They burned. Each mark was like a trail of fire, as if Gulnar had branded him instead of raking that iron claw across his chest. Although Gulnar’s perverse ritual had been over a fortnight ago, the wound hadn’t shown any signs of healing. The scratches were just as deep, the skin around the torn flesh even redder than before. He suspected that the scratches had become infected, but he hadn’t wished to seek out the physician. He was ashamed enough of his time with Gulnar and the Fenris worshippers without having to reveal physical proof of his brief allegiance.
He lowered his wine cup and met de Rainault’s eyes, hoping this was the first time the Sheriff had addressed him during the meal. “My lord?”
The Sheriff was watching Gisburne expectantly. He didn’t appear angry, though he was wearing his usual sour expression. “I want you to go to Halstead Priory tomorrow and arrest Marion of Leaford.”
Gisburne wasn’t surprised. If the Sheriff hadn’t been distracted by the need to appease the King after the grain shipment debacle, he probably would have given the order sooner. Their spy at Leaford Grange had delivered the news about Marion almost a week ago.
“What if she’s taken her vows?” Gisburne asked.
The Sheriff scowled. “I don’t care if she’s become the prioress. You will arrest her, Gisburne, even if you have to drag her out by force.”
“Yes, my lord.”
The Sheriff had speared some pork on his knife, but he paused before lifting it to his lips. “You look pale. Are you ill?”
Gisburne was so stunned by the remark that it took him a moment to speak. “No, my lord. I’m…I’m well.”
“Hmm,” the Sheriff said, sounding unconvinced. He took a bite of his pork, though he kept his eyes fastened on Gisburne.
* * * *
It poured for most of the journey, hard, driving rain that stung their cheeks and trickled down their necks in large, icy drops. By the time Gisburne and his men reached the priory, they were soaked to the skin, their cloaks dripping and water sloshing in their boots. Gisburne was sure the three soldiers who had accompanied him would have been much happier if he had accepted the prioress’ offer of some warmed cider and a place by the fire, but they had a job to do. Besides, Gisburne knew a distraction when he saw one. The old woman was trying to divert them, buy Lady Wolfshead time to hide, possibly even escape. When Gisburne ordered his men to search the priory, he expected her to protest, but she only gave a brief nod of assent, her expression seemingly serene and untroubled. Gisburne knew it had to be an act, so he gave further instructions to his men to search every single part of the priory, no matter how insignificant or innocent it might seem.
Gisburne decided to cover the garden and outbuildings. Marion was accustomed to hiding in Sherwood, so she could be crouching in some bushes, lying concealed in the grass, or perched in the branches of a tree. What Gisburne refused to admit, even to himself, was that he was finding the priory unbearably hot and stuffy and that he was sure he could feel the prioress’ eyes boring into him.
Gisburne almost gasped in relief as cool, fresh air greeted his hasty retreat from the cloister. He breathed in deeply, trying to ignore his trembling limbs and the heart that hammered in his chest. It would seem that the Sheriff had been right, and Gisburne was forced to acknowledge that he wasn’t entirely well. However, a visit from the physician would have to wait until after he’d arrested Marion.
As Gisburne walked through the garden, he not only scrutinized the grounds but listened for any tell-tale noises. He could hear leaves rustling in the wind and the chirping of birds – specifically, the cawing of a crow. Or was it a raven? He shook his head, wondering why it mattered. Then he jerked as a tree bough creaked, gazing up at the branches above him in bewilderment before realizing that the sound had been caused by a strong gust of wind. He looked away from the branches and caught sight of a black bird flying towards a shed on the other side of the garden. Gisburne crept towards the shed, his eyes never leaving the bird. He stopped, brow creasing in confusion, when he had nearly reached the shed. The bird – he could now see that it was a raven – had begun pecking at the door as if it were knocking. An instant later, the door opened a crack, and the raven walked into the shed with all the stately grace a lord might exhibit when entering the king’s court. Gisburne broke into a run, determined to see who was in that shed, even if it was just an elderly sister searching for a trowel.
When Gisburne flung open the door, he had the satisfaction of seeing Marion’s eyes widen and the freckles stand out in her pale, startled face, before his entire vision was consumed by blackness. First, it was the raven flying at him with a wingspan that seemed to take up the entire width of the shed. Then it was darkness of a different kind as the spots that had started to dance before his eyes merged into an impenetrable veil and Gisburne felt his legs collapse.
