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The Desert in the Garden

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And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.

— T. S. Eliot, “Ash-Wednesday”, Part II

 

Early in the morning he walked out to the stables to look at the young bay, lame in his stall. His breath hung in the air, and white mist lay over the village like a woman’s veil, tossed in disorder, disquieting and gentle. He wondered if a frost touching the grass so early betokened an ill winter, and thought of asking Thornton. And yet would it be as much as to say, I am no Robin, and I confess it freely. I do not know these lands, or their ways, or what to expect of them.

Now Guy watches her, Marian. She is steady and slender, and very still. A dress the colour of wine, standing beside her father, a goblet loosely clasped in her hand. She is solemn and sweet-faced, betraying nothing. Edward of Knighton is talking to her, his expression grave. He is to be my father too, in the law, when we are wed, Guy thinks. And he knows the land, as well as ever Hood does; he could tell me how to raise the yields. When Marian is my wife — only the thought will not shape itself into a solid thing. She has acquiesced. It was no figment that gave answer, but a woman: the blood staining her cheeks, her breath a little quickened. One day she will come to him in her shift and not draw back.

He's hot and sick at what he’s about to do. It’s too sweet to be the truth. The goblet feels heavy, large in his hands: as if he were still a boy bearing a cup of wine, and not a man living in a house of his own, soon to be married. All these years he has carried the rings in a leathern pouch close to his breast, since the English traveller rode up to his grandmother’s house in France and drew them out of his pack.

“They were given to me by an English priest,” he said. The rain seemed to blacken. It was one of those unending French nights when Guy wished he could slip away to the river with the raindrops, because to rise in the grey dawn and go on was a burden past words, past understanding, past all confession and absolution. Isabella tethered him, her furious little hand pecking away at a tapestry. Her hand was a copy of their mother’s: when he was permitted, Guy could watch her for hours.

“He said as they were taken from the ashes of a house in their village, that burned to the ground,” said the man. There was no malice in his voice, it was just a curiously sad tale. Guy gave him food with his own hands. He received the rings and held them as gently as he could, in the hollow of his cupped palm. He still remembers that: if they had been two flakes of bone, he thinks, the goblet slipping in his grasp, I couldn’t have been more careful. One to contract, one to wed. As if all those months later, she suddenly stepped out of the rain, laid aside her cloak and said: I always meant to come back to you. Silly boy! To think I could go away for good.

*

The wine is strong, the best Guy has. He can see that Marian drinks little, but surely it does not offend her? He should talk to her, it’s all he wants to do, only he doesn’t know what to say. He cannot speak of Vaisey, whom she dislikes and fears, yet he spends almost every day beside him. He has not a single pursuit which is not entangled at some point or other with Vaisey’s interests, Vaisey’s plots. He cannot speak of her beauty with her father standing beside her, and besides he is no silver-tongued troubadour: every time he has tried to praise her it has gone wrong, and he has only been able to blush and retreat.

He swallows the dregs of his own cup and feels sweat stand out on his brow. He cannot delay it. The toast for King Richard, for whom he cares nothing: the man is a badge of his own ignominious failure last year, that is all. He stands for all the upbraiding, the scorn heaped on him when he came back and reported that the Lionheart went still, unkilled, about his bloody business.

When the duty is done, though, he can put the ring on Marian’s hand. He thinks of slipping it onto her cool finger, when before he has only brushed her flesh for an instant. Now he will have permission, for this is a gift not given in hope, but as the binding of their contract. He pours more wine into each goblet. He does it himself, not even letting the servants tend to Marian and Edward. He wants to do it: he longs to serve them, to be worthy.

His heart feels bound and tight, like a bud waiting to bloom in the wrong season, impatient, indignant.

*

The day of King Richard’s birth marks, also, Our Lady’s nativity. The dawn was pale and chilly, a maiden day. Marian knelt and prayed for a long time. The mortification of cold was a help to her, one of those strange kindnesses you can’t explain. As the sun strengthened and burnt it away, she missed it.

Marian feels pity as he takes her hand. All of a sudden it’s there, filling her mouth with its softness. For days she’s felt as if she bore about with her a set of stones or knucklebones, not ordinary teeth. She could hardly talk, and prayer felt like a sin. When she put on her dress, there was a moment when she might, for a halfpenny fee, have torn it into pieces: though it is new and fine and she is not a spoilt girl. She could almost see it, lying about her chamber in bloodied shreds. She, who is always careful of goods, who always puts things to a wise use. She, to wreak such havoc.

All the same. There’s sweat on his face, but his fingers are dry and cold. She remembers what it feels like to want to strike him and shout at him; only moments ago, she might have done it, and shamed them both. Tell the truth and shame the devil, her mother said when she was only three or four, and lied. And this is the truth: our marriage is a contract. You are not to pretend it is anything else, Sir Guy. She has seen many wed for no more and no less: it’s no death sentence, and to refuse him might be. Love is for the minstrels to sing of, is it not? And we are the knights and ladies who don’t live in songs, but in the world. She looks at the knight before her. His blue eyes, his dark brows. She saw him wet his lips, moments before, and thought how nervous he seemed. It was no lie, she thinks. I mean everything to him. It’s like stepping into her own tomb. It’s like lying down on a deathbed.

His grip hurts her wrist. She can feel the flicker of her heartbeat, trapped by his fingertips. I’m yours, she thinks, I’m yours. Don’t hurt me.

*

And they come in almost dancing, don’t they? Robin on his steady, light feet, Robin who is never afraid. All of them bright-eyed and rough-haired: they never cast off the Forest. It isn’t what Marian wants, how her heart flares up; how it soars like a flame that was dwindling and now, uncovered, sucks the air again, and swells and brightens. She almost laughs at his audacity. Oh, she is angry, but laughter races through her veins: her flesh feels sweet all through.

