She hacked off her dark curls with a knife, leaving behind a ragged and unflattering mop. She bound her chest, and dressed in a too-large shirt that might once have been dark green before too many hours under the sun, and a pair of patched doeskin breeches, rolled up at the cuffs. With a smile that seemed too pleased with her own ingenuity, Roswyn also proceeded to dust her lower jaw with ash from the fire, creating the impression of a stubbled face.
Will looked at her, critically.
"It's not bad from a distance, but won't hold up to close scrutiny. Don't wash for a few days - that'll help."
"Of course - lack of hygiene is a core masculine quality. How could I forget?"
Will narrowed his gaze at her, but couldn't hide the twitch at the corner of his mouth that was obviously a smile fighting to break free.
"That, and it will keep people at a distance."
Will had packed up the horses during Roswyn's transformation. She had insisted that he take the tent - it was his before, and who knew whether her father may be injured and require shelter - but they had split their provisions equally. Will had kept his sword and shield, but had left Roswyn with both his dagger, and his Welsh longbow and quiver. She had protested, but Will had insisted - she had always been a remarkable archer, and she needed some kind of defense if she were to travel alone.
Roswyn moved forward, wrapping her arms around the tall, thin older man. He had been so good to her, and was now riding back into peril at her request to try and save her father, too. She owed him.
"Now, now, " Will said gruffly, shrugging her off, though not unkindly, "There's one more thing. I think you should take this."
He undid his cloak, and laid it over Roswyn's shoulders. The dark green greatcloak was warm, although rough to the touch, and it had a large hood - the same hood that had hidden Will's face from view when he had surprised her at her chamber window.
"Any time you are in company, just lift the hood. Be subtle - shadow your face, but don't totally conceal it. It will help maintain your disguise. I will be there within a month - either with your father or without. I'll meet you in Nottingham, and if you must seek shelter instead at Huntingdon then leave a message with the innkeep at the Three Wheeled Carriage - from Robin of Barnsdale."
"Robin of Barnsdale?"
"It's close enough to Roswyn, but won't attract suspicion as to your identity. And Barnsdale is far enough away, and in the opposite direction, for no one to know who you are without it being notable. If anyone asks, you're visiting distant family in Nottingham and the villages of the Sherwood."
"Alright. I'll see you soon - and be safe."
"You'd better be safe, Roswyn. If you get into any trouble whilst I'm gone, I'll make you think Gisborne a half-drowned kitten."
She smiled, and went to mount her bay gelding. It seemed a body didn't regain skills it had long let lie as quickly as she might have hoped; there was still a bit of awkward heaving against the pommel in order to mount, and her poor bay pinned his ears and shot forward a few strides whilst she wriggled into the saddle.
"Don't say a word," she warned Will, before her stern expression broke and she sent him a beaming smile alongside her farewell.
Roswyn's horse, the bay gelding, was gathering a few sideways glances on the road. First the eyes considered her mount, then slid up to consider its small, bedraggled rider. More than a few brows furrowed as they linked the two. Thankfully, it was mainly peasants and yeoman on foot that she passed, and the one group of men-at-arms that rode past were too busy shouting and guffawing to notice her.
She silently cursed herself for not having considered her mount: a rounsey such as her bay was by no means an expensive destrier or palfrey, or swift battle courser, but it was still a common mount to a man-at-arms or poorer knight. She hadn't considered that a young peasant, such as she pretended to be, would never have care of such a horse. She decided it would be safest to sell him, and barter for a beast more suitable to her new identity - whilst she would miss his swiftness and his stamina, an old carthorse or a pony would go less noticed. And avoiding notice was what she so desperately sought.
It was cooling into early evening by the time the road wound past an inn. She had begun to notice the difference in the traffic on the road as she approached Nottingham, and it made her anxious - the more travellers she passed, the more likely the discrepancy between her disguise and her mount would be noticed. Despite her wish to be well away from the crowds at the inn before she stopped for the night, she knew it would be her best chance to swap her bay for a more suitable form of transportation.
She dismounted once the inn came into sight, deciding that leading her horse around the back of the inn to the stables would draw less attention, and drew the hood of the greatcloak over her head. The bay followed her brightly despite his weariness from the journey, the smell of the stables obviously long associated with buckets of oats and good quality hay. She quickly spotted a hostler, and tried to get his attention - but one look at her in her poor fitting old clothes and the layer of grime that crowned her ensemble had him turning away to deal with another, likely better paying customer.
Roswyn sighed, her shoulders slumping. Perhaps her disguise had not been as well considered as she imagined.
"Harry's a fool not to have looked at the horse before deciding your worth," came a rough voice from behind her. Roswyn spun to meet the calculating gaze of another hostler - but this one was older, with a cannier look in his eye.
"Now, I'm not one for asking questions," the hostler said, folding his arms across his chest, "but he's daft not to have noticed how ill-matched a pair you and that bay are."
