"Will, I can so climb that tree!" Little Cecily stomped a foot and pouted at her older brother.
"You're not even tall enough to reach the lowest branch," Will said, dangling from a limb above her. "And Mother will be furious if you get sap on that dress."
It was a pretty dress, Marian noted from her vantage point higher still, a deep blue wool that must have been expensive, with a color that dark. And the embroidery was beautiful. It was quite ostentatious for a girl still growing with no younger sisters to pass it on to; Sess was too young for marriage, yet, but her mother wanted to impress the families with men who might suit that Sess was a girl from a good family with a rich dowry, even if she was a Saxon. Marian's father had invited all the neighboring lords and their families to their estate for hunting and hawking; a good many had actually come, and though they were fewer in number than he had hoped, Marian was glad there were no more. They'd almost run out of places for people to sleep! Though at least it meant she had time to spend with Will and Cecily; and with so many people in their keep, a few children and youths could easily escape notice for a while.
Cecily stamped her feet. "Will! All I need's a leg up!"
"You're such a baby!" Will called down.
"Hardly a baby, Will," Marian said. "Not in that dress. Or maybe you're just jealous that she's got prettier clothes than you!" She laughed at the image.
Will twisted around to scowl up at her. "That's not true!" he said.
"He can have it," Sess said, tugging at one of the sleeves. "It itches. And I can't do anything for fear of getting it dirty!"
There was snickering from the clearing behind Sess. Marian's heart sank as Nigel came into view. Nigel. He was bad enough on his own, when he was merely boring and pedantic. But he and Will together could always be counted on to fight, and between them ruin a pleasant morning. "Will of Norwell, in his sister's dress!" he said. "Now, that I would pay money to see!"
"You're one to talk," Will said. "You're as fastidious as I am, at least. More so!"
"I may not care to be dirty like a peasant," Nigel said, trying (and failing) to put on the imperious manner so effectively used by his father, "but you wear more lace on your shirt than my mother!"
"You take that back," Will said, jumping down out of the tree and running over to Nigel with a few swift strides. "You're useless on a horse and my baby sister is better on a hunt than you!" He loomed over Nigel, using every inch of the height advantage he'd gained only recently, and his fists were clenched.
"Hey there," Marian said, scrambling down out of the tree herself. "Will, what has gotten into you lately? You're touchier than usual. And you, Nigel, haven't you learned your lesson about provoking him?"
Nigel went red as Marian let down her skirts from where she'd kilted them for easier climbing. "I'm not afraid of Will of Norwell," he insisted, though his voice cracked as Will leaned over him again.
"Did you want anything, Nigel?" Marian asked. He'd never have followed them out here without cause; Will had thrashed him recently. Besides, Nigel thought climbing trees was for children and peasants.
"I am bid to tell you that the noon meal is soon to be served," he said.
"I'm hungry," Sess said. "Let's go in!"
"Fine," Will said, brushing past Nigel. "Let's go."
He and Nigel kept themselves on opposite sides of the little group as they trudged through the grove back to the manor in sullen silence. Aethelreda said that boys often acted so at their age, but Marian thought it was a shame that her playmate should be in such a foul humor.
"What shall we do after lunch?" Sess asked.
"I'm going down to the village," Marian said. "I'll be gone all afternoon. Will, would you like to come with me?"
"Why?" Nigel asked. "What would be of more interest to you there than her with our party?"
Marian glanced at Nigel. "I'm going to observe the manorial court," she said. "Father is busy with our guests." Not that he ever troubled himself to attend the manorial court and exercise the privileges of his lordship there, or to ensure that his bailiff was executing justice properly, but it was good for someone from the family to be there. And as nobody else at the manor itself had a very clear idea how long the court typically lasted, it was the best opportunity she had to slip away unnoticed. It was a pity the court only met once every three weeks. "Will, I'm sure you'd find something interesting to do there, you wouldn't have to ride out with your brother, then."
"That is very good of you, to take such an interest in your father's lands and people," Nigel said approvingly. It was a look Marian had never before seen Nigel direct towards her, and she wasn't sure she liked it. "Allow me to escort you." It wasn't a request so much as it was a statement of intent. "I've been to my father's manorial court, of course, but I would be interested to see how your father runs his."
