The Lady Katherine Chronicles, Number 19
Lady Katherine And The Pressing Pursuit
MercyCroft, Solise and MF for beta reading this for me :) Special thanks to MF for cleaning up my awful French!
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.
A faint whispering was the first thing Anne noticed as she stirred from her fitful sleep. She glanced down at her companion, but Katherine was still fast asleep. Every once in a while she would let out a small, unintelligible murmur but showed no signs of waking. Anne couldn’t help reaching out to brush her fingers lightly through Katherine’s hair, playing absently with the auburn strands in a vain effort to distract herself. However, the whispering continued. Anne supposed she could wake Katherine, but didn’t think the other woman would be able to help her or even hear the strange noise. Though it seemed to be coming from outside, Anne had little doubt that it was actually in her mind. The call of nature seemed to be getting stronger and stronger.
Anne tried to think about something else and ignore the persistent voices but they kept buffeting her, just loud enough to be annoying. Finally she gave up, rising and pulling on the rest of her clothes and her boots before she left the tent. Despite the fact that it was night, it was hot and sticky outside and Anne thought there would be a storm soon. For the time being there was only the odd cloud up in the sky and she could make out the constellations high above as she wandered aimlessly away from the camp. Even in a foreign land far from home they remained reassuringly the same. While watching the stars, she stayed alert and alive to the possibility that she wasn’t alone. Though they’d had no problems so far on their return journey, the Syndicate could be on their trail.
So it was that she heard the sound of footsteps brushing faintly through the undergrowth behind her. Just a single pair, but footsteps nonetheless. Anne surreptitiously gripped the hilt of her sword but didn’t turn, allowing them to think she hadn’t noticed them. The steps were delicate, careful and getting closer. Anne could almost imagine she could hear the person’s breaths echoing in the still night air.
Suddenly Anne whipped out her sword and whirled round in one swift motion. The approaching person was only saved from being impaled when she pulled back a fraction at the last moment.
Anne eyed the person suspiciously. “I thought I said I didn’t want to see you again?”
A pair of brown eyes regarded her from an elfin face picked out in the moonlight. Axia looked at the tip of the sword hovering close to her dress. “So you’d impale me rather than speak to me?”
“You’re the one sneaking up on people in the dark,” said Anne with a faint shrug. She withdrew the sword, knowing Axia was no threat to her, at least not immediately. She was yet to determine what exactly the other woman’s long term ambitions were. “So what are you doing here? Come to tell me more about this mysterious mission you have for me or just generally spying?”
“No, just making sure you are well.” As always Axia spoke with a serenely soft lilt to her voice despite the challenge in Anne’s tone. Yet rather than making Anne feel relaxed the calmness of it grated on her for some reason.
“With the aid of your little helpers?” Anne indicated some of the forest animals that appeared to be watching their discourse. The nearest squirrel had the good grace to hop back up its tree now it had been caught out.
“You could talk to them too,” said Axia, “If you were so inclined, but you choose to devote your time to other areas.”
Anne laughed. “Other areas? She has a name you know.”
“And you waste far too much time on her.” For once Axia’s voice betrayed rare emotion. “You have a gift, Anne, one you are not utilising to your full potential while you are busy satisfying her every whim.”
“Whether or not I harness my special abilities has nothing to do with Katherine,” stated Anne, annoyance colouring her words, “In fact she’s always been the one to encourage me in the past. You don’t know her at all, or me for that matter!”
Axia reached out a hand to touch Anne’s arm. “I do know you.”
Anne shrugged off the hand. “Get off me!” She was fed up of Axia’s cryptic comments, it was almost as if she took perverse pleasure in supposedly knowing something Anne didn’t.
“We can protect you,” said Axia, following Anne as she tried to walk away.
Anne glanced back at her. “From what?” she asked with incredulity, “The man-eating squirrels and deadly killer-deer roaming these woods?”
Anne spun on her heel and almost careened directly into someone standing right beside her.
“From people like me.”
Anne’s eyes flicked up in shock, though she had already recognised the voice. Kirby? How in the hell had he snuck up on her? Anne’s hand shot to her scabbard only to find her fingers grasping at fresh air. Her eyes verified what her hand had discovered - her sword was gone.
“Looking for this?”
Kirby had it. He stepped back a few paces and started waving it before him so the blade glinted in the moonlight. How had he managed to get it? Anne hadn’t felt or noticed him take it and she was well versed in sleight of hand.
“Seems you can’t keep hold of it.” He stopped swishing it around and fixed her with a look of pure menace in his dark eyes. The tattoo above his left one crinkled as they narrowed. His intention was obvious.
Anne tried to move but her feet seemed slow to react, not
wanting to obey her urge to flee. Kirby
started coming towards her, but still she couldn’t summon the will to run. Anne just had time to glance to Axia who was
simply watching impassively before Kirby struck. The sword bit into her flesh just as it had
done back on the boat on the
Anne screamed and jolted awake.
It took her a few sharp intakes of breath to realise she was still lying back in the tent, a now awake Katherine beside her. It had just been a dream, realised Anne before reconsidering. She knew she couldn’t be sure where Axia was concerned. Already Anne had discovered she’d been completely oblivious to their meeting on the spirit plane. It wasn’t much of a stretch to think that Axia could be invading her sleeping mind now. If that was the case she didn’t much like the message.
A concerned hand brought her back to the present again. “A nightmare?” asked Katherine softly, though as much was fairly evident.
“Yes.” Anne was
sitting up now, knees drawn up with the bedclothes. Katherine pulled herself up beside her, hair
mussed, still looking half asleep. She
waited for Anne to elaborate. “It was
Kirby,” she said, not really having to spell out any further what that meant. She bit her lip for a moment supposing she
may as well take the opportunity to tell Katherine about Axia. She had been waiting for a good time to bring
it up, but couldn’t see one of those coming along for a while. They still had to make it back through
“No, her name is Axia.”
Katherine frowned slightly. “Axia?” She was obviously trying to place the name and drawing a blank.
“She was the one who healed me back in
“Then I suppose I should be grateful to her,” said Katherine, “Was she helping you fight off Kirby in your dream?”
“Not exactly, and I’m not sure they are just dreams,” confessed Anne not liking being so uncertain what was happening in her own mind.
Katherine looked equally confused. “But if they’re not dreams…?”
“Axia has other abilities like I used to, such as being able to remove her consciousness to the spirit plane.”
“And you think she was speaking to you via the spirit plane in your dream?” Katherine was trying to hide it, but Anne could detect the tiny edge of jealousy creeping into her voice. It was a rather intimate thing for someone to be doing if it was the case. Anne paused before revealing more, yet knew she had to be totally honest.
“Axia intimated we’d communicated that way before.”
Katherine didn’t look too impressed. “She ‘intimated’ as much? Can’t you remember?”
“No, that’s the frustrating thing. She claims I used to be a regular visitor to the spirit plane while asleep but I can’t remember a thing.”
“Used to be?”
“She says my visits stopped around spring last year.”
“Axia seems to have had a lot to say for herself,” noted Katherine with barely concealed scepticism, “So what exactly were you supposed to be doing on these ‘visits’?”
“She didn’t say, but I got the impression there was more to it than simply exchanging the latest pagan news.”
Anne didn’t really want to voice her suspicions, but it seemed she didn’t need to, with Katherine able to read between the lines.
“You think she has feelings for you?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Anne, “I might be imagining it, but a couple of things made me wonder.”
“And what about you?”
Anne was unsure of the reference. “Sorry?”
“Do you have feelings for her?”
“No, of course not!” stated Anne immediately.
“But you said you couldn’t remember,” said Katherine, “Maybe you used to?”
“No, I’m sure I would remember that.” Anne tried to sound more convincing than she actually felt. “And even if I did, I certainly don’t anymore. There’s only one person I have feelings for now. Intense, overwhelming feelings.” She didn’t need to attempt to inject sincerity into her voice now, it was there in abundance.
Katherine sighed seemingly accepting she had nothing to fear from Axia in that regard. “So why do you think Axia might be trying to communicate with you still?”
“There were some other things she told me too...”
Katherine was starting to look more and more anxious with the direction the conversation was taking, picking up on Anne’s own unease. Anne decided she better forge on now she had come this far. “Axia told me something disturbing about what happened last year with Bronwyn.”
“More disturbing than you being killed?”
Anne paused and it was enough to bring Katherine’s anxiety bubbling up to the surface. “Tell me!” She demanded.
Anne turned so she was facing Katherine, taking the older woman’s hands in what she hoped was a reassuring gesture. Yet Katherine’s eyes continued to search hers with a hint of desperation. Anne doubted her words would help assuage her fears but it was too late to go back now.
“You recall how I sacrificed my powers in order to come back from the other side?” Katherine simply nodded, it wasn’t as if either of them was likely to forget. “Well, it seems Axia and her friends decided I wasn’t allowed to do that. According to them I need those powers for some mission they have for me at some point in the future. So they made a deal on my behalf and without my knowledge to get my powers back, which is why I’ve been having those odd flashes the past few months. Eventually they will return in full.”
“And what was this deal?” asked Katherine slowly, having picked up on the crucial missing point.
Anne found her lips were suddenly dry. This was worse than having to hear it herself. She took a deep breath and then rushed through the rest of the explanation in one go. “I got my powers back in exchange for time from my life, meaning that I will age twice as fast as I would have done. For every year I live I will age two.”
Katherine just stared at her. Anne wondered for a minute if she’d said the words too quickly for the other woman to hear. Then slowly Katherine’s head started to shake. “How dare they.” The words were said with quiet venom. Anne almost felt scared on Axia’s behalf seeing the look in Katherine’s eyes.
Suddenly the older woman was on her feet. “Where do I find this Axia?”
Anne had to react quickly to get up too and block the way. “Katherine…”
The other woman didn’t seem to hear, still intent on her course. “I’ll bloody kill her!” she said as she tried to step round Anne.
blue eyes finally fixed on Anne as if noticing she was in the way for the first
time. “Where exactly are you going? We’re in the middle of
Katherine thrust her hands on hips, determination sparking
in her eyes. “I’m going to give this
Axia a piece of my mind even if I have to search the whole of bloody
Anne raised a single eyebrow. “In your nightshirt?”
Katherine looked down at herself as if she had forgotten she was dressed in just a loose white shirt that fell to her thighs. “If I have to,” she stated indignantly though the urgency of the moment had been broken by the innate ridiculousness of the situation. Anne placed gentle hands on Katherine’s shoulders to calm things further.
“Katherine, though I appreciate the sentiment, there’s not a lot we can do about it now.”
Katherine frowned. “You seem oddly resigned to it, don’t you care? They’ve stolen your life from you!”
Anne guided her back down onto the bed on the floor. It felt a bit odd to be taking the role of the reasonable one for once, while Katherine seemed hell bent on running out and getting revenge. Then again after recent events when Katherine had thought her dead, she supposed she could understand the urge to protect her at any cost.
“Of course I care,” said Anne, “And I was incredibly angry when she told me. In fact I picked a fight with Tobias not long after. But that’s beside the point. I can’t change it now, and frankly I’m not going to waste time worrying about it, not when I might get killed by the Syndicate or anyone of a number of other enemies tomorrow.”
“Well, that’s looking on the brightside!” said Katherine sarcastically.
“You know what I mean. None of us knows what the future holds or how long we have. We just have to make the most of what time we do.” Anne reached out to stroke Katherine’s cheek with one hand. “And I want to make the most of my time with you.”
Katherine closed her eyes, savouring the touch. As Anne’s fingers trailed downwards she used them to draw the other woman’s chin forwards. Katherine let herself be guided into the tender kiss. When she pulled back Anne saw she was smiling.
