Where Daffodils Grow Wild
Chapter 20 – The Great Escape
It was near dawn when Proberta, Brawn and the wet nurse, carrying baby Margaret, snuck out of the barn and into the thick brush that ran alongside the outbuildings of the compound. Proberta and Brawn had considered leaving the peasant woman hidden in the loft with the baby. Not only would it ward off any suspicion if Raven happened to stop by, but it would be a safe, dry place for the baby to wait it out. But after much deliberation, they decided it would be better if they stuck together. That way, when they freed Crow, they could head out of the compound immediately, as they knew time was of the essence.
The wet nurse, they found, was more helpful than expected. As soon as she realized the full impact of what she had gotten into, and who she was supporting in the heist, she joined up with Proberta and Brawn to help with Crow’s escape. Being from the nearby village, and a regular visitor, she knew the ins and outs of the compound well. She even knew of secret hideaways and hidden trails into the forest. But more importantly, she was able to nurse the baby, keeping Margaret not only fed but comforted. Both Brawn and Proberta felt this woman must be a decent enough person because Margaret took to her so easily. They both knew the baby would not be so relaxed, especially with all that was going on, had the woman been of an evil nature. Margaret had her mother’s sixth sense.
Their first stop was at the stables. Luckily the stable boy had already groomed the two horses, but they tacked them and loaded their traveling satchels, which definitely lightened their carry load. They led the horses out of the stable and directly onto a dark, treed pathway heading in the direction they would be traveling. Once they were far enough away for the horses or Margaret to be heard, Proberta and Brawn left them well hidden in the protective girth of a large hawthorne trunk. With a shawl, and a couple of woolen blankets taken from the loft, they would be nice and warm while they waited.
All was quiet on the grounds of the compound as Proberta and Brawn approached, as it was not yet dawn. They knew there was very little time before light broke through the early morning darkness, and that meant residents of the compound would be waking for morning chores. They went directly to the root cellar and found it secured with a heavy metal chain and padlock.
“You’d think people would get a bit suspicious. Since when is a root cellar locked?”
“When there is more than food stored inside,” said Brawn matter-of-factly but with an edge of sarcasm. Proberta looked at him with love in her heart. What a man he was. They were in this together, just like they were with everything it seemed. He was such a giving, loyal, honest man, it was hard not to adore him. She watched as Brawn jiggled the lock, then took a rock and pounded it. He looked around but saw nothing to help him break the thick metal or that he could use to pick the lock.
“This is going to be tougher than I thought,” he said. “We don’t have much time, and anything I do to try to break that thing is going to wake every farmer from here to the moorland.” Just then, Proberta had an idea.
“Brawn, unlace my bodice, will you please my love?” she said almost flirting with him. Brawn sauntered over to her.
“With pleasure, my dear, but now doesn’t seem an appropriate time.” He began to unfasten Proberta’s bodice, letting it slide away from her thin waist down to the ground. He was just about to reach around and grasp her full breasts, pressing himself against her backside, when she spoke again.
“Now, see my corset hooks?” He nodded.
“What is it you’re doing, Proberta? You never cease to amaze and confuse me.”
“Undo the corset and rip the bone ribbing out of the fabric.” He hesitated. “Don’t worry, I have more. Just do it. It might be strong enough to jimmy the lock. It is bone, after all.”
“My god, woman, you’re brilliant!” Brawn got a little rough and ripped Proberta’s corset right off her body. “Too bad this isn’t one of our playtime games,” he said with a wink. Proberta pulled her bodice and skirt back up, and while she laced it up from behind, Brawn went to work trying to dismantle the corset. He was successful enough to remove a long, sharp piece of bone, which he used as a tool to open the lock. It took several tries but finally they heard a click as the padlock opened. Quickly, Brawn lifted the heavy wooden hatch and went down the dark stairs to the dirt floor below.
“Hurry,” cried Proberta in close pursuit. “We haven’t much time.”
Brawn called out for Crow, but heard nothing. He tried again, several times, but again, heard nothing.
“I certainly hope that woman did not mislead us. We’ve just left her with our baby.” He stopped, correcting himself, but not before Proberta heard his slip-up. “With baby Margaret, I mean. That peasant could go anywhere with that baby, and we’ve basically handed her over to her, non gratis.” He pounded his fist against the earthen cellar walls, angry at himself for being so thoughtless. A handful of loose dirt and pebbles rolled down. Then he heard something pound back. Was it an echo? He pounded again, and again a similar pounding responded.
