Blood was pink in clear water. As he squeezed the rag, hands closing round it as if it was an outlaw's throat, the water turned darker. Pink became red. It swirled and deepened, until even his hands were barely visible, lost in the blood.
"Strange, isn't it?" a voice said from behind him. The sheriff's shadow fell over the pail, darkening Guy's hands still further. "Blood is all that keeps a man together. It is such a simple thing to end a life. A thrust of the sword, a twist of the knife, the twang of a bow-string, and there he is… gone."
It had been the twist of a knife, this time. A dagger in the back, and blood falling into the straw. Afterwards, he had wiped the dagger clean, and scoured his hands with this rag. A day later, the dead man's blood was flowing all over again, seeping into the water. He was not an imaginative man, but he supposed that poets and church men would see meaning in that.
"Of course," the sheriff continued, "there are those who say that only God can decide when a man's life comes to a close, but you and I know differently, do we not, Sir Guy? That is why we understand each other. Or rather…" His voice came closer, a hiss in Guy's ear. "I understand you. I doubt you have the brains to understand me."
Guy squeezed out the bloody water from the rag, wringing it out until it was as dry as it could be. His knuckles were white. The rest of his hands were still tinged faintly with pink.
"Feeling tense, are we?" Guy heard the smile in the sheriff's voice. "Ah, I see! That's the blood of the man you murdered for me. If you were our little outlaw friend, you would be sobbing by now. 'Oh, I've killed man! Oh, the blood! The woe! The guilt!'" He said it high and exaggerated voice. "But you, Sir Guy, wear it as a badge, do you not? It's another rung up the ladder that you have been climbing all your life."
Guy cast the rag aside. "Have you finished?" He kicked the pail, so it toppled over, spilling reddened water across the dirty stones.
"My my, Guy!" the sheriff protested. "You do not talk like that to me. To others, perhaps, but I know the truth. I know you." He flapped his hand as if it was unimportant. "But enough of that. You are my Master of Arms now. I trust that you are taking steps to ensure that Robin of Locksley never pays me another midnight visit."
"Not of Locksley," Guy snarled. He kicked the fallen pail, sending it rolling across the cobbles. "I have Locksley now."
"Yes," the sheriff smiled, deliberately misunderstanding. "You can have Locksley. I told that to another man – Sir Guy can have Locksley's hide, I said. He's dead now, of course, while you live. I hope he wasn't the better man, after all." He walked away, cloak brushing the cobbles, trailing through the bloody water.
Guy made a fist, slamming it into the palm of his other hand. Did the sheriff know? Of course the sheriff knew. The sheriff had told him everything, conveying even more with his eyes and his tone. Robin of Locksley had visited him in his bed chamber. They had been face to face, whispering secrets, with the sheriff in Robin's power, and barely clothed beneath the blankets and furs. The sheriff had lingered over the words, knowing what they were doing to Guy. Make sure it never happens again, or I will kill you. That was what he said in words. His eyes said more. Think on that, and dream, and hate yourself for dreaming it.
His night had been a torment of heat and longing. In the darkest part of night, he had woken to find the outlaw at his bedside, knife at his throat, and hand on his belly, firm and gentle beneath the furs. Fingers trailed flames. "Make a sound and I will kill you." Lips on his, harsh and bruising. Breath on his cheek, the blade against his skin, and a knee forcing his legs apart, hard and determined…
And then from that to another dream, so close to the truth of a month before. Lying injured in the forest, unable to move, but Robin had come sauntering out of the trees, hips swaying as he walked. Their words had sparked. Their eyes had locked together. Oh, how Guy hated him! Knife blade at the throat, and the weight of a body on his own. You are helpless, the dream-Robin whispered. Lost and crippled and entirely in my power.
He had woken up burning, dreams clinging to his skin like filth. He had dressed quickly, cladding himself in black and arrogance. On the way into the yard, he had cuffed a stable boy, and made a young girl cry. It was better that way.
It was not enough.
"Saddle my horse!" he shouted now. "Bring me a dog. No, two dogs. I'm going hunting."
They rushed to obey him. The guards answered to him now, and the servants had learnt not to cross him. He was lord of Locksley, too, but there he only got sullen glowers. They only obeyed him out of fear, and hated him behind his back. He knew they muttered longingly of Robin, and longed for his return. Well, what did it matter if they did? He had never been a foolish dreamer, who only wanted to be loved. Love got you nowhere in this world. A truly great man was always hated.
Guy had fought for everything he obtained. He had come into the world with nothing – just the youngest son of a wastrel lord, who had long since lost all the glories his house had once enjoyed. His mother had died bearing him, and his father never had a good word for him. His oldest brother would inherit what little land there was, and the next brother was destined for the church.. The captain of the household guard – the broken leader of a ragtag bunch of thugs – had taken pity on Guy and taught him the swordplay that was expected of a nobleman's son. Aged ten, Guy had learnt from him, but he had hated him, too. He did not like to be pitied. He would kill a man now, for pitying him.
