
Marian wrinkled her nose at the word ‘whiff’ and stared at Robin’s leggings, smudged with dirt and stained with grass and grease from the game Tuck had cooked for them. Robin had a bad habit of wiping his hands on his clothes. She looked to the bowl of fruit, studying the play of light across the berries.
“Once more, our Merry Maid has found a worthy target for us,” Robin continued. “Once more Marian has used her presence in the castle to our advantage.”
“And this time we shall give some of the gold away, aye?” This from Tuck. “This time we share some of it with those less fortunate and not bury it in the heart of Sherwood for ourselves. Rob from the rich to give to the poor, as some local folk think we do.”
Robin’s growing legend claimed that he was a champion of the people and fought against corrupt officials and stood up for the common man. But in truth, Marian knew he was instead self-indulgent, and that the gains from their raids padded his own treasury. Occasionally, he would help peasants. But when he did it was to improve his image and to drum up a few more Merry Men from the villages where he sprinkled the coins.
That was the trouble with heroes, Marian thought, they’re only heroic when it suits them. And it didn’t suit Robin Hood often.
“Aye, Tuck, if this haul is as good as Maid Marian hints,” Robin said, “we’ll help the fine folk of Markham Moor with some of it. Fire took a handful of their homes two weeks past. A sack or two of gold should more than set things right.” So softly only Marian could hear, he added: “And gain me some needed accolades in that part of the shire where my favor is waning.”
Marian stood and stretched. “I’ll get my bow and sword, Robin. We should leave soon.”
“Aye, Merry Maid,” he returned. “We’ve some miles to go before we can entrench ourselves for a proper ambush for the abbey carriage.”
She lay on her belly on one side of the road, face pressed against the sweet earth, and her senses filled with the fragrance of grass and stonecrop and newly-bloomed motherwort. Tuck was beside her, concealed only because he lay in a depression that swallowed his belly. Robin and Little John were on the opposite side, and a dozen Merry Men were perched in the trees, their green clothing helping to hide them amid the leaves.
Marian felt alive.
She relished these escapades, delighting in the danger and the dangling promise of ill-gotten wealth. No courtly dance, no matter how spirited, could set her heart to racing so. She could hear it pound now in her ears, practically in time with the beat of the approaching horses’ hooves.
“Here comes the abbot’s gold,” she whispered to Tuck. “Delivered like a roasted goose on a platter.”
“Just as you promised, Merry Maid,” Tuck returned. He snaked his arm down to his side, his doughy fingers closing on the pommel of his sword.
The outlaws waited until the lead horse was in sight of Much on the highest limb, then on a signal from him, Robin, she, Tuck, and Little John dashed to the center of the narrow road. Marian drew her sword and pointed it forward. The sunlight made her Spanish-forged blade gleam.
Robin was in front, hands on his hips, head thrown back, and voice booming.
“Halt now, men of the abbey! Share your gold with the men of Sherwood!”
The carriage driver pulled hard the reins, and the lead horse reared back, hooves flailing a mere yard from Robin’s head. The outlaw didn’t flinch. Instead, he doffed his feathered hat and bowed, just as the carriage stopped. He stepped to the side and replaced his hat, and waved his hand as a signal to his archers. A dozen arrows thudded into the ground in a perfect crescent around the lead horse, causing it to rear again.
“Out, out of the carriage, my good sirs!” Robin impatiently tapped his foot.
Marian loved it when Robin became theatric. No man was more charismatic than he, she believed, more arrogant and playful, so risk-taking and sure of himself. Robin was at his best when he was after gold. And at this distance and with the wind in her favor, Marian couldn’t smell him.
But she could see the dark sweat stains beneath his arms and the sheen on his face, the back of his hands streaked with dirt.
Perhaps it would rain soon, she thought, the clouds to the south were swollen thick and tinged with gray. A good downpour would clean him up a little—clean up all the Merry Men for that matter and chase away some of this summer heat.
