Guy cautiously stepped out of his room to reach the main hall. The room had been cleaned and decorated with green branches, more tables and chairs had been brought in and prepared.
Sir Edward, looking healthier than he had been in many weeks, was sitting at the head of the main table, and smiled at Guy when he saw him on the door.
“Sir Guy, come. Please sit there, at my side. You are the guest of honor tonight.”
Gisborne blushed a little, and he obeyed, taking the empty place at the right of the elderly lord.
“I’m happy to see that you feel better, my lord.”
“Yes, I do. Matilda’s new remedy helped a lot. She brought back some good herbs from her travel to the seaside.”
Guy politely nodded, trying to forget how terrified he had been when Matilda was away and Marian got ill.
He looked around: the hall was full of people and the servants were carrying trays and trays of food.
Outside there was a big bonfire where they had roasted the pork, and the villagers were dancing around it. When they were tired, or when they felt cold, they came inside to eat some more food or to just sit and rest in the warm room.
Guy was surprised to see only happy faces. Even the Sheriff held banquets once in a while, but usually the people who attended them were grim, uneasy or malignant like Vaisey.
Mixed between the villagers, Guy recognized Robin Hood’s men. The servant, Much, if he remembered well, was constantly eating, enjoying every morsel of food, while Allan was talking and laughing with the saracen woman. With a grin, Guy realized that the girl was the main reason why Allan wanted to invite the outlaws so badly.
You may say that I’m a fool for loving Marian so much, but it seems to me that you are a fool as well.
Looking out of the window, he had the impression of seeing Hood too. According to Allan he wouldn’t come, but Guy recognized him mingled with the villagers. He didn’t enter the manor, but Guy saw him dancing with a peasant girl and talking with the villagers.
Once he would have tried to capture him, but now he just ignored his presence and pretended he hadn’t seen him at all. Instead, he looked at the empty place at Sir Edward’s left: Marian didn’t come down yet.
Guy felt suddenly nervous, hoping that he could please her, that he wasn’t out of place. Guy wasn’t used to celebrations, and certainly not as a guest of honor.
James had chosen his best clothes for him, a dark blue velvet tunic embroidered in silver that once belonged to Sir Edward, and the servant had also cleaned and brushed his cloak and polished his boots. The servants had not the time to prepare a hot bath for him, but Guy had washed thoroughly using the basin and ewer. He had also shaved his face and neatly brushed his hair, but he couldn’t help being afraid of seeing disappointment in Marian’s eyes.
After her words at the Council he didn’t know what to think. He didn’t want to grow false hopes, but he kept hearing again in his mind the fierce words she used to praise him in front of the Sheriff.
He wanted to deserve those words, he wished that they could be true, but deep inside he felt unworthy of them.
They would have to talk, that was sure, and to find out what Marian really felt for him and what she expected from Guy.
Matilda sat in a chair by the fire with a happy sigh.
It was nice to see people having fun for once, putting aside the struggles of everyday life.
She looked at Guy of Gisborne, sitting near Sir Edward, and her smile grew larger.
She could remember even too well how injured he had been just a few months ago, how she had thought that he was going to die, when she had seen him so bruised and covered in blood.
She had disliked him then, for who he was and what he did for the Sheriff, but, taking care of his wounds, she had softened towards him.
So hurt and desperate, but still proud. A dear boy, despite all.
She was glad to see him feeling so much better, taking back his life day after day. He had surprised her when he found the way to save Knighton, and she was happy that now he was getting the praise he deserved.
Matilda remembered the terrible moment when the Sheriff’s new emissary had told them that Guy was dead, killed by the bandits, how she had felt empty inside, feeling the same sorrow she would feel if she’d lost her own child.
The woman got up from her chair, and walked to him, needing to touch him, to feel that he was really alive.
Guy saw her and stood up too, smiling to her.
“Matilda! You came!”
The healer hugged him tight, then she made him stoop a little to kiss him on a cheek.
“Of course I came, love, I wouldn’t miss it for the world! I’m so proud of you, sweetie.”
