A "what if" story with an alternate scenario for 2 x 13 and everything after it, as well as a somewhat alternate version of history (see end note). Violence, semi-explicit sex, angst. NOTE: In this scenario, Robin and the gang are dead. My heartfelt apologies to fans of all the characters I've killed off - I feel terrible about it myself and promise never to do it again!
The characters, of course, are not mine; they belong to the BBC/Tiger Aspect. Many thanks to the creators of Robin Hood, the actors who brought it to life, the fans who are keeping the show alive; and last but absolutely not least, my wonderful beta, Tango, for her help and support - and for getting me hooked on Robin Hood, Guy, and Guy/Marian!
The Sheriff of Nottingham waits silently atop the castle steps, his head bowed as the King walks slowly toward him, his attendants in tow. When the King stops in front of him, he kneels and kisses the royal ring, then rises rigidly to his feet.
"Welcome to Nottingham, Your Majesty."
"Lord Gisborne." King John's eyes slide wryly over his figure. "I see that your taste in fashion has not altered." He pauses and casts a look around. "And where is your lady wife? I had great hopes of meeting her as the hostess of tonight's festivities."
"My apologies, Sire." He clears his throat, averting his eyes under that cool penetrating gaze. "Lady Gisborne is – indisposed."
"Really," King John says. "Pity."
As he shows the King inside, Guy of Gisborne wonders what John has heard. He knows, of course, that there is talk all over the shire of Sheriff Gisborne's mad wife. There are also whispers that the Sheriff sold his soul to the devil to win the Lady Marian, for everyone who saw her in church the day of her wedding could tell the poor woman was bewitched. By rights, those spreading such rumors should be severely punished; but he has never done so. He knows, better than anyone else, that the tales people tell are far less dangerous than the truth.
x x x x x
The story of their marriage starts with a plot to kill a king. Of course, many things happened before that: an awkward courtship, an almost-marriage that ended before it began, and then, most painful and sweet of all, a tender friendship that he had hoped would become something more. But it really began a year and a half ago, when Guy accompanied Sheriff Vaisey to the Holy Land on a mission to assassinate King Richard – and, by a twist of circumstance, Vaisey took Marian with them as a prisoner.
In Acre, chained in the cellar of the house Vaisey used as his headquarters, she had pleaded with Guy to turn against the Sheriff and save the King, and promised him her hand in marriage. And he came very close to striking Vaisey down; but then the Sheriff spoke – his words and tone leaving no doubt that he knew exactly what was happening – and he had faltered. After that, there was no choice but to prove his loyalty by telling Vaisey about Marian's offer, and then asking for his permission to wed her upon their return to England, by force if he must; it was the only way Vaisey would let Marian live. Or so he'd thought.
It did not escape Guy that Vaisey did not join him at once at the ambush spot where their assassin, posing as a Saracen, was to kill Richard. When Vaisey came up as the King rode into view, a dreadful suspicion gnawed at him, and he asked where Marian was. "Tied up," Vaisey replied with his usual smirk, which Guy took to mean that she was still chained downstairs. And then Richard was dead – strange that a man who had wielded the power to shape nations could be dispatched as quickly as any common soldier – and they returned to the house; and she was not there.
"Where is she?" Guy asked quietly, trying to keep the churning fear and anger at bay.
Vaisey grinned at him. "Well, well. Looks like our pretty bird has flown the cage. Don't be too disappointed."
"You're lying," he snarled. Vaisey was still smirking, and Guy's voice rose to a bellow. "What have you done to her?"
"Really, Gisborne, if you're that intent on tying yourself to a leper, you can do much better than that," Vaisey shrugged. "They'll be lining up once you – "
Guy barreled into him before he could finish. After that, everything happened fast; the Sheriff had ample strength and agility for a man his age, but Guy was powered by enough rage to take down a giant. A punch to the face left Vaisey dazed for a few moments, and he came out of his stupor already tied to the bed with Guy standing over him, dagger in hand.
"Gisborne! Have you lost what's left of your mind?"
It was strange, no longer to feel terrified by that voice.
"You tell me what you did to Marian," he said through clenched teeth, "or you lose a finger. Then another. Once I am out of fingers, I will move on to other things. And you know I will not stop at anything, because you trained me well."
"Oh, nonsense – you haven't got the nerve," the Sheriff scoffed. "We both know you're nothing without me. I'll tell you what: you untie me now and we'll blame this little outburst on sunstroke. Hmm? Come on, Gizzy, there's a good boy." But his voice had a shaky edge, and as soon as Guy provided a swift demonstration of his readiness to make good on his threat, Vaisey, the man who had always radiated power as naturally as he breathed, was reduced to a shrieking, blubbering mess. His screams drew his co-conspirators to the room, and to an instant death. When Guy turned to Vaisey, breathing hard, the sword in his hand dripping with blood, the Sheriff was already bleating about Marian being tied to some poles in the desert where the deceived King had left Hood and his gang to die in the scorching sun.
Another surge of anger gripped Guy's throat and momentarily dimmed his vision. He slashed at the ropes that bound Vaisey to the bed, then, with brisk and brutal efficiency, tied the older man's hands behind his back, wrapping a cloth around the one with the bleeding stump.
"You take me to where she is," he said. "Now."
A gag took care of Vaisey's pathetic pleadings and protestations of having loved Guy like a son; and, throwing a hooded cloak over him, Guy dragged him outside, hoisted him up on a horse and mounted behind him, the sharp point of his dagger jabbing into the man's side. Once they reached the edge of the desert, he carefully pulled down the gag and hissed into Vaisey's ear, "Now, you tell me which way, and better not get lost. Because I will kill you, but how long it will take is up to you."
When they got there, the sun was already low, and the sagging bodies tied to the stakes looked very dead. Guy leaped off the horse and raced toward them, his heart thumping painfully. He saw her at once, tied to the same poles as Hood, her head down, her face hidden by long, streaming dark hair that gleamed gold in the sun, her white dress stirring in the breeze. He lifted her up, and gasped when he thought he heard a small, low moan. Be alive, he prayed, be alive. He cut the ropes and she collapsed into his arms, and turning her over he saw her lips move faintly. She lived.
He carried her back to the horse and yanked Vaisey down from the saddle with one swift motion. Sprawled on his back in the sand, the Sheriff was trying to speak, but the gag was firmly in place, and Guy was no longer going to let his former mentor pour poison in his ear. "She's alive," he said savagely. "You hear that? She's alive. And you're dead."
Yet at the last minute he almost faltered. He found himself shaking and sweating, and not because of the heat. His hand that held the sword suddenly seemed useless. He dizzily considered leaving Vaisey there and letting the desert take care of it; but then he saw the mad spark of hope in Vaisey's eyes at his hesitation, and knew that if he left the Sheriff alive he would forever be looking over his shoulder. The rush of fear restored his strength, and, gritting his teeth, he ended it with a quick hard stab to the heart. Then he rode away with the unconscious Marian, leaving behind the crumpled body of the man who had dominated his life for seventeen years.
He found a Saracen healer in Acre and, using the few words he'd learnt of the local language, begged him to heal her and promised him as much money as he wanted; there was plenty left in the stash Vaisey had brought on the trip. The tanned, bearded, lanky middle-aged man backed away in fright at first, but when Guy repeated his plea in a somewhat calmer voice and mimicked counting out coins, the healer nodded and motioned him inside.
It was nearly two days before Marian awoke; two days in which Guy barely ate or drank or slept. Only once, late that night, did he leave her side for more than a few moments – to go back to the house, get the money, and drag the bodies of Vaisey's accomplices out to the desert. Though Marian was constantly in his thoughts, the Sheriff haunted him too. Sometimes, he expected to hear his voice at any moment, booming, "Gisborne!" and clamping the leash back around his neck; sometimes, he felt cold terror at the thought that there was no more Vaisey and he was completely on his own; and there were moments when his ears rang with the sounds of the man's pitiful final squeals and pleas. Amidst all this, he was vaguely aware that he had to come up with some kind of plan. He was briefly tempted to leave everything behind, forget the Black Knights and his reward, and take Marian somewhere else – to France, perhaps. No, that would not do; he had not come this far, had not damned himself like this to start all over with nothing. He would return to England and tell the others that Vaisey and his two accomplices were killed by Hood and his gang. No one would care to investigate, even if they could; Vaisey had been far too powerful for his demise to be regretted.
He had dozed off, and was awakened by a hand shaking his shoulder. It was the Saracen healer, trying to tell him something. He pointed to the bed. Marian's eyes were open and drifting around the small, dimly lit room, and her hands were above the covers; the look on her face was one of bewilderment. After a brief flash of elation, he found himself trembling with fear.
She saw him and frowned. "Guy … what…" Her voice was weak and hoarse. "What is this?"
"You're at a healer's," he said.
"A healer … what happened?"
He had no idea how to answer. He didn't have to, because in the next instant the look of horror that crossed her face told him she remembered everything. She struggled to sit up.
He lowered his head. Of course. A painful spasm pierced his chest and throbbed in his head. At another time, he would have been furious at her lies. But now…
"Dead," he said flatly. "They were all dead when I found you." In truth, he had not bothered to check, but they had looked dead enough, and in any case they couldn't be any deader by now.
She stared at him for a moment, wide-eyed, then raised her hands to her mouth; she did not cry. He squirmed in his chair, not knowing what to do. At last he said, "I killed the Sheriff."
"And the king?" she whispered.
He shook his head, looking down. "Dead."
Then she broke into quiet, desperate sobs; she turned over on her side, her hair spilling over her shoulder, and cried and cried until she was choking. Alarmed, he rose and poured a cup of water from the pitcher on the bedside table – but when he tried to bring it to her mouth, she swatted him away violently, and the tin cup clattered to the floor.
"Marian," he said. She sobbed louder and coughed, and with every sound a little piece of his heart broke. He reached out toward her gingerly but she shuddered and shrank from his hand.
"Don't touch me!" she gasped. She clawed weakly at the sheets and let out a long, awful wail that convulsed her whole body, and then screamed, "Robin!"
Guy pressed his forehead against the wall and closed his eyes, trying to breathe. He tasted salt, and realized with a foggy surprise that his face was wet with tears; he had forgotten how that felt. His shoulders were shaking.
