The Lady Katherine Chronicles 21
Lady Katherine and The Deadly Dispute
Written August 2009
Codes: uber J/7
Setting: March 1193,
Disclaimer: 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. P.s. no claims on historic accuracy are made!
The sound of thumping
hooves drummed behind
Scrabbling round one
of the huts, she dove over the fence into the animal pen. She crawled through the stodgy mud and burrowed
into a pile of straw in the corner. It tickled her nose and she had to pinch it
to save herself from sneezing and giving away her location. From her concealed
spot she saw one of the men on horseback cornering her neighbour, Roger, who had
fallen trying to escape. The knight dismounted and drew his sword.
“You can’t do this!”
Roger cried defiantly. “Eaton is on the
The knight simply
laughed as he pulled off his helmet so he could look down on his quarry. Even
from a distance, his cold grey eyes sent shivers through
“And is your precious Lady Katherine going to save you now?” asked the knight.
Before Roger could
answer, the blade of the knight’s sword flashed in the morning light as it swung
down on the defenceless man.
“So much for Lady Katherine; Eaton belongs to Retford now.”
The morning sun streamed over the walls of Markham Manor, lighting up the track that led to its gates. The young man walking down it stopped for a moment and took a deep, satisfied breath. This was what John had worked towards for the first sixteen years of his life. All those long days spent carrying out his duties in the fields while dreaming of another life had finally come to an end. He was going to fulfil his true destiny; he was going to be a knight.
A strong hand clapped him on the shoulder. “Are you going to stand there all day staring, or are we heading down there?”
John turned to his companion. He’d known William since they were boys, William’s village being the closest one to his own out on the eastern fringes of the estate. “You have no sense of the epic, you know that?” John informed him.
William’s face scrunched up in confusion. “What? Has someone been reading you poetry?” His eyes looked down the track to their destination. “It’s Markham Manor on a cold, damp March morning. Yes, very epic that is.”
John couldn’t disagree with the general assessment, but he hadn’t spent years dreaming of this to let a few superficial details spoil it. “Can’t you feel that sense of destiny, though, that we’re leaving our old mundane lives behind to embark on a wonderful new adventure?”
“I can feel the whipping I’m going to get from the captain of the guard if we’re late, is what I can feel.”
Again John couldn’t dispute the point. He certainly didn’t want to anger Captain Tobias on their first day. “All right, come on then.”
John gripped the sword in his hand tighter and started off down the track. His family had scrimped and saved for months to get it for him and it was his most treasured possession. He could remember the first time he’d seen a knight galloping through his village, how in awe he’d been of his grand presence. The others in the village had laughed at his fancy ideas to begin with, reminding him that only the best got invited to train as squires and then possibly knights. He hadn’t let them deter him; he would be the greatest knight Nottinghamshire had ever seen. Men would admire his prowess with a sword, women would fall at his feet, small children would…
John’s grandiose daydreams were cut short by him barrelling into someone crossing his path. He stumbled, dropping his sword into the mud. Annoyed, he rounded on the person who’d dared to obstruct him. The first thing he noticed was the woman’s startling blue eyes. Beyond that she was surprisingly attractive for a peasant, with long blond hair and well-defined high cheekbones. Looking past her outward beauty, however, the way she dared to stare at him made him even angrier.
“Stupid peasant!” he exclaimed. “Watch where you’re going!”
“John…” attempted William at his side.
“Be quiet!” snapped John as he held up a hand. “I’m teaching this stupid woman a lesson.” He focussed on her and spoke in his sternest knightly voice. “Pick that up!” He pointed to the sword in the dirt.
She appeared unfazed by his attempt at authority and continued to stare back at him. “Are you incapable of picking it up yourself?”
“I’m a squire here!” he blustered even though it wasn’t quite true yet. “I could have you flogged for such insubordination.”
“Shut up! I can deal with this,” he told William again, before fixing his best stare on the woman. “Well, are you going to pick it up, or do I have report your lack of respect to the captain of the guard or even her ladyship?”
The woman paused, a faint smile crossing her lips. “Now, I wouldn’t want that,” she eventually agreed and bent down to retrieve the weapon.
However, as she handed it back to him, he could swear her smile was mocking him. He had a good mind to give her a sound thrashing for her cheekiness. Only their pressing appointment and his lack of official standing yet prevented him. Instead he snatched the sword from her. “Now get back to your work, peasant!”
She simply gave a slight nod of the head and carried on down the track ahead of them. John straightened himself up and puffed out his chest. He could tell he was going to enjoy this newfound power. Next to him, William just smiled and shook his head. “If you’re done, our training awaits, your lordship.”
Ever more eager to get
started on that, John hurried on down the rest of the way to the gates to the
manor house. He’d never been to
They carried on round the side of the house and joined the back of the group waiting in front of the guards’ barracks. As a figure stepped from the building, an immediate hush descended on those assembled. John peered through the heads to get a look at the commanding man who had induced quiet by his mere presence. The captain of the guard, Tobias, was an imposing man, confident and deadly serious. John listened closely as Tobias outlined their training. It sounded like hard work, but John was ready for the challenge. Tobias moved on to introducing some of the other guards and knights who would be instructing them, each with their own speciality. Finally he came onto archery, calling out the instructor for that discipline, someone by the name of Anne.
John knew he was
staring, his mouth open, but he couldn’t quite engage his mind to close it in
his stunned state. There before him was the peasant woman they’d encountered
outside the manor earlier. Only it appeared she wasn’t a peasant woman at all;
she was part of the guard. She was dressed differently now. Gone were the plain
peasant’s clothes. Instead she wore a typical guard’s non-battle uniform -
stout boots, thick trousers, leather tunic, gloves and of course most
importantly the colours of
“You have to be joking!” he exclaimed out loud. “She’s a bloody woman! What could she possibly teach us?”
Around him he could hear the collective sucking in of breath. If he’d had any sense he would have realised his course was not the wisest, yet he couldn’t see past his righteous indignation. He’d spent years striving towards this and now some stupid woman was supposed to teach them? It was ridiculous. He couldn’t understand why no one else saw as much.
Anne’s blue eyes swung to him. “You do not think you need training?”
John had a good mind not to answer, not to demean himself by speaking with her, but his anger won out. “Not from you! Why don’t you do back to the kitchens where you belong?”
“You believe you are better than me by virtue of your gender?”
John cast his eyes around wondering why no one else was backing him up. Not to be deterred he answered anyway. “Yes, everyone knows women can’t fight.”
“Then you should be able to best me easily,” she commented, stepping down from the raised platform at the front of the barracks into the circle of young men. They obligingly parted leaving her facing John. “Well, what are you waiting for, come at me.”
John looked uncertainly around. “I can’t attack a woman!”
“That didn’t seem to stop you on the road earlier,” she remarked. “Draw your sword and come at me.” She folded her arms across her chest. “Unless you don’t know how to use it.”
John bristled. “Of course I do!” He slid the blade from its scabbard, holding it out before him. Anne just stood there, arms still crossed.
She raised her eyebrows a small scar above the left one crinkling up. “Are you waiting for something? Your mother to come hold your hand perhaps?”
Having had enough of her taunts, he charged. She stood her ground until the last moment before swiftly side-stepping. John stumbled past her, surprised at her speed. However, he wasn’t about to give up that easily. He swung round and slashed at her this time. She swayed backwards out of range, still not drawing her own weapon. John became more irritated by the second as he tried a couple more times to strike her, each one swishing through fresh air. On his last lunge she caught his arm, twisting the sword from his grip before she swept her leg out to take his from beneath him. He landed on his back with a resounding thump, finding his own sword pointing at his throat.
“A good knight never underestimates an opponent,” Anne informed him, “whoever they might be.”
Her point made, Anne withdrew the sword and offered a hand instead. John reluctantly took it, embarrassment burning in his cheeks. He silently took his sword from her and sidled back into the group of squires. It seemed the introductions were over, and Tobias assigned them their tasks for the day. As the group broke up, John sought out William.
“You bastard, you knew who she was, didn’t you?” hissed John, careful to keep his voice down since Anne was still close by, talking with Tobias.
“Of course,” replied William, “I can’t believe you didn’t! Don’t you ever get any news out there in Rampton?
“Only if it’s about wheat, chickens or taxes.”
“Even so, I thought
you would have heard about what happened at
John just looked blankly at his friend. Even if any such news had reached them, he probably wouldn’t have paid much heed unless it related to knightly or guarding matters.
“Bloody country bumpkins!” said William, rolling his eyes. “Anne and Lady Katherine foiled a plot against Prince John and saved the king’s life too by all accounts. King Richard gave Anne a royal pardon in thanks.”
“A pardon? For what?”
“She used to be an outlaw,” outlined William, “Seven was her nickname.”
John stared agog. “Seven?
William laughed. “It appears not.”
“Exactly, so you best not piss her off.”
John supposed he should be grateful she hadn’t slit his throat with his own sword. From what he’d heard the outlaws were a ruthless bunch.
William continued on. “I would have thought the little demonstration a minute ago would have shown you Anne’s more than capable. The training here’s second to none. You’ll have no complaints.”
“That still doesn’t explain what she’s actually doing here as a part of the guard and teaching us,” said John.
“Not just part of the guard,” corrected William, “she’s Lady Katherine’s special private guard.”
“But, but…she’s a woman! She can’t be in the guard!”
“Do you want to tell her that?” asked William. “Or more to the point do you want to tell Lady Katherine that? You don’t want to get in the lady of the manor’s bad books by bad mouthing her favourite. Talking of which…”
William trailed off, staring at something over John’s shoulder. He spun round to see Anne was over by the house, talking with quite possibly the most captivating woman John had ever seen.
“Is that her ladyship?” he asked in wonder, forgetting all about his issues with Anne for a moment.
“Yes, that’s Lady Katherine.”
John could only stare in wonder. He’d heard of Lady Katherine of course, everyone on the estate knew of her and how she took care of them, but he’d never been fortunate enough to see her before now. As it was he’d never seen someone with such an entrancing aura. She was petite, a good few inches shorter than the woman she was talking to, but there was something about her that exuded nobility and presence. And she was beautiful. He wasn’t quite sure what he had been expecting, some old crusty woman perhaps, but the reality of the noblewoman was much more pleasant. Warm blue-grey eyes were framed by auburn hair that hung loose about her face in a daringly short cut for a woman. Every now and then she smiled at something Anne said to her and her whole face lit up.
Out of the corner of her eye, Katherine spotted the two young men staring at them. Realising that once again she’d moved far too close into Anne’s personal space, she forced herself to take a step back to a more proper distance. She just couldn’t seem to help herself; it was just natural to want to be close to Anne. The young woman had captured her heart from the very first moment they’d met in a dimmed bedroom at Nottingham Castle despite the fact that Anne had been trying to rob her at the time. Now, nearly two years and a whole heap of adventures, trials and challenges later, the flame of passion and love showed no signs of abating. However, Katherine didn’t want to start any new rumours about the pair of them, especially since they’d managed to successfully bury the ones raised by the Chesterfields and Sheriff of Nottingham the previous year. After what had happened with the King, her accusers had been discredited, despite the fact that what they had been saying was actually true.
“Do I smell or something?” asked Anne, noticing the other woman’s movement.
“Don’t look, but we have an audience,” replied Katherine.
Anne gave a wicked grin. “We could always give them something really juicy to talk about.”
On the side hidden from the view of the young men, Anne reached out to trail her fingers languidly down Katherine’s arm. Through the material of her thick top Katherine felt her skin tingle at the contact. She caught Anne’s hand before she got any further.
“Are you trying to get me into trouble?” she whispered. “Because if you keep doing that I’m going to have to throw you against the wall here and take you.”
“And that’s meant to deter me?”
shaking her head. “Even our latitude might be tested by giving the whole of
“I don’t know - you got away with making a former outlaw your personal guard.”
