The Lady Katherine Chronicles, Number 13
Lady Katherine And The Elusive Memory
April 1192, Nottinghamshire, England
Mercy, 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 of Markham thrashed frantically against the cloying blackness surrounding her. She tried to keep her mouth shut, jamming her teeth together to resist the urge to open it and take a gulp of air. Every reflex was telling her to do it, to breath in. Yet her mind knew she couldn’t. It knew it wouldn’t be air she was breathing in, but a deadly mouthful of water.
Which way was up? Where was the surface?
Her head was pounding as her oxygen faded making it hard to think. Meanwhile, the water tossed her around like a piece of driftwood, tumbling her over and over. She had long since lost any sense of direction. She kicked her legs and prayed it was the right way.
Then suddenly the chill night air hit her in the face. She was startled by the shock of it, gasping it gratefully in. Katherine coughed and spluttered while her arms and legs pumped furiously to keep her chin above the churning waters. All the time the river still pounded mercilessly against her, carrying her further downstream.
“Anne!” There was no answer from the darkness, save the sound of rushing water. “Anne!” she tried again, her tone growing more frantic. Where the hell was she? Katherine went to call out a third time, but the river threw up a slew of water in her face. Katherine gagged as it hit the back of her throat.
The coughs were still hacking through her when suddenly something thumped into her back. Desperately Katherine flung an arm out to stop herself going under again. Her fingers found solid wood and her nails scratched at bark. Katherine clung onto the branch, thankful for the meagre lifesaver.
She shouted out again, trying to raise her voice above the tumult. “Anne!”
Her eyes scanned around, but it was hopeless - she couldn’t see anything in the unremitting darkness. The sky above was black, with the moon and stars obscured by storm clouds. She knew Anne had been tossed into the swollen river at the same time as she had, but then she had lost track of her.
The two of them had been on their way from Katherine’s current home at Markham to her childhood home at Stratford. Katherine had received a letter from Lord Robert of the manor there, informing her that she was welcome to visit at any time. On hearing that, Katherine had wasted no time organising a trip. She and Anne had come to the conclusion that it should be their next port of call on the trail of a secret organisation and a deadly weapon. They already had two parts to the puzzle that would lead them to the weapon, and hoped to find more clues at Stratford.
Katherine had viewed the trip with some trepidation for a number of reasons. For one there was the whole reason they were going and the sense that they were in a race against time to beat the sinister Ares Syndicate to the weapon. For another there was the prospect of being reminded of her father at every turn. She had grown up at Stratford, lived there until she had gotten married at twenty-one. In that entire time she’d had no idea that her father was actually the head of a nefarious group, one that sought to accumulate wealth and power by any means possible. Finding that out had been hard for Katherine – she had always placed her father on some sort of untouchable pedestal. He had now fallen crashing from it.
Finally there was the faint anxiety about seeing Robert again. They’d shared a short romance when Katherine was only eighteen and he was twenty-one. It was before she’d met and married Mark. The affair had burned briefly and brightly before they’d both moved onto more responsible and sensible things. Yet even when she’d gone back to Stratford for her parents’ funeral some eleven years after, there had still been something there - a tiny spark of chemistry that neither of them could deny. However, she hadn’t seen him once in the intervening nine years - she had been married after all, as had he been. Now she was curious and not a little frightened as to what might happen when they did meet. Of course she loved Anne, more than anything in the world, and yet she couldn’t help wondering.
Katherine knew Anne shared some of her concerns about the trip, though Katherine wasn’t sure which of them preyed most on the young woman’s mind. Anne probably wouldn’t admit to it, but Katherine suspected it was the last of them. Katherine had spotted the first stirrings of jealousy whenever Robert’s name was mentioned, and knew that it would probably only get worse once they got to Stratford. It wouldn’t help that, once there, Anne would have to pretend to be one of Katherine’s maids – a task she had been rather unsuccessful at last time they’d attempted it. However, it was the only option to explain her presence with Katherine, especially as it was just the two of them who were left making the journey.
When Tobias had heard of Katherine and Anne’s intentions to take the trip by themselves, he had been less than amused. Yet after her father’s written warnings about trusting people, Katherine wanted to have as few people involved in the quest as possible. Not that she didn’t trust Tobias completely. After Anne he was probably the person she trusted most in the world. Which was why she needed him back at Markham. However, Tobias had argued long and hard that it was dangerous for two women to travel alone and had eventually persuaded them to take two of this men plus a small carriage. Katherine agreed since she supposed it would look faintly suspicious if just she and Anne turned up at Stratford without any sort of escort.
Yet now that was what was going to happen anyway. They had only been three days out of Markham when suddenly one of the men had fallen ill. They had rested up for a day but his condition seemed to be worsening if anything. In the end she had ordered the second guard to take the carriage and one of the horses and carry his ill comrade back to Markham where the friar could tend him. The guard hadn’t been too happy about it – no doubt Tobias had given him quite specific instructions about staying with Katherine. Tobias hadn’t been there at that moment, though, and Katherine’s persuasion had won out. She and Anne had detached Delta from the carriage and continued on alone.
Now Katherine was beginning to wonder if it had been so wise to do so. However, they could hardly have predicted what was going to happen with the weather. It was April, so they had expected rain showers. What they hadn’t expected was a flash flood.
It had hit suddenly. The heavens had opened just as they were contemplating making camp for the night. Katherine had never known rain like it; the drops drilled down and actually hurting with their force. They had tried to gallop for cover, the two of them on Delta’s back, but before they knew it the path was being washed away by a torrent from an overflowing river. Delta had been unable to stand and both women had been pitched into the churning waters. Katherine had gone straight under, losing sight of Anne. God knew what had happened to Delta.
Another wave crashed over Katherine’s head at that moment, soaking her hair once more and dripping down into her eyes. Katherine desperately blinked the droplets away, not wanting to close her eyes for a second, just in case she might spot Anne in that moment. However, she wasn’t sure how much longer she could hold onto the branch, what with her clothes pulling heavily at her, sapping the strength in her arms. The wood seemed precariously small in the raging waters. Katherine realised she had to try and get to the bank, wherever that was. Perhaps then she might have a better chance of spotting Anne. She ignored the terrifying thoughts that she might not spot her at all. Anne was a strong swimmer – she would be all right. If Katherine repeated it enough times she could almost convince herself. She pushed away recollections of the last time they had fallen in a river together, when Anne had hit her head and nearly died.
Katherine picked a direction and started splashing through the water that way, one arm still clinging onto the branch. The current in the river was much stronger than normal, and her progress was slow. Her waterlogged boots felt like lead weights on the ends of her legs as she swam on. After a couple of minutes of swimming there was still no sign of dry land, and Katherine had to hook both her arms back over the branch, breathing heavily as she tried to gather her strength. All her muscles were aching remorselessly now.
She leant her head onto to sodden branch for a moment, the water continuing to splash over her in random bursts as she was swept along. She heard a faint creaking noise and then a loud snap as the branch finally gave up the fight. Caught unawares, Katherine plunged down under the surface again. She tried to kick up, but her legs didn’t seem to want to obey. It was like something had hooked onto her from the riverbed and was tugging her down. Her hand stretched up, seeking out something, anything…
And suddenly there was something; something gripping onto her collar, hauling her towards safety. She bobbed up to the surface as a strong arm encircled her waist from behind, holding her up.
Katherine hardly needed the look behind her to know who it was. “Anne! Thank God!” Her relief was overwhelming, despite the fact that they were still in the middle of a raging river, the spray from it continuing to slap her in the face at intervals.
“Are you all right?” yelled Anne, having to shout over the sounds of the storm. Katherine could feel Anne’s body banging into her from behind with each of Anne’s kicks to keep them afloat. Each little jolt was a welcome reminder of her presence.
“Yes! Just tired!” shouted back Katherine. “Do you know which way the bank is?”
“I think it’s this way!”
Anne started swimming, pulling Katherine backwards with her. Katherine knew it must be incredibly difficult for Anne, fighting through the water with an added burden. After a moment she indicated to Anne that she was all right to swim alone, not wanting to drag the young woman down with her. Anne looked dubious but Katherine was determined, finding some more strength from somewhere to plough through the current under her own steam. She was starting to question her show of bravado when finally something dark and solid loomed up ahead.
Katherine’s hand shot out, gratefully latching onto a tuft of grass. The river still tugged at her body, trying to drag her on down its course. She determinedly struggled up out of the water and onto the earth, making a quick check that Anne had also reached safety before she flopped down onto the grass and closed her eyes. The rain was still drumming down around her as she took one deep breath after another, but she didn’t really care – she could hardly get any wetter.
She could hear Anne’s laboured breathing from close by on the ground, and Katherine’s fingers snaked out across the slick turf finding the chilled flesh of Anne’s right hand. She squeezed it reassuringly as she rose up into a sitting position.
“Thanks for saving me….again!”
Anne’s eyes didn’t open, but she smiled to herself while she lay on the floor. The raindrops tracked across her pale skin, running over her cheekbones and down onto the earth. When she eventually sat up her black clothes clung to her body as Katherine’s did to her own. “You’re welcome.” Her face quickly took on a more serious look. “But I wouldn’t count yourself as saved just yet.”
Katherine’s brow furrowed, her eyes starting to take in their surroundings now they had gotten used to the dark. She immediately saw why Anne looked so concerned. They might have been on dry land, but they were also right in the middle of the river. The level of the water was still rising and soon their island refuge would be no more.
“Damn! So it’s back into the river then?”
“I’m not sure either of us would make it,” said Anne honestly.
“Unless you have any better options, it looks like our only choice,” pointed out Katherine, “Short of sitting here and praying the water doesn’t come up any higher.”
“I might have one other option,” said Anne, unhooking the bow that was still strung across her back. Katherine was amazed she’d managed to hold onto it in the river; even more stunned to see she also still had her bag.
Anne opened it now, pulling out a quiver of arrows. She withdrew one and removed the tip, replacing it with an odd shaped hook device. To the other end she tied a rope. Katherine thought it was good job one of them had come prepared.
“Here, tie this end of the rope around that tree,” instructed Anne, handing it to her.
Katherine fumbled with the cord, her numb fingers having trouble making the knot. She cursed a couple of times before she finally secured it. Anne was on her feet, notching the arrow in her bow.
“It might be time to start that praying,” she suggested.
The raindrops cascaded off the bottom of her bow as Anne sighted it out into the darkness. Katherine couldn’t see anything in the direction she was aiming, no matter how much she strained and squinted. She hoped Anne’s eyesight was better than her own. Then the arrow was gone, sailing out into the night. The rope whipped out after it, quickly uncoiling. There was the barest sound of a thunk from somewhere over the river.
“You hit something,” noted Katherine hopefully.
Anne pulled the slack of the rope up and wound it around the tree on their island so that it was a few feet off the ground and a few more above the fast-flowing river. “Let’s just hope it holds.” She made a couple of test tugs on the rope. “I don’t think it’s wise for us both to go at once. You go first and I can hold onto the rope at this end in case the arrow dislodges itself. When you get to the other side you can do the same for me. Whatever you do, don’t let go of the rope.”
“Right.” Katherine tried to rub some life into her hands before embarking on her crossing. She placed a hand on the rope, taking a deep preparatory breath.
