"We aren't going to make it much farther tonight," Little John said looking at the sky, "It's almost sunset and the clouds are coming in, it looks like there's going to be a storm."
"We'll stop at the town coming up, there's an inn there that we can get two rooms at." Robin Hood agreed.
Robin Hood and Little John along with Tuck and Marion were on their way back to Sherwood after going to help a friend of theirs who lived two days journey from their village. They were over halfway there having started for home very early in the morning but knew that they wouldn't be able to get much farther that night.
The tavern keeper welcomed warmly, informing them that he had only three of his six rooms left and allowed them to take two of the remaining ones. As the outlaws sat and waited for their evening meal to be served they chatted amongst each other unaware that at one of the nearby tables sat someone who had sworn to see them killed.
Alice Cooper was the daughter of a reasonably well off peasant who had gotten his younger son a place in Prince John's garrison. He had been killed in a skirmish with some of Robin Hood's men and she had sworn vengence on the four most notorious outlaws.
Alice was on her way to visit her recently widowed grandmother when she stopped at the tavern for the night. She smiled slightly as she formed a plan to get rid of the four outlaws for good. She quickly finished her own meal and then slipped upstairs to her room.
There was no one else upstairs as most were still eating their dinners and conversing with their friends. Alice hurried to her room and took a gallon jug of rather strong ale from her trunk. She knew which two rooms the outlaws were staying in, they were the last two on either side of the hall from the stairs. First she poured a line of it from one door to the other and then she opened the door to the right and carefully poured some more across the threshold. She poured it all through the rushes on the floor especially around the bed and near the fireplace. The room on the left she wasn't able to be quite so thorough on as she found that the previously full jug was only a quarter full, but she was confident that she had used enough.
On their way up to their rooms for the night the outlaws passed a young woman who was on her way down the stairs. She smiled and wished them a good night. Their rooms were all the way down the hall. When they got there, Marion turned the knob on the door to the right, to enter.
"One of us will knock on your door when we're ready to leave in the morning," Robin told her.
"I'll be ready, if I'm not up try knocking louder or ask the landlord's wife or daughter to come in." Marion smiled, she was generally an early riser but she was also a very heavy sleeper, waking her up once she was asleep was notoriously difficult.
Alice remained up late into the night. Once she was sure that she was the only person left awake in the house she took her candle and went down the hall to where the outlaws rooms were. Rushes burned easily without any help and very quickly they were alight. She touched the candle's flame to the spots on both door frames that she had poured the ale on. Very soon it would be impossible for them to leave their rooms.
Little John woke up with the smell of smoke in his nostrils. He quickly sat up and saw that the entire front part of the room was on fire. "Wake up," he yelled at his two companions. "We need to get out of here."
The three men quickly pulled on their outer garments and using the bed sheets as a crude rope climbed down through the window. Once they got to the ground they began scanning the small crowd for Marion. Little John spotted the innkeeper. "Have you seen
Marion?" He asked.
"No, when I was woken up the smoke was so thick where your rooms were that we couldn't get to them. She's probably still up there, I sent for a ladder to get to you that way but it hasn't arrived yet."
Little John nodded and turned to look at Robin who had heard the entire exchange. "We've got to get her out of there," he gasped.
"The ladder's coming!" Someone called.
Robin took the sheet they had climbed down on and tore two pieces of the cloth and soaked them both in water and then ran to where two men were holding a ladder. "Put it up to that window!" He ordered them pointing to Marion's room. As they did so, he tied one of the cloths around his mouth and nose.
As Robin hastily climbed the ladder, he saw that the fire had spread to the inn's thatched roof. When he climbed into Marion's room, most of the room was engulfed in flames. As he went to the bed, he saw that one of the blankets had caught fire as well.
He caught his breath when he saw that it wasn't completely on fire, though part of the blaze looked close to Marion's feet.
Marion was unconscious and rather than waste time to try and wake her Robin put the wet cloth over her face and simply picked her up. As he did so his arm brushed the flaming blanket and he nearly dropped her with the sudden pain.
He grabbed one of the blankets that wasn't on fire and put it on top of her and started climbing out the window. Little John was starting up the ladder to help his friends when Robin came out of the window and started his descent with Marion in his arms.
When he got to the bottom, he found Little John and Tuck waiting for him. Tuck took the blanket off of her and spread it out on the ground so Robin could lay her down. As he did, Tuck took the cloth off her mouth.
"The burns don't look too bad," he said. "They should heal I'll need to get some herbs to make a poultice for them."
A man hurried over to them. "I know this isn't a good time, but you need to get going. Someone woke the sheriff and told him what happened and he's sending some soldiers from the garrison over, they don't know you're here yet, but if they see you-" the man stopped and then moved off.
