The Lady Katherine Chronicles, Number 18
Lady Katherine And The Ruthless Ritual
MercyCroft, Jay, Solise and MF for beta reading this for me :)
This is a work of fan fiction but uses characters that bear a striking resemblance to those that are copyright of Paramount Pictures. No infringement on their copyright is intended by the author in any way, shape or form - this is just a bit of fun. This story includes an all female relationship, so if you don’t like that then look away now.
The scream was raw as it ripped from Katherine’s throat. Her heart broke into a thousand tiny pieces as she helplessly watched Anne’s body floating face-down on the river, disappearing into the distance. Katherine pulled futilely at those restraining her as her hysterical cries continued. Her tears were slipping relentlessly down her cheeks and into her open mouth.
“Oh, do be quiet!”
The slap across her face was so hard that she would have fallen down if the strong arms weren’t still gripping her tightly.
Katherine stared balefully back at Kirby. “Murderer!” The word rasped from her lips, mingling with snot, tears and fresh blood
Kirby merely laughed at the accusation, looking to the men behind Katherine. “You can let her go now,” he instructed them.
They flung her to the ground and Katherine didn’t wait a second. She was quickly up on her feet and running for the side of the boat, intending to leap in after Anne, hoping against all hope that she could do something if only she could get to her. She had almost made it when she felt the hand grabbing her collar. She was nearly garrotted by her own clothes as she came to an abrupt halt before being hauled backwards and hurled onto the deck once more.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” demanded Kirby, standing over her.
“I’m going after her,” cried Katherine obstinately. She was back up on her feet and trying for the side again.
Once again Kirby tackled her, attempting to grab onto her flailing arms. “You’re bloody crazy,” he said as she battered at him, “You can’t do anything for her now, even if you didn’t drown yourself in the process.”
“No, I don’t believe you!” screamed Katherine, all reason gone now. She was a whirling, fighting mass of pain and fury. She had to get over the side; she had to get to Anne.
Kirby continued to wrestle with the obdurate woman. “Stop, for god’s sake!”
“I will not!”
Katherine had a moment to see Kirby’s fist before it hit her in the side of the head and then everything was black.
Anne’s first conscious thought was to note that there was water lapping against her cheek, slapping coolly against it with each wave. Her second was to wonder how come she was still alive.
Groggily her eyes struggled open, but she found it hard to focus, everything seeming to be a white blur above her. She blinked a few times but it didn’t help so she closed her eyes again, and tried to recall what had happened to lead her to be lying on her back in the shallows. The last thing she remembered was Kirby pushing her off the boat after he had stabbed her. Yet she couldn’t seem to feel any kind of injury. In fact she couldn’t feel much at all. It was as if her whole body was numb. She knew there should be pain, and lots of it; if she was alive.
“You are not dead.”
Anne’s eyes flicked back open at the sound of the woman’s
voice. Her head had lolled to the side, so
all she could see was a pair of bare feet, the water from the river washing
over them. Anne turned her head up, the
sky still a hazy white behind the figure.
She had to squint to make the person out, finally seeing a strangely
familiar face staring back at her. The
last time she had seen it was in the water at
“Who are you?” asked Anne.
“You do not know my name?”
“Would I ask if I did?”
“I suppose not,” conceded the other woman, “I am Axia.”
The name stirred something in the back of Anne’s mind, but she couldn’t quite grab the tentative strands of memory. “Have we met before?”
“In a manner of speaking, but there will be time for explanations later. My time is short and I needed to tell you to ask for me.”
Anne was confused. “Ask for you? When? Where?”
“You will know, just hang on, help is coming.”
The woman’s form started to blur around the edges as if she was blending into the starkly bright background.
Anne tried to reach out but found herself unable to move from her prone position. “Wait!”
The woman had almost disappeared now, her final words whispering to Anne’s ears. “Just…hang…on…”
As the last word reached her the light all around flared, forcing Anne to shut her eyes. For a moment there was calm and then suddenly searing, biting pain flared in Anne’s stomach. She screamed. She tried to put her hands over it, to somehow contain the pain, but her right arm wouldn’t move. A throbbing in that was barely detectable over the overriding anguish. Tears slipped out between her clenched eyelids as she fought to breathe. It was so hard, just forcing out one breath after another. She couldn’t move, all she could do was lie there and wait to die.
Images of her life started to flash randomly through her
mind – her childhood…her parents…dark figures looming in a shrine…Anne cried
out again. Futile, gasping cries. Still the pictures came –
“Katherine…forgive me…” The words were to no one but herself.
She could hear the nearing of the death rattle in her breaths. She tried to concentrate on the sound of each one, anything to keep from fading away to nothingness. It took a moment for her to hear the other sound over the top of them. It was a splashing noise and it was getting closer. Then suddenly there were hands upon her.
“Anne! Oh my god! Anne, wake up!”
Somehow Anne managed to summon the strength to open her eyes. Kneeling next to her was Henry, his young face creased in a mask of shock and concern.
“Yes, that’s it!” he cried on seeing she was still alive. However, he seemed at a loss as what to do next. She could see him glancing down at her body and then back at her face his expression growing ever more desperate. “All right…you just hang on…I’ve got a horse…”
Anne couldn’t reply. She couldn’t even muster a nod. As her vision began to dim she hoped his horse was close by.
Katherine swam up into consciousness. For a moment she forgot where she was and what had happened, just noting that she was lying on a forest floor near a fire. Then her memories came crashing back in and she wished she hadn’t woken at all.
“Ah, sleeping beauty awakes.” The voice came from above, Katherine raising her head to see Charles Kirby hovering.
Katherine hauled herself into a sitting position, and rubbed at her sore eyes. The skin around them was raw, though her tears had finally dried up. That had probably been some time shortly after Kirby had knocked her unconscious back on the boat. She supposed that was probably wise of him, else she might have killed him with her bare hands or at least given it a good go. As he waited now, she didn’t deign to reply to the man she hated more than anyone she had ever met. Instead she glanced around her, able to see the other men in Kirby’s party close by, sitting round the camp fire eating and drinking.
“It’s the strong and silent treatment is it?” asked Kirby when nothing was forthcoming from Katherine.
Katherine’s eyes fixed on him in a look of utter loathing. Her hate was all she had left to give; all her other emotions had shrivelled up and died in the emptiness of her soul.
Kirby actually looked uncomfortable under the penetrating, accusing gaze, shifting uneasily on his feet. Nervously clearing his throat he offered her a bowl of food. “This is for you.”
Katherine immediately swatted it from his outstretched hand. The bowl thumped into the forest floor and spilt its content. “I don’t want your food.” Her voice was low and deadly, mirroring the look in her eyes.
“Fine, starve then.” Kirby moved away a short distance but close enough to keep a watchful eye on her.
Katherine considered trying to goad him further; perhaps then he might hit her. If she was lucky it might be hard enough to knock her out again. She couldn’t even be bothered to do that though, instead slipping back onto the ground and pulling her legs up towards her chest to try and ward off the numbing icy chill that was sweeping through her.
There were voices. Anne could hear voices. They were muffled and indistinct. She strained to hear them, finally recognising the stern tones of Tobias. She wasn’t dead yet then, she surmised, unless this was some sort of hell. The other voice was that of Pierre, the French nobleman whose hospitality and help they had recently made use of. Anne caught the end of his latest sentence.
“…we have parties out searching, but so far there is no word.”
“And has she said anything yet?” Anne guessed Tobias was talking about her.
“No, she has been unconscious since your man brought her
Anne surprised herself and the two men with her obstinate
word. They turned to see that she had
opened her eyes and was staring back at them.
Beyond them, Anne could see through the window to the skyline of
Anne tried to speak but her mouth was too dry and all that came forth was a croaking whisper. Meanwhile, Anne could see Tobias standing behind the other man, looking stern as always. He caught her eye for a second, the look darkening momentarily. Anne wondered if he actually thought she might be the one to have betrayed Katherine. However, she had no strength to point out the ridiculousness of such a supposition at that moment in time.
“I am afraid there is nothing we can do apart from summon a priest to administer the last rights.”
“Keep your bloody priest!” said Anne with as much strength as she could muster. The outburst led to a bout of coughing that racked her already battered insides. “I don’t believe in your god anyway.”
Anne managed to move her one good arm to catch hold of his sleeve. “I need you to find someone, her name is Axia.”
“And where is this person?”
“I don’t know.” Anne closed her eyes for a moment, trying to concentrate her muddled thoughts. “Nearby. In the city.” She didn’t know how she knew, she just did.
“This is a waste of time!” interjected Tobias, “We should be out looking for Lady Katherine, not hunting down old friends for her to say goodbye to!”
Anne fixed him with the steeliest look she could muster. “Just…get…her…” Each word was forced out.
As he placed her hand back down and left the room, Anne sincerely hoped that he was wrong.
Katherine shivered, not knowing if it was the outward chill or the one in her heart causing it. She supposed she could move closer to the fire now that evening had drawn in, but that would mean moving closer to Kirby and she wanted to be as far away from him as possible. Katherine had contemplated making a run for it, but deemed that pointless. For a start they would catch her within seconds and for another where would she run to? It wasn’t as if she had anywhere to be, anyone to be with.
She swallowed hard to stop the tears from coming again. During the long day she had resolved that there was only one purpose left in her life now. That was to stop Kirby and his Syndicate. If in doing that she could make him suffer then all the better. In the mean time she would play along, ensuring she remained alive long enough to see his downfall. After that she couldn’t care less what happened to her. She didn’t even want to think about the abyss of lonely time stretching beyond that. For now she would concentrate on her task and forget that such a thing as the future existed.
The sound of someone approaching thankfully saved her having to think about it any more. Kirby and his men rose, alert and weapons ready. Katherine watched from the edge of the camp as another hooded figure arrived. Obviously he was known to Kirby as the knight lowered his sword and directed his men to do the same. Kirby and the new arrival moved to the side of the camp, huddled in conversation. Katherine noted that whoever the man was, he was making a deliberate effort to keep his head turned away from her so she couldn’t see his face.
Intrigued, she started edging closer, close enough to hear their voices. Kirby’s was the first she heard.
“…I don’t know why you’ve gotten so squeamish now. You’ve earned your money.”
“You didn’t say you were going to hurt them!”
Katherine froze where she was. She knew the voice. Sickness welled in her stomach as she realised she had been betrayed by one of her own. That quickly turned into a burning rage. Her emotions were so raw she had little control on them at present. She leapt to her feet, running for the man. Surprised by the suddenness of her actions, no one could stop her reaching him and yanking back his hood. He recoiled now his face was revealed. The desperate eyes of her young knight Thomas turned to her.
“You bastard!” Katherine flew at him. She managed to rake her nails down his cheek before Kirby joined the fray and hauled her off the stunned knight.
Thomas clutched at his face, a couple of angry red welts now marring his skin. “I really am sorry, I didn’t know…”
“Shut up! Just shut up!” Katherine screamed. She didn’t want to hear his pathetic excuses. “How long have you been working for them?”
Thomas couldn’t hold her fierce gaze. He looked at the ground, the red of shame burning in his marked cheeks. Instead it was Kirby who answered for him.
“He’s been helping us out for months now, and very useful it’s been too.”
Katherine struggled in Kirby’s grasp, her anger still white hot. She couldn’t believe Thomas had done this. She had trusted him. It was almost worse than what Kirby had done. At least he had never pretended to be loyal to her. She could hear the smug satisfaction in Kirby’s voice as he continued.
“It seems everyone has their price.”
Shoving Katherine over to be restrained by one of the other soldiers, Kirby fished out a purse, throwing it at Thomas’ feet. The young man seemed reluctant to pick it up. He glanced once at Katherine who returned his look with one of pure venom. He quickly looked away again.
“Go on, you earned it,” said Kirby.
Thomas paused for a moment before quickly snatching it up. Now he had what he’d come for it appeared he didn’t want to stick around. Not daring to look at Katherine again he walked swiftly back the way he’d come.