Anne was at her side, and for a moment Katherine thought there was something wrong. Then the young woman was closing the distance between them and placing her lips on Katherine’s.
They were surprisingly warm and Katherine didn’t want to let the moment go. Yet she could also feel the water starting to lap round her feet. Anne eventually pulled back no doubt sensing the urgency too. “Good luck.”
Katherine couldn’t help smiling back. Despite the fact she was being buffeted by the wind and rain, and that she was possibly about to be dunked right back in the river, the feel of Anne’s kiss never ceased to raise her spirits. She could almost believe she could accomplish anything. Gripping the rope tightly she hooked her feet up onto the rope too. Then she started to ease out over the water, hand over hand.
The rope quivered precariously with her progress, her back almost touching the surface of the water as it bowed with her weight. Once or twice her hands slipped on the rain-lashed cord and she was almost down in the turbulent froth. Each time she clung on desperately before gathering herself and continuing on. Finally she could crane her head back and see the welcome sight of dry land. Lowering herself from the rope onto it, she flexed her fingers a few times to remove the stiffness from them.
“I’ve made it!” she shouted back across the river. “You’re good to go!”
A creak from the rope indicated that Anne had clambered onto it, though Katherine couldn’t see her yet. She glanced back to where Anne’s arrow had hooked between the branches of a tree. A few splinters were already starting to pop up from it. Then suddenly the arrow wasn’t there anymore – it had been wrenched free.
It whipped out in the direction of the river and Katherine flung herself for the end of the rope as it slithered across the ground. It ripped at her palms as her fingers closed around it and she bit her lip to stop from crying out. It was still sliding towards the river though, Katherine being dragged across the ground with it. Anne must be in the water, guessed Katherine, her weight on the other end hauling Katherine inexorably forwards. Katherine swivelled onto her back and dug her feet into the muddy bank before she was pitched right off it. With a final grunt she came to a halt. She tightened her hold, ignoring the pain in her hands. She just had to hope Anne was pulling herself up the rope towards her, since Katherine didn’t think she could do any more than just hold on.
The repetitive jerk on the other end told her that Anne was doing just that and eventually a blonde head literally swam into view down in the swirling waters. Katherine only had to cling on for a few more seconds before Anne had hauled herself out. With a relieved sigh Katherine dropped the rope, its imprint still fresh in her palms.
“Thanks for saving me!” said Anne gratefully.
A loud whinny behind her stopped Katherine’s own words. She jumped at the sudden noise, whirling round to see her wayward mount, Delta. “I might have know you would be all right,” she said half-scornfully, though in reality she was relieved he hadn’t drowned. She caught hold of his dangling reins. “I think we all need to find somewhere to shelter.”
The rain had finally stopped by the time Anne had found enough dry wood to get a small fire going in the place they had chosen to make camp. Katherine sat close to it as it flickered higher, fingers stretched out in an attempt to get warm. Her clothes still clung uncomfortably to her body in random damp patches, but she wasn’t rushing to take them off. She didn’t have anything dry to change into and didn’t really relish the prospect of sitting naked in the forest - at least not until the fire got a lot bigger and a lot warmer.
Next to her, Anne peeled off the single fingerless leather glove she wore on her left hand, flexing her fingers a couple of times.
“Is it all right?” Katherine leant over to join Anne in looking at the palm. It had a bright pink scar right across it; a stark reminder of what had happened with Alan a couple of weeks previously. The outlaw had sliced through Anne’s hand when she had been trying to protect Katherine. Now Anne had taken to wearing the glove to protect her own skin as it healed.
“It’s a bit sore after hauling myself up that rope, but nothing serious,” said Anne, curling her fingers again. “I think I’m going to have a permanent scar though,” she added ruefully.
“There’s nothing wrong with the odd scar,” said Katherine, “I think they add a touch of character to someone.” One of Katherine’s fingers trailed provocatively across Anne’s brow and down around her left eye as she said the words. Anne had a small scar entwined with her eyebrow too – that one a present from the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Anne smiled at the intimate gesture, the light from the fire glinting off her white teeth. “Now the fire’s going, I suppose we ought to get out of our wet clothes.” The eyebrow scar quirked up. “Do you need a hand?”
Katherine laughed. “After last time? We were lucky our clothes didn’t get burnt to cinders!”
“Good point,” said Anne, “And I certainly wouldn’t want that happening this time.” She delved inside her black vest, pulling out some soggy paper. She carefully unfolded it, laying it down by the fire and weighing the corners down with small stones.
Katherine looked down at them and then incredulously at Anne. “Are those pages from the Friar’s book?”
“Yes,” answered Anne honestly, “I didn’t want to leave them behind since they give the key for translating the inscriptions.”
The pages held writing in a strange language Katherine didn’t understand. Fortunately Anne had been able to work out the meaning, and had used them to translate the writing on the two Ares objects they’d already collected. That writing had led them to believe there were three other objects and a key needed to find the weapon the Ares Syndicate were also on the trail of.
“He’ll kill you if he finds out you ripped them out,” Katherine said, knowing it wasn’t an understatement. The friar treasured books and would see it as desecration to defile one so. “You could just have brought the whole book.”
Anne favoured her with a doubtful look. “You’ve seen the size of that thing! If I had, I’d be at the bottom of the river right now.”
“True,” conceded Katherine, “We just won’t mention it to him then. Since you brought the pages, I suppose you’re hoping we’ll find another item at Stratford, that you’ll need them to translate the inscription on it.”
“Your diagram seems to indicate as much,” agreed Anne, “Did you bring it with you too?”
Katherine quickly checked in one of her saddlebags. “Yes, it’s safe and sound.” She pulled out the letter from her father. “I thought the trip might give me some inspiration for deciphering the rest of it.”
“And has it?”
Katherine looked at the confusing mass of pictures on the page. “Not so far!” The diagram had been designed so that only Katherine could understand the meaning and use it to find the other objects. However, so far she was as much in the dark as anyone else as to what the odd pictures and patterns indicated. She found it hard to spend any length of time studying it though. Every time she sat down to peruse it she found herself painfully reminded of her father. She would try to conjour up happy images of him – him carrying her home when she was too tired, him teaching her to shoot a bow, the pair of them sitting by the river just watching the day float by. However, every time dark thoughts of what else he might have been doing around that time flooded in to swamp the good memories.
“Perhaps you need something else to give you some inspiration?”
Katherine glanced up at Anne, able to see the young woman looking at her from below seductively lowered eyelashes. She pushed thoughts of her father to the back of her mind; he could wait.
Katherine inched closer across the ground. “Something that might expand my mind?”
Anne made a small nod. “Or perhaps just blow it?”
Katherine laughed. “That sounds like some promise.”
“And one I intend to keep.”
Anne’s fingers trailed up Katherine’s arm, across her shoulder and snaked around the back of her head. For a moment they merely stared into one another’s eyes while Anne stroked the fine hairs at the back of Katherine’s neck. The tantalising contact sent shivers through her whole body. Then suddenly the distance was closed and they were kissing. Katherine forgot all about watching out for their clothes as they were discarded over the ground.
Her skin quickly grew hot despite the night air as Anne’s body pressed up tight against her. They rolled across the ground, smooth limbs sliding between one another. Katherine groaned as Anne’s thigh brushed her sex. Anne took the cue to tease Katherine some more. She was on top of the smaller woman now, holding herself up on strong arms as she rubbed her thigh seductively up and down. Her hard nipples grazed across Katherine’s own chest as she moved.
Katherine watched the erotic sight for a moment, feeling the wetness spreading between her legs as her arousal grew with each gyration. Then she couldn’t watch any more; she needed Anne. Katherine wrapped her arms round the young woman’s neck and pulled her down, hungrily devouring her lips. Her fingers slipped up higher, loosening the ponytail at the back of Anne’s head so they could freely stroke through golden hair.
The two of them tumbled over again on the ground a couple of times as the fervour overtook them. They were a mass of roving hands and fingers and limbs, sliding against one other in lustful delight. Somehow Katherine found herself on top, not really being aware of how she had got there. Anne hands were tangling in her hair now as Katherine’s teased stiff nipples between her teeth. There were gasps and moans floating up to the night sky from both women.
Katherine felt Anne’s fingers tracking over her back. Fingernails scratched provocatively over the protruding bones of her spine. Anne’s hands gripped onto Katherine’s backside for a moment on their journey lower, clutching her close to the young woman. Katherine glanced up to see Anne was grinning wantonly at her. The look contained such naked desire that Katherine had to lever herself up and consume Anne’s lips once more.
Meanwhile, Anne’s fingers had slipped in between Katherine’s legs, tickling the inside of her thighs briefly before searching out the wetness above. They slipped easily inside, Katherine breaking contact for a second to groan with pleasure as she felt the intimate caress.
Katherine was on her knees now, legs spread wide over Anne to allow the penetration. She thrust in time with each of Anne’s finger movements, maintaining a lock of her lips the whole time. Katherine had lost track of how many fingers were inside her, but it felt like Anne was filling her completely. Every tiny movement delivered a rush of unbridled ecstasy.
The heat from the fire prickled over her spine as she arched up over Anne, resting her hands back on the ground behind her for support. There was one final thrust from the probing fingers and then Katherine was gone. She tipped her head back and cried out into the night with pure abandon. A couple of nocturnal animals answered back with their own feral sounds.
Then Katherine fell forwards and collapsed against Anne, sweaty and spent. The forest was quiet now, save for her own hard and fast breathing. Anne kissed the side of her head where it rested on the young woman’s shoulder.
“Feeling inspired yet?”
Katherine laughed. It bubbled up and up until she was guffawing into Anne’s shoulder. She clutched on to the young woman as her merriment continued unabated. A few tears of laughter wet the pale skin, by which time Anne was chuckling quietly too.
Finally Katherine managed to calm herself enough to raise her head. She pushed her flopping auburn hair away from her eyes and strove to maintain a straight face. “Actually I think might need to explore the possibility there might be some elsewhere.”
“And where might that be?”
A hand rested lightly on Anne’s pubic bone. “I think it might be somewhere in this vicinity.”
A small half-smile bent Anne’s lips. “Well, I wouldn’t want to keep you from inspiration so you better explore away.”
The following day was much fairer than the stormy one before and the sun actually made an appearance from behind the clouds as Katherine and Anne continued their journey. In fact the land bore little sign of the devastating rains and flood of the night before, apart from a more muddier than normal road beneath Delta’s hooves. The rest of the landscape appeared unscathed, the greens of the trees and grass highlighted by the morning sun. Katherine might have thought the flood had all been some dream if it hadn’t been quite so vivid. If the events of later in the evening had been a dream, though, then they had certainly been one of the most pleasant ones she’d ever had.
Delta seemed buoyed by the fine weather too, making good progress along the road despite carrying two passengers over the choppy ground. They were in their riding clothes and fortunately didn’t appear to be drawing too much attention to themselves even though they were two women alone. As they travelled further south it became less and less probable that anyone would recognise Anne as an outlaw, or Katherine as a noblewoman for that matter. The common people’s knowledge of affairs didn’t tend to extend much beyond their own immediate land or estate. It took someone particularly infamous like Robin Hood himself to be known further afield than his immediate locality. The nobility and their troops were another matter.
