Sir Geoffrey paced outside his stone castle, intermittently gazing in the direction of the nearby village. His face was troubled, and his demeanor, agitated. Agatha approached him, tentatively. She had not seen him since the encounter with Will and Robin Hood the night before, and she knew him well enough to know that all was not well. She stopped, several feet away from this man that she had loved her entire adult life, and bowed her head. Her hands clasped together, and she closed her eyes. Inside her mind, she prayed, but her lips never betrayed the conversation.
She thought about Will, the second son of Sir Geoffrey, always in trouble from the day he was born it seemed. Always striving after his own enjoyment, no matter the consequence to others. She remembered how often the heart of Lady Sarah was broken, always from the thoughtless actions of her troubled second son. Agatha’s own heart broke whenever Lady Sarah wept over William. And her own despair that he would ever grow up and make his parents proud of him returned with a vengeance now that she was seeing the heartbreak again, in Sir Geoffrey. Would William never cease his striving and his struggling against his loving father?
Agatha shuddered, and automatically clutched her shawl closer to her breast. She lifted her head and opened her eyes to find Sir Geoffrey studying her. She smiled at him, and he returned it, stretching out his large hand towards her. She walked up to him, extending her hand in return. He took it, lightly kissed it, and tucked it under his arm. They strolled a bit, arm in arm and then Sir Geoffrey stopped. Looking again in the direction of the village, he spoke softly, “He is over there. In the village. Wouldn’t stay here last night.”
“I know.” Agatha felt a pang in her chest, recalling the look in William’s eyes from the prior night. He had clearly seen her kissing his father, and he most assuredly disapproved. She felt both guilt at the truth of their unwedded yet consummated state but anger that Will, despite his randiness and multiple female conquests, would dare to cast the first stone. She tried to hide these battling emotions from Geoffrey, thinking to spare him from her pain, but was unsuccessful. He turned her to face him, and gently lifted her chin.
“Woman, what is it I see in your eyes? Did you hear my son last night?” She looked into his eyes, and merely nodded once, then cast her glance downward. She could not face him, with guilt in her heart - not in the daylight anyway.
Sir Geoffrey considered Agatha. He had not often spent much time concerned about her feelings. Truth be known, he most often took her for granted, assumed she was content with their circumstances. Faced now with the disapproval of his son, despite the hypocritical nature of that disapproval, Geoffrey now confronted his own mixed feelings head-on. He pulled Agatha closer to him, and wrapped his arms around her thin frame.
She stifled a sob. She so loved to be in this man’s arms. She felt truly that they were married, really, in God’s eyes. But she knew that in truth, they had never exchanged any vows, and that she was deluding herself. The lord of the manor would never stoop so low as to officially acknowledge his low-born lover and call her wife, before God and all his friends. And she had been raised to be a God-fearing woman. She knew she was living in sin, and had pushed the thought away - until now. Caught by William, despite his own failings, she now acknowledged her own.
Geoffrey, sensing the growing tension in Agatha’s body as he embraced her, once again tried to get her to speak. “Does it bother you, Agatha? That we are together?”
Agatha caught her breath. How unusual it was for Geoffrey to address her by her Christian name, and even more unusual for him to inquire about her feelings. She looked directly into his eyes, and answered carefully, “No, and yes. It is a complicated question, my lord.”
Geoffrey observed the wave of emotions cross Agatha’s face, turned and tucked her arm under his again, and recommenced the stroll. After a long silence, he spoke. “I have made a mess of things, I fear. And I confess that I do not know how to put them to rights.” They strolled on for awhile. He was a tangle of conflict himself. He really did know that he should make a choice - either marry the woman, or stop bedding her. But he wanted to do neither. He wanted things to stay as they were. But he also wanted to reunite with his son, and it was clear that his relationship with Agatha would be a stumbling block to Will. He stopped walking and gazed at the village again.
In the distance, smoke began to creep into the air. Agatha, seeing the smoke, uttered an exclamation, “My lord! Look!” She pointed at the village.
Geoffrey then spied the smoke, cursed, dropped Agatha’s arm and took two long strides closer to the spectacle. His thoughts were totally on Will and his goal of helping the villagers now. “William is out there,” he muttered aloud, almost forgetting that Agatha was still there with him.
