Marian inwardly sighed as they entered yet another village, Locksley this time: she could see from the fear and the hate on the faces of the villagers, that it wouldn’t go better than in the other ones.
The people, used to the sheriff’s abuse, clearly expected trouble as soon as they saw Gisborne, and Guy of course had no hopes of getting their trust in such a short time, so he wasn’t even trying. He wore the impassible mask of efficiency he always showed when he executed the sheriff’s orders and he sat on his horse, sternly watching the villagers so that they would at least show order and respect to the sheriff’s guest.
So far, there hadn’t been real troubles, but Marian had the impression that Sir Roland wasn’t pleased at all. He visited the villages and sometimes he spoke kindly to the villagers, but he seemed to be haughty and aloof with her, Guy and even with Allan, who at first had tried to defuse the situation with his jokes and his silly talk, but who now looked as nervous and unhappy as Guy.
Marian thought that Guy’s sensations had been right: there was something strange in the way Sir Roland looked at him and she was beginning to fear that it actually could be about the Holy Land.
The only thing that reassured her a little was that Robin didn’t knew who the french nobleman was and, according to Guy, Robin was the only one who had recognized him during the attempt on the king’s life.
She wished she could talk about her fears with somebody, but she could only discuss them with Guy or Robin, but Gisborne couldn’t reassure her because he was even more anguished than she was, while Robin just wouldn’t understand. For him, Guy deserved to be punished as a traitor and he probably would be happy to see him hang.
Marian shuddered at the very idea. She had come to care a lot for Guy, more than she could have imagined just a few months earlier.
She moved the horse closer to Guy and sir Roland, hoping to revive the conversation a little, but the french man barely acknowledged her presence with a quick glance, keeping his attention on Guy.
“So how long have you been here?” Roland de Belmont asked.
“Five years, six winters.” Guy answered, remembering only then that Robin had asked the same thing when he had returned from the Holy Land and that he had given him a very similar answer.
Hood had found the words to humiliate him then, and now Guy had a presentiment that sir Roland’s reply would be even harsher.
“You have no excuses, then.” The man said, in fact, in a stern voice.
“Do you believe you’ve been a good lord for these people?”
“I managed these lands according to Nottingham’s laws,” Guy said defensively, knowing very well that many of those laws were unjust and cruel, good only for the sheriff. But he resented the reproachful tone of the stranger: how could he judge his actions at Locksley after just a quick glance around? How could he know how many times, especially in the last few months, he had ignored many misdemeanors that the sheriff would surely have punished cruelly? More than once he had to suffer the anger of the sheriff as a consequence of his humanity and now this man was criticizing him for the opposite reason? “I did the best I could.”
“Then you aren’t good enough! Look at them. They should welcome their lord, be honored when he comes to visit them, be happy of his attention! But those people are frightened! When you look at them, they shy away, they hear your horse and they run hiding into their huts! Why should they fear a just, good lord?!”
Marian and Guy stared at him, dumbfounded, and even Allan looked at him, in shocked surprise, but he was the first one to react.
“Hey, wait a moment, sir. Aren’t you a little too harsh? Maybe it’s true that those people fear him because he collects the taxes and punishes their faults, after all who likes to have their tongue cut and their houses burned? But, hey, it’s not like Giz has many choices either!”
Marian pulled a face at him.
“Allan, you’re not helping at all!” She hissed.
“What? I just said that Giz is a victim too!”
But Sir Roland wasn’t paying attention to him anymore, he was staring at Gisborne with unconcealed disgust.
“You burn houses and hurt people...” he said in a grave tone, “You should be ashamed of yourself. Your father would.” He concluded, then he turned the horse and he took the road leading out of the village.
Allan moved his gaze between him and Guy, not sure if whatever had just happened was his fault or what he was supposed to do now. But Gisborne wasn’t even looking at him, too shocked to do anything.
At last it was Marian who took the situation in her hands.
“Allan, quick, take the guards with you and follow him, if he returns to the castle alone without an escort, the sheriff will be furious. We’ll reach you as soon as we can.”
Allan nodded, and he hurried to obey, gathering the guards and launching the horse at a gallop.
Once they were gone, Marian turned to look at Gisborne, worried for him: Sir Roland verbal attack had been unexpected and his words cruel and unnecessary. She was feeling outraged for Guy: it was true that the life of the people of Nottingham was difficult, but it was the sheriff’s fault, not Guy’s.
At first she had criticized him too for obeying too blindly, but in time she had come to see that even rebelling openly wasn’t always the best solution. It might be more popular, of course, but even Robin’s action damaged people sometimes: he acted against the sheriff and Vaisey retaliated with doubled cruelty.
Guy had his faults, but he was a good man, Marian had no more doubts about it, and she knew that he didn’t enjoy punishing and executing people for the sheriff, but he had to do it anyways. Maybe Guy was loyal to the wrong man, but what right had that stranger of judging him and being friendly with Vaisey? And why had he to talk about Guy’s father?
“Are you alright? He shouldn’t have said such things...” She asked, concerned.
