A Tail of Sherwood part nine: The Bargain

Fiction By LoriAnn // 7/22/2011

 

I gaped at the Sheriff and the Duke in fury.
 
Release them!” I pleaded, my paws clenched tight in anger and my stomach roiling in fear. “They have committed no crime!”
 
Sheriff Dudley tapped his claws—slowly—on the table. He was losing patience with me, I could tell. But what was I supposed to do—just stand back and let them put John and Will into prison?
 
“You do not call highway robbery, hunting the King’s birds, and attempted kidnapping ‘crimes’?” Duke Chantille was sitting in Sheriff Dudley’s one comfortable chair before the fire.
 
“For the thousandth time,” I protested, exasperated. “It wasn’t a kidnapping! Robin was simply…erm, acknowledging my presence. We’re old friends.”
 
“Yes. We know.” The Sheriff rolled his eyes. “He is a criminal, Lady Fitzgerald. They are criminals.”
 
“Madam, I understand that these rogues used to be your childhood friends,” The Duke broke in, his voice condescending. “But these are hardened criminals—the legendary fellows of Robin Hood: highway men, murderers, thieves…There is no charge that cannot be levied against them.”
 
I couldn’t deny that. Well, I could, but the Duke—Prince John’s loyal follower—wasn’t going to listen to me explain that Robin and his men were fighting to keep King Richard’s kingdom intact for him. From the Prince’s end of things, their actions were crimes. Never mind that they only attacked those disloyal to the King. When the current ruler was himself disloyal to the King, exploits on behalf of King Richard were crimes.
 
And I couldn’t deny that they were the fellows of Robin Hood—not after Rob had oh-so-boldly proclaimed his identity to the entire world.
 
I wilted. “What will you do with them?” I asked.
 
Sheriff Dudley pulled a sheet of parchment from his desk drawer. “John Greenleaf and William Scarlet are charged with highway robbery, wanton hunting of the royal birds, and attempted kidnapping.” He glanced at me warily. “Though I’ll remove that last one, if you insist.”
 
“I insist.”
 
“Very well.” Dipping a pen in an inkwell, he scratched through the offending line. “There’s enough here with the other two charges to have them executed anyway.”
 
I felt as though someone had punched me in the stomach. “Executed?”
 
The Duke stood.
 
“Doubtless,” he said, in a voice as smooth as slime, “My Lady’s tender heart and weak mind are troubled at this—though in all fairness you must see that it’s only the just penalty for their crimes.”
 
My fur bristled at his arrogant tone. “I dare say, Your Grace, I don’t see—”
 
He ignored me. “Thank you for your time, Sheriff Dudley,” he bowed. “I had better see Lady Marian back to her father’s home before it gets too much later. Good eve to you.”
 
He took my arm and pulled me—gently but inexorably—from the Sheriff’s house. When the door had shut behind us, I yanked my arm free from his grip and faced him, quivering with indignation and fear for my friends’ lives.
 
“Now see here, Duke Chantille,” I exclaimed. But he interrupted me. Again.
 
“No, you see,” he said, stepping toward me and towering to his full height, which was nearly three paws more than mine. “Highway robbery and hunting the King’s birds are both capital offenses. I understand that you knew these fellows when you were all children, but they have changed. They are criminals. This is justice.”
 
The worst part was, he was right. They were criminals, in the eyes of the law.
 
“But—”
 
He didn’t let me speak. “And, I’ll add, your sweetheart Hood will get the same treatment, should he show so much as a whisker in Nottingham. I’ve got guards watching every entrenc with orders to shoot on sight.” He glared at me. “If you’ve got any way to communicate with him—”
 
What, so you can follow me or whoever I send with a message?” I felt my paws clench. “Besides, if I could communicate with him, do you think I’d be wasting my time here with you right now? We’d be breaking Will and John out of that jail, that’s what we’d be doing.”
 
“For your father’s sake and that of your honor, I’ll forget you said that.” He closed his eyes and took a calming breath. “Even if he is your fiancé—”
 
“My what?”
 
“Your fiancé. Remember? The tourney? Your father promised your paw in marriage to the winner?” He rolled his eyes. “And Lord Fitzgerald is too noble and fair-minded—and senile—to renege on that promise, even if your winner is a worthless outlaw.”
 
“Don’t talk about my father like that!”
 
“Anyone who would forget six weeks’ worth of negotiations and in one moment promise the goods to another party—”
 
So that was the burr in his tail!
 
“Goods, am I?” I nearly shouted. “I see right through you now, Duke Chantille. This isn’t about justice. This is about you getting back at Rob for making a fool of you at the tourney and stealing a prize you thought you had already claimed for yourself. Well, I’ll tell you—I am not some prize to be given to the fool with the best marksmanship! I have a sense of decency and honor and I will not be bandied about by some jealous, petty-minded, big-shirted fool of a Duke—”
 
“Nonsense!” Duke Chantille blustered. “These squirrels are outlaws who have committed crimes deserving of death. My personal feelings have no say in the matter.”
 
