Robin and Marian fight each other as much as the enemy...
"Ah, so you had to prop her bottom with both hands?"
"No! I - I don't know what I did."
"I do. You acted a perfect pig!"
Robin Hood stifled a groan. His head throbbed, his stomach churned, his ears rang, his vision blurred. Worst, Marian yammered like a woodpecker to drill his wooden head full of holes. Even the late spring sun hounded him, searing his eyes as he stumbled along the forest path. "It was - quite a dance."
"You outstepped Saint Vitus, you vulgar swine!" Marian was dressed like her husband in a green shirt and deerhide tunic and soft hat sporting a pheasant feather. Like her husband, she wore a quiver and an Irish knife and carried her longbow ready in her left hand. "You clutched that saucy tart as tight as any tankard!"
"Folks give me drinks. 'S rude to deny 'em."
"Such chivalry! My mother warned me not to marry an outlaw!"
"'N the one time she was right, you didn't listen."
"Take my soul! Now you'd defame my mother?"
"No! Ow, my head! I - what the hell?"
The trail intersected another wending east-west. Eastward lay the Greenwood, but Robin blocked Marian from stepping. Dropping to one knee, and gurgling inside, he squinted through a headache at the muddy track.
He studied the track for a number of yards. Twice he put his hand alongside a footprint, then laid his head to peer sideways. He measured the length of strides against his bow, then traced a small scuffed print.
Rising, he pronounced, "The king's foresters have made off with a girl."
Arms crossed, Marian asked, "What?"
"Look. Poison Hugh has a crippled toe that turns out. He's head forester. These other two must be foresters, because their stride glides like ours. This'n must be Osborn because it's his bailiwick and he's big. They drag a girl against her will. Her feet are tiny and toed-in in doghide slippers. See how she stumbles? Here she dug in her toes but got yanked along, likely bound by the wrists. Why else would a girl travel with loutish foresters except by force?"
Marian looked at the jumbled tracks of men and deer marring the mud, then snorted. "You made that up."
"Made it up?" Robin's jaw dropped. He spread his hands at the trail. "It's plain as a page of Scripture!"
Marian gazed at treetops. "I suppose it might rain."
"I - I disbelieve this! You doubt my word?" Robin trotted a dozen feet down the tail and pointed. "Look! She planted both feet and went to her knees, but here she's dragged again."
Marian turned a beech leaf to study its underside. "Be time to pick mugwort soon."
Robin Hood pinched the edge of a footprint to find it still sharp-cut, not yet crumbling. He pressed a callused thumb and watched dampness recede. "An hour agone. Let's get after them." Eyes on the trail, bow bobbing in his left hand, Robin Hood trotted.
Skipping, Marian caught up. "If you think this excuses your boorish behavior, you're dead wrong."
Thumping along, skull throbbing, Robin snapped, "I've half a mind to let these kidnappers keep the girl just to spite you."
"So?" Marian sniffed. "If a helpless girl is abused, what matter? What's the suffering of one more woman in this man's world?"
"It's men suffer the vexations of women. Ask Adam."
"Ywis! Blame Eve! 'T'was her done it, Lord! She made me eat of the fruit! I never had a thought for myself, nor will I shoulder the blame, so help me Almighty God!'"
Bile bubbled in Robin's throat, but he refused to slow. "You concede there is a girl in distress?"
"I concede no such thing," Marian retorted.
Robin suddenly halted. "She's gone."
"No. Someone's hoisted her on his shoulder. Osborn, probably. His tracks deepen and shamble. She must be a handful." Moving on, Robin nodded. "Here she is. Too much trouble to lug. I hope she doesn't resist too long. They might find it easier to knock her on the head." He resumed trotting.
"That's men for you." Marian puffed alongside. "Cruel. Unkind. Liars, cheaters, gropers."
"I wonder if this girl gives them an earful like some I could name. I wonder if she was at the wedding. Everyone in Nottinghamshire was there. If she left early -"
"For a secret rendezvous with a dashing outlaw?"
"Eh? No! I just wonder if -"
"If she exists? Likely you hope't so. Dozens of girls fell over their feet to dance with you."
"Is that knavery?" Robin jog-trotted, watching the trail but the woods too, as always, for oddities or ambush. "You circled young men laughing gay as a lark."
"Would you have me pine under some arbor? A weeping willow, mourning unloved and unattended?"
