: I don't own the characters, I'm just having some fun, promise. -_^
: Much needs Marian's help.
Notes: The second in my 'The Lady and the Outlaws' series. Enjoy!
The Lady and the Manservant
Marian was hanging out washing with Ellen, the maid, and Annie, the housekeeper, when she spotted Much, huddled cautiously on the outskirts of Knighton Hall’s back garden. He was crouched next to a fence post, trying to catch her attention without being seen.
Curious, for Much did not come to visit her without very good reason, Marian sidled over to him with an armful of bed linen and began to throw it over the clothes line.
“What do you want?” She enquired, not looking at him.
Much peered out from behind his fence post, “help.”
“With what?” Marian’s expression did not change – from a distance, she seemed entirely engrossed in her work – but she spared him a quick, meaningful glance.
“It’s not Robin,” Much assured her, helpfully.
“This is – um,” Much edged around the fence post, still crouched low, hidden from sight by the great billowing sheet that Marian had just pegged over the clothes line, “personal.” Marian looked at him directly, and arched an eyebrow. Much bit his lip. “Um – please, ladyship?”
Marian glanced around her sheet at where Ellen and Annie were still pegging up pillow cases to sway in the breeze, across the lawns. Neither were looking her way.
“Come inside,” she took his wrist, pulled him onto his feet and boldly strode back across the lawn, dragging him with her. Much yelped and staggered in surprise, but Marian had learned that if she did anything purposefully enough in her own home, no one would question her, even if she was dragging a suspicious looking man across her garden and into the house.
Much hurried into the kitchen at the back of the house with the look of a mouse who knows he has just entered into the territory of a particularly predatory cat. Marian, however, had no intention of stopping there. The only place she could be assured of privacy was her own bedroom – and there was certainly no question of staying in the kitchen, through which people passed with alarming regularity at all hours of the day and night.
“Come on,” she ushered Much through the house.
“Where are we going?” Much asked, nervously, as they entered the front room and Marian waved him towards the stairs.
“My bedroom,” Marian told him.
“Your – ” Much stopped, “Ladyship, that really isn’t proper.”
“Proper?” Marian raised her eyebrows at him.
“Robin will chase me from here to the south of France if he finds out,” Much admitted, flatly.
Marian rolled her eyes, “do you want my help or not?”
Much shuffled uncomfortably, but allowed himself to be shepherded up the stairs and into the offending room. He hovered uncomfortably about its edges, as Marian went to the front window, and then purposefully closed the shutters that might allow them to be spotted. The entirety of the light was now coming from the window in the far end of the room, and several candles, which Marian deftly lit, before going to perch on top her desk, her feet upon her chair.
“So, what do you want?” She looked curiously childlike, fingers knitted in her lap, head quirked to one side, her expression expectant.
Much swallowed, “I should like your help, ladyship, with um – ”
“With…?” Marian prompted, gently.
“Writing,” Much said.
Marian frowned, “writing?”
“Yes,” Much nodded, “I should like you to write something for me. A letter. If I could say what I want to say to you, and then you could write it down for me, yes? You could do that?”
“Of course I could,” Marian told him, “but surely – I know you can read and write, Much – you’re not illiterate.”
“No – well…” Much shuffled with embarrassment, “well, not in some languages, ladyship.”
Marian lifted her eyebrows at him in silent question, and Much sighed.
“I can read and write, ladyship, quite well – in Latin. And in Greek. And even a little in French and Arabic. In fact, quite well in Arabic, as it happens – but that is besides the point,” he knotted his fingers nervously, “the point, ladyship, is that I cannot write… I cannot write in English.”
“Ah,” Marian nodded her understanding.
“Yes,” Much sighed, “and the person I need to write to can read perfectly well in English but not at all in anything else. Which, as you can imagine, poses a problem.”
“Yes, I can see that it would,” Marian agreed.
She got down off her desk and pulled open a drawer, retrieving a sheet of fresh, brown parchment, and a quill, the end of which she sucked, experimentally, then, apparently dissatisfied, she began digging for another. “If you don’t mind me asking, Much – how did you manage to become proficient in Latin and Greek and yet not manage to master written English?”
Much shuffled uncomfortably, “as a boy, I learned everything that Robin learned when I became his manservant. But I only became his manservant when Robin was twelve. And by that time, he had already mastered written English. So I never learned.”
“I see.” Marian retrieved another quill she apparently preferred and checked her inkwell (unfortunately empty). She paused, “have you only been with Robin since he was twelve?”
