When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. That's relativity. – Albert Einstein
It's a strategic meeting, Robin knows. His gang needs a way into the castle, and they need it fast. Marian is the answer. It is impressive just how many ways in and out of the castle she has memorised. Robin has a lingering suspicion she only knows so many because she has thought of escaping ever since the Sheriff for all intents and purposes imprisoned her there with her father.
He's loath to use her; every time they meet, every time he asks her to do something for him, she is running the risk to get caught and, more importantly, punished for her actions. Of course Marian wants to help, but Robin cannot just forget that he has nearly lost her, and not all that long ago, all because of her determination to take risks.
Still, it is not as if he can actually forbid her to help him; she'll just go off on her own. He might as well let her do as she pleases, especially now that there is a prisoner in the dungeons, one that Robin has a great interest in getting out. And he's in a hurry, because Andy is scheduled to hang tomorrow. A quick and safe way in is what's needed, and he is confident that Marian can provide one.
Which is why he is here, sitting on a roof of a house, waiting for Marian to shake off her guard and join him.
Speaking of which. 'You ran out of easier accessible meeting places to use?' Marian inquires when she hoists herself up.
Robin extends his hand and helps her up the rest of the way. 'You are being watched,' he says when she sits down next to him. 'I had to be creative.'
'On a roof?' she asks sceptically.
'You'll be surprised how few people actually look up,' he defends himself. So much for thinking she would be impressed. And she should be, because he's chosen this meeting place with care. The roof they're on is shielded from view from most sides. On three sides there are blind and high walls, so the only way someone could see them is if they look up and know what to look for. And he has his men posted nearby to keep an eye out for trouble, especially when it just so happens to be dressed in black armour. As meetings with Marian go, this is one of his better ideas, one of his safer ideas at least.
Marian herself is clearly unconvinced, but she lets it go. 'I've only got an hour before I will be missed,' she reports.
An hour? That is far more than they usually have. Robin's day seems brighter already. 'Where's your guard?' he wonders. She must have been very creative to get rid of him for an hour and not have every alarm raised.
'Indisposed,' she says sweetly, leading Robin to believe she had a hand in the man's condition. 'He needed to use the privy, so I was left on my own as long as I promised not to wander off. Which I did.'
Remind me to never get on your bad side.
'I need a way into the castle,' Robin explains. 'Tonight.'
Marian nods her understanding. 'The prisoner,' she says. 'I've overheard the Sheriff and Guy planning his execution for tomorrow morning.'
Which fits in neatly with what he already knows. 'I need to get him out.' It's as simple as that.
'What do they think he's done?' Marian wonders.
'He threw over his cart to block the road so that the Sheriff's men could not follow my gang during a pursuit,' Robin answers. 'He tried to make it look like an accident, but the Sheriff didn't buy the convenient coincidence.'
The Sheriff is getting ever more paranoid, and more determined to catch Robin and his men – and one woman, to be fair to Djaq – and have done with them. It would not be good for Marian to be seen with him. And it would be so much better if she got out of here and came to live with him in the woods.
'Poor man.' Marian looks genuinely sorry. 'Do you have a plan?'
At the moment it is more like half of a plan, but she doesn't need to know that. By the time the rescue itself is underway, he'll have the details worked out. 'As long as you can get us in, we can take care of the rest.' If not, he's always been good at improvising. But he is getting Andy out of the Sheriff's infamous hospitality suite tonight, else what right does he have to call himself a protector of the people?
Marian is quiet for a few moments, but then nods. 'There's a secret tunnel that leads to a secret door behind the hearth in the kitchen. Since you will be breaking in at night, the fire will be extinguished. You'll have no trouble sneaking in. And I don't think the Sheriff knows about it.'
That begs a rather obvious question. 'How do you know about it?'
'One of the kitchen maids sometimes uses it to get out of the castle to meet her sweetheart,' Marian replies. 'I overheard her talking to one of the other maids.' She overhears quite a lot and Robin will not ever deny that she is a good spy. And at least eavesdropping on kitchen maids is relatively safe. Relatively safe, because no place in that castle is ever safe while Vaisey stalks its corridors.
The chance her answer provides is too good to pass up. 'What about you?'
