Robin and his men had just returned to the Sherwood forest after the boy had reluctantly left Matilda near Marian’s neighborhood.
On a desperate request from Gisborne, he had reached the woman and brought her back to Knighton.
The brooding, dark knight’s behavior seemed increasingly unpredictable, incomprehensible to him. And his feelings too, of course. But his fear and despair had appeared very clear to Robin. And he was afraid too.
His lovely, beautiful girl.
Knowing that Marian was gravely sick worried him, a lot. But Matilda was very effectively reassuring about the girl's health and her skills to help her regaining her health “possibly in a peaceful and homely situation", to quote her. And above all, Matilda was very kind but firm in her request to him to go back, to give her time to work.
Eventually, the woman gave a tender caress to him, just like a loving mother, and told him: “You are a good man, Robin. You really are sorry for her, aren’t you? My poor boy..." she had sighed and added then, "If you would never had to go to war…” and she left him on the road, adding nothing else, while Robin wondered about what she really wanted to say.
On the way back through the village to the forest, he had heard from his informants that the Sheriff was organizing some important announcement for the County.
It was time to be on guard. No rest for the wicked. No rest for the good ones too. No respite for the County, no respite for him and his men.
But, honestly, it was also time to raise cash. He needed money to distribute to the people, more and more hungry and oppressed by taxes. A lot of money was needed. So while he was advancing into the forest, Robin heard the sound of horses and thought that, guards or travelers were they, the money he needed was there, a few feet away from him and his men.
Matilda had waved Robin away, as soon as they arrived in sight of Knighton Hall. She thought that it would be better to keep he and Gisborne as far as possible from each other.
She was worried for Guy too, Robin had said that he had came to the forest on his own to ask for his help, riding a horse, and she was afraid that he could have damaged his leg doing so.
If Gisborne was in pain, and obviously distressed about Marian’s health, making him interact with an equally upset Robin would have been a terrible idea.
“Go back to the forest. If the sheriff’s guards should see you here, Marian and her father would be in big troubles. Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of her and she’ll be better soon. You said that you ordered Allan to stay at Knighton, didn’t you? If I should need you, I’ll send him to call you. If you don’t hear from me, come to my hut tonight and I’ll tell you how she is.”
Robin had tried to complain, and they had talked a little more, but at last he gave up, and he went back to the forest.
Matilda sighed to herself. That boy was clearly in love with Marian, and sooner or later the girl would have to choose between him and Gisborne. Matilda cared for all three of them, and she was sad to know that they could suffer for love in the near future.
But now she had to think to the sick ones, and restore their health, at least.
She walked to the house, more worried for Gisborne’s leg than for Marian's fever. She knew that the girl had been very tired and nervous, and she guessed that her sickness was caused mainly by exhaustion, but to think that Guy rode a horse with his injured leg made her shudder with worry.
As she turned the corner of the house, a snowball hit her in the face.
She stared at Allan, disconcerted, then she yelled at him.
“What do you think you are doing?!”
“Matilda! You’ve come!” Guy exclaimed, stepping out from behind a tree, and the woman turned to look at him, even more surprised.
He didn’t look too ill or suffering, just a little flushed in his face. He was walking with the help of his crutch, but he looked stronger and his step was more steady than a few days ago.
“How is Marian?” Matilda asked, surprised to find him out of the manor, instead than hovering around her room.
“Her fever broke tonight, before sunrise. She’ll be fine, won’t she? Her maids are with her and one of them told Allan that she ate a little this morning.” His expression darkened and he sighed. “But they won’t let me see her.”
“Patience, boy. I’ll visit her and then I’ll see if she’s well enough to see people and if she wants to do it. If she does, I’ll allow a short visit. But now tell me about your leg. Are you in pain? Riding was a foolish thing to do!”
“I know, but I had to. If she should have gotten worse, I couldn’t have forgiven myself if I didn’t come to search for you.”
“You didn’t answer, love. Are you in pain?”
“The same as usual.”
“Well, let me see.”
Gisborne stared at her.
Matilda rolled her eyes.
“No, silly, get inside the house.”
Allan chuckled, and Guy scooped up a handful of snow and threw it at him.
The outlaw dodged it with a wide grin on his face.
“Hadn’t you had enough?” He said, then he answered with another snowball that hit both Guy and Matilda.
The woman glanced at Gisborne, thinking that she’d have to stop the knight from getting a bloody revenge, but she was shocked to see an amused light in his eyes.
They were playing, she realized. Those two supposed enemies were instead having fun in the snow like two overgrown children. And from the dampness of their clothes they must have been doing that for a while.
She hid a smile, and shook her head in fake disapproval.
