OK, folks. I was going to save this for later, when the project was done entirely, but I thought I would give the fans a special treat. You're a terrific bunch, after all! You'll find some of this familiar, as part of it is from my "Guy of Gisborne - Origins" story. But there is some new material here too. Don't be afraid to tell me what you think! I value your opinions! And if you like it, I may just keep writing.
Happy Reading, everyone!
Happy Reading, everyone!
His head was throbbing. His cheek was raw – not only from the spot where it was pressed against the floorboards, but from the hard fist that had rendered him senseless. For how long he had been unconscious, he did not know. But the reminder of the blow was impossible to ignore. His memory came to life all at once. As he lifted his head, his blue eyes darted around the room. The blaze in the hearth crackled ominously – the only sound to be heard. Eerily colored in flickering shades of orange and black as the flames of the fire danced, the evidence of the robbery was everywhere.
Overturned furniture. Broken pottery. And Elizabeth Gisborne. His mother, lying face-down near the hearth.
Dragging himself forward, the pain of his wounds eclipsed by his shattered soul, he came to her side – and without touching her, without speaking her name, he knew.
Dead, he thought. My mother is dead.
Tears pooled in his eyes. Guilt pierced his heart. He had tried to protect her. But the intruders had burst in so suddenly, and they had been so much stronger - so much more determined and violent in their quest, and his twelve-year-old defenses had been no match for them.
Mother, he cried silently. Mother…
He had failed her. He was a weakling, as his father often called him. Tall, gangly, and lacking sufficient strength, his attempt at fighting had not been good enough. He had faltered in his duty as a son, and now, he could only stare at the paleness of his mother’s face - at the lifelessness of her blue eyes.
Behind him, the door opened with a slow creak of its hinges. He gave a start, thinking it was the return of the thieves. Turning his head, he saw the fearsome figure standing in the open doorway.
A lump of fear stuck in his throat. Father, he thought, and he trembled.
Sir Hadrian of Gisborne loomed large in the door frame. His wide shoulders forced him to turn slightly as he stepped into the room. The powerful jaw, large and square, was set firmly as his eyes took in the sight before him, and the flames of the fire in the hearth, stirred by the sudden draft, reflected in those eyes. They mirrored his rage and disbelief. His voice fell on his son’s ears as a deep and chilling rasp.
“Guy of Gisborne. What atrocity have you allowed in my absence?”
The sky was grey with rain – the air sweeping the deluge along in slowly falling sheets. The journey to Nottingham Castle was a short one. But the road was rutted and difficult to traverse, and as his father’s cart rolled over each hole, Guy felt the repeated splash of water and mud on the side of his face. But he dared not complain. As the servant drove the cart, Hadrian rode alongside, never speaking or looking anywhere except ahead. The last words spoken between them had been words of warning, and Guy feared Hadrian enough to heed his admonition.
You will go to the village in the morning, boy. You are to be a ward to your uncle. I will have no argument on the matter.
What argument could he give? It had always been known to him that one day, he would become a servant to the Sheriff of Nottingham. His two brothers, both older than he, had already gone away to their servitudes in distant households. For some time now, Guy had known that his twelfth birthday was fast approaching, and he had tried to stay close to his beloved mother. He wanted to have memories of her to hold to, for he knew that once he was established in his apprenticeship, he would only see her on rare occasions.
But such memories were pushed to the corners of his mind now. All he saw in his head was her silent and still figure lying there on the floor, the victim of a senseless crime that he had failed to prevent. His father blamed him for his incompetence. Hadrian had not said so in words, but there had not been a need to. His silence spoke volumes, and his insistence on this journey to Nottingham was further proof of it. Without his wife, the elder Gisborne had no one to care for his youngest child, and he certainly could not be expected to take up the task himself.
The sky was grey and gloomy, just like the stones of the castle. As the wagon stopped at the gatehouse, Guy looked up at the imposing facade, feeling a sense of dread. He knew what waited for him behind these walls. He knew many of the page-boys that already lived there, and their lives consisted of strict routine and hard work. Such was expected in a place that was, in essence, a military fortress. There would be no kindness or compassion for a boy who had lost his mother. A boy who was the Sheriff’s nephew. Such things made no difference now.
