Chapter 1: Prologue
Disclaimer: all BBC Robin Hood characters and the show are the property of the BBC and Tiger Aspect Productions
Lulled by the rocking motion, Meg dozed, her head pillowed on the cushion she’d placed between her head and the side of the carriage.
She hadn’t had much sleep.
Two new suitors in the past week. One at last night’s meal, foisted on her without warning by her father and her uncle. They’d no doubt feared she might have skipped off somewhere and avoided the introduction, if she’d known; they were probably right.
This one, Sir Lionel something-or-other, had been more interested in the contents of his goblet than in her. Which didn’t bother her at all, not after the efforts of the younger one presented to her earlier in the week. Clean-shaven, with an angular face, Sir Sebastian had spent the entire evening trying to impress her with his talk of what was happening across the Channel. He was full of wild tales and bad poetry, which he said was all the rage at the Angevin court. The kindest interpretation she could put on this was that it was second-hand, received from a friend recently returned. She didn’t know why he bothered with his suit. It was clear from the way he spoke that he wished he could take himself off to foreign courts himself. Parental pressure, no doubt. She’d felt some sympathy for him, but not enough to make her like him. By the end of the evening, she’d asked to be excused. She’d struggled with an evening in his company; the thought of a lifetime had been daunting.
Her father hadn’t been pleased, and had considered staying another day. But Meg had had enough, both of suitors and of her cousins’ teasing. She was more than ready to be home. She would accept her father’s tirades, or his bouts of silent disapproval, as the price of some relative peace and quiet.
The cushion slipped then, and Meg’s head butted sharply against the edge of the window as the carriage jolted to a halt. Huffing, she tossed the cushion aside and sat up.
“What’s going on?” she asked, hearing shouts, and the clang of striking blades.
“Pull to the side,” Meg heard her father command.
“Where are we?” she asked.
Her maid pulled the curtain aside, and Meg climbed out onto the step…this was Locksley. Her father had said it would be quicker this way, but instead the road was blocked by a group of archers, who had their bows trained on the sheriff’s guards. Beyond this, Meg saw the oddest sight: a man, covered head to foot in metal, in full combat with another. The fight surged across road and yard, the two men mauling, shoving, swinging with vicious sweeps any makeshift weapon they could lay their hands on.
The taller one, the one in metal….surely the sheriff’s lieutenant, Guy of Gisborne? Which meant the other….
“Who’s that, do you think?” she asked.
Esther shrugged. Meg dropped lightly down, asking the man who stood nearest.
“Robin Hood, of course. And Guy of Gisborne. To your right!” he shouted, pressing forward to see better.
The villagers here blocked Meg’s view. She tried to push through, but stood in a pile left by a horse that coated her ankle. The smell was appalling. She ran back to the carriage, counting on the fight to keep everyone’s attention focused. Behind the carriage, Meg peeled off her hose, and looked around, unsure what to do with them.
Shouts then, and roars of laughter: Meg could smell the distinctive odour of lit pitch.
“Tell your men to withdraw, Sheriff!” she heard the outlaw yell.
Desperate now to see what was going on, Meg dropped her hose on the ground and in bare feet pushed and shoved her way to the front.
“My lord! Please!” she heard.
She finally saw what was happening; it was indeed Guy of Gisborne, his head being submerged in a trough of water. The outlaw gave no sign of showing mercy.
“You, er, seem to have overestimated Gisborne’s importance to me,” replied the sheriff.
Crucial seconds passed. No one was doing anything. Meg watched as the sheriff’s master-at-arms struggled beneath the surface. Eventually, Hood let him up for air. Pity leapt in Meg’s heart. She knew this man was the sheriff’s lackey, hated and feared, but to face such humiliation? Was there no one who would speak for him?
“Not even you would let him die,” the outlaw challenged.
“Erm, I have everything I could want.” Vaisey gestured at a bag held by the man next to him.
Provoked, the outlaw shoved Gisborne under again. Meg couldn’t stand it; he would drown, if this went on much longer. Could no one see that?
Apparently, one person could.
“Let him live.” The Lady Marian had slipped quietly from her place on the side-lines, and held a dagger up against a burly Moor. Meg had no idea why; from his apron, he must be the blacksmith.
“Who?” said the sheriff.
“Marian, what are you doing?” asked the sheriff, his tone genuinely perplexed.
Meg stopped listening, too preoccupied with how long Gisborne was being held under water. Finally, he was allowed up for air.
“Oh! My Lord! Please!”
Meg saw the expression of lazy disinterest in the sheriff’s eye.
“Let him die.”
Under again. The sheriff and Marian, back to bargaining.
Enough was enough.
Ignoring the sharp prick of stones on her bare feet, Meg sprinted. With no thought for her dignity, she clambered onto the edge of the tub and aimed a kick at the outlaw. Caught by surprise, he went down. Meg overbalanced, falling backwards into the dirt. Water splashed over her as Gisborne clambered out and fell, coughing and moaning.
Before Meg knew what was happening, the outlaw had leapt up. He ran to where the Lady Marian held the smith hostage.
“I’ll take that,” she heard him say.
Meg was dimly aware of negotiations continuing between Vaisey and Hood. But she was more concerned with the man still sputtering water beside her. He hauled himself up and lurched away; Meg, who couldn’t care less about rocks and smiths and whatever else they were discussing, trailed the master-at-arms, expecting her father to come for her at any moment. But she didn’t care. Gisborne’s piteous condition tugged at her heart.
He stumbled into the manor’s courtyard, where two servants began helping him remove the wet armour. Gisborne’s eyes were red-rimmed and defeated, and his hair hung down in wet, stringy strands. Meg stopped by the entrance, uncertain now what to do. She had no business here.
“Wait, girl.” Meg stopped, and turned back, but she didn’t enter the courtyard. “You saved my life. I’m grateful.”
His voice rasped from coughing up water. Meg, emboldened, walked into the courtyard.
“Well, it seemed like everyone else had too many agendas,” Meg observed. “I thought you needed someone to….”
“What’s that smell?” Gisborne interrupted, his nose wrinkling.
Meg looked down, as did he; mortified, Meg remembered her bare feet, and she saw now that the muck hadn’t only reached her hose. It was spattered across the hem of her skirt as well.
“Perhaps you should have gone in the tub instead of me,” the master-at-arms said gruffly.
Meg glanced up; was he making a joke, at a time like this? She had no time to consider this further, because then the Lady Marian arrived, and his attention was diverted. Whilst she would have listened to their conversation her father also arrived at that moment, hauling her away by one arm.
As they went out, Meg glanced back over her shoulder at the neat, poised figure of Lady Marian, while here she was making an ignominious exit, odour and all. Her face heated with embarrassment. Gisborne, still peeling off his damp armour, glanced over at her. Blue eyes met blue. A small smirk lifted one corner of his mouth.
Fine. How to make an impression.
But she found, as Lord Bennett half-dragged her along, making noises about behaving like a hoyden and her general lack of propriety, that she didn’t really mind.
I’m glad to entertain him. Perhaps it will make him feel better, if someone else is humiliated too.
Or so she told herself. To be honest she did wish, as her father bundled her back into the carriage, that the hem of her skirt hadn’t smelled quite so bad, and that she hadn't looked quite so foolish. She was nineteen years old, for heaven's sake; she wasn't a child, as the parade of her suitors made abundantly clear.
For not a single one of them would she have cared how she looked. But she found that, for this one time, she did.
Chapter 2: Snares
Six weeks later
Sitting there, docile, with her arms about his waist, and her nostrils filled with the smell of leather. A competent horsewoman, yet forced to sit meekly behind Guy, outwardly grateful for his protection. Subjected to the sheriff’s snide mockery…. sweet, he’d taunted, very sweet.
This is what it would have been like, how I would have had to behave, if we'd ever wed, thought Marian.
This wasn’t entirely fair. Guy had come for her - the sheriff, for his precious Sussex – and Marian knew that she should be grateful. But much as she’d hated Winchester’s possessiveness in the carriage, she’d had no doubt Robin would come. She stifled a sigh. If only he’d been on time to rescue her. How much rather she’d be with him in the forest, right now, snatching what moments they could before she had to return to the castle, than riding sedately here behind Gisborne on this damn horse.
Their mounts clattered into the yard of an inn, interrupting her thoughts.
“What are we doing? Why are we stopping?” she demanded.
“We can’t be seen returning with you to the castle,” Guy explained. “I’ll come for you later. We’ll receive word Winchester’s carriage was set upon by outlaws, but that you managed to escape.”
Marian could see the sense in this; their role in Winchester’s demise must be kept secret. It gave her pause, as they rode away….could she somehow use this knowledge against the sheriff? Could Robin? But then he already knew, because….
“Are you alright?” came a quiet voice behind her.
She jumped, annoyed and yet thrilled in equal measure. How does he always do that? Robin’s arms slid about her waist; Marian leaned back into his embrace, feeling the scruff of his beard against her face, the warmth of his breath on her cheek.
Then she remembered how close she’d come to losing him again…watching him feint and tussle with Allan over that vat of oil, it had almost stopped her heart…
And for such a foolhardy course of action. She pushed his arms down and away, and swung to face him.
“What did you think you were doing today?”
Robin frowned, his hands on his hips.
“What do you mean, what was I doing? Infiltrating a nest of traitors, of course.”
“And to what end? What did you think killing them might achieve?”
“Saving the king from their treachery, I’d have thought….”
“...well you didn’t think,” Marian interrupted hotly. “If killing the sheriff would bring the prince’s army down on Nottingham, what do you suppose killing a group of nobles gathered together in his support might do?”
“Nothing. If I’d ripped away his support base in one move, he would have had to be on good behaviour until the king returned.”
This checked Marian; she hadn’t thought of that.
“You don’t know that for sure; it was a terrible risk. And as for that note you left me….” here her voice quavered.
Robin picked up on this, instantly; his gaze softened, and a hand rose to caress her cheek.
“Is that what this is about?” he asked softly. “It’s alright, I’m safe – we both are. And you’re right, maybe I wasn’t thinking straight….but your father told me of Winchester’s plans for you and I…”
Robin’s hand dropped. He turned away; paced to the window, and stood looking out from behind the half-closed shutter. Marian waited, wondering – for it was in his eyes, and in his heart, she was sure - if he’d say the words. Those ones Djaq had once interrupted, as she lay close to death in the cave, or the ones he’d hinted at in his letter. Mostly for the life, the love we could not have….
But she was to be disappointed.
“….today I had the chance to change things….” he said instead.
“By becoming a cold-blooded killer?” Marian asked bitterly. “A chance to be the king’s saviour, to play the hero again….”
“Then yes – maybe. Sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture.”
“Even if it meant killing a dozen unarmed men?”
Robin looked at her oddly then, but all he said – in a tight, controlled voice – was:
“Traitors, Marian – don’t forget they’re all traitors.”
They glared at each other a few moments, having reached an impasse of misunderstanding. It was Robin who yielded first.
“You didn’t answer my question,” he said quietly. “Are you alright? Did Winchester touch you?”
“Not in any way that mattered.” Seeing the worry in his eyes, Marian relented. “I wasn’t afraid. I knew you’d come.”
“You are never afraid,” he murmured, coming to her and circling her waist with his arms.
“That’s not true,” she said, looking up at him. “I’m often afraid. Mostly for you.”
“And I for you.”
Robin leaned in, his lips brushing hers, and she gave herself up – for a time – to the fierce relief of having him here, and safe. For a time, as she felt the press of his thighs against hers, and the firmness of his arms about her, it was almost possible to pretend that they could be together, like any normal couple; to forget all the things that were keeping them apart.
Almost. It was Marian who drew back first.
“You can’t be found here,” she murmured. “Gisborne will be coming back for me.”
Robin said nothing. He just rested his forehead against hers a moment and then stepped back, keeping their fingers linked. Something occurred to Marian; she spoke urgently.
“Robin – they didn’t take me with them because they don’t want anyone to know they’ve killed Winchester. Could we use this against the sheriff, let the other Black Knights know that he’s killed one of their own to cause dissent?”
“If only….but we’ve no witnesses. They’d just deny it.”
Robin released her fingers; he moved away.
“I hate this,” she muttered furiously, knowing he’d be gone any moment, back into the forest.
“You know what I wish…..if there was any way….”
Marian shook her head.
“Wishes are a coin we can’t afford, Robin.”
“Then we are poor too,” he grinned, a teasing glint in his eye. “Which would suit Much; he’d say we deserve to be fed then, because we’re poor.”
“Fool,” she smiled. “Just go.”
And he went, and the day seemed to dim with his going.
Only this time the insult was directed at herself, for indulging in such a fanciful thought.
“Are you ready, Marian?” Guy asked.
“Yes,” she said, as she followed him out of the inn.
On the threshold, Marian paused: Guy knew he’d surprised her. She’d been expecting him to make her ride into Nottingham on the back of his horse, to relish the role of being her rescuer a little longer.
“Why wouldn’t I bring yours?” He leant down and murmured in her ear. “She needs the exercise, and you like to ride.”
As he watched Marian ahead of him, her gown a splash of red amid the drabness, Guy recalled the vicious satisfaction he’d felt thrusting that blade into Winchester. He’d needed that kill, to take away the taste of his failures that day – his failure to protect Marian, his failure to see through the scheme he'd devised to defy the sheriff. He didn’t think he would ever forget the look Marian had given him when she’d been taken away, her wrists shackled.
He watched her now, not needing to imagine his life without her. He’d just had a taste of it. Guy shuddered, thinking of where she could have been by then; of Winchester, laying his claim. A well-deserved death, that one.
Rescuer? Guy knew very well that had Vaisey not had his own ends to pursue, Marian would have been beyond his reach by now. So, although his demeanour gave no sign, Guy felt the heaped stresses of the day bearing down on him. He would see Marian back to the castle, he decided, and then leave her be. Besides, the sheriff would no doubt have a myriad of tasks waiting, tasks that would keep him occupied well into the night.
The bailey was deserted when they rode in, but a servant came down the steps to take their horses.
“Shall I have the lad see you to your room?” Guy asked.
“No, thank you. I must check on my father, and let him know I’m back safely.”
“Really, the dungeons? Wouldn’t you rather refresh yourself, after such a day? I can take the news to him for you.”
“My thanks, Sir Guy, but I would rather do it myself. Good evening to you.”
He watched her walk away, up the steps, leaving behind an absence of thanks for her rescue, and the same faint sheen of scorn and cool detachment that seemed to coat most of their exchanges. He sighed; at least everything was back to normal. He followed Marian’s footsteps into the castle.
“You.” He stopped a guard in the corridor. “Where’s the sheriff?”
“I think the Earl of Buckingham’s still here, I saw them together earlier.”
“Where?” Guy growled.
“Not sure, Sir Guy. They’re not in the hall, you could try…..”
With an impatient gesture Guy strode away, heading for the sheriff’s quarters. On the way he passed a serving boy bearing an empty tray out of a room, and he stood aside to let him pass.
“Yes…Gisborne….well, I have plans for him – quite delicious, too…..” Vaisey’s voice came from within.
Thoughtfully, Guy allowed the door to close. There were stairs leading to an upper gallery. Before taking them, he removed his boots, and shrugged out of his jacket. Then he took the stairs, stopping on the last step below the gallery. From there he could hear well enough, and movement wouldn’t attract attention.
Guy picked up the thread of the conversation again.
“Our dear friend Gisborne,” Vaisey was saying, “will be crucial to the success of Shah Mat. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking.” Vaisey raised his hands in mock bewilderment. “How can we rely on someone so incompetent? Well that’s just it, you see. Gisborne has become a liability…”
“By failing to capture that outlaw?” Buckingham asked, between swigs of wine. “Hood does seem to have your measure….”
“Exactly – you see my problem. Gisborne’s shortcomings have become an embarrassment. Not only that, he drools around after the Lady Marian like a lovesick puppy –“ here Vaisey adopted a falsetto, mocking tone – “oh my Lady Marian, may I walk with you, may I listen to your namby-pamby speeches about the poor and how they suffer”…. instead of being out doing what he’s supposed to be doing. Is that what makes a good lieutenant, Buckingham?”
The sheriff’s voice had taken on a silken, dangerous tone, one very familiar to Guy.
“A clue,” Vaisey said, quietly. He silently mouthed the reply: “No.”
“So, what do you propose?” asked Buckingham.
“That I give him the chance to redeem himself. He tried once before to kill the king, and failed. He will want to prove himself. This time, he’ll succeed. Mainly because we will do it for him, and then lay the blame at his feet. Our purpose in being there will be to warn the king. Tragically, we will be too late. And by the time the King’s guard arrives, the traitor will be dead.”
“It’ll never work, Vaisey. Everyone will know it to have been done at your order.”
“No one will see us together, or know we’re associated. But as an extra precaution, we’ve sent a messenger to our man there – preparations are underway. The King is being assured of our loyalty even as we speak.”
“Even though it was Prince John who appointed you?”
“That doesn’t make me a traitor, dear fellow.” Vaisey tapped a finger to his chin. “Oh wait – yes it does. But the king isn’t to know that, especially not when one of his trusted aides takes him a personal contribution to the war effort, one sent from the coffers of this shire.”
“What?” replied the earl, startled.
“Don’t you just love a good irony? I do.” Guy recognised the smug tone that always accompanied Vaisey revealing his schemes. “All this time, everyone – including Hood – has suspected that the taxes we’ve been collecting have been misappropriated. They have, naturally…but recently its served our purposes to also send some to the king. Yet by doing this….”
Here Vaisey swiped a hand across his neck and chuckled. Buckingham shook his head, bemused.
“But what about Gisborne? He’s a Black Knight. Does the prince know what you plan for him?”
“Let’s just say the prince is as fond of irony as I am. And he’s not a patient man. He’d call that man foolish who had only one iron in the fire at a time. Plans have evolved, dear fellow. You see, we’ve no way of knowing how long it will be until the king returns – it could be a month, it could be a year. The time to strike is now.” Vaisey slapped a fist into his palm for emphasis. “It’s better, you see, if the king doesn’t return at all or, more to the point, his army. So, we will continue with Shah Mat, securing the south coast, bolstering the prince’s support, but in the meantime, if we’re successful….”
Guy’s back slithered down the wall until he sat on the step. Below him, the room had gone silent; had they heard him? The urge to flee was so strong he almost didn’t care, but some instinct of self-preservation made him remain until the voices resumed.
“…imagine this, my good lord Buckingham: no more Lionheart, the way made clear for Prince John. I think you’ll agree, the rewards for such service will be….”
“Oh no, I can quite imagine them,” purred Vaisey.
Guy stopped listening. He slipped down the stairs and out into the corridor. Blindly, he headed for his quarters, thankfully passing no one on the way. Or perhaps he did, and had just been too absorbed by his own dark thoughts to notice. Once there he staggered inside and slumped down, his back to the door, those same black thoughts battering at him like the wings of a cloud of bats flitting past.
He struggled to comprehend what he’d heard.
He’d spent years doing the devil’s work, and these were to be his wages? This trap he was in, one of his own making, was deeper and more sinister than he’d suspected. Of the dangers of his position, of the risks of trusting his hopes and his future to a man like Vaisey, he’d always been aware. But this? To be a marked man, a tool they would use and then discard? Guy could see no way out.
He’d sworn loyalty to the sheriff, and had done his bidding faithfully. In so doing, he’d drawn on every shred of resentment he'd ever felt for villagers who once stood by and watched the tragedies of his youth unfold without bothering to help. His revenge had been full, and satisfying. But it had come at a cost. That cost had been his own sense of decency, and the laying aside of any pride in the man he’d become. He simply acted as he must, and did what he must.
Sometimes he acknowledged, in moments of weakness, that if his good and gentle mother could see the man he’d become, he would shrink from her in shame. Sometimes, this was how Marian made him feel too.
And now, this was where it had all brought him.
No way out.
I am nothing. I have nothing.
Guy stayed there on the floor, the wings of those bats beating, beating, until finally he hauled himself up and went in search of a flagon of wine – hell, the more the better, as many as it would take - to try and drive them away.
Chapter 3: Discoveries
What I said before….you know, I said you were gorgeous…I meant it.
Marian rode, smiling, back along the Great North Road; those few, simple words meant more to her than any of the gifts Guy had ever given her. She hugged them to her, until heat of a different kind suffused her face….what had she done in return?
She’d punched Robin. And told him that he would pay. Strange, really, how her words and actions could be so at odds with what was in her heart. Truth was, she feared to let Robin know…to be too easily won. Truth was, she’d never stopped loving him, all those years when he was gone, and then since his return.
He’d come back the same, and yet not. Cocky, infuriating, but with a deep vein of goodness in him that war hadn’t mined out. He was selfless enough to give up his lands for the sake of justice, stubborn and foolish enough to think his way was the only way, and compelling enough to have others believe it. And to her great surprise, Marian was starting to believe it too.
But the obstacles against them never grew less. The biggest she faced at that moment – the thought chagrined her – was to be so preoccupied with thoughts of Robin that she might ride straight into the sheriff’s party, which would about now be heading that way. Cursing her stupidity, Marian turned her mount aside, and took a different path back through the forest.
For the remainder of the ride, a plan began to form in her head. It made so much sense that it was easy to set aside the dangers it would present.
Once Marian was back in the castle, with the knowledge that the sheriff, Guy and Allan were all out in the woods hunting Robin and the gang, she began snooping about, searching each room in which she thought the pact might be concealed. It made perfect sense to her, to try and find it for Robin. With all the gang’s secret entrances blocked, thanks to Allan, it would be foolhardy for Robin to try and get into the castle to find it, when she was already there.
But as an hour dragged by, with no success, she came to suspect that it would be in the one place in which she hadn’t looked. For long moments, Marian lingered in the corridor, debating what to do. Every minute she lingered, the risk of the sheriff returning grew greater. But she craved the anonymity of the Night Watchman, so Marian hastened back to her room and donned the outfit.
Then, dodging guards she retraced her steps, pushed open the door, and entered the sheriff’s private chambers. And there not one, but two, shocks awaited her.
The first was to see that indeed the sheriff had returned, and was napping in his bed.
The second was to see that her father, somehow not in the dungeons, was at that moment carefully withdrawing documents from the safe in the wall.
He heard her enter, glancing fearfully back over his shoulder.
“What are you doing here?” breathed Marian, approaching him, glancing at the sheriff’s sleeping form. “You mustn’t be seen.”
“I could ask you the same thing, daughter.”
She took the pact from him, at the same moment noticing the dangerous tilt of a goblet on the edge of the bed. She pointed underneath the bed.
“Quickly,” she mouthed.
When her father looked like he wouldn’t comply, she whispered:
“At least I am disguised.”
As Edward scrambled under the bed, Marian hastily replaced the stone and the picture concealing it. In the kaleidoscope of confusion that followed, the goblet clattered to the floor, disturbing the sheriff, who began groping around on his bed for the keys to the safe. Finding it misplaced he sat erect, hollering for the guards, as Marian fled for the door.
She collided with one guard, and then another; they presented no real challenge. Marian sprinted down the corridor, turned the corner, and barrelled straight into Robin.
“No time,” she snapped. “Here.”
She thrust the pact at him.
“My father is under the sheriff’s bed. Get him to safety, while I distract the guards.”
