Chapter 3: Polite and Impolite Conversations
Words: 3,488

Slowly, the summer months continued onward. Marian lived under Edward's close eye; now that Robin had returned it seemed that her freedom had much decreased. Her husband now took to inquiring about her daily activities not only to her, but also by asking the servants. It was to his own disadvantage, however, since most of Edwinstowe's staff had known Marian her entire life. Edward had brought none of his own servants, and could find little loyalty among Marian's people. This provided for secrets.

Every once in a great while, when all seemed safe, she and Robin would meet. She told herself repeatedly that it wasn't an affair. Mere conversations didn't make her an adulteress. That they usually were alone together wasn't a crime against anyone except propriety. She found that she didn't care. For part of those rare days, she could feel happy, and she treasured that.

From his second visit, Marian realized that he knew about Edward's abusive nature; the way he treated her was softer somehow. He didn't make mention of it, and she thought that perhaps he wished to spare her needing to speak of it. She was grateful to him; speaking about it wouldn't save her. What saved her were peaceful conversations and laughter and the ability to spend time with someone she could trust.

Meanwhile, Robin had become comfortable in Locksley. He settled into the routine of caring for the tenants, collecting the rents, and seeing to its overall upkeep. Will visited often, sometimes challenging Robin to join him at the archery buttresses where his uncle would neatly defeat him. For a time, the earl pressured his newly returned son to take a wife, but Robin continued to politely inform his father that he didn't feel it was the right time. After a time, the earl set his mouth into a firm line and stopped discussing it altogether.

It was in the heat of August, with harvest time fast approaching, that Robin received a summons to Nottingham Castle from the sheriff. It wasn't often that such a thing occurred, but it was likely about the upcoming taxes which, after being absent for as long as he had, were likely changed.

Nottingham Castle was fortress built from stone on top of an old cliff face, which most people rightly called Castle Rock. It was imposing structure which issued a challenge to anyone who wished to do the town or the castle occupants' harm. As Robin rode under the portcullis into the castle's lower bailey, a stable boy hurried across the cobblestone to offer his services. It was clear that the high sheriff ran his household with a firm hand; not a single person didn't seem to have a task at hand.

High Sheriff William de Wendenal was not a man Robin particularly liked, and he regarded him in much the same way that he thought of his son, Edward. Unfortunately, de Wendenal had found himself in King Richard's favor before the Lionheart had departed for the Holy Land, and had been appointed among the most powerful officials in England in his absence. The rumor was that de Wendenal's ancestors were the reason for his favor; he was a descendant of one of the original Norman nobles who had sailed to England with William the Conqueror. He was Norman to his core, and Robin had never found himself much attracted to any of the Norman lords, and held his own Saxon heritage as a matter of pride.

A man in the sheriff's livery approached him. "Are you Robert of Locksley?" After receiving affirmation, the man continued. "My lord high sheriff and his son await you in the Great Hall. Shall I escort you?"

"No need. It's by no means a difficult place to find." Indeed, there was hardly any need for guidance. The Great Hall was a large building situated in the center of the middle bailey. In it, the sheriff received most of his guests and hosted many of the castle festivities, including an annual Christmas feast. On days such as this, it was used for the mundane tasks of meeting with local lords such as himself, and passing judgement on local criminals or settling complaints amongst neighbors.

The man nodded and continued about his other business, disappearing into the bustle of the rest of the castle occupants.

Robin couldn't keep the grim expression from his face as he approached the Great Hall. It was enough that he would have an audience with de Wendenal, but with Edward too? He supposed it was only just irony; the fact that Edward was so active in assisting with his father's affairs allowed him to discreetly spend time with Marian.

De Wendenal was seated on the dais with Edward standing casually behind him. There were very few people otherwise in the room, and most of them likely weren't enjoying being there anymore than Robin was. Without an announcement of his arrival, he was able to wait with the others without much notice from anyone. It was his first time seeing Edward since returning to England, and his opinion of him had not improved to say the least. Looking upon him now, Robin's face set into a grimace. He hadn't cared for Edward before when he'd made a habit of harassing Marian, and he felt even more disdain now that Edward had taken on the role of abusive husband.

