Much Secret Sorrow: Guy of Gisborne 1

By L. J. Hutton

Historical fiction

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522
7 mins

Opening - Guy's confession

Confiteor

I confess to Almighty God... to all the angels and saints, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, deed:
My name is Gisborne, Sir Guy of that same. You may have heard of me. Most of it will have been lies or tall tales. I care not. I shall tell my version of events now, for my confessor insists I hold nothing back for fear of imperilling my immortal soul. I know what his abbot thinks I shall confess to, here and now when my deathbed looms. I wish I could write this all in my own hand so that for once, at least, the full tale will not be edited by those who lack the courage to hear the truth. Instead I shall have to trust to my scribes’ vows and honesty, and in God, that in his mercy he will allow the truth to come out. May Dewi Sant and Saint Issui intercede on my behalf one last time.
No Brother Gervase, do not look so askance. You have no idea of what I shall tell, so do not judge me yet. If other readers like it not, that is for them to argue over with their confessors and their consciences. Mine is clear. If you think I lie, well then, you may believe me condemned in the afterlife if it comforts you. I, however, have no such doubts of what lies ahead. This is the truth, as I swear to it by Almighty God, who has seen all already and knows my fate better than me. I entrust my soul to his care, and once that has fled my body, what happens to this frail shell is of little consequence. If some wish to dance or even piss on my grave I shall be past caring.
So, where to start? I know what you, my confessor Gervase, and any other reader who later on digs this out of the dusty monastic scriptorium wants. You want to hear about him. About Robin Hood. It is nothing less than I expected. After all, to all of you our stories are intertwined and his is the legend - I only catch your interest for his sake. But I have a mind to make you wait a little. We shall get to him soon enough! You must bear with me and my story for a while yet. First you must hear about how it all began, what happened to our family - oh yes I do say our, dear Brother, for a connection is there - and what set us on the road to unexpected infamy. Only then may you judge whether I deserve my reputation - a reputation, I might add, which has only come about long after the events happened, and from the mouths of those who were never there.
Yet one point I must dispel before we start, for it irks me mightily. In these latter days a foolish rumour has arisen that the great outlaw was also a great earl. Some even hint that he was of noble Saxon lineage, although surely even the most cloistered monk knows that no lords of the former English retained such power and office by our day. No! A pox on such nonsense! ˜Robin Hood˜ was never an earl! What need would such a man have had for taking to the green-wood? Even in the days of my youth those great men were never simply ˜Englishmen˜ any more than they are now when our French lands have been long lost. All the men of such rank and substance also held lands in Normandy, Brittany or Aquitaine, quite aside from their estates here. Even in more recent times when King John in his folly lost our lands across the water, they could still easily retreat to France by the simple expediency of swearing fealty to the French king when they fell foul of their English one - which many did over the years.
Or if they lived nearer the borders, then the Welsh princes and Scottish kings were also only too willing to welcome the enemies of their powerful neighbour - as my father witnessed and suffered for. Did not King Henry I move against Robert of Bellême, Earl of Shrewsbury - the son of Roger of Montgomery - for just such an alliance? In 1112, if you recall our not so distant past, after imprisoning the rebel earl, he seized not only Bellême’s land on the Welsh border but also the family lands of Mortain in Normandy. And Mortain you should know of as staying in royal hands, since John was Count of Mortain long before he was king! If ˜Robin Hood˜ had been such a man, do you truly believe that even absent King Richard’s hapless governors, let alone the more resident King John, would have left him to be dealt with by a mere local sheriff? No! That tale is utter nonsense!
And as for being the Earl of Huntingdon, ah me! Do not make me laugh, for it makes me wheeze these days. Have you no memory for such things? The true Earl of Huntingdon was brother to the king of Scotland, no less. Indeed, David of Huntingdon, with his brother King William of Scotland, and the king we never had - Richard and John’s oldest brother, Prince Henry - took control of Huntingdon early in the great rebellion of 1173 to ‘74. Ah, I remember that well, being very disgruntled to be left behind when my not much older cousins went off to fight.
But you are distracting me already! Patience, Brother Gervase! Recollect what happened then, for it is all pertinent. King Henry II sent his army north and resoundingly defeated the lot of them, with King William of Scotland being sent to the leonine Henry at Northampton in chains. That is what happens to earls who defy kings! It took ten long years for Earl David to get his hands back on the Huntingdon estates, and then only after King William had bound himself to Henry and acknowledged his over-lordship of Scotland. Do you seriously think that even in his dotage Henry, or his lion of a son, Richard, would have stood back for a heartbeat while such a man defied their family again? And in nigh on the same counties, no less? For truth, no! And do not forget, our legend was well established long before John took the throne and had to deal with his rebellious earls. Robin Hood was not, nor ever could have been, this man or his heir. Besides which - just to throw you a bone to tease - I met and came to know David of Huntingdon, so I can tell you from personal experience that he was nothing like ˜Robin Hood˜ in looks or manners!
There, I have had my say on that matter. As for the rest, will you believe me? Or will you think I am simply lying to make myself seem a better man at this last stage of my life? This whole saga an aggrandisement of myself at his expense? Me, the dreaded Guy of Gisborne. Gisborne the jester stealing the king of Sherwood’s crown in death, as I could not do in life? Or will your mind remain unclouded enough to read these words and sense the truth behind them? And will you recognise him when he first appears? Will you see him as I saw him, before the legend entwined itself around him? So I challenge you, my reader, now that I can no longer ride in the lists and take up challenges by right of arms. I challenge you with the point of my quill pen - ha, there is a pretty image! I challenge you to read this with an open mind. Only when a line has been drawn beneath the last words may you say Gisborne lies and is no better than you thought him.
So, dear brother, we will begin in earnest in the morning, and you may judge my unshriven soul for yourself.

