The FiresWithin

 By Kathy B.

Chapter 1

Orange and red flames blazed in a smoke-stained, stone fireplace.  A large man with red-gold hair glinted with white sat in his chair blankly staring at the flickering tongues as they danced.  His hazel eyes drooped a bit in the late hour.  He blinked and sighed aloud, resituating himself in the chair and compelling himself to waken from his musings.  Life was hard, and he was never anyone’s fool.  But he had never imagined the tragedies that would eventually come his way over the years.   His firstborn son, Henri, dead now a year and a half in those blasted Crusades...  His dear wife and companion of nearly 30 years, Sarah, gone now fourteen months.  And his only  remaining son William, once a cad and selfish young man, now had seemingly grown a conscience, and taken off with the do-gooder, Robin Hood.  For all his exasperation with his erring son, though, Geoffrey Scatlocke could not help but have pride in his son’s choice.  It was far better for Will to be doing something for others than continuing in his prior habits of wenching and gambling.  He smiled a bit as he thought of how Will’s mother would be gratified at the change in her beloved son.  If only she was still here to see it!

The problems accruing to Sir Geoffrey now, though, as a result of Will’s new lifestyle, were disconcerting.  Prince John had taken note of Will’s involvement in the escape of Robin Hood from the castle of Sir Guy of Gisborne.  And once an enemy to Prince John, it was not easy to escape his notice and his revenge.  And if Prince John could not have the intended victim, he would settle for inflicting pain on the ones attached to the said victim.  Sir Geoffrey, upon receiving Will’s letters two months ago, had been shocked out of his prolonged mourning for his lady Sarah, and stirred into action.

Will’s first letter had revealed his new purpose in life, and detailed the events of his change in heart.  He spoke of Robin Hood, and the sacrifices Robin had made to serve the people of England and their true king, Richard.  He spoke of the Lady Marion, Robin’s special friend, and a woman Will admired greatly.  He mentioned his new friends and fellow outlaws, Little John and the Friar Tuck among others.  And at the end of the letter, he told his father that he loved and honored him, but he would not be coming home.  He was now an outlaw, and all connection to him must, for the safety of his father and the people of the manor, be severed.  Sir Geoffrey was to destroy the parchment these words were written upon, but to keep the words forever in his heart.

The second letter was very different in tone from the first.  Fortunately, Sir Geoffrey had read them in the intended order, and followed Will’s directions thoroughly.  So when Prince John’s men had arrived shortly after the letters, only the second one remained to be seen.  It was blunt and cruel, disowning the Scatlocke name and fortune.  It neatly absolved Sir Geoffrey from any possible involvement with Will’s newfound friends at Sherwood Forest.  So, Prince John had left the Saxon Lord alone, to wallow in the misery of a landed lord with no heir.  Confident that the lands would some day be in the hands of a Norman lord, Prince John knew he would contrive ultimately to have his revenge.  In the meantime, the prince would find other ways to flush out Will Scarlet, as he had become known, and his mentor, Robin Hood.

So, Sir Geoffrey had mouthed words of loyalty to Prince John, but honored instead the true king of England, Richard, in his heart.  And he openly cursed his errant son William, former knight and heir to his fortune, but secretly rejoiced at the change in his son’s life.  He missed Will greatly, and hoped for a reunion some day.  And he spent many evenings thus lost in his thoughts in front of the fire.

And so she found him, as she knew she would, drooping off to sleep in the big chair, in the large hall, before the dying fire.  The woman, tired herself, but tireless in overseeing her duties at the Scatlocke manor, quietly entered the hall.  She blew out the few candles lit on the nearby table, and straightened a skewed table cloth.  Then she approached the sleeping man and hesitated.  She stared at his aging face, remembering a younger man, more vital but less aware of her in those days.  She had been at this manor her entire life, and had always been enamored of Geoffrey, even when he was a boy.  She had watched him grow up, and become a fine lord.  And she had mourned when he married the Lady Sarah, though she had known all along that he would never be hers.  She had grown to love her new mistress, for in truth there was no kinder woman in all of England.  And she had cared for all the Scatlocke children, almost as if they had been her own.  When the Lady Sarah died last summer, Agatha felt only sorrow, for her loss and for Sir Geoffrey’s.  He had loved that woman with his whole heart.  And who would not have done the same in his place?  And Agatha continued in her duties.  The past few months, however, the lord had become more aware of her steadfast service, and had come to count on her for more than household advice.  Though she knew it was wrong, she had allowed herself to become his mistress.  And the few moments of pleasure that she enjoyed in his arms were never spoken of at any other time.  She knew her place, and loved her lord, and went about her business.  She gently touched his arm and spoke, “My lord?’

Sir Geoffrey snored under his breath, and licked his lips, but did not rouse.

