The Nobleman’s Son - Part Two

by Marla F. Fair

 

 

            “You’re sure you will be all right?”

            With a jocund laugh, Michael called from the doorway.  “Come on, Robert. The little lady can look out for herself. How long have you two been married anyway?” He was heading down the steps, pulling on his falconer’s gloves. “Give her a squeeze and a kiss and let’s get going. The dogs are restless.” He paused, his eyes on Marion. “And so am I.”

            “I’m fine.” The redhead laid the back of her hand on her forehead and winced as if with pain. “I have one of my headaches, that’s all.”

            Robert brushed the hair back from her cheeks with his fingers. He turned to Michael. “They are worsened by the sun. She needs to stay inside where it is dark.”

            The other man’s black brows rose. “A pity. Such beauty should be allowed to shine. Still, my women will look after her. I will send one with some ointments.” He continued to stare at the two of them. “Kiss her quick and let’s go.”

            Robert’s blue eyes found her hazel ones and she nodded imperceptibly. He placed his hand on her waist and drew her to him, gently kissing her on the lips. When he pulled back, he whispered, “I’ll miss you. Take care.”

            She nodded, for a moment at a loss for words.

            And then he was gone.

            Marion returned to the window and waited until she saw them mount their fine horses and ride off, until their party was nothing more than half a dozen dark specks on the horizon that finally vanished into the woods. As they did she placed her hand on her heart. A dark shadow had settled on it for which there was no explanation. They were merely going to hunt. There was nothing to fear here. Nothing at all.

            She changed into her afternoon dress and prepared to leave the room. She had noticed a back stair on their brief tour of the castle which most likely led to the servants rooms and she meant to explore it, but as she straightened her gown and headed for the door, she stopped. A young woman, slender and blond, had opened it and stepped into the room. In her hands she bore a wooden tray laden with unguents and other small medicinal jars.

            “May I help you?”

            “I was told to bring these up—to ease your headache. A gift from the master of the house,” the young woman remarked as she set the tray on a table near the bed and turned to face her, “for a very beautiful lady.”

            The girl was very blonde. Her eyes blue-green. She thought of what Robert had told her about Elaine. It might be her. She would never know if she didn’t ask. “Thank you.... Elaine, is it?”

            The woman laughed. “Heavens, no. What would have given you that idea? Did Robert mention Elaine?”

            “Yes. I’m sorry.” She appeared confused. “I thought from his description—.”

            “That I was a serving girl?” The blonde laughed again and positioned herself on the edge of the bed. “I am Alyce of Brentwood, mistress of the house. Michael is my brother.”

Marion could see it now. Her bearing was regal. And there was something about

her.... Something not quite as sinister as her brother but still, dark and foreboding. “Forgive me,” she said, “Robert had spoken of his childhood friend, and your brother said she was still here....”

“Yes.” Alyce studied her a moment. “And you are Marion of Huntington?”

It was the first time someone had called her that. “Yes,” she nodded. “Now I am.”

“Where did your people come from?” At her look the young woman added,

“Robert and I are...old friends as well. I am interested in his bride.”    

            She was more than interested. It was obvious she was jealous. Marion turned away from her to look out the window. “Of Leaford. It’s outside of—.”

            “I know the name.” The woman’s rich hazel eyes sparkled. “And how did you come to meet Robert?”

            The red-head hesitated. She smiled as she thought of the boy who had risked his life to defend her honor when he hadn’t even known her, challenging Owen of Clun in his father’s home. Her eyes lit as she answered, “It was unexpected. We met at Huntington.” She thought of the risks he had taken to rescue her and how he had saved her from a life of drugged servitude. “After that? Well, he simply swept me off my feet.”

            Alyce’s aspect darkened as she rose to stand beside her and gazed out the window in the direction the men had gone. “That’s Robert.” She turned away quickly. “And how long have you been married?”

            Marion cleared her throat. What was this? Why so many questions? “Not long.”

            “You’ve been married before?”

            She frowned. “Why would you ask that?”

            The girl laughed. “Just a feeling.” Alyce moved past her towards the open door. “Well, Marion of Leaford and now of Huntington, feel free to explore. Our home is yours. The men will return at sundown and there will be a feast with music and dancing, as well as jugglers and magicians. I do so hope your headache is gone by then.”