*****

Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire,
in the reign of Henry 111.

Ah, I dreamed such a dream last night, Gervase. It must have been your exhortations to tell all and tell the truth, for when I lay down in my bed my mind was all of a whirl. Either that or it is the effects of this dreadful ague I suffer, after the drenching in the cold and rain I received coming here! For you should know that while I am deeply grateful for the attentions of your infirmarer, I would not willingly have come back to stay in this area where I lost so many of those whom I held dear. My intent was only to spend a single night near to Nottingham and then return north to my home. Indeed, had I not felt it incumbent upon me to honour the last wish of another of those cherished few, at my age I would not have made the long journey and be here now. The years weigh heavily on me in this familiar landscape, and already I feel that if I could just walk out of here and turn a corner, I would walk through an invisible veil and step back to those years of my prime. So as I scoured my memories in those last moments of wakefulness, here in this bed, they shifted into dreams which took me back all those years to when it began - before the legend wrapped itself around us, and, had we known it, when we were all standing on the brink of the greatest adventures of our lives.
In my dream I was riding like the wind through that Derbyshire vale, the winter landscape sharp and crisp around me, and down below me I could see the fight unfolding. Little John was facing Robin Hood with swords drawn, and there had clearly been an exchange of blades already. Then Robin went flying backwards as his heel caught on a fallen branch. His sword flew out of his hand and Little John closed on him, although I knew that John would never maim, much less kill, unless he had no other choice. Then a thrown knife from Will Scarlet’s hand skittered along John’s blade right by the guard and John dropped his sword too. I remember digging my spurs into my horse’s side, determined to get there and stop this madness, and vaguely registering that there were other men surrounding the fight, all of them mounted. Up with me, two other horses were pounding alongside mine, and I recall their smell on the crisp winter air and the sound of their hooves breaking icy puddles as we plunged down the slope.
I recall thinking as we rode and the freezing air blasted my face,
˜There are three of us here with a boy, and three more of mine down there. Can we take six experienced fighters like them if it comes to a fight? Sweet Jesu, we have to! I have to take them. I cannot tell the sheriff I let so many well-armed ruffians go free to ravage as they pleased! ˜
I saw Robin roll and come up with a knife from his belt in his hand and make a swipe at Little John. I remember thinking back then,
˜By Our Lady, he means it! Blood will be spilled this day!˜
And so it was in my dream, so vivid, so fresh!
Someone off to their side tried to dismount to join in the fight, and an arrow from one of my men stopped him in his tracks.
˜Good for Thomas˜ I heard one of my fellow riders give praise, and gave thanks myself for the range and power of the great wyche-elm longbows.
I saw Brother Tuck reach out and restrain one of the other strangers, but we were still too far off for me to see how successfully or not he was holding on to the man. However I heard him call out in his strong Welsh voice,
˜Stop! In the name of God, I command you, stop!˜
And then I was shouting as loud as I could,
˜Stop in the name of the sheriff of Nottingham!˜
