Hello, dear readers. From this point on, you'll recognize parts of the original story, but I'm incorporating the new parts into the text. I hope you enjoy the changes, and if this is your first time reading this...well, I hope you enjoy it! :)
Cassia lifted her head. Tucking a loose strand of dark hair behind her ear, she listened to the distant sound of the church bells. The noon church bells.
Wedding bells, she noted to herself.
Soon, the wedding would be over. Lady Marian of Leaford would be Lady Marian of Gisborne. Sir Guy's wife. An involuntary shudder of revulsion passed through her.
She looked over at her father, who sat hunched over a bucket as he milked one of their goats. Age was showing in him. His hair had grown white over the last few years, and both his knees and his hands sometimes troubled him. But he was diligent about his work. And his manner had not changed with time. He was a good man, and a caring father. But he was not always easy to talk to, especially when his mind was made up on something.
Taking in a little breath, she tried to maintain a cool facade, her manner deliberately calm as she broached a subject she knew was most sensitive.
"It is mid-day," she said. "The wedding ceremony shall commence within the hour. Are you certain we will not attend?"
Robert shook his head. His tone was firm.
"I will not celebrate the nuptials of Sir Guy of Gisborne. I will not honor persons loyal to the Sheriff of Nottingham. Neither will I honor those who swear their loyalty to Prince John - a man who schemes to steal the throne from its rightful owner. King Richard is the true leader of this kingdom. I will not bow down to his pretenders."
So you have been telling me for quite some time, she thought. He had not forgotten that Sir Guy had saved her and Lucinda. This she knew, for on occasion he mentioned that they were indeed fortunate to know such a blessing. But his loyalties to King Richard were deep, and he could not bring himself to think better of Guy of Gisborne, despite the good deed he had done for them.
Turning back to her laundry, pinning it to the rope suspended between two trees, she gave a little sigh, silently giving voice to a thought that had often crossed her mind.
If only we still resided in the village, I would be witness to the goings on there.
They had found a peaceful life here. In the solitude and quiet, they could live their lives without fear of persecution. But she missed the activity and the socialization of life in the village. If only the people of town were more sensible and not so inclined to believe every rumor and whisper they heard, most of which were nonsense. It was widely believed that Sherwood Forest was haunted...that witches, pixies, and goblins, along with the occasional outlaw, roamed through the dense woodlands. To her recollection, she had never encountered creatures of the fairytale sort. And as for outlaws...well, she certainly knew of their existence, although she wished it was they who were make-believe.
Oh well, she thought, as she so often did. I am blessed with my freedom.
There was a certain sense of contentment in knowing that she could practice her healing arts as she pleased. Medicine and the miracles it wrought always gave her great joy.
But on this sunny day, medicine was the furthest thing from her mind.
From her basket of freshly washed linens she took up a sheet, smoothing and pinning it along the laundry rope, and as she worked she watched her father rise from his milking stool. He had more to say on the matter of the impending wedding. Of that, she was certain.
She sensed his approach. Looking up, she saw that his brown eyes, while kind as always, were deeply serious.
"I am much aware of your curiosity, daughter. All of the village is stirred over this wedding, but we shall not indulge in such hypocrisy. Our loyalty remains to his majesty the king, and we shall honor him by keeping well away from Nottingham."
She nodded, watching him as he disappeared into the house. He would be there for some time, occupied with turning the fresh milk into cheese. If she slipped away for a short while, he would not take immediate notice. Neither would he be at all pleased when he found her gone.
But she was nearly eighteen years of age. She had a mind and a will of her own, and she had made up her mind that she wanted to be in Nottingham. There was a great event about to take place, and she intended to be there to witness it.
Guy held his hands out in front of him, examining them. He saw them trembling ever so slightly. And he cursed himself for such a show of vulnerability. Did anyone else see it? Glancing down at his valet, who was putting a last shine to his boots, he saw no sign of suspicion there. Taking a deep breath, he willed himself to be calm. In just a few short hours, he would be a married man. At last, after more than a year of restraint and civility, he would have what he wanted most. Marian would be his wife - whether or not she was prepared to play the part.
