|Primary Characters:||Marion, Robin, Guy|
|Description:||Prince John has abducted Marion. She is being held by a man who will marry her as a favor to John. Robin and Guy team up to save her. But they have no idea what price they will have to pay for her release.|
Sir Richard of Leaford was lying in his bed. The physicians kept assuring him that all would be well, and the old man thought perhaps they were right, but the cough racking his wasted chest did not bode well. If he were to die without seeing his daughter again – He and Marion had not parted on good terms, but she was his only child, and whatever he had said to her, he still loved her. She was the very image of her mother, God rest her soul, and Marion had always been able to touch his heart. To think that the accursed serf, Robin of Loxley, had bedded his precious child, and left her with no hope of a reasonable match. At this time in his life, all he wanted was for his daughter to be safely looked after. When the upstart Robin of Loxley had died, it had seemed too good to be true.
Having Marion come back to him sick with grief and filled with remorse, had been sweet. There really had been no choice but to take her in. His peers be cursed, if they had any objections. And when the foolish young pup, Robert of Huntingdon, had captured her heart, that too, had seemed reassuring. But she had thwarted his hopes for her, and returned to the outlaws infesting Sherwood forest. The blow had almost been too much for the old man.
If his time had come, he needed Marion by his side. But the danger would be too great. She was an outlaw like the rest of them now, and there was a price on her head. Even so, whatever had been said or done between them, at least she had the right to know. Should she find a way of coming to him, all the better. But even if she didn’t, he knew she would pray for him.
Surely the Lord would listen to the prayers even of a fallen woman. He had not turned Mary of Magdalene away, and wasn’t sir Richard’s daughter worth ten women like that? The commoners seemed to regard the union of two people in love as highly as one blessed by the church, even if they had only made their vows to each other. Then there was that renegade friar – what was his name again – ah, yes, Tuck. Perhaps he had performed the ceremony. If so, Marion was married in the eyes of the Lord, whatever the Church had to say about it.
Yes, he would send a message to Marion. Coughing to clear his throat, he called for the boy who was tending to him. What took the accursed brat so long to answer his master’s call? Was he asleep? It seemed he had been, because the boy’s hair was tousled, and he was surreptitiously rubbing his eyes to brush away the sleep.
“Kit? Run down to the barracks and wake Jérome de Crécy. This instant. I need him to send a message.”
“Yes, my lord.”
The boy ran off so quickly, his master had to call him back and admonish him to take care he didn’t fall on the stairs. This was too important to be delayed by all the outcry an accident would cause. More carefully now, the boy disappeared through the door. To the old man impatiently waiting in his bed, the time seemed to drag on endlessly, until finally de Crécy was knocking on his master’s door. de Crécy was the commander of Leaford’s troops. He had served Leaford for seventeen years, and there was no one the old man placed more trust in.
“My lord? The lad said you wished me to send a message.”
“Yes. I am ailing, and I would have my daughter by my side.”
“But my lord -”
“I know. You don’t have to remind me what she has become, but she is still my only child. Can you make sure a message gets through to Sherwood forest, and if she will come, provide her with an escort?”
“I won’t let you down, my lord. But is it wise?”
de Crécy didn’t need to say more than that. All the King’s men, especially the Sheriff of Nottingham, were constantly on the lookout for the outlaws. Should Marion be captured, there would be nothing her father could do to save her from the gallows. The shame of having his own child swing like a common serf, left a bitter taste in the old man’s throat and he had to swallow hard to keep the bile from rising up.
“I will leave the decision to her. At the very least, she deserves to know.”
“Is it – Is it the end, my lord?”
“I hope not, but I fear this persistent cough. Would that these accursed physicians could give me better counsel. All they do is implore me to pray and repent my sins. I get enough of that from the church. They bleed me, until I feel there is no blood left for them to draw. And the leeches – But I don’t need to tell you that, Jérome.”
No, the old man did not need to remind de Crécy of the incompetence of the quacks calling themselves physicians. He and his lord had fought in the crusades together, and they had been wounded together. Once he had carried his lord on his shoulders for miles through enemy territory until they were safely across their own lines. de Crécy wouldn’t let the physicians anywhere near him. If his time came, he would face it like a man, but he had the luxury of his own choice. His lord was in a different position, and could not please himself in these matters.
“I will go myself. Have no fear. If the lady Marion so chooses, I will escort her safely back.”
“No, Jérome. Send your best man. I cannot afford to lose you. Should the worst happen, at the very least we must try to avoid trouble. Tell him to remove my colors and any other identifying marks of his allegiance. I fear not even my name will save my daughter if the King’s men find her.”
“I will do as you ask, my lord. Think no more of it. You will have my report as soon as my man returns.”
The old man slumped back down on his bed. de Crécy’s words did not offer him much consolation, but it would have to do. If only he could escape this worrying, by dozing off to sleep. He had his wish. When he woke up the sun was high in the sky, but no word had come about his daughter.
In Sherwood forest, Marion and Robin were just waking up. Last night had been a celebration, and their men were sleeping late. Marion loved Robin best when he slept like a child in her arms, his hair tousled, and his long dark lashes resting on his cheeks. He was only a few years younger, but sometimes she felt so much more mature. She knew, and she suspected that Robin knew as well, that it was only her authority that kept their men loyal to the young untried boy. Marion herself had better combat skills. Tactfully, she always avoided competing with him in archery or fencing. At times, she wondered how Huntingdon had raised his son. His upbringing seemed to have been more like hers. It was the first Robin who had taught her all she knew about life in the forest, and now she was teaching the new Robin all of that.
What was that? A branch cracked, and a startled and outraged bird fluttered into the air and disappeared. In an instant, the outlaws sprang to attention. Silently, Marion and Robin slid to the ground, taking up their positions. When the man stepped out into the clearing where they had made camp, he was already surrounded. Will Scarlet cast an inquiring look in Marion’s direction. It was clear that he wished to run the captive through, without further ado. The man wore no identifying marks, so she had no idea who might have sent him. Was he a mercenary who foolishly thought to earn the reward that the King had offered for their capture? She shook her head no, and approached the captive. Even now that the tables were turned and the hunter had become the hunted, he didn’t seem too concerned. Whatever else he was, he was brave.
“Who are you, and what do you seek here?”
“My lady, your father sent me with a message for you.”
“My father? Let’s hear it then.”
He stared at her. She wanted him to reveal his errand to these serfs? But he knew he was in no position to bargain. Clearing his throat, he delivered the message.
“My lady, your father is in ill health.”
“Marion, don’t believe his lies. He seeks to buy his life with this tale.”
She didn’t reply to Scarlet’s statement directly, just gave him a look that told him to wait for her cue before speaking again. Scarlet glared back at her, but complied.
“And the name of your commander?”
“Jérome de Crécy.”
Frowning in concentration, Marion unconsciously bit her lower lip. The man might simply know her father’s commander by name, but on the other hand, her father might well have thought to deceive possible pursuers by letting this man travel without his colors.
“How bad is it?”
“Your father is concerned, but the physicians say he will improve.”
“Does he wish to see me?”
“He leaves that decision up to you, my lady.”
“Very well. You may go.”
“Marion, no. He knows where we are, he could run straight back to the Sheriff and give us away.”
“Scarlet, when I want your opinion I shall ask for it. John, would you take our guest down to the stream to refresh himself? Offer him some food if he wants it. I shall discuss the matter with Robin.”
“What? Waste our food on this spy?”
Marion’s voice cut him like a whip. Though his eyes smoldered, Scarlet let the matter go. They had made a pact with Herne to follow Marion, and even more importantly, this new Robin. He might be a weak, foolish boy, of noble ancestry, but he was also the Hooded Man. They were honor bound to their oaths. Having to answer to a woman and a boy was insufferable, but there was no getting out of it, so he bowed his head in acquiescence. One day, perhaps, if the gods allowed it – but not now.
“We will break camp as soon as the man leaves. By the time any of the Sheriff’s men can be here, we will be long gone. Besides, we all know how much love they have for our forest. It is unlikely they will find their way even to this place. Now go and fetch that man.”
Much ran off to obey Marion’s order, returning moments later, with the captive and Little John in tow.
“You may go. Tell my father I will be with him soon.”
“I mean no disrespect, my lady, but my orders were to escort you back to the castle.”
“That won’t be necessary. We can take care of Marion ourselves.”
“No, Robin. I refuse to place anyone else’s life in danger. I will go with this messenger, and return to you safely. Herne will protect me.”
“Marion, I can’t let you go on your own. How can you trust this stranger?”
“I have no choice. Please, do as I told you to, and wait for me. You – Harrington – go to the edge of the clearing, and give me a moment. I will pack and say my farewells.”