Katherine smiled. “And what a wonderful personal guard she makes too.” She had to actively stop herself reaching out and touching Anne’s face as she spoke. “Talking of duty, I need to discuss my travel plans for the next couple of weeks with you.”
Before Anne, Katherine had always found such planning tedious – the need to be followed and monitored wherever she went. However, over the last six months she’d never enjoyed being guarded more. Not only that, she got to have Anne with her at the manor house. When they’d first met she would never have dared to dream such a day was possible. All those times they’d had to sneak round, snatching clandestine meetings whenever possible seemed a lifetime ago now. It was amazing what a royal pardon could do. Just about resisting the urge to hook her arm in Anne’s she gestured towards the house instead. “Shall we?”
Pushing open the solid wooden door to the manor house, Anne had to shake off the feeling that she really shouldn’t be there, openly strolling in through the front door. It had been six months since she’d come to live there, but even now she got a small wary, niggle at the back of her mind each time she crossed the threshold. The sense was lessening with time, but a lifetime’s worth of outlaw’s instincts couldn’t be erased that easily.
What had taken even
more getting used to was the reaction of the people
about the house. Their warmth and hospitality had astounded her. She supposed
their loyalty to Katherine was part of it. It was well known that not only had
Anne helped Katherine save the king, but also that pair of them were close.
Anne wasn’t sure if anyone suspected there was more to it than that, especially
given the amount of time they spent in each other’s company. Then again, most
people wouldn’t even consider it a possibility that two woman could be involved
in a romantic relationship, so it was quite possible everyone just believed
that her only role was as Katherine’s personal guard. Even if anyone did
suspect anything, no one would dare say anything openly, respecting the lady of
the manor’s privacy. That was if it even bothered them.
From across the large main hall, a nine year-old girl came bounding between the long tables, not stopping until she had flung her arms around Anne’s midriff, hugging her tight. To her side, Anne saw Katherine was holding back a smile.
Anne turned her head downwards. “Good morning, Natalie.”
A pair of green eyes turned up towards her. “You have to save me!”
The young girl didn’t need to answer. A woman’s voice booming out across the hall did so for her.
The youngster let go of Anne, scooting round behind her instead in a vain attempt to hide. Anne was left to face the approaching wrath of Beatrice. Katherine’s maid stomped to a halt before them and folded her arms across her chest, dark eyes boring into Anne.
“I hope you’re not harbouring a fugitive behind there,” she noted, indicating to the rear of Anne.
“Would I do such a thing?” asked Anne innocently.
“Right, because you would never associate with outlaws.”
“Haven’t you heard I turned over a new leaf?” Anne remarked. “I’m a respectable member of society now.”
Beatrice gave a snorting laugh. “A member of society maybe, but I’m not sure about respectable.” She cast a knowing sideways glance at Katherine. Beatrice was one of the few people who had been taken into their confidence and knew the real truth about their relationship. Though officially Katherine’s maid, Beatrice was more of a confidant and friend to them both.
“And what has this terrible criminal you’re seeking done anyway?” asked Anne.
“There’s a huge pile of washing needs hanging.”
A groan issued from behind Anne, followed by a whispering voice. “Isn’t it time for my lesson with the friar?”
Anne knew things must be bad if Natalie would rather engage in schooling than carry out her chores. She turned round, kneeling down to Natalie’s height. “Just think the sooner you get on and do it, the sooner you can do whatever else you want to do.”
The girl appeared unconvinced. “Do you have to hang out washing?”
“No, I have other duties, but I used to when I was your age.”
“So if I do this, I might one day be a knight too?”
Anne laughed. “I’m not a knight, women can’t be knights.”
“A good question,” agreed Anne. “It’s just a title anyway. Someone can still uphold all the ideals of being a knight without the official designation.”
“Then that’s what I’m going to do,” stated Natalie, “just like you!”
Anne smiled at the girl’s confidence. “Only if you work hard, do your chores and your schoolwork.”
Natalie gave a grudging shrug. “All right, I’ll go hang the washing.”
Standing up, Anne gave Natalie a reassuring pat on the shoulder before she left with Beatrice. Next to her, Katherine had been watching the whole exchange with a fond expression on her face.
“She really looks up to you.”
That fact never ceased
to amaze Anne. She would hardly have classed herself as the mother-figure type,
but Natalie had taken an instant shine to her when they’d met in
“You big softie!” cried Katherine. “Don’t let those new recruits see that gooey expression on your face.”
“I do not have a ‘gooey’ expression, and didn’t you have some plans to show me?”
“Of course,” said Katherine, moving towards the stairs and muttering a parting, “gooey, I tell you.”
Climbing the stone steps at the end of the great hall, they came to the entrance to the noble woman’s chambers. It was also where Anne spent a good deal of her nights, though her official quarters were in the barracks with the other guards. No one was going to question the need for Katherine’s personal guard to keep close watch over her, though. The room doubled as a bed chamber and study, containing both a large four-poster bed and an expansive desk. It was to the latter that Anne’s eyes were initially drawn, not immediately seeing any papers to indicate there was work to be done.
“So where are these travel plans?”
Swinging round she didn’t receive an answer to her question, at least not a verbal one. Katherine was right in front of her and it only took one more step for the other woman to close the remaining distance and place her lips on Anne’s. The kiss was soft, enticing, leaving Anne’s body crying out for more as the other woman pulled back.
“Did you bring me up here under the pretext of work?” she asked, staring into Katherine’s seductive eyes. “And Beatrice thinks I’m the one who’s not respectable!”
Katherine ran her fingers over Anne’s breastbone, stroking the material of the blue tabard. “Can I help it if seeing you in uniform makes me hot?”
“But I wear it every day,” pointed out Anne, not mentioning that she too was getting rather warm.
“Then I guess I must be in a permanent state of arousal,” said Katherine, her voice now barely more than a husky whisper. “And as my personal guard it’s your duty to do something about it.”
Anne offered a sly grin. “And what an arduous duty it is.”
Smiling too, Katherine pulled back a couple of steps to allow her to unhook the thick cloak she was wearing over her clothes. “If it makes you feel better, I can pretend I really do have something work related to show you. I believe it’s over there on the desk.”
Playing along, Anne moved to study the empty desk top. “Ah yes, I can see this needs immediate attention.”
Katherine’s warm body pressed up behind her, the other woman’s groin rubbing against Anne’s bottom as she peered round at the non-existent plans. “Something certainly needs attention,” she noted as she gyrated against Anne.
Anne barely held back a groan at the enflaming contact. “Is this part of showing me the plans?” she managed, voice thick with desire.
Katherine’s hands slipped round her waist, under the tabard, pushing between Anne’s legs. “I need to get close to point out the intricacies to you.”
Anne groaned as Katherine’s fingers grazed over her inner thigh. The touch was slight, taunting. It drove Anne mad. Katherine tracked her hands higher, undoing the belt Anne wore over her tabard. It and her sword clattered to the floor. Anne felt Katherine’s breath hot on her neck as the other woman wormed her fingers under Anne’s clothes, seeking out the flesh beneath. Just as she found it, Katherine also brushed her lips over Anne’s neck. The dual contact sent a fresh jolt of arousal through Anne, resulting in another loud moan.
Meanwhile, Katherine continued to slowly torment her, fingers sliding up over Anne’s chest to gently squeeze her breasts. Reflexively Anne pushed backwards into Katherine, the other woman responding, shoving her harder against the desk. Teeth nipped at Anne’s neck, fingers teased her nipples, soft breasts rubbed against her back. It was all too much. Anne whirled round, taking Katherine’s face in her hands and kissing her long and deep, a crushing, lustful kiss.
Katherine’s hands were still all over her, more urgent now. They tugged at Anne’s clothes, trying to rip them from her body. Not wanting to stand in the way, Anne swiftly pulled her tabard off over her head, discarding the other layers underneath equally as quickly. She kicked off her boots and was about to start removing her trousers, but didn’t get the chance. Seeing the expanse of naked torso revealed to her, Katherine pushed forwards again, her hot mouth seeking out Anne’s flesh.
It started with small kisses descending Anne’s long neck, down onto her collarbone. Katherine kept going, tongue sliding a winding trail over Anne’s chest. When she reached Anne’s left nipple she drew it between her teeth and into her mouth. Anne braced her hands on the desk behind her, gasping as Katherine’s tongue flicked across her taut flesh.
Still Katherine kept going lower, slipping down into a kneeling position. Her fingers worked undone the ties on Anne’s trousers, pushing them down over the young woman’s hips. Anne felt the brush of Katherine’s hair against her skin as she leant in close, her tongue now tracking down across Anne’s thigh. Heat pooled between Anne’s legs. Instinctively she opened them wider, inviting Katherine in. The other woman didn’t resist. Suddenly her mouth was on Anne, tongue probing inside her. Anne arched back against the hard wood, eyes shut, lost in the blissful moment.
Low, licentious moans filled the room. Anne’s legs started to tremble, having trouble holding her up under the sensual onslaught. Katherine sensed as much, her hands gripping Anne’s thighs, holding her in place. The touch of the fingers only enflamed the desire burning through Anne further. She didn’t know how much more of the torment she could withstand, yet at the same time she didn’t want it to end. Either way, she had no conscious say in the matter. Her body was already on an unstoppable course with only one destination. When Katherine brought her tongue up to flick across Anne’s clitoris that destination was spectacularly reached. Anne tipped her head back and let out a silent scream as the orgasm shot through her. She was left a quivering wreck, barely able to prop herself up against the desk.
Katherine rose once more, wrapping her arms around Anne to offer support. “Having some trouble standing?”
Anne took a moment before responding, her breath still gone, her heart still beating hard against her chest. “Talking of which,” she eventually managed, “I don’t think you should be either.”
Without waiting for an answer, Anne swept Katherine up off her feet and carried her over to the bed.
A cool draft tickled over the skin of Anne’s arm where it lay atop the bedclothes, stirring her from her slumber. She drew it back under the covers, immediately garnering a grumble from the dozing body next to her.
“Couldn’t you have warmed that up first?”
Anne pressed closer, slipping the offending arm round Katherine’s torso.
“Hey! I didn’t mean like that!”
Katherine squirmed for a moment, her bare skin rubbing against Anne’s chest, but Anne held on tight. Eventually Katherine gave up, letting out a resigned sigh as her head rested back down on the pillow. Anne loosened her hold and propped herself up on an elbow so she could study the other woman in repose. She wondered if it was possible to love anyone more than she did Katherine. The other woman had bought such joy and light to her life that sometimes when Anne looked back on her days before they’d met it was if she was studying the memories of someone else, a cold-hearted stranger, cut off from the possibilities of love.
Knowing she was being watched, Katherine’s eyes drifted to Anne, a soft smile lifting her features. As Katherine reached out to absently brush her fingers over Anne’s hand, the young woman felt a swell of emotion that almost overtook her. She wasn’t one given to wistfulness, but the simple pleasure of just being able to lie there together was nearly enough to being tears to her eyes. To hold them back she offered her own smile.
“I love just being here with you.”
Katherine looked like she was the one about to cry now. “Me too, darling.” Her hand came up to cup Anne’s cheek. “I only hope we have many more days like this.”
Anne detected the undercurrent of sadness to the words, knowing the root cause. Sometimes she wished she had never told Katherine about the pagan curse she was under, but keeping something so important from Katherine wasn’t an option. They should share everything, the good and the bad. For her part Anne was resigned to it, but Katherine was a different matter.
“Even aging twice as fast as I should be,” tried Anne with an air of light-heartedness, “I’m not about to pop my clogs just yet. You’re going to have to put up with me for a good while yet!”
Katherine wasn’t buying the attempt at levity though, raising herself up off the sheets so she could look at Anne. “I still can’t believe they did that to you, Axia and her lot.”
Anne laughed ruefully. “They are my ‘lot’ too.”
“You know I didn’t mean it like that.”