The carriage door creaked open, and soft leather boots in pale gray leggings extended beneath it. A moment more and the rest of the man came out. He wasn’t the abbot, Marian had seen Abbot Carswell on more than one occasion. But he was one of the abbot’s favored priests. Thin and pasty faced—a scholar’s complexion, she corrected herself—Father Dorsay adjusted his robe so that it fell down in neat folds to his ankles. He puffed himself up, as much as his frame allowed, squared his shoulders, and met Robin Hood’s gaze. Marian detected the faintest quiver in the priest’s lower lip.
“I say, priest, hand over your treasures to Robin Hood and his Merry Men!” Robin continued his theatrics. “Else I will order another volley of arrows, and this time they’ll strike more than the road.”
Dorsay opened his mouth as if to say something, but his words were cut off by the thundering of more hooves. Four horses charged from the north, their riders in chain mail and wearing Abbott Carswell’s colors, an escort that had kept a distance.
“Look lively!” Robin called. “We’ve company.” On another signal, more arrows ‘thwupped’ down from the trees; one struck the carriage driver, who’d been going for his sword.
Marian dashed forward, meeting the armored man who had emerged from the other side of the carriage. “I’d not expected this, Robin! There was no talk of guards. This one, yes, I’d expect, but the others—”
She was at the same time frightened and thrilled. Marian loved a good fight. “Try not to kill them!” she hollered so loud the Merry Men in the trees could hear her. “They’re Carswell’s. They’re men of God!”
She brought up her sword to parry the blow of her armored foe. Through the open doors of the carriage, she spied Robin grabbing Dorsay on the other side. Then she had to concentrate on her opponent, as he brought down his sword again and again, caring not that she was a woman, and treating her as he would any of Robin’s men. He was a practiced swordsman, and his blows were with great force, taking all of her strength to deflect them.
“You don’t want to fight me,” Marian hissed. “I’m better than you, second only to Robin Hood. Keep your life and drop your sword.”
“Thief,” he cut back. “Brigand! She-devil.”
“Aye.” She couldn’t help but smile. “I am happily all of that.” She went on the offensive now, sweeping her blade behind her and bringing it around with all her force to meet his broadsword. His was the heavier sword. It was difficult to maneuver so close to the carriage, and so Marian stepped back, the armored man following as she again parried his swing.
“We told Abbot Carswell to expect trouble,” the man said. “That Robin’s men might learn of this somehow.”
“No man learned of it,” she countered. “But you were right to worry about Robin Hood.” Away from the carriage she could sweep her blade in a wider arc. She dropped in a crouch when next he darted in, feeling the air stir above her head from the strength of his swing. Then she jumped up and turned her blade so the flat of it struck his side. She registered the surprise on his face.
“That could’ve killed you,” she said. “Drop your sword now.”
Instead, the man gritted his teeth and lunged. Marian sidestepped him and this time came around behind him. Then she kicked him hard in the rear, sending him off balance and flying forward. She pursued him, again ducking behind him as he awkwardly turned, sword leading.
He wasn’t a challenging opponent, and so Marian listened to the fight around her. She registered the ‘thwup’ and ‘thwunk’ of arrows being shot and landing in the ground and in the wood of the carriage; she was grateful the Merry Men were not trying to kill Carswell’s small force, though she knew the carriage driver was lost. She heard the frightened whinnies of the horses, Robin hollering. She couldn’t make out his words at first, as there was a sudden clanging of swords, someone shouting: “death to the forest brigands!’ and the angry curses of the man facing her. She effortlessly parried his swing this time.
“I truly do not want to kill you,” she said. “But if it’s my life or yours, I’ll be the one to keep breathing.”
Marian thought she heard him call her “bitch” and something else less complimentary. He raised his blade above his head, meaning to bring it down on her in a death-stroke.
“Fool,” she whispered. Then she surged forward, her sword arm driving with all the strength she could summon and forcing the tip of the blade through his tabard and the links of the chain shirt beneath it. She registered the look of surprise on his face and saw blood trickle from his mouth as he dropped his sword and she raised her foot, planting her boot in his stomach and pushing him back and off her sword.
She heard Robin clearly now, as the fighting was dying down. A heartbeat later he repeated the command, and the clanging of steel and ‘thwupping’ of arrows stopped. Wiping her sword on the dead man’s tabard, she sheathed the blade and came around the front of the carriage to see Robin holding his own sword against the priest’s throat.
