It was a cold, grey morning of October, and Marian shivered as soon as she walked out of her lodgings at the castle. She adjusted her cloak and she hurried her pace, wishing that she could go back at Knighton Hall soon.
Her father had to be at the castle for the council of nobles, and she went with him as usual. She had no say in the council because she was a woman, but sir Edward usually listened to her opinion and he tried to support it when it was possible.
Of course, with the new sheriff, it wasn’t often possible.
Vaisey, the man who took her father’s place, was hard and cruel, but very determined, and the nobles didn’t dare to oppose him.
The few who did had to suffer heavy consequences, so Sheriff Vaisey now ruled the county almost unchallenged.
Marian sighed. She hated to see the people of Nottingham suffering under his thumb, but she believed that to change things for the better, they had to work within the system, without openly challenging the sheriff.
The girl walked down the gallery that opened on the courtyard of the castle, and she sighed at the sight of the tree growing there: that was the place where five years ago Robin, her former betrothed, had told her that he was leaving for war, to follow King Richard in the Holy Land.
At first she had thought that he was joking, but after a moment she had understood that he was serious and her whole world shattered. With Robin were gone all her girlish dreams: she wouldn’t be a bride, she wouldn’t carry his children, they wouldn’t grow old together.
She had pleaded him to stay at first, then she got angry because he wouldn’t listen, saying that he loved her, but that he needed to fight for the king so he could come back with glory and honor.
When he left, she refused to bid him goodbye, still too hurt and upset to forgive him.
Now she couldn’t do it anymore, because Robin was dead.
The letter came six months ago, telling her that Robin of Locksley had been heroically killed to save the King during a battle. She had thought to have forgotten Robin, that he had gone out of her heart shortly after he went out of her life, but she found out that it wasn’t true.
She wept when she learned of his death, and she regretted to have parted from him in rage, without giving him her forgiveness.
Marian still felt sad when she thought about their long lost love and her faded childish dreams, but she couldn’t help thinking too that if Robin had stayed with her, he would be still alive. She was ashamed of those thoughts, but she couldn’t help.
She was startled out of her melancholy when she heard the gate of the courtyard being opened, and she looked down to see who was coming.
The girl smiled slightly to see the knight who just arrived, riding his black horse, and she felt a little relieved. Sir Guy of Gisborne, the lieutenant of the new sheriff, was the man who managed Locksley while Robin was away, and now lord Vaisey had officially assigned it to him.
He was a strong man, extremely loyal to the sheriff, and ready to obey all his orders, but he was also capable of being kind, especially when he talked with her.
Marian suspected that he had a better side that he rarely showed, a humanity that he carefully hid from the sheriff, but that she could guess anyway.
He had been proud of receiving Locksley when Robin died, but the place didn’t bring him good luck as well, because a few days after becoming the owner of the lands, he fell gravely hill, and for many weeks the healers weren’t able to say if he would survive.
Even when the fever finally broke, the knight had been forced to stay at the manor to recover, too weak to get up from the chair in front of the fireplace.
Marian and her father went to visit him a couple of times, but Sir Guy had seemed to be ashamed of his weakness and he almost never glanced at her. But now he was back at the castle, riding his horse, and he looked up and smiled to see her.
The girl smiled, and she went down the stairs to reach him in the courtyard, while Guy dismounted and waited for her.
“I’m glad to see that you are feeling better,” Marian said, and Guy nodded.
The girl frowned a little, looking better at him and noticing that he was still very pale and probably too thin.
“But maybe you shouldn’t get back at work yet, the healer said that you are lucky to be alive.”
Guy gave a little shrug.
“The sheriff wouldn’t wait anymore. But don’t worry, I survived the illness, I’ll survive my job too. You are kind to worry for my health.”
He offered her his arm, and the girl put her hand on it, allowing him to accompany her inside the castle.
Marian knew that Sir Guy had some interest in her, but so far he had never expressed it openly, and Marian was relieved that he didn’t. Learning of the death of Robin had revived old memories that she had thought forgotten, and she didn’t feel ready to be wooed by another man yet, but she didn’t want to hurt Sir Guy’s feelings either.
Probably she would never marry, she thought, and maybe she was too old for it anyways. Her father surely had hoped for her to make a good match, and she felt guilty because she had disappointed him, ignoring every possible suitor after Robin had left for the Holy Land.
“How is Sir Edward?” Guy asked, and she was startled because she almost had the impression that he had guessed her thoughts, but she realized that her life should look awfully boring and dull: she was an only child, still a maiden and almost a spinster, who lived with a sickly father… Of course Sir Guy asked news of Sir Edward, what else could he ask?
Marian stifled a little smile. If the knight knew that she was the Nightwatchman, the masked shadow who rode in the villages at night to bring food and remedies, he would be very surprised, shocked maybe, and probably he would lose any interest he could have in her.