It’s half real, half a game. Robin smiles at her. They will use all that they take to do good. I will not be sorry to see them put bread in hungry children’s mouths, she thinks. Even seeing Guy look like that —

He’s afraid of Robin. Marian sees it in his darting eyes, hears it in the hoarse tone of his voice as he tells his guests to comply. Robin, she knows this with every inch of her, would have fought back. No matter the odds. What does it mean, that she should be married to a coward? She watches as Little John’s staff is set to Guy’s throat when he speaks for her, saying she bears no money. It’s true enough, but there’s no cause for him to know it; he’s only trying to protect her. Yes, she thinks, well: I mean everything to him. I suppose he’d rather have me than his money, or the respect of the nobility. Letting them rob them in his own house with scarce a murmur! — not that it is his house, but he likes to think it is.

The house where he lies down to sleep in Robin’s bed, in Robin’s own chamber. Marian has seen it: she has capered in and out of all the rooms of Locksley, when they were yet wild children who would keep no bounds. To think of Gisborne dwelling here, dwelling there, between those chamber walls — though she rarely lets herself think of it, now that she’s in the house, her heart aches. He is in every imaginable way Robin’s opposite: so shy where Robin is witty and assured; dark where he is sunny; cruel, when Robin has always been kind, and fearful in place of Robin’s bravery. Her heart splits, like an apple when a woman cleaves it and the white flesh shows. She does not want to bear his children, this lesser man. And yet it gives her no pleasure to see him flinch from Little John’s staff, to see him manifestly afraid. Guilt pools in her belly like sour wine. She has never put on her cloak and mask to frighten anyone, not once.

The air in the room seems too little for all of them, gone suddenly stale.

*

The Sheriff’s sour breath clouds Marian’s face and she turns away. It was no use, though she tried her best: the warm afternoon laps her about like a cloak, and she wishes it would not comfort her. She can smell the Locksley roses on the breeze, though by now they’ll be drooping, their petals browned.

She called after Guy, but she did not plead with him. She wouldn’t humble herself to it. What a thing it is to be proud, she thinks, walking slowly into the hall where her father is sitting. If I have sinned, oh Virgin Mother, most holy, help me to sin no more. She can hear the Sheriff’s quick, light step behind her. And she watches her father rise, sees how it pains him to stand and bow, to make courtesies. All there is to do, is this: step aside, lower her chin. Do not give offence. She has become a practised deceiver, and she wishes now that she’d used the art upon Guy to keep him at Locksley. Caught his arm and begged him, begged him to stay.

For they were both as strangers to her. When Robin brushed his lips against her hand, she looked aside. Guy would be angry, but in what fashion? Would he take it for impudence, or worse? What she saw almost made her cry out, and she caught the sound on her lips just in time. He did not, after all, look jealous. His face was twisted in furious grief; his mouth looked tight and crumpled. For him to draw on Robin was nothing but folly and fury. He was hopelessly outmatched: she saw it, and so did they all. When Robin pinned him, though, and Guy’s clothing tore, what passed between them was inscrutable. It was Robin’s face that changed, and became something she had never seen before. It was as if he wore some foreign mask, a visage painted with anger, covering his own merrier features.

Marian would never have suspected, before today, that Robin could lack mercy. Their engagement is long broken, but he’s her lifelong friend; Sir Guy is nothing of the sort, he is nothing to her. She trusts Robin, and trusts Sir Guy not at all. Yet strangely it’s for Guy she fears, Guy who put on her ring with gentle, shaking fingers, then hurt her wrist by holding her too tightly. She knows that he’s little threat to Robin: only grave mischance will give him the advantage if they come to a clash of arms. She is sure that he would never, if he were calm in spirit, seek to meet Robin in private battle: he hasn’t the mettle for a fight that he must surely lose. Now, though, when his blood's up? And Robin wears a face she’s never seen: that was anger that would not be turned by a jest; that was not hot, fast-quenched rage, but a hatred she does not yet understand, something that gave to his light, familiar eyes a look at once fatal and bitter.

Guy is the Sheriff’s man, and she does not care for him. As she watches the Sheriff talk to her father, and listens to him speak of law and order — of banditry, of chaos, of Gisborne’s weak power of enforcement — she wonders again why he gives his loyalty so cheaply and so amiss. Sheriff Vaisey gives him little enough in exchange for it.

She cannot help but picture him being carried into the house at nightfall. Of course she would no longer have to wed him — but that’s a cruel thought, Marian, let it be. What would he look like, she thinks, with his black garments bloodied and his nervous face stilled; who would sit by his body. She knows that she would not weep for him, and doubts that anyone else would.

Is it a disloyalty, she wonders, to think that Robin might kill him? Perhaps it is, but it feels like she is simply telling the truth to herself, as she can never do aloud.

*

It’s unearthly, the flickering light of the Forest. It reminds Guy of the places in old tales where people go and come back changed, unrecognised by anyone. He slides off his horse, slipping his fingers through her mane, feeling the warmth of her. But now he must step away.

He understood quickly that Robin was allowing himself to be followed. So they cannot be anywhere near the place where the Outlaws make their camp. There are no goods here, no arms. It is virgin Sherwood, a place that Robin has chosen for them to meet alone. They have not been alone together for sixteen years. Even in the sands of Acre there were men all about them, both the King’s guard and his own men, Saracen-costumed: flitting softly in their dark garb, which felt so loose and strange to English bodies.

And he knows it is a trick, when Robin hangs back and allows him to stoop for the ring. He knows it, but he cannot give up the chance to retrieve it and hold it in his hand again. That little curl of metal that he has seen year in and year out on his mother’s white hand, as she plucked the strings of the lute, or corrected his own fingering; as her needle darted in and flew out, shaped patterns, told stories; as she brought a cup to his lips when he lay abed, ailing, in childhood. It is so long gone that he sometimes misdoubts these recollections and wonders if they are only stories he tells himself: has he perhaps invented her? He cannot let this relic be lost to the grasping earth, to lie there unwanted by Robin or by anyone.

He walks towards it —

When they came back to Nottingham, before Vaisey gave over to him the management of Locksley, he rode out to the place that had been Gisborne. It was the first day he could be spared from the castle, and he went alone: without asking leave, without saying whither his ride was bent. It was early when he left Nottingham, but the peasants were abroad when he got there. No one seemed to recognise him, and he did not know their faces either. Perhaps, he remembers thinking, everyone is dead. Guy had thought to see a wide dark scar, burnt ground, where the house stood, but when he got there, he couldn’t find it. Only after much searching on foot, leading his mare, did he discern that the land had been put to use for peasant dwellings and small plots.