It was quite possible that someone like the Sheriff of Nottingham may have made them aware of Anne’s existence, since she was notable enough to warrant such a mention. There weren’t many female outlaws, especially not stunningly attractive ones like Anne. The Sheriff was a notorious philanderer, and Katherine could just imagine Anne being a drunken talking point when the Sheriff entertained. She suspected that any tale of the time he had briefly captured Anne at Nottingham Castle might be somewhat different to the reality in its details though. He would hardly want anyone else to know how easily she had escaped for a start. At least it would sound easy. However, at the time Katherine had been petrified sneaking around the castle and bludgeoning guards with stools. She had grown increasingly used to such occurrences over the past year.
However, even if the Sheriff or anyone else had mentioned Anne to their fellow nobles, it would still take quite a leap to make the connection from a blond female outlaw to someone who was being presented as Katherine’s maid. As long as Anne didn’t go around showing off any un-maidly skills or traits then they should be safe. And therein lay the problem. Acting servile did not come naturally to the headstrong young woman, and Katherine just prayed Anne had learnt something from their previous trip to Keighley. At the very least she hoped Anne wouldn’t be ending up in any prison cells this time.
“How much further do you think it is?”
The question broke Katherine out of her thoughts and she pulled Delta up before she answered.
“Hopefully we should get there tomorrow.”
Anne nodded at the information. “Then we have time to stop for a break and some water?”
“Feeling a bit warm are we?”
“Yes,” said Anne, “Must be the sun I suppose, or being pressed up against your hot body.”
Katherine laughed as she lowered herself off the horse. She eased the hours in the saddle out of her thighs and backside by doing a series of stretches. “Actually, now you mention it, I feel a bit warm too.” She put her hand to her forehead, feeling a few beads of sweat. “Must be the weather as you said. At least it’s better than being drowned by rain.”
Katherine led Delta off the road to a small stream that bubbled through the neighbouring field. He eagerly bent his head to the cool water as she kneeled to dab some on her hot brow.
Next to her Anne followed suit, scooping up handfuls of the refreshing liquid. A few odd drips escaped her fingers and dribbled down her chin and neck. “So are you getting excited as we get closer? Or maybe nervous?”
Katherine started out of her study of the water’s progress over Anne’s skin. “A bit of both I guess. It’s been nine years since I visited and nearly eighteen since I actually lived there.”
“And what about who we’re going to meet there?”
Katherine frowned at the edge to Anne’s tone. She sat back onto the grass that was slightly damp underneath her. “Anne, I thought we’d already discussed this. Yes, obviously I’ll be happy to see Robert, we are old friends.”
“And former lovers.”
Katherine bit her lip to stop any immediate retort. “Yes, and that,” she eventually said, “The operative word being former. Not only will it be good to see him again, he also might be able to help us out.”
“Unless he was in league with Coleville,” pointed out Anne.
Katherine made a scoffing laugh. “Hardly! He seemed shocked by the revelation about Coleville if his letter was anything to go by.”
“Maybe he was just putting that on for your benefit,” suggested Anne, unwilling to let it go, “Maybe he inherited more than a manor house from your father.”
Katherine was starting to get annoyed by Anne’s persistence. “Now you’re just being ridiculous,” she stated, “Robert is one of the kindest, noblest men I know.”
Katherine could see Anne making to say something and then catching herself as if she thought better of it. What had it been? Had she been about to make some comment about Katherine’s father? After all Katherine had thought he was kind and noble too, but that assessment seemed incorrect now.
She decided not to press, not really wanting to find out what the unsaid comment was. “Why don’t you wait until you meet Robert to pass judgement?” she suggested instead.
“All right, I’ll wait until I meet him.”
“Thank you.” Katherine got up, stretching her stiff legs again. “Now I suppose we ought to be getting on our way.”
Anne took hold of Delta’s reins and started to lead him back to the road. She hoped Katherine was right about Lord Robert, and that he wasn’t hiding some dark secret like Katherine’s father. She was naturally suspicious of him, but wasn’t sure if that was justified or merely a by-product of her jealousy. She tried to restrain those feelings, yet it was hard to know that this man had such a long history with Katherine. Something in the way Katherine spoke of him also made Anne think it wasn’t all entirely in the past.
Anne was back up to the road when she realised Katherine wasn’t behind her. Swinging round she could see that the other woman was still down by the stream having not got more than a few steps. Katherine was leaning heavily against a tree. Her head was also bowed, her auburn hair flopping loosely around her face.
“Katherine?” Concern was quickly surfacing in Anne. “Is everything all right?”
Katherine glanced up with uncertainty in her blue eyes. She went to take a step and then she just pitched forwards, collapsing face first on the grass. Anne dropped Delta’s reins and started sprinting down the slope.
There was no reply from the downed woman, and Anne’s heart was in her mouth by the time she reached Katherine’s side. She knelt down, quickly turning Katherine over. Her eyes were closed and it was with a creeping fear that Anne reached out to feel for signs of life. Thankfully her fingers found the beat of her heart, still strong beneath the skin. Yet that skin was alarmingly hot.
“Katherine!” Anne tried gently shaking her to no avail. What was wrong with her? She had seemed fine a moment ago, and now all of a sudden she was burning up with fever. Was it a result of falling in the river? Had she caught a chill? Or was it something worse, like plague?
Anne looked desperately around her for nearby habitation – somewhere she could take Katherine where they might have a healer. Yet there was nothing in view, just endless vistas of grass, trees and rolling hills.
If only I still had my healing powers! Anne thought to herself in frustration. It occurred to her that perhaps she could try and tap into them still - maybe they hadn’t gone completely. Maybe she just needed a situation like this to give her that extra edge. If ever she needed them it was now.
Anne closed her eyes, trying to calm her thoughts and find that place inside her where she could feel the power of nature welling up, filling her. It was difficult with nervous anxiety continually pricking at her concentration. Yet she strained with all her might.
“Damn you!” she cried out to the pagan gods who seemed to have deserted her. “Come on you bastards! Just this once!”
They didn’t reply to her curses. It was no good; there was just nothing there.
Opening her eyes again she looked down at Katherine, who seemed to be even paler than before. The anxious pain in Anne’s own chest was growing with each passing second. She knew she had to get Katherine somewhere warm, somewhere where she could be cared for properly. She hooked an arm under Katherine’s shoulders and another under her legs and hefted her off the ground. Carrying Katherine back to Delta, Anne could feel the heat radiating off her small body. This was not good, not good at all.
Anne held tight to Katherine as she clambered onto the waiting horse. Then she turned him for Stratford and set off at a gallop.
Anne wasn’t entirely sure how long she had been riding as she finally pulled Delta up for a rest. The day had turned into night and back to day again during the time she had been on the horse’s back, yet not once had she thought about stopping and making camp. Her cargo was too precious to consider delaying.
Katherine was shivering again now, trembling uncontrollably in Anne’s arms. Anne tightened her hold for a moment, clutching Katherine to her chest as if she could somehow force her own strength into her that way. The bouts of chills had come and gone on their journey, while the rest of the time Katherine had been scarily hot. At no time had she regained consciousness.
Anne had ploughed on through the night, keeping a watchful eye for any sign of change in Katherine’s condition. Delta seemed to understand that he had to keep going too. He was panting as they stood at rest now, his breath clouding in the cool morning air.
Eventually the shudders racking Katherine slowed and stopped, her head resting limply against Anne’s chest once more. She seemed so small and fragile, lying there helplessly. Anne brushed the damp strands of hair from Katherine’s sweaty forehead. She was burning up again now the shivering had stopped.
Anne put her hand to her own forehead. It was equally warm. She could pretend that it was the ride that had caused it, but deep down she realised that whatever was ailing Katherine was starting to affect her too. Anne was having trouble keeping her eyes open, and a couple of times the jolt from Delta’s hooves on the road and jerked her awake. Her whole body ached from within, and she knew that was nothing to do with the ride either. Yet she was resolved to keeping going, she had to get Katherine to safety. Only then could she rest.
She geed Delta on again, hoping that Stratford was close. If she didn’t get there soon she might slip into unconsciousness like Katherine and then they would both be done for. When she came over the next hill and saw the impressive manor house sitting amongst the smaller houses of the town her relief was so great she could have whooped for joy. Yet they weren’t safe yet. She urged Delta into as fast a gallop as he could manage, the colt speeding over the remainder of the distance as if he too knew this was their destination.
The house grew more imposing as she barrelled towards it with the wind whipping fast past her face. It was much larger than Markham, looking something more akin to a castle than the more rural Nottinghamshire manor. It had several stories where Markham only had two and many more outbuildings dotted round its courtyard – at least the parts of it she could see beyond the thick stone walls that surrounded it.
Luckily the gate in the defensive walls was open and Anne swept straight on into the courtyard, ignoring the cries of the guards for her to stop. By the time she was dismounting, they were running across the grass in her direction, swords drawn.
“Oi! You! What do you think you’re doing?”
Anne already had Katherine off the horse and back in her arms, holding her close. Anne’s legs were worryingly unsteady under the extra weight. Normally she would have no problem carrying Katherine. “Lord Robert is expecting us,” she said quickly to the guard, “I’ve come with Lady Katherine of Markham,” she added, eyes indicating the woman in her arms, “She’s ill.”
The men looked at her doubtfully and Anne suddenly realised what they must look like. Certainly neither of them looked like they were anything to do with the nobility. Katherine was still in the riding clothes she had been wearing when she collapsed and Anne was in her customary black. Both of them looked like they hadn’t slept or washed for a couple of days. She hadn’t for a second thought she should have stopped and changed to add credence to her story.
“Right you’re nobles, of course,” said one of the men sarcastically, “I don’t know, you peasants thinking you can just come in here whenever you fancy it. Go and see your own healer and stop bothering his lordship.”
“No, you don’t understand…,” said Anne, desperation colouring her tone.
“No,” interrupted the guard, “You don’t understand. I said be off with you, before I throw you in the cells.”
Anne stared incredulously at him. Her mind was finding it hard to formulate the right words to make her case, everything seemed to be jumbled up in a cloudy haze. So instead she just started running for the front door.
“Oi! Come back here!”
Anne barged through it, eyes scanning the large room on the other side. “Lord Robert!” she called out frantically.
The guards came crashing in behind her, quickly grabbing hold of her arms. “Right, I tried to tell you nicely,” said one of them, “Now I’m going to have to make good on my threat.”
“No, I have to see Lord Robert!” Anne tugged at them, but her strength was fading fast, it was all she could do to keep hold of Katherine.
“Why do you want to see me?”
The guards swung round to the speaker, carrying Anne round with them. He was a tall, fairly slender man, with black hair and dark eyes. Those eyes widened in shock as he saw the form in Anne’s arms.
“Katherine?” He came closer, a hand reaching out to tenderly touch Katherine’s face. Anne had an irrational urge to bat it away. Unfortunately she didn’t have a free hand.
A surprised guard quickly released Anne. “This is the Lady Katherine?”
Anne rounded on him. “That was what I was trying to tell you before!” she spat furiously. Her head was starting to hurt too and she didn’t have time for fools.
“What’s wrong with her?”
It was Lord Robert speaking again. Anne turned to him, seeing the obvious concern in his eyes. “I don’t know, we got caught in a storm on the way here, and then she just collapsed.”
