Chapter 1: The Chase
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.
Chapter 2: Matilda
The little cottage was well beyond the borders of the village, between the villages of the County and the deep of Sherwood’s forest. It was shadowed and protected by the first trees of the forest.
The person who lived there thought that the proximity of the forest would be a protection, a deterrent for the criminals.
A house where she could live in peace.
But some persons in the nearest village used to warn their children, partly in joke and partly in fear, that they shouldn’t play near that cottage.
It was nice, simple and well kept, and who dared to peek from the windows could see the tasteful and simple furniture, the warmth and the cosiness of the house. It was nicer than its inhabitants.
The villagers told the children that they shouldn’t play near the cottage, that they shouldn’t peek inside, or the witch could lure them with sweets or a spell. And they would never come back to their houses.
That woman knew how to do great things, and she did great things since she was young, for the inhabitants of the villages. Miracles, some people could swear they were miracles.
Many were grateful to her, many were suspicious of those miracles, and they avoided her.
She didn’t always succeeded in making miracles: she couldn’t save her husband, dead because of a plague, and she almost lost her only daughter for the same reason.
Years passed after his death, and many more years then, and she never met another man who could understand her how her husband did. Her young husband who had a sweet smile and a strong nature, used to defuse, with his sense of humor, her ironic and colorful way to talk to people...
He had been able to see passion and sweetness in her, the same sweetness she had when she hugged or scolded those children, now young boys or adult men, that she delivered to the world.
For many of them, if not all, she remembered the maneuvers she used to help them during birth, she remembered their mothers, the different ways they had to suffer or to rejoice, and she learned from a distance what happened to them when they grew up.
She followed their lives from a distance.
She took care of her daughter, she tried to save people from many illnesses, and she forgot about herself.
She learned to survive on her own, without a man, without help. She was proud of herself, and she expressed her pride in her way of speaking, everyday sharper.
She didn’t need anyone and she liked to ridicule with her words the men who looked too proud and contemptuous.
The passing of time changed her appearance, masking the beauty of her youth behind heavy features and a larger body. She wrapped herself in layers of clothes, with a thick band of cloth on her forehead to tie her long brown hair, grown without care.
She was really beginning to look like a witch, and she didn’t care.
The important thing was to avoid to be called like that too often. This was one of the reasons for living in the shadows, so she wouldn’t be noticed too much.
When she looked at herself in a mirror, she could only see a woman who was proud of her battles, won or lost.
People who really needed her knew how to find her.
Her daughter, now a young woman and a young bride, knew how to find her.
Marian arrived at the little collage galloping. Her knowledge of the territory, developed during the years she spent as the Nightwatchman, took her there without doubts or hesitation.
Marian was proud of this.
Even if her father was scared, she was proud of the woman she had become.
There was a lot in her that people didn’t know, they couldn’t even imagine who she really was.
It wasn’t dawn, yet, but Marian knocked on the door, hoping that Matilda, so abruptly awoken, wouldn’t be too ill-disposed.
The girl who knocked at the door was the daughter of the old Sheriff of Nottingham, a pretty girl who Matilda didn’t deliver.
The sheriff hadn’t trusted her, he had called a renowned physician for his beloved wife. And maybe this was the reason Marian was born and her mother departed from this world.
Seeing how upset Marian was, Matilda thought that the old Sheriff was sick, but the girl kept talking, confusedly, of a knight, of a horse, of serious wounds.
The only sure things, in her words, were her plead to come immediately to Knighton, and the leeches. Leeches used on a man who had supposedly been trampled by a horse.
If there was something that made Matilda mad, and that, at the same time, made her look with contempt at most of the other physicians and quacks in England, it was the horrible fondness they had for leeches. They used them for every kind of ailment, so, if their patients didn’t die for their sickness, the leeches would bleed them to death.
“Don’t say anything else, Lady Marian. I’ll take the wagon.”
At dawn, the two women arrived at Knighton.
Matilda entered the room, carrying a bag full of remedies and the instruments she needed. The man, her new patient, was in a terrible shape.
She went near him, and, with a disgusted expression on her face, she began removing the leeches from his injured body, with her bare hands.
“First of all, let’s get rid of these!”
Matilda glanced for a moment at the closed eyes of the man: he was a young man, with strong features, but with a pleasant, harmonic look. Pleasant for the eyes of a woman, at least. He had dark, thick, soft hair, ending in loose curls near his neck.
Matilda had the sensation she had already seen him in the past, and she turned to look at Marian and her father. Sir Edward was quiet and grim, and he looked at her with suspicion. Matilda noticed that he was worried to the point of terror.
“Who is this handsome knight? I can’t remember if I’ve seen him before. God bless him, he’s not the kind of man who can be easily forgotten!”
Sir Edward looked at her, amazed by her words, and he answered with utter contempt.
“This man is Guy of Gisborne, current lord of Locksley and Sheriff’s henchman. If he dies here, we’re all dead!”
Matilda noticed, on a chair, the black leather uniform of the man, and, on the floor, his black boots with shining spurs. She remembered him, now: the black knight on a black horse who spread terror and misery in the villages in the name of the Sheriff.
She looked at Sir Edward, angry and scared, and at Marian, who was leaning with her back on a wall, tired and fatigued, and maybe, Matilda suspected, scared for a different reason than her father’s.
Matilda looked at Sir Guy, disgusted.
“This black snake is more slimy, revolting and cruel than the leeches he had on his body! Let them bleed him to death! I won’t treat him!”
They tried to persuade her with many words, prayers and pleas, but at last Matilda accepted to take care of the man when she saw Marian crying. The girl couldn’t hold her tears anymore, and Matilda surrendered.
She rolled her sleeves, looked at the exhausted, unconscious knight, and at his clothes on the chair.
“Very well, but take away that horrible black stuff. Throw it away, burn it, I don’t care, but I don’t want to see it anymore,” she said to Marian and Edward, then she turned to stare at Guy. “And you, infamous Lucifer, let me see how strong you really are, if you really are a knight, fight as a knight can, or if you only dress like one. And when you wake up, don’t dare to smirk like you use to do when you oppress the poor, or I’ll gladly knock you down again with my own hands. And you can forget about collecting my taxes, next year.”
Matilda sighed, focused on her task, and she began to methodically clean the wounds on Guy’s head and bare shoulders with care, confidence, patience and precision. Marian watched her, worried.
Matilda lifted the sheet and looked under it, to look at the whole naked body of Guy. Marian, standing at the foot of the bed, couldn’t see it, but Matilda could.
She was an adult woman, a midwife, an expert healer, but the girl was still an innocent maiden.
Matilda reflected for a while, then she dropped the sheet, covering back the man’s body and she looked at the girl.
“Go, Marian, go and rest, now. I won’t hurt him, and I’ll try to do everything I can to save him. After all, I couldn’t injure him more than he already is. Please, ask your servant to find comfortable clothes for him, he will need them.”
Being unexpectedly dismissed, Marian could only thank the healer and go downstairs, in the hall.
She sat at the table, and buried her face in her hands.
“It’s all my fault,” she kept repeating to herself, until she fell asleep, exhausted, on that same table, her head resting on her arms.
Matilda looked at the man on the bed, as unconscious and still as if he was already dead. She was alone with him now, Sir Edward went downstairs with his daughter and the servants took the first chance to sit and rest in front of the kitchen fireplace, waiting to be of use.
Just a young maid, half asleep, was sitting outside Marian’s room, waiting for Matilda orders and ready to obey to her requests.
The healer saw that the girl was going to fall asleep, but she didn’t keep her awake: for now, she didn’t need her help and later, when she would, it would be better to have a rested helper rather than a sleepy one.
She removed the sheet that covered Guy of Gisborne’s naked body: the room was warm enough, so sheets and blanket weren’t really needed and Matilda guessed that they had been used more to protect Lady Marian’s innocent eyes than for the sake of the wounded man.
He was so bruised and injured that even the light touch of the sheet must have been painful for him. Matilda wondered if it was too late and if she could actually save him.
She looked at the knight: his chest was covered in purple bruises, and she gingerly touched his ribs. The man whimpered in his sleep, but he didn’t wake up. Matilda found many cracked ribs, and she thought that he was lucky that no one of them had punctured his lungs: for him, breathing was very painful, but he could still do it.
She had to find out if he had the same luck with the rest of his body: she could stitch wounds and fix broken bones, but if there was internal damage, only God could save him.
Matilda put a hand on his stomach and she smiled a little finding it soft and relaxed under her fingers, then she looked at the bed and at Guy’s discarded clothes, and she frowned.
She woke up the young maid and told her to call one of the guards who were with Sir Guy when the accident happened, and one of the servants who took care of him when they took him in that bed.
The girl ran downstairs, and came back after a moment, followed by a young soldier and Sebastian.
The two men looked nervous and uneasy, and Matilda wondered if they were afraid of her, if they thought she was a witch. But it didn’t matter, now.
“I have a few questions for you, try to remember every detail, it’s very important.” She looked at the guard. “After the accident happened, did Sir Guy threw up?”
“How did you know?” The guard said, amazed.
“It’s a common reaction after a serious injury, the shock and the pain can cause it. What I need to know if there was blood in it.”
“There was blood everywhere!”
“Try to remember, it’s very important. Did he threw up blood too, or was it normal sickness?”
The guard thought for a while.
“No, no blood, just puke.”
“Are you sure?”
The guard nodded, and Matilda relaxed a little, then she turned to Sebastian.
“The accident happened quite a long time ago, before sunset, right?”
The servant nodded.
“Yes, before sunset.”
“I checked his clothes and they are dry. Did he wet the bed after you took him here?”
Sebastian blinked in surprise.
“Are you asking if he pissed after the accident?”
“That’s exactly what I want to know.”
“He didn’t. Look: there’s blood on the sheets, he was bleeding a lot when they took him here, but they are not wet. Why is that so important?”
“If the hooves damaged his kidneys or his bladder, he’s as good as dead. I have to fix that broken leg and it will be extremely painful: if he’s going to die, I won’t torture him with unnecessary pain.”
The guard looked at her, worried.
“What are you going to do, now?”
“I’ll try to wake him a little and make him drink, until I’ll see if his kidneys stopped working or not, and if there is blood in it. If he isn’t damaged, we can hope he will live, and then I will need the help of both of you to fix his leg. Now you can go, rest while you can.”
The two men went downstairs, and Matilda sat for a moment on the chair at the side of the bed. She looked at the knight: he was so pale and frail, that she couldn’t believe he was the same person who obeyed every command of that steaming pile of crap who was the Sheriff of Nottingham.
She had lots and lots of new patients because of him: Vaisey made them starve taking all their money, he punished them with floggings and cutting hands and tongues, and he threw them out of their homes in the middle of the winter.
And that man, now lying in front of her, was the one who carried out those horrible orders, showing no mercy. The man who took Robin of Locksley’s house, when he had been outlawed.
Matilda thought for a moment that his sufferings were well deserved, but then Guy moaned in pain, and she felt ashamed for that thought.
He might be evil, but he was still a human being, and he was in a lot of pain.
She sighed, took a cup full of water, and went near the bed to wake him up.
Guy could still hear the sound of the hooves, hitting the ground all around his head, and he wished he could protect his face with his hands, but he couldn’t move.
He was lying on a bed, he realized, but he was too weak to open his eyes. There was pain in every inch of his body and he thought that he was dying. Or that he was already dead and in hell, tortured by hordes of demons.
He felt hot and cold at the same time and he wanted to wake up, but he couldn’t.
But he had to wake up. He needed to relieve himself, but his eyelids felt too heavy and he couldn’t open his eyes.
His mind wanted to drift into a deep sleep again, away from all that pain, but he couldn’t let himself to lose the little consciousness he had: if he did, he’d surely wet the bed, and he couldn’t let it happen.
His little sister’s face appeared in his mind, laughing at him.
“You’re twelve, Guy, but you’re still a baby.”
Somebody put an arm around his shoulders, and lifted him a little.
“Drink this,” a gentle voice ordered, but Guy kept his lips closed. The woman tried again. “Come on, you have to drink.”
“Can’t.” He managed to whisper, and Matilda looked at him: his eyes were open now and she was surprised to see how blue they were.
“Oh, you are awake, then. It’s a good sign, but I need you to drink.”
“Why? You lost a lot of blood, you should be thirsty.”
She saw him blush a little.
“I have to get up… I need to… Can’t wait much longer...”
Matilda looked at him, surprised. He was in a lot of pain, but he looked very worried at the thought he could wet the bed.
“You won’t get up for a very long time, I’m afraid, but I’ll help you with your needs. I’ll get a chamberpot, so you can relieve yourself and I can see if there’s blood.”
“You’re a woman...” Guy said, blushing even more, and Matilda laughed at seeing him so shy.
“I’m a healer. Now stop with this nonsense and let me help you. You will need all the help you can get, and you’ll have to put aside your pride for a while.”
Matilda smiled at the chamberpot: no blood.
For the first time, that day, she allowed herself to hope that her patient could survive.
She glanced at the knight: he didn’t stay awake for a long time, but at least she had been able to make him drink some water and a remedy for the pain.
She had splinted his broken wrist and bandaged all the other wounds, but she was worried for his leg. She couldn’t wait much longer before fixing it, or he would be a cripple for the rest of his life, but she knew that the pain would be excruciating and that no remedy could let him sleep during the ordeal.
Matilda went near the knight, and she put a hand on his forehead, caressing him with all the tenderness she could muster in her heart.
“This will be very, very painful, but it’s necessary, I’m sorry.”
Two guards and Sebastian, were waiting in a corner, looking at Guy of Gisborne with uneasiness, and Matilda called them with a nod.
“I’ll need your help, now. You must hold him still without hurting him. When I’ll fix his leg, he’ll be in pain, maybe he’ll try to fight, but he mustn’t move. You!” She looked at the young maid. “Go and call Sir Edward: he should be here while I do this because the knight might die, and I want him to see that I did everything I could. But don’t let Lady Marian to come here: this won’t be something suitable for the eyes of a girl.”
The maid obeyed, and, after a while, Sir Edward came, pale and upset.
“Will he live?”
“He might. But he will need a lot of care, and your servants must follow all my instructions.”
The old lord gave a weak sigh of relief: the other physician had said that there was nothing he could do to save Sir Guy, that he was going to die. Matilda at least gave them a hope.
Marian was sitting at the table of the hall, and she was asleep, with her head on her arms.
She woke up with a start, and looked around, scared.
Somebody was crying in pain, and she paled in recognizing Sir Guy’s voice. He was crying as if he was being tortured, and Marian tried to run upstairs to see what was happening to him, but one of the guards stopped her.
“I’m sorry, my lady, but the healer said that you shouldn’t enter that room, now.”
“What’s happening?” She asked, the tears welling in her eyes. “Is he dying?”
“The healer is fixing his leg. She said that it’s very painful.”
“That’s terrible! He’s crying so much!”
“Actually it’s a good thing. That woman said that she wouldn’t do this if she thought he was going to die, so maybe there’s hope.”
Marian nodded blankly.
She understood what the soldier meant, but to hear Sir Guy screaming like that was horrible.
It’s my fault. I did this to him.
She wanted to run, to go away from the house so she wasn’t forced to hear.
She couldn’t do it, of course.
Marian turned to go to the kitchen and see if she could do something useful: she could check if more hot water was needed, or she could wash dirty bandages, anything that could distract her from her guilt.
But the servants were tired and cross: no one of them was happy of all that extra work, and Marian understood that she was in their way.
She went back to the hall, wondering if she should try to get upstairs even if the guard had said that she shouldn’t enter her room.
Chapter 3: Save My Soul
Marian was about to walk upstairs, when a loud sound of galloping horses caught her attention.
She ran at the window to look outside: between the dust kicked up by the horses, she could clearly recognize six of the Sheriff’s guards, the hawks and the colors of Vaisey’s coat of arms.
When they got nearer, Marian could see the resolute and grim expression of the Sheriff of Nottingham: he was shorter, less strong and only apparently less menacing than his black armored guardian angels.
Sir Edward’s message to the Sheriff, sent with one of Gisborne’s guards, surely arrived to destination, but it couldn’t postpone the inevitable: Lord Vaisey decided to come and see with his eyes the conditions of his henchman.
Marian hoped that her father, hearing the horses, would join her in the hall to meet him together.
Since that treacherous and dangerous man had arrived in Nottingham, Vaisey had never come to Knighton before.
He never needed to go there because, when he took her father’s place, exiling him and Marian in Knighton, Vaisey put their house under surveillance.
Around the house she could see, almost every day and night, at least two dark shadows that resembled, in their appearance and movements, Vasey’s personal guards.
Even if he had the seal of Prince John and the authority to be Sheriff of the County of Nottingham, probably Vaisey was afraid that Edward could have powerful allies between the other nobles, or that he could plot to take back his place as Sheriff.
Or maybe the spies sent to keep an eye on their house had the simple, but effective purpose to remind to her father that he should avoid losing his time trying to plot against the Sheriff. Their presence was unobtrusive, but constant and evident, quite a threat.
Since Robin came back, their surveillance had became less strict.
In a first time, Marian had thought that it was thanks to her former betrothed, now outlaw, but eventually she arrived to a less exciting, but more realistic conclusion: her house and her life weren’t under surveillance anymore, directly at least, since Sir Guy began visiting her house, always more often.
Maybe it had been Sir Guy who ordered to give up the surveillance? Or maybe Lord Vaisey had thought that the frequent visits of Gisborne were an adequate deterrent to every attempt of rebellion from Sir Edward?
Marian had a strong sensation that if Vaisey could save the money needed to pay his spies and instead use the free inclination of Sir Guy to woo her, he’d surely choose the cheaper option.
In any case, the Sheriff was dismounting, or more exactly he was using one of his guards to dismount, stepping on the back of the man who was on all fours near the Sheriff’s horse.
Marian took a deep breath and she smoothed her dress with the hands, preparing herself to welcome the hateful little man in her house.
The door was opened all of a sudden, two guards entered, rudely, looked around like mastiffs, and stood at the sides of the door, letting the Sheriff inside.
Vaisey was wearing black clothes, like Guy, but the Sheriff’s clothes were made of richer fabric, decorated and embroidered with a fine and precious gold thread, black velvet damask, and fur of the same color. Those clothes suggested a dark and opulent refinement, peculiar in a man otherwise busy in plotting, starving the populace and making the executions of outlaws the main entertainment of the County.
He seemed to enjoy a lot those hangings, and he used them as a privileged stage for his cruel and gruesome witty remarks.
He was the main actor of the scene and the others, those poor condemned men, the desperate extras of his show. A dark one-man-show, daily, in Nottingham.
Marian hid the fear and the rage she felt for the man standing in front of her with the deportment and the movements of the noblewoman education she received since her birth, and she formally curtseyed to the Sheriff.
“Lord Vaisey, to what do I owe the honor of your visit? We weren’t waiting for you, I’m afraid we won’t be able to welcome you with all the honors due to your rank.”
Vaisey looked at the girl with a falsely bored glance, but he was actually trained to notice every detail and shade of other people’s language, so he could use their words to his advantage, or belittle or mock the other person for his own personal fun.
“Lady Marian,” he said “what did you want? Did you want me to take my personal fanfare with me to announce my arrival? I can make up for this!” He took a hand to his mouth like a trumpet and he sang the tune of the castle’s fanfare. “Well, now I announced myself and you, milady, are properly warned. Enough with the ceremonies, now. Where is Gisborne?”
“My lord, you didn’t need to trouble yourself coming here,” the girl quietly answered “my father sent you a message with one of Sir Guy’s guards to inform you that he was here and about his extremely poor health. We are taking care of him in the best way we can, and we were going to warn you immediately as soon as Sir Guy wakes up, I assure you.”
Vaisey smiled in his unpleasant way.
“Lady Marian, do you think that I’m worried about the competence of your family of taking care of Gisborne? That I couldn’t sleep at night because of his absence? A clue: no. It’s sure that you will look after him. He has been injured here. Your responsibility. And you’ll pay all the expense, the County won’t lose a penny for this. Not half a penny. So, where is the moribund? Let’s go and see how near to death is Guy of Gisborne, so, if he really is very near to death, I could make it faster. But you will still have to pay for the burial. I need him alive and standing, I have no use for him otherwise.”
“But, my lord...” Marian was beginning to be troubled by his confidence and complete indifference for the fate of his henchman, and worried because he was giving all the responsibility of the accident to her family. Maybe her father was right to be afraid. “Sir Guy didn’t wake up, yet...”
A loud cry of pain came from upstairs, followed by a sequence of short, weaker moans that suggested that the person who uttered them was suffering a lot, but was certainly alive.
“Well, when he moans he surely has a higher tone than his usual low monotone murmur. At least what is saying now is very clear and more useful of what he says when he works for me at the castle. He sounds quite alive. Very alive, indeed. He could still be useful. So, will you show me the way or will I find him on my own?”
He headed for the stairs, and Marian hurried to show him the way, flushed with embarrassment.
Entering the room, the Sheriff saw his henchman lying in bed, extremely pale and with his face beaded with sweat. An unpleasant woman, plump and dressed in miserable rags, was holding, turning, pulling and moving his leg with confident gestures.
Gisborne cried in agony.
“Gisborne! Stop mewling like a girl! Get up and go back to the castle!”
The black knight turned his head for a moment, to search with his eyes the person who called his name, then he passed out, exhausted.
Vaisey didn’t even try to hide his rage, and he turned towards Sir Edward, who was standing near the bed.
“Put him back on his feet. Immediately. At your expense. I won’t pay a witch like that one. And be careful, Sir Edward, I want him exactly as he was before: two legs, two arms, nothing more, nothing less. If you fail, don’t send me a messenger, just pay for the burial,” he said, and he went out of the room, covering his nose and mouth with a hand, as if he had breathed unhealthy air that could damage him too.
When he arrived downstairs, he turned to look at Marian who, pale after witnessing that scene, was going down the stairs after him, and she talked to her in a casually ironic tone.
“By the way, Marian, why there was a long red dress hanging in the wardrobe? And those little flowers in a pot? Did you place your gravely ill betrothed in the room of a maidservant?”
Marian was about to answer, but Vaisey kept talking.
“Oh, I see now… You already put your betrothed in your bed. I knew that your prolonged maidenhood could affect your reason. I don’t think that Sir Guy could help you with your frustration now, but hope never dies. Well, almost never. Too bad, you’d have been tolerable in a wedding dress. But not handsome enough to tempt me.”
Vaisey laughed out loud for his own remark, he walked faster with his short legs, like a trotting pony, and he grinned as if he had satisfactorily closed an annoying problem.
“Don’t bother accompanying me at the door, Lady Marian, I already know the way.” He called the guards with a nod, and they went outside before him, then the Sheriff of Nottingham went away.
Marian thought that the house was too silent now: the sheriff went away, Guy wasn’t crying anymore, and most of the servants went to bed to make up for the sleep they lost that night. Her father was standing in front of the fireplace of the hall, his arms crossed in front of him, his face grim.
Sir Edward turned to look at her.
“You’ll be happy now. Lord Vaisey said that we’ll have to take care of Sir Guy, that we must pay for all the necessary expenses, and I suspect that he will ask for a reimbursement because the accident happened here.”
“It’s not your fault if he crossed the road without looking!”
“No, it’s your fault. The Nightwatchman shouldn’t have been there. We will pay for all the cares he will need, of course, but remember that we aren’t rich anymore, Marian. We must be careful now.”
“Surely Sir Guy doesn’t wish to ruin his future wife.”
“If he lives. I was there when Matilda fixed his leg, and I thought that he was going to die, that his heart couldn’t be strong enough for all that pain.”
“How is he now? He isn’t screaming anymore.”
“He passed out after a while. Matilda is still with him.”
“Lady Marian, Sir Edward.” The voice of the healer startled them and they both looked at the woman who was coming down the stairs.
“Will he live?” Asked Sir Edward, worried.
“He might, if he’s strong enough and if there are no complications. But it won’t be easy for him.”
Marian glanced at her, and for once in her life, she felt shy. She knew that Sir Guy’s current situation was her fault and she felt guilty.
She didn’t like him, sometimes she hated him, but she never wished for him to be so badly injured, and she was really sorry for him.
“What do we have to do now?” Sir Edward asked.
“I took the liberty to give instructions to your servants, so they know how to take care of his needs, but he’ll need more than the simple help of servants.”
“What do you mean?” Marian asked, frowning.
“He’s unconscious now, but he won’t stay asleep for a long time. He has broken ribs, his wrist is broken too, and his leg is in a very poor state. I did my best to fix it, but even if it heals, he could walk with a limp. We can’t know for sure until he’s better, but that’s not the point. He will be in a lot of pain, and my remedies can’t help very much, for now. But you can,” Matilda concluded, pointing at Marian.
Marian looked at her, surprised.
“He’s your betrothed, isn’t it? Does he love you?”
“He says he does.”
“Then you can help. Sit near his bed quietly, let him know that you are there, but don’t talk too much, he needs rest. Listen if he wants to talk, offer him words of comfort if he looks scared, hold his hand when the pain will become too strong. Do you think you can do it?”
Marian didn’t want to do it. Guy of Gisborne wasn’t the man she loved, he wasn’t even her friend, how could she hold his hand? How could she be kind to the man who wanted to force her to marry him?
But he was suffering, almost dying, because of her actions, and she blushed, in shame.
“Yes, I will.”
Marian took a deep breath before entering her room. It was strange, that room had always been a safe haven, a place where nothing bad could happen to her, but now Sir Guy had invaded it, for the second time in a few days.
The first time he had been angry and dangerous, he accused her of betraying his trust, and he menaced to hang both her and her father.
She hated him, she had wanted to make him pay for hitting her father and she enjoyed his confusion when she gave him back the necklace that caused all those troubles to her.
Gisborne said that she had to proof her loyalty to the sheriff, and the only way to do it, was marrying him. She had been forced to accept and she hated him even more for that.
The only good thing she could say about Sir Guy, was that he looked really concerned for her safety, and ashamed for accusing her of consorting with the outlaws.
He had been right, of course, but he believed he was wrong, and he was ready to apologize to her and to her father, swallowing his pride.
Now he didn’t look dangerous at all: he was lying in her bed, pale and frail, and he had dark shadows under his closed eyes. At a first glance, Marian thought that he was perfectly still, but looking at him, she understood that he was trembling, in pain.
Marian sat in the chair near the bed, and Guy opened his eyes for a moment, then he shut them again.
Marian looked at him, and she thought that it was the first time that she saw him wearing something other than black leather. He was wearing one of her father’s nightgowns, clearly too short for him, and its white fabric made him look different, almost innocent, like a sleeping child.
His right leg was splintered and trapped in tight bandages, and it was lifted on a pillow. Marian could see that the bandages were soaked in some herbal remedy, probably to help with the pain and the swelling.
“You shouldn’t see me like this.” Guy’s voice startled her. It was little more than a whisper and it trembled with pain.
Marian didn’t know what she could answer, so she didn’t.
Guy talked again after a while.
“I think I’m dying...”
His voice was so helpless and lost, that Marian felt sincerely sorry for him. Instinctively, she took his hand: his skin was cold and clammy, and for a moment she was afraid he could be right.
“No, you won’t. I won’t let you,” she whispered, and Guy opened his eyes to look at her.
Marian shuddered. He shouldn’t thank her, it was her fault if he was suffering so much! She wanted to cry, to tell him that she was sorry and confess her faults, but she couldn’t risk her father’s life revealing the secret of the Nightwatchman.
She gently caressed his hand.
“Matilda said that you need to rest.”
Guy closed his eyes again, and Marian was glad of it. She could see pain and fear in them, and seeing the always powerful Guy of Gisborne so weak and scared was unsettling.
They stood in silence for a while, and Marian kept holding Guy’s hand. She could feel it trembling and tensing between her fingers and she knew that every little movement was the reflection of a sharp pang of pain.
She wished she could do something to ease his sufferings, but Matilda had said that she could only be there and comfort him with her presence.
He had been still for some time, and Marian was beginning to think he had fallen asleep, when Guy talked, in a hoarse whisper.
“Demons are clawing at me.”
Marian squeezed his hand a little.
“There are no demons, Sir Guy. You’ve been trampled by a horse.”
“No. This is a punishment for my crimes.”
Marian looked at him, and she wondered if she should call Matilda. Guy was staring blankly at the ceiling, and his words sounded incoherent, as if he was having some sort of nightmare or delirium.
“Marian!” He called, and his voice was almost panicked. The girl kept holding his hand.
“I’m here, Sir Guy.”
“You shouldn’t see me like this, but please, don’t leave me alone,” he pleaded. “You are the only light in the darkness, my only hope of being saved. Your pure soul will wash away my sins.”
“If you sinned, you should ask forgiveness to God. Do you want me to call a priest?”
Guy’s hand tightened his hold on hers, and Marian was surprised to feel that there was still some strength in him. It was as if he was clinging to her to be saved, somehow.
“No, no, I can’t reveal my secret to anyone. I can trust no one. Just you.”
You shouldn’t trust me, Sir Guy. I’ve never been sincere with you. You think I’m a pure, perfect maiden, when I’m the Nightwatchman, your enemy.
She was about to say something to try to soothe him, when Guy looked straight at her.
“I tried to kill the king,” he said, in a horrified whisper.
“What?!” She blurted, then she thought that he must be raving. “Sir Guy, I think you got a fever. I should call Matilda.”
“It’s the truth, Marian. Let me tell my secret to you, and your innocence will clean my soul. If I die, I’ll go to hell, I know. Only you can save me.”
“The king is in the Holy Land, Sir Guy. You’ve always been here, you can’t have done what you said. It’s just a nightmare, be quiet and rest, now.”
Guy shook his head.
“No, no. I wasn’t here. The sheriff told everyone I was sick, that I had to be quarantined, but it wasn’t true. He sent me to the Holy Land to try and kill the king.”
Marian remembered that he had been sick for many weeks and no one was allowed to see him, and she wondered if what Gisborne had just said could be true. If it was, it was a very dangerous secret: the sheriff would kill anyone who knew it, without any doubt.
“Hush now, Sir Guy, try to sleep.”
“I can’t. I must tell you everything. All my heinous crimes.”
Gisborne began describing to her all the horrible things he did, obeying the sheriff’s orders, all the tongues he ordered to cut, the peasants who were flogged or hanged or who had their hands cut just because they stole food for their families.
The girl wanted to go away, to let his hand go and run as far as possible, but she knew she couldn’t.
Gisborne committed horrible actions, but the real evil was the sheriff, he was the one who gave the orders. Sir Guy looked like a strong and powerful knight, but in that moment Marian realized that he actually lacked the strength to oppose the unjust orders of the sheriff.
Probably he didn’t really want to kill and oppress people, but he did because the sheriff told him to do so. He wasn’t all bad, but he wasn’t good either.
She found herself hating and pitying him at the same time.
Guy kept talking about his attempt on the life of the king, and this time Marian believed him. He described the travel to the Holy Land in every detail, and then the attack to the King’s camp, dressed as a saracen. Marian shuddered when Guy said that he stabbed Robin of Locksley, and for a moment she was tempted to say that it was true, that he deserved to suffer like that and that it was the punishment for his evil deeds.
She pursed her lips to keep quiet, and mentally sighed.
It wasn’t true.
No one deserved to suffer so much, not even an enemy and a traitor.
Guy kept talking for a while, and Marian wondered where he could find the strength to do so when he was so weak and exhausted.
“Don’t let me slip into hell, Marian, save my soul.”
After this, Gisborne seemed to fall in a sort of feverish sleep, and Marian decided to call Matilda.
The healer came yawning and she checked her patient.
“A fever was to be expected, but it’s a good thing if he can sleep for a while. He’s no worse than I thought. Did he say something?”
“Just nonsensical ramblings.”
“Well, please go out of the room for a while and let me care for his wounds. Then, if you aren’t too tired, come back, please, I think your presence is good for him. You could embroider, or take a nap on that chair, just stay there where he can see you if he wakes up.”
“I could sew a nightgown for him. My father’s ones are too short and tight.”
Matilda smiled at her.
“Good idea! He’ll have to stay in bed for a very long time, he’ll need comfortable clothes. I’m sure that he’ll be glad to wear something made by the woman he loves. Now go, I’ll call you in a short while.”
Chapter 4: The Man in Her Bed
Robin fixed, once again, the hood that covered a good part of his head and face.
He and Much had just completed another round between the houses and the shops of the village of Clun.
There were still so many individuals and families to be added to the list of recipients for aid deliveries, and the numbers were becoming bigger.
Robin was becoming increasingly aware that the life of the inhabitants of the County of Nottingham got worse, he could see how much their life became difficult. He saw their suffering, and their desire to overcome the difficulties in spite of everything, but he couldn’t always read the hope in their eyes.
This fact made Robin, with his infectious smile and his warm and compassionate eyes, very sad.
He would tell many things to King Richard, as soon as possible, when he’d return to England.
And King Richard, the valiant King for which he, Robin, had fought fiercely for years, since he was very young, would put an end to that situation, certainly.
The return of King Richard would bring justice to Nottingham. And justice would bring prosperity.
Robin believed that with all his heart.
For the people, it was just a hope, for Robin it was a warm certainty.
He felt lucky to have met the King in person, and he had admired his courage on the battlefield and his determination to find a way to end the holy war.
Robin hoped for peace, now. He had seen so much blood, too much blood, shed by the soldiers from both armies.
He wanted to forget that blood, but he could still feel it over himself, on his own skin.
Robin never told anyone about it. Not even Much, who had seen and lived at his side the same experiences, and who certainly would understand.
And if he did, once he had shared the pain, what could he do? To get completely numb with women and wine in a tavern?
No, Robin preferred not to waste time, and tears, talking and brooding about his suffering.
It was better to act.
He was a young man of action, in action he felt good, he felt strong. The danger urged him to think of solutions, including creative or insane ones, to escape. And, after all, this was funny too.
Nottingham, the castle, his guards, were nothing compared to the real war on the battlefield, Robin thought.
The important thing now was to gain some time, acting in the interests of the people, easing their physical suffering.
He had to give them hope, and, in the process, to discover and hinder, one by one, Vaisey and Gisborne’s intrigues.
Gisborne had unworthily usurped his feud and his home, until the return of the King.
Then everything would be as it was before the war, Robin thought: he would be back, really, and finally, at home.
The return of King Richard would also be the end of Marian’s forced engagement to Gisborne, Robin was sure.
He had admired how Marian, despite Gisborne’s blackmail, was able, with a simple sentence, to keep him at bay, procrastinating the wedding.
“I will become your wife the day the King will return to England.”
Marian had been good, cunning, even in a difficult situation like that.
When he thought of that inauspicious day, when Allan’s brother and his comrades were hanged and he couldn’t prevent it, and Marian had been forced to be engaged to Gisborne, he felt guilty.
Nothing had gone the right way that day.
All about timing.
He didn’t arrive in time to prevent the execution (and Vaisey, in his cruelty, had been brilliant to anticipate it), and he didn’t arrive in time to give the necklace to Marian before Gisborne came to her house. She had to show it to Gisborne at the last second, when the damage had already been done, so she didn’t hand to Gisborne only a silver necklace, but the golden keys to blackmail her and to force her to give in to his brutal will.
That day everything had gone bad, and Marian’s, Allan’s and his own lives had been changed.
Robin remembered his attempt to kiss Marian, in those days.
The girl had rejected him, yet to him, Marian’s look, her sinuous movements, the playful sparkle in her eyes, had made it clear that he could hope to regain his place in her heart.
He thought it was only a matter of time.
Robin was rediscovering a different Marian from the girl he had left behind five years before, and this Marian, the way she had changed, was something that fascinated him and, at times, she worried him.
He didn’t understand her, sometimes. He could hardly understand her. But he was fascinated by her, and he wanted to win her heart back.
He didn’t want to share with her just the same purpose to prevent injustice in Nottingham. He wanted her kisses, her caresses.
He wanted her.
And Gisborne was trying to take her away.
It had been a few days since Robin had seen her, and he was beginning to worry. He had asked Will to scout ahead in Knighton, for news, while he completed his round in Clun with Much. He saw him coming, at that very moment, to the place where they set their meeting. He raised his arm to tell him to approach: there was no danger in the air, if they talked discreetly.
Will had a very tense expression, he looked concerned.
“Robin,” he said, “there are Gisborne’s guards in front of Marian's house. The neighborhood said that they had already been there for a while. None of the neighbors could tell me why, but they are all very nervous about this situation. The guards are there night and day, and none of the neighbors saw Gisborne. It’s strange Robin, it's weird. Forgive me, I should have gone closer and maybe I should look inside the manor, but I was alone and…”
Robin interrupted him, shaking his head.
“No, you did well, going alone would have been too risky, go back in the forest and join the others. Later we will decide what to do.”
Will went away, and Robin began to walk towards Knighton. Much hurried to follow him and once he reached his master, he talked to him.
“But Robin, shouldn’t we go into the forest now? The direction seems wrong.”
“No, the direction is right, we’re going to Knighton,” Robin said, and Much’s eyes widened in surprise. “Aren’t you thinking to go and see Marian now? Will told you that it was dangerous to go alone!”
Robin smiled slyly, while accelerating, effortlessly, his pace.
“For one person, yes, but now we are two, right?” He winked. “We'll manage fine. They are just Gisborne’s guards, it’s like the house is unguarded, they’re useless... Let's go, I'm really curious to know what happens there.”
Robin was right. It hasn’t been difficult at all to climb to the window of Marian’s room, despite the presence of the guards at the entrance of Knighton Hall.
It had been more difficult to silence the constant doubts and concerns of Much, who was hidden in the bushes, ready to intervene at the slightest sign of danger.
Robin leaned inside the window, and what he saw in her room almost made him lose his balance.
Gisborne, that bastard, was sleeping in Marian’s bed, while the girl was sitting next to the bed and she had fallen asleep, an embroidery in her hands, resting her head against the headboard.
Robin tried to remain calm, and he took from his pocket the only thing he could use to attract the attention of the girl, a coin.
He took aim and hit the hand of the girl, who woke up with a start.
Marian opened her eyes, disoriented.
She saw Guy in the bed, still and asleep, and, looking in front of her, she saw Robin, who was standing in her room and looked at her, his arms folded.
Waiting for an explanation.
‘I didn’t need this too, now,’ Marian thought.
The girl stood up and said: “Follow me, in silence.” Robin looked at her with a scowl, but he followed her into the next room, where there was nobody.
Marian closed the door.
“What is he doing there?!” Robin said at once, as soon as she turned to look at him. “What? Did he lose his way home and then he got in your bed?”
Robin's eyes had become dark, demanding.
He wanted an answer.
“Did you give a good look at him, Robin? Didn’t you see that he’s hurt? Gisborne is injured. Seriously. He can’t be moved yet,” Marian said.
“I saw, I saw. It wasn’t a good reason to slip into your bed, Marian. And how did he get injured? Stumbling disastrously in his own spurs?” Robin pointed out the sentence with a mocking smile, wondering how Guy might have been injured.
“No,” Marian said, “of course he didn’t, Robin, he fell under the hooves of a horse. He’s been badly trampled.”
Her expression seemed angry and worried at the same time. A strange mix in which Robin could see anything but indifference to his enemy. And that worried him.
“And you charitably welcomed him here? Wasn’t there a way to bring him back to Locksley? Look, Marian, we’ll do it. I’ll send a message down to Much and he’ll arrange a comfortable, perhaps, wagon to send him back to Locksley. Nay, with the help of the gang we might even deliver him in Nottingham and unload him right there, at the entrance of the castle.”
“What’s the real problem, Robin? The fact that he is here, or the circumstance that he is in MY bed? I do not think this is the problem, or is it, Robin?”
“Marian, calm down, let’s not fight. Just tell me what's going on,” Robin said, recovering, with some difficulty, the control of his nerves and of the situation.
“I told you what is happening: Guy is hurt, badly. He can’t be moved for the time being. He must stay here. And we must take care of him.” Marian sighed gravely, raising her eyes to heaven, underlining the seriousness of the situation and also how much it annoyed her.
“Why here, Marian, why?”
“Because he has been injured here! Because he was chasing the Nightwatchman right here near my home!”
“Was he after the Nightwatchman? Marian, Gisborne has perhaps discovered you? You are in danger: if he knows anything, I have to make sure that he doesn’t speak, that he can’t denounce you. I have to silence him. Forever”
Marian looked at him in amazement.
“Do you want to kill him, Robin? Would you really kill in cold blood a wounded man who is unable to defend himself? Do you really think that? My God, Robin! No, this isn’t you. Anyway, Guy doesn’t know that I am the Nightwatchman!” Marian sighed, as if she had many other things in her mind.
Robin calmed down, but something in the attitude of the girl was more and more strange, suspicious. And, above all, why was she calling Gisborne by his first name, with such confidence?
“Well, then he can successfully continue to be the lackey of the sheriff, if he survives to his injuries,” Robin said. “You look strange, Marian. It could be that you are tired, it could be the burden of having him in your house, but it seems that something is annoying you. Is it me? I'm just here to help, I'm sorry if I've lost my temper. Talk to me, please, Marian.”
Marian looked at him, and, sighing, she told him that for the time being there was nothing he could do, and they had to wait and see how the events would develop. She told him that, as soon as possible, she would go to see him. She drew a shy, but confident smile, and waited for Robin, reluctant to leave her in that situation, to go away.
Taking the decision not to seek help from Robin, Marian had thought that it wasn’t the place, and the time, to tell what she had discovered about Guy. And perhaps it wasn’t even the case.
It was true that Guy didn’t find out who the Nightwatchman was, but Marian had discovered Guy’s horrible secret.
A regicide, in her bed there was a regicide.
Under her roof.
The worst kind of murder.
Almost like killing God, in the eyes of Marian, in the eyes of the world.
She was betrothed to a regicide.
It horrified her.
It made her feel sullied, too.
She knew that she couldn’t bear the look on Robin's face if she told him the news.
