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Robin Hood Gets a Feminist Reinvention in This Exclusive Excerpt of ‘Sherwood’

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Robin Hood Gets a Feminist Reinvention in This Exclusive Excerpt of ‘Sherwood’

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Who doesn’t love a good retelling? Especially a feminist retelling?? We’re here for it, and you should be too! The latest from the author of Hunted, Meagan Spooner delivers the same kind of compelling, kickass, reimagined story in Sherwood, a romantic retelling of Robin Hood.

Marian never meant to tread in Robin’s footsteps, but makes the choice to become her own hero in this gender-bending and action-packed book. Seriously, there’s no reason a woman couldn’t take up any legendary mantle, and we’re so excited that this is a story we’re getting. And that’s not the end—it’s only the beginning of another fantasy epic we’re sure to love. Meagan Spooner can do no wrong. And the best part? We’re giving you a sneak peek at the first few chapters below!

 

Sherwood

 

PROLOGUE

He wakes to the sounds of steel and fire, and the distant wailing of a Saracen woman. His sword is in his hand before he’s on his feet. He’d been dreaming of rain on leaves, of the sound and feel of a wet day in Sherwood. When he lurches out of his tent in the English-occupied part of the city, the heat hits him full in the face, dazzling him as he tries to escape the lingering memory of green and damp and earth. Sand stings his eyes as a riderless horse gallops past, panicked, a long red line across its flanks spilling a crimson curtain down its hide.

Before he can begin to tell friend from foe, a blade swings out of the red-hot midnight toward his face. His sword hand lifts to deflect the blow automatically, his shoulder taking the brunt of the impact. It’s the battle that brings him back to himself, banishing the last hints of his dream of home—the frantic staccato of panting and grunting and steel scraping bone and arrows whistling past. A second or two more and his opponent falls, screaming and trying to hold himself together with both hands across his stomach.

There’s no time to dispatch the Saracen. Robin is forced to leave the man there and fend off another blow from another assailant, knocking him back with an elbow to the stomach. He is surrounded by the enemy. There are far too few English blades around him. He catches sight of a familiar man, recognizable more for his style of battle than anything else. By now they are all so burned by the sun and rubbed raw by wind that at first glance they seem no different from the infidels they’re fighting. In the dark they might as well have been fighting amongst themselves.

“Where is the King?” shouts Robin, his voice breaking.

The other man screams a reply, but over the sounds of battle Robin cannot hear. The other man’s sword sticks in his opponent’s rib cage, and he’s forced to plant a boot against the man’s chest to pull it free. He gestures with his sword, then turns to reengage.

Robin sees a crowd in the distance, at the edge of the safe part of the city. Or what has been the safe part—the enemy has penetrated their defenses in the night, bypassing the fortifications. They must have killed the sentries in silence. The distant commotion is a cluster of a dozen English soldiers using a narrow alley to hold off a horde of Saracens one hundred strong. They’re making for the edge of the city, guarding something.

The King.

Something thuds into Robin’s shoulder, sending him off balance, and he whirls, searching for the blade he knows is coming. There is no one there. It’s then that he feels the fiery lance of pain racing down his biceps and he gasps, sword dangling uselessly at his side. He cranes his neck and sees the fletching sprouting from his shoulder. He reaches up, bracing himself as he curls his fingers around the long arrow shaft buried in the muscle there. He breathes in, out, and in again, and then snaps the shaft off with a deft twist.

Robin sways to one side, dizzy, concentrating on the spots that swarm his vision for the space of a breath. Then he passes his sword to his left hand and slings his bow over his shoulder with the wounded arm and gets moving.

He heads for a set of stone steps leading up to one of the roofs, hoping for a better vantage point. It’s the route the women take in the mornings when they bring up their laundry to dry in the sun, and Robin clears the draped fabrics away with a swipe of his sword as he sprints up the steps. The city is lost. He can see it in the way the others are fighting, in the way most of the soldiers have gathered around to ensure the King’s safe retreat through the postern gate. But there is too much distance to travel to reach safety. Too many enemies, and not enough blades.

He reaches the rooftop, but before he can scan the city, a shadow darts from a corner across his path. With a roar he raises his sword, momentum already bringing it down before his eyes focus on the figure running past. A child. A girl, which he knows only because of the way her head is covered. She cannot be more than twelve, and for a burning moment her huge black eyes meet his and she freezes. His sword won’t stop. His left hand is too clumsy, too weak to divert it.

He throws himself to the side with a cry, his sword striking stone. The tip shatters and the sword leaps from his hand, skidding away. He can hear the girl screaming, speaking too quickly for him to understand any of the few words of Arabic he’s learned. He looks up and sees her scrambling away from him to press her back against the half wall surrounding the rooftop. She’s unharmed.

Robin pushes himself back up on his left hand, then staggers to the edge of the rooftop. He can still see the men defending the King. There are fewer attackers now, but there are fewer allies as well. Robin reaches for his bow.

Drawing it is an agony, and he can feel the wounded muscle tearing around the arrowhead still lodged in his shoulder. But his aim is true, and from this height he can reach the front line. An attacker goes down, replaced by another behind him. Robin looses another arrow and another man falls.

He sucks in air through his nose, the hot dust scorching his lungs. He can feel the weakness coming, can feel blood pouring past his armpit, down his rib cage. His aim is faltering. But he can see the King now, his crowned helmet gleaming in the light of a blazing fire engulfing one of the gatehouses. They are on the edge of the city. There are horses waiting— they need only to make it another few paces to the gates, which stand open.

Robin draws his bow again. One of the King’s defenders goes down, and the firelight glints off a curved blade as its wielder races at the King. Robin draws in a long breath, willing his shaking arm to steady, begging his muscles to hold for one more shot, one last arrow.

Out of the corner of his eye: movement. The glint of light on a blade, the whisper of a soft sole against the sandstone. Robin could turn, could loose his arrow into the man creeping up behind him. His muscles quiver, and with a snarl of pain and focus, Robin narrows his eyes and lets the arrow fly. It courses straight and true through the air, inscribing a gentle arc down, down onto the battlefield, and buries itself in the brain of the King’s attacker. Robin takes a breath—the King is away, galloping into the desert.

