“You all knew and nobody said a word to me.” Guy talked without looking up, as if the floor boards were so interesting that he couldn’t bear to look away from them. “What else are you hiding from me? I trusted you! But maybe the sheriff was right: trusting people is a weakness...”
“Well, my boy, don’t be an idiot, now. I understand how you feel, but you shouldn’t follow the advice of someone who betrayed you like that.”
“Like what? Like everyone else do?! You all lied to me!”
Matilda gently squeezed his hand.
“Did you ever stop to ask yourself why people are so afraid to tell you the truth?”
Guy lifted his eyes from the floor to look at her.
“Yes, love. Afraid. People fear you, they see what you did in the past and of course they wouldn’t tell you anything that could enrage you.”
“I wouldn’t hurt Marian. If she told me that she was the Nightwatchman...”
“Then what? What would have you done if you knew? Would have you defied the sheriff for her?”
“Maybe I would have!”
“How could she know? You were always punishing outlaws, cutting their hands and their tongues, and you often said that you wanted to capture the Nightwatchman to hang him. How could she trust you?!”
Guy couldn’t find an answer, so he didn’t say anything.
Matilda patted him on the cheek.
“There’s another thing you must consider, my dear: maybe, if she were alone, she could have told you the truth, but she has her father to protect. If you decided to arrest her, Sir Edward would be finished too, and Marian can decide to risk her own life, but not her father’s. You were a danger to both of them, you can’t deny it. You still are.”
“No, I’m not. I’m not a danger to anyone, now. The mangy dog who made me fall from my horse is more a threat than me.”
The woman laughed.
“Well, at least you are prettier than that old mutt!” She said, drawing a little smile from him. “Or at least you will be if you let me comb you hair, you’re all ruffled, now.”
She didn’t wait for him to answer, but she grabbed a brush and began stroking Guy’s dark curls. Gisborne didn’t even try to complain, needing her affectionate cares too much to send her away.
Instead, he closed his eyes, relaxing a little under her touch.
“You knew, too.” His voice wasn’t angry anymore, just very sad. “You treated my wounds, you knew how painful they were, yet you always knew who caused them and you never told me...”
Matilda stopped the brush for a moment, and bent to kiss the top of his head.
“It wasn’t my secret to say, and then, what good could have been for you to know? You’d just be hurt and heartbroken, like you are now, but then it could have made a difference between life and death. I never wished for you to suffer, love, I swear.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“You will. In time. Your heart will tell you.”
“I can’t trust my heart.”
“Oh, I’m sure you can, sweetie. You just have to get used to having one. Till then, I think that I can give you a few suggestions.”
“What kind of suggestions?”
“I will give you three simple rules. First: never act on the rush of your emotions, and especially of your rage. Wait, think, try to understand the others. Second: learn to forgive, especially if you hope to be forgiven in your turn. No, don’t deny that: you have much to be forgiven for. If Marian knows your secret, and I think she does, she has your life in her hands.”
Guy looked at her, fearful and angered at the same time.
“She told you! How could she?! I warned her that she shouldn’t talk about it or we’d both risk our lives!”
Matilda rolled her eyes.
“No, idiot, you told me. When you are feverish, you talk in your sleep. That’s one of the reasons that made her to watch on your sleep personally: we couldn’t trust the servants to hear your ramblings, even if they were willing to take care of you, and they weren’t.”
Guy blushed, dumbfounded.
“Yes. Oh. You’re lucky that nobody else knows about it. It would be the end of you. But you can relax: I won’t tell anyone, and I don’t think that Marian will, either.”
Gisborne let out a sigh, crestfallen and embarrassed.
“So, what’s the third rule?”
Matilda smiled at him, and placed a hand on his chest.
“Third: trust this, listen to your heart. You might think that yours is black, or that you don’t have one, but it isn’t true. You are a decent person when you don’t listen to that filthy donkey ass of the Sheriff. You can be a good man, you just have to believe in yourself and choose to be free.”
Matilda stood up abruptly, and Guy stared at her, worried. He was afraid that she could go away.
It would have been perfectly normal if she did, she had many patients to visit, but Gisborne didn’t want to be left alone with his thoughts.
His leg was paining him, but the worst thing about that pain, the one that Matilda’s remedy couldn’t ease, was the knowledge that Marian caused it.
If he was going to be a cripple, it was her fault. The woman who he loved so desperately was also the same person who ruined his life.
“Were are you going?!” He burst out, and Matilda gave him a questioning look. Guy averted his eyes, suddenly shy.
“Please stay,” he pleaded, in a subdued tone, and the woman was moved by his dejected demeanor.
