Robert of Locksley, the handsome son of a respected earl, has long battled the tyranny of Prince John—a man as weak as he is cruel. Now that power has shifted even more firmly into John’s hands, Robert has no choice but to fight as an outlaw . . . as Robin Hood.
Lady Marian of Ravenskeep has fled into the depths of Sherwood Forest. There, amid wild woods, she will be transformed from lady to warrior—as Robin Hood’s partner in stealing John’s gold. But all who breathe know the penalty for such theft is hanging. As the sheriff’s army pursues them, Robin Hood and Marian face danger at every turn, and discover a shared passion that will join their hearts forever.
“Fans of historical fiction and period fantasy should enjoy this rousing story.” —Library Journal
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The hall lacked the amenities and luxuries of royal palaces, of castles built by nobles, but it was a solid and comfortable manor house nonetheless. Its mistress was diligent in her quest to keep it clean and neat, and warm. Even on days such as this, when hours of drizzling rain turned stone silver-slick and dyed dark all the wood.
The aromas of fresh bread, roasted pork, and the pungency of new cheese masked the mustiness of damp walls and rushes. Spring, nearing, was invoked with religious fervor, but the nights were yet cold. Ovens heated for baking, and fires laid in for roasting lent warmth to the hall, though just now it was mostly empty despite the comfort it offered to chilled bones and empty bellies. Only one person was seated at the table, but she did not eat.
The whispering of servants gathered near a screened corner of the hall died away. They watched the woman at the table, and waited. Expectantly.
Perfect silence, at first. And a meticulous, overstudied stillness.
Then she began to fill it.
Simple tapping: one finger against the expanse of trestle table in the center of the hall. The brief pressure of fingertip, the faint splintery scrape of fingernail. But what began in seeming idleness — tap ... tap — took on the attributes of command: no one in the hall was unaware of the sound, nor of what it portended.
Except the man, the men, who should be present and were not; whose absence prompted the expectancy among the servants as well as the tapping itself. She was mistress of the manor, but not necessarily of her temper when pressed beyond patience. Not since Sir Robert, styling himself Locksley in place of Huntington, had become something akin to master of the manor.
Akin, but not master in truth; Ravenskeep was hers, and had been since her father's death. Since King Richard had been magnanimous enough, upon his brief return to England following his captivity and ransoming five years before, to declare her able to govern her own life, rather than being suffocatingly governed by the Crown in such things as the management of her lands, the dictates of her heart, and the disposition of her hand.
— tap — tap — tap —
Offering suggestive accompaniment, her stomach abruptly growled.
— tap — tap —
— SLAP — As the palm of her hand came down. And the thrashing of chairlegs shoved through rushes to scrape against stone floor as the mistress of the manor rose abruptly.
Dust motes rose from disturbed rushes. Marian of Ravenskeep turned to the serving woman standing nearest. "Is it possible," she began with infinite and dangerous clarity, "for a man who has fought for his king and his God in the land of the Infidel to have absolutely no awareness of time?"
Joan knew better than to smile. "But he isn't alone, Lady Marian. There are —" She paused. — "Distractions." Four of them, in truth: Little John, Will Scarlet, Much, and Brother Tuck.
"They are none of them blind," Marian declared, "to not notice the sun has set!" Even on such a day as had lacked it, mostly.
"Well," Joan conceded, "no. Unless .." And she stopped, closing her mouth tightly.
"Unless." Testily, her mistress took it up. "Unless they have gotten themselves so drunk in some Nottingham tavern that they are become blind."
"But they may well be just outside the gates," Joan said. "Or even outside the very door."
Marian flung out an arm, stabbing the air with a rigid hand. "That very door?" Her arm dropped. "Well then, shall we see?"
Joan held her silence as Marian marched the length of the table, the length of the hall, and unlatched the door. She jerked it open, letting in the post-sunset murk of a rainy day now drying, and illumination from freshly lighted torches smoking in damp sconces and cressets, all of which underscored the emptiness of the door and the courtyard beyond. The gate beyond the courtyard was closed, and seemingly neither Hal nor Sim was being hailed to open it.
Marian turned: her stiff spine and upright stance mimicked a guardsman's pike. "Not outside the door," she said with precise enunciation, even as her breath became visible on the air, "nor, apparently, just outside the gate." She shivered, wrapped her fur-lined leather overdress more tightly around her wool chemise. "Just inside the tavern, I should venture."
"Well," Joan said, "you could begin eating without them." She paused. "You have before."
