A/N - Believe it or not, this story was supposed to be a oneshot. Somehow it just kept growing... well, you know what it's like. This story was not beta-read, so there are probably a number of mistakes, especially since I wrote it a while ago (I daresay my English has improved a little since then). If the mistakes offend you so much that you want to beta this story, feel free to let me know.
Gisburne tightened his cloak around his shoulders, as he nudged his black stallion forward. Thick snowflakes were falling, and the fact that it was past eleven in the evening did not make it easier to see the tracks of the outlaws he was chasing, but they were still clearly visible, a sign that Robin Hood and his men had little lead over him and his soldiers. Perhaps he had still a chance to catch them, although he was far from confident - being in Sherwood at night was not by any means a stroll in the gardens. Damn de Rainault for sending him after the wolfshead in the first place !
Glancing behind him at the dark figures of his men who were trudging behind him, sinking in the knee-high layer of snow on the road, Gisburne motioned for them to move faster. To be fair, the Sheriff had been very angry when he had issued the order to go after Robin Hood - this time, the outlaws had exceeded themselves. Stealing a part of de Rainault's personal treasury, no less ! Not the taxes, not Nottingham's money - de Rainault's. They had dared to come take it in the middle of the castle ! Not to mention the five very fine horses Robin Hood's men had taken in their escape, which somewhat grieved Gisburne more than the loss of the Sheriff's jewels. And why did the wolfsheads have to choose the coldest night of the month to commit their misdeeds ? The steward had not had time to take a thicker cloak, busy as he had been to prepare the pursuit, and he regretted it bitterly now.
He leant forward on his saddle to have a closer look at the hoofprints. They were fresh, not yet scrambled by the falling snow, which meant Robin Hood and his men had been there hardly minutes ago. Excitement built up in Gisburne's chest ; this time, they would catch up with the outlaws, and all the trees of Sherwood would not be enough for them to hide. And then, they would be executed, and how much he would enjoy this sight...
"Faster ! Weapons at the ready !" he barked to his men. The outlaws would not let themselves be caught without putting up a fight, and unfortunately he had only had time to gather a bit more than a dozen soldiers. But they still outnumbered they quarries, and that would have to be good enough. Gisburne would take Robin Hood, and hope his men would manage with the others. Well, the half-wit would not be too much of a problem, but the Saracen or Little John might be another story...
An arrow burying into the chest of the soldier on Gisburne's right brought him abruptly back to reality, and he scanned frantically the trees on both sides of the road, trying to see where the arrow had come from. A scream of pain, and this time it was the man on the steward's left who fell, marring the white mantle of snow with his blood.
"Scatter !" Gisburne shouted desperately, while grabbing his sword. "Take cover !"
But he did not have time to say more, for the third arrow was aimed at him, and he could not keep back a hiss of pain when he felt the stabbing pain beneath his left shoulder. It did not matter much, though, for no one heard him amidst the cries of his men and the racket of their chainmails. Releasing the handle of his sword, he clutched at the wound as his blood trickled down his armour. He was too shocked to really feel the pain, but he knew that would come soon. And other arrows kept coming.
"Well, chase them out !" he yelled to his men - had they no initiative at all ?
Gisburne knew he should be taking cover too, but he had enough trouble getting his horse under control with only one hand as it was. All of a sudden, there was a rustle of leaves above him, and someone fell from a branch on the back of the stallion, behind him. The black horse tried to lash out to get rid of this supplementary burden, but his two riders were too heavy for him to manage it, and he ended up stumbling around. Normally, Gisburne would have sympathized with the horse, but at the moment he had other things on his mind.
The man behind him passed an arm around the steward's neck, half-strangling him in the process, and Gisburne felt the edge of a blade on his throat. He was being taken hostage, he realized in indignation.
"Stop fighting !" the man bellowed.
Gisburne had not seen his face, but he recognized Robin Hood's voice. He tried to struggle free, but the outlaw pressed the dagger harder on his throat, and a rivulet of blood dribbled from the shallow cut. The battlefield had gone silent, each and every man frozen in motion.
"Surrender or he dies !" Robin Hood added.
