Lady Marion of Leaford.
Lady Wolf's Head, wife of Robin of Loxley, lover of Robert of Huntingdon, mistress of Sherwood.
The woman leaning against the cool stone sill of the window regarded her past as much as her view of the world outside that window. Listing her various titles, some honorable, some meant as insults but worn with pride, helped her anchor herself to the present. That is who I was in the past, she told herself silently. And this is who I am now.
Sister Marion, novice in Halstead Abbey.
She'd come to Halstead to make peace with herself, to find a way out of the darkness that had nearly overwhelmed her at the thought of a second violent death to a second man she'd loved. She would stay here even in light of the discovery she'd made about herself in recent days. Especially because of that discovery.
Two men she'd loved, one dead, one believed dead for a vivid, endless few moments of eternity. Both events scarring her, perhaps forever.
Was it her fault, something about her? Briefly she entertained the idea of a curse, then discarded it. Tuck would chide her for such nonsense, as would any number of her sisters at Halstead, the Abbess more than the rest. Cupid's curse was a superstition, and although she knew from experience how much more there was to the world than what was seen and felt and heard, that Heaven and Hell and places beyond the Church's absolutes existed, still, she shied at the thought of a true curse being laid upon her by some unknown and unknowable force.
A soft breeze blew the white fabric of her novices' veil so that it brushed her cheek. She ignored it as a bittersweet smile tugged at the corner of her lips. Her interrupted journey to Kirklees Abbey had ended here, at Halstead, as if destiny had allowed her only a temporary detour in her journey toward taking the veil. Almost, almost she could believe her life as wife and outlaw, widow and lover, to be the stuff of dreams, of an over-colorful imagination, but her practical mind refused such refuge.
No, she'd been in the world and of it, gloriously so, and it would sully the memory of her beloved husband to deny his existence, to lessen his importance in her life. It would be equally futile to deny her life after his death, the year in exile from Sherwood, the months spent getting to know and gradually love the new Robin i' the Hood.
She'd had a nightmare about him just last night; unwillingly, her mind replayed it for her now. Her dreams had been so vivid in the last month, as if reality weren't enough for her to cope with. But this one had been worse than all the others combined, and as her mind replayed the images she shuddered beneath their impact.
Robin, her first Robin, dead. But this time his body wasn't hidden away by the Sheriff; this time, she stood and watched in horror as he was impaled by the crossbow bolts and arrows his enemies aimed at him after she and Much escaped that cursed hilltop. She sobbed as she collapsed by his side, calling his name over and over, telling him she loved him only to be pulled away by de Rainault's ungentle hand on her arm. "He's mine now, Lady Wolf's Head," the dream-Sheriff gloated. "Not yours, never again yours."
Then he spun her away; when she regained her footing, she found herself in the middle of Sherwood, watching with joy as a man in a hood, bow slung over one shoulder and quiver of arrows at his hip, strode toward her. The dazzle of sunlight through the trees shadowed his face, but she knew who it was, cried his name in relief, ran toward him only to be stopped once again, this time by Little John and Much, each restraining her with one hand on each of her arms.
The silent, hooded figure stopped in front of her, still too far for her to reach even if her hands were free, still impossible to see. "Which one?" Will Scarlet asked as he appeared next to the hooded man. "Which Robin is it?" he asked, yanking the hood down to reveal the blonde hair and blue eyes of Robert of Huntingdon, the man she'd come to love after her husband's death.
"Which Robin do you love?" That was Nasir, materializing like a wraith on Robin's other side. He and Scarlet reached up and tugged at Robert's hair, pulling it farther and farther back until his face slid up and over the top of his head like a mummer's mask, revealing Robin of Loxley's dark hair and finely drawn features beneath, dark eyes full of a sorrow that tugged at her heart. "Which Robin do you love?"
She'd awoken in a cold sweat, breathing hard as if she'd been running from the Sheriff's men instead of sleeping quietly in her narrow cot, heart hammering, Nasir's words still echoing through her mind even as they echoed again in the cold light of day. "Which Robin do you love?"
Marion started at the sound of a voice beside her, not the voice of her past but of her future. She turned to face the intruding figure, schooling her troubled features into an expression of gentle inquiry.
Sister Herbalist stood in the doorway, fidgeting. "You've visitors again," the older woman said with an apologetic twitch of one broad shoulder. "The Abbess asked me to tell you before I went into the meadows." A narrow leather strap hung from one gray-clad shoulder, and the pouch it was attached to lay empty and flat against her hip. She'd apparently been diverted from an afternoon of gathering herbs for healing potions to deliver the message, and Marion expressed her gratitude.
Sister Herbalist brushed away Marion's thanks, impatient to return to the task at hand. "They're in the visitor's parlor." Then she hurried away and Marion was left with a fixed smile covering her sudden inward dismay. She'd sent Robert—Robin—away once already; had he returned so soon to trouble her? It had scarce been two months since her arrival and his last visit. She'd made her decision, given him her reasons for leaving him; why couldn't he simply accept that decision and leave her in peace?
Not that she had achieved anything near a state of true peace, she acknowledged silently as she exited the small chapel where she'd been set to the task of polishing the simple silver candlesticks that adorned the equally simple altar. It was the visitor's chapel, rarely used but kept up as meticulously as the rest of the abbey's cloistered rooms and halls. A peaceful place at odds with her inner disquiet. No peace was possible with nightmares like the one she'd been reliving plaguing her sleeping mind.
