ONE

I knew Robin Hood, as well as anyone in our makeshift village in the woods. My mother knew him better, I suppose, being older and married to one of the many 'merry' men that followed Robin blindly about the woods. For his part, my father did well, though I hardly saw him but bits and pieces before he melted back into the bark and trees. People said I was nothing like him, but that stands to reason. He was never home and I resented him for it. My mother slaved to keep my brother and I fed while he ran about with Robin Hood and the band of men that outlaw kept wrapped around him. I forgave him in the end, when they brought back our legendary leader on a make shift stretcher.

My brother practically worshiped the man and ran to his side the instant they broke through the trees. He and Marian hovered over him until he disappeared into the small hut that she had set up for the two of them. None of us saw or heard what happened next. Robert, my brother, ran errands in and out of the hut, a favorite among the other boys. My father hovered outside the door with the others. Even Alan did not have a merry song to cheer our hearts.

I remember my mother hurrying me about to keep me busy. I may have hated Robin in my own way for taking my father from me, but he was a legend and the very core of our community. At six years old I remember being terrified that it could all end in a moment should he die.

The day was sunny when Robin Hood died. I was playing in the dirt, drawing pictures and telling stories to the smaller children, haughty in my elevated six years. Father had stumbled home, exhausted with his arm around my brother. He never put his arm around me like that, but I was no son. He would never treat me the same. My mother put her hands to her mouth in a quiet sob. I was the last of our family to learn of his death. My father told me and I just blinked my big grey eyes and crossed myself, muttering a blessing for his soul as I was taught. I went back to my drawings.

The mood was dark for many days and the men bickered over who would take over leadership of the 'Merry Men.' A few put up Arthur a Bland or Will Scarlett. I favored David of Doncaster, but my voice mattered little. A few suggested my father who was the second best archer in all of England next to Robin. He was the logical choice, a few said. I begged my father not to do it.

He didn't. David stepped up, being young and pragmatic. My brother sulked around for days; he'd been hoping that father would get the bid and therefore, he would be able to join. How he thought the men would let a nine year old boy tag along with them I will never guess.

Everything changed that year anyway. A new king. A new leader. I started to hate change.

- - -

"Robert!" I screamed, struggling to keep up with him, my skirts snagging on every tree branch and bush that England's Sherwood Forest had to offer. If I ripped yet another dress I was going to make Robert buy me a new one.

"Keep up, Elena or stop your shouting." Robert called ahead of me, racing through the woods like a mad men. He flew through bushes and swung around branches like he was some woodland nymph. I hated his grace and my clumsiness, holding my skirts in one hand and the pack Robert had left behind in the other.

He finally stopped at the top of a steep hill, panting but quite pleased with himself. When I came up beside him, I swung his pack into his stomach and doubled over. "Next time I won't bring it to you."

His laugh filled the empty woods, joyful and boisterous, just like how he did everything. "Yes, you will. You always do because you are my baby sister and can't help yourself." He beamed down at me. My big brother, a man I respected more than my own father.

"Bring me another lovely rabbit fur, Robby. I only need one more to finish my fur cloak." I looked up at him from my seat on the cool ground. It felt good through the light wool of my dress.

"I promise." Robert ruffled the top of my head, black curls popping loose from the braid I'd hastily twisted. "No flirting with Jonathan while I'm gone." And he leapt from the edge, disappearing with his bow and a quiver full of arrows.

I slowly climbed to my feet, shaking out my dress from the leaves that clung to it. It was tempting to look after where he'd disappeared to and make sure that he hadn't fallen down and broken something, He was too much like him for my tastes but every time I said anything about it, we'd just yell and father would stumble out of his work room and give us a withering glare. While I never backed down at his glare, Robert always did and where was the sport in arguing when the other side won't do it.

Wherever did he get the idea that I flirted with Jonathan Moore anyway? Jonathan was a nice enough man when he could be bothered to speak to anyone. Most people avoided his stern gaze. It would age him before his time, I told him time and time again, but he would just grunt and keep looking stern. His light brown hair was always in his dark eyes and his nose was nearly too long for his face. Nearly. As it was, he was fairly handsome, so said Eva Sprig, my dearest friend.

I found her when I returned to the village in the woods. As a training seamstress, she was helping to stitch the shirt of one of the men who lived in the village and kept us safe. She was giggling at the owner, one George DeCanter. He was fairly new if I remembered correctly. And blonde. She always did flirt with blonde men. Last summer it had been a squire of a passing knight in Loxley.

"Good afternoon, Eva." I greeted her, swinging around George to take an empty stool off to the side where I wouldn't be a bother. Sewing wasn't a skill I possessed with speed or grace. Eva waved to me, drawing George's attention in my direction just briefly before turning back to her story. Minutes later, she handed over the repaired shirt and George ducked out with a blushing bow.

