|Primary Characters:||Guy, The Sheriff, Prince John, Robin, Marion, Gemma|
|Description:||Gemma is a young woman who lives in present day Nottinghamshire. She loves the tv series Robin of Sherwood. When she loses her job and her life takes a turn for the worse, she decides to cheer herself up by going on an outing to Sherwood forest. From then on, things become confusing, but also quite exciting.
In the days that followed, she saw very little of Gisburne, except at the Sheriff’s table, and though eventually, his face lost its tense look when he greeted her, their daily walks were suspended for quite some time. It wasn’t, as she first imagined, because he was still angry at her. The Sheriff was getting increasingly furious about a group of outlaws. She pricked up her ears, and began to listen more carefully to the servants’ talk. On a few occasions she even dared to ask Gisburne about it. He seemed almost as enraged as the Sheriff but wouldn’t tell her much. She didn’t dare to insist, not wanting to give Gisburne or the Sheriff reason to suspect her of having any connection to the band of outlaws.
One morning, she found herself at the table, having breakfast with the Sheriff alone. He looked far more at ease than in the past week or so.
“There you are, my boy. What a lovely day it is. But where is that intolerably fool, Gisburne? Have you seen him?”
“No, my lord.”
“I can’t understand where he’s gone off to. Be a good lad and run out to the stable and take a look around. That is if you’ve quite finished -”
“Yes, of course.”
Gemma took an apple and a few pieces of bread and hurried out into the hallway. She’d remembered the mare and thought she might offer her the bread and part of the apple. Clearly, the Sheriff knew his Steward well. She found Gisburne bent over the stall with the foal. It had grown a great deal since she’d last seen it. The straw on the floor must have muffled her footsteps and he didn’t hear her until she was right behind him. He whirled around, an odd look on his face. In any case, she thought she knew the cause for his reaction. On the back of his neck, partially covered by his tunic, was a bite mark. An imprint of human teeth. It must hurt terribly, judging by the angry red colour. What was more, it looked very fresh. It was still bleeding a little. She winced.
He straightened up and glared at her.
“The Sheriff was asking for you.”
He brushed past her, without another word. Gemma suddenly recalled how human bites were supposed to be the very worst, even worse than cat bites, and without antibiotics it could easily go septic and even be lethal. She tried not to dwell on how Gisburne had sustained the wound, but she already had a pretty good idea.
She ran after him and caught up with him just inside the stable door.
At first she didn’t think he was going to stop, but in the end, he turned and faced her.
“Yes? I can’t keep the Sheriff waiting -”
“That wound -”
He pressed his teeth together, clearly not prepared to discuss the matter further.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to – it’s just that bite wounds tend to go bad and -”
“Don’t you think I know that?”
She swallowed and thought quickly. What could she say to convince him that she could help him? The look on his face became pained, and she thought she knew what was on his mind. He thought she must assume he meant because the Sheriff frequently adorned him with love bites – though Gemma knew well enough that love didn’t have anything to do with this.
He spoke quickly, as if to cover his confusion.
“In battle, I’ve seen all kinds of -”
His words took her aback and she spoke without thinking.
“You’ve seen bite wounds in battle?”
“How does that fit in with the code of chivalry?”
“The code of chivalry? You’re such a child. One day you might be knighted and if you go into battle, you’ll see that you’ll have to do anything you can to stay alive. Gouge your enemy’s eyes out, knee him in the groin, stab him in the back. It’s your life or his.”
Gemma nodded. She’d acted without thinking again, and though this time, she hadn’t offended him as badly as the last time, she really needed to learn not to annoy him. All she wanted was for him to like her.
“Yes, I see, but you see, I can help you with that. Make sure it doesn’t go bad. I have something to put on it.”
Gisburne appeared to be considering. It was clear that he’d rather not have the wound referred to in any way, and Gemma was well aware of time passing and the Sheriff waiting inside.