He was not so great a fool as everyone thought him to be. Despite her declarations to the contrary, he knew that Marian was reluctant to be his wife. She feared him. Being as pious and innocent as she was, it was understandable that she would have her concerns. He had wanted so badly to show her tenderness - to slowly ease her into the ways of physical affection between a man and a woman. But she had rarely permitted it. His first attempt, the day he had learned of his family's death, had gone so badly. Only once after that had he tried again, but the result was not at all what he had hoped for. He had kissed her as gently as he knew how, and her reaction had disappointed him deeply. Her lips had been cool - her form tense, even when he tried to coax some feeling from her with a touch of her face and neck. Even lesser things, such as trying to hold her hand, seemed to put her off. She could not refuse him outright - that, at least, was some consolation, however small. But even when duty required her to be near him or have some manner of contact, there was always an air of hesitation about it. He sighed deeply, a current of anger and despondency flowing beneath his cool appearance.
There was passion in her. He had seen it in her when she stood up to Briwere. With great courage she defended his servants against the cruelty he often imparted on them. She was a bold as brass horsewoman, often riding at a pace that was wholly unsuitable for a lady. And what an archer she was! He had caught a glimpse of it once. Hiding in the shadow of a garden archway, he had watched her - himself unseen - as she practiced with a bow and arrow. Such a look of determination and focus had crossed her features then. Clearly, she knew how to handle her weapon and enjoyed doing it.
Why couldn't she have such passion for him?
He sighed again, but the feeling was different now. It was a sense of deep determination he felt in his soul. Once they were man and wife, she would not refuse him. In truth, she was not permitted to deny him what he wanted. He would be her husband, and if they were to have children, they would know each other as man and wife. Just the thought of it made him tremble with anticipation. He could only imagine how enticingly soft and warm she would feel when he held her at last, making her his own. He had taken many women into his bed before, but none had been there for more than a night or two - some for much less than that. And not a one of them did he care to remember. But this would be different. So wonderfully different.
It would take some effort on both of their parts, but she would eventually come to accept hm. Hopefully, in time, she would come to desire him as well.
He longed for a home. A wife he could love. A family. Was it too much to hope for? Marching from the room, he shook his head in response to his own thoughts.
No, it was not too much to ask for. Happiness was the right and hope of every human being, and by God, he would have what he wanted, even if he had to fight like the devil to have it.
Heavens, he was magnificent to watch.
Cassia looked in awe upon the man pacing the stones in front of Nottingham Church. His arms were crossed, his broad shoulders hunched. His head was lowered, causing the unruly waves of his dark hair to fall forward, almost covering his eyes. Except for the red and gold coat of arms etched upon his surcoat, he was dressed entirely in black. His long legs took up great strides as he moved back and forth, giving him the likeness of a prowling panther. Impatience was written in every line of his face and figure, and after several long moments, he entered the church to speak with the priest...and Cassia could not take her eyes off of him.
"God be with Lady Marian."
Those words broke her reverie. She glanced at the person who had spoken them. He was no one of significance. Just one of the many villagers gathered around, all of them there to witness the wedding that was about to take place. But he spoke for so many of his neighbors.
"Heaven have mercy on her," he whispered, "Good woman that she is."
It took great self-discipine for Cassia not to snort in disgust.
Good woman indeed, she thought with contempt. And then a different thought - a despairing one - passed through her mind.
Oh, Guy! Why can you not see her as I do?
Cassia bristled with anger as she recalled that night she had overheard the conversation between Marian and Robin Hood. She recalled how they had quarreled briefly, with Marian accusing Robin of failure in his attempt to kill Guy. In response, Robin had turned from her in anger, refusing to hear her when she attempted to apologize. But soon enough they had reconciled, and then they had fallen into one another's arms and shared a kiss.
The memory of it was revolting.
A true woman would not stand in the arms of one man, Cassia thought, Declaring her undying love...only to stand beside another, with only the intention of deceiving him.
