SUFFER THE CHILDREN
By Laura Feltyberger

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"Please, be merciful! That pig is all we have to feed us through the winter." cried the farmer as a soldier led the animal from it’s pen and loaded it into a cart.

"This pig will grace the table of my Lord de Longfort tomorrow night." The Norman declared.

The farmer pleaded with the soldiers to leave them some food. The farmer’s wife stood with her back against the hay wagon, where she had hidden her children. One of the soldiers advanced on her.

"Here’s a nice little plum tart I wouldn’t mind having for my supper." He leered. He flicked his fingers under her chin and was rewarded with her grimace of disgust. Her eyes were not focused on the soldier. She had heard hoof beats in the distance, she had seen the woodsman in his red cloak as he approached. The soldier heard and saw nothing. The farmer’s wife ducked under the wagon.

"You’ve been a bad boy. You’ll be going without desert tonight." Robin

Hood drew a device from under his cloak and fired poison-tipped darts from it. Only moments after the darts struck him he fell unconscious to the ground. The cart that held the pig began to pull away, with Tuck at the reins. Robin, Marion, and Little John found themselves embroiled in a fight. John took on two and three men at a time, Marion gave the soldiers a good lashing with her whip, and Robin’s sword flashed like lightning as he defeated his opponents.

Gradually the outlaws beat the soldiers down. As the soldiers retreated Tuck rejoined his friends, leading the pig behind him.

"De Longfort wouldn’t have liked the pig anyway," he said.

"Of course not. I hear he keeps Kosher," said Robin, grinning merrily.

The farmer sighed heavily with relief. His wife crawled out from under the wagon, and the children’s heads began to appear from the mound of hay. Their father helped them to jump from the wagon one by one.

"Papa, Daniel won’t stop playing the game. He won’t get up." his daughter complained. The farmer dug into the pile of hay, pulling his small son from the golden straw. The boy hung limply in his hands.

Robin was the first to notice the red dart protruding from the boy’s leg: one of his own darts, tipped with a sleeping potion. He grasped the child’s leg and removed the dart as gently as possible, but the child, Daniel, did not respond. Robin pressed his hand to the wound to staunch the bleeding.

Tuck saw the dart when Robin tossed it to the ground. "That tincture is strong enough to knock out a grown man. Lord only knows what it might do to a child." Tuck’s concern alarmed Robin. The farmer shook his son gently, trying to rouse him, calling his name.

"I’ll take him back to camp with us. I can care for him better there."

Robin lifted Daniel into his arms and carried him to his horse. Little John handed the boy up when Robin had mounted. Robin flew through the forest as if the devil were on his trail.

Daniel was safely tucked into a cot in Tuck’s tent, but was still in danger. The skin surrounding the wound was inflamed and swollen, and his forehead was feverish and damp. His breathing was labored, as if a weight rested on his chest. He had not yet regained consciousness.

Pulling bottles and pots from his medicinal cupboard, Tuck assembled the ingredients for a poultice. First he crushed dry leaves in the mortar, then moistened them with vinegar, adding a bit of beeswax to make a salve that he pasted over the angry red wound. He bound it loosely with clean rags, then went TO work on another herbal decoction to bring down the fever and counteract the poison. Robin watched as the Friar worked. Marion watched also; she watched the crease between Robin’s brows grow deeper with concern.

"Robin, we need to talk." He followed her out of the sickroom.

"Can it wait? I want to make sure that Daniel is well." His words were clipped and annoyed.

"I know what’s going through your head right now..."

"Do you really? Enlighten me."

"You’re feeling responsible for what happened to Daniel. It’s not your fault. You had no idea the children were hiding in the hay wagon, or that a stray dart might hit one of them. If you keep thinking of the what-ifs’ you’re going to lose your perspective." Marion should have known by now that talking to him while he was in this state was useless, but she had to try.

"You should straighten out your own perspective and mind your own business!" he snarled. He strode past her and headed for the meadow.

"You are my business." she whispered as he faded into the tall grass.

This was his special place, a soft green quiet place where he could be alone with his thoughts. But today he found no solace in the scent of warm grass and earth. The sound of children playing gave him no comfort. In fact the sound of their happiness reminded him all the more of how fragile that happiness could be.

"Why is it that the first casualties of a war are always the children?"

Robin asked himself. He was himself a victim of the battle between Norman and Saxon. He’d lost his Father, his home, and almost everything he cared for. He thought of all the Saxon orphans that had come to camp over the years looking for a home. Then there were the families of his own men.