Who knows what he would say knowing that she was to be the bride of a regicide. The look of compassion. And anger. Unbearable for her.
And at the same time she had to prevent Guy from getting near the King again.
She should report him, now that she knew, and it didn’t matter how she had known. The expression of pain and confusion on Guy’s face didn’t matter either.
She could denounce him.
But there wasn’t a King to do so, he was far, away in a distant land.
And she didn’t like Robin's attitude about the Nightwatchman.
Reporting Guy to him might be fatal, for Gisborne.
But she could not trust anyone else: who knew how many others had collaborated to Vaisey’s plan in some way, either actively or keeping the silence? Maybe they were the same ones who had favored his rise to the role of Sheriff of Nottingham.
No, there was no one to tell, apart from Robin, without risking both her and her father’s lives.
But at the same time, Marian felt that it was just as dangerous to denounce Guy to Robin.
He could decide to take justice into his own hands, or maybe he could capture Guy and hold him prisoner in the forest for who knows how long, waiting for the return of the King.
Guy couldn’t survive to an imprisonment, not now, Marian thought.
If Guy should recover, she’d talk with him, she’d convince him of his fault.
She had fantasized the scene in her mind. She’d find a way, with him.
It would be difficult, but she would try.
Yes, she’d try.
Maybe Guy himself would confess his crime to the King, on his return to England.
She’d convince him to do so: Guy would kneel before the throne of the King, and he would ask for forgiveness, and mercy.
Yes, she’d persuade him, and Guy would do it.
Maybe with her at his side.
She would kneel next to Guy to plead for his cause, and perhaps the King, the just King who Robin always described to her, would pardon him.
Or he would condemn him.
But at least she’d have done for Guy everything she could.
No more guilt, among them.
It wouldn’t be, at least for this, her fault.
As it had been her fault that forced him in his sickbed...
In a corner of her mind, there was the terrible thought that probably, if Guy would heal, he couldn’t be able to try another attempt on the King's life. He wouldn’t be the weapon of a murderer anymore.
As the hours passed, Marian had seen Guy lying and suffering in her bed, clinging to her, with his words, his panting breaths, clinging to her as if she was the only one who could help him.
Everything in him had screamed for help, from her.
Marian couldn’t betray him.
She wasn’t a traitor.
And she wouldn’t be like Guy, Marian repeated in her mind, but she would try, at least, to help him.
The girl shut the window that Robin used to leave the house: she was alone again, to face the man who was lying on her bed.
She was alone, to face Guy.
Chapter 5: Fallen Angels
The apparent calm of the night at Knighton Hall was torn by a cry of fear, of pain, the sound amplified by the natural silence of the house.
Marian stood up from her chair and she walked over to Guy.
She had learned, in those early days, that when Guy’s sleep was so restless, she had to speak as calmly as possible to him, to call his name before she could try to touch him, to avoid that he could accidentally hit and hurt her.
Marian's voice had become the first guide for Guy, helping him to tread through the fever and the remorse that dotted his difficult and painful sleep.
The remorse of a murderer, the girl thought.
But when she saw him suffering so much, she couldn’t refrain from helping him.
Maybe she did it for mercy, which can’t be denied to anyone.
She was taught that mercy shouldn’t be denied even to the most dirty and miserable of the human beings. And Guy was so stained by his own guilt, in her eyes.
Maybe she did it because she was feeling guilty too.
A moment without thinking, considering, the consequences, and she had committed a reckless act that nearly killed Guy, and that could still kill him.
Whatever the reason, mercy, remorse, or simple human compassion, Marian approached Guy, calling him by name, softly.
She couldn’t consider the possibility that she was, above everything else, worried about him.
Matilda had told her, seeing her in trouble during one of Guy’s first crises, that she shouldn’t consider him as a man in those moments, but like a wounded animal. She had to approach him very cautiously, quietly, showing him that she wasn’t afraid of him and that she wasn’t going to hurt him further. Eventually, though, Matilda told her to think of him like a lost child, who is consoled when he hears his mother's voice.
Marian had begun to call Guy when he was so agitated, talking to him calmly, to make him feel that she was with him, that he wasn’t alone in his nightmares, and that they would walk out of that scary place of his mind together.
Then Guy, lost in the middle of nowhere, in that dark place of his dreams, red with blood and burning with fire, began to calm down, slowing his nervous, violent, snappy movements, as if he could actually hear her voice.
She saw that Guy relied on her: the features of his face began to relax, his breathing was less frantic, and Marian could now take his hand without fear that, in his turmoil, he could hurt her.
Guy grabbed hard her hand, then his hold loosened, his eyes still closed. His face became sad and only then Marian rested Guy’s head on her bosom.
Marian had seen mothers of the villages holding their children like that, when they were crying for a fall, or a scare: they took them gently in their arms, speaking softly to them.
She had remembered that during the nights when Guy was delirious with fever and she didn’t know how to help him. Marian had begun to do the same with Guy, holding him in her arms while he was still wrapped in the final part of his nightmare.
She realized that this worked: Guy calmed down completely, his expression serene. His head didn’t seem so heavy, and she leaned her back, tense and tired, to the headboard of the bed.
Guy didn’t seem a wild, injured animal, or a frightened child anymore. In those moments he was only Guy, he was just a man. Who needed her, only her.
Marian trembled at the thought, and she was often tempted to get up, leave him there, run away and never return.
But his breathing was now quiet, his heartbeat slower, as if it was beating in unison with hers. And Marian stood there, holding him in her arms, not capable to leave him alone.
She too, then, felt calm. The world stood still around her, around them.
Everything, with Guy resting on her heart, made her relax and to drift into a quiet sleep too.
Falling asleep to the sound of Guy breathing had become, in a few days, a bad habit for her. He was her unwanted betrothed, her enemy, and the enemy of the kingdom. Yet, at that moment, Marian wanted nothing more than to see him resting quietly, and to drift into sleep herself, too.
It was strange, the feeling of having Guy's head on her chest. It was something she had never done, not even with Robin during their engagement.
A young noble woman, a well-educated girl, a good girl, will not allow such contact to her betrothed, she had been taught.
The gentle but firm distance was the key part of her education, as soon as she had become a girl. And she, instead, wanted to study the epic chivalry, the story of heroes, their deeds, business, battles and battle strategies.
She had been given a different type of education to become a true lady.
An education made of choices. But her choices had to be limited to the ability to combine colors, and knowing how to embroider, to recognize a good fabric and a honest supplier for her home and family.
And they especially taught her how to behave with men. She had learned how to keep the right distance between herself and men. Distance. The only element that would lead her safely, a respected maiden, to marriage.
She had learned to alternate firmness to smiles. Also towards Robin, the first who made her heart beat, her first, warm, cheerful love.
She had been sorry, when she was younger, that she couldn’t give him another kiss, another caress, that she could not embrace him. But they expected a gentle firmness from her, and Robin, young too, and playful by nature, seemed to enjoy that cheerful courtship game, that was spontaneous and natural for two people who had grown up so close, despite the times when she had to put a limit to his exuberance.
It was all natural and intended, their falling in love. Their families smiled at them in approval, they met in planned occasions and also in unscheduled occasions, sought out by Robin to see her in secret, but in the end, under the consenting eyes of everybody.
They met at Knighton, and at Nottingham Castle, where Marian had moved when her father, who had been in his youth a skilled, strong, brave knight, had been assigned the role of the County Sheriff.
Even there, the young Robin came to her to steal a caress on her face, a kiss, hiding between the columns of the inner courtyard of the castle. For this reason also, Robin seemed to know every means to enter and leave the castle, undisturbed. He had learned to know it so well when he wooed her.
The war was far away, in the Holy Land. Marian didn’t hear and didn’t see how it was a burden for people.
She hadn’t known someone dear who departed for that sacred and far away place and never returned.
She smiled at the young Robin, stopping his hands if he grew bolder, and she walked away from him, allowing him to look at her one last time, before disappearing into the corridors of Nottingham Castle.
Then it came the order to raise taxes, to help soldiers and the King in the Holy Land, because the war was hard and difficult, and it could be lost. And Marian saw her father raise taxes, losing his smile at the same time. He wouldn’t found it anymore.
Edward was burdened by the weight of his office. The war began to be a weight for Nottingham. Then Robin had changed: he began to speak of the duties coming from his rank, saying that he became an adult and had responsibilities towards the king. He hadn’t been able to promise his return, and before long he had left her.
He was gone, to the Holy Land, for the King.
She had suffered for his absence and for the malicious and compassionate glances of the people.
And yet, young as she was, her pain seemed to her the only problem in the world.
Other young men tried to approach her. She rejected them with firmness, without a smile.
Lord Vaisey had arrived, and Guy with him, and Marian and her father found themselves out of the castle, instantly.
The suitors didn’t come for her anymore, but that didn’t bother her. It was a relief.
Her concern was for her father, she had always considered him strong, just, wise, like a rock.
After he had lost his job, the other noble families kept a respectful and courteous distance from him, and, during those years, he had become fragile, indecisive, resentful, fearful, unable to oppose anything and anyone.
Once she had left the castle and returned between her own people, she had become aware of their suffering. The people had become poorer, then many of them had begun to suffer from hunger or diseases that they could no longer afford to cure.
This had deeply impressed her, and it had given her a reason, a purpose for her life.
She wouldn’t wait for another knight, for a nice, handsome, bold young nobleman who could replace Robin and bring her to the altar.
She had decided to act.
The more her father seemed to withdraw into himself, to give up politics and retire to the seemingly quiet and rural life of Knighton, the more she had begun to act for the good of the community, to heal the damage that the Sheriff and Guy had done.
She distributed just food, and some coin from her worthless dowry, from house to house. But she did it in secret, wearing a mask, and she learned to fight and to defend herself.
She learned to be a bold knight herself.
She liked that idea: it defined her as a person, and above all, it made her smile.
In those dark years, illuminated only by her work as the Nightwatchman, nobody came as a suitor, and Marian was often at her father’s side on public occasions where the presence of Sir Edward was required, in the place that would have been of her mother if she were alive.
She had to be present at his side dressed in her best clothes. It could be a religious celebration, a party, a meeting of the council, a public proclamation, or a hanging.
On all those occasions, Marian had felt Guy's eyes on her.
The man was dark, older than her, always dressed in black leather, his appearance proud, solemn and deadly. They said, about him, the most horrible things, and they probably were all true.
He watched her, always, constantly. He stared at her, followed her. His gaze didn’t leave her for a moment.
Marian thought that his stare was a form of fierce hostility towards the family that she represented. Nothing else.
Then he began to approach her father on public occasions, to speak with him privately, and she couldn’t hear them talking. She had then seen Gisborne confabulating with the hated sheriff, as they were plotting something about her.
She hadn’t realized that Guy was asking to them both, the permission to approach her, the permission to woo her.
She noticed it a little at a time, when she saw Guy moving away from the Sheriff and coming to her, offering his arm to lead her to the other side of the hall during a party, or to invite her to dance, his offer always declined, or to ask if she had eaten enough, or if the party was of her liking.
In the beginning, Guy had appeared demanding, direct, confident in front of the important men of Nottingham, and she had resumed her gentle and firm distance she had once used with Robin, in the same way one could wear gloves again when winter returns.
Guy instead took his gloves off when he tried a contact, even just a slight touch with his hand.
But he did no more than that, and Marian had thought that it was nothing more than a public display of his heightened status , and that he acted in the same way with who knows how many other noble girls of the Kingdom.
People also said other things about him, between Nottingham corridors.
They said that some maid had stayed in his room a minute too much, and that she had found herself in bed with him.
It was said of Guy that he was powerful and demanding even in bed. Maybe even violent.
Especially it was said that he was very passionate.
One of those girls, one of those who had met him several times, got pregnant, had his son and he had abandoned him. Marian and Robin had saved him.
Marian had shrugged, thinking about the "powerful and passionate" Guy, who was forced to compel a maid to indulge him because he could not honestly find a companion of his same lineage. She thought that he didn’t behave like a knight. He had been a coward.
She couldn’t imagine that, as soon as Guy entered in Locksley as the master, his only thought and goal would be her, that he would begin to show up at her home to offer that unwanted and dangerous friendship, full of demands and gifts.
It was the prelude to the true and proper courtship, awkward on his behalf and even more unwanted by Marian.
But in all this time, Guy had kept looking at her in the same dark and continued manner, and Marian had understood, in fear, that perhaps that was a sign of passion in him.
She feared that he just wanted to own her. And she knew that his passion was meant for her alone.
She only had a few weapons left, and a very little time to escape from it, or to enjoy her freedom and her youth.
Guy had insisted, stressing the fragility and the social precariousness of her family. Marian had begun to falter. And the return of Robin had not been enough to change things for the better.
Perhaps he had even worsened the situation. Guy began a silent, continuous, relentless siege to her house, to her life, to her.
She had fought, but she had to succumb to his blackmail, trapped by him, and she found herself betrothed to Guy.
Robin was not in a position to help her, and perhaps he wouldn’t even want to marry her, Marian wasn’t certain about this. Robin seemed to be unhappy for her, he wanted to help her, but he couldn’t.
And now she was living in a delicate, precarious balance. Her house was the last bastion that protected and reassured her before Guy, with his arrogance and his dark passion, could put an end to her youth, to her fierce freedom, and to her hidden independence.
The only alternative was to take the veil as a nun, and Marian didn’t want to get away from Guy and then simply shut herself in another type of prison. She didn’t want to stop being herself and being oppressed by an even higher power.
With Guy suddenly at her home with his visible pain, injured for her fault, Marian had to put her life on hold, and not only her life, even that same unwanted betrothal, because Guy now could die.
But even more, with Guy wounded in her house, Marian had to put aside every habit she had, every usual and proper behavior prescribed by society, by social conventions.
Her house was in a storm too. It was beyond conventions. Continuously.
Everything revolved around Guy, in those days.
All revolved around Guy, his moments of calm, and his moments of agitation, his moments of intense pain; Matilda and her concoctions and her maneuvers; the servants of Knighton, obviously not happy about having to serve a man so despised and contemptible; Guy’s guards; her father, always agitated, always accusing her of the situation; and, above all, herself.
She revolved around Guy after that he, for months, perhaps for years, had turned around her.
Now she was constantly concerned to heal his wounds, constantly worried that he lacked nothing.
That nothing was being spared, despite her father's concern for money. She worried for him, doing everything she could to avoid he could die.
Guy always asked for her, in delirium and in the few moments when he was half awake. He just wanted her desperately, asked about her, even when she wasn’t there, despite the entire small world that revolved around him.
She felt guilty. In the worst moments she was nervous and rude in her manners. The father began to scold her even when she was away too long from the Guy’s bedside.
Sir Edward welcomed her with harsh words.
"He asked about you, where were you?"
And she felt even more trapped and guilty.
In those days, in those nights, Guy, in pain or fear, had just called her, he only wanted Marian.
A few other times, when the pain was too strong, he had heard him calling his mother. In those moments, when he relied on the help of his dead mother, Guy really seemed a child to Marian’s eyes.
His voice changed, and it really seemed that of a frightened child. And Marian, seeing him so vulnerable, felt a deep emotion.
She thought that death had to be like that: a child’s invocation to go back forever in the warm arms of his mother.
Marian had understood, in the long hours next to him, that it wasn’t only the fever and physical pain to make him restless, relentless, but also a pain of the soul.
A pain that was born and grown from all the evil that Guy had perpetrated for year as a servant, aware and willing, of Vaisey.
Yet Marian had tried to get away from Guy to take some time to breathe, even in those early days, after the incident, but she returned to him feeling even more miserable.
In one of those moments, Marian saw Robin, who came back to have a look at the situation.
Their meeting had started badly and ended worse.
Robin had done nothing wrong, and she had acted on impulse, responding angrily to the umpteenth time he interrupted her.
"He must find your bed very comfortable, to stay there so much," Robin said, and she snapped at him, with angry words. Robin realized that he had exaggerated and tried to hug Marian to comfort her, but she immediately stepped back from his arms.
To make things worse, she had wriggled herself out of his arms dramatically.
She had seen the disappointment in Robin’s eyes, who went away silently.
But Marian had neither time nor the heart to stop him. She felt that her fate was now linked to Guy, if he lived or died.
Robin couldn’t do anything to help her. In his dangerous situation, anything he could try would expose himself, Marian, and her father to a dreadful fate. If they ran away, maybe with the help of Robin, abandoning Guy to his fate, they would be held guilty of his death, condemned and sought for it.
Perhaps there would be consequences on the poor people of their fiefdom too.
If Guy died despite they gave him every possible care, even without running away, however, they would be considered guilty all the same.
There would be an investigation and there was a concrete risk that they would discover the identity of the Nightwatchman.
Vaisey would happily put the noose around her neck with his own hands, just to be sure to see her die, and then he’d enjoy the show.
At the sound of the trumpets and fanfare.
If Guy survived, Marian would have to marry a man who had really done terrible things, more than she had seen or feared, or heard talking about.
But in his delirium he had asked for her help, so that she could help him to redeem himself.
She had seen him suffering because of his own faults.
Marian felt powerless in front of the fear that Guy expressed in his nightmares.
She felt helpless remembering the seriousness of what he had said to her in his heartfelt confession.
And she clung with all her might, to this thought, to this little, big, hope.
She began to pray to God for him. To pray that he could live. She would have never thought to do this for him.
At dawn, Matilda entered the room. She saw this girl, considered by many good and kind, and by many others just proud and defiant, sound asleep.
She kept softly, her hand through his hair, the head of the Dark Knight, who everyone considered scary and lost.
He held his hands around her waist, and all his body seemed to reach for her. She did the same, only with more sweetness.
Neither of them would let the other go, dressed in white as angels fallen from the sky to the world, exhausted as soldiers at the end of a long and fierce battle.
To Matilda they just looked like a man and a woman who desperately needed each other.
She had seen them, and understood. She recognized, in that scene, something that once she had had, and lost. She recognized love in them.
Matilda smiled, watching them: there was hope, and not just that Guy lived.
She didn’t want anyone else to see them like that: she closed the door firmly behind her, and, softly, she woke Marian, before any servant could see them so inconveniently, gently, embraced.
Chapter 6: Time is All we Need
Matilda watched closely while Sebastian, Julian, and two of Gisborne’s guards lifted Sir Guy from the bed and make him sit in the chair near the fireplace. The servants arranged the pillows behind his back, so that he could be as comfortable as possible, while the guards carefully positioned his broken leg on a padded footstool.
During the whole operation, Guy didn’t stir and remained perfectly still, holding his breath, his skin covered by cold sweat. Only when the guards and the servant went away, he allowed himself to a weak sigh.
“This hurts so much,” he whispered, and Matilda patted his face with a wet towel.
“I know, I know. But you can’t stay in bed all the time or you won’t get better. Now take some deep breaths.”
“That hurts too.”
“Do you prefer to get sick and die? Cracked ribs are painful, but believe me, getting a cough or pneumonia would be much worse.”
Guy closed his eyes and obeyed her, taking deep, painful breaths until she told him to stop.
Matilda nodded in approval, and she smiled at him.
“I thought you’d be a terrible patient, but you’re doing well. I know you’re suffering a lot, but keep following my instructions and I promise that it will get better.”
“I’m so tired of this pain,” said Guy, dejectedly, and Matilda sat in front of him, taking his good hand to check his pulse.
“I think you will survive, Sir Guy. When I first saw you I wasn’t sure you could. But your health is improving. Your recovery will be long and painful, but you’ll get better.”
Guy looked at his leg, and he frowned.
“Will I be able to walk and ride again? It looks terrible and it hurts so much...”
“We won’t know until it’s healed. But you must consider yourself lucky that I didn’t have to amputate it.”
Guy gave her a startled look, and Matilda patted his hand.
“Don’t think about it, now. Do what I say and your health will improve. It will take time, but you are strong and you’ll recover.”
“I don’t know if I have time.”
“What do you mean? The only thing you have is time, now. You can’t do anything but waiting to get better.”
Guy didn’t answer. He couldn’t tell her that he was sure that the sheriff wouldn’t wait too much. He had to go back to his work as soon as he could, but he knew that Matilda was right when she said that his recovery would be very long. More than a week after his accident, he was still weak, in pain and unable to move on his own. He needed help for everything, and his only relief was when Matilda’s remedies eased some of his pain and allowed him to sleep.
“Nothing,” he said, with a sigh. “I feel sore and tired.”
Matilda gave him a sympathetic look.
“I hope you feel hungry too,” she said, taking a bowl of soup from the tray on the table.
“Not so much.”
“But you have to eat, you need to keep your strength.” She placed the bowl on his lap and gave him a spoon. “Here. You have a good arm, try to eat on your own. I’m going downstairs to prepare a poultice for your leg, it will help with the swelling, but I’ll be back soon. If you need something, just call: a servant is sitting outside the door.”
Sir Edward was in the hall, looking at the flames of the fireplace, when Matilda came down the stairs.
“How is he?” He asked, anxiously.
“I think he will survive. His conditions didn’t get worse and the fever broke two nights ago and didn’t come back. We must be careful because he’s not out of danger yet, but I feel optimistic.”
“That’s a relief. When will he be able to go back to Locksley?”
“Are you so eager to get rid of him?”
“I am afraid for our safety. If he should take a turn for the worse while he’s under my roof, we are finished.”
Matilda looked at Sir Edward, thoughtful.
“Does he have a family?”
“Who? Sir Guy? I don’t think so, not here, at least. He came with the Sheriff four years ago, but I’ve never seen him with family or friends. All he ever does is working for the Sheriff or wooing my daughter.”
The healer shook her head.
“He won’t be able to travel for a month or two, at least, but even then I’d advice against sending him back to Locksley or to the castle.”
Sir Edward frowned.
“It would be a heartless thing to do.”
“Heartless? How so?”
“That young knight may be the cruel henchman of the Sheriff, and God knows how much I hate the things he did, but he has nobody. He’s completely alone, with no one to care for him. Nobody came to visit him since he got hurt. He wouldn’t have been able to see people, of course, but nobody even tried, or sent a word inquiring about his health. If you send him away, he’ll be at the complete mercy of his servants and of his guards. I don’t know if those people are loyal to him, but they can’t give him all the cares he will need. After such a long illness, he’ll feel dejected and in low spirits and he might have to come to terms with a permanent injury.”
“A permanent injury?”
“His leg. The damage is bad, I can’t guarantee that it will heal completely. He might be crippled for the rest of his life, I can’t foresee the outcome of this injury. What would happen to him, then? Whatever happens, he will need the support of a family, or some friends, at least. You and your daughter are the closest thing he has.”
Sir Edward shook his head in disbelief.
He never thought that Guy of Gisborne could need the help of his family. In his mind, he was the danger, the wolf who could destroy them all, and he never stopped to think that he was just a human being.
He was afraid of him, and he hated both Gisborne and the Sheriff for what they did to people, but Sir Edward had a kind heart, and Matilda’s words made him think.
The healer went to the kitchen to prepare her remedies, and Sir Edward walked upstairs.
He peeked from the open door to look at Guy of Gisborne, to see if there was some truth in what Matilda had said.
Sir Guy was sitting in the chair near the fireplace, his wrecked body propped up by pillows, and he was slowly eating some soup from a bowl he had on his lap. Every time he lifted the spoon, his moves were cautious and stiff, as if every little gesture was painful and difficult.
The knight looked pale, sad, and extremely alone, and, for the first time since he knew him, Sir Edward felt sorry for him.
He walked into the room, and Guy stopped eating to look at him. Edward thought that he looked young and lost.
“Sir Guy...” he began, uncertain of what to say, and the knight gave a puzzled look at him.
“I hope you are feeling better, Sir Guy.”
“No, I don’t.” Guy said harshly, and Edward winced. Guy noticed the confusion of the old lord, and he softened his tone when he talked again. “I don’t feel better, but the healer says that I should survive, so maybe I am a little better, after all.”
“Is there anything that you need, Sir Guy?”
“A miracle, maybe?” Guy snapped, then he sighed and apologized to Marian’s father. “I’m sorry. Pain isn’t good for my temper. I am really grateful for your help, but please ask Matilda: she knows what I need more than I do.”
Sir Edward nodded gravely.
“I will. If there is anything that we could do for you, just ask: we’ll do everything we can.”
“Thank you,” Guy said, a little surprised, then Sir Edward went away, leaving Gisborne to wonder why the elderly lord had been so kind to him.
He knew that his presence at Knighton was an inconvenience to him and Marian, and that they were probably taking care of him only because they feared the consequences. But the way Sir Edward talked to him and offered his help was as if he really meant it, as if he cared.
Guy wasn’t used to kindness anymore, and it worried him because he didn’t understand Sir Edward’s reasons for it.
He sighed. It was useless to have suspects on the elderly lord because he was completely at his mercy.
He picked up the spoon again and resumed eating the soup he had no appetite for. He had to do everything he could to get better soon, and the only way to do that was to obey Matilda’s instructions.
A few days later.
Guy heard the steps of the servants coming up the stairs, and he closed his eyes, pretending to be asleep. He had learned to recognize all the persons who lived in the manor, just listening to them.
After all, listening and thinking were the only things he could do, and often his thoughts were just too dark to indulge in them. Listening to the voices, the steps, and the sounds of the house was better for his mind.
Sir Edward was slow and a little hesitant, especially when he was in his room, as if he was always afraid to anger him; his guards walked heavily, their boots resounding on the steps. Marian was the only one who could take him by surprise, silent as a mouse.
The two women who were coming now were two of the youngest maids of the house, silly creatures always ready to giggle and tattle.
They clearly disliked him and Guy returned the feeling, so he preferred to stay still, with his eyes closed until they would go away.
The two maids entered the room carrying a trunk and they dropped it in a corner of the room.
“All this effort for nothing. I wonder if he’ll ever use this stuff ever again.”
“Be quiet! He could hear you!”
The other one shrugged.
“He doesn’t scare me anymore. Look at him, he’s as good as dead. Even if he survives, he won’t be the same anymore. The Sheriff will get rid of him, sooner or later.”
“He has his guards, if he should hear you, he could order them to punish us.”
“See that wound on his head? Sarah told me that probably he’s been damaged, that he has become mad because of it. At night we go back at our homes, but she lives at the manor, and she heard him screaming as if he’s possessed by the Devil. I pity Lady Marian.”
“She’s betrothed to him. If he doesn’t die she’ll have to marry him. Can you imagine it? To be married to a cripple and a madman...”
The two girls shivered in horror, then they went back downstairs, complaining that they had to wash the towels and bandages used by the healer.
Guy waited until they were gone before opening his eyes again. He glared at the empty door, then he searched the room with his eyes to see what the two maids carried. He recognized the trunk that he usually kept at the foot of his bed in Locksley, and sighed.
The two girls had been rude and unpleasant, but Guy knew that their words weren’t completely wrong.
Maybe he would never be able to get up from his sickbed and probably he would be crippled for life.
The trunk contained some of his leather clothes, his swords and daggers and other personal belongings.
The items in the trunk were like parts of another life, a life that would never come back.
He tried to sit in the bed, but he was still too weak and he wished that he could at least be able to take care of his more personal needs instead of having to call a servant just to relieve himself.
The two maids were just stupid girls, but their words were able to deeply hurt him, awakening all his fears.
They said that the Sheriff would get rid of him, and Guy was afraid that it could be true: Vaisey needed a strong henchman, someone who could carry on his plans, a weak and crippled one would only be a nuisance to be removed.
He tried again to move on his own, but he was stopped by Matilda’s voice.
“What do you think you are doing?”
Guy looked at her, startled and angry.
“Just trying to reach the damn chamberpot!” He snarled.
“More like trying to hurt yourself. If you fall from the bed, you’ll get seriously injured. Here, let me help you.”
Gisborne had no choice but surrender to her cares, embarrassed and frustrated.
“I hate this. I hate this so much.”
Matilda softly laughed.
“I know, love, I know. But don’t be ashamed, it’s not your fault if you can’t move, and I’m used to this kind of things.”
“Don’t call me like that!” Guy growled, making her laugh even more.
“As you wish, Sir Guy. Today is not a good day, I see.”
“It won’t be a good day until I’ll be like I was before!”
“Are you planning to sulk until you’ll be healed?”
“What if I do?”
“You are free to do whatever you want, of course, but moping won’t help you to get better.”
Matilda looked at him, unimpressed.
“I will, don’t worry, but not because of your temper. I have many other patients to visit. Is there anything else that you need before I go? Are you hungry? Thirsty? Want something for the pain?”
“No. Not yet. I don’t want to sleep now, nightmares are haunting me every night. Where is Marian?”
“I haven’t seen her when I arrived. Maybe she’s not at home.”
“Well, find her, and tell her to come here.”
Matilda ruffled his hair like she would do to a dog or a little child, much to his annoyance, then she went away, stopping on the door and turning one last time to look at him.
“I’ll be back this evening and I hope to find you in a better mood, love.” Matilda said, stressing the last word in a mocking tone and earning another snarl from him.
Marian came home, loaded with her two baskets. She had crossed the whole village to search what was needed in the manor.
Now that all the servants were dedicated to Sir Guy and his demands, there was no one else who could go to the market and get the necessary supplies.
In any case, Marian had thought that getting some fresh air out of the house, and thinking about her own commissions, would do her good. She would do anything, just to get away for a moment from the house, from the chatter of the servants, from her father’s lamentations, and above all from Sir Guy, and his need to keep her close day and night.
The morning air was cool, and Marian had been happy to walk outside.
As long as she kept away from people, everything had gone well. As she passed, they were all polite and respectful.
No, not everyone, actually.
Some of them had begun to turn their backs at her, to greet her with less respect. Above all, she had heard them mumbling, whispering behind her back after she passed.
Marian had heard them, but she didn’t stop, continuing her errands.
She had bought the bandages that Sir Guy needed, fruits that would be good for his meals, a dark blue length of cloth to sew a tunic and comfortable trousers that he could wear at home when he would be able to stand and spend more time out of bed. She also bough bread, cheese, small things that she noticed to be of his liking.
She put the basket with the food on the kitchen table, and, looking at it, she realized that everything she had bought, was for him.
She wondered if her very existence would be dedicated to him, to please him, after the wedding.
Or maybe, she would spend her life to assist him.
The return of the King would bring changes. But there were too many possibilities, and the more Marian tried to think of possible developments, the more she felt confused.
Above all, Marian thought that she needed more time, that Guy needed more time before the King returned.
Marian felt that she was now divided between the sake of her people, who needed the immediate end of the oppression, and her own, and Guy’s, sake. They needed time to heal, to speak, to understand each other, to convince Guy to change his life, and who knows, maybe to persuade him to break their betrothal, setting her free.
They needed time.
For a moment, Marian hoped, prayed, that King Richard returned as late as possible in England.
Feeling shame for this last thought, Marian went upstairs.
Matilda met Marian with a smile, and she told her that Guy was asking for her, and that she was trying to avoid that he could overstrain himself.
Marian was annoyed by the sly way in which Matilda turned to her when she referred to Guy’s need to be with Marian.
As if Matilda thought and consequently insinuated that there was any feeling between them.
How could she even think about it?
Between them there was only obligation and compassion on her part, needs and domination on his. There was no room for anything else.
Matilda glanced at the blue length of cloth, and at the new bandages, that were in the basket that Marian was carrying in her room, now occupied permanently by Guy.
“Beautiful, it will look stunning on him. It has been chosen with loving care”
Marian was embarrassed by those words, and she was about to answer her in a piqued tone. She wanted to say that there was nothing that could be defined ‘loving’. She stopped when her father came into the house and Sir Edward turned to his daughter, reproachfully.
"What are you still doing here? Sir Guy asked for you, and you were not here! Hurry up, don’t make him wait.”
Marian rolled her eyes, while Matilda laughed softly, and she went towards the room of her demanding Lord.
Guy was sitting in the bed, his back supported by many pillows, and he had his eyes closed.
Marian thought that he was probably asleep and she was even more annoyed because of her father’s scolding: if Sir Guy was sleeping, he couldn’t miss her.
She was about to leave her basket on the table and go back downstairs, when Guy stirred.
The girl mentally sighed and looked at him: his expression was grim and his eyes looked darker than usual, as if, instead of being blue like the water of a ocean, they had the same color of stormy skies.
“Where have you been?” He asked, and his voice was stern.
Chapter 7: Our Lives in Your Hands
Marian was surprised by his harsh tone, but she replied to him, trying to stay calm.
“I went to the market, we needed some supplies for you. Sir Guy, please take a look at this length of cloth… it's of a beautiful shade of blue…”
Guy didn’t even glance at the cloth.
“Why should I care for shades of color? I guess that you just wanted to go away from here. Away from me.”
Marian was tempted to reply that she desperately wanted to stay away from him. At least for a few hours.
The girl felt the weariness deeply in her bones.
Guy's voice, deep, possessive and terribly demanding made her angry.
“The cloth is for you,” she said, “everything I've got from the market is for you. Everything I have done these days is for you. And is this still not enough?"
Guy looked at the girl, surprised by her sharp tone.
It wasn’t the first time that she berated him like that: when he had asked her to show him the necklace, a few days ago, she had been angry at him.
He still was ashamed when he thought about it: he had doubted her loyalty, and Marian proved him wrong.
She eventually accepted to marry him, but he couldn’t help wondering if she did it only to protect her father.
That doubt was like a thorn in his side, and now it was much worse: how could she like him when he was so broken and weak?
He was afraid that she could break the engagement, and his own helplessness made him touchy and irritable.
He wanted to be the one to take care of her, to buy her gifts, not the other way round.
“I don’t need your help.”
The stubbornness of that man gave her even more discomfort than his possessiveness and exclusiveness.
Marian wondered how she would be able, really, to marry him, and to live with him.
The King's return would allow her to escape from her engagement to him, but, maybe, it would also be the end of Guy's life.
That thought made her shiver.
But the man's stubbornness prevailed in her reaction.
"The moment you will be healthy enough,” she said, “you will not need nor me, nor anybody else. But the responsibility for your current conditions is mine, for now. Ask and you shall receive, my lord!”
Guy lifted his eyes to look at her.
“Your responsibility? What do you mean? How could this be your responsibility?”
He glanced at the blanket that covered his injured body, and he felt even more angry.
“It’s the Nightwatchman’s fault! That miserable outlaw keeps defying me, but the first thing I’ll do when I get better will be capturing him. He shall hang, and I’ll watch him swinging on the rope.”
The girl realized her sudden mistake: she had to fix it, immediately.
A further distraction could be fatal for her.
She was afraid.
At the same time, Marian could not understand why he was so angry and concentrated on catching the Nightwatchman. She never did anything really wrong, until that fatal night. What the Nightwatchman did was nothing, until then, in comparison to what Robin and his gang at the castle were doing in and out of the Castle, and around the County.
Yet, Guy seemed to attack the Nightwatchman relentlessly, trying to catch him with increasing anger.
"Sir Guy," Marian said with a calmer, more controlled tone, “you have been injured in the vicinity of this house, we needed to take you home immediately, so we took care of you here, without losing precious time or risking your health to bring you back to Locksley." She made a pause. "I am your betrothed, Sir Guy. It’s my responsibility to help you regain your health, to help you in everything you might need.”
Marian approached Guy, and slowly touched the man's forearm, like a slow caress.
“In sickness and in health.”
She smiled at him, vaguely seductive.
“Sir Guy, there is something I do not understand,” she added, inadvertently. “With all the enemies of the Crown out there, why would you stubbornly do anything to capture just him. What is the Nightwatchman for you to risk your life to this extent,only to get him? From what I hear around, he carries just food, or just a little money to poor people. What’s wrong with this? Pity is due from the Lords. Compassion towards others should be our first thought. Please, give up your insane hunt to catch him, My Lord.”
Guy looked at Marian’s hand on his arm, and his heart started beating a little faster. Her touch was like fire, scorching and distracting, capable to numb his mind, but the words she said, took him back to reality in a moment.
He moved his good hand to clutch Marian’s wrist, and he looked at her.
“Do you think he’s harmless?! Be careful, Marian, these are dangerous words, if somebody else should hear you, you’d be suspected of betrayal. That man doesn’t just feed the poor. He defies the authority of the Sheriff, every time he gives them food or money, he’s inciting them to rebel and someday they will try to disobey the law, and they’ll end up hanged.”
Marian felt trapped, Guy's hand was gripping her wrist, his long, slender fingers just above the slight scar that the Nightwatchman had recently suffered from him.
One wrong move and she would be at his mercy. And now she knew that Guy wouldn’t have had pity on her, if he had discovered the truth.
She felt lost. And then there were his eyes fixed on her, watching her, challenging her, with anger, with conviction, with fury, with passion.
As long as he had been weak, Marian had not been afraid, or embarrassed to touch him, to hug him even, and had let him embrace her. But now, with him suddenly strong, threatening, suddenly returning like the man who was, she felt an extreme heat from his touch, a sensation she had never felt on her skin before.
She only wanted to flee from him, to flee quickly.
She had never felt like this, in all those years, even when she had to free herself from unwanted advances from one or two of her suitors.
Guy's deep warmth, his strength, the possessiveness in his eyes, made her feel guilty, dirty, and not because she was the Nightwatchman, but because his gaze made her feel strangely, deeply exposed.
“Sir Guy! Remember, we are still promised. This is inappropriate. If someone saw us....I have a reputation to keep. Please let me go. Now.”
Guy stared at her, blankly, then he released her from his hold. She looked afraid of him, disgusted maybe, and he thought that it was because of his conditions.
This thought made him even angrier. He hated to be weak, forced to depend on servants to attend to his most basic needs. And it was the Nightwatchman’s fault.
If once he could have decided to listen to Marian’s words, and believe that the man just wanted to help people, now it was a personal revenge. That outlaw destroyed his life, and he had to pay for it.
“If being here bothers you so much, you can go. I don’t need anyone’s pity!”
Marian was relieved, freed from his touch, but his words kept hurting her. She wanted to go away, to leave him there. She really didn’t understand how to deal with Guy. But she would still have the last word, in that absurd competition between them.
Where would he find another woman to look after him?! Another woman willing to waste her sleep, her energy and her heart for him!
“Sir Guy, I do not feel ANY pity for you!” Marian looked at Guy, regaining her self confidence and her detachment. “You are intractable today, and I'm tired. I'm just very tired. I will send someone to help you.”
Marian left the room.
Guy looked at her back. He was the one who told her to go away, but he had the sensation he was the one to be dismissed.
“Stop immediately!” He shouted, even more angry than before.
Marian heard Guy shouting, in a tone of voice so strong and so peremptory that she went back hastily. No one, absolutely no one could dare to speak to her that way. And in her house!
"You! You! Don’t you dare to talk to me in that tone! I'm not your servant, nor your maidservant. Never! Never again you will talk to me in that tone. You! You don’t deserve anything. You are bad, you are cruel, a threat to the Kingdom. A threat to the King! From me you will have nothing but assistance, I am ashamed of what you did! And here I was! Hoping that you could really be a better man! I was wrong, so utterly wrong!”
Guy’s heart skipped a beat. He had never seen Marian so furious, and a part of him liked that wild side of her.
He was so mad and frustrated, that a verbal fight with her could have been satisfactory, a good way to vent, but then her words filled him with fear.
Why was she talking of the King? She talked as if she knew his darkest secret.
He looked at her, unsure, but calmer.
“What… what do you mean?” He asked, lowering his voice.
Marian came back to Guy, feeling stronger. She finally had an advantage over him for once.
“Isn't it true that in the period in which they said you were ill, and there was need for you to be quarantined , you were actually in the Holy Land?” She said, almost in a whisper, mimicking and imitating his facial expressions and his posture, his conspiratorial tone.
Guy froze. He tried to keep a straight face, but he couldn’t think clearly.
How could she know? She couldn’t have guessed, and only two other persons knew about his secret: Vaisey, and the physician who lied about his illness.
Guy couldn’t believe that either of them could reveal his attempt to kill the king to Marian.
Maybe Locksley had recognized him?
But if that was the case, why revealing the truth to Marian, instead of accusing him?
His heart pounding, Guy grabbed again Marian’s hand and he stared at her.
“Never repeat those words. Never. You’ll die if you do.”
Marian felt herself tremble. Was Guy really threatening her to die by his hands? How much longer she would and could have to endure such a thing from him?
No More, Marian thought.
She felt tears, born from anger, forming at the corners of her eyes. Instead of trying to hold them, she let them fall, and she stared at him, at his eyes.
“How dare you threaten me, Sir Guy? How can you even think of marriage, of a family while threatening your future wife of death? What kind of man are you, for real, Sir Guy? I know. You told me yourself. You are not good at keeping secrets. And now you won’t do me any harm. It will be our secret. And you will have to behave differently from now on, if you really want to marry me.”
Marian prayed to God that Guy didn’t understand the truth, she was truly terrified that he really might hurt her, or to turn his rage against her father.
But in his fevered delirium Guy had asked her to help him. Those words had to have a value. They had to mean something. She prayed God, to listen to her silent prayer. She stared into Guy’s eyes, feigning conviction and firmness.
Guy could feel Marian’s arm tremble between his fingers, or was he the one who was shivering in fear? He slowly shook his head, trying to dispel the dizziness that was cutting his breath short, giving him the sickening impression of being, again, on a ship headed for the Holy Land.
“Me? How is that possible?!” He asked, in a urgent whisper, and he was surprised to notice that Marian shrank away from him, in fear. She repeated that he was the one who revealed that secret to her, during a feverish night. Guy realized that she was afraid of him, as if he could actually hurt her.
“After today, never talk about it again, not even to me. If the Sheriff should suspect that you know, he’ll kill you. Your father too. And me. We’d all die. Your life… my life… they are all in your hands now.”
Guy wanted to keep talking and tell her that he never wanted to put her in danger, that he really loved her, and that she was his only hope to become a better man. He was also bubbling with rage, and scared to death at the same time, all his emotion jumbled together in a overwhelming mixture.
His mind was in a turmoil and his body pained him beyond his endurance.
He looked at Marian, unable to utter any other words, and he had the impression that her figure was clouded by dark spots, dancing in front of his eyes.
