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Severance

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Car plus est adjoustee foy au mal de tant comme le bien y est plus auttentique.
(Evil is rendered more believable by putting it together with good to make it more respectable.)
—Christine de Pizan

          As the soldiers hauled him from the table, the Sheriff — that is, the previous Sheriff of Nottingham — shouted for me, and from the long habit of many years, I started after him.
          "Forget him, Gisburne," came a quick counter-order, equally compelling. The new Sheriff of Nottingham had just issued his first order to me, and I hesitated for a moment, caught between the two men and their opposing commands.
          Then, suddenly, I realised: I didn't have to obey Robert de Rainault, not now, not ever again. He could yell my name all he wanted. I need not even listen.
          "Let's have some wine," Philip Mark suggested, smiling.
          Let's indeed, and why not? I picked up the vessel, forgetting the servants; I could certainly oblige any man who had arranged this surprising turn of events. In less than one day, Mark had executed a murderous serf, deposed and passed judgment upon my former employer, and now reclined in the great hall as if he'd always been the master of Nottingham Castle.
          As I held the pitcher over his cup, Mark reached over and patted my hand, in a manner both condescending and sure. "You're mine now," he declared.
          His possessive words startled me; I am a knight of the realm, not a hunting-hound! But I finished the task, and tolerated the touch, and turned my burning face to the floor. Hubert de Giscard coughed from his seat at Mark's left; I hoped it was only a stuck morsel of food. I am not 'yours'! I wanted to protest, but Philip Mark did not seem like a man who would argue. He would just—
          ("You are banished.")
          Mark squeezed my hand.
          A chill shot up my arm, as I remembered what else I had heard about “the Butcher of Lincolnshire.”
          ("—this...this posturing catamite!")
          But of course, it had to be a lie; the former Sheriff had often exaggerated, especially when he was angry. The new Sheriff couldn't possibly be like that, not and keep the king's favour, not with the king's messenger de Giscard sitting right there. Philip Mark had intended to show me kindness, nothing more, and after years under Robert de Rainault, I had simply forgotten that kindness existed.
          No, I could not allow de Rainault's suspicions and biting words to spoil my opportunity. I certainly didn't want to follow de Rainault's example, for he had fallen far, and now awaited his punishment in the company of Mark's guards.
          So I turned my full attention back to Mark, while he spoke about the weather, praised the food and the wine. It seemed an eternity; I was not accustomed to small-talk at table and fidgeted restlessly as he continued. Then Mark asked me a question. "You served the former Sheriff as steward, yes?"
          "Yes, my lord," I replied.
          "Then you'll perform the same office for me," he said. "See to it that de Rainault's affairs are settled, and those rooms emptied.”
          I almost upset the bench as I rose. "I'll go now, my lord. It's been a long journey. You'll want to rest."
          He gave me an appraising stare. "I shall indeed," he said. "Run along, then." I bowed and departed.
          While I hurried towards the master chambers, I wondered how exactly the guardsmen had dispensed with de Rainault. Men of power often shout and threaten when angered; I knew better than to believe that a nobleman would be sent into penniless exile for one badly-timed insult. Mark would decide upon the real verdict later, after he'd calmed his anger with some wine, and meanwhile, de Rainault was probably stewing in the dungeons.
          Well, a stay there would certainly motivate him to show Mark the proper respect. Perhaps it would also teach the man to keep quiet when the occasion demanded — a lesson he should have learned long ago.
          At last, I reached the chamber entryway and pushed on the heavy, fine wood. The door swung open quietly; I stepped in and shut it carefully behind me. Torches still burned, but the room held no other save myself.
          I could almost hear de Rainault's voice mocking my haste. So eager to please him, are you, Gisburne?
          I took a breath, released it, pushed from my mind everything that had just transpired. The events had not bothered me, of course, but were...unsettling. This was not how I had imagined parting from my employer...
          (“Gisburne! Do something about it!” Yet Sarak had just killed a serf faster than I'd ever seen a man die. And Mark commanded me to remain, so what else could I do?)