After that he went to the church at Locksley, tied up the mare at the churchyard gate, and walked around it very slowly. He looked at every grave, even those which were plainly much too old to belong to any Gisborne, until at last there were none left, and he went out of the churchyard, mounted, and rode back to the castle where Sheriff Vaisey waited for him. He shed no tears over it. He was dry-eyed as he rode, and when he returned, and even at night in his own bed. He simply felt cold all over. It’s as if, he thought, as if they never were.

— when he bends down to pick it up, Robin kicks him. He gasps and falls, and that is that. No time to put up any defence. No fighting back. The ring was in his fingers for a moment, but as he falls it slides out of them and flies into the leaves. He doesn’t see where it lands.

*

Gisborne has stopped laughing at him now. For the moment, with the blade under his chin, he can’t pretend to be man enough to face Robin: to face the account of his crimes, which means death. He is half lying on the ground and half in Robin’s arms. It’s the way he has held many a wounded man, listening to the words that come before death touches their eyelids and stops their breath.

Those were men of valour. Whether they kept their countenance at the last or not, he will never speak of them without honour, for he has learnt enough to know that a man’s death is only a little thing. His life means more. That is the book to be filled with deeds, is it not? And what has Gisborne done but kill, and bind himself to a man who sucks the land and the peasants dry of all their goodness. Sheriff Vaisey is the great throe that shakes a noble frame — be it man or city, or England itself — and Gisborne the little spasm that finishes the work, and brings down all in ruin. Since he was a boy he has brought nothing but sorrow. It is sickeningly strange to touch him thus, at last. It’s long been owing. He feels the man cringe in his grasp and thinks, don’t fear my hands, king-killer. You won’t have to bear them long.

He could give a wound that would bring death, but slowly. Gut wounds ooze and stink, killing by degrees. The mercy he owes God is to afford the traitor a sharp cut to his throat. It will be neat, fast, easy. A letting of blood, and it’s done with —

When they stop him, he wants to shout at them about fly-blown bodies lying in the white sands. It was a holy place, that’s what he wants to say. And we flung blood across it every day, blood upon blood. The Saracen dead rotted in the rivers when our men would not bury them, and sometimes we could get no water for the animals. You, Will, with your tender heart, would you care to watch them weaken and fall, their eyes filmed and their skin thinning?

They were about to come to terms, he wants to say. To end it.

— And he also wants to pay them no heed. He should do it now. They can reproach him as they like, and listen to his explanations or disregard them, once Gisborne is dead. If they have scruples, they can make him a byre and bear him to Locksley. Robin does not have a care for his body, once his soul has left it. He would like to think of it lying untended on the ground, unsought for by man or woman. This is the life you made, he thinks, glancing for a moment into the wide blue eyes that look up at him. He can’t tell what the other man is thinking.

Robin plunges his blade into the earth. It’s softer than flesh. He kicks out at Gisborne as hard as he can, and orders Little John to secure him with his arms suspended and a gag in his lying, catamite mouth. He sees Will and Allan look at him, then glance at each other. But it’s not his fault if they haven’t heard that rumour. He knows it to be true, and that’s why Gisborne is looking down, biting his lip. He owns to his treachery proudly enough, but this shames him. Robin spits on the ground beside him, a coarseness he has seen many times but never before stooped to use.

“Tie him,” he says again. “Tie him tight.” He walks away into the trees, leaving his blade in the ground. If not for Gisborne, he'll use it on nothing else. 

*

He knows that the right thing to do would have been to try to rise. When Robin let go of him, he should not have laughed, but rather sprung to his feet and met him in combat. Vaisey says it’s a stratagem of women, that when they can do nothing else they’ll pule or giggle to catch you off your guard. It’s unworthy, for a man to do it.

After what Robin said, he won’t look up and meet their eyes. His cheek and his groin, the places Robin kicked him, are throbbing. He feels weak with pain as the defiant, iron-mouthed horror that filled him when Robin caught him up and put the blade to his throat begins to slip away. Now Guy's weary, and he thinks: so, Robin told them. No secrets at all, and maybe they’d rather have me and then let me go? He isn’t here to see. The ground is cold and muddy beneath him and he thinks of what it would be like to be fucked by Robin’s men, one after another. However many are there? He bites his lip harder. He will not cry.

And then one of them — the huge, roughly dressed peasant who held a staff to his throat at Locksley, as Marian looked on with her unyielding eyes — comes forward with a cloth in his hand. He says, “Open your mouth,” and Guy obeys him. The Sheriff would not be impressed by his spirit: he would not be impressed at all.

The cloth is rolled, stuffed into his mouth, tied. At once he feels that he can’t breathe, and tears ache behind his eyes. He thinks that to weep now would be worse than ever — not only humiliating, but how will he get his breath? The peasant drags him up onto his feet and pain lances through him. It sickens him, and the sensation is worsened by knowing that if his belly casts up its contents, he cannot spit them out with the gag in place. Guy stumbles as the peasant guides him across the clearing to a tree. The binding is quickly done: his wrists, then his arms, stretched above his head by the big peasant and secured by a dark-haired, familiar looking young man who is scarcely out of boyhood, and who shins up the tree with ease to receive the rope’s ends and secure them.

All Robin’s men are talking about now they have performed his orders is an Outlaw named Jack, who seems, contrary to all reason, to be a woman. He tries to follow their chatter, to notice useful things. When Sheriff Vaisey comes on horseback, he can say, My Lord. I learnt from the Outlaws, my Lord, that Robin Hood is using these villagers as spies. I learnt that these among your guard are no longer loyal. I learnt that there is a plot against you, but with what I tell you know, we can defend you, my Lord, I am certain of that.

They do not give much away. The talk is confusing, and Guy is chilly: a sweat of queasy fear lies coldly on his face, and when the breeze gets up, he shivers. He can still see his horse, she has wandered away, but not far — will they take her? Hurt her? He wonders how long they’ve been in the glade. It is not yet an hour, he thinks. Or perhaps it is an hour, but not much above one. There hasn’t been time enough for Vaisey to send men after him.

