Chapter 1: The Spirits of the Dead
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.
Chapter 2: Kiss It Better
“Gisborne! I think I gave a precise order, what are you doing here? In the company of your leper friend, too!”
The sheriff gave a disgusted look to Guy and Marian, who had entered the room a few moments after the black knight.
“My lord, something unusual happened while I was on guard at the gate and I thought you had to be informed immediately.”
Vaisey looked at him: Gisborne didn't waste time to dry out or remove his coat, drenched in rain.
Guy described the arrival of the coach and the mysterious young woman who had fainted in his arms.
Vaisey raised an eyebrow.
“Where is this woman now?”
“I have ordered that she was to be carried in one of the guest rooms and I sent for a doctor.”
The sheriff slammed his fist on the table.
“Do you think that I have money to spare for every vagrant who arrives at the castle just because you, kind of idiot, you let yourself to be enchanted by a beautiful face? Maid Marian, if I were you I would feel offended.”
Marian was about to reply that she had no reason to be jealous of Guy, but she stopped just in time, realizing that those words would hurt the feelings of Gisborne.
“She doesn't seem at all a vagabond, my lord. The carriage is quite luxurious.”
Vaisey seemed to consider the last sentence, wondering if he could take advantage of that unexpected visit to his advantage.
“Let me see this mysterious carriage, then. And in any case you will pay the doctor's bills.”
Guy nodded and he led the way to the courtyard. Guy noticed that Marian followed him closely and he knew that she had to be afraid of that situation.
Gisborne let Vaisey to go ahead and he gave an encouraging smile to the girl. While they were inside the castle the subtle uneasiness that had caught him seeing the carriage without driver had dissipated, but, to his extreme disappointment, it returned to bother him when he looked again at the vehicle that was standing in a corner of the yard.
The servants had removed the horses to put them away in the stables so the coach seemed even more abandoned and ghostly.
Marian also must have had the same impression because she had approached even closer to Guy, to the point that their hands touched. Guy wished he took off his gloves because in that case he could touch the soft skin of the hands of Marian, but it was also fine staying so close to her. He didn't move, hoping that the girl didn't step away from him.
Vaisey however was not at all intimidated by the funeral vestments of the carriage and he walked around it, looking at the quality of the wood and of the decorations.
“Maybe you're not quite an idiot, Gisborne. It looks really luxurious.” He opened a door and touched the cloth that covered the coffin with no respect, groping and rubbing the fabric between his fingers and making Guy and Marian cringe for that lack of respect for the dead. “And this is of excellent quality, I think this unexpected visit could be fruitful.”
Vaisey pulled aside the drape to knock on the lid of the coffin.
“I wonder if there is really in here a body or if it's an ingenious system to transport the riches without being robbed. Come on, open it, Gisborne.”
Guy froze. He had done worse things at the orders of the sheriff, but the thought of violating the coffin made him shudder.
He felt that, if he opened that coffin, the spirit of the deceased would have had good reason to take revenge on him. Earlier he had said to Marian that he didn't believe in that sort of things, but then it was before the coffin of a stranger arrived at the castle in such a disturbing way.
“Should I open it myself, my lord?” He asked, hesitantly, and Vaisey looked at him with such ferocity to make him wince.
“No, you idiot, I think I'm going to ask Robin Hood to do it! Come on, you incompetent oaf!”
Guy swallowed, faced with a choice between two equally terrifying alternatives, he took a step toward the carriage and he hoped he didn't look too terrified at the eyes of Marian.
He was about to touch the coffin when a stern voice from the door of the castle stopped him.
“What are you doing with the coffin of my father?”
Gisborne spun around and he sighed with relief, seeing that the young woman who he helped seemed to have fully recovered. Her arrival had spared him the unwelcome task to open the coffin and Guy was incredibly relieved. He vowed that in the future he would have more respect for the spirits of the dead, even though he was a little ashamed for this superstition.
Vaisey eyed the girl from head to toe, then he gave her a patently false smile.
“I was just making sure that it was being transported to a more sheltered place.”
“It's perfectly safe on the coach, I don't want it to be moved.” The woman said, in a harsh tone.
