The words of that horrible man, the new Master at Arms, had struck her suddenly as if she had taken a full lash on her body.
A sudden, acute, fierce pain, then she had felt like her skin had been opened in two.
He couldn’t have died.
It wasn't possible.
It couldn't be possible.
He had left her house to help them, to help Knighton, to help her, he had faced a trip even if he wasn't completely healed. He had been so confident, so hopeful, the last time they had seen him.
He was tender, affectionate, warm.
It couldn’t be true.
That couldn’t have been their last, definitive meeting. The last moment that she would see his eyes looking at her, hear his voice asking for her, feel his presence beside her.
She would never see him again.
Her sorrow grew stronger from moment to moment. She was shaking, and the ideas in her mind overlapped and alternated with each other, in complete chaos.
Marian didn’t want it to be true.
Until a few months ago she would have rejoiced, she would celebrate if Guy had left Nottingham forever, but now, now that she knew him a little more, and she had known much more of his character, his heart, his dignity, she couldn't now have lost him forever.
She couldn’t accept losing him. Not now. She just couldn’t.
She felt she lacked the strength, she could not stand.
All this couldn’t be true.
It was then that she realized that there were arms holding her. They were holding her up. The arms of a man who loved her, and who she loved so much.
Her father had reached her, and, though with difficulty, he was there to support her and help her face something that she would never have imagined to experience: the dark, throbbing pain, for having lost a loved one too soon.
Stretched in her father's arms, Marian felt a little stronger, and she began to shout at the commander.
“How? Where? What do you know?” Marian cried, without control. Edward desperately tried to calm her, without succeeding.
“Hush! For God's sake, Marian, be silent! He will accuse you in turn, if you will accuse him, he will put us under arrest. Calm down, calm down my daughter,” Edward said, shaken and worried.
“What did you expect from a loser like him, ma'am?” Alexander said, looking at her with contempt. “He was a perfect failure. A man unable to complete a task even when all conditions are favorable. An incapable. A complete incapable. Gisborne will not come back again, beautiful lady. Put your heart in peace. Rest your silly head. Outlaws ambushed the group of wagons, and your knight, crippled and unable as he was, could not resist. They're all dead now.”
Marian realized that it was a possible truth, now.
Guy was sick, still so much in trouble with his leg. How could he fight in those conditions, and after so much time without being able to train?
And she had let him go, indeed she had encouraged him to go.
Once more she had done wrong to him. For the last time. She had sent him to die.
Pain and guilt. Remorse and regret. She was full of all of this and at the same time she felt empty, exposed, naked.
Tears, uncontrolled, were beginning to fall on her face. But Marian could not let herself go, losing her mind in that void that was trying to swallow her whole.
“How do YOU know that? How do YOU know Guy was crippled and fought till his death? Did you see him? Were you there? And if you were there, why you and your guards didn’t do anything? All the truth, I want the whole truth,” Marian yelled.
Feeling suddenly accused, the Redhead decided to humiliate her again.
“Yes, we saw them. But it was too late. Everything was done for. Nobody could be saved. So many words from such a tiny mouth. So many words, too big words, for one mouth so tiny. Look at them! Look at them. People here are crying silently with dignity, unlike you. Look at them, look at your women, mourning their husbands, their brothers... their children! They cry, they suffer, they do not make a show of their pain. They suffer more than you. They have lost more than you. In the end, what was Gisborne for you? Unseemly things someone might think of you, now. Despicable things for a lady of rank like you are. Look at them, they just suffer, without making absurd accusations. Take the right example from your simple, wise peasants, Lady Knighton. Do not say things now that you could shortly repent.”
Marian looked around. Other women were weeping, other ones were embracing their children. Guy hadn’t died alone. Her voice had been the only one that had risen to heaven, but the pain was the same for everyone. It made her equal to the other women of Knighton. Other men had died with him, for the sake of Knighton, of their own homes, of their own families. She was ashamed of how she had been exposed, but she felt inside her that her anger toward that big man, without piety, was just and sacrosanct.
