♬ Now We Don Our Grey Apparel
Fa la la la la la la la brains... ♬
It was Wednesday afternoon, early closing day in Worksop, which meant - as usual - the entire village was dead.
Only this Wednesday afternoon it seemed that the inhabitants of Worksop were taking the 'dead' thing a little more literally than usual.
"Barricade the door!" The Sheriff's voice hit a register that had Marian wincing and fighting the urge to pull her hat down over her ears. She scowled, and shoved another one of Snooker's slightly wobbly chairs up against the door. She'd have shoved it under the door handle, but the other three - even more wobbly - chairs were already shoved there, alongside what Snooker had once described to Marian as a 'chiffonier' and Nettle had described as 'something pretentious and French', and Gladys' best broom, which was admittedly not much more than a stick with some twigs.
Marian had already broken Gladys' second best broom over what was left of Gladys' head. It hadn't even slowed the old lady down, but then that one had only been a stick with one twig forlornly attached to the end. Not much of a weapon, apparently, when it came to the walking undead.
"You know," Marian said, stepping back from the door - which creaked ominously as something pounded against the outside - and pushing her sleeves up, "instead of standing there, giving instructions like... I don't know... a big girl's blouse, which is actually a lot more useful than you are and probably would be even in this situation, maybe, just maybe, you could do something constructive?"
She glared at the Sheriff, her fists now attached to her hips like they belonged there. On balance, it was probably better than punching him in the face, but only marginally.
"Oh, really?" The Sheriff mimicked her stance - his hands on his hips, his chest thrown out, and his head thrown back. It really wasn't fair. She carried it off much better than he did. Even Robin had to admit that she could be intimidating. The Sheriff, on the other hand, looked like a bantam. A non-threatening one.
She had no idea where Robin had gone. She had no idea where any of her friends had gone, the lot of them scattering like, well, a bunch of headless chickens as soon as someone had mentioned the word 'brains'.
Not that Robin had many of those in the first place. She honestly didn't get why he was so concerned. Apart from the whole 'undead Worksop villagers' thing, of course.
The Sheriff, on the other hand... Well, say what you liked about the man - and if she hadn't been so well brought up she might have said a lot about the man - but the one thing he wasn't lacking was brains. Height, yes. Charisma, yes. A sense of personal hygiene, definitely yes. But not brains. At least not compared to the people around him.
She was still glaring at him, all of the words she was too well brought up to say boiling behind her tongue, when undead Gladys shoved an arm through the window and waved it in her face.
She shared a look with the Sheriff, one that was five parts panic and three parts desperation - at least on the Sheriff's side; Marian liked to think she was slightly calmer under pressure - and then the pair of them darted towards the stairs, Marian a hair's breadth in front. In her defence, her legs were longer and her elbows were sharper.
"Ouch! Watch where you're aiming those things!"
She didn't spare the breath to tell the Sheriff where he could shove his complaints. She was too busy shoving her way past him and clambering up into the loft, the Sheriff hot on her heels.
She slammed the hatch down with a thud soon as he was through, the sound echoed by an even more ominous thud from the room below as something finally gave way.
"Quick, quick! Do something!" The Sheriff flapped his hands, looking even more like a chicken than her friends had when they'd fled.
"What would you suggest?" Her hands started to migrate towards her hips, and she held them steady with immense effort.
The Sheriff paused in his flapping to stare at her, open-mouthed. He looked so much like Edwina, down to the skinny, shrimpy size of him, that Marian felt a brief pang at the thought of her long-dead pet. At least with Edwina being cremated - accidentally - there was no risk of her tadpole rising from the dead.
"We put something over the hatch?" The Sheriff sounded tentative, which was completely unlike him. He was usually almost as 'decisive' as she was, although Barrington called that 'bossy'. She could really do with Barrington being here right now, all steadiness and killer rhymes. The last that she seen of him, he'd been heading towards the chicken coop, a slavering, demented-eyed Rose hard on his heels.
Barrington would be okay. He was smart, although perhaps in the current crisis that would just attract attention.
The Sheriff was still waiting, a shocky look in his eye. Any second now he'd descend into 'this isn't really happening' and 'perhaps we should just wait for the authorities', completely forgetting that he was what passed for 'the authorities' in these parts, much as it pained Marian to admit it. That wouldn't be good, not when she needed his supposedly delicious brains if they were to stand any chance of getting out of this alive. Or at least not undead.
"Yes, yes," she said little impatiently, listening out for any sounds from below that would suggest that the mob had progressed from 'randomly shambling about' to 'have discovered the stairs and are about to learn how to climb'. "That's very good. Now, what would you suggest we use?"
She aimed for encouraging, the kind of tone she'd use with Rabies, and it seemed to work, at least for the moment. Once her attitude had had time to sink in, he'd be incandescently annoyed, but she'd deal with that when the time came.
Assuming they had that much time.
He blinked at her, and behind his eyes his mind was doing whatever it was that was the brain's equivalent of running around a hamster wheel.
