Djaq was a woman of many talents. "Djaq-of-all-trades," was the lads' occasional term of endearment for her (Allan had looked terribly pleased with himself for thinking this one up). Though she pretended to think that the name was a bit over-praising, she would always turn away so they wouldn't see her beaming when they called her by it. After being just one soldier in an enormous army, and then a slave who was seen as having no worth but manual labor, it felt good to know that her skills were valuable to the team.
She was a physician, to begin with, and a good one at that. She knew how to clean a wound and sew it up so that it didn't get infected, and she knew exactly what to put in tea to ease pain (willowbark), or help an upset stomach (ginger), or relax one enough to go to sleep when one was upset or worried (chamomile and peppermint). Her time under Prince Malik in Saladin's army had seen her a learned swordsman, and in melee combat she could sometimes predict her opponent's next move by watching their eyes and the way they fought. Djaq's mind was like a cloth placed in water-whatever she could learn from something, she would. She was logical, and could often think her way out of a sticky situation, such as when she'd rather recently been captured by the Sheriff and forced to make him acid that ate solid iron. He had learned the hard way that she was quite good at alchemy, too.
And she was a good friend. It was easy for her to know when something was wrong, and to listen and provide comfort when the truth came out. Often, the other members of the Gang found themselves telling her and trusting her with things that they never would have spoke of within earshot of another human being. More than once, Little John had told her stories of the happy times he had spent with his wife, Alice, and their son, Little Little John, before he had been outlawed. Sometimes, he would pause during the tale, a distant look in his eyes, and Djaq would smile softly and lay her hand on his arm, and he would snap out of his reverie and continue with the story. One morning she had woken before the sun to find Much already making breakfast, treating his precious cookware abnormally roughly and muttering to himself. It had not taken her long to coax out of him the description of the nightmare about men dying in the Holy Land that had roused him so early. And when Allan's brother had been killed by the Sheriff, she had been the one whom he had told of his insecurities and fears that he, too, was doomed to be no more than a common criminal. It had been the first and only time she had ever seen the jaded young man weep, and she had been the one to hold him as he did so.
Yes, it was true that Djaq was adept at all of those things, and the rest of the Gang knew it. So she supposed it was only natural that they be surprised when the truth came out that she did not know how to shoot a bow.
"You've never shot? Not once?" For some reason, Will especially seemed confused by this turn of events.
She shook her head. "I have never had reason to. When I was in the army, I was a member of the infantry, not an archer. We only fought with swords."
"But you never tried it growing up? No taking aim at...lizards or camels or whatever it is you have in the Holy Land?" Much, too, was incredulous.
"Have you forgotten that I am actually a girl? Arabic girls are no more encouraged to learn weaponry as children than English girls are."
"No...we haven't forgotten," said Will quietly, turning his eyes downward to hide the fact that his cheeks had flushed red. Djaq caught Allan's smirk and rolled her eyes at him.
"What's a camel?" Little John was curious. Robin laughed.
"Would you like to learn archery, Djaq? It's a useful thing to know when you're living in the forest. It makes hunting much easier, and it's good for ambushes because you can attack rich travelers long-distance."
Djaq nodded eagerly. Robin needn't have asked-she was always willing to acquire and practice new skills.
"Can we start now?"
Robin shook his head. "I'm sorry, Djaq, I can't today. I have to make a drop-off in Locksley and then..." He didn't finish his sentence, but they could all guess where he was headed after that. Djaq had seen Robin climb up the stable supports to Marian's second-story window at Knighton Hall before, and she found herself wondering through how many such visits the beams would hold.
She tried not to sound too disappointed as she said, "Oh, that's all right. Tomorrow, then?"
Robin was about to nod his approval when Allan spoke up.
"Oi, Robin, I was thinkin'...maybe Will and I could teach Djaq to shoot?" Robin raised an eyebrow at him but did not outwardly discount the idea. "I mean, just the basics, obviously. You'd teach her the finer points, o'course, and maybe some of that fancy stuff you do. We'd all like to learn some of the fancy stuff, really..."
Robin glanced at Will, who looked eager to carry out this plan. Then he looked back at Allan, and back to Will again, his face housing concentrated caution, as though he were trying to make out the words written in an ancient manuscript, eager to know what it said but afraid the pages would crumble if he treated it too roughly. Djaq could not help but think she had missed something. It was a feeling she did not like.
"All right, then. But don't let her get too frustrated. Learning archery takes practice. Don't push her too hard." There was a different level to his voice, as though he was concealing an alternative meaning behind his words.
