Once upon a time, in the greenwood...
Everyone knows the story of Robin Hood, how he "stole from the rich, to give to the poor." His ladylove Maid Marian is just a footnote in the tale, someone to give Robin that chivalrous aspect, like King Arthur and the other men of derring-do in those ancient tales.
Yet, what about Marian? If she existed, surely she had a heart and mind of her own. Robin wouldn't stand for anything less than a brave lass to match his own impetuous personality. How can Marian be both a woman of the Middle Ages and a spirited partner for the legendary bandit?
Perhaps it starts with a motherless young girl whose paternal supervision was intermittent at best... until now...
Stretching luxuriously, Lady Marian Fitzwalter vaguely heard the songbirds outside her window greet the late spring morning. A warm breeze blew through the sleeping curtains of her canopied bed to waft over the young Lady of Huntingdon as she snuggled deeper beneath the coverlet, and she scented the summer-to-come in the air. She opened an eye to see how far the sun had risen and yawned as she spied dawn just peeking through the cracks in the shutters. It was still early then.
Absently she wondered if she could get dressed and out of the manor before her nurse Godebertha waylaid her with tedious and unpleasant plans for the morning. Rob would certainly be waiting for her in the greenwood on such a day, and she had no wish to be peppered with questions about where she might be going. Marian was about to throw back the coverlet to leap out of bed when she heard tuneless humming in the next room – a certain sign that the nurse was already up and preparing for the day.
Suddenly staying in bed with the covers pulled over her head had more appeal. Marian groaned inwardly, and stubbornly squirmed deeper under the heavy linens.
“Lady Marian!” the nurse called in an insufferably bright tone of voice. “Time to get up, sweetling. We have much to do today…”
Feigning sleep, she tried to ignore Godebertha as the old woman opened the shutters, drew back the drapes on the bed with a grating rattle and generally bustled about the chamber making as much noise as possible.
“Come, come, my lady,” she urged briskly. “No more games. I know you are awake, and you mustn’t keep your father waiting.”
The girl’s curiosity was aroused. “Father?” she asked, opening an eye to watch her nursemaid's progress about the room. “Why should I keep him waiting? He’s not due back from Westminster for another fortnight.”
“Not so, my dear,” the nurse busily sorted through Marian’s current gowns in a trunk by the window. “He rode in late last night, and has business on the other side of the shire this afternoon. But he wanted to speak with you first before leaving again…” She clucked her tongue distractedly, “Your wardrobe is in a sorry state, my lady. It’s a good thing there’s a faire next week so I can look for new fabrics. I can’t send you out in what you have here…” She shook her head then and sighed with resignation, “Well, what are you waiting for, youngling? There’s water in the basin for you to wash up. You shouldn’t keep His Lordship waiting.”
Marian did not have a good feeling about this.
She was not feeling any better about her father's summons a little while later as she cooled her heels outside his study. The clerk had been back and forth, his arms laden with various scrolls and stacks of vellum. However, he had not bothered to glance her way to indicate he knew she was waiting.
Roger was not one of her favorite people. Nor was Marian his. Their enmity was well-known among the household and most stayed well clear of their quarrels. Under normal circumstances she would not have borne his discourtesy, but with her father on the other side of the door her hands were tied.
The clerk knew that, of course, and made the most of it. By the time he finally ushered Marian into the Earl’s presence, she was fairly seething.
“Don’t give me that look, young lady,” Fitzwalter scowled back at her while striding before the large oriel window. “I don’t have time for your churlishness this morning. Sit there,” he pointed to a stool before his desk, “and listen to what I have to tell you.”
“Yes, my lord,” she said meekly, though a streak of independence flashed in her dark eyes.
The Earl of Huntingdon expected defiance from his daughter, so he checked his pacing for a brief moment in surprise at her submissiveness. Marian only gave him an attentive face, so he continued.
“You have mentioned more than once of late that you are no longer a child and have no need of a nurse…”
Brightening for a moment, as this was indeed a conversation she had with her father several times recently, Marian had hope this was not going to be the trial she feared. That hope was quickly dashed, however.
His Lordship continued, “So since you are now a young woman, it is time you take up womanly duties. After the Easter solemnities you will be escorted to Westminster where you will be fostered in the household of Queen Eleanor.”
“What?!” she exclaimed, half-rising from her stool. “No!”
The look he gave her made Marian quail and sink back on the hard wooden seat. “I will brook no dissent, girl! Reconcile yourself, for I will not change my mind no matter how much you plead to the contrary.”
“How long must I be away?” she asked in a trembling voice.
“As long as it takes to bring you up as a proper young woman,” he answered. “Then I will find you a wealthy husband.”
