Chapter 1: Don't Be Late
Robin Hood crawled along the branch of the tree and leaned his head to look down, returning to hide as soon as he saw the soldiers passing just below him.
He went back to the trunk, taking care not to make any noise and he stared at the Nightwatchman, shaking his head slightly.
“Are they still there?” Guy whispered, annoyed. “When they worked for me the guards were never so efficient.”
“Apparently Archer is doing a better job than you did when you were in his place, even though he is much younger.”
“Except when he gives us information about the sheriff's plans or allows us to escape undisturbed.”
“It's true. Archer doesn’t want to capture us by choice, but you never managed to get me,” Robin teased him and Guy hit him on the arm with a playful punch, but strong enough to hurt him.
“Stop it or they'll hear you!” Robin hissed, rubbing his arm and throwing a reproachful glance at his friend.
Guy had meanwhile climbed a taller branch and he was tying a rope to an arrow.
“What are you doing?” Robin asked, perplexed.
"If we can get to that tree over there, we'll be out of the guards' path and we can go away undisturbed.”
“As long as the rope holds and the arrow doesn’t come off. Look Guy, nobody knows we're up here. The best thing to do is to wait for the changing of the guards and take advantage of that moment to escape.”
“Absolutely not!” Guy said, alarmed.
“That rope is too thin, it will break. Waiting here will also be inconvenient and boring, but we are not in a hurry.”
“You're wrong, Hood. Maybe you have time to waste, but I absolutely can’t stay here!”
Robin looked at him, intrigued by Guy's anxious tone.
Gisborne pointed at the sky that was beginning to turn red.
“Look, it's almost sunset and I must be in Locksley before it gets dark. Sir Edward has organized a party to celebrate our engagement, I can’t be late.”
“Oh. Why didn’t you tell me when I called you?”
“Because you needed my help to steal this stupid document and because you had assured me it would be a quick and easy job.”
“And you said that this place was not guarded by soldiers.”
“Vaisey often sent me to meet the messengers of his allies in this inn and no one ever thought that it was necessary to patrol the outside of the inn before the scheduled time for the meeting.”
“Well, you never thought of it, Archer did. Couldn’t you warn him in advance?”
“If he behaves differently than usual just before our theft, the sheriff might get suspicious. He’s already risking a lot to pass information to us, I don’t want to put him in danger.”
“Quite right. But now we are risking our necks.”
“You can stay here if you prefer.”
Guy held out his bow and shot the arrow, hitting the tree he had aimed at. He pulled the rope to make sure the arrow was firmly embedded in the trunk and then he tied the other end to a branch.
Robin looked at him and smiled.
“And miss the opportunity to blame you when the rope breaks and makes us fall into the arms of the guards? If you have decided to go on with this madness, we will do it together.”
“But I go first.”
“I am lighter than you, when the rope will break under your weight, at least I will have already brought the document to safety.”
Guy gave him a dirty look, but he stepped aside to let him pass.
Robin took the bow and passed it over the rope, then he gripped it with both hands and let himself slip from tree to tree.
Gisborne looked at him getting down from the tree before imitating him, hoping that the rope would hold him too.
Halfway between the two trees, Guy allowed himself to think that everything would be fine and that he and Robin would manage to escape unobserved.
A moment later the rope broke, making him fall.
Marian looked at herself in the mirror with a sigh, covering the scar that marked her cheekbone with a finger. When she did so, she could pretend that the scar wasn’t there, to delude herself that a hidden thing didn’t exist if she chose to ignore it.
It was the same thing she did when she thought of all the times when Guy had disappeared in the middle of the night, or when she had seen him coming down from the bedrooms of a tavern. They weren’t important things and she could pretend she never noticed them. And if she didn’t know about them, then they never happened.
But she couldn’t pretend that her hair was longer, just as she couldn’t forget the woman she had seen in Guy's arms, the mysterious Meg who had seduced him before her eyes.
Marian turned her back to the mirror, closing her eyelids to keep the tears from coming out.
She didn’t have to cry, she had no reason to do it, and especially not that evening.
Not before the engagement party.
Guy chose me. He asked me to marry him.
The rest didn’t matter, it didn’t matter.
Now she knew why Guy had waited so long to make his proposal, now she understood the reason for so many secrets. He had built a house for her, tried to make up for the fire at Knighton Hall, and he did it secretly to surprise her.
Marian found herself smiling as she thought about how much work Guy must have done for her sake, how many sacrifices he made to rebuild the house and to make Knighton's lands productive enough to pay for the sheriff's taxes.
Now she understood why he was often so tired when he returned to Locksley in the evening, and why he got up so early in the morning. The thought of what he had done for her warmed her heart.
I love him for this too.
She took a brush and went back to styling her hair, trying to hide its inadequate length, but soon she gave up with a sigh.
It was useless: she could embellish it as much as she wanted, but her hair was still too short and Guy, whether he had done it to surprise her or to hide a love affair, was still a liar.
He'd lied to her for months and she would pretend that everything was alright, that Meg never existed.
Because despite everything I love him.
Robin Hood stifled a curse in seeing Gisborne motionless on the ground after the fall. He used the bow, and his arrows hit the legs of the two guards who were rushing to get Gisborne, then he reached them and knocked them out before they could scream and give the alarm.
Even so, he knew he didn’t have much time: soon the other patrol soldiers would go around the corner of the inn and would notice them.
He ran to Guy hoping he wasn’t dead, and he unceremoniously shook him, ready to drag him away if he had been hurt too badly to move. Fortunately, his friend immediately opened his eyes and stood up on his own.
“Are you all right?”
“I think so.”
Robin looked over his shoulder, just in time to see the soldiers turning the corner and giving the alarm.
Marian looked down from the top of the stairs to observe without being seen the people who crowded the main hall of Locksley. The guests kept coming and they gathered in small groups to chat, waiting for her and Gisborne to start the party with a toast, but she couldn’t see Guy anywhere.
Marian saw Allan sneaking out of the kitchen with a plate full of food and she caught his attention by throwing at him one of the pins she had used to try to fix her hair.
The young man started to see the pin stuck in the wall a few inches from his head and he looked up at Marian. The girl motioned for him to reach her upstairs and Allan obeyed.
"I'll pretend not to see that," she said, looking at the food he had stolen from the kitchen, "if you tell me where is Guy."
“Ah, hasn’t he arrived yet?” Allan asked with an innocent air.
“If he were here I wouldn’t ask you where he is, don’t you think?”
“Where do you think he is? He’s at Knighton Hall. Today they had to plant the apple tree, maybe the farmer who had to bring it was late. And then you know how is Giz, right? He wants every detail of that house to be perfect, he'll be checking the leaves of that tree one by one to make sure they're not yellowed,” Allan lied. He knew very well that the tree had been brought and planted without any delays because he had been the one who monitored the work that morning. “You’ll see, he’ll come soon and if he should be late I’ll go and call him. In fact, do you know what? I’ll go and meet him now.”
“Are they still following us?” Robin shouted, bending over the saddle of the horse they had stolen to make him run faster. Guy, sitting in the saddle behind him, turned to look back.
“I don’t think so, but don’t slow down. I should already be in Locksley.”
“You're lucky to be alive,” Robin said, reproachfully.
“Oh, come on, say it. I know you're dying to say it.”
“I told you so. We should have stayed on the tree until the change of the guards.”
“In the end we managed to escape, you have your document and I should be able to be almost on time, what's wrong?”
“Gisborne, do you realize that you risked killing yourself just because you didn’t want to keep your girlfriend waiting?”
"Would you have dared to keep Marian waiting at her engagement party? It would almost be like not showing up in church on the wedding day!”
“Or like being left at the altar?” Robin suggested, earning a punch in the ribs. “Hey! Look, she did it to me too, we're in the same boat here, Guy.”
“But only I have the scar to prove it. And I don’t want to get another one, which will most likely happen if I don’t show up at the party in time.”
“Look, there's Allan,” he said, pointing at the young man who was riding towards them, taking with him Guy’s black stallion.
“Hey, Giz! You're late, I was starting to worry. Where are the other horses?”
Guy got off his horse and reached Allan, limping slightly. The next day the bruises that he got by falling from the tree would pain him, but fortunately his injuries weren’t too serious or too evident.
“We had some unexpected hindrances,” he cut short. "The horses are in a stable near the inn, you can get them tomorrow. Did you bring my clothes?”
“Why would I be here, otherwise?” Allan said, handing them to him. "Hurry up, Marian is waiting for you, I told her you were in Knighton checking the apple tree.”
Robin burst out laughing, Guy snorted and Allan looked at both of them, perplexed.
“What did I say so funny?”
“Nothing,” Robin explained, “but he practically threw himself down from a tree so that he wouldn’t risk being late.”
“Are you all right, Giz?” Allan asked, worried. At his friend's nod, he smiled at Robin. “Well, knowing Marian, I can understand him, I probably would have done it too.”
Guy gave the Nightwatchman costume to Robin.
“Can you hide it for me?” He asked, then he turned to Allan. “Do I have any scratches? Visible bruises?”
“I would say you are presentable.”
“Then let’s go. See you later, brother.”
Guy got on his horse and set off at a gallop, followed by Allan.
Robin raised a hand to wave at them.
“Enjoy yourselves! And you stay away from the trees!”
Chapter 2: Family
A weight lifted from Marian's heart the moment she saw the two galloping horses.
Guy had arrived and he was running to her.
The girl hurried downstairs, avoided being noticed by the guests, and she slipped out of Locksley's door just as Guy got off his horse.
She smiled at him, glad to see him, then she frowned as she noticed that Gisborne seemed to avoid putting his weight on a leg.
“What happened to you? Are you hurt?”
A flash of concern passed into Guy's gaze, immediately replaced by an amused smile.
“I admit, you got me: this morning I challenged Archer again and we went a bit too far. He gave me a few bruises, but you should have seen how I managed to disarm him in the end.”
Marian shook her head and she rolled her eyes.
“Really, Guy, when you're dealing with that Archer, you seem to be two competing kids. Sooner or later, you'll end up getting seriously hurt and when it happens, do not expect me to nurse you.”
Another smile slowly spread across Guy's face as the black knight leaned toward her, looking into her eyes.
"Would you mind so much taking care of me?" He asked, lowering his voice in a seductive whisper, a moment before putting his lips on those of Marian.
The girl clung to him and she closed her eyes, abandoning herself to that kiss. Guy's body was solid and warm as ever and his arms were a safe haven and made her feel protected.
When the kiss ended, the girl leaned on his chest and sighed, smiling.
“Guy, you're terrible, you distract me to avoid getting a reproach.”
“Why, don’t you like this?” Gisborne asked, constellating her face and her hair with small kisses.
Marian looked up to meet Guy's eyes: once she never thought she could see such a serene and joyful expression in his gaze. Only once she saw a trace of it, on the morning of their unfortunate marriage when Guy had waited her outside the church to tell her that he had dreamed of that day.
Marian raised a hand to stroke his cheek, giving up scolding him for fighting with Archer and smiled sweetly at him.
“I'm just afraid you can get hurt, Guy.”
“It won’t happen, don’t worry.”
Guy patted her back with one hand to reassure her. The thought that the girl was worried about his health filled him with a joyful warmth that made him want to be able to hold her in his arms for life.
Was that what it felt like to be happy? Guy wondered, unable to stop smiling.
He thought he would kiss her again and then again, but the sound of the door opening broke the spell, and Gisborne glared at Thornton, pulling away from Marian.
The girl blushed, but the old servant remained impassive as he turned to Guy.
“Sir Edward was beginning to worry about your delay, Sir Guy, I will tell him that you have arrived.”
“I'll do it, Thornton, thank you,” Marian said, then she looked at Guy. “I'll wait for you inside.”
Guy nodded and he waited for them to go back inside before looking for Allan.
The young man had just left the stables and he was heading towards him.
“When Archer arrives, tell him that he and I fought this morning. He gave me a lot of bruises, but I disarmed him,” Guy said in a low voice and Allan smiled, ironic.
“You know that sooner or later all these lies will be discovered, right?”
“She noticed that my leg aches, I couldn’t say how it really happened, could I?”
"Maybe you should go and see a physician, Giz.”
“It's nothing. But if it can reassure you, I'll see Tuck tomorrow. If I still feel pain then, I'll ask him to check if it's all right.”
“Good. If anything happens to you, I don’t really want to deal with Marian. And certainly I don’t want to be the one who will tell her the truth about the Nightwatchman.”
Guy burst out laughing.
“Don’t worry, there won’t be any need for that. I’ll try to be more cautious next time.”
Allan gave him a skeptical look, then decided to change the subject.
“So it will be official tonight, uh?”
Guy's expression lit up.
“Giz, it’s disturbing to see you smile like that, you will frighten the guests, they aren’t used to it.”
“Stop it, Allan.”
“Hey, look, I'm happy for you. Really.”
“I know,” Gisborne said, then he took the ring that would go back on Marian's finger that evening, and he looked at it. For a year he had worn it around his neck, waiting for the moment when he could return it to Marian and finally that moment had arrived. That little silver ring had given him comfort in difficult moments, reminding him of the reason to go on, and now it seemed strange to him not to feel it on his skin anymore.
“I bet you're sorry to give it back to her.” Allan guessed, noticing his look.
It was true, having the ring with him was a bit like having Marian always by his side. But the space left free by the ring had not been left empty.
“A bit. But look here.” Guy showed him the leather tie hidden under his shirt and Allan widened his eyes to see the wooden tags that were hanging there.
“What about these?! Are you officially a member of Robin Hood’s gang now?”
“After we saved him, Robin managed to convince the others that they can trust me.”
“It was about time,” Allan said, and Guy realized that the young man had suddenly become sad.
“Nothing. I'm glad they accepted you, seriously, Giz.”
“But for them I will always be a traitor. You have changed, it is true, but there is no doubt about your loyalty: first you were loyal to the sheriff, now you are loyal to Robin. But I deceived them, I lied and betrayed their trust, they will never believe that I am sincere.”
“So why would they tell me to give you these?” Guy asked, pressing something in his hand and Allan stared in disbelief at the wooden tags, identical to those of Gisborne.
“You too risked your life to save Robin, didn’t you?” Guy said, smiling to see Allan's surprise.
“Now hide them and let's go inside, they're waiting for me.”
Sir Edward lifted the pitcher and poured the wine into three cups. He handed one to Marian, standing on his right and one to Guy, on his left, before taking the third for himself.
The servants walked among the guests, serving drinks to them. When everyone had a cup in his hands, Sir Edward raised his own.
"These are often hard times, but we're meeting tonight to celebrate a happy occasion, the engagement between my daughter Marian and Sir Guy of Gisborne, lord of Knighton.” Sir Edward smiled at his daughter and put a hand on Guy's shoulder. “As you surely know, my daughter is the only remaining member of my family, the joy and support of my old age, and I confess that I have always feared the day when she would leave my house to marry someone, but today I'm not sad to give her hand to Sir Guy. I owe a lot to Sir Guy of Gisborne, in fact, I owe him everything. Without him I would have lost my daughter, my house, life itself and for this reason I will be eternally grateful, but despite this I wouldn’t have approved this marriage if I hadn’t seen with my own eyes the deep feeling that binds him to Marian. Today I don’t say goodbye to a daughter, but I’m proud to welcome a new son in my family. We all drink to the health of Sir Guy and Marian, with the hope that their marriage can be happy and fruitful!”
The guests raised their cups, astonished by Sir Edward's speech.
Many of the present nobles remembered all too well the actions of Guy of Gisborne when he worked for the sheriff, and they were perplexed to hear such warm words about him. Some of them had been present the first time Gisborne had announced his engagement to Marian, and they remembered that Sir Edward hadn’t shown much enthusiasm that time.
But the most surprised of all was Guy, who had not imagined that Marian's father could estimate him to the point of comparing him to a son in front of the guests. Sir Edward's words had amazed and moved him, and Guy felt so confused that he didn’t know how to respond to that speech.
Yet he had to say something, everyone was watching him, waiting to hear what he would say.
He looked at Marian, as if seeking help, and the girl smiled to encourage him.
Guy answered her with a small, shy smile.
“When someone asked me about my family, I couldn’t do anything but answer in the same way: that I didn’t have one. If I were asked the same question now, my answer would surely be different. Now I am no longer alone in the world and for this I am deeply grateful.” Gisborne raised his cup. “To family!”
Guy took a sip of wine, trying to ignore all the eyes on him, then he stared at Marian and approached her, holding the ring in his hand.
The girl's eyes widened in recognizing that jewel: it was the same ring that Guy had given her more than two years ago, the one he had put on her finger, telling her that she meant everything to him.
“I thought it was lost...” She whispered, amazed. “Did you have it?”
“I found it when you were a prisoner of Barret and I kept it, first as a keepsake, and then in the hope of being able to earn the right to return it to you. I have worked hard to be worthy to offer you my love and I will continue to do so in the hope of not disappointing you. Did I succeed, Marian? Will you accept to marry me?”
The girl looked at him, still thinking about their first engagement. At that time Gisborne had left her no choice, putting the ring on her finger in front of everyone and informing those present that she had agreed to marry him, but now he had completely exposed himself, letting her choose freely.
She had already said yes when he had shown her the new Knighton Hall, but now Guy was giving her the chance to change her mind, to answer his question again in full awareness and not on the wave of the emotion of the moment.
Meg's thought made her hesitate for a split second, but it was enough for her to look at Guy's eyes to find all his love for her.
She held out her hand with a smile so that he could put the ring on her finger.
“Yes, Guy. Yes. I want to marry you.”
Robin Hood threw another log on the fire and he handed Guy a blanket, taking one for himself, then he sat down in front of his friend.
“At this time you should be in bed, it's late night,” Robin said, suffocating a yawn. “What are you doing here?”
“I would have come sooner, but the festivities went on late,” Guy smiled, pointing at the sack he had placed on the ground next to him. "I brought you the food left from the feast.”
Robin glanced at his sleeping companions.
"I'm sure they'll be happy when they wake up, especially Much, but you could have come tomorrow morning too.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight anyway,” Guy said, with a sort of giggle and Robin looked at him, smiling slightly.
“Are you drunk, Gisborne?”
“A little, maybe. Certainly not as much as Allan. I am just happy, more than I deserve and in a way that I didn’t think possible.”
“So you came here?”
“The celebration wouldn’t have been complete without having the rest of my family close to me, don’t you think? And since you can’t come to Locksley, then I came to the camp.”
Robin smiled at him warmly, surprising once again how things had changed in a few years.
When Gisborne announced his engagement to Marian for the first time, Robin's first thought was to kill him. Officially the real reason for his murderous rage was to have discovered that Guy had tried to kill the king, but Robin knew that this wasn’t the only reason for his hatred, and that jealousy because of Marian had played a very important part in his desire to kill Gisborne.
Now he was simply happy for him, with no regrets about what could have happened between them if Marian had not fallen in love with Gisborne.
He had loved the girl once, and he still cared for her, but the love of the past no longer existed, dissolved like snow in the sun.
Sometimes Robin felt lonely, but he wouldn’t want to go back, and he was completely honest in his being happy for Guy.
“I am pleased you did,” he said. “But really, Guy, maybe you should try and get some sleep.”
“I told you, I can’t. And even if I were calmer, I don’t think I could, now the bruises are quite sore.”
Robin got up from his seat, rummaged in a trunk and came back to Guy with a leather bag.
“One of Djaq's medicines. She no longer lives in the camp, but Will comes regularly to bring us the remedies she prepares. Go back to Locksley and take it, it will ease the pain and make you sleep.”
“Oh yes. I know that. She had given it to me some time ago for the lashes on my back. Thanks, later it will be useful, but now there's something I want to know.”
“The document we stole today... What was it about? It was worth it?”
Robin took the parchment and handed it to Guy.
“Hard to say. It looks like a list of people. From what I understand, they should be guests of the sheriff, coming to the castle in the next few days, but I don’t know them. Do you?”
Gisborne began to read the list.
“They aren’t black knights, more than anything else they seem to be little nobles without too much power.”
“Maybe the sheriff is looking for new allies...” Robin hypothesized, then he jerked his head up to hear that Guy had made a choked sound. “What's up?”
“I know this one,” Guy said, pointing at one of the names on the list.
“Thornton? Is he a relative of the Thornton who works in Locksley?”
Guy shook his head and Robin worried to see how upset he was.
“No, Hood. This is the man to whom I sold my sister...”
Chapter 3: One of the Missing Pieces
Marian finished filling the basket with the last pieces of bread and she covered it with a cloth, then she looked at Guy, who had just entered the kitchen.
She smiled at him.
“Good morning, future husband.”
Guy's gaze lit up when he heard her calling him that. He approached the girl to hold her in his arms.
“It still seems a dream to me.”
Marian touched his lips with a kiss.
“Well, you'd better believe it.”
They looked at each other with a smile, then Marian frowned, looking better at Guy's face.
“Do you feel well? You are pale.”
“I didn’t sleep tonight, and I have a headache. I’m afraid that yesterday evening I drank a little too much.”
Marian smiled, amused.
“Not as much as Allan, though. Sit down.”
Guy obeyed and he closed his eyes as Marian began to gently massage his temples.
“Is he still alive? Last time I saw him last night, he was making a marriage proposal to my horse...”
The girl burst out laughing.
“The stable boy said he saw him still there this morning, snoring in the hay. I imagine he will be sleeping in that stable for a while.”
“Today I'll do without him, then.”
Marian looked at him.
“Where are you going? If you don’t feel well, maybe you'd better try to get some sleep too.”
"I promised Tuck I was going to see him this morning. I'm already a bit better, but if the headache doesn’t go away, I will ask him to give me something for the pain.”
Guy didn’t tell her that he had just taken some of Djaq's remedy and that it was already starting to work. It would be too complicated to explain Marian how he could get it without involving Robin Hood.
“Speaking of pain, does your leg still hurt?”
“Just a little bit.”
Marian looked at him, suddenly serious.
“Yesterday evening I spoke to Archer. You're a liar, Guy.”
Gisborne froze, but he tried to keep an indifferent air.
“Why? What did he say to you?”
“That it isn’t true that you disarmed him, and that he was the one who won.”
Guy gave her an embarrassed smile to hide the relief, and he promised to himself to make his brother pay for that scare the next time he saw him.
Marian shook her head resignedly.
“You know I don’t like these challenges, Guy, regardless of the result. It’s not by saying that you have won even when it isn’t true that you will make them seem more acceptable.”
“Sorry, you are right.”
The girl bent over to kiss him on the forehead.
“You don’t have to feel obligated to be the best at all costs. I'm not in love with you because you're better than Archer or because you won a race against him. I love you because you are you. If you really have to challenge yourself, I don’t care who wins, the only thing that interests me is that you don’t get hurt. Or at least not too much.”
“I will do my best to avoid it.”
Marian was still massaging his temples, pausing from time to time to stroke his hair or to play with a disheveled lock and Guy captured her hands in his.
He paused to kiss the soft skin inside her wrist before letting her go and standing up.
“Now it's better for me to go.”
“Don’t you want to eat something?”
“Then wait for the servants to finish loading the wagon and we can go together, I'm going to Kirklees too.”
“Are you going to visit the orphanage again?”
“I want to bring the leftovers from yesterday's feast to the children. Even though I thought there were more of them.”
Guy blushed slightly thinking of the provisions he had brought to the camp of the outlaws.
“I bet that’s Allan’s fault: before I knew him, I couldn’t imagine that a single person could be able to eat so much,” he said in an amused tone, mentally apologizing to his friend and thinking that the next Nightwatchman's mission would have to supply the orphanage's pantry.
“Poor Allan, you should ask Tuck for some remedies to make him feel better.”
Robin woke up hearing Much's enthusiastic exclamations and he thought that his friend must have found the food brought by Gisborne.
He turned on his back, a little sore, and realized he had slept on the ground, by the fire, and not on his cot.
But there wasn’t the slightest trace of Guy at the camp, and the blanket that Robin had given him that night had been neatly folded and it was resting on one of the logs arranged around the fire, along with the parchment they had stolen from the sheriff.
After Guy had told him that the Thornton on the list was the man who had married his sister, Gisborne hadn’t spoken anymore and he had just stared at the fire, while Robin had ended up falling asleep.
He got up from the ground and stretched. He collected both the blankets and the document, leaving the blankets on the bed and putting safely away the latter. In the end he decided to reach his companions.
“Robin? Where does this food come from?” Little John asked. Much emphasized the question with a sort of grunt, too busy eating to be able to talk.
“Gisborne. He wanted us to celebrate his engagement too.”
“Where is he now?” Much asked, finishing chewing.
“I think he's back to Locksley. When he arrived at the camp it was late at night. After a while I fell asleep and when I woke up he wasn’t here anymore.”
“Taste this, master. It’s excellent,” his friend said, holding out his plate after helping himself with another portion.
Little John scolded him.
“Much, leave something for Will and Djaq, later we'll bring it to them.”
Robin smiled at seeing Much's outraged look at Little John's comment, then he took a meat pie and he began to eat it absently.
He was worried about Gisborne, he had seen how troubled he had been in thinking about his sister.
Isabella of Gisborne...
Robin remembered her well from his childhood. She was a couple of years older than him and sometimes she joined their games, but she usually didn’t break away from her mother's side, following her like a shadow.
The last time he had seen her, it was on the worst day of his life, in front of the burnt ruins of Gisborne's house, when she and Guy had been driven away without anyone doing anything to stop them.
During the fire Isabella had remained motionless next to her brother, as if she had been petrified, and even later, when all hope had been lost, she hadn’t spoken, nor cried and she had let herself to be dragged by Guy's hand as if she no longer had her will.
Gisborne had told him that he had sold her, that he had given her hand to a man he barely knew just because that Thornton had offered him a good price, and Robin wondered for the first time what Guy and Isabella's life might have been like after they had been banished from their lands.
“You can tell me the truth. You're sad, aren’t you?”
Robin jerked his head up. He hadn’t noticed that Little John had sat next to him until he spoke.
The man shook his head.
“Gisborne and Marian. This betrothal. She was supposed to be your fiancee, not his. It's normal for you to be sad.”
Robin stared at him, amazed.
“No. I wasn’t thinking of Marian. I'm happy for them, really.”
"One who’s really happy doesn’t sit staring into space, Robin.”
“I'm just worried about the sheriff's plans. He must have something in mind, but I don’t know what to expect, it has nothing to do with Guy, I assure you.”
Little John looked at him, unconvinced.
“Remember that in any case we are here for you.”
Robin nodded and smiled at him.
Guy held the reins with one hand and he had his other arm tight around Marian's waist with a proud, possessive look. His black stallion was tied behind the wagon because Gisborne had decided not to mount him, so he could travel at the girl’s side.
The wayfarers they met on the road gave them curious looks and both Guy and Marian knew that they wouldn’t miss the chance to talk behind their backs and to pretend to be shocked at the scandal of seeing them travel together, alone and so close to each other.
Guy grinned, noticing from a distance a group of peasant women who were gossiping and turning around to look at them from time to time. When the wagon passed close to the women, Guy pulled the reins to stop the horse and he stared intently at the group of peasants.
The women looked at him in dismay, too terrified by the fear of some retaliation to think they could run away.
Marian gave him a curious look, wondering what his intentions were. For over a year, many people considered her Gisborne's lover and treated her like a slut, and she knew that Guy could not stand that situation. On one hand, Marian wished Gisborne would lecture those malignant gossips, but on the other he was afraid he might overdo it.
Guy motioned for the women to approach, serious, and those came forward, trembling and throwing worried glances at the knight's sword as if they feared that Gisborne could use it to stab them at any moment.
Guy instead took Marian's hand in his own to show the ring to them, and he smiled in the most amiable way he could.
“Ladies, I have the honor to introduce you to the future Lady Gisborne. I know you are always very interested in other people’s business, so I thought you might like to know that Lady Marian has agreed to marry me.”
The gossipers stammered a few words of good wishes, and as soon as Guy restarted the wagon, they scattered in terror, running back to their homes.
Marian watched them run away, amused by their confusion, then her eyes met Guy's and they both laughed.
Allan was right, Guy thought. People were not used to seeing him smile and they were frightened when he did, but it didn’t matter, sooner or later they would forget his past and they would no longer consider him just as the sheriff's ferocious dog.
In the meantime he would try to live a happy life at Marian's side and, someday, seeing him smiling wouldn’t seem so strange anymore.
He held the girl close and Marian rested her head on his shoulder, still giggling.
Guy kissed her hair and sighed, satisfied.
He had the impression that slowly all the fragments of his life were returning to their place, making him stronger, more and more whole.
The memory of the list of names written on the stolen parchment suddenly crossed his mind, saddening him.
His sister was still one of the missing pieces.
If really Thornton was going to come to Nottingham, maybe that would have been the right opportunity to find Isabella and ask her forgiveness for not being able to take care of her.
Gisborne decided he would do his best to try and fix things.
He knew it was late to do it, that he should have looked for his sister many years ago.
I just hope it's not too late.
He looked at Marian and the girl smiled at him, radiant, turning those melancholic thoughts away from him.
Marian loved him and agreed to become his wife. Guy still struggled to believe it, but if that wasn’t a dream, then he could also believe that there was nothing really impossible in the world.
He took her in his arms and dragged her into a passionate kiss, regardless of the scandalized looks of passersby.
You are my betrothed and I want everyone to know.
Chapter 4: A Promise Kept
Archer stopped the horse in the middle of the road and he smiled.
“I know you're there, come out.”
A laugh answered him from the trees and a moment later the horse of Guy of Gisborne reached him, emerging from the thick vegetation.
“Sooner or later I will be able to get you by surprise,” Guy said, amused, and they both put the horses at a trot.
Archer raised an eyebrow, skeptical, then he looked at his brother.
“So what do you want? Where are we going?” He asked, hasty, and this time it was Guy who smiled.
“Why such a hurry? I know that the sheriff is out of town and he will stay away for a few days.”
“How do you know?! Guy! You didn’t rob another messenger, did you?! The last time they almost caught you, you'll end up killed... If you don’t accidentally kill yourself first.”
“The other time I just came down from a tree a little faster than normal.”
“And you used me to justify your wounds with your girlfriend.”
“In this regard, I’d prefer that you wouldn’t contradict my version of the facts,” Guy said, in a reproaching tone. "When Marian told me that I had lied to her, I thought she had discovered me.”
"If you use me as an excuse without even telling me in advance, at least don’t brag about defeating me. Also because it isn’t credible at all.”
Guy gave him a defiant look.
“Want to bet?”
“Whenever you want, brother.”
“Later, we have other things to do now.”
“To rob some other messengers, perhaps?” Archer asked, displeased.
“The last one didn’t even notice that he had been robbed. We stole the message only for a few minutes and we gave it back to him a little later, after sealing it again.”
Archer raised his hands.
“Guy, I don’t want to know anything.”
“Good, because I won’t tell you anything else. Only, I know the sheriff is not here and so you're free to come with me.”
“The sheriff left me the responsibility of the town, if there were any problems while I am not there, I would be in trouble.”
“Come on, Archer, you know very well that nothing will happen if you go away for a couple of days.”
“Of course, apart from Robin Hood who will have fun emptying the treasure room or letting all the prisoners escape from the dungeons.”
“I wouldn’t give you trouble on purpose!” Guy replied, offended. “And if you don’t trust my word, know that Robin couldn’t do anything like that even if he wanted to.”
“How can you say that?”
“Because I'm here.” Robin said, emerging from the trees.
Archer whirled around in surprise, and Guy pointed a finger at him, amused.
“Ah! You didn’t hear him coming, though!”
Archer gave him an irritated look.
“Stop it, Guy!”
“I told you that Robin wanted to meet you, right? And you agreed.”
“All right, family reunion, then. But what was the need to drag me here? Was the forest no longer good to meet him?”
Gisborne and Robin exchanged a look, then Guy turned to his half-brother, serious.
“It's not just this. There is more.”
“Are you sure, Guy?” Robin asked and Gisborne nodded.
“Archer, you will never have to show anyone where we are going. I have entrusted my own life to you, you know it, but if you should reveal this secret, I will kill you and everyone who knows about it. Even if you're my brother.”
Archer looked at him, impressed by Gisborne's words, and realized he was serious. Robin also nodded gravely.
“Don’t underestimate this warning, Archer. Guy would really do it and I wouldn’t stop him.”
It was the first time since he knew him that Archer had the opportunity to see the darker side of Guy of Gisborne, the one that must have driven the sheriff to keep him by his side for so long despite his repeated failures, and he had no doubt that Guy would be able to put his threat into practice.
Gisborne had been ready to die to avoid hitting his brother, and Archer wondered what secret could be so important to push him to kill anyone to protect it. He told himself that he would find out soon and he smiled at the other two.
