Marian was about to walk upstairs, when a loud sound of galloping horses caught her attention.
She ran at the window to look outside: between the dust kicked up by the horses, she could clearly recognize six of the Sheriff’s guards, the hawks and the colors of Vaisey’s coat of arms.
When they got nearer, Marian could see the resolute and grim expression of the Sheriff of Nottingham: he was shorter, less strong and only apparently less menacing than his black armored guardian angels.
Sir Edward’s message to the Sheriff, sent with one of Gisborne’s guards, surely arrived to destination, but it couldn’t postpone the inevitable: Lord Vaisey decided to come and see with his eyes the conditions of his henchman.
Marian hoped that her father, hearing the horses, would join her in the hall to meet him together.
Since that treacherous and dangerous man had arrived in Nottingham, Vaisey had never come to Knighton before.
He never needed to go there because, when he took her father’s place, exiling him and Marian in Knighton, Vaisey put their house under surveillance.
Around the house she could see, almost every day and night, at least two dark shadows that resembled, in their appearance and movements, Vasey’s personal guards.
Even if he had the seal of Prince John and the authority to be Sheriff of the County of Nottingham, probably Vaisey was afraid that Edward could have powerful allies between the other nobles, or that he could plot to take back his place as Sheriff.
Or maybe the spies sent to keep an eye on their house had the simple, but effective purpose to remind to her father that he should avoid losing his time trying to plot against the Sheriff. Their presence was unobtrusive, but constant and evident, quite a threat.
Since Robin came back, their surveillance had became less strict.
In a first time, Marian had thought that it was thanks to her former betrothed, now outlaw, but eventually she arrived to a less exciting, but more realistic conclusion: her house and her life weren’t under surveillance anymore, directly at least, since Sir Guy began visiting her house, always more often.
Maybe it had been Sir Guy who ordered to give up the surveillance? Or maybe Lord Vaisey had thought that the frequent visits of Gisborne were an adequate deterrent to every attempt of rebellion from Sir Edward?
Marian had a strong sensation that if Vaisey could save the money needed to pay his spies and instead use the free inclination of Sir Guy to woo her, he’d surely choose the cheaper option.
In any case, the Sheriff was dismounting, or more exactly he was using one of his guards to dismount, stepping on the back of the man who was on all fours near the Sheriff’s horse.
Marian took a deep breath and she smoothed her dress with the hands, preparing herself to welcome the hateful little man in her house.
The door was opened all of a sudden, two guards entered, rudely, looked around like mastiffs, and stood at the sides of the door, letting the Sheriff inside.
Vaisey was wearing black clothes, like Guy, but the Sheriff’s clothes were made of richer fabric, decorated and embroidered with a fine and precious gold thread, black velvet damask, and fur of the same color. Those clothes suggested a dark and opulent refinement, peculiar in a man otherwise busy in plotting, starving the populace and making the executions of outlaws the main entertainment of the County.
He seemed to enjoy a lot those hangings, and he used them as a privileged stage for his cruel and gruesome witty remarks.
He was the main actor of the scene and the others, those poor condemned men, the desperate extras of his show. A dark one-man-show, daily, in Nottingham.
Marian hid the fear and the rage she felt for the man standing in front of her with the deportment and the movements of the noblewoman education she received since her birth, and she formally curtseyed to the Sheriff.
“Lord Vaisey, to what do I owe the honor of your visit? We weren’t waiting for you, I’m afraid we won’t be able to welcome you with all the honors due to your rank.”
Vaisey looked at the girl with a falsely bored glance, but he was actually trained to notice every detail and shade of other people’s language, so he could use their words to his advantage, or belittle or mock the other person for his own personal fun.
“Lady Marian,” he said “what did you want? Did you want me to take my personal fanfare with me to announce my arrival? I can make up for this!” He took a hand to his mouth like a trumpet and he sang the tune of the castle’s fanfare. “Well, now I announced myself and you, milady, are properly warned. Enough with the ceremonies, now. Where is Gisborne?”
“My lord, you didn’t need to trouble yourself coming here,” the girl quietly answered “my father sent you a message with one of Sir Guy’s guards to inform you that he was here and about his extremely poor health. We are taking care of him in the best way we can, and we were going to warn you immediately as soon as Sir Guy wakes up, I assure you.”
Vaisey smiled in his unpleasant way.
