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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—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, she 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, Marian 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, she 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 presented two opportunities. The first, spiteful defiance, was reliably tempting. In Marian's 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 his dour resistance after being left at the altar, it had taken little to lure Guy 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 forth, his mouth an inch from Guy's cheek.

Guy glared uncomfortably at the reflection in his 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?”

Guy's jagged scar—the 'honest' gift she'd given—ticked upward. Her chest swelled with pride. He was going to challenge the Sheriff, at last.

All hope dissipated 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 barked words having startled her. 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!”

"No!"

The crowd was already huzzahing as she sprang upward from her chair, too loud for her cry to have been heard. The lord to Marian's left, Bennington, snickered as he peered into her empty goblet.

It took her a moment to realize the assemblage had drawn quiet, watching and waiting. Her cheeks suffused with red as Bennington snorted. Better to be thought tipsy than an insurrectionist.

“I mean...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?”

"Ahh, mmm. Proof!" Vaisey's eyes were an inferno of warning. Pathetically transparent as Guy was, his lord was a snake with many skins.

All too quickly, the sheriff's expression softened. "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!"

Silently, Marian scoffed. It was obvious the Sheriff was bluffing. Or too stupid to realize Hood would always be a step ahead...

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 resigned herself to riding out the whole miserable affair. She turned toward the server's footfalls at her back, 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.

“You heard the fair maid, Gisborne—proof, she says. I think a little...stroll is in order." Vaisey crooked his arm, leaning toward her. "Shall we?”

Pain and surprise jolted from shoulder to wrist 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. She could not avenge Robin with a when or how or why.

Allan had answered far too quickly who had done it—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 Allan-a-Dale had left with an eggplant-colored circle round his eye, shining fresh with tears.

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

She asked no more questions after that. The gang were together on the ramparts, now. Nothing but heads in the elements, their mocking badges of honor tacked to tattered flesh.

Every night, Marian 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.

With time, it would 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 thwacked 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 knew to be quick. 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 at her complexion 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, Marian had taken his proffered arm, whispering that she should rest. When he'd offered to escort her to her chamber, 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 corridor when she’d thrown open the trunk.

She readied herself, the weight of pretending temporarily lifted. Grief had made her mind a volatile pendulum, craving loneliness one moment and company the next. At first, it was his company that she most actively avoided. More time around Guy meant a risk of lashing out and betraying herself.

It was only recently that the loneliness had become unbearable enough to relent to walking with him. When she did, 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. It was only then that she would berate him, turning on her heel toward her rooms.

Marian grimaced at the memories as she adjusted her mask, recalling some of her blatantly petty excuses. For all her wits, those excuses to leave his side left her flustered.

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 and turn to her. With evasions and pretty smiles, she would fend him off, as always.

Against all odds, Guy had surprised her. Some days after that horrible night in the chapel, 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.

She straightened, stopping that dangerous train of thought. Thankfully, his cruelty was always enough to make her forget presents and earnest stares.

It was but yesterday that it had made its latest 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 dragon's 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 the costume. 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, she 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. His glare 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, washed over her like acid. 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 tricks.

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.

“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 hurt and comprehension flooded Guy's 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 still 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.

“For God's sake, say something.”

"What would you like me to say, Marian?"

Her plea was so low and hoarse she wondered how he'd heard it. Those discerning coals had stoked back to life. She could almost see him dissecting every glance and touch and promise. Every moment that added up to years of his confounding stupidity.

She jumped, more than she should have, when the empty goblet slammed to the table. His expression was now completely aflame.

“Show it to me.”

“Show you what?”

In a swift motion, he clutched and slammed down his blade, lodging it neatly between a crevice on the table as he stood. He tore one glove off with his teeth, the other with his hand, slapping them down on the table one by one. Even at a distance, she could see the wet traces of his mouth and wine gleaming on them 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 his furious posturing, Marian's heart surged with confidence. Beneath that threatening voice was a fleeting slur of frustration. He still desired to see what he could not touch.

With The Lady's grace and The Liar's charm, she obliged him. She lifted her jerkin slowly.

As her mottled skin met the cold, she almost heard the swell of his lungs, the breath leaving them 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.

Boots thumped and his shadow loomed. The thin line of his mouth hovered inches above hers, close as he had ever been. All she had to do was reach down, to grab and plunge her concealed dagger into his ribs. Her pulse quickened at the memory of when they had stood like this, in the castle, once before.

