Gwyn cradled herself as the sobs became hiccoughing gasps and the tears fell less ferociously. Her fingers crept up her arm to the place where the fabric had ripped under his groping hands. She shuddered, her stomach churning at the memory of his leering grin. It had not been lust that strengthened Ranulf's grip. It had been cold, hard revenge forcing him upon her and leaving burning imprints of his dirty fingernails on her arm and chest. Her throat closed up again, but the tears did not pour as before. The deep inner place they sprang from was quickly running dry, leaving only cracked, aching nothingness.
The gentle, steady noise of the brook tumbling past was finally seeping into her mind. The bottom of her dress was still wet around her ankles from her passage through the shallows earlier. The solid details gave her terror-wracked soul a place to moor. She curled further into herself, drawing her knees up to her chest to make the tightest ball possible, letting her mind take over now her emotions were too spent to continue.
Whatever her personal impression of Ranulf, she expected him to do his duty to keep Nottingham safe. Instead, he and the sheriff and others like them used their power to manipulate and destroy. A cold lump settled in her stomach, forcing its way through her chest and throat, leaving frozen despair in its wake and the numbing realization that she had been wrong. Her mistress would laugh to see her finally realize it, but there was nothing amusing about the choice she was making.
Her eyes, still burning from the hot salt, focused on a rock jutting up from the brook. She was safe, her virtue intact by miracle. Major Oak couldn't be far off. She would find it and deliver Marian's message... as soon as she stopped quivering.
Little John retrieved an arrow from a bramble tangle with infinite care lest his blockish fingers earn him yet another set of scratches. His limp tucksack swung forward over his shoulder, attesting to his poor luck. His quiver was depleted from the last five hours of efforts, but his aim was not true, or else the deer were much wilier this day. Several arrows had overshot his mark and gone deep into this stand of trees. Little John slid his prize into the quiver and pushed forward, grateful Robin was not along to show him how a true archer went about hunting.
He fought past several particularly overgrown bushes to find himself in the Trysting Grove. The brook curving through the natural clearing was a welcome sight. He could slake his thirst and clean the blood from his arms in the bargain. As her stepped closer, a patch of dark blue to his left caught his attention. His instinctive reach for his dirk halted when he recognized the slender girl.
"Gwyn!" The relief made him laugh. "Come, maid, did ye lose your way? You're a way off your usual..."
His words slammed to a halt against his upper ribs when he saw her face and torn gown. Two long strides and he was beside her, crouching to gently lift her chin.
"Who did this to you, Gwyn?" He tried to keep the anger in his gut from grinding into his voice, but it was hard. He swallowed the bile stinging the back of his mouth and tried again, softer. "Tell me, maid, what happened?"
A single, thin track of liquid appeared on her red-blotched cheek. "Ranulf..."
He needed no other words. His arm encircled her shoulders, drawing her into a tight, protective embrace. Her whole body was shaking. His eyes squeezed shut as pain shivered through him.
“Did..” The words stuck in his throat. Wasn’t it obvious from her present state? “Are ye hurt?”
A splintered remnant of a smile appeared for an eyeblink as she lifted her face to his. Her eyes were not quite so dead. “Not like that. He didn’t.”
H nodded, stifling the shout of jubilation swelling his chest. The realization did not blot out what had happened. Just wait until the band heard. Gwyn was their special charge, second only to Marian in importance. There would be a fine to-do in the deputy’s lodgings this night.
Gwyn’s head had drooped against his chest, her steady breathing confirming her slumber. Little John shifted his arms and lifted her as he stood. It seemed he would not come back to camp empty-handed after all.
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