The apparent calm of the night at Knighton Hall was torn by a cry of fear, of pain, the sound amplified by the natural silence of the house.
Marian stood up from her chair and she walked over to Guy.
She had learned, in those early days, that when Guy’s sleep was so restless, she had to speak as calmly as possible to him, to call his name before she could try to touch him, to avoid that he could accidentally hit and hurt her.
Marian's voice had become the first guide for Guy, helping him to tread through the fever and the remorse that dotted his difficult and painful sleep.
The remorse of a murderer, the girl thought.
But when she saw him suffering so much, she couldn’t refrain from helping him.
Maybe she did it for mercy, which can’t be denied to anyone.
She was taught that mercy shouldn’t be denied even to the most dirty and miserable of the human beings. And Guy was so stained by his own guilt, in her eyes.
Maybe she did it because she was feeling guilty too.
A moment without thinking, considering, the consequences, and she had committed a reckless act that nearly killed Guy, and that could still kill him.
Whatever the reason, mercy, remorse, or simple human compassion, Marian approached Guy, calling him by name, softly.
She couldn’t consider the possibility that she was, above everything else, worried about him.
Matilda had told her, seeing her in trouble during one of Guy’s first crises, that she shouldn’t consider him as a man in those moments, but like a wounded animal. She had to approach him very cautiously, quietly, showing him that she wasn’t afraid of him and that she wasn’t going to hurt him further. Eventually, though, Matilda told her to think of him like a lost child, who is consoled when he hears his mother's voice.
Marian had begun to call Guy when he was so agitated, talking to him calmly, to make him feel that she was with him, that he wasn’t alone in his nightmares, and that they would walk out of that scary place of his mind together.
Then Guy, lost in the middle of nowhere, in that dark place of his dreams, red with blood and burning with fire, began to calm down, slowing his nervous, violent, snappy movements, as if he could actually hear her voice.
She saw that Guy relied on her: the features of his face began to relax, his breathing was less frantic, and Marian could now take his hand without fear that, in his turmoil, he could hurt her.
Guy grabbed hard her hand, then his hold loosened, his eyes still closed. His face became sad and only then Marian rested Guy’s head on her bosom.
Marian had seen mothers of the villages holding their children like that, when they were crying for a fall, or a scare: they took them gently in their arms, speaking softly to them.
She had remembered that during the nights when Guy was delirious with fever and she didn’t know how to help him. Marian had begun to do the same with Guy, holding him in her arms while he was still wrapped in the final part of his nightmare.
She realized that this worked: Guy calmed down completely, his expression serene. His head didn’t seem so heavy, and she leaned her back, tense and tired, to the headboard of the bed.
Guy didn’t seem a wild, injured animal, or a frightened child anymore. In those moments he was only Guy, he was just a man. Who needed her, only her.
Marian trembled at the thought, and she was often tempted to get up, leave him there, run away and never return.
But his breathing was now quiet, his heartbeat slower, as if it was beating in unison with hers. And Marian stood there, holding him in her arms, not capable to leave him alone.
She too, then, felt calm. The world stood still around her, around them.
Everything, with Guy resting on her heart, made her relax and to drift into a quiet sleep too.
Falling asleep to the sound of Guy breathing had become, in a few days, a bad habit for her. He was her unwanted betrothed, her enemy, and the enemy of the kingdom. Yet, at that moment, Marian wanted nothing more than to see him resting quietly, and to drift into sleep herself, too.
It was strange, the feeling of having Guy's head on her chest. It was something she had never done, not even with Robin during their engagement.
A young noble woman, a well-educated girl, a good girl, will not allow such contact to her betrothed, she had been taught.
The gentle but firm distance was the key part of her education, as soon as she had become a girl. And she, instead, wanted to study the epic chivalry, the story of heroes, their deeds, business, battles and battle strategies.
She had been given a different type of education to become a true lady.
An education made of choices. But her choices had to be limited to the ability to combine colors, and knowing how to embroider, to recognize a good fabric and a honest supplier for her home and family.
