Marian looked at the little box, without opening it.
“Really, Sir Guy, I don’t need so many presents.”
Guy of Gisborne looked at her, the shadow of a smile on his lips.
“I’ll keep giving. We are betrothed, and I want to please my wife to be.”
Marian hid a little sigh and politely thanked him, then Guy went away, and she dropped herself on a chair near the fireplace.
She opened the little box and looked at the embroidered veil. At least, she bitterly thought, Sir Guy didn’t give her another necklace.
The door opened and her father came into the room.
“Was Sir Guy here again?” Sir Edward asked.
Marian nodded at the embroidered veil.
“At least he’s trying to do this properly.”
Marian looked at her father, her eyes glittering with ire.
“How can you talk like this?! Look at your face! He slapped you! He made that bruise! And how can a betrothal be proper if I accepted to marry him under duress?!”
Sir Edward shook his head.
“Your words are foolish! It’s your willfulness that caused all this! If you weren’t involved with the outlaws, you wouldn’t be forced to marry him!”
“At least they do something to help people! The peasants are starving because the sheriff takes everything they have.”
Marian glanced at the door and she got up from her chair.
“I have to go.”
“People in Nettlestone need food and remedies.”
“No, I forbid this Nightwatchman foolishness!”
“This is who I am, father! I have been helping people for five years, they need me!”
“I don’t want to see you executed! They will hang you if they find out what you do!”
“But they won’t! Sir Guy already came and went away, he won’t be back for today. No one will notice that I’m gone and then I’m not going there to challenge the sheriff, I’ll just take a few supplies to the poor. I’ll be perfectly safe.”
Sir Edward shook his head.
“When you marry Sir Guy, you will have to forget this Nightwatchman thing.”
“I know. That’s why I must do everything I can now that I’m still free.”
Guy of Gisborne spurred his horse to make him go faster. The sheriff didn’t like Marian, he kept saying that all women were like lepers, and he wouldn’t accept him neglecting his duties because of their betrothal.
He still had plenty of time to reach the castle before the beginning of his shift, but he also wanted to meet Lambert and work for a while on their project.
Guy smiled: if the black powder could improve the work in the mines, the sheriff would earn a lot of money from them, and Guy would get a big share too.
He already earned a lot of silver coins working for Vaisey, but he wanted more: if he was going to have a wife, he wanted to be sure to give her everything she could need, and he needed to know that she’d always have the easy and happy life she deserved.
He pulled the reins of his horse, realizing that he went to Knighton for two reasons, but that he only accomplished one of his tasks. He wanted to give a present to Marian, of course, but he also wanted to invite her and her father to Locksley next week, to celebrate the birthday of king Richard.
Guy blushed: the king was just an excuse to organize a party and make a public announcement of their engagement.
He wanted everyone to know that Lady Marian would be the future Lady Gisborne.
He sighed in frustration: when he talked to Marian to give her his gift, he had been so excited and overwhelmed by her presence, that he completely forgot to invite her at Locksley.
Guy decided that Lambert could wait: if he hurried, he still had time to go back to Knighton, ask her and her father to come to the party, and then go back to the castle before the sheriff could notice his lateness.
Guy turned his horse and began to gallop back to Knighton.
Gisborne knew that his guards were snickering behind his back, but he pretended he didn’t notice.
Once they used to laugh because he had a title, but no lands, now they were having fun in seeing him woo Marian.
Guy gritted his teeth, annoyed. He knew that sometimes he was way more shy and awkward than a man of his position should be, but he couldn’t help it. Talking to Marian made him feel vulnerable and soft, but also warm and hopeful: her pure soul was going to save him from all his sins.
A sudden movement along the road woke him from that reverie and Guy gasped when he recognized the masked figure of the Nightwatchman.
The masked outlaw was running away from Knighton and Guy was immediately worried: did that man attack the inhabitants of the house? Did he hurt Marian?
He cried at the guards to follow him, then he spurred his horse to chase the Nightwatchman.
Marian had just left her house, when she heard Gisborne’s voice. She was startled because she didn’t expect to see him coming back so soon: he should have been on his way to the castle, not at Knighton!