He felt waves of nausea washing over him, and for a moment he feared that he was going to be sick in front of Marian. But soon darkness enveloped him, and he mercifully slipped in a place where there was no pain and where he could be unaware of his illness.
He collapsed back on the pillows that were propping his body upright, and he passed out.
Chapter 8: The Lonely Knight
Matilda couldn’t understand what had happened to the man. She had left him in decent conditions, as far as he could be. Something must have happened.
When she came back to visit him, and now this had become a pleasure rather than an obligation, poor fellow, she had found him deeply unconscious again, his face marked as if he had suffered a great stress. She could also see a bit of sadness, of defeat, on his face.
At the moment he was fervently assisted by Marian, who seemed to be oscillating between his same stress and much, much more guilt.
It seemed that the clock had been turned back to the first time she saw him, when he was suspended between life and death, but he was much more seriously injured then, so much that she wasn’t even sure she could be able to help him.
However, now, apart from his present state of unconsciousness, the strangest thing was that Marian wasn’t going to leave him alone, not even during her routine medical examination of the knight.
Marian did no more than turning around when it was really required.
Anyway, the worst seemed to be passed: he wasn’t bleeding, he hadn’t new wounds, and he hadn’t suffered new fractures. Just a big, sudden stress.
Perhaps he had tried to move again, to try a too demanding movement for his present physical forces. Or, maybe he had received some grave news.
Matilda looked at the girl, so suddenly alarmed and just as prostrated as Gisborne appeared to be, and she understood that maybe Marian knew something.
So, she began discreetly to ask the girl what had happened.
But Matilda's discretion and kindness to the young woman began to quickly fade, as soon as the girl told her to have had a discussion with him that rapidly transcended in words and feelings, She told her that, in the end, he was deeply agitated and he had tried to move beyond his means.
In short, Matilda found herself scolding her like a little girl, a really reckless young girl.
A silly one.
A stupid one.
Just barely she managed to restrain herself from calling her stupid. She was the daughter of a Lord, after all.
It has been hard, very hard to help Guy to heal, and she was still not sure what would be the ending result of all her cares.
She had seen in the eyes of the man the fear of not being able to do anything, the sense of humiliation of his present condition, and, above all, his loneliness.
If, in the early days of her cares, Matilda had thought that the Knight really deserved to suffer for all the evil he had perpetrated in Nottingham, after having him before her eyes for days she changed her mind: the more she looked at him him, the more she saw a man.
A man in a serious illness.
He looked proud and stubborn to everyone, including his betrothed, while he really was just trying to maintain a dignity, in a difficult and not entirely dignified condition.
She had stopped calling him Sir or any other bad epithet when she thought of Guy.
He had something different in him than other patients that she had had.
At times he seemed suspiciously like an animal beaten for a long time, which was very odd in a man who had exercised so much power. And his pride seemed to hide some secret misery that he would not have told anyone.
In addition, there was the way he seemed increasingly tying his very existence to the daughter of Lord Edward Knighton.
When Guy was looking for Marian, and asked the servants to call her, there was command in his voice. But when he had given the order, and he was waiting her to come, in that very moment, Matilda had seen in him the anxiety of a man taken by a very strong feeling, a feeling that he had never felt before, something that he seemed unable to control completely.
Anyway nothing in Guy, she thought, was now under control, not his physical condition, not his fears, and now even not his feelings. But Marian was his first thought.
She guessed that he must have made control and discipline his life, before his illness. But is this not, in short, a knight?
She had seen many worse men than him.
Lost people. Lost souls. Totally lost souls. Souls condemned to hell.
Guy had seemed to be like them, at first.
Then, she understood: to Matilda, Guy seemed, at times, like the captain of a ship in bad waters, full of serious flaws, desperately hoping that the dim light he saw far away was the light of a lighthouse, a safe harbor.
Marian was that light for him: desperately near and far at the same time.
Time for other questions, Matilda thought.
“Marian, forgive my impudence, but there is something that I’ve been wanting to ask you, for quite some time now”
“Just ask, Matilda,” Marian said, “you know, I am indebted to you, I’m in great debt.”
“Is your future marriage the result of an agreement between families, as is the tradition among the nobles?” The older woman asked.
“No, I don’t know Sir Guy's family. I know nothing of his life before he came to Nottingham. It's an agreement between my father and him, but perhaps it is safer to say that it is the result of an agreement between him and me. He wanted me, strenuously. We came together, to my father's presence to tell him that we would get married, when the King returns to England.”
Matilda thought for a moment about what the girl had said, then she laughed.
“Oh poor boy!” Matilda said “Poor fool, to agree to wait for something that may never happen just to hope to have you as his wife.”
“The King will be back in England!” The girl said, with impetus.
“Maybe,” Matilda said “or maybe not. It 's a war, Marian. Many men left for it, few came back from there. Many were lost and buried in the sand. But this is not the point. Probably the King will return, you're right. What makes me really laugh is the very idea that, in order to have you, THIS man has leapfrogged every rule. Something in both your and his behavior tells me that he must have behaved very badly towards you also. Nothing irreparable, I guess, otherwise you'd be married already, and you wouldn’t be so embarrassed when I have to undress him. But at the end of all, his marriage is linked to the most unlikely event possible at the time. How incredible. You, young girl, must really be very important for him to make a nonsense of the sort. The second most powerful man in Nottingham... Dear God, what a story! Well, Marian, I can tell you, having checked everything in him, that I'm pretty sure of this: Guy will wake up again. But when our ‘sleeping beauty’ will wake up, please, send for me. He will really need someone to listen to him complain and moping, now.”
Matilda left the room, and Marian began to think about the words that the older woman said to her, while she looked at Guy sleeping.
In that moment she realized that Matilda was right; she had been smart, and reckless at the same time to choose the return of the King as the one condition for their marriage.
But Guy had accepted it only for a lack of intelligence? What Guy really hoped? What Guy really wanted from her? There were higher-ranking women and with much greater wealth to choose.
Watching the ‘sleeping beauty’, as Matilda called him, for a moment she smiled, thinking that, at least in this, Matilda was actually right.
Guy turned to give a glance over his shoulder, and he spurred his horse: armed soldiers were following him and he had to run. They were wearing King’s Richard’s uniforms, and Guy knew that if they reached him, he would be hanged or quartered as a traitor.
Then an arrow hit his horse and the animal fell in the sand of the desert. The soldiers captured Guy and dragged him to the king, forcing him to kneel in front of him.
“I didn’t choose to kill you, I just followed the orders of the Sheriff!” Guy pleaded, but King Richard just looked at him, without speaking. Robin of Locksley was at his side, the arms crossed in front of him and his face stern. “Please! I don’t want to die!”
“You tried to kill the king!” Robin said. “The punishment for this is death.”
Guy kept his eyes down, not daring to look at King Richard. He was kneeling on the stone floor of a castle, now, and his leg was hurting, sending jolts of pain through his body.
“Please, Majesty, have mercy on me. I’ve been misguided, I’ll never be a menace again.”
The King looked at him.
“I won’t accept your pleads, but I might be lenient if somebody else is willing to talk in your favor. Someone who can guarantee for you and who will accept to take responsibility for your future actions.”
Guy looked around, but all the other nobles turned their backs at him, and common people glared or spit in his direction. Robin gave him a disgusted look, and he went away too.
Guy saw the slender figure of Marian, and he reached out for her.
“Marian, please, only you can save me...”
The girl looked at him with contempt.
“I despise you,” she said, and she abandoned him too.
King Richard looked at Guy.
“Well? Who will defend you?”
“I have nobody...”
“Then you will die.”
Guy woke to the sound of his own moan of terror. He opened his eyes, looking around in fear, afraid to see the guards coming for him, but he found out that he was in Knighton and that nobody was trying to kill him.
For a moment, he stared at Marian, who was standing near the bed, and the girl looked at him, then she turned her back at him, like in the dream, and she ran out of the door.
Guy stood still, looking at the empty door: his whole body was aching, and he felt empty too.
Marian had been looking at him with a expression he had never seen on her face before, and he assumed it was disgust for him.
Maybe King Richard wasn’t going to execute him for now, but the dream was true: he had nobody.
Before he could stop it, a tear rolled on his cheek, followed by another, and before Guy could move his good hand to wipe them, Matilda entered the room, and rushed to the side of the bed.
“You woke up at last, love,” she said in an affectionate voice, dipping a towel in the basin and beginning to clean away tears and sweat. “What’s up, now? Why are you crying?”
Guy gave her a half-hearted glare.
“I’m not crying!” He snarled. “I’m just in pain.”
“Of course, silly me for thinking otherwise.” She finished cleaning his face, and she touched his forehead. “I don’t think you have a fever, but you look pale. Apart from the pain, how do you feel?”
Something in his tone made Matilda understand that it wasn’t just physical tiredness, but that he was dispirited as well. She wondered what Lady Marian could say to him to make him so miserable, then she decided that it didn’t matter and that the only thing she could do was to try to cheer him up.
“That’s because you are not eating enough, love.”
Matilda helped him to sit in the bed, propping up his back with pillows, then she smiled at him.
“Here. Now close your eyes.”
“Didn’t I save your life? You should trust me by now. Stop arguing and close your eyes.”
Guy gave a glance at her, and he saw she was smiling kindly. He obeyed, with a little sigh.
Matilda looked at him for a moment, and she thought that he was desperately trying to look strong and proud, but she had seen fear in his eyes, fear and loneliness.
She reached for the little basket she had taken with her from the kitchen and took a little bowl full of honeyed walnuts. She took one, and held it to Guy lips.
“Here, try this.”
She expected him to fuss or to ask what she was trying to give him, but he meekly obeyed, parting his lips to accept the bite.
His complete trust moved Matilda, and she smiled as she watched him chew the walnut.
Guy opened is eyes in surprise, and looked at her.
“There’s honey in it!”
“Yes, love, do you like it?”
“It was a long time I didn’t have any. The Sheriff doesn’t have a taste for it. He doesn’t like any kind of sweetness.”
“You’re not the Sheriff, thanks to God,” she said, placing the little bowl in his lap, “so you can eat the rest of it. It will be good for your health, and it has a pleasant taste too. My daughter loved this kind of candy, she was overjoyed when we had the chance to get some honey. Now eat, and after that I’ll help you wash and get changed in a clean nightgown, and then I’ll comb your hair.”
“There’s no need for it.”
“Of course there is! Don’t you want to look good?”
“What for? People despise me. Why should they care about my appearance?”
“Eat. If you are busy chewing, it will keep you from talking nonsense.”
“It’s no nonsense. Name someone who cares for me.”
“Me, for a start. And Lady Marian, I guess.”
Guy lowered his eyes with a deep sigh.
“She feels only contempt for me, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, really? Why was she so worried for your health, then? When you passed out, she got a good fright.”
“I guess she’s afraid of a retaliation.”
Matilda burst in a hearty laughter, and she bent to give him a motherly kiss on his cheek.
“I would have never thought that the dark and cruel henchman of the Sheriff could be such an innocent soul!”
Guy growled her to stop, but Matilda could see that he wasn’t as annoyed as he tried to look, and she guessed that he probably craved all the little attentions she gave to him, even if he would never admit that.
“Eat, and stop brooding. Thinking too much is bad for your health. I care for you, if that matters, and I’m sure other people will too, if they get to know you better. But now put your energies in getting better, sweetie.”
“Don’t call me like that.” Guy said, gruffly, and Matilda laughed again.
“Come on, I know that you love it, love.”
Chapter 9: An Unexpected Visitor
Marian led the unexpected and friendly guest to a seat in the hall. She was intrigued and impressed by him.
It wasn’t the first time since the accident, that this man came to inquire after Sir Guy’s conditions, and his perseverance and affection made a great impression on her, as well as the idea that Gisborne could know someone who not only wasn’t afraid of him, but on the contrary, could care for him.
One would have said he was sorry to know that Sir Guy was sick.
Marian gave once more a discreet look at the guest: he was still a young man, black eyes, black hair, a vibrant light in his eyes, a thoughtful way to look at the things, an observer, but he seemed shy and awkward at the same time, as if he were not used to be in front of a woman, or other people in general.
Marian assured him, that this time he probably could meet Sir Guy personally, as soon as Matilda’s daily visit was over.
Through the window, Marian saw a shadow prowling, stealthy and fast in the garden. She raised her eyes to heaven, and sighed, praying the guest to excuse her and to wait for her. She'd be “right back, in a moment”.
Marian approached the hidden guy, with a playful tone of voice.
“I can see you! Robin, you should be more cautious. Can I help you? Or did you come to pay a visit to Sir Guy too?”
“Who is that man, Marian? It’s not the first time that I see him here. Some other sheriff’s lackey?” Robin asked.
“I don’t believe so. At least he is not arrogant like Vaisey’s guards, or inept as Gisborne’s. And he is genuinely concerned about Sir Guy. I understand your astonishment, and it was mine too, at first. But it’s a positive thing, for Gisborne,” Marian replied.
“You just fail to see that Gisborne is rotten, totally rotten. And he is dangerous, even now. That man is an alchemist, Marian. I have investigated. I asked around, and now I know who he is.”
“I can imagine your methods, Robin. Have you courted his sister, or maybe his mother, this time?” The girl said.
“He has no sisters. But why do you care about HOW I investigate?” Robin asked, smiling maliciously, approaching her.
Marian pushed him back, gently but firmly.
“No, I don’t care, really. It was just… a confirmation.”
“You cared, once, I remember, very clearly. You used to be very angry when some other girl was interested in me. Angry… like you are, right now,” Robin said, playfully.
“Oh, Robin, all the girls in the village were ‘interested’ in you. And that wasn’t fun, at least not for me. But I couldn’t say the same about you: you liked that. A nice habit, for you, to be admired and desired. By everyone.”
Robin tilted his head to one side, his gaze softened.
“I liked that you didn’t like it, that's all. YOU were my betrothed, there were only glances, from both sides, nothing more.”
Marian went on, masking her sudden anger.
“But then you were gone, and best regards to the ‘betrothed’, and I actually don’t care about it now. You see, I can joke about it, now. I can share a laugh about it with you. That’s the difference. It's been so long ago, Robin. I have other things to think about, now.”
“Yes, you have other things to think about: for example, you have to find out what this guy is plotting with Gisborne, and report it to me.” Robin replied, a little wounded. “I don’t think anything positive can come from this meeting, and you could help me to find out what’s happening.”
“Are you asking me to spy on my own house, Robin?” The girl asked, astonished.
"Either you do it or I do it, the choice is yours. As you well know, it’s not an effort for me to climb up to your room!”
“Not now, Guy is awake and watchful. He could see you. It could be trouble for us all,” the girl said, alarmed.
“Your choice, Marian,” Robin replied, firm on his intentions.
“I’ll do it. Come back at sunset, discreetly,” the girl conceded.
“Discretion is my middle name,” Robin said, and walked away, smiling.
Marian sighed, and she went back into her house.
Matilda removed the bandages and the splint, freeing Guy’s wrist, then she carefully examined it.
“Does it hurt?”
“Close your hand, slowly. Stop if it is too painful.”
Guy obeyed, and Matilda nodded, with a smile.
“Congratulations love, now you have two hands again.”
“Is it healed?”
“It’s still weak because it has been immobilized for a month, but yes, your wrist is fine. You have to try to use it as much as you can to regain your strength.”
“I wish I could say the same for the rest of my body.”
Matilda patted his hand sympathetically.
“Patience, my boy, patience. With the wounds you received, you can’t hope to be healed after just a month. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“I know, but I need to get better soon. The sheriff won’t wait for me.”
Matilda uttered a row of profanities, and Guy couldn’t help but smile hearing the colorful way she used to describe Vaisey.
“Here! That’s what I want to see on your face. If you’d smile more often, people wouldn’t be so scared of you, love.”
“I don’t have many reasons to smile, Matilda.”
“Then make them. Try to see the good in the little things.”
While talking, the woman took a brush and began stroking Guy’s hair.
“I can do it myself. After all I’ve two hands, now.”
Matilda bent to brush the top of his head with a light kiss.
“Let me do it, please. I loved to brush my daughter’s hair, but now she’s a married woman. I miss her, especially at night, when my house looks so empty now that she’s not there.”
“So I’m a replacement for your daughter, now? Woman, you have no respect for my dignity.” Guy had talked in a gruff tone, but Matilda could see amusement in his eyes.
“Now I respect you a lot more than I did a month ago.”
Guy gave her a surprised look.
“You are the only one, I think.”
Matilda knew that he was talking of Lady Marian.
Since their fight, a couple of weeks ago, the girl began to avoid him. At night she still watched over his sleep, soothing him when he had nightmares, but as soon as he woke up, she rushed away, making excuses to stay away from his room.
Matilda often wondered what happened between them. If Marian didn’t care for him, she wouldn’t lose her sleep to sit near his bed at night, and she wouldn’t spend so much time sewing new clothes for him.
“No, not the only one. In fact, you have a visit. I wanted to check your conditions before allowing him to see you, but I think that you are strong enough to see people, if you want to.”
Guy was even more surprised, and a little afraid.
“Who could want to see me? It’s not the Sheriff, isn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t let that bald heap of donkey crap to see you, if I can avoid it, love. Your visitor is a young man, he said he’s a friend of yours. His name is Lambert, I think.”
“Really? Lambert came here?”
“He already came a few days after the accident, but you were too sick to see anyone. Do you want to meet him? He’s waiting downstairs.”
Lambert followed Matilda upstairs, and the woman opened the door for him, but she didn’t enter.
He walked in the room, feeling a little nervous, and he looked at the man lying in the bed: he was used to see Guy of Gisborne as a strong knight, tireless and never idle, always dressed in black leather, but now he was gravely injured, weak and unable to move.
Lambert didn’t know what to say, and he shyly waved at him.
Guy smiled, sincerely happy to see a friendly face, and this disconcerted Lambert too.
“Lambert! I didn’t expect your visit. Please, take a seat.”
The man sat on the chair at the side of the bed and he put the basket he had brought on the bedside table. He nodded at it.
“Apples. You like them, don’t you?”
Guy gave him a surprised look.
“Yes. How did you know?”
“You told me once, while we were working at our project. You said that when you were little you used to climb on trees to get the better apples.”
“Yes, I did. And I still like them, thank you.”
Guy felt a pang of shame. Lambert remembered that he liked apples, but Guy had no idea of the tastes of his friend.
While they worked on the black powder, they sometimes used to chat, but Guy couldn’t remember at all what they said.
“How are you?” Lambert asked. “I came to visit you when I heard the news of your accident, but the healer didn’t let me see you.”
Guy shrugged, with a sigh.
“I’m still alive. Matilda says that I’ve been lucky.”
“Did she say when you’ll be able to come back to the castle?”
“Not very soon, I’m afraid. My ribs and my leg still hurt a lot. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to walk again.”
“Don’t be negative, now. You’ll walk, and when you do, I hope I’ll be able to give you a demonstration of our black powder.”
“Are you still working on it?”
“It’s our project. It will be very useful for the mines. It will improve the life of the miners, and they’ll be able to increase the production without endangering their lives.”
Guy didn’t answer immediately.
He could have used the black powder to persuade the Sheriff: even injured he might still be useful to him. Bringing him a way to earn more money would push Vaisey to be more patient and to wait for his recovery.
But the Sheriff would have not been satisfied to improve only his earnings from the mines, he would have wanted to use the black powder as a weapon.
Guy shuddered in thinking what that substance could do to a human body, and he thought that, in comparison, being trampled by a herd of horses would be nothing.
He looked at Lambert.
Maybe Guy didn’t remember the fruit he liked best, or what he liked to do in his free time, but he was certain that his friend would never accept to do something that could make people suffer. And if he refused to obey the Sheriff, Vaisey would kill him.
“You must stop working on it,” Guy said, abruptly.
“Why? I’m almost there. I think it’s a matter of weeks, days maybe.”
“Stop. Working. On it.”
Lambert looked at Guy: he couldn’t understand why he had changed his mind.
“You commissioned me. The mines...”
“Forget the mines. If you want to live, stop working on the black powder and destroy the ledger with the formula.”
Lambert wondered if Guy was menacing him, but he realized that he looked almost afraid.
“Are you asking me to destroy the work of months?”
“I am. You can keep the money, and, if I can, I’ll pay you the rest of the sum I promised you, but I don’t want you to keep working on it. The Sheriff will use it as a weapon if you give it to him.”
Lambert looked at him, in shock.
“As a weapon? I can’t believe he would, it would be horrible and inhuman.”
“The Sheriff is a demon. Destroy the ledger. Please.”
The other man looked at him for a moment, and he thought that Gisborne looked really frightened.
He took a decision.
“I will, I promise. But now enough with talking of work, I bet that you are bored to death.”
“You guessed right. When I’m not sleeping or writhing in pain, I can only stare at the walls of this room. I think I know every wood grain by heart, by now.”
Lambert smiled sympathetically.
“Don’t you talk with the inhabitants of the house?”
“With Matilda, when she is not busy with her other patients.”
Guy thought of Marian, she was the one he wanted to talk with, but she kept avoiding him.
“Well, if you want, and if the healer will allow me, I’ll come to visit you again, and I’ll tell you what happens in Nottingham.”
“Would you do this for me?”
“We are friends, you’d do the same for me.”
Marian, hidden behind the door, couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
Was it possible? Was Sir Guy really discouraging Lambert, the alchemist, from continuing his, their, experiment on the ‘black powder’, whatever it was, for fear that the Sheriff could use it as a weapon against people? A man who had been so close to kill a King, so ready, eager, to obey every single, bloody, order of a raptor Sheriff, could be capable to say that?
It was completely unexpected and shocking. She didn’t know whether to be more surprised by the idea that Gisborne, although it was to prevent a catastrophe, was doing something for the good of someone, or by the simple, striking idea that such a powerful weapon like the one described could exist.
On one thing Marian now was in perfect agreement with Guy: the Sheriff was a demon.
Or a wannabe demon.
And he would succeed sooner or later in becoming it.
Marian felt her skin crossed by a shiver, a cold one. She had to report it to Robin, absolutely. She walked away from the door and from the corridor, silently and with light steps, before Lambert had finished speaking with Guy.
That day, Marian was tempted to bring herself the lunch to Gisborne. Maybe to reward him with a smile. But she didn’t wish that Guy could suspect that she knew. So she just checked his lunch with painstaking care: everything had to be perfectly cooked and served, and enjoyable for the man.
The sunset came, and with it Robin came too.
Marian squeezed herself into a heavy cloak. It was cold, and she had to be fast and effective in explaining to Robin what she had discovered. No fuss, no jokes this time. The situation was serious.
Robin immediately sensed the seriousness of the situation from Marian’s tense face.
She was beautiful, even she was so cold, and hasty, and he wanted to tell her how beautiful she was.
He wanted to play less with her and to talk to her of their feelings too.
They never did, really, since he had returned from the Holy Land. But Marian stopped any further intention from him with a glance, and told him that the situation was serious.
“So Gisborne asked the guy to stop the research and to get rid of the lab diary? And do you believe him?” Robin said.
“I heard him myself, with my own ears. He didn’t know that I was listening, he was sincere. And very scared. We are underestimating Vaisey, Robin. The Sheriff cannot think of using a weapon like that on the poor people of the County,” Marian replied.
Robin remembered for a moment how Gisborne was like, when they were both very young, when Gisborne was a reserved, serious and conscientious boy.
A good boy.
Especially from the perspective of a lively and cheerful little boy like Robin was. Before everything became worse, for everyone.
He banished the thought from his mind.
“Even just to know that such a weapon exist empowers the owner, enabling him to blackmail everyone, even before using its destructive power. Continue to listen to them, you did a good job. You will be really l useful to us, Marian. Let’s hope that your patient doesn’t change his mind now. Meanwhile, I and my men will search the diary, to be sure to destroy it.”
Robin made a sort of rushed bow, gave her a smile, and walked away quickly.
Perhaps Vaisey was more of a dull collector of taxes sent by Prince John, Robin thought. He could become dangerous. Or was there some other reason for him to be there? Something that Guy knew about Vaisey? Robin felt even stronger the suspicion that there wasn’t one, but two war theaters.
One here, and one in the Holy Land. And King Richard was aware of just one of them. But which were the armies deployed in this one, in England? Who was white and who was black? Robin still didn’t know, but he would find out, for the King’s sake and for his beloved England.
Robin would die for them both.
Vaisey lifted his arm and the hawk came back and landed on his wrist. A servant, a scrawny boy just out of childhood, was holding a bowl containing strips of fresh meat.
The boy took a piece of meat and, trembling, offered it at the hawk. The bird took it, painfully pecking at the fingers of the servant.
Vaisey looked at the boy and noticed that he had to stifle a cry and that he looked pretty scared.
The sheriff grinned.
Usually it was Gisborne who had to keep the bowl when Vaisey wanted to train his hawk, just because the sheriff knew the knight hated that humble job.
Guy of Gisborne was disgusted by the smell of the raw meat and Vaisey enjoyed seeing his discomfort when he had to hold the bowl for him. He also enjoyed the power that came from giving him that simple chore, because it was the demonstration that Gisborne was like an obedient dog, ready to do anything the sheriff asked, no matter how much he hated it.
Too bad that now Gisborne was completely useless, hurt by his own stupidity and incompetence.
The mere thought of the accident made Vaisey seething with rage: he had plans for Gisborne, plans that that were based on his obedience and his gullibility, and now he had to come up with new schemes and plots.
The young servant was startled by a sudden movement of the hawk, and he let the bowl fall to the ground. A piece of meat landed on the sheriff shoe and Vaisey looked icily at the scared boy.
He nodded to a guard.
“Flog him. Ten lashes. Maybe next time he’ll learn how to do his job properly.”
The frightened boy burst up in tears, pleading for mercy, but Vaisey just looked at the guard.
“Make it twenty lashes,” he said, then he handed the hawk to another servant and went away while the guards dragged the boy to the courtyard to flog him.
Vaisey went back into his studio and sat on his chair. The bird were chirping in their cages and, coming from the window, he could hear the screams of the young servant who was being punished.
The sheriff closed his eyes and listened for a little while, then he looked at the parchments on his table, humming a cheerful tune.
He put aside a part of them, annoyed again. Usually it was Gisborne who took care of those boring, unimportant things regarding the administration of the castle and he couldn’t be bothered with them.
He would have to pay somebody to take care of that stuff, and he decided that he would take that money from Gisborne. After all it was his fault if he had to hire somebody else to do his work.
Vaisey noticed a sealed parchment that appeared to have traveled a lot before reaching his table and he smiled looking at the seal. The sheriff opened the scroll and read it twice, then he grinned.
“Well,” he said to himself, pleased, “this couldn’t come in a better moment. I suppose that I’ll have to take Locksley back and give it to him.”
Marian felt like she was little again: everything in her house suddenly seemed to be bigger. She opened the door and found her father, who was wearing a heavy cloak and a chain around his neck.
“Marian come, child, come.”
She approached him slowly, struck by the beauty of her father's clothes: blue velvet, the glitter of the gold chain, his sword, its golden hilt inlaid with subtle designs and a gem, as red as blood, on its pummel.
“Marian, the King, in his infinite foresight, thought desirable to confer me a high office. Your father will be the new Sheriff of Nottingham.”
Marian gasped, seeing his proud expression, the beauty of his clothes, the force transmitted from her father's movements.
Marian could hear the thoughts of her childish voice.
“One day I’ll marry a knight like him, one day I’ll marry a Knight of the King," then she began to chant, happily. “A knight, I will have a knight, I will be his wife, he’ll bring me a rose, he’ll unsheathe a sword...”
Marian turned. She heard another voice, and she looked around to find where it came from.
It was the voice of her father again, and he was there: gray walls behind him, no longer dressed in blue, but wearing black clothes, much less young, much weaker, much less happy and proud.
“Marian remember, we owe everything to the King, we owe him everything. All honor, every sacrifice is due to him. Nothing is more important of the King. Our family is devoted to the Crown. Disgrace betide us and destroy us if we will miss this oath! Never forget it.”
Marian walked with slow steps in a dark corridor, unknown to her. She looked at her hands and at her feet, advancing into the darkness. She was an adult again, no longer a child. She was wearing a red skirt that moved slowly to the rhythm of her stride.
Whispers in the air like distant echoes.
The sound of a strange voice, muffled by the wind .
Marian walked slowly, following the voice that was calling her, not knowing where she was going, but feeling that she had to go.
A dim light on the left, down the hall.
And then the voice took on a more full-bodied timbre, more and more full, more and more close.
He kept calling her.
She felt afraid, and she put her hand on the hilt of the sword.
She realized then that she no longer was wearing the red skirt, but she moved slowly because she was inside an armor, and the hilt belonged to her father’s sword.
The red gem shone, her heartbeat quickened.
The door opened and the sun blinded her, suddenly.
The fierce heat made her head to feel light.
A crown, in the sand.
A knight lying on the sand, disheveled, the cross on his chest, adorned of precious gems.
“My God, the King,” Marian thought. “It 's too late.”
Beside him, another man. A blue velvet cloak hid a knight, wearing a dark armor. He was kneeling, looking at the king, his face buried in his hands.
Marian thought that it was her father. But the knight turned to look at her and Marian recognized, in dismay, that it was Guy.
“Marian! I didn’t want to do this, Marian, I didn’t. Stop my hand, Marian. Save me!”
Guy looked at her, desperate, as he reached out to her. Marian drew her sword to point it at her enemy, toward the enemy of the king, of her father, the enemy of her family.
She wanted to hit him.
“Disgrace betide us!” Marian heard, her father's voice coming from afar. Marian looked down to look at her enemy.
"Marian, only you can do it. Save me," Guy said.
Then he closed his eyes, as if he was waiting for a punishment, and Marian distinctly heard Guy’s heartbeat, rhythmic, slow, strong.
The sword fell from her hands.
She was no longer wearing an armor, and she knelt beside him, holding out her arms to him.
The King moved, and Marian knew he was not dead.
She held Guy in her arms and he looked into her eyes, his own eyes of an intense blue.
“Save me, Marian, and save the King. Stay with me, Marian.”
Marian didn’t answer, she couldn’t answer, but she took his right hand and she held it between hers. She then realized that the intense heat of a few moments ago had disappeared, and that they were surrounded by grass. Small white flowers growing in a meadow. She was still kneeling, holding Guy's right hand in hers, and Guy, with his left hand, was caressing her face gently, his eyes fixed on hers, his lips parted in a smile.
She felt him, even before seeing him, bringing his lips to her face. Marian closed her eyes, waiting. Her heart in turmoil.
“Save yourself, Marian,” she heard him whisper. There was something playful, mischievous, in his voice.
Marian opened her eyes, feeling shaken, her heart pounding, in a room that she could barely recognize. Then she realized that she was awake, and that she had only dreamed.
She had fallen asleep on a rug by the fireplace of the living room, in broad daylight.
The long nights spent at Guy’s bedside were wearing her out, Marian thought.
They were altering her good sense. And she couldn’t afford it.
She had to provide her assistance to him, of course, but nothing more. She got up from the floor, her body aching, and she tried to resume her chores for the day, as if nothing had happened.
But at times, during the whole day, when she least expected it, fragments of the dream came back to her mind, troubling her.
Chapter 10: Staring at the Clouds
Guy gave a gentle nudge to his horse, and he took the path that lead up the hill. From there, he could see Locksley.
The villagers were busy working in the field, while the women were at the pond, and they were washing their laundry, laughing and chatting.
The crop was almost ready for harvest, and it was unusually rich. Guy smiled: even after paying the taxes to the sheriff, the village would thrive, and people would pass the winter without starving.
Guy felt oddly satisfied: he had always thought that he wanted power, but now he found out that the peaceful life he had in Locksley was what he really desired.
He was a good master for those lands, exactly like his parents had been when they were alive.
He spurred the horse, and he let him gallop along the path, enjoying the ride: it was like being part of the wind, light-hearted and free.
He reached his manor, and he dismounted, smiling at the servants who were waiting for him, all of them dressed with the colors of his family: black and yellow.
“Welcome back, master.”Thornton greeted him with a little bow. “Dinner will be served as soon as you’re ready.”
He entered into the manor, and he smiled at Marian, sitting in a chair near the fireplace with her embroidery on her lap.
She stood up, and she walked towards him, smiling.
“I missed you.”
Guy took her in his arms, and he brushed her lips with a light kiss.
“I always miss you when you aren’t at my side.”
“You must be tired, you’ve been away all day.”
Guy closed his eyes, still hugging her tight.
He was tired. But he was also very happy.
Guy reluctantly opened his eyes.
He usually didn’t mind waking up because his sleep was tormented by nightmares: he passed from the bad dreams that haunted his nights to the pain he had to bear when he was awake.
But today he didn’t want to wake up: the dream was so peaceful and pleasant that coming back to reality was doubly painful.
In the dream he was healthy, strong and free; his villagers respected him, and Marian was a loving wife.
Guy sighed, thinking that it was an impossible dream: he would never be free or loved, and Marian had only contempt for him. He forced himself to open his eyes, trying to forget the dream: it was useless longing for something he couldn’t have.
He was surprised to see Marian, deeply asleep and so very near to him: the girl was kneeling to the floor at the side of the bed, resting the head on her arms.
Sometimes, when he had his worse nightmares, he had the impression of hearing her sweet voice that soothed him in a peaceful sleep, but he had always thought that it was just a dream, the illusory effect of his own desires.
But now he was awake, his leg was hurting too much to be a dream.
Why was she there?
Guy realized that she was holding his hand. Actually, she had fallen asleep on his hand and now it was completely numb, but it didn’t matter.
He looked at the face of the girl, in awe, wondering what she was doing near him.
She was pale, and her sleep was fitful, as if she was having nightmares too.
Guy moved his other hand, brushing his finger on her hair in a light caress, afraid to wake her up, but wishing to comfort her.
“Don’t die...” She whispered, then she woke up, opening her eyes.
Guy moved his hand away from her hair, and he held his breath.
For a moment they looked at each other, then Marian broke eye contact, jumping to her feet.
“I have to go,” she mumbled, hurriedly, and she headed to the door.
“Marian, wait! Please.”
The girl hesitated. If Guy’s tone were commanding, she’d have just walked away, but his voice sounded uncommonly humble and pleading.
She turned to look at him.
Guy glanced at her, shyly.
“Where you watching over me?”
“You had a nightmare. I heard you screaming in your sleep and I was afraid that you were in pain. I just came to see if you needed help.”
“I’m sorry. I kept you awake.”
“You couldn’t help it.”
“Does this happen often?”
Guy looked at her: she was pale, and she had dark shadows under her eyes. He guessed that she hadn’t been sleeping well for days. Weeks maybe.
Marian gave him a weak smile.
“What about the servants? They should take care of me.”
Marian shook her head. She didn’t want to say that they were disgruntled enough because of the extra work they had to do for Guy.
“They have a lot to do during the day, it’s better to let them sleep. I have nothing to do.”
“I owe you an apology. I am a burden to your family and I’ve been ungrateful and rude. I’m really sorry.”
Marian looked at him. The last time she had a conversation with him, Guy had actually been ill-mannered and snarling, but now he was talking in a subdued tone, and his apology sounded heartfelt.
Marian accepted it with a little nod, but she couldn’t forget his confession. She wasn’t sure that she could ever forgive an attempt on the life of the king.
“You were in pain, I can understand the reasons of your bad mood.” She conceded.
“It won’t happen again,” he promised, and Marian thought that he probably hoped to see a sign of friendship in her eyes, but she couldn’t trust him. Guy of Gisborne was a traitor of the Crown, the emblem of the evil she chose to fight.
But he was also a man. A very lonely man.
She nodded again, without looking at him.
“I really have to go, Sir Guy. Do you want me to send a servant upstairs, now that you are awake?”
Guy blushed a little and he wished that he could say that there was no need for it, but the truth was that he still needed help for almost everything.
After a moment, Marian was gone and Guy was alone with his thoughts.
He couldn’t understand why Marian watched over his sleep, helping him when he was troubled by the nightmares. Maybe she didn’t hate him as much as he thought?
But how could it be possible if she knew his secret?
She told him, she yelled at him, how much she despised him for what he did.
An annoyed servant entered the room, and Guy hurried to hide his feelings behind a blank expression.
The servants of Knighton Hall did their duty carefully, following Matilda’s instructions and Sir Edward’s orders, but Guy knew perfectly well that no one of them was happy of having to take care of him, so there was no point in talking to them while they did their work.
He let the servant help him to wash and to change in clean nightclothes, and he closed his eyes, trying to think to something else rather than his humiliating situation.
He remembered the moment when he opened his eyes and saw Marian asleep. He could see in his mind every curl of her hair, the smooth perfection of her pale skin, he could also feel the weight of her head numbing his hand.
For a moment he felt in peace, almost happy: he loved her, more than ever, and nothing could change his feelings, but soon his heart sank again.
Guy had no illusions anymore: she didn’t love him back, and she never would.
Young Will had returned to the camp as quickly as he could: the long series of stakeouts and tailings needed to find out where Lambert, the alchemist, was hiding his working diary, was about to bear fruits: they would go all together there, now, to get it. And destroy it.
And if Lambert was... unwilling, they had to convince him to let them do it for him.
In truth, along the way, more than a doubt on the need for the destruction of the formula had occurred to Robin's mind.
A weapon like that could protect England itself, against invasion attempts from its traditional enemies.
Of course, it should be known only by King Richard, which Robin trusted with all his heart.
But even in the latter case, such a destructive force frightened him. Better to eliminate it forever.
Djaq, the young saracen girl, the most recent ‘purchase’ of the group of the outlaws, saved among the slaves that Vaisey had brought to work to the mines, did not agree with the idea, but the final choice, to destroy the ledger or to hide it, was up to him. To their leader. And, in any case, the majority of the group agreed with him.
They arrived and they found a real surprise: the young Lambert had already destroyed the pages of his working diary about his committee for Gisborne (and Vaisey's Mines). They were burnt, useless, by now mere ashes.
Lambert, trembling in the face of questions from Robin and his gang, suddenly assumed an upright and almost proud appearance, confessing that he had simply carried out a request for a ‘close friend’. And he himself, having changed so many times the formulation during the experiments, remembered no more details, and he wouldn’t remember them any more.
Guy had really done something good for once in his life.
A danger less for Nottingham.
Robin began to think that Guy could be an interesting ally for him, rather than an enemy. If there could be the occasion for this, Robin would have to seize it.
For the sake of Nottingham, mostly.
He could ask Marian to investigate more, to steal more of Gisborne's secrets, in order to understand more of Vaisey's plans.
But something bothered him, and it was not only the possible refusal of the girl to collaborate further, to steal more of the secrets of the Sheriff's dark servant.
Robin had a strange feeling that made him wet with sweat on his neck: he would pay a price to get this. Not necessarily to be paid with money.
For the moment there was no need to think about it, Robin told himself while returning to camp.
There were many poor people in Nottingham to provide for, as Little John reminded him.
And he was right, Robin thought.
Anyway he would continue to keep both eyes wide open about Gisborne, and Marian too, now,
hoping that their improvised ‘living together in the same place’ ended as soon as possible.
Sir Edward looked at Marian, worried. The girl came out of Sir Guy’s room in the morning, and she looked tired.
He wasn’t worried about decency, the knight was still too injured and weak to be a menace for Marian’s innocence, but she was always exhausted and nervous.
The girl put some bread and cheese on a tray, and Sir Edward nodded at the food.
“Are you taking it to Sir Guy? A servant can do it.”
“Not everything in the world is about Sir Guy, father. This is for me, I will have my breakfast in my room. In the guest’s room, actually, because Sir Guy is in my room.”
“Are you unwell?”
“No, father, I just want to rest for a while.”
The girl took the tray and went upstairs, and Sir Edward sighed.
Marian wasn’t the only one who was upset in the manor. He was constantly worried and afraid of the consequences that Sir Guy’s accident could bring on his family. If he should ever find out the identity of the Nightwatchman, they’d be doomed. Sir Edward was doing everything he could to please the knight, and he often had to scold the servants of the house, who were reluctant to work for Sir Guy.
Sir Edward finished eating his breakfast, went to the kitchen and asked the cook if she had already prepared a meal for Gisborne. The woman grumbled and began filling a tray with the fine foods that Matilda said he should eat.
“It’s a shame that he must have better meals than the ones you and Lady Marian usually eat, my lord.”
“He is very ill, the healer said that he needs nutritious and healthy meals.”
The cook filled a bowl with fresh cream, and placed it on the tray.
“Lady Marian should eat this, poor child. She’s so thin and pale… Instead, she just took some bread and a few pieces of cheese...”
Sir Edward thought wiser to keep quiet. He nodded at the tray.
“If you are done, I’ll take it to Sir Guy.”
“You, my lord?”
“Yes. I want to talk to him, I can as well take this upstairs.”
Guy was sitting on a chair near the window when Sir Edward entered in his room. Matilda had said that the knight didn’t have to stay in bed all day, so Sir Edward had ordered to bring upstairs his own chair, made with the finest wood and very comfortable.
Gisborne sat with his body propped up by pillows, and his leg resting on a padded footstool. He was looking out of the window, but from his position he couldn’t see much, maybe just a piece of sky.
“Good morning, Sir Guy, how do you feel today?”
Guy glanced at Marian’s father: the man was carrying a tray, and he placed it on the little table at the side of the chair.
“You shouldn’t do the servants’ work. Not for me.”
“I wanted to see how you were feeling, anyways, and calling the servants, waiting for them and giving them the orders would only be a waste of time. I just took the tray and took it with me, not too much effort.”
Sir Edward took another chair and sat in front of Guy, while Gisborne picked up the bowl with the cream and took a sip from it.
“Matilda says that milk, cream and cheese are good for broken bones...” Guy said, and Sir Edward looked impressed.
“I don’t know, but the other physician said that I was going to die while Matilda saved my life, so I think I can trust her healing abilities...” Guy gave him a little smile. “And she doesn’t use leeches.”
