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'Til My Love is Crossed

Chapter Text

It was just after the sweet course when the Sheriff of Nottingham slammed down his goblet.

A wave of murmurs crested below the resonant clang. Vaisey strode toward the center of the great hall, his grubby smirk widening. All went quiet as he rocked onto his toes, a habitual and fruitless attempt to remedy his stature. There he stood, raising his arms as if channeling dark power from the rafters—like a diabolical Moses ready to part a great, black sea.

“Friends, taxpayers, countrymen! Today is a day of celebration!”

Marian plucked a flake from her crust of bread. Today was both a Council of Nobles meeting and Tax Day. The latter occasion always inspired Vaisey's most insufferable grandiosity.

A dull pang spiked in her temples. Though it was a tolerable headache, it had been three weeks since her last malingering. She was long overdue for another.

Eyeing the archway to the eastern antechamber, Marian turned just as the Sheriff began to address a group of older, more influential nobles. A chance—she hoped.

Placing the murdered crust on her plate, she willed herself convincingly pale. Her backside had barely left the chair when a hand, callused and warm, encircled her wrist.

“I would wait until after the Sheriff's announcement, Lady Marian.”

The urge to wrench her arm away was instinctive. Instead, Marian tamped it down, staring dead ahead. There had always been a price to pay for courting that gaze—all sternness and lightning-blue currents of longing.

Interacting with Guy of Gisborne always presented two opportunities. The first, spiteful defiance, always tempted Marian. In her fantasies, her words were never false and cloying. In her dreams, she would cut him with truths until he slunk away, licking his wounds.

The second and smarter course was playing the game. For all Guy's dour resistance after she'd left him at the altar, it had taken little to lure him back. An accidental brush of satin against leather; a heavy-lidded glance before turning the corner. More than ever, he was starving for her affection.

And for now, she needed to toss him scraps. With the Black Knights assembling, a deception failed could mean the noose. Robin had protested as much before Marian had left him in the trees of Sherwood. Though he'd never understand, returning to Nottingham Castle with Guy had been the only choice.

England. The Sheriff. The Black Knights. Her future with Robin. The stakes were too high for girlish petulance.

For honesty.

Marian sat and waited. Slowly, Guy's fingers unwrapped from around her. She stopped herself from rubbing her cold wrist.

It was mealtime, she recalled. Only natural that he should touch her, ungloved.

“Enjoying a little sidebar eh, Gisborne?”

With an eye roll meant to be seen, Marian looked up at Vaisey. She'd no idea how long he'd already been hovering, his sliminess veritably thickening the air. Her hope of escape sputtered out as he lunged, stopping mere inches from Guy's cheek.

Guy glared uncomfortably at his polished gold plate. “My Lord, I was advising her to—“

“You will have plenty of time to advise the le—Lady Marian later.” The Sheriff clasped his hands together, his jeweled tooth winking in the light. “But first thing’s first, hmm?”

As she always did, Marian assessed Guy for some portending intelligence. To the untrained observer, he might look unfazed. Only the tic of his jagged scar—her last “honest” gift—betrayed his thoughts. She’d given that look enough times herself to know its meaning. In his mollified mind, he was eviscerating the Sheriff.

Her small surge of pride ebbed as Guy's countenance chilled. Its angles sharpened again as he sneered himself into compliance.

Not giving a fig who saw it, Marian downed her last mouthfuls of wine. One day she would tell Gisborne what a feckless coward he was.

Someday.

“—For too long, my friends, this shire has been plagued by lawlessness. But no more!”

Marian held her breath, the Sheriff's words sinking in slowly. She knew what was coming. Her heartbeat stuttered and stalled all the same.

“Today, I am delighted to announce that, in the name of our dear King Richard, Robin Hood is dead!”

The crowd was already huzzahing as she sprang upward from her chair. The lord to her left, Bennington, snickered as he peered into her empty goblet.

Her cheeks suffused with red, but she refused to check him. Better to be thought tipsy than an insurrectionist.

“I congratulate you on your victory, Sheriff. I am sure that the Council shares in my sentiments.”

Marian's words carried over the nobles. Their disdainful, watery stares soured her stomach more than the wine. They had not stood by her dear father; they'd not stand by her now.

She swallowed, her throat suddenly dry.

Sir Guy had not touched her, this time.

“But surely, my lords," she proclaimed, "you must wish for some proof. After all, have we not been told before of Robin Hood’s demise?”

Vaisey's eyes were an inferno of warning by the time Marian eyed him defiantly. As pathetically transparent as Guy was, his lord was a snake with many skins.

Still, it was obvious the Sheriff was bluffing. Or too stupid to realize Hood would always be a step ahead...

The danger in Vaisey's expression dissipated as quickly as it had come. "Why of course, my dear," he clucked, oozing politeness. "You'll forgive a little suspense, lords and ladies. Rest assured that tomorrow morning, Hood's remains will be displayed for one and all to see!"

He waved to the back of the room. "But for now, a palate cleanser!"

At his command, a cast of familiarly-attired fools shuffled into the room. A scrawny lad in a green hood led them in. The crowd erupted into laughter and applause as the boy stumbled, shooting a blunted arrow into the foot of a big, burly man.

When the wine came around a minute later, Marian had all but forgotten her headache. She turned toward the server, praying that the slosh of Rhenish would drown out the humiliating charade.

Instead, the familiar stench of greasy furs engulfed her.

”Just couldn't wait for dessert, could you, missy?" Marian swiped angrily at spittle flicking her neck while the Sheriff surveyed the room with beady, hateful eyes. He nodded to her left. She groaned inwardly as Guy's chair dutifully scraped the floor.

“Seems our fair maid needs proof, Gisborne. I think a little...stroll is in order." Vaisey crooked and extended his arm. "Shall we?”

Pain and surprise jolted through Marian as Vaisey yanked her away from the table. The crowd had already abandoned their seats and gathered around the fools, rollicking with drunken laughter.

No one to see or care about a maid.

Vaisey rushed the three of them toward the small alcove at the back of the room and through the large tapestry concealing it. Once covered, the Sheriff pushed a small stone wedged between a crack in the mortar. Marian's stomach sank as a door-sized piece receded. It was a passageway she’d not seen before.

A drip of water landed on her shoulder as the Sheriff shoved her forth into the darkness. The only light was a torch, seemingly distant in the dank corridor ahead. The only sound was Guy's scabbard, slapping against his leathers with every step.

The urge to rip it angrily from his belt was overwhelming.

Rounding a sharp corner, the light ahead took on a reddish cast. As she stumbled closer, Marian noticed a familiar green stitching interwoven into what seemed like a tapestry.

The solar? No, the chapel...

As though he'd heard her aloud, the Sheriff shoved her through the thick cloth, her hip smacking into a pew. She glared at Vaisey, committing the secret entrance to memory as she rubbed her bruised ridge of bone. Fools for showing me.

She almost lost her balance as Vaisey's fingers rented her chin.

“There, you see?" He pointed gleefully toward the chancel. "Told you, silly leper.”

Marian pried herself away from his fishy grip and his fetid breath. Her chin stayed raised of its own accord as she looked where he bid.

It was late dusk, and Nottingham Chapel was drawn with shadows. Guided only by the slanting purple light, Marian crept toward the altar. At the head of the nave stood what looked like a spear, about six feet tall. Wavering torchlight illuminated the features of a cabbage-sized protrusion mounted atop it.

When she reached the base of the spear, Marian's footsteps shuffled to a halt. She exhaled slowly. She was careful not to move.

