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A Stroll Across Coals

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Marian’s father spent much of his days at Nottingham in pointless meetings. Frocked-up men with gray heads doing nothing but seeing each other around a table or being seen in a line, impotently hearing the complaints of the people and each other.

Lordly indeed, she thought, as she walked through the market, loosely shadowed by her guard. Warmth had returned in a rush, and the stalls were giving a good show of the first delicate harvests of spring. Though she missed the lush flavor and colors of summer, she eagerly looked forward to meals trimmed with fresh herbs and bittersweet greens.

Marian glanced over her shoulder. Speaking of bitter…

“Lady Marian!” The Sheriff’s voice cut through her thoughts. “Join us, won’t you? Gisbourne and I were reviewing the market’s good fortunes.”

With a very slight curtsy, Marian dismissed her guard and strolled to a stall displaying slim onions and mushrooms. These were tricky conversations, and she had to play very carefully. Offer too much to Guy and the Sheriff might leverage it. Yield to the Sheriff and Robin was compromised. Rebuff Guy and damage the delicate truce that allowed her, and her father, room to breathe. It would be so much easier if Guy wasn’t an uncouth lout.

“Spring has been kind so far,” she remarked, and looked up at Guy. “Would you agree, Sir Guy?”

Guy nodded stiffly. “The taxes are being paid, my lady.”

Marian covered her sigh and kept her smile, spotting a stall with a few cones of precious buds, ready to bloom the next day. “Surely, you find flowers and the new-leafed trees to your liking?”

Guy followed her glance. “They can be… colorful.”

The Sheriff rolled his eyes. “Gisborne, your flirting wearies me. Go and check that the guards are on schedule and buy something for the lady before I have to hear your opinion on the entire calendar.”

Marian caught the moment of hesitation in Guy’s posture. Though he’d made a poor effort to stay, he hadn’t wanted to leave. He bowed to her and left on his errands, leaving her to walk with the Sheriff.

A child scampered by, playing with an energetic dog that begged for a well-gnawed ball. The boy was about to toss the ball when he saw the Sheriff, then turned and ran down the cobbled street.

“Do you know dogs, Lady Marian?” The Sheriff asked suddenly.

“My father kept hounds for hunting some years, but I cannot say I knew much of them, Sir.”

“Ah, pups for sport and play. No, I mean guard dogs. Do you know of guard dogs?”

Marian glanced at the Sheriff. “No, Sir. I do not.”

The Sheriff rubbed his hands together. “Ah, you see, I used to raise them myself. It is an art, you see, to know just how to break them and rebuild them, like molding clay.”

Marian stopped. “Did you say, ‘break’ them?”

“Of course.” The Sheriff continued walking and Marian had to urge herself to move. “You see, it takes a good deal of work for dog to finally take to the chain and collar properly. Now, a particularly stubborn bitch might well take months. I had one I had to cage and starve for nearly a year. And do you know what I had after that?”

The Sheriff turned and searched Marian’s face for a response, coming close enough for her to smell his fetid breath.

Marian swallowed hard, her voice catching. “What then?”

He laughed triumphantly and snatched a small pastry from a stall. “She was the keenest guard dog I ever saw. I could whistle my commands and she knew just what to do. Had to keep her hungry though, a little kick here and there, but she was the best I ever made.”

A sourness threatened to rise in Marian’s throat. “My congratulations.”

“A pity though. She bit me one day. It took three guards to put her down, one lost a hand.”

Marian gasped.

“That’s the thing, you see, a good guard dog isn’t just broken, it’s ruined. You simply can’t trust them. I stopped raising them after that. Must have been what, nearly eighteen years or so ago? It’s hard to recall. I found other distractions, of course.” He grinned and bit the pastry. Crumbs clung to his lips as he chewed.

Marian shuddered despite the sunshine, wondering how such a lovely day could become this. She wished for her father’s calm and called upon every word of wisdom he’d ever offered her.

“Are you unwell, Lady Marian?” The Sheriff mocked. “Shall I call for a physician, or is it some complaint particular to your… kind?”

She breathed through her nose, taking in fresh air to chase the Sheriff’s foulness. “I am perfectly well. Just a chill.”

As they returned to the paths that led back to the castle, Marian and the Sheriff saw Guy approaching them. He cradled something small in his hands.

“Ah, Gisborne, over here.”

Guy gave Marian small smile. If she did not know better she would have thought him… excited?

"Took your time, did you? I was about to send a patrol to find you. Oh, and perhaps you can settle something for me.”

“Yes?”

“How long have you been in my service?”

Guy stilled, his hands still cupped. “Ah, it has been near eighteen years, my lord.”

Marian clenched her teeth together, her mind racing. Eighteen years. Oh god…

The Sheriff made a bored noise. “Well, what little trinket have you found to give to Lady Marian? Let’s see what you’ll have to apologize for.”

Guy held out his hands and opened one finger at a time. With each one, Marian saw little winks of pale color, made brighter against the black leather. When his hands were open she was already stepping forward, reaching for it.

Guy held up his offering. “It is the first one of the year.”

Marian took the small flower. It looked almost stunted, but it was a perfect little pink rose, half opened and trembling in her grasp.

The Sheriff scoffed. “They told that to every lad who was looking to-” he raised an eyebrow at Marian. “Looking to earn favors.”

Marian chose silence. Rather than needle the Sheriff, she slipped her hand under Guy’s elbow, and made sure to inhale the fragrance and smile so he knew how pleased she was.

She would have to play the game very carefully, lest another guard dog be put down.

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