The Lady Katherine Chronicles, Number 14
Lady Katherine And The Deadly Game
May 1192, Nottinghamshire, England
MercyCroft, Jay, Solise and MF for beta reading this for me :)
This is a work of fan fiction but uses characters that bear a striking resemblance to those that are copyright of Paramount Pictures. No infringement on their copyright is intended by the author in any way, shape or form - this is just a bit of fun. This story includes an all female relationship, so if you don’t like that then look away now.
Lady Katherine picked up the dice from the edge of the ale-stained table and sized up her opponents. Though they probably didn’t know it, each of them was a veritable open book to her – as easy to read as one written on parchment. If you knew where to look, each small eye or hand movement was a dead giveaway of intentions. Her ability to discern their tactics gave her the distinct advantage in the game. It also helped that she’d kept track of each of their throws. They might have considered it cheating in some way if they’d realised, but she merely thought of it as using her capabilities to her best advantage.
The tavern was reasonably busy, even though it was only midday, and Katherine had plenty of time to watch her opponents as the various distractions of a busy inn took their attention away from the gaming table. The latest was a young woman who had just entered from the bright street outside. She was wearing an exceedingly low cut top that displayed her ample assets to best effect. All three of the other players shamelessly ogled her as she crossed to the bar while Katherine just sipped quietly at her drink. She had been careful to make sure the single ale lasted for the entire game, getting drunk was a sure fire way of losing and she didn’t like to lose.
“Are you going to roll or what?”
Slowly, Katherine raised her eyes from her mug, eyeing the man who had spoken over the rim with disdain. His name was Arthur and he had been holding out for two sixes for the last three rounds.
“Yeah, get on with it, darling.”
Katherine favoured the second man with a withering look for the colloquial address. She was most certainly not his darling. She couldn’t imagine he had one at all since he had a bad case of rotten breath. He was in need of a full-farkle to win.
“Come on guys, give the lady a chance.”
The final member of the game was the hardest to read. He was younger than the other two and Katherine couldn’t quite tell if his cocky bravado was all an act or he really was as stupid as he made out. The fact that he still needed a pair of threes and a gamut of twos made her think it was the latter.
Katherine placed her mug down and jiggled the dice in her hand for a second. “Now, now, boys, you should never rush anything important.” She gave the dice one final lucky blow and dispatched them out over the specially rimmed table. The five small pieces of antler bone clattered into the lip and settled at the far end. “I believe that’s farkle to me,” she said nonchalantly as the three men merely stared stupidly at the dice.
Without waiting for confirmation, she picked up her winnings from the side of the table. “It was nice playing with you, maybe we can have another game next time I’m in town?”
Arthur muttered something about being busy. The other two grunted unintelligibly to themselves as they went in search of a consolation drink. Some people could be such bad losers. Katherine started counting her winnings which consisted of a pile of miscellaneous coins. Not that she needed the money, but the game was an interesting diversion, especially since Anne was still asleep upstairs.
Katherine smiled to herself as she thought of the young woman. Anne hadn’t shown the slightest inclination of stirring when Katherine had gotten up and come down to the main room of the inn. That was despite the fact that Katherine had tripped over the clothes discarded across the floor, accidentally clanged Anne’s sword against the bedstead and basically made an almighty racket as she tried to sneak out. Obviously the night’s activities had worn her out. The two of them were certainly having a lot more fun on the trip home from Stratford than they had on the way there or while at the manor house.
They were halfway through their return trip and had decided to treat themselves to a night under a proper roof when they’d reached Leicester. The town was large enough and far enough away from Nottingham or Markham that neither of them was likely to be recognised amongst the crowds. The inn was hardly the lap of luxury, but it was warm and possessed a bed in their room. After several nights sleeping out under the stars that was comfort enough. They hadn’t received a second glance when they’d requested a single room for the pair of them; it was quite common for travellers to share a bed in order to save expense. Not that saving money had been foremost on their minds. Katherine’s smile spread further and she had to take another sip of her drink to cool herself down.
“Would ye be liking another one of those?”
Katherine noted the accent was of Irish origin before she had turned to see who it belonged to. That was revealed to be a sturdy, dark-haired man. He had a rugged face with a smattering of stubble that was broken by a lop-sided smile. She recognised him as the bartender.
“Do you normally provide table service for your customers?”
His smile broadened and she could swear he was trying to wink at her. “Only the pretty ones.”
She held back from rolling her eyes; the flirting was exceedingly unsubtle. She pondered that once upon a time the barkeep might have been what she considered her ‘type’. However, that was before she’d come to the conclusion that her type was actually tall, blond and female.
“In that case I’ll have another ale, please,” she requested, supposing she might as well make some use of having attracted his attention.
He dipped his head and disappeared back to the bar where he was immediately swamped by a dozen other clamouring hands. It looked like she might have to wait a while for her drink after all. Katherine sat down at the table and went back to watching the other clientele, fascinated by their interaction. She rarely got the chance to sit somewhere so anonymously, just blending in with the common people. Needing to remain inconspicuous, she was wearing her plain travelling clothes which consisted of a pale shirt and trousers with a leather jerkin over the top that was secured in place with a thick belt. She didn’t wear any outward weaponry, but had made sure to slip a dagger in her boot; you never could tell who or what you might run into in such a place.
“Would you like another game?”
Katherine looked up to her questioner, finding it was another woman. Not that such a thing was particularly unusual in taverns – the peasant women liked a gamble and a drink as much as the men. However, the women that frequented such establishments tended to be of a certain sort. Katherine supposed even those types of women might like to indulge in the odd alternative form of recreation besides the horizontal kind.
As Katherine looked at the woman more closely she got the distinct impression they had met before, though for the life of her she couldn’t place where. The woman was fairly non-descript, having shortish brown hair and greeny-brown eyes. Katherine dismissed the idea, thinking instead that it was probably just someone back at Markham the woman reminded her of.
Katherine realised the woman was still waiting expectantly for an answer. “Is it just you?” There were three other women lingering and talking amongst themselves.
The first woman spun round to address them. “Oi, Amelia, Janie, Carol! Any of you slappers want to play too?”
It was the oldest one who replied in a raspy voice. “Nah, whore, you go ahead.”
Katherine winced at the colourful language, though she was getting used to it having been in the bar for an hour already.
The first woman turned back to her. “Looks like it’s just me then. The name’s Sasha by the way.”
Katherine saw a hand extended in her direction and reluctantly took it. The woman’s fingers were sweaty and Katherine dreaded to think what else might be mingled in the grimy palm.
Having disentangled herself and made a sneaky wipe of her hand on the thigh of her thick trousers, Katherine picked up the five dice once more. “Is Farkle all right by you?”
“Yes, that’s great.” The woman seemed slightly nervous and Katherine thought it was going to be easy reading her.
That assessment proved accurate as the game progressed. By the time they were halfway through, Katherine was pretty confident she was going to win. The tiny bead of sweat on the other woman’s forehead indicated she had a good idea of the impending outcome too. One of her companions brought a drink over; it was the older one who had spoken before. She stopped to watch the game for a moment before addressing her friend.
“How you doing, whore? Lost your shirt yet? Or should that be your knickers? I know you have trouble holding onto them.”
When Katherine made a small snigger the older woman eyed her suspiciously. Again Katherine got the strangest feeling of having met the woman before and it didn’t seem she was the only one. The woman’s brow creased for a moment and then she turned to the one called Sasha. “Hey, isn’t she that woman from that other tavern…you know the one in Cotgrave?”
The pair of them seemed to have forgotten Katherine was at the table with them, talking in voices that were easily loud enough for her to hear.
“You’ve got some cheek!” cried Sasha, “You implied I was crazy for suggesting that blond we saw at the Markham Spring Fair was one of them. And here we are even further afield and now you’re at it. Anyway, I don’t think it’s her, her hair is too short.”
“Oh, you made a note of it last time did you?”
“I might have done.”
Katherine made a small cough to get their attention. As fascinating as it was hearing a critique of her hairstyle, the game was waiting. She supposed she could have put them out of their misery and confessed she was the woman they were referring to. It was now clear why she’d had the vague sense of having seen them before. It was probably vague because she had been rather drunk at the time.
“It’s your roll,” she reminded Sasha.
The other woman sent the dice flying onto the table. Sasha watched their course expectantly, before letting out a groan when she saw the way they fell. Katherine kept an even expression on her face as she gathered them back up, though she knew it only needed one good roll and the game would be hers. She went through her elongated routine of rolling the dice deliberately around in her hand first. It only served to heighten the look of despair on the other woman’s face. Katherine supposed it was mean of her to prolong the agony, so she finally launched the dice onto the table to complete her farkle and win.
Sasha’s head fell into her hands for a moment before she graciously managed to shake Katherine’s hand and take her leave. Katherine was adding the coins to her existing winnings when she sensed a presence by her side. She didn’t need to look up to know who it was.
“Fleecing the locals are you?”
Katherine grinned as she turned her head up to Anne, just about holding back from the urge to lean in and kiss her. Out of the corner of her eye, Katherine could see Sasha and her friends almost having a fit as they pointed animatedly at Anne and her. It appeared they had finally deduced they might have been right about the tavern in Cotgrave.
Anne studied the table and dice. She picked one up and turned it over in her fingers. Katherine found herself watching the delicate way Anne played with it, reminded all too vividly of other places those fingers had explored the night before.
“Where did you learn to play?” asked Anne, “It’s hardly a game for the aristocracy?”
Katherine fixed her eyes on Anne’s to stop herself staring at the young woman’s hands. “I wouldn’t be so sure – most of them are inveterate gamblers. But it was Nicholas who taught me, last year when I was at the outlaw camp.”
“Ah, I might have known.” Anne took in the coins in Katherine’s hand. “It appears he taught you a little too well. I expect he was hoping to be the one conning you out of some money.”
Katherine had to smile again as she recalled those games with the jovial outlaw. “In the end he refused to play with me.”
Anne chuckled at the revelation and again Katherine had the strongest desire to close the distance between them. Yet she knew she couldn’t in such a public place, even if half those present were far too drunk to care. She decided that perhaps they should go back upstairs again and make use of their bed before it was time to leave. Before she could suggest it, someone loomed at her side. For a moment she thought it was the bartender, finally back with her drink, but one look confirmed it was someone else entirely. The man was as tall as the bartender, but where the Irishman’s face was warm and open, this man looked deadly serious.
He gestured to the dice table. “Care to try your hand with someone else?” The man’s voice was gruff and he spoke in a thick Scottish accent that Katherine had trouble understanding.
Something in his demeanour was telling her to say no. “Why not?” Sometimes her mouth was just a bit too quick for her mind.
Anne obviously shared her concern. As the man sorted out his coins, she leant in to whisper to the older woman. “Katherine, I’m not sure this is a good idea – Scotsman are notoriously bad losers, especially when there’s money involved.”
“It’ll be fine. Surely he wouldn’t make a scene with a woman?”
Anne rolled her eyes at the over-confidence. “I think I’ll stay close by, just in case.”
The game started fairly evenly, the Scotsman keeping up with Katherine’s scoring. Katherine realised this game was going to be much more of a challenge, one she found she was relishing. She actually undid the cuffs on her shirt and rolled them up in a show that she was taking this one seriously. She hardly noticed when the bartender eventually did reappear with her drink.
“Sorry it took so long.”
Katherine favoured him with a quick thank you nod, though she didn’t want to take her eyes off her opponent for any length of time.
“When you’ve finished, perhaps we could have a quiet drink somewhere else?”
Katherine caught the tiny derisive snort from Anne at her side. Katherine had the dice in her hand, so she thought it was safe to turn to the bartender to answer. “I’m afraid we’ll be leaving straight after,” she said, indicating Anne with her eyes, “But thank you.”
The bartender gazed at her for a second as if he couldn’t quite comprehend he had been turned down. Then his eyes shifted to Anne. Katherine could see the look the young woman was giving him. It was one that was enough to make grown men turn and flee. Quite possibly with dirtier trousers than they had started with. The realisation on the bartender’s face was plain to see.
“Ah, right,” he was quickly backing away, “Maybe next time then.”
He almost tripped over a table as he continued backwards. Katherine chuckled to herself while Anne whispered in her ear.
“Bloody hell, do men throw themselves at you everywhere we go? I don’t get anywhere near that much attention.”
When Katherine turned her head, Anne was so close she would only have had to move a fraction and their lips would have been together. The temptation was maddening, especially as she could feel each of Anne’s hot breaths fluttering out over her face. “Perhaps it’s something to do with that vibe you give off?” suggested Katherine.
“The one that says – ‘come near me and you’ll soon be wearing your balls as a necklace’.”
A loud cough prevented any further comment from either of them. The Scotsman didn’t look particularly amused by the interruption to the game. His thick arms were crossed over his chest and his face was set in a look of annoyance. It seemed Anne wasn’t the only one practised in the art of deathly stares. The impatience of the man only made Katherine want to beat him all the more. A couple of more rounds and she was well on her way to doing that. Katherine could see the Scotsman’s expression darkening with each throw and common sense was telling her that maybe she ought to just deliberately lose the game. However, her pride wouldn’t allow that thought to progress much further.
With a final flourish she won the game. “Farkle!”
The man looked in consternation at the dice then fixed his eyes back on her. “You cheated!”
Katherine picked up the dice to show him they were as they should be. “I assure you I did not.”
He angrily slapped them from her palm, the five small pieces of bone flying across the room and clattering onto the floor. As he made to come towards her Anne was in between them in a flash. Her hands were up to stop the irate man.
“Come on, she won fair and square.”
The sneer was obvious on his face as he looked Anne up and down. “And who the hell are you, her bodyguard?”
Katherine winced internally at the comment. The man had no idea who he was dealing with. Anne managed to restrain herself, though when she spoke, Katherine could hear the deadliness in the tone. “No, just someone who thinks there’s more important things than starting a fight over a game.”
Anne swung briefly round to Katherine. “Let’s get out of here, quick.”
Katherine nodded. “I think you might be right.” She moved round Anne to pick up her coins. “I’ll just take my winnings…”
The Scotsman’s huge hand thumped down over Katherine’s on the table. “Not so fast, cheat!”
Katherine went to retort only to find the man’s other hand slamming right into her face. She staggered backwards, crashing into and upending a table before she hit the floor. Her vision was blurred, but she was dimly aware of Anne punching the man in return. Then all sorts of other people leapt into the fray and it was hard to make out anything.
Katherine carefully crawled across the grubby floor, making her way though the legs of the brawlers to a safe spot near the bar. Once there she propped herself against it and made a quick check of her nose. It made her eyes water, though thankfully the bones appeared to be all in one piece. The bodies were tumbling and crashing round the room thick and fast now, and Katherine blinked a few times as she tried to locate Anne amongst the melee. She spotted the younger woman standing on a table and kicking one of the other fighters in the face. Then she deftly leapt from one tabletop to another before she came thumping down next to Katherine, her boots sending up a cloud of dust.
“Now can we get out of here?” asked Anne, reaching down to help Katherine up. “And don’t you dare mention your winnings!” she added as Katherine made to speak.
They negotiated their way through the battling mass of humanity to the stairs, dodging flying bottles, chairs and other personal items on the way. Katherine was sure she even saw a goat sailing past at one point. She considered that maybe she’d been hit a bit harder than she’d realised. They snuck out the back door and up the steps to the upper level of the inn.
Once they got to the relative safety of their room, Katherine started waggling the bridge of her nose again, just to make sure it wasn’t broken. Meanwhile Anne was already shoving her clothes into a bag in readiness for a hasty getaway. She favoured Katherine with a quick reproachful glance as she poked her tender flesh.