She laughed noticing that he was blushing, and she gave him another hug.
“Have fun tonight, my child, you deserved some happiness.”
“I’m not really sure I did. It seems too much… for me. I have been helped. Alone I wouldn’t...”
Matilda stopped him with a pat on his cheek.
“Is it so hard for you to be happy? They want to celebrate you, what’s wrong with this?”
“I’m not used to it. Usually people hate me.”
“Well, you should be glad of a change, then! Don’t think too much, silly boy, just enjoy the good things when they come!”
Matilda filled a cup with wine, and handed it to Guy.
“Here, darling: drink this, relax and just have some fun.”
“It’s the healer who talks?” Guy asked, amused.
“Of course! I order you to celebrate. Just don’t drink too much, love, I don’t want you to be sick. But now enjoy the evening. I will certainly do it! To begin, I want to dance around the bonfire.”
The woman planted a last kiss on Gisborne’s cheek, then she went to join the other villagers.
Guy looked at her go, smiling, and a little moved by her open affection. He went back to his seat and sat near Sir Edward, drinking his wine while he waited for Marian to join them.
Marian looked for the last time in the mirror before leaving her room and reaching the hall. The blue dress was slightly larger than the last time she had worn it, as a result of the difficulties of this last winter, and Susanne had to use needle and thread to fix it at the last minute, but in a short time it had been settled for the best and Marian was now ready.
She opened the drawer to look for a necklace. Her eyes fell on the simple silver chain which was in her time the blackmailing element that had forced her to engage with Guy.
Lies, falsity, formality, subterfuge, blackmailing, violence. That necklace was all these things.
Yet, looking at it right now, it just seemed a simple, pretty necklace, suitable for a young girl. A fine taste.
Marian took it in her hands.
She remembered everything, but mostly a detail she had never thought of since that day, when she had only been scared and desperate, for the violence of those moments, to be arrested with her father and sentenced for betrayal.
When Guy had asked her to marry her, with that horrible threatening tone, he had pointed out that he knew of her earlier engagement, that she had loved another man but he hoped she was over it, and asked IF she could marry him instead.
“What about me? Will you marry me?”
Peremptory, and overwhelming, but sincere and almost... fearful of her rejection.
Guy had held his breath, in front of her, eyes to eyes, waiting for her answer, not at all sure of the answer, as if in spite of everything, his power, his threat, her mistakes, all in the end depended on her will, on her decision.
He wanted her to overcome the past, her past and maybe his own. The darkness of his past. This was what he was actually asking her, in proposing to her directly, on that fearful day.
He really wanted her, and mostly he wanted her to love him, to be loved, overcoming his past.
She had never really thought of the uncertainty of that moment, from his point of view.
His breathing in that moment. His visible, audible sigh of relief at her trembling: “Yes, I will marry you.”
Likewise, Marian had never thought that that necklace had been a simple present at the beginning, and that Guy had been insecure in giving it to her, fearing openly it was too simple, too poor, not beautiful enough for her. He feared she did not like it.
The reality was that until she hadn’t known the origin of that present, she liked that simple, elegant necklace, and she liked it on her neck.
Marian thought of wearing it again, tonight, thinking that Guy would now like to see it on her neck.
But she felt false to wear it. The truth was that she had lied to Guy several times, wearing it.
She closed it in the drawer, thinking: Never again, Guy, I'll never lie to you any more, I swear. But I don’t want to see you using threats or power to get what you want, never again, Guy. This applies to both of us.
Marian went down the stairs quickly. Arrived in the hall, her people welcomed her with respect and visible affection. Marian saw her father sitting at the table, with a tender and proud smile facing her and Guy, who, with some difficulty, got up from the table to reach her.
The moment he had seen her, his eyes had lit up and his lips had opened in a smile completely different from those she had seen on his face in the past. And Marian loved that strange, open, happy smile.
She smiled too, noting that they had dressed, without knowing each other's intentions, in the same color. Blue as the dark night, like a secret, like something hidden, concealed.
One way on the surface, another inside.