“Enjoy your money while you can!” Katherine shouted after his fast retreating form, “Because when I next see you, I’ll kill you!”
She surprised herself with the fact that she meant it.
Anne didn’t know how long she had been unconscious for, but it was dark outside by the time she awoke. She supposed she should be thankful that by some miracle she was awake at all. There were candles lighting the room, flickering in the warm breeze that came through the window. She felt so tired and part of her wanted to just close her eyes again and drift off into the never-ending sleep. Yet the greater part of her knew she had to hang on. Somehow she had to get up off her bed and find Katherine, before it was too late. Instinctively she knew the other woman was still alive, but she didn’t want to bet on how long Kirby and his Syndicate would keep her that way.
The candle nearest the bed danced more rapidly, signalling
that the door had been opened. It took
no small effort for Anne to turn her head to the side to see who had
entered. Every tiny movement was
laboured and painful. Through the dim
light she saw that
It was strange to finally see her in the flesh. Yet she was no less serenely beautiful than when Anne had seen the visions of her before. Her brown eyes held great sadness as they surveyed Anne’s battered body, lying impotently on the bed. She turned to the guard who had escorted her in. “Can you leave us alone?”
He simply nodded and departed. The intense brown eyes now turned downwards. “Hello, Anne.”
It took a moment for Anne to find her own voice. “You are real, then, I thought perhaps I was going mad.”
A tiny smile flickered at Axia’s lips. “Yes, I am very real.” The other woman’s voice was accented like
“Who are you?”
Axia smiled again. Somehow it was reassuring. “In a moment. First we must fix this.”
Anne gave a rueful laugh and then wished she hadn’t. The hacking coughs hurt more and more each time. “Good luck!”
Axia didn’t say anything further. Instead she closed her eyes, put her hands together at her lips and started muttering something to herself. Anne strained to make out the words, just catching a few pagan terms. Suddenly Axia’s eyes flicked back open, sweeping round the room. They halted when they reached a table in the corner and a fresh smile edged across her face. She went over to pick something up off it, Anne only able to see what when she came back into the young woman’s limited field of vision. Axia held up a small statuette.
“Dianecht, the god of healing,” she stated, “It is good you have this, it may make this easier.”
“Katherine bought it for me.”
There was a stab of pain in Anne’s chest as she spoke Katherine’s name out loud. Anne recognised it as the anxiety of separation and uncertainty. At the same time, Anne was surprised to see something flicker across Axia’s face at the mention of the other woman’s name. It was gone just as quickly, but there had definitely been a reaction.
Axia reverentially placed the small carving by the bedside, before resuming her chanting, slipping into a trance-like state. The words were soothing to Anne, forming a sort of lullaby. She felt calm, relaxed. She barely noticed when Axia placed her hands on her stomach. What she did feel was the warmth spreading through her whole body. Suddenly she felt suffused with energy. Anne closed her eyes, letting the sensation wash over her. It was so intense that she couldn’t help tipping her head back and gasping. It was almost orgasmic.
Then suddenly it was gone. Anne felt a small pang of disappointment. She opened her eyes to see that Axia was resting against the bed, breathing hard. Looking down at her own body, Anne was amazed to find that her flesh had been knitted back together, smooth skin now visible through the gaping hole in her shirt. The only trace of her wound was the blood that discoloured the material.
Tentatively Anne tried to sit up, unsure of her body. Yet it willingly obliged. Once in a sitting position she looked to her right arm, finding the gash on that had disappeared too. She stroked the skin, not quite believing it.
“Did you think you were the only one with special powers?”
Anne’s eyes shot to Axia who looked like she was about to fall down. Anne knew how much energy it took to heal someone, she had done it herself in the past. “You are like me?”
“Yes, nature speaks to me too.”
“And this feeling I have, that we’ve met before?”
Axia smiled. “This is the first time that we have met in the physical sense, but you are correct, we have met before, on the spirit plane.”
Anne drew in a breath. The spirit plane was somewhere she had visited as a child and a few times more recently. It was beyond normal consciousness yet permeated the fabric of the world, like a parallel world beyond the reach of those without the ability to sense it. “Then how come I can’t really remember?”
“It was during the period when you were trying to deny your powers. Though you may have been able to suppress them while awake, your unconscious mind still sought to harness them and be free.”
Anne wasn’t sure she liked the sound of that. From the time her parents had died when she was eleven until only recently she had tried to pretend that she wasn’t any different to anyone else. However, it seemed her own mind had been disobeying her wishes.
“Though your subconscious visits ceased around springtime last year,” added Axia.
Anne knew it could be no coincidence that was when she had met Katherine. Had her mind stopped seeking something else beyond her senses once she had found what she was looking for in the real world instead?
“You cannot deny who you are.”
Anne felt a gentle hand touching her, seeing that Axia was now sitting beside her on the bed. Anne withdrew her arm, becoming ever wary of the conversation.
“I gave up my abilities though, so how come you were still able to communicate with me?”
“Still trying to pretend they aren’t there?” questioned Axia with a small shake of the head. “We both know your powers have been returning gradually returning the past few months. They will eventually be fully restored.”
Anne was stunned to get the confirmation of what she has suspected. “But how? I sacrificed them in order to live.”
“That’s not entirely true, is it?”
Anne looked to the other woman, seeing the doubting raised eyebrow. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“The real reason you sacrificed them,” prompted Axia.
Anne held Axia’s gaze for a moment. How did she know so much?
“You sacrificed them for love.”
Anne felt the heat behind her cheeks. Not that she was embarrassed to admit that was exactly why she had given up so much; she just didn’t like someone else knowing such intimate things about her. She also got the oddest sense that Axia disapproved in some way.
“Either way I made a deal,” said Anne, “I gave them up and in return I got to live. As far as I know death isn’t usually generous when it comes to such things.”
“You are correct, there is a price.”
“Really? You surprise me,” said Anne sarcastically.
“But it was necessary,” continued Axia, “We needed you to have your abilities, there is a battle coming and you must be ready.”
“Yes, I know, with the Ares Syndicate,” Anne replied tersely. She was getting anxious to be on her way and dealing with that very problem now.
“No, not that battle, that is her battle.” Again the disapproving tone was there in Axia’s voice. “This is something you must face.”
“Bloody hell! You don’t believe in giving a girl a rest do you. So what’s this mysterious something and when’s it coming because it might have to wait until I can fit them in to my busy schedule of fighting cults, nobles and the like.”
“This task may not be for some time.”
“As in not in the next few days? Months?”
“It may be years.”
Anne sighed in exasperation. “So in the mean time I have to wait?”
“In the mean time you have to live,” corrected Axia, “And be careful.”
“That might be tricky!” Anne laughed ruefully. “In case you hadn’t noticed Katherine and I have a bit of a habit of getting into trouble.”
Anne felt a fresh wave of unease churning in her stomach as she mentioned Katherine again. It concentrated her thoughts on the fact that every moment she spent talking to Axia was wasted time when she could be out searching for her beloved.
“We had noticed.”
Now Anne knew she wasn’t imagining it. Axia didn’t like Katherine. Obviously they had never met, but something was going on there. She decided not to press for now, picking up with something else that was bothering her.
“Who is this mysterious “we” you keep referring to. Who else are you talking about? Other pagans? Others with special abilities?”
“I promise you will know everything in time. But you are not ready now, you have other priorities.”
“Yes, I do,” agreed Anne, having finally had enough of the evasive conversation, “And sitting round here talking isn’t getting me closer to them.”
Anne hopped off the bed, searching out some fresh clothes to replace the blood-stained ones. Luckily Henry had obviously found their belongings as well. She went to take off her shirt, but paused when she realised Axia was studying her intently. Anne wasn’t normally one to be bothered about privacy, but something in the gaze made her want to turn away and get undressed with her back to the other woman. Once in clean black clothes Anne headed for the door, only pausing to speak once she was on the threshold.
“By the way, what was the price?”
Axia gave her a bemused look.
“For regaining my powers, what did you have to relinquish?”
Axia paused and for a moment Anne thought she wasn’t going to answer. “Time,” she finally said.
“Time?” repeated Anne in confusion, “What time?”
Axia didn’t answer. Even worse her eyes drifted from their previous unwavering and intense regard of Anne.
“I said, what time?”
Still Axia didn’t speak. Anne’s nervousness was growing. Now she had to have an answer. She moved back across the room to be nearer the other woman. “What time?” she asked again.
“Time from your life.”
The answer had been so quiet Anne wasn’t sure she’d heard correctly. Axia was looking pensively at the ground. Anne grabbed her about the shoulders, jolting her from her study. “Look at me! What do you mean ‘time from my life’?”
Axia slowly met Anne’s stare. “Death had to be compensated in some way,” she said slowly, “So in return for your life and allowing you to regain your abilities we had to sacrifice some of your life energy.”
Anne could only look at Axia with a mixture of revulsion and anger.
“You will age twice as fast as a normal person,” added Axia in further explanation.
Anne let go of the other woman, taking a few steps backwards in shock.
Axia took the silence as indicating she needed to clarify things further. “For every year you live, you will actually age two.”
“So in ten elapsed years I will actually age twenty?” asked Anne incredulously. “In ten years time I’ll be the equivalent of forty-seven rather than thirty-seven?”
Anne couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She was on a fast track to another meeting with death.
“You had to have your powers back...”
“And I didn’t get a say in this?” exclaimed Anne, cutting Axia off. The other woman actually flinched at the harsh tone. “I can’t believe this!”
It was too much to take in right now on top of everything else. Anne couldn’t deal with it at this moment. So she decided not to. She simply turned on her heel and started heading for the door again.
Axia made a grab for her arm to stall her. Anne quickly shook the hand off, rounding on Axia once more.
“Let go of me! What gives you the right to interfere in my life? I don’t even know you!”
“But you do…”
“Just stop it with your cryptic claptrap!” Anne made it to the door this time before delivering her last word on the matter. “Thank you for saving my life this time, but in the future just stay out of my mind and my life!”
Anne was still fuming as she descended the stairs. It didn’t take her long to locate the others, the sounds of heated debate audible coming from the main hall. She stood in the doorway for a moment, watching Pierre and Tobias arguing over how best to proceed. Henry was the first to spot her, nudging Nicholas in the ribs and then simply starring in wonder. It didn’t take long for Tobias and Pierre to notice the men’s distraction and follow their gaze to the young woman at the door.
“Mon Dieu!” exclaimed
“That is an interesting question,” added Tobias snidely, looking Anne up and down with disdain.
Anne didn’t like his tone and moved quickly over to him. She pushed right up in the knight’s face. “And what is that supposed to mean?” She could feel her anger simmering dangerously. It had already been brewing before she’d even spoken to Axia. Lying on that bed, she’d had nothing to do but turn over events again and again in her mind. One thought that kept coming back to her was how stupid it had been to leave Katherine alone at all. If only she’d stayed in the camp, or made Katherine come with her. She’d cursed her own foolishness repeatedly, growing ever more angry with herself as she did. Racked with guilt Anne realised she’d allowed herself to become too relaxed and it had cost her. She feared exactly how high the price might be. The mixture of anxiety, regret and anger was already fermenting within Anne when Axia had come out with her revelations. The intensity of those feelings and her burning desire to just go and find Katherine meant it had been hard to process the other woman’s words with any clarity. All they did was serve to stoke Anne’s emotions further. Now it seemed Tobias wanted to fan the flames.
“Someone betrayed her ladyship, and now here you are, all fine and well again.”
“How dare you!”
Anne managed to land her punch before Tobias could react. It smacked him right between the eyes. The knight staggered back a couple of steps before he gathered himself.
“So you reveal your true colours at last?”
Anne could barely contain herself, her conflicting emotions spilling over into pure rage. “I’ll show you bloody true colours…black and blue all over!”
She swung for the knight again, but he dodged this time. As she went for a third attempt, she was grabbed from behind, a pair of arms restraining her in a bear hug around her waist. At the same time Nicholas stepped across in front of Tobias who looked like he was about to retaliate.
