My reflection rippled in the water as I bent over next to the river's edge. Already the pale rose light of dawn glinted upon the river as I washed my face in the icy water. My face was smudged with dirt again because of the fight and my hair was disheveled and tangled. It saddened me to see how quickly I had become a she-wolf again in appearance. Even with my new clothes and my wash back in Wickam, it still had not cleansed me of my past nor erased what I had become.
In dismay, I looked at the dress Alison of Wickam had given me in her kindness. The hem near my left leg had torn during the fight and flecks of red soiled the white gown – the soldiers' blood. I dipped my hand in the water, trying to rub out some of the stains, but many had already set into the fabric and wouldn't leave. The cruel irony was not lost – not when my anger, sadness and exhaustion seemed to mingle into one painful emotion.
It was Robin's voice, but I did not turn to look in his direction.
"We wondered if you had left us," Robin said, crouching next to me on the river's edge. "We were looking for you."
"And why should you? To help you kill Gisburne?"
"Anne, how could you think –"
"How could I not think? You said he will soon trouble you no more. Maybe you won't have the king kill him – so you can kill him yourself!"
I continued to keep my eyes on the persistent blood stains, trying to rub them fiercely out with my thumb.
"It's because I don't want Gisburne to die I've come to you," Robin said.
The admission shocked me and in the silence I turned to the young man who gazed intently at me with his gentle gray eyes.
"You don't want him to die," I said. "I would think his death would be a blessing to you and all your men. Isn't he your enemy?"
"He probably will always be," said Robin, with a regretful sigh. "But it can't be helped and there are some things I can't change … But I do not wish for Gisburne's death, even if he desires mine … I need you to help me save him, Anne."
Shock pierced my heart like a knife. I stared at Robin in disbelief.
"Save him? Why? Who is he to you?"
Robin looked very uncomfortable and turned his eyes away from me.
"Let's say I have my reasons for keeping him alive … But I know you love him … or you once did. He still might be saved, but I fear only Gisburne will believe you. He cannot stay in Nottingham. Whether this messenger is our prisoner or not, one day the king will send even greater forces or he might visit Nottingham himself and order Gisburne's execution. He must leave Nottingham for good if he's to be safe."
I listened intently to Robin's words, yet the logic escaped me.
"If he leaves Nottingham, who's to say he'll not be hunted down by the king … or even the sheriff just to gain the king's favor? This happened once before … Gisburne was not safe anywhere," I said.
"He may not be safe, but he can disappear. I can help with that. But Gisburne must leave Nottingham … and he must come to Sherwood. You can convince him to come to Sherwood, Anne."
I saw the conviction in Robin's eyes and could hear a desperate urgency in his voice – the same urgency I once heard in Guy when he felt his revenge was within reach. I slowly shook my head.
"I'm sorry, Robin. I just don't believe you. You want me to bring him to Sherwood and I know he is your enemy. I won't lead Guy to his death, even if he wronged me."
I stood up, preparing to turn away from him.
"Your inaction dooms him then," Robin said defiantly. "He will stay in Nottingham and he will hang … But if that is your choice."
I heard the grass and leaves rustle as he stood up, preparing to leave. I turned to Robin, furious.
"My choice? Since when have I ever had a choice," I cried.
Robin stopped, his eyes to the ground before he turned his gaze to me.
"You chose once to love Gisburne. It is now your choice whether you now wish to save him."
Robin slung his longbow over his shoulder and walked into the trees, vanishing amongst the shadows.
The marketplace was overflowing with vendors and buyers haggling for a better price. As I walked through the crowded streets, seeing nothing but unfamiliar faces, I felt like a stranger lost in the chaos and noise of Nottingham. I had never been to a city and the only other village I had been to besides my own was Wickam.
When I first entered Nottingham, the high city gates overwhelmed me with its enormous stones and towering archway. Although I was not questioned as I passed through the gates, my heart beat fast when I saw the Norman guards standing sentry.
Everywhere I went, somewhere in the city, were Norman soldiers and every time I saw them a deep-seated terror gripped me. I expected at any moment I would be recognized, seized and thrown into some dark, cold dungeon. But I passed by them unnoticed and unheeded, and made my way slowly up the high road that led to Nottingham Castle.
It was mid-day by the time I reached the imposing castle gates and this time the sentry guards did take notice of me as I warily approached.
"Well hey, lookee 'ere," laughed one guard. "If it isn't a juicy wench. How much ye worth, eh hussy?"
My fear quickly was replaced by anger.
"I have come to speak to the Sheriff of Nottingham," I said firmly. "I'm not here for you!"
"Eh, not too sure of that," said the other guard, rubbing his filthy fingers across his lips. "Cause if ye want to see the sheriff, ye have to do a bit of convincing."
The guards laughed, their lecherous eyes hungrily staring at me as I stood there. It disgusted me and fired my rage.
"I have news about Robin Hood, surely that would warrant an audience with the Sheriff," I cried.
The guards for a moment looked at each other, before smiling and turning back to me with their lust-filled eyes.
"Aye, who doesn't have news of Robin, eh? And most of 'em are lies and worth fer naught," said the first guard.
"And if it is of some worth and you don't let me pass," I looked up at the towering castle walls. "The Sheriff has long wanted Robin's head, has he not? And if the Sheriff finds out you prevented his capture … I imagine by evening he'll have your head instead!"
The guards looked at each other and some of the confidence and amusement drained from their faces.