“With whom do I have the honor of speaking?”
“I'm the Sheriff of Nottingham. The idiot dressed in black is Gisborne, while the annoying burden standing beside him is Lady Marian. Who are you?”
“Lady Millacra.” The girl said in a haughty tone, as if her name was sufficient to answer Vaisey's question. “Aren't you going to invite me to continue this conversation in a warmer place?”
The sheriff waved her back into the castle.
Robin Hood covered his face with the hood of his cloak to avoid being recognized as he looked from a distance at the scene in the castle courtyard.
His informant was not mistaken, a very mysterious coach arrived at the castle and Robin had never seen before the lady dressed in black who was talking to Vaisey.
He wondered who she was and he decided that he'd have to find out. If she was a young innocent girl he'd warn her, but if she was an ally of Vaisey, he would try to foil their plans.
He watched her to go back to the castle followed by the sheriff and, shortly after, by Marian and Gisborne. He found himself in a foul mood: Marian was too close to Guy of Gisborne and she followed him like a shadow.
He didn't like that situation and he would have to fix it by persuading Marian to flee into the forest with him.
Marian and Guy exchanged a doubtful look.
The sheriff had accompanied the stranger woman in his own studio and he had closed the door behind him, slamming it in face of Gisborne.
Guy wondered why Vaisey wanted to talk privately to the woman, but he wasn't too disappointed to have been put aside.
He was tired and cold and if the sheriff didn't require his services so much the better, he would take some time to rest. In the company of Marian, among other things.
He smiled at the girl.
“Given that the sheriff doesn't like our company, how about going to look for a turnip in the kitchens? I will show you how to make a lantern of it, as I promised.”
Marian looked at him. She would have expected to see him irritated or disappointed to be excluded from the confidence of the sheriff, but at that time Guy was looking at her with the playful and a bit mischievous expression of a boy ready to break some rules in order to embark on some funny adventure.
It was the same expression she had always found on Robin's face since she knew him. Since they were kids she followed him in the most unlikely deeds that inevitably made them to get in trouble with their parents, but she had never regretted it. Every time she had gone along with Robin in his improvised adventures, she always had fun even if afterwards she had to spend long days locked in the house, with nothing else to do but embroider, as punishment for their recklessness.
To see the same expression on Guy's face intrigued her. The henchman of the sheriff had never shown that lighter side of himself and she wondered if seconding it would make her to live pleasant moments as those who once she had with Robin.
She thought, with a slight sense of guilt, that she shouldn't even ask herself that question, she shouldn't want to spend time in the company of Guy of Gisborne, but she couldn't deny she was being flattered by Guy's interest.
Since his return from the Crusades, Robin had become more serious than before, less carefree and totally dedicated to his mission of helping the oppressed. Marian admired him and shared his ideals, but sometimes she missed the Robin of her youth, who used to throw himself headlong into trouble just for the fun of it.
Gisborne watched, hopeful, then, seeing her hesitation, his expression become sad, and he could not completely hide his disappointment.
“But maybe you're tired, I should not keep you awake...”
Marian made a decision and she smiled.
“I could not sleep quietly after all those the stories you have told me. Now it is your duty to carve that lantern for me.”
Guy's face seemed to light up at those words and Gisborne held out his arm.
“Then let me go with you, my lady.”
Marian nodded and put her hand on the inside of his elbow, letting him to guide her.
They reached the kitchens and they sneaked into the pantry after Guy ensured that the servants were distracted.
He closed the door behind him and smiled.
“Well, no one saw us. Now let's find those turnips.”
“Why didn't you just ask to one of the cooks? I doubt that they would deny something to you.”
Guy looked at her seriously.
“I could do it, but it wouldn't be any fun.” He said in a solemn tone and Marian chuckled.
She didn't mind at all the lighter side of Guy of Gisborne, and she was flattered that he showed it only to her. It was a great sign of confidence from the black knight, and once again her conscience pricked by reminding her that often she had taken advantage of that trust without scruples.
She vowed to be more careful in the future, to find a way to help Robin without harming Guy.