“They have hunted the King’s birds to feed themselves and their families!” I cried, exasperated. “They’ve been outlawed for crimes they never committed, and now they’re to be executed for crimes and outlawry has forced them to commit?”
 
“No one forced them to attack and rob innocent travelers!”
 
“No one ever accused you of being innocent!”
 
For a heart-stopping moment, I thought he might strike me. I held my breath—but then the Duke forced himself to relax.
 
“You are distraught, madam,” he said, his voice forced and shaking with bottled-up anger. His teeth were gritted. “We should get you home.”
 
My paws were trembling, and I sagged. He wouldn’t listen. John and Will would die, and there was nothing I could do to stop it from happening.
 
“What time will they be executed?” I whispered.
 
The Duke took my arm firmly and led me down the lane toward my home.
 
“Dawn.”
 
 
 
I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even undress and go to bed. I paced the length of my bedchamber until my legs ached and my eyes burned, desperate to think of some way to save John and Will.
 
Twice I started for the door, intending to—somehow—break them free from the jail, and twice I spun back around to renew my pacing. Plot after plot spun through my mind, each more desperate than the last. Hopeless. Worthless. Helpless.
 
I could do nothing to save my friends. Even if I managed to leave the town and find Robin, we would merely be helpless together. The only one with the power to stay an execution was the Duke, and he had no intention of doing anything of the sort.
 
I stopped, and stared with blind focus at my wavering candle flame. Perhaps, I wondered, he simply had no motivation to anything of the sort. I resumed my pacing, faster and more furious than before. What would the duke possibly want enough—and I could provide—to stop the execution. He had everything he could want. I could never offer enough money, I had no fine birds or land or objects of great value to offer him…My father and I were relatively poor, though we had land, living more off our noble name than our noble wealth. That’s why Father had always planned to marry me off to some wealthy lord of some kind.
 
Like the Duke.
 
My pacing stopped, and I sank into a chair beside my clod fireplace. Like tiles falling into place on a puzzle board, the bits and pieces of a plan settled in my mind.
 
The Duke wanted my paw in marriage. And, thanks to my nosey maid Carlotta, I knew why. Father’s mad promise at the tourney would stand, unless I could get him to recant it. If I could talk to the Duke, I could offer to…
 
Ug. I hated the thought. It made oily shivers run down my spine and the hair on my tail stood right on end. It was like contemplating a swim in swamp sludge or eating nightcrawlers…but it might be the only way.
 
I stood up and grabbed my cloak, throwing it over my shoulders as I left the room. No more time for thinking and planning.
 
Dawn was coming.
 
 
 
I banged on the Duke’s front door, breathing hard from my race to get there quickly.
 
“Come on, let me in!” I shifted my weight from foot to foot, and lifted my paw to pound again.
 
The door opened, and the Duke’s valet stood glaring in sleepy indignation at me.
 
“I must speak to Duke Chantille.” I stepped forward, dropping my paw. The valet was forced to step back and let me in.
 
“His Grace is abed,” he protested.
 
“Then go wake him!” I exclaimed. “There’s no time! Tell him that Lady Fitzgerald has a very important offer.” To forestall any argument, I planted myself in a chair beside the door and gave him my best imperious look. “Well, then? What are you waiting for?”
 
Flummoxed, the poor valet scurried into the back of the house, though not without casting several dubious looks back at me.
 
I waited. Silence. The tick-tick-tick of the clock in the hall merged with the soft thud-thud-thud of my heart. My foot scuffed the stone floor and sounded like a saw in the stillness.
 
No second thoughts. No reconsiderations.
 
I didn’t want this! I loved Robin—wanted to marry Robin. Perhaps there was another way. Perhaps—
 
But no. I pictured Will and John, trussed and hooded and being led to the executioner’s block. There may have been another, better way to save them. But I—they—didn’t have the time for me to think of one.
 
“Lady Marian.”
 
The Duke stood in the doorway of the front hall in a dressing gown and slippers. I stood and bobbed a quick curtsey. “I have an offer to make, Your Grace,” I said. The valet appeared behind the Duke, and I squinted at him. “Alone.”
 
Expressionless, Duke Chantille nodded. “Come into my study.”
 
I followed him into a small, well-furnished room full of books and charts. The Duke stirred up the coals in the grate and added some fuel. When the fire was burning well, and after he lit a lamp—all in perfect silence—he sat down across from me.
 
“Well?”
 
I took a deep breath. “You know that my father promised my paw in marriage to the winner of the tourney.”
 
