Chapter 1: Something is Amiss
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.
Chapter 2: Dead Eyes
Guy felt tired, but he steeled himself to go on with the training of the guards. He knew that he’d need more days of rest to recover completely, but he was also aware that the sheriff wouldn’t wait for him any longer.
He had to look strong and to show the sheriff that he was useful, or he would be replaced, and Guy didn’t want to lose everything again.
Maybe he was just tired and still a bit unwell, but he had the impression that his men were even more useless than usual: they obeyed his orders, but they seemed to have no energies or will of their own. When he didn’t give orders to them, they stood where they were without doing anything.
In the past he had reproached them because they chatted during training sessions, or they tried to slack whenever he wasn’t watching them, but now they seemed empty, soulless.
Their vacant eyes made him shudder, and Guy told himself that he was being a fool.
Still, he was relieved to see Marian coming into the courtyard.
He told the men to keep training on their own, and he reached her.
“Lady Marian!” He greeted her with an apologetic smile. “I’m afraid that the company of soldiers isn’t suitable for a lady, you shouldn’t come here when the guards are training.”
The girl smile graciously.
“I brought you a basket from the kitchen. I thought that maybe you didn’t have the time to eat yet.”
Guy was touched by her kindness, and he gave her a grateful glance.
“It’s very kind of you.”
Marian nodded at the bench placed under the tree that grew in the courtyard.
“Can I keep you company while you eat?”
Guy glanced at the position of the sun in the sky and he saw that it was the right time to let the guards free to eat and rest for a little while.
“Gladly,” he said, then he turned to the men to dismiss them.
He sat on the little bench and Marian sat with him, placing the basket between them. She took a small flask from the basket and poured a cup of wine for Guy.
Gisborne relaxed a little. The wine wasn’t strong, but it tasted good and it made him feel better. The food was simple as well, but it seemed to be almost exactly what the healer had suggested him to eat while he was still recovering, and Guy wondered if Marian had just guessed or if she had talked with Matilda to choose the right food for him. He didn’t dare to hope that she could really worry and care for his health, but in any case the meal and the rest were what he needed to feel better and he was grateful to Marian.
The girl looked a little worried and Guy saw her shuddering.
“Is it too cold for you? Maybe we should better go inside.”
“No, please. The castle seems so dark and oppressive these days, I prefer to breathe some fresh air, but maybe you should get warm by the fire.”
“Cold doesn’t bother me, don’t worry. But what do you mean about the castle?”
Marian shrugged, with a little nervous laughter.
“I am not sure… Maybe you’ll think I’m a silly girl, but I have the impression that something is amiss, as if something terrible is going to happen… And then the servants are all talking about people disappearing.”
Marian nodded, relieved to see his surprised look. She never really believed that he could have anything to do with those missing persons, but now she was sure of it.
“They say that orphan children and elderly people are disappearing from the villages. They are afraid that it’s the devil’s doing and they are scared.”
“I’ve never heard of that.”
“That doesn’t surprise me, Sir Guy. They are afraid of you, they won’t talk if you are near, but I heard them.”
Guy knew that she was right. The poor people hated him because he enforced the sheriff’s orders punishing them and collecting more taxes than they could afford, but he couldn’t do anything to change the situation.
“Maybe they just left the county, searching for better fortune somewhere else.”
“Maybe.” Marian said, unconvinced. “But they were really frightened. I have to admit that their words perturbed me a little.”
“You are safe at the castle.” Guy said immediately.
“Are you sure?”
“I’ll see to it.”
Marian smiled weakly.
“You are kind, Sir Guy. But to pledge protection, you should be sure of the menace. And I just have a creepy sensation, not a real reason to worry. I don’t know if you can see what I mean.”
Guy thought of his men, of the blank stare of their eyes, and he nodded.
“I do. I think I do. And I also think you are right: there’s something weird going on at the castle, but I can’t point out what it is. I’ve been away for a long time, and everything seems a little different, darker and disturbing, as if there is a bad omen impending on us.” He stopped abruptly, noticing Marian’s surprised look, and he shook is head with an embarrassed laugh. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you, I don’t know what got into me. You came searching for reassurance and I say senseless things, please forgive me.”
“I don’t want to be reassured, I prefer to find out the truth. I was afraid that I was being a fool, but if you have my same sensation, maybe there’s something true. But what could we do about it?”
“Maybe you and your father should go back to Knighton.” Guy suggested. He was about to say that he would send some of his men to guard the manor, but he remembered their empty gazes and decided against it. He had the unnerving feeling that he couldn’t trust them anymore.
He shuddered, afraid of the uncertainty of his situation: he was alone and he knew that his illness had costed him a good part of the favor of the sheriff. De Fourtnoy was surely waiting for him to make an error to get rid of a rival, and Guy didn’t know who he could trust.
Nobody, I guess.
He was used to be alone, but now he felt scared.
Marian put a hand on his wrist, and he looked at her, surprised.
“Sir Guy? I don’t think I should go back to Knighton. We can’t know if it would be really safer, people are disappearing in the villages too. Maybe we should work together to find out what’s going on.”
“Don’t say that I am just a woman and that I should only spend my time embroidering or you’ll have to see Matilda sooner than you think.” Marian warned him, incensed.
Gisborne found himself chuckling at the idea, and he lifted his hands in surrender.
“Very well, what do you suggest?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we should begin by being more aware of what we see and what we hear. If you notice something strange, anything different from the ordinary, tell me and I’ll do the same.”
“Even if it’s just a feeling?”
“Why not? The worse that can happen is that we are wrong.”
“There is something… But probably I’m just too sensitive after the illness. You’d think I am a fool.”
The girl glanced at him, noticing that he had blushed and she realized that he was shy, after all, and that maybe he cared too much about her opinion.
“Whatever it is I won’t laugh, I promise.”
Guy glanced at her to see if she meant it, then he finally spoke.
“My guards, they are different… They are the same men I have known for years, but something changed, there’s something wrong with them. They obey my orders, but it is as if they don’t have a mind of their own anymore. Their eyes look dead.”
Marian looked at him and she didn’t feel like laughing at all: Gisborne tried to hide it, but he was scared, and she knew that the knight wasn’t a coward. If he was so upset, there had to be something wrong with those soldiers.
“Will you be safe working with them?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t have much choice.” He sighed, noticing that the guards were coming back in the courtyard. “I should go. Thank you for the meal and for the company, we’ll talk again about it.”
He stood up, and he began walking away, when Marian called him.
“Guy!” She said, forgetting his title. “Be careful.”
Gisborne walked back to her, lifting a hand to brush her cheek with his fingers, and he smiled fondly.
“I will. Be careful too.”
Marian nodded, wondering why all of a sudden Guy’s touch and the gaze of his blue eyes made her speechless.
They both made a step back, and they were about to part, when the gates were opened and a group of guards arrived, dragging a man between them.
The prisoner was pleading and begging for mercy, but the soldiers didn’t even look at him and they stopped only when they were in front of Guy.
Marian looked at the young man, horrified to see the bruises and cuts on his face.
“What do we have here?”
“A poacher, Sir Guy.” A guard said in a flat tone. “He tried to shoot a deer in the forest.”
“I was hungry! My wife is with child and she’s sick! We were starving!” The man howled, terrified.
Marian glanced at Guy.
“What’s going to happen to him?”
“The punishment for poaching is the loss of a hand.” The guard answered, in the same emotionless tone.
“No! Please, no! I beg you!” The man cried, and Marian turned to Guy, her eyes wide with horror.
“A hand? Once the penalty for poaching was a day in the stocks or a flogging!”
Gisborne averted his eyes.
“The sheriff wants to eradicate crime with harsher punishments. There are too many outlaws in the forest.”
Marian’s lips trembled, and she touched Guy’s arm.
“But… a hand?” She pleaded him with her gaze, and Guy hesitated. He knew that he shouldn’t show weakness, but even the guards who were holding the prisoner had dead eyes and he shuddered.
He had the impression that they wouldn’t limit themselves to cut a hand, and Guy felt suddenly sick at the idea of what was going to happen to that young man if he let them take him to the torture chamber.
“Did he kill the deer?” Guy asked to the soldier.
“No, he missed.”
“Well, then a day in the stocks will be enough. You can go, I’ll see to it personally.”
Guy grabbed the rope that tied the hands of the man and tugged it hard, making him fall at his feet.
The guards turned their empty eyes on Guy, but they obeyed and marched away.
Marian smiled at Guy, grateful.
“Thank you.” She whispered.
Guy smiled back, trying to hide his worry. The sheriff wouldn’t be happy if he should hear about his compassion. He looked at the man at his feet, who was now thanking him over and over.
“Shut up!” He growled. “And get up. What’s your name?”
“Allan. Allan A Dale, my lord.”
“Where?” Allan asked, fearfully.
“To the stocks. You’ll stay there till sunset.”
“My wife will be waiting for me...” Allan began, but Guy interrupted him.
“You have no wife, do you?” Gisborne said with a smirk. “I know the kind of you, you’d say anything to escape your punishment, but this time you won’t.”
Guy closed the wrists of the young outlaw in the stocks that were in a corner of the courtyard, a few steps from the gallows, and Allan sighed in resignation.
“Well, at least it’s better than losing a hand. I suppose I should thank you all the same, mate. Hey, what’s your name?”
“Sir Guy of Gisborne.” He said, rolling his eyes at the cheekiness of the man.
“Well, thank you, Giz.”
Marian giggled, while Guy stared at him, uncertain if he should laugh or get angry.
“Beware, I could change my mind.”
The outlaw shut up and Guy walked away to go back to his work.
Left alone with him, Marian glanced at Allan. She had seen too the terrifying gaze of the guards and she knew why Guy had been merciful.
“Don’t complain,” she said to Allan. “You’ve been way luckier than you think.”
She walked away too and Allan remained alone.
He sighed, glancing at the sky.
“I hope it isn’t going to rain...”
Chapter 3: The Council
Marian sat at the window of her room, looking outside. The sky was grey and the clouds looked dark and heavy with rain, but the storm hadn’t begun yet.
Sir Edward was sitting in front of the fireplace, his shoulders wrapped in a blanket and Marian hoped that he wasn’t getting a fever again.
“Are you feeling unwell, father?” She asked.
“The changing weather doesn’t agree with me, that’s all.”
“I wish we could have stayed at Knighton. The castle is too damp and cold for your health.”
The elderly lord smiled at her.
“We’ll be back there in a few days. Don’t worry for me, I’ll be well.”
The girl hoped he was right, then her attention was caught by a little group of people along the road, riding towards the castle. She frowned: those persons were all dressed in black, with the hoods of their cloaks drawn to hide their faces and they were riding together, but they didn’t talk to each other, they didn’t pay the least attention to the others in the group, as if they were perfect strangers.
Marian wondered who they were and why they were coming to the castle.
She was tempted to go back in the courtyard to peek, but the council was about to begin and she couldn’t leave her father alone.
Allan yawned and he stretched his back as he could, with his hands trapped in the stocks. He had been there for hours and he was beginning to feel tired, but of course he couldn’t complain too much, it was surely better than losing a hand.
He saw Gisborne dismissing the guards he had been training and walking back towards the castle.
“Hey, Giz!” Allan called, and the knight gave him an annoyed look, but he stopped in front of the stocks.
“What? And don’t call me that.”
“When will you free me?”
“At sunset, when I leave.”
Allan gave a glance at the sun, hidden behind the clouds but still high in the sky.
“What if it rains? And what if I need to pee?”
“Guess.” He said, then he moved to leave, but he stopped, seeing that the portcullis was being lifted.
A group of knights, dressed in black and with their faces concealed passed through the gate one by one, showing a ring to the guard. Immediately other guards rushed to get their horses and the group of men entered the castle. De Fourtnoy appeared on the door to welcome them in.
“Hey, who were those people?” Allan asked, curious, and Guy shook his head, frowning. He had seen that they were wearing the sheriff’s insignia, but he had never seen them before his illness.
De Fourtnoy instead seemed to know them well, and Guy wondered what had happened at the castle while he was away. He had the impression that he had lost ground at the eyes of the sheriff during the time he had to spend in bed, and he was afraid that Vaisey could think him dispensable.
Gisborne knew that he had to find a way to be back in the favor of the sheriff, but he wasn’t sure of what he could do about it.
With a sigh, he headed to the castle. For sure being late to the council would annoy the sheriff and it wouldn’t do.
Left alone again, Allan glanced at the sky again, thinking of the words he had just said to Gisborne.
He had tried to move the knight to pity saying that, but he realized with dismay that he was actually beginning to feel the need to relieve himself and that he would have to wait quite a lot of time before sunset.
Marian followed her father in the great hall, waited for him to sit down and she stood behind his seat, trying to look meek and respectful like a good daughter should be. The other nobles were already there, waiting, but the sheriff had not arrived yet and not even Guy of Gisborne was there.
The latter entered the room in a hurry, and Marian noticed that he was a little flushed, as if he had run. Gisborne stopped on the threshold for a moment, a little frown creasing his brow, and Marian thought that he seemed surprised to see the sheriff’s seat still empty.
Guy said nothing about it, and he just took his usual place at the side of the throne, standing with his arms crossed and an impassive expression on his face.
The nobles waited for a long while, wondering why the sheriff was so late, but they didn’t dare to say anything or to express their disappointment, they just waited, hoping that the sheriff would be in a good mood when he’d finally arrive.
At last, Vaisey appeared, followed by De Fourtnoy, who took place at the side of the throne, mirroring Gisborne’s stance.
Marian noticed the glance of hatred and dislike that Guy gave to De Fourtnoy, who returned him a stare of pure contempt. It was clear that those two were rivals, and Marian had no doubt about who of them she preferred. Guy of Gisborne could be dangerous, but she knew that he also had a better side, while De Fourtnoy scared her and she had to stifle a shudder every time she met his gaze.
The sheriff started the council, giving no explanation for his delay, and as usual, the meeting was unpleasant: the nobles had to pay more taxes and the sheriff didn’t care at all if the people were already starving. He was going to introduce some more taxes, and, he grinned at Sir Edward saying so, all the nobles currently residing at the castle had to go back to their manors because their lodgings were needed for more important guests.
Marian thought that maybe this had something to do with the group of knights she had seen coming just a while ago, then she got worried for her father. The sheriff was going on and on, stressing the importance for the nobles to leave as soon as possible, and she impulsively replied to him.
“My lord, are you saying that we should leave now? My father need some rest before traveling!”
The sheriff stared at her.
“Do you think I care? A clue: no. Take your derelict father away or I’ll kick you both out of my castle.”
Marian was about to reply again, incensed, but sir Edward grabbed her wrist, while Guy looked at her in alarm and shook his head imperceptibly, so she kept her mouth shut.
The sheriff turned abruptly towards Guy, as if he had guessed his silent warning to Marian.
“You will leave your lodgings too, Gisborne.”
Guy stared at him, aghast.
“You’ve been away for a very long time, and I barely noticed your absence, this says much about your usefulness. You already have Locksley and there are worthier people who deserve rooms at the castle more than you do. So make sure to clear up your lodgings before sunset.” The sheriff grinned, noticing his disconcert. “Come on, Gizzy, don’t look at me like a lost puppy, you should be grateful that I didn’t get rid of you even if you’ve been lazying in bed for weeks and weeks.”
The sheriff turned back his attention on the other nobles, taking care of saying something nasty to each one of them. Marian was mad with anger, frustration and worry for her father’s health, but she could see that Guy was seething with anger too. De Fourtnoy, instead was gloating to see his rival’s distress.
Finally the council ended, and Marian and Sir Edward were the last ones to leave the room, the elderly lord too upset and frail to move quickly. The girl was sure that her father would get a fever if he had to travel when he was so tired. She was worried because she had to pack all the things they had in their rooms at the castle: they didn’t have many trunks, but they had to pack them quickly and surely no one would help them.
When they walked out of the hall, Guy of Gisborne was waiting for them.
“Marian!” Guy said, reaching them, then he realized that maybe he was being disrespectful and he corrected himself. “Lady Marian, Sir Edward.”
“Sir Guy.” Marian’s father said, coldly.
“I’m sorry for this inconvenience, I didn’t know about it.”
Marian nodded gracefully, her irritation dissipating a little.
“I noticed. You weren’t expecting that too. What will you do?”
Guy looked at her.
“I’ll obey, what else could I do? I don’t like this, but I have no say in the decisions of the sheriff. I’ll go back to Locksley and I’ll ride to work every day.”
“I wonder how we can make it in time. We sent our wagon back to Knighton when we arrived at the castle two days ago, and our servants would take it back here the day after tomorrow. We’ll have to send a messenger and make them rush here, but I don’t know if they will arrive before sunset.”
“I’ll help you.” Guy said, impulsively. “I’ll find a wagon and I’ll escort you to Knighton. Pack your things, I’ll come back soon.”
“You are very kind, sir Guy,” Sir Edward said, “But don’t you have to collect your belongings too?”
“Luckily I don’t have many things here at the castle, packing will be quick. Don’t worry, I’ll have all the time to help you as well.”
“Thank you.” Marian said, with a grateful smile, and Guy went away.
Guy walked along the corridors, wishing that he could cancel the gloating smirk he had seen on De Fourtnoy’s face. Promising his help to Marian and sir Edward and getting their gratitude had calmed him a little, but he was still feeling a deep rage. How could the sheriff send him away too? And in front of everyone!
Guy felt humiliated and afraid.
The sheriff had implied that he was useless, and Guy knew even too well what happened to useless people. He had to find a way back in the sheriff’s favors, and he had to do it fast.
He walked into the courtyard, wondering if he should order his guards to help Marian and her father with their trunks, but he decided against it.
He didn’t trust those soldiers anymore, he wouldn’t feel at ease to imagine their dead eyes looking at Marian, being near her. He should ask the help of the servants of the castle, but he was sure that the other nobles had already taken them all to pack and move their things. Guy decided that he would carry Marian’s trunks with his own hands, if needed.
He had just arrived in the courtyard when he noticed many servants unloading chests and boxes from a wagon. He stifled a growl recognizing De Fourtnoy’s coat of arms on the boxes and on the liveries of the servants.
“What’s this stuff doing here?” Guy asked to one of the servants.
“Our master is getting better lodgings,” the boy answered, without any fear. It was clear that he didn’t know who Guy was, because he added with a laugh: “And he’s even more happy to get them because they belonged to one of his rivals.”
The servants piled the crates and the trunks into a corner of the courtyard and went away, to take the wagon in the stables.
He’s going to take my lodgings! Guy thought, fuming.
He was about to kick one of the crates, when a voice called him.
“Hey, Giz, mate!”
Guy turned in rage and he looked at the prisoner, still trapped with his hand in the stocks.
Allan looked at him, a little startled by his reaction, but Guy’s rage didn’t deter him from speaking.
“Is there any chance you could free me a little earlier than sunset?” He asked nervously, fidgeting as if he couldn’t keep still. “You see, mate, I really, really, really need to pee!”
“Not my problem.”
“Come on! Don’t you have a little pity?! I only have this pair of breeches! Please, free my hands, even if just for a few moments, then you can lock me again if you wish. I’ll do whatever you want.”
Guy was about to shrug and go away, when he glanced at the young man, struck by a sudden idea.
“If I let you go, do you agree to work for me? You’ll have to carry a few crates and load a wagon.”
“Whatever you want, but free me now! I can’t hold it any longer!”
Guy took the keys and unlocked the stocks, and Allan rushed to the closest wall, beginning to unlace his breeches.
Gisborne stared at him, astounded.
“What are you doing?!”
“Told you, Giz. I need to piss.”
“Not here, I hope! Go out of the castle.”
Allan gave a desperate look at the gates, far away on the other side of the courtyard, guarded by two soldiers who would surely stop him to question him.
“I’ll never make it there in time.” He moaned.
Guy was about to repeat that it wasn’t his problem, when he saw De Fourtnoy’s belongings, a few steps away from them.
“See those crates? Go there,” he suggested with a grin, and Allan looked at him, in surprise.
“What?! Those trunks looks expensive, are you sure?”
“It’s just a pile of rubbish.” Guy said, with a smirk. “Weren’t you in a hurry? Go on.”
Unable to wait a moment longer, Allan stopped complaining and he ran to the crates.
He came back after a while, much relieved, and he looked at Guy of Gisborne: the knight seemed to be amused in a wicked way.
Chuckling, Gisborne grabbed Allan’s arm, and he led him away from the courtyard before De Fourtnoy’s servants returned.
Allan followed him inside the castle, a little afraid that working for Gisborne he was going to end up in bigger troubles, and wondering if it wouldn’t have been wiser to keep quiet, wait for the sunset, and just wet his breeches.
But there was no turning back now, so he glanced at the knight, trying to look more confident than he actually felt.
“Well, Giz, what do you want me to do?”
Chapter 4: Behind the Mound
Marian sat on the wagon at her father’s side. The elderly lord was pale and weak, and she was afraid that he was going to get ill again. She took a shawl and she draped it on his shoulders, worried.
The clouds were gathering, darker and darker any moment and they promised a storm. The girl prayed that they could make it to Knighton before it started raining.
She was worried for her father’s health, but also for Guy. The knight was very pale too, and he looked exhausted and in a dark mood. The only one who seemed to be light-hearted was Allan, the young poacher who Gisborne had saved from a too harsh punishment that morning.
She had been surprised to see him following the knight and helping them with their trunks. She had been carrying a small chest containing a few trinkets, while Guy and Allan moved everything else to an open wagon waiting for them in the courtyard.
Marian wasn’t surprised to see that Gisborne didn’t order his guards to help them, not after what he had said to her about their dead eyes. She was glad of it, even if it meant that Guy and Allan had to do all the work on their own.
After putting her little chest on the wagon, she sat in the courtyard with her father, on the bench under the tree.
At last, the two men had loaded the last trunk, and Allan gave an hopeful look at Guy.
“Am I free to go, now?”
Gisborne hesitated, wondering if he should make him unload the wagon too, but he thought that there would be servants at Knighton Hall for that.
“Don’t get caught poaching again. I won’t save you another time.”
“Don’t worry mate, I’ll be more careful not to be seen.”
“That’s not what I meant! You shouldn’t poach at all!”
“What could a man do when he’s starving?”
Guy shook his head, and he turned to help Marian and Sir Edward to climb on the wagon. Allan was about to walk away, when De Fourtnoy came in the courtyard with his servants to take his trunks to his new lodgings. While he walked past the wagon, he smiled at Gisborne in spite.
“I made sure that my servants cleaned those rooms very well after you left them. I hope that they could get rid of the smell of leather and horses. I wonder if I should use some perfume from the orient… Maybe it’s good for you, but I surely don’t want to sleep in a place that stinks like a stable.”
The man went away, and Marian was afraid that Gisborne could start a fight with him, but the knight gave a glance at the trunks and he grinned.
“Have fun smelling like a garderobe, then.” Guy muttered under his breath as soon as De Fourtnoy was too far to hear his words. Marian gave a puzzled glance at him, then after a moment she noticed some commotion between the servants who were taking the trunks, and De Fourtnoy began yelling, in a temper.
“Who dared to piss on my stuff?! If I catch who did this, I’ll flay him alive!”
With a chuckle, Guy took the reins and started the wagon, and Allan climbed on it when it was already moving.
“Hey, Giz, on a second thought, I could help you unloading all those trunks. I guess I’ll come with you for a while,” he said, giving a worried glance at De Fourtnoy, who was now questioning the people in the courtyard to find the culprit. “Maybe we should hurry before it rains,” Allan added casually, trying to look innocent.
“Agreed.” Guy said with a grin, and he snapped the reins to make the horses go faster.
It began raining as soon as Marian and sir Edward stepped inside the manor. The girl waited for the servants to take care of her father, taking his cloak and accompanying him to his room were a warm fire was already burning in the fireplace. When she was sure that anything that could give him comfort was done, she turned to Guy, who was waiting by the door.
“I’m grateful for your help, sir Guy. Without your assistance, this unexpected trip would have been very distressing for my father. Even so, I’m afraid that he could get a fever...”
“I’m glad that I sent a servant to fetch Matilda, then. Before leaving the castle I asked one of the stable boys to go and call her, she should arrive soon.”
Marian looked at him, surprised.
“You did this for us?! How thoughtful of you!”
Guy accepted her thanks with a shy smile and a little nod, then he turned to the door.
“I should go now, if I want to reach Locksley before the rain becomes a real storm.”
Marian looked at him, worried.
“You could be our guest for the night. You have just recovered, you shouldn’t travel in the rain.”
Guy shook his head.
“I am fine, my lady, and I don’t want to be an inconvenience for your family. As it is, I guess that the servants will be very busy with taking care of your father and unpacking all your things, having to tend to an unexpected guest would be too much and it would distract them from the important things. I will have to give orders to the servants in Locksley if I’ll have to leave every morning for the castle. Probably I should ask to serve the breakfast earlier so I can get to work in time.”
“Go, then,” Marian urged him, “the weather is going to get worse, I’m afraid.”
The girl noticed Allan, who was waiting just out of the door, looking cold and miserable.
“What about him?” She asked.
“Will you take him to Locksley?”
“Why should I?”
“He could work for you. Poor man, he must be hungry.”
Guy shook his head, with an ironic smile.
“That ‘poor man’ is just a petty thief, a poacher. He’s lucky enough to have kept both his hands.”
“But Guy, maybe he’s a thief because he’s starving. If you help him, he won’t need to break the law anymore!”
Gisborne was about to say that some people never change, but Marian had called him by name, without using his title, and he enjoyed this unexpected intimacy. He wanted to please the girl.
“I suppose that I could offer him a meal and shelter for the night if he helps me with my trunks. Then we’ll see if he can, and if he wants, to be useful somehow.”
The girl rewarded him with a bright smile, and Guy returned to the wagon, nodding at Allan to follow him.
The young man looked relieved as he climbed on the wagon and took the reins, clearly he had been afraid of having to spend the night outside with an incoming storm.
“So, were are we going to?” He asked, and Guy pointed at the road.
“That way. We’ll make a shortcut through the forest.”
“Aren’t you afraid of outlaws?” Allan asked, a little worried.
“So afraid that I have one of them on my wagon.” Guy replied with a grin.
“Oh, come on, Giz, you know that I’m not dangerous. But there are cutthroats in the woods.”
“Usually I’d agree, but I think that tonight they will seek refuge too instead of robbing people. I think that it will be a bad storm, it worries me more than any outlaw at the moment. I want to get to Locksley as soon as possible.”
The forest was dark and the bare branches of the trees looked like ghastly hands to Allan’s eyes and he prayed that the dim lantern they had on the wagon didn’t go off.
At least he wasn’t alone in that scary place, he thought, even if Gisborne didn’t look to be in a very good shape: he seemed weak and tired and Allan wondered if he was unwell.
“Hey, Giz. Are you all right?”
Guy turned to look at him, adjusting the hood of the cloak he was wearing to shield his face from the rain.
“Why do you ask?”
“You look pale.”
Guy frowned, wondering why that rascal cared about his health, and he shrugged.
“I’m tired, and this rain doesn’t help.”
“It will turn into a proper storm, I guess. Can I spend the night in your house or in the stable at least?”
“Guess so. Marian would disapprove if I should leave you out in the storm. But if you try to steal from me, you’ll think of the time you spent in the stocks as a pleasant memory.”
“I wouldn’t steal from you!”
“Just because I won’t give you the chance to do it.”
Allan stared at him, offended.
“Maybe I broke the law once or twice, but I’m not without honor! I wouldn’t steal from friends!”
Guy lifted his eyebrows in mock surprise.
“The point is that I’m not your friend.”
“You’ve been lenient to me. I owe you a hand, and I am grateful for that. It’s almost like being friends. So, is your manor very far from here?”
“We’re about halfway.”
A loud thunder startled them, and Allan pulled the reins to stop the wagon and calm the horses.
Suddenly, a tree fell on the path just ahead of them with a horrible crack.
The two men stared at the big trunk, horrified.
“If we had kept going, we would have been crushed!” Allan said, his voice shaking with fear.
Guy lifted the lantern to look at the path and, at the light of it, he looked even paler.
“It must have been because of this wind. We can’t go further.”
“So now passing through the forest doesn’t look like a very good idea, hm?”
Gisborne let out a curse under his breath.
“There is another path. We just have to go back at the fork in the road and take the left turn.”
Allan shook his head in fear.
“But it passes near the mounds! You should never go there at night!”
“Don’t be silly, they are just old tombs. And I’m not going back to Knighton in the middle of the night just because you are afraid of old wives’ tales.”
Allan shuddered, but he didn’t dare to contradict Guy. He could see that the knight was tired and snappish and he didn’t want to get on the wrong side of his temper. The legends about the mounds scared him, but he didn’t really believe in ghosts.
After all, the souls of the dead never hurt him, while human beings often did.
Guy closed his eyes for a moment, stifling a yawn, and he wondered if it wouldn’t have been better to accept Marian’s suggestion and spend the night at Knighton. He felt exhausted and he knew that it wasn’t just the usual fatigue he could feel after a difficult day of work.
He had been seriously unwell and he should have spent more time resting at the manor to recover.
He hoped that he wouldn’t get sick again or it would be the end, because surely the sheriff wouldn’t give him the time to heal.
Guy was angry because he had been treated unfairly. The sheriff had no right to send him away from the castle as if he were a useless old dog! He had always been loyal and it wasn’t his fault if he had been so dreadfully ill!
To think that De Fourtnoy was ready to snatch away the fruits of Guy’s hard work made him even more mad.
Allan A Dale, sitting at his side, was urging the horses to go faster, and Guy couldn’t help grinning at the idea of the young man relieving himself on De Fourtnoy’s most valued possessions.
It had been a petty revenge, and Guy knew it, but also deeply satisfying.
Guy realized that he was glad of having Allan’s company. The silly chatter of the man made the ride through the forest less dreary, at least it helped to pass the time, and earlier he had obeyed his orders readily, loading and unloading the wagon in the most efficient way.
Maybe, Guy thought, if Allan kept proving himself useful, he could really offer him a job at Locksley. He could use someone with a quick brain, after all, and his cheeky behavior entertained him.
He just had to find out if he could trust the man.
Guy eyed the dark shapes of the mounds, so close to the path, and he had to stifle a shudder. He didn’t believe in that nonsense, but maybe his imagination was a little too suggestible after the illness and he was feeling uneasy.
Seeing that Allan was trembling in fear didn’t help much, either.
“Stop it!” He ordered, and the younger man jumped, startled.
“Stop doing what?”
“There is nothing unnatural here, is that clear? No ghosts, no demons, no lost souls. Pay attention to the falling trees and we will be perfectly safe.”
He had just finished talking when a blood-curdling cry broke the silence.
Allan yelped in fear, and Guy paled even more.
“Maybe it was some animal...” Allan ventured after a while, but Guy shook his head.
“No,” he whispered. “It was a human cry, the voice of a woman, I think. And it was close, it came from behind that mound.”
“Let’s go away, Giz!” Allan pleaded.
“Maybe somebody is in danger. We have to check. Come.”
“Do we have to?”
Guy rolled his eyes.
“Very well, stay there if you prefer, but I’ll go to see what’s going on.”
He jumped off the wagon, and he headed to the mound with the intention of going round it. After a moment Allan reached him, grabbing the edge of Guy’s cloak.
“Wait! Don’t leave me alone!”
They walked carefully around the mound, ready to face any danger, until they could peek into the glade behind the ancient tomb.
They froze in fear: there was a stone in the middle of the glade, a big white rock, shaped almost like an altar, and a woman was lying on it, wearing only a thin nightgown, made of a cloth only a little whiter than her skin. A group of persons, a dozen or more, surrounded the stone, chanting an eerie dirge.
They were all dressed in black, with hoods covering their faces and each one of them held a torch in a hand and a dagger in the other. Guy wondered how those torches could keep burning in the rain and why those persons seemed to be completely untouched by the storm.
He looked at the woman on the altar, ready to fight to save her from those men, but he realized that it was too late: he breast was too still, her skin too white, and her nightgown was soaked in blood.
Guy could see the hilt of a dagger planted in her heart, and his fingers tightened on his sword, but Allan stopped him.
“What are you doing?! Are you crazy?!” He whispered urgently.
“Those are murderers!”
“Those are over a dozen and we are two. Do you want to end up like that lass?!”
“We must go to the castle and fetch the guards, then.” Guy said, realizing that Allan was right. If the girl had been alive, he would have faced them, but it would have been stupid to get killed when it was already too late to save her.
He began retreating, but not before he could see all those men pouncing on the dead girl to bury their daggers in her flesh without stopping their chant.
Guy and Allan ran away in horror, jumping on the wagon and turning it around, then Allan launched the horses at full speed, running away from that horrible place.
Meanwhile, the storm had got worse, and a howling wind slapped their faces with rain and shook the trees.
A broken branch fell on the wagon, violently hitting Guy, and the knight would have fallen from the vehicle if Allan hadn’t been quick to grab his arm and pull him back on the wagon.
Guy slumped on the seat, unconscious, and Allan kept holding him with an arm, while he used the other hand to hold the reins and lead the horses on the path, as fast as possible.
He wouldn’t go further in the forest for all the gold in the county, so he headed back to Knighton, hoping to remember the way. He surely would die of fright if he should get lost in the forest with a group of bloodthirsty killers ready to slaughter them.
Chapter 5: A Silver Ring
Marian couldn’t sleep.
She was wearing her nightgown, but she was restless, worried for her father’s health and for the situation of the county. The nobles had less and less power every day, and the sheriff was becoming a threat.
She walked to the window and opened it to look outside: immediately a raging wind soaked her with rain, and she hurried to close it again. She hoped that Sir Guy and Allan made it in time to Locksley before the storm became so strong.
With a sigh, realizing that she couldn’t sleep, she went downstairs to warm up some milk, hoping that drinking something warm could relax her enough and allow her to sleep.
The servants had already retired to their rooms, and only Matilda, the healer, was still in the hall, dozing in front of the fireplace.
The woman came to take care of Sir Edward and she had accepted to spend the night at Knighton Hall, but she had refused the offer of a room in the servants’ quarters, preferring a comfortable chair in the main hall.
She opened an eye, hearing Marian’s steps, and she smiled.
“Can’t you sleep, child? Are you afraid of the storm?”
“No. I don’t fear wind and rain, not when I’m safe and warm in my house.”
“That’s wise of you. So, what’s bothering you? Your father is frail, but we have no reasons to think that he will get ill again. It’s possible, of course, but don’t worry before it happens.”
“You are right,” Marian said with a sigh, “but sometimes I can’t help.”
The healer patted her cheek.
“Here, here, child. You have a good heart, but sometimes being too sensitive can be an inconvenience. Wait here, I’ll boil some water and I’ll add honey and herbs to it. It will soothe your mind and you’ll sleep well.”
She stood up to head to the kitchen, when they heard banging on the door.
“Help! Help!” A male voice screamed from outside, and the two women shared a startled look.
Marian took a bow, and she nocked an arrow, then she nodded at Matilda to open the door.
Allan was on the threshold, soaked with rain and with a panicked expression on his face, supporting with some difficulty Guy of Gisborne who seemed to be badly wounded and unconscious.
With a cry, Marian dropped the bow and she hurried to help Allan, immediately followed by Matilda. The healer was a strong woman and she was used to take care of sick people, so she supported most of Guy’s weight, dragging him to a bench and making him lie on his back, then she turned to Allan and Marian.