If he is going to send. The thought whispers in his mind, like the murmur of a sick animal. He crushes it down: he’ll weep if he lets himself think it. No, he mustn’t. Guy thinks instead of kneeling up on the Sheriff’s great bed when he has just carried in a flagon of wine, and poured it out in the way Vaisey likes, a perfect arc. When he says, Good boy, good boy. As if Guy were still a stripling, to be coaxed and teased, and taught the proper way to ride and game, and how to eat at table like a grown knight, a man.

*

It should be a relief to see Gisborne lashed in place, like a carcass put to hang, his cheeks wan and clammy. His eyes follow Robin around the glade: he looks more curious than suppliant, as he ought. The torn sleeve hangs down and his damning tattoo — the tattoo that will hang him by the neck, will carry him into Hell itself — stands out starkly in the afternoon light. Robin’s blood burns. He thinks: you will feel this fire, but a thousand times the keener. When the Devil takes you for what you are, his own.

All this green and gold is as a cage. His own Sherwood, which he thought would always bring a kind of succour, though he be cast out of lands and title, though he be friendless among the nobility and far from the king: it cannot soothe him now. Robin of Locksley, Robin of no place at all. He is past comforting. The light as it filters, all a-glitter, through the breeze-troubled leaves of the Forest canopy is too gentle, is too ashen. Where is the king? Where is the blazing, uncompromising sun of the king? That orb hangs in the skies of the Holy Land, and by its light men see their duty. I have no words for the colours of the skies, he thinks. My heart lies down inside me; my hand takes up my sword.

There is none of this squabbling with men of Locksley, with thieves like Allan-a-Dale. How can he say, you do not know what it is to kill a king. For if they knew there would be no debate, and Gisborne would lie dead.

Djaq, they say, Djaq, Djaq. And he would like to fetch her: he is not untroubled that she is lost. Yet she is a soldier. She took up her brother's name, she took up arms, she joined them freely. Will and Allan have been in the Sheriff’s dungeons, and they speak of torture. As if he does not know. I am not surrendering Djaq gladly, he wants to say, but he knows they won’t understand him. But I can set no life above King Richard’s: not my own, nor any man’s.

It is what fealty means. It is why you kneel, and why you vow. England, he thinks, looking up at the leaves, away from them all. England, for which I raised my sword and bent my bow. For which I knelt to him. I can give nothing else —

He has given fealty, and he won’t take it back. All that he feels for Djaq makes heavy his fist when he draws it back to strike Gisborne, and the blow lands well. That will pain him until he dies, soon. Once. Twice. Let him wear the marks of his dishonour. Gisborne smiles at him. He draws back his arm again.

*

Guy’s courage ebbs fast. It’s nonsense to feel more afraid now that Robin is unconscious, when it was Robin alone who called for his execution: and yet the fear springs up in him like a young plant, and he cannot evade it, he cannot smother it. The other men are taking it in turns to watch him, one at a time, while the rest go away into the Forest; he does not know where. To plan, he guesses dully, for the rescue of the Outlaw they call Jack — or perhaps she is really Jaquenetta, he is not sure and doesn’t much care.

While Robin was conscious, all he did was rain down a few blows: if he thinks Guy cannot survive that, he is much mistaken. He’s no longer a soft-shelled little boy, running home from every fight. It hurts, oh yes, it hurts. But he is used to that and it will not be the death of him. He was trained by Vaisey, and Robin is nothing to him: his fury is a summer storm beside Vaisey’s silken, endless anger, his appetite for failure which has sucked Guy’s marrow for twelve years, but is not sated.

He feels almost powerful, when he faces Robin. And everyone would say, if they knew: how foolish, how self-deceiving. Oh Guy, don’t you see what a rare talent this man is? Yet it would still be true. Even to provoke, to distress —

Words are women’s weapons, Vaisey told him. I hope you’re better than that.

He begins to struggle with an overwhelming inclination to tears. It might be all in a day’s work for the dark-haired lad keeping watch on him now to stand staring at a prisoner tied to a tree: perhaps, indeed, it is. His face is so familiar; is he from Locksley?

Guy’s arms are numb and prickling; his legs feel heavy. He has never been any good at telling time by the sky, but even if he were, there’s too much leafage to see it. Some of the men are back, in what look like disguises, and the dark lad slips away. It’s the turn of the one who Vaisey calls Robin’s servant. There is no reason why this change should make things worse, but it does, and terror claws inside Guy. His eyes burn, but he swallows again and again. Looking at the servant makes him feel weaker, so he turns his gaze up to the waving canopy above. Leaves screen out the sky and hide him, hide what is happening.

The servant speaks, and Guy jolts in the bonds because he is standing closer than is right. “Now don’t scream,” he says, “Because no one will hear you, and it will just be — it would really just be unpleasant for everyone, you know, if you did. But I’ll take this out — and you be quiet, all right — and you can have some water. If you want.” His fingers are working against Guy’s hair, scrabbling at the knotted gag. He pulls it out and Guy coughs. It is a dry sound, purged of spit. His mouth feels like leather.

All the same, he does not immediately open his mouth when Robin’s servant puts a water skin to his lips, and the man looks nonplussed. “Why are you—” he begins, and then he says, “Ah, I — do you think I’d poison you? Me?” He laughs a little, as though the idea of anybody doing harm to Guy in the glades or purlieus of Sherwood is sheer nonsense. He sips from the bottle himself and holds it up again. Guy is so thirsty that he takes it, then. It’s lukewarm, but sweetly, astonishingly wet.

Vaisey will say he should have screamed. Someone might be close enough to hear. And letting Hood’s men tell you what to do, Gisborne: do you enjoy licking the peasants’ boots?

