The little cottage was well beyond the borders of the village, between the villages of the County and the deep of Sherwood’s forest. It was shadowed and protected by the first trees of the forest.
The person who lived there thought that the proximity of the forest would be a protection, a deterrent for the criminals.
A house where she could live in peace.
But some persons in the nearest village used to warn their children, partly in joke and partly in fear, that they shouldn’t play near that cottage.
It was nice, simple and well kept, and who dared to peek from the windows could see the tasteful and simple furniture, the warmth and the cosiness of the house. It was nicer than its inhabitants.
The villagers told the children that they shouldn’t play near the cottage, that they shouldn’t peek inside, or the witch could lure them with sweets or a spell. And they would never come back to their houses.
That woman knew how to do great things, and she did great things since she was young, for the inhabitants of the villages. Miracles, some people could swear they were miracles.
Many were grateful to her, many were suspicious of those miracles, and they avoided her.
She didn’t always succeeded in making miracles: she couldn’t save her husband, dead because of a plague, and she almost lost her only daughter for the same reason.
Years passed after his death, and many more years then, and she never met another man who could understand her how her husband did. Her young husband who had a sweet smile and a strong nature, used to defuse, with his sense of humor, her ironic and colorful way to talk to people...
He had been able to see passion and sweetness in her, the same sweetness she had when she hugged or scolded those children, now young boys or adult men, that she delivered to the world.
For many of them, if not all, she remembered the maneuvers she used to help them during birth, she remembered their mothers, the different ways they had to suffer or to rejoice, and she learned from a distance what happened to them when they grew up.
She followed their lives from a distance.
She took care of her daughter, she tried to save people from many illnesses, and she forgot about herself.
She learned to survive on her own, without a man, without help. She was proud of herself, and she expressed her pride in her way of speaking, everyday sharper.
She didn’t need anyone and she liked to ridicule with her words the men who looked too proud and contemptuous.
The passing of time changed her appearance, masking the beauty of her youth behind heavy features and a larger body. She wrapped herself in layers of clothes, with a thick band of cloth on her forehead to tie her long brown hair, grown without care.
She was really beginning to look like a witch, and she didn’t care.
The important thing was to avoid to be called like that too often. This was one of the reasons for living in the shadows, so she wouldn’t be noticed too much.
When she looked at herself in a mirror, she could only see a woman who was proud of her battles, won or lost.
People who really needed her knew how to find her.
Her daughter, now a young woman and a young bride, knew how to find her.
Marian arrived at the little collage galloping. Her knowledge of the territory, developed during the years she spent as the Nightwatchman, took her there without doubts or hesitation.
Marian was proud of this.
Even if her father was scared, she was proud of the woman she had become.
There was a lot in her that people didn’t know, they couldn’t even imagine who she really was.
It wasn’t dawn, yet, but Marian knocked on the door, hoping that Matilda, so abruptly awoken, wouldn’t be too ill-disposed.
The girl who knocked at the door was the daughter of the old Sheriff of Nottingham, a pretty girl who Matilda didn’t deliver.
The sheriff hadn’t trusted her, he had called a renowned physician for his beloved wife. And maybe this was the reason Marian was born and her mother departed from this world.
Seeing how upset Marian was, Matilda thought that the old Sheriff was sick, but the girl kept talking, confusedly, of a knight, of a horse, of serious wounds.
The only sure things, in her words, were her plead to come immediately to Knighton, and the leeches. Leeches used on a man who had supposedly been trampled by a horse.
If there was something that made Matilda mad, and that, at the same time, made her look with contempt at most of the other physicians and quacks in England, it was the horrible fondness they had for leeches. They used them for every kind of ailment, so, if their patients didn’t die for their sickness, the leeches would bleed them to death.
“Don’t say anything else, Lady Marian. I’ll take the wagon.”
At dawn, the two women arrived at Knighton.
Matilda entered the room, carrying a bag full of remedies and the instruments she needed. The man, her new patient, was in a terrible shape.