“And who should I tell?” He asked, lightly, then he looked at Robin. “So you're my brother too, aren’t you?”
“So it seems.” Robin said cautiously. Guy trusted Archer, but he still didn’t know him enough.
“I've never had anyone and now I find myself with all these brothers.”
“Once you get used to it, it's not that bad. Of course, it must be harder for you...”
The other two looked at him curiously.
“To know that you have the same blood as Robin Hood,” Gisborne said with a sneer.
"I would worry more about the other half of his blood,” Robin replied and Archer looked at them, shaking his head and pretending to be disconsolate.
“In any case, I'm in trouble.”
The two boys hid behind a bush and Thomas looked out in the direction of the house, furtively.
“They didn’t see us, did they?” Cedric whispered conspiratorially and the other shook his head, giggling.
“No, we have some time before they realize we aren’t cleaning the barn.”
“Then we can eat. I took bread and cheese from the kitchens.”
“And I picked up some apples.”
“Can I have one too?” Said a voice behind them, and the two boys started, frightened, turning around.
“Sir Guy!” Cedric exclaimed. “We didn’t hear you coming!”
Guy smiled at seeing the agitation of the two young men.
“Yes, I had noticed. What are you doing here?”
Thomas blushed, intimidated by the presence of the black knight.
“Well... We...” He began, stuttering, and Cedric came to his rescue.
"We were going to do our job, Sir Guy. We only had a little break.”
“Why were you hiding?”
The two boys looked at him guiltily.
Guy smiled, amused.
“Give me that apple and I'll pretend I haven’t seen you. Where is Adeline?”
“At home, with Seth,” Thomas said, handing him the fruit.
“Bring my horse into the barn and take care of him,” Guy ordered, pointing to the black stallion, standing a little further.
“In the barn, Sir Guy?”
“Why, is there any problem?”
The two boys exchanged a resigned look and sighed.
“No, sir. We were just going there to clean it.”
Guy laughed and walked to the house, biting into the apple.
Adeline frowned at the knock on the door, and she cast a worried look at Seth. The child was sitting on the ground in front of the fireplace and he was busy playing with a small horse carved in wood.
He looked up when he heard the knock, but he returned immediately to his game and Adeline hoped he would stay away from the door as she went to open it.
The people who lived in that house were not in the habit of knocking at the door, so they had to be some strangers, but they rarely received visits and since Seth was with them, Adeline had become more apprehensive.
She opened the door cautiously, then she opened it wide, relieved and happy to recognize Gisborne.
“Guy! Why are you here? I wasn’t expecting a visit from you. Did you come to see Seth?”
Adeline hugged him impulsively, then she pulled away from him to look at his face. The last time he had come to her, he was suffering and in need of comfort, but now Guy seemed much more serene, almost cheerful.
“Also, but not only,” Guy said, in a mysterious and pleased tone and Adeline smiled, thinking that for once he seemed very satisfied with himself.
“Do you want to tell me, or are you going to have fun to leave me hanging?”
“I finished building my house and Marian agreed to marry me.”
Adeline gave a little cry of surprise, then she hugged him again.
“I'm so happy for you, my little one! Now you have to tell me everything!”
Guy broke from her embrace, smiling.
“Oh, I will, but not now. I have another surprise for you.”
“Another one? Have you become the new sheriff of Nottingham, Guy?”
“No, not yet.”
Gisborne chuckled, then he took the bow and shot an arrow at a group of trees. Shortly thereafter, two riders sprang from the vegetation, heading towards them.
“Oh, there's Robin too... And the other one...”
Adeline turned to look at Guy, hesitantly.
Gisborne smiled at her.
“I had promised you, Adeline: I brought you Archer.”
Chapter 5: Lost Lambs
Guy of Gisborne watched the emotions that followed one another on Adeline's face, then she covered her face with her hands and burst into tears, too agitated to do anything else.
Guy took her in his arms and he stroked her hair slowly, with the same tenderness with which she had consoled him so many times when he was a child.
“It's all right, Adeline. I trust him, he's not as dangerous as you feared. He saved my life, do you know? And I saved his.”
Guy felt something touching his leg and he looked down: Seth had approached them and looked at them, worried.
“Why are you crying?”
Adeline wiped her eyes with an embroidered handkerchief and she gave the child a shaky smile.
“Sometimes you can cry when you're very happy, did you know?”
Seth looked at her for a moment, then he pointed a finger at Guy.
“Horse,” he ordered, imperious, and Adeline burst out laughing at Guy's puzzled expression.
“He wants you to take him on your shoulders,” she explained. “It's a game that sometimes he plays with Cedric and Thomas: the boys let him get on their backs and Seth pretends to ride a horse.”
Guy knelt down to allow the child to climb on his shoulders, then he stood up, smiling slightly.
The child had grabbed his hair with his hands, pulling it painfully, but Guy did nothing to stop him.
“When he is older I will give him a real horse,” he said proudly.
The thought of teaching Seth how to ride was a pleasant image in his mind, and it filled Guy with warmth, even though he didn’t know why.
Robin and Archer meanwhile had approached the house and Adeline looked at them, moved again.
“What did you tell him, Guy?”
“That he’s our brother, you can tell him the rest.”
Archer looked around, wondering why that house at the top of the hill was such a big secret that it could turn Gisborne into a ruthless murderer.
It didn’t seem so special to him: it was a not very large stone building, with a small barn nearby, and cultivated fields and fruit trees on the slope leading to the house. An old man was working in the orchard, while two boys had entered the barn, bringing Guy's horse with them. Archer had the impression he had already seen them both, but he couldn’t remember when.
He looked for his brother and saw that Gisborne was on the doorstep with a middle-aged woman.
Archer was surprised to see that the woman was in tears, but he gasped as he noticed the little boy Guy was holding on his shoulders.
Robin Hood let out an amused laugh as he saw his half-brother's amazed expression.
Archer watched both Guy and the child and came to the conclusion that there was no doubt that the kid was his son, he looked too much like him not to be.
“So that's the big secret, uh?”
"The sheriff doesn’t have to know, Archer. You don’t have to tell anyone, but especially not Vaisey.” Guy's tone was serious, even if at that moment, with his son on his shoulders, who was hopping and pretending to be on horseback, he seemed much less threatening than before.
"Don’t you trust me anymore, brother? After all, he's my nephew too, isn’t he? I wouldn’t do anything to put him in danger, you can be sure.”
Adeline looked at him for a moment, then she smiled at Guy.
“Don’t doubt him, he is sincere.”
Gisborne smiled back at her with affection, surprising Archer again.
“And you always understand when someone is lying, right?”
The woman caressed Guy's cheek, with an amused light in her eyes.
Archer gave a puzzled glance at Robin Hood to see if he too was amazed by Gisborne's unusually mild behavior, but the outlaw seemed to look at the scene with amusement, but without showing any surprise.
“Archer had a special talent for getting into trouble, but he always had a good heart. He hasn’t changed so much, I feel it.”Adeline said, and Archer looked at her, surprised to hear her mentioning his name.
The woman had talked about him as if she knew him, as if for some reason she loved him, but he had no memory of her.
He looked at Guy, caught in a sudden doubt.
“Is she our mother?” He asked him on impulse. “You said she died in a fire!”
Gisborne stared at him, startled by the question, then he shook his head with a sigh.
“Our mother is dead,” Guy glanced at Adeline. “But you didn’t go so far from the truth.”
“Come into the house, sit by the fire and I'll tell you everything,” the woman said gently, taking his hand.
Robin and Guy exchanged a look, deciding not to enter the house to leave them alone while they talked.
“Come, Gisborne,” Robin said, amused. “I think Seth wants to ride. Where are your reins?”
“Very funny, Hood.”
“You have to be careful, next time Allan could make a mistake and saddle you.”
“In your case it would be impossible to do such a mistake, no one would think of saddling a donkey.”
Robin grinned, broke a green, flexible shoot from a hazel and he handed it to the child.
“Here Seth, a whip for your horse. Make him gallop fast.”
The child enthusiastically welcomed the new toy and decided to try it immediately, startling Guy.
Gisborne lifted a hand with the intention of grabbing the switch and taking it away from Seth, but Robin stopped him.
“You know that if you take it, he will start to cry, right? Is this really what you want?”
Guy gave him a dirty look, then he got an idea and he smiled wickedly.
“Seth, would you like to play a better game? The one you're holding is not a whip, it's the shining sword of a heroic knight, and that - he pointed at Robin - is your opponent, an evil ruthless outlaw. Let's see if you can hit him.”
Seth approved the idea with an excited cry and lifted the switch as Guy ran toward Robin Hood.
Archer watched Adeline's face, trying to awaken some memories, but the times of his early childhood were a dark void in his mind. The first memories he had were those of a dusty road and a journey that never seemed to end. He didn’t remember ever having had a proper home, and indeed, he had never stopped in a place as long as at Nottingham Castle.
If Gisborne hadn’t approached him, perhaps Archer would have already set off again after earning as much as possible from the sheriff. Vaisey had great ambitions and in other circumstances Archer would have accepted any assignment from him, even the most dangerous, but his friendship with Guy had made the sheriff more suspicious and reluctant to trust him, while Archer had made sure to avoid compromising conversations and he just did job as efficiently as possible.
“And so it was you who took care of me until I was three...”
“I've never forgiven myself for losing your tracks. I spent many years of my life looking for you and now you're finally here.”
Archer smiled faintly, glancing uneasily at the woman's tears.
“I don’t remember anything, I'm sorry...”
Adeline wiped her face.
“It doesn’t matter, my dear. You don’t have to remember or feel anything for me. In your eyes I'm a stranger, I understand it very well, but it doesn’t matter. For me it’s enough to know what Guy already told me and that now I can see with my own eyes.”
“You're healthy, your life is peaceful and you're a good person. When we couldn’t find you I kept wondering what would happen to you, I was terrified that I could find out that you were suffering or that you had been ruined by the adversities of life, but now I know it's not like that and it's enough for me.”
Archer nodded and he approached the window to look out: Robin Hood and Gisborne were fighting each other without using weapons, while the child looked at them, sitting on the lawn a few feet away, inciting one or the other without making too many distinctions.
“What are those two doing?” Archer asked, without addressing anyone in particular. His brothers were not fighting ferociously to defeat the opponent, but they seemed more than anything else to be willing to show off their skills.
Adeline approached him to look at them and she smiled. Guy had managed to make Robin fall to the ground and he was trying to immobilize him with his weight, but the other succeeded in freeing himself and grabbed Guy by the jacket, throwing him to the ground too.
“Don’t you see it? They're having fun, they want to show Seth how strong they are. They are playing.”
“At their age?”
“What's wrong with that? I don’t think they had many opportunities to have fun after the death of your parents, especially Guy. I'm happy to see them like this. They don’t look like they tried to kill each other in the past, do they?”
“I understand why Guy wants to protect this place,” Archer said, seriously. “It's a safe place, a shelter where you don’t have to watch your back.”
“Now you know it too. If you feel the need, the doors will always be open for you, remember.”
The young man smiled at her.
“I don’t think it will be necessary, but it's nice to know it.”
Chapter 6: Poison
Marian checked that the servants loaded the trunks on the cart without damaging them, and she sighed. She felt anxious and she didn’t like the idea of spending those days at the castle, but Guy had said it was necessary to go.
The sheriff was waiting for the arrival of many guests and he had organized a period of festivities, extending the invitation to all the nobles of Nottingham.
The girl would have preferred to excuse themselves somehow and decline the invitation so they could stay away from the sheriff, but Guy had insisted to go, even if she didn’t understand why.
For all of them it was always better to avoid having too many contacts with Vaisey, but maybe Guy wanted to take advantage of that opportunity to make everyone know about their engagement, Marian thought suddenly, and she found herself smiling.
That was certainly a good explanation, it had to be like that, Marian thought, and she wondered if Guy would take advantage of it to establish and announce a date for their wedding.
“Hey, Marian, where's Giz?” Allan asked, entering the main hall.
“He's already gone to the castle. He said he wanted to be there for the arrival of the first guests, we will reach him as soon as we are ready.”
"I have no desire to spend so much time near the sheriff. He always gives me the impression that he wants to see us all hanging on the gallows.”
“I think that's exactly what he wants, but he can’t do it. Not without a really valid reason and we will be very careful not to give it to him.”
“Talking about pigs, what happened to ours?”
“I went near the fence before entering the house, they all seem to be dead.”
“But it's not possible, they were fine just a little while ago!”
“A little while ago?”
“Yes, I brought them some leftovers and they ate with gusto.”
“Well, now they're all lying on the ground and I'm not sure if they're breathing. What did you give to those poor beasts?”
"Breakfast leftovers..." Marian said and she stopped abruptly.
Allan stared at her, worried.
“The same breakfast you gave to Giz?”
They exchanged an anxious look and they both ran into the kitchen.
The sheriff yawned, bored.
He hated getting up early in the morning, but he pretended to be jovial whenever one of the guests' carriages arrived. The local nobles were gathered in the courtyard of the castle, on the stairs, and they waited with the sheriff.
Vaisey could have let them wait more comfortably in the great hall, but if he had to stay there to welcome the guests, then the others also had to suffer with him.
They could stay there, standing under the sun.
He looked at Gisborne as the knight crossed the gate on his horse and Vaisey rolled his eyes, annoyed.
"Was it really necessary to invite him too?” He snorted, talking to Archer.
“He’s one of the nobles, my lord. They should all be present to show your guests that you can count on the loyalty of your subordinates.”
"I suppose he will take with him his leper friend and the dying old man. Archer, try to keep them away from me, today I'm not in the mood to endure that bunch of cretins.”
“I will do my best, my lord.”
“It couldn’t have been the pancakes!” Marian said, trying to sound more secure and quiet than she really felt. “I have prepared them many times and neither Guy nor the pigs have ever had problems.”
“The fact that most of the time the food you cook ends up to the pigs says a lot about your skills.”
Allan fished an empty bowl from the tub of dirty dishes and he sniffed it, wrinkling his nose. “Is it normal for it to smell like this?”
“I don’t know,” the girl admitted. “I do not know why, but they never look or smell the same...”
Allan looked up at the sky, thinking that if Gisborne was ready to eat any dish cooked by Marian for love, then he never wanted to fall in love.
“What ingredients did you use today?”
“The usual: eggs, flour, honey, some spice...”
Allan looked at the mess on the table.
“Shouldn’t there be more shells if you used the eggs?”
“Maybe some of them has fallen into the dough, but once it’s cooked, you don’t notice...”
"Poor Giz..." Allan said, then he stopped abruptly, noticing an empty bag. “What's this?!”
“The flour bag, isn’t it?”
“Where did you get that?” Allan asked, now mortally serious.
“On the top shelf... I dropped the flour bag I used yesterday and the flour fell to the ground, so I had to get a new one.”
“Marian... This is not flour.”
“What do you mean?”
Allan put a finger on the traces of dust left in the bag and sniffed it.
“Are you kidding me, Marian? Didn’t you smell it? Do you ever taste what you cook?!”
The girl looked at him angrily, offended because Allan's words had hit the mark.
“It's none of your business and Guy never complained! And anyway if it isn’t flour, what is it?”
"If it was on the top shelf it must be one of the drugs that Djaq had prepared for Giz when he was wounded..." Allan said worriedly. “How much of it did you use?”
“All of it. The bag was full. But if it's a medicine it can’t be dangerous, can it?”
“Ask the pigs.”
Guy got off his horse and he was forced to lean on the side of the animal so as not to lose his balance. He had the impression that the courtyard of the castle was circling around him and he was forced to close his eyes, breathing deeply to fight a sudden wave of nausea.
He had begun to feel unwell shortly after leaving home and he promised himself that in the future he would avoid eating Marian's pancakes when they were completely raw inside.
He took another deep breath to fight the malaise and he let one of the castle attendants take his horse away.
Guy went to the other nobles, cautiously: now the nausea seemed to have calmed down, but he was still feeling a little dizzy and had the feeling of not being able to think clearly.
Perhaps he would have done better to apologize and ask permission to retire to the lodgings that had been assigned to him, but he wanted to be there when the guests arrived to see if his sister really was among them.
He hadn’t seen her for more than sixteen years and he still wondered how she had changed in all those years. The last time he saw her, she was just a frightened young girl and now she must be an adult woman, a married lady and maybe a mother.
Guy remembered the last look, full of hatred and pain, that his sister had addressed to him. He felt nervous, his stomach tightened again and his heart beating too fast.
Perhaps, Guy thought, the sickness he felt wasn’t due to what he had eaten that morning, but to the anxiety and guilt he felt at the thought of seeing Isabella again after such a long time.
“Come on, Allan! We have to go to Guy, right away!”
Marian ran to the barn and Allan followed her, but, once mounted on horseback, he turned to her in a determined tone.
“We will not go to Nottingham. Not now.”
“But Guy... He could die!”
“Exactly. We must first go to Clun and talk to Djaq, she will tell us what we can do.”
Marian nodded, terrified and they both started the horses at a gallop.
“Were those pancakes more disgusting than usual?” Allan asked after a while. “Maybe Giz didn’t eat so many of them if the taste was horrible...”
“I do not know,” Marian sobbed. “I haven’t tasted them. I don’t know how many of them he ate...”
“Holy Heaven, Marian, I used to joke about it, but you really poisoned him!”
Guy briefly greeted the sheriff and he joined the other nobles on the stairs, hoping the guests' carriages would arrive quickly. They stood waiting in the sun and he had the impression that the temperature was much higher than normal. Even the light seemed too bright and it hurt his eyes, making his head throb painfully.
The sheriff approached him, looking at him with contempt.
“Well Gizzy, join the other noble parasites, like a good boy. I'm glad you decided to accept my invitation... A clue: no.”
“If I'm here it's not for you, my lord. I have other reasons and certainly the pleasure of your company is not one of these. In fact, I would gladly do without it,” Guy replied, on impulse, and Vaisey stood gazing at him for a moment, surprised by those insolent words.
Archer stared at his brother, amazed and alarmed. In the past, he had seen him accept far worse mistreatment and insults from the sheriff without saying a word, and now he was answering him in that provocative way without any real reason? What was he thinking?
“Are you drunk, Gisborne, or have you gone insane?” The sheriff asked in a derisive tone, noticing that Guy’s gaze was clouded and that he didn’t seem to be completely conscious.
“I've been crazy to serve you for all these years. How did I endure your black soul and all your disgusting habits for so long?” Guy stopped with a foolish laugh and he looked at Archer. “Did you know that he paints his toenails black? Have you ever held the bottle of paint? Because this was one of my very important assignments! When I didn’t have to oppress the innocents in his name, of course.”
“Gisborne, shut up or I'll have you whipped!” Vaisey hissed and, realizing that a carriage had entered the courtyard, he put a false smile on his face and sent Guy back to his place among the other nobles with a shove.
Chapter 7: Isabella
Djaq stroked her belly and she smiled to herself.
By now, she knew, it was almost time and soon she and Will would know the son or daughter generated by their love.
She sighed slightly at the thought that his son would never know the hot sand of the desert, but only the fresh shadows of the forest and she thought back to her family, who had long since rested under those sands.
She was far from her land and she would always miss it, but now the birth of her child would make her plant her roots in England forever. She would never return to her homeland, now England was her home, the place where her children and her children's children would be born.
She would always miss the hot sun of her land, but it didn’t matter: for what she had lost she had received back something equally important.
Djaq, my brother, I wish you could meet your nephew.
The girl sighed again and wished that Will didn’t go to chop wood in the forest that day: she felt melancholic and she wanted to have him close.
A frantic knocking at the door roused her from those thoughts, filling her with apprehension: she and Will were still outlaws even though they no longer lived with Robin's gang. Could it be that the guards had found them? What if the soldiers were coming to arrest them?
Certainly Djaq couldn’t escape, her pregnancy was too advanced.
She tried to stay calm.
“Come in, it's open,” she said aloud, and a moment later Allan and Marian plunged into the room.
Djaq stared at them, stunned. Marian was in tears and sobbed, while Allan was unusually serious.
“She poisoned Giz,” Allan said, pointing at Marian, who broke up in other sobs.
“I thought it was flour!”
Djaq looked at her without understanding.
“Let me speak, you have done enough for today,” Allan said turning to Marian, then he looked at Djaq and explained the situation quickly, but trying to be clear.
He handed her the empty bag and Djaq sniffed it.
“How much of it did he take?”
“We don’t know. Marian used the whole bag to make pancakes, but we don’t know how many of them he ate.”
The Saracen girl wondered how it could be possible to exchange a medicinal powder with the flour, but she didn’t say anything because Marian already seemed quite upset.
“Is he going to die?” Marian sobbed, and Djaq took her hand to calm her.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“But the pigs...”
“Are you sure they were really dead?”
Djaq smiled slightly.
“Poor Guy. It won’t be very pleasant for him, but he will be fine, you don’t have to worry.”
“Yes, don’t worry. But you won’t have to give too much weight to what he will say, sometimes an overdose of that medicine can cloud your mind.”
“What do you mean?” Allan asked.
“He could see things that don’t exist, or say things that he would normally keep for himself. A little like what happens to you when you drink too much, Allan.”
“But it's not true!”
“The other day you wanted to marry Guy's horse,” Marian pointed out, relieved.
“Hey, but if Giz went to Nottingham, maybe it's not good if he starts raving in front of the sheriff.”
Marian looked at him, worried again.
“Maybe it's better if you go to get him back as soon as possible,” Djaq said, handing Allan a small bundle. “Dissolve this powder in water, make him drink a lot and then let him sleep, tomorrow he will feel much better already.”
Archer approached Guy, taking advantage of the sheriff's distraction.
“What's wrong with you? Are you crazy?” He whispered. "You asked me to persuade the sheriff to invite the local nobles and now you behave like that? Do you want to be kicked out of the castle like a dog?”
“I'm not a dog! And it’s the sheriff who deserves to be kicked!” Guy said and Archer silenced him before Vaisey could hear him.
“You are not well,” Archer said, looking at him, and he took Guy by the arm. “Come on, it's best if I accompany you to your room.”
At that moment Gisborne saw the black-haired woman who had just come down from the carriage and he wriggled away from Archer's grip to meet her.
The woman turned to look at him, frowning, and her haughty expression cracked for a moment.
Gisborne stared at her for a moment, as if hypnotized. He couldn’t think clearly, but he remembered how Isabella was when she was a child, and he had always imagined that when she grew up she would have become like her mother. Now that he saw her as a grown-up, he was surprised to discover that she was a woman completely different from the mental image that he had made of her in all those years.
He wanted to tell her, but he felt confused, partly because his head was spinning and partly for the emotion.
"You got old and you don’t look like our mother at all,” he said, with a giggle, and Isabella stared at him, icily. She turned to one of the coachmen of her carriage, took the whip from his hand and she used it to hit Guy several times, until he collapsed on his knees at her feet, then, without saying a word, she threw the broken whip to the ground and she climbed the stairs, entering the castle with an outraged air.
The sheriff approached Gisborne, chuckling. Archer followed him, watching his brother, worried.
“Well, well, Gizzy. Perhaps it might be interesting to have invited you at the castle, after all. As a matter of fact, I lacked a jester. What do you think, Gizzy? Do I have to get you a cap with rattles or will you keep making yourself ridiculous on your own?”
Guy closed his eyes, trembling for a sudden chill. It was strange, he felt hot and cold at the same time, his head was spinning and his stomach ached even more than before.
“I feel sick,” he said, and the sheriff burst out laughing again.
“I can believe it, Gizzy, you acted like an idiot in front of everyone, I would feel sick for shame if I were you.”
Guy leaned forward with a groan, giving in to nausea and the sheriff jumped back in disgust.
“I think he was really sick, my lord,” Archer commented, impassive.
“Take care of this pathetic fool and have everything cleaned before the other guests arrive,” Vaisey ordered dryly, then he turned his back on both of them and he went back into the castle.
Archer kicked the door open and he helped Guy to walk to the bed. His brother leaned heavily on him and he seemed weak. When Archer made him sit on the bed, Guy sagged, curling up on his side.
Archer watched him for a few seconds, then he poured some water into the basin and wet a towel that he then used to dab Guy's face.
Guy remained motionless, without opening his eyes.
“Thank you,” he said weakly, and Archer sat on the bed, shaking his head.
“I don’t understand you, really. You wanted so much to be invited to be able to talk with our sister and clarify the things left in suspense between you, and then you came to the castle completely drunk, acting like a perfect fool.”
Guy turned on his back with a groan. He felt weak and he still had stomach cramps, but at least now he was able to think clearly again.
“I wasn’t drunk.”
“No? Did you know the sheriff paints his toenails black?”
“Did I really say that?”
“And it wasn’t even the worst thing that came out of your mouth.”
“Yeah. I threw up almost on the sheriff's feet, what could be worse than that?”
“Getting lashed by your sister after insulting her instead of asking for her forgiveness?”
Guy put his hand over his eyes with a groan.
“What got me, Archer? I was convinced I had complimented her.”
“Wine doesn’t agree with you, brother, that's all.”
“I swear, I didn’t drink.”
Archer put a hand on his shoulder.
"I believe you, but that was the impression you gave. It must have been something you ate, then. You have no idea how many substances exist that can cloud a man's thoughts. How do you feel now?”
“Sleep, then. I have to go back to the sheriff, but I'll tell one of the guards to stay out of your door, if you need help, call him. And if you need to be sick again, here is a bucket.”
Guy turned back to his side, looking for a more comfortable position. His stomach still hurt, but at least the nausea seemed to have passed completely.
“You’re welcome. And don’t feel too bad, it happens to everyone to look like an idiot sooner or later. It must be said that you did it in style.”
Guy let out a faint smile, then he closed his eyes with a sigh: he felt so tired.
Chapter 8: I Don't Know and I Don't Care
Marian dismounted and Allan imitated her a moment later.
The girl looked around and saw a group of nobles gathered on the stairs, but Guy wasn’t among them. Fortunately not even the sheriff seemed to be present.
“Where will Giz be?”
“If he's unwell, probably in his quarters.”
Allan and Marian headed for the castle entrance, passing by the group of nobles on the stairs.
Those people were talking to each other in a low voice and Marian had the impression that they were looking at her, pointing to her secretly and laughing.
She sighed, exasperated.
All right, they considered her Guy's lover, but for how long that foolish gossip would go on?
Perhaps once the engagement was made public, things would improve, she thought. As long as Guy still wanted to marry her after learning that she was the one who poisoned him.
Allan looked around, admired: the castle was decorated with banners and flags and it seemed that the sheriff had done things on a grand scale to welcome his guests.
“I wonder if they gave him his old rooms,” Allan asked to himself.
“I would say no, since I live there now,” a voice behind them said, and Marian and Allan turned around, finding themselves face to face with Archer. “Are you looking for Guy?”
Marian looked at him, worried.
“Is he alright?”
Archer gave her a curious look. The girl's obvious anxiety made him realize that Marian must be aware of the reason for the state in which Gisborne was.
“Why do you ask?”
Allan gave the girl a resentful look.
“Because she poisoned him by mistake and now she feels guilty, that's why!”
“Allan!” Marian shouted, blushing, then she looked back at Archer. “So, how is he?”
Archer was tempted to keep her hanging for a while, but he realized that the girl was really worried and decided to answer her sincerely.
"I've seen him in better condition, in fact, but I think he's recovering. When I left him a while ago, he was sleeping.”
“Can we see him?”
Archer called a soldier.
"I have to go back to my job now, but Harold will take you to his lodgings." He shook his head in disbelief. “Poisoned... That's the reason of his behavior...”
Marian and Allan followed the guard along the castle corridors until Harold stopped at a door guarded by another soldier.
Allan looked at the man, puzzled.
“Why is he treated like a prisoner?”
“He’s not. Archer has ordered me to remain available to help Sir Guy if necessary.”
“In this case, then, could you bring hot water?”
The soldier obeyed and walked off along the corridor with Harold, while Allan and Marian pushed the door and entered Gisborne's room.
Guy was lying on the bed, on his side, in an apparently uncomfortable position and he was still completely dressed. Marian had already watched him sleep in the past, but even when she had seen him suffering for a high fever, Guy had never been as motionless and inert as he was now.
For a moment she feared that Djaq was wrong and that Guy was dead, but then she saw him breathe and at that moment she resumed breathing too.
She slowly approached the bed and reached out to touch his face. Guy's skin was warm and dry and Marian wondered if he had a fever. She moved a lock of hair from his face with a tender gesture, but Guy didn’t react to her touch.
Marian threw a worried look at Allan and the young man approached and put a hand on his friend's shoulder to shake him a little more energetically.
“Hey, Giz, how are you?”
Gisborne moved slightly and he sank back his face into the pillow with a moan.
Allan shook him again and finally Guy decided to open his eyes.
“Allan?” Guy looked at him, confused. “Is it really you?”
“Guy!” Marian came over and took his hand.
Gisborne smiled faintly.
“How do you feel, Guy?”
Guy smiled bitterly.
“Just like one who has thrown away his dignity and all hope of being respected.”
Marian let go of his hand, horrified. It was only her fault and she was afraid that Guy couldn’t forgive her for what she had done to him.
She took a step back, but Gisborne was too stunned to notice.
Allan shook him again to keep him awake and helped him to sit up.
He brought a cup to his lips.
“Try to drink this, Giz. Djaq said it will make you feel better.”
“Djaq? No, you'll explain it later, now I want to sleep.”
“Drink first. Slowly. Good.”
Marian watched from a distance, hidden by the dimness of the room, feeling useless and guilty. If Guy was so unwell it was only the fault of her superficiality and her selfish vanity. She had taken pleasure in the fact that Guy appreciated the food she cooked and she had never stopped to think much about the fact that he did it just to please her.
Once, Allan had told her that Guy would gladly accept poison from her, and Marian felt sick at the thought of what might have happened.
She wanted to take care of him and to try to make him feel better, but how could she think she was capable of it when she risked killing him just trying to make breakfast?
She looked at Allan as he made Guy drink the medicine that had been entrusted to him by Djaq (the girl had handed it to Allan, not to her and Marian could very well imagine the reason) and then while helping him to take off his jacket and boots before letting him lie on the bed again.
Marian wiped her tears with one hand, walking back to the door. Allan knew how to help Guy and he was doing it, while she was only able to hurt him and she was just standing in the way.
She slipped out of the room in silence and ran away, crushed by guilt.
When Guy awoke, he was surprised to see the rosy light of dawn entering the window of that strange room. When Archer had almost carried him into his quarters, it was still morning, he was sure of that, then he vaguely remembered the arrival of Marian and Allan. Allan had made him drink something and had helped him undress, but after that he remembered nothing at all.
He sat up on the bed and looked around: Marian wasn’t there, but Allan was sleeping on a mattress on the floor in a corner of the room.
Guy got out of bed with caution: he felt a little weak, but he wasn’t sick anymore.
He approached Allan and knelt to wake his friend.
Allan opened his eyes with a start and looked at him, then smiled, relieved.
“Oh, Giz. You feel better?”
Allan's gaze hardened.
“I don’t know and I don’t care.”
Gisborne looked at him, amazed by the abrupt tone of his friend. He had never seen Allan in that angry mood.
“She poisoned you, Giz!”
“She used one of Djaq's drugs instead of the flour yesterday morning.”
“Ah. Now I understand. But nothing serious happened, now I'm fine.”
Allan stared at him, with a grave look that made Guy worry.
“You're fine only because Djaq is a prudent person and she has good sense. Yesterday she told me that when she uses certain dangerous substances to prepare a medicine, she always mixes them with other herbs that empty the stomach if taken in excessive quantities.”
“So that's why I felt so sick...”
“And you must be happy, otherwise you would be dead.”
Guy sat on the bed with a sigh.
“If I had known that, I would have kept away from the sheriff...”
Allan looked at him, amused.
“Yes, I heard what happened. Well, he deserved it anyway. Are you still feeling nauseous?”
“No. On the contrary, I'm hungry. But I don’t know how I will find the courage to show up again.”
“You're alive, that's what matters. Yesterday I was really scared.”
Guy looked at him, struck by his friend's concern. The day before he hadn’t realized that he had been in danger, but Allan must have really been frightened.
“By the way, Giz, what happened to your face? You're full of scratches and red marks, it looks like they hit you...”
“With a riding crop,” Guy continued for him. “My sister. I'm not sure what I could have said to her...”
Allan patted him on the shoulder.
“Don’t think about it too much, it's just one more thing to apologize for. It can’t be worse than having sold her, right? If she can forgive you for that, she will also forgive you for everything else.”
Guy covered his face with his hands with a sigh.
He didn’t know if it was worse to think about the time when he would have to face his sister again or the one when the sheriff would surely have fun, mocking him in front of all the other nobles. Guy thought that maybe he would do better to go back to Locksley and not be seen around for at least a few months.
