“Honey, come sit and listen to your mama and papa awhile.” Heather eyes her father suspiciously for a moment, wondering if his coaxing tone means trouble.
“Papa, I have scarcely left the house today,” she says with her sweetest smile, “I can’t th
ink what I have done to deserve such a tone.”
Her father raises his eyebrows and looks at her in playful suspicion and then his face clouds again. “Whatever mischief you have been making, today I do not have time to unravel.”
“This is more serious than stealing pies or climbing old towers.” Her mother’s words have an instantly sobering effect on the young girl, who now gives her parents her fullest attention.
“I have not done more serious than that.” She says searching her mind for some source of all this somberness.
“Child, it is time for you to listen more and talk less.” Her papa answers, lifting her onto his knee, “there is trouble coming and it is not your doing, but it could be your undoing.”
Heather privately thinks that she is likely a match for this trouble, whatever it might be, but knows better than to express these thoughts aloud.
“Darling, you know we are not popular among the other nobles.” Mama says and Heather nods, brown eyes wide, heart starting to pound a little louder in her ears. “There has been some unrest in the surrounding lands by peasants who are ill kept, and their masters would like to pin the blame on our house.”
“Why our house?” Heather asks in confusion.
“We believe in treating our peasants like people, we only take the taxes when we have need. Our most unpopular policy is that we have encouraged learning. This seems to be the breaking point from our fellow land owners.” Papa explains heavily, his fists clenched at his sides.
“The other landowners think the peasants are not people?” Heather asks, even though she has heard the stories of the atrocities on the hills. Even her best friend Marion’s uncle treats his peasants horribly.
“The time for talking is short.” Her mama says warning in her voice.
“Heather, your grandmother will arrive here this night and take you away for a time. Your bag here is packed with snacks and distractions for your voyage.” Her father says the words quickly, not meeting his daughter’s eye. “We hear rumour that we may be attacked. This place is no longer safe for you.”
“I can fight!” Heather says jumping to her feet and glaring at her father. “Papa you have taught me with a bow and a sword since I could stand. I will not run away.”
“You will run!” Mama’s words explode from her lips as she shakes her daughter roughly and then pulls her into a bone-crushing hug. “They would kill you, or worse.”
Heather is on the verge of asking what is worse than death, when there is a crash from somewhere below them.
“No!” Her parents exclaim both rising to their feet.
“Into the passage.” Papa says grabbing Heather, shoving the bag into her arms and pushing her into the narrow space between the walls. “Hide child. Escape to the forest when you are able. We will meet you there as soon as we can.”
“Remember you are loved Heather. You are so loved.” Her mama says the words and then closes the panel to the passage and the darkness presses in.
Heather sits barely able to breathe. She does not have long to wait, before another crash announces the arrival of someone into their dining chamber.
“Take them!” An angry voice shouts and feet pound across the floor.
“Get out of our house!” Her father shouts.
“How dare you?” Her mother spits at the intruders.
“There’ll be no orders from the likes of you.” The hateful voice laughs derisively. “When you are found murdered by marauders, your land will be divided amongst those who deserve it and your dangerous ways will be forgotten.”
There are sounds that Heather can’t identify and then the voice says, “Take them away and then find the child. There must be no living heir.”
Heather crouches in the dark trying to find her breath. “Mama? Papa?” She says the words in less than a whisper and swallows the sobs that shake her small body. She hugs herself and steels her resolve. She will not be killed. She will make those evil men pay for what they are doing to her family.
Slinging her bag awkwardly across her body, she creeps through the passages as quiet as a ghost. This hiding space would only be safe until they discover that she is not to be found in the rest of the house. Navigating the passages without a candle or lantern is tricky and slow, but Heather has played in these spaces for as long as she can remember and is confident of where she must go. The only route out of the house is through the passage that leads to the cellar and although her heart thuds louder with every noise she hears, she moves with the steely resolve of one three times her age.
Finally out of the house, she sits for a moment, crouched in the shadows of the stone archway. The path to Sherwood Forest is an easy one, but if she is seen running through the open fields, would she even feel the arrow as it pierced her flesh? What choice does she truly have? If she stays, surely she will eventually be found. The sounds of hounds are not present yet, but they would not be too far off. “I must run faster than lightning,” she whispers to herself eyeing the fields, trying not to think of all she is leaving behind.