“He won’t come back to you or his home without doing what he came here to do, my lord. He has always been tenacious in accomplishing his goals.” Agatha spoke truthfully, as she knew Will’s character as well as either of his parents, having assisted in raising him.
Geoffrey nodded. She was right, of course - always was able to see to the heart of a situation. “What is to be done, then? I can’t protect him from himself! And fire is a fickle, changeable enemy. The village looks to be the next victim. And how can I help all the people there?”
Agatha approached Geoffrey, as they both kept their eyes on the looming disaster. She knew all the people who lived in that village, and called a good many of them friend. Her thoughts now shifted to their problems instead of her own. “My lord, you could invite the women and children from the village to come and stay in the stables, or in the servant’s quarters, until the battle with the flames is over. You could offer the men a place to stay when they are weary from fighting the fire. I believe William would not turn away such help.”
Geoffrey considered her suggestion. “Yes, you are right. My son would surely see the wisdom in using this as a base - we are better protected from the fire here, and he would be assured of the villagers’ safety if they were here. I will go myself and make the plan known to him!” And with that, he marched to the stables, calling his man to saddle up two horses. Agatha followed him, more slowly, resolving in her mind to prevent more friction between Geoffrey and his son. When she reached the stables, Geoffrey was already mounted. As he looked down at her, she quietly uttered her resolution to him. “I will not be joining you at night anymore, Sir Geoffrey. At least while Sir William is in your company.” Their eyes met, he nodded once, and kicked his horse into a canter. His man hurriedly finished his horse’s tack and raced after his lord.
Agatha returned to the castle, and began preparing the other servants for the onslaught of many more mouths to feed. She was determined to make this work - for the benefit of the villagers, yes. But more for the reconciliation of father and son.
Sir Geoffrey galloped in to the village, and found Gilbert standing, sniffing the air and testing the wind with a wetted finger. When the old man caught sight of his lord, he tendered a rough bow and spoke respectfully. “My lord? Do you see the tidings? We are going to burn, I fear!”
Sir Geoffrey replied, “Yes, Gilbert. I see. And I have a plan. Are there any other men present who can meet with me just now?”
Gilbert ran as fast as his aged legs would allow him, and fetched Roger and a few other men. Friar Tuck, who had been organizing a bucket brigade, scurried over to the group as they gathered near Sir Geoffrey’s horse and heard of his plan. Roger became the spokesperson for the group and readily agreed with the idea of getting the women and children out of the doomed village and into the stone courtyard surrounding the Scatlocke castle. He ordered the men to get their households in order, and to meet him at the edge of the village closest to the fire in half an hour.
Tuck also felt the plan was a wise one, and looked out in the direction of the departed outlaws. He wondered aloud if they had encountered the flames, and if they were safe. He crossed himself, invoked a blessing on Robin, Marion, Little John, Will and Kemal, and returned to the new task of gathering the women and their children for the trip over to the castle.
In another part of the village, Chloe, Ned and Meggie had been ambling amongst the few stalls of goods, and Ned was talking with a few neighbors. Suddenly, a cry was heard, and everyone’s attention shifted to the direction the woman was pointing. “Smoke!” she yelled. Chloe quickly saw the import of this revelation, grabbed Meggie and Ned by the hands, and raced back to Helen. “Come, children! We must find your mother, and decide where to go!”
They reached their hut and entered it breathlessly, only to find Roger slapping Helen across the face and screaming at his wife, “How could you let a stranger take our children at a time like this? You should have kept them here!” He reeled around at the noise of their entrance, and unabashedly pushed Helen away from him. “They’re back, no thanks to you!” he spat at her, as she fell to the floor.
Chloe, mortified to be the cause of the quarrel, and furious at the treatment Helen was suffering, reacted without thinking and interrupted Roger. “Stop it! Helen is not at fault here!”
Roger strode up to Chloe and raised his arm menacingly. Chloe, remembering all the times her father had done the same thing to her, her sister, and her mother, raised her arm in self-defense and cowered. Meggie ran to a corner of the hut, and sat down, rocking herself for comfort. Ned, seeing his father strike his mother, and then threaten now an innocent guest, became frightened. He attempted to seize control of the situation. “Father, please, let’s go and help the other men. I think they must be trying to stop the fire from coming into the village?”