Anne stroked her fingers reassuringly over Katherine’s bare shoulder. “I know.”
Katherine sighed as Anne drew them away, her blue eyes focussed back on the young woman. “You haven’t heard from her at all then?”
Anne shook her head. “No. Hopefully she’s forgotten about this supposedly important task I’m required for at some point.”
“And if she hasn’t; if she comes calling?”
Anne met Katherine’s uncertain gaze. “Then I shall tell her exactly where my loyalties lie – here with you.”
Katherine smiled at the answer, though Anne wasn’t sure the other woman was entirely convinced. Anne wished she could banish her fears, but that part of her life was something Katherine had never really been a part of or understood and the uncertainty bred doubt. She supposed she would just have to demonstrate through her actions that it would take a whole army of pagans to drag her from Katherine’s side.
Before she could offer any further words of reassurance, the sounds of a commotion filtered up from the courtyard outside. Katherine frowned at the sound of raised voices and slipped out of bed, quickly grabbing a robe to ward against the chill air. Anne followed suit, though she made sure to swiftly pull on her clothes before moving over to the window to peer out from behind Katherine. Having the two of them staring out dressed in nothing but bedclothes in the middle of the day would be one way to get the already loose tongues wagging.
“What’s going on?” called down Katherine, halting the speakers below.
Anne craned her head over Katherine’s shoulder to get a better look, seeing that there was a flustered looking young woman faced by two confused guards. One of them turned his head up to address Katherine.
“Begging your pardon, milady, but this girl has some sort of message from Eaton only we can’t understand what she’s jabbering about.”
“Bring her into the hall and I’ll be down in a moment,” Katherine instructed.
Hastily pulling on her discarded dress, Katherine ran a brush through her wayward hair as Anne picked up her sword and secured it to her belt. The woman visitor didn’t look particularly dangerous, but Anne wasn’t about to take any chances. Her initial impression was re-enforced as they descended the stairs into the hall. The young woman sat on one of the wooden stools lining the long dining table, nervously playing with the ends of her hair. Anne would have classed her more as ‘scared rabbit’ than potential threat. Still, she knew looks could be deceiving and kept her hand close to the hilt of her sword as they approached. The woman had sat at the end near the fireplace, but despite the heat emanating from glowing logs Anne noticed she was shivering.
Seeing them the young woman leapt to her feet and offered an awkward curtsey. “Milady,” she managed to stammer out.
Taking pity on the agitated woman, Katherine gestured to the chairs. “Why don’t we sit down and you can tell me what the problem is …”
“All right, Alice,” said Katherine gently as she sat, “what’s been happening in Eaton that’s brought you all the way here?”
“It’s all right, Alice,” attempted Katherine in calming tones, “you can tell me, whatever it is.”
The suddenness of the blurted words caused the other two women to pause, taken aback by the shocking declaration. Eventually Katherine found her voice, though where before it had been soft and cajoling, now there was a steely edge to it. “What men?”
“Knights. About a dozen of them.”
“Did they wear any colours?” asked Katherine.
“No, milady, they looked like mercenaries, apart from…”
“Go on,” prompted Katherine.
“When they thought they’d killed everyone, one of them said something about Retford.”
“Retford?” repeated Katherine incredulously.
Anne knew it was the
estate that neighboured
Meanwhile, Katherine was up and staring into the fire in the hearth with a sorrowful look on her face. Any attack on Markham and particularly its people would hurt Katherine herself. That was one of the reasons her people loved her so. Anne started to move closer to offer comfort, but at that moment the main door thumped open. A blast of cool air shot into the room, causing the fireplace to flare and shower a few sparks in their direction. A man charged inside, heading straight for where Katherine stood. Anne didn’t know where the guards had got to, but she wasn’t about to stop and ask questions given he wasn’t anyone she recognised as a local. She headed him off, grabbing hold of the fast approaching man before he could get close to his target. Twisting his arm round, she drove his face onto the table, pinning him in place.
“Ow! Let go! I must speak with her ladyship at once!”
“Well that’s not how you go about it,” said Anne, keeping her grip tight on the squirming man. He was of a slight-build and had no chance of breaking out of the hold.
“I come with an official message from the Sheriff of Nottingham!”
“Where is it?” demanded Anne.
“In my bag,” cried the man desperately.
Bracing her body weight against him to help keep him in place, Anne used one hand to delve inside his bag, finding a parchment. A cursory glance revealed it did indeed bear the Sheriff’s seal. She showed it to Katherine who just nodded.
Anne let go her grip and stepped back. The man offered a huff as he straightened up, smoothing down his clothes for show. “Is this how you treat all your guests?”
“Only those that barge in unannounced,” said Katherine before breaking the seal and unfurling the letter.
Anne kept one eye on Katherine as she read and one on the messenger, still not trusting the shifty-looking man. Those seemed to be the only sort of people the Sheriff employed and Anne wasn’t about to let him out of her sight to go poking around the house. However, the indignant muttering from Katherine as she continued to read drew her attention. Katherine’s brow was furrowed, her eyes a stormy grey beneath them.
“What is it?” asked Anne.
“It seems Retford has
been busy,” answered Katherine stonily. “Lord Edgar is claiming Eaton and a
good portion of the north of the
Anne moved closer to try and see the letter Katherine waved angrily, though nothing immediately leapt out at her apart from the fact there was a lot of detail in very small script. “What grounds are given for such a claim?”
“None that are valid, that’s for sure,” replied Katherine, shaking her head in disbelief. “The north of the estate contains some fertile farming ground - perhaps Lord Edgar just fancies making his estate a bit richer at the expense of mine and its people.”
Anne felt as indignant as Katherine sounded. “I presume you can refute the claim?”
“Yes, though only if I
make it to
“I wouldn’t know anything,” he said with extreme indifference, “I am just the messenger.”
Anne grabbed him by the collar. “And a slow one it seems. Did you deliberately dawdle in bringing this here?”
“I just do as I’m told.”
Anne tightened her grip, pushing him back against the table. Her voice was low and menacing. “And did someone tell you to be slow getting here?”
The man didn’t answer, though Anne suspected it was true. A hand on her shoulder prevented her pressing further.
“It doesn’t matter now,”
said Katherine. “Most likely the Sheriff couldn’t resist the opportunity to
make things difficult for me, but that’s by the by. We need to get to
A couple of hours and
one hastily arranged trip later, Katherine and Anne found themselves on the
Their party was a relatively small one, consisting of Katherine, Anne and five other guards. Three of those rode in the carriage with her, while two of them rode on horseback like Anne. The atmosphere was subdued, much like the leaden skies that accompanied them and Katherine was relieved when they pulled up to rest and give the horses water. Clambering down to stretch her legs, Katherine took the opportunity to make her way over to where Anne was checking her pack. The chill breeze of late afternoon whipped across the barren wintry landscape. Katherine pulled her thick cloak tighter as she approached.
“I’m sure it’s all there, just as it was the other ten times you checked.”
Glancing round, Anne gave a wan smile. “It pays to be vigilant, especially given our minimal escort.” She indicated the rest of the party who were out of earshot by the water.
“You would prefer we’d brought a full compliment of troops?”
Anne grumbled under her breath as she continued her adjustments, displaying her obvious displeasure even if Katherine couldn’t hear the words.
“Talking of protection,” added Katherine, “you don’t have to beat up anyone who comes within five feet of me.”
Anne didn’t even look up. “I do when they’re unknown assailants,” she replied unrepentantly.
“He wasn’t an assailant, he was a messenger.”
Anne tightened another strap on the saddle before turning to fully face Katherine. “But he could have been an assailant,” she pointed out. “As your personal guard it’s up to me to determine what is and isn’t a potential threat.”
“With most things falling into the first category?” There was only a faint hint of rebuke in Katherine’s tone. She knew Anne was only looking out for her and it was her job, she just wished the other woman wasn’t quite so efficient at it.
“I like to err on the
side of caution where your safety’s concerned,” stated Anne. “I know things
have been quiet for the last six months, but that doesn’t mean we should become
complacent. Unfortunately because of who you are
The increasingly cool breeze cut through Katherine much like the words. She gave a small shiver. “Would you care to elaborate?”
“You know what I mean.”
Anne held up her hands. “I don’t like it anymore than you do, but it’s a fact of society – women are seen as weak.”
“And by association so
Katherine knew Anne had a point, it was one she tried to put to the back of her mind, but it didn’t make it any less real. The thought that she could be putting the estate at risk by her presence as its head didn’t sit well with the independent woman. Would the people of Eaton be alive if there was still a lord of the manor rather than a lady?
The estate had fared well the last couple of years, her good management leading to more prosperity than it had seen in a long time. However, such prosperity attracted attention, not all of it good. She considered maybe it was time to strengthen her position. The normal way to do that would be a marriage to a powerful lord, but since that was never going to happen she would have to be a bit more creative in forging alliances. The temperature seemed to dip another notch and she drew her cloak tighter about her shoulders as defence.
Anne’s voice rose above the wind. “Your activities of last year have dissuaded many people of any notion of weakness or an easy target for now,” she said to try and soften her earlier words, “though not necessarily everyone.”
Katherine sucked in a thoughtful breath. “Certainly not Lord Edgar it seems.”
“What do you know of him?” asked Anne.
Katherine confessed. “Though he’s only been the lord at Retford since last year. The Sheriff’s been very quiet over the winter
so there’s not been much call for meeting up with the other Nottinghamshire
nobles. Have you or
“No, as you said he’s only been there for a few months, and Retford was a little out of our range anyway.” The strengthening breeze whipped some loose blonde hair into Anne’s face and she took a moment to peel it away before continuing. “We tended to have much more fun getting up the Sheriff’s nose.”
Katherine laughed, attempting to shake off her unease. “And I’m sure he shall be delighted to see you again.”
“About as delighted as someone finding a wart on their nose - he’d like nothing better than to chuck me in the dungeons!”
“He may want to, but he can’t since King Richard gave you a complete pardon.”
“Before he buggered
off abroad again,” said Anne. “Anyone would think he had an aversion to
Any further discussion on the King’s actions and motives were prevented by one of their party coming over. The two women turned to face the interloper.
“We’re ready to get going again, Milady, while there’s still some light,” he informed Katherine.
“Thank you, John, I shall be right there.”
The teenager beamed at the use of his first name, before offering a quick bow and turning on his heel. Katherine leant closer to Anne to whisper.
“Isn’t that the young man I saw you depositing on his backside earlier?”
Anne nodded. “Tobias’ idea of a joke, I think, in assigning him to this detail.”
“Or he could just be so confident in your abilities that he thought it would be good experience. He obviously trusts you enough to put you in charge.”
“Quite the turnaround for sure,” agreed Anne. “Though I’m sure he would have come himself if he didn’t have to go and investigate matters in Eaton. Talking of trust, I’m not sure I approve of one of our other guards.”
Katherine followed her gaze to the fair-haired man currently sharing a joke with one of the other guards. His laughter died away as soon as he realised he was being watched, his eyes avoiding the accusing ones of Anne.
Katherine sighed. “Are you ever going to give Thomas another chance?”
Katherine frowned. “That’s it, just ‘no’?”
“Would you rather I lied?”
“No, I would rather you gave him a chance to redeem himself, like I have.”
“His actions could have got you killed,” stated Anne bluntly.
“But they didn’t, and in the end he came through for us.”
Anne grunted an acknowledgement, but Katherine could tell she wasn’t going to budge the other woman’s position any time soon. She’d just have to work on it. The other men were close enough to hear now anyway, precluding further discussion. Instead Anne gestured to the cart.
“Your carriage awaits, milady.”