“Very well, my lady. I shall await you.”
Robin seemed determined to fight her on this, and she couldn’t let him. There were times when she wished it was only the two of them. If only Herne had chosen another successor to the Hooded Man, she and Robin might even be married now, living at her father’s castle, or at Huntingdon. Lady Marion of Huntingdon. Yes, that would do as well as the name she had been born to. It was Robin’s name, and that was good enough for her. But her life had taken another course.
“Robin, please. Don’t ask me to place anyone else in danger. I just have to go to my father. You understand, don’t you? If it were your father -”
“I know, but try to see my point of view. I love you. How can I let anything happen to you?”
She smiled at his innocence. Granted, any companion would be a help, and could watch her back, but she knew that in a confrontation, she would stand a better chance than he did. And if that happened, she didn’t want one more to protect. Marion hoped that Robin wouldn’t guess her reasoning, but she couldn’t be sure. He was well aware of his own shortcomings and was saddened by them. Nothing she could do or say would help him believe more in himself.
“Robin. I beg you. Let me do this. I will be safe, Herne protect me.”
Mindful of the pleading in her voice, and knowing he would only slow her down, rather than be of any use, he considered her request. Of course he could send Scarlet, or Little John, or even Tuck, but how could he send someone out into a danger that he himself wouldn’t face? He would have to trust her yet again. Knowing that his decision wouldn’t earn him any more respect from his men, he forced himself to ignore his own misgivings, and give Marion the answer she wanted.
“I will do as you ask. Stay safe, Marion. My life has no meaning without you.”
“Thank you, Robin. I love you. We will be together soon.”
Ignoring the watching eyes around them, she pulled him into her arms and held him for a moment, then hastily packed a few things she might need, and didn’t forget to fill her quiver with fresh arrows. She would keep one ready on her bowstring at all times, until she was safely within the boundaries of her father’s holdings.
At the edge of the forest, the messenger was waiting for her. Her decision made, she allowed herself a moment of doubt. There was a feeling at the pit of her stomach, of foreboding. Was it a premonition? She forced herself to ignore it. There was no other choice. If her father was dying, she would go to him, no matter what the cost.
“You will walk ahead of me. Don’t make any sudden moves. If this is a trap, you will live to regret it.”
“My lady, it is no trap, but I will do as you say.”
“Which way are you going? No, we will go that way instead. I will guide you, but don’t turn around or reach for your weapon. This arrow is aimed straight at your heart.”
“Whatever you say, my lady.”
As always, returning home moved Marion deeply. This time, however, she was far too concerned about her father’s health, to pay much attention to her own situation. Her father’s man took her up to the castle by a roundabout route, clearly making sure that as few people as possible would see her. Even in her own home she was still the hunted outlaw. If her mind had not been on other matters, she would have grieved about it, but she had a mission to fulfill, and she wouldn’t let anything deter her. She was met at the kitchen door by the old cook. The motherly woman had tears in her eyes. Marion was not sure whether they were for her father or on her account. Marion was caught in a brief embrace, and for a moment all she wanted was to stay at home. The familiar smells from the cooking, and the sense of belonging were so poignant, she had to break free of the spell, knowing that if she lingered any longer, she would never be able to leave.
Upstairs, in her father’s room she found de Crécy anxiously hovering by the door. She nodded to the commander, but swept past him to the only person who mattered to her. As she approached the bed, her father opened his eyes. The relief was plain to see. He gestured to the boy who was waiting on him to raise his pillows, so he could sit upright.
“My dear, you came.”
“Of course I did, father.”
“I am sorry that my selfishness has placed you in danger.”
Impatiently, Marion shrugged the suggestion away.
“Tell me honestly. How bad is it?”
“I don’t know. These accursed physicians tell me different things all the time. They bleed me, they recommend prayer, but what they cannot do is cure this cough. Still, I do not feel so weak I would think the end is near.”
“That is good. I will have Nellie make up an infusion that is sure to clear up your lungs. From now on, I will look after you myself.”
“But, child, you are in danger every hour you stay under my roof.”
“I know. But no one saw me arrive. If we make sure this remains our secret, I think we might keep any word from coming to the Sheriff’s attention. At the very least I will stay overnight. I could talk to Nellie and make sure she makes up the potions as I direct her.”
“It is good to have you back, even this briefly. Marion, if I – die, all I own should by rights go to you, but as you know I am prevented from leaving it to you. The King might seize the land and the title and bestow it upon whoever he chooses. Even the Sheriff.”
“What if you were to marry, father?”
“Marry? Who would I marry?”
“I do not know, but surely there might be a woman that is suitable. Then if it is said that she is carrying your heir, the King could not touch our land. Or you could name someone your heir.”
She glanced at de Crécy. He was a younger son, and if her father settled the estate on him, she knew everything would be in good hands. If she knew him as well as she thought she did, he would even remain loyal to her. But she did not want to contemplate her father’s demise. Not while she still had some remedies she could try.
“You speak wisely, my child. I will give this advice careful thought. Now you must leave me. I am tired.”
“Good. You need your rest. I will have someone send up the infusion when it is done.”
Outside the door, she became aware of de Crécy following her. She looked up in surprise, but the man only wanted a brief word. Nothing new or alarming came to her attention, and she went down the stairs, back to the kitchen. There she met one of the servant girls, one who had served her as personal maid in the past. What was the girl’s name again? Jane. Jenny.
“My lady, I have come to take you to your room.”
“Thank you, Jenny. I will be there shortly. Nellie, would you make up these remedies? I will give you careful instructions. Tomorrow, I have to leave again, but I want you to keep giving my father these potions, until that cough clears up.”
“Yes, child, I will. I mean, my lady.”
“Thank you, Nellie. I will talk to you later. Now, Jenny, let us go upstairs.”
It seemed to Marion that the girl was rather sullen, but she had too much on her mind to pay too much attention to that. The comfort of once again being in her own room, with her old gowns laid out for her to choose between, was distracting her. She had almost forgotten what it felt like to own so many gowns. Fingering the soft, exquisite fabrics, Marion decided to wear one of the more fancy ones, just for tonight. She would dine with her father, if he felt better by evening. There were two other gowns that she thought would do, even in the forest.
“Jenny, I wish to take a bath. Will you see to that, please. Tonight I will wear the dress of pearl-embroidered sea green silk.”
“Yes, my lady.”
With a brief curtsy, the girl disappeared down the stairs again, to see to the heating of the water. Perhaps the unexpected appearance of her mistress had interfered with some personal plans the girl had. That might explain her rather unfriendly look. Marion thought she remembered that the girl had always been a bit of a handful. Very beautiful, in fact so pretty that Marion herself had at times felt slightly jealous of her. It was even rumored that Jenny’s mother had had a highborn lover. Not that Marion had been encouraged to listen to gossip.
Now she would turn her mind to getting ready for tonight. Again, Marion let her fingers play with the exquisite fabrics of her dresses. She knew it would take some time for the bath to be ready, but when the girl had been gone for far too long, Marion began to wonder what was keeping her. At last, when Marion had been about to go downstairs to inquire about what had become of the girl, she showed up, with five strong servants in tow. They set the barrel down and left the room. Jenny and two other girls began to fill it up. Soon, Marion was sitting in the steaming water, getting her first hot bath in months. She had almost forgotten that feeling too. Not until the water was getting uncomfortably cool, she reluctantly gave up, and let the girls dry her off. The other two girls began the arduous task of emptying the barrel, while Jenny applied herself to helping Marion into her dress. She then began working on Marion’s hair. By the time the barrel was emptied, and the five male servants returned to remove it, Marion too was ready. She sent a boy to inquire about her father’s condition. To her relief she was told that he was much improved, and that he was looking forward to her presence.
Halfway through dinner, they heard the sounds of heavy footsteps on the stairs. From passage outside came sounds of shouting, and de Crécy, who had been dining with his lord and lady Marion, got up and faced the door.
“Open up, in the name of King Richard Coeur de Lion.”
Marion and her father had time to exchange distressed looks, then the door shook at the hinges and fell to the floor. The doorway was darkened by a group of knights, their swords pointing straight at Marion. de Crécy was moving between Leaford and Marion and the door. His sword was out, and he was bracing himself to make a last desperate stand. But he had no hope. If his men had not come up the stairs by now, they never would. The knowledge did nothing to change his resolve. He had sworn an oath of loyalty to the man on the bed, and he would die holding to it.
“Jérome. There is nothing you can do. We can not fight the King’s men. Stand down. Marion, I am sorry, my child. I can not protect you anymore.”
“Come willingly, and we will leave your father in peace.”