"So, dear Elena, go chasing your brother again?" She put away her sewing needles and thread, dragging me from my feet and out the door. Once outside, she looped her arm with mine, like when we were small girls bouncing around the village.

"He left his pack," I offered as an explanation. She nodded. We both knew my brother could never remember to care for himself.

Eva held up a finger, "One day," she warned, "he will marry and what will you do?"

"Be very grateful and pray for the woman who has to take my job. Heaven help her." I replied merrily, but with a seriousness. I knew that Robert would marry and I would be rendered obsolete. I hated the thought, though I wanted to see him happy. It was always such a contradictory feeling.

Eva eyed me like she knew what I was thinking. "And what will you do when you marry."

"Me?" I hadn't thought of that. It was within reason that I would marry before my brother. Both my father and my brother depended on me to keep them fed, clothed and well prepared for their little trips into the woods. Without me, what would they do?

"Oh, El, let's not think on it. It's a beautiful day." Eva tugged me closer. She always knew when to divert my attentions away from the 'what ifs' in life. "And I know just who will cheer your spirits."

She walked me toward the small smithy Jonathan worked. When I started to drag my feet, she didn't even seem to notice. Instead, she just kept walking with me attached to her side. Eva sidled up to the front of the open aired smithy, silent until Jonathan turned toward us to pound out some red hot piece of metal. "Good day, Jonathan." Her trademark smile all over her heart shaped face.

He looked up only briefly to acknowledge us, sweat around his hair line. "Hello."

"Talkative today," she kept speaking, ignoring the way I fidgeted beside her. My brother's words echoed helplessly in my head. I was not flirting with Jonathan.

Jonathan was silent, pounding away on the piece of metal, crafting it into something beautiful. In a way, I wished we were not condemned to the forest as we were, then he could have a proper smithy working for those fine nobles and Eva could make clothes for queens. We could have none of that though.

"What are we making, Jonathan?" I decided to venture forward a little. I was a few steps forward, eyeing the metal pieces when we heard a loud whoop from the trees. Eva started, knocking into me and I almost tumbled onto the hot metal. Jonathan swept me away before it could sear my skin.

Those walking about the village turned in the direction of the sound as several men, some fully grown, some no more than fifteen slipped out of the forest, beaming. Whatever they had done, they were proud of themselves for it. The late comers stumbled out with a small chest. Eva was beaming along with them, skipping over to congratulate the nearest 'Merry Man.' Inside I rolled my eyes, but outwardly I put on a smile and slipped away from Jonathan.

I fell in beside David of Doncaster, the latest 'Robin Hood,' who dropped an arm around my shoulders. He smelled of the woods. "My dear, little Elena," he tweaked my cheek, "always with that shy smile."

"Dear Robin Hood, always with the breaking the law tricks," I patted his chest and walked out of his grip. Sure, I liked David well enough, but when the men came back from their escapades, I tended to want to hide away somewhere. Later, there would be drinking and songs by old Alan who could still sing. Robert would come back drunk with some girl on his arm, like all the others. Maybe I was an old woman trapped in a young woman's body, but I never partook of it.

He put a hand to his heart, as if I had wounded him. "You always hurt me, dear Elena."

"You always recover," I called over my shoulder, leaving them to their revelry.

A short time later, while I sat in the garden, Robert came running back. He stopped by me, dropping a quick kiss on my cheek and waving a beautiful rabbit in front of me. "I got it." The smile he wore was childish.

I beamed up at him. My new cloak would be finished before the cold. "Thank you, Robby. Oh, the men have returned."

That stopped him. "They went without me?" He looked truly hurt.

I shrugged, "I suppose. I'm sure they're celebrating." My gaze turned back to the garden, pulling up weeds.

I heard him start to go, then come back. He stopped when his booted feet came into the view on the ground. "And you're here?"

"So it seems. You know I dislike these celebrations." I yanked up a particularly stubborn weed and tossed it away.

He was quiet for a long time before I felt arms wrap around my middle and haul me off the ground. "Robby!" He carried me, despite my kicking and pounding on his arms. Once on the path toward the center of the village, he dropped me, but kept a hold of my arm. My brother knew that in public, I would behave, such was my curse. Robert didn't release me until we touched the edge of the celebration.

"For once, Elena," he turned to me, pleading. "just be here." Then he was caught up in it. A dark blonde girl looped her arm with his and dragged him into the laughter and the drinking cluster of people.

I looked at my hands, covered in soil, and swept them on my skirt to clean them. We were a large group by now, keeping ourselves spread out in the woods to keep from drawing the sheriff or the crown's attention. As a group, we only came together for revelries like this one or funerals. Sometimes weddings, but rarely anything else. Partaking in their celebrations meant that I condoned their stealing. I didn't, so I kept away. Until now.

Slowly I made my way around the edges before settling down against a pile of wood used for the central fire. The sun was going down, casting an orange glow over everything. For the revelers, the night was just beginning. I was sitting close enough to listen to Alan, like I used to do as a child. As he voice went on, my head fell back and my eyes closed, enjoying the moment by myself.

