Terrouge E-zine Archives
"Robin Hood II: The Prince of Sherwood" - Chapter 16
Since Robin's arrival had been witnessed both by the guards at the main gate and a number of other castle staffers, the disguised fox was left no choice but to go through with his Simon charade for the remainder of that long day; it simply would have been too suspicious if he'd disappeared without a trace after entering the royal property. He was running on nervous energy, not having slept since the previous afternoon, but the very notion of the task he'd set for himself would not have allowed him to rest even if he'd wanted to. Fortunately, he was able to remain on kitchen duty the entire day, avoiding any meetings with the Earl, the Sheriff or King John. Only the imperious secretary bird Bannister exerted his authority in the cooking areas that day, striding through the busy room at irregular intervals to chastise or ignore his underlings, but never to compliment them. Robin steered clear of avian head staffer, keeping to his pot-scrubbing labors. He didn't care how badly another shift of dishwashing wore out his web-fingered otter gloves; after today, he planned never to need them again.
Otherwise, the rest of the day went without a hitch. Florence proposed her evening menu unchallenged, since the rest of the kitchen staff knew how the Earl favored her. Nor were any eyebrows raised when she announced a separate entree for the king - the very dish which had brought the reclusive lion down from his private chamber two days earlier to pay his personal compliments to the chef. Some of the workers at Castle Nottingham readily accepted John as their new ruler and sought to curry favor with him, while others chafed at the very idea of serving under him, but all wished to remain on his good side and keep the petulant, unpredictable monarch happy until he returned to London. Making a special dish for him was a small price to pay for his continued good temper.
Once lunch was out of the way, Bettina fished out the jug of sleeping potion from its hiding place in the corner cupboard and inconspicuously included it with the other ingredients Florence was lining up for dinner. Somehow she managed to incorporate the narcotic brew into the humongous casserole she was preparing without letting any of her helpers know what it was, or allowing them to test taste it as it was coming together. The trap was sprung right under their noses in plain sight (and smell), and none suspected anything was amiss.
The recently-roused night shift gathered in the great hall around sundown, greedily chowing down on what most there considered to be one of the finest meals the Earl's new head cook had yet delivered. Half an hour later, the castle guards coming down from the walls and in from all corners of the sprawling edifice and its grounds congregated in the spacious dining hall to heap similar praise upon Florence's culinary abilities. Meanwhile, Bannister himself delivered the king's special meal up to the highest room in the highest tower in the castle, never one pass up an opportunity to put himself in the good graces of England's ultimate authority. Good food, like good news, was always a blessing to both give and receive.
No one thought anything about it when the retiring day shift retired earlier than usual, some barely able to make it to their barracks beds before passing out cold. As for the night shift, nearly all made it to their posts before promptly falling fast asleep at those same posts. Florence opted to serve all the castle nobles her spiked casserole as well, so the Earl and the Sheriff and any number of others also succumbed to this mischief. Even Bannister, having presented King John with his separate savory dish - after tasting it for the paranoid monarch - hurried back downstairs for his own helping of Florence's main offering for the night. In his haste, he departed before the two guards seated outside the king's door began to show distinct signs of drowsiness.
One by one, from the highest towers to the basement barracks, from the walltop lookouts to the courtyard patrols, from the lowliest servants swooning in the midst of their labors to the Earl himself nestled comfortably oblivious in his wide bed (to which he'd delivered himself in the bare nick of time), the occupants of Castle Nottingham slipped into blissful unconsciousness, as if the spell of Morpheus had been cast over the place. Only a few solitary figures remained awake and active as the night deepened... and now one of them sprang into determined action, along a path that could well change the course of history.
Before doing anything else, Robin ventured out of the kitchens and made his way up the multiple levels of stairs to King John's room, ambling along in a lackadaisical manner as Simon might naturally do; the fox wasn't ready to abandon his idiot otter persona just yet. He even whistled softly to himself as he went, not only to stay in character but also to attract the attention of anyone he might pass. If any sizable portion of the castle's population had failed to be affected by the sleep potion, he wanted to find out before he fully revealed himself.
He reached his destination without running into a single waking soul. The king's two guards sat slumped in their chairs outside the chamber's door, refusing to stir even when Robin prodded and poked at them. He then gingerly tried the handle and found it locked, just as castle rumor had led him to believe. If everything he'd heard was true, then King John would also have the door braced or bolted from within; no pilfered key or lockpicking antics would get him inside the royal bedroom. Nevertheless, this excursion had told him all he needed to know.
His trip back down to the kitchens told him even more. Whistling airily as he descended the third flight of stairs down from the tower keep, a prim and proper inquiry made him pause in mid-step.
"Hello? You, there! What is your name?"
Robin glanced around, and didn't need to feign dimwittedness to appear momentarily foolish. The owner of that naggingly familiar voice remained unseen even though he must be mere paces away.
"Down here, you dolt! And don't tread on me!"
Directing his gaze downward, Robin spied an old nemesis. The green snake had raised the upper third of his body off the floor in a vertical posture to address the false otter, but still came barely to Robin's waist.
"Ssomething'ss going on," Sir Hiss confided. "I've jusst found the housse guards ssound assleep at two different sstations, and I couldn't wake any of them! And the Sheriff and the Earl don't ansswer their doors either! Have you sseen anything unusual?"
