by REAGAN MOTSINGER - February 19, 2020
I perch in the treetop, bow pointed down at the dirt path below. There’s no sign of the king’s ambush yet, but they’ll be here any minute. I really can’t afford to get distracted, but there is a significance, a certain nostalgia, to the trail I watch from the limb of my tree.
Three years ago, I skipped down the very same silty path, a naive fifteen-year-old girl on the way to visit my grandmother. I’d decided that morning that I was leaving home and never coming back, so maybe she would shelter me. It was unlikely, but she was my last hope.
I heard a rustle in the leaves to my left, and I pivoted, brandishing my knapsack at my invisible pursuer. Nothing emerged from the leafy undergrowth, so I continued on cautiously until my grandmother’s cottage was in sight, cresting the top of a tiny hill.
Snuffling sounds and soft growls filled the air. I shifted my eyes, my stomach knotting up as I surveyed the scene. I shifted my knapsack and reached for my bow, but I never got it off my back. Out of nowhere, a cloaked form jumped from the bushes and slammed into me, knocking me over into the brush. Twigs snagged my hair and sliced into my skin as I spun through the grass. My red cloak coiled around my body tightly as I went. I rubbed my shoulder where I could feel a bruise blossoming as the man got off me and rolled to the balls of his feet, brushing himself off.
“What was that for?” I demanded cuttingly.
“You could say I just saved your life, Red,” the man, no older than twenty, answered with a cocky grin. He raised one eyebrow playfully, which tugged the small scar running through it taut. “I think you owe me something.”
“My name is Thalia,” I grunted, pushing the hood of my cloak off my head, only to reveal even deeper red hair. “And how, exactly, is that?”
“There are wolves around. My men are hunting them right now, but when I saw you coming closer to their territory, I had to push you off their path,” he responded. He paused and held out one hand. I took it cautiously, and he pulled me off the ground. “Why are you out here, anyway?”
I sighed. “I don’t belong in my family. I came to escape.”
“So join me!” he exclaimed. “I’m Robin Hood, by the way.” He ran a hand through his hair, seemingly embarrassed that he’d forgotten such a critical detail.
“The Robin Hood?” My eyes widened as I looked him over.
“Yes. Now, do you want to get off the ground and become part of my gang, or would you rather stay here and be wolf bait, rendering all my efforts to save you entirely fruitless? We could use someone like you.”
“Why do you want me?” I spluttered.
He gestured to my bow. “I’d wager that you know how to use that.”
“Of course I do,” I replied proudly. “But my-- my grandmother…”
“There’s no time, Thalia.” His eyes were filled with sorrow as he uttered the words. How strange that such a jocular man could sober so quickly.
I reluctantly stepped closer, and he boosted me up onto a low tree branch. “I hope I don’t regret this,” I said, pausing on the branch and leaning down toward him.
“You won’t,” he replied, following close behind me and urging me to keep climbing. When we reached the top, I glanced down mournfully at the wolf pack surrounding the tiny, unprotected house one last time before Robin guided me to a hidden bridge that would take me to his treehouse headquarters.
I chuckle involuntarily as I remember the men’s reactions. Who wouldn’t be shocked that the fierce, brave leader of a thief gang brought a scrawny, runaway girl into their midst? I showed them, of course, but they were taken aback for the moment.
“What’s so funny?” Robin whispers from the neighboring tree.
“Nothing,” I reply, smiling at him and returning my focus to the task at hand. I can still feel his eyes on me, and I have to repress the urge to make a face. He’s my boss, my big brother, my best friend. That’s it. “Focus, Robin.”
“I don’t believe you’re in charge, Thalia,” he retorts.
“But I have a point.” I turn and playfully aim my arrow at him for just a second, emphasizing my pun, before looking at the ground again. The royal guard will be here with the neighboring kingdom’s payment for supplies any minute, and we need to be ready. More importantly, though, I don’t want to hurt him. I have an accident-free record, and I’d like to keep it that way.
One of the other lookouts blows a twittering bird whistle, signaling that our enemy is near. I pull the bowstring taut just as the first carriage appears at a fork in the trail. It rattles closer, looking so small and fragile from up here. Let’s hope it is, I think, shooting off the first arrow.
I nock another as they begin to rain down on the royal carriage. The trees fill with shouts as the men in the lower branches leap down to knock out the guards and retrieve the treasure. I shoot at the second carriage as it rolls out of the trees, wedging my arrow perfectly between the spokes of its wheel. Robin exhales in soft astonishment, and I pin him with a piercing look. “What? I never miss,” I gloat.
