A/N: I realize now this epic beast has been in the works for years now. I can't express my gratitude enough for those who have stayed with me: occasional readers, loyal reviewers and people who randomly read the entire thing in one sitting. It means so much to me. I've been busy with exams and some art projects, but I promise I haven't forgotten about this. Like I've stated before, there are a handful of chapters left. This rather brief chapter is actually one of my favorites; here we meet a runaway Norman girl who seeks asylum with Hereward.
Chapter X: Enter Maid Marion
1071 A.D., East Anglia
Hereward hated the rain almost as much as he hated Normans. The sky was whiter than bone that day, while a steady sheet of rain poured across East Anglia. He wore a shabby mantle, hood pulled over his miserable head, and walked past the camp wearily. His boots sometimes sunk into the mud, so he pulled them out with angry thrusts and mumbled curses.
Now, he loved spring weather without the rain. It was warm enough to walk around without heavy cloaks but hardly suffocating like the later summer months. This spring, there had been little sight of the Norman bastards, thanks Jesu, but he couldn't figure out if it was because they had better things to tend to or if they feared massacre in the fens again. Every Norman dreaded the stinking fens and they didn't bother sloshing into them unless ordered. The spring was mercifully peaceful, then, until that rainy day when one of his soldiers called to him through the downpour.
The big man faced him, both of them sopping wet. Hereward knew better than to stand idle. Any word could be a word of Normans or other mischief.
"I've got an interesting message for you," the man said with an easy grin.
Hereward would have smiled too if the rain had not bothered him so much. "The Normans are gone forever but they've left all their pretty women for us?"
The soldier laughed. "Not quite." Hereward mock-cursed. "They've abandoned one of their own, though, a girl named Marion."
"And how in God's name did that happen? Where is she?"
"Oh, she's a little slip of a girl nigh seventeen, but she wears Norman garb and has a Norman name and we all know that if it speaks like a Norman and stinks like a Norman, it probably is one. I can't hear a damned thing the girl's saying, but she's unarmed and quite helpless really. She kept saying your name over and over," he said, and shrugged.
"God's bonnet," Hereward said, "how the hell did she get here?"
The soldier shrugged again. "Maybe she's a witch."
"Lord knows we have enough witches here," Hereward laughed. "And speaking of, tell Ragnhildr to tend to the girl, since I thinks he speaks a little Frankish tongue, while I change my clothes. Can't greet witches looking like this."
The soldier shot him a smile and thumped Hereward on the back. "'Course not."
After the girl was found, the soldier kindly grabbed her small wrist and led her to Ragnhildr's tent. The rain beat down so hard that when he called to her, she failed to appear, so he did again and again like a wayward drum. He noticed the Norman girl was trembling, but she showed such courage thus far that he deduced it was because of the rain.
"What?" Ragnhildr yanked the tent flap to the side. The girl looked evenly at her, while Ragnhildr observed her with her brows raised. "Is she sick?"
"Worse. She's a Norman girl we found skirting the fens."
"Did you tell Hereward?"
He nodded. "First thing I did. He said you need to tend to her while he cleans up, then he'll see to her."
Ragnhildr stared at the girl, who was drenched and shivering but held her gaze with such force Ragnhildr felt her bones chill. The girl was young, though past her menses, and plain. Her long, dark hair clung to her once-handsome cloak, now matted in grass and dirt. She must be noble, she guessed, or a very good thief.
"Lady," the girl curtseyed. Ragnhildr was impressed with her pronunciation. She didn't bother to correct her curtsey. Saxon customs were hard to explain, especially to a foreigner.
"Come inside," she said, pointing inside her tent for clarity. "Inside."
The girl willingly came, relieved to be out of the rain. Ragnhildr muttered something to the soldier, and then came inside herself. It was dark within Ragnhildr's tent, and stunk of herbs and dirt, but there was a huge pallet bed heaped in furs and shabby blankets. The girl sat on the edge of the pallet, still shivering.
"Ton nom?" Ragnhildr asked. Her Frankish accent was barely passing, so she hoped the girl understood.