Marion’s hands hung by her sides, uselessly. There was no bow and arrow she could use to protect herself, no sword, or other weapon. She had allowed herself to fall into this trap. Robin and the others had been right. Returning home had been madness. When the knights grabbed her and tied her hands behind her back, she did nothing to resist. It was over. She had lost. The worst part was that she didn’t even know if her father was going to survive. There was no resentment in her heart over her father’s defeatist attitude. He was an old man, and his soldiers had been taken by surprise. It was not fair to expect them to die fighting for her freedom. She had freely chosen the life of an outlaw, and she would not endanger others over her choice.
The rough hands poked and prodded her, and there were lewd jokes. It didn’t concern her. Her mind was elsewhere. In her mind’s eye, she was seeing Robin’s smiling face, feeling the touch of his gentle but strong hands, listening to the sound of his voice whispering in her ear. The knights dragged her downstairs and out to the waiting horses. Pawing hands lifted her up and sat her on a horse, and someone sat up behind her. She could feel his arms enfolding her, grabbing at the reins. The whole troop set off, calling wildly in triumph. Marion held her head high.She would not let them see her cry. No one would break her spirit, not even when they led her to the gallows.
Upstairs, in her father’s room, Jérome was doing his best to calm his lord down. He raised a goblet to his lips, trying to make him drink the wine.
“Please, my lord. Drink this. You must keep up your strength. I will find out who betrayed you.”
“Find the outlaws first. Tell Huntingdon. Perhaps he can save her.”
“Let me stay with here with you, my lord. I will send a messenger to Sherwood. At once, my lord.”
“Yes, yes. Do as you see fit. Now leave me. I must think.”
“As you wish, my lord.”
de Crécy ran down to the barracks. Whoever was on guard was going to answer to him. He found his men disarmed and locked in. One of his soldiers was lying wounded in the yard. de Crécy stopped to check on his wounds, and finding no life-threatening injury, merely pressed the man’s shoulder and hurried on. Three hours later he had his answer. The culprit had long since fled, making it impossible for him to mete out any punishment. Instead, he returned to his lord’s room to give him his report.
“My lord. It was Marion’s servant girl who betrayed her. I have found out that one of the Sheriff’s men, young Giles de Mornay, has been dallying with her. She is missing. She must have slipped out during dinner and gone to de Mornay.”
“Why would she do such a thing? You know me, Jérome. Am I cruel to my people? Do I treat them the way some of my neighbours do? Have I ever mutilated or put to death any of my serfs?”
“You know the answer to that, my lord. Everyone loves you.”
“Then why did the girl do such a thing?”
“That is what I am trying to find out. I will not rest until I have the answer, and bring her to justice.”
“Did the messenger get to Sherwood?”
“Yes, he just returned, having delivered his message.”
“Naturally they will do anything in their power to rescue lady Marion.”
“But they will not have much success, will they?”
“You can not know that. I have sent out men to find the answers. When I have them we will be able to make our plans. Rest now, my lord, and I will be back as soon as I have news for you.”
“Thank you, Jérome. Don’t punish the men. How can we expect them to fight against their King?”
“As you say, but if they had kept a better watch, lady Marion might have had time to make her escape.”
“It is too late for that now. Just do what you can. I am counting on you, Jérome, now more than ever.”
“I will not let you down, my lord.”
Robin had to fight down the tears threatening to brim over and fall humiliatingly down his cheeks. That would be exactly the sort of thing that would diminish what little respect his men had for him. He fought to clear his head so he could make a plan, but at that moment, he had absolutely no idea what to do for Marion. His instincts told him to get moving, to search for her, to do something, anything, but it was getting late already, and no one could tell him where to look for her. They didn’t even know who was holding her. Even Scarlet had no suggestion to offer. The realization that tonight, there was absolutely nothing they could do to save Marion, left a bitter taste in his mouth. Despite Much’s attempts to comfort him and offer his support, Robin spent a miserable, sleepless night.
But morning came with news, and even hope. At first it did not seem that way. Just before dawn he had fallen into a dreamless stupor. Robin woke up to the sounds of his men shouting and jeering. He jumped up to investigate, and found that his men had a new prisoner. At first he couldn’t believe his eyes. The man who was being thrown to the ground was sir Guy of Gisburne, the outlaws’ worst enemy, save one, and the Sheriff of Nottingham’s tame knight, and also, unbeknownst to most other people, Robin’s half brother. Scarlet was holding a dagger to Guy’s throat, and the rest of them were landing kicks and punches on their hated enemy. Robin had to stop them. Family ties aside, there had to be some reason Guy had braved the woods he feared more than anything, to seek them out. Whatever he had to say, Robin needed to know.
“Scarlet. Wait. Let me talk to him.”
John was aiming his longbow at him, but at the sound of their leader’s voice, he turned and faced Robin.
“Please, Robin, let me put an arrow through his heart.”
“Wait. Huntingdon, I’ve come to tell you something I’m sure you want to know.”
“Let him go, Scarlet. He is here to parley. We don’t kill messengers.”
“I’m not a messenger. I’m here on my own business. The Sheriff doesn’t know I’m here.”
“Did you hear that? No one is going to come looking for him. I say we stick him like a pig.”
“No, let’s string him up.”
“Let me skewer him.”
Nasir pulled out his two swords, brandishing them in the air. Robin could see Guy’s face harden, but other than that, there was no sign of fear. Whatever else Robin’s brother was, he was not a coward.
“No. I will talk to him alone.”
“You are out of your mind with grief. Whatever he knows, I will get it out of him, one way or another.”
“Scarlet. I said no.”
Everyone turned to stare at Robin. They had never heard such a cold, determined edge in his voice. Scarlet let the knife fall away from Guy’s throat and turned away in disgust. They had already stripped Guy of his weapons and armour. Now they let go of him, allowing him to struggle back to his feet. When he was standing again, gingerly feeling a few bruises the outlaws had left here and there, he approached Robin. He made eye contact, as if trying to assess Robin’s mood. Robin led Guy some distance into the woods. Robin couldn’t figure out what had brought the Sheriff’s man to them, but he couldn’t wait to find out.
“I know who has taken Marion.”
There was something evasive about the way Guy’s gaze shied away from Robin’s. Robin could understand his reluctance to answer that question, and cursed himself for not thinking before he spoke. The relationship between the Sheriff and his favorite knight was the talk all of Nottinghamshire, yet poor Guy tried so hard to keep it a secret. That was another reason Robin hated the Sheriff. He knew that it wasn’t Guy’s choice to share the Sheriff’s bed. Robin also hated Gisburne for leaving his son in the service of a perverted Sheriff. Even if he was a younger son, no one deserved that fate, which hinted that Gisburne had known that he wasn’t really Guy’s father. To spare his brother the embarrassment, Robin took pity on Guy.
“Never mind. What is it that you want to tell me?”
The look of relief on Guy’s face was only too plain to see.
“Prince John. You remember he has been interested in Marion before. He sent his men to pick her up. This time he doesn’t intend to let her go. He is marrying her to Guillaume de Chesnay.”
“de Chesnay? But he is not even -”
“I know. That’s why The Prince is doing it – so he can have full access to Marion when he wants to.”
“I see. And by offering her a seemingly good match, John is disarming any criticism he might be facing. But Marion has a price on her head, just like we all do.”
“He’s the Prince. With the King in the Holy Land, he is virtually King himself. Of course he will get a pardon for Marion.”
“I have to find her, before the wedding.”
“Let me help. You will never be able to do this without me.”
Robin stared in disbelief at Guy.
“What? Are you insane? You and I working together?”
“Yes. Just you and me. The others will only get in the way. I will give you some of my clothes and you should be able to act the part. After all, you have the upbringing for it.”
“Why offer to help me? You and I can hardly be said to be the best of friends.”
“That isn’t the point.”
“Then what is?”
“Just accept my offer, and we can be on our way. We are wasting time.”
“No. I need to know what’s in it for you. We’re not leaving here, until I’m convinced I can trust you.”
Guy glared at Robin and angrily pushed back the hair that kept falling into his eyes.
“Don’t make me do this. Please. I’m asking you. Isn’t that enough?”
The words seemed to leave a vile taste in Guy’s mouth, which made Robin wonder what his brother was hiding. Could this be an eloborate trap after all?
“I’m afraid not. You have been working against us far more willingly than the Sheriff can expect of you.”
Guy shook himself like a wet dog, seemingly troubled by the reminder.
“I know. I don’t expect you to forgive me for that, but Marion’s happiness is at stake. Don’t let your distrust of me place her in even more danger.”
“I’m sorry, Gisburne. You will have to do better if you want me to trust you.”