Sir Edward was surprised to find a trace of humor in his words. He gave hospitality to him in his manor, but he rarely stopped to talk to the knight, too worried and afraid of making him angry and to bring troubles on his family.
“Marian says she’s the best healer in the county.”
Gisborne suppressed a little start when he heard Marian’s name, and he hid that flicker of emotion taking a piece of bread from the tray.
“I surely hope she is right.”
“Is there anything that we can do for you, Sir Guy? Do you need anything else?”
“Your family is already doing more than enough, and I’m sorry to be such a burden for you...” Guy stopped Sir Edward’s polite protests with a gesture of his hand. “No, sir, I know that my presence here is a great inconvenience, and I’m grateful. Without your help and the cares you provided to me, I’d be dead. I owe you my life.”
Sir Edward accepted Guy’s heartfelt thanks with a smile, but deep inside he felt that he didn’t deserve his gratitude: it was Marian’s fault if he got hurt, so it was Edward’s responsibility to take care of the injured knight.
For a while the two men didn’t talk: Guy finished eating, while Edward looked at the window, lost in his thoughts.
“When I sit here, I look at the clouds.” Guy said, suddenly. “Not too entertaining, but better than staring at the wall.”
“You must be bored.”
“You can’t imagine how much!”
Sir Edward smiled: Guy’s expression was incredibly similar to Marian’s one when she was little and she had to stay in bed for some seasonal illness. She couldn’t stand to stay idle and she always tried to get up from bed when no one was watching her.
“Please, wait a moment, Sir Guy, I’ll be back soon.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Guy answered, with a resigned grin.
Sir Edward came back after a short while, carrying a chessboard.
“Do you know how to play, Sir Guy?”
“Not very well, I’m afraid. I never had much time for games.”
Sir Edward smiled.
“Well, you have now. I can teach you, if you want.”
Guy nodded, surprised. He couldn’t believe that Marian’s father wanted to spend time with him.
Probably he was afraid that Guy could search revenge because the accident happened at Knighton, but he was glad for his offer.
“You aren’t going to throw the pieces at me if you should lose, are you?”
It was Edward’s turn to be surprised, now.
“Why should I?”
“The Sheriff did. And that’s one of the reasons why I rarely used to play. The Sheriff’s chess set is big and heavy.”
Chapter 11: Useless
Sir Edward moved a knight, with a little smile, trapping Guy’s king.
Guy smiled back to him, with a resigned sigh.
“I guess that strategy is not my best quality.”
“Maybe not, but at least you accept defeat gracefully. Marian never did.”
Guy looked at him, curious.
“Really? Does she know how to play too?”
“We used to play when she was a child, during winter days, when it was too cold to go outside. She never liked it very much: she used all her pieces to attack my king, without planning in advance, and she was too rash, so I usually defeated her in a few moves. Then she began preferring other kind of games...”
Sir Edward stopped. He was about to say that Marian learned to fight with a sword, and that she loved to imagine that she was a knight, but he remembered that he was talking to the henchman of the Sheriff. If Gisborne knew that Marian was able to fight, he could guess the true identity of the Nightwatchman.
Playing chess with him, day after day, Sir Edward learned to know a side of the knight that he would never have imagined, and sometimes he found hard to remember that Guy was the same man who terrified the people of Nottingham and who obeyed the evil orders of the Sheriff.
When they played, they didn’t talk much, but when they did, Gisborne was polite and respectful, maybe even a little shy. Sir Edward couldn’t believe that he once slapped him, and forced Marian
in a betrothal under duress.
I must remember he is an enemy and a danger to us.
“Do you want to play another game, Sir Guy?”
Guy shook his head.
“I think I’ll try to rest for a while. My leg hurts a lot today, I couldn’t sleep much tonight.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. It must be because of the weather: it’s going to rain, later. Do you want me to call Matilda?”
“No need for that. She will come in the evening to check my injuries, but she always leaves some of her remedies, so I can take it if the pain is too strong. But she said that I’ll have to get used to pain, at least for a few months.”
“I hope you’ll feel better soon.”
“I’ll call the servants now, so they can help you to go to bed.”
Sir Edward was about to exit Guy’s room, when he heard somebody pounding on the door. He hurried downstairs, and he saw that Marian was already in the hall, trying to calm down the Sheriff, who was seething with anger.
“Where is he?! Tell him to come here immediately!”
“I already told you that he can’t, my lord!”
Sir Edward hurried to reach them, noticing Marian’s expression. The girl was trying to stay calm, but her father knew that she must be as angry as the Sheriff.
“Lord Vaisey! We didn’t expect a visit from you today. Please sit down, and share a meal with us.”
“I’m not here for a visit, and I certainly am not interested in your food. I want Gisborne, and I want him now!”
“I’m afraid that Sir Guy is still unwell...”
Vaisey ignored him, and he stomped towards the stairs.
Marian and Sir Edward hurried to follow him.
The girl gasped when they reached the room: somehow, Guy had managed to stand. He was favoring his broken leg, and he was clinging to the back of the chair to keep his balance, but he was as pale as a ghost, and clearly in a lot of pain.
“I need you back to work. Immediately.”
“Lord Vaisey, Sir Guy’s health improved, but he isn’t healed, yet. He won’t be able to work for a few weeks, at least, if not months.” Sir Edward intervened, and the Sheriff stared at Guy.
“Is this true, Gisborne?”
“I’m afraid it is, my lord.”
Vaisey stood still for a moment, then he lifted a hand and slapped Guy with all his strength, making him fall to the ground with a pained cry. The sheriff bent down and grabbed the front of Guy’s nightclothes, pointing a dagger to his throat.
“Then rest in peace, Gisborne.”
Guy looked at him, frightened. He knew that the sheriff wasn’t joking.
“Please, my lord! I always obeyed you! I’ve always been loyal!”
“You’ve always been a useless idiot, Gisborne.” The sheriff said, in contempt. “Do you know how much your stupid accident cost to me?! I questioned your guards and I know perfectly well that it’s only your fault because you’re so stupid that you are not even able to cross a road! If you can’t work now, you’re useless to me.”
Guy closed his eyes. He was sure he couldn’t do what the Sheriff wanted, and he also knew that Vaisey would kill him. He knew too much of his plots, and the Sheriff would get rid of him.
Sir Edward saw that Marian was about to intervene, and he stopped her putting a hand on her arm, then he talked to the Sheriff.
“My lord, please, stop. I can’t allow bloodshed in my house, there must be another solution. Sir Guy is my daughter’s betrothed, if you kill him in front of her, she’d be very upset.”
Vaisey turned to look at the elderly lord. He was tempted to slit Guy’s throat just for spite, but he thought better. Sir Edward wasn’t a menace anymore, he was meek and cowardly, but he had been Sheriff in the past, and he probably still had supporters between the other nobles.
Gisborne wasn’t important enough to risk a rebellion that would have to be sedated in blood.
“Very well, if you really care so much for this useless wretch, you can keep him. But I’ll have a compensation for the damages he inflicted to me with his foolishness. I will have to hire and train a new Master of Arms, so I’ll take back the ownership of Locksley and all your belongings as a repayment, Gisborne.” The Sheriff lowered his voice to talk to Guy. “You can keep your miserable life, but if you ever try to thwart me, you are dead. Remember this very well: try to damage me, and I’ll have your head on a spike.”
He violently pushed Guy to the floor, and he stood up.
“Now he’s your problem.” Vaisey said to Sir Edward, then he walked away.
Neither Sir Edward or Marian bothered to see him to the door, but they both turned to Guy, who was lying on the floor, curled on his side.
Marian knelt on the floor, next to him.
“Sir Guy, are you hurt?”
She tried to put a hand on his shoulder, but Guy shuddered, covering his face with the hands.
“Don’t touch me! Leave me alone!”
The girl looked at him, worried, then she glanced at her father.
Sir Edward helped her to her feet.
“Go and search for Matilda. We don’t know if the fall hurt him, it’s better not to move him until she checked his injuries. Go, I’ll keep an eye on him.”
Running, scared. She was running, scared.
Marian had not even realized how afraid she was feeling, but her emotion was transmitted to her horse. From her reins to the neck of the horse, from her thighs to the animal's skin. Everything within her was screaming: run, run, run, he needs help.
As she ran to Matilda’s house, her heart pounding fast, she thought that she was completely crazy to feel like that for Guy.
She had heard him screaming of a primordial, sudden pain. Heartbreaking. She had felt her skin freeze.
She had seen him on the ground, Vaisey ready to kill him. She had seen the instinctive movement of Guy’s Adam's apple, and his eyes widened with fear and horror, but then closing, as if he accepted his fate of death, and, at that moment, Marian was about to lose her head. She had grabbed the hilt of a small knife inside the pocket of her dress and she had been about to pull it out and hit Vaisey, to kill him on the spot. She was about to risk her life and her father's to save Guy.
Her father had intervened, blocking her arm. He had faced Vaisey, as he never did before. But she had lost her control, for Guy.
The sleepless nights, her fatigue, frustration and anger, his serious faults, they all had become nothing compared to that image.
Marian didn’t want to think about it, and there was so much to think about, so many things that would change now. But, for now, she just had to bring Matilda to Guy. Immediately.
She slowed down and then stopped the horse near the healer's house.
She got off the horse and she didn’t even bother to tie him up. She was surprised by the force with which she had knocked frantically at Matilda's door.
"Who the hell is wrecking the door! Double pay, only for THIS trouble!" Matilda shouted, before opening the door.
The woman saw Marian, her face red, full of sweat, her hair disheveled, something that looked like a tear sliding down her face.
It had to be about Guy, something happened to him. Poor baby...
She felt sad, and angry. She had become fond of the knight almost without realizing it. She was truly fond of the solitary and madly in love boy hidden behind the contemptible mask of the black knight.
"What's the matter, Marian?"
Marian had convulsively told her about the arrival of the sheriff and Guy's fall, then she described how he couldn’t get up from the floor where he stood trembling, and his pain. The girl was terrified that Guy's leg had broken irreparably.
"That slimy excrement! The swine! He should be bound and hanged like a sausage, and not going around ruining people's lives! What did he want to do? Ruining weeks of my work! To ruin him, more than he has already done? Poor baby. Poor son! Did you give him something for the pain, Marian? It must have been very strong, burning, stabbing him.”
Marian shook her head, explaining that Guy didn’t want to be touched by her, he didn't want her near him, and that they didn’t move him for fear of damaging him further.
"Oh kid," Matilda said, "if there is anything that Guy wants from this life is to be touched by you. No pity, no compassion. And to be forgiven, whatever he did to you.”
The girl brought her hands to her face, crying.
For stress, out of fear, feeling her guilt.
Matilda had the impression that she could hear the words ‘my fault’ amidst her broken sobs. She hugged her, caressing her back.
"Calm down, baby, everything will be fine, we will help him now and he will feel better. We will not give satisfaction to that filthy jester who is the Sheriff!"
Matilda patted her cheek, hoping that Marian could understand and resolve, soon, for her salvation and for Guy's, the complex tangle of her feelings towards the man.
His life and future was so severely compromised, she thought sadly, and prayed to God to be still able to help him once again.
She took a bundle with the sweet walnuts and honey that Guy had loved so much and gave it to Marian.
"This time you give these to him, Marian, when Guy will feel to eat something. Come on now. He needs us. both of us."
Matilda and Marian got ready to leave for Knighton.
While Matilda entered at a rapid pace into the house, Marian felt an arm grabbing her from a dark corner of the yard.
She grabbed her dagger, but a hand stopped her, and she found herself into the arms of a man with his face covered by a brown hood.
Marian pulled it down, revealing Robin’s tense face.
Chapter 12: Never Say That You Want to Die
Looking into Marian's eyes so closely, Robin loosened his tense features into an amused smile.
"What happened here, my darling? My men saw the Sheriff and his retinue of guards going out of here. What is still plotting Gisborne with him? There are strange movements in Nottingham that we can’t explain. Your ‘Sir Guy’ must know something..."
"He is not MY Sir Guy, and he is hurt, really hurt, Robin. Guy can’t be plotting anything with anyone. Not anymore. Least of all with that bastard sheriff," Marian said.
"Bastard indeed. Unusual choice of words on your part. You should be glad if Guy is out of the games, now. He is one less problem for Nottingham and its people. But, tell me, Marian, why Vaisey was here? And, above all, your ‘boyfriend in black’ is still not ready to go back to Locksley where he came from? I prefer him to be in MY house rather than him being HERE all the time."
"Jealous, Robin? You shouldn’t be. There is nothing except obligation between Guy and me. However, Locksley has now lost its guardian and tenant, and Guy his office in Nottingham. The Sheriff fired him. In order to collect your rents from Locksley, now you can go directly to the Sheriff. He has taken Locksley back."
"What? And what now? Gisborne isn’t thinking to stay here forever, is he? He deserves to go back to the dark hole where he came from. And stay there. Whatever it is. France. Or Hell. He and his family have ruined my life. He is responsible for destroying his family, losing his land, and now he even managed to lose Locksley. Well deserved. Cast him out of here, he has lost his power, also on you. He doesn’t deserve pity, not even yours. But there's still something strange here. We managed to stop Lambert, but he was already persuaded that his project with Guy should be destroyed. So why Lambert still keeps coming here to see him? Tell me, Marian."
"I don’t know, Robin," the girl said, leaving his embrace, annoyed by the idea of being always so under observation on his part, "For simple friendship, I suppose. I didn’t even imagine that he had a friend. There is no need for me to listen to them, no more. Instead I took the opportunity to rest a little bit. But... Robin… how could Guy damage your family?. He wasn’t even here when we first met, you and I, and we were very young at the time. He arrived later.”
Robin crossed his arms, disappointed.
"Ask him. I'm sure you'll kick his ass out of this house," he said, smiling bitterly, and he finally added "Guy of Gisborne, you came from dust and will return to dust."
They heard a noise behind them.
Marian nodded for Robin to keep quiet and leave her.
Robin bowed his head in a farewell and walked away, not before he had warned her again.
“Don’t underestimate him, Marian. Although he has done a good thing in the Lambert's business with the Sheriff, he is still lethal, and dangerous as well, Marian. He can still be involved in some intrigue. Be careful. I'll keep searching, anyway. I'll keep watching. For your sake, and your father's. And for the people of my country. And I'll find out what he has in mind and what the sheriff has in his filthy mind, with or without your help. Take care of you, Marian. Take good care of you. Farewell, for the moment."
Marian saw him leaving.
He was free.
No bonds, no obligations, except those to the poor people.
And Marian felt envious of his freedom.
Matilda rushed upstairs, and she looked around: Sir Edward was standing in a corner of the room, worried and upset, while Guy was lying on the floor, completely still.
“Are you out of your mind?!” Matilda yelled, looking at the old man. “How could you leave him on the floor?!”
“He didn’t let anyone to touch him. I covered him with a blanket to keep him warm, but it’s all I could do. That’s why I sent Marian to call you.”
Matilda expression softened a bit.
“Go, now. Let me talk with him. Probably I’ll need the help of the servants to put him in bed, but I’ll call when they are needed. Stay with your daughter now, she is very upset.”
Sir Edward nodded and left, relieved that the healer took the situation in her hands.
Matilda waited until they were alone, then she went to sit on the floor, near Guy.
She put a hand on his head and she felt him shuddering.
“Leave me alone.” He whispered.
“Sure. As soon as I have checked your injuries.”
“To be sure that that steaming pile of pig’s crap didn’t hurt you more than you already are.”
“They should have let him kill me.”
Matilda caressed his head, slowly.
“Don’t be an idiot now, love.”
“I have no reasons to live.”
Matilda put her hands on his wrists, and she forced him to move them from his face. As she suspected, his eyes brimmed with tears. She dried his face with her fingers, with the same sweetness she used when her daughter was little and cried for some little sorrow.
“I’m sure you still have a lot of reasons to live, you just have to find them out. Let me check your conditions, then we can talk. We’ll find a solution for everything, I promise.”
She gave him a little kiss on his forehead, and she gingerly touched his ribs.
“Does it hurt?”
“No more than it already did.”
“Good. I’ll turn you on your back now, tell me if you feel pain.”
Matilda carefully made him lie on his back, and she put a pillow under his head.
“What did he do to you? You have a cut on your cheek.”
“He slapped me. I think he was wearing his ring. Then he pushed me to the ground.”
Matilda carefully examined his leg, then she gave him a little smile.
“You have a few new bruises, but no serious damages. That’s a relief. Try to sit, now.”
She helped him to sit on the floor, leaning his back to the side of the bed. She was relieved to see that the Sheriff didn’t injure him too much, but she was worried to see how dejected and heartbroken he was.
She sat next to him, and she held his hand.
“Never say again that you want to die, love.”
“The Sheriff took everything I possessed. My home... The money I earned working for him... Everything. I have nothing and I have no chances to work again for somebody else. Don’t lie Matilda, I’ll probably be a cripple even if I can walk again... Who would ever hire a lame knight? I have no friends, no place to go… Sir Edward has no reason to let me stay here, now. I don’t want to end like a beggar. I prefer to die than living in shame.”
Matilda lifted her arm as if she wanted to caress him again, but she slapped him on the back of his head, strong enough to make him yelp in surprise.
“Why did you do it?!”
“I have many reasons. First: you are talking nonsense. Living in shame is always better than being dead. Second: you are not alone and you won’t become a beggar. I don’t think that Lord Knighton will send you away, but even if everything should go for the worse, you will have a place to go. I have a cottage in the forest, it’s small, but nice, and I have a free room now that my daughter got married. You are welcome there, love. Third: you’re insulting my skills as a healer. I did my best to fix your leg, you shouldn’t be so sure that you’ll be crippled. Fourth: being poor is not a shame. You should be ashamed for the people you hurt obeying the orders of that bald stinking swine, not because you lost your belongings.”
Guy blushed and hung his head, thinking that Matilda only knew a part of what he did for the Sheriff. If she knew his secret, she’d despise him too, like Marian surely did.
He shuddered, afraid to think to his future. It was clear that Sir Edward never wanted to have him in his house. Now he had the chance to send him away and Guy was sure he would do it.
“Would you really let me stay at your house?” He asked Matilda, in a subdued tone. “I have no way to repay you, everything I own is inside that trunk… There are mostly clothes, but maybe you can sell the swords and the daggers...”
“Let me look better at your head.”
“There must be a injury I didn’t notice, and your brain got damaged, otherwise you wouldn’t talk like a drunken donkey. Do you really think I care for your money? I care for you, poor little idiot.”
Her words were harsh, but her tone was affectionate, and Guy found himself in tears again, overwhelmed by his emotions.
Matilda carefully hugged him.
“Poor boy… I understand how you feel now, but believe me, it’s for the best. You got rid of that stinking little demon, you should be happy. That monster never did anything good for you. You didn’t deserve to be treated like this, but you’ll be better without him. You’ll be free.”
Guy pulled away from her hug after a while, and he wiped away his tears, embarrassed for his weakness. Matilda gave him a reassuring smile.
“Now you are hurt and tired, it’s normal to break down in a situation like this, everybody would. Marian said that the old filthy goat pointed a dagger at your throat and that he wanted to kill you. She was really upset too, she came to my cottage in panic, crying, and she was barely able to talk in a sensible way. Your reaction is perfectly normal. But now try to calm down, love. Don’t think about it, sit here and take some deep breaths, then I’ll give you my remedy for the pain and we’ll get you to bed so you can sleep for a while. All right, love?”
Guy weakly nodded. He was exhausted and distraught, and he only wanted to surrender to oblivion, at least for a while.
Matilda patted his cheek and smiled.
“Good boy. Now, shall I call the servants or do you think you could manage to get in bed on your own? You found the strength to stand, earlier, didn’t you?”
Guy nodded again, and he sighed.
“I hoped that the Sheriff could see that I was improving and that he would wait for me to heal… I was just deluding myself, I always knew that he wouldn’t.”
“This doesn’t matter, sweetie. The Sheriff is an ungrateful idiot, but you still succeeded in standing. This means that you are stronger than I thought. Do you want to try again, now? Do it for me, love. Here, I’ll help you. Don’t put your weight on the broken leg.”
Matilda stood in front of him, stretching out her hands, and Guy grabbed them.
The healer smiled and she helped him to his feet, with some effort.
“Hey, you’re tall! I didn’t notice before because you were always sitting or in bed. Can you keep your balance if I let you go? Good. Now try to sit on the bed. Careful. In the next days we’ll do this again, you need to regain some strength in your good leg, and then I’ll get you a crutch and you can try walking a little with it. You’ll see, when you can move on your own, you’ll feel better too.”
Matilda handed him a little bowl with the remedy for the pain, then she helped him to lie in bed.
Guy was so tired that he barely managed to thank her before drifting into a deep sleep.
The woman looked at him for a while, tucked the blanket of his bed so that he could be warm and comfortable, then she bent to plant a kiss on his forehead.
“Sleep, poor boy. You’ll need all your strength in the next future, but I promise: you won’t be alone.”
So peacefully asleep, under blankets tucked around him like he was a child to protect, Guy looked like a strange image of innocence. The remedy for the pain had had its desired effect, and Marian thought that, at least for that night, she could have a serene sleep too, despite the hustle and bustle created by the Sheriff's visit, and its consequences.
Marian thought that Robin was wrong: having lost his position in Nottingham, Guy couldn’t really pose any danger to her, or to her father either, or, probably, for the whole County of Nottingham.
At least, as long as he ignored the real cause of the accident that had happened to him. He didn’t have to know that she was the Nightwatchman, or else Guy could take revenge, denouncing her.
Yes, of course Robin was right, Marian thought: Guy was still dangerous for her and her family. Or he could be.
Nevertheless, looking at him, Marian let go of the breath she had held, lost in thought.
She approached the sleeping man more instinctively than by reason, when Guy's eyelids began to move, more and more convulsively. Then his arms and legs.
Guy was in a nightmare, a scary one, murmuring meaningless words, until he found himself sitting on the bed, screaming.
"My Lord Sheriff!"
And his eyes were wide open, scared, his breath short.
Guy turned to his left and saw Marian, worried, standing beside the bed, her trembling hand extended toward him, to soothe him.
Ashamed, he realized that he had dreamed, but what he had seen in the dream was all true.
Painfully true: the men he had killed in the past, the people he had wounded, the souls who would persecute him perpetually, and the sheriff's disdain despite all that he had done, under his command, under his desire.
His loyalty, immersed in blood and pain, despised and thrown away.
His dignity lost.
All for nothing.
And Marian in front of him, now, her hand extended, frowning, silent, lost for words.
All he wanted would have been to take that hand, taking her whole in his arms, embracing her, and believing, as he kissed her hair and caressed her innocent face, that another life for him still could be possible.
A better life, a more worthy life.
That he could find a possible redemption. At her side.
Guy smiled bitterly.
That was just an illusion, now more than ever.
He would never be worthy of her. Worthy of a love she would never feel for him.
Pity, not love, called her to his bedside. And he didn’t want her pity. Especially now that he had nothing to offer to her, to her father. Not even the money or a more powerful position in Nottingham's society.
Guy felt useless now, even for Marian, as well as a burden for her.
Guy looked down to the crumpled sheets, then he looked at her and when he spoke his voice was cold.
"Go to sleep, Marian. It was nothing. Nothing that should trouble you at this time. This is not the place for a noblewoman."
“Sir Guy, there is no need for these words between us, it’s not the first night I watch your sleep, you know.”
She kindly smiled.
“Please, Sir Guy. If you need something... do you want me to bring you something warm from the kitchen, something that will help you get back to sleep?”
“Like a servant would do?” Guy said, sad, hard. He was once again ashamed to be a cause of concern for her. And just that.
“What do you mean? Is that what you think of me? Am I a servant in your eyes?” Marian replied, astonished, struck by the harsh tone with which he had spoken.
“I mean that a servant can bring me what I need. I don’t need your help, especially at night. You shouldn’t have troubled yourself for me all those days. And all those nights. This must not happen anymore. Go to sleep, Marian, just go to sleep. You shouldn't stay here, now.”
Feeling suddenly dismissed, the girl felt anger rising inside her.
All those nights beside him, losing her health and sleep.
Was it possible that he didn’t understand it? Her running in the forest for him, all her worries and fears for him... and not even a thank you, a please from him.
Selfish! Ingrate! Who did he believe to be?
“Sir Guy! You are not in the position to decide what I should or shouldn’t do in my own home!” Marian said, with great determination.
“I'm saying that it's improper for you. Just this. I do not need...” Guy replied, uncertain.
Marian didn’t seem to understand that he wanted to protect her, not being a burden for her even at night, and not to accuse her of anything.
"Do you dare to say that you don’t need ME? You are incredible Sir Guy, really incredible. Oh, sure, it's not me that you need. It's the SHERIFF you call in your dreams, in my bed, in my home. And you certainly don’t need him, now."
Guy shook his head, confused, angry, more for the tone of voice the girl had assumed than for the complete absurdity of what she was saying.
"It was a nightmare, Marian, just a bloody nightmare, and the sheriff gave me the only chance I could get to have something, to achieve something in my life."
“And what did you want to achieve in YOUR life? Serving that miserable infamous devil? To be remembered for killing a King? Being thrown away or killed by his whim?” Marian said, her discomfort, and rage, in her eyes.
“Lower your voice, Marian, they can hear us!” Guy whispered, angry, worried.
“Who? The servants? The servants whom YOU have always considered less than nothing? Servants you want around you, and servants you will have. Please, Sir Guy, call THEM next time you need something. Especially at night. It's improper, for me, you know. I'm going to sleep, now, on my own! Good night, Sir Guy,” Marian said, chill in her voice.
The girl left the room in a hurry and fury, and Guy couldn’t figure out how they could have had such an absurd discussion.
Such angry words.
He just wanted her to not worry about him.
He felt stupid, numb, he just could not tell the right thing to Marian, in the right way, and, worse, what he really felt for her.
He felt even sadder than before.
Marian's hardness had hurt him more than his fears.
He laid with his back to the door, hoping to sleep without thinking about anything, neither the past, nor the present, nor the future.
Chapter 13: Stray Dog
Matilda arrived in Knighton Hall early in the morning, and she was surprised to see Lady Marian sitting on a bench just outside the manor.
“What are you doing here? You should be sleeping at this time in the morning, or watching him sleep, if there is still need for that.”
“I would, if he let me. He said that it isn’t proper for me to stay in his room at night, and that he doesn’t need my assistance. We have quarreled and since then I have kept away from him. I'm sorry for that. The servants took care of him, mostly I had to take care of my father too. Guy is so difficult, at times.”
“This is his pride speaking, poor boy. That’s the only thing he still has. Are you worried for him? That’s why you are still awake?”
“I am. Even if I know that I shouldn’t be. What about you? Why did you come so early in the morning?”
“I am worried too. He spent the last three days sleeping most of the time, and when he’s awake he just lies where he is, staring blankly at the wall.”
Marian picked up a pebble, and she threw it, hitting the fence in front of the house.
“Good aim!” Matilda said, lifting an eyebrow.
Marian snorted, suddenly angry.
“He’s an idiot! How can he mope like this for the Sheriff?!”
“He has nobody. For a long time, that filthy swine has been the closer thing to a family he ever had. Imagine how would you feel if your father sent you away after menacing of killing you.”
“My father would never do such a thing! How could Guy consider the Sheriff as family? It’s insane!”
Matilda shook her head.
“You’re lucky, sweetie. You can’t remember your mother, but you grew up in a loving family. Your father would do anything to see you happy, and the servants of the house always pampered you.”
“How do you know?”
“They still do. Most of them are mad at Sir Guy because they think that his presence in this house makes you suffer. They say that he shouldn’t be in your room, that you should be the one who sleeps in the most comfortable bed and the one who eats the finer foods.”
“It’s not his fault if he’s been injured!”
“And it’s not his fault if he’s been deprived of love.”
“Even if I had no one, I couldn’t consider the Sheriff as family.”
“You talk like that because you’re never been really alone. I don’t know much about Sir Guy’s past, but I think that he began to work for Vaisey when he was very young. Try to think about it: years and years of loyalty, and then his master throws him away only because he’s too ill to work.”
Marian quietly nodded. More than once Guy told her that, to him, loyalty was the most important thing.
Matilda patted her on the cheek.
“Try to be gentle with him, child, even if you think that he doesn’t deserve your kindness. But now go to rest and don’t worry, I’ll stay with him for a while. You are pale, we can’t blame your servants if they are worried for you.”
The healer walked into the manor, and took the stairs. She frowned to see there weren’t any servant near Guy’s room.
She knocked on the door, getting no answer, so she just walked in.
Guy was in bed, lost in a fitful sleep.
Matilda placed a hand on his forehead in a gentle stroke, and he seemed to calm down. She sat near the bed, and looked at him.
He was too pale, and his hair was ruffled and damp with sweat, the bedsheets were crumpled, while the blanket had fallen to the floor and no one cared to pick it up. Matilda frowned seeing that the tray with Guy’s dinner was still on the table at the other side of the room, untouched.
Guy whimpered in his sleep, and he woke up with a start.
“Matilda?” He called, a little confused, seeing the woman.
“Yes, I’m here, love. How do you feel? You look unwell.”
“The leg is paining me. I kept waking up because it hurts so much.”
“Well, let me see.”
She helped him to sit in bed, and began to check his leg carefully, touching and gently moving it.
“It’s healing normally, nothing to worry about. It will hurt for a while, but if you take my remedy, it should be tolerable.”
Matilda saw him blushing, and she glanced at the bowl she had left on the table the previous day.
“It’s still full! Why on earth didn’t you take it?! No wonder that you are in pain! And why didn’t you eat? I can understand that you feel sad, but you must eat, darling, or you won’t recover your strength.”
Guy averted his eyes and Matilda wondered why he looked so humiliated, then she guessed.
“Guy? Did anyone come to help you tonight?”
Gisborne stood still for a moment, then he shook his head.
Matilda stared at him, incredulous.
“Are you saying that no servant came to give you the remedy or your dinner, or to help you with your needs?”
“They just left the tray there. Nobody else came after that.”
Matilda shook her head, in disbelief.
“Why didn’t you call for them?!”
“They despise me, and now they know that I have no power to get a revenge on them. They wouldn’t come.”
The woman didn’t know if it was worse that the servants of Knighton Hall had decided to abandon like that an injured man, or the fact that Guy was accepting that situation as if it was perfectly normal…
“Poor dear! Do you need to...” She glanced at the chamberpot, half hidden under the bed, and Guy shook his head.
“That, I can manage on my own. But I can’t walk to reach the table over there. Could you give me the remedy? I’m thirsty and in pain.”
Matilda hurried to fetch the bowl, and she gave it to him, then she went to look at the tray on the table: the meat was cold and it had became dry, the bread was hard and stale, and there was no cream or cheese.
She looked at Guy: he had closed his eyes, leaning his back on the pillows, and was waiting for the remedy to lessen the pain.
Matilda kissed him on the forehead, and combed his hair with her fingers.
“Don’t worry, love, I’ll fix everything. Wait for me, I’ll be back in a moment.”
She took the tray, went out of the room and closed the door. As soon as she did, her reassuring expression disappeared, changing in a wild fury.
She pounded on Marian’s and Sir Edward’s doors, yelling that she needed to talk to them immediately, then she stomped down the stairs searching for all the servants of the manor.
When Marian and her father went down the stairs, they found all the servants gathered in the hall, and a seething Matilda.
“What’s going on?” Sir Edward said, and Matilda glared at him.
“You should know what happens in your own house! Or maybe you do, and that would be even worse.”
Marian looked at the woman and at the tray she was holding.
“Matilda, what’s up? What is it?”
The healer slammed the tray on the table.
“Look at this food. Would you eat it?!”
Marian and Sir Edward went near the table to look at it, and Marian wrinkled her nose.
“It doesn’t look good.”
“I wouldn’t give it to a stray dog! But they,” Matilda pointed at the servants “they thought that it was fit for a guest of your house!”
“He’s not a guest!” The cook said, in spite. “And I’d rather cook for a pack of stray dogs!”
The other servants nodded, agreeing with the cook, muttering their displeasure.
Matilda uttered a slew of rather creative insults at them.
Sir Edward looked at Matilda and at the servants, confused.
Marian was equally surprised, but then she realized what happened.
“Do you mean that they gave this to Guy?”
“No. They took this disgusting mess to his room, and they left it on the table, knowing perfectly well that he can’t walk to get it! No one of these beasts gave him water or food, not even the remedy I left to ease his pain! Nobody went to check if he needed something! Nobody cared at all!”
“Why should we?” Asked one of the maids, boldly. “He can’t do anything to us, now.”
“I wonder why he’s still here. We should throw him out like the dog he is, ” one of the stable boys added.
Marian was about to answer, but Matilda lifted a hand to stop her, then the healer stared at Sir Edward. The lord of the manor looked shocked to hear the words of his servants.
“Did you know about this?” Matilda asked, icily.
“I had no idea.”
“Do you agree with any of their words?!”
“No, of course I don’t!”
“Then do something! Immediately. Or I will get a wagon and I’ll take that poor boy away with me. I won’t be a noble lady, but I know how to treat a wounded man. I know how to have compassion of a human being.”
“That’s not a human being, he’s Gisborne!” The cook said, with contempt.
“He’s just a burden for this house. Even the Sheriff kicked him out, I wonder what are we waiting for getting rid of him too,” Susanne supported the cook’s words.
“Enough!” Sir Edward thundered. “I won’t tolerate this in my house!”
He slammed his hand on the table.
“Did I give you new orders about Sir Guy?!” He asked.
The servants traded worried looks.
“No, my lord, but we thought...”
“You don’t have to think! Nothing has changed. Sir Guy is a guest of this house and he shall be treated as such. Who doesn’t agree, is free to go. Now go back to your work!”
The servants scurried away, and Matilda nodded, satisfied, then she turned to Marian.
“Dear child, could you please go to the kitchen and see that they prepare some decent food for Sir Guy? I don’t trust them, please supervise their work to be sure they don’t play any trick on him.”
The girl, looking down in shame, went to the kitchen.
Guy opened his eyes when he heard the door opening again. He expected to see Matilda, and he was surprised when Sir Edward entered the room.
The elderly lord looked around, noticing that the servants didn’t do their work to keep the room clean and to take care of the invalid, then he approached the bed and sat on the chair at its side.
“I came to apologize.”
“What for?” Guy asked, even more surprised.
“My servants had been very unfair to you, Sir Guy, and I’m afraid it’s partially my fault.”
“How could it be your fault?”
“After the Sheriff dismissed you, I didn’t express myself on your situation. I should have said that nothing changed, you are still a guest of my house and that they must respect you.”
“You are not obliged to give hospitality to me. If you want me to go away, I’d understand your reasons.”
“Do you think we need an obligation to help others? You are a welcome guest in my house, and you don’t have to feel in debt. Would you do something for me?”
Guy wondered what he could do in his conditions, but he nodded, grateful to Sir Edward.
“Please try to get better at the game of chess. I am getting old and my health is not very good, especially in cold weather, so I’m forced to stay at home most of the time. Winter is coming and I see long, boring days waiting for me. Marian doesn’t like the game, and it wouldn’t be proper for me to play with servants, even if there was one of them smart enough to be a good opponent. But you are a noble, you are clever, and I enjoyed teaching you how to play. Will you indulge the whims of an old man and let me teach you to play better?”
“I don’t think I’ll ever be a good match for you, but I’ll try.” Guy said, smiling to the old man, and Sir Edward thought that it was the first time that he saw a sincere smile on Gisborne’s face.
“Then we have a deal, Sir Guy. I’ll look forward to play with you. But now I’d better leave you to Matilda’s cares, or she’ll have another rant at me.”
After Sir Edward went away, Guy kept drifting in and out of sleep. Matilda’s remedy lessened the pain and he was tired after such a difficult night.
It hadn’t been only the pain to keep him awake, but even the loneliness. Since the Sheriff fired him, Guy had the sensation to be lost, a castaway drifting in an infinite sea, holding to the miserable wrecks of his ship.
He hated to feel so derelict, but he knew that he had touched the lowest point of his life, that he was completely defeated and helpless. Without Matilda’s and Lord Knighton’s kindness he would be dead, or a beggar in the street, shunned by everyone.
Guy woke up hearing that somebody was in his room, and he opened his eyes. He was surprised to see Marian.
Chapter 14: I Won't Leave You Alone
She hadn’t noticed that Guy was awake, and he didn’t talk to her. He didn’t stir, watching her in silence.
The girl was holding a tray of food, and she put it on the table, then she searched the room with her eyes until she spotted the little table near the window, that Guy and Sir Edward used to place the chessboard. Now the little table was empty, and Marian dragged it near the bed.
It was only then that she realized that Guy was looking at her.
"Sir Guy," said Marian, adding a shy smile, "you are awake, do you feel better? Matilda's remedy is helping you enough? I can give you some more of it if your pain is still so strong."
Guy gave her an uncertain glance.
He had been harsh with her in the last few days, he had been harsh with everyone actually, sending them away and asking to be left alone.
After he told her that it wasn’t proper for her to stay in his room at night, Marian had glared at him, coldly bidding him a good night, and she didn’t come back until now.
Guy nodded, shyly.
“The pain is bearable now, thank you.”
He talked in a polite tone, not sure of what to say.
Once he had hoped that she could learn to love him, that she could begin to be pleased by him, if he only could show her how well he could provide for her and her father. He had tried to show her that he had enough power and money to give her a good life if she would become his wife.
Now he had nothing to offer.
He was nothing.
He didn’t dare to look at her, and he just stared at his own hands, resting on the blanket.
Marian was surprised by the resigned tone with which Guy talked to her, but it was the undertone of sadness she had heard in those few words that she didn’t like. For the first time since she knew him, Marian wished Guy to feel better, not only because this would have made her responsibilities lighter, but simply because she wanted it. Marian wanted Guy to regain his health, to feel better, just because he was Guy. And she didn’t want to see him so closed in himself, so knocked down, so defeated.
She approached the knight further. Her hands trembled, almost imperceptibly. She had thought to give him a caress, but something blocked her: the thought of his past crimes, which clashed fiercely with the present vulnerability of the man in front of her. The need he had of her, against the fear of him that Marian still felt, despite everything.
In a strange compromise between consolation and fear, Marian gently put her hand under his chin, drawing, for a fleeting instant, his gaze, tense and deep, before he lowered his eyes again, never leaving the physical contact with her hand.
"Sir Guy, please look at me. Please," Marian said.
Seeing him being still silent, she spoke again.
"Forgive me, Sir Guy, it was my fault if you've been treated shamefully. I was... I was tired, and you no longer wanted to be with me. I didn’t know what to think. I have neglected you, I've left you alone in a difficult time. I shouldn’t have done so, but I didn't know what to say to you, which words could make you feel better, how to give some relief to your pain. I didn’t know what to say. Vaisey... Vaisey is a monster, he has hurt my family, he has damaged a whole lot of people and now he hurts you, ungrateful human being as he is. You had to expect, from such a perverse person, ingratitude."
Guy looked at her.
He could still feel her touch under his chin, as if her fingers had marked him with a firebrand.
Once he would have been happy and excited to be touched by her, but now her touch was almost painful and it filled him with sadness. It was the pitiful caress given to a mangy, starving dog.
“I guess I deserved what I got,” he said, bitterly.
Something, maybe the bitter tone of the knight's words, struck Marian, as if she had felt his suffering on her skin.
She would never have imagined that she could feel, even for a moment, so close to him.
Moreover, his gaze, directed at her eyes, made her feel an unexpected, strange, unimaginable heat inside. Marian looked down at his lips, then looked back at his eyes, but at the same time, she regained a physical distance from him.
It had been like looking down from the tallest bastion of Nottingham Castle to the ground below.
That sensation of dizziness that pushes the mind to wonder how would it feel falling from there, how would it feel to let the body to be free, into the air, before the violent end.
Flying, for a moment
"No one deserves to be abandoned in the worst time of their lives. No one deserves to be left in pain and in disease. Not even you, Sir Guy. In spite of your sins, and your wrongs. We won’t leave you alone." Then, she added, with even more fervor, "I won’t leave you alone, ever."
Marian turned her back for a moment to the knight, struck by an indefinable emotion, as if she had said too much and too quickly.
Guy frowned, looking at her back, wondering about the meaning of her last sentence. She sounded almost passionate, as if she really cared for him.
She was just being kind to a wounded man, because her soul was pure and gentle. Guy repressed a sigh and he thought that he had to be grateful to her.
Her kindness was painful and strangely comforting at the same time.
He weakly smiled at the girl.
“Thank you, I owe my life to your family. Sir Edward has been very kind to me.”
Marian turned back to the knight. His voice was deep now, but kind. A velvet note in it. She liked it.
Marian felt embarrassed about this last thought.
"Please, Sir Guy. No formalities, no obligations. I'm glad that you appreciate my family's efforts to bring you back to health. But perhaps I should feel jealous, if you have my father more dear to your heart than me," Marian said, accompanying her words with a vaguely mischievous smile.
Then she went on, with a more serious tone.
"I'm still your betrothed, am I not? Our... engagement... was sudden , for me, and maybe I'm not the most suitable person to be close to you. To help you, to console you... I know little of you, and you know little about me. Sir Guy: you saw a pretty girl, coming from a noble family, and you have chosen her, knowing nothing about her. You know nothing of her disposition, what she wants, what she thinks. We are promised, and we do not know almost anything of each other. I had imagined my engagement in a very different way when I was a girl, but now we are here. You and I.”
Marian continued: “In this house, with you in my bed, I'm trying to take care of you as best I can, probably in the wrong way, but I'm not used to all this. To stand beside a man, all day long, all night long. To adjust my life in service of another life as well as to myself. Sharing my life with a man... We are here, me and you, no regard to conventions, customs, mores. Thinking not of what people will say. Please, Guy, no formalisms. We're already over this, you and me. Sometimes I just don’t know how to help you, I just don’t know how to be close to you..."