When Guy was sixteen, a visitor had come, a powerful lord breaking his journey at this tumbledown manor that had once been mighty. The lord had been unable to hide his disdain at what he found within the walls, but he had been equally obvious in his regard for Guy. When Guy had heard the footsteps on the floor of his bedchamber in the night, he had lain very still, and not made a sound.
He had left in the morning, riding away at the rich lord's side. That was how he had got his first horse. A few months later, another man had given him a sword. At twenty he had been knighted at the hands of another, taking the name of a small hamlet on his father's estate. He had even endured the correct ceremonies, kneeling naked on the altar steps throughout one cold winter night, his mind full of thoughts that no God would want to pry into. He had given them all good service, not just in the night.
At twenty-six, he had arrived in Nottingham, drawn by talk of the new sheriff. This was a man, people said, who gave honours to those who could serve him well, not just to those with the correct name and title. Guy had offered his services, and had been accepted. The first night, the sheriff had surprised him on the landing outside his room, with the cold bare stone beneath him, and a guard watching dispassionately, but such a thing was never repeated. Guy understood that the sheriff had been claiming him, marking him as a farmer might brand a cow. You are mine now. Stay mine, or I tell everyone what you are.
And Guy had stayed. He spent his days serving the sheriff, creeping slowly up the ladder of his esteem. He spent his nights alone. When the sheriff wanted to cement his hold on the Locksley lands, it was Guy who was given the task of administering them. When Locksley turned outlaw, it was Guy who got the lands.
He had lands, and a title. He was respected, and feared. Every day, he rose higher. Perhaps he would end up sheriff himself, or higher still. He would win a wife with a dowry, and sire children to pass on the name he had taken for himself. His father would proud of him at last.
"Your horse is ready, Sir Guy."
Guy went to climb into the saddle, but the horse shifted a little as he did so, and his leg twinged with sudden pain. He had not broken if after all, the night he had fallen in the forest, but he had twisted his knee painfully, and had been unable to walk for a week. He had still not entirely recovered. He hated being crippled and useless.
"Fool!" he snapped, cuffing the boy on the ear. "Hold it still this time."
Whistling for the dogs to follow him, he headed for the gateway. As he did so, he saw Marian emerge from a stairway, her red dress seeming to shine in the dinginess of the courtyard. Red. Like blood. Unbidden, he saw the pool of red-stained water, seeping into the cobbles. But you wear it like a badge. He shook his head. Thoughts like this were not for him. He was not an idiot poet, or a dreamer lost in the flowers and the stars. Thoughts had no meaning, only actions. A man had to shape his own fate, not wander along the wayside, contemplating dreams.
"Sir Guy!" Marian called. "Where are you going?"
To hunt the man you used to love. "For a ride," he told her. "I'm a man of action, not made for sitting around cooped up inside."
She looked doubtful. Her cheeks were flushed, and there was mud on the hem of her dress. He did not like how that made him feel. He wanted to win her, he realised. She would help him climb another step of the ladder. She was the sole heir to an ancient family, that was still honoured although it had little land. She would bring him a manor that would be his by right, as her husband. She would lie beside him in the night, soft and lovely and normal, and perhaps that would still the dreams. Perhaps she could stop him from craving those things that no man ought to crave.
And she was Robin's. Guy wanted everything that was his. He wanted to lay his hands on them, to own them, to be them. He wanted it all – everything.
"Well, ride safely, Sir Guy." Marian bowed her head. "You had an accident last time you rode in the forest alone."
Cursing, Guy kicked his horse into a canter. She knows! He told her! No, surely not. Everyone knew that Guy had been thrown by his horse and had injured his leg. About the encounter with Robin, not even the sheriff knew. Robin wouldn't have told anyone, surely. He had straddled Guy's body, eyes smouldering. As blood had welled up at Guy's throat, Robin his moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue. No, Robin would not have told anyone that. Only they knew, the two of them. It was their secret.
He left Nottingham behind. Within a few miles, he was in Sherwood. Dangerous. That's what men were already saying about it. Dangerous to ride in alone. Guy struck anyone he heard speaking such things in his presence. Only cowards were afraid, he told them. Only fools let the enemy win. If you let him know you were afraid, then you had lost already. He ruled over men, not snivelling girls.
But, dangerous… Their voices followed him, as the path grew darker, as the blue sky grew more distant, as noises in the undergrowth sent branches and leaves quivering, and things moved beyond his sight. His skin tingled. His blood was pounding in his ears. He pulled his glove off, suddenly wanting to feel the leather reins against his palm, supple yet abrasive.