            The other woman nodded and waited until she had disappeared. Then she placed a hand on the cold hard stone to steady herself. At this moment she hoped very much that the others—Will, Nasir, Much and Little John— had remained true to themselves. She hoped they had disregarded everything Robin had said and had followed them and were nearby, for she very much felt that they were in danger and when and if they did arrive, it would be none too soon.

 

            “What is wrong with you, Robert? You seem to have lost the pleasure of the hunt. Robert?”

            His blond head came up. He grinned but not for the reason Michael thought. He had forgotten his own name for a moment. Robert. Not Robin. “I am concerned about Marion,” he alibied. In truth, hunting for sport held no interest for him anymore when he knew the game they killed and left to rot could have fed mouths in the village of Wickham for months to come. “Sometimes the headaches are very bad.”

            “Oh. I thought perhaps you were thinking of the last time we hunted together,” Michael’s voice dropped. “Better game than this.”

            Their attendants stood some ways off, their brown horses stamping the ground, the air turned white by their breath. He thought he had sensed something in the other man that left him uncomfortable. He knew Marion felt it as well.

            He hoped she was safe alone at the castle.

            “You said Elaine was here.”

            The dark-haired man nodded. “Oh yes.”

            “I thought Ro...” He checked himself. “I thought the man who stopped us saw her to the abbey.”

            “Robin Hood, you were going to say?”

            Robert shifted in the saddle. “Yes, I believe it was him.”

            “Wolfshead, they call him. Yes, it could have been him. An outlaw but a decent man. He saw her to the abbey gates. I watched her pass in.”

“So she did go there? But you said—.”

Michael laughed. The sound was not pleasant. “Oh, yes. She was there for some time. I visited her. She wasn’t happy and finally she left.” He paused. “But then you wouldn’t know. You never came back.”

            “My father did not wish it.”

            “The earl didn’t want his son consorting with the likes of me? Did you tell him what—.”

            “Not me.” Robert shook his head. “One of my servants who knew one of yours. The one who died of his wounds later on. They were cousins.”

            “I see. Well, she got away...that day.” Michael steadied his mount and searched the sky for his falcon. “What do you think she is doing?” he asked.

            Robert frowned as he followed his eyes. “The falcon or Elaine?”

            “Are you still jealous?” Michael’s smile was like acid on stone. “And you with a wife....”

            “I am not jealous. Now or then. There was nothing to be jealous of, you know that.”

            The other man snarled and lifted his hand. “I hear the bells. She’s coming back.”

            “Are you?” Robert knew he should have bit his tongue but the other man’s arrogance was galling.

            “What?”

            “Jealous. You always were. Of me, of my father and our possessions. Of Elaine....”

            The dark eyes narrowed as Michael put his spurs to the horse’s flanks. “I will answer that tonight at supper. Now, I think, it is time to get back to the hunt.”

           

            Not far away, through the woods and behind a thick stand of tall grass, four scruffy figures knelt. The tallest of them held a quarter-staff at the ready. The dark Saracen, clutching twins blades, sat beside him with his eyes closed, his back to the underbrush. Much was watching the trained birds as they wheeled high in the air, but Will Scarlet’s eyes were glued to the two elegantly attired figures who rode the fine horse’s backs as if they were kings.

            “Look at that. What’d I tell you. If he isn’t one of them...”

            “Was, Will. Was.” John Little sighed. “He’s one of us now.”

            “Well, he’ll have to prove it to me. You don’t just forget twenty years of breeding because a horned god asks you to play at being an outlaw.”

            “Will, let it go.” The big man gripped the staff with his fingers. “Or at least shut up about it.”

            “Fine. Fine. But you mark me. There are things about him we don’t know.”

            Nasir’s eyes opened and he fixed the angry man. “That is true of all of us.”

            Little John smiled. Nasir seldom made a comment, but when he did, it counted.

            Will Scarlet growled and fell silent as he watched the noblemen disappear into the darkening night.

