Marian turned in bed, still half asleep, and she moved closer to Guy, unconsciously searching for the warmth of his body. They had opened the chain before going to sleep, and the knight had offered her the bed, ready to sleep on the floor, but she had refused.
“Don’t be silly, Guy, it’s still cold at night, and we had already slept in the same bed. I trust you.”
She would always remember the happy, grateful look in his eyes at her words, and how respectfully he had stretched on his side of the bed, careful not to touch her.
Marian opened her eyes to look at him, so peacefully asleep, and smiled, snuggling closer to him.
Guy hugged her, without waking up, protective, and Marian let him, enjoying the safe refuge of his arms.
Maybe it was wrong, sinful, to sleep with a man who wasn’t her husband, but she didn’t feel guilty, in fact she felt safe and reassured. She fell asleep again, and when she woke up, at dawn, Guy was already awake, looking at her.
“Good morning,” he said softly, a smile on his lips.
Marian stifled the sudden impulse of kissing those lips, instead she smiled back to him.
“You have been good yesterday, your plan saved Clun,” she said, and once again she saw that happy light, so unusual in him, brightening his eyes.
“We did it, together. I think I never met a woman as brave as you.”
Marian closed her eyes, leaning her head on his chest. She could hear his heartbeat, and she found herself smiling.
Guy still loved her, she knew that, and she realized that now his love wasn’t so unwelcome as it once was.
She held her breath at this thought.
No, it can’t be... Guy is a friend, I love Robin.
But still, she did nothing to move away from Guy’s hug.
At last, he was him who stirred, reluctantly.
“We must get ready, the sheriff won’t tolerate another delay,” he said, with a sigh, and the girl nodded.
“Do you think that he will agree to remove this chain today? I found another nightgown identical to the first one, but I’d really love to wear something else.”
“Maybe, it depends if he got bored of laughing at us or not. Act as if you got used at being chained to me. He is entertained by our discomfort, if we don’t show it, he’ll get tired.”
“It won’t be too difficult: I got used at being chained to you. It isn’t too terrible, to be honest.”
Guy bent to gently kiss her cheek.
“I don’t mind, either.” He didn’t say that actually he loved being so close to her and that in his heart he hoped that Vaisey wouldn’t free them so soon. “But I wouldn’t dislike being able to bathe and change my clothes freely.”
They hurried to get ready, and then Guy and Marian closed the manacles around their wrists again.
Marian followed Guy, and she noticed how Guy’s expression grew detached as they got nearer to the sheriff’s chambers.
Gisborne entered into Vaisey’s room, dropping on the table the pile of parchment he was carrying.
“Good morning, my lord, I’m sorry to disturb you...” he began in a flat, professional tone, but he stopped talking when he realized that the sheriff wasn’t there. Instead, a stranger was sitting on the sheriff’s chair, with his feet on the table. Guy stared at him for a moment, then he unsheathed his sword, with some difficulty, being chained to Marian.
“Who are you? Where is the sheriff?!”
“I was about to ask you the same question. And I’d be careful with that sword if I were you: you hurt me, you hurt Prince John, I’m his special envoy.”
Marian stared at the man, then she glanced at Guy.
“Is it true? Do you know him?”
The knight shook his head.
“Never seen him before.”
“Well, that’s because I arrive at dawn every other Thursday, share a glass of wine with the Sheriff, he stamps his seal here, I take it to Prince John and the Prince knows that all is well in the provinces. But today all is not well, is it? No sheriff, no stamp... And of course you have no idea what’s happened to him.”
Guy and Marian exchanged a look, then Gisborne answered him.
“Well, you should better find out. If anything happens to the sheriff, Prince John will send an army to raze Nottingham to the ground.”
“We don’t know what happened to the sheriff,” Marian said, but the man grinned unpleasantly.
“He’s not here, that’s enough. I already sent word to the army. They’ll destroy Nottingham at sunset, if the sheriff doesn’t show up.”
“You can’t do it!” Marian exclaimed, horrified, and the man grinned.
“I just did.”