“Hello,” he said. “Crow, is that you?” It was quiet, but then two pounds sounded against the wall.
“I think we might have found him,” said Brawn, but Proberta was two steps ahead of him. She rounded a corner past jars of preserved fruit and garden vegetables, down a long row of meat that hung by hooks from a heavy wooden beam. Brawn was close behind. She could see light seeping underneath a row of shelves. She knelt down and saw a small opening the size of a window.
“It’s hard to imagine how Crow could even fit through this space, but here goes.” Proberta yanked open the small doorway and slithered through. It was darker inside, and warmer because it was so cramped. She couldn’t see anything but she could hear labored breathing coming from the direction to her right.
“Crow, Crow is that you.” She could hear the breathing quicken, and then a short hrumph. “Brawn, it’s him. We’ve got to get him out of here, fast.” Proberta shimmied back out of the space and dusted herself off. “You have to go in, Brawn. I know you’re bigger, but you’re stronger too. I think he’ll need to be hauled out.” Proberta was breathing heavily herself now as she formulated then articulated the plan. “If you can get him to the opening here,” she pointed to the undersized doorway, “I can pull and you can push from the inside. It’s all we’ve got, but we must hurry.”
As usual, Brawn moved quickly. He was in and crawling along toward Crow in no time. Upon finding him, it was a game of touch in the dark cellar. Crow seemed to be gagged with his hands and feet hogtied together. First Brawn undid his gag, which was tied so tightly it was almost impossible for Brawn to loosen the knot. Finally it came undone.
“E’en dough I can’t see yer, sure is good ta see yer all da same,” Crow said, and managed a soft chuckle.
“Don’t worry, mate,” Brawn said as he untied first Crow’s hands, then his ankles. “We’re going to get you out of here and safely back for the last of the Beltane celebrations.” Crow was quiet for a minute.
“Whar’s da babe?” he asked, almost inaudibly.
“Don’t you worry. Margaret’s fine. She’s in the woods waiting for you to return and take her home to her mother.”
“‘O’se she wit?” He sighed. “‘Sides, she or ‘er mum won’ be wantin’ me ‘round dem no more, I’s sure a dat.”
“She’s fine and she will indeed want you around. She misses you, Crow, and so does Lady Mossgrove, Maggie to you, fine Sir. We’ll have plenty of time to talk when we get on the trail. For now, we’ve got to get you out of here before the compound wakes up and we’re caught red handed.”
Brawn grabbed hold of Crow’s ankles and heaved his heavy body around so he was lying lengthwise feet first in the tunnel-like room. “Tell me if it hurts.” He pulled, and Crow let out a yelp, so Brawn loosened his grip but kept pulling slowly and steadily toward the doorway. Once there, Proberta was ready to grab his feet and pull while Brawn crawled up to Crow’s head and helped push his broad shoulders, angling his body just so, to turn his bulk into the limited opening. Crow collapsed in a heap when he finally pushed through to Proberta’s side, dirty, sweaty, and dehydrated.
“Oh, Crow, how long have you been down here?” Proberta asked, holding him and rubbing warmth into his stiff, cold body.
“No time to chat,” reminded Brawn. “Let’s help him up. We can shoulder his weight between us and drag him to the horses if we have to.”
After some struggle, Proberta, Brawn and a weak and heavy Crow surfaced to bright sunlight and a small gathering of curious onlookers. Front and center was Raven, arms folded over her chest, a stern look on her face.
“Well, well. Seems da two guests jes can’t keep dere ‘ands out a da bread basket. I’n it so?” She circled the three of them, Crow slumped limply on the ground. “Tell yer wat. Seein’ yer wan’ten Crow ‘ere so badly, I’m willin’ ta do a trade. ‘And o’er da babe ‘n yer can take ‘ol Crow ‘ere. But da offer only stands fer ‘n ‘our. A’ter dat, ‘e’s done, ‘n so are you two lovebirds.”
Brawn and Proberta kept an unflinching gaze on Raven, both unwilling to show any signs of weakness or fear. Crow did not even lift his head to look at his wife, if he could still call her that. His body language spoke volumes; let me die now.
