The Lady and The Rogue
All things considered, Allan was not having a good day.
The road that had led to this particular situation was long, bendy and fairly unilaterally hideous – but the unfortunate series of said events could largely be summed up by their combined result:
The fact that he was now stuck, up to his waist in mud, in the middle of a bog, in pursuit of an extremely ungrateful pig, who he was sure was now laughing at him from his dry, grassy hillock some meters away.
“I’m going to eat you, you little bugger!” Allan howled, thrashing wildly (and with little result but to get himself even more firmly entrenched than he had been before).
The pig snorted dismissively and began cropping up the few blades of grass managing to grow through the bog around it.
“Bastard!” Allan hurled himself forward – only to find himself sinking further in. “Oh – bloody hell!”
Allan yelped and twisted on the spot, startled. It was a grey, misty day in March – it had been raining continuously for the past week, reducing the meadow he had been attempting to traverse to its current state of jungle-like swamp. The area was completely disserted and he hadn’t expected to see anyone for quite some time (thus his current state of despair and frustration over the likelihood that he would be stuck in his current predicament for many hours).
Yet salvation, it seemed, came in the unlikely form of one Lady Marian Fitzwalter, standing in her court clothes, astride a fence a few hundred meters to his left.
A little ruefully, Allan raised a hand in greeting, “afternoon, m’lady.”
“Allan, how on Earth did you get there?” Marian fixed him with a look of such derision that Allan would have laughed at her, had she not been his only hope of escape.
“Um…” he waved a hand, “long story. Really long.”
“I see,” Marian folded her arms.
Allan looked about him, then attempted his most appealing face, “couldn’t give us a hand, could you?”
“I suppose I ought to,” Marian sighed, not looking entirely pleased about that fact.
“The good lady has a heart!” Allan declared, grinning impishly.
Marian rolled her eyes, “stay there – I’ll go and get a rope.”
She hopped off the fence and disappeared up the muddy track that led away from the bog Allan was so stuck in. Allan watched her, feeling that old mistrust blossoming in his stomach. He wouldn’t put it past her not to come back… Robin aside (and even Robin could be a right bastard when he wanted), nobility, in his experience, were not a selfless bunch. Well – that went for humanity as a whole, really; but nobility in particular, especially when the person in need of assistance was a lowly rogue and scoundrel such as himself.
But Marian did come back, only a few minutes later, with two burly men in tow, one of whom had a rope looped a few times over his shoulder.
“He’s over there,” Allan heard Marian intone to the two men, pointing at him, “and we need to get him out or he’ll sink and drown – quickly, now!”
“Yes, m’lady,” the man with the rope climbed the fence and walked down to the bog’s edge, peering at Allan doubtfully. He called out, “if I throw this end, can you catch on and hold long enough for us to drag you?”
“Anything’s worth a try at this stage, mate,” Allan replied, waving on mud-coated arm. He could feel the mire already beginning to creep up beneath his ribs – it’d be at chest level in no time.
“Alright then,” the man nodded, “catch on, then.”
He tied a thick not in one end of the rope, then whirled it over his head and hurled it out to Allan. It landed with surprising accuracy, only a few feet away, and Allan, thrashing with his legs to give himself a little leverage, managed to grab the knot and loop the end of the rope a few times around his arm.
“Alright?” The man asked.
“Got it!” Allan confirmed.
The man nodded, and began walking his end of the rope back up the bank, where he handed it to his comrade. Marian, who was perched on top of the fence, observed the proceedings with interest.
“Are you alright, Allan?” She called down, with something akin to genuine concern in her voice.
“Not being funny or nothing, but do I look alright?” Allan demanded.
Marian rolled her eyes.
Allan was eyeing up the pig, still grazing contentedly just out of reach. He had promised the farmer to whom this pig belonged that he would return the animal intact. He didn’t exactly expect a noblewoman and her two… what were they? Bodyguards, probably, laid on by her father to escort her about the place – anyway, he did not expect nobility to understand the significance of a single pig in the life of a smallholder. But such an animal was practically priceless, particularly these days, and that farmer had very few animals left. For that farmer, losing one pig could very well be the difference between losing and keeping his house.
“Can you give me a bit of extra rope?” He called to the two men by the fence.
“What for?” Came the answer.
“I just have to get the pig,” Allan told them, “not being funny, but it’s kind of important.”
He heard Marian sigh with impatience, “that pig looks like it’s doing fine exactly where it is.”
“Yeah, but this ain’t about how happy the pig is,” Allan twisted round to retort, “look – I got myself into this mess for that bleeding thing, and I am not leaving this bog without it!”