“How about we all calm down?”
“He was the one who started it!” Anne gestured to Tobias as she struggled against the grip of Henry. She knew it sounded childish, yet she couldn’t think properly with her warring emotions overwhelming her. For his part Henry stood surprisingly firm, keeping his head low to avoid her swinging arms.
“You started it sixteen months ago, when you came into our lives.”
“Now we get the real answers!” Anne yelled back at him. “Is that it, have I taken your place? Is that why you hate me so much?”
“I did not like you because I knew it would come to this, you betraying her ladyship.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, it wasn’t me!”
Anne felt her blood boiling. Somewhere deep down she knew it was exactly what Tobias was aiming for and also that none of this was going to help them find Katherine. Yet at the same time that reasonable part of her mind was overcome by her anger. Tobias gave her a convenient target to direct that at, rather than herself.
Tobias looked scornfully at her again. “A likely story.”
Anne tried to go for him once more, managing to haul Henry a few steps across the flagstones with her. Nicholas in turn had to hold back the knight.
“This really isn’t helping,” tried the outlaw in desperation. However, with no Katherine to bring cohesion or calming sanity to the group, it was quickly disintegrating, the rivalries drawn along class and status lines surfacing.
Fortunately the whole messy debacle was disturbed by a bang from the door as it whacked into the wall. Everyone turned to see Thomas stumbling in, obviously drunk and barely able to walk straight. He didn’t seem to notice the tense scene unfolding before him, instead staggering onwards and crashing straight into Henry and Anne. Henry was knocked to the ground, while Thomas bounced backwards, dropping something he had been clutching to his chest. The sound of coins hitting stone filled the room as the purse spilt its contents on the floor.
Anne stared down at the large amount of money for a moment, her mind not having to go far to reach a logical conclusion. If her anger at Tobias had been overpowering, then the anger now welling up was all consuming. Thomas looked at her feebly.
Anne could see there were two angry marks on his cheek, obviously from someone’s finger nails. “It was you.”
Anne’s voice was so low and deadly Thomas had to crane his head forward to try and hear better. “Pardon?”
Thomas met her eyes for the briefest of moments. It was all the confirmation Anne needed. She could see the truth in that desperate look.
Anne flew at him, quickly tackling him to the floor and getting her hands around his throat. Thomas gagged and coughed, his hands clawing at her arms as she squeezed.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t know what they were going to do!”
His plaintive cries fell on deaf ears. All Anne could hear was her own thoughts telling her to punish him, to make him pay. It was a hand on Anne’s shoulder that made her stop for a moment. She swung her head furiously round to see it was Tobias. For a second she was about to launch into another venomous tirade when she noticed the look of apology on his face.
“As much as I would like to see him get his just desserts, we may need him,” he said with calm reason, “He may be able to show us where Lady Katherine is.”
Anne glanced from Tobias to Thomas and back again. Her anger was raging and she tried to push it down to allow her mind to think rationally. She closed her eyes for a moment so she didn’t have to look at Thomas. Slowly Tobias’ logical words permeated the barrier of fury. Anne opened her eyes and nodded her head in acknowledgement. It pained her, but she relaxed her fingers, supposing there would still be time to punish the young knight later, once they had found Katherine. If any harm had befallen her, then Thomas had better pray for divine intervention.
After Anne had gotten up off him Thomas seemed reluctant to stand, glancing warily at those in the room. The last gaze he fell upon was that of Beatrice. Anne could see the other woman had a look of utter contempt and loathing on her face. The maid took two steps towards the man and flattened him with a single punch. She threw the ring he had given her at his unconscious form and then stalked from the room.
It was early the next morning when Kirby and his party arrived at their destination. Katherine had been woken just after dawn by Kirby poking her with his boot. She was amazed to find she had nodded off at all after trying unsuccessfully for hours, plagued by visions of Anne. After she had eventually drifted off due to exhaustion, her sleep had been fitful, her waking thoughts carrying over into nightmares where she repeatedly saw Kirby stabbing Anne, and the young woman’s body floating out of reach down the Seine.
They hadn’t travelled far from their camp to their current location, which was a small castle, surrounded by a wide moat and towering walls. Katherine remained quiet as they marched over the drawbridge and into the courtyard, studying her surroundings in case she needed the knowledge later. At some point she vowed she would escape, and then she would get a sword and ram it into Kirby’s heart. Once such bloodthirsty thoughts would never have crossed her mind, but she was beginning to see the appeal of killing now. Some people didn’t deserve to live. However, for now she would bide her time until she could work out how to also retrieve the Ares weapon and keep it from Kirby and his friends. If nothing else came out of this, then she would do that much.
She watched the knight now, talking with some of his men. She wondered if she could kill him just by drilling her eyes into his back strongly enough. Kirby turned, as if sensing the glare, immediately catching Katherine’s eye. He couldn’t maintain it as he approached, but then he always had been a coward.
“We have somewhere cosy for you to stay while we wait for the Arbiter.”
Katherine digested that bit of information without reply. The Arbiter was the leader of the Syndicate. It was the position her father had held. She had thought that perhaps Kirby was the current one, but supposed he really wasn’t clever enough to have orchestrated all this. It seemed the Syndicate had been toying with them all along, paying her own people to spy on her. In fact she and Anne had done all the hard work for the Syndicate in finding the Ares objects and now the Syndicate was going to reap the rewards.
Kirby tried to take her arm, but she shook it off, preferring to willingly go where they wanted than feel his touch. She followed the guard ahead inside. The corridors were dark and narrow, barely having enough room for one person to pass along them. Whoever owned the castle didn’t believe in comfort. They took a downward turn before coming to a halt before a plain wooden door. Kirby pushed it open.
“After you m’lady.”
Katherine stepped inside, not deigning to look at him as she passed. The room was bare and windowless. Kirby dismissed the guard and followed her inside.
“How long are you going to keep this up?”
Katherine kept her back to him, not answering. Kirby roughly grabbed her arm and yanked her round to face him.
“I asked you a question.”
Katherine stared defiantly up at him. “For as long as it takes.”
Kirby released her arm with a sigh. “You’re not holding out hope of being rescued are you? Even if anyone knew where you were, this place is impenetrable.”
Katherine returned to giving him the silent treatment, turning away once more.
“Or perhaps you’re pining for your outlaw friend.”
Katherine tried to ignore his insidious comments. She could feel him coming closer. Hands slipped onto her shoulders. “She’s not the only one who could give you what you desire…”
Katherine cringed as his fingers slid down her arms, but still she refused to speak. Eventually Kirby removed his hands and Katherine let out an internal sigh of relief.
“She put up a good fight, I’ll give her that,” he said. Katherine heard the sound of a sword being drawn and a brief skitter of fear shot through her. “It’s a beautiful weapon.”
Katherine couldn’t resist glancing over her shoulder. Kirby was studying a sword. Katherine immediately recognised it as Anne’s. It was the one she had dropped on the boat, just before…
“That doesn’t belong to you.”
Kirby gave a nasty smile. “It doesn’t belong to anyone now.”
Katherine briefly wondered if she could snatch it from his hands and impale him on it, before thinking better of it. He was too far away.
“Why don’t you just admit that you’ve lost?” Kirby edged closer, close enough for the odour of sweat to waft up Katherine’s nostrils. Unfortunately she noticed he had sheathed the sword again robbing her of the chance for quick revenge. She met his gaze with determination.
Kirby dared to laugh. “Fine. But the Arbiter will be here tomorrow, and then you will have lost, whether you want to admit it or not.”
He left the room, slamming the door and turning the key. Katherine was plunged into total darkness. Now Kirby was gone she allowed herself to slump to the floor, burying her head in her hands.
Anne rested her chin on her upturned palms, closing her eyes. She attempted to find a point of calm meditation where she could reach out beyond her immediate surroundings. As she sat she could feel the warmth of the early morning sun on her face, hear the chattering of the birds in the trees above, sense the presence of the rest of her group close by, but there was nothing else. There was no sense of the rhythm of the earth beneath her sitting bottom, no feel of the heartbeat of nature, no inkling of that world beyond the conscious one. Once before she had been able to actually communicate with Katherine across the spirit plane; she had been hoping that maybe she could do it again. If only she could speak to her and let her know that they were coming. Unfortunately that occasion had been before Anne had sacrificed her abilities. Yet Axia claimed those powers were returning. If that was the case why couldn’t they help her now, when she really needed them?
Anne resigned herself to having to rely on her many other
skills for the time being. Letting out a
silent curse on all things pagan, Anne opened her eyes. The others were still drinking from the stream
and she wondered how much longer they were going to be. Every minute they wasted was time Katherine
was left alone with the Syndicate. God
only knew what Kirby might be doing to her.
Anne didn’t want to think about it, but couldn’t help the dark images
rearing up in her mind. She wished more
than anything she could communicate with Katherine, just to know she was all
right. It had been torture having to
wait for morning to depart
Anne saw he was currently sitting on his own at the edge of the group, head bowed in shame. She had no sympathy for him, only contempt. Tobias was hovering close by the young knight, no doubt making sure the man didn’t try to make a run for it. Anne couldn’t picture him getting far if he did. If she didn’t stop him herself, then the way Tobias’ hand rested on the hilt of his sword suggested he swiftly would.
Their group was rounded out by Nicholas and Henry, and
Pierre and a garrison of his troops.
Beatrice had remained behind in
“You should drink some. It’s going to be hot and this could prove an arduous day for a maid.”
Anne made a rueful laugh. “I think you and I both know that I’m not a maid.”
A smile flickered across
“How long have you known?”
“That you are Katherine’s…companion?”
Anne couldn’t help giving a small half smile at the polite term. She simply nodded.
“From the first moment you arrived here and I saw you giving me that deathly stare.”
Anne glanced at him, seeing that it was simply friendly teasing on his part.
“I thought it odd,” he continued, “And then I noticed the way you looked at her when you thought no one was watching, and how she looked at you in return. It was obvious. You cannot hide amour from the French!”
He laughed for a moment before leaning in closer to Anne, checking only they could hear his words.
“She’ll be all right.” He placed a comforting hand on her arm. “We’ll get there in time.”
Anne was touched by the show of compassion from the man she hardly knew. It was refreshing to find someone who wasn’t quick to condemn the nature of her relationship with Katherine. It was hardly something that was accepted by the world at large. Anne felt obliged to reciprocate with some honesty.
“I have something to confess,” she began slowly, “That time
It only took a few seconds for realisation to dawn on the Frenchman. “That was you?”
“I’m sorry. I let jealousy control my actions.”
“I can see Katherine has her hands full with you,” said
Anne supposed that it was her anxiety giving her the oddest feeling that she wanted to cry at the simple kind words. She held back the urge. Luckily it seemed the rest had finally finished refreshing themselves so she was saved from battling her confused emotions further. Instead she could concentrate on their journey ahead.
Katherine wasn’t sure how much time had passed since she had been placed in the cell. It was hard to judge when there were no windows. It was eerily quiet in the enclosed space, any sound that there was amplified to fill the void. Those consisted mainly of her own breathing, a repetitive dripping coming from somewhere in the damp cell and the odd scratching noise. Katherine didn’t want to think what was making the last of those. A couple of time she thought she felt something brushing her foot and she would draw it back closer to her on the grubby floor. Her only respite from the darkness was when Kirby brought her food or water. Both of those sat untouched where he had placed them.
Yet in a strange way she liked the darkness. It enveloped her. It matched her mood.
In her solitude, Katherine’s mind kept tripping through the events of the last few days, jumbling them up, flashing them at her in random order. She had long since given up trying to maintain some sense of sanity through it all. Occasionally her thoughts would slip back further, tormenting her with what she had lost and what could never be again.
