The evening church bells tolled. Even in Sherwood Forest, one could hear the faint sound carried on the wind. Kneeling in prayer, Cassia felt the breeze on her face. She could smell the crisp autumn air, and she took in a breath of it. A breath that shuddered slightly. Opening her eyes, she looked at the crosses laid out in front of her.
Under the shelter of a mighty oak were seven wooden crosses. Her mother and baby brother, lost when she was very small, were there. Her uncle and her three cousins as well. Those grave markers were sad enough to see – each life taken in a cruel way. Her mother and younger brother had died in childbirth. Her uncle and cousins had been lost in war. But it was the seventh cross that made her heart ache each time she looked at it.
Lucinda’s death had at least been peaceful. She had simply gone to sleep one night and had never awakened. That, in some small way, was a blessing. But even now, more than a year later, the pain of the loss was still great. Greater, in truth, than two other losses that had occurred in the same span of time. Picking up her basket of freshly picked apples, she turned away from the little graveyard and made her way towards home.
She sighed deeply, thinking of the two crosses that were missing from that sacred spot. Her father had refused to place one of them – and she had refused to place the other. Stephen, like so many other men, had gone to war but had not returned. To this day, Robert DeWarren had refused to believe that his son was truly dead, and so had never allowed a place to be set for him in the family burial ground.
As for the other missing cross…
She shook her head, not wanting to think of it. It haunted her mind much too often, and she wondered if she would ever be free of it.
It was nearly dark when she arrived home. 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, and pain of the heart was now a too familiar feeling. Their losses had been too numerous to count. But as she blew out the candle, settling down in her bed of blankets, one particularly dark thought crossed her mind – just as it had so many times before.
I am a widow. And I am but sixteen.
She had been promised to Edwin Middleton since she was a child. Even after her family’s move into their wooded seclusion, he had kept his promise to marry her, and for a brief time, she had known the security of being a merchant’s wife. The future had been so full of hope.
But like Stephen, Edwin was a knight with an unwavering devotion to his king. He and Stephen 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. Oh, how she despised Robin of Locksley! Just like her grandmother before her, she found him to be nothing more than a pompous brigand who stirred others to his causes but ultimately, cared only for himself. He had ruined her life entirely – taken away all of her hopes for the future, leaving her with nothing.
Damn Robin of Locksley, she silently cursed him. Damn him to hell! May he meet a horrible and grotesque end, and I pray that I might be there to witness it.
The knock on the door was insistent. Cassia rolled over, trying to open her heavy eyelids. 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, lifting 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.”
Robin’s voice rose in anger and disgust. “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.”
“Guy of Gisborne murdered my brother.”
“And you were outlawed when you attempted to avenge him. Had you succeeded in your attempt, neither of us would be in this situation.”
Cassia had tried not to hear their conversation. But she knew the man that Marian spoke of. The man she wished death upon.
Guy of Gisborne, Cassia thought.
She had not forgotten the man who had once saved her life, and her grandmother’s. So many times, she had thought of him. On occasion, when she made a rare appearance in the village, she had seen him in passing. It was doubtful that he would remember her, even if they had actually met face to face. But she could not forget him, and as the years had passed, her fascination with him had only grown. What was it about him that stirred her as it did? He was not traditionally handsome. While he was certainly of good height and had an athletic figure, which boded well for a knight, his features were quite angular, and his appearance could only be called rough. His chin and nose were rather long, his black hair wavy and in general unruly looking. There were many who called him an ugly man. But in Cassia’s eyes, he was mesmerizing.
Lady Marian, you are a fool, she thought. A hopeless, worthless fool of a woman who would rather have a boy than a man.
Cassia knew how things truly were with Lady Marian and her husband-to-be. Marian was revolted by him. 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 pitied 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. His mother had been murdered when he was a boy. His father was a heartless brute. His master, the Sheriff of Nottingham, treated him with disdain and cruelty. And the woman he was to marry – the one he was hopelessly in love with – secretly hated him.
She sighed, thinking that no man, not even one of the most hated men in Nottingham, deserved to be made such a fool. She crossed herself, uttering a prayer for the man who so many said deserved none.
God be with you, Guy of Gisborne. May he keep you from harm and wrong, and one day soon, may he grant you the happiness you seek…