We climb rapidly down the tree trunks and join the others on the ground, gathering up the spoils. The others clap us on the backs. I grin at them, my brothers and weird uncles, as I pass and kneel on the ground, wrenching my arrow from the second carriage and sliding it back into the quiver on my back. Robin pats the horses on their noses in an attempt to calm them down.
Our fearsome leader leaves his new pets and calls everyone together to discuss strategy. Since we already have the carriages, we’ll just drive them straight into the kingdom at nightfall, deliver their goods to the poor, and leave the broken carriages at the castle gates as a message to the brutal king and queen.
The sun begins to sink below the horizon, marking the beginning of our journey. It paints the sky in soft watercolor hues as we clamber into the carriages and drive off.
I huddle in the corner of the cushioned bench, my head bumping the wall every so often as we hit a rogue cobblestone. The men quietly discuss how to divvy up the gold for delivery as we drive on.
A short while later, the carriage rolls to a slow stop, and I hear our driver murmuring to the guards at the gate. I stand up slowly, prepared to threaten the man, but it’s not necessary. We ride into the outskirts of the kingdom just as night blankets the landscape.
As the carriage pulls into an empty alley, I peek through the window to check that the coast is clear before signaling to the others. They throw open the doors and jump out, tossing sacks of gold coins onto the dirt below. Once our carriage is empty, I step out, holding the door frame for balance with one hand and gripping my bow with the other. Someone passes me my deliveries, and I hook them on my belt in a well-rehearsed motion.
“It’s time,” Robin whispers. I nod. We fan out in all directions, armed with our bows, to deliver money in the night.
Each door I knock on is answered by a tired, haggard-looking peasant, but when I untie a small sack from my belt loop, the figure’s eyes light up with joy, wonder, and amazement. Some ask how they can repay me, and I have to resist the urge to make a sarcastic comment. They don’t exactly have money to spare, hence why I’m here….
Once the gold is exhausted, I begin the hike back to the carriages. On the way, I get distracted by the stars, so I don’t notice when someone else joins me.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Robin asks, drawing me out of my reverie.
I gasp and search the area until I spot him. “Oh, it’s you.” I exhale slowly, feeling my pulse in my chest as I try to calm down. It’s only fear that spiked my heart rate, that’s all. Nothing else. “I thought I was caught. But yes, the stars are incredibly beautiful.”
“Watching them is my favorite part of our midnight quests,” he breathes. He glances at me with a sly grin. “Well, almost.”
“You sneaky fox,” I tease, rolling my eyes and turning away from him. I cross my arms across my chest and look up again.
He chuckles and falls silent, and I sneak one glance at him. He’s staring at the sky again. Better. His attention’s off me for the moment. I focus the stars again, following the constellations with my eyes and breathing in the cool night air. I sit down and lean against the stone wall of a shop, mesmerized by the simple beauty of it.
“Thalia?” Robin says, breaking the silence. “Do you ever feel like what we do isn’t enough?”
“What? No, why would I?” I blink to clear my thoughts. “Robin, we’re saving people. What more can people like us do?”
He sighs. “We could give the king and queen a taste…. Wait, that’s it! Thalia, come with me! We’re taking revenge for all the common folk today!”
“What?” I splutter. He ignores me and snatches my hand, pulling me off the ground and taking off at a sprint.
The castle looms above us, dark and foreboding, as we get closer. Someone made the hasty decision to leave the portcullis open, so we have one less stealth operation to fuss over. Robin skirts through the hallways as if he’s been here before. I don’t doubt that he has. I push my questions aside and follow him through cold stone corridors until the sound of soft conversation drifts under the closed door at the end of the hallway.
“The people are further indebted to us every day,” the queen says in a haughty voice. I picture her holding up a fancy wine glass, and I can’t resist the urge to make a face. Disgusting. Despicable. Ugh. “Do you really think that Robin Hood and his fools could save them even if they did pay a visit tonight?”
“He’s a tricky fellow,” the king answers in his deep drone. Robin chooses that moment to fling the door open. I swiftly draw my bow and point it at the rulers, who turn around in their armchairs, looking...mildly surprised.
“Hello, darlings,” the queen’s cold voice threatens, frosting the whole room.
“Don’t try to threaten us,” her husband adds dryly.
“Robin, what exactly was your plan?” I hiss, my arm going weak from flexing. My queen doesn’t seem all that afraid of me.
Robin looks around frantically, searching for a closer-range weapon. “This!” he cries, seizing a piece of kindling from the foot of the fireplace and dipping one end into the flames. He brandishes the stick at the king, who backs up, finally looking sensibly afraid.
