“We can’t go to the castle! It’s surely a trap!” Little John said, shaking his head.
“The message from Marian said that I would have safe passage today.” Robin looked at the gate leading to the courtyard of the castle, and knew that something was amiss: there were no guards at the gate, just two of the servants of the castle.
“You can’t trust Gisborne!” Much complained, worried and afraid. “If you go into the castle alone, he’ll kill you!”
Robin bitterly thought that he probably could trust Gisborne more than Marian at the moment, because now he knew perfectly well what the knight had in his soul, while he was afraid that the girl didn’t know what was going on in her own heart.
“Gisborne may be our enemy, but he would never break an oath, if he gave his word, he won’t betray us.”
The outlaws looked at him, surprised, but they stepped aside to let him enter the castle. Allan was there, waiting for him, and he led him to the great hall.
Guy and Marian were there, Guy sitting on the sheriff’s chair, and the girl standing at his side. They were talking, still unaware of his presence, and Marian seemed to be comforting the knight, who was pale and tense. She had a hand on his arm, and while they talked, she was stroking him lightly, in a reassuring gesture.
Robin felt something dark and bitter growing in his heart at this sight, it was a disturbing sensation, as if he was the intruder between them, as if his presence could only spoil things instead of making them better.
Then Guy noticed him, and Marian too, just a moment after. They both looked relieved, sincerely happy to see him, and this made his uneasiness even worse. His jealousy made him feel guilty too.
“So, what’s up? How did you lose the sheriff?” He said, smugly, deciding to show off a little to avert his own mind from those unpleasant thoughts. “And now you need me to find him… Well, Gisborne, I didn’t expect that you would ask for my help.”
Guy rolled his eyes. Once, Robin’s demeanor would have irked him, but now he found it almost comforting: the world could fall into ruins around them, but the outlaw would always be his cheeky self.
He was about to answer him with equally provoking words, when he suddenly saw Sir Edward appearing in the hall. Guy noticed that even Robin had seen him, because he had to stifle a wince.
“Sir Guy, Robin, I have to talk to you. Alone,” the ghost said, looking at Marian and Allan.
Guy and Robin exchanged a worried glance, then Guy turned to Allan.
“Any news from the guards? Go and check if they found anything, then go to the kitchen and see that the cooks are ready to prepare meals for the men of the search teams. Marian, please, go with him, you are good at organizing deliveries of supplies, and if we can provide those men with some food, they won’t lose time coming back at the castle to eat.”
Allan nodded, but the girl hesitated, glancing at Robin. She understood that Guy’s request was also a pretext for sending her and Allan away from the hall, and she was worried that he wanted to fight with Robin.
The knight touched her hand, and searched her gaze.
“Trust me.” He mouthed, and she answered with a slight nod and a little smile.
“For a few coins, we could ask the children of the town to deliver the meals to the guards, so the servants won’t be distracted from their duties,” she suggested.
“Good idea, do it,” Guy agreed.
It was actually a sensible suggestion, but now, seeing Sir Edward’s expression, he would have agreed to anything, just to to hasten the delivery of the news he was carrying.
According to the dark face of the ghost, it couldn’t be good, but not knowing was even worse.
Even Robin probably agreed with him, because he didn’t make any of his witty remarks, he just kept silent, waiting for Marian and Allan to leave.
As soon as they were alone, they both turned to the ghost.
“How bad is it?” Guy asked, in a whisper.
Sir Edward floated closer.
“The sheriff is dead.”
Guy stood up abruptly, and he instinctively tried to grab Sir Edward’s arms, but the ghost vanished and reappeared a little further to avoid his touch.
“Careful, don’t touch me or you’ll be sick again!” Edward said, worried, and Gisborne stared blankly at him.
“It can’t be. He can’t be dead,” he whispered, in shock.
Even Robin stood up, and he walked closer to Guy.
“What happened?” He asked.
“A man wanted to rob him in the forest, the sheriff tried to react, and the robber stabbed him.”
Robin closed his eyes for a moment, trying to think, but he was feeling so upset that he couldn’t focus. He turned to look at Gisborne and for a moment he thought that the knight was going to die as well.
He remembered what he had seen in Guy’s mind, the bond that he had formed with the sheriff when he was just a boy, the mixture of love and hate that he had for that cruel man. For Guy, Vaisey had been a father and an oppressor at the same time, a strong influence in his life, and, even if his loyalty to him had become weaker since Guy had fallen in love with Marian, the sheriff’s death was still a big shock for him.
Robin felt pity and worry for his former enemy, and he put a hand on his shoulder.
“Gisborne? Are you alright? Sit down...”
Guy winced at his touch, and he looked at Robin for a moment, then he dropped himself on the chair, burying the face in his hands.
“How can I be alright? How can any of us be alright?! He’s dead and we are all dead as well! They’ll destroy the town as soon as they know! We’re all dead!”
Robin shook him.