Unfortunately, Edward was evidently not invested enough in his father's small court and his gaze wandered across the faces of the few gathered until he made eye contact with Robin. It was too late to hide the distaste that had been so obvious in his expression, but Robin hardly cared; it wasn't a secret that they had their disagreements.

Completely interrupting the farmer who had been describing his current problem with cattle thieves, Edward said, "Father, Robert of Locksley arrived."

De Wendenal shooed the farmer away with a motion of his hand. "Locksley, I've been waiting for you."

"I'm patient, my lord sheriff. I believe that this man was already in your audience." It was difficult to keep disapproval from his tone. The farmer gave a small nod of appreciation, which Robin acknowledged in return with a much broader gesture. "I do apologize, but it appears that the sheriff has urgent business to discuss. You have my sympathies with regard to your stolen livestock."

When he met de Wendenal's gaze again, the sheriff was visibly irritated. It had been a calculated decision on Robin's part. He wasn't willing to demean a person already speaking for the sake of social rank or for any other reason. De Wendenal could be angry with him, but he cared little.

Unwilling to bring attention to his own embarrassment in front of the small gathering, de Wendenal continued, "In light of your recent return and the harvest about to come in, you should be aware that Nottinghamshire's taxes have been increased."

"Increased? For what purpose?" He hadn't been blind to the disrepair that Locksley and the rest of the surrounding land had fallen into. Here, he realized, was likely the root of that trouble. "My tenants in Locksley cannot afford an increase; they'll suffer for it."

Many of those in the Great Hall that day were people like those who lived in Locksley, and a murmur of agreement rustled through the onlookers in response to Robin's argument. The sheriff's voice cut through the noise easily, overruling whispers with projected power. "And what will the king do in Jerusalem if your people were given such luxuries? Surely, you wouldn't deny the king his rightful funds for the Holy War?" De Wendenal's elbow was propped on the arm of his chair, and his bearded chin rested in his hand. It was a condescending gesture – as if he thought he were speaking to an upset child. "The Lionheart gave me the authority to make these decisions because he trusts me. If the king puts his trust in me, you can as well."

Behind his father, Edward looked self-satisfied, pleased with the position of power he felt that he had. And, no doubt, pleased with the idea he had secured Marian for himself. Robin didn't enjoy de Wendenal nor his son exerting such superiority. It was then that Robin realized he was unwilling to play the polite role in this exchange.

"I am well aware of your authority in these matters," Robin countered. "I've fought with the king, and I trust his judgement. Although, it would appear that I trust your own judgement less." Turning to the people present, he pointed to a woman at random. "How much can you afford to feed your family right now?"

She looked flustered and wrapped her hands in her apron in her nervousness. "Begging your pardon, my lord, I don't…"

"Can you afford to feed your family three meals every day?"

De Wendenal pounded his fist against his chair's arm. "Enough, Locksley!"

Robin didn't look away from the woman he had addressed. Finally, she shook her head. "Not… usually, my lord."

"So, de Wendenal, it appears that while you're collecting taxes, her family will be even less capable of eating." Robin held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Although, I suppose if we can support the king while he kills innocent people for holding a different religion, it's reason enough for his own subjects to worry about their livelihoods."

The room was silent. De Wendenal was seething, his teeth gritting together. "That's treason, Locksley."

"Is it? I was merely repeating your own words, my lord sheriff." He bowed elaborately, mockingly.

The sheriff's face was turning brighter by the moment. "I would suggest caution, Locksley, before you go too far." After a subtle gesture, several guards drew closer from their previous positions near the walls and door. It was a deliberate threat, and de Wendenal turned a watchful gaze on his guest.

Robin wasn't a complete fool; he knew when he'd said enough. "I expect I'll be seeing your tax man in Locksley next month; I'm sure we'll have a rousing conversation." One last jibe, and he turned for the door.

Perhaps it was too much. Perhaps he'd gone too far. Regardless, he was allowed to exit the hall unhindered, and his horse was brought out promptly. Before he could mount, Edward came striding over and grabbed his horse's reins. "Do you have a problem with my father's politics, Locksley, or are you just being petty?"

