|Primary Characters:||Robin, Marion, Guy|
|Description:||Robin and Marion, who are expecting their first child, are accused of pagan worship. Guy has word about a lady from his past. He saves her and brings her to Leaford. The Sheriff sends his men to arrest his old enemies, and Guy has to take Marion away. She gives birth, but she and Robin learn that gods move in mysterious ways.
Sir Richard of Leaford once again had reason to fear for his daughter’s safety. For months, he had been stalling the menacing letters from the church, but it now seemed that all his efforts had been in vain. In the last missive from the Bishop, the most unsettling piece of news had been announced. A clerk, representing the Bishop himself, would be paying Leaford a visit. Martyn StClair would be determine for himself if there was any truth to the disturbing rumours claiming that lady Marion and her new husband, Robert of Huntingdon had taken to the worship of pagan gods.
Leaford was at his wits’ end. In vain had he pleaded with his child to renounce her stubborn faith in the pagan god Herne. It was beyond her father how any young woman or man educated in the true faith would turn their backs on the church and fall down and worship false gods. He had fought for his god in the Holy Land as a young man, and now he had lived to see his only child mocking all that he held sacred, but a child is more valuable to a man than any faith. Though he could not understand, Leaford would stand by his daughter until the end.
He still had not been able to bring himself to speak to Marion about the coming troubles. She was far too happy in her marriage, and since she had announced the imminent arrival of a Leaford heir, all had seemed perfect. Perfect, had it not been for the threatening noises made by the church. Marion was wise in many ways, but it seemed to Leaford that his daughter could not have taken the warnings seriously.
Who could have tipped the scales against them? Leaford had his suspicions, most definitely so, but before he attempted to take precautions, he needed to know for certain. If he wrote to his old friend Jehan de Vernaux, he felt sure that he would find out the truth. There was not much that the old Bishop’s secretary did not know about the affairs of the church. The present Bishop might have Prince John’s confidence, but some matters still revolved around the older men.
After spending an extended time over the wording in the letter to de Vernaux, Leaford sat back and regarded his work. With a sigh, he folded and sealed the letter. A lad was summoned to bring it to de Crécy with a message asking the commander to send a man to Vernaux’s home. Knowing that de Crécy would not let him down, Leaford allowed himself to turn his mind on other matters. There was no putting it off any further, Marion would now have to be told – but Leaford checked himself. Might not this bad news have a detrimental effect on a woman in Marion’s condition? Leaford knew that his daughter was very different from her delicate mother, but even so, it might be wise to bring the matter to young Robert’s attention instead. Perhaps Marion would resent his protectiveness, but in Leaford’s view it was far better to err on the side of caution. His years as a warrior had taught him that.
Yes, young Robert would need to be told. If Leaford in the past had disregarded his daughter’s young husband, he was beginning to feel he had done the boy an injustice. He had managed to keep Marion safe in the time they had spent together. Surely he would make a valuable ally. So would his father and brother, should it be decided to ask for their assistance. No doubt Robert could be trusted to make that judgment himself.
The lad returned, informing his lord that de Crécy had sent a man to Vernaux. Leaford sent the boy to find Robert of Huntingdon. The young man arrived rather late, somewhat flustered and with his hair in disarray. It seemed he had been interrupted in his private chambers with his lovely bride. Sir Richard made no mention of Robert’s consternation, instead choosing to bring up the urgent topic immediately.
“I am afraid there is trouble.”
“Sir? Anything I can do?”
It was very hard to believe this might be the case, but Leaford made himself continue. There was more to this boy than met the eye. Sir Richard was beginning to learn that.
“That is what I am hoping. This is a letter from the Bishop. He is very concerned with your spiritual well being.”
From the look on the young man’s face, Leaford realized that he did not understand the implications of his statement. With a sigh, he hastened to clarify. Surely even a boy like young Robert, who for all appearances had been allowed to run wild during his childhood years should be able to grasp such a serious matter?
“What I meant was that your pagan beliefs are causing the church much concern. This time, I am very much afraid they will send their officials to investigate. Have you heard of a man named Martyn StClair?”
“No, sir. I can not say that I have. Who is he?”
“A very dangerous man. In addition, he is the Bishop’s right hand, and I am sure I do not need to tell you that the Bishop himself serves Prince John.”
At last Robert’s features began to show some concern. Content that he was finally making himself clear, Leaford allowed himself to relax slightly. Young Robert was no fool. And boys would be boys. Sir Richard could still remember some of the foolishness he had been up to when he was young, but enough was enough. Should their lives depend on it, Robert’s own and Marion’s, surely they would see reason? Whatever they believed they should put their faith in, there could be no truth to the existence of pagan gods in today’s world.
“Sir, I do not know what to say. Please forgive me for bringing this danger down on you.”
“Not only on me, I’m afraid. There is Marion to consider as well.”
Sir Richard immediately regretted his statement. The crushed look on Robert’s features shamed him. This boy loved Marion as much as Leaford himself did. Why did he need to pain him so? But a little voice inside his head told him why. To make it clear to the lad how serious the situation was. If this pain prevented a later, far worse pain, then surely this harshness was justified?
“I do not know what to -”
“Yes, you told me that. Look at me, boy. Could it be so very hard to renounce this pagan god you worship?”
“Sir, I mean no disrespect, but we do not worship Herne. We honor him.”
Sir Richard impatiently waved away this fine distinction. Honor, worship, after all there was not much difference between the two, not in the eyes of the church. Furthermore, he was not the one young Robert needed to convince.
“I am a tolerant man. To me it matters not what you choose to call your worship or your faith.”
That was not quite true. Had Leaford not fought in the crusades as a young man? Fought for the true faith, the true God? But in all honesty, his reasons for doing so had not been all spiritual. There had been a great deal of lust for adventure behind his religious fervour. In another way, that statement was fully the truth.
He loved his daughter so much, her faith or lack of it mattered not greatly. By now, he had begun to feel much affection for this young man who made his daughter so happy. Youthful folly ought not to be punished as harshly as the church might see fit to do.
“However, the church will not take such a lenient view of matters. Come, Robert, surely you can find it in your heart to allay the church’s misgivings concerning your soul?”
“In what way, sir?”
Again, Sir Richard paused to consider. Yes, what was he truly suggesting? Did he really wish his daughter and her husband to taint their souls with lies?
“When StClair arrives, we must do our utmost to allay his fears. And as we have no pagan altars and offerings at Leaford, I am sure we shall succeed. As long as you and Marion, and your men will not do or say anything that could be interpreted as – pagan.”
“You expect me to lie, sir?”
Not quite as much the innocent as he looked, Leaford would grant the boy that, but hearing his own doubts put into words did not place Sir Richard in a pleasant state of mind. Thus, his retort was somewhat sharper than he had intended.
“No, boy, I do not expect you to lie, but could you not use caution in what you say and do near this StClair fellow? Is that too much to ask to keep Marion safe?”
Robin felt trapped. He did not know what Herne would make of such subterfuge, but there was also no doubt in his mind that he would do anything to keep Marion and their child safe.
“No, sir. I will do my best.”
That was better. Perhaps they should be able to escape this trap unscathed after all. Now all they could do was wait for StClair’s arrival, and the reply to his own letter to Vernaux. It should be possible to ascertain who was responsible for this vicious treachery. If his suspicions proved to be correct – but he was getting ahead of himself. Time enough to consider revenge later. Now all that mattered was to keep his family safe. Such a shame that King Richard had left England some months previously and there was no telling when he would return this time.
Robin found an isolated corner of Leaford to ponder Sir Richard’s words. This was all his fault. How could he have dragged Marion back into trouble again, once she had safely escaped the dangers of outlaw life? For the moment he forgot that their paths had crossed at a time when she needed a champion.
He longed for his father’s advice, and it struck him that this was an excellent time for a visit from the elder Huntingdons. The weather was fine, and Loxley and the Sheriff appeared to be observing a temporary truce. Under the circumstances, there was not much else for them to do. King Richard had left strict orders that the peasantry and even the serfs were to be treated with some consideration. No one was deceived however. The Sheriff, his brother Hugo and most of all Prince John, were no doubt hard at work thinking of new ways to enrich themselves at the expense of others. None of that was important right now. It was time for a letter to be sent to Huntingdon. Robin truly looked forward to seeing his father and brother again.
As always, the two elder Huntingdons were only too happy to visit Leaford. Less than a week later, the family was reunited again. Sir Richard and Huntingdon secluded themselves in the solar which among other uses, served Leaford’s workroom.