“Lady Marian, do you think that I’m worried about the competence of your family of taking care of Gisborne? That I couldn’t sleep at night because of his absence? A clue: no. It’s sure that you will look after him. He has been injured here. Your responsibility. And you’ll pay all the expense, the County won’t lose a penny for this. Not half a penny. So, where is the moribund? Let’s go and see how near to death is Guy of Gisborne, so, if he really is very near to death, I could make it faster. But you will still have to pay for the burial. I need him alive and standing, I have no use for him otherwise.”
“But, my lord...” Marian was beginning to be troubled by his confidence and complete indifference for the fate of his henchman, and worried because he was giving all the responsibility of the accident to her family. Maybe her father was right to be afraid. “Sir Guy didn’t wake up, yet...”
A loud cry of pain came from upstairs, followed by a sequence of short, weaker moans that suggested that the person who uttered them was suffering a lot, but was certainly alive.
“Well, when he moans he surely has a higher tone than his usual low monotone murmur. At least what is saying now is very clear and more useful of what he says when he works for me at the castle. He sounds quite alive. Very alive, indeed. He could still be useful. So, will you show me the way or will I find him on my own?”
He headed for the stairs, and Marian hurried to show him the way, flushed with embarrassment.
Entering the room, the Sheriff saw his henchman lying in bed, extremely pale and with his face beaded with sweat. An unpleasant woman, plump and dressed in miserable rags, was holding, turning, pulling and moving his leg with confident gestures.
Gisborne cried in agony.
“Gisborne! Stop mewling like a girl! Get up and go back to the castle!”
The black knight turned his head for a moment, to search with his eyes the person who called his name, then he passed out, exhausted.
Vaisey didn’t even try to hide his rage, and he turned towards Sir Edward, who was standing near the bed.
“Put him back on his feet. Immediately. At your expense. I won’t pay a witch like that one. And be careful, Sir Edward, I want him exactly as he was before: two legs, two arms, nothing more, nothing less. If you fail, don’t send me a messenger, just pay for the burial,” he said, and he went out of the room, covering his nose and mouth with a hand, as if he had breathed unhealthy air that could damage him too.
When he arrived downstairs, he turned to look at Marian who, pale after witnessing that scene, was going down the stairs after him, and she talked to her in a casually ironic tone.
“By the way, Marian, why there was a long red dress hanging in the wardrobe? And those little flowers in a pot? Did you place your gravely ill betrothed in the room of a maidservant?”
Marian was about to answer, but Vaisey kept talking.
“Oh, I see now… You already put your betrothed in your bed. I knew that your prolonged maidenhood could affect your reason. I don’t think that Sir Guy could help you with your frustration now, but hope never dies. Well, almost never. Too bad, you’d have been tolerable in a wedding dress. But not handsome enough to tempt me.”
Vaisey laughed out loud for his own remark, he walked faster with his short legs, like a trotting pony, and he grinned as if he had satisfactorily closed an annoying problem.
“Don’t bother accompanying me at the door, Lady Marian, I already know the way.” He called the guards with a nod, and they went outside before him, then the Sheriff of Nottingham went away.
Marian thought that the house was too silent now: the sheriff went away, Guy wasn’t crying anymore, and most of the servants went to bed to make up for the sleep they lost that night. Her father was standing in front of the fireplace of the hall, his arms crossed in front of him, his face grim.
Sir Edward turned to look at her.
“You’ll be happy now. Lord Vaisey said that we’ll have to take care of Sir Guy, that we must pay for all the necessary expenses, and I suspect that he will ask for a reimbursement because the accident happened here.”
“It’s not your fault if he crossed the road without looking!”
“No, it’s your fault. The Nightwatchman shouldn’t have been there. We will pay for all the cares he will need, of course, but remember that we aren’t rich anymore, Marian. We must be careful now.”
“Surely Sir Guy doesn’t wish to ruin his future wife.”
“If he lives. I was there when Matilda fixed his leg, and I thought that he was going to die, that his heart couldn’t be strong enough for all that pain.”
“How is he now? He isn’t screaming anymore.”
“He passed out after a while. Matilda is still with him.”
“Lady Marian, Sir Edward.” The voice of the healer startled them and they both looked at the woman who was coming down the stairs.
“Will he live?” Asked Sir Edward, worried.
“He might, if he’s strong enough and if there are no complications. But it won’t be easy for him.”