And then a blade crunches into Robin’s side and he’s knocked down against the stone with the force of the blow. He cannot move, cannot feel anything below his rib cage—there is no pain. Robin’s eyes move slowly, lazily, sweeping across the rooftop. He sees the girl, pressed back into the corner as far as she can, everything covered except her eyes. They fix on his, wide and black. She is silent now.

“Marian,” Robin whispers to her. “Don’t be afraid.”

There are voices above him, but he does not hear them. Instead he can hear rain, a gentle patter against broad green leaves. The smell of wet earth rises all around him, and the world is wrapped in fog. From beneath the padded armor under his mail, he withdraws a chain; on the end of it is a small gold ring set with a bloodred stone. He curls his fist around it, enclosing the little ring in the shelter of his fingers to shield it from the world.

“Marian, I’m sorry.”

 

ONE

“MY LADY.” THE VOICE was urgent. “My Lady, please— please wake up.”

Marian swam up out of a dreamless sleep, her mind groggy and confused. It was dark, but as her eyes adjusted, the light of a candle came into view. Behind it she could see a familiar face, drawn and frightened.

“Elena,” she croaked, dragging herself upright. “What is it?”

Her maid swallowed, the candlelight bobbing and swaying with the trembling of her hand. “It’s my brother, my Lady. They’ve got him—they’ve arrested him and they’re going to kill him at dawn. Please, my Lady, I don’t know what to do.”

Marian was on her feet before she could think, reaching for yesterday’s dress hanging over her changing screen. She threw it on over her shift, ignoring the trailing laces at its back. “Where is my cloak?” she demanded, quick and curt.

“Here, my Lady.” Elena was shaking, terrified, but still competent. She thrust the cloak at Marian and then stepped back.

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to stop them.” She wasn’t thinking, just acting. She didn’t know what Elena’s brother had been accused of or who had arrested him. But Elena’s family was from Locksley—Robin was the one who’d suggested Elena for a lady’s maid and companion when Marian’s mother died. And I won’t let Robin come home to find his people being slaughtered on his own lands.

Marian flew down the stairs and into the courtyard, where a few torches had lit the way for her. Midge had Jonquille ready and was holding her by the reins. No sign of her father awake yet, for which she was grateful—she didn’t have time to argue about whether she should or shouldn’t go. Several servants were standing around in their nightclothes, candles transforming their drawn faces into waxy masks. A lad stood by the stables doubled over, red-faced and gasping. She recognized him as the son of one of the farmers from beyond Robin’s manor house—he must have run all the way from Locksley town to bring Elena the news. At a dead sprint it was an hour’s journey on foot.

Marian ignored them all and bunched her skirts up around her thighs, mounting the dappled mare and taking the reins from Midge.

Jonquille had picked up on her mistress’s urgency, and as soon as Marian let her grip on the reins loosen, the mare leaped into a run. The glow of the torches in her manor courtyard fell away behind her, and she was left to race through the darkness.

Edwinstowe was quiet—her father’s lands were small, and the town at their center even smaller, and his people all farmers. They’d stir soon, to feed and water their animals and work the land, but they’d sleep until sunrise.

Marian leaned to the side and cut through the finger of the forest that stretched across Edwinstowe lands, aiming for the King’s Road. Branches whipped past, and she dropped her head, burying her face in Jonquille’s mane. Jonquille knew the way. Locksley was her home, too.

The sound of Jonquille’s hooves striking the earth changed, and Marian lifted her head. They were on the road. Not long now. Marian raised her eyes to the glimpses of sky she could see overhead as the branches passed. A terrible lightness painted the sky to the east the color of bloody ink.

“Hurry, love,” Marian whispered, leaning low across her horse’s neck, trying to lessen the resistance of her body in the wind.

The road forked. The road to the right would take her into the heart of Sherwood, while the road to the left passed through a hedgerow and then on to Locksley town, and beyond it, Locksley Manor. Jonquille knew which way to go without being told, and together they burst through the undergrowth bordering the fields with a gust of honeysuckle and heather on the wind. The landscape was awash in blue-gray light, the cold harbinger of the dawn.

There were torches burning in the center of town. Marian aimed Jonquille at the light, not bothering to slow her down. Men in chain mail stood in a semicircle around the town center, and a figure in dark gray armor and a black tabard stood at the head of the crowd. The Sheriff’s men. Beyond them the townsfolk watched, pale faced and silent.

In the center of the firelight was a young man on his knees in the stocks, a hood of rough-spun canvas over his head and tied around his neck. The soldier nearest him held an ax.

Jonquille broke into the crowd, people scattering left and right and hens fleeing in a startled wave. Marian threw herself off the horse before the mare came to a full halt—all the better for no one to have time to see her with her skirts hiked up above her knees.

“I demand to know what’s going on,” she gasped, gripping Jonquille’s reins more to support her shaking legs than to control the horse.

The man in the tabard was staring, and with a jolt, Marian recognized him. His eyes raked her over, from her wild hair to her muddy, day-old dress. “My Lady Marian,” he said quietly, inclining his torso. “Good morning. Are you all right? You seem . . . distressed.”

“Good morning, Sir Guy.” Marian smoothed down her hair, abruptly aware that she wasn’t wearing the modest veil she ought to have donned. “This man. What is his crime?”

Guy of Gisborne pulled off his horsehair helmet and ran a gloved hand over his hair. He was older than Robin by a few years, but had none of his boyish good looks. Scars marked the right side of his face, ugly welts of purple that traveled down and vanished under his high collar. “He has been accused and convicted of highway robbery and poaching, my Lady. This is no place for you—allow my men to escort you back to Edwinstowe Manor and I will visit you when I have finished here.”

He was already turning and gesturing to the two men on the end, and Marian stepped forward swiftly. “Sir Guy,” she said firmly, “I know this man. He is the brother of my own maid. There has been a mistake. Who have you been sent to arrest?”

Gisborne strode over to the young man in the stocks, his stiff-legged gait giving the sound of his steps an uneven quality. He ripped the hood away, ignoring the grunt of pain that emerged when the ties caught against his captive’s jaw. “You are William Scarlet, are you not?”