“Fine, fine,” Marian waved a hand, “feed him some more rope.”
Allan picked up the slack of what he had been given, unlooping the end from around his wrist, and made a quick, clumsy noose. The rope and his hands were wet and muddy and it was not the neatest job that he had ever done – but it didn’t have to be. The pig was not paying him the slightest bit of attention, and so did not expect the rather rude interruption to its lunch of a muddy piece of rope suddenly being thrown of its head and pulled tight.
It squealed in protest as Allan dragged it off its stable hillock and into the surrounding quagmire, but the entrenched outlaw did so anyway and hauled it towards him determinedly. Thankfully, it was still a fairly young pig and had not grown particularly big or strong. Allan could get his arms all the way around it, anyway, and hold on without it being able to do him too much damage.
“Pull me in! Pull me in!” He yelled, tangling one arm in the rope again and hugging the pig for dear life.
In the proceeding ten minutes, Allan was fairly sure that his arm was actually about to be torn clean off. The bog seemed entirely determined not to let him go, and the pig himself was not exactly making life easier. In the end it took both men dragging with all their might and – to Allan’s surprise – Marian herself lending a hand, before, with a great squelching, sucking sound, he began to move. After that it took only a few minutes to drag him to one side and up onto more solid ground.
Allan collapsed, exhausted, and dropped the pig, who promptly trotted off, looking entirely put out by the whole ordeal.
Marian hopped over the fence and skidded down to his side. She’d muddied her dress some, but looked surprisingly unscathed by the physical exertion.
“Are you alright?” She repeated, crouching next to him and inspecting him critically.
“Well,” Allan scratched his head, absently smearing yet more mud into the fair locks, “I’ve had better days, if I’m being honest.”
Marian smiled ruefully and helped him to his feet, “come on – come back with me. You need a change of clothes.”
“With you?” Allan blinked, confused.
“Well I can’t exactly leave you here, Allan,” Marian told him, matter-of-factly, “you’re soaked through – you’ll catch your death!”
“I have to take the pig back,” Allan told her, and Marian sighed.
“Where does it come from?”
“A smallholder – Samuel, in Nettlestone. It’s him and his son, been trying to raise rabbits and pigs, only they’ve nothing to feed ‘em on so they just die. They can’t really afford to lose another animal.” Allan tried to wipe the mud off his hands onto his shirt, but discovered any attempt to rid himself of the muck to be a completely lost cause. He sighed. “Look, I just have to get the thing back to him. It’s not much to ask.”
“No, it’s not,” Marian agreed, “but you are wet and tired and in need of a bath. Frederick?”
“Yes, m’lady?” One of the men who had helped pull him out of the bog approached.
“Can you take the pig back to its owner?” Marian asked, “I can up your wages for the week by a few pennies if you’ll do it.”
“Your father wont like one of us leaving you, my lady,” the other man pointed out.
“And I’ll up both of your wages by a sovereign if you don’t tell him,” Marian added, coolly.
Frederick took the pig back.
So Allan found himself sitting in Lady Marian’s carriage, wrapped in her cloak (though his teethe were beginning to chatter none the less), on his way back to Knighton, minus the pig.
“If anybody asks,” Marian informed him, “you’re Frederick.”
“Right you are,” Allan replied, doubtfully.
He realised, however, that the plan was a fairly clever one, for all its simplicity. With Frederick taking the pig back to Nettlestone, he’d be gone for a good couple of hours. And with Allan as muddy as he was, so long as no one took a particularly long look at him, it probably would be difficult to tell him from the guard.
“So what are you doing out here?” He asked Marian, through his chattering teethe, on the journey back.
Marian shrugged, “coming back from court. Father is ill again – I go in his absence so I can tell him what is happening.”
You go so that you can tell Robin what the Sheriff is planning, Allan thought, though he didn’t voice the opinion out loud. Everybody and his dog knew that Robin was bedding the young noblewoman. It was the most obvious thing in the world, especially if you actually saw them together. (How else did you explain her loyalty to him? Or his to her?) Allan didn’t care what Much said, no woman was as pretty and quick-witted and coy as Marian was and still as chaste as she pretended to be. It just didn’t happen.
“Bit of a long way round to be coming back from Nottingham,” was all he said, and Marian shrugged again.
“Father makes us take different routs sometimes. He worries about spies and thieves.”
Allan nodded absently and looked out at the passing countryside. He could see Knighton in the distance and was glad that they would be arriving soon. He didn’t really know what to say to Marian. Didn’t see the need to say anything. Aside from the fact that Robin was so obviously bedding her – and that getting a rise out of Robin about how he absolutely was not bedding her and would never dishonour her in such a fashion, was extremely easy and greatly amusing – he had very little interest in her.