There was a thump from the bottom of the stairs, as though something very uncoordinated had bumped into them and was currently investigating this brave new world. "Howaboutthechestofdrawers?" she got out, her voice coming out with a strangled squeak as the words tripped over themselves.
This time, he beat her to it - it turned out that his elbows were just as sharp as hers and his aim as true. And for someone as small and wiry as he was, it also turned out that he could move a chest of drawers at a fair pace. She could almost see smoke rising from the friction of the drawers' wooden feet against the wooden floor.
She blinked at him for a moment and then - when reality reared its head again, thanks to some low moaning coming through the floorboards - she rushed over to help, bracing her shoulder against the wood right next to his, which poked up, as sharp and bony as his elbow, through the rich fabric of his tunic. His tunic was red today, which was just as well. It hid the worst of Guy's blood, because there was no getting that out, not with the way it had sprayed when Rose's teeth fastened in his throat.
The thought left her feeling vaguely sick, swallowing down the memory as she focused on moving furniture, putting everything she had into getting it from point A to point B, where B was 'I don't end up as lunch'.
There was a thump below them and the hatch slowly started to rise.
The Sheriff let out an almighty bellow, one that was only slightly high pitched around the edges, and with one last, mighty heave, the chest of drawers finally screeched to a halt right where it was needed.
Marian straightened up, rubbing at the small of her back as she stared, fascinated, at the chest of drawers, which was rocking slightly as whatever was under that hatch kept banging away, trying to get into the loft. Honestly. They were worse than door to door salesmen. Only, they weren't selling encyclopedias. Which was a pity - maybe if they invested in a little self-improvement, they'd develop their own brains to the point where they'd lose interest in Marian's.
"So," said the Sheriff, coming to stand beside her, his hands back on his hips and a slightly manic grin on his face. But the false cheer in his voice didn't fool her for a second, not when the muscle underneath his right eye kept jumping like that. "Wardrobe next?"
"What do you think started it?"
She'd been wondering that for hours, ever since the first moment that Rose had shambled into Worksop, looking rough even for Rose. It was like a nagging tooth - it wouldn't leave her alone, no matter how much she worried at it.
The Sheriff groaned, rolling his eyes, which was not actually that helpful under the circumstances.
"Why do you think I know, you foolish girl?"
Well, really. "If I was foolish, I hardly think the ravening hordes of..." She struggled to think of a politically correct way to describe her erstwhile neighbours. "Living-challenged people below would be that interested in eating my brains now, would they?"
"How would I know? Do you think I have any interest in your brains, whether they're digested or not?"
She scowled at him, putting as much fierceness into her expression as she could. She'd spent enough time around Robin - and, she was pained to admit, Barrington - to recognise someone fibbing to her. Especially when the point of said fibbing was to avoid difficult explanations as to exactly how they'd managed to mess up her well-laid plans.
"Something," she said ominously, "obviously caused it. I mean, Rose can be annoying - and by that, I mean extremely annoying - but she doesn't normally go around trying to bite people's heads off." She paused for a moment, before honestly compelled her to add, "Well, not usually literally."
The Sheriff squirmed. It wasn't a good look for him. It wasn't a good look for anyone, but with the Sheriff's pointed face there was an added air of weasel about him when he squirmed.
"Perhaps she's been listening to that newfangled 'pop' music that I hear is all the rage with the young women in this town. Justin Beaver, or whatever he's called. You know, the one with the teeth." He gave her a slightly ingratiating smile, which had the unfortunate side-effect of making him look even more weaselly than usual. "I have heard," he added portentously, "that it has the effect of rotting your brains."
"That is quite possibly the most singly stupid thing I have ever heard in my life."
"Yes, the lyrics from his latest single are rather ridiculous."
"No, not the -" Marian bit off what she was about to say, taking a deep, calming breath. Getting annoyed wasn't going to help anyone, let alone them when they were trapped in a loft like, like... a rat who'd got a little too close to the cheese. "I really don't think that pop music would have turned Rose into ravening monster. Well, not that kind of monster anyway. You know, the kind that's even more monstrous than usual and where the high-pitched screaming is done by other people. Something else must be going on."
The Sheriff sighed, the sound so obviously fake as he studiously avoided her eyes that Marian's nose began to itch the way it always did when Robin came up with a multitude of excuses for exactly why he wasn't able to do the washing up. "I really don't see how you could possibly leap to the conclusion that magic had anything to do with it."
Marian gave him a long, flat stare, the kind that had even Little Ron shuffling shamefacedly. "Sheriff," she said, her tone deceptively mild. The Sheriff didn't immediately start running, which only confirmed everything that Barrington had ever said about the man's survival instincts. "Who said anything about magic?"
"So let me get this right..." If Marian's words were a little breathless she felt it was entirely understandable under the circumstances. It really was a long way down and she was trying very hard not to think about it. She tightened her grip on the ladder that the pair of them had braced between the window in Snooker's loft and the one in Clough's, and continued to edge gingerly along it.
It rocked gently in the breeze.
