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The Thief

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Chapter One: Capture

The chains were heavy, rusted, and rubbed her wrists raw; her ankles at least had the leisure of being wrapped in the soft kid boots she had purchased only a few months earlier. She was covered in mud from her falls along the long trek back to Nottingham; her hair was disheveled and full of twigs, its color unrecognizable, and her nails were broken. The weight of the chains made walking difficult, pulling on her legs and drawing her shoulders down and back; she would have given anything to lie down and rest, but she refused to show weakness in front of her captors. She was angry right now—angry at the pain, angry at the condition of her clothes and hair, mostly angry that she had been caught. She never got caught.

"Come along, then, don't dawdle," sneered the guard at the other end of the chain, yanking on it cruelly. She raised her eyes and shot him a look full of hatred, a look that would have had a smarter man trembling in fear. This one just laughed and threw her down in front of the stairs leading into the castle; she landed on her knees in the still-drying mud of the courtyard. Another guard had gone on ahead to inform the sheriff of her capture and soon she heard his slippered feet whisper on the stairs, followed by the sound of many pairs of boots.

"Well, well, well. So this is the little horse thief who thought to take my best stallion, eh? What have you got to say for yourself, young man?" Vasey, the Sheriff of Nottingham didn't bother to hide his disdain. He bounced up and down on the balls of his feet and leaned forward impatiently as he looked down upon the figure in the mud below him.

"Well?" he asked again. The day was chilly, the leaves blowing around the yard in the breezes that kicked up to make it colder. The sheriff had a warm meal waiting for him and this…person…was keeping him from it.

"Throw him in the dungeon until morning—we'll hang him then." He turned to make his way back to the hall, past his lieutenant, Sir Guy of Gisbourne and Guy's man, Allan A' Dale.

"But My Lord, she's a woman." The guard's voice stopped the sheriff in his tracks.

"A what?" Vasey turned slowly back to look upon the prisoner, leading with his bald head like a snake. "Stand up and let's have a look at you, shall we?"

He watched as the woman was yanked brutally to her feet by the guard after refusing to rise on her own. Her clothing was non-descript, although it did look to be more finely made than the clothing most peasants wore, her hair was unkempt, her head was bowed; probably out of fear, he thought and allowed himself a smug smile. He descended the stairs and walked around her, assessing, as Guy and Allan followed at a discreet distance. The sheriff came back to stand in front of her, Guy and Allan to his right, slightly behind him. He bent over to try to look at her face, but all he could see was dirt and matted hair.

"What's the matter, hmm? Shy?"

The sheriff's self-satisfied voice got on her last nerve and before he could react, she had used the guards who were holding her arms as leverage to kick up with both legs, dropping him instantly. The guards pulled her back quickly, and Guy jumped to the sheriff's side as Vasey writhed in pain, curled up in a fetal position. Guy called for more guards to help get the sheriff up; Allan stood in the background, an amused smile lighting his face. The sheriff's face however, was red, contorted in pain. When he spoke, he croaked only one word: "Dungeon."

Guy nodded, turning to yell at Allan, "Be sure this one gets to the dungeon. The sheriff will deal with her later."

Allan nodded. "Sure, Guy. I'll see to it."

He took the woman's arm and jumped back as a spark snapped between them. Allan raised an eyebrow, looking at her suspiciously as she glared back at him, blue eyes shooting fire. A shout from Guy had him reaching hesitantly for her arm again-she frowned at him but let herself be led. As they moved inside, out of the sun, the temperature dropped and she shivered violently as her wet clothes cooled on her body.

"Are you all right?" Allan asked solicitously. He tried not to notice the curves her wet clothes now revealed.

The woman nodded mutely, staring ahead.

Allan began to wonder if she was simple or if she had had her tongue cut out or what. She had yet to speak, even when asked a direct question.

She wrinkled her nose in disgust as they made their way down the stairs toward the dungeon. The air began to smell of wet stone, warm unwashed bodies, blood, urine, and feces. The smell was so strong, she was certain it would cling to her clothes if they walked back outside immediately.

As they met up with the jailor, Allan jerked his head slightly to the side to indicate he wanted to speak with him a moment. "Got an empty cell?"

The jailor, a greedy man with beady black eyes and only half of his teeth, looked at Allan expectantly. He scratched his flea-infested hair, then his chest. "I may have. What's it worth?"

Allan hadn't spent a single coin on anything other than a few things for himself since he had come to work for Guy. Eyeing the jailor maliciously, he reached into his purse and pulled out a gold coin. The jailor's eyes went wide as he saw the coin and he reached for it hungrily, but Allan jerked it away quickly.

"She stays alone in her cell. No one enters except me, Guy, or the sheriff. She gets decent food, clean straw and a clean blanket. Understood?"

Next to him, the woman looked at Allan suspiciously. Men weren't usually nice unless they wanted something from her. For now, she would accept his unsolicited kindness. She almost regretted that she would be gone when he came to collect his "payment." He had beautiful eyes that almost made her want to stay.

