PRELUDE

 

FIRE.

Sculpting shadows in the trees. Singeing a dour, angry glow across the horizon. Sparking into a vast night sky, falling stars and embers. Setting shimmers of copper and indigo into the waters of a green-shrouded lake, old when his people were young….

Fire kindles the heat of thaw and change and passion. It is a desert simmering in his heart, with mizmar drone and darbuk beating. It is what he sees when he looks in the mirror.

Even there, you were mine. Si’la al amar, the fire-haired djinn of the forest….

Ice is his shield, but fire is what he covets. Fire is what he fears. What he surely will find when death finally demands its due and spins him back into Hell….

Back? Nay, this is Hell.

It slaps his sunburned face with all the molten power of a stoked forge, grinds and gristles in lungs laboring for breath. It sears through the thin-worn soles of his boots, heats the metal of his sword pommel into a scorch against his hip, dries the blood leaking onto his shoulder into a hard, thick crust….

Guy stumbles, nearly drops his burden. With a growl and grit of his teeth, he hangs on. The small waha is close, so close….

“Nearly there,” he murmurs, and the weight slung across his back shifts as Much utters a faint groan.

Ahead, a small well and a patch of green in the unforgiving sun. Behind, the bodies of two good horses and five goodly skilled Saracen soldiers. The ambush had been clever, but not clever enough.

They reach the waha, pitching stunned and grateful into the sparse shade. But not for long. Guy forces quivering, exhausted limbs into movement. Much is sorely wounded and needs care.

The well is small; the water is sweet, and cool. Much gulps it down and asks for more, relaxing in Guy’s hold. His pain-clouded gaze wanders past Guy’s shoulder, sharpens with acute warning.

Guy wastes no time in asking; the searing-hot pommel of his knife fits to his hand as he whirls and strikes, swift as a desert viper and just as venomous. The attacker is bowled over. A shout: his name.

Only it is not his name, not his name, not any more.

“Gamelyn, wait! Gam—?”

And the name chokes as he grinds hard fingers into their attacker’s windpipe. He knows the voice—knows it—but it cannot be! It is a lie, all of it a lie to weaken him, so he brings the lethal curve of knife across the pale throat, teeth bared for the kill….

Gamelyn.

It is a shiver-bolt of heat lightning, with enough power to chase the sun away and fill his eyes with darkness.

Rhyddau! the voice hisses, a tangle of unfamiliarity merging into the familiar. Release it. Now.

Behind those words implodes pain and bliss and pain again, as if a hand sinks into and then twists at the brain matter within his skull. With a huge gasp and shudder….

 

GAMELYN WOKE.

He was atop Robyn, snarling-silent. The oasis—indeed, the desert and the sunlight—all were gone. Gamelyn had one hand shoved white-knuckled into Robyn’s shoulder, and the other held his quillion dagger to Robyn’s throat.

The dagger twitched. A thin line of scarlet gathered beneath the bright edge, then trickled down into a thick, glistening bead, to quiver upon ebon curls.

Breath escaping in a tiny groan, Gamelyn started upward. Robyn’s hand darted out, snarled in his hair, and stayed him. Awareness expanded, then; a click of tumblers in a costly lock, instinctive tally made—and nigh too late—of heat and menace. Of the night, and shadows surrounding, feral. Waiting.

Something flitted through those shadows: the gleam of steel half-drawn at Gilbert’s belt, as if he truly didn’t want to use it—but would. Little Tess growling—growling!—on his shoulder, ready to launch in ferret defense of her favorite human perch: Robyn.

Robyn, whose throat pulsed beneath Gamelyn’s fingers and against his knife. Whose other hand was down his braies—and not for anything resembling amorous play. Nay, those fingers wrapped brutal-tight in the thin braid girdled around Gamelyn’s hips. That had shocked him awake, was perhaps how he’d not felt Will’s thick fingers in his hair, ready to wrench his head back for Arthur’s raised and ready axe. John crouched beneath it, weaponless… ah, but John did have a weapon, and Gamelyn was damned sure he knew how to use it. Hand splayed at the small of Gamelyn’s back, John too had hold of the braided cord: Gamelyn’s measure—marked with blood, seed, and sweat—and a true weapon in the hands of one with the magic. These two could indeed stop him with it. Could likely kill him with it.

Truly a standoff to impress any war-hardened Templar.

Ebony eyes bored upward into Gamelyn’s. Then Robyn said, very soft, “Another bad one, aye?”

 

- I -

 

Deep in the Shire Wode

Waxing of Winter Solstice, 1194 ACE

BEFORE THE dawn, Marion had—with David and the vigilant shadow of Much—trod deep into the fens for some late-season additions to her medicinal kit. They’d left a banked hearth and a peaceful, fur-buried lot of sleeping outlaws behind.