“We need to get her into bed,” he stated with assurance, “I’ll call for my doctor straight away. Here let me take her.” He held out his arms.
“No! I’ll take her!” Anne pulled Katherine to her chest as if her life depended on it. She was so hot now she could barely think straight. Part of her knew she shouldn’t be speaking to a noble as she was, but if there was one thing she was certain of, it was that she had to make sure Katherine was all right. Lord Robert merely appeared bemused by her reticence to let go. “She is my mistress after all,” added Anne by means of explanation. Of course that was nothing to do with it, but she could hardly tell him why she was so desperate to go with Katherine.
Robert was still studying her curiously. “You don’t look so good yourself,” he noted, “I think it might be better if I held onto her, before you drop her.”
As soon as he pointed it out, Anne could feel her arms starting to shake and weaken. Anne glanced down at Katherine, her heart clutching painfully once more. Reluctantly she offered the fragile body to Lord Robert, knowing it was best for Katherine. As he took her it felt like Anne’s heart was being ripped away with the other woman.
Robert immediately started making for the stairs. “Thank you, we can take it from here.”
“No!” The objection came out far more harshly than Anne had intended. She could see Lord Robert had turned back, looking at her like she might be a bit crazy; she was certainly doing a good job of giving that impression. She realised he could easily have been offended by her tone too, considering she was of a lower class, yet he was being surprisingly patient and understanding. Anne tried to calm her voice, though it was getting harder and harder to focus. Her head was starting to swim, the walls seeming to press in on her. She blinked a couple of times trying to clear the dizzying effect, wiping at her sweaty brow at the same time. “I have to make sure she’s all right.”
“I admire you attention to your duty,” he said kindly, “But she’ll be fine, we’ll look after her now. You go and rest.”
Anne shook her head. “Please, I have to…” The blackness swirling up was so sudden she didn’t even get to finish her sentence. Her whole body went limp, and she flopped onto the hard floor as she passed out.
Katherine floated along, somewhere halfway between sleep and the waking world. She was soaring along with the clouds in the sky, watching the world pass by beneath her, far away, nothing to do with her. Her thoughts drifted lazily along with the meandering trail. They flowed back over time and space to Stratford and seemingly endless summer days when she roamed the fields of the estate without a care in the world. The River Avon was there too, cutting its constant path through the landscape. Many a time she had sat by it with her father, waiting for the fish to bite.
Now somehow she found herself down by it, not recalling how it had happened. She was walking along the bank, able to feel the grass beneath her bare feet. It was slightly damp with dew, and a faint chill tickled at her skin too making her think it was early morning. There was no one else along the river that day and she looked out over the waters, seeing a couple of large boulders amongst the fast flowing current. The spray flew up over them as the river constantly battered the smooth rock.
Suddenly another movement caught her eye and her eyes drifted to the far bank. There was someone else out and about after all. To begin with Katherine couldn’t quite make them out clearly. Slowly she got an impression of a few strands of blonde hair being picked at by the fresh breeze. The figure continued to coalesce. It was a woman. She was just standing, directly opposite Katherine and not moving. Katherine still couldn’t quite see the face, but found herself frozen to the spot too as if mesmerised.
As she watched she felt a strong yearning building inside her. She wanted to go to the other side, despite the natural boundary separating her from the woman. The other woman must have sensed her presence, her head finally turning in Katherine’s direction. A pair of blue eyes latched onto her.
“And who might Anne be?”
Katherine’s eyes shot open, bringing her resoundingly back to the real world. It was stark in its brightness after the dream. She blinked a couple of times before discerning that she was lying in a bed, on the edge of which was perched a man. His lips were held in an amused half-smile as he gazed down at her.
“Robert?” Katherine asked dumbly, as if she couldn’t quite believe it. The name had barely been audible from her parched lips, yet his smile broadened at her recognition. He hardly looked any different to the last time she had seen him. He still had that slightly boyish look, even though he was just past forty now. In all her visions of how their first meeting in nine years might go, this hadn’t been one of the ways she had imagined.
Katherine glanced around the room uncertainly, taking in the familiar surroundings. “I’m at Stratford,” she stated as she got her bearings. Worryingly she had no recollection of getting there. She didn’t remember anything after being by the stream with Anne, certainly not how she came to be lying in one of the rooms at her old home, feeling like death warmed up and wearing a night gown that wasn’t her own. Obviously someone had removed her clothes. Had it been Robert?
“Is it your maid?”
Katherine looked back to Robert in confusion. “What?” she asked stupidly.
“Anne,” he repeated. “You were saying the name over and over. I wondered if it was your maid who was travelling with you.”
“Yes, that’s right,” agreed Katherine, just about lucid enough to remember her cover story. She looked around the room again. Where was Anne? She had obviously brought Katherine the rest of the way to Stratford, yet now she was strangely absent.
Robert could see her worried glances, guessing what she was thinking. “I’m afraid she’s not well,” he explained, “She has the same malaise as you had – a raging fever. She’s downstairs in the servants quarters, resting.”
“What? I have to go and see her.” Katherine tried to rise up only to find her body was less than willing. All her muscles ached alarmingly and she let out a small gasp at the effort of trying to move.
“Steady on,” said Robert, putting a gentle restraining hand on her shoulder, “You shouldn’t be going anywhere.”
Reluctantly Katherine sagged back onto the pillows, closing her eyes and taking a couple of deep breaths. “But is she all right?” she asked, when she had gathered herself. “Is she being cared for?”
“You seem very concerned for your maid.” There was slight suspicion in his tone. “Though I can see why you wouldn’t want to lose her – she was practically dead on her feet when she carried you in here, yet even then she didn’t want to rest until she knew you were all right. Those peasant women certainly are made of hardy stuff.”
“Yes, Anne is very…” Katherine paused. She could see Robert studying her intently, curiosity piqued by the odd relationship between the two women. “…dear to me,” she added finally. She knew it had been the wrong choice of words; it just made it sound even stranger. Why would a noble ever consider any of their servants ‘dear to them’? It just didn’t happen. “She’s been very loyal,” added Katherine, trying to come up with a more plausible explanation for her anxiety.
“It’s all right, you don’t have to justify your concern to me,” Robert said, stepping in to save her, “I’m very close to some of my servants too, they become almost like family don’t they?”
Katherine regarded him curiously. She got the distinct impression he knew more than he was letting on, that he somehow knew exactly why Katherine was worried about Anne. She sincerely hoped she hadn’t been rambling more than just saying Anne’s name while she’d been asleep.
“Anyway, she’s doing fine,” he added, oblivious to her inner concerns, “She just needs rest like you did. But I can check with the doctor if you like?”
That settled, Katherine’s eyes drifted aimlessly around the room once more. She desperately wanted to go to Anne, but instinctively she knew her body wouldn’t make it. She supposed she could ask Robert to carry her down there. However, not only would that be rather undignified, but also it filled her with a strange mix of fear and excitement. She found her gaze had naturally come back to him where he still sat perched next to her. He smiled again when he saw the study. She was reminded of the many times in the past when she had seen that smile directed at her. The years seemed to slip away and it was like it had only been yesterday when they had been two young people in love.
It was Robert who finally broke the silence. “This certainly is a strange way to meet after all these years,” he began, “I’ve been looking forward to seeing you again so much.” The words were said in a much softer voice. The longing that undercut it was plain to hear. Then he seemed to catch himself, switching back to his normal confident tone. “And then you turn up here half-dead - you had me scared witless.”
Katherine smiled at the show of concern. “It’s nice to know you still care.”
“I’ll always care.” The soft tone was back again and the look Robert was giving her was also making Katherine feel slightly uncomfortable. This was all in the past…wasn’t it?
She needed to change the subject fast. “I was sorry to hear about Mary,” said Katherine, settling on the more sombre topic of Robert’s departed wife.
“Thank you,” he answered, “Thankfully her passing was quick and relatively painless. My condolences on your loss too.”
“Thank you.” Katherine always felt faintly guilty when accepting such wishes in regards to Mark. Not that she had killed him herself, but she couldn’t help feeling somehow responsible.
“It was quite a surprise to hear he wasn’t killed on the Crusades after all,” continued Robert, “And even more shocking to hear he met his end so soon after his miraculous return. It must have been terrible for you.”
Katherine tried to force the grieving widow expression onto her face, as she tended to do whenever Mark came up in conversation. As far as everyone else was aware they had still been faithfully married at the time of his death. They certainly weren’t to know she had long since stopped loving him and had found someone that she truly cherished. “I managed to get by,” she said vaguely.
“I’m sure you did,” noted Robert. The smile was twitching at his mouth again and she sensed he was aware her grief wasn’t as genuine as she was trying to make out. He had been one of the few people to question her decision to marry Mark all those years ago, thinking she was doing it more out of a sense of duty and obligation than because she was truly in love with him. The ironic thing was he had been right. Katherine knew now that she had never really been in love with Mark. He had been stable and dependable and a good companion, but now she had Anne she knew that was all it had been.
“So to what do I owe this immense pleasure of seeing you again?” continued Robert, “Is this something else to do with Hugh Coleville? Your original letter was very cryptic – all talk of him being after something from your sister. I didn’t even know that was where he had gone. Needless to say I feel very foolish having employed such an obvious scoundrel.”
Katherine reached out to place a comforting hand on his arm. It was an entirely natural gesture to her, yet once her hand was there it seemed oddly inappropriate. She could feel the muscles of his arm beneath the fine material of his shirt and for some reason there was a fleeting impulse to actually stroke it. She forgot what she was going to say for a moment before she regained her senses. “You weren’t to know,” she managed.
She swiftly removed her hand and looked up into his face, scanning his features and trying to discern if he was being truthful. Was he really unaware of Coleville’s actions? Deep down she felt she could trust him, though whether that was because their history was clouding her judgement she couldn’t tell.
“I sincerely hope he didn’t hurt either of you.” Robert looked genuinely perturbed at the thought of harm coming to her. “If he wasn’t already dead, I’d give him a sound thrashing for causing you such trouble. What was it he wanted from your sister anyway?”
The words almost spilled forth of their own accord, encouraged by recollections of shared secrets in the past. Yet something held her back, common sense overriding any persuasive effects of wistful memories. “Just an object that belonged to my father,” she said evasively, “I’ve since learned that Coleville may not be acting alone and there are more of these objects. I need to find them before any of Coleville’s friends do.”
“And you think one of them might be here?”
“Possibly,” allowed Katherine. She determined that wasn’t revealing too much. She might need Robert’s help and she could hardly go traipsing around his house and estate without giving him some indication of what she was doing. Better to take him in to at least part of her confidence. “Or maybe some clues as to there whereabouts,” she added. “The objects have a…connection to my father, so this seemed like a good place to come to follow the trail.”
Robert nodded. “It all sounds very mysterious, though I sense you’re not telling me everything.” He always had been perceptive. “I can understand that after your experience with Coleville – you have to be careful who you can trust.”
Katherine didn’t want to offend him, but he was partly right. “It’s not that I don’t trust you,” she said, “I just don’t want to get anyone unnecessarily involved in this – the fewer people who know the better.”
“It sounds rather dangerous,” he noted, his face taking on a more concerned look. “Are you sure you should be pursuing this alone?”
“I’m not alone.”