“Can’t we ever go in a tavern and just have a drink?”
Katherine shrugged. “Maybe next time I should stick to chess – it’s much more refined.”
Anne looked doubtful. “I’m sure you could turn that to competitive gambling too, if the way you play against me is anything to go by.”
Katherine frowned slightly – she was sure Anne was exaggerating. She wasn’t that competitive, she just didn’t like losing. After all, she’d only remained in a bad mood for a couple of hours the last time Anne had beaten her at chess. The sound of shouts and breaking wood filtered up through the floorboards and Katherine supposed she ought to start getting her stuff together too. She haphazardly shoved her things into her small bag. Anne was bending over and putting the last of her belongings in her own one. The stance offered a fine view of a shapely backside. As Anne stood, Katherine slipped nearer and wrapped an arm around her waist to pull her close.
Anne could immediately see the seductive look she was receiving from the smaller woman, all big eyes and pouting lips. “You are incorrigible! We’re being chased out of town again and you want to tarry longer?”
Katherine ran a single finger down Anne’s arm. “There’s always time for this…”
Before Anne could raise any more objections, Katherine captured her lips in a full-blooded kiss. Something about the hint of impending danger only added to the thrill. They were still locked together when the door to the room flew open. Katherine broke away, though Anne’s arms still encircled her, hands hovering somewhere about her bottom.
At the door was the irate Scotsman, looking even angrier now he had seen what they were doing. If that wasn’t dangerous enough, he also held a very sharp looking sword.
His eyes swept over Katherine in disgust. “Not only are you a cheat, but you’re a disgusting heretic too!”
Anne finally removed her hands from Katherine’s body, and the older woman could see she was trying to sidle over towards the bed where her sword sat on the covers. Katherine realised it was up to her to try and stall the man.
“This is silly,” she attempted in an amiable voice. She moved forwards to obscure the bed. “How about we go back downstairs and talk about this over a drink?”
“I don’t want a drink with you, scum!”
Luckily Anne had reached her target and the noise of a sword being drawn sounded out in the small room. She stepped round Katherine and held the weapon out towards him. “Then I guess we have a problem.”
The stand-off lasted only a moment before the sound of more footfalls came from the corridor, preceding the appearance of three other men at the door, all also holding weapons of varying degrees of deadliness.
“No,” said the original Scotsman, looking rather smug now, “I would say you have the problem.”
Katherine quickly weighed up the situation - Anne versus four large, but slightly drunk men. She thought the odds were probably slightly in Anne’s favour. However, the enclosed space could make things awkward. There was also the possibility that the Scotsman had more friends just waiting to join in any fight. Considering all that, staying and fighting wasn’t really a viable option and the window behind them looked a much better bet.
Katherine snatched up her bag and managed to catch Anne’s eye in the process. The young woman obviously understood what she was intending from the brief look and gave a tiny nod as she kept her sword outstretched until the last moment.
Katherine addressed the four men as she started to back up. “I would say it’s been a pleasure gentlemen, but I don’t like to lie.”
They were still stupidly trying to decipher her meaning as she turned and ran for the window. Anne was immediately behind her and Katherine vaulted straight through the opening into the fresh air. The short fall was broken by a pile of rotting vegetables. It wasn’t the most fragrant of landings, but at least it was soft. Luckily Katherine had sized up all exit routes as soon as they’d got to the tavern, knowing their propensity for getting into trouble.
Their pursuers appeared at the window, seemingly unsure whether to follow. That gave Katherine and Anne plenty of time to sprint round to the stables, retrieve Delta and make good their escape. The horse sped down the road out of town with Anne holding tight to Katherine as she swerved in and out of the pedestrians.
Anne’s head rested on Katherine’s shoulder, so she could speak into her right ear. “It looks like we can add that tavern to the ever-growing list of ones we’re not welcome in anymore.”
Katherine made a shrug as she steered Delta around a particularly slow woman dragging a reticent cow along. “Oh, well, I wasn’t that keen on it anyway,” said Katherine, “The bar staff were a touch too smarmy for my liking.”
“You’re not tempted by the thought of a dalliance with an Irishman then?”
“God no, I’ve met a few before and they always want you to play with their rings, whatever the hell that means.”
Anne made a small choking noise and Katherine glanced back at her. “What?”
“Never mind. It’s probably best you didn’t accept.”
Katherine frowned, but decided she really didn’t want to know since it was obviously something dirty. Instead she focussed on the way ahead to guide them out onto the road north. Once out of the confines of the town, the countryside opened out into a patchwork of fields which subsequently gave way to more open ground and clumps of woodland. There were a few other carts and horses dotted along the trail and Anne waited until they were on a stretch alone before she leant forward to speak again.
“Can we stop now?”
“Something you need to do?”
“Something we both need to do!” Katherine regarded her quizzically until she elaborated. “In case you hadn’t noticed we both smell worse than Nicholas’ week old stew after rolling around in those stinking vegetables.”
Katherine made a testing sniff of her arm, recoiling in horror at the stench. “Christ! We need a river, or a lake or even just a puddle would do!”
A short distance on they spied a river bubbling through a nearby wheat field and Katherine pulled Delta up and dismounted. The sun was out now and it was a pleasantly warm May afternoon as they made their way through the growing stalks to the water. At the water’s edge, they realised they weren’t actually visible from the road and that it was safe to start removing their smelly clothes without fear of onlookers. Katherine started peeling hers delicately off but found it just prolonged the stinking agony. So instead she quickly whipped off the remainder and flung herself into the water.
“Bugger me!” She quickly stood again as the coldness of the water hit her. She jiggled about on the spot for a moment trying to get used to it.
Meanwhile Anne was still on the bank, chuckling to herself as she continued to take her clothes off and place them in a neat pile. Katherine thought even Delta looked like he was smiling at her predicament. At least being first in gave her the opportunity to watch Anne as she eased long, toned legs from her black trousers. Suddenly the water didn’t seem that cold. In fact Katherine wouldn’t have been surprised to see some steam coming off it around her body.
Finally Anne was undressed and testing the water with a tentative toe. Katherine swam closer now she was used to the temperature. That or her body had just gone so numb she didn’t notice it anymore. “Some hardened outlaw you are,” she noted with a grin.
Her eyes drifted languidly over Anne’s body, the heat building inside her with each second. She wondered if it was normal to be quite this aroused, especially given the fact that they had only made love the night before. Yet her desire for Anne seemed to show no signs of abating, even after over a year of being together. If anything it seemed to increase with time. She would never have dreamed of making love in such a public place when she was with any of her former lovers, yet now she couldn’t get her mind off the tantalising prospect.
Anne was still hovering at the edge. “It’s bloody freezing!”
“And you smell, so just get in here!”
Anne made a pouting face and then suddenly she was running into the water and flinging herself at Katherine. They both crashed under the surface for a second before emerging in a spray of fine drops.
“Christ, that’s cold!”
Katherine slid up against Anne’s body. “Then obviously you need to be warmed up.”
“There really is no controlling you, is there?” Anne obligingly wrapped her arms around Katherine’s smaller frame. “Anyone would think you’d been celibate for thirty-eight years before you met me.”
“Ah, but this is a whole new world,” reasoned Katherine. Her hand reached up to brush away the drops sliding down Anne’s cheek from her wet hair. “Which means I have a lot of time to make up for…”
She used her fingers to guide Anne’s face forwards into a lingering kiss as their bodies swirled round in the slow flowing water. Katherine slipped her hands down onto Anne’s bottom and gently lifted her up off the river bed. This was probably the only time she would be able to accomplish such a thing, since she would never be able to pick up the taller woman normally. Anne overcame an initial moment of surprise to wrap her legs around Katherine’s waist. Her breasts pressed hard into Katherine as her arms went round the older woman’s neck. A few drops trickled down off Anne’s hair and onto Katherine’s upturned face. They hovered there for a moment, Katherine revelling in the illusion of physical power as she held Anne aloft. Then Anne had dipped her head and they were hungrily kissing. Katherine staggered backwards as the desire shot up and overwhelmed her. Their lips were still locked together as she tumbled back into the water, carrying Anne with her.
Katherine’s head was back to the surface first, a cascade of droplets smattering across the water as she shook her wet hair. She was alone and she was just wondering where Anne was, when she felt a warm touch between her legs. Katherine gasped as Anne’s tongue slipped up onto her clitoris, flicking, probing.
Then suddenly the touch was gone. Anne’s head shot up to the surface, spectacularly breaking upwards in a shower of water. She was still panting as Katherine cleared the water from her eyes.
“Sorry about that,” said Anne, “But even I can’t hold me breath for that long!”
“I’m impressed you could find anything under the water,” noted Katherine.
Anne smiled as she slipped closer again, her white shoulders gliding easily through the river. “I just went by touch.” Her hand glided down between them. “It’s usually pretty accurate.” The young woman’s fingers found the spot where her tongue had been moments before and Katherine let out an involuntary gasp again.
“I would say it is,” she agreed breathlessly. “But what about my sense of touch?”
She dropped her own hand in between them, seeking out the same spot on Anne’s body. It was hard to focus as Anne continued to gently tease with her fingers. Finally she managed to concentrate enough to find it. Anne’s eyes widened, but she didn’t let up her own fondling. Katherine merely smiled back at the faintly surprised look as her fingers slipped through soft flesh. It was a small battle of wills to see who would succumb first, and have to cease and allow themselves to fall under the arousing touch of the other. Their eyes remained locked on one another as probing fingers explored and caressed. A couple of times Katherine was almost lost as Anne flicked a digit across her achingly sensitive flesh. Yet she wouldn’t let up, she had to keep touching Anne. She didn’t want to lose that connection. She wanted to feel her, all of her. Katherine could hear Anne’s breathing was getting shallower, faster, until she was almost panting to get a breath.
Then suddenly Anne’s hands were off Katherine’s sex and clutching at her shoulders, digging in for purchase. Finally the eye contact was lost as her head tipped back, panting silent benedictions up to the open sky. Katherine could only watch in awe and wonder at the erotic sight. A few odd droplets of water were still tumbling freely down Anne’s skin, down across her exposed jawline and on down her neck to mingle back into the swirling water.
Katherine held her tight as the trembling started. Anne in turn clutched onto Katherine as a cry bubbled up in her throat and echoed out across the water. Fortunately there was no one to hear the ecstatic shout, save a few startled sparrows. They had settled back down to peck at the dry earth as Anne’s head came to flop down onto Katherine’s shoulder. Katherine could hear her ragged breathing, feel it brushing out hot over her skin. She was glad they were in the cooling water now, else she might have overheated long ago.
“I would say,” said Anne between gulps of air, “That your sense of touch is just fine too.”
Katherine laughed. It was suddenly cut off and turned into a gasp when she felt the intimate caress of her own engorged flesh. Anne had surreptitiously slipped her fingers back down between them and Katherine felt first one, then another push inside her, meeting no resistance from the arousal slick walls. Now it was Katherine’s turn to cling tight to Anne’s body as the young woman pressed close, hard breasts sliding up against her. Katherine raked her fingers down Anne’s taut back and sought out her lips, hungrily latching onto them as her arousal shot through her entire body.
She was so close to the edge already, that Anne barely had to touch her. She could have merely placed a single finger on Katherine and she would have been having an orgasm on the spot. As it was it took only a few gentle thrusts and then Katherine’s muscles were clenching, gripping Anne’s fingers tight, deep within her. Anne was holding her up in the river, which was a good thing otherwise Katherine might have sunk below the surface and happily drowned in her moment of bliss.
Anne lay on the bank of the river, gazing up at the few odd clouds making their lazy way across the blue sky. On a day like today it was almost possible to forget about evil syndicates and murderous clerics. The only thing that might have made the moment all that more perfect was if she could have felt the rhythms of nature around her like she once could. Anne’s fingers slipped through the grass beneath her. It was damp from where she had dripped on it, but other than that she got no special sense of anything from the stroking.
Sighing to herself she turned on her side to watch Katherine. Her eyes had drifted shut, and Anne was able to gaze at her relaxed profile without fear of being caught. She was still gloriously naked like Anne, and the young woman made an effort to keep her eyes about Katherine’s face and not let them drift to the nipples that stood stiff in the faint breeze. It looked like there was a vague smile twitching at Katherine’s lips as she dozed, and Anne suddenly felt herself filled with something much better than the ambience of nature. It started somewhere deep inside her stomach and filtered up through her heart to the rest of her body. There was a smile on her own face by the time it had run its course. This was the warm glow of love.
Anne was still basking in the effects when Katherine’s eyes flicked open and spied the staring woman. Anne made a quick show of looking at her pile of clothes instead, though the blush creeping up her cheeks was evidence enough of her actions.
“I suppose we better clean these too,” Anne picked warily at her shirt, “No good us smelling great if our clothes still stink.”
Anne didn’t look, but she could tell Katherine was smiling to herself and well aware of the diversion tactic. Continuing to inspect her clothes, Anne carefully pulled out the pages from the friar’s book on the syndicate. She had ripped them out to bring with her. Once they were safely to one side, she shuffled down the bank so she was near enough to dip the clothes in and start scrubbing. She resolutely kept her eyes off Katherine until her blush had fully subsided. She felt rather foolish for the embarrassment, yet Katherine seemed to have that effect on her. Anne could handle herself in a fight, knew how to hit a moving target at hundred paces, could build a shelter from nothing more than sticks and leaves and yet one look from Katherine and she was a stuttering idiot.
Meanwhile, Katherine was still lazing behind her, sliding over to pick up the pages. “I’m surprised you haven’t memorised those yet.”
Anne risked a quick backwards glance. “I have as it happens, but I thought it best to keep them, just in case.”
“Maybe you should explain the algorithm to me too, just in case.”
Anne frowned slightly. “Planning on getting rid of me?”
Katherine made a slight tutting noise. “Hardly. I just thought it might be prudent. How do you match the words from the page to those on the objects?”
Anne stopped her cleaning and turned fully to Katherine. “You need to use a combination of prime numbers and the another sequence of numbers studied by Jain philosophers known as the ‘maatraameru’ or ‘Mountain of Cadence’. Using these in tandem you can take the letters from the object and find their corresponding alternative one in the text,” explained Anne, “It’s all complicated by the fact that the combination to use depends on the number of the word and position of the letter in that word.” Anne started making some scribblings in the dirt as an illustration. “So for example if the first word on the object is ‘code’, then for the first letter of the first word you take the first prime number, which is two, the number of that letter in the alphabet, three, multiple those together, six. That gives you the letter number. Then because we’re dealing with the first word of the inscription we use the first cadence number to give us the line, that’s one. So on the page from the book we look at the sixth letter on the first line, in this case ‘g’. Of course for some of the later letters in the alphabet you’re looking at quite a large multiplication, especially if it’s a long word! Then you’re actually going over the lines too. For example…”
“All right!” Katherine held up her hands. “My head’s beginning to hurt! Maybe I’ll leave the complex algebra to you. Where did you learn such things anyway?”
“I used to read a lot,” said Anne matter of factly.
“Well hopefully we might get a chance to put that memory of yours to the test soon.”
Anne regarded her with interest. “You have some idea what or where the remaining two objects or the key are then?”