He was going to kiss her first, this time.

Instead, the Black Knight's lips curved with wickedness. His left hand anchored to her hip, his right tangling in the hair at the nape of her neck. Marian yelped as skin ground over bone. 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."

"As if I would give you anything willingly."

"Or unwillingly," he said through gritted teeth. "It matters not."

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

"Oh yes, just take them by force, Sir Guy. And my body as well, to be sure." Her torso twisted, shrinking from his touch and the tingling of her skin. "I was mistaken to think you incapable of it."

She inhaled. He had stilled. After a moment, 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."

"Said he, the man who would try and bed me the day my father died."

He winced. The arrow had met its mark.

"I have always been sorry for that," Guy muttered. "Still I am. I was not in my mind—I did not know how to comfort you."

His apology was unexpected, disarming enough to wipe the smug smile from Marian's face. Still, she would not be lured into forgetting who he truly was.

"And what of Annie? I can only imagine how many kitchen maids you've tried to 'comfort' in their moment of need."

A familiar twinge stabbed the center of Marian's chest when his features hardened into that implacable veneer. She pushed away an image of gold-spun curls and hitching skirts; that rakish line of pink hushing girlish laughter. The man who took what was his.

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

Her mouth puckered with feigned defeat and anger. In her mind, the pieces and pawns were aligning.

If he wanted to play the game, she would give him just what he wanted.

With a very Gisborne-like smirk for good measure, she shed her gloves. 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, he was just infuriating as he dragged out the inevitable. 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.”

“What would you care if I did?”

“I care to know my fate.”

Guy took another long swill, baring his teeth at the sour wine. “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 question my honesty?”

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

She hated his responding smirk 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,” she goaded. Flinty anger sparked in his eyes again, lightening her heavy shoulders. Him enraged; her defiant. The pieces where they should be.

The iron grip Marian had on the situation faltered as he glowered spitefully into his cup. Dismissively.

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

It came to her in a rush of rage she didn't think she was capable of feeling. Whore. The 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 tumbling down with it. Iron sang as it pressed against his pulse.

“Perhaps I was Robin’s whore."

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

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

He struggled. She grinned. She would cut him now, with every word.

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

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. Metal pricked at her neck.

She'd be certain he was too drunk and uncoordinated. Another miscalculation.

“I dare you," she rasped.

A longer lock of his hair brushed the nape of her neck. Green faded to black.

She curved into him, involuntarily. His snarling lips curled at the shell of her ear. It was then that his sonorous reply came, a trickle of ice water cascading from her head to her feet.

“No.”

The blade sliced shallowly as she stumbled backward, a tiny trickle of warmth running over her collarbone. She swiped at it with the back of her palm, knowing it would smear. That metallic tang made her heart race with sickness and relief.

She had been right.

He could not kill her.

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

“You will never give me any satisfaction. It would also be imprudent to kill a lady of the Court," Marian 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.”

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

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

The necklace.

Her throat was so parched when she spoke again, the words could barely form. How could she have forgotten, even for a second?

"You were at the hanging. You tore the necklace off the woman's neck." She paused. "I saw you look away."

As though she were once again holding the blade to his throat, he craned his neck high. He rummaged in his pocket 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. There were peaches. Plums.

Oranges.

Maddening.

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

“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."

The breath left her before he could resume his swilling and ruminating.

"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. "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."

"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. Her ears rung, almost drowning out the weary drag of boots; their friction on leather and wood.

She had said more hurtful things.Must have.

The feverish hand on her cheek startled her. She looked up into his bleary eyes, craving their blue coldness like a balm.

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

“Guy, stop. You—you are drunk.”

She knew the direction of this conversation, and all its perils. His fingers had already 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 shrinking.

“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. The meaning of that whisper, quiet and rich, might have been known to her if she'd paid attention to her lessons instead of climbing trees. Still, somehow, she understood.

She'd avoided hearing it for this long, but now it loomed and it burned—his bold plea in his mother's tongue. His Question.

They had met on her birthday, when the blooms had just fallen from the whippletree. She could not miss that figure lurking in broad daylight, those gruff replies to any compliment. How he always needed to check some some heartless 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, ripe for violation. She had convinced herself that these were his only truths.

Marian had recited this creed, this conceptualization of Sir Guy, faithfully whenever she had to manipulate him. 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 rare 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 cloaking her icy revenge. When she saw him, the intractable shell of leather gone, she was thawed to water.