“I have to go, but – if you can go and get this remedy, before I have to ride out -”
“I will. I’ll go upstairs right away and I’ll wait for you in the stable.”
He nodded, clearly still embarrassed and still harried by the thought of the Sheriff waiting for him.
She ran up the stairs, dug around in her bag, and found the bottle of disinfectant, then hesitated. It was made of plastic. Could she show up, carrying something so obviously out of place? She looked around the room, then remembered a small glass bottle, that used to contain her perfume, but it was almost empty now, and she’d forgotten to throw it away. Carefully, she filled the bottle with as much of the disinfectant she could fit into it. How lucky that she kept that disinfectant on hand, in case she squeezed a pimple or bit off a nail and drew blood. She hurried down the stairs, hoping that Gisburne wouldn’t have had to leave.
In the end, she had to wait quite a long time, until at last, Gisburne shuffled inside, looking as if the Sheriff had put him through another tongue lashing. Again, the anger stirred inside her, but she kept herself in check.
“It will sting a bit -”
The impatient look on Gisburne’s face seemed to hint that pain was something he was used to. Reluctantly, he pulled off his tunic, then bent over so she could reach his neck. Up close, the bite mark looked even more painful. Perhaps it was her imagination, but it looked as if it was already becoming infected. She had brought a handkerchief, not wanting to let anyone see the tissues or the cotton wool. They too, looked far too modern for this setting. She poured some of the disinfectant on the fabric, then pressed it against the wound. It left pale red stains. After ineffectually dabbing at it, Gemma decided to pour some of the liquid straight into the wound, hoping it would reach far enough inside to kill all the germs.
Gisburne made a faint sound, but smothered it and though she felt his body tensing up, there was no further reaction.
“There. I hope that’s enough.”
He nodded curtly, then seemed to hesitate. In the end, he nodded again, but didn’t say anything.
Gemma couldn’t stop herself from commenting, though she knew she shouldn’t. She didn’t want to cause Gisburne any more distress.
“What a vile little man he is.”
Her words were so faint, she knew no one else would be able to hear.
Gisburne drew himself up.
“You are speaking of my liege lord.”
She was afraid she’d angered him too much and wished she’d been able to keep quiet. But Gisburne just sighed and leaned closer.
“And you’re right. He is a vile little man. But he is still my liege lord.”
His gaze met Gemma’s, and she thought she could detect regret. It was almost as if he was trying to justify his submission to the Sheriff. She nodded her understanding. No more was said between them that day. She heard him and the other knights ride off and that was the last she saw of him until suppertime.
It was with relief, that Gemma noted that Gisburne tried to take her out for walks, whenever the Sheriff let him out of his sight, despite their campaign against the outlaws. As the summer wore on, the outlaws intensified their attacks, but Gemma learned very little about that. To her relief, Gisburne didn’t come to any particular harm, though he sometimes returned seething with anger. It seemed the outlaws took pleasure in humiliating him. That didn’t make Gemma particularly inclined to sympathize with them, but she reminded herself that their quarrel really was with the Sheriff and anything that bothered him, was fine with her, as long as he didn’t vent his frustrations on Gisburne. Unfortunately, that was exactly what he did, most of the time. As there was little she could do to help, she just had to accept the situation, at least for the time being.
It seemed that because of the intensified conflict with the outlaws, the boy Jem was more or less forgotten. The Sheriff grew used to having ‘him’ around, and though Gemma didn’t think he’d changed his mind about his plans for ‘him’, at least at the moment, his hands were full elsewhere.
On Sunday, it seemed the Sheriff had decided to sleep in. In any case, no one came to announce that breakfast would be served. The sun got in Gemma’s eyes and the bed, which wasn’t very comfortable, made it hard to go back to sleep. Besides, she didn’t want to be caught unawares.
