It was unseasonably cool for August. The rain had been relentless for almost a week and, although the cloud had finally broken, the ground was thick with mud. Local people would not have used the route through Sherwood Forest after such weather so Robin and his somewhat diminished group of friends were surprised to hear horses and the creaks of a wooden carriage as it struggled along. Robin scrambled up the incline at the side of the road and watched as it slowly made its way by.
"What are we going to do, master?" Much whispered. Robin frowned and put his finger to his lips to quiet his companion. "Well, I was just asking." Much mumbled to himself. Just as he had decided to let it on its way, the carriage began to sway before coming to a halt, stuck fast. The men jumped from the front and began to rock it slowly, hoping to free it but it had just the wrong effect. The road gave way on the right side of the carriage and it tumbled into the ditch. A short sharp scream was quickly silenced as the carriage finally came to rest against a tree, shattered. Robin called to his companions and rushed to the aid of the men who were desperately wading towards it.
"Please sir, we have nothing. As you can see, we are in trouble," cried one of the men, assuming them to be the outlaws they had heard so much about.
"I come to help, nothing more." Robin replied.
"Thank God. My mistress and her companion are within. They are surely dead," cried the second, panic stricken man.
"Silence Arthur!" called the older man. "They are not dead. They cannot be. Now stop wailing and help us." The men began to pull away the fractured timber until finally John stepped forward and removed enough to allow free access to the two women inside. Carefully lifting out the first woman, identified by Arthur as the companion, John carried her to a drier part of the road and lay her down. Quickly returning he retrieved the final victim.
"Does she breathe?" Arthur cried. John rushed to lay her beside her companion and confirmed that she did.
"Now you must see that we should return. We will surely hang for this." Arthur continued.
"I do not believe I have ever met with a man as pessimistic as you. They will recover and all will be well."
"And what then, Joseph? He will find her, he will know that we helped her and at the very least we shall be dismissed." Before Joseph had the opportunity to answer, Robin held up his hand and stopped the argument.
"Perhaps somebody would like to tell me what exactly is going on here?" he shouted. The two men hesitated.
"I shall." cried a voice from behind him. The middle-aged woman was now sat, rubbing her head and gazing at her young mistress. "But we must help her ladyship first." Robin nodded. "You must ensure that we get to Nottingham. We go to see her Uncle, the Sheriff." Robin's men looked at one another then Robin broke free of the group. He looked at the young woman, still unconscious on the ground and frowned.
"She is Lady Emelina, daughter of Walter, Earl of Symonton?" The woman nodded. "But I thought…" The woman looked down at her mistress, fear in her eyes.
"Please sir!" the woman replied.
"What is she doing here?"
"Dying, sir," she replied, sharply, her anger simmering just below the surface.
"What is your name, madam?" Robin asked.
"What is yours?" she demanded. Robin smiled, shaking his head.
"I am Robin of Locksley."
"Robin Hood?" she questioned. Robin raised his eyebrows and nodded, clearly proud that his name had spread far and wide. "I am Catherine. I have been with Lady Emelina since she was a child. I am the closest thing she has had to a mother and I will not let her die like an animal in a ditch," she cried, becoming ever more animated and overwrought. Robin knelt beside Lady Emelina and shook his head, wishing that Djaq was still with them. She would have known what to do. As it was, Robin could only fall back on his experience on the battlefields of the Holy Land.
"Much, pass me your scarf. I need to try to stem the bleeding before she is moved," Robin said, turning his attentions once again to the injured woman before him. "You," he continued to the younger of the drivers. "Keep a watch on the road."
"Then you will help us?" Catherine asked with renewed
hope. Robin nodded and sighed.
"We shall help you get to Nottingham Castle but we leave you outside the walls and you will not mention us." Catherine nodded gratefully. "Tell me why, though. Why is she here?" Catherine stared at him, her blue eyes cold, but Robin was determined. Finally, she glanced away.
"She has run from her father… and an unacceptable marriage," she whispered. Robin raised his eyebrows, clearly wishing to hear more. "The man in question is older than her own father and his wife is not yet cold in her grave. I understand that it is to do with property but my mistress is so much better than that. After all that she has been through, she deserves to be loved…" Catherine gushed, rather making Robin wish he had not asked.