Though Marion was not in ill health, she had taken to remaining in her rooms more and more in the past months or so. Robin was told she and her servants were preparing for the lying-in. These things frightened Robin somewhat and while the women were in their rooms, he chose to spend his time elsewhere.
As his best friend, Much, was now married, and he and his wife too were expecting, Robin did not see much of him. Leaford had been very kind to him, but a man of his age did not provide much companionship for a young man. Tuck helped him pass away the time, but as there were gaps in Robin’s education, they did not have much to discuss either. So as not to shame Marion in polite company, Robin had asked Tuck to further his education, which the friar had been glad to do for his old friend. Likewise, Leaford took every opportunity to train his daughter’s young husband in the running of a castle. Tactfully, Sir Richard had also suggested that Robin avail himself of the facilities for working on his fighting skills. When his brother arrived, Robin and Guy would be found in the training ground almost every day, practicing at swordplay and archery. Guy was only too happy to be of assistance to his brother, and Robin enjoyed the companionship of a man of his own age. It did not take him long to bring his problem to his brother’s attention. To his astonishment, Guy had many helpful suggestions to offer.
“First of all, little brother, it is not expected of men, even peers, to be well versed in the tenets of the church. I think you can safely leave all that to the ladies. Lady Marion, as you know, must be well schooled since her days at the convent. If StClair asks you, it seems to me a simple matter to evade him.”
“You know this StClair?”
“Yes. He is a close friend of Abbot Hugo.”
“A far more civilized man than the Sheriff, but no less dangerous. Do not be deceived by his seemingly meek appearance. It is my belief that he adopts that attitude on purpose, so as to lull his enemies into a false sense of security. He might not be a warrior, but as a friend of Prince John’s he is nonetheless a formidable foe.”
“My thanks to you, Guy. You must think me hopelessly inept as a peer, as well as the Hooded Man.”
Guy laughed. That was a rare sound, and it fell pleasantly on Robin’s ears.
“You will learn. I might have the advantage over you as a warrior, but I am no more educated than you are. What I have learned is merely what I have observed among other nobles. Not at the Sheriff’s house, but earlier. Even his brother, Hugo, is a more civilized man.”
It was not hard to guess what Guy was referring to. Abbot Hugo was a man who never looked at a woman and far less a boy. His tastes ran more to fine wines, expensive food and, of course, the art of politics.
“Please, tell me about life at Huntingdon.”
“Are you homesick, little brother?”
It was plain that something was amiss. By countering with another question Guy was putting off replying to his brother’s innocent enquiry.
“No. I am very happy here. But still – Huntingdon is my home. Was my home.”
Guy’s normally so sullen features relaxed into a smile. Huntingdon was all he had ever wished for in many ways.
“You were very lucky to be raised there. Father was wise not to let you out of his sight.”
At this, Robin blushed. He knew far too well what is brother was referring to, and it was clear that he would no more have been able to fight off the attention of the older boys than Guy had been.
“I know. Is everything well with you and father?”
“As you can see.”
“No differences of opinion?”
That innocent face of Robin’s hid far more wisdom than you might expect. Guy swore inwardly. Why did his brother always cut to the heart of the problem?
“I remember how it used to be. Father and I could never see eye to eye on anything. I must be a grave disappointment to him.”
“Not at all. You are doing yourself an injustice, Robin. Father loves you.”
“I know. So what is he nagging you about this time?”
“The same as always. Marriage. In the last year, he has introduced me to no less than three young ladies he finds suitable, but I believe I am too set in my ways to ever -”
“No, Guy. You must not think that. One day you will meet the lady of your heart and then -”
Robin broke off, feeling rather guilty. Guy already had given his heart. To a lady who was now Robin’s wife. This might not be the best way to cheer his brother.
“Perhaps. In the meantime, I think I shall content myself with securing Huntingdon for us. Father is being unreasonable. Should I die without heir, I am sure you and Marion will be able to provide one for Huntingdon as well.”
The topic was abandoned for the rest of that afternoon. Instead the brothers returned to their swordplay.
On the day before StClair’s arrival, a man from Huntingdon came to Leaford, carrying a letter for Guy. The messenger found his master in the gardens, walking by himself. A frown on Guy frowned in puzzlement. Why would anyone send him a letter? He had never had any friends in the past, and now – his only friends were to be found right here at Leaford. Matters pertaining to Huntingdon would be addressed to his father. Still he thanked the man, and encouraged him to rest and have some refreshments in the kitchen.
Impatiently, he tore open the seal and began to laboriously scan the lines. Guy’s scholarly achievements were limited to signing his name, and painfully putting letters together. Along with religion, pen and paper were mostly left to the ladies. Immediately, one name stood out before his eyes as if in scarlet. Elaine. It had been more than seven years since he last heard from her. He had not attended her wedding. That would have been too painful, and his work did not allow him any time off for personal matters. The Sheriff would have laughed at him, had he been foolish enough to make the request.
Besides, Mark d’Aubry was the last man in the world he wished to meet again. Now his poor Elaine was bound to him in shameful marriage. But he had no time for useless reminiscing. This letter had been sent to him. There had to be a reason for it. When he had finished reading, he remained standing, clutching the paper in his hand, without seeing it. A voice came to him as if from far away. That finally broke through his reverie.
“I am afraid so.”
“May I see?”
There was no reason not to share this with his father, so Guy handed over the letter and waited.
“I see. We must consider this information very carefully. Do you know this lady, Elaine d’Aubry?”
“Yes. She was a distant relation of my mother’s. After the death of her parents Gisburne took her in, for my mother’s sake. Elaine was to serve as a companion. When my mother died, Elaine was sent to a convent. I believe it might have been the one where lady Marion was raised.”
But there was more to it than this brief outline, Huntingdon felt sure. He had heard something in his older son’s voice that in the past, he had only heard at the mention of his friend Leaford’s daughter. Guy loved this Elaine d’Aubry. Such a shame that the only women his son could find it in his heart to love were married. And in this case, to a man such as d’Aubry. Though he preferred not to know, Huntingdon knew all about the man and his relationship to both his sons. What an unsuspecting fool he had been, and what a shameful neglect of Margaret’s son he was guilty of. But all that was in the past. Now both d’Aubry and his poor wife were in danger. Not only that, if there was any truth in the statements made in the letter, the safety of the realm was at stake. He needed to consult Sir Richard right away. They would have to determine whether something could be done to warn King Richard about the treachery being plotted. First, however, he wanted to question his son further about this lady who could transform his dour features into this boyishly handsome face.
“Tell me more about this Elaine. Did you know her well?”
“She was a very kind lady. Always good to me, just like my mother.”
“What is she like?”
“I have not seen her for more than seven years, but I remember her as being very beautiful. She was also very wise, like lady Marion.”
“Is she like lady Marion in appearance as well?”
“What? No. Elaine’s hair is as dark as a raven’s wing and her eyes are green.”
And Huntingdon truly saw. If they acted quickly, perhaps it might be possible to snatch the lady away from danger, before her husband brought the King’s wrath down on himself and his fellow conspirators. The names mentioned in the letter were suggestive. Even if no evidence pointed in that direction, Huntingdon could guess that the Sheriff, his brother Hugo and possibly, but to put this thought into words would amount to treason, Prince John, might be implicated. However, as the punishment for high treason invariably would be death, d’Aubry would soon make his wife a widow. A widow, who would only be too grateful for Huntingdon’s protection. Yes. Though the circumstances were difficult, and far from ideal, this might be the way to finally persuade his stubborn son to marry and give him the heir he so eagerly awaited.
“You must not worry, Guy. Leaford and I will give this matter our full consideration. It should be possible to save your lady from sharing her husband’s downfall.”
“Father, are you sure? It would mean so much to me. Elaine is – I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to her.”
“Rest assured, son, that I will do everything in my power to help her. Now, perhaps you and your brother would like to meet Leaford and myself in his room to discuss this further. We will find a solution.”
Awkwardly and ungainly, like a boy not yet knighted, Guy ran to find Robin. For the moment forgetting his manners, he knocked on the door to the young couple’s room, and almost without waiting burst inside. Fortunately, Marion was seated near the window, busy with her sewing, perhaps something for the babe. Robin got up and with a concerned look on his face approached the door.
“Guy? Is anything amiss? Did StClair arrive ahead of time?”
“No. Forgive me for this unseemly haste, mylady.”
“Do not mention it, Guy. But please, tell us what is on your mind.”
“Robin, father requests your presence downstairs. There is some business he wishes to discuss with us both.”