Marian froze for a second, her mouth suddenly dry as if all of her words had evaporated from it. She swallowed, forcing spit back onto her tongue. Her tone was even higher pitched as she continued, word by word and rung by rung, "Not being content with the current tax revenues that you and King John are extorting -"
"Extorting from the hard-working villagers of Worksop -"
"Ha! As though any of those country bumpkins know the meaning of the words 'hard' and 'work' -"
"They are the salt of the earth!" Marian raised her voice, regretting it immediately when her irritation meant that she lost her focus for a moment and her hand slipped from the rung. She flailed for a second before she caught herself and took another deep breath, waiting for her heart rate to slow from its current beleaguered badger levels.
Somewhere ahead of her, where the sheriff had already reached the relative safety of Clough's loft, she thought she heard him mutter something about 'salty', but given that she was still several rungs away, and the ground seemed further away and a lot harder to land on by the second, she let it pass.
"Anyway." She edged forward carefully. "You decided that an educated and biddable workforce was essential to ensure England's economic growth."
"See, that doesn't sound so bad, does it?"
Marian moved her knee, praying that this time her dress wouldn't get caught underneath it. "Well, the part where you decide not actually invest in educating the peasants but instead give the money to a bloke named Dave you met down the pub for a packet of herbs and the odd incantation in order to take some serious shortcuts doesn't make it sound like you'd really thought it through."
The last rush of words was enough to get her through the window, colliding with the Sheriff in her haste and almost knocking the man off his feet.
"In fact, that sounds like exactly the kind of half-cocked scheme that I'd expect from this government. Weren't you the ones who decided that miniaturised farming was the next big thing? Shrink the cattle down so that you could fit more of them into a hectare?"
"Well, to be fair, at a conceptual level that wasn't actually a bad idea -"
"Someone stuck some fake udders on a bunch of Yorkshire terriers and convinced you they were miniature Highland cattle."
"Well, when you put it like that, I'm willing to acknowledge that there were some difficulties in moving past the conceptual stage -"
"Wasn't his name Dave as well?"
The Sheriff deflated, what was left of his ego post-Rose-related trauma hissing out of him. "Where did you say we were going again?"
"Well." She drew herself up to her full height, throwing out of her chest and staring him right in the face. "Under the circumstances, I think the only thing we can do is consult with an expert in the field of esoteric and often misunderstood local knowledge."
The Sheriff looked at her blankly.
"We're going to see a witch about the sitch."
Even Barrington, she thought as she spun smugly on her heel, wouldn't complain about that rhyme.
The Sheriff, on the other hand, complained about everything.
He complained about the state of the footpaths.
Seriously, isn't it about time that something thought about paving through the forest? Just think what it would do for travel time. I mean, is it or is it not the twelfth century?
Progress doesn't mean destroying natural habitats, you know.
He complained about the trees.
I mean, what are they even for? Are they productive members of society, standing around here being useless except for shedding every year and just leaving their leaves on the ground to create a slipping hazard in wet weather?
You mean, apart from providing fuel, fruits and nuts and, oh yes, the air you breathe? You're right, we should chop them all down immediately.
He complained about how long it took to get anywhere.
Why does everything have to be so far away from anything useful? Have these women never heard of the need for reliable transport links to ensure the success of local businesses?
Well, that might have something to do with the fact that the crown's usual stance towards wise women is that it's useful to have some around, if only as an alternative fuel source in the winter for when you chop all the trees down.
He complained about everything.
It was almost a relief when the shambling horde caught up to them.
"This is your fault," the Sheriff hissed.
"My fault?" Marian managed to keep her voice down to a dull shriek, fighting the urge to box the impossible man around his ears. "You were the one complaining so loudly that they must have heard you all the way back in Worksop. If anyone's to blame -"
There was an ominous crack below them, and the tree they'd taken shelter in swayed. Marian was becoming heartily sick of ominous sounds. She'd had her fill of them today - what was wrong with some nice birdsong or an upbeat and cheery tune? She really missed Barrington - he'd lighten the mood with a pointed party song or two.
Of course, Barrington was probably down there somewhere, groaning and growing grey.
"What are we going to do?" the Sheriff asked, his tone on the edge of hysteria. For a second, Marian fought the urge to ask 'why do I always have to come up with the ideas?' but under the circumstances that didn't seem very fair. After all, it had been the Sheriff's idea to build a ladder bridge between Snooker's place and Clough's, even if she'd been the one who'd ended up having to move the ladder, not at all helped by his 'helpful' suggestions of 'left a bit' and 'right a bit'.
She straightened up, clutching at the branch above her as the tree swayed ominously again - and there was that whole ominous thing again. It did, however, begin to give her the inkling of an idea. She had no idea if said idea would actually work, but wasn't that half the fun?
That and not being eaten, of course.
"Take off your belt."
"What? I'll have you know, young lady, I'm a respectable married man."
She stared at him for a moment. "No, you're not," she said reasonably. "On either count. If you'd ever gone and actually got married we'd have heard all about it. Apart from anything else, you'd have posted your wedding list on every tree between here and Canterbury."
"Well, at least then the trees would be useful for something."