Relieved that at least her father would be safe now, and that Robin had the pact, she felt that all the risks had been worth it. Marian ran. The sweetness of success was within her grasp until, just around the next corner, she ran straight into a black, leather-clad chest.
He was quicksilver fast; never a quality she granted Guy, but now his arms locked about her in a tightly squeezing grip as his voice dripped menace over her.
“Think you’ll get away from me this time? I don’t think so.”
Marian struggled, but his grip was resolute. He spun her round and shoved her forward; she fell, heavily, and before she could gather herself he was on her back, pinning her to the flagstones. With her arms locked between his thighs, she couldn’t prevent him removing the mask. Her hair tumbled free of its restraint, and Marian registered a stillness – a confusion, a denial – in the moment before he released his weight enough to turn her over.
It seemed pointless to struggle. It was over, now that he knew. Marian saw a dreadful blankness cover his expression –
“No,” he breathed. “Not you.”
And then Guy hauled himself up and stumbled away, bracing one hand against the wall as he lurched from sight. Marian lay there a few seconds, stunned. Had he let her go? Would he be back, with guards, or a drawn sword? She needed time to think, to process what had happened, to calculate how it might be managed, but she didn’t have the luxury of time or thought when any moment the pursuit could be upon her. Marian pushed her hair back into the hood, and re-secured her mask. She only needed to return to her room, get rid of the outfit, and then she would be safe. Or, not safe …..Guy….he had gone that way, and she could hear guards approaching from that direction also. So instead she raced to the stairs which led down a level, intending to hide near the kitchens.
Guards there, too. She darted back, along the ramp. And with fewer and fewer options open to her, Marian ran out into the exposed bailey.
Guy didn’t know how he’d ended up in one of the guard towers. He leaned on the embrasure, head down, his scattered thoughts failing to alight upon one thing or another. His memory skittered through his various encounters with the Night Watchman, sinking him deeper into the conviction that, in fact, he really didn’t know Marian at all.
Sitting by her at the fair, when she claimed a paring knife had cut her…
…the Night Watchman creating a diversion, when Hood had been strung over that pit of vipers….
Of course – that made sense. Hood. So many things fell into place. He’d gotten to Marian somehow, turning her charitableness into something he could use for his own purposes. Guy’s fists clenched and unclenched - that must be the answer…
Just two nights before their wedding.
Guy’s gloved hand lifted, brushing the scar on his cheek. It wasn’t possible. Was it? Marian had been confined to her bed – the wedding, perhaps, Edward had said. Fool that he was, Guy had believed him; it was what he’d wanted to hear, what he had hoped was true.
She had planned to wed him, until that damned idiot Much brought word of the impostor. It was unthinkable, then, that she should seek to rob him so near the day of their nuptials. And of wealth that would have been hers to share. He didn’t understand. There had to be some other explanation - Hood, perhaps. Or one of his men.
Guy closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead. There was only one way he could be sure: he’d injured the Night Watchman. If it was Marian, she would bear the scar. And he wouldn’t believe it had been her, not until he could see the evidence for himself.
Hearing a commotion below, Guy opened his eyes – a cloaked figure had rushed into view, pursued by guards. Marian. Guy watched with grim amusement as she overcame the first of them, recalling the times she’d bested him. Until he realised that there were too many. Until he saw that she was being driven back, cornered….
Guy had seen an outlaw cut down before; he knew it could easily happen again.
“Wait – take him alive,” he bellowed, rushing onto the wall walk. No one heard him.
Marian was surrounded. Guy snatched the bow from a guard near him, and loosed a warning arrow. When that had no effect, he took aim and shot one of the guards in the arm.
“Oi, they’re our men,” the man cried.
“Shut up,” snarled Guy.
He’d got their attention, at least.
“Hold him,” he barked. “He’s mine.”
Guy clattered down the tower stairs, and shoved through them all, sword drawn. He felt the weight of their expectation behind him, and held the tip of his blade to Marian’s throat. Their eyes met; hers were wide and lucid. Guy, save me, please save me. He could just hear the sheriff’s mockery.
He leaned in close.
“You,” he said, for her ears alone, “are a liar.”
Marian gave no word of defence, nor plea of gesture. Disgust at her duplicity and awe of her courage warred equally in Guy. Disgusted with himself, he made sure the pressure of the blade wouldn’t pierce her skin, then took hold of Marian’s arm and tugged her roughly alongside him.
“I’ll take it from here,” he growled, and a path opened for them as he led her back inside the castle.
Once they were alone, he withdrew the sword.
“Guy – I….”
“You. Will not. Speak. To me,” he ground out. “You can just show me. A year ago, I put a dagger in the Night Watchman’s side.”
Then as she lifted the edge of her vest, Guy reached out and hooked it with one fingertip, lifting the vest further. There. An ugly red scar, marring her creamy white flesh.
He let the garment drop, and staggered back a few steps.
“No. Just go. Out of my sight.” Emotion hoarsened his voice. “Get out of that costume, burn it, and don’t ever….”
“Touching, very touching. But wrong, Gisborne.” Vaisey appeared from around the corner, walking slowly towards them. “You see, that was your moment…to be able to say that you’d captured not only the Night Watchman, but a spy in our midst. And what do you do? You let her go. Did you really think that I wouldn’t find out?”
Guards appeared now, running in from the courtyard, and from the corridor behind the sheriff.
“You, and you – seize them. Yes, of course both of them. And put that ridiculous sword away Gisborne, or I’ll use it as an excuse to set my archers on you.”
Guy glanced down at Marian. Together he thought they might fight off some of the guards, but archers? He let the weapon drop.
The sheriff stalked to within a pace of them. With exaggerated care, he peeled the mask away from Marian’s face.
“Oh…oohhh…..I can’t tell you how long I’ve waited to do that.” He reached out a hand, cupping Marian’s chin. “You see, Missy, I don’t think you realise just how much trouble you’re in. I’m going to enjoy this.”
His voice dropped to a malignant whisper.
“Oh, yes. Getting you to tell me what you’ve done with my pact….I’m going to enjoy this very much.”
Chapter 4: Stepping-stones
Marian examined the shackles about her wrist; this was happening far too often. These were heavier though, and more painful, than those placed on her when she’d been taken to Winchester. Whatsmore these ones were secured, by means of a bulky chain, to an iron ring set in the wall of the dungeon.
Guy, in the cell next to her, was also manacled and chained. He sat against the wall, his head bowed, sullen and brooding.
“I’m sure you two will have plenty to talk about,” had been the sheriff’s parting sally.
Guy was only in this situation because of her; confronted with her clandestine identity, he’d still tried to protect her. It made Marian uncomfortable, to realise that those same feelings which she’d always used to her advantage had been, for Guy, strong enough to compel him to defy the sheriff. Not once, but twice, in the last couple of days.
“Guy….” she began, intending to thank him.
“He was right, wasn’t he?” Guy interrupted, before she could get the words out. “The sheriff once said to me that, all along, you’ve just been laughing at me.”
“No, that isn’t true,” she protested.
“Isn’t it? Then how do you explain coming to Locksley, to rob me, your husband-to-be, just two nights before we were to be married?”
“It wasn’t like that. I can explain. It was my last chance to do something that meant a lot to me, something that being your wife would have meant giving up. It wasn’t personal.”
“Oh, you lie. I think it was, Marian, I think….”
“How could you?”
The accusation cut across Guy’s bitter words. Both she and Guy swivelled towards the voice, which came from the cell next to his.
“You!” uttered Guy.
In the torchlight, Marian could see messy curls, wide-set eyes and a full, pouting mouth. Eyes which, at that moment, glittered with indignation.
“That’s terrible!” The girl, furious with her, ignored Guy. “What sort of woman would do that?”
“This one, it would seem,” Guy said dryly. “What are you doing here?”
“You two know each other?” Marian was curious.
“What? Yes….no…..not really,” said the girl.
“She was at Locksley when I was testing the armour. She knocked Hood down, stopped him drowning me.”
Well, I was doing trying to do the same thing. But, Marian acknowledged to herself, was that more about saving Guy, or helping Robin?
She wisely stayed silent. It wouldn’t do, to draw Guy’s attention to her possible collusion with Robin. He’d said nothing of it so far; better to keep it that way.
“I have a name,” she heard the girl mutter.
“Which is?” Marian prompted.
“Meg,” she said. “Meg Bennett.”
“So why are you here?” Guy repeated. “What have you done?”
“Refused to marry, that’s what I’ve done.” Meg clunked her chain disconsolately. “Which you would hardly think deserved this punishment, but the sheriff seemed to think otherwise.”
“He doesn’t like to be crossed,” observed Marian.
“No. And he said I’m to stay here, until I choose myself a husband from one of my suitors.”
“He would,” muttered Guy.
Despite his interest in the girl, Guy hadn’t moved. He lapsed back into silence. Marian did also, trying to think what she might do. Robin would hear, soon enough, that she’d been caught. And come for her…with all the foolish risks which that entailed. If there was some way that she could engineer her own escape, something she could do…
Thoughtful, Marian withdrew a hairpin. She began tampering with the lock at her wrists, but the angle was awkward; she couldn’t get purchase. Robin would know what to do.
“So, it’s all true,” sneered Guy. “You, and Hood.”
Marian could have kicked herself; distracted, she must have said that aloud.
“Guy, help me….if we can get these chains off…”
“Yes? And then what? Know when you’re beaten, Marian.”
But that had never been her way. Or Robin’s. Marian continued to worry the lock, though the effort made her wrists ache and the manacles dig welts into her skin.
“Has anything you’ve ever said to me been true?” Guy asked then, his voice hollow.
Marian dropped the hairpin. She was glad of it; shadows hid her face as she stooped to pick it up. As she thought about her answer.
“What would you have done?” she asked, rising. “If I’d told you I was helping Robin? If I’d told you that…no, never mind.”
“Told me what?”
Marian sighed. She didn’t want to have this conversation; she tried a different tack, ignoring his question.
“I tried, once,” she said quietly. “To tell you the truth. You remember, when you came to my house, and I agreed to marry you?”
“You said some things about England – I can’t really remember, it wasn’t what I’d meant. And then, you showed me the necklace….” He paused. Marian fidgeted with the hairpin, aware she’d chosen ill to speak of that incident.
“I’ve been a fool,” Guy said savagely. “Hood was at the window…”
“Guy, listen to me,” she said urgently, desperate to be understood. “What I said then, it was relevant. You dismissed it because it’s of no interest to you. But to me, that’s who I am, and what I am. I care about people who are being starved, and beaten; who are being forced out of their homes. I need to help them, that’s why I became the Nightwatchman. But would you have ever understood that?”
“Did you give me the chance?” he muttered. “But then, I never had a chance, did I?”
For a long moment, Marian was silent. The impulse was there, to tell him, to be free of the lies. Deceiving Guy availed nothing when here, today, all was new; her identity was unmasked, there was no going back.
But she’d concealed the truth for so long, twisting, or concealing it, because other things were more important - helping Robin, protecting her father. The truth, always borne away on a current of necessity. These same concerns insinuated themselves into her thoughts yet again. What use to brazenly tell Guy her heart belonged to Robin, stoking an enmity which already had plentiful fuel? The lure, too, of a twin-pronged motive, to salve her conscience: she would not be needlessly hurting Guy. After all, he had just defied all her expectations by allowing her to escape; she could easily have been down here alone. Why antagonise him, why jeopardise the fragile hope she felt – always ten steps ahead – that perhaps, finally, he could escape Vaisey’s hold, could become something else…
…hope skittered through her heart, possibilities careened through her mind…too much, too fast, he’s waiting for an answer…
“In a way, I was honest with you,” she said, trying to ford the moment on stepping-stones of truth. “I tried, many times, to discourage you. To refuse your gifts. But you wouldn’t listen. And I was honest with you when I said that I wanted friendship between us. I want that still…”
…noises intruded from along the corridor and, distracted, Marian paused. She thought at first it was the jailer returning. But she heard a scuffle, a thud; a muffled shout, and then with light footsteps, Robin was there.
Her heart leapt – a rush of dizzying affection, accompanied as it so often was by exasperation…at the risks he took, at the need to hope that he would behave. This time, especially, she hoped he would refrain from goading Guy.
“Are you alright?” he asked, wasting no time in opening the cell door.
She nodded, as he came to release her shackles. He worked fast, sparing hardly a glance for Guy.
“How did you get in here? Hasn’t the sheriff posted more guards?” Marian asked.
“He will,” said Robin. “At the moment, he’s too busy…..”
Robin stopped what he’d been about to say. Marian looked at him more closely. He was behaving oddly – he wasn’t taunting Guy, and there was something almost rattled in his haste. This wasn’t like him.
“Did you get my father away?” A kernel of worry had begun forming; perhaps her father had been captured, or hurt. “Is he safe? Where is the pact?”
“Let’s talk when we’re out…there isn’t time,” Robin said, tossing the chain down.
“No.” She put both hands in his arms. “Robin, tell me. What’s happened?”
Deftly, Robin rolled his arms to cup her elbows instead. Then he slid his hands along until he cradled both her hands in his.
“Marian - we have to get out of here. Come on.”
He turned away, keeping hold of one hand, tugging her along.
“Wait,” said Marian. “What about Guy – and the girl?”
“I have a name,” grumbled Meg.
Robin ignored her.
“Why would I get Gisborne out? He’s where he belongs, at last. Let him get some of the treatment he’s doled out to everyone else.”
“Didn’t you hear what happened? He’s only in here because he tried to help me.”
“That doesn’t make up for everything else he’s done.”
“Maybe not,” Marian insisted, “but it isn’t right that he should….”
“Forget it,” came Guy’s voice. “I wouldn’t go anyway.”
Stunned, Marian pulled free from Robin’s grip and went to the door of Guy’s cell.
“Why not?” she asked, clasping the bars. “You must come. The sheriff will…he’ll hurt you, surely.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
Nonplussed, Marian glanced back at Robin, who shrugged. She tried again.
“Guy, I know you’re angry with me, and that you feel betrayed, but…”
“Leave it, Marian,” he growled. “I told you, I’m not going. I’ve nowhere to go. You think I should run off to the forest, as you clearly plan to do? You think they’d welcome me with open arms? I can just see that, can’t you?”
“You could always leave, go somewhere else,” put in Robin.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Locksley? You saw me driven away once, tail between my legs – I’m sure you’d love to see it happen again.”
Marian glanced back at Robin – there was something, here, something that she didn’t know.
“We don’t have time for this,” Robin repeated, deflecting any question she might ask.
She turned back to the cell.
“Guy, you know the sheriff, when he finds me gone he’ll want to take his anger out on someone.”
“I’ll deal with it. He’ll reinstate me – he has plans for me, things no one else can carry out.” Marian didn’t miss the odd note in Guy’s voice.
“It won’t stop him from hurting you though, will it?”
“Go, Marian. If all else fails, Allan can get me out. He’s untouched by all this. One way to test how strong his new loyalties are, hmmm?”
“Marian…” This from Robin.
“Of all the stubborn…..” she muttered, then turned to the next cell, gesturing for the keys.
“I’m not going either,” said Meg.
“Really?” huffed Robin, running out of patience. “A rescue, with no one wanting to be rescued… why not? What’s your problem?”
“The same – where would I go? Spend my life in the forest? Be sent back to my father, only to be married off to some fop or fool?” Meg turned towards Guy. “Perhaps, Sir Guy, you could do me a small service – could you intercede with the sheriff, on my behalf? Buy me some time, say six months? Then I can try and find either a groom, or some other solution.”
“Go with them,” snapped Guy. “I can’t promise you anything. There’s no guarantee the sheriff will listen to anything I say.”
“But would you ask?” she persisted.
“Perhaps I could help, I might know…” Marian began, only to be interrupted by the clatter of feet coming down the stairs.
“Robin,” hissed Little John, “they’re coming – the sheriff, soldiers – we need to go now.”
Frustrated, Marian pulled the jewelled blade from her hair. She'd lost it, earlier in the day; had found it returned to her room, by whom she had no idea. Now she held it out towards Guy.
“Here, take this. Use it to free yourself and Meg, if you need to. Meg – are you sure? I could ask….”
Guy took the blade from her, looking over at Meg.
“You should go,” he said to her. “Don’t rely on me. I can’t protect you.”
“I’ll take my chances,” she said stubbornly.
“Robin!” urged Little John.
“Marian, come on.” Robin grabbed her arm, urgent now. “If things go badly, we can come back for Meg.”
“But how will we….”
Still protesting, Robin caught her about the waist, urging her away. They raced up the stairs after Little John, Marian’s head full of misgivings, trepidation in her heart for the two that they left behind.
“I should have known,” yelled Vaisey. “Too incompetent even to be rescued, Gisborne?”
He stormed in, kicking the bars, then hopped back to nurse that foot.
“Too busy chasing after that damn pact - which I still don’t have, thanks to your leper friend. Sergeant,” the sheriff flung over his shoulder, “find the man who told us Hood had gone to the West gate stables, and flog him. And, all the while, where was he? Here, that’s where! What I’d like to know is, how did he find out so quickly, hmm? Did you ask him that? Perhaps you’d be so kind as to tell me.”
Vaisey paced up and down, shouting. Guy let the tirade wash over him.
“And then, I’ve had to deal with panicked nobles, now that that fool Knighton has managed to get himself killed.”
“Sir Edward, dead?” croaked Guy. “How? Are you sure?”
Vaisey paused by Meg’s cell, sighing theatrically.
“Are you sure? See what I have to put up with, my dear?” The sheriff looked at her more closely. “Wait, you’re still here? Hoody-Two-Shoes left you behind? How unlike him. Unless, wait …..guards! You, and you. Get after them, quickly. They must have heard us coming…..”
With the pursuit on again, the sheriff seemed to calm a little. Guy knew better; scheming, calculating, that malevolent mind never rested.
“Well Gisborne,” he resumed, tapping the side of his nose, “you present me with something of a problem. I hate waste, you see. And I’ve spent all these years, grooming you, giving you a place at my side, allowing you a share of the power we will ultimately gain…and all for what? To throw it away in a fit of lunacy? In a moment of weakness, of folly, over that little leper?”
The sheriff leaned in close, poking his face in between the bars. Guy fingered the blade Marian had given him.
“A clue,” whispered the sheriff. “No.”
He stepped back; even as he did so Guy wanted to call the moment back, to use the weapon.
“But surely now,” Vaisey went on, “despite your lapse upstairs – once you’ve had time to think about it, and seen her true colours….an outlaw sympathiser. Running off to the forest with Hood – she’ll be warming his bed, no doubt, hmm? I’m sure once you have time to think about that, you’ll come to your senses. You’ll see that behind that pretty little face was a lying witch who manipulated you…who spied on us… and all for him.”
Guy sank back into the shadows, the knife twisting, each accusation burning deeper because he couldn’t refute them. Everything Vaisey said was true. Minutes ago, even after everything that had happened, she’d still taken refuge in evasion. Everything Marian ever said to him was either a lie, or so mired in ulterior motives it couldn’t be extracted. But Vaisey, too, was faithless, using him. His momentary bravado in front of Hood – refusing to be rescued, telling himself there was still time to come up with a plan – now that he was faced once more with Vaisey’s relentless cleverness, that bravado seemed a fool’s illusion. Guy wished sincerely that he had used the blade, when he’d had the chance.
The sheriff had fallen silent; Guy waited, like a man with nothing but the planks beneath his feet and a few precious seconds keeping him from the noose. His fate, he knew, was still to be decided.
“You,” said Vaisey, turning again to Meg, “remind me why you’re here?”
Guy stirred, wondering what the sheriff was up to now.
“Wait, I remember – you’re the girl who won’t choose a husband. Who thinks she’s too good for her suitors.” Vaisey gave a gleeful grin, rubbing his hands together. “Well, I know how to solve both problems at once…..Gisborne, here, is in need of a wife…”
“No, my lord – I am not,” protested Guy, hoping to clip this idea before it took flight.
“Of course you are. It will help you forget the Lady Marian…and you, my dear, what better man could you hope to marry than our Gisborne? A fine man, one of many talents…” here Vaisey glanced up, his hands together in mock prayer – “forgive me, just a tiny lie. Anyway, where was I – yes, a man with a great future…”
“I do not. Need. A wife.”
“Nonsense Gisborne. It’s the perfect solution. Look at her, so pretty….and after all, one leper’s as good as another. She needs a husband, you need someone to cuddle at night so you can focus on your duties in the daytime. It’ll keep you away from the kitchen maids – well, let’s hope it does, for this one’s sake – and comfort you for the loss of your dear Marian.”
“My lord sheriff, I must….” began Meg.
“Good, then that’s settled.” Vaisey strode towards the stairs. “Very satisfactory. We’ll organise the nuptials for two days from now, I think. Meanwhile, you can stay here for tonight, and get to know one another better. Lovely ambience – flickering candlelight – perfect for a courtship, hmm?”
Then Vaisey disappeared up the steps, humming a tune to himself, and chortling.
Chapter 5: Choices
Not like this. Never like this.
She was with him, and she would stay with him. Robin recalled his words to John of York: you can’t sleep for thinking of her…you can’t turn a corner without hoping she’ll be there….
Having Marian come to the forest had been his dearest wish. Come and join my gang. How many times had he asked her?
But not this way.
It was helping John of York, that whole sorry business, which had led to Edward’s death. He ran with Marian now through Nottingham, towards the appointed meeting place. Little John had gone on ahead. He must tell her, Robin knew, before they met up with the gang.
“Marian.” He stopped, and gestured for her to follow him. He led her into a small alley, beyond which lay a courtyard strung with lines of washing.
“What is it?” she asked, catching her breath. “Robin, I need to find my father. Will he be with the others? He won’t be able to return to…”
“Marian, shhh….” Robin held her arms, bowing his head a moment, himself struggling with Edward’s death.
“Robin, what is it? You’re scaring me. He is alright, isn’t he……tell me that he is.”
Slowly, Robin shook his head.
“Marian, I’m so sorry…..”
“No….what are you saying? He is safe, he must be.”
“We found him where you said, and we got him out of the castle. But the Canon of Birkley …. Marian,” he said gently, “I’m so sorry, I wish…”
Marian shook free of him, and backed away. She paced up the alley, and then turned back towards him.
“No. Where is he? I must see him. Take me to him.”
“I can’t…the guards came and found him. They took his…him…back to the castle.”
“And you just let them? How could you?”
He caught her then as her knees buckled. Her words tumbled out, frantic; behind them, Robin could sense the immense wave of grief that would soon break over them.
“We can’t just leave him there, we must go back,” she insisted.
“We can’t. We have to get you away.”
“I’m not going. If it was your stupid pact, you’d go back for it….”
There was no heat in her words, only anguish, beating futilely at whatever lay in its path. Marian fell, sobbing in earnest now. Robin knelt with her, and she clutched at him, her eyes streaming and wide with distress.
“It’s because of me,” she cried. “He only did this because I was angry with him this morning, and I called him weak.”
“He died doing something he believed in,” Robin said gently. He felt one hand grasp softly, as if handling a bird, at the back of his head.
“But he died believing he had a wilful daughter.”
Robin shook his head.
“He asked me to give you a message.” He took hold of Marian’s free hand. “He said, it’s good to dream.”
Then he kissed her hand, and pulled her into his arms. She trembled, silently now.