“I don’t care.” Guy said, but Marian recognized the cold, distant expression he often had on his face when the sheriff insulted him or when he had to execute some order he strongly disliked. She knew that sir Roland’s words had hurt him somehow.
“He’s wrong, you’re not like that.” She said, but Guy shook his head with a sigh and his expression softened a little.
“No, he was completely right, but thank you anyway,” he said with a bitter smile, “I can’t do anything to change the situation or his opinion and it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t know him and he doesn’t know me, why should I care?”
But you do. Marian thought, sadly.
“We should better reach him. I can deal with his insults, but I’d rather avoid being flogged by the sheriff if I can help it.”
Marian nodded, but she thought that she was going to talk with Guy again after Sir Roland was gone. She didn’t want him to believe that it was right for him to live in shame or that everyone in the world despised him.
Marian and Guy reached Sir Roland and Allan shortly before reaching the castle. The french nobleman still looked aloof, despite Allan’s efforts to defend Gisborne somehow.
The young man slowed his horse a little to ride at Guy’s side for a while and talk to him.
“Look, Giz, I tried,” he said apologetically, “I really did. But I think he didn’t listen a single word of it. I wonder why people don’t believe me when I say good about you... That Jasper, the one who wanted to raze Nottingham, didn’t listen either.”
Gisborne was a little surprised because for once Allan looked completely sincere and really sorry for not being able to help him.
“It’s not your fault,” Guy said, then he kicked the sides of the horse to reach the nobleman, in a last attempt to appease him.
“Sir Roland, please wait.”
The man slowed his horse to look at Guy, and he waited for him to speak again.
“My lord, if my behavior offended you somehow, I apologize.”
“It’s not about your behavior, sir Guy, it’s about what you are.” Sir Roland answered, harshly, but then he softened his tone a little, seeing that Gisborne seemed to be really confused because of his words. “I guess it isn’t even your fault, after all, I probably had wrong expectations.”
Guy frowned, even more puzzled and also quite irked by now.
“Expectations about what? Why should you expect anything from me? The sheriff asked me to make your stay pleasant and I’ve been trying my best to make it so, yet you seem to despise me for what I do in my lands, lands that should hold no interest for you. Why should a noble from France care about the management of a small village in Nottinghamshire?”
“Those people were suffering, couldn’t you see that?!”
Guy stared at him, his blue eyes burning with rage.
“So? Is Locksley the only place where life is not so great for the poor? Is France an enchanted place where no one suffers and everything is just? Strange, I remembered it quite different, maybe it has changed since the last time I’ve been there, has it? I doubt it. When you’re poor, nobody cares, you are nothing, and that’s true everywhere in the world! Yet you blame me and only me for that...”
Marian urged her horse to reach Guy, worried to see him so angry and fearing the consequences of his anger. He stopped his rant seeing her, and she took the chance to whisper him a few words, hoping to calm him down.
“Guy, stop now. The sheriff...”
“The sheriff will have me flogged anyways! Can’t you see that?! It’s obvious that he isn’t going to give the sheriff what he wants, and he won’t because I disappointed him somehow. The funny thing is that I don’t even know what he expected from me, I tried my best and it seems that I disgusted him, so guess what? I just don’t care anymore! If I have to be punished, so be it, but I’m not going to humiliate myself further, trying to please someone who hates me for no reason. So, go to hell, sir! At least I’ll be flogged for something I deserved.”
Guy moved his horse forward, and he passed the gate of the castle, leaving the others behind. Marian exchanged a worried look with Allan, then she hurried to follow Guy.
The sheriff was waiting on the stairs, and he frowned when he saw Gisborne entering the courtyard first, with a thundering expression on his face, shortly followed by the lady leper, who, instead, looked upset and almost afraid. For a moment Vaisey feared that Hood had attacked his guest, but he relaxed when he saw Sir Roland arriving just a few moments later, with Allan at his side and the guards following after.
Still, he didn’t like Gisborne’s mood, Vaisey thought, noticing that the knight had dismounted hurriedly, almost throwing the reins at a stable boy, and that he would have walked away if lady Marian hadn’t grabbed his arm to stop him.
Now he was standing there, with the girl still clinging to his arm, and a defiant look in his eyes.
Vaisey was tempted to step down the stairs just to wipe that expression from his face with a good slap, but he refrained himself because Sir Roland was watching.
If Gisborne has messed this too, he will regret it. Oh, how he will.
“So, how was your ride?” He cheerfully asked to Sir Roland, instead. “Have you visited our pretty, merry villages?”
“It has been… enlightening.” Sir Roland answered, in a light tone.
“I hope that Gizzy here provided you a good service,” Vaisey inquired, still suspicious of Guy’s dark mood.
Roland de Belmont looked at the knight for a moment, then he turned to the sheriff.
“He gave me interesting suggestions about the next place I should visit, someplace warmer,” he answered in a deadpan tone.
If Vaisey was puzzled by that answer, he didn’t show it, but he kept his false amiable tone.
