I spent the week in Portugal without an internet connection. And when that happens, I get busy in a writerly way.
I mean BUSY people.
I've written a series of fics which loosely hang together under the title 'The Lady and the Outlaws' and basically consist of Marian interacting with members of the gang who aren't Robin. I've been meaning to do something like this for a while - I wanted to get inside the heads of the other main characters of Robin Hood, and since the character I seem to 'get' most is Marian, it makes sense for me to use her as an 'in'.
Since these fics don't really take place in any form of chronilogical order or even really relate to each other, I'm gonna string them together with one banner (which will be under the cut) and a recurring title motif - 'The Lady and...' . There are five of these:
'The Lady and the Carpenter'
'The Lady and the Man Servant'
'The Lady and the Woodsman'
'The Lady and the Saracen'
'The Lady and the Swindler'
I've completed three and am still tweaking the final two. But here's the first:
The Lady and the Carpenter
Will awoke, sore and desperate for the toilet, in the middle of that cold, February night. He was wedged between Little John – a veritable furnace of much-needed warmth at his back – and Djaq, who was curled tightly into a vaguely Saracen-shaped ball against his chest. Allan was on the other side of her, stretched out as if he had not a care in the world, with Much huddled on the other side of him and Robin snoring quietly just beyond.
Will found himself faced with a dilemma that was all too common to his experience as an outlaw – whether to bear his aching bladder for the sake of staying warm, or whether to seek relief and risk loosing precious body heat (not to mention disturbing Little John, who was never a pleasant man to deal with when he was sleep deprived).
For a few minutes, he lay perfectly still, praying that sleep would find him once again and he would be able to hold on until morning. Unfortunately, his need was now so great that he was actually starting to feel real, physical pain radiating up from his abdomen. He remembered playing with a pig’s bladder when he was a boy; the local pigheard had given it to him and his brother after slaughtering one of the old hogs, pushing a beep breath of air into it and tossing it up so that it floated down again. It had made an excellent game, beating it about the village between them – it would soar up and then come down, up and down – and it would deflate and they would blow it up again – and then, as an experiment, Will had tried to put as much air in as possible. He could remember it swelling, slowly, doubling and then tripling in size, the skin stretching thinner and thinner and then –
Will sat up. This was ridiculous.
As silently and with as little movement as he could muster, Will slithered out from between Djaq and Little John. Little John grunted once then rolled over; Djaq stirred (she was the lighter sleeper) peered blearily at him in the gloom and then, reassured by his patting her shoulder, fell instantly to sleep again.
Stealing himself against the sudden cold, Will hopped across the camp, hugging himself tightly and beginning to shiver violently as he sought out somewhere out of sight of his sleeping friends. As unconscious as they were, he was a man who preferred as much privacy as possible in such situations.
When he had finally relieved himself behind a shrub, he considered what next to do. The most sensible thing would be to return to sleep between Little John and Djaq before he got much colder – but he was starting to realise that he was also quite thirsty, and, now that he was up… But the water skins were back across the camp and he was fairly sure that they were empty. He’d drunk the last of his the evening before, he knew, which was probably how he’d awoken to such a problem in the first place.
Fortunately, there was a stream somewhere nearby. They’d made a point of camping near it so that there would be fresh water with which to cook and wash. The problem became one of how to find it in the dark… It was a few hundred feet from the camp in one direction, of that much he was certain. And there was the body of a felled oak, uprooted in the last great storm, flanking their side of the bank. It shouldn’t be too hard to find…
Still shivering against the cold, he picked up his empty water skin – and then, feeling guilty, retrieved those of the others as well – and set off in approximately the right direction. His progress was slow and cautious. He knew how easy it would be to become hopelessly lost in the forest at night. The dark had a way of making everything look the same, the shadows cast by the cool moonlight over head only serving to confuse matters further.
A gusty, freezing wind was rushing through the trees at irregular intervals, making the branches over head rush and crash and sway alarmingly. The sparse, new spring leaves shuddered and rattled in their places, a if the trees themselves were exhaling in the dark. The sound was not dissimilar to that of the ocean, crashing against the shore, and Will stood still for a moment and tried to imagine what it might be like to be by the sea again. He had not seen it since before his mother had died, and that felt like a long time ago.
The shadows shifted again and Will shivered. He felt curiously unintimidated by the forest that had always seemed so terrifying when he was a boy. A place full of wild things – wolves, bears and savage outlaws. He supposed it was different, now that he had become one of the things of which small children were meant to be afraid. The forest was his home; a formidable place still full of wonder, yes, but no longer frightening.