“Bring me hot water and clean towels, the towels first,” she said to Marian, then she turned to Allan, “And you tell me what happened and then help me to undress him.”
Marian ran to fetch what Matilda had requested, and the healer knelt at Guy’s side, pushing his hair away from his face to look at the wound on his forehead.
“How did he get this?”
“A… a branch fell from a tree...” Allan said, his voice shaking. “I thought he was dead, is he?”
Matilda shook her head.
“It looks worse than it is.”
Marian came back with a bunch of towels and a basin filled with hot water, and Matilda nodded.
“Very well. You are not afraid of blood, are you? Sit here on the bench and take his head in your lap. Here, press this towel on the wound, firmly, like this. It doesn’t look serious, but head wounds bleed a lot.” Matilda waited until Marian had obeyed, and she turned to Allan. “You, take away his cloak and his jacket, hurry. If the shirt is also wet, remove that too, then take that blanket and rub his skin, we must get him warm. What were you two fools doing out there in the storm?!”
Allan shook his head and he began sobbing, unable to answer, and Matilda looked better at him, suddenly worried.
“Hey, my boy, what’s up? There’s no need to be so upset, he’s a little battered, wet and cold, but it’s nothing really serious, don’t worry. A good fire, some hot soup and maybe a few stitches and he’ll be as good as new, you’ll see.”
Allan didn’t answer, and he curled on the floor, sobbing and trembling.
She hurried to do herself what she had just asked Allan, taking away Guy’s wet clothes and vigorously rubbing him, then she covered him with the blanket and she looked at Marian.
“Keep pressing that towel on his wound and call me when he wakes up,” she said, then she went to reach Allan to see if she could calm him down.
Marian looked at Matilda, sitting on the floor near Allan, an arm around his shoulder in a maternal hug. The woman was talking to him in a low voice, and the young man had stopped crying, but he was still very upset. Marian couldn’t hear what he was saying, but Matilda’s expression was very serious, so it had to be something bad.
She glanced down at Guy, removing the towel from his head for a moment to see if the wound had stopped bleeding. She sighed in relief seeing that it had, but she was worried for Gisborne.
He was still unconscious and too pale for her liking. His head was resting on her legs and he was deeply asleep. Marian thought that she wasn’t used to see him so helpless and relaxed and she thought that he looked younger.
Carefully she put aside the stained towel, and she took a clean one, dipping it in the water of the basin to clean the blood from his face. She carefully dabbed the wet cloth around the wound, and after a while Guy stirred, opening his eyes and blinking a couple of times before recognizing her.
“Marian?” He weakly asked, clearly surprised to see her.
Matilda heard his voice, and she hurried to go back to him, giving a last affectionate pat on Allan’s shoulders before leaving his side.
“You woke up at last, how do you feel?”
Guy tried to touch his forehead and winced.
“My head hurts.”
“I’m not surprised. A fallen branch hit you, if Allan’s words are reliable. Can you sit up?”
She helped him to sit on the bench, carefully looking at him.
“Here. Do you feel sick?”
“No, just sore and tired.”
“Good, you’ve been lucky then. What did you think? You’ve been a fool to venture outside in this storm! Do you want to get ill again?! And what did you do to that poor boy? He’s raving about crazy things, what did you say to frighten him like that? He’s talking about blood and murderers!”
Guy was still confused, but Matilda’s words made him remember the scene they had seen in the forest.
“He’s not raving,” he said in a low voice. “It’s true.”
“What is true, Guy?” Marian asked, and he turned to answer, but as soon as he saw her, he jumped to his feet, in horror.
“No! Not you too! Did they kill you? Are you a ghost?!”
Marian stared at him, wondering if he had lost his mind, but Matilda grabbed his arm and forced him to sit down again.
“First of all, keep calm or you’ll faint again. Then stop blathering and tell us what’s going on. That poor boy is shocked and terrified, and now you talk about dead people too...”
Guy kept looking at Marian, in a fascinated horror, and the girl blushed because she was wearing only her nightgown.
“Please, sir Guy, stop looking at me like that, it’s not proper.”
Gisborne frowned, surprised by her words, then he realized what she was meaning, and he averted his eyes in shame.
“I wasn’t...” he began, embarrassed, “It’s just… well, it’s that you looked like her, with that white nightgown and all that blood… I thought that you had been attacked too.”
“What are you talking about?” Matilda asked. “Like her… who?”
“The girl in the forest. She was dead, they had killed her… But... Marian? Are you hurt? You are covered in blood...”
Marian stared at the big stain on the front of her nightgown, and Matilda rolled her eyes.
“It’s your blood, you dunce! She staunched your wound, but it bled a lot and some got on her nightgown. But who’s this dead girl you and Allan are talking about? The poor boy is half dead with fear.”
Guy’s expression became somber.
“I think that we just found out what happens to the people who disappears.”
He told the two women everything he remembered about the glade, the altar and the group of hooded men who had killed a girl, chanting an eerie song. While he talked, slowly and in a low voice, Allan came closer to him, listening to his account.
“So it wasn’t a nightmare.” He said after a while, pale and tense, but much calmer now. “I thought I had gone mad, but you’ve seen it too. Those demons...”
“Those weren’t demons!” Guy said, vehemently. “They were men. Murderers.”
“What will you do, Guy?” Marian asked.
“I’ll tell the sheriff and I’ll take some men to the forest to search for the killers. We’ll have to give a proper burial to that poor woman, too.”
“Make sure to remember every detail. Sometimes a little thing can make a difference. You said that those men had their faces hidden, were they wearing a mask?”
“No, a hood. Like the one used by the hangman during executions. They also had a black cloak and they were holding a torch and a dagger.”
“Don’t forget the ring,” Allan intervened, looking at Guy.
“What ring?” The knight asked.
“They all wore an identical silver ring. Maybe you didn’t notice it, but I always look to see if people wear jewels or precious trinkets.”
“Of course, thieves always search for stuff to steal.”
Allan had the good grace of blushing and he ignored Gisborne’s remark.
“However they all had this ring: it looked like a bird of prey, a falcon maybe.”
Guy stared at him for a moment, then he grabbed his cloak and rushed outside before Matilda could stop him. He came back after a while, carrying a little chest he had retrieved from the wagon and he placed it on the table. He opened it, and took a signet ring, giving it to Allan.
“Was it like this?”
Allan retracted his hand, and he let the ring fall on the floor.
“Yes!” He cried in horror. “Why do you have one too?! Are you one of them?!”
Guy picked up the ring, deathly pale.
“It’s worse than that.” He said.
“How so?” Allan asked.
“This ring has the seal of the sheriff. He gave it to me when I swore loyalty to him. Are you really sure that this is like the rings you saw in the forest?”
Guy dropped himself on the bench, with a defeated sigh.
“Then we can’t tell the sheriff. Whoever wears that ring is one of his most trusted allies.”
“What are we going to do?” Marian asked, anguished, but Guy didn’t have an answer.
It was Matilda who took the situation in her hands.
“Nothing, for now,” she said. “You two boys are cold, tired and upset and you should rest. You too, my girl. It’s no use to brood over this situation when we are all so distressed. I will stitch that wound,” she said, looking at Guy, “but then I want you to try and sleep. You shouldn’t even be here, actually, when I went to Locksley last time I told you to rest and recover for at least another week, didn’t I?”
Marian looked at the healer.
“Maybe I should wake up the servants to get a room ready for Sir Guy and to prepare a meal.”
“I don’t want to be an inconvenience and it would be better not to raise questions about tonight,” Guy said, worried. “I can rest here, on this bench.”
“You said that a room was ready for me, my child.” She said, looking at Marian. “Sir Guy can sleep there and I’m sure that we could easily place a cot for the boy there too. It’s in the servant’s quarters, but it’s always better than this bench, I think.”
“It’s alright with me,” Guy said. In a normal situation he would have disliked the idea of having to share a servant’s room with a rascal like Allan, but he was so exhausted that he just wanted to lie down in a warm bed and forget for a while the horrible events of that night.
“It is decided, then.” Matilda said, and Marian went to see if the room was ready and warm enough.
Allan followed her to help bringing a cot for himself, while Matilda carefully stitched Guy’s wound.
The healer looked at the knight’s face while she worked and he looked so dejected and tired that she felt some pity for him.
“Here, you’ll have a bruise for a few days and I think that it will leave a little scar, but it won’t be very noticeable, don’t worry.” She said, tying the last knot. “And you seem to be healthy enough, after all. You are a strong man, sir Guy even if you should take more care of your health.”
“I had no choice than going back to work, and even so maybe it was too late. De Fourtnoy, my rival, had already taken the chance to get in the favor of the sheriff. I think he wants my place and probably he has the power to get it now.”
“Do you really think it’s a good idea to work for the sheriff?”
“I swore my loyalty to him. And he can give me power.”
“What’s up with you men and power?! You are ready to die for it, and see what advantages you get from it! Name me a powerful man who was also happy with his life. You just said that the sheriff might be behind the terrible murder you witnessed in the forest and you are still sulking because another fool could take your position at the castle?! Are you insane or what? If I were you, I’d take the first chance to put a good distance between you and that man! You are young and strong enough, you could easily find a better master.”
“It’s not that easy. Loyalty is important to me.”
“One must deserve it! Or would you rather kill innocent people like those men in the forest did, just because your lord ordered it?”
“We don’t know if the sheriff is behind the murders!”
“But you are not sure he isn’t. If he ordered you to kill a maiden, would you do it?”
“Of course I wouldn’t!” Guy said, outraged, and Matilda smiled.
“There’s hope for you, then. Don’t let the obligations you feel towards the sheriff to blind your judgment.”
“Still, even if I wanted, he wouldn’t let me go.”
Matilda acknowledged his words with a sympathetic nod.
“I don’t envy you, but don’t think about it now. You can’t think about a solution when you are overtired, distressed and in pain like you are now. Have a good night’s sleep and things will look brighter in the morning.”
“I doubt it.”
“Maybe you are right, there is nothing bright in killed women, but after you rest, you’ll feel better, at least. Come, let’s get you to bed.”
The healer held a hand to him to help him to get to his feet, but Guy ignored it, with a little smile.
“I’m not a child, I don’t need help to stand up.”
“You lost a lot of blood and you were unconscious for a while, I just want to be sure that you don’t suffer any consequences. Go now, and try to rest. If you can’t sleep come back to me and I’ll give you some remedy.”
When Guy reached the room in the servants’ quarters, he was beginning to regret his rejection of Matilda’s help because he felt faint and his head was spinning a little. But Marian was showing him the way to the room, so he tried to ignore his weakness.
“It’s just a little room,” Marian said, in an apologetic tone, “you’re surely use to sleep in a better place. Maybe I should just call the servants.”
Guy glanced at the room: it was small and there just enough space for a bed and a cot, but it seemed warm and clean, and he was way too tired to care. He envied Allan who was already sleeping in his cot, wrapped in a thick blanket.
“It’s alright, thank you.”
“Sir Guy?” She asked, in a shy tone, as if she was ashamed by the question. “Allan kept saying that the people you saw were demons, ghost of the mounds… What do you think?”
Guy was a little surprised by her question, and he had to admit to himself that he had been scared in that glade, but he shook his head.
“I think they were not demons or ghosts, but what they were doing...” He couldn’t help shuddering at the memory. “That was… unholy. Their movements... the chant… the storm that didn’t seem to touch them… There was something wrong. Something terrible.”
“Like the eyes of your guards?”
Gisborne thought that she might be right. The uneasy sensation he had felt all morning while training his men was the same, even if a bunch of guards with a dead stare was much less scary than a murder in the middle of the forest. But in both cases, something was amiss.
“Be careful when you go to the castle, sir Guy.”
Guy nodded, a little moved that she was worried for him, but wishing that she would call him just Guy, without his title, in a more intimate way.
Marian walked away, and Guy finally could stretch on the bed, deadly tired.
Despite his exhaustion he was sure that he couldn’t sleep because he had too many upsetting thoughts in his mind, too many bad things had happened in a single day and he had no idea of what he should do.
With a sigh he looked at Allan, who was snoring softly and hugging a pillow, and he felt strangely glad that he was there, that he didn’t have to spend the night alone with his thoughts.
He closed his eyes for a moment, listening to Allan snores. When he reopened them, it was morning already.
Chapter 6: A New Job
Guy sat up in bed, swearing under his breath, and he hurried to get ready, then he ran out of the little room, wondering how he could have overslept.
He had been sure that he would spend a sleepless night, but he fell into a deep sleep as soon as he went to bed, so, when he woke up the sun was already high in the sky and he should have been at the castle already.
He rushed in the main hall, and he stopped abruptly, seeing Marian and sir Edward sitting at the table and eating their breakfast. They both lifted their eyes to look at him, and Guy felt himself blushing, knowing that he had to look ruffled and in disarray after dressing in a hurry.
“Good morning, Sir Guy,” Sir Edward said in a polite tone, “please, sit with us.”
“Thank you, my lord, but I can’t. I should be at the castle already, I must leave immediately.”
“No, you don’t.” Allan said, appearing from the kitchen with a dish full of food. Guy looked at him in horror as he sat at the table with Marian and sir Edward, as if it was the most natural thing.
“What do you mean? And what are you doing?! Go to eat with the other servants!”
The young man grinned at him.
“Hey, Giz, I’m not a servant, I’m a guest.” He pointed at Marian. “She invited me. And you don’t have to go to the castle today. A messenger headed for Locksley passed by, and he recognized your wagon, so he came knocking at the door. He said that the sheriff doesn’t need you today, and he left a message with your orders there.”
Guy grabbed the parchment, and he quickly read it: the sheriff wanted him to visit the villages and make sure that everything was in order. He looked at the message in anger and fear: those orders meant simply that the sheriff had no use for him, and that he didn’t want him at the castle. Guy guessed that De Fourtnoy could be behind this too: he surely was doing anything he could to diminish Guy’s importance in the eyes of the sheriff. The next step would be getting rid of him, surely.
He looked up from the parchment and he met Marian’s gaze. The girl was looking at him with a worried expression on her face, but she smiled sympathetically when their eyes met.
“Bad news, Sir Guy?”
“The sheriff doesn’t need me today.” He answered in a flat tone, trying to hide his distress.
“Share a meal with us, then.” Sir Edward said. “I hope that you are feeling better this morning, your… assistant told me that you had an accident in the woods on the way to Locksley.”
Guy took a seat, glancing at Allan and wondering what he had said about the events of that night.
“It’s nothing,” Guy said, “just a blow to the head, but I’m alright now. The healer stitched the cut and put a salve on it.”
“Riding through the forest can be very dangerous during a storm,” Sir Edward said. “I must apologize, Sir Guy, if my health had been better, I should have asked you to stay at Knighton Hall for the night, and of course you wouldn’t have to take the trouble to accompany us here. I feel somehow responsible for your accident.”
Gisborne was relieved to learn that Allan didn’t tell him about the murder: the elderly lord seemed to feel a little better, but he still looked pale and frail and it was better not to upset him with the full account of that night’s events.
“Please don’t be. I have been careless, thinking that I could outrun the storm. I was wrong.”
Sir Edward nodded.
“I’m glad that you suffered only little damage from this mishap. I heard that a tree almost fell on your wagon.”
“It almost crushed us!” Allan said, helping himself of more cheese and washing it down with another cup of wine. “And then that branch hit Giz in the head and I was sure that he was dead, so I ran back here to get help!”
Gisborne looked at him, irritated by the young man lack of manners and by his cheekiness, but mostly because he knew that he had probably really saved his life in the forest.
Twice, he realized: the first when he had stopped him from attacking those murderers and then when he had been hit by the branch.
Absentmindedly, he scratched his forehead and winced in pain when his fingers touched the stitched wound. Marian gave a worried glance at him and he replied with an embarrassed smile before turning his attention to the food in front of him.
Despite his worry for De Fourtnoy’s attempts to oust him from the sheriff’s service, he was glad he didn’t have to rush to the castle. He felt still tired, even if the deep sleep of that night made him feel much better, and he was hungry.
His recent illness had left him weakened, taking a toll on his appetite too, but now he was glad to have the time to eat a good nutritious meal with Marian and her father.
The servants of Knighton seemed to be more efficient than those of Locksley, despite Thornton’s efforts: during the night someone had taken care of his clothes, cleaning them and putting them in front of the fireplace so that he found them almost dry when he had woken up. He guessed that it was because Knighton servants were happy to work for Marian and sir Edward and wanted to serve them as well as they could.
They all ate in silence for a while, but Guy realized that it wasn’t an uneasy or awkward silence.
There was warmth in it, the peaceful quiet of a loving family used to share meals together every day. Marian knew her father’s habits and she put in his dish the foods he wanted before he had to ask for them, and she filled his cup before it was completely empty. Sir Edward, in turn, set aside some of his sweet cakes to give them to his daughter, knowing that they were Marian’s favorite.
Guy remembered his mother doing the same thing for him and his sister, when they still were a family. He was shocked to find out how sorely he missed those moments and that he was enjoying probably too much sharing a meal with Marian’s family.
He had always thought that he wanted power and wealth, but his real, deepest wish was to have his own family, to never be alone again. He glanced at the girl: maybe in time she could become his family, but for now he didn’t dare to openly court her, fearing that she could reject him and destroy all his hopes.
Guy forced himself to avert his eyes from her and looked at the food in his plate. It was a good, nutritious meal, good to the taste and even for his health.
Allan, the rascal poacher who would have deserved a harsher punishment according to the sheriff’s laws, was enjoying the meal too, with way too enthusiasm, stuffing his face greedily, and eating as much as he could.
Guy rolled his eyes.
“You could at least mind your manners!” He scolded him, and Allan looked at him, innocently.
“Well, Giz, it’s not everyday that I have the chance to eat such good food. I might be forced to fast for days, who knows? You can’t blame me if I enjoy it now that I can.”
Marian gave a meaningful stare at Guy and the knight remembered what she had said the day before, when she had asked him to help the ‘poor starving man’.
He stifled a sigh, then he turned to Allan.
“If you’ll work for me, you won’t have to fast anymore, you’ll be fed and you’ll have a room in the servants’ quarters.”
The young man stared at him in surprise.
“Really, Giz? Are you offering me a job? What should I do?”
Guy had no idea, he just wanted to please Marian, so he shrugged.
“Whatever I ask you to do.”
Allan glanced at him, warily, pondering Gisborne’s offer. He felt that working for the knight might be dangerous, especially after the events of the night, but even stealing and poaching was a big risk and it didn’t guarantee any food or shelter, after all.
“I accept. If what you ask me to do doesn’t go against my conscience.”
“I hope you won’t find that bathing goes against your conscience because I expect you to do it as soon as we get to Locksley. And you’ll need new clothes too.”
“As you wish, Giz, but these clothes are all I have.”
“I’m sure that Thornton will find something suitable.”
Allan nodded, then he went back to pay all his attention to the food.
Guy looked at his trunks that were still on the wagon. Despite the night’s storm, his belongings were undamaged by the rain and Guy was glad that he had always preferred simple but strong and well crafted furniture.
Allan had gone to take the horse from the stable to tie it to the wagon, and Guy wondered if his decision of hiring him had been wise.
The truth was that the young man amused him, his foolish replies distracted him from his darker thoughts, and, after all, he had saved his life in the forest. Guy didn’t like to feel in debt, but the funny thing was that Allan was the one who acted grateful to him, as if saving him from having his hand cut and avoiding that he wet his breeches while in the stocks were a much bigger deal than actually saving Guy’s life twice.
While Guy was waiting for Allan, Matilda arrived from the forest, and almost at the same time, Marian came out of the manor, a little sneakily. The two women both reached him, and Matilda smiled.
“I see that you didn’t suffered heavy consequences from that blow,” the healer said, looking at him, “you are just a little pale, but it’s normal after a blood loss. If you eat and rest enough you’ll recover soon.” She turned to Marian. “ And how is Sir Edward feeling today?”
The girl sighed.
“Weak and maybe a bit feverish, but at least he was feeling well enough to sit at breakfast with us.”
“Put these herbs in his soup during winter, they could make him stronger and less subject to winter ailments. I woke up early to pick some for your father.”
Marian accepted the herbs gratefully, thanking Matilda for her kindness, then she turned to Guy, serious.
“What are you going to do about that dead woman?” She asked and Guy was a little disconcerted by the bluntness of her question.
“I haven’t decided yet. I should report everything to the sheriff and then take her remains to her family so they could bury her, but...”
“...but you are afraid that the sheriff could be behind that murder.” Marian concluded for him.
“Hush! Never say such things aloud!” Guy said, worried.
“But it’s the truth.” Marian said, but she lowered her voice to a whisper. “You fear that the sheriff could be displeased to know that you witnessed the events of last night. Sir Guy, we can’t leave that poor woman there, without a decent grave!”
Guy blushed, ashamed to admit that she was right about his fear.
“He doesn’t need to know, does he?” Allan said, startling them all because they hadn’t heard him coming back.
“Never do that again!” Guy yelled at him.
“Do what?” Allan asked.
“Arriving silently behind my back. I could have run you through with my sword!”
“Sorry, Giz,” Allan said sheepishly, “I guess that being silent is a useful habit when you have to lift people from the burden of unnecessary possessions… But dangerous in other situations, I see. I’ll be more careful.”
“What did you mean earlier? That the sheriff doesn’t need to know...” Marian asked.
“He doesn’t need to know that we were there. We could just say that we found the body in the forest this morning, by chance.”
They all looked at him, surprised that such a simple idea could actually be the best solution.
“I’ll come with you and we’ll say that I found the body while I was searching for my herbs.”
“It is decided, then,” Guy said, relieved.
“I have to see sir Edward and check his conditions, then we can leave,” Matilda said, then she headed towards the manor without waiting for an answer.
Marian looked at Guy, deadly serious.
“I’ve been thinking, sir Guy… Yesterday at the castle I’ve seen a group of people arriving from the north road… I saw them from the window of my room and they were far away, so I couldn’t see their faces, but they were all dressed in black… Do you know who they were?”
“Hey Giz, they must be the same people we saw in the courtyard yesterday!”
“I don’t know who they were, but they wore the sheriff’s insignia.” Guy said. “And at the council the sheriff said that he was giving our rooms to ‘more deserving’ guests...”
“Do you think they could be related to the men you saw in the forest?” Marian asked.
Guy massaged the bridge of his nose, feeling suddenly exhausted.
“Maybe. Or maybe not. We must be careful. Don’t talk about it to anyone.”
“I won’t. I wouldn’t know who I could tell, actually… My father is too unwell to burden him with this worry.” The girl sighed, thinking that once she would have shared her secret with Robin and he would surely have found a solution.
But Robin was dead and she had no close friends.
Chapter 7: A Brave Knight
Matilda glanced at Allan’s frightened expression and she noticed that even Gisborne was pale and tense.
“Are you afraid of the mounds?” She asked and Guy glared at her, trying to understand if she was making fun of them, but Matilda quietly continued. “I don’t know if the spirits of the dead still haunt them, but even if they do, you shouldn’t fear them. They are just faded memories, a little more than a gust of breeze, they can’t touch you. You must respect them because they once were persons, like you and me, but keep your fear for living people. It’s them who might harm you.”
Allan stopped the wagon and Guy helped the woman to get down.
“It’s here?” She asked.
“The glade is behind that mound.” Guy said, and the woman nodded.
“Very well, now let me go ahead and follow me, then.”
“Why?” Allan asked, a little surprised.
“Matilda thinks that the murderers might be still around or maybe they left a watch. If she goes ahead, it will seem that she’s leading us and nobody will suspect that we witnessed what happened there.” Guy explained, and Matilda approved.
“See? You can be clever if you want. I wonder why you didn’t use this cleverness when you chose your master. To work for the sheriff was a dumb choice, no doubts about it.”
“You don’t always have a choice.” Guy said, frowning.
“That’s not completely right,” Allan intervened, “Usually you have a choice, but sometimes the other option is not really appealing. Losing a hand or spending a few hour in the stocks? Easy choice. Public humiliation or a few hours of work? Easy choice too.”
“Starving or having to work for someone who you dislike?” Guy suggested.
Allan looked at him.
“But I don’t dislike you, Giz.”
“I wasn’t talking about you,” Guy said with a bitter smirk.
Allan wondered if Gisborne was talking of himself, surprised that a noble could suffer hunger just like any peasant, and he was about to ask more about it, when they arrived in the glade.
Matilda looked at the white slab of stone standing in the middle of the meadow, and she gave a puzzled glance at the two men.
“Are you sure that this is the place?”
“I recognize the shape of that stone, but how is it possible? Where is the body?!”
Guy looked around too, shocked. He recognized the place, he remembered the dark shapes of the trees even too well, but there was no trace of the murder: no blood on the stone or on the grass, no footprints in the mud and, above all, no corpse.
“They must have hidden it, buried it somewhere in the woods. And the rain washed away everything else…” He said.
“Or maybe it was a dream! Maybe they were ghosts!” Allan suggested.
“We wouldn’t have the same dream.” Guy said, but he didn’t rule out the other possibility, and he gave an uneasy glance at the mounds.
“Whatever it was, there’s nothing more that we could do here.” Matilda said. “Let’s go back to the wagon.”
The two men promptly agreed and they departed to Locksley again.
“Do you need a ride to your house?” Guy asked, looking at Matilda, and the woman shook her head.
“I’d prefer coming to Locksley if you don’t mind. I promised some of my remedies to Thornton, and then I’ll stay with my daughter at the village. Her husband is a soldier and he’s away, at war. Rosa is with child and I want to keep an eye on her. I’d ask her to come back to my hut in the forest and stay with me until the child is born, but maybe it’s safer if I stay at her house in the village instead.”
“Why?” Allan asked. “You don’t seem one who’s afraid of anything.”
“I’m not afraid, but I’m not stupid either. Too many disappearances recently, I want to keep Rosa safe.”
“It’s true, then?” Guy asked. “Marian heard of people disappearing, mainly orphans or lonely elders...”
“I’m afraid it is true. And if what you saw in that glade is also true, I’m even more worried about the fate of the people who disappeared.”
Allan clenched the reins of the wagon to hide the trembling of his hands.
“What are we going to do?” He asked, looking at Guy.
The knight wondered why the young man seemed to believe that he could have a solution, but to see so much trust in his eyes flattered him and it made him want to actually find one.
“First of all we must tell no one what we have seen in the forest. Then we have to find out more about the people who disappeared, but we shouldn’t give the impression that we are inquiring into it. We don’t know who is behind that murder, but if it’s the sheriff or his allies we must tread carefully. The sheriff is the law.”
“Wise words.” Matilda said. “I’ll listen to what people say and I’ll let you know if I find out something. But first of all I want you to take care of your health: you’re the only one who could put a stop to these disappearances and if you get ill again it won’t do.”
“Me?” Guy was surprised by her words.
“Yes, you. Who else could help us? The sheriff wouldn’t listen to the fears of the people, and he might be behind all this too, the nobles are too weak and scared to do anything, and however they don’t care. Lady Marian does, but she’s a women, she has no power, what could she do? But you, sir Guy, you are a strong man, you have position and maybe you could do something.”
Guy didn’t know if he actually had any power.
“How can you be so sure that I want to be involved in this?”
Matilda gave him a knowing stare.
“I spent many weeks at your bedside, sir Guy, I used many hours of my time trying to save your life at first, and then to restore your health as fast as I could, so I can say that I spent a lot of time in your company and I came to know you a little. Some say that when a man is asleep, you could see his real face, and I watched over your sleep for many nights, trying to abate the fever that was killing you. I saw your real face, probably I know it better than you do, because sometimes it can be difficult to look at one’s true self without feeling vulnerable or ashamed...”
Guy averted his eyes and he felt his cheeks growing hot, but he wasn’t sure if it was because he was feeling enraged or just embarrassed. He wanted to yell at the woman to stop blathering, but deep inside he felt that what she said was true.
“So...” He asked after a while. “How is my true face?”
Matilda looked at him.
“You can be as dangerous as a ferocious wolf when you are angry, and you’re too loyal to a devil who doesn’t deserve it. You did terrible things at his orders, and that’s why I didn’t want to treat you at first. I thought that the world would be a better place if you died.”
“Hey, that sounds harsh, madam,” Allan intervened, “but you cured him anyway, didn’t you? What made you change your mind?”
“At first Thornton did. He’s a good man, and he was really worried for his lord. He had been working at the manor since he was a young man and he was deeply loyal to Locksley’s previous owner, Robin. He was distraught when the news of his death came, but the deep affection for the former owner didn’t hinder the commitment he put in his job, even under a new lord of the manor. Thornton was loyal to Robin of Locksley, and now he’s loyal to you, sir Guy. You should better take notice of it and appreciate that man. But this wasn’t the point, I accepted to treat you and so I learned to know the man behind the wolf. I thought you heartless and cruel, but I soon I found out I was wrong. You had a very high fever, and you kept calling for your mother. You spoke in french, but some words are unmistakable, did you know?”
Guy gave her an angry glance.
“Stop ridiculing me, woman!” He snarled, but Matilda smiled affectionately at him.
“I would never laugh of the love of a man for his mother: it’s a noble feeling, and it made me realize that you weren’t a devil like the sheriff, after all. You asked me why I’m so sure that you could stop those disappearances and the evil crimes like the one you witnessed in the forest… It’s because I think that you are a decent man and a brave knight.”
Guy stared at her in surprise, trying to realize if she was making fun of him, but she looked sincere, as if she really meant what she had just said.
“You’re the only one, then,” he muttered, his face becoming even more flushed.
“I don’t know you well, yet, but I think she’s right! You saved my hand after all!” Allan intervened, happily.
“Because Marian asked me to have mercy. You should thank her.” Guy replied, bashfully.
“I will. But she wouldn’t have asked if she didn’t see any goodness in you, don’t you think? And you agreed to spare my hand, so for me you are a good person.”
“Well, it doesn’t mean that I’ll be able to do anything about this situation.” Guy said, grumpily.
“But you’ll try.” Matilda said, and Guy didn’t deny it.
“Welcome back sir Guy,” Thornton said, gesturing to the other servants to unload the wagon, and he looked at Gisborne, worried. “What happened to you, my lord? Your head...”
Guy touched the cut on his forehead, wondering if the wound was so evident or if it was Thornton who noticed any little detail.
“It’s nothing, an accident in the forest. Matilda already took care of it.”
The healer grinned.
“He has been lucky, but make sure that your lord eats nutritious meals and rests a lot: he was already weakened by the illness and the blood loss didn’t surely help.”
Guy rolled his eyes.
“I’m not a child or an idiot, you don’t have to tell my servants to make me eat or sleep.”
“I just want to be sure that you don’t ruin all the work I made to save your life. Men can’t be trusted with such trivial things, so women have to take care of them.”
Gisborne shook his head with an ironic smirk, but he let the healer give her instructions and her herbs to Thornton. If he had to be honest, he didn’t really dislike the little motherly attentions Matilda sometimes had for him, but he would never admit it openly.
Thornton looked at the servants who were carrying the trunks into the manor, but he didn’t dare asking for an explanation to his lord. Gisborne noticed his surprised look and he told him that he wouldn’t be living at the castle anymore.
Something in his tone warned Thornton to avoid asking for the reasons, but he acknowledged the new situation and acted accordingly.
“If it’s alright for you, my lord, we could serve breakfast earlier in the morning, so you will have all the time to go to the castle without having to hurry. And we could hang thicker curtains in your bedroom, so it will be warmer at winter. We should get more firewood than usual, I’ll tell the men to cut some more in the next few days.”
“Very well, do it.”
Thornton bowed, then he glanced at Allan, who had been standing aside and waited with a worried look on his face.
“Sir Guy? Who is that man? I’m sure he’s not one of our men.”
“He works for me,” Guy said, and Allan smiled brightly hearing his words. He had clearly feared that Gisborne could change his mind and send him away.
“Find a room for him and clean clothes,” Guy continued, “you can find something in the old trunk I have in my room, the one under the window. I think there are clothes I used to wear when I was younger. They no longer fit me, but I kept them because they were made of a good fabric. I think that they could be good for him. But before dressing him, he needs a good bath. And so do I.”
“Yes sir Guy.”
Thornton gave orders to the servants, and he watched them as they hurried to obey, then he turned to look at Guy.
“If I can be honest, my lord, I’m glad that you will be spending more time at the manor.”
Guy lifted his eyebrows in surprise.
“You will bring your guards with you, I suppose...”
“No, I won’t. They are more useful at the castle.” Guy would never admit in front of a servant that he didn’t trust his men anymore. If Thornton was disappointed by the news, he didn’t show it.
“Your presence will still be a relief, sir Guy.”
“What do you mean?”
“The people of Locksley are afraid. They whisper about devils lurking about the village and waiting for the chance to snatch people from their houses. Having you here might give them the impression that the village is more protected.”
Guy doubted it, but he was surprised to hear that even the people of Locksley had heard about the disappearances.
“Do they have any reason to be afraid? Did something happen here?”
Thornton nodded, a serious expression on his face.
“Yes, sadly, something terrible, I fear. I had already heard gossips about people who disappeared, but I didn’t pay much attention to them. Usually people spoke of facts that had happened in some other village and to people who already lived at the edges of society, so I tended to rule them out as useless chatter, stories made up to scare children into good behavior. But yesterday a person disappeared from Locksley, and it wasn’t a beggar or a scoundrel, but a young, innocent girl at the eve of her wedding day.”
Guy held his breath and he glanced at Allan, afraid that the young man could say something about the murder they witnessed in the forest, but luckily Allan was too busy enjoying the plate of food he had managed to get from the cook. Matilda had disappeared in the kitchen, probably to give instructions of some kind to the kitchen staff or to prepare some of her foul smelling remedies.
Gisborne turned his attention back to Thornton.
“Tell me more about it, what happened?”
“Lysette is the daughter of the miller, a good girl, always quiet and modest and willing to do her chores to help her family. She had been promised to the son of the blacksmith when she was little, but she was happy about their betrothal, they grew up very close and they were eagerly waiting for their wedding day. It should have been today, have you noticed that the church had been decorated with flowers?” Thornton sadly shook his head before continuing. “But yesterday Lysette went to the river with her friends, to spend a last day with them remembering their childhood games before becoming a wife, but she never returned home. Her friends say that, while they were walking by the river, she went a little further into the woods to relieve herself without being seen by them. The other girls mocked her a little because of this, but they knew her shyness, so they just waited for her to come back. She never did. They waited and waited, then one of the girls went to search for her, afraid that she could be feeling sick or that she got lost in the forest, but she couldn’t find her. They all searched for her, without success, so they alerted the village and everyone joined the search, but then the storm forced everyone to go back to their homes. Her betrothed is mad with fear, as soon as the storm abated he was in the forest again.”
“Can you describe the girl?”
“I don’t know her very well, but I’ve often seen her at the market, selling her mother’s pies: she’s a nice girl, not a beauty, but pretty enough, with long dark hair and a pale complexion, not very tall. I hope they can find her unscathed, even if I’m afraid that something bad happened to her. There are too many outlaws in the forest...”
Guy shuddered, thinking that he probably knew what had happened to that unfortunate girl, but he couldn’t say it to anyone.
“Master, your bath is ready,” a servant announced, appearing on the door of the hall, and Guy was grateful for the interruption.
Chapter 8: Protection
The water was hot and it smelled of herbs, and Guy thought that it was probably Matilda’s deed.
