The FiresWithin
By Kathy B.
Chapter 13

Sir Geoffrey urged his horse into a gallop, as he desperately searched for Robin and the other men who had ridden out earlier to investigate the village remains.  He fumed at his own impotence against Sir Hugh as Will was taken.  Cursing under his breath, he scanned the area for any sign of the outlaws.  Seeing nothing but the charred residue of trees and grass, he kicked his mount and galloped on towards the village.

Inside the village - or what was left of it - Robin, Little John, Kemal, along with Roger and a few other men of the village had dismounted and were slowly making their way through the still smoking remains of what was once their pride and joy.  Homes were burnt beyond recognition.  Any meager furniture that was left was worthless.  The few homes that had escaped the flames were charred and reeked of smoke.  It didn’t take long for all gathered to assess the losses as complete.  If this village was going to survive, it would have to be by rebuilding it entirely, from the ground up.  Grim-faced and silent, the men painstakingly sifted through the ashes for anything salvageable, but their efforts were not rewarded.

Roger stopped in the midst of the filthy task and spoke aloud to no one in particular.  “I’d like to kill the man who is responsible for this!”  He sneered and then spat.  His wrath permeated the group, and some of the other villagers began to speculate as to the identity of the arsonist.  Theories and names peppered the conversation until Robin silenced them all and challenged them to concentrate on the task at hand so they could go back to their loved ones and plan for their future.

It was during this bleak endeavor that the calls of Sir Geoffrey were finally heard.  Little John was first to recognize the voice, and he looked over at Robin, indicating the sounds with an upward movement of his head.  Robin stopped his searching, and listened carefully.  He then called to the men with him and motioned to them to mount their horses again.  They did so, and followed him in the direction of Sir Geoffrey’s utterances.  When Geoffrey spied the men he had been seeking, he raced towards them and came to a sudden halt by Robin’s side.  Breathless, he gulped in air for a few seconds before he was able to speak.

Robin waited patiently, and all the men stared at Geoffrey, unsure what his appearance here and now could mean.  He had always been a just and kind lord, but never very hands-on.  They had not expected him to subject himself to the filth of the soot and ash left behind by the fires.  He finally spoke, “Robin, they’ve got Will.”   He inhaled deeply several more breaths.

Robin, his soot-lined face becoming more intensely concerned, reached out his arm and placed his hand onto Geoffrey’s sleeve, grasping it in a gesture of both reassurance and urgency.  He saw the rent in the fabric of Geoffrey’s coat, left by the arrow which Hugh’s man had shot.

“Who has Will, Sir Geoffrey?”

“Hugh.”  He spat out the name and gulped more air.  “Hugh and six of his men surprised the two of us as we were riding to join you here.  He intends to hold Will until the morrow -” breathing deeply, he continued, “He insists I turn my land over to him or he’ll kill Will.”

Murmurs arose amongst the men gathered listening.  Robin raised his arm and silenced them.  “Was he heading back to his castle with Will?”

Geoffrey merely nodded his head, looking at Robin and then down to the ground.  For what hope did he have, with this rag tag bunch?  He knew he had to get more armed men, but he had always been out-manned by Hugh.  “Robin, maybe I should just draw up the agreement, and give up my lands to Hugh.  Will means more to me than anything.  And he has no desire to inherit what I have amassed.”

Robin waited before replying.  He thought about Will and his months as an outlaw. He looked at Roger and the other village men circled around him.  If Geoffrey gave up his land, these men and their families would be at the mercy of Sir Hugh Beauforte.  This was unthinkable.  He studied Geoffrey’s grisled face and concluded, “Sir Geoffrey, why don’t we go back to your castle and think this through.  How many men do you have there?  If it is the numbers you are worried about, I may have a way to overcome the odds...”  He smiled a knowing smile at Little John, who nodded in agreement.

Geoffrey lifted his head and shook it twice as he gazed at the younger man.  He marveled at the way Robin could command such authority and think so clearly in these circumstances.  He conceded, “All right, Robin.  We can talk a bit more, but I don’t want to risk Will’s life.”