A guard appeared from within. Without speaking, he waited for Guy to get down from his seat, and after a moment of hesitation, Guy did so in silence. Looking back at his father, he waited for some sign of farewell, some sign that Hadrian would at least acknowledge this last moment between them. But Hadrian’s head remained forward, his eyes fixed on the road before him, and in a moment more he turned his horse and rode away, his servant soon following behind. The guard was left to escort Guy into his new residence.
Despite the fact that it was summer, the halls of the castle were cold and drafty. Guy shivered as he followed along, fighting back the misery he felt in his heart. He missed his mother. She had been the one constant in his life – the one happiness in a dark and turbulent world. So often, she had held him in her arms and spoken softly to him, offering him comfort when his father had been cruel to him. Where would he find such comfort now? Who would care for him? Who would love him?
Turning a corner in the hall, the guard stopped at a door and knocked. A deep voice came from within.
The door opened. Guy was slowly led forward, and he came to stand before a massive desk. But the heavy piece of furniture, though nearly as tall as he was, was not what frightened him. It was the man sitting behind it.
“My Lord Sheriff,” said the guard, “This is your new page boy.”
William Briwere rose from his chair. Guy looked up, seeing his uncle – his mother’s younger brother. They shared the same slim build, the same middling height. William’s hair was cropped close to his head, but it was fair and blond, just like Elizabeth’s. And those were her eyes, it seemed - the same pale shade of blue. And yet, they looked down on Guy with no light of love. Just a moment of passing regard, and then a word of frosty instruction.
“Take the boy to the barracks. Find some use for him.”
No welcome. No word of condolence for the loss of his mother. Just a brief word or two, and then he was being led away again, taken off to begin his new servitude.
Cassia opened her eyes, yawning. Instantly, she caught a taste and smell in the air that excited her, and throwing back her coverlet, she got up from her pallet in the corner. She hurried to dress herself. Despite her excitement, she was aware of the duties expected of a ten-year-old girl. Her father would expect her to be clean and presentable when she came to break her fast, and there was not enough time in the day to dawdle.
And yet, she could not help breaking that rule on occasion.
Dressed now, with her dark hair smoothed down and her head covered with a white scarf, she hurried to the window and threw open the shutters. The freezing cold air drifted in, but she was too thrilled by the sight of snow to even notice.
Nottingham village was usually so drab, so unpleasant to look at. The thatched roof houses were scattered here and there, and looked quite pitiful when compared to the more well-built manor houses on the outskirts of town. At times, the sights and smells of the village were intolerable. Despite its small size, it was a busy place full of people hawking their wares and just generally living their lives. In the summer, the pungent odor of livestock, butcher’s remains, and the cesspits – horrid scents, to be sure - often drifted through the air and could not be ignored.
But in winter, when all was covered by a fresh blanket of white, the air smelled crisp and clean. For a short while, the world around her seemed like a pleasant and beautiful place.
“Cassia, close the shutters this instant!” a voice demanded. “And come to the table at once, or we shall eat without you.”
Her father’s warning did not dampen her spirits, but she did as he said. It had been such a gloomy and damp few months, and the sight of the first snow was beautiful to her. It seemed to cover the decay of the autumn, and she found it hard to understand why no one else seemed to take pleasure in it. She took her place beside her brother, who took the moment to chastise her. Stephen was older by eight years. Being a young man of eighteen, with the brash disposition desired in a prospective soldier, he was not hesitant to give commands and criticisms.
“Foolish child,” he said. “You invite a chill into the house. We shall all die of illness now.”
Across from them, sitting beside their father, was their maternal grandmother. She snorted at Stephen’s remark.
“Nonsense, boy. A touch of fresh air never did a body harm.”
Cassia smiled at her. Lucinda was often the voice of reason in the house, particularly when it came to her grandson’s bullish nature. Though he certainly loved their grandmother, he often chafed under her control, and as he grew older his opinion of her ways became more critical.
“Forgive me, Grandmother,” he said, “But the truth of the matter is that the air is filled with ill humors. Despite your powers as a healer, you cannot avoid such things. Winter brings death, and that is a fact well known.”
