Guy of Gisborne went through the gate of the castle on horseback and he dismounted, throwing the reins of the animal to a servant, out of sorts.
Robin Hood had entered the castle during the night to steal the tax money that had to be sent to the black knights. Guy was woken abruptly when one of the guards raised the alarm and he had to throw himself in pursuit of the outlaw.
Obviously Hood had managed to escape and Gisborne had spent the rest of the night and a good part of the morning looking for him in the forest, without getting any other result than to get soaking wet in the rain.
In the end, tired, cold and hungry, he was resigned to the idea that even that day he wouldn't capture Robin Hood and he ordered his men, just as wet and discouraged as him, to return to the castle.
He watched them go with a bit of envy: their watch was over and they could return to their homes or spend their time having fun and refreshment at the tavern, but for him the most unpleasant part was yet to come, he had yet to report the sheriff another failure.
Guy sighed: he might as well get it over as soon as possible.
He went to the Great Hall, where he knew he would find Vaisey and entering he sighed again: the sheriff was not alone, but he had summoned the council of nobles to collect taxes, which meant that Vaisey's outburst of rage and the humiliation that would hit Guy would have many witnesses.
“Oh, look, a wet rat!” Vaisey said, noting his arrival. “Oh, no, it's just Gisborne.”
Guy stopped in front of him, ignoring the ironic words of the sheriff.
Vaisey stared at him intently, looking into his eyes.
“Tell me, Gizzy, have you captured Robin Hood?”
Gisborne looked down. Vaisey certainly had already realized that the chase could not have been successful, but he was finding amusing to embarrass him. If Guy had not let him do it, the consequences would be worse.
He sighed and shook his head.
“No, my lord.”
“So you're saying that today the most useful thing you could do is to drip water on the floor of my castle?”
“Hood must have been helped, sir! It chose exactly the time when I was off duty to strike! As if he knew when I would have more difficulty to gather the guards to chase him.”
The slap of Vaisey, hard and sudden, startled him, causing him to lose his balance. The sheriff took the opportunity to push him and Guy fell painfully to the ground.
“No, you idiot! It just means that you are not even able to organize your men! Useless being! Incompetent!”
Vaisey emphasized his words with a kick that hit Guy in the ribs, making him moan in pain, but Gisborne did not dare protest. He knew that when the sheriff was in those conditions it was useless to reply, it was best to wait for him to vent his anger and to keep the mouth shut.
“Get up, you idiot!” Vaisey ordered and Guy got to his feet, trying not to show the humiliation he felt for the brutal treatment.
“You're useless, Gisborne! Sometimes I wonder why I continue to keep you in my service even if you continue to collect failures.”
Guy was silent. He could remind the sheriff that capturing Robin Hood was only a small part of his responsibilities, and the only one in which he failed. Without him to manage and settle nearly every aspect of the management of the castle, the Sheriff's life would have been much more difficult and certainly more complicated.
He said nothing because he could only draw to himself more ironic comments or a harsher punishment.
“Sometimes I think I should order my guards to whip you, just to remind you that I don't like failures. What do you say, Gizzy? But no, I will be generous with you, indeed, I will try to make you feel useful for once in your life. Today you will take the place of the soldier on guard at the gate, just to remind you that you have to earn the privileges that you have. Now go away, I'm sick of your presence.”
Guy bowed slightly and took his leave, leaving the room with dignity.
When he was alone he allowed himself a mournful sigh: he was tired, cold, he had slept only a few hours and he hadn't been able to eat anything all morning and now Vaisey expected him to do a whole turn of guard at the gate, under the pouring rain.
But it was no use complaining or linger, he had no choice and he knew it. Surely the sheriff would make sure to get out of town later, just to gloat over his humiliation and if he shouldn't find Guy at the gate, he would make sure to make him pay for it.
It was all Hood's fault, Guy thought, grimly, and he walked toward the gate.
Marian avoided being noticed by soldiers on patrol by flattening herself against the wall and she stood still, waiting for them to pass.
Despite finding him hateful, Marian thought that the sheriff was right about the incompetence of the guards of the castle: if it was so easy for to avoid them, for Robin it had to be really a no-brainer.