“Come with me?” he prompted, releasing her after a few moments. With one hand, he gently caressed the back of her neck.
Marian nodded wordlessly.
He helped her up then and they half-stumbled, arm in arm, to the end of the alley. Robin checked that all was clear, and they hastened on to meet the rest of the gang.
It was rare the dungeons were silent, Meg found. Cries echoed from closed chambers; in nearby cells, prisoners groaned or shifted, even small movements marked by the clinking of chains. The jailer, or guards, occasionally Vaisey himself, came and went. At rare intervals, food was brought. If you could call it that. Meg picked up a heel of stale bread; saw it crawling with maggots, and tossed it down in disgust.
“You should have left, when you had the chance.”
She could barely see Gisborne; he’d moved back into deeper shadow at the rear of his cell.
“Well, I had a plan,” she replied.
“I told you it wouldn’t work,” grumbled the master-at-arms.
He had; Meg couldn’t deny it. She wondered, now, if she’d been foolish. But at the time, presented with a range of only bad and worse choices, it had seemed the best course. She couldn’t have anticipated the sheriff’s bizarre plan. She could see how, to him, it made some twisted sort of sense. But to anyone with good sense, it was preposterous….
Footsteps clumped down the steps. Two guards, dragging a prisoner between them, passed by and kicked open the door of the cell at the end, tossing the man inside. Gisborne rose, and walked to the bars.
“Oi…you…send for the jailer. Tell him I need to see him.”
As Meg watched, Gisborne palmed the blade the Lady Marian had left for him, and Meg realised what he intended.
“Stop…you can’t do that,” she hissed.
“You can’t stay here. You have to get out.”
“Will you come too?”
“Look, we’ve been through this…” Gisborne ground out.
“Then I’m not going.”
“Listen, you stupid girl….”
“No, you listen to me,” Meg said angrily. “What do you suppose the sheriff will do, if you stab a guard and then let me escape?”
“I’ll blame Hood – say he came back for you.”
“The sheriff’s no fool,” scoffed Meg. “He’d never believe it.”
“Then what do you suggest? You do realise, if you stay here, what will happen?”
“I’ll have to marry you.”
“Exactly. Which is out of the question.”
“Why – because you don’t want a wife? Because you’re in love with her? Well, you just saw her run off with…”
“Be quiet!” barked Gisborne. “I can’t marry anyone.”
Meg gazed at him, wondering what was behind this statement.
“You called for me, Sir Guy? How can I help, accommodations not to your liking?” came the sly voice of the jailer, who – now that he’d been summoned – was approaching Gisborne’s cell.
Meg saw the master-at-arms ready his blade, and thought fast.
“Please – I asked him to call you….” Meg lifted her arms, shaking the chains. “I knew you wouldn’t come if I asked. But these are hurting me. I don’t suppose you could…”
The jailer veered her way. A hand shot through the bars, gripping her chin tightly, contorting her lips. He leaned in, the stink of his last meal on his breath.
“Do you think, just because you’re to be the future Lady Gisborne – or so I hear – that you can expect special treatment down here? Well it doesn’t work that way, my lady. The only special treatment you’re likely to get…”
“Leave her,” rasped Gisborne. “Or I’ll see you pay for any rough handling.”
“Just a bit of fun, Sir Guy.” The jailer released her face; Meg rubbed at the abused skin. “I didn’t mean anything by it. Now if that’s all…”
“It’s not. Take her chains off.”
“Can’t do that, I’m sorry Sir Guy. Sheriff’s orders. Until tomorrow, you two are to be treated like any other prisoners. Which means I take no orders from you.”
The man shuffled off. Meg gazed at the master-at-arms, not sure what to make of him. Gisborne beckoned her over to the bars.
“Let me see,” he said, gesturing at her wrists.
Obediently, she lifted her hands; his thumbs ghosted across the skin where the iron had rubbed. Releasing them, he lifted the corner of his shirt, working the blade into a position to cut some strips.
“No – use this,” Meg said, bunching the end of her skirt and holding it up to the bars.
“I don’t think so,” he said.
“Please. There’s more fabric.”
Gisborne acquiesced. He took a handful of her skirt, and cut what was needed. Meg held her hands up to the bars. As he wound the material, creating a barrier between the shackles and her skin, Meg gazed at him - at the angled planes of his face, at the down-swept lashes – and, when he glanced up, flushed deeply to have been caught staring.
“Tell me then,” she said, covering her embarrassment with chatter, “what makes marriage so impossible for you?”
“What do you think?” Gisborne parried.
He finished the binding, and started to move away. Meg reached out, her fingertips just catching the sleeve of his shirt.
“Please, tell me.”
Gisborne glanced at her hand, then up at her, and seemed to be considering. He gave a slight shake of his head.
“Later,” he muttered.
There was no way, down here, to tell if it was day or night. Meg dozed, her head resting on her knees. When she woke, the latest prisoner was being dragged past their cells for questioning. She looked around for the master-at-arms, expecting him to have retreated again into the shadows, but he was sitting nearby, leaning against the wall of his cell, staring at nothing.
There was no one near to hear now. Meg shuffled closer, holding the bars between them, waiting. Gisborne raised his eyes to hers.
“Is this what I’d have to expect if we were wed? Silent nagging?” A reluctant smile twitched at his mouth.
“Can you tell me now?” she said.
He shifted closer, leaning his shoulder next to hers.
“That day at Locksley,” he said instead, after a few moments. “Why did you help me?”
“Because I thought Hood was going to drown you. And no one else was doing anything.”
“But surely, you know my reputation,” Gisborne said bitterly. “Didn’t I deserve it?”
“To be drowned like an unwanted pup?” Meg said hotly. “No, of course not. No one deserves that.”
She paused, debating briefly with herself. But then, when had wisdom ever prevailed over her impulsiveness?
“Besides…I’ve always quite liked you,” she confessed.
Gisborne gave her a look then, as if she were some odd creature that he couldn’t quite fathom. But her words, somehow, loosened his tongue.
“Meg,” he said, low-voiced and urgent, “I was once fool enough to tell someone I could protect them as Lady Gisborne. Well I was wrong. I can’t even protect myself.”
“Why?” She didn’t understand his meaning. “Just because you work for the sheriff?”
“Because the sheriff has plans that, if they succeed, will make me either a fugitive or a traitor. Anyone close to me would be tainted, disgraced….” Gisborne tilted his head back against the bars; Meg shuddered a little, envisioning the strong column of that neck constricted in a noose. “That would be a sorry way to repay you. You need to get away. Have nothing to do with me.”
Meg ignored this last comment.
“Then he mustn’t be allowed to succeed. But if you knew this,” she asked, “why did you stay in here?”
“Because I told myself I’d have time,” he said bitterly, “to try and think of a way out. If I can’t, then I’ll leave Nottingham. But I wasn’t about to give Hood the satisfaction of seeing it.”
“Tell me,” Meg pressed, “what the sheriff plans. Between us, perhaps, we can think of something,”
Again, that look….one she couldn’t read. Slowly, the master-at-arms hauled himself to his feet.
“I’ll not do it,” he muttered. “If you won’t see sense, then I’ll refuse any marriage the sheriff tries to force on us.”
“You can’t do that!” cried Meg. “He’ll foist me off then on some…please Sir Guy, that’s the worst thing you could do….”
“Then get out of here! This isn’t a game. When the jailer returns, we’ll get you out. I can take care of myself. I don’t need your pity…just get out,” he growled, “and stay away from me.”
His rejection hurt more than it should have. He was doing it for her sake, but it angered her, that he should ignore her wishes so arbitrarily.
Her wishes? Her choices? Where were they, in any of this? In the twists of fortune which had characterised her last few days, Meg had felt her fate closing in, no matter how hard she resisted. She’d seen this happen to her friends – married to suitors of whom they had little knowledge and, in some cases, even less liking. It seemed it was their lot to be bartered, bullied ….and the marriage bed didn’t bear thinking about. Those amongst her friends who had wed were full of conflicting tales and silliness; Meg discounted much of what she heard.
But Abigail’s reticence was worse; wed to Lord Saunders, she would say nothing on the subject, only fidget with her sleeve, or her skirt, and take her leave as soon as was polite.
Yet this was to be her future: her freedom, forfeit to a stranger. Not all those who asked for her hand had been strangers, of course. There’d been young William Strake, who she’d known all her life, but him she would rather beat with a broom for his endless complaining than wed. Or the latest, the arrogant, leering Lord Carr, one of her father’s oldest friends; it was her sound refusal of him that had seen her hauled before the sheriff for being so intransigent.
Now, by a quirk of fate, the master-at-arms was her intended…unless he remained stubborn in his notion to disobey the sheriff. Meg watched him, as he resumed his seat, leaning his head back against the wall. He had a reputation for cruelty; no doubt he’d done many wicked things. But for a man who seemed so arrogant and powerful, riding about the villages on his big black horse and barking out his commands, she’d seen Gisborne at his weakest moments, vulnerable and humiliated. Now she knew, also, how contemptuously the Lady Marian had dealt with him, just days before their wedding.
In one respect, she understood and applauded Lady Marian’s actions…. perhaps, Meg thought, if she were compelled to marry Lord Carr she’d have felt tempted to do the same. But it didn’t prevent compassion for Sir Guy stirring in her heart. Nor did it wipe away the oddly tender moment when he’d tended to her wrists. Or alter the fact that he was prepared to defy the sheriff, again, to protect her. Unless, of course, he was bluffing.
Choice. They would all take it away from her: her father, the sheriff, even the master-at-arms.
So, Meg made one.
“What?” he growled.
“This piece has caught up in the chain…may we cut some more?”
Sighing, Gisborne pushed up from where he sat and came to the bars.
“Here,” she said, raising the edge of the skirt.
He began to cut another square of fabric; Meg shifted a little, bumping his hand, and let out a cry as the blade nicked her leg. It was the easiest thing in the world, then, to use this distraction to snatch the blade from Gisborne’s hand. Grabbing it, she ducked backwards, out of reach.
“I’ve made my choice,” she challenged. “You must make yours.”
He watched her for a moment, his expression darkening; he realised he’d been tricked. Meg returned his stare, a little breathless. She expected an outburst, but instead Gisborne turned away and retreated to the rear of his cell. Meg had no idea whether this was in resignation, anger or indifference. She couldn’t read him, at all.
The hours passed, his silence continued, and Meg began to fret. He’d been an ally, before; what was he now? Had her boldness aggravated him to the point he’d go through with his threat, and leave her to be tossed to whatever suitor the sheriff chose, like a bone to a dog? She knew what such an action could cost him, too; she’d heard the harrowing noises along the corridors from others who, in some way, had displeased Vaisey.
Her situation seemed hopeless. If he wasn’t exaggerating, then the master-at-arms was a marked man. She should be doing exactly what he’d suggested. She didn’t know Gisborne; she owed him nothing. But what was the alternative? To escape, and to go where? And she kept coming back to the risk it posed to him, if he engineered her escape. She didn’t want to be responsible for that.
Perhaps, now that she had the blade, she should do it herself. The jailer would never suspect that she was a threat.
Kill a man? Tired and wrung out as she was, this thought was so bizarre – so far from any sense of normalcy - that she gave an overwrought hiccup, and then succumbed to tears.
Ashamed of this weakness, she hid in the shadows, not wanting Gisborne to see.
The first words he’d spoken in hours. Chains scraped on the floor, as he moved closer.
“Foolish girl,” he rumbled.
But he reached through the bars then, stroking her cheek. And Meg leaned against his hand, disappointed when he took it away. Even so, that small gesture had been a comfort. She took it with her as she went and curled up on the filthy bunk, there to fall into an exhausted sleep.
Chapter 6: Beginnings
“You wound me, Gisborne,” drawled the sheriff the next morning, examining a tray of gems that a merchant displayed before him. “That one, I think.”
Vaisey looked up.
“Time for a new tooth,” he murmured. “Now - do you think I wouldn’t have thought of that, of all the…fripperies….that come with a wedding?”
“I’m sure you have, my lord, but you know how women are. They need time to prepare for this sort of thing…”
“Yes yes, all the pretties. But the arrangements - the priest, and the feast, and the minstrels…all in hand, Gisborne. All you need do is show up.”
“That’s just it. If that’s all I do, she will feel coerced. I’ve…discovered…that’s no way to start a marriage. But if we could delay – say three or four weeks, allow me time to court her…”
Vaisey laughed outright.
“You think you can win this one in so little time, when two years didn’t get you far with the Lady Marian? No – soft, Gisborne, too soft. Besides, I know what you’re up to. That just gives you, and her, time to try and wriggle out of it.”
“Not with her father keeping an eye on her. I’m sure Lord Bennett will keep her, if not under lock and key, then closely watched.”
Vaisey considered this; Guy waited, concealing his weariness. He’d had years of practise at it. He could smell the stench of the dungeons still on him; he hadn’t taken time to wash down, but had come straight to Vaisey’s quarters to try and alleviate the sentence the sheriff had passed on the girl.
That was how he saw it. Being wed to him, with his murky future, it could be nothing else.
He’d had very little sleep. Chains, damp, and the smell of men’s fear weren’t conducive to it. It didn’t help that for years he’d been the one giving out the beatings, or the order for it, himself. What would Meg say, if she knew? But then, how could she not know? He was Vaisey’s henchman; everyone knew what he did.
And no one could see past that. No one except Marian, that is, and now this impulsive chit of a girl. She’d come barrelling out of nowhere that time, to rescue him from Hood’s dunking. And for some reason, she still had the urge to protect him, stealing Marian’s blade so that he couldn’t kill the jailer and incur the sheriff’s wrath.
He didn’t understand it.
Vaisey, who’d been tapping his quill on the desk, now rose and paced to the window. Guy waited.
During the night, he’d had plenty of time to think. If Meg wouldn’t escape, then he must find another way out. He owed it to her. A delay, perhaps, one that would give them time to see her safely away. Marian might know of somewhere she could find sanctuary, until all this had played out and it was safe to return.
Marian. Her betrayal hurt him far more than the sheriff’s treachery. So blind…they started to surface again, the anger, the self-recriminations. He kept recalling fresh things…..his sergeant, for one. For all the compassion Marian showed to the poor, she didn’t shrink from making ruthless choices. She’d let him torture his sergeant to death, believing him to be a traitor. She’d listened to him going on about loyalty, when all the while, her own lay elsewhere. With Hood. And so, she’d kept silent. Guy wondered if he’d really known Marian at all.
These glum thoughts had been swirling in his head, like swill in a goblet, when he was disturbed by Meg’s crying. He’d offered comfort; she’d leaned into his hand, trusting, and the unfamiliar stirring of affection he’d felt had surprised him. Of course, he’d withdrawn. She couldn’t be allowed to depend upon him for comfort. To depend upon him for anything.
“Very well.” The sheriff turned back from the window then, his voice returning Guy to the moment. “One week. You have a single week to woo her. But by the end of that, I’ll see you two wed, even if the girl has to be tied to the altar.”
Vaisey rubbed his hands together, clearly bored with the topic.
“But for now, I’ve a job for you. Get your men ready, and we’ll ride out to Knighton. Time to finish what you started, hmm? They’ve had no manor, now they have no lord either, so we’ll collect their rents and then, when the time comes, put all Lady Marian’s beloved peasants out of their hovels and make room for my mercenaries. I’m sure you’ll enjoy doing that – another small taste of revenge, hmm? You see how well I look after you?”
And with his hands clasped behind his back, Vaisey strolled out, humming.
The first thing Marian registered, when she woke, was the warmth of another body – of Robin – beside her. This should have been pleasant – and it was - but moments later she remembered why she was there. Her tears began to gather again.
Robin was awake. She turned to face him; he folded her into his arms, comforting her as she wept. For a while, Marian was conscious of nothing but her grief. The events of the day before – her unkindness to her father, his recovery of the pact, the circumstances of his death…all these things tumbled through her thoughts, tossing them wildly about. And so she clung now to Robin, and the security of his embrace, trusting this to keep her afloat.
“Do you suppose they’re awake?”
Marian stilled. Much’s voice, reminding her that there was a whole world out there to face, starting with the gang.
“How would I know?” Will said. “The way you’re banging that stuff about I imagine they would be.”
“Well the eggs won’t make themselves, if you’d like to…..”
Marian stopped listening; she scrubbed at her cheeks, and then started to sit up. The man’s shirt she’d slept in – left folded and clean for her the evening before – was bunched around her hips. When she remembered why, she pulled it down, her face heating.
She wasn’t sure on what signal, but at some stage during the afternoon before – in what little had been left, by the time they got back to camp - Will had taken himself off and started preparing this extra sleeping area. He'd moved some of their stores to do so, clearing a space barely wide enough for the mattress someone donated - one of them was sleeping rough that night, until they could source another - and rigging a curtain to give her some privacy. He and Much had disappeared for a time, she didn't know where, returning with some rudimentary bedding. She’d been too distraught to notice much else, but remembered being thankful that Robin hadn’t assumed. Grateful enough that later, when the camp had fallen quiet and he rose for his own bed, she’d asked him not to leave. Let the others think what they liked; she knew, and Robin did too, that she simply didn’t wish to be alone. Not last night.
Or so she’d thought. In the middle of the night, she’d needed refuge. Simply being in Robin’s arms had no longer been enough.
“Help me forget….” she’d whispered.
She’d turned to face him, her hands caressing his face, unable to see him in the dark but knowing what she would read in his eyes if she could. The same thing that she felt from him, as Robin’s lips met hers – grazing softly at first, the message in them as clear as if he’d spoken ….I’m here, I’m with you, be comforted. Twining her hands behind his neck, Marian’s own response spoke for her as she returned the kiss, as it deepened, consuming her. This is what I need….for there to be nothing but this, nothing in all the world. She pressed the length of her body to his, only the thin shirt separating her nakedness from his bare torso, and his lightly clad limbs. As his leg nudged between hers, Marian moaned softly. She felt his body start to quicken and his arousal, firm against her, had awoken something in her that made Marian move one of his hands to cup her breast. As his head dipped to follow it - the ill-fitting shirt no impediment - she buried one hand in his hair and, tilting her head back, her eyes closed and seeping tears, she wished that the world was not such a place as could hold in its grasp such piercing depths of sorrow and yet this at both one and the same moment.
More. She’d needed more. Moving her hands over him, revelling in his taut muscles, in his smooth skin – so beautiful, she marvelled - wanting to leave no doubt of her intentions. Marian let her hand stroke downwards, seeking to free his laces. With little fuss, soon there was nothing between them…she continued stroking, wanting to see what it felt like to hold him in her palm. Not enough. Wanting to feel all, wanting to have Robin be with her…wanting him to fill her thoughts, and her senses, and her body, so that there was no room for anything else. No space, for this terrible grief.
Robin had sensed her desperation.
As she rose over him, opening herself to him, he’d placed a hand on her inner thigh, holding her still. Just the warmth of his touch there had made her crave him even more, to know what it would be like for them to be together.
“Not like this,” he’d murmured. “This – us – it shouldn’t be remembered for today’s sorrows.”
His rejection puzzled her, but before it could settle into hurt, or resentment, with one hand Robin stroked her face tenderly. With his other, he guided hers back to where it had been.
“Keep doing what you were doing,” he said, huskily. “And don’t worry. I’ll make sure you forget.”
His gentle tone reminded her of another time….I don’t know how to thank you…he’d just told her of the physician who could stop her wedding to Guy, and she’d been wounded, vulnerable then too, grateful….you’ll think of something, he’d said….. and in the dark she could almost picture that same tiny, accompanying wink, the one that had suddenly made her feel, as never before, the great gulf of experience which existed between them. It made surface the fact that although Robin was only a few years older than she, that he had seen and done so much more than she had, both on the battlefield and in matters of intimacy. Marian knew he’d not been chaste in the years he’d been away; would never have expected it.
Perhaps it was that experience which, as he made good his word, drove such thoughts from her mind. It allowed Robin to make her feel that despite her haste, despite her brazen rush to join with him, that there were no such differences. Or, that if there were, that they didn’t matter. He found her desirable, she knew that – had always known it – but to feel it, so raw and urgent, in the way he kissed her, with a hunger that matched the way he worshipped every inch of her body, both outside and then in, the at-first gentle exploration which made her own rhythm falter. As he added another finger, delving more fully, more intently, her hand stilled, and then – caressing her in ways that made her body yearn for completion – his touch made sure that she found it, drawing her up and over that heady crest of sensation. At the same time, Marian imagined it to be a whisper of love, the sigh of her name against her ear, as she fell and fell, her body cleaving to his.
And then, almost without conscious thought, Marian took up where she’d left off…had not long resumed when Robin groaned, from deep within. He tensed, thrusting against her once, twice, and then found his own release. When he was spent they lay entwined, for many minutes, Robin’s hand behind her neck, stroking softly, cradling her against his chest, while the ache deep inside Marian – stirred by all they’d just done - spoke to what she knew, one day soon, they would both experience together.
It was enough, for that moment, to be cocooned by his love. It was both shield and armour, and she’d known it would grant her the rest she needed – for a time, at least.
Robin did love her; she was sure of it. As she sat now tugging down the thin shirt - noticing the morning air cool on her upper body - another memory warmed her. Of a whisper, soft against her hair…rest easy, my love…..once Robin thought she’d been asleep. She glanced at him now, and saw the warmth in his eyes as he looked at her.
“I’ve nothing to wear,” she blurted, not knowing what else to say.
“Good morning,” Robin said softly.
He sat up, and swung his legs off the narrow, makeshift bed. Marian glanced away. Now, in the cold morning light, she was feeling numb and bewildered again. Gazing around, she began seeing things that had escaped notice the evening before. Tokens the outlaws had provided for her welcome, and for comfort. Practical things: a bowl, a hairbrush, a roughly-lengthened, neatly-folded peasant's skirt, as she had only her Nightwatchman's trousers. But more importantly, her Nightwatchman’s mask which, in all the confusion at the castle, she thought had been lost. How they’d found it, she had no idea. Tears welled again in her eyes.
“I know it’s not much,” soothed Robin, mistaking her reaction, “but we’ll get more for you. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it….I’ll take care of it, of everything.”
“That’s not it,” she corrected. “They’ve been so kind. You all have. But there are some things at the castle it would be good to have, things my father valued….”
Swiping angrily at her cheeks, Marian stood and dressed. Impossible to hope she could retrieve any of them; it was too dangerous. Nonetheless, it was a momentary distraction, to speculate as she walked out to greet the others….
“Hey, you lot – come quick!” She swung round then to see Allan running into the camp, bending over once he reached them to catch his breath. “The Sheriff and Gisborne are rounding everyone up at Knighton.”
“Then what are we waiting for?” exclaimed Marian, ignoring the plate of bacon and eggs that Much held out to her. The prospect of action, distracting her from her grief, was far more enticing than food.
And with swiftness and an economy of preparation that she had to admire, the gang took up weapons and loped out of camp in the direction of what had once been her home.
It was her home no longer, though. Once there, they clustered behind the bean trellis, watching the soldiers rounding up the villagers, herding them into the centre. As if on cue Vaisey cantered into the village, his mount kicking up dust, and Marian was both relieved and apprehensive to see that Guy was riding not far behind.
“He’s safe then….but what about Meg?” she murmured.