Guy scowled at Robin, then gave in, eyes smouldering with vexation.
“Damn you, Huntingdon. I love her. Are you happy now? I know she hates me as much you do, but that doesn’t change anything. I can’t bear to see her in Prince John’s arms. To be forced to endure the embrace of a man she hates – can you imagine what that is like?”
“No. Thank Herne, I can’t.”
“Don’t let her suffer that fate. I’m not asking for my own sake. Do it for her.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Robin nodded. Scarlet and the others might be right in distrusting Guy, but with Marion’s safety at stake, he was prepared to place himself at risk.
“Alright. Let’s go.”
Guy slumped down with such relief Robin stared at him in surprise. What Guy had said about enduring a hateful embrace, tore at Robin’s heart. Why should his brother have to put up with that?
Robin still vividly recalled the time he had come to Marion’s rescue by deceiving the Sheriff into believing Robin, Robert as he was then known, was a mere young fop, with no other thoughts in his fair head than of clothes and ornaments. He had forced himself to accept the vile man’s embrace, but only fully dressed in a room full of other people. Robin had deliberately made himself attractive to the Sheriff, and that had been more than enough. For weeks afterwards he had felt the clammy hands over his body, and the burn of the Sheriff’s breath on his cheek. Yet he knew that was nothing compared to what Guy was enduring most every night.
Robin had another even more personal reason to know what his brother was going through. When he was growing up, his father had decided to raise him in the company of his friend d’Aubry’s son Mark. Mark, as a younger son, had not been given an education as elaborate as that of the older brother. Mark was two years older, and much taller and stronger, but his combat skills were no better than Robert’s; truth to tell he was even less adept. However, it was soon apparent that he was very eager to make friends with the young towheaded boy.
Lonely as he was, Robert had at first been very flattered by the attention of the handsome older boy. And educational the experience had been, just not the way Robert’s father had intended. What Robin learned from Mark kept him awake at night, agonizing over his soul, knowing that the things Mark d’Aubry taught him were sins in the eyes of the church. That to some extent it had been pleasurable did nothing to diminish his guilt. It had taken Robin years to forgive himself for being taken in by Mark. He had never even been able to confide in Marion about his secret shame.
With Guy in tow, Robin returned to his waiting men. In a few words he explained the new situation, and refused to listen to any protests. Just like Marion so recently, he insisted on going alone. Guy took him to an inn to dress Robin in clothes befitting his station. They then left for de Chesney’s castle, and just before nightfall, they rode across the drawbridge.
As a friend of the Sheriff’s, Guillaume had often been his guest, and there he had met Guy. For that reason, the man was one of the last people Guy wanted to meet, but he forced himself to smile winningly, exactly the way the Sheriff liked it. As always, it had its effect. de Chesney welcomed the two handsome young man into his home, inviting them to his table to share his dinner. Upon their arrival, they were taken upstairs to the room they were going to share. As soon as the boy who showed them to the room had left, they began making plans.
Guy had no idea where Marion was being kept, so that night they would have to leave their room and search the castle. If she was going to be married to de Chesnay, surely she wouldn’t be chained in the dungeon? There was a high tower at each end of the castle, and they agreed that one of those was the most likely place for her to be kept. By listening to the servants talking they were hoping to find out which tower to go to, but failing that, they would prowl around the halls until they found her.
But first they would have to get through dinner with Guillaume. From his previous encounters with de Chesnay, Guy knew what to expect. Only his relationship with the Sheriff had spared him de Chesnay’s full attention. Now, without the Sheriff, he feared the night would bring yet more embarrassment. Especially with Robin present that would be intolerable, but as he had told him earlier that day, the point of the entire mission was to rescue Marion. Everything else would have to take second place. Glancing around the room, Guy sullenly noted that there was only one bed, but since they didn’t expect to get any sleep, that was a minor concern.
Later, at the dinner table, Guy’s worst fears were realized. Guillaume had given them the honor seats next to him. Apparently it wasn’t every night two such handsome young men visited him. He proposed a toast to his guests, and they were forced to join in, smiling and feigning pleasure to have received the invitation.
“Now, Gisburne, you must tell me how you met this charming boy.”
Guy’s skin took on the color of a blood red sunset, and Robin could feel his own cheeks burning too. A man like de Chesney could not imagine that two men might be travelling together unless they were also sharing a bed. Judging by his tone, that was exactly the assumption he made. For a second Robin contemplated dispelling the misconception, but found himself unable to think of any other explanation. He could see that Guy was coming to the same conclusion, and resigned himself to his fate.
“We met at dinner. At the Sheriff’s house.”
“I see. Of course. How long have you two known each other?”
Robin could see Guy grinding his teeth at the special emphasis Guillaume was placing on the word known. There was no doubt as to what meaning he was giving it. He pitied Guy who was left to answer these awkward questions. Having been assigned the role of his brother’s bedmate, Robin found that he wasn’t expected to make conversation. Apparently, all that was required was to sit there trying to look pretty. Though he wanted to scream at their host to disillusion him, he forced himself to smile and bat his eyelids at the man, in a way he assumed would attract him. At least judging by the effect said eyelashes had on Marion, it should be sufficient.
“A few months. Now tell me something. I hear a happy event will take place in this house.”
de Chesnay scowled and made a face.
“Who told you that?”
“The talk is all over the county. I can’t remember exactly where I heard it first. So tell me, is it true that you are marrying the notorious outlaw Marion?”
“That’s right, you’ve met her, haven’t you, Gisburne?”
“Many times. But always she has eluded me. Now what can it be that makes her so attractive to you?”
He was enjoying turning the knife in the wound. Guillaume obviously loathed the very notion of entering holy matrimony. Had the circumstances been different, it would have amused Guy to keep needling the man. His host’s face clouded over, but he made a visible effort to remain polite to his guest.
“You know me better than that. When asked to do a favour for a friend, how could I refuse?”
“Did you have any trouble with her?”
“None whatever. The Prince’s men brought her here, and I have her safely locked up. She will be no trouble at all, I assure you.”
“Where are you keeping her? Can I see her?”
Robin wanted to kick Guy under the table. He obviously couldn’t be very intelligent, if he made that kind of error of judgment. Only moments later, Robin was forced to revise his opinion of his brother. de Chesnay’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, but still his voice remained polite.
“Why do you want know?”
“I have spent years trying to capture her, and now that she is finally brought to justice, it would be pleasant to see her, and gloat just a little. Can you not understand that?”
Guy laughed raucously as if to underline his wish to humiliate his former quarry. Guillaume laughed with him, his suspicions seemingly laid to rest.
“We shall see. I might take you up after dinner. Plenty of time for that later. She’s in the north tower and she’s not going anywhere.”
Despite himself Robin had to admire Guy. Apparently he was more clever than he was given credit for, or perhaps it was just luck. Whatever it was, it was only too welcome. He sent a silent prayer to Herne in gratitude for this windfall. Now they would be saved hours of searching through the darkened house.
Endless though the dinner seemed, dragging on for pointless hours, it finally ended. Once or twice, Guy and Robin felt de Chesnay’s hands on their knees, but each time, they managed to move out of reach, and avoid further trouble.
As soon as they were allowed to return to their room, they began making their plans. Guy’s face was even more sullen than usual, Robin noted, but wasn’t about to make their foray any more difficult by commenting on the unpleasantness downstairs. At first he didn’t think that Guy would either, but as the knight paced around the room, eager to work off his irritation, there was an outburst that couldn’t have been intentional.
“It’s intolerable. That vile lout. If he had kept on with his pawing, I swear I would have stabbed him right at his own table. To hell with the consequences.”
“I know. I agree. But getting ourselves killed won’t help Marion.”
Guy clenched his fists, then took a deep breath and with a visible effort, controlled himself.
“You’re right, of course. It’s just so -”
Embarrassed, Guy broke off before he went on to complain about his life with the Sheriff. He knew there wasn’t much hope that Robin wasn’t aware of his situation, but as long as neither one of them mentioned it, it would be as if none of it had happened.
“I know. Just give it another hour, until the servants are asleep. Then we’ll make our move.”
“Right. Would you mind if I stretched out on the bed for a while?”
“Of course not. Please, go ahead. I will sit here, by the fire.”
Guy was going to take advantage of the pleasure of lying in a bed by himself. Unless the Sheriff was visiting his brother, or travelled even further afield, and there were precious few times he did, Guy never had that pleasure. That was one reason he always volunteered to go on any assignment that would take him away from the town and the Sheriff’s house. Even sleeping under the stars on the stony ground was better than the Sheriff’s bed. He must have fallen asleep, because suddenly, he awoke with a start. Someone’s hand was on his shoulder. Without thinking he grabbed it and was about to twist it painfully. Then he heard Robin’s voice.