She hit the flanks of the horse with her heels, sending him in a gallop. She had to run away, she couldn’t let Gisborne to capture her or it would be the end both for her father and her.
The guards didn’t worry her too much: they were incompetents, and she knew that she could easily trick them and make them lose her tracks. But Gisborne could be very dangerous: he was a good rider, and his horse was fast.
Marian decided that she had to stop him, somehow: she took the path that crossed the village, and went back to Knighton Hall. She didn’t want to go home, of course, but she knew that the swineherd of the manor had a big dog who used to bark and bite at the horses who passed too near the pigsty.
If Guy of Gisborne kept following her like that, the dog would attack his horse, and he probably would stop him long enough to let her run.
Passing near the pigsty, she threw a rock on the swineherd’s shed, and the dog came out running.
Marian grinned, seeing that the animal was going straight towards Gisborne.
She spurred her horse again, taking a turn in the road and, after a while, she tried to glance back: she couldn’t see what happened to Guy of Gisborne because the houses of the village and the trees hid that part of the road, but she understood that her trick must have worked because nobody was following her anymore.
She felt a little guilty and she hoped that the dog didn’t bite too deeply, but after all Gisborne deserved it: the Nightwatchman never hurt anyone, so he shouldn’t try to capture her as if she was a common outlaw!
Guy bent forward on the saddle to make the horse go faster.
He wanted to capture the Nightwatchman and he wasn’t going to stop until he succeeded: that man already humiliated him too many times, and if he could catch him, the sheriff would give him a reward.
Guy glanced back: his guards were too far behind to be useful. He sighed and decided that he should do something for those soldiers: it was true that they were underpaid and overworked, but they were also completely useless!
He realized that if he wanted to capture the Nightwatchman, he’d have to do it on his own.
Suddenly, the outlaw threw a stone to a shed and Guy wondered why he did it, but, after a moment, a growling dog rushed out of the shed and ran towards his horse, trying to bite his legs.
The black stallion reared and Guy fell to the ground. He put his hands in front of him to dampen the fall, and a searing pain in his left wrist made him howl in agony, but he didn’t want to abandon his pursuit of the Nightwatchman.
He raised himself from the ground, cradling his injured wrist, and he saw that his stallion stopped at the other side of the road, grazing the tender grass.
Guy was feeling a little dizzy after the fall, but the pain made him angry: it was the Nightwatchman’s fault if he fell from his horse, so he needed to capture him and get a revenge.
Without thinking, Guy crossed the road to reach his stallion, and he didn’t notice that his guards were arriving, galloping at full speed. They were just behind the bend in the road, and they hadn’t the time to stop when they saw their master standing in the middle of the road.
Guy stared at them with horror, realizing that he hadn’t the time to run from them before being hit, and the soldiers tried to avoid him, but there were too many of them and Guy fell, trampled by their hooves.
Run Marian, run.
Leave behind you that dark shadow and his black horse.
That dark shadow who wants to marry you, no matter what, against your own will, against your own heart. He will change your life, you’ll be forced to change. And then who will help the suffering villagers?
Run Marian, run.
Run away from his eyes, staring at you, from his gifts, from his, and yours, awkwardness when you meet him. When he comes to your house, invading it with black and gold. How can the blue of his eyes matter, when it is hidden by so much black, inside and outside him?
Now slow down, Marian, slow down.
You left him behind your back, he’s far now, and you didn’t turn to look anymore. It has been so easy, as always, to get the better of him. When you fight him, when you run from him, it’s easy. It’s when he comes to your house, unwanted and undesirable, to talk about ‘friendship’ or about his dead mother that all your trick and fighting skills are useless.
‘Let Guy of Gisborne come in our house! Receive him with all the honors and the best wine of Knighton Hall! Give him everything he wants! He has power and he’s a threat! He is power. Leather clad power.’
“God, I can’t stand the sound of all that leather, when he moves,” Marian thought, slowing down her horse near the first village. She was going to leave some of her supplies there. “It reminds me of the slithering of a snake. God, I can’t stand the sound of his spurs when he walks. I hate everything in you, Sir Guy. But I have so much fun when I run away from you after a fight, when I beat you and slip away, like now.”