The girl looked at Guy: the knight was shocked and she could see fear in his eyes, but then Guy took heart, and he sprang into action.
“Come,” he said to her, starting to walk out of the room at a fast pace. “Guards! You! Call Allan. And you! Go and send me the jailer in the main hall, immediately! ”
He kept giving orders to all the soldiers they met on their route to the great hall, where Guy eventually stopped.
“Guy? Where do you think the sheriff is now?” She asked, frowning.
“I have no idea. This never happened before. Usually he is in bed at this time of the morning, or, if he’s awake he’s here or in his lodgings, working at his plans.”
“Maybe he went on a trip? To meet some of his allies?”
“He would tell me, he’d ask me to organize everything for him. And even if he wanted to keep the secret from me, he wouldn’t leave the day when Prince John’s envoy is coming. He’s not forgetful, he’d remember that he must put his seal on that tablet.”
Allan came running in the room.
“What’s going on, Giz? The guard said that you wanted to see me. He looked almost frightened, he said that you were terribly upset.”
“The sheriff is missing, and Prince John is going to destroy Nottingham. Form a search team, find out what happened.”
Allan’s eyes widened in surprise, but he didn’t ask any questions and he hurried to obey.
After a while, even the jailer arrived, and Gisborne gave a stern look at the man.
“Open these manacles.”
The jailer gave a sly grin at him, unwilling to comply.
“The sheriff ordered to keep you chained together.”
“The sheriff isn’t here now, so I’m in charge. Open these locks immediately or I’ll have you flogged!”
This time the man was startled by Guy’s tone, and he understood that it would have been better to obey. He took his keys and finally set Guy and Marian free.
Guy threw the chain at him, with contempt.
“Take your things and go back to the dungeons.”
The jailer was just gone, when Allan came back with a young, frightened servant. The girl had been working in the stables early in the morning, before dawn, and she had seen the sheriff taking his horse. He had ordered her to open the gate, and she had obeyed, even if she was surprised because he was wearing only his night clothes.
Gisborne let the girl go back to her duties, and he turned to Allan.
“Take the guards and search the castle and the town, check every house, every corner… even the wells and the ponds.” He took a deep breath before looking at Marian. “Call Hood,” he said, lowering his tone, “he knows the forest perfectly, he can surely find the sheriff.”
Both Allan and Marian went away, the former taking all the guards with him, and Guy remained alone in the hall.
He wearily sat on the sheriff’s chair, and sighed.
“Sir Edward?” He called, and the ghost appeared in front of him. “I need your help. Do you know where is the sheriff?”
“I don’t. I was watching over Marian, tonight.”
“You were watching us sleep? Were you afraid that I could hurt her?”
“Don’t be offended, Sir Guy, I know that Marian can trust you, but I’m still a father, I find unsettling to see my daughter sleeping with a man… and a man who loves and wants her so deeply as you do.”
Gisborne looked at the ghost, wondering what Sir Edward had seen in his mind during the night, and hoping that his thoughts hadn’t been too embarrassing.
“Now there’s a more urgent matter: we have to find the sheriff or the whole town will be in danger. Can you do… something to locate him?”
“I can try.”
Sir Edward disappeared, and Guy covered his face with the hands, trying to calm down.
He was terrified, afraid that the responsibility of the destruction of Nottingham would fall on his shoulders, another burden to carry, another fault on his soul…
I’m not good enough to save the town… I’ll fail again.
Vaisey always repeated to him that he should always follow his orders because he wasn’t smart enough to make his own plans, that he was only good to do what he was told and no more.
Was it true? Was he really always destined to fail?
He thought of Marian, of the first words she had whispered to him in the morning: “You have been good, your plan saved Clun.”
She had been happy, proud of him, and, thinking of her, Guy felt his fear lessening.
He was doing everything he could to find the sheriff, he had moved immediately and he had sent the guards in a thorough search, he wasn’t doing bad, he just had to keep calm.
Sir Edward appeared near the sheriff, and he watched Vaisey walking barefoot into the forest. The sheriff stepped on a thorn, and he cried, holding his foot, and Edward grinned.