They returned to wide-awake tension, unfed and silent. Robyn was trying—and mostly failing—to rescue a boiled-over pot of porridge. David’s ferret, Tess, rode Robyn’s shoulder, scolding all the while. Gilbert hovered behind Robyn, as if making to help despite the likelihood of getting smacked for his pains. Will and Arthur sat by the fire—noticeably out of range—glaring at Gamelyn, who just as obviously took no notice. He was staring into space and leaning against a rock as if someone—likely Robyn—had propped him there and he’d not bothered to shift himself since.

Without a word, Marion marched over and smacked her brother’s pate, careful to avoid Tess. Ignoring his offended yelp, she plumped herself down beside the hearth and rescued the mess Robyn had made of the porridge. Then, with a meaningful glance at Gamelyn, Marion set herself to heating a brew she’d of late had all too much reason to use.

Thankfully, this time it had only taken a glare and an insistent tip of the drinking horn toward Gamelyn’s mouth to make him surrender. Marion had felt the tiny tremor in his fingers, brushing hers as he’d taken the small horn—though, within the next moment, he’d forced them still.

Now it was well into afternoon. Rain had come and gone, leaving its chill behind but no longer tapping and rolling at the tarpaulin stretched taut overhead. Marion sat by the fire, waterproofing her boots and enjoying that roof of well-oiled deer hides. It was lovely, quiet. The lads had gone hunting, thank the Lady. All except Much, over by a more permanent and well-concealed little shed, busily splitting wood with a great mother of an axe, and David—Tess restored to his shoulder—making an audible, if invisible, periphery to gather more wood, as well as….

“God.” A rusty growl. “What is in that brew you give me?”

Marion smiled and didn’t stop oiling her boots. Sliding her eyes sideways, she took in Gamelyn, whose copper hair spilled, lank and untidy, over his face. From beneath that, a glint of green caught the light as he tilted his head, eyes seeking hers.

Pushing up from his facedown sprawl beneath woolens and furs, Gamelyn steadied himself on his forearms for a moment. This made him grimace and settle back onto his bent knees with an unthinking reach to his ribs; he flicked a furtive glance toward Marion as he aborted the gesture. But she had seen and, worse, he knew it. With another growl, this one soft and resigned, Gamelyn heaved himself upright—carefully. Clad in nothing but braies, he tottered off into the trees, breath trailing in hanks of mist.

Marion shivered and put her stockinged toes closer to the hearth. Winter might be late in coming this year, but it was coming, if this chill and wet bore any clue. It was a constant marvel to her, how Gamelyn and Robyn both didn’t seem to feel the cold until they were turning blue.

Much left off splitting green wood—to follow Gamelyn, Marion guessed. Instead, Much merely glanced after his master’s wake, then unearthed several substantial dry splits from the shed’s back corner, brought them over. Sparks flew as he tossed the wood onto coals, where it simmered, then leapt and licked into flames.

“I can do that,” Marion protested.

“Aye,” Much acknowledged and kept on with it.

Marion smiled again, put her toes closer, and kept up her oiling. “I’ve been lazy, left this too long. Serves me right if me toes freeze whilst I catch up. Not that I’d know ’twere cold by the looks of you lads. Gamelyn canna be arsed with a tunic, and you’re down to nowt but undertunic and hose.”

“We’ve been blessed with mild weather ’til now,” he demurred. “An’ wood-work’s warming, methinks.”

“Mm. Methinks life ent fair. Whilst we women shiver, you menfolk have your own built-in heating rods.”

Much couldn’t stop a snort, but his cheeks darkened and he dipped his chin, extra attentive to placing a few more splits on the fire, just so.

He was altogether fine-looking—strapping and sturdy, just the way she liked, though she did prefer a full head of hair on a man. Much seemed to follow Templar custom more than Gamelyn, there. But as if to make up for it, Much’s dark beard lay longer and thicker, tending to curl. Marion inched her toes even closer and huddled into her cloak, kept working—and looking. The two-finger scar tracing from Much’s left temple to jaw didn’t mar his looks, only the beard, sparse in the scar’s wake. His neck and arms were brown and corded beneath the rolled-up sleeves, and the thin linen clung to the small of his back, damp with sweat, and….

And here she was, nerves humming from neck to knees, gawping like a bairn hoping to steal a taste of sweet. With a rueful smile, Marion reattended her oily hands and boots and did not let herself imagine what that oil would look like on his bare chest.

Not much, anyway, and she snorted softly to herself at the pun.

It had been too long since she’d had a man, that was all. Not that she hadn’t found herself amongst an abundance of them—and one in particular eager to do her service.

Will.

Marion frowned, fingers stilling at her work. She peered at the fire but did not see it.

Abundance had its own problems—more subtle, but there all the same. Marion recognized both her awkward position and her good fortune. A lone woman, surrounded by men—good Heathens all, and respectful—but the Heathen world was being undercut, and the old morals of woman-right and choice were being forgotten. She’d be in some straits without her brother’s straightforward code of Heathen customs. Some called them “ruthless,” but Marion would have added “chivalrous,” even if Robyn would have laughed and said chivalry was a rich man’s luxury. Nevertheless, now Marion was uncertain as to how far to test that code. She was well aware of what should happen without it, in any other place, with any other people.