Don’t think about it anymore, Marian. Complete your mission, and go home.
For another night, you’re free. For another night, people won’t starve. They’ll be stronger to survive and stand up against evil.
Marian was tired after the third village, after leaving her bundles to them. She was feeling tired, and a little euphoric too. Everything went smoothly, not a problem, no obstacles. Everything was perfect. After that first chase, just outside her house, the rest of her mission went well, without any problem.
No Guy, no guards, not even in the other villages. Perfect.
But even so, she was feeling tired. Since she found herself in that engagement, she increased the frequency of her missions. And now she was really tired.
It was too late to ask the servant of her house to prepare her a warm bath. It would have been the best way to end such a perfect mission. But Knighton servants were too kind, and she was reluctant to make them work so late at night. So, when she arrived at the crossroads near her home, Marian thought, with a content smile, that she would have been happy enough to quickly remove her costume and the mask, hide them in the usual place in the stables, change her clothes, run home, and go to bed.
Marian entered the stables and tied her horse to a pole while she retrieved the dress she was wearing when she had left home, earlier. It was hidden in the usual place, under a old ruined saddle who nobody used anymore, but that nobody ever threw away.
When she untied the reins of her horse to lead him inside, in the usual stall, she realized that something was wrong. It was very wrong.
Why there were so many horses? The stables were almost full, there was only a single free stall.
Marian unsaddled her horse, put him in his stall, and she closed the door, forgetting to give him the apple she had saved for the animal and that now formed a bulge in a pocket of her dress.
She walked quickly to the door of her house, and she shivered. Not because of the cold. Marian was afraid.
Maybe the sheriff was there? At her house in the middle of the night? And why Guy wasn’t with him? She’d have recognized his black stallion between a thousand of similar ones. The only thing she liked in Guy was his taste for good horses. Nothing else.
Marian opened the door.
She had never seen so much turmoil in her own house. People were running all around, sweating and puffing.
Sebastian was running, stumbling in his haste to take logs of wood to the fireplace of the hall, unusually lit and stoked for that hour of the day. His younger son, Jude, was running upstairs, carrying more logs. Mary, from the kitchen, protested because she had been forced to wake up and she kept yelling that she’d just reheat the leftover broth because “I’m already doing too much and I just want to go back to bed!”
Susanne slammed open the cabinets of the hall. Many rolled bandages fell to the ground, partially unrolling because of the fall. James, the oldest servant of Knighton Hall, with his calm, but unusually stern and uncompromising voice, rebuked her. She had to pick them up immediately and take them upstairs because “they are all needed, immediately. All the bandages and the white sheets that are in the dresser. All of them.”
James spoke to her, then he turned to look at Julian, who understood his unspoken question. He answered that the second pot of hot water was ready and that he’d took it upstairs from the fireplace of the hall in a moment.
Burdened by the pot, Julian went up the stairs, closely followed by Susanne, overloaded with sheets and bandages. Marian looked at them, astonished, thinking that maybe her father was ill. She was about to run upstairs too, when she heard her father’s voice coming from the hall. She followed it, and then she saw them.
Yellow and black, multiplied by two, by three, by five. To her worried eyes, they looked multiplied by a thousand. Gisborne’s colors on their uniforms. The hall of her house had been invaded by the faithful guards of Gisborne, and her father was fussing and going back and forth, taking cups of wine to them. But no one was in the mood to celebrate. There was a grim air in the room: no boldness, no sauciness, no haughtiness. Just a sense of waiting, of something solemn and irremediable impending over them.
And her father was fussing, as if his worry could reassure them, keep them calm, just in case.
“We’ll do everything we can, be sure of it, everything possible. Take this now, drink, get warm,” Sir Edward said. He turned and he saw his daughter.
“Where have you...” he was about to say, without thinking. But he controlled himself and talked to her in a stern voice. “Marian, make yourself useful. Take those things and bring them to your room. Now.”
“To my room?” Marian said, amazed and uncertain. She looked surprised for a moment too long.
