(1) Being left alone is not the same as freedom
It was not quite fully spring, and the rain brought cold and damp to Norwell's single tower. Alysoun had managed to find Cecily a few extra blankets, but fuel for the fire was limited. She had to conserve her resources. She had to think ahead, and plan. Don't just react, Will had told her a thousand times. Think ahead and know what you want to do.
Damn Will anyhow, and his dramatics. He hadn't followed his own advice, now, had he? Cecily had been ready to join her brother, had known what he was planning -- and had only just thought out her revelation to him when he'd suddenly headed off in the night.
Although, to be fair, maybe he had believed her ploy along with everyone else. Father certainly had, and her eldest brother had not been any wiser, not to mention his wife, who didn't have the sense God gave a goat. But she generally credited Will with considerably more understanding than the rest of her family.
Perhaps she had become, over the past two years, entirely too good an actress. It had gotten her left alone, and beyond anything else Cecily had always just wanted her freedom; it had been granted her until she'd come of age for skirts and her father had recognized he had yet another gift to offer in his relentless pursuit of Norman favor.
"You need to eat, my lady," Alysoun clucked quietly over the bit of bread and cheese and small ale she'd managed to bring up the tower stairs.
Cecily sighed. "I bless you for bringing it," she told her, "and will make an effort, if only for the danger it cost you."
"There's winter fruit yet. Dried apples, more like than not."
"Don't risk yourself for my rebellious appetite, Alys." Cecily wrapped herself up in one of the blankets and sat on the bed. "Bring me a little something when you can, but please no more than once a day. You can't be caught, and I've made you vulnerable."
"Steward already suspects, I think," Alysoun said, "but he's not saying a word. More of us approve of your doings than you would think, my lady. Keep me in your prayers and eat your bread. Stay strong. We will do what needs doing for you."
"I must live with less, like an anchorite," Cecily told her. "I do not know when I can escape, and meanwhile it is important that they believe that they are wearing me down."
"Escape, miss? But wherever would you go? There is no place for a lady alone on her own. Pray let me go with you, at least."
"And leave Ralf and your girls at home? No, Alys, I do have a plan, and I have friends, barring that. And there's the church, at last resort, though I suspect I would make a poor anchorite in truth."
"Indeed, my lady. You'd be best off marrying your fat Norman baron and hoping he leaves you a young widow, if your plan is the Sisters of Watersmeet."
"Widowhood has its appeal. Although, I suppose drowning him in his own soup would be a mortal sin. And there would still need to be a wedding night." She shuddered. "The man is a toad bewitched to look like a person."
"I am fairly certain that tale goes the other way round, my lady."
"Not in this case." Cecily tapped her fingers against her lips. "Alys, could you or one of your comrades perhaps slip into Will's room and take a couple of his old things? A tunic, breeches, perhaps boots?"
Alysoun considered this, nodding, walking around Cecily's bed so that she could consider her from every angle. "My girl Joan has an old pair would suit you better. She's grown up straight as a rod, that girl, feet even bigger than yours."
Cecily stared at her a little while, overwhelmed by her chambermaid's loyalty and generosity. She slid off the bed, opened the chest at its foot, and dug out the gold torc her mother had left her. She kissed it and slid it into Alyson's hand. "Keep it or sell it."
Alysoun blinked. The torc was worth at least a year' pay, Cecily reckoned, and well-earned. "I am paid well enough for my work, Lady Cecily."
"You are not paid at all for the risk you bear for me. You don't fool me, either, Alys. Your daughter's boots fit her perfectly well."
"It is too fine a thing for the likes of me!"
"Then Lady Marian of Trafford and her people will know where to sell it. You and your family may need to leave Norwell if you are suspected.” She poked bout in the trunk; it was, predictably, somewhat disorganized. “There's jewelry in here and I won't take it, so take whatever you need. Leave a little something and perhaps they won’t be able to tell anything’s missing. I don't doubt they will try to secure the valuables and cut their losses, once they know I'm gone."
“Alysoun.” Cecily grasped Alys’ shoulders and kissed her forehead. “You have been my rock ever since I was born. You are the best and most reliable friend I have in this world, and I am leaving you and your family in grave danger. All I have to give you is gratitude, prayers, and a little gold. Please take these things from me.”
Alysoun tilted her head in that considering way she had, and then nodded. “I thank you, my lady. And I suspect you will also need a few lengths of good stout rope, come tonight."