“Shut up!” He ordered, and Guy looked at him, helpless. “Calm down, Gisborne. I know that you’re upset, I am too, but we can’t afford to give up to panic. Try to breathe slowly, and listen to me.”
Guy closed his eyes, trying to obey him and drawing shaky breaths. After a while, he looked at Robin, hoping desperately that he had a solution.
“I am listening, Hood.”
“You are right. When they know that Vaisey is dead, they will attack. That’s why we must keep it secret, so we’ll have at least time until sunset.”
Guy nodded. He was still terrified and in shock, but if Robin had a plan, there could still be some hope.
“We must hide his body, then.”
“My men can do it, they will keep the secret. Sir Edward, you’ll have to tell me where we can find it. Guy, we must protect the town. Can your guards fight against Prince John’s army?”
“They wouldn’t last much. They are little more than peasants, the sheriff wanted many guards, but he didn’t want to lose money for their training. That’s why you could always enter the castle so easily.”
“That’s a hard blow to my self confidence, do you know?” He said, in a lighthearted tone and Guy answered with a half grin, then Robin became serious again. “If they can’t fight, I’m not sure that it would be a good idea to call them back, we would only lose more lives. Do you know if it will be a big army?”
“I’m afraid it is.”
“I could bring some gold here, we could bribe Prince John’s envoy.”
“No, we can’t. I already offered him the contents of the treasure room, but he wasn’t even tempted, And if he razes the town to the ground, he will get all of it, anyways.”
Robin sat in the other chair, heavily.
“We can’t fight… We can’t corrupt him… There must be something we can do.”
“Don’t you have one of your crazy plans?”
Robin shook his head, discouraged.
“Not today. Not yet.”
Guy let out a moan of frustration, and he leaned his back on the chair, closing his eyes once again.
He felt like he was going to be sick, and he took deep breaths to fight against a sudden wave of nausea. He couldn’t disgrace himself throwing up in front of Robin, so he sat still, with his eyes closed, trying to calm down.
Robin looked at him, quietly. Once, he would have made fun of his distress, even in that terrible situation, but now he just couldn’t. Actually, he felt somehow sorry for him, he could understand his terrible shock.
He stood, took a pitcher of wine that was on the table and filled two cups.
“Gisborne? Here, drink this,” he said, offering one to Guy, and downing the other in a single gulp.
Guy instead, took the cup and drank it with small sips, but when he finally emptied it, he felt better.
“Is this your plan, Hood? Getting drunk?”
“No, but we mustn’t lose hope. We will find a solution, I’m not going to give up until we do.”
“Sir Guy, Robin,” Sir Edward called them softly. He had waited in silence, but seeing them so upset and in despair, he decided to talk. “If the town can’t be saved, you should at least try to save the people.”
Robin looked at Guy.
“Do you think that we could evacuate Nottingham?” He asked, wondering where all those homeless people would go and how could they live. But it was still better to lose a home rather than their lives.
“I don’t know if Sir Jasper will allow it. Prince John promised to destroy the town and the people in it.”
“You have to save Marian,” the ghost said, and the two men looked at him. “If you can’t do anything else, at least her must live. Even if everyone else dies, she must survive.”
The words of the ghost were stern, irrefutable, even cruel, but both Robin and Guy agreed with him.
“I will protect her with my life,” Guy said, and Robin nodded.
“We’ll both protect her. But now we must decide what to do.”
“Hood, you have to hide the… the body of the sheriff. Meanwhile I’ll try to talk to Sir Jasper again, to persuade him to let go at least the women and the children.”
Robin looked at Guy.
“What will you say to Marian? She will notice how upset you are.”
“The truth. I won’t hide the severity of the situation to her. And then, her help might be precious.”
The outlaw nodded.
“She will ask you how you found it out.”
“I’ll say her that you told me, that you just got word from one of your men.”
“Very well. Talk to Sir Jasper, but be careful, if he suspects that the sheriff is dead, it will be the end. Don’t go there immediately, speak with Marian first, and calm down. Panicking won’t help us.”
“I’ll also check the weapons that we have in our armory, and I’ll ask Allan to be ready give them to the people who are willing to defend the town in case of a siege.”
“In that case, you can count on me and on the members of my gang who will agree to follow me.”
Guy looked at him, surprised.
“It’s foolish, Hood. If we came to a siege, it will be just a matter of time, but we are going to die. It would be a suicide.”
The outlaw looked out of the window, at the cloud of dust along the road that was getting closer any moment.
“I feel responsible. If it weren’t for me, the sheriff probably wouldn’t have asked for this agreement with Prince John. The menace of destroying Nottingham was to be sure that I wouldn’t kill him. There are many people in town, persons who are just innocent victims of this whole situation. I gave up everything to protect the oppressed, if they are to die because of my rebellion to the sheriff, it’s just right that I’m ready to die with them.”
Guy reached him near the window, stopping at Robin’s side, and crossing his arms in front of his chest while he watched the approaching army too.