Anne was referring to the objects that they knew would lead them to a powerful weapon – one that they had to find before it fell into the hands of a sinister group known as the Ares Syndicate. They already had three of the items and enough knowledge to determine there were two more plus a key that completed the puzzle. Each object had part of a riddle inscribed on it. When it was all put together they were assuming it would give them the location of the weapon. As yet they had no clue as to what the weapon was, only that they had to prevent it falling into the hands of the syndicate. Katherine had received a letter from beyond the grave from her father intimating as much. She pulled out the letter now, along with the diagram he had left her. It was supposed to gives clues to the objects and their whereabouts.
“I’ve got a little further deciphering it,” she said as she laid it out on the ground. “See this here,” she waited for Anne to nod, “I think this is supposed to indicate a church and this,” again the young woman confirmed she saw, “I believe this is a candlestick.”
Anne arched both her eyebrows doubtfully. “So we’re looking for a candlestick in a church? I don’t suppose you know which church of the hundreds in this country?”
“Unfortunately not,” conceded Katherine, “If I can’t work it out, we can always start visiting them one by one.”
Anne looked aghast. “By the time we find this weapon we’ll be old and grey! If the Syndicate is having as much trouble as us, we’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“Maybe, but we have no idea what other information they have,” pointed out Katherine, “They might already know what each of the objects are, maybe even have some of them. Or they might know where to take them or what the weapon is.”
“If that’s the case then why haven’t they just taken the three we have off us and gone to get it?”
Katherine considered it. “Good point. Perhaps they are stumbling around blindly like us too. We can only really speculate until we actually manage to capture one of them without him taking his life first. All we can do for now is keep on with our search and hope we get their first.”
“I suppose so, though I don’t like not knowing what they’re up to. Anyway, that’s the fourth object, what about the fifth?”
“I think that one’s something else connected with writing.” Katherine indicated the picture again. “See this mass of symbols here near those that represent the inkpot we already have?”
Anne peered at them. “But you don’t know what they mean?”
“No, it could be some ink for the well that we need, or maybe a quill to write with, or some paper or a book to write in. I’m just not sure.”
Anne started cleaning her clothes again as she considered the information. “That seems to suggest the objects are related in some way. The friar’s book did suggest they needed to be combined to release the weapon as well as guiding us to it.”
Katherine had joined Anne on the edge of the water now, dipping her own clothes into the gently bubbling river. “Though what connects a goblet, an inkpot, a knife and a candlestick I’m not sure!”
“Me either,” agreed Anne, “What about the location of the fifth item? Any pointers to that?”
Katherine ruefully shook her head. “Not as yet I’m afraid.”
“Just as long as it’s not back at Stratford.”
Katherine couldn’t fail to notice the edge in Anne’s voice as she mentioned the manor house. “I can’t say as I’m in any hurry to get back there either,” Katherine agreed, “It seems Robert has quite the problem with Syndicate members in his midst.”
“It makes you wonder…”
Anne had trailed off but the meaning was perfectly clear to both of them. Katherine rolled her eyes. “You’re not going on about him being involved again are you?”
Anne just couldn’t seem to help herself where Robert was concerned. She knew the vision of him kissing Katherine had merely been a delusion of her fevered mind, and yet it had been so real she found it hard to forget.
“I’m just saying,” she attempted to make her argument sound reasonable, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.”
Katherine didn’t look convinced. “And where there’s a jealous woman there’s a lack of judgement.”
“Like you’re so impartial!” Anne didn’t like her paranoia being exposed.
Katherine looked like she was holding back with some effort. “Can we not argue about this again?” she eventually said, “I’ve already explained that we sorted that whole silly misunderstanding out. In case you’d forgotten he was all for helping me out in my search. He’d hardly be doing that if he was part of the syndicate would he? In fact he’s going to keep me posted of his hunt for more of them in and around Stratford.”
“And how much did you tell him about our search exactly?”
“Don’t worry, I kept it to the minimum,” Katherine reassured her, “He just knows to keep a lookout for anyone with the tattoo. I didn’t tell him anything specific about the objects, or the riddle or the weapon. I just said these people were out to stop us finding something that we needed to find first.”
Anne knew she was being unreasonable where Robert was concerned, but there was just something about him she didn’t like. Then again the fact that he obviously still had feelings for Katherine, kiss or no kiss, was a large negative factor in her assessment of his character. “Well, good, we don’t want everyone knowing,” she grudgingly conceded.
Katherine actually laughed and Anne supposed it was lucky she could see the funny side. “It’s good to be suspicious in this instance,” said Katherine, “But I’m pretty sure we can trust him.”
“I hope so too.”
The next few days proved much less eventful as Katherine and Anne continued their journey northwards. They made good time and soon they were on the south edge of Sherwood Forest, a day or two’s ride from home. The road through the forest was quiet as usual since not many travellers or merchants liked to use it for fear of ambush.
The gentle rocking motion of the horse was soothing as he cantered along the track, and Anne soon felt her eyes beginning to droop in the quiet forest and the warm afternoon air. She rested her head against Katherine’s back and allowed them to slide shut, safe in the knowledge that Katherine would guide them onwards.
Anne’s mind slipped into the hinterland somewhere on the verge of sleep, when suddenly she heard it – a soft chattering somewhere in the back of her mind. She jerked awake and immediately it was gone.
“Something wrong?” Katherine had obviously noticed the sudden movement behind her.
Anne’s eyes warily scanned the forest but there was nothing to be seen save trees, bushes and a few insects flitting lazily between them. Anne shook her head. “No, nothing, I was just dozing off.”
“Well, snooze away, it’s not as if we both need to stay awake.”
Anne snuggled up to Katherine again. She assumed the odd noises must just have been her sliding into the beginnings of a dream. Delta dutifully trotted on and Anne’s mind began to drift once more. When the sound came this time she kept her eyes closed and tried to let it simply wash over her, rather than concentrating too hard on it. It was a technique she had mastered under the tutelage of her parents, but not one she’d thought she was ever going to need again. Yet the thrumming chatter built until there was no mistaking it – it was the sound of the forest itself talking to her.
Anne had to hold back the urge to open her eyes and cry out in joy at the sensation. She somehow knew the link was tenuous and that at any moment it could be gone. That thought filled her with more dread than she might have imagined. For years she had ignored her innate abilities to communicate with nature. Only when they’d gone did she realise how much a part of her they were and how much she missed them. Now it appeared they might be returning, she didn’t want to lose them again.
She almost didn’t dare believe they were returning. Supposedly she had sacrificed them completely to return to the land of the living and yet it was definitely that same feeling as before. It was much fainter than it had been, but she could still sense the heart and soul of the forest and all the living creatures within it. She could feel the heartbeat of the hawk circling high above, sense the steps of the deer in the undergrowth, hear the chattering of the squirrels as they gathered their nuts in a nearby tree. Could it be that it was just a dream? Would she wake to find it had been her mind playing tricks on her?
Suddenly the voices changed. They were becoming agitated, trying to warn her of something. Anne’s eyes flew open and the link was abruptly severed. However, she didn’t have time to worry about that now.
“Go!” she yelled to Katherine.
The other woman glanced back at her in confusion. “What?”
“Just go! Now!”
Anne kicked her own heels into Delta’s flank and he jolted forwards. Katherine gripped the reins tightly as he whinnied in protest. “What the…?”
Katherine’s question was cut off by an arrow whistling close by her head.
“That’s what!” exclaimed Anne, “Now let’s go!”
Katherine didn’t need to be asked again. She turned to the front and spurred Delta into a full gallop. Anne looked back to see their previously hidden attackers leaping from the forest and sending a hail of arrows after them. Luckily they fell short of Delta’s speeding hooves, but their escape was fleeting. A crashing in the undergrowth heralded the arrival of three more horses on the road immediately behind them. Each one carried two men – a rider and an archer. One of the archers loosed a shot at the two women and Anne had to duck down and push Katherine down against Delta’s neck too before she was impaled.
“Keep going,” Anne instructed the other woman, “I’m going to try and do something about our pursuers.”
Two more arrows fizzed by as Anne manoeuvred herself round on the horse so that her back was to Katherine and she was facing the chasing outlaws. The position was precarious since all she had to keep her on the back of the bounding horse was the strength on her own thighs as they gripped Delta’s flanks. Reaching down, Anne unhooked her bow from the saddle and quickly notched an arrow. Aiming proved difficult as she was jolted this way and that, and her first shot flew harmlessly past the chasing group.
Anne took her time with the second one. The smooth wood of the bow nestled in her left hand and Anne was glad she had thought to put her fingerless leather glove on that morning. The flesh on her palm was still somewhat delicate after having been damaged by the outlaw Alan several weeks before, and the glove served to protect it. Meanwhile her right hand eased back the string until it was taut by her cheek. She waited to gauge the rhythm of Delta’s gallop and then released it. The arrow sailed straight and true, right into the chest of the first rider. He was catapulted off his horse, knocking his passenger off in the process.
An arrow whizzed by close to Anne in return; it seemed their attackers were finding their range too. Suddenly Delta’s rear bucked up into the air and Anne was flung up with it. She had to frantically grab for her bow as it shot out of her hand, using the other one to clutch at the back of the saddle.
“Sorry!” called back Katherine, “Fallen tree in the road!”
Seeing the other horses were negotiating the obstacle, Anne quickly placed another arrow in her bow. This one flew into the second horseman. However, the last horse was close now, too close for Anne to have time to notch another arrow. So she took the end of her bow and swung that instead. It broke in two over the left arm of the rider and dislodged him from his saddle. The rear archer managed to cling on though. Then he completely surprised Anne by flinging himself across the gap between the horses at her. He latched onto her belt and they both tumbled off the back of Delta onto the dusty road.
Anne rolled once and was then up on her feet, quickly taking in the situation. Delta’s speed had carried him and Katherine on a good distance before she had realised what had happened and pulled him up. She was now in the process of turning him to come back. Back down the track in the other direction the remaining men Anne hadn’t put out of commission had remounted or were running to catch up. Closest to her was the one that had knocked her from Delta. He had already drawn a sword and was charging at her.
Anne swiftly pulled out her own weapon to parry his blow. The man’s attack was amateurish and it only took Anne two more strokes to down him. She glanced up and down the track and came to the grim conclusion that the man’s colleagues were going to reach her before Katherine. Turning for the other woman she started sprinting.
“Turn around! Go get help!” she yelled as she ran. If Katherine heard she ignored the instructions. Anne supposed she shouldn’t really have expected anything else.
The pounding hooves behind her were close now and she risked a backwards glance. There were three of the men left on two horses. Anne kept running but she could see them gaining with every stride. When they got close enough one of them leapt down and tackled her to the ground. Anne made sure to keep hold of her sword as she thumped into the dirt. The man was rather rotund and it took a moment for her to manage to push him off her and get in a standing position. The delay had given the other two time to dismount to face her too. Not only that, but she could also see movement deep in the forest, suggesting more of the outlaws were on their way.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see Katherine still galloping towards them. Their only chance was if Anne could deal with the three in front of her quick enough so they could get away before the rest of the group arrived. Without any preamble she slashed at the nearest man. He was completely unprepared for the attack and tumbled to the floor as blood spurted from the wound on his arm.
The other two lunged at her in unison but she parried both blows with some deft swordplay. The men weren’t stupid though. They circled her separately and as she fended off one, the other was attacking from behind. She blocked them a couple of times and even got in an attack on one. Her sword slipped through his defences to spear into his thigh. He let out an anguished wail but Anne had no time to be satisfied. Something hard hit her in the side of the head and she was back down in the dirt once more. Her ears were ringing and her head was pounding. The pounding seemed to be getting louder as she scrabbled to get back hold of her sword. The constant drum echoed her racing heart and provided a countdown to the inevitable next blow from her attacker. She could sense he was right behind her and braced herself for it. Then she realised the pounding wasn’t in her head at all, it was horse hooves.
The sound of a heavy object impacting soft flesh came, but there was no corresponding pain for Anne. Instead the sound was quickly followed by her assailant hitting the ground by her side. Then there was a hand clutching onto her, trying desperately to haul her to her feet.
“Come on, we need to get out of here.”
Anne’s head was still spinning as Katherine pulled at her. She understood the urgency but couldn’t quite seem to coordinate her limbs to accommodate it. She blinked a few times to steady herself and finally managed to stagger to her feet. Katherine had stopped her insistent tugging now, though, and it took Anne a moment to fully clear her head and see why.
There was an armed man standing between them and Delta and he was not alone. He had roughly a dozen other compatriots with him, the men surrounding them on all sides. Anne resolutely gripped her sword and swung it around in a wide arc to keep them at bay. There were far too many of them, but she would go down fighting. If nothing else she might be able to buy some time for Katherine to escape.
However, it seemed Katherine had other ideas. Anne felt the older woman’s hand on her arm, encouraging her to lower it. Anne looked to her in consternation.
“At least this way we might live to fight another day.”
“Or they just might kill us here and now.”
“We’ll be dead anyway if we stand and fight.”
Anne gazed into Katherine’s pale blue eyes. Every fibre of her being was screaming at her to just launch herself at the men. She really didn’t care what happened to her as long as Katherine was safe. However, even if she did manage to deal with some of them, what then for Katherine? She had a sword, but she was hardly going to be able to take on this many men.
Katherine’s imploring gaze was joined by a small squeeze to the elbow. “Trust me.”
The words were simple, but spoken with such total confidence and authority that Anne was unable to resist them. She never could. Slowly she lowered her sword before dropping it on the ground. Immediately the men were upon them, grabbing onto both women. A foot jabbed into the back of Anne’s knee and she was forced down onto the ground with her face jammed into the dirt. Someone roughly yanked her hands behind her back and started tying them together. It took all Anne’s willpower not to fight back.
As she was dragged back to her feet, Anne could see Katherine was receiving similarly rough treatment. She was still on the ground with one of the men kneeling on her back as he finished off trussing her up. Anger flared hot inside Anne at the sight, but it was too late now, she was helpless. The outlaw dealt an unnecessary blow to Katherine’s ribs on pulling her to her feet. The cry of pain from the other woman shot straight into Anne’s heart and exploded out from there into a blinding rage.
She wrenched herself free of her captor and flung herself bodily at the one holding Katherine. The suddenness of the attack was enough to allow her to knock him over. She managed one kick into his body before pain flared in the back of her head. Then the ground was rushing up fast before she smacked into it and unconsciousness enveloped her.
The next thing Anne knew was the feel of cold water slapping hard into her face. She gagged at the torrent, and shook her head to clear away the remaining droplets. A loose lock of blond hair flopped in her face and she went to move it. Only she couldn’t move her hands. They were still secured behind her back with thick rope. She attempted to blow the hair away instead so she could see the person responsible for her rude awakening.
She found herself slumped in an ungainly sprawl on the ground while a man towered above her holding a bucket. He was about six feet tall, with shaggy brown hair and a matching beard. He was clothed in typical woodsman’s clothing consisting of forest colours, though the sword at his belt indicated he was not the friendly sort of woodsman who might be out cutting down trees. The look on his face confirmed that assumption. He was regarding Anne with an expression that was halfway between a leer and a grotesque sneer. Unfortunately for Anne she didn’t need the assessment of her eyes to discern his intentions. She knew the man all too well.
“Hello, Seven, it’s nice of you to drop in.”
He was well aware of who she was too, at least in her capacity as one of Robin Hood’s outlaw band. That was hardly surprising, given the fact that Barton was the chief of the main rival group to Robin’s within Sherwood Forest. However, where Robin’s men were generally honest peasants down on their luck, Barton’s group were a notorious bunch of lowlives and career criminals. Anne made a quick sweep of her surroundings, looking for someone in particular amongst them. She tried not to let the encroaching fear consume her when she couldn’t immediately see Katherine anywhere in the outlaw camp. Anne shifted slightly into a proper sitting position to get a better look. There was a faint tingling in her arms, the limbs having gone numb where she had been lying awkwardly on them. As she scouted around there was still no sign of the familiar auburn head.