Feeling to have back his advantage on the woman, Alexander finally added: “The time is sad, so sad, Knighton's people, but taxes are taxes. The Sheriff joins, in spirit, your sorrow, but I go back to ask you, for the last time: where is our money?”
He didn’t receive an answer as expected.
“Then YOU are forcing me, so be it! Take everything from them, I want to see all their property here, right here in front of me in five minutes.”
The soldiers entered the houses, like hungry rats in search of fresh food.
“Take my few jewels, take them all. I can give you my dowry to pay taxes,” Marian said, clinging to the redhead's uniform.
“Do you have any idea how much money Knighton owes to the Sheriff between current and previous taxes... and future ones? No? As I expected, I don’t think you have any idea, if everything we seize now will not be enough, we will be forced to arrest you and your father, and take you both to the Sheriff. I told you, young lady. He was overly human with you, poor Gisborne, he was weak, but from the fire you've shown today, who knows, maybe he might have had some advantage to show you clemency.”
Humiliated, Marian shrugged back to her father resigned arms. She knew well that her few jewels, inherited from her mother, wouldn’t be enough, and she trembled at the idea that her father could end up in a cell, not when he was so fragile.
My fault. In the end everything is my fault. Please forgive me, Guy, Marian thought.
She closed her eyes, defeated, as the people’s belongings began to be brought to the yard.
In short, everything possible was brought out. Nothing of real value. Their fate was sealed.
A little wagon approached Knighton Hall. Matilda was going to check Marian and Sir Edward 's conditions, like she had promised to Guy.
Matilda frowned, approaching the village: something wasn’t right. Everyone was out of their houses, all their belongings spread on the ground in front of them, and many women were crying.
Some guards, menacing and brutal, were collecting the people’s poor things, stuffing them in sacs and throwing them on a wagon. Lady Marian and Sir Edward were outside, too, even in their weakened state, and they were close in a hug. Marian was crying, sobbing in her father’s arms.
Matilda had rarely seen her so distraught, almost broken by a great sorrow.
A dark and cold fear grew up inside her while she hurried to get down her wagon to reach them.
“What happened?! You shouldn’t be here, it’s too cold for you. And who are these men?”
Marian ran to her with a sob, and Matilda held her tight.
“Oh, Matilda, it’s all lost! He said that Guy is dead! They are all dead, attacked by the outlaws! And now they are taking Knighton from us! What will we do, Matilda? My father is too ill to be taken to the castle!”
Matilda’s heart sank.
Guy dead? Everyone killed by the outlaws?
It seemed too absurd to be possible, but she knew that it could be true. Robin and his gang were good people, outlawed because they wanted to protect the weak and the poor from injustice, but all the other bandits that lived in the forest were dangerous and cruel. If they attacked a prey, they didn’t hesitate to kill.
And Guy, poor child, was still weak, limited by his broken leg and certainly not ready to fight.
It’s my fault. I should have stopped him when I met him in the forest. But he looked so proud, so happy to be able to help the woman he loved…
Marian would have expected some comfort from Matilda, or that the woman would yell insults at the soldiers and at the new Master of Arms, but the healer seemed to be frozen. When she looked at her face, Marian noticed that her eyes were full of tears.
The girl broke up in another fit of sobs: if Matilda was crying too, it meant that there was no hope at all.
Guy looked at the bag of money that he had on his lap: it was enough to pay all the taxes of Knighton, and the best thing was that there were two other similar bags on the wagon, one to be shared between the families of the village, and the other to be stored in Sir Edward’s coffers.
Apart from the attack of the outlaws, the mission had been a complete success and Guy was very proud of himself. He couldn’t wait to be home to see some of that pride in Marian’s eyes too.
“Giz, you’ll wear out the horses if you keep this pace,” Allan commented with a grin.
“We’re almost there. They can rest when we’re home.”
Allan laughed, and Guy smirked too, but their smiles faded in seeing a woman who was running towards them. They recognized Susanne, one of Marian’s maids from Knighton Hall.
She was upset and scared, and Guy was scared to see her so distraught.
He stopped the wagon near the girl.