He nodded. “What of it?”
 
“Frankly, Your Grace,” I said, spreading my paws and forcing the words. “My father is not well, as you yourself have seen. It would not be…difficult to have that public promise retracted on the grounds that he didn’t know what he was saying. After all, who would expect the Lord Fitzgerald to allow his daughter to marry a notorious outlaw?”
 
“Indeed.” Still, there was no expression on the Duke’s face.
 
Undaunted, I plunged ahead. “I would be willing, Your Grace, to move ahead with the arrangements between you and my father for—”
 
“Lady Fitzgerald,” he broke in, his eyes dark and unreadable. “Am I to understand that you are offering to marry me?”
 
I flinched from the naked frankness of his words. “Well, I wasn’t going to put it quite that baldly, but…yes, I suppose I am.”
 
“And why bang on my door in the middle of the night to tell me this? As pleasing as the arrangement would be to me, I can’t imagine that you were spurred by any unrelenting passion of your own.”
 
He was clever. Too clever for someone so vile.
 
“I want you to free my friends,” I admitted in a rush. “Pardon Little John and Will Scarlet, and let them return to their master. If you’ll do that, I’ll marry you—willingly. If not, you’ll never have my consent.”
 
Duke Chantille frowned. “You would have me pardon two hardened criminals? Do you fancy yourself so desirable that I would go to such lengths to gain your paw?”
 
I flushed—hard. “Not me,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Not me. But my father’s lands. The lands that will be mine when he dies. My maid has told me some interesting, serving-world gossip, Your Grace. Apparently you, while having a good name and standing at court, are actually well in debt. In fact, you had to sell your ancestral lands to a discreet buyer several years ago. You find yourself in need of land now, and think to marry into some. Is this not true?”
 
Finally, there was some expression on that stone-like face. Dour resignation seeped over the Duke’s features. “It’s true,” he growled. “Family pride and honor forestall making my position known, but Prince John has lately expressed his royal concern that I spend too much time at court. He wishes me to ‘settle down and raise some crops or kits or something.’ Those were his very words.” It seemed to disgust the Duke to repeat them.
 
I stowed away this information for later. A possible rift between the Duke and Prince John? That could be worth knowing.
 
I lifted my chin. “Then you have everything to gain from my proposal and precious little to lose.”
 
“True, true…” He rubbed his forehead. “But how am I to know that you won’t back out on this little deal of yours, as soon as your friends are free?”
 
I stood, and smoothed my skirts, letting him hear the indignation in my voice and see the coldness in my face. “Sir, you have no right to question my honor in this or any matter. I stand for House Fitzgerald. And House Fitzgerald always stands by its word.”
 
He stood also, and bowed. “My humblest apologies, my dear lady. Very well—you have my word. I will pardon your friends—” he said the word as if it were a shriveled slug on his tongue “—at dawn, and by tomorrow night I hope to have your father’s consent on the match.”
 
“You will have it,” I said, though my stomach turned at the prospect. I swallowed, and extended my paw to shake, like a merchant at the market after they’ve made a deal.
Instead, Duke Chantille took my paw and bowed over it, pressing his lips to my fingers in a papery kiss. He looked up at me with a glint in his crow-black eyes. With a smile that bordered on a sneer, he said,
 
“Then, my dear, you have made me quite happy.”

Comments

Well... I guess I'll be

Well... I guess I'll be understanding--just 'cuz I like you so much. But I'm still in the throes of angst and panic over what happens in this story, so you had best be quick, young lady.

Have you tried clearing your computer's cookies? That could be part of your problem with copy and paste.

Mary | Fri, 07/22/2011

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*
Brother: Your character should drive a motorcycle.
Me: He can't. He's in the wilderness.
Brother: Then make it a four-wheel-drive motorcycle!

And another thing...

By the way, I think it's exceedingly cruel and unusual of you to post the title "A Tale of Sherwood, Part Nine" and get me all wound up and excited because I think "Hurrah! The next one's here!" and then lo and behold it's just a disclaimer and an excuse to buy time!

*shaking head in disapproval*

Shocking, LoriAnn. Simply shocking. Even for you.

Mary | Fri, 07/22/2011

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*
Brother: Your character should drive a motorcycle.
Me: He can't. He's in the wilderness.
Brother: Then make it a four-wheel-drive motorcycle!

Agreed

I agree, Mary

Julie | Sat, 07/23/2011

Formerly Kestrel

Okay, okay...

I finally got it up. Happy? :D

LoriAnn | Sun, 07/31/2011

er...yes but then again no

While I won't deny that I liked  having a new section, the contents of that section make me very very upset. Marian, don't you see that Rob will never stand for it?

Julie | Mon, 08/01/2011

Formerly Kestrel

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