At the sound of footsteps, he wiped his face as best he could, his throat raw from choking back sobs, and turned around. The healer shuffled in, pushing aside the beaded curtain covering the doorway; he gave Guy an accusing look and said something. Guy shook his head and the man repeated the words, sounding impatient, even angry. He pointed at the doorway, and Guy knew he was being told to leave. He nodded dumbly and started to walk away, but Marian's voice made him stop and turn.
"Wait," she said. "Did you…" her face crumpled and she sobbed again. "Did you just leave them there…"
His look gave her the answer. "Please bury them," she said softly. "Please. I don't want them to just…"
Her words trailed off into a new fit of crying. By now he was too bruised inside to hurt. He sighed and rubbed his forehead.
"All right. I will do it."
That evening Guy bought a shovel on the market and rode out into the desert. The closer he got to the spot, the queasier he felt; Vaisey was there too, and a part of him still feared that the Sheriff would spring back from the dead with a laugh and a "Gotcha!" and claim him again. But there were no resurrections, only the overwhelming stench of decay. Scavenger birds had been at the bodies, and even for Guy, so intimately familiar with death, it was not an easy sight. The afternoon heat had cooled off, but it quickly gave way to a cold that settled deep in his bones, and his teeth chattered as he shoveled at the sand, sometimes pausing to cover his nose. He could always lie to her, of course, but there had been enough lies. Besides, he wouldn't have put it past her to demand that he take her here so that she could see with her own eyes.
As he cut down the bodies down, battling nausea and thankful for an empty stomach, he realized that one of them had been Allan; there was, at this, an unexpected tight knot in his chest, an echo of the earlier pain. He told himself it was Allan's fault for running off at Portsmouth. Or maybe he should have gone too, taking Marian along, and then he would not be here in the desert, shivering in the cold night air with arms sore from digging graves for people he didn't even like.
When he was done, he went back to the house that was still filled with Vaisey's presence and somehow managed a few hours of fitful sleep, interrupted by a nightmare in which he was burying Marian in the desert while Vaisey watched and laughed. The next day he went to the healer's. After an extra handful of coins, the man let him in, grumbling incomprehensibly. Marian was sitting up, propped up on pillows. She wasn't crying, but the lost, vacant look on her face was even worse.
"Marian," he said.
She turned her head toward him, and her features became a little more animated. Then she let out a long anguished sigh that broke his heart all over again.
He sat down on the chair by the bed. "I buried them as you asked."
She nodded and was silent for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was an oddly childlike whisper. "Were they all dead?" He glanced at her in alarm, afraid that she had gone mad, but then she shook her head and her lips twitched in a sad little ghost of a smile. "Of course they were…" she muttered, a tear rolling down her cheek. "I want Robin…" she said, still sounding like a lost child. "We were going to marry…"
Guy flinched at this new revelation. Then he told himself that she had to be thinking of their betrothal before Locksley had left for the Crusades; she had to be – she could not have deceived him like this. Yet whatever she meant, it hardly mattered now. By then Marian was crying again, quietly and hopelessly, and he would have forgiven a thousand lies if she would only stop. The Saracen came in, carrying a cup of some potion on a silver tray; he shook his head at Guy and said a word that evidently meant "sleep," because he mimicked it by tilting his head against his palm and closing his eyes. Guy hung back and watched Marian drink the sleeping draught. She was still sniffling softly as she settled down on the pillows; then she shut her eyes, and soon her breathing grew even. Guy leaned over the bed and kissed her damp forehead, and then left under the Saracen's disapproving stare.
Two days later, thoroughly exhausted from heat and heartache, he paid the rest of the healer's fee and took Marian back to the house. She rode behind him, obedient and silent, and did not push away his hand when he helped her dismount. He took her upstairs; it was unthinkable to lead her back to the room where she had been kept in chains, and where the floor was now rusty with spilled blood.
"We will not be here long," he said. "Our ship to England sails tomorrow. Things will be better once we get back; this is a place of madness."
She sat in a chair, gazing absently ahead. Her voice was barely above a whisper. "There's nothing for me there."
"Everything I cared about is dead."
"You once said you cared for me." He winced at how pathetic that sounded.
She looked up at him; some life seemed to flicker back into her eyes, and she was so beautiful that he wanted to look at her forever.
"I did," she said wistfully. "And you are dead to me."
He said nothing, and left the room to get her food.
Some hours later he came very close to being much more literally dead, for he awoke to find Marian astride him, holding his own curved dagger to his neck. Her features looked chiseled in the moonlight that came in through the small window, and he could see the fierce glitter of her eyes.
"I should kill you." Her whisper was harsh and vicious in the night. "You helped kill the King. Because of you, my friends are dead." Her voice shook. "My love is dead. England is dead. Give me one reason why I should not do this."
Guy swallowed hard. "Then do it. End it now," he said hoarsely. He felt the sting of the blade and wondered if she really would – and if he wanted her to. Her hand trembled, and the sharp edge of the metal scraped his skin, making him flinch.
"I cannot," she said brokenly. She let go of the dagger and crumpled to the floor and sobbed. When he tried to pick her up, she thrashed around and choked out, "Get away from me!" and pushed him away hard, knocking him back on the bed. She wept and wept until he was afraid she would suffocate, but finally her sobs began to still; spent and listless once more, she allowed him to give her water and carry her to her cot.
She called out to Robin in her sleep.
On the ship, she stood on the deck and gazed at the shore they were leaving behind, with Guy standing next to her, ready to restrain her if she tried to jump overboard. It was only when Acre vanished into the blue distance that Marian began to cry again. She tensed when he put his hands on her shoulders to take her downstairs, and he thought she would lash out; instead her shoulders slackened, and she followed meekly as he took her below deck to her cabin. "Lie down and rest," he told her. She was so docile that it seemed as if she'd offer no resistance if he were he to lie next to her and possess her. It made him ill. The peasants told stories of witches, devil's minions, who could steal a man's or a woman's spirit so that the body was alive but had no more soul than a puppet. Marian now seemed to be in such a state, only her spirit had not been stolen but murdered, and if he had not wielded the weapon himself he had most surely assisted in the deed.
They spoke little on the journey back. At night – they shared a cabin, for despite proprieties he could not chance to leave her alone – she was plagued by terrible dreams to match his own; often, she woke up screaming, or crying, or panting wildly. A few times, she did not push him away when he offered comfort. On one such night, she fell asleep in his arms, and for the first time since they'd left for the Holy Land he felt something warm touch his heart. He brushed his lips over her hair and eased her down on her bunk.
Returning by coach from Portsmouth, he took her back to her room at the castle. He told the servants and the guards that if any harm were to befall the Lady Marian, he would not be in their shoes for all the world. Then, he went to London to see Sir Jasper and report that Operation Shah Mat was a success.
News of the King's death had already gotten there ahead of him. Just as he had thought, no one questioned his story of Vaisey's demise at the hands of Hood and his gang followed by his own heroic dispatch of the outlaws. Within the week John was crowned King. In the division of spoils among the Black Knights, the portions Vaisey had meant to claim for himself were quickly snatched up by others; Guy kept Locksley and was made Sheriff of Nottingham. He could have tried to fight for more, but discovered that he had not the will for it. He had what he'd pursued for so many years: power and position. And now he would have Marian. A shattered Marian lost in some vast desert within her, a Marian who stared blankly at nothing unless she was crying or calling for her dead lover.
The evening Guy returned to Nottingham, he came to Marian's room and knelt before her. She looked at him, unsurprised and unmoved.
"Marry me," he said. "I told you once I wanted to look after you. I am the Sheriff of Nottingham now. If we are married, you will always be protected." She flinched and he added hastily, "No, wait. Listen to me. I promise you I shall claim no rights as a husband. You…" he swallowed and looked away. "You need not share my bed. I will deny you nothing."
Cautiously, he took Marian's hands and looked up at her. He saw faint shock in her expression but, to his relief, no anger or disgust.
"Marian, you have always wanted to help the poor. As my wife, you can use your position to do good things. Think about it – please, Marian, think about it before you say no."
"Yes," she said flatly.
He blinked. "Yes – yes, what?"
"Yes, I will marry you."
Guy lowered his head and brought his hand to his eyes, waiting for the spasm at his throat to let go. This should have been the happiest moment of his life; and that was the saddest thing of all.
He pressed his lips to her hand and felt her start.
"My touch revolts you," he said quietly.
"No," she whispered. "I just – did not expect this."
A few days later, Guy came to Marian's room to find her standing by the window, and caught sight of something that alarmed him: a hair-thin red scratch on her neck. He seized her shoulders and turned her around, and felt a sick chill as he saw a brownish trail of dried blood next to the first scratch.
"Mother of God… What have you done?"
She closed her eyes and sighed; her voice was a barely audible whisper. "I am such a coward."
He clutched harder at her arms and raised his voice. "The knife – damnation, Marian, where is it?"
She nodded defeatedly toward a chest by the wall. Struggling to keep his hands from shaking, Guy yanked open the drawer and rummaged savagely through the things inside until he found the small hairpin dagger, the pair to the one her father had once used to escape the dungeon. Marian had wandered over to the bed and sat down, her face leached of all emotion. He slumped down next to her.
"You want to be with him," he said.
She sighed again. "I want to be free..."
"Marian, look at me." She turned her head; he raised his hand and made to touch her cheek, then pulled back. "I want you to promise me," he said. "Promise me that you will not take your own life. It is the only thing I ask of you. Please."
Her eyes were suddenly alive and hurt, and her voice was soft and plaintive when she said, "But what if I cannot bear it?"
It was a moment before Guy could speak. "Then let me die with you." He took her hands and felt the warmth of her fingers, the faint pulse of her blood. "Give me that, at least." At that moment, so dark was the night of his soul that dying together seemed an almost desirable consummation: to hold her in his arms as death closed upon them, to let their blood mingle, to see her face as his vision dimmed, to share their last breath. She would be with Hood in the next world; but in this one, her final moments would be all his.
Her lips trembled and her eyes swam with tears. "Guy…" He realized suddenly that this was the first time since she woke up at the healer's house in Acre that she had spoken his name.
"Do you promise," he said.
She nodded. "I do."
The wedding was a hasty affair, though in his new position as Sheriff Guy was obliged to invite the local nobles. Marian looked beautiful in a plain rose wedding dress, wearing a ruby necklace he had bought her. She also looked like she was sleepwalking, and when she recited her vows her voice was so low that the uneasy-looking priest had trouble hearing her.
