Shep was a simple man, really. A poor man, unmarried. He lived with his equally unmarried sister in a tiny hut just inside the gates of Nottingham, from which she ran a pie-selling business.
Shep had spent the vast majority of his thirty one years of existence in the employ of the Nottingham sheriff, as a guard at the castle. It was hardly challenging work, and nor was it particularly exciting. He got to march about and run after people and occasionally give them a good kicking – but Nottingham was a quiet place. The only trouble they ever got was when Robin Hood was about, and he didn’t tend to come to the castle unless he was up for rescuing someone. And the job brought Shep home three pieces of silver a month; enough to buy the ingredients for his sister’s pie-selling, which in turn brought in enough for them to eat and keep the roof in their hut from leaking. (Least ways, most of the time).
It was a good enough life.
Sometimes he even got to witness to some little bit of intrigue, whistling through the castle. Those were good days, those. Not that he ever spoke of what he saw (he was a guard, after all: not exactly paid to natter). But they were interesting, none the less. He fancied one day, when he was old and very drunk, he might spill some of those secrets to the world.
But for now, he knew better than to ask questions or tell of intrigues. He knew when to keep his mouth shut, did Shep.
He was on guard duty in the Sheriff’s dungeons that day. Not the most pleasant place in the world to be. It was dark and damp and stank to high hell, and the screaming in that place would do your head in. Still, Shep reasoned, guarding the place was a damn side better than being one of the inmates.
Besides which, something interesting was about to occur.
“Guard?” Lady Marian of Knighton had appeared in the entrance to the place. She was addressing him, he knew, so he nodded in acknowledgement.
“Yes, m’lady,” he stood a little straighter (never did to look to be slacking off around the gentry).
Lady Marian ambled down the stone steps leading into dungeon with the grace of an angel descending into hell. She was wrapped in that fine white cloak of hers, and casually dangling what looked to be a leather money poach from her fingertips.
“The prisoners that were brought in today,” she remarked, just a little too nonchalantly, “the escaped Saracen slaves. They’re in there, aren’t they?” She indicated the entrance that Shep was standing in front of, beyond which there were, indeed, a horde of escaped Saracen slaves, who had been hunted down and dragged back to Nottingham, like the heathen dogs they were, a few hours previously.
Shep nodded, “yes, m’lady.”
“There was a boy amongst them,” Lady Marian continued, carelessly swinging the money poach, “a young boy. Just a little thing – twelve, maybe fourteen years of age – did you see him?”
Shep considered, and thought he recalled, yes: there had been a youngster in with the others. A sad, sullen little mutt of a thing.
“Yes, m’lady,” he agreed.
Lady Marian held up the money poach, “what’s your name, guard?”
“Shep,” said Shep, who did not ordinarily have his name asked by members of the gentry, and immediately suspected that something was afoot.
“Well, Shep,” Lady Marian produced a single silver coin from the poach, “if I give you this, do you think you could do me a favour?”
That silver coin was a third of his monthly wages. Shep was already calculating how many pie crusts could be bought up with that, and smiled behind the chain mail that covered the lower half of his face.
“Reckon I could, m’lady,” he said, with a nod.
Lady Marian flicked the coin at him, and he managed to catch it, neatly, which amused the young woman no end. “Take this, then, Shep, and go and fetch that Saracen boy. Then bring him to my bedchamber – do you know where that is, Shep?”
“Up near the turret in the east wing of the castle, m’lady,” said Shep, who knew very well where her bedchamber was. There were rumours about that bedchamber – and the number of outlaws who could, on occasion, be seen passing through it.
“Very good, Shep,” Lady Marian smiled sweetly at him, “and if you bring him to me and he’s in one piece and you do so quietly and discreetly within the next half an hour…” she shook the money poach, so that he could hear any number of silver coins chinking away inside of it, “you can have the rest of this when you arrive. Do you like my terms, Shep?”
Shep’s eyes widened. It was quite possible that there was over a year’s worth of his pay in there. To receive that, in one afternoon, spoke less of pie crusts, and more a new roof upon the hut, a feast, the finest ale, a trip to Scarborough to see his old aunt…
He nodded, vigorously, “yes, m’lady.”
“Good, good,” Marian produced another silver coin and tossed it to him (he caught that, too, and quickly folded it into the belt of his uniform with the other). “Bring me the boy, then, Shep. And step lively, now. I’ll be waiting for you.”
And with that she was gone, leaving Shep to scramble to do as he was told.