Robin wasn't in any mood to speak with Edward, but there wasn't any to avoid it now. "If I wanted to be petty, you would know." There many things he wanted to say, and none that wouldn't implicate Marian and give Edward reason to mistreat her.

"So it is my father's politics! Somehow I'm not surprised that you would take the side of peasants and serfs."

Robin held out a hand for the reins; he wasn't interested in having this conversation and never had been. "I have other business at home."

Edward held the reins away from him for a moment longer. "One last thing. I want you to know that any attention you give my wife will result only in her punishment. Let me assure you that she will pay dearly for it."

The words hard hardly been spoken before Robin's fist collided solidly with Edward's jaw. There had been a rage slowly building itself up since the first time he'd made Edward's pathetic acquaintance. It had grown from irritation with his character to anger with his lack respect for anyone except himself. Now the irksome young man had become a controlling man who mistreated his dearest friend.

Edward laughed under his breath, wiping the blood from lower lip. "You're still just as predictable."

Robin gripped the collar of Edward's shirt. "You have no right—"

"Come now. You know I have every right to do what I want to her. You should learn to control your jealousy."

His fist was already clenched, ready to strike for a second time, but he held back. It was too public. Too many people were there. What's more, they were people who worked for de Wendanal. "Listen to me, you bastard, and listen well." Robin's voice was low and threatening. "I am not interested in what you think a husband's rights are. I did not care that Marian wed; I care that it was to someone like you who abuses his wife without thought. She deserves far better than you." He pulled Edward's collar tighter. "If you continue hurt her, I will bring you to ruin."

With a shove, Robin released him, watching as he stumbled backwards.

"Predictable, just as I said." Edward straightened her doublet with an almost unconcerned air. "I would be careful who you threaten."

Robin mounted his horse, swinging himself onto the somewhat frightened beast's back. "I would offer you the same caution. The crusades are a brutal environment without mercy for anyone." With a flick of the reins he left the bailey for the road, knowing he had made a larger enemy than was wise. He had upset de Wendenal and made a fool of him, and then threatened his son with violence.

And yet he found that he regretted none of it.

Christmastide at Nottingham Castle was, every year, a grand celebration where the landowners and lords from across Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire to the north gathered at the castle for a grand feast. It was not the same as the Royal Court's celebration in London, but Northern England greatly enjoyed its own holiday.

Marian had loved Christmas since she was a child, and loved it the same even after growing of age. Despite the cold and danger that winter brought with it, there was Christmas and every year she looked forward to arriving at the Castle and spending the evening in good company and equal cheer. Throughout the afternoon guests had been arriving, Marian's family among them, wrapped in thick cloaks to keep out the cold.

Now, music filled the Great Hall which was lined with trestle tables except for the middle where people were dancing. The sheriff was not a well-liked man, but he did know how to host a Christmas dinner. She thought that the small extravagance he showed on these evenings might be his way of keeping the lords' good opinions. If so, she had to admit that it did a good job of it.

Her parents distracted by old friends, Marian slipped away to find her own. Skirting the edges of the crowd by the wall, she searched the faces for the ones she knew so well. After making a full circuit around the room without luck, she was getting frustrated. The earl was there, with his wife at his elbow, along with the elder son. Were Robin and Will intentionally avoiding her? Accepting a goblet of wine, she caught the eye of the earl's wife, who, with a few brief words, left her husband's side.

"Dearest Marian," she said in greeting. "Happy Christmas to you."

"To you as well, Lady Anne." The Lady Anne had ever treated Marian with the utmost grace, even when she had been a child with ripped skirts chasing after her younger son. There wasn't a woman alive Marian regarded with more respect other than her own mother.

"You look like Christmas itself tonight." With a small smile, she leaned forward with a whisper, "My son will be charmed when he sees you."