Marian glanced at her, and for once in her life, she felt shy. She knew that Sir Guy’s current situation was her fault and she felt guilty.
She didn’t like him, sometimes she hated him, but she never wished for him to be so badly injured, and she was really sorry for him.
“What do we have to do now?” Sir Edward asked.
“I took the liberty to give instructions to your servants, so they know how to take care of his needs, but he’ll need more than the simple help of servants.”
“What do you mean?” Marian asked, frowning.
“He’s unconscious now, but he won’t stay asleep for a long time. He has broken ribs, his wrist is broken too, and his leg is in a very poor state. I did my best to fix it, but even if it heals, he could walk with a limp. We can’t know for sure until he’s better, but that’s not the point. He will be in a lot of pain, and my remedies can’t help very much, for now. But you can,” Matilda concluded, pointing at Marian.
Marian looked at her, surprised.
“He’s your betrothed, isn’t it? Does he love you?”
“He says he does.”
“Then you can help. Sit near his bed quietly, let him know that you are there, but don’t talk too much, he needs rest. Listen if he wants to talk, offer him words of comfort if he looks scared, hold his hand when the pain will become too strong. Do you think you can do it?”
Marian didn’t want to do it. Guy of Gisborne wasn’t the man she loved, he wasn’t even her friend, how could she hold his hand? How could she be kind to the man who wanted to force her to marry him?
But he was suffering, almost dying, because of her actions, and she blushed, in shame.
“Yes, I will.”
Marian took a deep breath before entering her room. It was strange, that room had always been a safe haven, a place where nothing bad could happen to her, but now Sir Guy had invaded it, for the second time in a few days.
The first time he had been angry and dangerous, he accused her of betraying his trust, and he menaced to hang both her and her father.
She hated him, she had wanted to make him pay for hitting her father and she enjoyed his confusion when she gave him back the necklace that caused all those troubles to her.
Gisborne said that she had to proof her loyalty to the sheriff, and the only way to do it, was marrying him. She had been forced to accept and she hated him even more for that.
The only good thing she could say about Sir Guy, was that he looked really concerned for her safety, and ashamed for accusing her of consorting with the outlaws.
He had been right, of course, but he believed he was wrong, and he was ready to apologize to her and to her father, swallowing his pride.
Now he didn’t look dangerous at all: he was lying in her bed, pale and frail, and he had dark shadows under his closed eyes. At a first glance, Marian thought that he was perfectly still, but looking at him, she understood that he was trembling, in pain.
Marian sat in the chair near the bed, and Guy opened his eyes for a moment, then he shut them again.
Marian looked at him, and she thought that it was the first time that she saw him wearing something other than black leather. He was wearing one of her father’s nightgowns, clearly too short for him, and its white fabric made him look different, almost innocent, like a sleeping child.
His right leg was splintered and trapped in tight bandages, and it was lifted on a pillow. Marian could see that the bandages were soaked in some herbal remedy, probably to help with the pain and the swelling.
“You shouldn’t see me like this.” Guy’s voice startled her. It was little more than a whisper and it trembled with pain.
Marian didn’t know what she could answer, so she didn’t.
Guy talked again after a while.
“I think I’m dying...”
His voice was so helpless and lost, that Marian felt sincerely sorry for him. Instinctively, she took his hand: his skin was cold and clammy, and for a moment she was afraid he could be right.
“No, you won’t. I won’t let you,” she whispered, and Guy opened his eyes to look at her.
Marian shuddered. He shouldn’t thank her, it was her fault if he was suffering so much! She wanted to cry, to tell him that she was sorry and confess her faults, but she couldn’t risk her father’s life revealing the secret of the Nightwatchman.
She gently caressed his hand.
“Matilda said that you need to rest.”
Guy closed his eyes again, and Marian was glad of it. She could see pain and fear in them, and seeing the always powerful Guy of Gisborne so weak and scared was unsettling.
They stood in silence for a while, and Marian kept holding Guy’s hand. She could feel it trembling and tensing between her fingers and she knew that every little movement was the reflection of a sharp pang of pain.
She wished she could do something to ease his sufferings, but Matilda had said that she could only be there and comfort him with her presence.
He had been still for some time, and Marian was beginning to think he had fallen asleep, when Guy talked, in a hoarse whisper.
“Demons are clawing at me.”