Katherine rubbed roughly at her face as another tear attempted to slip down her cheek. As she brought her hand downwards her fingers brushed over her chest, feeling the small bump under her shirt. Her breath caught in her throat as her fingers closed over the pendant that sat there. She couldn’t stop herself drawing it out. She held it reverentially in her hand, caressing it. Even though it was too dark to see she could feel its familiar edges. It was the piece of rose quartz Anne had given her on a midsummer’s eve that seemed a lifetime ago now.
Suddenly the emotions rushed up to ambush her as she recalled that night, and Katherine’s tears could no longer be held back. Anne had told her that the crystal represented love. If she closed her eyes Katherine could almost feel Anne’s hands placing it around her neck, lingering just that bit more than was necessary. It’s just in case you ever forget me, Anne had said. Katherine laughed to herself in the enclosed space. The sound echoed off the walls. Katherine laughed again, more manically this time. Before she knew what she was doing she was laughing repeatedly for no reason. She caught herself. In case you ever forget… If only she could. Then maybe it wouldn’t hurt so.
Why did it have to hurt so much? Why had Anne left her? Why was she on her own in this godforsaken place? It wasn’t fair! It wasn’t right!
“Do not give in to despair.”
Katherine’s eyes scanned the darkness, seeking the source of the voice, yet her logical mind knew there was no one in there with her. Unfortunately her logical mind was adrift at the moment, and she supposed she ought to be more concerned that she was hearing voices. “I wondered how long it would be before you turned up.”
A form began to become apparent in the gloom, shapeless at first, then coalescing into a face. Her father’s eyes bored into her.
“You must stop them.”
“I must stop them! I must bloody stop them! What the hell do you think I’ve been trying to do.” Katherine gave full vent to her anger, knowing somewhere in the recesses of her mind that it was actually herself she was arguing with. “And look where it’s got me! This is all your bloody fault. I tried to do what you wanted as always and I lost the only thing that really mattered to me.”
“You must stop them.”
Katherine put her hands to her ears, still clutching the pendant tight in her right fist.
In a moment of fury Katherine tried to hurl the pendant across the room at him. It sailed through thin air and clattered into the far wall. Her father was gone now, leaving her alone once more. Katherine fumbled around in the dirt of the floor seeking the crystal. It was all she had left. All she had to remind her other than her memories.
Then suddenly it hit her, it wasn’t all she had left. Anne had given her something else. Katherine quickly sat back down, bringing her knees up so she could reach into her boot. Her fingers closed over the hilt of the dagger concealed there.
You’ll forget you’ve got it down there, Anne had told her, and Katherine had.
Katherine drew it out and clutched it like a drowning man clutching a piece of driftwood. Suddenly she had a purpose, something she could focus everything on. Next time Kirby came in he would get more than he bargained for.
“We have to get in there?”
Nicholas was the one doubtfully voicing exactly what the rest of them were thinking. The group of would be rescuers were hiding in the cover of the treeline, studying the castle Thomas had brought them too. Anne viewed its high walls with trepidation. The setting sun lit them in sharp relief as if to deliberately emphasise their imposing nature.
“I didn’t say it would be easy.”
Thomas received a clip round the ear from Tobias for the remark. Anne wished it had been harder. She edged closer to Tobias
Ever since it had been revealed that it was Tobias’ own man, and not Anne who was the informant in the group, the pair of them had been sharing an uneasy truce.
“Not immediately,” he confessed, “Any obvious attack would be pointless, we’d be cut down by the archers on the battlements in seconds. We could just wait until they come out.”
“If they come out.”
“True. We still don’t know what they want her ladyship for, but if they’ve got whatever it was they may no longer have any use for her.”
Anne wasn’t sure she liked the dispassionate way Tobias was talking about the possibility of Katherine being killed. She knew he rarely showed emotion and supposed that took some getting used to. Underneath the stoicism she also knew that he cared deeply for Katherine.
“I may have a suggestion.” It was Pierre who was crouching beside them now. “It is traditional for castles surrounded by moats to have an underwater passageway leading into the inner areas of the castle somewhere, to provide a source of water in the event of a siege.”
“And how might we find this passageway?” asked Anne.
“They are usually located on the north side, for the cooler water.”
“That would be to the left as we’re looking then?”
Anne nodded, before starting to undo her belt in order to remove the sword Tobias had leant her.
“What are you doing?” asked
“I’m going down there to swim in via this tunnel.”
It was stated with absolute certainty, but still
“It will be hard, even if you could find the entrance it is then some distance to swim underwater. I do not think it a suitable task for a woman.”
Anne simply looked at him, all sorts of arguments against his chauvinistic point of view tumbling to the fore of her mind. She shoved them all aside. They were irrelevant. “I’m going.”
Taking that as settled with
She handed him the sword knowing it would be too weighty in the water. She would have to make do with her small dagger instead. “If I don’t come back within an hour or so you should probably wait until someone comes out, one way or another.”
Tobias nodded again. “Good luck.”
Anne sprinted to a small bush halfway between the trees and the moat, flinging herself behind it and simply praying none of the guards on the top of the castle had been looking that way at that precise moment. Since there were no arrows spearing her location she deemed it safe to proceed. Slowly she crawled out through the grass. It wasn’t quite long enough to conceal her, so she had to inch along being careful not to make any sudden movements that might draw attention from above. Her arms started to ache from the deliberate slowness of her movements, but she carried on regardless. Once at the water’s edge she risked a quick verifying glance upwards. She couldn’t see any figures overlooking that part of the moat. Still moving with great care she eased one leg into the water. It was a lot colder than she had expected and she had to resist the urge to gasp. Obviously the suns rays hadn’t warmed the waters to any great extent and she had to wonder how deep the moat was to cause it to remain so chill.
Lowering herself the rest of the way in, the water quickly
soaked through her clothes making them heavy and cumbersome. Anne took one stroke, allowing herself to
drift out into the water. Once close to
the wall she started to look for any signs of the tunnel
It was pitch black inside and all Anne could do was forge on as fast as she could and hope she got to the end before her air ran out. Ten strokes, fifteen…she knew she must have passed under the walls by now and yet there was no sign of any end.
Anne’s lungs were bursting. She needed to breathe. She had to breathe. Her lips started to part. She kicked one final time. Her head broke the surface and she took in a huge lungful of welcome air. It was stale and humid but she didn’t care. She bobbed on the surface of the water for a moment trying to orient herself in the darkness. She could just about make out the edge of the pool she had come up in and reached for it, hauling herself out of the water. As she went to stand a sudden wave of dizziness swept over her and she had to sit, breathing deeply. She now realised there was a pervading smell of decay in the fetid air too. Anne dug inside her vest for the flint and wood she had brought with her. After a few attempts she managed to get a spark to light the damp stick. As the light flared she almost dropped the torch, only just hanging onto it in her shock. Revealed in the dim light were rows upon rows of bones, topped off with ghoulish skulls.
It was obviously a crypt of some kind. Maybe those down there had met their end at the hands of the Syndicate. If so, the Syndicate obviously had a lot of enemies. Anne couldn’t help feeling the empty eye sockets were somehow watching her as she passed by them and she was glad to find some stairs and ascend from the creepy tomb.
Once near the top she extinguished her torch and flattened herself to the wall, creeping up the last few steps and remaining in the shadows. As she came to a halt the sound of the last few droplets of water plopping off her clothes and onto the stone floor was all she could hear. She risked a peering glance out into the dark corridor. There was no one about. That was good at least. Now all she had to do was find Katherine in the warren of corridors and rooms and avoid the Syndicate while doing it. Easy.
Katherine had been waiting for what seemed like hours, though it could have been minutes for all she knew. Time had no real meaning in the darkness. All she knew was that she had to wait for Kirby. That was her sole purpose in being at this moment. She caressed the hilt of the dagger again like a lover. In a way it was. Her thirst for vengeance was her only companion now. Then she heard it, a sound at the door. Katherine gripped the dagger tighter, feeling the anger and hate welling up inside her. She had no desire to force them back down. She was happy to let them consume her.
The door creaked open, and still she waited. Katherine maintained her position until Kirby passed the edge of the door, tensing her muscles in anticipation. The meagre light from the corridor framed a dark shape in silhouette. Katherine could feel the nervous sweat running down her back. Then she leapt.
She cannoned into Kirby, sending him crashing to the floor. Not giving him the chance to react, Katherine raised her dagger and struck. She slashed wildly at the form under her. The attack was frenzied, un-coordinated and Kirby frantically tried to defend himself by batting her hands away, trying desperately to keep the blade from striking. Yet Katherine was not to be denied. Fuelled by overwhelming hate, she knew only one thing – that she wanted to hurt him. She had to hurt him. Then she felt it, the tear of the blade through flesh. Kirby cried out, but the sound was wrong. It was so very, very wrong.
Katherine fell back in shock. It couldn’t be.
A light flared in the darkness as a candle was lit. The soft orange light flickered over smooth feminine skin and ice blue eyes.
Katherine was frozen. Her body refused to move, her mind was unwilling to work. All she could do was stare dumbly.
“Katherine, it’s me.”
The voice was so familiar it hurt. The stabbing sensation in her chest made it hard to breathe. Yet Katherine knew it couldn’t be true. No matter how much she wanted it. The spectre edged closer, reaching out a hand. Katherine flinched back.
“Stay away from me! What are you? A ghost? An hallucination? First my father and now you! That’s it, isn’t it, I’ve gone mad!”
As if to prove her point Katherine started rubbing crazily at her head, ruffling up her short hair. She scrunched her eyes shut for a moment, willing it to go away, but when she opened them the apparition was still before her.
“Can’t you leave me in peace!”
The ghost refused to obey though, moving closer once more. Katherine backed up until she was against the wall with nowhere left to go. She tried to pull away but the ghoul slowly reached out to take hold of her hands. Katherine steeled herself for the icy touch of death, but instead the hands were warm, gentle. She looked numbly down at them. She had been living on so much grief, pain and hate, she couldn’t quite comprehend anything else at that moment. She didn’t know if she dared hope for anything else.
Slowly her eyes came up, half-expecting to see that the woman before her had vanished. But she was still there, staring intently back. Her blue eyes holding Katherine’s gaze with such sincerity and belief that Katherine was left in no doubt as to the truth. This was no ghost. It was Anne.
“I saw you die…” Katherine’s voice broke, unable to continue.
Katherine could think of no other words. She couldn’t think of anything at all. All she could do was succumb to the tumult of emotions surging up within in her. Emotions she had been trying so hard to suppress. She let the chaotic mix envelop her. As it did she collapsed forwards, knowing that Anne would catch her.
Anne could hear Katherine crying quietly against her chest, the proud woman no doubt trying to hide that fact by keeping her head bowed. Anne just tightened her embrace and rested her head against Katherine’s, not needing to say anything for now. She didn’t want to let go, yet she knew that only half her task was complete. She took a moment to feel the touch of Katherine’s hair against her cheek, rubbing it back and forth in a soothing motion. Anne felt the surge of familiar desire as Katherine’s body pressed up against her. It was instinctual, even at a time like this when they were in imminent danger. She realised Katherine was now looking up at her like she hadn’t seen her for months, rather than two days. Anne was captured by the blue-grey eyes. She was helpless to resist. It seemed completely natural to dip her head and gently press her lips against Katherine’s.
The touch was tentative at first, a delicate caress. Anne’s eyes slid shut and she felt herself falling, falling into the moment. The kiss deepened of its own accord, both women seeking to reaffirm that which had been lost if only for a short time. Anne had to actively remind herself of the situation lest she be swept away by the pounding beat of her heart. Against all her instincts she she forced herself to pull back.
“We have to go.”
Katherine continued to strokr her hands over Anne’s still damp shirt, stopping where Kirby had stabbed her not two days before.
“How did you…?” Katherine left the question unformed.
“Some pagan magic.”
Katherine’s brow creased. “But I thought you couldn’t heal yourself?”
“I can’t.” Anne didn’t think now was a good time to get into a discussion on what Axia had revealed to her. “It doesn’t matter for now, what matters is us getting out of here before Kirby or anyone else comes back.”