"I don't need an escort," Marian said, "I've been going for years, and I've never had any trouble. Not on my father's own lands. Besides, it's not like it would be interesting for you, it's not your own court or people."
"Then why would it interest Will?" Nigel said. "He's only a younger son. He'll never have to deal with such things, unless he marries an heiress. Besides, I'd rather go to the court than hunt, and my father shall approve of such an excuse. And you are so near Sherwood Forest, there are often bandits there, so a lady should not walk alone here."
"Sounds boring," Will said, his interest crushed by Nigel's. "I'll go out with the hunt." He scowled at Marian, as if she were a traitor for allowing Nigel's offer.
"Bandits in the forest, yes, we've had those," Marian said, "but they just cleaned out the last lot, and anyway even when we do have them, they never come to the village proper or the road twixt it and the manor; there's too many people around who might see them and sound the alarm." Besides, even if there were bandits, Marian was swift knew the woods and fields better than anyone else—so much time spent playing in them and avoiding going back home (and sometimes avoiding servants sent to fetch her). She'd hear them coming before they heard her, and they'd never even know she was there. If, she reminded herself, there were bandits in this part of Sherwood Forest, which there were not. "Will, there's more than just the court—there's a woman who sells pies, you'd love that, and there's always a good story being told somewhere or other. You'd have a great time."
"I don't see why you want him," Nigel said. "He's already said he finds it boring. I'd love it! You'd have a better time with me! And it's not proper for you to go alone; it's not safe. If you try to leave without me, I shall tell my mother." He nodded firmly, and Marian's heart sank. Nigel so rarely had firm convictions; he was generally something of a reed on the wind. But he did take his duties seriously, and if he could convince himself that something was a duty—such as protecting her maidenly virtue—he was hard to budge. Certainly she could not without help, which it did not look like Will would provide. And she couldn't afford for any of the adults to take an interest in her outing.
Marian sighed. Of course, between the two of them they would arrange that she should go accompanied by the boy she'd rather leave behind, instead of the one she had been hoping to take with her.
In his huff, Will sped up and soon outstripped the rest of them. Marian and Sess lengthened their strides in response, and Nigel (whose figure reflected the richness of his father's table and his own scorn for their outdoor games) soon lagged behind.
"What's put the burr under Will's saddle?" Marian asked the younger girl.
Sess shrugged. "He and our father have been arguing more, lately, and Philip always takes Father's side. It's all very tiresome; for then he turns his ill humor on me and says I'm too young to understand when I complain of it. I do not see that it is so very complicated, though; Will wants to be treated as a man, and resents that he is not. It isn't as if I don't understand that. I prefer the freedom I sometimes have as a child to being cooped up in the solar to weave and sew and embroider all day, but it is tiring to be ignored and have no say in what happens to me. I was hoping that this time with others to act as a buffer between them might give space for Will's normal good humor to assert itself, but it doesn't seem to have. He has ever been my ally in childish games, climbing trees and stealing tarts from the cook, but he will not allow me to be his ally in anything greater. He would rather rage and storm and complain of how very unfair things are. 'Tis true, but what of it? I've seen precious little fairness in the world, and he gets more than I do. And then Phillip will be a condescending ass over Will's behavior, and say it's proof he's too callow to be let out of the house, and the whole thing starts over again."
"Perhaps it will be better when Phillip leaves for the court in London," Marian said. Slipping away for some fun far from prying eyes might have been just the thing for cheering Will up, but it would not happen now.
"Perhaps," Sess said doubtfully.
After luncheon—during which Marian tried and failed to think of an excuse to leave Nigel behind—she and Nigel set forth to the village. It was not a short walk, made longer by the need to amend her stride to Nigel's, and so they missed the start of the afternoon's business. Although the room was crowded, seats were found for the two youths up front, and the matter at hand was paused long enough for all to make obeisance to their lord's daughter. Marian nodded as regally as she could (Aethelreda was so much better at it, or Beatrix even; Marian always felt awkward) and tried to keep the disturbance to a minimum.