* * * *
Guy was still in the garden when he woke, but the shed was nowhere to be seen. He was sitting propped up against the priory’s outer wall, and the closest building appeared to be the infirmary. Had his men carried him out here? Why bring him this far and not all the way to the infirmary? Could Marion have dragged him out here? Even if she had possessed the strength, Guy didn’t think she could have pulled him this far from the shed. Still pondering these questions, Guy rose shakily to his feet – then nearly fell again when he noticed what he was wearing. It was the same filthy white robe he had worn when he had disguised himself as a leper in order to sneak into Croxden Abbey and steal the Cross of Saint Ciricus. But that wasn’t what nearly brought him to his knees. As Guy began to strip away some of the layers of his leper’s rags, he caught a glimpse of his forearm. What should have been smooth, healthy skin was a patchwork of lesions and bumps.
Guy heard the raven caw and looked up at the wall above him to see it perched on the top. It cawed again and this time its cry was answered. Guy’s head swivelled to the trees in the orchard and saw that, instead of leaves, the branches were filled with ravens. Guy reached out blindly for the wall, as if suddenly needing its support, and began moving slowly away, his eyes never leaving the orchard of ravens. He had only made it a few feet when the raven on the wall swooped down and landed on his back. Arms flailing wildly, Guy struck out at the raven before taking off towards the infirmary.
The faster Guy ran, the further away he seemed to be from the building. And, all the while, he could hear the caws from the orchard and the whirr of wings, though he didn’t dare look back to see if the raven was still pursuing him or, worse still, gripping his white robe with its talons and riding on his back. When Guy finally made it to the infirmary, he somehow wasn’t surprised to encounter the woman who was blocking the door, which should have been surprising in itself considering that the woman was his dead mother.
Margaret of Gisburne looked much as she had the last time he had seen her. She had that same air of self-righteousness about her and she regarded him with those same disappointed eyes. Guy wondered, much as he had that day, what gave her the right to look at him that way after all the lies she had told.
“You’re the lie,” Margaret said, as if reading his thoughts. She had raised her chin defiantly and her arms were spread out against the wooden door as if she intended to keep out an entire army. “Everything about you is a lie, even your name. You’re my terrible secret, my unspeakable sin.”
Guy stared back at her, unable to speak.
First there was sorrow and then fury collided with the sharp pain of betrayal. The emotions tore through Guy with such force that they seemed to take everything with them. Guy was left feeling numb, empty. But it was always that way. It had been that way with his mothr ever since Edmond had bestowed that one gift to him, that one truth, and it had destroyed everything.
“I’m what you made me,” Guy finally said, nearly echoing the exact words he had spoken that day at Croxden Abbey.
Margaret gazed back at him with a cold, hardened expression that Guy had never witnessed from her when she had been alive. “Yes, you are what I made you, but I’m dead now, so my great sin should die with me.”
Guy flinched, though it was due to the sound of metal striking earth rather than his mother’s words. He didn’t want to see it, but he found himself turning, found himself watching as Edmond of Gisburne, hunched over his shovel, began digging the grave. Guy looked up into the trees, knowing he’d find the ravens there even before he was alerted by their harsh, raucous cries. His eyes were still fixed on the trees when the ravens dove to pick away at his body.
Was she calling him? It wasn’t his name. His mother had told him that. Or had it been Edmond? He managed to crack open his eyes, surprised he still had any when he wasn’t able to move his arms and fight off the ravens.
“You have a fever. That’s why the nightmare seems real.”
Gisburne ignored the voice because he had seen the nuns who had seized his arms and were pressing his shoulders down on the mattress. He struggled against them, trying to break free.
“Please, Sir Guy,” the one sister said. “We’re trying to help you.”
“Let him go. I think the delirium has passed, so he shouldn’t hurt himself.”
Gisburne’s eyes flew to the woman in surprise. He recognized that voice, but it didn’t make any sense. Why would she be helping him? Gisburne was so focused on Marion that he didn’t even notice when the nuns released him and moved away from the bed. Then, before he could protest, Marion was lifting his head from the pillow and pressing a cup to his lips.
“You’d better drink it,” Marion said. “It will help bring the fever down.”
