It can seem surprising how much common people relish the sight of death, so long as it is not their own. Perhaps the satisfaction of being themselves safe while others had their head on the block - quite literally. In any case, no matter the reason, quite a lot of people had come to witness Huntingdon's trial - which was presumably to be followed by his execution. All the more presumably since the executioner was already there ; one might almost wonder why the King bothered to hold a trial at all.
Nevertheless, that was to Gisburne's best interests that many people would be present, for it was not easy to go unnoticed being as tall as he was. Truth was, most of Robin Hood's people were despairingly conspicuous, from a Saracen to a giant, not to mention a friar almost as wide as he was tall. Only because the streets were so crowded, had no one spotted them yet. They had also been careful to keep their faces down and concealed under various forms of headgear.
In Gisburne's opinion, Robin's plan was dismally worthless. Showing up before the King was one thing ; making him listen was quite another, and the steward sincerely doubted that anyone, let alone a notorious outlaw, could get King John to be reasonable about the whole thing. However, as he had no better idea, he had had to go along. He suspected the Sheriff did not hold Robin's strategic skills in higher regard, but de Rainault had come along too nonetheless. As the Sheriff was a clever man - no matter what else he might be called, he had to be granted at least that - if even he had no better idea... well, perhaps there was truly no better option.
That is how Gisburne found himself at the door of a building which gave on the market place, where the trial - and presumed execution - were to take place. A meager consolation was the familiar weight of his sword, which he had been given back under the reason that necessity ruled, and which he kept concealed beneath his cloak. Robin Hood was on the roof, the rest of his men placed at strategic points to defend the house, just in the oh so unlikely eventuality that King John would not bother to read the parchment and decide that it would be cheaper and safer to just have everybody executed.
From where he was, Gisburne had a perfect view on the King and the seven remaining earls ; he was also one of the first to see Huntingdon, who was escorted in front of the public court by four guards. In spite of himself, Gisburne bit his lower lip when he saw the man's pale and drawn features, his dishevelled state and his ruffled clothes, and he had to firmly remind himself that he did not care about Huntingdon, except insofar as he might expect to get an earldom out of it.
The Lady Wolfshead was nowhere in sight, nor was the Lord Abbot. Either they would be brought in later, or they were not deemed sufficiently important to warrant a trial and would simply be quietly executed in their cell. Perhaps they were already dead... Gisburne hoped not. If Hugo was dead, the Sheriff would be absolutely unbearable - well, more so than usual in any case - for weeks. However, that was unlikely. Huntingdon would probably have the dubious honour of being killed first.
In spite of his precarious situation, the earl stood tall and proud in front of his King. In truth, Huntingdon had this little something in his behaviour and way of being that simply screamed of his upringing as a nobleman. It was not just arrogance but the awareness of being someone whose opinion mattered, that marked him as a natural leader. Gisburne shivered, and wondered if that man was truly his father.
When the King began speaking, the rabble fell silent - as they should, and as the King's men made sure they did.
"David of Huntingdon", the King was saying, "you have been charged with treason, and there is little doubt as to your guilt. No one will say, however, that I am not fair, and so I am giving you an opportunity to speak for yourself."
So that was the reason behind the trial. The King did not want to make it look like he beheaded his earls for no reason. He was compelled to treat this matter seriously, because otherwise he might well have an uprising on his hand. Well, he already had one, but he did not know that. He soon would, if Robin Hood's ploy worked.
"My liege", Huntingdon replied, his voice ringing so clear and loud even Gisburne could hear him from where he was standing, "I will admit to having endeavoured to free my son, for I love him. But never, ever, have I conspired against the crown, nor spoken or acted treacherously in any other fashion."
King John's fist hit the wooden armrests of his chair. "Liar !" he growled in what seemed to be the beginning of one of his anger fits. "Liar, liar, liar ! How dare you lie to your King ?!"