There might be poison in it, something that’s safe in a small amount, a sip, but fatal if you take a draught. Not that it was the only reason why he hesitated: dry as he is, it’s foolhardy to drink any more when he doesn’t know if they’ll untie him to relieve himself. For a second he thinks of asking this man, while he doesn’t have the gag in, whether that will be allowed, how long they plan to keep him, if Robin will really kill him —

It’s too much; the questions choke him even more than the gag did. The man says, “All right?” as he looks down, sealing his water skin: as if they were friends, as if Guy were not bound to a tree with his arms burning in their sockets. Of course it is a pleasantry and no more, but there’ve been few enough of those, and the kindness undoes him. Before he has time to master it, Guy’s face contracts: his eyes are wet, he feels a tear slip down each cheek, and he bites his lip too late.

Robin’s man steps back, looking horrified. “Don’t cry!” he exclaims. “He’s not — of course, he’s not himself, he’s in a state. But he’s doesn’t — we don’t — oh, please don’t—”

Guy swallows violently and tips his head back to arrest further tears. “Put — put it back,” he chokes. “The gag. Put it back.” He prefers the discomfort to conversation in this vein, all about how noble Robin is. He is sure to say something that will make even this mild creature want to kill him, if it goes on.

The man ties his gag again, looking at him curiously. As though he might have said more, or asked more, but the chance is gone.

*

A light-haired young peasant takes the place of Robin’s servant, until he is relieved in turn by the huge man with the rough hair and dress. The day has not been cold at all since the early morning, but Guy is shivering now. All of Robin’s men are arrayed differently, and although he thinks he can recognise them by face and form, it is hard to be sure. He knows Vaisey would want him to take account of it all, to remember. They went this way out of the glade. The manner of their disguises is easy to recollect, it consists of item, this garment of homespun cloth; item, this hood; item, this innocent face, a thoroughgoing lie.

Guy’s thoughts are spinning like thistledown. Although he doesn’t know how much time has passed, it is more than long enough to feel his legs aflame. His body prickles, sharply hot and then cooled by a wave of sweat. His arms are like someone else’s arms now, like hanging joints of meat.

The leaves and tree trunks of the glade look sometimes very crisp, and at other times blurred. A grey mist which is not present in the world, but only in his own head, billows in front of his eyes at times and leaves him feeling sick. The peasants, thank the Virgin Mother, don’t try to talk to him. He can’t gather his mind to the service of planning; he doesn’t know what he’ll do if Robin wakes up. He’s beginning to suspect that he’ll hold out for a while but that he may, in the end, beg for mercy. The fear is a dull pain inside him; it has spread right through his body. Head and throat and chest; belly and bladder. He can feel it deep, deep in his bowels: gripping him with its small hands, the size of a baby’s fists. It’s like an illness you can’t ever bleed away.

He hears Robin’s men whispering on the other side of the clearing and shuts his eyes. Are they scheming, or talking about what to do with him? He could plead around the gag: he could try it, just try it. They are poor men. The Sheriff might offer a ransom, pardons. At least they might be persuaded to believe he would. But if they’re loyal to Robin, it will do no good to try and buy them away from him. It doesn’t even work on the villagers: it’s unlikely to work here. They might begin to think a man who tries to buy them doesn’t merit a trial, after all.

His eyes are sore with trying not to cry. The big man’s blow was a hard one, but Robin will wake up eventually, and Guy doesn’t want to present him with unmistakable evidence of weakness, of weeping, if it can be avoided. He’s shamefully close to humiliating himself with wet breeches now, which is far worse: panic and hurt have wrung out his body past bearing. It can’t be that late, surely it’s not yet time for Vespers. A sob bubbles in his chest but the gag seals his lips; he can’t ask them to release him, he can’t cry out. He wants to go back to Locksley. The stables, the hall, the bedchamber. He thinks of curling on his side in the great bed that was Robin’s, and Malcolm of Locksley’s before him, dragging a wool coverlet over his aching limbs.

The cheer the sun gives by its brightness is too much for him, even filtered as it is by the Forest leaves, and he closes his eyes.

*

The sinewy, light-haired peasant is up the tree above him, undoing the bonds. Guy’s arms drop like stones and he sways, his vision darkening, but the big man is there to keep him on his feet. Sickness pools in his stomach as he feels the rush and prickle of sensation along his numb arms and into his hands. Already they’re being tied again, behind him. Are they going to kill him now? Without Robin awake to enjoy it? His limbs are feeble as an old man’s. If the gag wasn’t in, he’d beg now, he knows he would.

“Come on,” says the man who holds him. His voice is uncouth, angry. “No time to waste.” Every step is sore; his feet are thick and useless. They grip him by the upper arms with tight fingers. His mind flickers and blanks. All he seems able to notice is the pain. They take him outside the clearing into the heavier undergrowth and halt. Everything happens very fast, but it is awful nonetheless. The young peasant pulls up Guy’s jerkin and tugs at his laces. If it would help — if it’s what they want — he knows it would be wiser to go along with whatever they choose to do. And yet he pulls back in fright.

The man who was touching him stills, glances up and says, “Much went on at us about letting you piss before we go, since he can’t untie you on his own.” Blood washes into Guy’s cheeks. Surely then, Much is the name of Robin’s servant, the man with the water skin; the only one amongst them who has troubled about his discomfort or embarrassment. It is a good thing if he is the one staying to guard him, and a good thing he is not being left alone with Robin. All the same: that Robin’s servant should speak of him like that. “Don’t you want to, or something?” the man is saying. Guy gives a small, tight nod. He freezes his muscles as the man undoes his clothes, ignoring the way it feels all wrong. They don’t untie his hands, which is sensible, perhaps, but his situation is so mortifying and strange that at first, he can’t: not till the big peasant starts to berate him for wasting their time when they need to get to Nottingham. A shiver runs straight through his body at the raised voice, and shaking under their hands he pisses into the leaves, splashing his own boots, his eyes scalding with tears.

He has gathered that the younger man’s name is Allan. Allan leaps and catches at a branch, agile as a cat, then swings himself easily into the tree. The big man is unknotting the rope from Guy’s wrists and stretching up, passing it up to Allan to tie so that Guy’s arms will be stretched above his head again. Guy makes a sound through the gag and he feels the other man’s eyes on him; he doesn’t know if Allan is looking too, looking down. He can’t speak clearly enough to entreat them. It’s no longer a question of, let me go, take me home. He’ll settle for being tied with his arms down. It hurts a good deal. He thinks they probably don’t know how much, because the last thing they do before leaving is move Robin from where he’s lying in the grass, a dead weight, and tie him too. His hands are bound already, the big man did it, but now he’s fastened to a tree, just like Guy.