 

            Supper was a riot of color and noise intended to last until the wee hours of the morning. There was gaming and entertainment with strolling musicians and well-trained acrobats. The table was laden with every dish imaginable and the costumes of those in attendance glittered like stars in the firmament. It was an ostentatious show. Marion smiled weakly at Robert where he sat to her left. After a day of scouring the castle with no sign of the elusive girl, her headache was for real. She had, however, brought him a note which had been left beneath their door. She had found it on her return. Apparently the man who had contacted him through a third agent wanted to meet with him. She had hesitated to show it to him, thinking perhaps she would keep the meeting herself, but then, she had decided he would never forgive her that. She couldn’t treat him like a fragile child she wanted to protect, much as she would have liked to. He was a man. A man with a destiny and it was his to fulfill.

            She just had the misfortune to keep falling in love with men of destiny.

            As she sighed, he touched her hand and smiled. She nodded. The meeting was set for the hour after midnight, when most in the castle would be too drunk or tired to notice their comings and goings. She had said she was going with him. He had not forbidden it, but neither had he agreed.

            There was time yet to argue.

            She lay her other hand on his and squeezed it. He was nervous and jittery, as though he too sensed something was out of order here. She knew he awaited word on this girl. He needed to know that she was all right and that the events he had helped to set in motion that night had not scarred her forever. She only prayed that was what he would find. What if it had? What if the girl had changed?

            Could Robert survive?

            Their host was rising from his seat and had raised a glass of wine. The chair to his right had remained conspicuously empty. She assumed he was not married yet. His pale sister Alyce sat to his left. She had been watching the two of them carefully. Marion found her stark hazel gaze unnerved her. Still, she noticed it was only marginally settled on her: Robert was the center of her attention.

            “Friends,” he began, “old and new. We have with us tonight an extraordinary guest. Someone I have longed to renew acquaintances with. A man of principle. Someone who will not compromise his beliefs. A champion of the poor and the oppressed.” He paused and took a drink and his black stare grew hard as diamonds. “A liar and a hypocrite whose own men would turn on him if they knew what he had done.”

            Marion’s body stiffened. Her hand closed tightly on Robert’s and she knew his other reached for his sword. They were totally surrounded by Michael’s men and by the other guests. There was no hope of escape.

            “Robert of Huntington, otherwise know as Robin in the Hood.” To the general exclamations and gasps which accompanied his proclamation, he added, “Seize him, and the girl!”

            Marion saw Alyce’s eyes narrow as several of her brother’s guards stepped forward. A moment later a knife was placed at her throat. She glanced at Robert and saw the soldier ask him for his sword. The blond frowned and handed it over. He rose from his chair in anger and cried as several of the men grabbed his arms and held him tight. “Michael, what is this? Have you gone mad?”

            His boyhood friend shifted his chair back and began to walk towards him. He stopped near the door and held out his hand. “Mad, am I? I think not.” He turned to someone who lingered in the shadows and said softly, “It is all right, my dear. You may enter now, I have him well in hand.”

            As he watched a slender shadow shifted within the darker ones thrown by the braziers near the great column and a pale thin reed of a girl emerged, her golden hair hanging in braids to her knees, her bright blue eyes wide and unfeeling. They fell on him and he watched her shudder.

            Michael kissed her hand and smiled, touching her hair. “I told you I would find him and punish him for you.” He looked at Robert. “Did you really think you could escape the consequences of your crime?”

            My crime?”

“I told Elaine what happened that night. How you were in league with these outlaws

even then—with that dark-haired wolf’s head. How you intended to keep her from the abbey. After many years and some wooing, she has left that life behind and consented to be my wife. But before she would, she wanted you punished.”

“You’re a liar!”

“Silence him!”

One of the guards thrust a cloth between his teeth and another bound his hands.

Marion protested and they did the same to her. She stared wild-eyed as the dark man came to stand close by them. He smiled. “I will dispatch a messenger to inform de Rainault that I have his outlaw. But not too quickly. Tomorrow morning will be early enough. Until then,” he took his blade and lifted Robert’s head with it, “we will have our own fun.”

            Tomorrow morning. The others wouldn’t even know they were missing before they were dead.

 

            “So do we go in?”

            Little John shook his head. There were dozens of people leaving the castle at the moment and the road was flooded with laughing and talking noblemen and women. They were obviously excited and abuzz about something. With a frown he struck Tuck in the stomach. “Get down on the road. See what this is all about.”