As they returned to Locksley Manor for the wedding feast, Guy offered a silent prayer that they could get through the day without a disaster. That was not to be. Marian barely spoke ten words at the feast, except for a flat, hollow "Thank you" in response to congratulations; and then, just as the servants were starting to carve up the roast pig, she leaned slightly toward Guy and said quietly, "I have to leave."
"What?" he muttered in shock, tension coiling slowly in his body, gripping his head in a vise.
"I cannot stay here." Her voice was low but taut with determination. "I can't breathe in here." The guests seated closest to them were exchanging puzzled looks.
"Marian – " Dear God, surely she was not running away again – surely not.
"I will come back," she said, as if replying to his thoughts. "Please do not send anyone after me." Then she rose from her seat; as conversation hushed and all eyes turned toward her, she said simply, "Thank you all," and walked to the door and strode out.
In the thick silence that spread over the hall, Guy leaned forward, his hand over his mouth. At last, managing to keep his voice firm, he said, "I apologize; Lady Gisborne has not been well." There was a ripple of low murmurs, and then the conversation began to revive but with a new strain in the air. Moments later a servant came in and sheepishly whispered to Guy that Lady Gisborne had gone to the stables, mounted a horse and ridden away. He bit back a string of vivid curses. Blood was pounding in his head; he had every cause to be furious, but above all he was sick with worry that something would happen to her.
When the guests were gone, he went to the bedroom upstairs and stretched out on the bed, fully dressed, with his boots on. He felt as if he had just come from his own funeral. It was nearly dark when there was a knock on the door and a manservant said timidly, "My lord, Lady Gisborne is here."
Relief swept over him; thank God she was safe.
"Show her in."
His eyes still closed, he heard her footsteps as she came in and closed the door behind her. He felt no anger, just a numbing weariness.
"Where were you?" he asked.
"Riding." She said it as casually as if she had gone off to ride on an ordinary afternoon, not in the middle of her own wedding celebration.
He sat up and lit the candles by the bedside. When he looked at Marian, he noticed that her necklace was gone.
"I gave it away," she said matter-of-factly, intercepting his look. "I ran into a caravan of merchants on the main road, transporting food. I traded the necklace to them so they would take the load to Nettlestone, Clun and Papplewick."
As Guy took this in, he wondered if he had gone too far in promising to deny her nothing; she could yet give away his entire fortune until he was left with an empty house and the clothes on his back.
He rested his forehead on his hands. "For the second time," he said with quiet bitterness, "you have humiliated me at my wedding."
After a brief silence she said, "A small punishment for treason and murder, is it not."
He looked up at her, incredulous. "Is that what this is to be? You married me to make me pay for my crimes?"
Marian slowly shook her head. "No. I have no wish for you to be hurt." Then she added, "It was not my intent to humiliate you."
Her words hung between them for a moment.
"I'm glad you are all right," he said.
She nodded and looked around the room, her face bathed in the candles' golden haze and soft with sadness. Perhaps she was thinking that she had once dreamed of coming here as wife to Robin of Locksley.
"Where – where am I to sleep?" she asked hesitantly.
He pointed to the door that led to the adjoining bedchamber and watched her walk away, her elegant profile dark against the candlelight.
Had Marian indeed meant to marry Guy as his punishment, her endeavor would have been an impressive success in its first months. Sometimes he felt as if he were married to a woeful ghost, haunting the manor and the grounds by day, weeping in the night. But she was also flesh and blood, and living with her chastely was even more of an ordeal than he had expected. At night, separated from her by a thin wall, he lay racked by hopeless desire, giving in to the need for relief far more often than his pride wanted to allow. Occasionally he slept at the castle, but he did not like leaving Marian alone – not when, on so many nights, she was still tormented by nightmares and fits of crying. When he came over to comfort her, which she now accepted, he had to struggle to keep his mind off the fact that he was holding in his arms a half-naked Marian. One of those times, he felt her hand slide over his bare chest and linger, and heard her inhale a sharp breath; it left him feverish with arousal, but a moment later she pulled her hand away and he thought that he must have imagined it.
More than once – lying alone in bed, sitting at the dinner table across from Marian's quiet and faded presence, riding through the unwelcoming countryside – Guy found himself pondering how rashly he had sealed his fate. When he had asked her to marry him and agreed to forfeit all the rights of a husband, the future had seemed a distant unimaginable thing, an untraveled land; at the time, he had not thought of anything beyond Marian's pain, the need to protect her, the answer she would give. Now, he had to deal with the reality of a chaste marriage, very possibly for a lifetime.
It did occur to Guy that if Marian never came to his bed, he could hardly be faulted for seeking his sport elsewhere. Some five months after the wedding he took notice of a fresh-faced new maid at the castle who cast a lot of coy glances his way, and one afternoon when she brought him wine he beckoned to her with a gruff "Come here." The girl came up, smiling nervously, lowering her eyes as she murmured, "Yes, m'lord"; he let his gaze slide blatantly over her body, her round breasts, the auburn curls on her smooth neck – and then, shutting his eyes, saw Marian as he'd seen her the night before, cold silent Marian staring into the fireplace, her wan face lit by the flames' shimmering reflections. He turned away, picked up the goblet and curtly told the girl she could go; she stammered out a bewildered, "My lord?", and he barked, "Go!", making her scurry away with a whimper. His marriage to Marian was the one pure thing in his life; he would at least make an effort not to stain it with new sins.
He was troubled still by the prospect of leaving no heirs: the jest on him would be too cruel if, after everything he had done to restore land and position to his family's name, he were to be its last bearer. Guy considered making inquiries about the bastard child he'd sired two years ago; he could have the boy properly educated and, if necessary, arrange for him to inherit the Gisborne name and the estate, however much it rankled to think that it would all go to the son of a kitchen wench. There was also the inescapable fact that an unconsummated marriage could be easily annulled – but that thought was quickly squashed on the few occasions when it wormed its way into his mind. Whatever happened, he would not abandon Marian, such as she was.
Such as she was: to see her thus, day after day, was the worst punishment of all. There were times when, watching her, Guy felt as if he'd give anything just to see her smile again, really smile; for the bleak likeness of a smile that occasionally shadowed her lips now was worse than none at all. She had grown thinner, paler; even her hair seemed to have lost its shine. She started embroidery she did not finish, and when the spring came she planted flowers to which she forgot to tend. The one pastime that seemed to afford her some pleasure when warm weather set in was riding in the forest alone, and much as these trips worried Guy he had to admit that there was more life in her face when she came back, a fleeting glimpse of the Marian that was lost.
She still went out to the villages to aid the poor. Twice she went on longer trips, to Scarborough and to Linby, for what he suspected were visits to relatives of Hood's outlaws. When he asked about her activities, she answered willingly; sometimes she came to him to intercede for some peasants or townsfolk who had sought her assistance, and he followed her wishes when he could. They had little conversation apart from that, or if they had, it was not the sort of conversation that meant anything. Perhaps the only time she really talked to him was when she was crying in his arms, and that was almost enough to make him cherish those moments, or at any rate find solace in them, for in those moments she needed him.
Sometimes, one day – or one night – can change everything. For them, it happened on a damp night in September when a messenger came to Locksley, very late, after the lord and lady of the manor had already retired. Guy came downstairs to see him. It was a letter he had paid to intercept, from one of the local nobles to an ally in Sussex, and as he broke the seal and began to read it, he knew that his suspicions about their plotting had been correct.
As he sat at his desk reading the letter, the door ajar, he heard Marian's light step. She pushed the door open, candle in hand, wearing a silk robe over her nightdress.
"An urgent message?" she asked.
He looked up at her. "Yes."
"What is it?"
"A small matter of treason."
She came closer. "What?"
"Do not tell me this does not concern me," she said, and he was shocked by the passion in her voice. "You will not keep me out of it."
She sounded so much like the old Marian, the real Marian that it made his heart jump, and in that instant nothing else mattered: not the letter, not treason, not King John.
"It's from Sir Geoffrey de Vere to the Earl of Arundel," he said. "Some of the barons are plotting to oust King John and replace him with his nephew Arthur, and have Queen Eleanor as regent till Arthur comes of age. Sir Geoffrey writes to Arundel about others who are ready to join the plot."
"Really," she said, firelight from the candle dancing in her eyes. "How did you get this?"
"A small payment to Sir Geoffrey's man."
She pondered this. "Has he read it?"
Guy shook his head. "He delivered it sealed."
Marian came up and set down her candle on his desk. When she bent down to pick up the letter, his eyes slid to the shadow between her breasts, and he swallowed and forced himself to look away. She stood there and read, and he was torn between anxiously trying to figure out what she was up to and thinking how easy it would be to slip his arm around her hips.
She looked up, meeting his eyes with her cool gaze. Carefully, she folded the letter. "You have not seen this," she said; and then, "Tomorrow, I will ride to Arundel."
He had not expected that. "Are you mad?"
"I am determined to right a wrong," she said. "A wrong that my friends and I fought so hard to prevent, and failed. It is the least I can do."
"You could get us both hanged."
"You were willing to take your chances with that when you got involved in Vaisey's plot against Richard. I am willing to do it now, because I believe it is a just cause. I know that King Richard wanted Arthur to succeed him."
Guy leaned back in his chair, throwing his head back, and sighed. "I thought you disapproved of treason."
"It isn't treason; it's justice. A king who gained the throne by plotting to usurp it from his own brother, and then to have his brother murdered? I will never accept him as England's rightful sovereign by the grace of God."
He considered asking if she knew how many other kings had risen to power by means of intrigue and murder; and yet there was such fire in her eyes and her voice, fire he had never thought to see again, that he could not even try to rob her of that faith. She could not be whole unless she had a cause – unless she could believe in something – and anything was better than a broken Marian.
"I promise I'll be careful," she said. "I will make sure he doesn't know who I am."
Guy contemplated her silently, his mouth pressed to a rigid line. So things had come to this: After everything he had done to secure power, to ensure that he would never again depend on another's will or whim, he would be forced to watch helplessly as his wife, his beautiful untouched wife destroyed his hard-won gains and quite possibly put a noose around his neck.
"All right, then," he said. "Go."
She smiled – she smiled! – and gently touched his cheek.