The quiet afternoon was broken by the pounding of horse's hooves. All heads turned to look as a rider came thundering to the church. It was a castle page, judging from his garments...and the crowd watched in confusion as the boy skidded to a stop, leaping from his mount to rush into the church. He fell on his knees before Sir Guy.
"My lord Gisborne! Lady Marian has disappeared!"
Those spectators that were close to the doors watched closely, listening as the boy stammered an explanation.
"There was a rope made of sheets that was hung from the window...and there was this parchment, tacked to the wall by an arrow."
Everyone within hearing distance knew what it meant. Those who could see the activity inside were watching as Sir Guy scanned the note in his hand. After a moment, he crumpled it furiously, tossing it aside...and he stormed off to exit the church.
Seeing him emerge, everyone bowed in submission. Cassia's head was lowered as well, her long hair obscuring the troubled expression on her face. As she bowed her head, she heard a faint snicker or two among the crowd.
Sir Guy has been abandoned at the altar.
That bit of news was sure to stir up the gossip mills around town. Most of the villagers, and quite a number of the nobles as well, would find great delight in seeing him made such a fool. Though they feared his violent temper, they also laughed in their sleeves at him when he passed. He was, after all, a favorite target of humiliation for the sheriff. More than once he had been publicly degraded, usually when he failed to capture Robin Hood, or when Locksley made one of his many notorious escapes.
And now, Sir Guy's degradation was complete.
Cassia couldn't help herself. She knew it might mean her life if she lifted her head to look...to dare cast her eyes upon a scorned nobleman, one who could very well choose her as a means to satisfy his thirst for revenge. But she had to look at him. Slowly, her gaze rose. And her heart felt a shock when her eyes met his. He was staring directly at her, an unreadable expression on his face. Then he turned away, rushing off with a band of guards following behind him.
Many months would pass before she would be so close to him again.
It was a petty crime, but one punishable by the possible removal of a limb. It was a grotesque and bloody thing he had been witness to many times, and it seemed to him that those who attempted such imbecilic crimes got exactly what they deserved. If they were ignorant enough to get caught, then so be it.
But she had taken the risk. He would never have thought her capable of such a thing. Until now.
Guy stood with his arms folded, his eyes cast aside, as Marian was brought into the castle square below. He feared that if he let his gaze fall on her, he would see her looking back at him, pleading for his help. But would she look at him in that way, or would he only see the same cold looks from her that he had always been subject to?
Either way, she did not deserve his mercy. Lying, scheming bitch that she was.
Standing near him on the observation platform, Briwere stepped to the railing. His eyes, as icy blue as ever, looked more severe now that he had aged considerably. His appearance was more severe than ever, if such a thing was possible. There were some who thought him mad, and in truth, Guy often wondered it himself. His uncle found pleasure in pain, and contentment in seeing a crime punished. Lifting his arms, Briwere called for the attention of the crowd below.
"People of Nottingham! Cast your eyes upon this deviant criminal whore! Think not that her position as a noblewoman will benefit her, for she will face punishment as would any vagabond who dares patronize with criminals! Five days hence, you will all be witness to her death. And when her traitorous body hangs from the gallows for all to see, let it be a reminder that no man, woman, or child will escape justice under my command!"
He made a motion, a signal to the guards to take her away. As he turned from the platform, Guy followed behind.
"My lord, perhaps we should assign more guards to the task of watching her. While she is in custody, Locksley is sure to be plotting her rescue."
The sheriff snorted in reply.
"Such would not be the case if you had captured him the first time. But do not trouble your simple mind with him or his associates. I have my own plan regarding any attempt to hasten to her rescue."
Always a plan, Guy thought. And always a failure. But as always, he had no opinion to give. For most of his life, he had been under his master's command. He knew of little else, and his duty was not to question, but to follow...which he did so in silence.
They stood within her cell, a small tower room that was favorable when compared to the dampness and petulance of the dungeons. Marian's position as a noblewoman kept her from the nightmare of rats, sickness, and screaming prisoners who were being tortured. Perhaps the occasional mouse might crawl over her shoe, but she was allowed a few simple luxuries. She was given bread and water. Her cell contained a small window so she might look upon her last glimpses of daylight, and near that window was a narrow bed, on which she could lie down and contemplate her actions.