“Shhh – listen,” said Robin. “We’ll find out later.”
Marian shot him a glance, but complied.
“Good people,” began the sheriff, striding into their midst, “I have sad news for you. The lord of this estate, Edward of Knighton, tragically passed away yesterday. But what saddens me more is what else I must tell you. And that is, that the circumstances of his death lead us to believe that Sir Edward was plotting against us, that he was a traitor…”
“That’s a lie!” whispered Marian. “You said no one saw you at the scene…”
“Of course it’s a lie. It’s the sheriff, isn’t it?”
“…and if there was any doubt that your lord has been lending his support to the outlaws, then hear this, good people of Knighton: his daughter, your beloved Lady Marian, has made her position quite clear. She’s escaped from house arrest with no other than Robin Hood – abandoned all her responsibilities to you folk, and absconded to the forest to be with her illicit lover. Ahh – the things we do for love, hmm Gisborne?”
Guy scowled, she saw, but said nothing.
“So, what does all this mean? The fact is, that because these lands have been held by a traitor, they are now forfeit to the crown, and I will be administering them in the king’s name until he returns. So, all the dues which you paid to Sir Edward, will now come to me. Starting today. So, chop chop, rustle up your money pouches and let’s see what you have for me.”
“But Lord Sheriff,” one man dared object, “Sir Edward usually didn’t take coin – he’d take eggs, or produce, or…”
“Well none of that stuff is of any use to me. Coin it is – or if you don’t have any, let me see...” Vaisey paused, turning a slow, deliberate half circle. “No, coin it is – see to it, Gisborne.”
The sheriff casually remounted his horse.
“Oh, and one more thing,” Vaisey drawled. “The Lady Marian is now stripped of all her status – just status, Gisborne - and declared an outlaw. So, anyone seeing her, you will come forward, hmmm? You’ll be rewarded – fifty pounds, shall we say? Let’s make an example of her, so that if anyone thinks that their rank will protect them, they will see that they’re badly mistaken.”
Guy gave the order; the sheriff kicked his horse forward and moved away.
“Robin,” she urged, “we have to stop them.”
“Yes, but just wait until…”
“Wait! How can you say that?” She winced, as blows began falling on the villagers.
Hers no longer, but a lifetime of the impulse to protect them wouldn’t be gainsaid. Heedless of whether the sheriff looked back or not, she rushed from hiding, ignoring Robin’s warning behind her. She didn’t understand his inaction. Marian charged at the nearest guard, dropping him with a sidekick to the torso, swirling to catch the upraised arm of the man beating young Roderick with a stick. She punched hard, right into the soft flesh beneath the guard’s arm, and before he could recover she snatched the staff from him and felled him with a blow to the head.
A split second, and Robin’s urgent shout, alerted her. Marian swung just in time to dodge the swipe of a blade. She stumbled back as Will rushed the guard, heart racing, as she realised how close she’d come…. hoof-beats behind her then, a horse approaching, and Marian brought the staff up to defend herself, because if the sheriff had turned back…
It was Guy.
“Get on,” he snapped.
“Do it, Marian,” he thundered.
She debated a moment, glancing around. The gang seemed to have the upper hand, containing the threat to the villagers. Robin was running her way, shaking his head, gesturing for her not to mount. But Marian made a snap decision; she took Guy’s outstretched arm, and swung up onto the horse behind him.
She thought he’d ride out of the village, but instead he turned the horse and turned behind the trees which formed the border of the manor grounds.
“So…Hood can’t control you either,” Guy said wryly, once they dismounted.
“No one controls me,” she snapped. Then, more calmly: “What are we doing? Why did you bring me here?”
“To get you out of the way.” He held up a hand, as she started to object. “That wasn’t all. I needed to speak with you. I thought you’d want to know, your father’s been interred…. early this morning, but I don’t know where. Not here, at the churchyard. So I’ve instructed a man to find out.”
Tears welled in Marian’s eyes. Guy cleared his throat, and continued.
“And at the castle there are some of your belongings, and his, that I thought you might want. I’ve ordered them kept aside until I can get them to you. If you’ll tell me where….”
He faltered to a halt. Marian, having mastered herself now, laid a hand on his arm.
“Thank you, Guy. That was kind.” She looked up at him, warmed by this glimpse of a side to him that others rarely saw.
“And Meg?” she asked. “Is she safe?”
“It depends,” Guy said cryptically. “She’s out, if that’s what you mean.”
“What do you…”
But at that moment Robin hurtled round the corner. He scowled and, seeing this, Marian withdrew her hand. Guy drew his sword, and advanced.
“What’s the matter, can’t you keep her out of trouble either Hood?”
“Marian, move,” snapped Robin.
“I’ll do no such thing. Stop it, both of you.”
She grabbed Guy’s elbow but in a burst of anger, he shook free, unwilling to be disarmed before his adversary. Marian tried another tack.
“Robin – stop it – he needed to speak with me, that’s all.”
She approached Robin; he kept his gaze fixed on Guy, the curved sword raised. He gave no hint, in his expression, of the man she loved; she’d seen Guy have this effect on him before.
“Listen, he had word of arrangements for my father, and of my things at the castle. And he got me to safety. So please, let’s just go. The villagers are safe now.”
“With him still here?” Robin scoffed.
“I’d do what she says, Locksley,” sneered Guy. “The peasants here will just have to pay up, like everyone else.”
“Guy…” she began.
With brusque movements then Guy sheathed his sword, and ignoring Robin he swung up onto his horse. Robin watched him leave, only then turning towards her.
“Come on,” he said, his tone clipped and angry. “You and I have things to talk about.”
He strode past her then and, his face set, loped off towards the forest, not bothering to look back and see if she was following.
Chapter 7: Discussions
“What did you think you were doing?” Robin rounded on her. “You could have gotten yourself killed….or any one of us.”
They hadn’t even reached camp; he was too angry to wait. The rest of the gang, suspecting the storm about to break, had trotted ahead without them.
“Oh, and you don’t risk that, every time you show up in Nottingham in one of your outlandish disguises, running around the castle as if you own it, getting yourselves arrested….”
“That’s different – I know what I’m doing….”
“And I don’t?”
Robin knew he’d chosen his words poorly, but was too angry to care. He paced, incensed. She’d acted recklessly, and as much as he’d wanted her to be in the forest with them he realised now that perhaps this wasn’t going to be easy. The gang he trusted to take care of themselves; but Marian….
…he knew, in his head, that she was a capable fighter. But she wasn’t infallible. He recalled that heart-stopping moment, the raised blade that she hadn’t seen, and it fuelled his anger even more.
“You didn’t think. You just rushed in…” he accused.
“….of course I did, they were hurting people.”
“And we would have helped them, when the time was right. Not with the sheriff still in sight, and Gisborne hovering…”
“And that’s what really bothers you, isn’t it? That I went with him.”
“No – well, yes, that bothers me too. What did you think you were doing? He knows you’re the Nightwatchman. He’s back with the sheriff. For all you knew, he could have taken you straight back to the castle.”
“But he didn’t, did he?”
Robin threw up his hands in frustration.
“What kind of an argument is that? My point is, you didn’t know.”
“But I did know. That’s the thing, I know Gisborne well enough….”
“I could see that – you do know him quite well…”
“Grow up, Robin… you’re being a child.”
They were getting nowhere. And he was sick of being told to grow up. It was her fall-back response, whenever an argument wasn’t going her way. And what could he say to that? I’ve done my growing up, in blood, in the Holy Land. I’ve done it here, refusing – whatever the cost – to watch people suffer. But even this they disagreed on. Fight the system from within, she’d always told him.
Well, that way didn’t work. She should know that, by now. That way saw you reading the sheriff’s proclamations from a platform as he looked on, it saw you standing by and watching innocent men hang, or starve, or feel the blade between their ribs. That way saw Little John’s Alice lose her tongue, or…..
He’d stalked ahead of her, enraged. Now he turned back, and saw that she hadn’t followed. He stood, waiting; when she made no move forward, he relented, pacing back to where she waited.
“I apologise. I shouldn’t have called you a child. But nor will I be treated like one. And nor will I trail after you like some…servant.” Defiance glinted in her eyes. “If I’m to be here, I will walk beside you, or not at all.”
Robin felt a surge of admiration for her, then; it was one of the reasons he loved her. Beautiful, bold, spirited…here she was, laying down her terms after less than a day with the gang. Here she was, charging into a fray, possessed of no thought but protecting her people….and all this so soon after she’d lost her father, since her world had been turned upon its head.
But for all this he had to lead the gang, and she had to know that, and accept her place in it.
“Marian, I’m sorry too. I know all this is new, and strange to you…” He held out his hands, and she took them. “And this is only our first day together. Let’s both calm down, and we can talk about it later.”
She gave a small nod, accepting this.
“But we will have to talk about it,” he added, as with joined hands they walked along the forest path after the others.
“I agree,” said Marian.
“Now there’s a first,” he teased.
And he grinned, as he received in reply to this an elbow to the ribs.
Guy had no real affinity for country lanes. But it was the second time, upon visiting the Bennett estate, that Meg had dragged him along one. A servant – the chaperone Lord Bennett required – trailed them at a respectful distance. A mouse of a man, Guy had no doubt a single bark from him would send him scuttling, if he had designs on Meg.
Guy had no such intentions. Exactly the opposite, in fact.
“This is your chance to leave,” he insisted. This wasn’t the first time they’d had this discussion. “We can try and find sanctuary for you in an abbey, or with a noblewoman, but we’re running out of time. Why are you being so stubborn?”
“An abbey? No thank you. Anyway, you know why, I’ve told you. If I disappear you would be implicated…”
“….I can look after myself.”
“Not from what I’ve seen.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Guy could feel the conversation starting to slip away from him. So many of them did, with Meg. She had the habit of taking a topic and twisting it like wool around her fingers, until it was impossible to find the thread with which they’d started.
“Never mind,” she muttered. “And you call me stubborn, but I’m still waiting for an answer to the question I asked in the dungeon.”
Guy waited. When nothing more was forthcoming:
She glanced behind, lowering her voice a little.
“You said the sheriff had plans for you, but you wouldn’t tell me what they were.”
They walked on in silence, Guy considering. Perhaps this was the way out he’d been seeking. If he revealed the sheriff’s plot to Meg, maybe she’d understand why marriage to him would be such folly.
They’d reached a bend in the lane, where a pig foraged noisily beneath a large oak. Meg turned around, calling back to the servant.
“Collin, go and tell Harold his pig’s turned up,” she instructed. “He’s been grumbling for days that he couldn’t find her.”
“Do what she says - now…” menaced Guy, and the servant took himself off in haste.
“Try not to scare the pig too,” Meg muttered beside him.
Guy almost smiled. But her next words wiped all trace of it away.
“Well we’re alone now….this is your chance.”
It probably was, but Guy still hesitated to reveal the sheriff’s designs, and his own role in them. But he realised that if he said nothing, she was certain to be caught up in them.
“Some people will do anything for power, Meg,” he began.
“And would you?”
“I’ve done enough,” he said darkly. “And I would have done more. My name is on a pact that….”
Guy swallowed. Could he trust her? It was no light thing to confess to treason, even in private, in a shade-filled lane near a pig rootling for acorns. But, with little to lose, he ploughed on.
“….by just signing my name to it brands me a traitor. Now Hood has that document, so if the king returns I’ll hang for that alone. But Vaisey and his knights, they have a plan to prevent it. To make sure the king never returns, and to put Prince John on the throne. And that is what they’re going to blame me for.”
“Does it matter?” snapped Guy. “Haven’t I told you enough?”
“Please. Tell me.”
Guy rolled his eyes. But Meg had stopped walking, and turned to him, and rather than being repulsed by his confession her face was furrowed with concern. Before he knew it, they were sitting on the stone fence and, although his mouth was dry, and although he felt as if tension flowed through him like the blood in his veins, soon Meg knew it all: the proposed trip to the Holy Land, the plan for regicide, and then his own murder, leaving Vaisey free to declare him a renegade and a king-killer.
When he was done, Meg was silent. The breeze carried the aroma of bread from the village bake-house. Nearer, the cloying scent of wild honeysuckle climbing over the fence; Meg toyed with one of the blooms.
“Let me ask one thing,” she said eventually. “Would you kill the king?”
“I’ve no love for him, Meg. He cares nothing for this country, or for his subjects. Do I want to kill him myself? Probably not, anymore. Could I have ended up with no other choice? Quite easily.”
“You do know what they do to traitors? Worse than hanging. You’d be better off dead at the sheriff’s hand. It would be more merciful.”
“Is that why you wanted to know?” Guy asked sourly. “Well, now that you do, let’s drop this farce. You can see why a wedding’s out of the question.”
Meg ignored this; she stared out at nothing, a thumb absently rubbing her bottom lip. The motion caught Guy’s attention, but finally he grew impatient. He stood, ready to leave, but Meg didn’t move.
“Well,” she said at last, “it’s obvious what you should do.”
“Yes. You should find Hood and tell him what Vaisey plans, then together you can….”
“You as well!” spat Guy. “I should have known.”
“Should have known what?”
“That you’re in league with Hood,” he snarled. “He put you up to this, didn’t he? He’s lost one spy in the castle, so now he’s put you in as another. So when did he get to you, was it…..”
“….you’re being ridiculous,” snapped Meg.
“Am I? All that stuff about not wanting to see me tortured – well you had me convinced, you’re as good as…”
“….because it’s true, you stupid man.”
“Dung-girl,” he sneered.
“What?” said Meg, arrested by the insult.
They looked at each other a long moment.
“What….did you call me?”
Guy recalled, then, that at least on that day she hadn’t been in Hood’s camp; she’d been acting solely to protect him. He felt a wash of shame. Perhaps, in the heat of the moment, he’d overreacted. Meg, her face in her hands, was making muffled sounds. Guy stepped forward and laid a hand awkwardly on her shoulder.
But she was laughing.
“All this time….” she gasped, “is that how you’ve thought of me?”
Meg wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Then:
“No wonder you don’t want to marry me….the future Lady Gisborne, dung-girl…..”
Guy shook his head.
“You can see why it would never work, then.” He grinned reluctantly.
“I see nothing of the sort. Come, please sit. Then we can talk, sensibly, about what we should do.”
Her choice of words wasn’t lost on Guy, but he let it pass. He sat down beside her again, waiting as she composed herself.
“You say Hood has the pact, so you’re already compromised,” Meg began, drumming her fingertips on her knees. “So, you’ve nothing to lose by approaching him, and everything to gain.”
“Because if you reveal Vaisey’s plot to him, and find some way to stop it together, then that will clear your name. It won’t matter that you’ve signed the pact.”
Guy was silent, turning the logic of this over in his head. In one respect, it made sense. But to co-operate with the outlaw? To turn traitor on Vaisey?
“It’d never work,” he said.
“Because Hood would never agree to it.”
“Of course he would, he’s a king’s man. Let’s give him the chance, and set up a meeting.”
Guy sighed. He knew that, however delicately, he was being manoeuvred. There was a small part of him that liked her assumption of his problems, her inclusive “we.” The sense that perhaps he wasn’t, for once in his life, acting all on his own.
But it wasn’t enough. In blaming Hood, he hadn’t been wholly honest. Guy wasn’t sure he could agree to it.
He rose, and held out a hand to Meg.
“I’ll think about it,” was all he could allow.
“I said, I’ll think about it,” Guy snapped.
They turned back along the lane, Meg lapsing into a rebuffed silence. As they walked, a man who Guy assumed to be Harold acknowledged her with a tap to his forehead – “mi-lady, thank you” – and hastened past them in the opposite direction, to collect his errant swine.
Guy tipped the last drop from the flagon into his cup, cursing. It didn’t seem that long since he’d sent for it but, undeterred, he rang for a servant and sent the girl to fetch another.
He slept here when his duties kept him late, and had been in the habit of doing so more often - an excuse to be near Marian, once she’d come to live at the castle. It wasn’t lost on him, now, the slight crinkle of the servant’s nose when she entered his chambers. He knew the room smelled stale, from an excess of ale and unchanged bed linen. Normally fastidious, Guy couldn’t bring himself to care. He took another swig.
The whiff of Marian’s collusion with Hood, now that had been far stronger than the closed air of any untended room. It had been everywhere, Guy saw, now that he knew. But, he’d chosen to ignore it. Far easier to bask in the sense of almost-well-being which a truce with Marian had brought him, after her clandestine visit to Locksley. In the past, she had jilted and humiliated him; he’d burned her house, and detained her and her father. These things had been… well, not forgiven, but put to one side.
Far easier, he’d found, to believe whatever Marian had told him. I offer….. friendship. Past experience had made him mistrustful. What is this all about? They’d been interrupted, but Guy knew he would have relented. Vaisey would have derided him for it. And will you sit up and beg if she asks too? Perhaps roll over, and let her scratch your belly….ahh, there we go, good little Gizzy….the thought had made Guy cringe, because it was true. Marian had given him so few words of encouragement that when, occasionally, they had fallen from her lips, his good sense had got stuck in them like a fly mired in honey.
The sheriff had indeed questioned him about her nocturnal visit the next day, gleefully imagining outcomes which had kept Guy awake much of the night himself, even after he'd dealt with the effects of those imaginings. It had given no lasting relief.
No relief. Perhaps, now, this should be. He was free of her, wasn’t he? Free of Marian’s lies, her manipulation, of the tainted hopes that some part of him had always known, were he honest with himself, had been misguided.
He looked glumly into the dark liquid, gulped more down. It didn’t feel like relief. It didn’t feel like freedom, not when he was sitting here, ruminating over the events of that night, trying to piece together what might have been her true motive for visiting him. Whatever it had been, it must have had something to do with Hood.
Hood. No wonder the outlaw had been so smug, in their every encounter. The knowledge of Marian’s true feelings must have warmed him, and taken the sting from Guy’s taunts. Perhaps not fully; Guy smiled to himself, taking a grim moment of pleasure at the thought of how the outlaw must have felt the day he and Marian had almost wed.
Almost. A fleeting triumph at best; Guy bore the scar of that failure.
He drained the cup, and slammed it down.
“Where’s that damn girl?” he muttered.
And now, Meg expected him to swallow all this humiliation, and go crawling to Hood for help? His pride baulked at the thought. But did he have a choice? There weren’t many: he could flee the shire, stay where he was and go meekly to his fate….or, he could fight it. And for that, he knew Meg was right. He would need help.
He heard a timid knock; the girl returning.
“There,” he growled, pointing to the bedside table.
When she’d gone, Guy collapsed onto the bed, flinging one arm across his face. His life was full of unpleasant truths now. Allan had given him one only yesterday. He’d stumbled on the steps above the bailey, blinking at the sunlight after a night’s heavy drinking. Guy would have knocked the sheriff down, if Allan hadn’t steadied him.
“Giz, you need to give it a break,” Allan had whispered, one hand beneath his elbow.
“Phaw,” he’d added, turning his face away from the evidence on his breath.
There was a limit, Guy knew, to what he’d get away with under the sheriff’s scrutiny. But this week? With Marian gone, in league – no doubt in bed with his enemy – and his own future bride chosen by Vaisey’s whim?
“You should be grateful to me, Gisborne. She comes with a title, dowry, lands...and she’s not displeasing to the eye.’ Vaisey had been smug about his cleverness, at one of their morning meetings. Guy had tamped down a retort, and tried not to sway on his feet.
He lay, now, reflecting that he had another choice – for tonight, at least. He was free, inasmuch that he was bound to no woman. He wasn’t wed, yet; Marian had spurned him, as only Marian could. He could send to the Trip for paid company.
Guy removed his arm, gazing at the stonework overhead. Truth be told, he was weary, and a little disinclined. He suspected the time for that idea had passed more than half a flagon ago. Even as he made this decision, he heard footsteps clattering up the stairs, and a pounding at the door.
“Sir Guy, are you there?”
The handle shook.
“Enough,” he snarled. “What do you want?”
Guy dragged himself to a sitting position, and shook his head slightly.
“Sheriff wants you – says the weapon he’s brought from the Holy Land has arrived, and you need to be there.”
There was no point asking if it couldn’t wait until morning; this was the sheriff. Guy rubbed his hands through his hair, glancing at the shutters. No light in the cracks; it was well past sundown. He should have gone back to Locksley when he’d had the chance; at least, then, there might have been the chance Allan would have had to deal with this in his absence. Or not. You never knew, with Vaisey.
"Tell him I’m on my way.”
Guy stumbled to the washstand, tipping water into the bowl and splashing his face. He rubbed down with a towel and then leaned both arms on the stand, aware he was in no fit state to front up to the sheriff. Well, he would do what he must.
Just as he would about Meg’s suggested course of action. Leaning there, his arms trembling slightly and water dripping from his hair, Guy came to a decision. This one time, in all the years of working for Vaisey, by chance Guy did know the sheriff’s plans for him. It was an advantage he couldn’t afford to squander.
So, he would agree to meet with Hood. But if Vaisey ever discovered this – something which Guy hadn’t pointed out to Meg – the fate that he would receive at the sheriff’s hands would be as far from any kind of mercy as she could ever imagine.
Chapter 8: Deceptions
Eyes hard and flat. Resolve in them; resolve that had turned aside at the last minute, true, but Allan had never seen that look on Robin turned against him before. He’d nearly died, that day, when Robin first discovered he was the traitor, and Allan knew it. For all Robin said he didn’t kill, he was a man who did what was necessary. To protect Marian, his king, and his friends – and in that order, Allan suspected – he knew full well that Robin would kill.
But that day in the tavern, he’d had some of the luck he was so fond of trading in. Robin had let him live. He wasn’t sure his luck would hold true the next time, which was why he found himself now in the unlikely position of defying Guy of Gisborne, someone else who could just as easily spit him on his sword. He supposed it said something about the nature of what he did, both then and now, when death-by-employer was a very real hazard of the job.
“I’m not doin’ it. He’ll kill me.”
“And what makes you think I won’t?” growled Gisborne.
“I don’t. So, go on then, if you plan to, but I’m not riding out into that forest just to become target practise.”
“I thought that wasn’t Hood’s way.”
“You haven’t seen him when he’s been betrayed.”
“Oh, I think I have,” Gisborne said dourly.
Too late, Allan recalled the whole unfortunate tattoo business, and decided it was time to change the subject.
“But there might be another way…I’ll see what I can do.”
Which was why, now, he was skulking in a Nottingham alley, waiting for the usual Tuesday food drop. He wondered who’d come. He wasn’t sure who he would most, or least, want to face. Not Robin, of course. With Djaq, he’d be safe, but he could imagine the hurt and disappointment in her face, and he thought that might be worse than the clout Little John was likely to dole out with his staff, or Much’s flurry of recriminations, or Will’s…. yes indeed, just how would Will treat him? He didn’t like to think about that either, any more than he did of Djaq.
Perhaps they’d changed the day – he was almost hopeful they had, though reporting failure to Gisborne was never pleasant. Perhaps they thought he’d give this knowledge away, just as he’d revealed their entry points into the castle.
Resentment bubbled up in him, then. Innocent betrayals…. there’s no such thing. Robin with right on his side, Allan thought bitterly. He’d made a plea for understanding, and all he’d received in return was a blistering “Is that supposed to be an excuse?” Course it wasn’t. But it didn’t change the fact Robin had no idea what the reality was for the likes of him, and didn’t care. Robin didn’t understand him at all. Couldn’t he see the edge of the blade he flirted with now, one that could cut him either way, for the sake of the gang? Trying to keep himself ingratiated with Guy and the sheriff, while giving nothing away that really mattered, like the location of their camp.