The mention of the man’s name seemed to galvanise Katherine. “You’re right, though how did you get in here?”
“The same way we’re going to have to get out,” replied Anne, “How do you feel about a short swim?”
At least this time Anne knew there would be an end to the tunnel. Katherine was a competent swimmer so they should be able to make it. Anne got to her feet, offering a hand to the other woman. Katherine hesitated and the young woman realised she was looking at Anne’s forearm. Anne had completely forgotten the gash from Katherine’s dagger.
“It’s nothing,” said Anne dismissively. She offered her other hand instead. “Come on.”
Katherine allowed herself to be pulled up but before Anne could move towards the door, the other woman caught her arm.
“Hang on, what about the Ares items?”
Anne couldn’t hold back the exasperation in her voice. “Katherine…”
Katherine quickly cut her off though. “We have to find them. We can’t let all this be for nothing. We can’t let the Syndicate find the weapon.”
“All right,” conceded Anne, knowing that there was little
point arguing with the obstinate woman.
She thought quickly. “Did you
come straight here from the
“Then they probably haven’t followed the last clue of the trail yet, presuming they know what it is.”
“They should do,” said Katherine, “They had a spy in our midst.”
“I know, Thomas. He’s
outside right now, with Tobias and a garrison of
“He led you here?”
“After a bit of…persuasion.” Anne only wished she’d had the chance to ‘persuade’ him a bit more, but he’d been in a repentant mood and had given in easily. “Though now I come to think of it, if Thomas had already told them the answer to the riddle what did they kidnap you for? I originally thought they wanted you to show them to the location of the weapon, but if they know that already…?”
Katherine shrugged. “Who knows, maybe it’s just Kirby’s idea of a bit of fun to keep me locked up here?”
“Or maybe he has an ulterior motive,” said Anne, “He’s always had a bit of a “thing” for you. Whatever his motives the fact of the matter is that the Syndicate still need to leave the castle in order to get the weapon. So if we can get outside to join the others, we can ambush them then. In fact we could use them for once – follow them right there and then get the weapon off them.”
“Though they’re bound to notice I’m missing,” pointed out Katherine, “So will be on their guard.”
“True, but I think it’s a better option than us stumbling around the castle trying to find the objects. It was more luck than judgement that I found you before I came across any of the Syndicate. I don’t want to chance my hand further.”
“All right. Where do we need to go swimming?”
Katherine had to blink a couple of times as she stepped from the dark cell. It wasn’t much lighter in the corridor outside but enough to take some adjusting to. Next to the door there was a guard slumped on the floor. The man’s head was lolling at an unnatural angle.
Anne caught the other woman looking. “He was in the way,” she said without apology.
Katherine didn’t question her further. Now wasn’t the time for another lecture in morality, especially not when she herself had been thinking murderous thoughts. Katherine was shocked at how fast she had descended into a rage fuelled insanity when she’d thought Anne was dead. She had been fully prepared to kill Kirby and anyone else that stood in her way. It scared her. She’d never experienced such urges before. Then again she’d never lost someone she loved so completely before. That was even more terrifying, the insight she’d had into a barren world without Anne in it. She didn’t want to see that world again. Yet at the same time she knew that was all part of love. When you gave your heart away there was always the chance it could be broken. That was the great risk and the great thrill of it. Luckily for her this time she’d been able to patch the shattered pieces back together and she was determined to keep them that way.
Anne took the lead as they crept down the corridors, pausing occasionally to check for sounds or movement. For her part Katherine couldn’t stop her eyes from drifting to Anne every few seconds, just to check she was still there. There was an irrational fear in Katherine’s mind that Anne might just suddenly disappear and this would all turn out to be an apparition of her demented mind. She just about managed to resist the urge to reach out and touch Anne to make sure she was real.
Anne glanced round at her as if sensing the perusal. “Not far now, it’s just round the next corner.”
Katherine simply nodded. She was still unable to resist watching Anne as she snuck up to the corner in order to peer around it. Katherine was so busy studying how the slightly damp material of Anne’s black trousers clung to her bottom that she neglected to notice that Anne had suddenly tensed. Katherine only realised something was amiss when the other woman turned and started sprinting in her direction.
Katherine guessed they had been spotted and did as instructed. She was glad she was still wearing her travelling clothes rather than one of her cumbersome dresses as she dashed down the passageway. Behind them she could hear several sets of chasing footsteps. Unfortunately the corridor was quickly coming to an end. Katherine made a snap decision to go up the stairs. She took them two at a time, her legs straining at the effort after having been sedentary for the last day or so.
Once at the top she sprinted as quickly as she could away from the stairs and the pair of them scooted round an open door and pinned themselves to the wall. Outside Katherine could hear shouts and running, though none close by. She had to take a few deep breaths before she could speak.
“I’m guessing our escape route was cut off?”
Anne was peering through the crack between wall and door. “Yes, there were four guards loitering and unfortunately one of them spotted me.”
“Then I suppose it’s onwards and upwards instead.”
Anne turned back to her, a doubtful look on her face. Katherine shrugged. “It worked at Loughborough,” she said in reference to when they had leapt from one of the towers there into the moat.
Anne still looked unsure but resigned. “I guess it’s our only option.” She gave one last verifying look through the small gap. “Ready?”
Katherine nodded and they darted from the room, running for the stairwell to go up higher. They’d almost made it when more guards appeared coming up the stairs, cutting them off. Anne skidded to a halt ahead of Katherine, quickly drawing out her dagger to combat the men. She shot a look over her shoulder.
Katherine hesitated. The men were already upon Anne. Go? Not bloody likely!
Katherine charged back down the corridor, barrelling into
the nearest man and bashing his head hard into the stone wall. He slumped to the floor and Katherine wasted
no time reaching down to retrieve the dagger from her boot again. She swiped it in a wide arc, catching the
hands of a couple of the guards who were reaching for her. At the same time Anne had used her own weapon
to good effect. One man was staggering
back clutching his face while another lay on his back, eyes staring vacantly at
the ceiling. Katherine could see there
were more coming up the stairs. They
were being overwhelmed. Still Anne
fought on defiantly. For Katherine it
was all too reminiscent of being on that boat back on the
“Out of my way!” The other men parted to allow Charles Kirby through. He immediately spotted Anne still struggling, his eyes widening. “My god, not you again! You have more lives than a bloody cat!” He drew out his sword, approaching menacingly. “Perhaps I could take one more?”
“No!” Katherine’s scream was so loud it stopped Kirby dead in his tracks. The rest of the men also craned their heads to regard her.
Katherine realised she needed to come up with something fast. “If you do it I swear I’ll kill myself too!”
Kirby paused, staring at her as if assessing whether she meant it. Katherine met his gaze, holding it for long seconds. Eventually he sheathed his sword. Katherine allowed herself to breathe again. Her gamble had paid off. She’d guessed they needed her for something other than any prurient personal reason of Kirby’s and it seemed his capitulation confirmed as much. What that something was remained to be seen.
“Fine!” said Kirby, “Secure them both for the night, tomorrow we go and get this blasted weapon.”
Anne slammed her hand against the door as it closed after her. “Damn it!” She followed it up with a solid kick. Neither of them did any good apart from helping her vent her frustration. She might have kept futilely battering the wood all night if it hadn’t been for a hand on her shoulder.
“Anne,” said Katherine, “I don’t think we’re going to get out that way.”
Anne whirled round. The only light in the room was from the moon which filtered in through the barred window. It fell across one side of Katherine’s face, the other in dark shadow. Anne let out a long sigh. “I can’t believe I failed you again!”
“What are you talking about? You haven’t failed me.”
“Yes, I have. I should never have left you alone at the camp!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, what would you have done if you had been there?”
Katherine looked doubtful. “Anne, I know you like to think of yourself as some sort of super woman, and often you are, but even you couldn’t have fought off twenty armed men on your own. Most likely they would have just killed you.” Katherine paused before adding quietly. “They very nearly did.”
Anne stopped her fretful pacing, hearing the pain in the words.
“I thought I’d lost you,” continued Katherine, “And now I can only thank god that I haven’t.” Katherine stepped closer, taking up Anne’s hands in her own. “Nothing else matters. You didn’t fail me, you’re here and alive, that’s all I care about.”
The sincerity of the heartfelt words cut through Anne’s feelings of anger and regret. Caught in the sway of the blue-grey eyes those things seemed unimportant. “Hopefully that’s not all you care about - getting out of here might be nice too.” Anne attempted a small smile to ease the tension.
Katherine’s lips curved up at the corners in empathy. “We will get out of this,” she stated with conviction, “I’m not getting you back only to lose you all over again. We’ve got a whole life together to live yet.”
Anne hesitated knowing that her life might not be quite as long as Katherine expected. The pause was enough for Katherine to notice.
“What is it?”
Anne knew it wasn’t the right time to mention what Axia had told her. If and when they got out of this, then she would tell Katherine everything. There was no point heaping further troubles on the other woman now. For now she needed hope. They both did.
“Sorry, I was just thinking about that life together.” She tried to give Katherine a reassuring smile. “You’re right, we will get out of here. We just need to play along and hope an opportunity presents itself.” She was trying to convince herself as much as Katherine with the affected upbeat tone. “If Kirby is representative of the people connected to the Syndicate, then one is bound to.”
“Let’s hope so,” agreed Katherine, obviously willing to try and look on any bright side she could. “At least they seem to be being more hospitable now – a window in our cell no less!” She glanced out at the moonlight.
“And some food,” noted Anne, spotting it for the first time where the white beams of light highlighted the dank floor. She knelt down to pick some up, sniffing it. “You don’t think they’re trying to poison us do you?”
Katherine joined her in crouching. “I’m so hungry I don’t care!” She took a hearty bite out of the
Anne watched her devouring it for a moment. “When did you last eat something?”
Katherine stopped munching for a moment and swallowed. “I guess it was two days ago, before the Syndicate ambushed us.”
“Didn’t they feed you in the mean time?”
Katherine looked a bit abashed. “They tried to, but…well, I wasn’t really interested in looking after myself.” Anne just stared at her, knowing the other woman would feel the need to elaborate. Katherine swallowed hard again, though there was no food in her mouth this time. “When I thought…,” her voice caught. The brief moment of artificial normality had been replaced by darkness once more. She cleared her throat and continued though her voice was hushed now.
“When I thought you were dead the only thing that really kept me going was the thought of revenge. The only thing is, I don’t know what I would have done if I’d gotten my vengeance. I’m just not sure I could have found the will to carry on….without you.”
“Don’t talk like that,” said a horrified Anne, “You would have found a way, you’re too strong to just give up.”
“Am I?” Katherine’s eyes came up to search Anne’s face. “I think you might be giving me credit for more fortitude than I actually possess.”
“I don’t believe that,” insisted Anne, “You wouldn’t give up, you couldn’t. There are few enough decent people as it is, especially ones with any influence. Who else would fight people like the Syndicate? Who would stand up for the poor and the needy?”
Anne knew it was a bit of a cheap shot, calling into question Katherine’s sense of duty and responsibility. Yet she needed something to make the other woman see sense.
“But why does that have to be me?”
It was Anne’s turn to take Katherine’s hands. She simply felt the warmth of them resting in her palms for a second before she summoned the words that expressed what she knew to her core. “Because it’s who you are. Why else would we have come so far on this quest? Why not just leave the Syndicate to it, let them get their weapon and damn the consequences?”
Katherine met her gaze. “All right,” she said quietly, “But you have to promise me something in return.”
“Whatever you want,” replied Anne, thankful she had dissuaded Katherine from any rash actions.
“You have to stop the reckless attempts at self sacrifice,” said Katherine.
“Sorry? I’m not sure I…”
A knowing look from Katherine stopped Anne before she got any further. “You know exactly what I’m talking about. Earlier in the corridor, trying to sacrifice yourself so I could get away.”
“It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.”