“Me?”
“Your a friar, aren’t you? No one will suspect you if you walk toward the castle and

ask a few simple questions.” He glanced at Will and Much. “Or would you rather one of these two—or me goes?”

            The short rotund man stared at the three ragamuffins traveling with him and sighed. “I’d rather not spend the evening locked in a dungeon. I’ll go.” Hefting his considerable bulk he moved back along the trees that lined the pathway and slipped onto the road several dozen yards back. As John and the others watched, he folded his hands and began to walk slowly and piously towards the great castle of Brentwood.

            Spying a young couple who had halted beside the road to adjust the straps on one of their horses, Tuck crossed himself and offered them a blessing. The young man was perhaps twenty, his bride or fiancée a bit younger. “My children.”

            Turning from the horse the nobleman inclined his head. “Holy friar. Do you travel to Brentwood?”

            “Yes, my son.” He acknowledged the young woman with a nod. “I had thought to arrive quietly and unnoticed. Now I see that is impossible. What is all of this?”

            The girl laughed. “You have arrived on the eve of one of Michael’s feasts. There will be nothing quiet about tonight.”

            The youth frowned and tossed his tousled brown curls. “And nothing goes unnoticed at Brentwood.”

            Tuck was a shrewd judge of character. He sensed this young man did not entirely approve of his host. “And why is that?”

            The couple exchanged glances as the nobleman remounted. “You’ll see.” He gently spurred his horse and pointed its head towards the road. “Who do you seek? Surely not Michael?”

            “No. A young couple like yourselves who is visiting. Have you heard of Robert of Huntington and his lady-wife?”

            The girl beside him paled. Her eyes flew to her young man and then to the ranks of nobles passing by them, several of which were watching the curious trio. “Friar....”

            “Yes.”

            She leaned over her horse and indicated he should come to stand beside her. When he did, she took his hand. “My father is a minor landowner. Richard’s as well, but we have cause to thank you.”

            “Me?” Tuck stiffened as the hair on his arms prickled.

            “Yes. My serving girl, a childhood friend of both of us, was waylaid and would have been raped and killed had it not been for you and your friends.”

            “I think you are mistaken, young lady. I—“

            Richard moved his horse closer, cutting the pair off from a group of four men who were moving by. In a loud voice he said, “Friar, the one you seek is in the castle. Ask for Eric. He works in the kitchens.” Then leaning close he whispered, “Your friends are taken. De Rainault is sent for. There is nothing before you but betrayal and death.”

            “Robert? And Marion?”

            The young man nodded. “Robin and Marion. Michael knows.”

            Less than a minute later Tuck was puffing up the slope, hastening towards the others. Will caught his arm as he emerged into the grassy hollow and scowled. “You’re a regular chatter-box, ain’t you. What were you doing, taking holy confession?”

            Tuck shook his head. “No, but God had his hand in it.” He looked at Much and Nasir, and then his gaze fell on John. “They are taken.”

            “Taken?” Little John’s eyes grew wide. “What...?”

            “Taken and betrayed.”

           

            They had struck him on the head and knocked him out. When Robert awoke he was in a dark place and alone. Marion was not with him. Lifting his head he feebly struggled against the cuffs that bound him to the wall, but soon gave up as the room swam before him. He felt as if he had been drugged. Then he noted the brazier in the corner and the curious scent that lingered in the stagnant air and he realized there was sorcery here. A moan escaped him involuntarily and he shifted his body.

            “I see you are awake.”

            It wasn’t Michael. The voice was feminine. Familiar.

            “Elaine?”

            There was a pause. “That is the second time someone has mistaken me for that peasant today. First your ‘wife’ and now you.” A slender figure dressed in rich yellow robes moved into the flickering light cast by the brazier. Her hazel eyes were deep as a mystic pool; her skin painted golden by its glow.

            “Alyce.”

            Dark blonde eyebrows arched. “I see you do remember me.”

            “I remember. Even five years ago you were playing at this.”

            “This?”

            He shook his head and the room dipped and dived again. “Magic. Spells. Your father didn’t approve....”

            “It has kept the old man alive beyond his time,” she said cryptically.

            “Does your brother know?”

            Alyce paused and seemed to shudder. “No.”

            Robert blinked and tried to remember to keep his breathing shallow. “Why are you here?”