"Are you aware of the fact that I am still standing right here?" Djaq was indignant, both at the way they were talking about her and at the fact that she could not figure out what seemed to be hiding just below the surface of this very odd conversation.
"Of course. I'm sorry, Djaq." Robin looked so apologetic that she instantly forgave him.
"She needs a bow, Robin," Will pointed out. "You're the only one of us who doesn't use a longbow, and even Allan's is much too tall for her." He ignored Allan's glower at this offhanded insult to his stature.
"True...hang on, I've got just the thing. Djaq, come with me." Robin motioned for her to follow him to the hollowed-out tree trunk a few yards away from the camp that served as one of the Gang's several weapons-stashes. After checking briefly for the presence of spiders, Robin reached in and, after a bit of rummaging around, pulled out a small, curved piece of wood. It was so smooth and thin that it took a moment for Djaq to realize it was actually a bow. Really the only ways in which it resembled the longbows that the rest of the Gang used were that it was made of wood and had a taut line of string running between its ends. While the longbows were tall and of a single curve that, when properly fitted, ran from the shooter's foot to just above their head when rested with the tip on the ground, this bow was much shorter, and made of two curves, separated by a flat spot in the middle which Djaq guessed was meant to be a handgrip.
"Robin...it's lovely. Where did you get it?" It was far too small for any of the other Gang members to use, and she had not lived in the forest long enough for Robin to order it specially made for her from Luke the cooper, even if it had crossed his mind to surprise her in that way. The archer caressed the fine wood almost affectionately, running his thumb along its contours as a blind man feels a familiar face, remembering its patterns.
"My father had it made for me a few months before he died. I suppose he tired of me sneaking his bow off to go and practice, and he thought I needed one more my size anyway. He'd meant to save it for my birthday, but... well, Thornton, our head servant, knew about it and gave it to me when I became lord of Locksley. My father taught me to shoot with his bow, but this was the first bow that was really mine." Robin held the weapon out to Djaq. "It's yours now. Go on, take it."
Djaq was simultaneously alarmed and touched by this gesture. "Robin, I...I couldn't. It was a gift from your father, his last gift to you!"
"A gift that I employed well. But look at me, I'm a grown lad now. It's much too small for me, but..." he held the bow at arm's length and looked both it and Djaq's petite figure up and down. "...it's the perfect size for you. What good is a bow without someone to shoot it?" He reached out to offer it to her yet again. "What do you say, Djaq? It needs an archer, and you need a bow."
Slowly, Djaq reached out and took the weapon from him, feeling for herself the superiority of the craftsmanship. Robin continued.
"It employs elements of both English and Saracen design. It is small and light yet powerful. It will serve you well, in whatever way you choose to use it."
"I don't know what to say, Robin...thank you." Djaq's eyes shown with gratitude-the gift was thoughtful on so many levels.
He smiled in return. "Don't mention it. Now it's time to go and show up those lads!"
His mention of them suddenly brought back to her memory the strange exchange between the three that she had observed earlier.
"Robin, about..." She cut off, not knowing how to word the question.
She shook her head, not even knowing where to begin. "Nothing. Have a good time with Marian!"
"When did I mention...oh, never mind. Go on." He shooed her back toward the camp with his hand, shaking his head with a smile.
Will was waiting for her at the edge of the campsite, resting the tip of his enormous longbow on the ground. His eyes widened when he noticed what Djaq carried.
"May I?" It sounded to her as though he could barely contain his excitement. How could she not indulge him? She handed over the bow.
"Look it this craftsmanship. It's brilliant!" Will turned the bow over and over in his hands, examining its every inch, wonder written on his face. Djaq very rarely saw him look as enthusiastic as he did when he was talking about wood, and his childlike joy brought a smile to her face.
"It's gorgeous. Very fitting." There he went again, with the looking down and blushing. Djaq was normally very good at reading people, but even though their friendship had been growing continually over the two months since she had arrived, she was finding reading Will Scarlett to be abnormally difficult.
Just then, Allan emerged from the camp, bow slung over his shoulder, holding a quiver of arrows. He eyed the weapon in Will's hands, and raised his eyebrows in an impressed manner.
"Nice! Bit small for you, though, mate." He chuckled. "I've got the arrows, let's go!"
There was a small clearing a few minute's walk from the camp, surrounded by wide-trunked softwoods that would act well as targets. Will arrived first, setting his bow down and then turning to look at his friends coming up behind him rather awkwardly.
"What?" Allan always seemed to find Will's stares unnerving.
"Well, which one of us is it going to be? We can't both teach her at once."