The soldiers exchanged glances, obviously uncertain what to do. Gisburne was tempted to order them to keep fighting to the last, but there were only eight of them still alive, and they had virtually no chance of winning. That, and he had no doubt Robin Hood would keep to his word and kill him. His pride did not allow the steward to order his men to obey an outlaw, so he kept silent, but he hoped they would not do anything rash.
Fortunately for him, his soldiers wanted to live just as much as he did, and so they lowered their weapons. Gisburne still could not see Robin Hood's face, but he could almost feel the outlaw's grin, along with the man's breath on his neck.
"Good !" the wolfshead said. "You have taken a most sensible decision. Now, you can leave freely, but don't come after us. We're taking Sir Guy as a... safeguard, so I wouldn't try anything if I were you."
"And give our kindest regards to the Sheriff !" another of the outlaws guffawed, as the soldiers made their way back to the castle. In the snow and the night, it would take them hours, so there was little hope for help for some time.
Teeth clenched, his face flushed with anger, Gisburne appraised his chances. Robin Hood kept a strong arm around his neck, and it would not be easy to break free - suicidal, one might say. On the other hand, although Gisburne had no idea what they intended to do with him, he would not put it past the outlaws to kill him. Since he had little to lose, it was better to give it a try. His left arm was nigh to useless, but all he had to do was to knock Robin Hood down, and he could gallop away, hoping that the outlaws would have a bad aim because of the snow and darkness and would not manage to shoot him down.
He counted to three, slowly, then abruptly hit Robin Hood with his elbow. The outlaw gasped for breath, but did not fall, and pushed Gisburne on the ground instead. The arrow, still buried beneath his shoulder, broke in the steward's fall, and the agony was enough for him to pass out. The last thing he saw was the face of the wolfshead, still mounted on his black stallion, then he knew nothing.
The Sheriff was not, by any acount, a patient man, and even less so when he was in a bad mood. And at this precise moment, he was in a very, very bad mood. Pacing in the main hall of the castle of Nottingham, he kept glancing outside through the open door, even though it was hard to see farther than a yard away. The night had long since fallen, and the snowstorm raging outside roared in gusts thick enough to blind anyone foolish enough to venture out.
From time to time, de Rainault harrumphed impatiently, then resumed his pacing. His patience was running very thin, yet there was little he could do but wait. Gisburne had left with his men hours ago, and there was still no sign of him coming back, which probably meant that either he had been successful, or he and his men were dead. The Sheriff hoped it was the former ; he wanted very much to get his jewels back. He would not have been half as annoyed if the money had belonged to the King's, but unfortunately that was not the case.
With a last groan of annoyance, de Rainault strode outside, shivering in his indoor robes, and tried to see something through the falling snow, but all he could make out was the dark shape of the closest tower. He listened intently, relying on his ears when his sight failed him, but there was nothing to hear save the howls of the wind, so he quickly got back inside, muffling himself up in his cloak. This winter seemed to be particularly harsh, which probably meant the peasants would try to get away with less taxes. Well, they ought to know him better, for all the time he had been Sheriff. Good or bad years, the King's demands were the same, and so were the taxes. It was not de Rainault's fault, anyway, if they starved after paying their due.
Hugo rose from his chair in the hall, rubbing sleepily his eyes as his brother entered and came stomping near the fire to warm up. The abbot was clad in purple as usual, with did not become him at all, but the Sheriff had given up explaining that to his brother years ago.
"No sign of them ?" Hugo enquired.
De Rainault glared at him. "Is Gisburne walking behind me ? No ? Then don't ask stupid questions !"
Used to the Sheriff's temper, Hugo did not react to the snappy comment. "Well, that's sad about your jewels, but there's really no need to look so worried. They were not even worth all that much to begin with."
"It's not the value of the jewels !" the Sheriff snarled. "It's the principle of the thing ! The nerve of that outlaw ! I swear, if he killed Gisburne -"
"Well then, you'll get another steward, that wouldn't be such a great loss", Hugo sniggered.
"Oh yes, it would !" de Rainault growled. "It cost me over five hundred marks to get him out of Newark, and I don't intend to see that money wasted."
The abbot raised an eyebrow. "Why did you even bother paying in the first place ?"