Allan sighed too.
“Maybe you should go look for Marian,” he said, reluctantly. "It's true that she nearly killed you, but she was also out of her mind with fear.”
Guy looked at the door, worried, and nodded. He didn’t want to be seen by the other guests of the castle, but he had to talk to Marian, to reassure her and to tell her that he wasn’t mad at her.
He saw the trunk he had brought from Locksley in a corner of the room, and he opened it to look for clean clothes.
After all, he couldn’t hide in that room forever, he thought resignedly, starting to get ready.
Chapter 9: Really
Guy looked around quickly, wondering where Marian might be. Every time he entered one of the common rooms of the castle he could clearly feel the glances of the others on him while he wasn’t looking, and, as soon as he turned, he saw ironic smiles and muffled giggles.
Gisborne sighed to himself: he had to expect the ill-concealed ridicule of the people after what had happened and he knew very well that the sheriff would take advantage of it to humiliate him in every possible way.
He saw Sir Edward, and the elderly lord came to meet him. Guy was consoled to see that his eyes were the only ones not amused and that indeed they showed a sincere concern.
“Sir Guy! How do you feel? Allan told me what happened...”
Gisborne smiled at him, grateful.
“I'm fine now. It was mostly my pride to be affected,” he admitted with a small sigh, and Marian's father smiled to encourage him.
“People quickly forget, wait for the next gossip or little scandal and they will no longer remember your misadventure. The important thing is that you're well.”
“Guess so. Where is Marian?”
Sir Edward smiled slightly.
"It seems to me that you have taken what happened better than my daughter. It is since yesterday morning that she hasn’t left her lodgings and she also rejected the food I brought her. I guess she feels guilty.”
Guy looked at him, worried.
“But she didn’t do it on purpose!”
Sir Edward shook his head and he put a hand on Guy's shoulder.
"Sir Guy, you would say the same thing even if my daughter should stab you in the heart, I'm afraid. With your last breath you’d find a way to excuse her. As a father I can only be pleased with your dedication, but I think this time Marian needed this lesson of humility. Her carelessness could have cost a lot to both of you. Suffering a little for her guilt will do her good and will push her to think a little more before acting, next time.”
"Maybe you're not wrong, but I'm fine now and I don’t want Marian to suffer because of me. Take me to her rooms, please.”
“Gisborne! I see you've recovered,” Archer said, approaching the two men. "If you look for Lady Marian, I can accompany you to her lodgings.”
Guy understood that his brother wanted to talk to him and nodded. He took his leave of Sir Edward and followed Archer along the castle corridors.
“So, how are you?” Archer asked after a while, after looking around to make sure that the corridor was deserted.
“I’m in good health, for the rest, every time someone looks at me I’d just want to hide.”
Archer burst out laughing.
“And you still haven’t met the sheriff.”
“Please, kill me now.”
“Look at the bright side, at least you're alive. Judging by the upset faces your friends had, you must have taken a big risk and survived without too much damage. It's already good, isn’t it?”
“This is true, even if I would rather not be the object of the ridicule of the whole castle.”
"I'm sorry for you, but I have to admit it was pretty funny. You should have seen the sheriff's face when you threw up at his feet.”
“Don’t remind it to me, please,” Guy said with a groan.
“All right, I won’t, but I think that the sheriff will definitely do it.”
Gisborne glared at him and Archer chuckled again.
“Don’t be mad, come on. You can still recover some of your dignity.”
“I don’t see how.”
“The sheriff has done big things to accommodate these guests, there are festivities, challenges and tournaments for anyone who wants to test themselves. You’re good with a sword, if you prove to be valiant in combat, people will forget your behavior of yesterday.”
“Do you think so?”
“I do. And then surely they thought that you had to be drunk, yesterday morning. Sooner or later anyone has made a fool of themselves after drinking too much, they will soon forget it if you don’t give too much importance to it.”
“I wasn’t drunk,” Guy said, tiredly.
“Yes, you were. Or at least you should say that you were. Being accidentally poisoned by your girlfriend is much more ridiculous than having exaggerated for once with wine.” Archer shook his head, laughing. “I still wonder how she could mistake a medicinal remedy for flour... And how you didn’t notice the difference...”
Guy let out a smile.
“Maybe you're right.”
Archer pointed to a door.
“We arrived. Come on, go and comfort the brilliant cook.” Archer left Gisborne in front of Marian's bedroom door and walked away down the corridor, but he turned around after a few steps, smiling with amusement. “Guy?”
“When you are married I don’t think I will accept your invitation for lunch,” he said with a laugh, then he hurried to go away before the brother could answer him.
Marian heard a knock on the door, but she didn’t move from the bed. Her father had already come to look for her several times, bringing food trays, but she didn’t want to eat or see anyone.
How could she allow herself to be comforted when she didn’t deserve it at all? She was an irresponsible fool and her stupidity had damaged Guy.
She shivered, clutching her pillow.
If he was alive, he owed it only to the foresight of Djaq, only to that.
Marian felt dirty, stained, just as if she had the blood of the man she loved on her hands.
She turned on her side, bursting into new sobs.
They knocked again and the girl covered her face with her hands.
Go away. I don’t want to eat. I don’t deserve anything.
She jumped up recognizing Guy's voice and her heart filled with joy and gratitude. If he was there, outside her door, it meant he was alive and he was fine!
She started to run toward the door, driven by the need to hug him, to make sure of his condition with her own eyes, but she stopped suddenly.
How could she? With what courage could she look him in the eye after what she had done to him?
And how could she endure his anger?
She stood still, her face streaked with tears and her heart beating too fast.
Guy knocked a third time without being answered, and for a moment he wondered if the room was empty.
He shook his head.
Marian was there, on the other side of the door, he was sure.
The silence was total, but Guy could feel her presence.
He leaned against the door with his back, without taking his hand off the handle.
“I know you're there, Marian. I waited so many times at your door... Waiting for a gesture, for a word... And you never answered, pretending not to be there, but I always knew you were there and that you simply didn’t want to answer because I was the one who knocked... Please don’t do it. Not again. Don’t leave me out...”
The door opened behind him without warning, risking to make him lose his balance, and Guy turned quickly to look into the crack that had opened. Marian stood by the door, clinging to it, as if to support herself and she didn’t dare to look up.
Guy looked at the girl's pale face, at her red, puffy eyes and at her tangled hair, and he felt as if something was melting inside him. He pushed the door and took her in his arms in a single movement, holding her to his heart, and Marian burst into tears, hiding her face on his chest.
Guy stroked her hair slowly, until the sobs subsided, then he put his hand on her cheek to lift her face. He smiled to find her blue eyes and wiped her tears with a finger.
“Don’t cry anymore, everything is alright,” he whispered, but Marian shook her head.
“You could have died! It’s my fault…”
Gisborne brushed a lock of her hair from her face and kissed her temple.
“Do I look dead? I'm fine, really, nothing happened.”
Marian leaned her face on his shoulder with a distressed sigh.
“Don’t say that, Guy. It isn’t true and we both know it. I saw how unwell you were yesterday and they told me what happened to you because of me. When I entered your room and I saw you on the bed, so pale and motionless I thought Djaq must have been wrong, I thought I killed you...”
Marian's voice broke again in other sobs. “I don’t know how I would do if I should lose you!”
“Really?” Guy asked, joyfully.
Marian gave him a puzzled look.
"Do you really care so much about me?"
The girl smiled at him between tears.
Guy lifted her into his arms and he made a half-turn before returning to hug her and kiss her.
“You make me happy. Really.”
Marian rested her face on his chest and listened to Guy's heartbeat for a while.
“I'm so sorry, Guy,” she whispered. “I didn’t want to poison you, it was a mistake...”
“It would be worrying if you had done it on purpose, don’t you think?”
“Indeed, yes,” Marian admitted, allowing herself to smile.
“Well? Is everything all right between us, then?” Guy asked, smiling at her with a knowing air. “Do you still want to marry one who made himself the laughing stock of the whole castle?”
“I would say I do. And do you really want a wife who can’t even tell apart flour from a potentially lethal medicine?”
“We’ll hire a cook.”
Marian burst out laughing and she hugged him tightly.
Guy kissed her again, then he pulled away from her and held out a hand.
“So, since you don’t fear the ridicule and you're not going to poison me again, how about going to have breakfast? I don’t know about you, but I'm starving.”
The girl was about to object that she would have to at least change her dress, untangle her hair and try to wipe away the traces of tears from her face, but she said nothing and took Gisborne's hand, smiling.
She was hungry too and she couldn’t stand the idea of having to separate from Guy, not even for a few moments. If the others had something to say about her appearance, they would have to laugh at her as well as they laughed at Guy.
She intertwined her fingers with those of her betrothed and they exchanged a happy look.
Everything else didn’t matter.
Chapter 10: In the Eyes of a Sister
Guy let go of Marian's hand just a moment before entering the great hall.
Long tables had been set in the hall and most of the guests were already sitting at their seats when Guy and Marian entered.
Gisborne tried hard not to notice the ironic gazes that had focused on him as soon as he entered, and he and the girl took a seat next to Sir Edward.
“Ah, Gisborne,” the sheriff said, malicious. “You're still here, I see. Are you going to dispense other pearls of wisdom today?”
Guy didn’t look up and he just shook his head.
“No, my lord,” he said in a humble tone.
He knew that the sheriff had just begun to have fun at his expense and that the only sensible thing to do was to endure any insult and wait for him to get tired.
Marian took his hand under the table and squeezed it lightly. Guy closed his fingers on those of the girl, grateful for that gesture of comfort.
“Good for you, Gizzy. Be careful to keep your mouth shut or I might decide to punish your insolence. I don’t think you have a lot of healthy skin on your back, if I were you I would do my best to keep it whole.”
Vaisey was about to say something else, but at that moment the servants, loaded with trays of food and jugs of fine wine, entered the hall and began to serve the meal and fill the goblets of the guests.
The sheriff imperiously stopped the servant who was about to pour wine into Guy's chalice and he spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear.
“No! Only water for Gizzy, I wouldn’t want to see again some unseemly scenes. You should thank me, don’t you think? I avoid making you even more ridiculous than you have already done.”
A buzz went through the room while the eyes of all present were staring at Guy, waiting for his reaction. The sheriff's insult was bad enough to push a knight to react violently to defend his honor, but they also knew that confronting the Sheriff of Nottingham would be madness to pay with blood.
Guy stood up and let his gaze wander over the guests sitting at the tables before he stared back at the sheriff. Neither his sister nor her husband were present, he noted absently before turning to Vaisey.
“It is true, my lord, yesterday morning my behavior was shameful and I would like to apologize to those who have been forced to witness it. But in my defense I can say that I am not the only culprit for what happened: even Lady Marian has a good part of responsibility.”
Marian held her breath and gave him a hurt look.
Why did Guy talk like that? Did he want to ridicule her in front of everyone?
Even Sir Edward was frowning and staring at him sternly, while everyone else was curious to hear how he would go on.
Guy took Marian's arm to make her stand up and he smiled at her, then turned back to the other nobles.
"Lady Marian is guilty because she has agreed to marry me, and I admit that I have celebrated our engagement too enthusiastically. The joy of having her by my side as future Lady Gisborne has pushed me to exaggerate with wine and to lose control of my actions. It was certainly foolish and inappropriate on my part and I beg you again to accept my sincerest apologies, but I hope that seeing my betrothed you may understand the reason for my recklessness.”
Marian looked at him, happy and moved, then she realized that the looks that the other nobles addressed to Guy were still amused, but less contemptuous than just a while ago.
“I always said that that woman would ruin you,” the sheriff commented in a bored and disgusted tone. "It's like leprosy, Gisborne, look how low you’ve fallen.”
Robin looked at Meg, puzzled: the girl was holding a piece of chalk and using it to draw a symbol on one of the inn's external beams.
“Do you think it will work?” He asked, skeptical.
The girl shrugged, and she adjusted the hood of her cloak that hid her face.
“Allan said that at the time this was the way he contacted Gisborne. And I know that your method is more fun, but you can’t shoot arrows inside the castle windows. Also because you don’t know what Guy's room is.”
Robin could not object and followed her inside the inn.
Guy looked at Marian and smiled at her from a distance. The girl had been surrounded by the other women who wanted to admire the engagement ring or who wanted to involve her in some funny gossip and Gisborne was happy to see her in company.
When word got out that she was her lover, Marian had been isolated and treated with disdain, but perhaps now the announcement of their engagement was beginning to settle things. Of course, there was always the possibility that those women were just curious to know if he behaved like a perfect fool even in private, but it didn’t really matter. Marian seemed to be happy to chat with the young ones and he was pleased to see her serene.
He left her to the company of those new friends and retired from the great hall.
He had consoled and reassured Marian, and perhaps he had managed to make up at least a little for the bad scene of the day before, but he still had a problem to solve and this time Guy had the impression that it wouldn’t be so simple.
His memories of what had happened were rather confusing, but he remembered perfectly the emotion he had felt in seeing his sister's face after such a long time.
There was still a faint trace of her childhood face in her, the one he remembered so well, but Isabella was a woman now, matured by a life he didn’t know at all.
What had she done in all those years? Were the smiles to sculpt the features of her face or her eyes had become so luminous because of the tears of some past pain?
He had left behind an immature teenager and had found a woman in the flower of her beauty.
The day before Guy had expressed his thoughts badly, but he hadn’t lied: Isabella didn’t look much like Ghislaine except for the color of her dark curls and white skin, but she had something of their father's pride in her.
Guy wondered what impression he had made in the eyes of his sister, except that of a drunken fool obviously.
When he had married her to Thornton, Guy's hands were not yet stained with so much blood, though his heart always carried the guilt of their parents' death. Then Guy still didn’t know what it meant to kill a man in cold blood, he had not sold his soul yet to the ruthlessness of the sheriff.
How had he changed in all those years? Was there still in him something of that Guy of Gisborne who had been Isabella's brother?
He turned the corner of a corridor and jumped as he came face to face with the object of his thoughts.
Isabella was alone, followed only by a maid, and for a moment she seemed surprised to find herself in front of Guy, then her gaze hardened and she started to go on, completely ignoring him.
“Isabella! Wait up!” Guy said, moving to block the passage.
His sister looked at him with disgust.
“I have nothing to say to you. Return to drown your vices in some tavern.”
“Yesterday I wasn’t myself, I said words that I didn’t mean, but it was a mistake, I assure you, I don’t have the habit of getting drunk.”
“Too bad,” Isabella said, icily and Guy looked at her, perplexed.
“Usually drunkards die prematurely.”
Gisborne stared at her, shocked by his sister's hateful tone.
“Would you like to see me dead?”
“Yes, Guy. If there was a divine justice, there would be nothing left of you but bones and ashes.”
Guy took a step back, frightened by Isabella's gaze.
His sister was not exaggerating and her were not impulsive words dictated by the fury of the moment or old grudges. Isabella would have really preferred to know he was dead, she would have liked to put a marble tombstone on his brother's grave and erase him forever from her world.
He shook his head, desolate.
“Why?” He managed to ask in a low voice.
“Do you know what you did to me?”
Guy understood that he was referring to the marriage with Thornton.
“I tried to give you an opportunity. I grabbed the only chance we had at that moment...”
“You killed me. While you were the one who deserved to die.”
Isabella turned her back and walked away without saying anything else, but Guy didn’t even try to follow her.
He took another step back and leaned against the stone wall with his back, trembling.
Chapter 11: Find Out the Truth
Allan hurried along the castle corridors, looking for Guy. He found him a little later and, when he saw him, he was worried: Gisborne was leaning against the wall of the corridor, keeping his eyes closed and looking pale and suffering.
“Do you still feel unwell, Giz?”
Guy straightened up and opened his eyes, running a hand over his face, tiredly.
“No, no, it's nothing.”
“Are you sure? Maybe you shouldn’t have got up so soon...”
“I'm fine, Allan.”
“I'm not being funny, Giz, it looks like you've seen a ghost...”
“Maybe that's true,” Guy said with a sigh, then he looked at Allan, trying not to think of Isabella's words. “Were you looking for me? What did you want?”
“There is the signal.”
“At the inn?”
“Better to go, then. We should try to get out of the castle without being noticed.”
Allan handed him a cloak with a hood.
“When we're out of the castle, hide your face. Signal or not signal, it wouldn’t do if people should see you entering a tavern.”
Guy gave him a half smile.
“Yes, better to avoid it.”
Marian smiled at the girls around her, a little uncomfortable. She wasn’t used to the company of other young women and their attentions pleased her, but at the same time they intimidated her a little.
They were all curious about Guy, though they tried to hide their indiscretion behind advice and suggestions for the upcoming wedding, each apparently anxious to share her experience with her.
A good part of those girls were about her age and among them she was the only one not yet married, while the others already had at least one or two children. Marian felt she was different from them, as if her inexperience had cut her out from the world of those girls, a world she couldn’t quite comprehend.
One of the young women suggested a certain type of fabric for the wedding dress, triggering an endless and heated discussion among the others who would have chosen a different quality. Marian wondered if it really was such an important decision and if Guy really would notice the difference as the other girls were saying.
The chatter of the others was silenced when another woman entered the hall, accompanied by her personal maid, and many of the girls threw curious looks at Marian.
The newcomer was supposed to be a few years older than them, but she was still in the flower of her beauty, though her expression was haughty and detached. The woman didn’t pay the least attention to those present and she reached her husband to sit at his side.
“What can you tell us about that woman?” One of the girls asked Marian, in a whisper.
Marian looked at her, perplexed, wondering why she should know anything about that woman.
"I know her name is Isabella Thornton.”
“Come on, don’t be mysterious, Lady Marian, surely you must know something more, since your future husband knows her.”
“Really?” Marian let out, amazed.
“Didn’t you know?” The other continued, with a mischievous light in his eyes. “Yesterday morning, when Lady Thornton's carriage arrived, Sir Guy ran to say something to her and she, in response, took a whip from the hands of one of the coachmen and hit him several times until he collapsed to his knees.”
Marian recalled the scratches and marks on Guy's face and paled. She had thought he had hurt himself by falling to the ground because of Djaq's medicine or that the sheriff had punished him, but no one had told her about Lady Thornton's reaction.
"I wonder what Sir Guy said to make her react like that.”
“Maybe they were lovers once,” another girl suggested, without worrying too much about the presence of Marian and unleashing the giggles of the others.
“Maybe they still are,” a third girl hypothesized, giggling.
Marian remained silent, her face flushed and her eyes bright with tears, without having the courage to say anything because she didn’t want to admit that Guy had never told her about that mysterious woman.
Marian looked at her with a heart tightened by a mixture of fear, humiliation and jealousy: Isabella Thornton was a beautiful woman, with dark, thick hair and piercing blue eyes, dressed with an elegance and richness that Marian could never have matched .
In comparison, she felt incredibly simple and insignificant, a naive and inexperienced girl, though in reality she was almost too old for marriage. If Guy really had any interest in that beautiful and sophisticated woman, how could she compete?
Guy and Allan entered the inn and one of the maids led them to a private room after winking at Allan.
Robin and Meg were already seated, and on the table in front of them there were a tray full of food and a jug of wine with four mugs.
Allan barred the door after entering and only then all four of them decided to take off the cloaks they had used to conceal their identity.
Robin looked at Guy and, from the amused gleam of his eyes, Gisborne understood that the outlaw must already be aware of his misadventure and that he was about to make one of his jokes.
“Not a word, Hood,” he said threateningly, sitting in front of him and pointing a finger to intimidate him. “I already have to put up with Vaisey, I certainly don’t need to listen to your nonsense.”
Robin raised his hands in front of him, innocently.
“Hey, I didn’t say anything.”
Guy gave him a dark look and took a grape from the tray.
“So what do you want? It’s not prudent to meet like this.”
"It would have been much more safe if you hadn’t attracted so much attention to yourself.”
Guy snorted and Allan looked at him, vaguely worried, then he smiled at Meg and refilled his plate.
"It wasn’t funny at all, Hood, and if you came here to make fun of me, then I will leave immediately.”
Robin was about to say that actually the scene must have been terribly funny, but Meg sensed his intentions and kicked him on the shin.
The outlaw winced, but closed his mouth and looked at Guy. The friend seemed to be in a decidedly bleak mood, and Robin sensed that it shouldn’t be only because of the incident with Marian's pancakes.
“All right, Guy?” He asked in a worried tone.
Gisborne looked at him, surprised for the question, then shook his head weakly.
“Isabella,” he just said.
“I gather that she wasn’t too happy to see you again.”
“She hates me... She wants to see me dead.”
“Give her time, she has much to forgive.”
“Yeah. But let's change the subject if you don’t mind. Why did you call me?”
“Did you discover the reason for this meeting? Why did the sheriff invite all those people?”
“Certainly not for mere hospitality, but I have no idea of his true purpose.”
“There's something wrong, there are too many messengers coming and going from the castle, we have to find out what Vaisey's intentions are.”
"I'll enter the castle and rummage through the sheriff's papers.”
“Would this be your plan? It's crazy, Hood. It would be in normal conditions, but with all the people that crowd the castle it's definitely impossible.”
“Do you have any better ideas?”
“I'm already in the castle. I'll spy on the sheriff, read his documents and discover his plans.”
Robin shook his head.
“No. If they should find you, the sheriff would have you hanged.”
“And my neck is more precious than yours?”
“I am already an outlaw, you have much more to lose.”
Guy looked at him.
“Exactly. The sheriff hates me, you can be sure that as soon as he gets the chance to hit me without fear of repercussions he will do it, so finding out his plans is also in my interest.”
“Giz is right. From the inside it will be much easier to act and in any case I will help him.”
“Alright then,” Robin said. “But try not to take too many risks. And we must establish signals to communicate in case of need.”
Meg had remained silent until then, but she looked at Guy and Allan, worried.
“My father is also among the guests. Pay attention to him, you mustn’t trust him. He was willing to imprison his own daughter in order to get what he wanted...”
Guy stared at Robin.
“I won’t let you down, you'll see,” he said, serious, then an ironic smile spread over his face. “And anyway, if they should discover me, I can always pretend to be drunk.”
Chapter 12: Shattered
"Do you think you're so smart, Isabella?”
A sudden chill ran through her body as she heard her husband's voice, low and deadly like a snake, ready to strike. Thornton stood by the door in the dark and he had clearly waited for his wife to come back to their room.
Isabella turned to him, but she didn’t look up, head bowed.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
She really didn’t know, she didn’t remember to have done anything to arouse her husband's wrath, but with Thornton one could never be sure of anything, often an insignificant detail was enough to make him cruel and vindictive.
"I don’t like people having my wife's name on their lips, you know.”
“I didn’t do anything to make them curious.”
“You whipped a man in front of everyone. Who was this man? One of your lovers?”
Isabella paled. She should have imagined that her husband wouldn’t like her behavior.
“No! It was Guy. My brother.”
“Ah. That little greedy parasite... But it doesn’t matter, you still didn’t behave the way I expect of my wife. Come here.”
The woman began to tremble.
“No, please, no. It won’t happen again. And then it happened yesterday...”
“It doesn’t matter. Do you think that a day, a month or a year can be enough to avoid the right punishment? Now come.”
“I beg you, no! I'll be a good wife, please...”
Thornton remained motionless, arms crossed in the dim light of the room.
“You're only making your situation worse, Isabella. Come now. And I don’t want to hear a single complaint.”
As white as a corpse, Isabella took a step toward her husband, shaking convulsively.
It's your fault, Guy. Only your fault.
Marian watched the people who populated the castle as she walked along the porch to look for her father or Guy. Usually only soldiers and servants roamed the stone corridors, and it seemed strange to see so many frivolous people walking around, intent on going from a feast to some other fun event.
Normally the gloomy rooms of the castle harbored only suffering and fear, and that almost forced cheerfulness made her feel uneasy. It was like meeting an acquaintance, usually austere, dressed in bright colors and extravagant style and having the impression of being in front of a stranger.
She saw the other women gathered in front of the arches of the portico that gave onto the inner courtyard and for a moment she was tempted to avoid their company and go away before they could notice her, but then she let herself be overcome by curiosity. The girls seemed very interested in what they saw in the courtyard and they commented with screams and silly laughter.
Marian reluctantly approached to look too and she understood immediately why they were so interested: many of the bravest men had gathered in the courtyard to train to fight ahead of the games scheduled for the following days.
Her gaze was immediately attracted by the figure of Guy and Marian was surprised: she hadn’t imagined that he was going to participate in the tournament.
Gisborne was in a corner of the courtyard and he was talking to Archer while they both waited for the other men to finish fighting and free some space. Marian smiled, allowing herself the luxury of being able to observe without being seen: for once Guy wasn’t wearing his black leather jacket, but to train more comfortably he had chosen a wide and soft black shirt, closed on the chest by intertwined laces.
He, like the castle, also looked different from usual: more lively and relaxed, less severe and, Marian blushed in thinking it, terribly attractive.
A rather explicit comment from one of the other women made her realize that she wasn’t the only one to be struck by the appearance of her future husband, and Marian frowned, jealous.
She tried to ignore the other girls and she looked back at Guy. Her heart sank when she realized that she had already looked at him from the same spot, but in completely different circumstances. That day Guy had been held hostage by Roger of Barret after fighting desperately to protect both her and the city, and Marian couldn’t help but watching as he risked to die.
She quickly wiped a tear, before the other girls could notice her emotion and she looked at Guy warmly, sincerely grateful to see him alive and well. And hers.
The men who were training ended their fight and then it was Guy and Archer’s turn.
Marian glanced at the other girls, approaching them to listen to their comments, and she discovered that many of them couldn’t decide which of the two men they preferred.
Their comments would have been fun, Marian thought, if they hadn’t been about her fiance.
With a sigh, she returned to look at Guy and Archer. The two men had reached the center of the courtyard and exchanged a defiant smile, then in a moment they had started forward, crossing their blades and all the women, including Marian, had held their breath.
Archer was younger and agile and he used unusual and exotic techniques, while Guy was taller and stronger than his opponent and he seemed to guess Archer’s blows with an infallible precision. Both were moving with a confidence that could only come from years of experience and with a speed that certainly had to put a strain on their resistance.
In addition to the women, the other knights also stopped to watch the fight, admired, and Marian found herself smiling between tears, proud of Guy's ability and at the same time worried that he might be hurt.
She had always disapproved of his challenges with Archer, considering them foolish and dangerous, but at that moment she could understand how inebriating the excitement of a fight could be and why Guy was so attracted to it. She hadn’t imagined that he could be so good with the sword and in Archer he seemed to have found a worthy opponent, someone who allowed him to really test himself.
The fight ended with the same speed with which it had began: Guy had managed to disarm Archer, making the sword fly away from his hands, but at the same time his opponent had made him stumble with a kick and pushed him to the ground, blocking him with a foot on the arm that held the sword.
The two opponents could have continued to fight even without weapons, or extracting the daggers, but both Guy and Archer decided to end the fight in a draw. Archer held out a hand to Guy to help him get up and smiled, satisfied.
The young women next to Marian sighed languidly, excited, and the girl thought they would do better to think of their husbands. She moved away from them, determined to reach Guy to spend some time with him.
Archer reached his brother, grinning.
“I told you, right? Did you see how everyone was watching us? They not even dared to breathe, so much they were taken from our fight! Keep it up and you'll see that soon they will no longer remember you like the madman who threw up at the sheriff's feet, but like the brave knight who almost beat Archer.”
“Almost?” Guy asked, with an amused smile. “Wait until the real tournament begins and you'll see. Today I didn’t want to exaggerate, but you will have to commit yourself much more next time.”
“I don’t expect anything else. But now it's better if I go before the sheriff looks for me.”
Gisborne nodded and thought that he didn’t envy Archer at all. When he worked for Vaisey, he was so used to it that he hardly noticed, but now that he was free, he could clearly see how oppressive the sheriff's presence had been in his life. Every moment of his day, every breath was dedicated to serving Vaisey and even when he thought he had some time for himself, Guy knew that Vaisey could call him at any time to give him orders.
Probably for Archer the situation was less oppressive, his brother had no other constraints with Vaisey if not the economic one and the sheriff couldn’t treat him as he had done with Guy, otherwise Archer would just quit his job and leave again, without other complications.
Guy took leave from his brother and decided to head to his quarters to change his shirt and wash before reaching the other nobles in the dining room: he was sweaty and dirty with dust after fighting.
He turned a corner and stopped, seeing his sister at the end of the corridor. Isabella stood in front of a window and looked out, lost in some thought.
Recalling the last words she had spoken to him, Guy was tempted to turn back without being seen by his sister, but he didn’t.
Even as a child, he recalled, Isabella used to stop by one of the windows of their house to look out, when she felt sad for some reason. She stood still and watched the landscape and lost herself in her thoughts.
Guy’s heart sank at the thought that even the window so loved by his sister had been destroyed along with everything else when their house burned, that Isabella could never again look at that corner of the country she loved so much, and that he was the one who took that consolation away from her too.
I destroyed everything... Did I also burn every possible relationship between us, my sister?
He forced himself to get closer to her, though he knew that Isabella probably would send him away again.
Marian hurried to reach Guy. Life in the castle kept them more separate than they were in Locksley, living in the same house, and she missed him.
She wanted to spend some time with Guy, tell him how much she had admired his duel with Archer and simply stay by his side.
She had seen him leave the courtyard and she imagined that he would go to his lodgings to change for lunch. If she were quick, they could spend a few minutes together before being forced to join the other guests.
She decided to go through a secondary corridor to avoid meeting other people, it wasn’t appropriate for a girl to go knocking on a man's door, even if he was her betrothed, and she wanted to avoid more gossip about them.
The passage she had chosen sprouted near Guy’s lodgings and Marian peeked at the main corridor to make sure it was deserted. She abruptly retreated to see the mysterious woman, Isabella Thornton, standing by one of the windows.
Marian looked at her, hidden in the shadows and struck by the woman's empty expression. She held her breath as she heard footsteps approaching down the corridor and her eyes widened when she saw it was Guy.
Guy's tone was sad and appealing at the same time, full of anguish, but not without heat. Marian noticed that he had called her by name, a sign of some confidence between them.
Who was that woman? Why had Guy never mentioned her?
“Isabella, please. Listen to me, I only ask you this.”
The woman didn’t turn to look at him.
“I don’t see why I should. I owe you nothing, Guy.”
“Once you loved me. Isn’t this a sufficient reason?”
“Once I thought you loved me too,” Isabella hissed, in a poisonous tone.
“I always loved you and you know it. There has not been a single day of my life when I have stopped loving you, and there is nothing that can change this fact. I was wrong, I know it perfectly and I understand that you can hate me for what I did, but even if you would rather see me dead, I will continue to love you as long as I have life.”
“You really have a nice way to prove it. After all this time.”
Guy bowed his head.
“How could I look for you? I was hoping you would be happy without me, how could I contaminate you with my sins?”
“You hoped. You hoped! But you never took care to ascertain. You never wrote to me, not a visit, I could have been dead for you and you could have been for me!”
“I know. I was blind, stupid and arrogant. I preferred to convince myself that you were fine, so I didn’t have to think about you. I couldn’t afford to miss you, it was a weakness.”
Guy took his face in his hands, but Isabella saw the tears that his brother tried to hide and, even if she hadn’t seen them, she would have heard them in his voice. It was strange, Guy had always been too proud to be seen crying by her.
“But I wasn’t fine. And you can’t change this.” Isabella looked around, afraid to see her husband coming, but she didn’t notice Marian who was listening, holding her breath, her face streaked with tears.
“I lived in hell because of you,” she added, with malice and this time Guy did nothing to hide his pain: he took a step towards her and held her in his arms, bursting into desperate sobs.
Isabella was about to free herself, but she didn’t move. For too long, no one showed the least affection for her, for too many years she was touched only to suffer pain or humiliation and, even if she hated him, Guy's embrace had awakened in her heart the faint memory of an ancient warmth.
There was a long lost time when her brother's embrace had the power to wipe away her little girl's tears and disperse every cloud, and even if none of those two children existed anymore, that memory remained.
“Give me the chance to earn your forgiveness. There must be a way I can fix it!”
Gisborne pulled away from her and Isabella looked at him for a few seconds. How many times, in the first years of her marriage, she had hoped to see him come back to her? How many times had she hoped to be asked for forgiveness, to be told that he would fix things in some way?
Now her brother was there, different from how she remembered him, but with the same look in his eyes as when they were small, when things were still going well, the look he had before the fire.
Isabella didn’t know what she felt. She hated him, but that sincere pain could touch her in some inexplicable way.
She closed her eyes. She felt tired and she just wanted the conversation to end.
“Go away, Guy. Leave me alone, keep pretending that I'm dead. You're getting married, right? Do it and forget about my existence. It's better for both of us.”