Marion put down her sewing, intending to join the men, but her husband took her hand and squeezed it pleadingly.
“Marion, please. I will tell you everything later. There is no need for you to run down the stairs just for this meeting. Is there, Guy?”
“If you do not want to tell me what this concerns, I shall come along anyway. Try to stop me, if you like -”
“Robin, I will not hear of any subterfuge. Because I am expecting, it does not mean my head has been affected.”
“Mylady, no one is suggesting anything of the kind. I have received a letter concerning Elaine d’Aubry, Elaine Lacey.”
“Elaine? My dear friend from the convent. I heard she married Mark d’Aubry – Is anything amiss with her?”
“You and Elaine were friends?”
“Of course we were. She was such a sweet kind girl. But we did not spend much time together. I was much younger, and she was sent away to prepare for the wedding when I had been at the convent less than a year. We tried to stay in touch, but somehow we did not exchange many letters. And after I left school, I met Loxley and -”
“I see. Well, d’Aubry is in over his head this time. Perhaps -”
“Please, keep me informed. If Elaine needs my help, she will be most welcome here at Leaford at any time.”
“Thank you, mylady. I am sure Elaine will appreciate your offer.”
“Go on, Robin. If we can do anything to help Elaine, we must.”
“Of course, my dear. I will return shortly.”
The men’s deliberations were lengthy and covered every aspect of the problem. In the end, it was decided that Leaford and Huntingdon would send messengers to a few of their old friends to seek more facts about this startling revelation, and in the meantime they would do nothing, except await the arrival of StClair. The delay was grating on Guy’s nerves, but he saw the wisdom in such a course of action and did not protest. His father and Leaford were right, rushing into this situation might only make it worse.
On the following day, StClair arrived, accompanied by a minor clerk and a knight, Gerard Ferrand. Ferrand had been in training with Guy, and thus knew everything about Guy and his past. It was inevitable that the confrontation would embarrass Guy, and since he was not the person under investigation, he kept to himself most of the time. However, in accordance to his brother’s advice, Robert referred most spiritual questions to Marion, and Leaford. If such a cause made him seem somewhat weak, Robert was used to that feeling by now, and that did not greatly concern him anymore. After all, a man in the service of the church was no great warrior himself. Tuck, too, found himself under investigation, but as he had extensive training in evasive replies, he fared better than the young couple.
It was no easy task, however, to put Marion at a disadvantage in a discussion. Robert could not help but enjoy the spectacle of his wife playing the part of a demure, well brought up young lady of noble birth who had regretfully been deceived by a commoner, but who was now safely back in her own home. StClair appeared to be taken in, but Robert did not allow himself to be lulled into a false sense of security. Guy’s warning still rang in his ears. Even so, it appeared to be impossible that the man was not completely deceived.
Marion mastered the various tones of voice, every pose and facial expression to perfection. She seemed to be so very sorry the church felt it necessary to investigate. Such a disgrace and how poor Mother Dominic would have grieved over her young protege. Especially, it was such a shame that this had to happen now that she was at last back in the fold, as it were, forgiven by her loving father, and married to an equal. Most of all, she regretted that her unborn son would one day know what manner of mother he had. At that point, Marion’s eyes were brimming with tears, and even Robert felt moved by her compelling speech, all presented in a whisper.
But was it entirely true that Marion was no longer a faithful Christian? Robert himself had not fully been able to turn his back on the teachings of the church, inculcated in him at an early age. His wife, he knew, was far better versed in the tenets of the church. Perhaps, it was possible to honour both Herne, who might be a god, but also a very real living creature, and the same time, their Christian God who did not walk the Earth, at least not in these latter days.
He might be doing Marion an injustice if he chose to view her performance as merely that. Had not Father Bertrand quoted the words of Jesus Christ, something about giving the emperor his dues and to the Lord – ‘. Robert had not been a good student, preferring instead to play many a lighthearted game, and making scores of unattended outings around the countryside surrounding Huntingdon.
After a busy week, StClair announced that he would return to the Bishop to make his report. He had strolled around Leaford, no doubt searching for pagan altars, and he had taken it upon himself to question the servants and others of Leaford’s people. Robert did not think that the man could have found anything incriminating. All that was to be seen was a very proper chapel, diligently tended by Tuck, and the servants could be counted upon to keep their own faith to themselves. No, StClair must not have found anything amiss. That did not necessarily put them in the clear. All it took was for one discontented serf anywhere to produce ‘evidence’ of pagan worship. Perhaps not even that much, if as they all suspected, Abbot Hugo, and ultimately, the Sheriff was behind the accusations. Knowing the Sheriff as he did, through his brother Guy, Robert knew that the man never attended mass, unless a Bishop or member of the Royal family visited Nottingham, not even when his brother Hugo was present. Apparently, it was not the devotion that was being examined so much as a man’s position and the company he kept. Of course, even Robert knew that this accusation stemmed not from any religious concerns. This was part of the political struggle, nothing more.
Not long after StClair’s departure, a letter arrived, informing Leaford, that indeed as they had suspected, Abbot Hugo was the one who had informed the Bishop of the state of affairs at Leaford. It did not greatly surprise anyone at Leaford. At this point, it was too soon to say whether they had managed to successfully evade this trap set by the Sheriff. There had still been no replies from any of Sir Richard’s friends, nor from any of Huntingdon’s old allies. Even so, a few of them might already have interceded on their behalf. All they could do was wait.
Then one night, a messenger arrived, bearing news about d’Aubry. The man sent a servant up to wake Sir Richard, who in his turn sent a boy to rouse Guy and Huntingdon. After some consideration, it was decided to let Robert and Marion sleep. A lady in her delicate condition should not be exposed to the night air or the worries the communication might cause. Guy questioned the man himself, and just as he had feared, the conspirators had been exposed, and brought to justice. With an effort Guy controlled himself and sent the messenger away. Once in the privacy of Sir Richard’s solar, however, he gave vent to all his concerns.
“This is what I have feared all along, father. Elaine must be distraught and furthermore, she might be in danger.”
“You are right, son. It is time for haste.”
“I will be ready to leave within the hour.”
“Take two of our men.”
“You may take as many of mine as you wish, Guy.”
“Thank you, sir. I am most grateful for your offer, but I will only take the two my father mentioned. Time is of the essence.”
“Go with God, my son.”
“Thank you, father. If I am successful, I shall return, bringing Elaine with me.”
“My daughter and her servants shall make lady d’Aubry comfortable.”
Guy fled down to the stables, had his stallion saddled, while his two men made their own preparations. In far less than an hour, the three knights were on their way east, towards d’Aubry’s home. Though he had never visited Ormesby, he knew the way, and did not falter in his resolve. This was his chance to at last repay Elaine for all her kindness to him. He did not allow his mind to even touch upon the topic, but in reality he was desperate to meet the lady again, for a more personal reason. Since childhood he had loved her, never believing his feelings might be returned. Would she even remember him after all the years gone by? No matter. He would save her life. That was all he asked.
The journey took him the remainder of the night, and much of the following day, only stopping to allow the horses some rest. Towards evening, they could see the towers of Ormesby in the gathering dusk. Guy avidly regarded what had been the home of his beloved Elaine for the past seven years. They rode across the drawbridge and called to the nearest servant to announce their arrival to the lady of castle. The young man cast them a frightened look, but hurriedly obeyed. Guy and his men awaited Elaine in the grand hall. Some servant girls brought ale and cider, which was greatly appreciated by the tired knights.
One of the girls timidly approached Guy.
“Mylord, will you and your men require anything else?”
“No. This is fine. Thank you.”
The girl stared at this knight with the polite manners. After making sure he would not change his mind, she treated him to a brilliant smile and darted back to the kitchens. Apparently, the servants were not used to being addressed in such a civil manner. It did not surprise Guy. d’Aubry was ever the sort of man who kept his gallant manners for his superiors.
There was a sound from the direction of the door and Guy turned expectantly towards the newcomer. He was not disappointed. In his memories, Elaine had always been the fairest lady he had ever known, and today, she fulfilled his every expectation. Her hair shone darkly, and her eyes were the same emerald green Guy had marveled at as a boy. But the pain he could read in them chilled him. When last he met Elaine, her smile had been the warmest and loveliest he had ever seen. Now, she must have learned fear and sorrow. Did she not recognize him?
“Mylady. I have come to bring you to safety. Have you had word about your husband?”
Elaine inclined her head in acknowledgement.
“Then there is no time to lose.”
“Might I enquire about your name, good sir?”