“I’m not going anywhere, love. You’re such a fool that if I leave you alone tonight, tomorrow I’d surely find you sick or injured or who knows what. No, darling, I’m going to keep an eye on you until I’ll be sure that you can be trusted to be left alone. I was just going to relieve myself… so, can I leave you for a little while or do you prefer me to borrow your chamberpot?”
“Oh. Sorry. Go, of course you can go.”
Matilda went out of the room, and Guy buried the face in his hands, upset and exhausted.
He still couldn’t believe that his enemy, the person who almost killed him, was actually Marian.
How could he forgive her?
And how could he not?
He touched his leg and he felt a jolt of pain, immediately.
I should hate her for this...
He remembered the taste of her lips, the warmth of her body in his arms.
But I can’t stop being madly in love with her.
Guy closed his eyes, wishing that he could just lie down and sleep until he could wake up finding some peace in his heart and in his mind. But he knew that sleep wouldn’t come, that he’d just lie awake thinking of Marian.
Matilda came back with a tray of food, and she placed it on the table.
“Come on, get up and come here. I’m hungry and you need to eat too.”
“I don’t think I can.”
“You can, and you must. I didn’t work so hard to save your life just to see you wasting away. Keep healthy and then we can try to fix everything else. If you just want to mope, tell me and I’ll go home, so that I don’t see you throwing your life away.”
Guy sighed and he made an effort to hobble to the table and sit down in front of Matilda.
The woman smiled.
“Stop calling me that! It sounds like you’re talking to a dog.”
“There’s nothing wrong in dogs. Sometimes they’re more sensible than human beings.”
Guy gave her a half-hearted glare, and he took a slice of bread. He found out that he could eat, after all, and that it made him feel a little better.
At least, if he focused on his meal, he could set his other thoughts aside for a while.
He was grateful to Matilda, her presence was comforting and stopped him from surrendering to despair.
Guy realized all of a sudden that it was a very long time since he trusted someone as much as he did with Matilda. Since he was a boy and he confided his little worries and fears to his mother.
“What’s up, love?”
Guy looked at Matilda, a little startled by her question.
“You were lost in your thoughts. You looked sad.”
“I was remembering my mother. I wish I could talk to her.”
Matilda was surprised to hear his words, it was as if the shock of finding out the truth about the Nightwatchman had crushed all the walls he had built around his heart, and now it was lying there, completely exposed and defenseless. Frail.
“You can, love. In your heart. She’s there and she’ll always be.”
Gisborne gave her a sad smile.
“I know. But now I’d really need a sensible advice, and I feel too confused to find it in my heart.”
“She was a wise woman.”
“Did you know her?”
“Not really, but I remember her. I was young when your family came to live here and I never came to your house because your mother was taking good care of her children, so a healer wasn’t needed. I remember that people didn’t trust her because she came from France, but I thought that she was sensible and brave. I was sorry to hear that she died in that fire.”
Matilda noticed that Guy didn’t reply and that he looked guilty and ashamed for some reason.
“Come on, love, she wouldn’t want to see you so sad. I’m not her, of course, but I think I’ve enough experience to try and give you the sensible advice you need, if you trust me with your problems.”
“You know I do, Matilda,” he said, earnestly.
“Well, then. Eat some more meat and drink that bowl of milk, and then you can tell everything to me.”
She expected him to complain, and she was surprised to see that he meekly obeyed her.
Poor, lost child...
Matilda waited for him to finish his meal, then she took the tray with the empty dishes, and she put it out of the door so that a servant could take it back to the kitchen.
“Let’s sit in front of the fireplace,” she suggested “we’ll be more comfortable.”
Once again, Guy did how she said, and carefully walked to the chair. She handed him an apple, and she took one for herself, then she sat in front of him.
“Tell me, sweetie, what’s troubling you?”
“I feel so confused, Matilda. It’s about Marian... Something happened, and I don’t know what it means. How can you say a thing, and then do the opposite?”
“She didn’t want to hurt you so much, I’m sure of this. She became the Nightwatchman because it was the only way she had to help the poor, the only way to do something for them. She was afraid that you could hurt her and her father if you found out her secret, and she tried to stop you, but I know that she had meant no harm...”
The woman looked at him.
“I’m not talking of the Nightwatchman. I can understand her reasons. I don’t know if I can forgive her for what she did to me, but I can see why she did it.”
“What are you talking about, then?”
“It happened before Hood ran into the room… We had been yelling at each other for a good while, she said many things to shame me and I did the same, menacing to report her and her father to the Sheriff. I think that we said anything we could to hurt each other… She was in tears and I confess that I wanted to cry too. I was so mad at her, and she surely despised me as well, and all of a sudden we found ourselves in a embrace. A moment later we were kissing and I don’t know why. I don’t even know if I was kissing her or if she was kissing me...”