"What I feel for Marian has nothing to do with what's between us, Isabella. For years I have tried not to think of you, but I can no longer pretend that I do not care. Please.”
“Go, now.” She said wearily, and this time her voice was less harsh.
Guy nodded, wiping his face with the back of his hand.
As he did when he was a child.
“We'll talk again,” he said in a low voice and Isabella couldn’t tell if it was a statement or a question. She did not answer and watched him walk away down the corridor for a while before turning her back on him and going away.
Neither of them noticed Marian's presence.
The girl remained motionless, choked with restrained crying, until the corridor was deserted, then she turned and ran away sobbing.
She had the impression of having her heart broken in a thousand pieces and each of those sharp splinters pierced her to death.
Chapter 13: Ask Him
Marian found herself hating each of the people that populated the castle. She just wanted to be alone to vent her pain, but apparently there wasn’t a single room or a single corner that was deserted. She couldn’t go back to her rooms because her father probably would look for her there and for the moment she didn’t want to talk to him.
He would notice right away that she was upset and surely he’d want to know why. How could she tell him the truth? How could she admit out loud what she had heard from Guy's voice?
I've always loved you...
Marian shook her head, trying to drive away those words to another woman. She couldn’t believe it, she couldn’t accept that Guy had always lied to her, but she could no longer deny the truth.
When she had seen Guy take Meg upstairs at the inn, she felt like dying, but this was a thousand times worse. She had then been able to convince herself that the one with Meg was a minor affair, a simple night of passion, like many other men did, but now she had heard Guy's words, she had heard him declare his love for that Isabella and she had seen him cry for her.
Before then, she had seen him so passionate only towards her, how could have she been so wrong?
What I feel for Marian has nothing to do with what’s between us, Isabella.
What did he mean by those words? That she didn’t count? That their engagement was only a pale imitation of what had been between Guy and Isabella? That Guy was content with her just because Isabella was already married to another?
Yet it didn’t seem that Guy was very interested in the fact that she had a husband, judging by the passion with which he had begged her to forgive him...
Marian took refuge in the stables and began to saddle her horse. She had to get away from the castle or she would suffocate.
She had the impression that the whole world had lost its meaning, she could no longer understand what the truth was. She couldn’t understand Guy.
How could he be so loving and passionate with her and then talk like that to another woman?
Why when she looked at him in the eyes she was absolutely certain of his absolute and sincere love and then she kept discovering a lie after another?
If Guy didn’t love her, why had he always risked so much for her? Why so much effort to conquer her heart? Why so much dedication to remedy the wrongs he had done in the past?
He built a house for me... He risked his own life...
So how could he tell another that he had loved her every day of his life?
“Maybe I'm going crazy,” Marian whispered, caressing the face of the horse before mounting in the saddle.
The horse that Guy gave me...
For a moment she was tempted to take another one, but she couldn’t stay there a moment longer: she got into the saddle and led the horse to the city gate, then she hit his flanks with her heels and set off at a gallop.
Archer made sure that the tax-wagon was escorted by an appropriate number of soldiers and he accompanied the convoy for a while before deciding to return to the castle.
He hoped that Robin Hood would leave the wagon with the tributes unmolested for once, but he didn’t want to investigate the intentions of the outlaw, though he could easily do it by asking Guy for information.
He didn’t want to know anything about his brothers' projects, just as Guy avoided asking him about his job for the sheriff: it was better for all of them to know as little as possible about the intentions of the others.
Archer turned his horse back to Nottingham. He was in a good mood and he felt satisfied after his duel with Guy.
He had always liked to fight him, even before he discovered their kinship, and he was genuinely glad that their duel had helped his brother to regain some respect.
It was strange, he had never wanted to have ties, but now he didn’t mind at all to have that strange family.
Approaching the city, he met a horse that was moving away at full speed and Archer was surprised to recognize Marian.
The girl looked upset and she had put her horse in a gallop.
Archer wondered what had happened to her. He thought that maybe he should warn Guy, but he hesitated to lose sight of Marian. He had the impression that she wasn’t paying too much attention to where she was going, and Archer feared she might get hurt, lost or in trouble.
With a sigh, he turned his horse back and began to follow her.
Guy took off his shirt and let it fall to the ground, then he sat on the edge of the bed and took his face in his hands, dispirited.
His meeting with Isabella had left him drained and sad, and he didn’t know if he could ever heal the wound that had opened between them. When he had embraced her, his sister had remained immobile and rigid and Guy had felt defeated.
Only at the end, when she had told him to leave, Isabella's gaze had softened for a moment and Guy had the impression of seeing a glimpse of the child he remembered, immediately vanished behind a wall of ice.
He wiped his eyes with his hands, uselessly because they filled with tears again without Guy could be able to stop them.
He lay on the bed with a sigh, and he bitterly smiled as he thought of how much Vaisey would have enjoyed seeing him in those conditions.
Guy stared at the ceiling, his eyes following the junctions of the stones without thinking about anything. He had planned to change his clothes and to join the other nobles for lunch, but now he was too distressed to meet other people, and in any case he had no desire to talk or to eat.
He felt too upset after the discussion with Isabella and before he could leave his room he had to calm down. He wished he had Marian at his side to confide in her and find consolation in her embrace, but he would end up compromising her reputation even further, and then he didn’t want to be seen by her while he was so weak.
Without thinking, he reached with his hand for Marian’s ring he had worn around his neck for so long, but his fingers found only the wooden tags that had been given to him by Robin.
Guy smiled: the ring was now on Marian’s finger and soon he could always have her next to him without having to worry about gossip.
Things might have gone wrong with his sister, but Marian would soon be his wife. Guy still couldn’t believe it, it looked like a dream and, every once in a while, he had to repeat to himself that it was true.
Guy looked at the outlaw tags and he recalled the dialogue he had with Robin. He decided that the Nightwatchman would act that same afternoon, during the sheriff's archery tournament. Vaisey should attend the event and it wouldn’t be too difficult for Guy to get into his rooms and rummage through his papers.
Gisborne closed his eyes, a little heartened by that decision, and he covered himself with one of the blankets on the bed. He was terribly tired and in a few seconds he slid into a deep sleep.
Marian pulled the reins and she looked at the house, almost surprised that she had arrived at Knighton Hall. She had galloped without thinking too much about where she was going and she ended up there, in front of the house that Guy had built for her.
She dismounted and tied the horse to a bush, and she took a few steps towards the front door, bursting into tears again.
Just there, in that same point, Guy had knelt at her feet and asked her to marry him, and at that moment she had felt that she was more happy than she had ever been before.
Now, however, that memory made her feel even worse.
Why, Guy? Why do you keep burning my heart?
How could he make her absurdly happy and incredibly desperate in a matter of hours? How could he look so sincere for a moment and then lie to her shamelessly the next moment? Sometimes she had the impression that there were two completely different Guy of Gisborne, two separate and opposite people living in the same body: one who loved her, the other who seemed to want to destroy her.
The girl sat on the threshold and she raised her face when she heard the sound of hooves. Her heart began to beat faster, fearing and hoping it was Guy, that he had seen her cry and followed her to explain what was surely a terrible misunderstanding.
Tell me it's not true, Guy. Tell it even if it's a lie.
Her gaze darkened in recognizing Archer.
The young man nimbly got off his horse to meet her, and he stopped a few steps away from her.
Marian wanted to send him away and she would have done it, rudely, if Archer had asked her what had happened, but the young man just leaned his back against the door jamb, and crossed his arms in front of him without paying attention to the upset appearance of the girl.
“It's good that Guy decided to rebuild it after the sheriff set it on fire. It's a nice house.”
Marian gave him a hostile look.
“Guy was the one who burned it.”
“The first time. He had almost managed to rebuild it when the sheriff destroyed it again to punish him.”
The girl stared at him in disbelief: Guy had never told her about the episode.
But then, what was the importance of it now?
She didn’t reply, but the other didn’t seem to notice. He had left the door and had picked an apple from the tree that Gisborne had planted in front of the house. He examined the fruit intently and then tossed it to the girl.
“Here, directly from a dream.”
Marian caught the apple and looked at Archer without understanding.
She wanted him to go away and leave her alone, but that strange phrase had intrigued her.
“What does it mean?”
“Guy told me about it. One night he dreamed that you two picked apples together from a tree that grew right there and then he had one planted in the same place of the dream. I never understood why apples are so special to him, to tell the truth.
“Guy told you about his dreams?” Marian asked, skeptical. Gisborne's friendship with the sheriff's aide had always seemed strange to her, but she could hardly believe that Guy could confide such intimate things to anyone. Maybe to Allan, but she’d find amazing even that.
“This house was his dream. You are his dream. I've never seen anyone working so much to fulfill one, he managed to surprise even me. And I assure you that in all my travels I have met people of all kinds, it is not easy to amaze me.”
Marian rubbed her eyes: she had stopped crying, but they were red and sore. The words of Archer gave her the feeling of having discovered a different Guy, one capable of sharing a dream with a friend.
“How can you say that I’m his dream?”
Archer burst out laughing.
“Guy is crazy, but you must be completely insane to ask such a question. I believe that even the stones of the road now know that Guy of Gisborne is madly in love with Lady Marian. I'll be honest, milady: if a woman tried to give me a potentially lethal poison instead of breakfast, the only thing she would see is my back as I run away from her at a gallop.”
Marian blushed and she was tempted to throw at his head the apple she was still holding, but Archer went on, more gently.
“I was here when they finished building the house. Guy laid the last stone with his own hands, then he chased everyone away because he had to run to Locksley to bring you here and make his proposal. I think I've never seen anyone gallop so fast.”
Marian wanted to believe him with all her heart, but she kept seeing Guy embracing Isabella and crying, and she felt torn inside.
She looked at Archer, suddenly furious at the thought that Guy had told him things he had kept hidden from her. She wondered if the young man knew about Meg or Isabella, and if maybe the two friends had laughed together about those affairs.
“And what other secrets did he tell you?! What does he say to you that he can’t tell me?!” She said angrily and Archer looked at her, a little surprised by that outburst.
“I don’t know what happened between you two, and I honestly do not care, but it is not for me to answer certain questions. If you have any doubts, perhaps the simplest thing is to talk about them with Guy. Did you do it?”
Marian didn’t answer and Archer smiled.
“I imagined that.”
“If he had seen you like this, Guy wouldn’t have let you go away alone. At this time he would be here, not me, so it is clear that you haven’t talked to him. Go to him and ask him what torments you, I don’t think he will lie to you.”
Chapter 14: Do You Love Her?
When Marian decided to return to the castle, she thought she would have to find an excuse for leaving without warning, but apparently no one had noticed her absence.
With all those guests, the castle was bustling with activity and anyone who might have looked for her had probably taken for granted that she was engaged in some entertainment or in the company of the other girls.
She left the horse to a groom and went into the courtyard of the castle, crowded with people for the archery tournament.
A few years earlier, Guy had invited her to attend a similar event with him, in a first, clumsy attempt to court her. She remembered his shy tone when he had told her that the shape of the apple's peel represented the initial of the person she was going to marry. She, a little maliciously, had made sure to break the peel before it could take the form of Guy's initial. Marian still remembered Guy’s disappointed look at that moment, and she found herself smiling for her own little, silly secret.
She had never told Guy about it, but in recent times, every time she peeled an apple, she was careful to make a ‘g’ before breaking the peel.
She thought of Isabella with a heavy heart, and she wondered if their marriage was really going to happen or if he would choose the other woman. In this case, Marian believed she would never be able to eat an apple again in her life.
She crossed the yard looking for Guy. Archer was right: she had to talk to him, ask him an explanation and clarify things. She was terrified of losing him, but in the end doubt would kill her.
She sighed irritably: she couldn’t see Guy anywhere. She was a little heartened to see that instead Isabella was present, sitting to attend the tournament next to her husband.
Marian entered the castle, determined to find Gisborne.
Guy made sure he had his face perfectly covered with the hood of the cloak, the mask and a scarf before approaching the sheriff's office. There were no guards, but the door was locked. Guy went into the next room and leaned out the window to see if it was possible to go from one window to another, but the distance was too much and there were no points of support or protrusions to cling to.
He would have to pick the lock, he decided, taking one of the daggers he always wore, hidden on himself. He hoped the blade was thin enough and that he had learned well everything that Will had taught him about doors and locks.
Guy checked that the corridor was deserted and knelt by the door, starting to use the blade. Shortly after, his work was rewarded by the click of the lock that opened.
The first thing he noticed when he entered Vaisey's office was that the sheriff had gotten new birds after he had set free the previous ones, but this time Guy didn’t waste time releasing them.
He went to the sheriff's desk to examine the documents scattered on the table, but none of them hinted at the reason for that meeting of little nobles. He approached the wall next to the bed: there was a secret compartment hidden behind a painting, and Guy knew that the sheriff kept the most important documents there.
Guy removed the picture and opened the hiding place, but he was disappointed to find it empty.
He was about to put everything back and go away, when he heard footsteps approaching along the corridor.
Guy recognized the sheriff's gait and mentally cursed: Vaisey should have been at the tournament, what was he doing here? He tried to assess if he would have time to escape, but the steps were already too close and the sheriff wasn’t alone, he would risk being captured.
He hid quickly behind a curtain and stood still. A moment later Vaisey entered the room, accompanied by Thornton and Guy wondered what the sheriff might want from his sister's husband.
He listened, hoping to hear their conversation, but Vaisey stopped suddenly.
“There’s somebody here,” he said, pulling out a dagger and looking around. Thornton imitated him, drawing his sword.
Gisborne held his breath, listening to the steps of the two men who were wandering about the room. He heard that the sheriff had stopped right in front of the curtain and Guy wondered how he could make out that he was hidden right there. Then Vaisey jerked forward, planting the dagger into the fabric and missing him by just a few inches, and Gisborne reacted a moment later, tugging at the curtain and pulling it down over the sheriff, then he pushed him to the floor and ran to the door.
Thornton tried to stop him, but Guy kicked his sword out of his hand and knocked him out by hitting him on the head with the metal jug the sheriff kept on the table. The Nightwatchman ran away, leaving behind the cries of the two men who were calling the guards.
Marian knocked on Guy's door without getting an answer and she sighed.
She was terrified of what would happen after asking him an explanation about Isabella, but now that she had decided to talk to him, she wanted to do it as soon as possible and to throw that tormenting uncertainty behind her shoulders.
She wondered where she could find Guy. He certainly wasn’t with Isabella because she had seen the woman next to her husband. Perhaps Allan could help her, and he most likely was wandering around the kitchens to woo the graceful young girls who had come to the castle in those days to help the already-present servants.
The girl walked towards the kitchens, trying to orient herself in those passages that weren’t very familiar to her. When she had lived in the castle, both her rooms and those of Guy were in a rather distant part of the building and she rarely found herself passing along those corridors.
She stopped at a point where two passages crossed, trying to figure out which way to go and she turned her head with a jerk, hearing a sound of approaching footsteps. A moment later a man came upon her, throwing her to the ground and falling in turn.
Marian got up immediately and she gasped when she saw that the man who had hit her was the false Nightwatchman. He too had immediately got to his feet, stared at her for a moment and then ran away, taking the less lit corridor. In the distance she could heard the clanking footsteps of soldiers approaching.
Marian had no intention of being there when they arrived and she didn’t even want to miss the chance to find out who the impostor was. Without thinking too much, she lifted her skirt so she wouldn’t stumble and she pursued the false Nightwatchman.
Guy tried to glance back, but the corridor was too dark to see anything. He could hear the sound of someone's footsteps chasing him up close, Marian for sure, and the heavy steps of the soldiers far behind.
If he hadn’t clashed with the girl, he could now distance the soldiers, find a safe place to get rid of the Nightwatchman costume and return to mingle with the castle guests, but Marian was too close to allow him to take off his mask.
And if the soldiers were able to reach them, they would never believe that Marian didn’t know the identity of the Nightwatchman: the sheriff would take the opportunity to hang them both, and probably he would jump in joy in front of the gallows.
Guy had to prevent him or Marian from being caught at all costs and he had to decide quickly what to do. He noticed a tapestry on the wall and remembered that along that corridor there was one that hid a small niche, large enough to accommodate two people.
He blushed as he recalled that it was Annie who had shown it to him, in what now seemed like another life. That had been a pleasant moment in a dark time, Guy thought, thinking back of the girl with a mixture of tenderness and guilt and he thanked her mentally because at that moment the hidden recess could save both him and Marian.
He found the right tapestry and stopped quietly, waiting for Marian to reach him. In a moment he grabbed her, covering her mouth with one hand and dragging her into the alcove, pushing her against the wall with his body.
The girl tried to resist him for a few seconds, then she realized that if she made noise the soldiers would find them, and she remained motionless, pressed against the wall by the body of that stranger.
Marian blushed in thinking that the last time she had met the false Nightwatchman so closely, she had kissed him, furious and upset after seeing Guy with Meg. It was absurd that she found herself crossing that man's road when she was again tormented by jealousy.
Pressed against his chest, she felt the heart of the impostor beating fast because he had been running and she became irritated with herself in realizing that her heart had also accelerated its beats and not for the same reason. At first she had hated him for stealing her secret identity, but when he intervened to save Robin Hood's life, she found herself reluctantly admiring him.
The false Nightwatchman had been bold, skilled and brave and he had managed to free Robin from a desperate situation, when instead Guy had been forced to obey the sheriff's orders without being able to do anything to rebel against his will.
Marian felt she was being unfair to Guy, but she couldn’t deny that the intervention of the Nightwatchman had been decisive for Robin's safety.
Suddenly she felt like crying. She didn’t want to have those feelings, she wanted to be proud of Guy, not to admire an unknown outlaw, why couldn’t Guy behave heroically for once?
The sound of the soldiers' voices, far too close, tore her from those thoughts and Marian held her breath. Even the Nightwatchman had stiffened and Marian clung to him, unconsciously, terrified at the thought that the soldiers could discover them.
The guards' footsteps passed a few inches away from them and moved away along the corridor, disappearing in the distance.
The fake Nightwatchman waited for an interminable time, then he took her by the hand and dragged her out of the hiding place.
He hastily pulled her down the corridor taking the opposite direction from the soldiers, then, at a fork, he stopped and motioned for her to continue on her own, while he would head in the other direction.
“Wait!” Marian whispered, stretching a hand towards the mask of the man. “Tell me who you are. I will not betray your secret, you can trust me.”
The Nightwatchman stopped her, grabbing her wrist, and shook his head, then he wiped a tear from her face with the other hand. He turned her around and pushed her slightly to send her away.
Marian obeyed, taking a few steps along the corridor before turning to look back: when she did, the Nightwatchman was already gone.
The girl wandered through the deserted corridors, hugging her arms around her body as if she were cold. The meeting with the fake Nightwatchman had agitated and confused her. She couldn’t even understand well what feelings made her feel so uneasy.
Suddenly she felt terribly alone and in need of comfort.
She wanted Guy, she wanted to feel his love and she wanted him to hug her until she forgot all her fears.
But there was Isabella's ghost between them, and Marian was terrified that Guy might not be willing anymore to give her his heart.
Terrified by that perspective, Marian ran to Guy's rooms, praying with all her heart that he was there.
She wouldn’t leave him to Isabella without fighting, she decided, she wouldn’t give up and she would do anything to win back all his love.
She knocked on the door again, frantically.
Guy was startled when he heard knocking with such insistence. Before going to open the door, he made sure that the Nightwatchman's costume was well hidden and that nothing could reveal his identity.
He wondered who it could be. After leaving Marian, he had hurried to get to his quarters and to get rid of his costume. He was pretty sure he hadn’t been seen, but he couldn’t help but feel agitated to hear those knocks on the door.
He opened cautiously and he was surprised to see Marian, restless and with her face still wet with tears. Earlier the girl had been crying and he had not resisted the temptation to wipe away her tears, but now he feared that this tender gesture might have betrayed him.
“Marian? What's up? Why are you here?” He asked, uncomfortable.
The girl looked at him.
“Can I come in, Guy?”
They both knew it wasn’t proper to stay together in a room with nobody else around, but Guy stepped aside to let her pass and he closed the door.
“If I ask you a question, will you answer me sincerely?” Marian asked, looking into his eyes.
Guy couldn’t suppress a shiver.
She knows. She understood that I am the Nightwatchman.
He didn’t look away and nodded.
“Do you love Isabella?” Marian asked hurriedly, and Guy looked at her, surprised.
He had thought he had been discovered, and he certainly hadn’t expected such a question.
“Sure,” he answered. “Why do you ask me that?”
Marian stared at him, shocked by the simplicity of that answer.
“Since when?” She managed to stutter and Guy stared at her, confused.
“I always loved her, I would say. Once I wouldn’t have admitted it even under torture, but I loved her since the first time our mother let me hold her in my arms. I was very young then, but I still remember well that day. I thought my sister was so small and that I should always protect her.”
Marian looked at him, trying to hide her surprise.
The girl blushed, feeling silly and guilty for having thought so bad of Guy.
She looked at him and Gisborne sighed, dispirited.
“I failed in this too,” he said and Marian saw that his eyes were bright with tears. “I couldn’t protect her, in fact I ruined her life and now she hates me. She said she would like to see me dead.”
Marian hugged him and felt him relax in her arms, as if having said those words aloud had lifted a weight from his shoulders. Guy didn’t know that his word had lifted a big weight from her heart too, and Marian promised to herself that she wouldn’t tell him about her doubts.
She stroked his hair gently to comfort his pain, and Guy clung to her without being ashamed to show her his vulnerability.
“I love you.” Gisborne whispered. “I don’t know how I would do if you weren’t by my side.”
The girl kissed him softly and she smiled at him.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Marian sat on the bed, expecting Guy to imitate her, but instead Gisborne surprised her by lying down and resting his head on her legs. The girl ran a hand through his hair and Guy closed his eyes, abandoning himself to her touch with a tired sigh.
"I didn’t think her hate would hurt me so much,” he said softly. “I thought I was prepared.”
“Does she have any reason to hate you?”
Guy was silent for a moment.
Marian fiddled absently with a lock of Guy's hair, rolling it around her finger.
“You never told me about her.”
Guy smiled so sadly that Marian was tempted to silence him with a kiss and to tell him that it didn’t matter, that he shouldn’t tell her anything if he didn’t want to, but she remained still and silent, thinking that maybe it would do him good to talk about what saddened him.
“There wasn’t much to say. At least there was nothing that wouldn’t make me feel ashamed. After the death of our parents I should have protected my sister, but I haven’t been able to. I tried, I swear I tried, but after three years spent living in poverty in a remote village in France, I agreed to give her in marriage to a man I didn’t even know. He was an English nobleman, rich enough to give her a comfortable life and he offered me a good price for her. At that moment it was the only opportunity we had to get out of that situation, but Isabella never forgave me for selling her.”
Marian looked at him, surprised. She had never imagined that Guy's past could have been so difficult, and only then she realized that this must have been why he had been so pleased to get Locksley in the past, and why he had so proudly shown her his riches when they were getting married for the first time.
She had thought that Gisborne wanted to boast to impress her, but now she understood that instead, Guy just wanted to show her that he would be able to take care of her and to make her live a comfortable life. And that must also be why he had waited to rebuild Knighton Hall before asking for her hand.
She thought with remorse of the way she had robbed him, shortly before their wedding and how Guy had never reproached her for that theft, even after she told him she was the Nightwatchman.
She continued to stroke his hair gently.
“How old were you?”
“I was just over seventeen, Isabella thirteen. It is since then that I didn’t see her.”
Guy smiled ironically.
“Her husband is a noble, his property is not huge, but he is rather rich and probably he also attends the court of Prince John. I wouldn’t have done a great favor to Isabella by visiting her, I doubt that the lady of the manor could have been happy to have a brother like me, a dog obedient to the sheriff's orders.”
“Don’t say that.”
“That's what I was, it’s useless to deny it. Not really a relative to be proud of, don’t you think? And then it was more convenient for me too: no bonds, no weaknesses in the sheriff's eyes.”
“You were still her brother. But why does she hate you so much? From what you told me, you didn’t have many alternatives.”
Marian knew how unbearable the idea of a loveless marriage could be and Isabella had been little more than a child when Guy had gave her away to be married, but she also realized that she had been lucky to be the daughter of Sir Edward. Many other fathers wouldn’t allow their only daughter to decide her own future. If her father hadn’t been indulgent with her, most likely Marian would have had to accept a marriage without having any say in the matter.
Most of the girls had to accept the will of their parents in this regard, and many of them were even younger than Isabella, it was the normality of things, and in the end almost all of them resigned themselves to their destiny and many even managed to find a certain happiness.
“I don’t know. I tried to give her an opportunity, I didn’t want to hear her cry because of hunger or cold, I thought a rich husband could give her the comfortable life that I wasn’t able to guarantee her. I admit, I also wanted the opportunity to become a knight in order to regain the lands we had lost, but I was convinced that Isabella would have the chance to have a good life. Is it enough to want to see a brother dead?”
Marian leaned over him to wipe a tear with a kiss and she shook her head.
“There must be something more, something you don’t know.”
“I have to find out, then. So maybe I'll find a way to fix it. Maybe I don’t deserve it, but I want my sister's forgiveness.”
“It's right that you want it, she's your family. Guy? Can I help you? Maybe she would talk to me, maybe she could trust another woman and tell me why she feels so much rancor towards you.”
Gisborne got out of bed and he took her hands, genuinely moved.
“Would you really do this for me?”
Marian nodded and Guy hugged her suddenly, holding her tightly.
The girl hid her face against Guy's chest to hide her blushing cheeks. She felt guilty: she had doubted his love and suspected that he had betrayed her, when she was the one who had found herself admiring another man.
Forgive me, Guy.
Gisborne stroked her face and her hair and looked for her lips to kiss her. Marian put her arms around his neck and drew him closer, responding to his kiss with a passion that in the past she would never have thought she could feel. It was a mixture of love, sense of guilt, desire to comfort him and to be forgiven, and the overwhelming need to become one with him.
Guy's hands slid down her back, burning and possessive, and Marian felt as if every touch of his fingers passed through her clothes to leave a mark of fire on her skin.
They were alone, in a bedroom with the door closed, and this already would have been enough to go against the decency and to attract people's gossip about them if someone had discovered them, but Marian didn’t think to get away from him . On the contrary, she allowed her own hands to detach themselves from Guy's neck to stroke his back as well.
Marian's fingers tried to make their way under Gisborne's jacket, but the belt that held the scabbard of the sword was too tight and it formed an insurmountable barrier that didn’t leave enough room for her hands to pass. A moment later, the girl's hands were on the belt buckle, and they worked anxiously to open it.
The sword fell to the ground after a few seconds and Guy was startled, surprised to feel Marian's fingers on his bare skin. He stopped kissing her and looked at her, astonished to find in the girl's eyes the same desire he felt.
"We shouldn’t..." He said, shuddering as he felt Marian's fingertips marking the lines of the scars on his back.
“No, we shouldn’t,” Marian repeated, smiling, a moment before searching Guy's lips again.
Gisborne gave up with a groan and he took her in his arms, lifting her off the floor to get closer to the bed. They collapsed together on the mattress, without too much delicacy, but without feeling the need for it. Marian felt the weight of Guy's body pressing her against the sheets and she was surprised to realize that it was exactly what she wanted and that, indeed, it wasn’t yet enough.
One of Guy’s hands had ventured under her skirt, while the other was trying to untie the laces that held the bodice of her dress closed and that scorching touch on the soft skin of her leg made her tremble, shaken by feelings never felt before.
As a young girl, she and her friends sometimes had wondered what it would be like to be touched by their husbands and that curiosity had always made her blush. Of course, they were all certain, letting a man touch them would be terribly embarrassing.
Instead, at that moment, Marian didn’t feel the slightest embarrassment: there was her and there was Guy, everything else was superfluous. The touch of Guy's fingers made her burn and shudder at the same time and filled her belly with a sort of ravenous hunger she didn’t know how to satiate.
She had to feel him close, even more, to let her skin touch Guy's, as if only in this way they could merge into one.
Her hands had opened the clasps of his jacket and slipped under his shirt, anxious to explore every place of his body, then, while Gisborne was still trying to loosen the laces of her dress, Marian's fingers had moved, trembling, on the laces of his leather pants.
She had stopped for a moment, suddenly frightened by what was about to happen, and even Guy had stopped moving, feeling her hesitation. They looked each other in the eye and Marian smiled at him, happy. Guy's loving gaze had dissolved all her fears.
She held out her arms at Guy and kissed him again, this time more calmly. She could feel Guy's love in every touch and she realized that this feeling was only for her. The doubts that had tormented her until a short time ago had completely dissolved and Marian had the impression that she would have understood that even if Guy hadn’t told her that Isabella was his sister.
In the arms of her future husband she was safe and loved, and she should never forget it.
She closed her eyes, confident, ready to give herself to him.
What they were going to do was a sin, but the girl couldn’t consider it wrong at all. Soon she and Guy would be married, but in her eyes he was already her husband: Marian had decided to stay by his side for life and she could pronounce the wedding vows without hesitating even at that same moment.
What harm was there to love her husband?
“I will love you forever,” Guy whispered, as if he could hear her thoughts and Marian opened her mouth to repeat those words too, as if they were bridal vows, but she stopped with a cry of terror when the door was suddenly opened, slamming against the wall, and the sheriff entered the room, followed by Archer and some guards.
“Oh, Gisborne, this is getting a bad habit, don’t you think? You should at least learn to close the door.”
Guy jumped out of bed, throwing a blanket over Marian at the same time for the girl to be protected from those intrusive prying eyes.
“The door was closed! You were the one to break it open! Now go out!” He shouted, angry. Marian hid under the blanket, blushing furiously.
“Details, Gizzy. And don’t worry, I'm not going to watch such disgusting scenes if I can help. Even though I thought you'd get tired of her after all this time. Evidently your leper friend is a better lover than I thought.”
Guy was about to throw himself at the sheriff, but Archer held him back.
“Hey, keep calm. We'll leave in a minute.”
His brother squeezed his arm as if to tell him something, and Gisborne tried to calm down.
“What do you want?”
“The Nightwatchman assaulted the sheriff, we are searching the castle,” Archer explained, then he turned to the soldiers. “It seems obvious that he is not here, let's go.”
“Not so fast,” the sheriff said, and Guy looked at him. Vaisey pointed a finger at him. “You will make yourself useful and join the search, while you, miss, will go back embroidering with the other lepers.”
Guy glanced at Archer and the other shrugged: even though Guy was no longer working for him, it would be unwise to disobey the sheriff openly.
“Go ahead,” Archer said to the other soldiers and to the sheriff. "I'll wait for Gisborne to be ready and then we’ll join my men."
Sorry for the delay in updating, last Saturday I had to undergo surgery to remove a fibroid and I could sit in front of a computer just in the last few days. The next updates should be quicker :)
Chapter 16: Save Me Now
Marian glanced irritably at the guard who was escorting her to the hall where the other girls used to gather, and she blushed to see that the man was chuckling mischievously.
The girl was tempted to kick him, but she restrained herself, it wouldn’t be a wise move, and then it wasn’t that soldier's fault if they had found her in that compromising situation.
Marian flushed with rage. It was always the sheriff who ruined everything and if the world had been right, Vaisey should have been dead for a long time.
The soldier opened the door of the hall.
“You're welcome, my lady.”
Marian ignored him, haughtily, and she joined the other women. No one paid any attention to her, and she wondered how long it would last. She was sure the sheriff and the guards would talk about the scene they had witnessed and then gossip would spread all over the castle.
She found that she didn’t care at all. They had already been talking behind her back for a long time, considering her Guy's lover, nothing would change now but the fact that this time the rumors would be much more grounded.
She found herself smiling, happy. Aside from the embarrassment and irritation due to the sheriff's interruption, what had happened between her and Guy had been beautiful and it had erased all her fears.
Guy loved her wholeheartedly and he trusted her so much that he gave up every defense and openly showed her the pain that tormented him.
Marian thought tenderly at his distressed gaze as he spoke to her about his sister and Marian hoped she'd managed to give him some comfort.
It was strange to see how things changed only by looking at them from another perspective: that morning she had only wanted Isabella to stay away from Guy, while now Marian was determined to do everything to get her close to her brother again.
One of the other girls tore her away from those thoughts calling her to sit with her and her friends.
Marian smiled politely and joined them, wondering if they would be so friendly even when they discovered she had been surprised in a disgraceful situation before marriage.
“Are you worried about tomorrow?” One of the women asked, and Marian looked at her, perplexed.
“For the games. Tomorrow the duels with the sword are planned, aren’t you afraid that your promised spouse may be hurt or killed?”