As expected, this distracted Roger from his fury with Chloe. He dropped his arm and focused on Ned, slowly leaving the fog of his rage behind, and emerging into the present disaster. “That’s just what I am going to do. But you need to stay with the women and get them to Scatlocke’s stables. Do you hear me, boy?” Roger’s glare was loaded with threat, and Ned merely nodded in return. Then Roger bolted out of the hut.
Chloe snapped into action. “Helen, are you all right?” she gently asked as she offered her hand to the humiliated woman. There was a red mark on Helen’s cheek where her husband had slapped her, and she rubbed it distractedly.
“I am fine,” she replied. She then went to the door and looked out at the looming smoke and turned to Chloe. “Is it true, then? The fires are coming here after all? What’ll we do?”
Chloe realized that Helen was in shock, and gently led her to Ned. “Ned, you take your mother and I’ll take Meggie. Let’s walk away from the fire and toward the castle, just like your father said we should. We’ll be safe there. Can you do that, Ned?”
“Yes. ma’m. I’ll show you the way.” And with that, he gently took his mother’s arm and led her out of the hut. Chloe approached Meggie, who was still rocking and humming to herself. She sat near the child and slowly brought her hand to Meggie’s arm, stroking her and saying her name. “Meggie, darling child. It’s time for us to go, now. Will you take my hand, sweet girl?”
Meggie turned her gaze onto Chloe’s face and stopped her rocking. She smiled briefly - it was like a single ray of sun on a cloudy day, here for a moment and then gone without a trace, Chloe thought. Then Meggie took Chloe’s hand and they departed, trailing behind Ned and Helen.
The air was becoming filled with ashes and the smoke was beginning to weaken the sun’s rays. Chloe followed the growing crowds of people in the general direction of the castle. After much bumping and jostling, she became separated from her young charge. Frantically, she called Meggie’s name over and over, and ran in circles looking in every direction for the missing girl. Just as she started to panic, she caught sight of Meggie heading back toward their hut. She must be going after her kitten! was Chloe’s thought, and she ran along the edge of the crowd against the flow of people, chasing after the simple, silent girl who had captured her heart.
Marion guided her horse carefully in the general direction of the other outlaws’ supposed goal. She had been detoured, helping a few villagers with their stray chickens, and had agreed to try to meet Robin and company when she was finished. She noted herself to be somewhat jumpy, but less so than her horse. The nearby smoke and flames had made the animal skittish, and Marion was beginning to worry about the safety of the villagers and of her outlaw friends. She caught sight in the distance of an unknown man, well-dressed and handsome, but clearly angry. He had a few guards with him, and he was bellowing something about revenge on the knave who had made a fool out of him. Her instincts told her that the man had likely encountered Robin, and that he therefore was no friend of hers either. Marion kept herself and her horse hidden in a thick area of trees as they passed her on foot, walking away from the village.
Marion wondered if that might be the infamous Sir Hugh Beauforte, whom Will had mentioned several times, with anything but affection. She mused at the lack of horses for the unfortunate Sir Hugh, and when he was out of earshot, she emerged from her hiding place and looked with renewed vigor for Robin and the others. She rode some distance and came upon a trail made recently by two horses. She followed it cautiously, and was eventually rewarded as she came upon Robin, Little John, Kemal and Will. She hailed them, and they halted.
Robin, looking somewhat disheveled and bruised, smiled broadly at the arrival of his lady love. “What took you so long, Marion? You missed all the fun!”
Marion grinned and shook her head knowingly. “Something tells me that I don’t want to know any details about this so-called fun. You look a mess, Robin!”
Little John grinned, agreeing with her. “Marion, you should have seen us! We were -”
“ - just discussing where you might be,” interrupted Robin, glancing sidelong at his friend Little John, in a playful warning to let it be! He thought it better not to get into the details of his latest flirtation with death at this moment. “We’re very glad you’ve found us. It seems that the wind has shifted in a most unfortunate way, and we had best get back to the village and see what we can do.”