"Marion," she said in a quivering voice. "Marion de Mortain."
"So you are a Norman," Ragnhildr said, and glanced at her as if she would commit some great evil. "Why are you here? Why…tu es…ici? Ici?"
Unexpectedly, the girl laughed, but it was not mockingly. "I speak a little English, but not a lot. I am here because I need Hereward."
Ragnhildr, for all her cunning, could not fathom the reason. Was she a spy in some reckless man's plan? Or was she some illegitimate daughter or sister to Hereward? "Why, girl?"
"The bishop Odo is my uncle. He beat me and wants to imprison me."
"Whatever for? And why do you think Hereward can help you?"
The girl paused before answering, as if to count and measure her thoughts against the older, formidable woman. "I can't return to Normandy. Nor can I go anywhere else in England because he'll find me. Hereward can keep me safe."
"We kill liars here," Ragnhildr warned, even though she liked the girl. "So you had better be speaking the truth. If you're a spy, I swear to you we shall find out and kill you."
Marion whimpered, but held fast. "I'm not. I swear to you upon Jesu and all of his saints I am not!"
"Then how did you find your way through the fens? And why do you speak English if not for being taught it for spying?" Ragnhildr watched her shrewdly. Marion bit her lip while her eyes sparkled with tears. She stammered, but before she could answer, the hulking man Hereward entered the tent. He regarded Ragnhildr with respect, and then turned his attention towards the Norman girl. She stood to greet him.
"Hereward," she said with a curtsey.
Hereward glanced at Ragnhildr for an answer. She replied simply, "The girl speaks a little English. Her name is Marion de Mortain and she ran away from her uncle. She seeks some sort of Godforsaken sanctuary with you, here."
Startled, Hereward stepped back. The girl saw his confusion and quickly grasped his hand. That, too, was unexpected, but he didn't shrink back from it. Her touch was warm, even though she was sopping wet. He liked the way her eyes glistened in the darkness of Ragnhildr's tent.
She said, "Pray, do not send me back. I'll work hard and diligently. I can read and write--"
"We aren't a monastery, girl, so we don't need those skills. Can you sew and mend clothing? Can you cook and gather food and herbs?"
"I can sew, yes--" she said, smiling.
"Good," Hereward said. Although he wanted to question the girl further, he knew by Ragnhildr's tone that her plea was genuine. "This is Ragnhildr. I know she's a bit much at first," he said, shooting Ragnhildr a playful look, "but she's a good woman underneath it all. Far cleverer than most other women. Listen to her and follow her."
The girl looked again at Ragnhildr, who remained standing. For some reason, Marion thought Ragnhildr was taller than she truly was, but when she stood next to her, she realized she was actually taller.
Hereward asked, "Did you bring anything with you? Food or gold or anything we can use here? If you are as diligent as you claim you are, we won't send you away, but if you have anything to spare for our camp, let us have it."
Marion must have known something as this would be asked of her, so she slipped a hand inside of her gown. "I have sewed gold coins to my chemise."
Ragnhildr wondered what a chemise was.
Snorting, Hereward said, "Gold's not much preferred, but it can buy good weapons. Who, might I ask, who was your guardian?"
There was blatant sadness on her face. "Odo de Bayeux. He is half-brother to the king."
"We don't call him a king here," Ragnhildr said solemnly.
The girl nodded, and then added, "Odo is my father's kinsman. He took care of me after my sisters and I sailed from Normandy."
"I know Odo de Bayeux," Hereward said. His face was mean, pained. "What a bastard milksop, almost worse than the Bastard, forgive me, lady."
The small courtesy was directed towards Marion, who blushed. "I know. He is the reason I came here."
As Ragnhildr watched, she noticed the tension between them both, though there was a strange comfort there as well, as if they met before. Marion certainly was not a beauty like the other Norman noblewomen she met, but there was a loveliness beneath her sweeping lashes that was not detectable to the more brutish men. She was brave, Ragnhildr admitted, and strong.
The rain still beat ceaselessly against the tent, while she marked this day as the day she finally admired a Norman. And Hereward marked that rainy day as the only rainy day he loved.