The tub had been placed in his room, and the fire was burning brightly in the fireplace, so he didn’t feel cold when he began undressing. He noticed that clean clothes had been prepared on his bed, and the trunks he had brought from the castle were already tidily stored in a corner of the room, waiting to be opened and sorted by the maids. He idly wondered if such an efficient welcome was Matilda’s deed too, but it didn’t really matter: he felt tired, worried and weak and he was glad that the servants of Locksley did everything they could to make him feel comfortable.
He stepped in the tub, leaning his head on the edge, and he closed his eyes with a sigh. The water was very warm and its herbal smell was soothing on both body and mind, so Guy allowed himself to relax, trying to forget the events of the night at least for a while.
After a while, he heard the door opening and he glanced at Matilda who had just entered. He was a little embarrassed by her presence, but the woman just laughed.
“Don’t be shy, love, there’s nothing there I haven’t already seen when you were ill. Nice view, I won’t deny, but I’m past such things.” She grinned, seeing that Guy’s cheeks were even more flushed after her remarks. “Healers are used to see the bodies of the people they treat, no need to feel ashamed.”
Guy gave her a surly look to hide his embarrassment.
“So, what do you want?”
“Couldn’t you wait for a more… proper moment?”
Matilda took a stool and sat near the tub, close to Guy’s head.
“Now all the servants are busy taking care of your new friend, preparing his bath, scrubbing him clean, clipping his hair and choosing suitable clothes for him. And that boy is surely enjoying all these attentions, trying to make the best out of the situation. Nobody will pay attention to us, now, nobody will listen.”
Guy nodded, but he tensed when Matilda touched his back.
“What are you doing?”
“If anybody should enter, they’ll see that I have a reason to be here, that I’m massaging your back to ease the tension in your muscles and restore your health sooner. Relax and listen to me.”
“The kitchen girl told me about a young bride to be who disappeared from the village. Have you heard about it too?”
“I did. Thornton told me.”
“Do you think it was the woman you have seen last night?” Matilda asked in a whisper.
“I’m afraid so.”
The woman sighed.
“I feared that. Poor girl. What are you going to do about it?”
“I’m not sure. If Allan was right about the rings...”
“I think he was. That boy has a sharp eye and a quick mind. I don’t think he would be mistaken about it and then he recognized the ring you showed him. By the way, you should keep it well hidden. If people should find out that the killers wear a ring like that and that you have one of them, it would be the end of you. I heard voices about you...”
“What voices?” Guy interrupted her.
“Some people heard that it was a person dressed in black who snatched away the poor orphans who used to beg in the streets of Nottingham. Others pointed out that you always dress in black.”
Guy looked at her, in shock.
“Me? Do they really think that I could kidnap children to kill them?!”
“Well, you aren’t loved, you can’t deny it, and they have reasons to fear you. You punished them, burned their houses, even killed some of them, you can’t think that they can love you.”
“I executed the law! Do you think that I enjoy it? But without rules, Nottingham would be in a shambles!”
Matilda shook her head.
“Many of those laws are unjust. And even the fair ones are often harsh on poor people: they take away everything from people who have nothing.”
“But I’m not making the laws!”
“You enforce them. For the people who suffers them it’s enough to hate you.”
“Maybe, but how could they think that I would kidnap children or innocent people to make them disappear or to kill them?”
Matilda continued massaging his shoulders to relax the muscles in his back. She was relieved to see him so tense and outraged by the idea of being considered responsible for the disappearances, because now she was really sure that he wasn’t guilty or anyhow related to them.
“When people are afraid they don’t think clearly.”
Guy turned his head to look at her.
“I didn’t do it! Do you believe me?”
Matilda smiled at him, warmly.
“Would I be here if I didn’t? Yes, sir Guy, I believe you, and that’s why I advised you to keep your ring well hidden.”
“I will. The sheriff gave it to me mainly for reference, to make sure that nobody could try to counterfeit his seal, but I never really had the need to use it.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“If the sheriff’s allies are behind the murder and the disappearances, I’ll have to be very careful. To be honest I don’t know if I could do anything at all… But I can at least try to do something for the people of my lands, I can try to keep them safe.”
“Do it, protect them, and in time you will earn their trust and their respect. We can’t know what it’s going to happen in the future, but it’s good to be able to count on the support of your people.”
They were silent for some time, then it was Guy who talked, not looking at the woman.
“Matilda?” He called, and his voice was insecure. “What you said to Allan earlier, about the spirits of the mounds… Did you mean it? Are you sure that they can’t hurt people?”
Matilda inwardly smiled. So the brave knight was not so fearless, he was afraid of ghosts too...
“Why do you ask? It is too terrible to think that human beings could do the things that you have witnessed?”
“I’ve seen outlaws doing terrible things, and I had to deal with mercenaries hired by the sheriff, so I heard them talking, boasting about the things they could do to an enemy, about the atrocities they inflicted on their women… I’ve been greatly wronged in my life, I suffered because of injustice and in turn I did things I’m not proud of… I’m not innocent, Matilda, I’ve seen many degrees of violence and death and I have blood on my hands, but that… what we saw in that glade… that was different. Wrong. Unholy.”
Matilda stopped massaging his shoulders and she made a few steps so that she could face him.
“Ghosts have nothing to do with such things. Sir Guy, have you ever lost someone you truly loved?”
Guy thought of his parents, trapped in the burning house, and he fought with himself to keep a straight expression while he nodded. But Matilda could recognize the pain she saw in his eyes, and she lifted a hand to brush his cheek lightly, in a gesture of comfort. Surprisingly, Guy let her.
“Do you think that the souls of your loved ones would ever want to see you suffering?”
“I don’t know.”
Matilda glanced at him, surprised.
“Why? Why should they?”
“It’s my fault if they died,” Guy confessed, at last, and he immediately wondered why he had told the healer. It was a burden he had carried for years, every day of his life. His most painful secret.
But Matilda didn’t show horror or rejection and she looked at him with a sympathetic gaze.
“Were they your parents?”
Guy nodded again.
“Listen to me, sir Guy,” she said, in a sweet tone, “If my Rosa should cause my death, I could never, never, never hate her. I see from your eyes that you didn’t want them to die, that you feel the burden of your guilt… If you were my son, I’d feel sad for you, I’d pray that you could forgive yourself because you’d already have my forgiveness, but I could never want to hurt you, in any way. I’d want to protect you, always. Remember this, dear boy: even if there are ghosts still wandering in this world, most of them are the souls of normal, decent people like our parents. Why should they want to harm anyone? You could say that there are evil persons too, like your sheriff, but their spirits can only damage you if you give them power. They can whisper to your heart, twist your thoughts to mislead you, but if you don’t listen to them, they can’t touch you.”
Guy thought that the sheriff was already doing those things, that he was already able to manipulate him and everyone around him, but unlike the ghosts he could actually hurt people.
“Remember, sir Guy,” Matilda continued, “we can’t know if ghosts exists or not, but if they do, the souls of your parents surely protect you.”
“How can you be so sure of it?”
The woman smiled.
“Because that’s what I would do for my Rosa.”
The people of Locksley were gathering in front of the church, their faces somber and sorrowful. The women were praying and weeping, while the men looked tired and dispirited after spending the whole day in the forest, searching for the missing girl.
Guy moved his horse towards them, slowly. He felt nervous and not really sure if he was doing the wisest thing, but he had to say something to those people.
He gave a glance at Allan, who was riding another horse just a few steps behind him, and he shook his head with an amused smirk: the young man had done his best to stay in his favor choosing clothes that resembled the ones that Guy was wearing, and he had bathed so thoroughly that Guy could smell the scent of lavender on him from were he was, a few paces away.
Once Gisborne might have felt offended, thinking that the rascal was making fun of him, but he found out that instead he actually enjoyed his presence. The funny remarks of the young poacher lifted some of the gloom, and his company reassured Guy that at least he wasn’t alone in that situation and that at least one person would support him.
He stopped the horse in front of the villagers, and they all lifted their eyes to look at him, wary and afraid of his presence. They didn’t know what he wanted, and they feared that he wanted to punish them for searching the missing girl instead of working to earn money for the taxes.
“People of Locksley!” Guy said and the people waited, in silence. “I have been informed of yesterday’s events and of the danger that threatens the county. I was saddened to hear that an occasion of joy had been changed in a moment of fear and anguish, and I guarantee that I’ll do everything I can to protect Locksley and its inhabitants.”
“Words! Just empty words!” A young man cried. “Where was this protection when Lysette disappeared?!”
Guy guessed that the man had to be the betrothed of the girl, distraught with worry and sorrow. His heart tightened because he knew that his pain would never find relief. The best thing anyone could do for that man was to find the dead body of the girl so that he could at least mourn her and hope to move on, but Guy couldn’t say what he knew.
The villagers looked at the boy, in horror, clearly afraid that Guy could take a retaliation for his lack of respect, but mercifully it was Allan who talked next.
“Giz didn’t know about the disappearances, and be honest, no one of you really believed it could be a true danger until it happened to somebody you knew. But now we know it’s all true and we’re here to help.”
The people looked at him, wondering who that stranger was, why he was dressed in clothes similar to Gisborne’s, and why he dared talking to the knight in such an informal way even if he was clearly not his equal. But most of all, they were surprised because Gisborne didn’t seem to be angered by Allan’s words.
Instead, he nodded.
“I care for the safety of the village and for the well-being of its inhabitants, so until we can determine the nature of the danger, nobody must be isolated. The ones who live alone should consider staying with their family or to find an agreement and share a house for a while. Those who have no other option can come to the manor and Thornton will surely find an accommodation for them. The same applies to search parties and travels: never leave the village on your own, especially if you are going through the forest. Stay together, and be always ready to defend yourselves or to give the alarm in case of danger.”
“What are you going to do for my Lysette?” The young man asked again, still suspicious, but with less rage in his voice now. “Will you help searching for her?”
“Yes, of course.”
Chapter 9: Fugitives
Allan moved his horse to ride side to side with Guy, and he looked around before talking to the knight. He also lowered the tone of his voice, to be safe.
“Hey, Giz? Why are we still searching for that girl? It’s been over a week, now. And we know that we aren’t going to find her.”
Guy turned to him, a warning look in his eyes.
“I know, I know, not a word about it. But even if we didn’t know, we couldn’t expect to find her alive after such a long time in the forest, could we?”
“Her fiance won’t give up searching… I can understand him, I would keep searching for the woman I love, too. And as long as he does, we are going to show him our support. Matilda thinks that I should get the loyalty and the respect of the people of Locksley and this could help. After all, we could find her body or some traces left by the murderers and our presence could deter them from attacking other people.”
“I think the people are starting to appreciate what you are doing here. Yesterday Thornton told me that the villagers feel more safe now that you are here all the time.”
Guy’s face darkened.
“I don’t have much choice, do I? The sheriff sends me his orders and he’s giving me less important tasks every day. It looks like he doesn’t need me anymore.”
“Is that a bad thing? You have time to take care of your lands and you don’t have to cut hands or burn houses, isn’t this better?”
Guy shook his head.
“It would be if we had to deal with another sheriff. But Vaisey doesn’t keep useless things, if I can’t find a way to have some power again, he’ll get rid of me sooner or later.”
“Maybe you should go at the castle then, take some initiative to get back in his favor. I don’t know, maybe you could collect some extra taxes? Or catch some outlaw for him...”
“Some poacher, maybe? I have one right here.” Guy said with a smirk, and Allan looked at him, alarmed.
Gisborne laughed at his worried expression, and he shook his head.
“Just kidding.” He said, then he sighed. “You are right, I should try to do something to impress the sheriff, but the truth is that I lack the energy to do it.”
Allan looked at him.
“The energy or the will?”
“Both. Sometimes I feel so tired...”
“You are pale, mate. Are you feeling unwell?”
Guy closed his eyes for a moment.
“I don’t know. I don’t think I’m ill, but I’m not completely well either. Something is amiss, but I’m not sure what’s wrong with me.”
Allan glanced at him.
“Matilda is always scolding you because you didn’t take enough time to recover properly. Maybe that’s why you are feeling unwell. And this damp weather doesn’t help, surely. I’ve an idea, come.”
“There’s an abandoned house in the forest, not far from here. It’s just a ruin, but it’s sheltered enough to keep out the wind and it still has a sort of roof. If you light a fire, it gets warm enough, I know because I spent the night there a couple of times. We could go there and take shelter, eat something, get warm, maybe even take a nap. I’m sure you’ll feel better if you rest for a while.”
Guy wanted to dismiss the idea, thinking that it would be a sign of weakness to accept, but he actually felt weak and Allan’s suggestion was too tempting, so he followed him to the old house.
Gisborne was lying on his side on a soft bed of straws and he looked at the flames of the fire that Allan had started. The young man was stretched on another heap of hay, with his arms crossed behind his head. They had eaten the simple food that Thornton had placed in their saddlebags, and drunk the wine, warming themselves in front of the fire.
Guy was feeling pleasantly sleepy, and he was forced to admit with himself that he had actually needed that moment of rest.
“You are feeling better, aren’t you?” Allan asked, smiling. “You’re not so pale anymore. Take a nap and you’ll feel alright, I’m sure.”
“Why do you care so much?”
“Why shouldn’t I worry for a friend? All right, all right, I know that we are not really friends, that we are not equals, that you are my master and I just work for you, but I like you enough to worry for your health. And even if I didn’t like you, it would still be in my interest to make sure that you are well: if anything should happen to you, what other chances would I have? Who would ever give a job, food and a place to live to someone like me? I’d have to get back to stealing and poaching and I’d end up hanged sooner of later.”
Gisborne was surprised by his words, but he was glad to hear them. He rarely had any friends in his life and he wasn’t sure that he could ever experience true friendship, but he enjoyed Allan’s company too and he didn’t regret his choice to hire him.
“Very well,” he said, stifling a yawn, “I think I’ll follow your suggestion and I’ll rest for a while. Are the horses safe?”
“I took them inside, they’re in the other room and they have food and water. I also barred the door, so nobody can enter while we sleep.”
“Good.” Guy approved, then he wrapped himself tighter in the cloak and he closed his eyes, drifting into a peaceful sleep.
They both woke up much later, hearing a frantic banging on the door of the hut. Guy was the first to react, jumping to his feet and unsheathing his sword, while Allan looked around, confused and half asleep at first, and then really frightened.
“What’s up, Giz? It’s the demons?”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Guy snarled, then he turned to the door, raising his voice, “Who’s there?!”
“Help please!” The voice of a woman cried. “They are hunting us and my servant is wounded!”
Guy nodded at Allan to open the door, while he held the sword, ready to attack if it was some sort of trap. But when the door was opened, they could see that it was just a young girl, wet with rain and frightened.
The girl looked at the two men, stepping back, then she glanced behind her shoulders in fear before turning back to stare at Allan and Guy.
“Are you… are you with them?” She stammered.
“With them who?” Allan asked, and the girl shuddered.
“The masked men. They tried to take me, but my servant scared them away and we run! We got separated in the forest, but Djaq must be wounded, I found blood on my fingers and I’m not hurt!”
Guy and Allan exchanged a glance, knowing that the girl wasn’t lying because the murderers they had seen in the glade wore masks too.
“Where are those men?” Guy asked, thinking that he should send Allan to call for the other villagers if they wanted to catch the killers.
The girl stifled a sob, shaking her head.
“I don’t know. But please, we must find Djaq!”
Allan hurried to take the horses, and he took them outside, while Guy questioned the girl, trying to get all the information he could from her.
“We’ll try to find your servant, but it would be safer if you stay here. Bar the door and don’t open to anyone until we come back.”
The girl was distressed and upset, but she lifted her head to give him a decided stare.
“I will come. Djaq won’t trust you and it could be dangerous.”
“I wouldn’t harm your servant!”
The girl shook her head, stubbornly.
“It would be dangerous for you.”
Without waiting for Guy’s reply, she walked to Allan’s horse and she mounted on it, sitting behind the young man. Allan gave a questioning glance at Guy and the knight shrugged: if they wanted to hope to save the girl’s servant, they had to be fast and to find him before those murderers did, there was no time to argue with a willful lady.
They galloped into the forest, following the girl’s directions, trying to retrace her steps. The girl kept calling for her servant and Allan wished she wouldn’t because he was afraid that the murderers could find them, instead. But there was no trace of the killers.
They reached a place where the grass and the leaves of the trees were blackened and scorched, and Allan shuddered.
“It’s the touch of the devil! They burned the trees with hellfire!”
“Actually, it was Djaq.”
The two men turned to look at the girl.
“Djaq is a saracen, we used black powder to scare those men away.”
“Black powder? What is it?”
“I heard it’s a powerful weapon in the Holy Land: a powder that burns very quickly and that keeps burning even if you throw water on it. I didn’t know that there were people in England who knew how to make it...” Guy explained, surprised.
The girl pointed at a path heading into the heart of the forest.
“Djaq went in that direction.”
They followed the path for a while and the girl kept calling the name of her servant, her panic growing.
“What if they took Djaq?”
Guy kept his thoughts for himself, but he knew that if the servant had been caught, they wouldn’t likely find him alive. He glanced at Allan and he guessed that the young man was thinking the same thing.
They rode for a while, and Guy was about to suggest that they should go back to Locksley, when a weak voice answered the girl’s call.
“I’m up here...”
The girl shrieked joyously, and they all looked up: the servant, a saracen boy with big eyes and short, black hair, was lying on the branch of a tree, too weak to climb down on his own. Guy noticed that he had blood on his arm and that he was struggling to stay conscious. If he fainted, he would surely fall from the tree.
“Djaq!” The girl cried. “Stay awake, we’ll save you!”
Guy took a rope from his saddlebag and he threw it over one of the branches of the tree, then he used it to climb to reach the branch where the wounded boy was lying. Luckily he had learned to climb trees when he was a boy and it seemed that he was still able to do it, so he soon reached the wounded boy.
“I’m here to help,” he said, and the boy looked down, searching the girl’s gaze. Only then, he nodded, allowing Guy to take him in his arms and help him to climb down the tree.
While they slowly descended, Guy thought that the boy was lighter and shorter that he had thought, and that he had to be very young, but then he adjusted the hold on his body passing an arm around the boy’s chest, and he almost let the rope go, in surprise. They slipped down for the last part, and Guy landed on his feet, without letting the young servant fall, but he searched for Djaq’s eyes.
“You’re a girl!” He blurted, but he couldn’t say more because the saracen girl was pointing a dagger at his throat.
“You won’t tell anyone!” Djaq said, but the other girl hurried to reach them and put a hand on her wrist.
“No! They helped me to find you! And you can’t kill this one!”
“He works for the sheriff, they will hunt you if you kill him!”
Djaq shook her head.
“They will hunt me all the same because I helped you to run from home. And if they find out I am a woman...”
Guy looked at the saracen girl: she was wounded, exhausted and she was clearly in pain, but her look was very determined.
“I won’t tell, I promise.” Guy said, and Allan recovered from his surprise to frantically nod.
“You can trust him, he won’t tell! We won’t tell! But may I suggest to go away from the forest before the people who attacked you come back to kill us all?”
Djaq searched for the other girl’s gaze, then she slowly lowered the blade.
“If you betray us, I’ll kill you.” She said, then her legs gave way and she fainted.
Guy caught her in his arms before she fell to the ground, and he stared at the other girl.
“How do you know who I am?”
“I saw you once: the man in black on his black horse… But you look a bit different now.”
Gisborne adjusted his hold on the unconscious girl, and he struggled a little to mount on his horse without hurting her. Allan hurried to help him, and when he finally was on his saddle, Guy turned to look at the girl, curious.
The girl mounted again behind Allan, and she shrugged.
“I’m not sure. Less haughty maybe.”
Guy moved his horse to take him out of the forest. Allan feared that the masked men could come back to kill them all, and he didn’t feel safe either. He glanced at the girl.
“Who are you? What were you doing in the forest? It was stupid to come here just with your servant.” Guy asked, and the girl glared at him, fiercely.
“I’m not a stupid girl! My name is Meg.”
“Not a stupid girl? Was it wise to come here unaccompanied, then? You almost got killed and your servant is wounded.”
“So, should I have run from my home with an escort, clever?”
“Why did you run from home?” Allan intervened, curious. “You look like a rich girl, you don’t seem to be starving and you don’t have bruises, so you have food in your home and no one beats you. Why should you want to run away?”
“My father wanted to force me to marry.”
“Isn’t that what rich girls do? They all dream to get married and have kids.” Allan said.
Meg let out an unladylike growl.
“Men are stupid! And so were the suitors my father had chosen for me! One was a drunken sot, the other looked like a donkey, and the third was an halfwit with the brains of a tree. But the fourth… that was the worst of them all! He was rich and that was the only quality he had.”
“Well, that’s not a bad quality, is it?” Allan objected.
“Yes, it is! He became rich selling slaves! He takes prisoners from the Holy Land and he sells them to whoever is willing to pay the price.” She turned to look at Guy. “Your sheriff bought a group of them to make them work in the mines!”
Gisborne knew that she was right: the sheriff didn’t care at all for the safety of the people who worked down there, and he often used slaves because they costed less than local miners and they didn’t have a family that could create troubles if they died in mining accidents.
“The King’s laws allow that,” he said, earning a ferocious stare from the girl.
“Moral laws don’t! They are human beings like you and me!”
Guy glanced at Djaq, asleep in his arms.
“But you have a slave too.”
“Djaq is not my slave! She is a friend!”
“You said that she was your servant.”
Meg gave an annoyed look at him.
“Well, she is because my father got her when your sheriff didn’t want her because she looked too weak for the mines. He took her home because he needed a stable boy and the slave trader offered her to him for free, as a gift to make a good impression because he wanted to marry me. Neither of them knew that she was a girl, but I found out and we became friends.” Meg sighed. “They say that slaves are not like us, that they are more animals than human beings, but that’s not true. Djaq and I are alike: we were both prisoners, trapped in a situation we hated.”
“So you ran away,” Guy said, softly.
“Will you tell the sheriff? I’d rather die than going back to my father’s home.”
“She will die if we don’t get her to a healer soon.” Guy said, looking at the blood on the girl’s tunic.
“Giz? Are we taking them to Locksley?” Allan asked, and Guy shook his head.
“No, it wouldn’t be proper and the sheriff would find out too easily. I don’t wish to have to give explanations to her father or to be accused of abducting her. We’re taking them to Knighton: they’ll be safe with Marian and there is a good chance that Matilda is already there to care for sir Edward.”
Chapter 10: A Safe Shelter
Matilda sat at the table in Knighton Hall’s kitchen, and she opened her bag, choosing the herbs to put in sir Edward’s wine. The old man was weak and feverish and Marian was right to be worried: it would be easy for him to catch some illness, and even a simple cold could become dangerous in his weakened state. If even a strong man like sir Guy had barely survived his illness and he had needed weeks and weeks to recover, the elderly lord would have very few hopes to pass the winter if his overall health didn’t improve.
The healer looked at the girl, who was moving in the kitchen to check the dishes prepared for her father and be sure that everything was nutritious and easy to his stomach.
Matilda stifled a sigh of worry: that girl was brave and she dearly loved her father, but if sir Edward should die, she would find herself lost and helpless, with nobody to support her.
She could marry, of course, but it was probable that, without her father and without a betrothed, it would be the sheriff to choose a husband for her, and obviously that old devil would pick the one who would give the best advantage to him, not caring at all for the well-being of the girl.
I can only try to keep sir Edward in good health.
“Lady Marian?” Matilda called, gently. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
Marian glanced at her and she nodded.
“I think that you are older than my Rosa, but you are still unmarried. It surprises me that a noble lady, as pretty as you are, didn’t find a suitable husband yet...”
Marian answered with a sad smile.
“I thought I had found one, years ago. Robin...”
“Robin of Locksley?”
“I knew him, poor dear, I was the midwife who helped his mother during his birth, and I saw him growing up in a handsome young man. Were you in love with him?”
“We were betrothed...”
“...but he left for war and that’s why you didn’t get married... I’m really sorry.”
“I thought that I couldn’t live without him, that I wasn’t strong enough. I was wrong. I didn’t need him to live. But his death still broke my heart, even after so many years. I thought that I hated him for leaving me, then that I had forgotten him, but I found myself still mourning for him.”
Matilda nodded sympathetically.
“I understand. But many months passed by now, have you considered choosing another suitor? It’s unsafe for a girl to be alone in this dangerous world...”
“I’m not alone, Matilda, I have my father.” Marian said, avoiding her question.
Not for long, I’m afraid. Matilda thought, but she didn’t say it aloud.
A servant came knocking at the door before entering the kitchen.
“Lady Marian? I think you should come to the hall. Sir Guy of Gisborne came back, and he’s not alone. Matilda should come too.”
The two women stood up, worried. Why did Gisborne come back to Knighton? And what did it mean that he wasn’t alone? Maybe he was with his guards, acting at the sheriff’s bidding?
Marian shuddered thinking of the dead eyes of those men, but when she reached the hall, there were no guards: Guy and Allan, drenched in rain, were standing near the fireplace and Gisborne was holding an unconscious boy in his arms, while a girl, equally soggy, was standing near them, worried and upset.
Matilda gave a look at them all, then she took the situation in her hands.
“What happened to this poor lad? Put him on that bench and begin to undress him, while I get my bag.”
Guy looked at her.
“It would be better to take him into a room, to have some privacy,” he said quietly, and Matilda frowned, wondering what the matter was.
Marian couldn’t understand what was going on, but she nodded, and she led them to the same room where Guy and Allan had slept the night of the storm.
Gisborne laid Djaq on the bed, then he stepped back, lowering his voice to a whisper.
“She’s a woman, but nobody else should know.”
Matilda looked at Djaq for a moment, then she nodded.
“Very well. You and Allan should exit the room, then.” She stopped a moment to look at Guy, lifting a hand to touch his cheek. “You are deadly cold, my boy! Go to take off those sodden clothes and to get warm in front of a fire before you catch your death.”
Marian took the neatly folded towels from the hands of the maid, and she placed them on a stool near Gisborne’s chair.
She looked at the knight who was now wearing one of her father’s shirts, a deep blue one, and she thought that he looked different wearing a color that wasn’t black. Guy took a towel and he used it to dry his hair.
“Are you alright, sir Guy? Should I ask the maid to bring you a blanket?”
Guy shook his head with a smile.
“I’m quite well, really. Matilda worries too much sometimes.”
“Well, surely you look better than the last time I’ve seen you. Does it still hurt?” She asked, pointing at the wound on his forehead.
“No, just a little. Thank you for helping me, by the way. All that blood must have frightened you.”
“I was worried, but not scared. I’m not a squeamish girl, sir Guy.”
Gisborne looked at her, and Marian was once again surprised by the depth of his blue eyes. His penetrating gaze seemed able to look into her very soul and it upset her a little, as if he could guess all her secrets.
“I know. That’s one of the reasons why I...” He stopped, averting his eyes.
Marian looked at him, unsure if she should ask him to end his sentence. She was afraid of what he could say, but yet she couldn’t refrain herself from asking.
“What, sir Guy?”
I fell in love with you. He thought, but he didn’t say it aloud.
“That’s why I took Meg and Djaq here. They will be safe with you,” he said instead.
Marian felt disappointed, and she wondered why, but then her curiosity won over the pique.
“It’s noble of you choosing to help a damsel in distress, saving her from an unwanted marriage. Did you already know her?”
Guy gave a puzzled look at her. He had the impression that Marian's tone was a little ironic, even hostile maybe, and it surprised him.
“I’ve never seen her before,” he answered, frankly.
“Yet you took her here to search for protection from her father.”
“That’s not the main reason. I don’t really care if she gets married or if she chooses to become a nun, but I couldn’t leave them in the forest. Her servant was badly wounded and needed help, but that’s not the main reason either.”
“What do you mean?”
“Meg said that Djaq got wounded while running away from a group of men who were chasing them in the forest. Many men, all dressed in black with hoods on their faces, and they chanted something as they approached.”
Marian’s eyes widened.
“The murderers!” She said, in a whisper. “They could have killed them! How did they escape?”
“The saracen knows how to make a powerful weapon, the black powder and she had some with her. They used it to surprise those men and run away, even if one of them managed to stab Djaq, throwing a dagger at her.”
Marian didn’t answer for a while. A part of her wanted to reproach Gisborne for taking that danger to her house, but she also wanted to stop the disappearances and the murders, and she was surprised that the knight turned to her for help. She was scared and worried, but also a little flattered.
“Nobody must know that they are here,” she said, keeping her voice low.
“Can you trust your servants?”
“Yes, they know me since I was a baby. Did anyone see you coming here?”
Guy shook his head.
“I don’t think so. It’s raining too much, nobody would stay outside if they can help. There were men from Locksley who were still searching for the missing girl, but I think they all went home when the rain increased.”
“The missing bride? I’ve heard about her, poor girl. Do you think she could be alive?”
“I’m almost sure she was the dead woman I’ve seen in the forest, but obviously I can’t tell anyone and we couldn’t find her body.”
Marian sat down with a sigh.
“Poor girl. Her fiance must be distraught.”
“He won’t give up searching.”
Suddenly, Marian burst into tears, burying her face in the hands, and Guy stared at her in surprise.
“Marian? What happened? Was it something I said?” He asked, worried, then he dared to put a arm around her shoulders to pull her closer, in a sort of awkward embrace.
The girl hid her face against his chest, sobbing and clutching at his shirt.
Guy held his breath, uncertain on what to do. He felt guilty because the girl was obviously distressed, yet he couldn’t help enjoying her closeness.
He caressed her back slowly and with a light touch, gently, as he would do to calm a spooked horse.
Marian kept sobbing for a while, then her cry slowly subsided and she just stood still, her face resting on Guy’s shirt, now wet with tears. She could smell her father distinctive scent on that shirt, made of a mix of the petals he used when he bathed and of the balms that Matilda prepared for him.
The shirt was clean, but the strong scent of those balms clung to the clothes no matter how many times the servants could wash them. Marian didn’t mind, because that smell reminded her of the times of her childhood, when her father’s arms were a safe refuge and a hug could solve any problem and soothe any sorrow.
But now, mixed with that familiar scent, she could also smell something different: leather and horses, mainly, but also the scent of grass and trees and damp soil, the smell of the forest.
She suddenly remembered De Fourtnoy’s insulting remarks about Guy’s lodgings stinking of leather and horses, and she found herself thinking that those smells didn’t bother her at all. They were familiar, somehow reassuring, and they reminded her of Robin’s hugs: he smelled of forest and open air too, and she was surprised to find out how much she had missed being embraced like that.
She realized with a start that she was still hugging sir Guy of Gisborne, and she jumped to her feet, blushing.
“I… I’m sorry!” She stammered, “I don’t know what got into me… Please, forgive my inappropriate behavior. I’ll go to fetch some wine for you...”
She was about to head to the kitchen, but Guy stopped her, placing his hand on her wrist.
“Please, wait. You are upset, if it was my fault, something I said, pray accept my apologies. Sit down for a moment, I don’t need wine or anything else.”
Marian obeyed, still too upset to resist, and Gisborne lifted a hand to brush her cheeks and dry her tears, clearly worried for her.
She tried to smile at him, weakly.
“I’m sorry. You’ll think that I’m being mawkish, crying so much out of sympathy.”
“That’s because your soul is gentle.”
Marian let out a short, bitter laugh.
“Oh, no, quite the opposite instead.”
“What do you mean?” Guy asked, a little disconcerted.
“A gentle soul would cry because she feels sorry for the dead bride and the distraught fiance, not because their tragedy reminds her of her own lost love.”
Guy glanced at her.
“Robin of Locksley?”
“I hated him when he left me behind, I kept his memory away from my heart for so long that I was sure I had forgotten him, and yet I find myself crying for his death.”
“Do you still love him?” Guy asked ruefully, already knowing that her answer would hurt him.
Marian thought for a while before answering, wondering why she was talking about Robin with Guy of Gisborne of all the persons in the world. But somehow she felt that the knight wouldn’t laugh at her or betray her confidence.
I trust him, she realized.
“No,” she said at last, “but I still can’t let him go.”
The cook stared at Allan, sternly, but the young man didn’t pay heed to her and filled his plate with more cheese and bread, then he turned to give the woman a bright, innocent smile.
“Can I have some of that soup too? It smells good.”
After a while he walked out of the kitchen with a tray overloaded with food, and he went back to the hall.
He grinned seeing Gisborne sitting at lady Marian’s side in front of the fire and completely engrossed in conversation with her.
“Should I come back later?” Allan asked in a teasing tone. “Do you want some privacy?”
They were both startled by his voice, then Guy glared at him, while Marian giggled in amusement.
“Don’t be stupid, Allan!” Guy said. “What do you want?”
Allan placed the tray on the table.
“Matilda told me to feed you.”
“I don’t need anyone telling me when or what I have to eat!”
Allan sat with a grin.
“She knew that you would say that.”
“Yes, and she said to tell you that she already has enough patients as it is, and she doesn’t need another. She also said that if you should get ill again because you don’t take enough care of your health, she’ll send you to a farrier because she doesn’t treat stubborn donkeys.”
Guy stared at him, speechless for a moment, but he hadn’t the time to get angry because Marian burst out in a laugh. He should take offense, he thought, but he found out that he couldn’t: he had seen the girl weeping just a little while ago, and he only felt relieved to see her laughing, even if she was laughing of him.
“Forgive me, sir Guy, I’m being rude,” Marian said after a moment, trying to stifle her laughter, with little success. “I am not making fun of you, I swear, but sometimes Matilda has such a colorful way of expressing herself!”
Guy couldn’t help smiling at her.
“Oh, I know, believe me, I know!” He said, rolling his eyes in resignation. “You have no idea of the variety of awful things she said to me when I was ill, ‘stubborn donkey’ is almost a compliment. But I have to admit that she’s a good healer, without her I’d be surely dead, so I guess that after all I should listen to her ‘kind suggestions’ and eat something.”
Allan looked at Marian.
“She said that you should eat too.”
“Did she call me a donkey, too?” Marian asked, amused.
The girl grinned.
“Not yet, I guess. But I’m sure it’s only a matter of time. Everybody thinks I’m willful and probably it’s true.”
Both Guy and Marian stood up and they reached Allan at the table to share the food he had brought from the kitchen.
“Nobody ever urged me to eat,” Allan commented, looking thoughtfully at a piece of cheese before eating it. “I wonder why.”
“Maybe because you are always stuffing your face as soon as you have the chance to do it,” Guy suggested, and Allan nodded.
“Yep, that may be a reason, I guess. See, mate? You are bright.”
Chapter 11: One of Us
The portcullis of Nottingham castle was closed, and Guy stopped the horse in front of it. The guards at the gate moved to look at him, and Gisborne shuddered when he met their dead gaze.
He waited for them to open the gate, but they didn’t move.
“What are you waiting for?! The sheriff is waiting for me, let me in!”
“State your name and the reason of your presence at the castle,” one of the guards said.
Guy stared at them.
“Seriously? Open up immediately!”
“State your name and the reason of your presence at the castle.” The guard repeated in the same flat tone, and Guy glanced at Allan, frowning. The young man looked surprised too, and even a little scared.
Guy looked back at the guard, but the man didn’t move.
“I’m sir Guy of Gisborne,” he said at last, in a disgusted tone, “and I’m here because the sheriff summoned me.”
The guard waited for a moment, then he lifted the portcullis to let Guy enter into the castle. Allan was about to follow him, when the soldiers crossed their spears in front of him.
