The Lady Katherine Chronicles 24
Lady Katherine and The Belligerent Bride
Posted June 2010
Codes: uber J/7
Setting: May 1193, Nottinghamshire, England
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 first thing to register in Lady Katherine of Markham’s mind as she stirred from sleep was that something was tickling gently at her ear. She chuckled to herself as she rolled over.
“You’re eager this morning …”
The words died on her lips as she opened her eyes. Before her was not the expected sight of gorgeous blue eyes but instead the vision of a bemused squirrel. It tilted its head to the side and made an indignant clicking noise at having lost its nibbling object. Katherine screamed and shot up into a sitting position. The squirrel leapt backwards before disappearing into a nearby bush. It was at this point Katherine realised she was not even in her bedroom but appeared to have been sleeping fully clothed in the middle of a field. Now she was sitting she also noted the rampant headache hammering at her temple. Bringing her hand up to rub ineffectually at it, the events of the previous evening swam back into her mind.
For some reason Beatrice had decided it was a good idea to hold a celebration for all her female friends the night before her wedding day. Supposedly it was tradition, but Katherine thought it more likely Beatrice had made it up as an excuse to get well and truly drunk on her last night of ‘freedom’ as she put it. The young maid had certainly made a good job of it if that was her aim. The last Katherine recalled Beatrice had been standing on a table singing a modified version of ‘The Lonely Wench’. Those modifications mainly involved copious cursing and sexual innuendo as if the song didn’t contain enough of it already. Katherine groaned as she had a vague recollection of joining in herself with a line rhyming ‘knock’ with something that should not be uttered by a respectable lady of the manor. She supposed she should never have had three of Beatrice’s special cocktails, not when the special element appeared to be as much alcohol as possible.
However, how she had gone from drinking and singing bawdy songs at the party to sleeping in a field was a mystery to her. It was lucky the weather was fine, since that wasn’t always the case in the last week of May. She could easily have woken to find herself lying in a puddle during a torrential downpour rather than having the sun dappling across the green grass and warming the top of her head. She closed her eyes for a moment and just luxuriated in the feel of it, letting it push her headache away. A faint rustling from the nearby bushes drifted to her ears and Katherine’s eyes shot open. She didn’t fancy becoming squirrel food again.
She clambered to her feet, ready to ward off the furry interloper when she noticed a flash of something much larger between the leaves. “Is there someone back there?” she asked the quivering bush.
“Actually it’s me, Milady,” came a wary voice that Katherine recognised.
“Beatrice? What are you doing hiding in a bush?” asked Katherine as she started to make her way round it.
Beatrice let out a panicked, “Wait, don’t!”, but it was too late, Katherine had already made it to the other side.
The answer to Katherine’s question was now perfectly clear. Beatrice was stark naked, though hurriedly trying to cover herself up with some well placed greenery. The tiny leaves were hardly up to the job, though. Katherine was at a loss for words as was the blushing Beatrice for once.
“I … er … seem to have lost my clothes,” she finally managed.
“So you have,” Katherine noted, trying desperately to hold back her sniggers. “Is this part of the pre-wedding tradition too or are you just trying to scare the wildlife?”
“Are you saying my naked body is scary?”
“No,” replied Katherine, “you have very lovely …” she cast around for something appropriate to say while trying to avoid staring “… berries.”
Beatrice pulled one of the small red fruits off the bush and flung it at Katherine who dodged the projectile while laughing.
“It’s all right for you,” moaned Beatrice, “at least you’re fully clothed.”
“I guess your other party guests thought it might be a step too far stealing the lady of the manor’s clothes.”
“In which case you could lend me some of them,” suggested Beatrice.
Katherine looked down at her attire. She didn’t exactly have many layers to spare, but supposed they could work something out. After some swift exchanging of items, they both stood half-dressed. The breeze picked at the gap in Katherine’s sleeveless vest, the only item she now had on her top half. Her breasts were dangerously close to being revealed no matter how she tried to pull it closed. Katherine sincerely hoped she didn’t bump into anyone dressed as she was. She knew she had a reputation as a bit of an eccentric, but if anyone caught her wandering the estate partially clothed they might start to question her sanity.
“Now I think it would be prudent to find the nearest village and get us some better apparel,” suggested Katherine. “We can discern where we are then too. Hopefully it’s not too far from Markham else you’re going to be in quite the rush to make it to the church on time. We wouldn’t want to keep your expectant groom Thomas waiting.”
“You do realise the men and special guest have probably gotten up to much worse,” noted Beatrice.
The special guest Beatrice was referring to was Anne, who had been invited to join Thomas’ party since it consisted mainly of members of the guard of whom she was one. Katherine suspected it was another attempt by Thomas to gain Anne’s favour since the young woman still bore a grudge due to his act of betrayal the year before.
“I’m sure Anne will have kept him in line,” stated Katherine confidently.
Beatrice raised a querying eyebrow. “How sure?”
Anne groaned and brought her hands up to her pounding head. This was why she didn’t normally drink. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, joining in with the other guards and matching them drink for drink to show solidarity, but now the pain behind her eyes suggested otherwise. She held them shut for a few more seconds before risking a peek at the harsh light of morning. And harsh it certainly was. So harsh that she quickly realised she was actually outside with the sun beaming directly down on her. As she went to sit up a clanking rattle alerted her to something else that wasn’t quite right.
In some consternation she saw that her left foot appeared to have a manacle on it. That wasn’t the worst of it, though. The other end of the short chain was secured to a second manacle around the leg of a resoundingly snoring Thomas. Anne poked him with her free foot. When all this garnered was a snuffle and a bout of louder snoring, she gave him solid kick.
Thomas grunted and slowly peeled himself off the ground. His fair hair was disarrayed while his normally blue eyes were distinctly bloodshot. Anne wasn’t surprised given the amount of ale he’d consumed the night before. Unfortunately it appeared she’d also overindulged and allowed the other guards to play a decidedly un-amusing trick on the pair of them. Thomas dazedly took in their predicament before focussing his bleary eyes on her.
“Where are we?”
“I have no idea,” admitted Anne as she cast her eyes around the landscape. There were no dwellings or landmarks in sight. “It seems your friends thought it would be hilarious to strand us in the middle of nowhere only hours before your wedding.”
Thomas groaned and rubbed at his head. “Beatrice is going to kill me if I’m late.”
Anne considered that might not be such a bad outcome, but kept the uncharitable thought to herself. “Then I guess we had best pick a direction and start walking,” she suggested instead.
“Getting these off as soon as possible would help too,” noted Thomas as he tried unsuccessfully to push the manacle off over his foot.
“I could always break your ankle for you?” offered Anne nonchalantly.
Thomas looked at her aghast, unsure if she was joking. “If it’s all the same I’d like to be able to walk up the aisle at my wedding.”
Anne shrugged. “It would just be the quickest way to remove them.”
“Maybe we could find a smithy or something instead and keep all our body parts in one piece?”
Anne supposed that was the next best alternative and clambered to her feet. She made no attempt at further conversation as they stumbled forwards trailing the chain between them, merely casting disapproving glances at Thomas whenever he failed to keep to her walking rhythm. She wondered how the other party had fared the night before. Hopefully Katherine hadn’t befallen any similar practical jokes. Anne couldn’t picture it – Katherine may be relaxed for a noble, but she didn’t think the peasants would risk it. However, Katherine’s sister was also down from Yorkshire for the festivities and Phillipa appeared to have a mischievous streak. Just in case that streak extended to some fun at her sister’s expense Anne had precautions in place. A tug on her ankle brought her back to her own predicament. Thomas had stumbled over in a rabbit hole, now sitting on his backside on the grass. Anne simply reached down and yanked him roughly to his feet.
“Anyone would think you didn’t want to get back to Markham,” she noted.
“Then anyone would be wrong,” he replied. “There’s nothing I want more than to get married to Beatrice.”
Anne made a scoffing laugh, but didn’t say anything further. Thomas looked like he was about to argue the point when movement from across the field drew their eyes in that direction. A garrison of troops sporting what Anne recognised as the Mansfield colours came into view. Obviously they were further afield than they’d thought. The troops had also spotted them in return, coming to a halt as a man. Anne took one look at the dozen or so heavily armed men before swinging Thomas round in the opposite direction.
She tried to tug him away, but he seemed reluctant to obey. “Why do we need to run? You’re not an outlaw any more remember.”
“I know that,” she replied with an exasperated sigh, “but in case you hadn’t noticed we’re not in our colours and happen to be chained together like we’re escaped prisoners. We could probably sort it out eventually, but then you’d have well and truly missed your wedding.”
Thomas took a quick look down at their chained ankles. “Good point. Let’s run!”
As soon as they started staggering off in an awkward hop-skipping run, a cry to stop came from behind them. Anne risked a quick backwards glance to see the soldiers now running in their direction through the knee-high grass. Next to her, Thomas stumbled and crashed into her, Anne just catching him to stop them both going down.
“We need to run in time,” she instructed him, “move our joined feet as one. Ready?”
He simply nodded and concentrated hard on their feet as they set off again. Realising it was the best way to increase their speed, Anne put her arm across Thomas’ shoulders. His body jolted repetitively into her as they bounded along. Thomas grinned up at her.
“See, we can work together!”
“Watch where you’re going!” she cried back, but it was too late. Thomas’ foot hit a small earthy hummock, tripping him up. At the speed they were going there was no rescuing the situation this time. They tumbled forwards, rolling over and over down the slope they had been negotiating. Eventually they reached the bottom, with Thomas landing smack bang on top of Anne in the tangle of limbs. Slowly he levered himself up and offered a sheepish grin.
Anne rolled her eyes and pondered that it could yet be a very long walk back to Markham.
Friar Tuck strode in through the front door to Markham Manor. It was only nine in the morning but already things were not going well. For one he seemed to be missing both the bride and groom for that afternoon’s wedding. For another the sanctum of his church had been invaded by people with flowers, and decorations and all sorts of clutter wanting him to tell them what to do. Inside the house things were equally chaotic, with people dashing backwards and forwards laden with all manner of items from plates to parsnips and everything in between. All in all the wedding preparations appeared to be careening onwards with no one at the helm to guide them.
That was one of the reasons he was now at the manor house and looking for the lady of it. However, he couldn’t see Katherine amongst the bustling bodies before him. The young squire William came barrelling past carrying some flapping bunting and the friar quickly latched onto his arm.
“Have you seen your mistress?” he asked, reasoning that wherever Anne was, Katherine was sure to be close behind.
“Not since last night at the guards’ party,” he answered.
His obvious reticence as he spoke of it was enough to indicate to the friar that wasn’t quite the whole story. “You saw her leave the party did you?”
“I hope you’re not about to attempt to lie to a man of the cloth?” The friar fixed the young man with a stare to back up his point.
“It wasn’t my idea!” pleaded William.
“It was Benedict and the others,” he gabbled in response, “they thought it would be funny and I’m only a squire, I don’t get a say.”
“What did they think would be funny?” pressed the friar.
“They snuck extra spirits into Anne and Thomas’ drinks and then when they passed out took them both and dumped them out in the countryside somewhere.”
The friar’s bald brow creased. “And that’s meant to be funny how?”
The young man had no answer for that. “I’m sure they’ll be fine,” he attempted instead.
“Luckily for you I’m sure they will be since Anne has enough sense for both of them, a good job considering Thomas’ lack of it. I don’t suppose you know anything about the whereabouts of the bride as well?”