Marian was unprepared for the shock of hearing his name There’d been no mistake. Gisborne had been sent for Elena’s brother. Will lifted his head, and Marian’s heart sank. He’d been badly beaten, and his eyes were swollen shut. He turned his face toward her, but Marian couldn’t tell if he could actually see anything through the bloody ruin of his face.

He didn’t answer Gisborne but spat a mouthful of blood and saliva into the dirt at his feet. Gisborne stepped back, glancing down in distaste.

“You see, my Lady,” said Gisborne, “he has no respect for the laws of this land.”

Marian wanted to shout at Will—his disregard for Gisborne’s authority wasn’t going to make her job any easier. But she calmed her thoughts, imagining Robin standing there instead, imagining how he’d handle this situation. If he were here, this situation wouldn’t exist. She inhaled sharply. “And so you are to execute him? There is no room for leniency? What evidence do you have?”

“My Lady,” Gisborne replied patiently, “please leave this to me. These matters are too upsetting for someone of your gentle upbringing.”

“Sir Guy.” Marian took another step forward. If nothing else, they wouldn’t behead Will while she was standing near enough to be spattered by his blood. “Please. I am begging you to spare this man’s life.”

Gisborne gazed back at her, expressionless. The moment stretched, and then abruptly he turned away and signaled to the man with the ax. “Unlock him.”

“Oh, Sir Guy—thank you. I will not forget your mercy.” Marian moved forward as the executioner dropped his ax and unlocked the stocks. Elena’s brother staggered to his feet.

“We will only take his hand.” With a cold, metallic scrape, Gisborne drew his sword. He still carried the sword he’d worn in the Holy Land, as a soldier in the King’s army, before he’d managed to get injured enough to be sent home to England.

Marian’s heart froze. Before she could think, she was running forward, putting herself between Gisborne and Will Scarlet. She took Will’s arm, lending him her support. They were almost of a height, and he was battered enough that he leaned heavily against her.

“Sir Guy!” she barked, summoning every ounce of command she could. “I demand that you release this man into my custody, pending a fair trial. He will be punished, but on my terms.”

Gisborne lowered his sword, but his grip stayed firm. He was backing down only in deference to her presence, and Marian knew that the second she moved, Gisborne would exact his punishment.

“By what right do you lay claim to this man’s fate?” Gisborne asked.

“He is from Locksley town, has lived here his whole life. He cannot have traveled far—the crimes will have been committed on Locksley lands. Though the new laws place these crimes under the Sheriff’s jurisdiction, traditionally he must concede to a lord’s right to try his own men.” Marian tried to keep her voice from shaking. She knew it was improper for a landowner’s daughter to have studied such things, but she’d learned some from Robin when they were children, and then from her father, who had never tried to convince her she didn’t need to know about the law.

Gisborne frowned, but to Marian’s relief, his face bore none of the shock that most gentlemen would display at a lady’s familiarity with matters of jurisprudence. “Lady Marian—”

“I will be Lady Locksley,” she continued, speaking over him and pitching her voice to carry, “the day Robin returns from the Holy War. In his absence, I demand the right to preserve the spirit of his governance over these lands.”

Gisborne was silent for a long moment, watching her. The tip of his sword dropped, resting against the ground. Beside her, Will lifted his head again, and this time Marian could see the flash of his eyes set deep in the puffy skin around them. His breath caught, but he didn’t speak.

“Then no one has told you,” Gisborne murmured.

“Told me what?”

Before Gisborne could speak, Will jerked forward, shoving Marian hard toward Gisborne. She wasn’t ready for his strength—was his unsteadiness as he leaned on her an act?—and she would’ve gone sprawling in the dirt were it not for Gisborne’s quick reflexes, grabbing at her shoulders and hauling her up.

Marian twisted in his grasp to see Will sprinting through the fields, making for the line of trees marking the edge of Sherwood Forest.

Gisborne stopped long enough to make sure Marian’s feet were under her, then jerked his head toward his men. “Shoot him,” he ordered calmly, then reached for Marian’s hand. “Are you unharmed?”

“No—stop!” Marian lunged for the nearest man, the quickest one to draw his bow. She banged into his shoulder hard enough to send pain shooting down her own arm, but more importantly sending his arrow corkscrewing harmlessly into the thatch of a nearby house. “He is Robin’s man, do you understand?”

She could feel control slipping away. Something was wrong. The townspeople weren’t even looking at Will as he disappeared into the trees, safe under their cover. They were watching her.

They were silent.

Gisborne muttered something tense and cold under his breath, his eyes on the trees. “Stand down,” he blurted finally, striding a few steps away and then turning. “Lady Marian,” he said tensely, struggling with his temper. “That man is an outlaw, and there is no telling what crimes he will be willing to commit against the innocent now to stay alive.”

“He’s Robin’s man,” Marian repeated through clenched teeth, resisting the urge to massage the shoulder that had banged into the armored bowman.

Gisborne sucked a breath in through his nose, then snapped, “Robin is dead.”

Marian’s brow furrowed, her mind slowing to a halt. The world grew strangely hot and dry, a roaring like wind rising in her ears. “What?”

Gisborne rubbed one gloved hand over his mouth, regret bringing a hint of color to his features. “I am sorry, my Lady. I did not intend to—but it is true. Robin of Locksley is dead; he died three months ago in Jerusalem. We have only just had word of the latest casualties of note.”

It’s not true. Lies, plots against Locksley lands. The Sheriff’s planning to take over, control the taxes, drive these lands into dust to line his coffers.

But she could not speak any of the words. She could only stare at Gisborne, taking in the details of his face as though they’d provide some relief, some hint that he was speaking false. The deep scar on his jaw and neck, suddenly different now, no longer the mark of a traitor—now she could not help but imagine such scars on her Robin. Except that his wounds would never heal, never scar over. She knew Gisborne could tell she was staring at his disfigurement, but she could not look away.

But he just gazed at her, a surprising sympathy in the grim set of his mouth. “I was going to come to you after I dealt with

William Scarlet of Locksley town. As Robin is the last in his line, the Sheriff has appointed me to take over the governance and ownership of his lands.”