“I suppose there is one other brightside,” noted Katherine.
“At least I can look forward to eventually being the younger woman!”
Anne couldn’t help laughing before Katherine continued.
“Though for now this older woman needs some sleep since we’ve got another early start tomorrow.”
Katherine lay back down and Anne automatically followed, wrapping her arms around the other woman from behind and tucking herself in close.
“Do you think we’ll manage to make it back to
“We can only hope and pray.”
It took another three days to make their way back to
It was nice to hear some English voices for once, a reminder that they weren’t far from home now. Not that Katherine couldn’t understand French, she was actually fluent in the language, but there was just something comforting about hearing her native tongue, even being used in the most inane conversation. Katherine glanced surreptitiously over to study the two English women who were sitting at a table near the bar. They seemed oddly familiar though Katherine couldn’t quite place them. They were fairly non-descript and she supposed she could have bumped into them in any number of places back home. Then again they were a fair way from Nottinghamshire and peasants didn’t usually travel far beyond their parish.
“I think he likes me, you know,” said the younger of the two.
“What the one with the wonky eye, or the one with the gammy leg?” The second one had a raspy voice as if she’d enjoyed just a few too many ales in her time.
“You’re just jealous because no one wants to talk to an old and bitter crone like you.”
“Yeah, right. What did they want then, to discuss your latest bardly masterpiece? What is it this time? Please tell me you’re not still pushing that one about the noble lady and the outlaw. I don’t want to get run out of town by the local priest again for your heretical works.”
The discussion stirred a faint thread of memory for Katherine, not least because of the supposed subject matter of the song. She rested her head on her hand, covering her face from the two women, just in case they recognised her.
“No, I’ve decided to save that one until we have a more…cosmopolitan audience. Mind you I couldn’t understand half of what they were saying. What’s a ‘putain’ anyway?”
The raspy voiced one immediately spat her drink all over the table. Katherine herself had to reign in a laugh.
“What is it?” asked the other one of her companion.
“Nothing, there was a fly in my drink.” She wiped her mouth. “Anyway, I think it means something like ‘beautiful woman’.”
The other one eyed her suspiciously. “You’re lying. If you know what it means, it’s got to be something disgusting.”
The raspy-voiced one was saved from having to translate the word by a third woman barrelling up to the table, precariously balancing three mugs of ale which she quickly deposited. She was taller and younger than the other two and seemed excited by something.
“Do you know they have five different sorts of wheat based beer here? I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
Katherine’s attention was drawn away by the bartender’s abrupt words.
“Bonsoir,” she said in return. She put on her best polite accent and flashed him a smile for good measure. “Je voudrais quelques chambers, s’il vous plait.”
He seemed immune to her attempt at charm as his expression veered between a disgusted sneer and indifference. Katherine wondered if her accent marked her out as English. Then again he was French so maybe the surly contempt was just his normal demeanour with everyone. She was glad when the bargaining was done with and she could get back to the table, sitting next to Anne so they could talk quietly amongst themselves while Nicholas regaled an unimpressed Tobias with another one of his colourful tales.
“You know something,” said Anne watching the men, “In a strange way I’ve enjoyed this trip.”
Katherine just stared at her. “Are you insane?”
A tiny smile curved at the corner of Anne’s mouth for a second before she turned to Katherine to continue. “I mean from the point of view that we’ve been able to spend our time together without fear of someone discovering my real identity. What’s going to happen when we get back to Nottinghamshire?”
“I don’t know,” said Katherine honestly, “I’ve not really thought about it.”
“No, I know,” said Anne with resigned understanding, “Of course you wouldn’t, it’s hardly of great importance what with everything else that’s been going on. It’s just something that occurred to me that’s all. Forget I mentioned it.”
“I will not forget you mentioned it. O
“Maybe I want to?”
Anne merely regarded her with a disbelieving expression.
“Your differences to those other nobles are precisely why
you’re so good for
“Maybe just a bit too much,” suggested Katherine, “I’ve let far too many people pull the wool over my eyes recently. I’m just not sure I’m tough enough to run an estate.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, I can’t think of anyone better suited. Maybe you are a bit too trusting and willing to look for the good in everyone, but better that than a hardened cynic. Don’t let the actions of a few twisted individuals put you off.”
“You spotted that Robert was up to no good.”
“Well, I didn’t want to say I told you so…anyway, I am a hardened cynic.”
“Now that lie I can spot. I know you’ve got a soft heart under that tough shell.”
“Shhh, you’ll spoil my reputation.”
“What are you two whispering about?”
The interloper was Nicholas who had obviously given up trying to goad a reaction out of Tobias.
“We’re just having a philosophical discussion,” said Katherine.
Nicholas’ bushy eyebrows knitted together. “Is that some sort of code?” A smile came across his bearded face as he tried to decipher what it might mean. “I bet you were actually talking about…you know…”
Katherine looked innocently back at him. “You know?”
“Don’t come that with me or I won’t be giving you any more of my cough-ee.”
Katherine held up her hands. “All right, all right, you caught us out, we were talking about ‘you know’. Now about that cough-ee…”
As Nicholas proceeded to tell her about his latest enhancements, Katherine could see Anne looking increasingly uncomfortable as more and more people came in from the street and the bar started to fill. She broke off from the banter with Nicholas to lean back over.
“Are you all right?”
“I just don’t like enclosed, busy spaces much.”
Katherine looked doubtfully round the room. “It’s not exactly heaving in here.” She knew Anne really wasn’t one for crowds. She’d grown up in the forest after all, where a crowd was a few squirrels nibbling their nuts. Yet the sparsity of the clientele that evening made her think that wasn’t the only reason for Anne’s unease.
“Do you still need someone to deliver that payment to the boatman?” asked Anne.
“Yes, but Tobias can go, or it can wait until morning,” said Katherine, “It looks like it’s about to tip down outside.”
“We don’t want to lose our passage,” reasoned Anne, “I’ll go now, I could do with some fresh air.”
Katherine was going to object, but she could sense Anne wanted some time alone for one reason or another. Better to let her have it in the reasonably safe surroundings of the foreign port. They could talk later when she got back.
“Are you going to be all right, wandering around in some
strange town after dark.” Katherine
realised the question sounded stupid given who Anne
was, but she couldn’t help herself, not after what had happened back in
Anne pulled her hood up over her head as she stood up, “Don’t worry, I know how to stay in the shadows.”
Anne had barely got to the end of the street before the heavens opened. The rain had been coming for days, it had only been a matter of time. The downpour drummed down on her head, trickling through her quickly soaked hood and down under the collar of her shirt. The quayside track had turned to a muddy quagmire, tugging at her boots as she trudged along. She considered that she would be glad to get out of France, for one reason and another.
There were few other people braving the summer storm, the odd person hurrying past on their way to shelter, head bowed and not giving her a second glance. At least here she was just another traveller, rather than an infamous outlaw. Though she would be happy to get home, she had to wonder what was waiting for her there. For the past fifteen years or so she’d been contented enough with her existence on the fringes of society. Now she was feeling more and more disconnected from that life. Yet she didn’t really fit in anywhere else either. How could she ever really be part of Katherine’s world after all? For a start they couldn’t even admit they knew one another openly, let alone that they were lovers. It had been exciting for a while – the secret known only to them, sneaking around, clandestine meetings – but now Anne wanted more.
That conundrum wasn’t the only thought troubling her that night. Her recent brush with death and Axia’s subsequent revelations had brought her own mortality into focus. In the past she’d not really considered it, taking a cavalier attitude to her life as an outlaw. Yet now she had so much more to lose and she found she feared death, as much evident by the repeated dreams where Kirby appeared and stabbed her again.
Anne was lost deep in her thoughts as she forged on along the harbour. Occasionally a wave would break against the wall and send up a fine salty spray to join the downpour from above. She continued on past several taverns, the French conversations from them echoing out over the dock. It was all unintelligible to Anne, so she was surprised when she caught an English voice among the overriding chatter.
“Please, I don’t have anything…”
“Chien anglais! Ou est ton argent?” 
Anne heard the telltale thump of a fist hitting flesh. Forgetting her own worries for a moment, she sought out the source of the altercation, quickly discovering it was an alley between two ramshackle buildings.
“I swear I don’t…”
There was another sickening crunch as one of the attacker’s feet connected with the Englishman who was already on the ground, surrounded by four other men. Automatically Anne went to draw her sword, before realising she had left it back at the inn. Still she knew she couldn’t stand by – four against one was hardly fair, especially when it was four Frenchmen against one English. With a surge of compatriotism Anne charged for the group.
The attackers were so focussed on their victim they didn’t see her until she barrelled into a couple of them, knocking them into the wall of the alley with her momentum. The remaining two uttered some French curse words and swung for her with chunky fists. Luckily for Anne they appeared to be inebriated and their lunges were clumsy and uncoordinated. She ducked under a flying limb and landed her own blow into a sagging gut. The man collapsed onto the flagstones and proceeded to throw up all over them. Definitely too much to drink, concluded Anne. His companion was dozy enough to slip on the multi-coloured vomit and Anne seized her chance to deliver a resounding upper cut that laid him out cold.
The other two had finally stumbled to their feet and one of them made a grab for her which she side-stepped straight into the other one. He latched onto her top and as she tried to pull away her hood slipped down revealing her blond hair.
“Sacre Bleu! C’est une femme!” 
Anne didn’t need to speak French to understand his surprised look. Fortunately his amazement gave her the opportunity to knee him smartly in the groin, further proving her feminine credentials. Few men would inflict such damage on another, but Anne wasn’t above fighting dirty, not if it meant winning. The last man seemed to sense he was on a hiding to nothing and helped up his moaning friend to stumble off towards the quayside.
Finally Anne was able to turn her attention to her downed countryman. The four Frenchmen had obviously picked on someone weaker than them – the poor man looked like he hadn’t eaten in weeks and his ragged clothes hung from his frame. His hair was matted with blood from a gash on his temple, the rest of it being dark brown like his eyes and overgrown beard. When he spoke she was surprised to find his accent was clear and crisp. Obviously at some point he had mixed with nobility, even if it had just been as a servant or in a similar capacity. “Thank you for your assistance,” he said as he attempted to get up.
Anne stepped in to offer a hand. “No problem, it was hardly a fair fight.”
Now it was his turn to be surprised. “You’re English?” He looked at her more like she was a talking sheep. She wondered how long it had been since he’d been home.
“Guilty as charged,” she confirmed.
“This is a night for surprises,” he said. Now he was on his feet he stood a few inches taller than her. He continued to brush himself down, though Anne thought it was hardly worth it given the state of his clothes. “Saved from a beating by a beautiful young English woman. You certainly know how to handle yourself.”
“I’ve picked up a few things here and there.”
He regarded her for a moment and she noticed the keenness in
his eyes for the first time. He held her
gaze unwaveringly. “A few things,” he
repeated with some amusement, indicating he was well aware it was more than
that. Yet he didn’t press. Any English person who was frequenting dark
Anne felt an odd surge of compassion for the man. Perhaps it was the bond of nationality in the foreign land. “I could buy you one, perhaps something to eat?”
“It’s very kind of you, but…I have somewhere to be.” Anne sensed he was tempted by the regret in his tone. He extended his right hand. “Thank you anyway.” Anne took it and found her hand being gripped by a firm handshake. “Au revoir, as they say here,” he added in parting.
And with that he was gone, disappearing into the shadows of the night. Anne stepped round the pool of vomit and the two unconscious men and started back on her course for the docks.
