It was a beautiful day in Sherwood. A gentle breeze blew across the camp as the sun piqued overhead signaling the midday’s meal. Robin, lost in conversation with Little John and Marion, assisted in setting up the large trestle tables for the oncoming hungry crowds.
As Robin worked, he concentrated more on the children at play, rather than the conversation Marion and Little John were having. It warmed his heart to think he had something to do in saving these children from Prince John’s tyranny. A life of suffering, pain, and starvation. So involved was he in his thoughts, he was startled when the horn sounded and the branch covered gates pulled back to reveal two of his men, escorting a lovely young lady on a large white stallion. As Robin stared at this fair-haired beauty, he knew she looked familiar but his mind would not release this memory.
"Sean, Michael!" Robin greeted his two men warmly. "Back from patrol?"
Sean chuckled at how Robin skirted asking him directly who they brought back with them into camp. Smiling, he answered Robin’s unasked question. "I found her wandering outside, Robin. She claims to be a friend of yours."
The young lady dismounted, golden silk skirts tumbling from the saddle, and brushing her light brown hair from her fair features, looked at the outlaw, smiling warmly. "Robert, it is so good to see you!"
Recognition lit Robin’s large brown eyes, and continuing as if he always had known who this flaxen-hair beauty was, returned her smile, his dimples appearing. "You are looking well, Cassi. How long has it been?"
Cassi crossed the short distance between the two of them, taking Robin affectionately in her arms and holding him tight. As Marion watched in silent alarm, Robin returned her advance with the same warmth. He released her and turned to Little John and Marion. "The last time I saw Cassi was at Locksley hall, the day it was taken and my father was…" He paused, as if unable to finish the sentence. "She was only twelve years old then." Turning back to Cassi, he added, "I see you have grown up, though!"
Robin held her away from him, admiring her beauty, then continued. "I remember how much you liked to practice your moves with me and your brother after our lessons with Master MacGregor had ended. By the way, how is Jason?"
Cassi’s eyes immediately dropped downward at the mention of Jason’s name. Robin reached down, taking her chin gently in his large hands, and tipped her face upward, noticing the tears running freely down her fair cheeks. "Cassi, what is it? What has happened?"
"Robert, Jason is dead." Cassi sobbed, dropping down onto a nearby log.
"How?" Was all Robin could manage to get out.
Marion, who at first distrusted this woman, now felt only sympathy, and stood behind her rubbing her back. She handed her a square of linen to dab her eyes.
"We were shopping in a village when Prince John’s men came to collect the monthly taxes," the saddened young girl replied, reliving the moment in her mind as if it were happening, all over again. "There was this shopkeeper, a man of meager holdings. He tried to explain how his wife was with child and was very ill and he did not have the full amount he owed. The tax collector just laughed, Robert, telling him that if he did not come up with the money, he would go to jail! He begged and pleaded with the man, asking that cold hearted man what would happen if he went to jail. Who would care for his wife and unborn child?"
Cassi trembled as the story flowed from her lips, tears now a steady stream. "My brother couldn’t stand how our people were being treated anymore. Or how the soldiers laughed at this man’s plight. Robert, I begged him not to get involved, but he wouldn’t listen. He drew his sword on the Captain and held his own for a long time, but the Captain resorted to trickery, stabbing my brother with a dagger. He was dead before I could reach him." Her pale face dropped into her hands as she sobbed uncontrollably.
Robin stooped down, taking his old friend gently into his arms, holding her tightly against him. She wrapped her arms around his neck as if she were a lost child, crying against his long sable hair.
"What am I to do? The tax collector said Jason owed back taxes, and the have taken our home and lands. I have nowhere to go…I am alone!"
Cassi had come to Robin, knowing he had suffered the same fate as she. His father murdered, his lands taken. She also knew he was the best marksman in all of England, and the most feared outlaw to Prince John. If anyone could extract revenge and reclaim her lands, it was Robin Hood.
