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Dissolution

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When Loxley found himself backed up against a wall, with a brawny fist gripping his tunic and a knife at his throat, he realized that he might have underestimated his adversary. He should have known that a fraudulent pardoner possessing a lucrative trade in false relics might employ a bully boy. That same pardoner was standing at the threshold of the inn chamber looking decidedly smug now that he’d gained the upper hand.

“Should I kill him?” the bully boy asked, his fetid breath wafting in Loxley’s face.

“No,” the pardoner said. “There might be a price on his head.”

Loxley almost smiled. For once, there wasn’t, unless such a price could be claimed for a dead man.

The bully boy was studying Loxley closely, his small round eyes narrowed, his knife digging into Loxley’s neck. “I think you should kill him. He knows about the relics.”

“It would be his word against mine, which wouldn’t mean much. Look at his clothes, Bardolph. He’s obviously a peasant. No one would believe him.” The pardoner was smirking now, looking more insolent than ever. Then he gasped as a hand landed heavily on his shoulder and a sword was pressed against his throat.

“They’ll believe me,” Gisburne said, “though I think we should pay a visit to your bishop, not your sheriff.” He looked at Bardolph. “Step away from the peasant or I might change my mind and run my sword through your master.”

Bardolph glared at Gisburne. “Who are you?”

“A man who hates pardoners.”

Bardolph snorted. “He ain’t a real pardoner, and he ain’t got no bishop either.”

The pardoner flushed red. “Bardolph!”

Gisburne smiled in a way that was never pleasant. “Even better.”

For the first time, Loxley saw a wave of apprehension cross Bardolph’s face. Bardolph had apparently recognized that he’d met his match. Loxley could understand why Bardolph might find Gisburne intimidating as the knight was still wearing his armour, though Gisburne had turned his surcoat inside out to try to hide the device. It helped that the surcoat was almost grey with all the dust, dirt, and mud they had picked up during their travels. Loxley assumed that Bardolph hadn’t looked closely at Gisburne’s face, which was thinner and paler than it should have been. Bardolph lowered his knife and stepped away from Loxley.

“I was never involved in any of it,” Bardolph said. “He only hired me to protect him. Nothing more.”

“You’ve done well so far,” Loxley muttered.

“I’m only interested in the pardoner,” Gisburne said. “I don’t care what you may or may not have done.”

Bardolph now fully turned to face Gisburne. “You’ll be needing evidence if you’re going to bring him before the bishop. I can provide it – for a price.”

“Bardolph,” the pardoner growled between clenched teeth.

“I’m sure the bishop would pay you,” Loxley said. “He has more money than we do. Wouldn’t you agree, Sir Guy?”

They had decided to address each other by their given names when they weren’t alone. They were trying not to draw attention to themselves, and both “Loxley” and “Gisburne” were names that had become rather infamous throughout England. Of course, confronting corrupt pardoners and their bully boys, not to mention planning visits to bishops, wasn’t really aiding this endeavour. At least Gisburne had enough sense to avoid the Sheriff of Kent. Loxley didn’t know if Gisburne was acquainted with the man, but it would be dangerous even if he wasn’t.

Gisburne shoved the pardoner into the room. “We need to bind his hands.”

“I have a bit of rope here on my belt,” Bardolph said. “You never know when it might come in useful.”

Loxley held his breath as Bardolph pulled the frayed rope from his belt. He didn’t think Bardolph should notice that his purse was lighter now than it had been just a moment ago.

Bardolph held up the rope for Gisburne to see. “Here, my lord. This should do the trick. Would you like me to do it?”

Gisburne nodded and moved away from the pardoner, though he didn’t lower his sword. Bardolph yanked the pardoner’s arms behind his back and worked quickly and efficiently to bind the pardoner’s wrists.

The pardoner gazed at Gisburne beseechingly. “I can give you money. Bardolph carries some in his purse.”

Gisburne glanced at Loxley in amusement. “I don’t need your money.”

Loxley closed his eyes and silently berated himself. He should have known that Gisburne would see him stealing the coins from Bardolph’s purse.

The pardoner was squirming uncomfortably, his eyes still on Gisburne. “Everything that Bardolph told you was a lie. I am a pardoner and I can give you all the indulgences that you could ever desire.”

