It seemed at first that Gisborne had been telling the truth when he claimed that he needed neither food nor sleep to drive him. He was mere steps behind Robin as the two men swiftly chased their way through Sherwood Forest, picking a fairy-trail out of the dead leaves and thick, trailing shrubbery that seemed to reach out and grab at their ankles as they passed.
Gisborne was doing a good job for a man who had never done much travelling in the wilderness before. In fact, for a man who had been unable to pace more than four steps in any direction for the past four months…it was even impressive, if Robin was inclined to be honest with himself.
However, there was a troubled sway to Gisborne's gait that suggested his sudden surge of energy was a temporary one. Robin glanced over his shoulder, uneasy at the idea of having his back turned to Gisborne, of all people. Once again, he found himself wondering where the man found his strength. The first few moments before they met Malcolm were still a drugged haze floating in his brain…but he did remember how Gisborne's hands had trembled when he held up the bow. It hadn't been fear. Gisborne might be tyrannical, selfish, and a fool…but he was no coward. No, that shaking spoke more of aching muscles too tired and undernourished to control themselves.
Furthermore, Gisborne had left behind his sword. In a land where outlaws and thieves could spring at you from any empty corner, ready to rob, maul and murder you, no sensible man ever moved about without a weapon. Even ladies were frequently armed to the teeth. Yet Gisborne had just done so, and in the presence of his worst enemy, who was about to lead him through a forest he knew nothing of, into the midst of a group of people who would kill him on sight. To be so negligent, he must have been mentally exhausted as well…or just stupid.
Robing grinned at that, meanwhile shifting his shoulder blades in response to the pressure from his tightly strapped quiver. Once more, his mind turned back to Gisborne as the clamor of voices died away in his brain, and the aura of the empty forest enveloped his senses. Then he winced. Because the holy quiet was shattered. Gisborne's empty scabbard, a shabby, black thing he had probably plucked off the body of some guard…kept slapping against his shin as he ran.
At first, the sound irritated Robin's keen, well-trained ears to no end, as if Gisborne had been a horse, huge and ungainly, clip clopping his way clumsily behind him when he was trying to sneak up on a deer. He wondered if it would be a weakness to turn and order Gisborne to secure it…wether it would be worth the almost certain verbal battle to follow, complimented by sneer a la Gisborne. With an eye roll to heaven, asking for a saint's share of patience, Robin continued on, determined to ignore it. It seemed to be the wiser, more practical course. In fact, after a little the sound melded seamlessly into his surroundings as his mind adapted to it, until he even set his pace to it.
That was when he noticed the tiny seconds of silence, the spaces of soundlessness that seemed to grow between each slap. Gisborne was slowing down. That was something worth arguing about. Like a checked horse, Robin turned gracefully on his heels, one hand holding his bow, the other loosening the tag around his neck, his face already expressing his willingness to fight.
Gisborne was several trees behind, his frantic, lagging steps ill placed, causing the black knight to stumble as he sacrificed poise for speed. One hand flew out to grab the side of a tree as he pitched forward. Pulling himself back up again, he flicked the long, unkempt hair out of his eyes with a sharp jerk of the head.
As his face rose up, he saw Robin glaring at him. A brief fire of irritated pride flashed through the pale, dirty face, along with a sort of reluctance. He sped up, willing more energy into his legs, as if hoping to conceal the fact that he was exhausted. As he came less than a step away from Robin he halted, chest constricting as he fought to suppress his panting, raising his eyebrows in a look that said, well?
Robin's mouth tightened in response, his naturally ferocious brow drawing down even further; the idea of having to rest did not infuriate him nearly as much as Gisborne's arrogant determination to hide his inability to journey further. If they met any enemies along the way, such as soldiers of Isabella still hunting for her wayward brother, they would be in trouble. Besides, since they were allies now, Robin had a right to know every aspect that could affect Gisborne's physical performance. It was the right of a leader. And, from the very dawning of their alliance, Robin was determined he would be that leader.
"You look tired, Gisborne," the words were out almost too easily. The concern of a mother spilled from the lips of the outlaw and grated on Gisborne's temper, sounding like what they were meant to sound like: mockery.
"And you look as full of yourself as ever," he growled back, shouldering Robin roughly as he pushed on by.