She tried again, “My lord?  It is late.  Come.”

He lazily opened his eyes and brought them to focus on Agatha.  Recognition dawned.  “Yes, Agatha?  What is it?”

Agatha stood and smoothed her gown and apron.  Of medium height and slight of weight, her frame belied the steely determination of a woman who had withstood much sorrow in her life. She was plain to the unfamiliar eye, with graying blonde hair tightly pulled back, and nondescript muddy hazel eyes.  Her lashes were only visible when wet, so she often looked tired.  But when she smiled, she lit up the room.  “Time for bed, my lord.”  Patiently, she coaxed him out of the chair and led him to the stairs.  There, they parted, for she knew this night he had been thinking of his dead wife, and there was no place for Agatha in his heart at the moment.

Across a small valley, in another castle, Hugh Beauforte stoked the fire in his main hall. Tall, dark, with striking good looks, and eyes keen as a falcon’s, he turned and addressed his visitor, a soldier of Prince John’s.  “Of course, you may tell the prince that he shall have my full cooperation in this matter.  Sir Geoffrey Scatlocke is no friend of mine.”

From the other side of the room, a woman’s voice joined the discussion.  Bitterly, she added, “No, indeed.  Sir Geoffrey took from my husband the only thing he ever really loved - the Lady Sarah.  And he has never forgiven that Saxon lord for stealing the Norman rose he thought was intended only for his pleasure.”

Sir Hugh, with a look of disgust, waved off the woman and apologized, “Please forgive my wife.  The Lady Madeleine is not feeling well lately.”  Directing his glare at her, he added, “You had best be off to bed, now, my dear.”

The words were more a threat than an entreaty, and Madeleine sensed the danger.  She knew she had pushed him too far, and so backed off and demurred, “Yes, my love.  I will do that.”  And to the soldier,  “Pray, forgive me, sir.  I am not myself tonight.”  With that, she gathered her skirts and gracefully glided out of the room.

Sir Hugh watched her leave.  Strange, to see such beauty and be so unmoved, he thought to himself.  I could have loved her.  But she is as rotten in her core as she is beautiful to look at.  He turned his attention back to the soldier and shook his head.  “Now, where were we?”

Over in a modest hut on the manor of Sir Geoffrey Scatlocke, a woman of thirty laid her exhausted body down onto the meager pallet.  She had lovingly stroked the heads of her two children and prayed for their health and safety just moments before.  Now, she was ready to sleep.  As she tried to get into a comfortable position, she moaned unwillingly.  The large bruises on her upper arms would not permit her to sleep on either side comfortably, so she settled on her back and stared at the ceiling.  Her jaw ached from the blow she had suffered earlier in the day, when she had fought the grip of her drunken husband.  And she had not been able to chew anything solid all day.  Her stomach grumbled, begging for nourishment, but she ignored it, as she ignored her other scars and wounds.  She forced herself to purge from her mind the contorted wrath on her husband’s face, and she closed her eyes tightly.

Willing herself to recall happier times, she pictured her wedding day and the births of her two living children.  She felt a familiar warmth as she saw again the face of her husband, sober and loving, as he gazed at her.  She smiled at the memories of her son Edward’s pride in his whittling, and her daughter Meggie’s quiet sweetness as she cuddled a kitten.  Just as she allowed herself to begin falling into a relaxed state, the door to their hut opened.  Helen froze in fear and steeled herself for the unthinkable.

Roger peered into the hut, trying to see the bodies of his family in the dark.  He cursed at himself as he tripped on a stool, and fell onto his bed.  He put his arm across Helen’s abdomen and felt her flinch.  He regretted his earlier roughness with her, and tried to apologize.  He whispered, “Helen, I am sorry, love.  I promise to try harder next time to control my anger.”  He knew his words sounded hollow, but he really meant what he said.  And Helen always forgave him.  And he was so tired, and only wanted to sleep.

Helen listened to the familiar words, and closed her eyes tightly.  She knew Roger would not hurt her now for many days to come, and that he was really sorry right now for the pain he had caused her earlier that day.  And she also knew that his efforts would eventually be overthrown when he drank again.  But she had no where to go, and her children needed her to protect them and watch over them.  So she softened her body and mouthed the words she knew Roger needed to hear.  “I know, Roger.  And I will try harder, too.”

Roger sighed, and resituated his body closer to his wife’s.  He mumbled a bit before he fell asleep, “The fires are getting closer to the manor, Helen.  Old Gilbert says he thinks the winds may shift and take them over east, away from us.”

Helen, picturing the hungry flames consuming their meager hut, shook her head and replied, “I hope he’s right, Roger.  What will we do if he’s not?”

But Roger had already fallen into a deep sleep, and Helen was once again alone with her thoughts.

End of Chapter One

Chapter Two
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