If she had turned, Guy or the Sheriff might have seen the wide—and wholly inappropriate—grin of relief on her face.

To the artist's credit, it was a commendable attempt. The hair was the same mouse brown, almost a burnt flax in the sun. That small jump of bone on the nose, which she'd always detested on her own profile, was perfectly rendered. Even the jagged seam of the neck had been decorated with coagulated clumps of blood. Pig's, most likely. Its odor was strange and fatty.

She'd smelled enough of her own to know the difference.

Only more evidence, she thought with a sniff, that it was not him—not true. For one, the forehead was too long and flat. What should have been boyishly full cheeks were stretched taut over bone like drum heads.

...And the mouth:That was completely wrong. It was cramped, shriveled. Never his lips, warm and soft and infuriating when they brushed and teased hers. She had never been a patient kisser.

Marian's smile widened, imagining the Sheriff's face (and Guy’s) as she torched this fake head to a puddle. If the gang hadn't already, she would rescue Robin from whatever ludicrous trap they'd devised. Somewhere in the dungeons, per usual.

The last rays of sunlight shifted, dancing over the bodiless head just as Marian reached for the torch. The warmth of the flame faded as her hand, like a strung puppet, retracted long before she could grip it.

She did not try to still her fingers when they started to tremble. The altar was too dark to have seen it before.

Tacked to the seam of the neck, where a fly or two were mired, hung a weather-worn string. A small, dark piece of wood dangled from it.

Her shaking hand stretched upward until her nails clicked against the amulet. Marian's eyebrow furrowed with refusal. It could be Much’s, lost in a scuffle with the guards. Or Will’s or Djaq’s. More likely Allan's.

Her unoccupied fingers curled with rage. He’d eat a fistful of knuckles if he'd taken part in this cruelty.

She was still lying to herself, ignoring the stinging of her eyes, as she traced the etching.

When she inhaled, her eyes closing, she tried to smell the dampness of leaves. She could almost feel the wood pressed to her breast, a shield between her heartbeat and his. Fingers, soft and trailing over her shoulders and neck. The night crisp under the canopy of trees, the blanket of stars above it. It was them and the forest, no whooshing arrows or clinking swords. It was simply them.

Them.

Gone.

“Ah, ah, ah...no sniveling, my lady!”

The Sheriff's mocking song became a dull ringing as Marian's knees hit granite. Her cheeks burned beneath rivulets of tears, flowing too fast to cool. Her neck bent helplessly. It would not hold the dizzying weight of her head.

If she kept her eyes to the floor, it would not be true.

The tips of Vaisey's shoes poked into Marian's side vision. “You see now why I could not display it at the feast. Would hate to weaken the ladies' appetites! But worry not, Lady Marian. You can visit him every day once he, err—part of him—has been put to rest. On my ramparts, of course.”

Marian choked through her nausea, clamping down on white rage. Her hand flitted to the jeweled flowers tucked into the thick twist of her hair.

With a flick of her wrist, the first pin would pierce Vaisey’s heart. The second his gurgling throat.

The guards would rush in soon after. The end would likely come at the end of a blade—one of the soldiers'.

Never Gisborne’s. He’d not have the mettle.

A molten tear slipped between her lips. The thought of that day, that day that now shamed her, came unbidden. That prickling of revenge, Gisborne’s arms around her as they descended from the treetop, the rope digging into her thighs, sickened her now. For those illicit seconds, she’d bestowed on Robin the pain of being left behind.

Her pulse, her ears, her veins, all drummed with a maddening cadence. It had always been Robin’s fight, on his terms. Ending that fight now would bring them together in the next life, as it had kept them apart in this one.

The score was even, again.

There was no telling what time had passed when she finally looked up into his clouded eyes. The buzzing was quieter, now. There was only his voice, like a calming rustle of grass. Even now he could persuade her.

If she killed the Sheriff now, her return to the castle would have been for nothing. They would be nothing more than two lovers dead. England would not be saved.

She had to be the Lady. There was still a game to be played.

"You must forgive me for doubting you, Sheriff.” Marian brushed some imaginary dust from her gown as she rose. “As I told Sir Guy, I am unwell and wish to retire.”

Averting her swollen eyes, Marian paced her strides down the nave. Once out of earshot, she bolted up the corridor. It was not until she reached her chamber door that her legs bowed out from under her.

Later, she would recall only fragments: White-knuckled fingers clutching the coverlet; stray rushes scratching over linen. Words uttered that last night in Sherwood bled into whispers in alleys and alcoves. She was still straining to sift them out, to hear his voice, as everything went black.

******************

The first thing Marian saw was the light streaming onto her new gown. She’d slept late, and the sun was high and bright. Anna had draped the silk loosely over the chair rail and now, in the brightness of morning, it flowed like a waterfall of springtime. The emeralds of her ring would match it perfectly.

Marian slipped her arms through the sleeves, the silk cooling her flush at Robin’s imagined compliments. She was already concocting some witty banter with which to tease him. As usual, she would needle him until he wrapped his arms around her. Talk was still an aperitif to intimacy. Someday, she thought wistfully, the tiny wounds from the Holy Land would mend.

It was not until she'd pulled the ring from her pocket—the clouded gem—that she crumpled to the floor.

The maids had found her after sundown, balled up before the fireplace. The stone beside her head was wet and fetid. It was the first day she’d sobbed until she retched.

She'd no interest in counting the days, at first. Trays were brought up at every meal only to be carried out, their contents picked apart and shuffled about. The sun set and rose and set again.

It was not until the third day that she thought how unusual it was that she’d been left to her rooms. Why had Vaisey had not exercised his threatened “tour” of the ramparts?

She wondered (though never cared) if Guy had something to do with this welcomed neglect.

A week passed before that familiar restlessness crawled up her spine. As a small alleviation, she took to pacing the courtyard. She would round to the portcullis and back, taunting herself with an escape through the gates. It was a false freedom worth envisioning, even if it meant Gisborne nipping at her heels forever. Other times, she wished to remain cloistered away until she withered.

Most often, she wanted to punch and scream at the biggest tree she could find.

For their part, the gang's silence had been deafening. She knew—Allan knew—they'd all been with Robin that night. Through her door, the traitor had babbled nothing but nonsense about the gang in hiding, of him not knowing where they were. He’d pounded on it for a good three days before she’d the strength to interrogate him.

As Marian, she still begged for some assurance of the gang's safety. As the Night Watchman, there was only one question: The Question. She could not avenge him with a when or how or why.

Allan had answered far too quickly, honestly—the shift of watering eyes right and then left. The answer, a soldier-nobody, had not satisfied her. He was surely protecting him. The dog. The coward.

And so the traitor had left with an eggplant-colored circle, shining fresh with tears.

On the third week, Marian siphoned the rest from a lady’s maid gossip. Something about poisoned arrows, a trap in the woods. All gone.

She did not ask another question after that. All of the gang were on the ramparts, now. Nothing but heads in the elements, their mocking badges of honor tacked to tattered flesh.

Every night, she tried to remember their faces. The tears poured hot again when she realized she could not. Not even that one smile, like sun on silver.

When Robin had left for the Holy Land, it had taken years before she’d learnt to forget. When she finally had, the loss was without ceremony. She had been riding after a storm: The sky was grey, the horse grey. Everything was. Nothing shone and therefore, Robin of Locksley had no place. After that, her heart had beat on for her father and the people. Against all else, it was grey, too. Stone.

Perhaps it could harden again.