Robin crossed his arms, pivoting around to keep his eyes on Gisborne's back. "We'll stop for a rest."
"I don't need it!" Gisborne snapped over his shoulder, nearly interrupting Robin.
Robin smirked at this loss of temper, then dropped down indian-style, his legs crossed. "Suit yourself then...I'll catch up with you later."
Gisborne stopped; he took a half step forward, head turned sideways and watching Robin's face carefully. Robin smiled up at him serenely. Gisborne looked away, meditating on the trail that seemed to stretch out endlessly before him. By sight, he traced the curved, sharp patterns in the leaves, hoping to delay his decision by losing himself in thought.
Robin meticulously dragged a leg across the leaves, clearing a spot for a fire. The incessant crinkling forcibly tore Gisborne's attention back. He looked down at the outlaw, his resolve wavering rapidly. He did feel ready to drop on his feet…and Hood obviously wasn't going anywhere, the stubborn mule…
Repressing a sigh of relief, Gisborne dropped heavily down opposite Robin…(not too heavily, he chided himself)…and let his legs go limp. The blood, pumping hot and furious beneath his skin, slowly calmed down. Trembling muscles eased themselves. He let himself enjoy the feeling.
In fact, he could almost be comfortable if Hood wasn't staring at him with that amused, knowing look. He mustered a vibrant glare of anger, worthy of his old days of glory, and threw it at the outlaw, just to say, I'm not taking any rubbish from you.
Robin smirked. The glare affected him as little as it had in the old days, too.
Gisborne made up his mind to ignore him. He scooted back against a tree and leaned against it as a warm sensation of relaxation washed up his body. The bark was hard and bumpy against his skull, but it was a welcome feeling.
"You'll get bugs that way."
He would have straightened up just to look at Robin; but it was too much like hard work. "Mind your own business, Hood," he snarled.
"Well, it sorta is my business. You don't expect me to make a fire all by myself, do you?"
This time, Gisborne's head shot up and he stared at Robin, blue eyes confused and suspicious. A power play? Or was Hood just amusing himself by tormenting his enemy?
It wasn't like Gisborne could very well say 'no'. Besides, fire meant food.
As if his hunger had been pent up all this time and only released at that word, it exploded into life and clawed its way through his stomach suddenly, howling to be satisfied, to be relieved. His entire body screamed for it.
He blinked as the feeling settled into him, leaving him just that much more uncomfortable. He reached out with one hand and, heaving against the trunk he was leaning on, slowly strained to a stand.
Like a miser, he made every step count, thoroughly scanning each foot of ground for twigs and fallen sticks big enough for fuel. To hide his exhaustion, he kept his breaths short and his movements slow. Looking like an old woman, he kept snatching up the faggots until he had an armful.
Then, his cheeks burning, he came back and dropped them next to Robin, feeling a little satisfied as a larger branch 'accidently' smacked the outlaw on the head. "Oh, sorry," he smirked, sidestepping as Robin glared up at him.
Pride somewhat appeased, he dropped down again, determined to get comfortable and stay that way. Still, as the fire suddenly flared up, an orange beacon of warmth, he leaned towards it eagerly. The chill in the air seemed to solidify in response, settling on his back, biting through the thin material of his black shirt.
He unconsciously shifted closer, not noticing as Robin did the same. Neither man was inclined to speak. Robin picked up the bow suddenly and Gisborne flinched, expecting it to smack him in the face as it had done so often before.
Robin missed the flinch; his attention was absorbed in testing the string. He spoke out of the side of his mouth, not looking at Gisborne as he aimed the weapon at some imaginary target. "I'm going to get some food. Keep the fire going."
Gisborne bristled at the commanding tone, and opened his mouth for some snarky reply, but Robin was already gone, disappearing into the growing shadows of the evening as if he was a shadow himself. How often had the famous outlaw disappeared like that, leaving Gisbourne stuck in yet another trap gone horribly awry? Only to reappear when least expected, to reap his revenge?
With caution built from a lifetime of old habits, Gisborne listened suspiciously for his footsteps, but heard nothing. He was alone.
His oldest companion. His oldest friend. Alone.