She approached the gate and she stopped to look at the dark figure of Guy, standing in the rain. The black knight had his back to her and he watched the street, unnecessarily because nobody in their right mind would have dreamed of walking around in the storm.
She felt a twinge of guilt that gripped her stomach: if Gisborne was forced to endure that unpleasant and humiliating punishment it was only her fault. She was the one who warned Robin about the right moment to strike, without thinking too much that Guy would have suffered the wrath of the sheriff.
Marian didn't reciprocate Guy's feelings, but she was convinced that there was good in him, and that under different circumstances he could prove almost as kind and brave as Robin. At the castle he was the only person she thought she could trust at least in part, the only one who would never intentionally harm her.
For the umpteenth time she wondered why he endured to work for the sheriff, without finding a satisfactory answer.
She covered well in her cloak and she took a few steps forward.
Gisborne spun around, surprised.
“Marian!” He frowned. “Why are you here? You shouldn't go out in the rain or you will become ill.”
Marian watched him, smiling slightly.
“And you can give me this advice because you are dry and warm, right?”
“At least shelter yourself under the gate.”
Marian backed up to take shelter under the stone arch of the door and nodded to call Guy.
“Take cover you too, at least for a while.”
Guy glanced hesitantly at the castle. Vaisey expected him to be in place in the rain and Guy would surely be punished otherwise.
Marian noticed his hesitation and she came up to him to take his hand and pull him toward her.
“The sheriff won't notice if you rest for a few minutes. I don't think he is willing to go out in this weather either.”
Guy was persuaded and he smiled weakly.
“And what are you doing in the rain?”
She reached into the basket that she had on her arm and she handed him a dry towel.
“Dry yourself a bit, otherwise you'll be the one who gets an illness.”
Gisborne looked at her, puzzled. Marian was concerned about his well-being?
“Do not worry, I'm used to endure hardships of this kind. But thank you, yours is a kind gesture.”
Guy used the towel to rub his hair and his face before returning it to the girl. Marian was enchanted for a moment to observe the way in which the strands of his wet and now tousled hair curled wildly around Guy's face then she chided herself mentally and she went back to look for something in the basket.
Gisborne wondered why the girl suddenly blushed, but he forgot the question when Marian offered him an apple.
“You've been out all morning and now you'll have to stay here until tonight, I thought maybe you had not time to eat. In the basket there is also a cake that I took from the kitchen, but I fear it is still too hot to eat it right away.”
Guy smiled and he bit his apple without peeling it. He was surprised and touched by the fact that Marian had thought to bring him food and he wondered once again if she had any interest in him or if she just wanted to win his favor to get a better treatment for her and her father.
In any case, whatever her aims, her company was very pleasant and it mitigated the sheriff's punishment. To get a bit of attention from Marian, it was worth to endure some rain and some humiliation.
“The sheriff was unfair, earlier. You shouldn't let him treat you like that.”
“I don't have much choice. I swore obedience to him a long time ago.”
She shook her head.
“But it is unreasonable! What's the sense of sending you to watch a deserted road in this cold weather? He does it just to humiliate you, it is clear that by this time there won't be travelers heading to the castle, it would have been enough to lower the gate.”
“Tonight in particular, then.” Guy said and Marian looked at him.
“Tomorrow will be the day of All Saints, and today the souls of the dead return to walk among the living, no one will dare to wander at night.” Guy said with a somber tone that made her shiver, then he smiled. “Or at least that's what the peasants say. Let me see your basket.”
Marian handed it to him and Guy took the little cake that Marian had mentioned earlier.
“Indeed. I imagined that.”
Guy pointed to the mark in the shape of a cross engraved on the surface of the cake.
“This is a "soul cake", they are prepared to be left as an offering to the souls of the dead on the night when their spirits return to visit this land. Didn't you know? Do I look dead, Marian?”
She shook her head, embarrassed.
“I didn't mean... I'm sorry...”
Guy laughed and bit the small cake.
“I was joking. I do not believe in these things.” He said, reassuringly. “The dead are dead, it doesn't matter how much we could hope for it, their spirits never return.”
Marian looked at him, amazed by the melancholy hidden in his last sentence, then she shuddered to see that Guy had given another bite to the cake.
“But maybe you shouldn't eat it. If it's for the dead, it might be a bad omen.”