Her father grabbed her arm and dragged her in the pantry, closing behind them the door of that old little room where Marian used to hide when she was a child, between the fragrant cakes, the pieces of cheese and the jars of preserves.
Edward lit a candle, and he turned to look at Marian, furious and scared at the same time. He looked older. He spoke in a low tone, so they couldn’t hear him from the outside, but his voice was imperative so she’d understand. Perfectly.
“You and the Nightwatchman. You and this obsession for changing the world. You and this foolishness that will make us to end hanged or burned alive.” Edward pointed a finger to his daughter. “If he dies, if he dies in this house, we’ll be held responsible!” The tone of his voice became contemptuous. “They’ll consider us like traitors and we’ll die. For your fault. And for what? Do you really think that some bread and cheese and a few coins stolen by your own dowry can save them? We are done, Marian, and it’s your fault. Fool, you’re a fool!”
“I won’t give up the Nightwatchman, not now,” Marian answered in the same tone, low and firm, confident in herself and in her untouchable cause. “Father, people starve since Vaisey took your job and exiled you in your own house. And you didn’t even try too much to resist. I must do something for that people, I can and I want to do something. The Nightwatchman never hurt anyone in all these years!”
“You don’t understand, Marian. You are insane, you actually lost your mind,” Sir Edward said, surprised and angry. “He’s wounded. It’s your fault.”
“Who’s wounded, father?” The girl asked.
“Gisborne. He’s injured. He could even die. In my home.” Edward answered, his tone more hurried with every sentence, as if every moment he spent in that room could make him lose control on a situation that was already out of any control.
Marian was incredulous. She smiled in disbelief and with a little boldness.
“I just threw a stone. To a dog. Did the great Guy of Gisborne get scared in seeing an old dog? Did the mighty black knight fall from his horse? Did he bruise his regal, leather clad backside? Poor Sir Guy,” Marian said in a mocking tone “Poor betrothed of mine, wounded in his mighty… pride. He deserved it.”
Edward didn’t answer to her. He only said: “Come.”
They went out of the pantry. Edward took the sheets that he had asked Marian to take upstairs and he took the stairs, climbing them with some exertion. Marian followed him. She could feel an unusual warmth coming from her room.
That room had always been the best one of the house, the one with more hours of light during the day, the warmer one at night.
It has always been her room because she was born late, in the middle of the winter, and she had to be protected. She was a little girl, born thanks to a late miracle, and they always kept her warm and pampered. Adored.
She could hear voices coming from that room, now. Edward entered Marian’s room, followed by his daughter, and placed the clean sheets on a chair.
In the bed where she had slept since she was a sweet and lively child and an indomitable girl, not yet a bride, lied her enemy, her betrothed, almost as white as the sheet that barely covered his full nakedness. He had red blood on his forehead, from an open wound, red on his arms, the purple and the blue of many bruises, and the black of the horrible leeches that the village’s physician put on his body.
Guy of Gisborne lied in her bed. Injured. Unconscious. At the full mercy of that unlikely physician and his horrible beasts.
Marian was shocked and surprised to see an incredible frailty in his pale, asleep face. He looked lost. Suddenly, that face changed in a grimace of insufferable pain, and he looked like he was going to wake up. But he passed out almost immediately.
The situation was serious. The room was stifling with decay and consumption, with the smell of lost blood.
Edward looked at the physician who kept placing his leeches, and whispered in his daughter’s ear. “He fell, a horse trampled on him. The physician said that he can’t do more than this for him. He was chasing the Nightwatchman near our home, that’s what his guards said when they took him here. If he’s done for, we’re dead as well.”
Marian’s breath quickened, and her heartbeat suddenly hastened. She lifted her hand to dry an unexpected tear on her face.
It was actually her fault.
Guy was dying in her bed and it was the Nightwatchman’s fault. He had been chasing her.
“The Nightwatchman doesn’t kill. He doesn’t let people die. Not even enemies. Not even him,” Marian thought, resolved.
She ran away in the night, her heart wildly pounding, to search the only person in the County who could give her some hope and save Guy.