|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.