Guy approached her and she handed her hand to him, expecting for him to take her to the table to sit near her father, but he took it gently, with reverence, bowing his head and touching her hand lightly, tenderly with his lips, before letting it free.
Then he looked into her eyes, and, in Guy's stare, Marian saw admiration, affection, love, uncertainty, and a strange bit of sadness, loneliness, sorrow, fear of being refused.
Marian thought it was the first time in a long time that she saw Guy for what he was, what he really was. And the first time that she probably understood what he was feeling.
She liked that feeling.
She liked the feeling of knowing him, of knowing what he was thinking, his sincerity in his feelings. The pleasant ones as well as the saddest ones.
For the first time she realized that she wanted that Guy.
She wanted Guy.
And she wanted him to stay forever the way he was now.
She would never forgive him if he should return to be the man who he had been before the accident, when he was the faithful servant of the Sheriff. The ambitious, stern, black knight.
Marian took Guy's right arm and walked with him to the table, approaching her father.
Guy brought his lips for a moment near her ear, softly whispering: "You're beautiful."
Marian smiled, letting Guy to lead her, thinking, I could say the same about you.
Marian sat down on her father's left, with Guy by her side. At that moment, Edward got up from the chair and cleared his voice.
"A moment of your attention," Edward said, "before we start our dinner."
Everyone stopped and turned their eyes to the old master.
"We are all here tonight to thank the men who, with intelligence, courage, and bravery, made it possible for Knighton to overcome a time of great financial difficulty, and now Knighton is safe.”
There were several sighs of relief in the room, and someone raised the glass up to the ceiling.
Edward went on: “Knighton is safe now, but these are difficult times for everyone. We must pay more attention in the next years to rightly asset management and annuity, as well as to manage crops in a more profitable way through a program of sowing rotation through the years.
“I was a knight before, and a sheriff then. I spent all my life to protect people and enforce the law in the name of the King and of England. Loyalty and honor have been and will be my guide, my light until my death. And with loyalty and honor I have guided and I will continue to lead Knighton.
“However, on this occasion of extreme difficulty I realized that I have no experience in this agricultural sector, and so far I have completely relied on your old experience and wisdom, dear tenants, but it is time, now to look ahead and entrust ourselves with the entrepreneurial capacity of the new generations, their ability to experiment, to find new and more effective solutions. Most importantly, this trip has laid the foundation for a profitable exchange with other counties. A famine may still be our ruin. We must avoid being in such a situation, we must do our part. In these years we have never had a moment and a real reason to celebrate. If today we are here it is for gratitude, deep gratitude toward those who risked their lives for the salvation of all of us.
"All this happened at a personal and family time difficult for me and for my young daughter Marian, which made it impossible for me to take care of the situation personally. And now, I'm not even sure I would have been able to do it on my own, even if I had the strength.
“However, thanks to the right insights and initiative at an extremely dangerous time, putting himself fully at our service and defending with his sword the men of Knighton who were with him, we now can share extreme and deep gratitude to a man whom he has demonstrated, with his example, once again the importance of loyalty, courage and honor. Even in a very difficult period of his personal life. A man we all thought we knew, but we're learning to really know and appreciate just now. This man, to whom we all owe esteem and gratitude is Sir Guy of Gisborne.
“I ask all of you to raise the cup and toast to Sir Guy, to his courage and selflessness. To Sir Guy of Gisborne!” the old man concluded rising his cup, looking at Guy with unshed tears in his eyes.
Guy was astonished by the words of Marian's father, no one had ever toasted to him, no one had ever expressed gratitude to him.
He had always been considered inadequate, incapable at Vaisey's eyes.
Not that he had really deserved anything, before.
He did his duty, mostly. His horrible sad duty, Guy realized, but now, he had done the right thing, not a selfish thing, and his loyalty was finally recognized as a value, and not taken for granted, or worse, manipulated.
This was overwhelming for him.
Something that in time, he had lost hope of being able to have, to hear.
He did not know what to say, Guy, but he felt he was supposed to say something now, that something was expected of him. But he felt his throat dry, lacking of words to say.
