~ x ~ x ~ x
He stands under the gallows, his hands bound, forced to watch as soldiers drag a screaming, struggling Annie up the steps of the scaffold. There is a jeering crowd, and Isabella and Hood sitting side by side on a platform in front of him, laughing. Then, as the noose is placed around the girl’s neck, it’s no longer Annie but her, in a white dress stained with blood. He screams, “Marian!” and wakes up.
As Guy bolts upright, gulping for air, he sees Annie standing in the doorway and almost jumps.
“You’re back,” he says, his voice raspy from sleep and shock.
She nods. “I’ve asked for the afternoon off. Told the head cook I’ve got my cousin visiting from Nottingham.”
“For God’s sake, Annie – you’ve got to be more careful. She’ll suspect – ”
“She’ll suspect I’ve got a lover; so let her. She’s got one herself,” the girl adds, smiling a little. Then she frowns and points to the axe on the floor.
“What are you doing with that?”
A string of curses races through Guy’s mind. “Look, I thought that if the soldiers came – ”
“Wait.” She narrows her eyes at him. “You thought I might lead them here?”
He didn’t expect her to be so quick-witted; caught off-guard, he’s left stammering something not very coherent. Annie shakes her head.
“Because of…” Mercifully, she doesn’t finish, only shakes her head again. “I would not do that to you,” she says quietly, then looks down, clasping and unclasping her hands, smoothing her skirt. There is obviously something else that she cannot get out, and it’s making him want to jump out of his skin. She comes closer and finally speaks.
“Sir Guy… I know it’s not my place to forgive you for your sins against – anyone else. That is for God alone. But I wanted to tell you I’ve forgiven you for any wrongs you may have done me. And…” she looks down, blushing a little. “I do not believe you are a wicked man. I have faith in you.”
So did she. He does not say it out loud; his throat is too tight to say anything.
“I know this cannot mean very much to you,” she continues. “But – ”
“It does,” he says. “It means very much,” and, in a rush of gratitude, he takes her hand and kisses it. “Thank you, Annie.”
She looks flustered, obviously not used to such gallantries. And then something else happens: her fingers are curling around his and squeezing lightly.
He is much too shocked to ask her what she thinks she’s doing. What she’s doing, actually, is lifting his hand to her mouth and kissing his palm. He feels the warm softness of her lips on his skin, the wet flick of her tongue; that finally snaps him out of it, and he pulls his hand back as if bitten.
“Annie – what in the – ”
The girl silences him with a finger at his lips and moves still closer, standing between his knees, leaving him no route of escape whatsoever. She strokes his face and sinks her fingers into his hair, and murmurs softly, “It must be a long time since you’ve felt a woman’s touch.”
Suddenly, he has a vivid memory of her standing between his knees like this, her fingers laced through his hair – both of them naked in his bedchamber at Nottingham Castle, his mouth on her breasts and his hands on her bottom, Annie gasping and telling him to stop or he’d make her late for work at the kitchen. Unfortunately, her well-meaning words also evoke far more recent things: Marian’s kisses, Meg dying in his arms – and, from the realm of the unspeakable, the last time he was actually in bed with a woman. It was soon after Acre, when Vasey thrust a red-headed little whore at him to take upstairs (“Oh, do quit moping, Gisborne! Go have some fun, unless you’ve gone limp and useless in even more ways than I thought”); he’d had quite a bit of drink in him by then, and after the whore gave up her vain attempts to rouse him to life he capped this disaster by leaning over the side of the bed and vomiting.
He shudders at the thought of that, and Annie asks, sliding her palm over his cheek, “What’s the matter?”
He clasps her wrists, holding her hands in place. “This isn’t right.”
“I do not love you, for one.”
“I know,” she says. “I’m not asking you to marry me.”
“Annie,” he says again, but she leans down and cuts him off with a kiss.