"Thank you, Guy."
The next morning he watched Marian ride away, wearing a hooded gray cloak over her dress; and, several nerve-racking days later, he returned to Locksley from the castle to find her waiting in the main hall. She rose and came up and wrapped her arms around him, leaning on his chest, and Guy pressed his cheek to the top of her head and stayed like that, his eyes shut, inhaling the lavender scent of her hair, until she stirred and murmured that she would ask the servants to serve supper.
Later that night, when he was already half-undressed, his shirt and boots off, there was a quick knock on the door that separated his bedchamber from Marian's; as he turned around, the door swung open and Marian came in. Her cheeks looked flushed, and he was struck by her expression: there was the unshakable determination that he knew so well (oh yes, the old Marian was back), but also anxiety and an unexpected softness.
"Guy…" She came closer, so close he could have touched her if he held out a hand. Was she about to offer herself to him as a reward for his acquiescence in her foolish schemes? There was a hot flash of lust and anger that left him shaken. What a humiliation to be granted her favors like this, a bone tossed to a well-behaved dog – yet, worst of all, he already knew he would not have the strength to refuse her.
Instead she said, "I want to continue helping the rebellion."
Guy stared, taken by surprise.
"Do you," he said quietly.
"Yes! I have to do this, Guy. I saw Sir Geoffrey when I returned with the letter from Lord Arundel. I kept my face covered. He knows only that I am from a noble house and cannot disclose who I am because my family would not approve."
Guy sighed and shut his eyes for a moment, fingers rubbing at the bridge of his nose. "This is the Nightwatchman all over again, Marian."
Her eyes flared. "And what if it is? Yes, I gave you my word that I would stop. I had to, on pain of death – you know that! But did you ever stop to consider that when you told me the Nightwatchman was no more, you were killing a part of me? A part of me that I need to be alive?"
"Marian…" He stepped forward and put his hands on her waist. "I promised I would always protect you."
"By denying me my choice," she said in a stifled voice, averting her gaze.
"And if I must send your friends to the gallows?"
She turned her head and looked him in the eye, as terrifyingly calm as the day she was ready to face hanging as the Nightwatchman. "Then that is your choice."
Guy folded his arms. "Very well, then. As you wish." Marian's eyes were still on his face, as if she was trying to read his intentions, and he added, "I will not stand in your way."
Marian gave a sigh of relief and put a hand on his arm, then leaned in and pressed her lips to his cheek, just above the corner of his mouth. His chest felt tight and hot. Almost immediately, he was annoyed at himself for being moved by such scraps of affection.
"Good night, Marian," he said, meaning to sound cold and aloof; but it must not have come out that way, for her own "good night" in response was quite tender.
In the next fortnight Marian made several trips about which Guy was careful to avoid inquiring; two such absences kept her away overnight, with the servants told she was visiting a convent. On one of those occasions, a wagon taking a tax collection to King John, who was building up his troops in response to rumors of brewing rebellion in Brittany, just happened to be robbed in a brazen manner recalling Hood's exploits, and Guy's unpleasant suspicions about the Nightwatchman's new lease on life grew stronger.
Then, one morning at the castle, he had a visit that left him deep in thought. The man who was ushered in with claims of important news was the steward to Lady de Caux, a powerful noblewoman in sole charge of her castle near Laxton Village since her husband's death; this steward had cause to believe that the lady was conspiring against King John with Sir Geoffrey de Vere and others, and for a reward he was willing to find out more. He made mention, too, of a cloaked and masked woman who had been to see Lady de Caux a few evenings ago.
Now would be a good time to put an end to all this, squash this plot, rise further in King John's favor with a nice batch of executions, and make Marian realize what dangerous games she was playing. But she already knew that, of course, and he knew equally well that Marian was capable of anything – even marching onto the scaffold before all of Nottingham and demanding to be put to death with her accomplices. After a while, Guy was jolted out of his brooding by the voice of the captain of the guard telling him that the new recruits had arrived for training. Suddenly, the castle felt almost as unbearably oppressive as it had been under Vaisey. Guy remembered that the peasants at Locksley were just starting their annual work of preparing firewood for the winter, for the village and the manor alike; it was customary for the lord of the manor to make an appearance and survey the work, and it was a chance to get out of these walls. He told the captain to stay in charge for the rest of the day, and headed to Locksley.
After a quick tour of the fields, he rode into the village. The peasants bowed as he passed by, and as always he felt their sullen, almost openly hostile stares following him. Some of them looked as if they were ready to spit on the ground the moment his back was to them, and he had no doubt that a few probably did just that. There had never been any love lost between him and the villagers of Locksley, and now that their beloved Robin Hood was dead – and rumors that Guy himself had helped start pointed to him as the culprit – their dislike was even more palpable. At the thought of Hood, his already sour mood thickened into a cold lump of misery in his chest.
Then he saw her, coming out of one of the cottages. She was smiling, talking to an old woman who hobbled by her side. He brought his horse to an abrupt halt. God's precious heart, she was lovely, the cool breeze stirring her hair, her gown and her waist-length fur-trimmed cape a pale blue like the sky. She saw him and stopped, only to be distracted by two unkempt children squealing, "Lady Marian!"; she squatted down to hug them.
Guy dismounted and strode toward her. She stood up straight; the children eyed him suspiciously and backed away.
"My lady," he said.
As their eyes met, he saw the flicker of a smile, though he couldn't tell if she was glad or anxious. After a moment she inclined her head slightly. "My lord. Are you back from Nottingham, so early?"
"A dull day at the castle," he said. "I hope yours has been more pleasant."
Marian nodded and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "I was visiting Tom and Jenny." She nodded toward the cottage where the old woman had retreated. "Jenny has just had a baby." Looking straight at him now, she continued, "I was about to walk back to the manor – it's almost dinnertime."
There was an odd intensity in her gaze, almost as if she was willing him to keep his eyes riveted to hers. As determined as he was to remain self-possessed, it was unsettling him; he wondered if she was up to something, and what it could possibly be.
"Would you ride back with me?" he asked.
"Yes," Marian said, almost too quickly. She turned toward the doorway and waved. The old woman shuffled out on the porch again, accompanied by a worried-looking young man with a child of four or five clinging to his leg. They both bowed and the young man said, "God bless you, milady" and then muttered reluctantly, glancing toward Guy, "Good day, m'lord."
There was a brief uneasy pause; Marian's eyes were on him again. Looking at no one in particular, Guy said brusquely, "Your wife and child, are they well?"
The man and the old woman looked at him as if a third eye had just opened in the middle of his forehead. Finally the peasant stammered, "Y-yes, m'lord."
"Take good care of Jenny," Marian said. "I will send a servant with more food." Then, turning to Guy, she added, "Shall we go, my lord?"
They walked back to his horse, Guy holding Marian's arm; he helped her mount in front of him, and they rode off at a slow trot under the silent stares of the villagers. It occurred to Guy that this was probably the first time they had seen him in actual conversation with his wife.
"Do you know what your peasant friends say about us?" he asked.
"They think I traded with the devil to have you bewitched and make you marry me."
Marian sighed. "I thought there might be this sort of talk. Helen has said little things on occasion…" Before Guy could wonder what other gossip the accursed chambermaid had been repeating, Marian leaned back into him, with a casual intimacy that was new and wonderful and alarming. It did not help that, tilting his head down, he could see her bare neck and the curve of her breast under the cape – that her sunlit hair was warm on his cheek and smelled of roses and cloves. He fought back the desire to kiss her neck and shifted his eyes to the road. The damnable thing was that right now, he could not tell where he stood with Marian. Things had changed between them, he knew that much; but what the new rules were, he had no idea. Taking his left hand off the bridle, he tentatively drew an arm around Marian's waist. After a moment she sighed and he felt her hand on his arm.
"I had an interesting visit at the castle this morning," he said, before he could think any further.
Marian was quiet for a moment. "I thought it had been a dull day."
"Not entirely." He lowered his voice, as though they were not alone on the road. "Walter of Laxton was to see me – the steward to Lady de Caux." He felt Marian tense at the name. "He thinks his mistress is involved in treason – and for the right price, he'll betray her." Marian's grip on his arm tightened, and Guy continued, "He is to come again Monday next, and bring some letters he means to steal. If those letters should fall into my hands, and if they say what he thinks they say – it is a hanging matter."
There was a long silence between them, filled with the rustle of the wind in the roadside shrubs and the clacking of the horse's slow trot as they got closer to Locksley Manor. Then Marian said, in a near-whisper, "I see. That is – interesting."
"I thought you'd find it so," he said.
They said nothing else until they were in the yard of the manor. As Guy helped Marian dismount and the stable boy came up to take the horse, Marian said calmly, "I think I shall go for a ride after dinner. The weather is beautiful."
Guy took her hand, lacing his gloved fingers through her bare ones. "I should very much like to join you, my lady." He got a perverse pleasure from her startled look before adding, "But I have some matters to attend to."
Marian gave him a small smile. "Then I shall go alone."
He lifted her hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss to her palm, his eyes never leaving hers. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the stable lad looking back at them in surprise.
"Enjoy your riding," he said.
That evening Guy was in his chamber downstairs going over the inventory of recent purchases for the estate, his mind wandering as it was wont to do lately when attending to business, when he heard Marian return. There was the soft rustle of her riding cloak and some words spoken to the servant who met her in the hall, then her footfall as she neared the door of his room. He did not turn as she entered.
She came closer. Finally, he turned around; and then, without any warning, this maddening woman cupped his face in her hands and leaned down, and his entire world was dissolving into the soft burn of her kiss.
Guy groaned and gripped her arms as if she might disappear if he let go. She came up for air but only to dip for another kiss, her tongue sliding over his bottom lip and inside his mouth, and any questions he had about her motives melted away completely. Marian stood up, leaving him out of breath and out of anything resembling coherent thought.
Then she said, "Take me to bed."
He stared at her, his heart pumping so wildly that a small pain jabbed at his chest with every beat. "You want – "
"Take me to bed, Guy."
He rose and stood facing her for a moment, his breath ragged. Then he seized her shoulders and drew her up to capture her mouth, sucking feverishly on her lips. She made soft little sounds that vibrated in his throat, exciting him even more.