Katherine sighed. “I know you are. You don’t need to actually do it to prove as much.”
Anne wasn’t sure she could concede the point and half muttered as much to herself. Given their penchant for landing in trouble, she might come to regret making any promises. Katherine wasn’t going to let it go though. She fixed Anne with such a penetrating stare that eventually the young woman found herself forced to give in.
“All right, I promise no more unnecessary acts of self sacrifice.” At least with the wording she had given it was up to Anne to determine what she deemed as necessary.
For a moment she thought Katherine was going to call her up on the ambiguous statement, but she simply nodded and turned her eyes to the pail of water, soap and wash cloths that had also been left for them.
“It seems the Syndicate think we need some freshening up,” said Katherine as she picked up one of the cloths.
Obviously that thread of conversation was over and Anne was happy to oblige the switch in topic. She scrunched her nose up. “Well, I didn’t like to say anything, but you do stink.”
Katherine pretended to be affronted by the teasing. “Are you saying you don’t like my natural feminine odour?”
Anne received a dash of cold water in the face as Katherine playfully splashed her. You try smelling good when you’ve been sleeping rough on a forest floor, not to mention this delightful place. Katherine looked around the room just as a rat peeked its head out of small hole at the base of the wall. It gave one sniff of some rotting food left on the floor and turned tail.
“When we get out of this I promise you a nice hot bath,” offered Anne.
“Now there’s something to be inspired by. Forget helping the disadvantaged, I’ll fight for a decent bath!”
Katherine felt the prod in her back, tripping slightly on the rough track as she staggered forwards. The fact that her hands were tied together in front of her didn’t help her balance.
“Get a move on!”
Katherine shot the Syndicate man a baleful look as he shoved her again. Ahead of her someone grabbed the rope round her hands, yanking her forwards. Katherine turned to the fore to see it was Kirby.
“Come on, Katherine, we don’t want to keep the Arbiter waiting.”
He could wait forever as far as Katherine was concerned, though everyone else in the party seemed keen to reach their destination. They’d been roused early that morning and it had been a short march to the hill known as Vesuvius Seat which they were circumnavigating now. The path became harder to negotiate as the undergrowth pressed in and the path became more rocky. In the end they resorted to winding their way round the foot of the hill in single file. With no tree cover, the sun beat down hard on the line of soldiers with their two captives in between. There must have been a good twenty men in Kirby’s group. Katherine knew it couldn’t be far now. Soon they would discover what all this had been for.
They started to descend again and Katherine managed to get a glance behind her. Back past several more of Kirby’s men was Anne. She was also restrained, with her hands tied behind her back as she was coaxed along none too gently. Though she had managed to put a brave face on things in the cell the night before, the fact of the matter was that Katherine was irrationally scared of something happening to the young woman. The blind fear that had filled her when Kirby had threatened to kill Anne had been terrifying. She couldn’t bear to lose her again, not after just getting her back. Katherine knew she couldn’t protect Anne from everything, but she’d give it a damn good try.
On the walk there, Katherine had tried to think of any options for escape, but the odds were stacked against them. On leaving the castle she’d looked out for any signs of Tobias or Pierre, but if they were still there waiting she hadn’t seen them. Yet she thought it unlikely Tobias would give up on her. Their only real hope was that the others were following and waiting for the right moment to strike. All Katherine and Anne could do for now was go along wherever Kirby was taking them.
A shadow fell across Katherine and she looked up to see they were passing under a peculiar rock formation. It was similar in appearance to a farm gate, with gaps in the rock similar to slats. Through the dipping of the gate. They were there. Katherine felt a strange mixture of anticipation and dread.
They continued downwards into an opening in the rock of the hillside, bringing them into a small natural cavern. There were some other men already waiting there, some of whom held flickering torches to illuminate the enclosed space. It was an unremarkable cave. It certainly didn’t look like the resting place of a powerful weapon. The only unusual point of interest was a small hole in the rock on the far side of the cave, around which Katherine could see writing etched into the stone.
A couple of the men were dressed in long robes with hoods up over their heads. Obviously these were the important members of the Syndicate since their robes were banded with gold and of a much finer quality than everyday attire. One of the hooded men turned to Kirby and Katherine while a few more of Kirby’s men squashed into the cavern, including the ones dragging Anne along. There was something about the way the hooded man carried himself with confidence and authority that made Katherine think this must be the Arbiter. He paused before them for a moment, seeming to be sizing them up. Katherine felt unnerved being watched by the obscured face.
Then suddenly he whipped his hood back and Katherine let out a loud gasp. She stared in utter incredulity at the familiar face bounded by black hair. He even had the temerity to flash her one of his charming grins as if they had bumped into each other for a friendly chat rather than him holding her captive.
For a second her mouth wouldn’t work, unable to comprehend this latest startling revelation. When she did manage to engage it she could only manage a single word, but it was imbued with disbelief and hurt. “Robert?”
He smiled again and she suddenly found she didn’t find it charming at all. Not now it was revealed as a veneer that covered up a nasty reality. His eyes were studying her in a predatory way she didn’t like either.
The shocking moment was broken by a loud outburst from Anne. “I knew it! I knew you couldn’t be trusted!”
Robert’s eyes slid to her, any pretence at warmth quickly disappearing from his face. The knife was at her throat in an instant.
“No!” Katherine couldn’t help the automatic cry. She wasn’t sure her heart could take much more of this.
Robert danced the blade dangerously close to Anne’s skin for a second, watching to see if he got a reaction. Anne simply stared back at him, her face a mask of placid loathing. Eventually he drew the blade away and came back to stand before Katherine.
It took her a moment to find her voice. “I can’t believe this…you…with them.”
“Is it really so surprising?” said Robert, “Your father was
in the Syndicate, half the people at
“So they made you join them?”
Robert laughed. It echoed off the rocks. “Oh, poor deluded Katherine! No, no one made me do anything. As soon as I found out about the Syndicate, I wanted to join them. You were the one that got me that position as the squire that started me off, exposed me to the possibilities of making something more of my life. I saw how they lived, what they had, and I wanted it to!”
Katherine couldn’t quite reconcile what she was hearing spilling forth from Robert’s mouth. It was like he was a completely different person. “But they hurt people, kill people! That’s how they get those things. Not through hard work or dedication.”
“It’s all very fine having principles when you’re rich, isn’t it? Not so easy to stand by your morals when you have nothing, when you’re going from day to day wondering where your next meal is coming from.”
“You didn’t have nothing - you had a life as a squire and a knight.”
Robert let out a loud scoffing noise. “Ah, I see, I was supposed to be grateful for being allowed to mingle with the noble set was I? God forbid I should want more!”
“That’s preposterous,” said Katherine, “You make it sound like we were subjugating you. We took you into our home and treated you as an equal. You’re just trying to justify your own greed. I thought you were better than that.”
“Like your father you mean?”
Katherine recoiled like he had physically slapped her.
“The truth hurts doesn’t it?”
“You are nothing like my father,” replied Katherine, “At least he regretted what he had done, showed some remorse.”
“Yes, stupid old fool that he was.”
Katherine looked him up and down with disdain. “I don’t know what I ever saw in you.”
“I think you saw what you wanted to see,” suggested Robert, “Just as you did with your father. How else could you have completely missed that the two men in your life were keeping something from you?”
His fingers reached out to brush lightly across her face and she tried to back away, but there was nowhere to go; she was being held fast. To her side she could see Anne straining at her captors too as Robert edged ever closer.
“Or perhaps you’re just far too trusting,” added Robert, “You always did want to see the good side in everyone.”
“In that case I must have had to look pretty deep to find yours.”
Robert laughed again at her retort. His fingers had come to rest on her chin and he cupped it, pulling her face towards him. “Or maybe you actually like to be deceived, maybe you like the bad boys. You do hang around with an outlaw now after all, even if she isn’t a boy.”
“How dare you compare Anne to you,” said Katherine defiantly.
Robert was right up in her face now, his breath hot on her cheeks as he spoke. “You think she’s different? How do you know she’s not hiding something from you, some deep dark secret. It seems to be quite the theme in your life after all – your father, me, even stuffy old Mark had a surprise past as a murderer!”
“Because I know she wouldn’t keep something like that from me, I trust her.”
“Really?” Robert pulled back and wandered closer to Anne. “And what if I said I had evidence that you weren’t the only one in her life?” He asked Katherine, “That she’s been cheating on you?”
“Liar!” spat Anne immediately. “He’s lying!”
Robert was close enough to make his punch count. It landed right in Anne’s stomach. She doubled over and the guards who had been holding her dropped her to the floor on her knees. “I don’t think anyone asked for your comment,” said Robert as he looked down his nose at her. He turned back to Katherine. “Well, what would you say?”
“I would say you were lying,” stated Katherine with conviction. “You’ve already proven you’re untrustworthy, whereas Anne has shown time and time again that she would do anything for me, as I would her. I love her, and nothing you can say will ever change that.”
Robert stared at her darkly for several seconds. Katherine could feel the familiar green eyes boring into her. She didn’t know what he was about to do. Hit her? Stab Anne? Once upon a time she would have known, but not now. Then all of a sudden he started laughing, a nasty maniacal laugh directed at the heavens. Just as quickly it stopped and he was back before her, eyes flashing with anger.
“How very touching, it almost makes me sick,” he seethed. “When
Charles told me about you two, I could hardly believe it. It seemed so unlikely that I wanted to hear
the words from your own mouth to prove it was true. And here you are speaking them for me.” He shook his head. “I got a glimpse of it that time at
Katherine’s mind raced over events from a few months ago. “You organised that? You were the one trying to kill her?”
“Of course!” He seemed more than happy to admit it. “At least his partial success gave me the opportunity to spend some time with you and find out if you had been corrupted too much. I thought that maybe you could be turned back again from your destructive path.”
Robert reached up to caress her face again. Katherine couldn’t believe she had ever let him touch her willingly. Had he been a different person then, or had she been fooled all along? Either way all she felt now was revulsion as his fingers tracked over her skin.
“You should have chosen me that day on the riverbank,” he whispered, “I know you wanted to, it was only some misplaced loyalty holding you back. I’m not the sort to hold a grudge though. I’ll give you one last chance to change your mind now. Forget all about her,” he said with a quick sideways glance to Anne, “Come be with me and all this pain and anguish can be over.”
He was so close she thought he might be about to kiss her. She swallowed hard, trying not to part her lips as she did and give him any invitation to. She would have turned him down immediately if not for the nagging suggestion that if she played along they might be able to get out of there somehow. She studied his face, searched his eyes. He couldn’t be trusted. Even if she did say yes, what would he do to Anne? She just couldn’t rely on her any influence she might be able to exert over him.
Her decision made, she fixed him with a steely stare. “I wouldn’t be with you if you were the last
Robert’s face contorted in rage. “You would choose her over me?” he shouted.
He was back by the kneeling Anne in a flash, yanking her head up so he could put his knife to her throat once more. “And what about if I killed her here and now? Accomplish something so many others seem incapable of.”
Katherine’s heart was in her mouth. She could hardly dare to look, but she did. She stared right at Robert, trying to ignore the glint of the blade at Anne’s throat. Katherine wasn’t going to beg for Anne’s life. She knew that’s what he wanted. He would see her grovel and then do it anyway, that much she was certain of.
The moment seemed to stretch on, neither of them flinching. In her peripheral vision Katherine was aware that Anne was also watching her, determination not to surrender still strong in her eyes. It strengthened Katherine’s own resolve. If this was it they would go down together, defiant to the end. Eventually it was Robert who backed down, seeming to reign in his anger. He was the one in the winning position after all. He sheathed his dagger again, but couldn’t resist giving Anne a last shove in the back so she fell face first onto the ground.
