A month passed with Rachel in bed with Raven at night and allowed out to work horses during the day with less and less supervision. Her grief at least on the outside passed. Only Raven, who held her at night when she cried understood that it was still a fresh wound. They continued to take their meals together for Raven worried that she’d fail to eat. Maggie was concerned as well, having not forgiven herself for missing the grief that had nearly taken Rachel from their midst. She was making a pie from various fruits when young Tod came tearing into the kitchen.
“Maggie! Maggie! There’s strangers on the road!” he hollered.
“Well, I’m certain that Raven will meet them and see what they want,” said Maggie.
“But! They’re comin’ up the road and Raven is out with the horses and Rachel!” he said trying to catch his breath.
“Send George to get them,” she said. “Bother, bother, bother!” Wiping her hands on her apron, she tucked her butcher knife under her apron and grabbed her cane. She didn’t need it in the house, but it made a decent weapon when needed. She headed for the courtyard and saw the cloud of dust that denoted a number of men on horseback headed down the road. She stood waiting and hoped that Raven wouldn’t be long. Some of the other men from the manor, including Morrin the blacksmith came out. He stood behind Maggie, towering over her.
“Any idea why they’ve come or who they are?” Morrin asked.
“Nary a drop of information besides what Tod brought. I’ve sent for Raven,” said Maggie.
“You nervous?” he asked.
“Aye,” she replied.
“Well, don’t drop that cleaver under your apron on your toes,” he said with a slight chuckle.
“And don’t you go dropping that bloody big hammer either,” she teased back.
The horsemen rode into the courtyard with little regard for anyone present. The one horse stopped a scant yard in front of Maggie.
“Where’s your master?” asked the man.
“Hes’ out with his horses. I’ve sent for him. What do you want?” asked Maggie.
“And who are you?” asked the man.
“I’m the housekeeper here at Ravens Croft. What business do you have with Master Raven?” she asked. The blacksmith put his hand on her shoulder to help steady her. He could feel her quaking against his arm.
“We’re raising a cadre. We’re tired of losing good folk to slavers. Eight crofts have been burned to the ground and their people taken in the last year alone. We want him to join us,” said the man.
Well, then come inside. I’ll get refreshments while Raven returns. Please stable your horses over in the blacksmith’s corral,” she said and headed for the house. She opened the door to the formal dining room and seeing two of the maids, sent them off for water and basic refreshments.
“Please make yourselves comfortable. I will be back in a moment,” Maggie said. She grabbed Tod and told him to go stand ready at the door and then headed for the kitchen. She found the two maids grabbing cool drinks, glasses, bread and cheese. She added some of the pies she’d just finished and more fruit. She also replaced the butcher’s knife to it’s place on the block. Grabbing one of the serving trays, she headed back to the dining room.
The men milled around the room waiting for Raven. His wasn’t the first house they’d had to wait at for the master of the house to be brought in to them. Most men were keeping close tabs on their lands and that meant teams of men riding out. It was the only safe way to patrol. It didn’t make them less tense though. All of the men had left wives and families at their crofts.
“Maggie!” shouted Raven. “MAG-GIE!”
“Coming sir!” she hollered heading down the hall towards the back door to the kitchens.
“What is going on?” he asked as he washed his face and ran a comb through his hair. He and Rachel had been interrupted by George and disheveled didn’t cover it by half. George might get over the shock of it, but Rachel…
“Men. Land owners. All important like. Come to talk about the slavers and the like. They’re in the dining room,” she said brushing the dry grass off of his coat. “Hold on a minute,” she said and grabbed the vanilla. She splashed a little on her hands and then daubed them over his coat and face.
“So you don’t smell like you’ve been rolling in the hay,” she said blushing.
“Ttthanks Maggie,” he said turning a little red. He took a deep breath and headed down the hall towards the dining room and the land owners.
Rachel came in the selfsame door five minutes later. Her clothes were still all crooked and there was a bunch of grass in her hair. Maggie saw her, rolled her eyes and headed towards her at full tilt. “Come on lass, got to get you cleaned up right fast,” said Maggie.
“Why?” asked Rachel.
“Because I think you’ll be part of that there discussion come supper and I need you to look more like the lady of the manor than a stable girl,” said Maggie. They headed to the baths.
“Lord Darkwing, we must do something!” one man said.
“I agree. People are being burned out, slaughtered or enslaved. However, unless we are willing to stop the practice of slavery, we are talking out both sides of our mouths. We cannot condemn a man for hunting and capturing slaves while we ourselves have slaves,” Raven said.
“Raven, how can we let our slaves go? Who will do the work for us? We just want these men to take their practice elsewhere. In fact, didn’t you yourself buy a new slave not more than a few months ago?” Lord Kress asked.