She watched as he turned his back to her, busily rummaging through the shelves and the baskets of the pantry, and she found herself smiling at his enthusiasm.
“I found them!” Guy said, turning to look at her. He had a big turnip in each hand and he smiled with the same satisfaction of a cat who had just caught a mouse.
Marian noticed that his cheek was dirty with dust and she raised a hand to clean it, instinctively.
Guy flinched at her touch and he looked at her, stunned, and she suddenly realized that he could misunderstand that situation: they were alone in a small, dark room and she had just stroked his cheek.
If Guy had felt authorized to kiss her, she couldn't blame him too much, Marian thought, while her heart inexplicably accelerated its beats.
But Gisborne didn't do it. He seemed to notice her embarrassment and he blushed slightly, too.
He stepped back, put a turnip in her hand and used his free hand to pull out a knife.
“Let's get out of here and I'll show you how to carve it.”
Both slipped out of the pantry, taking care to avoid again the servants and that sort of a game served to allay their embarrassment. When they reached the lightened fireplace in one of the rooms of the castle, Marian was again enjoying herself like a disobedient kid and Guy smiled.
They approached the fire and Guy finally took off his leather coat, still wet with rain, hanging it to the back of his chair and then he sat down in front of Marian, grateful for the warmth of the fire that allowed him to warm up after so many hours in the cold.
He smiled Marian and he began to work: he cut the top of the turnip and began to dig into it carefully, creating a space large enough to put a candle inside it, then he proceeded to perform the more difficult task: carving a monstrous face on the surface of turnip .
He had almost finished when the door of the room burst open, letting Lady Millacra in.
Guy gasped in surprise and the knife slipped from the turnip, opening a cut on his palm.
Marian looked at the blood, worried, and she looked for a clean handkerchief to wrap the wound, but, before she could do it, she noticed that Lady Millacra had approached them, staring intently at the blood running through Guy's fingers.
“Sir Guy, I was told that it was you who helped me.” She said in a low, but warm and musical voice, intense like the purring of a cat. “Now it's my turn to reciprocate your kindness.”
With a fluid motion she took hold of Guy's hand and she raised it to her face, then she put her lips to the wound to suck the blood.
Gisborne didn't move, petrified by surprise at first and then too shocked to react. The girl's lips were cold on his skin and what they were doing around his wound was both painful and extremely exciting.
No woman, not even the most uninhibited tavern girl, had never touched him in such a sensual and natural way. It seemed that Lady Millacra was determined to devour him and at the same time it was like that for her it was perfectly normal to behave like that.
Guy had the impression that if she wanted to, that woman would be able to completely obscure his free will and that she could force him to do whatever she wanted.
That feeling scared him to death, but at the same time it was so overwhelming that Guy didn't have the strength or the will to escape his touch.
He met Marian's gaze and her eyes were able to snatch him from this unhealthy enchantment and to bring him back to reality. She looked furious and she looked at the other woman without hiding her anger.
“Let him go now!” Marian said and only then Guy managed to find the strength to pull back his hand, cradling it to his chest to protect it.
Lady Millacra smiled amiably.
“Oh, sorry, was I rather inappropriate? In my country it's an innocent gesture, mothers do it when their children scratches their knees while playing, I didn't mean to offend you.” She said, with an air that was so innocent and hurt that Marian felt guilty. “Maybe it's best that I withdraw to my rooms, your sheriff was so kind. He agreed to host me until tomorrow, when I can resume my journey.”
The young woman ran away, leaving Marian and Guy equally confused.
The girl was frightened by her reaction: when Lady Millacra had touched Guy, her first instinct had been to attack her, to send her away from her territory. But why would she consider Gisborne as hers? She was in love with Robin, what she felt for Guy was friendship, mixed with a lot of guilt, nothing more.
Guy continued to hold his arm to his chest, shaking. He felt the blood running down his wrist and the wound throbbed, but he didn't dare look at it for fear of finding the mark of the lips of the woman imprinted on his skin like a branding iron.
What she did to him upset Guy and it was both exciting and disgusting to think that Lady Millacra had drunk his blood, that a part of him now was inside the body of the woman.