One other of Carswell’s men lay dead, his head bashed in by Little John. Another had been wounded by Tuck. The two remaining held their hands at their sides, and Much, who’d come down from the tree without Marian noticing, was collecting their swords.
“I shall kill him,” Robin warned the men, “I’m not above slaying a man of God.” Marian came to Robin’s side, seeing his eyes narrow and knowing he wasn’t bluffing.
“Hands higher!” Marian said. “Now.” Then she went from one man to the next, removing knives from sheaths on their belts, and checking their boots for more blades. Tuck joined her, his sword out protectively.
When she was satisfied all the weapons were collected, she searched them for coin purses; Much searched the dead men. “They carry considerable coin for men of God,” she said.
“Carried,” Robin corrected. “It’s ours now.”
Marian looked to him, just in time to see him push the priest away. Father Dorsay fell to his knees, crossed himself, and began praying.
“Ours along with whatever treasures they were taking from the abbey to Nottingham.” He gestured to Little John and Marian. “Watch this pair and the priest.” Though the men were disarmed, Robin was still wary; being careful was how he’d managed to live this long, Marian knew.
Then Robin turned his attention to the coach, rummaging beneath the seats inside and pulling out two chests and a leather sack. Not bothering to open them, he returned to his search, slicing open side panels and cushions and retrieving two more pouches.
“There’s a box on top,” Marian told him. “Beneath the carriage driver’s seat.”
Robin was quick to retrieve it, then searched the carriage once more to make certain they’d found everything. A waggle of his fingers and Much and a half-dozen more Merry Men came to his side.
“We’ll take the carriage and horses,” Robin told them, “just for a bit, to carry our gains back to camp.”
“And then—” Much looked to the carriage. Red and yellow, Abbot Carswell’s colors, it was too bright for the forest.
Softly, Robin answered: “We’ll break up the carriage for firewood, and give the horses to the farmers in Eaton.”
Much was pleased with the latter bit of charity and ordered the booty returned to the carriage for transport back to Sherwood. He gathered the reins of the four loose horses and tied them to the back of the carriage, and then he tossed the men’s coin purses inside.
“Your boots,” Robin told the men. “You, too, priest. All of you, take off your boots.”
The men protested only slightly, and Much threw their boots inside the carriage. “So you won’t be walking anywhere too quickly,” Much explained. “And those chain shirts, they’re worth good coin.”
The men grudgingly doffed their armor.
“Time to leave,” Robin announced. He extended a hand to Marian and helped her into the carriage, Tuck following and causing the wooden step to creak in protest. “Thank you for contributing to the welfare of the men of Sherwood,” he directed to the still-kneeling priest, again doffing his hat and bowing. Then he sprung onto the carriage seat and grabbed the reins in a single motion.
The Merry Men seemed to melt into the greenery surrounding the road, and Robin drove the carriage, the horses kicking up dust and clods of dirt as they thundered toward Sherwood.
They waited until they were well into the forest before stopping to look into the chests and sacks. Robin never examined his prizes in front of his victims—a quirk Marian found odd, but endearing. She was the sort who wanted to know at-this-moment what the prize was. As a child, she never could wait until the morning of her birthday to open her packages; she would always search through the manor, days in advance, when her parents were occupied.
The chests were filled with cold coins, jeweled crosses, and gem-encrusted goblets, some baring the marks of long-dead abbots. The sacks contained old coins and prayer beads made of pearls and precious stones.
“Impressive,” Robin pronounced. “I’ll take that chest there.” He pointed to a polished mahogany chest inlaid in silver with the crest of Abbot Carswell. It was the smallest of the three, but it contained the most gems. “The rest…Little John, see that it’s divided among the Merry Men.”
Tuck cleared his throat.
“Oh, yes, the villagers of Markham Moor.” Robin pointed to the pouches taken from the men and the priest. “See that a few of those are given to the people who lost their homes in the fire. And see if they’re any young men there who want to join our band.”
Tuck sighed, nodded, and scooped up the coin pouches.
Marian scowled and opened her mouth to protest the meager amount, but changed her mind. She knew the villagers would be grateful, and that it wouldn’t be a small amount of coins as far as they were concerned. But Robin could have contributed so much more.