            She came up to him and placed her hand on the exposed skin at his chest. They had removed his heavy robe and he was dressed only in a thin shirt and hose. Still, between the small room, Alyce, and the brazier, he was sweating. “Do you remember?”

            He hesitated and then nodded. “Yes. But we were children. Those were children’s games.”

            “Not to me.” Her hazel eyes were wide. She wanted him to fall into them. “I loved you.”

            He scoffed. “You loved what I was. What I would become.”

            “You are not the Earl’s son now.”

            Robert sighed. “Who told you?”

            Alyce tilted her head. “No one.”

            “How did Michael....” He stopped at the look in her eyes. “You?”

            “I was recently in Nottingham. News of the return of Robin in the hood was everywhere.” She ran her fingers through his pale blond hair. “I happen to know Sir Guy. He was...very informative. He and the sheriff have kept quiet for the most part about who you are in deference to your father. But Guy wants me....” She smiled sweetly and raised up on her toes to kiss his lips. “And would give me anything.”

            He pulled back and shook his head. “Not me. He wants me dead.”

            She touched his cheek and sighed, “So many do.”

            “Your brother?”

            She laughed and turned back towards the brazier. “Him, and your precious Elaine.”

            He watched as she tossed another handful of herbs and grasses on the fire and sent a fresh cloud of heady smoke his way. Instantly his head swam and he found he had to fight to remain in control. “What has he told her?”

            She pivoted. “The truth.”

            “Which is?”

            “How you talked him into attacking her train when she was on her way to the abbey and then deserted him when the plot failed. How you were in with these outlaws even then and meant to take her and do what you wished with her.”

            “Those are all lies and you know it. As for Elaine, I loved her.”

            “A peasant girl? Come now, Robert. And you say what we had was a children’s game?” Her tone was petulant.

            “Why has he set out to do this now? Because of what I have become?”

            She shook her head as she approached him again. “In part. Though we were not certain until today. I have followed this Robin Hood’s adventures. I knew Marion of Leaford and of her pardon.”

            “If not that, why did he bring me here?”

            For the first time Alyce seemed uncertain. “I don’t know. I’m not even sure he did.” She touched his chest again. “Perhaps it was intended.”

            “And what do you want of me?”

            “I can save you.”

            He laughed. “I doubt even your considerable charms could keep Guy from running me through, Alyce.”

            She glanced at the brazier. “There are other ways.”

            “And?”

            “Take me with you. Into the forest.”

            He shook his head to clear it. “What?”

            There was the sound of a footfall in the hall behind the heavily barred door. Alyce froze. She placed her fingers on his lips and whispered, “It’s Michael. He’s coming. Robert,” her eyes found his, “he hates you and all you stand for. Not just as Robin, but even before....”

            “We were not so different before,” he admitted grudgingly.

            She shook her head. “How is it you do not know yourself?”

            The key was in the lock and he heard it turning. “Alyce?”

“Yes?”

“Why did you tell him about me?”

            She shook her head as the door opened. “I had no choice.”

 

            Marion was back in their room, only this time the door was barred from the outside. She was practically frantic. No matter what she did visions of a man on a hillside surrounded by standing stones and soldiers, struck with a hundred arrows flooded her mind’s eye. Only the man was not dark-haired. His eyes were not green. They were blue and his hair was blond.

            Robert.

            How could she see him die again?

            Standing still, she clenched her fists and moved to the window, her mind racing. There had to be a way to escape. Some way to get out of this room and get to him—wherever he was. The madman who owned this castle was playing with them. She wasn’t certain he had even sent to the Sheriff. It seemed to her that his grudge was his own. Frustrated and frightened she looked out of the window and watched as several small figures moved about in the dawning light. One of them seemed impossibly familiar. Then she saw the tall man behind it with the quarter-staff and her whole body sighed.

            They were not alone.

 

            Robert tensed as the door to the cell opened and then breathed a sigh of relief when he found it was not Michael but a servant bringing fuel for the brazier. The man had his head down and wore a hooded mantle and for just a moment his spirits lifted, thinking it might be one of his own men, but then the head came up and a weather-beaten face appeared and two brown eyes stabbed him like a knife.

            It was Eric. Elaine’s brother. He had noticed him in the hall when they had first arrived. He had been the man Marion had wondered about who had stared at them with something more than curiosity in his eyes. If he had bought Michael’s lies as his sister apparently had, then his presence here would do him no good at all.