Huntingdon paled under the insult, but remained otherwise deadly calm. "I am not..." he began, but did not have time to finish the sentence for at that very moment, a bowstring sang, and an arrow embedded itself hardly an inch from the King's head. Mostly everybody followed the trajectory of the arrow, and their eyes met with Robin Hood, standing on the roof of a house.
Some panic followed, which the King's cries to "seize him !" did not help to dispel. The rabble, however, knew they had nothing to fear from Robin Hood, and endeavoured mainly to stay out of the way of the royal guards, or occasionally to hinder them discreetly. It seemed Robin Hood had quite a few sympathizers in Nottingham, Gisburne thought wryly. That did not really come as a surprise, but if he got his rank back, he would make sure to have a few of these people brought in for interrogation.
In the meantime, he had other things to worry about, and he drew his sword as the guards approached. They were not really his enemies - or at least they were not supposed to - but so long as they tried to kill him, he would hit them back.
"Sire !" Robin shouted. "Tied to this arrow, you will find a document that incriminates three of your earls of high treason. Huntingdon is not one of them !"
Derby stepped hastily forward and said something to the King, too low for Gisburne to hear. It was not difficult, however, to guess that he must be telling him not to listen to the outlaw, or something of the kind. But King John shook his head and seized the parchment. He was actually going to read it, Gisburne realized in surprise. He wondered whether the sovereign spoke Latin, but it was likely.
However, while all this was taking place, the guards were still following their orders, and Gisburne had to take his eyes off the King to focus on his defence, especially after one of his assailants grazed his arm. Standing just behind the frame of the door, he was able to take his enemies one at a time, though it did hinder his freedom of movement. A little further, he saw other guards aim at the roof with their crossbows, but Robin would have to manage, because he had more than enough on his plate already.
Having fended off another guard, Gisburne had a brief respite and was able to sneak a glance at the King. He was reading the document, frowning. Realizing that the odds were turning against him, Derby unsheathed a dagger and was about to strike the King, when Huntingdon jumped forward and grabbed his wrist. The two earls began struggling for the dagger in the utmost confusion.
At that point, Gisburne had to return to his own fighting, but not knowing what was happening was a torture. After all, his earldom was also at stake.
"You bunch of idiots !" he shouted to the guards still attacking him. "Your King is in danger !"
The result went beyond his expectations. Really, he should have begun with that ; the guards immediately picked on that more immediate danger and, leaving the steward alone for the time being, endeavoured to push their way through the crows to reach the King's vicinity.
The fight between Derby and Huntingdon was continuing, neither of them taking the advantage.
"Kill him !" the King shouted.
The guards hesitated, unsure whether "he" was Huntingdon or Derby. They were about to shoot anyway, and risk hitting both men, but they were spared that choice. A second arrow flew from the roof, and embedded itself in Derby's back. The earl took a step back, surprise clearly registering on his face. The confusion began to quiet down, while the crowd's attention was caught by the sight of the earl staggering back. Derby looked up, straight at the King.
"Long live Britain !" he shouted and ran forward.
Three crossbow bolts struck him simultaneously in the chest. He faltered, then fell, and he stopped moving as a puddle of blood widened around him and his skin took on the pallid shade of death. There was an awkward pause, as everyone realized little by little that the man was dead. The crowd had come to see death, but not quite in this fashion. Of course, that was easier when they could think it was simply justice, that it was fair ; but if there was one thing Gisburne had learnt, that was that death was no more fair than life. He doubted the rabble would understand, though ; and in a way, he could not help but feel a certain amount of respect for Derby. Naturally, after what the man had tried to do, he deserved what he had got, but nonetheless...
"Arrest Leicester and Warwick !" King John ordered, in such a sinister voice that Gisburne shuddered inwardly.
But the two men turned out to be nowhere in sight. Wiser than Derby, when they had seen that their plot had failed, they had not waited to suffer the consequences. The King sent immediately his men after them, but Gisburne doubted that would be any good. Then, John turned toward Huntingdon, and Gisburne felt that was the moment to get out of hiding. He dropped his cloak and walked forward, behind Huntingdon. The Sheriff must have had the very same idea, for he was just behind his steward - and took precedence.
