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.”