Erasmus examined his surroundings with disdain. If he’d been asked to rate the dungeon he was in he wouldn’t have given it five stars - three rats would have been more appropriate. This was not because he thought it was fairly average for mediaeval accommodation, but because that’s how many rats he’d counted in the first few minutes of his confinement. The straw didn’t show any obvious evidence of housekeeping and, with the only light coming through the grille of the trapdoor above, the view was little to write home about. What made it worse was the fact he had to share: there were at least half a dozen prisoners in the pit and, going by the smell, some of them had been there for some time.
An old man with an unkempt beard sat in a corner staring at the wall. After a while he began to argue with it, and two other men, sitting quietly together in a corner, shook their heads with sad familiarity.
Erasmus himself was sat in the middle of the room where he had landed. He was still winded from the fall but, surprisingly, his arms and legs seemed intact. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, the first thing he noticed was that the dungeon probably merited a higher rating on his rat scale and the second was that the straw seemed somewhat unevenly distributed, with a greater part of it piled underneath the trapdoor. Obviously, somebody had moved the straw into place in order to spare any subsequent unfortunates the same pains they themselves had experienced.
He looked around the dungeon, trying to identify a likely candidate for his mysterious benefactor. There was a young man sitting in one corner, mending his boots with something that appeared to be rat-gut and a needle improvised from a bone; a surly, bearded man who glared at everything – rats, people and walls, but made no attempt to argue with anything and, surprisingly, a young woman, who sat patiently at one side of the room, with a smile which spoke of someone who knew something nobody else did. Feeling that a bit of conversation that wasn’t punctuated with sword-thrusts might be nice and that he probably ought to get away from the trapdoor before the next arrival, Erasmus stood up, made a show of tidying the straw for the next visitor then, still limping slightly from the impact, joined the woman by the wall.
‘Afternoon,’ he greeted her casually. ‘Mind if I join you?’
‘It don’t look like I’ve got much choice,’ said the woman, ‘us being stuck in the same ‘ole an’ all.’
‘I can sit over there if you’d prefer,’ said Erasmus, pointing to where the old man was crouching by the opposite wall. Having had no satisfaction in his argument, he was now picking up loose pieces of straw and making a little mound next to his feet.
‘Sit where you bleeding like,’ said the woman. ‘I don’t give a tinker’s cuss.’ Erasmus suspected the woman probably wasn’t responsible for the impromptu crash-mat.
‘Have you been here long?’ he said.
‘That’s an old one. Why didn’t you start with “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”’
‘That’s an old one where I come from too,’ said Erasmus. ‘Sorry, I’m not trying to – ’ He searched his mind for a mediaeval equivalent for ‘chat you up’.
‘Get in me britches?’ the woman provided.
‘I was going for something a little more polite.’
‘Polite,’ the woman laughed. ‘You’re a poshun, aren’t you? What they stick you in ‘ere for – you eat with one of them new-fangled fork things?’
‘I’m sorry?’ Erasmus was genuinely confused.
‘They hung a man for that a few months back,’ the woman continued. ‘Only things made by God should touch ‘is bounty they said. ‘Course, ‘e was eating the King’s deer at the time, so that might have ‘ad something to do with it. Personally, I don’t see what’s wrong with ‘em.’
‘With what? Deer?’
‘Forks, of course. I mean you eat your potage with a spoon, don’t you – you aren’t expected to scoop it up with your fingers and I’d love to see the man who could cut a loaf of bread without a knife.’
‘There are some,’ said Erasmus, unable to resist the automatic urge to educate people.
‘You what? You’re pulling my leg.’
‘In China,’ said Erasmus. ‘They focus all their energy into the edge of their hand and use the force to split logs.’
‘China? That in foreign?’
Erasmus tried to think what the woman would recognise as a name for China. ‘Cathay?’ he hazarded – she shook her head. ‘Yes, it’s foreign,’ he said.
‘Know a bit about foreign, do you?’
‘We travel a lot where I come from.’
‘Well you ain’t gonna get much travelling done in ‘ere. You ever seen a cell like this?’