Robert looked at her inquisitively. The words had slipped out before she could stop them. Katherine decided her best option was to not say anything further.
Eventually Robert gave up waiting for her to elaborate. “That’s on a need to know basis too is it?” he deduced.
“Something like that.” He appeared to accept that and Katherine was grateful he wasn’t pressing for details.
“If I can help you in any way you just have to ask,” he offered. “In the mean time you’re free to go anywhere in the house or on the estate as part of your search - I’ll make everyone aware that they should extend you every courtesy.”
Robert levered himself off the bed. Katherine caught the faint sound of joints clicking. Maybe some things did change with time. In her memories he was young and athletic, but even he couldn’t physically cheat the years. “Now I think I should leave you to get some rest.”
Katherine was still reminiscing to herself as he leant forwards. For a startled second she thought he was going to kiss her. Instead his lips were placed delicately on her forehead in a show of seemingly platonic affection. The tiny glint in his eye as he pulled back indicated that might not entirely be the case.
Katherine searched through the drawers, carefully removing each item one at a time so she would know how to replace them the same way. She didn’t want anyone knowing she had been in here after all. As her search continued she grew more frustrated – it had to be in here somewhere, he had put it in here. She pushed her unruly auburn hair back away from her face for the umpteenth time, finally managing to secure it at the back of her head to stop it getting in the way. It would be so much easier if she could get it cut.
“Katherine, is there any reason you’re rifling through my bureau?”
She spun round to see her father at the door. His hands were on his hips. She knew he was trying, and failing, to look stern.
Katherine surreptitiously slid the drawer shut behind her. “I was just looking for…” she searched for something plausible, “…a quill.”
Her father laughed, relaxing his posture at the same time. “Now I know you’re lying.” He started across the room towards her. “Since when has any red-blooded ten-year-old like yourself wanted to stay indoors writing on a day like today? Plus your hardly going to find something like that in here – you’d be better off looking in my study desk.”
He was standing towering over her now. She craned her head up from his midriff so she could look into his warm blue eyes. They were starting to show the signs of age in the wrinkles at their corners, as was his hair that now had a few strands of silver amongst the brown. He eventually knelt down so that his eyes were level with hers. “Now are you going to tell me what you were really looking for?”
She squirmed for a couple of seconds, but she knew it was hopeless trying to lie to him. He always had this knack of dragging the truth out of her without even trying. She resolved that when she grew up, she would learn how to deliver the same look she was receiving now. She hoped she would be able to employ it with equal quiet authority.
“I was looking for your fishing knife.”
Her father’s brow furrowed. “And why would you want that?”
“To go fishing with,” stated Katherine. Sometimes adults could be rather stupid.
“On your own? Or are you meeting that boy again?”
“What boy?” The attempt at innocence was pointless she knew.
“I think you know full well what boy I mean. Robert Ashdown from the village. Don’t think I haven’t heard how you two have been getting up to all sorts of mischief. Only yesterday I had Father Martin here moaning to me about you climbing the yew trees in the churchyard.”
“But they’re so good for climbing, they have all these low branches and when you get to the top you can see right out over the river and near all the way to Leamington…”
Katherine stopped her rambling explanation when she saw the exasperated look from her father.
She hung her head. “Sorry, father, we won’t do it again.”
Two strong hands came out to rest on her shoulders. When she didn’t look up, he gently tilted her head up with a single finger. “Katherine, it’s not that I don’t want you to have any fun. I want you to be happy, and if running around the countryside acting like a boy is what makes you happy for now then who am I to stand in your way. God knows your mother would be appalled to hear me say it, though. She thinks you should be at home learning feminine things like embroidery and cooking. As far as I’m concerned there’s plenty of time for that when you are a woman, without forcing you to do things you don’t want to do now. Unfortunately you’ll soon learn a woman’s place.”
Katherine didn’t answer, wondering what this ‘woman’s place’ was. It didn’t sound like it was somewhere favourable if people forced you to do things against your will. She decided there and then that no one would make her go there.
“But,” continued her father, “I am the lord of the manor and it’s hardly seemly for me to have my tenants coming to me complaining about my wild and wilful daughter and her latest escapades. All I ask is that you try and show a touch more consideration and judgement, please.”
“I will, father, I promise.”
He sighed, accepting the statement, though whether he believed she was capable of upholding it she wasn’t sure. She was determined to prove she could. She didn’t like disappointing him.
“So, you want to go fishing do you?” he asked, switching back to the original subject.
“How about we go together then, tomorrow?”
Katherine bounced eagerly on her feet. “Can we really?” Then reality hit home. “What would mother say though?”
“How about we don’t mention it to her, eh? I’m already in enough trouble with her over showing you how to shoot a bow.”
Katherine recalled her mother’s reaction when she had brought her archery practice inside and managed to skewer one of Phillipa’s dolls right through the centre. Katherine thought it had been most impressive – she had been a good twenty feet away at least. Yet her mother didn’t seem to share her enthusiasm and Phillipa had burst into tears when she’d seen her doll’s fate. Katherine had determinedly held back her own tears when she got a resounding smack for her trouble.
“Right.” Katherine tapped the side of her nose. “It’ll just be our secret.”
The sunlight was streaming in low at the window when Katherine awoke. The beams tracked across the floorboards, picking out the fine dust floating in the air as they did. With a certain surprise she realised it must be morning again, meaning she had been asleep for the best part of a day. Obviously her body needed to do some serious recuperating after her sudden illness. She tentatively sat up in the bed, finding that she felt much more alert and together than she had the day before. It was fortunate she hadn’t blurted out anything too important to Robert in her befuddled state. Not that he couldn’t be trusted, but as she’d said to him the day before she just wanted to careful. It had been odd seeing him after all this time, and yet in a way it was as if nothing had changed. He’d seemed just as she’d remembered him. Take away the few extra lines and grey hairs and it could have been twenty years ago. She wondered if that was why she’d been feeling those odd sensations in his presence. Were they just echoes of the past or were they something else?
With perfect timing the door to the room swung open and Robert crept in carrying a tray. He had tiptoed a few steps when he spotted she was actually awake already.
“Good morning.” His smile was wide as he set the tray down on the bedside table. “How are you feeling today?”
“Much better, thank you.” Katherine eyed the food on the tray. “Is it normal for the Lord himself to deliver his guest’s breakfast?”
Robert grinned as her lowered himself onto the end of the bed at a respectable distance. “No, I think you’re the first to receive that honour.”
Katherine picked up some of the bread. It felt cottony in her mouth as she tried to chew on it and it took a few gulps of water to wash it down. She was acutely aware of Robert watching her the whole time, seemingly fascinated by her every movement.
Katherine decided she should tackle him face on. “What?”
“Sorry, was I staring?” he said apologetically, “It’s just so bizarre seeing you here like this. I like your hair by the way, very daringly short.”
Katherine just about resisted the urge to blush like a girl receiving a compliment from a suitor. “It was Phillipa’s idea,” she confessed. She subconsciously ran her fingers through the bob. It was sticking up at odd angles at the back from where her head had been resting on the pillow and she attempted to smooth it down.
“Ah, I might have known she’d have a hand in it. So do you feel well enough to perhaps take a short walk? A bit of fresh air might do you good.”
Katherine took another bite of bread. “I think I’d be capable of that. Though I’d like to check on my maid first.” Katherine paused for a moment, forcing as much nonchalance into her tone as she could muster. “How is she doing by the way?”
“She’s still full of the fever I’m afraid,” he replied seriously, “She doesn’t seem to be able to shake it off like you did.”
Katherine nodded, not trusting herself to speak for a moment. Suddenly the bread tasted sour in her mouth and she put the last of it back down.
Robert wasn’t slow to pick up on her shift in mood. “Would you like to go now?”
“Yes, thank you.” Katherine made to get up, realising she was still in her nightgown. “What happened to my clothes and belongings?”
“Don’t worry they’re safe and sound in the wardrobe.” Robert got up and walked to the door. “I’ll give you a moment.”
As soon as he’d closed it behind him, Katherine dashed over to the wardrobe and searched through her bags. She was thankful to find that her father’s letter was exactly where it had been. At least it appeared to be exactly where it had been. She shook her head at her own paranoia. Of course no one would have been going through her belongings – why would they?
She quickly pulled on a plain dress and joined Robert in the corridor. He led her through the house and down the stairs to the servants’ area. Each step brought back fresh childhood memories – the whole house was positively alive with them. She couldn’t turn a corner without being reminded of her father or mother or Phillipa. Sometimes she even thought that if she listened hard enough she could hear the traces of their voices in the walls.
Eventually they stopped at one of the doors on the lowest level. Katherine paused for a moment on the threshold and took a couple of deep breaths to try and soothe her racing heart. She knew she couldn’t show anything more than a lady’s concern for her maid in front of anyone else. Inside her emotions might be skittering erratically in all directions but outwardly she had to appear calm and controlled.
Finally she stepped into the small room. Her eyes went immediately to the occupant of the single bed and she had to work hard to hold back a cry of dismay. She was quickly at Anne’s bedside gazing down on the sickly woman. She was deathly white and her cheekbones stood out prominently under the sallow, sunken skin of her face. Anne’s normally lustrous hair fell lifelessly over her pillow, sections of it plastered to her sweaty brow. Katherine took the opportunity to brush some away and feel her brow at the same time. It was frightenly hot.
Katherine steeled her voice before she turned to Robert. “How long has she been like this?”
“Since she got here. Though she’s not always been this placid. Apparently she has bouts of delirium when she starts muttering to herself and thrashing around. The servants have had to restrain her a couple of times.”
Katherine’s eyes flicked to Anne again. It was scary to see her like this. She was normally so full of life, so strong, and yet here she was laid low by illness. Katherine tried not to think about other people she had seen taken by fever, especially not the ones who had never recovered.
“But I wasn’t this sick, was I?” she asked Robert, trying to find some explanation for it. Maybe then it would seem more tangible, like something they could beat with the right medicine.
“No,” he agreed, “It is puzzling.”
Katherine. The call had sounded in her own head, but Anne knew it hadn’t passed her lips. For some reason she couldn’t get those to open. Katherine was standing in the room, talking to a tall, dark-haired man…Lord Robert…that was it.
Anne’s head felt fuzzy, her vision clouding in and out of focus. It was almost like a
dream, with her lying there watching and unable to participate.
Katherine and Robert seemed to be standing very close as they talked. Anne couldn’t make out the words of the conversation though. There was just a constant drone in the background; it hurt her ears. Then Katherine was stroking Robert’s arm, smiling. He smiled back.
No! This wasn’t right. Anne tried to sit up, move, do something, but it was as if she was pinned to the bed by an invisible force. All she could do was allow the sick sensations to well up in her stomach. They only increased as Robert’s arm slipped around Katherine’s waist.
Katherine didn’t resist, allowing herself to be drawn closer until she was pressed up against him. The sickness was up in Anne’s throat now, tight, painful. Katherine tilted her head up, regarding Robert with a look Anne knew only too well. He dipped his head and pressed his lips to hers in a tender kiss.
No! No! Again Anne’s screams went unheard as she slid back into delirium.