“His health isn’t as good as we could wish for,” she replied, with a little sigh. “When he has to show up at the council of nobles, we have to travel to the castle a few days earlier, and then to stay for some more days before going back to Knighton because traveling is too exhausting for him.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Sir Edward had been kind to visit Locksley during my illness. Is there anything I can do for your family?”
You could try to stop the sheriff when he starves the people of Nottingham. She thought, but she didn’t say it, because she knew perfectly well that Gisborne couldn’t do anything about it. His duty was to obey the orders of the sheriff and he was too loyal to oppose his superior, even if in his heart he probably disliked being cruel to the people.
When they entered the great hall together, sheriff Vaisey just glanced at them, without stopping what he was doing, painting his toenails black in this case. A young servant, just a child, was standing at the side of his chair, trembling and holding the little bowl containing the paint. The child had a long red scratch on his face, a mark left by the switch resting on the table of the sheriff.
Marian looked at the feet of the sheriff with disgust: he was painting his nails with care, but they were dirty and he had placed them on the table, over official looking parchments.
“It was about time, Gisborne. I was thinking of getting rid of you and save your pay. After all, your absence caused many inconveniences to me. Maybe you should pay me for the troubles you caused.”
“Getting ill wasn’t my choice, my lord.”
“I had projects for you, Gisborne, projects that would have benefit both of us, but your illness almost ruined everything! Luckily de Fourtnoy was there to make up for your inefficiency, I was glad to have promoted him to the position of master-of-arms. Now go, get back to your work, you wasted enough time already! And, oh, Gisborne… Don’t lose your time with that woman, they are all like lepers, worse than any disease.”
The sheriff waved a hand to send him away, and Guy gave him a tight bow, then he turned and went out of the room, still followed by Marian.
The girl was fuming with rage, her face flushed, and she turned to look at Guy.
“How dares he?! And how can you let him talk to you like that?!” She blurted, before remembering how loyal to the sheriff Sir Guy was.
The knight looked dispirited.
“You don’t always have a choice...”
“But you were always loyal to him, and it’s not your fault if you were ill!”
“To get the power I wanted, I shouldn’t have been weak. You see, Marian? De Fourtnoy was there, ready to grab the opportunity and the favor of the sheriff.”
Marian shook her head. She didn’t like de Fourtnoy, that man had a sinister look, and she always felt uneasy in his presence. Guy of Gisborne was very different from him. Sometimes he could be very harsh when he executed the orders of the sheriff, ruthless even, and she often disapproved his job, but she was never really afraid of him.
“You can’t like working for the sheriff, why don’t you find a better place?”
“I swore loyalty to him, I couldn’t betray my vow. And the sheriff can give me power.”
“Why do you want power so much?”
Guy looked at her, and Marian could see a deep sadness in his blue eyes.
“I have no one. No family, no friends, nobody who would ever support me if I were in trouble. But when you have power, you don’t need much else. People will obey you, your needs are cared for. Do you think that the servants of Locksley would have taken care of me when I was sick if I weren’t the lord of the manor?”
“Maybe you are right, but don’t you feel very lonely?”
“I’m used to it,” Guy said, then he turned to glance at her, with a look that was a mixture of shyness and boldness at the same time. “And someday I hope to form a family, to marry and continue the Gisborne lineage...”
Marian averted her eyes, faking a modesty she didn’t really feel. Sir Guy’s words were clearly directed to her, and she had to admit to herself that they stirred her a little.
Guy of Gisborne was a handsome man, and she liked his company, but she wasn’t sure if she was ready to trust someone with her heart, yet.
Robin had hurt her deeply when he left her, and his death deprived her of a reckoning, of the chance of making her peace with him or of severing every tie that still bound their hearts.
She couldn’t hate a man who had died heroically, but she couldn’t even forgive him for deserting her. The memory of Robin was a sad ghost that haunted her soul, burdening her with undeserved guilt.
“I should go,” Guy said, with a little sigh. “The sheriff won’t be happy if I don’t get back to my work, and I guess that after such a long absence there will be many things that need my attention.”
“Take care, Sir Guy. Don’t forget that you have just recovered, it wouldn’t do you if you got ill again.”
The knight nodded, moved by her words. He wasn’t used to people who cared for his health, and he silently prayed that someday she would agree to become his wife. She was the family he wanted with all his heart.
“I’ll be careful. Will I see you at the banquet tonight?”
“Yes, if my father will feel well enough to dine.”
“Is he very unwell?”
“Yes… and no. He’s often feverish, and he gets weaker day after day. He says that he’s just getting old, but I’m worried. He isn’t much older than the sheriff, after all. I’ve seen older men who were much stronger than my father...”