Katherine climbed the stairs of the inn with Anne’s words from earlier still fresh in her mind. She hadn’t thought much about the future recently, having been so consumed with the pursuit of the Ares weapon and satisfying her father’s legacy. Yet there would be a future, providing they did catch up with and stop Robert. She had to believe that was possible. The alternative didn’t bear contemplating.
What would that future hold? She and Anne had managed to engage in their clandestine relationship so far, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep it secret. Already several people at the manor knew, not to mention the more troublesome prospect of Lord and Lady Chesterfield’s knowledge. How long could they go on as they were, and more importantly, did she actually want to go on that way?
With a deep sigh, Katherine pushed open the door to their
room. She dumped her and Anne’s bags and
went to light the lamp with her candle.
It flickered in the draft from the open window and outside she could see
that the rain had set in for the evening.
Anne would be getting soaked she considered as she went to close the
window. A constant splattering resounded
up from the street below as the rain drops hit the mud. Katherine surveyed the rooftops of
A faint creek from the floorboards gave her scant warning she was not alone. Suddenly something wrapped round her throat, pulling tight. Katherine staggered backwards, crashing into whoever was trying to strangle her. Desperately she tried to get her fingers under the material constricting her airway.
“Ceci est la pénalité pour votre opposition au Syndicate Ares!” 
The rough French voice was right by her ear. Katherine gave a choking gasp, unable to reply and realising she was running out of time. Already she was starting to feel light-headed. Summoning her strength, she put all her effort into shoving her attacker backwards. They stumbled across the room, upending the furniture until they whacked into the wall. Still he held tight. Katherine was starting to feel dizzy, pin pricks stabbing at her eyes.
“Meurt, salope!” 
She could feel his hot breath by her ear again. Suddenly Katherine threw her head forward and then snapped it back. There was a satisfying crack as her skull hit his nose. Immediately he let go and she got the chance to push away from him, taking in grateful gulps of air. She turned to see he was clutching his nose as blood poured from it.
“Vous m’avez casséz le nez!” 
Katherine thought that much was evident. “Excusez-moi, c'était maladroit de ma part,” she said without remorse.  Her eyes darted round the room, landing on the sword amongst Anne’s things. Thank god she had left it behind. Katherine dove for it, snatching it up before the man could react. He attempted to grab for her and she made a warning swipe with the weapon, showing him she knew how to use it in case he thought it a bluff. He took a couple of steps back.
“Vous pouvez dire a vos maîtres, que nous les arrêterons!” she stated.
Not giving up that easily, he darted for her, but she dodged and slashed into his side. He cried out, now clutching that wound rather than his damaged nose. Katherine resolutely held the sword up again. She hoped he gave up soon; she didn’t really want to use deadly force. Despite everything she had still only ever killed one person and that had been self-defence. Even now Will Scarlett haunted her dreams on occasion with his accusing eyes. Thankfully her mettle wasn’t further tested this time. Deciding he’d had enough the man gave her one last sneer as if she wasn’t worth the effort anyway and ran for the window, vaulting out it to plop into the mud below.
Now she was on her own, Katherine realised her hand was shaking where she held the sword out-stretched. Her adrenaline fuelled heart thumped hard in her chest and she had to take a few calming breaths. Would she ever get used to this?
The first thing Anne saw as she pushed open the door to the room was half their belongings scattered over the floor. The second was Katherine, gulping eagerly at a mug of something that Anne didn’t think was Nicholas’ cough-ee. The anxiety of knowing something was amiss flared instantly.
Katherine put the mug down before answering. Anne could see her hand was shaking. “Just a visit from one of our Syndicate friends.”
“What? Are you all right? What happened? Where are they?” Her barrage of questions was accompanied by her dashing to the window as if she could catch the person responsible somehow.
“He ran off after I persuaded him it wasn’t a good idea to threaten me,” said Katherine, “With a little help from your sword.”
“Then I’m glad I left it.” Anne came back to sit on the bed next to Katherine. “Are you sure you’re all right though?” To make her point she took Katherine’s trembling hands.
Katherine tried a reassuring smile as she squeezed Anne’s fingers. “Yes, I’m fine, just a little shaken.” She picked up the mug and took another fortifying gulp of her drink. “No matter how many scrapes we get into, this sort of thing still manages to shock me. You think I’d be used to it by now.”
Anne caught Katherine’s hand before the mug met her lips again. She eased it from her grasp and placed it down on the table.
“Don’t ever become used to it.”
Anne held the other woman’s gaze. Blue eyes fixed on hers. There were no words just a silent exchange of mutual understanding of what they’d been through the last few weeks.
Then suddenly Katherine’s lips were on hers, hot, searching. Anne fell back on the bed as Katherine’s momentum carried them down. She could taste the faint blush of alcohol on Katherine’s lips as they captured her own with searing intensity. At the same time Katherine’s hands were urgently roving over her body, trying to push aside clothes to find skin beneath. Anne felt the corresponding rush through her own body at Katherine’s passion-fuelled actions. Her fingers tangled in Katherine’s hair, pulling her close so Anne could return the kiss with equal fervor. Katherine’s urgency seemed to be infectious, enflaming her own desire. For a moment she was lost to the kiss, caught up in the whirl of passion.
Eventually Katherine seemed to gain some control of her wanton urges and pushed herself up off Anne, her face hovering so close that the tips of her hair brushed against Anne’s cheeks. Her breathing was coming in panting gaps, her words husky between them.
“Don’t ever leave me again.”
Anne had no intention of, and seeing the look of unadulterated lust on Katherine’s face only confirmed as much. “I won’t.”
Katherine’s lips curved up at one corner into the adorable half smile Anne loved so much. Her insides did a tiny flip. When Katherine lowered herself to bring those lips to hers once more her insides started doing cartwheels. It seemed like it had been so long since they had been together like this, a lifetime ago in a way.
A thigh slipped between her legs, pushing, rubbing. Anne found her body automatically responding, her hips gyrating her pelvis against it. Katherine was practically tearing at her clothes now, and Anne barely managed to get her top off before her breast was covered by hot lips. She gasped at the contact, her nipple stiff between Katherine’s teeth.
Anne tugged at Katherine’s own shirt, somehow managing to yank it up over her head. The rest of Katherine’s clothes remained elusive and Anne could only watch as ruffled auburn hair tracked down her body following the trail of Katherine’s lips as they explored the smooth skin of her abdomen. Katherine’s tongue circled her belly button before tickling across her hip in an erotic dance. Still Katherine kept moving lower.
She gripped the cord that tied Anne’s trousers between her teeth and started to tease it open. After the initial rush of passion she seemed to have gained some semblance of dominance over her heated emotions. She was deliberately taking her time now. Anne on the other hand was still in the grip of the initial fire, the ardour flowing through her and willing Katherine to just rip the trousers off and take her. Katherine knew as much too, which was why she was taking such delight in making the young woman wait.
Slowly she undid the cord and then started easing down the black material, stopping every inch or so to kiss the fresh skin that had been exposed. Each time she did Anne let out another gasp. She hoped the French built their inns with thick walls. Eventually when Katherine had reached her knees and was dangling half off the bed, she tugged the trousers the rest of the way off and let them plop on the floor.
Katherine started slowly back up her body, swirling her tongue in small circles up the inside of Anne’s thigh. As she edged closer and closer with agonising slowness, Anne let out a long, plaintive groan. Her fingers tangled in the bed clothes. When Katherine finally flicked her tongue across her clitoris Anne practically ripped them from the bed. She was so close that she had to try and hold it back. She didn’t want it to be over yet. Katherine seemed to sense she was on the verge too and dipped lower instead, her tongue sliding inside Anne. The young woman groaned again as Katherine continued to tease her. She lost track of how long the other woman toyed with her, dipping her tongue in and out, occasionally moving up to give a brief flick over her clitoris but never enough so that she came. She was just always on the edge of the precipice but never quite falling over.
Anne’s hips started to thrust automatically in rhythm with Katherine’s tongue, the young woman becoming desperate to be consumed now. In fact she wasn’t above begging.
“Oh god, Katherine, please…”
Suddenly the tongue was on her clitoris, flicking rapidly across it. Anne’s head tipped back, her back arched and she let out a scream into the French night as the orgasm ripped through her.
For a moment she couldn’t move, all she could do was lay there gazing up at the roof. Her mind was everywhere and nowhere. Slowly her senses returned and with them the urge to return what had been given. She pushed herself up into a sitting position, facing Katherine who had simply been watching her lying there panting the whole time. Katherine was topless, but still had her trousers on, an oversight that Anne was keen on remedying as quickly as possible. Katherine gave her a knowing grin as she saw the way Anne’s eyes were tracking over her body with obvious desire.
“You know you’re lucky no one came to check we weren’t being murdered in our bed with that outburst!”
Anne inched closer across the disarrayed bed. “Well let’s see how quiet you can be.”
To make her point she reached out to caress the soft flesh of Katherine’s exposed breasts. Katherine gasped as her fingers brushed the skin, tentative at first. Her nipples stiffened immediately and Anne moved closer to cup both breasts, brushing her thumbs over the erect flesh. She could feel the heat rising again within her and she had to be careful to keep her movements slow and tantalising. She leaned just that bit closer so her lips were almost touching Katherine’s but not quite. She could see Katherine’s lips parting subconsciously in response to her nearness, inviting her to close the last small distance. Anne deliberately held back, whispering something with quiet authority instead.
“Take your trousers off.”
Katherine swallowed hard and did as instructed, whipping them off and kicking them onto the floor with the rest of the clothes. Now they were both naked, Anne gently teased Katherine’s legs apart, wiggling herself into position in between them so she was sitting opposite the other woman with Katherine’s legs up over her thighs. They sat there for a moment, just studying one another. Anne could feel her heart hammering with such intensity it was almost painful. When she did go to move her hand she found her fingers were trembling and she had to consciously still them before she stroked them over Katherine’s cheek and into the hair behind her ear. Katherine leant into the touch. A small sigh escaped Katherine’s lips and suddenly the fire surged up within Anne and overcame her. She pushed forwards, lips locking onto Katherine’s, her hands roving over the other woman’s back, exploring, urgent.
They quickly found their way down onto Katherine’s thighs and between them. All the time their tongues were tangling, sliping across teeth and lips in a frantic, overwhelming kiss. It was only broken when Anne slipped two fingers inside Katherine. The other woman gasped into her mouth before her head tipped back. Not one to pass up an invite, Anne leant forward to kiss Katherine’s chest. She traced a trail of soft caresses across the smooth skin until she reached a nipple that she drew into her mouth, swirling it round on her tongue. She felt the corresponding tightening against her fingers in response.
Bracing Katherine with her left hand on the other woman’s back, Anne slowly drew the fingers of her right hand out before delving back inside the wetness. She was slow and deliberate at first, feeling every small shudder and tremble from the other woman as she moved her fingers. However, watching Katherine gasping up to the heavens each time she touched a sensitive spot soon became too much to bear. Anne found herself naturally increasing her pace of her movements.
Katherine’s fingers dug into her shoulders, the nails breaking the skin. Anne bit her lip and held on tight with her free hand as Katherine’s whole body stiffened. She held it for the briefest of moments and then suddenly Anne felt the surge of wetness over her fingers and hand. She gasped at the sensation as Katherine collapsed against her, shaking and breathing hard. Anne eased her fingers free and guided them both down into a lying position. Katherine snuggled up close to her, draping an arm lazily across Anne’s stomach. Anne let out a contented sigh as she stared up at the ceiling listening to the sounds of the rain pattering down outside.
