Abaddon Books

Deleted scene: An Unexpected Visit from 'The Red Hand'

2 years ago

The final in our three part 'deleted scenes' from Hunter of Sherwood: The Red Hand by Toby Venables, which is out now worldwide.

An Unexpected Visit

Eastchepe – June, 1193

Gisburne sat on the bench, slumped over the table, staring into a mug of ale as the rain beat its relentless rhythm upon the roof. In his left hand sat his stubbly chin; with his right he pushed Llewellyn’s bodkin points about the pitted wooden surface. He felt paralysed, lost. Not that he was unable to see the road ahead – it stretched out before him as clear as day, clearer and straighter than the Great North Road. But he did not know how to take the next step.

He clasped his hands together. Almost as if they acted of their own volition, he felt his fingers interlock. His eyes closed. A yearning welled up in him.

It was not like Gisburne to resort to prayer. His relationship with God was not exactly close. In the past he had likened it to the relationship he had with his distant father whilst off fighting on campaign. The old man was undoubtedly out there, somewhere – or so he hoped – and he was glad of it. But there was little point trying to strike up a conversation with him.

“Praying?”

Gisburne’s eyes snapped open. Sitting opposite, staring right at him with inquisitive eyes, was a familiar figure. An impossible figure. The face was drawn and skeletal, his eyes sunken, his grey flesh ragged and, here and there, showing signs of putrefaction. But Gisburne would have recognised him anywhere.

He had not seen Gilbert de Gaillon for ten years. The last time had been when Richard sent him to his death. Overnight, Gisburne’s life had fallen apart. And now, here he was, sharing a table with him.

“Aren’t you dead?” Gisburne said.

De Gaillon cocked his head to one side. “I don’t know. Am I?”

“Surely you must know if anyone does?”

De Gaillon shrugged. “I expect I’d be the last to know.”

“You were betrayed by the Lionheart. Killed in an ambush. I saw it. I carried your body away. Buried it myself.”

“Well, you must be right, then.”

“You look well. Considering.” He filled a second cup from the ale jug and slid it forward. De Gaillon’s thin fingers wrapped around it and lifted it to blackened lips.

Gisburne looked his friend up and down as he drank. He was much as he remembered him, if a little worse for wear. There were the gashes upon his head. The slash where his neck and shoulder met, and the broken collarbone. The gaping stab wound in side. As de Gaillon gulped, Gisburne found himself looking to see if anything leaked out.

Nothing did.

The cup came down upon the table top sharply, making Gisburne start.

“You say you buried me?” said de Gaillon.

“Yes.”

“You were alone?”

“Yes.”

“Are you a priest now?”

“No.”

De Gaillon grunted and sighed heavily. “Well, that explains a lot.”

There had been no absolution. No burial service. Gisburne felt sudden guilt at the omission.

“Why are you here?” he said.

“I don’t know,” said de Gaillon. “I was hoping you might have some idea.”

“To help me?”

“Do you need my help?”

“More than ever,” said Gisburne. He would never have admitted as much to de Gaillon when he had been alive, but now, somehow, it came easily. “I’m lost. As lost as I have ever been. Galfrid thinks I waste my time searching for this Dickon. Perhaps he’s right. I know that Dickon hides some secret of Hood’s past. But...”

“But...?”

“I have realised, as I have been sitting here, that I have been dishonest – to Galfrid, to myself. That this, after all, was not why I pursued him...”

“Oh?”

Gisburne bowed his head, ashamed of his own weakness – even before a dead man. “I did so to avoid the bigger task – the one I know I must face. The one to which I do not have an answer.”

“The Red Hand...” said de Gaillon. He nodded, a loose shred of flesh on his neck wobbling as he did so.

“How do you know that?” said Gisburne. “How can you know that, when you didn’t even know if you were dead?”

De Gaillon gave a kind of awkward, half shrug and leaned forward. “Listen... Don’t be so hard on yourself. I understand your frustration. You are a man used to expansive action who now feels himself imprisoned by inward thought.”

Gisburne nodded. Yes, that was it, exactly.

“But you are mistaken in your assumptions,” said de Gaillon.

“What assumptions?”

“All is thought. It always was. There is no action without it.”

“Some things are beyond thought. Physical things.”

“Such as?”

“Pain.”