'What about me?' she echoes, not understanding the question.
So he elaborates. 'Well, I was wondering if the Lady Marian has a sweetheart that she sneaks out to see in the middle of the night.'
He thinks she is his, sort of knows that she is his, but whatever relationship they have is undefined and they don't meet all that often, so there is never much time to find out what it is that they have. Marian's playful teasing doesn't help him much in trying to figure it out either. All Robin knows is that he can't bear even the thought of losing her. Her almost death just a few months ago left him with a very good idea of what he'd feel if she truly died. And he never wants to feel like that again.
Marian smiles coyly. 'Maybe,' she says. 'Or maybe she sneaks out during the day by poisoning her guard to meet an overgrown child with a bow on rooftops. Or in alleys. Or in whatever creative place he manages to think of.'
He finds himself grinning back at her. Unfortunately they don't have much time for flirtations and idle talk. They pepper their conversation with it, but the majority of the time they have to focus on the task at hand. Marian explains where they will find the entrance to the tunnel and how they can open it, both on their way in and on their way out. Her detailed descriptions belie her claim of not having used it herself. Although, on second thought, she's never made such claims at all. She neatly avoided that part of his question.
'Can I do anything?' she asks eventually.
'No.' Robin has given this a fair bit of thought. 'Stay in your room. The Sheriff already suspects you. If he does come to check on you, you will be exactly where you are supposed to be.' It's the safest way for her, because this break-in will be discovered sooner rather than later – although hopefully not before he's long gone with the prisoner in tow – and there are only so many times he can break in before Vaisey will start to suspect inside help. And he must be aware that Marian knows every nook and cranny of Nottingham Castle. He would be a fool not to give the idea some consideration, and the Sheriff is not a stupid man.
Marian does not like of the idea of sitting idly by while others risks their lives, but even she can see the sense in his reasoning, because she nods. 'Good luck then.' She looks down at the street below. So far, no one has seen them here. 'I should get back.'
The disappointment surely shows on his face. 'Already? You just got here. I thought you said you had an hour.'
'I had an hour, yes. Not two.' She gives a meaningful nod in the general direction of the sun. It has indeed moved considerably. Their time has been running out and Robin has hardly noted its passage. It's a strange thing that time does when he spends it with Marian; it always seems to fly by. He's had an hour with her, but it feels more like a few minutes or even seconds.
Either way, it is never long enough.
The same thing cannot be said for the mission that night. When the people tell stories of his actions, they never seem to think about all the long waits they involve. In this case they are waiting until it is dark enough to get to the entrance of the tunnel without attracting the attention of the many guards the Sheriff has posted. He must suspect that Robin would launch some sort of rescue attempt. Unfortunately he may be rather predictable in his motives and actions. He can't stand by and let innocents suffer, especially when they suffer on his behalf.
But predictable or not, he has to try.
That doesn't mean that this waiting is not making him all kinds of impatient. Time crawls by. He measures it by the moon's course through the sky. It only just started to rise when they got here, but it is high in the sky by the time there are few enough guards to make a run through the field that separates them from the tunnel. It's one of the reasons that he won't use this route very often, but for now the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. It leads straight to the kitchens and from there it is not too far to the dungeons themselves. In fact, they'll avoid almost all of the heavily guarded areas in the keep. The one notable exception is the entrance to the dungeons, and that they can deal with.
'Time to go, lads,' he says.
It's a mad run to the door, whilst hoping that the guards will not feel the need to peek over the battlements. Robin has his bow in hand and he feels more confident with it, but not being seen beats getting into a fight. He'll not avoid the fighting, but tonight is not a night for risks, not until Andy is out of that cell.
Will works on the door while the rest of them keep an eye on the battlements. But laughter is drifting down from there; apparently the guards are more interested in the warmth of the fire and in good company than in keeping watch. It helps that this area is not one that is labelled a risk. The wall is too high to climb over and so he has never tried. And if the Sheriff had known of the tunnel's existence, he would have had it guarded more closely, which means that Marian must have been right.