The Night Watchman crouched beneath the table, watching the shadow at the corner of the room. To her relief, there was no clanking. Unarmored guards were welcomed gifts.

The floorboards heaved a sudden creak, and her hand flitted to the hilt of her dagger. Momentum rushed to her fingers, her grip tightening with anticipation. She blinked away a rivulet of sweat.

Marian's elbow cracked against the table leg when the shadow released a very confused meow.

As she nursed her arm, black fur and glowing green eyes slunk into view. It was unlike her to lose her nerve over a cat. It was unlike her to lose her nerve at all.

Easy, Marian.

Crossing the landing without incident, Marian crouched as she peered down through the banister. Tankards of ale were strewn about the floor, and weak wisps of snuffed candle flames swirled toward the ceiling. A crew of henchmen slouched and sloshed about the tables. Most were well on their way to boisterous carousing. They’d descended to a new level of incompetence now that the outlaws were no more. It had made slipping in through the kitchens easier, at least.

Escaping the Sheriff’s birthday celebration had required a bit more finesse. Having used up a century’s worth of malingerings, Marian had been forced to rely on Matilda. Her ingenuity did not disappoint. As the healer had promised, a mere two drops of tincture had left Marian with a lovely bruise-yellow pallor.

The effect had lasted but an hour, but Marian was prepared. Her leathers and weapons sat in the hollow beneath her chest of clothes, ready to be donned and sheathed. She'd even accepted Guy’s invitation to sit beside him at table. Only for proximity to the Sheriff, of course.

To her skepticism, it had worked. Vaisey had taken one look and dismissed her with a disgusted flick of his wrist. Ironically, he'd always feared pestilence.

Guy’s reaction had been similarly predictable. With her most disarming smile, Maraian had taken his proffered arm, whispering that she should rest in her chamber. When he’d asked to walk her to her room, she did not decline. His eyes were still storming with worry when she nodded goodnight, preemptively cutting off whatever clumsy consolations he might offer. His defeated footsteps were still echoing in the hallway when she’d thrown open the trunk.

It was one of the few times Marian and Guy had been alone since she'd “taken ill.” Overall, she was glad of the inattention. Grief had made her admittedly unpredictable. Her own volatility made the mere thought of his exhausting.

She’d always been so sure of what Guy would do if Robin died. At first, he’d gloat with the Sheriff. Like a great raven, he would circle from Locksley to Clun, his chest puffed with authority. When he grew bored of maiming villagers, his pursuits would soften to pawing attempts at intimacy. With evasions and pretty smiles, she would evade them all.

On the few occasions they'd walked together alone, after it had actually happened, she could always feel that heavy leather on her sleeve, that thin line of his lips skating too close to her forehead. Even an unbeckoned lean in her direction was cause to shiver.

Yet—for once—Guy had surprised her. For what little he'd uttered since Robin's death, his actions had resounded uncomfortably. Some days after, a servant had brought her a bowl of oranges (her favorite) and a one-word note. It was signed in his Christian name, the script too sweeping and delicate to be his. When she had finally been ready to ride, her chestnut was shining and brushed..

His reticence was beyond frustrating. He could only be biding his time, lulling her before unleashing wrath or passion—probably both. Neither was an emotion he could hide. She would always best him in that regard.

Still, she’d been admittedly negligent in playing him of late. Mourning or not, she should exploit his every kindness. Her influence would wane inevitably as the Black Knights tightened their grip. If they assumed power, he would not look back—even at her.

Thankfully, his cruelty was always enough to make her forget oranges and earnest stares.

It was but yesterday that it had made its last appearance. Mrs. Evans was a month past due on taxes. Her dead husband's debts had mounted, and the crockery shop had shuttered months before. It was a familiar tale in Nottingham, its grim end known to all.

Mrs. Evans' young daughter had shrieked for mercy in the village square, clinging to the Sheriff's hem only for him to kick her away. Marian had too entreated, already knowing her cries would fall on deaf ears. It made the Vaisey’s repulsive showmanship, his professions of "duty" and "honor," all the more infuriating as the poor woman heaved with sobs.

Marian’s tears had wet the Evans girl's hair as she’d held her. She prayed the child’s wails would drown out the gurgling; the claw of fingernails on rope.

They had not.

The woman's tortured last sounds still hung in the air when Marian saw him. With the tiniest smirk, Gisborne had ripped the necklace from Mrs. Evans' purple-ringed throat. Why he needed such trinkets was beyond Marian. Perhaps he was still naive enough to think she could be bought.

Watching Gisborne's callous greed had breathed into her a kinetic fury. The Night Watchman had lain dormant in the wake of her sorrow; in deference to Robin. He'd condemned her too many times for it. It was reckless. Unsafe.

But now there was no gang to save her, or anyone. Someone needed to feed the starving and to shoot the arrows, however less expertly. Whether or not Robin would have understood, it was the right choice.

It was the right choice to get little Elsie Evans her necklace. To steal from the heartless raven. The coward.

Reinvigorated in purpose, Marian looked up at the candle on the table. In addition to now being precariously tilted, its wick was already half spent.

Flexing underused muscles, Marian vaulted over the wooden rail and into the shadows. The landing wrenched her ankle more than expected. She let out a small sigh, both in relief and pain, when boisterous laughter from below again filled the air.

Her feet were lighter after that. To her pride, the floorboards squeaked only marginally as she padded to the back room. She passed the tinny snores of a guard and opened the door with expert quiet.

No one living knew about the secret passage in the room or where it led. She and Robin had sneaked through it as children to rob his father and mother's old clothes, dissolving into fits of giggles imitating the gassy lords and tittering ladies at court. A maid had finally caught her emerging from the panel one day, replete with a feathered cap far too large for her head. They'd not been allowed in there again.

Fortunately, it was well concealed—and Gisborne never what Marian would call inquisitive. Even if he'd found it, he’d no doubt find nefarious use for it. Discreet access for kitchen maids, perhaps.

Marian dismissed that thought and the last of her niggling worries with a sniff as she popped open the panel. It took but a minute to navigate through the cobwebbed darkness before she emerged into Guy’s bedchamber.

Autumn had come early, and the fire had not been fully tamped. Dying light was all she needed anyway to guide her path toward the window. She loosened the latch so that it was open ever so slightly, tying the rope to the inside so it would be ready to throw.

There were a few guards below, but nothing she could not handle. The landing would be close enough to where her chestnut, trained and silent, was waiting.

She made her way back to the alcove of the room, rounding the corner and up two small stairs. She yanked back the familiar tapestry, her fingers sticking with the dampness of this morning's rain. It was an expected sight, but Marian smirked nonetheless.

Lo and behold, the chest’s familiar buckles and studs gleamed in the weak light. It had not been moved an inch from last time.

At least the lock was new, Marian thought wryly as she pulled some wire from her belt. She made quick work of the mechanism, twisting and jabbing. After a minute, it opened with a satisfying click.

Her hands sloshed through hundreds of inscribed coins. Mrs. Evans’ pendant would be distinctive enough, with its three smooth pearls that most peasants could never afford.

Marian's knees dug into the floor with anticipation as something unusual scraped her knuckles. Her blood went cold, then hot, as she took it in her palm.

Those familiar teardrop stones were the last thing she'd expected to find. It was here; just another trinket in the heap. No doubt buried at the bottom.

She frowned as she held it to the light. Even in the dark, she could discern those pale greens and roses. The colors had clashed horribly with her frock, making it easier not to admire it.

Guy's smile that day, when he'd asked for her hand, had never been so warm, so effortless. It had almost made her feel sorry for his stupidity. For thinking she'd actually go through with it.