Marian could not help herself. She shot out of her seat to defy him, “I will have none of your great lords for a husband, my lord. I have already made my choice!”
Roughly, he grabbed her by the upper arm and pulled her close. “If you are speaking of that whelp Locksley, you can think again! He is no fit husband for you, and after today his family will live in disgrace. I would not let that Forester’s brat within a league of you now!”
“What have you done to him?!” Marian cried.
Shoving her away, he growled, “That’s none of your concern. Now get back upstairs and start packing! Easter is a fortnight away. After that you are off to Westminster…”
Blinded by tears, the girl fumbled for the door and stifled a sob as she fled the room. Roger the clerk smiled smugly.
Upstairs, Marian gave in to the tears, and it was some time before she would be consoled. The nurse continued to cluck at her as she paced the chamber collecting various items to pack in her charge’s baggage. The old woman did not seem perturbed that Marian seemingly had no more need of her companionship; nor did she take the time to soothe the girl’s distress.
At last Marian’s sobs subsided and she sat up to rub her eyes with the heels of her hands.
“Don’t do that, sweetling,” said the nurse. “You’ll ruin your skin.”
“I don’t care…”
The older woman put a hand on her ample hip and raised an eyebrow, “Yes, you do. Or you will when you see the Locksley boy. You don’t want him to see you all blotchy now, do you?”
“Small chance of that happening…” her voice trembled. “Father has said that something is going to happen to put his family in disgrace and he won’t let me see him.”
“All the more reason for you to compose yourself to go find and warn him.”
Marian looked at the nurse with wonder, “Really? You’ll let me go and not tell?”
Briskly she folded the linen shift that she had tossed over her arm, “I will… as long as you promise me something.”
“That you won’t turn me out. That you’ll let me come with you to Westminster – as your chaperone instead of your nurse.”
The girl scrutinized her unlikely ally. There was no reason to distrust the old woman. While Marian felt somewhat confined by her constant coddling, she had never thwarted her on anything important. She was just a kindly busybody that tried to make up for the loss of Marian’s mother who died suddenly when she was a young child. She decided it was worth the risk.
“It’s a bargain then. Can you keep Roger occupied? He’s such a sneak and he’s sure to snitch…”
“Don’t you worry about that good-for-nothing lickspittle, my dear,” she assured Marian. “Go find your lad and then come back quickly ere you’re missed!”
Not needing a second urging Marian slipped out of the manor, wary of meeting her nemesis along the way. The odious Roger seemed to be occupied in another section of the manor, however, and Marian felt sure that she got away unnoticed.
Wasting no time, the girl dashed into the forest towards the modest home of the Fitzooths’ near Locksley town; but when she arrived no one seemed to be at home. Master Hugh she did not expect to find, as he would be out patrolling the King’s forests for poachers, but the place seemed deserted, for neither Rob nor his mother answered her call.
Upon entering the cottage, Marian grew concerned. Something was definitely amiss. Several chairs were overturned… breakfast still remained largely uneaten on the table… and Rob’s beloved bow and quiver were still in the corner near the hearth where he kept them when not in use.
Before she could tear through the house to discover what had happened, Aelfred the groom, carefully poked his head through the doorway. “If you’re looking for Rob, milady, he’s gone… taken with the Forester and his dame off to the Sheriff’s castle to answer charges,” he offered meekly.
“Charges?!” she wheeled to face him. “What charges?”
“They wouldn’t say, milady,” he replied. “I don’t think the Master himself knew. They just hauled him off and the family with him! What are we to do?”
Suddenly Marian remembered the Earl’s words from earlier and she was angry, “This is my father’s doing, Aelfred! And he won’t get away with it!”
The castle keep was not one of Marian’s favorite places to frequent. It was daunting and dank, but she had been there enough times with her father to know her way around the building. She knew some of the guards too, and knew which ones would be sympathetic.
As she crept through the main corridor, the girl looked for a particular favorite of hers. Wilfred was at his usual post at the north end of the inner keep. He greeted her with a smile, but it soon faded when he saw her anxious state.
“What’s wrong, lass? You look like the Devil himself is after you,” the sentry said.
Breathlessly, she answered, “Wilfred, please tell me where I can find Hugh Fitzooth and his family! I know they are here!”
“Whoa! Slow down…” he patted her shoulder. “Yes, they are here. But what business do you have with the Forester?”
“It’s his son Rob…he and I… well…” she stammered with embarrassment.
“Ah,” was all the guard said seeming to understand her plight.
With a trembling voice, Marian pleaded, “Please, Wilfred…will you take me to him? I promise I won’t stay long. I just need to talk to Rob!”