"Oh, leave me alone with your questions !" the Sheriff huffed, then restlessly began pacing again. Unfortunately, Hugo had asked a very good question. A question that had been bugging de Rainault ever since he and his steward had come back to Nottingham together. Why indeed had he bothered to pay Gisburne's ransom ?
He could have killed me, in that abbey. No one would have known it was him, and he had all the reasons in the world to do it. Why didn't he, then ? Perhaps he wanted to get his position back. Yet he did not trust me, he showed it clearly when he held me at sword's point in the forest...
The Sheriff discarded these thoughts in annoyance. Why should he care about his steward's motives ? Then again, he liked to understand. People he understood were people he could predict, and people he could predict were people he could control, therefore not dangerous to him. Pawns.
"My lord !" A guard burst in, out of breath. "They are back, my lord !"
"Took them long enough", de Rainault grumbled, although he was pleased to hear that. "Well, don't stand there, you oaf ! Where's Gisburne ?"
"Don't stutter, idiot !"
"He's not among the men who returned", the guard said very quickly, averting his eyes from the Sheriff's piercing glare.
There was a silence, and de Rainault felt ready to explode, but he reigned in his temper. It would not help to yell when he needed to be calm about the situation and take the necessary measures. When he spoke, it was in a curt but restrained voice. "The men who came back. Bring them here."
The guard bowed hastily before leaving, and returned seconds later with a half-dozen men soaked to the skin with melted snow, their faces blue-ish from the cold. De Rainault stopped his pacing in front of them and stared at them. They all looked rather pathetic, and he narrowed his eyes, wondering whether a few executions would motivate the other soldiers to be more mindful of their duties.
"Well ?" he snapped. "Report !"
One of them, a sergeant, seemed to be their spokesman, and he related briefly the pursuit, the outlaws' ambush, and Gisburne being held hostage.
"The idiot !" de Rainault muttered under his breath.
The sergeant's lips twitched slightly, which seemed to indicate an acute hearing.
"This damn wolfshead is scoffing at me !" the Sheriff complained loudly. "First my jewels, and now my steward !"
And yes, dammit, if Robin Hood wanted a steward, he would have to find one on his own, he could not just come and steal de Rainault's. The Sheriff glared at his brother. "What are you sniggering at ?!"
"Oh - nothing, nothing", the abbot said quickly. "Don't mind me, Robert."
"I don't intend to. This time, I've had enough ! I'm taking all my men, and we'll drive the outlaws out of Sherwood !"
"But not now, surely", Hugo said offhandedly, casting a leisurely glance at the door. He knew as well as the Sheriff that going to Sherwood in this weather and by night was sheer suicide. It sickened de Rainault, but the chase would have to wait, and so would Gisburne and his jewels.
"No, not now", he conceded. "Tomorrow. If the weather allows it. But I'm getting rid of him, Hugo ! I killed Robin Hood once, I can do it again if need be."
"You're not afraid he'll come back again ?"
"Afraid ? Don't be ridiculous ! I'm not afraid of this wolfshead !"
"My lord... ?" that was the sergeant, again.
"Yes, yes !" de Rainault waved him away impatiently. "Dismiss the men, and yourself. But I want everybody ready to leave as soon as the weather permits it."
"Will you be leading us, my lord ?"
"It seems like I will have little choice in the matter, won't I ?" the Sheriff scoffed. "Since Gisburne was stupid enough to let himself be captured, and there's no one else with half a brain around here !"
The sergeant left, too happy to disappear from de Rainault's sight, and Hugo came beside his brother.
"You really do intend to go after Robin Hood in Sherwood ?" the abbot asked.
"That's what I've been saying for the past hour, is it not ?" de Rainault barked impatiently.
"Fine, fine. Just don't forget to write my name on your will before you leave."
Gisburne came slowly to his senses, and regretted it almost immediately. The first thing he felt was the throbbing pain beneath his shoulder ; even breathing was aching. But that was not the only thing. He was horribly cold, as though he was laying in the snow. Well, he probably was, the steward thought as the memory of what had happened came back to him. He would have moved if he had been able, but he seemed to be stuck in a state between slumber and awakening, and he could do nothing but lie there, motionless.