He felt Marian's hand slipping with gentleness and discretion in his, entwining her agile fingers with his.
Maybe Marian had understood his difficulty and wanted to support him in such a remarkably new and difficult time for him, or perhaps this was her way to express gratitude.
But Guy took courage from that warm, desired contact and said: “Lord Edward, the circumstances that brought me to these lands a few years ago, were different, but time and circumstances changed me. The constant material and spiritual help that your family and your people gave me when... when I was in serious trouble, left a mark on me. A deep one. I owe you my my gratitude. My help is a sign of gratitude to you. I owe you my loyalty, completely. I did nothing more than try to return what I received from you. And mostly... I was not alone in doing so. The young Allan here, where are you Al? Ah, here you are, lad. He has shown cunning and courage, and loyalty. To me. To you all. And the people and the guards who were with me did all they could for the success of this mission. Gave what they could. I think in particular of the young man who was injured. He gave everything for this mission too. Knighton is saved not by my own merit, but by the interest and strength that all have shown for his salvation. So, I ask you to fill and rise again your cup: to Knighton, and to Lord Edward!” Guy concluded, his eyes shining, his hand holding tightly the girl's hand, the other one rising the cup to Lord Knighton.
Everyone shouted: “To Sir Guy! To Lord Edward! To Knighton!”
Allan, in a corner of the room, his cup full of good wine up in the air, was astonished by the unexpected and public recognition that he had received from Giz.
He felt for the first time proud of himself, having done something really good, having done something really right.
He had bet on the right person, on Guy, when no one had ever done so.
He had believed in him. He felt grateful to Guy for his words, and for the chance he was giving him, now.
He felt within himself that this was his place, his purpose, the people he wanted to be with.
Though shady and difficult to understand was the behavior of the black knight, he understood him.
Most importantly, as far as he was different from Guy, he felt he had never found himself so comfortable with anybody else.
He was no longer a thief, or an outlaw, but he was really like the young squire in the service of a knight more expert, and wise. And even something more, something better.
In silence, in his mind, with words invented, but no less sincere, Allan swore his loyalty to Guy.
Matilda looked at Guy, motherly proud of him, with shining eyes.
She thanked God for having put her on the same road, hard and painful, of that man, so wounded by life and events, and at the same time so capable of change, understanding, redemption, courage, and love, and prayed to God to help him finding the courage that he would still need to move on, to live.
Marian looked at Guy in the eye at the exact time he turned to look at her. She felt proud of him. Openly proud of him, but the emotion made her blush.
She didn’t know what to say, she was afraid to say something too big, or wrong.
She gently asked Guy to fill her empty glass, and Guy blushed too. He left the girl's hand, and filled her cup of wine.
In short, more and more toasts were made, inside and outside the hall. Of wine, or mead.
Marian drank two abundant glasses of wine, Guy... something more. It was hot, or at least, Marian felt hot now.
She told Guy that she wanted, she needed, to get some fresh air and she went out, leaving him suddenly there, and Guy, apologizing to Edward, followed her after grabbing his cloak.
Going out, Guy saw the great bonfire, the people eating and drinking, some improvised players, people still toasting to him.
Then he saw her, her beautiful, lovely Marian, her face and body brightened, softened by the light of the flames.
He felt so confused, happy and desperately sad at the same time.
That woman, that situation was everything to him, and at the same time it could become his greatest delusion. Gratitude, kindness, friendship, weren’t love.
He felt that he couldn’t bear another disappointment from her.
Yet she was there, beautiful, full of life, and warmth.
He wished he had not done everything wrong with her in the past. Because he had been wrong, so very wrong, no matter the circumstances.
And now, at the end of it, everything he had to offer her now was only his loyalty, and that little strength and courage that remained in him. All his love and passion for her would be of little use, now. Counted for nothing.
Guy wished he had acted in a different way with her, from the beginning, not showing her each and everyone of his worse sides, he wished he hadn't hurt her, that he hadn't manipulated her, blackmailed her. Forcing him into her life. Showing her only flattery, power, seduction.