Gisburne knew he shouldn’t drink anything Marion of Leaford gave him, but he was desperately thirsty and too tired and ill to care what she or anyone else thought. After he’d drained the cup, he wondered vaguely if Marion had poisoned him because his eyelids had grown heavy and he was having trouble holding up his head, even with Marion’s assistance. He had no memory of Marion removing the cup from his hand or lowering his head back down on the pillow.
* * * *
When Gisburne next woke, he wondered if he was delirious again because the raven was sitting in the window staring in at him. Gisburne sat up cautiously, looking around the chamber for anything he could throw at the bird or use as a means of defence.
“Every raven after its kind,” the raven cawed, and Gisburne nearly fell out of bed. He quickly tried to hide his reaction when he heard a girlish giggle from the door.
“He’s quite tame,” Marion said. “He won’t harm you.”
Gisburne eyed the raven suspiciously. “Why is it here?”
“He fell out of his nest when he was just a hatchling. One of the sisters mended his wing and nursed him back to health. He wouldn’t leave the priory after that. I’m afraid he’s grown rather spoiled and a bit too clever.”
“Is that why he’s quoting passages from Leviticus?” Gisburne asked.
“I suppose. It was the Psalms yesterday.” Marion walked over to the bed. “It will be easier to change your dressing if you’re lying down.”
Gisburne gritted his teeth, but did as Marion asked. “You should have killed me or fled, Lady Wolfshead.”
Marion paused briefly as she removed the old bandage. “It’s Sister Wolfshead now – or, rather, it will be – and I couldn’t kill you or flee, not if I’m going to become a nun. Where did you get those scratches?”
“Those scratches on your chest. You didn’t get them from Robin or the others.”
Gisburne sighed, wondering why it mattered to her how he had received the wound. “It was Gulnar.”
Marion flinched, though it was a tiny movement and something Gisburne might have missed if he hadn’t been watching her. “I see. Well, it was the reason for the fever. The scratches were infected. I would imagine you were ill before you even left Nottingham. Was it so important to arrest me that you couldn’t wait a few days?”
“I had my orders,” Gisburne said.
“Why didn’t you tell the Sheriff you were ill? Was it because you didn’t wish to appear weak in front of him?”
“Why did you leave Sherwood? Why did you leave that wolfshead? Why would you, of all women, want to become a nun?”
“I don’t wish to speak of it,” Marion said. She had finished changing the dressing and was standing, turning to go.
“Did he kick you out of the camp? Toss you aside for another woman?”
Marion froze and didn’t speak at first. “I’m simply seeking peace, that’s all. I need to be closer to God.”
Gisburne smirked. “I’ve known women who have hidden behind piety before. Why are you really here?”
Marion glared at him. “It is the truth, not that I would expect you to understand. I doubt you’ve known a single day of peace in your life.”
“No, I haven’t. It’s why I’m a soldier and why I know you’re lying when you say you’ve come here to seek it.”
Marion turned sharply and marched towards the door. She had her hand on the door handle when she stopped. “I thought Robin was dead.”
Gisburne stared at Marion’s thin, tense back in confusion and then remembered what he and the Sheriff had found at the Ring of the Nine Maidens, what they had tried to bring back to Nottingham in that cart. “The man of clay.”
Marion whirled around. “You know about that?”
Gisburne grimaced. “I should. It nearly cost me my head.” Again.
Marion walked over to the chair by the bed and sat down. “You saw it?”
“Well, yes. When the Sheriff and I came across it, we thought we’d found his body. Of course, that was before it crumbled into a pile of clay.”
Marion leaned forward in the chair. “But you could see how much it resembled Robin, why I would mistake it for Robin?”
“Yes. It looked exactly like him.”
Marion’s fingers tightened around the arms of the chair, the knuckles turning white. “Robin doesn’t understand. I don’t think any of my friends do.”
Gisburne studied Marion curiously, wondering why she was confiding in him and why he was just lying there letting her do it. All the same, he thought he understood her. “You felt betrayed,” he said.
Marion’s eyes widened in surprise and she sat, lost in thought, for a moment. Then she looked back at Gisburne, nodding her head. “I hadn’t thought of it like that, but, yes, I suppose I did in a way. But how do you know that? How can you understand when my friends – ”
“Seek peace and pursue it,” the raven cawed, causing both Gisburne and Marion to start.