As a forester and a man of the sheriff’s I had full authority there and intended to use it against these vagabonds. Whether that would be sufficient, or whether I would end up making an utter fool of myself, I had not the time to consider.
I rode up to this man I was to come to know as Robin Hood, standing there tall and dark, with a soldier’s readiness to pounce, and looked into dark brown eyes as feral as a wolf’s and every bit as dangerous. I heard another great bow sing and felt the thump of another long arrow hitting the ground nearby. Another warning shot no doubt, but I was not so foolish as to break my gaze upon this outlaw to turn and look. If I could not subdue him then those arrows would soon be taking flight in anger!
˜How dare you attack my men! ˜ I snarled at him and he stood his ground and stared back at me with insolent arrogance. He was not in awe of any sheriff’s man then any more than later.
I recall Little John getting up and backing off from him but watching me warily too, as did the others in my party, all waiting for my signal to attack these sunburned strangers, who had the appearance of Templars even if they were acting like outlaws. Experienced fighters every one, they were the most dangerous men I had seen in years. Not since my time fighting the Welsh had I seen soldiers of this calibre.
˜I will not tolerate you marauding your way through this shire!˜ I threatened them, and hoped it would be enough, for I can still recall the feeling of my pulse racing and the blood singing in my veins, as it does when time seems to slow in that moment before chaos erupts, and when everything changes.
I see us all still, both in my dreams and now in my memories, frozen in time there amongst the trees like in some religious tableau. Me up on my big horse. Robin full of fire and fight on the ground before me. Little John standing a few paces off but no less ready for a fight, and Tuck on a shaggy carthorse trying to bring a calm to the situation and yet still ready to join in if things turned nasty. The four of us and the man you know of as Will Scarlet, plus others who would be part of the famous outlaw gang, all lined up as if for inspection by some unseen divine being who was still contemplating what to do with us all.
These dreams still come to me, Brother, and in them I cannot help but feel a higher guiding hand even if that thought scandalises you. Wise men have told me that dreams and visions are closely related, and that just as in the religious vision, a dream may illuminate the workings of the divine to mankind in a way we would not see in this real world. I do not claim saintliness for myself or those others, Brother, so you need not purse your lips so hard in disapproval. No, I am saying that in those dreams and in the memories they refresh for me, I now see a force outside of ourselves pushing us in ways we might not have gone of our own accord. I believe that Robin Hood, the legend, came to be because someone more than mere men decided that there needed to be someone like him. That greatness was thrust upon him and those around him, and that is why the tales have lingered so in the minds of folk who have never even been to Sherwood or Nottingham.
However, to return to my dream of last night, you need to hear much more of our earlier lives in order to see that divinely preordained confrontation in the same light as I do now. To see how we came to that point when Little John and Robin Hood were having their first encounter, and that it was a fight where one or other of them might have died if things had gone differently! You see? Such are the pivotal moments legends are made of! So let us begin while I still have breath to tell the tale.

~~~***~~~


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