Robin grinned.  “Nor do I, Sir Geoffrey!  He has become a trusted friend to me!”  With that, he dug his heels into his horse and whistled to it, insisting on a brisk pace as he led the others back towards Scatlocke castle.

On the road, Hugh lay bleeding.  Every breath brought with it a sharp reminder of the blade plunged into his chest.  He fought to maintain consciousness, and he barked orders to his men to fashion a litter for him, to get him back to his castle for tending.  He would never concede defeat, and he knew time was crucial.  The men, still terrified of their lord even in his weakness, scrambled to find the materials they needed for the litter.  The fires had effectively purged the area of utilizable wood, so they found their task a daunting one and had to spread out over a large expanse.  Hugh lapsed in and out of awareness, and grew impatient.  He was unable to lift himself up, much less search for the needed materials, so he lay, alone, helpless and furious, on the road.  He cursed his men for their incompetence, and he tried to conjure a plan to exact revenge on Corporal Thaddeus.  He wanted to strangle Prince John, for his ingratitude and double-crossing ways.  More than anything, he wanted to punish Geoffrey - the man he had spent a lifetime despising and envying.

Thus caught up in his hateful plans, he did not see the men galloping towards him until they were nearly upon him.  Hugh forced his eyes to focus on the dismounting riders, and was caught off guard when he recognized Geoffrey leaning over him.  Strong arms lifted his torso a bit off the ground, forcing his head upwards a bit, and leading his eyes to gaze directly into the beseeching ones of his enemy.

“Where is my son?”  Geoffrey tried to sound civil, but his hate for Hugh and his fear for Will rippled in his words.

Hugh, struggling to remain cogent, sneered at Geoffrey.  There was a God, indeed!  Hugh would have his revenge!  He thought to mislead Geoffrey now, guiding him in the opposite direction of the Prince’s men, thus ensuring Will’s eventual demise by keeping Geoffrey purposefully distracted elsewhere.  “The prince’s men grabbed him,” he spluttered, as blood trickled out of his mouth.  He coughed and choked, closing his eyes and dropping his head down.

Geoffrey, panicking that Hugh would die before telling him in which direction to go after his son, shook Hugh once.  Robin put his strong hand on Geoffrey’s shoulder, calming him without any words.  Geoffrey marshalled his control and asked again.  “Hugh, where did they take Will?”

Hugh opened his glassy eyes, and noted that he could no longer see the face just above his.  He knew the end was near, but could not bring himself to show any mercy on the man holding him.  He stiffened his resolve and continued his lie, “They took him to the ...”  Another coughing fit seized him, and he gasped for air.  A peculiar whistling sound exited his mouth with each breath now, and his face was almost white.

“Please!”  Geoffrey shouted to the dying man.  “Have mercy on me, now that you are dying, Hugh!”

Hugh laughed once and finished, “ - to the Prince’s castle.  They said he would be hanged for an outlaw on the morrow...”  Hugh coughed one last time, spewing blood and spittle onto Geoffrey.  Then he sighed one last time and expired.  His heavy body went limp in Geoffrey’s arms.

Geoffrey, disgusted, wiped the secretions from his face and dropped the body onto the road.  He stood and found Robin’s face in the crowd.  “Well, Robin?  What say you to this?  Should we go after them now, or go back to the castle for fresh horses?”

Meanwhile, activity continued at Scatlocke castle.  Gilbert had stayed behind, and he and Agatha had effectively mustered order in the courtyard.  Meals needed to be planned, and animals tended.  Tuck led the village women as they prepared the common meals, but he kept an eye open for trouble, especially in Chloe.

In the midst of all the controlled chaos, Marion sought out Chloe to attempt to break through her veneer.  She found her with Meggie, taking water to a trough for the horses.  “Chloe?”  Marion called after her friend.

Chloe, who had been decidedly happy with Meggie, became suddenly sullen.  She did not want any heart-to-heart talks with anyone, and she didn’t want Marion probing into her private affairs.  She steeled herself to prevent Marion from finding out the truth - about her attacks by Hugh, or about her feelings for Will.  Turning, she plastered a smile on her face, which Marion immediately saw through.  “Yes, Marion?”