"But he promised." Temper transmuted itself into less perilous exasperation; this was not the first time supper had cooled before the mouths and bellies arrived, but one in an endless litany. It was not always taverns that delayed them, but other vastly important activities such as seeing whose arrow could strike the bull's-eye closest and most often, or whose wrestling had improved enough to give Little John, once called the Hathersage Giant, more of a challenge. If such could be said of a man who won every time. "He stood right there" — a poking finger indicated the appropriate spot just inside the door — "and promised he would be home. By sunset." She cast a despairing glance at the table, filled with meat pies, wheels of cheese, platters piled with pork, loaves of bread, tankards of ale. "We have spent most of the day preparing this meal. I have spent at least half of it praying my bread would not fall." Then another expression crossed her face, one of startled realization. "Do you suppose they knew I was going to cook?"
"Lady Marian," Joan said soothingly, "they always eat your cooking without complaint. And, after all, no one told them you were to cook." The woman cast a quelling glance at the other servants as they giggled behind their aprons. "I made certain of it."
"But they prefer Cook's cooking." Marian grimaced ruefully. "I prefer Cook's cooking. But that is no excuse. Not when one has promised." Her slow-blooming, evocative smile suggested imminent repercussions. "Therefore, I shall have to go and fetch them all home. Like children. Which men — some men — mimic with surpassing regularity." She scowled at the table laden with cooling, congealing food. "Even men who are knights, former Crusaders, and heirs of powerful earls, and should certainly know better."
"But how will you find them?" Joan inquired, hiding a smile. "One tavern in all of Nottingham?"
Marian considered that a foolish question. "A red-haired giant, an overplump friar, a simpleton boy, a perpetually scowling peasant, and an earl's son?" She paused for irony. "Together?"
"Ah." Joan nodded solemnly; everyone in Nottingham knew that particular ill-matched grouping.
With a final sulfurous glare at the table, Marian stalked out of the hall, out of the door — and into a very large man.
She staggered back even as he caught and steadied her with a huge hand. "John —?" she began, readying chastisement, but knew better even as she said it. None of them was here. Not even Robin, who had promised.
In torchlight she saw the glint of steel, the dull shine of worn leather rubbed smooth by time and hard usage. She realized then he was not so tall as Little John — likely no man in England was — but immensely wide through the shoulders. Leather and mail added bulk.
Marian could not help the thought as she looked into the flame-painted face, saw its unshaven scruff and the hard, pitted flesh beneath.
This is a cruel man. But she dismissed it as premonition, and urgency superseded it. "What is wrong?"
He blinked dark eyes and released her arm with alacrity, as if suddenly acknowledging their differences in gender and rank. Had he expected insipid pleasantries prior to the meat of the matter? He should know better; his masked expression hid nothing of an edged intensity, a brittle facade of self-control. And Marian, who had lived with the same herself, had fostered it in herself, recognized it at once.
Her mother, dead. Her father, dead. Her brother, dead. She understood loss. Now there was no one left to lose.
"Who is it?" she blurted, abruptly certain, and as abruptly frightened. "Who is dead?"
Taken aback by her vehemence, he murmured something in harsh-voiced French. Marian heard Le roi — and the abrupt catch of his breath, a brief curse. He began again. In English. "Sir Robert of Locksley."
She shivered again, this time from the ice in her blood. Not Robin. Not dead. Not the only one left in and of her life. And who was this man to bring her word?
The accented voice was a rough growl. "He is summoned. To France. At once."
Summoned. Summoned. Not dead.
It gave her the strength to speak steadily, to stand with strength again. "Who summons him?"
The face was implacable. "Le roi."
"The king," she murmured, baffled. "The king summons him?"
"To France. At once."
The moment of panic and shock had passed. This time, this time, there was no word of death, of one more loss, of another body to be brought home. She could manage pleasantries now, and simple conversation.
"He is not here." Marian gestured to the open door behind her. "Will you come into the warmth of the hall? Will you sit at table with me?" She smiled wryly; there was enough food for a king's army — though she thought this man and Little John might account for half the table.
"Non." And again, in English. "No. Where is he?"
"Nottingham," she answered; annoyance rekindled. "Though he should be here by now. He is late coming home —"
He cut her off curtly. "Then I will go there."
"Wait" She caught his arm as he turned, gripped hard, though she doubted he could feel it through hauberk, mail, leather, gambeson, and the fierce knotting of rigid muscle. "What is it? What has happened? Why does the king want Robin?"
Something moved in the dark, hard eyes. "To be there."
Robin had once been a soldier for his king. The question had merit despite the stranger's blatant unwillingness to offer explanation. And she believed she knew the answer: the king always had need of more men, nearly as much as money. "To fight."
His mouth tightened. "To watch."
It baffled her utterly. "To watch what?"
His teeth showed briefly in a grimace of anger, and grief. "To watch the king die."
Even as Marian's hands flew to seal her mouth in shock, the gate behind the man was shoved open; Sim had, it seemed, been hailed after all, for there he was. Into the courtyard, laughing, singing, cursing — and, in one case, praying — spilled a red-haired giant, an overplump friar, a simpleton boy, a perpetually scowling peasant, an earl's son.
