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.
(Continued in Part 3)