“Looking for someone?”
Anne knew it was imperative she not show too much open concern for Katherine, now she realised who she was dealing with. It could prove dangerous for them both if Barton became aware how close they were. Barton and Robin had a well-known and bitter rivalry, which extended to those in their respective groups. Barton would be crowing at having captured someone so close to Robin. However, the threat to Anne was nothing compared to the one to Katherine if Barton learnt or recognised who she herself was. Anne just prayed the outlaw chief had never been close enough to Markham to realise he had the lady of the manor herself in his midst. That was presuming she was there somewhere and hadn’t been left for dead on the road. That thought clutched icily at her heart.
“After your travelling companion maybe?”
Anne tried to keep her expression even, with perhaps just a hint of nonchalant indifference. It was amazing she could even speak given her inner anxiety. “Just curious where she went – she owes me some money.”
Barton laughed loudly, some of his men joining dutifully in as they all regarded her with beady eyes. There had to be at least twenty of them having a good look at their captured rival. Suddenly the laughter stopped and Barton was kneeling down in front of her, his face right up in her own. Any sign of joviality was gone as his eyes bored darkly into her. She knew he was unstable and unpredictable, the manic edge to his gaze hinting at it.
“And you owe me several men.”
She considered there were two ways she could go with this. Either she could stand up to him, and try and brazen it out or she could go the apologetic route. Somehow she didn’t think the latter would garner much ground or respect.
“You could see it as me doing you a favour,” she said cockily, “They obviously weren’t up to the task if they couldn’t even beat two women.”
Barton didn’t immediately answer and for a second Anne feared she’d pitched it wrong. Then suddenly he was laughing again and Anne allowed herself a small sigh of relief. Perhaps there was some way she might talk her way out of this yet, or at least give herself a fighting chance. If nothing else the fact that he hadn’t killed her on the spot gave her a flicker of hope.
“True, true,” he agreed, “Though you do seem to have a nasty habit of ‘helping me out’ in that way. I seem to recall you relieving me of two men last year too.”
A sudden sickness lurched in the pit of Anne’s stomach. She’d forgotten about that incident when she had rescued Katherine from three of Barton’s men who were chasing her through the woods. Would the one that got away still be in Barton’s band? Would he recognise Katherine?
“Perhaps I should take that fine horse of yours in payment for a start,” he added, “Which begs the question, just where did you come by such a thoroughbred?”
Anne quickly thought of a lie. “I won him in a game of dice.”
“Really? Off who exactly, the Sheriff of Nottingham?”
Anne’s quick wits deserted her for a second as thoughts of Delta brought her back to Katherine. The momentary hesitation was enough to annoy Barton.
“Not feeling talkative? Then perhaps we’ll get some answers elsewhere.”
He stood up and made a gesture towards the back of the group. There was the sound of scuffling as someone was dragged to the front against their will. Once there, they were bodily hurled down next to Anne. The small form was achingly familiar as it sprawled amongst the leaves and Anne found her heart beating erratically in her chest as Katherine struggled to turn herself over without the use of her hands. The only consolation was that Katherine was very much alive. Finally the other woman managed to right herself, casting an indignant look back at the man who had thrown her down. When Barton turned his attention to Katherine the cold tendrils of fear slid ever deeper inside Anne.
Katherine looked balefully up at the sniggering faces of the men, trying to maintain an air of righteous indignation at the rough treatment. It served as a good way to control her fear which had grown ever more apparent on seeing Anne bound before the outlaw group. At least Anne seemed to be all right. When she had been thumped on the head back on the road Katherine’s heart had been in her mouth along with her dinner.
One of the men stepped forward and knelt down before Katherine. She caught a faint waft of stale body odour but resisted the urge to recoil at it. She presumed he was the leader of the surrounding group. If she had thought some of Robin’s men were a little rough around the edges, then they had nothing on the swarthy, leering band before her now. She got the impression they wouldn’t think twice about slitting either of their throats if there was something in it for them. That meant they had to give a good reason to keep them alive.
The man sized her up for a couple of seconds in an exceedingly penetrating way. “So, Seven here I know,” he finally said, “But who might you be?”
Anne jumped in with an answer before Katherine could get a single word past her lips. “She’s just one of the village women, from Oxton.”
The leader’s reaction was equally as instant. His arm shot out and he backhanded Anne right across the face. The loud slap rang out round the forest. “Did I ask you?”
Katherine fought back the combination of sickness and fury brewing in her stomach. She didn’t like violence at the best of times, and especially not when directed so wantonly at the one she loved. Katherine could already tell this situation was dangerous, recognising it wasn’t a time for impassioned outbursts.
The large man’s eyes darted back to her. “Can’t you speak for yourself? Or are you Oxton women too stupid?”
Katherine’s gaze drifted to Anne who was back up and making frantic eye contact with her. Something told Katherine it wouldn’t be wise to answer with the truth about her identity. However, she needed to keep it pretty close for ease of remembrance. “It’s Katherine,” she stated. The name was common enough, even amongst the lower classes.
“Ooo, Katherine is it?” he teased, making fun of her refined accent, “Do we have ideas above our station, Katherine?”
She forced a touch more commonness into her voice this time. “No, just above yours.”
His hand flew up as if to hit her but something stayed his hand. Next to her she could see the way Anne had tensed at the sudden movement. The retort had just slipped out. Katherine already knew she didn’t like the man and wasn’t going to back down in the face of his bullying.
“So was it you who wanted the horse to go with your posh accent?”
Katherine’s mind worked quickly as she tried to deduce what might have come before in the conversation. Obviously he was talking about Delta, but what had Anne already said about the horse? Without thinking her eyes slid ever-so-slightly in the young woman’s direction.
Suddenly the leader’s hand was on Katherine’s face, squeezing it tightly as he made sure she focussed on him. “Don’t look at her! I asked you a question!”
The man’s fingers dug painfully into her cheeks but Katherine spoke with determination. “Wouldn’t you want such a fine animal?” The answer was broad and non-commital enough.
The leader grunted and released his hold, shoving her backwards in the process. Katherine’s arms twisted under her as she hit the forest floor but she refused to cry out. As the man got back to his feet Katherine took the opportunity to cast a fleeting glance at Anne. Her pale blue eyes seemed to be offering silent encouragement and support even though they couldn’t say anything to each other.
The outlaw was pacing in front of them now. “I’m not sure I believe either of you. If you’re some common peasant woman from Oxton what are you doing hanging about with outlaws?”
Katherine remembered her lowly accent as she replied this time. “I don’t. She was just giving me a ride back from Nottingham. She saw me there and recognised me from the village.”
“Funny that it was you who was riding the horse then.”
Katherine wasn’t sure of the best way to answer that, so didn’t.
“You don’t know Seven at all then?” he pressed, “She just got really upset when my men first cornered you because you’re some random person off the street she gave a ride to?”
Katherine realised she had to avoid answering with the truth even if the man was becoming annoyed with her evasion. Obviously he knew who Anne was, or at least her alter ego as an outlaw. It was equally obvious he was fishing for something on her. “I can’t speak for her motives.”
“Uh-huh, so if I say did this…”
The man suddenly punched Katherine hard in the stomach.
“…She wouldn’t be bothered in the slightest.”
There were a few involuntary tears in Katherine’s eyes as she fixed a defiant gaze back on him. She daren’t look at Anne, knowing the young woman would already be finding it hard enough to watch.
“Only if she had a hint of compassion,” said Katherine through gritted teeth. Despite herself, she couldn’t resist adding something further. “Unlike you.”
The blow this time was to her face. It cannoned into her cheekbone and made her head spin as it whacked onto the dry leaves.
Anne’s voice rang out now. “Leave her alone!” she implored the outlaw. Katherine could tell she was struggling to rein in her emotions. “She’s telling the truth. She’s just a villager! It’s me you’ve got the problem with, why don’t you let her go?”
The outlaw was becoming more irate by the second though. “You’re lying!” he snapped at Anne before yanking Katherine up into sitting again. The rope round her wrists bit painfully into her skin and her face was still burning from the earlier blow. “Who are you?”
Katherine decided now was the time for some fake fear. Not that she had to try that hard. “Please, please don’t hurt me,” she begged pitifully, “I’m only a simple peasant woman. I don’t know nothing of outlaws and suchlike. I didn’t want to say nothing because of why I was in Nottingham.”
The outlaw chief seemed intrigued by the tale. “And that was because?”
Katherine allowed herself to tremble a bit for good effect. “I was seeing a gentleman. He pays well and we have many mouths to feed. Please, I don’t want my husband to find out.”
“Ah, now it all becomes clear – you’re nothing more than a cheap whore.”
Katherine could take the scornful words if it helped their cause, though the way Anne was bristling next to her suggested she was finding it harder to hear the remarks. Again Katherine had to force herself not to look at the other woman for fear of letting something slip. It was blindingly apparent that the man would use any sort of connection between them as a weapon.
Whether he was hoping for such ammunition as he slipped closer to her, she wasn’t sure. Certainly the fact that Anne was practically shaking with fury as his hand slid down Katherine’s face was coming close to revealing all. “And how much do you charge this ‘gentleman’?” he asked suggestively.
Katherine was beginning to regret her choice of cover story, especially as she had no idea of the going rate for such things. She picked a likely figure. “Twenty pennies.”
He sucked in his breath. “Twenty pennies, eh? You must be good! Not that I should have to pay since you’re my prisoners after all.” His hand slipped onto her shoulder and started to tease at the material of her shirt.
Again Anne couldn’t help stepping in. Her voice was laced with a slight panic now, though one that was probably only detectable to Katherine. To everyone else it more then likely came across as arrogant bravado. “Why don’t you just stop arsing around and tell us what you want, Barton. Or else just get on with it and kill us.”
Katherine flinched as the man known as Barton slapped Anne again. She could see now that he was highly unstable and liable to fly off the cuff at the slightest thing. He peered darkly back at Katherine.
“You ought to be careful who you spend time with,” he noted menacingly, “She’s a dangerous woman you know,” he added in reference to Anne, “She’d kill you as soon as look at you. You’d be much better off with us.”
Katherine jutted her chin out slightly as she met his stare. “I’ll take my chances, thanks.”
Barton shrugged his shoulders and straightened back up. He poked out a boot to shove Anne over onto her back once more. “To be honest I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with you yet,” he said to the young woman who was shaking the dirt from her hair and face, “I never expected to get such a lovely present – the infamous Seven plopping right into my lap. While I think on it, you’d make a nice little addition to our ‘game’. Let’s see how you get on with that. If worst comes to the worst I can always send your body back to Robin as a gentle reminder that I’m not a man to be crossed.”
“And what of her, will you let her go?” Anne indicated Katherine with her eyes. “She’s nothing to do with this.”
“Let her go?” He turned to look at his men. “Let her go?” he repeated again encouraging some laughter from them before he turned back to Anne. “No, I don’t think so, not just yet. We might want a bit of fun first.”
Barton left his threat dangling provocatively in the air as he ordered Katherine and Anne to be taken away. They were hauled though the outlaw camp, which was much like the one further north in Sherwood that Anne called her home. However, this one felt anything but homely. Each person they passed gave them looks ranging from disdain through to menacing lust. Not one of them was friendly.
When they stopped Anne felt a brief flash of hope as the man behind her slipped a dagger between her bonds and sliced them apart. It only lasted the time it took for him to shove her in the back and send her spiralling down into the deep pit before them. Anne hit the earthy bottom with a thump, thankful that it was damp enough to break her fall. She had barely had time to clamber to her feet when another body followed down on top of her. She managed to get her arms up in an attempt to catch the plummeting Katherine. The other woman clattered into her and then they were both back in the mud in an ungainly sprawl.
The man who had pushed them in pulled the wooden grate that covered the underground prison back over and secured the lock. Not that they would have much chance of undoing it anyway, since it was about thirty feet above them. The pit was dim and dank, little light filtering down from above to illuminate it. Anne couldn’t even make out the sides now she was down at the bottom. It was eerie quiet for a second and she could feel the hairs on the back of her neck starting to prickle.
Then a shuffling in the darkness indicated that they were not alone. First one, then two, then several more pale faces swam into view from the shadows. The pit was obviously much larger than the above ground opening suggested. The two women quickly disentangled themselves to stand and face the approaching men who looked like spectres as they lurched forwards. Their hands were clammy too as a couple of them reached out to touch Anne. It was like they were checking to see if she was real as they poked and prodded her. Anne batted the inquisitive hands away. Now they were closer she could see that the men also sported a number of injuries of varying ages, like they had been in repeated fist fights. Katherine was having similar trouble with some over attentive behaviour. One of the shabbily dressed men was running some grubby fingers through the ends of her auburn hair.
She tried to shrug him off. “Get off me!” She went to push away the fingers, but he wasn’t going to take no for an answer, continuing to wordlessly stare at the red strands, bright as they slipped over his white hands. Katherine shoved him more forcefully back and suddenly his demeanour switched. His face curled into an enraged sneer, and he grabbed her hand.
Anne was over in a flash, swinging a solid fist into his face. He staggered backwards and slumped to the floor. The fight was gone from him as quickly as it had appeared. He just sat there looking pathetic and lost with his wide staring eyes fixed on them. The rest of the men seemed more reticent to proceed now, warily watching both Anne and Katherine from a few paces back. The way none of them spoke was disconcerting, but Anne returned their stare in kind.
“Just leave us alone,” she warned them in a low voice.
If they understood they gave no indication and Anne began to wonder what exactly Barton had been doing to the men to leave them in that state, and more pertinently what he might soon be doing to them.
Keeping one eye on their silent watchers, Anne guided Katherine over to the corner where they sat down. Anne was surprised to discover there were rocky walls to the pit. She had assumed the prison had been dug by Barton and his men, but it appeared to be a natural phenomenon, some sort of underground cave. Seeing they still had some watchers, Anne defensively stared at their ghostly companions until they dispersed back into the darkness. Once she was satisfied they wouldn’t be bothering them for the time being she turned to Katherine. The other woman was rubbing at her wrists where the skin was broken from the rope bindings. She also sported a bright red mark on her right cheek. Anne fought down her natural instincts to find someone and hurt them, preferably Barton. They needed cool heads and clear thinking if they were going to get out of this.
She joined Katherine in checking the damage to her wrists, her own fingers joining the other woman’s. “Are you all right?”
Katherine’s eyes flicked up, a wan smile on her face. “Yes, I think I’m in one piece.” Whether that was true was another matter, since Anne knew she had a tendency to put a brave face on things. Anne had to constantly remind herself that despite all they had experienced in the past year, Katherine was basically a noblewoman who hadn’t really encountered the lower reaches of society. Her first-hand experience with the sort of people they were likely to find in Barton’s camp was sparse. Anne, on the other hand, knew only too well the sort of thing they were capable of.
Katherine reached out to touch Anne’s face. “And you, you took quite a nasty whack back on the road?”
Anne offered her an encouraging smile, injecting as much confidence into it as possible. “I’ll be fine. I have a hard head.” She suspected Katherine could see right through the outward show of bravado. They were both aware of the amount of trouble they were in without either of them needing to say it.
There was another scuffling noise from the darkness and Katherine continued on in hushed tones. “Who are these people? They seem almost like ghosts?”