"What on earth do you think paper is made out of?" She didn't wait for him to answer, instead holding her hand out imperiously and giving him her best 'oh, Robin, you're in trouble' look.
He caved, as she'd known he would, and wordlessly handed her his belt (but not before the whole performance of taking it off, she noted - honestly, she'd seen Little Ron wrestle with a snake with less obvious effort before).
"And what exactly are you planning to do?"
Marian didn't answer him at first, too busy knotting his belt to her belt and then to her scarves and then - turning her back pointedly on him before she removed them - to her second-best knee-length extra-warm woolly socks.
"I thought it was obvious," she said finally, twirling the makeshift lasso around her head. "I'm going to catch a tree."
There was a lot to be grateful to trees for, she thought as she scurried through the undergrowth, the Sheriff hard on her heels, this time - thankfully - silently. Not just the whole oxygen thing, although she quite liked breathing. The whole 'bushy leaves hiding you from view' thing was quite useful, too. It also helped - although she'd never admit this to the Sheriff - that in their current state, the villagers were even more intellectually challenged than usual. Not a single one of them had thought to look up, too busy chewing on the bark and - occasionally - on each other.
Yes, there was a lot to be grateful for. Like the fact that they had finally reached their destination.
The cottage wasn't much to write home about - it was squat and built from uneven stone that had once been painted white but was now faded to a weathered and slightly depressing grey - but it was still home to someone.
At first glance, the woman who emerged from inside it when Marian knocked had a lot in common with her choice of abode. She wasn't squat - she was taller than the Sheriff and Marian both - but she was just as sturdy, with a bosom that reminded Marian of a ship's figurehead, as long as the ship in question was the kind that broke through icebergs.
And if her bosom was intimidating, that had nothing on the frown that rose above it.
The word was barked, the kind of timbre that usually preceded trees falling in the vicinity, and Marian resisted the urge to step back or to shove the Sheriff in front of her. It was his fault they were here, after all.
Instead, she swallowed nervously, and raised her chin. "Big Bertha?"
Arms as strong and wide as tree trunks (small ones admittedly) folded over that formidable chest. "Who's asking?"
"Well, obviously," the Sheriff began, simply reinforcing Marian's previous opinion on his survival instincts, "we are." He lifted his chin, which was a lot more pointed than Marian's no matter what Robin said about her facial features, and folded his considerably more spindly arms over his considerably less impressive chest.
Bertha studied him for a moment, and Marian tried desperately not to think about bears and honey, and then she asked, "And who are you?"
"I'm the -"
Never let it be said that Marian didn't react quickly in a crisis - eventually. She slammed her hand over the Sheriff's mouth before he could say another word.
Bertha raised her eyebrow. "The cat's mother? Or has the cat just got your tongue?"
The Sheriff mouthed something against the palm of Marian's hand - whatever he was trying to say, it felt disgusting, even after she'd wiped her palm off on her dress.
"Never mind," Bertha said, shaking her head to cut off the Sheriff before he could open his mouth again. "It's not important. Not really. Not in the grand scheme of things." But the tilt of her head as she took them both in suggested otherwise. There was curiosity in that look, buried deep beneath the disinterest, and a certain sharp glint in Bertha's eye that convinced Marian they had the right place.
"Um..." Marian cleared her throat and drew herself up to her full height. Bertha still towered over her. "We were wondering... That is to say..."
"Well, out with it, girl." There was a hint of amusement in Bertha's gaze now, alongside the exasperation, and Marian wasn't quite sure which was worse.
"You're a witch," she blurted out, before adding a belated and tentative, "Right?"
"Who wants to know?"
"Oh, for... We do." The Sheriff's eye roll wasn't quite as impressive as Bertha's, but he gave a good attempt. "Now that we got the niceties worked out, are you or are you not a witch?"
"Oh, just because I am an elderly woman who lives on her own in the forest I must be a witch? Now there's stereotyping. For the record, I don't like gingerbread and I'm not overly fond of children. Cooked or uncooked."
The Sheriff opened his mouth again, the small crease between his brows telling Marian that his temper was getting the better of him again. Once again, she cut him off before he could launch into full flow.
"Were not trying to cast aspersions -" Was it an aspersion? Marian wasn't entirely sure, and nothing in Bertha's expression gave her any hint as to whether the woman - or witch - was offended at all. "Or anything else, really, but we really do hope that you're a witch - or some other magic practitioner if you prefer the term - because, well to be perfectly honest, right now we could do with one."
Bertha raised her other eyebrow.
"And would that have anything to do with the horde of zombies that have followed you all the way to my front door? Because you'd better hope for your sakes that they don't trample my bloody petunias."
On balance, Bertha was taking the whole 'walking dead' thing remarkably calmly, which could have been a side-effect of her having magic at her fingertips or could have had something to do with the thick stone walls of her cottage. Marian supposed it was easy to take the walking dead in your stride when you had a foot of rock between you and them.
Unfortunately, she was taking the Sheriff's rather vague, and extremely self-justifying, explanations a little less calmly. Not that it was easy to tell when her face was so expressionless, but the fingers of her right hand were twitching against her folded arm.
