A/N- This story is a blend of SVM and Theresa Tomlinson's young adult novel The Forestwife. The Forestwife is a grittier, more realistic, Maid Marian centric version of Robin Hood. I have used it extensively in this fanfiction both for plot and historical references but the characters will be familiar to those versed in the SVM world. Also, please be patient for the arrival of Eric, it will be a few chapters before he is properly introduced.
I do not own any rights for SVM or The Forestwife.
I hope you enjoy!
Chapter 1 – Escape from Hale Manor
Susannah stood beside her uncle's chair on the raised dais at the end of the great hall. Her hands shook as she twisted the heavy garnet ring on her forefinger. It had belonged to her mother, Michelle de Hale, and it was all that Susannah had left of her. She worked it round and round frantically until she saw that her uncle was
watching, irritated by the nervous action.
The lord of Hale Manor tapped his fingers on the carved wooden armrests. "Heaven knows, child, I have done my best by thee. I pray you'll not disgrace me."
"But Uncle...,"she whispered her protest.
"What? Speak up, child. Speak clear."
Her uncle bent forward, frowning with the impatience that he clearly felt.
"Uncle, he is so...old."
"No good fussing and fretting about that. 'Tis what a girl child's reared for—marriage and breeding. William de Compton is a grand match for an orphaned wench like thee. I've more to worry about than maiden's fears, what with Queen Sophie Anne demanding high taxes for her crusade, and Count Felipe wanting men and horses to strengthen his garrison at Castro Castle against her.
Susannah forced her mouth into a tight line and stared unblinking at her uncle's long, yellow fingernails, fearing that the slightest twitch would loosen the tears clinging to the corners of her eyes.
Bartlett de Hale stood to leave. His patience was at an end.
"For my poor dead sister's sake tha must curb thy temper and accept my decision. You are eighteen years old, girl. Many a maid is married at twelve."
As soon as the door closed behind her uncle, Susannah dashed towards her chambers, threw herself face down on her mattress, and screamed into the bedding. She couldn't marry Lord Compton! She wouldn't! He was repulsive. He smelled of sour ale and old urine and his lecherous eyes, like his skin, were filmy and yellow with age. The thought of dining with him...of sleeping next to him...of fulfilling the mysterious wifely duties with him... She would rather run away and leave Hale Manor forever.
Susannah flew to her clothes chest, yanked open the lid, and began tossing aside the carefully layered garments in search of the winter cloak that had been packed away for the warm summer months. She spotted its purple wool and grabbed it by the fur-lined hood. Tucking it under her arm, she shoved the rest of her clothes back into the chest and began her escape.
Her heart flittering like a hummingbird trapped in her chest, Susannah walked with forced nonchalance towards the back of the Manor House. She could hear her uncle in the front hall calling for his groom but both the corridor and the kitchen were deserted except for a cook dozing over a basket of leeks. Susannah carefully eased a loaf of bread off the hearth, wrapped it in her cloak, and bolted out into the garden. She hurried through the rows of beans and peas towards the small gate that led to the wooded part of the estate.
She was lifting the iron sneck of the gate when the kitchen door opened. Susannah dropped to her hands and knees in the dirt nauseous with fear, knowing that if she were caught now, there would be no escape from Lord Compton and his rotten black stumps of teeth. A chorus of joyful grunting reassured her. No one had discovered her flight. It was only the kitchen maid scraping the vegetable peelings into the pig sty. Susannah nudged the gate open and quietly crawled through. She crouched, listening for the sound of the maid returning to the house. Then, she got to her feet and ran.
Once she had started, she dared not stop. She dared not even look back over her shoulder as she hurtled down the well-worn pathway towards the shelter of the trees. She had no destination, just the knowledge that she had to get as far away from the manor as possible.
In the woods, she followed the small, forested paths at a brisk walk and stayed far away from the old Roman road.
She was almost to the edge of her uncle's demesne when a thought almost had her turning back. How could she go without saying goodbye to Gran? She'd been in such a state that she hadn't stopped to think.
Adele wasn't Susannah's real grandmother but her beloved nurse. Michelle de Hale, had died, far away in a convent, giving birth to her daughter. Bartlett de Hale had buried his sister with many a tear of shame, then brought the child back to Hale Manor to rear as his own. He'd called for a wet nurse for the babe, and it was Adele who'd come. She'd been like a mother to Susannah ever since.
Susannah forced herself onwards. She couldn't go back now. She might not have this opportunity again. Besides, if she told Gran she was running away, Gran would fret and grumble and insist on coming too. How would Adele fare with her rheumaticky joints? Her nurse was not so old, but ever since learning that her brother had been killed and his son, Eric, had disappeared after being charged with the murder, she'd grown vague and forgetful. She'd even taken to wandering off for hours at a time, returning late and seeming puzzled at the darkness. No, she would miss the dear woman but taking Gran could only bring them both to grief. And if Gran had to stay behind, it was kinder and safer not to tell her at all. If she knew nothing, she could say nothing.