She went near him, and, with a disgusted expression on her face, she began removing the leeches from his injured body, with her bare hands.
“First of all, let’s get rid of these!”
Matilda glanced for a moment at the closed eyes of the man: he was a young man, with strong features, but with a pleasant, harmonic look. Pleasant for the eyes of a woman, at least. He had dark, thick, soft hair, ending in loose curls near his neck.
Matilda had the sensation she had already seen him in the past, and she turned to look at Marian and her father. Sir Edward was quiet and grim, and he looked at her with suspicion. Matilda noticed that he was worried to the point of terror.
“Who is this handsome knight? I can’t remember if I’ve seen him before. God bless him, he’s not the kind of man who can be easily forgotten!”
Sir Edward looked at her, amazed by her words, and he answered with utter contempt.
“This man is Guy of Gisborne, current lord of Locksley and Sheriff’s henchman. If he dies here, we’re all dead!”
Matilda noticed, on a chair, the black leather uniform of the man, and, on the floor, his black boots with shining spurs. She remembered him, now: the black knight on a black horse who spread terror and misery in the villages in the name of the Sheriff.
She looked at Sir Edward, angry and scared, and at Marian, who was leaning with her back on a wall, tired and fatigued, and maybe, Matilda suspected, scared for a different reason than her father’s.
Matilda looked at Sir Guy, disgusted.
“This black snake is more slimy, revolting and cruel than the leeches he had on his body! Let them bleed him to death! I won’t treat him!”
They tried to persuade her with many words, prayers and pleas, but at last Matilda accepted to take care of the man when she saw Marian crying. The girl couldn’t hold her tears anymore, and Matilda surrendered.
She rolled her sleeves, looked at the exhausted, unconscious knight, and at his clothes on the chair.
“Very well, but take away that horrible black stuff. Throw it away, burn it, I don’t care, but I don’t want to see it anymore,” she said to Marian and Edward, then she turned to stare at Guy. “And you, infamous Lucifer, let me see how strong you really are, if you really are a knight, fight as a knight can, or if you only dress like one. And when you wake up, don’t dare to smirk like you use to do when you oppress the poor, or I’ll gladly knock you down again with my own hands. And you can forget about collecting my taxes, next year.”
Matilda sighed, focused on her task, and she began to methodically clean the wounds on Guy’s head and bare shoulders with care, confidence, patience and precision. Marian watched her, worried.
Matilda lifted the sheet and looked under it, to look at the whole naked body of Guy. Marian, standing at the foot of the bed, couldn’t see it, but Matilda could.
She was an adult woman, a midwife, an expert healer, but the girl was still an innocent maiden.
Matilda reflected for a while, then she dropped the sheet, covering back the man’s body and she looked at the girl.
“Go, Marian, go and rest, now. I won’t hurt him, and I’ll try to do everything I can to save him. After all, I couldn’t injure him more than he already is. Please, ask your servant to find comfortable clothes for him, he will need them.”
Being unexpectedly dismissed, Marian could only thank the healer and go downstairs, in the hall.
She sat at the table, and buried her face in her hands.
“It’s all my fault,” she kept repeating to herself, until she fell asleep, exhausted, on that same table, her head resting on her arms.
Matilda looked at the man on the bed, as unconscious and still as if he was already dead. She was alone with him now, Sir Edward went downstairs with his daughter and the servants took the first chance to sit and rest in front of the kitchen fireplace, waiting to be of use.
Just a young maid, half asleep, was sitting outside Marian’s room, waiting for Matilda orders and ready to obey to her requests.
The healer saw that the girl was going to fall asleep, but she didn’t keep her awake: for now, she didn’t need her help and later, when she would, it would be better to have a rested helper rather than a sleepy one.
She removed the sheet that covered Guy of Gisborne’s naked body: the room was warm enough, so sheets and blanket weren’t really needed and Matilda guessed that they had been used more to protect Lady Marian’s innocent eyes than for the sake of the wounded man.