A moment passed and no one spoke. Tension mounted in the small public square. There was only one thought on everybody’s mind. Would Raven actually do it? Would she act on her threats? Then a feeble voice broke through the deafening silence.
“We don’ kill people ‘ere in dis compound, Raven. Le’ Mas’er Crow ‘n da vis’tors go.”
“‘Ooh is dat speakin’ ou’ a turn. Dat yer, Wren? Or yer, Lotus, ya mis’rable wench?” Raven spit out the names like they were poison.
“No, Raven, tis me, W’isteria.” The old woman pushed her way out from the back of the now large crowd until she was standing directly in front of Raven staring calmly into her steely eyes.
“Ha! Yer no tret to me, yer ol‘ bag,” Raven said.
“No, bu’ I am.” Roland, a giant of a man with a long black beard and wiry hair tied back in a leather strap, stepped out from the wings.
“‘N me,” said Wolf, a thin, lithe fellow with green eyes and short bushy hair.
Before long, the crowd began to close in on Raven in support of Wisteria. Raven yelled obscenities, chanted a hex, and stood her ground, but the sheer numbers eventually subdued her, and very soon her wicked outbursts became but faint whispers amid the chaos. Before their very eyes, Raven shrunk into a rumpled heap and was left lying in the dirt, cowering and weeping, a miserable abomination.
“Raven,” Wisteria announced as the crowd gathered around her. “Yer ‘ave disgraced da compound wit yer evil ways. Yer no longer welcome ta live ‘ere wid us.” She looked around at the many familiar but grim faces still reeling from shock and disbelief. “Now tis yer dat ‘as one ‘our ta pack yer bags ‘n get ou’ of ‘ere fer good, ‘n don’ come back.” She looked around again. “Rolan’ ‘n Wolf are kindly folk. De’ll ‘elp yer.” The two men picked up an utterly defeated Raven, grabbed her under her frail arms, and hauled her away. A collective sigh of relief ran through the remaining residents of the compound. Even an exhausted Crow lifted his head and produced a weak grimace of a smile.
“Wa’er! Le’s give dis poor man some wa’er. ‘urry.” It was Wisteria who shouted out the order, and within minutes jugs and goblets brimming with fresh well water appeared at Crow’s feet.
“Easy now, Crow, my man. Remember, you haven’t had water for days. We don’t want you getting ill, mate.” Brawn held a ladle to Crow’s parched lips and let him slowly drink it in. Soon he collapsed back into the dirt, exhausted.
“Now that Raven is no longer a concern to us, I think we should stay here for another night or two so that Crow can regain his strength,” suggested Proberta, kneeling down beside Crow.
“Ac’tually, t’was tinking Crow’d be da per’fect one ta take o’er da compound, now dat Raven’s gone,” said Wisteria. “‘E knows da lay a da land, ‘n ‘as earned da respect a da people.”
“Yah,” the crowd roared in agreement.
“Whoa! No‘ so fast, La’y Wisteria. Crow needs ta get dat babe back ta ‘er mo’der. ‘Dere’s no time ta rest.” Crow looked at the familiar faces in the crowd, many whom he’d known since boyhood. In their eyes remained hope not despair, love not anger. It made his heart full just to see that Raven and all her evil ways had not tainted the beauty within the compound walls – walls made of towering hawthorne trees, protected by distant moors. “I won’ say nay, bu’ I tink in me absence La’y Wist’eria ‘ere will do righ’ by yer. Wha’ say yer, La’y Wist’eria?” Another loud yah rang out from the crowd as Wisteria stepped forward to accept Crow’s offer.
“Id’ll be a ‘onor ta oblige ‘n do me du’y ta serve in yer stead, Mas’er Crow. ‘N we wish yer godspeed, don’ we?” This time the crowd went wild, hollering and cheering as if a president had just been elected, and perhaps she had.
Proberta looked at Brawn who looked at Crow. “Let’s at least get you to hold down a full meal and get a little rest before we begin our journey, Crow,” said Brawn. “Proberta will take you into the main house while I go and get the wet nurse and baby Margaret.” Crow’s eyes lit up. “I’m sure she’ll be delighted to see you, too, Crow,” Brawn laughed, and realized it was the first time he’d felt such unburdened joy since Proberta’s appearance at the Beltane fire only days earlier. He had purpose. He had family.