Oh, she was a pretty thing, certainly. Especially close-to. He’d never been as near to her as he was now, he didn’t think, and it was remarkable, how pretty she was at this angle. All that soft dark hair and fair skin; pretty nose and pretty blue eyes and pretty little mouth drawn into a thoughtful little line. It was her mother’s colouring, Much said (Much remembered Marian’s mother). A Norman woman, she had been, all sweetness and fine French airs. Marian looked like her but had more of her father’s Saxon-born fierceness and sternness in her – and her father’s piercing blue eyes. Whatever it was, it made her a fine looking woman indeed – curved in all the right places and with that certain air about her that made Allan think how easy (and fun) she would be to tease. Handy with a sword, too, apparently.
No mysteries about what Robin saw in her.
But pretty was not exactly all that Allan found attractive these days, and he’d found himself losing interest in such entirely physical things of-late (well… a little, at least).
Who knew that meeting Djaq would have turned his head so. Not that Djaq was not pretty (she was – that was part of the problem) but more that there were certain things about her that seemed to make all other women look very poor substitutes in comparison.
There were certainly none who could make him laugh like she could.
The carriage rattled to a stop outside of Knighton Hall, and Marian got out unassisted. Allan, however, had to be helped – he really was absolutely freezing cold now, and caked in slowly-drying layers of mud. Even with Marian’s thick warm cloak he couldn’t stop trembling.
“Run ahead and tell Ellen to draw a bath for Frederick,” Marian was saying, even as she gently took Allan’s arm to help him stay upright, “there was an incident on the way home.”
Allan had never been so pleased to get into a bath in his entire life.
Well – he hadn’t received many baths in his entire life to begin with (he couldn’t even remember when the last one had been). But this – this – was most definitely as close to heaven as he was ever going to get before he died.
The clear water quickly turned muddy as layers of dried earth came away from his skin. Not just the mire from the bog but several weeks worth of accumulated grime from the forest – sweat, blood, earth, dead leaves, bits of grit – Allan ducked beneath the water and rolled over several times, like a dog, trying to swirl his way loose of the dirt.
“What are you doing?” Marian was standing in the doorway of the bathing room, eyebrows raised in exasperation.
Allan sat up, and looked about him a little ruefully. He had successfully soaked most of the floor around the bath. He pushed his wet hair out of his eyes.
“I’m washing,” he said, grinning.
Marian shook her head. “I have never seen anyone wash like that.”
“Not being funny or nothing,” Allan remarked, “but how many people have you seen wash?”
Marian rolled her eyes, and dropped a blanket onto the table next to the door, “dry yourself off, then come across the hall – there’s a fire in the other room. You’ll need to get dressed and go as quickly as you can. Now you’re clean, there’ll be no mistaking you for Frederick.”
“Right you are,” Allan waved a hand.
Marian disappeared again, and Allan sank under the water one last time. He had to admit to being a little surprised by her lack of boundaries. A noblewoman was not supposed to come into a room with a naked man in it – whether or not he was in a bath full of water so muddy that it would have been impossible to see anything of any significance anyway.
He dried himself off using the blanket, then wrapped himself in it and peered out of the door to make sure that the cost was clear (which it was), and darted across the hall.
The room, as promised, contained a blazing fire and was comfortingly warm. It was unoccupied, but a stack of neatly folded clothes (not his own) had been placed pointedly on a chair next to the mantelpiece, along with a pair of leather boots and the possessions that had been taken out of the pockets of his old clothes.
Allan wasted no time in getting changed. The clothes were clearly not new, but they were in fine condition – much better than his own had been, certainly. Undergarments, for a start, which he could not remember owning in a very long time. A linen shirt, a good wool jerkin, a pair of thick breeches, woolly stockings… the boots, too, though previously-worn, were tough and comfortable. All the clothes were plain enough to look at, but, once felt against his skin, were clearly expensive. Probably the clothes of a nobleman who occasionally liked to pass himself off as a member of the peasantry.
There was a soft knock at the door.
“Are you decent?” Marian’s voice.
Allan grinned, “that didn’t seem to bother you while I was in the bath.”
This remark met with a distinctly stony silence. Allan thought that he could feel Marian’s icy glare through the door. He smiled to himself. Even when he couldn’t see her, teasing her was fun – he couldn’t wait to see what happened when he could see her.
“Yes, alright, I’m decent,” he told her, and the door opened to allow Marian to enter – she still looked rather peeved at his last statement.