The first hour's business was fairly ordinary, made more tedious by Nigel's attempts to explain things that Marian already knew. ("The frankpledge is a group of ten men who are responsible for one another, so that's why they're being fined—that man who didn't show up today, Galfridus, who brought his ewes over to be covered by his neighbor's ram in the middle of the night, he was a member of their frankpledge." "Yes, Nigel, I know that." "An amercement is when they take money instead of some other punishment for an offense—he is at the court's mercy, you see." "Nigel, I know how the court works." "An affeeror is the officer who assesses the fees and—" "Yes, Nigel, I know that already.") But at last Nigel realized that Marian understood the court, and confined himself to asking for further details about the people who came before the court for witness or for justice, the sorts of things everyone knew. That was surprisingly pleasant; she had never had someone to discuss cases with before.
Watching the court was always a good way to keep track of what was happening in the area; if there was not quite so much gossip as on market day, there were a good deal more facts. And you could always tell whose land was faring well and whose poorly, and who was sick or in need of other assistance. The brewery was doing well, for Henry Penifader was forever purchasing land and conveying it to his children. This day it was a placia for his daughter Agnes; she'd have her pick of men, with that coming with her. Simon Kroyl was overdue in paying for his pannage. Robert Cocus was amerced again for stealing his cow back out of the reeve's corral. "If he paid half as much attention to his animals when they were in his possession as he does breaking them out after they've strayed and been locked up for it, he'd be a rich man," Marian whispered to Nigel. Old Cerdic behind her snickered. "Ah, one of that sort," Nigel said. "We've several on my father's lands, as well."
It was all very ordinary, until the end. Oswald the Reeve folded his hands and nodded meaningfully to Sherwin who kept the court's records. "On Thursday last, Matilda Coleman did raise a hue and cry against Adam Swargere," Sherwin intoned, "and accused him of menacing her daughter Margery. All three come before the court."
Marian straightened as a stir went around the courthouse. Now, this she had not heard; Adam Swargere was a respected man of the village, prosperous and pious, as far as she knew, though she'd had few dealings with him. And Matilda Coleman was a hard-nosed old widow, scrupulously fair but with a vicious tongue. Her daughter Margery was no beauty, a plain-faced girl who kept largely to herself and was known to be a hard worker, though it was rumored she was simple.
Margery Coleman was no beauty, but the black eye (now faded to a sort of sickly yellowish green) did her no favors. Her mother had her arm round her shoulders, and Matilda Coleman might be a shrew but Marian had never seen such a venomous look from her as the one she now gave Adam Swargere. Marion's eyes were drawn to the bruise; she had seen worse—even inflicted worse once, by accident, when her elbow caught Much in the eye when they played as children. But this was no accident of children jumping out of trees, nor an accident from working. This had been done to her, on purpose.
"This whole thing's a sham," Swargere said as he stood before the reeve's bench. "I never touched the girl. Matilda Coleman's been after me to send one of my boys to help with her plowing, since I was friends with her husband. I went over to tell her I had need of them myself and couldn't help, and in revenge she accuses me of trifling with dear little Margery! Who was daughter to my old friend Simon!" His air of injured innocence was well-crafted. His self-assurance would not have been amiss on one of the strutting lordlings her father was now playing host to, though she had no doubt he would be servile enough when faced with his betters. Marian knew the type.
"That's a lie, you pig-bellied, snake-tongued old man," Matilda responded. She turned to face Oswald directly. "He did come and talk of plows, but 'tis the same every year; too busy on his own land to help a poor widow. I'm used to it, and though I can't deny another hand would be helpful, I make do. So we concluded our business and I went out back to feed the chickens. It was a friendly parting, then. But I heard something, and I thought it was Margery calling me, so I came—and it's God's own luck I did, for I saw him drag her down behind the woodpile! He'd his hand over her mouth, and there was no one in sight but I knew Mark Cooper was over in the next field, so I called for him and he came a-running. I grabbed the ladle out of the pot on the fire and ran for my daughter, crying for help the whole time. Mark got there first, but Hugh Smith, Edgar the shepherd, and Tayte Iver Junior weren't far behind." She gave a sharp nod.
"I see," Oswald said. "Margey Coleman, would you tell us what happened?"
Margery looked at her mother, who nodded and rubbed her shoulder. She took a deep breath. "I was out front in the g-garden, weeding the carrots, while my mother and Adam Swargere talked inside. I couldn't hear the words, but they sounded … normal, everything fine. Then he came out, and saw me. I had my skirt gathered up to keep it out of my way, and he came and stood over me, looking down. I … I didn't like it, so I stood up. He said … he said he had a present for me, and I asked what kind, and he put his hand on my breast, and I called for my mother. He grabbed me and put his hand over my mouth, and I don't … remember what happened next. But then I was over at the woodpile, on the ground, and my head hurt and it was bleeding."