A cascade of water droplets
hit Katherine’s head, trickling through her already damp hair. When they
eventually dribbled out onto her forehead she wiped them away. The early
morning rain had ceased a couple of hours previously, but the sodden branches
of Sherwood Forest still held much of it, waiting to be dislodged by the next
gust of wind. After camping on the outskirts of the forest the night before
they were now on their way through it. If they made good time they would be at
The group rode on in silence, the earlier downpour having dampened spirits along with the landscape. Casting a look at Anne riding along behind the carriage, Katherine saw she was scanning the treeline, ever-alert to potential danger. Though winter had taken its toll on the greenery, the first shoots of spring were visible and there were still plenty of hiding places for those with nefarious intentions. Sensing the study, Anne’s head swivelled round, her eyes meeting Katherine’s. She offered a smile in return, drawing her horse closer as they trotted along.
“No problems out there?” asked Katherine.
“No signs of recent activity at least,” said Anne.
Katherine detected an undercurrent of uncertainty to the words. “But?”
Anne shook her head. “I just feel … uneasy.”
With anyone else such a feeling might have been put down to simple nerves or anxiety, but Katherine had learnt to trust Anne’s instincts, not to mention her pagan ability to sense disturbances in nature. Katherine peered out into the forest, but all she could see were the densely packed trees and the occasional squirrel hopping between them.
“I can’t …”
Katherine’s words were cut short by a whistling sound followed by a dull thump. At the front of the cart the guard holding the reins gave a gurgling groan before slumping off his perch into the mud, an arrow protruding from his chest.
The cry came just before Katherine felt a shove in the back, sending her crashing onto the floor of the cart. She was followed down by another body, one of the guards covering her. Katherine struggled to see what was going on, but the sides of the cart blocked her view. All she could hear were the sounds of the attack – feet crashing through the undergrowth, the clash of swords, the cries of those hit. Above that a single feminine voice cried out.
“Get her out of here! Now!”
Suddenly the cart jolted into life, shaking Katherine as it bumped its way down the track. Filled with anxiety for who they were leaving behind, Katherine pushed against the bulky weight on top of her.
“You can let me up now.”
There was no answer. Grunting with the effort, Katherine finally managed to roll the man off her. His body flopped listlessly against the side of the cart, his eyes staring blankly up at the grey sky. As always Katherine felt the crushing weight of responsibility. Another one she had failed, another family who’d have to be told their husband/son/father wasn’t coming home.
“Oh god, is he dead?”
The panicked cry
parted Katherine from her guilty conscience for the time being. She realised
that it was just her and the young squire, John, left alive on the carriage. It
was the young man who’d had the presence of mind to grab the reins and get them
on the way. However, now he was swivelled round, staring in horror, his grip
had gone slack. The carriage was starting to slow. His eyes moved from the dead
man to Katherine, widening further as they saw something beyond her. Katherine
swung round. Three riders were pounding down the road after them, none of them
“John!” she shouted forcefully, jarring the young man from his frightened study of their pursuers. Once she had his attention she softened her tone somewhat, fixing him with an intense, confident stare. “Pick up the reins and get us out of here. You can do it.”
“But the men…”
“Leave them to me.”
“John,” she interrupted, “just concentrate on the road.”
Nodding, the young man turned back round in his seat at the front of the carriage and spurred the horses on. Katherine knew they were never going to outrun three men on horseback, though. Kneeling down she drew her hand over the downed guard’s eyes, saying a quick, silent prayer for him. Later they could honour him properly, for now she needed his weaponry. Digging in the packs, she pulled out a bow and set of arrows. As she straightened back up she saw it wasn’t a moment too soon. The riders were nearly upon them.
Trying to sight them as the cart jogged her back and forth proved difficult, her first shot flying harmlessly wide. Katherine took a deep breath and tried again. This time she tried to ride with the ups and downs of the wood beneath her, waiting until she got the rhythm. Staring down the smooth arrow she sought her target and let fly. It sailed straight into the closest rider’s shoulder, catapulting him off his horse. The two remaining men shot each other a worried look. No doubt they hadn’t been expecting much resistance from the lady of the manor, but Katherine had been in enough fights by now not to be easy pickings. It hadn’t always been that way, maybe a couple of years ago she might have been stopping to find the diplomatic way out of the situation. Experience had taught her sometimes that just didn’t work.
To reinforce her point, she shot another arrow, taking out a second man. She was aiming just to wound them, but she wouldn’t lose any sleep if the outcome was different; another thing that had changed the last couple of years. The last man was nearly upon them now. Katherine swung her bow towards him just as the cart hit a pothole. She stumbled, the hesitation enough to give the man a chance to fling himself across the gap onto the back of the cart. He barrelled into Katherine, sending her crashing down onto the floor. Her head hit the planks with a thump, the bow being jarred from her hand. The floor rattled as another pair of boots landed next to her.
“Don’t touch her ladyship!”
Groggily Katherine looked up to see that John had left the horses to steer the cart on their own and was squaring up to the outlaw. The man towered over him and let out a nasty laugh.
“Why don’t you go back home to mummy, kid?”
John attempted to swing his sword at the man, but the jarring ride from the driverless cart was enough to throw him off balance. The outlaw simply dodged and cracked his fist into the side of John’s head, downing him with a single meaty blow. Before Katherine could get up, hands tightened around her throat, choking. Desperately she clawed at the arms pressing her down, the man’s weight on her chest too. His face was set in a malevolent sneer. Her grasping hands sought out something, anything, closing over the thin shaft of her dropped arrow. Bringing it up and round she jammed it into the man’s thigh. He howled in pain, immediately releasing his grip as he tumbled off her. Katherine rolled onto her side, coughing and gagging as she tried to get some air back down into her lungs.
“Bitch! You’re going to pay for that!”
Katherine heard the sound of a sword being drawn, turning over on her back in time to see the metal being raised above her, ready to strike.
Anne dug her heels into the sides of her horse. “Come on!”
In response to her urgent prodding its speed down the track increased, the cold wind biting harder into Anne’s face. Yet still it didn’t seem to be enough, she wasn’t gaining fast enough on the cart which careened on ahead of her. She could only watch as the last rider flung himself onto the back of it, knocking Katherine down. Fear filled her as she saw the man crouching down. She couldn’t see Katherine anymore, just the other woman’s hands grabbing at the material of the man’s top as he attempted to strangle her.
“Come on, you bastard horse!”
Suddenly the man was staggering back, an arrow visible in his thigh. Hope flared briefly in Anne’s chest before she saw him drawing his sword. She was close now, just a few more strides. Anne took her feet from the stirrups, waited for the next up step of the horse and flung herself towards the fast-moving cart. Too late, she realised she wasn’t close enough. In her anxiety she’d leapt too soon. Falling, she just managed to hook her arms over the back of the cart, her armpits jarring on the wood followed by her chin. Dazed, she dangled helplessly there as the outlaw swung to view the latest passenger, sword still raised. At least her ungainly jump had been enough to distract him from Katherine.
“What have we here?” he sneered. “Didn’t you know this is a private ride for me and her ladyship?”
He raised his foot to stamp on her arms, but never got the chance. Behind him, Katherine appeared, dagger in hand. Without hesitation she stabbed it into the back of his shoulder. He roared in pain, stumbling forward. All it took was an extra shove from Katherine to send him tumbling past Anne off the back of the cart. Katherine knelt down, extending her arm.
“Need a hand there?”
Anne gratefully took it, the pair of them managing to haul her body up onto the back of the cart where she sprawled amongst the scattered belongings for a moment.
“You know you’re going to put me out of a job at this rate,” she noted.
Katherine smiled briefly before her eyes swung to look behind them. “I think there’s still some work for you to do.”
Propping herself up, Anne saw that a couple of the men from the initial assault were still after them on horses. Worse, the cart was slowing. Looking to the reins she realised for the first time that no one was actually holding them. It was a miracle they were still going in a straight line.
“You take those,” she instructed Katherine, “I’ll deal with our unwanted followers.”
Seeing the riders getting ever closer, Anne quickly yanked a dagger from the belt of the downed guard. As she straightened up the cart lurched forward again, a sign Katherine was in the driver’s seat. Luckily neither of the pursuers had a bow and Anne could let them get within range before she flung the dagger smack into the chest of one of them. Not fancying the same fate, the second man suddenly leapt from his horse in the cart’s direction. His uncoordinated leap was even more ungainly than Anne’s had been. However, it did have the advantage of taking her by surprise. She had no time to dodge before he clattered into her, arms and legs sprawling. His momentum carried them both into the side and then over it. Desperately Anne darted out a hand, managing to catch the side before she ended up in the mud like her attacker.
Only now she was dangling off the outside, her feet occasionally catching on the ground or banging into the rear wheel of the bouncing cart. The muscles in her arm straining, she attempted to latch on with her other hand, but the chaotic course of the cart made it near impossible, her body being thumped into the unforgiving wood whenever she tried. Suddenly the cart hit a large bump in the road. The back flipped up in the air, catapulting Anne up with it. She sailed up, flipping over and landing on her back in the rear of the cart. The hefty thump caused Katherine to turn. Anne could only lie there, trying to catch the breath driven from her lungs.
“Having a little rest?” queried Katherine.
Anne frowned, but didn’t have a chance to reply as another thump signalled they had been joined on the cart. Scrabbling to her feet and swinging round, Anne found herself facing a bulky and unpleasantly familiar form.
The outlaw leader offered a lop-sided grin. “Hello, Seven.” His eyes tracked over her clothes, a small snort of derision escaping from between gravestone teeth. “On the side of the nobs now are you?” He flicked a glance past her to where Katherine was still wrestling with the reins. “Then again you always did have a thing for them.”
Ignoring the leer on his face, Anne slowly drew her sword. Barton followed suit, the pair of them standing facing each other on the rocking cart, swords front and ready. Neither moved for a second, save from adjusting their stance to combat the ups and downs of the planks beneath their feet. Barton broke the standoff with a lunge. Anne parried it, the clash of swords ringing out over the sound of thumping hooves and rattling wheels.
There was hardly any room to manoeuvre on the back of the cart and as Barton made another swipe Anne couldn’t step back far enough. Barton’s sword sliced across her chest, fortunately only catching the material of her tabard and not penetrating further. Looking down, Anne could see the partial tear had severed the head of the gryphon.
Swaying back, Barton surveyed his handiwork. “Aw, did I damage your precious colours?”
“Not as much as I’m going to damage you.” Anne swung her sword, Barton barely reacting in time to block the fierce blow.
Anne found herself up close with Barton, fighting to free her sword. The cart bounced over a pothole and the pair of them staggered forward, slamming into the back of Katherine. Shoved forwards, the other woman was nearly flung off the front, the raised bar just stopping her as she crashed into it and fell to the floor. The reins flopped loosely on the bar for a moment, before sliding off and into the mud, being trailed along by the out-of-control horses.
With the cart gaining more and more speed, Anne struggled to disentangle herself from Barton. Fighting at close quarters with him was not a good idea given his larger size and strength. However, it was Barton who was first to free one of his limbs, delivering a weighty punch into Anne’s stomach. She gasped and stumbled backwards, almost tripping over the unconscious John as she went. Seeking to use his advantage, Barton pressed forwards. Anne was about to raise her sword when a better option presented itself. She flung herself to the floor. Barton looked bemused for a moment before an over-hanging branch cracked him in the back of the head. The force was enough to send him spiralling off the back of the cart, leaving him cursing on the track as the cart ploughed on.
Anne clambered to the front where Katherine was just righting herself and looking desperately around. “The reins?”
“Down there,” replied Anne, pointing to the churning mud between the horses’ galloping hooves.
She was gauging the best way to retrieve them, when she spotted a huge root jutting out into the track up ahead. She barely had time to shout a desperate “Hang on!” before the front wheel hit it. The cart flipped up at the back. As it came crashing back down one of the wheels splintered and the whole thing tipped up, tumbling off down the slope at the side of the track. Anne managed to hold on for a moment before she was flung away, her body crashing through branches before coming to a rest on the damp woodland ground. She remained as still as the now quiet forest.