The Bellefleur woods were not frightening like the thick, dark forests and wild wastes farther to the north. They were networked with paths and peopled with workers. Charcoal burners lived in hovels close to where they fired their bell-shaped wood stacks, families of coal diggers worked in small groups wherever the coal seams touched the surface, and ironworkers made their bloom hearths near to the streams that they dammed and used as cooling ponds.
Susannah avoided these people as best as she could. The folks who gleaned their living from the woods lived on the edge of starvation and owed tithes and labor to Bellefleur Manor. She could not know if they would betray her, should they glimpse her flight.
The farther she went from the main trail, the more difficult the going became. Her fine-stitched slippers did little to protect her from the fallen holly leaves and sharp stones that rutted the paths. She was hot and tired and beginning to worry that she was stumbling around in circles when she came upon the crossroads.
A thin, pale girl, no older than Susannah, crouched by the path collecting strawberries in a basket. She stood quickly when Susannah approached, revealing that her worn gown was pulled tight across a pregnant belly.
"Will you tell me where these paths lead?" Susannah asked, knowing she could not pass without the girl noticing.
The girl stared, and then pointed to the right. "Tha goes to Bellefleur Manor uphill, the bridge over Reynolds brook straight on, and Thornton Abbey downhill."
Susannah thanked her. Apart from her swollen stomach, the girl was disturbingly bony and frail-looking. Susannah found herself unwrapping the bread from her cloak and tearing the girl a hunk. The girl accepted it with amazement and immediately began to gnaw on it like a wild, starving creature.
"Do you know who I am?" Susannah asked apprehensively.
"Aye. I think I do," the girl replied, her mouth full of bread.
"Should Bartlett de Hale come looking for me, I pray you'll not tell."
The girl's eyes opened wide. "I will swear that I have never seen thee." She picked up her basket and turned to leave. "I won't look back. I shall never know which way tha went."
The light was fading as she crossed the wooden bridge over the river and climbed the gentle slope toward the abbey. Bellefleur Manor promised her no safety, and beyond the village of Reynolds lay the dangerous edges of the Bon Temps Wastes, a vast wilderness of heaths, marshlands, and dark forests. Only Thorton Abbey offered the possibility of sanctuary. But as she drew nearer the stronger her doubts grew. How would they receive her? She'd heard of folk accused of crime claiming the right to sanctuary, but they'd been men. Would the same apply to a girl fleeing an arranged marriage?
Solemn chanting drifted in waves of sound across the fish ponds and fields, as she moved along the edges of the wooded land watching the cloister doors. A statue of the Virgin, one hand raised in blessing, stood in a niche beside the door. Surely there was safety here. She took a step toward it, then stopped, trembling. The carved stone face was blank, no blessing there at all – the hand was raised in warning: Stop! Go back! Run away!
With a fresh sense of fright, Susannah gathered up her skirts and shrank backward among the trees. Before she'd had a chance to move far into the shadows, the clattering of two horsemen made her turn in alarm.
"Open up! Open up! A message from Bartlett de Hale."
Susannah knew the voices. They were her uncle's grooms.
She ran wildly now, not thinking of the way, but going where the trees grew thickest and horses could not follow. Her legs banged against tree stumps and scraped on rocks as she fled, borne onward by the energy of fear. As the trees grew taller and more spaced, she slowed her steps but staggered on, stiff-limbed, her head drooping in despair. She was lost and heading toward the place she feared most to go; the wilderness of Bon Temps, beyond the reaches of the law.
Others had come this way. They took refuge in the deep forest – those who'd killed, or robbed, or maimed. Why, even Adele's nephew, Eric, was one of them. Perhaps he hid there still.
Both her courage and her legs finally failed her. She fell to the ground, huge great sobs shaking her body.
She cried for a long time, letting all of her emotions drip into the forest floor. When her sobs at last grew hushed and stillness returned, she began to hear the rustling of small bodies in the ferns, the screech of an owl, and a faint trickle of water. Water!
Susannah stumbled through the dark, following the gurgle of the stream. When the moon came out from behind a cloud, she found herself at a spring, a fairyland of glittering water and fern. She drank in long gulps from her cupped hands. Realizing that she had found Saint Lafayette's Well, the spring Adele had told her existed at the edge of the waste, she felt a little less lost. She crawled beneath the thick drooping branches of a yew tree close to the water's source and ate what was left of her bread. She couldn't remember anything ever tasting so good. Her spirits rose. She was alone in the woods, but safe and warm and free from her uncle and the strict protection of Holt Manor.
She curled up in her cloak and fell asleep to thoughts of the Green Lady, the beautiful spirit of the woods, who walked through the forest, blessing the trees with fruitfulness, hand in hand with the Green Man.