What must it be like, Marian wondered, to have been attacked like that? She had spent far more time, as a child, playing with boys than with girls; Will when she was with children of her own class, Robin and Much when she was not. She had tussled with them and joined in their roughhousing without hesitation, and could more than hold her own. Yet would that avail her when faced with a grown man, attacking without warning?
"There! You see?" Swargere said. "The girl herself doesn't know what happened! You all know her. She may even believe I grabbed her, but it certainly didn't happen that way."
Marian could see men nodding all around the room. Not all, but … enough. They were all too ready to believe their peer's word, even when there was good reason for doubt.
"And what about her bruises and all the blood?" Matilda said. "You'll not say they are imagined. We've not been able to get the blood out of that dress, either, and it's the only other one she has. I can show it to you, if you like."
Matilda was speaking for her daughter; Marion had no mother to do the same. If Marion had need of a champion for any reason, would her father step up? Or would he take the path of least resistance and bow to those with greater power? Will or Robin or Much would defend her, to be sure, but she saw them little, and they had no legal claim to her. Few would listen to a hothead younger son, or a pair of peasants. No, Marian had long known she had no sure help to call on in times of trouble, be it small or great. Better to trust in her own skill and judgment; better to assume she must stand on her own feet. And do what she could for poor Margery, if it came to that.
"She could have hit her head doing anything," Swargere said. "She could have tripped and fallen on her own! For all I know, you did it to her yourself to make your claim more believable."
"You're never saying Matilda Coleman hurt her own daughter," Cerdic said. Marian twisted to see him, staring at Swargere with his arms folded. "There's some women I'd believe that of, but not Matilda." There were judicious nods throughout the room. Cerdic was the oldest man in the village, almost seventy-five years of age. Normally, the reeve didn't allow people to speak unless they were called on, but for Cerdic he made an exception.
Oswald murmured to Sherwin, who called Mark Cooper, Hugh Smith, Edgar the shepherd, and Tayte Iver Junior for testimony. One by one the men came forward, with varying degrees of certainty, reluctance, and humor, to tell what they'd seen. None of them had seen the attack, and by the time Mark Cooper arrived Matilda was defending her daughter with the ladle. (A wave of titters went around at the story of a man cowering before a housewife with a ladle.) But they'd all seen Margery bloodied and battered, lying on the ground, beneath him.
"I had seen she was lying on the ground and came over to help her up!" Swargere protested.
"Then why did you not say so when you gave your testimony?" Oswald asked, rolling his eyes.
"I didn't think it was necessary," Swargere said. "This whole thing's preposterous."
More testimony ensued, and witnesses to the good character of all concerned were given. At last Oswald rubbed his eyes. "I don't see that we can know exactly what happened," he said. "So I propose that we amerce Adam Swargere for mistreating Margery Coleman—" he held up a hand to forestall Swargere's protest and Matilda's glee "—and amerce Matilda Coleman for raising hue and cry unjustly."
There were judicious nods from the tithingmen gathered behind Oswald and Sherwin. Adam Swargere smirked at Matilda, who squawked back in outrage.
Marion frowned at the reeve and his clerk; Sherwin noticed before she had to open her mouth. "Lady Marion, do you have something to say?"
Marion stood, and all turned to face her. Unlike the tenants, she addressed the court from her seat. The land belonged to her father; the people owed him their allegiance, and she was his only heir. She did not come before them to plead a case but to state her position.
"It seems to me that there are two possibilities," she said, as slowly and as crisply as she could. "Either Adam Swargere is guilty, in which case he is liable for both the amercement maleficit in repayment of the harm done to Margery Coleman, and the amercement for the hue and cry, to repay those who came to defend her against him. Or Adam Swargere is innocent of harm to Margery Coleman, in which case he should pay nothing and Matilda Coleman is liable for the hue and cry. You cannot have it both ways; either harm was done, and the alarm was justified, or no harm was done, and it was not justified. For my own part, I am inclined to believe the Colemans; they are as respectable and honorable a family as the Swargeres. If Margery has been thought simple by some, none have ever called her a liar, nor her mother. And anyone with eyes can see that Margery was injured." With that, she sat down, as the assembled crowd murmured.