"Too many cooks in the kitchen." Djaq grinned at being able to use one of the colloquialisms that Much had taught her.
Allan shrugged. "I'm not bein' funny, but I am the better shot."
Will glared at him, but did not counter what he knew to be the truth. Allan was the best archer in the Gang after Robin, and had more experience with the bow than Will had. When one's only food source is what one can poach themselves, being good with a bow becomes a necessity.
"All right. But we take turns." Allan nodded his acquiescence, and Will sat down on a tree stump to observe the lesson.
Allan turned to his pupil. "Right, then. I guess the natural place to start would be how to hold the bow." He demonstrated with his own bow, taking the shaft in his left hand and wrapping his fingers just so around it. Djaq mimicked his actions flawlessly.
"Nicely done! Now you knock the arrow against it like this..." He showed her, removing an arrow from the quiver he'd brought. She duplicated his example once more.
"All right, now draw the string back so your hand is sort of even with your ear." Watching her, he finally found something to criticize. "No, your elbow's tilted too far up. Here, let me help you." He laid his own bow and arrow on the forest floor and came up behind her. He grasped her arms with his own gently but firmly, maneuvering her right elbow downward until it was at the proper angle. Djaq found it a bit difficult to file the adjustments away for further reference-it felt odd that Allan was touching her. It was not an unpleasant feeling, it was just...odd.
"Right, just like that," he was saying, and she snapped back to attention, berating herself inwardly for allowing her mind to stray during the lesson. "Now, aim for that tree, just there." He pointed to a large tree a few feet away.
"How do I aim?" She hoped that she hadn't missed him saying this while she was briefly being inattentive. She slacked the bowstring and turned to look at him inquiringly.
"Just look at where you want your arrow to go. And be sure to hold your position until you've released the arrow, otherwise it'll go off." He placed his hands on her arms again. She nodded and focused on the exact spot on the tree-trunk where she wished to see black-and-white-striped feathers. Concentrating, she drew back the bowstring quickly, as she had seen Robin do so many times.
Djaq had been so caught up in making the shot that she had become completely desensitized to Allan's touch, if only for an instant. But an instant was just enough time for her elbow to connect with his ribs.
Allan gasped with pain and recoiled, doubling over. Whirling around, Djaq dropped her weapon and rushed to him.
"Oh, Allan! Oh, I'm so sorry! Are you all right? Here, let me see..." She made to lift up his shirt and examine him, but he swatted her hand away, gasping slightly as he tried to breathe properly.
"I'm...fine..." He seemed to be getting his breath back now, and he slowly straightened up, wincing a little as he did so. Djaq bit her lip, but it was more of an act of guilt than worry.
"My turn now?" Djaq thought Will looked almost pleased at this turn of events.
"'Ave at it, mate," Allan wheezed as he made his way with painful slowness over to the tree-stump.
With one final glance at him, Djaq picked up her bow and arrow and took aim once more. Will stood in front of her, assessing her posture.
"Your elbow's still too high. May I?" He did not seem to enjoy doling out the criticism at all. She nodded.
He grasped her arms in the same places that Allan had, but the feel of it was completely different. Allan's hands had been gentle enough, but within their touch had been an unfulfilled need for control, an uncertain fight for mastery. Looking back, contrasting those moments, she would realize that it had made her feel inexplicably sad. But when she felt Will Scarlett's hands on her arms, there was the immediate sense that they, the two of them, were working together in this. It was no longer a student-teacher relationship; together, they would make this arrow fly straight and true. Slowly this time, she pulled the bowstring back to her ear, feeling a slight but comfortable pressure from Will's hand that kept her posture correct. And then, taking a deep breath, she released the arrow. It sliced through the air smoothly before sticking itself...
...two tree-trunks over.
"I don't understand," said Will, releasing his hold on Djaq as they both stared disappointedly at the rogue arrow. "Your form was perfect. I made sure of it."
"No one hits the target the first go-round, mate." Allan's voice had come back by this time. "Just try again until you get it, Djaq."
So try again Djaq did-after all, she never had been one to give up so easily. This time Will stood to her side, analyzing her movements and position, making suggestions for movements and changes that felt imperceptible to Djaq, but she did them anyway. Each time, she tried a slightly new posture, hoping that this would be the one that would send the arrow zinging into the tree she was aiming for. And each time, the arrow went wide of the mark. Into other trees, in the bushes, into the ground...really, anywhere but where she wanted it to land.
Finally they ran out of arrows, and Will went to retrieve them, shaking his head incredulously as he searched every inch of the clearing for the strayed missiles. With a resigned sigh, Djaq plopped down next to Allan on the stump, her shoulders slumped in defeat.