Nothing that really resembled the love his parents had.
It was also for this reason that he had to leave her free now that he still had a bit of strength and dignity.
This, too, Guy thought, was loyalty. Loyalty to the woman he loved with all his heart, and forever.
Marian was standing under a tree, apart from the crowd. She was leaning on the trunk with a hand and she was looking at the fire.
Guy looked at her for a moment, took in all her beauty. That was an image that he would keep in his heart forever like a treasure.
He knew that he was going to love her forever, even if he was going to let her go, to release her from their engagement.
He approached her before he could lose the courage, and he gently put his cloak on her shoulders.
She turned to look at him, startled. Her face was a little flushed, her expression vulnerable.
“You must take care. It’s cold outside and you’ve been ill.”
The girl smiled.
“I feel flushed, actually. Maybe I had too much wine.”
Guy looked at the villagers, who were still toasting to him and to Knighton.
“I think that you are in good company tonight,” he said with a little smirk. He had drank more than he was used to, and he was feeling emotional, inebriated with the praise of Sir Edward and the approval of the villagers as well as with the wine.
The girl looked at him, fondly.
“Yes, I think I’m in good company.”
Her eyes were on his face, and Guy had the impression that there was a second meaning in her words, that she was trying to say that she was happy to be in his company.
This, and the words that she had spoken in front of Vaisey, made even more difficult what he had to say.
“Marian...” He began, and the girl kept looking at him, waiting.
Marian felt suddenly worried: Guy expression changed, his smile faded. She could feel a deep sadness in him, and she realized that she didn’t want to see him so heartbroken. Not again.
“I’m grateful for what you said in front of the Sheriff today. Your words were everything I could ever dream to hear from your lips and I think that I will always remember them. Even if they are not true.”
Guy paused for a moment, and Marian didn’t know what to do or to say. She had spoken proudly to annoy the Sheriff and to stop him from humiliating Guy and her family, but now she realized that she hadn’t thought of the impression they could have on Gisborne.
Had she lied to him, even after vowing to herself that she would never do it again? Or hadn’t she?
She had not time to reflect on this because Guy continued talking.
“I’m not a fool, Marian, I know why you spoke like that and I’m grateful for that. Have you seen the look on his face?” He asked with a little laugh. “He was hating us more than ever. Once I would have cared, but not anymore. Actually, I was glad of it.” Guy smiled again, but Marian could see the sadness in his eyes. In fact, he became serious when he spoke again. “But I have to be realistic. For once, it seems that I made the right choice, and it’s good to see people toasting to me instead of cursing my name, but the truth is that I did nothing so special. I am nothing.”
“Don’t talk like that, Guy...” Marian interrupted him, frowning.
“No, let me finish, please, or I won’t have the courage to say it. See? I’m not brave. There’s a long list of what I am not. I am not rich anymore, I have nothing, and I have not the means to provide for myself. I worked for the Sheriff because I have nobody, but also because I wanted to have power, to have enough substance to provide for a family, for a wife… for you. And now I lost everything I ever owned, except for my sword. A sword that has very little use, now. I’m not strong, not anymore. I was a fool, Marian, I had health and strength and I wasted them at Vaisey’s service. I buried my conscience for so many years that I thought it dead and lost forever, but now that you made me find it again, I’m useless. I’m a broken, penniless cripple and I can’t have many expectations in my future.”
Guy stopped for a moment to take a deep breath, trying to fight the tears that were welling in his eyes, then he continued.
“And that’s why I must let you go, Marian. I forced you in a betrothal that you probably never really wanted and I’m not even able to provide for you anymore, to give you the life you would deserve. You are born to be free, Marian, that’s what I always liked in you since I first met you: you were not afraid to fight for your ideals, you never let anyone bridle your mind. I love you, I love you every day more, and for this I won’t be a burden on your shoulders.”
Guy leaned his back on the trunk of the tree, as if those words drained all his strength from him.
“You’re free,” he said in a whisper, then he closed his eyes, unable to look at her.
