A single shaft of pale lavender light fell through the narrow slit in the abbey wall striking the young woman who knelt before the altar like a sword blade. It struck her trembling fingers and her pale lips which moved fervently in prayer. A lock of tangled red curls crept defiantly from beneath the novice’s headpiece to tickle her right cheek, but she ignored it— just as she continued to ignore the pain in her heart. Denying the tears that threatened to fall, she steadfastly turned her thoughts to the statue before her, to the woman of sorrow who interceded for those who came here to honor her and do good work for her son.
“Mary, mother of God,” Marion whispered, “give me strength.” She glanced at the open window and knew even now he would be waiting in Wickham for her. Hoping she would come. Even though she had told him she would never be back.
“Give me strength....”
“What is it you pray for, child?”
Marion gasped and pivoted. She had thought she was alone. In the shadows that veiled the small room a woman lingered, her features cast into darkness by the flickering candlelight. When she took a step forward, Marion could see she was dressed as a nun. “Excuse me?” she said as she rose to her feet.
The woman came to stand close by and met her puzzled gaze. She was, perhaps forty-five, maybe fifty years old. Her skin was darker than was common for an Englishwoman; her hair a silvered black. She had a kind face, but it was her eyes that entrapped Marion—eyes that had seen great pain and suffered loss, and yet were filled with a deep well-grounded joy.
She couldn’t remember ever having seen her before at Halstead Abbey.
“What is it you pray for?" the woman asked again. "You ask for strength... For what?”
Marion frowned. “You heard me?”
The woman nodded. “Even if I had not, it is written on your face.”
Marion's bowed her copper head. She glanced at the rosary entwined in her fingers. “I have lost.... I’ve left...” She looked up and her eyes went to the narrow window again. “I have come here to begin a new life, and I am afraid I haven’t the strength to deny everything I left behind. I was asking the blessed Virgin....”
“That takes no strength.” The woman’s eyes were masked by her veil, but there was a hint of disapproval in her tone.
“It takes no courage to run. Cowards do it all the time.”
“What? Are you—?”
The woman turned away from her and faced the altar. “What is it made you come here? Did you come out of devotion? Out of love of our Christ?” She stared at the crucifix before her. “Or were you running from the world?”
“I meant to be a nun when I was younger,” Marion began. “I was to be at Kirklie’s abbey....”
“Was?” The dark woman turned to look at her. “Meant?”
Marion huffed, slightly exasperated. “Yes, was. And meant.”
“But never did....”
Marion’s eyes brimmed with tears. She swallowed and twisted the beads in her hand. “I met someone.”
“And he is dead.”
She frowned again. “Yes. How did you know?”
“There are many things that drive young and beautiful women to the service of Christ. Devotion is one of them, but most often that comes in time. Most often they are fleeing a man, or fleeing his memory.”
Marion held her head up. “Nothing is forgotten. I do not fly from the memory.”
“No, you are different.” The woman smiled gently and stepped closer, laying her hand on her cheek. “You fly from life.”
“I....” the girl stuttered. “What do you mean? It is death.....”
“You are afraid of?” She shook her head. “No, it is life.” The small dark woman walked to the window and gazed through the narrow slit, looking on the rolling green hills which the descending light was painting a rose-tinted gold. “Someone waits for you. Do they not?” She looked back. “Another?”
“It’s not that simple. What he does is dangerous....”
“Living is dangerous.”
“May I tell you a story?”
The woman approached her and taking her hand, drew Marion to one of the pews. She noticed as she did that the nun's hands were callused as if she had worked hard all of her life. Perhaps she was the herbalist here, or had labored in the fields as a child. Her skin was tan. “Go ahead,” Marion said hesitantly.
“I will tell you of my son. He was my eldest.” The woman met Marion’s eyes and smiled. “There was no one like him. He was true, constant and deeply devoted. God walked with him each and everyday of his life. But that did not mean his life was easy. In time, men came to hate him and to revile him, and finally, they killed him.”
“Oh, no. I am so sorry.”
The woman nodded her head. “So was I. But he was not. He died so others might live. He died true to himself. Did your young man die this way?”
Marion’s eyes closed and she saw the hill again. Heard the horses and felt the arrows fly. She shuddered. “He lived his life so others could be free. And died that way. He saved my life.”
“And the one who waits?”
Marion sighed. “He is the same.”
“You would not love him were he not.”
Marion stood and began to pace. “But I cannot stand it! I cannot do this again! I cannot be there to watch him die! I already thought him dead once. I told him my heart was broken. It cannot be the same again! It can’t!”