(2) Knowing the direction is not the same as knowing the way
The one thing Cecily hadn’t really understood about the forest dark was that she truly couldn’t see anything. Not her hand in front of her face. Just the endless glow of stars through the trees. She’d picked a new moon for her escape, thinking it would make her more difficult to catch in the act of climbing down her tower. She’d forgotten that she, too, was affected by the lack of light.
Her hands still burnt from the rope. She’d nearly fallen into the midden at one point. Dramatic escapes went much more easily in bard’s tales.
Will was a skilled hunter and had learned to move quietly in the woods, but Cecily had never picked up the knack. The more quietly she tried to move, the more she was likely to crash through the brush and knee-high trees. She rested, finally, against a great oak. She was reasonably certain she was well into Sherwood, but from here she had little chance of finding where her brother had gone. Due southeast, he’d heard him telling Marian, and she’d tracked the pole star dutifully, but it did little good.
It was all much, much harder than Will had ever made it look. Damn him again. She opened her flask of plain water and drank, hands beginning to shake. She'd thought she'd enured herself to real hunger, but a night's trek had her dizzy with it. It was one thing, she supposed, to refuse food while walking to and fro in a single room; quite another to cross an English countryside on foot in the chill of early spring. She grabbed for her pocket and wolfed the bread and cheese she'd spurned that morning with real, blessed appetite.
She was damp, covered in mud, exhausted, footsore, and felt as though she might collapse. Yet she was free.
(3) All change is farewell
Cecily supposed she did look like a lad of twelve, and a poorly-maintained twelve, at that. She'd hacked off most of her hair with the dullish knife Alysoun had managed to procure for her. It looked wretched, so far as Cecily could tell; stick-straight and mouse-brown, it flew out of its haphazard queue every third minute. At least it was distractingly ugly, she supposed, and kept her fellow outlaws from noticing other signs that might give her away - a trick of movement, or a habit of speech, that might betray her.
It was enough that she needed to stay close to the trees and bolt up them whensoever Will or Marian came within earshot. "I suppose you knew them in your old life," Little John had mused in his rumbling, quiet way. "You need not fear discovery here, but perchance you need to discover that for yourself, with time."
Cecily spied nightly from her perch above the Greentree "court," gazing down at her brother, and ofttimes, at Marian as well. She ached to jump down and embrace Will, and then perhaps to smack him across the face, and then embrace him again. She hung on Marian's words as she always had, whenever her old friend was in the camp. She could think of no better model to excuse her own behavior -- and yet even Marian came less and less often to Greentree as the weeks passed.
Cecily's observations made her certain she would lose her place if Little John discovered she was Lady Cecily rather than merely Cecil. Little John often would argue his position that the women of their band should be moved on to Growling Falls for their protection -- though at least he had sense enough to only say so when Marian was not around.
Cecily’s new master clearly believed that a disaffected Saxon scion of undetermined age could be made useful, but that a highborn lady never could. With the obvious exception allowed only because Marian had been a member of the band from its first day, and yet even she slept under a roof at nights.
Eva and Sibyl ignored Little John's concerns, deflecting them wordlessly by capably doing their share of the watch. Matilda sniffed, disbelieving that the camp could even pretend to function without her. And Marjorie scrubbed pots; there was no talk of Marjorie asking to do aught else. Which supported Little John's argument, perhaps.
Cecily considered Eva and Sibyl, and thought of speaking with them in secret. They knew better than anyone the art of keeping a woman's place as a full member of Robin's company. But Eva and Sibyl were isolated from the others, mainly caught up in each other, and there was an understanding between them which made Cecily wary of barging in on them and demanding they shift their camaraderie to include another.
Also, Eva and Sibyl did not seem as close to the center of Greentree as Will -- and Cecily knew that, should she choose to show herself, she would want to claim a place next to her brother. Better to wait until Little John declared her a full member of the band, if that ever happened. And then, perhaps like Marian, she would have earned her own way.
Or perhaps Cecily would finally give up this madness and take herself to a convent. Which option she considered every morning as she scrabbled her fingers through her hair and surreptitiously tightened the binding around her meager breasts. The likelihood of convent life, however, diminished every day. It was as if Cecily could almost envision the faint spirit of Cecily of Norwell, now a chaste sister, counting away the hours until Lauds on her beads.
That pale little ghost knew nothing of Cecil, the honorable outlaw. Cecil knew how to hunt, now, how to track (though none so stealthily as Will), how to defend himself with a quarterstaff or throw a larger opponent. His shooting was getting better every day -- if Cecil was no Marian, he was at least the equal in archery of Much or (which never failed to amuse and astonish) of Robin himself.