He was so pale and still that for a moment Marian had the impression that he was dead, that his broken heart had killed him. He wasn’t, of course, and she knew it, but she was scared all the same.
She was suddenly afraid that he could die, that he could decide to go away and never come back, that she could lose him somehow.
And she didn’t want to.
She didn’t want to see him so dispirited, she didn’t want him to diminish himself because of the injuries that she, as the Nightwatchman, had inflicted to him.
Impulsively she stepped forward and put a hand on his broken leg, as if she wanted to shield it from any further injury, as if she wanted to protect him.
“Guy, look at me,” Marian said, caressing softly Guy's leg.
“Look at me, Guy,” she repeated, looking for his gaze. Guy opened his eyes, and they were sad.
Marian felt the same sadness pervading her, as a contagion.
“Guy, this wound doesn’t make you a useless man. This wound, your pain, didn’t stop you from being brave, to be a true man, a true knight, to save us all.”
Guy opened his mouth to talk, but now Marian put her hand on his lips, with the same sweetness, asking silently to let her continue.
"I hurt you, this wound, and your suffering was my work, I didn’t want it, but it happened, you live with your own faults, I am living with my own faults. In spite of everything, you didn’t leave me then, you helped me, cured me, prayed for me. Guy, you saved me, as no one else did before. You really believe that all this for me has no value, that it’s not enough, that you are nothing? This leg, so wounded, made you the man you are now. And now you are an infinitely better man. The man you were not when you were stronger, richer. This wounded leg is your strength. It's what reminds you that you're a man, not God. Guy. I ask you, please don't leave now, don't leave me, stay, stay with me. Let me know you better, let yourself know me better. My father will help you, I will help you, Matilda, Allan, all the people here, we will help you. I care about you, Guy, I really care about you.
“You want me to be free? Nobody has ever thought to give me freedom. I forced my father to let me be the Nightwatchman. I have blackmailed him to this purpose, in my own way. Guy, you are right, I want to be free now, but I want to be free to stand by your side, to be close to you, now, to care for you. Give me time to know you, take your time to find a new balance in your life. After all,” she said smiling, caressing his cheek now, “we should have married when the King returns to England, don't you remember? What did you really know about me when you asked me to be your wife? Little or nothing, now you know. What did I know about you those days? Nothing compared to what I am now discovering about you. These months with you were difficult, and precious at the same time. I don't want them to end, now.
“There is no reason to break our engagement. We have the opportunity to make it more true, more sincere, mutual. We have time, yet, to know ourselves, to learn to understand each other. We have time to stay together. Don’t go away, Guy. Stay with me, with us, I ask this of you.”
It took more than a moment for Guy to understand what Marian was saying, the real meaning of her words, and, even when he was sure that he had really heard them right, he still couldn’t believe them.
He found himself thinking to the Sheriff’s birds, trapped in their cages. More than once he had felt a deep sympathy for those little creatures, and he had fantasized of opening the doors of their cages to let them fly away.
He never did, of course, but when he said to Marian that she was free, he imagined that she was like one of those birds, and that he was opening the door of her cage.
But, instead of flying away, she came back to him because she wanted to stay with him.
Because she cared for him.
The night was cold, and Marian had his cloak, but Guy could only feel the warmth in his heart.
He lifted a hand to touch Marian’s face, softly brushing her cheek with his fingers, and looking at her.
In that moment, it was as if the world around them had stopped to exists, there were only Marian and him, nothing else.
Slowly, Guy drew closer to her, looking into her eyes. Marian looked back at him, equally entranced, and did nothing to stop him. She waited, her lips slightly parted.
They were soft, Guy thought, touching them with his own, but also alive, demanding. He kissed her, but she was kissing him back as well.
He hugged her tight, and he could feel her arms fastening on his back, her hands grabbing his clothes, as if she wanted to drag him closer to her.
In the past, when he dreamed of kissing Marian, he imagined a sweet, delicate, reverent kiss, but now it was completely different, and a thousand times better. There was passion in it, and not only on his side. It was like being into a storm, with no other choice than following the wind, but at the same time he felt safe.