“Do you think we could get some room service?” she wondered out loud.
Katherine let out a small laugh. It tickled the skin of Anne’s neck. “Did you speak to that barman downstairs?” asked Katherine though her tone suggested she already knew Anne hadn’t.
“No, but I could try if you like?” replied Anne playfully, “I’ve picked up a couple of words while we’ve been here. Let’s see…” Anne cleared her throat and put on the most exaggerated French accent she could muster as she spoke some random words she’d heard. “Je suis le fletan froid fessee et le ecuriel course.”
Katherine looked doubtful. “You want him to spank you with a cold halibut while stroking a squirrel?”
Anne grimaced. “I guess I need a bit more practice,” she admitted, “Maybe you could teach me?”
Katherine’s mouth was by her ear before she realised. “Je veux te faire l‘amour toute la nuit.” 
Anne shivered with anticipation at the sultry words whispered so softly. Her head fell to the side, seeing the pale blue grey eyes regarding her intently across the pillow. “Yes.”
Katherine smiled. “Do you even know what I just asked?”
“No, but whatever it was – yes!”
For all she knew Katherine could have been asking her to clean out the latrines. It would have sounded sexy either way. As Katherine’s lips met hers she guessed she was lucky it seemed the words were less to do with scrubbing tasks and more to do with sensual ones.
Come the next day Anne wished her senses had left her. In fact she wished she was completely
unconscious rather than have to endure the rough seas of the Channel. Her stomach clenched for the umpteenth time
and she had to put her hand to her mouth, afraid of losing what little food was
left inside it. As soon as she’d seen
the churning sea that morning, she’d known she was in for a painful crossing
“Is it even worth me asking how you’re feeling?”
Anne didn’t dare open her mouth to reply, afraid that words wouldn’t be the only thing passing her lips. She simply looked pathetically at Katherine. The other woman appeared to be about the only person unaffected by the rocking. Anne supposed she shouldn’t be surprised; Katherine did have the constitution of a belligerent ox. The sounds of retching and vomiting echoed round the cramped quarters below deck. It was too much.
Anne quickly clamped her fingers back over her mouth and dashed for the stairs. As she staggered out onto the deck she leant heavily on the side. The sky was grey and a smattering of rain joined with the spray from the sea as the waves crashed against the boat. She had to hold on to the wood as the deck tilted, her boots slipping slightly on the soaked planks. As it tipped back the other way she couldn’t hold back any longer and she vomited spectacularly over the side. As she straightened up she vaguely registered another person approaching through the squall of the storm. She didn’t have time to see who it was before something hard whacked into the side of her head. It catapulted her skull into the side of the boat and she was unconscious before she hit the deck.
Katherine clung to the ropes affixed to the wall as she attempted to climb the stairs to the deck. If anything the storm was getting worse. Sat below decks she had become increasingly worried over the time Anne was taking up top. She would have asked one of the other to come with her if any of them had been in a fit state. Her anxiety flared stronger as she finally took the last step and saw an empty deck stretching out before her. The rain whipped across it, drilling the rain into her eyes. She could barely see as she continued to look frantically around.
“Anne!” she called out into the storm. She peeled the damp hair from her face to get a better look, but there was still no sign of the younger woman or anyone else for that matter. That in itself was strange. Surely there should be some crew up on deck even in the battering storm?
Katherine slipped and slid out across the deck to the side. Could Anne have fallen overboard?
“Looking for someone?”
The voice was behind her, but she didn’t need to turn to know who it was. Given their recent troubles she had come prepared and her hand found its way onto the hilt of the sword at her side. Slowly she turned, having to look up to the raised platform at the stern of the ship to see Charles Kirby’s grinning face. It wasn’t that she was concerned with though. She was far more worried by the sight of Anne standing next to him with her hands bound behind her back and a rope dangling about her neck. The noose was slack for now, but Katherine could see exactly what Kirby’s intentions were as she followed the line of the rope to where it was attached to one of the beams of the mast.
“What do you want, Kirby?” she shouted, trying to buy some time as she moved closer. “You already have the weapon.”
“No, Robert has it,” he corrected, not sounding best pleased by that fact, “He left me behind to make sure you two didn’t follow.”
“Left with the menial task while he goes off to get all the glory?” She couldn’t resist the dig.
“On the contrary, I was quite happy to stay behind if it meant getting to kill you two.”
Katherine realised there was little chance of talking him out of anything and quickened her pace as she edged up the steps to his level. She could only hope he blustered for as long as possible.
“I couldn’t decide who should get to watch who go first though,” he continued, “Luckily your little friend made the decision for me, helpfully stumbling up here on her own.”
“You’re just lucky I was too sick to fight back!” said Anne, still obstinate despite looking pale and drawn.
Kirby ignored her and pulled the noose tighter, looking to Katherine who was only feet away now. “Time to say goodbye!”
With that he gave Anne a shove, sending her flying off the platform. Immediately the rope pulled taut leaving her suspended several feet above the deck as she gagged and gasped for air. Katherine felt her own throat constrict as she watched helplessly. Kirby was laughing as he secured the other end of the rope to a mooring on the side of the boat. Katherine knew her only hope was to undo that rope and let Anne down quickly. It was blind fortune that she hadn’t broken her neck instantly as it was.
Katherine’s sword clattered into Kirby’s as he got it up in
defence. They traded blows a few times
as she desperately tried to get past him to the rope. All the time she could see Anne still
dangling there. Her eyes were starting
to droop, the movement in her legs starting to still. With renewed determination Katherine hacked
at Kirby again. She was fortunate that
the rocking boat and the fact that he was fighting one handed evened up the
odds. His left hand was covered in a
thick bandage, a remnant of where Anne had stabbed him back in
Staggering back a couple of steps with the latest tilt of the boat she reassessed her tactics. Forget the sword, she just needed him out the way. She waited until the boat went up over another crest and as it plunged down the other side she ran with the slope. Kirby was caught off guard as she crashed bodily into him. His feet slipped on the wet planks of the platform and then he tumbled to the deck below. Katherine only just about held back from going over herself, her feet slithering to a halt inches from the edge. Not waiting to see what Kirby was up to, she dashed for the rope, taking a huge swing and bringing her sword down on it. She almost lost her grip as it bounced off the soaked rope, barely making a mark. Another wave crashed over the side, drenching her and the rope further.
Her eyes darted to Anne. She wasn’t moving. Not again! Katherine gripped her sword and battered the rope repeatedly, each blow more fierce than the one before. It was starting to fray at last. In her peripheral vision she could see Kirby was coming up the steps, being tossed from side to side as he staggered towards her gripping his sword. She tightened her hold and swung one last time. There was a twang as the rope finally snapped.
Katherine ducked under Kirby’s impending strike and flung herself off the platform. She rolled up onto her feet and ran for Anne who was now lying slumped on the deck. Katherine’s heart was in her mouth as she knelt down by her side, brushing the sopping hair from the young woman’s face and loosening the rope from her neck. She was almost afraid to touch a finger to the raw, chaffed skin in search of the heartbeat under it. When she did put trembling fingers to the scarily pale flesh she almost cried out in relief. She didn’t have long to thank the lord that Anne was alive as she heard the incoming slap of Kirby’s boots on the wet deck.
Katherine took one last look at the young woman who appeared so vulnerable just lying there. Katherine’s heart clutched in her chest. She held the swell of emotion close, drawing on it and letting her anger at what Kirby had nearly accomplished surge up to fuel it. Standing up she faced her nemesis head on. The wind and rain drove at her but she stood rigid, sword at the ready.
“Looks like I’ll have to do it the old fashioned way then!” he cried as he swung for her.
Katherine met the swipe with a strength belying her smaller stature. The clang of the two swords smashing into one another reverberated right up her arms. At least the unstable deck gave her a chance against the much bigger man. Both of them found it hard to keep their feet as they slipped and slithered across the planks, trading blows.
“I don’t know why you continue to fight, you can’t beat the Syndicate,” shouted Kirby against the howling wind. “It’s hopeless, give up!”
Katherine gripped her sword tight as the rain trickled between her fingers. “It’s never hopeless, not while I have breath in my body to defy you.”
Kirby dodged back a couple of steps. “You know your father said something very similar, right before he died.”
An icy dagger hit Katherine’s heart. She paused, sword hovering defensively before her. “What are you talking about?” She could see he was grinning at having hit a nerve. She hardly wanted to give him the satisfaction of a reaction, but at the same time couldn’t resist asking, just in case there was something to it. “What do you know about my father’s death?”
Kirby laughed, mocking her. Katherine slashed at him but he easily rocked out of the way and carried on taunting her with his laughter.
“Shut up!” Katherine swung wildly again. “Tell me!”
Kirby managed to parry as she attempted another blow. She staggered into him as the boat tipped. Their swords locked together between them. Katherine was close enough to see the individual raindrops tracking over the tattoo on Kirby’s brow.
“You want to know about your father’s death?” His breath was hot over the chilling rain on her face. “I thought everyone knew he died of a common fever?” She could see he was enjoying tormenting her. She fought back the urge to untangle her sword and stick it in his gut, though god knew he was giving her enough provocation. She had to hear him out first.
He leant in closer. “It’s amazing what people will believe if it comes from a reliable source,” he said, “But you want to know what really happened?” The storm seemed far away now, the crashing of the waves a dull thump in the distance as she waited for his words. She held her breath.
Kirby gave one more nasty smile before delivering his statement with what sounded like pride. “Robert killed him…and then I killed your mother.”
Katherine could only stare at him. He was lying, he had to be lying. Yet somehow she knew he wasn’t. The dreadful, mocking expression on his face told her it was only too painfully true. He started to laugh at her incredulity and she felt an odd twisting sensation in her stomach. It gripped at her insides, wrenching and pulling them in a knot of pain.
Kirby was too shocked at her sudden lunge to defend himself. Katherine’s sword pierced the flesh of his right shoulder, driving in hard. Kirby screamed in pain. Katherine was glad to hear it. She pulled her sword back out, seeing the blush of crimson on the blade. She wanted to see more. Kirby desperately tried to defend himself against the enraged woman, staggering backwards under the ferocity of her attempted attacks until he was up against the side of the ship.
Suddenly the boat reared over a huge wave. Katherine was thrown backwards, landing heavily on the deck. Kirby managed to cling to the side, but then the boat lurched back in the other direction. Already off balance, Kirby was catapulted over the edge. Katherine clambered to her feet and stumbled to the side, taking care that she didn’t follow him. As she peered over the edge she was surprised to find Kirby was clinging onto the side of the ship with his one good hand. The waves crashed mercilessly against him and she could see he was starting to lose his grip. His eyes shot up to her.
She hesitated. His eyes held her gaze in a beseeching look.
“…please, help me.”
It would be so easy to just let him go. She didn’t even have to do anything, just watch for a moment. Yet she couldn’t do it. As much as she hated herself, she just couldn’t watch him die. She went to reach for him just as another massive wave hit. It knocked her off her feet as it swamped the deck. She spat the salt water from her mouth and pulled herself back up. Kirby had better thank her for this! Only when she looked over the side she discovered he was gone. Her eyes scanned the churning, murky waters but there was no sign of him. It was too late; he was lost to the sea. Katherine felt an odd mix of regret, remorse and pleasure. She wasn’t sure she should be feeling the last, but she couldn’t help being just that bit glad. Not after all he had put them through. Not after what he claimed to have done. Now he was gone she had no way of determining if he was telling the truth or not. At least not on her own. There was one other person who could confirm what he had said – Robert. It was just one more reason to find him.
The August sun was hot on Anne’s head as it poked its way
through the lush tree cover up above.