A suspicious movement caught his eye then, and a flash of dark copper hair beneath a cowl. Allan moved around the stalls until he was closer, needing a better look. It was her. He reached out and grabbed Marian’s elbow, startling her. She dropped the sack she was carrying.
“Oi, what are you….hhmmmph….”
That same elbow thumped back into his chest, winding him.
“It’s you!” she hissed, her eyes flashing in anger. “What on earth were you thinking, creeping up on me like that? I’m trying to avoid attention.”
“The best way to do that would be to stay out of Nottingham. What are you doing here?” he asked. “I’m surprised Robin let you….”
He caught the flicker of something in Marian’s eyes before she looked away.
“…wait, he doesn’t know you’re here, does he?”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“So, living in the forest ain’t all it’s cracked up to be? I could have told you that.”
“I’m sure you never had to sit round camp doing nothing because Robin feared for your safety. I can look after myself, and he should know that. I don’t know why he doesn’t trust me.”
“Maybe because you’re here, now, where any guard with half an eye open could pick you out. I did,” Allan said wryly. He tilted his head towards the nearest alley. “Come on, let’s get out of sight.”
“And you still haven’t told me what you’re doing here,” he asked again, once they were out of the marketplace.
“What does it look like? I’m making the drops, so best you let me get on with it.”
“But they usually come in pairs; I know. So, what’s the deal?”
Marian looked sheepish.
“They all know I’m supposed to be at camp. But I caught up with Djaq and Much and told them their help was needed in Clun, that the village’s oxen were being confiscated by guards and that Robin needed them. I offered to take the food back to camp so they could go straight there.”
Allan gave a low, appreciative whistle.
“So, you lied.”
“Yes, I lied.”
“You are going to be in such trouble….”
“Which is why I must get on with this, and get back before he sends someone looking for me. I don’t need minding. I have to show him I can do these tasks, things that I’ve been doing for years without his say-so, and without getting myself into trouble.”
“Well, that’s not quite true.”
“I don’t have time for this. Goodbye Allan.”
“Wait, not so fast. I was here looking for one of the gang to take a message back to Robin.”
“A message? From who, Guy or the sheriff?”
“Guy, of course. If the sheriff knew I was holding back…. he suspects, as it is.”
“So, what is it?”
Allan glanced around, gesturing her to follow him a further into the alley. Waited as a cooper’s wagon rolled past at the far end, the wheels making a din on the cobbles, and then said in a low voice:
“Guy wants to meet with him. Friday night. Said he knows something that will interest Robin.” Allan glanced around, then lowered his voice further. “Something about the king.”
Marian said nothing. She gazed at him, in that way that she had, assessing.
“Is it a trap?” she asked eventually. “Where does he want to meet?”
“The barn, at Knighton… he says it’ll just be him and me, and Robin has to come with only one man…”
“As you say. So, will you tell him?”
“Why is he doing this Allan? Why now? And is he…does he seem….”
“You mean is he pining for you?” Allan couldn’t help the slight sneer that crept into his voice. “Not that I’ve seen. Besides, the sheriff’s found a bride for him. He’s supposed to marry Meg Bennett at the end of the week.”
“And he’s agreed to this?” Marian was clearly shocked.
“Seems to. But look, I don’t know what’s going on. He doesn’t tell me everything…in fact he tells me bleeding nothin’, most of the time. But if you’re worried for Robin, go with him. You know Guy won’t see any harm come to you.”
This seemed to convince Marian.
“Alright. I’ll tell him.”
Marian hoisted the bag back onto her shoulder, gazing thoughtfully along the alley to where the sun cut across the pockmarked cobbles.
“Allan, do you know what this means? If Guy is truly, for whatever reason, willing to help us?” Marian’s voice was laced with hope.
“Well I wouldn’t go getting too far ahead of yourself. You know what they’re like. They’re just as likely to get in the same room and take fists to each other if they don’t like the way the other blinks.”
“Not if I can help it,” Marian said grimly. “I’ll see you Friday night.”
“You’re confident,” he teased. “First you’ll have to talk yourself out of this stunt.”
Marian said nothing; she turned, looking towards the end of the alley, preparing to slip away.
Allan accompanied her to the end of the alley.
“We need to go separately.”
“I know,” grumbled Allan. “Just remember….”
“What’s that?” interrupted Marian.
They paused, looking out. A slowly gathering crowd had begun to appear, and something was drawing its attention. Marian couldn’t see anything, but she could hear a voice intoning Latin, and the rumble of a cart, notable in that it was the only vehicle moving.
“What’s going on?” she muttered.
As the cart proceeded, a ripple of cries and wails flowed through the street, folk following in its wake.
“Someone’s died,” she said.
Marian pushed through the crowd, vaguely aware of Allan beside her…
…and she might have fallen, stumbled under the wheels of the cart, if he hadn’t caught her. Elbowing through to where she could see – she did see – and the strangled noise, the quiet keening that began she knew not where, welling up in her throat and escaping in a voice more akin to the netherworld than the living….it was as if her body had registered her shock, and given expression to it, before her mind could even process what she saw.
So, this is what it is like, she thought, to have my heart ripped out.
Robin, laid upon the cart. He lay still.
Yes…it’s him. Words float round her like pollen on the breeze. But he can’t be dead…can he? The sounds of grief, intruding. In the same moment, Marian both resented it – this isn’t their loss, it’s mine, he is mine - only to recognise that this outpouring of grief, this love the common folk had for him, this was what Robin lived for, this was what he deserved, it was his right...
But she didn’t want to share him.
I was with you, just hours ago. Last night….
Allan, helping to her feet, but she couldn’t rise.
“Come away, Marian, please.”
My love, king of my heart, my beautiful Lord of Locksley….
The high, keening cry, pouring from her in a note that pierced through all the other sounds of mourning, drew the gaze of the man leading the procession. His droning voice wavered….
“Did you kill him?” Marian croaked. She hardly recognised her own voice.
Only action could stave off this….could help…what can I do? Her thoughts, circling like carrion crows, found only this man – blond, in a leather cape, dagger at his belt – who was bearing her beloved towards the house of his enemy, to alight upon.
“Did you?” she demanded again.
“Marian, come away.” Allan, tugging at her arm.
A collective gasp from the crowd. It could have been the gasp of drowning souls and Marian would have ignored it. She launched herself at the man, intent upon gouging those smug blue eyes from his face, so that the last thing this murdering coward would see upon this earth was the face of vengeance.
Hands grabbed her from behind, hauling her away, as she kicked and screamed and clawed for the face of the man she hated above all else on the earth.
“Marian, come away. It’s me, Little John.”
He lifted her from her feet, carrying her bodily through the crowd, as tears streamed down her face and the image of her beloved…..
….so young, so vital, he cannot be dead, my Robin…
“Hush, Marian.” Reaching a quiet alley, Little John set her down. He spoke urgently. “Listen, Djaq gave him a potion – he’s not dead. It’s all a ruse, to deceive the sheriff. When they get inside, Carter – the man you attacked – will give him another, to wake him up.”
Marian steadied herself, holding onto his arms. She stood very still, the emotion draining from her, leaving only those essential words to which she clung. He’s not dead. The tension, the grief, left her. But where joy and relief should have flooded in, instead she found herself sobbing, and clinging to Little John, who put his arms around her, offering her the same gruff comfort that she would once have received from her father.
It made her cry even harder.
“Come on, little one. I’ll take you home.”
Which he did, back to Sherwood.
Chapter 9: Challenges
Robin sat, moodily flicking sticks into the fire. They’d arrived back at camp to find Marian sleeping; Little John had let the others know she was safe, when he left Nottingham with her.
Much – aware of how awkward things could soon become – was prattling on about how it was quite likely the sheriff would come and take Clun’s oxen sometime.
“He did it to Nettlestone last year, remember? So, if Clun can’t pay their taxes, which no one ever can, it’ll surely just be a matter of time. The sheriff doesn’t have a care about how hard it makes it then to plough their fields, oh no, and how next year it will be harder again to pay what they owe…”
…it was a measure of his preoccupation that Robin refrained from telling him to shut up.
Robin knew Marian had had a scare that day, and he was sorry for it. But if she hadn’t been in Nottingham in the first place, she’d have known what was happening. He’d been furious, when he first found out.
A good liar, he’d thought. Takes a kernel of truth, makes it more believable. He was surprised how much this bothered him. He knew Marian had lied to Gisborne, repeatedly, but it had always been with good cause. But now, seeing that she would lie to the gang…will she lie to me as well?
It didn’t help that she’d ignored him by leaving the camp. He’d planned for them to go around the forest drops together that afternoon. He hadn’t told her that; he’d wanted to see if she’d co-operate, for his own peace of mind.
And all that had got him was to place him in a quandary, torn between seeing that thing with Carter through, and his worry for Marian’s safety. At least the fact they were going to Nottingham had meant – once their business with the sheriff was done – that they’d be able to look for her.
And her lie had ensured the gang had been handy to Clun when the guards began terrorising the villagers there. But, not the point. Robin still couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d made a fool of him, of all of them.
He heard a small noise behind him then, and waited for Marian to join him. With the ease of practise, the gang slipped away, finding tasks elsewhere.
She remained standing, beside the log.
“I thought you were dead,” she said dully, without preamble.
“I know,” Robin replied. He reached out his hand, and she took it; he squeezed, gently, and drew her down beside him. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
Marian leaned into him, relaxing her head against his shoulder. Robin knew she’d had a shock; so soon after Edward’s death, it was the last thing she needed. Marian ran her hand up and down his arm, reassuring herself of his solidity, of the fact that he was there. Robin didn’t want to upset her, but he wondered how to broach what needed to be said; things couldn’t go on this way.
“It was my own fault, you’re thinking.” Matter-of-fact. In the end, Marian did it for him. “But it was just as well I went, because I saw Allan….”
Robin sighed, interrupting her.
“Marian,” he said, even-toned, “you can’t go off on your own like that. No one can, it isn’t safe…”
He ignored this.
“…why do you think we go in pairs? There needs to be a watch. Always. Sure, it was Allan who spotted you today, but what if it had been someone else? You’re well known in the castle, and around town. There’s a reward out for you, and they’ll be talking about you….about Sir Edward….it’s news at the moment, everywhere. You need to lie low, at least until this dies down a bit. That’s why I wanted you to stay here.”
“But you didn’t tell me any of that. If you’d said….”
“I shouldn’t have to explain everything,” he said tersely.
“No, I should just be meek and obedient, and do what I’m told like a….like them…”
“If you want to look at it that way. Or you could just accept that we’re a team, and that if you want to be part of it then you need to co-operate.”
“Jump when you say jump, stay when you say stay….”
“Yes,” said Robin heatedly. “But you didn’t, did you? So, you’ll have to stay here, at camp, until you prove that you can be trusted…”
“Is that what this was all about?” Marian asked, voice taut, her eyes flashing. “You were testing me?”
Robin hesitated; best not to admit to that. He tried a different approach.
“Do you want to be here, with us? With me?” he asked.
The first crack in her brave façade appeared; Robin saw pain flicker through her expression, quickly masked, but with it his anger immediately melted away.
“What I want,” she said, “is for none of this to have happened. For my father to still be alive…”
“Come here,” Robin said softly.
He pulled her into his embrace, and Marian nestled against his chest. He stroked her hair, feeling it soft against his palm. She had no one but them now, he realised, so it had been a cruel question. Unintentionally, but Robin kicked himself. Did she think he’d send her away? Nothing could be further from the truth, or from what was in his heart. His hand came to rest against her head, holding her close.
“Let’s not fight,” he murmured into her hair. “We need to make it work. But I need to lead, Marian, you know that I do.”
She pulled away slightly, leaning back to look at him. Her eyes glistened; he reached up, thumbing a tear from beneath one eye.
“Come on,” he coaxed, “you haven’t told me yet what Allan had to say.”
They linked fingers, as Marian recounted Allan’s message.
“It’s not a trap, I’m certain of it.” Marian paused a heartbeat, then continued. “Guy knows I’ll come with you…he’d do nothing to harm me.”
Robin hid his irritation, both at the assumption he’d take her along and at the faith which, for some reason, she always placed in his enemy. He never could understand what Gisborne had done to deserve it, beyond follow her around like some lovesick fool.
It was a strange request. Something about the king, Allan had said…which could either be true, or a lure. Unlike Marian, he didn’t trust Gisborne’s motives. Whatever the man said, he was back in Vaisey’s service, after spending only one night in the dungeons. Robin wasn't sure that even knowing Marian was the Nightwatchman would make his pursuit of her cease. Gisborne had been intense as a youth; he was no different now.
“Robin…did you hear me?” Marian nudged his leg.
“That girl in the dungeons…Meg Bennett…Allan said Guy and she are to be wed this coming Saturday. The sheriff’s ordered it.”
Robin gave a low whistle.
“Well, that’s what he gets for laying it about with a nobleman’s daughter.”
“Don’t be so crude,” Marian reprimanded.
“Since when were you so prim?” he teased.
And when he saw Marian flush, Robin knew exactly what she was thinking.
“I agree,” he said softly. “Maybe not so prim.”
They’d kept up a semblance of sleeping apart, but each night, once the camp was settled, they’d sought each other out. Marian needed the comfort he gave her. But there was a brittleness about her. He felt it in the frantic undertone of her caresses, as if she might shatter apart; and a vulnerability, one he didn’t want to take advantage of.
It bemused Robin. Here Marian was, willing to be with him, and yet he knew the time wasn’t right. He’d never waited before, not with any woman. But this wasn’t any woman; this was Marian.
Because of that, sometimes - in their most passionate moments – it was hard to remember his reasons. Yet, they existed. There were certain things he should tell her, even ask her first, but it was hard to do this when there was such a niggling lack of accord between them. It had characterised all her days at camp so far, arguments flaring up without warning or preamble. Part of this was her father’s death, he knew; Marian wasn’t herself, she needed to grieve. She needed time to come to terms with all this change. It wasn’t the time for discussions about their future, or for her to be having life-changing experiences.
“What? What is it?”
Marian had felt his slight smile beneath her fingertips.
“I was just thinking about us...you know, about us being together. About it being a life-changing experience.”
“Don’t flatter yourself, handsome.” Robin could hear her smile in the dark.
“I thought you might say that.” He’d lifted his hand, stroking her cheek.
“So - challenge accepted….” he murmured.
She’d been sitting at the edge of the low bed. Robin had knelt there, between her thighs, and as he stroked them they had opened wider to him like a bloom to the sun. He held there, his tip nudging against her entrance. Where the slightest movement would sheathe him. Almost forgetting to breathe, he and Marian both, Marian panting softly, her hands feathering the back of his neck. And Robin had rested there, or thought he had, perhaps easing in a little further than intended, where the sensation of being so close, of wanting to bury himself, became almost unbearable. He could already feel the flutter of her response, just waiting for him to unleash more…..a single thrust, that was all it would take….
“Don’t you want me?” A heart-breaking whisper in the dark; it had stunned him.
“Let me show you….” he brushed her face with his knuckles, as they both felt the promise of what it would be like when they joined, “…just how much….”
And Robin pulled back, while he still could. His lips took hers, a plunging kiss that mirrored exactly what he longed to do with his body.
“There are many ways we can be together….”
Determined to leave her in no doubt, Robin had lowered himself, widening her legs further. He kissed a path along one of her thighs, revelling in Marian’s soft moans as he settled there; feeling the gentle pressure on his scalp as her roaming fingertips finally succumbed to clasping his hair. He felt her body move instinctively to his caresses. She moaned softly. Those small sounds drove him to quicken his movements, until finally a violent shudder rocked through Marian, the sweet delirium of her response locking him in place. Afterwards, as he slowly withdrew his hand, Marian had hidden her face against his shoulder. But it was moments only; overcoming her shyness – distracted by his ardent kisses, as he tilted her head up - she’d wrapped her fingers around him with more assurance than the last time. He wasn’t a man to lose control readily, but to be with her like this, his own bold, beautiful, beloved Marian, to feel her respond so to him…..he’d been so aroused she could probably have done nothing but take hold, and he still would have come apart in her hand. But she’d done more than that; and he had.
He grew hot, now, just thinking about it. This intimacy between them, it was something new, and precious. Their eyes met, and Marian’s small, private smile made his heart turn over; he lifted her hand, pressing it to his lips.
“Oh, please.” They drew apart, startled, as Much stomped back into the camp, dropping a hare by the fire-pit. There was the snap of branches nearby, Djaq and Will’s voices debating something. “Don’t tell me we have to go out again, because if we do, I don’t know how I’m supposed to ever cook a meal.”
“No Much, we’re just talking,” Marian told him.
“Talking is good,” muttered Much, drawing his knife and sitting down to start skinning the hare. “Yes, talking is fine, better than shouting.”
“And you’re wrong about Guy,” Marian went on, resuming their conversation. “He’d only met Meg once before, she knocked you off him that day you tried to drown him.”
“I knew I’d seen her before, though I was half underwater myself at the time. But I wasn’t really going to, you know,” he said, with a playful grin. “Drown Gisborne, that is.”
“You could have fooled me,” Marian said tartly. She paused, then asked the question Robin had been hoping he’d managed to dodge. “That thing he said, in the dungeon, I’ve been meaning to ask you about that. What did he mean, when he said you’d seen him driven away once? What happened?”
“Didn’t he tell you himself?” stalled Robin. “I’d have thought he’d use any opportunity he could to wring sympathy from you.”
“You’re wrong,” she said again. “Guy’s a proud man. He wouldn’t tell me anything if he thought it would make me pity him.”
Robin gazed at her for a few moments, then came to a decision.
“I’ll tell you some other time,” he muttered.
Sensing Marian about to press the issue, he rose.
“Come on, we’ll get the food ready for tomorrow’s drops. And Friday night, we’ll meet Gisborne. Or I will.” He held up a hand, forestalling her protest. “You can come, but you’ll have to stay out of sight. I don’t trust him.”
“But who will you take in with you? You shouldn’t go alone, and of everyone here I’m the closest thing he’d have to an ally.”
“You think?” scoffed Robin. “It’s just as likely to send him into a rage, seeing us together. No, Marian. Until I know what his intentions are, it’s too dangerous for you to be seen.”
She seemed to accept this and Robin hoped, for the sake of their tentative accord, that it was genuine assent.
“Robin – come quickly.” Short of breath, two mornings later Much rushed into the camp. “A messenger….from the King. He says he’ll only speak to you, but he’s hurt. Bad.”
Robin, bow in hand, was already running.
“Djaq!” he called, over his shoulder.
A few minutes only to reach the tree. There Robin saw a prone figure, his wooden crutch lying nearby. On the other side of the tree lay a rumpled cage, a hump of feathers twisted amongst the basket weave. Blood smeared the rock where the impact had killed the bird.
Djaq knelt by the injured messenger, checking for injuries. After a few moments, she glanced up and shook her head. Robin took her place, kneeling by his head, setting his bow and arrows down. The messenger moaned quietly.
“Robin.” It took visible effort, as the man tried to raise his head.
“Shhh…..I know you. McLellan.”
The messenger drew a missive from his belt, holding it out for Robin to take.
“Save your strength,” Robin murmured.
He took the message, turning it over in his hand, noting the unmistakeable royal seal. But the man had more to tell him, fingers scrabbling at his sleeve.
“Lardner,” he said, looking up into the branches overhead. Then, more insistently: “Lardner.”
Robin looked up, then glanced a warning at Djaq, Much, and Marian.
“I see it. You’ve done what the king wished then, my friend; rest easy. We’ll do the rest.”
Satisfied, the king’s messenger lay back. As he relaxed, his life’s last breath sighed out of him. Robin glanced up, saw Marian’s taut face, and quietly led her away from the body. As Much drew a cloak over McLellan’s face, Djaq followed. They went to stand over the broken cage. Djaq dropped to one knee, sadly straightening the bird’s neck.
“Lardner….” she murmured. “The Sultan’s best pigeon, he uses them to carry messages. Which makes me wonder how King Richard came to be using him.”
Marian laid a hand to Djaq’s shoulder in comfort.
“Let's find out,” Robin said, breaking the king’s seal.
“You know why they send these birds?” Djaq asked, as she got to her feet. “They’ll return from anywhere, but it isn’t their home they’re searching for, it’s their mate. All you have to do is split the two of them up, and a pigeon will carry a message to the ends of the earth faster and straighter than any man ever could, just to be with the one they love.”
“Which means there will be one left on her own now,” murmured Marian. “This one will never return.”
She glanced at Robin, who was slowly re-folding the letter.
“What does it say?” she asked quietly, and straight away, because she needed to find out.
Because if he was going to leave her again, she would need to find some way to bear it.
“He wants reinforcements, more men. He wants me to send a note back with Lardner, telling him how many men I can recruit and when I’ll arrive.”
Marian gazed at Robin. They had been here before.
Last time, they were betrothed, she a young girl, so madly in love that when he’d told her he was following his king to war, the hurt had been so great it persisted for five long years. It made her hold him at arm’s length when he returned. He’d left her once; how could she trust him not to hurt her again? Had he even felt the same as she had for him, a love so deep and true that she couldn’t imagine ever loving another? And she still felt that way. He made her heart soar and sing; when she’d seen him on that cart the other day, the thought of having lost him again had bled joy and hope from her more swiftly than a spear thrust could steal a soldier’s life.
And yet. Things had not been easy, since her father’s death. Since coming to the forest something had shifted between them, some balance, which made her feel less like Robin’s equal than she had before. In her heart Marian knew he wanted to protect her, that he was trying to find the right equilibrium himself. But until they did, they were like a glove that should have fitted perfectly but didn't, that wouldn’t sit quite right on the hand.
It made her feel vulnerable now, as Robin turned the message over and over. Was he really thinking about it? What was he thinking? Marian wished she knew. In fact, there were so many things she wished he would tell her. But even in the depths of night, when they both gave and received pleasure as quietly as they could, in a camp full of trying-not-to-listen ears…. even then, as his touch inflamed her, as passion wrung her name from his lips, he withheld the words of love she so craved. Just as he withheld their union.
Oddly enough it was that last, only, which gave her hope. It would be just like Robin, she thought, to wait until they were betrothal-bound. It was the honourable thing to do; her father would have wanted him to treat her so, she knew. But as day succeeded day, and as tensions simmered between them, and no proposal was forthcoming, that hope seemed to sit more uneasily within her, as if it were a sop to the feelings of rejection which, were it not for Robin’s willingness to share other intimacies with her, could have taken a fully-fledged hold.
And now this. He couldn’t leave her again, could he? So soon after her father’s death? I will say as much. Let him know where I stand, at least. If he left me again, I would never, ever forgive him.
“Well, you can’t do that now, can you?”
“I know I’m meant to be loyal and obedient, but…..” he began.
But. Marian could have wept with relief. That single word was all she needed to hear.
“…..the King doesn’t know the facts. But when he does, from Carter, he’ll return home.”
She would make absolutely certain, though.
“And this is no time for you to go back to the Holy Land.”
