Robin had been following the trail for several miles. A single person traveling through Sherwood was an unusual occurrence, and Robin wanted to know who might have the courage to take a walk through Sherwood like it was Sunday in the park. He’d figured already that the intruder was alone and was not leading a horse. Now he figured from a small round impression alongside the footprints that he was carrying a walking staff. He’d been so intent on following the tracks that he was confused when they stopped all of a sudden. He looked about, wondering where his quarry had gone.
Nothing moved, nothing breathed, least of all Robin. A frission of discomfort shivered up his spine as he realized that his prey had spotted him. Robin was wondering whether he should retreat when he felt the tap on his head. He turned and spied on a tree branch above him a woman carrying a long walking staff. She spoke not a word, just studied his appearance, much as he did hers.
Long tawny brown hair hung down her back in multiple braids tied with leather laces. Bright aqua eyes shone under long bangs that brushed her cheekbones. Her lithe body draped over the tree branch, one knee drawn up nearly to her chin, the other dangling toward the ground. She wore faded blue breeches and worn black leather boots. The tail of her white linen shirt trailed from under a tightly laced blue bodice, a brown leather belt cinched over her hips. Robin looked for a sign of a purse hanging from her belt.
Unexpectedly she dropped to the ground, still clutching the long staff. Robin backed away.
"Is it customary in this country to stalk a visitor before introducing one’s self?" A thick accent colored her words.
"Sorry, we don’t get many visitors in these parts."
"And how is it that you are alone in the forest, with no horse?"
"Oh, I live here." Robin looked for any sign of a weapon. He saw no sign of a sword or knife on her. She carried only the staff.
"So, you are so observant, you can tell me what I’m doing here?" Robin was distracted by the slight play of her muscles beneath the sleeves of her shirt.
"Hmmm. You’ve got me there."
She realized the direction of his gaze. "Tak. It would seem I do." In a quick move she swept Robin’s legs with her staff, knocking him flat on his back.
Robin shook his head to realign his whereabouts, and came face to face with the business end of her staff.
"This should help me on my way." The woman unlaced a leather pouch from Robin’s belt and tucked it into the top of her bodice. "Bardzo dziekuje."
She brought the end of her staff up hard against Robin’s jaw and he blacked out with the pain.
Sometime later Robin woke to see the sun high overhead. His face hurt and a tentative exploration of his chin proved that a modest bruise had risen there. Sitting up, he looked for any signs of the mysterious woman who had taken off with,...
Robin smiled as he realized what she’d taken. As a, ahem, redistributor of funds, Robin knew well enough not to carry his money pouch on his belt like most: he stashed it in his boot. The woman had taken a pouch Tuck had given him earlier that contained packets of herbal teas he was taking to Mrs. Turnbull.
"Let’s hope she doesn’t drink it all in one place." Robin laughed to
Valentyna waited until she’d reached the edge of the next village before she sat down to count her spoils.
"Psiakrew!" she muttered under her breath as she realized she’d stolen packets of herbs instead of money. She’d have to resort to the entertainments that drew far too much attention to her presence. She’d rather pass quietly through town, paying her way with stolen copper and silver.
Valentyna retreated to a glade in the woods to exchange her linen shirt and breeches for a thin muslin chemise, gauzy violet skirt, and a heavy petticoat. She laced her bodice over the chemise and tightened the laces just one shade short of uncomfortable.
Cramming her boots into her bag beneath her traveling clothes she pulled a wooden comb from her pack and began the task of combing out her long ale colored tresses. She’d braided and bound her hair while it was still wet from it’s last washing, so the burnished ropes unraveled into silky ripples. She tied a red silk chustka to hold the heavy mass off her face. Then she took out the detested box of paints, lining her eyes with dark kohl and rouging her lips.
Hopefully no one would recognize her on the road afterwards. No one could possibly make the connection between Valentyna the traveler in man’s breeches and Valencia the Gypsy.
She tied to the top of her rowan staff a leather thong strung with tin bells that didn’t so much ring as clatter as she strode into the heart of the village.
"Hallo, Hallo! Madame Valencia has arrived! She sees all, she tells all. Palms read, fortunes told. Tarot, runes, and tea leaves reveal all your secrets to Madame Valencia!" She cut a loud and colorful swath to the Inn where people lined up to have their fortunes told.
Robin watched unobtrusively as she led a merry parade of curious peasants to the Inn. It had to be the same woman who had brazenly accosted him in the forest. He rubbed his bruise pensively. These people couldn’t afford to lose their money to a con artist. He’d suss her out before reappropriating the funds she’d collected.
