Afterward, Robin had wrapped them in blankets against the chill of drying bodies. She luxuriated there, using the heat of his flesh to warm her own. His face was buried in the crook of her neck, hidden in her hair; his own, so pale where hers was so dark, fell in a tangled curtain across one shoulder. Her hand, upon his back, felt the old weals, the scars left of captivity and Norman punishment, levied by men jealous of the king’s favor, believing tales that were not true. There were other nicks and blemishes worn in the flesh as keepsakes of Crusade, the scar along the brow at the root of his hairline, and also the serpent crawling upon the underside of his jaw. Both forearms and wrists were ridged with sinew trained to strength by swordwork; beneath the pale frieze of the fine hair were traceries of old cuts and slices, reminders of battles in the name of God and king.
He had come home from his. Her father had not.
She felt oddly emptied, and yet oddly full. In the storm of fury and weeping, in the recounting of what had been done, she had purged herself of what she now considered a childish trust in the world’s ability to right itself, the certainty that men would, when put to it, comprehend follies and transgressions, to apologize for them. William deLacey had altered that certainty, that trust, forever. He had killed the child in her, and given birth to the adult.
Enmity had existed between them for years, but she had never expected this. She had never before witnessed naked hatred in a man’s eyes, never realized how fury and frustration could drive a soul to wanton destruction. She had tasted both herself now, in the aftermath of deLacey’s cruelty, and understood at last how a man might be moved to kill another.
Or at least to try.
Robin had killed men. Saracens, in battle. And Norman soldiers, when he and the others stole the tax shipment that Prince John was stealing for himself so that he might be king in place of his imprisoned brother.
The brother who now was dead. The prince who now was king.
“We have to stop him,” she said.
Robin stirred, shifting within the cocoon of blankets. “What?”
She sat up. “We have to stop him.”
“The sheriff?—oh, be certain of that.” His tone was coldly vicious. “He and I shall have words at the end of swords by nightfall.”
“No,” she said thoughtfully. “I mean King John.”
He was startled. “Stop him?”
He sat up. The blanket slid to his lap, exposing one bare hip and thigh. “Stop him from being king?”
Marian wrapped her portion of blanket more tightly around her shoulders. “Poor Robin. Do you fear I have gone mad?”
His answering smile flickered briefly, was gone as he slumped back again to prop himself on one elbow, finding renewed warmth in rearranged blankets.
“We must stop him,” she repeated. “He will harm England. Harm her people by taxing them to death. He cares only for himself, for his own pleasures. As you loved Richard, you must surely hate John.”
“There is nothing to admire,” he admitted, taking up a lock of her hair to feel its texture.
“Then stop him.”
“You said the words, Robin. One moment the world is as it is. The next it is upside down.” She touched his face, traced the line of brow, the furrows of baffled concern. “The world is upside down,” she told him sadly. “Richard is dead. John is king. William deLacey intends to hang all of you, and to take Ravenskeep for his own.”
He sat sharply upright, releasing her hair. “He will do no such thing!”
Marian smiled. “You are fiercer in regard to Ravenskeep than to your possible hanging.”
“Richard gave you this manor!”
She nodded. “And John may take it away.”
He got up then and stood in the room without benefit of blankets. With the anger in his eyes and the hair spilling free and the body clad only in blistering righteousness, he put her in mind of an avenging angel.
With precisely measured lightness, Marian asked the question she had dreaded, but now needed answered. “Do you mean to join your father?”
Something within him recoiled, as if she had touched an open wound. He did not match her tone but conjured his own, and it was all of darkness. “I do not.”
She moistened dry lips. “Not even to be earl?”
“I do not.”
“Not even to be a sick father’s son?”
“I do not.” His eyes were steady, as was his tone. “For no reason, Marian.”
A chill passed across her flesh. “But you do not know all the reasons why you should consider it.”
She searched his face. “Do you?”
He turned from her, went to the overturned bed and righted it with effort. Then he sat down upon the edge of the frame, still naked, and said very gently, “You are not a broodmare.”
Her belly clenched into a painful knot. “No. But men may expect children. It is not unreasonable.”
“Are you dead yet?”
“Marian.” He said it with finality. “My decision was made there upon the floor. I did not come to live with you merely to get children.”
“It is a part of life, yes, and one I might otherwise cherish . . . but not all there is.”
She sought the faintest trace of falsehood, of words said merely to comfort. “But Robin . . . your father—”
“My father is but one parent, and not one I honor.” He smiled faintly. “My mother would understand.”
Within she blossomed, rejoicing, but now there were other issues at stake. “He will arrest you, will he not?”
She did not see how he could find humor in the moment. “DeLacey! King John’s lapdog. He hates you, Robin.” But did not add, As he hates me.
Robin’s mouth compressed. “If he can, he will hang me. When he knows I have broken with my father, he will move to arrest me until he has evidence that supports my hanging. Or he will manufacture it.” He grimaced. “When my father knows I have broken with my father, he may well himself command the sheriff to do so.”
“Tell neither of them. Yet.”
He contemplated her warily. “What are you thinking?”
She shrugged. “That if he will hang you anyway, you should perhaps give him reason.”
He rose again, expression abruptly stilled. She knew the look in his eyes.
“Give deLacey reason,” she said, “but remove from John the means to support his lapdog.”
He gazed down upon her. His tone was peculiar. “Lady, do I take your meaning aright?”
Marian stood up, dragging the blanket with her. She was not so free as he was to be unconcerned with nudity in the middle of the day. “You do, my lord.”
Despite the severity of his tone, a light was kindling in his eyes. “Let me be certain we speak of identical matters, if you please: you, a knight’s daughter, are counseling me, an earl’s son who was knighted by the Lionheart himself, to steal taxes from the sheriff. To steal taxes from the king.”
“But never to keep it,” she pointed out matter-of-factly. “You are not Adam Bell.”
His brows arched up. “Then what would you have me do with the money I steal?”
“What you did five years ago with the money you stole then.” She smiled to see his expression. “Give it back to the people.”
Want to keep reading? Download Lady of Sherwood by Jennifer Roberson.
This post is sponsored by Open Road Media. Thank you for supporting our partners, who make it possible for The Portalist to continue publishing the stellar stories you love.
Featured image: Imat Bagja Gumilar/Unsplash