Ever since she’d come to Nottingham, she hadn’t removed her clothes for more than short periods of time, while she was washing herself, and on a few occasions, changed her clothes, but even so, she was afraid to be found out. Since the few garments she had brought weren’t all that unusual, at least she hoped so, she gave them to one of the servants for washing, hoping they wouldn’t shrink, shed or in any other way call attention to any differences between them and the coarser fabrics everyone else was wearing. To her relief, her clothes had been returned to her, not much worse for wear.
For want of anything better to do, she got up, washed herself and brushed her teeth, then hastily put her tunic back on. She was considering going out for a while, but was interrupted in her plans, by a knock on the door.
“Breakfast will be served directly.”
She opened the door to find Tillie standing there, out of breath, with a red mark on her left cheek.
“Thank you, Tillie. I’ll be right down.”
There was no particular reason to suspect it, but Gemma jumped to the conclusion that Kate had slapped the girl. One day, that Kate would get what she deserved, but since she was still responsible for the food Gemma was served, she didn’t dare to antagonize her. Not yet. Hopefully, an opportunity would present itself some time.
Gemma walked down the stairs and found the door to the dining hall standing only partially ajar. No servants were walking in and out, carrying dishes and pitchers and all the other necessities for a Sunday breakfast with the Sheriff. Puzzled, she peeked inside. The sound of water splashing, told her that the Sheriff was having his morning bath. A huge bathtub was standing in the middle of the floor, facing the dining table, which wasn’t set. What really drew in Gemma’s gaze, was the fact that the Sheriff wasn’t alone in it. Gisburne was sitting there too, a pained expression on his face. He was soaping the older man’s back and shoulders, gingerly, as if overcome with distaste, but having no way of refusing.
“Get on with it, will you? I’m hungry. And aren’t you going to wash yourself?”
Not waiting for a reply, the Sheriff grabbed the bar of soap from Gisburne’s hands and quite roughly began to soap Gisburne’s chest.
“Thank you, my lord, I’m -”
“I’ll decide when it’s enough, Gisburne. There. Well, what are you waiting for?”
The Sheriff stared peremptorily at Gisburne, who looked desolate, but didn’t dare to refuse. Relucantly, he let his hands trail further down the Sheriff’s body, while the Sheriff leaned back, a look of intense contentment on his face. Gemma felt her face take on colour. While she pitied Gisburne, she felt a stab of excitement at the sight. As soon as he possibly could, Gisburne withdrew his hands and after a moment, the Sheriff’s eyes opened again and he began to study Gisburne speculatively. In the end, he appeared to give up, at least with his first intention.
“You may dry me now.”
Gisburne got out of the tub and fetched a piece of cloth left lying over the back of a chair and began to rub the Sheriff dry. Once he was finished, he hastily grabbed another piece of cloth and began to rub himself. The Sheriff remained to watch. His gaze travelled across Gisburne’s lithe body, quite as avidly as Gemma’s did.
“I hear you’ve made quite a conquest, Gisburne. Our young guest is smitten with you, or so I hear.”
Gisburne tensed up, his face taking on colour.
“My lord -”
“Now, don’t be coy. Clearly, your manly charms have overcome our young friend. How very sweet.”
Gisburne didn’t reply, instead choosing to hastily put on his clothes.
Gemma silently retreated upstairs, waiting to be called again. This time too, it was Tillie, looking tired and stressed out. Kate was working the poor kid too hard, but Gemma wasn’t in any mood to focus on that. So she’d been careless. Given herself away. And naturally, Gisburne hadn’t been pleased. She would have to restrain herself, or she’d end up pushing him away, instead of growing closer to him. Besides, there was absolutely no reason to believe he would want her, even if he had known she was of the right gender from his point of view. She considered backing off completely, but somehow she couldn’t bring herself to do it. He was the only one she’d grown the least bit close to in all the time since she’d found herself here, wherever that was. If she lost his companionship, she would be all alone.