Gisburne placed the tip of his sword against the pardoner’s chest. “Even if I did believe you, you don’t have enough indulgences to save me.” He grabbed the pardoner’s arm and hauled him to the door. “We’re leaving. Now.”

 

 

When the group arrived at the manor, they were met by the archdeacon rather than the bishop, who had been unable to see them. When the archdeacon learned the reason for their visit, he was effusive in his praise of Gisburne. To Loxley’s surprise, Gisburne hadn’t preened under the archdeacon’s glowing compliments. He hadn’t even tried to curry favour or hint at a reward. Of course, to do so would have meant spinning an even longer story than the one they had already concocted for themselves. Maybe Gisburne was being cautious, though it seemed strange that he would go to the trouble of delivering the false pardoner if he hadn’t been expecting something in return. It would have been easier if Gisburne had simply let the pardoner go free. Gisburne had said that he hated pardoners, so was he seeking justice? Revenge?

In the past, Loxley had been able to read Gisburne easily, but he couldn’t read him now. Oh, Loxley knew that Gisburne hadn’t lost sight of his primary goal, but he had trouble understanding Gisburne’s motivations. While it seemed natural that Gisburne would turn to the Church, Loxley didn’t think that Gisburne had sought spiritual guidance or counsel from a priest. Loxley found that he was still contemplating Gisburne’s behaviour even after they had left the bishop’s manor and were riding through Canterbury.

“You could have told what you were planning,” Gisburne said, stirring Loxley from his thoughts.

Loxley grimaced. “I didn’t think you’d approve. How did you find me?”

“I followed you, of course. I saw the look on your face when we passed the pardoner outside the cathedral. I knew you’d do something, but I hadn’t realized just how eager you were to be killed or arrested.”

Loxley sighed. “You were supposed to be visiting the shrine.”

Gisburne waved a fly from his face. “The shrine’s been there for decades. I doubt it will matter much if I visit it tomorrow.”

Loxley doubted it would make much difference whether Gisburne visited Canterbury at all. Although they had travelled to Walsingham, Bromholm Priory, Bury St. Edmunds, and Waltham Abbey, Gisburne hadn’t appeared to derive any comfort or enlightenment from their pilgrimage. Loxley thought they should visit places with real power, such as Rhiannon’s Wheel or the Ring of the Nine Maidens, but it was Gisburne who had to decide where the box containing Baphomet should be buried.

“Are you planning to keep any of the money or is it all going to the poor?” Gisburne asked.

Loxley gritted his teeth. “The poor were cheated out of that money. It’s only fair that I return it to them. I wouldn’t have thought that you would be interested in money. Aren’t pilgrims supposed to take a vow of poverty?”

Gisburne scowled. “I’m not a pilgrim, though I suppose you’d have me wearing sackcloth and walking on my hands and knees. We’ll need some money if we’re going to eat, unless you think you can kill a deer in the middle of Canterbury.”

Loxley smiled sheepishly. They would need some money for food, though, with what little Gisburne had been eating, they probably wouldn’t need much. Judging by the dark circles under Gisburne’s eyes, some better accommodation than a hospice might also be in order. “All right,” Loxley said. “We’ll keep some of the money. Perhaps we can dine at the inn and stay there for the night.”

Gisburne glanced at Loxley in surprise. “I wasn’t suggesting that you part with that much money.”

“You didn’t see how much money the pardoner stole. I never knew there were so many indulgences – false or otherwise. There should be enough money for everyone. I think we can afford to sleep at the inn for one night.”

 

 

Loxley was content to let his thoughts wander as the room grew darker and he had to rely more and more on the light of the tallow candles to see the other guests. He was glad that they had decided to stay at the inn. Loxley had heard stories about disreputable innkeepers that charged too much for bad food and even poorer accommodation, or ones that even robbed the people who stayed under their roofs, but this innkeeper treated his guests well. He provided decent food and proper beds without overly thin mattresses infested with bedbugs and lice. That’s why Loxley couldn’t understand Gisburne’s lack of enthusiasm for the inn.