Then his sense of hearing came back, too, and he heard what he had missed so far - the sound of two voices, speaking softly. He easily recognized one of them as Robin Hood's, but the other was foreign to him ; probably one of the outlaw's men.
"...and I know that Will is right, but I can't do it, can I ? I'm not sure what to do actually, Tuck."
Tuck ? Was not that the name of the fat friar ? Gisburne tried to remember. He was nearly certain that the Sheriff had sent a missive to ask for the excommunication of his former chaplain. Not that it would do much good to help capture the outlaw, but it was a small satisfaction anyway.
"I can't tell you what to do, Robin. But I know for sure that if you kill him, you will regret it."
Wait a minute ! Kill who ?
"Will won't understand. But I can't tell him the truth. The problem is, he'll think I refuse to do it just because Gisburne's a nobleman."
"Let Will believe what he will, Robin. Besides, he knows better than that. He was just angry when he said that."
Oh oh. Seemed like what they were speaking of so casually was Gisburne's fate. And the steward was not even able to speak to defend himself. Although, it probably would have done little good with these wolfsheads, who respected neither the law nor any man, save their own.
"Yes, but I still have to decide what to do with Gisburne."
Let me go. Let me go. Dammit, let me go ! But he won't, of course. I would have killed him, if I was in his shoes. So why won't he kill me ? Does he have such a high opinion of himself ?
"Well, you could let him here."
"No, can't do that. It would be murder, Tuck. Unconscious and wounded, lying in the snow ? Better to kill him quickly, in that case."
"Then you don't have much choice, do you Robin ? You can't leave him, you can't kill him... that means we'll have to keep him a prisoner. Or bring him back to Nottingham."
"Yes, that sounds like a good idea."
if Tuck had been joking, Robin Hood sounded deadly serious, and Gisburne found himself absurdly hoping that he would do it, even though he knew it was more than unlikely.
"For God's sake, Robin ! I was kidding ! Of course you can't bring him back to Nottingham - not now, at any rate. The Sheriff must be furious, the place is probably crawling with soldiers. And it's too far, we'll never make it back to Sherwood before dawn."
Damn. They're right, the Sheriff must be furious. Perhaps it's a good thing I did not come back, in the end.
"Yeah, but I can't have Gisburne and Will around the same fire either, can I, Tuck ? By morning one of them would be dead, and it would not be Will. The others, I could trust them with this prisoner, but Will was always hotheaded."
"Is that why you sent everybody ahead to set the camp ?"
"Yes, but it's only a temporary solution."
"Why not tell them the truth, then ?"
"Tell them that Gisburne is my brother ? Are you mad ?" Robin asked in disbelief.
If he had been able to move, the steward would have gaped. Tell who that he was what ? For a minute or so, he felt as though his brain completely stopped functioning. He just could not work out the implication of this tiny little sentence that Robin had said. It was impossible, unbelievable, unconceivable. Robin Hood knew Gisburne could hear him, and he had said that just to unsettle him. It had to be it. There was no way they could be... brothers ? The steward determinedly ignored the little voice in the back of his head that murmured that it all made sense. Of course it did not make sense.
"They would understand, Robin."
"No, they would not. We share the same blood, but Gisburne and I are nothing alike."
For some reason, even though he knew the outlaw had to be lying, the rejection hurt. He should be used to it, now - his entire life had been rejection. Well, not that he would want to be brother to the outlaw, anyway. What a ridiculous idea ! Gisburne did not know where Robin Hood had gotten it, but he would not be stupid enough to believe it.
"That's what his mother said", Tuck grumbled.
Mother ? When had they... How had they even dared ! It felt as though the sky was crashing on him, and Gisburne was not sure what to believe anymore, except that Robin Hood was not - could not - be his brother. The very idea was repulsive. Besides, he had never had a brother, and he was not about to start now.
Too shocked by the successive revelations - lies ! - Gisburne paid little attention to the rest of the discussion. Instead, he focused on regaining the use of his limbs, slowly and discreetly. He managed to open his eyes, and glanced at his hands. They were not tied up, and neither were his legs... Good. Then, he glanced quickly around to locate the horses. He saw his black stallion, but he was on the other side of the camp, much too far for him to reach the horse unseen. There was another, though, a dappled grey, hardly meters from Gisburne. It was a pity to leave his favourite horse behind, but his freedom was worth it.