He gave her a long, measured look then glanced up and down the corridor. “You know I could get locked up myself if your father or the sheriff finds you?” Her eloquent glance was enough to melt him. “Very well… just a few moments now. Follow me!”
Having been a guard at the keep for nigh on twenty years, Wilfred led Marian down to the prisoners’ cells without incident. Yet, he cautioned her again to be swift as he remained as lookout at the end of the corridor.
The girl was willowy, but small like most of her mother’s people, the Welsh; and she had to stand on tip-toe to look through each of the doors’ barred windows. While she knew what to expect, Marian still drew back quickly from the first several windows. The men locked in those cells, she had no doubt, belonged there. Grungy and feral, they were the worst sort of criminals; men who preyed upon innocent travelers and the weak or disabled. They looked up at her with suspicion and she avoided eye contact with them to move on to the next cell.
At last, Marian found the door she needed. “Rob!” she whispered urgently.
The gaze that met hers this time was young and troubled, flashing a brilliant blue in the dimly enclosed chamber. Leaping up, young Robert Fitzooth dashed to the door.
“Marian!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
Nervously she shushed him and glanced down the corridor. When no one was forthcoming, she breathed a bit easier. “I went to warn you,” she replied tearfully, “but when I got there Aelfred told me you’d all been taken here. Rob, I’m so sorry! This is all my fault!”
“No, lass,” said a softly deep voice, and Master Fitzooth was suddenly standing behind his son. “This enmity between your father and me is old and bitter. He knows my claim to Huntingdon is strong, and with my wife’s kinsman Sir George Gamewell behind us my petition might actually be heard by the King. He won’t let that happen.”
“What can I do?” she asked.
“Nothing, my dear. Go home and be safe. We would not have you in trouble with your father over our welfare.”
“But…” she protested.
“Father is right, Marian,” murmured Robert, reaching his fingers through the bars to intertwine with hers. “We must find our own way out of here.”
Marian stood as high as she could to see him better and whisper desperately, “Rob, my father is sending me away. I must go to Court and I don’t know when he will let me come back home.”
His sigh was heavy, but he sounded optimistic as he answered, “Marian, nothing will keep us apart for long. One way or another I will come for you when I can – I promise!”
“Hsst! Lady Marian!” she heard Wilfred whisper urgently. “Time to go, lass!”
Reluctantly, the girl stepped away from the door, her fingers clutching Robert’s until the last moment. “Farewell…” she mouthed to him.
“We’ll see each other soon, Marian...” he murmured, though it was doubtful she could hear him. “I’ll be there when you least expect it!”
Once she wrest herself away from the cell, Marian ran back to Wilfred. As she drew breath to speak she heard voices coming towards them – and one she knew well!
“That’s Roger, my father’s clerk -- Wilfred, he can’t see me here!”
Silently, the guard took her by the arm and hustled her into the nearest empty cell. Before closing the door, he murmured, “Quiet now, lass. I’ll be back to get you when it’s safe.”
Marian felt her heart fall to her feet when the door swung heavily shut and the key rattled in the lock.
“Wilfred…” she whispered at the window, but she got no answer.
He left her alone and locked in the cell.
Marian had little time to worry over her quandary because Roger and the Sheriff of Nottingham could be heard just outside the cell.
“The Earl bade me come to check up on our new prisoners, my lord sheriff,” she heard the clerk say in a toadying voice. “With the Sheriff of Huntingdon away, he appreciates your help in the matter.”
“I have no more love for Fitzooth than your master,” replied the Sheriff. “Nor does the Bishop of Hereford. The Head Forester has been a thorn in all our sides for longer than I care to remember.”
“Indeed. My master says the same. Fitzooth is over-curious when it comes to Huntingdon’s books and often stirs up trouble in Locksley among the townsfolk.”
“Meddling fool!” Nottingham grumbled. “Come, let us make sure he and his troublesome family are secure…”
Feeling a little dizzy, Marian realized she had stopped breathing while listening to the exchange beyond her door. Prospects did not sound good for the Fitzooth family, and she felt helpless to aid them in their plight.
Once they passed on down the corridor, the young captive heard no more of their conversation. She thought of Robert and his family and valiantly tried not to cry. Robert and Master Fitzooth she had no doubt would be fine for the time being, though the youth would be anxiously restless in such a small space; but, Dame Fitzooth had not been well most of the winter and a cold, damp cell was hardly the place to keep her from relapsing.
She hoped they would not have to be incarcerated much longer and was determined to do something about it. Now if only she could get out of the cell!
“Wilfred!” she hissed desperately over the window.