Guy looked at her face, trying to understand if she was really meaning what she had just said.
Marian was talking of their engagement as if she still believed that they were going to be married, she was trying to do her duty as his future wife, taking care of him, trying to know him better.
He couldn’t believe it.
Since he knew the girl, he had often been blinded by love, but now he could see perfectly well: in their future there couldn’t be any marriage.
How could he marry a noblewoman like her, when he had nothing to offer? He knew that he couldn’t drag her in a life of misery.
Guy had to tell her that she was free, that their betrothal had to be broken, but he couldn’t. If she hadn’t talked like that, maybe he’d find the courage to set her free, but now he just couldn’t.
Her words were a balm for his broken soul, a little ray of hope in the darkness.
She can really save me. She is an angel of salvation.
Sooner or later, Sir Edward would step in to break their engagement, Guy was sure of that. The elderly lord could be kind to him, but for sure he wouldn’t allow his only daughter to marry a penniless cripple.
Marian was looking at him, waiting for his answer. She was right, he loved her, but he didn’t know her well, they rarely talked and he had no idea of what she liked or what she thought.
She doesn’t know me, as well, and this maybe is for the best.
He was about to say something polite and impersonal, but he couldn’t, not when she had just opened her heart to him.
“Just stay,” he answered in a low voice. “It makes all this bearable.”
Marian smiled, and passed Guy the bowl with soup for him to eat. She noticed that it wasn’t warm enough, now, and she was about to bring it back to the kitchen to warm it up, but Guy stopped her arm and shook his head as if to say he didn’t care.
Marian let Guy begin eating his meal. As she looked at him, the girl thought she had exposed herself too much, saying things that just until a few days ago she would not even have imagined to say.
Had she forgotten how Guy had forced her into their engagement?
Had she forgotten his contemptuous, defiant attitude, his continuous pressure to her, his violent acts?
But now, the man who ate slowly, comfortably, his meal in front of her looked like a different person.
A person she didn’t know.
Matilda seemed to know things about him that she didn’t know. And she was amazed and felt hurt for that, partly.
If there was one thing she felt to be able to do was to observe: things, people, facts.
Guy seemed now to have escaped her ability to observe, to evaluate, to understand.
Matilda had shown her a different image of him.
Despite this, Marian feared that once Guy returned to be strong, he would return to be the man he was before.
Or maybe not.
Then she thought that the fact that Vaisey had fired him could be her opportunity to change things, to help him to be different.
Matilda had said that Vaisey had been a bad guide.
Guy needed a good guide, and maybe he would be different, as a result.
A better man.
She did not know if she would succeed, or why she thought it was so important for her.
She felt she had a debt to him: if Guy was there now, it was her fault.
She would compensate him that way, she would help him to understand his mistakes, to repent.
Then maybe he would be the one to choose to put an end to their engagement. He would withdraw from it.
She would be free again. She’d have back her bed, her room, her things, the freedom to be what she wanted to be.
At that moment she thought that no man would let her to be free.
No one would love her enough for that. Her father, neither, could completely understand her.
She passed a slice of bread to Guy.
She poured his wine.
Guy looked at her, silently.
Yet that silence did not embarrass her, she felt free to think.
She felt hungry too, her hand touched her stomach. She was about to get up when Guy gave her a slice of bread.
Marian took it instinctively, and, when she did, she touched his hand.
She had taken his hand into hers so many times when he was lost in the fever's delirium, in the agony of his pain. But he did not know how many times it had happened. A gesture born from urgency. From necessity. No value.
Now he was there, awake, probably still very suffering, for a pain that was no longer just a physical one.
He was aware, and seemed to need her even more, now, much more than before.
Marian didn’t know if she would be able to fill that need, if she wouldn’t run away, at the end of everything. Run away from him.
His gestures now had another value. His words had now another value.
Everything she could say or do for him could have tied her closer to him when she could easily dissolve an unwanted bond with him, instead.
She thought that the shudder she had felt touching his hand was only because of fear. She tried not to think to the subtle suspicion that instead it could have happened because of a feeling.
She thought about what he had said, the real meaning of his few words.
Stay... Remain, just stay here, don't run away, don't avoid him, don't deceive him, don't put a distance from him, don't leave him, because, if you stay, when you stay close to him, all this, the pain of the body and the pain of the mind, of the soul becomes bearable, acceptable to him.
It seemed to her that in those few words he had conveyed a whole world that she didn’t know if she could or would accept, but for the first time since she knew him, Marian felt that Guy really felt something more for her and something different from the simple man's desire to possess a woman.
She couldn't do anything else at that moment but stay with him.
She re-assembled the tray with the empty bowls, but instead of taking it away using that as an excuse to leave Guy to himself, she took her sewing work and sat on the edge of the bed.
Ironically, she was sewing a tunic for him.
As she slowly sewed, with uneven stitches, Guy slid into sleep beside her.
Chapter 15: Shades of Her Heart
Matilda stepped inside Knighton Hall, brushing the snow away from her cloak.
Autumn changed into winter and the fields around Knighton were all covered by a white blanket of snow.
The healer went near the fireplace and held her hand to the flames, then she glanced at Sebastian.
“Where is everyone?”
“Sir Edward is upstairs with Sir Guy, they’re playing chess, while Lady Marian went to the market in Nottingham.”
“She did? With this snow? Blessed child, always so incautious! I just hope she’ll be back before the weather worsen.”
Matilda sighed and went upstairs.
Guy and Sir Edward were seated in front of the chessboard, but Gisborne wasn’t paying attention to the game: he kept looking at the window, a frown on his face.
His face lit up for a moment when Matilda entered the room, but he sighed when he recognized her, disappointed.
“This isn’t the best welcome I could get, love. You shouldn’t look so unhappy to see someone who cares for you, boy, it’s rude.”
Guy looked at her, startled.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Matilda. I’m happy to see you, I really am, I swear!”
The woman burst into a hearty laugh.
“I know, I know, you were just hoping to see somebody else. I bet that you are worried for Lady Marian.”
Guy blushed a little, embarrassed that his thoughts were so transparent, but it was Sir Edward who answered.
“He’s right to be worried. It’s snowing so much and it’s going to get worse, I’m afraid that the roads could be blocked if there is a storm. Like four years ago.”
“I remember it, it was the first winter I spent in Locksley. There was so much snow that people were trapped in their houses and they had to burn furniture because they couldn’t go out to cut wood.”
“There is still time before the storm comes.” Matilda said, trying to reassure both men. “By then, Lady Marian will be here, warm and safe in front of the fire. No use in getting worried now. That girl is smart, she’ll be home before she can be in danger.”
Sir Edward sighed.
“I hope you are right, but I wish that my daughter wouldn’t be so willful.”
“You can’t change her nature.” She glanced at the chessboard. “Who’s winning?”
“Try to guess,” Guy said, with a resigned smirk.
“You’d have a chance, if you pay attention to the board.” Sir Edward answered, smiling. “I’ll have to chide Marian even for this unsatisfactory game, I guess.”
The old man stood up and went downstairs, leaving Guy with Matilda.
The healer glanced at the window.
“Don’t fret, my dear, she’ll be safe.”
“I hate to think that if she should be in trouble, I could do nothing to help her.”
“I’m here to fix this, so now be calm and let me do my work. Stand up, sweetie.”
Guy put his hands on the table at the sides of the chessboard, and he pushed himself upright. He was favoring his damaged leg and he didn’t put his weight on it, but now he could stand without effort and he was able to walk a few steps with the help of a crutch.
Matilda knelt to the ground to examine his legs, then she stood up again.
“You are getting better, but months will pass before you can walk without a crutch or a staff. Your broken leg is slowly improving, but the unharmed one is still too weak. Do you use it enough?”
“I try to walk as much as I can, but there’s not much space in this room.”
“Don’t you go downstairs? In the hall you’d have more room.”
“I can’t on my own, and the servants aren’t happy to help me, so I prefer to avoid asking their help. Sometimes Lambert helps me to hobble downstairs, but he can’t stay here for a long time, so it’s not worth the trouble.”
Matilda nodded and pointed to a stool.
“Now take away your tunic and shirt and sit there.”
Guy obeyed, and Matilda carefully checked his ribs, touching them to see if they still hurt and asking him to take deep breaths.
“Did you have any trouble breathing? Pain?”
“No, not in the last few weeks.”
“It seems these are perfectly healed, then.” Matilda said, handing his clothes back to him. “You should be happy, love. You are alive and you are better, just as I always said. Now you have to get your strength back and to be patient until your leg heals too.”
Guy put his tunic back on, and he took the crutch, using it to reach the window.
He let out a sigh of relief in seeing Marian in the distance, carefully riding her horse on the snow.
“I told you. Remember: Matilda is always right.”
The woman reached him at the window, and she looked at the girl too.
“Don’t you think it’s time to give this room back to her?” Said Matilda, and Guy looked at her, frowning.
“Do you mean that I should go away from Knighton?”
“No, silly. But you don’t need to sleep in her bed anymore. There is a spare room downstairs. Now it’s used to store a few old pieces of furniture, but I guess that Sir Edward could find another place for them, and it could become your room. It’s warm and dry, and you could walk around freely, without stairs to climb. It would be good for your health, and she’d have her room back.”
She was out to get some air, despite the cold, for her errands, not at all frightened by the snowfall.
Yet, all the time she was away she had been lost in her thoughts, she had thought of him...
Go back home, Marian. He's waiting for you. You know it. He knows that you know. Don't rush, be careful of the snow, ice under the snow, he is worried about you.
"Are you dressed enough? Perhaps you would need heavier clothing." It’s not jealousy or possession, "I wonder if," he said, about the cloak that covered you for years, ever since you became a young woman, "it’s adequate to this cold weather."
Go back home, Marian, because he's sitting on a chair, near the window, and will see you coming.
You know it. You know he will lift his eyes from a long chess game with your father and he will see you, or, maybe, he has never stopped looking at the road since you left.
You know it, the first days you felt irritable in front of him. Then you felt annoyed, and you started hiding it your when you left him, behind your shoulders. Then you stopped feeling annoyed. It didn’t bother you anymore. You started to smile, in secret, instead.
Above all, there is a time when you come home and come back into the room when, almost imperceptibly, his eyes light up in the exact time he sees you. And you like it, now. And if there is silence around you, you may feel the breath he has restrained and finally let go, seeing you coming back.
And there is his smile, tender, simple, held back sometimes by the pain he still senses when he moves. Perhaps only diminished by the pain. But he smiles. And you didn’t imagine it could be so beautiful, that simple smile.
Go back home, Marian. Maybe it doesn't matter that he doesn't know anything about what you do.
About what you did, because since he's there you don’t do it so often. Since you've seen his wounds, his difficulties, you don’t feel like going out at night as the Nightwatchman, and, when you do it, because people still need your little help, you do your duty with a little less light in your heart, and you try to get back home soon, because it’s full night and maybe he sleeps quietly, or maybe not.
You know people need the Nightwatchman, for a while at least. Although now Robin is back, hood on his face, with a bunch of sympathetic, disillusioned renegades, who love him and lovingly help people. There's Robin, now and you could put your brown leather mask off . But you don’t want to do it. You wouldn’t want to. You still want to do things, you still want to give something of you. To feel the shiver of the night tight between the shoulders, feel the thin anxiety that creeps in your chest, and the awareness of doing good without glory. No hugs from grateful people. You don’t need hugs, you don’t need glory, you don’t need that kind of love. What if you just did your civil duty?
But the man now living in your home doesn’t know this, maybe he doesn’t imagine it, maybe he doesn’t care. Maybe he hated you for that. Definitely hates you now. You are in every effort, in all his limitations, in every breath he takes. It is no longer a challenge. It is torment. But he still doesn’t know that behind the leather mask there is you. You're afraid he'll find out, now, more than ever. But he doesn't know, he is worried, he is waiting for you. Maybe it was so even before the accident: he was worried for you, he was waiting for you; everything was, among you, confused by unwanted, unnecessary gifts, and by his inability to pursue you coherently.
Maybe he was different. He was wrong before. You were just yourself. Or not: you were in a fortress on a rock, and he was, black leather gloves in hand, ready for battle, to storm the fortress, to reach you. He doesn't pursue you, now. He lives with you, lives in your own home, with your own family, shares your own life, but he doesn't pursue you anymore. Maybe he doesn't want, maybe he cannot. But he cares about you. Sincerely. And now, you like that. But you'd never tell him.
You want him to become a friend, but you don't think he can become a confidant. Inside, you're still afraid of him. You don’t know how bad he can be, inside, down into the bones, but you want him to hear what you have to say, the things you care about most, and the most secret ones.
Above everything else, You would like this indefinite feeling that you feel among you, which you see at the bottom of his gaze and when you look at him, and when you look at yourself in the mirror, lying hidden in the folds of a turned upside down daily life, will not hurt you, in the end.
Both of you. And you think this indefinite feeling among you will not end the moment Matilda will declare him healed and he will leave your home. The indefinite, between you and Guy, will end when you least expect, When he least expects. God only knows how much you are afraid of that moment.
And you suspect he's afraid, too.
And you wait: his wounds to be healed, your lives to be defined, yours and his. You wait the fog to dissolve, a less cold day. Maybe then you'll be free again. To be, to do, to risk. But that moment of light when he was looking at you, full of reassurance and relief, of serenity, that silent but constant contentment, in his light eyes, brightened by simpler, less fierce, less defensive, less offensive clothes, you will miss it. You know you will miss it, Marian.
You will remember and forget, even if you want to remember and not to forget.
He will remember and forget. Even if he doesn't want to.
You want something, between you two, to stay different. To be better. Whatever happens. When this long winter is over, and he will not be here anymore.
Go back home, Marian. Now you want to go home.
If Guy of Gisborne was now out of the game, Sheriff Vaisey was definitely in, Robin thought.
Indeed, the situation was, if possible, worse. At least, dogs were no longer used to try to find them and catch them by surprise.
"God, those dogs were really annoying," Robin thought. As Gisborne was no longer able to perform Vaisey's unpleasant, cruel, perverted orders against the people of the County, the Sheriff personally provided with his guards, most of the times, to claim taxes. With every means. House by house. A fire after another. In short: people were scared more than before, and Robin and the gang had gone from rebellion to something that began to resemble insurrection.
Robin did not know if he felt more angry, hearing the Sheriff saying to the terrified crowds, well protected by his soldiers, that all that money, all that bread stolen from the people, was in favor of King Richard in the Holy Land, while Robin had discovered that the Sheriff's climb to power had been largely favored by Prince John, or if he had felt more angry to see fear in the eyes of the people, and their hope wavered more and more despite his efforts.
Sometimes they had arrived in time to prevent attacks from the Sheriff and his men. Other times they had just arrived in time to save the situation, soldiers ready to drag people out of the houses, tongs in their hands, while they, with arrows, sticks, sweat, and heart, and collective effort, had forced the Sheriff and the soldiers to retire. Other times, though, they had come too late, and people had suffered, and lost everything. Sometimes they could only share the pain with them, and money, to rebuild the houses. Money, and their help, were never enough. The raids in the castle, risky, dangerous as they were, becoming more frequent. More than once their escape from the castle had been precipitous, and at the last second. But they had always escaped the jail and the executioner, and they had always found the way to salvation in the forest, and lost their tracks there.
They felt then relieved, joyful, strong and brave, blood pumped into the veins together with pride.
On those evenings, in the forest, eating what they found in the forest, was a joy, sharing a meal whatever it was, all together, once again. All of them still alive. His friends. Renegades, no rank , ready to save one another. Always loyal to each other. And Robin had not had friends like them even before the war. No one had stood up to help him in friendship after being declared an outlaw.
Not even Edward, Marian's father. For fear and opportunity, he had approved his daughter's engagement with the Sheriff's henchman. And he was still helping him now, in his home. Too close to the girl. And Robin was beginning to be very worried.
He was scared that Gisborne could discover the secret identity of the girl, and that he would report her to the authorities, or worse, that he would seek revenge against her, trying to kill her. Having lost power, and his place beside the Sheriff, did not make Guy potentially less dangerous, "The killer in him can always wake up on the occasion." Robin thought. He did not trust Guy, for his recent past and for his more remote . And he did not trust his constant presence beside Marian.
He did not want to say to himself, he did not trust even her so close to him.
By the way, Marian's actions as the Nightwatchman were less frequent and fleeting, now. Less risks for her. Although she was, he had to admit it, good.
But everything had become more difficult. The things, among them, made no progress.
Marian had become elusive. And Marian had never been this way. He had never considered Gisborne as a rival to Marian's affection. If he had managed to marry her, it would have been nothing more than a marriage of circumstance, of convenience. But the condition set for marriage by the girl and the serious physical conditions of the man made a marriage unthinkable between the two, now. But Marian spoke too much of Gisborne when Robin was able to see the girl. And this was disturbing . Robin was beginning to think he had been wrong to leave for war without first marrying the girl.
But the simplest truth was that he had felt too young and not ready to be a husband and father at all.
And his duty to others had been more important. Perhaps he wasn’t even ready now, but he was beginning to think he had made a mistake: he wasn’t entirely sure he could win back Marian.
If only Marian knew, how often he had thought and dreamed her during the war. If only Marian had completely followed her heart, and not the obligations she believed to have toward Gisborne, she would have realized that the admiration she felt towards Robin Hood and his actions was nothing more than a renewed passion for Robin of Locksley, his old betrothed.
But Robin had to think also about the bigger picture. He understood that Vaisey had accumulated a great deal of money in those years in Nottingham. And Vaisey didn’t spend that money for himself.
It wasn’t wasted in whores and parties, or real luxuries. Robin began to fear that Vaisey was something more than a noble grown rich on the backs of others, a staunch and tireless collector of taxes.
Robin had begun to wonder how powerful Vaisey really was and how far his power and influence extended. Nottingham was not London or Canterbury. But it could have a strategic value in the right circumstances.
And, furthermore, it was strange that he had not yet hired a successor to the infamous, but powerful, role of second-rank commander which Gisborne had had. Perhaps his concerns were excessive, but Robin kept both eyes wide open.
Chapter 16: The Nightwatchman Doesn't Kill
Guy sat on the bed of his new room, and he looked at the shield painted in yellow and black, hanging over the fireplace. It had been in the hall of Locksley Manor, but Sir Edward ordered his servants to retrieve it, and the rest of Guy’s personal belongings, from the manor before the Sheriff gave the house to his new henchman.
Once Guy had thought that he could get the power, that he could have the world at his feet, now his whole world was enclosed in a single room.
The incredible thing was that he wasn’t as miserable as he believed he would be at the beginning.
He had nothing except for a few clothes and personal items, and his leg still pained him a lot, but he quite liked living at Knighton Hall.
Sir Edward clearly loved his daughter a lot, they were a family, and Guy felt like he had become a little part of that family too. They didn’t abandon him in disgrace, they took care of his wounds and gave him a home when everybody else would have turned their backs at him.
Guy was grateful for this, but gratitude wasn’t the only reason for liking his stay at Knighton Hall.
For the first time since he was a kid, he felt safe.
The house was a haven, a place where people actually cared for him and noticed if he was unwell or dispirited.
It was true that the servants still despised him, but he found a sort of truce with them: he only asked for their services when he really couldn’t help, and they politely ignored him the rest of the time, tolerating his presence in the house.
Guy used to ride a lot and to work for the Sheriff for most of the day, so now the long winter days he had to spend in inactivity were boring, and he sometimes felt restless, but he was learning to appreciate the small and simple things he had always overlooked.
He liked the hours he spent playing chess with Sir Edward. Guy wasn’t really interested in the game, and he suspected that he would always be mediocre at playing it, but he enjoyed the company of the old man.
At first they didn’t talk much, but in time Sir Edward began to tell him little facts about Knighton: the history of the lands and of his family, how he was worried that the extremely cold winter could be very difficult for the peasants, the way he used to manage his lands. Sometime he asked for Guy’s opinion, and Gisborne tried to find a sensible answer, always a little afraid that Sir Edward would laugh at him, calling him an idiot like the Sheriff did.
But the elderly lord never ridiculed his words, he considered on his advice, and if Guy was completely wrong on something, Sir Edward patiently explained him his errors, showing him another way to find a better solution.
Guy sometimes wondered what kind of man he could have been if he had a guide like Sir Edward in his youth, instead of the Sheriff.
Maybe I could have been a man worthy of Marian’s love.
Guy sighed, thinking of her. Living in her same house wasn’t easy because he knew that she’d never love him back, but he loved being able to spend so much time with her.
Maybe she’d never return his feelings, but Guy was learning to be happy to just be at her side.
She was kind to him, sometimes almost friendly, and Guy liked to talk with her, to listen to everything she said.
She went often to the market, or to visit the villagers, and when she came back home, she often told Guy about all the little events that had happened in the County, the funniest gossips she heard while she was in town, or she just described a nice flower she had seen in a field or how she enjoyed the taste of a apple she took from a tree. He listened to every word she uttered, and every little trifle she could tell him was a balm to his soul, like water in a desert.
When he halted out of his room and found her in the hall, or when they sat at the table, sharing a meal with Sir Edward, Guy felt warm and contented, as if he was part of the family too, as if he had finally found his place in the world.
Matilda and Lambert were an important part of his reduced world, too.
The first was probably the only person in the world that openly expressed her affection to him, a sort of rough and outspoken mother hen who took him under her protection. She called him with a variety of silly nicknames and she kept doing that in spite of all his complaints, and at last Guy just stopped complaining and he let her call him however she liked. In fact, if he had to be honest, he didn’t dislike at all her endearments, her affection was a comfort for him and he sincerely returned it, even if he would never admit it.
The friendship with Lambert, instead, had been a surprise. They had worked together on the black powder project, and they found out that they got along well, so sometimes they chatted while they were working on their project. Sometimes they went to the tavern together to share a meal or to drink a cup of wine, but Guy would have never expected a visit from Lambert after the accident. He had just assumed that he wouldn’t care for his fate, like everybody else.
But Lambert went to see him, and he came back almost everyday, just to chat with Guy and to entertain him on his sickbed with gossips from the castle. Even when Guy began to feel better, Lambert kept coming, just because he enjoyed the company of his friend.
Gisborne wasn’t used anymore to have a friend, a sort of family and a place to live where he could feel safe and welcome, but he liked the feeling of it.
Guy stood up, and he took the crutch to hobble to the trunk that contained his clothes, opening the lid to look at them: he still couldn’t wear his old leathers as they were too tight for his broken leg.
Matilda took the splint away, but she still bandaged it tightly, to keep him from doing wrong movements.
Marian had sewn a few new clothes for him, while Sir Edward had found a chest with some of the clothes he used to wear when he was younger, and he ordered the servants to take it to Guy’s room, telling him to take whatever he could need. Most of them where too short and tight for Guy, but some other would fit, with just a few alterations.
Guy took one of the tunics that had already been fitted for him, and he wore it over the shirt that Marian made for him. They were both blue, two different shades of the same color. The shirt had the same color of his eyes, while the tunic was darker.
It was made of a good quality of wool, warm, soft and finely finished with silver embroiders on the hems, a tunic made for a nobleman, a Sheriff, and Guy wasn’t used to wear such fine clothes, even if they were old and a little worn.
He wasn’t used to wear different colors than black, either, and when he looked into a mirror, he had the impression of seeing a stranger.
Maybe he wasn’t too far from the truth, he thought: he felt different, changed, but he couldn’t say if that was a good thing or not.
Guy glanced at the window: the snow was still falling.
He sighed, uneasy at the idea that Marian was riding out there. She had left early in the morning to go to Nottingham’s market and she wouldn’t be back until afternoon, but at least she had ordered two of the servants to get the wagon and to go with her because she had to buy supplies to fill the pantry, almost empty after the storms of the last week.
Sir Edward had been feeling unwell in the last few days, and he was resting. Matilda had said that there was no need to get worried, but the old man had to recover and stay in bed for a while to get his strength back.
Even Lambert went away to visit his family and Matilda was busy treating the seasonal illnesses that affected the villages, so Guy had nothing to do, and he was beginning to get bored and restless.
Matilda said that he had to exercise his good leg, and Guy decided to follow her advice.
He took the crutch and he walked to the hall, then he glanced at the door. It was a long time since he last went outside, and he decided that he could try: he took the old winter cloak that Sir Edward gave him and he wore it. It was well worn and faded in some places, but it was made of thick, warm velvet and its deep blue matched the color of the tunic he was wearing.
Guy opened the door and walked outside: the snow was still covering the ground, and he thought that he had to pay attention or he’d risk to slip and fall. He noticed that the servants had cleared a path to the stables, and Guy decided to go there.
He shuddered before entering, remembering the sound of the hooves, stomping near his head when he had been trampled, but he took a deep breath and went inside: he had always been fond of horses, and he didn’t want to let his fears to influence him.
He relaxed, seeing the horses in their stalls, quietly eating their food. He was surprised to see his black stallion in one of the stalls, as he thought that the Sheriff took it too.
Guy called the stable boy and asked him why the stallion was there.
The boy gave a worried look at him.
“Sir Edward bought him from the Sheriff after he fired you… I think he paid a good price for him too.”
Guy wondered why Sir Edward had decided to buy his stallion, but he was glad that the Sheriff didn’t have him.
He scratched the horse’s muzzle, and the stallion sniffed his hand, searching for a treat.
Guy looked for the stable boy to ask him where he could find an apple for the horse and a brush, but the boy was nowhere to be found, so Guy decided that he would search for those things himself.
There was a little storage room in the stable, and Guy entered, hoping to find at least a brush.
Grooming his horse always relaxed him, and it didn’t matter that the stallion now was Sir Edward’s horse. He had missed this, being able of taking care of the stallion, at least.
Guy’s leg was beginning to hurt, and he was tired, not used anymore at walking and standing so much, but he really wanted to take back another little piece of normality.
He thought he saw a brush near a old saddle lying in a corner, and he went to take them, when he noticed a piece of cloth hidden under the saddle.
Curious, Guy lifted the old saddle, and his heart almost stopped: hidden under it there were a hooded cloak and a mask! The costume of the Nightwatchman!
Stunned, Guy took it in his hands, a million questions spinning in his head.
He took it closer to his face, searching for a clue that could reveal the identity of the Nightwatchman, and, instinctively, he sniffed the cloak.
It couldn’t be.
Marian. It smelled of Marian.
Guy could recognize the sweet scent of her skin, he was sure of that. And that cloak had Marian’s scent.
Suddenly, a lot of mysteries concerning the Nightwatchman made sense: Guy had always thought that he was a boy because he was too short and thin to be a man. And this explained why the Nightwatchman always seemed to know his plans…
His world, that was just beginning to be whole again, shattered in a thousand pieces.
Marian came back home, a smile on her lips. She set the heavy basket on the table. A maid ran to take the content, the good vegetables and the meat that Marian had bought from the weekly market in Nottingham. Marian prevented the young maid's hands, and quickly removed the white bundle on the top of the basket before she could take it.
Wrapped in the bundle, there was a scroll of parchment she had purchased from a minstrel at the market. The man used to tell stories about adventures in the sea and she enjoyed listening to them. He also was in society with a scribe who copied his tales on parchment to sell them to the nobles who liked them, so they could teach them to their own minstrels.
They were stories about crazy pirates and brave captains, and Marian always bought them when there was a new part of the story available for sale.
Once she read one of them with Guy, during one of the long days he had to spend in bed, and Guy had surprised her with his ability to read aloud with her, playing the characters of the story.
In the beginning Guy was reading his part in a flat, concentrated but monotonous tone, but then she snatched the scroll from his hands and she read it aloud, using a different voice for each character.
He gradually began to follow her, more timidly at first, grumbling like a pot of beans cooking over the fire, then sighing, and later with greater commitment, developing more abilities than she had.
He started to give so many different voices to the characters: Guy played voices that made her laugh to tears, while others made her feel almost frightened. Other voices moved her. Other voices made her feel a strange sensation, an indefinite, new sensation. In those moments, Marian forgot to follow her own lines on the scroll. She was focused only on listening the sound of his voice, until Guy had to say: "Marian it's your turn. The captain's line is yours to play."
But most of all, Marian was really, really amused when he played the voice of the frightened damsel, prisoner of the pirates on the ship.
She just did not want to play that role .
Not in stories, not in life.
Distracted from her fantasies, Marian heard the door closing behind her with a slam. She turned around. Guy was there, leaning heavily on the door, and he looked at her, eyeing her from her feet up to her face, finally focusing on her eyes. The gray-blue of his eyes had darkened, pupils dilated.
A serious expression on his face. Deadly serious, like the one she used to see on his face when he took the people under arrest in Nottingham, long ago.
Marian felt uncomfortable, as if in one gesture, the closing of that door, him in front of her, the world stood still, their time had stopped.
She felt trapped.
She was trapped.
She lowered her gaze on the thing that Guy was holding. She recognized her cloak. The one she used to wear to be the Nightwatchman.
The scroll fell from her hands. Marian didn’t even hear the sound of it landing on the floor.
She felt numb.
Now she was the captive damsel on the ship, and there was no captain to save her.
She felt lost. She felt she had lost something.
She became pale, and looked at Guy, surrendering to him with her eyes downcast, as if she was in front of the executioner.
Guy looked at her, and he felt as if he was dead inside. He had hoped that she wouldn’t recognize the cloak, that she had nothing to do with it, but he could see that she knew perfectly well what he was holding in his hands.
“Do you have an explanation?” His voice was cold, remote. Dead.
“Give it back to me, it's mine, Guy,” Marian said, clenching her fists, finding courage, believing in herself, in her values. “That's me. Only me. All of me. An explanation, Guy? Misery is the explanation. Desperation of people is the explanation. Overpowered, oppressed people are the explanation. Someone had to help them. I wanted to help them.”
Then, suddenly feeling like she was naked in front of him, she added: “You can’t even imagine the suffering of those people, of those families. Children, old people, their empty tables. Diseases, their harvests ransacked. Money gone. No future. And no present too. People condemned to die of poverty, to die miserably. That's my people, Guy. I had to do something, to be something, for them.”
Guy shook his head. He wanted to put his hands on her shoulders, to look in her eyes, and tell her that she wasn’t the one who had to help people, that it was foolish to think that she could do something for them, and that she would only risk her life.
She was standing a few paces away from him, and Guy moved to reach her, but, in the heat of his emotions, he completely forgot his conditions, and he didn’t take the crutch.
When he put his weight on the broken leg, it just gave way with a sharp jolt of pain, and Guy stumbled and fell to the ground, on his knees.
Seeing him falling to the ground, Marian felt a chill in her shoulders.
Even that was her doing. It was the Night Watchman's doing.
Diminishing a man, this man.
He would be poor, he was ailing and suffering right now. In front of her.
And it had been her. Her fault.
She felt she had said too much. To the wrong person.
Everything had changed between them.
He was different now, was he not?
‘Dear God, what have I done,’ Marian thought.
She was silent, fully aware of the ambiguity of her conduct toward Guy now.
She had lied to him.
Marian stretched her hand out to him, as to help him raising from the ground.
She didn’t want to see him like that. Never again.
Guy swatted her hand away, like an annoying bug. He was trembling with rage, hanging his head to avoid looking at her, his hair falling on his face and hiding his expression.
“You! It was you! You destroyed my life!”
It was true.
She destroyed his life. His horrible, wicked, ruthless life.
Marian didn’t want to kill him, that night. She hadn’t thought, there was no time, she had acted, unaware of the possible consequences.
Then she had seen the results of her mistake and she tried to rectify it. To help him, her enemy.
He was her enemy in that moment. God, he was.
And a wounded man too.
She had helped him. With her whole being.
“I didn’t want it to happen, Guy... I did not... I'm sorry, Guy. So sorry...” Marian said, her voice reduced to a whisper.
Guy struggled to get back to his feet without her help, and he stood in front of Marian, pointing an accusing finger at her.
“But you did it! I had everything… I had a future. And now I have nothing, because of you! My life is in tatters because you wanted to imitate Robin Hood!”
Marian raised her voice, suddenly feeling angry. No one could say a thing like that, considering her actions to be a pure imitation of those of a man.
“Oh no, Guy, no,” Marian said, bitterly, “you can’t tell me that, especially you, you can’t tell me that. Have you forgotten, Guy? You've come out of nowhere, you and Vaisey, a few years ago. And everything changed, for the worse. I had to do something. We've known each other for years. You and me. The Nightwatchman and you, Guy. Robin Hood was out of the picture, then. You fought me for years, before Robin Hood. You chased me for years. And you never caught me.” Marian smiled, boldly. “I'm not Robin Hood. I didn’t want to imitate anyone. No man. It was the Sheriff's cruelty. He has made you a slave in his hands, and a cruel man. He taught you to be cruel, never looking in the eyes of the people you damaged in his name, following his will. Did you want it too, Guy? And Vaisey has made ME the Nightwatchman. The sheriff has made people poor, and hungry. Looking for help. The Nightwatchman was born from this, to fight him by repaying people for what had been taken away from them. Food, remedies, a little money. I didn’t steal anything from anyone. It wasn’t money from the taxes. It was my money, Guy. Mine.”
“You could be hanged if the sheriff knew what you did!”
“Me? Hanged for what? For sharing what was mine with other people? I wanted to be an help for the people who needed it. You killed people for that hideous man, you have ordered your men to cut tongues, for God’s sake, Guy. I’ve never, never killed anyone! The Nightwatchman doesn’t kill, Guy! I never harmed anyone!”
“You did! You harmed me.”
Sir Edward got up from his bed. He was feeling better, but his illness worried him: he was getting old and frail, and he was afraid that he could die, leaving Marian alone.
This was one of the reasons that made him agree when Sir Guy decided to marry Marian. At that time, he had thought that Gisborne was a dangerous man, but he had enough power and money to protect Marian and take care of her.
He seemed to love her, and Sir Edward had thought that it was better to die knowing that she was married to a strong man who would protect her, than to leave this world leaving her alone and helpless.
After the accident, Edward found out that Sir Guy was a better man than he had believed, but now he was also poor and powerless, unable to defend and provide for a wife. The elderly lord wasn’t sure of what he should do about their betrothal, if it would have been better to forbid it, or if he should leave the decision to Marian.
For now, he was taking time. They couldn’t talk of marriage until Sir Guy was better, and Sir Edward hoped that, in time, Gisborne would take the right decision, breaking the engagement.
Sir Edward got dressed, and he went downstairs, a little worried, not knowing if his daughter came back from the market.
He was relieved when he heard her voice, but worried again when he realized that she sounded upset and distressed and that her voice was coming from Sir Guy’s room.
He hurried to the door, but it didn’t open, locked from the inside.
Sir Edward tried to listen and went pale hearing Marian talk about the Nightwatchman.
Did Sir Guy find out about that secret?! Would he denounce it to the Sheriff?!
From inside, Guy’s angry voice seemed to prove his fears true.
“I should report you to the Sheriff, he’ll hang you, he’ll burn your house!”
Sir Edward didn’t wait to hear more: he was afraid for Marian’s safety, now.
Sir Guy knew that he had been injured because of the Nightwatchman, and now he’d surely want to take his revenge.
The old man ran out of the manor, heading for the stables. He couldn’t ask his servants for help, not if he wanted to keep Marian’s secret, so Robin Hood was his only chance now: he took a horse and spurred it, heading for Sherwood Forest.
Inside Guy’s room, Marian was shouting hard to the man, now.
“For what? Do you really want to denounce me to that evil, perverted man? To a man who’s a liar, an exploiter? A man who threw YOU away like an old and broken sock as soon as you couldn’t serve him, the moment you weren’t able to be the pleased executor of his violence and his thirst for gold, death and pain. He took away everything from you now, but he had taken off your dignity the day you’ve started working for him. Don’t you see, Guy? Don’t you see what he had done to you? You were his puppet, the lowest of his slaves, but convinced of being almost a king. His idiot!”
“So I am an idiot? What about you? A noble lady who risks everything only because you can’t accept the fact that you’re a woman! You could help the poor in a million of other ways, ma you have to endanger your and other people’s lives just to convince yourself that you are strong, that you are brave, while you’re just deluded and childish!”
Guy stepped towards her, using the crutch this time.
Marian felt him approach her. He couldn’t really hurt her physically. Not in his condition. But he was getting closer and closer to her. He was furious, disappointed, and she didn’t want him near her.
She was full of rage, like an uncontainable raging river.
She was furious at him: for all the years spent fighting him, and all the days and all the nights spent to assist him, seeing him suffer.
He approached her, almost brushing her, and she didn’t want to, she didn’t want him to touch her in that moment.
She pushed him away, convinced that she didn’t use enough force to hurt him, but Guy lost his balance, and slammed violently his back against the wall. His ribs had healed, but the impact sent a jolt of pain through his leg.
The immediate, extreme expression of pain on his face passed through Marian’s trembling body like an arrow.
Marian could no longer hold back the tears, because he could not understand the absurdity of his life with the Sheriff, and moreover, Marian was crying because she did not understand why this made her feel even more angry with him.
“It's better to be called childish, and deluded”, she hissed, “but to have followed my own heart, and my own head, rather than having sold my soul to that devil there, blindly following him, like YOU had. Don't you realize that he was going to make you commit the most wicked crime, without even messing up his hands with it! You were about to kill the King, Guy, the King!. You might as well trying to kill God directly ! You are a fool!” She burst into tears, loudly.
Marian's tears hurt him deep inside, and Guy just stood there, looking at her.
He was exhausted, in pain and he was feeling empty and dejected. From the look in her eyes, he guessed that Marian was feeling the same.
The girl looked at him, and she was shocked to see how lost he looked. She was openly crying, but Guy had tears in his eyes too.
“I didn’t want to, Guy, I didn’t mean to hurt you that night, believe me, I didn’t want to,” she said, deeply pained.
“What do we do, now?” Guy whispered, and Marian shook her head to say that she didn’t know either.
Without thinking too much about it, she made a few steps to reach Guy, and she put a hand on his shoulder to soothe his sorrow, and to find a little comfort herself.
Guy sighed, and there was so much sadness in that sigh, that Marian’s eyes welled with fresh tears, and she found herself hugging the knight.
Guy’s arms closed around her body, and she thought that now it was a little better, that their closeness was a consolation for them both. His body was warm, and, even when he was so weakened, Guy’s embrace made her feel safe and protected.
She had been able to hurt him so much, but he still tried to take care of her, even when he had all the reasons to hate her.
Marian looked up to meet his eyes. They were filled with anger, pain and sorrow, but also with something softer. She realized that he still loved her, no matter what.
They were too close, Marian thought that it wasn’t proper at all, but at the same time she didn’t care. They both needed the warmth of that hug, the comfort they could get from it.
She wanted to cry and be consoled, and she wanted to soothe him, to dispel the hopeless look in his eyes.
Their lips met, suddenly, and Marian couldn’t tell if it had been Guy who began the kiss, or if it was her the one who started it. She couldn’t think clearly, she couldn’t think at all.
They were kissing, and they both knew that they should stop, but neither of them was willing to do it.
It was warm.
It was sad and soothing at the same time.
It was overwhelming.
They both stepped back at the same time, with a shocked gasp, and they stared at each other for a moment, unsure of what they should do, or say.
Then the door was slammed open, and a moment later Robin was in the room, charging at Guy. He grabbed his tunic, and he pushed him away from Marian, dragging him to the ground with him.
Marian stared at them in horror, seeing that Robin had unsheathed a dagger, and pointed it to Guy’s throat.
Chapter 17: The Woman I Love
Matilda was wearily making her way through the snow, carrying her basket full of remedies. She had herbs to treat pain, and she would use them for Guy’s leg, and a balsamic ointment for Sir Edward, to help him overcome the cold that was affecting him.
She was near Knighton Hall, when she saw two galloping horses.
She frowned, recognizing the riders: Robin Hood and Sir Edward.
Robin dismounted and ran inside the manor, while Sir Edward followed shortly after, staggering with exhaustion.
The healer was worried for him, he wasn’t well enough to ride, but she was even more worried for the younger inhabitants of the house: Robin’s expression was one of rage and fear.
Matilda dropped the basket, lifted her gown with her hands, and ran towards the manor too.
She got ahead of Sir Edward, entering Guy’s room before him, and she stared at the scene in front of her eyes: Guy was sprawled on the floor on his back, with Robin on top of him, and the outlaw was holding a blade at his throat, while Marian was looking at them, too shocked to move.
Sir Edward entered the room, panting, and he glanced at his daughter.
“Did he hurt you?” He managed to say, before turning very pale and falling to the ground.
Marian managed to catch him before he could hurt himself in the fall, and she slowly lowered him to the floor, glancing at the two younger men.
“Please, stop!” She screamed, terrified, her eyes feverishly looking for something, whatever she could use to stop them, but they didn’t listen to her, Robin still threatening Guy, and the other trying to push the outlaw away from him.
Marian wanted to reach them, and stop that madness, but her father was lying unconscious in her arms, and she couldn’t move.
Luckily, Matilda stepped in the room, and she stomped towards Robin and Guy. She put a hand on Robin’s wrist, taking the blade away from Guy’s neck, then with the other hand, she grabbed the back of the outlaw’s tunic, giving a tug to it, hard enough to make Robin land on his backside.
“What do you think you are doing?” She yelled.
Robin stared at her.
“Marian was in danger! He was going to hurt her!”
Matilda lifted an eyebrow, looking at the girl.
Marian blushed, remembering the kiss, but she managed to shake her head, then she looked at her father.
“Help him, please!”
Matilda glanced at the elderly lord, and noticed that he was waking up.
“He’s just an old fool who overexerted himself. He’ll be fine if he follows my instructions.” Matilda turned her attention to Robin. “Were you really going to kill him? Attacking an injured man!”
Robin glared at Guy: his enemy was still lying on the floor, his eyes closed, and he didn’t move.
“I have to. He knows a secret and he will reveal it to the Sheriff. I can’t allow him to put people in danger! I have to silence him.”
Matilda slapped him on the back of his head.