"Let me get this right," she said eventually, cutting the Sheriff off mid-flow. "Without any experience, or apparently common-sense, you decided to try your hand at casting a spell, the outcomes of which were uncertain at best."
"Well, technically, the spell was cast by King John, and what was the worst that could happen?"
Bertha didn't bother replying. Instead, she simply raised her eyebrow again and let the thudding sound of yet another villager hurling themselves against the thick wooden door and groaning dramatically speak for her.
"Well, yes, I'll admit that perhaps we should have considered the consequences a little more carefully..."
Marian snorted and Bertha raised her other eyebrow so that she had a matching set of disbelief.
The Sheriff deflated again, wincing a little when a muffled wail of 'braaaains' slipped shamefacedly through the gap under the door.
Bertha sighed, finally unfolding her arms to hold out one hand imperiously. "Let me see it."
Again, Bertha didn't bother answering. This time, however, her eyebrows lowered ominously. As if the day needed more 'ominous'.
Marian was pretty sure that the Sheriff had come close to spraining his fingers, so quickly did he pull a piece of paper out of his back pocket. "You mean the instructions, of course," he said, smiling ingratiatingly.
Bertha snorted, the sound convincingly portraying exactly how she felt about the so-called 'instructions'. She kept her eyes on the Sheriff while she unfolded the rumpled piece of paper; when she finally glanced down, her brows lowered further.
Marian couldn't resist; she shuffled around until she could peer at the piece of paper over - well, not Bertha's shoulder, not when it towered over her, but around the broad expanse of Bertha's arm.
She frowned, struggling to make out what was written there. "First being... the object... standing it upright... incircle... within finger width. What on earth is that?"
"That," said Bertha decisively, one thick finger jabbing towards the walls, and the horde just outside them, "is what you get when you turn your back on hard-working artisans and instead go for mass-produced rubbish, and that -" She flicked her finger contemptuously against the piece of paper, "is what you get when you outsource it abroad."
The Sheriff's survival instinct hadn't so much gone to ground as left the building without even waiting for an encore. "Well, we can't stand in the way of progress, and in the name of efficiency -"
"Progress is currently trying to eat your brains," said Bertha dryly. "I'm sure they'll do it very efficiently indeed."
There wasn't really a great deal that the Sheriff could say to that.
It was a long night. While the shambling villagers outside groaned and scratched at the walls, Bertha had her nose stuck firmly in a book - the second she'd pulled down from her shelves. Under the circumstances, she seemed a little blasé about the dead trying to gain entry.
Marian wished that she could be that brave instead of flinching every time the door rattled or another moan rose up from the masses outside. Maybe she'd have felt a bit better if she was armed with something a little more substantial than the small vegetable knife Bertha had given to her.
Not that she was currently using it to defend herself or anything.
"Do we really need to -"
"Shhh," Bertha admonished, glancing up briefly to give Marian a stern look.
Marian scowled back in her direction, but Bertha's attention had already returned to the book in her hands. Which is probably just as well in the circumstances, given that the scowl wanted to disappear from Marian's face as quickly as it had arrived. There was probably something to be said about scowling at witches, something like 'don't scowl at witches unless you want to be turned into a frog'. Or maybe, 'don't scowl at witches unless you don't mind them feeding you to the ravening horde outside'.
"Does this seem like the beginnings of a spell to you?" the Sheriff muttered out of the side of his mouth, aiming the words in Marian's general direction. "Because it seems like the beginnings of soup to me."
"It is the beginnings of soup," said Bertha calmly, apparently picking up on the Sheriff's stage whispering with ease. "But since we'll be here all night, and the pair of you aren't exactly much use in the whole magic department, you might as well make yourself useful in another way." She shot the Sheriff a gimlet look, the kind of look that Marian was glad not to be on the receiving end of. It was the kind of look that said clearly 'this is all your fault, mate' and 'don't even think about starting with me, you aren't anywhere near hard enough'.
Marian couldn't exactly disagree with the latter sentiment. She was beginning to doubt that anyone was as hard as Bertha. Marian certainly wasn't.
There was another thud against the door, followed by a low scratching sound, and Marian flinched again. She wasn't the only one; the Sheriff jumped, dropping his small paring knife with a clatter.
"Are you sure that we're safe in here? I mean -" He gave a nervous little laugh. "I know the walls are stone, but..."
"The walls are stone, yes," said Bertha, not even glancing up from her book. "Generally speaking, you'll find that most 'magic practitioners' prefer the non-flammable when it comes to construction. Can't think why." She shot the Sheriff a look that was part wry and part bitter. "Can't say the same for the shutters, unfortunately."
She was definitely a witch - no sooner had she spoken than the shutters closest to Marian burst open and grey, clasping hands thrust through.
Bertha pushed herself to her feet, sighing. "Of course, she would be standing right in my petunia beds," she said. "Bloody zombies."
There were hands wrapped tightly around Marian's shoulders, and a small, wiry body pressing her back against the wall, tightly enough that she could barely breathe. She couldn't really complain - she was clutching at the Sheriff just as closely.