            Alyce had frozen as the door opened. Upon realizing it was not her brother, something in her seemed to snap, as if she recognized the tenuous position she had placed herself in. She moved close to Robert as the servant began to unload his pail and whispered, “I will be back. I must attend my father. I dare not leave him alone for long.” She brushed his face with her fingers, “If I can distract Michael, I will.”

            “He’s not about to forget me, Alyce.”

            She glanced at the servant. “Nor am I.”

            And with that, she was gone.

            Robert rested his blond head against the chamber wall and sighed. He wondered and worried where Marion was and berated himself for bringing her and for forbidding the others to come. It was his own foolish pride that had caused him to ride off alone with only the copper-haired woman at his side. His pride and his shame for what he had done. He had hoped to come here, to find that Elaine was happy and well and that what he had done had had no effect on her but had been forgotten, left behind with his misguided youth and their childhood ardor for each other. Instead he had found a mystery which confounded him at every turn. How had she come to be here? Why had she believed Michael’s story? What was Alyce’s part in all of this and of what was she afraid?

            “Milord?”

A rough voice spoke near his shoulder. He opened his eyes and glanced down.

            “Eric.”

            “Yes, milord.”

            “Don’t call me that. I have left that life behind.” Robert looked at him. The man was nervous. He kept looking over his shoulder. “What is it? Have you something to tell me?”

            The dark head nodded. “Yes...Robert. Or do I call you Robin?”

            “Robert will do. I have not admitted to Michael’s charge.” He pinned the other man with his blue eyes. “Do you think I am Robin in the Hood? You knew me before.”

            The man almost smiled. “I think, mi....Robert, that it is not such a surprise.”

            “Then you don’t believe Michael’s claims?”

            The man glanced behind him again, almost as if expecting something to form and emerge from the shadows. “I wouldn’t have relayed his message to you if I had.”

            “His message to me? You mean, Michael did send for me? Alyce thought....”

            “He tells her nothing anymore. His ways are secret even from his sister.” The brown-haired man stepped closer and lowered his voice. “When she returned from Nottingham with news of what you had become— what had once been a childhood wound scabbed over, became an open sore. He sees you as a traitor to your kind. He hates you as he hates his own reflection, and blames you for not becoming what he has become.”

            “So he brought me here....”

            “To destroy you. He has not sent to the sheriff. He does not mean to. He means to kill you himself.”

            “And you aided him in this?”

            Eric’s head fell. “I thought....” When he looked up, his eyes were moist. “My sister, you remember her?”

            “How could I forget?”

            The other man smiled. “She has not forgotten you, either. That night she went to the abbey....”

            “I am sorry for my part in that.”

            The brown eyes narrowed in anger for just a moment. “Yes. You were in the wrong, but you were young and raised to be an Earl’s son, to think us worth nothing....”

            “It wasn’t that,” Robert protested.

            “Even so.” The servant stopped and listened and then continued in a hurried whisper, “There is no time. Because of the hooded man she made it to the abbey and lived in peace for several years. Michael watched her all the time and then—about a year ago—in disguise, he attacked the abbey, took her and burned it to the ground to hide the crime.”

            “He burned the abbey? He said she left....”

            “And all of its gentle inhabitants,” Eric growled, “except my sister. Otherwise, it would have been known who had done the deed.”

            “Yes.” Robert drew a deep breath and shifted against his shackles. “And you thought I could help?”

            “You have aided so many others. Even if you had not remembered...I knew you would help.” His voice fell even lower, so low Robert could barely make it out. “Elaine is enthralled to this man.”

            “Enthralled? You mean bewitched?”

            “Yes. He is deep in the arts. He has sold his soul to Lucifer. That is how he will try to destroy—.” Eric fell silent. He drew his hood over his face. “Someone is coming. I must stoke the brazier and then go....”

            “Must you? The herbs....”

            Eric paused and held his hand out. There was a small pouch in it. He fingered some of the fine dust within it and smiled. “They will not affect you so now. But be warned, Michael’s magick is deeper and of a darker nature than his sister’s simple woodland spells. You must beware....”

            “...of loquacious servants who meddle in their better’s matters and risk losing their tongues.”