Guy tried not to think of such trivial things. Keeping his eyes lowered, he only occasionally glanced up to see the sheriff traipsing back and forth. There was a shining of evil delight in those eyes...one that Guy knew all too well. Briwere always enjoyed taunting prisoners, but this was no ordinary captive. And Briwere seemed gleefully aware of it.
He walked back and forth just inside the room, his long robes flowing behind him in dramatic fashion. He eyed Marian with contempt.
"Well, well," he sneered. "The woman of Robin Hood, awaiting her death with such stoicism. How noble."
Guy did not want to look at Marian. But he found he could not help himself. She sat in a chair, her spine so straight it made no contact with the back of the seat. Her hands were folded neatly in lap as she stared silently out the window. In the face of doom, she was proud and uncowardly...every bit the proper lady. The sheriff, however, was not impressed.
"What a pity," he said. "A true pity indeed that her beloved outlaw will not reach her in time to save her neck."
Guy saw her flinch. But she did not turn, even as the sheriff went on with a jovial menace in his tone.
"Robin Hood has fallen for a trick. He thinks that he has several days to formulate a plan...that his beloved will have a trial before she faces justice."
The tone of his voice suddenly darkened. And then it rose to a near roar.
"WRONG! Your neck will stretch first thing in the morning! And may your deceitful soul burn in purgatory!"
He turned away in a furious movement, leaving the room.
But Guy did not follow. He slowly turned to her. With his eyes narrowed, he spoke coldly.
"You have been a fool, Marian. Do you see where your loyalty to Robin Hood has placed you? Had you been true to me, you would not be in this danger."
At last she spoke. She did not turn to look at him. But her voice, which had once fallen on his ear so softly, became bitter with loathing.
"Guy of Gisborne, 'tis you who has been a fool. Did you truly believe I would dishonor my people and my country by wedding an enemy of the king?"
Stung by her cold, cruel manner, but not wishing her to see it, Guy gave a snort of contempt, keeping his head turned away.
"Your country...your king. Do not attempt to disguise your lies with a cloak of honor. All that you do is for Robin Hood. You have lied and stolen on his behalf. You commit treason because of him."
His mind suddenly flashed with images of her and Robin of Locksley. He imagined her with her precious outlaw, wrapped in a passionate embrace. Seething with anger, imagining her taken in the dirt by a filthy criminal...and finding joy in it...he took a step closer, sneering. At last he stared at her, his eyes both fire and ice.
"Are you a whore for him, as well as being his associate in crime? Do you fornicate with an outlaw?"
Her reply came quickly, as though she had prepared it in advance. And she cut him with it.
"I would rather be called an outlaw's whore than to be cursed with the name of a man I despise. You are despicable, Guy of Gisborne."
Her hatred smote his soul. This woman, whom he had been so deeply in love with, was nothing more than a liar and a fraud. All this time she had been deceiving him, using him. And he wanted her to pay for her treachery. He wanted to strike her across the face...to see her cower before him in fear. He wanted her to feel the agony that he was feeling at that moment.
Instead, he turned and left her, slamming the cell door shut behind him. Blind with hurt and rage, he silently cursed her soul to hell.
Late that night, he sat in his castle chambers, staring into the fire. He knew he should have been in his own bedchamber at home. Several times, he'd attempted to rise and depart.
But he could not go.
He was besieged by thoughts of her. Her beauty had always been his weakness. Ebony-haired and ivory-skinned, with a pair of emerald green eyes that shined so brilliantly, she took his breath away. He had known many attractive women in his life, but they all paled in comparison to her. He had sworn to give her everything he had...his heart, his hand, and a share of all his possessions. He had wanted no other woman for his wife.
And in the end, she had blatantly rejected him for another man.
He wanted to hate her for it. He longed to rejoice in her punishment...to see not only that she paid the price for betraying him, but that the man she loved would know ultimate suffering.