“Well…” Much considered, “I have always… sort of… been around, ladyship. One way or another.”
“I was going to say,” Marian agreed, “It definitely feels like I’ve known you since before Robin was twelve.”
“Oh, you have,” Much told her, emphatically, “I was a ward of Locksley as a child – since I was born, I suppose – and I was always running around after Robin, or you, whenever you were there. People seemed to charge me with keeping both of you out of trouble, even when I was not Robin’s manservant.”
Marian smiled, apologetically, “I’m afraid we gave you quite the run around.”
“Yes, you did,” Much admitted, “but I didn’t mind – well, I did at the time, obviously – but not now. Not looking back on it. When you weren’t giving me the run around, we had a good time, I think.”
“We did,” Marian agreed, apparently finding the memory appealing.
“And you are much more civilised now,” Much pointed out, “seems a pity, really. Just as I could have gotten to enjoy your company on a regular basis, my master and I are outlawed and the whole country goes down about our ears.”
Marian grinned, amused, “apparently, Much, that is just the way of things. And it does not appear that Robin had gotten much more civilised.”
“No…” Much sighed, regretfully, “I’m afraid he is still giving me the run around. I’m afraid that that is highly unlikely to change. Ever.”
Marian shook her head, retrieving a small silver flask and pouring from it a stream of black ink, into the empty ink well, “oh, undyingly loyal Much – Robin doesn’t disserve you.”
“It’s not a question of disserves,” Much told her, firmly, though her sentiment pleased him on levels he was not quite ready to admit to, “it is a question of what he has – and, for the moment, Robin has me. He will always have me. He would fall apart without me.”
“Yes, he would,” Marian agreed, regretfully, “the problem being, Much, that he is unlikely ever to recognise that until you leave him.”
“Which I wont ever do,” Much pointed out, emphatically.
Marian shook her head, “You’re too good for him.”
“As are you,” Much retorted, “and yet, here we are.”
Marian looked at him sharply, then smiled and looked away again, and Much realised that he may have given too much of himself away. The fact that Marian had, with Robin, been one of the single greatest loves of his life was not helped by how beautiful, how generous and how courageous she had become in the five years they had been apart. She had always been the youngest of them – eight years his junior, four years Robin’s – but she and he had shared in common an endless, fatalistic and undying love of his master, one which he was sure still burned in her.
And so Much was as bound to her as he was to Robin. He wasn’t sure whether he loved Marian because Robin did – because he loved everything of what Robin was and Marian was so much a part of what Robin was – or because he loved Marian, all by himself, and it was merely misfortune that Robin did also, and that she was high born and he a foundling, and that she loved Robin over him anyway, and always would.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Marian enquired, head tipped to one side, and Much blinked, and realised that he was staring.
He looked away, trying to maintain a little dignity, “I was just – remembering, ladyship.”
“I have just… known you so long.” He looked down, “I remember when you were a baby – you were this long,” he held his two hands apart in illustration, “and quite the loveliest baby I had ever seen. Your father used to let me hold you.”
Marian smiled, “when you weren’t supervising Robin.”
“Oh, I could do that at the same time,” Much assured her, “he was four and you were an infant and I was eight – nine years old. I think I was born into the wrong body; the wrong life. I was born to be a nurse maid, carting about small, impossible children. That was precisely what I did best, back then.”
“Arguably, it is precisely what you do now, as well,” Marian pointed out, with a grin, and Much found himself smiling at her good humour, and agreeing.
Marian looked down, tapping her dry quill against the paper, “I always preferred your company to Robin’s, Much, you know.”
“You did?” He blinked, a little put out. This was completely new to him.
She nodded, not quite meeting his gaze, “you were always much nicer than Robin was to me. I liked you.”
“Oh,” Much said, feeling a little foolish and not quite knowing why. “Robin always made you laugh, though. He used to dangle you by your ankles.”
“Did he?” Marian blinked.
“Oh yes,” Much nodded, “you thought it was hilarious.”
Marian snorted, “no doubt my father had other ideas.”
“Robin was always careful to do it very far away from your father after the first time he was caught,” Much told her. “He could always make you laugh, Marian. Much quicker than I could.”
Marian looked down, “and he could make me cry quicker than you could too, Much.”
That, Much had to admit, was true. Looking back on it, he didn’t think he could claim responsibility for a single one of Marian’s tears as a child. Robin, however, was the culprit behind (he suspected) a very significant swathe of them.