“Calm down. It’s me. I had to wake you. It’s time.”
“Of course. Sorry.”
Guy was apologizing to him. Robin had never thought he would live to see the day when that happened, but he didn’t have time to wonder at his brother’s changed behaviour. They had to go. If they were very lucky they would have a few hours to themselves while the servants enjoyed their much needed rest. Long before dawn the first of them would be up, lighting the fires, baking the bread, doing the laundry or whatever else needed doing in a castle.
The door swung open with a grinding noise. If anyone had heard them – They stood waiting in the doorway for what seemed like an eternity, so close that they could hear each other’s breathing, and the sound of their hearts beating. Robin’s long hair tickled Guy’s nose, and he would have sneezed if he hadn’t taken a step back. The threshold made an ominous creaking sound, and Robin turned to Guy, scowling, but no one appeared to have heard them.
It was more difficult than they had expected, finding the way to the north tower. They couldn’t go outside and look for a door to the tower from that direction. If they were to have any chance at all of getting inside the tower and up the stairs to the door that locked Marion in, they would have to go inside the castle walls. The central keep was vast, and ancient. Robin wouldn’t have been surprised it if had been there long before the Norman invasion. The architecture seemed to be Saxon rather than Norman, a bit like his own home, Huntingdon. That gave Robin the idea he needed. These old castles were built according to the same simple plan. Four high walls, towers on each end, though in many cases, only two remained. The central keep had a large downstairs hall, some long galleries upstairs, and many small rooms for the people of the castle to live in.
“Come on. I have an idea on how to reach the tower.”
Together they tiptoed their way down the stairs. Each step made a noise that seemed to explode in the quiet of the night, despite their best efforts to avoid making any sounds. But everyone appeared to be fast asleep. It didn’t take them too long to reach the tower, once Robin got his bearings. The downstairs door was unlocked. Was that luck, or had de Chesnay set a trap for them? Even if he had, they had no choice but to go on. Above the stairs they were brought up short by a big, heavy padlocked door. Before they had time to wonder how to get past it, the night was alive with noises. Heavy boots were stamping up the stairs, and before they could react, they were faced with half a dozen armed men, wearing the de Chesnay colors. The Captain of the guard had them disarmed and their hands tied behind their backs in very little time. He marched them quickly down the stairs, and took them to a room they hadn’t seen before. It turned out to be de Chesnay’s workroom.
“Gisburne, and your little friend. Did you really think she would be in the north tower? You’re even more stupid than you look, Gisburne. But no matter. What were you hoping to gain?”
Guy bravely faced de Chesnay though he had absolutely no idea of what to say. Most likely it would make no difference anyway. It hadn’t occurred to him before, but whatever the result of this mission, he would be out of favour with the sheriff. Until now, he hadn’t stopped to consider what that would mean. Gisburne wouldn’t take him back. His older brothers had no more love for him than his father did, and even though he tried hard not to think about it, everyone knew that he was the Sheriff’s pet, and bedmate. Who would take him into his service now? Even if he survived the night he would have no other recourse than becoming an outlaw.
Still, he couldn’t bring himself to regret it, despite the waste of all these years. All that time he had forced himself to endure the Sheriff’s embraces, hoping that one day he would make his fortune, and find favour with the King or Prince John. None of that would matter now anyway. At least he was sure the outlaws never had to share anyone’s bed unless they wanted to. And he wasn’t a catamite. He was sir Guy of Gisburne and for far too long he had let himself be used. No more.
“We have come for Marion. You have no use for her. Let us have her, and we will leave you in peace.”
“I see. Aren’t you forgetting something? Much as I loathe women, I do owe the Prince a favor. If I let him down, I must have something in return. Something that far outweighs the disadvantages of disappointing the Prince.”
“We have no gold. What are you getting at?”
Robin could see that Guy didn’t understand. It surprised him. His brother was no fool. He had finally found that out. Knowing the Sheriff the way he did, surely he could guess what that man was asking of them? However, it seemed not. Robin took a deep breath and did the only thing possible under the circumstances. He had come to save Marion and he would, no matter what the cost to his own pride.
“Your terms, de Chesnay. State them and let’s come to an agreement.”
“Brains as well as beauty. I like it. Well, if you take that redheaded witch off my hands, I will need to have something I want more in return. Such as pleasant companionship, in my lonely room upstairs.”
“Alright. You win. Let Marion go with Gisburne, and I’ll do whatever you want.”
Guy’s eyes widened in horror and an internal struggle played itself out on his face. In the end, though he seemed to surprise himself, he spoke up.
“No, I can’t let you do it, Robin. You don’t know what you are letting yourself in for. Take me instead, de Chesnay. Robin will not know how to please you. I do. Let him go with the lady Marion, and I will show you everything the Sheriff has taught me.”
“No, Guy. After all you’ve suffered at the hands of the Sheriff, it isn’t fair to ask you to go through it again. I will fulfill the bargain. Take Marion back to Sherwood.”
“How very touching, and sweet, but I’m afraid you misunderstood me. The bargain included both of you. One pretty boy is not enough. I can get that any time I want. Both of you, or that witch marries me this Sunday. Make your choice, but quickly. The Prince is on his way. If there is a fair wind, he could be here late tomorrow night. By that time, I suggest you are far away from here.”
Guy and Robin stared at each other in horror. This was the last thing either one of them had expected. They would never be able to live down the humiliation, but what choice did they have? Marion’s honour and safety depended on them, and they loved her far too much to leave her to a fate worse than death.
“Yes, by all means.”
“Fine. Wise decision. Shall we?”
They were stripped of their weapons, then escorted to their host’s bedchamber by two of his men.
“Welcome. I think I should point out that my men will be waiting outside the door, just in case you have any misguided ideas about escaping. And don’t forget the redheaded witch up in the south tower. If, for some reason, you manage to get away, my commander has orders to kill her. It will be regrettable to have to inform the Prince that the little hellcat died trying to escape. Falling out of a window from a tower room isn’t pretty. There won’t be much left of her to bury.”
“I won’t try to escape.”
“Neither will I. You have my word that I will fulfill this bargain. Do I have yours?”
“You are in no position to make any demands. Just take my word for it, I much prefer this little escapade over being married to her for as many years as it will take the Prince to tire of her.”
Robin and Guy studiously avoided meeting each other’s eyes as they followed de Chesney to his bed. To be forced to endure this, and worst of all, together, was intolerable, but there was no time for regrets. Unable to think of anything to escape their fate, they determined to get the unpleasantness over with as fast as possible. Nagging at the back of their minds was the unwelcome thought that nothing in the world guaranteed that de Chesney would keep up his end of the bargain. But since there was nothing they could do about it, all they could do was trust in the gods they believed in, and in their own luck.
“The wench who betrayed lady Marion is back.”
Leaford straightened up in his bed. For some reason, be it one last desperate attempt to save his child, or because her remedies were already taking effect, there was a new resolve in the frail old man’s movements. de Crécy thought the old steely glint was back in his lord’s eyes. But the news he brought was not good. The Lord preserve them, if Leaford took a turn for the worse on hearing it.
“Bring her up. I wish to question her myself.”
“My lord, I’m afraid that will not be possible just yet. It appears de Mornay gave her to his men after extracting the information he needed. The girl is in poor shape.”
“I see. If she survives, send her back to her village. No more punishment is required. It seems she struck a poor bargain.”
de Crécy paced around his master’s bed. How could he bring himself to tell him the rest? Evil times were upon them, and nothing he could say or do would change that.
“My lord, the girl is Kate Miller’s daughter.”
“Jane Miller? God forgive me, Jérome, but the child is my daughter. She betrayed her own sister. My selfishness will be our downfall. Would that I had arranged a marriage for Kate long ago. If Jenny had had a father, she might not have been brought to this desperate measure. And when Kate, God rest her gentle soul, passed away, how could I send her child away? My child.”
“She must have grown up envying and resenting the lady Marion for her privileges.”
“That is my cross to bear, Jérome. What am I to do with Jenny?”
“She will survive, my lord. Have no fear. Might I make a suggestion? Marry her to one of my men. Young Harrington is a promising and eager young lad. That is a far better match than the bastard child of a miller’s daughter could ever hope for. Forgive me, my lord. I was only -”
“Quite so, Jérome. An excellent suggestion. Would your man be willing to oblige us?”
“More than willing. Young Jenny is fair to the eyes, and any one of my men would willingly take her for his wife.”
“Even after her treachery?”
“If I make my move now, few need know about it. It might be suggested that de Mornay tortured the girl to obtain his information. That way all resentment would be directed away from her.”
