Robin woke up feeling a fresh hand on his forehead, and he pried his eyes open.
“Be quiet, Robin. Stay down.”
It was Djaq voice, and her somber tone filled him with a sense of dread. He sat up abruptly, ignoring the throbbing pain in his head.
Suddenly, he remembered.
“The sheriff! Where is the sheriff?! We must take him to Nottingham before it’s razed to the ground!”
Djaq didn’t answer, and no one of the outlaws did. Little John and Much were sitting on the ground, their heads bowed.
“Don’t be still! Come on, we have to go!”
Djaq turned her eyes to something that was lying near the entrance of the camp, covered by a blanket.
“It’s too late,” she said “the sheriff is dead.”
Robin looked at the body, stunned.
“He tried to kill you. He failed, but he made you fall and you hit your head on a rock. John seized him, but suddenly he turned gray in the face and he died. A heart attack, I think.”
Robin staggered to his feet and he looked at the pink sky he glimpsed through the canopy of trees.
“We must go. Take his body, we can explain that it was a natural death. Hurry, it’s already sunset, but we may stop them in time!”
Djaq grabbed his arm and Robin could see the tears in her eyes.
“It’s too late,” she repeated for the second time “this is no sunset… It’s dawn.”
Robin looked at her with horror.
“You have been unconscious all night, Robin.”
He faltered, fighting the urge to retch.
“Nottingham?” he managed to ask.
Much burst up into sobs.
“Master, there was nothing we could do! You were wounded and Djaq was afraid that your skull was damaged! There was a whole army and we were only three! What could we do?!”
“I walked there during the night,” John said, with a sigh “I only was halfway and I could already see the fires. Nottingham has been destroyed.”
Marian! Marian was there!
Robin walked unsteadily to the line of trees, his mind whirling around that single thought: the town had been destroyed and Marian was dead!
It was too much. His body rejected the idea that she could have died, but his mind kept showing all too vivid images of her possible death: her slender body slaughtered by soldiers, burning with the fires that consumed the town, her dress and her hair aflame and her ivory flesh charred to the bone…
He couldn’t stand it. Robin dropped to his knees and threw up.
They walked through the ruins with no hope in their hearts.
The army went away leaving just desolation.
Robin tried to soothe his sorrow, thinking that at least they didn’t burn the villages and hang all the peasants as the sheriff once said they would, but the town of Nottingham was completely destroyed.
The few survivors already left the town, seeking refuge in the villages and only some of them still wandered between the ruins, dazed, as if they couldn’t believe that their houses and families existed no more.
The castle was still standing, but it had been ravaged. Its entrance was open and black like the orbits of a skull, and the mangled bodies of several guards lied on the stairs and in the corridors.
Robin, Djaq and Little John entered the castle, horrified.
They had no hopes to find someone still alive, but suddenly they heard the sound of footsteps and Robin drew his sword, fearing that some of Prince John’s soldier stood behind to loot the castle.
They turned a corner and they saw a man cowering in terror into a corner: he was shaking and he covered his face with bloody hands, but Djaq recognized him.
“Allan!” she rushed to his side, but the young man was deeply shocked and he cried in fear.
Djaq whispered soothing words to him, in a reassuring voice and after a while he calmed down a little, enough to recognize them and answer their questions.
“Marian… Will… Have you seen them?”
Allan sobbed, his blue eyes brimming with tears.
“Dead. They are all dead. I am alive because Giz sent me to search for more weapons in the cellars... I was down there when they broke into the castle…” he burst out in louder sobs “I hid behind a stack of barrels and I didn’t have the courage to go back upstairs. I’m a coward and they are all dead!”
The other three looked at him, shocked, what was left of their hope completely destroyed by his words. Djaq was openly crying now, thinking that she would never see Will again, but she put an arm around Allan’s shoulders to comfort him.
“You couldn’t have saved them even if you did. Not against an army...”
Robin looked at him. Allan was a traitor, but he couldn’t help pitying him, now.
“Djaq is right, you couldn’t. Come with us, now. Maybe there are other survivors and we can help them. But first I need to find Marian, do you know where she was?”
Allan nodded and he lead them to the great hall.
The large room was full of bodies, the wooden floor darkened by blood, and for a moment Robin was afraid to enter.
He took a deep breath and he forced himself to step over a dead peasant. He took a look from the balcony and he almost threw up again: dozens and dozens of women and children had gathered there, hoping to find a shelter, but they were all dead. They were lying to the ground, amassed to the far end of the room where they had found their death. Between them and the stairs, there were the bodies of the men who had tried to defend them with every weapon they could muster. On the floor there were the bodies of many of Prince John’s men too and Robin felt a grim satisfaction in seeing them.
Then he saw them: the tall and dark figure of Gisborne and a glimpse of Marian’s turquoise dress.
They were lying together at the foot of the stairs and the slender frame of the girl was under Gisborne, cradled in his arms as if he had tried to shield her with his body in a desperate attempt to protect her.
But Robin could see her face and he knew that the black knight had failed: her eyes were open and she was staring at the ceiling with a lifeless look.
As soon as he saw her, he lost every hope. He had seen that blank stare too often and he knew that she was really dead.
He stifled a sob and he ran to her. He just wanted to hold her in his arms, to hug his beloved for a last time.
His first instinct would have been to push away Gisborne’s body, longing only to hold Marian in his arms as soon as possible, but he didn’t.
He had hated Guy of Gisborne, but now he found some respect for him: he had defended the people in the hall, Robin could clearly understand that he did because there were bodies of the enemy soldiers fallen all around him, and he tried to save Marian even when everything was lost.
Robin envied him: he wanted to be the one who died at her side, holding her tight.
Gently, Robin turned Gisborne on his back, then he took Marian’s body and he held her, crying all his tears.
Little John and Much stood in the middle of the room, slowly shaking their heads, in disbelief. Allan, standing near them, wasn’t sobbing anymore, but his face was still wet with tears. Djaq and Robin were both kneeling on the floor, mourning their beloved ones.
After a while, Allan made a few steps and he bent to collect a sword, its blade broken and bloodied.
John gave him a questioning look and Allan looked at Guy.
“It was his sword,” he whispered.
He felt sad for Gisborne too. Nobody would care that he was dead, no one would mourn and weep on his tomb, but Allan knew that Guy could be a decent man when he was away from the sheriff.
He died heroically and he deserved to be honored, Allan decided, walking to his body.
He knelt near Gisborne, trying to be as silent as possible to respect Robin’s sorrow, and he placed the sword on his chest. He wanted to arrange his body to make him look like the knight he once saw sculpted on a tomb, to cancel the indignity of death and to make Guy look solemn, so he took his arms to cross them over the sword. Then he lifted a hand to brush away a lock of hair from Guy’s face and he froze as he felt a weak breath on his wrist.
At first Allan thought that he must have been wrong, but he put his hand near Gisborne’s mouth, to be sure, and he gasped loudly.
“Hey!” he called, and Robin and Djaq turned to look at him, while John gave him a disapproving look.
“Have respect for their mourning,” he chided, but Allan didn’t listen to him.
“I don’t want to be funny, but I think that Giz is still alive!”