Bertha picked up her broom - one that the tiny part of Marian's mind that was still capable of anything close to rational thought registered as being far too small for Bertha to ride on, no matter what the legends said - and swatted the zombie in the face, forcing it back out through the window.
Rose - for now that Marian could see her clearly, that was definitely Rose, greyer and even less well-dressed than usual - fell back with a snarl, her fingers already curling again into claws as she prepared to launch herself into the breach once again.
Bertha slammed the shutters in her face, leaving Rose to thud against them with a sound that might have been comical in any other circumstances. Marian winced again; that was definitely going to leave a bruise. Assuming, of course, that Rose could still bruise - it occurred to her that she had no idea how the physiology of what Bertha called 'zombies' actually worked in practice.
It wasn't something she was in a hurry to learn, either.
"Bloody zombies," Bertha muttered again, heading back to her armchair and her book. "More trouble than they're bloody worth. This -" She jabbed a finger in the Sheriff's direction, judgement in every line of her body, especially the line formed by her finger. "Is why you don't mess with this sort of thing, especially not with the kind of spell that Dave sells to the gullible down the pub." She sniffed, settling herself down and rifling through her book until she got to the right page. "Me and Dave are going to have words after this is all over."
That seemed to be the last she had to say on the matter, at least for the time being. After a long - and not particularly comfortable - silence, Marian finally extracted herself from the Sheriff's grip and picked up the paring knife from where he'd dropped it on the floor. She offered it to him wordlessly, waiting until he took it before she said, "I think we have some carrots to peel."
It may have been her imagination, but for a moment she'd swear she saw Bertha smile.
The soup wasn't a success, although Bertha didn't seem to mind. Perhaps it was the novelty of having someone else doing the cooking for a change, but she ate two bowls of it, barely looking up from her book. Marian managed to choke down a bowl, but then she'd grown used to Rabies' cooking. The fact that the vegetables they'd spent so long preparing had reduced to an over-salted mush was familiar, almost unbearably so.
The Sheriff managed three spoonfuls before he threw his cutlery down in disgust, but perhaps he was finally learning some survival instincts - he didn't say a word to Bertha about it.
The fire had died down to little but embers, and faint light was beginning to stream under the door and sneak through the window frames when Bertha finally slammed her book closed, the sound startling Marian out of the light doze she'd slipped into.
"Right. Dawn's on the way - time to get to work."
"Wha-?" the Sheriff mumbled, lurching into something as close to wakefulness as he seemed to get at this ungodly hour of morning. It was a little too close to zombie for Marian's peace of mind, but perhaps he'd be a little more lively once she'd poured a bucket of water over his head.
It worked for Robin, after all.
"Dawn. Work," Bertha repeated, keeping her eyebrows firmly in check. "Chop, chop."
"Wha-?" the Sheriff muttered again, looking not that much more awake, if Marian was honest. His gaze drifted between Marian and Bertha, then back again, but Marian had no answer for him and Bertha certainly wasn't saying much more as she bustled around a small cottage.
With an audible sigh - one that was repeated, slightly more loudly, when no one looked in his direction - the Sheriff hauled himself to his feet, stretching his spine with a crack that had Marian's teeth aching in sympathy, but it appeared that Bertha didn't have any sympathy in her whatsoever for the fact that the pair of them had slept on the floor.
"Chop, chop what?" the Sheriff asked when Bertha continued to ignore him. "Please tell me it's not more vegetables."
Marian had to secretly admit that she was hoping that, too. While she understood, on an intellectual level at least, that hard work was its own reward, she'd prefer a little less reward and an increased possibility of keeping all of her fingers instead.
Bertha was still ignoring them, although at least this time it didn't seem pointed. Instead, she was muttering to herself as she began to pull jars down from the shelves. Okay, Marian was also willing to admit that she was a little disappointed that none of them seem to contain anything interesting, like eye of newt, but it was a brave new world, after all, and she probably shouldn't stereotype like that. Bertha was more than likely a modern witch, one who communed with nature naturally and therefore eschewed all of that nonsense.
On the other hand, the last jar that Bertha pulled down did look a bit like eye of something. Marian craned her neck to get a better look but Bertha whisked the jar away before she could fully make out the contents. It seemed that now that dawn was rapidly approaching, Bertha had finally - after a night of not doing very much - decided to race the Sun to the starting line. She was pulling jar contents out by the handful and shoving them into ready-made muslin bags before stashing them around her person. They disappeared into folds that even someone the size and shape of Bertha shouldn't have.
The magic was starting to look a little bit more mysterious by the second. Not that Marian, as a twelfth century woman, really believed in any of it.
"So are we chopping anything or not?" the Sheriff asked plaintively, apparently no longer happy about being ignored.
This time Bertha deigned to answer them. "No," she said briskly, patting herself down as though she was checking that everything was in place, her eyes fixed on the door rather than looking in either Marian or the Sheriff's direction. "Well," she corrected herself. "You're not." And then she was striding towards the door, purpose in every line of her body, while Marian and the Sheriff gaped in her wake.