“What does it mean?!” Guy said, irked.
“State your name and the reason of your presence at the castle,” the soldiers said, in unison.
“He’s Allan A Dale and he’s my servant! Let him pass, we lost enough time already!”
“The sheriff didn’t summon him.”
They dropped the portcullis, and Allan made his horse retreat just in time to avoid being crushed by the heavy gate. He looked at Guy, in shock, and he saw that the knight was unsettled too.
“I’ll see you later, Giz!” He said, to reassure them both, then Gisborne entered the castle and Allan remained alone.
He walked away from the gate and he wondered why he was feeling so insecure now. He was used to be alone, he had to fend for himself most of his life and he shouldn’t feel so worried just because he had been separated from the man who had offered him a job.
But there was something weird going on at the castle, something wrong, and he felt scared.
Allan headed to the tavern. He had to wait for Gisborne somewhere and tavern were always welcoming places: they had ale, food and pretty girls, and they were a warm refuge during winter.
He entered the one just out of the walls of the castle, and he sat at a table in a corner, choosing, as an old habit, one where he could sit in shadows and go unnoticed, but where he could also be able to see the door and most of the room.
As soon as he sat down, he realized that something was amiss there too: usually the taverns of a town were overcrowded and noisy with chatter, laughter and brawls, but this time the place was unusually quiet, with just a few people sitting at the tables.
When one of the girls came to his table, Allan looked at her: she was pretty, with blonde hair curling around her face, but she was also pale and nervous, like a spooked horse ready to bolt.
“What’s up with this place? Where is everyone?” He asked in a low voice, and the girl stared at him, still frightened but also a little relieved.
“Oh, you’re not one of them, then!” She said with a sigh of relief. “I was worried because you were all dressed in black, but your eyes are not like theirs.”
“One of them who?” Allan asked, even if he could guess the answer.
“The guards of the castle. Once, when they came here they often created troubles for us, arresting our customers or demanding more taxes, but now it’s much worse.”
The girl lowered her voice further, stooping to talk in Allan’s ear. Once he would have been distracted glancing at her breasts, so close to his face, but now what she had to say worried him too much to really notice her body.
“They come here and sit at the table, and they order food and ale, the same thing for all of them, they eat, they drink, and then they go away.”
“What’s so terrible in this? It sounds normal to me, everyone comes here to drink and eat...”
The girl shook her head.
“It’s how they do it. They don’t talk, don’t look at the girls, they don’t seem to enjoy or dislike their food, they just sit there, drinking and eating as if they had no soul at all. They move together, at the same pace, they even take their spoons to their mouths at the same time, as if they were a single… thing. Their eyes are empty. Dead. The other customers stopped coming because they were afraid to find the guards here and I confess that I would go away too if I could...”
Another girl, taller and older than the first, with black hair tied into a thick braid, reached the first, worried.
“What are you saying to him?”
The first one shrugged.
“He’s all right, look at his eyes.”
The second girl stared at Allan, her expression wary and harsh.
“I’ve seen him, a week or two ago. The guards had arrested him and he has been in the stocks for the good part of a day. I haven’t seen him since.”
“Have you been in the dungeons?!” The first girl asked, in shocked surprise.
“Don’t be silly!” The other one said. “Don’t you see that he’s in good health? He looks clean too and he is wearing fine clothes. Don’t say anything else, maybe he is really working for them!”
“I work for Gisborne!” Allan said, a little irked to hear the girl talking as if he weren’t right there in front of them. “He set me free from the stocks and he offered me a job. So, what’s the problem?!”
The two girls stared at him.
“Gisborne?! Wasn’t he dead?” The blonde one asked.
“No, no, he’s alive,” the other girl answered, “I heard that he had been ill, but I’ve seen him at the castle after that. Could it be around the time I’ve seen this one being arrested?”
“I told you! Giz… Gisborne set me free that day.”
“Why? He’s evil too, just like the sheriff, why should he free a thief? You’re lying to us!”
“I may be a thief, but I’m not a liar!” Allan said, staring at the girls. “And he’s not that bad! Bad temper, yes, too loyal to the sheriff, yes too, but apart from this he’s a decent man!”
The two girls exchanged a glance, then they went back looking at Allan.
“You look like one of us, one of the people, why do you defend one like Gisborne? He takes our money and he punishes those who can’t pay. I heard that he burned the houses of peasants who had no money.”
“I don’t think he really has a choice about it. If the sheriff gives an order, he must obey. Look at what happened today, I’m sure that he didn’t really want to go at the castle this morning, but the sheriff called him and he had to show up.”
“Why aren’t you with him, them?”
“The guards didn’t let me pass.”
The blonde girl played thoughtfully with one of her curls, wrapping it around her finger and releasing it as she reflected on Allan’s words.
“Why not? Don’t you work for Gisborne?”
“That’s what he said to the guards, but they only let him in. I hope he’s all right... I must agree with you about the eyes of those men: they look scary.”
“Are you really worried for Gisborne?” The tall girl asked, incredulous, and she snorted in amusement. “I thought I had seen everything since I work in this tavern, but this is a novelty. Who would have imagined that even someone like Gisborne could have friends?”
“Come on, girls! Why should it be so strange? He’s a noble, he will surely have friends between his peers,” Allan said.
The younger girl smiled.
“Lady Marian of Knighton, maybe? My cousin used to work at the castle and she loved to gossip about the nobles. She said that Gisborne was often talking to her.”
The older girl dismissed her word with a laugh.
“Lady Marian doesn’t count. She’s a woman, still unmarried at her age and she’s not blind, of course she wants to talk to Gisborne. He may be a dangerous wolf, but surely he’s a handsome one. I wouldn’t mind if he visited the tavern in his free time.”
“Well, I am here, girls!” Allan said, quite brazenly, “Don’t you think I’m as handsome as Giz?”
The two girls burst out into a laughter.
“Hey!” Allan protested, “you’re hurting my feelings now!”
The older girl smiled at him.
“Well, lad, you won’t be as handsome as your master, but at least you’re funny. God knows we needed a laugh!”
Allan grinned, and he was about to reply with some other witty remark, but another customer entered the tavern and the two girls went back to their work.
Left alone, Allan ate some of his meal and drank his ale, but worry came back biting at his mind. He kept seeing in his memory the last glimpse he had of Guy of Gisborne before he disappeared in the castle, and he couldn’t get rid of the sensation that something horrible was going to happen to the knight and that he would never see him again.
Allan tried to convince himself that it was just a silly apprehension, and that however he wouldn’t be able to help Gisborne even if he tried: he was just a petty thief, a poacher, while his master was a strong and brave knight, perfectly able to defend himself with his sword. But somehow Allan couldn’t shut up the inner voice nagging at his mind, the so often dismissed voice of his conscience: it kept telling him that Guy of Gisborne wouldn’t get out of the castle alive if he didn’t do anything to save him.
He took another bite of cheese and he washed it down with the rest of the ale, then he lifted his hand to call one of the two girls, the taller brunette.
The girl came to the table and she looked at him with an amused grin.
“Do you want more ale? Do you have the money for it, lad? We said you’re funny, but not so funny that we would give you our ale for free.”
“No, to both of your questions. I need something else.”
“For free? You won’t get much from us if you have no money. But let’s hear: what do you want?”
Allan stared at her.
“Do you know if there is a way to enter the castle unnoticed?”
Guy entered the great hall, ignoring the guards who loomed near the door. He descended the stairs with his usual, confident stride, even if he wasn’t feeling confident at all.
The sheriff was sitting on his throne, with De Fourtnoy standing at his side, in the place that once belonged to Guy.
Gisborne gave a hateful stare at the master-of-arms, thinking that the man was surely plotting to damage him somehow. De Fourtnoy answered with a spiteful grin, as if he knew something unpleasant about Guy’s fate.
Guy forced himself to hide any insecurity he could feel: if he wanted to survive, he had to look strong and make sure that the sheriff couldn’t consider him useless.
He stopped in front of Vaisey and he made a little bow.
“My lord,” he said, waiting for the sheriff to talk.
“Gisborne. My boy. My precious knight. Tell me, are you loyal to me?” The sheriff talked in a mellifluous tone, searching for Guy’s gaze, and the knight nodded.
“Of course, my lord. I swore my loyalty to you a long time ago.”
Vaisey stood up, and walked to Guy, putting a hand on his shoulder, in a possessive grab.
“See, De Fourtnoy? You had doubts, but I know my boy, and I know that he can be trusted.” He turned to Gisborne, and he brushed his fingers on his cheek, slowly. “Do you remember when we first met, Gisborne? How old were you?”
Guy swallowed, trying to hide the discomfort caused by the sheriff’s touch.
“I was very young, my lord.”
“And you were a little more than a beggar, weren’t you? You and that little sister of yours. But I fixed that, I found a husband for her, one who would pay you, so that you could afford to become a knight...”
Gisborne couldn’t hide his surprise.
Vaisey smiled, a sickening sweet smile.
“Did you really believe that a rich squire would be interested in a little brat like your sister? That he could like her so much to pay a price for her, when usually it’s the man who gets the bride’s dowry? No, Gizzy, I paid him to fake his interest and to give you a good price for her.”
“Why?” Guy asked, almost speechless.
The sheriff caressed his cheek again.
“To set you free, my boy. I noticed you: so young and desperate, and yet still so proud. I wanted you at my side, I wanted you since the first time I set my eyes on you, but I knew that you wouldn’t leave your sister behind, that she would always come first in your heart.”
“But if you paid him… Didn’t he really fell in love with Isabella?” Guy asked, in shock. “Did he treat her well after he married her?”
“Love doesn’t matter in a marriage. If she was even a little clever, she would get the best of it. Oh, don’t look at me with those puppy eyes, Gizzy. It’s a little late to have second thoughts about it now, don’t you think?”
The sheriff came closer, his hand still gripping Guy’s shoulder and his mouth close to his ear.
“You took the money. You became a knight. All thanks to my influence. You owe me everything, my boy. Aren’t you grateful?”
“You know I am, my lord.” Guy gasped, hoping to sound sincere. He was frightened, more than he had ever been in his life and his heart was filled with dread at the idea of his little sister sold to a man who just wanted her for his own personal gain. And yet a voice in his mind suggested that he had done exactly the same thing to her.
“De Fourtnoy here doesn’t trust you, he believes you are too weak, but I know you, Gizzy, I made you and I know that you won’t disappoint me. You can do it, don’t you?”
“What, my lord?”
Vaisey rested his hand on Guy’s face, caressing his cheek with his thumb.
“You can be a god amongst men, Gisborne, better than a god, even. If I can trust you, you’ll sit at the right of the Father, you will have power without limits, you will have anything you ever wished for. Were you worried, my boy? Did you believe that I had forgotten you, keeping you away from the castle?”
Guy closed his eyes, afraid that the sheriff could guess his fear. Inwardly he was now sure that the sheriff was behind the murders and the disappearances, and he knew that he probably would be the next one to fall prey of his will, even if he didn’t know if the sheriff wanted him to be a victim or an executioner.
Vaisey’s touch was repulsive to him, but he didn’t dare to stave it off, he didn’t dare to move or say anything at all.
The sheriff lips brushed his cheek in a kiss and Guy froze, trying to ignore the hot breath on his skin.
“No, Gizzy, I would never forget you. Come my boy, it’s time for you to get ready.”
“Ready for what?” Guy asked, reopening his eyes. He was startled to see many men dressed in black, standing in a circle around them: they were all wearing hoods on their faces and the sheriff’s ring on their hands. He recognized the murderers of the glade and for a moment he thought that he would faint or that he would be sick right there where he was. The only thing still holding him together was Vaisey’s voice, horrible and yet familiar, and the touch of his hand, grabbing his shoulder.
The hooded men clapped their hands, slowly and just once, and immediately a group of girls entered the hall, all of them barefoot and with loose hair, wearing long and simple black chemises.
Guy recognized a few of the servants of the castles, especially the blonde kitchen girl, Annie, the one who had seemed so willing to flirt with him before he got ill.
She looked different, now: wild and free, like one of the creature of the forest from his mother’s fairy tales. But her eyes, like the ones of the other girls, weren’t the bright eyes of an elf or a fairy, but the same dead eyes of his guards.
The girls surrounded him, grabbing his arms, and Guy searched for his sword, only to find that one of those women had taken it away.
“Go with them, Gizzy.” Vaisey said, with a tone that left him no choice than obey. “Don’t worry, my boy, they won’t seduce you: they know that they can’t touch you without my permission. You are mine. They will bathe you and they will get you ready.”
The girls began to drag him away, and the guards followed them. Guy knew that he had no hope to escape, but he struggled to turn and he looked at the sheriff.
“Ready for what?!” He repeated, trying to not give up to panic.
“Rejoice, my boy: you will become one of us.”
Guy couldn’t stop trembling as the girls forced him to wear clean clothes, black like the ones he had been wearing, but similar to the ones of the hooded men, with a long velvet cloak embroidered with weird symbols, in black too. From afar the cloak looked completely black, but the black symbols covered it completely, forming lines and patterns and Guy guessed that it had to be a sort of inscription, like letters forming words on the pages of a book. He didn’t dare to imagine its meaning.
The girls had used cold water to wash him and Guy was feeling cold, but that wasn’t the main reason why he was shuddering. When Matilda had entered his room while he was bathing to talk with him in secret, he had been a little embarrassed by her presence, but now he felt completely exposed and violated: the girls had washed his body with no shame, looking at him with their empty eyes, and touching him with no kindness at all.
At first he had tried to send them away, saying that he could bathe on his own, but he had no answer: the guards had moved closer and two of them had grabbed his arms, holding him still while the girls worked. Every attempt to struggle and get free from their hold only led to the guards tightening their grab and one of the girls pointing a dagger at his throat.
So Guy had not choice to surrender to them and hope that they would be quick.
But now that they had finished, he regretted it: unpleasant as it was, that bath was still a way to take time and delay the plans the sheriff had for him.
Guy didn’t know what they were going to do to him, but he was sure that he didn’t want it, that he would rather die than becoming ‘one of them’.
The girls took his hands, dragging him trough the corridors of the castle while chanting an eerie chant, similar to the one he had heard in the glade.
He stopped for a moment, closing his eyes to fight a sudden wave of nausea, but immediately a guard forced him to move and enter the war room of the sheriff. It was a large, circular room, where Vaisey often welcomed his allies to discuss strategies and his plots.
Now all the hooded men were there, standing in a circle, with the sheriff in the middle.
The guards forced Guy to kneel in front of the sheriff, then they stepped back, waiting.
Gisborne had the impression that those men were all birds of prey, waiting to swoop down on him.
“My boy,” the sheriff said, lifting a hand to caress him, “you are here, at last.”
His touch made Guy feel even more nauseated and frightened.
“Please, my lord,” he pleaded, and he was surprised to hear how weak his voice sounded, “I feel unwell, let me go to my lodgings to rest for a while.”
Vaisey clucked his tongue.
“No, no, Gizzy, you have no lodgings here anymore, remember? But don’t worry, you will have all your privileges reinstated after we do this little thing. But then you won’t need to rest.”
Guy swallowed hard.
“What do you want? What are you going to do to me?”
“I told you, my boy, you will become one of us, it will be a blood tie.”
Vaisey stepped away from Guy and he took a cup from the table, holding it in his hand and lifting it so that the knight could see it well, then he placed it back on the table and he took a dagger.
For a moment Guy thought that the sheriff was going to stab him, but then Vaisey used the blade on his own hand, dripping his blood inside the cup. A moment after, with a quick gesture, he grabbed Guy’s hand too, and he did the same, squeezing his palm to collect enough blood, then he gave the cup to one of the guards, who carried it to the other hooded men so they could do the same.
Gisborne looked at his bloodied fingers, in shock, while the sheriff went on talking.
“See, my boy? Our blood mixed together, as it was meant to be. And the blood of the others too. Once you drink it, you will be one of us, forever. We will be tied for eternity.”
As soon as Guy realized the meaning of Vaisey’s words, he felt bile rising in his throat and he knew that he was going to be sick. As he bent forward to throw up, one of the girls was already kneeling in front of him with a pail, holding it for him until he was finished.
While Guy was being sick, Vaisey kept stroking his back almost affectionately, chuckling.
“Oh, poor Gizzy, I had forgotten how delicate you are. You threw up the first time you killed a man for me too, do you remember? But don’t worry, it’s better this way, it make you more… pure, more ready to receive our blood. And after that it will never happen again. You will be well. Powerful. Strong. You’ll leave all your weakness behind and you will be like a god.”
Guy was feeling too sick to be able to answer, but he thought that he would be more like a demon than a god, and that thought overcame him with another violent wave of nausea.
Maybe he would die now, Guy thought, and he would be spared from the blasphemous plans of the sheriff, but even if his stomach kept hurting, it was completely empty now and eventually the nausea subsided.
The girl took away the pail, and the guard who was carrying the cup came back after collecting the blood of all the other hooded men. The man gave it to the sheriff, and Vaisey grinned.
He stepped away from Guy, and he walked to the center of the room, holding that unholy grail high, in a sort of toast.
“It is time!” He said aloud. “My boy, my precious creature, sir Guy of Gisborne, will join us today and our blood will be one! Don’t fear, my boy, because this is a joyous day! You owed me everything and you swore me your loyalty, serving me faithfully for years , but today you become free from every obligation, every debt is repaid and we will be equals! Drink, Gizzy! Drink and be reborn to a higher life!”
He gave the cup back to the guard, who took it to Guy.
Gisborne had never felt so helpless in his life, not even when he had been standing in front of his burning house, witnessing his parents’ death. He only wanted to run away, to reject the sheriff’s offer, but he was completely frozen, so terrified that he couldn’t move.
He couldn’t stand the idea of drinking that blood, but he saw no way out: if he refused, they would force him to drink, keeping him still and pouring it down his throat. And then he would be enslaved forever, his eyes would become empty and dead like those of all the others.
When the guard went closer, Guy tensed, deciding that he would resist, that for once he wouldn’t obey.
If they want me, they’ll have to fight. It will be useless, but I won’t surrender.
He was about to lift a hand to swat the cup away from him, when he met the guard’s eyes.
Blue eyes, with a lively gaze in them, different from the dead eyes of all the other soldiers.
The young man was wearing the black and yellow uniform of one of Guy’s guards, his face half disguised under the helmet. He held the cup to Guy and he gave a quick wink at him.
“Drink,” he mouthed, as Gisborne took the cup in his shaking hands.
Guy took it closer to his face, fearing to smell blood in the cup, but he could only smell wine.
He sipped a drop of the red fluid.
He glanced at Allan for a moment, noticing his smug expression, and he realized that the young thief had found a way to swap the cups, somehow.
A little reassured, he drank the rest of the wine and he dropped the cup, trying his best to hide the turmoil of his thoughts behind an impassive mask.
But the sheriff was too overjoyed to look closely at him.
“You are one of us! Come, come to me! You will have our ritual dagger and our insignia! Nobody can stop you now, nobody! You will have all the power you can desire.”
Guy walked to him, finding his courage back at every step. He and Allan were just two against many of them, but the presence of the young man gave Guy hope, and he didn’t feel completely helpless anymore.
Gisborne took the silver dagger from the hands of a gloating sheriff, and he looked at it for a moment: its blade was sharp and its handle was carved with obscene, blasphemous figures.
Guy tightened his hold on it, then he buried it in the sheriff’s chest.
The sheriff stared at him for a moment, his eyes wide in surprise, then he tried to speak, but he could only gurgle while red foam appeared on his lips.
Guy grabbed the sheriff’s sword as Vaisey began to fall to the ground, and he swung it in a circle, to keep everyone away. Meanwhile the guards had unsheathed their own swords and were running towards Gisborne. Allan was with them, but he took care to stay a few steps behind them. When the guards came too close to Guy, Allan began hitting from behind the ones who were nearer to him, taking them by surprise, while Guy dispatched the others.
“Run!” Gisborne yelled, and they both ran away from the war room before the hooded men could follow them.
They sped along the corridors, knowing that they had to get out of the castle as soon as possible and that if they should be caught, it would be the end of them.
“Come!” Guy said, breathless. “We must reach the gate and fight the guards before they can call for reinforcements...”
“No, Giz, I know a faster way. Here!”
Allan opened a door, and he pulled Guy inside the little room with him, closing the door behind them.
“The privy? Allan, we have to hurry, there is no time for this!”
The younger man opened the cover of the seat, and he pointed at the hole.
“Giz, this is our way out.”
“The privy?!” He repeated, astonished.
“It leads out of the castle and I have my horse tied nearby. Come on, Giz! This isn’t the moment to be squeamish!”
“You are right,” he said. “Let’s go.”
They both jumped.
Allan held himself tightly with his arms around Guy’s waist, as the knight launched the horse in a headlong gallop to get away from Nottingham as fast as they could.
Only when they reached the forest and they had gone in its depth for a good while, Guy allowed the horse to slow down.
Gisborne shivered, his clothes inadequate for the weather, but he never regretted throwing away the black cloak that he had discarded as soon as they were out of the castle, not just because of the filth that covered it, but mostly to get rid of the symbols embroidered on the velvet.
“Hey Giz?” Allan called. “What are we going to do, now?”
Guy looked at his own hands, still covered in blood.
“I killed the sheriff...” He whispered, half stunned.
“Yep, you did. Good move, by the way.”
“And you saved my life...”
“I know, I know, that was a good move too,” Allan said, with a smug grin. “See? Being a thief can be useful sometimes.”
“Why did you do it? It was foolish! They could have killed you! Risking so much to help... me.”
“Probably you’re right, I must be a fool, but there is no time to talk now, we must find a shelter before they find us or we freeze to death.”
Guy nodded. He felt so shocked and exhausted that he couldn’t think properly, but he agreed with Allan: they needed to hide and take the time to choose their next move.
“Any suggestions?” He asked, wearily.
The younger man reflected for a moment, not used to have to take the lead.
“There is a cavern, not so far from here. I used it once to take shelter during a thunderstorm and I think that nobody knows about it because there was no trace of other people there, just bats.”
Merry Christmas everyone! :)
Chapter 13: The Cave
Guy woke up on the ground of the cavern, and it took him a while to realize where he was and to remember the events of the previous day. Mercifully, he had slept with no dreams, too stunned and exhausted to stay awake: as soon as Allan had found the cavern and they had taken refuge inside it, Guy had dropped to the ground, falling asleep almost immediately.
He sat up, looking around. The younger man wasn’t there, and Gisborne was completely alone.
Even the horse that they had led inside the cavern wasn’t there anymore, and Guy thought that probably Allan stole it and ran away.
After all, why should he stay at Guy’s side? After witnessing the horrible acts of the sheriff and of the Black Knights, running away from the county was surely the safer choice. And they had both seen that the sheriff wanted Guy.
Gisborne knew that usually the sheriff got whatever he wanted, no matter what.
He shuddered in fear, but then his pride made him raise his head in defiance.
Well, this time he won’t. I’d rather die than becoming one of them.
Guy sighed, thinking that it was probable that he would die anyways. He was sitting in a cold cavern in the middle of the forest, the only clothes he had weren’t warm enough for the winter and they were also damp with rain.
At least rain had washed away most of the filth that covered them after they had used the hole of the privy to escape from the castle, Guy thought, with a bitter smile.
But cleanliness did nothing to improve his situation: he was still weak, cold and scared to death.
He tried to think out what to do now, and he had to admit that he didn’t have many hopes to survive.
He couldn’t go back to Locksley to get more clothes, supplies or money because the sheriff would surely search for him there; in the cavern there was no dry firewood, and outside everything was soaked with rain, so he couldn’t even light a fire. He was still weak after his illness and the cut on his hand throbbed painfully: if it should become infected, he would surely die, but he couldn’t go to see Matilda and have it treated.
Slowly, he walked out of the cave, looking around and listening to detect any possible danger. He heard the murmur of a brook and he thought that at least he wouldn’t die of thirst.
He realized that at the moment he had the opposite need, instead, and he hurried to walk away from the cave to relieve himself between the bushes of the undergrowth.
When he was finished, he fought the instinct that wanted to compel him to run back to the cave and hide there until he died. He was afraid that the dead eyed guards were scouring the forest to find him and just the thought of it terrified him, but what was left of his pride forced him to stay where he was.
The forest is big, they can’t know I’m here.
Guy thought that he had to search for wood to make a fire, and then for food. He forced himself to think only of the things he had to do to survive, pushing away the memory of the sheriff falling to the ground with a dagger in his chest, the memory of his blood on Guy’s hands.
The only thought of what happened in the war room of the castle made Guy feel queasy and horrified, and he couldn’t allow fear to freeze him if he wanted to stay alive.
He began to pick up small twigs, hoping that they could get dry enough to start a fire if he took them into the cave, in a place protected from rain.
Guy had collected an armful of them, when he heard the sound of hooves approaching. He dropped the twigs and he hurried to hide in the undergrowth.
Allan kept looking around to be sure he hadn’t been followed, then he headed to the cave. He tied the horses to a bush nearby and he hurried to dismount, but when he entered the cavern, he swore under his breath.
He looked around frantically, searching for Guy, but the cave was empty and he was afraid that he could have been caught.
He ran outside again, trying to keep calm.
“Giz?” He called, in a low tone, not daring to raise his voice. “Guy? Where are you?”
A rustle in the bushes behind him startled him, and Allan turned, unsheathing his sword.
He sighed in relief, finding himself face to face with Guy, and he was surprised to see the same relief on the knight’s face.
“I thought they had arrested you!”
“I thought you had run away!” They blurted at the same time, and Allan laughed.
“You fell asleep as soon as we got here, yesterday, and I thought that we couldn’t survive in the forest without anything at all, so I went back to Locksley to take a few supplies.”
Guy stared at him, in surprise.
“Are you out of your mind?! They will search for us! They’ll go to Locksley for sure!”
“They are searching for you, mate, I doubt they had the time to notice my face. I’m nobody, probably they wouldn’t even recognize me. And however, I went to Locksley immediately, before they had the time to organize a search. You killed their leader, didn’t you? I have no doubt they will go to your manor, but they’ll search for us in the forest first. I supposed I had enough time to go and get a few things before they thought of going to Locksley. I was right, it seems, the news didn’t get there yet. It was a little harder to convince Thornton that I wasn’t lying and that I wasn’t trying to rob your house after I left you for dead in some ditch.”
“How did you do it?”
“I told him what happened at the castle and I said that he would be the death of you if he didn’t let me in the manor. He looked at me in the eyes for a long while, and I think he believed me at last. After that he did his best to help me pack as fast as we could. That one is a loyal man, if you ever get back to be the lord of some manor, I’d make sure to keep him at your service.”
“I doubt I’ll live to see that day, but I’ll keep it in mind.” He glanced around, nervously. “Are you sure that nobody followed you?”
“Look, Giz, I might look stupid, but I’m not a complete fool. I was careful, I rode for a while in the stream where the water was shallow enough to allow it, so that they can’t follow my tracks, not even with dogs.”
“Good, but let’s take the horses in the cave anyways.”
“Go ahead, Giz, and start unpacking, I’ll try to get some wood to build a fire.”
Gisborne took the bridles, and he led the horses inside the cavern, tying them to a rock at the back of it. If they were going to spend the winter in that place, they would have to build a fence and a trough for them, but for now it would do.
Guy began unloading the saddlebags and all the packs Allan had managed to load on the horses.
Guy’s black stallion looked outraged after being loaded as a donkey, but Gisborne knew that every one of those supplies was a chance more to survive, and he inwardly thanked Allan for his foresight.
He scratched the muzzle of the stallion to comfort him, and he kept working. One of the bags was filled with his clothes and Guy gratefully shed the damp clothes he was wearing to change in dry, warm ones. He took a thick cloak too and he wore it with a sigh of relief: he was beginning to forget how it was to feel warm.
Allan came back with a few branches he had cut from a dead tree, and he began cutting them in smaller pieces, removing the bark. Guy stopped for a moment to look at what he was doing.
The younger man glanced at him, and grinned.
“See? If I remove the outside, the inner part is dry. And I snapped them from a tree, they get less soaked with rain than the ones lying on the ground. Once I can get the fire started, we’ll keep those damp parts close to it, so they’ll dry and we’ll be able to use them too.”
“It looks like you know what to do.”
“Happens when you spent most of your life without having a home or a safe shelter. You learn how to survive in any condition.”
“Have you lived your whole life like this?” Guy asked.
“Sort of. For a while I had my brother’s company, but one day he stole everything we owned and he went to search for fortune with some friends he had. I guess that someday he’ll get hanged for stealing from the wrong person.”
“So it’s in the family, then? A thief, a poacher...” Guy said, with an amused smile.
“Guess so. What about you? Do you have any siblings?”
Guy froze. He had tried to keep every other thought away making small talk with Allan, but now his words took him back to the hall of the castle, with the mellifluous voice of the sheriff revealing the horrible truth about his sister.
He shivered, wrapping his arms around his body.
“I had a sister. I think I destroyed her life.”
Allan glanced at him, waiting for Guy to say more, but the knight kept silent, so he turned back his attention to the fire. Eventually a spark set fire to the tinder, and Allan carefully blew on it until the wood caught fire.
“Here!” He said, then he looked at Guy. “Giz, take that bundle over there and come to sit here, near the fire.”
Gisborne didn’t enjoy being ordered around, but he was so glad that Allan had come back that he didn’t complain.
“What is it?”
“A few ointments and clean bandages, we should better get that cut cleaned before you lose a hand.”
Guy sat by the fire, grateful for the warmth, and he let Allan tend to his wound.
“You’ve been a fool.” Guy said after a while, and Allan lifted his eyes to look at him.
“Yes, you. Entering the castle disguised as one of the guards… What would have you done if they caught you? You risked a lot… to save me.”
“Giz? Are you aware that you are terrible at thanking people? But you’re welcome.”
“Why? You were safe, you had no reason to enter the castle just to help me.”
“I guess I’m really a fool, then. There isn’t a real reason except that I didn’t want them to harm you. By the way, what would have happened if they made you drink that stuff?”
Guy shuddered at the thought.
“They said that I would become one of them. Maybe that’s what happened to my guards...”
“That was witchcraft, wasn’t it? I was right, it seems: those men are demons, or at least they are in league with them.”
Guy nodded. He had always known that the sheriff was a cruel man, evil too, but to know that he was actually involved with the devil was deeply unsettling.
“I… I swore loyalty to him a very long time ago. I wonder if he had planned all this from the beginning, if he had chosen me so that I could become part of his plans… What if my oath to him still binds me to them? Do you think they can have a claim on my soul?”
“It can’t be, Giz. Maybe you don’t remember it, but I heard what the sheriff said yesterday: he said that you had repaid your debt to him, that you were free from all your obligations. He wanted you to make another oath to him, but first he freed you from the old one. It means that you have no ties to anyone, that you are free.”
“I am free...” Guy repeated, in awe.
“Yep, it seems so. So, what are we going to do, now?”
“I don’t know. They are surely searching for us to avenge the sheriff. We could run, go away, far away from here and try to start a new life… Or we could stay and try to fight their evil.”
Allan looked at him.
“That’s not an easy choice, but we don’t have to take it now. Here we are safe, at least for a while, and we need to recover our strength, especially you, mate. Don’t take it wrong, but you don’t look really healthy right now.”
Guy couldn’t contradict him: he felt weak, upset and unwell and he knew that he wouldn’t have the strength neither to run nor to fight, at the moment. He just wished that he could wake up and find out that everything had been just a bad nightmare, but deep inside he knew that it was all true.
“What do you suggest?” He asked, even if he hated to feel so helpless.
Allan grinned and he went to fetch one of the bags he had brought from Locksley.
“When I was about to leave the manor, Thornton reached me and he gave me this. He said that the healer gave him instructions about the food that would be good for your recover, so, while I was packing, he went to the kitchen and prepared this bundle especially for you. He told me to take care of your health... Poor man, he looked really worried for you.”
Guy took the bag and opened it, moved by Allan’s words, and he found himself even more moved to see that Thornton had prepared for him all the foods he preferred. Guy had never really expressed his preferences about his meals, he was used to eat whatever was served to him, but Thornton had noticed what he liked best, and remembered it.
Allan took another bundle and he opened it.
“And he gave me food for me too, and a flask of good wine,” the young man continued, “So, let’s eat, rest and recover our energies, so we’ll be ready whatever we choose to do.”
Chapter 14: Locksley Is No More
Marian sat in front of the fireplace of the hall, her embroidery lying on her lap, untouched. Meg and Djaq were sitting there too, the latter with her wounded arm in a sling and wearing a old dress of Marian and a veil to hide her short hair.
“It’s the first time I see you dressed like a girl,” Meg said, smiling. “You look different.”
“That’s the point of it.” Marian intervened. “They are searching for a noble girl and a runaway male slave, nobody would recognize her now.”
“It was a long time since I last wore girl clothes. It was in my land, before they caught me… And when they did, it was safer to look like a boy.”
“I hate men!” Meg said, shaking her head. “All they want is to have their way with girls, as if we were just things to be used at their will!”
“Not all of them are like that, surely.” Marian said.
“Maybe,” Meg conceded, “but however they never care for what we think, as if we are halfwits!”
Marian was about to reply, but then she thought of Robin. He had left her behind to go to war, as if her feelings for him were unimportant, as if she had nothing else to do than waiting for his return.
She felt guilty for those thoughts, Robin was dead and she shouldn’t be still mad at his choices.
But he wouldn’t be dead if he had chosen to stay!
“My brother never treated me as if I were unimportant...” Djaq said, dejectedly. “Some men are different. Better than you think. But many of them are worse, much worse.”
Meg shuddered thinking of the evil men in the forest.
“Are you sure that we are safe here?” She asked, worried.
“I wonder if anybody is really safe in this county,” Marian said, “but nobody knows that you are here and our servants won’t talk.”
“That man, Gisborne, knows.” Djaq looked at Marian. “Can we really trust him? You said that he works for the sheriff, how can you be sure he won’t betray us?”
“Guy wouldn’t, I’m sure.”
The three women were a little startled when one of the maids entered the room in a hurry: she came from outside and she was still holding the basket with the vegetables she had bought at the market.
“Were you talking about Guy of Gisborne, my lady?” She asked in an excited whisper, and Marian glanced at her.
“Yes, Sarah, why do you ask?”
“Have you heard what he did?!” The girl asked, in fascinated horror, lowering her voice. “He killed the sheriff!”
Marian stared at her, in shock.
“You shouldn’t listen to gossips, Guy is even too loyal to the sheriff, he would never kill him. It’s just impossible.”
“I didn’t listen to gossips!” The servant said, miffed. “On my way back from the market, I stopped at Locksley to visit my aunt, she works in the kitchen there, and while we were chatting, that lad came to talk to Thornton...”
“That Allan, Gisborne’s servant. He arrived at Locksley, all upset and in a hurry, and he said that Gisborne had stabbed the sheriff and he had run in the forest. He was here to get clothes, food, and anything they could need...”
“Maybe he was lying,” Djaq suggested, “maybe he just wanted to get those things and run away with them.”
“That’s what Thornton thought,” Sarah said, “at first he didn’t believe him, but then they talked for a while and after that Thornton let him take anything he wanted, even sir Guy’s horse. Thornton also came to the kitchen to pack some food with his own hands. He told us that we shouldn’t talk about it to anyone.”
“Yet you are telling us.” Marian said.
“My lady, I thought you wanted to know!”