“We’re agreed then,” said Robin. Then, glancing down at the bird: “This is a pity, though. If Gisborne does know something, which we’ll find out soon enough, this would have been the perfect way to get his information back to the king.”
“Well, we’ll find another way,” Much put in. “But for now, we’ve a corpse to bury.”
“And quickly,” said Marian. “Someone must have been pursuing him, for him to have gone to the trouble of trying to hide the cage up there.”
“Agreed. So, let’s not waste any time.”
“I’ll get the shovel,” offered Much, loping off in the direction of the camp.
Marian began picking up the messenger’s belongings – crutch, satchel, cage – while Djaq disposed of the dead pigeon. Robin selected a patch of ground, and they collected the rocks which would mark the grave. Much returned with shovel and pieces of wood which Will had swiftly fashioned into a cross. Marian watched Robin engrave McLellan’s name on it with the tip of his dagger, and with difficulty held back her tears, thinking that she still didn’t even know where her father was buried.
Perhaps Guy would know. So, she would ask him.
She would get the chance tomorrow night.
The barn at Knighton had mostly escaped damage. There were a few patches of singed thatch, where stray sparks had landed. But the villagers, Guy assumed, must have reacted soon enough to stop it taking hold. He wouldn’t know; by then, he’d already led Marian and her father away.
Guy dismounted and tied off his horse, gazing at the manor ruins. He suspected it was a mistake to come here, especially if Hood brought Marian with him. But Hood would never have agreed to meet with him at Locksley, even if Guy dismissed his guards for the evening. And what excuse could he have given? If the sheriff caught even a whiff of what he was doing, plot or no plot he’d be dead before sunrise. Nor was Guy fool enough to suggest a meeting in the forest. Knighton had been the closest thing to neutral territory he could think of.
But of all his crimes, burning Knighton had been one of the worst. He couldn’t claim he’d done it on Vaisey’s orders; he’d been blinded by rage, and by the desire to hurt Marian as much as she’d hurt him. The power had been almost intoxicating, as he’d wielded that torch; the first lick of flames, caressing wood, fabric, almost mesmerising. But then the whoomph of the flames taking hold, becoming wild, untameable, that had filled him with memory and fear and he’d felt again as he had as a youth, powerless in the face of something he couldn’t stop, unable to do anything but hustle Marian out of the house, and unable to reverse the terrible consequences of his actions.
Powerless. Yes. That was how he’d felt since discovering Vaisey’s plans for him. It had left him strangely incapable of making decisions, perhaps because whatever course of action he chose seemed as futile as the next. He wasn’t even sure this was the right one; he wouldn’t be here at all, if it wasn’t for Meg’s urging. That was another example. It seemed there was no escaping this marriage and Meg had chosen – for reasons he couldn’t fathom – to accept it, rather than flee to sanctuary as he’d suggested. So, do I just resign myself to this, or do I take a horse, and some coin, and leave here, head back to Normandy, or elsewhere, and start all over again? On my own.
It might yet come to that.
But for now, Meg had convinced him that Hood could be the answer to his problems. Hard to imagine, that. Would Locksley bring Marian with him tonight? He hoped not. He needed a clear head, and the torrent of emotions that woman always provoked would hardly help him keep his wits about him.
Beside him, Allan tripped in the dark, cursing. Meg had wanted to come with them, but Guy had quashed that idea. This was no business of hers; no, only my idea she’d said tartly, but then had let it drop. Guy was glad to have Allan there. Not because he trusted him yet – he didn’t trust anyone – but who better to help broker an alliance with the outlaws?
They reached the barn. The door was ajar, lantern light showing in the gap, and spilling through cracks in the wall. Hood was already there – Hood, and his Saracen. Guy remembered the woman incapacitating him with nothing more than pepper, and knew not to be complacent. His eyes flickered round the barn, assessing possible places of concealment – the stacked hay, the rough piles of implements, the plough still caked with mud. He didn’t for a moment think Hood would have kept the terms he proposed; the rest of the gang, even if not inside the barn, would be lurking somewhere within earshot.
“Gisborne, Allan. You’re late.” A cocky, infuriating grin. “If you want to scout the territory out, best to get here first.”
Guy gritted his teeth, determined not to let the outlaw rile him straight away. Forty-five minutes ahead of schedule, yet still not enough to prevent Hood treating him like a fool.
“Have a seat.” The outlaw gestured to two milking stools; he and the Saracen were perched on upturned wooden buckets. Guy caught the twitch of Locksley’s lips, and suspected he was on the verge of delivering some witticism about milking maids.
“No - I’ll stand,” Guy said gruffly.
“So formal…. suit yourself. Now, tell me why we’re here. Allan told Marian you had news about the king?”
Guy gazed at his nemesis, at his relaxed posture, while here he stood, arms folded, wondering what the hell he was doing here…about to confess a plot of treason to a man who already knew he’d once tried to kill the king. Who’d taken his own blade between the ribs, and yet still managed to prevent a regicide.
Sweat poured beneath his leathers. Suddenly, running seemed like a good idea – from this barn, from Vaisey, from everything. It would do Meg a favour. He’d avoid her – then he wouldn’t have to report this failure. Or my complete and utter loss of nerve.
Guy turned and strode to the door, away from Hood’s mocking gaze.
“We’re waiting, Gisborne.”
The scent of turned earth on the breeze. A moonless night, a swallowing dark. A life wasted. Treachery, subordination to a creature whose schemes he now, if he chose, had the chance to finally be free of. Meg’s words came back to him. You’ve nothing to lose. Damn right he didn’t. His life was a pathetic mess.
But he wouldn’t run from it; he’d at least see what came from this chance Meg had persuaded him to take.
“Guy?” Allan had come up beside him.
“Vaisey plans to kill the king,” Guy said dully, without turning. “In the Holy Land.”
Mildly gratified, he heard the scrape of the bucket as Hood shot to his feet, not sure he’d heard him correctly. Guy still faced outwards, into the night, as he continued. Let Hood strain to hear him; at least he had him on his feet. Had his full attention now.
“We leave in a month or so. He wants me to do it. Only it won’t be me, it’ll be someone else. I’ll just be dead and blamed for it.”
The staccato phrases fell into a barn so still that it could have been empty. Guy finally broke the silence, turning back to the open space.
“Nothing to say for once, Locksley?” he sneered.
“At least I understand now why you’re here,” the outlaw said thoughtfully. “Come on, let’s talk.”
The Saracen and Allan moved off to one side, leaving them free to take the seats in the centre of the barn.
“What about Shah Mat?” Hood asked intently. “Does this mean the sheriff’s given up on it?”
“No. This plot may not succeed, and he likes to have plenty of options. But he sees this way as preferable to having to deal with a Crusader army landing back on English soil.”
“No doubt,” muttered the outlaw. “A month, then, you say? Well, we have time to plan. What will you do?”
“What do you mean?”
“Now.” Hood said impatiently. “Will you stay in Vaisey’s service?”
“And you’ll go with him? To the Holy Land?”
“I don’t have much choice, do I?” Guy said acidly.
“Good.” The outlaw rubbed his hands together energetically. “Then Vaisey won’t suspect anything. Nor will he expect to see us there.”
“The Holy Land, of course. We’ll take ship before you do, make sure we’re there, and prepared.”
“For what?” Guy asked warily.
“We’ll warn the king, naturally.” The outlaw got up, pacing restlessly. “But we’ll need to find out more. Vaisey can’t be acting alone…if he plans to use someone else for this, it suggests he’s got someone there, someone whose identity they want to keep a secret. So, if we can find out who that someone is, we can properly eliminate the danger.”
“To me, as well as to the king,” Guy felt compelled to clarify.
“Naturally,” Hood agreed.
He sat back down, a restless energy emanating from him.
“We’ll need to communicate, if this is to work. If you have anything we need to know, send Allan.”
“Of course,” snapped Guy.
He glanced sourly back at the younger man, who’d obviously known, all along, how to find the camp. Allan gave a sheepish shrug.
“And to all intents and purposes, it’s business as usual?”
“It is,” agreed Guy.
“Good. Then we’re done here, I think.”
“Wait,” said Guy. “There’s one more thing. You have the pact…I want it back. It has my name on it, and its proof of treason.”
Guy saw the outlaw’s eyes harden.
“What does that matter?” he asked, suspiciously. “When I warn the king, I’ll tell him you were our source, and that he owes his life to you.”
“It’s proof of treason,” Guy said stubbornly. “If anything goes wrong, if for any reason you didn’t reach the king…”
“….then you’re a dead man, and it won’t matter what your name’s on then.”
“I still want it. For myself, not for Vaisey. Insurance you’ll aim to keep me alive, as well as the king. When all this is done, if I survive you get it back. You’ll still have your proof to use against the Black Knights.”
“You don’t trust me!” exclaimed Hood, mock-wounded.
“No. I don’t.”
“Well it’s mutual.” The outlaw stood abruptly, knocking the bucket over. “And I think Vaisey put you up to this. I think it’s all a lie, a ruse to get his pact back.”
“I should have known,” growled Guy.
He’d had enough.
In a single move, he shot to his feet and shoulder-charged the slighter man. But Hood, light-footed as ever, anticipated him.
Allan’s shout reached Guy dimly, as a well-placed blow knocked the breath from him. He landed a couple of his own, then managed to trap Hood’s arms and propel him back into the barn wall. Hood grunted, winded by the impact, but he leveraged off the wall, charging them out into the centre of the barn. Fists swung, some blows more accurate than others; Guy almost tripped over a stool, but had the presence of mind to scoop it up and swung it at the outlaw’s head. Locksley blocked, taking the impact – that would surely have knocked him out – on the forearm. The outlaw let fly a series of punches that drove Guy back until he stumbled out of the half-open doors into the night outside, tumbling onto the hard-packed earth.
Hood hurtled after him, hauling him half up, delivering a vicious punch that snapped his head to one side. Stunned, Guy shook it to clear the pain. Hood was on him again, relentless. Enraged, Guy surged up, roaring, with a blow that doubled the outlaw over. All his recent frustrations, of losing Marian, of the futility of having listened to Meg, of thinking he could treat with his enemy and that there might be some way out... the accumulation of all these gave him added strength. He launched himself at the outlaw, grappling him, managing to get an arm about his neck.
It was as if a flag had dropped at a tourney; several things happened at once. Hood's fist drove into his gut, forcing him to release.
Her on one side of him; on the other the Saracen, backing away, lowering a drawn dagger.
"Not fair," he accused.
"Don't care," the Saracen replied, implacable.
They all love him. Even Allan, Guy thought; he couldn't bring himself to wholly betray the man. Guy counted that betrayal less, but it was still enough to wound.
With a roar of frustration, he lashed out, a kick that sent the outlaw sprawling into the dirt. Panting, his face smeared with sweat and dirt, straw and dust on his leathers, Guy stumbled back, leaning one hand against the barn wall.
“I should have known you’d be here,” he snarled at Marian. “And that you’d only show your face to save him.”
“Think again, Gisborne," taunted Hood.
Something thudded into the dirt at his feet, and Guy stooped to pick it up. His own curved blade; Locksley had plucked it from his leathers.
“Marian,” he heard Hood growl, “I told you to stay out of sight.”
Guy didn’t wait to hear more. This had been a fool’s errand; he’d told Meg it would be. Ignoring Hood and Marian, he stumbled towards his horse. Allan ran out of the barn, and grabbed his arm. Guy winced, and shook him free.
“Listen, Guy, just take a minute to…”
“No,” he snapped. “I’m done here.”
Concealing the difficulty this took, Guy mounted, and spurred the horse away without a glance back.
He’d tried. And now his position was worse than ever. Locksley knew of their plans, so he’d betrayed Vaisey and in return received nothing – no assurances, no promise of aid, no pact. As the horse galloped along the darkened road, Guy found the temptation strong to just keep going. He might have nothing but his clothes, his wits and his mount….
Once before, Hood had seen him driven away, with not much less than that. It wouldn’t happen again. He would find a way, he would find some solution.
Face set, grinding his teeth against the onset of aches, Guy set the mare’s path back towards Locksley.
Just a note to whoever is following the story - as well as a huge thank you, it's great to have you along! - I aim to update fortnightly although occasionally, like this week, I may manage a weekly one.
Chapter 11: Decisions
Marian glared at Robin, her hands placed staunchly on her hips.
“How could you? After all we’ve been through, to decide just like that – on the strength of one conversation - that you are going back to the Holy Land?” she accused.
“What would you suggest I do?” protested Robin.
The rest of the gang, aware of what was coming, had taken themselves off. Again. They had the barn to themselves.
“At least talk to me about it,” she said hotly.
“We’re talking now. So, tell me, what would you have me do? The king’s life is in danger – he needs to be warned. There’s no use sending a messenger, look what happened to Roger of Stokes. It needs to be me.”
“Everything doesn’t always have to be you, Robin.” Marian thought for a few moments. “What about that Crusader who was just here? The one I thought had killed you. He’s only been gone a few days, if you know what port he plans to leave from perhaps we could…”
“No. There’s another reason I should go. If Vaisey will be there, just think, we’ll finally have the chance to be rid of him. Whatever happens to him in the Holy Land is unlikely to bring Prince John’s wrath down on Nottingham.”
Marian gazed at him in silence, absorbing this thought.
“You plan to kill him?”
“Then I’m coming with you.”
“No. It’s too dangerous.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Robin…then I’m supposed to just sit here while you ride off to save the king and England…”
“Someone needs to stay. To look after the people.”
“It’s not going to happen,” Marian said stubbornly. “I won’t be left behind.”
Robin stepped towards her, and took hold of her hands.
“Marian, listen to me, please. I can’t risk it. I know what it’s like over there, and if I had to worry all the time about your safety…”
“So I’m a hindrance….”
“…I didn’t say that…it would be different if I could trust you….”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, look at tonight. I asked you to stay out of sight, for your own safety.”
“It’s true I don’t always obey you.” Marian shook her hands free. “But then neither do the others. And you trust them – you trust them to be able to make decisions, you respect that they have that right and that ability, and yet you don’t give it to me?”
“You ask me to trust you, yet you lied to the gang – to all of us – that day you went into Nottingham.”
She turned away; he could hear tears in her voice when she spoke again.
“I can’t believe I’m having to explain this, to you of all people. I thought you would understand. But you’re smothering me. I thought this would be different. I thought that we would be different to this. That we would be so much better.”
The hurt and reproach in those words snagged at his heart. Is she right? Snaking in, the thought troubled him.
“I can’t stand it, Robin. If you’d let us be true partners, if you’d let me use my skills to help you…. as it is, I feel I can do less here than I ever could before. It’s like I can’t move, or breathe, without your say-so. And now this….”
She was crying now, he realised. He moved to hold her, putting his arms about her waist, leaning down to rest his face against her hair. She didn’t push him away, but neither did she turn into his embrace.
“I don’t want it to be like this,” she went on.
“Then it won’t be,” he assured her, turning her to face him. The misery in her expression underscored her words. But what she said next stunned him.
“I wonder if, perhaps, we should have some time apart.” Tears seeped from her eyes.
Robin caught his lower lip between his teeth, wholly nonplussed.
“What are you saying?” He slid a hand beneath her hair, caressing her cheek with his thumb.
“That I’ll leave, to let us both think about things.”
“But….where would you go?”
“To Lady Glasson. She’s far enough away from Nottingham that my presence wouldn’t be a danger. It’s where I’d planned to send Meg, if she’d agreed.”
“So, you’ve been thinking about this?” he said, not sure what hurt the most: the fact that she was thinking of leaving him, or the thought that he’d driven her to it.
“I think it’s for the best.” She caught his hand, pressed a kiss to his knuckle, and then stepped away. “We should be getting back. I’ll leave tomorrow.”
Marian walked out of the barn, leaving him to gather up his weapons and extinguish the lantern. It was a mild night, clouds blotting a rising, near-full moon. When Robin came out and started to walk, he already couldn’t see where she was. Huffing, he broke into a trot to catch up.
“Marian,” he said urgently when he did, catching hold of her elbow, “don’t do this. We can fix it.”
“I don’t see how. I won’t be made to watch you leave again.”
Robin was silent.
Marian walked on; he followed some paces behind. How had they come to this? And so soon? He’d wanted to offer Marian sanctuary, to protect and comfort her, and yet because he wouldn’t let her do whatever she wanted she felt smothered?
But, if he was honest with himself, Robin could see some justice in her accusations. I thought we’d be so much better. He recalled those times in the past when they had acted in concert, and how right it had felt. But together, alone, it didn’t matter. Her independence, her boldness, her quick intelligence…her selflessness, working alongside him when the induced plague hit Nottingham …
….she was all he could ever want. He knew this. Not only as the partner of his heart, but as his partner in everything. But now….this, what she was asking?
No one came back unchanged from the Holy Land - not him, not Much, nor Carter, nor any of the other damaged souls who’d crossed their path. This time he wouldn’t be battling Saracens, but it would be no different. If what Gisborne had revealed was true, and if he was right in suspecting a traitor in the king’s camp, then their enemy would be even more dangerous for being faceless and unknown.
Robin knew he had to go. But to take Marian, to risk Marian?
If I don’t, I will lose her. For good, this time. Robin was as certain of this as he was that she meant what she said, that she would leave him tomorrow rather than be left behind.
Unless he could convince her otherwise.
“Marian,” he called softly.
She halted, her figure a dark shadow on the path up ahead.
“Don’t go.” Marian turned to face him. “I’ve been....”
“What, overbearing? Unreasonable?” Robin could hear both a smile and tears in her voice. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
He closed the gap between them.
“Alright then, I will.” Robin took her hands in his, holding perhaps tighter than he intended, trying to find the words that would keep her with him. “Marian – I have to do this, you know that I do….”
“…history repeating itself,” she murmured.
“You think I want to go? That I would want to leave you? Years ago I was wrong, but at the time it felt like what I had to do….”
Marian ran her hands up and down his sleeves, stroking his arms.
“You think I don’t see that now?” she said. “When you live this way, after all you’ve given up? It’s one of the reasons I love you, it’s why I would follow you to the ends of this world, if only you’d let me. If only you’d let me make my own choices.”
“That’s one of the things I love about you…” Robin lifted a hand, caressing her face.
“….does that mean I can….”
Exasperated, he laughed.
“Robin. Will you take me with you, or not?”
“Look, what I’ve been trying to say…..remember that messenger the other day, and all that business with the pigeon….”
“You want to talk about the bird. Now?” she asked, puzzled.
“No. Well, yes. Because that’s what it was like for me,” he murmured, his arms finally going around her. “I’ve wanted to tell you that when things were bad over there – which was most of the time - I always knew I had to get back. Sometimes it kept me alive. And what Djaq said about those pigeons, that they’ll cross the earth and its oceans to be with the one they love…well, that’s how I felt about you. It’s how I still feel.”
He cupped her face, desperate now to make her understand.
“And I didn’t return, across those years and thousands of miles, and then watch you endanger yourself spying for me, just to lose you now because I don’t want to take you back there - to a place that’s a living hell on earth. Because Marian…”
He choked to a halt, glad the darkness hid his emotion.
“…..if anything happened to you…” he whispered. “I cannot be what I am, or do what I do, without you.”
“I love you more than you can possibly know, Robin of Locksley,” she said fiercely, embracing him.
“But I can’t be a talisman to anyone,” she went on, drawing back in his arms. “Not even for you. We have work to do, Robin, and I want us to do it together. Let me fight beside you. If you want someone who’ll sit at home and do embroidery, then I’m not that woman, and I never will be….”
“…it’s you that I want,” he murmured.
“And yes, one of us could die,” Marian went on, “but that could happen here, any time. I thought it had, that day I saw you laid out on the cart. I saw then what the world would be like without you, and what my life would be like, and I couldn’t have borne it. Not a day of it. Not a single moment.”
Her fingers grasped at his sleeves, and this rare glimpse of her vulnerability disarmed Robin.
“So please, don’t ask it of me. Don’t ask me to wait here and wonder if the next time….”
“Shhh,” he said. “I won’t, my love, I won’t….”
And whether she moved first, or he did, they flowed together then in a fierce embrace, trying to banish these spectres of loss. They shared deep, fevered kisses, Marian’s hands twining behind his neck, her eager response whetting Robin’s desire to show her - in this and all their nights to come - all the pleasures he possibly could.
“Make us one,” she murmured against his lips, words of such sweet promise that Robin groaned into the kiss, and he buried his hands further in the lush tumble of hair which, thanks to his efforts, now fell freely around her shoulders.
Robin drew back a little, both torn and tempted.
“Are you sure?” he asked, nuzzling her face tenderly. “Forest floors aren’t all you might think.”
“I’m sure they’re not. I’m sure there are twigs, and branches in annoying places, and prickly grasses…but Robin, I want us to be together. I don’t want to wait any longer. “
“Have you thought how close we are to Knighton? Just one villager, out late for any reason, and here we are by the forest path….”
Marian gave a choked laugh.
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
They stood caressing each other’s faces, their ardour scarcely cooled by this dose of practicality. Marian trembled a little in his arms.
“Robin….” she whispered.
“I know, my love…” he brushed the tip of his nose against hers, and then stood back, gazing at her. “I know.”
They couldn’t bear not to be touching, now, the anticipation so acute that Robin was sorely tempted to give in, to let the forest path, the moon, and any hapless villager out wandering late be witness to their joining.
But he had a thought.
“Come with me,” he said. “I know a place.”
He laced their fingers then and, brushing through bracken, they left the path and hastened deeper into the forest, along a route which they’d taken many times before, in the long-ago days of their first courtship.
Chapter 12: Memories, Old and New
They didn’t speak. Sure-footed in the dark, clouds obscuring the moon, Robin led her towards the grand old oak beneath which so many of their youthful encounters had taken place.
It had been one of his favourite places, before it became theirs. He’d taken her there the first time, Marian remembered, because she’d been trying to climb a different tree, one which he’d shimmied up with annoying ease. Her own efforts – hampered by skirts – had seen her storm off in frustration, heading back towards Knighton. She’d had enough.
“Marian, I’m sorry – I shouldn’t have laughed.” Robin had caught her up, apologetic, teasing a smile from her. “Come on, I know somewhere it’ll be easier. I’ll show you.”
This oak, with its gnarled and pitted bole, with a handily-placed knot or two that gave footholds just where she needed them, while Robin waited on the branch above to clasp her arm and pull her up, this had been the perfect spot. Up on its lowest limb, a wide and sturdy branch where they could either lie, top to tail, or sit in the cusped-out hollow where it adjoined the trunk….. this was where they’d spent many hours, as their friendship became something more, as they became sweethearts, lying beneath its spreading foliage, sharing kisses and mostly innocent caresses.
This was where Robin had asked her to marry him. Even in the dark, Marian could remember where the entwined hearts were that they’d engraved in the trunk, intoxicated by the sweet elation of the moment, and the almost surreal joy with which they’d hastened to tell her father.
Marian ran her hands over the ridged hearts. Her memories, carved into this living tree.
Here, too, was where Robin had told her he was leaving.
Her fingers skimmed across the bark. Her happiest moments, and the most painful; this oak had witnessed them all.
“Do you know,” she said, leaning back against Robin, his arms around her waist, “I was so angry with you after you left that I often thought about obliterating these hearts.”
“Why didn’t you?” he asked softly.
