Where Daffodils Grow Wild
Chapter 14 – FRIEND OR FOE
“Allo, Proberta,” Crow said merrily. “‘Ow ya been?” Proberta stood up, shocked and annoyed.
“Crow! What are you doing here?”
“I’m ‘ere ta take ya ta yer friend, Roset’a. Seen as yer back in da market ta find ‘er.” Proberta looked stunned.
“How do you know that, Crow? And where did you come from?”
“From da compound, natur’ly,” he said as if she should have known. “Don’ yer worry none, M’La’y. Crow say ‘e’s gonna look out fer ya, ‘n Crow means wha’ Crow says. Dat’s why I’m ‘ere.”
“But how did you know I – we – needed help? How did you find us?”
Again Crow laughed a jolly belly laugh. “I’s lookin’ ou’ fer Proberta.” Crow glanced over to Maggie lying with Margaret on the makeshift bed. The baby had looked up when he entered the hut, and continued staring at him, making soft gurgling sounds. Crow slowly approached, reaching his hand toward her, a wide grin spread across his face. Proberta leapt forward to stop his advances.
“It’s okay, Proberta,” Maggie said. “He can touch her. It’s fine, see?” Proberta watched as Crow placed is large, calloused finger into Margaret’s open palm. She grabbed it eagerly, pulling it toward her mouth as babies do.
“Oh, no, ‘lil darlin’. Crow’s gotta wash up firs’.” Margaret giggled and reached for the amulet made from bone and onyx that hung from the leather thong around Crow’s thick neck. He let her tug at it and turn it around in her small fingers as she fixated on its shape and shine.
“We best be star’in’ out M’La’y’s. Nigh’ll soon fall. Lord Philly’ll be ‘ere ‘n no time.”
Proberta decided not to even ask how he knew this or even what else he knew. Both woman hustled to pack what they had just unpacked, stuffing things back in their satchels and returning items to their original state. Proberta took apart the fire pit she had so carefully constructed and scattered brush around the area to cover up any signs of human tampering. All the while Crow held baby Margaret who was happy as could be in his arms. After keeping her eye on him out of concern for the child, Proberta finally relaxed a bit, staying focussed on her own task of breaking camp. There were too many questions to ask and time was of the essence. Her instincts played with her better judgement, and right now all she had was to trust this man who for some reason she had never trusted. Why did he always appear when she needed help? Who did he work for, if anyone? And what did he want from her? She paid close attention to the way Maggie navigated Crow. Proberta trusted Maggie, so knowing she felt comfortable around him made her feel more at ease. It would likely be several hours, perhaps days, before she could put any serious questions to Crow. Until that time she would have to follow his lead.
It was dusk when they journeyed forth once again, this time heading to the east. Crow seemed to be very clear where they were going. With scythe in hand, leading his horse behind him, he cleared the path, making it relatively easy to cut through the thicket. He didn’t seem worried about leaving a trail behind, but again, Proberta could only trust that he knew what he was doing for their benefit. They rode well into the night, stopping only for Maggie to feed baby Margaret and for them to snack on venison jerky that Crow had brought, and the nuts, seeds and dried fruit the women carried in their skirt pockets. Early on they took turns carrying Margaret, but as night descended, and it grew colder and darker, Crow happily wrapped her inside his heavy jacket, which kept her secured by its leather belt. There she slept warmly and contentedly. Finally they stopped to sleep in a protected grove of heather, skirted by dwarf oak trees. Though they slept fitfully, at least they rested, knowing they had acres to cross before they arrived at their destination.
The following day was easier, the women having found their stride. Crow didn’t talk much, except to coo at Margaret and play rhyming games that she didn’t understand but seemed to enjoy immensely. By nightfall of the second night, as the weary travelers made their way through a less forested part of The Shire, they heard the quiet hum of music and laughter. Leading the way toward a flickering of lights through the trees, the four adventurers arrived in an open glen. It was brightly lit with burning torches, lanterns hanging from low-slung tree branches, and a giant bonfire where a group of scantily clad men and women danced to the beat of drums. Topless women paraded openly with spring garlands upon their heads, their hair hanging loosely down their backs. Arm-in-arm, they planted wet, juicy kisses randomly on men’s lips as they passed them by, giggling and kissing each other along the way. Breasts were fondled and ogled, and men walked up to the woman of their choice, whisking her off to a dark corner of the forest, leaving the festivities temporarily behind.
“What is this place?” asked a surprised Proberta.
“Looks ta be da Beltane Festival, M’La’y. ‘Appens on da May day. Tis ‘n ancient Celtic way ta celebrate fertil’ty a da eart’ ‘n all. A spring cel’bration.” Crow didn’t seem the least bit ruffled or even interested in the lustiness displayed before them. Maggie stood, eyes gaping in disbelief. Little Margaret giggled at the noise and merriment after so many quiet days with little stimulation.
