Please let it be a Nightmare
It was only the adrenaline coursing through her body and her finely honed skill for self-preservation that kept Djaq's legs moving at all. She could hardly breathe as the freezing air penetrated her lungs. It was a new sensation that could not have been more unnatural to somebody born in such a very different climate. She noticed the ground before her as she followed Robin and the gang back to camp and wondered how they would keep their location secret as they made deep footprints in the freshly fallen snow. She did not have time to worry about this now though. Her primary concern was keeping up with Robin. He knew the forest so well that he was returning to their hideout on instinct, and he was tall, his stride so much longer than hers.
Finally they were able to stop. Djaq doubled over, her hands on her knees, desperately trying to catch her breath, coughing violently as the bitter cold caught in her throat. Robin laughed between his gasps for air. He was filled with an incongruous elation at having escaped yet again. He had yet to notice that one of their number had not been so fortunate.
Much desperately tried to untangle his ankle from the discarded washing line as he cursed under his breath. He watched as Robin and the rest of his friends vanished into the forest. Friends! He laughed aloud at the word. Friends might have noticed him fall, heard him cry out – at least realised that he was not with them. Finally free, he dragged himself to his feet, his ankle throbbing.
The ground shook to the fall of hooves as Gisborne and his men rode into Nettlestone and surrounded the settlement of decrepit dwellings. Much felt a hand grab his and suddenly found himself within a small square room, furnished sparsely and heated inadequately. In fact the only substantial thing in the room was the woman attached to the hand that had rescued him. He stared at her for a moment. Much had never considered himself to be an especially small man but he was truly dwarfed in every way by this smiling...no...she was actually leering...this over-friendly and stout woman.
"Erm...thank you." Much mumbled as the woman continued to stare at him, still grinning.
"You are one of Robin Hood's men aren't you?" she said in a husky voice that told Much far more about what was going through her mind than he wished to know. Rendered speechless now, Much simply nodded. "I am very grateful for everything that you and your friends do. I do not know how we would have survived this winter without you. If there was something that I could do to repay you..." she continued, straightening his jacket for him. Much began to back away – an involuntary action but he didn't fight it.
"It is all Robin...really. I just go where I am told," Much rambled, wondering how he could extricate himself from this uncomfortable situation. The woman stepped closer, her prey now trapped in a corner of the room. He swallowed hard.
"You are too modest. I hear that if it was not for you, then Robin would be dead. You," she continued, in a low sultry tone now, "You are a hero and I am Agnes."
Quickly, Much ducked beneath her arm and made his way to the safety of the open room. Before Agnes could lunge for him again – and Much was quite sure it was on the cards – Gisborne's voice rang out.
"I want everybody out of these houses now. If any of them are sheltering Hood or his men...kill them," he ordered. Much looked about for a route of escape but there was only the door and Gisborne's men were right outside.
"I cannot let you die for rescuing me," Much said to the smitten woman.
"You have risked your life so often for us..." she responded, wistfully. Much sighed and shook his head then was struck by an idea.
"A disguise!" he grinned. Agnes nodded and pulled a woodworm riddled chest out from beneath the bed, throwing open the lid. "Wait outside. If I am caught it would be better for them not to see us together." After some little persuasion, Agnes agreed. With a last, tender glance over her shoulder, she left, closing the door firmly behind her. Much took a deep breath and began to pull out the contents of the chest. "I'm dead!" he declared.
Outside, Gisborne walked to and fro before the slowly assembling peasants, his guards prodding and poking those who had been unfortunate enough to find themselves on the front row. Agnes was twitchy. Much had still not emerged from the house and the guards were now moving from dwelling to dwelling, forcibly removing the residents. Finally the door opened and Much hurried to join the group. Agnes looked him up and down, desperately trying not to laugh, not wishing to draw attention to either herself or to him. Much stood, his eyes lowered, sure that if he made eye contact with any of the guards, let alone Gisborne, he would be immediately discovered. It wasn't that his disguise was particularly poor – under normal circumstances - but there were not many women in the village with a full beard and moustache.
"You might have warned me that you did not have any men's clothing in that chest," he grumbled from the corner of his mouth. "Look at me!"
The patterned dress he wore was far too long, so he had tied it at the waist with a piece of ribbon he had found lying at the bottom of the trunk, and he had carefully wrapped a pale yellow scarf around his head and neck in an attempt to divert attention from his facial hair. Now all he could do was pray that it worked. A few more minutes and Gisborne would be done, the peasants could get back to their business and Much could get back to his own clothes and his friends.
It was not to be.
"Bring everyone from the back. Next time they will come as soon as they are called and perhaps Robin will be a little more compliant if we have some prisoners," Gisborne yelled. There was no time to escape. Much's hands were bound with rope and he was led, with the other peasants, from the village towards Nottingham Castle and, for Much, to certain discovery.
The peasants filed into the Great Hall, each one staring at the floor, heavy of heart and confident that this would be their last day. The women wept as thoughts of the children they believed they would not see again filled their minds. Much buried his nose and mouth in his scarf, pretending to do the same.
"My lord, they are from Nettlestone and I believe that they are sheltering Robin Hood," Gisborne announced as the group came to a halt before the long oak table on which Vaisey was resting his head. Slowly he sat upright, only one eye open, knocking his goblet over and sending the claret coloured contents all over the floor. Vaisey hardly noticed as he tried to focus his eyes on the assembled peasants. Finally, feeling a little steadier, he stood and immediately the room began to spin. Sheriff Vaisey was quite, quite drunk. Gisborne rolled his eyes as Vaisey staggered up and down the line. "Shall I send them to the dungeons, my lord?" he asked, prompting his inebriated superior. Vaysey put his hand to his head and nodded.
"..'cept that one!" Vaisey slurred, pointing to one of the women. Gisborne followed the line of Vaisey's finger. "Send that one to my chamber," he grinned licentiously.
In the forest, Robin looked about him and mentally counted off his men. All were there save one. Much. Robin's heart sank. His elation had been premature and was now at an end.
"We have to rescue him." Djaq stated. Robin nodded slowly, trying to formulate a plan.
"Not being funny but we don't even know that the Sheriff has him." Allan replied. John rolled his eyes.
"He knows his way back here. If he was able to, he would be here by now. No, we have to go to Nottingham." Robin said.
"If the Sheriff has him, then he is in terrible danger." Djaq replied. They could never have imagined...
Much sat on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands, facing his own demise. It was only a matter of time before he would be discovered and hanged. Even Robin could not get him out of this mess. Suddenly the door flew open and Much jumped to his feet, backing towards the wall and pulling the scarf closer about his face. The Sheriff staggered in and held out his hand.
"Now, where have you been hiding yourself you pretty little thing?" he purred, with a wink.
"Err, I think there's something you should know." Much replied, his eyes as wide as saucers.