"If she gets all that, there'll be another one in it for you when she's gone. If not…" Allan looked at the greasy little man meaningfully.

"I got it. She'll be treated like a queen, she will. Queen o' the Dungeon." He laughed at his own joke as he put the girl into an empty cell and sent one of his underlings to fetch the items Allan had requested.

The woman continued to stare at the floor and Allan began to feel sorry for her, certain that her brain was addled. At least she would be comfortable until the sheriff ended her misery on the gallows. He wanted to ask her name, but what did it matter? She would be dead soon, and Allan would probably feel worse if he knew anything about her. He turned away, his expression troubled, and went back up to the hall to a dinner he didn't feel like eating anymore.

In the hall, the fire was roaring, but the room was still chilly from the damp outside. The sheriff paced angrily back and forth, growling and cursing, limping on occasion; backlit by the fire, he looked—and sounded—like a demon.

"I want her dead, Gisbourne, do you hear me?!" The whole town of Nottingham could probably hear him. "But first, I want her to feel pain. Days of pain, Gisbourne. Weeks. Months, even. Maybe I keep her around so that every time I want to beat you or one of your idiots," here he looked menacingly at Allan, "I beat her instead. Do you like that idea, Gisbourne? Eh? It'd certainly save you some pain."

Allan flinched at the venom in the sheriff's voice, recalling all too vividly the time not long ago, when he had been in the dungeon, tortured at Guy's hand. He was afraid of the sheriff, afraid to find himself back there, so it truly surprised him to hear his own voice speaking in the woman's defense.

"I don't know, Sheriff. I think she's addled."

The sheriff turned on Allan so quickly that despite the table and the years that separated them, Allan took a step back. "You think? You think? Well, of course she's addled! First she steals a horse right out of my stable and then she attacks my person! No sane person would do that!"

Spittle ran down the side of the sheriff's mouth and flecks of it punctuated his words. Allan could see Guy standing behind the sheriff, shaking his head at Allan in dismay, as if to say, "couldn't you have just left it alone?" A dog whined in fear and the sheriff laughed evilly at the sound.

"Yes. She'll be my bitch. Once she's been properly tortured and her spirit is broken, I'll put a collar around her neck and keep her on a leash. Then every time I want to kick someone, I'll kick her." He punctuated his words by doing just that to the unfortunate canine. "Maybe I'll even take her hunting or feed her table scraps." The sheriff's evil chuckle sent shivers down Allan's spine as the lord of Nottingham Castle suddenly plunked himself down in his seat and began tearing into his food with gusto.

Feeling nauseated, Allan excused himself and headed outside. Guy followed, afraid that Allan would do something stupid and then Guy would lose his right-hand man. Out in the courtyard, Allan stood with his eyes closed, breathing deeply, allowing the fresh air to revive him. He knew he could never go back to Robin—that much had been made clear to him on numerous occasions, but sometimes the sheriff's brutality repulsed him. He heard Guy's boots on the stairs a moment before he heard his voice.

"Allan."

"I don't get it, Guy. I ain't never seen him this mad, not even over Robin."

Gisbourne sighed. "The stallion she stole was to have been a gift to Prince John. The guards caught the girl, but not before she chased the horse away. He was wild, barely broken, so they couldn't catch him. He's gone now and the sheriff looks incompetent in Prince John's eyes. First Robin Hood, now this. And then when she attacked him…"

Allan nodded in new understanding. "That poor girl."

"Yes, well. You'd do well to not interfere in this Allan, unless you want to take her place."

The two men walked off toward the stable. Nightfall would see them back in their beds in Locksley, in relative comfort.

~*~

In the jail cell, deep in the dungeon, the woman waited. Night came, and with it, darkness. There was no moon, which suited her purpose. She had been quiet and still for hours and her jailors now ignored her. She set to work, slowly and silently. From the heel of her boot, she pulled a metal pin. She rose slowly and wandered around her cell aimlessly, finally coming to rest against one of the sides. She stayed there for nearly an hour, silent, before roaming about again and coming to rest on the other side of the cell. An hour later found her repeating the pattern, but coming to rest by the door. The guard had long ago noted her movement and dismissed it.

She waited for the guard to fall into a boredom-induced sleep, careful to note that the other prisoners were also asleep. Wrapped in a scrap of cloth, the pin made no sound as she slipped it into the keyhole and began to work the lock. It seemed like an eternity later that the lock opened and she was able to slip out, quietly re-locking the door behind her before returning the pin to her boot. She moved wraith-like through the dungeon and up the stairs, pausing in the hall as the embers of the fire glinted on the jewel-encrusted handle of a dagger which was stuck into the table where the sheriff had thrown it earlier in a fit of rage. There was no way she could resist such a prize. She carefully pried the dagger from the wood and, melting with the shadows, made her escape. The sheriff searched for weeks to no avail—it was as if the woman had disappeared.