There was a party going on.
A cluster of woodsmen, fellow outlaws and villagers from Locksley had joined Robin and his men in a hunt for food – for the Sheriff had raised taxes again, and though it was the height of summer, people were starving.
So Robin had rallied a group of likely hunters and led them all after the king’s own deer, looking for a good meal.
Though risky, the hunt had been a success, and more than worth it – they’d returned with four good sized beasts and fed all of Locksley with some to spare. Almost the entire village had made an exodus, under cover of the gathering dusk, into Sherwood for a secret feast, and the revelry that followed had been hugely entertaining.
The villagers danced and sang and ate and got uproariously drunk – and all toasted Robin and his men (and Marian, who had joined them).
Now, as the night wore on and the last of the light finally evaporated into the darkening summer sky, most were traipsing home again, though others stayed and laughed and talked. Some were falling asleep in the undergrowth. Others were still drinking.
Much, growing tired of the racket, had picked himself up and decided to get some distance on the party. He had not had a great deal to drink – though it was enough to make him feel warm and slightly light-headed – and he could walk steadily enough, so he had little fear of getting lost. Besides which, the group were still making enough noise that he could have heard them from some miles off and used them to navigate by.
So it was not that he was looking for Robin and Marian, exactly. More that he was looking for a quiet place – and that they had been looking for one too.
The fabled lovers had slipped quietly away from the proceedings earlier in the evening, and few seemed to have really noticed their absence. Those that had, had not seen fit to comment, aside from to raise their eyebrows in a knowing fashion and chuckle to themselves in a way that Much found somewhat distasteful.
He didn’t like people speculating about Robin and Marian – it felt somehow impure.
But he heard the pair of them before he saw them. A soft murmuring, lower and gentler than the distant din of the party behind him. And then Marian’s voice, quite clear in the twilight, laughing. A luxuriant kind of laughter – rich and indulgent – not the kind of sound that he had ever heard from her before. And there was just… a certain tone to it that warned Much that he might be about to walk into something he shouldn’t.
He froze, listening intently.
Robin’s voice was there too, with that sort of sweet, coaxing tone to it that Much knew all too well. Because of course he was attempting to seduce her…
Though most of his better instincts were screaming at him to run; now; and not look back – his noble ones (and a few of the less honourable ones also) were insisting that he go and look. He knew what Robin was like when he’d had a few too many drinks inside him, particularly around pretty girls, Marian or otherwise. And if Marian had been drinking too (not that he would assume such a thing of her, but still…) then they might be about to do something extremely unwise.
He crept forward, cautiously, not entirely sure that he wanted to see what he was about to witness, but determined to get closer none the less. He would just check to make sure it wasn’t about to get out of hand, and then leave – find his quiet spot; take a nap. That was all he needed to do. As Robin’s manservant; as his friend; as Marian’s friend, for Pete’s sake…
He spotted them before he was quite ready to.
They were sitting under a willow tree next to the great, shallow river that wound its way through that particular part of the forest. The long, hanging branches of the tree afforded them a little privacy, and the undergrowth around that helped too – it was a good spot. Much would have chosen it himself had he found it first.
Marian was in Robin’s lap. She was straddling his legs, facing him, her elbows resting on his shoulders as she knelt back, contemplating him. Robin was running his hands over her – touching her, ever so gently and tenderly; but eagerly, too. There was a certain hunger in the way his hands lingered on her thighs; her abdomen. A certain intention. She was wearing her woollen breaches and an old undershirt, having shed her tunic (discarded over a tree branch a few feet away). Robin seemed fascinated as he examined her relative state of undress.
Marian was watching him touch her with a look that seemed almost disconnected. She seemed studious – even puzzled. As if he were some specimen apart from her, that she was trying to analyse. Then Robin pulled her down to kiss her neck, and she bit her lip, closing her eyes and leaning against him, stroking his jaw with her thumb.
“Do you love me, Robin?” The question was not shyly put – the manner of its asking suggested that Marian knew full well the answer.
“Of course I love you,” Robin replied, matter-of-factly, “you know I love you.”
“True enough,” Marian conceded, “but there is a difference between knowing something, and hearing it out of someone’s mouth. And I like to hear you say it.”
“I love you,” Robin obliged, kissing her – and Marian laughed, softly.
Much lingered next to the thick shrub that was providing his cover. No, they weren’t drunk. Robin’s eyes were too bright, his wit too sharp. And Marian seemed to be in perfectly normal spirits, even if she was now in unusually close proximity to Robin.
He should leave. He should really, really leave. But…
“What do you love about me?” Marian’s voice was soft, playful.
“Oh, so now you want specifics?” Robin grinned at her, touching her nose affectionately.
She laughed again. “Yes.”
Much swallowed and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath to steady his nerves. There was a sweetness to this moment that he suddenly wanted very much to hold on to. The gentility of it all, sugaring the thinly-veiled sexuality of the situation. It was intoxicating.
They had been bright eyed little children, once.
“I love your eyes, and your nose, and your hands, and your temper,” Robin was saying, a little too sweetly.
Marian laughed, “my temper?”
“It’s one of the most amusing things about you.”
A soft thud and – “ow!”
“I’m sorry, did that hurt?”
“Good, good – am I amusing you now?”
And Much opened his eyes again, at the unmistakable sound of a kiss going on for longer than was strictly necessary. Robin had one hand tangled in her hair, the other resting against her cheek, and Marian had her arms tight around his shoulders. They were pressed so closely against one another as to seem almost fused, in that gathering gloom. Their mouths were crushed together, their clothes already skewed – Much could hear their breathing; the quick, hitching way that people drew breath around a kiss. He could hear the rustle of their clothes. He could see their eyelashes fluttering; Robin’s heavy, calloused hands, still pock-marked and lined with the scars of the holy-lands, sliding down Marian’s back. He could see Marian squirming with pleasure.
