|photo credit: Cheryl Ruffing|
Quieter still, though her heart pounded with unspoken, half-acknowledged fears, she slipped through corridors until her nose led her to the kitchen, where the tantalizing scent of baking bread, pastries, meat pies and beef made her stomach and heart ache. The moldy, grubby bread and dirty water they'd given her in the dungeon was inedible in her eyes, and until now she hadn't even realized how hungry she was. The pain of her beatings was enough to distract her from everything else.
Looking over her shoulder and scuttling behind a huge barrel of flour, she reached up to the counter above her head and plucked from it a raspberry tart, still warm in her frigid hands. "Here it comes." She whispered to herself, pulling her cloak closer and closing her eyes as a scream rang through the room.
"Get out here, you thief!" A large, white-haired woman dragged her out with as much force as a man. "What on earth do you think you're doing, stealing from the sheriff's table?" She demanded in a gruff, no-nonsense voice, her hands jabbing into her rotund hips.
"Please, m-m'am, I-I'm so s-sorry." Alexis blubbered, her frightened eyes flashing, her death-white lips trembling. "My f-family is s-s-starving, I've been—" It wasn't hard to call tears to her eyes after all she'd been through, and perhaps that made her performance all the more convincing, for the large lady's flour-covered face softened as she interrupted her.
"Enough. I understand. Here," And, lifting the cowering Alexis to her feet, she proceeded to bustle about the room, piling tarts, pies and loafs of bread into a brown sack. Finally, she handed it to the fugitive. "Here, hide this under your hood and don't let anyone see it." She whispered, before making Alexis jump out of her skin by shrieking at the top of her lungs and running to the door. "Help, guards, help! Oh, help, help, help! There's a thief in my kitchen! Get her out!"
"She certainly has an impressive set of lungs." Alexis thought as four armed and rather frantic looking soldiers rushed into the room and laid hands on her. It took all her will power not to cry out as one of them fiercely grabbed her bad arm. If she did, they might put two and two together and discover who she was.
"Has this rat taken anything?" A soldier demanded, looking at her with disgust.
"No, I got it back. Just get her out before the sheriff finds out I allowed this to happen. Surely he'll have my head if you don't get rid of her." The cook cried from the corner where she had drawn in mock terror, waving a wooden spoon before her as if a talisman to ward off evil spirits, or, in this case, Alexis.
"Yes m'am." The soldier complied, and, with a curt nod, he watched as his soldiers dragged the prisoner from the room. He did not see, however, that she grinned with obvious satisfaction as they brought her to the front entrance. With a forceful, swinging heave, they threw her out into Nottingham square with one warning: Don't come back.
"I won't," She muttered through clenched teeth as she picked herself up from the ground, all her bones aching afresh and her lip cut on the pavement. The salty, cold blood ran down her chin and splattered on the cobblestones. She stood there for a few moments, dazed, watching the crimson rivulets intertwine with the dust of the street, her body shaking, her lungs hesitant to believe she was breathing free air again. A chilling fall breeze that tasted faintly of winter rattled her dress and cooled her face, and she slowly began to remember what life was like outside the dungeon. She shivered again, and drew the cloak about her shoulders from where it had been knocked away by her fall. Her feet found themselves in a pile of wet, rain-washed leaves, brilliant orange and red, the only thing she had seen in the past few days more colorful than her own blood.
She took in deep, believing breaths now, eyes closed, as the dark, early-morning air wrapped her up and filled her with hope. And then, taking one last look, she ran. Her aching feet pounded the pavement, driven on by fear alone. She would not be captured again, she would never go back to that awful place. She made herself that promise as she flew through town, her matted, dirty hair dancing behind her, her last ounces of energy giving all they had.
She ran until she came to a home with three horses tied loosely outside of it. "Sorry mate, but I need this more than you do." She whispered breathlessly to the sleeping occupants of the house as she climbed atop the steed. It was frightened, and, truth be told, so was she, not having ridden a horse in years, but this was no time for worry. Gripping the horse as tightly as she could, she said a prayer and spurred it on.
The world flew past in a blur of dirty houses and bright trees, thumping up and down to the rhythm of the horse. "Come on, faster!" She kicked the animal's sides, urging it through the town gates and into the forest. All around her, Nottingham was showing it's first signs of waking up as the creeping fingers of dawn climbed over the horizon. Candles were lit inside previously darkened homes, animals trembled in excitement, knowing that their breakfast was on it's way.
Back at the castle, A frantic soldier rushed into the sheriff's room, awakening him from his deep, satisfied slumber. "My lord, wake up, my lord! It's the girl, she's gone, just like you said. She left the castle not long ago."
The sheriff sat up in bed and grinned as he heard this. "Excellent. Now, go saddle up five of our best trackers and follow her. In a few hours, we will know exactly where Robin Hood hides away in that little forest of his."