“First off, we must trust that those we hold in slavery will work for us for wages. Yes, it is a big step to let those people go, but in all honesty, if we paid them wages, most would stay. As for the question of a new slave. Yes, I purchased her. However, the only reason she is still a slave is because of the law. She isn’t treated as one, unless she does something that might endanger her existence,” Raven said. He caught Tod’s eye and nodded at him hoping that Maggie had gotten Rachel dressed. He hadn’t said anything, but he hoped that Maggie would think along the same lines he had.
“Right! So convenient. You can’t give up your slaves because of the law. What about this woman? Your blacksmith? Your housekeeper? Are they slaves? Or are they free men working for you for a wage?” asked another man who was all for pushing out the competitive slavers. Raven knew he had breeding pens, which sickened Raven.
“Sir, I suggest you be still. All my servants have bought their freedom. Or, they were freed when my father passed many years ago. They work here for wages. Nothing great, but I’ve worked out an exchange. Rachel is my only slave at this moment, and that is in name only. Were she free, I would be courting her,” Raven said.
There was a noise in the back of the room as a woman came in carrying a tray of pastries fresh from the oven. Rachel was carrying them.
“Lord, I am sorry these took some time, but Maggie sent them up as fast as they would cook,” said Rachel. She set the tray down and stood there looking at Raven. She was dressed in a burgundy gown with embroidery around the neckline and cuffs. Her hair hung in thick braids down her back past her hips. Around her waist was a triple length of chain with her mother’s scorched châtelaine hanging from it. She was beautiful.
“No problem Rachel. In fact, let me introduce you to our company. Rachel of Maredun Croft, I would like to present you to Lords Kress, Dunnum, Plaste, Roger, Hawkness and Fowler.” said Raven. “The rest of these men are their sons or factors. They’ve come to persuade me to ride with them against the slavers who have been burning and plundering crofts.”
Rachel looked appropriately aghast at such a task, reaching down to touch the scorched metal on the chain. She nodded, curtsied deeply to the men and then moved closer to Raven. “Oh,” was all she said while her body language said plenty.
“Maredun Croft?” said Lord Dunnum. “Wasn’t that burned down a while back?”
“Yes M’lord. I was out in the pastures and was captured and then sold as a slave. I was fortunate that Lord Raven rescued me and has given me a home here,” said Rachel.
“Ah, You’re the one he was talking about,” said Lord Plaste.
Rachel looked at Raven with one raised eyebrow. The look of one equal to another.
“I explained the circumstances that keep me from courting you properly and having to wait until a year has passed,” said Raven with just the right amount of red creeping up into his dark cheeks.
“Ah, yes,” said Rachel. “So, are you going to ride out with these men or demand they change their ways which if they had, if they didn’t hold with slavery, I wouldn’t be in this awkward position?” said Rachel. She said it with just enough of a scathing tone, that some of the younger men winced. Neither she nor Raven had ever practiced any of this, but there had been discussions and she knew his stance on slaver.
“Dear girl, he has been trying to persuade us, and while some of his arguments have seemed a bit daft, with you standing here, they make perfect sense,” said Lord Hawkness in fatherly tones.
“Do they make sense because he’d like to bed me, or do they make sense because it is the only thing that will keep your own crofts and families safe?” Rachel asked.
“Ah… um…. Lady, you make a fine point,” said Lord Kress. “I for one see the necessity to change how we have worked. Slavery while being an economic benefit for some, is becoming a danger to us all.” He looked directly at Lord Fowler as he finished.
“Gentlemen, it is a trade. All of my people are well taken care of,” he said trying not to squirm in his chair.
“Then sell out, cause we must change!” hollered Lord Hawkness. “I will not have my family nor my lands endangered one more moment. Who will ride with me to Holke Croft and speak to the assembly?”
All except Lord Fowler stood. Even his sons stood.
Later that night when the various men were housed in guest rooms, Raven held Rachel tight to his chest. “I was so very proud of the way you stood up to those men today,”
“I was so mad. Maggie told me why they were here and all I could think of is what we’ve been talking about and how dare they demand things when my own family died because they held slaves!” said Rachel.
“Shush my little firebrand,” he said. “Some of them are only down the hall and while I plan to have my wicked way with you tonight, we must do it quietly. It was made very plain to me that they all think I guard your virtue and await my wedding night.”
That thought made Rachel giggle. Especially as George had found them well and truly entwined in the high grasses and that only a little while earlier, they had tried having sex on horseback. It failed miserably, but they had tried. Now, wrapped in Raven’s arms, the only thing between them was air and his bouncing cock.
“Ravish me, and I will try to be quiet and sneak out of your bachelor quarters before dawn and back to my own room,” she teased.
“You’ll do nothing of the sort. I will ravish you and you will sleep in my arms all night long,” Raven said as he kissed his way down her neck and bit his way to her nipple.