“Nice clothes, these,” he remarked, not at all phased by her testiness, “whose were they?”
“My father’s,” Marian was carrying a tray of food – bread, cheese, a jug of something, “When he was younger he liked to walk around Nottinghamshire on his own, talking to people. He liked to know how life was for the common people – make sure he was doing his job. Back when he was Sheriff, I mean.”
Allan raised his eyebrows and nodded. He’d never heard of any kind of nobleman doing anything of the sort – but then, he supposed old Sir Edward must have been at least slightly unusual, to produce the Nightwatchman as a daughter.
“Lunch,” Marian put the tray down, “in my experience, you lot are always hungry.”
“You’re not wrong,” Allan admitted, “thought you wanted me to go, though.”
“I do,” Marian folded her arms, “everybody knows who Allan-A-Dale is, and certainly the guards about our house do. Every moment you are here my father and I are in danger. But you have time to eat, if you want to.”
Allan promptly began to stuff the bread into his mouth. Hunger had become something of a permanent fixture of his existence of-late. Not that he had been unused to the sensation before life with Robin – just that it had never before been such a task to satisfy it. Finding (not to mention cooking) food was a hugely risky business when you were an outlaw. Hunting was fine, provided you had time to sit about in one place for five hours while your extremely fussy master-chef slow-roasted whatever you caught over a fire in order to make it edible. They couldn’t exactly go to markets, either – no money to buy food, even if they weren’t risking getting discovered and hanged just by turning up at a public gathering.
But he was suddenly forcefully reminded of Djaq, mournfully picking ants out of her breakfast that morning, and Will gnawing distractedly on a rabbit bone that had been picked completely clean of meat several hours ago. Little John, painstakingly consuming the breadcrumbs he could find in his jacket pockets, and Robin, subtly shuffling the last of the food on his plate onto Much’s so that the manservant wouldn’t notice – but wouldn’t complain of hunger later, either.
“I need to take some of this back for the others,” Allan told Marian, swallowing.
Marian raised her eyebrows, but shrugged, “I’ll get something for you to wrap the cheese in.”
She left, and returned with a few squares of clean linen. Allan, ignoring the protests of his own stomach, rolled the cheese up in one and the rest of the bread in the other. The jug was full of milk – but he drank that. If there was one thing that they were never short of in the forest, it was drinkable liquid.
“How did you get separated from the others?” Marian enquired, frowning. She was standing next to the fire, warming her hands. She’d changed out of her court clothes, he realised, and into a grey woollen dress, with a dark green undershirt, the sleeves of which were a little too long for her. “I mean, in my experience, outlaws do tend to travel in packs.”
Allan snorted, “in your experience?”
Defying expectation, however, Marian didn’t role her eyes. She only quirked her head at him and then smiled in a way that so mirrored Robin’s roguish grin that Allan nearly spat out his mouthful of milk in surprised.
“Don’t tell anyone,” she remarked, coolly, “but I was once betrothed to a man who is now an outlaw – he keeps coming back to me, like a wounded spaniel, with his little band of merry men in tow. I’ve seen them. Even spoken to them.” She offered him another slice of bread, amusement making her look almost… Djaq-ish. “They’re much more civilised than the Sheriff likes to paint them. Quite thin, though.”
Allan snorted and began to laugh.
“You’re funnier than people think you are,” he remarked, taking the bread.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Marian was holding her hands out to the fire, “isn’t the weather miserable at the moment?”
“Pretty awful, yeah,” Allan agreed, “not exactly making life in the forest comfortable right now. Will keeps complaining about his socks. He says they haven’t been dry in about three weeks.”
“Poor Will,” Marian remarked, sounding surprisingly sympathetic.
“The man likes dry socks,” Allan shrugged, “me, I’m not so fussy. Still, I do draw the line at bogs. Not my favourite places in the world, I have to admit.”
Marian smiled, “so how did you end up there? You never answered my question – how did you get separated from the others?”
“Long story, like I said,” Allan ran a hand through his hair.
“Then tell me the short version,” Marian prodded.