“I just couldn’t. It was too final. Worse, even, than returning your ring. While these hearts were still here, I felt that we were still somehow connected. That even if….”
Marian paused; old hurts. She’d been wrong to bring them up again, after all that had just been said.
“What?” Robin asked, stroking soft circles on her belly. The sensation made it hard for her to concentrate.
“….that even if you didn’t mean the things you’d said, I had. To gouge these out…it would have been to deny our love. And I couldn’t do it.”
“My love, I’m so sorry,” he murmured against her hair. “I should never have left, I know that now. I learned it long ago. But there wasn’t a moment…..”
…she turned in his arms, her hands on his waist….
“…not a single moment, that you weren’t lodged in my heart….”
“I wish,” Marian sighed, “that you had told me this when you first got back.”
Robin gave a wry chuckle.
“Well, I might have done, if I hadn’t had an arrow pointing at me.”
Guilt swamped Marian; they had both made so many mistakes. Foolish ones. She’d spent so long pushing him away, instead of showing what was truly in her heart. Protecting herself, afraid to show her love, afraid not only because she couldn’t trust him not to hurt her, but because she knew that she could lose him at any time.
But she couldn’t lose what she had never had.
“We’ve wasted so much time,” she said. “Kiss me, Robin. I don’t want to waste another moment.”
“Not even if it’s so I can ask you….” A hesitation; slight, but it was just enough to make Marian wonder what was wrong. If he denied her now…
“…..to marry me?” A hand came up, stroking the hair tenderly back from her face. “That’s why I brought you here. We can’t change the past, but we can start over, here and now - and even though I’ve nothing to offer you – “
“You offer yourself, that’s more than enough,” Marian said fiercely, a joy so intense bubbling up inside her that before Robin could say another word she flung her arms around his neck, her own words pouring out, words pent up for far too long, words she could no longer contain.
“….Robin, I don’t care that we must live in the forest…..I don’t care about titles, or land, or fine clothes and fancy things….you’re the only man I’ve ever loved, or wanted to love me. I prayed for so long you’d come back to me. In the end I gave that up and just prayed that you would live. And now that you have….”
Emotions finally choked her – that this was happening, finally….
“….shhh…you brought me home,” Robin soothed, caressing her face. “I couldn’t sleep, sometimes, wondering if you’d wed someone else. I had to come back, to see if there was a chance we could be together. So, will you…”
…snatched kisses punctuated their words now...
“….be… my wife?”
“Yes…of course, yes.”
They clung together then, words fading into the background, except for murmured endearments that flowed like honeyed wine through their embraces. And Marian knew that this time, Robin wouldn’t hold back. That this time, nothing would hinder their joining. Pleasurable as their other explorations had been, she wanted this now, with Robin, in a way that was unlike anything she’d ever desired before.
“Robin…please….I want us to be as close as we can be…..”
Her urging was unnecessary. Already her blouse was coming undone, the night’s coolness washing over her as the fabric was pushed aside. Exposed, the night air swathed her breasts, except where the heat of Robin’s lips branded her bare skin. But it was different, this time. Marian felt passion ignite in him like something banked down before, something that would burst from its bounds and carry her inexorably along with it.
“….so beautiful…” he murmured, his breath a whisper against oh-so-sensitive skin.
His touch warmed her, both inside and out. She caressed his hair. With his head at her breasts, Marian felt beautiful, wanton, desirable. He made her feel so, as fevered lips travelled up to claim hers again, his arousal firm against her skirt. She pressed against him, and Robin moaned into the kiss, settling her back against the bole of the tree. His hand disappeared beneath her raised skirt. Marian knew what was coming; her thighs parted, welcoming. He handled her as skilfully as he did his bow, his arm flexing beneath her fingertips. Marian panted against his neck, the intimacy of his touch drawing her up, up, sensation coiling, and again he was kissing her, deeply, while at the same time….
….. but then, his movements slowed, and ceased, and he was cupping her gently, his thumb circling until that too was withdrawn, leaving her….not bereft, not for long, his lips moving on hers. He dropped to his knees, settling himself into position, and Marian felt the scruff of his beard tickling her inner thighs, just before the intimate caress of his tongue began. It had her clinging to the trunk for support, the cloak that was bunched behind her the only thing preventing the bark from digging into her back. There was a knot in the trunk, awkwardly placed, she could feel it beneath her shoulder blade. Or would have done, if what Robin was doing hadn’t been pinpointing every sensation in her body, driving all thought from her head, and drawing sounds from her that echoed in the glade in soft counterpoint to the call of the owl in the branches overhead.
Marian knew what was coming, or thought she did, as sensations built in her again. She pressed her head back, the bark digging into her scalp, her body cleaving to Robin's mouth as he widened her stance further. His sensuous onslaught continued…she thought she knew, as he pressed a finger inside her, while his tongue flicked and….oh Robin…..
….but then he withdrew, climbing up her body, his hands tangling in her hair and his lips hot and hungry on hers, while inside she ached in a way that consumed and unsettled her. She wanted him, desperately, and if words wouldn’t do it….
Marian tugged his shirt free, and worked his laces loose until there was room to slide her hand down and take hold of him. She knew then that her wait was over. Robin shoved his breeches down and she was able to move her hand more freely, stroking him, while he braced one hand against the tree and, with his other, undid the clasp at her neck. The cloak sighed from her shoulders. Robin pushed her sleeves down, his breathing ragged, baring her fully from the waist up. Marian felt suddenly free, uninhibited, wishing the cloak of darkness gone as well so that she could see the desire she knew would be burning in Robin’s eyes.
“Marian – this isn’t how I imagined…..” She could hear it; his voice was laden with it.
She almost couldn’t speak.
“Robin…I swear, if you make me wait one single….moment…more….”
He stayed her hand on him then, long enough for them to exchange places. Robin lowered himself, shoving her discarded cloak behind him, leaning back against the ancient, slanting bole.
“On me,” he said huskily, drawing her down. “It’ll be….you’ll see…”
Marian lowered herself, pushing her skirt aside. She held her breath; she couldn’t speak as his fingers delved, teasing her open. Robin held her hips and she moaned, feeling him right there. And then he was entering her and Marian cried out, not from pain, but from the unfamiliar fullness of it….although Robin mistook the cause, and immediately froze.
“You’re hurt?” he whispered.
“No.” Marian reassured him.
She reached out, caressing his face, taking in these new sensations. Her fingertips grazed his beard; she wished again she could see his eyes. Marian knew, now, why Robin had made her wait. By this time, she was so ready to receive him that there was no pain, only the deepest, most instinctive need to have him move inside her.
But astride him, she felt awkward, unsure of herself.
“I don’t know what to do,” she whispered.
“Just do whatever feels right,” Robin murmured.
His hands, and his voice, they steadied her. She followed his advice, exploring different sensations. Strong, tender hands stroked her thighs; his caresses flowed like flame across her body and her breasts. Robin, my Robin. Embedded between her legs. Emotions roiled in her, so intense that she didn’t know what to do with them. My beloved, king of my heart, my all. Having him like this – to know that this man she had loved for so long, and so desperately, was now hers. If he felt for her even half the love which with every kiss, and every caress, she strove to give voice….
…and when it was all becoming too much Robin sensed this; he brought her back. He sat upright, drawing her in close so that they could pause, arms wrapped around each other, their loins rocking together. The intimacy of this, joined as lovers while they each rained soft kisses upon the other, as their whispers of love mingled like the waters of two rivers commingling…and all the while the awareness of him buried between her thighs, summoning her desire up again from every tributary of her being, like the rising level of those same rivers until she was ready, again, for more. And then Robin leaned back, guiding her movements, until she found her rhythm. Marian pressed a hand against his chest as she rode him; he clasped it, linking their fingers and, leaning forward, Marian laid her other hand against the tree for support.
It was this, finally, that was too much for Robin. With a low moan, his lips found one of her breasts. Keeping one hand firm on her body, with his other he reached for the cloak. He tugged it urgently from behind him, rolling them over onto it so that now she lay beneath him.
Then, he began to move. Thrusting slowly, at first.
“Alright?” he asked tenderly, propped above her.
Marian could only nod.
Nothing had prepared her for this. She stroked Robin’s back beneath his shirt. Smooth muscle, strong and supple, moving beneath her hands while his body surged into her, joining them. Marian felt her own body demanding the release which, as he stroked her long and deep, she felt herself rushing towards. The need for him consumed her as he gave and gave, driving them both towards fulfilment. When it came, it was with such force that it shook Marian, the pleasure intensifying as it drew Robin with her. Only moments later he locked into her, a low groan escaping him as he spilled into her depths.
And when they were done, clinging together panting and spent, a sheen of sweat on their bodies, Robin framed her face with his hands and even in the dark Marian could picture his tender smile. Because she knew him. And because she, too, was suffused with joy, unable to suppress it. Nor did she want to. Tears wet her cheeks. How often in this world does life lay out, with open hand, the very thing the heart most desires? And what could she do but grasp it, and hold onto it as fiercely and as jealously as she could, because this gladness was such a rare and precious thing?
Robin pressed a kiss to the tip of her nose, then nuzzled her gently. Marian clasped her hands behind his neck, filled with an ineffable lightness.
“Where had you gone just then?’ he asked softly.
“Only here. Ever here.” She stroked his beard. He dipped to kiss her again, his lips gently grazing hers. “You know, if I’d known it would be like…this….when you hid in my bed in the castle that time, I would never have let you leave it.”
Robin chuckled. He rolled to his side, tugging free some of the folds of the cloak, arranging it over them.
“Oh yes you would have,” he said. “It’s one of the things I love about you. So fierce, always doing whatever needs to be done.”
Marian was silent.
“What is it?” prompted Robin.
“Say that again,” she whispered.
“What, that you’re fierce?” he teased. Then he grew serious. “That when I see you fight for what you believe in, when I see you defending the weak, that I want you by my side….to fight, for now, but when all this is done - if we’re ever free, to live normal lives, to raise a family….”
“Shhh…..” Marian placed a finger on his lips. “I want that too. But we can’t ask it, not yet. We only have now. We have work to do first.”
Robin took hold of her hand, pressing a kiss to her fingertips.
“You see what I mean,” he murmured, clasping her more tightly to him.
Time passed - she didn’t know how much - and Marian didn’t want to leave. They’d created their own world here, one in which they didn’t have to be what others expected of them – or what they expected of themselves. They were free to be together. Robin, too, seemed content. But after a time, Marian started to notice things which in the throes of passion could easily be ignored: the ground was uncomfortable beneath them, and despite the cloak covering them and Robin’s embrace, she was beginning to cool down.
Sensing this, Robin rose first. Outside the oak’s great circumference there was moonlight enough now, between bouts of cloud, for gathering sticks and dried bark; Marian restored her clothing and went to help. Robin disappeared, returning shortly afterwards with a bunch of dried pine needles wrapped in his jerkin. He set to work with flint and fire-steel.
A short while later they were seated in the clearing, firelight flickering on their faces. Nestled between Robin’s legs, Marian leaned back, gazing up at the branches interlocking above their heads.
“I wish we could have spent tonight somewhere else, somewhere more….” Robin began.
“Shhh,” Marian silenced him. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”
“What, with no candlelight….”
“We have fire-light….”
“And no bed….”
“We needed none.”
“And no roof over our heads.”
“Look at this, though….the way the canopy shelters us, the way the branches twist and twine, it forms a roof more perfect than anything we could ever produce.”
Robin was silent a few moments, his fingers stroking idly across her collarbone.
“That’s true,” he said pensively. “I remember a cathedral on the continent, done in the new style…it took years to complete, worked on by hundreds of craftsmen, wonderful to look at…people flocked to it, marvelled how the ceiling could look so much like woven branches. Except it wasn’t. It was nothing like this. And I knew.”
“Because we have the real thing,” Marian murmured.
“Yes. Yes, we do have the real thing.” He stroked her hair, softly.
The meaning behind his words warmed Marian’s heart. She nestled back further, soaking everything in: the fickle warmth from their small fire, the homely glow it cast around the clearing, the firmness of Robin’s thigh where she rested against it. They had to be getting back soon, but Marian wanted to carry this memory – of all they’d said and done here, of all it meant to her – she would carry this with her, a delicious secret, a talisman, to hold against the dark.
Because you are my light, my beloved Lord of Locksley. You are my light, and my joy, in a dark and terrible world. Words that had fallen from her lips while they were joined; the truth of them still overflowed her heart.
“We’re betrothed again, Robin….” she said joyously then, unable to contain it.
“We are indeed, my love,” he replied, with an answering smile in his voice. “We are betrothed again.”
Chapter 13: Pawns
Guy had no idea of the time.
It was daylight, he knew that much, from the crack of light showing beneath the door. But the shutters blocked the rest of it, just as he’d hoped the quantity of wine he’d sloshed down the night before would have done for his thoughts. But he’d slept poorly, and thus late.
Dragging himself upright, Guy’s feet met the floor. He sat there, hunched, suspecting nothing would be gained by sudden movement. It was usefully distracting, for a minute, to sit and focus on his physical state; it removed the need to think of anything more pressing.
Like the fact that today was his wedding day. As much a miserable joke as everything else about his life. Yet arranged marriages happened all the time; why should this bother him more than the next man? As Vaisey had pointed out, his bride came with a substantial dowry, and a respected name; she was attractive, and – given the circumstances - as willing as she could be. Meg had shown herself compassionate and kind and, during what little time they’d spent together, he’d enjoyed her quick wit, her humour, and – strangely enough - her refusal to be cowed by him. So, what more could he possibly want?
The answer to that, of course, was Marian.
And he despised himself for it. Last night, she’d come barrelling out of nowhere when she thought he’d overpowered Hood. But then, the bastard had chucked his own blade at Guy’s feet. So, who had Marian been trying to protect, him or Locksley? And why did it matter? She was gone. She was with Hood. Guy dug the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. Images of them together had plagued him the night before. When he’d finally fallen asleep, in his dreams it had no longer been the outlaw but he himself around whom her soft white thighs had been wrapped. Guy didn’t know which was worse.
With a growl of frustration, he surged to his feet, kicking out at the stand beside the bed. The wine jug toppled, smashing, and Guy trod uncaring through the shards to the door to be met, when he hauled it open, by an infuriatingly impassive Thornton who was on the threshold just about to knock.
“What do you want?” he snapped.
“Sir Guy, I thought you might like to know, a carriage has just pulled up outside.”
Guy groaned; Vaisey was the last thing he needed to deal with right now.
“Tell him I’ll be…”
“Not him, sir. It’s your affianced, the Lady Meg.”
Guy stared at him, waiting for his thoughts to coalesce.
“What’s she doing here? What time is it?”
Anxiety flooded him; had he been so caught up in his misery that he’d missed the appointed time? If so, he hadn’t intended it; he wouldn’t humiliate Meg in such a way.
“Plenty of time yet, Sir Guy,” soothed Thornton. “I planned to inquire if you hadn’t arisen by midday; the ceremony isn’t until four.”
“Of course,” mumbled Guy. Wine and lack of sleep had derailed his common sense.
Fortunately, Thornton had enough for them both. Guy allowed himself, as Thornton called over his shoulder for a fresh pitcher of water and a broom, to be ushered back into the room. He winced at the severity of the daylight which entered as his steward opened the shutters, and latched them back into place. This done, Thornton turned to face him.
“Sir Guy, before we’re interrupted, may I say something of a personal nature?”
Too listless to object, Guy waved a hand for him to continue.
“You may not remember, but on the occasion of your…ahem…other matrimonial day…you spoke to me about your desire to be understood? Well I can’t say for sure what the young lady wants, but it would be my guess that she is here now seeking exactly that – to gain some understanding of you.”
Thornton paused. Guy went to look out the window, as much to have something to lean on as anything else. He saw Meg alight from the carriage, and instruct her servant to remain by its step.
“What I wanted to say, sir,” Thornton continued, “is that if you let it, this understanding can be a seed. Plant it, and over time, from it you might see more grow than you expect.”
Two servants entered then, interrupting them, swiftly tidying the debris and leaving fresh water for him to wash. Thornton supervised, and when they were done he followed them out. Guy began cleaning himself down, hoping the shock of the cold water would help reinvigorate the wits he’d done his best to dull with wine.
A short while later, tying the laces of a fresh shirt, he went down to meet Meg. She was standing by the hearth, gazing up at the Gisborne coat-of-arms.
“You must be proud of this,” she said, turning at the sound of his step. “It’s almost the only decoration you have in here.”
“I don’t need anything else,” Guy replied.
Meg turned, looking around the hall, and suddenly Guy was conscious of its spartan furnishings, of the lack of tapestries, of its utilitarian rugs.
“Do such things matter to you?” he asked.
“Not for the sake of having things themselves, no. But to be surrounded by beauty…well, that’s different. I don’t mean expensive things, maybe just a jug here or there. I saw some primroses by the road….or perhaps an arrangement, a bunch of dried herbs….”
“The forest is out there,” Guy said wryly. “Couldn’t we keep it that way?”
Meg looked a little flustered.
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t meaning to criticise, or to take over.”
“It doesn’t matter. Do whatever you want.” Guy sighed, waving her to one of the seats as a servant entered with a tray. “So, if it wasn’t to decorate my house, why did you come?”
Meg, who was usually so forthright, didn’t answer immediately; she sat fidgeting with the gloves in her lap. Guy curbed his impatience, leaning his head against the back of the chair and closing his eyes.
“I want to change the venue,” Meg blurted.
Guy opened his eyes.
“Why? Isn’t it a bit late for that?”
Meg shrugged; she had pouches beneath her eyes, as if she hadn’t slept well either.
“They’ve begun decorating our village church, but….it doesn’t need to be a church. That’s what I came to say. I don’t need fuss. It’s only flowers and arches, things easy enough to move. I thought we could….”
“You heard about the last time,” he said baldly.
“You thought I might not show.”
She looked miserable.
“Can you blame me? You’ve spent most of the week telling me we shouldn’t do this, that I should disappear somewhere. And you obviously didn’t sleep well.”
Guy rubbed his face; an understatement, if ever there was one. He decided to give it one more try.
“Meg, you do realise that nothing about this marriage will be normal? We’ll be wed today, and in a few weeks, a month at most, I’ll be gone. And who knows what will happen then? Nothing good, I can guarantee it.”
“Your…meeting. Did it go well?”
He’d known he wouldn’t be able to avoid this question. Guy related the past evening’s events.
“So, you attacked him?” Meg pursed her lips in annoyance, her usual spirit returning.
“He wouldn’t give me the pact,” Guy repeated.
“Well that was never part of the plan. You should have let me come.”
“I suppose you think you could have done better?”
“Yes, I probably could have,” she snapped. “It sounds like Allan was as much use as tits on a boar.”
Mildly shocked, Guy’s lips twitched.
“Where did you pick up such talk?”
“Sorry,” Meg muttered. “Off one of my suitors.”
“Refined, was he?”
“You’ve no idea.”
They exchanged a smile.
“Meg,” he said then, leaning forward, “I wouldn’t have left you there, waiting. Trust me. We signed a betrothal contract.”
She gave a small nod.
“I still would like to marry…somewhere else.”
“It’s too late. Your father wouldn’t be pleased.”
“I’m getting married – that should be enough to please him,” she said tartly.
“Listen, whatever you’ve heard…”
“…you’ll be thinking of her,” Meg blurted. “If we’re wed in a church. And people will…”
“What, snigger? Gossip? Well, it’s what people do,” Guy said bitterly. “Let them, I’ve heard it all before.”
“So, it doesn’t worry you? You don’t want….”
“Let it be,” he snapped. Then, more reasonably: “Listen Meg, we are pawns to the sheriff’s whims, and we’ll have to make the best of it. I’ll be there this afternoon, church, field, wherever….”
On impulse, he held out his hands; none of this was her fault, and she’d come here hoping to make things easier for him. Meg slipped hers into them; they were small, and warm.
As they were that afternoon, too, when she came and stood by him before the altar.
At least I know what to do, this time.
Just one more thing, between him and Marian, which had been wrong. He thought, now that it was too late, that maybe Meg had been right. As he stood waiting for her to appear, he couldn’t get the images of that day, of his failed wedding, out of his head. He found himself remembering the vision Marian had been, coming through the door of Locksley church, so beautiful it had set his head swimming, his heart so full of hope, his palms damp from nerves, and a thrum-beat of desire beating deep within his blood, a pulse in the background that – when the time was right - would be free to surge up and obliterate everything else that was wrong with his life.
Only there’d never been that chance. Guy lifted a hand, fingering the scar in his cheek. When had his life become so twisted, that he stood here, his thoughts straying to a woman who could never be his, while the one who now stepped into view – framed within the church door – had been more genuine with him in one week than Marian had been in all the time he’d known her?
He watched Meg walk towards him, and felt Vaisey’s gaze on him, scrutinising him as he did his caged birds after his experiments in deprivation. This, and the press of memory, flustered him; Guy began to put the ring on the wrong hand. But before anyone could notice Meg, by sleight of hand, made it seem as though he wished only to hold that one in a tender-seeming gesture, and meanwhile helped him slide the ring onto the correct finger.
When had it become so twisted that, throughout ceremony and wedding feast, apart from their first chaste kiss at the altar, they’d sat side by side like the strangers they were, Guy unable to shake the resentment he felt at being forced into this marriage? He behaved civilly to Lord Bennett and the guests, but when it was all over and done with, and they rode in the carriage back to Locksley, Guy was thankful that Meg fell asleep against his shoulder, relieving him of the need to speak.
She woke when they reached Locksley. He helped her down, and Thornton – who had travelled ahead – waited on the festooned threshold to welcome Meg into her new home, before discreetly disappearing. A small table of wine and sweet cakes had been laid for them in the hall. As if we haven’t eaten enough already, Guy thought sourly. But the wine…he tossed back a goblet, before he noticed Meg watching him.
She looked weary, uncertain. She also looked beautiful. Her gown was a subtle shade of blue, which highlighted her eyes. Her cheeks were a little flushed, and the torchlight cast a soft glow on the creamy skin above her bodice. The flowers twined through her hair had started to dislodge during the carriage ride; pressing against his shoulder had caused one to droop onto her cheek. He lifted it, and carefully tucked it back into place. Lips slightly parted, Meg caught the lower one between her teeth, watching him carefully.
She was nervous, Guy realised, like a filly about to bolt. For all their conversations, they hadn’t spoken about what would happen tonight. He slid a hand beneath her hair, placing a soft kiss on her forehead.
“What do we do now?” she asked him, her voice mostly steady.
“I’ll not bed someone nervous, or unwilling,” he said. “Go on up. I’ll sleep downstairs for now.”
She complied, though with a hand on the banister she turned to him and said, quite clearly and quietly, “I’m not unwilling,” before taking the stairs.
Which threw Guy into a state of indecision, one that could only be resolved at the bottom of a wine jug.
It felt like borrowed clothes, to be taking on the role of husband to such an innocent. A role he wasn’t up for yet; not this evening, at any rate. He sat for another half an hour, his head resting on the chair-back, willing his thoughts to go numb. At last he rose and, stumbling along to the lower bedchamber, he stripped naked and crawled into bed.
Meg closed the bedroom door behind her, and went to sit on the bed. She noticed her hands trembling, and shoved them beneath her thighs. Well, she’d not denied being nervous.