“Did he? Oh, I’m sure that whatever it is we can organize a visit, if you wish. But now, about those lands...”
The sheriff gestured towards the castle, suggesting that they could move to his office to discuss about that subject, and Sir Roland accepted graciously, following him inside.
As soon as they disappeared behind the door, Allan rushed to reach Guy and Marian.
“Have you lost your mind, Giz?!” He exclaimed, terrified, grabbing Gisborne’s free arm. “You told him to go to hell! Now he’s surely going to tell the sheriff! Come on, we need to go!”
Guy looked at him.
“Where?” He asked, in a flat tone.
“Where? Anywhere but here! The sheriff mustn’t find you! He’ll be furious!”
Guy didn’t follow him, instead he got free from their hold, and he dropped himself on the bench under the tree.
“So are you suggesting that I should run? That I should lose everything again? All because some noble fool disapproves me with apparently no real reason… No, I’m not going anywhere. If my life is worth so little, then why should I fight to preserve it?”
Lose everything again?
Marian frowned at those words, but she had no time to reflect on them, right now Guy needed her support and some comfort.
She sat on the bench at his side, and she took his hand, holding it between hers.
“Don’t be silly, now. Your life matters to me and I don’t want to see you flogged or hanged.”
“Too late for that, I guess.” Guy growled, in a sarcastic tone. “In case you haven’t noticed, I just told him to go to hell...”
“You could apologize.” Marian suggested.
“Or hide until the sheriff forgets about it.” Allan added.
“Till the end of time, then.” Guy said, then he sighed. “Marian is right, I guess, but I’m so tired of being always humiliated, always a pawn in the game of somebody else...”
“You don’t have to be sincere to apologize, Giz!” Allan took place on the bench, at Guy’s other side, “Or do you think that I really meant it when you forced me to promise that I’d keep away from taverns, girls and trouble? Just go to the french man, tell him that you were drunk or something and beg forgiveness: he’ll be satisfied, the sheriff will get his lands and he’ll be happy, and they’ll both leave you in peace.”
“What about my pride?”
“Pride is overrated. Who cares about it when you risk your life? And then nobody will know, that man will go back to France and you’ll never see him again.”
“Well, even if I should accept to apologize to that man, we have to see if the sheriff will give me the time to do it...”
Marian gave a little comforting squeeze to his hand, not knowing what to say. She was well aware that Vaisey wouldn’t be understanding and that he would blame Guy for a failure, but she didn’t know how to help. The only thing she could do was to be at Guy’s side and reassure him that whatever happened, he wouldn’t face it alone.
Guy looked tired now, all the rage that had been burning in his eyes dissolved, leaving only ashes.
He buried his face in his hands, closing his eyes and massaging the bridge of his nose. Marian put an arm around his back and leaned her head on his shoulder with a sigh, while Allan just sat in silence, dreading the moment when the sheriff would arrive, seething with anger and ready to punish them all.
They sat there for a while, waiting, until the voice of the sheriff resounded from the door.
“Gisborne!” He cried, loud and piercing as usual, and Guy jumped to his feet, hurrying inside the castle. There was no use in delaying a punishment, he knew that very well, and when the sheriff yelled like that, it was better not to make him wait. Marian and Allan were right behind him, and Guy thought that their presence was a comfort, but also a worry, because he was afraid that they could be punished as well.
Strangely, the voice of the sheriff didn’t come from his office or the hall, nor from the war room, but from the corridor that led to the strong room. Some guards were running in that direction too, but when they saw Guy, they slowed down, letting him go first.
When he reached him in front of the door of the strong room, the sheriff was furious, but apparently not with him: he was pointing at the open door of the room.
“Gisborne! Where were you?! Blithering oaf! Never here when you are needed! Look, look there!”
Guy glanced at the room, and he was startled to see that it was completely empty. A arrow with striped fletching was embedded in a empty chest.
“Hood!” Guy exclaimed, and Vaisey gave him a slap on his arm.
“Yes, Hood indeed! You lose time visiting villages and Hood robs me! Idiot! What are you waiting for?! Find him! Take my gold back!”
Sir Roland was standing near the sheriff, quietly looking at Vaisey’s outburst, and Guy once again thought that the behavior of that man was strange.
But he had no time to lose with him, he had to search for Hood: they hadn’t met him on their way in, so he probably ran away in the opposite direction, maybe taking the corridor that led to the dungeons. If Hood was still there, Guy thought, maybe he could capture him and retrieve the gold, then the sheriff would probably forgive him for the quarrel with Sir Roland.
“Allan, take two guards, and check that all the escape routes are still closed,” Guy said, then he pointed at the other guards, “you, give orders to drop the portcullis, the others with me.”
Everyone hurried to obey and Guy was about to take the corridor, when Sir Roland stopped him.
“Sir Guy, if you don’t mind my men and I would like to join the search. They are trained soldiers, they could be useful.”
Guy looked at him, puzzled.
“As you wish, but...”
“It’s decided then. Please, lead the way.”
Marian waited for them to go away, then she gave a last glance at Vaisey, and she followed them.