Marian paled. Distracted by her jealousy, she hadn’t thought about the tournament organized by the sheriff and she hadn’t even asked Guy why he had decided to fight.
One of her companions chuckled.
“But maybe that's what she hopes, don’t you think? I would have preferred not to be forced to marry my husband. Too bad he's too old and cowardly to fight.”
"It doesn’t seem to me that you are sorry to spend your husband's gold, though," another said, maliciously. "I do not love mine, but I certainly don’t wish him to die."
“What about you, Lady Marian?” A third one asked. “Are you happy with your future husband?”
“I don’t see why she should.” The first one intervened. “He might be good-looking, but that’s what lovers are for. Didn’t you see how he behaved the other day? He must be crazy or really dissolute to show himself drunk before the sheriff so early in the morning, how can one be content to marry such a man? I would be afraid of him...”
Marian stood up abruptly, dropping the embroidery she had started working on, and the other girls looked at her.
“I love Guy and I can’t wait to marry him.” She said fiercely.
“Everyone knows what he did when he worked for the sheriff! Isn’t it scary to marry a man capable of killing in cold blood?”
Marian sighed mentally, thinking that Guy's past would always come back to hurt them somehow, but she felt angry at those women who were ready to judge without knowing the situation at all.
“No. When I'm with him, I'm never afraid. I am proud to be his wife and the day we will marry will be the happiest day of my life.”
“Is it true that you are his lover?” One of the girls teased her, hoping to put her in trouble.
Marian just smiled.
“I'm his.” She simply said, then she turned her back to them, and she went to sit next to one of the windows, alone.
Archer ordered the soldiers to inspect all the rooms on one side of the corridor, while he and Gisborne would control the other ones.
As soon as they were alone, he turned to his brother, worried.
“Did you become crazier than usual?” He whispered. “What did you think you were doing? In full day?”
“It was an unexpected event. If everything had gone as I thought, he wouldn’t even have noticed.”
“I don’t want to know anything about it, but try to be careful at least. And now let's get busy, since we'll have to check the castle from top to bottom because of you, it seems to me the least you can help me too.”
“No it isn’t true.”
“You're right, it's not true.” Guy said, laughing, and Archer shook his head resignedly.
“Sometimes I wonder who of us is the older brother,” he said softly, putting his hand on Guy's shoulder for a moment. “By the way, how are things going with Isabella?”
“It's your sister too.”
"I don’t even know her, you can’t expect me to be afflicted. I'm sorry for you more than anything else.”
“I'm not going to give up. Sooner or later I’ll make her forgive me and then you will have the chance to get to know her too.”
After seeing the hatred with which the woman had whipped Guy as soon as she recognized him, Archer had his doubts that it was possible to recover that relationship, but he didn’t say anything in order not to discourage his brother. At least, he thought, smiling to himself, it seemed that Gisborne and Marian had solved any problem they might have had.
“Sorry for what happened earlier, when the sheriff saw the closed door, he ordered to break it down.”
Guy blushed slightly, but he nodded.
"I know, I know his ways even too well.”
“So, do you feel ready for tomorrow?” Archer asked, changing the subject.
“Ready for what?”
"You haven’t eaten something prepared by your woman again, have you? The tournament, Guy. Tomorrow will be the turn of the duels with swords, have you already forgotten?”
“No, I was just thinking about something else. I don’t think I will have too many problems, our challenges made me improve a lot. Be careful because tomorrow I could beat you.”
“I know I'm the best, the adversary to fear, but don’t underestimate the others too much. You can’t know how they fight and they may surprise you. If the Nightwatchman hadn’t forced us to search every single room in the castle, we would have been able to spend some time watching the others' workouts.”
“Stop it, I know very well that you have no regrets at all. Rather, tomorrow, try not to get yourself killed. Now let’s hurry up and check the rest of the castle.”
Isabella sat in silence in a corner of the room she shared with her husband, trying to avoid crossing his gaze.
Thornton had come back with a bruise on his temple and a tremendous mood, and she knew all too well that when he was in that condition, one look or one word was enough to unleash his fury.
“Useless wife!” The man blurted, laying his eyes on her. "Not only your womb is dry and sterile, but you don’t even care about your husband! A real woman would worry about seeing her wounded husband, at least she would be bothered to ask what happened to him, but you stay there doing nothing, looking like an outraged princess!”
Isabella hid her hands under the embroidery she was holding in her lap to hide they were trembling.
“What happened to you, my husband?” She asked, in a gentle tone.
Thornton smiled as he approached her and with one hand he pulled out the needle pinned on the embroidery, while the other closed around one of his wife's wrists.
"What a loving wife, if someone heard you, they might even believe you're serious.”
He lifted her hand and he pierced her palm with the needle, leaving it stuck in the skin.
Isabella found herself with tears in her eyes, but she made an effort to not utter a moan. If she had made a noise, she knew, it would have been much worse.
Thornton pulled her up and pushed her toward the bed, starting to pull off his belt.
Isabella struggled to get her mind away from what was about to happen, pretend to be elsewhere as she did every time her husband claimed to impose her marital duties, but the pain in her hand prevented her from concentrating. It made her want to cry and she knew that she must be careful not to let even a sob escape, or Thornton would punish her in an even worse way.
Her husband took her in his arms, but in his grasp there was not the slightest warmth. Since they were married she couldn’t give him the heir he wanted and he had accused her of being sterile, but Thornton had never given up on possessing her in his brutal way, just for the sake of hurting her and imposing her will on her.
She remembered the warmth she had felt in her brother's embrace and she realized that the thought had made her burst into tears only when her husband's slap hit her suddenly.
“Do you cry? Do your husband's attentions make you cry? Now I will give you a real reason to cry.”
Isabella closed her eyes when Thornton hit her again.
You ask me for forgiveness, Guy? How can I forgive who threw me in this hell? If you want to do something for me, save me. Save me now!
She waited for the next slap, but her husband had stopped.
“Get up,” he told her quickly. “And put yourself back together. If they notice something, you will pay for it.”
Isabella hastened to obey him and only then she realized that someone was knocking on the door.
She wiped her face quickly, tore the needle out of her hand, and arranged her clothes and hair, taking care to stay in a corner in the shade. Thornton looked at her and he finally decided to open the door.
“What do you want?” He said rudely.
"We're checking every room to look for the Nightwatchman, sir,” Archer said.
Thornton was furious.
“I am the victim of that aggression, how do you think he could hide here?!”
“Orders from the sheriff, I'm sorry.”
Thornton was forced to step aside and Archer entered the room followed by two soldiers and Gisborne.
Isabella stared at him, shocked. She had thought of him and his brother had really come to save her.
Chapter 17: A New Enemy
Guy looked up to glance at his sister, timidly. After the discussion they had had a few hours ago, he didn’t know how she could react to that unexpected visit. He had been tempted to stay out of the room so as not to disturb her with his presence, but then he hadn’t resisted the temptation to approach her and he had followed Archer and the soldiers into the Thorntons’ room.
His gaze met his sister's and he was surprised not to find hate. He couldn’t be sure because Isabella was standing in a corner of the dimly lit room, but for a moment Guy had the impression to see relief in her eyes, as if for a moment she had been pleased to see him.
He turned, feeling his brother-in-law's eyes on him and Guy realized that Thornton was not at all happy with his presence. The man stared at him with ill-concealed disgust and smiled at him maliciously.
“Ah, Gisborne,” he said, looking at him with contempt. “I wouldn’t have recognized you without the rags you were wearing the last time we met. You were a pathetic stray dog at the time, but apparently you put to good use the money I gave you.”
The soldiers glanced curiously at Gisborne as they heard the scornful words addressed to their former commander, and Guy was tempted to take out his sword and wash his humiliation in blood.
It was Isabella's frightened look that stopped him. He had already hurt her too much, he couldn’t shed her husband's blood before her eyes.
The thought of Marian led him to remove completely his hand from the hilt of the sword: if he attacked Thornton without a valid reason, the sheriff would throw him into the dungeons or hang him and then what would happen to her?
“I try to always get the best out of what I have, sir,” he said fiercely, looking him in the eye. “And I hope that tomorrow you will have the courage to see for yourself what your money has allowed me to become.”
“What would you like to insinuate, Gisborne? Are you challenging me?”
Guy grinned at him ferociously and Archer recognized the same dangerous flash he had seen in his eyes when he had told him to keep his secret about Seth.
“Tomorrow I will participate in the games organized by the sheriff, I would be very disappointed not to meet you. Surely you won’t lack the courage to confront a pathetic stray dog, right?”
Thornton's gaze lit up with fierce hatred.
“We'll see if you think the same way when I force you to kiss the dust at my feet tomorrow.”
“You are free to try,” Guy replied with an arrogant tone that Archer had never heard him use, then he turned to Isabella, kindly. “Sister, I hope you will come to watch the games. If you will allow me, I will reserve a place next to my future wife for you, so you can make her acquaintance.”
Isabella looked at him, without knowing what to answer.
Guy had not the faintest idea what he was doing by challenging her husband and she was terrified that she would suffer the consequences of it.
Her brother was going to get killed and Isabella told herself that she didn’t have to care because in that case he would only pay the right price for what he had done by selling her to Thornton.
Yet in her there was the slightest hope that her husband could be killed during the duel, but Isabella didn’t dare to stop thinking about that idea so as not to be forced to fall back into her horrible reality if it shouldn’t come true.
Surely the next day she couldn’t cheer for either of the two fighters: she couldn’t side with her husband, she couldn’t pretend so well, but she couldn’t even show her hope that Guy would win because if Thornton survived the duel, he would punish her harshly for that.
“Yes, Isabella, come and see us tomorrow,” her husband answered for her. “So you will see with your eyes what happens to those who dare to oppose me. Bring an extra handkerchief because I fear that the future lady Gisborne will need it.”
Archer moved his gaze from his brother to Thornton and he decided to break the tension before the situation could degenerate.
“Come on, Gisborne. Dinner will be served soon and lord and lady Thornton need time to prepare. The sheriff hates to wait.”
Archer motioned for the soldiers to precede him and he followed them out of the room, along with Guy.
He ordered the guards to continue the search for the Nightwatchman, but he took Gisborne by the arm, leading him in the opposite direction from the soldiers.
"Do you realize that you just made an enemy, don’t you?” Archer asked, and Guy shook his head.
“No, Archer, it was him who made one.”
His brother smiled at him.
“Well, in any case, now watch your back. That man doesn’t seem trustworthy to me, if I were you I would be very careful.”
Guy nodded, serious. Only a few words were enough to make him realize how slimy and mean Thornton was and he wondered how he had managed not to realize it many years ago when he had allowed him to marry Isabella.
It was convenient for me not to understand it, this is the truth.
“I understand that now the most important challenge of tomorrow's games is no longer the duel between you and me...” Archer said. “Too bad, I like being in the center of attention.”
“Oh, I'm sure you'll still be able to capture all the attention you want, especially the female one, I bet.”
“You don’t know what you're missing, brother. A young and free champion is always greatly appreciated.”
“Then you must be grateful to me because I don’t compete with you, otherwise you wouldn’t have hope.” Guy replied jokingly, and Archer burst out laughing.
“Now we should join the others for dinner, but later reach me in the yard, I will teach you some moves that I have not shown you yet.”
“Other secrets of the East?”
“Something like that. I kept them secret to have an advantage to fight you, tomorrow, but I think it's better if you know them, they could save your life against Thornton.”
“And would you give up glory to help me?”
Archer smiled and patted him on the shoulders.
“I prefer an unscathed brother.”
Marian stared at the plate, merely nibbling a piece of bread. Guy's seat was still empty and she wondered if he would be able to have some dinner or if the sheriff would force him to check out the whole castle in search of the Nightwatchman.
She glared at Vaisey. The sheriff was eating quietly, chatting with some of his guests, and he was probably very pleased that he had once again created problems for Gisborne.
Isabella Thornton entered the hall, accompanied by her husband, and Marian watched her carefully, marveling at having been so blinded by jealousy that she hadn’t noticed her resemblance to Guy.
Isabella had dark hair very similar to her brother's and Marian imagined that if Guy had let it grow up, even his hair would be curly like his sister's.
Marian smiled to herself at that idea and she found herself imagining how Gisborne would look like with long hair. Of course, she thought, blushing slightly, she would like to sink her fingers in it while she kissed him.
Even Isabella's eyes were as blue as Guy's, and since she knew Gisborne so well, Marian was able to recognize the sadness that hid in his sister's gaze.
Certainly that woman wasn’t happy, but this was easy to understand even from what Guy had told her.
Isabella's husband seemed to have a rather common appearance at first sight, but Marian found him unpleasant, as if a poisonous snake was hiding behind a respectable facade.
At that moment his expression was grim and it became even darker when two other people entered the hall.
Instead, Marian's face brightened up to see Guy.
Gisborne was with Archer, and Marian wondered how important that friendship was for Guy. She didn’t like Archer mainly because he was the sheriff's aide and then she never forgave him the lashes he had given to Guy, but she had to admit that he had recently proved to be a good friend to him.
When he was trapped in the well, without Archer's help Guy would surely have died, and Archer also helped him when she had poisoned him with the pancakes. Not to mention that the advice to speak with Guy that Archer had given her that morning had been much more sensible than her impulsive behavior, blinded by jealousy.
She decided that if Guy cared for Archer, she would do nothing to thwart that unlikely friendship.
Gisborne had entered the hall with a fierce attitude and Marian looked at him, surprised. It had been a long time since she saw on his face that harsh and ferocious expression that had often intimidated her in the past.
At that moment Guy had the same dangerous look as the wolf that symbolized his house, and the girl wondered what had happened to him, then she noticed that the gaze of her future husband had met Thornton’s, who had reciprocated with so much hostility.
Isabella didn’t look at either of them and she just stared at the plate, clearly uncomfortable.
Guy looked away from his sister's husband, completely ignoring him and took a seat next to Marian. Without saying anything he took her hand and brought it to his lips to kiss her on the palm and the young woman saw the hardness of his gaze melt into a sincere smile.
"I missed you, future Lady Gisborne,” Guy whispered and Marian's heart filled with joy.
Later she would ask him the reason for his nervousness, but for the moment the only thing that mattered was to be by his side.
If they were together, they could face any problem.
Chapter 18: Survive and Come Back
Guy checked that the door was locked, then he leaned out of the window of his room and made sure no one was looking in his direction. He quickly took the bow, stretched it to the maximum, aiming over the castle walls, and he released an arrow, then he hurried away from the window and concealed the bow at the bottom of the trunk he had brought from Locksley.
He put on his leather coat, but he brought an anonymous-looking cloak with him and went to find Allan to head to the inn with him.
When they arrived, Robin was already waiting for them with Much sitting next to him. Allan looked at them, a little disappointed.
“Didn’t Meg come?” He asked, and Robin and Guy exchanged an amused look.
“We are all here. She and Little John went to examine the place where the tournament will be held. This time it seems that Vaisey has done big things, I think all the castle guests will come to watch the games. If we can mix with them, maybe we can find out something.”
Guy looked at Allan.
“Why don’t you and Much go and reach them? Some information about the competition field could be useful to me.”
Much looked at Robin, uncertain. He too was curious to see what had been organized for the tournament, but he still didn’t trust much to leave Robin alone with Guy, especially if it was Gisborne who suggested it.
Robin nodded, sensing that Guy wanted to talk to him in private.
“Yes, go, I will join you shortly.”
He waited for Allan and Much to leave, then turned back to Gisborne.
“So, did you discover something?”
“I tried. I looked through the sheriff's documents, but I didn’t find anything.”
“Have you checked the secret hiding place, the one hidden behind the painting?”
“And how do you know that?” Guy asked, surprised. “No, maybe I don’t want to know. However I looked there too and there was nothing. I would have searched the room more carefully, but I was surprised by the sheriff and as you can imagine I couldn’t stop there for too long.”
“Did they see you?! Do you realize what would you risk if Vaisey captures you?!”
“He was supposed to be at the archery tournament at the time! Instead he brought Thornton into his study. I wonder what they should talk about.”
“Thornton? Your sister's husband?”
“Yes. I don’t like that man at all, we'll have to be careful with him. I think I understand why Isabella hates me...”
Robin nodded, understanding.
“You couldn’t know what kind of person he was.”
“I should have searched for information about him. She was a child, Hood, and I gave her to a man I knew nothing about, just because he was willing to pay well...”
Robin put a hand on Guy's arm.
“If she was a child, you weren’t much older than she was.”
“Still, I had to protect her.”
They remained silent and Robin thought back to when Guy and Isabella had been driven from their lands without anyone moving a finger to help them.
“Someone should have protected you too.”
Guy sighed, then he put a rolled parchment on the table and pushed it toward Robin.
The outlaw looked at it, without deciding to take it.
“The deeds of property of Knighton Hall and of all its contents. There is a secret compartment where I put the most precious things in my possession. It's not much, but I'll explain you where it is.”
Robin stared at him.
“Guy, what does this mean? Why should you give it to me?”
"Because if anything happens to me, you will make sure that my belongings go to Seth. I don’t want him to be deprived of the lands that belong to him by right. For now it’s a secret, but I acknowledged Seth as my rightful heir, I will give you the name of the notary who has a copy of the documents. And I want you to promise me to protect Marian and Isabella. And also Archer, but I think he doesn’t really need it.”
“Gisborne, why the hell are you talking as if you were about to die?”
“Because it could happen. And in that case I don’t want my son to suffer the same fate that happened to me when my parents died.”
Robin looked at him, worried.
“Today I will fight in the sheriff's tournament, there is a possibility that I could be fatally wounded.”
Robin smiled, relieved. He had feared a more serious danger, but apparently Gisborne was simply anxious.
“Archer wouldn’t hurt you.”
“My opponent won’t be Archer. I have challenged Thornton and I have the feeling that if he’ll have the chance to hurt me, he won’t have the slightest scruple. I don’t know him, I don’t know how good he is, but I know he hates me. I think it's enough to want to take some precautions, don’t you think?”
"It makes sense, but when I saved you from Barret, you made a promise to me. You gave me your word, do you still remember it?”
Guy looked up at him, a little resentful.
“I promised to help you and to obey your orders. Do you think my word is worth so little and that I can forget it?”
“Your help was precious, Guy, but now I ask you to respect the second part of the promise: I will give you an order and you will have to obey me.”
“Guy of Gisborne, I forbid you to be killed by Thornton.”
“Do you want me to give up fighting in the tournament?”
“No. But don’t die. Do whatever you want, but stay alive. If you died, the problem wouldn’t certainly be your legacy, but the pain you would cause to all those who care for you. I only ask you this, Guy, or rather I order it. Survive.”
Marian turned away from the group of nobles, trying not to get noticed too much. Her father had already taken a seat and waited for her to join him, but there was still time before the fighting began and she wanted to see Guy.
Earlier she had wanted to talk to him, but she couldn’t find him anywhere.
She approached the area where the tents for the participants had been erected and she found himself in the midst of the frenetic activity of the servants who helped the knights to prepare for the fight.
She spotted Allan and smiled to herself, seeing that he was very busy talking to a girl, then she noticed the boy's clothes of the latter and she recognized her: it was the young woman who had joined the gang of Robin Hood, that Meg who maybe had been Guy's lover.
Marian approached them, throwing a hostile glance at the girl.
“Oh, Marian. Are you looking for Giz? By the way, she's Meg.”
“I know who she is, I saw her at Robin's camp some time ago,” Marian cut him short. “Where's Guy?”
Allan looked at her, a little surprised at the harsh tone used by Marian, then he pointed at one of the tents.
“In there. It will take a while before it’s his turn.”
Marian walked over to the tent and she stopped in front of the entrance to look inside.
She held her breath in seeing Guy.
Gisborne was giving his back to her and he hadn’t noticed her arrival. He held the unsheathed sword in his hand, examining it carefully, then he weighed it as if to check its balance and moved it forward with a quick movement to simulate a thrust.
At that moment Guy realized he was being watched and he turned to look, smiling when he recognized Marian. The girl took a few steps toward him, suddenly intimidated.
Guy was wearing a chainmail similar to that of his guards and Marian remembered that the only time when she had seen a similar garment on him was when the sheriff had hired a blacksmith to create an indestructible armor. The project proved to be a failure and Guy had risked being burned alive and then drowned by Robin.
She had had the opportunity to talk to him after it was all over, when he had already got rid of the armor and she still remembered the tired and defeated look he had, wearing that dripping chainmail, with wet hair and soot on his face.
At that moment Guy gave her the opposite impression: the iron chain mail was shiny and it reflected the sunlight coming through the opening of the tent. Gisborne seemed full of energy and he had the proud look of a wolf ready to attack his prey.
Marian approached him and Guy took her in his arms to kiss her gently on the lips.
The girl wondered how he could be so dangerous and so delicate at the same time. She rested her face on his chest, but the chainmail, cold against her cheek, prevented her from hearing the beating of his heart.
“Why did you decide to fight?” The girl whispered, and Guy recognized the concern in her voice.
“They always considered me just the sheriff's pawn, they never really respected me...”
Marian interrupted him with a sigh.
“And I did nothing but make things worse, right?”
Guy smiled at her.
"Djaq's medicine hasn’t helped, but I've done my part too. Even though my mind was addled, I still don’t understand how it came to me to say certain things.”
Guy chuckled, while Marian’s eyes welled with tears.
Gisborne lifted her face to kiss her again.
“Don’t be. It’s all right.”
“But now you're forced to fight to be respected...”
“Which knight doesn’t want to be able to prove his worth once in a while?”
“Will you face Archer?” Marian tried to smile. “Another of your challenges? Which one of you is ahead, now?”
“My opponent will be Thornton.”
“Your sister's husband? Why?”
"Isabella is unhappy and I think that's the fault of that man, and then he insulted me. He deserves to be humiliated in front of everyone,” Guy said harshly.
Marian looked at him.
“Will it be dangerous?”
Guy looked at the girl's anxious expression and he was about to lie to her to reassure her, but then he thought that if something happened to him he didn’t want his last words to her to be a lie. He already lied enough about the Nightwatchman.
“It could be,” he said and he felt her tremble in his arms.
Marian leaned against him and Guy prepared to hear her protests, but the girl didn’t try to dissuade him. She straightened up and looked into his eyes for a long moment, then she raised his arms to untie the velvet ribbon she wore in her hair. Guy noticed that it was black and gold to match the cream-colored dress with black and gold embroidery and he wondered if Marian had deliberately chosen to wear the colors of his family.
Marian kissed the ribbon and she tied it to Guy's arm, fixing it so that it wouldn’t interfere with his movements, then she gathered all her courage to smile at him.
“Cover yourself with glory and come back to me.”
Chapter 19: This is What I Did
Marian took a seat next to her father, trying to hide the agitation she felt. She was afraid for Guy, she was terrified that something might happen to him, but at the same time she felt proud of him and hoped with all her heart that he could show to be valiant.
The sheriff was sitting in the seat of honor, not too far from them, and Marian wondered how Guy could reserve such good seats for them considering his current relationship with Vaisey.
She felt the sheriff's disgusted look on her and hurriedly averted her eyes from that unpleasant man.
It was clear that even Vaisey wasn’t happy to see her.
It must have been Archer who got those places for Guy, Marian thought, and she wondered who would occupy the empty seat next to her, then she saw Isabella approaching, led by a servant, and she realized that Guy must have arranged everything so that she and his sister could know each other and talk.
Isabella sat in her place and dismissed the servant with a small wave of her hand, then she watched the knights fight without showing any emotion.
Marian looked at her and thought that she must be very tense even if she tried not to show it. She smiled sadly to herself in recognizing in the other woman the same detached expression she had seen many times on Guy's face when he was forced to suffer the sheriff's words or actions without being able to oppose him.
"You're Guy's sister, aren’t you?” Marian asked, smiling at her.
Isabella looked at her.
“And you are the poor thing that will have to marry him?”
Marian stared at her and forced herself to think before answering. It wouldn’t be easy to bring brother and sister together again and now she understood why Guy had been so dejected.
“I’ll marry him by choice and I'm happy,” she said simply and Isabella gave her a mean smile.
“This means that you don’t know him at all.”
“You are wrong. I know very well that Guy has done many wrong things in his life, but now they are part of the past. He's a different man now, a better man.”
“Don’t come crying to me when you will understand who your husband really is. I had no choice, you are putting the noose around your neck with your hands.”
Marian sighed mentally: it wouldn’t be easy at all.
She tried to smile at Isabella anyway.
“Everything is a choice and I'm happy with what I did.”
The two women remained silent to watch the fighters. One of them managed to disarm the other and the audience exploded in a roar, cheering for the winner.
Marian noticed Allan by the gap that allowed the participants to enter the field and she stiffened: if he was there, it meant that Guy's turn had arrived.
A trumpet call announced the entry of the duelists.
Both Guy and Thornton were on horseback and both went around the field to honor the audience before stopping in front of the sheriff's seat.
Marian couldn’t take her eyes off Guy: his black stallion wore a black saddle cloth with the coat of arms of his family embroidered in gold, new harnesses, and Allan must have brushed his coat for a long time because it was clean and shiny like black marble. Gisborne wore a sleeveless black tunic over the chainmail, but his simplicity gave him an elegant solemnity that the overly elaborate clothes couldn’t give to Thornton.
Marian became nervous at the female admiration he had aroused upon entering the field and she gave an angry look to a woman seated a little further away who had uttered an appreciation too enthusiastic, then she noticed that Guy still had her ribbon tied on his arm and she smiled: the other women could make all the comments they wanted, but she was the one who Guy carried in his heart.
The sheriff looked at the two contenders with a vaguely bored look that turned to contempt when his eyes rested on Gisborne. Guy's decision to take part in the tournament had amazed him, in the past Gisborne had never shown too much interest in such entertainment, and Vaisey suspected that it depended mainly on the humiliating poor figure of a few days earlier.
And so Gizzy still had some pride, he thought, amused. Too bad for him that it wouldn’t be enough to avoid a defeat. Vaisey knew Thornton well enough to know he was a dangerous and ruthless fighter, capable of annihilating his opponent.
The sheriff grinned as he ordered to begin the duel: Gisborne deserved nothing but being dragged into the dust.
Guy dismounted and handed the reins to Allan, then he drew his sword and lifted it in front of him, using it to greet his opponent first, then the audience and finally the sheriff while Thornton did the same.
As he turned toward the sheriff's seat, Guy looked around for Marian and he gave her a small, shy smile, instantly reciprocated. His sister, on the other hand, sat rigidly, with an impassive expression on her face and looked neither at him nor at her husband, but at an indefinite point in the distance.
Gisborne knew that expression, he had seen it all too often during the years they had spent in France. When he could not get enough food or a warm place to sleep, Isabella never complained, but she seemed to retire to a distant world where he was not admitted. In those moments, Guy felt even more alone, crushed by a sense of guilt too heavy to bear.
He looked away from the two women and turned to Thornton, preparing to fight.
It was the other who attacked first and Guy easily parried the shot, using his own strength to push Thornton's sword to the side. With a quick move he tried to penetrate the opening he had created, but his opponent was quick to react and intercepted the blade with his, deflecting it.
Both retreated, then it was Guy who tried to hit Thornton from above with a blow, but his shot was also blocked by the adversary.
Gisborne urged Thornton with a series of tight jabs, managing to make him retreat, but his opponent was clever enough not to lose his concentration and he replied blow by blow, without the slightest hesitation.
Marian let out a cry when Thornton tried to hit Guy with a lunge and remembered to breathe only when Gisborne managed to avoid it. The girl trembled with tension and shuddered whenever the two swords touched, terrified at the thought that one of those blades could meet Guy's flesh instead of the metal.
She saw that the fighters had taken a few steps away to catch their breath and she ventured to glance at Isabella. The woman was pale as a ghost and she seemed about to burst into tears because of the tension. Marian didn’t know if she was scared for her husband or her brother.
The swords clashed again with a metallic clang and both women started, impulsively, Marian looked for Isabella's hand and held it tight. The other looked at her, amazed, but did nothing to remove her fingers from Marian's.
Guy exchanged a series of blows with Thornton and realized that he should try to unblock that situation quickly, before getting too tired. He was younger, but Thornton was far more skilled than one might expect and he fought with unsuspected ferocity, as if his only desire was to shed the adversary's blood. His icy stare reminded Guy of the sheriff's hawk when he pounced on a prey with its infallible claws.
Gisborne decided it was time to use one of Archer's ‘secrets of the East’ to surprise Thornton and succeed in defeating him, but the other managed to block him with the only possible countermove and he tried to trap Guy's sword with the hilt of his own.
Guy released the blade and jumped back.
“Surprise!” Thornton said, derisively. “Did you think you were fooling me with a trick like that?”
“How could I know it? Did you think that you were very secretly training last night? My servants kept an eye on you and warned me. I saw everything and you didn’t even notice it.” Thornton burst out laughing. “And now how will you do without your special blows?”
Guy shot a direct blow to his head and the two men faced each other, sword to sword.
“I will defeat you even without them,” Guy growled and the other laughed again.
“Oh, I don’t think so. I will humiliate you, Gisborne, you can count on it. Do you know what? You have the eyes of your sister, I'm impatient to see them full of tears. I'll make you cry, you'll see. Just like I did with her.”
Guy looked at him, furious.
“What did you do to her?!”
“You should have seen her, you know? Dressed as a bride she was so pretty. So innocent... Almost a child. And she knew nothing of what awaited her, nothing at all. But she found out, oh yes, and how she found out. You should have heard her scream, you should have seen those blue eyes full of tears... And her white skin? The bruises stood out so well... Yes, money well spent. Definitely.”
Gisborne stared at him, horrified, with the feeling of not being able to breathe.
Was this what he had done? Had he sold Isabella to a sadistic monster who had abused her on the day of her wedding, enjoying her terror and the pain he had inflicted on her?
“You're a devil... You're the devil...” Guy gasped, lashing out forward to attack him with savage force. “And if I go to hell for what I did you will come with me!”
Guy unleashed his anger at Thornton, a blow after another for the sole purpose of killing him, but the other, perfectly quiet, retreated laughing, parrying every blow without much difficulty.
“Are you still surprised that she hates you?” Thornton derided him. "Seventeen years, seventeen long years with me and I made her cry with pain every night. Can you imagine it? Think of how many tears you can shed in seventeen years!”
Gisborne saw a gap in Thornton's defense and gripped the sword with both hands to lift it and smash it down on him, but the other moved his weapon, quick as a flash of lightning and he sank it in Guy's thigh, then he pulled it out laughing and he used the pummel the sword to hit him on the head and throw him to the ground.
Chapter 20: The Taste of Sand
Sand... Fine sand that infiltrates everywhere, sand that makes the eyes burn and makes breathing difficult. Sand that makes your teeth creak and makes thirst more acute.
Guy remembered the taste of Acre's sand all too well, of the sand he had thought would cover his grave.
He had to get up again, to resume his flight and prevent King Richard's soldiers from reaching him, or he would die for sure. He shouldn’t think of the sun that burned his skin or of the blood that dripped from his wound down his arm, he just had to get back on his feet and start walking again.
The wound in his arm...
It wasn’t the arm that ached at that moment. The waves of throbbing pain that clouded his thoughts came from his left leg and the sand he felt on his lips wasn’t the hot sand of the desert.
It was Thornton's triumphant laugh that tore him completely from unconsciousness. The unpleasant sound filled his mind with a fierce hatred, making him suddenly remember what this man had done to his sister.
Guy opened his eyes and saw Thornton a few paces away from him: he was giving his back to him and he was raising his sword to heaven in a gesture of triumph. Guy tightened the hand that still held the hilt of the sword and used the other to try to get up from the ground.
His injured leg hurt a lot, but it could support his weight and Guy managed to get back on his feet.
The spectators fell silent and Thornton realized that something must have happened, something that had made them to hold their breath.
He turned slowly and he saw Gisborne standing again, his face streaked with the blood dripping from a wound in his forehead, and his sword in his hand.
“It's not over, Thornton, you have not won yet. And you won’t.” Guy growled.
“You should have better stayed on the ground, dog.”
“This dog will drag you to hell. You will pay for what you did to Isabella!”
“Oh, I already did it. And if I'm not mistaken you were quite satisfied when you took my money.”
Guy raised his sword and pounced on Thornton with a cry of rage.
Robin felt Meg's hand cling to his arm, as if to support herself. The girl was squeezed in the crowd between him and Much and she watched the fight in horror.
Robin was worried too. Unlike the duels among the other knights, the one between Thornton and Gisborne was different, something was deeply wrong.
At some point the purpose of that fight had changed, it was no longer a confrontation to see which of the two was stronger or more skilled, but the two opponents had begun to fight in order to kill each other.
Even the spectators had noticed that: instead of inciting their favorite with cheers and shouts as usual, they stood still and watched the fight, holding their breath in a disturbing silence.
