Darkness. Silence. The weight of solitude. Each was a weapon meant to break her, to drive her into humiliation out of defiant self-possession; to goad her into surrender, into pleas for mercy, for compassion, for understanding.
Grimly she reflected,
But mostly into compliance, in bed and out of it.
A sound destroyed the silence even as light banished darkness. The heavy door scraped open. “Marian.”
She wanted to laugh.
Such a soft, seductive whisper
—But with the edge of a blade in the sound, issuing from a man long accustomed to being heard no matter how softly he whispered.
He brought the torch with him, unattended by liveried soldiers; what he wanted from her he wanted given—
taken—in the privacy of the chamber.
Perhaps even retribution.
Or merely the opportunity to have what another man had.
The roaring of the torch swallowed the darkness and the world was alive again.
She lurched abruptly upright, squinting against the torchlight, then forced herself to relax. Her legs were tangled in heavy bedclothes, bound up by twisted skirts.
She knew what he saw: tangled black hair harboring bits of dungeon straw; a soiled, dishevelled kirtle smelling of horse and sweat and smoke; gritty blue eyes red-rimmed from tension and lack of sleep.
I know very well what he sees.
What he wanted was as blatant, though he would say nothing of it. Not yet. He was a subtle man, she knew, and therefore all the more dangerous.
He held the torch aloft. Flame blazed in the darkness, setting the room alight. She stared, momentarily transfixed by fire, by the flare and gutter in the eternal dance, the courtship of air and flame. “
The room was bathed in shadow, courting the flame. As he walked the shadows walked, gliding across the floor, into cracks, into corners, running up the walls, quick and black and sly, like the rats she had left in the dungeon below:
Illumination glittered in the silver threading his curly dark hair, forming an eerie nimbus around his well-shaped head. An artist might choose to paint him. But
was disposed to believe he made a supremely unlikely angel.
He smiled, baring a blade-sharp line of square white teeth against the dark rim of his bottom lip as she rearranged her skirts to make certain her legs were covered. She refused to give him that. What he got from her would be stolen.
He carried the torch closer yet. Smoke teased the air, curling around his head. She looked through it to his eyes, brown by the light of day, now blackened by firelight.
For the third time he said her name, as if by keeping it in his mouth he possessed it, and her. But she refused to bow down before it, to show any sign of surrender or even acknowledgment. All she did was stare back steadfastly and defiantly, denying him the victory he desired so very much.
Flames transfigured hair from silvered brown to raven gold. Light overlay his face, dividing it precisely in half. One side was made flat, stark, without character, leeched of humanity; the other was cast into shadows that licked at eyes and nose, caressing his smiling mouth. Divided face. Divided soul.
Black and white,
lacking all the grays.
Legs now puddled in skirts and bedclothes, she sat against the wall. She was no longer in the dungeon, where she had made the acquaintanceship of rats, but in a bedchamber fully furnished and well-appointed; he was a refined man. A painted cloth hanging cut the chill of dark stone. But not enough. Not nearly enough. It did nothing to warm her blood.
“You have a choice,” he told her. “You have always had a choice.”
Marian wanted to laugh. Slowly, with unstudied grace, she put out her left hand to him. Palm down. And as, surprised, he reached out to touch it—thinking, she knew, that she meant him to—she snapped the wrist over and turned the palm upright. His hand instantly retreated; she knew he regretted the motion already.
“Choice,” she said softly, in her smoky, dark-toned voice. “Repent before the abbot, then take vows and become a nun—though I lack a true vocation.”
He waited in silence, intent. The torch spilled smoke and flame.
She put out her other hand and snapped it over. Light bled briefly across the ragged edges of broken nails, the grime of harsh usage. “Choice,” she said again. “Make vows and become your wife, though I lack a true vocation”—she smiled before he could speak—“or even a
The torch robbed his face of color. “What do I want of desire?” His tone was cool, divulging nothing. “With or without, I can have you.”
“Unless the stake takes me first.” She turned her hands down and let them lie across the hillocks of skirts and bedclothes. “When you are done, will the abbot come to argue his side? Or did you mean to keep this attempt at persuasion secret?”
He smiled faintly. “Truths, not persuasion. In the morning you will be tried on charges of witchcraft. We both know you are guilty, so I doubt you will survive.”
She knew very well she would not, though guilt had nothing to do with it. No one, witch or not, survived being burned at the stake.
“Truth,” he said quietly. “Take vows and enter a convent, and there will be no trial.”
Bitterness crept in. “And my lands will go to the Church—”she paused a moment, looking for additional truths, “unless you mean to take part of them as payment for what you do now.”