“I still hope that you will come out with some insane plan,” Guy said after a moment of silence, with a little smirk, and he held a hand to Robin. “Come on, Hood, you always had a plan to hinder me, you can’t fail now that we are on the same side.”
Robin grinned, and took his hand.
“You’re a better man than I thought, Gisborne, but believe me, dying at your side is not my greatest ambition. So I guess I’ll have to find a solution.”
Robin turned to go away, but he stopped to look back at Guy: the knight had regained his composure, but Robin could see the shocked, frightened, hurt look in his eyes.
He found it strange, almost impossible, but Robin knew that, apart the menace of Prince John’s army, the death of the sheriff would take a toll on Gisborne in any case, that a part of his heart was going to mourn for Vaisey.
Robin reached for Gisborne's shoulder, and he gave him a quick, comforting squeeze.
“Be strong,” he said, in a sympathetic tone, “you won’t have to face all this alone.”
Guy looked at him, taken aback from his words, but Robin just grinned at him, and left the room.
“He’s right Sir Guy,” Edward said, nodding his agreement, “you won’t be alone. I can’t do much, but I can give you advice, I can offer my experience as sheriff.”
“Thank you,” Guy said, staring at him, “but you can do a lot: you can make use of your condition of ghost. Follow Sir Jasper, try to get information on his army, to find out the details of their plan to destroy the town, so we can counteract them more efficiently. And search for a way to allow the people of Nottingham to evacuate the town when the army will attack.”
“I will,” the ghost said, vanishing.
Guy went back to the sheriff’s chair, and he sat down, closing his eyes for a moment and massaging the bridge of his nose.
He was still shocked, and he still couldn’t believe that the sheriff was really dead, but he forced himself to put his feelings aside for the moment. There would be time to let his emotions to take hold of him, if he survived, but for now he couldn’t let them to distract him from his duty: he had the responsibility of Nottingham, and he had to do anything he could to save the town and its inhabitants.
Marian came back to the great hall, after a while. She hurried, afraid that Robin and Guy could have been fighting again. Guy had told her to trust him, and she did, but they were still two men who both loved her, and she knew how terrible jealousy could be.
But when she arrived, Robin wasn’t there anymore, while Guy was sitting at the table, all alone, his face buried in his hands. She shuddered in seeing him so dejected and forlorn, and she wondered what Robin had told to him.
She walked in the hall, fear creeping into her mind as she saw how pale Guy was.
Is he ill again?
The thought that he could be gravely ill frightened her, making her forget the menace of the army that was approaching to Nottingham.
She ran to him, and she took his hands, gently forcing them away from his face, so that she could look at him.
“Guy? Guy? What’s happened? Are you feeling alright?”
The knight looked at her, and Marian touched his fingers with her lips.
“Your hands are cold, and you are so pale… Are you feeling unwell?” She asked, worried because he wasn’t answering to her questions.
Then Guy stood up, still holding her hands, and he suddenly pulled her closer, hugging her with a half sob.
Marian snuggled in his arms, lifting her hand to caress his hair, soothingly. She felt a little reassured because his hands were cold, but his body was warm and his embrace was tight, strong.
She kissed his neck impulsively, taking in the scent of his skin. She found herself wanting to kiss him again, and she tilted her head up to search for his lips.
Guy returned the kiss hungrily, and she could feel both his passion and his desperation in it, but she wasn’t scared by the roughness of that kiss. Actually, she liked it, and she answered with the same strenght. It wasn’t just a kiss: in it,she could feel Guy’s sorrow and fears, his pain, and she recognized those same feelings lingering in her soul.
Her sorrow for her father was still there, fresh and strong as if she had just lost him, and she was afraid that the army would kill everyone in Nottingham. She wanted to cry, to weep as she did when she was a little girl and a kiss from her father could soothe any sorrow.
So she wept while she kissed Guy, and she could taste the salt of tears on his lips. Was he weeping too? She couldn’t be sure, but she knew that his soul was full of sorrow, just like hers.
When their lips eventually parted, they kept hugging, their foreheads touching.
Marian touched his cheek, gently: she hadn’t been wrong, there were tears there, as well.
“Guy?” She called, and the knight stirred a little at the sound of her voice.
“The sheriff is dead,” he whispered, “Robin just told me.”
Marian shuddered, in shock. It seemed impossible to her that the sheriff was really dead. She had hated him so much, and she had wished that he could die, but now that it had happened, she could barely believe that it was true.
And if it was so shocking for her, she couldn’t imagine the impact that those news could have on Guy. Or better, she could because she could see the effects on him.
She suddenly realized that he wasn’t just shocked, but that there was sorrow in his eyes, and that he was also mourning for the sheriff.
She wondered how somebody could feel love for that horrible man, but she just knew that Guy had done it, sometimes in his life, and now the remnants of that long faded, twisted, filial love were paining him.
She hugged him closer, and he sighed.
“Nottingham will be razed, now,” he began, but she put a finger on his lips.
“Hush. We’ll think about it later. Now just hold me tight for a while.”
He obeyed, closing his eyes: they both needed that hug.