"Come on," he said tightly, taking her hand. As they walked up the stairs, Guy had to pace his strides to keep from all but dragging Marian behind him. Please, God, he prayed silently, though he doubted that God was listening, don't let her change her mind. In his bedroom – where, thankfully, the fireplace was already lit – he pulled her toward him again, kicking the door shut, and trailed hungry kisses over her face and neck; to his happy amazement, she responded in kind. Pulling out her hairpins, he sank his fingers into her hair as it fell loose.
"Marian," he whispered against her soft skin, and heard her breathe out his name.
Backing toward the bed with Marian still in his arms, Guy moved to unlace her gown. He tugged hard, huffing his impatience, ripping the laces when they took too long to untie – but Marian did not seem to mind, for she was kissing him still and her own hands darted to the clasps of his jacket. Another tug and the dress was off, and Marian drew in a sharp breath and froze for a moment. She was lovely, so lovely in the wavering amber light, breasts swelling against the thin white fabric of her chemise, dark fire-tinted hair spilling over the creamy skin of her shoulders.
"Undress me," he rasped, his mouth at her ear; already she had resumed unfastening his jacket, and he closed his eyes and let himself enjoy her touch. She slid the jacket off his shoulders, pushed up the shirt; he helped her peel it off, and then her hands were on his chest, sliding over the bare skin, brushing and lightly tweaking his nipples. Gasping, Guy muttered his encouragement; however often he had imagined this in many various ways, nothing had quite prepared him for how it would be – this agony of tenderness and lust, this helpless pleasure from her simplest caress, this urgent need to have her now pitched against the desire to draw it out for as long as he could bear it. His hand clenched on her wrist and he pulled her toward him, their mouths colliding again, his fingers tangled in her hair, hers sliding down his stomach and to his belt. Then, as he drew back from this kiss, Guy became dimly aware of being troubled by something – something that wasn't just anxiety over their first conjugal union. He paused to catch his breath and studied Marian's flushed face, and suddenly the nagging worry took a clear and nasty shape: did her boldness come from experience in these matters? Had she – ?
"What's wrong?" Marian murmured. "Am I – "
Guy shook his head and swallowed. "Nothing. Nothing at all." At least these unpleasant thoughts cooled him off somewhat, making it easier to stay in control.
He took her hands and moved them lower, to the front of his breeches. Marian jerked away in alarm; he chuckled and began to undo the lacings, wincing a little. He noticed that she was watching him raptly, her mouth half-open, her fingers twisting a strand of hair. Sitting down on the edge of the bed, he finally rid himself of the breeches and boots, keeping on the thin woolen braies which concealed very little, and to which Marian's gaze was now quite blatantly riveted.
"Marian," he said quietly; she jerked her head up with a small gasp. "Come to me."
When he put his hands on her arms, he felt her shiver and her eyes darted away.
Marian took a deep breath. "I know it will hurt – "
He shut his eyes and hugged her to him, the thoughts he had pushed aside before washed away in a warm rush of relief; even if she'd said it in part to allay such suspicions, it didn't matter. He held her, stroking her back, placing small gentle kisses on the soft spot above her collarbone. "I will try to make it easier," he said. "Just – " Trust me, he wanted to say, but did she?
She nodded, and Guy moved his hands to her legs, about to take off her chemise; but before he could do that, Marian pushed him backward and they both tumbled on the bed. He felt her hand on his thigh, sliding up – and then she clasped him through the fabric of the braies and he bucked toward her with a strangled cry of shock and pleasure. Sweet saints in heaven, she was stroking him, exploring him, sending jolts of heat through his belly and down his legs; her quick excited breaths added to the thrill of her touch, and for a few moments he could make no articulate sound. Finally he rallied enough to grasp her arm and utter a broken plea to stop.
At his whispered urging Marian lay down, and Guy slowly pushed up her chemise until she was completely exposed in her pale beauty; her eyes were half-closed and her breathing had turned shallow and a bit shaky, whether from arousal or anxiety or both. He brought his lips to hers, cupping his hand over her breast, making her whimper.
"I'll make this good for you, Marian. I promise."
He circled her nipple with his thumb and relished the deeper sound he drew from her this time, the way her body arched toward him. She raised a hand to touch his cheek. "Kiss me there."
His breath snagged; this – Marian naked and eager in his bed, asking him to do things to her – was perhaps too much excitement right now. He closed his eyes for a moment, willing himself to take things slowly.
"Where, Marian?" he murmured huskily, teasing, against her mouth.
Her lips curved in a small smile. "Where your hand is."
Guy moved his other hand, buried in her hair, and quirked his eyebrows at her; then brushed his thumb over her nipple. "This hand?"
She choked out an impatient laugh. "Guy!"
He dove down and pressed his lips to the soft underside of her breast, then kissed his way up to the darker flesh of the nipple, tasted it, lapped at it with the tip of his tongue. The sounds she made … Christ's blood, self-control was not going to be easy. Pausing for breath, he shifted his mouth to Marian's other breast and slid his palm down her stomach. Too late, he remembered where he had cut the Nightwatchman; his fingertips brushed the thin jagged line of scar tissue and darted away as if burnt, and Marian flinched and froze. That scar was a reminder of too many things that were far better left alone, at least for now.
"Shh, Marian – " Guy kissed the hollow between her breasts, then moved up until his eyes were level with hers. He saw a flicker of hesitation and cursed inwardly; how foolish to think that they could ever surmount their past, or their present.
He felt Marian's palm flatten against his shoulder and push, and for a bitter moment he thought she was pushing him away – only to have her push him down on his back and lean over him, her hair spilling down on his chest. There was a warm glint in her eye as she dipped to kiss him, her hand moving over his chest and down to his belly; then, surfacing from the kiss, she peered into his face as if trying to read something in it.
"What?" he said thickly, trying to take his mind off the downward slide of her hand.
"You have beautiful eyes," she said, and the tenderness in her voice nearly overwhelmed him.
"God's heart, Marian. Kiss me again. Please."
She did, and this kiss was long and slow and almost enough to believe the past did not matter at all. After that, her hand resumed its journey until she had reached the belt of his braies and lingered there, and her eyes shifted, questioning, back to his face.
"Go on," he said hoarsely. She sat up and fumbled with the belt and paused, drawing in a long breath. Then, with an abrupt tug, she slid the garment off over his hips, and Guy clenched his fists, bracing himself. Her husky "Ohh" was followed by the caress of her hand, by the graze of her slender fingers, this time without even the thin barrier of fabric, and damnation, he did not want it to stop but letting her go on would not be wise at all. At last he managed a breathless, "Marian – ah – it's too much – " and clasped her wrist. "Come up here."
Marian scooted up and glided into his arms, settled there. She was as affected by this as he was, he could tell; the shine in her eyes, her labored breath, the color of her cheeks – the way she shuddered when he ran his hand over her hip –
"I need you to be ready," he said. She nodded and swallowed, with a small twitch of her mouth.
He eased her on her back again. She still tensed when his hand moved up between her thighs; yet she was very wet there, as ready as a woman could be, and when he began to stroke her she was almost at once moaning and trembling, her neck arched and exposed to his mouth. After a few moments he drew his hand away and moved to climb on top of her, but her gasp and her urgent, breathy whisper made him pause.
"Please – please don't stop … that." She flicked her tongue over her lips, tossed her head, almost whimpering, wonderfully lost in what he was doing to her. "Please," she said again as he moved his hand back, and Guy resumed the caress, enraptured by the sight of her face, by the knowledge that it was Marian shivering and making frantic sounds under his touch, Marian finally writhing with pleasure, her hand in his hair, until the final convulsions were upon her and he caught her cry in his kiss. As her tremors died down, Guy pulled away to look at her again, her eyes closed in surrender, her features transformed; incredible.
"Saints, Marian – I've got to have you now – "
"Yes," she said, "yes," and when he had her beneath him and in his arms she was lifting her hips to meet him and he could feel her, hot and slick and open, his Marian, his wife; guiding himself inside, he pushed up against the obstacle he'd expected and knew that this time her gasp was one of pain, and yet at that precise moment he no longer felt gentle. Marian's fingers clenched hard on his shoulders, her body growing rigid.
"Hold on," he said raggedly, "don't fight me, Marian, for God's sake don't fight me – "
Gritting his teeth, Guy drove forward with a single thrust; he heard Marian's sharp hiss, felt her squirm as if trying to get away, trapped in his embrace – another push and he was buried inside her. He dropped his head on her shoulder, panting, his forehead drenched in sweat.
"I've hurt you," he murmured, puffs of his breath ruffling her hair.
She let out a slow, tense breath. "I'm all right." After a moment she stirred and shifted a little, hooked her leg over his; she tightened around him and he groaned, melting into the heat and softness that she was inside. There was only so much of this that one could stand, and he began to move, mindful not to cause her further pain. Marian winced a little, squeezing her lips together with a tiny moan of what still sounded like discomfort. After a moment her eyes fluttered open, their gray almost brown in the dim candlelight, and met his own; and Guy leaned forward to cover her face with hard grateful kisses that left glistening traces on her skin.
His need drove him on and he thrust faster, ripples of fever coursing through his body, running stronger and hotter with every moment; he still tried to hold back for fear of hurting Marian, but she now seemed to be bucking to meet him and her breaths had turned to low sighs.
"Does this please you, Marian?" he ground out, very near the edge of self-possession. She threw her head back and he crushed his lips against her neck. "Do I please you?"
Marian's breath hitched and her hands moved up, her fingers lacing through his hair, and he heard her soft "Yes."
"Marian – " Guy shifted upward to see her face, the fever surging higher. "I want to give you everything" – his voice cracked and he could say nothing more, except for her name and some broken endearments.
He clung to her afterwards, stroking her hair, and Marian's lips were warm on his face and Guy had the vague thought that this was what it felt like to be happy.
Later they slept, waking briefly to reach for each other again in sweet half-awareness, then drifting back into slumber.
In the morning, Guy awoke to daylight seeping through the drapes on the windows and the gauzy bed-curtains he had drawn the night before. He could not remember the last time he had felt such contentment. He turned to look at Marian. She lay on her side with her back to him, so that all he could see was the dark hair and the white of her shoulder, dull and grayish in the dim light. He suddenly wondered if what had happened the night before had been only a truce, to be followed by a new distance between them. No, this was real, had to be real; she was truly his wife from this day forward, the woman who would share not just his bed but his life.