De Gaillon shrugged again. “Thought can overcome pain – and more besides. I’ve seen men who should already have been dead stand up and fight with their last breath.”

Gisburne had seen it too. Then there was the fact that he was currently conversing with a corpse. “Pleasure, then,” he said. “That is pure physical sensation, is it not?”

De Gaillon nodded. “Tell me,” he said. “Have you ever found yourself holding the hand of a woman whose company you did not relish?”

“Yes.”

“And that physical contact did not give you pleasure?”

“No.”

“What about a woman who you desired with all your being, when you touched her hand for the first time? Did that give pleasure?

Gisburne nodded. “Something beyond even that.”

“And yet the physical contact in each case is identical.” De Gaillon shrugged, his point made. “It is all thought, Guy. Whether we are aware of it or not, it is all dictated by what is in here.” He tapped his tattered, decomposing skull. “This is where the battle is fought, where it is won and lost. You know that. Soon, you will face him. Don’t let him defeat you before that day even arrives.”

Gisburne frowned. “I never heard you talk about such things before.”

“Battle?”

Gisburne laughed. “Pleasure. Women.”

De Gaillon gave an approximation of a shrug, his shoulder clicking. “Death has a way of focusing the mind.”

“Are you a ghost?”

De Gaillon grunted. “What is a ghost, anyway?”

Gisburne gave a bemused shake of his head. “Something from the past. Something that should not be here – that persists after death.”

“Then I’d say we all have our ghosts, wouldn’t you?” He sat back and clucked his tongue. The sound was strange in his cold mouth. “Let’s not waste time debating what I am,” he said. “The question is, why am I here?”

“Because I have need of you?”

“An answer to a prayer?”

Gisburne shrugged. It was as good an explanation as any.

“But you don’t need me,” said de Gaillon, spreading his hands.

“How can you know that?”

“I know your thoughts. I am your thoughts. And all you have achieved, you have achieved without me.”

Gisburne stared back at him, mute, pleading in his eyes. It seemed to him quite the opposite – that somehow de Gaillon had been there all along.

His old mentor held his gaze for an age, then finally threw up his hands in defeat. “Fine,” he said. “Perhaps, under the circumstances, a little advice wouldn’t go amiss.” He gave a wheezy sigh, then sat forward again, interlocked his black-tipped fingers and rested his elbows upon the table.

“Be kinder to your squire.”

“That’s it? That’s the best you have?”

De Gaillon shrugged. “He may take an arrow for you one day. Or not. Better to keep on the right side of him.”

Gisburne gulped his ale and wiped his mouth. “All right, all right, I’ll be kinder to my squire.” He felt like a scolded boy. “Anything else?”

De Gaillon sat back. “This man you hunt, what is it he wants?”

At last, to business, thought Gisburne. “He means to kill John,” he said.

“That is what he threatens. But he could have killed John back in Nottingham. What is it he wants?”

Gisburne thought of the relentless campaign, of the deaths of men who perhaps, as individuals, meant little to the Red Hand – who were simply symbols of something else. A means to an end. He thought, too, of the messages he left in his wake, of the clues laid out for him like a breadcrumb trail.

“He wants me to pursue him,” said Gisburne.

De Gaillon nodded slowly. “And do you always do what your enemy wants?”

Gisburne stared into de Gaillon’s lifeless eyes. “Are you saying I should give it up?”

“No. I am saying you should put aside thoughts of whatever grudge he has for John, and think about why he wants this of you.”

“Of me?”

A rattle of a sigh passed through de Gaillon’s emaciated frame. “You see? You are so obsessed with others, you are forgetting the role you play in all this. You are not like me. Not a ghost. You exist – are flesh and blood. And I can’t tell you what to do.”

Gisburne suddenly felt he understood. “You’re in my mind.”

“Of course,” said de Gaillon.

“You can’t know more than I already know.”

De Gaillon’s face twisted into a strange, wrecked smile, as if finally the message had got through. “And that is precisely why you no longer need me. You carry me with you. I have become thought. Your thought.” He extended a ragged finger. “In here.” Gisburne felt the cold pressure of the fingertip upon his forehead. Involuntarily, he closed his eyes.

When he opened them, de Gaillon was gone. Just the second cup remained were he had sat, its contents half drunk.

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