Before her was the man and not the knight. 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.

She had tried to trick herself again when she had kissed him. 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.

All of this was easier to ignore, or at least think of seldom. It was so much harder to forget the day everything had changed.

When Nottingham was about to burn, she'd wanted him to leave. Her tears ran hot and indignant as she'd listened to his horse clop away, the hooves eventually lost to the chaos of impending battle. No one in the castle would be by her side when she died.

It was why, when he returned, serene with redemption, she took his hand, her head too light to fear death. He was ready to die with her. For her, and no one else.

Only now, in this moment, could she see that selflessness was something Robin had never offered. Swathed in honor, the hero of Nottingham had collected the shattered pieces of her when he returned from war. 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.

That idyll, that belief he'd rebuilt to be unbreakable, made Marian's 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 fed on glory. 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 in the forest, she had tried to bury her selfish doubts beneath the leaves. Hope and prayer would guide her.

Neither virtue 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. Her plea for him to come back and die with honor.

Her plea alone.

“—What are you plotting?”

Marian's blood ran cold at the lightning streak of violence on Guy's face.

“Nothing.”

“Answer me." The unyielding tower of his figure stretched 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.”

“Are you mad?” Incredulity, the sheer audacity of him, froze her, body and soul. After all of this, now he would ask.

"It is a way out," he growled. "The Sheriff will not kill my wife."

"How convenient! You get to have me to protect me, is that right? A way out for you, because you've no courage to kill me. Besides," she added defiantly, "I wish to marry no one."

“No, I do not believe it." He pointed at her, eyes wild. "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.

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

Her eyes burned. She would never be any man's wife now. It was Guy's fault. All of it.

“I did.”

Her words were too quick, too honest. 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." he roared. "You let him lie with you!”

The truth of it, what it meant and did not, made her flinch. “Never did.”

“Liar!”

“I am not!" Her voice warbled as blood trickled from his knuckle where he had struck it. “I can—“

His glare was cold, still pointed at her feet. “You can what, Marian?”

"There is—"

"You try to deceive me while I stand here the fool, not binding you, not gagging you silent—"

"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 have denied so many things to my face. You'd not know the truth if it gutted you."

"Like how you almost gutted me?"

Marian examined him in the silence her words had cut. The firelight was behind him, gilding him again. Her head was so light with exhaustion and emotion that for a moment she just saw a man. He was leaning, defeated and beautiful.

This finality, the everything that he was, swallowed her with emptiness. There was no explaining him, no justifying. Simply what he was.

Stilling her trembling lip, she mapped her remaining weapons. There was one still sheathed inside her hip. She could lodge it between his ribs before he could blink.

Her head snapped up to see him still looking down at the long shadow of his guilt.

Yes. She would use his guilt and her sex to deceive him.

It was nothing more than playing him as she always did.

Her throat was dry, but she swallowed past it as she walked forward. “I will not marry you, Guy.”

His head jerked up as her hand grazed his chest, the bow of muscle beneath.

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

For a moment, he looked at her with dumb wonderment, as if he had actually fallen for it. Then, he raised a goading eyebrow, trying to seem amused. "Prove?"

"Yes, God's thumbs. Prove!" She made an embarrassed circling motion around her hips, one that was far less awkward in her head. It would be a miracle now if he believed her.

Though he wore a familiar mocking smile, there was color on his cheekbones. His eyes were 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 dabbed at the now viscous blood of his hand. Marian’s mouth opened in silent protest but shut again, stopping herself. He tossed the used cloth into a corner.

"You do not get to bargain," he replied, evenly and carefully, as if only to himself. His mouth scrunched with a betraying pensiveness. He was weighing it; playing into her hands.

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

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

“And what about what you have to gain? You are wasting your breath with your trickery." He looked down at her touch with attempted disgust. "I'll not take his scraps.”

She sniffed haughtily. "Am I not the one who is taking scraps?"

Malicious intrigue sparkled in his eyes. “The fair maid is jealous.”

“Not a chance!" she shot back. "For all your 'prowess', I would bet you are—”

The words died in her throat as his hands imprinted her backside, drawing her hips to his. She felt it instantly—him burning, a hard rod against her abdomen. It made her want to press her legs together, to hold her breath until she fainted.