She turned her face upwards, basking in the feel of it on her skin
before another leafy shadow fell across her.
It was good to be back home. She could almost feel the familiarity of the
place in her bones as they trotted through
Anne wondered if everyone else was quite as glad, given the
circumstances of their return. Glancing
to her side she could see the faraway look in Katherine’s eyes. The other woman was absently staring off at
the trees that lined the forest track.
It was a look Anne had gotten used to seeing the past week or so and one
that troubled her more and more. Ever
since Kirby had come out with his revelation back on the boat from
That course hadn’t been faring well. They hadn’t been able to pick up the other man’s trail back in England, but knowing he needed Prince John’s crown to link with the one he already possessed they had gone to Windsor, hoping to beat Robert to it. Only they had discovered the Prince was away, visiting the Sheriff of Nottingham of all people. So they had set a course for home and galloped at top speed for seven days, only stopping to eat and sleep. Now they were finally back in their home county, they could only hope they had reached it before Robert.
Throughout the journey Katherine had veered between fierce determination and brooding distraction. The former was driven by her desire to protect Prince John and with him quite possibly the lives of many others. She also had the added incentive of catching up with Robert to discover what he knew about the circumstances of her father’s death. The fresh uncertainty surrounding that was the primary cause of the second of her predominant moods. Though she had never known Katherine back then, nor met her father, Anne knew enough to know that his death had been hard for her. Now to find out he may well have been murdered by someone they had trusted was difficult to bear. In a way Anne hoped Kirby had been lying. Either way Anne would be there for Katherine, just as the other woman had been there for her time and time again. Most recently Anne knew that without Katherine’s intervention on the storm lashed boat, Kirby would have finally succeeded in killing her. As it was he was the one who had met his end, though more by a twist of fate than anything else. Anne felt a small pang of regret she hadn’t been the one to dispatch him. It seemed too easy a death – drowned at sea – after all the pain and heartache he had caused them.
“Whoever it is you’re thinking about should be scared.”
Anne looked to her side to see Beatrice on the horse beside hers. Her first thought was that Beatrice would know a thing or two about scaring people with looks if the ones she’d been shooting Thomas with were anything to go by. For once Anne didn’t speak her mind though, deciding that Beatrice didn’t need to be reminded unduly of her treacherous former sweetheart. It was bad enough that he was still journeying with them. “He can’t be scared, he’s dead,” she said instead.
“Now that’s a way to solve a problem,” noted Beatrice a bit too eagerly for Anne’s liking.
Not that Anne would personally mind if Thomas met a sudden and unexpected end, but she thought Katherine was fond of him considering she had given him a second chance despite his betrayal. It was like he was an errant child that she was determined to rehabilitate.
“Though a bit too quick,” said Anne trying to steer the conversation away from murder.
“Ah, good point, they should suffer…”
Anne could see the malevolent look on young maid’s face as she obviously pondered ways in which to achieve that. Anne tried another tack. “You could say guilt is punishment enough in some cases.”
Beatrice just stared at her. “You don’t believe that! You tried to kill him yourself!”
“In the heat of the moment,” allowed Anne, “But sometimes to be able to forgive is the greater and more rewarding thing.”
“That’s her ladyship talking, not you.”
Anne couldn’t deny it. “Maybe, but she has a point.”
Beatrice gave a dismissive snort. “The only point I’m interested in is the one on the end of a dagger that I might insert in that weasel.”
Anne would have attempted to continue on her dissuasive course, but she noticed Tobias and Katherine had stopped up ahead and were scanning the trees.
“What is it?”
Katherine turned to Anne who had approached from behind. “Tobias thinks someone’s following us.”
At least being followed gave Katherine something to think about other than her father’s fate. She unhooked the bow from her saddle, sighting it along the trees. There was a movement in her peripheral vision and she latched onto it in a shot. She stared at the spot, waiting for further evidence. A branch twitched. Her fingers tensed. A flash of green moved behind the bush. Katherine fingers started to ease off the string just as a hand knocked her bow.
The arrow shot chaotically from the bow. Luckily it sailed harmlessly upwards, burying itself in the leafy canopy. Katherine looked at Anne in bemusement.
“What did you stop me for?”
“How do you…” Katherine didn’t need to finish her sentence, realising exactly how Anne had known. The forest had “told” her. Katherine still didn’t quite understand what that meant, though she was pretty sure it didn’t involve the trees somehow whispering the actual words in her ear.
Further proof came when several figures appeared out of the undergrowth carrying bows and dressed in camouflaged shades of green and brown. Anne immediately leapt off her horse and ran over, giving the man at the head of the group a warm hug. It was the most emotive Katherine had ever seen her apart from when they were alone. Eventually Anne released him and they came towards Katherine who hopped down to meet them.
“Robin,” she greeted with a nod in the outlaw’s direction.
“M’lady,” he said formally in reply. “It is good to see you’ve returned safely to these shores, though I do wonder where it is you’re now heading.”
Katherine thought the question odd considering the road they
were on only had one destination. “We’re
“Are you going to give yourself up?”
Katherine’s brow creased in confusion. “I beg your pardon?”
“To surrender to the Sheriff,” he outlined further. Seeing the continued look of incomprehension on Katherine’s face he carried on. “You’re wanted, for…” Robin paused to glance at one of the other outlaws. “…What was it again?” The man handed him a piece of parchment from which Robin read. “Crimes against the church and King. Quite a price there is too.”
“Let me see that!” Katherine snatched it off him needing to see it for herself to believe it. The Sheriff’s proclamation went on to detail Katherine’s crimes of consorting with outlaws and partaking in heretical activities, finishing up with details of how she would be tried and executed for those crimes.
Anne was looking over her shoulder. “Lord and Lady Chesterfield must have told the Sheriff about us,” she deduced.
“It would appear so,” said Katherine grimly. She looked to Robin. “And
“It’s been seized by the Sheriff,” he replied, “The manor
and all its lands are part of the larger
Katherine rubbed at her pounding temple. “I can’t believe this, not now.”
“In fact I would suggest we get off the road, unless you fancy being arrested by one of the Sheriff’s patrols.”
Katherine conceded the point, allowing Robin to lead them to
a safe encampment not far into the forest.
On the short walk Katherine’s mind raced over what they had learnt. Not that she had time to worry about her
estate, title or reputation. The only
thing that really concerned her was what would be happening to the people of
“Do you always watch that road?” she asked him.
“For the most part.”
“Have you seen another noble come this way in the last few
days? Lord Robert of
“I know who he is,” interrupted Robin with an edge of disdain in his voice. Had everyone known of Robert’s true nature apart from her, wondered Katherine. Robin continued. “He travelled this road yesterday.”
Katherine sucked in a breath, almost afraid to ask the next question. “And Prince John…?”
“Has he been on that road to
Katherine breathed a sigh of relief, at least they still had time.
“But then he most likely wouldn’t come this way if he was
“What way would he go?” asked Katherine.
“He’d take the safer but slower western road. It’s very open, no chances for unexpected ambushes from ne’er-do-wells.”
“So no chance for us to get close to him then,” said Katherine, “Especially not now I’m persona non grata in the noble set.”
Anne interrupted with a suggestion having been listening from close by. “Then our best hope is to get Robert’s crown off him.”
Katherine heard an incredulous snort from behind her,
turning to see it was from Tobias. “Are
we to stroll up to the gates of the castle at
“No, but one person might be able to sneak in,” said Anne, “If the prince is visiting the castle will be busy with preparations, a single person could slip in unnoticed if they’re careful.”
Katherine’s had a bad feeling regarding where this was going. “And who might you be suggesting?”
“I know the castle…”
Katherine immediately held up her hands. “Oh no…”
“But we have to…”
Katherine interrupted her again. “Can I speak with you privately for a moment?”
The look she gave silenced Anne long enough to allow her to lead the young woman off into the trees at the side of the camp. They left behind a few bemused faces, but as Katherine turned to Anne she could hear the others starting up conversation again as if it was perfectly normal that the two women had taken a moment to speak amongst themselves.
“Are you forgetting what happened last time you went sneaking round Nottingham Castle looking for something?” asked Katherine in a hushed voice though it was unlikely the others could hear.
“No, but this is our best option, unless you can come up with anything better?”
Katherine searched for something. “Someone else could go…Robin…one of the other outlaws.”
“Right, because Robin wouldn’t get recognised.”
“And who’s to say you won’t? We’re not in another country now, some people here do know who you are, not least of which is the Sheriff himself.”
Anne didn’t comment, just crossing her arms stubbornly across her chest. Katherine realised she was standing with her hands on her hips in a similarly aggressive manner and forced herself to relax her arms. Instead she reached up to push a strand of hair away from Anne’s left temple, letting her finger caress the scarred skin above her eye.
“I just don’t want you getting hurt again,” she said, her voice much gentler now, “This is supposed to be my task. I know the castle, I could go myself.”
Anne caught Katherine’s hand, stroking her fingers across the back of it. “This is our task. We’ve come this far together and we’re going to finish this together. We both know I’m better qualified for this sort of espionage.”
Katherine sighed and allowed her hand to rest against Anne’s cheek. “Just in case I don’t tell you enough, I love you.”
She felt the muscles of Anne’s jaw moving under her fingers as the smile broke across her face. Katherine found herself staring. One could get lost in such a smile. She felt herself drawn inexplicably forwards until her lips met Anne’s. Before she knew what she was doing she was pushing forwards, Anne stumbling back against the nearest tree. It was a thick oak, just wide enough to hide them from the others. Katherine’s hands found their way onto the young woman’s hips, creeping between the cord of her trousers and her skin.
Anne pulled back in surprise. “Katherine…the others are not far away.”
Katherine smiled wickedly as her hand tracked lower. Anne gasped when it brushed between her legs. “Then you best be quiet.”
Katherine knew it was hardly the time or place, but then
again who knew what might happen. They
had to make every moment count, even if it was a snatched one behind a tree in
the forest. It was too late now anyway, instinct had taken over from rational thought as her
fingers inched lower. Ever since events
Suddenly Katherine found her hand caught by Anne who swung her round so that Katherine’s back was now up against the tree. The young woman slid a thigh between Katherine’s legs, leaning forward to trail her tongue up Katherine’s neck. She paused as she reached Katherine’s ear, hot breath blowing out across the sensitive skin. Katherine shuddered as Anne pressed upwards with her thigh, rubbing against the rough material of Katherine’s trousers.
“I don’t think we want to be taking anything off do we,” whispered Anne, “But I’m sure we won’t let that stop us.”
To prove as much she rubbed her leg up and down slowly. Katherine gasped, the friction of the material causing a frisson of arousal to shoot through her. Anne continued to slowly gyrate against her, Katherine having to bite her lip to stop from giving away the fact that they were no longer discussing tactics out in the woods. Not unless you counted tactics of seduction. Her head fell back in a silent gasp and she found her lips covered in a hot, searching kiss. Katherine’s hands sought out purchase, finding it on Anne’s bottom. Her fingers gripped at the black trousers, pulling Anne hard against her. Katherine’s hips moved in rhythm with Anne’s own thrusts. She could feel the climax coming, surprised at how fast it had overtaken her. It was as if her body knew they didn’t have long. She broke off from Anne’s lips, burying her face in the young woman’s shirt instead as it enveloped her. She let out a muted series of pants against Anne’s chest before a final muffled groan. Katherine left her head where it was, listening to Anne’s heartbeat as she continued to breathe heavily.
Eventually she managed to peel herself away, her hand starting to track round from Anne’s behind. Anne caught it before it got far and brought it up to her lips. She kissed each of the fingers in turn.