And they especially taught her how to behave with men. She had learned how to keep the right distance between herself and men. Distance. The only element that would lead her safely, a respected maiden, to marriage.
She had learned to alternate firmness to smiles. Also towards Robin, the first who made her heart beat, her first, warm, cheerful love.
She had been sorry, when she was younger, that she couldn’t give him another kiss, another caress, that she could not embrace him. But they expected a gentle firmness from her, and Robin, young too, and playful by nature, seemed to enjoy that cheerful courtship game, that was spontaneous and natural for two people who had grown up so close, despite the times when she had to put a limit to his exuberance.
It was all natural and intended, their falling in love. Their families smiled at them in approval, they met in planned occasions and also in unscheduled occasions, sought out by Robin to see her in secret, but in the end, under the consenting eyes of everybody.
They met at Knighton, and at Nottingham Castle, where Marian had moved when her father, who had been in his youth a skilled, strong, brave knight, had been assigned the role of the County Sheriff.
Even there, the young Robin came to her to steal a caress on her face, a kiss, hiding between the columns of the inner courtyard of the castle. For this reason also, Robin seemed to know every means to enter and leave the castle, undisturbed. He had learned to know it so well when he wooed her.
The war was far away, in the Holy Land. Marian didn’t hear and didn’t see how it was a burden for people.
She hadn’t known someone dear who departed for that sacred and far away place and never returned.
She smiled at the young Robin, stopping his hands if he grew bolder, and she walked away from him, allowing him to look at her one last time, before disappearing into the corridors of Nottingham Castle.
Then it came the order to raise taxes, to help soldiers and the King in the Holy Land, because the war was hard and difficult, and it could be lost. And Marian saw her father raise taxes, losing his smile at the same time. He wouldn’t found it anymore.
Edward was burdened by the weight of his office. The war began to be a weight for Nottingham. Then Robin had changed: he began to speak of the duties coming from his rank, saying that he became an adult and had responsibilities towards the king. He hadn’t been able to promise his return, and before long he had left her.
He was gone, to the Holy Land, for the King.
She had suffered for his absence and for the malicious and compassionate glances of the people.
And yet, young as she was, her pain seemed to her the only problem in the world.
Other young men tried to approach her. She rejected them with firmness, without a smile.
Lord Vaisey had arrived, and Guy with him, and Marian and her father found themselves out of the castle, instantly.
The suitors didn’t come for her anymore, but that didn’t bother her. It was a relief.
Her concern was for her father, she had always considered him strong, just, wise, like a rock.
After he had lost his job, the other noble families kept a respectful and courteous distance from him, and, during those years, he had become fragile, indecisive, resentful, fearful, unable to oppose anything and anyone.
Once she had left the castle and returned between her own people, she had become aware of their suffering. The people had become poorer, then many of them had begun to suffer from hunger or diseases that they could no longer afford to cure.
This had deeply impressed her, and it had given her a reason, a purpose for her life.
She wouldn’t wait for another knight, for a nice, handsome, bold young nobleman who could replace Robin and bring her to the altar.
She had decided to act.
The more her father seemed to withdraw into himself, to give up politics and retire to the seemingly quiet and rural life of Knighton, the more she had begun to act for the good of the community, to heal the damage that the Sheriff and Guy had done.
She distributed just food, and some coin from her worthless dowry, from house to house. But she did it in secret, wearing a mask, and she learned to fight and to defend herself.
She learned to be a bold knight herself.
She liked that idea: it defined her as a person, and above all, it made her smile.
In those dark years, illuminated only by her work as the Nightwatchman, nobody came as a suitor, and Marian was often at her father’s side on public occasions where the presence of Sir Edward was required, in the place that would have been of her mother if she were alive.
She had to be present at his side dressed in her best clothes. It could be a religious celebration, a party, a meeting of the council, a public proclamation, or a hanging.
On all those occasions, Marian had felt Guy's eyes on her.
The man was dark, older than her, always dressed in black leather, his appearance proud, solemn and deadly. They said, about him, the most horrible things, and they probably were all true.