“Do so. I will leave the arrangements to you. Jérome, do you think the girl will settle for this?”
“She would be a fool not to. Rest assured, Harrington is pleasing to the eyes as well. All wenches find him so, I have been told.”
As he left on his lord’s business, de Crécy had failed on reckoning with the affections of the cook, Nellie. She had summed up the situation accurately, and descended on the injured and devastated girl, as she lay on her pallet in the small room behind the kitchen.
“Wake up. I know you can hear me, Jenny. You will answer to me, before anyone else. Why did you betray Marion? Answer me.”
The girl struggled to raise her head and meet the cook’s eyes, a defiant look on her ruined face.
“Why not? She’s no better than any other woman. Worse even, if she beds down with outlaws and serfs.”
Jenny felt her cheek sting sharply where the cook’s strong hand slapped her.
“How dare you? You young harlot. Did de Mornay fulfill his end of your disgraceful bargain?”
Jenny couldn’t answer. How had things gone so badly wrong? She had been convinced she had the simple young lord eating out of her hand. Now it dawned on her that he had merely been following the Sheriff’s orders in befriending her. All was lost, and she did not think Leaford would spare her, just because he was the one who had fathered her. Before her despair turned her thoughts towards suicide, de Crécy was standing in the doorway. Nellie jumped and curtsied apologetically to the great man. She always addressed him that way in public. During their nights together, things were somewhat different. Jérome had a fondness for strong women, with a firm attitude, but that was a well kept secret and the arrangement worked so well that Nellie would never willingly place it at risk by idle talk.
“Leave us, Nellie. Fear not. I am not come to end this foolish wench’s life.”
When the cook had squeezed past the commander, he faced the fear stricken girl. His words had not reassured her. She still expected rough justice.
“You are a far more fortunate girl than you deserve. It has been decided that you will be married.”
“Yes. To one of my men. Thomas Harrington.”
“Why? I thought I would be put to death.”
“Do not question the judgment of your betters. When you are sufficiently recovered – de Mornay tortured you, to force the information concerning lady Marion’s whereabouts out of you – you will be married to Harrington. There will be no objections. This is a far better match than you could ever hope for.”
Jenny’s voice was a mere whisper. She felt weak with relief. If only she had known that her father was such a good man, she might never have felt so jealousy of her half-sister. Over the years, growing up as Marion’s servant girl, she had prided herself on her better looks, and deluded herself into believing that she was destined for a higher station in life. Now she even allowed herself to consider her sister’s fate. Being the leman of Prince John might be an enviable position, or so it would seem to the world, but Marion’s heart belonged to another man, and how cruel would it be never to see him again, never to rest in his gentle, loving arms?
Jenny felt tears staining her bruised cheeks. For the first time she regretted her actions for Marion’s sake, not her own. She had deserved this, not Marion. Her sister had always treated her with respect, and being a lady’s personal maid was easy work. Why had she not appreciated it more? The crying did not subside until Jenny finally dozed off, and even then whimpers of pain could be heard from the small cranny behind the stove, each time she moved over in her sleep. Nellie’s temper had simmered down, and the affectionate woman now pitied the poor foolish girl. Naturally she had listened at the door. When Jenny was fully recovered she would prepare her for her wedding. Any wedding was a happy event, and Nellie would begin sewing the wedding gown today. A celebration would be most welcome.
If only her little Marion were safely back home, or at least with her young man in Sherwood. Nellie was a devout follower of Herne, and as soon as she could find a moment to herself, she walked off into the woods with a few offerings for the god – a crock of honey, a loaf of bread – simple gifts from a simple woman, but Herne accepted them, and though Nellie didn’t know it, her precious Marion was on her way to being rescued already.
Robin discovered that what he and Mark had done was as nothing compared to what awaited him in de Chesnay’s room. Had he known, there would have been no sleepless nights, no worrying about his immortal soul. He should have listened to his confessor, a rotund, comfortable man, who did not overreact to anything. What the two boys had been involved in was far from a mortal sin, and if only young Robert repented, said his prayers and resolved never to repeat his errors, the matter would be closed in the eyes of the church. Robin no longer considered himself a member of the church, but he had no illusions as to what Herne might make of all this. When Guillaume made Robin kneel before him, the man laughingly remarked on his inexperience.
“I would have thought you had him better trained, Gisburne. Watch your friend and learn, boy. This is how it’s done.”
At the moment, there was nothing Robin wanted less than to watch Guy doing what he apparently knew well, other than being here at all, but since that was his only chance, he forced himself to take it all in. How could he have been so naive? He had had no idea this practice existed. Yet his brother was so familiar with the procedure that de Chesnay found no fault with his performance.
“Now you. What’s this? Ah, a virgin. Fancy that. I will take especially good care of you. Mm. That’s right, boy. Keep doing that.”
Once again, de Chesnay’s laughter grated on Robin’s nerves. If only it would be over, one way or another. Surely there couldn’t be much worse to come? To his despair, he learned that he had been wrong. While miserably coughing and retching over the side of the bed, Robin at first did not hear Guillaume’s next instructions. The command had to be repeated twice before it filtered through to him.
“I said, now it’s your turn. I would see the two of you playing together.”
At first Robin didn’t think he was hearing the man correctly, but as the realization of what he was being asked to do sank in, he couldn’t stop the tears from spilling over again. No. Not that. He couldn’t. If none of what they had done so far had jeopardized his soul, this would, he knew that, whatever faith he belonged to.
“My lord, forgive me, but I cannot. He is my brother.”
Robin couldn’t see Guy’s reaction, and at this point he was beyond worrying about it. This was not the way he had intended to tell him about their kinship, but circumstances had forced the truth over his lips before he could stop himself.
“Hm. I didn’t know that Gisburne had any bastards. Oh, well, I’m no monster. We will move on. Lie down here, like this. You too. Both of you. I will get to each of you in turn. If you’re brothers, you will no doubt be well used to sharing.”
Robin’s frightened eyes briefly met Guy’s. Shame or not, this was so terrifying, that he could not help but plead silently with the older and more experienced man. What was he expected to do or submit to? He should have been able to guess by now, but his stunned mind refused to function. Despite everything, Guy did not let his shame and humiliation prevent him from doing what he could for Robin. Risking de Chesnay’s displeasure, he moved closer to Robin and hastily whispered in his ear. Insofar as Guillaume paid any attention at all, he enjoyed the prospect of the two fair heads that close together.
“Try to relax as much as you can. Don’t fight it. If you do, it will hurt even more. After this, it will soon be over.”
If Robin had been capable of coherent thought he would have felt a deep gratitude to his brother for trying to help him through this ordeal, but as it was, he only had time to brace himself for whatever was coming. For a second he even wished that de Chesney would start with him so that the agony of waiting would be over, but instead Guy was chosen. Robin turned away, not wanting to witness his brother’s humiliation.
His whispered prayers to Herne or whatever god might be listening gave way to a sort of waking unconscious state. He was lying on the ground in the clearing where he and his men had made camp. They were all standing nearby, holding their weapons into the fire. Now they turned to him, surrounding him, and began stabbing at him with the glowing red hot metal. He was being torn apart. His innards were on fire. The screams that assaulted his ears seemed to come from everywhere, but he knew he was the one making them. When it seemed he couldn’t take any more, merciful darkness swallowed him up, but not before he could see Herne standing over him. You have done well. The time of testing is over. My beloved son, soon your suffering will be at an end.
Guy was standing over the unconscious young man, hoping Robin would wake up without his having to reach out and touch him. That touch would not be welcome, he knew that from his own experience, though he had been much younger when he had learned that lesson. At the moment, he didn’t feel like touching anyone either. Again. It wouldn’t do to wake up de Chesnay. Not if they didn’t want to face the same agony again.
“Robin, you have to wake up. If de Chesnay has kept to his word, his men will let us take Marion and go. You don’t want him to wake up again, before we are gone.”
To Guy’s relief, Robin did open his eyes. Guy said a silent prayer that the younger man wouldn’t make a loud noise. Guillaume awake again didn’t bear thinking about. They found their clothes and tiptoed over to the door. Holding their breath in suspense, they dared to try to open it. It swung open noiselessly. Apparently, de Chesnay kept his door in good condition. His men were still waiting in the passage, and the knowing grins on their faces were especially hard to take this soon after what they had suffered in their master’s room, but there was nothing else for it. This was the only way out.
Guy took one look at Robin and knew it would be up to him to get them out, if that would even be a possibility. He knew that de Chesnay could easily have given orders to have them taken outside and killed somewhere after he had had his way with them. But he didn’t know what else to do. Trusting in his luck, which so far hadn’t been very reliable, he drew himself up, and in his most impressive knightly voice he demanded to be taken to Marion.