Almost.

Marian flung the ring back into the chest. She shifted on her knees, knowing it would pucker the scar at her hip. It was a welcome reminder. A gift from the man who'd burnt her home to the ground, who helped to kill Robin. The Black Knight on a black horse.

Never grey.

She tossed her head in frustration, both at her divergent thoughts and thankless search. It had to be here...

If Marian had moved only an inch to her left, her cheek would have caught the tip of the blade.

The sharp chill of metal was on her neck, piercing through the papery black cloth of her disguise. A silver chain rustled seductively, just above her brow. Marian knew that exact sound.

She also knew, intimately, that particular combination of leather and wine now smothering her.

“Looking for this?”


Chapter Text

Sir Guy of Gisborne yanked the Night Watchman upward, bracing her arms in a near splintering grip. Marian struggled backward as he thrust her down the steps leading from the alcove. The blade rang out, clean and clear as it scraped against her jerkin.

Firelight flitted over the cut of his cheekbone, the shadow of stubble beneath.

No glint of that loathing, longing blue.

He emerged into the dull, bronze light. His expression—those eyes—glowed viciously. Marian's heartbeat stuttered. They complemented the twist of his scowl too well.

“I expected better from you, Watchman. Even without Hood.”

His biting taunt, and the realization of her folly, burned her neck. However inept they were, the guards had been too distracted. It was a poorly-laid trap Robin never would have fallen for.

One Marian should never have fallen for, either.

Her eyes darted about frantically. The window seemed miles away at the far corner of the room. Even if she could break for the hall, the first floor would be swarming with guards. The logistics rendered the Night Watchman powerless and without surprise.

But Marian—the Lady—still had a few.

Leaving no time to doubt the sheer insanity of her plan, she kicked the sword from Guy’s hand. In her haste she'd neither bound as tightly as usual, nor donned her looser trousers.

He would feel enough to feel a woman.

A breath hissed from her lips as she planted his hands on her backside. He was gloved, but still she felt the cup of his palms.

Warm.

He would only be stunned for a few moments.

Fingers splayed broad, trailing. Too close...

She'd only a few seconds to grab his scabbard and—

When Guy's hand whacked down, hard over the curve of her rear, she almost bit clean through her lip.

Her eyes and body stung with humiliation as he drew a dagger concealed at his hip. Slowly, languorously, the metal point of it dragged upward from her navel. Marian inhaled sharply when its course rounded, tracing a crescent beneath her breast. As though the blade were his finger and he and a tender man, touching his lover's skin.

His mocking gentleness sickened her.

“You overestimate your charms, Watchwoman." Guy's jaw jutted forth, teeth fused together as he grabbed the scruff of her cloak. "Did you think me blind? That I'd not notice when you were that close?"

One second, Marian was scrabbling for purchase. The next, her skull was smashing into the wall behind her.

Her vision swam as his thigh pinned hers to the wall. The black cloth still concealed her face. For as many times as she’d worn it, it was suffocating her now.

“I should slit your throat.” His eyes flicked down again. Gone was the tender man. The lover.

“But first thing's first.”

She realized only when his fingers were already plying the edges of her mask. Yet another mistake.

He had never said her name.

Marian's wrists flailed as he ripped the eight-shaped scrap of brown leather from her face, tossing it to the floor like a limpid rag. The cloth, which had fluttered down with it, pooled at her feet like a shroud.

With a squeaking tear, leather ripped from leather—his from hers. Colors streaked and dotted as she squinted at the staggering column of his form. He tried to sheath the sword without looking, failing as an expert swordsman never did.

When she looked at his face, as she'd promised herself she would not, he was staring at her mouth. Robin had always teased her for it being so distinctively tiny and bowed.

The seconds burned away as Guy's hurt, his comprehension of it, flooded his features. When the tides pulled back, the rage would come.

Her dampening fingers curled inward until her nails rented her palm. It was over, but his surprise was still her weapon. She was still The Lady.

The Liar.

“It seems it is you who overestimated yourself, Sir Guy.”

Turning away from her, he hunched over the table at the center of the room. The dagger hilt now stuck to his glove clattered numbly to the wood. He mouthed something, clearing his throat when nothing came out.

”I told myself it could have been any of the village girls. Even the Saracen."

The old table rocked on its legs as he yanked a pitcher of wine toward him. A goblet clanged rudely with pewter.

"Her eyes are brown, but my God, Marian, but yours...” He winced as the liquid burbled down.

”I did not want it to be you.”

When the cup was sloshing full, he drained it ruthlessly. He stood tall again, and Marian waited. She weathered the terrifying, interminable silence that followed until it constricted around her throat.

“Say something, Guy.”

Her whisper was so low and hoarse she wondered if he heard it. Her doubt was buried when those discerning coals stoked to life again—for a moment. She could not fathom why they dulled again, until she realized he was somewhere else. He was dissecting every glance and touch and promise. Every moment that added up to years of his confounding stupidity.

Marian jumped more than she should have when the empty goblet slammed to the table. When he turned back, those depths were churning and aflame.

“Show it to me.”

“Show you what?”

In a swift motion, he clutched and slammed down the blade, lodging it neatly between a crevice on the table. He moved faster—a man possessed—as he tore one glove off with his teeth, the other with his hand. They landed with a brutal slap. The wet traces of his mouth and wine on them gleamed when the firelight danced in the draft.

“Can't be the witless maiden anymore, my lady. Show me, or I will find out for myself.”

For all the furious posturing in that rumbling growl, Marian's heart surged with confidence. Beneath that rich and dreadful voice lie that fleeting slur of frustration. The desire to see what he could not touch.

His rage still was not enough.

With The Lady's grace and The Liar's charm, she obliged him. As her mottled skin met the cold, she almost heard the swell of his lungs. Her mouth clamped shut as his lips parted. It was an irrational thought that, for as thin as they looked, they’d not felt that way when she’d kissed him.

A few ominous thumps of his boots and his shadow loomed; a great black moth to a tiny flame. The thin line of his mouth hovered inches above hers. All she had to do was reach down, to grab and plunge her concealed dagger into his ribs.

He would kiss her first, this time.

Instead, the Black Knight's lips curved with wickedness. His left hand anchored to her hip, while his right tangled in the hair at the nape of her neck. Marian yelped as skin ground over bone when he clawed for her dagger, yanking it brutally from its scabbard.

"You will give this weapon and every last one—everything—to me," he growled. "Willingly, and now."

Marian chuckled, a bit too breathlessly. "As if I would give you anything willingly."

His left hand tightened. It should have hurt.Fingers. Bare, now.

"Just take them by force, Sir Guy." Her torso twisted, shrinking from his touch and the tingling of her skin. "I was mistaken to think you incapable of it."

The tall, steepled shadow at Marian's feet narrowed. She spun round as her hip went cold. He was walking backward toward the table, his palms raised in armistice.

"I do not take women against their will." He raised a wry but faintly menacing eyebrow. "You should know better than any of them."

She did. And she would never admit it.

"I know nothing of what you do with kitchen maids."

His eyes dimmed, muddied by something that she could not read. A familiar twinge stabbed the center of her chest when his features hardened into that implacable veneer. She pushed away an image of gold-spun curls and hitching skirts; the rakish line of pink hushing girlish laughter with his kiss. The man who took what was his.

"The weapons, Marian. I’ll not ask again."

Marian's mouth puckered with feigned defeat and anger. In her mind, however, the pieces and pawns were aligning.

