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Aim and Arrow

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"The final test of truth is ridicule."
—H.L. Mencken

      They'd carried Gisburne in, scalded and half-conscious, a crossbow bolt buried deep between his shoulders. The Sheriff had looked up from his writing and, somehow, had found breath to bark orders to the guardsmen.
      De Rainault then hastened with the men, as they hauled their captain to his chambers and plunked him prone onto the bed. One soldier pulled Gisburne's tunic open at the neck, another ripped the shredded cloth from his arms, and a healer glanced over the scorched flesh while de Rainault stood watching, smoldering.
      They handle him like a haunch of pork, de Rainault thought. You brainless wastrels, he isn't dead yet! But he didn't dare to say a damned word until their work was done.
      The physic gestured to a pot of salve, turning his attention to the most serious wound. “Burns ain' too bad, m'lord,” he said to de Rainault, never looking up from his patient. “But that arrow's got t'come out. It'll kill 'im if I push it through. Have to pull it.”
      Even de Rainault, who had handled far more scrolls than swords, knew what that meant: a lot of blood, a lot of pain, and a lot of know-it-all busybodies standing idly and volleying words like “final” and “confession.” “Do it,” he rasped, his teeth grinding.
      The Sheriff crossed his arms as three strong guards took firm hold of Gisburne. The healer clamped tongs onto the protruding arrow-shaft and then made a few brisk cuts around it, pushing fabric and flesh aside. Finally, grasping the arms of his instrument, he pulled out the bolt so hard that de Rainault could see the strain of effort and hear the tearing of tissue; a frenetic convulsion ran through the knight, and a strangled grunt tore from him. Now, rapid-fire commands were called: the men clamped down on Guy's limbs, and the healer held relentless pressure on the undyed cloths, too quickly blooming scarlet under his hands.
      At last Guy fell limp, and the guards were sent away. The healer diligently unbound the remaining tunic, dressed the ugly wounds carefully and liberally with unguent, then called for hot water and left an herbal brew to infuse. He explained carefully to de Rainault, how the servants must be instructed in Gisburne's care. Then he departed, for there was nothing more to be done.
      Robert would certainly not be leaving orders for anything more complex than blinking with the castle's mindless staff — the same lazy wretches responsible for the room being winter-cold when they'd brought Guy in. He would tend to the deputy himself; at least then he knew it'd be done properly. Guy likely would have disagreed, but he was too ill to form any opinions on his condition, much less voice them.
      So de Rainault stayed. But he was bitterly unsurprised when the concoctions from the healer's fancy apothecary proved as useless as Nottingham’s servants. The arrow-wound began to run sickly white, and the knight's skin turned deeply flushed and wet with fever. Gisburne sank into agony without awareness, and de Rainault couldn't understand the words he tried to speak. Again the physician was summoned, and then the chirurgeon, and the saturnine Sheriff lingered like a malignant shadow as the nervous men employed their arts.
      On the fourth day, the healers' somber faces told de Rainault the verdict they did not dare to pronounce; silently, the Sheriff paid their fees and dismissed them. Then he dispatched his fastest messenger to Hugo, and leaned against the window-frame to wait. It was deep afternoon; the sun was setting, and Robert looked like sunlight stretched too thinly, and Guy was dying.
      Once, in their cups, he and Gisburne had concluded that death was a blessing. Well, they hadn't really discussed it. Robert had spoken bitterly and long on the travails of life and its pathetic pointlessness, and Guy had nodded with jaded satisfaction and agreed, and they'd had more wine and that was that. Often, it irritated de Rainault that Gisburne rarely talked, that his few words were never a match for de Rainault's own brilliance. But occasionally it was reassuring, like the knowledge that his shadow would appear in the sunlight. There was a listless serenity in ruminating upon the ridiculous human condition and finding agreement somewhere, even though it was only Gisburne.
      But de Rainault suddenly felt this quiet demise to be a pitiful joke: his man made another casualty of those brutal outlaws, who pretended to be on a great crusade against injustice while murdering men who protected the people. For every peasant Guy slaughtered in anger — and Robert knew there were many — there were still ten more sleeping safely because a bandit had been imprisoned, or a rapist hanged, or a poacher stopped from bringing the king's wrath down on all of their heads.
      And now Guy was dying.
      De Rainault realised he knew little of Guy's people, who should be told or, for that matter, whether anyone would care. He remembered the dismal Gisburne estates, near Honfleur, and his one encounter with Edmund and Margaret of Gisburne — a petty tyrant and a simpering sycophant, who'd inspired little except pity for everyone surrounding them. And to see Guy's pinched face at any mention of "family," well, that miserable lot would probably receive the news with neither surprise nor grief.
      Robert had taken Guy's service on a hunch, knowing almost nothing of the man's past, as if Gisburne had had no life at all before arriving in Nottinghamshire. Indeed, Robert hadn't cared about the biographical details that Guy never volunteered anyway, and that mutually-willed ignorance had made the knight his in some indefinable way, formed a tie that transcended the oath of fealty. But now, with the sun departed and the night-candles ablaze, the rumpled sickbed looked too much like a bier. And so Robert pondered those distant unknowns, and ignored the rising disquiet that threatened to overwhelm his good sense.