Even if he were to get lost, it would be an inconvenience not without some danger, but he was fairly confident of his ability to survive until the others found him again. He had a knife in his belt and his axe slung over one shoulder, the quick wits that Allan had taught him and the knowledge of the plant life that Little John had explained to him. He knew how to patch up a wound as Djaq had told him and he knew how to skin and cook pretty much any kind of meat thanks to Much.
No, Sherwood did not frighten him any more. It was just another dwelling place, with its moods, its weathers and its hazards, like anywhere else.
And there, sure enough – he could hear the stream, babbling away not far ahead, and there, the great hulking form of the up-rooted oak. Feeling inordinately proud that his sense of direction had been absolutely accurate, Will made his way forward.
The water was running inky black in the dark, but it was visible enough. Will knelt down next to it and scooped up handfuls of freezing liquid to his lips, gasping as the cold bit into his hands. But it was good to drink – fresh and clean. Djaq had taught him how to taste when water was bad, if it was earthy or metallic, and Robin had warned him never to drink from water that was not running. Stagnant water was the worst for diseases.
But they had been drinking from this stream for several days now, and were all perfectly healthy. Will knew he could drink without fear, and he did so, greedily. He was always thirsty, apparently more so than the others. Allan liked to tease him that he must have some fish blood in him, but Djaq had only remarked that it was interesting.
He carefully filled up his water skin, and then those of the rest of the gang, until each leather pouch was fat with water. And then, drying his hands on his shirt, he stood up, slinging the straps of the water skins back over his shoulders so that he could make his way back to camp more quickly. He was very aware of the cold now, and the thought of getting back beneath his blankets, snuggled warmly between Little John and Djaq, was becoming more appealing by the moment.
Then he spotted his observer.
What he had previously taken to be merely a shadow upon the surface of the water suddenly moved in most un-shadow-like manner, and Will glanced up sharply, reflexively going for his knife, feeling the comforting weight of his axe on his back.
Across the other side of the stream, the land swept sharply up a steep little slope, at the top of which the trees became, if possible, even more densely packed than they were on Will’s side. And there, at the top of the slope, almost invisible against the tree line, he could make out a shadowy figure on horseback, swaying slightly with the breeze.
Will shuddered in fright and fixed his gaze upon the horse, which was slightly easier to see than its heavily cowled rider. Little John told stories about ghosts and spirits and devils wondering the forest at night, sucking out souls and ripping the unprotected to shreds. The others liked to call him a superstitious old man, but Will knew about such stories from his mother and often could not bring himself to dismiss them as easily as the others seemed to.
If he only had a torch to see by –
The figure moved again, the horse shifting anxiously beneath its rider. They emerged entirely from the tree-line and Will squinted, frowning – then suddenly felt very foolish indeed.
The Nightwatchman raised a silent hand in greeting, and he waved back, glad that it was too dark and the distance was too great for the Lady to see him colour with embarrassment.
What was she doing so deep in the forest at this time of night? He felt uneasy navigating the trees in the dark – Little John had his reservations about it, and he had been living in the forest for a good half a decade. Surely Marian could not be comfortable just aimlessly wondering them on horseback at such an hour.
Then again… he would not put much past the noblewoman. Allan had once remarked that she had bigger balls than Robin did, and Will was inclined to agree (though perhaps not in such vulgar terms). Whilst outwardly she usually seemed every bit the cool, calm, demure and very proper young lady of the Sheriff’s court, Will had seen her handle a sword and found the spectacle quite terrifying.
He watched, a little awed, as the masked figure slid from her horse and led it down the slope to the stream, leaving it to drink thirstily as she hopped nimbly across.
“Hello, Will,” her voice was a little muffled behind the shawl she kept the lower half of her face wrapped in, but it was clearly Marian.
“Good evening – ladyship,” Will nodded anxiously. He had never been alone with Marian before and found himself suddenly and unreasonably anxious about the state of his hair, and what Robin might do to him if he found out.
“What are you doing out here on your own?” She enquired, curiously. He could see her cold blue eyes through her mask, somehow still bright in the gloom, and was finding her scrutiny a little unsettling. He wished he could see the rest of her face.
“I was thirsty,” he told her, nodding towards the stream, “our camp – we’re just back there,” he pointed back the way he had come.
Marian inclined her head slightly in understanding. It really was very unsettling to be talking to a featureless face with just those eyes. Apart from anything else, he could not see her expression to read it, and it left him feeling wrong footed somehow.
“What – what are you doing out here?” He asked, before remembering that it probably wasn’t quite proper for him to be questioning a noblewoman and hastily averting his gaze, “that – that is – if – you don’t mind – um – telling me…”
He could hear Marian laughing, quietly, behind her shawl, “I often come through the forest on my way home at night – there’s a trail that comes out almost at my front door, and it’s much quicker than just skirting round. I’ve been travelling it for years now.”
Will nodded, watching his feet.