Gisborne reached out for Marian’s hand, but she pulled away with a jerk, stumbling backward. “No,” she said finally. “No. Robin cannot die.”

He paused, taking a careful step forward, approaching her like a man would approach a skittish horse. A detached part of Marian’s mind wanted to laugh at his antics, scoffing at the idea that she was some fragile lady about to shatter.

I am the Lady Marian. I am a free woman and I am loved by Robin of Locksley. I don’t shatter for someone like Guy of Gisborne.

This time when Gisborne reached out, he managed to take gentle custody of Marian’s hand, turning it over so he could drop something small and cold into her palm. “Nevertheless, it is true.”

Brow still furrowed, Marian looked down at her palm. The sun had risen while they debated Will’s fate, and she could see the object clearly.

It was Robin’s mother’s ring. Tiny, understated, a simple band of braided gold set with a single tear-shaped ruby. Marian knew it well. She’d worn it every day after he gave it to her, until the day Robin left for the Holy Land wearing it on a chain around his neck.

“I am sorry, my Lady.” Gisborne was still cradling her hand in his.

 

TWO

GISBORNEHAD TWO OF his men escort Marian back to her father’s estate. He remained behind—Marian had foggy memories of his voice as he began to organize search parties for Will. A detached part of her told her she ought to refuse the escort, to stay and hinder Gisborne’s efforts as much as possible, but she found she had little control over her body. She was as biddable as a frightened child.

Though the ride back, at a sedate walk, must have taken over an hour, she remembered none of it. She was abruptly at home, being thrust into her father’s arms. He’d been awakened—by Elena, no doubt, after Marian was safely away—and dressed, and Marian dimly heard him talking with the men who’d delivered her. Through the soles of her feet she felt the thudding of their horses’ hooves as they galloped back out of the courtyard and back to their commander.

Then she was inside, and being eased into a chair before a roaring fire. Her father was holding her hands, down on his creaking knees before her and peering into her eyes. The heat from the hearth brought her back to herself, and she blinked, focusing on her father’s face.

It was like waking from a dream. A nightmare—a hellish gallop through a dark wood, a man’s life she held in her hands, the unbearable weight of a tiny ring dropping into her palm. A ring adorned with blood that flowed across her palm and trickled down toward her elbow.

She was crying. Hot tears fell on her arm. “Father?” she whispered, confused.

“Oh, my Marian.” Her father rose up on his knees and pulled her in against him, holding her as he hadn’t done since she was a little girl. His eyes were wet too, and his breath shaking. “They told me. I’m so sorry. I’m—I would give anything to spare you this.”

“Robin cannot die,” Marian whispered. And it was true. In that moment she would have believed her horse could fly and that time could flow backward and forward and in circles more readily than that Robin of Locksley had fallen in the Holy Land. The world, her world, no longer made sense.

“I’ve sent for the physician from Locksley town,” her father said. “He’ll bring something to help you sleep.”

She couldn’t think why her father wanted her to sleep when she’d only just woken, and more than anything she wanted to avoid slipping back into that nightmare where a ring fell, over and over, into her palm. Then she realized her father had let her go and was offering her a draught that smelled of sweet wine and something else, bitter and herby, and that another man was there too now. The physician from Locksley—how had he come so quickly? She drank, and her eyes were on the window, where the sun was slanting through—but these windows faced the southwest and only saw sun in the afternoon.

The fire, which had been burning so brightly a moment ago, was down to embers.

She’d believe time could flow in circles more readily than that Robin could ever die. . . .

Her thoughts, already foggy, grew sluggish and thick. Her father was plucking at her hand, which was curled into a fist. She found as she tried to open it that her muscles had all but solidified that way, a grip she’d held so tight and so long she could not remember how to uncurl her fingers. But as her vision darkened, as she felt the bitter wine bringing its false warmth buzzing through her limbs and numbing her lips, her hand relaxed too. And her father slipped the tiny ring from her palm as she fell into darkness.

Marian was kept asleep much of the next few days. She’d wake to eat, to relieve herself, to let Elena untangle the leaves and twigs from her hair and brush it before the fire. But it wouldn’t take long before her world would start to swirl again, as if all natural laws were sliding away—her heart would begin to pound, her breath would start to gasp in and out of her chest, and her body would surge as though she were running for her life when all she was doing was sitting on the rug by the hearth in her room.

The physician explained very carefully to Marian that she was having hysterical episodes of fear now that she’d lost the stability promised by her betrothal, that it was common for some women, especially those particularly dependent upon their husbands, to experience similar terrors in the wake of such a loss.

Marian didn’t see him again after that and knew her father had sent him away. She might have been foggy and confused from the sleeping draughts, but she’d seen the way her father’s face grew tighter and grimmer with each word the man spoke. She felt like laughing. Instead she began to weep, and soon she was asleep again.

She lost track of the days, but it was some time later that she sat with Elena, leaning against her knee as her maid brushed her hair—it was tangle-free, but the touch of her maid’s hands and the feel of the brush were soothing. And it was with a jolt of her heart that she remembered what had brought her to Locksley that day, and she sat bolt upright. “Elena!” Marian gasped, ashamed she hadn’t thought of it sooner, that she’d been so buried in her own grief while her maid attended her tirelessly. “Your brother—Will—”

Elena had tensed at Marian’s sudden shift, reaching for the bottle of herb-laced wine in case Marian was about to have another of her “episodes,” as the physician had called them. But she paused, swallowing. “No word, my Lady,” she said softly. But Marian could see the hope in her eyes. No word was good. No word meant they hadn’t found him. No word meant he might still be alive.

The jolt of realization had made Marian’s heart flip over, but she was able to take a few quick, sharp breaths, and the fear that usually came surging in after such a jolt faded. Though her shame at having forgotten her maid’s own woes burned, it was the first time she’d felt something other than panic or numbness.

After that Marian only took the draught to sleep at night, but for a few occasions when the panic returned. It always came from something innocuous, like working at her loom or visiting Jonquille in the stables. Only later would she realize that she’d been weaving foliage of the type of tree by which Robin had first kissed her; or that Jonquille had stamped her urgency to be ridden, for Marian usually took her at least once a week to Locksley town.