At first, laughter was the only reply he received. Lewd comments rained on him, but he had come too far to let mere words deter him. Eventually, the men quieted down, and to Guy’s surprise and astonishment they seemed to be willing to take them to the south tower. If only de Chesnay had been telling the truth. All the while prepared for any treacherous move, he followed the men, making sure that Robin trailed after them.
For once their luck held. Although it seemed too good to be true, they were taken to the tower, and led upstairs. This was the crucial moment. If de Chesnay intended to go back on his word, this would be the best time and place to do it. But the man in charge merely unlocked the door.
To Guy’s relief, Marion really was inside. She got up off the bed, and staring in surprise at Guy, she rushed forward to meet them. Her sea green dress was a little worse for wear, but there were no obvious signs of injury. Reminded of how he himself must look, at least judging by Robin’s face, Guy felt his cheeks heat up, but he could not waste time or effort worrying about Marion’s reaction. They had to go while they still had a chance. Remembering de Chesnay’s words about Prince John, Guy rushed Marion and Robin down the stairs with him. The verbal abuse followed them, but no one made any attempt to stop them.
“What a shame you are leaving so soon. We are not all like our master. Wouldn’t you like to stay and know the embrace of a real man, wench?”
Guy’s temper flared and despite the precarious situation they were in, he turned and spat at the man behind him.
“For shame, man. The lady Marion is not to be addressed as ‘wench’. Treat her with the respect she is due.”
“Pardon me. What about you and your little friend? You wouldn’t like to stay and befriend us?”
With an effort, Guy ignored the taunts, drawing on patience born from long practice. They were outside the stables, and if only they could have their horses, he would make sure they were well away from de Chesnay’s castle before Prince John could get there. He assessed Robin’s condition and concluded that Marion would have to ride with him to hold him up. She was a better horseman than her lover, he had seen that on many occasions. It was amazing what strength was hidden behind the delicate exterior. Those were the qualities that had most attracted him to her. He wondered if she had any idea of his feelings for her. From there, his thoughts drifted on to wonder if she would be able to guess what sacrifice they had made for her. He wished with all his heart that she wouldn’t, but knowing Marion as he did, that was a forlorn hope. Already she must be registering the marks on their faces, and the state her lover was in. No, Marion was no fool. She would know. But he couldn’t worry about that now.
Horses were brought, and it really seemed as if they would be allowed to leave. Making sure that Robin was safely in the saddle, he gave Marion a lift up too, though he knew she could most likely easily have sat up herself. Still, the dress must be hampering her movements. She took the reins and holding on tightly to Robin, she set off, without looking back. Guy was only seconds behind them. As soon as they were out of sight of the castle, Guy turned off from the road and found a path through the woods. Marion wordlessly concurred and soon they were far away from de Chesnay’s land. They would be able to reach Sherwood forest if they rode the horses hard, but they didn’t like the expression on Robin’s pale face and the absent look in his eyes.
Around midday they stopped by a stream to let their tired horses drink and graze. Guy helped Marion descend from the horse, then threw himself down on the grass. The sun was reviving his brooding spirit. He would have helped Robin down too, had he not known that Marion’s touch would be more welcome, now as ever.
Robin didn’t respond more to Marion’s touch than to Guy’s. After having settled him as comfortably as possible on the ground, Marion looked up and her cool blue eyes met Guy’s. Obeying the unspoken command, he pulled his sore and tired body up again, and followed her a little distance away from the prone figure stretched out on the ground.
“Alright. What is your part in all this?”
“I came to tell Robin where you were, and offered my assistance in getting you back.”
“Why? You and I are hardly friends. What did you hope to gain by this seemingly generous gesture?”
“You are free. What more do you ask?”
“Don’t be a fool. I have no reason to trust you. You had better have an explanation that I can believe in, or we will part right now.”
“You are free to go at any time. Besides, you will not believe the truth when you hear it. Let it go.”
“No. Tell me. Swear that you will tell the truth. Swear on your mother’s grave.”
Guy shrugged in defeat.
“Very well. I swear on my mother’s grave. Well, you asked for it. I love you. As much as Robin and with no hopes of even being acknowledged, far less of having my feelings returned.”
“Are you serious?”
Marion closed the distance between them almost making take a step back. She fixed his gaze with an unwavering, merciless stare. Guy had to keep telling himself that she would not know all that had happened between him and de Chesnay, but even if she didn’t, he was sure she knew everything else.
“Yes, you are. How very odd. I would never have guessed. Thank you. How does it feel, to have done something entirely selfless for once?”
To cover his shame, Guy reatreated into his accustomed sulks.
“I don’t know. I haven’t had time to find out.”
“Now for the other matter I need to discuss with you. What happened to Robin? And to you? Did de Chesnay force himself on you? Or his men?”
So like Marion to cut right to the heart of the matter, and as he had learned only moments ago, there was no point in trying to evade her questions, far less of deceiving her. He would have to tell the truth, and risk losing what little respect he had gained in her eyes.
“No. This was the bargain de Chesnay struck with us. Believe me, I tried to take that loathsome task upon myself to spare Robin’s innocence, but de Chesnay would not hear of it.”
“I see. You would do this for me? To spare me the humiliation of enduring Prince John? It appears I owe you more gratitude than I thought. But at what high price was my freedom bought? My poor Robin -”
“I know. I’m sorry. I would have done anything to avoid that.”
“I really believe you would. Guy, I’m sorry for your suffering too. Now and in the past.”
The cry of dismay was out, before Guy could control himself. He should have known, but it still hurt to have his humiliation discussed so openly.
“You don’t have to pretend. Everyone knows about you and the Sheriff. What I couldn’t understand was why a man like you would put up with it.”
Guy glanced desperately over his shoulder, as if seeking an escape route, but Marion’s voice held him, as surely as an iron shackle. He sighed and complied. Despite everything, there was a part of him that was oddly pleased to surrender to a woman like Marion.
“Perhaps because my father took his hand from me when I was but a young page and before that – In any case, the Sheriff has been all I’ve had since I was knighted. But you are right. I shouldn’t have been this weak. And now it will all have been for nothing.”
“I’m sorry about that, Guy. Truly. I don’t suppose this offer will give you any any consolation, but you are welcome to join us.”
A wry grin spread across Guy’s face.
“And Scarlet and John Little and the others would take me to their hearts?”
“They would accept you, if I told them to.”
“Thank you. I may yet have to take you up on that offer.”
“Good. It was a genuine offer. Now I must beg for your help once more. What can I do for Robin? I have never seen him this way before.”
“I don’t think there is much anyone can do. Time should heal him. At the moment he’s wretched and hurting all over. I don’t think he had any idea what he was letting himself in for. It must have been a severe shock. Like a boy’s first time in battle. First kill.”
Marion nodded sadly.
“I know what you mean.”
“Without any of the exhilaration. Only defeat. I’m sorry, Marion. Just hold him, and love him. He ought to appreciate that.”
There was a note of longing and pain in Guy’s voice, that she didn’t hesitate to use his advice on him. As she pulled him into her arms, the love and gratitude she sensed tore at her heart. To think that behind the cold and gruff facade of her longtime enemy had been this vulnerable and even loveable man. If only she had known this sooner. She didn’t want to contemplate Guy’s long years of shameful and degrading servitude to the Sheriff. Something Guy had said, made her believe the Sheriff had been far from the first man in Guy’s life. But now was not the time for trying to right old wrongs. They should be with Robin. For a second she tried to visualize the horrors he had suffered at the hands of the vile de Chesnay, but her imagination failed her. All sprang to mind was the way it had felt the first time she had almost fallen victim to Prince John, and then Robin had come to her rescue before she had come to any real harm.
Robin’s state of apathy was alarming. Surely he should be coming round soon. Was he more seriously injured, physically, than Guy had led her to believe? She felt at such a loss, not knowing what to do for the man she loved. Would her voice be able to reach him, where her physical touch did not? It was worth a try. She sat down on the grass, heedless of the ruin she was making of her formerly so fine dress.
“Robin, darling. It’s over. Robin. We’re safe. Please, wake up.”
The minutes ticked by, and she was beginning to fear all her efforts had been in vain. Then at last his eyes opened, and the look in them seemed to focus on her, with recognition, if not exactly pleasure to see her.
“You scared me. Do you think you can sit up? We should be getting away from here. Guy told me that Prince John is coming, and we can’t let him find us here.”
Marion. She was there with him. For a while it had seemed to him that he could hear her voice, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to believe it until he had seen her with his own eyes. She didn’t appear to be any worse for wear. Then it hadn’t been in vain. No matter what it had cost him, it had been worth it.