“I do! But you shouldn’t have said it! If this is true… if it’s true… you could be in danger.”
The maid paled.
“My lady? Me? In danger? Why?”
“If they are searching for sir Guy and they suspect that you know anything about it, they could arrest you to learn where he is hiding.”
“But I don’t know it! Allan didn’t say!”
“I believe you, but the guards won’t. They could even torture you.” Marian saw that the girl was trembling and looked greenish in the face, but she knew that if she wanted to stop her from gossiping, she had to give her a good scare, so she continued. “You haven’t been at the castle, you haven’t heard the cries of the people in the torture chamber… I saw a man who lost his tongue there once, just because he had spat at the sheriff while he was passing through a village...”
Sarah covered her mouth with a hand, in fear.
Marian stared at her, holding her gaze.
“You didn’t hear or see anything at Locksley this morning. Nothing. Is that clear? Now go back to the kitchen and do your job as usual.”
The girl nodded frantically, then she hurried out of the room, to the safe haven of the servants’ quarters.
“You terrified her!” Meg said.
“She did well,” Djaq intervened. “If what she said is true, and the gossip spreads from here, the guards will think that Marian and her father know something and they’ll come here to make questions. And if they find us here...”
Meg looked at her, alarmed.
“I won’t go back to my father’s house! Never! Do you think we should go away? But where?”
Marian ignored her, a little irked because Meg was only thinking about her own problems when the whole situation was much worse.
Did Guy really kill the sheriff?
She couldn’t believe it, but at the same time she felt it was true. Maybe he had found that Vaisey was actually behind the murders and the disappearances and he had finally found the will to rebel against his master.
In that case, she thought that Guy’s choice was right, but still she couldn’t help feeling a little betrayed.
Robin wanted to fight for the king and he left me… And now Guy will have to run away or he will be killed… He will leave me too...
She gasped, startled by her own thoughts. Why was she comparing Guy with Robin? Why his actions should concern her so much?
“We will talk to Matilda when she comes to visit my father.” Marian said after a while. “She knows about the murders and she’s wise, she will surely give us good advice.”
“He did what?!” Matilda cried, not at all as calm as Marian thought she would be.
“It seems that he stabbed the Sheriff and he ran away in the forest.” She repeated, and Matilda paced in the hall, distressed.
“They will kill him, surely! They will find him and it will be the end of him! If he doesn’t die before they catch him… Poor boy! Still so weak and all alone in the forest!”
“He’s not alone, I think.”
“His servant, Allan, should be with him.”
The healer sighed, in relief.
“I’m glad to hear that. That boy has a quick mind and he seems to really care for Guy. If they are together there could be some hope.”
Marian, Meg and Djaq glanced at her: the three girls were together in the hall, but it was only Marian who was speaking to Matilda, while the other two listened in silence. But now Djaq stood up from her seat to intervene.
“You really care a lot for that man, don’t you? Why?”
Matilda sat in front of the fireplace with a sigh.
“He has another side, a better side, that he doesn’t show very often. He has been very ill, just a step away from death, and I spent a lot of time trying to save his life. When one is really, really sick, there are no energies left to keep wearing a mask. A healer is used to see her patients completely naked, in body and in mind.”
Marian and Meg couldn’t help blushing at her last sentence, but Djaq nodded.
“My father was a physician, he used to say that death often brings men back to their childhood, that when one is very close to the end, sometimes you can catch a glimpse of his soul.”
“Yes, my child, and I can assure you that the soul of Guy of Gisborne is not evil at all. He has many faults, and he’s a man of course, but when he’s not influenced by the sheriff, he’s a good person. If what you told me is true, it seems that he got rid of that influence at last, even if maybe there could have been better ways to get free.”
“What do we do now, Matilda?” Marian asked, worried. “They will search for him and they’ll surely come here to ask questions… My father would be very upset and then they could find Meg and Djaq.”
“They can’t stay here. Your arm is better, isn’t it?”
“Good. Then you can travel. I think that the best option could be going to Kirklees Abbey and ask for sanctuary.” Matilda looked at Meg, “I don’t know if you wish to become a nun, my child, but they will let you stay at the abbey for a while, at least until you decide what to do. You will need money to pay your stay, though.”
“I have some. I took part of my dowry with me when I left my home. But what if they won’t let Djaq stay? She believes in a different god, I won’t go there if she can’t stay with me.”
“In that case we’ll search for another solution. I have a hut in the forest, you can hide there for a while. I left it because I thought that Locksley would be safer, but now I doubt it.”
A frantic knocking at the door stopped their conversation, and the four women stood up to see who it was. Sir Edward arrived too from upstairs, too pale to be healthy, and he sat close to the fire because he wasn’t strong enough to keep standing.
A servant opened the door, and Matilda was shocked to see her daughter on the threshold. She was shuddering in fear and she was supporting a wounded man, who had his face covered in soot and blood.
Matilda gasped when she recognized him.
“Thornton! He’s the steward at Locksley!”
“Let them in!” Marian said, and Matilda hurried to take Thornton’s other arm to help him to sit on a chair. The healer gave a worried glance at her daughter, but the girl seemed to be unhurt, just very frightened.
Sir Edward looked at Thornton, serious.
“What happened? Who did this to you? Is Locksley under attack?”
Thornton took a deep breath before answering.
“Locksley is no more.”
Sir Edward frowned.
“What do you mean?”
“They came to arrest Sir Guy, and when they didn’t find him they burned the manor.”
Marian gasped. When she was betrothed to Robin, she had visited Locksley often, and for a while she had dreamed to be the lady of that manor, to live there with her husband and to see their children playing in those rooms. Then that dream died with Robin, but the manor was still there, like a tangible memory and later it became Guy’s home.
But now the thought that it had been destroyed seemed absurd, and it brought fresh sorrow to her.
She felt deeply sad, as if her dreams had been killed again, even if she had no rational reason to feel like that.
“Are you hurt?” Matilda asked, beginning to clean the blood from Thornton’s face with a clean towel.
“They hit me because they wanted me to tell them where Sir Guy was. They wouldn’t believe that I didn’t know… They read a parchment and said that he’s an outlaw now, they put a reward on his head...”
“How did you get away?” Marian asked, not believing that the poor steward could be able to persuade the guards that he really had no information concerning Gisborne’s whereabouts.
“They wanted to torture me… But then one of the villagers got scared and tried to run, so they chased him and I managed to run back into the manor. I knew that eventually they would find me there, but I was so terrified that I couldn’t think straight, I just wanted to hide from their terrible eyes… But they didn’t follow me, they set fire to the manor instead, then they gathered the villagers and they began torturing them to make them tell where Sir Guy was. I could see it from the window of the manor: they cut the tongues of those who didn’t want to talk… They said that they would cut one tongue every hour until Sir Guy isn’t found… I could see the flames that were beginning to burn the walls of the manor, but I was determined to burn alive before going back outside. Allan was right… I didn’t really believe him, but he was right… He said that there was something unholy going on at the castle and that Sir Guy killed the sheriff because they wanted to make him join their demoniac deeds… I thought he was exaggerating and I had underestimated his warning, but now I know he was right… Their eyes were dead. They came from Hell...”
Matilda gave him a cup of wine and she looked at Rosa: her daughter nodded, her eyes bright with tears.
“It’s true, mother, their gazes weren’t normal. You know that I’ve seen wolves and wild beasts in the forest, well, those men were much worse than any beast. There was something unnatural in them… I was so scared...”
“But she saved me,” Thornton said, grateful. “She came to the back door and she helped me to get out of the burning manor.”
“You taught me how to be unnoticed, mother. You always said that people is quick to turn their rage on a healer if the patient dies, so we must be ready to disappear at the first hint of danger. I did it, I took advantage of the fact that they were all focused on the tongue cutting, and I went away. I wanted to go back to the forest straight away, but Thornton said that we had to warn Lord Knighton.”
“They will surely come here to search for Sir Guy, everyone knows that my lord was in love with lady Marian.” Thornton confirmed.
Marian looked at him, in shock. She knew that Guy surely wished to woo her, but Thornton’s words unsettled her.
I knew he likes me, but... love?
But it didn’t matter now.
“I wish we could offer you a secure refuge, but you must run. You are right, they will come at Knighton and they shouldn’t find you here. Maybe you could go to Kirklees with Meg and Djaq...” Marian said, giving a worried glance at her father, who was even paler now, almost grayish in the face.
“They wouldn’t let them get sanctuary at the abbey,” Meg said, thoughtful, “The nuns could accept me because I am a noble, and maybe, if the money I have is enough, even Djaq as my maid, but surely not a pregnant girl or a man.”
“I know another place,” Matilda said.
“Our hut, mother?”
“You could stay there for a few days, but it’s not safe enough. The people of Locksley know that I treated sir Guy, the guards could learn that from them and they could decide to search for me there...”
“Where could we hide, then?”
“There are caves in the forest. Most of them are inhabited by animals, others are used by outlaws, but there are some that are in hidden places, far from the usual paths, and a few of them are comfortable enough to be used as a refuge, at least for a while.”
“You will need food, blankets and winter clothes,” Marian said, glancing at her father, and Sir Edward nodded.
“Tell the servants to gather whatever they could need. Hurry, you must be quick.”
Chapter 15: Those Who Go, Those Who Stay
Marian looked at the small group, walking away from the manor on the path that went into the forest. Matilda was leading a donkey loaded with food and supplies and the others walked after her.
Meg and Djaq were walking at Thornton's side to help him, while Rosa followed them, carrying a bough that she used like a broom on the dust of the path to hide their tracks.
“You should go with them,” Sir Edward said.
“I would never leave you alone, father. And especially not now.”
“If only I were stronger… I could protect you.”
Marian shook her head.
“I don’t need protection just because I’m a woman. I’m strong, I can fight if needed.”
“I know, but you’ve seen Thornton. He’s not a weak man, he had never been afraid of Sir Guy even when everyone else feared him, but he was frightened. I fear that a great danger is coming on us.”
“Another reason for not leaving you.”
Sir Edward sighed.
“If I were to order you to get to safety, you wouldn’t listen, would you?”
“I’m afraid that you have a willful daughter, father. And, judging from what Sir Guy and Allan told me the night of the storm, the forest isn’t a safe place either.”
“You could go to the abbey. Take refuge there.”
Marian took a moment to think about this possibility and she nodded.
“If the soldiers of Nottingham should really become a menace to us, we could go there. I will accept to go if you come with me as well.”
“I’ll tell the servants to prepare our things, in case we should flee without notice. But… Marian...”
The girl looked at her father, holding her breath. She knew that he was going to say something she didn’t want to hear, but she also knew that she had no choice but listen.
“Marian, I’m old and my health is failing. I’m weaker any day and I think that I don’t have much time left on this earth. No, don’t interrupt me, you know that it’s true. I am afraid of death, I can’t deny it, but knowing that I will be reunited with your mother is a comfort. What really worries me is you. I can’t bear the thought of leaving you alone in this world...”
“Then don’t! You are unwell now, but you’ll get better, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t live for many years!”
Sir Edward lifted a hand to caress Marian’s cheek, sweetly.
“I hope you are right, but nonetheless I can’t help worrying for you. If you had a husband, I’d be relieved, I’d know that I wouldn’t leave you defenseless and alone...”
“I am not! I don’t need a man to protect myself!”
“My brave, fierce, beloved child… I know that you are strong, but I also worry about your heart. When my own parents died, I had the comfort and the support of your mother, I don’t want you to be alone when you mourn me. I know that you still love Robin, but...”
“I don’t. I did, and he broke my heart twice: when he left and when he died. But I stopped loving him after the first time. I am still mad at him for going away without giving me any choice, without caring about my feelings, I’m sad because his decisions led him to an early death and I regret that he had to die without my forgiveness, but even if he came back alive, I wouldn’t marry him. I couldn’t.”
“You kept away any possible suitor, though.”
“I just didn’t meet anyone who I could trust with my heart.”
And the only one who stirred something in me just got himself outlawed.
“Sir Guy...” Edward said, and Marian was startled, worried that her father could have guessed her thoughts.
“He would protect you.”
“He’s an outlaw, he can’t protect anyone now, not even himself.”
“But at least we know that he’s against the evil that is corrupting the county. Promise me that if I should die you’ll seek sanctuary in the abbey. If you can’t, go and search for Sir Guy, you’ll be able to help each other, I know.”
“I don’t need a husband.”
“But you might need an ally.”
Marian didn’t answer and she looked at the road, now empty. She prayed that Matilda and the others could find a safe refuge in the forest, and that the soldiers wouldn’t find sir Guy.
She was worried for all of them, but a part of her wished that she could disappear in the forest as well, never to be found. To be free.
“You awake, mate?”
Guy opened his eyes to glance at Allan, but he didn’t move from his place near the fire.
“If I weren’t I would be now.” He muttered, grumpily.
“So, how do you feel?”
Gisborne wrapped himself tighter in the blanket and he closed his eyes for a moment. Allan had managed to make beds for both of them gathering bunches of hay and dry leaves, and Guy felt too exhausted to get up.
“Tired,” he said. “I’ve been sleeping since we came here, but I still feel bone weary. Maybe I’m getting ill again.”
Allan touched Guy’s forehead with his hand, then he sat on his own bed.
“I don’t think so. You don’t have a fever and you’re not as pale as you were when I first met you. I think it’s what happened in the castle that drained all your energies. Once, when I was a kid, I was with my brother in the forest and a wild boar charged at us: I thought that we were going to die, that we were done for, but then a stray dog came barking at the boar and it got distracted, just a moment before attacking us. I think that we never ran faster in our whole life… The funny thing is that Tom couldn’t sleep for a few days after that and when he did he had nightmares, while I didn’t get up from my bed for at least a couple of days. I kept sleeping and I felt so tired that I even forgot to eat.”
“By the way, are you hungry? We still have some of the food your steward gave to me. Later I’ll go hunting, we need to store some more supplies if we have to spend the winter here.”
Guy sat up, stretching his back.
“I’ll come with you.”
“What? And you’ll become a poacher too, then?” Allan said with a grin. “Careful, you could lose a hand for that.”
“I killed the sheriff, if they catch me, losing a hand will be the last of my problems.”
“True. Well, Giz, are you a good archer?”
“No, I always preferred using a sword. But I know how to set traps and snares.”
Allan nodded, passing him a piece of bread and some cheese.
“So, what are we going to do, apart from catching our lunch and collecting more wood?” He asked, and Guy looked gloomily at his meal before answering.
“I don’t know. After I stabbed him, it all happened too quickly... I feel so confused and I can’t collect my thoughts...”
“I see what you mean. Two days ago we were dining in the warm and safe hall of your manor and now we’re here, in a cave and we’re both outlaws...”
Guy lifted his eyes to look at him, startled by his words.
He realized that Allan was right and that he wasn’t the lord of Locksley anymore, but just an outlaw, like the ones he had hunted for years.
I lost everything again…
“Well, Giz, we’re lucky to be alive and free. It could have been worse, don’t you think?”
Guy thought of the evil ritual the sheriff was going to perform on him, of the horrible cup full of blood, and he realized that it could have been much worse, that he could have been one of those dead eyed men now, like his guards.
“Yes. You are right… We are free...”
He knew that it was true and he wasn’t used to freedom, he hadn’t been free since he was a child, but now the idea of it was beginning to have a certain appeal, it opened a lot of possibilities he had never stopped to consider before. His choices were going to be only his, now, and he could decide to follow his heart instead than his duty and obligations towards the sheriff.
It was an inebriating sensation, and Guy looked at Allan. A simple act of kindness changed completely both their lives and Guy wondered what could happen if other people would respond to his actions in the same way Allan did.
If I choose to be kind, to deliberately help people, would they side with me? And could our joined forces be enough to fight the evil that it’s contaminating the county?
Gisborne was scared at the idea of facing those dead eyes, but his pride wouldn’t let him spend the rest of his life hiding in a cave like a frightened mouse. It was wise to hide for a while to recover his strength, but then he was going to fight somehow.
“I know that it’s crazy, but I won’t let them to keep killing innocent people. I still don’t know how, but I will fight them.”
“You’re crazy, mate. They will kill you.”
“I know. But I must do it. You don’t have to follow me, don’t worry. You already repaid any debt you could have with me. I owe you my life.”
“I won’t follow you, Giz.”
Guy looked at the fire. He knew that Allan was just making a sensible choice, but his words hurt him all the same. The thought of having to fight alone made him feel hollow and cold, but then the younger man gave him a forceful pat on his shoulder and when Guy glanced at him he saw him grinning.
“I won’t follow you because I’ll be at your side. That’s what friends are for, isn’t it? To do foolish things together and maybe to get killed in the attempt.”
Guy smiled at him, feeling relieved and unexpectedly happy.
“Thank you, Allan.”
“You’re welcome, Giz. Who knows? This might even be funny.”
Matilda turned to look back, worried.
She was the only one who was completely well and used to live in the forest. Even the girl, Meg, was in good health, but she was the daughter of a rich man, not used at all to the difficult life of a runaway. Her companion, Djaq, was strong and resourceful, but she still had to recover completely from her wound. Rosa was used to the forest, but she was near the end of her pregnancy and she often needed to stop and rest for a while.
Matilda she was worried for Thornton even more than for the others: the man wasn’t young, and had suffered a few injuries. He was struggling to keep their pace, and he also looked dispirited and frightened, without hope.
The healer let Rosa take the bridle of the donkey. They were so deep in the forest now that they didn’t need to sweep away their tracks anymore, so Matilda walked at Thornton’s side, offering him her arm for support.
“We’re almost there. In the cave we will light a fire and we can rest safely.”
“I’ve never been in the heart of the forest before,” Thornton said, “and I don’t expect to get out of it alive.”
“Come on, man, don’t be so tragic! You are in good health for your age and your wounds aren’t serious, you’ll be all right.”
They walked in silence for a while and Matilda could see the deep sorrow on the face of the man.
“I failed.” Thornton said after a while.
“What do you mean?”
“When master Robin left for war, I swore that I would take care of his house. When he died, I kept my promise, I continued managing the manor in the best way I could, in memory of him, then, when Sir Guy came, I kept doing my work, glad that a new master was going to live in that empty house. We both know that despite the appearances he’s a decent man, but now… Now he’s been outlawed and Locksley manor has been burned to the ground… I spent most of my life working there, what could I do now?”
“First of all you must get better, then we’ll see. Gisborne is not dead yet.”
Thornton looked at her.
“Do you plan to search for him?”
“Men are mostly like children, they need a woman, a mother or a wife, to take care of their health while they do all their heroic, foolish deeds. He has neither, but I care for him, and I wish to support him, especially when he’s doing the right thing like now. The danger is terrible, but if we stick together we can survive.”
Thornton nodded. He wasn’t sure if Matilda really believed in her words or if she was just trying to give him some hope, but it didn’t matter: even a false hope was better than despair. Probably his master was already dead or caught by the soldiers, or he would be soon, but planning to help him fight the evil that was oppressing the county was somehow comforting.
“Look,” Matilda said, “the entrance of the cave.”
“Where? I can’t see it.”
“Good. If you can’t see, neither our enemies will. It’s behind that big rock, hidden by it. You have to walk around that boulder to enter the cave and that’s good because it also stops the cold wind in winter.”
“How did you find it?” Djaq intervened, curious.
“I was searching for rare herbs. Some of them only grow in the deep heart of the forest, but they are very powerful remedies, so I needed them. I thought that one of those herbs might grow in the shadow of that rock, so I went to search for it and I found the entrance of the cave instead.”
Matilda stopped to light a torch, and then she led the way into the cave: it was still empty and there were no traces of inhabitants, human or beasts. She sighed of relief and she called the others to reach her inside.
“I thought it would be darker,” Djaq said, and Matilda pointed at the ceiling of the cave, where a opening let the light in.
“It lets the light in and the smoke out. It would be warmer without that opening, but I think it’s healthier like this. There are other rooms in this cave, smaller, warmer ones. We can sleep there and use the main one to cook, keep the donkey and store some of our supplies. But hurry, now, let’s get settled before the night falls. Thornton, sit there for a while, you’ll have the chance to be useful later, when you’ll get better. Meg, take those pails and go to the brook to get water, Rosa, unload the donkey and try to make comfortable beds, Djaq, you’ll help me with the fire. You can’t use one arm, but you are strong, you can still collect sticks and fallen branches with the other.”
All the women began working, obeying Matilda’s orders, while Thornton sat on a rock, exhausted and upset, wondering if they had any chance to actually survive. He shivered, the cave was warmer than outside, but still cold, but, when he closed his eyes he could still feel the scorching heat and see the flames that burned Locksley Manor to the ground.
“I’m sorry, my lord,” he whispered, not sure if he was thinking of Robin of Locksley or Guy of Gisborne.
Chapter 16: Wild Apple
Marian walked to the market, a basket hanging from her arm, and she wrapped herself in the thick cloak, but she couldn’t avoid shivering. She felt cold and lonely, but above all, she was frightened.
The guards from Nottingham came to question her and her father and mercifully they seemed to believe that they knew nothing about the whereabouts of sir Guy. That was the only good thing that happened since the day when Guy and Allan ran away from the castle.
The girl closed her eyes for a moment, shuddering again.
Thornton had told them that Gisborne had stabbed the sheriff, that he had been outlawed for killing him, but it wasn’t true.
When the soldiers came to Knighton Hall, Vaisey was with them, his eyes dead, devoid of any emotion, but still capable to freeze her soul with a single glance.
His gaze took her back to the terrifying nightmares of her childhood, when she believed that monsters and witches hid in the darkness, ready to snatch willful children from their beds.
The terror she felt when she thought of Vaisey was the same, but now nobody would soothe her fears or wipe away her tears.
“Father...” She whispered, praying that Sir Edward could protect her from any evil, but everything had changed.
She forced herself to ignore those dark thoughts, and to focus on the simple list of the things she had to buy at the market. She knew that it wasn’t her duty to shop for supplies, that she could have sent the cook or one of the other servants, but she needed to get out of the manor, to feel a bit of the freedom she once valued so much. She longed to wear the mask of the Nightwatchman again, to help the people who now lived in constant fear, but she knew that she couldn’t, it was a risk too big.
Whenever she went, whatever she did, she had the sensation that she was being watched, and usually there was a guard around, looking at her with his dead eyes, as if each one of those soldiers could read into her soul.
She glanced around and she stifled a sigh: there were guards at the market too, and she was sure that they were keeping an eye on her, spying her actions.
She stopped to look at the apples sold by an old man, taking much more time than she needed: looking at the fruit she wanted to buy was an innocent action, something that she could do without any risk, a short respite from her everyday fears, and she would take all the time she could, picking a fruit and then another to examine it before choosing a third one to put in her basket.
She took an apple, but the old man held another one to her, and Marian was startled. The man had managed to come so close to her while she was lost in her thoughts and she looked at him, afraid to meet another pair of dead eyes, but instead she saw a bright blue gaze staring at her from under the hood of his cloak.
She held her breath for a moment, then she took the apple, brushing the long fingers of the man. His hands were covered in dirt, like the face of the man, but they weren’t wrinkled at all.
Marian dared to glance at the ragged peasant and she noticed that he was stooping to give the impression to be old and frail, but that in fact he was strong and tall, much younger than he was trying to appear. She closed her eyes for a moment, recognizing the smell of leather and horses, the scent of the forest, and then she glanced at him again, to be sure.
“Guy,” she whispered, a moment before biting the apple, hiding her words against its fresh, red peel.
A twitch at the corner of the man’s lips proved that she had guessed, but she didn’t look at him again, even if she wished she could.
“I thought that it was too late in the season for apples. I thought that they had withered by now,” she said.
I thought you were dead.
“They still grow in the forest. Wild apples are stronger. Did you know that their tree has thorns? Anyone who wants to pick them must be very careful or he’ll get hurt.”
“A thorn doesn’t kill.”
The sheriff is alive. You tried to kill him, but he’s alive.
Guy picked a few other apples and he put them in Marian’s basket.
“I know. But a thorn is a warning. It means that one should be careful around that tree.” He said, then he held a hand in front of Marian, and the girl gave him a coin to pay for her purchase.
She know that she shouldn’t dare to say anything to him, afraid that the soldiers could hear her and recognize Guy, but she also felt that she couldn’t go away as if nothing happened.
She gave another bite to the apple.
“I’m glad they still grow. I quite like them,” she said, then she moved to another stall, to look at the merchandise.
When she dared to glance at the fruit stall again, Guy wasn’t there anymore and in his place an elderly woman, a real one this time, was selling her apples.
The girl felt stunned, as if it had been a dream, but she also felt a sparkle of hope awakening in her soul. Till now, the sheriff and his Black Knights had become more powerful day after day, oppressing people without any mercy. The peasants kept disappearing and the villagers were frightened, so terrified that they wouldn’t even try to oppose Vaisey’s unjust taxes.
Those who could paid them, the others waited in fear, praying that the punishment wasn’t too harsh.
Marian wanted to help the ones who risked starvation, and a couple of times she managed to give some food to some of the families who were trying to go away from Locksley to find a better life somewhere else, but now she didn’t dare to do it anymore.
She felt that the dark deeds of the sheriff and his allies could reach her anywhere, that their dead eyes could see everything and their evil will could force her to compliance by menacing her house and her father.
But the sheriff wanted Guy, he wanted to subdue him into blind obedience, and yet the knight had managed to run away and he was still free even after so many days. He also was daring enough to search a contact with her in the middle of the market, tricking the guards with his disguise!
She wondered why he did it.
Her vanity was raising its head, wanting to believe that he wanted to see her because he was madly in love with her, but Marian forced herself to dismiss those shallow thoughts.
Why should he risk his life for me?
Still, knowing that he was alive and in good health made her feel better and she wished to see him again, to have the chance to talk with him without anybody else listening, so that she could tell him how difficult her situation was now and find some comfort in sharing her fears.
“You are not in your right mind, Giz, are you aware of this?” Allan asked, throwing a damp rag at him.
“Why?” Guy caught the piece of cloth, and he used it to rub his face and his hands, without loosing his balance on the saddle. He wasn’t holding the reins, but the black stallion kept walking, keeping the pace with Allan’s horse while Guy cleaned himself from the dirt he had used to disguise his features.
“They are searching for you everywhere, the sheriff want your blood and your soul, literally, and you go to the market to see a lass!”
“I didn’t go to see a lass. I needed to talk with Marian!”
“About apples?” Allan asked, ironic.
“I wanted her to know that I am alive and free.”
“What’s the point of it? She can’t help us, not without risking everything, and I’m sure that you don’t want that.”
“I don’t want her help, quite the contrary instead.” Guy said, with a short sigh.
“What do you mean?”
“I wasn’t sure if I should try to contact her, there is always a danger in that, but I kept watch on her before deciding to do it...”
“That’s where you went when you disappeared from the cave! What if they found you?!”
“I’ve been careful, nobody saw me. But I saw her. There is so much sadness in her eyes, I saw her hope fading day after day… That’s why I decided to talk with her.”
“To seduce her looking like a beggar?”
“No, idiot.” Guy rolled his eyes in annoyance, but couldn’t hide an amused grin. “To let her know that I survived and that I intend to oppose the evil.”
“More likely to let her know that you’re going to get killed like a fool. Really, Giz, it would be wiser to run away. Take her with you if you love her so much, and let’s start a new life somewhere else.”
Guy turned to stare at him.
“They burned my house! They tortured and killed the people of Locksley! I won’t run away like a coward!”
“Have you seen them? They are in league with the devil! How can you hope to defeat them?”
“I stabbed the sheriff.”
“Yes, and he didn’t die. I saw that wound, mate, and it should have been fatal. But he’s still around, pretty much alive! How can you hope to defeat an enemy who won’t die?”
Guy didn’t answer immediately, and when he did his voice didn’t sound very bold.
“I’ll find a way.”
Allan shook his head with a sigh.
“We will find a way, you mean. Admit it, mate, you need my help.”
To Allan’s surprise, Guy didn’t reply in his usual ironic tone, but he agreed with a smile.
“You are right, and I’m grateful for that.”
“So, Giz, what are we going to do?”
“We must find a way to oppose them, a way to fight their evil. Should we talk with a priest, maybe?”
Allan thought about it for a while before answering.
“We could, but we must be sure that we find one we can really trust. I’ve seen too many corrupted priests, especially here in Nottingham.”
“I agree. We must be careful. Meanwhile we can still hit the sheriff and his allies,” Guy said.
“Maybe we can’t hit them directly, but I know what the sheriff wants: power and money. He may be in league with the devil and get from there all the power he wishes for, but I’m sure that he will keep collecting taxes from the villages. We can hit him there, in his greed. We will rob him, take that money before it reaches the castle.”
Allan clapped his hands.
“And then we’ll run away and we can start a new life!”
“What are you going to do with it, then? Will you just store it in our cave?”
“Of course we won’t, we’re not like the dragons of the old fairy tales. I have a better idea.”
Allan stared at him.
“Better than spending it and living a comfortable life?”
“Much better. We’ll give it back to the people. The survivors of Locksley are hiding in the forest, without homes and forced to hide in caves and makeshift shelters. They starve, they have lost their crops and they live only of the small prey they can catch… Many of them are horribly wounded, tortured by Nottingham’s guards… They cut their tongues because they wouldn’t say where I was hiding, but how could they if they didn’t know?!”
“Hey, Giz, lower your voice or everyone will know where you are.” Allan said, worried, and Guy turned to look at him, his eyes burning with rage.
“Oh, but someday they will know, and then they’ll fear me. I won’t let all this go unpunished!”
“Not now, I hope! We’d have no hopes against them.” Allan said, in a pleading tone.
Guy looked at him and he sighed.
“You’re right. But in time...”
“Well, what are we going to do now?”
“We must get ready to rob the sheriff’s money. If things are still like they were, they will collect taxes in Clun on the first day of the month.”
“It’s two days from now.” Allan commented, and Guy nodded.
“Plenty of time to get ready and set a few traps. I know all the routes they can use, so we can spot the best places to attack the convoy. But first I want to search for them again.”
“Giz, it might be useless. Thornton was an old man, and you heard what the people said: the guards locked him into the manor before setting fire to it. And Matilda disappeared after the fire and nobody saw her again.”
“People also said that they didn’t find human remains in the ruins. Maybe he survived.”
“Or maybe the fire destroyed everything.”
“No!” Guy said vehemently, remembering another fire, so many years ago.
“I didn’t know that you cared so much for your servant.” Allan said, a little surprised.
“I didn’t know either, but now I see that Thornton was one of the few who always took care of me even if I did nothing to deserve his devotion. When I was ill, he called Matilda and the he patiently followed all her instructions to restore my health. Even when you went to Locksley that last time, he prepared a meal that would help me to get my strength back. I should have thought that they would hurt him… I feel that I betrayed his loyalty.”
“I see… Where are we going to search?”
“We’ll try to find some of the survivors from Locksley. We’ll take some of the dried meat from the last deer we hunted to them and we’ll ask what they know. If he’s alive we’ll help him, if he’s dead, we’ll dig a grave for his remains.”
Allan thought that Gisborne had changed since they had been hiding in the cave. He became stronger day after day, as if being finally free from the sheriff had improved his health too, but he also looked more pensive, often lost in his thoughts.
“Sure, Giz. What about Matilda? Where do you think she went?”
“I’m sure she’s safe. That woman is a survivor and she knows the forest, if she want to disappear, nobody can find her.”
“But you keep searching for her.”
“Her help would be precious. I hope that if she learns that I’m searching for her, she’ll let me find her.”
Allan shook his head.
“You shouldn’t talk to people. If they recognize you, they’ll sell you to the sheriff. Never trust desperate people, Giz.”
“They won’t recognize us. We’ll hide our faces whenever we get near them. We’ll be like ghosts.”
“Something like the Nightwatchman, then?” Allan asked and Guy frowned, thinking of his old rival who gave him so many troubles, but at last he nodded.
“Yep, something like that, I guess.”
“Well, at least it sounds fun.”
Chapter 17: The Two Travelers
The two travelers walked slowly, following the path that led into the forest. The older one, a dark skinned monk, was supporting the other, who was sobbing so much that he couldn’t even see where he was going.
“Come on, child, be strong. I know you are.” The monk tried to comfort his companion, but the other was too distraught.
“Go-gone… I promised… I s-swore him that I w-would come back… but this...”
“I know. This is strange. It was no accident, I think. A manor can burn, but a whole village too? And where is all the people? When some disaster happen, usually people linger in the places where their homes used to be, they rebuild new homes on the ruins...”
The younger man tried to dry his tears with the sleeve of his tunic.
“I saw it happen in the Holy Land. Our soldiers destroyed a village once, and after the battle the survivors tried to get back to their homes, to try to rebuild their lives. The soldiers wanted to go back and kill them too, but my master forbade it, he...” His voice broke on those last words, and he began crying again.
The monk patted his shoulder, affectionately.
He had met that young man in the Holy Land when his master had been badly wounded while defending the King. He had been called to take the confession of that brave young hero, and he tried to comfort him in his last hours, but he had been deeply impressed by the raw desperation of the soldier’s servant and friend.
The young man kept praying and crying and doing anything he could to give comfort to his master.
He spent endless nights trying to lower his fever, trying to clean an already infected wound or to make his feverish master drink some fresh water, drop after drop.
When he saw the wound, the monk knew immediately that just a miracle could save that young man: the blade that had hit him had pierced his bowels, spreading the infection. The wound was swollen, his flesh was rotting while he was still alive, and everybody, even the wounded soldier himself, knew that he was going to die.
The faithful servant was the only one who still hoped for his master to survive. The idea of him dying was too much to bear, unthinkable.
At last the dying man forced him to promise to keep on living after his death, to go back to England and try to live a good life, to live even for him.
In his last moments of consciousness, when the monk came to offer him the comfort of the Last Rites, the young soldier asked him to help his servant, his friend, to make sure that he would go on living and that he could go back to England safely.
The monk promised and, when the poor man died, he kept his promise, taking care of the desperate servant and trying to comfort him as he could. For the first few months the servant refused to leave the tomb of his master, but then he realized that he hated that foreign place where his master lost his life, that he longed to see the green forests of England again.
Saying goodbye to the tomb of his master was heartbreaking, but at last he decided to go back home, and the monk went with him. He too was tired of seeing that bloodshed, all those young lives lost in a senseless war, and he felt that he would be more useful somewhere else.
But now, when they were so close to their destination, the poor servant had to suffer another blow: the house of his master, the place where he grew up too, had been burned to the ground, together with all the other houses of the village. The church was a charred ruin too.
The monk was worried, the whole situation was too strange and he didn’t feel safe, so he had urged the distraught young man to go away, to continue their travel without stopping. He followed his instinct taking a path that led into the forest instead of the main road. He felt that they needed to find out what happened at the manor, but his companion was too upset to see other people and the monk was afraid that whoever destroyed the village could still be around and be dangerous.
“I think we are far enough, now, and this glade is shielded from the cold wind. We should rest for a while, maybe eat something. I think I still have some cheese.”
The other didn’t answer, and the monk sighed, worried. If his companion showed no interest for good food, then he was really upset. He made him sit down on a fallen log and took out the cheese anyways, hoping to awaken his interest, but he got no reaction at all.
They sat in silence for a while, then they lifted their heads, startled: they could hear the sound of galloping hooves getting close.