All agreed to this plan, and they galloped off in the direction of the village, careful to avoid the oncoming flames.
Meanwhile, Sir Hugh serendipitously came upon two of his remaining horses, and made haste to mount one of them. Motioning to his men, he told them to make all speed in returning to his castle on foot. He pointed to his lead man Robert and urged him to mount the remaining horse. Thus situated, Hugh and Robert skirted around the men on foot, and went back in the direction of the flames and the village, to better assess the direction of the fire.
Back at the Martin hut, Meggie searched for her kitten. Silently but intently, she looked in every corner and under the table, and was beginning to lose hope. Suddenly, she caught sight of a tiny tail flickering under a blanket. She dashed over to the treasured creature and gently pulled it from its hiding place. She held it up to her cheek and cooed at it, kissing it and stroking its soft fur. Chloe entered and watched the tender scene before her, nearly weeping at the simplicity of the love there demonstrated. But the urgency of the fire loomed in her mind, so she interrupted Meggie by calling her name, and admonishing her. “Meggie, girl! Come with me, and bring your kitten! We must run now, and get away from the fire!” Chloe reached out her hands and urged the child to join her.
Meggie, now relieved at the retrieval of her precious kitten, eagerly bound over to her friend Chloe, joined her by the hand, and made for the door. When the two reached it and looked out, they realized with a sudden start that the way they had come was now blocked. Flames danced and leapt on the huts directly ahead of them, and they had no choice but to head out another way. They struggled through the smoke, choking and gagging. Chloe held fast to the little hand, and led her the best she could. She never hinted that she herself was terrified and not a little lost in the ashen, eerie glow. The heat was nearly unbearable, and sweat and soot trickled down both of their faces. Meggie clung to her kitten and dutifully followed Chloe, feeling safe despite the flames and smoke. She knew Chloe would not leave her, and she believed in Chloe’s ability to save her as easily as the kitten snuggled into her own chest.
Chloe kept aiming for cooler and less flame-lit territory. She plunged on, knowing she was their only hope at this point. Separated from any other villagers, they were clinging to each other. Chloe’s thoughts flew to Will, wondering if he was safe, and if he was worried about her. She stopped herself, remembering his harsh words about his father and the servant woman. Best if she remain focused on the present situation, she told herself. Eventually, she found a clearing and led Meggie and her kitten to it. Exhausted, and confused about the direction she should go next, Chloe sat down by a tree, and Meggie joined her. They rested and caught their breath as Chloe tried to see where they were, and form a plan of escape. In the few moments thus occupied, the two were suddenly nearly surrounded by flames. Meggie became frightened, and grabbed Chloe’s arm, frantically pointing at the encroaching fire. Chloe bounded to her feet, and assessed the danger. As she felt the panic rising in her throat, she spied a horse and rider just beyond the smoke, and hastily made the decision to run to them. Perhaps it was Will come to look for her? She hoped, and she ran, clinging to Meggie.
When she reached the rider, she saw that he was not alone, but her eyes were so bleary from the smoke that she did not recognize the men mounted. She looked up in the direction of the first man’s face, rubbed her eyes, and screamed above the din, “Sir, can you help us? We became separated from our people, and are trying to get to Scatlocke castle!”
The man reached his arm down, and pulled the woman up into his saddle, behind him. He motioned to the other man to do the same for the little girl, and it was done. Then, wordlessly, they turned their horses around and galloped off. The area they left behind was soon engulfed in flame.
So confused in her direction and so blurred was her vision, that Chloe did not recognize immediately that they were going in the opposite direction than she had planned. By the time they had ridden quite free of the smoke, and her eyes were clearing some, it was too late. She knew from her past that they were galloping towards Beauforte castle. The sick feeling in her stomach returned with a vengeance, and she entreated her rescuer, “Sir, if you please, we need to go to Scatlocke castle. It is behind you. Pray, have mercy on us and turn around!”
The rescuer mysteriously said nothing for a moment, as he slowed the horse to a trot. Then the familiar voice reached Chloe’s dumbfounded ears. “Why, I have only just found you, my dear. Why are you so eager to leave my hospitality so quickly? Must Scatlocke get all the women in my life? Nay, I insist that you join me for a visit, and some nourishment. We have so much to catch up on!”