Marion stopped, crossed her arms and tilted her head a bit.  Lifting one eyebrow, she smiled at Chloe, and spoke, “I thought you and I might work together, and catch up.”

Chloe, sensing that Marion was wise to her defenses, nevertheless held her ground and dug in her emotional heels.  She dropped her bucket next to her feet, and wiped her hands along the sides of her dress, then wiped her forehead with the back of her hand.  “But...?”

“But it appears that you are already engaged in a conversation with our little Meggie, here.”  Marion drew near to Meggie and softly stroked her head.   Meggie beamed a smile at Marion and proceeded to pour out more water.  “So I’ll have to wait my turn, Chloe.”  Marion’s eyes locked onto Chloe’s in a knowing gaze which spoke volumes of understanding and care.  But Chloe was not prepared to let anyone in just yet, especially  another woman who already had a love in her life.  She couldn’t risk being vulnerable.  She felt too raw and weak to begin talking at all about Will and her decided unworthiness of him.

She deflected the intensity of the moment and changed the subject.  “How long do you think Robin and the others will be at the village?”

Marion looked out in the direction of the village and shook her head.  “I don’t know.  As long as it takes to assess the damage and decide how to start to set things aright.”  She walked away and went directly to Tuck.  Chloe watched her only for a moment, and then picked up her empty bucket and followed Meggie to retrieve more water for the thirsty animals milling in the courtyard.

Marion found Tuck sampling some herbs near the makeshift kitchen with some of the village women.  “Thyme - definitely thyme.  And it would do wonders in that rabbit stew.”  He looked up over his shoulder as Marion touched it.  “Oh, Marion.  Did you come to help us here in the kitchen?”  His dubious smile and wrinkled wrinkled forehead betrayed his earnest hopes that her answer would be “no,” though his words sounded inviting to the surrounding women.

Marion wanted to make him sweat her response a bit, but opted to be more direct as she had a job for him.  “No, Tuck.  Not this time!  I need to talk to you though.”  She motioned with her head to a relatively quiet corner where they subsequently  retired.  “I am worried about Chloe, Tuck.  She is avoiding me and won’t talk at all about what happened to her in Beauforte’s castle.  I am afraid he may have ... hurt her again.”

Tuck listened intently, and nodded his head in agreement.  “I have been worried too, Marion.  I’ll see what I can do to get her to open up a bit.”  With that, he tucked his hands inside his tunic and marched over to Chloe near the water trough.  Chloe didn’t see him coming and was in reverie as he approached.

“Hi, Chloe.  How are you on this fine day?”  Tuck was, as always, polite and charming.

Chloe’s defenses began to withdraw a bit.  “I am fine, Friar Tuck.  And you?”

Tuck smiled, “I am well.”  He wetted his hands and rubbed the back of his neck with the water, looking out towards the village.  “I wonder how long they’ll be gone?  There is a lot of work to do to get these people back into their homes.”

Chloe looked in the same direction.  “Yes.  We may need more help, or we’ll be here for some time, I think.”

Tuck turned his head to Chloe and studied her profile.  He wanted to find a way inside her head, to see her fears and to address them as best he could.  “Does that worry you, Chloe?”

She didn’t look at him, but answered, “What do you mean?” in a colder voice, more guarded.

“I mean that we are so near to the home of Hugh Beauforte, and his presence makes you uncomfortable.”

Her head snapped back to focus on Tuck.  Did he know more than he was saying?  She was wary and yet relieved.  Here was a trustworthy man who had no ulterior motives for her.  Maybe she could dare to trust him with her thoughts and burdens...  “Yes.  It does.”  She looked back outwards, at nothing in particular.  A soft breeze lifted a tendril of her hair into her face, and she raised her hand to move it.

Tuck remained silent, sensing that she might continue.  His patience was rewarded after some moments.  “He is an evil man, and I hate him.”  She looked back at Tuck, thinking he would be appalled at her confession.  “Does that shock you?”

Tuck with all sincerity and compassion held her gaze fully with his own.  “No, Chloe, it doesn’t.  He has hurt you badly.”

Chloe, closing her eyes, sighed in frustration, “Is it that obvious?”  She opened her eyes again and met Tuck’s eyes in a moment of unguarded vulnerability.