Marion rose slowly from the chair as if emerging from a dream. “I should go.”
“Yes,” Gisburne said to her departing back. “I think you’d better.”
* * * *
To his relief, Gisburne didn’t see any sign of the raven for the remainder of his convalescence. He also didn’t see Marion of Leaford, which didn’t surprise him much. In fact, he was relieved that she had kept her distance because he wished to leave the priory as quietly and unobtrusively as possible – not an easy task when the nuns were up at all hours saying prayers.
Gisburne knew that sneaking out before dawn, without taking his leave of the prioress, was an act of cowardice, but he couldn’t face her and Marion again – not if he planned to leave Halstead empty-handed. Gisburne knew it wasn’t right and that he was disobeying orders, but he just couldn’t bring himself to arrest Marion.
He told himself that arresting Marion wouldn’t accomplish anything, but would only make things worse. If Marion was true to her word and stayed at Halstead, she might never cause trouble again. If she was dragged to Nottingham, there would be an uproar. If they threw her in the dungeon, the outlaws would attempt to rescue her. If they executed her, those wolfsheads would strike out in revenge. Even if Robin Hood died in the process, another man would appear to replace him. It was an endless cycle and Gisburne had grown sick of it. Of course, the real truth, the truth that Gisburne couldn’t acknowledge, was that he simply didn’t want Marion to die.
Gisburne was just putting on his boots when there was a knock at the door. Gisburne closed his eyes in consternation before accepting the inevitable. “Enter.”
The door opened slowly and Marion peeked around it. “I thought I saw light coming from your chamber.”
Of course she had. Gisburne had lit a candle when dressing. He ignored the question of why she had been walking past his chamber at that time of night and then ignored her completely as he finished buckling his boots.
Marion entered the room and closed the door. “Are you sure you’re well enough to leave?”
“I’m sure.” Gisburne stood and tried to walk past Marion, but she blocked his path.
“I’m going with you,” Marion said. “I’d rather leave quietly than have you return with more men. I won’t fight you. I just ask that you allow me to change back into my old clothes first.”
Marion’s eyebrows rose. “No?”
“Just return to your chamber – or do whatever it is that nuns do at this hour – and pretend you didn’t see me.”
Marion’s brow furrowed as she stared at Gisburne, unable to understand. “But why?”
Gisburne sighed, nearly rolling his eyes. “Because I’m not going to arrest you. It’s humiliating for a knight to arrest a nun. I should never have agreed to it. I’m sure I wouldn’t have agreed to it if I hadn’t been…You were right. I was ill before I left Nottingham. I should never have come here.”
When Marion remained fixed to the spot, still gaping at him, Gisburne took her by the shoulders and half-lifted, half-pushed her aside. As he walked briskly to the stables, he hoped this would be the last of it, that Marion would actually take his advice and not follow him down to the stables. Surely even she had enough sense to take this chance he was offering her – before he saw sense himself and changed his mind.
“God’s Blood,” Gisburne muttered when he reached the stables and found Marion feeding his horse an apple. “How on earth did you get here before me? Did you fly?”
“No, I just took a shorter route,” Marion said. “What will you tell the Sheriff when you arrive in Nottingham without me?”
Gisburne, who had begun saddling his horse, was able to avoid Marion’s eyes. “I’ll tell him you weren’t here, that you must have fled to Sherwood or gone to another priory.”
“You’ve really thought about this, haven’t you, Gisburne?”
Gisburne snorted. “There was little else I could do when I was stuck in bed all that time.” He looked around for his horse’s bridle, only to have Marion hand it to him. “Are you sure you came here to be a nun and not a stable boy?”
“I like horses,” Marion said.
Gisburne remembered. It was one of the first things he had noticed about her after they had met all those years ago at Nottingham Castle. He had seen her in the stables visiting the horses, though she hadn’t seen him and he had never spoken about it.
After Gisburne had led his horse out, he looked down at Marion from the saddle and, this time, he did meet her eyes. “If you return to Sherwood, I won’t just hunt you down: I’ll kill you.”
“If I’m in Sherwood,” Marion said, “I might kill you first.” She smiled and Gisburne thought he heard the distant cry of a raven. “Safe journey to you, Sir Guy.”
Gisburne gave a curt nod and urged on his horse. “Sister Wolfshead.”