There were innumerable ways in which Marian had changed since Much and Robin had left her five years ago, the manservant had to admit, and equally innumerable ways in which she hadn’t. She was stronger and harder and colder and several inches taller than she had been when they left. But she was still generous, kind, courageous and a little over-sensitive. She still knitted her fingers in that curious way – the same way her father did – and she still smiled that odd, affectionate half-grin that was not a grin when she was amused about something she should not have been amused about. These were the shadows of her old self, under the ice of her knew self – the reminders of what had been quietly imprinting upon what now was.
It was odd, because he had quite clear memories of her from the very earliest periods of her childhood, right back to her infancy. During those early days, he had cautiously cradled Marian’s peaceable form – she was a very agreeable sort of baby – and walked with her up and down the Locksley’s front room when she squirmed or stirred. Sometimes he had held her up to the window, other times, he had propped her up against a cushion and told her stories. Much was the quiet, responsible eight year old, already charged with young Master Locksley’s well-being, long before being officially employed as such. Edward seemed to trust him with his infant daughter.
As a toddler, once Marian had learned to walk, and, if not to talk, then to burble incoherently and wave her tiny arms about when she wanted something, she had been just as agreeable, and Much had liked her. She was much easier to deal with than Robin, who was always running off and getting into trouble. Marian could barely walk, let alone run (though when she crawled she was notoriously difficult to catch) and she would determinedly do everything for herself until she encountered something insurmountable (like a stair case) at which she would wail unhappily until Much took her hand and helped her, one pain-staking step at a time, up or down them. Back then, at least, she had been very easy to please.
And yet, here they were, so many years later. Marian had grown into an elegant, determined and dignified young woman of grace and stature, a person to whom the description of ‘noblewoman’ had never been more applicable. And he, Much, was a somewhat ragged looking outlaw, bound by loyalty and love and duty to another even more ragged looking outlaw, for whose gang he was acting cook and the butt of all jokes. But a good man, at least. Much knew himself to be a very good man.
Marian cleared her throat into the silence that had settled over them, “who are we writing to, Much?”
“Oh,” Much blinked, “um… her name is… Eve.”
“Ah,” Marian paused, frowned, then seemed to recall the name, “ah…”
“Now, ladyship, you must not say anything,” Much hastily interrupted, “she is good, Marian, she is very good and she helped me, and she helped Robin and, indirectly, she has helped you too and I will not hear a word against her and I just wanted to write her a letter saying – thank you.”
Marian twirled her quill about her fingers, “I was not going to say a word against her, Much.”
“Right. Good.” Much nodded.
Marian quirked her head at him, something slightly mischievous and cocky and altogether Robin-esque shining in her blue eyes, “is this a love letter, Much?”
Much blushed scarlet and looked at his toes, shuffling uncomfortably on the spot. Marian observed his reaction shrewdly for a moment and then grinned, “oh Much – this is a love letter, isn’t it?”
Much cleared his throat, a little awkwardly, “she – she – she is – very… very… she is – she is the most…” he cleared his throat again and looked away. Clearly, this was going to be more difficult than he had thought it would be. “Well,” he began again, “at least you see why I could not ask Robin for his help.”
Marian raised an eyebrow, “why not?”
Much looked at her in astonishment, “forgive me, ladyship, but how long have you known Robin for?”
“All my life,” Marian folded her arms.
“And how,” Much continued, in measured tones, “do you expect he would react to me dictating a love a letter to him?”
“Ah,” Marian considered for less than a second before grinning in a way that suggested she knew precisely how Robin would react.
“Exactly,” Much sighed, “I would never hear the end of it. Never.”
“No,” Marian had to agree, “I don’t suppose you would.”
“It’s just so unfair!” Much shook his head, “I mean – he can wonder about all day writing you poetry but if I – ”
“He writes me poetry?” Marian interrupted, raising her eyebrows incredulously.
“Yes, and it’s awful,” Much told her, bluntly, “and when I say ‘write’ – it’s not so much write as it is make-it-up-on-the-spot as he is wondering along hunting deer; what with the distinct lack of writing implements and parchment just lying about Sherwood forest. But whether he’s writing it or saying it, it is all, without a doubt, truly awful. Little John writes better poetry than that. I could write better poetry than that. It is the most torturous, horrific stuff I have ever heard and Allan has threatened to knock his brains out if it starts it again. I tell you now, ladyship, it is awful stuff.”
Marian began to laugh, delighted by the thought. “I’ll tell him to stop,” she promised.
“Thank you,” Much looked visibly relieved, “only you didn’t hear me complaining, ladyship.”