Marian was still scrutinising him closely, “I’m sorry, Will – I’m making you uneasy.”
“Me? No,” Will shook his head violently, “I – I – mean – Um…”
Marian pushed her mask back onto her forehead and tucked her shawl under her chin – a familiar, grinning face suddenly emerged around those previously glacial blue eyes. “There – any better?”
“It – makes it easier to… talk to you…” Will ventured, as Marian blew into her gloved hands.
“You’ll have to forgive me, master Scarlet, but I forget how unsettling it is when one cannot see the face of one’s company,” Marian told him, sounding so precisely like her usual self that Will was suddenly accosted by a sensation of the completely surreal. It was the middle of the night, in the middle of Sherwood forest, in the middle of February, and here he was, suddenly an outlaw, talking to (an off-puttingly attractive) noblewoman who he previously would never have dared go anywhere near – a noblewoman who also happened to be disguised as a man, on her way home from delivering food parcels to the poor by the light of the full moon.
Very, very strange indeed.
“’S’okay,” he mumbled, examining his fingernails.
Marian seemed to be pondering her last sentence, “it is odd, isn’t it? How much a person needs to see someone else’s face in order to feel at ease. You know, when I first started, the villagers were afraid of me. People saw me from a distance sometimes and made signs to ward off evil – thought I was a spirit or a demon come to plague them… and then they saw me leaving food parcels and stopped asking questions.”
“Depends how people perceive you – how you come to them,” Will suggested, quietly.
Marian nodded, absently, “speaking of which, Will – I’ve some bread left over, if you want it.”
“Me?” Will blinked.
“Well, save some for the others,” Marian shrugged, feeling in the pack she had slung across her back, “but I’d eat at least half yourself – you’re like Robin was when he was younger, Will – far too skinny.” She produced two loaves of slightly lumpy looking bread, wrapped in scraps of white cloth, and tossed them at him.
Will (much to his own surprise) managed to catch and hold onto both. “Um… thank you…” he was very used to women remarking that he was too skinny – though lately, he had sort of hoped that life in the forest might have been helping him to bulk up a bit.
“Don’t worry, Will, you look well enough,” Marian waved a hand, as if sensing his thoughts, “I only worry about you freezing with so little fat on your bones – and the others, in fact, you are all too thin. Even Little John…”
“It’s the winter that does it,” Will told her, “food is very scarce.”
“I know,” Marian sighed, “I’ve been having to double the amounts I hand out, lately. The villagers are even closer to starving than they are normally.”
“Should you not… keep these, give them to the poor?” Will handled the wrapped loaves a little guiltily.
Marian shook her head, “you and the rest of Robin’s men are the poor, Will – you said it yourself. Food is scarce this time of year. Life is hard enough in winter when you have a roof over your head. You don’t even have that.”
“No – I… suppose not,” Will agreed. He was examining the bread – it really was rather odd looking, “what kind of bread is this?”
“Oh, I put pieces of meat in it,” Marian told him, “It’s good, honestly, I’ve tried it. It’s a way of packing more food into one meal.”
Will frowned, turning the bread over in his hands, “makes sense, I suppose…”
“Especially at this time of year,” Marian pointed out, “people need all the help they can get – I’m always having to come up with new ways of getting decent meals into people. For the moment, this is it.”
Will nodded furiously in agreement, largely because he really couldn’t think of anything to say. The only woman he had ever been able to talk to was his own mother, and even she had had a way of glaring at him that rendered him completely unable to form coherent sentences. Marian was an entirely different creature (the words ‘rich’, ‘beautiful’ and, primarily, 'Robin’s' were currently foremost in his mind) and the power of speech seemed temporarily to have vacated his mind.
“So, how is life as an outlaw, Will?” Marin enquired, raising her eyebrows at him.
“Um…” Will scratched behind one ear, distractedly, “my socks are often wet. In fact, they are wet now – in fact, I cannot remember a time when they were not wet.” Then he looked down, embarrassed by his own inanity. Here was, quite possibly, the most attractive, powerful, charismatic woman in the whole of Nottinghamshire (save, of course, for Djaq), actually paying him attention, and he was talking about his socks.
But Marian seemed to be sympathetically amused, “I can see how that would be difficult to live with, after a while.”
“It is,” Will told her, glumly, “it truly is.”
“You’re socks will not be wet forever, Will,” Marian promised, warmly, “someday, this is going to get better.” Will began nodding again, because he had, once more, run out of things to say.
“I should be getting back,” Marian sigh, stifling a yawn (for one, terrifying moment Will contemplated the idea that he might be boring her – and then remembered that it was, of course, the middle of the night and that the noblewoman had not yet been to bed).
“Yes, ladyship,” he nodded, then offered (because it seemed only decent), “I could – see you back, if you want – make sure you are safe.”