Katherine glanced over at the bed, sure she had heard something from Anne. Yet she was still lying there asleep, as she had been the whole time her and Robert had been standing there talking. Robert was still talking now, saying something about Anne’s treatment. Katherine wasn’t really paying attention, keeping one eye on Anne instead. She hoped he hadn’t spotted her distraction.
“Am I boring you?”
Obviously he had. “No, sorry,” she said, “I was just…thinking.”
“You seem quite…distressed by her condition. She’s very special to you isn’t she?”
There it was again – the slightest hint that he knew exactly what their relationship was. Or was she just imagining it? Was she inventing things that weren’t there in her distraught state?
“I would be concerned over any of my staff who were this sick,” she stated. For the briefest of moments she thought about just telling him everything. It would be so good to confide in someone, especially at a time like this, yet she knew she couldn’t. She had to bear this secret and burden herself.
“That’s one of the things I admire about you, your compassion.”
Katherine felt tears welling up inside her at his kind words. She had to get a grip of herself. Katherine wished they were back at Markham, at least then she’d have Friar Tuck’s services available. Here she had to depend on the unknown and she didn’t like it one bit. “What has the doctor given her so far?”
“You know, I’m not entirely sure,” confessed Robert. “But I am sure he’ll make her better in the end,” he quickly added. Katherine wished she shared his certainty. “Father Martin should be here soon so you can talk to him yourself if you like?”
“Father Martin?” The name sparked a memory. “Does he still throw stones at children who climb his yew trees?”
Robert glanced at her for a moment, puzzling at the rather inappropriate comment. Katherine didn’t know why she had made it – she was having trouble controlling her feelings let alone her mouth.
Robert made a small laugh though. “You know I had forgotten all about that. I wonder if the view’s still as good from the top?”
Katherine could tell he was trying to distract her to ease her worries. “I hope you’re not about to go and find out.” Perhaps if she joined in she wouldn’t feel so bad.
Robert shrugged. “I don’t know, it might be worth it to see the expression on the friar’s face as the lord of the manor clambers up one of his trees.”
Despite herself Katherine laughed too as she pictured it. Surprisingly the act actually eased some of her tension. Examining her thoughts and fears, she told herself that she was being silly – of course Anne would be all right. Plenty of people got sick and then got well again. She herself had, hadn’t she?
She resolved that it wouldn’t do either of them any good to sit there worrying all day. Instead she should get on with why they had come there for in the first place. If nothing else it would provide some focus for her otherwise troubled thoughts. Making a conscious effort to think about their search, she suddenly recalled that Anne had also been carrying something they didn’t want anyone else seeing. Her eyes darted round the room, but there was no sign of Anne’s black clothes.
“Is something the matter?” Robert had obviously seen the looks.
“I was just wondering where her clothes are?” The question sounded a bit odd in its own right and she quickly added a reason for asking. “Only she was carrying something for me.”
“Along with your mother’s pendant?”
The colour drained from Katherine’s face as she stared at him. She didn’t say anything, not knowing how best to explain the fact that Anne had something so personal of hers.
“She’s wearing it around her neck,” he pointed out.
Katherine didn’t need the reminder; the blue gem was plainly visible between the open neck of Anne’s nightgown.
“I suppose it’s quite clever,” continued Robert, “Get the maid to wear any precious jewels, just in case you get set upon by outlaws.”
Katherine felt the relief wash over her. “Right, yes, of course,” she readily agreed, “You can’t be too careful on the roads these days with all those outlaws around.” She might have laughed at the irony if her heart hadn’t been hammering so hard.
“Yes, I heard you had some trouble with them last year.”
Katherine was surprised again. “You did? From whom?”
“The Sheriff told me how you were set upon on the way to Nottingham. He’s a dreadful drunk and windbag, but sometimes he comes out with something interesting.”
Katherine digested that. Robert had been talking about her with others. And not just anyone – the Sheriff of Nottingham. Though from the sounds of it he was hardly much of a friend of Robert’s. She was glad to know he still had good judgement.
“I also heard he caught one of them inside the castle, a woman no less, but she managed to escape.”
Katherine gulped nervously, forcing herself to keep her eyes on his face and not look at Anne as she almost involuntarily had. “Yes, it was unfortunate.”
“You’ve not had any similar problems since? This mysterious female outlaw didn’t try anything after that?”
“No,” answered Katherine. At least not anything you might be thinking of!
“Strange that she gave up without getting what she wanted.”
Oh, I think she got what she wanted in the end. Katherine clamped down on her wandering thoughts. “Who knows what motivates these people,” she said dismissively, wanting to get off the subject. It almost seemed like Robert was deliberately pursuing it.
“True, it’s hard for us to get inside the mind of a criminal I suppose. Anyway, I’ll find out what happened to your maid’s clothes for you.”
“Now how about that walk? I can show you just how Stratford’s changed since you were last here.”
“Actually, I was wondering if I might look through some of father’s old rooms, see if it brings back any memories that might help in my search for these objects.”
“Of course, whatever you want. I’m sure you’d like to be alone with your memories so I’ll show you up there and leave you to it if you don’t mind?”
“Not at all.”
Robert held out a hand, indicating for her to leave the room. Katherine desperately wanted to say a proper goodbye to Anne but she could hardly do that with him there watching. So instead she started walking for the door. She’d almost made it out when she pulled up. She just couldn’t leave it that way.
“Hang on a minute,” she said to a bemused Robert. Not explaining further, Katherine went back over to the bed and leant down close so she could whisper to Anne out of Robert’s earshot.
“You’ll get through this, Anne. Your job is to keep fighting, leave the rest to me.”
Her eyes flicked to the door. Robert was standing with his back to her. Quickly she leant forwards and kissed Anne’s fevered lips. “I love you.” Pushing the surge of emotion back down again she forced herself from the room.
Katherine waited by the rear door to the manor house. She glanced nervously around checking for any signs of her mother or sister. Neither of them should be down there, but it would just be typical for them to catch her before she could sneak out with her father. She loved secretly going places with him, like they were sharing something special that no one else knew about or were part of. It would be just them and the fish.
A couple of the servants bustled by on their way to the kitchen, giving her a quick nod as they passed. They were all used to seeing her all over the house and didn’t give her presence or her attire a second thought. Her clothes were not what would normally be deemed suitable for a young girl of ten, but then she wasn’t the suitable sort. She liked practical and when you were going fishing that was trousers. She could hardly go wading around in a river in a long skirt.
It was a shame Robert couldn’t have come too. Katherine liked Robert. He didn’t treat her differently like everyone else on the estate did. All the other children were far too aware of who her parents were, but Robert couldn’t care less if she were the daughter of a lord or a blacksmith. He was a couple of years older than her and always seemed to know the best places to go fishing, or riding or hunting. Though her father had hinted otherwise the day before, she thought he liked Robert too. He did seem to have that charming effect on people – a quick flash of his winning smile and any misdemeanours were quickly forgotten. It was a good job it worked more often than not, or else he would constantly be in trouble.
The whisper came from behind her and she turned to see her father lurking in the shadows.
“Why are you whispering?” she asked at full volume.
“Because I just saw your mother on the stairs.” He took her arm and started heading for the door. “I had to make something up about going to check on the western pasture.”
Katherine giggled to herself. Sometimes she wondered who exactly was in charge of the estate.
A day of searching through some of her father’s old things had yielded few clues to Katherine and she was weary by the time she retired to her room for the evening. However, she’d hardly had time to sit down when a knock had come at her door and Robert had appeared, asking her to join him for dinner. She might almost have thought he had been hiding somewhere and waiting for her return, so prompt was his arrival.
She had considered refusing – she was tired and her worry over Anne made her stomach feel less than ready for food. In fact she’d hoped she might manage to sneak back down to the lower levels and see the young woman unaccompanied at some point during the evening. However, she supposed that she could still do that after dinner – she did need to eat after all, else she would soon be sick again and that would do neither of them any good.
When she had arrived in the great hall she’d been rather surprised to find just Robert sitting at the large table. Katherine had expected that one or two of Robert’s senior knights might have joined them, yet it seemed the lord had other ideas. The smile Katherine received on her entrance made her wonder just what those ideas might be.
Everything seemed friendly enough and the conversation was reasonably inoffensive, and yet Katherine couldn’t help the vague impression that there was something else going on. There was just a certain something in Robert’s eye – a look that seemed so reminiscent of days gone by. Without really realising it, Katherine found herself drinking a bit more ale than perhaps she would normally have done. It didn’t help that thoughts of Anne kept popping into her mind and her anxiety over her condition only fuelled the need to dull her mind.
Fortunately Katherine still had enough wits about her to avoid revealing anything she shouldn’t in regards to either the young woman or the Ares Syndicate. She even managed to steer the conversation onto her father so she could pick Robert’s brains without it appearing too obvious. Without mentioning the Ares Syndicate directly, Katherine discovered that Robert appeared oblivious to any untoward or underhand dealings as far as her father was concerned. Which just went to show he must have been good at fooling more than just Katherine since Robert and her father had been very close in the end. Katherine thought he possibly even considered Robert as the son he’d never had, though at the same Katherine knew she herself had often filled that particular role.
She wondered how shocked Robert would be to discover the truth. She could hear the reverence with which Robert spoke of him and decided she couldn’t be the one to shatter that illusion. Just because her memories had been dirtied, didn’t mean she had to ruin it for Robert too - let him keep his vision of the perfect mentor. As the thoughts of telling him played through her mind, she realised she had to excuse herself from the table soon. The fact that she had even considered divulging the truth as a viable option showed that drink was starting to affect her too much.
“Are you all right?”
Robert was peering curiously at her and Katherine realised she hadn’t spoken for a couple of seconds.
“Yes, sorry, just lost in the past for a moment.”
“I know what you mean – sometimes I just wish I could go back there – everything seemed so much simpler.”
Katherine wondered at the yearning. “Are things bad now then?”
“No, nothing like that,” he quickly replied, “Just…well…”
Katherine waited for him to explain further, since she genuinely wasn’t sure of his point. He took another swig of his own drink. Obviously she wasn’t the only anxious one, though she doubted his nervousness stemmed from the same source.
“Do you sometimes wonder what might have happened…?”
He trailed off as if she should know what he meant, but Katherine still didn’t understand where he was going with the conversation. That made her think it was all the more imperative for her to vacate the room – her brain really must be addled.
He could see her confusion and clarified his wandering thoughts further. “…wondered what might have happened if you and I had…?”
“Oh.” Suddenly all was clear. Katherine didn’t know what else to say for a second. She hadn’t been expecting this turn in the conversation. How had they gone from her father to this? She really wasn’t in any fit state to be discussing something like this.
It was Robert himself who rescued her. “Sorry, I’ve made you uncomfortable, forget I ever said anything. Too much drink and the mind starts getting wistful. You know how it is.”
Katherine merely nodded, though now she found her mind wandering over his original question. Had she ever wondered what might have happened if they had never broken up - if she had married Robert instead of Mark? If she was honest she had to say the answer was yes, she had pondered it.
Not wishing to think about it any more now though, Katherine rose from her chair. “I think it’s time I turned in for the night.”
“Of course, let me see you upstairs.”
Robert didn’t say anything else on the matter as they walked up the steps and along the corridors to her room, though Katherine could feel the shift in the atmosphere. The question still hung between them, weighty and unanswered. Katherine was grateful when she closed the door behind her, putting the thick wood as an extra barrier.