“Child! Child.” The woman called to her. She did not rise but troubled gaze and held it. “You are right.”
Marion stopped dead. “I ...what? I’m right?”
“Your heart cannot be the same again. Nor would you want it to be. But a thing mended can have a strength which it did not possess before. Take a twig. It is whole. But bend it and it breaks.” The nun smiled as she stood. “But strengthen it with another, bind it with leather thongs, wrap it tight, and it will stand.”
“I cannot bear to lose him. I cannot be there. You can’t know....” Her rich hazel eyes pleaded with her. “You can’t....”
“I watched my son die,” the woman said quickly. “As a criminal. With men laughing and jibing and tossing bones to see who would have his clothes. I do know. But I also know that hiding from the world, from love will not save you.”
Marion sniffed once, and then proclaimed, “I am happy here.”
“Are you, child?” The woman smiled again. “What is it you just said?”
“A moment ago. What is it you cannot bear?”
“What?” Marion thought back. “Oh, I cannot bear to lose him....”
The woman held her eyes. She stepped up and touched her heart. “Have you not already done so?”
“Let go, child. Let him go. Only then can you live with him and love him and be his wife. Live for today and carry hope for the morrow when you will meet again. Don’t cloister yourself here to wither in the dark like a May flower without light becoming old and hollow.”
“A May flower....” Marion stopped to look at the nun. She had a slight accent and her cast was foreign. She was certain she had never seen her before. “Who are you?”
The woman pulled the covering on her head tight about her throat and headed for the door. “You may call me Mary.” She stopped at the threshold and turned to look at her again. “Leave this place, child, and choose to live.”
Marion knelt in the small chapel, the tears streaming down her cheeks. She had no idea how much time had passed, but one of the sisters had come to renew the candles that burned without fail in the chamber.
“Sister,” Marion said as she stood.
“Yes. Marion, are you all right?”
She shook her head. “No. I have much to think about. Can you tell me where I will find sister Mary?”
The woman trimmed a wick and glanced at her. “There are several here by that name.”
“This one is dark. Her hair gray and black. She has hands that have seen much toil.”
The sister thought a moment. Then she shook her head. “There are none here who fit that description. Sister Mary Margaret is blond, and sister Mary Elizabeth is very old....”
As the woman began a litany of the nuns who had chosen Mary for their assumed name, Marion froze. Her eyes went to the altar and she gasped. The nun had spoken of her son who died for others, who had his clothes bartered for and died a criminal.... Marion began to shake. She looked at the Abbey sister who was speaking - old before her time, swaddled in dark robes that robbed her of her identity.
Marion gazed about the room and suddenly realized coming to this place had been a mistake. A terrible mistake.
One she would regret for the remainder of her life.
Laying the rosary on the altar Marion hastily shed the garments she had taken up only the day before, dropping them on the floor before the startled eyes of her former sister. Tossing her voluminous copper hair free, she laughed.
“I need my other clothes. I am going back. Tell the reverend mother for me.”
“Tell her what?” the sister asked.
“Tell her, I have found the strength to live.”
“Where’s he gone, you think?” Will Scarlet asked his giant friend, Little John.
“I don’t know, Will," John shrugged. "Off into the forest. Maybe to find Herne.”
As Will gazed at the dark trees which surrounded Wickham, he kicked the wooden stool that rested before him and knocked it over. It still held a basket of breads intended for the wedding feast. “Damn that girl!”
“Why’d she have to agree to marry him and then go all mad on him like that? She’s broke his heart.”
“Marion is strong. She’s been through more than the rest of us.”
“What? We didn’t love him? We didn’t love Robin?” Will Scarlet’s eyes narrowed and his voice dropped, masking the tears that choked it. “We didn’t lose him as well? And Robert? Would you not care if he died?”
“You know I would...”
“But we go on.”
“We weren’t married to him... to either of them.”
“Oh yeah?” Will shook his head violently, striking out against the table with his fist. “We are married to each other. All of us. And Marion deserted. She broke the contract and left us. She’s a coward.”
“Will!” Little John took a step toward him, his hand raised in anger. “You’re....”
Both men pivoted. Only one of their own band could have snuck up on them so quietly. Marion stood before them, her copper hair catching the last flame of the sun as it died and sank beneath the trees. She was dressed as she always had been in Sherwood in skins and had her bow clasped in her hands.