He wondered if Robin was watching him.
Beyond the trees, the sun was risen to its highest point in the sky. He supposed it become the sort of day that poets and lovers would call glorious. There had been a singer at the sheriff's table a few weeks before, casting all the mundane things of the world into the language of magic. Sunlight dappled, and dragonflies darted by with wings like jewels. A mighty oak protected a sleeping fawn, like a father to a child, like God to man. Nonsense, the lot of it, of course. A forest was a forest; a path was a path. Sunlight was just a thing to see by, and Guy's quarry still had not found him.
He paused in a clearing, and opened the leather pouch at his belt. Inside was his prize – a tie from Robin's tunic, removed by Guy without Robin's knowledge when they had encountered each other in the woods. Pulling his gloves back on, he pulled it out, and offered it to the dogs, leaning down low in the saddle. "Get his scent," he urged them. "Find him for me."
The dogs sniffed it with supreme lack of interest. Perhaps the scent had faded after a month. Perhaps it had picked up too much of Guy's own scent for the dogs to notice the scent of the man who had once worn this close to his throat. After Robin had left, Guy had wrapped the tie around his finger, tight enough to turn the fingertip white. Then he had woven it around his forearm, winding it slowly and softly, so the end had tickled the inside of his wrist, and he had shivered. Then the same at night, under the covers, hidden from all.
What would it be like to be a dog, to smell a man on everything he had ever touched? Sometimes Guy thought he already knew.
"Find who?" a voice said. His voice. The voice.
Guy covered his surprise. He drew himself up haughtily, as he always did. "You know who, outlaw."
"Yes, but you are the one who is alone," Robin said softly.
Guy saw him then, stepping lightly out from a tree, hopping onto a stony outcrop like a boy. He looked like a different man from the one Guy had met a month before, all tousled hair and sleepless, burning eyes. Then the second man emerged from the bushes, and Guy understood. The adoring servant was here, too. Guy would meet nothing but a mask.
"I found you." Guy folded his hands on the saddle bow. "Just one man, with two dogs, and I came so easily and found you. Remember that, outlaw. If I can find you once, I can find you again, and next time it will be when you are alone, or even asleep."
"I think not." Robin smiled. "But I can find you. My bed moves from night to night; yours does not. Think on that tonight, as you sleep."
Guy swallowed. The words planted seeds, and the seeds would grow. Tonight would be sweet torment, and tomorrow would be terrible.
The servant tugged at Robin's arm. "Are we going to kill him? Tell me we're going to kill him? Then we can get some lunch."
Robin shook his head. "No, we will not kill him, Much. You know I cannot."
"Why not?" The man called Much looked from Guy to Robin. Perhaps the sheriff could have read the expression in his eyes, but Guy was no judge of the finer nuances of man's behaviour. He recognised one thing, though, in the way the servant was standing there, so close and so protective. The stupid little servant was in love with his master. It was enough to make Guy sick. It was enough to make him want to kill the man.
"Because, Much…" Robin nodded gently to one side, then the other. Guy saw movement on the fringes of vision, and knew the truth without having to humble himself by turning to look. They were not alone. Two more outlaws, maybe three, had their bows trained on him. "He is no threat to us," Robin said quietly, his hand on Much's shoulder, but his eyes on no-one but Guy.
"I will pay you back for this," Guy vowed.
"For humbling you?" Robin sauntered towards him, his gaze never wavering. When he stood beside Guy, he reached up and tugged on the tie, still trailing from Guy's gloved fingers. Taking it between his finger and thumb, he stroked its full length, then reached up and slowly uncoiled the end from Guy's finger. "That is mine, I believe," he said, his voice barely louder than a whisper.
Guy clenched his fist, hoping it would be enough to still the tremor in his throat. "You are mine, outlaw."
Robin's face was only inches away from Guy's knee. His hand was resting on the horse's neck, his fingers slightly spread. There was a scratch on the back of his hand, red on the tanned skin. "Am I?" he whispered.
"Send him on his way, then," Much whined. "We've got rabbits to kill, and the pot won't wait forever."
"You heard the man, Guy." Robin smiled. "Master of his own manor, rightfully given, which is more than can be said for you, Sir Guy." Surrounded by his own men, he was bumptious. He ruled everything here. Guy could feel the weight of all the eyes on him, each one hating him. But only a fool wanted to be liked. Only a weak man shrank from hatred.
"I am going," he told them, "but I will return. I will hunt you down, outlaw, and next time, when I find you, you will be alone."
"I will be waiting," Robin said, with a mocking bow, but his eyes said something quite different.
As he rode away, he heard their laughter. They would pay for that, he vowed. Then he thought of the night that was to come, and knew that he would pay, too.
And what a sweet and terrible price it was.