There had been losses, and every time he had to bury one of his own he saw the sorrow of everyone in camp.

He allowed himself to think of all the Norman soldiers he and his men had killed. How many children waited in Normandy for their fathers to come home, never knowing that a Saxon outlaw had sent him to his grave. Robin felt their pain and cried the tears they may never know to shed.

Word reached the camp that a great caravan was headed for Sherwood on the way to Lord de Longfort’s manor. He was trying to win more favors of

Prince John, and was throwing a banquet in the monarch’s honor. Great wagons sent from York lumbered through the forest, loaded with sides of beef, venison, and mutton, crates full of apples, turnips, lettuces, onions, grapes, and pears, fine wines and ales, barrels of mead. All of Nottinghamshire could have fed on the feast destined for de Longfort’s halls.

Robin chose the most advantageous point of attack as the wagon train trailed through Sherwood. Outlaws flew from the trees, knocking horsemen from their mounts. Wagon drivers, too, were shoved from their perches and the wagons driven off to camp by hidden trails. The caravan was guarded by soldiers from the garrison at York, and they were none too happy to have their precious cargoes lifted by marauders. They drew their swords and prepared to defend themselves. The Outlaws threw themselves into the fray.

The Yorkish soldiers swarmed about the highway, and Robin’s men were outnumbered, but their knowledge of the landscape and their determination to win the day bolstered the Outlaws’ cause. Robin fought bravely, as always, beating down every soldier that faced him. Sweat dripped from his brow, and plastered his hair to his neck. The sound of steel against steel filled the glen like the ringing of dozens of bells at the midday hour.

Robin found himself at the edge of the battle, surveying his foes where they had fallen on the road. The dread and pain that has plagued him in the meadow pricked him again. He heard the roar of another soldier behind him and ducked the attack just in time.

Instinct took over as Robin defended himself from the Yorkish captain. He blocked a flurry of blows, hoping his sword would remain true. The captain’s speed had Robin at a disadvantage because he was beginning to fatigue. Robin kicked out, bringing the captain to his knees. With his blade at the captain’s throat Robin tried to catch his breath. Regarding his enemy, Daniel’s face suddenly came to mind. Robin’s blade faltered. A hard blow to Robin’s chest sent him reeling to the ground. The sudden change of scene left him disoriented. Looking up he saw Little John standing over him holding a silver dagger in his hand.

"He’d have killed you if I’d been one second slower." John threw the dagger to the ground. It lay beside the captain, who had a welt from John’s quarterstaff growing on his temple.

"What were you thinking? You’ve never hesitated like that before." John was angry, and with good reason. Robin, on the other hand, couldn’t think of one. "I don’t know what I was thinking."

When the wagons and the battle-weary outlaws reached the safety of camp Robin left the redistribution of food to Friar Tuck, with the proviso that a haunch of venison be kept aside and cured in the camp larder. He retreated to his tent for much needed rest.

John told Marion and Tuck about Robin’s close call with the Yorkish captain.

"I thought he was about to give up. The captain drew his knife in full view and Robin never saw it. If I hadn’t shoved Robin aside, he’d be dead." The thought of having to carry Robin’s lifeless body back to camp gave John a shudder.

"I think what happened yesterday with the boy is still giving him trouble."

Tuck said gravely.

"I know that’s what’s bothering him. He feels responsible for Daniel’s injury and the guilt is eating away at him. I’ve tried to talk to him, but he won’t hear it. I’m worried that he can’t be trusted in a fight anymore, not while he’s blaming himself for hurting the boy." Marion would never let Tuck or John know that she’d cried last night, thinking of what Robin must be going through.

"I think I know someone Robin will listen to." Tuck sat down with quill and parchment and wrote a message. When it was sealed he took it to a young man and whispered directions in his ear. The youth clambered into the back of one of the food wagons as it drove off into the twilight.

Morning came and with it, the return of some of the food wagons that had spent the night bringing provisions to the needy of Nottinghamshire. The youth who had carried Tuck’s message leapt from the tailgate of an empty wagon and carried a message to Tuck. After a moment’s consultation, Tuck took the missive to Robin’s tent.

Robin was still sleeping, turned over on his stomach. One arm was thrown over his head, the fingers of the other grazed the dirt floor. His blankets had been tossed aside and flung to the ground. It looked like Robin had not had an easy night.