Still, he's feeling relieved when the door opens and he can usher his gang inside. The passage itself is dark and damp. Not many people come here. Wherever the kitchen maid has her secret rendezvous, it won't be here. It's the kind of secret tunnel that Robin likes best: abandoned and dark. It means that it really is a secret. And although Much protests loudly – and is promptly shushed by the others – about cobwebs and spiders, to Robin it only serves as proof that nobody has been here in a good long while.
'But master, there are spiders down here,' Much complains.
Seeing as one has just tried to creep into his shirt, he had that impression already. 'Much, will you shut up?' he asks crossly.
Normally he is strangely fond of Much's small concerns, because they keep him grounded, remind him that not everything in life is about the things that they do, no matter how important. Much is the kind of man who makes him stop to appreciate the beauty of nature or the pleasure of a well-cooked meal.
But right now he has a man to save and their mission stands or falls with remaining unnoticed for as long as possible, and who knows how many people can hear their voices right now? It might be none at all, but he is unwilling to take his chances with that. Besides, he wants, needs to hear the noises around him to establish whether or not there are people in here with them, however unlikely.
As it turns out, Robin and his men are the only people present and they reach the exit without having run into trouble. Life as an outlaw has made Robin learn how to count his blessings, but he also knows that the hardest part is yet to come. He'll celebrate once they have Andy out of the castle and well on his way to another place.
'Careful,' Djaq warns. Uncharacteristically she is the first to step out. 'Some logs are still smouldering.'
Robin has been expecting no different, but he is reminded of the reasons why he won't use this passage again unless in dire need; they have literally emerged from the back wall of the big hearth and have to step over the fireplace itself to enter the kitchen proper. This would make it impossible to use during daytime and even at this hour it's not the safest route.
He nods his response to Djaq, carefully steps over the fire and beckons the others to follow him. The sooner this is over, the better it will be. He loves the thrill of a risk and the need to come up with a plan on the spot, but there's a time and a place. And it is neither when a man's life is on the line.
The Sheriff and Gisborne must be blissfully unaware – a state in which Robin likes them best – of this entrance, because there is not a guard in sight. They will all be up on the walls, waiting for outlaws to climb over them, ignorant of the fact that said outlaws are already inside.
They only run into security when they come to the dungeons. They do their Nottingham Castle dungeons routine – somewhere in the back of his mind Robin realises they have been doing this far too often if he's able to call it a routine – which means that John knocks out the guards before they can sound the alarm and Will works his unique brand of magic on the locks so that they will open before them. Robin has yet to see locks that can keep him in or out – depending on the situation – but Vaisey does like to try all the same. It never works.
'They will be out for a while,' Djaq declares, taking in the sight of the guards that are lying sprawled on the floor, half over one another.
Well, unconscious is the way Robin prefers guards anyway, so he won't be complaining. Now it is just a simple matter of getting Andy out of this dungeon and then away from here as fast as possible. After all, those guards won't stay like this forever.
In hindsight he should have seen it coming. Breaking prisoners out of the dungeon has never been without risks and it never goes off without a hitch either. There is always something somewhere that goes wrong.
Today they manage to avoid trouble until they have a thoroughly surprised and then extremely grateful Andy out of his cell. Robin won't pretend that it doesn't feel good to be looked at like that. Of course he doesn't do what he does for the gratitude, but it nevertheless feels like a reward for what he does. It's one of the things that keeps him going on bad days. This however is not a bad day, at least not yet. It may still become one.
The moment he thinks that is when it all goes belly-up. There's a cry of alarm near the entrance of the dungeons, indicating that it is high time they were out of here. Say of guards what you like, but they have the very annoying tendency to show up very quickly and in numbers.
'There will be guards,' Much predicts rather unnecessarily. 'And there might be dogs. I hate dogs.'
This time Allan beats Robin to telling Much to shut up. No point in telling everyone what they already know, although Robin sincerely hopes Much is wrong about the dogs; they are a complication he could really do without.
Fortunately they are spared the ordeal of being set upon by hungry mongrels. Their pursuers limit themselves to a rather large number of guards instead. Andy surprises friend and foe by whacking three guards over the head with a piece of wood in one single blow. The guards appear to be completely overwhelmed by this display of unexpected violence from a usually very peaceful farmer. They are generally easily overwhelmed, though. Or maybe Vaisey does not pay them well enough to risk their lives against a bunch of outlaws that are prepared to fight. Knowing the Sheriff, that is not outside the realm of possibility.