When Anne finally did attempt to raise her head, the pounding almost made her wish she hadn’t. She rolled over onto her back, just taking a few deep breaths to regain some sort of sense. Up above she could see the grey clouds scudding past above the tree tops. The sun was hidden by the relentless gloom and she had no idea how long she had been unconscious.
Eventually sitting up, she checked herself over for any damage. There were a fair few tender spots, but nothing appeared to be broken. With a degree of uncertainly she got to her feet. Again everything seemed to be fine and she brushed the forest detritus off her clothes as she surveyed her surroundings. There was no sign of the cart in her immediate vicinity, though a gouging path continuing on down the slope gave some indication of where it had gone.
Seeing the damage, an icy fear clutched at her heart. Katherine. With fresh urgency, Anne half-ran, half-fell down the slope. She would have called out for the other woman, but she didn’t know how far behind their attackers might be and didn’t want to alert them to their position. Along the way she came across the odd piece of wood or item off the cart that had been disgorged on its descent. One particularly grim find was the body of the dead guard. Anne didn’t have time to worry about what might happen to him left out in the forest; she had the living to think about. At least she prayed they were living.
Pushing that disturbing thought way down deep, she continued on, finally coming to the main bulk of the cart, resting at a skewed angle on its side. All four wheels were now missing and a quick scout round it didn’t yield any sign of Katherine. Anne wasn’t sure whether that was good or bad. She has to be all right. Anne thought she would know if something had happened to Katherine; she would just know. Trying to clamp down on her mounting anxiety, Anne attempted to focus on the search. Taking more care this time round, she studied the ground around the upended cart, looking for any clues. Anne’s sword lay amongst the scattered remains and she picked it up, just in time as she caught the sound of movement behind her.
She swung round, sword at the ready. Seeing the young squire, John, with his hands nervously up she felt a mix of relief and frustration. “Have you seen her ladyship?” Anne asked, getting straight to the point. The young man was walking, so he couldn’t be that badly hurt.
“No, I just woke up on the ground over there,” he replied, indicating the trees behind him.
Anne cursed under her breath, almost missing the faint cry from somewhere out in the forest. She froze, listening out for it again.
“What is…?” began John, before Anne silenced him with a frantic hand gesture.
In the quiet she could hear the sound of the wind, whistling through the bare trees, the odd creak of wood or rustle of dead leaves. Then it came again, a faint whimper. Immediately she was off and running, leaving John in her wake. Crashing through the undergrowth she came upon a form lying amongst the twigs. Seeing the amount of blood that stained the natural dull browns and greens, Anne was glad it wasn’t the form she had originally been hoping for. She knelt down by the head of the injured horse, stroking a soothing hand down its neck. Its eyes flicked to her and through the tips of her fingers she could feel its pain, sense what both she and the horse knew was inevitable. The only question left was how much pain was involved. Anne gave the noble animal one last soft pat before she stood up, drew her sword and put it out of its misery with one assured blow.
“Oh my god, did you just kill that horse?”
John stood behind her, having finally caught up. The young man had a look of horror on his face.
“It was in pain,” said Anne evenly, “there was nothing that could have been done except extend its agony.”
John’s lip curled up in disgust. Anne was surprised at his naivety, most peasants were well aware that sometimes such things just had to be done. She knelt back down to wipe her sword, spotting something she hadn’t noticed before. Just beyond the dead horse were a few strands of thread, caught on some brambles. They were a deep red, the same colour as Katherine’s cloak. Anne picked them off, her eyes scanning around the nearby bushes and ground.
“What is it?” asked John.
Anne ignored the
question, having seen something else of note, partly obscured but there none
the less – footprints. Anne carefully brushed the twigs and leaves away. There
was definitely more than one set. Katherine wouldn’t have wandered off without
them, which left only one conclusion - someone had taken her. It didn’t take
much deduction to work out who. A gnawing dread filled Anne’s stomach; tight,
painful. They had to find Katherine, and quickly. Knowing as much, Anne
realised their best hope was if she could tap into her pagan abilities, get nature
to yield up some information. It was not something she did often these days,
not since she had moved out of the forest to
Anne took off her glove and placed her hand on one of the footprints, closing her eyes as she tried to slip into the necessary meditative state. The sudden onslaught of sensations was almost overwhelming - voices, sights, sounds. The chaos was hard to control.
“What are you doing?” came John’s voice over the tumult.
Anne had never really embraced her innate pagan abilities, though a period when she thought she’d lost them had led her to a grudging appreciation on their re-appearance. She appreciated the reason for that re-appearance somewhat less. None of which was important at that moment in time. She had them and it would be foolish not to try and use them. Her fingers splayed through the mud, seeking a connection. Through the hubbub she caught flashes – a group … heading west … crossing Clipstone brook …
She shot up, making to dash off in the direction, but John caught her arm. “Hang on, where are we going?”
“Who said we
were going anywhere?” The withering look she gave him caused him to remove his
hand. “If you head back up onto the road and east, you’ll get back to
“But I could help you find her ladyship,” he said eagerly, “rescue her.”
“This isn’t some game,” she said sternly. “You saw what those outlaws did to the other guards - do you want that to happen to you?”
“Of course not, but Lady Katherine is in trouble and it’s our duty to help her.”
Anne sighed, thinking she might regret what she was about to say. “All right, you can come.” She contemplated that all this civilised living was making her soft, in the past she wouldn’t have hesitated leaving him behind. However, she was meant to be teaching these squires something and that might come in useful one day.
John grinned. “Great, let’s go.”
“You have to do what I say,” Anne noted before they moved anywhere. “Are you sure you can cope taking orders from a mere woman?”
“If it’s for the good of Markham and her ladyship, then yes.”
Anne had to admire his devotion to the cause if nothing else. She suspected he still didn’t have great confidence in her, but that was of no importance, she had plenty of confidence in herself.
They moved off swiftly through the trees, Anne taking the lead. It didn’t take long for John to start up with questions. “Did you know those outlaws?” he asked.
“If you mean were they
“But you know this Barton guy?”
John digested that for a moment before piping up again. “So were they just trying to rob us?”
“I don’t think so; there were plenty of items from the cart that they just left behind. It seems the only thing they did take was Katherine.” John gave her a curious look, and Anne quickly realised her mistake. “Lady Katherine,” she corrected. Normally she remembered to add the title when in the presence of others, but her mind was elsewhere.
“Maybe they’re going to ask for a ransom?” suggested John.
“Enough questions!” snapped Anne. She had enough to worry about without his incessant nattering. “Let’s just follow the trail.”
Fortunately John seemed to realise the prudence of silence and they continued on through the trees without another word.
Slowly drifting up from consciousness, the first thing Katherine became aware of was a voice whispering something. It was hard to make out through the grogginess filling her head. She tried to focus on it, but rather than the voice becoming clearer, what was thrown into stark relief was a sharp pain in her left leg. Wincing, she attempted to shift position, finding that difficult when she realised her hands were tied in front of her.
At last the voice was clear, Katherine recognising it as that of Thomas. She opened her eyes, seeing the young guard sitting next to her on the ground a look of concern on his face. He was also tethered, hands tied. A shackle encompassed his ankle, with a chain from it running to a sturdy post. A second chain trailed across the ground to her ankle, though it wasn’t that causing the pain. That was courtesy of a nasty gash in her shin. The blood from it appeared to have started to congeal and she wondered how long she had been unconscious.
Gingerly Katherine propped herself up into a sitting position. “Thomas,” she croaked, before swallowing through a dry throat and trying again. “Where are we?”
He glanced around as if sizing up whether it was safe to speak. Eventually he leant in closer, allowing Katherine sight of a number of bruises and scrapes on his face. “We’re in the outlaw camp. It was Barton.”
Katherine nodded solemnly. “I know. Are any of the others here?” She was concerned for everyone, but there was one person in particular she wanted news of.
Thomas gave a quick shake of the head. “Not as far as I’ve seen.” He paused before delivering his grim news. “Edward, Philip and George didn’t make it. I don’t know what happened to John and Anne; they were on the cart with you.”
“We crashed,” Katherine said briefly, closing her eyes to try and recall what had happened. It was all a blur after they hit the tree root and started tumbling through the trees. If she had survived surely the others had too?
“Ah, I see her ladyship is awake at last.”
Katherine swivelled round on the ground to see Barton approaching, flanked by a couple of his men. All of them were well armed, and those were just the weapons Katherine could see.
“What do you want, Barton?”
“Now there’s a question,” he said, giving his bearded chin a thoughtful stroke. His eyes swept over her in a predatory fashion. “I’m sure I can think of a few things.”
“So you merely attacked my party to get me here for … whatever purpose. I know I’m quite the catch, but it seems a little risky all the same.”
Barton laughed, but didn’t say anything in response.
“Did someone pay you to attack us?” pressed Katherine.
“I think you ask too many questions for someone who is the prisoner here.” He knelt down, leaning in close. He made to stroke his hand through her hair and she flinched back. Her subconscious reaction brought a smile to his face. “Don’t worry your pretty head about it,” he said snidely. “Oh, in case you were wondering where the rest of your group are, we killed them out in the forest.”
“You’re lying,” said Katherine instantly, though she couldn’t help the small chill that shivered through her despite her brave words.
“Yes, because if you had killed Anne I have no doubt you would gleefully parade her body in front of me. She’s still out there, and she’s going to come and kick your arse.”
Barton’s brow creased into a dark frown, before he stood up. “Keep thinking that if you want, little good it will do you come dusk.”
He turned on his heel and stalked off while Katherine prayed her words were well-founded.
Anne crept forward on her hands and knees, careful not to crack any twigs as she inched slowly across the woodland ground. It had taken them a couple of hours to follow the trail to its conclusion and she wasn’t about it get caught now they were so close. Once she reached a fallen tree, she found a discrete gap in the horizontal branches and peered through. Ahead of her lay a clearing in the forest that was partly natural, partly widened by those now occupying it. Anne quickly scanned the outlaw camp, noting there were twenty men that she could see, though there could possible be others in the various tents and structures. Her eyes were drawn to an area in the centre of the camp, and she was thankful to see Katherine still alive and well though less pleased to note she was chained to a post.
Anne sensed movement next to her, realising John was making to stand up and draw his sword. Quickly Anne grabbed his tunic, hauling him back to the ground.
He struggled as she held him there. “What are we waiting for?” he hissed. “We need to get over there and rescue her ladyship!”
Anne’s shoved a hand over his mouth, taking a quick glance through the gap in the tree to verify they hadn’t been heard. “Be quiet,” she whispered, leaning closer as his indignant eyes fixed her from above her fingers. “Use your brain for a moment. There are at least twenty of them. If we charge in, not only will that be suicide for us, but also we could well get Lady Katherine killed.” She let that hang for a moment before adding, “No, we need help.”
She released her grip
now her point was made, allowing John to sit up. “In case you didn’t notice
we’re in the middle of
“I know some backup much closer than that.”
John stared at her, the implication slowly dawning. “Oh, bloody hell, not outlaws!”
“Those outlaws might just be our saviours, so I would be a bit nicer about them, especially when you’re talking to them.”
“When I’m talking to them?” John asked in shock.
“Yes, you’re going to fetch them,” Anne stated.
“Me? But shouldn’t you go; they are your friends after all.”
“I need to stay here.” Anne gave no justification for her statement. She knew it wasn’t logical. Of course she should go and fetch the outlaws, not only did they know her, it would probably be faster. Yet she wasn’t prepared to leave Katherine with Barton.
John looked like he wanted to argue the point further, but perhaps sensed there was little point. He was learning. “All right, so where do I find these outlaws?” he asked.
summarised the route from their current location, hoping
“Ok, I’ve got it,” he said. “So how do I stop them cutting my throat when I do get there?”