He was so bruised and injured that even the light touch of the sheet must have been painful for him. Matilda wondered if it was too late and if she could actually save him.
She looked at the knight: his chest was covered in purple bruises, and she gingerly touched his ribs. The man whimpered in his sleep, but he didn’t wake up. Matilda found many cracked ribs, and she thought that he was lucky that no one of them had punctured his lungs: for him, breathing was very painful, but he could still do it.
She had to find out if he had the same luck with the rest of his body: she could stitch wounds and fix broken bones, but if there was internal damage, only God could save him.
Matilda put a hand on his stomach and she smiled a little finding it soft and relaxed under her fingers, then she looked at the bed and at Guy’s discarded clothes, and she frowned.
She woke up the young maid and told her to call one of the guards who were with Sir Guy when the accident happened, and one of the servants who took care of him when they took him in that bed.
The girl ran downstairs, and came back after a moment, followed by a young soldier and Sebastian.
The two men looked nervous and uneasy, and Matilda wondered if they were afraid of her, if they thought she was a witch. But it didn’t matter, now.
“I have a few questions for you, try to remember every detail, it’s very important.” She looked at the guard. “After the accident happened, did Sir Guy threw up?”
“How did you know?” The guard said, amazed.
“It’s a common reaction after a serious injury, the shock and the pain can cause it. What I need to know if there was blood in it.”
“There was blood everywhere!”
“Try to remember, it’s very important. Did he threw up blood too, or was it normal sickness?”
The guard thought for a while.
“No, no blood, just puke.”
“Are you sure?”
The guard nodded, and Matilda relaxed a little, then she turned to Sebastian.
“The accident happened quite a long time ago, before sunset, right?”
The servant nodded.
“Yes, before sunset.”
“I checked his clothes and they are dry. Did he wet the bed after you took him here?”
Sebastian blinked in surprise.
“Are you asking if he pissed after the accident?”
“That’s exactly what I want to know.”
“He didn’t. Look: there’s blood on the sheets, he was bleeding a lot when they took him here, but they are not wet. Why is that so important?”
“If the hooves damaged his kidneys or his bladder, he’s as good as dead. I have to fix that broken leg and it will be extremely painful: if he’s going to die, I won’t torture him with unnecessary pain.”
The guard looked at her, worried.
“What are you going to do, now?”
“I’ll try to wake him a little and make him drink, until I’ll see if his kidneys stopped working or not, and if there is blood in it. If he isn’t damaged, we can hope he will live, and then I will need the help of both of you to fix his leg. Now you can go, rest while you can.”
The two men went downstairs, and Matilda sat for a moment on the chair at the side of the bed. She looked at the knight: he was so pale and frail, that she couldn’t believe he was the same person who obeyed every command of that steaming pile of crap who was the Sheriff of Nottingham.
She had lots and lots of new patients because of him: Vaisey made them starve taking all their money, he punished them with floggings and cutting hands and tongues, and he threw them out of their homes in the middle of the winter.
And that man, now lying in front of her, was the one who carried out those horrible orders, showing no mercy. The man who took Robin of Locksley’s house, when he had been outlawed.
Matilda thought for a moment that his sufferings were well deserved, but then Guy moaned in pain, and she felt ashamed for that thought.
He might be evil, but he was still a human being, and he was in a lot of pain.
She sighed, took a cup full of water, and went near the bed to wake him up.
Guy could still hear the sound of the hooves, hitting the ground all around his head, and he wished he could protect his face with his hands, but he couldn’t move.
He was lying on a bed, he realized, but he was too weak to open his eyes. There was pain in every inch of his body and he thought that he was dying. Or that he was already dead and in hell, tortured by hordes of demons.
He felt hot and cold at the same time and he wanted to wake up, but he couldn’t.
But he had to wake up. He needed to relieve himself, but his eyelids felt too heavy and he couldn’t open his eyes.
His mind wanted to drift into a deep sleep again, away from all that pain, but he couldn’t let himself to lose the little consciousness he had: if he did, he’d surely wet the bed, and he couldn’t let it happen.