Robin Hood and Tuck were a few meters away, seated around a meager fire. Gisburne only then realized how cold he was - that probably explained why his limbs felt so numb. He almost snorted, but stopped himself in time ; it would not do to be heard now, while his two captors were quietly speaking together and paying him little attention, but if Robin Hood really did not want to kill him, there were other ways than to leave him lying in the snow for an undetermined period of time.
Very slowly, Gisburne moved, careful not to make a sound. Fortunately, his armor was covered in half frozen snow, and it helped to smother the clinks of steel. The cold had another advantage ; he felt much less pain than he ought to. It was probably not a good sign, but as long as it served his purposes... The steward glanced again at the two outlaws, and regretted he did not have a crossbow with him ; he could have gotten rid of the two at this moment. However, there was no helping it, and the priority was to get away.
It was too easy, he thought as he came near the grey horse. These outlaws had obviously little experience of keeping prisoners. Assuming he was harmless, leaving him free of his moves, not even watching him... if one of Gisburne's men had shown such incompetence, he would have been lucky to come through it with his head still on his shoulders. But in this situation, he would not complain.
The steward always had had a way with horses, and as much as de Rainault laughed at him because of his passion for these animals, the skill came in handy. He laid a hand on the pommel of the saddle, reins gathered around his fingers, and slipped a foot in the stirrup. His right hand came on the horse's hindquarters, to help him propel himself on the back of the animal. Now was the critical moment ; he would have only one chance, and the two outlaws would likely go after him or shoot him or both. He would have to be quick, and each passing second increased the risks that he might be seen. He had to go, now !
In a long, fluid move, Gisburne jumped on the back of the grey horse, and immediately nudged it forward. The steed was well-trained, and almost immediately broke into a gallop. Behind him, the steward heard shouts, and he expected arrows to whiz past him at any moment. He heard none, but that did not make him stop. He leant forward on the horse's neck, to offer less of a target. In that position, he could not see where the horse was going, let alone direct it towards the castle, but he had no idea where he was in the forest anyway. He would just have to trust the horse to find the way back to its stable.
Tuck stringed his bow and prepared an arrow, but Robin caught his wrist to stop him.
"But he's getting away !" the friar protested.
"All the better", Robin replied. "I did not know what to do with him, remember ? Well, he can go back to Nottingham on his own, and good riddance !"
The friar gave it some thought, then shrugged. "Well, your call. I suppose it is much simpler that way." Then he eyed his leader suspiciously. "Is that why you did not tie him up ? You hoped he would escape ?"
Robin hesitated. "I did not exactly hope he would. He did not look like he would manage it. But if he did escape, I thought I would not be too grieved about it."
Shaking his head, Tuck came back to sit near the fire, then, unable to help it, he began to laugh good-heartedly. Robin grinned and came to sit beside the friar.
"Well, what's so funny ?" Little John came into sight and sat with them.
"Oh, you gave me a fright !" Tuck complained. "Lurking in the shadows like that !"
"I did not lurk !" John protested. "I just came to tell you the camp is ready... Where's Gisburne, by the way ? Not that I miss him, but I prefer to have him in sight."
"He escaped", Robin shrugged.
John raised a dubious eyebrow. "He escaped, eh ?" He sniggered, obviously not very convinced by the explanation. "You were only two to guard him, of course. And it's not like he was wounded and unconscious when I left", the big man ironized.
"He took us by surprise", Tuck said quickly in defence of his leader.
John snorted, then caught sight of the horses, and a rather comical look of horror spread across his features. "He did not leave with the grey horse ? Tell me he didn't !"
"Well, yes he did. Why ? Does that matter ?" Robin asked, slightly surprised.
"He asks if it matters !" John moaned. "You half-wits, that's the horse that was carrying the Sheriff's jewels !"
Tuck and Robin exchanged a glance.
When he realized that the outlaws had not bothered to run after him, Gisburne allowed the grey horse to reduce his pace ; the steed had already had a rough ride that evening, and he did not want to strain him. It might take longer to reach Nottingham that way, but it was better than having the horse collapse under him from exhaustion. Trotting was excruciatingly painful, even with his wound numbed by the cold, so he settled for an ambling gait, much more comfortable and also faster than walking. Now, there was nothing he could do but let himself be carried back to the castle.