“Go back inside before you both catch your death. And next time improve your aim, Allan, I don’t enjoy being covered in snow.”
The two men obeyed her, with an identical guilty grin, and Matilda followed them inside, surprised and amused.
It was the first time that she had seen a playful, lighter side in Guy of Gisborne, and she was glad for that. She hoped that his usual dark, hopeless mood could improve in time.
When they were inside, Allan gave a longing look at the kitchen door, then he glanced at Matilda.
“I suppose that I should go. Robin told me to stay here till you arrived.”
“Not so fast, young man.” Matilda said. “I think that Robin can spare you for a few days and it would be better if you stay here.”
Both the outlaw and Guy gave her a curious look, and Matilda continued.
“I still have to check her conditions, but even if her fever broke, Lady Marian will need rest and time to heal, and Sir Edward is frail too, so the servants of the house will have a lot of work to do. Your presence here could be useful, and I’m sure that Robin will allow you to stay here to give a hand, when he’ll know that I suggested it. In exchange you’ll get free food and a warm bed.”
Allan looked relieved: he clearly didn’t like the idea to go back to the outlaw’s camp while the weather was so cold. What Matilda didn’t expect was the relief that she noticed on Guy’s face too, and the knight was quick to hide that, as soon as he realized that she was looking at him.
“If he has to stay here, he should bathe,” Guy remarked with a grin, “and get rid of the rags he’s wearing, or everyone will understand that he’s an outlaw.”
“And who’s going to give me new clothes? You? Do you think that I enjoy wearing this stuff?”
Matilda looked at them, then she headed for the stairs.
“Well, my boys, I’ll go to see Marian, now. Please, don’t kill each other while I’m upstairs. When I come back I’ll see your leg, love.”
The healer went upstairs and Allan lifted his eyebrows, amused.
“Love? If people could hear that, they wouldn’t be so terrified of you.”
Guy glared at him.
“Shut up or you’ll be the one to be terrified.”
“Yes, Giz, if you say so,” Allan said, utterly unimpressed.
Gisborne crossed his arms and looked at him, as if he was waiting for something.
“What?” Allan asked.
“I wasn’t joking about you bathing. If you are to be my servant, I don’t want to associate with a stinking outlaw.”
“Nobody said that I’ll be your servant! And I can wash up, but I wasn’t joking about clothes either. I don’t have any other.”
“It’s obvious that you’ll be here to help me. That’s what the other servants don’t want to do. After all, isn’t that what you have already done in these days? And for the clothes I might have something for you. Come.”
“I helped you because I chose to do it, not because I had to,” Allan said, following Guy to his room.
“Well, choose to keep doing it, then,” Guy said, with a smirk, as he opened the chest containing the old clothes that Sir Edward gave to him. He chose a black tunic and a shirt that were too tight for him, but that would fit Allan perfectly, and he threw them to the younger man.
The outlaw looked at the fine cloth: it could be old and a little faded, but he had never owned such finery.
He looked at Gisborne, and he realized that behind those arrogant words, the knight actually wanted him to stay, but he would never admit it.
“Well, let’s make a few things clear, Giz: I’ll stay and I might help you, but I’m nobody’s servant. And if you act like a jerk, I won’t spare you a good lesson just because of your injured leg.”
“Good to know, I don’t want your pity.”
“We have a deal, then?”
Guy nodded, sitting on the bed to change his damp boots.
“Deal. Now go wash yourself.”
“Sure, love.” Allan said, chuckling, then he hurried to run out of the room to avoid the boot that Guy had thrown at him.
The forest grew more and more dense, and the strong lordly man felt the nervousness of his subordinates growing while gradually advancing along the path. However, he appreciated that moment of apparent calm, the snow, the cold.
He liked the sound of the footsteps of the horses in the snow, muffled.
The mystery of that peculiar forest, considered impenetrable by many. Full of dangers, according to others.
Of course, an ambush could occur at any time, in such a place. A calculated risk, for the shortest way to Nottingham.
And he liked it, after years of desert and extreme heat, and months at sea and after the confusion, the intricacies, the vibrancy of London.
Outlaws? Miserable novices when compared to a skilled, experienced warrior like he was. They called him ‘The Redhead’, and not only for the bold and unmistakable color of his hair. They called him ‘The Redhead’ and meant that he was strong, unpredictable, fiery, relentless, ruthless.
A crazy head, in short.
But also one of the best on the battlefield. He had distinguished himself in the Holy Land. But he was much better than the others imagined.
He left no tracks, in what he did. Methodical, smart, shrewd. Still loved by everyone, by his comrades in arms, and by two Kings. The King who ruled the Holy Land and the King who commanded England, instead.