Allan sighed, then shrugged, “we need in to Nottingham castle, alright? Robin says – fine, market day’s coming up, we’ll go as farmers selling our livestock. But, problem is, we got no livestock. I mean, we’re outlaws, not smallholders, and you can’t really strap a pair of horns to a squirrel and try to pass it off as a goat. So. We decide to borrow some. Meet a poor bloke over in Nettlestone with his last pig. Robin says – lend us your pig, we’ll bring it back and double what it’s worth in silver. Smallholder says go for it – he’s not got much else left to lose anyway. So, we take the pig, and some other things, hop over to Nottingham castle, get in, do the job, all goes smooth. But. On the way out, we get stopped. Bit of a nasty confrontation takes place – pig panics, takes off. We get out, realise the pig is missing. All very well bringing the bloke some silver, but he needs that pig, ‘cause, not being funny or nothing but things being what they are at the moment, pigs are actually getting quite rare. And them’s that’s there will cost you badly. So – off we go to find the pig. Split up, all directions, looking for the bleeding thing. I track him down eventually – ‘cept he’s in the middle of a big lake of mud. Seeing as I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter, I wade in to try to get to him… and… well, was still in the attempt when you happened upon me.”
“I see,” Marian looked rather amused by the entire sorry tale. “A noble sentiment, though.”
“Yeah, well,” Allan waved a hand, “seems to be what I do, these days.”
“Not a bad thing,” Marian pointed out.
Allan snorted, “tell that to my last set of clothes.”
Marian’s smile was wry. “Yes – but now you get new ones.”
“True,” Allan patted the wool jerkin, “you sure your father wont mind losing this stuff?”
“He wont mind,” suddenly Marian’s smile contained something… unbearably sad, “he probably wont even notice. He never does anymore.”
Allan looked down, feeling strangely humbled. He couldn’t imagine feeling any grief over his father’s health. In fact, his soul ambition as a child had been to get himself and Tom as far away from the old man as possible – nasty, drunken old sod that he was. Yet, here was Marian, clinging to her old man for dear life, when she could have gotten out years ago: run off to her cousins in York or married some rich bloke away from Nottinghamshire or joined Robin in the forest.
He wished he understood that kind of love.
There was a sudden crash from outside. Marian jerked round and ran to the window – Allan was rather impressed by the number of vitriolic curses she promptly loosed under her breath.
“The Sheriff’s men,” she told him, gritting her teethe, “they do this periodically – they’ve got no right!”
Allan came to the window and looked down. A gang of armed guards dressed in the Sheriff’s colours were barrelling through the village and up to Knighton Hall, paying very little attention to the damage they there doing in the process. Allan saw Marian flinch as they tossed an unfortunate young man out of the way and kicked a coup of chickens over, sending the animals shrieking out across the village.
“That’s not right,” he shook his head.
“It’s what happens,” Marian’s brow was furrowed in disgust, “and we can’t do a thing. They’ll half wreck the entire village. That was Mary Thatcher’s son they just threw aside; her husband died last winter; she needs the boy to work – if he is hurt then they will both starve! And Old Sam’s chickens and – They’re going to drag my father out of bed. He’s ill and they’re going to demand to speak to him because they wont speak to me. God above I hate them.” Her fists were clenched, her knuckles so white as to be almost popping out of the skin. Allan felt a thrill of shock at the vitriolic fury boiling behind her words – a noblewoman wasn’t supposed to get that angry.
“I got my sword,” he told her, quietly, “could go out there and sort ‘em, if you want. Reckon I could take a couple – drive the rest off.”
Marian smiled, and for a second he could see that she was sorely tempted. But then her more decent sensibilities kicked in and she shook her head.
“No. You need to leave – if they find you here, they will kill you. I’ve dealt with this before, I’ll deal with it again – take the food to the others and go.” She waved a hand.
Allan nodded, then, because it felt oddly apt, bowed a little, “as you wish, then, ladyship.”
Marian led him downstairs and ushered him into the kitchen, directing him to the backdoor.
“There is some cold venison out on the side,” she told him, quickly, over the sound of several someones hammering at the front door, “take that for the others as well. You can get out the back door – run past the stables, through the back garden, over the fence, then up the meadow – the forest is right there – don’t stop, don’t look back and, in the name of all that is good and holy, do not be seen.”
“Promise,” Allan saluted, mockingly.
Marian hovered for a moment, nervously glancing back over her shoulder at the sound of the door hovering under another volley of blows. Allan felt a sudden pang of sympathy for her – having to face that on her own.
Then she did something entirely unexpected and kissed him lightly on the cheek, “give that to Robin from me.”
Allan snorted, “not being funny or nothing, but I don’t think it’s exactly going to mean the same, coming from me.”
Marian rolled her eyes, “just go, Allan – go!”
So he went, taking the food she proffered him and then sprinting out the back door, leaving Marian behind him. He glanced back only once as he exited the kitchen and stumbled into the backyard, with the prospect of a clean get away only meters from his grasp – but Marian had already disappeared from view, to face the demons of the day.
Allan fled for the forest, as fast as his legs would carry him.