An answering, “Shush!” drifted back to her and the door swung cautiously open. “Quickly, lass… before they head back this way!”
The door had not even been locked.
“I thought… I mean, I was afraid you’d left me…” she stammered.
“I had to make it look good in case they saw me,” he explained. “I just put the key in the door… never mind the rest. You need to get back home before you’re found out. Let’s go!”
Unlike most of her female peers, Marian preferred reasoning and puzzles over fluttering and the latest fashion at court. Her friends’ predicament was a puzzle, indeed; and she thought hard all the way home. She somehow felt responsible for the Fitzooths’ situation despite the Forester’s assurances to the contrary. It was up to her to get them out of prison.
Just as she stepped onto the lane that led to Huntingdon’s castle, she saw her nurse bustling towards her.
“Oh, miss! I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” she panted breathlessly. “Roger, the little weasel, got away before I could distract him as I promised. I heard he was on the way to see the Fitzooths in the keep. I was afraid he’d stumble upon you along the way! Are you all right?”
“I saw him, but he didn’t see me,” Marian answered. “He should be following close behind though, so we should get back before he catches us. Besides… I have to speak with my father.”
Her expression was set, which made the nurse wary. “What are you thinking, mistress?”
“I don’t know exactly… hopefully it will come to me before I find him.”
When Marian reached her father’s study, she still did not have a plan set. The nurse gave her a worried look and the girl merely shrugged and took in a deep breath. She had her hand on the door to push it open, but heard voluble conversation in the chamber. Both she and the old woman recognized the languid tones of the Bishop of Hereford as well as the Earl’s deep bass. They sounded quite pleased with themselves.
There was the sound of clinking coins being exchanged and Marian heard her father say, “Here is the donation, Your Grace…” He stressed the word “donation” in a significant way that certainly meant the money meant more than a philanthropic wish to help the church.
“The Church most humbly accepts your goodwill, my lord,” the bishop responded and she could see the prelate grin through the crack in the doorway as he pocketed the bag of coins into his own purse.
The girl felt anger sear through her veins to witness such deception from a man of the Church, not to mention her own father. But now she had ammunition.
Waiting for the bishop to leave, Marian sent Godebertha up to her chambers while she hovered in an alcove close to her father’s study. She worried that Roger would show up before she could speak to the Earl, but the clerk must have been enjoying his opportunity to gloat with the Sheriff for she saw the cleric leave and no sign of her annoying nemesis.
Taking a deep breath, she entered the study and closed the door firmly behind her. The Earl looked up from his desk and said brusquely, “I don’t have time for you now, my dear. Run along.” When she did not move from the door he said, “Did you hear me, Marian?”
“I heard you perfectly, Father,” she answered with steel in her voice, though her knees shook beneath her gown. “However, you and I have something important to discuss.”
“This can wait until…”
“No. It cannot.”
The tone of her voice brought him up short and he started to sputter, “Now see here, young lady…”
“No, Father. You see here. I know what you have done. I know that you have bribed the Bishop and that resulted in the Forester and his family being jailed. If you want me to be quiet about this at Court, you will release them.”
“I will do no such thing, Marian. This is a matter between me and Fitzooth. You keep out of this!”
“Then make it between just you and the Forester. Don’t punish Dame Fitzooth or their son!”
Angrily the Earl said, “You don’t fool me, girl! I want that boy as far away from you as possible…”
“But his mother is ill!”
“Marian!” he roared.
Desperately she said, “Then I will offer you a bribe, Father!”
“What could you possibly offer me that would make me change my mind?”
“I will leave for Westminster right away,” Marian answered, though it cost her dear. “Tomorrow if you wish. But… I must see that Rob and Dame Fitzooth are released from prison. I promise not to talk to Rob, or even to his mother. I’ll watch them leave from afar and then go on my way.” Her father considered it and seemed to prepare to say, “no” when she added, “But if they are not released and left alone, I promise you the King and Queen will hear about your dealings, not to mention the rest of Court. I won’t stop until you and the Bishop are either in disgrace or so much of a liability that no one will heed you again.”
The Earl suddenly realized that his daughter was no longer a small child and could certainly do him great harm as far as his position at Court. Reluctantly, he relented.
“Very well. I will release them… but just them. The Forester stays in custody.”
Not wishing to push him, Marian merely said, “Thank you, Father. If I have your leave now, I will go pack.”
“Go!” he waved her away from him, annoyed to be bested by his own daughter. “And no dawdling in the morning. I will escort you from Huntingdon myself.”
Marian curtsied deeply and left with her head held high. As she left, Roger arrived to see her smile smugly at him. He had no idea that for once, she had the upper hand!