Marian tried to practice her archery, for—with the exception of Robin—standing before a target with a bow in her hands was the only thing that ever made her feel real, and alive, and herself. But her hands shook when they gripped her bow, and her thoughts could not settle. To shoot with abandon and precision required surrender, and she could not force her mind to quiet. Her arrows went wide of the mark most days and sometimes missed the target altogether, and she added one more fear to the sea of countless, nameless terrors in her heart: Have I lost this, too?

She joined her father at dinner but kept to herself and to Elena most days, and her father let her. But one afternoon she sought him out in his study, where he was poring over a stack of documents and muttering under his breath as he squinted and frowned.

“Father?” She hovered in the doorway.

“Marian, my dear.” He lifted his head, blinking at her.

“Am I interrupting?”

“You are,” he said, and closed his sheaf of papers with a hefty slam. “Please continue.”

Marian slipped through the doorway, feeling strangely awkward in his study. As a child she’d learned numbers by watching him wrestle with his accounts. Her father had not been born with a head for numbers and was often frustrated with the mathematical side of running his lands. Marian remembered her mother used to come into the study with a mug of watered ale and a kiss for his receding hairline, and soon he’d be relaxed again, his accounts in order, the tension gone from his brow.

But she wasn’t a child anymore, and her mother had been gone for some years now. And she hadn’t thought to bring him something to drink.

“What is it, my dear?” Her father was leaning back in his heavy carven chair, watching her with patient concern.

Marian went to the window. The view overlooked the eastern pastures, and she could see Jonquille and a few of the other mares grazing, tails flicking the flies away and sun warming their flanks. “I need a task,” she blurted finally, turning from the window and gripping the stone sill. “I cannot sit at my loom or walk through the pastures or ride to Locksley without thinking of—and I cannot sit idle in my room all day. Give me something to do, Father, please.”

Her father’s lips twitched, and he muttered, “You’re welcome to settle my accounts for me.”

Marian, however, was desperate enough to take him at his word. “Show me where you’re stuck and I’ll—”

“Marian,” her father interrupted, chuckling. “That was a joke. I suspect you’d have my accounts in order far more quickly than I, but it’s not proper.” He spoke the words with regret.

“Who would know?”

“Gisborne, for one.” Her father grimaced at her. “Sir Guy has called here twice asking for you. I told him you were indisposed. Eventually you’ll have to receive him, though, and if he asks after your days, what will you tell him?”

Marian felt like scowling. “Lie and say I spend all day embroidering daisies on handkerchiefs.”

Her father laughed, covering it up after half a second too late by pressing his knuckles to his lips. “And when he asks you to embroider him a token to wear on his sleeve? What will you do then, when the last thing you ever embroidered was that pillow there, which I had to rescue from the midden?”

Marian glanced at the chair in her father’s reading nook, which had on it a cushion she’d tried to decorate for him when she was eleven or twelve. The stitches looked like a child’s drawing of a chicken, and the tail feathers ended in an angry snarl of thread. She’d been trying to embroider a dove. She vividly remembered tearing at the knotted snarl of thread and then hurling it violently, pillow and all, onto the trash heap.

Her father’s eyes were still merry, but there was a sadness behind them, a weariness he couldn’t hide. “My dear, I can’t tell you how to spend your days. I can’t tell you what will fill your time, your heart, the void he’s left behind.”

Marian blinked, feeling the hot sting of tears behind her eyes. She so desperately wanted her father to tell her what to do, even if it was correcting the figures in his accounts. “What did you do when we lost Mother?” Marian had been so young when her mother died that she scarcely remembered her except for a misty impression of beauty and stately elegance and a reserve Marian could never hope to emulate.

Her father set his quill into its holder and leaned back in his chair again, closing his eyes. “That was different. You and Robin were lucky—you were born to be together, in love since you were children. Your mother and I—we met only a week before our marriage, you know. It was arranged by our parents. That’s not to say I didn’t love her,” he said quickly, seeing Marian’s face. “I did, terribly. But it took time. And we had a whole life together before she became ill, and then she was ill a long time. In some ways that makes it harder. But in others—I had time to say goodbye. Time to understand I would have to carry on without her.”

“But how?” Marian felt like hurling his account books through the heavy-paned window. She wanted to go to that chair, pick up that pillow, and start unpicking every uneven stitch of the chicken-dove. She wanted to shout at someone, anyone. She closed her eyes, trying not to let the pounding of her own heart frighten her.

Her father’s chair creaked, and she pictured him rising to his feet. “Oh, Marian. For me, that answer is easy. I had you.” She felt his hands wrap around hers, and the destructive urge in her fingertips eased.

Marian’s eyes filled and she leaned forward so her father could wrap his arms around her shoulders. They were almost of a height. She was unusually tall for a woman, taller than Robin himself. There’d been a period when they were children when she’d started to grow taller and he hadn’t, and she’d towered over him. He’d alternate between complaint and boast: crowing when he could outshoot or outrun her with his shorter limbs, then throwing tantrums when she could easily wrestle him to the ground hand-to-hand.

But she had come to resent it, this gangly height that so set her apart. She resented her own strength, the fact that she could best the future Lord of Locksley in combat at twelve years old but that she could not stand next to other girls without drawing attention. Though Robin seemed oblivious, the other young ladies of Nottinghamshire were all so dainty that she felt rather like a troll or an ogre out of legend, lumbering around and banging into doorways and accidentally knocking over half the dishes at supper when an uncontrollably long leg kicked the table. And she’d begun to resent Robin, too, for being entirely unbothered by their height difference, for the rough-and-tumble nature of their friendship. She couldn’t have explained why she was upset, not then—she only knew that he didn’t seem to see her, not the way he ought to.

But then he hit his own growth spurt, though he never did catch up to her in height. Their wrestling matches became evenings spent by a fire after long rides through the wood. And archery competitions became excuses to sneak away into the field, where the long stalks of wheat concealed their conversations from the world. And he saw her, as she was, as she wanted him to.