He roused himself with a shudder. What was he thinking? Those were morbid and prohibited thoughts and he should remove them from his mind.
“You are still bleeding. Let me see.”
Marian took his hand, gently, and for a moment Guy feared and hoped that the girl would repeat the same gesture of Lady Millacra, but Marian merely examined the wound and she bandaged it tightly.
“It's not a deep cut, but try to keep it clean.”
Guy nodded, trying to smile.
Marian picked up the engraved turnip, she put a candle inside it, she lit it and then she placed it on the mantelpiece, hoping it could really watch over them, then she took Guy's knife and she began to carve the other turnip.
“What are you doing?” Guy asked. Now that Lady Millacra was gone, he began to feel calmer.
Marian looked at him.
“I feel that you, too, need protection, I'm carving a turnip for you.”
Guy chuckled. That was the most tender and ridiculous phrase that someone ever told him, and he had to restrain himself to avoid taking Marian in his arms and kissing her.
He loved her, he thought, and his only desire was to be able to start a family with her, to be able to protect her from every possible danger.
Suddenly realized that earlier it was Marian who protected him with the ferocity of a wild cat.
What did it mean? Was it possible that she had feelings for him?
He had no way of knowing it, and at that time it wasn't really important to find it out: they were together, both found pleasant the company of the other and Guy had the impression that they were getting closer.
In time he would be able to win her heart, Guy thought, but for the moment he was determined to enjoy every moment he spent with her.
He watched as she carved the turnip, working for him.
He was still wet with rain and his hands were frozen, but in that moment Guy felt only a pleasant warmth.
Marian finished carving the turnip and smiled when she noticed that the monstrous face she had carved looked like the sheriff. It was ironic that the lantern which was supposed to protect Guy was so similar to the person who probably oppressed him more.
The girl looked up at the black knight to make a joke about it and she realized that Gisborne was leaning back in his chair and that he had fallen asleep.
Marian smiled to herself, he had to be tired after spending so much time chasing Robin Hood, and then he had to stand guard in the rain too.
She watched him sleep and she thought that Guy looked younger and innocent while resting: he had the head tilted to one side and a few strands of hair fell on his face, partially concealing his eyes.
Marian found out that she desired to comb his disheveled locks with her fingers, and to brush them on to the neck, along the jaw line, curious to find out if the pale skin of Guy's cheeks was as soft as it looked despite the stubbly growth of beard.
She chided herself, surprised because of those inopportune thoughts and she devoted her attention to the lantern, lighting it and putting it on the mantelpiece, next to the other one.
Before she went back to sit down, she noticed a folded blanket on a bench and she took it, opened it, and put it on Guy. Doing so, the girl touched Gisborne's cheek with her hand and Marian discovered that, yes, Guy's face could be soft and rough at the same time.
Guy did not wake up at her touch, but he smiled and murmured something in his sleep.
“I love you, Marian.” He whispered and the girl stared at him, dumbfounded.
She knew that Gisborne wanted to win her love, but she didn't think that his feelings were so intense that he could think about her even while he slept.
She would have to talk to him, to be honest and to tell him what she felt for Robin because Guy could at least move on and look for some other woman who would love him back.
She remembered suddenly the perfect face of Lady Millacra, with her lips so full and sensual that touched Guy's hand, and she felt her heartbeat quicken with anger.
To think of Guy with a woman who was not her irritated Marian, even though she had no reason to feel those feelings. She loved Robin since she was a young girl, and it would always be so, but then how could she be jealous of Gisborne?
She was so focused in her thoughts that, when the door burst open, it made her jump in fear.
Allan came running into the room, he looked at Marian, puzzled, then he rushed to shake Gisborne awake.
“Giz! Giz! Wake up!”
Guy opened his eyes with a start, and stared at Allan, irritated at being caught in a moment of rest.
“What's up? What the hell it’s going on that you have to yell like that?!” He growled, pushing Allan away with a shove.
Allan stepped back, but he stood trembling, unable to find words.
Marian put her hand on Gisborne’s wrist.