Cassia looked at Lucinda, who said nothing, but simply shook her head. Lucinda, as well as Robert, had a gift for curing the sick and the injured, and neighbors often came to their door seeking their aid. But not everyone valued their abilities. Some villagers were fearful of Lucinda’s appearance. She wore her white hair long, its waves streaming down her back in a rather unruly fashion. She was tall for a woman, and walked with an air of strength and confidence. And she went about her healing arts without fear or regard for what others thought. Some, like Stephen, felt that abilities such as hers were unnatural – that humans were not meant to act in the place of the omnipotent and cure things that were better left in the hands of God.
“I have often said so,” he went on, “But you should cease your practices. The rumors of witchcraft will not go away, and one day, they will put us all in danger.”
Robert DeWarren spoke up at last. “Stephen, that is enough. If you cannot speak respectfully, do not speak at all.”
“I am sorry, father. But the whispers grow more constant. Will you have us banished from this village altogether when it is discovered that we harbor a witch?”
Robert’s voice boomed. “You will say no more!”
Silence fell over the room. Their father was usually so quiet, so calm. But when he issued a command, it was not to be ignored. Cassia cast her eyes down, concentrating on her trencher. Such arguments were not uncommon. It was true what Stephen said. Ever since she could remember, Cassia had often heard the term “Witch” used to describe Lucinda. Many feared her abilities, even if they sometimes sought her out in desperation, hoping for the help only she seemed capable of providing.
Cassia longed to be like her. And Lucinda was nurturing that desire. Recently, she had started teaching her about remedies for illness, and how to look for signs of them. She had taught her the value of certain herbs and plants, and while she taught, she fostered in her granddaughter a strength of spirit that women were not meant to have.
“Let not your womanhood be a justification for weakness,” she often said.
They were words that Cassia would hold to for the rest of her life.
Later that night, after she had finished her prayers, she tried to settle into bed like an obedient child was supposed to do at days’ end. But she soon began to shiver from the cold. The winter was beautiful to look at during the day, but she could remember now why Stephen cursed it. The draft seeped in through every nook and cranny. The heat from the fire was so limited, most of it escaping up the chimney, and soon enough the fire would burn down to embers, leaving the entire house to endure until the morning. Seeking warmth, she sought the arms of Lucinda, who was sitting before the fire with a pile of knitting. With a smile, she set her work aside as Cassia snuggled against her. Lucinda’s voice was firm but kind.
“You should be in bed, child.”
Cassia sighed. “I am cold. I cannot sleep.”
Lucinda wore cross with a tiny amethyst embedded in its center. Removing it, she draped it over Cassia’s head and placed it around her neck.
“Do you know of amethysts, child?”
Cassia shook her head. She had always admired the necklace. It had belonged to her late mother, and she looked down at it now with fascination, holding the cross with her fingers.
“Put it under your pillow,” Lucinda said, “And it will bring you pleasant dreams. It will also bring you spiritual wisdom, and protect you from harm. And if you hang it from your window space in the moonlight, it will bring peace to your household.”
A dreamy, pleasant smile came to Cassia’s lips. Closing her eyes, she felt herself falling asleep. She felt Lucinda’s gentle hands caressing her back.
But a sudden knock on the door startled them both.
Lucinda turned her head towards the sound. “Who in the devil can that be at this hour?”
It was Stephen who approached the door first, gripping the handle of his dagger in preparation for any danger that might be coming. Robert followed behind, carrying a candle in one hand and a mace in the other. One could never tell what mischief was lurking in the dark. Stephen stood poised, ready for action.
“Who is it?” he demanded.
A voice came from the other side – one that was quite familiar to all of them.
“It is I. Robin of Locksley.”
Cassia saw the look of displeasure that crossed Lucinda’s face. She had never had a good opinion of the Earl of Locksley. He was a handsome young man, to be sure. Blond-haired, green-eyed, and lean but muscular, he was a favorite among most residents of Nottingham, especially the ladies. Lucinda had never liked him, often calling him an arrogant and foolish young whelp. But he and Stephen had grown up together. They were the same age, and both were eager to achieve their ranks of knighthood. Stephen welcomed him in as he always did.
“Robin!” he greeted him with a smile and a handshake. “What brings you here, and under the cover of darkness? Come, let us sit and talk over a cup of ale.”