“Who knows, maybe they’re part of that game Barton referred to?”
Katherine’s eyes nervously scanned the pit. “If so I don’t think I want to be part of it. Not that I would want to be part of anything suggested by that man. I can’t believe you know him.”
Anne nodded grimly. “Unfortunately so, though more by reputation than anything else. He takes anyone into his band of outlaws, men that Robin wouldn’t touch. They tend to be ruthless and without morals, and Barton is the worst of them. You remember those three men who chased you through the forest last year?”
Katherine nodded as she reflexively rubbed her right thigh where she had been shot on that occasion.
“They were some of Barton’s men,” outlined Anne.
“Ah, which might explain why he doesn’t seem to like you much, since you disposed of two of them rather unceremoniously.”
“That’s part of it,” agreed Anne, “And he knows I’m close to Robin, so that only makes things worse.”
“You think he might use you in some way against Robin?”
“I honestly don’t know what he’s going to do next. That’s the other thing about him – he’s as unpredictable as a cornered viper. One thing I do know is that we can’t let him find out who you are. You think he doesn’t like me because I’m part of a rival band of outlaws, imagine what might happen if he finds out you’re really a noble lady.”
Katherine shuddered. “I don’t think I want to imagine. Though he might be willing to bargain for my release, if the price was right.”
“Possibly,” allowed Anne, “But I don’t really want to take the chance that he’ll react in some other way. Especially since we’ve already deceived him. And another thing, we most definitely can’t let him find out about us.”
“Yes, I could see that one ending badly for both of us. I can’t imagine he’s the most tolerant of alternative lifestyles.”
Anne nodded grimly. Their sort of relationship wouldn’t go down to well with many people. Certainly not with a bunch of intolerant idiots of the type they were likely to find in the camp. “I think our best bet for now is to play along, keep out heads down and look for a way to escape.”
“Not forgetting we need to get back our belongings before we do.”
Anne looked puzzled for a moment, not thinking such a thing was prudent. If they got the chance they should just run for it.
“The Ares objects and my father’s letter and diagram,” Katherine reminded her.
“Bugger, I’d forgotten about those.” Anne searched her vest, finding the pages of the friar’s book were gone from their hiding place.
Katherine saw the frown on her face. “They took our stuff while you were unconscious,” she explained.
Anne’s hand travelled up to her neck, finding that was bear too where normally Katherine’s pendant would sit. She didn’t like the feeling of nakedness. “Right, so we need to get our things and escape, should be easy.” The sarcasm in her voice was plain to hear.
When a third voice joined the conversation Anne nearly leapt out of her skin. “No one ever escapes.” Her eyes swung up and her body tensed, ready to leap at the man who had snuck up on them. However, when she saw who it was her shoulders relaxed again.
“John? What the hell are you doing here?”
The grey-haired old man sat down next to the two of them. It appeared to be quite an effort, and he gingerly adjusted himself a couple of time on the ground before he appeared comfortable.
Anne supposed she should make introductions in case Katherine had forgotten who he was. “Katherine, this is John, from my home village of Oxton.”
Katherine smiled at the wizened man. “Yes, I remember from last time. Don’t worry, I’ve been taking good care of her,” she added to the old man, “At least until now!”
He smiled back, a gap-toothed grin. “I said you would, didn’t I.”
Anne recalled when they had last visited her village; the old man had rather blatantly checked on Katherine’s intentions. Now the introductions were over, though, she had plenty of questions. “How did you get here, and who are all these other people?”
“Bloody Barton wasn’t it,” replied John ruefully, “He’s been kidnapping people for months to take part in his sick game. I was minding my own business, fishing in the river. Next I know I’ve been whacked on the head and I end up here with the walking dead.”
“How long have you been here?”
“Not long. Can’t you tell, I’ve still got the use of most of my limbs.”
“What is this game then?”
“It’s something Barton runs, to make money and because he’s a nasty piece of work. Basically he kidnaps people to take part in contests and he, the other outlaws and various dignitaries who are slumming it wager on the outcome.”
“Contests?” chipped in Katherine.
“Yes, fights,” clarified John, “And not the nice controlled sort of thing you might find at one of your tournaments neither. We’re talking knock-down, dirty fist fights here.”
Anne didn’t like the sound of that, especially not if either she or Katherine were going to be called upon to participate some time soon. Anne could handle herself, but the number of fist fights Katherine had been in could probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. It was becoming even more imperative that they escape and soon.
John could see her contemplative look. “And if you think that sounds bad,” he added, “I ought to mention that not everyone comes back when it’s their turn.”
Anne’s eyes shot to him in concern. She could see that Katherine appeared equally horrified. “Some of the fights are…” Katherine paused, unsure if she’d got it right, “…to the death?”
John solemnly nodded. Katherine’s slow intake of breath was audible in the enclosed space. The old man filled them in on what other details he knew, though he had only been in one fight himself so far. Once finished he took his leave, perhaps sensing that they would like some time alone.
The silence ebbed on for a few moments before Katherine was the one to break it. “So Barton wants to use us in his barbaric game.” She was trying to hide it, but Anne could tell she was nervous about the prospect.
Anne swivelled round on the ground so she was facing Katherine. She deliberately reached over and took Katherine’s hand. “We’ll get out of here before then. I promise, I’ll find a way.”
A tiny smile flickered on Katherine’s face. “We’ll find a way,” she gently corrected.
Anne sighed ruefully at Katherine’s belief, but managed a return smile.
Katherine looked down to their entwined hands and gently started rubbing her thumb across the bare skin of Anne’s right. There were no words for a moment as they both seemed mesmerised by the simple yet intimate action. Finally Katherine looked up. “Have I ever told you how much I love you?”
“A hundred times,” replied Anne softly, “But one more never goes amiss. But we should rest now, while we have the chance,” she added.
Anne encouraged the smaller woman to lay her head down against her chest as they sat propped up against the wall. Once she had, Anne rested her own cheek against the top of it while her arms encircled Katherine protectively. Katherine’s hair was soft against her skin and Anne took a couple of deep breaths, drinking in the smell of it too.
The other woman didn’t look up from her comfortable position. “Mm-hmm.”
“I love you too.”
Anne could feel the slight upward movement of Katherine’s face muscles as she smiled. Holding her close, Anne kept a vigilant watch as the other woman drifted into sleep.
Katherine was still lying against her when Anne’s eyes opened the following morning. During the night they had slid down the cave wall into a more relaxed lying position, but Katherine arms remained resolutely wrapped around Anne’s body. Despite their less than salubrious location Anne allowed herself a small smile at the soft breaths that brushed over her clothes from Katherine’s lips.
Anne was content to lie there for a moment and try to pretend they were back in Katherine’s bed at Markham Manor. As her mind drifted she tried to touch upon nature as she had done back on the road before they were attacked, but there was nothing there. She didn’t know if she had imagined it or not. It had seemed so real at the time and the “warning” of danger had been accurate. However, she considered that it could just have been some other sense of impending peril. Maybe she had seen movement in the trees or heard something in the undergrowth and her daydreaming mind had extrapolated upon that. Whatever it had been, now was hardly the time to be worrying about it. She resolved that once they were out of their current mess, she would make more of an effort to see if she really had felt the first stirrings of re-awakening power. Until then there was little point mentioning it to Katherine or anyone else, she would look pretty foolish if it had just been a bit of wishful thinking.
After a period of wakefulness it began to occur to Anne that the ground underneath her was digging into her in inappropriate places and was actually nothing like the soft inviting bed back at Markham. The suspension of disbelief could only last so long. As she went to shift slightly the movement jolted Katherine awake. She looked confused for a moment, with her mussed auburn hair falling about her face as she peeled herself off Anne. She ran a hand ran through her hair to push it back into place, and blinked a couple of times as she got her bearings.
“I would say good morning,” she commented to Anne, “But the adjective might be a bit misplaced.”
Anne cast her eyes cagily around the pit. The morning light barely touched the bottom, but she was able to see they had garnered a few watchers while they had been asleep. According to John they were the only women down there, so it was only natural the men would be inquisitive and possibly have other intentions. The men still kept their distance, though, perhaps remembering the swift and violent way Anne had dealt with one of them the day before. Anne scowled back at them for good effect and saw a couple of them actually flinch. She didn’t really like bullying those who were obviously weaker, but at the same time she wasn’t taking any chances with their safety.
From what John had told them, they knew that some food would be dumped into the pit at some point in the morning and that it would have to last them until the next day; maybe longer if their captors ‘forgot’ to feed them the next day. Therefore, they made sure to keep an eye out for any movement above and stayed close to the central lit area. According to John the cave system stretched out some way under the ground, but neither of them fancied the idea of exploring it much, especially as John had also informed them that there was no way out besides the one they had come in. When one of the outlaws did finally appear it seemed the two women were not the only ones who had been keeping a lookout. Suddenly the pit was alive with movement, men moving into the light in readiness. Anne could tell it was about to get ugly.
Bread and vegetables rained down from above and bounced off heads and outstretched hands. Some of it went straight into the mud, but that didn’t deter the men who gratefully scrabbled for it. Anne elbowed a short man out of the way in order to catch a falling loaf. He made a grumbling noise but didn’t push his luck. Katherine was also fighting her way through the throng but having less luck catching anything directly because of her height disadvantage. One particularly keen man shoved her to the ground as he snatched a tumbling carrot. Anne was ready to leap in and push the man back, but Katherine held up her hands to indicate she was fine. In fact rather than continue to pointlessly jump up, Katherine seized the chance to gather up some of the dropped items that no one else had noticed. When her hand fell onto a loaf at the same time as one of the men she offered him a piercing look and he quickly retracted his fingers. It appeared Anne wasn’t the only one who knew how to intimidate when the need arose.
Finally the shower of food ceased and the men dispersed back into the shadows to consume what they had caught or fought for. The frantic scrabble for food had all been rather primal – the human instinct for survival kicking in and overriding any more altruistic urges – and when Anne went to sit back down she felt faintly ashamed to have collected quite so much. She supposed she could always be charitable and give some of it away. For now she removed her outer jerkin and wrapped the extra inside that, refastening her belt over her shirt instead. It wasn’t like she was cold just sitting there in just her shirt. The pit was surprisingly warm in fact, perhaps from the number of bodies in it.
Beside her Katherine bit hungrily into the bread. “God, I’d forgotten how long it was since we ate.”
Anne took a bite of hers too. It was dry and plain, but it was better than nothing. While they ate in silence she pondered over how best to proceed. Sooner or later Katherine would be missed at Markham where they were expecting her back. However, that could be days yet, and even then it was unlikely the two of them would be found by any search parties. Anne came to the conclusion that the only way they were going to escape was by their own actions. Not that she had any bright ideas yet. They had no weapons and no way to even get out of the locked pit at present. They needed to acquire more information on their situation before they could formulate any sort of plan and that meant getting out of the pit to survey the surroundings. She’d gotten a look at parts of the camp the day before, and a rough indication of the number of men in it, but she needed to know more to minimise the risks.
When the hatch to the pit opened again later, Anne studied everything in great detail. First to appear in the gap were a couple of archers with arrows notched and ready to fire.
“Back, all of you!” shouted one of them.
Once they were satisfied there was no one immediately below, a ladder was lowered into the pit. Anne contemplated making a break for it, but the archers still had their bows trained downwards, ready to cut down anyone who made a false move.
Three other men descended the ladder. All of them carried swords and one possessed a set of keys attached to his belt. As they reached the bottom they made sure to keep their weapons up to ward off the prisoners.
“Don’t anyone try anything,” warned one of them unnecessarily.
Anne couldn’t imagine any of the bedraggled captives taking on a man with a sword. She was so busy studying the outlaws that she didn’t realise one of them was actually looking at her.
She started, meeting his eyes.
“You’re with us.”
Anne remained where she was. “Why?”
“Because Barton wants to have a friendly drink with you,” he said sarcastically before quickly adding the real reason, “Because it’s your turn to fight of course!”
Anne immediately felt the small pull on her shirtsleeve where Katherine was gripping it. Anne wasn’t sure Katherine even realised she was doing it or if it was just a subconscious way of trying to hold Anne back and protect her. Anne gently removed the fingers, giving Katherine a reassuring look as she did. “It’s all right, I’ll be fine.”
There was a definite pause before Katherine spoke. Her voice was insistent though undercut by an edge of fear. “You do whatever you have to do to win. I expect to see you back here later.”
Anne could tell she was struggling to let go. She didn’t much want to leave Katherine either. She wished she could say or do something else comforting, but they were surrounded by about twenty sets of prying eyes. If Anne leant in to kiss Katherine it would be a rather obvious indicator that they were more than just casual acquaintances. So instead she had to turn and let the outlaws lead her to the ladder and up out of the pit. Each rung was harder than the last, but she resisted the urge to look back over her shoulder knowing it would only cause her unnecessary pain. She would just have to make sure she won and then it wouldn’t matter.
Once at the top she just had time to cast a last longing look downwards. Katherine was staring up through the bars, her pale face illuminated in the blackness. John was hovering close by and he nodded to Anne, indicating that he would watch over Katherine while she was gone. Then the outlaws were pulling at Anne’s arm and she lost sight of the faces below.
The men led her back through the outlaw camp and it soon became apparent where they were going. Where the day before there had only been the outlaws in Barton’s gang present, today there were many, many more people in the camp. They were all standing in a wide circle, leaving a space in the middle of roughly twenty feet in diameter. The crowd was several people deep in places. Anne tried to study them as she approached though she didn’t immediately recognise anyone. At first glance they just appeared to be peasants intermingled with Barton’s outlaws, though the well-groomed hair and beards of some of them led Anne to suspect not all of them were what they seemed.
There was a general hubbub of activity and anticipation, the crowd alive with chatter. Anne could see that many of them had drinks of ale that they were happily downing as if it was a perfectly normal thing to come and watch someone fight for their lives. The crowd sensed the approaching group and parted to allow them access to the makeshift arena. The level of chatter dropped, but Anne could still hear a few derisive comments querying what a woman was doing before them. She swept her eyes around the crowd, brazenly meeting some of the more incredulous stares she received in return. Her gaze eventually came round to Barton who was sitting on a chair and generally lording it over proceedings. One thing that Anne hadn’t spotted on her sweep was any sort of opponent for her. At the moment she stood alone in the middle of the clearing.
Barton rose from his seat, and for a moment she thought that she was going to be called upon to fight him. Then he was speaking. His loud, booming voice quickly hushing the crowd.
“I have a special treat for you today, some fresh blood in our pool of fighters.”
There were a few odd shouts of dissent.
“You have to be joking!”
“But she’s a woman!”
Barton held up a hand to silence them. “You might think she looks harmless,” he stepped forwards as he spoke, coming close to Anne. She wondered if she could grab him as a hostage, but she didn’t really fancy her chances against the numerous armed men around the clearing, not to mention the two men who still had their bows trained on her. “However, under that beautiful exterior hides a dark heart,” continued Barton, “For this is none other than Seven, notorious member of Robin Hood’s band of treacherous outlaws!”
There were a number of appreciative oohs and ahs from the crowd. Anne could see they were lapping up Barton’s enthusiastic build-up even if it wasn’t factually correct.
“She’d gut any one of you as soon as look at you,” added Barton with a dramatic sweep of his arm. “So which one of you is going to be brave enough to step into the arena to face her? There’s a prize on this one – thirty pennies if you manage to outlast her!”
The animated discussions started almost immediately, though no one was pushing themselves forwards into the clearing. Anne couldn’t blame them, from the way Barton had described her it sounded like she was a cold-blooded killer. She supposed that might work in her favour.