“No, Chloe. Not to everyone.  But I have looked into your eyes and I have seen that pain before.  In my line of work, you don’t forget things like that.  I am sorry for your pain.  But I hope you feel you can tell me anything and know that I will hold it in strict confidence.”

She remained silent, but did not break his gaze.  After a pause, she replied bitterly, “I am not worth your efforts, Friar.   There are so many others here who need you right now.”

“That is where you are wrong, Chloe.  You are a child of God, and you are every bit as worthy of compassion and help as anyone here.  Let me help you.”  He touched her forearm trying to convey his care for her.

She looked down at his hand on her arm, tears silently coursing down her cheeks.  Suddenly angry at her show of weakness, she shook her arm loose from Tuck’s hand and wiped her cheeks briskly.  “If I am God’s child, where was He when I was being beaten by my drunken father?  And when I was being raped by that bastard Hugh?”  She spat out the words and then bit her lip, embarrassed at her outburst.

Tuck put his hand back on her arm, determined to reinforce his care for her regardless of her anger and her desire to put distance between them.  He knew she needed time, but even more, she needed to be heard and loved and carried through the times ahead.  “Chloe, I don’t know why those things were allowed to happen to you.  But I know that God never intended for people to treat each other in those ways.  But He doesn’t force us to behave well or make good choices.  He leaves it up to us.  It seems that somehow, God has provided a way out for you now, and He has given you people who love you. What will you choose to do with yourself now, Chloe?”

Chloe lowered her head, incredulous that anyone really could love her at all.

Tuck, wise as always to her doubts, countered, “Chloe.  Let us love you and don’t be afraid to love us in return.”

Chloe raised her head and through her tears confessed in a whisper, “I don’t want to love anyone.  Loving leads to needing.  And I can’t need anyone ever again, Friar.  People only hurt you in the end.  I have to protect myself from that.”

Tuck felt her slipping back into her self-imposed abyss of isolation.  Suddenly, a bolt of wisdom shot through his mind.  “And what about the ones who need you, Chloe?  Will you shut them out, too?”

She avoided his glance.  He pressed on, undaunted.  “Meggie?  And Helen?  And what about Will?  He needs you, Chloe, and you are so good for him.  Don’t you think love is worth another try?”

She shook her head sadly and bit her bottom lip.  “I will never be worthy of Will Scarlet.  He deserves better, and he will surely find another woman to ‘need’ in time.”

Tuck disagreed, and as he began to argue with her, a loud outcry was heard by the east gate.  Both Chloe and Tuck rushed over towards the wall where Agatha and Gilbert were standing, looking down to the ground outside the castle.  Clearly, both were agitated, and Gilbert was shouting obscenities.

Instinctively, Tuck pulled Chloe down low, so they would not be seen by whomever was below.  Marion rushed over to them and crouched as well.  A loud voice made its way into their hearing.  “I am Corporal Thaddeus, representing the good Prince John.  I have here an outlaw, one Will Scarlet, wanted by the crown.  You there!  Get me the lord of this manor, one Sir Geoffrey Scatlocke.  He has a vested interest in what I have to say.”

“Why you filthy -” Gilbert began anew, but was silenced by Agatha’s hand which exerted calm but steady pressure on his arm.  He looked over at her, and she took the opportunity of his silence to glean more information from the soldier.

“Why have you come with this man bound?  And why do you need so many men to hold him?  Is he unarmed, yet so dangerous?”  She baited the corporal, hoping to learn more information than he might otherwise have offered.  She had also caught a glimpse of Tuck and Marion as they crouched nearby, and wanted them to understand the situation that they could not see directly.

Thaddeus was incensed at this frosty reception, and insulted that a woman was addressing him thus.  “Get me the man of this house, or I shall not bargain for this outlaw’s life.”  He turned as he sat on his horse, and spat on the nearby ground.

“The lord is indisposed at the moment.  But, pray, tell me what bargain you have in mind, and I wil surely tell the master myself.”