Gisburne sat picking at his meal, much as he had done with every meal they had shared since their journey began. Loxley wondered if even the inn’s decent fare wasn’t good enough for a man who was accustomed to dining in Nottingham Castle’s great hall. Then Loxley realized that he wasn’t being completely fair. Gisburne had barely complained when they were forced to make camp in cold, damp spots in the woods. Loxley had been even more surprised that Gisburne appeared to have no qualms about travelling with a man who robbed people and engaged in poaching. Gisburne hadn’t even raised an eyebrow when Loxley had returned to their camp one day with a sword he had obviously stolen. When Loxley had questioned Gisburne about it, Gisburne had simply shrugged and said, “You need one, don’t you?” Despite this assertion, Gisburne had hardly taken his eyes off Loxley for those first few days and was still careful to keep that physical distance between them.

“What is it?” Gisburne asked, setting down his cup of ale, and Loxley found that he’d been staring at him.

“Nothing,” Loxley said. “Just lost in thought.”

“Were you thinking about Marion?”

Loxley followed Gisburne’s gaze to the innkeeper’s daughter and her rich auburn hair. Loxley decided that it would be easiest to humour Gisburne and go along with the story. “Yes, I suppose I was.”

“Hmm,” Gisburne grunted and stood up. “I’m going to check on the horses.”

“Would you like me to take first watch?” Loxley asked.

Gisburne’s hand moved unconsciously to the pouch that hung from his belt. “No, I’m not tired yet. I’ll do it.”

“Well, wake me when you are tired,” Loxley said. “I slept well enough last night.” That was another lie, but Loxley knew that Gisburne needed sleep more than he did.

Gisburne gave a curt nod and walked briskly to the stables. Loxley finished his drink and then sought out the bed he would be sharing with a merchant and another pilgrim.

 

 

Loxley woke to see the first faint rays of sunrise glowing through the shuttered window. He sat up quickly, and the pilgrim gave a disgruntled moan as the movement jostled the mattress. The merchant continued to snore loudly, his sleep uninterrupted. Loxley looked around the darkened chamber, but he didn’t see Gisburne. He rose carefully from the bed, trying not to disturb the pilgrim any further, and headed downstairs.

It wasn’t the first time Gisburne had failed to wake him when it was time for his watch. Even when Loxley had the first watch, he found that Gisburne slept little or was already awake when he called out to him. Loxley had never dared to touch Gisburne’s shoulder to nudge him awake. He was sure that if he betrayed their agreement, he would destroy what little trust existed between them.

Loxley began to grow concerned when he couldn’t find Gisburne inside the inn. Had Gisburne been beaten and robbed when he’d gone out to the stables? Had Gisburne gone off on his own after finally losing patience with his enemy? Loxley looked out a window and stopped in his tracks when he saw Gisburne standing in the kitchen garden. Loxley gaped at Gisburne, bewildered. Then, losing his temper, he stormed into the garden.

“You were supposed to wake me,” Loxley said.

Gisburne stared at Loxley in surprise. “I wasn’t tired. I thought it would be better to let you sleep.”

“Well, it wasn’t. You need sleep more than I do, Gisburne.”

Gisburne rolled his eyes. “Because of my sacred quest?”

“No, because you’re falling apart!” Loxley shouted.

Gisburne’s eyes widened for an instant before he forced out a laugh. “That’s ridiculous.”

Loxley gripped Gisburne by his surcoat. “You’re not sleeping and you’re barely eating! You’ve lost at least a stone in weight!”

“Let go of me,” Gisburne growled. He pushed Loxley’s shoulder and broke away from his grasp, but Loxley only grabbed him again.

“You’re not going to last much longer if you continue like this.”

“It’s not your concern.”

“It is my concern if you die before we find a place to bury Baphomet!” Loxley said. Then his head reeled back as Gisburne punched him. Loxley lay there for a moment before he wiped away the blood that trickled from one nostril. “It has to be you, Gisburne. I can’t do it for you. What do you need? Drink? A priest? A brothel? What? How can I help you? What do you need?”

Loxley wasn’t sure if Gisburne would give him an answer. When Gisburne did speak at last, Loxley had to strain his ears to hear that one faint word.

“Death.”