“Now that I really can’t help you with,” answered William. “Maybe her ladyship’s sister knows? I’m sure I saw her around here …” He cast his eyes around the hall that seemed to be becoming more and more crowded “… somewhere.”
The friar sighed. “All right, you can get on, I’m sure there is a desperate need for more bunting somewhere.”
The young man nodded and quickly dashed off, thankful to be excused. The friar worked his way across the room in search of either Katherine or her sister, though his progress was slowed by repeated questions about the wedding. For some reason everyone seemed to think he was the source of all information regarding it. By the time he reached the far side near the kitchens he felt thoroughly harassed. He leant against the wall and took a deep breath. No wonder Katherine was lying low and avoiding all this. Next to him the door to the kitchen banged open and a stressed looking cook barrelled out, his face even more red than normal.
“Friar! Quick, which am I meant to be cooking – the quail or the pheasant?”
“How should I know?” cried the friar. “I’m a friar, not a cook!”
Not waiting for any response he fled the hall in search of sanctuary at the church. It was going to be a long day.
Elsewhere, completely unaware of the runaway wedding preparations, Katherine stealthily crawled up a grassy hillock. Once at the top she peered over the summit and surveyed the village beyond it. It appeared reasonably quiet with only a couple of women visible passing the time of day in front of one of the houses. Katherine recognised one of them, taking only a couple of seconds to place her and thus identify the village as East Drayton. At least that meant they were only a couple of miles from Markham.
By her side Beatrice shuffled closer across the ground in order to whisper. “We could just go down there and ask them for some clothes; you are the lady of the manor.”
“Which is exactly why I don’t want anyone seeing me like this.” Some grass had become lodged where Katherine’s vest gaped open and she took a moment to pluck it out from between her breasts, depositing it back on the ground with a small huff to show her disapproval.
“So you’d rather steal their clothes?” queried Beatrice. “I think you’ve been hanging out with outlaws too much.”
“It’s not stealing,” corrected Katherine. “I’ll reimburse them later, but right now I seem to be without my purse, along with half my clothes,” she said pointedly as she swept her eyes over both their garments.
“All right, all right,” said Beatrice finally realising Katherine wasn’t really in the mood for a discussion. “We’ll do it your way.”
The pair of them crept down the grassy bank, alert the whole time for signs of life from the sleepy village. Fortunately there didn’t seem to be any. Equally fortuitous was the fact that someone had left some clothes hanging out on a line close to the edge of the village. The two women proceeded to unhook the garments and when Katherine thought she had enough items she glanced sideways to Beatrice. The young woman was attempting to get her foot into a skirt.
“Don’t put that on now,” hissed Katherine, “let’s just get the clothes and get out of here!”
“Easy for you to say when you already have a skirt on.”
Since she was halfway through the action anyway, Beatrice finished hopping into the skirt. Unfortunately she didn’t notice the chicken that had wandered behind her. As her foot came down there was a pained clucking noise. Katherine froze with her ill-gotten gains in her hands as it echoed round the village. There was silence for a second before a shout rang out in their direction.
“Hey! What are you doing back there?”
Katherine didn’t even look, just grabbing Beatrice’s arm. “Quick, run!”
They dashed back the way they had come, but it appeared their luck had most definitely turned. A group of the village men were heading towards them from that direction. Katherine spun on her heel. “Back the other way!”
They ran through the village, stolen clothes flapping in their arms. However, more people were gathering there too, having been alerted by the initial alarm raising. Katherine skidded to a halt at the edge of the village pond. Unfortunately Beatrice didn’t do likewise, having been looking over her shoulder for pursuers. Instead her progress was halted when she cannoned right into Katherine.
Katherine’s arms whirled futilely in the air for a moment before she succumbed to the inevitable, falling into the pond with a loud splash. The ducks on it scattered, issuing indignant quacks to draw just a bit more attention to Katherine as if that was needed. By the time she sat up in the dull brown water the whole village seemed to be arrayed before her on the bank. One duck had resolutely remained and let her know just what he thought of her intrusion by a fresh bout of quacking as he swum between the discarded clothes floating across the surface.
Katherine slowly pushed her sodden hair out of her eyes. In turn the eyes of the village woman Katherine had initially recognised widened. “Milady?”
The other villagers glanced uncertainly between her and the bedraggled Katherine obviously wondering if the woman was mad. Katherine couldn’t have looked anything less like a lady if she’d tried. Water cascaded off her as she rose and squelched her way to the bank before clambering out. She could see the light of recognition going on in some of the other villagers’ eyes and supposed it was too late to do anything else than brazen it out. Having removed some aquatic plant life from her hair, Katherine held her head up high with as much dignity as she could muster and addressed the assembled throng in a confident voice. “Good morning, everyone.”
The villagers didn’t seem to know quite how to respond and they all stood in silence for a moment just staring at her.
“It’s a lovely morning for a walk isn’t it?” Katherine attempted breezily.
“You was nicking our clothes!” cried a small girl who’d worked her way to the front.
One of the villagers swiftly grabbed the girl, sticking a hand over her mouth as she continued to protest. Katherine sighed supposing any attempt at maintaining a vague pretence of dignity had disappeared about the time she fell in the pond, quite possibly long before that.
“No it’s all right,” she said. “She’s correct - we were trying to borrow some of your clothes. As you can see my maid and I had an … unfortunate incident on the road.” Katherine didn’t elaborate as to what sort of incident could lead to them being partially dressed, quickly moving on. “We just needed some additional attire and didn’t want to bother you. I was of course going to recompense you in return.”
“Of course, Milady,” replied one of the women. “You should have just asked - we’d be happy to help wouldn’t we?”
This was met with a chorus of approving nods and yeses, apart from next to Katherine where indistinct muttering was emanating from Beatrice. Katherine ignored her and continued to address the villagers. “If it wouldn’t be too much trouble to ask for some water to wash up too?” she asked, gesturing at her dirtied state.
“No, no, of course not,” agreed the spokeswoman.
This time Beatrice’s muttering was just loud enough for Katherine to hear. “Might as well stay and have bloody dinner while we’re at it.”
Katherine leant in to reply out of earshot of the villagers. “There’s still a handy pond right next to us if you fancy cooling off.”
“We’re never going to get back to Markham in time at this rate, though,” whined Beatrice.
“Now you’re being melodramatic. There’s still plenty of time – it’s only about an hours walk from here and I’m not going to make that walk looking like I just stepped out of a duck pond, even if I have.”
“Well, we better not get waylaid anymore,” grumbled Beatrice.
She had barely finished the sentence when a piercing scream shattered the quiet of the village. Some of the villagers dashed off immediately in the direction it had come from. Katherine gave Beatrice a quick ‘you were the one who said it’ look before hurrying after them. A second cry of pain led her to one of the dwellings where the first arrivals were gathered on the threshold. Katherine pushed her way to the front just as a third ear-splitting wail came from the house. Inside she could see a young woman lying on the floor and obviously in the advanced stages of labour. Her eyes flicked wildly to her audience.
“Don’t just bloody stand there – someone help me!”
Several miles to the north-west, Anne and Thomas ducked inside a stable, the chains around their ankles coming to a rattling halt. Anne peered out between the ill-fitting timbers of the wall, confirming that somehow they’d managed to evade the Mansfield troops. Quite possibly they’d crossed the border onto Markham land and the soldiers had decided it wasn’t worth the bother continuing the pursuit.
“We’ve lost them,” she informed Thomas, “so I suggest we look around for anything to cut these chains.”
They did so in silence, Thomas having long since given up attempts at conversation. Sifting through the tools, Anne’s mind drifted back to another stable she had visited a couple of days previously, one that sat next to a cottage deep in Sherwood Forest.
“First we need to place our lockets in the middle.”
Anne looked to Axia who was sat opposite her amongst the straw of the stable floor. The other women reverentially drew her locket out from under her top and off over her head. Anne dug down into her boot and fished out hers. She refused to wear it round her neck when she already had a perfectly good pendant there. Axia said something in German to the other occupant of the room. From what Anne had been able to make out Johannes spoke no English. The young man placed his locket down next to theirs in the centre of their circle.
“Now, if we all close our eyes, just let our minds drift …”
Anne watched for a moment as Axia followed her own instructions before caving in and doing likewise. She took a few deep breaths and cleared her mind of conscious thought. She tried to just let herself feel her surroundings – the faint tickle of the straw under her, the sound of the trees swaying outside, the occasional gentle drift of cool air across her skin.
“Anne? Can you hear me?”
Anne jolted back to full awareness, staring at the young man next to her. It was his voice she had heard, somehow directly in her mind and in English. Sensing her study, he opened his eyes and smiled back at her.
“You do speak English?” she queried only to be met by a confused look.
Instead it was Axia who replied for him. “No,” she explained, “at least not out here. However, when we are joined there are no language barriers, just a sharing of thoughts.”
Anne wasn’t sure she wanted anyone poking around in her mind, especially not after her previous experiences with the dark witch. “That’s all very lovely,” she said, “but I don’t see how having a nice chat with one another is going to help us defeat some great evil.”
“This is just the first step,” outlined Axia. “Once we can join together in this way, then we can move forward to joining our energies and using them to draw on nature’s power.”
“I can do that already on my own, though,” pointed out Anne, though in fact she rarely did unless by accident. She’d never had the time or inclination to develop those abilities, especially when she’d not had anyone to teach her. Of course that was different now.
“That’s true,” agreed Axia, though Anne sensed the other woman knew she didn’t have the control she was alluding to. “However, together we can do so much more, need to do so much more.” She smiled at Anne. “Shall we try again?”
Anne started as Thomas’ voice cut through her recollections. The young guard regarded her curiously.
“You seemed to be off somewhere else for a moment there,” he commented, “something that’s actually been happening a bit recently.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Anne demanded defensively, still perturbed by her recollections. She thought she’d been discrete with her absences to visit Axia, but obviously some people had noticed. Curiously Katherine wasn’t one of them, or at least she’d not mentioned anything to Anne.
“Some of the guys are starting to talk,” replied Thomas.
“You mean Benedict is starting to talk.”
Thomas held up his hands, sensing a brewing storm. “I’m just letting you know what’s going on, I didn’t say I believed it.”
“And what exactly is this ‘talk’?”
Thomas hesitated, weighing up the wisdom of continuing. Eventually Anne’s intense stare drew the explanation out of him. “That you have other interests outside of your duties to the estate, contacts with your old life still.”
Anne bristled. How many times was she going to have to prove herself to these people? Maybe she would be better off back with the outlaws; at least no one questioned her motives there.
Thomas continued. “Some of the guys don’t trust you - they think your loyalties lie elsewhere.”
Anne had heard enough, going on the offensive. “I can’t believe you of all people are questioning my loyalty!”
“How many more times can I say I’m sorry for what happened last year?”
“Not enough,” seethed Anne. She was more than happy to let her residual anger over that flare up if it deflected from discussion of her.
Thomas glared back at her, rising to the bait. “You know what, I’ve had about enough of your superior attitude. I’ve tried to make amends, gone out of my way to be nice to you and you keep chucking it back in my face. Her ladyship has forgiven me, why can’t you?”
Anne crossed her arms and peered down her nose at him as if he was something insignificant on the bottom of her boot. “That’s her prerogative, but then she does like to try and see the best in people. Me, I guess you could say I’m more of a cynic … or a realist.”