She didn’t want to think about Robert anymore anyway, she was too concerned with Anne. A couple of times during the meal she’d thought about making her excuses and going to see the young woman, but then had to consider what that excuse would be. If she’d said she was going to bed, but then Robert found her wandering round the house, it would have been rather suspicious. In the end she’d decided to wait for the end of dinner, but hadn’t banked on it lasting quite so long or Robert following her to her room afterwards. Katherine sat down heavily on the bed, resolving to wait a few minutes to allow Robert to retire and fall asleep before she snuck downstairs. Unfortunately the long day and the affect of the ale took its toll before then. Her eyes started to droop and it wasn’t long before she collapsed down onto her bed in a deep sleep.
Katherine’s head pounded a little as she ran her fingers along the edge of the sturdy desk with great reverence. The ache was just one more reason why drinking too much strong ale really wasn’t a good idea. As her fingers played across the surface, she considered that it was funny how things changed. When she had been a young girl she had hated sitting in this room on such beautiful mornings – when the sun was shining bright outside and tempting her out into its warmth. Yet now she found herself filled with a kind of wistful longing for those simple days of childhood.
She had looked around a couple of the other rooms at the house the day before, but had been procrastinating over her father’s old study, perhaps afraid of the memories it would bring back. Lowering herself into one of the seats, she could almost picture him sitting opposite. He would have pretended to be engrossed in his own work, reading the latest report of tax collections or some such. However, if she was quick she used to be able to glance up and catch him watching her with quiet affection.
Katherine shook herself out of her memories, and reminded herself what she was there for. She was in a good mood and didn’t want to spoil it by thinking too long about her father and what he had been hiding from her at the time. The optimism of her mood had been sparked by another visit to see Anne that morning. Katherine had felt incredibly guilty for falling asleep before she’d had the chance to visit Anne the night before, and had dashed down there almost as soon as she’d woken. She hadn’t cared if anyone saw her, though it was unlikely at such an early hour.
Anne had still been unconscious, but had looked much better than the day before. There had been a bit of colour in her cheeks and, though she was still hot, her fever had subsided. The relief Katherine had felt was immense. She’d actually felt a little giddy as the powerful emotions surged up, and she’d had to sit down by the bedside. She’d remained there for a couple of hours, gently talking to Anne while tenderly stroking her hair. There had been no response from Anne, but it had been strangely comforting to Katherine to think that the other woman might have been able to hear her words of love in some way. Katherine had only stopped when she was joined in the room by Father Martin.
He’d ambled over to check on his patient, and Katherine had quickly pulled back to a more respectable distance, hoping he hadn’t spotted the way she’d been holding Anne’s hand prior to his entry. As he’d checked on the young woman, Katherine had gotten the chance to question him on her progress. He’d agreed that Anne was on the road to recovery and that it would only be a matter of time before she awoke. However, he’d also noted that her recovery would only be possible with extended rest, and that Katherine should let her get some now. Katherine wasn’t keen to leave, despite the good news about Anne’s prospects. Yet Father Martin was quite insistent. In the end he’d practically had to throw her out of the room.
Standing in a drafty corridor alone, Katherine had supposed there was nothing to do but carry on with the task they had come to perform in the first place. She was convinced that another one of the Ares objects was secreted somewhere at Stratford. The complex location diagram hinted as much. Unfortunately she hadn’t worked out what the object actually was and was hoping for some divine inspiration as she had wandered the multitude of rooms.
Eventually that aimless wandering had led her to her current location in her father’s study. The top drawer of the desk was stiff as she slid it out, like it hadn’t been opened in years. Robert had mentioned that he’d basically left a lot of the rooms as they were after he’d taken over the manor. There were over twenty rooms in the house itself, not to mention various outbuildings, and he hardly needed to make use of them all. The drawer itself was empty, though, having long since been cleared of its contents.
There was a knock at the door and Katherine called out admittance to whoever was there. It was no surprise when Robert entered, favouring her with another of his beaming smiles.
“I thought I might find you in here.” He joined her at the desk. His fingers absently trailed along the surface as Katherine’s had done moments before. “Did you find anything of interest yet?”
Katherine shook her head. “No, it’s empty as far as I can see. You wouldn’t know where the contents went would you?”
Robert thought on it for a moment. “They might have been put away in one of the storage rooms. I have to say I didn’t sort through all of these rooms myself – Mary did some of it with the help of the servants. Do you want to go and take a look?”
“That would be good, thank you.”
Katherine hardly needed to be led along the corridors of the house since she knew them like the back of her hand. She even knew of a few secret passageways and staircases that had been incorporated as the house grew over the years with new sections being haphazardly added. Yet it wasn’t quite the same. Every now and then she would catch sight of a new piece of decoration, or an open door to a room that had entirely different contents to the last time she saw it. It was only natural some things would be different but it was still slightly disconcerting, like someone had been in her home moving things around while she was out.
When they reached the spiral stairs, Robert paused to allow her to descend first. “You might like to know I spoke to Father Martin,” he mentioned as she navigated the narrow steps. “And he says you’re maid is doing much better.”
“Yes, I already saw her this morning.”
“Oh really?” Katherine could almost hear the raised eyebrows behind her. “Was that before or after breakfast?”
Katherine realised she really should consider her words more carefully when discussing Anne. Her degree of comfort with Robert seemed to lead to things slipping out that would best remain private. She contemplated lying for a moment but thought better of it. “Before,” she confessed.
Luckily Robert seemed more amused than anything else. “Don’t let any of my servants find out you treat yours with such a personal touch – they’ll all be wanting to go home with you!”
Katherine stopped at the foot of the stairwell. “I doubt that,” she replied, “I’ve already had one of your maids telling me what a wonderful lord you are. She also dropped some rather unsubtle hints that you had been lonely all on your own in this big house and that you needed a ‘good woman’ to come and look after you.”
“It’s true – I do!”
Katherine looked doubtfully at him. “You don’t play the needy suitor very well, you know.”
“Damn, I’ll have to work on that then.” He started walking again, Katherine falling into step beside him. “Maybe you could give me some pointers where I’m going wrong?”
Katherine thought on it for a moment, something in his tone told her he wasn’t entirely joking anymore. “Are you really after a new wife?”
“Maybe. Maybe just someone to offer a bit of companionship, someone to share things with.”
She stopped to pat his arm in a reassuring gesture. “I’m sure you’ll find someone, if that’s what you want.”
His eyes fixed on her, and she suddenly got the impression that he already had someone in mind. Or was that just her mind playing tricks on her after the words of the night before? The heat started bubbling up in her, right up to her face. She swiftly removed her hand and tried to make light of it, not really knowing where the odd sensation had come from. “Anyway, here we are.” She was thankful they had reached their destination and opened the door without waiting for permission.
The room was packed with boxes and crates, some of them stacked almost up to the low ceiling. Robert could see her looking aghast at the disorder. “Sorry, it could take a while to find what you’re looking for,” he said, “Would you like a hand?”
Katherine’s eyes scanned the masses of containers. “That would be good. Though I’m not really sure what I’m looking for, anything that belonged to my father may be of interest.”
“I’ll show you whatever I find then and you can decide.”
They each moved to a corner of the room, which was no small feat. Katherine had to clamber over several weighty trunks before she started sifting systematically through the contents of the room. The smell of musty old paper greeted her as she prised open the lid of a small trunk. She wrinkled her nose before peering inside to find some old estate paperwork. Her father never had liked to dispose of anything and she realised with some dismay that they could be there for days and still not find anything that might lead them to the Ares object.
Katherine sat herself down and prepared for the hours that lay ahead. Even the most mundane piece of paper brought back fresh memories and she had to remind herself not to get distracted – she was looking for something in particular. Anything that displayed either the symbol of the Syndicate or the strange writing was what she was hoping to see.
The repetitive task allowed her mind to wander and she found it drifting to the conversation with Robert in the corridor. The more she tried to ignore the questions it had generated, the more she wanted to ask them. It was like an infernal itch you couldn’t help scratching even though you knew the outcome would probably be bad. In the end she gave up her internal battle. “What you said before, about wanting someone to share things with…is it really that lonely here?”
Robert’s dark eyes fixed on her from the other side of the room. “Is it so hard to believe? It’s been two years since Mary passed away now and it’s not like I have any children.”
Katherine hadn’t even thought of that before now, but now realised that was odd in itself. She considered that maybe they’d had similar problems to her and Mark. She certainly didn’t know of many nobles who would actively seek not to have children. She supposed she could ask, but thought that might be overstepping the boundaries of friendship a bit too much.
However, it seemed he could see her internal thought processes without her having to make them known. “We wanted to,” he added, “But it never happened. There were a couple of…close things…” His voice suddenly caught and he averted his eyes for a moment to compose himself. “Was it…was it the same for you and Mark?”
Katherine really didn’t want to be talking about her situation. It wasn’t like she could do anything about it now. “Something like that,” she said evasively, “Though I never…you know…”
The conversation was getting increasingly personal and awkward and Katherine wished she had never started it – that itch had proved more trouble than it was worth. Katherine turned back to the latest batch of papers, keeping her back to Robert to indicate the topic was closed. He took the obvious signal and continued on too, the pair of them working in silence. As the time passed she let the conversation and tension slip to the back of her mind, thinking it best to keep it blank instead.
Katherine had lost track of time completely as one item after another passed through her hands. When Robert eventually came over and placed a hand on her shoulder she almost jumped out of her skin, so engrossed was she.
“Found anything yet?”
Katherine ran a hand through her hair in exasperation. “Not a thing. How about you?”
“I thought I’d bring it all over in one go.” He placed a heap of papers and items on top of the nearest flat-topped trunk. “There’s rather a lot.”
Katherine sighed and picked aimlessly at the pile of parchment. “We could be here until Christmas!”
“Your father certainly was a hoarder.”
Katherine laughed. “He hated throwing anything away, that’s for sure.”
“I know,” agreed Robert, “I remember him being horrified when I wanted to get rid of a broken sword.”
“I bet he wanted you to repair it instead.”
“Too right! I spent hours in the smithy trying to bang that thing back into shape, but I didn’t dare disregard the lord of the manor after all. It was only when he found me still in there the next morning that he had to concede that maybe it was unsalvageable.”
Katherine raised her eyebrows. “That does surprise me.”
He leant in, raising his hand to speak behind it, even though they were the only people in the room. “Between you and me I wouldn’t be surprised to find it in here!”
Katherine laughed at the accuracy of the assessment – she wouldn’t be in the least surprised either. Robert was chuckling to himself too as they both thought back on the man who’d had a profound impact on both their lives. However, when the laughter stopped there was a strange awkward moment as they stared at each other in silence. Katherine couldn’t quite define the look in Robert’s eyes, but she began to feel herself getting decidedly warm again.
Suddenly Robert stood up. “I don’t know about you, but I could do with some fresh air.”
It was as if he’d read her mind and Katherine gratefully accepted the offer of escape from the oppressive atmosphere.
“That’s it! You’ve almost got him!”
Katherine thought her father’s calls of encouragement were more off-putting than anything else as she tried in vain to capture the elusive fish. She flung her spear into the water once more but it was gone, it’s silvery form disappearing back into the depths.