She’d asked him, once, if it bothered him that she was taller than he, and he’d lifted his head from his fletching and eyed her through the firelight as though she’d asked him to sprout wings and fly.

“That,” he’d said finally, “is ridiculous. If you were shorter, who would keep me on my toes? Come hold this arrow for me— the glue keeps smearing while I’m stitching.”

The memory was so vivid Marian’s breath caught, and her father let his arms relax enough that he could pull back and scan her face. “You lost Robin so quickly,” he said quietly, “and so unjustly, that of course you feel lost. Of course your heart panics. That physician”—and his lip curled a little with distaste—“attributes these floods of fear you’ve been suffering to some feminine weakness. But one thing you have never been, my dear, is weak.”

Or feminine.

It was Robin’s voice, and so real that Marian’s heart thumped with fear and longing both, and she almost turned to search for Robin standing somewhere behind her. Confusion momentarily robbed her of sense.

Her father continued, stroking a piece of hair from his daughter’s eyes. “I was able to talk to your mother, before she—before she left us. I was able to listen to her, know what she wanted for me, for us. You never had that with Robin, but that doesn’t mean he’s not still with you. It doesn’t mean he can’t still help you in that way.”

Still with me. As a voice in her mind? Her father had not heard, had not noticed the stiffening of his daughter’s frame. Marian swallowed hard, vision blurry as she tried to focus on her father’s face. “How?”

“You know him better than you know yourself, my dear. Ask yourself what Robin would want for you, and you’ll find your way.”

* * *

“Stop fussing at your tunic, Robert,” chides his mother, her face calm but her eyes sparking as she tugs Robin’s hand away from his collar. Her ring glints in the light reflected off the emerald leaves of the forest outside.

“But it’s too tight,” he protests, the lacings digging into his neck. “I don’t want to go live in a castle.”

“It’s not a castle, it’s a manor house. Your father writes that you will have your own grand suite of rooms, and you can choose any of the horses for your own—won’t that be fun? And look around us—you will have all of Sherwood Forest to explore.”

Robin glances at the leaves passing the window of their carriage. “I guess.”

Abruptly the leaves give way to fields, and the house is there, with figures arrayed in front like an army of tiny wooden knights. Robin leans out of the carriage window and his mother catches hold of his tunic to keep him from toppling out, protests spilling from her lips.

“Who’s that?” Robin asks, watching as one of the gathered people— even tinier than the other distant figures—makes a break for freedom, reaching as far as the edge of the drive before someone chases it down and hauls it back.

His mother is leaning out of the carriage window now too, forgetting that she was chastising her son moments before for the same behavior. “Those will be the manor servants—oh, and some of the other families from this part of Nottinghamshire. Your uncle was much liked, before he went to be with God.”

“No, that one.” The tiny figure breaks free again, and this time three of the gathered servants go after it. Over the clopping of the horses’ hooves and the wind stirring the leaves of the great forest they’ve been riding through, Robin hears a delighted shriek as one of the figure’s pursuers makes a grab for the escapee and trips instead.

His mother looks at him, and then at the distant child struggling now to break out of the grasp of a man in stable livery. “That’s Edwinstowe’s daughter. She’s just about your age.”

“She’s a girl?” Robin slumps back in his seat, crossing his arms over

his chest and chafing at the ties of his tunic.

“Daughters usually are,” says his mother, amused, eyes on the house. “Edwinstowe has some lovely land, Robin, and you’ll be a man before you can blink, and looking for a wife.”

Robin makes a choking sound in his throat and slumps lower. The sound of distant laughter comes again, and after glancing at his mother to make sure she’s not watching, Robin lifts his chin enough to look over the edge of the carriage window again. The girl’s being carried off into the house, slung over the stableman’s shoulder, a handful of other well-dressed children watching in horror at their parents’ sides.

“Do you think she can ride a horse?” asks Robin cautiously.

 

THREE

MARIAN HADN’T QUITE MADE up her mind to ride to Locksley when she swung herself up into Jonquille’s saddle. Her poor horse had been suffering during Marian’s mourning, for Jonquille was a gift from Robin, and the mare had been left to graze and grow fat in the fields while Marian fought off her terrors and her grief. For all Jonquille was a sweet-tempered mount for Marian, she had a stallion’s ferocity whenever anyone else came too near. Only Midge, the head of her father’s stables, could approach, and only to saddle and occasionally groom her if Marian had been neglecting her care.

Elena was the only other person whose presence the dapple gray tolerated. In fair weather Elena often took her mending—or Marian’s mending, as Marian’s attempts to darn stockings were shockingly inept—outside and leaned against the paddock fence. She had a tendency to hum while she worked, and Jonquille liked the sound of her voice. Marian would often emerge from the manor house to find Elena bent over a hemline with Jonquille just behind her, head dipping over the edge of the fence, as if about to lip at Elena’s immaculate braids.

Marian, having seen the stable boys’ attempts to entice Jonquille with apples and oatcakes, rather thought Jonquille preferred Elena’s company because she didn’t try to win the mare over.

Her horse had a mind of her own, and Marian preferred it that way. Like the barn cats, Jonquille could not be bidden except in extreme circumstances, when her mistress’s urgency convinced her it was necessary. So when Marian mounted her outside the stables, some weeks after the news of Robin’s death, a part of Marian’s mind must have known where Jonquille would want to go.

Jonquille wanted to run, and Marian let her, for a little while. But the few weeks she’d been indoors had weakened Marian’s muscles, and her legs grew tired quickly, and she eased Jonquille—with some difficulty, for the mare still wanted to gallop—back down into a brisk trot, and then a walk. When they reached the fork in the road, the turning that would take them either toward Locksley town or deeper into the forest toward the King’s Road to Nottingham Castle, Jonquille paused.

How many times had Marian met Robin here, at this fork, to let their horses wander deeper and deeper still into Sherwood Forest, so close that their riders’ legs would sometimes touch? How many times had her father begged her to keep to the paths close to Edwinstowe, citing bandits and adders and the deceptive nature of Sherwood’s winding paths?

What would Robin want for me?