“Like you’ve never done anything wrong!” cried Thomas. “You were a bloody outlaw for god’s sake. The King saw fit to pardon you for that and yet you can’t let this go for me?”
“I may have been an outlaw, but I still had honour and principles,” said Anne. She leaned towards him, her stare icy. “I would never betray one of my friends.”
Thomas backed away slightly, though he couldn’t go far thanks to the chains. “And I’m truly sorry for that,” he said, “but it will never happen again. I just ended up in a situation I didn’t know how to get out of.”
“So instead you let the Ares Syndicate nearly kill both me and Katherine?”
“I never knew it was going to go that far!”
“Right! You talk about loyalty, but all you could see was the big fat lump of money being dangled in your face!”
“That’s not how it was, I wasn’t doing it for me, I just wanted to make things right for Beatrice.”
“And I wonder if she realises she’s marrying a scheming coward?”
Anne saw Thomas’ swinging fist at the last second. She swayed back, but not enough to stop it from striking a glancing blow across the cheek. She staggered on her feet as her anger flared hotter. Time for some payback at last!
She drove her fist into Thomas’ stomach, the young man doubling over. A swift knee to his chin followed. He tumbled backwards, almost taking Anne with him since they were still joined at the ankle.
“Come on then, coward, show me what you’re made of,” goaded Anne.
With a snarl Thomas launched himself up off the floor at her. He careened bodily into her, driving the pair of them back up against the wall. The rickety timbers creaked in protest. Anne wrestled him off, grabbed a handy bucket and clonked it round his head. The rotten wood splintered, leaving Anne just holding a metal handle. Thomas in turn had found potential weapons among the discarded items of the stable. A couple of rusty horseshoes sailed past Anne’s swiftly swerving face before she clattered into Thomas again. They crashed to the ground, rolling around in the hay as each tried to get the upper hand. A remorseless knee in the groin allowed Anne to manoeuvre herself on top.
With tears in his eyes, Thomas stared defiantly up at her. “Go on then, you know you want to – this is what you’ve wanted to do since last summer!”
Anne’s fist hovered. She did want to. It would be so easy to pummel him into submission, but then what? Would it make anything better? She was the only one still carrying a grudge around, letting her anger fuel her actions as she had done so many times before. But things were different now; it didn’t have to be that way.
She clambered up off him. “Just get up.”
Thomas looked bemused for a moment, staying where he was in case it was a trick. “What? That’s it?”
“I can hit you again if you prefer?”
He quickly scrambled to his feet. “No, that’s fine.”
Anne sighed. “Let’s just get these chains off and get back to Markham.”
Katherine hovered in the doorway for just a moment before moving over to kneel beside the pregnant woman. “It’s all right,” she said reassuringly, “we’ll get you through this.”
Beatrice had just arrived in the door in time to hear the words. “What? Surely there must be someone else here to help?”
As she glanced round at the people gathered outside they all suddenly found something very interesting to look at on their shoes or off in the trees surrounding the village. Giving up on them, she turned back to the pregnant woman. “Who was meant to be your midwife?”
“It’s old Joan over in the next village, but that’s an hour’s round trip from here on one of her good days. I wasn’t expecting the young’un this soon!” Another gasping cry cut off the end of her words.
Katherine placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. “It’s all right, let it out.” While the young woman huffed and puffed, Katherine turned to the crowd outside. “Right, you lot can make yourselves useful – one of you go to get this midwife, we may still need her. In the mean time I need water and clean cloths. The rest of you can bugger off and give young …” She turned to the pregnant woman for her name, receiving the answer of Matilda. “Then the rest of you can give Matilda here some privacy.”
They seemed momentarily stunned by the orders, requiring Katherine to prompt them with a stern look. That was enough to send them scurrying, leaving just Katherine and the straining Matilda in the house. Beatrice was still loitering at a distance in the doorway.
“Are you going to stand there all day, or get over here and help me?” asked Katherine.
Beatrice’s eyes flicked to her, an uncharacteristic look of panic in them. Matilda gave another gasping cry at that moment. Beatrice started. “I can’t do this!” she cried before dashing out the door.
Katherine watched in bemusement. “Just hang on a moment,” she told Matilda with a reassuring pat on the arm, “I’ll be right back.”
Outside Beatrice hadn’t got far. She was leaning against the wall of the house, taking some deep breaths.
“What’s wrong?” asked Katherine gently, though she was aware of the need to get back inside as soon as possible.
Beatrice’s terror-filled eyes flicked up to her. “I can’t do this! Marriage, children …”
Katherine recognised the signs of cold feet, though she would never have expected Beatrice to be one to succumb to them. “It’s just nerves speaking,” she said in a calming voice, “you’ll be fine.”
“Fine?” wailed Beatrice. “Did you see that in there, it looked like bloody agony! I’m not letting Thomas come anywhere near me again!”
“Now you’re just being silly,” said Katherine, “childbirth is a perfectly natural thing. Yes, it looks scary, but I’m sure the result is well worth any temporary discomfort.”
“Like you’re the great authority!”
Katherine flinched back like someone had slapped her.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean that,” Beatrice quickly added, though it was too late to take away the sting of the words. It was one regret of Katherine’s life that she’d never had children, but now wasn’t the time to be concerned with her feelings.
“Forget it,” she said dismissively, “I know you’re anxious about the wedding, but it will all be fine.”
Beatrice wasn’t for persuading though. “I’m not so sure,” she said, shaking her head. “I … I … just can’t!”
Before Katherine could offer any more kind or encouraging words, the young woman pushed away from the wall and dashed off through the village. Katherine gave a despairing cry of “Beatrice!” but the other woman didn’t stop.
“Maybe you should let her cool off for a bit?”
Katherine whirled round at the sound of the deep voice. “Tobias?” she exclaimed on seeing the incongruous sight of the captain of the guard behind her. “What are you doing here?”
“Coming to your assistance,” he stated, “since it seems you might need some.”
Overcoming her initial shock on seeing him, Katherine’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “That didn’t really answer my question,” she noted. “How comes you just happened to be here? If I was paranoid I’d say you were following me.”
The fact he had no answer to that was answer enough.
“Did Anne put you up to this?” pressed Katherine. “Did she ask you to keep an eye on me?”
“We both agreed that it would not be prudent to leave you unguarded at the present time,” he said in an even diplomatic tone.
Katherine rolled her eyes. “I thought it was a bit suspicious the way she so readily agreed to attend Thomas’ party.”
“She is only concerned for your safety, as am I.”
“I’m not some fragile china doll, Tobias! I can look after myself, as I have for the last 40 years of my life!”
A cry from the house disturbed the brewing argument.
“I suggest that we discuss this at a later time,” said Tobias, “for now someone needs our help.”
“And you know a lot about delivering babies do you?” asked Katherine.
“No, but I can be calm and logical,” he stated. A brief glance in the direction Beatrice had disappeared indicated someone he thought had neither of those qualities.
Katherine sighed. “Fine, let’s just get on with it.”
Back at Markham
someone else’s day was also going from bad to worse. The friar had tried hiding
at the church, but had been assailed by a procession of people disturbing him
to ask stupid questions ranging from what colour flowers went best together to
how to repair a broken cart wheel. Still there was no sign of the bride or
groom or, for that matter, the lady of the manor. More and more the friar was
thinking they had the right idea with their mysterious disappearance. Maybe he
could follow suit. Surely
Having given up on finding peace and quiet at the church, he’d come back down to the manor house to see if there was any news on the missing wedding participants. However, if anything the house seemed more chaotic than earlier with still no sign of the happy couple or Katherine. Even the normally reliable Tobias was strangely absent. Instead it was the sound of children’s voices that drew his attention.
“Who are you to tell us what we can and can’t eat?” came a boy’s voice.
The bodies parted enough for the friar to see Katherine’s nephew George faced with a stern looking Natalie. The young servant girl thrust her hands on her hips as she stared at him. The friar couldn’t help chuckling to himself at the similarity to Katherine, something that was no doubt not entirely unintentional.
“I’m the lady of the manor’s personal assistant,” stated Natalie, puffing her chest out with pride as she did, “so it’s my duty to ensure the festivities go smoothly. Your eating of the wedding food before the ceremony is unacceptable.”
Again the friar couldn’t help a furtive grin crossing his face. The emphasis on the last word was pure Anne. However, George didn’t seem to share his amusement.
“You were one of our servants not that long ago! Now get out of the way, I’m hungry.”
“You will comply!”
The friar sensed it was time to stop watching the fun and intervene. He stepped between the two children, facing the boy.
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen your aunt have you?”
“Not today,” replied George. “Mother is over there.” He pointed helpfully at another auburn head amongst the crowd. “Maybe she might know?”
“Thank you, George,” said the friar. “Oh, and by the way – no eating the food until after the ceremony.”
He gave Natalie a little wink before shoving his way through the throng in the direction indicated.
“Phillipa,” he called as he got close, “have you seen your sister anywhere?” The edge of desperation in his voice was evident.
A frown creased the brow above the woman’s blue-grey eyes. They were an obvious indicator of the familial connection to the person who normally presided over matters in the hall. “Is she not back yet?” Phillipa cast a look towards the door. “It shouldn’t have taken her that long.”
“Back from where? Where is she?”
Realising her mistake, Phillipa’s eyes shifted round the room, looking for a means of escape. “Oh, I think I hear someone calling me!”
Before the friar could question her hearing she darted off between the bodies thronging the hall. He was contemplating giving chase when a hand grabbed his robes.
“Thank God you’re back!”
The friar turned to see the cook, looking even more flustered than earlier. The friar was worried the pulsing vein on the man’s flushed forehead was about to explode.
“I’m having a sauce dilemma in the kitchen!” cried the rotund man.
“As I told you before, I’m a friar not some sort of culinary advisor,” the friar said as he tried to back away. “Just do what you think is best.”
“But what if it’s not right, what if it turns out to be a disaster? The wedding will be ruined and it will be all be my fault!”
“I’m sure one slightly mis-cooked sauce isn’t going to ruin this wedding, there are plenty of other things more likely to do that – the absence of a bride and groom for starters!”
“The bride and groom aren’t here?” cried the cook, his hands going to his head in dismay. “We’re doomed!”
The friar considered he probably shouldn’t have mentioned that fact as the cook wound his way back towards the kitchen mumbling “doomed, we’re doomed” the whole way. He didn’t have much time to deliberate over his faux pas as a harried maid cornered him.
“Friar, I’ve got all these red, purple and pink flowers, but I have no idea what to do with them!”
The friar’s first thought was to give some possibly unhelpful suggestions as to exactly where she could shove them. “How should I know? I’m a friar, not a florist!” he said in exasperation instead.
Another voice saved him from further questions from the panic-stricken servant.
“I believe they should be lining the balcony, two bunches of red peonies to every one bunch of pink roses with purple gardenias alternating in between.”
The friar looked to his saviour, a smiling Lord Andrew. Of all the people in the room he appeared the least harried, nonchalantly sipping a goblet of wine. “Thank you, Lord Andrew,” said the friar. “I didn’t know you were such an expert on flower arranging.”
“You never know when it might come in handy being able to tell a dahlia from a freesia,” he said with a grin.
“Next you’ll be telling me you’re an authority on roast pheasant sauces.”
“Well, I have been known to dabble in the kitchen … ”
“Great! I have someone who’d love to make your acquaintance!”