It took Marian a second to come to her senses, and then she trotted off after Bertha, not missing the way that the other woman picked up an axe on her way out of the door, shoving the handle into her belt so that it swung gently with every step. If Marian had tried that, she'd have cut her own leg off, but Bertha appeared axe proof as well as... Well, whatever the villagers were now proof.
Bertha finally came to a halt on the rickety porch, eyeing the milling villagers for a moment until it finally seemed to dawn in whatever was left of their brains that something had emerged from the cottage they'd been trying to gain entry to all night. They began to lurch in Bertha's direction.
Bertha threw her hands up, palms facing the crowd, and miraculously the horde slowed.
"Brothers and sisters," Bertha bellowed, the sound echoing around the small clearing and sending a burst of crows cawing into the air. "It's time to throw off the shackles of oppression! Too long have we laboured under the foot of management. Too long have we listened to their lies that if we worked a little harder, worked a little smarter, then the fruits of our labour would be ours."
"I say," the Sheriff objected next to Marian, but his voice was small and no competition for Bertha's booming one, especially one that appeared to be magically enhanced.
"But who takes what is rightfully ours? The bosses, that's who! They pay themselves the wages of sin - sins against us, the workers, the true backbone of this country - while our children go hungry and our own bellies ache."
"I say!" the Sheriff objected again, his voice a little louder this time. But Marian shook his arm to silence him - something was happening to the villagers. The ever-present moaning and groaning had, in some parts of the crowd, been replaced with muttering and the odd head nod.
"Why should we continue to work our fingers to the bone just so that they can dine off fine china? Why should our children suffer just so theirs can wear the finest of silks?"
"Nobody actually wears silk in the Palace," the Sheriff muttered, folding his arms across his chest and glaring mutinously over the top of them at Bertha.
"Robin does," Marian murmured absently, her gaze fixed on an electrifying Bertha. "His underwear, at least."
The Sheriff stopped in his muttering, staring at Marian for a moment, his eyes wide with disbelief. "Seriously?"
Marian nodded. "Yeah."
The Sheriff snorted. "Why am I not surprised? At least I don't have that problem - it's hard enough to get King John to wear any underwear never mind something as delicate as silk." Now there was a mental image that Marian really didn't need, and for a brief moment she felt a pang of sympathy for the Sheriff. But any sympathy she felt faded when he went on to muse, "Although, maybe I should be grateful for small mercies. If they were silk, I dread to think what might happen."
Marian shuddered. Talk about mental images she didn't need.
Bertha hadn't finished. She was still in full flow about the duplicity of the ruling classes, but now there were fewer groans of 'brains' and more murmurings of 'that's right' and 'well, I never'.
Never what, Marian never actually figured out, because at that moment, Rose lurched out of the crowd, her hands outstretched into claws and a low gurgling moan coming from her mouth.
"There's always one who won't listen," Bertha sighed, yanking the axe from where it was wedged in her belt. "And there is always, always a price to pay." She sounded almost sad, but there was no hesitation as she swung the axe towards Rose's head.
There was a sound like someone had dropped a pumpkin from a great height, and then Rose was crumpling to the floor.
"That," said Bertha decisively as she placed one foot on Rose's chest and worked the axe free with a slow rocking motion, "is why we don't mess around with rampant capitalism. There's always somebody who gets completely and utterly shafted." She ran her hand thoughtfully down over the axe's handle and then paused for a moment to eye the crowd, who were now to a man, woman, and child shuffling awkwardly while avoiding looking in Rose's direction. "Of course," she added thoughtfully, "go too far the other way and it's no better. The so-called elite always rises to the top while everybody else tries not to drown. And on that note, I think I'll stop there. I think I've enacted the counterbalance enough. After all, we don't want them forming any committees to decide who should be the next to feel the wrath of the collective or publishing any little red books."
That must be Bertha actually casting the magic spell, Marian decided. It was certainly incomprehensible enough.
Worksop was back to normal, or at least as normal as Worksop ever got. Gladys had acquired a new second-best broom from somewhere, which meant that there were at least three twigs in the bundle that she was brushing over the doorstep, humming happily to herself. Snooker was sharing an anecdote with Barrington and Little Ron, which meant that Barrington was chuckling to himself while Snooker stared at him, bewildered and wondering what it was that he'd said that was so funny, and Little Ron looked like he wanted to kill something.
Even that was normal for Little Ron, but Marian was trying not to think of killing things, not when the sound of something like thudding pumpkins still echoed in her ears.
She hadn't seen the Sheriff for days, not since the villagers had shuffled away from Bertha's cottage, looking a little embarrassed en masse, and the Sheriff had somehow managed to evaporate, disappearing with the kind of ease that said he was used to making himself scarce when people of power were a little miffed with him. But that was understandable - the last time Marian had seen Bertha, she'd been glaring down at what had once been flower beds and hadn't even noticed when Marian had waved goodbye.
And the last time she'd seen Rose - what remained of Rose - was the kind of thing she'd really rather forget, thank you very much.