"Cassi, I will always be here for you," Robin said gently, rocking her. "You will always have a home here in Sherwood."
She pulled her wet face from Robin’s tunic, dried her cheeks and looked up into Robin’s deep brown eyes. "Thank you, Robert," she sniffed. "Your family has always been so good to us."
Robin looked down into her tiny face, noting how exhausted she appeared to be, recognizing how much she had been through. "Cassi, while the ladies of the camp prepare a pallet for you, why don’t you rest in my hut?" he asked gently, pulling her to her feet.
Marion watched with concern as Robin wrapped one arm about the beautiful young girl, walking her to his hut, and making her lie down on his pallet.
"I hate to be so much trouble, Robert," Cassi sighed as the dark-haired man covered her with a quilt.
"No trouble at all, Cassi. I was wondering…" Robin began, but before he could finish, she was sound asleep. "Never mind, not important," he laughed softly.
An hour later, as Robin stood in the center of camp swinging an ax, splitting firewood, he heard a blood-curdling scream from his hut. It continued over and over as Robin let the ax slip from his fingers, breaking into a run.
As he burst through the door, he could see Cassi sitting in the center of his pallet, screaming, her hands clasped over her mouth, her body shaking violently. He ran to her side, taking her in his arms, holding her tightly against him as he reassuringly stroked her hair.
"There, there," he whispered. "It’s only a dream."
Several other members of the camp had heard the outburst and rushed to Robin’s hut, including Marion, who stood at the door watching Robin as he tenderly consoled the young girl. Marion had always trusted Robin. She knew his heart belonged to her, so why did she feel this woman was a threat? Her stomach knotted inside of her and her face flushed as she watched this beauty in Robin’s arms. "I’m being ridiculous," she chastised herself, turning from the hut. But as Marion hurried away, she couldn’t help but think in all the times she had been frightened, Robin had never held her quite like that.
Cassi had ceased screaming at Robin’s touch, but trembled as she threw herself tightly against his chest. "Robert, you must make a solemn promise to me." Her voice wavered as she spoke.
"If I can."
"You must promise to train me to fight. To use a sword the way you and Jason did, Robert."
Robin stared at her, confusion in his expressive eyes.
"I want to fight alongside you, to go against Prince John when we go to reclaim my land."
"Cassi, ask anything of me but that. I can’t allow you to put yourself in that kind of danger!"
"Robert, I can’t stand by and allow Prince John to just take my land. Surely you remember the feelings you had, deep within…watching your family slaughtered, your castle taken."
Robin closed his eyes with a shudder. Those emotions were as fresh as if the day it had happened was yesterday. He was suddenly sixteen years old again, watching the wide blade of the Norman’s sword pierce his father’s chest, the body dropping limply from the saddle.
"Robin…run!" Were the Earl’s last words to his son. And he obeyed, even though he regretted it every day since. Yes. He remembered.
"If you cannot find it in your heart to train me, I will go against Prince John alone. It matters not if I die, I have lost everything…" she began to sob again as she looked up at his strong features through tear-soaked lashes. She was satisfied to watch his expression soften as if he were persuaded to comply with her wishes. Nothing had really changed between them after all, in these last eleven years. She still had him wrapped tightly around her little finger as she always had when they were children.
Robin’s shoulders dropped as he looked at her with dismay. "I will train you. But at the first sign of real danger, you must promise me you will get out of the way."
Cassi looked up at her old friend with a twinkle in her eye. "Yes, Robert. I promise," she told him as she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek.
For the next few weeks, Robin spent his days training the young woman in the art of swordplay and archery, and by night he related to her past battles he had fought and how he had used what Master MacGregor had taught him to defeat his enemy. It seemed the two were never apart, and this did not go unnoticed by Marion.
"Tuck, she is never out of his sight! Why is he so protective of her!" the warrior woman questioned with a flush in her cheeks.