Like a dam breaking its hold, Heather is suddenly away, flying across the fields towards the dark blot of trees that she knows will be her refuge. The sound of her ragged breath is louder and louder in her ears and yet she cannot stop. The blackness of the forest feels like it might erase her, and yet she runs on with every ounce of strength in the little body.
She runs, head down and arms pumping, right into a gnarled oak tree which stops her with such force and suddenness, that she does not even have time to utter a cry. Forehead and hand bleeding, she crumples to the ground in front of the unseen tree and moves no more.
When Heather awakens she tries to jump to her feet, but instead sways and falls forward onto her hands and knees by a small fire, retching violently.
“Ya hi’ da tree hard.” A timid voice says earnestly.
“My head,” Heather says as she gingerly feels the swollen mass that was once her forehead. Her hair is matted with blood and she shakes with pain and cold.
“Why was yas runnin’ in da dark?” The voice asks quietly, “dem trees won’ move for ya”
“Is that you Little John?” Heather asks reclining herself gently against a tree, her head in her hands.
“Ya know ‘tis.” He answers although Little John remains hidden..
Heather sighs and feels the tears start to leak out of her eyes and stream down her face. Were her mama and papa still alive? What would become of her?
“When da suns up, I’ll get ya papa. He can ge’ ya back to ya house.” Little John’s voice is now coming from right above her, but Heather’s headaches too much to look up.
“They want me dead.” She says in a voice broken by sobs. “Where can I hide?”
To her surprise Little John chuckles, “Ya mama and papa maybe mad, bu’ dey wouldn’t never kill ya.”
“Our house was attacked, Mama and Papa taken. They will search for me. They will kill me too.” Heather’s earlier bravery and resolve had crumbled, now she was just a nine year old girl broken and bleeding on the forest floor. “What will I do Little John?”
“Hide.” Little John says dropping to the ground at her feet, watching her carefully. “Dem really wanna kill ya?” He asks in his sotftest whisper.
“I heard them say it.” Heather says taking a deep breath and then choking a little as Little John’s pungent smell made her cough. She had never spent a lot of time with Little John, but they had been friends since she and Marion had stopped some of the older boys from hunting him and calling him ‘the Thing of the Forest’. She didn’t know how long Little John had lived amongst the trees, but she knew he was an orphan.
“No one else know dis fores’.” Little John says almost proudly, “if dey huntin’ ya, I can hide ya. Firs’ we ought da make ya a boy.”
“Make me a boy?” Heather repeats the words horror struck.
“Dey lookin' for a girl, harder dem find ya if dey don’ know wha’ dey lookin’ for.” Little John disappears back up the tree as though he was a shadow flickering in the branches. He reappears with a small knife and a grin.
Heather is rummaging through the bag her father had given her. In it, there are snacks as promised, there is her long green hooded cloak. There are a few odd play things that seem to come from a different life, rather than a mere few hours in the past. “Come on,” she says searching awkwardly in the dim light. Then she sees it! “Aha!”
“Whatcha go’?” Little John asks, looking from his knife to her long brown hair.
“Needle and thread.” She says simply, looking at her clothing and trying to imagine how she was going to fashion them into something that would be suitable to life in the forest. “You’re going to cut my hair with that?” she asks a little disdainfully.
Little John only nods and then waits for her to do the same.
By the time the sun is risen enough to take the chill off the ground, Little John is leading a transformed Heather deeper into the woods. Her clothing still needs some adjustments, but the green hooded cloak covers her nicely.
“Wha’ I gonna call ya?” Little John asks as he helps her through a thorny thicket.
“You know my name is Heather.” She snaps, wrenching her bag from the grasping branches and holding her aching head.
“Header da boy?” Little John asks and she knows instantly that he is right.
“My middle name is Robin,” she says tentatively. Little John looks at her for a moment and then nods. “Little John,” she says looking him in the eye, “One day I will make them all pay for what they have done to my family.” As she says the words, the green hood flops over her eyes and she pulls it back in frustration.
“I hope ya do, Robin in the Hood,” Little John says with a smile. “Fo’ now, lets us see if we can keeps ya alive.”