“What would you care?" Will all but shouted. "You left him with a broken heart, you know that? You...”
“Will! Shut up!”
Marion walked up to the big man and laid her hand on his arm. “John, where is he?”
The giant shook his tousled head. “We don’t know. After he came back here from the abbey....” Little John looked away from her. “He disappeared into the wood. We haven’t seen him since.”
“And the others?”
“Gone home to Sherwood," he answered. “We were looking for him. But you know Robin. If he doesn’t want to be found...”
She nodded. “I am going to find him.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“No.” She shook her head. “No, John. I must go alone.”
“It isn’t safe.”
She glanced at Will Scarlet where he stood seething. His hands were clasped tight across his breast and he was biting his lip, as if that action was necessary to bridle his tongue. “I know. I still need to go alone." She stepped away from the big man and faced Scarlet. "Will,” she said, addressing him.
“Yes,” he answered sullenly.
She held his gaze. “You called me a coward just now.”
“I’m not anymore.”
Will shook his head. “Just because you’re willing to go running off in to the forest alone, doesn’t mean....”
“No, it doesn’t. You say Robin’s heart was broken.”
“Yes.” Will's look was wary. "What about it?"
“Well, so was mine.” Marion held up her hand to stop his reply. “But someone....” Marion laughed and shook her head, ‘Someone very wise told me today that hearts once mended can be twice as strong. Perhaps in binding ours together, we can build something that will last.”
Will’s head went down. He avoided looking at her.
“Robin can’t promise you he won’t ever die.”
She closed her eyes and thought of her first husband, of the love she had for him and the joy they had shared. Then she thought of Robert, his successor, the new ‘Robin’ and smiled. “I am not willing to let him die now.”
“What?” It was Will. “What do you mean? Is he in danger? Have you come to warn....”
“No,” she smiled sadly. “No. I only mean that if I refuse to love him now, I have let him die in my heart already. I told someone today I could not bear to lose him, and I realized I meant it.”
She lifted up on tiptoe and kissed Little John on the cheek, then she turned to Will and did the same --though he squirmed and blushed like a little boy.
“Pray that I find him.”
“And if you don’t....” Will’s eyes held within them all of the possibilities, and the reality of the insufferable loss he had known.
Marion drew a deep breath. “Then I will come back and we will go to Sherwood, and we shall go on.”
The young man formerly known as Robert of Huntington lay on the forest floor, his hand to his shoulder. He was breathing hard and had become somewhat light-headed. The sheriff’s man lay dead on the ground before him, the handle of Albion still protruding from his body. It had been a stupid mistake. He hadn’t been paying attention. The waning light had left the forested area dim and he had been thinking of Marion and he hadn’t seen or heard the man until it had been too late. Now he had a gash in his shoulder and was bleeding. It wasn’t life-threatening but it was certainly enough to slow him down, and if this man was here, the odds were good that more were to follow. Gingerly Robin sat up and grasped the handle of his sword and pulled it free of the dead man's body. Using Albion almost as a cane, he rose to his feet and then leaned against a nearby tree. The wound was positioned so that it was nearly impossible for him to bind it himself, but he needed to staunch the flow. Casting an eye about the grassy floor, Robin located some moss and tucked it inside his jerkin.
His fingers came away a bloody red.
Shaking his head Robin freed his eyes from the white wave that brushed them, and began to stumble from tree to tree. Wickham was about four hours back and there would be no help short of there. He bit his lip and continued to lean on Albion and struggled forward, watching as the shadows shifted from lavender to purple and finally to a dead black. The moon climbed high above the trees and the stars began to glisten, casting a pale light that trickled through the trees and illuminated his way.
As Robin walked he thought constantly of the woman he loved. He had tried not to. He had known how hard it would be for Marion. To dare to love again. He hadn’t wanted to hurt her. But the heart had no such scruples. He couldn’t imagine the pain she had felt when she had found Gulnar’s golem in his clothes, dead, at the ring of the nine sisters. Well, that wasn’t quite right. He didn’t have to imagine it. He knew.
Marion was dead to him now.
A sudden noise brought him to a halt and he shifted back, blending into the whispering trees. Robin looked out across the silvery glade and saw something moving. Far in the distance, there was a figure, pale, wavering like a fairy or sprite.
With red hair.
Robin closed his eyes and then opened them to look again. Was it her? What would she be doing here? Or was it some sylvan figure come to lure him out of hiding, to leave him open to his enemies? He gripped his sword and the action sent pain shooting through his wounded shoulder. He would circle around and....