“Of course I didn’t,” Marian agreed. She frowned, “why didn’t you ask Djaq?”
“Couldn’t you have asked Djaq to write for you?”
“Oh,” Much nodded, “well – I could have, I suppose – except that she doesn’t go in much for romance and her written English is not much better than mine. I mean, she speaks it very well, of course, but writing is a different matter.”
“I see,” Marian nodded sagely, then considered, “so you think I go in more for romance more that Djaq does?”
“I… I… wouldn’t know,” Much told her, awkwardly, “But… there was a time when… you were very much… in love, ladyship.”
“I was little more than a child,” Marian pointed out.
“Love is still love, ladyship, I think,” Much said, “whatever age it happens at.”
Marian smiled and looked down, tapping her lips with the pen, “one can be in love without being particularly romantic about it, Much.”
“But you were very romantic, back in the day,” Much pointed out, “at least, Robin was.”
“Yes, he was,” Marian agreed, “apparently still is, if the poetry is anything to go by.”
“If you can call that poetry,” Much shook his head, gloomily.
Marian smiled to herself, then put pen to paper more purposefully, “alright, Much – how should this begin?”
“Um…” Much frowned, then sidled over to the desk to look over her shoulder, “I, um… don’t know.”
“How about,” Marian suggested, practically, “we start with – my dearest Eve? Sound good?”
“Oh, yes, ladyship,” Much agreed.
Marian wrote this down, then looked expectantly at Much, who didn’t know what else to say.
“Well, what do you want to tell her?” Marian prompted, gently.
“Um…” Much coloured again and began examining his fingernails, “I want to tell her… I want to tell her that I – I hope she is safe – and well – and that I – I – miss her and – and that I am really, very, very glad that we met and that I do miss her, I do, which is strange because I didn’t really know her that long to begin with but I do miss her and – and – I should like to see her soon, but I can’t, because I do not want to endanger her. But soon. I will see her soon.”
He stopped and drew breath and realised that Marian had that half-there but not-really amused-at-something-she-shouldn’t-be grin on her face. It made him nervous. “What?”
“That is really quite lovely, Much,” she told him, unexpectedly, “shall I write it down?”
“Um… yes.” Much said, “but not in those words, obviously – in better words. Do you… know any better words?”
“I think your words work very well the way they are,” Marian answered, gently, “but we’ll see if we can’t make this a little more… structured.”
“Yes, right, structured,” Much agreed, hastily.
“Let’s see…” Marian considered, “how about… despite our originally brief association, I find I miss you more acutely with each passing day, and now my heart is…”
“Heavy,” Much put in, helpfully.
“…heavy with your absence,” Marian finished.
“Yes,” Much nodded, “That sounds very good – put that down.”
Marian obliged, with deft, even strokes of her pen. Much watched the words form upon the page before his eyes. Marian’s handwriting really was excellent – he could pick out all of the letters that made up his name, and a few others besides that he had learned from Robin.
“What else?” Marian enquired, when she had finished.
Much frowned, “the bit about – hoping she is well.”
“Yes,” Marian agreed, “something like… you fill my heart with hope and my head with worry as I pray for your good health and fortune.”
“Yes!” Much agreed, “my lady, you are very good at this.”
“I used to read the letters that father and mother wrote to one another while they were betrothed,” Marian explained, “father kept all of them – they’re in the cellar, in a chest with several bottles of very strong alcohol. He’s hidden some of them, I think – they’re probably inappropriate for his poor innocent daughter to read – but I’m sure I’ve picked up a thing or two about writing sweetly from them.”
“You have,” Much told her, “put that down.”
“That I used to read mother and father’s love letters?”
“No – the bit about heart and hope and fortune,” Much waved a hand, “it was very good.”
“Alright,” Marian dutifully added this sentence and then looked at him expectantly, “what else was there?”
“Um… um…” Much scratched his head, “that I am glad that we met.”
“Despite such worries,” Marian began, out-loud, “I would rather possess them now than not, for they are proof of our meeting and… I am glad of that.”
“Oh, very good,” Much nodded, “yes, that will do too – put that.”
Marian had already begun to write. Much watched the dark lines of letters and words, some that he recognised and most that he did not, begin to stretch down the page.
“Anything else?” Marian enquired, when she had dotted the final sentence.
“That I shall try to see her soon, when it does not endanger her to do so,” Much reminded her, anxiously, and Marian nodded.
She sucked on her quill for a moment, accidentally turning he tip of her tongue black and staining her lips an unpleasant grey, then suggested, “Please know that my time apart from you is not a sign that my…”
“Affection?” Much offered.