“Well deserved,” he said, even if Vaisey couldn’t hear him.
At the same time, a large man approached, staring at the sheriff.
“I’ve been watching you, you have been sleepwalking.”
The sheriff looked at him, surprised, and the other touched his clothes, fingering the smooth fabric.
Vaisey glared at him.
“I am the sheriff of Nottingham! I do not sleepwalk. And you will take me to Nottingham.”
The other tugged at Vaisey’s night clothes, a greedy look in his eyes, then he knelt him in the groin, to rob him. Vaisey cried in pain, and he fell onto his back, while the mugger came closer, determined to take his silk clothes. The sheriff bit his hand, and the robber howled in pain: when Vaisey opened his mouth, his jeweled tooth was embedded in the man’s wrist.
The sheriff grinned, expecting the mugger to run away, but the man unsheathed a dagger and buried it in Vaisey’s chest.
The sheriff stared at it for a moment, in disbelief, then he coughed and his mouth filled with blood. He fell back to the ground, and died, staring at the sky.
The murderer pulled the sheriff’s tooth out his own wrist, and the dagger out the sheriff’s body, then, slowly, he began undressing the corpse, paying attention to keep the silk clean from blood.
Sir Edward looked at the scene, astonished. He had seen the darkness in the robber’s heart, but he didn’t expect him to kill the sheriff, nor that Vaisey could be caught by surprise.
Edward realized the meaning of what he had just seen: he had no love for the sheriff, and he thought that Vaisey deserved to die, but now there was no way to save Nottingham.
“I have to warn Sir Guy...” He said to himself, and he vanished.
Guy followed Prince John’s envoy, Sir Jasper, and Marian reached them both, a little out of breath.
Gisborne gave her a questioning glance and the girl nodded, meaning that she had sent her message to Robin Hood. Guy was relieved to know it, even if he wondered why Sir Edward was taking so long.
He was a ghost, he should have been able to find people! At least, he seemed to know perfectly where he and Marian were all the time, appearing suddenly to check if his daughter was safe with Guy.
But until he had news of the sheriff, either from Robin or from the ghost, Guy had to try anything he could think to keep Nottingham safe. He had learned from bitter experience that it was always better not to expect help from the others.
“Sir Jasper, I hope that we can come to a sort of understanding. We are all working to find the sheriff.”
The other man looked at him.
“You’re not doing a very good job, are you?”
“We just need some more time, but I’m sure that we’ll find him.”
“Time? You have till sunset. I can’t make any exception for you or every other ambitious young captain will murder his sheriff hoping to get away with it.”
“Guy didn’t kill the sheriff!”
“I didn’t kill the sheriff!” Guy and Marian said at the same time, and Jasper just stared at them, not convinced at all.
Gisborne sighed, trying another kind of approach.
“Look, I could make you a very rich man...”
Jasper stopped in front of a window, and he turned to Guy, looking at him with amused contempt.
“Do you think that my ambition is to be a messenger forever? No, Sir Guy. If Nottingham will be razed to ground, it will have to be rebuilt, and the royal charter for reconstruction has been licensed to my cousin. You can’t offer me anything more than what I’m already going to get.”
Marian stomped her foot to the floor.
“This isn’t right! You can’t destroy Nottingham!” She cried, while Guy looked at Jasper, pale and grave.
“You really are going to do this, aren’t you?”
“Sure. Come sunset, no sheriff, no Nottingham.”
With this, Sir Jasper went, leaving Guy and Marian in front of the window.
“He can’t do this! It’s wrong!” The girls shook her head, on the verge of tears.
Guy kept staring outside, and Marian realized that he was scared. She stopped complaining, and she walked at his side, taking his hand. Guy turned to look at her for a moment, grateful, then he went back to stare at something in the distance.
Marian tried to understand what was fascinating him so much, but she could only see what seemed a cloud of smoke.
“What is it? A fire?”
“It’s Prince John’s army. When many man are moving, they kick up a lot of dust. This must be a great army...”