"So why does she head for her Uncle? Will he not give her away?" John asked, suddenly interested in the conversation. Catherine laughed as though the idea was preposterous.
"Her Uncle and her father hate one another. His Lordship was desperately cruel to his wife, Vaisey's sister. Please, his men will not be far behind. We must get to safety as soon as possible."
"They will see the carriage if they come by this way." Joseph shouted over.
"We shall hide it. There were plenty of branches downed in the last storm." Much replied, helpfully.
"Thank you, sir." Catherine said. Much coloured slightly and smiled. It made a change to him to be acknowledged!
Outside the grey walls of the Nottingham, John gently placed Emelina onto a cart. Robin had carefully wrapped her wounds and done his best to clean them with what little water Much had carried about his person. The two drivers took up position at the handles and prepared to take her the short distance to her Uncle.
"I am indebted to you, my lord." Catherine said as she shook Robin's hand.
"Robin will do well enough," he replied. "I hope that she will get the care that she needs now." Robin and John watched at a discrete distance as the party moved on, to make sure there was no trouble, before they returned to their home in the forest.
At the entrance to the Castle they were stopped by the Sheriff's guards. Catherine boldly stepped forward and demanded to see the Sheriff.
"And why would he want to see you?" one of them laughed. "What have you got here?" He made his way to the back of the cart and looked at the still unconscious figure of Lady Emelina.
"This is the Sheriff's niece. Now allow us to pass. I have no doubt at all that he will wish to see her. Can you not see, she is in need of a physician?" He allowed her just inside gates and then instructed them to wait before rushing inside the castle. Catherine was growing impatient, afraid for her young charge and it seemed an eternity passed before the guard reappeared with the Sheriff yelling and cursing close behind him.
"You would believe just about any odd ball and malcontent who comes knocking at my door and claiming kinship," he cried before viciously smacking him about the head. Face to face with Catherine, he shook his head. "I have been dragged out here for this! You are no niece of mine. You could be my mother though," he said, laughing at his own humour before turning his back
"I have not claimed to be your niece my Lord. The child in the back of this cart is your niece. The daughter of your sister and Walter, Earl of Symonton," she called after him. Vaisey stopped dead in his tracks and hesitated before turning back. He stared at the figure in the cart, his astonishment barely concealed. He looked from the woman to Catherine, his brow furrowing as deeply as his bewilderment.
"Emelina?" he asked but he already knew the answer. "But she…I thought…" he stammered moving slowly away, still pointing at the woman in the cart, lost for words for what could be the first time in his life. Very quickly recovering his composure and his usual demeanour he demanded: "Why do you come here?"
"She flees from her father. You must recall, my Lord, the cruel way in which he treated your sister, of whom, I understand, you were very fond. Do you wish the same for your niece? She is dying, my Lord. Please allow her to rest here and recover if that is God's will."
Vaisey took a deep breath.
"Very well, take her inside." he said. Catherine thanked him and they moved on. The Sheriff waited until they were out of earshot before addressing the guards. "Seal the gates, post extra guards. Nobody enters here without my express permission, especially anyone claiming to be or to have come from the Earl of Symonton. Anyone gets through and you will hang, understood?" The guard nodded as Vaisey backed away, scanning every face within the castle walls before jogging up the stone steps and disappearing inside. Gisborne had watched the proceedings from the battlements, unable to hear a word that was spoken but able to see enough to know that Vaisey was…not himself…nervous, definitely - perhaps, even, a little afraid.
Lady Emelina was placed in her bed, still unconscious. Catherine saw to what little of their belongings they had brought with them, placing them carefully in the room.
"When will the physician arrive?" she asked with some urgency. Sheriff Vaisey was leaning over, staring closely into the face of the young woman on the bed and did not hear or, if he did, he chose not to answer. "My Lord, the physician?"
"What…oh…on his way." Vaisey said absently, turning back to his niece. "She looks like her mother."
"Many have said so." He spun around and glared at Catherine.