He watched her, always, constantly. He stared at her, followed her. His gaze didn’t leave her for a moment.
Marian thought that his stare was a form of fierce hostility towards the family that she represented. Nothing else.
Then he began to approach her father on public occasions, to speak with him privately, and she couldn’t hear them talking. She had then seen Gisborne confabulating with the hated sheriff, as they were plotting something about her.
She hadn’t realized that Guy was asking to them both, the permission to approach her, the permission to woo her.
She noticed it a little at a time, when she saw Guy moving away from the Sheriff and coming to her, offering his arm to lead her to the other side of the hall during a party, or to invite her to dance, his offer always declined, or to ask if she had eaten enough, or if the party was of her liking.
In the beginning, Guy had appeared demanding, direct, confident in front of the important men of Nottingham, and she had resumed her gentle and firm distance she had once used with Robin, in the same way one could wear gloves again when winter returns.
Guy instead took his gloves off when he tried a contact, even just a slight touch with his hand.
But he did no more than that, and Marian had thought that it was nothing more than a public display of his heightened status , and that he acted in the same way with who knows how many other noble girls of the Kingdom.
People also said other things about him, between Nottingham corridors.
They said that some maid had stayed in his room a minute too much, and that she had found herself in bed with him.
It was said of Guy that he was powerful and demanding even in bed. Maybe even violent.
Especially it was said that he was very passionate.
One of those girls, one of those who had met him several times, got pregnant, had his son and he had abandoned him. Marian and Robin had saved him.
Marian had shrugged, thinking about the "powerful and passionate" Guy, who was forced to compel a maid to indulge him because he could not honestly find a companion of his same lineage. She thought that he didn’t behave like a knight. He had been a coward.
She couldn’t imagine that, as soon as Guy entered in Locksley as the master, his only thought and goal would be her, that he would begin to show up at her home to offer that unwanted and dangerous friendship, full of demands and gifts.
It was the prelude to the true and proper courtship, awkward on his behalf and even more unwanted by Marian.
But in all this time, Guy had kept looking at her in the same dark and continued manner, and Marian had understood, in fear, that perhaps that was a sign of passion in him.
She feared that he just wanted to own her. And she knew that his passion was meant for her alone.
She only had a few weapons left, and a very little time to escape from it, or to enjoy her freedom and her youth.
Guy had insisted, stressing the fragility and the social precariousness of her family. Marian had begun to falter. And the return of Robin had not been enough to change things for the better.
Perhaps he had even worsened the situation. Guy began a silent, continuous, relentless siege to her house, to her life, to her.
She had fought, but she had to succumb to his blackmail, trapped by him, and she found herself betrothed to Guy.
Robin was not in a position to help her, and perhaps he wouldn’t even want to marry her, Marian wasn’t certain about this. Robin seemed to be unhappy for her, he wanted to help her, but he couldn’t.
And now she was living in a delicate, precarious balance. Her house was the last bastion that protected and reassured her before Guy, with his arrogance and his dark passion, could put an end to her youth, to her fierce freedom, and to her hidden independence.
The only alternative was to take the veil as a nun, and Marian didn’t want to get away from Guy and then simply shut herself in another type of prison. She didn’t want to stop being herself and being oppressed by an even higher power.
With Guy suddenly at her home with his visible pain, injured for her fault, Marian had to put her life on hold, and not only her life, even that same unwanted betrothal, because Guy now could die.
But even more, with Guy wounded in her house, Marian had to put aside every habit she had, every usual and proper behavior prescribed by society, by social conventions.
Her house was in a storm too. It was beyond conventions. Continuously.
Everything revolved around Guy, in those days.
All revolved around Guy, his moments of calm, and his moments of agitation, his moments of intense pain; Matilda and her concoctions and her maneuvers; the servants of Knighton, obviously not happy about having to serve a man so despised and contemptible; Guy’s guards; her father, always agitated, always accusing her of the situation; and, above all, herself.
She revolved around Guy after that he, for months, perhaps for years, had turned around her.
Now she was constantly concerned to heal his wounds, constantly worried that he lacked nothing.