          It would not be the first time I had gathered personal effects. It was a simple task and never took long.
          I began with the wardrobe, pulling out piles of clothing. As I worked, I could only feel scorn at the lavish expenditures that I held. Did one man really need so much decoration?
          Mark, by comparison, had arrived in riding-clothes that were austere and evidenced no love of gems or frills. Certainly he wouldn't care about these things. I touched the purple velvets that had come from Italy at great expense and trouble; they wouldn't fit the new Sheriff, even if they suited his taste. If Mark learned that de Rainault had worn this heavy brown robe after bathing, he would probably jest that this was no longer the case. And this, the green satin, it wouldn’t matter to Mark that I had seen my former lord nearly married in these clothes.
          (“Are you trying to be funny, Gisburne?” I turned and stared...)
          I shook my head and set the fripperies aside, and when that was done, I turned to the bedstead. The coverings were pulled out and trailing on the ground, likely from the morning's waking. I yanked them out entirely and piled them loosely on the mattress; Mark would not want to rest beneath another's blankets, surely.
          (“Sherwood? At night? You can't mean it!”)
          Then my eye caught clothing I had missed, though it draped over the front bed-post in plain view. It was the crimson robe that de Rainault had been wearing when they'd taken him away. I touched the silk; it shone ruby-hued in the torchlight, its gold embroidery patterned like gashes across the chest.
          (“—we'll just have to dress you in rags, won't we?”)
          Surely Mark hadn't meant that. He couldn't have. I looked away from the cloth and threw it onto the pile with the rest.
          From there, I went to the cases of the writing-desk, to the “affairs” I'd been asked to settle, whatever those might be. I thought perhaps to find the sorcery implements I'd always half-suspected de Rainault of possessing. (“Superstition is a hobby-horse of mine.” What was the ‘feast of Bel-tan,’ anyhow?) Or the tokens of some distant lover, or some valuable treasure that had been missed. But the compartments of the desk were less interesting than my imaginings. There were business receipts, leases, pending verdicts, the same sorts of documents that I saw him sign all the time, and these I gathered together to take with me. Only the final case was intriguing. It stood open; once locked, it was now unlatched, with a key protruding from the front.
          I looked into the compartment and lifted out a silver cross on a chain, simple and not at all rich like de Rainault’s tastes. It was delicate, a woman's ornament. Then my hands touched an arrow, a plain common thing. At last I pulled out a cloth, a tunic that had been used to line the case. I tilted it towards the wall-sconces, and when I saw it clearly — a light blue brocade edged in silver — the flesh of my face and hands lost its feeling.
          (He wore frost-blue, like the winter night, and for all of his elegant gilding he struck the colée with an unexpected strength, and his eyes were cold. But then he embraced me, and kissed my cheeks, and when he said, 'advances, chévalier, au nom de Dieu’, I was ready to die for him.)
          This garment I remembered well, recalling my knighting each time he'd worn it....I realised it must have been stored for years. I'd last seen it when I'd returned from Sherwood, soaked through and humiliated. That was the night Hugo had released me from St. Mary's at last, and—
          I wrenched my attention back to the present, for foolhardy reminisces over fabrics would serve me nothing; such conduct was not becoming of a soldier, and certainly would not complete my task.
          But why had he kept these things, locked away?
          Distractedly, I ran a hand over the tunic's broken clasps, and then I realised: there was another sealed case in this room, one whose contents were surely even more fascinating. The dark far-right corner held a small money-chest, which rested sedately on a wooden stand. I had never seen de Rainault open it; I had no idea what it contained. But for once, there was no-one else here. I could hear the speed and force of my heart beating, as I pulled the key and went to the chest.
          Its lock sprang open easily at the key's touch; almost forgetting to breathe, I looked inside.
          A large bag filled most of the space, and atop that bag rested a tightly-rolled parchment, scribbled hastily with its recipient’s identity: Abbot Hugo de Rainault, St. Mary's Abbey. The scroll was tied with a ribbon that weighted heavily; de Rainault had attached a ring to it, a gem that he always wore. It was a fine amethyst, set in a heavy gold band. I touched the jewel against my lips, and considered for a moment. This document was his will; it had to be.
