Allan took a chair and he dragged it near the bathtub where Guy was bathing, dropping himself on it.
“So, who’s this mysterious guest?” He asked, grabbing a grape from the plate near the bathtub and popping it in his mouth.
“I know that he’s a noble and that he’s french. He owns some lands in England and the sheriff wants them, but I have no idea what he’s going to offer for them.” Guy answered, nervously. “Give me that piece of soap.”
Allan obeyed, and Guy rubbed the soap on his hair.
“He’s not going to give him Marian again, is he? ‘cause I don’t fancy going around to kill people...”
He shut up noticing Guy’s dark expression.
“I killed lord Winchester, you only drove the wagon, so stop complaining. Nobody will dare to touch Marian this time, I will never allow that!” Guy growled, and Allan shuddered.
“Well, let’s hope that he just wants gold and that he’s cheap enough to make the sheriff happy,” he said in a light tone, taking another grape.
Guy rinsed his hair and he glared at him.
“That is my food.”
“You weren’t eating it.”
“Did you do everything I told you?” Gisborne said, rolling his eyes. Allan showed no respect for him as usual, but he found difficult to really get mad at him.
“Sure, Giz. The castle is ready to welcome your guest.”
“You didn’t bathe.”
“Do I really have to?” Allan asked. “It’s freezing outside, I could get a chill.”
“Towel.” Guy ordered, and Allan hurried to obey as Gisborne finished washing up and stepped out of the tub. The knight grabbed the towel and he wrapped himself in it before answering. “I will need your assistance and I won’t have you stinking, so yes, you have to bathe. And you won’t freeze, it’s summer.”
Guy ended his sentence with a grin, and he suddenly pushed Allan, who fell in the tub with a splash.
“Oy!” Allan protested, and Guy grinned even more.
“You should thank me, the water is still warm, I could have pushed you in the water trough in the stables.”
Allan sniffed at the water, beginning to remove his now drenched clothes and throwing them on the floor.
“Hey, what’s this? Lavender? That’s what you nobles bathe in?”
Guy laced up his breeches before turning to smile at him, innocently.
“See? You’re privileged, I’m letting you use my bathtub, you shouldn’t complain.”
Allan grabbed another bunch of grapes from the plate at the side of the tub.
“Very well, as long as you don’t complain if I eat your food as well.”
“Use the soap too, lots of it.”
“Giz, I’m not as dirty as you think,” Allan said, in mock offense, then he stared at Guy, who was now wearing a long leather coat instead of his usual jacket. “Hey, you are wearing different clothes! What happened? Are those new?”
“No.” Guy rolled his eyes, and he thought that he surely wasn’t going to tell Allan that those clothes were the elegant outfit he wore the day he was going to marry Marian. “The sheriff ordered us to wear our best clothes.” He nodded at a bundle on the bed. “There’s something new for you too.”
“Oh really? Is that leather? Did you upgrade me to leather?”
“You are not ready for that, yet,” Guy answered in the same playful tone, “they are similar to the ones you already have, but they are new and clean.”
“This guest must be important if the sheriff paid for my clothes.”
“He didn’t.” Guy replied, and Allan lifted an eyebrow.
“So you did. Well, it doesn’t change what I meant: he must be important if the sheriff scared you in paying for my new clothes.”
Guy looked at him, serious.
“For your information, I’m not scared, but if we fail, he said that he will flog both me and Marian publicly and I’m sure he wasn’t joking. He wants those lands, God knows why, but if he won’t get them, he could even do worse than just flogging us. So, please behave yourself.”
Allan nodded. Even if Guy denied it, he was sure that Gisborne was scared and now he was scared too.
“I won’t let you down, don’t worry.”
“I hope so. Now hurry, finish washing up and get dressed, the guest will arrive soon.”
Guy and Allan were already standing on the stairs of the courtyard, a few steps behind the sheriff, when Marian arrived. Vaisey turned to look at her critically, then, apparently satisfied by the dress she was wearing, he nodded at her to wait at Guy’s side.
She quietly reached him and Allan, and she gave a surprised glance at the younger man when she noticed that he was trying to sniff her.
Guy cuffed his head.
“What are you doing?” He hissed in a silent whisper, and Allan shrugged.
“I was trying to understand if you made her bathe too,” he whispered back, while Marian blushed at the idea of Guy ‘making her bathe’.
This time Gisborne hit Allan much harder, but still very silently.
“Marian doesn’t need to be forced in a tub, you filthy idiot!” Guy said, then he too imagined the scene of him pushing the girl in a bathtub and blushed as well, hitting Allan on the head for a third time, just to be sure.