Robin noticed that the girl was trembling, but he did nothing to comfort her, leaving Much to cheer her up. But he was terribly anxious for Guy. Thornton must have told him something with the purpose of making him lose his temper and apparently he had succeeded perfectly.
When Guy had been hit and he had collapsed on the ground, Robin saw Marian and Isabella standing up quickly. Marian had run up to the fence that delimited the field of competition and Isabella had followed her mechanically, dragged by the hand of the other girl, still convulsively closed on hers.
Robin had stared at Guy, lying motionless on the ground, trying to figure out if he was still breathing.
His experience in the Holy Land had taught him that a man could bleed to death in a few minutes if a blow cut certain blood vessels and he had the impression that Thornton had targeted Gisborne's leg with the intent to kill him.
Guy, you can’t die, I've forbidden you!
Then Gisborne got up and Robin stopped holding his breath: if he could stand up, Thornton's blow couldn’t have done too much damage.
When he had seen Guy making a lunge at the adversary with the ferocity of a ravenous wolf, Robin had been on the verge of shouting something to remind him of his promise not to be killed, but he had bitten his tongue to keep silent. At that moment the slightest distraction could influence the result of the duel and he couldn’t risk distracting Guy's attention from the fight.
Thornton was forced to retreat under the assault of Gisborne: if just a moment ago he had managed to block and counter his every blow, now his opponent, though wounded, seemed almost possessed.
He attacked him as if he was driven by a wild fury, pressing him with one blow after another.
Thornton raised his sword to parry yet another attack and the clash of the two blades hurt his wrists.
At the next blow, the sword flew from his hand and fell to the ground, too far away to be able to regain it in time.
Thornton looked at Guy in terror, and for a moment he had the impression of looking at Isabella's face, as if the wife he had tormented for years had found a way to take revenge for all the suffering he had inflicted on her.
He turned to flee, but the flat of Gisborne's sword hit him on his back, causing him to fall with his face in the dust. A moment later he felt Guy's foot on his shoulders, pressing him to the ground, preventing him from getting up, and the cold metal of his sword pushed against his neck.
Guy pushed Thornton to the ground and he thought that it was the right end of a cockroach like him.
He was panting for the effort he had just made, and his head throbbed painfully, but Guy knew that the wound on his thigh was the most serious. He felt the blood dripping down his leg and the pain gave him the impression of having a hot iron stuck in the flesh.
Soon he would collapse and for this he had to hurry to destroy the monster that had ruined Isabella's life. Thornton deserved nothing but death and Guy wouldn’t hesitate to give it to him.
If he hadn’t been wounded he would take the time to kill him slowly, repaying him for all the evil he had done.
Guy looked up to look for his sister and saw her near the fence, still and upset, standing next to Marian.
Slowly he raised his sword, ready to lower it on Thornton's neck to finish him.
“Gisborne! Stop now!” The sheriff's voice thundered and Guy, out of pure habit, turned to look at him.
Vaisey looked agitated and he was staring at Guy, stunned: it was evident that he hadn’t expected his victory and it was equally clear that he didn’t want Thornton to be killed. That man had to serve him for who knows what horrible purposes and that thought made Guy even more determined to kill him.
“Put that sword down right now, Gisborne! If you hit him now you will be accused of murder! I'll have you hanged!”
Guy didn’t move. To think of Isabella's suffering made him believe that it was probably worth dying to wipe out from the face of the earth the unworthy man who had destroyed her life.
I forbid you to be killed.
Robin's words suddenly came back to him, making him hesitate: if he killed Thornton, the sheriff would have a legitimate reason to condemn him and execute him.
Guy looked for Marian and he saw her tremble.
Cover yourself with glory and come back to me.
Killing Thornton wouldn’t be dishonorable, on that Guy had no doubt, that man deserved only death, but if he did, he wouldn’t go back to Marian, he would leave her alone in a world that was too cruel.
Slowly he sheathed his sword, settling for giving Thornton a violent kick that made him lose consciousness.
Guy bowed slightly to the sheriff and Vaisey was forced to declare him the winner of the fight, triggering a roar of approval among the spectators.
Gisborne came out of the field with his head held high and he found himself surrounded by Allan and Marian, one worried and the other pale and trembling. Isabella was a little farther away and stared at him without saying anything.
Guy reached out to her in a pleading gesture.
“I didn’t know. I swear I didn’t know,” he said weakly, then the world darkened and Gisborne collapsed to the ground.
Chapter 21: I Stay Awake Just to Hear You Breathing
Allan would have screamed when somebody suddenly grasped him as he walked through one of the castle's corridors if a hand had not closed his mouth to prevent it.
His attacker dragged him into an empty room and closed the door before letting him go and be seen.
“Archer! Are you crazy? You scared me to death!”
“Lower your voice.”
Archer looked at him, worried.
“How is Guy?”
“Still unconscious. He lost a lot of blood, but the wound looks clean. If it doesn’t get infected, he shouldn’t be in danger. The healer gave him something for the pain, for this he has not yet woken up. But you could have asked me even without scaring me to death.”
“Allan, I don’t have much time and you have to listen to me, it's important. Did the healer say if he can be moved?”
“I don’t know, but I think so. The wound has been stitched, there shouldn’t be any problems. Why do you ask?”
“Then make sure to take him away from the castle as soon as possible.”
“We can bring him home, but why such a hurry?”
“No, not to Locksley or even to Knighton. I was in the Black Knights meeting room and I heard Thornton giving instructions to one of his servants: they're going to kill Guy.”
“What?! And didn’t you arrest him?!”
“I wasn’t supposed to be there. If the sheriff discovered that I had entered that room in secret, he could accuse me of treason. And if Thornton has free access to it, it means he must have become one of the Black Knights.”
“Why were you there? And anyway if Thornton is in league with the sheriff, Vaisey should have warned him: if Giz dies suspiciously, his confession will be handed over to the king and for the Black Knights it will be the end.”
“Guy is wounded, and they all saw how it happened. If he were to die from a sudden fever there would be nothing suspicious, he wouldn’t be the first knight to die of infection or for having lost too much blood.” Archer looked at Allan, uncertain whether to answer the other question of the young man, then he decided to be honest. "I was there to find out the sheriff's intentions to report them to Guy and Robin.”
“Did Giz ask you to do it?”
“No, but I wanted to help him anyway. It’s less risky if I do it, rather than having him wandering around the castle dressed as the Nightwatchman.”
“I thought you didn’t want to compromise yourself.”
“No, if I can avoid it. But that Thornton is dangerous, it's a threat to my brothers and even to Nottingham if he's going to ally with the sheriff. Better to find out his intentions. But we'll take care of it later, so far, take Guy to a safe place, at least until he has recovered. Now I have to go, wait a few minutes before leaving.”
"Guy, I'm hungry!"
Gisborne wandered the streets of that city with dry eyes, but with a great desire to cry.
His sister's suffering lament continued to resonate in his mind and pushed him to move on, even though he had walked for so long that he felt a sharp pain in his leg.
He was cold and he too was hungry, but it would be enough for him to find enough food for Isabella. He could wait and he felt that he deserved to suffer the pangs of hunger. Isabella was innocent, she had done nothing wrong and she shouldn’t be in that situation.
It was Guy's fault. It was he who set the fire that had killed their parents.
“Mother...” He whispered. “Forgive me...”
He clung to his cloak, which had once been worthy of a young nobleman and was now little more than a worn rag, and he scratched his neck, irritated by the rough cloth of the clothes he wore. His old clothes, of much better quality, didn’t fit him anymore and he had traded them for those peasant clothes and some food.
In those years of misery he had grown further and he was forced to adapt to any kind of job in order to provide for Isabella, but at that moment his only wish was to be able to go back to his childhood and feel the reassuring voice of his mother telling him not to worry about anything because she would take care of everything.
He approached a house and knocked on the door, asking if there was any work for him, but the woman who had opened looked at him menacingly and drove him away badly.
Guy slid to the ground, defeated and leaned his head on his knees. He couldn’t go back to Isabella and tell her that he had found nothing, he couldn’t bear her disappointed look.
Sometimes Guy had the feeling that his sister hated him, that she held him responsible for their suffering. Deep inside, he knew that was the truth, but to think he was hated by the only person he still had was too terrible to bear.
He sat at the corner of that road for a long time, surrounded by foreign voices who spoke in a language that wasn’t his own and he only wished he could go home, that there was a house waiting for him.
Then a man dressed in elegance had stopped in front of him and spoke to him in a soothing tone. He had offered him food and Guy had taken it without asking questions, even though the mysterious man had no face. He had run to Isabella and had given her everything, happy to see her eat with gusto, then his sister had put her hands to her throat and started to cough as if she couldn’t breathe.
She had collapsed on the ground with her eyes wide open in terror.
“What did you give me, Guy?” She had gasped, pointing at him with an accusing finger. “You killed me, and it's all your fault...”
Then she died and her glassy eyes continued to accuse him.
Guy woke up screaming and he tried to get up, but a sharp stab of pain in his leg caught his breath, and someone held him back, forcing him to lie down.
“No, Isabella! No!” Guy shouted, trying to free himself, but he didn’t have the strength to fight.
A gentle hand stroked his forehead, brushing his hair from his face and a sweet voice talked to him.
“It's all right, keep calm, it was just a nightmare.”
Guy managed to focus on the face of the woman who had spoken to him and finally he recognized her.
The woman wiped his face with a wet towel to freshen him up and continued to stroke his hair reassuringly.
“Don’t worry, Guy. You have been wounded, but you will recover soon. You just have to have patience and rest.”
Gisborne looked at her.
“Isabella! She... She was dead... Because of me...”
“It was just a dream, it wasn’t real. Now drink this, it will ease the pain and allow you to rest.”
Guy shook his head, almost in tears.
“I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to go back to that nightmare...”
Adeline kissed him on the forehead and put a hand on his chest, as if her touch could soothe the accelerated beat of his heart and his labored breath.
“I am here. I will sing for you and bad dreams will not touch you. As I used to do. Do you remember it, my baby?”
Guy nodded weakly and he let Adeline to bring a bowl to his lips.
“Where is Isabella?” He asked weakly after drinking. “I have to talk to her... I have to ask her forgiveness...”
Adeline stroked his cheek.
“Later, dear. Now rest. Close your eyes and sleep.”
Guy tried to resist sleep. He had to see his sister and tell her how sorry he was for leaving her in Thornton's hands for so long, but he felt too weak and the medicine he'd just drank was starting to take effect.
He closed his eyelids with a sigh as Adeline began to sing one of his childhood songs, holding his hand.
He was tired, terribly tired, but he had to wake up and talk to Isabella, he thought, then he sank into a dreamless sleep.
Marian smiled as she realized that Seth, curled up in her lap, had fallen asleep.
She stroked the child's dark hair and thought that he must be tired after forcing Allan to play with him all afternoon. The young man certainly looked exhausted, sprawled in an armchair by the fireplace with a mug of wine in his hand.
“Do you think he'll be alright?” She asked him in a low voice not to wake Seth.
“Giz is strong and the wound is healing well. Give him a few days and he will be as good as new.”
“It's not the wound that worries me. He keeps calling Isabella in his sleep, how will he take it when he finds out she's left with her husband?”
Allan shook his head.
“Not well, I'm afraid. But it wasn’t possible to prevent it: she is married to that man, she is forced to obey him. Better if Giz doesn’t know it for the moment.”
Marian moved one arm to make Seth sleep more comfortably and she sighed.
“What do you think Guy meant when he told her he didn’t know? What didn’t he know?”
“I have no idea. That Thornton must have told him something while they were fighting, something that upset him. I had never seen him react like this, with such ferocity. He scared me, I thought he was going to get killed or that he would slaughter him.”
Marian nodded with a shiver.
“Do you think Archer is right? That Thornton could really try to kill Guy?”
“I don’t know, but it's better not to risk it. The sheriff doesn’t know about this place, here they will never find him and anyway Adeline is taking care of him in the best way. I do not know how she can do it, really. She manages to take care of Giz and of his miniature copy and this could already make anyone lose patience. Then she manages the house and the lands that surround it, she takes care of educating both Thomas and Cedric, who has welcomed into his home as if he was another son, she keeps company to her father and in addition to all this she also prepares meals for everyone.”
“It almost seems like you're ready to move here too.”
“It might be worth it even just for her cooking.”
The girl blushed and stared at the flames of the fireplace.
“In addition to everything you said, she managed to find some time to teach me how to cook a little better.”
“Well, with you she starts from a good point.”
“What do you mean?”
“For sure you can’t get worse. Whatever she can teach you will still be an improvement.”
Marian looked at him, offended, then both she and Allan turned anxiously as Adeline entered the room.
“How is Guy?” Marian asked and Adeline smiled at her, then she approached to pick up Seth.
“Go to him. Now he sleeps, but he was very agitated, it will do him good to feel your presence.”
“Did he have nightmares again?”
“Yeah. Stay close to him, he needs you right now.”
Marian wasted no more time and ran out of the room. In a moment she reached Guy's room and entered without making a noise so as not to disturb his rest.
Gisborne was fast asleep and the girl approached the bed.
“Everything will be fine.” She whispered. “I love you, Guy. I love you so much...”
She lay down next to him, turning on her side to watch him sleep, then she took his hand and held it in hers, stroking it gently. Her fingers touched something soft tied around Guy's wrist and her eyes filled with tears in recognizing the velvet ribbon she had given him before the tournament.
Perhaps Adeline had detached it from the blood-stained chain mail, or maybe it was Allan, or perhaps it had been Gisborne himself at a time when he was conscious, but it didn’t matter. That pledge of love had always remained close to Guy.
“I'm always with you. Always. Never forget it,” Marian said quietly, then she remained silent to watch over his rest.
Chapter 22: Now He Knew
The wound burned, sending pangs of pain along the leg with each step of the horse, but Guy gritted his teeth and urged the animal to continue.
He had to hurry up and to get far enough from Adeline's house before the others noticed his escape.
He could not allow them to reach him and force him to go back to bed: he had to go to Isabella and save her from the monster to whom he had sold her to.
If he could survive that business, Guy thought, he would have to apologize to Allan. After practically having forced him to tell what had happened to Isabella, Guy had left him bound and gagged on the bed in his place, deeply asleep after making him drink the medicine destined to alleviate the pain of his wound.
At that moment he wouldn’t have minded having taken at least a little of it, but he could not afford to have a hazy mind, he had to save his sister at all costs.
He pushed the horse away from the road, stepping into the trees and trying not to lose his way. He didn’t know the area well, but he knew that Marian and Allan would look for him and he wasn’t willing to go back before he did whatever it was needed to free his sister from Thornton.
An arrow passed close to him and it got lost in the bushes. Guy hurried to take the bow to defend himself, then he realized who had thrown it.
He searched for him with his gaze and soon Robin jumped down from the branch of the tree where he had been lurking.
“I was wondering how long it would take you to arrive,” the outlaw said.
“What are you doing here?” Guy asked, without getting off his horse.
“I'm watching Adeline's house. It was Archer who told me where you were.”
“Good boy. Keep doing it then.”
Guy started to move the horse forward, but Robin grabbed the reins to stop him.
“Where do you think you're going?”
Gisborne stared at him, defiantly.
“To take back my sister.”
Robin raised an eyebrow.
“In these conditions? It's already incredible that you can stay in the saddle.”
“It will not be an insignificant wound to stop me. And certainly not you.”
Robin stared at him, skeptical.
“Oh yes? Go ahead then,” he said, reaching out to give him a friendly pat on the leg. Guy paled and he leaned forward on the saddle, unable to hold back a moan of pain.
Robin looked at him for a few seconds, then he shook his head.
“An insignificant wound, uh? Now do you want to go back to Adeline's house out of your own free will or do I have to drag you back tied up?”
Gisborne gave him a furious look.
“I have to go to Isabella.”
“What would be the use of it? What do you think you're doing if you're still so weak?”
Guy got off his horse, taking care not to rest his weight on the injured leg and he grabbed Robin Hood by the shoulders, slamming his back against a tree.
“You don’t understand, Hood!” Guy growled.
Robin could easily resist that attack, Gisborne barely had the strength to stand up and a little push would have been enough to make him waver, but he didn’t.
He looked at Guy.
“Explain it to me, then,” he said, quietly.
“I can’t leave her in the hands of that man! He did horrible things to her and he keeps making her suffer. She was just a child, Hood, and I sold her to a demon! It's all my fault and now I have to save her!”
Gisborne had started shaking as he spoke and Robin realized that he was really upset. He put a hand on his shoulder to try to calm him.
“Do you really think that going alone and injured to attack a manor and snatch a woman from her legitimate husband is the best option? If you want to get hanged, maybe.”
“I won’t take her away from her husband, I'll kill that swine!”
“No you won’t.”
“It’s the only way. If Thornton dies, she will be free.”
“And you will dangle from the gallows. No. We will find another way that doesn’t imply your execution.”
“What if there isn’t another way?”
“In that case I will help you and we will probably end up hanging on a rope side by side. But killing Thornton will have to be the last resort and we will do it only if there are no other solutions. And in any case, before doing anything, you will have to completely recover from that wound.”
Guy choked a sob.
“How can I leave her in the hands of that monster? How? Now that I know what he did to her, how can I bear to sit still and rest while he abuses my sister? Isabella doesn’t know that I'm going to save her, I can’t let her believe that I have abandoned her again!”
Robin squeezed his shoulder to stop his outburst and Guy looked at him.
“I'll go there.” Robin said.
“Return to Adeline's house and rest, eat, get infusions and remedies and do everything necessary to heal and regain your strength. Meanwhile, I will go to the place where your sister lives and I will study the situation. I will try to find out if there is a way to save her and I will give her your message, I will tell her not to lose hope because we will return to free her. And we will do it as soon as you are well. You and I. Together. Can it be an acceptable compromise?”
“Would you really do this for me?”
“For you, for Isabella, for Marian and for all those who in some way care about your tough head, including me. Now go back on your horse and go back home before they think you are dead. Trust me and wait for my return, I know it won’t be easy, but it’s necessary.”
“I will do it. And if you help me to save her, I will be grateful to you forever.”
“Add it to the list of your debts to me.”
“You told him?!”
Allan closed his eyes on hearing Marian's accusation, almost expecting the girl to come and hit him with the knife she had used earlier to free him from the ropes with which he had been bound by Gisborne.
“I might have let something out,” he admitted. “Giz was so insistent on asking about his sister that I could have mentioned to him that she left with her husband...”
“To mention it is different than telling everything in detail,” Adeline urged him. “What did you tell him?”
Allan stared at the two women.
“I told him everything, all right? You know very well how convincing Giz can be and anyway sooner or later we should have told him anyway, it wasn’t fair to hide the truth from him!”
Marian stared at him, furious.
“And we would have told him, but not immediately. He should be in bed to rest, not who knows where seeking for revenge! If anything should happen to him it will only be your fault, Allan!”
Adeline put her hand on the girl's wrist to calm her. Allan made a mistake, but he seemed so worried, humiliated and downcast that she didn’t want to berate him.
“Guy can be impulsive, but he's not stupid and he's an adult man, not a kid, I don’t think he'll do anything rash.”
Allan thought of the time when Gisborne had saved him from certain death by impersonating the Nightwatchman for the first time, while Marian found herself remembering when he had faced Barret alone, without having much hope of surviving.
They both cast a doubtful look at Adeline.
"Perhaps you don’t know him as well as you think,” Marian said with a sigh, while Allan stood up.
“Better to go look for him.”
“I’m coming too,” Marian said.
They all left home and they saw Cedric and Thomas coming back to them.
“It's not near the house,” the younger boy said.
“Sir Guy's horse is not in the stable,” Cedric confirmed.
“Saddle four horses and help Allan and Lady Marian to look for him,” Adeline ordered, and Marian looked at her, amazed, as the two boys hurried to obey her, running towards the stables.
“Are you not coming?”
"My father is old and I can’t leave him alone to look after Seth. Soon that kid will wake up and he’ll do his best to get in some trouble.”
As evoked by Adeline's words, the child came out of the house, rubbing his eyes and he clung to Marian's skirt with a possessive look.
Allan let out a smile.
“All his father.”
“Horse!” Seth shouted and Allan was about to tell him that at that moment he didn’t have time to play when he realized that the child was pointing to a real horse that had appeared on the road and was approaching them.
“Hey, it's Giz!” He exclaimed, amazed, recognizing his friend.
Marian and Adeline jumped at his words, but neither moved to meet Guy, although it was clear that they both wanted to do it.
They waited for Guy to join them, and apart from Seth, who was jumping excitedly to see the black stallion approaching, both Allan and the two women watched Guy, trying to figure out if he was alright.
Gisborne was pale and he looked sore and weary, but he was quiet and he cautiously dismounted.
Seth ran to meet him, with the hope of being taken on his shoulders, but Guy just smiled at him and took him by the hand.
“Your horse needs some rest now. Later you can play with Allan.”
Marian approached him, anxious.
“Where were you, Guy? Are you alright?”
“I was just tired of staying in bed. I wanted to ride a bit.”
“And to do that was it really necessary to bind and drug Allan, right?” Adeline said in a tone of reproach. "You've always been a bad liar, but at least you've had the good sense to come back before you got hurt.”
Gisborne smiled innocently.
“I can’t hide anything from you, can I?”
Marian took his hand and she looked at him, sad.
“Did you want to go to your sister?”
Guy nodded, returning serious.
“Her husband hurts her and it is my duty to save her. I left with the intention of helping her, but I understood that I wasn’t yet strong enough to do it.”
“You should be in bed,” Adeline said. "But if I know you at least a little, you're too impatient and stubborn to go back there, so at least come home, sit down and eat something."
Marian put an arm around his waist and she felt that Guy leaned against her. The wound had to hurt him badly, but she sensed that Gisborne would never admit it.
Guy half closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair with a sigh. The short ride had exhausted him and made his wound hurt, and he was sincerely grateful to Adeline for the soft pillows she had placed on that wooden chair before she let him sit down.
Seth approached him and tried to climb on his legs, accidentally bumping into the wound and Guy bit his lips to hold back a moan, but he didn’t send the child away. Once the pang of pain had passed, Gisborne lifted Seth up and put it on his knees, making him sit on his healthy leg. The child touched one of Guy's leather jacket clasps, attracted by the shape and brightness of the metal.
“It's not a dog, it's a wolf,” Guy explained, touching the clasp in turn, but realized that Seth looked at him, puzzled, so he continued. “Wolves resemble dogs, but live in the woods. They are free and proud animals and they are not forced to obey like dogs, but they collaborate with the other members of their pack... of their family.”
The child’s face lit up.
“Do they live in the forest like Robin Hood?”
Guy looked at him, stunned, then imagined that it must have been Robin himself, as vain as ever, to tell Seth his adventures and he sighed, resigned.
“Something like that, yes.”
“When I grow up I'll be like Robin Hood.” Seth said proudly and Guy laughed to think that just a couple of years ago a sentence like that would have infuriated him.
“It's not a bad idea, you know?” He said, taking care that only Seth could hear him and he ruffled his hair with an affectionate gesture of which he himself was surprised.
Shortly before Annie died, the young woman had asked him if he would love his son and Guy had not been able to answer her. At that moment, instead, Gisborne felt a warmth in his chest that did not depend on the proximity to the flames of the fireplace, and realized that now he would probably have an answer for that question.
Seth settled more comfortably, leaning his cheek on his chest and hugging him. For once the child seemed to be quiet, as if he sensed that at that moment Guy didn’t have the strength to play with him as he usually did.
He raised his face and smiled at him.
“But I want to be like you too, father.” he said, cheerfully. “Tell me a story?”
Guy looked at him and he had the impression that his heart had skipped a few beats: it was the first time that Seth called him that. He knew it must have been Adeline who taught him to do so, but he didn’t expect to feel such an emotion in hearing it.
He closed his eyes for a moment to hold back the tears and he looked around to make sure that the others hadn’t noticed that moment of emotion. Marian and Adeline were bent over the kitchen table, focused on the ingredients while one was teaching a recipe and the other was busy learning every last step, Adeline's father was dozing in a chair by the window, Cedric and Thomas were sitting in a corner playing chess, while Allan split his attention between the plate full of food he had before him and teasing Marian at every mistake.
No one paid attention to him, but Guy knew they were all close and that a single word would suffice to get a smile.
“I bet you want to hear a story about Robin Hood,” he said, turning to his son with a half-amused and half-resigned smile. Seth nodded enthusiastically and Guy thought that nothing would prevent him from telling his son one of the adventures of Robin Hood and of the Night Watchman.
He began to tell his story in a low voice as Seth, hugging him, stared at him, blue eyes full of admiration and wonder, and Guy thought that Annie could rest in peace, because he now knew the answer to her question.
Now he knew it.
Chapter 23: My Turn to Say No
Marian looked at Seth and she smiled, amused and moved at the same time: the child had stubbornly clung to Guy's leg and he seemed determined not to let go, despite Adeline's attempts.
In those last days Seth had done nothing but following his father like a stubborn puppy, bursting in tears every time she or Adeline tried to detach him from Gisborne.
The two women were more concerned with the health of Guy, believing that he needed rest after being hurt and knowing how difficult it could be to deal with Seth, but Gisborne didn’t seem displeased at all to be the main object of his son's attention.
Marian was surprised to see how patiently Guy would spend time listening to the child's chatter or playing with him, and even more surprised to see an unusual and warm light in his eyes when he looked at the kid. It was a side of Guy she wasn’t used to see, a more tender and joyful side of him that made her imagine what it would be like to carry and give birth to his children. If she closed her eyes, Marian could almost see him, she knew exactly the protective gesture with which he would touch her belly, the way in which he would hold their son for the first time, and the joy and pride he would have in taking care of their family.
In those moments, Marian felt her heart warming and every worry vanished from her mind: the sheriff and his plots, the poverty and the injustices that afflicted the people of Nottingham no longer existed, there were no dangers or threats or suspicions of lies and betrayals. There were only her, Guy and the family that they would form, the rest didn’t count.
A howl from Seth turned her away from that daydream and Marian saw that Adeline had managed to pick up the child, separating him from Gisborne. Seth's eyes were full of tears as he called his father and Guy looked at him, displeased and worried about that desperate cry.
Adeline smiled at him.
“Now go and don’t worry, once you leave, he will calm down quickly.”
Guy looked at her, uncertain, and the woman laughed and pulled him to her with her free arm to kiss him on the cheek.
“Don’t worry, my child, you know I'll take care of him. Now you must think to get well and to be careful, remember that we will be here waiting for you.”
Gisborne returned the hug for a few seconds.
“I know,” he said in a low voice, smiling at her, then he parted from her and Seth and mounted on his horse.
Marian and Allan imitated him and all three left the house, following the road.
They rode in silence for a few minutes, then Marian looked at Guy.
“Are you sure you can ride to Locksley? Your wound...”
“It still hurts, but it’s bearable. I can ride without too much trouble, don’t worry.”
“Giz, I could take care of your lands, and you could stay with Adeline for a while longer.”
“No, Allan. I've been away from Knighton for too long. And about that...” Guy glanced hesitantly at Marian, afraid of her reaction. The girl looked at him, perplexed, and Guy continued, looking away. “I will not return to Locksley. It wouldn’t be proper. I didn’t have much choice before, but now I have a house, it's time I start living at Knighton Hall.”
Marian stared at him, amazed and hurt by his words.
“Don’t you want to go back to Locksley? I thought you liked it... I thought that you considered it like your home...”
“I consider it so indeed, but it isn’t my house. It has never been mine.”
The girl shook her head and looked away not to let him see that her eyes were bright with tears.
“I see. I thought I was able to make you feel part of our family, but maybe I can’t... Maybe you'd rather be alone...” She said coldly and Guy looked at her, anxious and worried.
“No, no, that's not what I meant!” He moved his horse closer to Marian's and he took her hand.
Marian looked at him, trying to appear indifferent, without succeeding at all.
“What did you mean then?”
Allan looked at them and he rolled his eyes with a sigh: he had no desire to find himself in the midst of the arguments of two lovers.
“Hey, Giz, I'm going to look for a decent tavern where to have lunch, I'll wait for you there,” he said, then he spurred the horse and went on, without waiting for an answer. Both Guy and Marian ignored him.
The girl stood looking at Guy, waiting. Gisborne searched her gaze and he spoke without looking away.
“Marian, there's nothing I love more than living by your side. You have no idea how much I love to wake up and know that you are close, only a few meters away, on the other side of a wall, or opening my eyes to the smell coming from the kitchen and knowing that you are cooking something for me. When I'm in Locksley I know it would be enough for me to call your name to see you, to open a door to embrace you... Just thinking about it makes me feel good. Being close to you makes me happy and it will always be like that. Locksley is my home, in fact. But it is because you are there.”
“So why do you want to leave?”
Guy stroked her cheek with the back of his hand and Marian shuddered.
“Because it's getting harder and harder. Every day that I am close to you is more and more difficult...” Guy said in a whisper.
Guy pulled his hand back suddenly.
“To wait. To remember that you are not my wife yet.”
Marian took his hand and placed it back on her cheek.
“What if I don’t want to wait? If it’s alright to me?”
She leaned toward Guy and she pulled him to her to kiss him, shuddering to feel the passion with which Guy responded to her touch.
Their horses stirred, tired of standing still and Guy and Marian were forced to part. They looked at each other, laughing, panting.
“You see? That's what I meant,” Guy said, smiling at her.
“And why should it be wrong? People already think we are lovers.”
“I already have so many sins on my conscience... I don’t want our life together to start with another stain. It wouldn’t be right, what I feel for you is so important that I don’t want to risk ruining it in any way.”
“Let's get married then. Now. Let’s look for a church and make it right.”
Guy looked at her, surprised, then he smiled a little mischievously.
“Lady Marian, once I was the one who begged to bring you to the altar and you always said no. I think it's my turn now.”
The girl's eyes widened.
“Don’t you want to marry me anymore?”
“Not like this, not in a hurry just to not have to wait a little longer. The day you become my wife will be a special day, the day when a dream will come true and I want it to be perfect. I want all the people we love to be with us and for this I can’t do it now.”
“Because Isabella wouldn’t be here?” Marian guessed.
“Yes. Maybe she will not want to come and maybe she will never stop hating me, but anyway I can’t marry until she is in Thornton's hands. How could I expect to be happy while she is suffering because of me? I have to free my sister from that monster and then we will get married. Can you wait until then, Marian?”
The girl nodded.
“Always better than waiting for the king's return.” She joked, then she became serious again. “Will it be dangerous, Guy? Thornton wanted to kill you, how will you save her?”
“I still don’t know. I'm thinking about it. But that's also a reason why I have to take full possession of Knighton.”
“She and Thornton are legitimately married, by law he has every right on my sister and, as if that were not enough, he now has the sheriff's favor. I'll ask Tuck if it's possible to somehow nullify that marriage, but in any case, if I find myself thwarting Thornton, I'll need to get more power and support from as many people as possible. If he is influential I will have to have power too: as Guy of Gisborne, people still hate me, but perhaps they will respect Lord Knighton.”
Marian looked at him, serious.
“What did her husband do to her? I saw your sister's eyes during the tournament and I was worried, she seemed trapped, petrified by terror.”
“That man feels joy in inflicting suffering and pain to others...” Guy ran a hand over his face. "And Isabella was little more than a child when I delivered her into the hands of that monster. Do you understand why she hates me and why I have to help her at any cost?”
“She doesn’t hate you. Not as much as you believe, at least.”
“How can you say that? I would hate myself if I were in her place.”
“It doesn’t surprise me, you've never been very good at loving yourself,” Marian said, ironically, then she touched his face, resting a hand on his cheek. “When you fainted after the fight, Isabella knelt next to you and made this same gesture.”
“Yes. She whispered a few words, but I only understood ‘brother’, then she got up and ran away.”
“And you haven’t seen her after that?”
“No, we were worried about you and then Archer told Allan that Thornton wanted to kill you, and then we took you to Adeline to prevent him from finding you. But Isabella’s behavior didn’t seem to me the behavior of a person who really hates you.”
“I hope so. But what she thinks of me is not important. What matters is only succeeding in saving her.”
Marian stroked his cheek again, with a gesture of comfort.
“It matters to you and for this reason I hope you can be forgiven. Guy? Promise me something?”
Gisborne looked at her.
“If I can help you in any way, will you ask me to do it?”
“Marian, I don’t want you to take risks because of me.”
“And I don’t want you to take risks. Not alone, at least. I can help you, I can watch your back and whatever happens I want to be by your side.”
“I won’t be able to change your mind, will I?”
“No. And if you try to leave me behind, I will follow you.”
Guy smiled at her, resigned.
"Is this what I will have to expect when we get married?”