Huntingdon kept respectfully silent, and did not try to plead his cause. The King looked at him through slitted eyes, and Gisburne wondered if the monarch would not order the three of them to death out of pure spite. But the people were watching, and John could hardly have Huntingdon executed without reason, especially in front of his four remaining earls. One death was enough for the day ; and so long as Huntingdon was spared, there was really no reason to have the Sheriff or Gisburne executed either.
"You saved the life of your King", John said. "For this, I forgive you the attempt to free Robin Hood." His gaze swept over Gisburne and the Sheriff, hardly stopping on either of them. "You may go, all of you !" In his mouth, it sounded more like a threat or an insult than an exoneration. "As for Robin Hood - "
But the outlaw had already disappeared as well. That was a pity, but Gisburne could not bring himself to care. He had his position back, so did the Sheriff, and hopefully he would get his earldom. Next to that, the simple frustration of seeing Robin Hood escape yet again was a fleeting annoyance.
After all this, the King decided not to linger in Nottingham, and soon enough the earls followed his lead. As chance had it, Huntingdon was the last to leave, and he picked a rainy morning to do so. Gisburne chose to see the earl off, if only to have a word with him. Now that Huntingdon was no longer a wanted man, and his son was no longer in the Sheriff's gaol, he had no reason to give Gisburne any consideration ; and truly, the steward half expected to see him take back his word. He probably should have known better by then.
"My son", the earl greeted him when he strode in the courtyard.
Completely thrown off guard, Gisburne stared at him, and Huntingdon correctly interpreted his look. He had a sad smile - the kind that made Gisburne want to hit him.
"What, you thought I had forgotten ?" Huntingdon asked, then he hesitated. "I know your... your feelings towards me are not very affectionate, and I suppose I partly deserve it..."
"Partly ?" Gisburne repeated stiffly.
The earl waved the comment away. "Let's not argue over that. Nevertheless, you are my blood. You may not care much about family, but I do."
"Oh, yes", the steward bit back bitterly. "I've seen how much you do."
Gisburne felt the blood draw from his face, conflicting emotion warring inside him. He chose to laugh, voluntarily mocking his father's attempts to close the rift that divided them. The scars were too old, his resentment too firmly anchored, for him to let go of his anger. Anger was his one last shield. Huntingdon probably understood, and did not insist. He simply sighed.
"I will change my will in your favour", he said at last. "Remember that you will always be welcome in my home. Our home. Should you choose to come before my death..."
"I doubt it", Gisburne replied distantly.
Huntingdon nodded wearily. In front of the King, he had been tall and proud ; but now, he looked like a tired old man.
Gisburne did not wait to see him cross the gate of the castle, and he got back inside. The Sheriff was sprawled in a chair, probably enjoying the feeling of having his office back. Hugo was nowhere in sight, but his absence was not exactly regretted ; in the past few days, after he had been freed by his brother, he had not lost an occasion to remind de Rainault and Gisburne of what they owed him. To which the Sheriff had eventually replied suavely, "why, I didn't know you had it in you, Hugo, to act out of brotherly love", and that had temporarily shut the Lord Abbot up.
"Well, did our favourite earl finally go away ?" de Rainault asked.
"Yes", Gisburne said curtly. "He's gone." Why did he feel strangely hollow when he said that ?
"You know, that's strange. All the while Huntingdon has been our guest, I kept thinking he looks familiar to me", the Sheriff continued with flippancy. "There is something in him that reminds me of somebody I know."
The steward feigned disinterest. "Is that so ?"
"Yes. The shape of his face, his figure... yes, he definitely reminds me of somebody I know."
Gisburne looked up. The Sheriff was staring at him mockingly.
"I wonder who that might be", Gisburne said, eyes narrowed.
"Yes", de Rainault agreed amiably. "So do I."
Robin was sitting at the edge of the forest, and he watched the sunset thoughtfully. Sometimes, he felt the need to be alone, and he came there to think. He was not alone very long, just as he had expected. He had hoped she would come.