She would play.

Giving him a very Gisborne-like smirk for good measure, she tore off her gloves for expediency. Out came the daggers and throwing stars from belts and boots and everywhere in between. Almost everywhere.

When she'd discarded all of the obvious, Guy crouched and swept them into his arms. His predatory glare fixed on her all the while as he tossed them into the dark alcove behind him.

Marian arched an intrigued eyebrow as he swayed back into the table, his sanctuary, rewarding himself with more wine. It had been flowing at the castle for hours before he'd arrived back at Locksley. He could be all the more feral, soused as he was becoming.

Or careless, if she was lucky.

For now, as he stood and swaggered, he was just infuriatingly puzzling. Her frustration mounted as he nonchalantly traced the etching in the dagger's hilt. His lips teased the rim of the cup as he sipped slowly.

Maddeningly slow.

“So, I suppose you are just going to sit there, drinking yourself to death.”

Guy took another long swill, baring his teeth at the sour wine. “What would you care if I did?”

“I care to know my fate.”

“Your fate was in the Sheriff's hands the moment you donned that ridiculous mask. If you think I will defend you, you are mistaken."

"We both know that you will defend me. To say otherwise is to lie to yourself."

"An art you know too well." His low growl rose to a bitter chuckle. He slouched lazily, his weight easing into a chair. "Tell me, then. How does the woman who lies more than the devil’s whore herself get to question my honesty?”

Marian bristled, but not at the accusation of lying. “I have every right to question the man who has slaughtered the innocent people of Nottingham. It is you who have sold your soul to the Sheriff.”

She hated him and her tone equally. Her life was hanging by a thread, and here he was baiting her.

(And here she was—taking it.)

“I could as easily call you the Sheriff’s whore, Sir Guy,” she goaded. Flinty anger sparked in his eyes again, lightening her weighted shoulders. Him enraged; her defiant. The pieces where they should be.

The iron grip Marian had on the situation faltered, as did her resolve for calm, as he glowered spitefully into his cup. Dismissively.

“Better the Sheriff's whore than Hood’s.”

So tarred with jealousy were his words that it took Marian seconds to absorb them. Even when she had processed them, all she could see was that red curtain glowing in the dark, Guy and the Sheriff rejoicing like demons over hellfire. Guy's sword, not a nameless soldier's, felling Robin with the killing blow.

With avenging agony she sprang forward, clawing from behind at Guy's collarbone. Her grip formed as she crushed her chest to his back. She yanked out a bladed hairpin from her twist. A bramble of curls tumbled down with it. Iron sang as it pressed against his pulse.

“What if I told you I was Robin’s whore?"

His tendon tautened like a bowstring. She pressed and squeezed, body and blade.

"I could tell you just how I pleased the true Lord of Locksley...”

He struggled. She grinned.

”...how I would get down on my knees and—”

He should have been staggering and lumbering. Another mistake.

Pain shot through her shin as he erupted from the chair between them. He grabbed her by her rib cage until her shoulders poked into him, their positions reversed. The prick of metal was at her neck, now.

“I dare you," she rasped.

A longer lock of his hair brushed the nape of her neck. There was no vision of Robin’s arms. Green was fading to black.

His sonorous reply, a trickle of ice water, cascaded from her head to toe. She curved into him, involuntarily. His smile curled at the shell of her ear

“No.”

The blade sliced shallowly as she stumbled backward, a tiny trickle of warmth running down her neck. She wiped the blood with the back of her palm, knowing it would smear. That metallic tang turned pungent, making her heart race with sickness and relief.

She had been right. He could not do it.

He resumed his leering perch on the edge of the table. “I will not give you the satisfaction of seeing Hood so soon.”

“I think you would never give me any satisfaction. It would also be imprudent to kill a lady of the Court," she muttered as an afterthought.

'And never mind that you love me', she did not say.

Cruelty tugged at his smile as he looked down his nose at her. It was sharper, more aquiline from this angle.

“The Sheriff wants you dead. Who do you have to stand for you now? Some cowardly peasants?”

"You dare speak of cowardice!"

”At least I do not slink around in the dark with a mask.”

As though powerless over her own two feet, Marian charged him again. “I wear it to protect the people. Your mask you hide behind in plain sight. All the people, all the villagers...”

She paled, forgetting to keep her eyes trained on him and his every move.

The necklace.

"I saw you at the hanging. I saw you tear that necklace off the woman's neck." She paused. "I saw you look away."

His chin raised, as though she were once again holding the blade to his throat. He rummaged in his pocket for what seemed like hours before he tossed something shimmering, metal and beads, to the table.

"Here, have your bloody bait. The girl can wear it to her wedding, for all I care."

They stood at silent impasse, his eyes glinting with punishment; her scarlet with hate and self-loathing, still trying to look anywhere but at him.

There was a bowl of fruit on the smaller table. He had peaches. Plums.

Oranges.

Maddening.

"You said nothing to me after Robin died," Marian blurted. "Why?"

At this, his eyes narrowed with interest. Bait, indeed.

“You do not get to ask the questions." His sigh was drunken and weary, as though fighting with an old friend at a tavern rather than the woman who'd just betrayed him.

"And you know very well why."

"I do not."

Guy looked longingly at his goblet. "You expected me to watch you think of him," he slurred. "Pine for him."

Sadness threaded Marian's heart seams as he resumed his swilling and ruminating. Why she was here. Why she should not be.

"Guy—"

“I am done with it, Marian." He raised a forestalling hand, his eyes strangely fearful. "All the pretty pleading.”

“That would be a first.”

With a frustrated roll of his eyes, Guy plunked down the goblet yet again. "I am not going to reason with you. There is no debate. I am taking you back to the castle. In chains. Where you will await trial."

"Hanging, you mean.”

His cheeks blanched to ash before anger colored them again. “Possibly.”

"Death is the only penalty for treason.”

“A lesser sentence might be arranged.”

“A lesser sentence?" she huffed. "I do not think a hair cropping will appease the Sheriff this time."

"Nor I, fetching as it was..." He gulped down the last swallows as though the cup might sprout legs and run from him. "But time in the dungeons might do you good."

She fumed. "You are returning me to the Sheriff to die!”

“What choice have you given me?”

Marian pointed at him like a thief absconding with a loaf of bread. "And there he is. Guy of Gisborne. Weak." She grinned vindictively. "Hated by everyone."

The ever-present line between his eyebrows smoothed. Her breathing shallowed as she watched the smugness drain from his eyes. The steadfast line of his mouth wavered.

"Everyone," he echoed. It was not a question.

She had said more hurtful things before. The weary drag of boots. Their friction on leather and wood.

More hurtful things.Must have.

His hand brushed hot against her cheek. She looked up into his bleary eyes, craving their coldness like a balm.

“Every honeyed word...when you returned to the castle.”

“Guy, stop. You—you are drunk.”

His fingers had wandered, entwining into a single strand of her hair that had come loose. With her sudden lightheadedness, the tapestried walls were bowing, like dark trees bending in wind. The space between Guy's body and her own was dangerously small.

He leaned in. She strained toward his whisper.

“Je...étais-je jamais...Pourriez-vous...”

Tiny hairs rose on the back of her neck beneath the pad of his palm, now absently caressing the skin there. He was far away, again. The words he spoke, quiet and rich, might have been known to her if she'd paid attention to her lessons instead of climbing trees. Still, she understood them.

She'd avoided their meaning for this long, but now it loomed and it burned—his bold plea. His Question.