Tuck tossed Robin’s shirt onto the bed and kicked at the bedstead to rouse him. Robin glared at Tuck from under an unruly tangle of sable hair before pushing himself to a sitting position. Tuck handed him the missive.

"Your presence is requested." Was all Tuck said before he left Robin’s tent. He didn’t want to deal with Robin’s bad mood this morning. It simply wasn’t a good way to start what promised to be a beautiful day.

Robin followed the directions in the message. It led him to a low sprawling building by a wide creek. Oak branches bowed over the roof and waved in the breeze. The sound of children’s laughter could be heard from an open casement. A group of urchins burst from a doorway, screaming in mock-terror as two teenaged girls chased them, threatening them with a much despised bath. A tall young man lounged in the doorway watching the girls round up the delinquent children.

"Patrick?" Robin could hardly see the once sullen boy in the man who stood before him. In four years he had grown so much. The once familiar snarl had been replaced with an easy smile, which Robin confessed suited him better.

"Robin, I’m glad you came. Tuck said it was about time I had you down here."

"What have you done here?"

"It’s an orphanage. We have Saxon and Norman children here. I figured that they could use a stable environment, as well as guidance. I know what that meant to me." Patrick sent Robin a knowing glance. "If it hadn’t been for you, my life might have gone in an entirely different direction. I decided to share that gift with others who found themselves alone in the world."

A screeching child plowed into Patrick’s legs and he swung the girl up into his arms. Another child hid behind him. Patrick dragged the two towards the back of the house.

"You’ll have a bath like proper boys and girls, and I’ll have none of your caterwauling. You should behave better in front of guests." he chuckled.

Robin pitched in and hauled another squirming escapee to the wash house.

In an open lean-to at the back of the main house half a dozen six-year olds cavorted in a huge wash tub. The children splashed and drenched the girls, Patrick, and Robin in the process of getting clean. When all the children were thoroughly scrubbed, dried, and dressed in tattered but clean clothes they were sent to play by the creek. Smoke poured from the nearby cookhouse.

"I wanted to thank you for the food you sent last night. The side of beef will last till spring once it’s cured. The sugar treats were also much appreciated. I don’t have to tell you that some of these kids have never had that before." The two men sat in the shade of an alder tree, listening to the rush of the creek.

"It’s amazing, what you’ve done here. The children are thriving; they’re happy. They have a chance." Robin stared idly at the children skipping stones across the water.

"Thanks to you they have a chance. I owe you a lot, Robin. They never would have had this place if you hadn’t turned me around." The sincerity in Patrick’s voice gave Robin pause.

Two girls with russet curls and green eyes shyly approached Patrick. One of the girls whispered something in Patrick’s ear. "Yes, Sabina, he is Robin Hood." he said with a grin.

Thrilled with the declaration, the girls presented Robin with handfuls of wildflowers and kisses on both his cheeks before they scurried away, giggling and chattering to each other in French.

"Sabina and Mathilde were the daughters of a Norman landowner who died in the service of his liege-lord. But what they remember best was when some of your men came and brought them here. Their parents were your enemy, but you are their hero." Patrick explained.

"They’ll feel differently when they’re grown and can understand what really happened." Robin said ominously.

"I don’t think so. The only thing they’ll remember is that in the middle of this bloody war, the only thing that restored some hope to their lives was me, and Robin Hood." Patrick went downstream to help the boys make fishing poles, and left Robin with his thoughts.

After a long day spent with Patrick and the children Robin returned to camp rejuvenated. There was nothing like time spent with a child to remind him of how precious life is. He checked on Daniel and found that the fever had broken and he was recovering rapidly. Robin reflected on the boy’s amazing resilience. Tuck sent the boy home with instructions to watch him carefully and feed him a special tea to help him regain his strength. His father rolled his eyes at that, for Daniel had regained most of his rambunctious energy already.

Marion met Robin as he walked through the camp on the way to his tent, the bouquet of wildflowers in his hand.

"So, you had a nice visit with Patrick?"

"Yes," he sighed. "Patrick has done well, and so will the children in his care."

She indicated the flowers he carried. "A gift from an admirer?"

"From two of Patrick’s children."

"Robin, do you ever think about having children of your own?"

He stopped on the path to consider her question. "Yes, I do. I wouldn’t mind having a few kids of my own someday." he said, tucking two of his flowers in her hair. "But only if they have your red hair and blue eyes."

With a mischievous wink and a dimpled grin he left Marion standing slack-jawed and wide eyed, staring after him.

THE END

By Laura M. Feltyberger 6/99

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