“Why don’t you save that for when I get back, it gives me an incentive to return in one piece!”
“I hope you don’t need one,” noted Katherine, “Are you going to go now?” Katherine could feel her heart clutching as she said it. She tried not to display her anxiety openly. She had to trust Anne.
“It’s probably best,” said the other woman, “There will be more people about the castle in the daytime, more people to be lost amongst.”
“Or more people to be spotted by.”
“Let’s hope not.” Anne paused, looking away at the trees for a moment as if searching for the right words to continue.
“What is it?” prompted Katherine wondering what it was that could have the usually forthright young woman tongue-tied.
“If I should encounter Robert when trying to get the crown…” began Anne before leaving the rest of the sentence unformed.
Katherine took a deep breath of understanding. “You’re asking me if you should kill him if he gets in the way?”
Anne didn’t answer, but the way she shied from making eye contact was answer enough. Katherine was surprised Anne had even asked, it wasn’t usually the sort of thing she would consult the older woman on.
“I’m not sure I’m comfortable asking you to do something I wouldn’t be capable of doing myself,” answered Katherine, “It probably seems crazy to you but even after everything, including what Kirby told me, I don’t think I could bring myself to go that far.”
“But you told me you were ready to kill Kirby himself back
in that cell in
“That was different,” Katherine tried to explain, “I thought
I’d lost you, I wasn’t myself and in the heat of the moment I admit I had
murderous thoughts. Who knows if I would
have gone through with it? I mean look
at what happened on the boat back to
“I’m not sure I could be as forgiving as you,” commented Anne.
“I wanted to hurt Kirby, god knows I did. But when it came down to it, it seems like taking that step too far, possibly the first one on a course I won’t be able to turn back from.” Katherine tried to pin down her thoughts that weren’t quite coming out as eloquently as she might have hoped. “Once you’ve taken a conscious decision to kill someone, how do you weigh that decision the next time, and the one after that? Does it become easier and easier to justify it to yourself?”
It was partly a rhetorical question, but Katherine could see Anne was giving it some thought. It occurred to Katherine that her words could sound like she was disapproving of Anne’s actions in the past rather than talking about herself, but before she could correct that oversight the young woman spoke.
“It’s no secret that I’ve killed people in the past, but I’d like to think they were all justified in one way or another.”
“You know I don’t always like it when you use violence to solve things, but I’ve accepted that in the world you came from that’s just how things were. In a strange way I admire your clarity of purpose. If someone hurts someone you love, you hurt them back.”
Anne’s brow creased in incredulity. “Katherine, I don’t expect you to kill someone to prove how much you love me! As you said we grew up in different worlds and I wouldn’t want you to change to become more like the people from mine. I love you for your kindness and compassion. Just because you don’t want to kill everyone that hurts me in some way doesn’t make me think any the less of you.”
“But I do want to kill them!” admitted Katherine. “That’s part of the problem. I just don’t act on those inner desires. I’m scared that if I did, just once, then maybe I would unleash something I wouldn’t be able to cage again. I love you so much and if I start letting that completely rule my actions then I’m afraid of quite what I might be capable of.”
Katherine had never really admitted as much to herself, but as she said the words she knew it was true. It scared her to know her emotions could control her in that way. Before she could become too scathing of herself she felt a touch on her shoulder. She looked up to see Anne’s blue eyes upon her.
“I have faith that you’ll do the right thing, should the need ever arise,” said the younger woman, “In the mean time you can trust me to decide on the best course of action should the circumstances call for it in the castle.”
The words were meant to be reassuring, yet Katherine couldn’t shake off the terrible feeling they were heading straight into the path of danger once more.
Anne strolled along the corridor holding a jug of water and
doing her best to act as if she completely belonged roaming the halls of
As she had suspected the castle was busy with preparations for the Prince’s visit and most people didn’t give her a second look. She made sure to walk with a slight stoop and keep her head bowed, partly to disguise her distinctive height and partly to play the part of the lowly servant accurately. The plain dress she’d selected also added to non-descript nature of her appearance. She made sure not to make eye contact with anyone and even managed a curtsey when another visiting noble came past her. By the time she made it to the second floor her back was starting to ache from the constant hunching.
As she neared Robert’s room, she slowed, wary she might bump into him. Even if no one else recognised her, he was sure to in an instant. She used her slow walk to scout the corridor and rooms as she approached, spotting an empty one a couple of doors down. Seeing the guard out front of Robert’s room she ducked inside the vacant one and pushed the door to enough so she was hidden but could still see him through the gap between frame and door. She waited for some time, just watching to see if anyone came and went but there was no activity from the room. The only movement was the shuffling of the guard from side to side as he became increasingly bored. Either Robert was busy inside or was elsewhere. Anne had no way of knowing which, and didn’t really fancy hanging around much longer to see if Robert came out. She was going to have to take a gamble.
She waited until the guard was looking the other way before she stepped from the room. He heard her coming before she got to him, but that wasn’t a problem, she was only a maid after all, bringing water to guests. He even started to offer her a smile, just before she smacked the jug into the side of his head. He collapsed instantly, Anne managing to catch him and guide him to the floor so as not to make too much noise. She hauled him across the corridor to the empty room before returning to Robert’s door. She listened for a minute for any signs of life but the thick oak yielded no further clues as to the occupancy of the room. Knowing she couldn’t loiter in the corridor long, Anne quickly and quietly jimmied the lock on the door. Pulling a dagger from her boot, she placed a hand on the door latch. Taking a deep breath she eased it up and pushed.
Katherine stared at the
trees as if they would suddenly part and give her a view of
“I’m sure she’ll be fine,” he said, having no need to ask why Katherine was so agitated.
“Let’s hope so,” agreed Katherine. “So what are you making today?” she asked to distract from her anxious thoughts.
“A new drink,” he said, “You can all try it out for me if you like?”
Katherine followed him back over to the bubbling pot. The contents were a dark brown and looked almost solid. She wondered if it was meant to be a drink or a foodstuff. Still, she had been pleasantly surprised by Nicholas’ last offering so she called the other members of their group over. She noted that Beatrice made a point of staying as far away from Thomas as possible, with Tobias, Henry and the friar all between her and the young man. Nicholas handed out full mugs to all those assembled. Once everyone had one Katherine felt the need to stand up and say something before they drank.
“I just wanted to thank all of you for your support on this journey. I know things haven’t always been easy, but the fact that you’ve all stuck with me on this quest means a great deal to me. Just having you with me has given me the strength to continue. Over the past few weeks I’ve come to think of you all as a kind of family. With some good fortune this will all soon be over, but I won’t ever forget what each and every one of you has done for me in these troublesome times. So I guess I just wanted to say…here’s to you all.”
Mugs were chinked together and everyone took a swig of their drinks, some more heartily than others.
"Well?" asked Nicholas expectantly.
Tobias was first to reply. "Interesting," he said evenly his face a mask of impassivity.
"Not bad. Not bad at all," said Henry, perhaps taking note of the look of eager anticipation on his friend’s face.
"What is it exactly?" asked Beatrice, avoiding making any comment on its palatability.
“I call it 'The elixir of endurance',” said Nicholas confidently, “It's loaded with all the nutrients necessary for our group to withstand these stressful conditions.”
Beatrice eyed him suspiciously for a moment. “It’s your cough-ee again isn’t it?”
“Well, yes, yes,”
confessed Nicholas, “But this time, enhanced with exotic spices I picked up in
Beatrice made a face as she looked down at her mug. “It is offensive,” she stated flatly.
Henry laughed, “You’ve been spending too much time with Anne.”
Katherine couldn’t help laughing too, it was just the sort of comment Anne would come out with – no beating around the bush trying to spare Nicholas’ feelings. As she sipped her own drink she wondered how the young woman was getting on.
“I’m going to have to start slapping you if you don’t stop worrying,” came a voice from her side.
Katherine turned to Nicholas, placing a hand on his arm in a friendly gesture. “I meant what I said before, I won’t forget what you’ve all done for me. If I manage to somehow clear my name after this, then I’ll see what I can do about getting you a pardon. Prince John will owe us one if we manage to stop Robert from stealing his crown after all.”
Nicholas’ furry red brows creased together. “Now why would I want one of those?”
“A pardon of all things!” he cried, “I’m an outlaw, I’ve been an outlaw for years. I’m not sure I’d know what to do with myself otherwise.”
Katherine didn’t know quite what to say. “Well, all right then, I’m sure I can find some other way to express my gratitude.”
Nicholas leant in close to whisper. “I find nice big bags of coins never go amiss in those circumstances.”
Katherine’s laugh was cut off by the sound of crashing from the trees.
“Guards!” came a shout from somewhere and then all hell broke loose.
Anne sheathed her dagger, relieved to find Robert’s room was empty for the time being. Unsure how long it would remain that way she wasted no time searching for the crown. She knew he may not have left it behind, though the fact his locked room had a guard suggested he had something to protect. When she got to the sturdy bureau next to the bed she couldn’t believe her luck. Sitting right before her was the Ares crown - he had gone out and left it there! Was he stupid, over-confident or setting a trap? Realising it could be the latter she thought it best not to tarry long. She looked round the room for something to conceal the crown, her eyes stopping on a small leather bag hooked over the back of a chair. She swept the crown into it and started for the door just as she heard female voices from outside.
Her eyes darted round the room looking for somewhere to hide. There were few options. She plumped for the wardrobe in the corner, just getting the door closed as the one to the room opened. Robert’s clothes brushed against her face as she tried to peer through a crack in the wood. She could smell him on them, scrunching her nose up at the odour of male sweat.
Fortunately it was just a maid who had entered and she immediately went over to the bed and started re-arranging the covers. As she went about her work she started to sing to herself, a slow, haunting melody.
“Wrong, would it be wrong to kiss, seeing I feel like this, would it be wrong to try…”
Anne wondered if the young woman had someone in particular in mind as she continued on with her lament. Perhaps a noble who had caught her eye but was out of reach?
“If it is wrong, then why were you sent to me, why am I content to be, with you forever?”
Anne couldn’t seem to get the words out of her head, having to stop herself from actually humming the tune out loud. It was a nice enough song, she supposed, maybe she would sing it for Katherine some time. Finally the maid finished up turning the bed down and left the room.
Anne gave her a couple of minutes, just to make sure she wasn’t coming back and then pushed open the door of the wardrobe. She took a satisfying breath of fresh air, thankful to be out of the confines of the stale closet. Deciding it best to get out of there before anyone else came she grabbed the bag with the crown and darted from the room.
Chaos reigned around Katherine as she ducked and dodged. There were arrows flying through the trees, deadly tips appearing at the last moment from the greenery to impale unsuspecting victims. Not only were there Nottingham guards overrunning the camp, but there also seemed to be more outlaws jumping out of the undergrowth to clash with Robin’s own men. Katherine was losing track of who was who. Suddenly there were some familiar colours beside her – the blue and gold of Thomas’ tabard.
He seemed surprised she was still there. “M’lady, you should get out of here, it’s you they’re after!”
“But Anne, the castle…” she protested, having to dodge a couple of fighting outlaws as they barrelled past. “And the others,” she added, seeing Tobias amongst the warring factions.
“You can’t help Anne or anyone if you get caught,” he said reasonably. “You know Tobias would want you to escape if you had the chance.” He grabbed her hand, trying to lead her away from the melee.