“Forgive me. In my haste I forget my manners. You once knew me as sir Guy of Gisburne. Events have changed my name, but I had hoped you would still know my face.”
“I was hoping – Guy, is it really you?”
“It is I, mylady. But time is a-wasting. We must be away from this place. Even tonight. I hope I have found you in good health.”
“Yes. My health is good. Thank you. I will have my girls pack for me. Might I bring a servant to wait on me?”
“Certainly mylady. But the girl must be able to ride swiftly.”
“I will make sure of that.”
Elaine retired upstairs to her chambers, where she gathered her only belongings worth bringing on this wild flight. She had not owned much when she came to Ormesby, and d’Aubry had not given her many worldy goods. Even if he had, she was not inclined to accept anything given her by his hand. She knew she must bring Caitlin, her Irish maid, who was also distant kin of hers. Magdalen and the others were told to return to their villages. If the King’s men reached Ormesby in her absence, she did not wish to leave any of her servants at their mercy. She knew that the other servants would take to their heels as soon as their lady was safely off d’Aubry’s land. Her husband had never inspired love or even loyalty in his servants.
While Elaine made her preparations, Guy impatienty paced the hall below. He did not know when the King’s men might visit, and he knew not what they would seek, but when the lord of the castle had been found guilty of conspiracy against his King, even a lady innocent of all charges might find herself in trouble.
For a lady, Elaine did not need much time to ready herself for travel. Still, Guy was nervous and edgy once the lady entered the room again, followed by a girl as dark as herself. The girl might have been her sister. It soon became apparent that both women were capable of riding swiftly. Two stable lads were sent to saddle Elaine’s own mare and a gelding for the girl. Guy tried to hold Tancred away from the mare, lest the stallion unnerve her, but like her mistress, the bay seemed to be of a stable dispositon. Soon they were once again on the road. Some miles west they heard the sound of a large number of horses approaching. The King’s men. Now Guy knew his decision to bring a smaller party was correct. It was not difficult to lead their horses off the road and take cover in a small grove beside the road. After the King’s men had passed them, Guy waited some fifteen minutes before they continued on their way. To avoid pursuit on their way back to Leaford, Guy chose another road, which would take somewhat longer, but should be safer. While on the road, he was reluctant to speak to Elaine, but he realized that his timely arrival might need an explanation. As the bay did not fear the black stallion he told his men to split up and let one of them lead the way, while the other took up the rear, along with the servant girl, and brought Tancred alongside the mare.
“Mylady, I am taking you to Leaford. To your friend lady Marion and her father Leaford.”
“Marion? Thank you, Guy. I will be pleased to see her again. How come you to be in a position to offer me your assistance?”
“My father and I received a letter about the conspiracy your husband appears to be involved in.”
“I had been given warning about his foolishness. It is fortunate that I still have some loyal friends. But I did not know where to go. May I ask you a question, Guy?”
“Please. Ask anything you like.”
“You told me I knew you as sir Guy of Gisburne. Does this mean that is no longer your name? How can this be?”
“Gisburne was not my father. My mother – my mother loved another man. Huntingdon.”
“Huntingdon? I see. And he has acknowledged you as his heir?”
“Yes. I am very fortunate. Huntingdon is now my home.”
“I am pleased for you. Gisburne was not a kind man. He took me into his home and for that I will always be grateful, but I never liked the way he was treating you.”
“He must have known even then.”
There was a look in Elaine’s eyes that told Guy she still remembered fondly the little boy he once was, but she could not know how strong his feelings for her was.
They did not continue the conversation. The ride took all their strength. When dawn colored the sky yellow and pink, they made camp and allowed the horses to graze and drink. There was no time for sleep, but Elaine and her servant girl found a sheltered spot where they could enjoy some repose, if only for a moment.
Soon they were back on the road, trying to reach Leaford before any pursuers could catch up with them.
Meeting Elaine like this made Guy remember her husband, whose name he had studiously avoided mentioning. It was impossible to imagine a gentle lady like Elaine at d’Aubry’s mercy. The pain in her eyes, however, told him she had not known any happiness at Ormesby. It was her misfortune to be orphaned at an early age, and not finding guardians with more affection for her. No woman should be forced to endure a man like d’Aubry. This set Guy thinking about his own encounters with Mark. He fervently wished Elaine would have no way of knowing about that, for her sake as well as his. Even if she did not, he feared that in her eyes, he was still the boy he had been. The beautiful lady might remember the child fondly, but would she be able to see him as a man? Would she be able to love him? That was the question that burned in his mind. It might be ghoulish to anticipate a man’s downfall and execution, but in this situation, only death or exile awaited a man who plotted against his king. Guy knew that Elaine might petition the Pope in Rome and have her marriage annulled. When there was no offspring, he knew that Rome would take a lenient view of the request.
At last they approached Leaford. Guy was relieved they had encountered no pursuit. It appeared that d’Aubry’s wife was not considered important enough to take into custody. Who expected a lady to have anything to do with a man’s trespasses? They entered Leaford lands and continued towards the castle. Soon Guy could dismount and help Elaine down. One of his knights courteously extended a hand to the servant girl. Once inside, servants rushed forward to receive the lady and her girl. Though it was late, Sir Richard, Huntingdon, Robert and Marion all awaited Guy’s return. Marion ran forward to greet her old friend, somewhat hampered by her condition, but still lithe on her feet.
“Elaine. At last. I have had rooms prepared for you. Let us go upstairs and settle you.”
“Thank you, my dear friend. It is good to see your face again. I had word you were married.”
“Forgive me. Where are my manners tonight? This is Huntingdon, and this is my husband, Robert of Huntingdon. You have met my father.”
“Mylords. Sir Richard, it is most kind of you to receive me in your home.”
“You are most welcome, mylady. Marion will make you comfortable.”
When the ladies had retired upstairs, Huntingdon turned an inquiring gaze on to his eldest son.
“You encountered no trouble on the road?”
“No. We had an uneventful ride.”
The elderly gentlemen soon retired to their own rooms, leaving Robert and Guy alone. Robin could no longer contain himself. He needed to know more about this mysterious lady from his brother’s past.
“You must tell me all about this lady.”
“I have already told you who she is.”
“Yes. You have told me how you met, but you have not told me what your true feelings about her are.”
Guy turned his eyes onto his brother, searchingly. Should he risk confiding in Robin? Or would that be premature? But Robin was not only his brother but a friend. Why should he not tell him what was on his mind?
“I think you have already guessed, but you must understand that when we knew each other, I was but a boy. She was already the loveliest lady in the world – along with lady Marion, naturally.”
That last statement was added as a courtesy to his brother, but it was also the simple truth. Both ladies were equally fair, though different in appearance.
“But you love her, do you not, Guy?”
“Yes. I do. But I am telling you that makes no difference.”
“She is married. You can not have forgotten about our mutual friend Mark d’Aubry?”
“For how long will she stay married to a traitor like Mark?”
“Even if his death is assured, there is no reason for her to return my feelings. I would not have her marry me out of gratitude for her rescue. You must understand that.”
“She will return your feelings.”
Robin’s face shone with contentment. At long last, his brother had found the lady of his heart. Nothing would stand in his way now.
“And how do you know that, little brother?”
“How can she help loving you?”
Now Guy could not help returning that innocent smile. It was gratifying to inspire such love in someone as kind and gentle as Robin. He was forever in his debt for sending him to see their father, and giving him this new life. Should Elaine truly return his feelings he now had a position to offer her, worthy of a lady like her.
“I hope you are right, Robin. But if she knows about my past -”
“No. Do not say anything. We must forget about that, as I have tried hard to repress the memories of Mark. What happened was not your fault or mine.”
“Perhaps you are right. But what woman would marry a man such as I was?”
“Elaine would, I am sure of it.”
“Oh, you are? And you have told Marion everything about Mark?”
As soon as the words had left his mouth, Guy regretted them. It pained him to see Robin’s happy face turn sad.
“Forgive me, Robin. I did not mean to -”
“I know. But you are right. There should be no secrets between a man and his wife. She will understand, and so will Elaine.”
“Thank you, Robin.”
“For your faith in me. I was your enemy, but you welcomed me in your home. You let me take your position. For all that I will never be able to repay you.”
“You saved Marion. Besides, you were only following the Sheriff’s orders. I did not take your persecution personally.”
“That is far better than I deserve. Now you must excuse me, Robin. I need to retire to my rooms. It has been a long ride.”
“Of course. I should have realized. Have a good night, Guy.”
“I wish you the same, little brother.”
