James looked at the accounting book of Knighton Hall, and sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
He unhappily glanced up from them, when he heard somebody entering the hall.
Gisborne limped through the door, followed by Robin Hood’s man, Allan.
The old servant wondered how those two could get along together. They were completely different from each other: a noble and a thief, one hated by almost everyone, the other who could make friends with the devil in person. In fact, many believed Gisborne to be a devil.
By now, James knew that it wasn’t true, a real devil would never be injured so badly as Gisborne had been, but he still didn’t like the man.
Who could like a person who obeyed the Sheriff’s orders, even when it meant frightening or maiming innocent people?
But now he wasn’t able to harm anybody else, and James couldn’t help thinking that he deserved what happened to him and that Sir Edward was very generous to let him live in the manor.
James looked back at the book, and sighed: it didn’t matter if Gisborne and Allan were friends or enemies, or if the black knight kept living at Knighton Hall. Soon no one of the inhabitants of the manor, nobles or servants, would have a home anymore.
“I suppose that I’ll have to talk to Sir Edward,” James said to himself, but loud enough that Guy could hear him.
“About what?” the knight asked, and the servant looked at him, noticing that he had approached the table.
“Next month’s taxes,” he answered, reluctantly.
“Matilda said that he’s very sick and that he needs to rest a lot. You shouldn’t worry him with this things.”
“I know, Sir Guy, but I think I have no choice. Normally, I’d talk to Lady Marian, but the healer said that she needs rest and quiet, even more than her father.”
Guy dropped himself on a chair, and sighed too.
“I know,” he said, dejectedly, and James guessed that he was really worried for the girl. This softened him a little towards the knight. Gisborne might be a ruthless man, but he cared deeply for Lady Marian.
“What’s the problem with that?” Guy asked, pointing at the accounting book, and James stared at him, wondering if he should tell him or not.
Allan glanced at the book too.
“What? You don’t have the money to pay the taxes?” He guessed, and James stared at him.
“How do you know?”
“Everyone in the county has the same problem. Hey, don’t worry too much, I think that Robin can give the money to you, so you can pay taxes.”
Guy shook his head, a disgusted expression on his face.
“What about the unjust taxes demanded by the Sheriff? He’s the true thief.” Allan replied, unimpressed by Guy’s words.
“Maybe,” Guy conceded, “but if they always rely on Hood’s alms, next month the problem will be the same, or it will grow even bigger. And what if one day Hood stops helping them?”
“Robin wouldn’t abandon who needs him!”
“But he could be captured or killed.”
“That’s impossible! You never succeeded in doing that.”
Guy sadly shook his head.
“The fact that I couldn’t capture him, doesn’t mean that anybody else won’t.”
James thought that Sir Guy had a point.
“What do you suggest?” He asked, looking at Gisborne.
“You want my opinion?”
“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have asked, Sir Guy.”
Guy nodded, surprised.
“You should find a way to improve Knighton’s incomes, I guess.”
The servant gave a pointed look at him.
“What do you think I’ve been doing till now? I checked all the accountings, but I can’t find any errors. But of course I’m just a servant, I’d need Sir Edward’s advice.”
“You can’t. Matilda says that worrying too much could kill him.”
“You kept Locksley for years, Sir Guy. What would you do?”
Guy took the book and looked at it, more to take time, than to really examine it. It was true that he kept Locksley, but it was also true that he didn’t care too much for its inhabitants: if they couldn’t pay the taxes, the Sheriff had taught him to take all their belongings and evict them from their houses. He knew that Marian and Sir Edward wouldn’t approve that kind of management for Knighton.
He glanced at Allan, as if he was looking for help, but the outlaw shrugged.
“James, what can you tell me about the lands of Knighton?”
“They aren’t very extensive, but the soil is good, we usually have good crops.”
“Why can’t you afford the taxes then?”
“We produced mainly flour, but even the other feuds did, and the prices dropped.”
“It could be a good idea to differentiate the crops next year.”
“Yes, Sir Guy, but we have to pay the taxes this month.”
“Then we’ll have to find another way to find the money. Do you really want me to help with this?”
The servant nodded.
“There’s nobody else who could do it.”
“Then have the wagon ready. I don’t know Knighton well, nor its inhabitants, and if I have to improve the incomes of the lands, I think I should.”
James waited by the wagon, wondering if accepting Sir Guy’s offer to help with the management of Knighton had been a good idea. But he had no choices, actually. With Sir Edward and Lady Marian both equally ill, the responsibility of taking care of Knighton fell on his shoulders.
He could do nothing, but then it was certain that the Sheriff would take the lands back, but he was afraid to do something wrong, and he wished that he could ask Sir Edward for an advice.
At least, if Gisborne gave suggestions to manage Knighton, the fault of a failure would be divided between both of them. James just hoped that Sir Guy wasn’t going to use the force against the peasants who couldn’t pay.