          Hurriedly I peered into the money-sack, where the glint of coin greeted my eyes. I estimated hundreds of them — years of salary — simply lying there for the taking. It was prosperity of a sort that I had never imagined. It was the freedom to do whatever I wished.
          I started to reach in, then stayed my hand.
          I couldn't destroy de Rainault's last testament which, unfortunately, would likely calculate and distribute all of this wealth. And if Mark were to somehow discover—
          (“In Lincolnshire, the people were just too....afraid.”)
          In the end, I took only ten, placing the coins carefully and softly against the others in my purse; such a small number could easily be overlooked. Then I again sealed the chest and placed its key clearly upon the writing-desk. It was probably the only one of de Rainault's belongings that would interest Philip Mark.
          Finally I looked at the scroll, and wondered: would Hugo really miss a single ring? Especially with the estates and fortunes he surely stood ready to inherit?
          A distant sound interrupted me, and I started like a timid beast. Footsteps rang closer and closer; it must be Mark.
          So I untied the ring quickly and slipped it into the top of my boot, to examine later. As for the other things I’d found, I thought for only a second.
          (“You thought, did you, Gisburne? What a pity I wasn't here.”)
          Shut up! I hissed to myself.
          The tunic would mean nothing to Mark. The cross, well, some pretty maid would receive the trinket gratefully, and then it could adorn her breast while I enjoyed her. And the arrow, that was certainly useful as well; perhaps it could soon find new residence, in Robin Hood’s skull. So I slipped the long arrow beneath my robe, using my belt to secure it discreetly at my side. Then I wrapped the necklace and the sealed scroll in the tunic, piled de Rainault's papers on top, and made for the door. A swift look around the room told me I'd been thorough.
          I opened the door and observed Philip Mark indeed approaching; he nodded acknowledgment when he saw me. His presence felt like an invasion, though these rooms were rightfully his.
          My smile was strained, but fortunately, Mark didn't notice it. He swept past me and saw the chamber, orderly as he'd asked, and nodded at me with evident approval. “Excellent. We'll get rid of these things at once.”
          “My lord, if I may suggest—” I blurted out. He nodded, and I continued, a bit more smoothly. “You could send them to St. Mary’s Abbey.”
          He looked at me incredulously and then laughed loudly. I didn’t understand why granting de Rainault’s effects to his brother was so funny, until Mark spoke. “Give his possessions to the poor? Inflicting further injury by insult, it’s brilliant!” He touched my chin lightly with his finger, the way I’d seen him do with the serving-boy. I stiffened. “I see I must be careful of you, my dear Gisburne!”
          That’s exactly what de Rainault said, I thought curiously.
          “My lord!” came a cry from down the corridor.
          Mark and I turned to look. One of Mark’s guardsmen ran unsteadily towards us, and I could see a dark, sinkingly familiar stain on his tabard.
          But Mark seemed unperturbed. “Report,” he ordered.
          The man stopped, breathing hard and resting one hand on his thigh. “M’lord…the Sheriff — former Sheriff — he attacked us. He'd a knife—“
          “A knife,” Mark repeated, interrupting. There was something warning in his voice.
          “Yes, sir,” the guard confirmed.
          “He was to be dressed in rags and left with nothing,” Mark said, looking daggers at the shrinking man. “Now where — how — did he get a knife?”
          I could see the man’s fear as he tried to explain. “My…my lord…I…”
          I gripped the things I held, and suddenly I remembered the scroll. It was tied with a ribbon, not sealed with wax. As though he'd been too rushed to—
          Had those fools actually left de Rainault alone? It was possible. It would be an act of decency, to allow him privacy instead of forcing him into the clothes, and even a few moments in his own chambers would have been ample time...
          I felt pride in my own thinking, in being able to so predict the Sheriff’s wiles. Even I, for all of my stupidity, would never have trusted Robert de Rainault in a sealed room!