Marion did not often intervene in the village court; it was not her place to. The bailiff was her father's man, and many here worked her father's land, but most of the matters brought before this court affected her father's rule only indirectly. Still, they would listen when she spoke, and more so when she spoke but seldom. She ignored the sour look Adam sent her way.
At her words, the reeve and the tithingmen turned to mutter among themselves; it took but a few minutes for Oswald to pound on his table for quiet. "We judge that Adam Swargere is probably guilty, and so shall pay both amercements." But the figure he named for each fine was ridiculously low. Swargere still wasn't happy, but he was happier than Matilda Coleman, who began to loudly complain that justice had not been done.
"Shall we go back now, Marion?" She turned to see Nigel beside her; once he'd stopped pestering her, she'd almost forgotten he was there.
"You go," she said. "I have business to attend to here in the village."
"What kind of business?" Nigel asked.
"To see how people are getting on," Marian said. "I do worry about Simon Kroyl; it's not like him to be late with his fees. And others, too."
"Which one is Simon Kroyl?" Nigel frowned, thinking. "Oh, the swineherd who can't pay for his pigs to forage in your father's wood. He probably drank the money away, and in any case it's your father's bailiff's business, not yours."
"The payment of the fee is the bailiff's business," Marian said stiffly. "The reasons why Simon can't pay—and he is no drunkard, I assure you—that is my business to find out. But it's not your business, and you have no interest in it. You needn't tag along."
"But wait! It's not safe!" Nigel said. "You just heard about that poor girl who was attacked! You should have an escort appropriate to your station."
If she had not seen him be knocked down by Will so many times, she might have been swayed. But he was about the most useless person she could imagine in a fight, for he could not even run for help. And if he had sounded more concerned for her actual safety and less with the propriety of the issue, she would have cared more for his dignity. "As Adam Swargere is busy just now with the reeve and the tithingmen, I think I shall be safe from him," Marian said. "I've been walking my father's lands alone for years and none have troubled me; and if any try, I can outrun them. And I can still knock Will down, for all his new height, which is more than you can do." She stared him down until his gaze fell and he turned away, shoulders slumped.
When he was gone, Matilda Coleman approached her, her daughter hovering behind her. "Thank you, milady," Matilda said. "I knew the tithingmen are all old friends of Adam's. I'd hoped more of them would support me in memory of my husband. But they wouldn't have done much if you hadn't stood up. I couldn’t have afforded an amercement, no matter how small."
"You're welcome," Marian said with a smile. "I do hope Margery recovers."
"Thank you," Matilda said again.
Marian made her way to Simon Kroyl, and asked after his family; yes, they'd all been ill, but they expected to have the money for the pannage by the time of the next court. No, there was nothing she could do for them; they'd be fine, now. After circulating to speak with several of her father's tenants (and to allow Nigel time to get a good way down the road to the manor) Marian slipped out to meet her good friend Robin in the woods.
Marian crept through the trees, quiet as a mouse. This was an opportunity she seldom had, for there was Robin, throwing pebbles into a brook and paying no mind to her. "DIE, SARACEN DOG!" she yelled, jumping out at him.
It worked; he yelped, jumped two feet into the air and almost fell into the water. Marian giggled at him.
"Marian," Robin complained, "it's not funny!"
"Yes, it is!" Marian said. "You should have seen your face!"
Robin ignored this with his customary seriousness. Why was it, that Nigel's gravity irritated her but Robin's seriousness endeared her? But then, Robin paid attention to her words, while Nigel offered only empty courtesies.
"Besides," Robin said, "aren't we too old to be playing Crusaders and Saracens?"
Marian shrugged. "I have spent the last several days being constantly under siege as my father's daughter, expected to be the gracious lady whenever I have the misfortune to be noticed. I had much rather cast it all aside for childish pursuits, but I fear we have not the time before I must return home." She shook her head. "Please tell me that you at least have had a pleasant week."
It was now Robin's turn to shrug as they both sat down on the banks of the brook. "It has not been unpleasant, at least, though I could almost wish my father's croft were smaller—this year, there seem to be more weeds than vegetables in our small plot, and I have hoed it until my back aches. Would that I were old enough to join the foresters! My salary would be enough to hire one of the lads to tend the garden, then, and I need not do it myself."