They stood up, ready to hide or run away, when two horses burst into the glade at a gallop. One of the horses saw them and reared, spooked, throwing his rider to the ground. The man on the other horse let out a curse and turned the black stallion he was mounting to go back and help the fallen man.
When he saw the monk and the servant, he unsheathed his sword, and he pointed it at them.
“Don’t touch him! Al…” The tall man on the black horse began calling his friend, but he stopped before uttering his name. “Hey! Are you hurt?!” He asked, instead.
The man on the ground didn’t move, and the knight glanced at him, in fear, before moving his gaze back on the two strangers in the glade.
The dark skinned stranger, dressed like a monk, nodded at the unconscious man.
“I have some knowledge about healing, maybe I can help.”
“I said don’t touch him! Who are you?!”
“You seem troubled, my son. Can I offer you my assistance?”
The knight unmounted, his sword still pointed at them.
“Who are you?” He repeated, and the monk saw that his hands were shaking.
“My name is Tuck, and this is Much. We mean no harm, we just arrived here after a very long travel. Please, don’t point that sword at us, my friend just had a bad shock and he is upset.”
“Let me see your eyes.”
“Step into the light and let me see your eyes.”
Tuck didn’t understand the reason, but it seemed to be important for the man, so he obeyed and stared at the man without fear. He looked well at him, and he saw that he was a strong man with pleasant features: tall, with dark curly hair and eyes of a deep blue. He also noticed that the knight was frightened and he wondered why.
After examining their eyes, the knight relaxed a little, and he glanced at the unconscious man.
“Can you really help him? Hurry, we have to wake him up and go away immediately.”
Tuck looked at Much, who was fearfully looking at the knight, speechless. The monk walked to the unconscious man to check him, while the knight looked around, nervously.
“You should be careful, your friend had a bad fall, you shouldn’t move him before you are sure that there is no damage...”
“No, we can’t stay here! Can’t you hear them?! If they find us we are dead!”
Tuck listened: he could hear a feeble sound, an eerie chant, far away in the woods.
“What is it?”
“The Black Knights! They kill people and they take their souls! They are in league with the devil!”
The monk frowned: the knight didn’t look like a fool and he was really scared, but he knew that most of the people who claimed to see witches or the devil had just a good imagination or a weakness of the mind.
The wounded man moved, and he woke up with a gasp.
“Giz! Did they get us?!” He cried, seeing Tuck and Much.
“No names!” Yelled the other, but he looked relieved to see that he was awake. “Can you stand? We must go now!”
“No! Listen! It’s too late! They are too close!”
Much walked close to the monk, trembling.
“Tuck? What’s this chant? What are they talking about?”
The monk looked at the knight and at his friend, who both looked terrified and close to panic. The black stallion whinnied and bolted away, disappearing between the trees.
Tuck helped the wounded man to get up, grabbing his arm, and he nodded at the knight to take the other one, then he told Much to follow them, and he led them to a group of bushes.
“Sit there and be quiet, the leaves are thick, they won’t see us.”
“No, you don’t understand, they are demons or something like that. They won’t need their eyes to find us!” The knight said, in despair, but Tuck put a finger on his lips to tell him to be silent.
“If they are just dangerous outlaws, they won’t see us here. If they are in league with the devil as you think, this will protect us.”
The monk sat close to the other three men, giving his back to them and shielding them with his body, then he grabbed the cross he was wearing around his neck and he held it in front of him.
Soon, the blasphemous chant came closer and the four men froze, holding their breath as the Black Knights walked into the glade.
They wandered around for a while, and they stopped their chant, confused, like hunting dogs that had lost the track they were following. Then they turned back and went away, disappearing in the forest.
The four men hidden in the bushes waited for a long time before the monk stood up and turned to the others: Much was frightened, but the other two looked like they were about to faint.
Tuck looked at the knight, serious.
“It seems you were right, son, there was something very wrong with those men. Come, we should better go away from here while we can. Do you know a safer place where we can talk?”
Guy nodded weakly.
“Our cave,” he said, trying to hide how scared he was, “but we’ll have to blindfold you until we’re completely sure that we can trust you.”
Much looked at him, outraged.
“Unbelievable! Tuck just saved you and this is how you repay him! So ungrateful!”
The monk shook his head.
“I can understand them. A great evil is haunting this place, I can’t blame them for being wary.” He turned to look at the knight. “We will do as you say. What about the horses? Shouldn’t you search for them?”
“They will find us when they feel safe. It seems that they can feel the danger.”
“Very well then,” Tuck said quietly, “if your friend can walk, you can blindfold us and take us to your cave.”
Much stumbled entering the cave and he fell to the ground with a scream of indignation.
“You can remove the blindfold.” Guy said, helping Allan to sit on a log near the embers of their fire.
He added some firewood and rekindled the fire, then he turned to their unexpected guests.
“Brother Tuck?” He looked at the monk. “Are you really a healer? Could you check if he’s all right?”
“I told you Giz, it’s nothing, just a tumble.”
“You were unconscious, I thought you were dead!”
“So you actually care for me… I’m moved, Giz.”
“If I’m going to defy the Black Knights I’ll need all the help I can get, you’d be useless if you die, so let the friar check you,” Guy said, embarrassed to admit that he had been really worried for Allan when he saw him falling from the saddle.
Tuck looked around, and he was surprised to see the horses standing quietly at the end of the cave, in a corner were they had bunches of hay and a water through.
They actually came back here on their own…
He noticed that the cave was dry and warm enough and that it was stored with supplies and all the items needed to grant a comfortable life.
This is not just a temporary refuge, this is more like a home.
Tuck sat near Allan and he carefully checked him, relieved to find just a few bruises and a scratch on his forehead. The knight brought him a basin filled with water and the monk carefully cleaned Allan’s wounds.
“He’s been lucky. He’s just a little upset, but he’ll be fine soon,” he said, hiding a smile when he noticed how relieved the knight was to hear those words.
“What about us?!” Much said in a plaintive tone. “You helped him, but they took us here and we don’t know what their intentions are! What if they took us here to rob us? They could kill us and nobody would ever know!”
Allan stared at him, grinning.
“I don’t want to be funny, but you don’t look like rich folks. What the point would be in robbing a friar and a servant?”
Guy didn’t sit with them, but he looked at their guest standing, his back leaning against a wall of the cave and his arms crossed in front of him.
“What were you doing in the forest?” He asked.
“Saving you from unholy enemies, it seems.” Tuck answered, peacefully. “Son, don’t you think we deserved to know your name? Your friend calls you Giz, but I guess that it isn’t your real name, is it?”
“I have my reason to be cautious.”
“Those fiends were hunting you, weren’t they?”
“We have been careless, we noticed their presence only when it was too late to hide. It was because the sheriff was with them. He’s always been single minded, but now he wants me and he won’t stop until he succeeds.” He shuddered, and he lowered is voice, as if he was talking to himself. “Someday he will.” He added in a dejected tone.
Allan shook his head.
“No, Giz! Don’t even think about it! We managed to avoid him till now and we’ll keep doing it. You’re upset because it’s the first time you see him after that day at the castle, I’m upset too, he should be dead. But don’t lose your hopes, there must be a way to defeat them. Maybe he is the key to it!” Allan pointed at Tuck.
“You are a friar, aren’t you? I’ve seen what happened in that glade, your cross and your prayers kept us safe! Maybe you know a way to send them back to Hell, where they belong.”
Much trembled, clearly uneasy to hear his words, but Tuck kept calm and looked at Allan and Guy.
“Tell me more about these fiends, when did they arrive here? What do they do?”
Guy finally sat near Allan, and he stared at the fire for a moment before answering, trying to understand if he could trust the friar. But what other choice did he have? He needed allies and this Tuck seemed to be a strong, clear-headed person and he had piercing eyes, completely different from the dead gaze of the sheriff’s associates.
“I don’t know how or when it began. I’ve been gravely ill for many weeks and when I went back to my work at the castle, everything was different: the guards had dead eyes, there were reports of people disappearing and I witnessed those demons slaughtering a woman in the forest. Then I found out that the sheriff and his Master of Arms were with them. They wanted me to become one of them, they had unholy rituals and they tried to force me to drink their blood to get my soul, but Allan helped me to run away… I… I stabbed the sheriff right in his heart, I’m sure of that… He should be dead, but he didn’t die. I know him even too well, he won’t stop searching until he gets me.” Guy sighed. “For now he destroyed everything I had: my manor, my lands… He killed or tortured the people of Locksley to learn from them where their lord was hiding...”
Much stood up abruptly.
“You’re a liar! I knew it! I knew we couldn’t trust them! He’s lying!”
Guy glared at him, jumping to his feet too, a hand on the hilt of his sword.
“How dare you?!”
Much paled and he stepped back, but he fiercely pointed at Guy with a trembling finger.
“You can’t be the lord of Locksley! My master was! If you say so, you’re just an impostor! Maybe you were the one who destroyed the manor and the village!”
Guy was about to attack that annoying man, when something in his words caught his attention.
“Your master? Who is it?”
Much straightened his back proudly.
“Robin, earl of Huntingdon and the rightful lord of Locksley!”
Gisborne stared at him in surprise and he didn’t unsheathe the sword.
“Robin of Locksley?” He said in a low voice, and he hesitated, as if he was afraid to ask. “Is it true? Is… is he really dead or the rumors I heard were unfounded?”
Guy waited for his answer, fearing that Robin of Locksley could still be alive and that he would come back to England. In that case, Marian would surely go back to him and Guy would lose any hope to be with her someday.
Fool, he rebuked himself, what hopes could I have anyway? I’m an outlaw, the Black Knights could find me and kill me anytime, and I have nothing to offer her. No lands, no money, no future. And she would never give her love to someone with a heart so black to hope that his rival is dead.
He felt his cheeks getting hot with shame and he averted his gaze, looking at the fire, but he lifted his head again hearing Much’s sob.
The young man wiped his eyes with a sleeve, but he couldn’t stop tears.
“My… my master died a hero! He gave his life for the King… and it isn’t fair that you go saying that you’re the lord of Locksley! You are a thief… you try to steal his name and his lands!”
“I didn’t steal anything!” Guy said, fiercely, and Allan interrupted him.
“He’s right! I was a thief and a poacher, but he was a real nobleman, you know? I can swear on it, he lived at Locksley manor and all the servants called him ‘my lord’ or ‘Sir Guy’. Of course now we both have to poach and steal to survive, but he said that we should only rob the allies of the sheriff because they are the enemy. We were doing that when the Black Knights found us: we had just attacked the wagon with the tax money, that’s why we didn’t notice them until they were almost on us.”
Gisborne was about to reproach Allan for using his name, but he realized that they had already given so many information to those strangers that there was no use in keeping it a secret.
“My name is Guy of Gisborne, and Locksley was given to me when the sheriff received the news of the death of its previous owner. Robin of Locksley had no heirs, so the estate was assigned to me. I’m no usurper as you can see.”
Much was still shaking his head in disbelief, his eyes full of tears, and Tuck put a hand on his shoulder to make him sit again.
“By the way, I’m Allan A Dale.” Allan said, with a little wave of his hand.
Chapter 18: Worse than Death
Matilda looked at her daughter, worried. Rosa was peacefully asleep, but the healer knew that her pregnancy was getting to its end and the baby was going to come soon.
She was afraid for her. Matilda had helped hundreds of mothers to give birth to their children, but Rosa would do it in a cave during the coldest days of winter, with evil murderers on the loose who were becoming every day stronger and bolder.
When Matilda left the cave to provide for food or other supplies, sometimes she went close to the villages to hear some news. People were still disappearing, but now they weren’t just the weaker and the lonely ones: sometimes children were kidnapped from their homes and their parents woke up to empty beds and cribs, sometimes women went to the market and never came back.
The healer forbade her companions to leave their hiding place, afraid that they could become victims of the murderers. She would be the only one taking the risk to get out of the forest if needed because she felt that she was the only one who could have a hope to avoid being caught.
Meg was young and healthy, but she didn’t know anything about survival, Rosa was about to give birth and Thornton was old and weak. Djaq was still ailing from her wound, but in time she could become a good help, Matilda thought, because that girl was a survivor, very resourceful and stronger than she looked.
But for now Matilda was alone and she felt the heavy responsibility of keeping all of them alive and safe. She wore a warm cloak, and she left the cave without waking up the others.
The walk to the edges of the forest seemed longer and colder than usual, and Matilda found herself angry at the murderers. She had never been afraid of walking through the forest because even outlaws knew that they shouldn’t bother her. Someday they could need her help as a healer, so they half feared and half respected her and they wouldn’t dream of attacking her.
But now she kept looking around, getting startled for every little sound, and she didn’t accept feeling so helpless.
Matilda sighed, wishing that she could be back to the safety of the cave soon, but she knew that she had to buy a goat first. Rosa’s child could need milk, and they would be able to make cheese and butter. Surely it would be a big help to survive winter.
The woman walked to the nearest village, Knighton in this case, taking care of keeping her face hidden under the hood of her cloak. It was market day, but only a few merchants were there and the items on sale stalls were few and poorly made.
The villagers hurried to buy what they needed, and then they took refuge in their huts, closing the door and shutting the windows. Nobody dared to stop her or to talk to her.
Matilda thought that they all looked frightened and she wondered if there had been disappearances in Knighton recently.
She saw a carriage approaching and she breathed a sigh of relief seeing that it had Sir Edward’s colors: surely she could talk with him, ask for some news.
She was about to move toward the vehicle, when somebody stopped her, grabbing her wrist.
Matilda pulled her hand away and turned, ready to defend herself, but she met Marian’s eyes, hidden behind the Nightwatchman’s mask.
The younger woman called her quietly, with a nod of her head, and Matilda followed her in a stable.
“No! Don’t say my name.” Marian interrupted her in a frightened whisper.
“I know that you are the Nightwatchman, I guessed it a long time ago and I wonder how the others didn’t, but don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.”
“It’s not about this. Names must have some power. If you call me, he will notice me.”
Matilda frowned, and she saw that Marian’s eyes filled with tears.
“My father.” She said in a choked whisper.
“Sir Ed...” She stopped noticing the alarmed look in Marian’s eyes. “Why don’t you want him to see you?”
Marian tried to appear calm, but she couldn’t stop a tear and then another until she found herself openly weeping in Matilda’s arms.
“Now, now, child… What’s up? Is he ill again? Are you afraid to upset him?”
Marian shook her head.
“No, his health is good now. He hasn’t been so well in years.”
“He changed.” The girl sobbed.
Marian pointed at a crack between two boards in the wall of the stable.
Matilda put an eye to the crack and looked out: Sir Edward’s carriage had stopped in front of a house and Marian’s father was standing at its side while two of the soldiers who were escorting the vehicle entered the hut. They came out shortly after, dragging a peasant between them.
The man was wailing, and he dropped to his knees in front of Sir Edward, begging for mercy.
“Please my lord!” He cried. “I was hungry! I only took a little bag of flour!”
Sir Edward held his hand up and one of the soldiers gave him a horsewhip while the other two tied the man to a fence.
Matilda glanced at Marian: the girl was covering her eyes, weeping. The healer turned back to look just in time to see Sir Edward giving the first lash to the man. The peasant screamed in pain, but the whipping went on until the man passed out and stopped moving. Only then, the elderly lord dropped the whip and climbed back on the carriage.
Matilda was dumbfounded.
“It’s impossible! He was so weak and ill, too frail to do something like that! And your father has always been a just, merciful man… Why did he do it?!”
Marian tried to stifle a sob.
“He changed! When you went away I was afraid that without your cares he could die, it was my worse fear, but this… maybe this is even worse! The sheriff came to question us about Sir Guy and he took my father to his room, to talk in private. I feared that the sheriff could hurt my father, but when he went away, he looked stronger, less ill. A few days later, the sheriff came again and then my father went to the castle. Every time he changed a little, he became harsher, cruel, violent even!”
Matilda looked at her.
“Child, does he beat you?”
Marian averted her eyes.
“It doesn’t matter, I’m strong, he doesn’t really hurt me. It’s the rest that is too painful: to look at him and not recognize him anymore. I try to find him behind this new self, but I can’t. Sometimes I see sparkles of him under the surface, but they disappear immediately. I’m afraid, Matilda, what should I do?!”
The healer hugged her.
“Don’t go back home, love. I don’t know what happened to him, but I’m worried for you. If he has been corrupted by the sheriff, he might hurt you someday. I know that it’s not easy, he’s your father and you love him, but you must protect yourself. Too many people suffered or died because of this evil… The people of Locksley… All the ones who disappeared… Even Guy of Gisborne...”
“Guy’s not dead.” Marian said and Matilda turned to look at her.
“How do you know? For what I know that poor boy could be lying dead somewhere in the forest.”
“I’ve seen him.”
“He was at Nottingham market last week, disguised as a merchant. I talked with him.”
“Was he all right?”
“We only talked for a few moments, but he seemed to be fine. I think he wants to fight the sheriff and his allies somehow.”
Matilda sighed of relief.
“I’m happy to hear that he was in good health at least. I was really worried.”
“Seeing him gave me some hope. He succeeded in getting away from them. He’s free now. Maybe even my father can be saved somehow, that’s why I can’t leave him.”
“But child, he could hurt you.”
“And still you are not leaving. You are a fool.” Matilda said harshly and Marian looked at her, ready to reply with a fierce gaze in her eyes, but then the healer smiled. “But you’re also the bravest girl I have ever met. Be careful child, and if you feel in danger reach us in the forest.”
Matilda opened her arms and Marian hugged her, taking all the comfort she could get.
“This seems a nightmare… I thought that things were bad, but they are getting worse day after day… I think that I see a sparkle of my father, and then he does something cruel… At home I try to be obedient, meek, so he won’t get angry at me. Just a few months ago I knew that I could say anything and that he would still love me, but now...”
“Why the Nightwatchman then? It’s a risk!”
Marian looked out, at the house where the peasant had been flogged. The women of the house were crying and trying to help the wounded man, while the children were gathered together, wide eyed and sobbing.
“That’s why. My father became cruel and I can’t oppose him, I must be silent and let him mistreat our villagers, so this is the least I can do: I try to give them back something, to help them as I can… I know that it’s a terrible risk, at first I was too afraid to wear my costume because I felt that there were spies everywhere, but then I saw people suffering by the hands of my father and I knew that I couldn’t just watch and do nothing. And lately the guards aren’t watching me so closely, I guess that the sheriff needs them for more important things rather than watching what I do.”
Matilda was tempted to grab her wrist and drag Marian to the forest with her, to protect her and take her away from danger, but she knew that the girl wouldn’t allow it, so she rummaged in her basket and gave her a little bag of herbs.
“The Nightwatchman can take this to that man, it will soothe the pain and lower the fever. I’d go to treat him, but my daughter and the others need me to survive. I can’t be seen.”
“Why did you come then? You say I’m a fool to be the Nightwatchman and you take risks too.”
“I need a goat. My daughter and her baby will need her milk soon.”
“Go to old Mark’s hut, then, at the edge of the village. He can be trusted and he’s blind, he won’t betray you.”
“I will, thank you. Be careful, child.”
Marian gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, then she went away, leaving her alone.
The goat bleated and the three girls gathered around her smiled.
“I didn’t know that farm animals could be so pretty,” Meg said, a little surprised. “I was rarely allowed out of my father’s sight and surely he wouldn’t approve if I went to play in the stables.”
“They’re useful,” Djaq said, “and that’s more important than being pretty.”
“Did you have goats in your country, Djaq?” Rosa asked.
“Of course we had them! Sometimes a man’s wealth is judged by the number of the goats he owns.”
“Surely this one will be very useful for us,” Thornton said, reaching the girls.
They all smiled at him and listened to him while he explained how they could make cheese and butter with the goat’s milk.
When Thornton left them and went to sit by the fire with Matilda, the healer greeted him with a chuckle.
“Those poor girls are so bored to live hidden in this cave that even a common goat looks terribly interesting to them. We’ll have to think of something to keep them busy or entertained before they have too much free time and get themselves in some trouble.”
“They make me think of the first years of my marriage, when my wife was still alive and our children were young: they sat in my lap and kept asking for stories. Those girls are older than my kids were when they asked me for fairy tales, of course, but sometimes they have their same innocent eyes.”
“Where is your family now?”
“My kids grew up and went to York to get a better job. They are all married and have kids of their own, but I’ve never seen my grandchildren yet and now I doubt I’ll ever meet them.”
Matilda patted his hand in a gesture of comfort.
“Who knows, maybe someday you will.”
“You are kind to say it, but I doubt I’ll live to see that day. I’m just an old fool and I should be grateful for being alive, but sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better for me to die in the fire of Locksley...”
“Oh, don’t be an idiot now!” Matilda blurted.
“I failed my master, and I’m just a burden on your shoulders...”
“Maybe the smoke of the fire clouded your mind, you old oaf! Maybe you aren’t strong, but you are still important for all of us! Look at the cave: you keep it perfectly clean and tidy, we always know where to find every single thing we could need because you organized our belongings so well, you can cook tasty meals using the scarce supplies we have and all the girls love to listen to your stories and they ask you for advice. Without your company I’d be terrified to bear the responsibility of taking care of all of them and I also enjoy our conversations. Don’t ever think that you are not important to us.”
Thornton nodded, moved.
“Thank you, Matilda.” He sighed. “Sometimes it’s so difficult, especially when I think of Robin and of Sir Guy… They were so young and strong, so alive... And now they are no more...”
“Guy of Gisborne isn’t dead. Lady Marian saw him a few days ago and she said he was well.”
“Really? So they didn’t catch him! I confess I’m relieved.”
“So am I. I just wish I could talk to him, see how he’s doing.”
Thornton nodded quietly, he wished the same thing.
Chapter 19: Not So Deeply Buried
“Are you sure you want to try this again, Giz?” Allan asked, worried. “Last time it didn’t go well at all, if it weren’t for Tuck we’d be dead. Or worse.”
Guy looked at him.
“If you are afraid you can stay at the cave with him,” Guy nodded at Much, who was sitting by the fire, stirring the soup and looking miserable.
“Don’t be silly, mate! Of course I won’t let you do this alone! Come on, we both know that you need my help! So what’s the problem if your plan is a bit crazy? People always say I’m a fool, so it might work perfectly well for me.”
Guy gratefully smiled at him, then both he and Allan looked at Tuck, who had just cleared his voice.
“Do you plan to attack those Black Knights, Sir Guy?”
Gisborne shook his head.
“No, not them. If I had known that they were around, I wouldn’t have tried to rob the tax money last time. Someday we’ll find a way to fight them, but we aren’t ready for it yet.”
The friar nodded his approval.
“Wise choice. Opposing that sort of evil is possible, but it’s very dangerous and difficult. To be successful we must learn as much as we can about the enemy and plan everything thoroughly.”
“That’s why I’m going to take their money. It will anger them and we’ll force them to retaliate somehow. Hopefully their actions will reveal information about them and we might find a weakness or a way to fight them.” Guy replied, but Much interrupted him.
“What’s the use of that if they kill you? If they kill all of us! They’ll catch you and you’ll bring doom on us too!”
“Well, thanks for the optimistic encouragement,” Guy said, looking at him with distaste, but Tuck put a hand on his shoulder to placate him.
“Please don’t be cross at Much, Sir Guy, and you, Allan, don’t make fun of him. He was just a servant, but he has faithfully followed his master at war, fighting at his side for five years, and he has seen him die. He came back home only to find it burned to the ground, so you can’t blame him for being upset and dispirited. Please, keep in mind that Locksley had been his home for a longer time than it had been yours, Sir Guy, you are not the only one who suffered for its loss.”
Guy looked at Much, frowning a little.
“Well, this isn’t completely true because Locksley was mine before it belonged to Robin,” he said quietly, as if he was talking to himself, “but it doesn’t really matter now and I can see what you mean. Much, nobody will think less of you if you prefer staying here.”
Much looked at Gisborne, unsure if he was still making fun of him.
“I don’t believe you,” he said at last, “and Locksley has always belonged to Robin!”
“Not all of it. A part of its lands had been awarded to my father from the King himself!” Guy blurted, incensed, and Much jumped to his feet.
“If it was true, why I’ve never seen you there? I’ve never heard about you or your family! Guy of Gisborne… There’s no Gisborne!”
“Because your precious Robin took it from me! I’m not surprised that he never talked about it, maybe he was ashamed of what he did!”
Tuck stopped Much before he could hurl himself at Guy, brandishing a burning stick he had grabbed from the fire and even Allan stood up in alarm, ready to stop a fight or to help in it.
Gisborne didn’t move, but he looked at the burning piece of wood in the hands of Much.
“I tried to do the same when Robin’s father came to our manor...” He said in a doleful tone. “I just wanted him to leave my mother alone, to let her talk to my father, but he pushed me and the curtain caught fire...”
Allan looked at him, surprised, and he realized that Guy was lost in some far away memory, and not a pleasant one. Much was surprised too, but after a moment he stared at Guy in horror, pointing at him with a trembling finger.
“A fire? Robin once told me that his father died in the fire of a manor! It was you, then! You killed him!”
“You don’t know anything about it! Nothing at all! My parents were in that manor too!”
Guy cried, then he pushed past Much and ran out of the cave.
Allan looked at the entrance of the cave, surprised because he believed that he had seen tears on Gisborne’s face, while Much stared blankly at the burning stick he was holding and he dropped it in the fire again.
“Maybe I should follow him...” Allan suggested, but Tuck stopped him.
“No, let me go. Offering comfort to those who suffer is one of my duties and maybe I can soothe some of his pain.”
The friar walked into the forest for a while, following the traces left by Guy of Gisborne: a footprint in the mud of a path, a broken little branch in a bush. He found him soon, the knight had not wandered far and he was sitting on a fallen tree by the river.
Tuck saw him stiffen for a moment and relax a moment after. He realized that Gisborne had noticed his presence and also deemed that it wasn’t a threat.
He walked to him.
“Can I sit with you, son?”
Gisborne didn’t look at him, he was staring at the river, sitting with his arms around his knees.
“If you must.”
Tuck lowered himself on the trunk and for a while he said nothing, waiting for Guy to speak first.
“If you are afraid for your annoying friend, don’t worry, I won’t hurt him, I can control myself. I couldn’t have worked for the sheriff otherwise.” Guy talked in a gruff voice, still not looking at the friar.
“Oh, I’m not worried for him. If you get to know him, you’ll find out that he’s much stronger and resourceful than he seems. After all he survived a war and his heroic master didn’t. But it doesn’t matter now, I’m not here to make you like him, neither of you need that.”
Guy gave him a glance.
“What do you want, then?”
“I thought that you might need a friendly ear. Maybe you want to talk.”
“Why should I?”
“Sometimes sharing a burden with somebody makes it lighter.”
“Some burden are better left buried.”
“It didn’t seem so deeply buried earlier. Is it true, then? Did you really know Robin of Locksley?”
“I have many flaws, but I’m not a liar. I spent part of my childhood in Locksley, in the land gifted to my father for his deeds at the service of the king. I knew Robin very well once.”
“What happened? Do you want to talk about it?”
“What’s to say? We ruined each other’s life, it cannot be changed.”
“True, we can’t change the past,” Tuck acknowledged, “but we can learn from it to build a better future.”
“Well, I surely learned that I shouldn’t set fire to houses,” Guy said, sarcastic.
“You said that it was an accident.”
“I know, but I can’t forgive myself for it.”
“God will surely forgive you, can I offer you the comfort of confession?”
“Maybe I don’t deserve forgiveness.”
Tuck put a hand on his shoulder and Guy winced, but he didn’t reject his touch.
“It doesn’t matter, my son, there his hope for anyone, even for the ones who believe to be irredeemable. And I don’t think you are, you wouldn’t be so upset otherwise.”
“Why do you care? You don’t even know me.”
“Oh, I think I do, a little at least. You sheltered us in your cave for a few days now, and I pride myself with my ability in judging people. See? We all have our sins, I am often too conceited and proud, but it’s also true that I’m rarely wrong.”
“What? Are you searching for a confession now?” Guy asked with a grin. “I thought you were the friar, not me.”
Tuck laughed heartily.
“I just wanted to show you what I see in you, sir Guy.”
“What could you see? A black-hearted man who was too blind to see what he was doing until he was almost killed for it? A stupid outlaw who’s trying to fight a hopeless battle?”
“A hopeless battle… Maybe, but you are going to fight it, so maybe there is hope. I’ve seen your enemies, our enemies, and I can say that nobody could blame you if you decided to run away from them. But you are here.”
“See? I told you, I’m a fool.”
“Stupid… brave… sometimes the difference is very small. I will support your fight because I think that you can defeat the evil that is corrupting this county, I believe that you have it in your heart. And its color doesn’t matter, because I think it’s in the right place now.”
Guy looked at the friar, frowning, and he tried to understand if he was teasing him, but the dark eyes of the man were benevolent and sincere, as if he was meaning what he said.
“If you really think so, you’re a fool too.” Guy said, with an ironic little smile.
“Maybe I am, my son, but who knows? A little foolery might be what we need to win our war.”
“I don’t know how you can follow a murderer!” Much said, stirring the soup as if he wanted to kill it.
“Oh, come on, man! Won’t you really believe that Giz willingly killed your friend’s father and his own parents too?” Allan shook his head and held the gaze of Much, who was now staring at him.
“Robin told me about it, and he would never lie!”
“It seems that your master was a saint...” Allan said in a sarcastic tone, and he rolled his eyes seeing that Much was now close to tears.
“Robin was a hero! He gave his own life to protect the King! For England! Don’t you dare to taint his memory...”
“All right, all right, I believe you, but I’m also sure that Giz isn’t the evil monster you think him to be. Haven’t you heard what he said? He’s been pushed, he didn’t want to start that fire.”
“To trust him so much, you must know him very well. I’ve been at Robin’s side for my whole life, was it the same for you?” Much commented, giving another stir at the soup.
“Actually I’ve known Giz just for a few weeks. He put me in the stocks.”
Much gave a bewildered look at him.
“Just a few weeks? And he arrested you?!”
“No, he saved me from a much harsher punishment.”
“Robin would have set you free! He hated injustice!”
“Oh, but it wasn’t an unjust punishment: they caught me poaching. Giz was kind to let me keep both my hands. And apart from this, he’s alright.”
“But...” Much began, but Allan interrupted him.
“Oh, stop it! He’s a friend and I trust him, all right? You had your Robin and you get mad if anyone speaks ill of him, don’t you? Well, Gisborne is my friend so stop slandering him.”
Much opened his mouth to reply and he closed it after a moment, not sure of what to say.
He filled a bowl with the soup and he gave it to Allan, mainly because he didn’t know what else to do. He took another bowl for himself, and for a while they ate in silence.
Guy walked back to the cave with Tuck. He didn’t wish to see Much again and have to argue with him, but he didn’t want to send him away either because then the friar would go with him and Guy felt that his help was very important to face the Black Knights.
“Robin of Locksley is dead,” Tuck said, guessing his thoughts, “wouldn’t it be better to let him rest in peace?”
“I agree, but it wasn’t me the one who started talking about him.” Guy said, giving an hostile glance at the entrance of the cave.
Tuck stopped before entering and touched Guy’s shoulder with his hand.
“Sir Guy, I don’t know you well yet, but I think I’m not wrong to believe that you can be compassionate. Much spent all his life at Robin’s side, taking care of his master and friend and he is still mourning for him. If he says anything that makes you angry, please try to be understanding.”
“All right, I’ll try to ignore him,” Guy said, with a resigned sigh, and Tuck smiled, approvingly.
Inside the cave, Much and Allan were eating in an uneasy silence, and they both looked up from their bowls when Tuck and Guy entered.
The friar looked at the soup, still bubbling on the fire, and he filled two bowls, handing one of them to Guy. Much glanced at the knight disapprovingly, but he didn’t say anything.
“Hey, mate… all right?” Allan asked, looking at Guy, and Gisborne nodded as he sat at his side by the fire.
“I’m fine,” he said, then he noticed that Allan looked to be sincerely worried, so he gave him a grateful smile. “Thank you.”
Allan was a little surprised, but he didn’t show it. He turned to Guy with a grin.
“So, what now? Are we going to attack the wagon with the tax money again?”
“Yes. We must show them that we can be a menace, that we are able to thwart them.”
“Not to be despondent, but are we able to thwart them?” Allan asked. “Last time they almost got us.”
“Of course we are!” Guy said, but he didn’t look too sure of it. “We just need a good plan.”
“Do you have one?” Allan asked, hopeful.
“Sir Guy,” Tuck intervened, “it could be a good start to find out what went wrong last time you tried.”
“We had almost succeeded, until the Black Knights came. We should have expected them, but we were too focused on taking the wagon. It won’t happen again.” Guy said, but Tuck shook his head.
“Now they will be expecting another attempt, they will be ready to protect the money wagon.” The friar objected. “You need to surprise them, to do something they wouldn’t imagine.”
“What?” Guy asked, and Tuck shrugged to say that he didn’t know. They both turned to look at Allan, and the young man lifted his hands in front of him.
“Hey, don’t look at me, I’m just a petty thief and a poacher!”
“Robin would know,” Much mumbled, and the others stared at him, surprised to hear his voice because he has kept a hostile silence so far. “He always could find a plan, even in the direst situation... He always could find a way to survive even there was no hope...”
Allan was tempted to say that obviously Robin of Locksley wasn’t so infallible or he wouldn’t be dead, but he decided against it because he didn’t want to hear Much’s rants again.
It was Guy who spoke, instead.
“I don’t doubt it,” he said, with an half smile, “he always had some crazy idea that landed both of us in trouble.”
Much stared at him, wary, uncertain if Guy of Gisborne was trying to make fun of him or to insult Robin’s memory again. But the knight had not talked in a hostile tone, his was more like a bittersweet remembrance of a lost past.
“You talk as if you were friends,” he said, in spite.
“We were, before the fire. Sort of, at least. Always fighting because he was a show off and he had to let everyone know how good he was, but we often played together. I can imagine pretty well what he could be capable of.”
“What’s the point of it? Robin is dead, he can’t help anyone now.”
“Maybe you could.” Guy suggested, looking at him. “You lived your whole life at his side, you surely know how he thought. You could come up with the idea we need.”
Much stared at him in shocked awe.
“Because I’m not him! I can’t… And why should I help you?! Why would Robin want to help you?!”
“Because it’s a challenge,” Guy said, with a grin, “If I remember him well, he would never ignore an impossible mission, a way to show off and prove that he could find a solution.”
“Much, Robin would never tolerate that evil to spread on his lands. He would do everything he could to protect his people, I’m sure,” Tuck added.
Much stood up, and paced nervously around the cave, muttering to himself and lifting his eyes to the ceiling of the cave, as if he was trying to discuss with Robin, up in Heaven. Then he turned to the others, pale and nervous.
“Very well, I will help you, for Robin’s sake, but I can’t guarantee anything!”
Chapter 20: A Good Plan
Matilda approached her hut, looking around warily, afraid that the guards could be waiting for her there. She would have preferred to keep hiding in the cave, away from anything that could lead to her capture, but all the supplies of the herbs she had collected during the summer were in the hut, and she knew that she would need them, especially for Rosa when she would give birth.
She crept silently towards the little house, and she froze, seeing fresh hooves prints on the path.
Matilda waited, as silent as she could be, and she listened. Her heart sank when she heard voices, and she was about to run away, when a man turned the corner of the hut.
She stood still: she was hidden behind a bush, but the man would surely see her if she moved.