The friar wrapped his arm around the shoulders of the lord and led him in the direction of the kitchen.
Anne quickened her pace as she walked across the Nottinghamshire hills, glad to be able to do so now she was no longer chained to Thomas. Though they had managed to separate the chain, the tools in the old stable had been insufficient to break the manacles round their ankles. For that they would need a proper smithy. It was just one more good reason to get back to Markham.
The trees of Sherwood Forest flanked them to one side as they progressed homewards and Anne knew they’d need to find some horses soon to have any hope of making it back to Markham in time for the wedding. She had half a mind to deliberately avoid doing so and save Beatrice from her fate. Yet for some reason the maid seemed to love Thomas, despite everything he’d done. Anne supposed people couldn’t always chose who they fell in love with – she doubted she herself would have chosen a noblewoman if she’d had any say in it, but her heart had made that decision for her and who was she to argue.
“What time do you think it is?” asked Thomas as he ran to catch up.
The sky above was a clear blue, the sun now over the trees to the west of them. “Just after midday,” she deduced.
“We’re never going to make it back in time walking; we need horses.”
“Yes, but unless you know something I don’t, which is highly unlikely, the nearest settlement is at least a half hour’s walk from here. Fortunately for you that should still give us time to make the ride to Markham.”
Thomas nodded and then proceeded on for a few steps in silence before he piped up again.
“I will prove to you that I’ve reformed,” he said, “that I can be trusted and relied upon.”
“You don’t need to prove anything to me,” she replied. “I don’t care what you do as long as you don’t hurt Katherine … or Beatrice.”
“I would never hurt Beatrice,” he stated adamantly.
Anne came to a halt and regarded him sceptically. Realising he needed to qualify the point he continued.
“I would never hurt Beatrice again,” he rephrased. “I thank the lord every day that she gave me another chance, I’m not going to blow it this time. I love her more than anything and all I want to do is take care of her.”
The sincerity of his words was obvious. Even when he’d been selling them out to the Ares Syndicate, deep down Thomas had believed he’d been doing it to provide for Beatrice. Anne had met enough truly evil and bad people to know Thomas wasn’t one of them. Misguided and easily led maybe, but at heart not a bad person. Now it was her turn to be the good person, the one she strived to be for Katherine. She’d carried a grudge against her parents around for years, letting it fester and grow. There wasn’t much point carrying one against Thomas when the two people more affected had already forgiven him.
She sighed. “Fine, I’m willing to give you another chance. But make no mistake this will be your last. Step out of line again and it will be the last step you take.”
Thomas gave a nervous gulp. “Understood. Anyway I think Beatrice would do the job for you if I dared do something wrong again.”
Anne laughed at the accuracy of the statement – there would most likely be nothing left for her to punish once Beatrice had finished tearing him to bits. “Are you sure you want to marry her?” she asked jokingly.
“I’ve never been surer of anything in my life.”
His devotion was admirable if nothing else. They started walking again, but now the ice was broken, Thomas’ natural chattiness surfaced.
“So what about you?”
“Me?” queried Anne, not quite getting the reference.
“Have you ever thought about marriage?”
Anne wondered if she’d been too hasty forgiving him. Maybe she should at least have waited until they got back to Markham. “I can’t say as I have,” she replied.
“What, not even with Lady Katherine?”
“In case you hadn’t noticed we are two women. And anyway why would I need someone else’s blessing to ratify our relationship. I love Katherine, that’s all that matters.”
Before Thomas could pursue the point further, movement ahead of them registered in Anne’s peripheral vision. She looked to see a group of four men busily digging in the middle of the next field. That wouldn’t have been such an unusual sight apart from the fact these men looked more like mercenaries than farmers and appeared to be digging random holes dotted across the landscape rather than furrows for planting. Anne was reminded of a similar scene from a couple of months previously near the ransacked village of Eaton. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
“What the hell are they up to?” asked Thomas having spotted them too.
“No good,” stated Anne.
She was off and running as she spoke, hoping to make their element of surprise count. It was the only advantage they had since neither of them carried any weapons. Even Anne’s normally trusty boot dagger was missing, obviously having been removed by Benedict and his cronies. Unfortunately the open landscape provided little cover and the men spied the advancing pair before they got close. After some hastily exchanged words the men surprised Anne by turning and running for the forest. Perhaps they didn’t realise their pursuers weren’t armed, nor that one of them was well acquainted with that forest and its hiding places. Anne hurtled on after them with Thomas close in her wake.
The trees were sparse enough in that part of the forest for Anne to see the men splitting into two groups ahead of them. The first pair ran north towards a dense section of the forest. Anne quickly realised the likelihood of being able catch up or follow them through the tangling branches was slim and made a snap decision to pursue the second pair, heading south. Her experience came in handy as she vaulted agilely over the obstacles of the forest, gaining on the two men all the time.
Ahead, the boot of one of the men became tangled in some brambles, bringing him to a halt. As he tugged to free it Anne seized her opportunity, closing the remainder of the distance in quick time and flinging herself at him. They crashed down onto the forest floor amongst the dead leaves and twigs. Out of the corner of her eye Anne could see the man’s companion turning back to aid his downed comrade. Luckily Anne had her own backup, with Thomas jumping past her and launching himself at the second man. Meanwhile her own opponent was drawing a dagger. Instinctually she flung herself backwards as he slashed for her, managing to use the momentum of her backward roll to spring to her feet.
The man was up too and darting for her again. Anne dodged, able to see that Thomas had been felled and that the second man was also heading her way. The next time her original opponent lunged at her she caught his arm and swung him bodily round. The second on-rushing foe ran directly into his compatriot’s dagger, the blade pushing right into the man’s gut up to the hilt. Blood spurted over Anne’s hands where they gripped the first man’s sleeve. While he was still in shock at having stabbed his friend she delivered an elbow to his face. The man staggered back. The dagger remained where it was, in the stomach of the body crumpling to the ground now the life had gone from it. Anne moved to press home her advantage, only she suddenly found her left foot didn’t seem to want to come with her. The manacle still wrapped round her ankle had become tangled in some sinuous ivy. The unexpected impediment was enough to trip her up, Anne getting a face full of leaves as she hit the ground.
She swung round on the ground, but it was too late, her opponent had recovered enough to retrieve his dagger and jump for her. His greater mass pinned her to the ground. The dagger flashed in the sunlight. Suddenly an arrow thumped into the man’s chest. His eyes bulged, a gurgling cry escaping from his lips.
“Damn it!” cursed Anne as he fell lifelessly off her.
“Not the sort of reaction I normally expect for saving a life.”
Anne shot up into a
sitting position. “
The outlaw chief leant on his bow, offering her one of his customary affable grins. “Hello, Anne.”
Anne smiled back and clambered to her feet to envelop him in a hug. “It’s good to see you.”
Standing in the warm
embrace, Anne was reminded of her former outlaw life when
“I don’t know,” replied Anne, “which was one of the reasons I was hoping to catch at least one of them alive.”
A groan from close by
reminded Anne they weren’t alone. Thomas was sitting up and rubbing gingerly at
his head. Anne looked to
“I don’t suppose you have any horses do you?”
Back in East Drayton the ducks on the pond stirred as a fresh bout of pained cries resounded round the village from one particular home. Inside that abode Katherine mopped at the brow of the panting Matilda.
“You’re doing great,” Katherine reassured her.
Matilda gazed wearily at her. Sweat coated her brow, her bedraggled hair stuck to it in places. “How much longer?” she asked beseechingly.
“Not long now.” In reality Katherine thought it could be some time, but the young woman didn’t need to know that. She just needed to take it one contraction at a time until they got there.
By her side Tobias hovered, but Katherine could sense he was uncomfortable with the whole situation. Whenever Katherine needed to check between Matilda’s legs he would shy away and look decidedly queasy. She would never have taken him for the squeamish sort given the number of battles he’d been in during his time as a knight, but then watching something the size of a large marrow being squeezed out of a woman’s vagina was slightly different to watching an arm being hacked off with a sword. Of course Tobias would never admit his unease and he was trying his best to be helpful and supportive. Katherine decided to put him out of his misery.
“Why don’t you go and get us some fresh water,” she suggested to the knight.
He didn’t question the order, more than happy to leave the two women to it. When Katherine looked back to the young woman she was shaking her head.
“I still can’t believe I have the lady of the manor as my midwife,” she said. “John will never believe it! Trust him to miss this!”
“Someone’s gone to fetch him,” Katherine said in relation to the young woman’s husband, “but one of the other men said he’d seen him heading out to the east pasture this morning, so it might be a while.”
“Bloody typical! Men, eh? Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.”
Katherine thought it best not to comment. Luckily Matilda was keen to carry on her gabbling chat, probably as a means of distraction. “So what was the lady of the manor doing hanging around East Drayton and not in many clothes at that?”
Katherine glanced down at herself realising that she’d never got the chance to change what with one thing and another. “I’m not sure you’d believe me if I told you.”
Another contraction rocked Matilda before she got the chance to press. A couple of minutes of groaning and panting later she flopped listlessly back down on her bed.
“I could do with an interesting story to take my mind off things,” she groaned.
Katherine obliged, exaggerating somewhat to make the tale of Beatrice’s party and their subsequent stranding as colourful as possible. It had the desired effect with Matilda grinning and laughing at various points throughout. At the end Matilda tilted her head to the corner of her home.
“I have some spare clothes if you want to borrow something. We’re about the same size, or at least we would have been when I didn’t have this demon spawn swelling my belly to the size of a house.” She rubbed at her bulging stomach as she spoke.
“Thank you,” said Katherine, “that’s very kind of you to offer.”
After a quick search through the other woman’s garments, Katherine selected a plain top. She paused for a moment as she began to unbutton her thin vest.
“I won’t look if you want to change,” Matilda quickly said.
Katherine laughed and shook her head. “I think we’re beyond any kind of modesty now!”
She undid the rest of the buttons and pulled the top on before fastening the vest back over the top of it, feeling far more comfortable now her breasts weren’t virtually on display. She was back by Matilda’s side just in time to hold her hand as the next contraction shook her body. Once it had subsided and the feeling had started to return to Katherine’s crushed fingers, Matilda resumed her questions.
“Did you and his lordship never want any children?”
Katherine frowned and wondered what was keeping Tobias.
“I’m sorry,” Matilda added having seen the less than enthusiastic reaction. “I’ve overstepped my bounds, I didn’t mean offence. My mother always said I was too nosey for my own good.” Her sentence was ended with a fresh groan and she shifted to try and get in a more comfortable position.
Seeing her discomfort, Katherine was minded to be magnanimous. “It’s fine,” she said. “We did, but it just never happened.”
Matilda shifted again, wincing as she did. “You can have this one if you want, little bugger!”
Katherine smiled. “I’m sure when he or she is born you’ll hold their tiny body, look into their eyes and all this pain will quickly be forgotten and replaced by the love you feel.”
“Do you promise?”
“My sister told me that’s how she felt and I was there when both her children were born.”
“I wondered how you knew so much,” Matilda noted, “though I’m very grateful you do!”
Another contraction came, Katherine realising they were getting closer together. A quick check verified the proper midwife wasn’t going to make it on time.
“Right, Matilda, now you’re going to need to push,” Katherine said calmly. Seeing a panicked look from the woman on hearing this, she added. “You can do it, I’m right here with you.”