Roswyn stayed silent, watching him intently. The bay was still saddled, so her escape would be easy, however noticeable. She also had the dagger stuffed into the waistband of her breeches, but her longbow was tied to her saddle and inaccessible. She met the hostler's eyes, watching him for a sign of his intention.
"I assume you want to sell him?" the hostler asked after a long moment of scrutiny.
Roswyn nodded, slowly.
"I can give you two silvers for him."
She raised an eyebrow at him, disbelievingly.
"You know as much as I that a good rounsey is worth several gold."
"But that lack of questions is expensive, boy," he said with a sly smile.
Roswyn narrowed her eyes at him. Was it worth essentially being robbed to deflect notice?
"If you throw in a night's sleep in the hayloft and a bowl of broth, he's yours," she bartered.
The hostler gave a wide smile.
"Then it's a deal, lad. Go sit inside - I'll find you later and make sure you're fed."
He moved to take the bay's reins from her, but she pulled back. The hostler's gaze hardened suspiciously.
"I just have to unpack my supplies," she explained hastily, moving round to the side of her mount and hurriedly untying her belongings. The hostler waited, silently, until she was finished, before taking the horse's reins and leading him towards a block of stables.
Roswyn could tell that the inn would be crowded before even stepping through the door - the cacophony of voices could be heard from the yard. It was even louder inside, the noise and the oppressive heat forming an almost physical barrier as she entered, and smelt strongly of food, ale and sweat. The inn's clientele appeared to be mainly men, of varying age if not class, with only the odd woman perched on a lap. She felt her skin crawl as she watched one heavily painted woman being led up the stairs at the back of the room towards the inn's bedchambers. At that moment, she was more than thankful for her choice of disguise, whatever other trouble it may cause.
She headed for one of the long tables at the back of the room, and perched on the end of the bench. There were two other patrons sitting at the table - a young man with golden hair and piercing eyes as sharp and cold as ice, and the hunched figure wrapped in a cloak that sat opposite him. The young man appeared to be complaining bitterly to his travel companion, his long, thin fingers adding as much to the conversation as his mouth, which was tight with displeasure. Roswyn couldn't make out his words over the din, but she watched as the hunched figure began to shake. From the further twisting of the young man's features, she could only assume that the hunched figure was laughing at him.
It wasn't long before one of the tavern wenches, a buxom young girl with a riot of red-gold curls that spilled over her shoulders, brought Roswyn a bowl of stew and a flagon of ale and set it before her. The girl winked flirtatiously at Roswyn, who endeavored not to reveal her discomfiture, and then gestured towards the bar. Roswyn's eyes followed the direction her hand had sent her, and spotted the hostler from earlier, who raised a tankard in her direction. She nodded back to him, and smiled.
The stew wasn't bad - quite rich, and barely watered down. However, Roswyn had never been an ale drinker, and the large mouthful she took to wash down her meal left her choking, eyes watering. It was vile stuff.
"And here I thought they'd watered the stuff down shockingly," said a rough voice, and Roswyn turned, her eyes still streaming.
The hunched figure had slid down the bench until he was within conversation's range, and was leaning towards her. His companion was nowhere to be seen. Roswyn forced her muscles not to tense. She wanted to avoid notice, and whilst she would rather not have spoken to anyone, a few moments of polite conversation would be less memorable than cutting him off.
"I just don't drink much, mister," she said with a sheepish smile. The best lies cut close to the truth, she had learned in her time with Lady Marianne.
"A young lad like you?" the man asked in mock incredulity.
"Training to be a man-at-arms, me," she said, sitting up straight and infusing her voice with pride, "Like me dad."
"Very good," the man replied, warmly, "And what does an apprenticing man-at-arms mean to do alone in Nottingham?"
His questions cut close. The last thing she needed was in depth questions - she was more likely to slip up.
"Me dad sent me. Used to work for the old Sherriff, and said I'd do well here."
"Why didn't you stay where your father is employed?"
She thought fast.
"There was… um… a girl… me dad thought it best I left."
The blush that stained her cheeks was from nerves, but it added prettily to the picture she hinted at. The hunched figure laughed.
"I'll bet he did, lad, I bet he did indeed," he said, lifting his flagon to meet Roswyn's. She smiled, relieved to have derailed his line of interrogation.
"So what's you name, boy?" he asked.
"Robin," she said, with a half-smile, "Robin of Barnsdale."
"Is it indeed?" the man asked, but his tone hinted at a joke she didn't understand.
"You heading into Nottingham too?" she asked brightly, trying to turn the tables of questioning.
"We are, as a matter of fact," the man said, his voice still amused, "We are travelling in by cart tomorrow. Should you like to join us? Save you the walk?"
She was glad she had sold the horse. Anyone with half a brain would assume she would be walking - it would have attracted too much unwelcome attention.
"Thanks, mister. I'd like that!" she replied enthusiastically.