Cecily was perhaps made up of two separate people, but she knew which one she would rather pick.
"Look here, lad, you might as well gather firewood if you're only woolgathering," Matilda told Cecily, and threw an end of bread towards her for her trouble. "And keep an eye out for a bit of wild cabbage or greens, do you see any."
Cecily hastened to obey. Let no member of Robin's band see her pulling less than her own weight. And more than that, if possible.
(4) The truth shall set you free
Perhaps it was no more than a minute. The lapse in time, however, between the incongruously loud rip in Cecily’s shirt and the comprehension flashing in Little John’s eyes seemed to go on at least, perhaps, a month.
“Your chest is wrapped,” Little John said slowly, as if not quite crediting what he was seeing.
Cecily ran through a thousand responses in her head, from you broke my ribs last sennight to at least it keeps out the damp, and settled on, “I know, they’re not much, but they would show if I didn’t bind them.”
Little John nodded, slowly, thoughtfully, and stood up from where he’d been bent over her, concerned his last throw had hurt her. And then the shouting started.
Cecily couldn’t make out much sense, so startled she was by quiet, rumbling Little John giving full voice to his displeasure. She comprehended that her master felt lied to and betrayed, but beyond that, blood was rushing into Cecily’s head with the thought he means to send me away echoing louder than her own pulse. Little John compelled her toward the center of camp. “Let Robin hear of this, for I have no good judgment right now.”
“You needn’t grab at me, I will do as you say, have I not these past weeks?”
“I wonder, Cecil, have you?”
When Robin called them out for their howling, they both quieted immediately and stared at each other like two wild beasts, each uncertain of which was the predator and which the prey. Go or I will make you go, said Little John’s tilted head and stubborn glare, so Cecily went, for good or for ill exposed, now, to the other members of their band.
"I am worth my salt," Cecily argued, and then finally got to throw herself into Will’s disbelieving arms. She damned him all of her many accumulated damns for leaving her at Norwell, but not once, having gained her brother back, did she let go of him.
“Cecily could come,” Little John said, as talk turned to the Nottingham fair, and she almost gasped in startlement. “We are accustomed to each other.” And if he did not meet her eye, still that acknowledgment -- that Cecily, Cecily the girl, could still be as useful as Cecil -- warmed her in a way the fire alone could not.
(5) We will be someone else tomorrow
The wedding was simple but well-attended; not only their vast network of (hastily pardoned) friends, but also Sir Richard’s retinue, many of the King’s courtiers (who followed the Lionheart like a flock of sheep), and old Hugh of Trafford. That worthy had bestirred himself from his hearth and came to Mapperley to see his daughter wed. This act of largesse, perhaps more than even the king’s pardon, lent a touch of respectability to the shocking wedding of Robin Hood and his Maid Marian.
Chief among the guests was Lord Thomas of Norwell himself – Will and Cecily’s brother. “Father,” he explained, “simply cannot afford to be seen to be giving his approval to this affair. But he didn’t wish to give insult, and Marie wanted to see Robin Hood in person.” He gestured towards his wife, immaculately coiffed and gowned, who looked at Cecily as though contemplating a toad. Cecily looked right back. She’d managed something with her hair, and wore a gown as well-made as her sister-in-law’s, but felt as far removed from Marie’s world as Marie evidently did from Cecily’s.
“What think you of him,” Will asked, “now that you have seen him?”
“I thought he might be taller,” said Marie wistfully. “Or more handsome, like the Lionheart.”
The children of Hugh of Norwell all stood together and, as one, contemplated the infamous groom and his slight, average plainness. “Cecily, if Father will not ask it, I shall.” Thomas looked at her, eyes stern, and their brief moment of camaraderie faded. “When will you come home?”
“Tom,” Will began, but Cecily hushed him.
“No, I will answer for myself. The answer is never. I am sorry, but you have lost your sister. She was captured by outlaws in Sherwood, lived unchaperoned for months, and has been seduced from her rightful place by a landless, penniless freedman.”
“Cecily --!” Thomas began, but she ignored him.
“We’ll be married on the morrow, just us and a few witnesses. You’re welcome to come if you wish. But personally I don’t think you can afford to be seen giving your approval to such an affair.”
And with that, Cecily, of Norwell no more, crossed the room on long legs to find Little John, his head towering above the rest of the crowd. He laid his hand on her arm as gently as a kiss, with that ease of familiarity found only between true comrades.