“Oh, God! I can’t!” wailed Matilda.
Katherine reached up to take the anxious woman’s hand for a moment. She waited for Matilda to look at her, holding her gaze with a look of quiet confidence. “You can,” she stated. “Trust me, I’m a lady.”
Matilda took a deep breath, composing herself for the final stage. “All right, let’s do it.”
Letting go, Katherine moved back down between the other woman’s legs. Matilda bore down, straining. There were several minutes of pushing and screaming and a fair bit of cursing, but finally the baby’s head crowned. All the time Katherine offered quiet words of encouragement. The sight truly was an amazing one to behold even if she had seen it a couple of times before. First the head, then the shoulders and finally the rest of the body were squeezed out. Katherine drew the blood-caked baby to her, the relieving sound of crying ringing round the small house. Behind her she heard a thump, swinging round to see Tobias had just come back in and promptly fainted on the floor.
Thinking he was big enough to look after himself, she gently wrapped a fresh blanket round the baby and handed it to Matilda. “It’s a girl,” she said, unable to keep the grin off her face.
Accepting the small bundle, Matilda drew her close. Katherine had been right, one look at her new baby and Matilda was lost, everything that had gone before already a dim recollection. Katherine thought she ought to leave them alone for a moment and was just rising when Matilda caught her hand.
“Thank you,” she said sincerely.
“I’m going to call her Katherine, if that’s all right?”
Katherine suddenly found it hard to speak, merely nodding her approval at first. Finally she engaged her vocal chords, after she had cleared the huge lump from her throat. “I think it’s lovely, a very noble name.”
She gave one last smile before stepping over the downed Tobias to get some fresh air. It was still a gorgeous day outside, the sun warm on her skin as she found a quite spot to sit on the grass and close her eyes for a moment. Even if the whole thing was messy and bloody and visceral there was just something re-affirming and refreshing about the primal nature of childbirth. There was none of the falseness of her recent dealings with nobles, trying to get them to sign on to their trade alliance and find ways to protect her lands from the increased outlaw activity. All that pandering to inflated egos, offering platitudes with a plastered on smile was draining after a while. It was good to reconnect with the every day lives of her people, remind herself what she was doing it all for.
The sound of movement led her to open her eyes. A sheepish looking Beatrice was before her.
“Nice of you to rejoin us,” commented Katherine.
“I’m still not going through with it.”
“Oh for God’s sake,” said Katherine, having no time for the other woman’s pre-wedding jitters after what she’d just been through with Matilda. She got to her feet. “You and I are going to Markham right now and you are going to walk up that aisle even if I have to kick your arse up it.”
Beatrice looked rather taken aback. “Aren’t you meant to be understanding and reassuring and all that?”
“Not when you’re being ridiculous. You love Thomas don’t you?”
“And you’ve been wanting to get married to him for what, the last two years or so?”
“And now all of a sudden you don’t want to because…?”
“Er … well … I … ”
“Exactly,” said Katherine, cutting her off, “no good reason.”
“I suppose not,” agreed Beatrice reluctantly. “You must remind me to return the favour of your sympathetic pre-wedding words when it’s your turn.”
“You might be waiting a while.”
“You’re not going to make an honest woman of Anne then?”
“I can’t get married to Anne, you know that.”
“What because the church says so?” queried Beatrice. “The same church who says your whole relationship is a sin?”
“Is this part of your revenge already?”
“I’m just pointing out that you should broaden your thinking, who says it needs to be a religious wedding?”
“I am a Christian,” pointed out Katherine.
“But Anne’s not,” Beatrice reminded her. “What do pagans do anyway? Do they even have marriage?”
“You know, I don’t know. I guess I never thought about it because I knew it couldn’t happen. But you’re right, maybe there are other ways …”
“Should I start preparing my bridesmaid’s dress?” Beatrice teased her.
“Funny, but I think we need to get you in a bride’s one first … once we’ve woken Tobias up.”
As Katherine had surmised it took them roughly an hour to make the walk back to Markham Manor. Only when she stepped in through the large oak doors she almost wished she hadn’t made it back. Inside the hall it was mayhem. The hall was often crowded, but now it was positively heaving. Obviously no-one had had the good sense to try and organise the wedding in her absence, or if they did they weren’t very good at it. Before she even got two steps in the door she was buffeted by a barrage of questions. Fending them off she directed Beatrice to head upstairs to get changed. Katherine was tempted to follow her to the relative seclusion of her quarters, but someone needed to take command of the situation and that was what she was best at after all.
One by one she addressed each question, directing people to where they should be and what they should be doing. By the time she got to the back of the hall her earlier adventures were long forgotten, replaced by a buzzing head full of wedding paraphernalia. She barely had time to take a breath before the kitchen door swung open next to her. However, rather than a stressed cook as she was expecting, the friar and Lord Andrew of all people emerged. The young lord was casually brushing some flour off his otherwise smart and immaculate clothes with one hand while holding a goblet of wine in the other. He looked like he was having far too much fun, whereas the friar looked like he was about at the end of this tether. His slightly manic eyes settled on Katherine.
“You’re back! Thank the Lord!”
“I take it things have not been going well?” she asked.
“Don’t even get me started!”
Despite the exasperated exclamation, Katherine thought there was a prompt in the remark, like the friar actually couldn’t wait to have a good whinge. Knowing she’d be lucky to get out of there by midnight if she invited him to, Katherine decided to take him at his word.
“Well, I am back now, so why don’t you get off to the church and get ready. Beatrice is off changing so we should still just about be on time.”
“As long as the groom turns up,” muttered the friar.
Katherine looked to him in surprise. “Thomas isn’t here?”
“No, neither is Anne. Apparently the other guards played some sort of trick on them, dumped them out in the countryside somewhere.”
“I think I need to have a word to some of my guards about appropriate behaviour,” remarked Katherine. Though there was no real cause for concern, she couldn’t help wondering if Anne was all right. Most likely they’d just ended up further away then Katherine and Beatrice and were still on the way back. “For now we’ll assume Thomas and Anne will be here on time,” she stated.
The friar nodded and started to move off, but Katherine caught his arm. “And if you see Beatrice not a word about Thomas not being back yet.”
Once the clergyman had departed, Katherine turned to Andrew who was lounging against the wall, coolly sipping his wine.
“It looks like you’ve been helping out in more ways than one,” she remarked.
“Turning my hand to a cranberry pheasant sauce makes a nice change to all the hob-nobbing we’ve been doing recently,” he replied with a grin.
“Tell me about it!” she agreed. “To tell you the truth all this madness today has been a nice diversion from having to worry about the latest lord we need to try and please.”
“In that case I hate to spoil your day and mention that we’ve been invited to Stratford in three weeks time – lords from Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire and the rest of the midlands will be there, so it’ll be a good chance to further our cause.”
Katherine groaned. “I suppose it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.” The prospect filled her with mixed emotions. Though Stratford was her childhood home, she’d not been back since Robert had been deposed as lord the year before. What with the revelations about both him and her father the place didn’t hold quite the appeal it once did. It was as if the house itself was somehow tarnished by their deeds. Still they needed to further their alliance, particular since the attacks on her land seemed to be on the increase.
As if reading her mind, Andrew’s next comment was in regards to that. “I agree we should attend; we need to strengthen our defences. Has your man found out anything about the attacks in the west of your land yet?”
Katherine shook her head. “Philip Archer hasn’t been able to uncover anything yet, other than that it appears to be outlaws”
“You don’t sound convinced.”
She shook her head. “My personal guard thinks that’s just a cover and I tend to agree.” She remembered not to refer to Anne directly by name since doing so would be a far too familiar a form of expression in front of the other noble. Though she and Andrew had developed a good friendship in a surprisingly short time, that didn’t extend to her confiding her secret to him. Enough people knew it already, better to try and restrict the knowledge as much as she still could.
Seeing her pensive look, Andrew offered a comforting hand on the shoulder. “Either way I’m sure we’ll uncover the truth.”
“This looks very cosy.”
Katherine almost jumped at the sound of the voice, whirling round to see Anne regarding the pair of them suspiciously. Andrew quickly removed his hand.
“You’re back,” said Katherine, stating the obvious. For some reason she felt guilty even though she and Andrew had just been talking.
“Just in time it seems.”
Katherine couldn’t fail to detect the icy edge to her tone, but chose to ignore it. “Is Thomas with you too?” she asked glancing round the hall.
“Of course, did you think he wouldn’t be?”
Katherine’s brow furrowed at the cool remark. “No, I’m just anxious that we get this wedding going.”
“He’s over there,” said Anne, pointing to the near the door.
Following her finger, Katherine saw the fair-haired young man engaged in conversation with the friar. What she also couldn’t fail to notice was Thomas sporting the beginnings of a black eye. She glanced back to Anne, noticing for the first time the slight scrape down her cheek, partly hidden by her blond hair. Anne’s animosity to Thomas was well-known and Katherine had to wonder if they’d actually come to blows. At least they were both back in one piece even if both of them also had a manacle round their ankle. Katherine deemed it wasn’t the best time to discuss any of those points, not when Anne appeared to be in one of her fractious moods and Katherine patience was similarly worn thin.
Instead Anne turned back to Katherine and Andrew. “So, what were you two talking about?” The reason for the young woman’s frosty attitude was obvious from the way she flicked a disdainful glance at Andrew as she asked her question.
“We were just discussing our supposed outlaw activity,” Katherine stated, deciding honesty was the best policy to combat Anne’s ridiculous jealousy.
“I see, and what is Lord Andrew’s learned opinion on this?”
Anne’s sarcastic tone immediately caused a nervous flutter in Katherine’s stomach. She really didn’t need this now.
“I’m sure Philip Archer will investigate thoroughly and determine the culprits,” said Andrew diplomatically.
Anne merely let out a scoffing laugh. “Right, because he’s been doing such a great job. What have we learnt so far? Let me see … that would be nothing. You should let me take a detachment of troops out there and track these guys down whoever they are.” She lowered her tone to a more deadly one to make her violent intent obvious. “I’ll make them tell us what they’re up to.”
Katherine had to wonder if Anne really believed in what she was suggesting or if she was merely saying it to take an opposite and controversial stance to Andrew.
To his credit, Andrew didn’t rise to her combative tone, carrying on in an even, reasonable voice. “Might that course of action not be dangerous if you don’t know who you’re dealing with first?” he pointed out.
Anne rounded on him. “Why don’t you stick to your wine and let those who know what they’re talking about deal with matters of security.”
“Anne!” cried Katherine at the blatant insult.
Andrew quickly spoke up himself. “No, it’s all right,” he allowed, “I’m willing to defer to experience. I’m sure Anne knows the mindset of these outlaws better than I could ever hope to.”
Katherine cringed at his words. She knew he was just trying to be diplomatic, but unfortunately she could tell Anne wasn’t in the mood for it.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” demanded the young woman.
“Nothing, I merely meant your insight could give us an edge.”
Anne’s face darkened further. “There is no us,” she said in a slow deadly tone. “Last I checked this was Markham of which you are not lord.”
Katherine had heard enough and reached out to take Anne by the arm. “Anne, may I speak with you?” The way she said it didn’t require an answer. She led the other woman out to the back corridor, which was thankfully quiet, allowing her to say exactly what was on her mind.
“What are you doing?” she demanded. “Why are you being deliberately antagonistic to Andrew, he’s on our side.”