And when they parted, Robin kept his forehead resting against hers.
“You’re beautiful,” he told her.
She smiled, “you’re not so bad yourself.”
He kissed her again, let one hand drop to her thigh.
Much watched, transfixed, as he slid it gently round and upwards, slowly. Marian didn’t protest when he rested his palm between her legs. Much could see Robin's thumb pressing into the fabric of her breaches. He bit his lip – this, most definitely, should be the point where he stopped watching.
Marian only gasped, biting her lip and dipping her head to his.
“Technically, you see,” Robin was murmuring, caressing her cheek just as gently as he was caressing certain other parts of her, “this is not as indecent as it seems, because I’m not actually touching you.”
Marian exhaled – her eyes were bright, alert – her hands were clenched into fists on his shoulders as she gripped his shirt.
“I wish you would,” she said, barely loud enough for Much to hear it (although hear it he did), and Robin grinned at her suddenly, fierce and joyful. He kissed her again, even as those wayward hands of his crept to the tops of her breeches, and pulled aside the belt buckle.
And Much knew that he must be committing an entire myriad of sins, though he couldn’t tear his eyes away. He had the feeling that even if he did so, they’d still be there, burned to his retinas like sunspots, brilliant and pure.
He had known them when they were but angel-faced infants, and seen them grow and grown with them. And they had always been the two most precious and beautiful people he had ever laid eyes on. (Was it too much, he had to wonder, to want to be close to them? Just for a moment – to be a part of them? For all he felt like a thief lurking in the shadow of their hearts.)
Some logical part of him was telling him to be jealous, though of whom, he wasn’t sure. The rest of him just didn’t want it to end.
So he watched Marian twist and squirm and gasp, as she pressed herself against Robin’s busy fingers like a common harlot, and saw Robin ease open her shirt and kiss her where he shouldn’t have. He heard Marian beg – beg! Marian! – and plead and coax as Robin teased her, made her work for it, until she got so frustrated that she almost screamed at him. Though she didn’t, of course. In the end she simply threatened him with the idea that she might never let him touch her again.
The dark had fallen well and truly by then and the shadows that gathered about the pair of them made them seem hardly human at all. They were like creatures from a fairy tale. Some far flung, unspoken thing, whispered amongst naughty children late at night, of tree spirits and water nymphs and the things that they liked to do to each other. Marian gasped and moaned and finally cried out, shuddering and biting her lip so hard that a bead of brilliant red blossomed beneath her teeth and trickled down her chin.
Robin laughed, softly, and wiped the blood away, holding Marian as she rested, panting, against him. He was so strangely unaffected by what he had just put his childhood sweetheart through that Much found himself wanting to step up and shake the insolent outlaw – before realising, belatedly, that he was not a part of this scene. Would never be.
Then Marian, though still struggling to breath evenly, was tugging off Robin’s shirt with firm, insistent hands, grinning like an imp as she ventured into these forbidden territories. Robin kissed her and kissed her as if it were the very last thing that he would do on this earth, and his flesh shone palely in the moonlight. His hands were cradling her cheeks, resting on her shoulders, sliding round her waist, slipping inside her shirt –
Though Much could no longer see it quite precisely, he could paint in the details for himself. He knew where Robin’s near-fatal scar was; knew where the thin white lines of long-healed Saracen sword blows criss-crossed over his bony torso. He could just make out those knotted muscles contracting and releasing beneath Robin’s skin as he gathered Marian to him and began to find release for himself. He could see Marian roll her eyes with pleasure and graze his shoulders with her fingernails.
She stayed straddling his legs and kissed him – his fevered brow and teasing grin and all – stroking his forehead as if she were comforting a sickly child. She nipped his ears and squirmed against him and he moaned her name over and over into her hair.
Much could barely breathe.
And he was never sure whether it was because it was over, or because Robin had decided that he wanted to move, or something else entirely inconsequential, but at that point Marian laughed breathlessly and tipped over backwards, landing on her back and pulling Robin down with her.
The angle of the fall meant that her head was quirked in just the wrong direction at the wrong time – and through the dark, the grass and the undergrowth, she caught Much’s eye, and held his gaze.
For a moment she just blinked at him, almost puzzled by his presence.
And then Much was up and running as fast as his legs would carry him, tripping blindly down the bank to the river, into the ankle-deep water, across onto the other bank and away, staggering through the undergrowth without a thought or a care as to where he was going.
He heard Marian calling his name – and then Robin, too – their voices chasing him through the dusk, but he didn’t stop. He couldn’t.
He didn’t until, gasping for breath and now utterly lost, he crashed headlong into a deep, fast-flowing little stream, and there, finally, the icy liquid forced him to halt. It rushed up past his knees and made him gasp with the shock of it – though perhaps that was just the adrenalin still stampeding through his veins.
There, surrounded only by the gnarled branches of a strange little tree, the dark, and some sharp, ragged rushes growing near one bank, he took himself in his hands and rubbed and rubbed until the white hot boiling in his groin rushed up past him and coursed through him and threatened to deafen him with its might. He rubbed until he felt himself spill out into the stream, and the roaring in his ears subsided and the white hotness ebbed into the icy stream and was gone.
It felt good, and fierce, and satisfying, all of a sudden. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end with the heat of it, and he waded to the far bank and sat down, ignoring the mud, putting his hands up over his head and knitting them behind his neck.
Burned to his retinas, like sun-spots still, he could see those tangled bodies, and hear them both calling his name.