As a boy, there had been no children of his own age. Robin, Marian, Isabella, and even that little fool, Much, had all been there for each other, thick as thieves and inseperable friends. Guy was the tall, quiet, awkward one, the one his father was always pushing, pushing towards goals he could never reach.
As a child, he had had no friends.
And then, not yet a man, he had lost his mother and father. He had watched as the family split apart before his eyes before being consumed in flames…flames he had set alight. They were torn out of his life as suddenly as the village had thrust him from theirs. Banished, exiled from the only home he had ever known, Guy struggled to make a living in an alien land of unfriendly strangers. Sold his sister to a monster…well, he hadn't known…hadn't wanted to know…
Mother…had he loved her?
Once, maybe…not anymore…no…
No. He would not think about that. Not right now. He would not think of any of it.
With a pent up groan of frustration, he lashed out at the ground, slamming his boot on the earth and scraping it, wounding it, sending dead leaves scattering.
Then he dropped back again, hard, against a tree trunk. The warmth from the fire seemed to billow over him, like a blanket of air as it gently, soothingly pushed its way into his worn, tired body. It seemed to whisper to him, whispers of forgetfullness, of escape, of rest…
It had been a long time since he had been warm. So warm. The prison had always been cold, and stinking, stinking of blood and sweat and worse. So many crackling, burning torches…but always cold. He vaguely remembered his fever, the one that had kept him senseless for the first few days of his imrpisonment. The arrow wound from Hood had been purposely left untended and, exposed to the filth of his little cell, had festered.
He remembered rolling across the stone floor; rolling in his own blood as the wound, crushed by the sharp stones, reopened and gushed out black blood and puss…screaming in delirium, face first on the floor, tasting his own blood on his lips.
Perhaps not wanting him to die without knowing it, without giving her a chance to snarl her triumph in his face and parade him about, Isabella had repented and allowed someone to come and take care of the fever. Some physician with a peaked but kind face. Cleaned the wound and tied him to the cot so he wouldn't open it again, burned it shut, reopened it, cleaned it again, burned it shut…he barely remembered any of that. Just the images. Painful, embarassing images.
He was still weak from the fever…lying on his pallet of rags, staring up at the shadowy roof that loomed so sickeningly close overhead, just waiting, waiting for the next night to come and bring the nightmares. Even the nightmares were a welcome break from the living death his imprisonment had become. The never ending silence, layered by the soft, relentless echoes of marching feet on stone, the snapping of torches that fizzed to life and died just as quickly, with as little warning. The screeching of rats as they tore each other's faces off, the rustle of their feet, so close to his head…the maddening drip of water, cold and foul, drip, drop, drip, drop…
And then he heard youthful, girlish shrieks of rage, piercing his tiny little world with the ease of a sword. Shuffling feet, a man's voice shouting oaths and orders, and those shrieks, the tantrum of a teenage girl with a waterfall of curly brown hair as she was shoved into the cell beside him.
The huffs of air as she shouted curses at their retreating backs, the glance of scorn as she whipped around to face him, deep blue eyes flashing. "What are you staring at?!"
He didn't know; didn't care. She broke the monotony like a blast of lightning. Interesting, but nothing he wanted to get close to, nothing he ever wanted to touch. Just a remote event of nature, like a tree falling on his house. A house he'd never really owned in the first place. Her fury meant nothing to him. More like the rumble of thunder in the sky as the guillotine falls. He dropped his head, not wanting to antagonize her ready tongue and temper.
But it was to no avail. She spoke to him, as she would always speak to him; when he didn't want to hear it, when he most needed it. "I know you. You're him, aren't you? Isabella's brother."
I know you. (whispers)
I always quite liked you.
Gisborne blinked; then he realized he hadn't blinked. He'd just opened his eyes. Had he been asleep?
Yes. He was on his side; his shoulder still aching from the pressure of his body, sticks digging into his flesh…and he was cold. He sat bolt upright with an oath, eyes flying to the dead firepit. But Hood was already there, hands moving frantically to coax some life out of the still glowing embers. He looked up once, a strangely thoughtful look on his face that was swiftly replaced with accusation.
There was a limp pile of brown, bloody fur beside him. Rabbit. Already skinned, impaled on a stick, lying on the fur like a corpse on a funeral bed. The image was brief, and of no consequence. Gisborne had a new set of problems to deal with.