Marian looked up. Robin had been talking to her, but she’d not been paying attention. “Sorry. What?”
“I said perhaps we should not wait for that pardon. Perhaps you and I should wed with the coming of August.”
Marian sucked in a surprised breath. “But Robin—”
“That fine dress you talked about, with all the pearls and lace…one small bauble from this haul would buy you that and more. The good Friar Tuck has already agreed to perform the ceremony.”
Marian felt lightheaded and fought for air. It was as if she’d run yesterday’s race all over again. “I need to think, Robin.”
He flashed an amazing smile at her, and his eyes sparkled so warmly she worried she would drown in them. So handsome, her Robin, and so famous and infamous, royalty of sorts. She did love him, didn’t she?
“Think about it, Merry Maid, on the way back to our camp.”
“Aye, Robin. I will marry you with the coming of August,” she said as the familiar dead white ash came into view. After all, she told herself, he was the most striking man in all of Notinghamshire. He would put her in the history books.
Marian had never looked more beautiful. Her dress was ivory, silk imported from the east and acquired one week past when the Merry Men absconded with a large merchant wagon. It was sewn by the women of Markham Moor, in exchange for the coins Robin had bestowed upon the village. It was decorated with pearls from one of the strings of prayer beads taken from the abbot’s treasure, and with lace that had been stolen personally by Robin from a shop in Nottingham.
Robin looked more dashing than usual. He’d bathed before donning a new tunic and leggings that Marian knew had also been stolen. And he’d shaved.
He sat with her at the edge of a pond, well south of the Merry Men’s camp. They watched the setting sun tinge the surface of the water a molten gold.
“Wife,” he said. “I like the sound of that.”
She gave him a coy smile and drew in a deep breath. He smelled of something sweet and musky, and when he leaned close and kissed her, she tasted the heady flavor of mulled cider.
“I like the sound of that, too,” she admitted.
“My Merry Maid…I won’t be able to call you that after this evening.” His voice was easy on the ear, and the words came slow. “Lady Marian, you shall be.” He kissed her again, and when he finally pulled away he noticed the sad look on her face. “Marian, I—”
“Merry Maid,” she said, as she pulled him close again, the fingers of one hand tugging at the top of his tunic, the fingers of the other clenched firmly around a fist-sized rock. She hit him once, hard, on the back of his head. He tried to pull away, but was too stunned. She hit him again—not on his face that was all angles and planes and peaceful-looking now, and he slumped against her. And when she pushed him away, she struck him three more times, again on the back of the head…just to be certain he was dead.
Then she rose and turned away to stare at the water, shimmering like the coins and jewelry in Robin’s hidden treasury—which he had shown her minutes past. Tears filled her eyes, but she wiped them away with her lacy sleeve.
“You looked so fine for our wedding,” she said. “But it wouldn’t have lasted, the smell of soap.”
Marian knew it would have been a long time before he might chance to bathe again, perhaps even longer before he would have washed his new tunic and leggings. He would have reeked again soon, of sweat and venison grease and the blood of men he would kill.
Better that her last memories of him be of his clean, handsome self, she thought.
Had he kept living and leading the Merry Men, Marian was certain he would have kept yet more gold for himself—from all those future capers, giving only a little to the poor, to help his reputation and make the common folk think him a hero.
“I’m sorry, Robin. I really had no choice.”
She vowed that she would give more to the people, much more—while still tucking enough away for herself and the rest of the Merry Men.
She had loved him, hadn’t she?
Friar Tuck would be here soon, to help her bury Robin beneath that death-white ash. He’d earlier helped her concoct a fine tale that she would tearfully relate to Little John and all the rest. It was an accident, Robin’s death, they’d decided. He fell and hit his head on the rim of rocks by the pond.
Then after a short, suitable period of mourning she would set herself up as their leader, rightful successor to Robin Hood’s band.
Merry Maid and her Merry Men.
She liked the sound of that. It would give her a more prominent place in those history books, and a chance to be a better hero than Robin was.
She really had loved him.
Copyright © 2009 by Jean Rabe.
Heart's Kiss Magazine
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor LLC. All Rights Reserved.