To his shock, his body responds to her. Ever since that day, carnal desires have been the stuff of dreams – dreams in which Marian’s warm supple body turns into a bleeding broken corpse in his arms, or half-decayed worm-eaten flesh; the sort of thing that would turn the most dissipated rake into a monk. But now, as the girl’s tongue moves softly between his lips and inside his mouth, he finds himself moaning into her kiss, his breath quickening at the hot stab of an almost forgotten ache. She pulls away and looks at him; the late afternoon sun is shining in her hair, and her pretty but ordinary face could almost be beautiful now, transformed as it is by tenderness.
He clears his throat. “Annie – we cannot do this.”
The girl lowers herself until she is straddling his knees, winds her arms around his neck. “It isn’t anything we haven’t done before,” she says. “It was nice, what we had, wasn’t it?”
What did they have? She was very willing, once she got past her shyness, very keen to please, and very much in awe of him; and perhaps, apart from the basic business of bedding a woman, her affectionate ways and her artless delight in the smallest kindnesses on his part occasionally made things a little more tolerable at the end of the day.
None of that matters now. He’s not sure he can explain that this would be a final betrayal of Marian, not just a common infidelity but far worse, taking his pleasure with a woman after he has destroyed the one he loved. Instead he says, moving away from her kiss, “How can you want to lie with me when you know what things I have done?”
Her breath is warm on his lips. “You’re the father of my child. How do you think I would feel – if you were someone whose touch should disgust me?”
She kisses him again, and Guy cannot help but kiss her back and slide his arms around her. He tries to protest, but she says, “Be quiet,” and presses down until she has him on his back. He is still thinking that he needs to stop this when she pushes his shirt open, and bloody hell, she is stroking his chest and sucking on his nipple and it feels so good, so goddamned good, so much better than he has any right to feel.
“Oh, you are such a beautiful man,” Annie mutters, kissing his chest, diving down to kiss his stomach. Half-stifling a moan, he bucks toward her and clutches at her hair; this is wrong, wrong, wrong, but his body stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that. Small tendrils of fire are snaking under his skin. He is so hard that it hurts, and when the girl makes to unfasten his breeches he hisses with relief.
She reaches up again to kiss his mouth, then cups his face and covers it with small warm kisses, nuzzles his neck, nips lightly on his earlobe. The fight lost, he is no longer resisting the sensations this sets off. He kicks his pants to the floor, helps Annie peel off her blouse and skirt and the white shift underneath, greedily caresses her bared breasts with hands and mouth. The girl is mewling with pleasure, squirming and rocking back and forth; he slides a hand between her thighs to stroke her there, and she is already in such a state that she cries out and convulses against him almost at once.
His body craves release, and at the touch of her hand he is again lost to sensation; but when Annie straddles him with very obvious intent, he recovers his wits enough to hold her back.
“Annie. Annie, wait,” he says, gritting his teeth. “Annie. I cannot – goddamn it, I would not get you with child again – ”
“You would not,” she says; “’tis a safe time of the moon for me.”
He does not quite share her confidence, though he has little knowledge of these things. His own need, however, is too urgent, and she is hot and wet and it’s too much; he shudders and makes a guttural sound as the girl slides down, taking him inside her. She leans forward, her breasts brushing over his chest, and wrapping his arms around her he groans, “Sweet God in heaven – Annie – you are so good to me – ”
She is moving on top of him, her inner muscles clenching around him, and the aching heat starts to spiral outward, spreading to his limbs, searing his skin. It is sheer bliss; and yet with it there is something else, a fear that stirs slowly inside him and starts to rise and grow. For he is quickly losing control; it feels as if there were something coming apart inside him, some wall breaking down, and there is safety in walls. He feels helpless. That the girl is being so tender as she kisses his lips and cradles his face, and mutters gentle endearments, makes it worse.
“Stop.” His voice is gruff from the effort, his body shuddering with tension as his hands close around her wrists.
“What’s wrong?” she breathes out. Without another word, he flips her over so that he’s on top of her, pinning her arms over her head as he thrusts inside her, grunting, his eyes screwed shut.