“What happened?! Is Lady Marian ill?!”
Susanne looked at him, frightened and relieved at the same time. She hated Guy of Gisborne, but for the first time she was happy to see him.
“No, Sir Guy, my lady is as well as she is expected to be, but they came before the time!”
“Who? Who came?!”
“The Sheriff’s soldiers! They want the taxes. Today. When James saw them coming, he told me to run to call Robin Hood because he didn’t know if you’d be back in time. I was so afraid! They were so big and had cruel expression on their faces!”
“Well, we’re here now,” Guy said, then he turned to one of his guards and nodded at him. “Bring me one of the spare horses and be ready to follow me.”
“What do you want to do, Giz?” Allan asked, worried.
“I’m going to ride ahead of the convoy. We need to bring the money to Knighton immediately, before they can menace people. Girl, get on the wagon, there’s no need to call Hood now.”
Susanne obeyed, and Allan gave her the reins. He helped Guy to mount on the horse, then he told one of the guards to bring a horse for him too.
“I’m coming with you, Giz.”
Guy nodded, then he turned to the men on the wagons.
“Follow us as quickly as you can, we’ll wait for you at Knighton. And keep the rest of the money well hidden.”
Alexander gloated in seeing Marian so upset and humbled. The older woman who was hugging her, a weird looking hag, was close to tears too.
He couldn’t really understand how could they cry for a useless idiot like the half-French, but maybe their tears were shed because they were going to lose everything.
He looked at Marian: she was too aged for his tastes, but she was still pretty and maybe, once she was a prisoner in the dungeons, he could have some fun with her.
He wasn’t really interested in her, but he liked the idea to humiliate her further, to take everything from her and put her back into the low place where women ought to stay.
Alexander was relishing in these thoughts, when the sound of galloping horses approaching alerted him.
Even the women and the elderly lord lifted their eyes, and Alexander saw a look of bewilderment on their faces, that soon transformed in hope, incredulity, and then joy.
Marian let out a strangled cry.
Alexander turned abruptly and he was dismayed to see that she was right: the half-French was galloping towards Knighton Hall, his face bloodied and pale, but definitely alive, followed by four guards and a younger man.
Gisborne halted the horse in front of him, putting himself between Alexander and Marian, Matilda and Sir Edward. He sat straight on the saddle, ignoring the pain from his leg after such a fast ride, and looked at Alexander, studying his face.
So this was the man who Vaisey had chosen to replace him? He looked dangerous and cruel, his eyes empty, devoid of any visible emotion.
Guy steeled himself, trying to look strong and proud. He knew the Sheriff and his likes, they were like hungry wild beasts, ready to attack at the first sign of weakness.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Guy asked, contempt in his voice.
“I’m Sir Alexander of Shrewsbury, Nottingham’s Castle Master at Arms, and I’m here on behalf of Lord Vaisey to collect the due taxes or to take the lands back if they cannot pay, as it seems more likely.”
Guy lifted a bag that he was keeping hidden under his cloak, and he threw it at Alexander, with disdain.
“You are too early, but it doesn’t matter. Is that enough?”
Alexander looked at the money. He knew that it was enough, maybe even more than the Sheriff had demanded, but he wasn’t happy. Raiding the village would have been more satisfying, but there wasn’t much that he could do.
“It will do, for now.”
“Good,” Guy said, sternly, while the other man gathered his guards to go away, then he gave him his most ironic grin. “Give my regards to lord Vaisey.”
Alexander walked away and mounted on his horse, giving Guy a last glance.
“We'll meet again, Gisborne. You can be sure of this,” he said, with a threatening look.
“You will find me here, anytime,” Guy said, continuing to show his strength and composure despite his growing pain and extreme fatigue. He had to show himself strong to the end.
In a short time, Alexander and the soldiers moved away.
The moment they were out of sight, the rest of the wagons entered the yard.
The peasants who were driving them got off from the wagons and ran to embrace their women, their children. The man injured by the horse was helped by two of Guy's guards to re-embrace his mother. She was in tears, and happy, at the same time.