“Come on, come on, someone must want to try their hand?”
As soon as Anne heard the voice her heart sank. The turning of her body to face its owner only served to compound her dismay – it was the Scotsman from the tavern in Leicester.
His face broke into a nasty smile. At least Anne thought it was meant to be a smile. Yet it somehow made him look all the more menacing. It also crinkled up the purple skin around the black eye he was sporting. He pointed at it. “I owe you for this.”
Anne took a deep breath and straightened herself to her full height, which was still less than the burly man. “If you’d like the pair,” she gestured to the arena, “Then be my guest.”
He snorted derisively at her bragging and stepped forwards to face her. Anne could see the furious wagering going on around the circle as the two of them stood sizing each other up. She suspected most of the money was going on her opponent. Looking at the two of them it appeared one-sided at first glance. The Scotsman was taller and bigger and of course she was a woman so there would be no way she could win in the eyes of many. However, Anne had been in plenty of altercations and knew size wasn’t always the most important thing in a fight. You could get a long way on guile and speed. She just had to hope the Scotsman didn’t have much of either.
They were still warily taking each other’s measure as Barton took his seat. “Well, what are you waiting for? Fight!”
The Scotsman immediately swung a large fist. It almost caught Anne unawares, but she dodged out the way at the last second. Her boots skipped nimbly over the bare and well-worn ground as she circled around him, swerving out the way of a few more attempted blows. She used the time to study his form – the way her prepared for a punch, the way he swung, the way he followed through. After a couple of more unsuccessful attempts at connecting with her, Anne ducked inside his guard and thumped him with an uppercut to the chin.
He staggered backwards, but didn’t fall. Instead he gave his jaw a small testing waggle with his hand. “Nice punch, but you’re in trouble if that’s the best you can do.”
Anne didn’t respond. She found it best not to engage in idle chitchat when in the midst of a fight. It was inefficient and distracting. So when he lumbered at her again she was more than prepared to sidestep out the way and clout him on the side of the head.
When he turned back to face her this time he didn’t look quite so cocky. In fact he was starting to look decidedly peeved. Several more dodged punches while Anne thumped him a couple more times, and he was well on the way to losing his temper. From his point of view it was like he was fighting something as elusive to the touch as the early morning mist.
Barton chipped in with some encouragement from the sidelines. “Come on man, just hit her!”
The shout was chorused by a few others around the arena. Anne really didn’t care about her lack of support. However, when her next dodge landed her close to the crowd that changed. She went to slide to the side and all of a sudden her foot was gone from under her; someone had tripped her from behind. She lost her footing for only a moment, but it was enough for the Scotsman.
He latched onto the front of her shirt and lifted her right up into the air. Anne’s world turned upside down as he flipped her over his head and brought her down with a resounding crash on her back. The impact knocked the air from her body and she was still hacking in a breath when she saw his impending fist. Anne threw herself to the side as it smacked down into the mud by her head.
In one swift athletic movement she was back up on her feet and facing him. Her ribs hurt but she tried her best not to show it. The pain didn’t prevent her evading his next two punches, and she managed to land a solid hit to his midriff at the same time. Yet still it barely gave him pause. She had to wonder if he was ever going to go down. At least he appeared to being breathing hard now. It was hardly surprising given the way she was making him run round the ring. She considered that perhaps she could just elude him until he collapsed from tiredness – she was pretty certain she would outlast him in the fitness stakes.
With Anne belying her sore ribs and continuing to agilely skip round the arena, the Scotsman was becoming increasingly irate. “Will you just bloody stand still?” he finally cried in exasperation.
There was no chance she was going to do that, though, at least not voluntarily. Yet it seemed the crowd had other ideas. Once again a foot shot out to impede her progress as she got a little too close to the edge. She avoided the obstacle this time, but she didn’t count on the hand that also hooked the collar of her shirt. She was pulled up abruptly and, before she could move, the Scotsman had charged right into her. Anne’s smaller body bounced off him and into the watching crowd.
There were a multitude of hands on her and she wasn’t sure if they were trying to hold her down or help her up. Then one smacked into her head and Anne quickly deduced it was the former. She randomly kicked out to deter the would be assailants, guessing that most of them didn’t fancy actually getting hurt. Anne knew her supposition was correct when they collectively picked her up, and bodily heaved her back into the clearing instead. She landed face first in the dirt, some of the stones in it scraping harshly across the skin of her cheek.
There was no time to gather herself as the Scotsman took full advantage of the crowd’s aid by kicking her while she was down. His hefty boot thumped into already sore ribs. Anne hauled herself up onto her knees as she heard Barton’s laughter ringing out across the clearing. Her eyes swung to the side to see a smiling Scotsman aiming another kick. This time at her head.
He thought he had her down and out. He thought wrong. Anne caught the foot in mid flight. The Scotsman was unbalanced and it only took one quick twist to tip him completely over onto his back. Anne didn’t like to take advantage like he had, but this was no time for niceties. Swiftly up on her feet, she kicked him hard in the chest.
He refused to stay down though, staggering back to his feet, though the slight sway as he did showed that maybe she was finally making her blows count.
“Why don’t you concede?” she offered. Despite what he or Barton might think, she wasn’t ruthless. It was obvious she was going to win as long as the crowd stayed out of it; she didn’t need to knock him out to prove it to herself or anyone else.
The Scotsman didn’t reply, merely gritting his teeth and charging again. Anne stepped to the side just far enough so that, as he barrelled past, she was able to place her hands on his back and push him forwards to meet her upward moving knee. He cried out at the audible crack from his jaw and then he was down on the ground again. Resigning herself to the fact that he wasn’t going to give up, Anne stepped forward and proceeded to pummel him remorselessly with her fists until he finally lost consciousness.
Anne’s breathing was so hard now that she barely heard the applause ringing out around the forest. She didn’t really feel like celebrating her victory with them anyway. It was one thing using violence as a means to an end, but it was quite another engaging in it purely for someone else’s gratification. She took no pleasure in seeing her beaten opponent being dragged from the clearing.
She stayed resting her hand on her knees for a couple of minutes before she started trudging wearily in the direction of the pit where the rest of the prisoners were held. Halfway across the arena she looked up to see Barton regarding her with satisfaction and maybe a hint of admiration.
“Nicely done,” he congratulated her, “We’ll have to make it tougher next time.”
Before Anne could reply with something suitably disparaging, the sounds of a scuffle filtered across from somewhere in the crowd.
“You owe me ten pennies!”
“We never shook on it!”
The two men involved in the argument spilt out into the clearing as the rest of the crowd parted. They scuffled on the ground for a bit until some of Barton’s men ran over to break them apart. The two of them were summarily hauled before the outlaw chief. Anne almost did a double take as she saw them approaching. One of them was Alan, the former member of Robin Hood’s band and the man she had nearly killed not four weeks previously.
He looked even more scrawny and haggard than he had ever done while at Robin’s camp – obviously life had not been treating him well since leaving it. He’d always had a way of looking scruffy, but now his clothes hung even more loosely from his thin body. An unpleasant sickness crept into Anne’s stomach; Alan knew exactly who Katherine was and all about their relationship. There were only two things giving Anne faint hope. One was that Katherine was still out of sight, so Alan might not realise she was there too. The other was that from the look on Barton’s face, he recognised Alan too and wasn’t very happy about it.
The burly outlaw came to stand in front of Alan, who looked decidedly uncomfortable. “You’re one of Hood’s men too, aren’t you? How many more of you lot are going to turn up?”
Alan’s eyes flicked nervously to Anne able to see the deathly warning look she was giving him. “I’m not with Robin Hood’s men anymore,” he insisted, “She saw to that.”
Anne detected the faint slur in his words. He was drunk. That did not bode well. She didn’t respond to his comment, only hoping Barton would deal with the outlaw in some appropriately nasty way rather than listen to anything he might have to say. She realised Barton was studying her, and she made sure to school expression into a more even one.
“Been making more friends have you?” he asked her, “There seem to be an awful lot of people you’ve hacked off.”
Anne shrugged. “I try my best.”
She was glad to see the nonchalant remark seemed to amuse Barton. All the time she could remain of entertainment value, was time he wouldn’t be killing her or Katherine.
Barton turned back to the cowering Alan. “I think you’d make a good addition to our game, see if you can do as well as your compatriot.”
The man holding Alan started to try and force him along. “No, wait!” cried Alan desperately, “I can help you, tell you things, about Robin Hood,” he pointed to Anne, “About her!”
Barton favoured him with a look of disgust. “You think I need the help of a spineless coward such as you?” Alan was visibly shaking now. “Take him to one of the pens,” ordered Barton, “A different one to her,” he added casting a look at Anne, “Somehow I don’t think he would last too long in that one.”
The guard nodded and tried to pull Alan away again. “No, please…”
Anne allowed her relief to wash over her. She thanked the gods that Barton hated Robin so much he didn’t want to hear from anyone associated with him, whether it was in the past or not. The rest of the crowd filtered away as a man came to urge her along too with the help of a sharp sword. Alan was struggling as he was dragged along before her.
Anne thought it was just a final plaintive wail until she saw where Alan was looking. Her heart plunged down into the pit of her stomach as she followed his eyes. He had spotted Delta tethered up with the other horses.
Alan had managed to stall the man leading him away, and craned his head round to look for Barton. “Is the other one here too?”
No, no, no!
Barton’s eyes narrowed as he regarded Alan suspiciously. “What ‘other’ one?”
No, please, no! Anne knew with an inevitable horror where this was going. Yet she also knew that if she tried to object or disagree it would only be all the more obvious. She needed to think of something…quick.
“The other woman,” carried on Alan. He looked mightily relieved to have got Barton’s attention and was warming to his subject. “Her ladyship.” Barton looked bemused. “Short woman,” explained Alan with gestures, “Red hair, arrogant bitch.”
Barton seemed interested though not convinced of the worth of Alan’s words. There might still be a chance, Anne thought ridiculously to herself, Else perhaps I could make a break for it and free Katherine. Anything was better than waiting for Alan to reveal all, even if the array of armed men would make any such escape attempt doomed to failure
The outlaw chief made a small nod of his head to the side and one of his men scuttled off through the camp. While he was gone Barton came close to Alan again. The look of cocky confidence on Alan’s face filled Anne with dread.
“Why did you call her ‘her ladyship’?”
Oh god… Anne could hear her own heart hammering hard in her chest. She gritted her teeth together to try and keep her expression even and unreadable.
Alan was sniggering. “You don’t know who you have do you?” Then he was laughing. Loudly. Barton didn’t appear amused and grabbed the chuckling outlaw round the throat. Alan came to a sudden gagging stop.
“I asked you a question.”
Before Alan could answer the man who had been dispatched returned, and he wasn’t alone. He gripped an indignant Katherine about the arm as they walked towards the group. Finally he shoved her forwards. She was too busy for a moment, shooting him a fierce glare for his roughness, to notice who was waiting. Then her eyes fell on Alan and immediately widened in shock. In that instant both she and Anne knew they were in serious trouble.
“Is this her?” Barton asked Alan.
Alan grinned nastily at Katherine. “Yep, that’s her all right. Lady Katherine of Markham.”
Anne had to say something, even if it was futile. “He’s lying!” she tried to inject disdain rather than fear into her voice. “He’d say anything to save his neck.”
Barton’s face slowly tracked to her before continuing on to Katherine. His gaze lingered on her for a moment as if weighing her up in the light of the new information. When he looked back to Anne there was an evil sneer on his lips. “Now he says it, it all makes sense,” he noted thoughtfully, “The horse, the accent, the fine clothes we found in your belongings.”
Katherine obviously sensed the danger too and made a last ditch attempt to rescue things. “This is stupid,” she commented in tones more common than anything she had managed so far, “I don’t know what he’s talking about. I ain’t no lady.”
Barton swept over to her. Anne had to restrain the urge to leap to her aid as the outlaw towered menacingly over the smaller woman. Such an action would only prove Alan’s words. However, it seemed Barton was near enough convinced as it was. “Don’t give me that,” he spat angrily, “I should have realised you was a nob right away.”
“I bet she hasn’t told you the best bit either…”
Anne’s eyes shot to Alan. If she could have killed him with a look he would have been dead in that instant. Barton raised his eyebrows in a signal for the smug outlaw to continue.
“The two of them,” Alan nodded to the two women, “They’re together.”
“He’s crazy!” blurted out Anne. She went to move towards Alan only to find herself restrained by two of Barton’s men.
Barton ignored her, focussing on Alan. “Together?”
Barton waited, obviously not quite grasping it.
Alan rolled his eyes. “They’re flipping lovers!”
There was a moment’s silence as the words hovered in the air as if they were too preposterous to find a home somewhere. Barton’s mouth hung limply open while his brow furrowed. Anne merely felt sick and helpless. She risked a sideways glance at Katherine who was also waiting on tenterhooks for Barton’s reaction. Katherine sensed the perusal and turned to offer her own look of dismay. The exchange was broken by a laugh bubbling up from Barton. Obviously the words had finally hit home.
“Oh ho ho, now this is a pretty pickle!”
Anne’s sense of impending dread made it hard for her to get her words out with any semblance of control. She took a couple of deep breaths and forced them past her lips. “He’s out of his mind,” she tried, “All right, yes, she is who he said, but we’re not together like that.” She tried to make it sound as far-fetched as possible with her incredulous tone. “She did a favour for Robin once, that’s all. I’d hardly be consorting with nobles would I?”
Barton sauntered close to her. His hand rested menacingly on the hilt of his sword. “Really? And why else might you be travelling together…alone?”
Barton’s eyes bored into her, probing, searching for the truth. Anne’s throat was achingly dry in the face of the intense scrutiny, but she held back on swallowing. She knew Barton would see the movement and draw his own conclusions from her nervousness. If she remained implacable maybe, just maybe, she could convince him that she and Katherine didn’t really know one another. That only left the not insignificant problem of Katherine being a noble.
Barton swung round to address the crowd of outlaws who all appeared equally stunned by the revelations. “Christ who would have believed it, eh?” he said to them, “The ruthless outlaw Seven sharing the bed of a noblewoman.” He was in front of Katherine again. “And what do you have to say to this, milady?”
Katherine gave it one last go, reverting to her normal refined tones now her identity wasn’t in question. “The man is obviously drunk and delusional and I take great offence at the implication to tell you the truth.”
Barton laughed again. Then suddenly the laughter stopped. The switch from jovial to threatening was instantaneous. He grabbed Katherine and wrapped a stout forearm around her neck from behind so she was facing the still restrained Anne.
Anne’s heart was practically jumping out of her chest. Barton was behind Katherine, his head lowering to hover just by her left ear. “If she’s not yours, then you won’t care if I do this.” Barton’s tongue snaked out and licked at Katherine’s earlobe. Katherine made a small sound of disgust and tried to move away but he held her tight as she squirmed.
Anne bit back her cry. Inside her emotions were out of control, yet somehow she maintained something approximating an impassive expression. Barton’s actions only highlighted what he might do if he knew for certain Katherine and Anne were involved. Using Katherine would be the perfect way to get to her.
Barton was watching Anne the whole time. Anne tried to keep her gaze somewhere over his left shoulder. She couldn’t look at him and she most certainly couldn’t look at Katherine for fear of losing the last of her control. Even with her non-study, Anne couldn’t help seeing that Barton had stopped his licking but was now tracking his free hand around Katherine’s waist.
“Or how about this?” His fingers slid higher over Katherine’s chest.