“To find out, you have to get to the wedding alive and, believe me, I'm willing to do everything to make it happen.”
Guy chuckled, not quite sure if that was a declaration of love or a threat.
“I give up, my lady. I promise to ask for your help when I need it, but only if you promise not to do anything rash.”
Guy touched her lips with a kiss.
“Then I promise too.”
“Now we should go before Allan starts thinking we’re up to no good.”
Gisborne looked at her, pretending to be amazed.
“Weren’t you the one who didn’t care about gossip?”
The girl stared at him, cheeky.
"I do not care if people talk, but it must be worth it, so either you do something to make the gossips true, or we reach Allan.”
She burst out laughing, pleased to see that she had been able to make Guy blush, then she hit the sides of the horse with her heels to make him move and she set off at a gallop.
Gisborne stared at her for a few seconds, then he laughed and hurried to follow her.
Chapter 24: A Sister to Protect
The girl looked up to search her brother in the branches of the tree.
“Jack! You should get down, someone could see you.”
The boy sat on a branch, letting his legs dangle in the air.
"I don’t think the sheriff's men are still looking for us, it's been a long time now, they'll have forgotten about us."
“But mom says it's still too dangerous for you to come home.”
Jack swung himself on the branch.
“Women are always too anxious. You are afraid of everything.”
“It's not true!” Mary shouted. “I'm even braver than you!”
The brother burst out laughing.
“So why are you at the foot of the tree? I bet you're afraid to climb up here.”
The girl didn’t answer, but she began to climb on the trunk and soon after she reached Jack on the branch. She didn’t know how she would find the courage to go back down, but she would rather fall than admit it to Jack.
“Hey, look!” The boy said, pointing to the road that led to the village. “There are some horses!”
Mary leaned a little to look better and she gave a cry of joy.
“Jack, that's Sir Guy! And there is also Allan!”
Her brother looked at her, smiling slightly. He didn’t understand why his sister had so much enthusiasm for the black knight, but even he was glad to see him again.
“It was a while since he showed up. I had heard that he had been injured during a tournament, some people even gave him for dead...”
Mary looked at him, shocked.
“And you didn’t tell me?!”
“I wanted to be sure before giving you a pain. And I did well, since he seems to be pretty much alive.”
The girl moved to the end of the branch to look better.
“There's a woman with them! It's Lady Marian!” Mary shouted, turning to look at her brother. “Do you think they are already married?”
“I don’t think so, we would have known.”
Mary moved a little further to look, without realizing that the branch had become thinner. When the wood broke under her weight, Mary managed to cling to the branch below with her arms, but she didn’t have the strength to pull herself up.
She started screaming, terrified, and Jack moved to help her, but he wasn’t sure he could reach her in time or that he was strong enough to pull her up.
Marian looked at Guy, a little astonished at the slight change she had noticed in him as they approached Knighton. She knew that by now the wound had to give him much trouble and that he must be tired after spending so much time in the saddle, but when they had come near the village, Guy had unconsciously straightened his back and his posture had become more proud, as if the tiredness had suddenly slipped from his shoulders.
He's really the lord of these lands by now, and he's proud of it.
Knighton had once belonged to her family, and it seemed odd that its lands had become Guy's, but now, seeing him as he approached the village, she realized that it was right. He had worked and fought hard to become the lord of Knighton and apparently he had succeeded.
A sharp cry shook all three of them, and Marian could see a child screaming in terror, hanging from a tree branch, but Guy was the first to react: he spurred the horse and galloped towards the tree, reaching it at the exact moment when the child lost her grip and fell.
Gisborne caught Mary, ignoring the pang of pain in his leg and clasped her to his chest, then he looked at her to make sure she didn’t get hurt.
"Trees really have strange fruits here..." He said with a smile. “Hello Mary.”
The girl stared at him, uncertain whether to laugh or cry and she ended up doing both at once.
“Sir Guy! You saved me!” She sobbed, throwing her arms around his neck and hiding her face against his chest.
Allan and Marian arrived a moment later, just as Jack came down from the tree, white in the face and trembling.
“Is she alright?” Marian asked, worried, and Guy nodded.
“I caught her in time, she’s just scared.”
“Sir Guy, you're back!” Jack exclaimed, his face recovering some color as he approached the horse.
“Yes, and just in time, I'd say.”
“Hey, don’t you say hello to me? I'm back too! Giz always takes all the attention...” Allan said, turning to the two children and Jack looked at him, with an impertinent expression.
“But you didn’t save my sister's life.”
“No, but I was thinking of giving you a ride home on my horse, but I think I just changed my mind.”
Marian laughed and Jack and Mary looked at her.
“Are you Lady Marian? When will you get married, Sir Guy?” Mary asked, curious.
“Of course it's her, silly, don’t you recognize her? Mom named you after her. She lived in the house that burned a few years ago,” Jack said, then he stopped, embarrassed, remembering that it was the same Gisborne who set the fire.
“Maybe Mary was too small to remember me, but I remember both of you very well. You were so cute when you were a baby, Mary, and you, Jack, were sitting in front of her crib with a stick in your hand, telling everyone that it was your sword and that you would defend your sister.” Marian intervened, smiling. “How is your mother?”
Mary pulled away from Guy, and she moved to sit in the saddle with more dignity, then she looked at Marian, serious.
"Mom's fine, but Jack and our father still live hidden in the forest to hide from the sheriff.”
“Fool! You mustn’t tell anyone!” Jack hissed.
“But she's not anyone, she's Sir Guy's girlfriend! Surely there are no secrets between them.”
Guy hoped he wouldn’t blush at the girl's words and he turned to Jack.
“Tell the men that they can go back to their homes. I doubt the sheriff is still looking for them and anyway you can count on my protection. Allan, let him get on the saddle with you and let's go. Tonight I wish to sleep at Knighton Hall and there is still a lot to do to make it habitable.”
“Is there still a long way to go, master?”
Robin turned to look at Much. The friend didn’t seem happy with that trip, Meg instead looked around enthusiastically, clearly excited at the idea of visiting a place where she had never been before.
The outlaw pulled his horse's reins and dismounted.
“Not much, but I think that for today we would do better to camp in the woods, I don’t want to arrive in the city after dark.”
“And what will we eat? I told you we should have brought more provisions with us!”
Robin took the bow.
“You two prepare the camp, I will think about dinner.”
A few hours later they were all sitting around the fire and Much's mood seemed to have improved in front of the pheasant he had roasted on the spit.
He grabbed a piece and bit it, trying not to burn himself, and Robin and Meg imitated him. For a while they ate in silence, then the girl turned to Robin.
Robin shook his head.
“I've never been there before.”
The girl took another piece of meat and chewed it before she started talking again.
“Well, at least we can rest assured, nobody will recognize us.”
“We will certainly find the way to get in trouble, I couldn’t be more sure of that.” Much complained. “We'll all be hanged, I can feel it. And for Gisborne, then, who's not even here...”
“Guy was there when the sheriff was about to hang me and he risked everything to save me, don’t forget it,” Robin answered. “And anyway, even if she wasn’t his sister, it would still be right to save Isabella from a violent and cruel husband.”
“And then people criticize me when I say I don’t want a husband,” Meg sighed. “Men are so brutal, violent and stupid... Women should have the chance to make certain decisions.”
“Hey!” Much protested. “Nice way you have to consider us!”
“I admit that not all men are like that, you are a little less bad than others, but it’s still not fair that women are considered inferior!”
Robin looked at her.
“Do you know what? With these ideas you would definitely agree with Marian, she isn’t the classic girl who agrees to be overshadowed just because she is a woman.”
Meg looked at him, uncertain.
“I don’t know. I saw her a few days ago in Nottingham, before the tournament started and she was pretty rude to me, I don’t know why.”
“Maybe batting your eyelashes at Gisborne could have affected her behavior,” Much suggested and the girl flushed.
“I don’t bat eyelashes at Guy!”
“You don’t? Well that's the impression you give.” Much continued and he stopped only because Meg had picked up a pebble and threw it at him.
Robin reached out quickly, catching the stone before it hit his friend.
“Now stop arguing for this nonsense. We are not here to play, but because a woman is in danger and it’s our duty to try and help her.”
Meg and Much looked at him guiltily, then they nodded and agreed to shake hands to make peace.
Meg yawned and wrapped herself in the blanket, lying down by the fire and shortly thereafter Much followed her, finding a place on the opposite side, while Robin sat watching the flames for a while.
He was worried, saving Isabella from a violent husband wouldn’t be easy, but if Guy wasn’t wrong his sister had come into the hands of a ruthless monster.
To see the brutal way in which he had faced Guy in a duel, Robin had little doubt about Thornton’s nature, but anyway the man had the law on his side.
Robin had only glimpsed Isabella in Nottingham during the tournament, but he remembered her well from their childhood: she had been a quiet, shy child who followed her mother like a shadow.
After the fire, Robin remembered it all too well, she hadn’t said a word when Guy had taken her by the hand and she had followed him silently without looking up from the ground, letting her brother take her away.
That memory was still painful, but somehow it united them inextricably: the fire had forever marked the lives of all three of them and had separated three people, four counting also Archer, who would be destined to become part of a single family.
Guy could have become his brother and Isabella his sister if things had gone differently and their lives would certainly have been happier.
Now, he thought, it was time to reunite that family.
Chapter 25: He's Still My Brother
When he opened his eyes, Guy had the impression that the sunlight entered from the wrong side of the room, then he remembered that this wasn’t his room in Locksley.
It was the first night he had spent in his new home and the night before he had fallen asleep very late, even though he was tired after riding all day.
Allan had accompanied Marian to Locksley, the women of Knighton who had been busy the whole afternoon to make the manor habitable had returned to their families, and Guy had remained completely alone in that still unknown house.
He had wrapped himself in a blanket and he lay in the bed, listening to the silence. The only sounds that could be heard were the creaking of the house, sounds slightly different from those of Locksley manor, the rustle of the wind on the trees, and sometimes the quiet neigh of his horse, alone in the barn as well.
There were no sounds due to human presence, no sound of footsteps in another room, no low murmur of distant voices, no clink of kitchenware.
That silence instead told him that he was alone. Guy felt alone and, even if he should have been used to it by now, he didn’t like that feeling.
It was the smell of food from the ground floor that awakened him and for a moment Guy thought it was Marian cooking for him, then with a sigh he realized it wasn’t possible: she wasn’t at Knighton Hall, but at Locksley, too far away .
He mentally reproached himself for his own weakness: he had decided to move to Knighton Hall, he knew that it was the right thing to do and he shouldn’t be so troubled by the girl's absence.
He dressed quickly and went downstairs, looking in the kitchen from the threshold to see who was cooking.
He recognized Mary's mother and the woman winced as she saw him at the door.
“Sir Guy! I'm sorry, I didn’t hear you coming downstairs, breakfast will be ready in a moment,” she said, intimidated, but Guy shook his head.
“I'm not in a hurry. Why are you here?”
“You haven’t hired servants yet, someone had to prepare your meal.”
Guy looked at her, amazed.
“Thank you, but it wasn’t necessary.”
“You are Lord Knighton, it is a duty of all of us to take care of your needs. If you wish I can suggest the names of trusted people, you will need servants, people who take care of your home.”
Guy nodded and sat down at the table as the woman placed an appetizing dish in front of him.
He began to eat in silence: the food was very good, completely different from the absurd attempts of Marian. He missed the commitment and the good will that the girl put in cooking with love for him, but he couldn’t deny that the taste of the breakfast he was eating was much better than usual.
He looked up at Mary's mother, caught by an idea.
“Do you already have a job?”
The woman looked at him.
“I grow our garden and sometimes I do some sewing work for those who ask me. Why do you want to know, Sir Guy?”
“I'd like to hire you as a cook for Knighton Hall. And your husband could take care of the management of the house.”
"My husband is still wanted by the sheriff, sir Guy.”
“As I told Jack, he and the other men can return to the village. I doubt the sheriff still remembers them and in any case you are all under my protection.”
“You have our gratitude, Lord Knighton.”
“For the moment, I just need someone to take care of the house, so talk to your husband and let me know if you accept my proposal.”
The woman nodded.
“I will, but I think there will be no problems, sir.”
Guy smiled at her and returned to devote himself to the food, thinking about how things could change in a short time: not many months ago that woman considered him a ruthless killer and she wanted to see him dead, while now she treated him with respect and she had served a great breakfast to him.
Robin stopped to wait for Meg, smiling as he saw that the girl was so fascinated by that new place to stop every few steps to admire a building that had a little different style from those of Nottingham or the exotic goods on sale on some stall of the market.
Even Much occasionally let himself be distracted, but Meg seemed incredibly attracted to every little thing.
“It's all new to you, isn’t it?”
The girl looked at him.
"My father didn’t let me do anything. I spent my life locked up in the house and my only hope to get out and see the world was to do it at the side of a husband. But I imagine that in that case I would have done nothing but end up locked up in another house to give birth to one child after another. I don’t want to marry, I don’t want to go back to being a prisoner and if we can free Guy's sister, I will be happy. No woman should suffer because of the arrogance of a man!”
"Master, how are we going to get into the manor?" Much asked, throwing a worried look at the guards who guarded the gate of Thornton's house.
“We'll find a way.”
“Maybe it won’t be necessary, look!” Meg said, pointing at a group of soldiers who was coming out of the manor. Isabella was walking among them, her head covered with a veil and her gaze low.
Isabella crossed the market, stopping from time to time to look at the goods on display on the stalls, while the soldiers escorted her closely. As she passed by, Robin was worried to see the woman's blank, empty stare.
“Create a diversion and distract the guards, so that I can talk to her,” Robin whispered and Much and Meg nodded, moving away from him.
When they were in the middle of the market square, Meg started shouting and slapping Much, pretending to be a betrayed and angry wife and Much replied in the same tone, shouting more than her and yelling imaginary wrongs at her.
Robin chuckled and noticed that the soldiers, while not straying too far from Isabella, were not paying attention to her, intent on having fun in assisting the quarrel between the two fake spouses.
Silently Robin approached Isabella and stopped a few steps away from her.
“Lady Gisborne,” he said, to attract her attention and Isabella turned to him, amazed and scared, then her expression returned to be blank.
“That name no longer exists. I'm Lady Thornton and there are no other Gisbornes. My brother is dead.”
Robin raised an eyebrow.
“Strange, the last time I saw him he was a bit battered, but definitely alive. He sent me here.”
“Guy is alive?! Really? They told me his wounds were deadly...”
Robin nodded and he saw Isabella's eyes filling with tears as her detached expression cracked.
“So you don’t hate him so much...”
The woman shook her head.
"I don’t know if I'll ever forgive him for what he did to me, but he's my brother anyway. When I saw him after the tournament he seemed to be dying and even though I kept telling myself he deserved it, I felt something breaking inside me, something that hurt so much. I hate him, but to think him dead pains me, isn’t it absurd?”
Robin touched her face with a finger, wiping a tear.
“Guy wants to save you, if I hadn’t stopped him he would have come to get you even if he is hurt.”
“No! My husband will kill him! And he will kill you if he should see you talking to me!”
Robin smiled shamelessly.
“He can get in line. It’s not so easy to kill me, even though many have tried, including your brother.”
“Didn’t you say that he sent you here?”
Isabella looked at him, confused.
“Who are you?”
Robin smiled at her.
“Didn’t you recognize me? In fact it has been a long time. Many call me Robin Hood, but you knew me as Robin of Locksley.”
“That Robin of Locksley?! It doesn’t surprise me that Guy tried to kill you, then. Once you almost had him hanged, I don’t think he ever forgave you for that.”
“Oh, he did,” Robin said, smiling, then he glanced at the soldiers. “We don’t have much time, they'll be back soon.”
“Take me with you!” Isabella begged him.
"Not now, they would immediately capture us, but I promise you won’t be much longer in your husband's hands. I can’t tell you how long it will take, but Guy and I will find a way to save you. Don’t lose hope and remember that your brother has sworn to make up for his mistake. I swear to you too, we will come back to free you.”
Isabella started to turn around to look at him, but Robin had already slipped away, mingling with the crowd of the square a moment before the guards returned to her. She took a deep breath and forced herself to resume her impassive expression, but she held a hand on her heart as if she was afraid that the soldiers could hear it beating too loud.
Chapter 26: A Friend in Clun
Guy checked the figures on the parchment for a last time, then he put away the ledger with a sigh of weariness.
When Locksley belonged to him, it was the reliable Thornton who was responsible for registering and verifying the accounts of the land and the village, but for now it was Gisborne who had to do the same job for Knighton, at least until he found someone equally trustworthy.
At least, he thought with satisfaction, even that month he would have no problem paying the taxes, a nice change from the early days, when he had to rely on Robin Hood's help not to lose his lands.
Tired of having spent the last few hours staring at the pages of the ledger, he decided to go out to ride. He would have a quick ride to check that there were no problems of any kind at Knighton and then he would go to Locksley.
After the first night in his new home, Guy had no longer felt the same painful loneliness, partly because both Allan and Mary and Jack's family had moved to Knighton Hall, but he constantly missed Marian and, when they were not together, Gisborne felt the desire to have her at his side.
The absence of Marian was like the pain of his leg wound: it didn’t prevent him from living and behaving normally, but it was always present on the edge of his mind and at times it became more acute, becoming sharp and almost unbearable.
Seeing her calmed his heart for a few hours, but Guy forced himself to limit his visits to Locksley because doing so people would no longer have any reason to criticize their behavior, and also because otherwise he wasn’t sure he would be able to wait for Robin's return.
But waiting was the only thing he could do, either to marry Marian without having to carry the weight of Isabella's unhappiness on his shoulders, or to allow the wound to heal completely.
Although sometimes waiting for the time to pass was really too difficult.
When he came out of Knighton Hall, Jack had already saddled his horse and Allan's horse. The boy smiled proudly, wearing a tunic with Gisborne’s colors: he was young, but Sir Guy had thought him responsible enough to give him the care of his horses and that job in the stables made him feel more grown up than he was.
Guy mounted and Allan imitated him soon after. They ran side by side through all the lands of Knighton, making sure there were no problems of any kind, listening to the villagers' requests and resolving small disputes, then Guy drove the horse along the road that led out of the village and spurred him to make him gallop.
Allan smiled and imitated him, trying to compete with him, but, when they saw other travelers in the distance on the road and they decided to slow down, Guy was still ahead of him, a bit breathless, but in a more relaxed mood.
“Giz, if Marian saw you riding like that, you can be sure she would scold you for not taking enough care of your wound.”
“Don’t say anything to her, then,” Gisborne replied with a sneer.
“And this is the least, considering that the Night Watchman has been busy very often in recent times. Really, Giz, you should be more careful, otherwise it won’t heal well.”
“I'm fine, Allan, really. And anyway, the Nightwatchman just helped Little John with food deliveries. With Robin and the others away, he wouldn’t be able to cover all the delivery points on his own.”
“If you had told me, I would have helped you.”
“If I had told you, I suspect that you would have stopped me and that you would have forced me to stay in bed.”
“As if I could stop you doing something when you decide it...”
Guy smiled innocently and he was about to reply to Allan when the two men saw a messenger wearing Nottingham’s uniform who was riding towards them.
Gisborne wondered what kind of news he was carrying and why he was heading for Knighton when the young man stopped in front of them.
“Sir Guy of Gisborne,” he said, and his wasn’t a question, that man was already working at the castle when Guy was the sheriff's master of arms. "I have an urgent message for you, I was coming to Knighton to bring it to you.”
Guy took it and the young man went away, at a gallop.
“What's up?” Allan asked, peering at Guy while his friend read the crumpled parchment that had been put in his hands by the messenger. On the back he could see other writings, as if the person who had sent that message had taken the first parchment found at hand to write a note in a hurry.
“It's from Archer. He says that if I have friends in Clun, it's better to tell them to visit some relatives elsewhere. As soon as possible.”
Guy was pale. Archer never warned him of the sheriff's plans, just as he and Robin didn’t tell him about their night missions. To do this, it must have been something really serious.
“Will and Djaq live in Clun!” Allan exclaimed.
Guy spurred the horse, making him start at a gallop.
Djaq moved one of the cushions and placed it behind her back to find a more comfortable position.
She closed her eyes when a twinge of pain caught her breath for a few seconds and she found herself wishing that Will was next to her.
She knew it would take hours before the baby was born, and Will had gone to call the midwife, but Djaq had never felt so frightened in her life and she found herself with tears in her eyes, wishing for someone's company.
The inhabitants of Clun turned to her when they needed medicine, but none of them had ever gone beyond simple courtesy, none of the women in the village had offered her friendship. Sometimes, when they thought they weren’t heard, they called her "Saracen witch" and kept away from her.
Someone knocked at the door, in a hurry, and, without waiting for an answer, a man with a covered face entered the house, immediately closing the door behind him.
Djaq stared at him, terrified, until she saw him take off his cloak.
Gisborne looked at her and Djaq worried even more: Guy was panting as if he had run and he looked more frightened than she was.
“There's no time, come.” Guy said. “We have to get out of here quickly. I came as fast as I could, but the sheriff's men will be here in moments. I don’t know what intentions they have, but certainly nothing good. Where's Will? If you have something precious, take it and come with me, we have to get out of here now.”
“Guy? What does it mean?” Gisborne looked at her, amazed by the trembling tone of her voice.
Djaq had always struck him for the courage and strength she had shown on every occasion, but now she seemed almost a lost child. He approached the chair where she sat and leaned over her.
Djaq grabbed his hand and squeezed it tightly, her face contorted in a grimace of pain.
“What's up? What happened?” Guy asked, worried, and Djaq stared into his eyes.
“Will went to call the midwife. I'm about to have the baby.”
Guy stared at her, as if petrified.
“Oh.” Guy said, then, after a few seconds, Djaq saw a flash of panic that made its way into his eyes. “Now? Are you going to have the baby now?!”
“It will take some time, a few hours, I think, but yes, the baby is about to be born.”
Guy shook his head.
“No, no, we have to leave immediately. Allan!” He shouted, making Djaq jump and a moment later the former outlaw came to the door.
“Giz, we must hurry. I see the dust down the street, they'll be here in a few minutes.”
“Find a wagon. Immediately!”
Allan disappeared and Djaq clung to Guy's jacket with both hands, squeezing it until the knuckles of her fingers whitened.
“Are you in pain?”
Djaq hit him on the shoulder with her fist, suddenly furious.
“I'm about to give birth, what do you think?! And are you going to explain me what's happening?!”
“I don’t know for sure, but I have to take you away from here before they arrive, otherwise we will not be the only ones who get into trouble, but also Archer.”
“Archer? What does Archer have to do with it?”
Allan appeared on the door, gesturing for him to hurry, and Guy lifted Djaq into his arms.
“I'll explain later.”
"If he's out of Clun, he's safe, Allan will find him and warn him, now let's go. Or do you prefer for your child to be born in the dungeons of the castle?”
Djaq shook her head and protested no more. She put her arms around Guy's neck and leaned against his shoulder, then she closed her eyes and burst into tears.
Guy took her to the wagon and climbed on it without putting her down, helped by Allan, then he took the reins and snapped them, launching the horses forward. Allan rode beside the wagon, leading Guy's stallion by the reins too.
They didn’t stop until they were sure they were far enough from the village, and then Guy slowed the pace of the wagon and Allan tied the black stallion behind the vehicle.
"Go look for Will and tell him that he and the midwife should come straight to Knighton Hall, then go over to Locksley and tell Marian too.” Guy ordered, and Allan nodded without argument, taking a path that passed through the woods.
“Guy? What will happen to the people of Clun? What intent does the sheriff have?” Djaq asked, holding on to Gisborne with a shiver. Guy stroked her hair, trying to reassure her.
“I don’t know. Nothing good, I fear. But now don’t think about it, you'll soon have your child in your arms, focus on that.”
The girl gave him an amazed look. She hadn’t seen Gisborne for some time, and it seemed to her that there was something different about him, a softer side that he wouldn’t have shown so openly before.
“How are you?” She asked him, trying not to think about her fear. “I'm sorry for what happened because of my medicine. Marian thought she had poisoned you, she was terrified. Did you have any other consequences?”
“The only damage I have suffered was the one to my dignity, don’t worry.”
“What happened to your leg?”
“How did you notice it?”
“When you carried me to the wagon, I saw that you tended to put your weight on one side, are you injured?”
“Nothing serious, it’s almost healed by now.”
"You should better let me take a look at it once we are at Knighton.” Djaq said, then she stopped, clinging to Guy's arm to let another pang of pain pass.
Gisborne looked at her with an amused smile.
“Before thinking of my scratch, let's wait for this child to be born safely, what do you say?”
Djaq gave him a shaky smile, then she took his hand.
“I'm scared, Guy.”
Gisborne squeezed it.
Chapter 27: Hold My Hand
The guards were snoozing, leaning against the wall on either side of the manor's gate, and they didn’t notice the hooded figure who was gliding from shadow to shadow.
If their lord had been present, the two men wouldn’t have ventured to drink during their watch shift, but Sir Thornton had left early that morning and the soldiers took advantage of his absence.
Stunned by alcohol, they didn’t even notice the unusual rustling coming from the fronds of the tree growing inside the courtyard, next to the wall, nor the dull thud coming from the outside.
Isabella bit her lip to avoid letting out a moan of pain. When she had fallen from the branch of the tree, a sharp pang had crossed her ankle, but she had to try to ignore the pain and move away as far as possible from the manor. After all, a distortion could not do more harm than what her husband did regularly to her.
Even that night, before the sun came up, Thornton had beaten her, punishing her for something she had no guilt at. At dawn he had left, leaving her to contort with pain on the floor and it was then that Isabella had decided she would run away.
She no longer cared about breaking the marriage vows, she no longer feared that Thornton would find her again and kill her: living with him was both a hell and a slow death, day after day.
She had dragged herself onto the bed and tried to sleep, hoping the pain would go away, then, at sunset, she had hidden her most precious jewels on her, she had covered herself with a large cloak with a hood that could hide both her dress and her face and, as soon as it got dark, she had slipped out of the building, hoping the guards were too careless to notice her.
She had to get as far as possible from Shrewsbury and try to reach Nottingham without being captured. Once there, maybe her brother would protect her and prevent her husband from bringing her back.
Or he will betray me again, abandoning me to my fate...
She shivered. She had to hope that Guy had changed, that the message he had given to Robin Hood was sincere. Only, she couldn’t wait until they came to save her: Thornton became every day worse and more violent and Isabella was sure that sooner or later he would kill her.
She limped along the road, trying to keep herself in the shadows and she knew she would have to steal a horse, or she would have no hope. There was a tavern ahead, and she could certainly find what she was looking for in the barn, provided she was able to commit theft without being discovered.
Suddenly someone held her mouth with one hand and dragged her into an alleyway before she could even think of making the slightest resistance. She tried to struggle, terrified.
“Keep calm, it's me,” the voice of a man said, and Isabella tried to see his face in the dim light of the alley. “I'm Robin Hood.”
The woman stopped fighting, recognizing his name and his voice and Robin loosened his grip, but didn’t let her go completely.
“You scared me!”
“What are you doing here?” Robin whispered. “Going around at night alone is dangerous. I could have been a criminal.”
“Why, are not you?”
“Only according to some.”
“There's a reward on your head and I suppose soon there will be one on mine too.”
“Have you fled?” Robin asked, worried. “They will certainly look for you. It would have been more prudent to wait, Guy and I would have found a way to free you without putting you in danger.”
Isabella let out a sob.
“I'm already in danger. Take me away with you, please.”
Robin stared at her for a moment, then he nodded.
“Come with me and be careful not to show your face.”
He moved away from her and took her by the hand, guiding her through the alleys to the hovel where he, Much and Meg had found lodging when they arrived in Shrewsbury.
Isabella was amazed at how hot a man's hand holding hers tightly could be.
The last person to touch her that way had been his brother, many years ago, when they wandered together in the streets of a small French village, lost in a too cold winter. Then Guy's hand was able to give her a little warmth, to warm her fingers, a little stiffened by the cold. Once in a while, when it wasn’t enough, his brother stopped to blow on their intertwined fingers and he tried to smile at her.
Let's walk a little further, Isabella, later we will find a shelter.
Guy had protected her for three years, or at least he had tried, this Isabella had to admit, until the day when the promised shelter had taken on the appearance of her husband and his wealth.
And that day her brother had let her go, he had stopped holding her hand.
“You're crying.” Robin said, in a gentle tone, and Isabella was about to deny, when she realized that her face was streaked with tears. One sob escaped and another followed a moment later.
Robin stopped and put a hand on her shoulder, trying to comfort her, but Isabella burst into uncontrollable crying and she leaned against the outlaw, hiding her face against his chest.
Robin hugged her, letting her vent. He recalled a distant moment when he had seen Guy breaking down in a similar way when they found the body of a man, hanged in the same clearing where Gisborne himself had been tortured by Roger of Barret. Isabella's desperate sobs reminded him of those who had shaken his brother when the pain and fear had become too strong to be controlled.
He wondered how much suffering this woman had to withstand and how much cruelty must have been inflicted on her by her husband.
He held her tight without saying anything, waiting for her to calm down. After a while the sobs subsided and Isabella remained leaning on him for a few more seconds, too exhausted to interrupt that contact.
“I'm sorry.” She whispered, finally pulling away from him. “I usually never cry...”
Robin smiled at her.
“To vent a little is good, every now and then. Are you a little better now?”
Isabella nodded and Robin returned to hold her hand.
“Then let's go, soon they will realize that you have escaped.”
Guy held his breath as he felt Djaq's nails sinking into his skin for the umpteenth time, digging more scratches on the back of his hand. The girl screamed in pain, while Guy held his breath to not draw Djaq's attention on the scratches she had caused.
It had been hours since he had taken her to Knighton Hall, and Allan and Will had not yet returned with the midwife.
Now the labor pains had become stronger and more frequent and Djaq was terrified.
Guy was no less scared and he wished he could do something to help her, but he had no idea how he could be useful.
He had sent Mary, Jack and their father to look for another midwife, while Alice, the mother of the two children, had stayed to help Djaq.
She wasn’t a midwife, but she had two children and then she had attended the childbirth of her sisters, so she knew what was best done.
Alice had glanced at Sir Guy and she thought it would be best to keep him waiting outside the room, but when she tried to pull him away, the woman in labor had seemed so desperate and scared that Alice had been forced to call him back.
She had dragged a chair by Djaq's bed and she had told Gisborne to sit there, smiling to herself. The black knight was so pale that Alice was sure that if he remained standing, sooner or later he would end up fainting.
The Saracen girl had taken his hand and held on to him in despair, gripping his hand tightly with each new pang of pain.
Alice boiled a pot of water on the fireplace, occasionally glancing at the girl and Gisborne, curiously, wondering if he was the father of the child.
“Guy?” Djaq called him with a sob and Gisborne looked at her, worried. “Where's Will? Why hasn’t he arrived yet?”
“Allan went to look for him, he will be here soon.”
“Did something happen to him? You know it and you don’t want to tell me!”
Guy shook his head and looked into her eyes.
“I wouldn’t lie to you, you know. I don’t know where he is, but I'm sure he will come.”
Djaq nodded, then she screamed again in pain.
Shortly thereafter, as if to confirm Guy's words, a loud bang announced that the entrance door of Knighton Hall had suddenly been slammed opened, and hurried steps rushed up the stairs.
“Will!” Djaq shouted, seeing the young man who had just entered the room, agitated and breathless.
Guy smiled, pulled Djaq's fingers away from his hand and got out of his chair to give Will his place, then he walked past the midwife who had arrived more quietly, and he ran downstairs and out of the house.
Marian dismounted and tied the horse in front of the house. Later she would take care of him, but for the moment she was worried about both Djaq and Guy.
Allan had warned her of what had happened in Clun and she had asked him to go back to try to find out what the sheriff's intentions were, then she'd got on horseback and had galloped for Knighton Hall.
As she approached the house she heard a harrowing cry from Djaq and she shuddered. One day it would be her turn to give birth to a child and, hearing Djaq's screams, she wasn’t so sure she would be strong enough to endure the pain.
She hesitated, without finding the courage to enter, then she noticed a dark shape crouched at the foot of the apple tree.
Guy was sitting on the ground with his back resting on the trunk and holding his knees with his arms, hiding his face.
Marian approached him and Gisborne raised his face to look at her.
“Are you alright, Guy?” Marian asked, worried to see him so pale, and she sat down on the ground next to him.
“I... I didn’t think it could hurt so much... When Isabella was born I was too young to realize it...”
Marian nodded. Apparently, Djaq's screams had the same effect on Guy as they had on her. She started to take his hand so they could take courage from each other, and she jumped into finding it streaked with blood.
“Guy! What happened to you?”