          But then I heard Mark’s sharply-drawn breath, and realised he might well reach the same conclusion. And if he figured it out, this man would be dead.
          Certainly I didn’t care what happened to a lowly guard, and a stranger besides; I had no need to intervene.
          “My lord,” I interrupted. “De Rainault kept a few weapons hidden in the castle. He was…fearful of deposition. Paranoid, even.”
          The guard looked at me with eyes wide.
          I nearly added that Mark hadn’t ordered de Rainault's hands tied, then realised that — while true — it could be dangerous to point out that fact. “He is a deceitful man with many such tricks, my lord; I...I should have suggested that he be bound.” The assessment seemed to please Mark.
          Then I looked at the guardsman and kept talking; I hoped I wasn’t babbling. “Are you wounded?” It was false urgency; I could see that the blood wasn’t his.
          The guard looked down at his garment as if just noticing it. “No, my lord, thank you.” His eyes flickered up to me, and I saw that he was grateful for more than my show of concern. His next words were more nervous than mine. “But...in the east wing...h-he killed one of us, before we could—”
          “No-one else was hurt?” I persisted.
          “No, my lord.”
          Mark nodded to the guard. “See that all's tidied and your man buried. Use any of the servants you need. And—“
          The guard looked at Mark, suddenly terrified again.
          “If you dare such carelessness again, you will all join your deceased companion.” His voice was steel, his eyes were steel; gone was any of the warmth I’d seen earlier. It was a momentary and frightening change. The guard bowed and ran with his life. Then Mark turned back to me, smiled, and it was as though the last few minutes had never transpired.
          “Now, where were we before this unpleasantness? Ah yes, Saint Mary’s,” he remembered, with a chuckle. Then his eyes moved from my face, down to the bulky bundle I held in both arms. “And these are—?”
          I clutched the objects closer as if to protect them, and myself. “The matters you asked me to attend to, my lord."
          "And this?" he asked, gesturing to the pale cloth. "Another item of...business?"
          "Oh no, it's...it's mine, my lord,” I invented quickly. “I'm retrieving it.”
          He raised an eyebrow. “Indeed?” He trailed his fingers lightly over the fabric, and I froze, willing him not to pull it from me. Mark looked up and searched my face. “You ought to wear this soon; the colour reflects your eyes, Guy.”
          I nodded and burbled something in reply — I cannot even recall the words I spoke — and retreated as hastily as possible to my chamber. After pushing the door bolt into place, I breathed more easily.
          Only then did I think of several things.
          That hearing Philip Mark speak my Christian name was unpleasant to my ears.
          That Mark seemed to like blue, and for a moment I wished to discard nearly every garment I owned.
          And that, worst of all, I'd apparently just implied to him that I left my clothes in de Rainault's chambers. You impulsive, incompetent idiot! I berated myself. You couldn't have thought of anything else to say? And for what? To keep a few trinkets, you've let him think that you...that you—
          (“—aren’t you, Gisburne?”)
          I dug my nails into my palms, willed my stupid hands to stop shaking.
          My chair was already set before the window. I dumped the papers quickly onto the bed and retrieved the arrow I'd hidden, then balanced it upon my knees while unwrapping the brocade folds of “my” clothing, eager to examine each in turn.
          The arrow was plain and looked old, the metal point stained with a bit of rust. There was nothing really to distinguish it from any other arrow, and I had no idea why he'd kept it.
          Next I took up the little silver necklace, but set it quickly upon the desk in favour of the more intriguing item, the parchment; I longed to know its message. But its contents could not be accepted as scribed if anyone but Hugo untied those knots. I couldn't risk Mark compromising it, or worse still, destroying it. Especially if there was anything written there which concerned me...
          So, slowly, I unlatched the deadbolt and looked into the halls, checking in every direction I could see, and probably a few that a man couldn't even travel.