Anne rolled her eyes. “They
wouldn’t do that to you anyway. But it’s probably a good idea if you have some
way to prove I sent you.” She reached round behind her head and unhooked the
chain at the back of her neck, threading the pendant out from under her tunic. “Show
John took it, studying the blue gemstone. “It looks expensive.”
“Its monetary value isn’t why it’s important to me.” Anne suspected it was indeed worth a pretty sum, but she had never asked Katherine. The mere fact the other woman had given it to her meant it was worth far more than anything money could buy. “So I want it back,” she added seeing the way he continued to marvel at the stone, “just in case you were thinking about running off with it.”
John pocketed the
necklace and Anne couldn’t help an involuntary touch of her chest where it
normally lay against her skin. She felt strangely incomplete without it.
Shaking off her disquiet, she gave him his final instructions. “Be quick - we
don’t have long if we want to make it to
He simply nodded before creeping away through the trees. Anne prayed she could trust him, but didn’t know enough about him yet to be entirely convinced he would return. He seemed to be keen, but with a dangerous arrogance and over-confidence that evaporated when called upon to actually take action. Supposing she had little choice, Anne settled down against the tree trunk, her eyes fixed on one person. Fortunately Katherine seemed to be avoiding the attentions of the outlaws so Anne could maintain her position and wait for now, though that was excruciating. All her heart wanted her to do was leap up and charge out there to free Katherine. When she’d told John that would be suicide, she’d been reminding herself as much as informing him. Sometimes it was still hard to reconcile her natural instincts with practicalities, though being part of the guard was going some way to curb her more reckless urges. She had to think how her actions affected others now and take responsibility for those who looked to her for guidance.
An hour or so of anxious waiting crawled past, but still there was no sign of John. By her calculation he should have been back by then and Anne was getting increasingly worried – not only would they run out of time to get to Nottingham, but also the more time passed, the more likely it was that Barton or one of his cronies would fancy some sport with Katherine. Anne’s unwavering gaze had remained fixed on the other woman. A few times Katherine’s eyes had swept the treeline and each time Anne had desperately tried to draw those eyes to her, hoping to lock gazes just for a second so she could let Katherine know she was there. Yet Anne was too well hidden, and though the temptation to raise her head above the top of the tree enough to allow Katherine to see her was great, she knew it was too risky for them both.
From the way her eyes kept studying her surroundings, Anne wondered if Katherine was planning something. The thought filled her with a certain amount of dread. At least as it was the outlaws were leaving her alone. If she tried something to escape they weren’t exactly going to look on it favourably should she fail. Unfortunately Anne knew Katherine and how she hated sitting around waiting. While Anne watched, Katherine edged closer to Thomas who was sitting next to her.
“I think we can dig that pole out,” Katherine whispered to Thomas.
He looked from her to the pole and back again. “It looks pretty solid to me,” he said doubtfully.
“Maybe, but I think we should give it a go. It’s better than just sitting around here waiting for Barton to decide what he wants to do with us because I’m sure whatever it is won’t be pleasant.”
Thomas still looked unconvinced. “Even if we could get the pole out, we have these chains on.”
“But at least we’d be able to make a run for it.” Katherine knew her plan was suspect, but as she saw it they had little choice. The only other option was to do nothing which was unappealing for a multitude of reasons.
“Someone might still come to rescue us,” pointed out Thomas, not mentioning any names, though they both knew whom he was referring to.
Katherine’s eyes drifted to the trees on the boundaries of the camp, searching amongst them. She felt oddly drawn to one particular section, though the downed tree trunk covered in a thick layer of moss was no different to any other dotted throughout the forest. Finally she shook her head. If Anne was alive, and Katherine firmly believed she was, then the young woman had no way of knowing where they were. They needed to do something before Barton deemed one of his games was in order.
Anne saw Katherine looking furtively around before she moved behind Thomas and started scraping away at the dirt at the bottom of the pole they were tethered to. Anne’s heart started to beat that bit faster. One of Barton’s men is bound to notice. A nervous sweat prickled down her spine despite the chill of the afternoon air.
The other woman didn’t seem to be making much headway and Anne wished she would just give up before she got discovered. As if reading the troubled thoughts from her mind, Anne saw the outlaw leader approaching his captives. Anne’s whole body tensed, her hand falling to rest on the hilt of her sword.
“Milady!” whispered Thomas frantically.
Katherine’s head shot up from where she was digging away at the dirt with her fingers, immediately seeing Barton heading their way over Thomas’ shoulder. Hurriedly she shovelled the loose earth back into the hole to give it some semblance of normalcy. Just as Barton reached them, she hopped forwards to sit next to Thomas, starring up innocently at the outlaw.
“What are you up to?” demanded Barton, seeing right through the plastered on expression.
“Nothing…” started Thomas before he received a kick in the stomach. Katherine winced at the force of it as the young man doubled over
Barton looked at Katherine again. “I asked you a question.”
Katherine lifted her hands and gave a shrug. “Just sitting on the ground like good prisoners.”
Too late she realised she should have kept her chained hands in her lap. The dirt on them was all too obvious. Barton grabbed the shackle about her wrist, pulling her to her feet in one rough yank. Katherine staggered forwards, almost ending up crashing into his chest. Barton jerked the chain so her hands came up, the metal biting into her wrists.
“Sat on your hands in the mud too did you?” he asked as he stared at her fingers.
“It is very dirty around here,” remarked Katherine, “maybe you should tidy up a bit?”
Barton moved quickly for a big man. Katherine didn’t see his hand at all. All she felt was the stinging slap as it struck her cheek. The shock more than anything was enough to knock her off her feet.
“Don’t piss me about!” shouted Barton.
Lying dazed on the ground, Katherine prepared herself for more blows, but Barton suddenly seemed distracted by something else. She followed his gaze to where two of his men were fighting someone near the edge of the camp. Katherine recognised the ducking and weaving blonde head immediately. Anne! Relief, fear and anxiety warred within Katherine. The other woman was intensely focussed on her own battle. Her sword swung brutally, nearly cutting one of the men in two. The other quickly fell too, but now more outlaws were rushing over to join the fray. Anne shoved the first of them away and started dashing in Katherine’s direction. Barton seemed mesmerised, just watching the determined woman charging at him. If it had been her who was on the receiving end of the murderous look in Anne’s eyes, Katherine would have been scared, but Barton seemed unfazed, standing his ground. It soon became obvious why.
Before Anne could reach them, four more outlaws blocked her path. She dispatched one remorselessly while attempting to fend off the blades of the other three. Yet even more men were running over. They overran Anne, managing to wrestle her to the ground. Katherine’s heart skipped a beat as two of them used their weight to pin her in place, face down in the dirt. Anne continued to struggle, but it was futile, her sword eventually being prised from her stubborn fingers after a couple of hefty blows to her hand. Katherine’s breath came shallow and fast as Barton took the few steps to where Anne lay. One of his men grabbed the ponytail at the back of her head, using it to yank her head up as Barton crouched in front of her.
“Nice of you to join us,” he commented snidely.
Anne spat some dirt from her mouth before answering. “I gave up waiting for my invite, so I thought I’d crash the party.”
Though her words were filled with confidence, Katherine knew they were in trouble. They’d barely escaped with their lives last time they were in Barton’s camp. She couldn’t see the outlaw making the same mistake twice. Anne’s eyes flicked to her and Katherine tried to return the gaze with a reassuring look though inside her stomach was churning.
Seeing where Anne was looking, Barton chimed in. “Don’t worry, I haven’t hurt her,” he said, before adding a menacing, “yet.”
“If you let us go now,” replied Anne, ignoring the suggestiveness in his tone, “I might let you live.”
Barton laughed at the outrageous bravado of her words. “I hardly think you’re in a position to be making such offers.”
He signalled to his men who hauled Anne to her feet, keeping a firm grip on her the whole time. Dirt and mud was smeared across her formerly blue and gold tabard which also gaped in the middle where it was torn. Barton teased the jagged edge of the material with his fingers.
“You’ve not been taking very good care of the colours have you?” He glanced over his shoulder at Katherine. “I’d dismiss her if I were you.”
“Fortunately you’re not,” said Katherine, “though I have some dresses you can borrow if that’s what turns you on.”
Barton snarled, stalking back towards her. The comment had been a calculated risk, but Katherine would prefer his attention be on her rather than Anne. The other woman didn’t look like she shared this sentiment, straining against the hands holding her as Barton pulled Katherine to her feet once more.
Anne’s blood ran cold as Barton moved closer to Katherine. This was just what she’d been trying to prevent. Breaking cover had been risky, but there’d been no option – Anne wasn’t going to sit by and watch someone hurt the woman she loved. Only now she was powerless and it seemed that was exactly what was in store. Barton yanked Katherine close, towering over her, his angry face a hair’s breadth from hers.
Anger flared in Anne. At her feet the loose leaves began to stir, fluttering on a convective breeze. The men holding her shifted, looking uncomfortable. Even Barton appeared to sense something, his head swinging round, a curious look in his eyes. He held Anne’s gaze as the disturbance in the atmosphere continued to swirl around them. Inside, Anne could feel the heat in her muscles, threatening to consume her unless she released it.
Suddenly Barton let go of Katherine. “Bring them over here,” he instructed his men, marching over to a clear area at the centre of the camp.
The immediate danger passed, Anne’s anger simmered back down below the surface, but still close to boiling over. She found herself dragged over to where Barton stood, before being shoved onto the ground. Springing back to her feet hoping to make something of the lack of restraint, Anne immediately saw a pair of bows levelled and pointing in her direction. A quick survey round her revealed she and Katherine were in fact encircled by a wide ring of outlaws, with at least a dozen bows aimed at them. Any attempt to break out of the human circle would meet with swift and certain death. Turning back to Barton, Anne took in the smug expression on his face.
“Since we didn’t get a proper fight in my game last time,” he said, “I thought you two could provide today’s entertainment.
Anne gave a disbelieving laugh. “You expect me to fight Katherine? You’re more deluded than you look.” She glanced to the other woman who was standing a few feet away, receiving a supportive nod. Reassured, Anne stared back at Barton. “You’ll have to shoot me because it’s not going to happen.”
“Shoot you?” repeated Barton. “No, if you don’t fight, I’ll shoot her.”
Barton nodded his head to the man next to him who directed the tip of his ready arrow in Katherine’s direction. Anne’s breath caught. Her eyes flicked from the deadly arrow to Katherine and back to Barton. He held her gaze for a moment before turning to the man at his side. “Kill her.”
“No! Wait!” shouted Anne, a hand shooting up to stall the outlaw. “I’ll do it,” she quickly added to ensure her intentions were obvious.
“Anne,” Katherine started, “we can’t…”
She didn’t get to finish her sentence. Instead she was knocked off her feet by Anne barrelling into her. The younger woman followed her down, making a show of tussling on the ground so she could lean in and whisper into Katherine’s ear. “John should be bringing re-enforcements any time.” She rolled them over in the mud a couple of times until she ended up back on top. “We just need to make a good show of it until then.”
“Come on!” cried Barton. “Stop cuddling and get on with it!”
Anne risked a quick glance to Katherine’s face to check she’d understood. The other woman gave an almost imperceptible nod. Anne didn’t like it, but if they could waste enough time hopefully John would arrive. She pulled them both to their feet before shoving Katherine a couple of feet away. The other woman staggered backwards, Anne unsure if it was part of the act or if she’d pushed a bit too hard.
“Just hit her!” jeered Barton.
Anne knew simply wrestling around wasn’t going to cut it with Barton. She balled her fist at her side, trying to steel herself for what had to be done. However, raising it to strike proved more difficult. She just couldn’t do it, even if it wasn’t real. Her fingers slackened again. Behind her she heard the creak of a bow tightening. But it wasn’t that which impacted her. Instead that was Katherine’s fist, right into her stomach. Anne doubled over, letting out a wheezing cough. To her side, Barton clapped his hands and whooped encouragement.