‘Not from the inside, no,’ said Erasmus. ‘We’re a bit more civilized where I come from.’
‘Sounds like you chose to come to the wrong country. Mind you, it’s not all bad.’
‘No, sometimes the potage has fresh carrot in it.’
‘Oh,’ said Erasmus.
The woman looked him up and down appraisingly.
‘You know, you can get in me britches if you want,’ she said quietly. ‘I reckon a woman ought to be glad to have a civilized man like you. Better than the rough sort you get round ‘ere, anyway.’
Erasmus flushed red and, although he was sure it was too dark for the woman to tell, she seemed somehow aware of his embarrassment.
‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘is a woman offering herself not done where you come from?’
Erasmus thought briefly of the culture of twenty-first century England where some women would probably dance naked if it got them on Big Brother. He thought about trying to explain that they simply didn’t offer themselves to poor teachers with no prospect of fame and fortune, but decided against it. ‘Not really,’ he said.
‘Fair enough,’ said the woman. What are you in for? My name’s Maude, by the way.’
‘Erasmus,’ said Erasmus.
‘Is that a name or a crime?’
‘It’s my name. I’m in for –’ Erasmus paused; he wasn’t exactly sure why he was in a dungeon. ‘I think I embarrassed a knight,’ he continued.
‘Embarrassment, eh! Telling bawdy jokes, were you?’
‘No. I think it’s because I made him fall off of his horse – must be a couple of years ago.’
‘And you’ve been locked up for that? God, they’ll put you away for anything now. Who was it?’
‘I don’t know his name. Tallish chap, though, well-built.’
‘They all look like that – built like brick shithouses with brains to match.’
‘He had blonde hair and a scar on his cheek – that was the second time I saw him, anyway.’
‘What? His hair changed colour?’
Erasmus shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘The scar was new. Looked like he’d been slashed across the cheek.’
Maude looked at him thoughtfully. ‘That’s Gisburne, that is,’ she said. ‘You get on the wrong side of him he won’t forget it. They call ‘im Guy the Gamekeeper.’
‘He kills poachers for sport. Well, I’m going to let you in on a secret, m’duck, any enemy of Gisburne is a friend o’ mine and I think friends ought to help each other, don’t you?’
Erasmus nodded. ‘Quite,’ he said.
‘Well, I’m going to be busted out of here in a few hours – I might be able to get you out as well.’
Erasmus’ eyebrows raised in curiosity. The name Gisburne had rung a bell.
‘Who’s coming?’ he said. ‘Is it Robin Hood?’
‘Robin Hood?’ Maude chuckled, a sound not dissimilar to the clucking of a broody hen.
‘He does exist, doesn’t he?’ said Erasmus – it would be a dreadful disappointment to find that Robin was a legend even now.
‘Oh, he exists,’ said Maude. ‘I just don’t think he’s the kind of person you want to rescue you.’ She ignored Erasmus’ attempts to interrupt with questions and continued. ‘Now, when the girls get here, try not to say too much – ‘specially to Alice – and I might be able to bring you along.’
‘One of the girls, but she’s a little enthusiastic with her dagger when there’s men around. You keep quiet and she’ll probably let you get away with your balls.’
‘Ah,’ said Erasmus, nodding. ‘So what’s Robin Hood like?’
‘What is this obsession with Robin Hood?’
‘He’s a legend where I come from.’
‘Well he isn’t a legend here and, if you don’t want a nice high singing voice, I wouldn’t mention his name when Alice is around.’
‘Ask a lot of questions, don’t you? I don’t know what it’s like in foreign, but over here that can shorten your life.’
‘By about a head’s height. Now, d’you say it was afternoon when you got ‘ere?’
‘Well, we got a couple of hours then. You sure you don’t want to –’
‘Thanks, but not right now.’
‘Suit yourself. Guess I’ll get a bit of kip then.’
Erasmus leaned back against the wall and breathed deeply. He was definitely in the right time, but things weren’t turning out quite the way he’d planned. As he closed his eyes, the old man picked up his little collection of straw, wiped up some rat-droppings with it then walked over to the middle of the room and dumped it on the pile.