Matilda burst out in a hearty laugh.
“This is not a joke, Matilda!” Guy growled, and the woman stood up to plant a kiss on his forehead.
“I know, love, don’t be mad at me for laughing. It’s just that you shouldn’t be so worried for such a thing. It was just a kiss.”
“I kissed Marian! It can’t be ‘just a kiss’!”
Matilda silenced him, putting a finger on his lips.
“Rule one, sweetie. You were both overwhelmed by your emotions, you needed a way to let them out. Don’t give too much importance to it. You must be glad that it was a kiss and not something worse.”
“What do you mean?”
Matilda became serious.
“You were both upset, angry, hurt, not in your rightful minds. What if you took a sword and killed her, or if she stabbed you with a dagger?”
“I would never hurt Marian! I love her!”
“Are you really sure of this? Well, don’t be. I’ve seen this happen in the past and it will happen again. Lovers who swore that their love was carved in their hearts till the end of the world, and then they killed each other in the heat of rage… It takes a single moment of insanity to destroy a life. Two lives, actually, because the one who kills the loved person can never forgive himself. Remember this very well, Guy. Both you and Marian are passionate creatures, you are more similar than you think. Passion can be dangerous, my child, if you let your rage to go out of control. Be glad that it was just a kiss.”
Gisborne averted his eyes in shame. He knew that, he had already learned that lesson in the worst way.
He forced himself to shut those memories in his heart. He was feeling too vulnerable to let his mind dwell on the fire, on his terrible fault.
Matilda’s words scared him because they sounded impossible and true at the same time. He would never hurt Marian willingly, he’d die for her, but he knew that it could happen if he was blinded by rage or despair.
“Oh, now, now, love, I didn’t mean to upset you.” Matilda patted the back of his hand, smiling at him. “Remember my words when you feel angry, and it will never happen. I think that I’d better warn her too. I certainly don’t want to see you stabbed or something like that, and she already feels guilty enough for your accident.”
Guy took a bite from his apple, and he kept quiet, chewing at it. After he finished it, he was feeling calmer. He threw the apple core into the fire, and looked at it burning.
“I think that you are right, it was ‘just a kiss’, but for me it was important, precious. I won’t deceive myself thinking that it meant something for her too, but at least she wasn’t disgusted by me.”
“She should be blind to be disgusted by you!” Matilda laughed. “But stop thinking, now. You’re not healed yet, even if you are much better, and I think that your leg is paining you. Am I wrong?”
“I found out that you are rarely wrong.”
“So, drink my remedy, then rest your leg on that footstool, and I’ll put some ointment on it to reduce the swelling. After that you can try to sleep for a while or you can show me how to play that chess game, but I forbid you to keep brooding. Deal?”
Guy gave her a tired smile.
“I’m not a dog.”
Now that her old father had fallen asleep, Marian leaned for a moment against the frame of the window. Her father was right, of course, but at the same time, she felt that something much more important had happened between her and Guy. More important than the fight, or her secret exposed.
And it was not among the things she had told her father. She touched her lips, reconsidering the warmth of his, the desperate search for tenderness and understanding she had felt in that kiss, salty with tears, no less sweet and needy.
No kiss between her and Robin when they were engaged had been so desperate, so powerful and at the same time so tender like the one she shared with Guy. She and Robin had grown up together and had fallen in love with the same ease. She was younger, they were carefree. She had been carefree, mostly. Unexperienced. Then Robin had left, leaving Marian to become a woman, alone, in a changed world.
There was no carelessness between her and Guy. There were accusations, rage, and sorrow. But also there were the little beautiful moments she had lived with him in her home in the last months. Of readings and smiles, affectionate reproaches and unexpected compliments.
They had become part of her, like him. His presence in her life.
At the bottom of it all, there was a warmth that Marian could not define but feel within herself when she thought of Guy: anger, pain, fear, or tenderness, or something new. Nothing about him left her indifferent now. What kind of feeling was there now between them? A better understanding, perhaps? Marian looked at the sky through the window. She remembered Guy's outbreak : ‘I’d never do anything to damage the woman I love.’
The woman I love.
The memory of his loving, strong words mingled with her thoughts.
She kept herself away from Guy for the rest of the day, leaving him to Matilda's care, trying to cool her own, tumultuous thoughts.
In the evening, before she reached the bed, she looked at herself, in her chemise, through the mirror.
For a moment she felt his breath behind her, reaching her. His hand moving her hair away, tenderly. She recognized him. His lips slowly rubbed her neck.
"You are everything to me," he whispered to her ear.
Indeed she was. Now she knew.
She closed her eyes.
She turned around. But there was no one, and not a breath of wind, the window firmly shut to the cold of the night.
“This is madness,” she thought, and she blew out the candle.