His breath kissed her forehead as he pulled her closer. It was the first time she had felt this small in his grasp.

"I would have given you everything. You knew that."

She gritted her teeth, coming back to herself. Still, he would be impossible.

"I gave you the chance to be a good man," she grated.

"You gave me nothing."

"Just like Vaisey." Marian snickered. "You always wanted more than you could get.”

She froze as his hands went to her hips. He felt around until his fingers grazed over something solid. Marian closed her watering eyes as he tapped the handle of her secret dagger before yanking it from just below the waist of her breeches.

Still she could not move. His eyes were furious. Aroused.

“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 her noticing.

"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. Leaving would mean him on her heels, tormenting and pleading. She closed her eyes, envisioning 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. She stilled her lip from trembling. She was going to do this thing and fly out of England with angry red wings when it was over.

She would give everything only to take it from him.

Her hands started trembling even before she reached for her fastenings. A few of them pricked at her nail beds, scraping too fervently over the metal. She glared at the spidery crack in the floorboard, veining at her feet like parched earth. The drumbeat of her heart was low, under 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 stared at that crack, shuddering as her nipples tightened. When she tilted her head upward, she did not blink. The voice that came was no longer hers.

”Have your proof.”

She crossed her arms, fuming with humiliation as she waited for him to speak; to touch. She could laugh for how empty his threats were, now that he stood like a powerless oaf. He was supposed to leer, to grope what he always so arrogantly wanted to possess. He was supposed 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 over her hips and stomach with unnecessary softness—as though she were a petal made of glass. 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.

It was with that thought that her hands fell

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.

A newfound pulse thudded between her thighs as his thumbs teased the peaks of her breasts. Her knees almost gave way when his touch trailed back across her hip. He was so close to touching what she could not let him.

For the life of her, she would not push herself onto the rough of his palm.

The callused heel of his hand kneaded her hip. She broke the kiss violently, her head titling back with a cry.

Gone was the gentle touch. He would take, and she would let him.

The press of his fingertips was rough and hot against her folds. Marian muffled a pant as a finger circled her entrance where she was wet. 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 he flicked so close to 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. Dots of color were floating, her breath suspended for more.

“You want me,” he purred.

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

“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. Her jagged breaths rose to a sharp cry when he finally pressed the center of her pleasure. Every flick, every circle, now so precise, his teasing eyes now hooded. Her legs wrapped around leather as she moved her slickness shamelessly on his hand, just as she'd sworn she would not.

He had weapons. The thought blurred as his motions sped. He would never expect...

Touches feather-light, harder. Faster...

The smoothness of that heavy leather was still ripe for the grooves her nails made when his finger finally breached her. It stung for a moment until he drew it out again, slow and slower until the tip had left her. She throbbed to feel it again. She had enveloped him, held him tight within her. Her heart was going to burst if she could not again.

Just when she thought she'd go mad, he rewarded her. He did it again and again until she was thrusting to claim his hand.

Marian's head tilted and lolled as his fingers curled and thrust, watching herself from some faraway tide as she bucked, forcing his hand deeper inside her. Little pants came from her sealed lips. A bead of his sweat trickled down her breast.

His eyes were still hooded when she looked up. The line deep between his eyebrows deepened as he exhaled shakily through his nose.

Shaken, she turned her head to the shadows, trying to will her body and mind to sense. 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 hell-bent mission. With renewed determination, his fingers filled and abandoned her in brutal succession.

“You are here. Stay here.”

His kiss was searing as she moved with and against him. It was her body to his, like cords of sunlight pulled tight between them. She was soaring. Too fast.

An aching disappointment shot through her as he pulled out of her and away. Metal scraped on leather.

“Oh...”

The Black Knight hoisted her up again, her shoulders bruising against the wall. It was reflexive; that cry of lust and fear as his naked length pressed into her abdomen. He was so soft, so hot.

Her teeth gritted, her head weightless, not caring that it was resting on his shoulder. She was too aware of those leather arms, the rippling and clenching sinew beneath, ending in those hands gripping her hips for dear life. He needed only pull to bring her down, for her to take in what he would give her.

Her mouth opened in a soundless cry as he thrust and she pushed. 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 watched him. The pain dulled with triumph as she watched his shame; his pride.

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

The words, meant to seal her victory, were hollow. He had not believed her, after all.

She went as still as she could, ignoring the ripples of friction and pain with him invading her. Everything about this was real. He had brought her so low.

