Chapter Three - Abandoned
Meg walked into the copse and struck a tree with outstretched hands. Kneeling, she rummaged amongst the leaf-strewn forest floor and found a branch as long as a half-grown child. She made short work of its leaves and twigs to form a crude walking stick. She turned into the black woods and cursed Will Scarlet with every faltering step.
Regarding Scarlet as she would any other mystery, she broached an escalating wall of anger to mull her findings. He had reeked of blood. His guiding hold could have been that of any grown man, reserved and impersonal. He refused more than a handful of words, but he sounded educated.
And she could not very well taste him.
Her senses exhausted, she discovered nothing to compensate for the simple task of seeing. Awaiting the results of her experiments vexed her none, and her schemes only bore fruit after patient planning, but that afternoon had moved faster than any in her life. She wanted explanations with equal haste.
Such human fickleness! He risked his life to save her from ravishment, only to abandon her to the whim of the woodlands. He seemed distraught about the ambush, but he admitted to working for the sheriff and arresting Ada.
An unpleasant guilt trudged with her through the forest. She should have known such a fate awaited them. No swindle, no matter how clever, could go unpunished forever. But two years of successes lulled them into complacence.
Worse still, even if she managed to secure her sister’s release, she would have to rely on selling fertilizers, not forged emeralds. The gemstones traded for more gold than did the potash, and without that gold, she would have to abandon her experiments. And Ada would likely get married, eager for a better life—or at least a life of her own.
Her jaw turned to stone. Hers had been a fool’s errand from the start, and now she was lost in Charnwood, miles from home. Pursuing her deceitful sister made as little sense as forgiving her, a chore Meg left stubbornly unfinished. But she loathed the idea of losing Ada.
Her distracted thoughts proved hazardous when she kicked a rock. Agony sparked from toe to kneecap, like a carnivorous animal clamping sharp teeth through her boot.
Tears burned and she cursed her useless eyes. She swallowed grief and frustration like unripe fruit, bitter but vital. She played at eliciting sympathy from gullible people, but she would not succumb to genuine self-pity. Not again. That way led to madness.
She knelt and massaged her aching toe. With perceptive fingers, she found the palm-sized rock and flung it into the woods. A rustle of leaves and squawking birds split the forest calm.
Another rustle followed. And another.
She straightened. “Who—?”
A large hand clamped onto her face and around her arms, smothering her in a wash of foul-smelling terror. When a scream tried to escape, fingers clad in leather filled her mouth.
But no. Pressing close, the man was shorter and smelled foul. His nasal voice confirmed her assessment. “Hold fast, miss. You need to come with us.”
Surprise ceded to anger. For heaven’s love, she wanted to be a man—a brawny man with perfect vision and a pikestaff like a small tree. She would beat every brigand witless.
Instead, she clipped the back of her captor’s calf with her heel. Biting hard on a mouthful of leather, she heaved and struck. The skin of his lips gave way beneath her knuckles. The man yelped but held fast no matter how she wrestled.
A second man with lean, bare fingers lashed her hands. Rough rope chewed the thin skin at her wrists. “There’s a girl.”
They released her body but held tight to the rope, tugging her like a leashed animal. “You have no right to detain me. I have done nothing!”
“We’ll let Hendon decide that, miss,” said the nasal one.
Hendon? As a man-at-arms for Lord Whitstowe, he should be protecting her, but if Scarlet was right and the earl had been murdered, Hendon must have played a role. Still, she could no more trust Scarlet’s tales than she trusted the twin boars pulling her through Charnwood Forest.
She tried to catch the looping laces of her alms-bag, to no avail. She tripped. Two clumsy hands yanked her from the sodden ground.
“Let me go, please,” she said. The sulfur sting of fear gathered at the back of her tongue. “I can tell you which way Will Scarlet went.”
The second man laughed like a donkey’s bray. “You’re a helpful miss. But no need—we have him already.”
Lashed to a tree, Will wondered why his reward for chivalrous deeds had been a spiteful, vicious day. And two or three hours remained before sunset. Plenty of time for a plague of locusts or death by torture. But at least the soldiers showed no intention of killing him. Not yet.
He might have time enough to survive the situation.
He eyed Earl Whitstowe’s traitorous guard, Hendon, as he stalked the clearing and ordered his men to prepare for nightfall. Two other soldiers continued upriver in search of Meg.
Will had surrendered in hopes she might delve deeper into the forest. Her assault on his buttocks was no reason to wish her harm at the hands of these villains.
Hendon stalked to the oak and knelt beside him. “Comfortable?”
“I assume you’re under orders to take me back to Nottingham?”
“Of course.” Hendon pulled a dagger from his waist and twirled it over his fingers, spun it, then caught it. Heavenly justice would ensure that he slipped and sliced off a thumb, but he continued the tricks without flaw. “Otherwise I would’ve killed you already.”
“You would’ve tried.”
Hendon exhaled, almost a chuckle. “Where’d the girl go, Scarlet?”
“You sniff her out.” He yawned and closed his eyes, leaning against tree bark as jagged as shattered glass. “She’s not my concern.”
“But I can make her your concern.”
Something about Hendon’s stony voice and the sharp menace behind his words set his nerves alight. He peered at his captor. “How so?”
“I would hate to see anything happen to Lady Marian, not with her husband out of the country. And they have a son, am I right?”
A mist flowed over Will’s skin, enshrouding him in outward composure. But fury surged.
“If you harm his family, Robin will hunt you to the ends of Christendom.”
“Perhaps.” Hendon grinned at last, a dog baring his yellowed teeth. “But she’s rather vulnerable at Loxley Manor, is she not? Without you there to protect her? I wonder which of us he would hate more: me for raping and murdering his wife, killing his little boy, or you, his dear nephew, for leaving them to die?”
Will yanked the ropes. The wound at his shoulder screeched in protest, agony casting his vision in a haze of red.
Hendon only widened his canine grin. “Does that hurt? Because I can make your imprisonment less enjoyable.” He grabbed a blunt stick from the forest floor and jabbed it into Will’s wound. Wood splintered in the mangled flesh. He yelled as pain exploded, like dipping his arm in fire. “Are you paying me mind, Scarlet?”
He hissed through clamped teeth. “Toss the stick away and we’ll talk.”
“Making demands of me? My, you have chops.” Hendon waved the piece of wood nearer to Will’s shoulder, teasing, before pitching it into fallen leaves. “Will Scarlet, man of legend—afraid of a twig. Next time I’ll use the dagger so you won’t lose face.”
“If I cooperate?”
“Marian sleeps safely.”
“And if I kill you first?”
“Unlikely, but what does it matter? Carlisle will have as much fun pricking her, I’m sure.
Think on it, Scarlet,” he said, standing and dusting leaves from his quilted leather breeches. “A few hours of light remain. We can still catch up to her.”
Will’s eyes rolled closed. The biting bark, the pain like flames—none of it mattered.
Marian. Beautiful Marian would suffer because of him. Young Robert was in danger.
He shuddered to think how his actions would appear. He had abandoned Loxley Manor without explanation, a purposeful decision his uncle had yet to forgive. Robin would never know his motives for leaving, not if Will had breath left to honor his promise to Marian.
But how would he explain taking service with the new sheriff? No excuses would make it right if harm came to their family. The rift between them would become a killing feud, and he would go to his grave by his uncle’s hand. Robin would forever believe Will had abandoned Loxley Manor for the worst, most selfish ends.