A glint of metal warned him almost too late that he had already been found.
Robin brought his sword up in the pale light and fended off a blow, crying out as the weight of the other man’s weapon echoed through flesh and bone. He watched as the sprite turned its head his way and then lift a bow.
Robin parried a second blow that brought him to his knees. He glanced about quickly, but saw only the one man. There must have been a pair -- most likely out looking for poachers. He grunted and lifted his other hand to take hold of Albion like a broadsword just as the man's blade brushed his arm and left a thin trail of blood.
Then, a moment later, the man gasped and reared back. The head of an arrow was thrust through his heavy leather jerkin. The man's hands went to it even as a look of surprise registered on his Norman face, and he fell. Robin in the Hood gazed at the man's body, and then up at the redheaded woman who had appeared beside him. She stood panting, breathing hard, and glowing with triumph like a maiden-warrior of old. As he watched the cold light of the stars struck her, painting her copper hair bronze and making her skin appear white as snow.
Robin smiled at her and reached for her hand as the world went black.
Blue eyes blinked against the growing dawn. Robin moaned and tried to roll over, but a pair of firm hands stopped him. Opening his eyes, he looked up to find a familiar freckled face with mounds of red hair cascading about it. The last time he had seen Marion that coppery hair had been secured within a nun’s habit. He had thought perhaps her flowing locks had been shorn. But here she was, gleaming like the sun newly risen.
“Marion?” he whispered.
She smiled and sat back on her heels. “So you have decided to rejoin the world as well?”
Marion took his arm and helped him to shift so he sat with his back against a rough tree trunk and watched as he took a deep breath and drank in the sight of her -- somewhat warily. She had found Robin lying next to the body of the man she had killed, his right side drenched in blood. For a moment, she had panicked, thinking she might have lost him so soon, but then a sort of peace had settled over her and she had known it would be all right. Now was not the time. Now was the time for mending.
She reached out to run a hand through his thick blond hair. He was like her Robin in many ways, but also so unalike. And he seemed so young. Younger far than she, who had aged a thousand years in two. Marion smiled but said nothing.
“What are you thinking? he asked a moment later.
“That Herne must have been mad, she laughed.”
His thick blond brows met in the middle. “I don’t understand. Why are you here? I thought....”
Marion laid her finger on his lips and then kissed them quick. “Do you still want to marry me?”
Robin took a deep breath and shifted his sore shoulder. She had packed it with the proper grasses and bound the wound and he was already feeling better. He stared at her. The sunlight was striking her hair, caressing the shoulders of her dress and playing at the bits of gold that bound the cloth together so they flashed like fairies in flight. He glanced down and then raised his blue eyes to meet hers again. “I want you.”
She tossed her head and shifted, opening her mouth to answer.
Robin caught her with his left hand and pulled her close before she could and breathed close to her ear, “No words.”
Little John and Will Scarlet were moving through the trees. They had waited until dawn and then, when Marion and Robin had not appeared, set out to look for them. Their hearts were heavy. They could think of no reason for the pairs continued absence that didn’t spell trouble. Robin had been wounded or killed. Marion was tending him or had run away.
Something was wrong.
Unexpectedly John stumbled. He looked down and found the body of a man half-buried in the tall grasses beside a slender thread of a stream. It was one of the Sheriff’s men.
“I told you!” Will exclaimed.
“But he’s dead. That means Robin won. There’s an arrow through him.”
Will shook his head. “Marion had the bow. Remember?”
“That’s right.” Little John stood and surveyed the land. There was a hill beyond the stream. He could just make out the shadow of a cave in its side. “There’s a cave, Will. Maybe they would have....”
“It’s worth a look. Come on.”
Hastening forward they reached the dark cave in a few moments. The mid-morning light fell gently on two sleeping figures curled close on one side. A heavy cape was draped across them both. Marion lay in the circle of Robin’s arms.
Little John blushed and turned about. He took a few steps from the cave and then turned back to look at Will Scarlet who was shaking his head.
“What? What is it?" John asked.
“It’s a good thing we already drank the wine," Will said with a grin. "I think we missed the wedding.”
Marion stirred. She opened her eyes and stared at the man beside her, at her husband. She lay her hand on his bandaged shoulder and thought again of the small woman who had visited her. God was watching, whatever name he wore; that of Herne or of the broken man on the cross who once mended, rose with renewed power and strength.
‘Let him go,’ Mary had said.
Marion smiled. She had let go...
And was home at last.