His little sister’s face appeared in his mind, laughing at him.
“You’re twelve, Guy, but you’re still a baby.”
Somebody put an arm around his shoulders, and lifted him a little.
“Drink this,” a gentle voice ordered, but Guy kept his lips closed. The woman tried again. “Come on, you have to drink.”
“Can’t.” He managed to whisper, and Matilda looked at him: his eyes were open now and she was surprised to see how blue they were.
“Oh, you are awake, then. It’s a good sign, but I need you to drink.”
“Why? You lost a lot of blood, you should be thirsty.”
She saw him blush a little.
“I have to get up… I need to… Can’t wait much longer...”
Matilda looked at him, surprised. He was in a lot of pain, but he looked very worried at the thought he could wet the bed.
“You won’t get up for a very long time, I’m afraid, but I’ll help you with your needs. I’ll get a chamberpot, so you can relieve yourself and I can see if there’s blood.”
“You’re a woman...” Guy said, blushing even more, and Matilda laughed at seeing him so shy.
“I’m a healer. Now stop with this nonsense and let me help you. You will need all the help you can get, and you’ll have to put aside your pride for a while.”
Matilda smiled at the chamberpot: no blood.
For the first time, that day, she allowed herself to hope that her patient could survive.
She glanced at the knight: he didn’t stay awake for a long time, but at least she had been able to make him drink some water and a remedy for the pain.
She had splinted his broken wrist and bandaged all the other wounds, but she was worried for his leg. She couldn’t wait much longer before fixing it, or he would be a cripple for the rest of his life, but she knew that the pain would be excruciating and that no remedy could let him sleep during the ordeal.
Matilda went near the knight, and she put a hand on his forehead, caressing him with all the tenderness she could muster in her heart.
“This will be very, very painful, but it’s necessary, I’m sorry.”
Two guards and Sebastian, were waiting in a corner, looking at Guy of Gisborne with uneasiness, and Matilda called them with a nod.
“I’ll need your help, now. You must hold him still without hurting him. When I’ll fix his leg, he’ll be in pain, maybe he’ll try to fight, but he mustn’t move. You!” She looked at the young maid. “Go and call Sir Edward: he should be here while I do this because the knight might die, and I want him to see that I did everything I could. But don’t let Lady Marian to come here: this won’t be something suitable for the eyes of a girl.”
The maid obeyed, and, after a while, Sir Edward came, pale and upset.
“Will he live?”
“He might. But he will need a lot of care, and your servants must follow all my instructions.”
The old lord gave a weak sigh of relief: the other physician had said that there was nothing he could do to save Sir Guy, that he was going to die. Matilda at least gave them a hope.
Marian was sitting at the table of the hall, and she was asleep, with her head on her arms.
She woke up with a start, and looked around, scared.
Somebody was crying in pain, and she paled in recognizing Sir Guy’s voice. He was crying as if he was being tortured, and Marian tried to run upstairs to see what was happening to him, but one of the guards stopped her.
“I’m sorry, my lady, but the healer said that you shouldn’t enter that room, now.”
“What’s happening?” She asked, the tears welling in her eyes. “Is he dying?”
“The healer is fixing his leg. She said that it’s very painful.”
“That’s terrible! He’s crying so much!”
“Actually it’s a good thing. That woman said that she wouldn’t do this if she thought he was going to die, so maybe there’s hope.”
Marian nodded blankly.
She understood what the soldier meant, but to hear Sir Guy screaming like that was horrible.
It’s my fault. I did this to him.
She wanted to run, to go away from the house so she wasn’t forced to hear.
She couldn’t do it, of course.
Marian turned to go to the kitchen and see if she could do something useful: she could check if more hot water was needed, or she could wash dirty bandages, anything that could distract her from her guilt.
But the servants were tired and cross: no one of them was happy of all that extra work, and Marian understood that she was in their way.
She went back to the hall, wondering if she should try to get upstairs even if the guard had said that she shouldn’t enter her room.