And also one other: a slender, graceful man of tumbled golden curls and bright blue eyes, cradling a lute-case. Tardiness and broken promise now claimed an explanation.
"Alan," she said in surprise; they had none of them seen Alan of the Dales for more than two years. And then she forgot all about the minstrel even as the big soldier turned toward the gate.
"Robert of Locksley!" he roared.
The accented thunder of a battlefield bellow shut off the laughing, singing, cursing — clearly a Nottingham tavern had been involved — at once. The revelers stopped dead in their tracks, staring. Marian saw Robin unhook an arm from around Tuck's cowled neck and push through the others to stand before them even as they pulled themselves together, frivolity forgotten. She marked the sudden stiffening of his body, the shock in his face.
Disbelief, emphatic and unfeigned. "Mercardier?"
"In the name of the king," Mercardier declared, bass to baritone, "you are to come to France."
"France!" That was Will Scarlet, truculent as usual, especially after too much ale. "What's in France for us, then?"
Marian pitched her voice over them all, and their murmurings. "Robin," she said clearly. "You must go with him."
Robin looked from the soldier to Marian. What he saw in her face, in Mercardier's, leached the color from his own.
"Ya Allah," he murmured, stunned, using an invocation she had believed banished in the years since his return. He began to stride toward them, no sign of drunkenness in his gait. "What has happened?"
"A man's pride," Mercardier said harshly in his ruined voice. "He took no thought for his safety, nor for the wound after the arrow pierced him."
Robin's expression was stark as his step faltered briefly, but something moved in his hazel eyes that spoke of undercurrents. "His safety, I believe, was your duty, Mercardier."
So, they knew each other. Well enough to dislike one another. But then, Robin had been the king's favorite, and such men encountered much dislike by men lacking royal favor. Or men overzealous in their own royal service. Marian, standing so close to the king's man, was aware of the tension that abruptly immobilized him. And the hostility that was so palpable she very nearly smelled it.
She had experience with men who wished to fight simply because fighting did not require thinking, or an awareness of painful truth. "Stop this," she said sharply, before it could begin. "The king is dying. You owe this time to him, not to your pride."
Pride. Which Mercardier's words implied might cause the death of that king.
Robert of Locksley, once a prisoner of the Infidel, had learned how to set aside such things as pride, as hostility, as personal preferences. He did so now. But Marian, who had learned to read him very well in five years, even such things as level intonations and the set of fair eyebrows, saw the bitterness in his eyes as he strode directly past Mercardier and climbed the steps into the hall.
Her hall. And his. As she had declared it so.
Her king. And his. As God and Henry II had declared it so.
The Lionheart, dying?
No. Other men died. Weaker men died.
To most of the men in his service, Richard Coeur de Lion was legend, not man. And legends did not die.
"You will stay the night, of course," she said to Mercardier; best to depart at first light, rather than sleeping on wet ground. "I will see to the arrangements."
"We go tonight." The peremptory tone halted her. "We go now."
She felt stiff and cold, and powerless. "Is there so little time as that?"
"Madame," Mercardier said curtly, "even now he may be dead."
Legends did not die. But men did.
And kings.CHAPTER 2
Marian found Robin upstairs in the bedroom they shared. She had half expected to discover him packing feverishly, a duty she planned to lift from him; and clearly he had begun, for one of the big chests was open and clothing spilled forth. But he was no longer digging through folded shertes, tunics, and hosen to select what he thought best to take. Instead, he stood very still near the foot of the bed, mimicking the wood of its testers.
She stopped, noting the brittle tautness of his posture, and waited.
When he saw her at last, when he could form the syllables of words and make sense out of incoherency, he said what she had at first believed: "He cannot die."
"Not Lionheart," he added, as if she might not know to whom he referred. As if, by hearing the infamous sobriquet, Death might yet be startled away and the warrior-king defended.
She did not say what was obvious: that the king would not have sent for him in such a way otherwise; that Mercardier would not have come himself in such haste and hostility. She said nothing at all, simply waited. There were times a man needed to understand a thing for himself before he permitted a woman entry into his grief. And this was indeed grief, plainly visible in the carnage of his face as he slowly admitted the truth.
"One moment," he said dazedly. "One moment, and all is changed." He looked at her. This time he saw her. "One moment the world is as it is. The next, it is something entirely different. Something it has never been before."
Marian nodded mutely as tears welled into her eyes.
"And we are made different," he said bleakly. "On the instant. What we know, what we were, is banished by that instant, razed like a castle under siege, until nothing recognizable is left. The world is unmade."
His world had been made and unmade and made again many times, in war, in captivity, in its repercussions. But this was somehow different. She saw it in his face, in his eyes, in the sluggish quality of his voice, as if he were drugged out of pain but remained aware of it nonetheless, waiting for it to seize him once again.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lady of Sherwood"
Copyright © 1999 Jennifer Roberson.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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