That nothing was being spared, despite her father's concern for money. She worried for him, doing everything she could to avoid he could die.
Guy always asked for her, in delirium and in the few moments when he was half awake. He just wanted her desperately, asked about her, even when she wasn’t there, despite the entire small world that revolved around him.
She felt guilty. In the worst moments she was nervous and rude in her manners. The father began to scold her even when she was away too long from the Guy’s bedside.
Sir Edward welcomed her with harsh words.
"He asked about you, where were you?"
And she felt even more trapped and guilty.
In those days, in those nights, Guy, in pain or fear, had just called her, he only wanted Marian.
A few other times, when the pain was too strong, he had heard him calling his mother. In those moments, when he relied on the help of his dead mother, Guy really seemed a child to Marian’s eyes.
His voice changed, and it really seemed that of a frightened child. And Marian, seeing him so vulnerable, felt a deep emotion.
She thought that death had to be like that: a child’s invocation to go back forever in the warm arms of his mother.
Marian had understood, in the long hours next to him, that it wasn’t only the fever and physical pain to make him restless, relentless, but also a pain of the soul.
A pain that was born and grown from all the evil that Guy had perpetrated for year as a servant, aware and willing, of Vaisey.
Yet Marian had tried to get away from Guy to take some time to breathe, even in those early days, after the incident, but she returned to him feeling even more miserable.
In one of those moments, Marian saw Robin, who came back to have a look at the situation.
Their meeting had started badly and ended worse.
Robin had done nothing wrong, and she had acted on impulse, responding angrily to the umpteenth time he interrupted her.
"He must find your bed very comfortable, to stay there so much," Robin said, and she snapped at him, with angry words. Robin realized that he had exaggerated and tried to hug Marian to comfort her, but she immediately stepped back from his arms.
To make things worse, she had wriggled herself out of his arms dramatically.
She had seen the disappointment in Robin’s eyes, who went away silently.
But Marian had neither time nor the heart to stop him. She felt that her fate was now linked to Guy, if he lived or died.
Robin couldn’t do anything to help her. In his dangerous situation, anything he could try would expose himself, Marian, and her father to a dreadful fate. If they ran away, maybe with the help of Robin, abandoning Guy to his fate, they would be held guilty of his death, condemned and sought for it.
Perhaps there would be consequences on the poor people of their fiefdom too.
If Guy died despite they gave him every possible care, even without running away, however, they would be considered guilty all the same.
There would be an investigation and there was a concrete risk that they would discover the identity of the Nightwatchman.
Vaisey would happily put the noose around her neck with his own hands, just to be sure to see her die, and then he’d enjoy the show.
At the sound of the trumpets and fanfare.
If Guy survived, Marian would have to marry a man who had really done terrible things, more than she had seen or feared, or heard talking about.
But in his delirium he had asked for her help, so that she could help him to redeem himself.
She had seen him suffering because of his own faults.
Marian felt powerless in front of the fear that Guy expressed in his nightmares.
She felt helpless remembering the seriousness of what he had said to her in his heartfelt confession.
And she clung with all her might, to this thought, to this little, big, hope.
She began to pray to God for him. To pray that he could live. She would have never thought to do this for him.
At dawn, Matilda entered the room. She saw this girl, considered by many good and kind, and by many others just proud and defiant, sound asleep.
She kept softly, her hand through his hair, the head of the Dark Knight, who everyone considered scary and lost.
He held his hands around her waist, and all his body seemed to reach for her. She did the same, only with more sweetness.
Neither of them would let the other go, dressed in white as angels fallen from the sky to the world, exhausted as soldiers at the end of a long and fierce battle.
To Matilda they just looked like a man and a woman who desperately needed each other.
She had seen them, and understood. She recognized, in that scene, something that once she had had, and lost. She recognized love in them.
Matilda smiled, watching them: there was hope, and not just that Guy lived.
She didn’t want anyone else to see them like that: she closed the door firmly behind her, and, softly, she woke Marian, before any servant could see them so inconveniently, gently, embraced.