“Now don’t be an idiot, Robin! I was your mother’s midwife, I helped her to give birth, and you know I love you, but I won’t tolerate this foolishness, not even from you! What is the secret you are talking about? That she’s the Nightwatchman?!”
Marian and Robin stared at her, in shock, and even Guy opened his eyes, trying to get up to look at her in surprise.
“How did you know?” Marian whispered.
“It seems that I was the only one who didn’t,” Guy commented, bitterly.
Matilda helped him to sit, then she stood between him and Robin, and smiled at Marian.
“It wasn’t so difficult to guess, when you went to my hut to buy remedies, and then people said that the Nightwatchman came and gave them some medicine.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Robin said. “We can’t risk that he reveals it to the Sheriff.”
“So you want to kill him?! And then what? Are you going to cut my throat too? I know her secret too, what’s the difference?”
“And I’m Matilda. Answer, if you can: what’s the difference?”
Robin shook his head.
“He’s evil, he’s the Sheriff's henchman!”
“Not anymore, but it doesn’t matter. Some say that I’m a witch, that I can curse the fields and that I kidnap children. So, then, what’s the difference?”
“You didn’t do those things! But he killed people! He starved them! He drew them out of their houses!”
“If he’s guilty of crimes, you are not the one who can judge him. If he deserves a punishment for his actions, let the law administer it.”
“How, if the law is corrupted?!” Robin angrily cried.
“Then it will be God who’ll judge him for his actions. Are you God, Robin Hood?”
“No, of course I’m not! But I can’t let Gisborne endanger Marian.”
Matilda gave an exasperated sigh, and turned to Guy, who was still sitting on the floor, surprised that she would defend him so passionately.
“Are you going to tell her secret to anybody, love?”
He looked at his leg, with a sarcastic smile.
“How could I? It’s not like I can go anywhere. And even if I could, I wouldn’t. I’d never do anything to damage the woman I love. Even if she almost killed me.”
Marian looked at him, a mixture of amazement and surprise. She was amazed to have heard him so openly, clearly expressing her feelings for her in front of anybody, she was surprised because despite the pain they had inflicted each other with their words, his love for her was still strong, persistent. It was real, warm, undeniable. She trembled.
Robin was incensed at his words, and for a moment Matilda was afraid that he was going to attack Guy again, but the outlaw turned to Gisborne, threatening him with his glare.
“Betray her secret, and you are dead. Touch her, and I will kill you with my own hands.”
Matilda nodded, satisfied.
“Go, now,” she said, using a gentler tone. “I have to take care of Sir Edward and we all need to calm down. If somebody should see you here, you’d be the one to endanger Lady Marian. Go. There will be another chance to talk about this in the future.”
Robin gave Marian another reluctant look, then he went away, as quick as he came.
Once he was gone, Matilda looked around, and inwardly sighed: Marian and Guy were both upset, almost stunned, and Sir Edward looked to be unwell.
It wasn’t going to be a easy day.
She carefully helped Guy to his feet, checked that he hadn’t been injured by Robin’s attack, then she made him sit on the bed and bid him to stay there until she came back.
Matilda helped Marian to take Sir Edward to his room, then she sent the girl to retrieve the basket with the remedies she had abandoned in the snow.
Marian was upset, but Matilda knew that making her busy with taking care of her father would help her to calm down, and both Marian and Sir Edward would benefit from that.
She treated the elderly lord, giving him a remedy to prevent a fever, then she gave the balsamic ointment to Marian, leaving her with thorough instruction on how to use it and how to care for the old man.
Once she was sure that the girl was absorbed in her occupations, Matilda went downstairs.
Guy was still where she had left him, sitting on the bed with a lost, dejected look in his eyes.
Matilda went to sit next to him, and she gave him a sympathetic smile, patting his hand.
“So, do you want to talk, my dear? I think you need it.”
Marian poured another medicine into the cup and passed it to her father.
“Can’t you understand the risk you've taken, facing Sir Guy all by yourself? You scared me to death, Marian!” Edward said, looking at her daughter.
“I know, and that's why I'm sorry, Father,” Marian said, “but nothing happened in the end, there was no need to call Robin. No need at all. Guy and I, we were...”
Edward interrupted his daughter's speech.
“Guy and I? What does ‘Guy and I’ mean? There is no ‘Guy and I’, and there will not be!” He said.
“ Oh no... You know nothing about anything about us. Father, I want to decide on my life. It's for a mistake of yours, mostly, that I was engaged to him. Your weakness. I'm not like that, Father, I'm not weak. I don't want to be weak.” Marian pointed out: “We were fighting, sure, and sure we had a hard fight. Very hard. But we would have come to a conclusion anyway, together, possibly without involving Robin in the picture! He could have killed him, for God's sake. Guy wouldn't hurt me, not after everything that had happened betw...” Marian stopped for a moment, then she added, with more emphasis : “Believe me, Father when I say that I can defend myself from him. And no one can tell me what I can or can not tell to him, nor how!”
“Don't you dare talk to me like that, Marian,” the old man said, with a hard tone in his voice, “your mother never dared to address me like that, with that tone. Your mother and I have NEVER had a dangerous fight like that, do you want me to believe that the one between you and Sir Guy was just a quiet quarrel? Marian, you should be careful with him, he's always like a wolf. He looks like a faithful dog now, but if he swore allegiance to the sheriff again, he would not hesitate to tear you to pieces, like a wolf. And he would have all the reasons now.”
“But he didn’t. He knows everything about me now and he has not betrayed me,” Marian replied, “You've heard him too, he says he loves me. Still.”
“So he says, and so it looks. And it was also what he told me the first time he came here to talk to me, to ask for you. He told me he loved you,” her father said, sighing.
“And that was enough for you to decide to give me, my life and future to the enemy's ally,” Marian replied, a sad tone in her voice.
“No. He was powerful and menacing, but his eyes seemed sincere to me, his feelings true. Feelings expressed in a few words, simple words. I wasn’t so different from him when I was young. I was not as jovial and loved as Robin was. I was a warrior in my youth, I was right, but I was rough. Your mother has changed me, for the best."
“And you expect me to change him, Father?” Marian asked, astonished.
"No, I expect, I hope, that you will be safe, in the end. Forgive me, Marian, forgive me, my daughter, my dearest.” And the old lord fell asleep, leaving Marian alone, to her thoughts.
Chapter 18: Three Rules
“You all knew and nobody said a word to me.” Guy talked without looking up, as if the floor boards were so interesting that he couldn’t bear to look away from them. “What else are you hiding from me? I trusted you! But maybe the sheriff was right: trusting people is a weakness...”
“Well, my boy, don’t be an idiot, now. I understand how you feel, but you shouldn’t follow the advice of someone who betrayed you like that.”
“Like what? Like everyone else do?! You all lied to me!”
Matilda gently squeezed his hand.
“Did you ever stop to ask yourself why people are so afraid to tell you the truth?”
Guy lifted his eyes from the floor to look at her.
“Yes, love. Afraid. People fear you, they see what you did in the past and of course they wouldn’t tell you anything that could enrage you.”
“I wouldn’t hurt Marian. If she told me that she was the Nightwatchman...”
“Then what? What would have you done if you knew? Would have you defied the sheriff for her?”
“Maybe I would have!”
“How could she know? You were always punishing outlaws, cutting their hands and their tongues, and you often said that you wanted to capture the Nightwatchman to hang him. How could she trust you?!”
Guy couldn’t find an answer, so he didn’t say anything.
Matilda patted him on the cheek.
“There’s another thing you must consider, my dear: maybe, if she were alone, she could have told you the truth, but she has her father to protect. If you decided to arrest her, Sir Edward would be finished too, and Marian can decide to risk her own life, but not her father’s. You were a danger to both of them, you can’t deny it. You still are.”
“No, I’m not. I’m not a danger to anyone, now. The mangy dog who made me fall from my horse is more a threat than me.”
The woman laughed.
“Well, at least you are prettier than that old mutt!” She said, drawing a little smile from him. “Or at least you will be if you let me comb you hair, you’re all ruffled, now.”
She didn’t wait for him to answer, but she grabbed a brush and began stroking Guy’s dark curls. Gisborne didn’t even try to complain, needing her affectionate cares too much to send her away.
Instead, he closed his eyes, relaxing a little under her touch.
“You knew, too.” His voice wasn’t angry anymore, just very sad. “You treated my wounds, you knew how painful they were, yet you always knew who caused them and you never told me...”
Matilda stopped the brush for a moment, and bent to kiss the top of his head.
“It wasn’t my secret to say, and then, what good could have been for you to know? You’d just be hurt and heartbroken, like you are now, but then it could have made a difference between life and death. I never wished for you to suffer, love, I swear.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“You will. In time. Your heart will tell you.”
“I can’t trust my heart.”
“Oh, I’m sure you can, sweetie. You just have to get used to having one. Till then, I think that I can give you a few suggestions.”
“What kind of suggestions?”
“I will give you three simple rules. First: never act on the rush of your emotions, and especially of your rage. Wait, think, try to understand the others. Second: learn to forgive, especially if you hope to be forgiven in your turn. No, don’t deny that: you have much to be forgiven for. If Marian knows your secret, and I think she does, she has your life in her hands.”
Guy looked at her, fearful and angered at the same time.
“She told you! How could she?! I warned her that she shouldn’t talk about it or we’d both risk our lives!”
Matilda rolled her eyes.
“No, idiot, you told me. When you are feverish, you talk in your sleep. That’s one of the reasons that made her to watch on your sleep personally: we couldn’t trust the servants to hear your ramblings, even if they were willing to take care of you, and they weren’t.”
Guy blushed, dumbfounded.
“Yes. Oh. You’re lucky that nobody else knows about it. It would be the end of you. But you can relax: I won’t tell anyone, and I don’t think that Marian will, either.”
Gisborne let out a sigh, crestfallen and embarrassed.
“So, what’s the third rule?”
Matilda smiled at him, and placed a hand on his chest.
“Third: trust this, listen to your heart. You might think that yours is black, or that you don’t have one, but it isn’t true. You are a decent person when you don’t listen to that filthy donkey ass of the Sheriff. You can be a good man, you just have to believe in yourself and choose to be free.”
Matilda stood up abruptly, and Guy stared at her, worried. He was afraid that she could go away.
It would have been perfectly normal if she did, she had many patients to visit, but Gisborne didn’t want to be left alone with his thoughts.
His leg was paining him, but the worst thing about that pain, the one that Matilda’s remedy couldn’t ease, was the knowledge that Marian caused it.
If he was going to be a cripple, it was her fault. The woman who he loved so desperately was also the same person who ruined his life.
“Were are you going?!” He burst out, and Matilda gave him a questioning look. Guy averted his eyes, suddenly shy.
“Please stay,” he pleaded, in a subdued tone, and the woman was moved by his dejected demeanor.
“I’m not going anywhere, love. You’re such a fool that if I leave you alone tonight, tomorrow I’d surely find you sick or injured or who knows what. No, darling, I’m going to keep an eye on you until I’ll be sure that you can be trusted to be left alone. I was just going to relieve myself… so, can I leave you for a little while or do you prefer me to borrow your chamberpot?”
“Oh. Sorry. Go, of course you can go.”
Matilda went out of the room, and Guy buried the face in his hands, upset and exhausted.
He still couldn’t believe that his enemy, the person who almost killed him, was actually Marian.
How could he forgive her?
And how could he not?
He touched his leg and he felt a jolt of pain, immediately.
I should hate her for this...
He remembered the taste of her lips, the warmth of her body in his arms.
But I can’t stop being madly in love with her.
Guy closed his eyes, wishing that he could just lie down and sleep until he could wake up finding some peace in his heart and in his mind. But he knew that sleep wouldn’t come, that he’d just lie awake thinking of Marian.
Matilda came back with a tray of food, and she placed it on the table.
“Come on, get up and come here. I’m hungry and you need to eat too.”
“I don’t think I can.”
“You can, and you must. I didn’t work so hard to save your life just to see you wasting away. Keep healthy and then we can try to fix everything else. If you just want to mope, tell me and I’ll go home, so that I don’t see you throwing your life away.”
Guy sighed and he made an effort to hobble to the table and sit down in front of Matilda.
The woman smiled.
“Stop calling me that! It sounds like you’re talking to a dog.”
“There’s nothing wrong in dogs. Sometimes they’re more sensible than human beings.”
Guy gave her a half-hearted glare, and he took a slice of bread. He found out that he could eat, after all, and that it made him feel a little better.
At least, if he focused on his meal, he could set his other thoughts aside for a while.
He was grateful to Matilda, her presence was comforting and stopped him from surrendering to despair.
Guy realized all of a sudden that it was a very long time since he trusted someone as much as he did with Matilda. Since he was a boy and he confided his little worries and fears to his mother.
“What’s up, love?”
Guy looked at Matilda, a little startled by her question.
“You were lost in your thoughts. You looked sad.”
“I was remembering my mother. I wish I could talk to her.”
Matilda was surprised to hear his words, it was as if the shock of finding out the truth about the Nightwatchman had crushed all the walls he had built around his heart, and now it was lying there, completely exposed and defenseless. Frail.
“You can, love. In your heart. She’s there and she’ll always be.”
Gisborne gave her a sad smile.
“I know. But now I’d really need a sensible advice, and I feel too confused to find it in my heart.”
“She was a wise woman.”
“Did you know her?”
“Not really, but I remember her. I was young when your family came to live here and I never came to your house because your mother was taking good care of her children, so a healer wasn’t needed. I remember that people didn’t trust her because she came from France, but I thought that she was sensible and brave. I was sorry to hear that she died in that fire.”
Matilda noticed that Guy didn’t reply and that he looked guilty and ashamed for some reason.
“Come on, love, she wouldn’t want to see you so sad. I’m not her, of course, but I think I’ve enough experience to try and give you the sensible advice you need, if you trust me with your problems.”
“You know I do, Matilda,” he said, earnestly.
“Well, then. Eat some more meat and drink that bowl of milk, and then you can tell everything to me.”
She expected him to complain, and she was surprised to see that he meekly obeyed her.
Poor, lost child...
Matilda waited for him to finish his meal, then she took the tray with the empty dishes, and she put it out of the door so that a servant could take it back to the kitchen.
“Let’s sit in front of the fireplace,” she suggested “we’ll be more comfortable.”
Once again, Guy did how she said, and carefully walked to the chair. She handed him an apple, and she took one for herself, then she sat in front of him.
“Tell me, sweetie, what’s troubling you?”
“I feel so confused, Matilda. It’s about Marian... Something happened, and I don’t know what it means. How can you say a thing, and then do the opposite?”
“She didn’t want to hurt you so much, I’m sure of this. She became the Nightwatchman because it was the only way she had to help the poor, the only way to do something for them. She was afraid that you could hurt her and her father if you found out her secret, and she tried to stop you, but I know that she had meant no harm...”
The woman looked at him.
“I’m not talking of the Nightwatchman. I can understand her reasons. I don’t know if I can forgive her for what she did to me, but I can see why she did it.”
“What are you talking about, then?”
“It happened before Hood ran into the room… We had been yelling at each other for a good while, she said many things to shame me and I did the same, menacing to report her and her father to the Sheriff. I think that we said anything we could to hurt each other… She was in tears and I confess that I wanted to cry too. I was so mad at her, and she surely despised me as well, and all of a sudden we found ourselves in a embrace. A moment later we were kissing and I don’t know why. I don’t even know if I was kissing her or if she was kissing me...”
Matilda burst out in a hearty laugh.
“This is not a joke, Matilda!” Guy growled, and the woman stood up to plant a kiss on his forehead.
“I know, love, don’t be mad at me for laughing. It’s just that you shouldn’t be so worried for such a thing. It was just a kiss.”
“I kissed Marian! It can’t be ‘just a kiss’!”
Matilda silenced him, putting a finger on his lips.
“Rule one, sweetie. You were both overwhelmed by your emotions, you needed a way to let them out. Don’t give too much importance to it. You must be glad that it was a kiss and not something worse.”
“What do you mean?”
Matilda became serious.
“You were both upset, angry, hurt, not in your rightful minds. What if you took a sword and killed her, or if she stabbed you with a dagger?”
“I would never hurt Marian! I love her!”
“Are you really sure of this? Well, don’t be. I’ve seen this happen in the past and it will happen again. Lovers who swore that their love was carved in their hearts till the end of the world, and then they killed each other in the heat of rage… It takes a single moment of insanity to destroy a life. Two lives, actually, because the one who kills the loved person can never forgive himself. Remember this very well, Guy. Both you and Marian are passionate creatures, you are more similar than you think. Passion can be dangerous, my child, if you let your rage to go out of control. Be glad that it was just a kiss.”
Gisborne averted his eyes in shame. He knew that, he had already learned that lesson in the worst way.
He forced himself to shut those memories in his heart. He was feeling too vulnerable to let his mind dwell on the fire, on his terrible fault.
Matilda’s words scared him because they sounded impossible and true at the same time. He would never hurt Marian willingly, he’d die for her, but he knew that it could happen if he was blinded by rage or despair.
“Oh, now, now, love, I didn’t mean to upset you.” Matilda patted the back of his hand, smiling at him. “Remember my words when you feel angry, and it will never happen. I think that I’d better warn her too. I certainly don’t want to see you stabbed or something like that, and she already feels guilty enough for your accident.”
Guy took a bite from his apple, and he kept quiet, chewing at it. After he finished it, he was feeling calmer. He threw the apple core into the fire, and looked at it burning.
“I think that you are right, it was ‘just a kiss’, but for me it was important, precious. I won’t deceive myself thinking that it meant something for her too, but at least she wasn’t disgusted by me.”
“She should be blind to be disgusted by you!” Matilda laughed. “But stop thinking, now. You’re not healed yet, even if you are much better, and I think that your leg is paining you. Am I wrong?”
“I found out that you are rarely wrong.”
“So, drink my remedy, then rest your leg on that footstool, and I’ll put some ointment on it to reduce the swelling. After that you can try to sleep for a while or you can show me how to play that chess game, but I forbid you to keep brooding. Deal?”
Guy gave her a tired smile.
“I’m not a dog.”
Now that her old father had fallen asleep, Marian leaned for a moment against the frame of the window. Her father was right, of course, but at the same time, she felt that something much more important had happened between her and Guy. More important than the fight, or her secret exposed.
And it was not among the things she had told her father. She touched her lips, reconsidering the warmth of his, the desperate search for tenderness and understanding she had felt in that kiss, salty with tears, no less sweet and needy.
No kiss between her and Robin when they were engaged had been so desperate, so powerful and at the same time so tender like the one she shared with Guy. She and Robin had grown up together and had fallen in love with the same ease. She was younger, they were carefree. She had been carefree, mostly. Unexperienced. Then Robin had left, leaving Marian to become a woman, alone, in a changed world.
There was no carelessness between her and Guy. There were accusations, rage, and sorrow. But also there were the little beautiful moments she had lived with him in her home in the last months. Of readings and smiles, affectionate reproaches and unexpected compliments.
They had become part of her, like him. His presence in her life.
At the bottom of it all, there was a warmth that Marian could not define but feel within herself when she thought of Guy: anger, pain, fear, or tenderness, or something new. Nothing about him left her indifferent now. What kind of feeling was there now between them? A better understanding, perhaps? Marian looked at the sky through the window. She remembered Guy's outbreak : ‘I’d never do anything to damage the woman I love.’
The woman I love.
The memory of his loving, strong words mingled with her thoughts.
She kept herself away from Guy for the rest of the day, leaving him to Matilda's care, trying to cool her own, tumultuous thoughts.
In the evening, before she reached the bed, she looked at herself, in her chemise, through the mirror.
For a moment she felt his breath behind her, reaching her. His hand moving her hair away, tenderly. She recognized him. His lips slowly rubbed her neck.
"You are everything to me," he whispered to her ear.
Indeed she was. Now she knew.
She closed her eyes.
She turned around. But there was no one, and not a breath of wind, the window firmly shut to the cold of the night.
“This is madness,” she thought, and she blew out the candle.
Chapter 19: The Knight from Her Dreams
Guy looked out of the open the window, following the falling snowflakes with his eyes. Everything was white all around Knighton Hall and the fields were resting under a thick blanket of snow.
The peasants were all shut into their houses, and only a few persons dared to go out in the cold, mostly merchants headed to Nottingham’s market or men who needed to cut some firewood.
The village looked very peaceful, but Guy’s heart was not.
Since the day when he found out Marian’s secret, he had very few chances to talk to the girl: Sir Edward was sick again and she claimed to be very busy taking care of her father.
Gisborne knew that it was the truth, but he suspected that she was avoiding him as well.
After all, he didn’t know if he wanted to talk to her too. Every time his leg pained him, and it was very often, he couldn’t help thinking that it was her fault, every time that he felt humiliated because of his situation, he knew in his heart that, if it wasn’t for Marian, he would still be powerful and healthy.
He should hate her, but he couldn’t. His heart kept loving her, stubbornly.
Guy couldn’t understand the girl. She kept an icy distance from him, at least when he was awake.
At night, he sometimes woke up to find her asleep at his bedside, watching over his sleep. Some other times, when nightmares or pain tormented him, he opened his eyes and saw that she was holding his hand or drying the sweat from his face, whispering soothing words until he fell in a peaceful slumber.
Marian thought that Guy didn’t remember those moments, and it was true for most of them, but sometimes he did, and those memories warmed his heart because, when she lulled him back to sleep, it felt like she actually cared for him.
“Are you insane?” Matilda’s voice startled him, and Guy turned to look at the woman. The healer hurried past him and closed the window, pulling the curtains to shut them. Then she rolled her eyes.
“Do you want to get sick, love? To keep the window open with this cold!”
“Cold never bothered me too much, and I was wearing a cloak, Matilda.”
The woman smiled at him, her gaze softened.
“I see. That blue velvet suits you. It’s just a little faded and worn, but it’s a good cloth, and it looks pretty on you.”
“I don’t know if it’s a good thing for a man to ‘look pretty’, but you’re right, it’s a good cloak, very warm too. It was Sir Edward’s, I found it in a chest of old clothes he gave to me. It’s sad, don’t you think?”
“Having to rely on charity. Once I swore that I would never be a beggar again, and here I am, unable to earn even my own food or to afford new clothes.”
Matilda gave him a curious look.
She didn’t ask him any question because she knew that when he was in that mood, remembering the past could only hurt him even more.
“You have such a sunny disposition, love! I just said that you look good dressed in blue velvet, that’s all.”
Guy gave her an apologetic smile, a little embarrassed.
The woman grinned back at him, and added a log to the fire.
“So, tell me: why did you want to freeze?”
“I was just watching the snow. It makes everything so peaceful...” Guy sighed. “And I’m bored to death.”
“I see. Now that Sir Edward is sick, you can’t play chess with him and Marian is always busy assisting him. What about your friend? Didn’t he come to visit you?”
“Lambert? He went to see his family in York last week. He was supposed to stay there just a few days, but the snow blocked the roads. Yesterday I was feeling so lonely that I was almost tempted to chat with the servants.”
“Well, maybe you should do it.”
“They hate me. If I tried to make small talk, they’d think I’m gone insane and probably they wouldn’t be too far from the truth. I’m so glad that at least I can talk to you, Matilda.”
“If you did, maybe they’d see that you’re not as bad as they think. But well, nobody will force you to talk with them, even if you’ll probably end talking to yourself, at least for a few days.”
“I need to find some rare herbs for my remedies and at this time of the year, they can be found only near the sea. I will have to travel east to search for them.”
“Are you going to travel with this snow?! What about the blocked roads?”
“I’m going to borrow a donkey.”
“I don’t like this. It can be dangerous.”
“That’s what Robin Hood said, too. And that’s why he’ll send two of his men to travel with me, as a protection.”
“Look, love, I need those herbs for Sir Edward. I’m worried for him, he’s frail and very sick.”
“Is he in danger?” Guy asked, suddenly worried for the old lord. Sir Edward had been kind to him, and Guy owed him a lot. Maybe Sir Edward wanted to make up for Marian’s faults in the beginning, but he let him stay at Knighton even after Vaisey fired him. He could have easily got rid of an unwanted guest just kicking him out of the house, but instead he invited him to stay and he was always kind to him.
Guy felt guilty for his recent illness: Sir Edward went out in the cold weather to search for Robin, because he thought that Guy cold hurt Marian. If only they both could have kept their temper in check, now the old man would be well.
Matilda noticed his concern, and she sighed.
“He’s an old man. Frail. His illness wouldn’t be serious in a young man, but Sir Edward is weak. Even a simple cold could be serious for him, now. The herbs I’m going to search will make him stronger.”
“Go, then. And please, be careful.”
“You too, love. Don’t do anything foolish while I’m away.”
“Why should I? I’m not an idiot!” Guy said, a little hurt by her words.
“Am I wrong if I say that you are still upset after you found out that Marian is the Nightwatchman?”
“I feel so confused. I don’t know what I feel.”
The woman patted his hand.
“That’s what I meant, my dear. Don’t act after your emotions and avoid any confrontation for now. There will be time to talk with her, when you’re both calmer.”
“It shouldn’t be a problem: she’s avoiding me.”
“Maybe it’s for the best in this moment. But I have to go, I want to reach the next town before sunset. Try to exercise your good leg in these days. I know that it would be easier in a better weather, but the main hall is big enough for you to walk a little, and if you wear warm clothes, you can go outside for a while too. Just be careful to avoid ice on the ground, it wouldn’t do if you should fall and hurt yourself again. Take care.”
“You too, Matilda.”
The healer went away and Guy sighed: the next few days would be even lonelier than usual for him.
Wrapped in the old blue velvet cloak Guy loomed like a dark shadow in the blinding white that surrounded him, around her house. It was a sunny day. But no ray of a cold winter sun could warm him enough, Marian thought.
Warming his bones, his thoughts, his heart.
She thought she should have run out to dissuade him from walking outdoors using his crutch in the snow. But if he looked frail to her worried eyes, their forced truce seemed even more fragile to her.
A barrier between them had fallen down, and Marian didn’t know how to erect it again, if not avoiding him, once again. Avoiding him, as long as she could, avoiding to have to talk with him more than she had to. Avoiding his loving, sad stare, without feeling the less guilty.
She felt more fragile than he. She felt the continuous sense of exhaustion that haunted her for days.
She was by day next to her sick father, and often, at night, when he needed her more, next to Guy. Marian rested where she could, when she could.
But there was more.
Marian felt like a sentry guarding the remains of an old fort, emptied by a terrible, bloodied war.
She didn’t know why she continued to protect those old walls, but she didn’t seem to want to do anything different.
She didn’t have the courage to look beyond them to find that there was nothing left to destroy, and everything to rebuild, instead.
But there was more. He made her feel confused.
The love that she continued to read in his eyes nonetheless, made her confused. She didn’t even imagine that such a feeling of love coming from a man to a woman could exist.
Marian thought that love was, or should have been, joy, pure happiness, pure bliss. Love was... a same way of thinking, of feeling. Love was... the same idea, shared, of the world. Something to make life lighter. A warm smile, a hug, a tender kiss. A promise of a better life. A worthy life. No faults, no doubts. No insecurities.
Their kiss had been completely different, and as far as Marian tried to consider it just as an accidental event, something to forget, she had thought of it, thought again and again.
She wondered if Guy thought about it too.
Marian absentmindedly brushed her lips with a finger.
Wrapped in a blue coat, Guy was leaning now to the trunk of a big tree with a long opened hand, to support himself the best he could. His crutch left aside, for a moment.
Standing in front of the horizon, watching away from her home, Guy seemed to her more and more the knight who appeared in her dreams.
He seemed more and more frequently to have taken permanent home in her dreams.
Just a few hours earlier she had looked and looked for him through the house without finding him, and, once found, Guy appeared to be again in the peak of a high fever.
She had repeated to herself that it could not be the reality, again. She had to be dreaming, sleeping.
But still, she continued to bathe his forehead with wet cloths less and less cold, and he didn’t seem to recover. In fact, he was getting more and more worse by the moment, until she had started screaming and begged him not to die. To not leave her alone.
And she had kissed him.
With strength, with despair.
Then she had closed her eyes too, defeated.
When she opened them she had seen him smile, too close to her, a mischievous look in his eyes, the voice deep and soft at the same time. Taunting and calming at the same time.
"What excuse you will choose next time?", he said.
Then she woke, breathless. Sitting on her bed, in the act of embracing someone who wasn’t there. Her arms empty.
Marian decided that she had to stop watching Guy from the window, to return to take care of her father.
She avoided Guy, she avoided Robin, who seemed to understand her even less than before.
She avoided thinking. She tried and tried to have always something better to do.
But that day Marian felt strongly flushed.
At first she thought it was the effect of the fire that she had stoked to heat the room for her father as well as possible.
Over the hours she felt worse.
But she was afraid and she didn’t want to stir the servants, already so busy with two different sick men.
Matilda was far away. Too far away, at the moment. And Marian did not trust other healers.
She forced herself to eat a soup, the same that had been taken to Sir Guy before.
It was good, it was nourishing, perfect, but she could not seem to swallow it. Eventually she gave up and sat next to the fireplace in the hall.
She slipped into a long deep sleep.
When Guy, returning home from a walk, saw her asleep, he walked slowly, silently, near her, trying not to wake her. He didn’t want to bother her with his presence even in her needed sleep. But, still, he wanted so badly to caress her beautiful face, to take her in his arms. To climb the stairs, carry her in their bed, and to sleep beside her. Or to wake her up, kiss by kiss, caress by caress, until the passion and the desire would crawl, hot and burning, under the skin of both. Feeling his and her passion under his skin, into his blood.
But Guy was there, watching her sleep, imagining, daydreaming a life so very distant and so very close at the same time.
He probably could never pick her up in his arms. Neither Marian wouldn’t want him to do it. She wouldn’t ever want him, she wouldn’t ever love him.
He was about to leave the room, leaving her alone, leaving her in her, desired, peace when he noticed that the blanket was slipping from her legs.
He went closer to put it on again and he heard her murmur: “Help me. Guy , help me.”
Astonished, he touched her forehead.
It was pretty damn burning.
And she was too pale, now that he looked her better, closer.
He went as fast as he could, to call the servants, searching for help. Any possible help.
Marian, his Marian, needed it.
Matilda, his real, loving, crutch during his illness, was too far away.
He at once put aside his shame, his weakness and his embarrassment, to save her. Returning to be again, a strong man, determined, for what he could be.
Chapter 20: Anything for Her
The servants rushed in the room, and one of them, Susanne, gave a stern look at Guy when she saw that Marian was pale and in a faint.
“What did you do to her?”
“I just noticed that she has a fever, and I’m astonished to see that I’m the only one who did,” Guy answered, in a equally harsh tone.
The maid crossed her arms in front of her and looked at Guy with such fierceness that, if he hadn’t been so worried for Marian, he would have run away in fear.
“Maybe we would have noticed,” she said, pointing a finger at Guy, “if your presence here didn’t give us so much more work.”
“Susanne!” James, the oldest of Knighton Hall’s servants, called the girl in a stern voice. “Stop complaining and take care of our lady! And you, Sir Guy, please don’t stand in the way, we must help Lady Marian and you’re hindering us.”
Guy was tempted to throw them all out of the room, but he forced himself to keep calm. Marian was ill and those people could help her, sending them away would only damage her.
“Take some snow,” he suggested, remembering a remedy that his mother used when he and his sister were sick, “it will lower her temperature.”
“Leeches. That’s what she needs,” Mary, the kitchen girl, said, ignoring completely Guy’s words.
Sebastian nodded and bent to lift Marian in his arms and take her to her room. Guy looked at him, feeling jealous.
He wanted to be the one who took her in his arms, he wanted to be the one who could help her, but, even if the servants would let him near the girl, he couldn’t succeed to lift her. He could barely stand and walk on his own, and he was too weak to take her upstairs. He bitterly wondered if he would ever be strong enough again.
But it didn’t matter, now. Marian was ill and he had to do something to make her feel better, but the servants took her upstairs and he didn’t know what was happening in her room.
He tried to wait patiently for a while, asking questions to the servants who hurried up and down the stairs, but they just ignored him, claiming that they had no time to talk to him while their lady was sick.
But their faces were grim and worried and Guy was afraid that Marian’s illness could be serious.
Guy hobbled to the stairs and wondered if he could climb upstairs on his own. He tried and he stumbled on the first step.
He would have fallen to the ground if James didn’t grab his arm and steadied him.
“Take care, Sir Guy,” the old servant said, in a polite but cold tone, “if you get hurt, nobody will have the time to help you.”
“I need to see Marian! How is she? Did she wake up?”
The man looked at him for a few moments, then he sighed. He clearly disliked Guy of Gisborne and he didn’t trust him, but he could see that the younger man was sincerely worried for lady Marian.
“Sir Guy, Mary and Susanne are taking care of her, but I’m afraid that we’ll have to call for a healer. Her fever is very high and we can’t wake her up.”
“What are you waiting for?! Send somebody to call him, then!”
“I will. I’m sending Jude to the physician’s house.”
“Who are you going to call?”
Guy paled. Pitts was the other person who knew his secret, the physician who faked his quarantine when the sheriff sent him in the Holy Land to kill the king. He was a strong ally of the sheriff, but a terrible healer. He kept his position because of his alliance with Vaisey, but many of his patients just died.
And he couldn’t be trusted: Vaisey had many reasons to hate Marian and her father and, even if he couldn’t openly dispose of them, he could always order Pitts to kill both of them and make it seem that they died a natural death.
“No! Not him! I forbid it!”
“Sir Guy, you’re not in the position to forbid anything,” James voice was stern and Guy was tempted to yell back at him, but starting a fight with an old man wouldn’t help Marian.
“Don’t call him, please,” he asked, forcing himself to use a subdued tone, “I know him, he’s not a good doctor, he’ll damage her.”
James glanced at Gisborne: it almost looked like as if the proud knight was pleading. The old servant was forced to concede that the man seemed to really care for Lady Marian.
“Well then, I’ll tell Jude to call for Blight.”
Guy nodded, and the servant went away.
Blight was useless and he had a disgusting fondness for leeches, but at least he wasn’t as dangerous as Pitts.
Guy shuddered, seriously scared for Marian. He didn’t think that Blight could help her, and he had agreed for him to be called just because he couldn’t object again to James suggestion.
He had no power and the servant didn’t respect him, so it was already good that they agreed to avoid calling Pitts.
But Marian was ill and Guy knew that the physician couldn’t help her. He only trusted Matilda, but the woman was very far away and Guy didn’t even know where she was.
He dropped down on a chair near the fireplace, rubbing the bridge of his nose between his fingers and trying to calm down enough to think.
He realized that maybe he didn’t know Matilda's route to reach the sea, but someone else did. Robin Hood sent two of his men with her, so he must know where they were.
But how could he contact Robin? He could barely walk and he was sure that the servants of Knighton Hall wouldn’t listen to him and anyways they were too busy taking care of Marian and Sir Edward to go in search of Robin.
Guy looked out of the window, distressed. Marian could die, and he could never forgive himself if he didn’t try everything he could to help her.
He took a decision. It could cost everything to him, but he didn’t care, the only important thing was Marian’s health.
Guy took the blue velvet cloak and wore it, then he grabbed the crutch and walked out of the house, to the stables.
His stallion was in his stall and he neighed when Guy got close to him. Gisborne shuddered, remembering his fall, the sharp pain in his wrist, and then the other horses trampling him.
He forced himself to forget about that moments, and he took a saddle and the reins.
Putting them on the stallion wasn’t easy for him, in his weakened state, but at last he succeeded, and Guy took the horse out of his stall.
He couldn’t use the crutch and hold the reins at the same time, so he let it fall to the ground and leaned on the horse to walk.
His leg was paining him, and he wasn’t sure if he could ride without damaging it further.
I have to do it. For her. Even if it means becoming a cripple for life.
But first he had to mount, and it wasn’t as easy as it could look: his wounded leg couldn’t hold his weight, and even the good one was too weak. At last he took the stallion near some bales of hay, and he used them as a sort of stair to get on the horse.
Finally Guy succeeded sitting on the saddle and he stood still for a few moments, to take his breath.
His leg was hurting badly and he remembered Matilda’s words about not doing anything foolish.
Guy bitterly smiled: maybe he was acting like a madman, but he had to help Marian, she was the only important thing.
Slowly, he made the horse walk out of the stable, and he headed to the forest.
At first, he was too worried for Marian and in pain to notice, but after a while, he began looking around.
He had been trapped inside Knighton Hall for months, and despite the anguish and the pain, he felt free. It was good to be able to move without having to ask for help.
The trees of the forest were covered in snow, and Guy could barely find the path. He didn’t know where Robin Hood’s camp was, but it didn’t matter: the outlaw would find him, sooner or later.
An arrow flew past his head and embedded itself in a tree.
Guy halted the horse, and a moment later Robin and three of his men stepped out of the trees, their bows pointed at him.
“Drop your weapons!” One of them shouted, and Guy lifted his hands in front of him.
“I have none.”
Robin looked at him, with an ironic grin on his face.
“Well, what do we have here? Last thing I knew was that you were half dead, unable to leave the house. You look healthy enough to me. Get down the horse.”
“Hood, I’m not here to lose time with your idiotic attitude...”
Robin shot another arrow, brushing Guy’s cheek.
“I said to get down the horse!” He ordered, suddenly furious. He hated to know that Gisborne was staying at Knighton Hall, but Marian always said that he was too sick to go back to Locksley, and now he was there, daring to ride in their forest.
“I can’t!” Guy tried to say, but Robin grabbed his arm, and dragged him down, forcing him to dismount.
Gisborne tried to land on his good leg, but he lose his balance and fell in the snow, in pain. Robin pointed a dagger at his throat, but Guy barely noticed it. His leg was hurting like hell, and he could barely catch his breath.
“Hey, Robin, he doesn’t look so healthy after all.”
“Shut up, Allan! He was well enough to ride. He must be plotting something.”
“I was searching for you!” Guy said in a growl and Robin pressed the dagger a little more against his neck.
“You know where is Matilda, and I need to find her! Marian is very ill, she needs a good healer!”
Robin stared at Guy, trying to understand if he was lying.
Robin could say a lot of bad things about Gisborne, but he knew that he was a terrible liar.
Now, he wasn’t lying at all.
He let him go, and put away the dagger, but Gisborne didn’t try to get up. Now that Robin looked better at him, he had to admit that he was pale and that he looked to be unwell.
He wasn’t wearing his leathers, but old clothes that once had belonged to Sir Edward. Robin remembered that cloak and that tunic on the old man from the years of his childhood, when he went to visit Marian and play with her at the castle. Sir Edward watched at them with a benevolent smile and maybe he hoped they would get married at the right age.
It didn’t happen, and now those elegant clothes were old and faded, discarded, just like their childhood dreams. Nonetheless Robin found strange and a little disturbing to see Guy wearing them.
“Talk, Gisborne. What happened to Marian?”
Guy was about to rebuke him and tell him to show more respect for her, but he changed his mind.
“She has a fever, very high, and they couldn’t wake her up. The servants were worried, they called for Blight. Sir Edward is very sick too.”
“Yep, Blight. That’s why I came. She needs Matilda, not his leeches!”
Robin reflected for a moment.
“Very well, Gisborne, for once you did the right thing. Djaq and Little John are with Matilda, so I actually know where we can find her. Much, Will, get ready, we’ll leave immediately.”
Allan looked at Guy, still sitting in the snow.
“What about him?”
“If what he said is true...”
“It is!” Guy snarled.
“If what he said is true, we must hurry. We can’t lose time to help him,” Robin said.
Guy glared at him.
“Nobody asked for your help. Go ahead, find Matilda, I can manage on my own.”
Robin nodded at Allan and the young man approached Robin to listen to his whispered orders.
“Go to Knighton Hall with him and stay there until we come back with Matilda. If Sir Edward is sick too, I don’t trust Gisborne to be left alone with Marian. Keep an eye on him.”
Then Robin, Will and Much went away, and Allan was left alone with Guy.
He looked at the knight, ill at ease. Gisborne was an enemy, and he had been a danger for all of them.
Except that he didn’t look very menacing now: he was trembling, and he looked to be in pain.
“Well...” Allan said “...it seems that we are on our own. Do you think you can climb back on that horse?”
Chapter 21: Who is "Giz"?
James was wondering what orders he should give to the other servants, worried. The physician was called, but he didn’t come, claiming that it was too dangerous to ride with the roads covered with ice and snow.
The old servant kept the other ones busy, making them boil water or fold clean sheets, even if there was no need for those tasks. But if the maids were idle, they would start to chatter and gossip, and he was too worried for his lady and his lord to listen to useless tattle.
He had been working for Sir Edward’s family for decades now, and he had seen lady Marian shortly after she was born, so he loved his lady almost like a daughter and he couldn’t stand seeing her suffer.
At least Sir Guy had been quiet enough, keeping out of the way.
Too quiet maybe.
The presence of the man was not welcome at Knighton, and James thought that his accident had been very distressing for lady Marian.
But it was strange that he didn’t show up to ask about Marian’s conditions, James thought, remembering how much the knight had been worried earlier.
In that moment the door opened, and Sir Guy stumbled in the hall, leaning on a young man.
Gisborne looked pale and exhausted and he was soaked with snow, while his companion was equally wet, but he looked to be perfectly healthy.
James hurried to take their cloaks. Gisborne might not be a welcome guest, but he was still a guest, and a noble, so James did his duty, as Sir Edward would have wanted.
“Sir Guy! What happened to you? Where have you been? And who’s that man?”
Guy limped to the fireplace, helped by Allan, and warmed his hands for a few moments before he could speak.
“I went to search for Matilda. He’s one of Robin Hood’s men, I asked them to go and find her.” He turned to Allan. “You can go, now.”
“No, I can’t.”
“What? You’ve no reason to stay here, I don’t need your help anymore. Actually, I never needed it.”
“Are you serious? If I didn’t help you, you’d still be trying to climb on that horse! Anyway, Robin ordered me to stay here until Matilda arrives.”