The tone—and confirmation—was ironic: “Suitable dowry, I think, for a bride of Jesus Christ.”
Marian laughed; she knew him better, now. “But that isn’t what you want. That would deny
and you couldn’t countenance that. Not William deLacey. His pride would never permit it.”
It banished the hint of a smile. “Take vows and marry me, and there will be no trial.”
Now her own irony. “And you will have
His eyes were alight with quiet laughter. “Suitable dowry, I think, for the Sheriff of Nottingham.”
She looked at him steadfastly, maintaining an even tone. “And if I take no vows, perishing in the flames, neither of you shall win. My lands will go to the king.”
He permitted himself a smile. “Your father was the Lionheart’s man, always. He died in Richard’s cause, in Richard’s holy insanity.”
He knew how to goad and succeed even with her, who knew him better now; it was a particular talent. “My father would
The sheriff cut her off. “But now it is said Richard himself will not come home from his cell in Henry’s German prison—in which case his brother John, our present Count of Mortain, shall inherit the throne of England.” William deLacey paused. “Do you think your father would rest easy to see his lands given over to
No. No and no.
Bitterly she said, “They are
lands now, in accordance with all the laws of England ... and it might be worth giving them to John Lackland if only to thwart you and the abbot.”
The sheriff stepped closer to her. She looked at the hand on the torch—his sword hand, and strong, hardened from years of experience. No longer a soldier’s hand, but lacking none of the strength or skill. She thought of that hand in her hair. She thought of it at her throat. Imagined it on her breast.
Marian wanted to vomit.
He bent over her carefully and set the torch into a bracket. The shadows, sly and silent, lay thick everywhere but on the bed. She could smell him: oil of cloves, and incense. He had bathed. Had he prayed?
In the light his face was as naked to her as her own to him. In his she saw suffering of a sort she could not fully comprehend.
Or do I dare not risk it, having learned a little of pain?
“Marian,” he rasped.
Abruptly she tore back the bedclothes, lurching out of the bed. She meant to run from him, to snatch open the door and fly down coiled stairs, to escape Nottingham Castle—
But he caught her, trapped her, sat her down upon the bed. And then took his hands from her. “Do you know what I see?”
She drew in a ragged breath. Mutely, she shook her head.
“The little girl,” he answered, “astride her father’s great destrier. With black hair all tangled and dusty, coming out of useless plaits.”
It was not what she had expected.
“Sir Hugh FitzWalter’s daughter, little Lady Marian, born and bred to Ravenskeep on the edge of Sherwood Forest, so close to Nottingham.” He smiled, though bitterness wracked the corners of his firm, well-cut mouth. “I married twice, and buried them both. I loved neither of them.”
“They gave you children,” she said.
DeLacey’s tone was bland. “Getting children on a woman has nothing at all to do with love.”
She drew in a steadying breath. She was not afraid of him; she had
been afraid of him, but she knew enough now to be uncertain of his intentions. “You were my father’s friend.”
“I was. And am, Marian. He asked me to tend your welfare should misfortune befall him.”
She knew that better than he. “But he did not require
White teeth gleamed in torchlight. “You make this necessary.”
“You are a fool,” she told him. “A ruthless, coldhearted fool—”
worse,” he agreed, “but I do not stoop to rape.”
Marian wanted to spit. “You will get me no other way.”
The sheriff merely smiled. “Do you know what I see? FitzWalter’s black-haired, blue-eyed daughter, but four months of age and without a tooth in her head. Laughing and waving impotent fists in the Sheriff of Nottingham’s face.”
She knew then what he meant to do, how he hoped to reduce her to helplessness in the face of shared memories of childhood, of girlhood, of when her father lived.
His smile dropped away. Now the tone hissed. “Do you know what I see?”
Resolutely she held her silence.
He answered her anyway, harshly. “A woman ripe for bedding, begging for it with her eyes.”
Jaw muscles tautened. “Give me a knife,” she retorted, “and I will
you what I am ripe for.”
The sheriff raised a single eloquent eyebrow. “Did he teach you that? Did he also teach you the
She knew precisely what he meant, though not long ago she had known nothing at all of hardship or the harsh argot of such men. Now she knew, and spoke it, answering him in kind with cool self-possession, fully cognizant of what the admission could mean. “The fleshly sword, yes. But he also taught me what you cannot: what it is to love a man.”
Dull color stained his face. Her thrust had gone home cleanly, and more deeply than she had hoped. Her matter-of-fact confirmation of his crude insinuation turned the blade back on him.
His eyes glittered in flame. “Do you know what I see?”
She knew very well what he saw. She named it before he could. “Robin Hood’s whore,” she answered. “And grateful for the honor.”