Robin paused as the tracks swerved towards brush. "She broke away. But they caught her again." The outlaw swiped at a bush and found a long hair, held it against the sky, then a tree trunk. "She's blonde."
Raven-tressed Marian sniffed. "Surprise."
Watching his wife, Robin Hood ran the hair through his mouth. Tasting, he mused, "She's... fourteen, this high, blue-eyed, dressed in red... Her name is Mary."
Marian frowned under dark brows. "You are such a liar. An evil, low, lying blackhearted dog!"
"A goodly gazehound, let's hope." Robin trotted. "Come, before they hurt her."
Panting alongside, Marian groused, "Behold who speaks of hurting! I can't believe I married you. I should have bid the huntsman sic the hounds when first you sniffed round my door!"
"Wouldn't w-work." Robin belched thunderously and gasped, but felt better. "Dogs like me."
"Foul. Like likes like. I should have had my brothers thrash you!"
"When I was sneaking in," Robin laughed, "or sneaking out at dawn?"
"Don't you besmirch me, you malken trash!" Marian's dark eyes smoldered as her hair bounced around her shoulders. "I never let you stay the night! And I never shall again!"
"As I recall, your brothers begged me on bended knee to take you off their hands."
"They did not!"
"Picklepuss, they called you. Shrew-tongue. Hammer-fist, too."
"You lie! They'd never slander me! They daren't!"
"I told them, 'I don't understand. Marian, my sweet poppet? She's gentle as a milch cow and tender as a lily!' Oh, Lord, they laughed to split their spleens! I thought they'd never stand erect again. They offered me the Rushcliffe wapentake to marry you because it's the farthermost fief and they reckoned to only suffer you at Christmastide."
"Lies, lies, lies."
"Did you really push Galliard out a window? And set Marshall's clothes on fire? And lock Sidney in a tower?"
"I'll kill them," Marian growled. "As God is my judge, I'll make them suffer."
"Marry them off. That'll do it." Robin Hood stopped abruptly. "No hope. An hour'r more ahead. They could harm the girl grievously before we catch them. If we catch them."
"If there's a girl."
"Yes, if." Robin scanned the forest. "Advise me..."
"Why think?" snapped Marian. "Why not indulge your basest instincts? Just do as you will, heedless of consequence. Such you've always done. Why change now?"
Stroking his head, Robin mapped trails in his mind. "Too true. Plunging into marriage has been the ruin of a good woman. The poor creature's wasted the prime of her life on an undeserving cad..."
"God wot't. A woman's a fool to marry."
"Hmm? Softly, now... If Osborn drags the girl but not the other two, 'haps only Osborn has designs on her... Yes, we'll essay. Come, Marian."
Leaving the trail, bearing south, Robin cut cross-country. Nimbly he and Marian dodged beech and oak trees, then startled a herd of fallow deer dappled yellow and white. Marian panted, "Where do we go?"
"Osborn has a croft at Elmsley. I doubt he'd take her there. Even a forester can't drag a girl about like a balky calf. But there's a hut near the old iron mines at Black Hill. We'll diverge to the path to Brown's Covert and cut their trail."
"And if we don't?" asked Marian.
"I'm proved wrong and you can gloat. And an innocent girl suffers. Any road, it wasn't my idea."
"To marry. I had no say. Ever since I could walk I tripped over this skinny girl with dark hair who'd tell me, 'We're going to be married, Robert Locksley.' Crass to take advantage of an eight-year-old. Still, it saved me seeking a betrothal."
"Lackaday. You needs practice for your next wife."
"Never. I'll abstain. I'll take the cowl and tend sheep."
"Much like the women you prefer. Fluffy and brainless and clinging for protection." In falsetto, Marian warbled, "'Ooh, Master Robin, you're so powerful strong you crush me like a rose blossom!'"
"Better the blossom than the thorns," muttered the husband. "And I can think of a few rosy buds I've nipped that delighted the gardener."
"Don't be crude."
They saved their breath for running. The shortcut was short only because it vaulted hills. They chugged upslope around ash trees towering like columns in a cathedral. Before long Robin raised his hand. They skipped across open heath, then crept through a scatter of silver birches on to a narrow trail of polished roots and rocks. Frustrated by lack of sign, Robin dashed along the path until he found a muddy wallow. Rising, he waved Marian behind a cuckoo oak, an ancient hollow trunk stuffed with saplings.