Tuck looked up and smiled, realizing the true motivation for the question. "Marion, Robin swore on Jason’s grave that he would watch over Cassi. Right now, the young girl is full of hate and revenge, much the way Robin was after the death of his father. I just think he is watching to make sure that she doesn’t do anything rash."
"Yeah, well…" Marion fell silent and walked on ahead, not looking back at the good Friar.
"I must remember to talk to Robin," mumbled Tuck upon entering his hut.
The sun was rising on what looked like another perfect day in Sherwood, when as Robin is pulling on his boots, he hears a small voice. "Robert? Are you awake?"
"Yes, Cassi. What is it?"
"Today is the day, Robert."
Robin poked his head through the fur flap that covered the door to his hut, shielding his eyes from the intense morning sun. "Cassi, what day?" the outlaw sighed.
"I think that I am ready to spar with someone," she told him, a contented look on her face.
"Cassi, it has only been three weeks. You need to work on your defensive moves a bit more."
"Robert, my patience wears thin. I wish to meet Prince John in battle now and reacquire my lands. How much more practice could it take?"
Robin pauses for a moment, thinking perhaps a good bout with a trained swordsman might put this ridiculous notion out of the younger woman’s head. Looking down at the beautiful young face he agreed. "Very well, Cassi. I will talk to Marion and see if she is willing to be your partner."
Cassi smiled contentedly. She could not have asked for a better set of circumstances. This was going just as she had planned.
Noon came quickly, and Marion and Cassi met in the center of camp, the residents of the fortress gathering to watch the fun. Cassi watched Marion enter the ring drawn in the dirt and looked over at Robin, smiling warmly at the outlaw. Marion looked to see Robin return the smile and mumbled under her breath, "Oh brother!"
"Are you ready, Marion?" Cassi asked sweetly.
"I have been ready to talk to you since you entered this camp," Marion returned, suspicion shining in her blue eyes.
"Now, why would you say that?" Cassi asked, coyly drawing her sword from its sheath and beginning to circle the warrior woman.
"You are up to something. You’re different that you appear to be," Marion said, just above a whisper.
"Oh, Marion. Me?" Cassi lunged forward and their swords crashed together.
"Why such an interest in Robin?" Marion continued, swinging her sword towards Cassi’s right.
"Interest? What interest? I need his help." The brunette caught Marion’s thrust and launched an attack of her own.
Marion caught her sword in mid turn and pulled hard to her left. "There is more than an interest in Robin’s help here, Cassi."
Marion was impressed with Cassi’s fighting ability. She obviously was a fast learner, but behind those eyes of hazel was a hardness Marion couldn’t thwart. It was as if there was another person behind those steely eyes, and Marion knew she had to find out what her motives were.
Cassi glanced over at Robin, who stood with his arms folded across his massive chest. She gave Marion a half smile, and as Marion returned her thrust, deliberately stepped into the sword so it grazed her right arm. She cried out and dropped her sword, watching gleefully as Marion gasped, seeing the blood begin to stream from the wound.
Robin ran through the crowd to Cassi as the girl swooned, dropping against the outlaw.
"Robin! I didn’t mean to…" Marion ran to the two of them, shocked by what she saw.
"Let’s get her to Tuck," Robin said, lifting the girl into his strong arms as she rested her head against his shoulder. When he burst through the door to Tuck’s hut, the Friar looked up, surprised from his work.
"Cassi and Marion were having a mock duel with their swords and…"
"Put her down here, Robin," Tuck said, grabbing a jar from his bench.
"I’ll go get some water." Robin turned toward the door, but was stopped by a soft voice behind him.
"Please don’t leave me, Robert," Cassi whispered.
"I’ll only be gone a moment. Tuck will be here," Robin said with a gentle smile as he turned to leave.
Cassi watched Robin exit through the door and an evil smile turned the corners of her mouth. She had succeeded in obtaining Robin’s sympathy-and having him turn on Marion. Or so she thought.
End of Chapter one