They had met on her birthday, when the blooms had just fallen from the whippletree. The way he lurked in broad daylight; those gruff replies to any compliment. How he always needed to check some menacing cruelty, some crude misspeech, that threatened to strangle every word.

Even his handsomeness was awkward and stark. He was glacial eyes and raven hair—all pale and pointed in relief against a monolith of black.

It was only his arrogance that rendered him vulgar and ordinary. He lusted after gold and women; another nobleman who wanted a prize and not a wife. To him, she was a pawn and a prize, ripe for violation. With all earnestness, she had convinced herself that these were his only truths.

Marian had recited this creed, this conceptualization, faithfully whenever she had to manipulate Sir Guy. It was a reminder to use her sugared tongue, her sex, and her position against him. Knowing how firmly Guy had been lodged under the Sheriff's thumb had made it easier.

She'd told herself that it was only Guy's newfound bursts of courage, his tacit rebellion against the Sheriff, that had made her job harder. His defiance, mirroring her own, had watered down the black. But there had been grey long before that, if she was honest.

If.

She’d gone to Locksley that night, after he'd razed Knighton, with the intent to sway him. It was a speech well-rehearsed—a thin blanket of warmth over her icy revenge beneath. When she saw him, the intractable shell of leather gone, the plans crumbled.

Before her was not the knight but the man. He was smooth and firm in candlelight, bronze and gold over marble. She swore she could see his heartbeat pulsing, in and out of shadow. He had thought she was grasping for his hand.

It was what she’d wanted them both to think.

Similarly, kissing him had solved nothing. Robin had been mere feet from her in the castle. His proximity should have made it easier to imagine his lips as she seized Guy's muscled arms. Then those dark wings had enveloped her. In the solemn, stretching shade of them Guy had consumed her, as though it was his last kiss on Earth. Her lips were still humming when she pulled away.

It haunted her almost as much as that final blow. The day he came back.

When Nottingham was about to burn, she'd wanted him to leave. When he returned, serene with redemption, she understood. He was ready to die with her. For her, and no one else.

It was a selflessness that Robin had never offered her. Swathed in honor, the hero of Nottingham had molded the shattered pieces of her in his hands like clay. His laugh, his wit, his burning desire to make England whole again, were why the Holy Land could be forgiven. Justice shone distant, but always bright. Only Robin's death could eclipse their future.

It was why that idyll, that belief he'd rebuilt to be unbreakable, made her time in Sherwood all the more sobering. It was the little things; the way he ordered Much around, jovially annoying as the man was. When she had offered strategic advice, Robin had, in his charming way, ignored her. He ignored all of them, really.

With him, it was always the people of Locksley or Clun or Nottingham. It was always England—always now. Robin and Marian of Locksley were the people of tomorrow. When Richard was home. When everything was over.

It was a future. Not theirs alone.

Marian had known then that Robin would never be able to live a life less than a hero's. Her voice had always made him smile; the snap of the bow—the adulation that followed—made him beam. When they had embraced that last night, she had tried to bury her selfish doubts beneath the leaves. Hope and prayer would guide her.

Neither of those things would have gotten her anywhere with Guy. Selfishness and cruelty, killing and torture, were his instruments. There were no assurances he could, or would, save her. Too many times had he been unhinged by a single word.

But always her word.

Hers alone.

“—What are you plotting?”

Violence shot across his face like lightning.

Marian's blood ran cold. “Nothing.”

“Answer me." The unyielding tower of his figure straightened from his defeated slump. "Could I ever have been—”

“Stop it. No, I never could have—” She held up her hand, as though it could undo the truth. She could never tell him.

She had to tell him—

“Please just marry me, Marian.”

Incredulity, the sheer audacity of him, froze her, body and soul. Still, he would play the fool and the coward.

“I wish to marry no one.”

“No, I do not believe it. You wanted to marry him.” She had tricked him so many times that she could see him ticking them off in his mind. Guy swallowed as if there were glass in his throat. His eyes were glazing again. Gone.

"I know you wanted him, Marian. For him to bed you.”

“I did.”

The words came too quickly, almost as soon as she'd thought them. His fists balled as he ignited, his arm drawing back. He was finally going to—

With a hideous crunch, his fist collided with the wall next to her head.

"I knew it. You let him lie with you!”

She threw up her arms in exasperation. “I did not.”

“Heartless." He spat at her feet. "Liar.”

“I am not lying, Guy.” Her voice warbled as blood trickled from his knuckle where he had struck it. “I can—“

“You can what, Marian?”

"There is—"

"You try to deceive me while I stand here the fool, not binding you. Not gagging your lying mouth—"

"I said I am not lying."

Her last word, the only one that mattered, trailed into a whisper. Two men, and her lies between them.

Gisborne: Shutting her up in the castle. Locksley: the day Robin told her to stay back. It was an inevitable and unwanted comparison.

One suitor had offered a life of cold luxury and protection; the other a life of adventure on his terms. Both were cages. It was their vision of what and where and who she should be. A colorful bird, clipped and flightless.

"Your denial means nothing." He scowled at her hip. "You would not know the truth if it gutted you."

Marian examined him, saying nothing as the slice of his words mended. Despite herself, a plan formed around a better memory of him, gilded in firelight.

Her hand grazed his chest, the bow of his muscle underneath, as she mapped her remaining weapons. There was one still sheathed inside her hip. She could lodge it between his ribs before he could blink.

One way or another, she would escape.

“I will not marry you.” Her lip was trembling. She was going to do this thing.

“But if I prove to you that I was never Robin's, you will let me leave Nottingham without a word to the Sheriff.”

He raised a goading eyebrow, patently amused. "Prove?"

Insufferable and stupid. "Yes, Guy. Prove!" She made an embarrassed circling motion around her hips, one far less awkward in her head.

Though he wore a familiar mocking smile, there was color on his cheekbones. His eyes bluer and brighter. Hopeful.

“You would sell yourself to me? No, no—you do not sell anything.” He reached to the ground where her cape had fallen. “The fair maid who cannot be bought.”

"It is a bargain. We both get something we want. Nothing more."

Guy ripped off a piece of fabric with which he staunched the now viscous blood of his hand. Marian’s mouth opened in silent protest but shut again, stopping herself. He tossed the bloodied cloth into a corner.

His mouth scrunched with a peculiar, childish pensiveness. He was weighing it; playing into her hands.

"You do not get to bargain," he replied, evenly and carefully.

Her fingers trailed down his sleeve, feeling the tightening muscle beneath. Evenly and carefully.

“What have I left to lose but my life?“

“What do you have to gain, you mean? You're wasting your breath with your trickery." He looked down at her touch with attempted disgust. "And I'll not take his scraps.”

She sniffed haughtily. "I think I am the one who'd be taking scraps."

Malicious intrigue sparkled in his eyes. “You are jealous.”

“Ha! As if you could ever have had—”

The words died in her throat as he imprinted her backside, that now-awaited touch, drawing her hips to his. The hardness against her abdomen made her want to press her legs together; to hold her breath until she fainted.

His breath kissed her forehead. She shuddered, trying to remember what and how to speak.

"I gave you a chance to be a good man."

"And I would have given you so much more if you had given me anything in return."

She gritted her teeth. He was impossible, still and always. "You always wanted more than you could ever get, couldn't you?”

His hands dug into her hips, feeling around until they tapped on something hard. Marian closed her watering eyes as he tapped the handle of her secret dagger. He reached just below the waist of her breeches, pulling it out gingerly from the pocket. Arousal besieged the anger in his gaze.