After a while, Guy and Allan came out from the manor. Gisborne had changed his clothes and managed to wear his old leather uniform, but instead of his leather coat, he kept using the blue velvet cloak that Sir Edward gave to him.
James noticed that Gisborne’s clothes fit too loose and he felt a twinge of pity for him, realizing how unwell he still was, even months after the accident. He might not like the man, but he could still feel compassion for a young person who was probably going to be a cripple for the rest of his life.
Allan, instead, looked as well as he could be, clean, healthy and donning the finer clothes that Sir Guy gave him.
The outlaw waited for Gisborne to reach the wagon, and he helped him to climb on it, then he gave a hand to James too, and in the end he also got on and took the reins.
“So, where are we going, first?” The outlaw asked.
“Take a route around the fields, then we’ll visit the village,” Guy answered “I want to see the lands, and then the people.”
“I sent word to the inhabitants of Knighton to gather in the main square, so we can talk to them,” James said, and Guy nodded, wondering if it was a good idea. They surely hated him, but he had no choice than talking to them, if he wanted to help Marian and her father. Allan had said that if he tried to be kind to them, people would begin to respect him, but Guy doubted that it was possible.
Anyways, he was going to try, even if it meant putting his pride aside, and making a fool of himself.
He felt unsure, and he just wanted to be with Marian, to nurse her back to health and to see her getting better. He was used to see her always strong and full of energy, seeing her so weak and ill had been a shock for Guy.
But he couldn’t stay with her, the servants wouldn’t let him in her room, and also Matilda allowed only short visits for now, so saving Knighton was the only thing he could try to do.
Guy looked at the fields and listened to James explanations when the old servant pointed to a farm or to the shop of an artisan.
When they went back to the main square of the village, where the villagers were waiting for them, Guy already had a few ideas, but he didn’t know if they would work and if people would listen to him.
He was feeling quite emotional, and he wasn’t sure if he was excited for being out of the manor after being forced to lie at home for such a long time, or if he was afraid to be rejected and humiliated by the inhabitants of Knighton now that he had no power at all.
He glanced at Allan and James: the outlaw had his usual carefree expression, and whistled while driving the wagon, while the old servant was grim and worried, probably sure that Guy couldn’t help them and that they’d lose Knighton.
Allan stopped the wagon, and Guy was conscious of the stares of the peasants. They were all looking at him, wondering what he was doing there, half afraid, half suspicious, all of them hateful.
James stood up, and spoke to them.
“My friends, I know most of you since you were born, or very young, and you know that I’d never want to give you bad news, but today I’m afraid I must do it. This month, we couldn’t collect the money to pay taxes, and if we don’t, the Crown will take back these lands.”
“They can’t! They belong to Sir Edward!” Someone in the crowd yelled, and Guy scoffed.
“Of course they can. They can do everything they want, and the Sheriff will take Knighton as soon as he can,” he said, and the people looked at him, angry.
“And you are here to take it for your master, aren’t you?” A woman said, disgusted.
Guy struggled to stand up without losing his balance, but somehow he managed, and he looked at the peasants.
“Actually, I’m not. It’s quite the contrary. I don’t work for the Sheriff anymore and I won’t help him getting more power. If I can stop him from taking Knighton from its legitimate owners, be sure that I will. That’s why I’m here today.”
People exchanged puzzled looks. They had heard many rumors about Gisborne. Some had heard that he was dead, others than he had been seriously ill and that he had become insane, some that he had been fired by the Sheriff, who one day left Knighton Hall in a rage, others that Gisborne had lost Locksley and that now he was trying to take Sir Edward’s lands.
“Why should we believe you?” One of the peasants asked. That man knew that Guy hadn’t the favor of the Sheriff anymore, so he wasn’t afraid of him.
Guy looked at the man.
“You have no reason to trust me, except that I have every interest in saving Knighton too. You heard that the Sheriff fired me and that I lost Locksley. It’s all true. Without Sir Edward’s help, I’d be a beggar or dead. You may think the worst of me, but I am grateful to Lord Knighton and I’ll do all I can to repay my debt.”
“And you do this for the goodness of your heart?” A woman asked, ironically.
“Think whatever you want, but keep in mind that if Sir Edward should lose his lands, I’d have nowhere to live as well. Nobody would give me a home, and I’m still too unwell to find a new job. My life depends on Knighton, so you can be sure, that I will do everything I can to help Sir Edward. I know the Sheriff and what he wants from the nobles of the County, so I can use my experience to give you a few suggestions and I hope you will listen to me.”
“Well said, Giz!” Allan said, giving him an energetic pat on his shoulder, then he turned to the people with a grin. “Listen to him, he can actually help.”