Robin shook his head as the fires finally leapt up again, trying to land burning kisses on his hands. "Told you not to let it go out," he said reproachfully, dropping back on his haunches. His tone clearly said what he was thinking, this oughta be good.
Shivering ever so slightly, Gisborne scooted close to the ressurected fire. He knew exactly what he should say, but he didn't have the humility and, to be honest, the courage. He was silent, hoping with a fool's hope that Robin would just let it go.
"I said," Robin repeated impatiently, "I told you not to let it go out!"
"Shut up!" Gisborne snapped back, reacting to the rising tone. Robin raised his eyebrows. Gisborne froze, realizing three important things. Robin had the weapons, the fire, and the food. He could extract any form of revenge he pleased, and not trouble himself about repercussions. And Gisborne fully expected it of him…after all, that's what he himself would have done.
But to his surprise, Robin merely sighed. He dropped his face in his hands and then ran them tiredly through his hair. Gisborne stared closely at that face, suddenly realizing that the outlaw seemed to have aged by many, many years since those old days, those old, old days before…she died.
"Sorry." The word was out before he knew it.
Robin looked up at him, dumfounded. "What?"
This time, his voice choked in its eagerness to come out. "I'm sorry…" I am sorry. Sorry for everything…everything I can never say. "…about the fire."
The two men stared at each other for long, long minutes. Then, letting out a slow breath of disappintment, Robin nodded slightly, dropping his eyes. "'S okay. The embers were still warm." Although they both knew he wasn't talking about the fire. And yet he wasn't talking about the Holy Land and what happened there either, because for them, it would never be 'okay'.
Robin picked up the rabbit and held it over the flames. They were quiet, listening to the meat as it began hissing and sputtering, liquids dripping off and flaring white, like sparks in the heart of the fire. Gisborne watched the smoke float up through the air, wreathing like a fairy's magic spell. He let his mind wander, and concentrated on keeping his eyes open.
Then, a slow grin crept up Robin's face. He looked at Gisborne, who leaned away from him suspiciously, as if wary that the outlaw might poke him in the ribs. Hood pushed the makeshift spit even closer, letting the mouthwatering scent of roasted meat float up Gisborne's nostrils. "Hungry?"
"No," Gisborne barked quickly, that cursed pride rising like a lion to strangle his outraged nature.
But his outraged nature managed to be heard at that moment anyway. To his horror, his abused stomach clenched in on itself, squeezing the hot emptiness and emitting a loud, echoing growl that seemed so much louder than it was, like an explosion that utterly shattered the quiet air of the forest. An explosion from his own belly.
Some distance away, an owl hooted.
Robin raised both eyebrows, mouth slightly parted in surprise. Gisborne felt his face go red.
Then, the corners of Hood's mouth pulled upwards into a grin. Throwing back his head, he burst into a roar of laughter, nearly dropping the rabbit as he swayed backwards, trying to straighten up in order to regain his self-control.
Embarassed…no, mortified…Gisborne ducked his head down to hide the smile that disobediently tickled its way up his face. There was nothing funny about this…and certainly nothing funny to share with Hood. The smile faded.
He looked up again, watching with disdain, minus the sneer, as Robin wiped the tears from his eyes. "Phew…I'll take that as a yes, then. Here," the outlaw ripped a chunk of meat off the stick and tossed it to Gisborne.
He caught it eagerly, (not too eagerly) and wolfed it down, (not too fast). Mind fought against body as he devoured the first meat that had passed his throat in weeks. No worm-filled bread or watery porridge. No rusty water. No rats…well, that was a really, really bad day, when he'd been absolutely starving and perhaps a little bit insane.
Thankfully, the taste of rabbit, delicious and gamey, drove the foul memory out of his mind. He loved the feeling of his teeth sinking into it and tearing, tasting the juices as they rushed down his tongue. Taste, swallow, feel it settle in his stomach like a contented lump of goodness, already kindling the energy that was waiting to course through his veins.
He noticed Robin staring at him; but he was a little bit too far gone to care. He completely destroyed his portion of meat, going so far as to chew a little on the bones, tongue searching desperately for marrow. When Robin began wincing, he forced himself to stop, merely for the sake of his own dignity, not Robin's comfort. He threw the bones in the fire where he would not be tempted to go after them again.