Taking some time to get her breath back, Anne craned her head upwards, seeing the look of apology in Katherine’s eyes. Realising it was her ‘turn’ again, Anne charged at Katherine, looking for all intents and purposes like she was going to whack a raised forearm across her throat. However, just before the impact, Anne darted out a foot to trip Katherine backwards. The speed of the action made it look like Anne had downed her with the swinging arm.
Now on the ground, Katherine swept her own leg round. Anne could have jumped over it, but she let it collide with her ankles and made a convincing display of crashing to the ground. She grabbed the lapel of Katherine’s top, pulling them into a close tussle.
“Sorry about the punch,” whispered Katherine as they fake wrestled.
“It was a bloody good one,” conceded Anne. That assessment didn’t exactly seem to please Katherine whose brow creased into a frown. Anne quickly added, “I’m fine, don’t worry.”
“This is boring!” shouted Barton to interrupt them. “Time to up the stakes!”
They clambered to their feet to see Barton lob a dagger into the earth between them. For a second Anne contemplated going for it and flinging it straight back into the outlaw chief’s heart. As satisfying as that might be, the likelihood that they’d then be shot down in a hail of arrows made it impractical.
“One of you better go for it,” Barton said, “or we’re just going to start shooting.”
Anne locked eyes with Katherine, each of them silently willing the other to lunge for it. Anne was frozen, her mind unable to come up with a viable option. Taking the dagger and using it certainly wasn’t one. Again it was Katherine who took decisive action. She leapt for the dagger, snatching it up and swinging it in Anne’s direction. It was a half-hearted attempt, but in her surprise Anne almost didn’t dodge in time. The second was even more lacklustre and Anne knew Barton would see through the charade if it went on as it was. When Katherine lunged again, Anne caught her wrists, pulling the other woman close with the dagger between them.
“You’re going to have to actually strike me!” she hissed.
“No chance!” shot back Katherine, her blue eyes sparking with determination. “You should strike me - at least you can heal me after.”
They spun round and round, making it look as if they were both struggling to wrest control of the dagger, rather than foist it on the other.
“I can’t,” pleaded Anne. Not only did the thought make her sick, she wasn’t sure she could physically compel her body to do something so repulsive.
Katherine pursed her lips in her ‘making a difficult decision’ face. “I understand,” she said.
Suddenly Katherine yanked their entwined hands towards herself, the blade plunging into her side. She cried out, falling to the ground at a shocked Anne’s feet. Anne’s own legs seemed unable to hold her up at that moment and she fell to her knees at Katherine’s side, the bloody dagger still in her hand. She stared at it in horror, sickness engulfing her.
From nearby, Barton laughed and clapped, mocking her. Anne’s fingers tightened on the handle of the dagger. Her other hand rested on the ground, the cold mud under a contrast to the fire she felt within. Suddenly something warm touched her hand, another set of fingers entwining themselves in her own and squeezing. Shocked, Anne looked to Katherine’s face. The other woman had the audacity to open a single eye and offer a small wink before closing it again and resuming her pretence of unconsciousness.
Barton was far too busy gloating to have noticed the movement. Anne could hear him getting closer, though she didn’t look up, maintaining the illusion she was consumed with grief. It didn’t take much pretence, the shock from feeling the dagger stab into Katherine’s flesh still raw and painful. Yet she needed to gather herself, make Katherine’s foolhardy actions worthwhile. Anne let Barton move towards them, her hand still tight round the hilt of the dagger. It was the only way to stop it from shaking. Once his boots came into her peripheral vision, she leapt up. Anne was behind him in a flash, dagger at his throat.
“Drop your weapons!” she instructed the other outlaws.
“Shoot her!” countered Barton.
Anne pulled him tighter, letting the tip of the blade bite into his neck. “That wouldn’t be a good idea, unless you really trust the skill of your men.”
A pause was enough to signal his uncertainty. He didn’t remain silent for long though. “Shoot the other one!”
Subconsciously Anne looked down at Katherine. The fleeting distraction was enough. Barton twisted in her grasp, delivering an elbow to her chin. Anne fell backwards, almost landing on top of Katherine.
“Now,” cried Barton, “shoot them both!”
The sound of arrows
being loosed filled the air, but none of them hit Anne. Instead they flew into
the backs of each of Barton’s archers. They tumbled forwards, their bows and
arrows falling harmlessly by their sides. A stunned Barton swung round to see
Katherine offered a weak smile, though Anne could see the pain behind it. “Any time you want to do your healing thing…”
Anne shook her head at the other woman’s glib remark, but offered no words for now. She placed her hands on Katherine’s stomach either side of the wound. As she had done while tracking Katherine’s trail earlier, Anne let the sensations of nature well up to fill her. Only this time she focussed them into a desire to heal the injury beneath her fingers. She felt the energy ebbing from her own body, out through her hands into Katherine. As always with channelling healing power there was a brief moment when she could feel an intense connection, their energies joined as one. Then it was gone, Anne left spent and gasping for air from the draining effect of the healing. The more serious the wound the more it took from her. From the tiredness she felt through her bones, she knew this one had been more than Katherine’s winking bravado had suggested. Anne took a couple of deep breaths before opening her eyes to see Katherine sitting up and smiling back at her. Anne’s relief mixed with her anxiety to manifest as anger.
“That was really stupid,” she admonished, “you could have punctured something and died in an instant! Even my powers don’t extend to bringing someone back from the dead!”
Katherine recognised the fear underlying the harsh words. Without saying anything, she simply reached out to touch Anne’s cheek. “I know; I’m sorry. It was the only thing I could think of in the moment.”
Anne sighed, her anger quickly dissipating. “I guess I should have done a better job guarding you in the first place.”
“Now you’re the one
being stupid,” chided Katherine. “If it wasn’t for you I could well be dead
back on that road. As it is we may yet make it to
Anne had completely
forgotten about that in the heat of the moment. Looking to the sky, she gauged
they had at best a couple of hours before dusk. They’d need a horse and even
then it would be tight. She rose, offering a hand to Katherine. Once on their
feet, Anne saw a familiar face approaching from across the camp.
“It would be nice to see you at some time other than when you’re in mortal danger,” he commented.
Anne gave a half-grin.
“It’s good to see you too,
He let out an exasperated sigh before closing the distance and wrapping her up in a warm hug. Eventually he pulled back, offering Katherine a greeting before addressing Anne again. “The lady of the manor working you hard is she?”
He was half-joking,
though a slight undercurrent of bitterness was detectable. Growing up,
“She keeps me busy,” answered Anne, “especially since she seems to have this knack for finding trouble.”
“I am here you know,” interjected Katherine, “though talking of trouble, we have somewhere to be.”
Anne opened her mouth
to speak, but
“Thanks,” said Anne, “though what did you mean ‘eventually’?”
“We would have been here sooner, but your squire seemed to be rather…overawed when faced with a bunch of outlaws.”
Anne rolled her eyes. Though John talked a good game, it seemed he wasn’t always able to live up to his cockiness.
“Don’t be too hard on
“What makes you think I would be hard on him?”
“I don’t think I’m perfect,” Anne said indignantly.
“Just very, very good at what you do?”
Anne gave a wry smile; a lack of confidence in her own abilities was not something she suffered from. She supposed she couldn’t necessarily expect the same from everyone else, especially not fresh, young squire recruits.
“Just give him a
“One way or another,”
Anne said cryptically. “Did you bring him with you, or did he need to go have a
lie down after all the excitement?”
“He did come back with
“At least he learnt something.” Anne muttered to herself.
As if on cue, John
came trotting over, holding out the pendant to Anne who mumbled a thank you.
John seemed a bit uncertain how to respond, his eyes drifting to Anne’s right where Katherine stood behind her. Suddenly he straightened up. “No problem, just doing my duty.”
Anne was going to tell him not to overdo it, but the sound of a galloping horse approaching prevented her. Henry pulled a dark brown mare to a halt by them, before hopping down and giving Anne one of his boyish grins. “For you I believe,” he said offering the reins.
She reached out, but was beaten to it by Katherine’s hand. “I’ll drive,” stated the other woman.
Anne looked around her
for help, but
“No, there’s no point in that,” agreed Anne. “Do you have a sword and bow I can borrow?”
“Of course,” said
Anne slung the bow
over her shoulder and attached the scabbard to her belt, speaking to John as
she did. “You and Thomas head back to
Her instructions given, Anne clambered up onto the horse behind Katherine. She wrapped her arms around the other woman. “Lead on, Milady.”
By the time they made
it to the bustling county town of
They had to slow to a trot through the main gate to the castle such was the volume of human traffic. Once inside the main walls it was a short ride over the cobbles to the entrance to the castle itself. It was guarded by a couple of the Sheriff’s troops who looked less than impressed when the two rather shabby women hopped down from their horse and approached. They blocked Katherine’s way with their pikes.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Lady Katherine of
Something in her commanding tone penetrated the guard’s exterior despite her unkempt, muddy appearance. The man stepped aside, but blocked the way again when Anne tried to follow on.
“And what are you?” he asked, the contempt obvious in his voice as he looked over her ragged guard’s uniform.
“She’s one of my guards; she’s with me,” stated Katherine as if that explained everything.
“But, but…,” stammered the guard, his pike still obstructing Anne, “…she’s a woman.”
“I’m glad you noticed,” retorted Anne.
“As I said,” Katherine stated slowly making sure the man looked to her as she spoke so she could inflict a severe stare on him, “she’s with me.”
“Yes, milady,” he said, realising the possibility of being punished if it was deemed he’d been rude to a noble. He nodded to his compatriot and they lifted their weapons out of the way so Anne could pass.
Katherine took one last look at the sky before they entered the dim exterior of the castle. “We need to get to the great hall and fast.”
“I think I remember the way,” said Anne, breaking into a run after Katherine. “One doesn’t quickly forget somewhere they were nearly executed.”
“Or somewhere they received a royal pardon,” Katherine reminded her.
Two more guards were on duty in front of the huge oak doors to the hall. Seeing the two hurrying women, they made to draw their swords.
“Lady Katherine of
The great hall at
“I dispute it!” shouted Katherine.
The Sheriff stopped, slowly raising his dark eyes to her. All other heads in the room swivelled to study her. She knew she must look an absolute state – clothes tattered and muddy, not to mention the darkening bloodstain on her left side. She didn’t really care what they thought, though. Most of those assembled had been here last time she’d entered the hall, baying for her head.
“Lady Katherine,” identified the Sheriff, managing to make her name sound like some sort of curse word.
Katherine strode forwards past the staring eyes. “Good evening, Sheriff,” she greeted.
“What a pleasure to see you and your…companion again,” he said odiously. Katherine knew he was well aware of their real relationship, but that topic was off limits for now thanks to King Richard.
“The feeling’s mutual,” she replied, both of them knowing she meant a feeling of contempt rather than of pleasure. The Sheriff was a sadistic tyrant, an example of all that was bad with the nobility. “As stated I wish to dispute the claim on the lands of Eaton. I believe I have the right to know who has made such a challenge?”
“That would be me.”
Katherine turned to see one of the nobles stepping forward. He was about six feet tall, with a strong muscular frame. He looked more like a knight rather than the normal fat, lazy noble. A pair of cold grey eyes stared at her, their gaze unwavering. Katherine determinedly held it. It was left up to the Sheriff to make the introductions.
“Lady Katherine of
The other noble tipped his head slightly though his expression remained implacable. “Lady Katherine.”
“Lord Edgar,” she greeted in return. Over her shoulder Katherine could sense Anne hovering close by, ready to step in should she be needed. However, Katherine didn’t think even Lord Edgar was that brazen. She suspected sneaky manoeuvring rather than outright, public confrontation was more his thing. Equally she decided it wasn’t the best time to bring up her suspicions over him being responsible for the attack on Eaton and quite possibly paying Barton to waylay her too. She had no proof of either for now.