Robin nodded in agreement. "Saddle our horses; we'll go into Sherwood." Little John and the innkeeper went to the stable to carry out the order.
Tuck looked up, "But what about Marion?"
"I'll carry her again, she's as good as dead if the sheriff's men see any of us."
"Excuse me sir?" a young boy now came up, "Does Lady Marion need a healer?"
"There's one who lives in Sherwood, not too far from here. They say that she's a witch but last winter when the plague was here I took my baby sister to her and she cured her. She didn't seem like a witch she was nice and pretty and she fed us and then took us most of the way back to the village."
"How far is she from here?" Tuck asked
"It took me three hours to get there carrying my sister."
"She might be our best chance," Robin said, his voice hoarse. "Will you show us the way?"
"Yessir. It's not easy to find but she told me a way that I'd be able to find it again if I needed to."
Little John and the innkeeper returned leading the outlaws horses. "Can you ride?" Tuck asked. The boy nodded. "He's showing us to a healer in Sherwood who can help us." Tuck explained.
Little John lifted the boy to the saddle of Marion's horse and then turned to Robin who now sat cradling Marion in his arms. "Do you want me to carry her?" he asked.
Robin shook his head and stood up. "I'll carry her. Take her now so I can mount and then give her back to me."
Little John nodded and soon the outlaws were off.
It took them nearly two hours to get there, the trail in places was definitely not made for horses. When they got to a small clearing in front of a hill the boy, Peter, reigned his horse in.
"Which way do we go now?" Little John asked.
"This is it. She lives inside the hill."
"How do we get in?"
"Part of that rock mound moves, that's the entrance." Little John dismounted, followed by the boy. He tried to move the rocks that the boy had pointed to. "She said that if I knocked on this rock," the boy went to a smooth black stone a little way to the right of the outcropping, "she'd know someone was there." He did so.
They waited for a few minutes and just when Tuck was considering suggesting that they just go on to their compound some of the rocks started to slide away. On the other side of a threshold stood a young sleepy looking girl. She looked about eight or so; roughly three years younger than Peter; her hair was a light red and hung loose till about halfway down her back, her skin was fairly pale, she was wearing a white linen chemise of some sort. It had long sleeves and went all the way to the ground. She rubbed sleep out of her green eyes and looked at them, "You can come in," she said in a pretty, childish voice. "Take the horses too, we have a place for them."
Little John again took Marion so that Robin could dismount without hurting
her any further. He then handed her back and took the reigns to Robin's
horse as well as his own and the small group entered the cave.
Robin was shocked at how the cave looked on the inside. The floor, the wall to the left and the ceiling were the cave's natural stone. The wall to the right was made of some other type of material and went down in a long corridor that opened up at the end.
On the right was a partially open door. "You can go in there," the girl said. "Mama's getting ready for you."
Robin nodded and entered the room. It was a good sized room, he guessed that it took up the rest of the hill's width and about half it's length. A woman, who looked almost identical to the girl, looked up from where she was starting a fire in the fireplace.
"You may put her down on that bed." She pointed to a small bed that was positioned by the opposite wall. The blankets had been turned down and Robin slipped Marion's body underneath them. The woman walked over to the bed and opened a box that stood next to it. "How did this happen?" she asked as pulled back the covers and began to examine Marion's burns.
"The inn we were staying in caught fire, her room was almost completely on fire when we got her out."
She nodded. "The burns aren't as bad as the smoke inhalation, but she hasn't stopped breathing so she should be safe on that account." She pulled out a small crock of some type of poultice, "This should heal the burns, but it will take time." She began to rub it on the burns on Marion's legs. "She's lucky, the burns aren't anywhere near as bad as they could have been, they are blistering but it that's better than if they were brown or leathery. Rub some of this on your arm, it will help it." she gestured with the goop on her fingers.
The others reentered the room and the woman looked up, "Brittany, be a good girl and start breakfast for everyone."
"Yes, Mama," the girl replied. She went over to a cupboard by the fireplace and took a pail and went outside Peter followed her.
"If you would please step outside, I will finish caring for Marion's burns," the woman said.
The men nodded and slipped out of the room. "We could help Brittany and Peter care for the animals," Little John suggested.
"They have a goat and six chickens," he explained for Robin's benefit.
Robin nodded and they went down the hall and into the small barn-room. Robin was impressed with it. There was one large stall that held the four horses, then a smaller one with a she-goat and another one about the same size as the first that held the six chickens. Beyond that was a bubbling spring. The two children were filling the bucket from it. When the bucket was about two thirds full they stopped and put it on a small wheeled cart with a long handle that it could be pulled from. Brittany looked up and smiled at the outlaws, "Hi," she greeted them cheerfully. "Would you like to help us look for eggs?"