Marian squeezed his hand a little.
“There are no demons, Sir Guy. You’ve been trampled by a horse.”
“No. This is a punishment for my crimes.”
Marian looked at him, and she wondered if she should call Matilda. Guy was staring blankly at the ceiling, and his words sounded incoherent, as if he was having some sort of nightmare or delirium.
“Marian!” He called, and his voice was almost panicked. The girl kept holding his hand.
“I’m here, Sir Guy.”
“You shouldn’t see me like this, but please, don’t leave me alone,” he pleaded. “You are the only light in the darkness, my only hope of being saved. Your pure soul will wash away my sins.”
“If you sinned, you should ask forgiveness to God. Do you want me to call a priest?”
Guy’s hand tightened his hold on hers, and Marian was surprised to feel that there was still some strength in him. It was as if he was clinging to her to be saved, somehow.
“No, no, I can’t reveal my secret to anyone. I can trust no one. Just you.”
You shouldn’t trust me, Sir Guy. I’ve never been sincere with you. You think I’m a pure, perfect maiden, when I’m the Nightwatchman, your enemy.
She was about to say something to try to soothe him, when Guy looked straight at her.
“I tried to kill the king,” he said, in a horrified whisper.
“What?!” She blurted, then she thought that he must be raving. “Sir Guy, I think you got a fever. I should call Matilda.”
“It’s the truth, Marian. Let me tell my secret to you, and your innocence will clean my soul. If I die, I’ll go to hell, I know. Only you can save me.”
“The king is in the Holy Land, Sir Guy. You’ve always been here, you can’t have done what you said. It’s just a nightmare, be quiet and rest, now.”
Guy shook his head.
“No, no. I wasn’t here. The sheriff told everyone I was sick, that I had to be quarantined, but it wasn’t true. He sent me to the Holy Land to try and kill the king.”
Marian remembered that he had been sick for many weeks and no one was allowed to see him, and she wondered if what Gisborne had just said could be true. If it was, it was a very dangerous secret: the sheriff would kill anyone who knew it, without any doubt.
“Hush now, Sir Guy, try to sleep.”
“I can’t. I must tell you everything. All my heinous crimes.”
Gisborne began describing to her all the horrible things he did, obeying the sheriff’s orders, all the tongues he ordered to cut, the peasants who were flogged or hanged or who had their hands cut just because they stole food for their families.
The girl wanted to go away, to let his hand go and run as far as possible, but she knew she couldn’t.
Gisborne committed horrible actions, but the real evil was the sheriff, he was the one who gave the orders. Sir Guy looked like a strong and powerful knight, but in that moment Marian realized that he actually lacked the strength to oppose the unjust orders of the sheriff.
Probably he didn’t really want to kill and oppress people, but he did because the sheriff told him to do so. He wasn’t all bad, but he wasn’t good either.
She found herself hating and pitying him at the same time.
Guy kept talking about his attempt on the life of the king, and this time Marian believed him. He described the travel to the Holy Land in every detail, and then the attack to the King’s camp, dressed as a saracen. Marian shuddered when Guy said that he stabbed Robin of Locksley, and for a moment she was tempted to say that it was true, that he deserved to suffer like that and that it was the punishment for his evil deeds.
She pursed her lips to keep quiet, and mentally sighed.
It wasn’t true.
No one deserved to suffer so much, not even an enemy and a traitor.
Guy kept talking for a while, and Marian wondered where he could find the strength to do so when he was so weak and exhausted.
“Don’t let me slip into hell, Marian, save my soul.”
After this, Gisborne seemed to fall in a sort of feverish sleep, and Marian decided to call Matilda.
The healer came yawning and she checked her patient.
“A fever was to be expected, but it’s a good thing if he can sleep for a while. He’s no worse than I thought. Did he say something?”
“Just nonsensical ramblings.”
“Well, please go out of the room for a while and let me care for his wounds. Then, if you aren’t too tired, come back, please, I think your presence is good for him. You could embroider, or take a nap on that chair, just stay there where he can see you if he wakes up.”
“I could sew a nightgown for him. My father’s ones are too short and tight.”
Matilda smiled at her.
“Good idea! He’ll have to stay in bed for a very long time, he’ll need comfortable clothes. I’m sure that he’ll be glad to wear something made by the woman he loves. Now go, I’ll call you in a short while.”