Anne could feel her throat constricting as she struggled to maintain her indifference. She feared she might pass out any second if she continued to hold her breath.
Barton sniggered to himself. “Nice try, but your face betrays you.” Anne’s eyes flicked momentarily to him. He was still watching her with intent. “Just tell me the truth.”
Anne had to swallow now. She was sure the gulp was audible all the way to Markham itself.
“No?” Barton’s hand left Katherine’s body, but shot instead to his belt. For a second Anne’s mind raced away with her and she almost screamed. Then she saw that it wasn’t what she had thought – he had produced a dagger instead. “Since she means nothing to you, how about I just slit her throat then?”
The tip was at Katherine’s neck in a flash. Katherine flinched back as far as she could, but still it pricked into the skin. A tiny drop of blood eased out onto the blade.
It was too much.
“All right!” cried Anne, “Stop! Alan’s telling the truth.” As soon as the words were out she sagged defeated in the arms of her captors.
Barton finally released Katherine into one of his men’s grasp, seemingly satisfied now he had gotten his confession. “I don’t know whether to be turned on or disgusted,” he remarked, “And with a noble too. Still it makes things very interesting don’t you think?”
Anne gathered her resistance once more and shot him a baleful glance. At least she no longer had anything to hide.
It was Alan who broke the scowling exchange. “So, does this mean I can go after all?”
Barton snorted derisively. “Go? Why would I want to let you go?”
Suddenly Barton had him by the throat again. Anne found herself wishing for him to squeeze tighter. “You’re a sneak and a coward,” Barton remarked, “I think it’ll be interesting seeing how you fare in the ring.”
“I can get you more information,” pleaded Alan in a gasping voice, “From Robin…”
“Just shut up!” yelled Barton. He waited until quiet descended before continuing on in lower tones. “You’re fighting…tomorrow…and I have the perfect opponent for you.”
Barton shoved Alan from him and the scrawny man collapsed onto the earth. There was a small whimper from him as he was picked up by a couple of the other outlaws. Meanwhile, Barton was by Katherine again.
“How are your fighting skills, milady?” His voice was deceptively pleasant. “You put up quite the struggle just then, though I think you secretly liked it.”
Katherine’s pale blue-grey eyes fixed him with a look of utter contempt. “Then you think wrong. And I won’t participate in any of your games.”
Barton leaned closer. His nose was practically touching Katherine’s. “I thought you would have realised by now I’m not a man who likes to be denied.” He let that comment hang for a moment before he straightened up again. “You won’t fight, eh?”
Barton started pacing round, his hand stroking the hilt of his sword at intervals. “I see, I see.” He eventually stopped behind Anne.
The pain in her right arm was intense and excruciating as Barton suddenly twisted it behind her. He jammed her forwards so she had no choice but to fall to her knees, lest he break her arm. When he wrenched it for a second time, she couldn’t help letting out a cry.
“I could snap it with one quick jerk,” he teased Katherine. He gave the arm another twist for good measure, inducing a wince from Anne. “Shall I?”
Anne couldn’t see, but she sensed Barton was grinning. “You’ll fight then?”
Katherine bowed her head in resignation. “Yes, I’ll fight.”
“Good.” Barton released her arm and immediately Anne brought it back round to the front and safety. “And I know you’ll keep your word being the honourable lady that you are,” added Barton, “At least I’ve given you a fair chance putting you against that snivelling wretch.” A couple of the men hauled Anne back to her feet as Barton gave out more orders. “Now take them all back to the pens and we’ll be seeing you tomorrow.”
Two men grabbed onto Katherine and the three prisoners were half-shoved, half-dragged away. They were at the edge of the clearing when Barton stalled them for a moment to walk over to Katherine. Anne could see his eyes were sweeping ferally over the other woman and she just wanted to break free and punch the man for his audacity.
When he was before Katherine, Barton’s hand reached out to touch her face. “By the way, if you do survive I promise to show you a good time, real outlaw style, since you seem to like them so much.”
Barton’s evil laughter followed them all the way back to their underground prison.
As soon as they were dumped at the bottom of the pit, Anne started nervously pacing back and forth. Her mind was racing over all that had just happened and all that was threatening to happen. Barton’s parting words echoed painfully in her mind filling her with a mixture of rage and absolute terror.
“Right, we need a plan to get out of here,” she said with determination. Katherine was merely standing still as Anne walked back and forth in front of her. “The horses were quite close to the ring, maybe we could get one of those somehow…” She was speaking as she thought, random ideas jumping out.
“Anne, stop a moment...”
“…Preferably before your fight, but certainly after it…”
“Anne, look at me.” Katherine’s hands were on her face, holding it cupped between them. Anne stopped her rambling as she fell under the gaze of the blue eyes.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with Barton now he knows who I am and what our relationship is, but I want to make one think clear, if he, or anyone else should…should…” she paused, looking like she was struggling for the most delicate way to put it, “If they should…take advantage of me…”
“No!” Anne shook her head furiously, she didn’t want to hear this.
Katherine still held onto her face though. “Anne, please, listen…”
“No!” shouted Anne stubbornly as a few tears started to slip out at just the thought of it, “It’s not going to happen!” The tears stung the broken skin on her right cheek but she ignored the pain.
Somehow Katherine remained calm. “But if it should, I want you to know that it will just be my body. No matter what they do to that, my heart and my soul will always be yours. I want you to understand that.”
Katherine’s eyes remained fixed on her the whole time in order to reinforce the words. Anne was held fast in the overwhelming power of the look. For a few seconds she could believe she was anywhere but where they were, the background was of no consequence, all that mattered was Katherine. Anne made a small sniff to compose herself and break the spell. She wondered how it was possible to love one person so much. “I do understand…” she said, “But I won’t let it happen. We’re going to get out of here.”
“If anyone can come up with something, I’m sure you can.”
Neither of them spoke for a few moments. There was no need to say anything more. Eventually it was Katherine who continued on, noting Anne’s appearance as she did.
“I assume you won your fight.” Katherine’s fingers tracked over Anne’s face while her brow furrowed at the scrapes and bruises. “Though not without some cost.”
“Would it be too corny to say you should see the other guy?” offered Anne, relieved to be off the former topic, “Who by the way was our not-so friendly Scotsman from the tavern in Leicester.”
Katherine looked amazed. “You fought him? But he was huge!”
“But luckily for me not awfully fast.”
Katherine’s face had softened into a look of impassioned worry again. “Are you sure you’re all right? And your arm too…”
“It’s fine.” Anne gave it a reflexive rub. “You don’t have to fight tomorrow, you know, not on my account.”
Katherine made a small tutting noise. “I said I would didn’t I? I’m hardly going to stand back and watch Barton break your bones until I agree, just as you couldn’t stand by and watch when he got that dagger out.”
Anne sighed ruefully. “He certainly knows how to get to someone. I knew this would happen when he found out. Maybe he wouldn’t even have done it. After all you are an asset to him. I just couldn’t take the chance. If something happened to you and I could have prevented it I could never forgive myself. It’s all that bastard Alan’s fault, I wish I’d killed him when I had the chance.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Anne paused tellingly. It had slipped out in her frustration. Of course Katherine knew nothing about how Anne had collared Alan in the forest after the incident at Ollerton Manor. She certainly didn’t know that it was probably only Robin’s intervention that had prevented Anne from killing him. “Nothing, it’s just a figure of speech.”
Katherine didn’t look entirely convinced by the explanation, but they had bigger things to worry about for the time being.
Anne brought them back to the topic at hand. “I suppose our best chance of escape would be when one of the fights is on,” she pondered.
“Are you talking about escape again?”
Anne turned to John who had joined them. “Yes, we can’t stay here. Even if we survive the fights, Barton’s crazy. Who knows what he’ll do next. If I could get close enough to get the keys off the guard the next time they come down here, then we might be in with a chance. Once the fight is underway most of them are pre-occupied with that, leaving only a skeleton guard on the prisoners.”
“And how do we get to the top exactly?” queried John with a dubious glance upwards.
“We’re going to need the help of some of the other guys in here,” Anne stated confidently, “I’m sure if we can make a convincing enough case they’d be willing – I can’t imagine they want to stay down here.”
It was Katherine who cast a shadow of doubt over proceedings. “Which just leaves the problem that the next fight is mine.”
That threw a dash of cold water all over Anne’s plans. “You’re right,” she agreed, suddenly not liking her plan at all, “Perhaps we could do something when they come to get you instead. If I could get the sword…”
“No…no.” Katherine quickly interrupted. “You said it yourself, during a fight is the best time to strike. That is the best option.”
Anne shook her head vehemently. “No, I’m not letting you go out there into that ring to face Alan. I know he looks like a bag of bones, but he’s a wily fighter.”
“Then you’ll have to give me a few tips won’t you?” said Katherine breezily as if she was going to be going out for a walk on the estate. “It’s not like I have to complete the whole thing, just survive long enough until you make your move.”
Anne wasn’t buying the over-confidence. “I still don’t like it. You’ll be exposed out there, anything could happen. What if something goes wrong while we’re trying to get out? You’ll be stuck out there alone!”
“I’d be stuck out there alone anyway if you didn’t try to escape,” pointed out Katherine, “At least this way I’ll know help will soon be on the way. I trust you and I know you can do it. You won’t leave me hanging.”
It appeared Katherine was determined and Anne knew there was little point arguing with her when she was in such a mood. Still she gave it one last shot. “I’m not sure…the danger…and Barton as well…it’s all too unpredictable.”
“Well, I think it’s our best chance,” stated Katherine as if the discussion was over, “And it’s my neck that’s going to be on the line, so if I’m all right with it I think we should do it.” She turned to John. “Do you think you can convince the others to help?”
“I’ll give it a go.”
Anne’s doubts were still rattling around in her head, but it seemed the plan had a momentum all of its own now. Supposing she had little choice but to join the precarious ride, she knelt down and unwrapped some of the food she’d saved.
“You can give them some of this if it helps persuade them of our good intentions.” She offered it to John.
He took it and disappeared off into the gloom. Anne watched his form fade and tried to control the growing sense of unease she felt about the whole idea. Katherine was at her side, giving her arm one of its usual reassuring strokes.
“Come on, where’s that fighting spirit?”
Anne looked to her, feeling the rush of emotion again at seeing the intense belief in Katherine’s eyes. “I just wish it was me going up there.”
“I know, but don’t worry I want to keep myself in one piece as much as you do. Which is why you need to give me a crash course in hand to hand combat.”
Anne didn’t manage to eat anything the following morning when the food drop came. The sickness in her stomach prevented that. Katherine continued to be upbeat about her prospects, but somehow Anne couldn’t share her confidence. A hundred and one scenarios had played through her mind during the night, each one with more and more fatalistic outcomes. She hadn’t gotten much sleep in the end.
Her anxiety was such that when the archers appeared at the grate with their ladder, it was all she could do not to throw up on the spot. Each footfall on the ladder brought the sickness of impending dread higher up in throat until she could practically taste it on her tongue.
She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t just sit back and wait. She had to do something.
There was a hand on her arm, though, holding her back. Obviously Katherine could sense her thoughts. “Remember the plan,” she whispered.
Anne could do nothing but remember the plan. The plan where Katherine went up into the arena. The plan where she had to fight Alan. The plan where…
Anne had to stop herself before she spiralled back into those dark thoughts again. She’d already seen Katherine die several times in her visions the night before; she didn’t want to see those again…ever.
The guards were by them now and Anne dutifully carried out her task. She slipped close enough to the one with the keys to deftly hook them off his belt and pocketed them without a sound. The man was too busy latching onto Katherine’s arm to notice the theft.
“Wait!” cried Anne as they made to take her.
This time she could do what she wanted. It didn’t matter now, since everyone present knew their secret anyway. She swept over, took Katherine’s face in her hands and kissed her tenderly on the lips. There were a few grunts of disapproval from around them but Anne didn’t care one bit. When she eventually pulled back Katherine looked a little stunned by the public display of affection.
“I don’t know what you two are getting or teary eyed for,” noted one of the guards gruffly in Anne’s direction, “You’re coming with us too.”
Anne’s eyes shot to him in shock. “What?”
“You heard.” He grabbed onto her arm. “Barton would like your presence too, to watch the fight.”
Anne’s momentary pleasure at going with Katherine was quickly overridden by the realisation that it left their carefully laid plans in disarray. The keys weighed heavily in her pocket. She tried to catch John’s eye without being too obvious about it. Fortunately he seemed to be quick on the uptake.
He hurried over, catching the guards unawares by suddenly throwing himself into Anne’s arms. “No, please, don’t take her,” he wailed with suitably theatrical overtones.
By the time the guards had managed to haul him off and throw him to the ground, Anne had successfully palmed him the keys. Now she could only hope he could galvanise the rest of the men into action without her.
The sky above was grey and oppressive as they emerged from the underground pit, perfectly matching Anne’s apprehensive mood. The forest seemed quieter than normal, as if deadened by the atmosphere. There were no chattering birds, just the sound of peoples’ voices drifting towards them.
The crowd was large again. Anne had to wonder if any of the “peasants” amongst them were actually contemporaries of Katherine. Perhaps they might intervene if they saw one of their own in trouble. Yet somehow she doubted it. If there were any other nobles there, they would hardly want to be broadcasting their presence unless they’d also brought some of their armed guard.
Anne kept her eyes on Katherine as they were escorted towards the arena. Her expression was impassive, her eyes trained forwards in a stoic mask, but then Anne would expect nothing less. Anne tried to follow suit and keep her outward appearance calm for Katherine’s sake. She also didn’t want to give Barton the satisfaction of seeing her crumble to the terror that welled in her the closer they got to the clearing.
Once they got to the edge of the crowd, Anne was dragged off to the side. She craned her head round to keep her eyes on Katherine, seeking to impart all her feelings of support into the look. Katherine tried her best to look confident in return, but she seemed awfully small in the large space at the centre of the circle.
Anne was eventually deposited next to Barton, though two men remained to flank her, keeping a resolute grip of an arm each. Barton’s head swung round to gloat. “I thought you might like to watch.”
Anne scowled back at him. “You’re a sick bastard, you know that.”
Katherine couldn’t help her eyes drifting over to the side of the clearing where Barton was gleefully tormenting Anne. No doubt he hoped to see Alan polish Katherine off just so he could revel in the corresponding pain it caused the young woman. Katherine certainly wasn’t about to make his job any easier for him. She took a few deep breaths as she waited for her opponent to join her in the arena. All eyes were on her, eagerly awaiting the sport. She felt repulsed by the grim voyeurs. She also felt incredibly alone and exposed. She had been to a fair few tournaments in her time and wondered if this is what the combatants in those felt like when they marched out to fight. Did they get this almost overwhelming anxiety, like they wanted to get out of there as fast as possible? She was no coward and yet it went against all her survival instinct to just stand their waiting, especially when there was no point to the fight other than providing entertainment and gambling opportunities for others.
There was one big difference between her and all those tournament knights, though, apart from their extensive training, and that was that they participated willingly. Though how anyone could enjoy putting themselves through this she wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was the challenge of facing and conquering your fear. She hoped she could overcome her own.
Another glance at Anne reminded her of another reason why she was there. She needed to at least survive long enough for John to carry out their plan. She presumed the little show before they’d been hauled out of the pit was so Anne could hand the keys off to him. Whether he could now spur the men into action was another thing. Otherwise it could be a long fight. Or a very short one if she hadn’t learnt from Anne’s coaching the night before.