“What can happen to me worse than the anger of the sheriff?” Guy asked, lightly.
“Don't joke about these things!” Marian said and Guy looked at her, amused. If the girl was afraid of ghosts and spirits, he could take advantage of it a little to draw her closer to him.
“Do you fear that the dead can come knocking at the door of your room tonight?” He asked, thinking a bit maliciously that he might be the one who'd knock at Marian's door later and then he could offer her his protection.
“Why would they?!” The girl asked nervously and Guy felt a little guilty for thinking to frighten her. After all she had been kind to bring food and comfort to him, risking the wrath of the sheriff.
“You have no reason to be afraid, Marian. No ghost might want to scare an innocent girl like you.”
Marian nodded uncertainly. She wasn't sure she could define herself innocent, especially with Guy.
She had deliberately taken advantage of his feelings for her to deceive him, extort information and help Robin. She repeated to herself that Gisborne deserved it because he worked for the sheriff, but she knew that in any case her behavior was wrong and cruel.
Guy saw her hesitation and mistook it for fear. He smiled, remembering something he had seen in Locksley last year.
“If you still are afraid, you could do like the peasants do to protect their homes. On the eve of All Saints they take a big turnip, they empty it, then they carve a sort of face on it and they put a small candle inside it to light it. Then they put this kind of lantern on the door or the window to protect their homes from the spirits. If you wish, later, when I finish my watch, I can show you how. You get yourself a turnip and I will carve it for you.”
Marian smiled, grateful and Guy thought, pleased, that after all he did not mind at all to have been punished by the sheriff.
He glanced toward the castle and he thought that he should return to his post before the sheriff would notice his absence. For Guy it wouldn't be a problem to endure another of his outbursts or another punishment, but he didn't want to risk that Marian could have repercussions for her kind gesture.
“I must return to my work.” He apologized. “I'll come to see you later, my lady, to protect you from the spirits of the dead.”
Marian nodded, thinking that Guy's smile shouldn't stir her so much. Indeed, it shouldn't stir her at all, she told herself, thinking of Robin guiltily, but she could not deny that it was pleasant and satisfying to think that she was the only one able to illuminate the face of a man otherwise so dark and severe.
She was about to take leave when Guy pointed at the road.
“Look! We were wrong! There are people so crazy to travel in this weather, then.”
Marian saw a carriage approaching, drawn by galloping horses.
When it approached a little more, Guy let out an exclamation of surprise.
“There is no one driving it! Stand back, Marian!”
Guy ran forward, in the rain, to try to stop the horses and Marian thought with horror that he would be run over, but, seeing him, the animals slowed and Guy was able to stop them, taking them by the reins.
Marian approached him, anxiously watching the carriage: it was a heavy and massive vehicle, decorated with funeral vestments and pulled by horses blacks as night.
Marian shuddered and came up a bit more near to Guy.
Gisborne glanced at Marian and he looked back at the carriage.
After all this talk about ghosts and spirits, just watching that lugubrious vehicle with no one to guide it made him more upset than he liked to admit, but he couldn't afford to hesitate in front of Marian.
Pretending to be completely calm, he opened the carriage door and there stood an unknown lady.
The woman was young and slender, with a cascade of dark brown hair that framed a pale face and, when she saw the door being opened, she let out a piercing cry that froze both Guy's and Marian's blood, then she collapsed unconscious and she fell forward in the arms of Gisborne.
The black knight staggered under the sudden weight, but he supported her and picked her up in his arms, hoping that Marian wouldn't notice that his hands were shaking.
The mysterious woman was dressed in mourning and she was so pale and cold to seem dead herself, the carriage was dark and mysterious, it appeared in the rain without a driver and Guy realized with horror that in the wagon there was a coffin covered with a black velvet cloth.
Marian was glued to him and she clung to his jacket, scared.
In a normal situation that closeness would have filled him with joy, but at that moment he would rather be at least a few miles away from there. Certainly he would have preferred he didn't make fun of the spirits eating the cake destined to the dead.
Marian looked at him.
“What do we do, Guy?”
“Let's get her to the castle.” He said, trying to sound nonchalant. “I'll tell the guards to take care of the car.”
Gisborne settled back the unconscious woman in his arms, but when her cold lips brushed against his neck, he couldn't conceal a start.