Tuck and Robin agreed to, but Little John offered to milk the goat instead. Soon the animals were all taken care of and the little group went back to the room. Once they got to the hall Brittany opened the door and said "I'll go in first and see if you can come in yet." She went in pulling the wagon that held the morning's milk, eggs and water.
"That's an amazing little girl," Tuck said. "I wonder where her father is."
"They don't talk about him," Peter said. "I asked the last time I was here and Anstace said that he wasn't here and started asking me questions about my sister and my family."
"The woman's name is Anstace?" Tuck asked.
Peter nodded. "Weird name, huh? She said she's not from England, but wouldn't say where she was from."
Brittany came back out, "You can come in now. Mama's mostly done with Marion."
When they reentered the room they saw that Marion was no longer wearing her own scorched garment, but a chemise similar to the one that Anstace was wearing. Anstace was pulling the covers up around her.
"How is she?" Tuck asked.
Anstace looked up, "She's going to be fine. There's some blistering on her legs but I put some salve on it and bandaged them up. It is going to be a couple weeks before she is completely healed though. The only thing that makes me worried is the fever."
"Do you know when she'll wake up?" Robin asked.
Anstace stood up and as she walked over to the kitchen area she answered. "She woke up briefly while you were out. I spoke with her briefly and we changed her clothes, but since she was in quite a bit of pain, which for an injury like this is better than if she felt no pain," she hurriedly added when she saw the look on Robin's face, "I gave her something to drink that put her back to sleep." Anstace began to pull food stuffs out of the cupboard and pantry by her small counter to prepare a meal. "Peter, after breakfast you need to get back to your home so your parents don't worry too much."
The boy nodded, "Yes lady."
"Why is it better that she's in pain? Little John asked, confused.
Anstace took a deep breath, "When a person is injured very badly it is possible that they will stop feeling anything in the portion of their body that was injured. When that happens their chances of a full recovery are slim but if there is pain it shows that that hasn't happened and will make her recovery easier."
Anstace then looked at Robin, Tuck and Little John. "You should send a message back to your village, it's only about two hours walk from here. Brittany can show you the short cut if you like."
The three outlaws were stunned. How could she know where their village was? Tuck recovered first. "How did you learn of the village's location. Its supposed to be hidden from everyone."
She shrugged. "I looked for it. If anything happened to me I wanted to know of a place that Brittany could go to. When I heard the villagers talk about Robin Hood's secret village in Sherwood Forest it seemed like the best place. Deep in Sherwood Brittany would continue to be more or less separated from the world, and I thought that since Robin was trained by a sorcerer your village would be the least likely to kill her as a witch."
"Are you? Witches I mean," Little John asked.
She shook her head. "Not exactly. We come from a place very far away from hear, so far you would never dream it existed and most people there don't know that here exists. The people there have many medicines and ways to heal people that you don't and some of us have other abilities as well. I was trained to be a healer when I was a girl so that I could use my abilities to help others, most of us with them came from families that had a tradition of dedicating themselves to service in various ways. The people here accused me of being a witch when I tried to live among them and where going to have us burnt at the stake when I cured them of a plague."
"What type of abilities do you have?" Robin asked from where he sat next to Marion's bed.
"I can sense when I am near people, even if I can't see them. I know if my close friends or family is in trouble. When I see someone who is ill or injured I know almost instinctively how to fix it, I can also sense when there is someone injured nearby, at an even greater distance than well people. A few other things as well, but they all take so much effort that it usually isn't worth it to do unless I have no other way to do something."
The breakfast that Anstace made with the help of her daughter, and later Tuck who was interested in the ways that she used herbs, as well as a little concerned that she might put some type of potion into the meal, was ample and delicious. She certainly did know how to cook.
After the meal she packed up some leftovers for Peter and sent him back to his home and began to clean up. She then excused herself and her daughter as they retired into one of two back rooms.
"We probably should go back to the village to let them know that we're fine." Tuck said thoughtfully.
"You and John go, I'll stay here." Robin said.
"Are you sure?"
"I'm not leaving Marion. Just tell the people that we're fine and include her in the prayers. Get Brittany to show you the shortcut and then one of you go back with her. I don't like the idea of a little girl going through Sherwood alone. We aren't the only outlaws hiding here."
It was agreed upon that they would leave for their village as soon as
Anstace was willing to loan them her daughter and then Little John would
bring the girl back to her mother.
End of Chapter One
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