“Guy, don’t attack him. Look, he seems terrified. What happened, Allan?”
The young man took a deep breath.
“There's been a murder, one of the guards of the north wing. The body was hidden in a niche, behind a curtain...”
Guy stood up with a curse.
“It must have been Hood!”
“I don’t think so!” Marian contradicted him. “Robin Hood doesn’t kill without reason.”
Guy gave her a doubtful look.
“Hood is an outlaw, in the past he has already killed several of the sheriff's men.”
“I don’t know, Giz, I don’t think it was his way. If they had found the guard pierced with an arrow or a sword I might agree with you, but like this...” He broke off with a shudder.
“Like this, how?” Guy asked, impatiently.
“I think you should see it.”
Guy looked at Allan: the young man was white-faced and he seemed genuinely upset. Gisborne now knew him well enough to know that he wasn’t the kind of man who got easily upset, so, to be so terrified, he must have seen something really out of the ordinary.
In addition, the body of the guard had been found in the north wing of the castle, and Hood would have had no reason to venture there. In the north wing, there was nothing interesting, just very old and mostly closed rooms where the older and ruined furniture of the castle had been accumulated.
In that wing there was nothing valuable or that could be of any interest to an outlaw.
“Show me, then.”
Allan nodded and left the room, and Guy followed him.
Neither of them had invited Marian, but then they hadn’t even forbidden her to go with them, so she walked in silence behind the two men.
Robin ventured along a deserted corridor, wondering in which area of the castle the mysterious stranger could have been lodged. The sound of footsteps approaching from behind a corner urged him to hide in the shadows, behind a column.
He saw Allan leading the way for Gisborne, holding a candlestick in his hand. Both men had a grim expression on their faces, but Allan looked scared. Robin thought that whatever was the reason for his discomfort, he deserved it for having betrayed his friends for Gisborne.
Behind them, a few feet away, Marian followed Allan and Gisborne, holding a lantern made from a turnip in her hands.
Robin wondered where they were going and he decided to find out: he quietly began to follow them.
Guy bent over the lifeless body of the guard: the man didn’t seem to have suffered serious injuries apart from a laceration on his neck that seemed to have been caused by the bite of some animal. He had an ecstatic expression on his face, as if he was dead while he was feeling an enormous pleasure.
“What happened to him?”
“No one knows, Giz. He was hidden in that niche and one of the servants found him. The servant had managed to entice one of the kitchens girls and they were looking for a place to...”
Guy cut him off and gave a meaningful look in the direction of Marian. Those were certainly not speeches suitable to the ears of an innocent girl.
“I don’t care what they were doing. Did they see anyone near the niche?”
“No. This area of the castle is always deserted, that’s why those two came here.”
Guy carefully examined the body again, then he moved the curtain of the niche, in search of clues.
“There is no blood on the ground, but this poor man seems to have bled to death. There should be some trace at least...”
Marian shuddered and she went near Guy.
Gisborne looked at her, worried.
“You shouldn’t be here, you shouldn’t see this...”
Marian shook her head.
“I wouldn’t feel safe to stay alone.”
Guy looked at her, surprised and pleased by her words. It was nice to think that Marian could feel secure staying at his side.
“Giz? What could have killed him?” Allan asked, nervously. “The guards begin to get scared, they say that it was the Bargest who killed him!”
“Don’t talk nonsense, Allan! Those are just superstitions!” Guy snapped.
“Hey, I'm not one who says it, but it’s a fact that the soldiers are afraid.”
“Guy? What’s a Bargest?”
“Nothing that you have to be afraid of, just stories spread by gullible peasants.” Guy said, without sounding too sure.
Allan stared at Marian.
“The Bargest is a huge black dog who comes straight from hell. He's huge, he has big, sharp teeth like daggers and he’s said to appear only to those who are destined to die. Who sees it has no escape: he will die within a few days!”
Allan spoke gesticulating theatrically and he concluded his speech slamming his hands against each other, to imitate the jaws of a wild beast that closed on a prey. The girl jumped with fear and grabbed Guy's arm with her free hand.