A small group gathered around the travelers. One buxom, half-naked woman picked Margaret out of Crow’s arms and danced her around as the baby squealed with delight. When the woman returned her to Crow, she gave him a luscious kiss of thanks, leaving Crow blushing with pleasure. A few shirtless men, wearing leather armbands to accentuate their muscles, flirted with Maggie and Proberta. After days on the trail, it was hard not to be taken in by the jovial laughter, the playful touching and teasing. For Proberta, it brought back memories – memories she hoped to rid herself of. It would be too easy, she knew, to jump into the heat of the fire, to remove her dusty clothing and dance uninhibited letting her feelings go unencumbered. Then, when the moon rose high into the dark spring sky, to be taken into the forest for her sexual awakening. She glanced over at Maggie, who seemed to be enthralled with the whole affair.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said breathlessly as she dismounted. Just as she said this, a handsome young man stepped up to her and kissed her tenderly on her lips. He couldn’t have yet turned twenty, but the soft growth on his chin suggested he was old enough to enjoy Beltane. He took her hand to lead her away from her group, gazing into her eyes adoringly. She hesitated, then dropped the reins and took a few steps along with him.
“Ah, ah, ah,” scolded Proberta. The young man released Maggie’s hand with a grin.
“Perhaps I’ll find you later, M’Lady.” He winked, and walked into the crowd toward his next momentary love interest.
“I’m sorry,” Maggie said bending to pick up the leather reins, slightly ashamed of herself for even thinking of going with the attractive young stranger.
“Don’t be. Anybody would have been tempted. I was.” She smiled slyly at Maggie, who broke into peals of laughter.
“It just-it just looks like so much fun,” she said. “And I haven’t had fun in such a long time. No offense.”
“I can’t offer you all of your entertainment, after all,” Proberta joked.
The group handed their tired steeds over to the stable hands who took them to a large open barn where they could be brushed and watered. Then they decided to wander down to the bonfire where they indulged in freshly cooked Bannock, the sweet bread of the gods, and lamb cooking slowly on an open spit. Crow drank a mug of stout and continued to swing little Margaret round and round with the music as she rested on his hip. He took great pride in showing her off, almost as if she were his own. Maggie didn’t seem to care in the least. She looked flushed with happiness at the exuberance that surrounded them. However, Proberta was not so easily swayed. She couldn’t help wonder why he and Raven had never had children of their own.
Before long, the women tired, unable to keep up with the celebratory clime that was sure to not only continue through the night, but well into the week.
“I’ll take Da La’y Mossgrove and baby Marg’ret to dat tent o’er thar,” Crow said, pointing to a dimly lit canvas hut tucked in the trees away from the throngs. “Dey can sleep ‘dere, ‘n get ‘way from dis noise ‘n dancin’.”
Proberta felt something tug at her. Why did Crow want to take Maggie and the baby, and not include her? What was he up to? She had noticed how he had been hovering around them, and Maggie didn’t seem to mind at all. Proberta knew Maggie was intuitive but Maggie didn’t know Crow like she did. Something just didn’t feel right. Maggie gave Proberta a kiss on the cheek.
“Good night, sweet Proberta. Thank you for getting us here safely.” Before Proberta could protest, Crow and Maggie walked off toward their sleeping quarters. An uncomfortable fear gripped her, something she hadn’t felt since their arrival at the Beltane. Her mind searched for what it could be, where the feeling of terror was coming from.
“And I’ll take you, Lady Proberta.” Proberta turned to see Phillip, completely naked except for a loincloth hanging loosely from his hips. In his hand he held a pint of steaming ale, the froth of which covered his upper lip. He reached toward her with his free hand and grabbed her slim waist, pulling her into him. “Now that I’ve got you in my clutches, you’ll get what you’ve been wanting, M’Lady, what you deserve. Wench,” he said under his breath. Proberta struggled to get away. She screamed and pounded her fists against his chest, pushing to wrench herself free. A few passersby laughed at them, thinking it all part of a game.
“I don’t want this,” she cried. “I don’t want you. Let me go, Phillip. Why are you doing this? Why?”
“I don’t like being undermined, not by anyone, but particularly not by a whore of a woman.”
“What have I done to you, Phillip? Tell me what.” He thought for a second.
“You know my secret.”
“What secret is that?” she asked, skeptical.
“You know I am unfaithful.”
“Do you think Maggie a fool? She has eyes, she knows what you do in your ‘spare’ time.” Proberta spit out the words.
“You know I can be cruel, heartless. Even Maggie doesn’t know everything about me, but you do. You saw it with your own eyes up in the heath, felt my hot breath against your neck.” He was breathing heavily now, gaining momentum. “And because you know that, you’ve taken them from me, my wife, my child.”
“But you don’t even love them, Phillip.”
“You don’t know who I love. Besides, that’s none of your business, is it now? The fact remains, they were part of my plan, and now you’ve ruined even that. It’s time someone taught you a good hard lesson, Madam.” He thrust himself against her making her gasp aloud, and kissed her ferociously on the mouth. He tasted of home-brew, tobacco and other women. She tried to pull away, tried to scream, but his mouth kept hers smothered, unable to release even the slightest yelp. Then he spit into the dirt, covered her mouth with his hand, and hauled her off into the bushes.