“…affection,” Marian agreed, “… has… faltered – but a sign of its growing, for I do not wish to endanger you by my presence.”
“I shall, however,” Much took over, feeling rather inspired, “do my best to endeavour to see you forthwith, once there seems to be less scrutiny upon you by the Sheriff and I am not running for my life amongst other similarly chastened outlaws.” He paused, then added, as an after thought, “yours, always, Much.”
Marian penned this obediently, and blew gently onto the ink to help it dry, “that was very good, Much.”
“Thank you, ladyship,” Much flushed, rather pleased.
“How do you intent to deliver this, if I may ask?” Marian questioned, picking up the parchment and wafting it gently as the last of the ink dried into place.
“We are going to pass by Bonchurch soon enough,” Much told her, “she lives with her mother in the village there – I shall slip it beneath her door as we pass through.”
Marian nodded thoughtfully, “I could deliver it for you, if you want.”
Much raised his eyebrows, “could you?”
“As the Nightwatchman,” Marian shrugged, “I’ve been meaning to venture up that way with supplies anyway, the plough tax has hit that area hard…”
“Yes,” Much agreed, shaking his head, “I could not save them from it.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Marian pointed out, gently, “I was there, Much – we both were. The sheriff lets no lord oppose him.”
Much nodded, still looking a little shame faced. Marian gave him a nudge, “at least it means I can deliver a letter to your sweetheart, if you want.”
“She is not – ” Much blushed and shook his head violently, “she is just – very nice. And very good. And very brave.”
Marian smiled, “alright, Much. Shall I take it to her for you? I can do it tonight, put it in with some bread and deliver it straight into her hands if you want. Would save you from endangering her, at least – you know that the Sheriff will have men watching her home.”
Much did not take long to think about it, “that would be most helpful of you, Marian, thank you.”
“You don’t need to thank me, Much,” Marian told him, gently, and placed the paper back onto the table, “do you want to sign it?”
“I should…” Much took the quill Marian proffered him, hesitantly, “I know how – I am sure I can remember how…”
He frowned for a moment in concentration, then lent forward, and, with carefully thought-out movements, signed his name at the bottom of the page – Much.
“You write well enough,” Marian observed, looking at the slightly shaky but perfectly legible name that Much had put down.
Much shook his head, “yes, but that is all I can write – at least in English. And even in Latin and Greek Robin complains that my writing is impossible to read.”
“Robin should not be talking,” Marian told him, “his writing is some of the most obscure stuff I have ever seen, in any language.”
“And his spoken is not much better,” Much pointed out, “when it is poetry, at least.” And Marian laughed, carefully folding the letter into four.
“I shall deliver it tonight, Much, straight into her hands, I promise.”
“Thank you, my lady,” Much looked down, feeling oddly humbled by her kindness.
“And I have said,” Marian tucked the note into the sleeve of her dress, where it would be securely hidden, “that you do not need to thank me.”
She escorted him back out of the house, dashing from her bedroom to the front room to the kitchen and out the back door again. Annie and Ellen had disappeared and there was only the billowing white bed linen blowing on the washing lines to provide them cover as they made for the back fence of Knighton Hall’s grounds.
Much hopped the fence with surprising agility and stood on the other side.
“Where do the others think you are?” Marian asked, standing opposite him.
Much shrugged, “I said I was going for a walk. Robin goes for walks all the time. I mean, usually, he is visiting you. Or he is brooding.”
“Or,” Marian pointed out, “he is doing both at the same time.”
“Yes,” Much agreed, “that’s probable. But the point is – he goes on walks, sometimes hours at a time without telling us where he is, at least once or twice a week. So I should be allowed to go on the occasional excursion by myself without needing to explain myself.”
“Seems sensible,” Marian agreed. “Are you going to go back to them now?”
“Well…” Much contemplated the sky – the sun was almost directly over head, “it is nearly time for lunch. And they will all starve if I am not there to cook it for them. And if I am not, when I return, they will be hungry and complaining, and really, it’s not worth my while. Besides, we can’t rob from the rich and give to the poor on empty stomach. A hungry outlaw is a useless outlaw, you know.”
Marian grinned, “good luck, Much.” She hopped onto the lowest rung of the fence, leaned over and kissed his cheek by way of farewell.
Much blushed scarlet and shuffled uncomfortably, “you too, my lady.”
Then he turned tail and fled into the forest, as fast as his legs would carry him.