“Aren’t you one of Robin Hood’s men?” A man asked, puzzled. “What are you doing with Gisborne?”
“Without the Sheriff he’s not that bad. And you can believe him, trust me.”
The villagers looked at the three men on the wagon, confused. They knew James, he was one of them, and they often had seen Allan A Dale with Robin Hood when the outlaws came to bring supplies and money to the poor, but they also knew Gisborne and all his evil deeds.
It was also true that he was now in disgrace with the Sheriff, so maybe he really wanted to stay at Knighton and help Sir Edward.
They began to discuss and to wonder what they should do and if they had to listen to Gisborne.
They were still talking and Guy was patiently waiting for them to take a decision, when Matilda came down the road, headed to Knighton Hall.
The healer walked to the wagon, looking at Gisborne.
“What are you doing, love?” She asked, and Guy glared at her, blushing.
“Don’t call me like that!” He blurted, and Matilda smiled at him.
“As you wish, sweetie. Now speak: what are you doing up there? Apart than catching a cold, I mean.”
“I’m trying to help Sir Edward with the taxes, but if you keep talking to me like that, I’ll never get the respect of the people.”
“Don’t be silly, dear. If they don’t respect you it’s for what you did for the Sheriff in the past, not for what I say.” She turned to Allan. “What are you waiting, boy? Help me to get up there too, my neck aches if I have to look up like that to talk to you.”
The outlaw helped her to climb on the wagon, and the healer looked at the people.
“So, are his ideas good?”
The villagers exchanged uneasy glances.
Matilda crossed her arms.
“We don’t know,” one of them answered.
“How could they know if they don’t want to listen?” Allan said, with a shrug.
Matilda looked at the villagers, and they didn’t dare to say anything. Some of them believed her a witch, some others owed her their lives, and they all respected her.
To see that the woman, often cross, and always ready to speak her mind, was so affectionate in talking to Gisborne, confused them even more than they already were.
“We never said that we wouldn’t listen,” one of them said, at last, uneasily.
“Well, then. What are you waiting for? Speak.” Matilda turned to look at Guy, and the knight nodded, embarrassed.
He felt like he was still a shy child and Matilda's motherly words made him blush, but he wasn’t angry at her. Maybe the peasants would think that he was a spineless idiot, but her presence encouraged him.
They already think the worst of me, even if they think I’m a fool I don’t care.
“James told me that you had good crops, but that the price of flour is too low, so you can’t earn enough. Is that right?”
“If we hadn’t to pay the taxes, we’d have enough food for the winter. But if we have to gather all the sum, we’ll have to sell all our flour, underpriced, and we will starve.” One of the villagers said.
“So we have to find a way to get more money for it.” Guy answered.
“Or we might just wait for Robin Hood’s help.” Another man suggested, and Guy shook his head with contempt.
“Do you have no pride? You prefer depending on charity than working to save your village?”
“What’s the point, when the Sheriff will take everything we own?”
“Robin won’t let the Sheriff to take Sir Edward’s lands, why should we wear ourselves out?”
Guy turned to look at Allan.
“Do you really bother to help such ungrateful people?”
“I guess that their families would starve if we don’t. But you’re right, some of the people we help don’t deserve it. But we do it anyways.”
Guy sighed: he really wanted to do something for Knighton, but it was clear that nobody would listen to him and that they preferred to get Robin Hood’s stolen money.
The people turned their backs at them, and they began returning to their houses, ignoring Guy and what he had to say.
Matilda put a hand on his shoulder and gave him a comforting squeeze.
“You tried, love. It was a good thing to do.”
“She’s right, Giz. You weren’t that bad,” Allan said. “Hey, mate? Do you actually have an idea to make more money from that flour?”
Guy shook his head, discouraged.
“Not yet. But I know that there is something we can do.”
“Do you really believe there’s some hope, Sir Guy?” James asked, and Guy nodded.
“Matilda proved to me that there can be hope even in the worst situation. Everyone thought that I was going to die, the other healer said that he couldn’t save me, but I’m here, alive and I plan to keep living for a very long time. If there was hope for me, there must be hope for Marian and Sir Edward as well. I am not going to give up until Knighton is safe.”
Allan laughed and gave him a pat on his back, so enthusiastically that he almost pushed him down from the wagon and had to grab his arm to steady him.
“Well said Giz!”
Matilda shook her head, smiling. Gisborne had been so sad and hopeless when he was ailing, but now it was like he had found some inner strength hidden inside him and had decided to use it for the sake of Marian and her father.
“I agree with him, my dear. This is the right attitude. It doesn’t matter if they didn’t listen to you today, come up with a good plan and they will. But now, let’s go back to the manor, it’s freezing out here and you’re not completely healed yet. I like that you want to fight and do the right thing, but you need to rest or your leg won’t get better.”