Madame Valencia read palms and paint-cards, she tossed rune stones and scryed tea leaves for all who paid her a penny. She gave them a good show; she knew her trade. Once or twice she very nearly blurted out the dark messages spelled out before her. She had to predict rosy fortunes or risk being burned, hanged or drowned for witchcraft. When she could she couched warnings in magical jargon in hopes that some advice might be taken from it.
A man wrapped in a threadbare red cloak approached her table. His grubby hand dropped a penny in her bowl and she reached for his hand.
"Do you favor your right or left?"
"Roight." came the gruff answer.
"Then please, to give me the right hand."
He yanked a leather mitt from that hand. Despite the tannin stains from the glove, his flesh showed pale. The lines and grooves of his palm confused and disturbed her. She looked up into his face, what she could see of it.
The hood of his cloak was raised, hiding his hair and throwing his face into shadow. Half his face was further obscured with a wide bandage that covered one eye and most of his cheek. The rest was swarthy with dirt, one dark brown eye gleaming warily. Something did not ring true about his neatly trimmed beard and mustache caked with mud.
"You are a beggar?"
"Oi, I do wot I got to ta live." The corner of his mouth turned down.
"You were not always." she pressed.
"Burned out of me 'ome, m’am. I’m not the only one." He shifted in his seat, that one eye causing an annoying shiver up her spine.
She saw the sign of the dragon on his outstretched arm and wondered why he’d purposely concealed his identity. Reaching for her paint-cards she drew three and sat back. She dashed the cards quickly from the table and put them away. Obviously agitated she pocketed her money and made to leave. He stopped her with a hand on her arm.
"Wot’s all this? You see sumt’in bad?" His grasp was strong, but did not pain her.
"Nie. You lie to me, why should I tell you the truth?" She fled to the
room the landlady had saved for her. "There’s so many lies I think I may
have to roll my pants up and wear taller boots." Robin said to himself.
Valentyna watched the hooded man from the upstairs gallery that circled the room. He sat at the bar, chatting amiably with the barkeep over mugs of ale. She slipped silently along the gallery until she stood directly over the bar where the two men sat.
Val reached into a pouch at her waist. Finding a packet of belladonna, she peeked over the railing. She flicked a penny across the room, striking a window with a loud crack. The hooded man turned his head long enough that he didn’t see the tiny shower of herbs that landed in his empty cup. The barkeep refilled both cups and the men returned to sharing a companionable drink.
Clinging to the shadows of the darkened gallery, Valentyna made her way back to her room and barred the door, confident that she’d rest undisturbed for one night.
Just before daylight Valentyna ventured down into the silent taproom. The barkeep was no longer in evidence, but the hooded man sat asleep with his head resting on the table before him. Pushing the hood back, she slid the false bandage away from his face to reveal the face of the man she’d encountered in the woods yesterday. He stirred but did not awaken as she freed him from his bandages.
"So this is the famous Robin Hood?" she said to herself.
Robin woke with a stiff neck and a dull headache. Several thick packets
of parchment rustled under his hand as he straightened. The gypsy woman
had returned the packets of herbs she’d stolen from him yesterday. On one
of the packets she’d written: "This one should relieve your headache."
He noted the packets had been tied together with the red silk scarf she’d
worn. He started to laugh at himself, then stopped as he realized laughing
did his headache no good.
Marion turned her horse off the road when she heard several horses approaching. She had no idea if they were travelers or soldiers behind her, but she’d rather be behind them if they were soldiers. She led her horse into the trees, using the darkness of the woods for cover. She’d wait until they’d passed before she continued on her way.
A prison wagon lumbered down the road, with only two soldiers riding beside it. The man inside yelled and screamed, tugging at the bars covering the one small window.
"I’m innocent! Doesn’t that mean anything to you? How can your conscience allow you to do this?"
One soldier rapped the flat of his sword on the bars and the prisoner snatched his bruised fingers from the opening. His screams silenced. Marion’s hand tightened instinctively on the handle of her whip. Before she knew what she was doing, she rode out of the trees and snuck up behind a soldier.
The soldier saw a woman in a low cut red dress ride up next to him, smiling brilliantly. She leaned forward and he got an amazing view of her female charms. That’s why he wasn’t prepared when her boot made painful contact with his temple just before his world went black and silent.
Marion swiftly rode up beside the driver and swung herself up onto the wagon, kicking the driver off the seat and out of her way. She caught the reins before they could fall to the ground. With a snap and a sharp whistle Marion sent the wagon hurtling dangerously down the road, leaving the third guard in confusion behind her.