They ascended the stairs together, and parted company to return to their own rooms. Marion was still absent, no doubt helping her friend settle in, and perhaps, happily chatting together. Robin knew his wife. She was not like other ladies, but the opportunity to exchange stories about how they had lived their lives since being separated would be irresistible. He used the waiting time to consider how best to explain to Marion what he had kept from her, out of shame. What Guy faced was perhaps far worse, but Robin dreaded making his confession almost equally. His wife knew what he had suffered at de Chesnay’s hands to buy her freedom. This was perhaps no worse, but what he had done as a boy had been of his own choice, not by grim necessity. What would Marion think of him? When he heard her steps outside their door, he swallowed hard, bracing himself for the ordeal.
His wife was in a happy mood, and was still smiling at the carefree chatter she and her friend had engaged in moments earlier. Now Elaine was preparing for bed, and so should Marion. As her time drew near, she tired more easily, but she hoped that would only be temporary.
“Marion. There is something I need to tell you.”
“Yes? You will not mind if I undress while we speak?”
Taking his silence for consent, Marion began removing her outer garments. There was a fire burning low on the grate, and the room was as warm as it ever was. When she was finished, she sat down on the bed, with some effort.
“There. What was it you wanted to tell me?”
“Elaine’s husband, Mark d’Aubry -”
“Yes, has there been any more tidings about him?”
“Poor Elaine. But if a man is foolish enough to stick his head in the noose, who can stop him? She told me he was a cruel and heartless man, and that she never loved him. I believe Guy loves her and once d’Aubry has paid for his crimes against King Richard, they can marry.”
“Yes, Guy loves her. He told me so only tonight. But there is something I need to tell you that concerns d’Aubry.”
“Oh? What is that?”
“When I was a boy, my father brought Mark to Huntingdon so we could study together. However, Mark -”
This was so difficult. Robin did not know how to tell Marion what was on his mind.
She took another look at her husband, and this time she studied him more closely. It was plain that something was distressing him. Perhaps she could guess what was on his mind, but if she was wrong, she risked hurting Robin’s feelings. She decided to wait and let him explain in his own words. The explanation was long in coming, however.
“Go on, Robin. Whatever is on your mind, can not be that bad. I will not be hard on you. You know that, do you not?”
“Yes, but – this is something so -”
“Very well, Robin, I suppose I shall have to guess, if you will not be more forthcoming.”
Her words gave him the strength he had lacked hitherto, and once he began talking, he found that it was not so hard as he had feared. What he had done happened a long time ago. Those actions did not have much to do with the man he was today. Marion studied him pensively, then reached out and pulled Robin into her embrace.
“Now I understand what Elaine has had to suffer in her marriage. Such a man. I am sorry for what he did to you as well, Robin. You must not blame yourself. He was older and plainly experienced. I am sorry you did not dare to confide in me sooner, but this changes nothing. My love for you remains the same. Did you ever doubt that?”
“I’m not sure. After all, you would be well justified if you turned away from me in revulsion.”
“Never. Now, let us go to sleep, Robin. I feel I need my rest more now as my time grews nearer.”
“Then let us say no more.”
He pulled the covers over his wife and lay down beside her, his arms protectively around her swelling form.
The following morning, Guy was up early, eager to meet Elaine. There was also the possibility of new messages concerning her husband’s fate might arrive. He knew that Robin and Marion tended to stay longer in their rooms, now that Marion’s time was near, so he breakfasted in the solar with his father and their host. It seemed Elaine too, chose to rise early. On his way to the gardens, where he planned on taking a stroll, Guy met her, apparently on the same errand. The smile that greeted him was brilliant and it seemed to him that she was as pleased to see him as he was to see her.
“I was about to take a walk in the gardens to take in the morning air. Would you care to join me?”
“With pleasure. Perhaps you would like to tell me more about your new home and your new father?”
“I have been very fortunate. And Robin – Robert is the best brother a man could have.”
“That pleases me greatly. He must make Marion a good husband.”
“You are right. I believe they are very happy.”
“I know Marion spent some time away from Leaford -”
Guy assumed that what Elaine was delicately hinting at was Marion’s days as an outlaw, and perhaps also her a involvement with a serf.
“It is my belief that she is much happier in her home.”
“I am sure you are right, Guy. Has there been tidings about Mark – about my husband?”
“You will think me a very bad wife, but I am glad I will no longer be required to make my home at Ormesby.”
“I assure you, mylady -”
“You see, Mark was not a very good husband. I should not be saying these things about him. It is my duty as a wife to be loyal to the man I have been joined with.”
“No. I understand. Mark and I knew each other.”
Elaine stopped and faced him with a look of alarm on her face. He did not know what he had said that had caused such a reaction.
“Guy. I did not intend to mention this, but many a time, Mark recounted some very distressing tales about his – friendship – with you, and about the Sheriff of Nottingham -”
Guy felt all colour drain from his face. It was not possible. No man could be that cruel. But it seemed Mark had indeed been that cruel. There was no doubt in his mind about what Mark must have told his poor wife. He did not know what to say. Quietly, he awaited Elaine’s next words.
“Guy, is there any truth in what he told me?”
If he chose to, he might evade the question, by pointing out that he did not know what Mark had told Elaine, but he could not deceive her.
“I’m very much afraid there must be.”
“He said -”
Her voice faltered as she realized that everything she had feared was true.
“Oh, Guy, I am so sorry. I would lie awake at night praying it was only more of his cruel lies.”
Guy would not face Elaine. Even if she might have been able to see him as a man, and not a child, all his hopes were now dashed, all at once.
His desolation became apparent to her, and she put a hand under his chin, forcing him to look up, and face her.
“Please, do not distress yourself so.”
“How can I not? I wished – I wished you would never know the kind of man I grew up to be.”
“I could not imagine you as anything but a good and kind man. You were a lovely little boy and I know you are still a good person.”
“You are too kind, mylady, but I was not a good and kind man. In the years I worked for the Sheriff, I -”
“No, Guy. I do not wish to know. It changes nothing. You are still the same boy I loved.”
“A boy no more, mylady.”
He did not dare to hope, yet he could not help but hold his breath in anticipation. For what? No woman could love him. It was no use deceiving himself. Now the aspect of the woman he loved brought him no comfort and all he wished at that moment was to take himself out of her presence.
“Of course. Forgive me, Guy.”
“No forgiveness is necessary. If you will excuse me, mylady, I shall take my leave of you.”
He could not bear to stay. She might still love the memory of that little boy she once knew, but hoping for her to love the man he had become, was like wishing for a miracle. Without waiting for a reply, Guy hurried away from her. He returned to find that a messenger had arrived, telling Huntingdon that d’Aubry and four fellow conspirators were to stand trial. It seemed the Sheriff, and most notably Prince John, had managed to escape unharmed yet again. Huntingdon would not be surprised, if the Sheriff had bought his own safety by informing on the other conspirators, but perhaps Huntingdon was underestimating the man’s intelligence. It was easy to do so. The Sheriff’s appearance was far from impressive and his personal life even less so. A clever man would have taken great care not to directly involve himself in such a dangerous undertaking as a conspiracy against his King. No doubt that was how Prince John had participated. There were plenty of discontented noblemen who would be easy to fool into becoming the Prince’s cat’s paws.
Huntingdon was just showing the letter to Leaford when Guy walked in. His demeanor made his father frown. As usual, his son was going about a subtle undertaking in the wrong way. He would need to instruct the boy in the art of asking for a lady’s hand. It would not be long until the executioner’s blade found d’Aubry’s neck, unless the King’s justice deemed him unworthy of the aristocratic privilege of being beheaded in a manner befitting his station. Sword blade or noose was all the same. Soon Elaine d’Aubry would no longer bear the fool’s name. Why should she not be Elaine of Huntingdon?
“Ah, there you are, my son. We have had word that d’Aubry will stand trial. You know what that means.”
“Yes. May he get what he deserves. Excuse me, father, Sir Richard. I must -”
“What is it now? You young people are always in such a hurry. Sit down and read the letter, Guy. And after you have done so, is it not common courtesy to break the news to the lady in a gentle way?”
In the past, there would have been no stopping Guy once his mind was set on a course of action. Now, acknowledging the debt of gratitude and love that existed between him and his father, he inclined his head in compliance. He read the letter, concluding that before long, Elaine would indeed be a widow. She would be protected at Leaford. Why should he cause her and himself pain by asking for her hand in marriage when the association with him, regardless of his name could only shame her?
“Now, I must -”
“You must go to the lady and inform her of what you have learned.”