Cassia watched the two of them together, her curiosity strong. They were always in some scheme together, for better or for worse. Once, she recalled, the two of them had been caught throwing vegetables at people from a rooftop. She had only been a tiny girl of four at the time, but she could still remember the sound whipping that Stephen had received. So what were they up to now?
She would learn nothing, she discovered, as Lucinda gave her a firm but gentle push towards her bed.
“Go, child. It is late.”
Cassia nodded. To argue would be a sign of disrespect and impudence, and such behavior was not permitted, so she quietly obeyed and sought her pallet in the corner. She wrapped the coverlet around herself, and smiled up at Lucinda when another blanket was draped over her. The night would be more tolerable now, thanks to her grandmother’s thoughtfulness. She watched as Lucinda walked towards the table where the three men sat. Being a woman, it was not her place to sit with them and join their conversation without invitation. So she stood nearby, listening. And from her bed, Cassia listened too.
“I seek your help,” Robin said, sipping his ale. Stephen drank from his own cup, his eyebrow lifted in interest.
“In what way?”
“The sheriff has imprisoned my brother. I intend to free him.”
Robert, sitting with them now, leaned in close and spoke in a low voice. Such tones were often used when speaking of delicate matters, especially anything that concerned the law. One never knew who might be listening.
“For what crime was he imprisoned?”
Though it was not her place to speak, Lucinda did so all the same. Her words pointed and serious as she came near, folding her arms.
“For stealing, of course. Am I correct, Robin of Locksley?”
The three men looked at one another. It was the truth. John of Locksley’s criminal exploits, though petty when compared to more serious offenses, were something they were all aware of. But Robin, in his usual way, came to his elder brother’s defense, and there was a gruffness in his manner – the manner of a man protecting his blood kin.
“My brother is a thief, yes. But he steals to help the poor.”
Lucinda gave an unladylike snort of disgust. “He is a criminal. And you are a fool to stand by him.”
Robin’s voice rose. “He is a defender of the weak and the needy!”
“He is a troublesome wretch who will bring trouble upon us all if we aid him!”
“I do not seek the counsel of a witch!”
A moment of silence fell over everything. Lucinda took a step back. Her eyes were filled with contempt, even when Robin’s features softened and he tried to apologize. He reached out to touch her arm.
“Forgive me, my lady. I did not mean to be cruel…”
She flung him off instantly, her eyes blazing. “Do as you will, Robin of Locksley. All of you, do just as you please! I am done with it! May God have mercy on your foolish souls.”
She turned away, leaving them to make their plans. Cassia closed her eyes as Lucinda passed by. And long into the night, she wondered what trouble the morning might bring.
Guy stood before the cell, looking over the ragged trio of outlaws that were awaiting their fate. They would be executed, no doubt. Briwere did not consider theft a minor crime. But before then, they would be taken to the bowels of the castle and questioned. It was his duty, as the recently appointed Master-at-Arms, to watch the proceedings and see what information could be distracted from the accused. Sometimes torture brought useful information – sometimes it did not, but either way, he had it to do.
He was only twenty-five years of age, but he had grown immune to the sights and sounds of the prison, and at times, he found himself quite bored with his duties. He sighed with impatience, waiting for the Sheriff and his page to read over the list of charges.
While he waited, Guy could not help staring at one of the men in particular. He heard the man’s name being read, but it did not strike him as being familiar..at least, not at first.
John of Locksley, he was called. Guy suddenly felt that he might have heard the name before, and he remembered then that there was a local nobleman that shared the same last name. Could the two possibly be related? And was there not a younger Locksley, one they called Robin? He shook the thought from his head, not truly caring.
There was nothing particularly striking about him. He was in his late twenties, perhaps. He was not a young man at such an age, but he still had an air of youth about him. A figure of middling height, with an athletic frame and a dark complexion, he had the rough look of a man who lived life on the streets. In short, he looked like just another criminal. He turned his head to scratch at his scruff of a beard.
Guy saw it then.
A flash of memory flooded his brain…
The thieves laughed at him as he stood in front of his mother, his rapier held out with a less than steady hand. The leader of the criminal band threw his head back and laughed out loud, the strong smell of drink emitnating from him and his commrads. A long pink scar ran from his ear downward, ending under his pointed chin…
He could not forget that mark. He had never forgotten it, even after thirteen years. A red and furious haze glazed over his eyes.