The guard nudged his horse with his spurs, wondering what could possibly have made the others take off like that. He wanted to catch up with the wagon before it reached the bend in the road ahead. One never knew what could be waiting around that curve.
Marion slapped the reins again. She had to make the bend in the road before the guard did. There was a blind in the trees around that corner and if she could get past the trees without the guard seeing she’d be safe. Just a little further....
The wagon disappeared around the corner and the guard spurred his horse a little faster. What good was an armed escort if he couldn’t escort the wagon?
Marion pulled sharply off the road and into the trees, looking for the trigger for the blind. There it was, a branch with a red cord dangling from the end. She uncoiled her whip and flicked it toward the branch, wrapping the thin leather around the branch. Marion pulled heavily on the branch and the curtain of pine branches rose from the ground, hiding the wagon and horses from the road. She leaned down to the small window and warned the prisoner to be very quiet.
The guard pulled around the curve, circling the bend in confusion. The wagon had completely disappeared. He now saw his partner lying on the ground some distance behind him, but the wagon and horses had vanished. What was the Baron going to say when he found out he lost the prisoner?
Marion waited until the guard had picked up his partner and rode back in the direction they’d come from. Hopping down from the wagon seat, she rounded the wagon and jimmied the door lock with a dagger. The prisoner stepped down from the wagon and blinked in the sunlight.
He wasn’t exactly tall, or handsome, but he had kind green eyes. His fine dark brown hair spiked over his high brow. There was a sprinkling of light freckles over his angular features that seemed to sharpen with wariness as he regarded Marion.
"Why did you do that?" he asked.
"Somehow I get the idea those men don’t have a grasp on the concept of Due Process." Marion quipped. "Haven’t they ever heard of innocent until proven guilty?"
"I don’t think they know what innocent is." He wiped his hand down his face, still alert for any danger.
"Now there’s a surprise." Marion had moved to the wagon hitch to release the horses. One horse she let go; she handed the reins of the other horse to the man she’d just rescued.
"Can you ride,....?" Marion let the sentence trail away into a silent question because she didn’t know his name.
"My name’s Lochmannan, but everyone calls me Locky."
"Well then, Locky, this is your lucky day. You need some help, and I
know where you’re going to get it."
Robin walked the path through the forest back toward the camp. He’d seen no sign of the woman he’d encountered yesterday, and Mrs. Turnbull knew nothing about her besides her name and the fact that she’d paid in advance for the room. She was gone before anyone else stirred.
Robin wasn’t far from the camp; he was just within sight of the stream and the field where the children played when something heavy dropped on his back from behind. He hit the ground with a heavy thud, struggling to turn over under the weight he suspected he’d recognize.
"Why do you play games with me in the village? Have you come for me like the other one came for Vladek? I’ll show you the pain that villain should have had!" Robin felt the cold bite of a dagger at his throat, threatening to draw blood.
"Wait!" Robin yelled. "It’s not what you think! My camp is just past the stream and I was on my way home. I don’t know who this Vlad person is or what he’s done to you. I swear, I mean you no harm."
There were a few tense seconds before he felt the blade at his throat ease away from his skin. The knee in the middle of his back eased and he was able to push himself up off the ground. When he was finally standing he brushed the dirt off his tunic and pants and gave the woman a sideways glance.
"Now why don’t you tell me what all of this is about? I might be able to help you."
"You cannot help me. I have been looking for this outlaw, Robin Hood. I think he may know how to help." She wandered back along the path slightly, retrieving her staff and bag. "I hear he’s good at that."
"Eh, so I’ve been told." Robin smirked. "Robin Hood at your service." He said with a little bow.
Her guarded look fell away, revealing an intensity in her aqua eyes. She searched the length of him, his face, and his eyes. Finally a small smile touched one corner of her mouth.
"I should have guessed. The cards said something about you that did not fit with the beggar in muddy clothes."
"What did they say?"
She shrugged off the question and walked back down the path to retrieve her pack from the hollow at the base of a tree.
"You’re not going to tell me?" Robin asked, one eye squinted against the sun. She hesitated before answering. "Now is not the time." was all she said. "When the time is right, I will tell you."
Robin led the way to the bridge that crossed the stream and into the field. He stepped aside for her to proceed over the bridge before him. "Madame Valencia, after you."
"Valencia is the fortune teller’s name. My name is Valentyna."
"Well then, Mistress Valentyna..." he gestured toward the field and she walked over the bridge into the grass.
End of Chapter One
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