Marian nudged at Jonquille with her right knee. Jonquille disliked the bit of her reins, and Marian had learned early that guiding her horse with her legs was easier for them both. She’d never seen anyone else ride in quite the same way, but it left her hands free for her bow when she practiced archery on horseback.

Her eyes stung and she gasped a breath. Robin had taught her archery. Or else, she had taught him—they were well matched, and though he was the only one to receive formal lessons, he passed along every tidbit he learned. She had mastered each new skill a tiny bit faster than he had, and not once had he resented her for it. She could not imagine drawing a bow again without fear and grief choking her.

How could she fulfill her duty to the people of Locksley? It wasn’t a legal duty, not anymore—she was no longer their future Lady. But she’d been Robin’s betrothed for so long that she felt Locksley was a part of her soul as much as her father’s own lands. And Robin would want her to make sure all was well until he came ho—She caught herself and made her thoughts cold and still.

The town was as bustling as ever, gray wisps rising from a few chimneys despite the warm day. The smell of wood smoke mixed with the smell of burning coal in the smithy, almost masking the aroma of blackberries and baking dough coming from Gisla’s house. Laurie, whose difficult birth Marian had assisted in years ago, when she was little more than a child herself, was a lad of seven now—she spied him chasing a cluster of chickens down one of the laneways, trying to herd them back toward his parents’ house. A herd of cows lowed in the distance, gently stirring their comments into the hum of the summer insects in the air.

Everything was as it ought to be, as it ever was. Except that it wasn’t. It could never be again, because Robin was dead.

Marian tugged on Jonquille’s reins and veered away from the town, taking the long way around toward the Locksley manor house. She could not quite bear to face the townspeople, not yet. She knew they’d want comfort from her, assurances despite the death of their Lord—or, worse, they’d want to give her sympathy. She wanted none, and had none to offer.

Guilt slid like rancid oil into her stomach, for Robin would want her to help them. But she could not make herself go.

During Robin’s absence, the private side of the manor house lay mostly empty. Most of the servants had families in town who they lived with when their services weren’t required, though a few lived at the house full-time. There was the groundskeeper, who lived in a cottage behind the house, and the steward, Bellden, who had quarters belowstairs and oversaw the rest of the staff when the house was fully occupied. She shrank from the idea of confronting them. The door would be barred, Marian knew, but she’d snuck in and out of Robin’s house so many times in her life that she automatically made for the first-floor dining room, where one of the shutters that allowed air to circulate during the heat of evening meals was loose. Robin knew of the problem but had never mentioned it to Bellden or to any of his staff. It was the easiest, quickest route for Marian to enter undetected. She left Jonquille to lip at the dandelion and meadowsweet growing in the lee of the manor walls and continued on foot.

Marian had only gone once or twice to the house since Robin had left to fight at the King’s side. While much of it still bustled with life, too much a fixture of the town to be abandoned completely, she hated to see any of the rooms dark and empty, for it had been a second home to her as a child, and her mind painted the walls with the glow of beeswax candles. It made her long to rip the dust covers off the furniture to let it breathe and live again.

But as she shimmied her way through the low, broad cutout into the hall, she felt a sense of calm and quiet settle over her. She replaced the shutter behind her and rose to her feet, breathing the still air and the smell of dust. The long table and its chairs were all stacked in the corners, the tapestries missing from the walls. She drifted from the hall into the gallery, passing the suit of armor worn by Robin’s grandfather, feeling it watch her, ghostlike, through the ethereal drape of its shroud of linen.

The whole house watched her, unmoved, until Marian began to feel she was the ghost—no more than a restless spirit, glancing from room to room, the veil between worlds too thick for her to see the life and vitality that ought to be here in this house she’d loved since she was a little girl. She could see only pallor, and stillness, and the blanched ivory of linen. Everything was covered, concealed—it was her own eyes, her own shroud, that stood between her and this world.

Marian’s feet took her to the main staircase, and she mounted the broad oaken steps. It had taken years of cajoling from Bellden before Robin would move into the master suite—it was his father’s room, Robin insisted. He had no need of its wide oak bed and view of the valley. His boyhood room overlooked the stables, and he could not sleep without the soft sounds of dozing horses in their stalls, the muffled pawing of their hooves. But he’d finally given in to Bellden, some four years after his father’s death. He’d only slept in the room for a few months before he decided to join King Richard in his crusade.

So it felt strange to Marian to stand in Robin’s father’s room and see Robin’s things there. There his record book, his ink and quill. There his clothes chest, slightly ajar where he’d left the corner of a tunic or jerkin to dangle and keep the lid from closing properly. And there his old wooden knight, once a constant companion, now a keepsake on a shelf, still bearing the shiny polish of his young hands on the horse’s nose, its flanks, the ripple of its tail with a piece missing from the time Marian had thrown it off the banister in the main hall in a fit of pique. She could not remember now why she’d been angry with him. But there it was, the chipped tail, the edges of the break worn round and smooth with time.

His sword and belt, which usually stood in the corner by his desk, were gone, and his bow and quiver too. He’ll need them to fight the infidels, Marian thought, glad that Robin would be fighting with his own weapons, the ones that had grown to fit his hand, the ones his hands had grown to fit.

Then she remembered. And she wondered if Robin’s killer had taken up his sword after he died, if English steel was even now being used to cut down more of the King’s men.

Grief, thought Marian, was not the melancholy mourning of a loss, not the long and dwindling ache that ballads sang of. It was forgetting, and remembering, again and again, an endless series of slashes, each as violent and sharp as the last. It was execution by a thousand different wounds, it was bleeding to death so slowly that you are certain it will never end, that you will suffer this torture for eternity, long after your natural life has ended. You are Prometheus, and instead of your liver, the eagle is tearing out your heart.

Marian stood at the foot of Robin’s bed, eyes on the linens protecting the mattress beneath, her fingers tracing the woodwork of the clothes chest. The red oak gave under her fingertips, and she remembered the corner of fabric keeping the lid from closing. She stooped to correct it, and she found herself holding the edge of Robin’s old cloak. He hadn’t brought it with him to the Holy Land, for he’d be wearing the King’s colors. Marian lifted the lid of the chest and pulled the cloak out, sinking onto the floor and letting the cloth pool in her lap.