Loxley threw up his hands in frustration. “I just told you – ”

“Not now,” Gisburne said. “Afterwards. I’ll try to go on if you kill me once it’s over.”

What?”

“I-I don’t think I can do it myself. It’s a sin in the eyes of the Church, though I suppose I’m already destined for hell.”

Loxley couldn’t believe it. After all of the things he had done, Gisburne was worried about offending the Church by taking his own life. “This isn’t like you, Guy. You never give up. You’ve always found a reason to go on, to keep fighting.”

“For what?” Gisburne spat. “There’s nothing!”

Loxley stared at Gisburne, too stunned to speak. Then he came to a startling realization. During their journey, Gisburne had caused so little strife, and had put up almost no resistance, because he had simply stopped caring – about everything. Loxley stood up slowly, making sure to keep some distance between himself and Gisburne. “I don’t know what happened before...before you found yourself in Baphomet’s power, but whatever it was couldn’t have been so terrible that you can’t start again and make a new life for yourself.”

Gisburne scowled. “Oh, yes. Bow and scrape before another master, become his whipping boy, his slave, instead.”

“Then choose another path,” Loxley said. “Don’t become a steward again. You can be free if you choose to be.”

Gisburne shook his head. “No man is free, not even you. It was Herne who sent you, wasn’t it? He’s still your master, isn’t he?”

Loxley frowned. “It’s still freedom if you choose to serve.”

“Yes,” Gisburne said, “I used to believe that too.”

Loxley sighed and rubbed his face with both hands. “Is killing you the only way I can help you because I don’t believe that.”

“If you kill me when this is over, I’ll try to eat and sleep more. I promise.”

There was a look in Gisburne’s eyes that Loxley didn’t like. He thought it might have been hope. “All right. If that’s still what you want when all this is over, I’ll do it. I give you my word.” Loxley held out his hand before he could stop himself. He saw it as a sign of desperation when Gisburne actually reached out to take it, as brief as the gesture was.

“I should make my way to the cathedral,” Gisburne said, face flushed in embarrassment. “I suppose you’d better take the box.”

“Yes, perhaps that would be best.” Loxley plucked the pouch from Gisburne’s fingers, trying to avoid further physical contact. That was when Loxley was reminded of the bed Gisburne would have been forced to share with the merchant and the pilgrim if he himself hadn’t taken the first and only watch. Loxley cursed himself for being such a fool.

“What’s the matter?” Gisburne asked, and Loxley realized that Gisburne must have seen the guilty expression on his face.

“Nothing. Where should I meet you? Outside the cathedral?”

Gisburne was still looking at Loxley suspiciously. “No. You might come across another pardoner. You’d better stay here.”

 

 

Loxley had just eaten some bread and had drunk half a cup of ale when Gisburne returned to the inn and sat down on the bench across from him. Loxley raised his eyebrows in surprise. He hadn’t expected to see Gisburne so soon. Surely Gisburne hadn’t had enough time to visit Thomas Becket’s tomb and travel to and from the cathedral.

“You’re right,” Gisburne said. “I should speak to a priest.”

Loxley frowned in confusion. “Couldn’t you have spoken to a priest at Canterbury?”

“I turned back before I’d even reached the cathedral. The priest I need to speak to isn’t at Canterbury.”

“All right. Where is he, then?”

“His church is just outside Rouen.”

Loxley’s brow furrowed. “Is that in France?”

“In Normandy, yes.”

Loxley picked up his cup and nearly drained it. “You can’t find a priest in England?”

“Not one that knows about the Knights of the Apocalypse and Baphomet.” Gisburne’s eyes were on the table and he was running his finger along a crack in the wood. “Father Audric tried to dissuade me from joining the Knights of the Apocalypse. De Montbalm, the Grandmaster, even asked Father Audric to be his chaplain, and Father Audric refused. I think I can trust him.”

Loxley thought that he might also be willing to trust Father Audric if he had had enough sense to refuse a position in the Knights of the Apocalypse and had tried to dissuade others from joining the order.

“Is Father Audric’s church close to the preceptory?” Loxley asked.

Gisburne was still studying the crack in the table. “There’s only about a mile between them.”

Loxley grimaced. That was a lot closer to the preceptory than he would have liked.