“He has no rights to invite people at Knighton Hall!”
“And do you have any rights to say that I can’t stay?”
James intervened to stop the argument.
“Sir Guy, did you really call Matilda?”
“I asked Hood to find her.”
The old man smiled.
“That’s a relief. Blight won’t come.”
“How is Lady Marian?”
“She didn’t wake up, yet. And she’s still burning with fever.”
“I need to see her.”
James looked at him and his expression softened a little. He could see that the knight was really worried for lady Marian and he appreciated that. For the first time since he knew Gisborne, James could understand him a little because he was worried for her too.
“You should change your clothes first, or you’ll be the next one to be ill. If you get sick too, you’ll not be able to help her.”
Normally, Guy would have rejected the suggestion, but he noticed that the servant talked to him in a kind and respectful tone, the same he used with Sir Edward. Guy wasn’t used to it.
He nodded nervously.
“I will. Please, send somebody to the stables, my… the black stallion needs to be unsaddled and taken care of.”
“Yes, Sir Guy.”
James went away and Guy just wanted to walk to his room, get a change of clothes, and then go upstairs to see Marian and wait for Matilda’s arrival at her side.
He realized that he couldn’t. He had left his crutch in the stables that morning, and he didn’t retrieve it. After riding the stallion, his leg was hurting like hell and he knew that he could never walk to his room without help, and certainly not upstairs.
He glanced at Robin’s man, annoyed. It was evident that Robin sent him at Knighton to keep an eye on him, as if he actually thought that he could be a danger for Marian. But Guy also knew that he had not the authority to send him away.
Allan looked at him.
“If you must stay here, at least make yourself useful. Go to the stables and find my crutch.” He said, sternly.
“Not your servant, Gisborne.”
Guy glared at him, but he knew he had a point. He didn’t reply and turned to stare at the flames in the fireplace, unwilling to humiliate himself further.
He startled when a hand touched his shoulder.
Allan grinned at him.
“I’m not a servant and I won’t obey your orders, but nothing forbids me to help a man who needs a hand. Well... a leg, in your case. So, where’s your room? I’ll help you to get there.”
Guy gave a wary look at him, expecting some trick, but Allan actually helped him to walk to his room. He left him near the bed, then he went away, saying that he would go to see if he could find something good in the kitchen.
Gisborne sighed. He hated that he had to rely on the help of an enemy, but he hadn’t choice.
He shed his wet and cold clothes and found clean ones in the chest at the foot of the bed. After he changed his clothes, he heavily sat on the bed: he was tired and in pain, but above all he was worried for Marian. He wanted to be near her and do something to make her feel better, but he was trapped in that room, betrayed by his own body and too proud to beg for a help that the others were unwilling to give him.
Guy took one of the vials that Matilda gave him before leaving for her travel, and he drank it, hoping that the remedy could ease the pain he was feeling. He was afraid that riding could have damaged his leg irreparably, but he didn’t regret doing it, if his sacrifice could help Marian.
Gisborne carefully stretched on his back and closed his eyes. He didn’t think that he could be able to sleep while Marian was so sick and with his leg hurting so much, but he was so tired and weak that he drifted in a deep slumber almost immediately.
Allan bit into a piece of bread, and thought that maybe Robin’s order to stay at Knighton could be a good thing for him. The food was good and the house was comfortable and warm, so staying there was certainly better than freezing himself at the camp.
Of course he had to deal with Gisborne, but the man wasn’t a danger anymore. He was weak. He had no power.
Talking with the servants of the house, Allan had the impression that they respected more him, a simple thief, but allied with Robin Hood, than Gisborne, even if the latter was a noble.
Allan grabbed a cloak and walked to the stables. He told Gisborne that he wasn’t his servant and he had meant that, but he also took some pity on the man.
Their ride back to Knighton Hall had been extremely difficult for the knight, and Allan had wondered how he could find the strength to mount when he was so badly hurt. Coming to the forest was a reckless thing to do, and Allan thought that Gisborne really cared a lot for Marian to risk his health and his life to help her.
He spotted a crutch laying on the ground near one of the stalls, and he picked it up, then he went back to the manor.
“Hey, Gisborne, I found this for you. Not because you ordered me to do it, but because so you can walk on your own,” he said, entering Guy’s room, but the knight didn’t answer and Allan realized that he was asleep. He shrugged and placed the crutch near the bed, where Guy could easily take it, then he went back to the hall to sit in front of the fireplace.
Guy woke up with a muffled cry. He had been dreaming, but he couldn’t remember what. Confused dreams, full of anguish and disturbed by pain.
Both sensations didn’t disappear when he opened his eyes, and Guy sighed.
His leg was still hurting, but he needed to see Marian.
He sat on the bed, wondering if the servants would come to help him to walk if he called for them, when he noticed the crutch near the bed.
Gisborne took it, and stood up. He walked to the hall, hoping to meet James and to ask him news of Marian, but the room was deserted except for Allan who was dozing in front of the fireplace.
The outlaw opened his eyes with a yawn when he heard Guy’s steps, and he looked at him.
“Oh, you woke up at last. I was beginning to think that you were dead.”
Guy gave him a confused look.
“Did I sleep for a long time?”
“Yep, mate. It’s the middle of the night if you haven’t noticed.”
“Really?” Guy frowned. “What about Marian?”
“Still sick. She didn’t wake up.”
Guy moved to reach the stairs, and Allan glanced at him.
“Are you sure?”
“I have to see her.”
“I don’t think that leg of yours can take you upstairs.”
“I will crawl if I need too, but I’ll go to see Marian and you won’t stop me.”
“Alright, I won’t stop you.”
Guy looked at the stairs and tried to climb the first step.
“You could help me.” He snarled, annoyed.
“Yes, I could.”
Gisborne stared at him.
“You have no intentions to do it, right?”
“It depends on what?”
“Well, you could ask nicely, for a start. And then you could use my name instead of calling me ‘you’ in that demanding tone.”
Guy rolled his eyes.
“And your name would be?”
“Allan. Allan A Dale.”
“Well, Allan A Dale, would you please help me to go upstairs?”
The outlaw gave him a mischievous grin.
“No problem, mate.”
“Don’t call me ‘mate’”
“As you wish, Giz.”
“Short for Gisborne.”
Allan lifted a finger to warn him.
“Do you want to go and see Marian or do you prefer to lose time complaining?”
Guy glared at him, but he didn’t reply, so Allan gave him an innocent smile, then he helped him to climb the stairs.
Marian was alone.
The maid who had to take care of her was asleep in the adjacent room and didn’t wake up when Allan and Guy entered Marian’s room.
Guy walked to the bed to look at the girl, thinking that only a few weeks before he had been the one lying there and Marian the one who watched on his sleep.
He touched her cheek, tenderly, and sighed. Her skin was too hot and Marian shivered in her sleep, but she didn’t open her eyes.
A bowl full of water was on the bedside table and Guy dipped a towel in the water, wrung it and placed it on the girl’s forehead.
Allan put a finger in the water.
“If she has a fever, this should be colder.”
“Go downstairs and fill a bucket with snow,” Guy ordered, but Allan didn’t move and looked at him in silence, his arms crossed.
Guy rolled his eyes.
“Allan, please, do it. For her.”
The outlaw smiled.
“Of course, Giz.”
Guy waited for him to go away, and he sat on a chair near the bed, taking Marian’s hand between his fingers.
“We called Matilda,” he said in a low voice “I’m sure that she’ll come soon, don’t worry. She’ll cure you and you will feel better soon. But until she comes, I’ll watch over you, as you did with me. Don’t be afraid, I’m here and I’ll always be.”
Marian didn’t move and Guy felt suddenly scared. She was so pale, so weak, that he was really afraid that she could die.
She was young and strong, but in his life he had seen younger and healthier people succumb to some illness. He lowered his head to kiss her hand, and he found himself praying for her, as he had not done for a very long time, maybe since he was a boy and used to go to church with his mother and his sister.
Allan came back with the bucket and he gave it to Guy, who took a handful of snow and put it in the water, then he wet another towel and put it on Marian’s forehead.
There wasn’t much else to do, so Guy went back to sit near the bed, while Allan stood near the fireplace, warming his hands near the flames.
“This surely is better that trying to get warm with the small fire we have at the camp. We can’t make it too big or the guards would see the smoke and find our hideout.”
Guy looked at him, remembering that they were enemies. Or at least they had been enemies because now Guy had no interest in capturing the outlaws. Actually, he realized, Gisborne hoped that Robin Hood and his gang made the Sheriff’s life as hard as possible.
Allan spotted a tray of uneaten food on the table and he looked at it. The soup was cold and it didn’t look very good, but the bread was still fresh. He took it, broke it in two halves and handed one to Guy.
Gisborne was about to refuse the offer, but he realized that he was hungry.
“Thank you,” he said, gruffly.
“You’re welcome, mate. After all, if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t have the chance to spend a night or two in a nice house.”
“I don’t need a guard dog. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt her.”
“Just following Robin’s orders, nothing personal. Even if it hadn’t been fun at all when you hunted us with dogs.”
“You are outlaws. It was my duty to catch criminals and keep Nottingham safe.”
“If you really wanted that, maybe you should have arrested the Sheriff.”
Guy took a bite of bread, shaking his head, but the idea of seeing the Sheriff imprisoned in the dungeons was interesting. Vaisey betrayed years and years of loyalty and Guy was still feeling hurt.
He couldn’t agree with an outlaw, but he hoped to take a revenge on the Sheriff someday.
He ate his bread for a while, in silence, watching Marian. When he finished, he stood up and replaced the wet towel on Marian’s forehead, adding more snow to the bowl of water, then he limped back to his seat.
Allan looked at him for a while, and he nodded at Guy’s leg.
“How is that? Still hurting?”
Gisborne warily looked at him, wondering if there was a trap in his words, but Allan looked sincerely concerned.
He answered with a little nod.
“Yes, it hurts. It’s a little better, though.”
“Riding with such a wound was an insane thing to do.”
“Probably. But I had no choice. She needed Matilda and nobody else would go searching for her.”
Allan looked at him for a moment and shook his head.
“I really hope I’ll never fall in love if that means becoming a fool,” he declared, then he took a chair and sat, closing his eyes to doze by the fire.
Guy glanced at the outlaw. That young man had no respect for him and he was clearly a knave, but he found his presence oddly comforting.
Allan A Dale was a distraction from the fear he felt seeing Marian so ill. In front of him, Gisborne felt compelled to look braver and stronger than he actually was and, even if his strength was fake, a pretense for Allan’s eyes, it was still strength and in the end it made him feel better.
She felt hot, and then suddenly cold, in the strange place she was in, now. She had been there for a while. Everything went and came. Everything was confused, distant and at the same time very close to her.
It looked like a fog to her eyes, the same she once saw from Nottingham Castle while she was looking toward Knighton when she was a little girl.
A dark and cold fog.
Then the heat returned, but without light.
In the dark, Marian heard a voice say something, maybe poetry, a knight tale… a love tale?
Marian tried to listen to it better, trying to find her way through the fog.
The voice continued to recite, incessantly. But it wasn’t a poem.
It was like… a prayer.
"Save her... spare her... give her back to me... I need her... please."
Did the voice talk about her? Was someone praying for her now? Why?
Marian was afraid, and suddenly she felt much more colder.
Was she going to die? She didn’t want to die.
“I don’t want to die, dear God,” Marian thought, lost in the fog. “I don’t want to die. Father needs me, dear God.”
The voice kept saying his prayers, more and more heartfelt, turning to God, and to the Holy Virgin.
And Marian did the same, she prayed, clinging to the sound of the voice with all her strength. Suddenly she recognized the voice. It was Guy's voice, and he was desperately praying for her safety, for her to wake up, to came back. To him.
"Are you praying for me, Guy? Am I really so sick? Dear God, send me back, send me back to my father, and… to him." Marian wished to wake up, but she felt she couldn’t. “Don’t leave me… Guy. Don't leave me now. Stay with me....”
She continued to listen to his voice, lulled by it.
She saw a faint light at the bottom of the fog.
Then she saw nothing at all.
Chapter 22: Allan's Lessons of Life
Susanne, lady Marian’s maid, woke up from her sleep, and she looked at the sun entering from the window. She felt guilty: James had ordered her to watch on her lady’s sleep, but she went to bed, deeming that she could do nothing to heal her.
Susanne had planned to sleep just for a short time, but it was already morning and she was afraid that her lady could have gotten worse during the night.
She hurried to Marian’s room, and screamed seeing a stranger sitting in front of the fireplace, fast asleep. Gisborne, instead was sleeping on a chair near Marian’s bed, and he was holding her hand.
Both Guy and Allan woke up with a start.
“Who’s that man?! What are you doing in lady Marian’s room?!” The girl screamed, and Allan stared at her, blinking, still half asleep.
Guy, instead, stood up and turned to face her.
“No, woman, the question is another: why weren’t you in lady Marian’s room? You had to take care of her, but she was alone! She’s so sick and nobody was taking care of her!”
“Get out! You have no reason to sleep in a noble woman’s room! That’s not proper at all! You shouldn’t see her like that!”
“It’s true,” Guy snarled “but if nobody gives her the help she needs, I will! I don’t care for her reputation when her life is at risk!”
Susanne looked at him, disgusted.
“Go away, now. You’re the lowest of the creatures and I’m not afraid of you, not anymore. You’re nothing and you’d deserve to be thrown out in the street, but Sir Edward is too generous with you and now you’re taking advantage of his goodness.”
James stepped into the room, worried.
“What’s happening here? Why are you yelling, Susanne?”
“Gisborne and that man slept in lady Marian’s room!” Susanne said, in an accusing voice.
“She left her alone! We’ve been here all night trying to lower her fever and that girl just wasn’t here! She never came to see how lady Marian was!” Guy retorted, in a rage.
James glanced at the maid and he knew that Sir Guy wasn’t lying, but he had to calm both of them down.
“Susanne, get back to your work immediately, lady Marian needs your cares,” he said, in a stern voice. “If I hear again that you went to sleep instead of doing what you are told, I’ll send you away. And you, Sir Guy, you should have called me or woken Susanne up, instead of spending the night here. But it doesn’t matter now, please come downstairs and let Susanne do her work.”
Guy looked at Marian, and nodded. He wanted to make her feel better and be at her side, but he knew that she needed the help of a woman.
“Keep using cold water to cool her forehead,” Guy said threateningly, looking at Susanne, “it will lower her fever.”
The girl was about to reply, but James gave her a warning look.
“Do it. My mother used to do it too when I had a fever and it worked.”
Susanne reluctantly obeyed, and the three men went out of Marian’s room.
Allan glanced at Gisborne: the knight was sitting at the table in the hall, but he wasn’t even looking at the food that James had placed in front of him. Gisborne seemed to be lost in his thoughts, and Allan kept looking at him while chewing a piece of cheese.
At last, Guy noticed that he was being observed.
“If you don’t eat that, can I have it?”
“Can you only think about food?”
“I spend most of my life on the run and I never know when I’ll have the chance to eat again. You can’t blame me if I take advantage of it when I can. But you should eat too, you only had a piece of bread since yesterday.”
“Why do you care?”
Guy smirked and began eating too.
After a while, he looked at Allan.
“Do you know where Matilda went? How much time will it take for her to come back?”
“No idea, sorry Giz. But Robin will find her as soon as he can, I’m sure of that. And I think that your lady is getting a little better, this morning her complexion looked much less pale than yesterday.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m not a healer, but I think she looked better.”
Gisborne didn’t answer, but Allan could see how upset he was.
“You’re different than I thought,” Allan commented, and Guy looked at him.
“Much less scary. More human.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“Don’t know. Maybe.”
Marian slowly opened her eyes, there was light in the room, and a smiling person in front of her.
For a moment, Marian thought that she was her young mother. Then she looked at her better, and realized that she was just the kitchen girl, who was looking at her.
But she lovingly smiled at her, and Marian knew she had woken up. To the real world.
“What happened?” Marian asked, and she tried to sit on the bed without success. No strength at all.
Mary helped her to sit.
“You were really sick, you had a high fever, my lady, very high, you wouldn’t wake up, and you have scared us a lot, all of us.”
“Ah ... I didn’t want to worry you… How about my dad, how is he?”
“Not well, but we're taking good care of him too, my lady, you don’t have to worry about him now. Just think about rest and healing. We need you."
The woman gave her a bowl of steaming broth. Marian thought it smelled of relief, of warmth, it was a smell of blessing.
Mary helped her to drink it all. Then she helped her to get up for a moment, to attend to her needs.
But she couldn’t stand long, she felt she didn’t have the strength, and she felt that the fever was coming back.
Marian asked to go back to bed, and Mary tucked her into her blankets...
Marian looked at the window: the last remains of the morning fog slowly surrendered to the sun.
She remembered then, and said: “Have you always been at my side during my fever?”
Mary looked at her, astonished.
“No, my lady, in fact, most of the time, night and day, there was... Sir Guy. We couldn’t stop him, he doesn’t know measure, he doesn’t know restraint, he’s an improper and unbearable, insufferable man. But… this time he had the right idea, at least.”
Marian felt she was sliding back into sleep again, and murmured: “What idea?”
“He used continually fresh, cold snow on you to lower the fever. It worked.”
“Ah ... you didn’t leave me," Marian murmured, with a slight smile, before closing her eyes.
“So this should be a king?”
Allan looked at the chess piece, critically.
“Yes. And this is the queen.” Guy pointed to another piece, then to the other ones. “While this is a knight, this a bishop, a rook, a pawn.”
“You have a lot of people on this board, don’t you? So what’s the point of it?”
“It’s like a battle: you have to capture and kill the enemy king.”
“Why there are so many pawns?”
“They are the weakest pieces.”
“So they’re the first to be sacrificed. Nothing new here.”
“You’re not really interested in learning to play, are you?”
“There’s too much war and death already, why should I play with them too? Didn’t you have enough of that, either?”
“It’s just a way to spend some time. Better than staring at the wall, I’d say.”
“Don’t take it wrong, Giz, but I think that I’ll still prefer going to the tavern to have fun.”
“I don’t doubt that. But going to the tavern when you’re half dead and lying in a bed or forced to sit in a chair would be a little difficult.”
“Did you play with Marian?”
“No, with her father. His health isn’t good either, and he rarely leaves the manor in winter.”
“Oh. Such fun. But maybe you’re playing with her father to get his approval. Good idea.”
“That’s not why I was doing it!”
“Sure, Giz, if you say so.”
Mary, the kitchen girl, came downstairs, and Guy nodded at Allan. The outlaw grinned, and approached the girl with a smile, beginning to playfully flirt with her. The woman, often grumpy and harsh when she had to interact with Gisborne, was flattered by Allan’s compliments.
“So, how is Lady Marian?” Allan asked after chatting for a while. “Did her fever broke?”
“Not yet, but I think it’s not as high as it was yesterday night. Earlier she woke up and I managed to give her some broth, but now she’s asleep again.”
“Well, at least she isn’t getting worse, is she? What about her father? Is he still sick too?”
The girl sighed.
“Poor Sir Edward! He’s very weak and feverish. James said that we shouldn’t tell him that Lady Marian is ill, but he’s wondering why she didn’t come to see him.”
With another sigh, Mary went back to the kitchen. She’d have preferred to keep talking with that interesting outlaw, but she knew that James would scold her if he found her flirting instead of working.
Allan went back to sit in front of Guy.
“Are you satisfied?”
“Thank you. She wouldn’t say anything to me.”
“You’re so loved, mate, aren’t you?” Allan said, ironically, and Guy shrugged.
“I can’t change what they think of me.”
“Are you even trying?”
“What’s the point of it? I can’t change who I am or what I did. They’ll always hate me. Now I have no power, so they won’t even respect me.”
Allan stared at him.
“Do you really believe that people will respect you only if you scare them into it? Well, no wonder that they despise you.”
“I’m used to it.”
“Well, you shouldn’t.”
Guy looked at him, a little surprised. He still couldn’t understand why the outlaw had decided to talk to him instead of just following Robin Hood’s orders to watch him. Allan A Dale was friendly with everyone, Guy included, and Gisborne found out that he didn’t dislike his small talk, after all.
“Why not? I can’t force people to like me, so I can only accept that they hate me.”
“Of course they hate you! You starved them, cut their hands or hanged their families when the Sheriff ordered you to do it! But I don’t think that you’re the heartless bastard that everybody believes you are.”
Allan stopped talking for a moment, and he looked at Guy, studying his expression, then he grinned at him.
“Well, mate, let me give you a few suggestions that could help you to improve your relationship with common people.”
“Should I get advice from you? An outlaw?” Guy asked, ironically, and Allan answered with a cheeky grin.
“Why not, Giz? I may be an outlaw, but I’ve a lot of friends. Haven’t you seen me talking with the maids of Knighton Hall? They like me. Most people like me. I will give you a few suggestions, so that people might start liking you a little better. You can call them lessons, if you want. Allan’s Lessons of Life.”
Guy kept a straight face, but he was amused. It was true: people liked Allan even if he was a scoundrel and a knave. Guy had to admit that he liked him as well, but he would never say it aloud.
“So, what’s Lesson Number One?” Guy asked, with a smirk.
“Well Giz, you’re not working for the Sheriff anymore, so stop acting like his henchman. Have you ever tried greeting or thanking the servants whenever they do something for you? Like when they bring your food or clean your room?”
“They just do it because Sir Edward ordered them to.”
“It doesn’t matter, try being kind and maybe they’ll see that you’re not the monster they think you are.”
“So Lesson One is: ‘try to be kind’?”
“You got it, mate.”
Allan stood up, and headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” Guy asked.
“Out for a walk. This manor is comfortable and all, but everyone is gloomy and worried here, and you can feel the presence of illness. I’m not a healer, being always around sick people is too much for me, I need some fresh air. Want to come, mate? I guess you need it too.”
“I’m part of the ‘sick people’ too, if you haven’t noticed,” Guy said, glancing at his leg, “isn’t my company too much for you as well?”
“You’re not sick. Maybe your leg is injured and you are still weak, but you’re not that ill. Well? Are you coming or not?”
Guy realized that Allan didn’t dislike his company as most people did. He was used to be hated and despised for the most part of his life, but since the day of his accident, Guy had found the friendship of Matilda and Lambert, and now one of Robin Hood’s men didn’t hate him like he should have done, but enjoyed talking with him. It was a strange feeling, but it made him feel warm.
He nodded, and hurried to grab the crutch and the cloak and to follow Allan outside.
They slowly walked on the path that the servants shoveled around the house and Guy struggled a little to keep up with Allan, but he managed.
His leg was still hurting after riding a horse the previous day, but not too much and it was getting better, so Guy allowed himself to hope that maybe it hadn’t been damaged further.
He was still deadly worried for Marian, but Allan had been right: getting out of the house for a while was a relief. It made him feel better and a little more optimistic.
The snow was so white that it seemed to purify the world, to clean it from every evil.
They walked to the main road to see if anyone was coming, but they couldn’t see any rider.
“I guess that it’s too soon for Matilda to come.” Guy said, worried. “Do you think that Hood can really find her?”
“Oh, he will, don’t worry. And haven’t you heard that maid? Your lady is already a little better. If she isn’t dead by now, I guess she’ll be fine.”
“I hope so,” Guy said, then a sudden thud coming from the nearest house made them turn: one of the villagers, a old man, was on the door of his house and was staring at Gisborne with a terrified look. The man had dropped his hatchet to the ground and he didn’t try to pick it up, afraid to move.
Allan prodded Guy with his elbow.
“Why don’t you practice being nice? You could just begin saying hi to this man,” he whispered, and Guy gave him a doubtful glance, but he decided to give it a try.
He awkwardly nodded at the old man, trying to remember how his mother treated the peasants when he was a boy. He only had Vaisey’s example for years, but he knew that it wouldn’t do.
“Good morning,” he said, and the man looked at him, even more terrified. Guy searched for something reassuring to say, but it couldn’t think of anything sensible, so he settled for a comment about the weather. “It’s very cold in these days, isn’t it?”
The old man warily nodded, afraid that Gisborne's words were a trap.
“Where you going to cut some fire wood?” Guy asked, noticing the hatchet and the peasant nodded again, trembling, as if he was afraid that Guy of Gisborne could decide to use that tool to cut one of his hands.
“Well, maybe Allan can do it for you,” Guy suggested and the outlaw frowned, but he took the hatchet and began chopping a few logs for the man.
After he finished, he and Guy went back to Knighton Hall, leaving the old man very puzzled.
“Have I been kind enough?” Guy asked, a little sarcastic. “Do you really think that this can help?”
“You were terrible, but I must give you points for trying. But next time don’t make me chop the wood for people!”
“I sure can’t do that myself, can I?” Guy replied, leaning on the crutch to take another step. “This was your idea, so if you want me to be nice to people, don’t complain and help.”
Allan snorted, but he found himself grinning as he bent to collect a handful of snow, gave it the form of a ball and threw it at Guy, hitting him straight in the face.
Gisborne stared at him, taken by surprise, and Allan laughed.
“Lesson number two: don’t give up to your temper.”
Guy lifted his crutch and for a moment Allan thought that he had gone too far and that Guy was about to hit him, but Gisborne used it to shake the branch of a tree that was directly over Allan’s head, completely covering him with snow.
“Lesson three: never underestimate a knight, even if he’s crippled.”
Chapter 23: Alexander The Redhead
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.
Chapter 24: Let Go of the Past
The tour of the castle seemed to never have an end, and, from Alexander’s point of view, all that effort from the little bold, painfully smelly man wasn't even particularly useful. He had already studied, before leaving London, a complete map of the castle, or rather, of the usually known parts of the castle. What interested him, the hidden parts, the tunnels, the secret internal and external passageways of the castle, the spoils rooms, the treasure room (the real one), he wouldn't learn from Vaisey.
The night would help him, it would give him the opportunity and the necessary protection in order to investigate on his own.
Strange kind of man, the old one, so strange and peculiar that for a moment, The Redhead had wondered how he managed to obtain and maintain the position of Sheriff of Nottingham. But under the guise of his smug and heavy irony and his taste for violence, not too subtle, he could see in him an undeclared tendency to sycophancy and repulsive bed practices and preferences that, in all probability, had paved his way to Prince John.
Not seen, the Redhead's mouth twisted with an expression of disgust. A moment later, Vaisey turned to him.
“The idiot that had your position before you proved to be a perfect incompetent, it won’t take much to get all his tasks in your hands,” Vaisey said.
The old man kept repeating that word, more and more rabid, referring to the previous Master at Arms, Guy of Gisborne.
He shouldn’t wonder about it, given the impression of the Half-French that he had had in the Holy Land. He perfectly remembered the failed mission of the latter, and all the attempts to investigate how a group of not-enough-skilled assassins could have infiltrated among the soldiers of King Richard, and reached him so easily.
For the rest, the courage and recklessness of the young Robin of Locksley was enough to stop them. He had foiled the assassination and he was highlighted once again, one too many for his liking, before the Lionheart.
But fortunately, he had also been hurt enough to prompt the King, at the suggestion of the Redhead himself, to send him back home to heal properly.
Among those in charge of investigating the assassination attempt, aiding and abetting,was, in fact, Alexander.
Months of cover-ups and silting followed. A couple of them... literal.
Never leave any traces behind. Better to bury them in the desert sand.
So the case was closed with no other responsible inside King Richard’s troops.
It must have been a plan of the Saracens, the King was convinced of this.
A Good Work.
And it was about time to go back in England, taking advantage of Prince John’s gratitude because he wasn't even suspected of being the instigator of the attempted Royal murder, and just before the war in the Holy Land was over.
Whatever the outcome of the latter would be.
“For your salary, you can take advantage of Locksley’s incomes, you will administrate it by yourself, waiting for Prince John to allocate that land... definitely. Manage it with a firm hand. No gloves, neither velvet nor… leather. The previous manager was Gisborne. And he was unsuccessful, of course. Foolish man. Idiot. He lost more time behind the skirts of that leper-woman instead of learning what was important to rule those lands. Prince John, not me, of course, desires to get more taxes from those lands now. And from a couple of other smaller places such as Clun and Knighton. Especially from the Leper’s Lands"
Vaisey laughed, bitterly, coarsely, of his own joke.
Interesting. Simply put, he had provided much useful informations with a few words.
Locksley was actually taken from Robin while he was in the Holy Land, given to the Half-French and later taken from the latter.
The promise of that particular land was therefore a decoy for Vaisey, who wielded obvious and most interesting lands for himself to keep a good part of their proceeds.
And Gisborne had had some relationship, of course, just as unsuccessful as his management of Locksley, with a noble woman of the lands around Nottingham, particularly disliked by Vaisey (the leper). The latter was the reason, the true one, of the anger Vaisey had towards the Half-French.
For someone like Vaisey, an incompetent as Gisborne shouldn’t have been a big problem.
He could have, and should have, fixed it before.
But Vaisey seemed to have had, towards Gisborne, some expectation that went beyond the simple relationship between Master at Arms and Sheriff.
An expectation that had been disappointed.
The Redhead wondered what it might be.
Not out of curiosity, of course, and certainly not for fear of a return on the scene of the Half-French.
Gisborne seemed dead and buried, although he was probably still alive, somewhere.
And maybe ‘the idiot’ would continue to remain alive, as long as he kept staying away from the Sheriff.
Alexander wanted to understand their relationship to avoid it, however, to avoid the same mistake he did.
He wouldn’t allow it, whatever it was. He would be the Master at Arms of Nottingham Castle.
This was the task that was given to him by Prince John. Well, most of it... The rest of his new tasks wouldn’t be known by the old Sheriff.
Prince John had not appreciated the news of the failed assassination in the Holy Land, and Gisborne, nothing more than a pawn, convinced by Vaisey to be a knight, was not the only one to be considered responsible for the failure.
Vaisey’s expectations were not the only one disappointed.
But Vaisey not seem to show concern about it. Instead, he should worry.
In his strange way, the old Sheriff seemed to be rather pleased with his arrival, and eager to show his power and efficiency to him.
To impress him, to seduce him, somehow.
But Alexander was not one to be seduced.
He was single-minded too.
Matilda helped Marian, still weak, to dress. The fever had dropped dramatically, but the girl was still very weak. She seemed now even younger than she was, Matilda thought, seeing that she needed her help so much. The older woman thought that the girl really needed a mother, more than a healer, now. Someone who could give her comfort, care, and consolation.
The lungs and the throat of the girl were still delicate. With patience and care, she would be fine.
It was the general weakness that the girl showed, that made Matilda worry.
But she had seen the maids working hard around the girl, and she had seen, mostly, the loving concern and affection in Sir Guy's eyes.
Somehow, Matilda thought, Marian had been really well cared for and helped.
The girl's voice startled her from her thoughts.
“I wish I could get up, go see my father,” Marian said.
“Stay calm, Marian, I'll check your father’s conditions right after I’ve finished with you. Everything is all right, please don’t worry for him now, he doesn’t know that you're sick, He wasn’t told, not to scare him.”
Marian sighed with relief. The healer caressed her face. The girl looked at her eyes with a sweet, tender look.
Then, embarrassed, she looked away from Matilda and to the window.
That strange, sudden, embarrassment, that modesty made them so similar, Guy and Marian, Matilda thought, both of them were without a mother who would took care of them for so long. They hid embarrassment and their desire for tenderness with pride, self-sufficiency. Most of the times.
Marian's voice became uncertain.
“And... how is he?”
Matilda looked at the girl, surprised. She wasn’t sure they were thinking of the same person.
“To whom are you referring to, madam?”
“Sir Guy... how is he, his leg? I haven’t seen him for a while.”
They were really thinking about the same person.
“Better, he was imprudent and reckless, of course, and he didn’t took enough care of himself, but he has a great strength inside, hidden under layers and layers of stratified pessimism.”
“Imprudent ?” The girl asked. “What did he do?”
“Don’t you know yet, young Marian? I thought that young noisy waitress had already told you. Well, Sir Guy found you very sick, worried for your conditions, and he wanted to help you, no matter the costs. He rode, in his precarious condition, to look for Robin, for the latter to find me and bring me back to you, because you needed me, my help.”
The girl's face was amazed, now.
“Did it really happen?”
“Yes, and they are both alive to tell it, thank God.” Then she added, in a more serious tone, “Different as they are, night and day, sun and moon, they have strong affection for you, both of them.”
Marian looked at the woman, lost in her thoughts.
“Then I'll have to thank them both,” the girl said. “And light a thanksgiving candle to the Holy Virgin… because they are still alive to tell," she added, lightly laughing.
“Do you want me to call Sir Guy to see and stay with you while I check your father?” Matilda said.
The girl seemed to darken for a moment, thinking. Then she relaxed and smiled.
“Yes, please, do call him.”
Vaisey entered the birds’ room. Now alone, he put a hand into the cage of the smaller birds, pulling out one of them. He stroked it slowly.
Shrewsbury had made a good impression on him, and he had read an extraordinary letter of introduction from Prince John, but Vaisey decided that he himself would begin to investigate and tempt him during the evening, at dinner, trying to figure out what a man like that could aspire to, and to propose to him something more... achievable, provided he was a good ally to him.
Something far from Vaisey’s personal goals.
After all, there was no reason Sussex, Essex and Surrey should have been interesting for a man with excellent fighting skills but no government experience.
Still he needed him to be a trusted ally.
He was not as young as Gisborne had been when he came to his service. Fragile and hurt as he was, behind his desire for revenge, cockiness, effrontery mask and youthful vigor, Guy had been like clay in his hands. Pliable to any desire. Or to most of his desires.
Having realized that Guy had been disappointed by his father in his youth and had in turn been a disappointment for him, Vaisey had played the role of the powerful, despotic, indisputable, but eventually grateful, father to him.
Guy thought he had found a father in him while Vaisey had had fun playing with him like a cat with a mouse all the time.
Then she came, the thorn in his side, the daughter of the former, exiled, sheriff, who had crept into Guy’s balls before, in his mind later, and in his heart, at the end.
Right then Guy was no longer what he was before.
He saw it.
Guy had been still silent to follow his orders and aspire to what he had taught him to aspire, but now, in all his aspirations he was engaging her, including her, more and more.
He thought of her, and Vaisey felt it. He knew it, he read it in his eyes, holding his breath at her passage.
It was a disease, that young, stupid, reckless woman, for him. It was leprosy, and Guy had become a leper, just like his father, just to have touched her with his thought.
With his desire for her.
Jealous, disgusted, Vaisey looked for a moment at the bird chirping and unaware in his hand, then he squeezed him to death, feeling nothing, no pleasure, and threw it away on the floor.
He said, looking out the window: “I no longer need you, Guy.”
But the idea that the leper had somehow taken away his -idiot- pupil continued to bother him.
That was very annoying.
He wanted to see her in trouble, in a great difficulty.
So that her young, tender heart, or the old burden's one broke for the pain. Or both their hearts...
So Vaisey decided to send a message to Knighton with the request to pay, as taxes for the incoming month, twice the sum twice the figure that the old one and his daughter leper usually had to, with the usual old excuse of King Richard's increased need in the Holy Land.
And young Alexander would have the honor and the burden of collecting the money.
Money that Knighton could not have.
A good reason to imprison father and daughter, then. And to give the coup de grace to Guy.
Enthusiastic for his excellent intuition, he called Alexander to give him his orders, but above all, in order to receive from him the compliments he deserved, for a plan so brilliant, ingenious and perverse. The best actor deserves public applause.
The leper had to pay double.
He also asked Shrewsbury to take Locksley's possession the next day, and to collect the taxes by whatever means, from everywhere.
Vaisey felt strong, powerful, unassailable.
In short, happy.
Introduced into the room by Matilda, Guy came in. Marian was sitting in bed and was looking at him, her look indecipherable to him.
“Sit down, Sir Guy. Here, next to me,” she said.
“How do you feel now, Marian?” He said, with genuine concern in his voice.
“Better,” Marian replied, propping herself on the pillows to settle better.
Guy hurried to help her and Marian let him help her, an equal mixture of embarrassment and gratitude in her eyes.
“Do you want me to call Susanne? Is there something, anything you need?" Guy said, uneasy.
Marian shook her head slightly, as if to say that she didn’t need anything, then, looking into his eyes, she motioned him to sit beside her. Guy sat down, incredulous.
Marian seemed to want his presence beside her. Mostly, he thought that she was alive and beautiful. Strained by the long fever, but more alive and beautiful than ever. And for this, Guy felt deeply happy inside, and grateful.
Guy sat on a chair. The two remained silent for a few minutes, in their mutual embarrassment, unsure of what to say. Then, unexpectedly, Marian took Guy's right hand between hers and staring at her hands rather than the knight's face, she said: “I wanted to thank you.”
Guy looked at the girl, her hands on his still had that excessive heat, a sign that the fever had not yet completely abandoned her, but he wanted that contact between them to continue forever.
“You don’t need to thank me, we're all relieved, now that you're feeling better,” he said, to remove himself and the girl from that embarrassed silence.
Marian looked up and their eyes met.
“Guy, I know that you were next to me, that you helped me. You have risked your health and your safety, riding to call Robin in the forest, just to help me. Thanks, for your help and your prayers,” she said, leaving his hand on the blanket.
“It was nothing, you did the same for me. You helped me," Guy smiled, feeling sad to have lost physical contact with her. “Nothing that shouldn’t be done. The important thing now is that you feel better."
He got up from the chair.
Marian was surprised by Guy's reaction, maybe she had done or said something she shouldn't.
“Using the snow to cool my fever was your idea too. And it saved me. I'm grateful,” she said.
Guy wanted to tell her that he had been terrified to lose her, that he would do anything for her, much more than she could imagine, and that only Allan's presence around him had prevented him from openly despair, but he just replied: “It was maman's thing when I was a kid and I had a high fever.”
“Your mother must have been a wise, caring woman. Forgive me, Guy, you already told me about her, in the past, but maybe I was listening little and badly. I'd like to know something more about her now, I would like to hear it.”
Guy was astonished at Marian's request and he had the distinct feeling that for the first time she was really interested in something about him, his life. A genuine interest for him.
So Guy set aside what he really wanted to say to her, how beautiful she was and precious to him at that moment, how much he loved her, and he began to tell her scattered stories, jumping from memory to memory, without a precise design, telling her of his mother, his father and his childhood’s life when they were still living in France. When the world was still beautiful to his eyes.
Marian, who had never seen anything outside of Nottingham County, was fascinated by his tales, from that distant land, from that different language, different customs, different tastes and colors Guy told her about.
And Guy lulled himself too in that memory of a land that smelled of bread and sweet, of sunshine and perfume of flowers, of wind and sea noise, of salt on the skin. A land that had been a mother to to him, warm and welcoming, before becoming a rejecting and cold stepmother when he came back with Isabella years later.
But now, with Marian, with Marian alone he would be happy to return to France.
He would show her everything that was beautiful and different. He would show her the sea. And he would love her madly. As his father had loved his mother.
Marian said that she needed to lie down again, to rest.
Guy gently stroked her forehead. It was still warm, but not hot.
He went to ask for more cold water, and when he came back he found her about to fall asleep.
“Are you still so angry at me, Guy?” She asked as he put a wet cloth on her forehead.
“No, it's in the past now. Don't think about it anymore.”
He had said that with sincerity, he really meant it.
Now he only wanted her to be well, and to find, for his own sake, a decent way to live in his condition, however difficult it was.
Chapter 25: A Hope for Knighton
James looked at the accounting book of Knighton Hall, and sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
He unhappily glanced up from them, when he heard somebody entering the hall.
Gisborne limped through the door, followed by Robin Hood’s man, Allan.
The old servant wondered how those two could get along together. They were completely different from each other: a noble and a thief, one hated by almost everyone, the other who could make friends with the devil in person. In fact, many believed Gisborne to be a devil.
By now, James knew that it wasn’t true, a real devil would never be injured so badly as Gisborne had been, but he still didn’t like the man.
Who could like a person who obeyed the Sheriff’s orders, even when it meant frightening or maiming innocent people?
But now he wasn’t able to harm anybody else, and James couldn’t help thinking that he deserved what happened to him and that Sir Edward was very generous to let him live in the manor.
James looked back at the book, and sighed: it didn’t matter if Gisborne and Allan were friends or enemies, or if the black knight kept living at Knighton Hall. Soon no one of the inhabitants of the manor, nobles or servants, would have a home anymore.
“I suppose that I’ll have to talk to Sir Edward,” James said to himself, but loud enough that Guy could hear him.
“About what?” the knight asked, and the servant looked at him, noticing that he had approached the table.
“Next month’s taxes,” he answered, reluctantly.
“Matilda said that he’s very sick and that he needs to rest a lot. You shouldn’t worry him with this things.”
“I know, Sir Guy, but I think I have no choice. Normally, I’d talk to Lady Marian, but the healer said that she needs rest and quiet, even more than her father.”
Guy dropped himself on a chair, and sighed too.
“I know,” he said, dejectedly, and James guessed that he was really worried for the girl. This softened him a little towards the knight. Gisborne might be a ruthless man, but he cared deeply for Lady Marian.
“What’s the problem with that?” Guy asked, pointing at the accounting book, and James stared at him, wondering if he should tell him or not.
Allan glanced at the book too.
“What? You don’t have the money to pay the taxes?” He guessed, and James stared at him.
“How do you know?”
“Everyone in the county has the same problem. Hey, don’t worry too much, I think that Robin can give the money to you, so you can pay taxes.”
Guy shook his head, a disgusted expression on his face.
“What about the unjust taxes demanded by the Sheriff? He’s the true thief.” Allan replied, unimpressed by Guy’s words.
“Maybe,” Guy conceded, “but if they always rely on Hood’s alms, next month the problem will be the same, or it will grow even bigger. And what if one day Hood stops helping them?”
“Robin wouldn’t abandon who needs him!”
“But he could be captured or killed.”
“That’s impossible! You never succeeded in doing that.”
Guy sadly shook his head.
“The fact that I couldn’t capture him, doesn’t mean that anybody else won’t.”