The king backs up to the wall and plucks a sword off a hook. It swishes through the air, missing Robin’s nose by centimeters. He taunts his opponent and jumps backward, and I have to avert my eyes. Daring idiot.
The queen stares at me, making a sudden dash for the door. I snatch another sword off the wall and hold it up to her swiftly, cutting her off from the exit. I smirk at her across the flashing blade, the tip buried in an enormous portrait of the princess.
Scree! the king’s sword scrapes the stone wall. The queen retreats, cowering behind her husband with a glare in my direction. The king slashes through the air in Robin’s direction, but instead of hitting him, he knocks the makeshift torch out of his hand. Robin jumps aside as the ornate carpet catches on fire. He leaps across the floor and lands beside me, clutching my shoulders for support. I steady him and smirk. “You alright?” I tease.
Before he can answer, a scream pierces the air. I whip my head around and watch the queen scrabble against the wall, her fingers searching for anything to grab onto. The drapes, furniture, and carpet are all aflame, scorching the stone and creeping closer to the rulers, pressed against the window. Their robes are singed at the hems.
Robin steps away from me, carefully navigating the chamber and stretching out a hand to the queen. She stares at it longingly, but the king squeezes her hand in his. She looks at him, the resolution in her eyes hardening. “No,” she says to Robin, sticking out her chin curtly. “We will never take help from the likes of you.”
He stands in the center of the room, still reaching out in the hope of helping them. In that instant, something finally clicks inside my brain. I can’t watch him die here. He’s too important to me. “Robin…” I squeak. He turns back to me, and we run out of the room. My partner is out of breath as he stares at me.
“You saved my life,” he whispers in awe. “Without you there, I would’ve died.”
“I think you owe me something,” I tease, smirking.
“And what would that be?” he says, his eyes gleaming mischievously.
Robin is aghast. His mouth drops open, and I can’t hold back my laughter at the fishy face he makes. I take a step forward, and he pulls me in.
Our kiss is interrupted a moment later by a voice. “The customary two-week mourning period will have to begin tomorrow, and make sure Robin Hood and all of his men are at my coronation. I wish to knight them,” Princess Aurelia commands, rounding a corner with one of her ladies. I glance over curiously to gauge her reaction to the traumatic events Robin and I set off. Her eyes are red and puffy with tears, but she stands with confident posture, ready to take on her royal duties and aid her people. I can already see the change ahead for our kingdom.
“Princess?” Robin asks, pivoting away from me. “Do you truly mean that?”
Aurelia excuses herself from the other woman and bustles over to us. “Robin Hood,” she breathes, wiping tears from her eyes. “I want to thank you for all of your help to our kingdom. I loved my parents, and of course I’m distraught,” she sniffles, “but I detested the way they ruled. I want you and your men to join my knights to aid and protect our kingdom.”
“We would be honored to accept,” he says graciously. “But you can’t forget to include the best of my ranks, who is not a man.” He takes my hand and urges me forward.
“So you’re the legendary Red Riding Hood,” she whispers in awe.
The next two weeks pass quickly. Coronation day dawns warm and sunny. We leave the woods in carriages sent from the palace to collect us. It’s strange to think how much life has changed in those two weeks.
When we reach the castle, I have to separate from my family. The princess’s ladies fawn over me and pull me down a long corridor, where they help me choose a dress and do my hair. It feels like a lot, but it’s not entirely unpleasant. I actually sort of enjoy being spoiled like this.
I find my family again in the throne room. We sit at the back of the dais, watching the bishop crown Aurelia queen, and Robin squeezes my hand.
“My first act as your queen,” Aurelia proclaims as the applause dies down, “is to induct all of these brave souls behind me into the royal knighthood.” We stand, and one by one, the queen knights each archer.
I’m the last in the line. Aurelia grins at me, and I am certain that my queen will trust me with many things, both important and trivial, in the near future. I kneel before her. She gently taps each of my shoulders with the blade of a sword, and I rise to my feet again. “Lady Thalia,” she projects to the audience. They applaud, and I join my brothers at the back of the stage again.
Aurelia turns her head and nods at Robin, who takes me by the hand and pulls me out of line. “Thalia, I’m in love with you. Can I be your knight in shining armor?”
“What?” I laugh in confusion.
He grins at me, turning on his full charm. “What I mean to say is, will you marry me, fair lady?"
“I’m sorry, are you serious?” I ask again. “Is this a prank?”
“No, I mean it. I’ve been struck by Cupid’s arrow. Please say you feel the same.”
I smirk at him. “You know I do.”