Damn to hell every Locksley who has ever lived, he thought. One had taken his mother from him. The other had stolen his bride. He wanted Robin Hood to suffer for the rest of his days, and not just for his own crimes, but for the crimes of those who had come before him. An eternity of suffering in hell was not enough. He deserved to suffer while he lived.
He tried to imagine Hood weeping over the death of his beloved Marian. He wanted that man to feel pain like he'd never felt before. He wanted him crawling on the floor, wailing in misery. For a few moments, Guy felt a deep wave of satisfaction at the thought of his enemy in such torment.
But then he had a mental image of the morning to come. Marian would be bound at the wrists. Her beautiful dark hair would be chopped off as a symbol of humiliation. She would be blindfolded and forced to stand on a wooden stool just beneath the noose, which would be placed around her neck. Her last rights would be spoken by a priest. The signal would be given, and then the stool would be kicked out from under her. Her neck would probably not break. It was more likely that she would strangle to death, and the agonizing sounds of her struggle would not be quickly silenced.
He rushed to his feet. The thought of her enduring such a fate, traitor though she may have been, was too much to bear...
His boots pounded along the stones of the castle tower. His expression was dark, his mouth drawn in a deep frown as he made his way through the dimness, his path illuminated by the dancing light of a torch. As he neared the door to her room, he spoke silently to himself.
He would take her as his wife.
A noble lady she might have been, but she was a woman, and she had no rights. Her consent was not required in anything. He could take her, bound and gagged if necessary, and force her to kneel before a priest. Briwere would be angry at first when he learned of the idea, eager as he was to see Marian hanging from the gallows. But Guy knew that if he played the part of the angry man scorned...if he showed an air of cruelty in handling his unwilling bride...the sheriff might consent to it.
There was no other way to keep her from execution, and he did not care if she despised him. He would not allow her to hang. Not when he could save her.
As he neared the room, he paused, seeing her guard leaning back in a chair, sound asleep, his mouth wide open as he snored. Guy curled his lip, revolted, particularly by the remainder of the drink that was dribbling off the man's chin.
Disgusting, useless shit.
He went to him, and with an angry fist, punched the man in the jaw. The guard snorted and jumped, stumbling to his feet.
"Worthless bastard," Guy cursed him. "Open the door before I lodge a blade in your gut."
He held the torch aloft as the guard turned the key in the lock. Ducking into the dark room, he held the torch up as he searched the chamber. There she was on the narrow bed, lying on her stomach, her long waves of black hair splayed down her back. He wondered why she did not stir. Surely she did not sleep well on the night before her execution. Going to the bed, he kicked the side of it to shake her out of her slumber.
"Marian, wake up."
She lay still. Too still for his liking. He called her name again, feeling a nervous knot forming in his belly. Something was not right. He could sense it, and drawing closer, he reached down to shake her shoulder. His voice grew more demanding.
Nothing. No sound, no response. Shoving the torch into a holder on the wall, he reached down to grasp her shoulders, turning her over...and he saw before him her blank stare. Her green eyes, once so sparkling and beautiful, were dull and lifeless. He grasped her with both his hands, shaking her in a desperate attempt to see some sign of life. He shouted her name, the sound an agonized wail tearing out of his soul.
"Marian! Marian!" He held her in his arms, refusing to believe she was dead. When the door burst open and the guard rushed in, he shouted in agonized fury.
"Fetch a physician! Now!"
The guard only stared dumbly, as if he wondered what the concern was for a woman already condemned. Guy leapt to his feet and struck the man across the face.
"DO AS I SAY!"
With a petrified look, and a quick bow, the guard rushed out...and Guy turned back to Marian. With one arm he held her body. With the other he cradled her head, mad with the hope that somehow, she would respond when he called her name...
With the coming of the daylight, the cause of Marian's death was found in a corner of the room. It was there that a maid, sweeping out the now unoccupied chamber, found an empty vial. Poison had been her instrument of suicide.
Marian of Leaford was dead. And with her had gone all hope of redemption for the fearsome nobleman she had left behind.