When the sheriff turned to look at them, they were calmly standing side to side, serious expressions on their faces. He stared at them, suspicious, then he pointed a finger at Guy’s chest.
“Mess this, Gisborne, and you all will pay.”
“Maybe you could give us more information on this man, my lord, if we are supposed to keep him entertained,” Guy replied and Vaisey poked him with the finger before answering.
“Don’t use that smug tone with me, Gisborne. Our guest is sir Roland de Belmont, he’s from France and he owns lands that I want, that’s all you need to know. Keep him happy or you’ll regret it.”
“So you don’t know much about him either.”
“Well, find out. I’m paying you for this, don’t I?” Vaisey turned to Marian and Allan, with a lecherous grin on his face, “And you, missy, make sure to be charming, our guest must feel loved. You too, in case he prefers pretty boys.”
Marian stared at him, outraged, and she was about to express her indignation, when Guy beat her to it.
“My lord! Marian is not...”
Vaisey interrupted him with a violent slap on his face, then he grabbed Guy’s clothes with a hand, pulling him closer while he pointed a dagger at his neck.
“She’s not what? She is anything I tell her to be, is that clear? Tell him, missy, or Gizzy won’t believe it.”
The sheriff pressed the blade a little more on Guy’s neck, nicking the skin, and Marian looked at the trickle of blood, horrified.
“Let him go! You’re hurting him!”
“I’ll cut Gizzy’s throat with my own hands if you only think of disobeying me and then I’ll hang both of you. Now tell him: will you do anything I ask you to do to please our guest?”
“Yes, I will.” Marian said with a sob, and the sheriff released Guy, pushing him into her.
“Good. Now go and get that mess cleaned, Gizzy, I don’t want you to drip blood on our guest.”
The sheriff turned to look at the gates, cheerfully whistling, and Guy ran back inside the castle, followed closely by Marian.
Gisborne stopped, turning to look at her in rage.
“You shouldn’t have promised to obey!” He cried.
“He wounded you! Let me see...”
She held a hand to his neck, trying to check how deep the cut was, but Guy stepped back, pressing a hand on it and shaking his head.
“It’s nothing! What if he wants to sell you to him? Will you obey to that too?!”
“Would I have any choice anyway? Like I had with Winchester?” Marian sighed.
“I won’t let anyone touch you again. Even if I have to kill or to die for it...”
“Don’t say it!” Marian cried, interrupting him. “Don’t you dare to even think it!”
She put her hand on his shoulder and this time he let her touch him. Marian sighed and she moved her fingers to his cheek, in a tender caress.
“I don’t want you to die for me, Guy. I couldn’t bear it.”
Guy closed his eyes, leaning his face on her fingers.
“I should protect you and I can’t...” He said, and Marian moved a finger to his lips.
“Hush, now. I know that you protect me, you always did, and you also suffered because of it. Do you think I don’t see how he treats you? Do you think I don’t know that my life at the castle would be much worse without you shielding me from his evil?”
Gisborne sighed, without opening his eyes and Marian thought that she had never seen him so vulnerable. Guy looked tired and hopeless and she felt heartbroken for him.
“Without me you wouldn’t be here. I asked you to stay, but now...”
Marian silenced him with a little kiss on his lips.
“Stop talking nonsense. Without you I’d probably have been hanged by now. I don’t regret my choices, not at all. Our friendship is important to me, Guy, you are important to me. So calm down, now, and let me see to that cut.”
Guy weakly nodded, and Marian gently moved his hand away from the cut, to look at it. She pressed an handkerchief on the wound and Guy winced at her touch.
“It’s not deep, and it won’t need stitches, I think. Does it hurt?”
“Not as much as my pride,” Guy said with a bitter smile, and Marian smiled back at him.
“Well, I can’t do much for your pride, but I can clean that blood. Come with me and let’s hurry before the guest arrives.”
Marian grabbed his arm, and she led him to her room.
“Sit there, near the window,” she ordered, while she hurried to fill the basin with water. She grabbed a towel and she dampened it, then she proceeded to clean away the blood on Guy’s neck.
“It’s good that you always wear black clothes, nobody will notice the stains. Here, better. Now let me bandage it and we’re done.”
Guy looked at her, serious.
“I’m sorry, Marian, I should be stronger.”
“You are, most of the time, actually. If I had to spend so much time with the sheriff as you do, I’d become mad. Nobody could blame you if sometimes you feel overwhelmed.”
“I should be able to protect you always.”
“Now you forget who I am,” Marian said with a grin, “the Nightwatchman isn’t a frail maiden who needs constant protection. I can defend myself if needed. Guy? Shall we make a pact?”