“Guy,” she whimpers. “Guy.”
He flinches and opens his eyes and sees her under him, her eyes wide and scared and brimming with tears. “Guy, you’re hurting me.”
He is not sure if she means his grip on her wrists, or the way he’s slamming into her, or both; all he knows is that shame knots in his chest and becomes a hard lump in his throat. He lets go of her arms and starts to raise himself up.
“I told you we should not have done this,” he says, his breath ragged. Yet, as he makes to pull away, the girl shakes her head and locks her legs around him.
“No,” she says. “No, go on.”
“Annie – ”
“Please.” She runs her hands over his back, tangles her fingers in his hair. “I know you didn’t mean to. It’s all right, it is.” She reaches up to kiss him. “Please,” she says, and arches her hips into him, driving him deeper inside. She lifts a hand to his cheek, wipes beads of sweat off his forehead, smiling even though tears still glitter in her eyes.
The fever in him is rising again, higher and hotter and past all self-possession, and the wall does break; the sounds forced from his throat are now more like sobs than groans of pleasure, and as long spasms start to rack his body he touches the girl’s face and kisses her with such abandon as if she were his beloved. Afterwards, he buries his face in her hair and whispers, his shoulders shaking, “God, I am so sorry… I am so sorry…”
~ x ~ x ~ x
This time, Marian is alive and smiling and Acre was just a dream; except that, even as it happens, he knows this is the dream and the other thing is real.
When he opens his eyes, Annie is watching him, and he wonders uneasily what he has said in his sleep. Her eyes are bright, her lips swollen from his kisses. She leans in to kiss him again with that shy, sweet smile of hers, and he absently puts an arm around her shoulders. She is sprawled half on top of him, in a bed that is definitely too small for two; the woolen blanket she’s pulled over them prickles, and their bodies are sticky with sweat. This, Guy reflects with an odd calm, is very likely the last time he lies with a woman.
“You know what I think?” the girl says, running an idle fingertip over his chest.
He snorts softly. “I am not very good at knowing what people think.”
“You know – I’m sure that – the Lady Marian has forgiven you t- ”
She is cut off in mid-word when he turns his head and looks at her. His temples are throbbing; his impulse is to crush her face between his hands and yell, Do not EVER speak her name to me again! It is only the memory of the girl’s hurt and frightened look before that makes him hold himself in check. All he says, quietly, is, “Do not speak of this.”
She still looks hurt, and does not speak a word as she rolls off the bed and starts slipping on her shift. Guy drops back on the pillow and stares into the low grimy ceiling. It would be easier to go completely mad. In the next instant he realizes he has muttered it out loud.
With a sigh, he gets out of bed and pulls on his breeches. Annie still has her back to him as she fastens her skirt; he comes up behind her and puts his hands on her bare arms.
“Annie. I did not mean to treat you ill.”
“No matter.” She steps away, bends down to pick up her blouse and briskly slaps some dirt off the embroidered fabric. “I should’ve remembered men of your position owe no courtesies to girls like me.”
“My position?” he says with bitter amusement. “I am an outlaw. I think that yours is the higher position at present.”
The girl huffs ungraciously and shrugs into her blouse, but when she turns around her expression has softened.
“We shouldn’t be quarreling,” she says, taking Guy’s hands, her fingers twining with his. The rush of gratitude he felt before wells up once more; cupping her face, he traces his thumb over her cheek and then brings his mouth down to hers and kisses her slowly and tenderly. When he breaks away and Annie’s eyes flutter open, there is a trace of the old, almost worshipful adoration in her gaze. It twists at his heart, not in a good way. It is worse yet when she murmurs, “Will you stay the night?”
He slides his hands down to her shoulders and shakes his head. “You know I cannot. The danger is too great; you’ve taken enough risks already.”
He glances at the window. The sun is low, the sky streaked with wisps of clouds and painted in soft blue and pink.
“It will be nightfall soon,” he says.
Continued in FF: A Different Side (part 3)