Chloe could not speak. She infinitely preferred the fire to this situation, and was momentarily paralyzed with the enormity of the realization. She was back in the hands of her tormentor, Sir Hugh, and she was powerless. And now she had unwittingly brought the dear little Meggie into the clutches of a man even more cruel than Meggie’s father had been. Her worst fears were becoming reality, and she could not escape the nightmare.
Thus mired in her dread, she rode behind Sir Hugh for what seemed like hours. When they arrived in his courtyard, her body felt like lead. Her eyes burned, and her chest was tight from all the exposure to smoke. She was miserable. But she knew she had to be strong for little Meggie, so she steeled herself to cooperate with Sir Hugh, hoping for an opportunity later on to find a way out of this, with Meggie at her side.
Meggie, bewildered at the strange courtyard, and knowing no one but Chloe, was helped down from the horse, and, still clutching the kitten, ran over to Chloe and stood right next to her, her body leaning onto Chloe’s. Sir Hugh could not believe the turn of his luck. He had been enraged at the audacity of the villain Robin Hood, and furious that he had lost not only Robin but Will, too, which would have been a fine revenge on Sir Geoffrey Scatlocke. But now, with the recovery of Chloe, his spirits took a turn toward the positive. She had been a favorite of his, and he had missed her these many months that she had been gone. He reflected with growing pleasure on the prior conquest of Chloe, and thought with lust on the nights ahead of him, now that she was back.
From a small window above the courtyard, Lady Madeleine watched her husband return. She noted his prize catch on the back of his horse, and quickly recognized the servant who had left them so many months ago. She remembered her name had been something banal, and plain - Callie or Kelly. She remembered how she had hated this woman for being desired by her husband. She, Lady Madeleine, a noted beauty by all who knew her, supplanted by this common, unexceptional peasant! It was not to be born! Not again! She would get rid of this wench and have her revenge on Hugh - he would not trifle with her like this anymore! But how to accomplish her goals was the question. She wanted to come through unharmed from the forthcoming battle with Hugh. But she cared little if the woman or Hugh were left alive at all.
Lady Madeleine watched as Hugh dismounted, and neared the quivering woman, the child clinging to her skirts. Hugh put his hand under Chloe’s chin, raising it with some difficulty. Chloe kept her gaze downward, avoiding the superficially beautiful but empty eyes of the man she loathed more than her father. She gritted her teeth, and resolved to maintain her sense of calm. Hugh spoke, basking in the power he held over this creature he desired. “So, Chloe, we are reunited. I look forward to reacquainting myself with you tonight. Bathe yourself and expect me!”
Chloe raised her eyes to Hugh’s and said nothing. Her gaze was filled with hate. She pursed her lips and spat in his face. He jerked his head away from the spittle, but was too late. He looked with commingling malice and desire at Chloe. Then he shifted his gaze onto Meggie. Seeing the fear reappear in Chloe’s briefly confident eyes, he grabbed Meggie by the neck, firmly but not causing pain. Threatening Chloe by the gesture, he knew she understood him perfectly. “Pity, the child cannot defend herself. It appears her safety is entirely up to you, my brash friend.” He grabbed Chloe’s skirt and lifted it to wipe his face. Chloe froze. She knew he would not hesitate to hurt Meggie, just to get his way with Chloe. She knew him for a cruel, manipulative lord who always got what he desired. She knew she would have to give him anything he wanted, in order to protect her small charge. Her heart sunk and she felt her soul retreat into places she had not been since she had found freedom in Sherwood.
Robin, Little John, Kemal, Will, and Marion arrived outside what was left of the village, and looked with dismay at the burning ruins. They saw no one on this side, so galloped around the outside border. Eventually, they caught sight of a few straggling men, who were heading in the direction of the Scatlocke castle. They urged their horses on, meeting up with Roger, Gilbert and a few others. Soot and grime streaked the faces of the exhausted men as they trudged on. Robin dismounted as did Will. They questioned Roger about where the villagers were, and learned that they had all gone to the castle sometime before. So, they headed together to search for friends and loved ones. It was the only thing they could do at this point.
End of Chapter Seven
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