"Hey," Allan's voice was softer than she was used to. "Don't worry about it. You'll get it, you've just got keep tryin'."
Djaq shook her head. "It is no good. I am no good. I suppose I just wasn't meant to be an archer." She bit her lip in disappointment and frustration.
"Nah, don't talk like that, Djaq. I was worse than you were when I was first learnin' to shoot." She shot him a hurt look. "Not that you're bad or anythin'!" He amended quickly. "Seriously, though, one time, I was aimin' at a rabbit in my neighbor's garden. Well, he had these hams all strung up on ropes from the beams on the other side of his house from the little patch, see, just high enough so the dogs wouldn't get 'em."
Djaq had a feeling she knew where this was going, but she egged him on anyway, seeing how much he enjoyed telling the story.
He grinned broadly. "Well, let's just say if I'd actually been aimin' for that rope, everyone'd be callin' me Allan Hood!"
Djaq laughed at the idea the impish trickster as the leader of a gang of outlaws.
"See, now you're smilin'." Allan looked proud of himself.
Djaq glanced over at Will, who seemed to be taking an awfully long time fetching the arrows. "Do you think we ought to go and help him?"
Allan shrugged. "You can. I'm thinkin' bendin' over might be a bit painful for me still."
Djaq winced apologetically. "Are you sure you're all right?"
"Who, me? O' course I'm all right. It takes a lot more than a puny Saracen with a curvy stick to bring down Allan A'Dale." He grinned devilishly and she shoved his shoulder lightly in jest.
Djaq was about to get to her feet to assist Will when he approached the tree stump.
"I just can't find that last arrow. I don't know what happened to it, I've looked everywhere!"
"Whoa, mate, how long have you been searchin' for just one arrow?" Allan looked alarmed.
Will looked annoyed at his friend's lack of concern. "If we leave it out here it's a waste of a perfectly good arrow, and I for one don't think Robin would..." He broke off suddenly, eyes widening in epiphany. "Wait a second...a perfectly good arrow..." Will reached into the quiver, withdrew one of the pointed missiles, and preceded to examine the feathers and fletching very closely. It was a matter of seconds before he looked up and asked,
"Who fletched these arrows?"
Djaq shook her head. Having never having experience with archery before joining the Gang, she had never fletched an arrow before.
"I did." Allan looked slightly uncomfortable.
"Well, you did it wrong." Will thrust the offending arrow in Allan's face. Annoyed at both the action and the accusation, Allan reached out and snatched it from his hand with a glare.
"Yeah, well, not all of are trained carpenters who spend every spare moment whittlin' away, developin' our finger dexterity!"
Will rolled his gray eyes skyward. "Oh, please! You're a pickpocket-you've got plenty of finger dexterity! You let Djaq believe this entire time that she couldn't shoot a bow, when the problem really was your arrows that don't fly straight!"
"Hey, now, if I'd realized that this was my fault, I would've said so straight away." Will shook his head in disgust. "I would've! And how do we know that your teachin' didn't have anythin' to do with it? And, the word 'pickpocket''s degradin' to my trade. I much prefer 'professional swindler', if you don't mind."
"Honestly, Allan, you're insufferable!" Will sounded exasperated by this point, and Djaq decided that it was time for her to step in.
"All right, the two of you, that's quite enough. Will, stop being so harsh with Allan, and Allan, stop trying to defer the blame." For such a small woman, Djaq could sound very stern when she needed to, and both men hung their heads sheepishly with respective "Sorry, Djaq"s.
"It's all right, I'm not angry with either of you. But I do think that our next lesson should be in fletching." Allan winced but sighed in resignation.
Will nodded his agreement. "I'm sure you'll make a fine student, Allan." He nudged his friend playfully, indicating in his own silent way that he was sorry for being so quick to cast blame.
Allan grinned. "You mean a better student than Djaq is at archery?"
"You know, I really can hurt you more than I already have!" Djaq did not try to hold in her laughter.
"Well, it's no use continuing the lesson with off arrows. Let's go back to camp." Will turned to leave and Djaq followed, glancing over her shoulder at the third member of their small group.
"Are you coming, Allan?"
"Yeah, just a second. I'll be right along."
Djaq shrugged at Will and the two set off, following their noses as the smell of Much's stew wafted from the camp.
Allan knocked one of the offensive arrows into his longbow, took careful aim at the tree Djaq had been shooting at, and fired. The arrow went at least three feet wide of the target. Allan sighed. He really was going to have to work on that fletching thing.