“You were going to let me touch you. Drive your little daggers in after you toyed with me." She could almost taste the wine, heavy with his whisper. He swayed, attempting too late to right himself without notice.

"But it does not matter. You are trapped.”

Her eyes darted to the window and back, not caring that he watched her like a hawk. He was right.

If she stayed, it was the gallows. She knew what would happen if she ran. Him on her heels, tormenting and pleading. Still, it would not take much to fan her angry red wings and fly out of England. She closed her eyes, hoping to see the whir of green and grey and moor as it would be, dotted and quiet far below.

Instead she saw the chain, dangling over Guy's eyes. A smile, like sun on silver. Clouded eyes and clouded emeralds.

It was over; The Thief and The Lady were dead. It was up to Marian alone to play.

She would be the one to give. And then she would take it away.

The dog only she could feed.

Her hands started trembling even before she reached for the fastenings. A few of them pricked at her nail beds, scraping too fervently for the metal. A spidery crack veined at her feet, like a breach in parched earth. Each thump, like a drumbeat, of leather and cloth thudding to a heap on the floor. Her toes fanned the floor, ice cold. Her boots had been the last to go.

There was no telling how long she still stared at that crack, shuddering as her nipples tightened in the frigid air. When she tilted her head upward, she did not blink. The voice that came was no longer hers.

”Have your proof.”

Again, he let her stand. She crossed her arms, fuming with humiliation as he descended into that pointless brooding she could slaughter him for. She could laugh for how empty his threats were, now he stood like a powerless oaf. He was supposed to leer, to grope what he always so arrogantly wanted to possess. To do something.

Just when she was about to give up and sacrifice herself to the guards, he moved. She shielded her breasts as he drew close, their dance beginning again. Her nostrils burned as his hands stroked upward, with unnecessary softness—a petal of a lady on some delicate stem. It was only from the shock of it, she presumed, that he pressed harder on her scar.

His eyes were glinting. He was sorry, angry, reverent. Gentle in that horribly confounding way that was not him. A man who wanted to have rather than to take.

Her hands fell. She did not raise them again.

She moaned with surprise as he palmed her breasts, the warmth of his hands radiating down and around. His leather was cold on her already chilled skin. Her neck craned as his moan vibrated through her hair.

“Marian...”

The kiss she had waited for was not gentle. It was an invasion of mulled berries, her name still vibrating on his tongue. His hips ground against hers, hands roaming their avaricious paths and making up for lost time.

The pulse thudded between her thighs as his thumbs teased her nipples. His touch traversed toward her center, trailing across her hip. He was so close to touching what she could not let him.

Even with his tongue dancing hot against hers, she tried to chastise herself. It was all she could do to keep from pushing herself onto the rough of his palm.

The callused heel of his hand kneaded into her hip. She broke the kiss violently, her head titling back with a cry. He would take, and she would let him.

The pads of his fingertips were soft and slow when they glided over her center. Marian muffled a pant as his finger dipped and swirled around her entrance, priming with her own wetness. She could not imagine how it would feel to have something inside her.

He lifted her with a determined groan, backing her against the wall. She buried her face into his chest as his hand plunged down again to stroke her sex. His leather steamed, dampening with her sudden cry as his thumb dragged the glaze of her upward. She gasped haltingly as his thumb flicked over that place she'd found in the dark and feared; where she'd always wanted Robin to rub with his weight on her, in the grass. There had never been enough time.

She writhed under him, frustrated as he fueled her impatience, tracing that slickness around but not over that tiny center. It was as if he wanted it to ache and scream for him. Dots of color were floating, her breath suspended for more.

“You want me,” he purred.

Her arching spine went rod-straight. The moment was broken.

She'd forgotten the game. She would not again.

“I cannot—”

She waited for the lie.

For his hands. His mouth.

That line of heat, the need to feel anything pressed to her, burned tight and hot when his lips caressed her neck. The guards, the whole village might have heard her when he pressed the center of her pleasure. She stopped herself, bringing herself down to panting. Every flick, every circle, precise. Her legs were wrapping around, for balance and in desperation. One eye opened to see her undulating, moving shamelessly her slickness on leather.

He had weapons...She tried to fixate on this blurred thought as his motions sped, the sweat of pleasure and resistance on her brow. He would never expect...

Touches feather-light, harder. Fast...

The smoothness of that heavy leather was still ripe for the grooves her nails made when his finger finally pumped up and breached her. It stung for a moment until he drew it out again, slow, slow, until the tip had left her. She throbbed, aching for it inside her. She had enveloped him, held him tight within her. Her heart was going to burst.

He did it again and again until she was thrusting to claim it.

Marian's head tilted and lolled as he pumped in and out, coaxing the heat coiled deep within her to flower open. She was drifting, watching herself from some faraway tide as she bucked, forcing his hand deeper inside her. Little pants were coming from her sealed lips. A bead of his sweat trickled down her breast.

When she looked at him, his eyes were sealed shut. The dark rash of stubble was clenched tight, the line deep between his eyebrows deepening with each breathy grunt he constrained.

She turned her head to the shadows, terrified. It had all gone spectacularly wrong.

She felt the currents, the blue, instantly. He would not have it.

“Look at me.”

The sad resignation of his plea almost shook her from her tenuous equilibrium on the wall. His gaze narrowed as if on some hellbent mission. With renewed determination, his fingers twisted and thrust, filling and abandoning her brutally.

“You are here. Stay here.”

His mouth plundered hers fiercer than it ever had as she moved with and against him. It was her body to his, like a cord of sunlight pulled tight between them. She was soaring. Too fast.

An aching disappointment shot through her as his fingers popped away. Metal scraped on leather.

“Oh...”

It was reflexive; that cry of lust and fear as his naked length pressed into her abdomen. Her teeth gritted, head lolling weightlessly, not caring that it rested on him. She was too aware of her suspended body, its awkward position. Those leather arms, the rippling and clenching sinew beneath, needed him to lift her higher. She was forgetting to breathe with the thought of being lowered down, taking him in for whatever softness or hardness he would give her.

The Black Knight hoisted her up, her shoulders bruising against the wall. Her mouth opened in a soundless cry as she came down. It was a single rending, raging and swollen. Every wave of it stung from her sex to her eyes.

Through the watery sheen of her vision, she had seen it. His surprise.

The pain dulled with triumph as she watched his shame; his pride.

He had not believed her, after all.

Little crescents appeared on his sleeves as her nails unlatched. She was descending to cold, hard physicality. He had brought her so low.

“There, then," she hissed. "Something true.”

She went as still as she could, ignoring the ripples of friction and pain, him inside her as she gasped a sob. Her knees threatened to buckle as her muscles registered the invasion of his body. Everything about this was real.

A chance, the last sane part of her reminded. Their currency of humiliations had been exchanged.

She had already been molded.

Stabbed.

Ignored.

Caged.

That vision of him, sneering that smile that was not truly his, gloating with that chain over her eyes.

She should run. But she held the chain now.

With shaking hands she put her arms around his neck. Her fists balled, resisting the relief in his eyes as the tip of him pressed insistently into her. She clamped down on his pauldron as he filled her to the hilt with a moan. She dared a glance up at him, wishing she had not. There was a look of fascination and wonder on his face that she could never return.

His hands were hot against her backside, scrabbling to bring her closer. Her eyes watered as her hips snapped up involuntarily. There was no understanding it; this need to fill herself with this perfect, terrible feeling. Every part of her pulsed for him, around him.