With an unusual discretion that no one would have expected him to have, Allan came closer to Guy's horse to help him to dismount. Guy let him, a nod to thank him.
The two didn't talk, both exhausted and pained, but Allan reached out his hand to Guy, simply saying: “Well done, Giz!”
After a moment of astonishment, Guy tightened the hand of the young outlaw, replying: “You too, Al!”
Allan smiled, then grimaced.
“Al?” he asked.
“Short for Allan, of course,” Guy said, with a big grin on his face.
What goes around comes around he thought.
But at the same time he was unexpectedly pleased to be object of esteem for the young man, who, in turn, had behaved and fought very well in the battle.
Old James approached Guy and Allan, and reached out to Guy.
“Sir Guy,” he said, “Welcome back to Knighton, we are so happy for the good result of the mission, thank you, from the depths of the heart of everyone here. Thank you, Sir Guy. Welcome back home,” the old man said, with a tear falling from his tired eye.
Guy shook the old man's hand with kindness, lowering for a moment his head, in recognition of the old man's courtesy toward him.
Home, Am I really at home now? Guy thought.
The most beautiful voice he knew, the sweetest, the dearest, the one that made his wounded heart speed up, and flow his blood warmer, stronger in his veins, was calling him.
Guy turned. He saw Marian, a few feet away from him. Dressed in white, her hair loosened from a still cold breeze, she had just entrusted her fatigued father to Matilda's care, who smiled at him, like a mother relived, happy to see her son again.
Marian stepped slowly toward him, looking at his face, searching for his eyes.
Guy felt his body tremble with a boundless emotion, never experienced before.
She was fragile, and beautiful, and nothing else mattered, nothing else mattered more than her, and forever.
Guy was sure of that, absolutely sure, now.
Suddenly, Marian accelerated and ran toward him. She threw herself, her body, her heart, her inner soul, in his arms. Guy caught her and held her in his arms, with all his strength.
Home, I am home now. Guy thought.
Marian raised her eyes, looking at his face. Her hand caressing a cheek, sweetly, with reverence.
He had never appeared so dear to her, and so beautiful, so badly dear, so badly beautiful to her heart.
Marian knew she was crying.
She said: “You're back,” and she smiled at him, happiness and pride painted on her face, transfigured with beauty, warmth, and love.
Everything he had wanted from her, in front of his eyes, now. Too much, and never enough.
“Yes,” he said, simply, and tightened their embrace, hiding his face in the crook between Marian's neck and shoulder. They both closed their eyes.
Nothing and no one will separate me from her, he thought, ever.
Guy couldn’t find words for her, in his head and heart, that weren’t a simple but infinite “I love you.”
But he remained silent, listening to sound of her heart beating, confused with his own.
He wanted her to stay in his arms forever.
But fatigue took the reins of his body with sudden force. Pain came back in his muscles and bones in full strength. He had resisted for too long, with too much effort.
He lost his balance for a moment, and Marian held him tighter, lifted her face to look at him, scared.
“Guy!” She said, then she screamed, “God, you need help now! Matilda! Someone! Someone help me!”
Matilda and Allan ran and took him from Marian's arms just in time, and helped him back home.
He was put on his bed while Matilda was preparing to check his wounds and his condition.
“Try to resist a bit more, my dear boy,” Matilda said, “Just give me the time to check that you don't have more serious injuries, then you can sleep peacefully,” she continued. “You're home now, the worst is over.”
Matilda smiled, moved.
Guy felt happy, listening to her kind words. The words of a mother. Words he had missed all his doomed life.
She cares for me, truly, he thought.
And he cared for her too, he cared for her so much. Guy was sure of that.
“We did it, Matilda, we did it,” he said, searching for her approval.
“Yes, love, YOU did it, you scared me to death, but you did it. I'm proud of you, we're all proud of you," Matilda replied.
Guy smiled so openly and happily that his whole face lit up.
Matilda smiled too and sat next to him, taking his hand between hers, with tenderness.
I have another son, now, Matilda thought.
“Let me take care of you, love,” she said.