Gisburne lifted his eyes from the table. “I doubt there are many knights left in Normandy. Most of them travelled to England with de Montbalm and were killed in the battle.”

“But de Montbalm wouldn’t have left the preceptory defenceless, and the surviving knights may have recruited more men since the battle. If any of them recognized you and found the box – ”

“I’ll wear a disguise, conceal my face. There shouldn’t be any danger.”

Loxley shook his head. “No, there will be danger, but we might escape their notice if we’re careful. And you will need a disguise. You can no longer be a knight. Even if they fail to recognize you, they might still approach you if they’re trying to increase their numbers. After all, they did it once before, didn’t they?”

Gisburne either ignored the jibe or missed it altogether because he sat up straighter and there was an excited glint in his eyes. “You’d be willing to travel to Normandy, then?”

Loxley sighed. “If what you’ve told me about Father Audric is true, I don’t think we have any other choice.”

Gisburne rose from the table. “If we leave now, we might reach Dover by midday.”

Loxley didn’t move from his bench. “We’re not going anywhere until you eat.”

Gisburne glared at Loxley sullenly.

“You gave me your word, Guy. Don’t tell me you’re going to break your promise already.”

Gisburne slowly sat down again. “I suppose I should eat before our journey.”

“Good,” Loxley said. “Then we’ll see what we can do about your disguise.”

 

 

Only Gisburne could still manage to look like a nobleman while wearing a broad-brimmed cloth hat, a worn tunic with holes, and a coarse woollen cloak, Loxley thought as Gisburne stood at the bow of the ship speaking to the captain. They had stolen Gisburne’s new clothes from a house near the inn. Loxley had placed some pennies outside the door while Gisburne had ripped the clothes off the clothesline. Although Gisburne had been anxious to reach Dover, Loxley had insisted that he change first, so Gisburne had donned his disguise once they had left Canterbury and it was convenient to do so. They had arrived in Dover early that afternoon, but had needed to wait until nearly nightfall before their ship sailed out of port.

As the ship rocked on the rough waves of the Channel, Loxley hoped that he might feel less queasy if he couldn’t see the rolling sea in the fading light. Unfortunately, the ship was being tossed around so much that the growing darkness didn’t make much difference. In fact, it seemed to make the situation worse.

Loxley could see why the ship’s crew had no trouble staying on their feet, but he couldn’t understand why Gisburne wasn’t struggling to keep his balance. Perhaps it was enough that Gisburne had crossed the Channel before and was accustomed to travelling by sea. Loxley knew that it was probably apparent to everyone on the ship that this was his first sea voyage. For that matter, it was the first time that Loxley had left England.

When Loxley heard the captain bark out an order in French, he realized that he would be practically useless in Normandy because he didn’t speak the language. He would have to rely entirely on Gisburne. He would have to trust him, be completely at his mercy. As Gisburne concluded his conversation with the captain, Loxley tried to suppress the resentment and panic that was welling up inside him. Loxley watched Gisburne make his way across the swaying ship, expecting to see him fall, but Gisburne barely stumbled. Before he could stop himself, Loxley said, “How do you do that?”

“Do what?” Gisburne asked.

“Walk so steadily across the deck.”

“Oh, that. I just move with the ship. If you try to fight its motion, it’s much more difficult to stay on your feet.”

Loxley fought the urge to heave up the contents of his stomach as the ship lurched violently. “I’ll have to remember that,” he muttered.

Gisburne’s lips twitched. “I suggest you move as little as possible or you’re likely to be sick.”

Loxley winced. “Is it that obvious?”

Gisburne was smirking now. “The captain said it would be best if you lay down and tried to get some sleep. There really isn’t anything else you can do.”

Loxley pressed a hand to his stomach and shook his head. “I won’t sleep again until I’m on dry land.”

“Then at least lie flat on your back. It will help with the seasickness.” Gisburne removed his hat and tossed it at Loxley. “Here. You can use this bloody hat for a pillow. If it flies into the Channel that would be even better.”

“You might have need of it in Normandy,” Loxley said, though he kept the hat all the same and placed it under his head to cushion it from the planks beneath him. He looked up as Gisburne sat down on the deck, leaning against some barrels. Loxley closed his eyes, though he knew sleep wasn’t coming. “Why did you join the Knights of the Apocalypse?”

