Title: Birdsong

Author: Elliott Silver

"Tell me about her."

Walter raised his eyebrows, his withered fingers curling possessively around his flagon. "Your wife, you mean."

"Yes, my wife." The word was strange and marvelous on his tongue.

Alan was playing a lively tune, something he hadn't heard before, and the village farmers wove before them in cadence.

"She was young when she came here, very young. She didn't know a plough from a pitchfork. But with Robert gone away, she learned. And then - time passed. Much time. She grew."

Dancers whirled in front of them, clamoring in the light of the bonfire to Alan's music.

"She had a laugh like birds in song then," Walter said and shifted in his seat stiffly, or perhaps with guilt. "Now all we hear are carrion crows, from London."

Walter's voice had gone dark, held ten years' of darkness, of not-said things, of now never-forgiveness for a son he could not see again.

"Robert wanted to capture that, I suppose, bring it home." He took a long drink from the pewter mug of mead. "Wouldn't you?"

"No," he answered and Walter waited for him to continue. "Birds are like arrows, they should always fly free, otherwise they cannot find home."

Birds and arrows, precarious, fragile things that took flight, dangerous things no less beautiful for being deadly. Had he learned anything, any virtues, any patience as an archer? He looked out over the night and hoped so.

Across the fire, the yellow-orange flames licking at the dark sky, he saw her, an outline against the night, burning.

"She did not love my son," Walter said, and his voice was not unkind. "I know that. But she had no other choice, as she does not now."

"We always have a choice," he answered, not in comfort but in hope.

The crowd swirled, giddy and light, around them, a last rousing chorus before Alan moved into a slower song.

Marion came towards him, her movements throwing shadows against the bright fire as she offered her hand to him.

Her dress was the color of heartwood, the color of corn in the sack, of wheat stalks in the field, the color of sap rising in his veins.

He rose and met her, moving with her.

He didn't know much about women. He thought about dark skin, the cool salve and shade of the women he'd known underneath curled crescents and a searing Palestine sky, women with names like the wind who'd made him forget, for a time, about the blood splashed on his skin.

And he remembered the blonde girl from Barnstaple, the one he'd kissed under the flowering apple tree that spring, fumbling and frantic.

He remembered how he'd felt then, and this wasn't it. There was no nervous flutter, no upturning of his insides, like he was at war. There was only this, only her, all steady, all calm and certain, the way he'd finally learned to draw arrows, to wait, to hold a breath, to hope, to pray.

He had come here, to Nottingham, to Pepperharrow, when the earth was cold, when the bluebells and wood anemones had yet to bloom in the shade of the forests. Now the apples were turning red on knotty branches, and the evenings snapped with Lammas chill.

It seemed shorter than a breath, a beat of his heart.

Others had joined the dance around them, and he felt the gaze of so many people on them, but her hair was long and warm under his fingers, the combed wool of her dress smooth like a river.

He'd come here worn bare, ragged but in a knight's clothing, empty except for the crushing weight of chainmail. She'd taken that all away.

"Tell me about Robin Longstride." She moved around him, and he followed her motions as Alan played on.

He told her about the sand and sun, the bright burn of Palestine and the shade of crescents in the Holy Land. He took her about the travels of the army, the monotony of camp life, the smell of burning oil and death that never left his clothes, the mud and blood that tanned them, stained them. He told her about sieges, so many he lost count, about water so dark and long you could sleep across it, about other worlds of silk and spice. And he told her about the hive of Pepperharrow, that greenwood haven where he'd come, where the sprouting grains had been the color of his dreams, a place of hearth and home where hope had been that storm-violet of her eyes.

When he reached up, her hand met his, and her fingers slipped through all his empty spaces, those long fingers that curled around both sword and plough evenly, the fingers that held reins, guided Goliath's lumbering steps, checked impatience, held this man to her.

He could feel her breath against his face as they moved together.

But then Alan changed tune, rousing and raucous, and a cheer went up from the crowd as a rollicking line of dancers crashed between them.

She stepped back, a smile curling up on her lovely face. A whirling hand pulled him into the dance and Walter called her away, rising to go into the manorhouse.

The last carousers had disappeared and Tuck himself rumbled into a long sleep when he found her again, sitting alone and still by the dying embers of the bonfire.

"Tell me about Robert Loxsley," he asked.

"Robert was a good man, I think, but I never really knew him."

"Do you wish you had chosen otherwise?"

There was a moment while she considered, though she never hesitated in her response. "No, I was needed here." He wondered if it was as simple as that, if it could be.

"Would you have chosen otherwise?" she asked.

"I go where God sends me," he answered.

"Are you pleased by His choices?"

He thought about the massacre of Acre, the girl's face. Then he looked up into hers. God took away his godlessness.

"Yes." He answered.

"Are you pleased He brought you here?"

"No," he answered. "I'm humbled that He brought me to you."

"Me?" she asked with a start.

"You are a gift beyond all measure," he answered her, the shortness of the breath in his lungs emphasizing his words as he spoke. "A gift beyond all measure of my grace."

She had birds in her veins, he was sure, as she choose her path, as she took his hand in hers and rose, leading him into the darkened rooms of the manor. Bluebirds, he was sure, like the color of her eyes, the color of the veins against her wrist, where blood flowed to her heart, where her pulse was like a tremor of wings.

This time she didn't let go, not even when they both stood before the bed in her – their –chambers, not even when her mouth met his and he closed his eyes and let belief, pure and undiminished, wash over him.

She tasted like barley, like earth and rain, sharp as his want for her had been when she'd glanced back at him that first night, taking in his naked flesh after stripping away all his armor, now soft and slow and unhurried in her journey of his soul, the choice of her path crossing with his, twining around each other until he could no longer tell where one started and the other left off, until they were whole, until he whispered to her and she laughed, high and clear and lasting as birdsong.