          I gestured to the first servant I saw, beckoning him impatiently to the doorway. “Find a messenger. Get this to Saint Mary's,” I told him, and I gave him a few of the coins from my worn purse, and he was surprised at the amount that I didn't waste time counting. “Tell no-one else,” I ordered. “And hurry.” He nodded dumbly and sped away the way he’d come.
          From my high window, I watched until I saw one of the castle's messengers ride from the gates, towards the abbey. Messengers passed all the time; no-one bothered to look at him. I almost envied him.
          Then I smelled something, so familiar that it made my eyes burn. It was the tunic. The servants must have placed herbs among the clothes.
          De Rainault had sown these seeds himself. He’d deserved his fate; even de Giscard had said so.
          I became still. I looked at the tunic in my hands. And then, I think, I truly realised.
          Sherwood.
          Mark’s order had been carried out, and Mark would blithely send the bundled possessions to Hugo as though their owner had no further need of them. And de Rainault was indeed as good as dead; if the outlaws didn't kill him, then he'd be eaten alive by animals, or hunger.
          God, that was no death for a man. Without a single weapon to fight back.
          (The small blade glinted as he coaxed the quill's tip into proper shape, his hands slender and quick—
          “He attacked us...he'd a knife..”)
          I shook off the thoughts, and willed away the perverse and nonsensical pride I'd felt in the guardsman’s report.
          Then I took the ring from my boot. It was a fine consolation for the disturbing events of the day, and anyhow, what had de Rainault ever given me? Even one good word for everything I'd done for him, anything at all but insult and humiliation and grief?
          I slipped the circlet onto my fourth finger and felt the new and pleasant weight and tilted my hand to see the stone shine. The band fit perfectly, though he was shorter and slighter than I. He had been.
          Night came quickly, and then I couldn't see the north road or the gem's light anymore. But I didn't move. I pressed my face to the cloth, breathed it, sat for a long time alone. Christ...
          That word brought to mind the faith which I had failed these many months. God had surely righted the books at last, in removing de Rainault from office; it had to be vengeance against his countless transgressions. Such a God should have my loyalty in fact, not just in name. I resolved to return to confession, to put my soul in better order.
          But for the time being, I decided, I should not allow this sudden gloom to continue. Melancholy is a poor habit to indulge; it only saps a soldier’s strength. I had done for de Rainault more than anyone else would have. He would have to survive on his own.
          So would I, for that matter, and surely there was no better aid to a man's fortitude than wine? Mark had brought his own casks, filled with some sweet spiced concoction from the East that tasted of raisins and honey. He had opened one for the earlier meal. I would go and see to the remainder.
          I changed my boots for slippers, then quietly unlocked the door and peered both ways. The open hallway's stones were cold against my soft-shod heels, and I shivered until I reached the hall.
          The vast room was empty. That in itself was strange. Often the Sheriff had simply had papers brought to the bench, working next to a carving-board and a wine-ewer. If I came for a late evening repast, he would look up, hurl some new indignity at me as I passed. Sometimes I would sit near him, drink there and argue back. But the hall was enormously hollow now. It was the first time I had seen it unoccupied—
          (“Just how drunk are you, Gisburne?” —not nearly enough—)
          The wine! The wine, I thought, clenching my teeth. Only this wine, and not the empty hall. Not this unreal afternoon. Not Sherwood Forest or its throat-cutting outlaws, or its ensorcelled trees that were all his problems now, and not mine. Really, it served him right for planting us both in this miserable country, where everything lurked in wait to bewitch and entrap a decent man!
          And I would get rid of his things as soon as I returned to my chambers, I resolved, toasting the decision with a long fiery drink. It was time to discard all traces of him and start fresh. Though, perhaps I’d have the tunic remade into something useful; Mark was correct that the colour suited me. And it would suit me to keep Mark happy, until the outlaws were caught and killed. Until he made it clear that these disastrous years had been de Rainault’s failure and not mine.
          Then, I thought, looking at the ring I wore, I would have means, and could request transfer to any place I wished. I could go to the Earl of Chester, perhaps — I’d told that stupid de Talmont woman as much — and leave this dark castle and its wretched memories behind.