            Robert’s head turned. A dark shadow filled the doorway, flanked by two men at arms.

            Michael.

 

            Marion had waved and shouted as hard as she could, but had been unable to draw the attention of Tuck or Little John. Prowling like a caged tiger about the room, she tried to decide what to do. She had to find Robert. A black hole in her heart told her that if she did not, something dreadful would happen. And she needed the men with her. And that meant she had to get out of this room.

            Suddenly inspired she walked to the door and pressed her ear against the crack. Someone shifted. So there was a guard. She listened again trying to determine if it was one or two and whether a woman or a man. After five minute’s silent vigil someone else passed by and she heard them exchange a few words. It was a woman. In one way that was good. She would not be overcome by greater strength. But in another it was bad: a woman was not so easily fooled by another woman as was a man.

            Moving a few feet away from the door she looked about for a suitable object and found the small table with its tray of tiny unguent jars. Perfect. Taking hold of the edge she tipped the whole thing and as it crashed to the floor with a horrendous clamor, she lay down beside it and began to moan.

            Someone called her name, but she didn’t answer. She just clutched her head tightly and continued to moan.

            Soon, to her delight, she heard the bar lifted and the door shift cautiously inward. “Milady?” a hesitant voice asked.

            Marion groaned and murmured softly, “My head. Oh by the blessed virgin, my head.”

            The woman looked behind her and finding no back-up, edged warily into the room.

            Thankful that she was normally pale, Marion attempted to look as pitiful as she could by curling into a ball. “Oh, my head. Where is Robert? Please, get him.... Help me.”

            Her guard moved to her side and knelt and for just a moment Marion had a pang of conscience. But for only a moment. A second later the tray which had held the potions came down on the woman’s head knocking her flat and she was up and out the door. She replaced the bar and searching every shadow, bolted down the stair.

            Some minutes later, she realized she was lost. She had meant to return to the area of the common room and hide and listen to see if she could find Robert’s whereabouts, but she had instead ended up on the opposite side of the castle. Glancing out a window she saw was surprised to see their host leading a group of men who were loading something into a cart. The view blocked whatever it was.

            Good, she thought. If he was out and gone her chances would be all the better.

Turning another corner she was startled to see several of the castle guards advancing toward her. She didn’t think they were looking for her yet, but she dare not chance them spying and recognizing her. Glancing to her left she saw an open door and without thought, darted through it, pulling it closed behind her. She breathed a sigh of relief and then stiffened as a voice spoke her name.

            “Marion of Leaford. What is it you want with me, Lady Wolfshead?”

            Marion turned.

            It was the woman called Elaine.

 

            “Now what do you suppose that is all about?” Will Scarlet had been left on guard with Nasir while Tuck and Little John scouted out a way into the castle and Much watched the bridge that led to and from the front gate. “Eh?”

            Nasir’s dark eyebrows rose towards his thick black curls.

            They were standing in the shadows of the blacksmith’s shed, watching the back entrance to the main building. A very elegantly attired man had left the stronghold to mount a black charger and now he was supervising the loading of something heavy onto a wagon. Will nodded to Nasir and he agreed. As one they moved forward, remaining hidden, to see if they could get a better look.

            “Be careful, you oaf!” the man on the horse cried out as he struck one of the servants about the head. “He is not to be damaged. Not here. Not yet.”

            Will looked at Nasir. Nasir inclined his head towards the cart, his handsome face solemn.

            “What? What is it?” Will’s brown eyes followed the Saracen’s gaze. A moment later he sucked air between his teeth. It was a young man, dressed in an ornate tunic and hose. There was no mistaking that hair.

            Blond. Golden-white as flax.

            “You don’t think....”

            Nasir nodded. “Robert.”

            Will Scarlet rammed one hand into the other. “And we don’t know where Tuck or John are. What do we do now?”

            His friend nudged him and nodded. The cart was beginning to move away. The horseman was in the lead and about half a dozen attendants followed close behind.

            “Right. We go anyway.”

            Nasir bowed and held his hand before him, indicating Scarlet should lead.

            Will Scarlet gazed at the nobleman who rode close by, at his elegant clothing and fine upright stance. He growled low in his throat and clutched his bow.

            “With pleasure.”