Gisborne repressed a start at being touched so suddenly, but he recovered quickly. He took off a glove with his teeth and he put his hand on Marian’s to reassure her.
“Allan, stop right away with this foolishness, it wasn’t certainly a ghost who killed this man. We must find the culprit and avoid to spread panic. Did you already warn the sheriff?”
“I knocked on his door before I came to call you, but he didn’t answer.”
“I believe that we have to report this to him. Let's go.”
“Are we leaving him there?” Marian asked, hesitantly, glancing at the corpse.
Guy grabbed the curtain of the niche and pulled it, detaching it from the wall and dropping it over the corpse. He turned to Allan.
“We’ll talk to the sheriff and then we’ll come back here with some men to take him away. Make sure that his family receives some money to get through the winter.”
“The sheriff won’t approve.”
“I'll pay for it.” Guy said, and Marian’s grateful look rewarded him for that unusual generosity. He held again the hand of the girl, and Marian fingers didn’t shrink away from his grip.
Her fingers were cold and Guy's skin was warm against them, Marian noticed, and she was comforted by his strong and gentle touch.
They walked in silence until they reached the sheriff's room and Guy knocked on Vaisey’s door.
“No reply.” Allan emphasized.
“It's strange. He’s not in his office or in the great hall. Go check if his horse is in the barn,” Guy ordered, trying to turn the handle. Allan was about to obey, when the door opened under Gisborne’s touch.
Guy looked into the room, then he flung open the door with a curse and he rushed in, followed by Allan and Marian: the sheriff was lying on the ground, unconscious.
Gisborne knelt on the ground beside him and turned him over on his back.
“Is he dead, Giz?” Allan asked.
“He's still breathing. Help me to put him on the bed and then go to call a physician, quick!”
Together they lifted Vaisey’s limp body and they laid him on the bed, then Allan ran from the room.
Marian came to Guy. She was still holding her lantern to ward off evil spirits, and she felt foolish for that. She put it on the table, and looked at the sheriff.
“What happened to him?”
“I don’t know. He’s very pale.”
“Look, he has a wound on his wrist,” the girl said, pointing to a bloody tear that was visible under the shirt sleeve, and Guy hastened to bandage it with a handkerchief.
“He has been assaulted.”
“Who did it?” Marian stared at him, uneasy. “Allan’s story can’t be true, right?”
“There are no such things as hell hounds, Marian.”
They were silent for a few seconds, then Guy went to the window to look at the courtyard. He shuddered in seeing the hearse parked in a corner, then he noticed a dark and indefinite figure moving in the shadows next to it. He leaned out of the window to look better at it and that apparition took the shape of a large black dog who wandered into the courtyard and raised his muzzle to look at him.
Guy turned pale and if Marian hadn’t been present, he would probably have run away in panic.
“No,” he whispered softly, and the dog began to howl without taking his eyes away from him.
Allan returned, slamming the door and Guy spun around.
“Is that the way to get into a room ?!” He shouted, venting his fear on him, then he turned back to glance at the yard, but the black dog seemed to have vanished into thin air.
Was it really a harbinger of death?
Guy tried to remind himself that those were just superstitions believed only by ignorant peasants, and turned his attention back to Allan, who had a greenish complexion, and who seemed about to throw up or faint.
“What's wrong, now?
“There have been more deaths, Giz! Two servants and another soldier: all of them bled to death and all with a blissful expression on their faces!”
Guy was silent. Suddenly the room seemed much colder.
Marian touched his arm and Gisborne felt her tremble.
“What do we do, Guy?”
Gisborne looked at her: she and Allan were watching him anxiously, waiting for him to do something to fix the situation, but he felt paralyzed.
He didn’t know what to do and he could think only of the figure of the black dog staring at him and howling.
He took a deep breath.
Allan and Marian had confidence in him and Guy couldn’t and wouldn’t let them down, even though he too was scared, just like them.
“There must be a murderer in the castle,” he said, hoping to sound more confident than he actually felt. “We have to find him.”
I know it's a long time I didn't update this, but finally the Italian version of this story is complete. I will translate the other chapters soon, too :)