The Christians were altogether proud of their subjugation of their women, of the way they’d tamed their goddess into an untouched virgin on an unreachable pedestal. Their women fled to convents, for protection and what power they could find. A poor choice, to Marion’s mind… yet how was she any different? Here she sat, finally back amongst her kind with memories all her own again—yet cloaked in celibacy as if she had remained in convent walls. Even Gamelyn, who’d both flourished and suffered beneath the proscriptions of his Christian upbringing, gave her a distant respect that made her want to snog him senseless just to see his expression.

Mayhap she should set up shop at the old temple stones nigh to Barrow Mere, like her mam had said they did in the old times, and take a man every other fortnight in sacrifice to the goddess’s ways. That should set everyone, including herself, to some satisfaction. She smirked, but it started to fade.

Everyone, that was, except Will.

“You’ve a nice smile. We ent seen it enough, of late.”

Marion blinked and looked up to see Much across the hearth, bent over and tending it into a cheery blaze. Wiping the sweat from his upper lip, he smiled back. But as their eyes met they held, chance meeting by firelight, thinking to expand into distinct possibility….

It was Marion’s lot, this time, to flush and turn sudden attention to her work.

Her choice, here, should she lie with anyone. Her choice.

But neither was she stupid. Robyn thought to set the Old Ways back aflame, hot and strong… but the new ways were insidious, taking advantage of human frailties with a startling cunning. For Marion to stand anywhere other than upon a pedestal of older sister and avatar of a remote and fierce Lady Huntress was to court trouble. And they’d trouble enough for twenty at present—and just as tied to sex and claiming. Robyn Hood’s band of outlaws roiled with change. A former adversary bided amongst them, openly courting their leader.

Pack rights had shifted amongst these wolves, and none of them knew quite how to manage.

And she was being ridiculous! Daft and quivery as any wilting damsel in a silly courtly romance. Gratitude, it was, nowt more and that being plenty; she should be grateful to both Much and Gamelyn, freeing her from Nottingham’s gaol by stealth and arms. But where with Gamelyn the ability to dismiss any lingering appreciation was a familiar and effortless habit…

With Much, it was not so easy.

So Marion focused on another topic. “What was it like?”

Much didn’t answer right away; she tilted her head, found him frowning, which smoothed as he noted her gaze upon him.

“Much?”

“What were what like?” he answered, slow.

“Brother Dolfin said it. War is a horrible thing. Is he right?”

Much ruminated on the fire. “‘Terrible’ don’t begin to describe it.” He gave a savage poke to the flames, blue eyes lit nigh yellow as sparks flew. “But when it’s all you know?”

“Surely it canna be all you know,” Marion said, muted.

“Mm.” Another poke, somewhat gentler. “A soldier’s ways’re all has mattered since I first came up t’wick hill—”

“T’wick hill?”

“Aye, and I forget.” Much’s grin was sudden and rueful apology. “’Tis what locals have allus called Blyth Castle. Since me great-granddad were a wean and they raised it.”

Marion considered this. “How old were you, then? When you came to a soldier’s ways? Up t’wick hill.”

“Not sure.” Another laconic shrug. “Old enough to sass me da, not old enough to know he were makin’ sense. Likely eleven ’r twelve, when all lads need be nailed in a barrel and fed through a bunghole. Couple of years after, they assigned me to Himself.”

“Himself,” Marion murmured, scrutinizing her boots. A dry spot begged oil; she dipped her hands in the tallow and started rubbing. “Gamelyn wanted to be a monk.”

“He is, ent he?”

“You tell me,” she replied, soft. “He wanted to be a scholar, not a soldier.”

“Well, he carries enough books, at that. Even on campaign.” Much shook his head, sent sparks with another jab at the fire. “Him and Master Hubert both.”

“At least he had them. But, still….” As the flames licked upward, she bent forward, closing her eyes against the heat on her cheeks.

“Still?” Much prompted.

“Still,” Marion repeated, slow, and opened her eyes to stare at the coppery blaze. Ventured, still careful, “I think some days Gamelyn doesn’t know where he is.”

Much was still watching her; she could feel his gaze, burning her cheeks no less than the fire. As he turned back to repair the damage his injudicious poking had done, she could all but hear the shrug in his voice. “He knows where he is, aye, an’ well enough.”

Marion snuck a glance. Much was now looking the way Gamelyn had gone, a frown twisting his brow. Curious, she waited. Much had none of Robyn’s quicksilver nor Gamelyn’s detachment, but Marion had come, over the past moon’s waxing, to appreciate his deft prudence. She was fairly sure he’d not finished.

And he hadn’t, though his next comment was audible only to her: warning, and lament. “I think he ent sure who he is no more.”