“So you say, I’m keeping an open mind.”
Katherine rolled her eyes at the young woman’s intransigence. “Andrew is our ally. I would thank you to be polite to him and also not to bad-mouth my knights in front of him or anyone else for that matter.”
“Oh, sorry, is that an order?”
“If it has to be,” snapped back Katherine. It was as if Anne was deliberately trying to start a fight. All the time Katherine was aware of time slipping on, time she should be spending organising a hundred and one things for the wedding. “I know when you were an outlaw you did pretty much what you wanted, but here there are rules and standards to follow.”
“Especially when we have people to impress?” questioned Anne. “Don’t want me making you look bad in front of your new best friend?”
Katherine’s tether was fast reaching its end. “Is this what all this is about, your jealousy?”
“No, it’s about me trying to look out for Markham since you seem too busy schmoozing with nobles to bother!”
“And you seem too busy fighting first and asking questions later to make a rational judgement!” said Katherine angrily. “And while we’re on the subject of poor judgement, you don’t need to spy on me everywhere I go – sending bloody Tobias to follow me at Beatrice’s party!”
“Pardon me for being concerned for your welfare.”
“Your concern is stifling!”
The silence that followed Katherine’s outburst was equally stifling. Not having the time or patience at that moment to save a conversation that seemed past redemption, Katherine thought it best to draw it to a close.
“Lord Andrew is our ally so you will be polite to him and Philip Archer will continue his investigation into the outlaw activity for now.”
“And I think that’s a mistake,” pressed Anne, not having the good sense to drop it.
“So noted,” said Katherine, barely moving her lips as the words came out in a low deadly tone, “but in this matter I am the lady of the manor and you are my guard so my decision is final.”
Anne gave a small snort of derision. “Oh, I see that’s what it comes down to is it? I’m just another one of your underlings to be ordered around? Fine, whatever you say, Milady.”
Without another word, Anne turned on her heel and marched off down the corridor.
Climbing the stairs to her quarters, Katherine tried to put the argument with Anne out of her mind. It wasn’t the first time they’d exchanged heated words and she doubted it would be the last. The fieriness and passion was part of the appeal of their relationship. She could just have done with out any fire that particular day. As she pushed open the door to her room she immediately heard the sniffling noise of crying. For a moment she contemplated turning on her heel and making a break for it – let them sort out the wedding themselves while she found a nice jug of wine to hide in. Not being one to shirk a challenge, Katherine proceeded on inside. At the sound of her footfalls on the floorboards Beatrice swivelled round on her seat in front of Katherine’s mirror. She was now in her wedding dress, a simple but beautiful plain white dress that rested on her shoulders and flowed about her feet. With Beatrice’s dark hair contrasting it she looked gorgeous. However, the effect was marred somewhat by the tears tracking freely down her cheeks.
Katherine was quickly by her side, managing to find room to sit next to her on the stool. “Shh, it’s all right,” she said while wrapping a comforting arm around the young woman’s trembling shoulders. Beatrice continued to cry, pitiful shuddering breaths coming in between the tears. “Forget what I said earlier about kicking you up the aisle,” Katherine said, feeling bad about those words now it seemed there was more to it than simple nerves. “If you really don’t want to go through with it, you don’t have to. I can go down there and tell everyone to bugger off.”
“No!” cried Beatrice, suddenly clutching at Katherine to stop her leaving. “I do want to go through with it.”
Katherine had to repeat it to make sure she had heard right. “You want to get married?” Beatrice simply nodded. “Then why are you crying?” asked a confused Katherine.
“I don’t know!”
Katherine just shook her head. Sometimes women were the strangest creatures to try and understand.
By the time Katherine finally got to the church she couldn’t believe it was only mid-afternoon – the day seemed to have gone on forever. A few guests were milling around outside in the churchyard, waiting for the last moment to proceed on inside. It was probably a wise move – the church would be crowded and that many people jammed inside the stone building on a warm day could provide quite the fragrant experience. Considering as much, Katherine decided it would be equally wise for her to wait too. She spotted a local lord she knew standing in the shade of one of the large yew trees and crossed to join him while they all waited for the bride. Beatrice was still back at the house, putting the last touches to her dress before her father walked her to the short distance to the church.
“It’s nice to see you here, Egbert,” said Katherine in greeting to the lord.
The short man smiled in return. “Thank you for inviting me.” His eyes took in Katherine’s dress, a pale blue summer one, short in the sleeve. “You’re looking as lovely as ever. You’ll have to be careful not to upstage the bride!”
Katherine chuckled at the flattery. Egbert was an unashamed flirt, but mostly harmless. “And you look very handsome too.” It was a slight fudging of the truth. Though his clothes were fine, the thick rich red cloth was somewhat unsuitable for the season and his face was flushed despite his hiding in the shade.
Now it was his turn to laugh. “I look like a bloody stuffed pig!” He dabbed at his sweaty brow with a handkerchief. “So might we be expecting it to be you strolling down the aisle next time?”
She gave a good-natured shake of the head. “I don’t think so,” she said while wondering while everyone was asking her about marriage today. Was it that shocking a concept, a woman her age being unwed?
“Well, you never know,” he continued, “a beautiful woman like you, I’m sure you must have plenty of offers. It’s about time Markham had another lord.”
As he said it Katherine sensed movement behind her. Swinging her head round she saw some of her guards on the grassy path. They were definitely close enough to have heard the tail-end of the conversation. From within the group one pair of blue eyes homed in on her. However, as soon as Katherine met the gaze, Anne looked away without speaking. Before Katherine could even contemplate approaching her, the young woman marched on into the church with the others. Supposing she ought to do the same, Katherine excused herself from Egbert and walked on in through the porch.
The interior was as packed as Katherine had suspected; both Thomas and Beatrice were well liked around the estate. Automatically Katherine sought out one head in particular amongst the crowd, spotting Anne standing to one side of the church with a couple of other guards. Her eyes were resolutely trained forward, staring at the altar. They didn’t flick in Katherine’s direction once as she made her way to her seat in the front row. Though she sat jammed onto a full pew with chatter echoing round her, the sense of aloneness was profound.
Considering how the rest of the day had gone Katherine half-expected some disaster to befall the ceremony itself. She was especially nervous when the time for any objections came given what had happened the last time she’d attended a wedding in the church. Luckily this time there were no presumed-dead husband’s making a guest appearance. All in all everything went surprisingly smoothly and when the friar finally invited Thomas to kiss his new bride a spontaneous round of applause rippled round the room. Just along from Katherine, Beatrice’s mother burst into tears of joy. Katherine had to dab some dampness from her own eyes too.
Once back outside Katherine noted that the group of guards including Anne had already made their way back through the village to the manor house. Thomas and Beatrice were still in the churchyard, though, receiving congratulations from all and sundry. Feeling glum just didn’t seem right on such a joyous occasion and Katherine mentally shook herself. This was Thomas and Beatrice’s big day, she should be happy; she was happy. She just had to forget everything else and embrace that fact. Thomas was sharing a joke with one of his family, so Katherine collared Beatrice first. She hugged the young woman to her. “Glad you went through with it after all?” she whispered as she did.
Pulling back, Beatrice couldn’t keep the smile from her face. It had been a permanent fixture since she’d stepped in the door to the church and on up the aisle. “Very, very glad,” she said. “Thank God you didn’t just leave me in Drayton this morning!”
“I was determined to get your happy ending for you, even if you weren’t!”
“I’ll have to repay the favour some time,” Beatrice noted, “especially since you’re almost as stubborn as I am when it comes to the matters of the heart.”
Thankfully Thomas joined them at that moment, saving Katherine from another discussion of Anne. It wasn’t going to help her resolution to be upbeat and cheery if she kept cropping up in conversation. The guard wrapped his arm around Beatrice’s waist and gave her a kiss on the cheek. The blue and gold of his uniform was bright next to the white of the young woman’s dress. They made a striking couple and Katherine felt their infectious good humour enveloping her too.
“Congratulations, Thomas,” she said with a grin. “I know you two will be very happy together.”
“Thank you,” he replied, “and thank you also for making sure my wife made it to the church on time.” A smile crossed his face as he said the words. “That sounds so good – my wife. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of saying it.” He turned to Beatrice this time as he savoured the repetition. “My wife.”
Beatrice pulled him in for a kiss, making Katherine suddenly feel like a bit of gooseberry. She averted her eyes to look at the fascinating leaf formations in the tree next to them.
Slowly the remainder of the congregation de-camped from the church and filtered back over to the manor house for the ensuing celebrations. By the time Katherine stepped into the hall it seemed quite a few people had made good use of their head start on her with the drink freely flowing and the discourse loud. She hadn’t even made it to her seat at the top table before someone had pressed a goblet of wine into her hand.
The hall was full to brimming, all the spaces at the long table taken and a number of people having to hover round the fringes. One of them was Anne who was cradling her own goblet of wine close as she stood on her own to one side. Her eyes surveyed the room. Even today, when friends and family surrounded them, she was alert to danger. However, not once did she look to the head of the hall.
“I think you’re next to me, Milady,” came a voice interrupting Katherine’s study of the other woman.
It was Beatrice’s father, who held out her seat expectantly. He was a small greying man completely dwarfed in both stature and presence by his wife. For once he’d managed to get a word in since Beatrice’s mother was currently berating one of the maids for bringing the wrong wine. Her booming voice resounded over even the loud chatter of the hall. Her husband gave an apologetic yet resigned shrug, having seen it all before.
“She just wants it all to be right,” he whispered to Katherine as she sat.
Katherine could certainly see which side of the family Beatrice took after as the poor maid finally scuttled back off to the kitchen. With everyone seated a number of speeches followed, the highlight of which was Beatrice’s mother forsaking tradition and speaking up rather than her husband. The woman had obviously indulged in a few goblets of wine since the speech became increasingly ribald as it progressed. On the other side of Katherine, Beatrice was squirming in her seat as her mother started on a tale of how the young woman had been caught in a compromising position in the village milking shed when she was sixteen. For a moment Katherine thought they were going to get a graphic blow-by-blow account, but fortunately Beatrice’s father stepped in. There were some loud protestations at the interruption, but eventually he persuaded his wife that sitting down and letting him finish was best.
After the speeches came the dinner, with a procession of maids and servants delivering plates piled high with sumptuous meats. Katherine had to admit that the cook had outdone himself with the food. She would have told him as much, but he seemed more intent on wooing one of the maids. Not that he appeared to be doing particularly well, with the conversation at the far end of the room ending in a resounding slap round the face for the obviously drunk cook. Unperturbed by the rebuke, he turned his attentions to the next nearest maid.
Katherine continued her survey of the room, trying not to let her eyes fall where she knew they wanted to. Throughout proceedings she’d been unable to stop herself glancing to Anne, much to her own consternation. Even more galling was that each time the young woman’s attention was elsewhere. Not once did meet Katherine’s eye, even when Katherine held her stare longer than was appropriate. She knew Anne must have sensed the perusal and was being deliberately stubborn. Katherine decided she could be stubborn too. She picked up her goblet and downed its contents. Why shouldn’t she have fun like everyone else?
And everyone else certainly was intent on doing so. With the meal finished and the tables cleared to the sides, the minstrels appeared to ply their musical trade. It wasn’t long before the hall rocked to the sound of dancing feet. Katherine just watched to begin with, glad to see the hall filled with joy and good cheer. However, she wasn’t left alone with her thoughts for long as the friar approached.
