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Ave, Maria, gratia plena; Dominus tecum ...
Marion rolled the ivory beads between her thumb and forefinger. The feel of the rosary in her hand brought back dim memories of a hundred Halstead devotions. She had not crossed that threshold in fifteen years. The chiming of the bell, the summons to prayers in the silence of the night, the sisterhood that lived and breathed and worked and sang as one -- now all but forgotten. She could not even call to mind the sound of the Prioresss voice, though she had heard it often enough. Chiding her for her lack of a true calling, her use of Halsteads serenity as an asylum from her own personal fears and sorrows. Sister -- what had her name been? -- Perpetua. Sister Petula, Marion thought ruefully. The impudent one.
And so she had walked out on that world, back to the only real sanctuary England offered. Sherwood Convent. There to become Sister Marion of the Sorrows. The one-time Christian nun had chosen as her prie-dieu the base of an ancient oak, whose boughs were already beginning to blaze with the first colors of fall. Its gnarled roots dug into her knees as she continued the soft recitation of the prayer.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus ..
She had made up her mind earlier in the day to walk back to the old camp site once more. Every year, around the time of the changing of the seasons, she had felt a compulsion to go back, to confront whatever demons might still lurk there. But always before, she had turned back. And she knew not what had made this year any different.
It was early September, in the year 1217. The child-king Henry III occupied the throne, crowned (some said) with his mothers bracelet. The poor were still poor, the wealthy continued to prosper. It mattered little now to Marion who ruled England, she had ceased to follow the vagaries of the court well before the death of King John of infamous memory. And on she had walked. The years had altered the forest in such a way that no ordinary traveler could have retraced a path. But instinct had brought Marion to the elm -- the one with the large knothole on the north side -- beside which the trail turned off the main road. For no more than a quarter of a mile, she had followed the setting sun, then headed south into the dense thicket. Every now and then, the cut stump of a low-hanging branch caught her eye. She knew that it had been Robins sword, Albion, that had cut the branch to allow easier passage for him and his band of outlaws. The trees wound had long since healed. Marions heart never had.
Pater noster, qui es in coelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum ...
Faced with the most difficult part of the journey -- cutting through the tangle of vines and thorn bushes that had grown up over the old path -- Marion had almost abandoned her quest. But the need to be with them again, even if only their ghosts, had driven her onwards. She had drawn her own short sword from its scabbard and hacked away at the foliage, remembering with each stroke that before she had been a nun, she had been an outlaw. And before that, the pampered daughter of a noble house. Few women of her time had lived as Marion of Leaford had lived -- few women had ever lived such a life.
Adveniat regnum tuum; fiat voluntas tua ...
Your will be done ..., Marion repeated in her own tongue. But her heart told her Gods will had had very little to do with her life. What had brought her to these woods for the first time, so long ago, was the will of an ancient Saxon forest god -- and the love of Robin of Loxley.
Her eyes were stinging with tears and sweat by the time she had cleared a new path. Stumbling out into the clearing, still holding the blade weakly in her hand, she had faced the site that had been her woodland home. Robin had first brought her here, then taken her as his mate with Hernes blessing. Those were the happy years. Then had come that fatal encounter on the hill; she and Much had escaped, but Robin had died, his body pierced by dozens of arrows.
Marion could see Robin now, sitting before the campfire, swapping jests with Will and John, answering Muchs unending questions, regarding the silent Nasir with brotherly affection, passing a cup of water to Tuck. She could not recall now what month it was that she had first met him. But the myriad of personal habits, the lines of his lips, the exact shade of green that had colored his eyes -- those would remain with her forever.
And then there was Robert. The earls son who had learned to mold himself into the image of The Hooded Man. How foolish Marion had been to think she could leave him for the cold gray walls of Halstead Priory. Hernes Son, in his second incarnation, had drawn her back like a magnet. And it wasnt only Robert, she reminded herself. It was all of them. The band had become her family, her husband and her brothers.
No breeze stirred deep in the forest on this morning. The birds had grown strangely silent, as if some avian deity had hushed them in preparation for a coming storm. The deer stood silently in their hidden groves, eyes and ears wary for the approach of peril. The smaller creatures had scurried to underground lairs, safe from the hooves of horses and the tramp of mailed feet. It had been like that on the last day of her life, as she had come to think of it. The day that Gisburne had found the camp. Gisburne. A face frozen forever in time.
Among the ghostly figures that hovered around the long-quenched campfire, a form had taken shape. Not a spectre, like the others, but a flesh and blood man. He wore a sky-blue cloak, trimmed in narrow gold braid. His feet were shod in fine leather, and at his waist hung a heavy sword, sheathed in an ornate scabbard. The hood of the cloak was pulled close about his shadowed face.
Robert! Marion had called out, her heart beating faster.
The mans head turned with a jerk at the sound of her voice. Blond hair fell across his forehead, and his hand reached instinctively for the sword.