There was always a price to pay, Bertha had said. Always a sacrifice. If only it hadn't been Marian's best friend/worst enemy. Or one of them, anyway.
And speak of the devil...
"Sheriff," she said flatly as the man approached with considerably less shamefaced shuffling than when he'd left Bertha's cottage, she noted. "Fancy meeting you here. Cast any good spells lately?"
"Ha, ha, very amusing. Let me know when you finally find your sense of humour, will you?"
The words lacked his usual bite and when he came to a stop next to Marian, he simply stood there for a moment, his hands shoved into the pockets of his breeches. Marian resisted rolling her eyes - Robin was far too proud of his latest 'invention', especially when it had been Marian's idea in the first place. They were very useful for shoving stuff into, even hands it turned out.
"About the other day..." he started, staring out over the empty streets rather than meeting Marian's eyes. "Well, I think what I want to say... That is..."
"Thank you for saving your life? You're welcome."
The Sheriff snorted. "I think there was at least one occasion where I saved your life. In fact, on balance, I may have saved your life more than you did mine. Whose idea was the ladder, after all?"
Marian ground her teeth, but in the end some lingering sense of camaraderie - or perhaps a lack of sleep as she and the Merry Men had spent the last few days clearing up the mess a rampaging horde of zombies had managed to leave in their wake, and frankly zombified villagers were even more messy than the non-zombified versions were - had her biting on her tongue. "Let's call it even," she said, dredging up a grudging smile from somewhere. "This time."
The Sheriff opened his mouth for a moment, as though he was about to say something, probably something that they would both end up regretting, but then he seemed to reconsider and shut his mouth again with a snap.
There was a long silence.
"King John..." the Sheriff finally began, the words coming slowly as his face screwed up in thought. "Well, I think he's decided to avoid that pub on Nottingham High Street."
"The one that Dave frequents?" Marian managed to keep her tone even.
"That would be the one. Well, you know, what with him being in mourning it would hardly be appropriate. Drinking, that is."
Marian felt she ought to say something suitably sombre, but as far as she knew they didn't make 'I'm sorry my best friend ate your employer's nephew' condolence cards. And there was no way she could find the words herself. Instead she settled on, "That... probably sounds like a good idea."
"Well, you know..." Since the Sheriff didn't finish his sentence, not only did she not know but she was unlikely to find out. Instead, he scuffed at the dirt with the toe of his boot. "He's talking about maybe cutting back on the banquets for a bit. Just, you know, until the official mourning period is over."
"So... there'll be less tax gathering in the immediate future?"
The Sheriff nodded glumly. "For, oh, about six months or so. Don't know what on earth I'm going to do to keep Graham and Gary busy for all that time. Gary's already talking about taking evening classes. Pottery, would you believe?"
"It's a very useful skill."
"So I've heard." The Sheriff's boot scuffed at the earth again. "Maybe I'll look into it, too. A man needs a hobby, after all."
Somehow, Marian couldn't picture the Sheriff throwing pots. Well, not unless they were already made and he was throwing them at someone's head. But, for once, she kept her own counsel, simply nodding sagely and staring out into the empty street, just like the Sheriff.
"What about you?"
"Oh, probably robbing the rich and feeding the poor."
"So, business as usual then?"
An awkward silence descended. Marian had no idea what you said to someone you'd spent the day running from zombies with. At least, not outside of 'don't get eaten'.
"Well," the Sheriff finally said, pulling his hands out of his pockets and rubbing them together. "I must be going. Things to do, people to see. Busy, busy, busy."
Marian made a noncommittal sound.
The Sheriff turned to go, but then he hesitated for a moment before turning back. "I'm sorry about your friend," he said, and Marian could almost believe he was genuine.
"I'm sorry about the King's nephew," she said, and it was a bit of a surprise to find that she was genuine about that, too.
The Sheriff nodded, and then the corner of his mouth quirked up, although there was no amusement in it. "There's always a price to pay," he said. "At least, that's what I heard from some strange forest-dwelling woman who was a little too obsessed with her petunias, if you ask me."
Marian smiled, and for a second - as the Sheriff smiled back - they shared a moment of perfect understanding, at least before the Sheriff turned on his heel and headed back to Nottingham Castle.
Well, well, well. It seemed that King John might finally have learned his lesson, temporarily at least. Marian was sure it wasn't the kind of lesson that he probably should have learned - something as hard as Latin, maybe, or maybe even Home Economics - but it was a start. It couldn't last, but Marian intended to enjoy the quiet while it did.
She took a deep breath, staring out over the street of Worksop. There were still things to do - Robin was still traumatised by the idea of having to co-ordinate his wardrobe with a grey skin tone, and Barrington had barely sung all week - but soon enough, Worksop would be back to its normal self. The King would go back to collecting taxes, and Marian would go back to thwarting his best efforts, but for the moment, Worksop was as silent as... well, as silent as the grave.
But then it was Wednesday, and Worksop always was dead on a Wednesday.
Somewhere behind her, there was a sharp crack as something was dropped, shattering on the ground, and the low sound of moaning drifted towards her.
Marian raised her eyes to the sky and sighed.