“Thank you, Will, but it isn’t necessary,” Marian assured him, though her smile was genuine, “I could find my way through this forest in my sleep if the need arose.”
“Yes ladyship,” Will agreed, “of course, ladyship.”
Marian’s smile broadened slightly, a quick, affectionate grin, “you don’t need to be so bashful, Will.”
Will nodded vigorously, staring fixedly at his feet. Marian shook her head and hopped back across the stream, taking the bridle of her horse and leading it away from the water. “Say good morning – or goodnight – or good evening – or whatever is… proper in such situations – say it to Robin for me, Will.”
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t know, ladyship – what is proper, I mean,” Will told her, quietly.
“Then say hello to him from me,” Marian advised, mounting her horse.
Will looked up at her, earnestly – then stole himself to say what he felt was needed, “will you not tell him, ladyship?”
Marian, carefully steadying her horse as she prepared to turn it up the hill, quirked her head at the young carpenter curiously, “tell him what?”
“That – ” Will began, nervously, then ploughed in head long, deciding that he might as well, given that he might be about to wake up and discover this all to be some kind of dream anyway, “that you love him – will you not tell him, ladyship? If it is not too bold, ladyship, but you understand – he loves you so, ladyship, and he says such things about you that people might think you were one of God’s angels come to Earth or something – or maybe you are, I wouldn’t know, ladyship, but you understand, ladyship – he loves you so and – and – plain as day you love him too – Djaq says and Much says and Allan says and even Little John says and I wouldn’t know, ladyship, because I am younger than them but I am inclined to trust Djaq and Much and even Allan sometimes and definitely Little John because he never says what he doesn’t mean – ladyship…”
For a moment, Marian contemplated Will, from astride her horse, then shrugged and smiled, “And have you made any confessions to Djaq, then?”
Will swallowed, “what?”
“I was there when you announced your theory about how much you were in love with her as yet another reason for why Robin ought to be rescuing her from the Sheriff,” Marian pointed out, “and you do not strike me as a man who exaggerates or lies about such important things.”
Will was once again very glad that it was probably too dark for her to see him go red, “yes, ladyship…”
“So? Have you told her?” Marian enquired, pointedly.
Will shook his head, “no,” he mumbled.
“Precisely,” Marian steadied her horse, “it’s simply not as easy as that, is it?”
Will scuffed one foot against the ground, “at least you know he loves you,” he mumbled, “should make it slightly easier.”
“There is a great deal of difference, Will,” Marian began, gently, “Between hearing that a person cares for you from other sources, and hearing it from that person’s own mouth. Do you not think?”
Will was examining his fingernails, “yes, ladyship. Sorry, ladyship.”
“You don’t need to apologise, Will,” Marian sighed, “you’re a good and honest man – that’s a rare thing, these days. Both good and honest in one body. For the most part, it’s the one or the other or neither.”
Will looked up, shuffling a little with embarrassment, “yes, ladyship.”
Marian smiled, pulling her mask down over her eyes again, “goodnight, Will.”
“Goodnight, Lady Marian.” Will nodded, then added, politely, “thank you for the bread.”
“You’re welcome, master Scarlet,” Marian pulled her shawl up over her mouth and once again disappeared into the somewhat intimidating guise of her Nightwatchman alter-ego.
Will waved as she set her horse trotting back up the hill, and watched her disappear back into the woods. He remembered, suddenly, that he was cold, and that the forest was large and that he was alone again. Clutching the bread – the only evidence he had that he had not just dreamed the entire encounter – he made his way back to camp, glad when he managed to find it again after only a few minutes of walking in what he hoped was the right direction.
On impulse, he tore an end off one of the loaves and swallowed it, hungrily. He had not eaten particularly well in a least a week – nobody had – and he knew that he would not sleep on an empty stomach knowing that the bread was there, taunting him in the dark.
The meat-and-bread loaf was surprisingly palatable. Chunks of cooked rabbit and venison seemed to have been folded into the dough, and it tasted something like a meat pie, only with bread instead of pastry. And it filled him with surprising speed. Marian really did know what she was doing when she was handing this stuff out to the poor. One loaf would probably make two meals for a good sized family.
Or a good sized band of outlaws.
Will wrapped up the loaf he had eaten from, and, tucking both inside a pack, carefully shoved them up, onto a tree branch, to keep them safe from anything that might come sniffing for the meat. Then, yawning and shivering, he crept back to his place between Little John and Djaq, pulling any loose folds of blanket up over himself as he did so. Djaq stirred again, and kicked (as she was want to do when half asleep), as if to reflexively check that he was not some new threat come to attack her.
Will patted her shoulder to assure her that it was only him, and pulled the blankets up over his head, trying to get warm again.