"Me? Just a creepy ol' snake creepin' 'round after he should be in bed." Robin grabbed Hiss by the throat and continued on his way, his pace a little quicker now with the surprised serpent writhing in his grip in protest. Having accosted the king's closest advisor in such a blatant fashion, it would now be much harder to keep to the masquerade as Simon, and he wanted to dispense with this particular problem as soon as he could - ideally, before he was seen by anyone else.
Hastening down the final three flights, Robin attained the ground floor without any further encounters. Rather than heading directly to the kitchens, he made for a seldom-used storeroom that he knew about at the back of the castle. There he grabbed an empty canvas sack and stuffed the protesting Hiss into it.
"Hey, now what do you think you're - "
The serpent's further words were muffled as Robin tied the sack closed and deposited it into a wicker chest of linens. Between the material of the sack and the reed walls of the chest, no one was likely to hear the snake's pleas for rescue through the closed storeroom door - at least not until morning.
Robin rushed back to the kitchens, knowing his time to act could be shorter than he'd anticipated. If Hiss had escaped the effects of the narcotic, for whatever reasons, then others might have as well. At least he'd been able to ascertain that King John would be receiving no help this night from the guards outside his door... and Hiss had pretty well verified that the Sheriff and Earl were out of this play too. But that still left a great many others...
He arrived to find Bettina and Florence trying to console two of the other staff who, like Hiss, had seen residents of Castle Nottingham all around them falling under the sway of this inexplicable trance. Robin took Bettina aside, no longer mindful of maintaining his manufactured identity, and whispered into her ear, "Get rid of them! They might be trustworthy or they might not, but I don't want anyone else in on this if we can avoid it!"
She nodded, turning to the pair of questioning servants. "Now, now, I'm sure there ain't nuthin' to be worried 'bout. What looks so sinister an' mysterious will seem all perfectly innocent in th' full light of day come mornin', I'm sure of it. Now let's get you to yer beds so's you can stop frettin' an' grab a good night's sleep!"
"But... but... the dinner dishes ain't a-been scrubbed yet!"
"An' there's still laundry that needs doin'!"
"And the way everyone's fallen so sound asleep! T'ain't natural, Betty, you know it ain't!"
Their concerns and protests receded beyond earshot as Bettina used her laundress muscles to urge them out of the kitchens even while they still voiced their concerns. Robin turned to Florence. "Any other news?"
The squirrel nodded, worry knitting her brow. "Those two aren't the only castle staff who are still awake, Robin. And I saw at least one of the walltop sentries still patrolling the ramparts when I poked my head outside a few moments ago. I don't know whether they simply didn't eat the treated casserole, or if they only nibbled at it, but some are still up and about. Maybe you'd better cancel this, Robin sir... "
He shook his head. "If they sensed anything was up, they would have raised the alarm by now. They must be so widely separated that they don't realize their comrades-in-arms are under sedation... or else sleeping on duty is so common around here that the ones who are still awake don't think anything of it."
"That wouldn't surprised me," Florence muttered.
"I'm going to your room to get my weapons. The hour is late enough that King John should be asleep too, but it doesn't really matter one way or the other whether he is or not. This ends tonight."
Not waiting for further words of caution or support from his loyal cook, Robin raced out of the kitchens. He returned less than a minute later, his bundled weaponry tucked under one arm. Making sure no one else had entered the room during his absence, he underwent a transformation that surely would have astounded any onlooker. First off were the fake webbed gloves, followed by the fake otter feet, revealing his own four red-furred paws. He hadn't been able to wear his regular shoes under the costume feet, but for what he had in mind, that would actually work out for the better. Next came the bark tail cone, slipped out of the hole in seat of the dingy trousers to uncover his natural red bush; he took a moment to swish and swirl it around to fluff it back out to its normal state. That freed him to step out of the pants themselves, leaving him unencumbered by any disguise from the waist down. Unfastening the front of his long-sleeved shirtcoat, he pulled it off as well, leaving only his trademark lincoln green tunic. Lastly, he yanked back the cowl with its attached false ears, undid the sticky sap tabs holding his fox ears down, and wiggled off the false otter snout. Piling his discarded costume on the kitchen floor, he fished his feathered cap out of his shirt and centered it atop his head. In a matter of heartbeats, he'd metamorphosed from a truly authentic otter simpleton to the famous outlaw of Sherwood Forest. Even Florence, who'd known to expect such an unmasking, stood astounded by her former master's transformational abilities.
"Robin," she implored for one last time, "are you sure you want to do this?"
"It's not a question of wanting to," he said, strapping his sword to his belt and taking up his bow and quiver. "I have to. I don't know whether this night will be my last, but my fate is up in that tower with King John. Look to yourself, Flo. However this goes for me, you and Bettina won't be able to stay here even until morning. Take what you need, and see to it that you are far, far from Castle Nottingham by dawn's first light."
Fighting to hold back her tears, Florence nodded. "Yes, Robin sir."
He took her in an embrace, just as he had their last day at his chateau. "Tell Tina goodbye for me. Just in case we're destined not to see each other again."
"I will, Robin. Go with God's grace."
Saying no more, the vengeance-driven outlaw broke from her and crossed the kitchen, opening the door and stepping out into the night.