James thought that Sir Guy had a point.
“What do you suggest?” He asked, looking at Gisborne.
“You want my opinion?”
“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have asked, Sir Guy.”
Guy nodded, surprised.
“You should find a way to improve Knighton’s incomes, I guess.”
The servant gave a pointed look at him.
“What do you think I’ve been doing till now? I checked all the accountings, but I can’t find any errors. But of course I’m just a servant, I’d need Sir Edward’s advice.”
“You can’t. Matilda says that worrying too much could kill him.”
“You kept Locksley for years, Sir Guy. What would you do?”
Guy took the book and looked at it, more to take time, than to really examine it. It was true that he kept Locksley, but it was also true that he didn’t care too much for its inhabitants: if they couldn’t pay the taxes, the Sheriff had taught him to take all their belongings and evict them from their houses. He knew that Marian and Sir Edward wouldn’t approve that kind of management for Knighton.
He glanced at Allan, as if he was looking for help, but the outlaw shrugged.
“James, what can you tell me about the lands of Knighton?”
“They aren’t very extensive, but the soil is good, we usually have good crops.”
“Why can’t you afford the taxes then?”
“We produced mainly flour, but even the other feuds did, and the prices dropped.”
“It could be a good idea to differentiate the crops next year.”
“Yes, Sir Guy, but we have to pay the taxes this month.”
“Then we’ll have to find another way to find the money. Do you really want me to help with this?”
The servant nodded.
“There’s nobody else who could do it.”
“Then have the wagon ready. I don’t know Knighton well, nor its inhabitants, and if I have to improve the incomes of the lands, I think I should.”
James waited by the wagon, wondering if accepting Sir Guy’s offer to help with the management of Knighton had been a good idea. But he had no choices, actually. With Sir Edward and Lady Marian both equally ill, the responsibility of taking care of Knighton fell on his shoulders.
He could do nothing, but then it was certain that the Sheriff would take the lands back, but he was afraid to do something wrong, and he wished that he could ask Sir Edward for an advice.
At least, if Gisborne gave suggestions to manage Knighton, the fault of a failure would be divided between both of them. James just hoped that Sir Guy wasn’t going to use the force against the peasants who couldn’t pay.
After a while, Guy and Allan came out from the manor. Gisborne had changed his clothes and managed to wear his old leather uniform, but instead of his leather coat, he kept using the blue velvet cloak that Sir Edward gave to him.
James noticed that Gisborne’s clothes fit too loose and he felt a twinge of pity for him, realizing how unwell he still was, even months after the accident. He might not like the man, but he could still feel compassion for a young person who was probably going to be a cripple for the rest of his life.
Allan, instead, looked as well as he could be, clean, healthy and donning the finer clothes that Sir Guy gave him.
The outlaw waited for Gisborne to reach the wagon, and he helped him to climb on it, then he gave a hand to James too, and in the end he also got on and took the reins.
“So, where are we going, first?” The outlaw asked.
“Take a route around the fields, then we’ll visit the village,” Guy answered “I want to see the lands, and then the people.”
“I sent word to the inhabitants of Knighton to gather in the main square, so we can talk to them,” James said, and Guy nodded, wondering if it was a good idea. They surely hated him, but he had no choice than talking to them, if he wanted to help Marian and her father. Allan had said that if he tried to be kind to them, people would begin to respect him, but Guy doubted that it was possible.
Anyways, he was going to try, even if it meant putting his pride aside, and making a fool of himself.
He felt unsure, and he just wanted to be with Marian, to nurse her back to health and to see her getting better. He was used to see her always strong and full of energy, seeing her so weak and ill had been a shock for Guy.
But he couldn’t stay with her, the servants wouldn’t let him in her room, and also Matilda allowed only short visits for now, so saving Knighton was the only thing he could try to do.
Guy looked at the fields and listened to James explanations when the old servant pointed to a farm or to the shop of an artisan.
When they went back to the main square of the village, where the villagers were waiting for them, Guy already had a few ideas, but he didn’t know if they would work and if people would listen to him.
He was feeling quite emotional, and he wasn’t sure if he was excited for being out of the manor after being forced to lie at home for such a long time, or if he was afraid to be rejected and humiliated by the inhabitants of Knighton now that he had no power at all.
He glanced at Allan and James: the outlaw had his usual carefree expression, and whistled while driving the wagon, while the old servant was grim and worried, probably sure that Guy couldn’t help them and that they’d lose Knighton.
Allan stopped the wagon, and Guy was conscious of the stares of the peasants. They were all looking at him, wondering what he was doing there, half afraid, half suspicious, all of them hateful.
James stood up, and spoke to them.
“My friends, I know most of you since you were born, or very young, and you know that I’d never want to give you bad news, but today I’m afraid I must do it. This month, we couldn’t collect the money to pay taxes, and if we don’t, the Crown will take back these lands.”
“They can’t! They belong to Sir Edward!” Someone in the crowd yelled, and Guy scoffed.
“Of course they can. They can do everything they want, and the Sheriff will take Knighton as soon as he can,” he said, and the people looked at him, angry.
“And you are here to take it for your master, aren’t you?” A woman said, disgusted.
Guy struggled to stand up without losing his balance, but somehow he managed, and he looked at the peasants.
“Actually, I’m not. It’s quite the contrary. I don’t work for the Sheriff anymore and I won’t help him getting more power. If I can stop him from taking Knighton from its legitimate owners, be sure that I will. That’s why I’m here today.”
People exchanged puzzled looks. They had heard many rumors about Gisborne. Some had heard that he was dead, others than he had been seriously ill and that he had become insane, some that he had been fired by the Sheriff, who one day left Knighton Hall in a rage, others that Gisborne had lost Locksley and that now he was trying to take Sir Edward’s lands.
“Why should we believe you?” One of the peasants asked. That man knew that Guy hadn’t the favor of the Sheriff anymore, so he wasn’t afraid of him.
Guy looked at the man.
“You have no reason to trust me, except that I have every interest in saving Knighton too. You heard that the Sheriff fired me and that I lost Locksley. It’s all true. Without Sir Edward’s help, I’d be a beggar or dead. You may think the worst of me, but I am grateful to Lord Knighton and I’ll do all I can to repay my debt.”
“And you do this for the goodness of your heart?” A woman asked, ironically.
“Think whatever you want, but keep in mind that if Sir Edward should lose his lands, I’d have nowhere to live as well. Nobody would give me a home, and I’m still too unwell to find a new job. My life depends on Knighton, so you can be sure, that I will do everything I can to help Sir Edward. I know the Sheriff and what he wants from the nobles of the County, so I can use my experience to give you a few suggestions and I hope you will listen to me.”
“Well said, Giz!” Allan said, giving him an energetic pat on his shoulder, then he turned to the people with a grin. “Listen to him, he can actually help.”
“Aren’t you one of Robin Hood’s men?” A man asked, puzzled. “What are you doing with Gisborne?”
“Without the Sheriff he’s not that bad. And you can believe him, trust me.”
The villagers looked at the three men on the wagon, confused. They knew James, he was one of them, and they often had seen Allan A Dale with Robin Hood when the outlaws came to bring supplies and money to the poor, but they also knew Gisborne and all his evil deeds.
It was also true that he was now in disgrace with the Sheriff, so maybe he really wanted to stay at Knighton and help Sir Edward.
They began to discuss and to wonder what they should do and if they had to listen to Gisborne.
They were still talking and Guy was patiently waiting for them to take a decision, when Matilda came down the road, headed to Knighton Hall.
The healer walked to the wagon, looking at Gisborne.
“What are you doing, love?” She asked, and Guy glared at her, blushing.
“Don’t call me like that!” He blurted, and Matilda smiled at him.
“As you wish, sweetie. Now speak: what are you doing up there? Apart than catching a cold, I mean.”
“I’m trying to help Sir Edward with the taxes, but if you keep talking to me like that, I’ll never get the respect of the people.”
“Don’t be silly, dear. If they don’t respect you it’s for what you did for the Sheriff in the past, not for what I say.” She turned to Allan. “What are you waiting, boy? Help me to get up there too, my neck aches if I have to look up like that to talk to you.”
The outlaw helped her to climb on the wagon, and the healer looked at the people.
“So, are his ideas good?”
The villagers exchanged uneasy glances.
Matilda crossed her arms.
“We don’t know,” one of them answered.
“How could they know if they don’t want to listen?” Allan said, with a shrug.
Matilda looked at the villagers, and they didn’t dare to say anything. Some of them believed her a witch, some others owed her their lives, and they all respected her.
To see that the woman, often cross, and always ready to speak her mind, was so affectionate in talking to Gisborne, confused them even more than they already were.
“We never said that we wouldn’t listen,” one of them said, at last, uneasily.
“Well, then. What are you waiting for? Speak.” Matilda turned to look at Guy, and the knight nodded, embarrassed.
He felt like he was still a shy child and Matilda's motherly words made him blush, but he wasn’t angry at her. Maybe the peasants would think that he was a spineless idiot, but her presence encouraged him.
They already think the worst of me, even if they think I’m a fool I don’t care.
“James told me that you had good crops, but that the price of flour is too low, so you can’t earn enough. Is that right?”
“If we hadn’t to pay the taxes, we’d have enough food for the winter. But if we have to gather all the sum, we’ll have to sell all our flour, underpriced, and we will starve.” One of the villagers said.
“So we have to find a way to get more money for it.” Guy answered.
“Or we might just wait for Robin Hood’s help.” Another man suggested, and Guy shook his head with contempt.
“Do you have no pride? You prefer depending on charity than working to save your village?”
“What’s the point, when the Sheriff will take everything we own?”
“Robin won’t let the Sheriff to take Sir Edward’s lands, why should we wear ourselves out?”
Guy turned to look at Allan.
“Do you really bother to help such ungrateful people?”
“I guess that their families would starve if we don’t. But you’re right, some of the people we help don’t deserve it. But we do it anyways.”
Guy sighed: he really wanted to do something for Knighton, but it was clear that nobody would listen to him and that they preferred to get Robin Hood’s stolen money.
The people turned their backs at them, and they began returning to their houses, ignoring Guy and what he had to say.
Matilda put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a comforting squeeze.
“You tried, love. It was a good thing to do.”
“She’s right, Giz. You weren’t that bad,” Allan said. “Hey, mate? Do you actually have an idea to make more money from that flour?”
Guy shook his head, discouraged.
“Not yet. But I know that there is something we can do.”
“Do you really believe there’s some hope, Sir Guy?” James asked, and Guy nodded.
“Matilda proved to me that there can be hope even in the worst situation. Everyone thought that I was going to die, the other healer said that he couldn’t save me, but I’m here, alive and I plan to keep living for a very long time. If there was hope for me, there must be hope for Marian and Sir Edward as well. I am not going to give up until Knighton is safe.”
Allan laughed and gave him a pat on his back, so enthusiastically that he almost pushed him down from the wagon and had to grab his arm to steady him.
“Well said Giz!”
Matilda shook her head, smiling. Gisborne had been so sad and hopeless when he was ailing, but now it was like he had found some inner strength hidden inside him and had decided to use it for the sake of Marian and her father.
“I agree with him, my dear. This is the right attitude. It doesn’t matter if they didn’t listen to you today, come up with a good plan and they will. But now, let’s go back to the manor, it’s freezing out here and you’re not completely healed yet. I like that you want to fight and do the right thing, but you need to rest or your leg won’t get better.”
Chapter 26: Too Clean for an Outlaw
Guy was stretched on his bed, arms behind his head, and he was staring at the ceiling. Allan entered the room without knocking, and he helped himself from the tray of food that was on the table, before dropping himself in the chair in front of the fireplace and kicking off his boots to warm his feet at the fire.
Gisborne didn’t even look at him, and Allan gave him a surprised glance.
“Hey, Giz, you alive?”
“Yep. Why are you asking?”
“You didn’t yell at me, and I know that I did at least three things that annoy you.”
“Would yelling stop you from doing that?”
Allan looked at him.
“So, what’s the point?”
“I don’t know. It’s fun?”
Guy rolled his eyes.
“You have a strange idea of fun, Allan.”
“At least I have one, mate. What were you doing? Counting the wood grains of the ceiling?”
“I already know them by heart.” Guy said, flatly. “Not much to do when your leg hurts so much that you can’t get up from bed or get some sleep.”
Allan gave him a worried look.
“Are you in pain?”
Guy shook his head.
“Not now. No more than usual. I was thinking.”
“I was trying to find a way to find the money for the taxes.”
“Robin will surely help Sir Edward, if needed. You don’t have to lose your sleep about it.”
Guy sat up in the bed, with a sigh.
“I know, but I want to do something for them. They helped me, they didn’t let me down when the Sheriff fired me, and I’m living at Knighton when I could be starving in the streets...”
“Come on, Giz, that’s not true. Matilda would take you in her hut.”
“That’s not the point!”
“All right, all right, you want to help, but you have no idea how. So?”
“So I need an idea. We have a lot of flour, but no one wants to buy it.”
“Too bad it isn’t milk,” Allan commented.
“You’d sell it in a moment at Nettlestone. Their cows got a disease and there’s a shortage of milk there.”
Guy looked at the outlaw.
“How do you know?”
“I heard that last week, when we were taking some supplies there. The peasants told Robin about that problem and he gave them some money to buy new cows, but they will have to wait next month, when there will be a fair in Nottingham and there will be more cattle merchants. If you had milk to sell, they’d buy it in a moment.”
Guy stared at him.
“You outlaws have a lot of informations like this one, don’t you?”
“What do you mean? People talk to Robin, they ask him for help and they say what they need. So yeah, I suppose that we know a lot of these things.”
“Do you suppose that you could find out if there is some village that needs flour?”
“Yeah, I think that Robin could know.”
“Go and ask him then! Now!”
“Because once we know who needs the flour, we’ll take it there.”
Allan looked at him.
“Are you serious, Giz?”
“I am. If nobody here wants our flour, we’ll take it where they are willing to buy it for a higher price.”
“I’ll need your help. We can use Sir Edward’s wagon, and borrow some others from the people of Knighton. If you and James talk to them, I think that they will agree.”
“What if the outlaws try to steal it? We’re not the only ones in the forest, you know. And the others doesn’t steal from the rich to help the poor, they steal for themselves, and they can kill people too. They don’t come here because they’re afraid of Robin, but if you go to a distant village, they could attack your wagons.”
Guy reflected for a while.
“I need you to contact some of the guards who used to work for me.”
“Are you insane, Giz? Do you want me to talk to the castle guards?! I don’t want to end up in the dungeons or worse!”
“Not the castle guards. Lambert told me that most of my men went to work at the castle, but some of them refused to work for Vaisey and they went back to their villages. I’ll give you their names, tell them to come here. I’ll talk to them, and, if they accept my offer, they can escort the convoy.”
“How will you pay them? Suppose that we sell the flour… We’ll have to pay taxes, the wagons and their drivers, and the guards. Do you think that it will be enough?”
“It must be. If it isn’t, I’ll sell my sword. It’s good steel, it will cover the expenses. Will you help me?”
Allan glanced at him, impressed. That sword was one of the few things that Gisborne still owned, and it was very important for the knight.
“I will. And I have and idea too. When we go to sell the flour, we could buy any excess milk they have, and bring it to Nettlestone, instead of coming back with the empty wagons. We could double the incomes doing so.”
Guy looked at him and smiled.
“You are a genius, Allan! It could work! It could really work! Go, now! Go to talk with Hood! I’ll explain our plan to James and I’ll begin organizing the convoy. We need to be fast!”
Guy grabbed his crutch and hobbled out of the door, in search of the old servant.
The outlaw stared at him, in awe: he had never seen Gisborne so excited for something and certainly Allan wasn’t used at getting praises from him.
He thought that the knight was very different from what he looked when he worked for the Sheriff.
He liked that new Gisborne.
Allan felt uneasy under Robin Hood’s scrutinizing stare. Robin seemed to be somehow diffident and Allan had the sensation that he didn’t like seeing him so clean and dressed in the finer clothes that Gisborne had given to him.
“Isn’t that a little impractical to live in the forest?” Robin asked, ironically. “Because I suppose you are here to come back to the gang.”
Allan inwardly sighed.
“Not yet. Matilda says that I’m needed at Knighton.”
“I know, but I’ve been told that you are too friendly with Gisborne.”
Allan thought that it must have been one of the servants of the house, probably one of the boys: they disliked Gisborne and they were jealous of Allan because he flirted with the maids and the kitchen girls.
“Listen, Robin. I have to live in that house and Matilda wants me to help Gisborne, it wouldn't be nice if I fought with him every moment. Being civil with him is easier.”
And he’s not that bad when you know him better.
Robin looked at him for a long moment, wondering if he should believe him, then he decided to drop the matter.
“How is Marian?”
“Better. Matilda says that she isn’t in danger anymore, but that she has to recover.”
“Why did you come here, then? You should be at Knighton, helping.”
“I’m doing it. In fact I need to know if there are villages that need flour, so that we can sell Knighton’s stocks.”
“If they need money for the taxes, we’ll help them.”
“I know, and they know too, but first they would like to try earning it.”
Allan didn’t say that it was Guy’s idea because if he did, he knew that Robin would dismiss it.
Instead he kept quiet and Robin gave him a list of the villages where flour was needed and that could afford buying it.
Allan thanked him, satisfied, and he was about to go back to Knighton, when they heard the sound of horse hooves galloping through the forest.
“Guards!” Robin said, searching for a escape route, but after a moment he took the bow, realizing that the soldiers were too close.
Allan looked around, scared, while a group of Sheriff’s guards reached them.
Robin was shielded by the trees, and he could easily run away, but Allan was near the road and one of the soldiers pointed a spear at him.
He froze: they were too many. Robin could hit a few of them, but meanwhile the others would surely kill Allan.
“Well, what do we have here? Outlaws?”
The leader of the soldiers grabbed Allan by an arm, and the outlaw just stood still, speechless and terrified. He knew that he was close to death and that he couldn't find a way to escape. He could only hope that the soldiers would take him at the castle to be hanged instead of killing him on the spot, but the guard who caught him was already unsheathing his sword.
Robin was studying the situation, trying to find a plan to save both of them, but Allan knew that they had very few chances to come out of that situation unscathed, especially him.
Before the soldiers could do anything else, they all heard a wagon approaching along the road and they were all surprised to see Gisborne holding the reins.
Guy looked at the guards, at Robin half hidden in the trees and at Allan, pale and trembling.
“What’s going on?” He asked, and everyone turned to look at him.
The guards were surprised.
They had heard every kind of story about Guy of Gisborne: that he had been damaged beyond repair both in body and in mind after the accident, that he had been distraught when the sheriff fired him, that he lost everything and that he was insane and a cripple…
But now they could see him right there, in front of them, and he didn’t look a beggar or a madman at all.
He was thinner and paler than he once had been, and he was sitting on a wagon instead than on a horse, but Gisborne was wearing fine clothes, finer than the leathers he once used to wear, and he was looking at them fiercely.
“We caught Robin Hood and one of his outlaws,” one of the soldiers said, uncertain, pointing at Allan.
“It doesn’t seem to me that you captured Hood. He’s over there, almost in the forest and he’s pointing a bow at you. Believe me, it’s not so easy to catch him.” Guy said, giving a sarcastic look at the outlaw.
The soldier used the spear to touch Allan’s neck, scratching him and making him bleed a little.
“We have this one.”
Allan closed his eyes, certain that he was going to die.
“No, you don’t,” Guy said, looking at the soldiers with a slight contempt. “Can’t you see that that man is not an outlaw?”
“He was with Hood,” the guard objected.
“You mean that he was being robbed by Hood, like the idiot he is,” Guy replied, rolling his eyes with impatience. “Can’t you see that he’s too finely dressed and too clean to be an outlaw? He’s one of the servants of Knighton Hall. My personal servant, even if he’s always finding excuses to lose time and avoid his chores,” Guy added, staring at the guard, and the man lowered his eyes, uneasy.
One of the other soldiers came near Allan, and examined him closely, stopping to sniff at him.
“It’s true!” He exclaimed. “He doesn’t stink! Actually, I think that he smells of lavender!”
The leader of the soldiers looked at Allan, wondering what he should do. The Sheriff would be mad if they didn’t capture any outlaws, but he wasn’t sure that Guy of Gisborne was really harmless after the accident, and he didn’t want to make him angry.
Guy glanced at Robin: the outlaw had been waiting, with his bow pointed at the guards, ready to attack, but also ready to run away.
“Shouldn’t you capture Hood instead of damaging my servants? If tomorrow he won’t be able to work, I’ll consider you responsible for this!” Guy said in his most menacing tone, then he turned to Allan. “And you, get immediately on the wagon! I don’t pay you for losing your time! I bet that you were going to the tavern again instead of doing your work!”
Allan looked at him, startled and confused, and he didn’t move.
Guy took the horsewhip, and he made it snap close to Allan’s face, almost touching him.
“I said to get on the wagon, NOW,” he growled, and this time Allan hurried to obey, clumsily climbing on the wagon. The guards sneered at him, then they turned their attention to Robin Hood, just in time to see him running away.
They all went after the outlaw, in pursuit, deciding to ignore Gisborne and his lazy servant.
Guy turned the wagon around, heading to Knighton. At his side, Allan was still too upset and surprised to talk. He couldn’t believe that Gisborne had risked so much to save his life. Guy had no power anymore, and if the guards hadn’t believed him, he could have been arrested and maybe executed for associating with an outlaw.
Allan realized that Guy had just risked to lose everything again, just to help him.
He glanced at the knight.
“Hey, Giz...” He began, almost shyly, and Guy turned to look at him, with a smirk.
“I bet that now you are not so sorry because I forced you to wash.”
When the wagon stopped in front of Knighton Hall, Allan had already recovered from the scare.
“So, Giz, what were you doing in the forest? Not that I complain, you arrived just in time to save me, but it was unusual for you to take the wagon on your own.”
Guy blushed a little. He didn’t want to admit how much he had missed going around on his own.
Now that he could use a wagon, he had some of his freedom back and he was beginning to appreciate even a single trip in the village or through the forest like he had never done before the accident. It wasn’t like riding a horse, but it was better than being trapped inside a house for weeks and weeks.
But Guy didn’t want to show what he considered a childish weakness to Allan, so he found another explanation, also true.
“I couldn’t wait to know if Hood gave you the informations we need.”
“So you came into the forest? Hey, man, you really care a lot for this project, don’t you?”
“I do. Well? Did he tell you something?”
“Sure he did! I have a list of the places where we can sell our flour. I think that if we organize the convoy well, we could be ready to depart tomorrow at dawn.”
“Good. Let’s do it.”
Allan helped Guy to get off the wagon, and he gave him the crutch before Gisborne could ask for it.
Guy gave him a look of amused surprise, and Allan shrugged, a little embarrassed.
“Hey, Giz… You risked a lot with those guards… If they didn’t believe you, you’d have been in big troubles.”
“Why shouldn’t they believe me? I wasn’t lying: you are my servant.”
Guy gave him a serious stare.
“You are now. You might not like this, but those guards now know you, they’ll remember your face and if they find you consorting with Hood again, the Sheriff will be more than happy than hanging you. And me with you as well. You can’t go back to the forest, you have to stay here and work here, or they’ll find out that I lied to them. We’d endanger even Sir Edward and Marian, so you have no choice.”
“I guess I can manage. Better than being dead, right?”
“You’ve such a good opinion of me, I see,” he said, sarcastic, and Allan laughed.
Better than you think, Giz. Way better.
Vaisey sat on the high bench, shaking his feet without touching the floor, while listening to the words of the soldier at the head of the patrol back from that bloody Sherwood Forest.
Only God knew why he hadn’t yet decided to set fire once and for all, to that bloody forest.
The only thing that had prevented the Sheriff to become the Nero of England was having to listen to Prince John who then would say, laughing: "A whole burning forest to take a single boy, a boy!"
Not only his soldiers were unable to capture Hood despite having intercepted him, but they had been also mocked and threatened by Guy of Gisborne...
Guy of Gisborne, for God's sake!
A cripple, poor, useless man against his armed guards.
Vaisey wanted to surround the Nottingham Castle with a beautiful moat full of water and Nile crocodiles just to throw his guards in the water and make them disappear.
Possibly along with Robin.
Awakening from his day-dreaming, he came down from the bench, passed over the imposing figure of Alexander and, without losing time in the middle, slapped the soldier, so strong that he made him waver and then fall to the ground.
“Useless men. I am surrounded by useless men. Your task,” Vaisey said, turning to Alexander, with black poison in the voice, “is turning these useless people, to people capable to capture and kill outlaws like Hood, on the spot, and not people who feel threatened by a poor cripple and his servant! Gisborne's servant!” Vaisey shouted.
“Servant? If Gisborne is now poor and cripple as you say, how can he have a well dressed servant in his service? And above all, why was Hood there with them?” Alexander said, not at all intimidated by Vaisey .
“Gisborne said that Hood was robbing his servant,” the wounded soldier said.
But another one, a younger one added, in a low voice: “It seems to me to have already seen him, among Hood's men.”
“Repeat it, boy, loudly!” Alexander sternly ordered.
“I, I think I've seen him before. He was among Hood's men.”
“Oh great, now Gisborne has a former outlaw for a servant,” Vaisey said, bitterly. But then he looked at Alexander, thoughtful and suspicious, and he began to think and suspect too.
If the boy was right, Gisborne had lied, or worse, had been in league with Hood.
He went from being the idiot of the castle to a possible enemy.
And perhaps he wasn’t entirely harmless, then.
What was happening in the forest?
Oh no, Guy was NOT becoming a danger to Nottingham. He would never allow him to be a danger to him, to his goals.
“Watch him,” Vaisey ordered to Alexander. “Find out what he does, with whom, who is involved with, and why. And report anything to me directly. Is everything clear? And I WANT my money from Knighton! Now go! All of you: go away!”
Alexander wanted to split his face, in two.
That old useless man, going so fiercely against Gisborne like a pervert lover who had been betrayed.
But no less, Gisborne had to be controlled.
The half-french couldn’t know that he had been the abettor of the failed assassination of King Richard inside the camp, but he never had to find out.
So he had to be controlled, strictly controlled. Studied, followed, because every man has a weakness.
The leper-woman maybe? Or something else?
Alexander had to find out what Guy wanted. Desired. Feared. To have leverage to use with him, in case.
Or to kill him, directly, if he should become really dangerous.
But not for Vaisey.
Chapter 27: Come Back to Me
Guy’s heart was beating faster while he went up the stairs, helped by Allan, but it wasn’t because of the effort. He was worried for what he was going to do.
Arrived upstairs, he waved Allan away, and the outlaw nodded and went back to his work: they had to organize the trip and finish loading the wagons with the sacks of flour.
Guy waited for him to go away, then he hobbled to Marian’s door, and he took a deep breath before knocking.
He was worried.
He knew that he had to inform her of their project, in fact they were going to sell the flour produced in Knighton, and that belonged to Sir Edward. He should have asked the permission of the elderly lord, but Marian’s father was too sick and Guy knew that he hadn’t to be burdened by new worries.
But he had to tell Marian.
She was better, and she wouldn’t be too stressed in knowing what Guy was going to do, but he couldn’t help being afraid that she could find the whole thing silly, a waste of time and resources.
Vaisey, he knew, would have ridiculed his idea, just because it came from Guy, undermining him as usual.
Marian was not the Sheriff.
But he couldn’t help thinking that she would laugh at him, or that maybe she would be mad at him.
Marian was sitting in her bed, still cold, and vaguely bored. She would have liked to be able to stand up and leave the bed, but Matilda had advised her to prudence and attention. And if there was one thing that gave Marian a great deal of discomfort, it was inactivity.
She raised her eyes to the ceiling, sighing, when Guy came in from the door, his face a little flushed He seemed slightly tired and a little embarrassed, at first. Insecure.
What a strange contrast to the Guy she knew. But in a few seconds she saw him picking up his thoughts. And he took a more upright posture, his own. Elegant, in his own way.
He wants to tell me something, she thought.
“Guy, come in, you can come closer. Matilda says that my illness is not dangerous to others, come closer to me,” the girl said.
Guy walked to the bed, and looked around, uncertain if he should stand, or sit on the chair at its side.
He glanced at the girl, and he felt both nervous for what he had to say, and relieved to see that she was better than the last time he had seen her.
At last he decided to sit. Standing with the crutch and all, was both painful and awkward.
He sat and put the crutch on the floor, then he lifted his eyes to look at Marian. The girl was waiting, a little frown on her face betraying her impatience.
“Good evening, Marian. I hope that you feel better...” He hesitated. “I...”
“Please, Guy, please continue. Is there anything that you want to tell me? You look worried. Is it about my father?” Marian felt guilty because she couldn’t take care of him in these days of her illness, and Guy seemed to want to say something difficult, something tough.
Marian encouraged him with her eyes.
Guy looked at her, surprised.
“Your father? Oh, no, it’s not about him. Well, actually it is too, but not about his health, sorry if I worried you. His situation is unchanged. Matilda said that he needs to rest and to be quiet, that’s why I need to talk to you. Maybe you will think that I haven’t acted properly, and probably it’s true, but I didn’t want to speak about it before I was sure about what to do… I wish I could have spared every trouble to you, but I have to tell you because I can’t talk to Sir Edward, he could be upset and I don’t want to damage his health. But still, I can’t act on my own without asking for your permission, but I hope you will agree. I know that now it’s a little late to ask you, but we needed to act fast because the situation is serious.”
“What situation, Guy? Tell me. Let me help you.” The girl tried to get out of bed, but Guy reached out to her, as if to stop her, and looked at her with a serious, but gentle, almost melancholic, look.
As if he was about to leave.
To leave her.
Marian didn’t understand why this hypothesis made her feel suddenly so agitated.
“I have to go away, Marian,” he said, looking at her, “but I’ll be back in a few days. Please promise me that you will take care of yourself while I’m not here. I wish I could stay to help you, but I must go. For Knighton.”
She gasped. For a moment everything around her was black, completely black.
She didn’t understand.
“Guy! Why are you going away now? You're not fully healed! You still need help! And what does Knighton have to do with this? The Sheriff... it must be something about the Sheriff! Did he come here? Nobody told me that! Has he threatened you, somehow? Has he threatened my father? I will not allow it. If it's the last thing I do, come what may, I will not let him!”
Marian grabbed his hand, as if to hold him.
Guy stared at her hand, startled. He had been nervous about her reaction, but he didn’t expect her words. It was almost as if she didn’t want him to leave, as if she wanted him to stay at Knighton.
“Yes, it’s the Sheriff’s fault, but he didn’t menace me or your father. Not directly, at least. It’s about the taxes: James said that this month Knighton couldn’t reach the requested sum.”
Marian was astonished.
“But it’s not possible,” she said. “We've always paid taxes. My people are good people. They are good workers. We have always tried to help them. How can you help us? The Sheriff took Locksley from you! I don’t want you to give up your money for us, you could need it in the future.”
The girl approached him, more closely, looking into his eyes, looking in his blue, deep gaze for an anchor of salvation to the fear she was feeling.
“What are you going to do, Guy? I don’t want sacrifices on your part... and... and I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
“James said that this month the taxes were doubled. I don’t know why, maybe the Sheriff wanted to punish you and your father for helping me. That’s why I have to do something.” Guy sighed. “Marian, I wish that I had money and I’d be glad to use it to pay the taxes of Knighton, but I don’t. The Sheriff took everything I had, except for a few personal items that your father managed to take from Locksley for me. That’s why I need your permission.”
Marian felt moved for the sincerity with which Guy was talking to her, about her situation, their situation, now. He was genuinely worried, He really wanted to help her. She felt sure of his intentions. And Vaisey... that wicked, ruthless man. Her contempt for the man, already very strong and rooted, climbed another step toward fury, something that now bordered the desire for vengeance in her.
She had suffered too many wrongs from him, and too many people around her had suffered his bullying. Including Guy.
“My permission to do what, Guy?" She said.
“To sell the flour produced here in Knighton to the villages near York. I got the information that they need it and that they are willing to buy it for a higher price. And on our way back we’ll buy some milk and we’ll sell it to Nettlestone. I know that I should have asked earlier, before organizing everything, but we weren’t sure that it could actually work and I didn’t want to worry you when you were so ill...”
It was an idea.
A good idea.
A honest idea.
Completely unexpected coming from Guy. Marian had never thought that there might be such a capable person behind the hard mask and leather of Vaisey's guard.
She was amazed.
She realized that she had underestimated him, she had considered only his appearance, his manners, his way of doing, talking, when he was working for the hated sheriff.
Yes, that was a good idea. She had to support him, for the salvation of all of them. Also his.
She had to be his guide, his strength, his inspiration.
But maybe Guy was, silently, about to become her own strength, her own guide. Knighton's salvation. Her salvation.
Life is so strange, Marian thought, smiling.
"Yes, Guy, you have my permission, and my blessing, for that matter. But why do you speak with plural? Who will come with you?" She asked, a sweet smile on her lips.
Guy smiled at her, relieved that she approved his idea.
“Allan A Dale, a few of my former guards and enough people from Knighton to drive the wagons. We will try to get there and back as soon as we can. We need to be fast, the taxes are due soon”.
“Is Allan the boy from Robin's gang?” Marian was surprised and pleasantly surprised that Guy could think of collaborating with a man who had been his opponent until recently. “You surely have some hidden talent, Guy.”
She smiled openly.
“Yes, he was an outlaw. Now he works for me, and, don’t tell him, but he proved himself really useful. It was him who got the information about the places where we could sell our flour. He asked Robin Hood. Of course he didn’t tell him that this was my project.”
“And you'll need every possible help in this risky journey, so it's a good thing, in the end, to have his support,” she added.
Who knows if one day Guy could find an agreement with Robin for a bigger, better purpose, she thought.
“I understand,” she said. “Be careful, be cautious, and I hope everything will be fine. Knighton counts on you. I count on you. Godspeed!” Marian replied.
Guy got up, and bowed to Marian.
A small bow who was right in their world, but now, that bow seemed too formal for the liking of the young girl, no longer needed, between them.
Guy resumed his crutch, heading toward the door.
Marian got up from the bed with sudden, fragile strength but strong impetus, and Guy just caught her in time in his arms, almost losing his balance in the process.
Marian was embracing him, hugging him. In silence, without saying anything. She slid her small hands over his back. She leaned her head on his heart, surprised to hear that it was now beating fast and madly.
Marian closed her eyes, listening to that unknown rhythm, different from hers.
Guy couldn't believe that Marian was so close to him. Her body, still a little feverish, was warm and soft in his arms, and her head was resting on his chest.
She could surely hear how furiously his heart was beating and he felt a little embarrassed for this, but it didn’t really matter.
Marian was hugging him!
She trusted him!
And if he succeeded, she would be proud of him!
He wanted to kiss her, not with rage this time, but with all his love, he wanted to hold her close forever and never let her go.
Guy lifted his hand to touch her hair, to caress the dark curls, shortened by the Sheriff’s punishment and not yet grown back to their full length. They were soft under his fingers and that simple touch filled his heart with a tenderness he had rarely felt in his whole life.
She was there, strong and fragile at the same time. Just like him, with his broken leg and wounded pride, he realized.
In that moment they were equals, both vulnerable, but with the strength to protect each other, somehow.
Guy didn’t kiss her. He just closed his eyes and kept her in his arms, relishing that moment.
Gisborne crossed the arms in front of him, watching the wagons being loaded. James was the only inhabitant of Knighton Hall awake at that time in the morning and the manor was silent.
Guy wished that Marian would come to watch them leave and bid them good luck, but he knew that the girl was still weak and that she needed as much rest as she could get.
He could still feel the warmth of her body in his arms, and for a moment he didn’t want to leave, he just wished he could run back to her side and hold her like that forever.
He ignored those thoughts, now it was important to focus on their mission and earn the money to pay the taxes and save Knighton. They didn’t have much time, and the trip could be dangerous.
Gisborne had talked with many of the guards who had worked for him, but only a few of them accepted a job that offered so few guarantees.
Those men weren’t skillful warriors, they were little more than simple peasants who became guards to earn money to feed their families. They weren’t brave or talented fighters as guards, and now most of them were afraid to travel far from their villages, risking to be attacked by the outlaws.
Just five of them had decided to join the convoy and Guy hoped that they were enough to protect the wagons.
He touched the hilt of his sword. It was a long time since he used it, and he wasn’t sure that he could fight at all with a injured leg, but its weight was reassuring.
He watched Allan, who was organizing the wagons, and getting them ready to begin their travel, and nodded, satisfied: when he wanted to, the former outlaw was smart and capable, full of ideas.
Allan reached him, smiling.
“Well, Giz, it seems that we are ready to go.”
“Good. Get on the last wagon, I’ll be on the first, so we can keep an eye on all the convoy,” Guy said, and James intervened, concerned.
“Are you afraid that the outlaws could attack the wagons?”
“Not in this part of the forest. Hood will let us pass untouched if he knows that we are doing this for Sir Edward, but when we’ll be out of his territory, we can’t know who we could meet.”
“This is dangerous, isn’t it, Sir Guy? The men who drive the wagons are not warriors or knights, they are just peasants, they have families.”
Guy looked at the old servant.
“And their families won’t have a roof over their heads if we can’t pay the taxes. They’ll have to take the risk. We all have to. Listen, I know that no one of you really trusts me, but I want this to work, I really do, and I’ll do whatever I can to protect all of them.”
“I believe you, Sir Guy,” James said, but he looked down at the leg of the knight, at the crutch that Guy still needed to walk, “but will you be able to do it? A couple of months ago you were almost dead, and you aren’t completely healed yet. If there should be an attack, will you be able to fight?”
“If needed, I will. I know that I’m not strong as I was once, but I won’t surrender.”
Allan glanced at him.
“Wait a moment, Giz.”
Allan ran inside the manor, and came back after a while, holding a bow, similar to the one used by Robin. He handed it to Guy, with a quiver of arrows.
“I’m not an archer. And where did you get this?”
“It was one of Robin’s spares. We have an artisan in Locksley making them for us...” He stopped abruptly, and glanced at Guy, afraid that he had said too much. Nobody should know that people of Locksley were helping the gang, but after all Gisborne saved his life, he deserved his trust. He looked at the bow, and continued. “I know that you’re not an archer, Giz, but with a bow you could attack enemies even without moving from your seat on the wagon. Even if you aren’t a good shot, nobody likes to see an arrow pointed at them.”
Guy took the weapon to examine it: it was smaller than the usual bows, but it was curved so that it could shoot with the same strength of a bigger bow. It was made of a fine wood and Guy thought that it was a good weapon.
If the sheriff knew that an artisan from Locksley was creating such bows for Robin Hood, that man would end in the dungeons or even to the gallows. Well, that man was lucky because now Guy wouldn’t even think to tell Vaisey about it.
Actually he was beginning to sympathize with anyone who could oppose the sheriff and create troubles to him. Except for Hood.
“Hood let you take one of his bows?” Guy asked to Allan, and the other man shrugged.
“Well, I didn’t ask. He ordered me to stay at Knighton with you and I didn’t know if I could trust you, so later, while you were sleeping, I went back to the camp and I grabbed a few weapons. Just in case.”
Guy stared at him, surprised, then he grinned.
“Well, good for me, I got a good bow for free,” he said, nocking an arrow and aiming at the trunk of a tree in the distance. He let it go, but the arrow flew to the left of the tree, missing it completely.
“Well, Giz, maybe you got a bow for free, but you have to work on your aim, I think.”
“Stop laughing or I’ll practice using you as a target. Now help me to get on the wagon and let’s go.”
“Oh, wait a moment, I have this for you too.”
Allan gave him a little silver chain with a cross.
Guy looked at it, uncertain.
“Did you steal this from Hood too? Why are you giving it to me?”
“As if I’d give you jewelry! No, when I went inside to take the bow, one of the maids, the pretty one with blond hair, was waiting for me at the end of the stairs. She called me and she gave me this. I thought that she wanted to give it to me for protection, because she was worried for me, so I tried to hug her to get a kiss. Could you believe that she slapped me?!”
Guy smiled, amused.
“Yes, I can believe it very well.”
“However she was laughing, so I guess that she wasn’t too sorry that I tried. I asked why she was giving me a gift if she didn’t want me to kiss her, and she laughed again. She said that this was for you.”
“For me? That girl hates me!”
“Of course she does, you should have seen her expression when she said that. It looked like she had just drank a cup of vinegar instead of a cup of wine. However she said that it was not from her, but that it was from Lady Marian. So I took the necklace and promised that I’d give it to you, but I told her that I deserved a gift too because I was also risking my life for her too. I asked for a kiss, but she blushed and giggled. She said ‘we’ll see if you come back successfully’. Do you think I have a chance with her, Giz?”
Guy had stopped listening to him when he said Marian’s name, so he didn’t answer to his last question. He took the little chain, and put it around his neck, trying to hide his emotion.
Marian gave a gift to him, a cross to protect him. Did it mean that she cared for him?
He turned his back to Allan, and hobbled to the first wagon, so that the outlaw couldn’t see how moved he was. However he couldn’t climb on it on his own, so he waited near the vehicle for Allan to reach him, using those few second to collect himself.
He touched the little cross with a finger, then he turned to look back at the manor, thinking of Marian.
She was there, at her window, staring at him in silence, her expression halfway between pride and expectation. She still seemed fragile to his worried eyes, the white and warm shawl that wrapped her shoulders, protecting her from the cold.
She didn’t smile.
Was she worried about him?
The small silver cross on his chest was light and warm, now. Her warmth, his warmth.
He wouldn’t disappoint her, he’d do whatever he could to save Knighton and return to her.
Honestly, with honor.
Into Guy's eyes there was now awareness and pride, he was now exactly like the knight who had accompanied her childhood dreams. Even though he was climbing on the wagon with some difficulty, helped by other people.
Maybe that was the real courage, Marian thought. She felt really proud of him.
"Come back, Guy. Back at home, this home, my home, your home now. Come back,safe and sound," she whispered.