“I really should thank you for leading us on this merry trail,” he said, “I’m not sure we would have managed it even with this.” He produced a folded piece of parchment. “It’s a second letter from your dear departed father,” said Robert, seeing the quizzical look from Katherine, “Seems he thought the first one might have been a bit too hard for you to follow. Shame he didn’t get to finish it or send it to you. Still you made it all right in the end with just the first one, even if we did have to prod you along a few times. We had to orchestrate that little incident at Ollerton you know, and plant the book at the fair, else you might never have worked it out.”
“If you’re so clever why didn’t you just do it all yourself?”
“Apart from the fact it’s been such fun watching you toil over it?”
Katherine didn’t bother answering the snide question and Robert continued.
“Though this letter gave us enough hints to decipher some aspects of what needed to be done, your letter still held vital information.” He turned to Anne. “So I suppose I should thank you too for uncovering the meaning of the inscriptions.”
“Don’t mention it,” said Anne icily.
“Talking of which.” Robert snapped his fingers and Kirby came forwards carrying Katherine’s wooden chest. Robert paused for a moment before opening it, just running his hands over the wood. “I can’t believe I’m going to be the Arbiter who finally recovers the weapon, who puts the Syndicate back where it should be.”
“You might have the objects but you don’t have the key,” pointed out Katherine defiantly.
Robert’s laugh started as a snigger to himself. However, it seemed he couldn’t control his mirth. Katherine had no idea what was so funny as he broke into hearty laughter. “It’s really rather ironic that you’ve been looking for it so hard,” he said once he’d finally managed to control himself, “Since you’ve actually had it all the time.”
He stared at her, green eyes penetrating in their intensity.
“Katherine, you are the key.”
Katherine looked as stunned as Anne felt. She was simply staring back at Robert, unable to speak. Anne watched the smug look crossing his face, wishing she could get her hands free in order to remove it with her fist. She had known there had been something wrong with Robert. It was only a shame the proof had come too late.
“It’s all here in the second letter.” He taunted Katherine further by waving it in her face. “The Arbiter’s first born is the key. I was hoping that one day I may be so blessed. I was hoping that we…” He caught himself. For the barest of seconds he had sounded almost human. “But then you went off with that fool Johnson!” he suddenly spat, back to the menacing norm. “And now?” He cast a disparaging look at Anne. She returned it in kind until he turned his attention back to Katherine. “So with no direct heir, it falls to the previous Arbiter’s first born to act as the key.”
Katherine stared at him as if he was mad. “How can I be a key? I don’t know anything about opening this…she gestured with her tied hands at the hole in the rockface, …whatever it is!”
“It’s lucky that we do then.”
Robert popped the catch on the chest and drew out one of the items, the dagger. Anne was on her feet in an instant, but she was swiftly halted by some strong hands on her arms. Robert dared to give her a mocking grin as he held up the blade in the torch light. He was bringing it closer to Katherine. Anne’s breath caught. Then suddenly he slipped it between Katherine’s arms and sliced through the rope securing her hands. Katherine didn’t have long to looked perplexed at having been freed before Robert signalled two of the syndicate men to take hold of her. One of them forced her right arm up, holding it out to Robert. With teasing slowness he rolled up the sleeve of her shirt, exposing the skin of her forearm. Katherine tried in vain to pull her arm away but the man was holding her firm. Robert gave one last nasty smile before he pressed the blade against Katherine’s arm and drew it through her skin. Katherine cried out as blood immediately blossomed.
“Quick, the goblet!” Robert instructed Kirby.
Kirby handed him the very first item Katherine and Anne had
Katherine didn’t show any form of recognition to the hail. The men had let her go and she was just standing there as if mesmerised.
Robert laughed. “She can’t hear you.” He waved a hand in front of Katherine’s face to show how she was in some sort of trance.
Next to be brought forth from the chest was the inkpot and Anne guessed that each of the items was going to have some part to play in the bizarre ritual. Robert carefully dribbled some of Katherine’s blood into the inkpot before asking Kirby for the remaining items – the quill and the candlestick. Kirby placed a candle into the stick and lit it using one of the syndicate men’s torches. Meanwhile Robert handed the quill to Katherine, along with a piece of paper.
He leant forward to whisper in her ear. “You know what to write.”
Katherine immediately sprang into life. She dipped the quill into the ink pot, seemingly unconcerned by its macabre contents, and then started scribbling frantically on the parchment. She completely ignored the blood still trickling between her fingers and smudging darkly across the paper. Anne couldn’t see what it was she was writing from her position and Katherine finished up and folded it shut before she could get a better look. Kirby came forward and melted some seal wax in the candle, dripping it onto the back of the letter. Finally Robert used the base of the candlestick to press into the sealant, creating a relief of the Ares mark in it.
He pointed Katherine towards the hole in the rock. “If you would be so kind, m’lady.”
Anne tried to stop her one last time, though she knew it was pointless. “Katherine, don’t!” She didn’t know what was about to happen, but it couldn’t be good.
Katherine continued to ignore her, stepping stiffly towards the opening. She took the letter which was smeared in the blood from her hand and placed it inside the hole. She took a step backwards. Everyone waited expectantly. Nothing happened. Robert started to look agitated.
He barged past Katherine. “What did you…”
An almighty boom came from somewhere deep inside the
hillside, stopping Robert in his tracks.
The whole cavern shook and Anne could see the men around her looking uncertain,
perhaps fearing they were about to be buried alive. Anne herself glanced back to the entrance,
just to check it was still there and not covered by a rockfall. She was still hoping they’d get a chance to
use it. Just before she was about to
turn back she caught a glimpse of movement in the undergrowth outside. She tried not to stare too obviously as she
attempted to make out what it was. A
wild animal spooked by the crashing noise?
Then she saw it again. It was no
wild animal, it was a man and he was wearing the
Anne swiftly swivelled to face inwards, not wanting to draw anyone else’s attention to what she hoped was more than just one soldier outside. In front of her everyone was still standing, waiting for something else to happen. There was still no sign of any weapon as far as Anne could see. She was just beginning to wonder if this was all some hideous joke on someone’s part when a low rumbling started to shake the cavern again. Anne found it hard to stand as the ground juddered beneath her feet. Having no free hands to steady herself, she found herself leaning heavily against the Syndicate man next to her.
Suddenly a cloud of dust exploded into the room with a loud whooshing of air. Anne couldn’t see a thing as it quickly filled up the small space. The shaking and rumbling stopped to be replaced by the sounds of those around her coughing and spluttering. For a brief instant she considered trying to make a run for it, since her captors had let go of her in their distraction at the events unfolding around them. However, she quickly dismissed the notion, resolving that she had best stick close to Katherine. Not wanting to completely relinquish the small opportunity that had presented itself in the confusion, Anne managed to deftly lift the dagger she had spotted earlier from her neighbour’s belt. Being a thief certainly came in useful sometimes. With some difficulty she manoeuvred it around in her hands and started to saw away at the rope binding them behind her back.
She could feel the bonds already starting to loosen by the time the dust finally started to clear and she stopped what she was doing just in case anyone was observant. However, everyone else was focussed on where Katherine had posted the gruesome missive. As what was ahead of them became apparent, Anne couldn’t help but be amazed. The wall with the hole in was completely gone. Instead there was a massive cavern beyond it revealed to them. It stretched on into dark corners and reached up to tower above them, a hollow space inside the hill. Anne could see long stalactites dangling from the ceiling with the slow dripping of water echoing round the vast space. The light from the torches of the syndicate men flickered off damp walls as the whole group proceeded inside. Katherine still appeared to be in her trance, willingly following Robert while flanked by Kirby. At least the bleeding seemed to have stopped from the cut on her arm for now.
Robert was heading directly for a stone platform in the centre of the cavern. Anne could see the light reflecting off something sitting upon it, but it was only when Robert picked it up that she could see what it actually was. It appeared to be a crown. Was this the ‘weapon’? If it was, Anne didn’t think it looked very impressive given all the hard work it had taken to find it. It had a plain gold band and somehow looked unfinished, with what looked like place holders for something else jutting upwards from the band.
However, Robert appeared entranced by it. He was just staring at it in his hands. It seemed Anne wasn’t the only one unconvinced by the object as Kirby spoke up.
“That’s it? That’s what we’ve come here to get? What does it do?”
Robert looked at him like he was an ant crawling around his feet, one that might be about to be stamped on at any moment. “Nothing on its own. This is just the first step. Now we need its companion.”
“Currently resting on King John’s head.”
Kirby let out a snorting laughing. “You have to be joking?”
Robert didn’t look like he was joking in the slightest and Kirby quickly stifled his laugh. “When they are combined their power will be revealed to me.” Robert started to raise the crown he had. “For now, let us see if this one fits.”
It had barely touched the first hair on his head when a loud cracking noise echoed round the room. Robert paused with the crown hovering above his head, looking uncertainly around. As he went to lower it the rest of the way the whole cavern lurched dramatically. Anne stumbled to the side, seeing that Robert had been thrown off the platform and had dropped the crown. The ground bucked again as a rumbling filled the cavern. One of the stalactites came crashing down, almost skewering the downed Robert.
The ground started to shake constantly, dislodging rocks that tumbled down around them. A loud shout came from the back of the cavern, and Anne turned to see that it was Pierre and his men storming in. They were quickly met by the syndicate soldiers, the sounds of battle echoing round the cavern ringing out between the crashes of the rocks. Deciding it was time to act, Anne sliced through the remainder of her restraints and darted towards Robert.
He had just managed to right himself and pick up the crown
as Anne came charging towards him.
Automatically his hands came up to defend himself and the crown bounced
away across the rocky floor once more.
He caught Anne’s lunging hands before the knife could penetrate his
throat. Behind her Anne could hear the
ongoing sounds of fighting, but she didn’t care about those. She just wanted to move her dagger the last
Robert’s call was to someone off to their side. Anne risked a glance in time to see Katherine swinging a large lump of rock at her head. Anne had no time to dodge and it connected hard with her temple. Pain flared through her skull. Tumbling backwards, Anne crashed to the floor, losing her dagger in the process. Dazed, she barely managed to dodge the second attempted blow. Anne rolled to the side, quickly getting to her feet. Katherine was facing her and now had the dagger in her hand. The vacant stare in her eyes had been replaced by one of malicious intent.
Anne didn’t have time to finish her sentence as the other
woman lunged for her with the weapon. Anne
staggered to the side as the ground pitched again. Out of the corner of her eye she could see
that one of
Anne managed to catch her arm as it flew past. “Katherine, stop, it’s me!”
The plea fell on deaf ears. Katherine struggled in Anne’s grasp, ignoring the fact that the wound on her arm had opened up again. Anne could feel the hot blood under her hand. Suddenly Katherine stamped down hard on Anne’s foot. The surprise was enough for Anne to loosen her hold slightly. Katherine shook off her grip and swung with the dagger. Anne was too close, she couldn’t move in time. The blade sliced through her shirt, biting into the skin of her stomach underneath.
Anne stumbled back just as the ground beneath her shook again. It tipped her off her already precarious balance and she fell heavily to the hard ground. Still Katherine was coming. Anne looked around desperately. How could she get Katherine out of this trance? How could she break the spell? Her eyes fell on the items that had been used in the ritual. They had been placed down at the side of the cavern now their purpose had been fulfilled. Anne scrabbled across the uneven floor towards them, ignoring the shooting pain in her head and stomach.
On reaching them, Anne quickly upended the inkpot. Katherine’s blood oozed out over the grey rock. Still the other woman was coming. She was almost upon the crouching Anne. Anne could see the dagger rising for another strike. She grabbed the goblet and chucked its contents on the floor too, closing her eyes as she did as if that would ward off the incoming blow. When it didn’t come, she risked a peek with one eye.
Katherine had stopped and was looking in confusion at the dagger in her hand. Her gaze slid to Anne who let out a sigh of relief when she saw the other woman’s eyes were alert once more.
“Anne? What happened?”
Anne could see Katherine suddenly noticing the tear in her black shirt, her eyes moving from it to the dagger and back again a couple of times before realisation dawned.
