The night air was cool, and the breeze made it more so. Pulling her shawl closer around herself, Cassia hurried from the barn to the house. The animals were fed, the goats milked. She was glad to be done with the chores. It was late, and a warm bed was waiting, even if it was just a pile of hay in an inner loft. The wattle and daub house she shared with her father was not a grand structure by any means, but despite its small size, it was a sturdy and comfortable abode.
Latching the door as she came in, taking up the candle that had been left for her, she turned and saw her father leaning over the hearth – and rubbing his temples, clearly in some discomfort. She frowned in concern.
“Father,” she said, “Are you unwell?”
Robert instantly righted his posture. “It is nothing of consequence,” he replied. “It is late, and I am merely tired.”
It was not entirely the truth. But she dared not strike at his pride by arguing with him. She loved and respected him too much – and more than that, he was all she had left in the world. She spoke softly to him.
“I am tired as well. Perhaps we should both retire for the night.” Approaching him, she kissed his cheek. “Good night, father.”
He gave no reply, but such was his way. When he was troubled or hurting, he was often taciturn, and so she was not offended or hurt by his manner. She knew him well, and there were probably familiar thoughts – painful ones – weighing on his mind. As she climbed the ladder to the loft, she felt a sting of sadness, thinking of how lonely she knew he was. Loneliness was a common ailment in their household. Robert DeWarren had lost his wife many years ago, and just recently, his only son. Cassia shared her father’s grief over the loss of their family. But her sadness was compounded by a loss that was her own. As she blew out the candle, settling down in her bed of blankets, a dark thought crossed her mind – just as it had so many times before.
I am a widow. And I am but sixteen.
Both her brother and her husband had followed their passions about going to war, both of them certain that King Richard’s mighty army would conquer the holy land with little effort. But oh, how wrong they had been. So many lives had been lost, and for what? The quest had ultimately been a failure. And among the dead were two people she held most dear to her heart. All because of a king’s foolish ambition.
And another man’s slavish devotion to his lord and master, she reminded herself.
She felt anger welling up inside of her. But with a strength of mind she had often prided herself on, she pushed the thought of him from her mind. Robin of Locksley deserved no place in her thoughts, unless it was the thought of him suffering, just as she had suffered because of his self-righteous ways.
Damn Robin of Locksley, she thought. May he meet a horrible and grotesque end.
The knock on the door was insistant. Cassia rolled over, trying to open her heavy eyelids. These kind of middle-of-the-night disturbances were nothing unusual. Her family had long been known for giving aid to neighbors in need, and so they were accustomed to being so disturbed. Forcing herself to sit up, for she knew she would have to be of help to her father, she saw the light of his candle down below. She waited, and listened, as he spoke to someone at the door.
Her eyes narrowed when she heard a familiar – and despised – voice that spoke with urgency. His words could not be fully heard from where she sat, but her father soon appeared at the bottom of the ladder, raising his candle as he looked up at her.
“Come, daughter,” he said. “One of the villagers brings a child, and we must assist in its arrival.”
She sighed as she smoothed her hair, trying to make herself somewhat presentable. Not that she intended to impress anyone in particular, especially Robin of Locksley. But she did have her own sense of pride. What else of value did a poor young woman possess?
The baby boy was healthy and whole, born with no complications. Cassia smiled as she cleaned him off and swaddled him, and she watched and listened as the friar blessed him. Tuck was one of Robin Hood’s confidantes, but he was a kind soul, and a true man of God. There were many others who followed Locksley as though he might be the messiah himself, even though he was a former earl now turned outlaw. Most of them were simply poor people in desperate need of someone to call a hero, and in truth, she could not blame them for it. But there was one among them she could not admire. One who she despised almost as much as Locksley himself.
As Cassia carried the babe to his waiting mother, she heard the low sound of Robin’s voice just outside the door. And a female voice was speaking to him in return.
“There is nothing to be done about it, Robin. You are an outlaw, and we cannot change such a fact.”
Robin’s words were spoken quietly. But the pathos in his tone was clear.
“We are one soul, Marian. We are destined for one another.”
“I am promised to another,” she whispered. “This you know. I cannot change the arrangement made by my father. It will not be undone.”
“You will marry a man you despise? An evil man, one you can hardly bear to have in your company, let alone your bed?”
“Guy of Gisborne is the man my father has chosen for me. Had you not been outlawed, Robin of Locksley, I would be your wife. But you have created this fate for us. There is nothing to be done about it.”
“There is always a way, Marian. And we will find it.”
Cassia tried not to hear their conversation. But it was not the first time she had overheard such a disagreement. Marian of Leaford was to wed Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff’s second in command. And Lady Marian was revolted by her husband-to-be. In public, she played the obedient and dutiful fiancé, accompanying Sir Guy to important functions and social occasions, and gifting him with a cool but seemingly genuine affection. But such a façade was thin, and it seemed that only Guy of Gisborne himself was ignorant about the ruse. He was besotted with Lady Marian, and Cassia pittied him. His blindness was a source of amusement and ridicule for all of Nottingham to whisper about. But she found his story to be a sad one. She sighed, thinking that no man – not even one of the most hated men in Nottingham – deserved to be made such a fool.