Alexis felt herself blink her eyes, but still she saw nothing. Her senses, at first hazy, were slowly beginning to return to their natural sharpness. She noticed a dim light somewhere not too far from her, and she also realized she was lying in a bed, not in the bottom of a ravine, and — this realization the most amazing of all — that she was not dead. Awaking in a strange place, especially since she had expected never to wake again in this world, her first instinct was to fight. Her numb and feeble fingers reached for the knives that should have been where she had tucked them into her dress. Finding them gone, she became increasingly alarmed, and bolted upright.
This was not a very good idea. A surge of unbearable pain set her shoulder on fire, and she shrieked. It was a breathless, hoarse and feeble shriek, but it did not escape the ears of Will Scarlet. Alexis forced herself to lie down again, panting heavily and clutching her shoulder. Her head throbbed, she felt faint and dizzy, and she would have been sick if there had been anything in her stomach. But she had not eaten for three days, and it was taking a toll on her already over-worked body. She closed her eyes, genuinely terrified, for she knew she might have to defend herself and that she was not physically capable of doing so in any way.
The surf of an imaginary ocean pounding in her head, drowned out the footsteps of Will, as he quickly strode to her side. His appearance beside her justified another, startled scream when she opened her eyes. "Don't be frightened," he said, "I won't hurt you. Just try to relax." His voice was soft and gentle and his blue eyes radiated sympathy. "I'm afraid that shoulder will trouble you for awhile, but just try to ignore it."
Alexis took in his handsome, clean-shaven face, topped with short, black hair, as he smiled reassuringly at her. She stole a glance at his trim but muscular frame, liked what she saw, but was not ready to trust him — or anyone else, for that matter — just yet.
"I'm not afraid." Was her short and cold reply. Her eyes searched his for some trace of deception or evil intent, but she found none. All she could see was concern. But why did he care about her? No one ever had before, maybe with the exception of her family.
"Who are you and where am I?"
"Later, later. You've had quite a day. Get some rest. There will be plenty of time to talk when the gang gets back."
"No, I want answers. I'm fine," Alexis argued, struggling through a wave of dizziness. She could not sit, could not even move her head, the pain was so great. But she would never rest easy until she knew where she was, who he was, and why she was here.
Will sighed in submission. "Well, my name is Will, Will Gamwell. But my friends call me Will Scarlet, because of this thing." He tugged on the crimson kerchief tied loosely around his neck. He had hoped to amuse his questioner with this small fact, but she did not laugh. "You are an honored guest," continued Scarlet, shrugging off the insult of not being found funny, "in the camp of none other than the infamous Robin Hood Himself." He gestured grandly to the space around them, but all Alexis could see from her bed were the dark inner walls of the hut and a small gleam of firelight showing through the doorway.
"Right, and the Loxely butchery is actually Camelot," was her sarcastic reply.
"Look, you asked for answers and I gave them to you. Whether you believe them or not is your problem," Will said, but then, softening his voice at seeing the pain in her eyes, asked if she would like anything to eat. He very gently and slowly helped her into a sitting position, as she held back the cries which leaped to her throat, for she would rather die than appear weak. She simply nodded her head, hoping he did not detect the desperation brought on by her hunger. Perhaps while she ate, she'd even be able to get some answers out of him.
Alexis refused to let Will feed her, choosing — instead — to eat his proffered bowl of soup with one hand, balancing it in her lap, her back leaning against the wall of the hut. With the first sip, Alexis's mind cleared a bit, and she was ready with more questions. But before she could ask any, the sound of laughter and heavy feet crunching on the autumn leaves filled the clearing. Meeting his gaze with terror in her own, Alexis opened her mouth to speak, but before she could utter a sound, Will was turning away, with a quiet, "It's OK. I'll be right back."
From outside the hut, she heard more laughter and more than one deep voice addressing the man who thus far (she had to admit), had been most kind to her.
"There y'are, lad!"
"Come, give us a hand!"
"That merchant had a lot of gold on 'im."
"Aye, it was a rum good catch, it was."
"What's for dinner? Smells good."
"Where's Robin? He back yet? And why are you here, instead of in Loxley with him and the rest?"
"Robbers!" thought Alexis, "probably cutthroats. They must've taken the knife pouch. Now they'll kill me for sure!" She looked around in a panic, knowing full well she was trapped. But the sound of Will's voice, low and whispering, calmed her. She couldn't make out what he was saying. His words, though, seemed to have a similar effect on the men outside. All their voices became hushed. "He must be telling them about me," she thought.
A moment later, their whispering was abandoned when someone else barreled into the camp with a boisterous, "Hello, blokes."
Shouts of "Hey!" and "Here he is now!" and "Robin!" filled in the air in reply.