Huntingdon fixed his son with a peremptory stare. And yet again, Guy’s will broke and he nodded.
“Yes, sir. I will speak to Elaine. At once.”
He found her where he had left her. She appeared to be regarding a rose bush, which stood in her path, but it soon became apparent that she saw none of it. Guy hesitated to break into her reverie. He was the cause of this new pain. How could he face her again, knowing what she knew? But he realized that his father was right. Should not the bad tidings come from him, he, who had taken her away from Ormesby?
“Guy. Forgive me if my question caused you pain.”
“No. You must forgive me. I did not wish to be the cause of such distress. Please. I am not worthy of your sympathy.”
“Oh, but you are. Were you not the one who saved me from falling into the hands of the King’s men?”
“I beg you, mylady. No gratitude is necessary. How could I not do what I can for the lady who made my childhood such a happy time, despite -”
Elaine drew in breath and it was plain that she was trying to compose herself. Whatever had transpired in the past was but a distant memory. Guy was still here, whatever pain he had suffered at her husband’s hands. She must not distress him further.
“Has there been news concerning my husband?”
“Yes. My father just received a letter, telling him that Mark is to stand trial.”
Despite knowing this would most likely come to pass, it was still a shock to hear it put into words, making it now a certainty that she would before long be wearing the widow’s wimple. Once again she would be defenseless, alone. And this time, she was not even young anymore. When Elaine was young and still at the convent, she had indulged in foolish dreams of love. Her marriage to Mark d’Aubry had shattered those dreams. Now her only recourse would be to seek shelter at the convent once again.
“I see. He has brought this upon himself. I can not grieve over a man I did not love.”
“Mylady, are you feeling well? Should I call for a servant girl to take you to your rooms?”
“No. I am fine, Guy. But perhaps, I should retire to my rooms after all. I need to ponder this.”
“Naturally. I will escort you inside.”
“Thank you, Guy.”
Soon Guy saw Elaine ascend the stairs, leaving him prey to his own misery. Footsteps from behind, made him realize that he had now disappointed his father, as well as distressed the woman he loved. Reluctantly, he turned and faced Huntingdon.
“Guy. I take it you have not yet proposed marriage to the lady?”
“How can I, father? She is still married to another man.”
“You can not hold the wedding yet, that is true. But unless you ask the lady you will not prevent her from seeking other solutions to her dilemma.”
“I am sorry to disappoint you, father, but you must know, as well as everyone else in England what sort of man I am. What lady would consider marriage to such as I?”
Without listening to his father’s retort, Guy stormed upstairs to his own room. He was not long left alone to wallow in his own misery, however. Before long there was a knock on the door, rousing him from his sombre thoughts.
“Yes, who is there?”
“It is I – Robin. Please let me speak to you.”
Knowing that his gentle brother could display considerable persistence, Guy relented.
Not taking time to study his brother’s countenance further, Robin breathlessly blurted out the question that was on his mind.
“Did you ask her?”
Guy was too weary to volley questions back and forth, so he did not pretend not to know what his brother was asking him.
“No. Mark had told her everything about -”
This caused Robin’s face to lose all colour. How could any man treat his wife that way? Naturally, poor Guy felt miserable. But even had Mark not been guilty of such infamy, Elaine would most likely have known about the Sheriff’s treatment of Guy from some other source. It was to be expected that Guy’s reputation was known to anyone who had an interest in knowing it.
“Even so. You can not let your shame prevent you from doing the honourable thing.”
“And what is that, little brother? It must have occurred to you that I do not have much honour left.”
“Do I need to tell you the dire circumstances Elaine is in? Soon to be a widow, no family or friends to help her, except you. Who else would marry her?”
Guy had not conisidered the situation from that point of view before. He considered his brother’s words, but in the end, he concluded that they changed nothing. Marriage to a man such as himself would only serve to drag Elaine down, not raise her in the estimation of her peers.
“I have listened to you, Robin. Now I must ask you to leave. I wish to be alone.”
Seeing that it was no use persisting, Robin took his leave. He was by no means defeated, but for the time being, it was best to let Guy sulk in solitude. In the meantime, Robin returned to Marion to inform her of his failure. She, however, was less inclined to be patient than her husband.
“The stubborn fool. I will speak to him myself. Now. No, Robin, it is no use dissuading me.”
Her resolve was somewhat marred by her inability to get on her feet quickly enough, due to her newly acquired girth. She struggled helplessly for a few seconds, until Robin’s hands shot out to offer assistance. By that time, she had regained her balance and would not accept his help. She stormed over to Guy’s door, and without even knocking, she burst inside. Her entry made the young man turn and face her with a look of stunned disbelief. Marion in this mood was truly a formidable sight.
“I will not hear of any more excuses. Robin just told me you have no intention of offering Elaine marriage. You take her away from her home. What do you expect people will say behind her back? Her reputation needs -”
“Her reputation does not need being associated with a man like myself. Mylady, you have been kind enough not to pay any heed to my past. How many others would show the same courtesy?”
“You are just like every other man. A fool. If you do not propose to Elaine this very day, I will tell her you have asked me to pose the question to her for fear of rejection.”
Guy could only watch Marion’s temper tantrum play itself out. He deemed it unwise to contradict her in any way, but her words stung him. Whatever else people were known to say about him behind his back, no one had ever questioned his courage, and he decided to obey the order this redheaded fury had given him. After all, Elaine could but turn him down.
“Very well, what?”
“I shall speak to Elaine today. You have made your point, mylady.”
“You must know my name by now. Do you not like the sound of it?”
How typical of a woman to choose this moment to bring up such a small matter.
“Yes. I do. Marion. I will speak to Elaine today.”
“That is much better. Remember, I will speak to her myself later.”
“For pointing out the error of my ways.”
His tone of voice hinted at some jest, but Marion was not sure, and by now her temper had cooled somewhat and she realized that she had been perhaps a bit amiss in her manners. This was surely no way to speak to a man of Guy’s standing. She demurely withdrew to her own rooms, having succeeded in her mission.
Guy allowed some more time to pass before venturing outside his room. He did not wish to meet anyone else who might choose to question his courage today. Furthermore, he felt that Elaine needed time to compose herself after learning the distressing news about her husband. However, before the midday meal, he once again sought out Elaine. She was, as he had expected, in her room. He found it hard to believe that she would greet him with a warm smile, but such was the case. Despite himself, he could not but return it. It was such a bliss, watching that lovely face looking back at him, with such affection in her eyes, even if that fondness was only for the little boy he once was.
“Mylady. I have come to discuss a matter of some importance with you.”
“Please, will you sit with me, Guy?”
He accepted her offer and once again drew in breath to touch on the topic which weighed so heavily on his mind.
“Mylady, I realize it is still early, but I was wondering if you had made any plans about your future.”
“Marion and her father have graciously asked me to stay with them for as long as I wish. However, that can only be a temporary solution. I believe that my only recourse will be to seek shelter at the convent. Though I come without any riches, I feel certain that they will accept me.”
“I see. Is this what you wish to do, mylady?”
“To be perfectly honest, no, but I have to face the fact that no man would ask for my hand in marriage. d’Aubry cared not for riches, since he wished his wife to be dependent on him in every way. Now, with this stain to my name, what man would wish to marry me?”
Guy felt a knot form at the pit of his stomach as he listened to his own words being recounted to him from a slightly different point of view. Should he dare to speak his mind? It was plain that Elaine did not wish for a life behind the convent’s walls.
“What if a man were to ask for your hand in marriage, regardless of your circumstances?”
Elaine smiled sadly. That was hardly likely.
“You speak as if that were even possible. Yes. Should a man utterly unlike Mark ask me, I would dearly like to marry again.”
Guy cleared his throat, and braced himself.
“Elaine, would you marry me?”
“Guy. Are you serious? I would not want you to ask me out of pity. As I have already told you, I know where to take refuge. You do not need to offer me charity.”
“Charity? How can you say such things, Elaine? I have loved you since I was a boy. You were already a grown lady, but I loved you anyway. To you, I was merely a boy. Now I am a boy no longer. So I repeat, will you marry me, Elaine?”
Elaine’s deep emerald green eyes bored through him as if she sought to read his mind, his very soul. It appeared as if she was trying to determine his sincerity. Finally, she relaxed somewhat. The smile returned to her face.
“Yes, Guy. I would most definitely love to be your wife. You are right. The boy is gone, replaced by this handsome young man. But you must realize that I will soon be past childbearing. Do you not need a young wife who can bear you many heirs?”
