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The Darkest Hour

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The darkness had descended. For once the forest was still, the only movement that of the water flowing lazily by, the only sound that of Guy’s broken sobbing as he sat on the riverbank cradling Meg’s limp, delicate body in his arms.

He had prided himself on not having cried since he was twelve. Nobody has seen him cry since he was eight. When his parents died, his grief had taken the shape of silent, unrelenting suffering that was so thickly laced with guilt as to leave no room for tears. He had managed to block the memory from his thoughts in his waking hours, but the grisly fire still crackled and blazed in his nightmares, and he would wake up in the middle of the night suffocating in panic and lie awake until dawn, eyes wide open, his mind in anguish, his throat tight with pain. He had since learned to tire himself out during the day so that by midnight he would be sinking into heavy, dream-free sleep until sunrise, but the sleepless years had left him with permanent dark shadows around the eyes that forever gave him a haunted look.

Then, after that endless, unbearably bright day in Acre, the nightmares had started again. Only this time, instead of roaring flames, it was the blinding sun and the glint of his blade as it plunged into Marian's flesh. In those months, he had drunk himself to unconsciousness more times than he cared to remember, even though he had always been good at holding his liquor. But he did not cry. He could not.

Truth be told, Guy had had few regrets about being captured and none about being sentenced to death. Surely, he had been angry at Isabella – the conniving little witch had once again got the better of him – but it paled next to the relief that awaited him. No more nightmares. No more memories.

No more guilt.

If the next hell was merely about cauldrons and boiling tar, it was a welcome proposition by comparison.

So he thought until a beautiful, cruel twist of fate had sent him the only soul who cared if he lived or died. Or rather, the only soul who cared and did not want him dead. It had been too good to be true, and so it had to end.

And for the first time in his adult life, the tears came freely.

Why her, he sobbed breathlessly, dear Lord, why her? If only he could have given his life to get hers back, but no, his worthless, wretched existence continued as a beautiful, kind-hearted, brave creature lay dead and crumpled in his arms, and no amount of praying would bring her back. There were no second chances in this life; the knowledge had been branded onto his heart by fire and steel. It was useless and foolish to hope for one.

More time passed – an hour? Two, three? It could not possibly matter. Eventually, his eyes dry and stinging, his mind drained and blank, he rose carefully, still holding Meg, and started along the riverbank towards the eastern edge of the forest. The abbey of Kirklees was only two or three miles away, and he would go there to make sure Meg got a decent burial. He could not leave her in the forest in a filthy pit of a grave under a makeshift wooden cross. Such graves were for blackguards like him, not sweet souls like her. The last thing he could do for the mortal angel who had saved his life would be to care for her in death. He was crying again, but kept walking so long as he could still see the path by the moonlight.

After a while the familiar bulky outline of the abbey loomed through the trees. For an instant Guy wondered whether news of his arrest and escape had reached the abbey, and whether the nuns would have mercy on him. Still, they had to do their Christian duty by Meg, and if they called the guards on him next, so be it. Then again, this was the only place around where he might not be unwelcome, as his generosity to Kirklees had been perhaps his only redeeming trait in this life. Ever since the old abbess had taken the few coins he had been able to save to hold a mass for his parents’ souls shortly after the fire, a meagre payment that would not normally have procured the service, he had felt indebted to the abbey, so much so as to send them generous donations during his tenure at Locksley.

It took a few minutes for a sleepy nun to shuffle across the courtyard to unlock the gate at the late hour. The elderly woman staggered back at the sight of Guy holding a girl’s lifeless body, but her querying gaze softened when she saw the torment in his face.

“My lord... do come in.” She stepped aside to let Guy into the courtyard. “What has happened?!”

"She rushed in front of a pike to save me," he managed. "I have come to beg you sisters to give her a Christian burial on consecrated ground.” his voice broke, and he sank down in the middle of the courtyard, his precious burden still in his arms.

“Mater santissima,” the nun crossed herself and raised her hands in horror. “Who would do such a thing?!”

I would, he thought bleakly, a few months ago I would. I did.

“It was meant for me. I was to be executed but she tried to save me, so they caught her and wanted to behead her as well. There was... commotion...” He could not imagine that Hood’s appearance had anything to do with getting either of them out alive, “and we were able to escape but my dear girl... Meg received the blow by the pike that should have been mine to take. I could not possibly bear to see her buried in the forest.” His voice was steadier now, but hollow and lifeless.

“My lord, I am certain that the abbess shall give her consent. I shall tell her first thing in the morning. But if you would wish to speak to her yourself, may I ask you to come back after the morning prayer? We have no guest quarters for men...” She was deeply apologetic.

“I shall come back then.” He needed to make sure that the abbess consented, and would also give her the gold chain he wore his cross on to pay for mass for Meg. He could do with a piece of string instead. “Where may I put her?”

“Let me show you to the chapel vestry, my lord. We shall leave the poor soul there until morning and I shall call the sisters then to take care of her.”

Take care of her. What an accidentally cruel turn of phrase, as if she were talking of someone wounded, or ailing, rather than dead. Guy stood up and followed the nun inside, up a flight of stairs into the cold, dusky chapel lit by a pair of candles flanking the crucifix on the altar and half a dozen oil lamps under the crude stained glass images behind it. The nun took one of the candlesticks as she motioned for Guy to follow her through the vestry door.

There was a long, narrow table inside, along with chairs and chests containing the vestments and ornaments. Guy gently laid Meg's body on the table, wondering distractedly at how it had not gone stiff. As the nun put the candlestick down by Meg's head, Guy looked intently at her face, her features fine and angelic, her expression peaceful. Death had taken none of her beauty; she was still as fresh and lovely as when he had kissed her in the forest. He gazed at the girl, wishing he could etch the image upon his mind. This was likely the last time he would see her; he was not even sure whether they would allow him to attend the burial. As the anguish threatened to overwhelm him again, he sought in vain to distract himself by taking Meg's hands from where they lay by her sides, and moving to cross her arms in her lap.

Then it hit him.

Now that his eyes were accustomed to the dim light, he was looking at the dark bloodstain on the bodice of her ornate dress, noticing how much bigger the stain had become. He grabbed the candlestick and held it above Meg's stomach - and gasped as he saw the fabric glistening with liquid.

She was still bleeding.

This could mean only one thing... but it could not be! Do miracles happen after all?!

The nun said it for him.

“My lord, benedictus Domine! She is alive!”

Guy could not speak; he had dropped on his knees by the table and cupped Meg’s cold face in his hands, laughing silently with relief and giddy joy as tears streaked down his cheeks.