She'd seen him dead. That it wasn't him, that it was some uncanny golem in Robert's image (Robin's image, her mind reminded her with quiet insistence, he's Robin i' the Hood now, Herne's son and heir) hadn't changed the fact that she'd believed with all her heart and soul that once again she faced the death of the man she loved. It had been too much, too much to bear, was still too much to bear two months after the fact, but bear it she would. And one day, the peace she yearned for would come to her; the serenity she masked herself with would finally be achieved inwardly as well as in outward aspect.
But not so long as he kept coming around, trying to convince her to leave. She couldn't; although she still longed for him (still longed for both of them, that whispering inner voice corrected her), the terror of losing him again crystallized around her heart and gave her the strength she would need to turn him away.
Seeing his face, hearing his voice, might crack that icy sheath, break her strength and her will and urge her once again toward Sherwood. But that couldn't happen, she couldn't allow it to happen. This time, she vowed, she would convince him to stay away forever. Convince him that a return to Sherwood was out of the question, would forever be impossible, that she'd dedicated her life to God and good works, and that her passionate yearning for justice would have to be satisfied in whatever changes she could effect during her life at the abbey.
She'd worked herself into such a state of fervent determination that it took her a moment to adjust to the fact that her visitor was not, in fact, Robin of Sherwood, nor any of his followers. Indeed, when she recognized the long form unfolding itself from the low couch to rise on armor-clad feet and step toward her, she cried out, shrank away and turned to the doorway as if to run.
She was stopped short by strong, mail-clad hands grasping her by the arms, preventing her from slamming full-tilt into the soldier's body that blocked her escape. She should have expected as much, but gasped at the outrage nonetheless. "Let me go!" she demanded, kicking and struggling to free herself.
The other figure had joined them, moving at a leisurely pace, but she heard him come up behind her, heard the smothered laugh he offered. "Such passion for a woman who claims to have given her life over to the quiet contemplation of God!"
Gisburne. That hated voice burned in her ears and she renewed her frantic struggles. He had no right to allow anyone to lay hands on her, not here; why wasn't anyone coming to her aid? Why hadn't the Abbess turned them away, or asked Sister Herbalist to warn her about the nature of her visitors? The Abbess knew Marion's story; nothing but the absolute truth had been offered when she sought sanctuary, and she'd been welcomed as any other penitent, with nary a word as to her outlaw status being spoken between them.
And yet here she was, struggling to free herself from the grip of an armed and armored soldier while Gisburne stood and smirked in the background.
She cried out in pain as the soldier twisted her arm in an attempt to still her struggles. Instantly Gisburne was at her side, cuffing away the soldier's imprisoning hands. "Curse you, she's not to come to any harm! Let her go!"
The faceless soldier backed up a step and released her as instructed. Marion made as if to push past him only to find herself in Gisburne's grasp instead. "None of that, my lady. You're coming with us back to Nottingham."
"The Sheriff has no jurisdiction here!" she gasped out, offering him a murderous glare at odds with her clerical garb. Curls of red hair had escaped the concealing veil during her struggles with the guardsman and flung themselves into her eyes and the corners of her mouth. She ignored them as best she could, keeping her attention focused on the man in front of her.
Gisburne had removed his helmet, his corn-silk blonde hair hanging straight and lank just past his ears. He was grinning, an unpleasant expression on him under the best of circumstances. Today he wore an especially gloating smile, and it broadened as he yanked her toward him. "Did you think," he asked in a hoarse whisper, leaning down to brush his lips against her ear, "did you truly think you could keep such a secret for long?"
Marion flinched away from his nearness even as she fought down a surge of panic. He knew. Some how, some way, he knew. He saw the fear in her eyes where only anger had previously dwelt, and his grin became a triumphant smirk. "So. You're coming with me. I'd send someone to fetch your things, only you haven't any things to fetch, so we'll be on our way directly. Oh," he stopped himself, reaching down to snatch up a heavy black veil. "You'll oblige me by wearing this until we reach our destination."
Without leave he placed the veil over her head. Sputtering with outrage Marion attempted to swat it away, but he caught her hands in his and leaned close once again. "This is happening, whether you will it or not. Pray do not make a scene in a house of God." Before she could respond to his hypocritically pious remark, Gisburne added: "Thank you, my lady." But he wasn't speaking to her, he was looking over her shoulder as he offered a respectful bow of his head. "Your information was timely, and I trust that my donation to the abbey's coffers will suffice?"
"More than suffice, Sir Guy," came the reply. Marion's blood ran cold as she recognized that voice. The Abbess stood to one side of the entrance hallway, watching with folded hands and hooded eyes as her young novitiate was hustled past her and through the front entrance. Marion turned her head, staring in shocked disbelief at the one she'd trusted to keep her secret, to keep her safe, allowed her to be removed like so much dirty laundry.
So much for the Abbess' assurances about how safe and protected I'd be here, Marion thought bitterly as she was hustled past her betrayer and out through the heavy wooden doors. They closed behind her with a double "thud" she would forever associate with her memories of this unhappy moment. She'd trusted the Abbess and been coolly dispatched for a handful of gold.
Outside a half-dozen other soldiers waited, along with two saddled but riderless horses, and Marion realized with sinking heart that no one was going to stop Gisburne from taking her away.
What she would have given at that moment for Robin and his men to appear, but they were far away and safe in Sherwood, and the best she could hope for was that they rescue her from Gisburne and whatever he had planned for her when they entered the forest.