“Yes. I’ll be fine. Just give me a moment.”
He sat up, and tried to get to his feet. To his relief, his legs held him up. For a while he had thought they had turned to water, but now they seemed steady enough. That was all he needed. He could get up on the horse and be on his way, as Marion was urging him to. Shouldn’t there be someone else with them? He scanned the clearing for signs of his brother. When he caught sight of him, the memories came flooding back and he had to look away. He had given the secret away. How had Guy reacted to the news?
Even if he would have preferred never to talk to Guy again, he knew he would have to discuss their relationship further, but not now. They had to put more distance between them and Prince John first. He was amazed that de Chesnay had kept his word, but he was too weary to give it much thought. Even Marion’s gentle touch caused him distress, but he forced his reaction down. He wouldn’t push her away. She had never caused him any pain. Her love still meant everything to him. Surely time would help diminish the dull pain he felt, not only in body, but in his dazed and confused mind.
With relief, Guy decided that Robin was returning to normal. The further away they were from Prince John the better. Unfortunately, he didn’t think they could push the horses much harder. They would have to make camp for the night and proceed to Sherwood, or wherever he could find refuge, on the morrow. He thought they had come far enough away from de Chesnay’s land for them to be quite safe from pursuit, but he wasn’t about to take any chances. Their safety depended on his judgment. He couldn’t let Marion and Robin down.
It was odd that these two who had been his enemies should feel much closer to him than anyone else he knew. There had never been any affection in his life since his mother died, and his father had sent him off to complete his training as a squire. Even the few kind words from Marion had warmed his heart, but the embrace had taken his breath away. He still couldn’t quite believe it had happened. How could Marion find it in her heart to forgive him all the trouble he had caused her, and her first lover? She really was an amazing woman, and he was lucky that she didn’t hate him anymore. Luckier than he deserved.
Towards nightfall, they managed to find a suitable campsite, that was well enough hidden to fool any pursuer save the most skilful and persistent. They would have to hope that it would be enough. Marion was as tired as the rest of them. Guy suspected that she hadn’t had much sleep up in that tower room, worrying over her fate. He wasn’t sure about how much had been known to her until she was set free. Perhaps she had been awaiting her death. Life with Prince John might not have been much preferable to that. She lay down next to Robin and fell asleep right away.
Despite the fatigue, Guy couldn’t get to sleep. It was something that had happened to him many times when he was in battle. The body would be so far beyond sleep it could find no rest, no matter how exhausted he was. He was also getting more and more impatient to remove his clothes and clean himself, to remove any traces of de Chesnay on his skin. The others were asleep, so surely he might now leave for a moment to take care of the matter that had been weighing on his mind ever since they had made their way out of Guillaume’s bedchamber.
Down by the small stream he didn’t waste any time getting on with his task. The sooner he could feel clean the better. As he was putting the last of his garments back on, he was startled by a sound from behind. Instantly he sprang to attention. He was a fool to let himself be caught without any weapon to defend himself, and the others with. Would he be able to lead the pursuit away from his sleeping companions or were they already beyond help? He realized that it need not be the Prince’s men at all. Any travelling band of outlaws might be taking their chance at robbing and killing unwary travellers. Just as he was about to launch his desperate attack, he recognized his pursuer. Robin. Had he come on the same errand? Guy hesitated. Should he leave Robin to give him privacy, or was this the time to talk? He decided to leave the decision up to Robin. After all, Guy could imagine that all this had been even harder on the younger man.
Robin didn’t appear to object to Guy’s presence, but didn’t make any move to approach the water. Instead he seemed determined to speak the other man. Still, when it came down to it, it was more difficult even than he had imagined. In the end, Guy felt he had to end the painful silence.
“That was quick thinking, what you told de Chesnay. Thanks.”
“What? Oh, that.”
The look in Robin’s eyes troubled Guy. It hadn’t been a ruse? Surely it couldn’t be the truth? He didn’t want to believe it, but he had to admit that it would explain his father’s lack of affection for him.
“You mean you were telling the truth?”
“Guy, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to find out this way.”
“I see. Then I suppose I have even more to thank you for.”
Even with his experience, he had never imagined he would come close to such an atrocity. He felt his cheeks take on colour again. His mind shied away from the thought and instead, he remembered something he had almost been able to forget, but now came back to him in startling clarity. He and Robin fighting, rolling around on the ground perilously close to an abyss. Normally there would have been no chance for the slight young man of defeating the older and more seasoned warrior. Guy realized how close he had come to killing his own brother.
“You have nothing to thank me for. After all, being the older son, you should have been the one to be raised as father’s heir. Your life might have been very different if he had acknowledged you.”
“That’s never been a possibility, not while my father lived. I mean with Gisburne still alive. You know that. In any case, it isn’t your fault. I’m the one who should be begging your forgiveness. All this time I’ve been trying to bring about your downfall. If only I’d known.”
“I haven’t known about it for all that long. Fortunately, there has never been any question of my being able to seriously injure you. Like that time we were fighting -”
“Ah, yes, I remember. Fortunately, I was never able to follow the Sheriff’s orders to the letter on that day.”
At the mention of the Sheriff’s name, Robin looked away. After all this time, the man still cast a dark shadow over both their lives, but it appeared his brother wished to further unburden himself about the painful topic.
“Yes. The Sheriff – Marion told me you all knew about – that. I suppose I was only deluding myself. Then you might as well know the rest. The Sheriff wasn’t the first, but I had been hoping he would be the last.”
Robin nodded sadly.
“This wasn’t my first time either.”
Guy’s eyes widened in bafflement. Was Robin saying what he thought he was saying?
“Oh, it was nothing like this. I really didn’t know what to expect. You see – when I was a boy, Mark d’Aubry came to stay with us. My father thought it would be good idea for us to continue our training together. If he had known what Mark was teaching me, I think he would have come to another conclusion.”
“d’Aubry? You too. I should have guessed.”
“You and d’Aubry? When?”
“Just before he was knighted. I was a squire and we were training together. Mark was always generous with his gold, and that was useful. My father didn’t provide for me anymore, not since I was 12, so I had to fend for myself.”
Robin couldn’t begin to imagine what it had been like. He was beginning to realize why his father had never allowed him to continue his training to be a knight. Perhaps his father had loved him more than he had imagined. At last, he felt he understood what had made Guy the man he was. If any traces of resentment had lingered they were now truly gone.
“I’m beginning to understand why my father never let me finish my training. Our father I should say.”
Despite everything, Guy smiled faintly.
“That will take some getting used to.”
“I know. For me too. Guy, it just occurred to me – Am I right in assuming that you have ruined your standing with the Sheriff by helping me in this?”
The laughter astonished Robin, but he could see that Guy wasn’t really amused.
“That is a safe bet. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there is a price on my head by now.”
“That’s what I thought. I was thinking – my father might be willing to take you in now. His influence might save you. After all, you have committed no crime, much as you might have angered the Sheriff and Prince John. I know how much my disgrace has pained him. Your reputation should satisfy him better.”
The bitter noise Guy made, told Robin that his choice of words had been unfortunate, but it was too late to take them back.
“My reputation? What an innocent you are. Oh, well, perhaps he will find it hard to comment on the rest.”
Eager to smooth over his faux pas, Robin pressed on.
“I’m sure of it. He must have learned about Mark and I, yet he never mentioned it to me.”
“That sounds reassuring, but it’s hardly the same thing.”
“What is the difference?”
Guy sighed and shook his head.
“You know what. Of course it’s always possible that he might choose to ignore it anyway. If he wants a new heir badly enough.”
“Then it’s worth a try, isn’t it?”
“At this point, I’m willing to try anything. Marion invited me to join you in Sherwood. She seems to think she can keep Scarlet from going for my throat the moment my back is turned.”
“She could. I may not be able to, but she would. If father won’t receive you at Huntingdon, I would welcome you in Sherwood too.”
“Thank you. You are far too forgiving. After all the trouble I’ve caused you and Marion, you are still willing to welcome me. I have done nothing to deserve your generosity.”
“Yes, you have. Without your help, we would never have been able to save Marion. Besides, you are my brother.”
Guy felt his eyes sting with unfamiliar and humiliating tears. He was grateful for the dusk that hid his discomfort. He was about to turn and walk away in silence. After all, he knew Robin would want his privacy. Still, he couldn’t go without a final word.
“That means more to me than I can say. No one has ever treated me as well.”
With that Guy turned abruptly and returned to their campsite. As far as he could tell, Marion was still asleep. He didn’t doze off until he had heard his brother join them too.