There was a long stretch of silence in which Loxley could only hear the splash of waves and the creaking of the ship. Then Gisburne spoke. “While I was in Normandy fighting in the King’s campaign, I had a lot of time to think about Nottingham and my position with the Sheriff. I knew it was only a matter of time before de Rainault betrayed me again, so I decided to betray him first. There was no future for me in Nottingham, but I could have wealth and position as a Knight of the Apocalypse.”

Loxley opened his eyes, though he found it hard to see Gisburne’s face as the sun had nearly set. “You didn’t fear that one of the knights might betray you?”

“No. They were my brothers. I trusted them. You can’t fight alongside another man and not trust him.”

Loxley smiled to himself, thinking of his friends in Sherwood. “Yes, I know.”

“I’m sure it must seem foolish after...after everything that happened,” Gisburne said. “I wish to God I had taken my chances with the Sheriff instead. Losing my head doesn’t seem like such a miserable prospect now.”

Loxley wanted to say something, but words wouldn’t even form in his head. By the time he was able to dredge up some empty platitudes, Gisburne was slumped against the barrels, fast asleep. Loxley didn’t know if it was pure exhaustion or the rocking motion of the ship that had lulled the man to sleep, but he was glad that Gisburne was finally getting the rest he needed. They had a long journey ahead of them.

 

 

It was still night when they reached Calais, so Loxley’s first impression of France as they left the ship was that it was a dark, windy place where the ground wasn’t steady beneath one’s feet. He was astonished when he felt a hand on his elbow and found Gisburne steering him to a large boulder on the beach. Loxley didn’t put up much resistance as Gisburne pushed him down on it.

“Stay here while I see to the horses,” Gisburne said. “You’re no use to me until you recover. Guisnes is not far. I think we can reach it by morning – assuming you’re fit to ride.”

Loxley nodded, feeling too sick to argue.

It took them nearly three days to reach the Abbey of Saint-Étienne, during which time Loxley discovered that the sun shone quite a bit in France and that it wasn’t much different camping in a French forest as it was camping in an English one. They spoke to few people on their journey and, outside of the towns, came across mostly peasants working the land. Loxley heard Gisburne speak barely any French until they were at the abbey gates and Gisburne was asking to see Father Audric. A young novice, who couldn’t have been more than eighteen, opened the gates and admitted them into the abbey. There was a rapid flood of French in response to Gisburne’s question, and the only two words that Loxley understood were “Père Audric.”

Gisburne rolled his eyes as the novice led them into the abbey. “He says that he doesn’t know where Father Audric might be. As it’s after Terce, Father Audric might have gone to the library. Then again, Father Audric could be tending to his garden as it’s such a beautiful day. He is certain that Father Audric is somewhere in the abbey, and he has offered to help us find him.”

Loxley studied the novice’s back skeptically. “Are we grateful for his help?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Gisburne said.

Surprisingly, they found Father Audric quite quickly. When they reached the cloister, Father Audric was walking several feet ahead of them. The novice called out to him, running along the arcade. When the novice had caught up to Father Audric, he gestured at Loxley and Gisburne, speaking spiritedly. Father Audric patted the young man on the shoulder and sent him away. Then he retraced his steps and headed back in the direction from which he had come. As Loxley took in Father Audric’s greying hair and gnarled fingers, he realized that the priest was older than he had expected. However, there was intelligence in those dark eyes.

Father Audric grasped Gisburne’s hands warmly, though he frowned and tilted his head as he peered at Gisburne’s face. Although Loxley couldn’t understand the exchange, he could detect the kindly tone in Father Audric’s low soothing voice. Then Father Audric was tugging on Gisburne’s wrist and leading him to one of the arcade arches that provided an alcove where they could sit. Loxley moved to another arch to give them some privacy – not that he was likely to understand anything he might overhear.

Loxley let the torrent of French wash over him as he stood gazing out into the courtyard. He found his mind wandering as he stared out at the verdant rectangle, so he couldn’t be sure when the cloaked figure appeared in the arcade on the other side of the courtyard. He knew instantly that it wasn’t a monk. His hand was moving to his sword when he caught sight of the long golden hair that had escaped the confines of the hood. Loxley stared harder at the figure. No, her hair was copper. It must have been the sunlight that had made it seem fair.