“I’ll send for the healer who cured me when I was so ill. The sheriff’s physician said that I was going to die for sure, but Thornton had the idea to call this woman. She lives in the forest and she looks and talks like a witch, but I must admit that she knows how to heal people. I had to endure her foul language and her insults and to drink her awful remedies, but as you can see they worked: I’m still here.”
“I’ve heard about her, her name is Matilda, I think.”
“She didn’t want to treat me because I work for the sheriff, but Thornton was able to persuade her. I don’t think there will be problems about your father, though. Sir Edward still holds the respect of the people and I’m willing to pay all the expense.”
Marian smiled, grateful.
“Thank you Sir Guy, it would be a relief if she could see him.”
Guy replied with a little nod and a shy smile, then he went to reach his men, while Marian went back into the castle.
She knew that she should go back to her lodgings, but she didn’t want to spend the rest of the day alone in her room, so she walked to the kitchen, where many servants were gathered around the fire, cooking, cleaning or just taking a moment of rest in front of the fireplace.
The servants gave worried looks at her when she entered the room, but then they relaxed, recognizing Marian. They knew the girl and they all appreciated her kindness and they welcomed her between them as if she wasn’t a noble lady, but one of them.
Marian accepted a simple offering of bread and cheese, and she sat on a bench near the fire to eat.
After a while, the servants seemed to forget her presence, and they began chattering again while they worked.
Marian smiled: she liked listening to them talking because it was the best way to learn who needed the help of the Nightwatchman and how she could help them.
But that morning something was amiss: the servant were nervous and jumpy, almost scared, and all their talk was about some mystery that frightened them.
Marian said nothing as she listened. She didn’t want to draw their attention because she knew that if they remembered her presence, they would stop talking, so she kept quiet and waited. The servants were worried because there had been disappearances in the villages, usually elderly persons who had no family, and they didn’t know what had happened to them.
“My niece swore that she had heard the voice of the devil coming from the hut of old Nan last month… She couldn’t sleep because she had a toothache, and she heard somebody chanting in an unknown language, and the morning after old Nan wasn’t there anymore! It was the devil for sure!”
“And what about the children? Those orphan kids asking for charity in the streets of Nottingham… There were lots of them, and now they are fewer and fewer and they are all frightened. They say that there is a man, all dressed in black, who snatches them whenever they are alone and those who went missing were never seen again.”
“A man in black? What if it’s Gisborne? They said that he was dying, but Jack saw him at the castle today. Maybe he came back from hell because he made a pact with the devil...” A woman whispered.
“Do you think that he brings poor innocents to the devil in exchange for his life?” Another one asked, in horrified surprise.
“Of course he couldn’t sell his soul, it already belongs to the devil!” The first one said.
Marian stared at them in shock, deeply upset by their words, and the servants suddenly realized that she was there and that she wasn’t one of them.
“I’ve seen her talking with him earlier.” One of the kitchen girls said in a malicious whisper. She would have been pretty if it wasn’t for her sour expression.
“We all have seen you looking at him before he got ill. And your gaze wasn’t innocent at all, Annie. Maybe we should suspect you as well.” The cook said, sneering.
The younger girl gave her an angry stare.
“Well, he is handsome. You all looked at him that way one day or another. But if he didn’t get sick I could have had a chance with him, while no man would ever give a look at you!”
The cook laughed.
“Well, I’m glad to be old and ugly, then! I don’t want to disappear like those kids or like old Nan if he should take an interest in me. Be careful, Annie, don’t play with the devil.”
The other servants were giving wary stares at her, so Marian awkwardly stood up and left the kitchen.
The words she had just heard had deeply upset her, and for the first time she was feeling the deep rift between her and the servants. She had always thought to be considered one of them, a friend, even if she was a noble lady, but now she had seen diffidence and suspicion in their eyes just because they had seen her talking with Guy of Gisborne.
And all those foolish gossips about the devil! She didn’t believe them, not even for a moment, and she knew that they just hated Guy because he enforced the sheriff’s orders. But something was really happening, the servant were frightened and if it was true that people went missing, she had to find out what was going on.
But how? She guessed that the servants and the people of Nottingham wouldn’t talk openly with her if they thought that she was in league with Gisborne and the devil…
I could ask Guy!
The knight was always glad to talk with her and maybe he had heard something about all those disappearances. And if he didn’t, it was her duty to let him know of a possible menace to the people of Nottingham and maybe he could do something about it.
She hesitated, suddenly worried. What if the gossips were true? What if he had something to do with the missing people?
She pushed this superstitious thought away: of course Guy of Gisborne wasn’t in league with the devil! And if he had something to hide, she would find out.
I just have to be careful. If he lies to me, I’ll know.
Relieved after taking the decision of talking to him, she headed back to the courtyard where he was training his men.