Guy raised himself up and leaned over to kiss her shoulder, then rumbled in her ear, "Good morning, Lady Gisborne."
Marian stirred and turned to him with an uncertain smile.
"Guy... Good morning."
He drew his arms around her and pulled her close; as much as he wanted her again, right now it could be enough to simply hold her, to bask in her warmth, to breathe in the scent of her hair and her skin. He pressed a gentle kiss to her lips, brushed his knuckles over her cheek. His wife. Marian.
"Did you sleep well?" she asked.
He flashed her a small grin. "I don't think I have ever slept so well before. Did you?"
She nodded. "I did."
He took her hand and brought it to his mouth, grazed her palm with his tongue. "So," he said, putting a touch of seductive mischief in his voice. "Was it as good as you imagined?"
Marian flinched slightly and pulled away her hand.
"I, uh – " She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, her eyes flickering anxiously. "Guy, I – I think we should get up."
He tried to push back the sense of something being very wrong. "What? Marian – "
She sat up, clutching the bedclothes to her chest. Guy stared at her numbly, a dull leaden ache growing in his heart even as his mind tried to tell him that she was tired, or sore from last night, or – that there had to be some kind of explanation that would not destroy everything.
"We have stayed in bed late enough," she said almost primly, scrambling off the bed and past the bed-curtains. "The servants must be wondering when we will come down for breakfast."
Bewildered, Guy watched Marian wriggle into her chemise and smooth it down with a nervous gesture. Muttering a curse, he groped around for his discarded braies, slipped them on and pulled the bed-curtains aside. He sat on the edge of the bed, watching her.
"Have I offended you somehow," he said.
She turned briskly. "No, of course not. I just think – " She looked around, picked up her dress from the floor and her hairpins from the bedside table. "I should go to my chamber and call Helen to help me dress."
She walked toward the door but Guy stood in her way.
"So," he said. "You are back to treating me as though I was – diseased."
"I have never treated you that way!" she snapped, with a defiant upward tilt of her chin.
He scoffed. "Indeed. You act as if you were repulsed by my presence, let alone my touch."
"That is not true," she said emphatically. "It is not."
His hands clenched roughly on her arms. "Why did you come to me last night?"
Marian's gaze shifted downward. "Because I wanted to," she said quietly.
Guy's temples were throbbing, bile rising to his throat; he had not felt such rage at her since his discovery of the Nightwatchman. "Why? Were you eager to learn after all this time what it's like to lie with a man? Perhaps I should be honored that you chose your husband and not some other man to gratify your curiosity."
"Guy!" Marian's eyes flashed back to him, bright with indignation.
He knew he was going too far, but hurt and anger spurred him on, word after vicious word rolling off his tongue. "God only knows, you are practiced enough in deceit," he spat. "And I am besotted enough to – "
"Guy, stop," she said, pleading. "Stop."
Guy released his grip on her arms and stepped back; he lowered his head and inhaled deeply, trying to keep himself in check.
"Or did you think," he said, staring at the floor, "that I would be even easier to manipulate if you shared my bed?" Another suspicion burrowed through his mind, a suspicion that was too poisonous to acknowledge and yet refused to leave. He looked up slowly at Marian, and his expression must have shown something of the darkness of his thoughts, unnerving her for a moment. "Or perhaps…" He stopped and swallowed. "Perhaps you were thinking that unless we consummated our marriage, I could always have it annulled and then you could no longer use me in your schemes. Was that your reason?"
"How dare you," she said. "How dare you accuse me of something so low." Yet she sounded more anguished than outraged, and he saw that her eyes were brimming with tears.
"Blessed saints, Marian." He shut his eyes for a moment and rubbed his forehead, taking another deep breath. "How dare I accuse you? How dare you treat me this way when for the past year I have done nothing but love you and care for you and give you everything you wanted, even against my own better judgment!"
She shook her head, eyes downcast. "You don't understand anything."
"What am I supposed to understand?" He seized her arms again, wanting to shake her until she gave him some answers; but when she raised her head there was such pain in her face that his anger was ebbing quickly.
"I did want to come to your bed," she said. "And yes, it was – I had – " she stumbled, looking for words – "it gave me great pleasure."
"Then what – "
She let out a choked sob. "Please, Guy. Please let me be. Just – for now."
Bewildered and dreading whatever was to come next, Guy let go of her shoulders. She walked over to the bed and sat down. Then she blurted out, her voice heavy with tears, "We said our marriage vows."
He stared at her in confusion; of course they had – it was what made them husband and wife. "What?"
"Robin and I – "
And there it was, the truth crashing down upon him. He had been a fool not to see it before.
" – when we were tied to those poles in the desert, we said our marriage vows. Before he – " Her words dissolved into another sob.
Guy was not sure for how long he stared at her in silence. His own voice shocked him; it was a stranger's voice, hollow, dead. "So," he said. "The entire time you were – with me last night, you were thinking of him."
"I wasn't!" she cried, looking up at him. "That's why – " She broke off and turned away, brushing the hair off her face.
"You still love him."
She did not answer that. When she spoke again, she sounded tired and defeated. "The man that I thought would take me to the marriage bed lies dead in the desert, in a faraway land – without so much as a Christian burial – "
Guy's mouth twisted in a sneer. "He got a better burial than an outlaw deserves. Better than he would have gotten had he died on the gallows here in Nottingham."
Marian shuddered. After a moment she went on, her voice dropping to a near-whisper. "And yet here I am – in your house, in your bed – taking pleasure in the embrace of a man who – " She trailed off again.
"Pray continue," he said. His throat was very dry, and he no longer knew what, if anything, he was feeling. "A man whom you despise."
"A man who was his enemy. A man who stands for everything that we were fighting against."
"You and Hood."
"And the other outlaws," she said. "They were my friends. They were good people – people I cared about. And now, they are dead – with Robin – and I am … here. Because you saved me."
She was no longer crying but gazing listlessly ahead, much as she had in the house in Acre after he'd brought her back from the healer's. Guy slowly walked over to pick up his clothes from the floor and put them on. Then he strode toward the door. His hand already on the doorknob, he paused and turned to look at her. After a moment she turned her head; their eyes met.
"I leave you to your dead husband," he said.
Coming down the stairs, he shouted for the steward. The man scurried to meet him with a hasty "Will you be taking breakfast with milady this morning, Sir?"; but Guy waved him aside.
"Have my horse saddled," he said curtly. "No breakfast. Have one of the men bring up some clean clothes to the castle. I will be away – for a while."
At the castle, the walls mocked him with their gloom. This was all he had now, Guy thought as he walked down the corridor to his official quarters. He settled behind his desk to hear his captain's report on the day's business, and told himself that it didn't matter; this was all Vaisey had too and it never seemed to have troubled him. You're not Vaisey, taunted a voice in his head that sounded sickeningly like Vaisey himself. You want it both ways, Gisborne; Vaisey never did. He shook it off and snapped his attention back to the captain before his distraction could be noticed.
The day dragged on, filled with interminable petty business. One matter weighed on his mind; there was a lad of eighteen, an apprentice blacksmith from Southwell with no prior crimes, who faced the loss of a hand for stealing and whose widowed mother had petitioned him for clemency. Marian had seen the mother and joined in her plea a few days earlier, and Guy had promised to look into it; but that was before, and surely he owed her nothing now. He brooded over the petition for a long time. Perhaps it made sense to give the lad a second chance to learn a useful trade and pay taxes into the treasury instead of warding off starvation with menial labor or begging. Perhaps he really was going soft. If Vaisey were here, he'd be entertaining himself with nasty little jokes about a mother's loving heart. Wincing at the thought, Guy reached for the quill and wrote down an order to change the sentence to a whipping and a fine.
That night, under the heavy canopy of his bed at the castle, he dreamed of Acre. Marian was standing before him, next to Hood, holding Hood's hand, and they were in love and laughing at him; Guy was holding a sword but could not move or make a sound, and then instead of Marian and Hood it was Vaisey, smirking. "Lepers, Gisborne. What did I tell you?" Guy woke up panting and bathed in sweat, and sat up for a while trying to steady his breath.
The night after that, it was Vaisey sitting on his bed, eyeing him with an amused expression. "Tell me, Guy" – he leaned in to stroke Guy's cheek, making his skin crawl, and once again there was that horrifying inability to move a muscle – "is life as sweet as you thought it would be? No? I didn't think so." Jolted from his sleep by the sound of Vaisey's laughter, Guy flailed at the sheets tangled around his body. He stayed awake until dawn, plagued by unwelcome memories of his night with Marian. It was her fault that he wasn't happy, he told himself; he had, after all, everything else he had ever wanted. Oh, how Vaisey would have laughed at him if he could actually see him now. Really, Gisborne, what's the point of having power if you don't know how to enjoy it?
The Council of Nobles was held the next day. Presiding over it from the chair where Vaisey had once reigned, Guy looked at the conspirators present in the hall – Sir Geoffrey de Vere with his usual fastidious look, the haughty Lady de Caux in her best finery – and wondered if they were squirming just a little in their seats wondering how much he knew. Vaisey had made the nobles squirm for far lesser reasons, and without half trying.
As he had expected, Lady de Caux's steward never showed up on Monday; on Tuesday one of the lady's servants arrived to report that Walter of Laxton had disappeared, absconding with some of the lady's jewelry and silver. Now was a perfect chance to go after the conspirators, uncover the steward's murder and follow the trail to the plot against King John. And destroy Marian.
Guy pressed a hand to his forehead, pondering his options. There was also King John to consider. If the conspiracy flourished in Nottingham, he would eventually have to deal with the king's wrath; he might have power and position now, but there was still a master whose displeasure he had to fear. Perhaps his power was as much of an illusion as his marriage. He clenched his jaw in frustration; why did everything have to come back to her?
He looked up at Lady de Caux's servant. "I'll have my men start a search for your thief."
After the servant had left, Guy closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. He could go to Locksley. Eventually, he would have to take care of the estate's affairs. He didn't even have to see her. Unbidden, his memory summoned an image of Marian the way he had seen her in the village; she had looked like an angel in the gentle sunlight, in her pale blue dress and cape. Guy remembered the way she had leaned into him when they rode back to the manor, the way her hand had rested on his arm. Would he never kiss her again? He forced himself to get up and walk out of the chamber, and ordered a guard to have his horse ready. No, he would not go to Locksley; not yet. A tour of the main Nottingham market with a retinue of guards would take his mind off other things.