Then, without a word, he flopped onto his side, pulled his long legs up, and settled down to go to sleep. He was warm, fed, and now, finally, he could just sleep.
"Well," he heard Robin's voice, slightly shocked by his ally's behaviour but already thinking out their next move, "We'll stop by Locksley manor tomorrow, get you a sword and some gear. And a horse. Two of them. Shouldn't be too difficult."
"Unless Isabella's posted guards," Gisborne couldn't help pointing out, half asleep as he was. He didn't want Hood to have the only say in this. Also, he felt an unvoiced need to remind Hood he was still awake, still capable of defending himself verbally and physically…even though he was rapidly losing power in both.
His last memory was Robin's grin, his blue eyes literally glowing with the idea of a challenge. (gods, how he hated that grin) "Oh, is that all we need to worry about?"
It was early in the morning when Gisborne's eyes finally opened. Reluctantly, he watched the cold, grey sky flow across the roof of the world, washing away the dark blue curtain of stars. The sun was still hiding behind the horizon, but she lent a bright glow to the sky that, within a few hours time, would grow to a burning heat.
He sat up slowly, wincing as his palms pushed on the deceptively soft leaves, making them crunch loudly. Miraculously, Robin did not stir from his position opposite the fire, curled up against the large roots of an old tree where his body had subconsciously sought shelter and warmth.
Using the tree as his main support in order to keep his weight off the leaves, Gisborne slowly straightened. His shoulder was stiff, but only a little bit more so than the rest of his body. It hardly seemed fair, that he could spend weeks on a prison pallet and still be sore after a night in the wilderness.
One hand reached out in a motion that had become rather familiar to him; wrapping a warm hand around his shoulder and slowly stretching his arm, rolling the bone in its socket as the muscles loosened and relaxed, the pain of his old wound fading away to a distant memory.
While he did this, he cautiously took the path away from the camp, becoming bolder the farther away from Robin's ear he got; kicking stray sticks and clumps of leaves out of his way with more passion than grace, since it felt safe now to be noisy.
He went down the gentle slope, careful not to slip as the soft, tinkling music of running water floated to his ears. There was a river down in the valley, a river he had been too paranoid to properly use for the past day or so. Now, under Robin's sanctuary, he would.
Stripping off his filthy clothes, he submerged himself in the water. It was cold. Icy cold. As violent shivers wracked his body and his teeth began chattering, he once again congratulated himself on his foresight; he'd wanted to wash before Robin was up. He knew only too well the ridicule the outlaw would be happy to heap upon his head in an awkward…situation…like this.
The cold water felt good on his skin, even if it did seem to electrify every nerve in his body and then freeze it again. The wavelets rushed by, each one hitting him in the back and then sliding around his ribs before it was free to rush on again out of sight.
Gisborne did not smile, but was pleased nonetheless to feel the sweat and grime, crusted thick from his incarceration, soften and vanish under the constant massage of the water. He dipped his hands under the current and rubbed the more resistant stains vigorously, watching the black filth dissolve and disappear.
Black filth under his fingernails, leaking away into the water. Black earth. An unmarked grave, dug by my bare hands, deep in the forest. An unmarked grave for an unknown girl…
He blinked. In his lethargic state, the current had nearly pushed him over with its gentle yet irresistable force. How could he possibly be dozing in an icy river?
Annoyed at himself, he splashed the water onto his chest, gasping a little at the shock that seemed to seize at his heart. His heart.
Did he have a heart?
Was it as filthy as his body, as filthy as his soul? The river could wash away the grime, but what could wash away his sins? Was it possible to wash something as insubstantial, as frail and intangible as the soul?
"Deus, cui proprium est misereri semper et parcere…"
Guy shifted on his knees as the priest's tenor trembled through the still air of the church, which was heavy and sweet with incense. He risked one glance back, only one, at his father. Lord Roger would be leaving for the Crusades tomorrow. He might come back in a few years…and then again he might never come back. He might die.
The thought sent a nauseating feeling to writhe in Guy's stomach. He listened with one ear as the priest intoned the closing prayer for the litany of the Saints. Guy had no interest in the litany of the Saints, especially if those Saints were powerless to keep his father at home.