“Katherine, would you care for a dance?” he asked. From his exuberance and slight slur to his words she could tell he too had celebrating whole-heartedly
Not that she was sober by any means herself. She gave a small curtsey as she stood. “Why, thank you, Edward, that would be lovely.”
Her assessment of his condition proved accurate as he stomped on her feet a number of times as they spun round the room. She didn’t have the heart to mention it today, though.
“I never thought we’d get here,” he remarked over the music.
“What, me and you dancing round the hall?”
“Don’t tease a poor tipsy friar! You know full well what I mean – despite your best efforts to get lost in the countryside and drown yourself in a duck pond we got them up the aisle.”
“You heard about that then?” asked Katherine supposing she shouldn’t really be surprised given the friar’s penchant for gossip.
“Oh yes, so I have plenty of ammunition to tease you back if you try any more of that cheeky stuff!”
Katherine just laughed at the friendly banter. Not many commoners would risk speaking to a noble in the way the friar did, but then they’d known each other for years and Katherine wasn’t the sort to chuck someone in the dungeon just for speaking out of turn. Before she could retort their dancing progress round the room was halted as another couple stumbled into them. The cook and his partner bounced backwards, staggered and then tumbled to the floor in a drunken heap. The rotund man just lay there giggling to himself as the latest maid to garner his attention attempted to disentangle herself.
“I don’t think anyone will be getting breakfast tomorrow,” noted the friar to Katherine.
“I don’t think much of anything will be getting done tomorrow,” said Katherine.
“True,” agreed the friar, “but then it is traditional to get well and truly smashed at a wedding.”
“It seems some other wedding traditions are being upheld in fine style too,” said Katherine as they continued on round the room. “Embarrassing relatives,” she noted as the twirled past Beatrice’s mother, “bad dancing,” she commented as the friar stubbed her toe once more, “strange couplings,” she added as they narrowly avoided tripping over the cook and maid who had given up on getting up and were busy kissing instead while sitting on the floor.
“And of course we mustn’t forget people arguing and not speaking to one another,” said the friar. This time his eyes went from Katherine to a dark corner of the hall. Katherine didn’t need to follow the gaze, she’d already identified that was where Anne was loitering a good ten minutes previously.
The friar was too drunk to notice his comment had received a cool and silent reception. Finally there was a break in the music and the friar stepped back to give a bow, though Katherine was worried he was going to topple over as he did. “Thank you, Milady.”
If Katherine thought her feet were going to get a break, she was disappointed. No sooner had the friar swayed off in search of more refreshment then another figure came stumbling in her direction.
“It must be my turn for a dance!”
Andrew’s arm wrapped around her shoulders. He was quite obviously drunk, as much evident by the way he was practically using her to stay upright. Fortunately Katherine was saved from her burden as someone else came in to support the swaying lord from the other side.
“Apologies, Milady, I think my lord may have had a little too much celebratory drink.”
Managing to disengage herself, Katherine saw that it was a guard addressing her. He wore the green and yellow colours of Andrew’s estate at Bingham. Katherine hadn’t spotted him before during the party, which she supposed was the sign of a good guard, being inconspicuous until he was actually needed. He was fairly young, around the same age as Andrew himself. Like Andrew he was clean-shaven and what would be considered good-looking if you were into handsome young men. He flashed Katherine a quick smile.
“I should probably get him back to his room.”
That proved easier said than done as the young guard tried to guide his master away. Andrew dangled off the other man, barely able to stand. At one point he managed to drag himself up and whisper something to the guard. The young man blushed and quickened his pace across the room.
“What did you do to that poor young man?”
Katherine swung to see her sister watching her with suggestively raised eyebrows.
“Nothing!” declared Katherine.
“Maybe that was the problem,” noted Phillipa. “I saw him watching you dancing with the friar with those hungry young eyes of his.”
Katherine simply rolled her eyes.
“Oh yes, I forgot, your tastes don’t swing that way anymore do they?” said Phillipa. “Mind if I have a go instead, he is rather delicious.”
“Phillipa! You’re married!”
“Yes, but it’s a wedding people expect these things to happen.”
Katherine could only gape at her.
“I’m joking!” cried Phillipa. “You always were too easy to tease.”
In a further reminder of her childhood Katherine was unable to resist poking her tongue out. She blamed the drink.
“Talking of the past,” said Phillipa, “Has Godric from Stratford been in contact with you.”
“We’ve got an invite to visit in a few weeks time, but other than that no.”
“Maybe he was going to mention it to you then,” said Phillipa thoughtfully.
“Apparently since Robert’s demise there have been a few people crawling out of the woodwork making claims on the Stratford estate.”
“What sort of claims exactly?” asked Katherine.
“I don’t know the full details, but you know the sort of thing.”
Katherine did know. Whenever an estate was in upheaval like Stratford currently was, often people claiming some sort of familial connection that deserved an inheritance or at least a pay off crawled out of the woodwork. Robert had never mentioned any family, but then he hadn’t proved to be the most trustworthy of people. Quite possibly he’d had some dalliances that were just now coming to light.
“I guess I’ll have to speak to Godric when I see him, see if he needs any help dealing with the parasites.” Though she had no duty to do so, Katherine still felt responsible for Stratford. It was the estate she might have governed in another lifetime.
“Anyway, enough of that serious business,” said Phillipa, “it must be time for a song!”
Katherine groaned, fearing she would be asked to participate.
“Come on,” said Phillipa as she hooked Katherine’s arm, “you need to have a word with your minstrels.”
The dancers in the centre of the hall were harried out of the way by Phillipa who was intent on her course. Katherine could only allow herself to be dragged along in her wake. The minstrels were reluctant to relinquish their position initially, but the promise of free food and drink quickly persuaded them otherwise. However, with them all gone it was down to Katherine to provide backing to Phillipa’s star turn. At least Phillipa was content for Katherine to play the lute rather than forcing her to sing. Even with everyone pretty much drunk by this stage, Katherine didn’t want to inflict that pain on them.
At least from her new vantage point up on the stage, Katherine had a better view of the whole room. Anne leant against the wall right at the back, looking like she was still nursing the same drink as earlier. As Phillipa started her song the young woman listened with everyone else, though her attention was focussed just off to the side of the stage rather than on the people on it. Eventually Katherine strummed the last few notes and applause rang round the room. Anne simply turned and ducked out the rear door.
Phillipa leant close to Katherine. “Looks like I’m not going to get a song out of her this time.” Obviously she had noticed the young woman’s departure too.
“It appears not,” said Katherine as she handed the lute back to one of the minstrels and stepped off the stage. Phillipa wasn’t letting her get away that easily, though. She followed Katherine off to the side of the room as the dancing started up once more.
“So who started it?” asked Phillipa.
“The argument you two have obviously had, what was it about?”
Katherine shook her head. “It was just a silly disagreement.”
“In that case why are you still in here while she’s out there?”
“Because she started it!” cried Katherine. Again she blamed the drink for making her spout stupid childish things.
Phillipa took an equally dim view of the petulant words. “I could have sworn your turned forty this year rather than four.”
“And don’t you just love reminding me of that fact!”
“Forget about that – just get out there and talk to her.”
Katherine’s mouth opened and closed a couple of times in an attempt to object, but she quickly realised what Phillipa was ordering her to do was what she wanted to do anyway.
Anne leant back against the wall of the house and turned her eyes up to sky. The sun had finally disappeared over the horizon, bringing to a close what had proved to be a long and trying day. She let out a slow sigh. She knew she had mainly herself to blame for feeling left out of the celebrations. After the tiring long slog back with Thomas she’d let the green-eyed monster overtake her when she’d seen Katherine and Andrew talking. Afterwards at the church and during the party she’d wanted to say something, but it didn’t seem like the right time, not when everyone, including Katherine, seemed to be enjoying themselves so much. So instead she’d distanced herself, withdrawing to the margins. Big crowds and parties had never been her thing anyway. The quiet of the dusky countryside beyond the high manor walls looked appealing at that moment. She could find some peace, lose herself to nature. Before she could seriously contemplate making a break for it, she felt a presence next to her. She didn’t really need to look. Only one person would have followed her from the celebrations. Anne glanced to her side, the blue-grey eyes studying her confirming her assumption.
“Come to order me back inside?” Anne could have kicked herself for the sharp words. When would she ever learn?
“No, but I can go back inside if that’s how you’re going to be.”
Katherine started to move back towards the door. Anne’s hand shot out, clasping the other woman’s arm to stall her. “No, stay … please.”
The addition of the final word seemed to be a decisive factor and Katherine turned back to fully face her. Realising she was still holding on to Katherine’s bare arm, Anne let her hand drop, not sure how welcome the contact was at the moment.
“It’s been a long day,” said Katherine, the bland statement not giving Anne any more clues to the other woman’s disposition.
“Yes, it has,” replied Anne with equal evenness. No other words were immediately forthcoming and, but for the sounds of the party filtering out into the evening air, they would have been standing in pained silence. Anne supposed it was up to her to break the quiet. “About earlier, with Andrew … “ she began hesitantly, not able to meet Katherine’s eye. She took a deep breath and went for honesty. “I’m sorry. You were right - I did let my jealousy get the better of me, amongst other things.”
“I shouldn’t have to keep reminding you that you have no reason to be jealous,” said Katherine.
Anne rubbed at her forehead, trying to find the words to express what she felt. “I know, I just find it hard sometimes to quell my fear.”
Anne’s eyes slowly rose to meet the other woman’s. “Of losing you.”
The vulnerability in Anne’s voice was plain to hear and Katherine’s face softened. Without saying anything she stepped forward and wrapped Anne up in a hug. Anne sunk into the embrace, leaning her head against Katherine’s auburn hair and closing her eyes. She would happily have stayed there all night simply drawing in the essence of the other woman, but eventually she pulled back, feeling there was more to be said.
“That’s also why I asked Tobias to follow you,” Anne explained. “After what happened at the fair …”
The reminder of how close Katherine had come to being killed made it hard to continue.
“It’s all right,” said Katherine, saving from having to do so, “I know you’re just trying to protect me, but not everything is a threat.”
Anne sighed. “I guess I’m still having some trouble adjusting to life here after living in the forest for so long. And sometimes I forget that I can’t always do and say what I want,” she added in reference to her ill-judged remarks in front of Andrew.
“And I think I forget sometimes the adjustment you’ve had to make and expect too much of you.” Katherine reached out to take Anne’s hand. “I’ve lived this way my whole life, so I’m used to sometimes having to curb your first thoughts and behave in a certain way if you want to get things done.” She rubbed her thumb over Anne’s skin for a moment, watching their entwined hands before finally looking back up, eyes searching Anne’s face. “You are happy here though aren’t you? I would hate to think I was forcing you into anything.”
“I thought you would know by now that it’s pretty hard to force me to do anything I don’t want to.”
Katherine laughed, Anne heartened to hear the sound. She didn’t really like arguing even if it did happen quite often.
Anne continued. “But, no, of course I’m happy that I can be here with you and don’t tell Tobias but I actually enjoy the life of a guard and helping to protect Markham and its people even if half of them don’t trust me! It’s just sometimes…I don’t know…it’s like our roles takes over, that we don’t have the time or chance to just be ourselves.”
“I know how you feel,” agreed Katherine. “Do you think I like all that preening and pampering of nobles’ egos?”