Alexis tensed, pulling her fingers into fists, ready to fight to the end. She knew she wouldn't last long. What could one weak, defenseless girl do against a whole gang of dangerous full-grown men? She breathed deeply, trying to calm herself, but when she heard the shuffling of feet outside her door, she panicked. "Cruel," she thought, "Cruel of Will to trick me like that. Cruel to play with my mind, to almost make me trust him, just so he and his stupid friends can turn around and murder me. Or worse."
Sunday, April 14, 2013
|photo by Cheryl Ruffing|
A group of five men, each bearing food, blankets and money, made their way down the path to Loxley, as Sherwood became immersed in the shadow and mystery of twilight. The sun had all but disappeared upon the horizon, and the first stars were beginning to light the pink sky, which was slowly mixing with the deep purple of night. But as it went down, the sun cast a small beam of light on the bottom of the ravine opposite the men, illuminating the gaunt figure of a girl, curled up piteously, and so covered with the lately-fallen autumn leaves, that she was easy to miss, and it was by pure chance that the leader of the group, a man well known throughout Nottinghamshire as Robin Hood, happened to look down as the sun shone on her frail body.
"Look!" he shouted, pointing to where she lay. "What is that?"
"Looks like a body."
"Has that blasted Gisborne killed another one?"
"I think it's a woman!"
These were just a few of the men's conjectures as they looked down the path's slope. "Well come on then, let's find out,” said Robin, as he laid down the goods he carried and began sliding down the path's side. His men, ever faithful, soon followed.
"She's just a girl!" cried Will Scarlet, Robin's cousin, as he leaned down to brush the long, snarled, mud-caked hair out of her face.
Robin felt her pulse and put his ear to her chest, and, to his amazement, heard a faint beat. "She's alive!" he cried. "Barely, but alive just the same."
"We have to get her back to the camp," replied Will. He gently picked her up, revealing a large pool of blood and a sharp stone where her head had been. An arrow jutted out of her shoulder, and she weighed almost nothing in his arms.
"But what about the villagers? We can't let all them people starve on account of one girl who may or may not last the night. It'll be completely dark by the time we get her to the camp and come back here. Gisborne and his guards will be back and we'll have no chance to get this food passed out," argued another man, this one abnormally tall, and very strong, clutching a heavy wooden cudgel. His name, a misnomer given him by his companions because it struck them as terribly funny, was Little John.
"How about you lot go ahead to Loxley, and I'll bring her back to the camp. I'll get her cleaned up and start supper," replied Will.
The men agreed to this, and, with Robin in front, as always, scrambled back up to the path and continued on their way to the village, while Will turned and walked back in the direction whence they came.
As he walked, Will became more and more troubled over what had happened to the girl lying limp in his arms. The arrow was clearly one of Gisborne's, and she had obviously been left for dead. But what had she done to warrant such a terrible punishment? Gisborne and the sheriff were anything but fair — this he knew from experience — but killing a woman, and a very young one at that (for Will guessed her to be at least two years younger than himself, who had just turned seventeen) was even more wretchedly cruel than normal. And she was so thin, nearly starved. Poor child, she must have had a rough time of it.
While lost in these troubling thoughts, Will made good progress, and soon arrived at the camp where he and the rest of the men lived. It was hidden deep in a wide clearing in the forest, surrounded so thickly by trees and so far off the Main Forest Road, that nobody but its inhabitants and a few others knew its exact location. In this clearing was a firepit and many cooking utensils, and a great bunch of rudimentary huts where the men slept. There were a couple of unoccupied ones, so in one of these Will carefully set his load down on the bed made of pine needles and covered her with a thin wool blanket.
But as he did this, a bundle tumbled out of the folds of her dress, landing with a soft thud on the hut's floor. It was a satchel. Will, throwing a questioning glance at the unconscious figure beside him, picked it up and took it out to the pit, where he started a fire to warm up some water for cleaning her wounds. While it heated, he opened the satchel and looked at its contents in the light of the fire, as the sun had, by then, gone down long ago. What he discovered made him catch his breath. A set of silver throwing-knives, the golden handles of which were encrusted with jewels and bearing the crest of Gisborne, glinted at him in the light. "Oh, you naughty girl, you have done something," he whispered, turning his gaze in admiration towards the hut.
The water now heated, Will got some linen and started cleaning the blood from the small gash on the back of her head, propping her up with his strong arm. When he had finished this, he wrapped a bandage around the wound, then gently turning her onto her back, he began to strip the blood-soaked cloth of her brown dress away from her shoulder. She breathed in sharply, and turned her head at this action, but did not wake. After this, he cleaned the blood off, and began, with some trepidation, to pull the arrow from where it was embedded. He was amazed that the pain he must be inflicting did not wake her. She stirred, but her eyes stayed fast shut. Then, applying pressure to stop the bleeding, he bandaged the girl's arm.