What was I thinking? “I’m not unwilling.” Her face heated at the thought.
Guy had given her a reprieve, one she supposed should have filled her with relief. It would have, for many in her situation. Instead, now she had to sit here - waiting, wondering, if he was going to take up her invitation. Fool.
The room wasn’t large, halved by the curtained alcove which, when she looked, contained small chests and a few personal belongings - none of which spoke much about the man she’d just wed. She lifted the lid of one chest, glanced at the valuables it contained, and then closed it again.
Life could be so untidy, she thought. It never went the way it should, could never be mapped out in precise and tidy lines. Her own hadn’t – not since her mother’s death, not since her father’s determination to see her wed. Look where that had led her. And nor had Guy’s. The woman he’d been set to marry a year ago – one he’d adored – had come into this very room to fleece him of this wealth. As if that wasn’t enough, she’d had contempt enough to publicly and, very painfully, leave him at the altar.
That had troubled him today. If only she’d heard of it earlier, allowing time to change the venue. Perhaps it would have helped, she didn’t know. But when Guy had been flustered during the ceremony, something had welled up in her, both tenderness and a determination, one that even his aloofness during the feast didn’t deter.
Pawns, Guy had said.
Powerless, told to move here, move there, sacrifices to whim or necessity – and how must that make him feel? Being bullied into marriage is a woman’s lot, but for a man like him? Well, they would see. Given the right position, a pawn could bring down a knight, or even a king. Surely a sheriff, then. Their first gambit had failed, no doubt one reason Guy had been so withdrawn. But it could be fixed; they could try again.
And what would she make of this situation? She had the power to make that choice. She’d been forced to wed a man who had demons to shed – only an idiot would suppose otherwise. But he didn’t frighten her. He’d wiped away her tears, in the dungeon; he’d sat beside her in a country lane, confessing treason, simply to save her from being caught up in it.
In the past he had loved, and been scorned.
Given time, Meg hoped she could help him move past that. But for that to happen, perhaps she needed to start this marriage how she meant to go on. After all, she was here; the Lady Marian wasn’t.
The candles were beginning to stutter, the pool of light by the bed diminishing. Meg sat on the brocaded coverlet, fingering the laces of her gown. Despite her invitation, he wasn’t coming. Meg hadn’t known what to expect of tonight, but certainly it hadn’t been this – sitting alone, in the silence and the dark, unlacing her own finery while wondering if downstairs, the man with whom she’d exchanged pledges lay tormenting himself with thoughts of another, unattainable woman.
And if that was how it was going to be, then their union didn’t stand a chance.
Meg took her time. She removed her wedding gown, and unpacked her few belongings, finding a place for them. She unbound her hair, draping the string of flowers over the back of a chair. She began to brush it out until – recognising reluctance in her delays - she put the hairbrush aside and, clad only in her shift, she went downstairs.
The house was abed. She hoped Guy would be asleep; she just wanted to be there, a presence to wake up beside. There was moonlight enough that she didn’t knock any furniture in the hall. Meg hesitated, wondering which room, but it wasn’t difficult to find; she tripped over his leathers on the way to the bed.
Meg stood there a few moments, listening to his breathing. It was quiet, and even. Then, before she lost her nerve, she lifted the sheet and climbed in.
Guy stirred, and a firm arm came around her. Meg felt a flutter of apprehension, but he didn’t wake. She tucked herself back against him and tried to relax, but it took her a very long time to go to sleep.
Guy woke twice in the night, the first for the privy.
The second, it was to find a warm body curled up against him. Meg wore only a shift. Guy let himself absorb the contentment of her being there; of sharing her warmth, and the comfort of lying abed with someone.
He tried to go back to sleep, but having Meg there was distracting. Even half-asleep, he couldn’t shake the awareness of his arm, brushing the underside of her breasts. Idly, Guy began to move his thumb across their curves, wondering if she would welcome his caresses. It woke Meg because she stirred in his arms, pressing back into his groin.
Guy felt himself begin to stiffen.
Fully awake now, he let his hand roam more freely, the shape of her breasts filling his hand, first one and then the other, stroking, teasing her nipples. A soft moan was his reward. Guy’s lips grazed her hair. He slid his hand between her legs, cupping her intimately. And then, with little more ado, he dipped a finger inside. Guy groaned his need as he felt the promise there. But Meg gasped. She was restless in his arms and, afraid that he had somehow hurt or shocked her, Guy abruptly withdrew.
Too much. Too fast.
But after a few moments, as she lay panting quietly, he felt her grasp his hand, guiding it back to where it had been. Guy needed no more invitation. He knew how to give pleasure, and so he did, working her intently until she arched back against him, shuddering through a completion that spurred on his own lust.
Before she had the chance to recover, Guy removed her shift. He began kissing the side of her face, nuzzling her neck, murmuring into her ear…
“Relax…it will help. Just relax.”
Then he placed one hand on her back, positioning her at an angle to him. His hand moved down, stroking where he intended to bury himself, parting the petals of her sex.
“Tell me if you want me to stop,” he murmured, but Meg seemed as lost in what they were doing as he was.
He eased himself in a little and then paused, feeling her tense beneath his hands. He’d not bedded an innocent before…. Guy rocked a little further, letting her accommodate him. Was it better just to have done, to thrust himself in? His hands caressed her back…he reached around, letting his touch make her ready for more; gauging her responses he withdrew a little and then, with a grunt of satisfaction, he entered her.
A quiet whimper of discomfort…
….and immediately, Guy went still.
“Meg.” His voice was raw, penitent. Harsh breaths, loud in the smothering dark. “We shouldn’t have done this.”
He started to withdraw.
“Wait,” Meg gasped. “It’s just….it’s just…I need a moment, to get used to it.”
Carefully, Guy drew her back to lie against him, stroking her belly, her breasts, her neck, burying a hand in her hair….this same hand then drifted to her face, and with his knuckle he felt a wetness on her cheeks. He moaned then…sweet Meg, he whispered….and began to pull out, but she made a small sound and, reaching down, she rested one hand on the rear of his thigh, holding him in place. At the same time, she moved on him a little.
And her sweet assent meant Guy could no longer deny himself.
Pace measured, he began thrusting. Slow, shallow at first, and then deeper. Faster. He let himself go. More. More than he intended. At one point, he did ease right out, but only long enough to kneel and hoist her up with one arm about her waist.
“Lift up for me,” he said, urgently.
And as Meg rested her elbows on the bed, Guy held her hips to steady her and then sunk back in, chasing release. It didn’t take long.
Nor did it take him long to fall asleep afterwards, wrapped around Meg.
Dim light woke him, and the sound of servants moving about the house, closer at hand in this downstairs room. He lay a few moments, his face against Meg’s hair, sensing there was something wrong about this, something that would come to him, and sure enough it did, creeping into his thoughts as insidiously as daylight seeped through the cracks in the shutters.
He’d bedded Meg. Not gently enough. Nor with words of tenderness, as she must surely have wished. And worse – even worse. Guy peeled himself away from her, wishing the night’s work could be undone. She looked so innocent, her hair tousled and tumbled. Her first time last night, and yet he’d used her, rutting her like a common whore.
Guy crept out of the bed; he didn’t want to wake her. Fumbling about for his clothes, dislodging the sheets he spied the evidence of their coupling; appalled, shame washed through him. Meg was the first woman he’d been with whose virtue had been intact. Yet somehow, he’d managed to ruin this also, sundering it without due care as he satisfied his urges.
Another deed, in a catalogue beyond count, of deeds he couldn’t undo.
Ashamed, Guy dragged on his leathers and stumbled out of the room, his jacket hanging open, boots in one hand. He didn’t bother to wash; he needed to get away. Outside, sunlight tipped the nearest trees; spring promised a mild day. One he would spend longer than usual closeted with the sheriff, who would no doubt have plenty of snide innuendo to make about the marital bed. None of which he would be able to refute.
I deserve Vaisey, he thought bitterly, leading his mount out of the stables. I deserve it all.
He swung up into the saddle and kicked the horse forward, heading for Nottingham, as fast as he could go.
Chapter 14: Paths
The morning chill woke Meg; she was curled up in a ball, naked beneath the covers. It was still very early, she could tell. Where was Guy? She’d hoped to waken alongside him, the same way they’d gone to sleep. It was that, perhaps naively, which had prompted her to come into his bed last night. The rest of it had been.... unexpected.
Nothing at all, in fact, like what she’d been led to expect. Confusing, stimulating, a mix of pleasure and some discomfort….not as much as she’d feared it would be. There had been moments in which she’d felt tenderness flow from him, like something long suppressed finding an outlet. Sweet Meg. He hadn’t wanted to hurt her, she knew that. His caresses had been so….intimate…the sensations he aroused so intense, that by the time Guy had joined himself to her she’d been prepared to give herself over to the whole experience, trusting wherever it led.
She’d been a little surprised by that, by where it had led. Perhaps, she mused, gently mocking herself, if you didn’t want to be devoured, then best not to wander into the wolf’s den. Is it always like that? she wondered. Meg presumed not. But maybe, the next time…
….the next time?
Her eyes flashed open. He’s not here. Guy’s leathers were gone; he’d clearly intended to be dressed and away before she woke up. Meg sat up, rummaging amongst the bedclothes for her shift, which she slipped back on. She hauled the covers round her shoulders and sat, hugging her knees, suddenly assailed by doubts. After the intimacies they’d shared, their first morning together as husband and wife, yet he hadn’t bothered to stay until she woke? What was so pressing that it needed his attention, today of all days?
Or, had something else driven him away, something she’d done? Had he found her too wanton, or…..too unappealing.…or…or…
Meg swiped tears away. It was no time to let emotions get the better of her.
She wished she knew what to do next. The servants were up, she could hear them moving about. They would have no reason to suspect the master and lady of the house had slept downstairs; the thought that someone might come into the room and see her sitting there, alone, amidst stained and rumpled sheets, propelled Meg from the bed. She went to the washstand and cleaned up; that she had expected. Her married friends had warned her of it.
One thing at a time. She must make her way upstairs, hoping not to pass any of the servants. She must dress, break her fast; her maid was expected mid-morning, and Esther could help unpack her trunk. Beyond that, she had no plans for the day, no structure. She’d thought, perhaps, to spend some of it with Guy. To talk about what her role here might be, about details of managing the manor, and of helping to run the estate.
But he didn’t return until evening. Moody, preoccupied, they barely spoke over dinner. Afterwards he took himself off to the downstairs room, leaving Meg in no doubt that her place, that night, was upstairs and alone. She was surprised he’d come home at all.
The next night, he didn’t. Nor did he the next. When he did return, the third night, he didn’t bother to join her for dinner, but shut himself away with his wine jug.
Meg, tired of his surly demeanour, told herself that she was glad.
But, a lie was a lie; she was miserable, and had been for days. Sometimes, she clung to those two small words he’d uttered, reading hope into them. Sweet Meg. And just as often, she felt a fool for doing so: a careless endearment, tossed her way in the heat of his passion. Silly to read anything into them. Foolish girl. Well, he’d told her that, often enough. Perhaps that was why he was avoiding her now.
Well, if that were the case, then she was about to do something foolish again.
“Isn’t that what grooms are for?” grumbled Allan.
“Just do it,” snapped Guy. “Last time they made a mess of it, knocked the bowl over while it was heating and wasted the whole batch.”
“What makes you think I’ll do any better?”
“Anyone as light-fingered as you won’t be that clumsy. Just do it, Allan. I’d do it myself, but the sheriff wants me.”
Which meant that here he was, just now finding the time after all the day’s other duties had been done, to lather onto Guy’s injured mare some foul concoction he’d been sent to collect during the day. What was it the farrier had said? Turpentine, laurel oil, tallow, fox fat….and a few other things.
“Horse won’t care how it smells,” the farrier had told him.
“No, but some poor sod has to apply it.”
Prophetic words, Allan.
And nothing else about this week was going as he’d expected. First, that debacle at Knighton. Allan wished he’d known some of it beforehand, but he’d been as surprised as Robin by Guy’s revelations. And as for asking for the pact back….well, if he’d known that, he’d have told Guy it’d be a waste of time. Robin would never part with it.
He’d have helped him, though; Robin had said as much. And if they were working together, Allan was pretty sure he wouldn’t have thrown Guy to the wolves. Although Robin could be a bit…strange ….where Guy was concerned. But no. This….it would change everything.
And if they did end up working together, Allan thought, he could find himself - in a roundabout way - back with the gang. Strange, it was, how things worked out.
First things first, though. He would have to convince Guy to try again, to set up another meeting with Robin. And that was never going to happen in his current mood. Allan had expected a quiet week; he hadn’t thought to see Guy around the castle much. But instead, he’d been there without fail the last couple of days; Allan could have sworn he’d slept here last night. He looked haggard, glowering more than usual, and had smelled of stale wine again that morning.
Some wedding night….it must have been hell.
Mind you, if this was Guy, he wondered how the new Lady Gisborne was faring. Best not to ask. None of my business. Stay out of it.
Allan heard a horse clop into the stable-yard then, and he moved out of sight, around to the other side of the mare. He didn’t have time to douse the lantern, but the guards were too preoccupied to notice. One of their mounts was limping, and the older man had a bloodied face.
“I told you there was a guard dog,” came a voice Allan recognised – young Robert, they’d shared an ale a few days earlier.
“Yeah, but you didn’t tell me you’d shut the gate by the barn,” grumbled the older man.
“How was I to know you’d run that way? Our horses were out by the smithy.”
“Yeah, well….a right shambles, start to finish. See what you can do with her, while I go and find someone.”
“Robert, my friend.” Allan stepped out from the stall where Guy’s mare was held, once the older man was gone. “You’ve seen a spot of trouble….what happened? No uniform tonight?”
“No,” said young Robert. “Sheriff wanted this done on the quiet. I tell you, it was the weirdest robbery I’ve ever seen.”
“Yeah? Why’s that?”
“Well, keep this under your hat, but the sheriff told us to break into Woodvale’s manor, and to put something back. Can you believe that?”
“It does seem odd. To put what back?”
“Oi…you heard what the sheriff said, boy.” The older guard – Simon, Simmons, Alan wasn’t sure – had returned. “He said not to go blabbing about this.”
“But it’s Allan. Surely, Sir Guy’s man….”
“I said shut it. You need to learn, lad, that when the sheriff says to keep something quiet you ruddy well do it. Anything else and it’ll get you killed, faster than you can tumble from a horse.”
“Well it won’t be this one.” Allan had walked around the mare, and was inspecting her foreleg. “She’s not going anywhere for a while.”
“No,” Simmons said dejectedly – Allan had recalled the name. “I’ve not had her long either, she’s a beauty, cost me nine pound.”
“Well, I don’t know if it’ll help, but you can use some of this. The stuff stinks but hey, better on a nag than on one of us, right?”
Allan handed over the ointment. He’d hoped it might ingratiate him with Simmons, but quickly realised the gesture was wasted; he’d get nothing from either of them. Better to wait, catch young Robert on his own some time, and find out then what was going on.
He didn’t have enough of anything to take back to Guy. He’d been in that situation before, borne Guy’s wrath when he’d thought his information was no more use than a fart in the wind. Best to do some snooping around, and see what else he could find out.
The sheriff was up to something, for sure. And now that Guy was as much a victim of the sheriff as the rest of them, any information would be an advantage. It could be something Robin should know about too. Perhaps this would be the excuse he needed…..a way to get those two to meet up again.
But he wondered how much worse Guy’s mood would become when he suggested it. Not to mention that he’d just given away a batch of the ointment.
Well, he’d warned Guy not to expect great things there.
Marian realised that, too often for it not to be noticed, she was smiling to herself as she went about her tasks.
Since Robin had proposed, since their coupling beneath the oak, a sense of euphoria had crept over her at the most unexpected times. But it had been briefly tarnished when, on that first morning, Robin had suggested that she visit Matilda.
“If we’re to be together, you need to get some….advice,” he’d said, as they walked back to camp.
“What do you mean?” She’d been puzzled, her thoughts as far away from practical considerations as the leaves on the boughs overhead.
“You know, herbs and things. We can’t have you falling for child. The forest’s no place to raise an infant.”
“Oh.” Relentlessly practical in most things, this hadn’t occurred to her. Yet. She was glad Robin had thought if it.
Matilda had said much the same.
“Send you, did he? He’s a good lad….he’ll do right by you.”
“We’re to wed,” Marian had explained, a little embarrassed at disclosing their union to an outsider. The memory of it was so fresh, the lingering tenderness making her feel different, more womanly.
Matilda had chortled at her blush.
“Dearie, don’t be worried talking to me about it. That’s what I’m here for. Far better to let me sort this out for you now – here, take this, I’ll just find…..ah, here it is….” Matilda took a pouch down, sprinkled some seeds into her hand. “Grind these, mix them with a cup of water each evening and that should do the trick.”
She slipped them into a pouch, and handed it over. Marian fiddled with the drawstring for a moment, absorbing what this meant. It startled her, when Matilda tapped her under the chin, making her look up.
“Don’t worry, luv, it won’t be forever. It might seem like it now, but one day you two will be free to have as many of the little blighters running around as you please.”
“Do you think so? I wonder sometimes, Matilda. We have so much work to do.”
“Then just keep doing what you’re doing. Kick that miserable maggot of a sheriff as often and as hard as you can, right where it hurts, while you and Robin make nice in the forest. Go singing and sated into the dark, that’s what I say.”
Marian caught herself smiling again, thinking of this conversation. Well, she didn’t know about singing, but as for the other….
She finished packing away the last of the contribution they’d taken from an unsuspecting traveller that morning - a noble from Coventry - and her eye fell on the bag of her father’s belongings. Allan had left it with them the night of the meeting. She hadn’t had the courage, the next day, to look through it straight away. Had eventually done so, through a haze of tears; Robin, when he’d noticed, had come and taken her hand. Since then something had been niggling at her; she didn’t know what. It was time to find out. Marian lifted the bag onto the bed, and began removing its items. Djaq came and stood beside her.
“What are you looking for?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Marian replied. “It’s just the other day, something bothered me about this….”
Soon she had everything laid out on the bed: not much to show for a life, Marian thought sadly, yet each item spoke volumes to her about the man her father had been. The ebony and pearl-inlaid backgammon set, over which they’d spent many an evening….his favourite cloak fastener, one her mother had given him….some important parchments, among them the record of her birth, and of her parents’ marriage…
“It’s not here,” she realised, trying to hide the welling of her tears. “His seal. That’s what’s missing.”
“That is odd,” Djaq agreed. “Perhaps he had it hidden away, somewhere the person gathering these things wouldn’t know to look?”
“You may be right. He had no safe, but perhaps he had it concealed. I’d like to be sure, though. I’d like to find it….there’s little enough else left of the estate.”
“You want to find what?” Robin asked, joining them.
He was silent, once Marian had explained.
“I know it’s dangerous, Robin…..” she began.
“It is, but I agree. We should try and retrieve it. It should be yours now.”
“We?” she asked softly.
Robin hesitated, but then he gave a brief nod. Marian could have embraced him, right there in front of Djaq; instead, she decided to give him a way out.
“There is another way, though.”
“If you meet with Guy again, perhaps he could look for us. He’s in the castle all the time, it would be easy enough for him to do it.”
“It’s a good idea,” put in Djaq.
“You are planning to meet with him again, aren’t you?” Marian asked.
When Robin made no reply, she grew suspicious.
“Think, Robin, what he’s just done,” she went on. “He’s come to you, and at great risk to himself confessed to treason. Admit it, that took courage. If the sheriff ever finds out what he’s done….”
“You forget, he asked for the pact. If those are his terms, then I’m not sure we even need him at all. We have his information now.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“He’s not getting the pact. It’s proof of treason, I’m not giving it up. So, if that’s his price…”
“Why? Because you think he’ll give it to the sheriff?”
“Marian, I don’t trust him. He says he wants insurance…well, what’s mine? If he is working for Vaisey, if all this is a ruse to get it back, then I’m left with no proof, nothing.”
“And what does Guy have?”
“My word. And our aid.”
“Well, you didn’t give it to him. You gave him neither.”
She watched Robin absorb this; Marian knew she had a point. The meeting could have ended very differently. Until the pact had been mentioned, they’d been close to an accord.
“Alright then,” Robin muttered. “I suppose we can meet.”
“Good – then tomorrow, when we make the drops, we can get a message to Allan?”
“No need. No messing about this time. I’m going to Locksley, on my own.”
“You can’t!” gasped Marian. “The guards…..”
“…won’t be anywhere near the newly-weds, and if I can’t slip past them into my own house, then there’d be something very wrong,” grinned Robin.
Reluctantly, Marian saw the logic of this.
“No. I’m going alone.”
And she had to be content with that, Marian supposed. Or at least, appear to be.
Fully clothed this time, Meg made her way downstairs on silent feet.
Candlelight flickered beneath the door; she stood there, listening, wondering if Guy was awake, or if he’d fallen asleep without extinguishing it. She heard a rustling noise; awake, then. She wasn’t sure if she was relieved, or not. But, summoning her nerve, Meg placed a hand on the door latch…and jumped, with a squeal of alarm, when a masculine hand closed over hers.
“Best not to disturb him,” a voice said, as she spun round. “Let me do that.”
“You!” She recognised the outlaw from the day he’d been trying to drown Guy. “What are you doing here?”
“We’ve some unfinished business.”
“Yes, he told me it was a disaster, the last time you met. So, if you’ve just come to goad him, it’s not a good time. He’s probably drunk,” Meg said bluntly.
“Why would you think…..”
The door wrenched open violently behind them; Guy’s hand shot out, gripping her free arm.
“Get your hands off her,” he snarled, tugging Meg into the room.
She stumbled against him; an arm came around her waist to steady her, but just as quickly was gone.
“Gisborne, I’m here to talk. That’s all. I’ll wait five minutes in the hall, if you’re willing to talk. After that, I’ll be gone, and we’ll have nothing further to say to each other.”
The outlaw strode away, leaving them alone.
“I suppose you want to hound me as well,” grumbled Guy.
“No,” said Meg. “Actually, I wanted you to come upstairs.”
Guy gazed at her, nonplussed.
“Just to sleep,” she hastened to add, “for now.”
A few more heartbeats of silence. Guy ran a hand through his hair, making it stick out at one side. She reached up, smoothing it down. Guy caught her hand, and held onto it.
“I don’t understand you,” he muttered.
“No, I suppose you don’t. Nor I you. But I think, if our paths don’t even cross, that we will never find a way to understand one another.”
Hesitant, Guy slid a hand beneath her hair; his thumb caressed her cheek. Meg leaned into his palm.
“Please,” she whispered. “For us.”
Guy’s response was to draw her against him; she relaxed, glad that she’d done this. He mumbled something she couldn’t quite hear; it might have been forgive me, but she wasn’t sure.
But there were other things, too, which needed attention, one of them being an impatient outlaw waiting in the hall.
“He only gave you five minutes,” Meg reminded him, drawing back.
“Cocky, as always,” muttered Guy.
He released her and left the room. After a moment, Meg followed. This time, she was determined to hear what transpired between the outlaw and her husband. And given his last comment, and the amount of wine Guy had consumed, the omens for their meeting were not at all what she would call hopeful.