The man was a soldier, one of the guards of the castle, according to the uniform he was wearing, and he was leading a horse by the bridle. The animal was loaded with heavy saddlebags and followed the man quietly. After a moment, two other guards reached the first one: one of them had two other horses, while the third man was driving a wagon.
“I still can’t believe it really worked!” The man with the two horses said, in a nervous voice. “They didn’t suspect anything!”
The one on the wagon laughed.
“I have to admit that your idea sounded silly when you first had it, but it was so foolish that they couldn’t expect it.” He turned to the first man, the taller of the three. “What do we do with the wagon now? Will we take it to the cave or are we going to leave it here?”
The tall guard shook his head.
“Neither. We came here because this was a good, quiet place to move the money into the saddlebags, but we have no use for a wagon in the forest and to leave it here would only cause troubles to Matilda.”
The healer couldn’t stifle a gasp of surprise in hearing her name, and the three men turned towards her hiding spot, unsheathing their swords.
“Who’s there?!” The tall one cried, while the nervous one held his weapon in a trembling hand.
“I knew! I knew! It couldn’t work, after all! We’re done for!”
“Shut up, Much!” The one on the wagon yelled, while the tall one walked towards Matilda, warily.
When he finally parted the leaves of the bush with his sword and saw her, he laughed and he hurried to remove his helmet.
“Guy of Gisborne!” Matilda cried in surprise, recognizing him. “Oh, blessed boy! I thought I would never see you again!”
The woman threw her arms around him and pulled Guy in a hug, and the knight almost lost his balance because he didn’t expect it, but then he returned the hug, a little moved to see her enthusiasm.
When Matilda stepped back, she stared at him.
“What are you doing here? And dressed like this! How are you? Are you taking care of your health?”
“I’m fine, Matilda, and I’ll explain you everything, but first I think we should go away from here. Soon they’ll search for us, and this isn’t the safest place.”
“I know, that’s why I’m not living here anymore. Can you wait for a moment until I take my herbs from the hut?”
“I’ll help you, so we’ll be quicker. Allan, in the meanwhile take the wagon to the main road and spook the horses so that they’ll keep running for a while. Much, wait with the horses while I help Matilda and don’t worry, we can trust her.”
Matilda tightened her hold around Guy’s waist, trying to keep her balance on the black stallion.
“Are you sure that this poor beast can carry both of us and all that load?”
“Don’t worry, he’s strong enough. When I bought him, I chose the best horse I could afford. And we’re almost there.”
“So you are living in a cave too, aren’t you? And who’s your new friend? I already know Allan, but the other one? He looks somehow familiar.”
“He was Robin of Locksley’s servant.” Guy said.
“You are young Much!” Matilda exclaimed. “Now I recognize you! You were always at Robin’s side, like a shadow...”
Much looked at the healer, and he sighed.
“Yes, always at his side… until the end...”
Matilda nodded, sadly.
“I heard… I am really sorry.” She smiled at Much, sympathetically. “But I’m glad to see that you are back home.”
“They burned Locksley...” Much replied.
“I know. That’s why you are with Guy and Allan, then. You want to fight them.”
“Yes, sort of.” Much said, and for a while they rode in silence, until Guy nodded at the entrance of a cave.
“You chose a place in the deep heart of the forest, no wonder that I couldn’t find you.” Matilda said, as the knight helped her to dismount.
“Did you search for me?” Guy asked, surprised.
“Of course I did! I’ve been so worried! I thought that you wouldn’t survive for a very long time after you ran away from the castle, and then I was sure you were dead because there were no traces of you. But then Marian said that she had seen you at the market, so I hoped that you were fine after all. I’m so glad to see that she was right!”
Her words made Guy blush and they gave him a warm sensation.
“Have you seen Marian recently? How was she?” He asked, but before Matilda could answer, Tuck appeared on the entrance of the cave.
“How did it go?” The friar asked, and Allan dropped one of the saddlebags at his feet, grinning.
“What do you think?”
“So Much’s idea was a success, then?” He asked, then he looked at Matilda.
Gisborne introduced her to the friar, and Tuck invited her to sit by the fire with him while the others took the horses in the cave to unload them.
Allan and Much worked happily to store the bags of gold in a corner in the back of the cavern while Guy took care of the horses, brushing them and filling their troughs with hay and water.
As soon as they finished, they hurried to sit by the fire too, eager to tell about their expedition.
“So, where did you take all that gold? Did you rob the tax money?” Matilda asked, amused to see how self pleased the three of them were.
“Exactly,” Guy said, “and the good thing is that they don’t even know that they’ve been robbed yet. Well, maybe they will notice soon, I think.”
“What do you mean?” Matilda asked.
“See, the problem was that we knew that they would be on guard after they collected the tax money,” Allan said. “Last time we tried, we had barely the time to get a few coins and the Black Knights arrived, ready to catch us. Giz and I barely escaped with our lives that time, so we didn’t know what to do. Much complained, saying that it was a pity that we couldn’t steal the empty wagon because then it wouldn’t be protected at all and then Giz had the idea!”
“We actually stole an empty wagon soon after it left the castle,” Guy continued, “and it was actually almost too easy. De Fourtnoy may be a worshiper of the devil, but he surely is embarrassing as Master of Arms! The guards who were escorting the wagon left it completely unattended to go and relieve themselves all at the same time and we easily managed to knock all three of them unconscious, take their uniforms and go back to the wagon in their place. I knew who the tax collector is, so we went to pick him up at his house, saying that the sheriff had decided to anticipate the time to get money from the villagers to noon instead than at sunset. He was used to Vaisey’s unexpected orders, so he found nothing strange in it and he hurried to come with us.”
“And the tax collector just believed you?” Matilda asked, shaking her head.
“I had a parchment sealed ‘by the sheriff’. I got the seal when I worked for him, and I know how to fake his handwriting, so it looked real. As soon as the tax collector was on the wagon, we hurried to the villages and waited for him to get all the taxes and record them on his book. We departed to go back to the castle, and as soon as we were in the forest, we left him tied and gagged in a bush and we disappeared with the money.”
“The funny thing is that they won’t even know that they have been robbed until they find the wagon, the guards or the tax collector!” Allan intervened with a laugh.
“And they can’t say that it was the villagers’ fault because they paid, it’s recorded on the tax collector’s book.” Guy added. “We’ll give the money back to them as soon as the commotion subsides.”
“I’m proud of you, my boy. And of you two as well,” she added looking at Allan and Much, then she turned back to Guy, “but now, will you let me examine you? Last time we met you were still recovering, and I know how you men are unable to take care of your health when you are on your own!”
“I’m not a child, Matilda, and I’m fine, really,” Guy said, a little embarrassed.
“I know, I know, my dear, but will you humor the worries of an old lady?” Matilda replied, and Gisborne laughed.
“Old lady? You?”
The woman grinned and pointed at the back of the cavern.
“Older than you. Now come.”
Guy stood up with a resigned expression on his face and he followed her. Actually he was glad of her motherly attentions, but he didn’t want to show it openly in front of the others.
They reached the corner where Guy used to sleep and Matilda nodded at the bed.
“Remove those clothes and sit down, I need to listen to your chest.”
“I had to get rid of this uniform, anyway,” Guy said, wrinkling his nose in distaste. “I wonder if they ever clean them at the castle.”
He took off the upper part of the uniform and sat on the bed, allowing Matilda to press her ear on his back to listen him breathing. After a while, the woman stood up with a smile.
“Your heartbeat is strong and your lungs are clear, it seems you recovered perfectly. And I’m pleased to see that you are not as thin and pale as you were a few weeks ago. You got your appetite back, didn’t you?”
Guy nodded and he took a clean shirt from the bag he kept near the bed.
“Maybe it’s strange, but living like this apparently suits me. I don’t have the comforts and the rich foods I had at Locksley, but I sleep better at night and I enjoy our meals.”
Matilda smiled and lifted a hand to caress his cheek.
“I think that it’s because now you are free,” she glanced at Allan, Much and Tuck, gathered by the fire, “and also because you’re not alone. I don’t know the friar, but I remember young Much when he lived at Locksley, and he was a good lad. Sometimes he can seem a scaredy-cat, but he’s loyal to a fault and he would do anything for the ones he loves, so try to be kind to him if you can. I think that by now you and Allan became good friends, didn’t you?”
Guy shrugged, with a little smile.
“Guess so,” he said, turning his back to her to pick up his leather jacket, and Matilda rolled her eyes.
“Men! You’d rather die than admit that you have feelings!And you don’t even realize that girls prefer to see some humanity in a lad. And by the way, I guess that now you want to know about a certain lady...”
“Marian! How was she?!”
Guy turned to look at her so quickly, that Matilda burst into a laugh.
“Easy, easy, my boy, I’ll tell you everything...” She said, smiling at him, and she began closing the wolf head shaped clasps on his jacket as she talked. Guy gave her a surprised glance because he wasn’t used to those motherly cares, but he didn’t stop her.
“I’ve seen her at Knighton a few days ago and she told me that you were alive.”
“Was she alright? I tried to keep watch on her when I could, but since we met Tuck and Much I didn’t have the chance to go to Knighton. She looked so sad the last time I’ve seen her… That’s why I contacted her. Allan still says that I’ve been a fool for that...”
Matilda closed the last clasp and gave him an affectionate pat on his chest.
“Here, all done!” She said, then she smiled at him. “Who isn’t a fool when they fall in love? Maybe it was a risk, but I understand why you took it.”
“So, how was she?”
“She was in good health, but she was very worried for her father...”
“Is Sir Edward unwell again?”
“Quite the contrary, I’d say. Lady Marian said that he changed, that he became cruel an ruthless and that he often meets the sheriff. I fear that it’s true, I’ve seen him with my own eyes: he flogged a man for stealing a little bag of flour.”
Guy widened his eyes in fear.
“He must be under the influence of the Black Knights! Maybe they took his soul! This means that Marian is in danger! We must go to Knighton now!”
Matilda put her hands on his shoulders to stop him from running to his horse.
“No, Guy! Calm down, my boy, don’t be rash.”
“But they could hurt her! They could corrupt her too!”
“She’s aware of the danger and she refused to leave her home when I told her to run away in the forest with us. She feels responsible for her father’s actions and she’s trying to make amends for it, secretly helping the people he damages...”
Guy frowned, a little confused.
“I heard that the Nightwatchman took money and supplies to the people of Knighton, the guards we attacked were talking about it before we knocked them down, so why they should need Marian’s help too?”
Matilda did her best to hide an amused smile at his words. She didn’t want to betray Marian’s secret, but she didn’t know how the knight couldn’t have guessed it already.
Guy looked at her.
“What? Matilda, aren’t you taking this too lightly? Aren’t you worried for her?”
The healer sighed.
“I am, but she’s as stubborn as you, how could I change her mind? She’s not a fool, I just hope that she’ll be smart enough to realize when it will be the moment to escape.”
“I need to talk to her.”
“Not now. They will find about the missing money soon, and they’ll start searching for you. Going to Knighton now would be really foolish, you’d endanger both you and lady Marian, so just stay hidden in the forest for a while, will you?”
Guy shook his head.
“But...” He began, but Matilda interrupted him.
“No. Think of your friends if you don’t care about your own life. If they catch you, they’ll make you reveal how to to reach this cave and they’ll get your companions too.”
“I wouldn’t betray them! I’d rather die than help the Black Knights!”
“I’m sure that even Sir Edward didn’t want to join them...”
Guy thought of the cup full of blood that they wanted him to drink, and he shivered. He knew that Matilda was right, but still he was terrified at the idea of knowing Marian so close to their evil.
“I hate them! Someday they will pay for all this!” Guy growled, and Matilda nodded.
“All in good time, my boy. We will find a way, I promise. Talk with your friends, they could help you to come up with a plan to help lady Marian. It worked with the robbery, didn’t it?”
Guy reluctantly had to agree.
“I could ask Tuck for advice. His prayers protected us, maybe he can suggest a way to protect Marian too...”
“It’s a start, isn’t it?” Matilda stood on tiptoes to gave him a comforting kiss on the cheek. “Please be careful, my dear boy, I don’t want to see you in danger.”
Guy let her hug him for a moment, surprised once again to see that she really cared for him.
“Good boy! But now I should really go back to my hiding place, they will be worried for me by now and my Rosa could need my herbs. Will you take me there on that big black horse of yours?”
“Of course, come, I’ll put your bundles in the saddlebags.”
Matilda glanced at the other three men sitting by the fire.
“Oh, Guy, could you ask Much to come with us as well?”
“Call me a crazy overprotective old woman, but I don’t like the idea of you having to come back here all alone.” Matilda said, and Guy shook his head with a scoff.
“Say that you don’t trust me coming straight back here. You won’t believe me even if I give you my word that I won’t go running to Knighton to see Marian. Maybe you have a point, but why him? He’d tremble and whine all the way, Allan would be better...”
“Sometimes I forget how annoying you men are, like ticks on a donkey’s ass!” Matilda said, accompanying her words with a cuff on Guy’s shoulder. “I already told you that Much is a good man and that you should get along with him, you arrogant idiot! If you want to oppose the sheriff and his allies, you need allies too, and talking of people with contempt is not the right way to keep them around. Maybe you and Much are completely different from each other, but I’m sure that if you make the effort of knowing him better, you can appreciate him a little more.”
“Ow!” Gisborne gave her a hurt and reproachful look, but the woman just crossed her arms in front of her and Guy had the impression of being a naughty child scolded by a cross mother. Strangely, that thought didn’t displease him and he gave up gracefully, giving her a chastened smile, “All right, all right, I’ll try to behave and I’ll ask him to come. Happy now?”
“Very.” She said, rewarding him with another kiss on the cheek.
Chapter 21: Our Lands, Our People
“Can you hear that?!” Much asked, frightened, and Guy pulled the reins to stop the horse and he held his breath to listen. Behind him, Matilda had stiffened too, and they stood there, frozen, afraid to make any sound.
In the distance, a wolf was howling and, after a while, Much looked at Guy and Matilda with a sheepish look on his face.
“Sorry, I thought it was a chant,” he said, and Guy glared at him.
“It’s the third time you think you heard something!” Guy growled, and Matilda put a hand on his shoulder to calm him down.
“Better to be safe than sorry, don’t you think?” She said, quietly, and Guy relented.
“Suppose so...” He grumbled, and Matilda smiled.
“Good boy. And you, Much, try to calm down a little. It’s good to be alert, but if you keep getting alarmed by everything, people won’t listen to you when there is a real danger, they could dismiss your words.”
They followed the path for a while, then Matilda patted Guy’s shoulder to get his attention.
“We’re almost there. Wait here for a moment, I’ll warn the others that we have visitors or they’ll get scared.”
Guy helped Matilda to dismount, and the woman walked to a big rock near the cliff, disappearing behind it. Guy and Much waited for a few moments, to give her the time to warn the other inhabitants of the cave, then Guy dismounted too and led the horse to the entrance. Much followed him almost immediately.
The cave was a little dim, but Guy recognized Meg and Djaq sitting by the fire, their faces lightened by the flames. Another girl, late in her pregnancy, was sitting with them and Guy supposed that she had to be Matilda’s daughter, Rosa. The three girls waved at him, a little shyly, and they kept giving curious glances at Much.
Matilda was talking to a man, in a darker corner of the cave, and they both moved towards Guy and Much, as soon as they saw them enter.
“Sir Guy!” The man exclaimed, in sincere surprise, and Gisborne looked at him, equally astonished.
“Thornton! I thought you were dead! I’ve been searching for you since I learned about the fire!” Guy said, looking at the old servant.
“Really, my lord?” Thornton asked, confused. “Did you search for me?”
“I heard that they had trapped you in the manor while it was burning, but I couldn’t believe it. I needed to be sure, they burned Locksley because of me, I should have warned you about their nature...”
“Allan did, Sir Guy, but I didn’t really believe him until I saw them with my own eyes. And they did actually burn the manor while I was inside, but Rosa helped me to escape, and Matilda led us all here, in a safe place.”
“No place can be really safe until this evil is oppressing Nottingham,” Guy said, with a sigh, “but I’m really relieved to see that you are alive and well.”
“This old fool had been worrying for you too,” Matilda intervened, grinning at Thornton, “Now he’ll be able to sleep, knowing that you’re all right.”
Guy tried not to show that he was moved and he just nodded, and Thornton looked at him.
“You look in good health, my lord, I’m glad.”
“I’ve to thank both you and Matilda for that,” Guy said, sincerely grateful, and Matilda laughed, standing on tiptoe to threw her arms around his neck and giving him a kiss on the cheek.
“Could you believe it, Thornton? Maybe we were also able to knock some manners into him!” She said, widely grinning, “He has learned to thank people, that’s incredible!”
Thornton gave a worried glance at Guy, afraid that he could get angry at Matilda, but his master looked to be amused by her teasing, then he noticed the man who had entered the cave with him, and who was still standing near the horses.
“I know you! You’re Much! You left Locksley to follow Sir Robin in the Holy Land!”
Much nodded, his eyes bright with tears.
“When I left, I was sure that I was going to die, that I would never get home again… Robin promised me that he would take me back safely, but he… he...” His voice faltered and he couldn’t say the word, “...and I came back, but there was no Locksley anymore!”
Much openly burst into tears, and Thornton sighed, touching his shoulder in a weak attempt of comforting him. For months, years, after he and Robin had left to go to war, he had hoped to see them return, imagining what he would do to welcome them home.
Surely he would have prepared a bath to wash away the dust and the fatigue of such a long travel, and good food to appease their hunger. Everyone would have been happy and relieved, and there would have been a feast for the whole village…
Thornton envied Much a little because the young man at least was able to vent his despair and to show his feelings so openly, he, instead, was suffering as much as he was, but he had been trained to never show his emotions and now he wasn’t able to do it, even if he had wanted to.
The three girls looked at Much, worried to see his tears, and they were about to get up from their seats to try to comfort him, when Matilda stopped them silently shaking her head.
It was Guy who spoke, unexpectedly.
“They destroyed our home, killed and tortured our people, forced us to hide in caves like frightened beasts, but they won’t defeat us, I won’t let them continue their reign of terror! These are our lands, our people, and I will fight to the end to protect them from their unholy evil! I’ll find a way to send them back to the hell where they belong or I will die trying!” He said fiercely, his words burning with rage. He stopped talking when he realized that the others were all looking at him, the girls by the fire in open surprise, Thornton with admiration, and Matilda openly grinning. Much, his face still wet with tears, was staring at him with his mouth open, almost stunned.
Matilda gave him a powerful slap on his back, laughing.
“Well said, my boy, I’m proud of you! See? When you were ill, people often asked me why I bothered so much to treat you and why did I try to save your life… That’s why! I might ask you how are you going to defeat such a powerful enemy, but I won’t.” She put a hand on Guy’s chest, smiling at him. “It won’t be easy, but I know that if you put your heart in it, you’ll find a way.”
Guy let the stallion choose the way back to the cave, trusting the instinct of the horse to avoid the danger of the Black Knights. He sat on the saddle in silence, forcing himself to keep alert. His mind kept wandering, going back to Marian, who was bravely and willingly facing a great danger, but he didn’t allow himself to get lost in those thoughts, aware that the enemy could strike in any moment and that he couldn’t be caught off guard again.
Much was riding a few steps behind him, strangely silent, and after a while Guy turned to glance at him to be sure that he hadn’t fallen from his horse and was still following him. He met Much’s stare pointed at him, and he frowned.
“What?” Guy asked, thinking that Much was going to complain or to criticize him for some reason, and the other man was startled by his voice.
“I… I was wondering… Did you really mean what you said? That thing about fighting those Black Knights...”
Guy slowed his horse a little so that Much could ride at his side, then he nodded.
“Why? Are you going to tell me that it’s a foolish thing to do?” He said, defensively, “I already know, but don’t worry, I’m not forcing anyone to join me, you can keep hiding in the cave while I try to get myself killed.”
“Actually I was going to say that I liked your words...” Much replied, stiffly. “If you really meant them, of course. It was… it was something Robin could say.”
Guy glanced at him, not sure if he should feel flattered or irked by Much’s words.
“So?” He asked, and Much sighed.
“I know that I will regret this, I’m sure I will, but I am going to follow you. I’m perfectly aware that it’s foolish, but it also feels that it’s the right foolish thing to do. So, if you want it, you’ll have my help! There, I said it, now there’s no going back...”
Guy almost laughed at his offer, but he stopped himself before dismissing it. He knew that Much didn’t like him at all and that he considered him an usurper of Robin of Locksley’s lands, and he realized that his offer costed him a lot.
Guy looked at his troubled expression and he recognized a deep sorrow in Much’s eyes. That servant might look like a foolish coward, but he had followed his master in a terrible war and survived, and now he was ready to follow him in an equally desperate fight just because he thought that it was the right thing to do. Even if he was scared to death.
Gisborne acknowledged that it took some bravery to face one’s own fears and he began to feel some respect for Much. He nodded.
“Thank you, I appreciate it,” he simply said, and Much was taken aback by his words.
“It’s decided then...” he said, nervously. “So… what’s the plan?”
“To defeat the Black Knights.” Guy said in a flat tone, and Much sighed.
“No plan, then. Why it has always to be like this?!”
Marian sat on the bed in her room, afraid to make a sound. The changes in her father were getting worse day after day and she didn’t dare to challenge him anymore.
She touched her cheek, where a bruise was getting darker, and she sighed, trying to hold back the tears. She couldn’t allow herself to cry, or she would feel like a helpless victim, and she didn’t want to think of herself like that.
My father must be still there. He is a good man… He was a good man… He taught me to do the right thing, to be brave and to see good even where there seems to be none. Something must be left in him, I can’t think that his soul isn’t there anymore...
Sir Edward was not at the manor now, he had gone to the castle again, but Marian didn’t even try to go out of her room. Her father had locked her inside before going away, and, even if she could easily exit from the window, she didn’t move from her bed.
The dead eyed guards were at the manor, on watch, but even if they hadn’t been there, she wouldn’t try to run. A few days ago, she had tried to wake up his father’s conscience, telling him that it was unfair to flog one of the servants just for making a little mistake while serving dinner.
Without a word, her father took the meat knife, grabbed the servant’s wrist, pressing his hand on the table and he cut two of his fingers, then he cleaned the blade on the tablecloth and he kept eating his meal.
Marian had fainted for the first time in her life that night, and since then she had never tried to oppose Sir Edward again because she knew that, if she disobeyed him, innocent people would pay for her actions, maybe even with their lives.
She stretched on the bed, but she knew that sleep wouldn’t come easily because she’d keep wondering what her father was doing at the castle.
Marian jumped when she heard the unmistakable sound of a pebble hitting her window, and for a moment hope grew in her heart. It was a sound she had grown used to when she was a young girl, in love for the first time: how many times Robin, so young too, had thrown pebbles at her window to talk with her without her father knowing about it?
She walked to the window, trying to keep her thoughts at bay.
What if the news were wrong? What if he’s still alive? He could help us! He would fight against this evil!
She hushed that little hopeful voice in her mind. It couldn’t be, she knew perfectly well that Robin was dead, she felt in her heart that it was true, but still, her heartbeat got faster as she approached the window and cracked it open.
She saw nobody, and she sighed.
It was just my imagination, a trick of my mind.
Then a voice, deep and well known, spoke softly to her.
“Keep quiet and listen to me. ”
She glanced briefly in the direction of the voice, just at the left of the window, and she could see a darker shadow where he was standing, his black leather clothes mixing with the darkness.
She remembered that Robin too once used to climb to her window to talk with her or to bring little gifts and she wondered how Guy could know the way to get up there without being noticed.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she whispered, “they’ll find you!”
“Not so soon, but you’re right, I can’t stay for long.”
“Are you all right?” She asked, trying to look at him. Her eyes were getting used at the darkness and she could make out the features of his face, now: he was staring at her.
“I am, but you are not,” he said, in a worried voice, “Your face... Did they hit you? I’ll kill whoever dared to hurt you.”
“No!” Marian blurted, and Guy looked at her.
“It was your father.” He realized, sadly. “Matilda told me that he changed.”
Marian nodded, covering her mouth with a hand to stifle a sob.
“Don’t kill him, I beg you. There must be a way to save him, and I’ll find it!”
Guy was afraid that Sir Edward couldn’t be saved, but he didn’t contradict her.
“I won’t, but come with me. I can’t leave you in danger. I can take you to Matilda, you’ll be safer there...”
Marian shook her head.
“I beg you! I know that you hope to make him see reason, but it’s not so easy. Those people are evil, they can corrupt one’s mind… He could hurt you, even if he’s your father!”
“I know! By now I know! But I can’t run away. If I do, he’ll punish the servants, he might even kill them! Please don’t ask me to sacrifice innocent lives to save mine!”
“I can’t change your mind, can I?”
Marian shook her head.
“You can’t. And you shouldn’t risk your life for me either.”
“I’d die for you. Here, take this.”
Marian held her breath in hearing Guy’s words, and she was startled when the knight pressed something in her hand, brushing her fingers with his.
She looked at the little item in her hands: it was a silver necklace, a cross on a simple chain.
“Wear it under your clothes, keep it hidden,” Guy said. “Brother Tuck blessed it with his prayers, he’s a friar and it can protect you. A little, at least.”
Marian looked at him, in fear.
“You can’t give it to me! You need it more than I do...”
“I have another one. Tuck gave them to all of us.”
The girl nodded, moved, and she closed the clasp of the chain around her neck. She looked at the little cross for a moment, then she made it slip under her dress and she felt the cold metal against her skin.
“Thank you,” she whispered, in a choked voice. She felt like crying, and she looked at Guy through the tears, not sure about the strange mix of emotion she was feeling. It was like drowning, she thought: she had been sinking in a black abyss made of fear and desperation and when she was about to lose every hope, Guy came and he held a hand to her. He couldn’t really save her, and nothing excluded that he wouldn’t sink with her too, but he was there, she wasn’t completely alone anymore. Maybe it was just a little relief, but it was so important to her.
Guy looked at Marian, a little smile stirring his mouth at her words, and he found out that the succession of the emotions that he could see on her face resonated in himself as well, as if they shared a single soul. He saw tears in her eyes and he felt moved too: he wanted to take her away with him, to defend her until the end of their days, but he knew that she wouldn’t risk the life of others to save herself.
Guy knew that he had risked even too much by now, and that he should go, but leaving her was the most difficult thing he had to do in his life. But he had to, even for her sake.
“I love you,” he said, searching for her gaze. “Remember this, Marian: I am yours. My heart, my soul, my life, they all belong to you, no matter what. I pledge myself to you and nothing, not even death, could change what I feel.”
He took courage and he placed a shy, quick kiss on her lips, then, before she could say anything, he jumped down and he disappeared into the night, as silent as a ghost.
Chapter 22: Ghosts
Allan and Guy entered the tavern, and they sat at a table close to the entrance. Both of them were wearing hooded cloaks that shadowed their faces, and they were tense, ready to run away at the first sign of danger.
“Tell me that we didn’t come here just because you want to see those girls...” Guy whispered, noticing the direction of Allan’s stare.
“You’re hurting my feelings, Giz. I was trying to look at their eyes, to understand if they are still free...”
“It’s still a big risk. Even if they aren’t under the sheriff’s influence, they could betray us all the same.”
“I know. But don’t forget that without their help I couldn’t have saved you when the Black Knights tried to get your soul.” He pointed to a tall girl with black hair, who was slowly cleaning a table with a dirty rag. “That one told me how to enter the castle.”
Allan had just finished talking, when the girl moved towards their table, as if she had heard Allan’s whisper. She stopped in front of them, nervously wringing the rag in her hands.
“We don’t serve people who conceal their faces.” She said, in a calm, but decided tone. “I’m really sorry, but I must ask you to remove your hood or to leave.”
Allan gave her a good look, and he relaxed a little.
“Oh, come on, don’t you recognize me? We can’t show our faces too openly, safety reason, you see? But come closer and you can peek under the hood and see how handsome I am.” He moved the cloak a little so the girl could easily see who he was.
The brunette stared closely at him for a good while, then she gave a little nod.
“I thought you were dead. So you didn’t go to the castle, in the end… Told you it was a foolish idea.”
“Oh, actually I did. You underestimated me, lass.”
The woman shook her head, placing her hands on her hips.
“So do you really want to make me believe that you broke into the castle, risking your life to try and save… Gisborne? Good story, mate, I have to concede that you have a good imagination and it could actually work with some of the other girls, but come on, I’m not naive.”
“Oh, but you are,” Guy intervened, in a low voice. “You were worried because of our hooded faces, but you checked only one of us.”
The girl turned to look at him, and when she recognized him she didn’t betray her surprise, but she paled and the damp rag she was holding dropped to the floor.
“Are you… are you one of them?” She said, in a choked whisper.
“Look at my eyes, girl. Do I look like them?”
The woman shook her head.
“But you are scared of me because I used to work for the sheriff...” Guy said, with a little sigh.
“See?! Told you I wasn’t lying!” Allan said, grinning. “And you don’t have to be afraid of Giz, he’s all right!”
The girl looked at them for a moment, then she picked up the rag.
“I’ll bring you food and wine,” she said in a louder voice, with a frivoulos laugh. “Do you want some company as well? Just give me a moment.”
She went away and Guy gave a puzzled glance at Allan. The other man laughed.
“You aren’t really used to taverns, are you? She said that, so she can come and sit at our table and talk. Well, maybe more likely she’ll sit on our lap. But well, I’m not going to complain. Just try to look like you’re having fun, will you?”
The girl came back to their table a short time later, accompanied by the other waitress, and both the girls carried a tray with bread, meat and cheese and a pitcher of wine, then the younger one sat next to Allan, leaning her head on his shoulder with a little laugh, while the other brazenly sat on Guy’s legs, wrapping her arm around his neck.
She traced the shape of his jaw with a finger, and she smiled, noticing his embarrassment.
“So… why are you two here? You don’t usually come to our tavern, do you, Sir...”
“No names,” Guy warned, lifting a finger to her lips, and the girl smiled.
“...my lord,” she corrected herself. “So, what do you want from us?”
Guy glanced at the table, with a little grin.
“Your food and your wine, what else?”
“And your company, of course,” Allan added, pulling the blonde girl closer. The waitress giggled, but she stopped his hand with a little slap.
The older girl laughed at Gisborne’s words and she gave him a knowing stare.
“You don’t trust us, but why should we trust you? We are in a dangerous position and surely we don’t need trouble. If we were wise we’d serve your meal and then we’d send you on your way. If we were very wise, we’d sell you to the guards.”
“But you wouldn’t, of course!” Allan laughed, then he gave them a worried look, not so sure anymore. “You wouldn’t, right?”
The girl ignored him, and she stared at Guy.
“You always brought sorrow to people, why should it be different, now?”
“I enforced the law. I’m not the one who decided it, I just had orders to follow.”
“That’s an easy justification, isn’t it? But I guess that it doesn’t matter now. You won’t find many friends between the people, however.” The girl let out a little sigh. “I should send you away and I know that I’ll regret this, but let’s hear: what do you want?” She asked again, and this time Guy answered.
“Information. I need to know what’s going on at the castle, I must find out their plans.”
The brunette shook her head, with a little laughter.
“And you come to look for it in a tavern?”
Guy nodded at Allan.
“He says that this place is the true heart of Nottingham, that wine makes tongues loose and that you see and listen everything.”
“Even so, why should we tell you? To get killed, or worse, when they catch you?”
“Because we are the only ones willing to oppose them,” Guy said, softly, and the two girls traded a glance, then the older one searched Guy’s gaze.
“You are serious, aren’t you? Do you really believe you can succeed?”
“I don’t know. But I’m still going to try.”
“You are two fools. Completely out of your mind. If you were sensible, you should run away to some very far away place, miles and miles from here.”
“Why are you still here?” Guy retorted. “If you think there is danger, you should flee too.”
“It’s not so easy, this is our home.”
“Well, it’s my home too.” Guy said, and the girl gave him a bitter grin.
“I heard they burned your home.”
“Another reason to fight them.”
“People say you deserved it, that it’s the punishment for burning their houses when they couldn’t pay taxes.”
“Hey! He’s helping people now!” Allan intervened, a little irked, but Guy lifted a hand to silence him.
“I don’t care what people think of me. If they hate me, so be it, what’s done is done, but I’m still set on taking down the Black Knights. Maybe I’ll fail, but at least I can die proud. And free.”
“You are a fool.” The woman said, deadly serious this time.
“Will you help us?”
She stared at the younger girl for a moment, in a silent question, and the blonde girl answered with a tiny nod.
“Yes.” She answered at last, reluctantly.
“Thank you...” Guy began, but the woman interrupted him.
“No thanks. Succeed.”
Allan grinned widely.
“See? I told you they would help,” he said, looking at Guy.
Marian wrapped herself in the blanket, pulling it over her head to shield her eyes from the daylight.
She tried to breathe slowly, to keep calm and slip into a light sleep. She was tired because she was too afraid to sleep during the night.
It was then that people disappeared, then that the Black Knights gathered in the forest for their evil deeds. For many nights now she had waited in the darkness, clutching the silver cross Guy had given to her and listening to every sound.
She was sure that her father went away from the manor at night and it was even too easy to imagine him wearing a black cloak and holding a silver dagger, like the murderers Guy had seen in the forest.
The very thought made her breathless. How could it be? How could her father, always so kind and just, be a ruthless killer? If the voices were true, the Black Knights murdered innocents, sacrificing them during unholy rituals.
When she thought of her father performing such horrible acts, she felt sick and terrified. Once, just a few months earlier, she had been frightened at the idea that he could die, that his frail health would eventually take him to a premature end, but now it was much worse.
How could she love a murderous monster? But how could she stop loving the dear, lovable father he had always been? She thought there was no more hope, but she couldn’t stop praying to have her father back.
At night, when he left the house, she prayed for him to fail, to come back without blood on his hands, but often, at breakfast, the servants carried the news of some new disappearance. Those days, Marian forced herself to eat her meal as usual, to behave as if everything was normal until her father left for the castle. Then she would go to her room, she’d close the door, and only then she’d allow herself to be sick.
That morning, luckily, wasn’t one of those horrible days. Still horrible, of course, but at least nobody had disappeared. She managed to slip into a fitful slumber and she woke up late in the morning, when one of the maids came to knock at her door.
Marian sat up in her bed with a startled gasp and her hand istinctively ran to the little silver cross hidden under her nightshift, but she relaxed recognizing Sarah’s voice.
She let the cross go, and she folded her hands in her lap before telling the maid to enter the room.
The girl came in carrying a pile of folded clothes, but Marian understood that it was only a pretext, seeing the excited sparkle in her eyes.
“Have you heard the news, my lady?” The maid whispered, getting close to the bed.
“I already told you that you shouldn’t listen to gossip,” Marian scolded, even if she was curious to hear what had happened to upset her like that.
“I know, my lady, but I can’t shut my ears, can I? If people talk, I can’t help hearing.”
“So, what happened?” Marian said with a sigh. “Tell me, and then forget about it and keep your mouth closed.”
“It happened in Nottingham, just this morning, James the miller told me. He was at the market to sell some flour, and the guards arrived, asking for extra taxes to all the merchants. Everyone hurried to pay, they were all scared, but one of the merchants who came from another county began to complain and he refused to give them money, saying that he had already paid the owed sum...”
Marian stared at her, in horror.
“What did they do to him? Is he dead?”
“No, my lady! As far as I know he’s alright. James says that by now he must be far away from Nottingham.”