Whatever the reason, they are quick to run or be knocked down unconscious when confronted with Robin and his men.
'My gang, this way!' he shouts when he spots an opening through which they can get away. Doubtless there are more guards on their way – there always are – and he wants to get away before they arrive.
Their way to the kitchens is free, blessedly free, of the presence of any hindrances in black armour. He ushers his gang into the kitchens and through the hidden door, taking care to go last himself, an arrow on his bow to defend them from any possible pursuers. He doesn't think they've figured out yet where they've gone to and he very much likes to keep it that way. He won't be coming this way often, but it has its advantages to keep it a secret from Vaisey. It will do in case of an emergency. Besides, if Vaisey does discover it, he'll have it closed permanently and it would be a shame for the kitchen maid to be forced to stop her secret meetings on his account.
'Robin, hurry up!' Djaq calls.
Now that he knows they're all safely through, he does hurry. Much as he loves it to put on a show for the Sheriff right before he disappears – and the sight of Vaisey in nightdress never fails to amuse either – this is not the time. It'll have to wait till next time. And so he does a step back, eyes and bow still on the door, and trips…
Right on top of the still smouldering remains of the fire.
His bow goes flying as he tries to regain his balance, but he is already too late and he lands, backside first, on the embers. Later he'll violently deny ever having produced a yelping-and-screaming noise like the one that can be heard then, but his dignity is the last thing on his mind, because it hurts. The fire, still very hot, burns right through the fabric of his trousers and gets to his skin, creating a literally burning agony.
'Master!' That's Much of course, panicking.
'Help me get him out,' Djaq snaps and then there are hands pulling him up and away just as the door to the kitchen is thrown open to reveal the presence of at least a dozen menaces in black; his scream must have been enough of a clue as to their whereabouts. After all his reprimands to his men to keep the noise down, he's the one to go and ruin it eventually. Once they're back at camp, they'll never let him hear the end of it.
But that is a concern for later. His first priority is to get out and to get out this very instant. But the burning pain in his behind is proving to be quite the distraction – and really, it feels like he has been sitting on that fire for hours, even though he knows it can't have been more than a few scant seconds – and he ends up getting dragged by Much and Djaq while Will closes the door. In the time it will cost the new arrivals to figure out how it works, they will get away. By the time they get to the end of the tunnel, they will be long gone.
He's running on his own power when they reach the exit. The guards on the wall have all disappeared to deal with the outlaw threat inside the castle – and are once again looking in quite the wrong place – and the rest of the escape goes exactly the way it was planned. After his literal ordeal by fire Robin thinks they're owed that much too. His backside is still feeling like it has been roasted for hours and every step he takes is pure agony.
They somehow make it back to camp, but John seems to be doing all of the leading. Much has hurried back to his side to assist in any way he can, hovering over him like an anxious mother hen, which would soon have annoyed Robin in any other situation, but he allows it to happen now. It feels like he has been running for an eternity, although the road is no longer or shorter than usual. It's just the burn meddling with his sense of time.
John dispatches Will to drop off Andy and then Robin finds himself forced down onto a bed, lying on his stomach so that Djaq will have free access to the injured area. Even though he is in pain, Robin is entirely conscious enough to find this highly embarrassing, especially since most of his men seem to have deluded themselves into thinking that he is tonight's entertainment.
'You were squealing like a girl,' Allan remarks. Unsurprisingly, he is finding this all way too funny.
Robin sends him as freezing a glare as he can muster, its effect no doubt greatly undermined by the fact that he is lying on his stomach with his backside bared for Djaq's professional scrutiny. 'It hurt!' he says indignantly, the only defence he is capable of giving. His dignity is practically non-existent. It will take a good long while to recover.
'Like a girl,' Allan repeats, smile widening into a grin.
He is hushed by Djaq, but Robin knows Allan well enough to know that this will not stop him for long; he is having far too much fun to be silenced for longer than a couple of minutes. The man is entirely too cheeky for his liking from time to time, but he's also very useful to have around. At the moment he has trouble remembering those reasons, though.
No matter how many hours there are actually still left till morning, Robin knows he is in for a very long night.