After what felt like hours, the horse reached the edge of the woods. The snow had stopped falling at some point, but Gisburne was completely unable to remember when. The whole ordeal felt surreal, as though it were a simple dream. If it was, the steward prayed he would wake up soon. He leant on the horse's neck, no longer to avoid arrows, but because he did not have the strength to keep his back straight. How much farther could be the castle ? And what time was it, anyway ? Long past midnight, in all certainty, but the sky was still dark. Although, with these clouds...
Some time passed, but Gisburne was completely unable to tell how much. His universe had been reduced to the regular rhythm of the horse's gait, and he came to wonder if he would one day reach the castle. Then the hoofs of the horse thumped on the wood of the drawbridge, and relief flooded through the steward. He had made it.
If the Sheriff did not kill him for letting Robin go free yet again...
Having spent the most execrable night, ruminating over his humiliation of the past evening, the Sheriff was up at dawn - as much as the dim, grey light in the horizon could be called that, but at least it was not snowing any more. De Rainault was about to leave his quarters when someone knocked urgently, and he heaved a sigh. The men should know better than to bother him when he was in a bad mood.
"Yes ?" he called impatiently.
The guard opened the door and bowed deeply. "My lord, the..."
De Rainault glared at him. "It had better be important ! It's not even five in the morning."
"Yes, my lord, but..."
"Unless you are here to tell me my jewels have been retrieved overnight, of course."
"No my lord, but..."
"Well, speak then ! Don't keep me waiting !"
The guard glanced prudently at the Sheriff. "Yes, my lord. Sir Guy is back."
"Ah... what ?" For once, de Rainault was completely speechless.
"Sir Guy is..."
"I heard you the first time, you oaf !" the Sheriff grumbled. "What do you mean, he's back ? The outlaws freed him ?" The memory of a time when Robin Hood had disguised himself as Gisburne crept in his mind, and he looked suspiciously at the guard. "You are certain that it is Sir Guy ?"
"Oh - yes, my lord. No doubt it's him."
De Rainault sighed impatiently. "Well, where is he, then ? Why didn't he come himself to tell the tale of his miraculous escape ?"
There was a slight hesitation. "We carried him in the guard's room."
"Oh, you did, didn't you ?" the Sheriff frowned. "What do you mean, 'carried him' ? And how... Oh, never mind, I'll ask him myself."
He grabbed his favourite furred hat, and strode outside his chambers, followed by the guard who obviously was not sure whether he should get back to his duties or attend the Sheriff in case he would have further instructions for him. De Rainault waved him away impatiently.
The guard's room was full of people who had nothing to do there, so much so that there was not even enough space for the short and thin Sheriff to enter. "Out, everyone !" he ordered impatiently.
His people knew better than to cross him, and they scattered quickly, the damn gossipers. De Rainault was not stupid enough to imagine they were concerned about Gisburne's health - they just wanted to be the firsts to know what had happened, these incorrigible gossipers.
Speaking of the devil, Gisburne was there, lying on his back. Since there was no accomodation in the room - it was never meant to be a bedroom, after all - he had been laid on the table.
"Well, Gisburne ? What happened ? And where are my jewels ?" the Sheriff enquired dryly.
There was no answer, and he frowned.
"My lord, if I may", another of the guards, a redhead, said. "He seems to be wounded, and we were about to remove his armour when you arrived..."
"Hmmm." De Rainault eyed critically his steward, and noticed for the first time the broken arrow beneath the man's left shoulder. He sighed in annoyance ; answers would have to wait, it seemed. "Well, do it then ! And call for a physician."
Perhaps it would take less time than when the Sheriff had been bitten by his own dog. Although, when he remembered Gisburne's smirks when that had happened, he would not mind too much the physician being late. That would serve the steward right. Yet, if he died, that would be over fiver hundred wasted marks, and de Rainault was not too keen on that to happen. The armour was being removed, and he watched the process with a vague concern. That looked painful.