“I don’t know,” said Anne with an edge of humour to her tone, “I think you like it a bit, especially if it’s yours getting pampered.”
Katherine couldn’t help smiling. “All right, I guess I can admit that I like a compliment as much as the next person.”
Anne moved closer, her hand moving to stroke down Katherine’s arm. “Then I suppose I should pay you some more to stop you needing as many elsewhere.”
As Anne’s fingers reached the end of their downward course Katherine caught them and brought their hands up between them, cupping them tight. “I don’t need anything elsewhere as long as I have you.” Anne never tired of hearing as much, the warm familiar glow in the pit of her stomach evidence to that fact. “But I think you’re right,” Katherine added, “we need to try and devote a bit more time to ourselves rather than just our duty – we need to have more fun!”
The warm glow started to build as Anne contemplated some of the ways they might have fun. Most of them involved very few clothes.
“I’ve got a trip to Stratford in a couple of weeks,” carried on Katherine, oblivious to Anne’s stirring desires, “how about we leave early, just the two of us, and take a leisurely trip, some time away from the manor on our own?”
Anne’s mind was on a runaway course now, planning all the places they could stop and make love on the way to Stratford. She knew of a particularly lovely waterfall near Kegworth.
Anne started at her name and managed to push her rebellious thoughts away enough to focus on Katherine. “Sounds like a good idea to me, though I’m not sure how enamoured of it Tobias will be – just the two of us without any guards.” Tobias provided a convenient excuse to express her own concerns.
Katherine saw through the thin veil. “We can bring some other guards if you want.”
Anne was torn. On the one hand she would love to spend some time alone with Katherine without any of the normal manor demands to distract them, but on the other she was aware of her duty as Katherine’s personal guard. It was ironic to think she had been the one bemoaning them getting stuck in their roles when here Katherine was offering them some escape and she was the one dithering, tethered to her responsibility. Once she wouldn’t have cared and would have just followed her heart, but she couldn’t shake off the nagging fear that it wouldn’t be wise to travel alone.
“Maybe we can come to some compromise,” Anne said eventually.
Katherine appeared to be in a forgiving mood. “Whatever makes you happy,” she said with a gentle brush of the fingers across Anne’s cheek.
“Believe me I’d like nothing more than to run round the countryside, just the two of us, but what happened earlier just re-enforced how that might not be safe at the moment.”
“Oh?” queried Katherine.
“Thomas and I came across a group of men digging on the estate,” outlined Anne. “When we tried to accost them, they made a run for it and there was a bit of a fight.”
Katherine wasn’t letting her get away with the evasion. “A bit of a fight?”
“It was nothing,” Anne insisted, “but unfortunately both of the other men were killed, so we didn’t get to question them.”
“Why didn’t you say something earlier?”
Anne quirked an eyebrow. “You hardly gave me the chance, going all ‘lady of the manor’ on me.” She slipped into a tone that mimicked Katherine’s “‘My decision is final!’”
Katherine laughed. “Is that what I sound like?”
“Sort of,” said Anne with a lop-sided smile, “only hotter.”
Anne’s smile widened. “I have to admit it’s kind of sexy when you get all dominant like that.”
Katherine grinned. “In that case – get up to my room, now!”
“What about the party?”
“I really don’t think anyone’s going to notice whether I’m there or not,” said Katherine. “Now, I believe I gave you an order.”
Anne didn’t know why she was objecting anyway. “Yes, Milady.”
They took the back stairs hoping to avoid anyone, but the party had spilled out to all parts of the house by that point. The cook was sprawled at the foot of the steps with his arm draped over another different maid. It seemed his menu had certainly impressed. Fortunately the pair of them were completely drunk and oblivious to the two women having to clamber over them just to get by.
Once upstairs, Katherine continued in her dominant manner, barely waiting for the door to close before she stepped close and pressed her mouth hungrily to Anne’s. The taste of wine was strong on Katherine’s lips, lingering on Anne’s own as the other woman pulled back.
“Now, take your clothes off.”
The words sent a shiver of arousal through Anne. Katherine folded her arms and stared intensely at her. Even if Anne had wanted to resist she couldn’t have. Slowly she peeled her uniform off, able to feel Katherine’s heated gaze upon her the whole time. Only when Anne was completely naked did Katherine move. She came right up to Anne, almost so close that she was touching her, but not quite.
“Get on the bed,” Katherine said her voice so low and throaty that it rumbled through Anne’s already fluttering insides.
Anne backed up, unable to tear her eyes away from the predatory gaze that held her in its thrall. When she felt the press of the bedclothes against the back of her thighs she lowered herself down on her back. Katherine followed her with aching slowness, crawling onto the bed and up over Anne.
The heat pounding through Anne was maddening and she reached up to touch Katherine. The other woman pulled back and caught Anne’s hands. “Oh no, you do what I say, when I say.” She pushed Anne’s hands back down onto the bed. “And for now you’re not allowed to touch.”
Anne made a small frustrated groan at the back of her throat. Katherine bent lower, the material of her dress brushing across Anne’s already stiff nipples. Katherine’s mouth was now right by her ear. “I hope I’m not making you feel like too much of an underling,” she whispered.
The building tension was too much to bear any longer with the reminder of her earlier words serving as an outlet. Anne couldn’t help herself; she laughed. Katherine withdrew enough to turn her eyes to Anne.
Anne grinned. “Believe me, I’m more than happy to be under you.”
Katherine gave her favourite seductive half-smile. “Oh, I think you will be more than happy.”
Leaning down once more, Katherine’s tongue flicked out across the sensitive skin at Anne’s neck before moving lower. The teasing trail down her body paused when Katherine reached her breasts. The other woman took great delight in tormenting Anne, teasing each nipple between her teeth in turn. Anne groaned, arching up into the arousing contact. She desperately wanted to reach up and tangle her hands in Katherine’s hair, but she had been ordered not to. Instead her frustrated hands gripped onto the bedclothes. She needed something to cling onto as her desire built.
Eventually Katherine sank lower, her hair tickling against Anne’s inner thigh. Anne was wet with arousal now and instinctually she parted her legs further, inviting Katherine in, submitting completely to the other woman’s touch. Katherine didn’t hesitate. Her tongue found the heat between Anne’s legs, pushing up inside. Anne let out a lustful moan. This was what she wanted, what she needed.
Anne felt a finger joining with the probing tongue, her body bucking on the bed as she cried out once more. Still Katherine pushed forwards, cupping Anne’s bottom with her free hand so she could hold Anne close. The overwhelming sensations firing through her were becoming too much and Anne was unable to hold back her ardent pants and groans.
They just seemed to galvanise Katherine further, her tongue and finger now darting in and out with increasing rapidity. Anne felt fresh waves of moisture pooling between her legs, dampening the blankets. Still she needed more, craved more. Her hips tilted up, her legs parting as wide as she could manage. Suddenly Katherine’s tongue moved up a fraction, just a fraction but enough to flick across Anne’s clitoris. Anne cried out, her body going rigid for a moment. Then her orgasm crashed through her, leaving her in a panting heap on the bed. It took some time for her senses to return and see Katherine propped on an elbow next to her.
“You were right,” said Anne, “definitely more than happy.”
Katherine laughed, a warm affirming sound.
“But I don’t think you’re happy enough yet,” noted Anne.
“I don’t know, I’m pretty happy,” said Katherine, licking her lips to remove some of the remnants of their love-making, “but if you think I can be happier, then I better order you to show me how.”
Anne grinned. “No orders necessary, Milady, the pleasure will be all mine.”
Saskia was not happy. When she’d first allied herself to Lord Edgar she’d thought it would be easy enough bending the up and coming lord to her will. Her particular brand of seduction had never failed on men before. Yet with Edgar it seemed to be doing just that. It was as if there was something else greater driving him on other than the normal male lust for power that allowed him to resist her charms. Worse was that he kept her at arm’s length when it came to his plans. The whole situation was unsatisfactory, but that didn’t mean she was going to stop trying.
She knew Edgar had been shut away in his chambers for a couple of hours plotting his schemes. He would be tired and ready for some rest and possibly other distractions. Carrying with her a flagon of wine and two goblets, Saskia knocked for admittance to the lord’s quarters. When the call granting her entrance came she allowed herself a small smile.
“Good evening, Milord,” she said sweetly on entering.
Edgar grunted a reply, not looking up from his papers. Not to be deterred, Saskia placed the goblets on the table and poured the wine into them.
“You’ve been working too long,” she said in her best seductive purr, “why don’t you take some refreshment.”
She was now right by his side and he finally looked up at her. His grey eyes unnerved her with their penetrating stare as they often did. Sometimes she wondered if she should just cut her losses and find someone more malleable and less unsettling to latch onto.
He pushed his chair back slightly. “I suppose it is late.”
Saskia smiled and offered him the wine. He took a hearty swig while Saskia just sipped at hers. She wanted to remain in control. She sat perched on the edge of desk, maintaining a position over the still-seated lord.
“So how are your plans going?” she asked in an off-hand manner, flicking at some of the papers on the desk.
Edgar caught her hand. “I’m not your fool of a husband. A few doe-eyed looks won’t have me eating out of your hand.”
“Then what will?” asked Saskia. She put her wine down, leant forwards and placed her hand between his legs. His eyes locked with hers. She could feel the heat radiating between them. She could also feel a stirring beneath her hand.
A bang came from the door. Saskia slowly withdrew her hand to look over her shoulder. The witch woman, Eleanor, shambled towards them in her stooped manner. Edgar regarded her sternly.
“Did anyone tell you your timing is appalling?” he noted.
“It looks more like it was spot on to save you from another distraction,” said the witch with a disapproving look at Saskia. Saskia was more than happy to return it in kind. “This quest for revenge is drawing you from our true goal,” added Eleanor.
Saskia wondered at the witch’s wording. Though she didn’t know everything he was doing, Edgar’s efforts at the moment seemed to be focussed on making things as difficult as possible for the estate at Markham. Therefore, Saskia presumed the witch was referring to Katherine. Why he would want revenge on her was another matter. To the best of Saskia’s knowledge they’d never met until a couple of months ago. His defeat at the hands of Katherine’s annoying peasant friend at the Markham Spring Fair had been embarrassing, but not worth holding a full-blown grudge over surely?
“I have to do something with my time while I wait for you to find those blasted bones!” countered Edgar. “Anyway, it’s in my interests to weaken Markham, it will make gaining ownership of the convergence point easier.”
Now Saskia was lost, but she listened and made mental notes anyway. One never knew when the smallest bit of information may prove useful; information was power. That was one of the reasons she hadn’t yet told Edgar what she knew of Katherine and the peasant woman. By keeping that to herself it gave her an edge over him, something she could turn to her advantage. Unfortunately now Charles was back she had to be careful he didn’t blow it for her since he also knew of the real nature of the relationship between the two women. She supposed she could speak to him, but he wasn’t the same as before. He was unpredictable and, though she didn’t like to admit it, he scared her. Meanwhile, it seemed Eleanor was not convinced by Edgar’s argument.
“There are other easier ways of gaining ownership…”
“Silence!” cried Edgar, surprising both women with the outburst. “We proceed as before. I will go to Stratford in two weeks time as planned in order to put paid to these ridiculous attempts by Katherine to gain allies. In the mean time you will find the bones. And then eventually I will have Markham and so much more.”
COMING SOON – Lady Katherine and The Mysterious Murders