“Open the door,” he demanded.
The Sheriff and his servant just stared for a moment – too long, in Guy’s mind, and he snatched the keys away, opening the cell door himself. An animal sound was unleashed from within him. He seized the criminal by the throat, choking him, pinning him against the wall.
Blood! He thought. I must have blood! This very moment!
His hand went to the dagger at his side. But before he could act, he was pulled away by the arms of two guards who had appeared in an instant. Briwere stood nearby, demanding an explanation.
“What madness is this, Gisborne? Explain yourself!”
“This is the man who murdered my mother!”
Briwere looked at the man who now sat on the floor, holding his throat and coughing, Then he looked back at Guy.
“How can you be certain?”
“I am certain. As God is my witness, I am certain.”
The sheriff seemed to consider the situation for a moment. Calm and cold, as he most often was, he turned a contemptuous eye to the man who was now rising to his feet.
“He shall receive a special kind of welcome in the dungeons, then. Something long and very painful, to be sure – before he swings from the gallows.” He looked at Guy once again. “Will that suffice?”
Guy was silent. He kept his eyes on his enemy, his thirst for some physical form of vengeance barely controlled. He sat on the razor’s edge of an attack.
Then, John of Locksley gave the hint of a smirk.
That look. It was the same kind of arrogant, devil-may-care look that had preceeded that long ago strike that had rendered Guy senseless, leaving him to awaken to the horrific sight of his boyhood home destroyed – and his mother dead, ripped away from him forever.
His rage overwhelmed him. The dagger was in his hand, his grip on it powerful, and he lunged forward, shoving the knife into Locksley’s heart. John’s eyes bulged out in shock. He gurgled and gasped, his mouth moving wordlessly, and he fell to the floor. Guy looked down at him in disgust, and spat on him.
Briwere threw his hands up, heaving an irritated breath. It was not the murder itself that bothered him, but the disruption of his plans. Few things angered him more than a botched execution, or in this case, one that was over too quickly and did not involve torture beforehand.
“Good God, Gisborne. Have you no self-control? I told you he would be tortured properly, but you insist on such haste! Learn the virtues of patience, you fool!”
The other captives, both staring down at the writhing body of their friend, were taken away by the guards. John of Locksley, slowly bleeding to death on the floor of the cell, would be taken away later and disposed of after his movements had ceased entirely. Guy stood there for a moment, listening to the quiet noise of impending death. And he could find nothing but satisfaction and pleasure in the sound of it.
Cassia watched and listened, her hand holding Lucinda’s, hearing the agonized sounds that came from Robin of Locksley’s lips. Surrounded by Stephen and a host of other friends, he wandered back and forth aimlessly as his friends tried to comfort him.
“He had been murdered,” Robin wept. “My brother has been murdered, and I was not there to stop it!”
Stephen tried to reason with him. “Twas not your fault! It was Guy of Gisborne that committed this injustice! His hands are stained with John’s blood!”’
Cassia listened, fearful as they spoke of committing their own crime in the name of justice. She was young, but she was not a fool. If they tried to seek revenge, they would only endanger themselves. Men died every day in the castle square, most of them hanged but some of them going on the block to have their heads severed. She had seen such an atrocity once, thanks to Stephen, who had taken her – against their father’s wishes – to be witness to the public spectacle. She could not forget the horrific sight of a dead man’s newly decapitated head being held up before the crowd. She thought of her brother being subject to such a fate. And she could not stand the thought of it. She cried out, rushing forward.
“You cannot go!”
The men seemed not to hear or notice her. Stephen, in particular, was too energized by the events to pay attention when she tugged at his hand. At last he turned to her with an angry glare and a harsh tone.
“Go away, Cassia! This is not a time for children!”
“Do not go with them!” she pleaded. “You will be caught and punished, and I cannot bear it!”
His reaction was harsher than before – angrier. “You are only a girl and you know nothing! Do not bother me again with your foolishness!”
Heartbroken and terrified, she ran to the comfort of Lucinda’s arms and cried, knowing of nothing else she could do. Lucinda spoke soothingly to her.
“The ways of men cannot be changed, dear heart. No matter how we try. We can only trust in God to be with them on their foolish quests…