An increase in the sound level indicated something was happening, and sure enough Alan appeared on the opposite side of the arena to her. Katherine’s fear was making another play to dominate her and she forced it down. She balled her fists to try and focus on something else, paying intimate attention to the feel of her nails digging into her palms. They were sweaty too.
Then there was no more time for being afraid or thinking, Barton had signalled the start of the fight and Alan was dashing at her.
Katherine remembered Anne’s words about staying out of his reach whenever she could and waiting for an opening, so she simply dodged the attack. As he went sailing past, Alan looked at her in consternation. Obviously he wasn’t used to opponents that didn’t just stand and trade blows. Katherine wasn’t about to engage in that though. Alan might appear undernourished, but he would still probably be stronger than her in any such close quartered contest.
He tried for her again and again she swung her body out of the way. Fortunately his attacks seemed easy to read and predict for the time being if she watched closely enough. It wasn’t that different to studying players in a dice game to gauge their tactics, apart from the fact that they weren’t generally trying to knock your head off. Katherine’s feet slid through the bare mud of the circle as she hurried round it keeping out of his way.
Alan was getting annoyed and there was a snarling noise somewhere deep in his throat as he came for her again. Katherine evaded his first blow but the second one clipped her across the chin. It rattled her jaw and there was a wet metallic taste in her mouth as she reflexively leapt back out of range. The crowd cheered at the sight of first blood. Katherine could also hear Alan giving a satisfied grunt as she dabbed at her split lip.
Alan’s sunken eyes fixed on her. “I never did get to finish what I started in Ollerton.” He raised his fists in readiness and dashed at her again with the encouragement of the crowd ringing in his ears.
Katherine managed to beat the hands away using Alan’s own momentum. She could see he was exposed as he stumbled. This was her chance! She balled her fist and swung with all her might. It was more in hope than anything else. Her knuckles rapped into the solid bone of his left cheek. His head snapped to the side and he staggered but didn’t fall.
Katherine’s right hand was throbbing from where she had caught Alan and she gave it a quick rub that did absolutely nothing to ease the pain. She had to wonder how anyone managed to punch another person without it hurting like hell. She certainly didn’t fancy having to throw too many more of them. Really she had no idea what she was doing anyway. The fight hadn’t been supposed to last more than the initial sparring. Anne’s tips had carried her so far, but it was going to get harder to just evade as the fight went on and the fatigue started to creep into her movements.
Yet it appeared she was going to have to see it through to its conclusion. Alan was already preparing for another attack. It occurred to her that the easiest option might be for her to let Alan win, let him knock her out. She cringed at the thought of it. Not only would it be physically painful but it would also wound her pride. She was too stubborn to stretch to allowing it, at least not on purpose. There was still the very real possibility he would accomplish it without her help anyway. Katherine resolutely clenched her fists once more – if she was going down she was going down fighting.
Alan launched with a left. The blow was lazy and she easily dodged underneath it. Unfortunately it was also a decoy. As she came back up the right was quickly following. It cannoned into the side of Katherine’s face and red flashed across her eye.
“Oo, that’s gotta hurt!”
Anne ignored Barton’s crowing comments. Instead she struggled in the grasp of her captors, desperate to put an end to the barbaric show. She could hardly bear to watch as Alan’s blows reined in on Katherine. The latest one had caused a cut close to her left eye, and the blood was pouring out of it and down Katherine’s cheek. Each punch that landed felt like a blow to her own gut. The guards held on tight though. They needed to.
Katherine was struggling too out in the arena. She was trying to wipe the blood away from her eye, while at the same time attempting to stay away from Alan’s fists. A couple of more glancing blows caught her and she stumbled and fell into the dirt. Anne’s heart was in her mouth as Alan swung a booted foot in at Katherine’s head. Yet somehow she scrabbled out of the way. Anne allowed herself to breathe again, though it was getting harder to do so.
Barton’s voice suddenly rang out again. “All right, enough of this fannying around. Let’s make it interesting.”
As Anne wondered what he meant, she saw him reaching for something from his belt. She noted that tucked into it was the Ares dagger they had recently retrieved from Stratford. Obviously Barton had taken a liking to it and claimed it as his own. It wasn’t that which he now produced, but it was a knife. This one was old and battered but no less deadly. Barton launched it into the centre of the clearing.
“This one is to the death!”
“No!” Anne wrenched at the restraining hands, managing to get one free. She elbowed the man on her left in the face and swiftly followed it with a telling punch to the second guard’s face. However, someone else placed a forceful kick in the crook of her knees sending her crashing to the ground. Then there were several sets of hands keeping her there and wrenching her arms behind her back.
Barton leant down from his seat as they pulled her up on her knees, enough to see. “What’s the matter, don’t think your girlfriend can win?”
Anne spat some mud from her mouth and gave a trying tug against the restraint, but all that succeeded in doing was sending a jolt of pain through her arms. Barton was practically laughing in her face. Anne gritted her teeth as her anger flared up. “I’m going to make you pay for this.”
“I don’t see how from there.” Barton’s grubby hand reached out to stroke down her face. Anne would have recoiled if she wasn’t held fast from behind. His fingers were rough as they scraped her skin. “It looks to me like you can’t do much at all except sit back and enjoy the spectacle.”
“Only sick bastards like you enjoy this sort of thing,” she shot back, “You’re disgusting, getting pleasure from someone else’s pain.”
The fingers on her face suddenly dug into her cheeks. She refused to cry out, even though she could feel a small trickle of blood escaping from her punctured skin. Barton’s eyes had darkened and his voice held a cutting edge. “You like to think you’re tough like one of the boys, don’t you?” Anne merely favoured him with loathing look. “But under it all you’re still an emotional, weak, pathetic woman.”
Katherine had a single moment to gauge what the item that had been thrown by Barton was, and then Alan was diving for it. She flung herself forwards too. The blood from her cut eye made it hard to see, but she knew what she felt - her hand closing over thin air.
Alan had the knife.
Acting purely on instinct Katherine rolled away as the blade plunged down into the ground where she had been lying. She staggered to her feet and ineffectually wiped at her eye again. She could see Alan was up again too, grinning as he weighed the dagger in his hand.
He lunged for her and she barely got out of the way of the slice. Frantically she dodged round the circle, just keeping out of reach of his repeated thrusts. She knew she couldn’t keep evading him forever though. Already her muscles were growing weary and her obscured vision didn’t help either. She had to get the knife off him.
When the next attempt at cutting her came, she stayed in closer. The blade slid past the front of her vest by a whisker and she grabbed onto Alan’s arm as it did. She tried to twist his wrist to disarm him, but he held firm and with a sudden jerk of the arm he freed himself. Katherine stumbled back, but not far enough. The blade arced in on her, slashing right across her forearm.
She screamed. She was past being stoic now, and she wasn’t going to waste energy reining in her pain. She clutched at the wound and the blood quickly eased between her fingers and soaked her shirtsleeve. Yet in her pain she saw an opportunity. Alan had actually taken his eyes off her for a second. He was gloating to the crowd, lapping up the cheering and baying.
Katherine ran at him full pelt and clattered into him with her whole body. She was operating on pure adrenaline now. There was no thought, just the need to get the dagger off him and use it. Taken by surprise, Alan fell and Katherine tumbled down with him. They were both in the dirt, rolling around, hands searching for the knife. There were punches and elbows and kicks as the desperate scrap continued.
Then somehow she had it. Katherine didn’t know how and she didn’t care. She was also on top of Alan, straddling his body with the dagger in her hand. The crowd was roaring at her to finish him off. The sound washed over her and seeped into her ears. Before she really knew what she was doing her arms were above her head, gripping the dagger tightly, just ready to plunge down into his exposed chest. He had been trying to kill her, why shouldn’t she? Her arms quivered for a moment and then she caught his eye. She could see the look of pleading desperation in them.
She stared back, seeing him for what he was. She knew he was a coward and a bully and a dozen other bad things. Yet here and now he was just someone who didn’t want to die.
It was Barton’s voice that broke the moment, sounding clearly over the others. “Go on, finish him!”
Katherine ignored him. Slowly she lowered her arms and stood up off Alan. She took the dagger and flung it away across the clearing. “I won’t do it!” she called out to the assembled throng.
Time seemed to have slowed to a crawl as Anne watched Katherine swinging around and starting to walk away from the downed Alan. What in god’s name was she doing? raged Anne’s mind. Putting her back to him? Katherine was oblivious to Alan staggering to his feet with a dagger in his hand. Where the hell had that come from? Hadn’t Katherine thrown the only weapon away?
Alan’s arm arced up with agonising slowness. Anne’s own limbs were moving with laboured intent too as she found strength from somewhere to shove her guards from her. She was on her feet, but it was like she was running through quicksand as she tried to go for Barton and the dagger on his belt. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Alan’s arm was fully back and ready to fling the dagger into Katherine’s back in the ultimate display of cowardice.
Anne could hear her own ragged breaths, each one seeming to span on for minutes at a time as it was drawn struggling up though her throat. There was another noise from her lips too, barely recognisable in the distorted moment as her hollering a desperate warning to Katherine.
By the time she reached Barton it felt like the beat of her heart was so slow as to be non-existent. Time was paused in that instant as two hands rested on daggers. Only one would reach its target.
Then reality came crashing back in. Anne’s heart raced to full speed as she spun round and dispatched the weapon across the clearing in one smooth motion.
It zinged through the air and thumped into Alan’s chest. His hand was still up and ready to throw his own dagger as his eyes bulged at the shock of his heart being pierced. His knife plopped harmlessly from his fingers and then he fell backwards like a tree chopped down at its base.
There was the briefest moment of stunned silence as everyone took in the sight. It was as if the whole forest had taken in a collective breath and was holding it, waiting to see what happened next. Katherine was only a few paces from the dead man, looking back in shock. Barton was still in his seat and everyone else just stared at the dead body with the dagger protruding from it. Anne was frozen in place too as her heart’s erratic beat slowed and calmed.
Then suddenly there was a shout from amongst the prisoner pens. It broke the temporary illusion of calm. The shout garnered other supporting ones and then the prisoners were barging their way up through the covers, through the guards and running across the clearing at the outlaws. Barton almost didn’t move from his seat as one of the prisoners charged for him; he seemed to be too stunned to move. At the last minute he sensed the impending danger and leapt up to punch the attacker in the face.
However, another and then another were upon him in turn as the former captives swept forward to overrun the outlaws. Barton’s eyes shot angrily to Anne as he fought on against the masses. It was as if he instinctively knew she was the cause of this uprising.
“I’ll get you for this!” he shouted at her through the bodies.
She offered him a satisfied grin. “You’ll have to catch me first.”
She just had time to catch another snarl of anger from him before she started ducking and weaving her way through the battling hordes. She didn’t stop to join in, having only one destination in mind. Anne found Katherine exactly where she had been before the prisoners had swept past her. She was still standing in the middle of the clearing clutching at her injured arm. Anne realised there was no time to see to it now. She wasn’t sure what the outcome of the prisoner/outlaw battle was going to be, but she wasn’t going to stick around to find out. Katherine was staring down at Alan with a half-pitying, half-horrified look on her face. Anne had to remind herself that Katherine still found such seemingly senseless and violent death shocking. Even if it was of someone who would have killed her without hesitation.
Anne wrapped a gentle arm around her shoulders. Katherine jumped slightly in surprise at the contact. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
Katherine’s eyes tracked round to Anne who was glad to see the bleeding had slowed from the cut close to them. However, there was a moment’s incomprehension in the pale blue orbs as if Anne were some stranger. The look was disturbing in its bleakness. Anne wasn’t entirely sure what had brought it on – she had killed people in front of Katherine before and yet this time Katherine seemed all the more shocked for some reason. Anne supposed that on the first occasion Katherine had been wounded at the time and had perhaps not fully comprehended what was happening, and on the second occasion…
Anne’s thoughts coalesced on the memory of Mark’s death. She had to concede Katherine had been pretty shocked then too. It had been her husband that had just been murdered after all. Not that it had strictly been Anne’s doing even if she had been the one holding the sword.
This time, however, it was right there in front of her as plain as day and it appeared to trouble her. Anne wasn’t sure why – the man had been about to kill her if Anne hadn’t stopped him. Before Anne could think of something to say, Katherine seemed to shake herself out of it. “Yes, of course,” she said, “We need our things first though.”
Anne nodded in agreement. “I think they’re over by the horses.”
Katherine started in the direction Anne had indicated but the young woman held back. “The Ares dagger,” she reminded Katherine. There was another flash of horror on Katherine’s face as she glanced at Alan’s body. “You go on,” suggested Anne, “I’ll get it.”
Katherine gave a quick nod and ran off to fetch their belongings and Delta. It seemed she had forgotten about her injuries in the urgency to get away. Once they were at a safe distance they could stop and Anne would have a closer look at her eye and arm. Hopefully there would be no permanent scarring. If there was, it wasn’t like Anne could punish the one responsible.
Anne stepped over to stand by the man she had killed. Her black boots were by his head and she could see his eyes were vacantly staring up at the blue sky that peeked intermittently through the green leaves. Anne viewed his dead form with detached indifference. She supposed she should feel more remorse, or at least some, but she felt nothing of the sort. Kneeling down by his side she hovered with her hand on the hilt of the dagger.
“I told you before that I would kill you if you touched a hair on Katherine’s head. You got one reprieve, I don’t give more than that.”
With that parting shot she yanked the dagger from his chest. There was a wet squelch as it slid out through the flesh. A quick wipe on her trousers cleaned the blade before she slipped it into her belt. Then she was off, not giving him a single backwards glance as she went to join Katherine.
Charles Kirby sat quietly in the cellar room watching the other two men who were with him. Even though he couldn’t see either of their faces properly under their hoods, he could tell his fellow conspirators were not amused. The Arbiter was pacing back and forth across the stones of the floor. He didn’t say anything, and that spoke volumes in itself. Finally he stopped and thumped his hands on the table. The mugs of ale atop it leapt into the air.
“Tell me again how we managed to lose them?”
Kirby didn’t say anything, thinking it best not to draw attention to himself at that point. Instead the third man of the group answered.
“We had them as they came through Nottingham, then they went into the forest and you know how hard it is to track people in there.”
“You mean your men were too scared to follow?”
“I didn’t see any of the rest of you keeping track of them?”
The Arbiter’s voice was icy cold. “That’s because we all have our own jobs to do. This was your responsibility, I’ll know better next time not to entrust anything too important to your drunken hands.”
“Who the hell do you think you are speaking to me like that?” blustered the other man, “I’m…”
The Arbiter cut him off abruptly. “I know full well who you are. Perhaps you should act in a way more befitting your station though. A little less of this,” he picked up one of the mugs and flung its contents straight in the man’s face, “And a bit more using this.” He tapped at the drenched man’s head.
Suddenly he swung to Kirby. “And you can stop sniggering. You have plenty to make up for given your family’s past history.”
Kirby immediately felt the shame rising to his face and settling somewhere about the tattoo over his left eye.
“You can go to the forest and try and locate them. Report back when you have some news. Our man is waiting in Markham. We don’t want to keep him so too long lest he gets cold feet.”
Kirby didn’t really fancy scouring the forest for the two troublesome women, but could see now was not the time to argue with their leader. He rose silently from his chair and was nearly at the door when the hooded man called him back.
“And don’t fail us like your father, or more generations of your family will have to bear the mark of disgrace.”
Kirby made a reflexive touch of his tattoo before he swept from the room on his mission.
COMING SOON…Lady Katherine and The Unholy Power