"Who?" he challenged, "She has not been seen for years."
"Not by you perhaps but there are those who have seen and admired my mistress." Catherine said, defensively. Vaisey grumbled under his breath. There they remained in silence until a sharp bang on the door startled Catherine. Vaisey opened the door himself to see Gisborne and the physician. He grabbed the physician by the arm and dragged him into the room before closing the door firmly in Gisborne's face. On the other side of the door, Gisborne grew frustrated. He was keen to know what was going on inside the room but was clearly going to have to find a less direct method. He moved away and hid in the shadows, waiting. Eventually the door opened just enough to allow the maid out, carrying a tray with a bowl of blood coloured water. Gisborne stepped out of his hiding place startling the girl, the bowl wobbling precariously on the tray.
"Do not be afraid. I did not intend to startle you." he said, as softly as his usually bitter, cold voice would allow, even managing a smile.
"Thank you my Lord," replied the young girl nervously.
"How is the patient?" he asked, still smiling. Never had she seen a smile on his otherwise handsome face but she could not imagine that it was a good thing.
"I do not know my Lord. She is sleeping still."
"Do you know who she is?"
"No, my Lord. I believe that she is a Lady of some importance."
Gisborne shook his head. To the servants all Ladies were of 'some importance'.
"Get her name for me and you shall be rewarded," he said standing as he handed her back the tray. "I can be very generous." She curtseyed slightly before hurrying away. The threat of the Sheriff held more weight than any generosity Gisborne could offer. She would keep her own counsel and, thereby, her position.
The Physician packed his things into his leather bag before withdrawing several small vials and placing them onto the small table beside the bed.
"She has taken a heavy blow to the head. When she does wake, she will have need of this. Her head will ache. She may be confused and possibly have no memory of the event. I expect that she shall be in a good deal of pain. Her wrist is badly sprained and the other, lacerated. She must be kept warm and I would recommend that somebody is with her at all times. Do you have someone to nurse her?" Catherine immediately stepped forward.
"I shall. When will she wake?" she asked.
"Really, I cannot say. It could be today, tomorrow or it may be many days." he replied. Vaisey swung around, his arms folded across his chest.
"Many days?" he repeated. The doctor nodded. Vaisey tutted and wagged his finger at the man. "That will not do."
"Sheriff, you may threaten me until you are blue but it shall not make a difference. I cannot bring her out of this. It is down to her now. I have done all that I can." Vaisey opened his mouth to ensure that his threat was clearly understood. "Not even at the risk of my neck," the doctor said, pre-empting him. Not another word was spoken as the doctor left the room and was escorted from the castle. Catherine turned to the Sheriff.
"Can you conceal her here for so long?" she asked. "This is the first place that her father will come. Can you assure me that she would not be found?" The Sheriff was quiet, wondering if the physician could be trusted and sure that if Walter wanted to find his daughter then he would take the castle apart, stone by stone.
"She must be moved," he said. Catherine nodded in agreement.
"Where? Where will be safe?" she said, on the verge of panic. Vaisey glanced at her, almost laughing at her histrionics. He shook his head.
"Locksley," the Sheriff said decisively. Catherine looked at him quizzically. "A small, village of little consequence a short ride from here. The Manor is tolerable. I shall tell Gisborne that he is to have guests." Catherine blanched.
"Is there nowhere else, my Lord?" she asked, her voice shaking.
"None that I can think of and none so safe. Why?" he replied but did not wait for an answer. "Walter would have no reason to call there. I should be surprised if he knew it existed. Not really his sort of place! Don't worry about Gisborne. His bark is far worse than his bite. Besides, any trouble and he'll have me to answer to." he chuckled. "Good, I shall make the arrangements and she shall be moved at first light."
"If we must reside with strangers then may I request that our host is also denied access to the room in which my lady will recover? The fewer who know she is here, the less risk there is, I think." Vaisey shrugged his shoulders and opened the door.
"As you wish," he replied slipping out of the room and closing the door firmly behind him. Catherine sat in the chair beside Emelina's bed and took her mistresses hand.
"This is not a good place to be for you my dear child," she whispered.