At the breakfast table, the Sheriff was in an excellent mood, and kept engaging her in conversation, and forcing Gisburne to join in. She did her best to act as naive and innocent as possible.
Perhaps it was just the Sheriff’s dirty mind and she really hadn’t been that overobvious. She didn’t think so, but it was hard to tell what these people would interpret as suspicious behaviour. Gisburne didn’t ask her to come along on any walk that day, and she didn’t insist, choosing instead to pass the time by herself, upstairs. If she lay low for a while, perhaps he would forgive her. Forgive her? It was more likely that he would regret his kindness and stay away from her indefinitely.
The following day, she happened to overhear Kate taunting Gisburne for the same thing and realized that there was no doubt she had given herself away. That stung. It was especially wounding to hear herself being described as a lovelorn puppy. Gisburne’s reaction was of little consolation.
“Don’t be foolish, Kate. The lad is lonely. Away from home, all by himself. It’s only natural that -”
“That’s right, tell yourself that’s all there is to it.”
He turned and left with only a few words as an excuse. It was just bad luck that he ran into Gemma no more than a minute or two later. She hesitated, not quite sure what to say. If she appeared uncomfortable, wouldn’t that imply she had been eavesdropping? In any case, she never had time to say anything.
“Not now. I’m busy.”
It hurt even more, to hear him snap at her like that and not knowing what else to do, she retreated up the stairs to her room. Someone must have overheard the exchange, because later, just before supper, she once again happened to catch part of the Sheriff’s conversation with Gisburne – if conversation was the right word for his usual bullying session.
“I must say you’re being even more of an ass than usual, Gisburne. You’re not being very hospitable to our young friend. I hear that this very morning you were rude to the lad. How lucky for him he has another friend, someone with a bit more polish, who truly values his company.”
She didn’t see Gisburne’s face, but she heard him draw in breath. The Sheriff must have been able to study his reaction more closely and didn’t pass over his findings without comment.
“Do you have anything to say to me, Gisburne?”
There was a pause in which she wondered if Gisburne would risk attracting even more of his master’s displeasure, but when she heard his reply, she knew he had remembered his position.
“No, my lord.”
“Don’t you forget it, you damned fool. I shall do as I please under my own roof. He’s old enough to be a squire and he’s old enough to -”
“Yes, my lord.”
When she entered the dining hall, a few minutes later, the tense atmosphere was only too obvious, but she forced herself to act as if she didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. She let the Sheriff engage her in conversation and even smiled at him, though it stuck in her throat. Throughout the meal, Gisburne stubbornly stared into his goblet, and only replied to the Sheriff’s most persistent taunts.
After supper, she prepared herself to retire to her room. She was astonished to find Gisburne following her up the stairs. At this hour, the servants were less busy upstairs, and most likely gathered near the kitchen. She assumed they had dishes to wash and other late evening duties. Gisburne caught up with her in the hallway outside her room. He glanced suspiciously over his shoulder, making sure they weren’t overheard, before he began to speak. The look on his face hinted at concern.
“Listen to me, Jem. if the Sheriff comes to you and – wants you to – come to his room – well, clearly you won’t be able to refuse, but – try to stay away from him. Avoid him as much as you can. Do you know what I’m trying to say?”
“Yes, I – thank you. I’ll try.”
She felt his gaze travel across her face, then he turned and left, without another word. That had been completely unexpected. Despite everything, he seemed to care enough about her to warn her of the Sheriff’s attentions. If she really had been a teenage boy, she might not have been able to guess. His concern for her touched her. However, that was the last time they were alone together, for quite some time. The Sheriff kept Gisburne busy from early in the morning until late at night and when he was away, fighting the outlaws, he didn’t always come back in time for dinner or supper. Sitting at the Sheriff’s table without Gisburne present was not only boring, but slightly sinister. She recalled Gisburne’s warning and naturally she had already noticed for herself the nature of his interest in her – or rather the boy he thought she was.