Another day went by, and another night of troubling dreams. This time, he was in bed with Marian, lost in her warm nakedness, and then fists pounded on the door and Vaisey's voice bellowed, "Gisborne!"; and later, he somehow came to be in the woods, riding around in a fog through which one could barely see the trees, knowing that Hood was lurking somewhere waiting to put an arrow in his heart.
Awake, Guy lay in his vast bed in the predawn quiet of the castle. A vivid memory of the happiness he had felt holding Marian in his arms after their union welled inside him. She had robbed him of that, he thought bitterly – and in the next instant he saw, with a brutal, final, terrifying clarity, that he had thrown it all away. Marian's fault? Saint George's bones, so what if she'd been skittish the morning after; of course she would be, considering the terms on which she'd agreed to marry him – terms he had offered her! So what if she and Hood had exchanged vows when dying in the desert; it's not as if he hadn't already known of her love for the outlaw, and besides, Hood was dead.
Guy bolted up and sat on the edge of the bed, cursing at himself. Marian had given him everything, and he had allowed his foolish jealousy of a dead man to ruin it with his anger and his ugly words.
In a few moments he was on his feet, dressed, and striding out into the hallway.
"You!" At his yell, the dozing guard jerked like a puppet whose strings had been tugged abruptly. "My coat and my horse. Now!"
"B–b-but my Lord Sheriff – it's not even – "
"I said now!"
He left the castle with no escort. The black of the sky was breaking up in patches of whitish gray; it was still almost dark, but his horse confidently followed the familiar road to Locksley. As Guy rode, a chilly wind lashed at his face, mocking him for his folly.
By the time he reached Locksley Manor – the sky now pale and daubed with pink, with only a few ragged patches of night left – he knew he would do anything for another chance. He pounded on the door, seized by sudden fear that she would not be there; she could be off on one of her missions, or … or she could have left never to come back. The door hatch opened and a sleepy servant peered out, his eyes blinking quickly into frightened alertness. The door creaked open and Guy stalked in, breathing hard, the knuckles of his clenched hand pressed hard to his mouth.
"My lord!" The steward stumbled out into the murky hallway in his nightclothes. "Is everything – "
"Lady Gisborne," Guy croaked, lowering his hand.
"Milord?" The steward's bleary eyes squinted at him in bewilderment.
"Yes, milord – she's - "
Not listening, Guy raced upstairs to Marian's bedchamber. He tried his best not to wake her too abruptly as he opened the door; but she still stirred awake at the sound and lifted her head with a groggy mumble, and then, seeing him in the murky half-light of the chamber where a single candle burned and dawn was seeping in through the curtains, quickly sat up. He thought he heard her gasp.
Everything he had thought of saying had been wiped from his mind, and the only thing he could manage was, "Marian."
"Guy," she breathed out. Perhaps it was his imagination, or the light, but her face seemed a bit thinner and paler. Her eyes were very wide yet he could not read their expression. Guy came closer and knelt down by the side of the bed, his heart hammering in his chest. For a long moment neither of them spoke. He lowered his head and closed his eyes and let out a long trembling breath; this was how one waited for a death blow. Then Marian's fingers brushed hesitantly against his cheek, and when he dared to look at her she seemed anxious and moved, even shaken, but not angry or cold or scornful as he had feared. He clasped her shoulders, his gloved hands huge and black on the pale yellow silk of her nightdress.
"I have something for you," he said hoarsely, and her eyebrows twitched in surprise. "Come with me."
Marian gave him a bewildered look. "Where?"
"Just downstairs. Please, Marian."
She eyed him warily, then gave a small nod. "I'll come."
Guy rose to his feet and waited while she got out of bed and slipped into her dressing gown. All he could do was fervently hope that this would work. He could think of no other gift to give her; clothes and trinkets meant nothing, and she already had a horse.
Marian followed him down the stairs and into his study, the same one where he'd first told her of the nobles' plot. Guy lit the candles and closed the door; then, discarding his gloves, opened the desk, pulled out one of the ledgers and put it down before her.
"These are the accounts for the Knighton estate." He saw Marian flinch slightly; she looked down, and her loose hair and the shadows of the room hid her face from him. "From now on, they are completely in your hands."
Marian slowly came up to the desk and opened the ledger, her slender fingers lingering on the pages before turning them. Her shoulder brushed against Guy's arm.
"I'll give orders for all the revenues from Knighton to be handed directly to you," he said. "That way, your property is under your control and – you need never ask me for anything."
She turned toward him, so close he could have kissed her if he leaned forward. He saw warmth in her eyes, but a touch of wariness was still there.
"You know that I can use this money for more than dresses and horses – and food for the hungry," she said carefully.
Guy took her hand between his palms, raised it to his mouth and pressed his lips to her fingers, never taking his eyes off hers. "Oh, I know."
"You know that I can use it to support things – of which you would not approve."
"I know that you will use it to support things that could make my life very difficult," he said. "And possibly quite short."
She jerked her head slightly, as if to say no; but her eyes were fearless. "And yet – you choose this."
"I choose you." He drew her close, gathering her into his arms, and shut his eyes at the unbearable sweetness of holding her. "I should have always chosen you," he murmured, his lips grazing her hair.
He heard Marian sigh, felt her body relax against him. Too quickly, she pulled away; but now the wariness was gone from her eyes and her mouth had softened into a small smile.
"Are you sure?" she asked – perhaps meaning his last words, or his offer, or both.
"I have never been so sure of anything," he said. Suddenly grave, she studied his face, and he continued, "You have your own choices to make. I will not question you or thwart you." His hands on the back of her head, Guy stroked her hair, leaning close so that his forehead was almost touching hers. "The less I know about it, the safer we both will be."
His whisper lingered between them, until she gave a small nod and said, "Thank you"; and, tilting up her head to close the space between his mouth and hers, kissed him.
Guy would have deepened the kiss and backed toward the chair, taking Marian with him; but she broke away and held her fingers to his lips.
"Thank you," she said again. "I…" She paused, her eyebrows creased in a small thoughtful frown. "Guy … I have something for you as well."
"Will you ride with me into the forest?"
Guy had expected anything but that. "Why?"
"Trust me," she said, her hands on his shoulders. "Please. It's something I must do. For you – for us."
"For us," he repeated, as if getting used to the sound of it; knowing that, for these words, he'd follow her to far worse places than the woods.
They left after a hasty breakfast. Hardly any words were spoken between them as they rode through the forest, where a thin mist clung to the molting trees. There was a lot of past in this place. Guy shifted his eyes to the woman at his side; she looked almost austere with her hair pulled back and her head held high, in the gold-threaded light brown cape that had been one of his wedding gifts to her. She glanced back at him, her face pensive, inscrutable.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
"You'll see," she said. "We're almost there."
They neared a hill and rode around it; and there, huddled against its steep side, was a wooden structure, not quite a shack but something clearly meant for human habitation. Weather-battered, it showed signs of wear and neglect; yet it was still solid. Next to it, he saw six crosses in the ground, and a heap of what looked like decayed flowers.
"The outlaw camp," he said quietly.
Marian dismounted and he followed suit, his heart beating anxiously.
"This is where you have been going on your rides in the woods."
"Sometimes," she said. "Sometimes, I simply ride. Sometimes, I bring flowers, to remember them." She gestured at the crosses. "It was the best I could do. I cannot honor them where they are buried, so I do it here where they lived." She paused and added, as though talking to herself, "I do not know if it was right to put up a cross for Djaq, as she was not of our faith. But I don't think her God would mind that."
He could have laughed at the irony, being led to this place he had looked for in vain for such a long time. But right now, there was only the painful jealousy of what this place meant to Marian, struggling against the warmth of knowing that she had shared with him the secret of her mourning.
"No more secrets, then," he said, his voice tight.
"No more secrets," she said. "That's why I brought you to this place. I want to tell you the truth about the past. I owe you that."
"You mean, about – " the next word stuck in his throat – "about Robin Hood."
And she began to speak. Some of it he already knew or guessed; but there was more, so much more. She told him that, from the start, she was the one giving Hood the information she got through him; that she had, as he'd suspected, given to Hood the necklace he had given her after taking it from a Locksley village girl as a marriage fee; that Hood had been at her side after Guy had unknowingly wounded her in her Nightwatchman disguise, the night before she and Guy were to marry; that her visit to Locksley with an offer of friendship had been a pretext for a pass to leave the castle, so that she could get the Sheriff's seal on it and forge it on another paper for Hood's purposes; that after her father's death, she had not gone to a convent but to the outlaw camp; that when he thought he was rescuing her from captivity by Hood, she and the outlaw had just pledged themselves to each other…
At last she stopped. Without realizing it, Guy had backed away to lean against a tree. It was as if he'd spent these last minutes being kicked and pummeled, hogtied and helpless to defend himself. His face was very hot, and there was not enough air; he jerked at the clasps on his coat. He wanted to walk back to his horse but his legs had turned to lead, just like in his dreams. He gulped for breath, sweat pouring down his face and neck, and when he tried to speak his throat was too tight.
"Guy." Marian looked worried; right now, her concern felt like damnable mockery.
"Good God, Marian… You would spare me nothing. This is the truth you owed me? That everything between us is lies?"
"No," she said. "No. That's not – "
The anguished tenderness in her face shattered the tenuous grip he'd managed to regain on his emotions. With every breath he took, he was afraid he would come undone and start crying.
"The rest of it is still true."
"The rest of what?"
"That I care for you! That I see what is good in you! That I am…" she paused, looking for words, and he noticed that she was blushing. "That I am drawn to you. It is true now and it was true then. The night I came to see you at Locksley, it was an excuse … but I meant the things I said."
He remembered that night too well; she had come into his room when he was half-dressed after being fitted for his armor, and even as he tried to tell her – and himself – that he had no feelings left for her, he had been so mesmerized by her presence, by her nearness that he'd made no move to put on his shirt.
"The truth is that even when I told myself I was only staying at the castle because it was useful to the outlaws' cause, I … there was a part of me that liked being near you." She took his hand. "It was not all lies."
He wasn't sure whether he wanted to ride away as fast as he could and leave her forever before she killed him with any more betrayals, or fall at her feet and swear eternal love; or take her in his arms and kiss her again and again until it made everything all right.
