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 make this fandom a great place to be, and last but absolutely not least, my wonderful beta tangofiction, for her help and support and for getting me into this show.
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.
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.
(Continued in Part 2)