Katherine was reluctant to leave the fight, thinking it somehow cowardly. Then again, she supposed it would make the efforts of the others pointless if she stayed and let herself be captured. Keeping her head low she followed Thomas across the forest battleground to safety. Once it seemed they were past the worst of the fighting they straightened up and started running through the trees. They slapped aside braches and ferns as they barrelled haphazardly onwards. Katherine didn’t risk a backwards glance, concentrating on going forwards. Just when she thought they might have made it, she heard a shout from behind them – they’d been spotted. An arrow came sailing past, then another. The third one didn’t come whizzing past. Instead she heard a dull thump followed by the sound of Thomas tumbling to the ground. Katherine whirled round to see him clutching at the arrow in the back of this leg. He was struggling to get back to his feet. She came back to help him, but he shooed her away.
“Keep going! I’m coming!”
He was on his feet now, looking unsteady but staggering onwards. They cut off at an angle trying to shake their pursuers. Katherine had no idea where they were going for now, she didn’t know this part of the forest. They really needed someone like Anne to guide them, someone who knew the woods like the back of their hand. They would just have to hope they could find their way once they had lost the outlaws. Katherine couldn’t hear any signs of pursuit and she risked stopping for a moment, breathing heavily as she doubled over and rested her hands on her thighs. Thomas limped to a halt too, casting a wary look over his shoulder. Suddenly he tensed.
“What is it?” she asked, scanning the trees.
Thomas flung himself at her and they crashed to the ground. Only that ground wasn’t stable. It gave way beneath them and then they were falling, tumbling chaotically down a steep earthy slope. They crashed through branches and undergrowth that did little to slow their descent. Finally they hit a crop of ferns at the foot of the slope and rolled to a stop in them. Katherine couldn’t move for a moment, the wind knocked out of her. She just lay there on her back, breathing in and out steadily as she gazed up at the flecks on blue sky through the trees above.
When she did manage to sit up her body protested all over, but at least it appeared she hadn’t done herself any serious damage. The same couldn’t be said of Thomas. A second arrow now protruded from the centre of his chest. His breathing was ragged as he lay on his back, just staring at it. The only fortunate thing was that the first arrow had been dislodged in the fall.
Thomas’ head turned to her, his voice weak as he spoke. “You should go, while you can,” he spluttered, “They’ll find a way down that slope in a minute or two. There’s not much point staying here to help me anyway, I’m beyond that.”
“Now that’s enough of that talk,” said Katherine shaking her head, “You’re going to be fine. We’ll get this out and then you’ll see.”
She studied the arrow in his chest. She was no expert, but it looked to her like she could get it back out without too much further damage. Thomas noted her look of uncertainty.
“Have you done this before?”
“I’ve seen it done once…on my own leg.”
He stayed her hand a moment. “In case…in case I don’t make it…”
“Hush now, I told you, you’re going to be fine.”
“But in case…I need to know…will you forgive me?”
Katherine could only stare at him. Here he was possibly facing death for all he knew and foremost on his mind was making peace with her. She could see how much it meant to him, humbled by the devotion she engendered, even if it had wavered in Thomas’ case.
She reached out to stroke the blond hair off his sweaty brow. “Of course I forgive you,” she said sincerely.
He closed his eyes, letting out a long sigh. “It was a stupid mistake…”
“You don’t have to explain now.”
“But I do,” he insisted, “This might be my only chance. I never meant it to go as far as it did. It seemed innocuous at the start, a little money for a little information. I only did it because I wanted to give Beatrice the wedding and home she deserves.”
“But I told you I’d help you with that.”
“I know you did, that’s the bitter irony of it! When you made that offer to me in the stables I could have cried. I only wish I had waited, but it was too late by then.”
Katherine couldn’t help laughing at the cruel irony.
“At the time I thought you were nervous about the prospect of getting married, but it seems it was something else entirely.”
“I’m so sorry, if I’d known where it would lead I would never have started it.”
“That’s how they suck people in,” she noted, “Bit by bit until you’re not sure what’s wrong and what’s right. Believe it or not Robert did used to be a good man once, I still believe that…I have to believe that, but he got in with the Syndicate and they slowly eroded his humanity. Just think yourself lucky you got out in time, while there’s still a chance for redemption.”
“I won’t let you down again,” he insisted.
“I know you won’t,” she said sincerely before turning her attention back to the matter in hand. “This might hurt a bit.”
He grimaced, knowing as well as she did that she was deliberately underestimating the level of pain. Katherine knew it was best to be as quick as possible and get it over with. She took the stem of the arrow and yanked. There was a muffled cry from Thomas, but he clamped his teeth together hard to stop from making too loud a noise and alerting their pursuers. Katherine ripped the cloth of his tabard, using it to staunch the flow of blood from his chest.
“You need to hold this tight on here for now,” she directed him.
“Are you going somewhere?” he asked in confusion.
“We can’t outrun them, even if you weren’t injured, and if we sit here they’re going to find us sooner or later. So I’m going to distract them, lead them away from here.”
“But you’ll get caught.”
“Most likely, but I’ll get caught anyway if I wait. At least this way you might not get caught - once they have me they probably won’t bother looking for you. Which is why I’m trusting you to go and get help.”
Thomas looked surprised. “You’re going to trust me?”
“Yes I am,” confirmed Katherine, “Get to
Thomas tried to move, wincing as he shifted his leg. “I can’t let you do this.”
“I don’t think you have a choice, Thomas,” said Katherine, pushing him back down gently. “You just concentrate on finding help.” She gave his hand one last reassuring pat before she rose and left him.
Katherine crept through the ferns, stopping at edge of the thicket. Her bones still ached from the tumble down the earthen bank, but there was no time to be licking her wounds now. Far too many people had sacrificed too much for her to be put off by a bit of discomfort. She took once last verifying look and then burst from cover, running at full pelt through the open trees. As she feared she heard shouts behind her. The outlaws had obviously made it to the bottom of the slope. At least their attention would be on her, giving Thomas a chance.
She zig-zagged through the trees as the sounds of the outlaws crashing through the forest followed on close behind. They were getting closer, she could feel it. Katherine strained to get the last bit of effort from her battered legs. Suddenly an obstacle reared up in front of her. She couldn’t stop, she couldn’t dodge, all she could do was crash right into it. She bounced off, only being stopped from falling to the ground by a meaty hand which gripped her wrist. Katherine followed the arm up to a bearded face, topped off with a shaggy mop of brown hair. A smile was on his lips but malice was in his eyes. Katherine recognised the look for she had met the outlaw before, much to her regret.
“Barton,” she said with the last of her defiance, “I might have known scum like you would be in on this.”
“It’s a pleasure to see you too, m’lady.” He said the title with obvious disdain. He tightened his hold on her arm just enough so that it was painful. She refused to cry out or show it hurt in any way, knowing the sadistic man would like nothing more. “You know I still owe you for wrecking that game of mine,” he continued, “But it seems someone who pays well wants you alive for now. After that though…” He left the threat dangling as more men approached through the trees.
Barton wrenched Katherine round to face them and her heart sank even further as she saw who was amongst the group. Robert offered her one of his formerly charming grins as he reached them, obviously satisfied with himself at having located her. Kirby’s words burned in Katherine’s mind and she had to glance away, unable to look him in the eye. Fortunately Robert addressed Barton instead.
“Where’s the other one?” he demanded.
“Other one?” repeated Barton stupidly.
“The tall blond woman!”
Robert was starting to sound agitated and Katherine could see him searching the trees. She remained quiet as Barton answered.
“Ah, you mean Seven,” he said, referring to Anne’s outlaw name. He gave a shrug. “I didn’t see her in the camp.”
Robert looked uncertain for a moment before realisation hit. “She’s already in the castle!”
Anne snuck along the wall of the keep, surprised at how easy it was proving to escape. It was as if half the castle guards were missing. She wasn’t about to get over confident though. She needed to destroy the crown. That way even if she did get caught it would be too late for Robert and his Syndicate. Knowing she wouldn’t be able to simply smash it with a sword she had come down to the courtyard in search of the blacksmith’s workshop, next to the stables.
She could feel the heat from the furnace as soon as she stepped round the door to the small shack. Fortunately the smithy appeared to be absent and she could approach it unimpeded. Anne took the crown out of her shoulder bag. It looked so innocuous. What power could it really offer? The orange glow from the fire flickered off the metal as she approached. One throw and it would all be over. Yet as she went to launch it she found herself inexplicably pausing. She stared down at the object in her hand, her own eyes reflected back at her in its shiny surface. Out of nowhere she had the strongest urge to put it on. What would it hurt? Just to see if it fit. She almost had it on her head when a sound at the door brought her back to her senses.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
Anne’s eyes shot to Robert at the entrance of the stables. She held out the crown, closer to the fire. “Stay where you are.” She could feel the heat scalding her knuckles.
There was a scuffling sound from outside and suddenly Katherine appeared, her hands tied behind her back as she was thrust towards Robert. He grabbed her and produced a dagger. “Give me the crown or she dies.”
“Just throw it in!” shouted Katherine.
Robert jabbed the dagger into her side. “Don’t think I won’t do it! Give me the crown!”
Anne’s hand trembled. It would be so easy to just release it, drop it into the raging inferno. Could she do that and make it to Katherine in time? Would Robert really make good on his threat? She looked to Katherine. The determined blue-grey eyes captured hers immediately. Anne could tell Katherine wanted her to take the chance, that she would be willing to sacrifice herself if it meant the weapon was destroyed. Anne, on the other hand, wasn’t prepared to make that trade. She pulled her hand back from the fire and flung the crown towards Robert instead. It plopped down in the mud at his feet.
Robert smiled as he bent to pick it up. “A wise choice, though little good it will do you when you’re both swinging from the hangman’s noose tomorrow!”
Katherine poked at the food on her plate not feeling in the slightest bit hungry. Still it was preferable to look at it than the person sitting opposite her. She could hear him eating, chewing happily on the meat as if this was some normal dinner he had invited her too. She’d even had to dress the part after some heated and forced debate involving a couple of maids and three guards.
“Is the venison not to your liking?”
Just the sound of his voice made her stomach turn. She just couldn’t get Kirby’s words out of her mind. Had Robert really killed her father? Katherine forced her eyes up to meet those of the man she had once known so well and who was now a twisted, shadow of that person.
“The meat is fine; it’s the company I object to.”
Robert stared back at her for a moment from his seat at the other end of a table that could have sat another ten or so. Katherine was glad of the distance. The room itself was one of the dining rooms at the castle, not the main hall but impressive nonetheless. She could see a few expensive tapestries hanging from the walls, and the candlesticks appeared to be pure gold. The Sheriff did like to show off. The fire was lit despite it being August and the atmosphere in the room was bordering on stifling. She wasn’t sure if Robert was deliberately trying to make her feel uncomfortable.
After brief consideration of her remark, Robert didn’t rise to the bait, keeping his tone even in reply. “You can always commune with the rats in the dungeon if you’d rather.”
“I think that would be preferable,” she said honestly.
“Or is it your special friend that you’d rather be communing with?” Katherine tried hard not to react. She kept her mouth firmly shut. Robert pressed on, searching out any sign of weakness. “Don’t worry, I’m sure the Sheriff will be taking good care of her. He probably won’t damage her too much; we need her in one piece for your trial tomorrow after all.”
Katherine didn’t care about any trial she might face, knowing it wouldn’t be a fair one anyway. She was already convicted in the eyes of what law there was. She was far more concerned about what might be happening in the bowels of the castle, several floors below where they now sat. She didn’t even want to contemplate what the Sheriff might be doing to Anne. He had been far from pleased that the young woman had effected escape last time they had been at the castle over a year ago.