"We have no need for such a filthy whore as ye," the first guard spat. "Go an' see the sheriff and I hope he sticks yer head on a pike fer yer bloody lies!"
I didn't tarry, fearing the guards would quickly change their mind, and hurried past the castle gate. This was one of many guards who would stop me before I entered the main hall in Nottingham Castle, but thank God they were not like the filthy swine at the main castle gate. They were either bored, drunk or both, and once I mentioned the name Robin Hood, they quickly let me pass.
In the end, I found myself in the main hall, behind a long line of peasants seeking audience with the Sheriff. I had to content myself to a long, tedious wait ahead while each peasant pled their case to the Sheriff, often with unfavorable results. I instead amused myself with watching the Sheriff, whom I had last seen shackled to a board while the Wolf Warriors laughed as they threw hatchets near his head.
Indeed, the Sheriff didn't seem traumatized by his ill treatment under Gulnar. He slouched in his throne, drinking a goblet of wine and acting as smug as though he was the King of England. Then I turned my attention to the right and I saw him … Guy of Gisburne. No longer did he wear the coarse wolf pelt or the crude, barbaric clothing.
He now wore a blue tunic of wool that draped to his knees and was fastened with a leather belt. His arms were crossed and he looked bored and somewhat disgusted. I wondered if Guy would see me amongst the peasants waiting to be heard by the Sheriff, but he rarely turned his eyes up … in fact he seemed more content to study the floor.
The line moved forward as the pig farmer's issue was resolved, instead of the neighbor who stole the pig being forced to return the stolen property, they both were ordered to give the Sheriff a pig for "the atrocious waste of time of hearing their tedious case." As a weaver was presenting his case of not being able to pay his taxes due to the high cost of wool, I realized I could hear the Sheriff … which wasn't difficult since the small man was often bellowing in anger.
I heard him yell at Gisburne one time during the hearings, "What's the matter with you, man? You're sulking more than usual!" But Gisburne just cast the Sheriff a reproachful glance before turning his eyes again to the floor. Now that I was closer, I realized I saw something else in Guy's eyes and face besides frustration and boredom … it was sadness.
At last the case before me was finishing up: A baker who was being accused of casting a spell on his loaves so they turned "wormy" before they could be eaten … thereby forcing customers to buy more of his bread. The Sheriff ordered the peasants to relinquish all their bread to the Sheriff so he could "see and taste for himself."
"But that will leave us with nothing to eat! We'll starve," cried one villager, a bony man in rags.
"Well you should have thought of that before bothering me with this nonsense, hadn't you," cried the Sheriff.
The Sheriff waved his hand and the guards came and dragged the protesting villagers and the baker out of the hall. My heart raced as I realized I now stood at the head of the line. I looked around at the Norman guards – they were everywhere, all staring at me, and worst of all, a greedy and angry Sheriff was glaring at me with his beady eyes.
"Well? And what do you want, woman," the Sheriff demanded before taking another swig of wine from his goblet.
I wrung my sweaty hands in my shift and gazed back at the Sheriff, my heart racing.
"I – uh – well," I realized in stark terror that all words and thoughts had left me – even my purpose for coming.
"Spit it out," screamed the Sheriff. "Or I'll have you dragged from here as well!"
"Forgive me, my lord," I said, turning my eyes down. "It's about – about Robin Hood."
The Sheriff's anger quickly turned to sly amusement and a malicious grin spread across his lips.
"Robin Hood, eh? And pray, what news of Robin Hood do you have, my dear?"
"That – that he is back in Sherwood, weary from his journey," I said, struggling to keep my voice from trembling. "If you would attack him now, he would be unarmed and helpless."
"Would he, now? And why should I believe you?"
"Because – because I hear you have a reward for catching these outlaws," I said, raising my eyes to the Sheriff. "I have nowhere to go, no one to turn to … The money could help me start a new life."
For the first time, I dared look at Guy during my audience. His eyes turned up from the floor, looking at me in astonishment and disbelief.
"And what else," demanded the Sheriff. "You seem to have taken a sudden interest in my Steward … Is there anything else I should know about?"
"Yes, my lord." Reluctantly I tore my gaze away from Guy. "Robin Hood plans to kill your Steward. I cannot allow that."
The sheriff frowned and he began to study my face as though he was trying to place where he had seen me before. I quickly turned my eyes down to the floor again.
"Interesting. Why such concern over the welfare of my Steward? Perhaps there is a reason for such – affection." The Sheriff turned to Guy, who looked visibly uncomfortable and embarrassed now. "Gisburne, do you know this woman, perchance?"
"My lord I – well I mean," Gisburne stammered.
"Gisburne, I have had quite enough of this," cried the Sheriff. "I paid a hefty sum to the king to spare both our necks and this is how you repay me?!"
"But my lord, it's not what you think …"
"You will throw your wench out of here … and you will capture Robin Hood and his men. If you fail, I could care less if they plan to kill you. It would be a just reward for your incompetence … Is that understood?!"
Guy glared at the Sheriff, open venom in his eyes.
"Perfectly," Guy spat, his anger barely concealed in his dark voice.
Guy stormed from the dais and roughly grabbed my arm with his large hand.
"Come along, then," Guy said matter-of-factly, keeping his eyes away from me in anger and shame.
"Guy, what are you –"
"Anne, wait until we leave the hall," he whispered, gazing suspiciously at the watching court. "Others will hear us."