Robert, Marion repeated, sobbing because she knew Robert was dead.
The man had stood, then, drawing himself up to his full height. For a long time, he had simply stared at her, recognition coming slowly into his cold blue eyes.
Lady Wolfshead, he had said at last.
Et dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris ...
Marion stumbled over the Latin words. As we forgive those who trespass against us, she said. On the crucifix that dangled from the end of the beads, a finely carved Christ stoically endured his death on the cross. She ran her thumb over the tiny nailed hands and feet, wondering how the Mother of God had forgiven the Romans for the murder of her son. Had she? Scripture did not say.
The crucifix had made an imprint on the flesh of her thumb, so tightly she had pressed against it. There had been no forgiving the man who had stood before her in the forest a few short hours ago.
She had not been able to call him by his name; not the old name that she had known him by, and certainly not the name and title he now used .... Guy, Earl of Huntingdon. Why? had been all she could ask. Why was he here? Why had fate brought him back to this place at the precise moment of Marions arrival, if not to torture her further with visions of their last encounter there?
And, misinterpreting her question, Gisburne had answered, Because they were outlaws.
Because they were outlaws, they had died. All but Tuck and Marion. Will had been the first to fall. His sword arm useless after taking a bolt from a soldiers crossbow, he had used his body to shield Roberts back. But to no avail. There were too many of them. Three Normans had converged on Robert, and even Albion could not save him. Much never had a chance. Nasir had moved immediately to protect the unarmed Marion, but though he had killed half a dozen of the attackers, two swords could not stand against four, then six. Marion had stood there, her back pressed against a tree, waiting for her own death, praying it would come soon. And the soldiers had simply turned and walked away .... leaving her to bury the dead, and to tend Tucks wounds. Why God had spared him, Marion did not know. It would have been more merciful to have let him die with the others, rather than suffer a lingering and painful death from fever.
Tuck had forgiven all, but then Tuck was Gods own. Vengeance is mine, the Lord says, he had repeated to her over and over again in the days following the ambush. Gisburne will burn in hell.
Gisburne had claimed the Earldom of Huntingdon, his right to the title backed by a forged document bearing Lady Margaret of Gisburnes sworn signature. Gisburne had used his position ruthlessly to destroy all who stood in his way, including his former employer, the Sheriff of Nottingham. Gisburne was worth a kings ransom in gold.
Marion had slowly approached the cloaked figure, allowing her gaze to meet his own icy stare.
Does he haunt your dreams, Guy? shed asked. Does the ghost of your murdered brother come to you in the night and disturb your sleep?
Youre mad, Lady Wolfshead. Thats what they say. Look at you, the daughter of an earl, wandering the forest looking like some filthy peasant! Gods blood, woman! Dont you ever wash anymore? And your bodice is torn, did you know that? I am looking even now at your revealed breasts. Have you no decency?
Does he haunt your dreams, Gisburne? she had screamed at the figure.
The Earl regarded her as he would a deranged beggar on the streets of Nottingham, his face devoid of expression. He took a moment to finger the gold crucifix set with rubies and pearls that hung from a heavy chain about his neck. No, Lady Wolfshead, hed said flatly. He doesnt.
And then Marion had brought her short sword up, sharply and suddenly, and plunged it into the mans heart.
She had taken the sword, of course; for it did not belong to the lineage of Huntingdon, but to the succession of forest outlaws who all took the name of Robin i the Hood.
Albion now rested against the trunk of the oak. In one hand, Marion held the rosary, its beads all told. And in the other, her sword, still stained with the blood of the false Earl of Huntingdon.
Thou shalt not kill, the voice of dead Tuck reminded her.
He killed you, Tuck. And Robert, and poor Much. All of you.
Vengeance is the Lords. Gisburne will burn in hell.
If there is a hell, I have just sent him there, Tuck.
Marion pressed her body against the cool broad trunk of the oak. The rosary fell from her fingers onto the forest floor, and beside it, the bloody sword.
Pater Noster, qui es ... in silva. Father!
Marion felt her arms uplifted, a new strength and vitality returning to her haggard frame. Her hair no longer felt matted and tangled, but seemed to shoot forth from its roots like vines seeking the sun. Her flesh quivered and trembled under its new sheathe of tender bark. She felt her feet grope downwards into the rich soil of the forest floor, toes spreading in tentacle-like formations in search of moisture.
One with you, let me be one with you, she breathed, as her lips grew stiff and her eyes closed forever on the silent forest scene. Herne.
There was none to witness the transformation, the mutation of auburn locks into leaves of yellow-green and gold, the evolution of mortal flesh into plant fibre, or the last vestige of ecstasy on the features of a human face before it was forever hidden within the confines of a trees trunk. Excepting only a lone stag, who also saw an ancient sword enfolded to what had once been a womans bosom, now hidden from mans eyes by a garb of rough bark. Albion would be held by the forest itself until Hernes Son comes again.
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©1996 by Georgia Fleming