It was heavy, a thick, coarse wool weave dyed again and again with woad and turmeric and verdigris until it was the deep, dark color of a shady summer day in Sherwood. Robin’s armor was in the chest too—not his chain mail, but his leather breastplate, his armguards, his archer’s glove. The chest smelled like him—or, perhaps, he smelled like his gear—and for the space of too many heartbeats Marian couldn’t move, just breathing.

I’m here, said Robin.

Marian’s fingertips tingled where they rested on the wool, and her breath caught painfully. So familiar was Robin’s voice, surrounded by his belongings and his scent, that she knew she was imagining his voice to comfort herself. Or else punish herself, for hearing him speak to her was a searing torture—it warmed her heart and made it bleed.

A distant thud jarred her from her stupor. Bellden was in the house, making his rounds or else repairing this or that. His tasks would lead him to the upstairs eventually, and if he found her there, she’d have to talk. Marian didn’t know if her heart could take it.

She couldn’t leave Robin’s clothes strewn about. Bellden would assume there had been a break-in. So Marian rose, her arms full of green wool, and hurried to the clothes chest. She rummaged among the discarded clothes and belongings covering its bottom—for heaven’s sake, Robin, tidying your room doesn’t mean throwing all your things into your closet—until she found a pack. Robin’s armguards went in first, and his glove. Her exploration of the chest’s contents had left everything so jumbled the lid wouldn’t close at all, so she shoved his leather tunic into the pack too, and a few other bits and pieces of clothing she didn’t stop to examine. The cloak wouldn’t fit, but neither could her shaking hands get it back into the chest unfolded. So she bundled it together and rolled it up like a camp bed, and tied it to the stolen pack with its trailing laces.

She moved toward the door, first pressing her ear to the thick oak and then opening it a crack to listen. When the pounding of her heart quieted enough, she made out footsteps, quiet at first, then changing to sharp clicks. Shallower steps, then longer strides against stone. Bellden had climbed the stairs. Marian eased the door closed again and stood, heart pounding, sweat forming along her brow, on the small of her back, between her breasts.

No, she thought, trying to ignore the longing in her mind for the physician’s numbing drink. It was so easy to fall into that stupor, so effortless to simply let the draught sweep her from the turbulent currents of her own thoughts.

Some distant part of her mind told her to open the door, to walk out, to greet Bellden, to simply explain she was taking some of Robin’s things to remind her of him. But the thought of facing another human being—of being forced to recall him—brought only a further sweep of terror, one that made her want to gag. She turned blindly for the window and shoved it open, seeking fresh air. But the air only smelled like Locksley town, carrying the scents of Gisla’s baking bread and the wild crisp of clear-eye sage and boneset from the midwife’s garden.

Though she could no longer distinguish between the sound of Bellden’s footsteps and the thrashing of her own heart, Marian felt sure he’d open the door at any moment. She slung the pack over her shoulders and slipped through the window onto the stone ledge beyond, shutting the pane behind her.

She crept sideways so she’d be invisible from within the room, then crouched there, trying to steady herself as she shook and gasped. She cursed herself for traveling without the physician’s tonic; true, it made her sleepy and slow-witted, but without it she had no way to stop this racing heart, the seizing of her every muscle. All she wanted was to run, but she was stuck a full story above the ground, clinging with one hand to the window frame and pressing her stolen gear between her back and the stone.

This isn’t me, she thought, closing her eyes, shutting out the vista she usually loved, the fields and distant trees marking the edge of the wood. Marian struggled to suppress the urge to jam a stone into her leg or strike herself to snap her thoughts from this cycle of fear. This cannot be me. I fight. I don’t fear.

Robin would know how to beat this. . . .

A memory flashed by, so quickly Marian almost dismissed it. Robin, passing along what his archery tutor had told him. Breathe from here, Robin told her, his hands at her waist. They were young then, and Marian remembered trying to do as he said, then shouting an epithet when the stiff fabric of her dress wouldn’t allow her ribs to move where his hands rested. She’d stripped off her kirtle, there in the field, and practiced wearing only her shift. It was the first time she’d outshot him.

Marian’s shaking fingers went to the ties at either side of her ribs. One settled into a knot at her inexpert fumbling, but the other loosened and then fell free, and Marian threw her head back until it rested against the stone.

Breathe from here.

It was Robin’s voice again, but she was too frightened, too overwhelmed, to question whether it was conjured by her own memory or whispered by some lingering fragment of Robin’s spirit.

Her ribs expanded, contracted. Her belly rose, fell. She felt a rush of dizziness, tightened her grip on the window frame, adjusted the positioning of her feet on the ledge. Slowly, she registered the smells around her: the clear-eye sage, the stables on the other side of the house, old stone and the scraps of greenery clinging to it, the worn leather of the pack she’d unearthed from Robin’s wardrobe.

With her eyes closed, she could almost feel the gentle curve of the bow in her palm, see the clarity of the target ahead. Her shoulders drew back as she breathed again, and on the exhale she let go of the tension in her frame. In her mind’s eye she saw the arrow fly, and with it went her fear, vanishing into the fog of her imagination.

The sun was drying the sweat on her brow, and as Marian took another experimental breath, a part of her felt like laughing, shaky with relief.

Go back inside, she told herself, stern. But her body wouldn’t move. After all, she’d climbed this way before. True, she usually crept out of Robin’s house by safer means, but every now and then they lost track of time and she’d had to sneak out of his old bedroom, which was only a few windows down from where she crouched now. They’d never lain together, both too conscious of the laws of God and man, both too sure it would only be a matter of time before they were properly wed. But that wouldn’t stop the ruin of Marian’s reputation were she to be seen creeping from his house after dark.

Marian started the climb down, finding after only moments that she felt as exhausted as if she’d been climbing from a tower and not the second floor. Her terror could not have lasted more than a few minutes, but it felt as though she’d been toiling for hours. When she reached the ground, she landed with a thud and a much harder jarring of her bones than she’d intended. She could barely summon the breath to whistle for Jonquille. By the time the horse trotted up with half a dandelion plant and its dirt-covered roots still hanging from her lips, Marian had managed to find her feet again.

 

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