This done, Will laid her carefully back down, wrapped her up in another blanket, then went to fix supper for his sure-to-be hungry campmates and ponder how and why this pitiable creature had gotten her hands on those knives, which must be worth a fortune. Who could she be?
As he contemplated, Alexis started to wake up.
|photo by Cheryl Ruffing|
The various peasants and bystanders of Loxley Village paused in their work to watch a spectacle that was, while rare, not altogether unheard of. The object of their gaze was another peasant, this one a thin, grubby girl, maybe in her early teens, running through the village with a pack of the Sheriff's guards on her heels. None of the onlookers tried to stop her; they knew what her fate would be and pitied her. Better not to get involved. They were not likely to be rewarded for turning her in, and besides, she was not the first one to be seen chased by guards. The poverty of the land in which they lived had caused many an honest man, woman or child to turn to some crime or other simply out of necessity, and sometimes there were arrests where there was no crime at all. Just someone in the wrong place at the wrong time. The girl, an orphan by the name of Alexis, though hampered by the long skirts of her ragged dress, was outrunning her pursuers, for her legs were long and she was not weighed down with the heavy armor and weapons that were a necessary part of a guard's uniform. She was running out of breath, but so were the guards. She had already made it far down the narrow path through Sherwood Forest, and its long, sloping sides made it difficult for the large collection of men on her tail. The waif turned to mock them, seeing her near triumph, knowing that soon she could lose them in the dense trees and underbrush of the forest. But the laughter died on her lips at the sight of who had joined the chase. It was Guy of Gisborne, the Lord of Loxley, with an arrow fitted to the bow in his hands, and he was on horseback.
Everyone feared and hated Gisborne, for he watched over his lands with an eagle's piercing gaze, and lorded over the peasants who worked there with an iron grip. What was worse, he was the sheriff's right-hand man, and the tax collector for the whole of Nottinghamshire. If a citizen couldn't pay his taxes, he was turned out of his home or thrown in jail. The former had been Alexis' misfortune. A week ago, she and her brother had been thrown out of their tiny hut, and because he tried to resist, Alexis' sibling had gone to meet his Maker at Gisborne's hand. Alexis had escaped, but after wandering for days without food, she stole a crust of bread. But that wasn't what she was being chased for.
After taking the bread and getting away with it, she felt strangely empowered by the small theft. She got cocky, and started to entertain the idea of revenge on Gisborne for killing the only family she had left. So one day, whilst the evil lord was out doing the sheriff's vile work, Alexis had climbed in to his room through the back window of Loxley Manor, and looked around for something to steal. Money? No, he had plenty of that. She would steal something important to him, something he cared about, and make him know the pain of losing something he held dear. But then, he was a man without a heart. It would be impossible for him to love anything. As she scanned the room her eye fell upon a brown leather satchel, made specifically to hold a pack of gilded throwing-knives, bearing his family crest. Well, they might mean something to him, they had his crest on them, and they might be of use to her, for weapons and cooking and such. Well, just as she had snatched up the knives, a heavy and quick footstep sounded in the hall outside the door.
Alexis jumped behind a tapestry next to the open window just as Gisborne himself appeared upon the threshold. Alexis held her breath, hoping he would soon go away. But no, he looked up and saw the empty peg. He immediately began searching frantically. In his desperation, he pulled back the tapestry, and was completely taken aback at the sight of the little thief. He stood speechless, but Alexis wasted no time. She pushed him aside and dashed out the window. Gisborne regained his balance and shouted to the guards, who were always on the lookout in front of the manor. They started in hot pursuit after the girl, who was by then already in the village.
Now, as she gasped at the sight of the Lord of Loxley riding at full gallop, with his bow drawn and an arrow aimed at her, she stumbled on an unseen tree root, and the arrow was loosed. Alexis felt a horrible, searing pain rip through her shoulder. It took her breath away. She staggered and fell from the path, rolling down its steep sides, the scream of pain that had sprung from her lips as the arrow dug into her left shoulder faded into the dank forest air. She rolled over and over, down, down, down to the bottom of a ravine, where she hit her head on a stone. The world swam before her eyes for a few seconds, then slowly darkened into black nothingness.
Gisborne reined in his horse, and told the guards to see if she still lived. Two of them, an especially fat, lazy and ignorant pair, strode down to where the girl had fallen, looked down to the bottom of the ravine where she lay, stared a few seconds, then turned and said, "She ain't movin' sir. It'd take an act of God to live through a fall or a shot like that, sir." Gisborne rolled his eyes, but turned around and headed back to the manor, to find some smarter, more capable men to search the thief's body for his missing knives.