Marian felt a flush come into her cheeks, and she knew she hadn't had enough wine to form a viable excuse. She felt resplendent that evening in a deep green and silver gown with holly woven through her hair, which she wore down around her shoulders for the occasion. When she'd chosen what to wear, anyone's opinion but her own had not been a part of the decision. But she was satisfied, nonetheless. "I'm pleased you think so. Has your son yet arrived? I haven't seen him."

Lady Anne scanned the Great Hall, her eyes searching. "He is here, although I do not know where."

Marian nodded, taking another sip of wine.

"Don't fret over it. He'll show himself soon enough." After pressing Marian's hand between both of hers, she returned to the earl. The music came to an end, and those who had been dancing politely applauded.

A hand rested on her shoulder, and Marian spun around, a smile ready. It quickly faded when she saw that the owner of that hand was the sheriff's son. With a jerk of her shoulder, she stepped away. "Edward," she acknowledged.

He held out his hand to her. "Dance with me."

"I'm a poor dancer; I'm sure you can find a more talented partner."

Edward did not drop his hand, and gave her a hard look. "It wasn't a request. You know that your father believes a future union between us is to his advantage. I have no objections and neither does my father. It's inevitable." He took the wine from her hand and set it aside, taking her elbow in a controlling grasp.

"No. I'm waiting for someone."

His grip tightened painfully on her elbow. "Waiting for who? Locksley?" Edward shook his head, leading her forcefully to the forming lines of dancers. "I don't think so."

Marian saw her father across the room, looking directly at her. She knew what he wanted; he wanted her to cater to the sheriff's son and afford him favor because of the connection. Specifically, he wanted her to agree to dance with Edward, and she knew she had to appease his unspoken demand. She thought about how Lady Anne had said Robin would be "charmed" when he saw her, and suddenly it seemed like a faraway wish. It seemed more likely that she would be affording her father more power, while she would be left powerless.

It had been foolish to think otherwise.

True to her word, she was a poor dancer and stepped on his toes whenever the dance brought them close enough to do so. Perhaps a few of those instances had not been so accidental, but she was completely apologetic regardless. The pair of them circled each other, weaved among the others, and followed all of the necessary rules of that particular dance. She smiled politely and played her part until the end when they were safely far apart in the separate lines of women and men. He gave a gracious bow and she dipped gracefully in return.

Edward's lips parted as if to speak, and she smoothly interrupted, "If you'll excuse me, I'd like to get some fresh air."

"I'll accompany you," he replied immediately.

"A peaceful winter night is best enjoyed by oneself, I think. Good evening to you." She swept away before he could speak further to her. One dance was one dance too many. It was nearly time for dinner to be served; steaming plates of food were arriving from the kitchen, carried by liveried servants. As she passed a curtained alcove, a familiar voice quietly called her name. Finally.

Robin pulled her inside, grasping her hand as she reached for the edges of the curtain. "And how was your dance?"

"Painfully forced." It was hard to keep her smile under control after finding him at last. "Where were you?"

"In inescapable conversation with my aging uncle about the king's crusade." His response was apologetic. "I'm sorry."

His available hand, while the other still clasped her hand, came to rest along the soft skin of her cheek. It felt warm in comparison to the cold air from the window they stood next to. The curtain was designed to keep such drafts away from the guests, but it was of little use to them behind its confines.

He suddenly noticed the holly in her hair, and stepped back enough to look appreciatively at the rest of her evening wear. "You look…" He paused, searching for a word, "… uncommonly lovely."

An unexpected blush rose all the way to her ears, despite the chill in the air. "You're only noticing now?" she accused, trying to keep him from remarking on her reaction.

"I was preoccupied wondering how Edward convinced you to dance, and regretting I hadn't been there to ask you first."

She couldn't have fully explained the warmth that filled her, but it was not unwelcome nor unfamiliar. "I would have stepped on your feet, too," she said with a soft laugh. "Although, not on purpose." Leaning forward, she gently pressed her lips against his. This, too, was not unfamiliar but instead well practiced and comfortable. Their bodies drew closer; Marian rested her hand against his chest where she could feel his heartbeat. His fingers were buried her hair, fingertips light against her scalp as he combed through the deep brown. One of the sprigs of holly came loose and drifted to the stone below.