"Are you all right ?" Marion asked as she sat down beside him.
Everybody in Sherwood had been surprised when she had been released. It was not like the Sheriff to be grateful, but Robin had decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth, and not to waste time trying to understand how de Rainault's psyche functioned. Marion was there, and it was all that mattered. Besides, Robin suspected his father had to do with it, though Marion had been very tightlipped about the whole matter. The outlaw almost felt uneasy when he wondered what kind of things Huntingdon could have told her while they were both in jail. Hopefully, nothing about that one time when he had tried to sneak a serf in the castle and...
"Uh ? Yes, yes, I'm fine", he replied. "Just thinking. Why ?"
"You've been awfully silent all afternoon. I can feel something is bothering you. Tell me ?"
He sighed. "Here's a deal. I'll tell you, and you tell me why you left."
Marion stiffened, and for a moment he thought she was going to refuse, but after a while she nodded wearily. "All right. You first."
Robin took a deep breath. "I was thinking about Derby", he confessed. "About what he did, about what he said." He hesitated a moment, trying to find a way to word his feelings. "It's... in a way... well, thinking about it, I couldn't help but feel he was right. In a way, our fight was the same, against tyranny."
The sky was darkening, and in the twilight Robin felt less vulnerable as he bared his soul.
"I shot the arrow."
"The arrow that killed Derby. I did it because he was fighting my father. In everything but my intent, however, I acted as King John's man. I killed the traitor." Bitterness seeped through the outlaw's voice. "I gave up everything - my title, my life, my place at my father's right, to fight against tyranny ; and in the end, when I had to make a choice, I found myself on the wrong side."
"That's not the same", Marion protested. "All Derby wanted was to depose the King, to replace him with someone else. But you don't fight a man, you fight the unfairness of the system. You're better than Derby, or you would have killed the Sheriff a long while ago."
Robin understood her words, but he was hardly convinced. "He wanted to replace the King with my father. You know that my father is a fair man. He would have ruled well. What if I had directed my arrow just two yards to the left ? I could have killed a tyrant, and I chose to protect him."
"Robin, Robin..." Marion scolded him gently. "You know your father would never have agreed. What use is it to dwell on what might have been ? If it helps any, I think you did the right thing."
"Yes", Robin answered finally, his throat tight. "That helps."
"I left because I could not stand it any longer", the young woman confessed suddenly.
"What ?" the outlaw asked, puzzled by the sudden change of subject. He turned his head to look at her, and she looked back steadily. He could read sorrow and fear in her eyes.
"I could not stand it any longer", she repeated. "I lost him, and then I thought I had lost you..."
There was no need to clarify who "he" was. He was never mentioned, but Robin knew how much his predecessor had meant to the other outlaws. He had even felt jealous, once, but not any longer.
"And you thought that leaving was a solution ?" he could not help but let some reproach show in his voice.
"I needed time, Robin", Marion replied softly. "But it was not only the fear of losing you. When I thought you were dead, just like him... I began to wonder if it was him I loved in you, all along. You don't realize it, of course, but you look so much like him... I was not sure of myself any longer. I needed to know my own feelings, because it would not be fair to you otherwise."
"So... have you....?"
"Thought about it ? Yes. Very much so. Every minute of everyday."
"I am still not sure of the answer, Robin. I don't know if that's you I love, or him, or both. But I do know one thing. I cannot go on without you. I could stay at the covent, try to forget... I considered it. That was tempting. But I knew I would just keep fading, a little more everyday, until there was nothing left, until I was just this strange, old woman that sits all alone in a corner and lives in a dream. I don't want to become that. I want to live. I want to live with you."
"I don't care", Robin said. "I don't care about anything, so long as you stay with me. Perhaps you're not sure of your feelings, Marion, but I am certain of mine."
She took his hand, and he pressed hers back, intent on not letting her go ever again. Loxley was dead, and she was his to protect.
"Let's get back to the others", he suggested.
Marion smiled. "Let's get back home."