It is almost amusing, watching them hoist him into place: the servant, Much, begs them not to do it. He says he’ll undertake to temper Robin’s choler, to soothe his ruffled feathers, to keep the prisoner alive until they’ve rescued Jack. How long will that take, Guy wonders. It doesn’t sound like much of a guarantee. He feels a dizzy, heartsick urge to laugh at Robin dangling there, on the other side of the clearing, his body hanging limp, but it fades almost at once. 

Robin’s men slip off, shadows in the shadow of the trees. The autumn air is teasing the edges of his torn sleeve, chilly against his scar. Robin’s servant strolls through the glade. Sometimes he watches Guy; sometimes he sits near Robin, touches him briefly to check that he is well. Guy stretches his legs as much as the bonds allow. The cramping pains are worse for the few steps they've allowed him, but the numbness is lessened.

He thinks, before he can stop himself, of the ring lying in the mould. It is more than too much, and he coughs around the gag as his eyes sear and spill. He orders himself not to weep here, where at any moment Robin might wake and see him, but it does no good; already it’s too late. Robin’s servant has wheeled round, wide-eyed. He stands for a moment, rock-still, and then he starts to talk. It’s a flood of words, and Guy is bewildered rather than consoled. The man, Much, says how just Robin is, what a good man. How he would never be cruel in his meting out of punishment: only true, only honest. That is his way. It has always been so. You mustn’t keep riling him, though, Guy hears the peasant say: I don’t know why you’re doing that.

He is at Guy’s side now, and he takes out the gag, which is damp with spit and tears. He does it not ungently, but Guy thinks, there is no chance at all that he will loose the bonds. He is Robin’s, heart and soul. He lowers his head and blinks, and can think of nothing at all to say. He can't make use of pity, even now. 

*

“I will kill you, whether you talk or not.”

The neatness of it, the justice of the words in his mouth. His hand fits easily round Gisborne’s throat, though he’s such a tall man: the skin is soft under his palm, a little roughened by stubble. The Adam’s apple bobs against his hand. Ah, there, Robin thinks. There you betray yourself. He half-listens to Gisborne’s vaunting words, but more than that he watches the man’s breath come fast and scared.

You should fear me, he thinks. I am sworn in fealty to he whom you sought to murder. What do you think I will do to you, but this? It’s easier without the others. Only the three of us. The three who were in the Holy Land. He glances past Much as he pleads and sees Gisborne’s gaze roaming the glade, blue and empty. I cannot be merciful, he thinks. For there is no good in him.

He remembers the simplicity of the sands. There, where he learnt everything anew, yet never wavered in loyalty. Virtue does not consist in whether you face towards the East or the West. He remembers that: he recalls the scroll it was set down in; its weightiness, learning the twists and curls of its alien script. Virtue means believing in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book and the prophets; the virtuous are those who, despite their love for it, give away their wealth to their relatives and to orphans and the very poor.

When you look upon a man and think, you have done no good, you are owed no pity. What does that mean? It’s not the first time Robin’s turned Much away from him, but it could be the last. He sees shock and hurt on Much’s face, but what he said was true. I’m lying now, he thinks. Because I don’t want to say adieu. Let you think of me as you will, but still I’d keep you by me. He tries to smile: he tries.

When he sees Gisborne laughing, he hurls a blade at the trunk. He means to strike precisely where he does, but as it has sometimes been before, the perfection of his aim is a burden to him. If he could only miss and be excused it.

That wipes the smile off his face. Robin’s mind jangles brightly with the noises of the sands. There, that is a man dying. And the Saracen call to prayer. The camels’ low moans, and the whisper of sand itself, which cannot be described. When you go out from the town, beyond all habitation, and the sands speak to you. The sound of armies passing. The voice of the king speaking to him through his fever, bidding him home.

I come not to bring peace, but a sword, he thinks. Not to bring peace. That hope is fled.

*

“Check the bonds,” Robin snarls. Much is not rough as he obeys, but Guy flinches all the same. He thinks of how the man said Robin would never be cruel: the lump in his throat grows until it is almost choking him. He can see Robin, kneeling over the fire. He can see what he’s doing, the blade held steady in his hand, taking in heat.

Of course, it would be this; it would be flames.

He can hear, as if he is somewhere very far away, Much saying that it’s wrong. No matter, why should it be right. It is not about that any more. He is sweating under his clothes. Soon he’ll tell Robin everything, even if he’s going to be killed all the same. Soon he’ll beg.

He feels his mouth quiver as Robin carries the blade towards him. Not this. As Robin’s hand grasps his jerkin and pulls him forward. Not this. He turns his head desperately aside, spitting words. Robin’s disgust sweeps over him. While Much is there, he swallows back the tears of rage and hate and terror that surge within him.

Keep talking, he thinks. Please. Keep talking.

*

Gisborne’s eyes flick to the side, as if he thinks Much will help him. When they turn back to Robin’s face they’re trapped and wet. Robin smiles and steps away. He lets the taunting come, because now they are alone. Now there’s nobody else to get in the way: he can interrogate and he can punish, and he will not be unjust. He looks hard at Gisborne’s face, still childish and cruel. He remembers a weak boy; sees, in the green-gold Sherwood light, a weak man.

This life would be an easy one to take. I’ll lay you down in the leaves, he thinks. Cover you over with the green and the brown of the Forest. You’ve no farewells to make, have you? Gisborne’s features are twisted with panic and spite. That’s all he has.

I believe in second chances, Robin thinks, watching him. But not for everyone. He raises the fire-bright sword and swings it forward with idle, easy force, taking pleasure in Gisborne’s recoil. Now, he thinks, watching him stumble out of the bonds and tear them off his wrists. Now face me, if you dare. Or kneel to me and beg.