“It is you I want. Besides, I think we will still have time. One heir is enough. Should we fail to produce one, I am sure Robin and Marion will oblige Huntingdon with one.”
“In that case, I am happy to accept your proposal, Guy of Huntingdon.”
To Guy’s astonishment, Elaine rose to her feet in a graceful movement, pulling him into her embrace. Her hair smelt lovely of rose water. In all the years since he had last seen her, Guy had never dreamed he would find himself pressed to her bosom, his nose buried in the thick, dark tresses of her hair. As a child, he had sat on her knee, but like most boys of his age, he had squirmed restlessly, impatient to escape to the stables or the woods outside. Today he had gained a new appreciation of the sensation. His mouth sought and found hers and the kiss was everything he had ever longed for in his empty and loveless life.
There was no warning. It was still dark outside, when heavy pounding on the gate announced the arrival of the Sheriff’s men. The frightened man who let them in found that no less a dozen men had been sent to apprehend Robert of Huntingdon and lady Marion. A burly knight pushed the hapless man aside, and ordered his men to search the castle for the young couple. One of the servants ran up a back stair to warn Sir Richard about the invasion.
The sound of heavy boots on the stairs woke Robin and Marion to the realization that they had run out of time. Hastily, they put on some clothes, so as not to meet their captors entirely without dignity. Cautiously, Robin opened the door and peered outside. Apparently, the search had not yet extended to this part of the building. He met his brother, fully dressed, sword in hand.
“Guy, take Marion away. The Sheriff has sent his men to take us back to Nottingham.”
Guy met Robin’s gaze squarely. He read a grim determination to at least protect his unborn child, no matter what his own fate. At any other time, Guy would have stayed with Robin and fought to the end. Now, however, with Marion and the babe to consider, not to mention Elaine’s safety, he knew that this was one time for flight. It would be the first time in his life that Guy had run from battle. He hoped it would not happen again.
“I swear on my mother’s soul, I will keep her safe. May God be with you, or Herne.”
He pulled his brother into a fierce embrace. Not knowing whether he would ever see Robin again, Guy finally realized how much the gentle, fair-haired boy had come to mean to him in such a short time.
“And with you, Guy. I -”
“Let’s save it for later, little brother.”
Reluctantly, they parted, Guy to lead Marion down the back stairs to the stable, Robin to face what might be his final stand. Could it be that the Sheriff would finally get his revenge this time? Robin found it hard to believe that Herne had so abandoned him. Granted, Loxley, the true Hooded Man, was back, and perhaps that meant he, Robert, was expendable, but he could not believe that. Even so, Herne had not been able to prevent the apparent demise of Loxley. Perhaps, he would now die, not knowing if Herne would be able to bring him back. The thought did not frighten him as much as he had feared it would. If only Marion and the babe were safe, he could face whatever was in store for him.
He did not get far. Four knights, brandishing their swords, surrounded him, brutally shoved him up against the nearest wall and shackled his hands behind his back. As he was being herded away, he met his father. Robin felt a pang of guilt. The old man was being held back by two knights, who seemed to take pleasure in the sight of a father watching his son being dragged away to the Sheriff’s dungeon. Now at last, the full realization of his position began to sink in, and Robin felt himself giving in to despair. In the years since he had met Marion, had he done anything but cause his father pain? What manner of son was he? It was all he could do to supress the tears that threatened to well up in his eyes.
Down in the yard, Guy met a welcome sight. The boy Much, now all grown up, was leading a saddled horse to him. Marion called a soft greeting to the young man, who teary-eyed bade his mistress farewell, after which he scurried away to safety, presumably to watch over his wife and their firstborn. Guy lifted Marion into the saddle, and urged the spirited horse on. At least Much had given him a good, fast gelding, capable of the sort of speed they now depended on for their lives. Until now, he had not considered where they would take refuge. He decided to ask Marion where she preferred to go.
“Where to, mylady?”
“Sherwood. We shall be safe there.”
He should have guessed. Normally, Guy was reluctant to brave the shade under those high trees, and now once again, his old enemy, Loxley, ruled the silent, brooding clearings. Under the circumstances, however, he realized that this would be the safest haven they could hope to reach.
“Very well, mylady. Are you well? The babe -”
“Yes, yes. I am fine. How could this have happened? My poor Robin.”
“Do not distress yourself, mylady. I am sure Huntingdon and Sir Richard shall be able to secure his release. This is the Sheriff’s own doing, I am willing to bet. And Abbot Hugo’s. I think they will find that the King will not condone their actions, and they shall be forced to release Robin.”
Guy did not need to add, that in their enthusiasm, possibly acting on the Sheriff’s orders, the knights could easily harm Robin or even kill him. If so, one of the men responsible might be made the scapegoat, but the Sheriff would not suffer any consequences. Who was to say that the former outlaw did not attempt escape, or put up too much resistance, making it necessary to use force to subdue him. To his shame, Guy knew how these things were arranged. On many occasions he had himself been responsible for similar incidents. His brother’s fate weighed heavily on his mind, and while urging the gelding on to ever greater speed, Guy prayed to whatever deity who would listen, to keep his brother safe.
They made good time. No man or beast stirred in the quiet land as they passed on their wild flight to safety. Soon the forest opened up to take them in. In the silence under the great branches, Marion suddenly felt much calmer. Herne would watch over them. Had he not always done so?
“Mylady? If there is a particular place you wish to go, you must guide me.”
Yes, where to? Marion knew the forest almost as well as Leaford, and after a moment’s consideration, she decided on a likely spot. Normally, she did not dread meeting Loxley and his men, but this time, for some reason, she preferred to remain by herself.
“There is a small stream not far from here. I think we will be comfortable there.”
She proceeded to guide Guy to the spot. It was as she remembered it. A small clearing, and the stream. The sun was not yet up, and it was still cold, but she knew that soon the first rays of the sun would warm up the soft moss that covered the ground. She let Guy help her down from the horse and ease her onto the ground. It felt odd to be this helpless. Last year, she would have stayed and fought or been captured by Robin’s side. Now, since her body had grown this heavy, she was forced to retreat, accepting Guy’s protection like a child. But if this kept her and Robin’s babe safe, she was willing to make the sacrifice. She knew Robin felt the same way, or else he would not have given himself up. He had bought her freedom at the expense of his own. Herne could not abandon him now.
Now that his mission was half accomplished, Guy began to restlessly pace the clearing. This waiting and hiding were grating on his nerves. Patience was not a virtue Guy possessed in any greater degree. A sound of distress cut into his reverie, and he turned in alarm. Marion. Were they under attack?
“Mylady, what is amiss?”
“The babe. I believe -”
“It is time?”
Marion’s nod of acknowledgement filled Guy with far more dread than any battle would. He feared no man or god, but to assist a woman through childbirth caused all colour to drain from his face. This left him at a loss. How did you go about midwifery? No knight had ever been called upon to perform this duty, Guy was certain of it. Why had they not thought to bring a woman from Leaford? Any woman would most likely know what was to be done, but he could not turn away from his responsibility. Whatever he was in his power, he would do. For Robin’s sake as well as for Marion’s.
“What do you wish me to do?”
There was no reply. Marion’s face was contorted in pain and she appeared not to have heard him. Guy winced. If the shock of Robin’s capture affected her badly, would that mean she would lose the baby? Worse, would he be forced to stand by helplessly while Marion died because of his incompetence? He had given his word to Robin that he would keep her safe, but how did he know the right course of action?
At last, the pain diminished and Marion was capable of coherent thought. She tried hard to fight down the panic that was threatening to drown out her tenuous calm. This was not the way she had anticipated giving birth, but she knew what to do. She had assisted other women’s deliveries, but somehow it was all so different when she was the patient. In any case, she had to remain calm so as not to unduly alarm poor Guy. After a moment’s consideration, she began giving him instructions. There was not much either one of them could do, but she was determined to do her best. The agony seemed to drag on forever. Marion had not realized there could be such searing pain. On the occasions she had assisted at childbirths, she had somehow not grasped the full extent of the ordeal the other women were going through. All thoughts of Robin and Leaford were pushed out of her mind. She was swimming in a sea of pain. At times she was aware of Guy’s anxious face hovering above her. Most of the time, she appeared to be in some kind of dreamlike state. Herne was there. He was trying to tell her something, something she did not wish to hear. Eventually, the pain abated slightly and she came to. She could hear her child crying. It was over. Guy was holding the child, a stunned look on his face.
“Mylady, it is a boy.”
“A boy? Is he like Robin?”