Agatha remained outwardly calm, though her heart raced.  She had managed to get a good look at Will.  She saw that he had been hit across the face and was even now swelling and bruising over his cheek. His hands were tied together behind his back, but he sat upright in his saddle, and appeared otherwise unharmed. He was in the midst of some twenty-five soldiers.  She searched out towards the village hoping to see some sign of Robin Hood and the men with him, but saw no one on the road coming from that direction.  She recalled that Will and his father had ridden out together, and was immediately worried for the safety of Geoffrey.  She looked at Will, and hoping not to betray her worries for her lord, asked him, “Where is your partner who rode out with you, Sir William?”

Will, knowing that Agatha was tryng to learn anything of his father’s well-being without letting Thaddeus know who she was referring to, blurted out, “He is well, and on his way to the ruined village.  He doesn’t know who I am with.”

“Enough!” roared Thaddeus.  He back-handed Will across his mouth and nearly unhorsed the angry outlaw with the blow.  Agatha tried to piece this information together, but remained confused.  However, she did feel relieved that Geoffrey was at the least unharmed, and therefore quite possibly himself looking for help for his son.

“What  is your bargain, Corporal ...?”

“Thaddeus.  Corporal Thaddeus.  I repeat, get your lord.  I do not barter with women.”

“Then I am afraid you will not be bartering today, sir, for I am left in charge of the castle in our lord’s absence,” Agatha countered.  Her eyes sparkled with anger and resolve.  She knew she had to retain a semblance of control, or this lackey of the prince would take off with the son of her beloved - a son who was like her own.  She could not let her fear show, or all could be lost.

Thaddeus, frustrated,  sighed and looked at the ground.  Then he looked up at Agatha again.  He spat and continued, “Very well.  This outlaw is the son of your lord.  Tell Geoffrey Scatlocke that the prince has plenty of reasons to hang WIll Scarlet, once Scatlocke, but in his royal kindness, has elected to give him another chance.  His terms are these: turn over all the Scatlocke lands and properties to the crown immediately, and Will Scarlet will be set free.  But you have only one hour to decide.”

Gilbert, incensed, started to shout again, but Agatha once again silenced him with a gentle squeeze of her hand.  She stood tall and firm and stared at the corporal.  Her thoughts were racing, yet she had no clue what to say or do.  Behind her, Marion whispered, “Agatha, stall for more time.  I’ll go out the back and ride to the village.  When I find Robin, we’ll race back here and fight them.  Don’t let them out of your sight!”  And with that, Marion stealthily crept out of the castle, towing her horse.

Agatha, emboldened by Marion’s offer of help, shouted to the corporal, “Sir, you have given us much to think about.  I fear I will need more than an hour to locate the lord of this castle and of these lands that your prince desires.  Please extend your time limit so that I might secure for you the one that you really need to speak with!”

Thaddeus, anxious to return home, and never fond of the landed folk, refused.  “Nay, lady, I cannot.  Get your lord now and make your decision.  You have one hour.  If you do not turn all these lands over now, I will take Will Scarlet and hang him myself.”

During this interchange, Chloe became increasingly agitated.  She had to see for herself that Will was truly the one they threatened.  She slowly raised herself so that her eyes were above the ledge.  It was Will.  Her heart stopped beating.  Her breath caught in her throat.  She stood up fully and stared at the man who had insinuated himself into her life, so unwelcome but now so necessary.  She realized that Tuck was right.  Despite her efforts to isolate herself, she did love and need this man.  And he obviously needed her, especially now.  The bruise on his cheek was more painful to her than to him, and the helplessness of his bound hands caused her to quake for him.  Even in her darkest moments at Hugh Beauforte’s castle, while being attacked and raped, she had not felt this much pain.  She waited till Will looked directly at her, and then she raised her hand to her heart.  Then she nodded once, and Will understood.

Unseen during the entire interchange, Ned Martin had listened.  He had heard Marion beg for Agatha to stall the soldiers, and he had watched as Chloe listened, and then stood.  He looked up to this woman, and wanted to help her.  She had protected his little sister, and befriended his mother.  What could he give her?  It seemed that Will was in danger, and almost out of time.  So it was time Chloe needed, and Ned was determined to give it to her.  He quietly left the wall, and went to the courtyard.

End of Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

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