“I could speak to him…” began Robert, breaking her thoughts as if he had been reading them. He had risen from his seat while she had been worrying and was now perched on the stout table next to her. “The Sheriff and I are old friends, after all, I’m sure I could get him to be…lenient with her.”
Katherine remained silent. The offer was hardly likely to be genuine.
Robert tried to tempt her some more. “I could ask him to be lenient with all your cohorts that we captured – your captain, your maid, the friar.”
Katherine noticed he hadn’t mentioned Robin or any of the outlaws. Had they escaped? Had they been killed? He was waiting for her, the beginnings of a leer evident on his face. Katherine felt compelled to speak though she was sure she knew the answer to her question. “And what exactly would you want in return?”
The way his eyes roved over her body left little doubt what kind of thing he had in mind. It was just another example of how he had changed, becoming erratic in his moods. One minute he was trying to kill her, the next he wanted to seduce her. She supposed he could well be just a little bit crazy.
“That’s a beautiful pendant,” he remarked. Katherine saw he was looking straight at her chest, his fingers quickly following his eyes under the pre-text of touching the rose quartz.
She flinched as his fingers brushed the exposed skin at the top of her bosom. An unwelcome image of a time long ago when he had touched her like that reared unbidden to the fore of the mind. She felt angry with herself for ever having let him, but most of all she felt angry with him for having deceived her about so much.
“We would counterpoint each other beautifully you know.”
Katherine couldn’t help laughing. “What? My sanity contrasting your madness?”
His hand stilled. “Kirby said something didn’t he?”
Katherine was shocked by the sudden switch in topic. “About what?”
Robert completely withdrew his hand, waiting until she looked up at him before he said anything. “What happened to dear old Charles anyway? Obviously he didn’t manage to carry out my instructions very well since you’re here.”
“He’s dead,” stated Katherine baldly, seeing if she could unsettle him in return.
However, if anything he looked vaguely amused. “And who killed him?” he asked “Surely not you? It must have been your outlaw friend; she strikes me as the unforgiving type.”
“He was lost at sea.”
“Ah, I see,” noted Robert, “But you wished you had killed him?”
Katherine didn’t say anything in reply, unwilling to be receptive to his psychological probing. Her silence only seemed to amuse Robert further. He made a small chuckle before he spoke. “I can tell you did, but I don’t think you really have it in you do you? Cold bloodied murder? That’s not what fine, upstanding nobles do now is it?”
“I’m guessing you’re not a fine, upstanding noble then?”
Robert laughed. “What has Charles been saying?”
It was obviously some sort of game to Robert, to keep her dangling and not address what they both knew she was talking about. She wasn’t in the mood for games. “He told me you killed my father.”
His expression remained placid. “And you don’t know whether to believe it,” he deduced.
He paused, gauging her reaction. She had none yet. She was waiting for more, dreading more.
“Still hoping that perhaps I’m too noble to have done something so awful?” he said.
Again Katherine didn’t speak. Her mouth was dry now and she wasn’t sure she could anyway. Robert stared down at her for what seemed like an eternity. She held his gaze, trying to read what lay behind the green eyes.
“It’s true,” he stated simply.
Katherine knew it was. In her heart and soul she had known it had been true as soon as Kirby had first said it. All she could say in response was one word. “Why?”
The corners of his lips curved into a smile. Katherine wanted to wipe it off his face, preferably with a sharp blade.
“I suppose you may as well know the full story.” Robert sat down in the chair next to her, pulling over his mug of ale as if he was engaged in a friendly chat in a tavern. Katherine kept her hands clasped together tightly in her lap under the table as he started with his tale.
“Sometime in the early 1170s your father uncovered details of the existence of a great weapon that had once been used by the Ares Syndicate. They had been forced to hide this weapon during times of hardship and over time knowledge of it had fallen into the stuff of myth and lore. Your father always was the inquisitive sort though, something I fear you inherited, and he found some sketchy details on it in an old text he was studying. He wasn’t even sure it was real either and unfortunately it seemed they had made discovering its whereabouts more difficult then they might have intended.”
Katherine wished they had made it a good deal harder and then they might not have been where they were now. Robert carried on.
“Unbeknownst to those in the Syndicate your father was already becoming disillusioned with them, possibly the responsibilities of fatherhood and family had finally taken their toll on him. Whatever the reason he decided to keep knowledge of the weapon a secret from the rest of the Syndicate. Instead he located a couple of the objects himself with the intention of finding the weapon and destroying it.”
Katherine already knew this from her father’s first
letter. What she didn’t know was how
come Robert knew these things. Had her
father told him? Was it in the second
letter that she had yet to see, apart from a brief glimpse when Robert had
waved it at her in
“Unfortunately for him, but luckily for me, he was unable to decipher the inscriptions on the objects. Therefore, he hid them instead and wrote a letter to you detailing where they were and giving clues he had uncovered as to the whereabouts of the remaining three. The letter was supposed to be delivered to you upon his death. Only that came a little bit sooner than he might have been expecting.”
Robert had the audacity to smile at her at that point. She said nothing, waiting for more that he seemed only too glad to tell her.
“Of course I wasn’t even in the Syndicate at the time any of this was occurring, I was inducted shortly after, in 1177.”
Katherine did a quick mental calculation, realising that Robert hadn’t been in the Syndicate when they had been involved. It was scant consolation.
“I rose quickly through the ranks. I suppose I wanted to prove that no matter where I’d come from in the beginning I was just as good as them. Your father obviously saw something in me too since he made me captain of his guard at Stratford, or maybe he just wanted to keep me close to keep an eye on me, maybe he already understood the threat to his position.”
Katherine could just picture Robert plotting behind her father’s back. Had he thought Robert a loyal servant or had he suspected the then young man’s ambitions? She would never know.
“Then nine years ago now, back in 1183, I uncovered something very interesting. I found your father’s original writings on his investigations into the Ares weapon. He’d kept them, seemingly unable to just throw them away. I questioned him about it, tried to persuade him of the sense of continuing with the quest but he wasn’t interested. If only he’d simply listened to me in the first place.”
“But since he wouldn’t listen to reason I enlisted Charles Kirby’s help and we tried to make him listen to force. We didn’t intend to hurt your mother as well, that was an unfortunate turn of events.”
Katherine couldn’t quite believe the bland way he described it. Unfortunate was forgetting to bring your cloak out on a ride on a cold spring morning and the heaven’s then opening. Unfortunate didn’t begin to describe killing someone. Robert was in full flow, though, unaware of Katherine’s unease or just ignoring it.
“She walked in on our ‘conversation’ with your father,” he said, “As Charles grabbed her Edward flew into a rage. We fought. I won. Your mother was still screaming over his dead body when Charles slit her throat.”
Katherine felt sick. Her parents had been murdered by people they thought were friends. What was worse was that he showed absolutely no remorse for his actions.
“It wasn’t hard covering up their deaths as natural – I was the captain of the guard and soon to be lord of the manor in the absence of a male heir, people saw what I told them too see. You and everyone else were easily fobbed off with an excuse of winter fever. Why would I lie after all?”
Katherine shook her head. How had she not seen through him at the time? Why had she not been there in the first place?
“Unfortunately I was no nearer finding the Ares weapon,” added Robert, “And now my one potential source of information was gone. I had to give up my plans for the time being. I was busy with the new manor anyway, as well as being appointed to the role of Arbiter of the Syndicate, so it didn’t seem quite so important. I had almost forgotten about the weapon when eight years later in December last year I found this.”
He produced the second letter from her father from his pocket. “It seemed Edward thought that perhaps the first one was too cryptic. He decided to write you a second, clearer one with added explanation. Only it’s unfinished, he must have been in the process of writing it when I killed him. That’s irony for you! If I hadn’t killed him he might have led me right to the weapon.”
“Still, it contained enough detail for me to determine the location of the first object – the goblet in your sister’s possession. I sent Coleville to recover the goblet, hoping it may give us further clues to the other items. What I didn’t count on was him being unmasked as a thief by you.”
“And of course most of the rest you know. We let you find the remaining objects for us with our helpful spy keeping us apprised of your progress. Now I stand on the verge of accomplishing something no other Arbiter has managed for hundreds of years. I will be a legend.”
He sounded so proud of himself. Katherine desperately sought for a way to pierce the grandiose bluster. She had to try and reach the man he once was. “It’s not too late Robert,” she tried, “You can still stop this. You don’t have to complete the crown. You don’t have to use the weapon.”
He made a derogatory snort. “And what then? You would forgive me for all I’ve done would you?”
Katherine swallowed hard. He hadn’t even asked what would become of him if he didn’t go through with the Syndicate’s plans, all he wanted to know was where he would stand in her eyes. She had to make this convincing even if she wasn’t sure she meant it. She reached out to touch his hand. “In time maybe.”
He held her gaze. Katherine could feel her heart hammering in her chest. Everything hinged on this moment. There was something there in his eyes, something searching for redemption. It flared briefly then was gone.
“No,” he said whipping his hand away and standing up, “I will get the Prince’s crown and combine it with mine even if I have to pull it from his dead body. Then everyone will see just how powerful I can be, no one will ever look down on me again!”
Katherine got to her feet too, fearing her chance was lost, if ever there had been one. Robert was by the fire, the second letter in his hands. “Your father was a fool for not seeking out the crown himself and you are a fool for following his instructions and trying to destroy it.”
Katherine edged closer. She didn’t want to lose the unread letter. She had few enough personal items of her father’s as it was.
“He begged me to spare you,” said Robert, taunting her, “When he was on his knees before me, grovelling like a coward.”
Katherine wished she could somehow shut her ears to keep from hearing his evil words.
“It was pathetic,” he sneered, “He didn’t deserve to be the Arbiter.”
“At least my father made an attempt to stand up to the Syndicate in the end,” retorted Katherine, “At least he wasn’t the nodding lapdog that you are!” She had given up trying to reason with him so supposed she might as well vent her full anger. “To think I once thought I loved you! That was when I was a fool. Now I can see that you’re simply a selfish, uncaring brute. You’re the one that’s pathetic!”
Robert didn’t say anything. Instead he simply held out his hand over the hearth and released the letter. It fluttered in the updraft from the fire briefly before sinking with aching slowness.
“No!” Katherine made a frantic grab for it but it was in the flames already. It was starting to disintegrate before her eyes, the spidery writing lost forever as scorched flecks spiralled upwards.
Robert was laughing behind her. She swivelled round, anger, pain and a hundred other dark emotions pounding in her heart. Her eyes darted to the table and the remnants of the dinner. Without really thinking she made a grab for the knife he had used on the tough meat. Let him laugh with that stuck in his neck. She lunged for him, but he was too quick. His hands came up to catch hers, tightening painfully round her wrist.
“What are you going to do, stab me with the carving knife? That’s hardly a way to repay my hospitality.”
Katherine fought to free herself but it was hopeless, he was far too strong.
“You wouldn’t do it anyway. I know you, and this…” He gave one last twist making her drop the knife, “…this isn’t in you.”
She stared balefully back at him, half afraid he was right.
“I think this meal is over,” he continued, escorting her to the door where a guard was waiting. “Enjoy your last night,” he added as she was being led away, “Because tomorrow the prince will be here to officiate at your trial and unwittingly deliver untold power to me.”
TO BE CONTINUED (AND CONCLUDED!) IN…
Lady Katherine and The Ares Weapon
 English dog! Where is your money?
 Blimey! It’s a woman!
 This is the penalty for opposing the Ares Syndicate!
 Die, bitch!
 You’ve broken my nose!
 Excuse me, that was a bit clumsy of me.
 You can tell you masters that we will stop them!
 I want to make love all night long.