"They haven't passed," whispered Marian. "Even I see that."
"Never yet." Crouching in the scrub, Robin Hood slipped off his quiver and laid it atop his bow, as did Marian. He plied his Irish knife to cut and whittle a sapling. Too, he pointed with his knife to green shoots. "Adder's Tongue. Good omen."
Marian puffed and watched. "You'd attack three foresters with just a club?"
"What fear I to die if my Marian rejects me?" Robin's only sign of anxiety was to whittle the club obsessively. "Pray you're lucky and I'm killed. Men love to comfort a widow."
"Likely you'll fly off the handle and flounder. Besides all your other faults, you've a filthy temper."
"I can't indulge it today. We needs get the girl back."
"I remember that fair where the boor manhandled me. You half-killed the man. It took the entire Merry Men to pull you off. A horrid display!"
"Good thing I'm the only one in the family with a temper."
"Jape. Mock me." The Vixen of Sherwood tisked. "Why didn't I see your cruel streak? Why was I blind? What did I that God punished me with a vindictive vengeful louse for a husband?"
"Serves you well for not taking the veil. Decent women dedicate their chaste bodies to God, not bawdy pleasures. Do you want a stick?"
"Dare you tell me how to fight?"
"Never. You wouldn't listen anyway."
"Ro-bert Lock-sley -"
Silently they waited, hearing only their breathing. Then a small cry like a kitten's. The tramp of heavy feet. A girl whined and sobbed. A man growled. Creeping, without touching, Robin Hood peered through leaves. Came three foresters in brown with the king's arrow stitched on breast or hat. They wore quivers and weapon-knives, and one man carried two bows. Poison Hugh was unshaven and jowly and red-eyed. A second forester Robin didn't know. Osborn was a big brute dragging by rawhide thongs on her wrists a skinny girl in a bright gown and kirtle now tattered.
The Fox of Sherwood drew his long Irish knife and tucked it alongside the club in his fist. He hissed, "Make noise as if all the Merry Men. Here we go!
"Yahhhh! Have at them, me hearties! John, Scarlett, kill them all!"
Just past, the foresters had their backs turned. Surprise was complete as Robin and Marian leaped out roaring like lions and swinging weapons.
The unknown forester bolted headlong. Poison Hugh fumbled his bow to draw his sax-knife. Osborn whirled the wrong way and tangled with the bound girl. Robin Hood walloped Osborn's knee so he crashed to earth. Marian charged Poison Hugh with her long keen blade laid along her forearm. As Hugh shrank back, Marian slashed the villain's sleeve and tunic straight across. Blood welled. Hugh shrieked and stumbled.
With both felons down, Robin Hood chucked the club, snipped the girl's thongs an inch above Osborn's fingers, caught her arm, and half-pitched her at the scrub. Snatching up quivers and bows, making sure Marian followed, he gasped, "Run like the wind!"
Hard they pelted past trees and through bracken, not letting up until they were half a mile from the path. Only then did Robin collapse to his knees. And laugh and laugh, sobbing for breath. Marian crumpled too, gasping and giggling. "Benedictee! Did you see - their faces? Lord - we showed them! Oh, dear - oh, dear, what's your name?"
Still in the grip of terror, the girl hiccuped, "M-M-Mary."
Robin Hood hooted. Marian tried to glare, but rubbed her nose and smiled. "A lucky guess. Don't fret, honey, we'll see you safe."
"God's fish and teeth!" gasped Robin. "That'll teach those foresters to cross you, Marian! You half-dressed Poison Hugh like a prize pricket! Oh, you're wonderful. The most boon companion a man could want! Come to my arms, turtledove!"
"Ooh, you're so aggravating! You really are impossible!" But Marian scuffed on her knees into her husband's embrace. Passionately they kissed, though their noses ran and they lacked breath. Coming up for air, Robin squeezed Marian so hard she grunted.
"See, Marian?" laughed Robin. "You're the only woman I could desire. And so beautiful when you're angry. Far more stunning and exciting than any scrawny minx from Clipstone."
"What?" Marian shoved free of her husband's clinch. Dark eyes hots, she snarled, "You still think of her? And dare compare her to me? You swine! You cur! You lowly stinking toad!..."