He slowed with considerable effort, his breathing ragged. For a moment she waited—equally fearful and hopeful that drink had finally bested him. Instead, he braced her in strong arms, leaving her to hang limply against him as he walked her back. Her fist pummeled his chest when she realized where they were headed.

"No," she rasped. “Not the bed.”

Her toes brushed the floor as he stopped cold. The shutters closed again as his teeth gritted mercilessly. A chill ran through her as she saw it—the side in the dark.

"Fine."

Marian cried out as he turned, flipping her down without warning. Pain shot through her bare shoulder blades as they connected with the wooden table. The goblet had tipped over. The scent of wine was in her hair.

Her backside burned from the friction as he pulled to the edge of the table, his hands digging into her hips. The legs of the table ground the wood beneath it as he claimed her again in one brutal stroke. He sped, each thrust as deep as the last, her breasts trembling with each thrust.

Behind shut eyes, she tried to make sense of that vision making her writhe and sigh. She was here, wet and naked beneath him as he took her. Her ivory legs twined around him, lily vines curving around menace and leather. Where she had wanted them to be.

A bed was for a lady; for softness. This was the claw of rough wood on her back and thighs. She wanted it like this.

The devil’s whore.

His.

A keening cry wrenched from her as his free hand clawed trails of white heat up her inner thighs. Her hand clamped down over his fingers, forcing him to harden the pressure that had become too delicate. His thumb pressed up and in to the point of what should have been pain. She bucked against him, greedy for it.

A sudden apprehension almost sent her crashing down. She was at the precipice, on the edge of something. No one had ever explained.

One last look at black hair matted to his brow—his face etched in firelight. Him, handsome and dreadful inside of her. His eyes brimming with her.

Only her.

“Come undone.”

He was pleading, not commanding. It was enough.

She clung to him, screaming as her body clenched around him in waves. She was still sighing, slow pulses still gripping his length when he gasped her name, the liquid heat of his release rushing into her.

Marian could not tell how long he lie slumped over her before he wordlessly rolled off. For what seemed like minutes, she stared transfixed at the silvery blue veins above her wrists, at the blood from her neck still smeared. Absently, she scraped it. It flaked away like dried rust.

Shakily, she stood. She limped toward her breeches, tucking her thighs together where the stickiness threatened to spill downward.

The fire was almost dead now. She was freezing.

When she looked behind her, he was rustling aimlessly. She shrunk from the squeak of leather, the knell of dread and arousal, as he pulled up his trousers.

She felt him looking at her again, knowing she could not answer him. A log crunched into the fire. It was tired. Resigned.

“I had wanted it for so long.”

Marian's tongue and throat screamed for water. She could not speak.

The floor groaned wearily as he walked toward her. She flinched. Her scent was still on his hand.

“I wanted it to be enough, Marian. I did.”

She knew it would come to this. And she would stop it.

“I am leaving, Guy.”

He rose to his full height. She’d felt so much smaller in his embrace than when grappling him, dagger in hand and ready to maim.

“How can you go now?”

The angry heave of her chest dropped a single tear onto her chest. Any breath he spent on her staying was wasted. The game was long over.

“Did you really think you would win me now? That I’d agree to be your wife?”

She whitened at that flash of abject shame—that humiliation he could never adequately conceal. It was, apparently, exactly what he thought.

“In time, perhaps—“

“You’ve had all the time in the world! And what have you done?” She lifted her the lip of her jerkin again, rejoicing at how he winced at the scar he'd given her.

“You have stabbed me. You have burnt my home to the ground.”

“If I could take those things back, Marian—”

“Just those? Those to appease and win me. You do not get to pick and choose!”

She watched as his handsomeness warped and lined with hatred. It was comfortable for him: being the villain when being anything else was too hard.

“You will keep lying to me until your last breath, won’t you?”

“You accuse me of lying because it is not what you want to hear.” She hurried with the rest of her fastenings, looking up at the beams of the ceiling. Crystal tears clung to her eyelashes.

“I will never tell you what you want to hear."

Her eyes fell on the bed to avoid him, only to realize her mistake in looking there. It was too easy to see him in it now as he might lay, eyes closed in blissful sleep. She wondered if the image was true to life. If his lashes were so long and so black.

“I once told Robin,” she whispered, “that you had another side.”

“And I know you saw it,” he said hoarsely. “I was ready to die for you.”

Another tear's weight gave way and splashed. She swallowed angrily, fearing he had seen it.

“I wanted you to die for them too. Like he would have."

As he shifted, the light hit the tired creases at the corners of his eyes. She thought of the things he had seen, the secrets he might have told her if she had said yes. If she had stayed.

"You wanted me to be like Hood."

His jaw was rigid and determined. She had conditioned him to beg, and so he would.

“Once this pact is done, Marian. Everything will be different.”

The curl of his half-smile was genuine. His hands held hers, his innocent warmth against hers after what they had done.

What she had done.

The sound that came from her throat was feral and foreign. It should have been complicated; easy to repudiate Guy's existence and excuse why she had given him what she'd sworn she never would. But not even she, so practiced and skilled in the art, could manage it. The truth was hideous and plain.

It was, very simply, that Robin was dead. Before that, he had left her for the Holy Land.

Guy had destroyed anything and everything. He would burn the world to the ground for gold and glory. But he never left her.

A great hero once said that everything was a choice. However wrong it was, Marian had made hers.

Something glinted out of the corner of Marian's blurring vision. It was shining in the sputtering fire. She walked toward it, memory washing over her of this artifact from before the mask was torn and she was lost: Thief, Lady, and Liar.

Her fingers scraped for the chain. She whisked it from the table and moved toward the window. She looked back only when she'd reached it.

"I did not want you to be him, Guy."

For a moment, she saw him as he was, once. Gilded in firelight. When the flame flickered again, she saw him weathered in the brutality of now. Blue coals and depths and anger in the dark. All that longing amounting to nothing.

A man who knew he'd lost.

She gritted her teeth against her pity, forgetting what was given and what she would now need to take. In recompense, she gave him the most honest look she ever had. It was a gift he’d never understand.

”Being a good man would have been enough.”

She did not look back again before she swung down the rope and jumped. Jolting up from the mud, she felt the breeze of arrows sailing past her cheeks. The only other sound was that shout from above; a bark; a scream. Her name.

She clicked her tongue as the horse reared, soldiers right on her heels. Her body pitched in the saddle, too harshly for what her body had endured. Another arrow, sailing far closer, clattered pointlessly against a fence post.

It was black as pitch, but she knew well the veins of these roads. Daylesford Abbey was leagues from here, off the road past Kirklees. It would pass through an old drop point that those who still sung the name of Hood would remember. The girl would know to look there for her necklace.

Someone would know to look.

Stars lined the edge of the sky beneath strips of cloud above the black twist of road. She blinked only when she was sure her eyes were dry.

Somewhere past Clun, as sleep and anguish clawed at her, she saw him. It was more ethereal than a thought, but too lucid to be a dream.

It was the day, that dusk, her world should have ended. The Sheriff had returned too late, this time. Guy had burst through the doors above her, awash in mauve. He was running down toward her when the cannonball hit.

Marian stumbled and ran, straining for his fingertips as the floor rumbled beneath her. She was only feet from him when the stairs collapsed.

His face was in shadow, all save for those sapphires, glinting with fear and love. As his arm reached down for her, the setting sun shifted. For a moment he was only a shape haloed.

The angel. Black.

It was the angel she chose to remember as they stood, awaiting a cataclysm of fire and ash. When the end came, they were parted as they should be.

Two strangers turning into dust.