"Poor boy," Marian said. "You wish to grow up, and take an adult's place; and I dread it."
"I don't want all the cares that my father bears," Robin said. "I would keep my youth—just not the hoeing."
"You could join Much in the mill, instead," Marian said.
"I'd rather be a forester," Robin said. "No, truly, I am merely out of sorts; I do not mean to complain, for there are many worse fates than having a large garden which needs tending. Not having one at all would be worse."
"It seems everyone is out of sorts, lately," Marian said. She could not help comparing Robin's calm pragmatism to Will's irritation and Nigel's self-importance. Really, of all the youths she knew, she had far rather spend time in Robin's company, though it would make both her father and Beatrix upset to hear it. That would be true even were Robin not the handsome young man he was starting to grow into; she could see why his mother had left all behind to marry a forester, if Robert Longbow were anything like his son. "I had hoped to bring one of our guests to meet you—Will is a friend, and normally good company—but he spent today like a bear with a toothache, and I would not inflict him on you even if I could have arranged for him to come."
"Do bears have toothaches?" Robin cocked his head. "And if so, how could you tell?"
Marian laughed and shoved him sideways; he did not move. Hoeing the garden produced a hardness of muscle under her hand that she could not remember Robin having in years past. "I think it would be more irritable than usual. When Beatrix has a toothache, woe betide any who cross her, and I cannot picture a bear having a sweeter disposition than Beatrix in any mood."
"In that case, I am glad not to make his acquaintance, though normally I would say it would be a pleasure to meet any friend of yours." He hesitated. "Is there any particular reason for the usurpation of a bear's temper?"
"He and his father think very differently about a great many things," Marian said, "and his elder brother agrees with their father. And he cannot change the subject, and will not change his mind. So his mood intruded even in our tree-climbing today, where I was most unhappy to see it."
"I do not understand such fighting in families," Robin said, slowly. "They should be together, so that all may prosper, not fighting."
"You have an excellent father," Marian said, "and your mother, God rest her soul, was a rare woman. Not all have those advantages. Will's father is a greedy ass with a loud mouth, and his older brother is worse."
"Your father is neither an ass nor loud of mouth," Robin said, "yet you seem to have little difficulty understanding your friend's anger."
"In some ways, it would be easier if he were," Marian said slowly. "I love him as I ought, and yet … I see how many of a lord's tasks fall to me, or to Beatrix, or to our steward or bailiff. And I see his ambition, which he has neither the skill nor the determination to pursue, and how he curries favor with those who scorn him. 'Tis true, our keep is full this week, and yet how many are younger sons, with no prospects, who come only for free food and lodging and to see if his only daughter and heir is worth pursuing? They have no great respect or love for the one whose bounty they enjoy, yet my father only sees their connections. It has not been a pleasant week."
Robin was silent, for a little while. "Surely it has not been all bad," he said.
"No," Marian said. "There are some true friends. And I have been able to escape outside often—my father does not seem to realize that I am of an age to begin considering marriage, and so his ideas for alliance do not include me." They would, soon enough, but Marian had no desire to be gloomy this day. "Oh! I have not told you what William of Strathclyde did on the hunt yesterday. 'Tis a pity I was not there, but I have the story from one of our footmen who was.…"
She chattered on, sifting the tedium and mortification of the last week for amusing anecdotes to tell, until at last the day was almost over and she must head home for fear of being missed.
"Shall I see you in three weeks, then, when the court sits again?" Robin asked, as they climbed to their feet and brushed themselves off.
"Aye," Marian said. "You shall, unless my father forgets his indolence long enough to observe the court himself, in which case I shall not be able to slip away. Give Much my love, and tell him I shall be glad to see him again when the harvest is done." The mill was especially busy when the harvest was coming in. "May God guide you safely through the forest to your home."
"The same to you," Robin said.
She watched him as he turned and walked into the woods. He had a longer way to go, for they met on her father's lands, when she could not find more than an hour or two to talk. When she could no longer see him, she gathered up her skirts and ran through the woods to her father's manor, avoiding places where she might be seen. She had had her fun; it was time to return to the hall, and be a young lady, and learn to hold her tongue and smile instead of speaking her mind.