"Call me when he wakes up", the Sheriff said to no one in particular, then exited the room. There was no sense in staying to watch his steward being hacked to bits.
He crossed a yawning Hugo in the hall, and the abbot looked at him with curiosity.
"Well, shouldn't you be happy, Robert ? You got your five hundred marks steward back."
"I would have preferred to get my jewels back", the Sheriff muttered, and his brother shrugged. He was used to de Rainault's moods, and knew better than to insist. Instead he quickly retreated in his room, presumably to snatch a few more hours' sleep - Hugo had never been an early riser.
As the Sheriff strode through the courtyard, one of the stablelads ran to him and knelt in front of him, a saddlebag in his hands. De Rainault glanced skyward ; fate had decided he would be endlessly sollicited, today.
"Yes, what is it ?" he asked, resigned.
"My lord, I took care of the horse Sir Guy was riding, and in the saddlebags..."
The lad trailed off, and the Sheriff scowled. "Don't stutter, boy ! What is it about ?"
But the youth seemed to have lost his tongue, and he dumbly opened the saddlebags. Inside, there was a velvet bag that de Rainault recognized immediately - it did, after all, belong to him. He stared in astonishment at the purse, and narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. Unwilling to believe in miracles, he took the time to open the bag and to go through its contents, but there was no mistake ; these were indeed his jewels.
"Well, well", he mused. "Would Gisburne have become competent ? Or did Robin Hood try his luck once too many ?"
"My lord ?" the stablelad looked at him with uncertainty.
"You may go", de Rainault said absent-mindedly. "Good job."
The boy beamed ; it was surprising sometimes, how a simple word made these peasants happy. Words were nothing - one had always to be wary of lies and deceptions. Only acts truly counted, although they could have various meanings as well. There, for instance, Gisburne had brought the Sheriff's jewels back ; but how he had done so, after he had been injured and taken hostage, was beyond de Rainault, and most certainly beyond his steward's abilities. So, either Gisburne had been astonishingly lucky, or... could he have chosen to betray the Sheriff and formed an alliance with the wolfsheads ? Then this whole thing with the theft of the jewels would have been only a trick to secure his position ?
No, the Sheriff shook his head while walking back to his chambers. Such an elaborate trick for such a small result ? Besides, it was not as if Robin Hood would ever ally himself with Gisburne. He would sooner enter in an alliance with de Rainault himself. Not to mention, he could not imagine his steward accepting to be wounded so seriously just to make his story more believable. More likely, Gisburne had been lucky for once - as much as it could be called that, given the man's current state of health.
In any case, the Sheriff's day was considerably brightened, and he weighed up happily the velvet bag containing his jewels. For once, Robin Hood was the fool, and it felt good.
"My lord ?"
Rolling his eyes, de Rainault turned to face the disturber. Could he not have just five minutes to himself ? No, it was just work, work, work all the time. At least his mother had changed her mind about this visit she was planning, a few weeks ago. He still had had to attend the hangings, though.
"Yes, what is it ?" he prompted as last, as the guard who had solicited him made no move to speak.
"It's about this expedition in Sherwood, my lord", the man said. "Given that Sir Guy has returned since then, I was wondering if you still want to lead the men in Sherwood to drive the outlaws out."
"Ah - well..." de Rainault pondered the matter. Even though he had retrieved both his steward and his jewels, he still wanted to get rid of Robin Hood. But Sherwood was vast, and offered numerous hiding places for the outlaws. Then, he could use hounds, but he had been wary of the beasts ever since one of them had bitten him. He still shuddered at the mere thought of the nightmares that had plagued him during his recovery. "No", he finally decided. "Not for the moment, in any case."
Replacing his men was beginning to be a bit too expensive for his taste. Gisburne had been recruiting more and more guards, and it was hardly enough at the rate Robin Hood killed them. Saviour of the people, ha ! No one ever mentioned the families of the guards he killed, naturally. And some of them were hardly more than boys. Not that the Sheriff cared much, but it still amazed him how people could have a selective memory and still believe themselves to be virtuous. Robin Hood thought himself a hero, yet he had killed many men, and not always advisedly. He was just a common criminal. But the people did not see it, because they were all serfs, Saxons and half-wits.