Gisborne looked at his hand in amazement.
“I had not noticed. While we waited for Will to arrive, Djaq grabbed my hand to bear the pain, she must have used her fingernails.”
“Didn’t it hurt you?”
“I didn’t think it would bleed so much.”
The girl brushed his hand with a kiss, being careful not to touch the scratches.
“Come into the house, it's better to clean it.”
Guy followed her into the manor and he sat down at the kitchen table while Marian dabbed at his wound with a wet handkerchief. He looked at her as she smeared a medicinal ointment on the scratches and he found himself thinking about his childhood. His mother, Ghislaine, used to treat with the same care and affection the small wounds and the scratches that he and Isabella got from playing, while Adeline kissed the wound to make the pain go away faster.
Marian did both and Guy smiled at her, moved.
“You will be a wonderful mother.” He whispered and Marian hugged him, excited to think that one day they would have children together.
Guy held her close and closed his eyes, resting his head on her shoulder. Marian did the same and they embraced, sharing that strange emotion that made them want to cry and smile at the same time.
From upstairs, a baby's cry broke the silence, followed immediately by another identical sound.
Guy and Marian looked at each other in disbelief, without breaking their embrace.
“They are twins!” They said simultaneously, then they burst out laughing and hugged tighter.
Chapter 28: Out of the Cage
Marian smiled, taking one of the children in her arms to make him fall asleep, while Djaq rocked the other one.
“It was really a surprise, I didn’t expect they could be twins.” Marian said.
Djaq smiled at her.
“I had thought about it, but I didn’t dare to hope for it.” She sighed, looking at her children. “I had a twin, once. I hope they will never have to endure my own pain.”
“They'll be happy, you'll see.”
Djaq thought that only Allah could know, but she didn’t contradict Marian, understanding that the girl just wanted to wish a good future for her children.
“They are a boy and a girl, just like me and Djaq.”
Marian gave her a curious look and the other girl smiled.
“My real name is Saffiya, I use the name of my brother in memory of him. Guy never told you?”
“Did he know that?”
Djaq noticed the flash of jealousy in Marian's eyes.
“When he was a prisoner in Robin's camp, we got to talk a little bit. At that time he thought he had lost everything and he hadn’t much hope for the future. I'm glad that now things have changed, you deserve to be happy together.”
Marian returned the sleeping baby to Djaq.
“Now I’ll let you rest.”
Djaq gave her a worried look.
“Is Allan back? What happened to Clun?”
Marian shook her head, nothing was known yet.
The girl came out of Djaq's room, went down the stairs and saw that Guy was snoozing, lying on a bench that was usually lined up against the wall and that he had moved near the fireplace.
Will couldn’t be seen, but he returned shortly after, bringing a cradle, followed by Mary and Jack.
“I had built a more beautiful one,” he said. “but now I can’t risk going back home to get it.”
“That was our crib!” Mary said, proudly.
“Alice was kind enough to lend it to us.” Will confirmed.
"I'll tell Thornton to see if Robin's one is still in Locksley, you'll need two of them.”
“So it's true that they're twins? Can we see them?” Jack asked, curious to find out if the twins really looked identical to each other like they had heard.
Marian smiled at the two children.
“Later, let them be with their parents. They are just born, they must learn to know each other.”
Jack gave a short sigh of disappointment, then he decided he would do better to take care of the horses and to make sure they had food and water.
The boy left the house, while Mary approached Guy and watched him sleep, then she glanced at Marian and smiled at her.
“When you get married will you have a baby too?”
Marian blushed. If all went well, sooner or later it would happen, and she would carry Guy's son.
That idea frightened her to death, but it was also unbelievably beautiful to think that their love would give birth to a child, and that she could hold in her arms a completely new person, but who would have a part of both of them.
“I hope so.” She said, smiling, and at that moment Guy opened his eyes and sat up.
“What do you hope?” He asked, rubbing his eyes, still sleepy.
“Lady Marian can’t wait to have a baby with you, Sir Guy!” Mary exclaimed cheerfully, then she went out to join her brother in the stables.
Guy gave Marian a puzzled look and the girl flushed, embarrassed.
“That's not what I said!” She stammered and Guy looked at her in amusement.
“I know.” Guy said, smiling. He had been tempted to tease her a little longer, but he forced himself to behave. “I was awake, I heard what you said.”
“So why did you ask?” Marian asked, indignant. “Did you just want to make fun of me?”
“Yes.” Guy admitted, candidly, and the girl was tempted to throw at him the first object she could find, but she changed her mind and touched his lips with a quick kiss.
“You wouldn’t deserve it, Guy of Gisborne.”
Guy pulled her closer, making her sit on his knees and kissed her again.
“I know, and this is to thank you for your generosity.”
“It’s not enough. I believe you should thank me again.”
Guy obeyed and he looked back at her with amusement.
“I'm afraid it's not enough yet, what do you think?”
The girl giggled.
“I'm afraid of it too.”
Gisborne was about to thank her again when the door opened and Allan entered the house. Guy and Marian got up and went to meet him.
“So? What happens in Clun?”
Allan shook his head, desolate.
“The sheriff has driven all the inhabitants out of the village, using the excuse that they haven’t paid all their taxes, and the whole village has been occupied by a company of soldiers.”
“It's not the first time he tries to do something like that!” Marian said, furious.
Guy nodded. A few years before the sheriff had intended to let the inhabitants of Clun die of hunger and then use the village as he pleased. He hadn’t done so thanks to Marian's opposition, but he had made sure to punish the girl by cutting her hair in public. Guy still shuddered with rage at the thought of that day and he remembered that he had been forced to attend the humiliation of Marian without being able to do anything to stop it.
Allan nodded, pointing at the door.
“When I arrived, the soldiers had already started to occupy the houses, but I still managed to get into the hut of Djaq and Will. I loaded on the cart everything I could take.”
“Excellent work, they will be happy.” Guy approved. “Take two men and unload everything in one of the empty rooms.”
“I wonder why Robin allowed it.” Marian said, thoughtfully. “He’s usually the first one to oppose these things, why didn’t he intervene this time?”
“Perhaps he understood that he could do nothing against all those armed men.” Allan replied.
“What will all those people do now that they have lost their homes?” Marian asked, afflicted.
“Some went to live with their relatives in other villages, the others hid in the forest.”
“It's not right! We should do something!” The girl exclaimed.
“Forget about it.” Allan said, even before Guy could protest. “You haven’t seen how many soldiers there are, if we tried to oppose the sheriff, we would only end up in the dungeons or hanging on the gallows.”
“If the inhabitants of Clun who are left homeless should choose to move to Knighton, I will try to do everything possible to help them start a new life, but we can’t do much else,” Guy said, taking Marian’s hand and holding it tight to comfort her. “But I wonder why the sheriff needs to set up an army in Clun...”
“They didn’t have Nottingham uniforms, those soldiers wore different colors.”
"I suppose we'll find out about Vaisey's intentions all too soon.” Guy said, then he looked out the window, watching the sky that was beginning to become pink at sunset, and he turned to Marian. "Your father will be worried about you, let me take you back to Locksley.”
The girl looked at him.
“Do you want to escort me because I'm a woman? By now you should know that I am not a helpless girl.”
“No, I want to come with you because you're my woman and I love being by your side.”
And also because later the Nightwatchman will visit Clun and I want to make sure you are safe in Locksley. Guy thought, but he didn’t say so.
“What would have you done if I hadn’t met you?” Robin asked, leaning against the door with his back.
“I would have stolen a horse and tried to reach my brother.” Isabella's voice came a bit muffled, but clear from the inside of the room.
“They would have found you right away.”
“You mustn’t underestimate me, I have more resources than you think.”
"Then you and Guy have more in common than you like to believe.”
The door opened and Robin turned to look at the two women who had left the room: Meg was wearing Isabella's elegant dress while the latter wore the practical outlaw clothes of the younger girl.
Robin looked at Isabella's legs, highlighted by Meg's breeches. The girl was thinner than Isabella and the clothes that were rather loose on her were too revealing on the other woman.
“If I keep my hair covered with the cloak, they will never notice that I am not the woman they are chasing.” Meg said, with a satisfied expression.
Isabella looked at her, worried.
“If they were to capture you, you will be in danger...”
“In that case I will say that I have exchanged my old clothes with yours, they would have no reason to restrain me. And then both Much and I are able to defend ourselves, they won’t take us so easily.”
Robin had some doubts about it, Thornton's men would not believe in an innocent misunderstanding, but to say so would have been useless. He helped Isabella to climb one of the horses and mounted his own, then Much and Meg took the other two animals and left the stable, while Robin and Isabella waited a few minutes before taking the opposite direction.
They rode in silence for quite a while even after leaving the city walls behind them, then Isabella pulled back a lock of wet hair from her face with a sigh.
“It's raining so hard, now...”
“Better. If they try to use the dogs, the rain will wash the smells away.”
The woman wrapped herself in her cloak, shivering. At that moment she missed her fur-lined clothes, but despite the cold she felt a warm spark of hope in her heart.
She was running away from that demon who was her husband and apparently this time her brother wouldn’t abandon her. Could she believe it? Could she really hope to escape from hell?
She glanced at the man who rode next to her and wondered if Robin Hood was really as skilled as people said. He was a nobleman who had the courage, or folly, according to some, to rebel against the sheriff's abuse, giving up everything he had just got back after many years of war.
But she had never had the courage or the chance to fight her husband until now, and even now she was terrified of what she had done by running away. She could no longer live with Thornton, but she had never been free and the endless possibilities in front of her scared her to death.
Robin looked at her and she straightened herself upright in the saddle: she wouldn’t show him her terror, in all those years pride had been one of the few things that had supported her, allowing her to go on.
"I never thought you and my brother could ally, I confess.”
“The same is true for me, but now I think I have learned that when it comes to Gisborne I shouldn’t be surprised by anything.”
Isabella stared at him, amazed.
“The Guy I remember was too predictable. He was always so deadly serious and gloomy. Even before... Even when things were still going well...”
“Well, I think you'll get to know each other again.”
“Maybe.” Isabella said. She needed the protection of her brother, but she didn’t know if she would ever trust him again.
Robin watched her for a long moment, then pointed at a half-ruined house half hidden in the trees.
“For tonight we can’t go any further, horses need rest and we need it too. Come, in there we will be sheltered from the rain.”
Chapter 29: Nightwatchmen
Guy crawled to the window of the warehouse of Clun’s tavern to look out: the street was empty and no one had noticed the wagon tied there.
He leaned forward a little to let the sack he had filled with food fall on the the wagon, then he began to fill another one, this time choosing any object that could have some value. He had already been there with Robin some time before, when they had freed the villagers imprisoned by the sheriff and sentenced to be sent to the mines, but now the Nightwatchman had to act alone in a much more dangerous situation. Clun had been occupied by those mysterious soldiers and Guy had no doubt that if they should see him, they wouldn’t hesitate to kill.
He dropped the second bag onto the wagon, then he climbed over the window sill and clung to it with his hands, letting himself dangle in the void before letting go. The impact with the ground caused him a twinge of pain in his injured leg, but Guy didn’t stop to catch his breath. He took the horse by the bridle and moved the wagon, taking it to the edges of the village and hiding it in the bushes.
He ran back to the houses of the village, this time with the intent of taking away the most precious objects left behind by the inhabitants, before the soldiers could take possession of them.
Guy could do nothing to return the houses to those who had lost them, but at least he could try to recover some of the things they had been forced to leave behind.
He entered a house through the window, taking care not to wake the drunken soldiers who slept in the hall and he began to explore the rooms, putting coins, jewels and silverware into the sack.
Gisborne went from one house to another, returning from time to time to the wagon to empty the bag, without allowing himself a moment of rest. The wound ached after such a prolonged effort, but it did not hinder him in his movements, so Guy simply ignored it and endured the pain.
When he saw that the sky was beginning to brighten, he decided it was time to fill his bag for the last time and then move away from Clun. He took the sack, adjusted his mask and returned to the village.
Marian held her breath at the sound of approaching footsteps and she wondered with concern whether it was a patrol of the soldiers who had occupied the village.
The girl tied the piece of cloth she had made into a mask to her face, and she prepared to defend herself, holding in her hand the curved dagger that once she used to keep hidden in her hair when it was longer.
She listened for a moment and she realized that anyone who was wandering around the houses had to be alone. Perhaps, she thought, she had some hope.
If that man should approach further, he would surely see her: Marian didn’t have time to find a hiding place and she had just tried to hide in the shadow cast by the wall of a house. Perhaps she could catch him by surprise and neutralize him before he could give the alarm.
She swallowed nervously: the thought of having to be forced to kill a man made her sick, but if she couldn’t stun him with a single blow, she would have to do it.
When she had snuck out of Locksley to reach Clun as the Nightwatchman, she had not imagined that the situation could be so dangerous. Her intention had been to see the situation with her own eyes and perhaps recover something from the village houses, but she had not imagined to find so many soldiers.
Fortunately, the men seemed to have ransacked the tavern's wine supplies and most of them slept soundly in the houses they had occupied.
Marian tightened her grip on the knife: by now the steps were getting closer and closer, she would have to act quickly.
Guy instinctively felt the hiss of the blade heading for his throat: he grabbed the arm that held the knife and tugged it, slamming it hard against the outer wall of the house to force the attacker to drop the blade, then he hit the assailant violently with a backhand, throwing him to the ground.
Guy unsheathed his own dagger and jumped forward, crushing his opponent with his weight, but he stopped a moment before hitting him and mentally cursed in recognizing Marian, also dressed as the Nightwatchman.
What was she doing there? He had personally taken her to Locksley just to make sure she arrived home, but he should have expected such an initiative from her.
The girl, seeing him hesitate, tried to hit him with a kick, but Guy just blocked her legs with his own.
Marian tried to wriggle away unsuccessfully, and Guy wondered what he should do. They couldn’t stay there, lying in the middle of the road, or they would surely be discovered, but if he let her go, Marian would try to attack him again.
A shout down the road took away any doubt: Guy stood up abruptly and with one hand he picked up the bag he had dropped, while with the other one he grabbed the girl's wrist and pulled her to her feet, then he began to run, dragging her with him.
Marian stumbled, risking a fall, then she recovered and struggled to keep up with the fake Nightwatchman.
She didn’t want to follow him, but she had no choice: the grip that the man had on her wrist was firm and she knew she wouldn’t be able to free herself in any way. In any case she didn’t have many hopes of running away on her own: a group of soldiers was chasing them and if the impostor hadn’t pulled her by the arm, she wouldn’t have been able to escape the capture.
She gasped, trying to catch her breath and she closed her eyes for a moment to chase away the dark spots that danced before her eyes. She couldn’t breathe well and soon her legs would give way.
At that moment she moved them only thanks to an effort of will, but she couldn’t keep running much longer, not at the pace dictated by the long legs of the false Nightwatchman.
I'll fall, I'll drag him with me and we'll both die...
As if he could read that thought in her mind, the man lifted her in his arms without stopping running, taking her on his shoulders in the same way he would carry a bag of flour.
Shortly afterwards, the impostor threw her on the floor of the wagon with the sack of stolen goods and climbed on the vehicle, grabbing the reins and snapping them to start the horse at a gallop.
Marian remained on her back for a few seconds, breathing hard, then she pulled herself up and she grabbed the side of the wagon to look around: the soldiers were behind on the road, but they were mounting the horses and they would soon reach them.
Marian glanced at the fake Nightwatchman: the man urged the horse, shaking a whip to make him gallop faster, but he never hit the animal, relying only on the sound of the whip in the air to make him accelerate.
She wondered what would happen now: to come to Clun had been very stupid of her and if she were captured she would endanger all of her loved ones, but once again she had been carried away by emotion and she had acted without thinking.
By now I should have learned the lesson...
“What do we do? They are getting closer...” She asked, without worrying too much that the other could recognize her. After all, the man had already heard her voice on other occasions and he had done nothing to expose her.
But he had never uttered a syllable when their paths had crossed and Marian found herself wondering what kind of voice he could have.
She blushed as she remembered the time when she had kissed him, driven by her jealousy of Guy, and she hated herself for that inappropriate thought. She loved Guy, the stranger shouldn’t have the power to stir her that way, yet her heart didn’t hammer like that just for the run and she couldn’t deny it.
Maybe people are right to call me a slut...
The false Nightwatchman beckoned her to take the reins and the girl obeyed, occasionally glancing at him to see what his intentions were.
The man was standing on the platform of the wagon and was holding the bow, nocking an arrow and pointing it towards the pursuers.
He let it fly and with a fluid movement he pulled the bow again and then again, without hesitation.
For a moment Marian was certain that Robin was hiding under that costume, she had never known anyone else able to use the bow like that, then she remembered that it was the Nightwatchman who saved Robin Hood from being hanged and the girl returned to wonder who that man could be.
She turned back in time to see that the arrows shot by the impostor had hit their targets, making the soldiers who were chasing them fall from their horses. She saw the men getting up from the ground, but, by now, they would no longer be able to reach them.
Marian burst into a laugh of joy.
“Good job!” She said impulsively, before remembering that this man was an usurper who had stolen her secret identity.
The man bowed slightly as if to thank her and a moment later he jumped out of the wagon, disappearing into the bushes.
Marian shook her head in disbelief: the fake Nightwatchman had left her the wagon loaded with all the objects and the food he had taken away from Clun.
She looked at the many sacks that cluttered the vehicle and she guessed that the man must have risked a lot to get so much stuff. Possible that he trusted her so much to entrust it to her?
The girl gave up understanding him, and she headed the wagon towards Sherwood Forest: she had to hurry back to Locksley before they noticed her absence, but the outlaws would distribute the food and the items to those who needed them most.
Guy crawled out of the thorny bush where he had landed when he had jumped from the running wagon and he told himself that this had been a rather scenic exit, but a very, very stupid one.
He rolled on his back with a sigh of weariness and he stood still for a while to regain his strength.
He was exhausted and the wound in his leg throbbed painfully, but he was pleased with himself: he had completed that mission alone and he had even managed to save Marian, pulling both of them out of trouble.
He recalled the compliment the girl had exclaimed, not sure whether he was happy or not of it: to hear that she was proud of him was a good feeling, but he wanted Marian to be proud of Guy of Gisborne and not of the Nightwatchman.
With a sigh he forced himself to get up from the ground: he was exhausted, but to get back to Knighton the way was long and he had just left wagon and horse to Marian.
Chapter 30: Quench My Thirst
Allan hid his head under the pillow, trying to muffle the crying of the newborns, without success.
With a sigh, he gave up trying to sleep and got out of bed.
He went downstairs, to the kitchen, to look for something to eat and he was about to bite a piece of bread when he realized that someone was trying to get into the house from one of the back windows. He took a poker from the fireplace and he prepared to attack the intruder, but the other reacted and pressed him against the wall, twisting an arm behind his back and pressing a hand over his mouth to stop him from screaming.
“Allan, it's me!”
Guy let him go and Allan turned to look at him, rubbing his arm.
“Where have you been? And what happened to you?”
Gisborne limped to the chair by the fireplace and he sat down with a sigh.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“In two we would have attracted too much attention.”
“And going alone it went well, I see.” Allan said ironically.
"It went well until Marian put a knife to my throat.”
“Apparently she had my same idea.”
Allan sat down on the other chair.
“I wonder why it doesn’t surprise me. And did she do this to you?”
“You are sore, full of scratches and exhausted. You don’t look well, Giz, really.”
Guy smiled, amused.
“You don’t look well either, to tell the truth.”
Allan looked at the ceiling, and they listened to Djaq and Will’s children wailing.
“Do you think anyone could sleep with this unbearable sound?” He asked, but Guy didn’t answer him. “Giz?”
Allan stared at his friend in disbelief: Gisborne had closed his eyes and had fallen asleep deeply.
“Lucky him, who can sleep.”
Isabella looked for a dry spot inside that dilapidated house and she found with relief that dry and fairly clean straw had been amassed in a corner. Probably that shelter was used occasionally by shepherds and travelers who had created a comfortable corner to rest.
The straw would warm them up and allow her and Robin to sleep on a mattress softer than the ground.
She untied her sodden wool cloak and she hanged it on a rope stretched between two opposite walls.
Perhaps in spring and summer the peasants used it to hang the herbs to be dried.
Robin took the water flask out of one of the saddlebags and he looked at it, worried.
“I didn’t have time to fill it before leaving, I'm sorry.”
Isabella looked at the sky from one of the windows of the hut.
“We should have thought about it earlier, when it rained so much.
“It didn’t really occur to me, I’ve been a fool.” Robin admitted, reproaching himself for that mistake.
“Tomorrow we will find a well or a stream.” Isabella said, then she rummaged in one of the bags that she had hidden on herself and she handed Robin a pendant tied to a chain. “For now, take this.”
The outlaw looked at the stone pendant, perplexed.
Isabella had chosen one too, and she dangled it between her fingers, holding it by the chain, then she brought it close to her lips.
“If you are very thirsty, put the stone in your mouth, it will make it water.”
Robin looked at her, surprised and amused.
“And how do you know that?”
The woman shook her head sadly.
“Guy taught it to me when we were in France. Sometimes we could not get even some water...”
Robin approached her and he sat next to her on the straw, watching her. Isabella had changed and she no longer looked like the shy, quiet child he remembered from his childhood. The one in front of her was a woman hardened by suffering, but who in all those years had not lost her courage, though she probably didn’t realize it. Perhaps she believed she was a victim, but Robin felt that Isabella was a fighter instead.
He saw her tremble with cold and he instinctively put an arm around her shoulders to warm her.
Isabella jumped at the unexpected contact and she turned to look at him, frightened. Robin guessed that for her to be touched usually meant violence and pain and he thought it wasn’t right.
He smiled at her, reassuring.
“Everything is alright,” he whispered. “Nobody will harm you anymore.”
Isabella stared at him hesitantly, then she answered to his smile. In Robin Hood's eyes there was no malice or cruelty, but only comfort, encouragement, and something else she couldn’t define, but that didn’t frighten her.
Robin stroked her cheek to wipe away the tears that Isabella had not even realized she had shed and that slow and kind gesture made her heart beat faster.
When Robin started to pull his fingers away, Isabella put a hand on his to stop him. She didn’t know why, but she did not want that contact to stop, that kind touch was good for the heart like water for a thirsty person.
“Why are you crying?” Robin asked, seeing new tears appearing in the woman's eyes.
“I don’t know.” Isabella whispered. And it was true. She didn’t feel sad or frightened, just swollen with an emotion that she could neither understand nor control.
Hesitantly, she raised a hand to imitate Robin's gesture to touch his face and slid her fingers down his cheek and down the jawline, smiling as she felt the short beard of the outlaw tickling her.
Robin moved closer and touched Isabella's lips with his, gently.
The woman stiffened for a moment, thinking of her husband's violent kisses, more like bites and that often left her with swollen and bleeding lips, but she relaxed immediately.
This was different: tender kisses, kind and given with the intent to give pleasure and not pain. They were warm and comforting and they made her feel good. When their lips parted, Isabella joined them again.
Marian blushed to see the sign of a bruise on her cheekbone and she wondered how she would explain it. It had been the slap of the fake Nightwatchman to leave it on her face, but she could not blame him for having hit her, since she had tried to slit his throat.
On the contrary, she had to admit that probably the man had saved her life, dragging her with him when they ran away. If he had not wasted his time with her, he would have probably managed to escape without the slightest difficulty, but instead he had risked being captured too, just to help her.
She sighed, irritated. She didn’t like the idea of owing him her life, it would have been much easier to hate him for stealing her identity.
She didn’t want to feel admiration for him, she felt unfaithful to Guy whenever the Nightwatchman behaved in a way or showed qualities that she would like to see in her future husband.
She could not forget that when Robin was captured, Guy had to bow to the sheriff's wishes and he had whipped Robin, while the Nightwatchman had risked his life to free him.
She would have liked to find out that the fake Nightwatchman was actually Guy, and at first she had hoped he could be him, but Robin's rescue had dissolved that secret fantasy.
Both Robin and Gisborne were in the castle courtyard when the Nightwatchman intervened, so the masked man couldn’t be either of them. Indeed, Guy had come out of it rather battered and humiliated.
Marian felt guilty for those thoughts. Guy had been heroic when he had saved her and fought Barret and he was now doing his best to make her proud of him.
And she was, really, even if sometimes she forgot it.
He tried to comb her hair to hide both the bruise and the scar on her cheekbone and she consoled herself, thinking that at least the poor inhabitants of Clun would get back some of their belongings.
Little John had been very happy to receive the cart loaded with food and objects, although at first he was a little surprised to see her wear the Nightwatchman costume again.
She wondered where Robin and Much were, for a while she hadn’t heard of any of their deeds, unlike the Nightwatchman who seemed to be more active than usual.
She had tried to ask Little John, but the big man had just taken the reins of the wagon and advised her to hurry back to Locksley.
Marian gave up trying to fix her hair and she looked at the strip of fabric with the eye holes she had used to hide her face. She would have to get a real mask, she thought, completely forgetting that she had promised to give up the Nightwatchman.
Chapter 31: Never Loved Before
Robin stared at the battered ceiling of the ruined cottage, breathing slowly. A part of it had collapsed who knew how long ago and from the hole he could see the stars, even brighter after that gray rainy day.
At his side, Isabella moved in her sleep, snuggling closer to him, bare skin against bare skin.
Shortly before, Robin thought, she too had shone like a star in his arms and she had been the first to be surprised.
She had never believed, she had whispered as she were falling asleep, that being with a man could be so beautiful and Robin's heart broke to hear those words.
He held her close to him, eager to protect her, and Isabella had rested her face on his chest, trustful, surrendering to sleep with a sigh.
That, Robin thought, was definitely an unexpected turning point in his rescue mission and he had been caught completely by surprise, and yet he could not regret it.
Once, long ago, when they were still enemies, Guy had provoked him by telling him that Marian was stirred by him. Robin had reacted violently, punching him, but he had never thought too much about the meaning of those words.
Yet that was how he felt now with Isabella.
It was as if inside him there was some invisible force that attracted him to her, stirring feelings long forgotten.
With Marian it had been like this at the beginning, when he had started seeing her as a young woman and no longer as a child.
Once, he remembered, he had followed her all day in secret, watching her as she accompanied Sir Edward to the Nottingham market, only to be able to catch a glimpse of her blue eyes and rejoicing like a fool when she finally got aware of his presence and had smiled, amused.
That emotion had been lost somewhere between his departure and his return from the Holy Land.
When he had met her again after so many years, he had thought he still loved her, and for her it had been the same, but the enthralling attraction of the past was nothing but a distant memory.
In the end Gisborne's words weren’t wrong, Robin had seen Marian's eyes change expression when she looked at Guy, as if an inner light came to enlighten her gaze.
The first time he had noticed that light, Robin realized he had lost her forever.
What he never expected was to feel that emotion again for Isabella.
He had not meant to kiss her when he had touched her face to wipe away her tears and, until it had happened, he wouldn’t have imagined that making love to her would be so special.
He turned on his side to watch her sleep in the dim light of the fire they had lit to get warm. He looked at her hair, dark like ink, that stood out against a white, stain-free skin and he thought that the woman was made of contrasts. She was a grown woman, she was two years older than he was, and she had suffered more than most people did in a lifetime, yet at times she seemed as innocent as the child he remembered from the past.
She had been married for over seventeen years and yet only that night she had discovered pleasure, inexperienced and surprised like a new bride.
Isabella stirred in her sleep, disturbed by some nightmares and Robin touched her forehead with a kiss to calm her.
She opened her eyes to look at him, frightened.
“Don’t let them to take me again. Please don’t allow it,” she whispered, taking refuge against his chest, trustful, and Robin hugged her.
They kissed again, with a passion that surprised them both, then the outlaw burst into laughter.
“I think Guy will kill me for this.”
“If my brother has something to say, too bad for him, he should have remembered having a sister many years ago,” Isabella said in a harsh tone, then she smiled a little mischievously. “And then I can always threaten him to tell everyone that he has wet the bed until he was twelve.”
Robin laughed again and he was tempted to kiss her again, but the brightening sky reminded him that they would have to get back on their way.
He got up from the straw bed and the cold morning air made him shiver, pushing him to quickly retrieve his clothes. He smiled to himself and he thought that during the night he had not been cold at all.
Alice knocked on the door and got no answer, then she turned the handle and opened it, entering the room. She went straight to the window to open the shutters, letting the sunlight enter the room.
“Sir Guy?” She called, turning to the figure wrapped in the blanket. “It's late, my lord.”
Gisborne turned into the bed with an annoyed moan.
“Let me sleep, Alice.”
“So do I have to tell Lady Marian to come back another day?”
Guy sat up quickly.
“She arrived a little while ago.”
Gisborne tossed the blanket aside.
“Tell her I'll be there right away.”
The woman hid an amused smile behind her hand.
“Yes, my lord.”
Guy waited for her to get out and he took off the black shirt he had been wearing in bed. Last night he had fallen asleep in the chair before the fireplace in the hall, and sometime in the night he had dragged himself upstairs, but he didn’t remember having done it. Certainly he hadn’t wasted time to undress: he had only removed his boots and his scabbard before collapsing on the bed.
He approached the basin and sprayed a little water on his face to wake up completely, wincing with pain when he touched the scratches caused by the thorns. He hoped the scratches weren’t too noticeable and he went to the mirror to check: the situation was better than he had thought, but Marian would notice them for sure.
He had to think of an explanation, he thought, as he hurried to get dressed.
When he went downstairs he found Marian standing by the fireplace. The girl stared at the flames, pensive, and she raised her face to Guy, smiling at him.
Guy approached her, worried too see the bruise marking her cheekbone.
“What happened to you? Did someone hurt you?”
The girl looked down, a little embarrassed and she shook her head, smiling.
"It's nothing, I just stumbled and slammed against the door.”
Gisborne realized that it was a lie and he was horrified to realize that it must have been him to leave her that bruise when he had hit her, but he forced himself to remain impassive, he couldn’t apologize to her without revealing that he was the Nightwatchman.
“I'm sorry... Does it hurt much?”
Marian gave him a surprised look, realizing that he was upset and she felt guilty again. Guy always worried about her so much and she had just lied to him again.
She touched his cheek with a kiss.
“Not at all, the only one to suffer is my vanity.” She put a finger next to one of the scratches on his face. “And these? How did you get them?”
“I didn’t notice a thorny branch as I rode, last night.” Guy said, without looking at her.
“We’ve been both careless.”
We are both liars. Guy thought.
“Sorry if I made you wait,” he said instead.
“Alice told me you were sleeping, I'm sorry I woke you up.”
Gisborne shook his head and smiled.
“You couldn’t imagine it. The twins cried all night. I think that at one point Allan took refuge in the stables to get some peace.”
Marian chuckled at the idea and Guy looked at her, glad to see her happy. He should have been annoyed with her for taking so many risks by going to Clun dressed as the Nightwatchman, but he couldn’t. The smile of the girl was enough to make him forget any reason for bad mood. And then how could he blame her if he too was guilty of the same recklessness?
“Why are you here?” He asked and Marian took his hand.
“Do I need a reason? I wanted to see you.”
Guy looked at her, moved.
The girl hugged him and held him tight.
“Yes,” she simply said. She couldn’t tell him that she had taken the road to Knighton Hall because she had been feeling guilty for comparing him to the Nightwatchman, but now, clasped in his arms, she knew she hadn’t told him a lie.
Since Guy had moved to Knighton Hall, she had missed him a lot. Perhaps she might have admired the deeds of the false Nightwatchman, but he didn’t count, only Guy was the man she wanted at her side.
Meg almost tripped on the hem of her skirt as she got off her horse and she thought that the only advantage of wearing Isabella's luxurious clothes was the warm fur-lined cloak.
Since she had been living in the camp with Robin's gang, she had never missed the comforts of her father's house. Perhaps living in the forest could be a little more tiring, but she was free to do what she wanted and to wear men’s clothes if she wanted to.
She arranged her dress, too long and wide for her, and she headed for an inn to take two rooms, then she and Much sat at a table to eat, tired and hungry after riding all day.
“Do you think they're following us?” The young woman asked, scanning the faces of the other patrons to see if there were any Thornton’s men among them.
“I hope so. If they haven’t found our tracks they must be stupider than the sheriff's guards. We did everything we could to make ourselves noticed...”
“But I haven’t seen anyone on the road behind us...”
“They must be following us!” Much said nervously. “They must!”
“What if they hadn’t fallen into our deception? By now they should have tried to capture us...”
“No, it can’t be. If they are not chasing us, it means that Robin and Gisborne's sister are in danger!”
“What can we do, Much?”
“I don’t know.” He replied, shaking his head.
Both stared at the untouched plates in front of them.
Suddenly they didn’t have much appetite anymore.