Anne got to her feet quickly to try and show she was fine. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, taking the dagger off Katherine, “That’s the least of our worries.” The ground rocked again and Katherine looked round the rest of the cavern for the first time to see the unfolding melee.
“What the hell is going on?”
“No time to explain now,” said Anne. She had finally spotted the crown, but she wasn’t the only one. She could see Kirby diving for it as it skittered across the rocks, knocked this way and that by the ongoing tremors. Anne ran across the cavern, dodging falling rocks and leapt for it too. Lunging across the ground, she gripped her dagger tight in her right hand and brought it down with full force. There was a satisfying scream as it pierced the back of Kirby’s outstretched hand and pinned it to the floor. He continued to whimper pitifully as he tried to pull it out. Anne ignored him, instead reaching down to withdraw the sword from his scabbard.
“Please…don’t…” he begged as she brandished the weapon.
“You’re not worth it,” she replied as she looked down at the snivelling man, “I just want what is mine.”
Close by, a few more boulders fell from the roof, and Anne
quickly snatched up the crown before it was buried under rubble. Another stalactite shattered on the rocks
next to her, shaking the ground and causing her to wobble on her feet. It gave her no chance to dodge the kick aimed
at her back. The air was driven from
her lungs and she collapsed on the ground as she tried to get her
“I think you have something that’s mine.” Robert was standing over her, sword in hand. He didn’t wait for a reply, swinging it straight at her head. Just in time, Anne brought up her own sword to parry the blow.
Robert smiled. “I was hoping you might want to fight over it.”
He drew back his sword and swung again, Anne barely having the time to get to her feet and direct it away with her blade. Robert seemed to relishing the opportunity of trying to kill as he came at her. She could understand that; she’d happily see him dead too. Anne fought off his attacks, all the time keeping hold of the crown in her left hand. Yet it was becoming an increasing hindrance not to be able to use both hands on her sword. She threw the crown down behind her, thinking it safe enough while she battled him.
Their swords clashed repeatedly as they both gave no quarter. Yet no one could get the upper hand. Once more their swords became locked and Anne found herself near face to face with her nemesis. She could see the sweat on his brow and the snarl on his lips. Suddenly his eyes slid to the side.
Automatically Anne looked. She heard Robert’s laugh about the same time she realised he had tricked her. Katherine wasn’t there at all. Robert was swinging for her. Anne just managed to dodge back enough so that his impending swipe didn’t cut her in two. Instead it caught her hands, driving her own sword from them. It spun off across the floor and the tip of Robert’s weapon was at her throat in an instant. Anne backed up until she could go no further. She was pressed up against the cavern wall at Robert’s mercy.
“A shame it will be so quick,” he said, “I would have preferred to make you suffer for corrupting Katherine.”
“No one corrupted me.”
Robert stiffened and Anne could see Katherine had now appeared and was right behind him, pushing something obviously sharp into his back. Anne wished the other woman would simply push it just that bit further, but then it wasn’t really Katherine’s style unless Robert forced her hand.
“You won’t do it,” sneered Robert.
He flinched as Katherine prodded the weapon in closer. “Try me.”
Part of Anne wished he would if it meant they could be rid
of him for good. She saw his eyes
shifting over his shoulder and seized her chance. She batted the blade away from her throat
with a flat hand and reached to grab his wrists. They wrestled with the sword for a moment
before another violent shudder shook them all off balance. Anne staggered backwards, helpless to stop
Robert reaching down to grab the crown.
Anne made to chase after him, but thought better of it. There was too much danger still in the cavern. Instead she went to help up Katherine who wasn’t quite as grateful as she might have thought.
“What are you waiting for?” demanded the other woman. “Go get him!”
Still Anne hesitated, torn.
Reluctantly she obeyed, dashing off towards the opening. She had to vault over holes that were opening up in the uneven ground, revealing perilous drops into darkness below. Beyond the split in the wall was a narrow corridor of rock. Anne could see sunlight at the end of it and sprinted down it, hoping she hadn’t given Robert too much of a head start. As she barrelled out of the end the heat of the day hit her smack in the face.
Anne shielded her eyes and quickly scanned the landscape but Robert was nowhere to be seen amongst the patches of trees and knotty undergrowth. Where the hell was he? Continuing to look, Anne became more and more aware that she was wasting time, that anything could be happening inside. There was an unpleasant fluttering in her stomach as she desperately tried to catch any sort of movement. She heard a quiet whispering and jerked her head to the side, trying to work out where it was coming from. The whispering started to build into incoherent chattering and she realised it wasn’t Robert, it was nature speaking to her. And it wasn’t stopping. The chattering built into a deafening crescendo.
“Stop! I can’t work out what you’re trying to tell me!”
Anne put her hands over her ears. Though the ‘voices’ weren’t actually coming from an external source, the action helped her focus her own thoughts. Eventually the chattering completely died away. Obviously nature was agitated. She supposed the fact that there was a massive hill collapsing in on itself behind her might have had something to do with it. Deciding she’d better get back inside that hill, she gave up on finding Robert for now and sped back down the passageway. As she got nearer the end she could feel the shaking of the ground, hear the rumbling and crashing. Yet it seemed somehow muffled. When she reached the end she realised why.
She stumbled the last few steps in disbelief. “No.” Her voice was subdued as she viewed the rockfall that had cut off the tunnel. She shook her head, not wanting to believe it. “No!” Anne frantically scrabbled at the rock with her bare hands. A few small pieces came away but she knew it was hopeless, there was no way she’d be able to move the huge boulders. The only escape route for those inside was blocked.
Anne’s call was filled with pitiful longing.
She knew the other woman wouldn’t be able to hear her trapped behind the mountain of rock, but still Anne cried out several more times as if her words alone could somehow part the rocky barrier. She pounded and scrapped at the jagged surface but it was unyielding. Eventually she had to give up, resting her grazed hands on the cruel rocks and dipping her head. She tried to hold back the sobs that were bubbling up in her throat. Tipping her head back she issued a long drawn out scream to the gods.
Then suddenly it hit her. A sudden surge of energy flowing through her from her feet right up through her body into her arms. Anne could only gasp as her arms started to shake. The only other time she’d felt anything like it was the year before when Mark had tried to attack Katherine. Anne had found strength beyond the norm that day, could she do it again? Not wanting any doubts to cloud her mind, she tried to clear it instead, thinking only about the rock and her overwhelming desire to get past it. Her eyes bored into the rough surface, willing it move. Sweat broke out on her forehead as she felt the energy building further and further, suffusing her from the very ground beneath her feet. Her teeth clenched with the effort of trying to harness it and her words rasped out between them.
“Come on! Come on you bloody bastard things!”
Her whole body was shaking now, but she wasn’t going to give up. Somehow she knew she could do this with nature’s help. She made one last push, putting all her emotions into an angry cry as she did. Suddenly there was a loud cracking and the rockface crumbled inwards before her, revealing the cavern once more. Anne could only sink to her knees for a moment, breathing hard as the sensations subsided. On the far side she could see Katherine alive and well. Anne’s heart skipped in relief. She clambered unsteadily to her feet, having to lean on the rocks a moment to gather herself. She kept her eyes fixed on Katherine the whole time. It was only at the last minute that she saw the stalactite dangling precariously above Katherine’s head. Then it wasn’t dangling anymore, it was plunging to the ground.
Katherine swung round at the call, seeing Anne leaning up against some shattered rocks on the far side of the cavern. Then suddenly her world turned upside down as someone barrelled into her knocking her off her feet. She was grateful they had as she saw a massive stalactite crash down where she had been standing moments before. Brushing the small bits of rock from her clothes she was about to thank her rescuer when she saw who it was. The words died on her lips.
“It’s all right,” said Thomas, offering her a hand, “You don’t need to thank me.”
Katherine ignored the hand and clambered to her feet herself. She didn’t say anything, not trusting herself to. The last time she had seen him she had been threatening to kill him after all. Even if he had just saved her life, the harsh reality of his betrayal still filled her heart with an icy chill. Thomas withdrew his hand, obviously sensing it would take more to prove his worth again. He didn’t get the chance to say anything further as Anne barged him out of the way.
“We need to get out of here before the only exit gets blocked again.”
Katherine surveyed the cavern. The fighting had died down,
“Are you all right, m’lady?”
Katherine swung her head to see Tobias regarding her with almost open concern. She could see he had spotted the gash on her arm and tried to hide it behind her back. “There’ll be plenty of time to check on my well-being once we’re outside, Tobias.”
He gestured for her to go ahead of him and they stumbled over the rocky floor as more and more rocks rained down around them. Anne was close by her side as they edged down the passageway. They were almost out when they heard a cry from behind them. Both Katherine and Anne swung round, but it wasn’t Tobias who had yelled as they had suspected. Instead further back beyond him they could see Thomas had been trapped by some falling debris as he brought up the rear.
Tobias turned his back on the man. “Leave him. He’s a traitor.”
Tobias started heading for daylight and Anne fell in behind him before Katherine caught her. “We can’t just leave him.” Anne’s mouth started to open. “I don’t care what he’s done. I’m not about to leave someone to die if I could do anything to prevent it.” Katherine could see Anne wasn’t convinced, yet she didn’t openly object.
“All right, but let’s be quick!”
They hurried back down the passageway to the fallen man. He was tugging at his leg which was trapped by a large rock. Together they tried to prise the boulder off him, but it wouldn’t budge. The ground gave another sickening lurch and Thomas’ eyes darted frantically to the unstable ceiling above him. Meanwhile, Anne had pulled back for a moment, and Katherine could see a strange look of concentration come over her face before she placed her hands on the rock. However, whatever it was she was trying to do didn’t succeed and she eventually withdrew. She shook her head and muttered something about not being able to summon the necessary motivation.
“Come on, let’s try again,” insisted Katherine.
The two women strained against the unyielding rock, shoving up against it with all their might. Just when it seemed they had failed a third shoulder joined in their effort. Katherine was surprised to see it was Tobias. He didn’t say anything, just started to push. With Tobias’ help the boulder slowly started to move. Once they had it up enough, Katherine reached down to give Thomas a hand out.
“Thank you, m’lady,” he said with no small surprise.
“I’m not going to let you get off that easy,” she replied evenly, “I need you alive if you’re going to atone for your actions.”
A fresh crack echoed between the rocks, focussing all their
minds on the
Katherine allowed herself to collapse into a sitting position on the ground, finally able to relax for more than a second in the sudden stillness. She brushed her hands through her hair, dislodging a shower of dirt. Realising it was pointless trying to make herself look even halfway respectable she gave up, turning instead to Anne who had taken up a seat next to her.
“I’m sorry, I lost Robert,” confessed the younger woman.
Anne was as filthy as Katherine herself, dirt smudged across her face and dust dulling her normally lustrous blond hair. “At least we’re all in one piece,” said Katherine before fingering the hole in Anne’s shirt. “Mainly.”
Anne caught her hand gently. “Honestly, it’s nothing, it’s just a scratch.”
“I seem to be getting into a bad habit of inflicting those on you at the moment.” Katherine ruefully indicated the already scabbing skin on Anne’s arm. “And what happened to your hands?” Katherine turned them over, seeing the skin was grazed on the fingertips and knuckles.
“A bit of a disagreement with some rocks,” said Anne evasively. “Anyway, I’m not the only one who could do with a visit to the friar.” Anne reached out to carefully take up Katherine’s own arm.
“Maybe I’ll get him to look at it,” said Katherine non-commitally. It did sting like hell, but she wasn’t about to let one minor wound stop her. “But we need to get after Robert. Was that crown the ‘weapon’?”
Anne looked bemused for a moment before the light of realisation dawned in her eyes. “Of course, he explained it while you were…someplace else,” she said tactfully. “Yes, the crown is the weapon, sort of. It needs to be combined with another to make the weapon complete.”
“Yes, the one on the King of England’s head.”
Katherine’s eyes widened in shock. “Then we’d better get back to
TO BE CONTINUED
Coming Soon: Lady Katherine and The Pressing Pursuit