Guy did not reply, merely placed the infant in her arms, allowing her to see for herself. She saw dark eyes, a shock of thick, black hair, and a strangely mature face for one so young. It was odd to think that this child had sprung from Robin’s and her union. There was not the slightest resemblance to either one of his parents, nor to Sir Richard, her mother, or Huntingdon. No matter. This was their son and they would love him dearly.
By now the sun was low in the sky, and Marion realized that almost an entire day had passed, while she was lost to the world. It was no longer cold, and the last rays of the sun warmed the clearing. Suddenly, without warning, a fog came between her and the sun. All the normal sounds of the forest stilled. Instinctively, she knew something was amiss and she held on to her child as hard as she dared.
Guy seemed to be frozen to the spot, a vacant look on his face. Marion too, felt a strange lethargy steal over her. She was unable to move, as the horned silhouette fell over her. Herne. From the first time Marion had encountered the horned god, she had known he was no enemy. They had always been able to rely on his counsel and protection. And now, suddenly this betrayal.
When Marion once again was herself, her son was gone, and inside her was an aching feeling of loss. She knew she would never again hold the babe in her arms. Why had Herne committed this atrocious act? It made no sense. In her despair, she feared Robin too was lost to her forever. A cry of pain was torn from her, a cry which jolted Guy out of his daze. He gripped his sword, scanning the clearing for any sign of the intruder.
“Guy, it’s no use. Herne has taken the boy. Where he has gone, no mortal can follow.”
Guy was determined to brave even the abode of a god, but eventually, Marion was able to prevail upon him to see sense. Her heart was broken, but that did not cloud her judgement. When a god acted, a mere mortal was helpless. Crying desolately, Marion tried to reconcile herself to her loss.
Back at Leaford, the two old men were left standing, helplessly watching Robert being dragged away. In the yard outside, two of the knights threw him across a horse, and the larger of them seated himself behind Robin’s trussed up form. It appeared they were too eager this time, to bring him to justice, to have time for their usual cruelties. His head bounced about painfully, but apart from the initial force with which they had shoved him up against the wall, he was not beaten in any way. That did not deceive him into believing himself safe from a far more severe punishment once he reached Nottingham. Somehow, they had given the Sheriff this excuse. Once again at his mercy, without the King’s protection, Robin knew his life was hanging by a thread.
If only Marion and the babe were safe, he could endure whatever came, but he could not force his mind away from asking uselessly over and over again: Why had Herne abandoned him?
In the meantime, another arrival claimed Sir Richard’s attention. This time, at last, the messenger bore good tidings. Jehan Vernaux had remembered his old friend and used his influence in his favour. It was good to have friends, but it was even better to have friends who had good friends. Friends in high positions.
If only they were in time, Sir Richard now held his old friend Huntingdon’s son’s salvation in his hands. A boy was sent to find de Crécy, and before long, the two old men, and Leaford’s commander were on their way to Nottingham. They would wrench the boy out of the jaws of death yet again.
The Sheriff did not like having his prize torn out of his greedy hands, but he respected the seal on the letter Leaford brought. He knew when he was beaten. Trying to retain some of his dignity, he took a long time examining the letter, before acknowledging defeat.
“I see I was mistaken. Your son will be released, Huntingdon. Make sure he does not place himself under suspicion again. And that, Sir Richard, you may also tell your daughter. The next time she is under suspicion for practicing witchcraft, I doubt Jehan Vernaux will be able to stay her execution. I will light the bonfire myself. Now take your boy and go.”
On the way back to Leaford they took their time. Robin did not have much to say, and the old men said nothing. They were still reeling from the close encounter with doom. If anything of the kind should occur again, they all knew it might be the end.
Robin still could not understand how Herne could have abandoned him like this, but he forced himself to ignore the pain. He had to know that Marion was safe. Now that the danger was over, and he was able to think again, he knew where Marion must be.
“Father, Sir Richard – Marion must be in Sherwood.”
Sir Richard did not hesitate. He sent de Crécy to bring his daughter and Huntingdon’s son back to Leaford.
Robin had begun to feel safe too soon. As soon as he saw Marion, seated across de Crécy’s horse, he realized something had changed. He could not keep the scream from being torn out of him, painfully.
“What happened? The babe?”
Herne? Again, the horned god had let them down. Robin could not understand what he had done wrong. Marion’s face was ravaged with pain and he knew it was not only the pain her body had suffered. Their child, everything they had longed for for so long, was gone. And Herne, in whom they had placed their trust, had betrayed them. Robin could not allow that to be. He would get the child back, no matter what it cost him. But first he ran to Marion, held her, tried to comfort her. He was not successful. Not right then. It would take time, he knew it would, but they still had each other. She was safe and well, as was he.
“Marion, I will go to Herne. This very instant. There is no need to seek him out at night. He will be there.”
“Do you think it will be any use?”
Robin did not reply. Most likely, it would not, but he had to try. He could not simply allow his son to vanish without a trace. Marion let him go. She knew this was something he was compelled to do. His father stared disapprovingly at him, but did nothing to prevent him from leaving.
Leaford put an arm protectively around Marion’s shoulders and led her inside. Her servants would tend to her, and inside Elaine met them. In the fewest possible words, Marion explained to her friend what had happened. Elaine took her upstairs, where she could finally allow herself some rest.
Robin was urging the horse on, desperately. It was tired, and after a short while, he let it pick its own pace. He felt the need to make haste, yet was strangely reluctant to reach his destination. Once he had felt honoured, if overwhelmed by being chosen as Herne’s son, the Hooded Man. Now all that remained was weariness. This had been going on for too long. He did not have more to give, yet Herne had taken what was most precious to him.
As always, he knew exactly where to go. When he set foot in Sherwood, some instinct took over. This led him to the particular clearing where Herne was to be approached. Though he had told Marion the time of day did not matter, he was not completely certain, now that he had arrived, but it did not take long for the silence to fall over the clearing, and the chill that ever accompanied the god’s approach, to envelop him.
Robin shivered. He had never before sought out the god with rebellion in his mind. There were those who would call him a coward, even to his face, but Robin knew that was not the truth. At present, however, his knees shook and a shiver went down his spine. That could not be allowed to stop him. If he faltered now, he would truly be a coward.
“Herne. Why have you taken our son? You have no right. He belongs to us.”
Silence greeted his audacious outburst. He repeated his accusation, and the pain in his heart made his voice sound harsher and less respectful than he had intended. The betrayal hurt almost as much as the loss.
As if from a great distance, he became aware of a voice softly speaking at the back of his mind. The voice conveyed pity and still, despite everything, love, but Robin shut himself off from the love.
“Answer me. Where is my son? Why have you taken him?”
“My son, he was never your son.”
What? He could not be interpreting the god’s words correctly. Robin was never quite sure if the voice inside his mind really spoke, or only placed the meaning of its words inside him.
“The child is destined for greatness in another place, another time.”
There was a finality in Herne’s voice. No chance that he would repent. Robin had known that from the beginning. You do not bargain with a god. Marion had known that too. As ever, she had been stronger than he was. He could not imagine the pain and loss she must feel, she who had carried the babe inside her body for so long. It was time he left the abode of immortals. This was no place for him, and when he left, he felt his devotion to Herne and to being the Hooded Man fall away from him. If the god was capable of betraying him thus, how could he expect faith, and compliance? The trust was broken. Robin would once again merely be Huntingdon’s son and Marion’s husband. Let Loxley enjoy his power. Power brought no comfort. As he stepped out of the clearing, there was one final faint vision that stuck in his mind on the way through the forest.
It was summer. The sun shone from a cloudless sky. Three children were dancing around a maypole, hand in hand. Two redheaded girls and between them a smaller, fair-haired boy. Was this the future? He did not know, and at the moment, Robin did not care. The future would come, whether or not he speculated on it.
Leaford awaited him, and when he set foot on its lands, Robin felt truly at home. Not like he had as a child at Huntingdon, but close enough. Here his wife awaited him, his father and his brother. All that he cherished, all but one, and if Herne did not lie as well as deceive in other ways, that child had never been his or Marion’s.
At that thought, Robin’s mind filled with a blinding rage, alien to his normally so gentle spirit. These gods used mortals as playthings, expected them to live for them and die for them, without ever knowing the why of anything. It was not fair. He had had more than enough of being a pawn in someone else’s game. No more. From now on, he and Marion would live for themselves, and each other. As he entered the castle, he was greeted by his father, and his host. He embraced Huntingdon and bowed courteously to Sir Richard, whereafter he excused himself. In their rooms upstairs, Marion was lying abed. At the moment, all they needed was each other.