It was also a chance, the last sane part of her reminded. Their currency of humiliations had been exchanged. Now she could slice him with the last cut.

But she had already been molded. Stabbed. Ignored.

Caged.

In her soul, she knew he was still gloating with that chain over her eyes.

He would understand that the chain was still hers to hold.

Her shaking arms went around his neck. Her fists balled, resisting the relief in his eyes as the tip of him pressed insistently against her folds. She clamped down on his pauldron as he filled her to the hilt with a moan. When she closed her eyes momentarily, the imprint of his face was still there. 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 hips snapped involuntarily, greedy for this perfect, terrible feeling. Every part of her pulsed for him, around him.

He slowed with considerable effort, his breathing ragged. Finally, he slipped from her.

For a moment she waited—equally fearful and hopeful that drink had finally bested him. Instead, he braced her in strong arms, walking her limp body backward. Every muscle in her body coiled, her fist pounding his chest when she realized where they were headed.

"No," she cried. “Not the bed.”

Her toes brushed the floor as he stopped cold. A chill ran through her. He was in half light, one side in the dark.

"Fine."

Without warning, he turned them both around, pushing her downward. 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 her by her hips to the edge of the table. With a brutal groan, he took her again. She closed her eyes as abandon possessed him, his careless thrusts trembling her breasts. She gasped, his touch rough and firm when he rubbed her where they were joined. He already remembered what motions and pressure had almost broken her before. Now, she needed his touch harder, wanting to beg and scream.

That awful floating feeling again overtook her, almost as if she were looking down upon herself. She wondered who this woman was, wet and naked beneath him, ivory legs twined around menace and leather.

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

Not the devil’s whore.

His.

A keening cry wrenched from her as his free hand pinned her down fiercely. Her retaliating hand clamped down over his working one, forcing him to harden the pressure that had become too delicate. With a growl, he pressed to the point of what should have been pain. She bucked against him, greedy for it.

She fell back just before the precipice, on the edge of something. No one had ever explained.

It was a fatal decision to open her eyes again. He was still there, 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, moaning raggedly, her body clenching around him in waves. Her slow pulses still gripped his length as 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.

She limped toward her breeches when she finally stood. She wobbled, her thighs pressed together where stickiness threatened to spill downward.

A log crunched before it collapsed with a tired sound. The fire was almost dead now. She was freezing.

When she turned to look behind her, Guy was rustling aimlessly. She shrunk from the squeak of leather as he pulled up his trousers. It would always be a knell of dread and arousal now.

“I had wanted it for so long.”

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

The floor groaned wearily as he walked toward her, reaching forward. She flinched at her scent on his hand.

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

“I am leaving, Guy.”

She swallowed with empty pride at finding her voice as he rose to his full height. Where was the world when she was grappling him, dagger in hand and ready to maim?

“How can you go now?”

The angry heave of her lungs dropped a single tear onto her breast. 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 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 deny me until your last breath, won’t you?” he said with a sneer.

“I deny nothing.” She hurried with the rest of her fastenings, looking up at the beams of the ceiling. Crystal tears clung to her eyelashes.

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

Her eyes fell on the bed to avoid him, only to realize her error in looking there. It was too easy to see him in it now as he might lay, eyes closed in peaceful 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. Her mouth pursed angrily, knowing his words were true.

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

"You wanted me to be like Hood."

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 become his wife. If she had stayed.

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

The curl of his half-smile was genuine as he took her hands in his. A wave of cold washed over Marian again. It was an innocent gesture, too innocent after what had passed between them.

What she had done.

It came from her without warning, a sound both feral and foreign. It should have been complicated; easy to repudiate Guy's existence and excuse the gravest sin. But not even The Liar could have managed 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 had never left her.

A great hero once said that everything was a choice. However wrong it was, the choice had been hers to make.

Something glinted out of the corner of Marian's blurring vision. It was shining in the sputtering fire. She walked toward it, memories washing over her from before the mask had been torn off 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 Robin, Guy."

In that last moment's weakness, she took in his golden skin, remembering that night when things were different. When the flame flickered again, she saw him weathered in the brutality of now. Blue coals and depths and anger in the dark.

A man who knew he'd lost.

She gritted her teeth against her pity, trying to forget what she would be losing. In recompense, she gave him the most honest look she ever had. It, and her last words, were gifts 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 tar, 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.