“Yes. To protect each other. You are always there for me, you watch my back and you shield me from the sheriff, now let me do the same for you. Let me help you when things become too difficult, let me watch your back sometimes. I know that I can trust you when I need help, I’d like you to trust me as well, to know that when you are with me you are safe. You are strong, I am strong, together we can be even stronger.”
She held her hand to him, and Guy took it. Marian was glad to see that now his hold was firm, and that he had overcome that moment of desperation.
“A pact, then,” Guy said, with a smirk, “And of course we’ll both have to protect Allan as well.”
“Right, and I’m sure he’ll give us much work. Are you at ease knowing that he’s alone with the sheriff right now?”
Guy jumped to his feet.
“No, obviously. Let’s hurry,” he said, alarmed, and Marian couldn’t help laughing as she took Guy’s hand and they ran back to the courtyard together.
Guy let Marian’s hand go just a few moments before stepping outside. He turned to look at her, and they exchanged a quick smile, then they hurried to reach Allan and the sheriff, a little out of breath after running along the corridors of the castle.
Their situation was dangerous and he had the impression of constantly treading on the verge of disaster, but he was also feeling a little elated. Holding a girl’s hand and running with her was something he hadn’t done in years, not since he had been a child and he used to play with his little sister, when life was easier.
He had loved Marian for a long time now, but he was finding out that being friends with her was different. He didn’t know if the girl would ever return his feelings, and he suspected that she hadn’t told him everything about her relationship with Hood, but now Guy was beginning to believe that she actually cared for him, even if probably not as a lover. He wasn’t used to friendship, but it was a good sensation and it gave him the strength to keep dealing with the sheriff’s whims.
Hearing their steps, Vaisey turned to look at them, ready to say something unpleasant, but he never had the chance to do it because the portcullis was opened and a carriage entered the courtyard.
The sheriff looked at the vehicle, trying to conceal a greedy grin: the carriage was rather old and the coats of arms painted on its sides were faded and ruined. Vaisey was happy to see that: it probably meant that Sir Roland de Belmont wasn’t very rich, and the more he was in need of money, the easier would be for him to get his lands for a cheap price.
Four men, apart from the driver, formed the escort of the nobleman and Vaisey noticed that they weren’t refined as well. Those men looked more like rough soldiers than the servants of a noble, and the sheriff decided that he would have to be careful around them.
He could take Sir Roland as a hostage and force him to give away his lands, but he suspected that those men would defend their lord to the end, so it would surely be wiser to keep him pleased and persuade him peacefully.
At last, Sir Roland stepped out of the carriage and he looked at the sheriff, studying him with a cordial, but cautious gaze.
Guy made sure to place himself between Marian and Sir Roland, in an unconscious attempt to shield her from the sight of the nobleman. But Roland de Belmont luckily didn’t show any interest for the girl, nor the lecherous gaze of Winchester, nor the frivolous gallantry of the German count.
Instead, Sir Roland was looking at them all, with the serious look of a soldier studying his adversaries before a battle. He was a tall man with grey hair and a short beard, just a few years younger than Vaisey, and he had an air of nobility that made him look more dignified than the sheriff, despite the travel clothes he was wearing, a little old and quite covered in dust.
“Welcome to Nottingham,” Vaisey said, with an oily smile, “was your travel good?”
“The roads could have been better. You’ll have to forgive the state of my attire, lord Vaisey, but I preferred to ride on my horse most of the time, rather than being shaken in a carriage. I climbed on it just to enter the castle.”
“Hungry?” Vaisey asked cheerfully, rubbing his hands. “Dinner can be served any time now.”
Sir Roland smiled.
“Thank you, but if you don’t mind I’d like to change my clothes and bathe, first.”
“Of course, of course!” Vaisey said, then he turned to Guy, “Gisborne, show Sir Roland the way to his room, and make sure that he has everything he could need.”
Guy obeyed with a little nod.
“Please, follow me, my lord,” he said, politely, but the other didn’t move.
“Gisborne?” He asked, glancing at Vaisey, and the sheriff hurried to make the introductions, shooting an annoyed look at Guy, as if it was his fault if Sir Roland was interested in his name.
“This is my master of arms, Sir Guy of Gisborne, the woman is Lady Marian and the boy is called Allan, they all have orders to assist you in whatever need you could have. Anything. Just ask and they will obey.”
Sir Roland gave just a glance and a nod at Marian and Allan, but he stared at Guy for a little longer, until the knight began to feel uneasy. Guy cleared his voice, wondering why that man was looking at him with such attention.
Roland de Belmont smiled apologetically.
“Sorry, I was lost in thoughts. Please, lead the way.”