The Sheriff cleared his throat to break the awkward silence. “Since Lady Katherine is here, then I shall have to uphold her current claim,” he said, sounding as if he would rather have pulled out his own teeth with rusty pliers. Though the Sheriff was a despot, he still had to abide by some laws of the land, especially when it came to nobles and even more so with ones currently in the favour of royalty.
Katherine watched Lord Edgar as the Sheriff delivered his verdict. A brief flicker of anger coloured his features before it was gone again, the dour mask back in place. However, he didn’t move, still staring at Katherine. Something in his penetrating gaze made her uncomfortable. She got the sense that there was more to this than a bit of land. He might not have moved at all if it wasn’t for another figure coming from behind him and taking his arm.
“Come on, darling,” said a smooth feminine voice, “there will be other opportunities.” The owner of the silky voice favoured Katherine with an equally seductive smile. “Hello, Katherine.”
Katherine could only stare back in surprise for a moment before she found her voice. “Hello, Lady Saskia,” she replied, making sure she at least remembered the more formal appellation to the other woman’s name. She didn’t want to give the impression they were in any way friends. That was hardly likely, given Saskia and her husband had once kidnapped her and Anne for their own sick pleasure. Apparently Saskia had found another man to stick her claws into now her husband was dead. Katherine supposed she shouldn’t have been surprised; Saskia always had a scheme on the go. Even she might have bitten off more than she could chew with the fearsome Lord Edgar.
“It’s good to see you again, Katherine,” Saskia continued. “Hopefully we’ll have time to catch up soon.”
“I can’t wait,” said Katherine evenly, thinking she would rather spend time with a flea-ridden goat.
Saskia gave her one last wink, before guiding Lord Edgar out the door. Neither offered any kind of farewell. Dismissing them for now, Katherine turned to the Sheriff. “I don’t suppose I could impinge on your generous hospitality and get a room to clean up in?” she asked in her most ingratiating tones.
Katherine moved inside the room provided by the Sheriff. It wasn’t the most luxurious she had stayed in at the castle, unlike those back when she was still maintaining a pretence of cordiality with the man, but it was serviceable. She crossed to the bed and flopped down onto it. Though she hadn’t wanted to admit as much to Anne, she was still feeling the after-effects of stabbing herself earlier. It hadn’t exactly been her greatest idea, but the makeshift plan had worked out in the end. Now though she was just tired. Behind her Anne closed the door.
“That smug bastard, I should have whacked him one, right on his noble nose.”
Katherine sat back up. “I presume you’re referring to Lord Edgar?”
“Yes,” agreed Anne, pacing the room, “and I can’t believe Saskia was with him too. No good can come of that pairing.”
“I’m guessing you got the same sort of vibe off Edgar as I did?” asked Katherine.
“If by that you mean cold, calculating evil, then yes.”
“Something like that,” agreed Katherine. “He made the Sheriff seem positively friendly.”
“You know he hired Barton,” said Anne as she reached the now dark window and turned to pace back across the floorboards again.
“Of that I have no doubt,” said Katherine, “but unfortunately we can’t prove it, or any involvement in the attack on Eaton.”
“We should have just challenged him then and there,” suggested Anne, swinging round at the door.
“A nice idea, but if we’d started making accusations like that in front of the other nobles I’d be the one who looked bad. I can’t afford that – I have few enough allies as it is given who I am.”
Anne stopped suddenly, hearing the undercurrent of bitterness. “About what I said before…”
“No, you were right,” interrupted Katherine. “The fact that I’m a woman does make things trickier – it just means I need to try twice as hard as everyone else and not alienate people without cause. Obviously Edgar is up to something, it’s just going to take a bit of careful digging to find out what.”
Anne made a face. “Ugh, diplomacy, I think I’ll leave that to you.” She sat down on the bed next to Katherine, blue eyes studiously sweeping over the other woman. “Are you all right, you look a bit drawn?”
“Is that a polite way of saying I look terrible?” Katherine laughed, before quickly adding, “Don’t answer that – I know I look like shit! It’s nothing a nice long soak and a good night’s rest won’t put right.”
Anne picked up one of Katherine’s hands and brought it to her lips, kissing the knuckles. “Sounds like a plan to me,” she said. “Maybe you’d like some company in that bath?”
Katherine grinned. “I will need someone to wash my back after all.”
Anne smiled in return, rising from the bed. “Then I best go see about getting us some hot water.”
Katherine rose up on her knees, catching Anne’s hand again before she moved away. She pulled the other woman close enough to lean in and place a soft kiss on her lips. “Thank you,” she said when she pulled back.
“Just for always being there.”
This time it was Anne who leant in to kiss Katherine. “Where else would I be?” she asked rhetorically.
They shared a final knowing smile before Anne left in search of the hot water. Katherine lay back down and closed her eyes for a second, but the sound of the door re-opening delayed any chance for sleep. Katherine smiled to herself, sitting up. “Couldn’t stay away after all…”
Her words died on her lips. It wasn’t Anne in the doorway, but rather the bulky form of Lord Edgar.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded, hopping off the bed to stand. “Get out!”
Lord Edgar actually offered Katherine a smile, surprising her by showing he could be charming when he wanted to be. He almost looked handsome in a slightly brutish way. “I just thought it might be an idea if we had a quiet word,” he said, closing the door behind him, “try and sort this out sensibly.”
“Sort what out? You attacked my land!”
“No, I made a claim on some vacant land,” he corrected, voice still genial.
“It was only vacant after you’d had everyone on it killed!”
“That’s a scandalous
accusation,” he said. The act of being appalled might have worked if she hadn’t
heard the first-hand account from
“Aren’t you in the least bit remorseful?” pressed Katherine.
“Why should I be remorseful?” he asked. “It’s nothing to do with me.”
“Then at least you might show some compassion!” cried Katherine, her blood starting to boil. “Defenceless women, children - all senselessly murdered.”
Edgar shrugged. “They were only peasants, what’s a few less of them?”
Katherine took a step back, shocked at his nonchalant attitude. She knew some nobles were callous, but it was as if the human loss of life didn’t even register as anything important in Edgar’s world. She shook her head in disbelief. “I know you did it.”
Suddenly the veneer of amiability disappeared. Edgar flew at her, far too quickly for her to react. He pinned her against the wall, a well-muscled forearm across her throat.
“You don’t know me at all!” he seethed. “You think you’re so much better than everyone else with your self-righteous preaching? You’re no better than the rest of us!”
Katherine coughed, trying to say something in response. It came out as a hoarse whisper. “Get off me!”
Edgar’s eyes bored into her, the animosity behind them frightening. Katherine stared back, unwilling to back down even if she was physically outmatched. The sounds of servants passing filtered in from the corridor, seeming to snap Edgar out of it. He pulled back, taking a couple of steps away. He straightened his clothes as if trying to dismiss the momentary loss of control. Katherine rubbed at her throat, unable to speak for the time being.
Once he had collected himself again, Edgar moved towards the door, turning on the threshold. “I can see you won’t be reasonable about this,” he said, his voice back to the composed tone it had originally possessed, “but let me warn you – do not stand in my way or you will regret it.”
“And so will you if you think I’m going to stand by and let you terrorise the people on my land,” replied Katherine. She was shaking, partly from fury and partly from the shock of what had just occurred. “You picked the wrong estate to mess with.” She steeled herself and took a couple if steps forwards. “Now, get out!”
She could see Edgar’s jaw clenching where he was straining to hold himself back. “This is not over,” he stated before yanking the door open and sweeping from the room.
Holding up her torch
in the otherwise dark stables, Anne counted along the stalls. When she made it
to the fourth one, she peered inside seeing their horse was indeed tethered
there as one of the guards had informed her. After visiting the kitchens to
request hot water, Anne had decided to quickly check on their mount being as
they’d discarded it at the castle doors. No doubt
“Hey, girl, sorry about abandoning you earlier, we were in a bit of a hurry.”
The horse whinnied back. Anne would have almost thought it an indignant response if horses were capable of such things. She poured the water into the trough, checking it also had a supply of food for the night. Giving it one last pat she made for the stall gate. In the flickering torchlight she saw movement out of the corner of her eye in the main central aisle of the stables. Someone was hiding in the shadows. Anne gave no outward sign she had noticed, pretending to be reaching for the torch with one hand while her other went to the hilt of her sword.
Once her fingers gripped it, she swung round, drawing the blade in one swift movement and charging at the shadowy figure. She had them pinned against the wooden wall in a flash, sword raised at their throat. The orange glow from the torch highlighted an elfin face with a pair of soft brown eyes staring back at her.
Anne’s mouth went slack in surprise. “Axia?”
“Hello, Anne,” said the other woman in her lilting French accent. “It is time; we need you.”
Saskia drew her brush through her long brown hair, contemplating the meeting in the hall earlier. Somehow she had known Katherine would make it in time, despite Edgar’s confidence in his hired outlaws. He still thought money could buy him anything, which was one of the reasons he needed Saskia for more cunning advice. She could see the potential to mould him into exactly what she wanted, though at the same time there was a hint of danger about him. That only intrigued her more.
Behind her the door thumped open, Edgar striding in, cursing to himself. Saskia didn’t turn, merely smiling to herself. When he’d suggested going to Katherine to offer her a deal to buy the land Saskia had nearly laughed in his face, but hadn’t thought that wise. Instead she’d let him go see for himself what a hopeless proposition that was. Katherine was far too duty and honour bound to accept something so crass. That was one of the things that attracted Saskia to her. The challenge of breaking down that noble exterior and discovering the woman underneath was highly tempting, especially since she’d seen a glimpse of it the year before.
“I take it she refused?” Saskia eventually asked.
Edgar continued to mutter to himself until she turned round on her seat. Seeing she was watching him he suddenly stopped. “Where is Eleanor?”
“I don’t keep tabs on your old crone,” Saskia said dismissively. “I don’t know why we have to keep her around; she gives me the creeps with all that rat’s entrails and bat’s wings claptrap.”
“I told you before, I need her,” Edgar said.
Saskia rose from her seat, sweeping her freshly brushed dark hair back over her shoulder in a calculated gesture. She moved close to Edgar, lightly brushing herself against his arm. “More than you need me?” she asked slyly.
She could feel the heat from him, his grey eyes studying her. “Don’t push me, woman,” he said darkly.
Saskia backed off, sensing now was not the time for using her well-practiced arts of seduction. That was fine; the game was a long one. The door opened again, the subject of their conversation entering. Saskia wondered if Eleanor had looked up ‘scary old witch’ in a book and then deliberately modelled herself on it. She had it all – the stoop, the wild grey hair, the crazed eyes, the crooked nose. Why witches could never be beautiful young women she didn’t know. She supposed Katherine’s young consort could be classed as a witch of sorts and though Saskia would have liked to deny it, she had to grudgingly admit Anne was beautiful. Still as Saskia had told herself before – she liked a challenge.
“Where have you been?” Edgar demanded of the old witch.
“Bringing you a gift,” she rasped back. Saskia had forgotten the cackling voice to complete the set of witch pre-requisites.
“Where is it then?”
Eleanor gestured someone inside from the corridor. A tall black-cloaked figure entered, face hidden from view by a voluminous hood. Saskia wondered if they could collect any more ‘evil’ stereotypes in one room.
“And who the hell is this,” Edgar asked impatiently as Eleanor closed the door.
“He helps people eliminate problems.”
Suddenly Edgar was intrigued. “Problems of the human kind?”
The witch smiled, showing off the extent of her teeth, all two of them. “Yes.”
Edgar looked at the dark figure stood silently in the corner. “Can’t he speak for himself?”
“No, he does not speak.”
Edgar turned to the hooded man. “I will need it to look like an accident, can you manage that?”
The figure simply nodded.
“Good. Then consider yourself hired - kill Lady Katherine.”
COMING SOON: Lady Katherine and The Silent Assassin