He thinks of Gisborne kneeling at his feet, face upturned. Would he ever absolve him, of any article in the great catalogue of crimes he bears? You stand condemned, he thinks, of death upon death. It’s already too late for you. Kneel as you will, you can never be forgiven.

*

For the first few moments all Guy can do is look around. There must be something, someone —

He can hardly keep his feet; they are so numb he almost falls. I can’t, he thinks. I can’t fight him. But before he can think of anything else, they are fighting. While he is forcing his arms up to block and strike, feeling them burn as sensation floods back, he wonders if he should have fallen to his knees. What use is pleading, though? He’s had a long time to learn it does no good.

Robin’s fist catches him on the jaw and he falls heavily over a branch, landing on his side, spitting blood. Pain jars through him, setting him ablaze. It hurts everywhere: all the places that were already sore are sore anew. He bites his lip hard and it splits there too as he pushes himself up to kneel. He can’t follow what Robin is saying, not now. He gets onto his feet again and forces himself forward.

It seems that they will never stop. The blows rain across his flesh, and he is striking Robin too. Sometimes they have enough breath to hiss insults at each other, and sometimes not. By a peculiar courtesy, Robin has not so far mentioned the fire. He has not said, murderer. He has not said, even as a boy. He has not said, cursed.

He’s said much else. But not those things that would be sure to reduce Guy, already so weary that he is perilously close to tears, to the disgrace of unbridled weeping in the midst of their fight. He’s heard such things before, of course. But he knows he could not stand to hear them now, only miles from Locksley, where his parents do not lie in any grave. Those lands not my lands, which I tend for you, he thinks, kicking Robin as hard as he can. Not hard enough. I have no lands. I have nothing.

When Robin hits him hard enough that a darkness creeps slowly across his vision, there’s relief in it. If this is death, he thinks. If this is death.

*

She stands apart, breathing fast. Robin and Much are binding her betrothed, but she will not touch him, out here in Sherwood Forest where the law hangs by a thread. When she looked down at him sprawled among the fallen leaves and churned earth, her heart felt dry. It was like looking at a stranger. His shyness was cast off, and all his strained attempts to charm her. Who is this, she thought. Who is this, lying here, this lost man, Robin's enemy. 

He is usually so clean and large and shy: inconveniently quick to suspect that he has given offence. Marian’s seen him flushed, exhausted, angry; she’s seen him shamed by a loss of temper, making his apologies with a hung head, his voice pacific, soft. She knows he likes to give, and is not above taking. Now he lies as if dead, and she stops watching, she looks away from him. Even to see is too much. 

When Much came to her, she didn’t want to believe him. No real harm will come of it, she thought, and gasped some words of the sort aloud. She saw his face change: the sadness there, the giving up hope. She knows that Robin must have killed people, but that was in the Holy Land. It was, after all, a war.

The air is cool and soft, imbued with a brightness that seems to come from sunlight screened by fading leaves. It’s no place for a death. She wants to ask, did you torture him, Robin. But Marian has learnt that silence is an excellent thing. The Sheriff would say she speaks too much, still. Many would say so. Yet it’s only a trickle of blood from her mouth: never all that she could say, all that she has thought of saying. It's the barest words. By now, that’s almost easy.

She talks to Robin, half-angry, half-gentle. “A trial,” she says, “The process of law.” Robin’s eyes look hurt and blank. She has seen him at executions, in the old days, but she’s never seen this. There is some hunger in him, some hate, that she doesn’t recognise. Is this what they taught you in the Holy Land? That’s what she wants to ask him.

“I forbid you,” she says. As it might be, to wear another’s pennant. To breed your dog with my sweet bitch, Alysoun, pride of my heart. Never has she said those words to mean a thing like this: you must not kill this man, I deem it so. I step out of my womanhood, yes. I put out my white hand, yes, and I push your blade aside.

She doesn’t wish to look at Sir Guy. She’d rather not know if he is waking yet, slumped in his bonds with eyes and mouth tied up.

*

Guy swims in a blackness which interrupts itself. There’s a beating pain in his head and he opens his eyes to more dark. For a slow, dreadful moment, he thinks of blindness, and then he realises they’ve bound his eyes. There are quiet voices, not near, then fingers probing his wrist. The unexpected touch is a shock. He tries to gasp but the gag is still in his mouth, and blackness weaves itself over him again, something like sleep.

Where is he? He isn’t still, but moving, jolting. After some while he identifies a cart. The road is rough. Nausea slicks his back with sweat and he swallows hard: with the gag in, he can’t, he can’t —

The movement stops and men’s hands are pulling him out; their voices talk only to one another, not to him, but he hears one of them say, “He’s awake.” 

“Won’t have to carry him, then, will we?” says another, higher voice, quite cheerfully. “I wasn’t sure we’d ever get him down there, I don’t mind telling you.” That’s the light-haired one, Allan, he’s certain of it. They're Robin’s men, he thinks. They put him on his feet, but Guy is trembling so much he can scarcely stay upright. They push him, guide him. He knows enough to know they could be far crueller. At last they pull off the bandage that covers his eyes. It’s a small, dark chamber, underground, with a passage branching off. Why — why are they here? The big man prods him along the passage, and he almost wants to try to make a sound even with the gag in place. It seems worse to go silently, without trying. Without doing a thing. He sways and almost falls forward, but the man catches him and holds him up by the arm.

And then quite suddenly, he lets go, and Guy crashes onto his hands and knees. Tears come to his eyes, but he looks up, and on the other side of the empty space where the man has let him fall down, Vaisey is standing, with the Saracen wearing a rope collar. Can that really be Jack, Guy thinks. He feels dazed and lost, and he is very glad that he did not try to scream around the gag. He can’t rise, not yet, but he feels a bubble of relief swell vast and golden inside his chest. This is a different sort of tearfulness, though he will be just as thoroughly scorned if he succumbs to it. He was wrong to doubt. Vaisey did not search the Forest. That is what Guy would have done: the unwise solution, a slow, childish way of going about it. Instead he schemed, he planned; as he would always go at a thing crabwise, and solve it better.