Although Guy was not really surprised that it was so. In the ten years he had known his father, he had never been able to sway him once his mind was made up. Mother hadn't either. Not even little Isabella, with all her tantrums and crying, her sweet face crumpled up with anguish, could ever soften Father's determination.
"Suscipe deprecationem nostram."
Father saw him staring. He frowned angrily at his son, his brow darkened by that storm that was always so quick to anger. The terrible temper Guy had inherited. He turned around quickly, not daring to displease his father, even when surrounded by a crowd of villagers, even in the middle of Mass. It never occurred to him that his father would not punish him during the Holy Mass. It was enough to know that Father was displeased.
"Ut nos, et omnes famulos tuos, quos delictorum catena constringit."
Mother had tears in her beautiful brown eyes. Sometimes, Guy hated his father for making his mother cry. Mother was the most beautiful woman in the world, and she always told Guy how much she loved him, and showed it too. Father only wanted Guy to obey and fear him. Which was unfair, because Father hated it when Guy showed fear.
"Miseratio tuae pietatis celementer absolvat."
Yes! It was over. With a sigh of relief, Guy struggled to his feet. The people started to file out in respectful silence. Guy rushed to follow, bumping into a tall peasant who growled angrily at him. Guy didn't care…he was too eager to see his Father again, to listen to his voice, even to feel his hand as he cuffed him. Every moment was precious. Every moment with him must be remembered and stored away like a treasure, so Guy could remember what his life was like before Father ripped it apart…before Mother betrayed him…
He didn't understand Latin back then. He still didn't. But he knew the prayer. The prayer his Mother said on Good Friday, on Holy Saturday…he remembered because she prayed it, kneeling before the Sacred Heart, face streaming with tears as she realized the gravity of what she had done to Father, to all of them.
Gisborne could hear it in the priest's voice, in Ghislaine's voice. "O God, Whose property is always to have mercy and to spare, receive our humble petition; that we, and all Thy servants who are bound by the chain of sin, may by the compassion of Thy goodness mercifully be absolved."
Absolution: formal release from guilt, obligation, or punishment.
He remembered the blessing of the priest, "May God grant you absolution…"
He remembered Isabella. "I was willing to forgive you, brother, but you don't deserve my absolution."
If he didn't deserve Isabella's absolution, he was certain of one thing.
He didn't deserve God's.
He dropped down, letting the water gush over his face, feeling the bubbles tickle as they ran up around his nose and ears, his black hair floating like a shield around his face, floating forever in the icy water.
He could never be cleansed. There was no water to wash his soul. There was no way to go back, and nothing to go back to. He could just close his eyes now, just stop breathing, just let it all go…
But he wouldn't. He would save Archer. He would overthrow Isabella. He would help Robin Hood. He hated them all, but he would help them. He would live on in the Hell he had created for himself, in the hopes that someone, somewhere, would be grateful someday.
Because it was what Ghislaine would have wanted. It was what Meg would have wanted. It was what Marian would have wanted.
He realized his crampt lungs were fighting to breathe in oxygen that was no longer there. Straightening his legs, he pushed his head up and broke through the surface, mouth wide open as he gasped for air, the water rushing down his head and neck and shoulders like the poured water of a second Baptism.
And as he stood up, the pink sunlight of dawn broke through the sky, painting the clouds and the earth below with an unearthly, gold and rose radiance, bathing his face as the water had bathed it, illuminating what was clean. Nature seemed to hold its breathe a second, and then come alive all at once, breathing with the wind and singing with the birds, the trees waving at the burning sky. Gisborne opened his blue eyes, and he saw the beautiful sun as it rose slowly, majestically, ready to travel the heavens once more, ready to renew the world and destroy the darkness. He thought of the sun.
And he thought of God.
"Have mercy on the sinner," had he breathed that aloud? Were those his hands, lifted up in supplication to a God he had turned his back on forever? Was that his soul, condemned for all eternity, crying out now to the One who had created it?
Was that his heart, his black, empty, broken heart, begging to be touched and renewed, begging to be healed? "Grant me this, Thy absolution."
Were those his tears, streaming down his face?