He smiled to himself. Perhaps the women he had met along the way in those years wouldn’t share the same good opinion of him. But none of them could testify against him.
It’s the war, people die in war.
A sound, different from the others, roused him from his thoughts and his plans.
He brought his hand with discretion and decision to the hilt of the sword.
Other short sounds.
It was a matter of only a few moments and they would be attacked, he thought.
A subtle sound, a hiss.
Alexander threw himself off his horse and, taking advantage of the shield given by the side of the beast, prepared himself to fight, drawing his sword, a wry smile on his face.
Time for a match.
His men, caught off guard, tried to calm their frightened horses, panic on their faces.
“This, gentlemen, is an ambush,” a young voice shouted. Strong, in a tone halfway between the peremptory and ironic. An arrow stuck in the trunk of a tree.
The outlaw shouted to deliver ‘some’ of the money they had with them and they would be allowed to pass unharmed. Alternatively, they should give ‘all’ their money.
The proposal was welcomed by Alexander with a sound and deep laugh:
“Come and take quite a few blows. All of them, No reductions!”
Four outlaws dashed against them, swords drawn: a big and aggressive man, a young skinny boy, a young man with the color of the skin of a Saracen and a man with reddish hair covered by a cloth.
The latter seemed more skillful than the others, at least.
A face he had seen before.
Alexander raised his eyes to heaven, bored: was that all, what the Sherwood Forest had to offer to its travelers? Four boys on the run? Alexander parried the first blows of the big man, totally predictable, and tripped him to the ground.
A foot on his back.
A voice from the woods shouted: “Hold! Hold on!” He came out of the shadows, advancing in the snow, bow in hand, and Alexander recognized Robin of Locksley, the wounded archer in the Holy Land who had returned to his homeland, rebelled to the authorities, gone rogue, gone into hiding, lost everything in the process.
‘Poor young fool,’ Alexander thought. Yet, Robin had been more useful to him, than the boy could have imagined to be.
He had needed an idea, a good one, to go home, back to England and he had ‘found the inspiration’ in what had happened to Robin.
“Robin! Robin of Locksley! Old scoundrel!” Alexander replied, “What do you do here in the forest? Shouldn’t you be now in the warmth of your Locksley Manor? Are they your friends?” He openly smiled, lowering his sword at the same time, and motioning to other men to do the same.
“Alexander from Shrewsbury!! What the hell are you doing here, my friend?” Robin said aloud, and approached him and smiled.
Robin had long admired the gestures and the extraordinary capabilities of the swordsman, known as The Redhead, and his absolute loyalty to the King. He had been a sort of example to follow, when Robin, very young, had entered the Army of King Richard: seen from Robin’s eyes, Alexander was capable, smart, courageous, fearless.
Robin embraced the man and proudly said: “Welcome back to England, my friend, My gang and I now fight a different kind of war on King Richard’s behalf, here in England. Only… he doesn’t know about it. But… how's the King? Are you among the vanguard soldiers on his return? When will the King be here?"
Enthusiasm and hope were clear in Robin’s eyes.
“Sorry, old friend. I don’t’ know when the King will be back on English soil. I’m back on my own. I was wounded in a battle, like you were. He sent me back.”
Robin's smile became sad, for disappointment, and sorrow for the injured friend.
“Oh, I'm sorry, really, for your wound. Is it bad? I regret not being able to have you as a revered guest in my home, but it was taken away from me by the Sheriff of Nottingham. We... we do not feel the same way on how to manage Nottingham, Vaisey and I,” Robin said.
“Really? Then what is said about him is true! Poor Nottinghamshire. It 's about time to put good bridles to the omnipotence of that man,” Alexander replied.
Robin's eyes lit up.
Alexander, his intelligence, strength, courage and skills could have been crucial to the salvation of Nottingham.
Surely he was now in front of someone he knew well and who he could trust.
The perfect ally. The same faithfulness to the King, same hopes for England’s tomorrow.
“Join us, my friend! People of Nottingham deserves to be saved, protected,” Robin said.
“And they will. I will apply the law with firmness and justice, I assure you, my friend. I am the new master at arms of Nottingham Castle," Alexander The Redhead, proudly, said.
For a moment, Robin's expression became astonished, but he immediately resumed his composure: yes, it would be good to have a good ally inside Nottingham.
The Redhead would do his duty for the best.
For the sake of the people.
Robin offered him his discreet collaboration, Robin and his men escorted The Redhead and his soldiers until the castle came into their view, exchanging news about the King and the outcomes of the war.
As he reached the edge of the forest, Robin stopped and looked at Alexander and his men reaching the first of the Nottingham castle gates.
The Redhead turned around, raising his hand in a greeting.
A new hope blossomed in Robin’s heart.