"Tell me one thing," he said, already hating himself for clutching at straws. "The day Prince John's army was coming to raze Nottingham – you said you were choosing to stay with me – "
Her fingers trembled slightly but she never looked away. "That was true," she said in a hushed voice.
"The way you looked at me when I came back…"
"Guy, when you came back I was proud and happy to stand at your side. None of that was a lie. I was never prouder of you then I was at that moment."
He closed his eyes and let out a long ragged breath, only now realizing how much he had dreaded her answer. If this was clutching at straws, so be it.
"You cared for me," he said.
"And now … I'm here with you."
Because it's useful to her cause, whispered that sneering voice inside his head; and, as if in response, Marian said vehemently, "It's not because I want to use you to spy for the rebels. I do care for you, Guy. I do."
"You told me once I was dead to you."
"I meant it then. Guy… back in Acre, so many terrible things happened, and I hated you for all of it. I believed that the good I had seen in you was gone, or perhaps had never existed at all except in my own illusions. And then…" She shook her head. "I still hate the things you have done. But I know that what I see in you now is real."
She raised her hand to touch his face, but Guy caught her wrist, holding her at bay.
"You love him still."
"Always," she said simply. "And it still breaks my heart to think of how – he died." Her voice cracked and she lowered her head. "And the others … you won't understand this, Guy, but in a way they were my family."
"Perhaps I do understand," he said. After all, in a way Vaisey had been his family, and he could not exactly judge her for choosing a bunch of scruffy outlaws as hers.
Marian looked up. "But a part of my heart belongs to you. I think it always did." She struggled with her next words. "Guy, that morning, when I pushed you away… the truth is that the night before that, I gave you all of myself. And that frightened me because it felt like I had betrayed – everything. But now, I can accept it. I have accepted it – accepted you."
Guy leaned against the grizzled trunk of the tree and inhaled deeply, his head thrown back, his eyes shut. When he looked at Marian again, her gaze was still on him, her lips creased slightly as if she were about to either smile or cry.
"So – what happens now?" he asked.
"Now, I want to be a real wife to you."
He still didn't quite dare to believe this. Marian, my wife: The last time he had let himself think it, his dream-world had crashed quickly and brutally. And yet his foolish heart was light with joy and hope. The truth was that he would always love her as long as there was a chance; and even if there was not.
He took his gloves off, gently peeled off her soft kidskin glove and clasped her hand, her palm hot against his, their fingers laced.
"A real wife," he said. "What do you mean by that?"
"I want to be by your side. To be the mistress of your manor and estate, to share your bed – to bear your children. To be your companion in everything."
"In everything," he repeated. "You know that by rights, my wife should also be the lady of Nottingham Castle."
"No," she said, sudden steel in her voice. "I will not be a dutiful wife to the Sheriff of Nottingham under King John. I will be a good wife to Guy of Gisborne."
"And the rebellion?" he said, knowing what her answer would be.
"I still want to help them. But I promise I will do nothing that could put you in danger."
She had put him in danger already, of course; was she truly naïve enough not to see that? But they could deal with it later. Right now … right now, he pulled her against him and into a hard, demanding, breathtaking kiss.
"We're going home," he said.
x x x x x
It is past midnight when Guy of Gisborne returns to Locksley Manor and goes upstairs to his wife's bedchamber. In the hazy orange-tinted light of a single candle, Marian is bundled under the blanket in the middle of the bed, her face hidden, her hair scattered over the pillows. As he starts to undress, she moves and sighs and turns to him; her eyes blink open foggily and she mutters, "'Tis late. I thought you were spending the night at the castle."
"I don't like my bed at the castle," he says, peeling off his shirt.
"You are not in it."
Marian gives a small, husky, still sleep-blurred laugh and sweeps her hair away from her face, watching him as he strips naked, the stirrings of his arousal already evident. In a moment Guy is under the blanket with her, helping her out of her shift, his hands gliding over her skin. Her lips sweep gently over his, tugging lightly, then seek out a spot on his neck that is especially sensitive to kisses, and he groans and presses into her, rocking his hips. He would take his time, loving the feel of her against him, the brush of her breath on his skin, the way their limbs entwine. She is the one who seems more impatient tonight, her breaths growing quick and ragged, her hand sliding between their bodies and curling around his hardness. His own desire flares more urgently and he moves to press her down, but she whispers to him to lie back and he complies. She straddles him, letting him feel her smooth heat on his stomach, and finally takes him inside her, arching back so that he can palm her breasts; and for a while they are lost to everything but the rhythm of their bodies moving together, the places where they touch, the searing ache that rises and spreads and crests.
He is reluctant to let go, even after the last ripples of pleasure have faded; Marian is still wrapped around him, warm and boneless, and he holds on to her, his hands moving lazily over her hair, her shoulders, her back. After a while she raises her head and moves for another kiss, a soft and drowsy one, and then slides off him with an unintelligible mutter. They both turn and shift and settle on their side, Marian nestled in Guy's arms with her back to him, and it is not long before they are both asleep.
He wakes up later on, reluctantly untangles himself from her still-sleeping form, and lies flat on his back staring into the canopy. The candle has burned out, and in the dark the thoughts that preoccupied him last night before he got home come creeping back, uninvited and insistent. He needs to talk to Marian, but he is loath to bring talk of politics into their bed.
After a while he realizes that she is awake. She turns and reaches to stroke his face.
"You are troubled." He makes a grudging sound of assent. "Is it – John?"
Guy nods and sighs, sliding an arm around Marian's shoulders. "A worse snake than Vaisey," he says; the name draws from her a slight shudder. "You never know where you stand with him; he is the sort of man who'd invite you to sit at his right hand at a feast and smile at you all evening when he has already ordered your execution."
Thankfully, Marian does not remind him of his own part in bringing John to the throne. Instead she mulls over his words and asks, "You think you have lost his favor?"
"No one truly has John's favor except John himself," he says with a snort. Then he can no longer contain his anxiety. "I am not sure what he may know. He asked about you."
"What did he ask?"
"Why you were not there to meet him. I told him you weren't well. He said he had looked forward to meeting you. He gave me this look – " Guy tries for a way to describe it, then gives up and gives a frustrated headshake. "Perhaps it was nothing. He likes to unsettle people."
"Perhaps he's heard the rumors," Marian says thoughtfully.
"That you have a wife who is mad. Or bewitched," she adds after a pause, and then they are both briefly silent, Marian's head resting on his chest.
"Sometimes, I think that at least one of us must be mad indeed," he says in a low voice, brushing his fingers through her hair. "Don't you?"
She lifts her head, peering at him through the dark. At last she says, with pretended lightness, "Perhaps I am mad and you are bewitched."
Guy chuckles and pulls her in for a kiss. Her breasts are soft and full on his chest, and in another moment he is quite ready to show her just how bewitched he is; but they need to talk, and if this goes any further there will be no talking. He braces himself.
"The purpose of John's visit to Nottingham is to inspect the castle's defenses. In case there's a siege." Marian is still in his arms, waiting. "The barons are in open rebellion in Brittany," he continues, and stops at her small intake of breath. "You knew."
"Yes." She exhales, inclines her head so that her forehead is touching his. "Guy, you yourself said it was safer for you if I told you nothing about the rebellion."
"If I learn something that could be a direct threat to you, I promise I will tell you."
"Marian…" He swallows. "What if there is a siege? What if I must lead the defense of the castle for King John?"
Marian pulls back. It is too dark for him to see her features but he thinks she is frowning. "Are you worried that I might open the gate during the night and let in the rebel armies, or spy and report to them on your defenses? You know I would not. You believe me, don't you?"
"I believe you." After a pause he asks, "What will you do?"
"I do not know. No one knows what may happen. Perhaps – my position could be to your advantage."
He ponders that. He knows that sometimes, when lords and princes related by marriage have been openly at war, the woman – wife to one, sister or daughter or cousin to the other – has been key to ending the hostilities. But this is different.
"My advantage," he repeats slowly. "You mean, you could help negotiate a surrender – arrange a deal so that your friends would leave me my life. And nothing else." Bitterness simmers in his voice, and the warmth of her hand on his brow does not soothe it away entirely.
"It is much too early to speak of such things," Marian says.
Guy drops his head back on the pillow and lets out a harsh breath, closing his eyes. "That is not an answer, Marian."
"No matter what happens, you will always have me," she says. "Is that an answer?"
"Of sorts," he says. The truth is that while his old ambitions now seem hollow, like a faded passion, the thought of having everything taken from him – of having to rely on Marian for protection – stings badly. Still, he enfolds her in his embrace and presses his lips to her hair.
"Guy," she starts, then stops.
"I could give it up," she says in a small voice.
She would do that for him – for them. When this sinks in, Guy is stunned and grateful and yet at once uneasy. "If you do – will you be happy?"
Marian's silence supplies the answer; but then she says, "I would not be your ruin."
His thumb trails over her face. "And I would not be yours. I suppose that leaves us at an impasse."
They are quiet for a moment, the only sound the patter of rain that has started outside. Holding her, Guy can feel the steady beats of her heart.
"Then we will see this through together," she says. "No matter what happens."
His answer is to roll her over and kiss her. Marian's hands slide up, her fingers twining through the locks on the back of his neck.
The rain pelts harder at the roof and the window. In a few hours Guy is due back at the castle, for three more days of catering to King John's whims and looking out for hidden traps. If the rain keeps up, today's hunt will be canceled and he'll have to think of other ways to keep the sovereign entertained.
But all of that comes later. Right now, all thoughts of the king and the rebellion dissipate; Marian is kissing him back, and then his mouth roams down her neck and to her breasts, and lower still, and she breathes faster in anticipation, her hands clutching at his hair, and his name on her lips is a half-whisper, half-moan – "Guy…"
Right now, it is not yet dawn, and Nottingham Castle will wait, for its lord still has the rest of the night to spend in bed with his wife.
NOTES: While this story presents an alternate version of history in which Richard is killed in the Holy Land in 1193, rather than in France in 1199, some aspects of it do have a historical foundation. King Richard did in fact originally designate Arthur of Brittany rather than John Lackland as his heir, and the early years of King John's reign were marked by rebellion in support of Arthur (who mysteriously vanished in 1203 and is believed to have been killed by men loyal to John).