Someone slid down beside me, disturbing some of the wood. "Dear Elena, gracing us with your presence?" It was David. He sounded touched with alcohol, but not nearly as bad as most of them. Perhaps he had just begun.

"Robert brought me." I kept my eyes closed, determined to focus on the minstrel's tales. "He was hurt you left without him."

David chuckled, a deep throated sound. "Robert is often hurt. Besides, if he wishes to come he shouldn't disappear right before we leave."

I sat up, eyes snapping open. David was staring off, watching the others with his feet out before him. "Robert was hunting for his family. We have to eat. Not all of us can go dancing off into the woods to steal-"

He held up a hand to stop me. "I didn't mean to upset you. Elena, this is a party. Smile. Dance a little."

My mouth worked a few times to say something back to him, but in the end I decided against it. I sat back, picking at the grass near my hips. David's words stung, though I know he didn't mean them to hurt. So much of my time was spent trying to be the subject that the village around me fought against. I obeyed the laws where they would break them. Never did I stop to think that it would make me an outsider; one who was thought to be so cold.

"I don't dance." I finally told him.

He blew out a breath, then nudged me with his elbow. "Don't or won't?"

I thought for a moment. "I don't know how." It was true. Robert and my father both tried once and gave up. I don't blame them for it. They put in a great effort.

"I don't believe you." David was frank and for a moment, was the David I remembered as a little girl.

How could he not believe me? "Ask Robert." My tone was harsh, sharp even and I hadn't meant it to be.

David waved his arm. "Robert. Robert, my lad, come here." He shouted over the noise. How Robert heard it, I was at a loss, but my brother came stumbling over, the blonde holding him upright. My brother looked at David expectantly. "Your sister claims she cannot dance."

Robert laughed, louder than his usual because of the drink. He would be in a foul mood tomorrow. "I'd believe her, my lord Robin Hood. My toes were bruised for weeks."

My jaw dropped. His tongue was always so loose when he drank that I began to wonder what other things he said about me while I was at home keeping it clean and stocked. "Robert." I jumped up, tripping over the skirts and stumbling into the pair. It took quite an ungraceful moment to straighten ourselves.

There was laughter from David. "I'll take my chances. Help me up," he held out his rough hands to me. With a sigh meant to tell him just how much I'd wish he'd find some other girl, I took his hands and pulled backward. The four of us re-enacted the stumbling just a few moments before.

He led me over to the bonfire where Alan and a few other minstrels had struck up a boisterous tune. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do, or even where my hands were supposed to go. At every unsure look I gave him, David had a smile or a laugh. He placed my hands for me and whisked me into the small mass of drunk and happy people.

Up close, their faces were joyous. Heads were thrown back and their eyes were shining and not just with drink. There was a genuine excitement to each person David led me passed. Without even realizing it, I was joining them. When someone handed a skin to David to drink, I took it from him and drank as well. He gave me a surprised quirk of his brow before pulling me closer into the group.

I don't know how long we danced, but I was breathless, warm and my head was light. We took a break, slipping to the side of the group. David leaned against a cart, talking loudly with one of the other merry men. I laughed with the lady the other man had been dancing with. Sylvia, a woman I didn't see often since she lived closer to the edge of the wood. I was lost to the world my brother loved until a voice cut through the spinning in my head.

"Elena?"

I spun around, losing my balance. Behind me, David caught me, steadying me. "Jonathan?" I never expected to see him in the midst of the celebration.

"Master Moore, a pleasure." David's tone said the opposite.

"I didn't expect to see you here." Jonathan didn't have any of the signs of a drunk man. In fact, he was eyeing me as if I'd somehow lessened in his eyes.

I wasn't sure I appreciated his judgment of me. "I cannot enjoy the spoils of our home?" My hands flew to my hips.

His jaw was tight. "You condemn their actions."

Behind me, David bristled. I put a hand out to still him. "Be that as it may, I shall enjoy myself and you will not bring me down."

Jonathan snorted, a sound I'd never heard him make before. "I can see that, mistress."

"You may not approve, but you will not disrespect Mistress Elena." David's voice was hard and threatening.

"No one is disrespecting me." I was quick to step in, hoping to keep everything friendly. "My lord Robin Hood, I hear a dance I'd like to learn." My hand found his and pulled him toward the fire. He fought back just a little, but followed me away from Jonathan. I could feel Jonathan's eyes on me, but I tried to ignore his judgment.

The night wasn't the same after we spoke to Jonathan. David was tenser and I wasn't laughing anymore. Before long, I slipped away from the group and found my way back home. My father greeted me, but didn't ask any questions or say a word. I fell into his arms, like I used to after mother died. Dragging myself along, I found my blankets and cot in the corner of the room. I didn't bother to under dress, just dove into my blankets and closed my eyes. My head was still spinning.