Now, after all, he has me back, Guy thinks, gulping as he kneels. Soon he must stand up like a man. In a moment. When he’s sure Robin’s attention isn’t on him, he crawls to Vaisey’s feet. It’s no easy matter, rising; he can only manage it with the help of the tunnel’s supports, and even so it leaves him breathless.

He can’t get enough air. But soon, Vaisey will untie the gag and take him back to the castle. Even if he is angry, and he probably will be, for Guy has been foolish —

Vaisey has taken his arm. Robin's shouting about the tattoo, and before Guy can move, or make any sound at all, Vaisey splashes something onto his skin.

It’s like wet fire. He screams around the gag, then finds that he is crying. The pain is not only a blaze in one place: it soars up and down his arm like a real flame would, and he thinks, it was always going to be flame, flame of one sort or another. Vaisey says something but the words don’t make sense. Guy’s ears are ringing. There are a lot of confused sounds, and Vaisey's dragging him by the wrist — but he cannot concentrate, he cannot follow what’s said to him. He hears like a girl and knows he should stop crying, but it’s no good.

Robin is gone, he thinks, Robin is gone. One of his own guards is there, with an arm about him. Everything is getting more distant, and he feels cold. Greyness crowds his vision: first spots, then clouds, then it is everywhere.

*

She waits in the courtyard, under the dusk which sits heavily on the castle walls. Its blues deepen and blunt the stone, and Marian walks up and down as the light departs. Her step is long. She has wrapped her grey mantle all about her. It’s as if she has no body, but wears her soul on the outside: very honest, very clear.

Where are they? It’s past time for their return. She’s heard the bells for Vespers. All this long day she’s been put to it, and now in her wisdom she must pretend an interest in her betrothed which isn’t real. When she cannot ask anyone at all: is Robin unhurt, did he go safely away? And she is angry with him, too.

This is how to wear a courtyard out, she thinks. With a woman’s shoes.

When she hears the sound of fast hoofbeats, she wonders. Is Guy fit to ride like that? It’s a justified suspicion: only the Sheriff, with a train of his own guards, thunders into the courtyard. The horses are foamed and stamping, drawing back their lips.

“Where is he?” she says, crossing the empty space to meet him. “Where is Guy? What happened?”

“Oh, you are most affectionate, today,” the Sheriff says, pausing to take her chin in his hand and appraise her. She doesn't answer him, and after a moment he lets her go and continues. “Someone’s bringing him, don’t ask me who, or how. He’s out cold, went down like a green-sick girl — not for the first time, either, Lady Marian; you sure you really want him?” He smiles unkindly. “Think about it.”

She knows that whatever his plot was, it cannot have gone well. No Robin, and no Saracen woman — she can still hardly believe that Djaq is not a young man, as they have all pretended before the world, even before her — only Guy, in whatever sorry state he has been returned to them. At last his guards begin to trickle in, driving their horses far less hard. The last horse bears two riders: Guy is slumped in the arms of a guard who looks definitely older than he is, a man with a stolid, plain face, not unamiable. She watches from a distance as two other guards — both of them much younger, but well-built for peasant lads — approach, and help to lower Guy to the ground.

If it were not for the Sheriff, she might go away. He is alive: that is all for which she has engaged herself. The betrothal is an empty thing. Yet if the Sheriff is watching from a window? If he misdoubts her?

She approaches, bends her knee, and the guards draw back a little, respectfully. What she sees is a shock: he looks much worse than before. He is filthy, but underneath it, sickly white. There’s a brutal wound on his bared arm. She finds that she is instinctively holding back her skirts, that she does not want her hem to touch him. She asks the oldest guard his name, and he says it is Ezra. What went wrong, she wants to know. Why is he lying there like that, in a swoon. But she does not say any of those things, Marian, the mistress of her tongue. She asks them instead if he has a chamber at the castle, and Ezra says, yes.

“Carry him there, please,” she says. “And summon the physician.” She doesn’t know his name, but the castle must have someone who dispenses physic and sews up wounds. All great foundations do. She knew it once, when they lived here: but none of their old friends have kept their posts.

When Ezra and one of the young guards have lifted Guy between them, she finds that she has put out her hand, as if she would touch him. Although she does not want to. It is the way that pity moves some women to take in an animal when it is hurt, she thinks, looking at the blood on his mouth, and his face streaked with earth and wetness.

They put him down on the bed in his sparse chamber, without unkindness. Neither are they gentle. It is a simple matter of disposing limbs and head, and then they make their courtesies to her and depart. She supposes that the physician will be here before too long, and besides, what can she do? She will not rummage in his chests for clothes, or help him wash away the filth, the blood, the tears. They’re not wed yet, and while she still hopes to escape him, showing too much kindness is wrong.

She sits on the edge of the bed, still wrapped in her mantle. Guy’s eyelids are flickering and she thinks of leaving now: leaving fast, before he wakes. But he stirs and she thinks, he is disfigured, this will never heal. She is sorry and angry all at once.

He opens his eyes, and coughs immediately. His uninjured arm comes up and his fingers stray across his mouth. He gasps and snuffles, and she remembers: he was gagged, all that time. She says as gently as she can, “They’ve taken your gag off. You’re back at the castle now.”

It doesn't have the hoped-for effect. He is not calmed by her words: she sees that his eyes have filled again, and he turns hastily, painfully onto his side, away from her. She thinks, I cannot speak to him of today. Not even of his wound, not even of the Sheriff. I can’t even ask if he got the ring back, can I?

She stands up and looks down at him, lying on his side. It seems impossible that they’re alone together in his chamber: he is not trying to rouse her or overawe her, but doing all he can not to give way to tears. She sees that his lashes are spiked and sharp, like a weeping maid’s, and he says suddenly, abruptly, “Marian, I — I cannot — be as I should — please, leave me —”

It is the only time she has ever sought him out, and the only time he has sent her from his company. She says, “Guy, the physician is coming to see to your arm.” The words are workmanlike, not loving, but she lets into them some sweetness. Not because she loves him, but because he is alone.

*

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert between the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

— T. S. Eliot, “Ash-Wednesday”, Part V

*