|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.