The woman lifted a pale bare arm to beckon to Loxley before she faded into the shadows of the cloister and simply disappeared. Loxley blinked and shook his head, wondering if he had just had a vision or if, in his weariness, he was allowing his imagination to run wild. Loxley was so engrossed in his thoughts that he didn’t realize Gisburne was talking about him until he heard him say, “Il s’appelle Robin de Loxley.”

“Il est anglais?” Father Audric asked as Loxley walked over to them.

“Oui.”

Father Audric stood and shook hands with Loxley. “Good day. My English is not good.”

Loxley smiled. “That’s all right. I can’t speak a word of French.”

Father Audric looked at Gisburne questioningly and then laughed when Gisburne translated what Loxley had said.

When the conversation resumed, Loxley returned to his arch, but he couldn’t help listening this time, especially when Father Audric muttered, “Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!” Loxley also heard Father Audric say “Saint Michel” several times, and he wondered if Father Audric was trying to invoke protection. As the two men stood to part, Father Audric embraced Gisburne, who stiffened but didn’t pull away. Then Loxley saw Father Audric whisper something to Gisburne before he stepped back, raised his hand, and said, “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.”

“What did you tell Father Audric?” Loxley asked as they walked out of the cloister.

Gisburne waited until they were well out of earshot before he spoke. “As much as I dared. I said that I feared for my life because I believe that Baphomet wishes to harm me. Father Audric said that I must seek protection from the Archangel Michael because he defeated Satan. I must appeal to Saint Michael for guidance and strength.”

Loxley studied Gisburne, sensing that he was holding something back. “He didn’t ask why you fear Baphomet?”

Gisburne sighed. “He didn’t have to. He assumed that Baphomet had been released from the statue.”

Loxley froze and grabbed Gisburne’s arm. “Does he know that we have Baphomet?”

Gisburne blushed, ducking his head. “I had to tell him. I was afraid he’d have the whole abbey praying for the world’s salvation if he thought Baphomet was free. Then what would happen if word spread beyond the abbey and reached the preceptory?”

Loxley released Gisburne’s arm. “All right. I can see you had no choice. What else did Father Audric say?”

“He told me to travel to the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, which is a very holy place. The Archangel Michael commanded that it be built on top of the island when he appeared before the Bishop of Avranches.”

Loxley raised his eyebrows. “Island?”

“The island of Mont Saint-Michel. It can be reached at low tide.”

Loxley frowned. “Where exactly is this island?”

“It’s a few days’ ride from here,” Gisburne said. “It’s close to Brittany.”

“Does Father Audric believe that you should bury the box at the abbey?” Loxley asked.

Gisburne shrugged. “He said I must do what my conscience tells me.”

Loxley winced inwardly. As Gisburne didn’t have a conscience, that could be a challenge.

When they reached the stables, Gisburne stopped outside and turned to Loxley. “What if I don’t know what my conscience is telling me?” he asked, as if he’d read Loxley’s thoughts.

Loxley looked off into the distance, watching a barn swallow swoop gracefully in the air. “You’ll know because it will feel right. Herne said that you’ll find where Baphomet must be buried when you no longer fear him. If you believe you have the protection of Saint Michael that might be enough.”

Gisburne said nothing, but stood, looking pensive. Loxley headed inside the stables and began saddling his horse. Gisburne was still silent when he followed Loxley into the stables a moment later. It wasn’t until Gisburne was buckling his horse’s bridle that he said, “You haven’t asked what Father Audric whispered to me.”

Loxley glanced at Gisburne in surprise. “As he was whispering, I assumed that it wasn’t for my ears. I won’t ask you to tell me what he said.”

Gisburne paused in his task, though his gaze remained fixed on the bridle. “He said that we’re in mortal peril as long as we’re in possession of Baphomet.”

“Well, we’ve known that from the beginning, haven’t we?” Loxley said.

Gisburne looked up, meeting Loxley’s eyes. “He also said that not all devils possess horns and that they can appear in familiar forms. He warned us to be vigilant and to guard our souls.”