      “You can't do this to me, Gisburne,” he ordered. He sank into the chair — a rickety thing, why had Gisburne chosen this room? — and kept going, because Guy was dying, and for once he couldn't stand the emptiness of the knight not talking.
      He rested his elbows on his knees, pushed his thumbs under his chin. “You aren't allowed to just give up. The wolfsheads are back in Sherwood. And do you know how much work there is to do? Fall session taxes are coming due, and lease renewals on top of that—”
      Guy's face was apoplectic and anguished. Even unconscious, he looked like he would far rather expire than collect fall session taxes, not that Robert could really blame him. The Sheriff nearly threatened to leave his deputy's corpse for the vultures to enjoy, but at the unspoken jest, his feeling of deep unease grew worse. He touched the knight's wrist that, yes, still pulsed, at least for now.
      “This is absurd,” he muttered to the air. He wanted to tell Guy something of his strength, of his presence like a shield before him - but Robert de Rainault believed in saving endearments for the deathbed, preferably timed for a moment that the hearer would be cold and blue before the meaning set in. To speak them now would be to assume—no. “I will not indulge your indolence, Gisburne; I don't pay you to laze abed! You'd dare to quit, and leave me to carry on alone?!” Of course there was no response, and for a long time, de Rainault stared without focus. Hectic heat radiated from the still figure. Gisburne looked halfway to hell already.
      Suddenly, de Rainault's eyes narrowed as a memory came, unbidden.
      (“Cattle must be driven, my lord.”)
      The idea had its own cruel power, founded in truth; even animals lacking any sense or reason could be goaded.
      Robert touched his lips to the wrist braced between his palms; slowly, he lifted his head and released Guy's hand. Then he stood, and looked icily down, and there was no longer Robert de Rainault. The man who spoke next was the High Sheriff of Nottingham, Sir Guy of Gisburne's liege-lord.
      “You're dying, Gisburne,” he announced clearly, forcefully. The candlelight blazed around him, glimmered from the velvets and gold. “And you just lie there. As if you have the right to wait for it!”
      “I was wrong,” de Rainault accused, both himself and the knight, “wrong to think that a worthless Norman boy could be anything more than target practice for a band of peasants. They said it was the girl who got you; did you see it? A woman with a crossbow, Gisburne. If you want that inscribed on your gravestone, I can arrange it.”
      He paused. Guy was still breathing. “They'll pretend to weep for you, while they throw you into the ground. If anyone does actually miss you, it won't last.”
      He leaned in close; his voice was all venom and oil. “You pathetic fool. I'll get a new deputy, a competent one. Someone who will catch the outlaws, and finally quiet Nottingham for good. And no-one will remember that you lived, or died, here.” Firmly he whispered the last, insidiously, into the knight's ear. “Même-moi, moi aussi je te vais oublier, Guy.
      Even as he spoke, he examined the still features, the hair falling over the forehead and streaking the cheeks, the sunken eyelids. He memorised every detail. Then he strode to the door, opened it, and slammed it shut.
      And nearly ran full-tilt into the Abbot Hugo, dressed in full ecclesiastical garb and finally responding to his summons. “It's about bloody time, man!” Robert blurted furiously, trying to recover his composure.
      Hugo's face was more sour than usual, if that was even possible; he'd been pulled out of Compline services, and had not been pleased to discover the cause. “Time isn't the point,” he scolded, scowling. “He'll pass on or he won't; it's in God's hands either way.” He looked at his brother, took in the latter's disheveled clothing and hair, the thoroughly rattled aspect. “Good God, Robert, pull yourself together! It's Gisburne. You didn't look this bad when our father died!”
      “He wasn't nearly so expensive,” Robert growled. “I have a lot more invested in Gisburne.”
      Hugo eyed him askance. “Yes,” he retorted. “Yes, I can see that you do.”
      The quiet was thick with suspicion. The Abbot pulled his missal from his robe and reached for the door, but he paused. Without looking behind him, he spoke flatly, frankly. “It's a sin, brother.”
      Robert had learned long ago to ignore allegations; if he responded to an accusation, it was as good as admitting the crime. Hugo had never figured this out, and so the cleric sighed in exasperation as Robert pretended not to understand.
      “A sin, Hugo? To bring a wounded man home, to thwart God’s will that he die? Ah, of course,” he snapped. “The Church would have left him to perish, praised his noble sacrifice and then made him a saint in fifty years. Forgive me if I don't particularly care for your thoughts on sin. Especially when you're babbling at me instead of absolving him.”
      Shamed, Hugo entered the chamber and hastily closed the portal between them.
      Robert never knew the cause — whether the miracle of extreme unction or the motivation of extreme anger — that moved Gisburne to awaken a few hours later. But when the knight finally began his slow recovery, the Sheriff generously eased Guy back into the usual mockery and harangue, instead of returning him to Nottingham’s daily routine right away.
      And if Robert felt only a small and uneasy reprieve from an inevitable sentence — if Guy puzzled over the anger and strange grief that permeated his hazy memories of delirium — they admitted this neither to themselves nor each other. They fell instead into their comfortable pattern of walking in unison while thinking at odds, returning to a complementary rhythm of speaking and listening. The silences between them again became easy and easily granted.
      But de Rainault never again dared to speak of death as a boon.