Prince John’s army came, as inexorable as a storm, and it left, leaving death, fire and destruction on its path.
It was a night of flames, terror and pain, and, in the morning, only few persons wandered among the ruins of the town and the villages, pale and drained, like living ghosts.
Most of the survivors had lost everything: house, family, anything that they owned. They walked between the burnt houses and the corpses, in search of anything they could save from the fires.
A few of them were trying to help the others, searching for the wounded ones, and organizing a safe place in the forest where they could find sanctuary and relief.
Matilda, the healer who lived in the depths of Sherwood, hadn’t suffered the attack of the army. She was used to live in hiding, far from the other people, so the soldiers didn’t even know that there was her little hut in Sherwood forest.
The healer and her daughter had been safe during the destruction of the county, but at dawn they came out from their hiding to help the wounded. A few members of Robin Hood’s gang, shocked and trembling, had soon joined her, opening their camp to whoever was in need of help.
Matilda couldn’t see Robin around, and she wondered if he had been killed during the attack too.
The saracen woman, that girl who had joined the outlaws, didn’t know either, and she stumbled at Matilda’s side, checking corpse after corpse to see if any of them was still alive.
The healer glanced at her, a little worried: the saracen girl was clearly exhausted and she had a bandaged arm. Matilda was about to suggest her to stop and rest for a while, but then she noticed the deep pain in Djaq’s eyes.
She lost a loved one.
Probably helping the others was the girl’s only way to go on, to avert her mind from her own pain.
Matilda entered the hall of the castle, what remained of it, and she bent on the bodies of the people lying on the floor, bloodied and covered in burns.
Matilda froze touching the neck of another one of those men.
The healer was about to call for help, to shout that there was another survivor, but she stopped, recognizing who it was.
Guy of Gisborne, the black, dangerous dog of the sheriff, the man who came to her hut to arrest her, endangering both her and her daughter.
For a moment she was tempted to ignore that feeble heartbeat, to pretend that Gisborne was dead too and to leave him there, to rot in his own blood.
“This one is alive,” she said, calling two of the villagers who were helping her to carry the wounded to the camp.
They didn’t move.
“Why should we help Gisborne? He deserves to die. I’m not lifting a finger to save him.”
They dropped the makeshift stretcher they were carrying and they went away, shaking their heads.
Matilda couldn’t really blame them, she had been tempted to do the same.
She glanced at Djaq, and she saw that the girl was uncertain as well.
“He’s an enemy,” Djaq said, “but too many people died already...”
“You’re right. If a life can be saved, we should try to save it, it doesn’t matter if he deserves it or not. Do you think we can lift him on that stretcher? He’s a tall man.”
“Not for a long distance, I’m afraid. I’ll see if I can find a cart.”
“Go, I’ll begin treating those wounds.”
Everything was just pain and suffering.
Guy wasn’t aware of anything else.
He had been lying on his side for days and days, too weak even to stir, lost in the terrible pain that pierced his body. He slipped in and out of consciousness, welcoming the darkness as a blessing, a merciful hand that closed his eyes and took him away from his pain.
Sometimes a gentle hand lifted his head, taking a cup to his lips, and helping him to drink little sips of a bitter draught, or some broth, or watered wine.
He didn’t know how much time had passed since he had been lying on that bed of straw, wrapped in a old ragged blanket, but day after day he began to be more conscious of his state.
He wasn’t alone. He couldn’t find the strength to open his eyes, but he knew that there were many other persons around him, and most of them had to be wounded or sick, just like him.
He could hear their laboured breath, smell their stinking bodies and often their pitiful moans woke him from the blessing of his sleep.
He knew that he stank too, just like them. Sweat, blood and worse.
Mercifully not the stink of rotten flesh, not yet at least.
But he felt the damp straw under his body and he hated that sensation. He wasn’t a child, a part of his mind remembered him that he should have been able to wake up in time to relieve himself without wetting the bed and it made him feel ashamed. But even when he was awake, he was too weak to move. He always tried to wait as long as he could, but at last he was forced to piss where he was, in the wet straw, feeling disgusted of himself and deeply humiliated.
At least he was naked, so he didn’t have to feel the disgusting sensation of wet clothes sticking to his skin.
One day it wasn’t pain or discomfort to wake him up, but a fresh touch on his face. Guy opened his eyes and he saw a tired faced woman kneeling at the side of his bed. She was holding a wet towel in her hands and she was using it to gently dab at his face.
Her face was familiar, but Guy couldn’t remember where he had seen her before. His thoughts were confused, his head heavy and clouded.
Matilda stared at him, a little surprised.
“Oh. You’re awake at last.” She gave him an ironic grin. “I should have known that a rabid mutt like you wouldn’t be so easy to kill.”
When she talked, Guy recognized her: the healer, the foul mouthed woman who the sheriff had tried to kill, accusing her to be a witch.
He gave her a worried glance: that woman had all the reasons to hate him, and he surely wasn’t able to defend himself in his weak state.
But even if her words were harsh, the touch of the woman was gentle. She kept cleaning his face with the wet towel, washing away sweat and dirt.
It was a relief.
Matilda kept working in silence for a while cleaning Guy’s face and his body, and changing the bandages that wrapped his wounds. Every once in a while, she looked at his face, at his closed eyes, and she thought that now Guy of Gisborne didn’t look so menacing.
Not at all.
He opened his eyes again.
Blue, lost, and full of pain and confusion.
She took some pity on the man.
“Your fever broke tonight, that’s why you were sweating so much” she said, “I believe that you will survive, even if it will take a while for you to recover completely.”
Gisborne just stared at her, as if he hadn’t heard or understood her words, and Matilda wondered how much damaged he actually was.
She felt sad for him, for all the other ones who had suffered and the ones who lost their lives.
All this because of a single man. The Sheriff, that pile of stinking crap, was the only one who really deserved to die, but his death had unleashed sorrow and tragedy for everyone else.
For a moment she felt angry at Gisborne: that knight was the henchman of the Sheriff, he had much blood on his hands as well, probably he deserved to suffer too.
But now that she could look at them, his eyes weren’t evil.
“Now lay still where you are and don’t worry about anything. I’ll change this damp straw, so you can sleep comfortably,” she said, gently.
Guy managed to gave her a little nod, even if any movement drained him of his strength, and Matilda noticed that he had blushed when she had talked about the soiled straw.
Her gaze softened.
He’s a proud man. Probably he’d never been so ill before, unable to get up from bed even to relieve himself.
She worked quickly, putting aside the dirty straw and replacing it with armfuls of clean and dry one.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she commented, “it’s just how the body works, it’s a natural thing and it’s not your fault if you are too weak to get up.”
Guy kept his eyes closed. The words of the woman were kind, but he still hated to feel so helpless.
He hoped that the woman would finish her work soon, so he could slip back in the oblivion of sleep, in that dark place that soothed his pain and kept his mind away from thoughts and memories.
He didn’t want to know, he didn’t want to remember, because he was sure that an even harsher pain would come with memories.
At the same time he didn’t want the witch to go away, he wanted her to keep talking, to give him the care that nobody had given him since his parents had died.
He was lonely and scared.
Suddenly, an agonized cry broke the silence of that place. A voice, the howl of a madman, of someone who had lost his mind.
Guy shivered. He felt broken, but the man who was crying was behind that, he sounded as if he was in Hell already.
Matilda got up and hurried away, probably to help that man.
Gisborne shivered: something in that screaming voice unsettled him deeply, but he wasn’t sure why.
Then he understood, suddenly: it was Robin Hood’s voice.