“Didn’t the guard arrest him?”
The eyes of the girl sparkled with excitement.
“They wanted to, but before they could take him, they were attacked! Two men, with their faces hidden and wearing a white cloth as a cloak. They appeared from nowhere, hit the guards and ran away, so the soldier chased them. Meanwhile the merchant collected all his things and made himself scarce. If he’s even a little smart, he’ll be back to his town by now.”
“What about those men? Were they captured?” Marian asked, her brow frowning with worry.
“No, they vanished. People began to call them ‘ghosts’ because the cloaks they were wearing looked like shrouds… Some say that only ghastly beings could trick those dead eyed guards...”
“This is nonsense, Sarah.”
“You said the same about the disappearances, my lady. You changed your mind about those, didn’t you?”
Marian nodded, with a sigh, thinking of her father.
“I did, but I’m not sure about those ‘ghosts’. If they weren’t human beings, why should they run away?”
The maid let out a dreamy sigh.
“If you are right, my lady, I wish I knew who they were. So daring and brave! I’m sure they must be brave and handsome men!”
“Why are you so sure they were men? You said they were hidden under those shrouds, how can you say they weren’t women?”
Sarah laughed at Marian’s words.
“A woman would never have the courage to fight! It would be unnatural, wrong. Our place is at home, not in a battlefield.”
Marian bit her lip to hold back a harsh reply.
What about the Nightwatchman, then? I can fight as well as any man. She thought angrily, but of course she couldn’t say it.
After all, what Sarah had said was often true: most women would never touch a sword, some would faint at the very thought of it and they would all be shocked if they should find out the Nightwatchman true identity.
The maid went away, but Marian couldn’t go back to sleep, her thoughts returning on Sarah’s words. The thought that there was somebody who dared to face those dead eyes guards and who had survived was comforting, and it gave her some hope.
She touched the cross hanging around her neck, a faint smile on her face.
Was it you, Sir Guy? She thought, wondering if Gisborne was still the only one who had the courage to defy the Sheriff and his allies or if somebody else had joined his fight.
Marian took the little silver cross to her lips before hiding it again and she blushed: maybe it was a sin, but she couldn’t help thinking of the touch of Gisborne’s lips on hers and of the deep emotion it awakened in her.
Chapter 23: The Bride
Matilda held the white sheets in her hands and she laughed heartily.
“Ghosts? You are always full of surprises, my boys! I bet it was Allan’s idea.”
The young man grinned, amused.
“Actually it wasn’t. And it wasn’t Giz, either.”
“The girls of the tavern. The one near the castle.” Guy glanced at Allan, a light smile stirring his lips and a proud look in his eyes. “He said that those girls would help us, and they did. A lot.”
Meg frowned a little.
“How? How could a waitress in a tavern be able to help in a fight against those demons?”
“With information. A lot of people come to the tavern, now less than they used to, but still many. The girls hear everything, they know many persons and they happened to learn a lot of secrets. Places. Hidden passages. Sometimes married men meet them in secret and they must be careful not to be seen by their wives, so the girls know how to go in and out of the tavern unseen, and a lot of other ways to avoid detection while in town. They told us those secrets, that’s how we ‘disappeared’ when the guards were chasing us.”
“Where did you hide?”
“The well. Women hang their clothes around it after washing them, so it’s a little shielded from sight. And it has some holds carved in the stones inside it, so you can climb down the well and hide there for a while.”
Djaq touched a corner of the sheet Matilda was still holding, a little confused.
“Why the sheets? The sheriff is already searching for you, you didn’t really need to hide your face, do you?”
“He’s searching for me,” Guy answered, “I don’t think he knows Allan’s face, but it’s not the only reason. It’s another trick the girls suggested us: to draw attention on some detail. The white, ghastly sheets in this case. The guards kept searching for two persons wrapped in white cloaks, so, after we hid in the well, it was easy to take the sheets off, split, and disappear in the crowd of the market.”
“Well, it’s not a bad idea. Actually, you could use it again, and you could improve it too.”
Guy glanced at her, interested.
“We could improve these white cloaks, sew them into better costumes and add a few details to make them more ghastly. And then to make more of these.”
“Imagine this scene: you just robbed the sheriff and you are running away, the guards are following you, then Allan appears at the corner of the street, wearing the same costume as you, and then Much shows himself in another place, and then you appear again somewhere else. The guards would surely be confused, they could believe that you are really a ghost and maybe they could begin fearing you.”
“It’s actually a good idea!”
“We could help with the sewing,” Meg suggested, and the other girls nodded.
“I’m not good at embroidery, but I can stitch,” Djaq said, glancing at the sheet, “I guess I could put together something like this.”
“Me too,” Rosa agreed, smiling, “I’m so big that I can’t do much else, but I can still sew and I’d love to help.”
“I can learn too,” Thornton said, “So I could be useful as well.”
“It’s decided, then.” She said, folding the sheets and setting them aside. “Come back in a couple of days and we’ll give you a proper ghost costume for you two, brother Tuck and Much. And then we’ll make a few more for whoever wishes to join your fight.”
Some days later.
Marian was sitting on a comfortable chair near the window, and she looked at the sky: the sun was high, it had to be almost noon and that day there had been no news about disappearances. She had been able to keep down her breakfast that morning, so she felt a little stronger than usual, but still her body was beginning to feel the strain of her situation.
If the Black Knights won’t kill me first, I’ll get ill and I’ll die. But what can I do? How can I leave my father?
A little voice in her mind told her that her father was dead, that she shouldn’t sacrifice herself and that Sir Edward would be the first to tell her to run away, if he were in his right mind.
But if she ran away, surely innocents would pay for her escape.
She sighed and closed her eyes, trying to get some rest now that the sun was high in the sky. She was about to fall asleep when one of the maids rushed into her room, frightened.
“They’re coming! They’re coming!” She whispered, and Marian opened her eyes, startled.
“Who’s coming?” Her heart sank and she stood up trembling. She fought a wave of nausea and she thought that after all, maybe she was going to be sick even that morning.
“Guards… Many of them...” the maid said, in a hurried whisper, “They are on the main road and they are coming here!”
Marian stared at her, in fear.
“Why? We did nothing wrong...” I am sacrificing everything to obey my father’s will… I am dying to protect everyone… What else do they want from me?
Marian took a deep breath and she walked downstairs, to meet the guards on the door of the manor.
“Go in the kitchen with the others,” she ordered, and the maid shook her head, in fear.
“I can’t leave you alone with those men, my lady. I saw them, their eyes are dead!”
“You must. I don’t want to have anyone on my conscience. It’s an order. Go.”
The girl retreated in the kitchen, weeping, while Marian opened the door, just in time to see the soldiers stopping their horses in front of it.
She recognized them: those men had been Guy’s guards, but now they would kill him without hesitation if they should catch him.
Marian shuddered, hoping to see at least her father with them, but Sir Edward was still at the castle.
“You must come with us,” one of the men said, in a flat voice.
“You must come with us.” He repeated, pointing to a saddled horse with no rider.
“Let me take my things, at least.” Marian pleaded, hoping to gain some time, but the soldier repeated the same words for a third time, touching the sword at his side.
Trembling, Marian mounted, but the guards didn’t let her take the reins. One of the soldiers led her horse, and she could only stay in the saddle and pray under her breath.
Allan rushed to the cave, searching for Guy, but only Much was there, cutting some vegetables for the soup. The young man was startled when Allan entered, then he relaxed a little when he recognized him, but still he gave him a miffed stare.
“What’s the rush? You scared me to death!”
“You are always scared to death. But it doesn’t matter now, where’s Giz?”
“Why should I know?”
“Because he was here this morning when I left.”
Much shrugged, still annoyed.
“Well, he left too. And your master surely doesn’t tell me where he goes.”
“What about Tuck? Are they together?”
“I don’t think so. Tuck went to the villages to give them all the little crosses we carved during the last few days.”
Allan gave a glance at the pot with the soup and he sat near the fire with a sigh.
“Do you think they will work?” He asked, touching the silver cross they were all wearing around their necks.
“I don’t know,” Much answered. “Tucks prayers protected us, you’ve seen that with your eyes. But he’s a friar, a holy man… Will a little cross be enough to keep common people safe?”
“Better than nothing, I guess. And while we have to hide in this cave we don’t have anything better to do. Carving a few wooden crosses is a way to pass some time.”
They both became silent in hearing the sound of steps outside the cave, and a moment after Guy entered.
Allan stood up.
“I was searching for you, Giz!”
Guy handed a couple of hares to Much.
“I was hunting. What’s up?”
“I’ve been to Nottingham, at the tavern...” Allan began, and Guy interrupted him, smirking.
“You should be more careful. Those girls are pretty, but that place is very close to the castle...”
Allan rolled his eyes.
“You went to the market to chat with Marian. But that’s not the point, I don’t go there just for the girls. I mean, they are a good reason too, but, as you said, the tavern is close to the castle, they often have information about the sheriff’s plans.”
“Do you have any news?” Guy asked, now completely serious.
“Something is going on. They ordered enough food for a banquet and the castle is all decorated with the banners and the coats of arms of all the nobles. Except for yours, of course.”
“Couldn’t the girls tell you more about it?”
Allan shook his head.
“They are afraid. Every day more.”
“They should run away.”
“They should, but they won’t. Just like us.”
“Well, we should go to Nottingham and try to find out what the Black Knights are plotting.” Guy turned to look at Much. “Are you coming too?”
The other man gave a heartbroken stare at the soup and at the dead hares, and he sighed as he got to his feet.
“I suppose that lunch will have to wait...”
Allan rolled his eyes with a mocking grin, but Gisborne made an effort to appease Much’s disappointment.
“We’ll eat something at the tavern, it will be a good pretext to talk to the girls and to keep an eye on the castle.”
“So… ghosts costumes?” Allan asked, and Guy shook his head.
“We’ll disguise ourselves as merchants. It’s market day today.”
“Why choose when you can have both?” Tuck asked, entering the cave, a bundle in his hands.
Guy welcomed the friar with a nod of his head and a smile, then he frowned a little at his words.
“What do you mean?”
The friar laughed heartily.
“Before coming back here, I stopped at the other cave to bring them some food, and the healer, Matilda, gave me those.” He took a cloak from the bundle, and he held it in his hands to show it to the others. “See? It looks like a common cloak, but if you turn it inside out, it becomes a ghost’s costume. It seems that the girls had the idea of sewing the two layers together.”
Allan laughed, looking at the cloak.
“Well, they’re smart!”
Gisborne smiled, grabbing one of the cloaks.
“They are. Very well, then: let’s go.”
Marian looked around, hoping to find a way to escape, but the guards were surrounding her horse.
Their leader, a blonde man she had often seen between Gisborne’s guards, stared at her and grinned, a malignant expression on his face.
She was startled: the guards had empty, soulless eyes, but their leader was different. His stare was deadly cold, but there was some intelligence in it, he wasn’t just a puppet in the sheriff’s hands.
“You can’t get away, milady,” he said in a flat, cruel tone. “My master wants you, and he will have you.”
“What does the sheriff want from me?” Marian asked. “I’m just a girl.”
“That’s not what your father said. You never obey and you don’t act as a woman should. But my master will change that: you will marry him, and you will carry his heirs.”
“I will never marry the sheriff!”
The man laughed.
“My master is not the sheriff, but lord Vaisey completely agrees with this project.”
Marian took a deep breath, desperately trying to hold back tears.
“Who is your master, then?”
“Sir De Fourtnoy. Soon he will be your master too.”
The girl didn’t reply. She knew that she could never agree to marry the Master of Arms, but she also realized that it was completely useless to complain with those soulless guards. She had to find a way out of that terrible situation, and she vowed that she would rather die than marry that man.
They can take my life, but I will never give them my body or my soul…
Chapter 24: The Peace of Water
Gisborne lifted a hand in a warning gesture and the others stopped their horses. They all dismounted and walked into the undergrowth in silence, following the sounds coming from the road below them.
Guy stopped near the edge of the cliff to look down, and he lay on his stomach, hiding behind some boulders. Much, Allan and Tuck imitated him and they all looked at the road. From there, it was possible to watch the travelers without being spotted, and Guy wanted to see who was riding through the forest. From the sounds he could hear, they had to be many men, carrying weapons. The unusual thing was that he couldn’t hear their voices: usually soldiers talked or shouted orders while traveling, now instead that silence was eerie.
After a short while, his suspicions were confirmed: those travelers were his former men, the dead eyed soldiers now working for the Black Knights. He held his breath and he could hear Much silently gasping at his side.
We must retreat before they notice us.
Guy was about to signal the others to silently walk away, when he saw Marian riding between the soldiers. He froze, holding his breath, and he could hear his comrades doing the same.
The girl was pale and distressed, but she kept her back straight, desperately trying to keep her dignity.
Gisborne’s hand went to his sword, his first instinct telling him to rush down there and kill all the soldiers to save Marian, but he didn’t move. He turned to look at the others, and he met Tuck’s gaze.
“Wait,” the friar mouthed, and Guy nodded, turning back to look at Marian.
Wait. He repeated in his mind, wishing he could reassure the girl somehow. Wait for me and I’ll save you, I promise.
Marian stared at the pummel of the saddle, afraid to look around. They were still in the forest, but soon the cover of the trees would get thinner and they would be out of Sherwood, closer to the castle at every step of the horses. She didn’t want to get there, she didn’t want to reach the sheriff and De Fourtnoy, she didn’t want to see her father, slave and accomplice of those monsters.
Once I pass the walls of Nottingham, my life will end.
A tear slid down her cheek, and she angrily wiped it away. She didn’t want to feel weak and helpless, even if she was.
The guards reached a clearing where the river crossed the path and a simple bridge was the only way to get on the other side.
The bridge was narrow, made of simple planks and with no parapet, and it only allowed the passage of a single horse at a time. The soldiers slowed their horses, and they began crossing the river.
When half of them were on the other side, the blond guard nodded at the soldier who was leading Marian’s horse that now it was her turn to pass. The guard dismounted and he began walking her horse across the bridge.
They were exactly in the middle, when the arrows came from the undergrowth, hitting four of the guards. The one who was leading Marian’s horse had an arrow deeply embedded in his neck, but he didn’t utter a single moan of pain. He just lifted his free hand to touch his wound, then he turned to Marian, trying to grab her leg.
The girl looked at him, in horror: that man should have been dead already, but he didn’t seem to feel any pain and now he was trying to make her fall from the saddle.
She couldn't bear the idea of him touching her, so she instinctively lifted her foot to kick him, pushing the soldier in the river.
The other guards, the wounded and the uninjured, began to walk towards her, their dead eyes fixed on her, ignoring the other arrows that were raining on them.
Marian looked around, panicked, unsure of what she should do. She retrieved the reins of the horse, but the soldiers were both in front of her and at her back and arrows were hitting them. The best thing she could probably do was to keep away from them so the arrows wouldn’t hit her as well.
She stared at those men in horror.
They should fall and die… So many arrows are piercing them, but they still walk…
The girl remembered the voices she had heard about Guy, that he had killed the Sheriff, but then Vaisey had returned, still alive.
She had thought that the voices were wrong, that Gisborne had made an attempt on the sheriff’s life and failed, but now she was beginning to believe that he hadn’t failed, it was just that those demoniac persons couldn’t die at all.
And they wanted her! They wanted to turn her into an abomination like them!
She gave up to panic and she kicked the sides of the horse, heedless of the arrows raining around her. To die pierced by a simple arrow was still better than becoming an undead puppet in the hands of the sheriff and De Fourtnoy!
The animal, instead, was too terrified to run towards the dead eyed guards and reared, throwing Marian in the river. She was shocked by the contact with the cold, freezing water, and by the sudden silence. Underwater, the sounds of the battle were drowned by the echoing sound of the pulse of her own heartbeat. She couldn’t breathe and she thought that she had to react, to try to swim to the surface and fight for her life, but she found out that she couldn’t.
She was too exhausted to move, too cold and tired and her mind drifted into unconsciousness searching for blissful peace, at last.
Guy pulled the string of his bow almost to his cheek, aimed, and released it, hitting another one of the guards, but the man kept moving towards Marian. He shuddered in horror.
He knew those men, they had been under his command once and then they had been common soldiers, weak and mostly untrained, barely able to do anything useful. The sight of a bow would scare them, he knew.
But now it was different: even wounded, they kept moving, without even pulling the arrows out of their bodies. One had been hit in the eye, and he just stood up again. Alive. Or undead.
Gisborne could feel the fear of his comrades, but he couldn't blame them because he was frightened too. If Marian hadn’t been there, in danger, he would run. He would turn his back to those guards and he would flee like a coward, forgetting his decision of fighting the evil that was destroying Nottingham.
He almost jumped when Tuck touched his shoulder, and he glanced at the friar, in despair.
“It’s not working. We can’t defeat them!” He whispered, and his words were echoed by a moan from Much.
The friar’s expression was somber, but he didn’t look scared, and Guy took a little comfort in his calm. He felt proud of Allan and Much too, because they were still fighting, despite their fear.
Tuck took a little silver bottle from his bag, handling it with care and respect.
“Give me one of your arrows.”
Gisborne obeyed, and Tuck opened the bottle, dropping a single drop of its content on the point of the arrow.
“Is that poison?” Allan asked, before shooting another useless arrow.
“Holy Water.” Tuck said with respect, giving the arrow back to Guy. “Don’t waste it, aim well.”
Gisborne nodded, then he nocked the arrow, pulled the string and released it, following the flight of the arrow with his eyes, holding his breath.
It hit one of the soldiers in the leg, and the man fell to the ground, howling in pain.
“It’s working!” Guy stared at the fallen guard in awe, hope renewed in his heart.
Tuck nodded, smiling, and he began pouring drops of Holy Water on the arrows and on the blades of his friends. He had just finished blessing the blade of Gisborne’s sword when the knight let out a cry of alarm, snatching the blade from Tuck’s hold and leaving his hiding place to run towards the enemies.
Allan swore loudly.
“Giz! What are you doing? Are you out of your mind?! Come back here! It’s too late!”
Tuck closed the now empty bottle and he rushed to see.
“Marian fell in the river.” Much explained, his face wet with tears.
“Keep shooting,” Tuck ordered, picking up the bow Guy had dropped, “Try to keep them away from Gisborne.”
They all kept attacking while Guy ran towards the river, swinging his blade to keep the guards away. The blond man who seemed to lead the soldiers stepped in his way, a malignant grin on his face, but Guy didn’t stop, moving his sword in an arch. His blade hit the wrist of the opponent, severing the hand that held the sword and embedding itself in the neck of the soldier. The man’s face froze in a surprised expression, then his whole body burst out in flames, like a torch.
Guy jumped in surprise and dropped his sword, but he resumed his run, heading for the river.
Nobody else tried to stop him and he dove, searching for Marian.
Peace at last.
Marian was floating in a weightless place, finally giving up to exhaustion.
It felt good.
A part of her mind wept because she knew that she had been defeated, that her life was about to end, but she found out that defeat could be sweet after such a long struggle.
Now nothing mattered anymore.
She would no more suffer at seeing her father ensnared by darkness, she could do nothing to save him now, she wouldn’t put any innocent lives in danger with her rebellion, she could stop living in fear.
She was going to die, what else could scare her now?
Her thoughts wandered in the last moments of her life. Everything was lost, but she wasn’t afraid anymore because what in afterlife could be worst than the horrible things she had to witness in the last few months?
Maybe Robin would be waiting for her in Heaven… That thought was a consolation, but it made her realize that probably her father would never get there if his soul had been corrupted by the Black Knights.
It was a sad thought and it made her feel even colder.
Then everything went black.
Chapter 25: The Enemy of My Enemy
Guy sank under the surface of the river, holding his breath and desperately trying to find Marian. He struggled to open his eyes underwater, but the water was muddy and it was difficult to see anything.
His lungs ached, but he kept searching: he couldn’t let the girl drown or he wouldn’t be able to live with himself.
When he was about to resurface for a moment to breathe, his fingers brushed something soft, so he made a last effort and swam in that direction until his arms closed around Marian’s limp body.
Guy grabbed her clothes, holding her tight in a hug and he kicked with his feet to swim to the surface.
The cold air was almost painful to breathe when he emerged, but it restored his energies and it cleared his head. He looked down, at the woman he was holding in his arms, and he was relieved to see her coughing and gasping for air, but he was worried because she was unconscious, her body limp. Marian was too pale, and her skin was deadly cold.
Guy shivered, he was cold too after diving in the freezing water, and he hurried to swim towards the bank. He couldn’t see his friends or the guards anymore, the river took him and Marian downstream for a while, so when he finally succeeded in coming ashore, they were alone in the forest.
He allowed himself to lie down for a moment to catch his breath, but Marian stillness urged him to get to his feet as soon as he could. He looked around, worried: he didn’t know well that part of the forest, but he needed to get Marian warm as soon as possible. He took off his cloak, and he used it to wrap Marian, even if it too was soaking wet.
He glanced at the river, thinking that he might follow it to reunite with his friend, but the vegetation on the banks was too thick and what if the evil guards were still there?
From where he had landed, he could only follow a narrow path through the trees and hope that it led to some place he recognized or where he could light a fire.
Guy lifted the girl, keeping her close to his body, trying to keep her warm somehow, and he hurried to follow the path. He walked for a while, ignoring fatigue and cold, but he knew that he couldn’t keep that pace for much longer. He was tired and cold too, and it was difficult and straining to carry an unconscious person on the uneven ground of the forest, even if Marian was a slender girl.
But he had to find his way to the cave, or at least to get out of the forest and reach one of the villages for Marian’s sake.
The path arrived in a glade, and Guy stopped for a moment, trying to understand where he was, and he was about to choose another path, when a arrow embedded in the ground in front of him. His hand ran to his side to search for his sword, but he remembered that he had dropped it before diving in the river. He cursed under his breath and he prepared to fight with his bare hands if necessary.
For sure he wouldn't let the sheriff's soldiers to take Marian back.
But the men who stepped out of the trees weren’t the dead eyed guards, they were just normal outlaws. Once Guy would have been terrified to find himself surrounded by dangerous robbers, but now he could only breathe a sigh of relief.
The leader of the outlaws, a big, tall man carrying a staff, approached and stopped in front of Guy, staring at him.
“You, I know. You are Gisborne, the faithful dog of the Sheriff.”
The outlaws glared at Guy, pointing their weapons at him, clearly ready to get some revenge for their condition.
Guy tightened his hold on Marian, and he realized that he had to earn the respect of those men somehow, if he wanted to save her.
“Your news are outdated,” he said, looking back at the big man, “I tried to kill the sheriff. I’m an outlaw too, now, just like you.”
The big man pointed the staff at Guy’s neck.
“You are not like us. This is our forest, and I don’t care what you did, it’s not big enough for all of us!”
Gisborne glared at the man, forcing himself to keep calm. He wanted to hit him, to destroy all those outlaws because Marian needed help and they were slowing him from getting it. But still, they were the only real hope to get that help in time to save her.
“Listen, I don’t care about the forest, if you want to keep it, it’s all yours, but she...” he nodded at Marian “...she’s an innocent girl and she needs a fire and a healer. Help us to find our way and I won’t fight you.”
The outlaws laughed.
“Fight us? How?”
“You already look half dead...”
“I don’t see you carrying a weapon!”
The big man moved his staff, slamming it to the ground to silence his comrades.
“Shut up!” He ordered, and he walked to Gisborne. He held up his hand, gently parting the cloak wrapped around Marian to look at her face. Guy let him, but he was tense, ready to defend the girl if the outlaw tried to hurt her.
The big man stared at him, right in the eyes.
“You’re out of your mind to defy us when you haven’t the means or the strength to fight, but we don’t hurt women and I know her: she’s the lady of Knighton and she’s always been kind to the people of the villages. Her, I like.”
“Will you help her, then?” Guy asked, softly, and the big man nodded, taking the unconscious girl from his arms.
“But we don’t like you. Go away, Gisborne.”
Guy shook his head.
“I won’t leave her side,” he said, a stubborn look in her eyes, and the other outlaws began to mutter angrily, but their leader shrugged.
“Come, then. At your own risk. Don’t expect help from us, though. And if you only try to attack us, I won’t stop my friends.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Guy said, following them.
Much whooped, as the arrow he had just shot hit and killed another one of their enemies, but Allan didn’t share his joy.
“We must go to help Giz! He jumped in the river, but he didn’t resurface!”
He unsheathed his sword and he came out of the shelter of the undergrowth to run towards the river.
Tuck nodded, while Much stared at the enemies for a moment, shuddering, then he followed his friends.
“I thought that when we went to the Holy Land I had followed Robin in a crazy enterprise, but this is even worse!” He moaned, but he got ready to fight.
The Holy Water seemed to work, killing the dead eyed guards, and soon their enemies were defeated. Much saw Allan killing his opponent, and he took a deep breath, lifting the sword to face the last soldier.
But his enemy didn’t try to attack him: the man just stood where he was, looking around with a confused expression on his face.
Much was about to give him a final blow with his sword, when he looked at the soldier’s eyes and the man stared back at him in fear.
His eyes aren’t dead anymore!
Much gasped, and he held back his sword.
The soldier, frightened, tried to attack him, and Allan pulled the string of his bow, with the intention of killing him. Much stepped away from the soldier to avoid his blow, but he waved frantically at Allan.
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! He’s not possessed anymore!” He shouted, and Allan hesitated.
Tuck came closer, and looked at the soldier too, nodding at Much and then glancing at Allan.
“We’ll take this one as a prisoner. Maybe we can find out what happened to him and if there is a way to save the ones who had been corrupted by evil. Drop your weapon, boy, and we won’t hurt you.” The friar spoke the last sentence to the soldier, trying to sound persuasive and after a moment the young man nodded and dropped the sword to the ground, allowing Much and Allan to tie him.
Allan looked at the others.
“What now? And what about Giz?”
It was Tuck again who answered him.
“We’ll take him somewhere quiet where we can treat his wounds and question him, but not to our refuge, in case he is still a danger. You go and search for Gisborne, then reach us at the ruined hut near the pond.”
When they arrived to the outlaws’ camp, Guy was exhausted, but he didn’t leave Marian’s side as the big man lay her down on a bed of straw, close to the fire. The outlaw removed the soaked cloak and began opening the laces of her dress.
Guy tensed, glaring at him.
“What are you doing?”
The outlaw shrugged.
“Her clothes are wet. She’ll get surely ill if she keeps them on.”
“Well, surely you won’t undress her in front of them!”
The other man seemed to be embarrassed, as if he hadn’t thought about that.
“Well, she surely can’t keep those wet clothes on...” He mumbled, then he glared at his comrades. “You all, turn around! And stoke that fire, it must be warmer!” He ordered, then he threw a blanket over Marian and he and Guy worked together to remove the soaked clothes, each of them keeping an eye on the other to be sure that the girl’s dignity was respected.
When it was done, the outlaw rubbed Marian with the blanket to warm her body, and Guy was a little relieved to see that some color was back on her cheeks. Sitting close to the bed, he caressed her hair tenderly, talking to her in a reassuring tone.
“You’ll be alright… You are safe now… I won’t let anyone hurt you...” Guy stopped, feeling the outlaw’s eyes on him and he lifted his head to stare back. “What?”
The tall man shrugged, and he threw a blanket at him too.
Guy caught it mid air, and he gave it a surprised look, then he nodded at the other man.
“Thanks. I thought you wouldn’t help me, just her,” he said, beginning to take off his wet clothes.
“You care for her.” The outlaw said.
“Does she care for you as well?”
“I don’t know.” Guy sighed. “I hope that in time...” His voice trailed off, uncertain. Maybe they wouldn’t have time at all, and even if they did, maybe Marian would never return his feelings.
“Don’t catch your death, then. The lady would be sad.”
Gisborne wrapped himself in the blanket and he closed his eyes for a moment, enjoying the warmth of the fire.
“You know who I am,” he said, “but I don’t know your name. Who is the man who saved our lives?”
The outlaw looked at him for a moment, and he picked up the wet cloak from the ground to examine it.
“John Little, but my men call me Little John.”
“Little?” Guy stared at him, amused.
The outlaw looked at the cloak, noticing that it was a simple cloak on a side and something similar to a shroud on the other.
“This thing… It’s true then? Are you the ‘ghost’ people talk about? The one who fights the sheriff’s men?” Little John asked, and the other outlaws turned to look at Guy in awe.
“Him?! But I heard that the ghost can disappear and pass through walls! He was half drowned when we found him, how could that be possible?” One of the men commented, while the others nodded.
Guy looked at them: those outlaws were enemies of the sheriff, so maybe they could join his fight.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
“I will explain everything.” He said. “And I have a proposal for all of you.”
Chapter 26: A Glimmer of Hope
Allan used his sword to cut through the undergrowth, trying to follow the river. He was beginning to be worried for Gisborne, afraid that he could have drowned in the muddy waters.
So far he hadn’t found any sign of him, not even his corpse, so he could still hope, but he was afraid he couldn’t find him before the sun went down. If that was the case, would he have the courage to stay in the forest at night, alone, and keep searching?
He shuddered at the idea, but how could he abandon Gisborne? The knight was the only one who ever trusted him, the only one who gave him a second chance.
The only true friend he had.
“Giz?” He called. “Where are you?”
The forest was silent, and Allan sighed.
What if Gisborne was dead? And if he was alive, but he couldn’t save lady Marian, it would be terrible all the same.
“Love is only a source for trouble...” He muttered, but he stopped with a gasp, noticing traces and footprints on the muddy bank.
So at least one of them got out of the water…
Allan noticed that the footprints were too big to be Marian’s and he couldn’t help feeling relieved. Of course he hoped that both of them had survived, but he cared for Gisborne more than he did for the girl. He saw that the tracks headed to a path, and he followed them for a while, stopping abruptly when an arrow came flying at him, embedding itself in a trunk, too close to his head for his liking.
“Hey!” Allan cried, brandishing the sword and looking around. “Show yourself!”
Marian stirred in her sleep, with a little sigh. She wasn’t cold anymore and she was laying somewhere soft, wrapped in warm blankets. She could smell grass and damp leaves, and the smoke of a fire. The fire had to be close because she could also hear the crackling rustle of the flames and feel a pleasant warmth. But there was also another soothing sound: the deep voice of a man quietly speaking.
A known voice.
A friendly, reassuring voice.
She was too tired to open her eyes, but somehow she felt that she didn’t need to wake up because she was safe.
She slipped back in a deep slumber, dreaming of her father: she was a little girl again and Sir Edward lulled her to sleep, tucking the blankets of her bed and watching over her sleep.
“Why should we risk our lives for you?” One of the outlaw asked, shaking his head and giving Gisborne an hostile glance. “You were our enemy. You arrested many of us and hanged them.”
“I just enforced the law.” Guy replied. “And this is bigger than just you or me. You wouldn’t fight for me, it would be to defeat the evil and to protect the people you care for.”
“Which people? We are outlaws, dead men. Why should we care for anybody other than ourselves?”
Little John looked at the man who had just spoken, for a long moment, then he cleared his voice.
“What about your mother, Roy? And Forrest’s little brother… And... my wife and son.” He nodded at Guy and at the soaked cloak that was draped over a bush to dry. “Him, we don’t like, but for once I agree with his words. I saw how scared people are, the deadly silence that falls on the villages whenever the Sheriff or his men get closer. Once it was bad, but now it is worse. It’s evil. Wrong.”
“So, will you help?” Guy asked, hopeful and the other man nodded.
“Not you, keep it in mind. The people.”
“That’s what I said.” Gisborne smiled and they were all silent for a while, until they heard some commotion coming from the undergrowth.
A moment later two of the outlaws appeared, dragging Allan with them. The young man had a few scratches on his face and a bruise was darkening on his cheekbone, but his expression lightened up in seeing Guy.
“Giz! You alright, mate?” He blurted, but he was silenced by one of the outlaws who were holding him.
“Hey, don’t harm him!” Guy said, jumping to his feet, and Little John glanced at him.
“Friend of yours?” He asked, nodding at Allan.
“He saved my life and he fights the Black Knights too,” Gisborne explained.
Little John gestured the outlaws to release him, and Allan hurried to reach Guy’s side.
“Did you find her?” Allan asked, staring at his friend’s face to read his expression. He was relieved to see a smile on his lips.
Guy pointed at Marian, who was still laying near the fire, her face hidden under the blankets that wrapped her.
“She’s exhausted and unwell, but she’ll recover. As soon as she’ll be able to move, I’ll take her to see Matilda and she’ll heal her.”
“Matilda? The healer?” Roy asked. “Is she with you?”
“Yes. Do you know her?” Guy replied and the other man nodded.
“She gave a remedy to my mother a few years ago, even if we couldn’t afford it. She’s a good woman.”
After Roy’s words, the other outlaws seemed to relax, and they stopped glaring at Guy.
Allan sat near the fire with a contented sigh, warming his hands at the flames.
“Are you alright?” He asked again, but he could see that Gisborne wasn’t wounded, just tired and still damp after jumping in the river.
“I’m fine.” Guy said, sitting near the fire as well. “The others?”
“We won. And I have important news.” Allan stopped, and he looked at the outlaws, uncertain.
“You can trust them, they’re on our side. So, what’s up?”
“We took a prisoner. One of the guards survived the battle and we captured him.”
“I hope you didn’t take him to the cave, he could be very dangerous. Those guards are not common men anymore, there’s something evil inside them.”
“We didn’t, but the point is just this: he didn’t look possessed anymore! It seems he had been freed from that evil, his eyes were alive again!”
“What?!” Guy looked at him, in shock.
“He was wounded and confused, but he spoke like a normal man, as if he had just woken up. Tuck is going to examine him to understand what happened.”
“Really? This is true?” Guy stood up, shaking his head in awed disbelief. “This mean that it’s possible to free people from that evil... This changes everything!” Guy stopped, glancing at Marian, then he stared at Allan, almost threateningly. “Don’t tell her.”
“Why? Her father...” Allan began, frowning.
“I don’t want to raise her hopes until we’ll be sure that we can really save him. Weren’t it possible, it would break her heart once again.”
“I see. Are you coming? Tuck and Much are waiting for us with the prisoner at the ruined hut near the pond.”
Gisborne crouched at Marian’s side to brush his fingers on her forehead.
“Not yet. She needs to rest and keep warm and I can’t leave her now. As soon as she can be moved, I’ll take her to Matilda and then I’ll reach Tuck. Go to him, and tell him that we are both safe.”
Allan glanced at the outlaws, and he lowered his voice.
“Are you really safe?”
“We all have a common enemy, we must trust each other. Now go, I don’t want you to be in the forest when darkness falls.”
Allan nodded, standing up.
“Alright, Giz, take care.”
After Allan was gone, Guy finally realized how tired he felt. The outlaws were sitting around the fire, sharing a meal, but he felt too exhausted to eat, and he stretched out on the ground, close to Marian.
Even so, he couldn’t fall asleep, Allan’s news were too important and they opened a lot of new possibilities. Could they really save the people who had been corrupted by that evil? And how?
If there was hope for Sir Edward…
Guy turned on his side to look at Marian and he silently prayed to God that he could give her family back to her. He swore that he would do anything to keep her safe and to see her smiling again.
The girl stirred in her sleep, a hand slipping out of the blankets, and Guy held it, intertwining his fingers with hers.
I’m here. They’ll never touch you again.
He closed his eyes and at last he fell asleep, still holding her hand.