“Oh, bad luck.”
She turned round and favoured him with an annoyed look. He merely laughed. She supposed she did look pretty ridiculous, standing knee deep in the river with her bedraggled hair falling about her face. Despite herself she started to chuckle too. He offered his hand as she made her way to the bank, and she clambered out of the water.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get it.”
“How about we go further downstream? I’ve heard there’s a great spot for trout not far from here.”
Her father raised his eyebrows. “And who told you that?” Katherine didn’t answer. “Let me guess, it was Robert right? I bet he didn’t tell you that the currents are also deadly, one misstep and it’ll be your last.”
“I can swim,” Katherine reminded him.
He sighed, a well-used sigh of exasperation. “Yes, another thing I probably shouldn’t have taught you.”
“Well I’m glad you did,” she stated obstinately.
Her father just rolled his eyes and took up his own spear. “Perhaps I should show you how it should be done.”
Katherine plonked herself down on the grass as he started to wade out into the river. His eyes were focussed on the water, searching for the slightest movement. She watched intently for a couple of minutes but she soon grew bored of the inaction. Katherine yawned and started looking distractedly around her. Up in the sky there were only a few clouds dotted across the blue. Katherine squinted at one of them. If you looked just the right it resembled a nice fat trout, the like of which could be found downstream if only her father wasn’t so stubborn.
However, he was still standing rigidly in exactly the same spot. Katherine realised she could probably go downstream, catch her fish and be back before he had got anywhere near catching one himself. She got to her feet and waited to see if he noticed. He didn’t move a muscle.
Satisfied he was distracted enough, Katherine slipped into the undergrowth and made her way downstream. She waited until she was out of sight round a bend before she came back out onto the open bank and started running for the bountiful waters. They were just as Robert had described them to her, marked by two large boulders in the river that indicated the start of a faster flowing section.
Katherine lowered herself down into the shallows where it was relatively calm. The cold water immediately seeped through her boots and she flinched for a second as she got used to the chilly sensation. Then she tentatively started out into the current. She used her spear as a stick to rest on as she warily tested each footfall before she placed her weight down. There were many slippery rocks hidden under the surface.
She was about a third of the way out into the river when she saw a large silvery object slipping past her legs. Katherine cried out in excitement – the trout was massive! She raised her spear and carefully ploughed on. The water was up to her thighs and getting deeper with each step but she kept going. Another fish darted past and she lunged for it. Her spear skewered it straight through the centre, and Katherine grinned smugly to herself. The smile was quickly gone when her momentum carried her forwards and her left foot shot out from under her as it slipped over a rock.
She hit the water in an ungainly sprawl, her head going immediately under as she lost her footing completely. Then suddenly she was being swept along in the river, tossed around as she tried to right herself. She grimly held onto her spear and trophy, but the riverbed seemed elusive beneath her feet in the deep water. Finally discarding the weapon, she managed to get her head above water. Spray hit her in the face as it splashed off the boulders that littered her course ahead. One of them loomed up and before she could steer herself out the way she was crashing into it at full speed. Katherine cried out as her shoulder smashed into the unyielding rock.
The pain flared in her arm as she struggled for fresh air. Katherine had a second to curse her stupidity before she was hauled unceremoniously up to the surface. She let out a spluttering cough and tried to crane round to see her rescuer. They were right behind her but there was too much spray to make them out properly. The person dragged her to the shallows where she gratefully lowered her feet onto solid ground and stood up. She found a familiar pair of brown eyes regarding her and a roguish smile splitting the boy’s face. He reached out to take her arm and help her up the bank.
Katherine brushed Robert’s hands aside, stumbling up the mud under her own steam. “I could have got out myself!”
Robert laughed as he clambered nimbly up behind her. “Sure, of course you could.”
Katherine glanced at him, seeing that he was still grinning broadly. Damn him and that smile – how were you supposed to stay indignantly angry when faced with it?
“You’re welcome by the way,” he added.
Katherine merely made a grimacing smile in return. She hated feeling indebted to anyone, especially her cocky young friend. Perhaps she could engineer some peril that she could rescue him from. Then they would be even.
Katherine swung round to see her father dashing along the bank in their direction. As he reached them he took in her sodden appearance. “Are you all right, what happened?” His hands were upon her, frantically checking she was unharmed.
“Yes, I’m fine,” she reassured him, thinking it best she not mention her aching shoulder.
Once she had relieved his immediate anxiety, his eyes darkened. “What are you doing here? I thought I told you it was too dangerous to fish here?”
“You did but…”
He quickly cut her off. “But what? But you knew better as usual?” He turned to Robert. Katherine could see a small vein pulsating on her father’s temple as his anger bubbled under the surface. “Was this your idea?”
“Yes, sir, it was my fault.”
Katherine’s eyes shot to Robert in surprise. What the hell was he doing?
Robert continued on. “If anyone should be punished it should be me.”
Katherine stared dumbly for a moment before she found her voice. “That’s not true,” she stated, waiting for her father to shift his angry gaze away from Robert and to her. “He’s just covering for me. It was all my own doing. I thought I’d catch some fish and show you I could do it. All Robert did was save me from my own foolishness.”
Her father’s gaze was back on the willowy boy. “Is this true?”
Robert made a quick verifying glance in Katherine direction before answering. “Yes, sir. I just happened to be walking past when I saw Katherine fall in.”
“Then I guess I should be grateful to you.” Her father extended his hand.
“Do you need a hand?”
Robert was standing down on the riverbank with his hand outstretched. Katherine reluctantly took it and allowed him to guide her down the slope to the edge of the Avon. The last thing she needed was to trip on her dress and tumble down it because she was too proud to accept help. However, her momentum carried her up against him and she quickly stepped away again to put a more fitting distance between them.
“You could have worn your trousers you know,” he said, “I wouldn’t have minded.” He leant in closer to whisper. “Actually I thought they were kind of sexy.”
Katherine quickly sat down on the grass to avoid any temptation to blush, wondering at the inclination. She looked out over the fast flowing river as Robert joined her in silent contemplation of it. The sun caught it at odd angles, occasionally reflecting up into her face so she had to squint to continue looking. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Robert’s profile as he did likewise, the faint breeze picking at his dark fringe. “Do you remember that day you pulled me out of the river here?” She kept her eyes deliberately trained forward.
“One doesn’t tend to forget rescuing a beautiful damsel in distress.”
Katherine punched him on the arm for the sarcastic tone. He rubbed it indignantly. “What? Can I help it if you still looked stunning as a soggy ten-year old?”
Katherine rolled her eyes. “Oh stop it! I looked like a drowned rat and you know it.”
“No, I would say more of a drowned fox.”
Katherine poked her tongue out at him. The childish gesture immediately made her feel like she was right back in the past. All they needed now was for her father to come bustling along the riverbank and the moment would be complete.
“I seem to recall a similar reaction then,” said Robert, “I half expected you to push me back in the river for my trouble!”
Katherine chuckled at the gentle teasing. “I could have saved myself, you know. However, I guess it’s long overdue for me to say thank you anyway.”
“You’re welcome,” he said with a dip of the head. “I only did it for one reason though.”
Katherine looked inquisitively at him. The sun caught his brown eyes and she found herself staring into them as he edged closer on the grass.
“I was hoping to get the customary thank you that a knight gets for saving a lady…”
Katherine was swept back over thirty years like they had never happened. She found herself naturally leaning closer too. “A lady’s favour?” The question came out as little more than a whisper.
“A lady’s kiss.”
Robert’s lips were mere centimetres from her own. Katherine could feel his breath, hear his rapid breathing. Her own lips parted automatically in response. He was only a hairs breadth away and she gazed into his brown eyes. Brown eyes…deep brown eyes…
Something stirred in her mind…this was wrong…the eyes were wrong…the person was wrong…
Suddenly Katherine pulled back, shocked out of the moment by a sharp reminder of reality. Robert almost fell on his face as he went to close the final gap between them. Meanwhile Katherine was already on her feet and he quickly followed.
Robert tried to still her as she moved agitatedly about. “What? What’s wrong?” he asked, “I thought you…”
Katherine stopped to look at him as he trailed off, seeing that he was genuinely confused. To her horror she realised she probably had encouraged him. If she looked at her behaviour over the past couple of days she could see how she had been flirting with him. Some of it had probably been subconscious, but she was honest enough to admit that some of it had been deliberate. Was it some way to show she could still attract a man if she wanted?
She suddenly felt cheap and not a little guilty. Anne was lying unconscious back at the manor house and here she was throwing herself at an old flame in some pathetic attempt to prove her desirability to others. As if she needed a man to reinforce that. Wasn’t the fact that Anne was utterly devoted to her enough?
Katherine paused at the door, almost afraid to go inside the room beyond. It was an unfamiliar sensation, particularly given that on the other side lay Anne. Yet Katherine was fearful due to the events of earlier on the riverbank. Robert had apologised profusely over any misunderstanding and had seemed almost as mortified as Katherine herself over the incident. He had wanted to escort her back to the house but she had insisted on coming alone. Her annoyance at herself had only built as she neared, and by the time she had reached Anne’s resting place she had come to the conclusion that she had been a bit of an idiot.
Knowing she had only herself to blame for her feelings of guilt, she forced her hand onto the doorknob and turned it. Anne was still lying in the bed and Katherine swallowed hard against the lump in her throat as she approached the bedside.
She made a quick check of the door behind her to make sure it was firmly shut before she allowed her fingers to snake out and brush tenderly across Anne’s face.
“I wish you were awake…”
She trailed her index finger across Anne’s lips, recalling how close she had come to succumbing to Robert’s charms. A fresh wave of guilt swept over her. She tried to console herself with the thought that nothing had happened, but it was cold comfort. She had encouraged him, and, though it took two people to create such a situation, she was the one who had someone else; someone else that she should have been thinking of.
“I’ve been stupid,” she said to the unresponsive woman. Katherine tried to assess and put into words why it had gotten so far, though she wasn’t entirely sure herself. “I’ve let myself be carried along on a wave of remembrance and forgotten what we’re meant to be doing here. Perhaps I wanted it in a way – to be taken back to a time when things seemed so much simpler, a time when I didn’t have to worry about evil Syndicates and deadly weapons, a time when Robert and I were something more than friends…”
Katherine waited, half expecting a reply but there wasn’t even the slightest flicker from Anne’s serene face. If Anne had been awake she doubted she would have received a similarly passive reception.
“Not that anything happened,” she added as if she was having a real conversation with the young woman. It felt rather odd to be talking to Anne when she obviously couldn’t hear a word Katherine was saying. Yet it also felt good in a way to unburden herself. “But I should never have allowed it to get so far. Maybe I liked the sense of flattery a bit too much. It felt good to know that someone might still desire me even after all that time and I think part of it was that I wanted to see how far those feelings might go. It was wrong to play with him and it was certainly wrong to play with you. Not that you know, yet, but I’m sorry anyway. I want you to know that’s all it was - something from the past. Here and now for forever more it’s you that I want, it’s you that I love.”
Again there was no answer. Katherine didn’t know what she was expecting – the other woman to miraculously awake and allay her fears? She reached out again to brush her hand through Anne’s soft golden hair. Katherine closed her eyes to bring to mind the many times she had done it before when Anne had been very much awake. Her throat became tight as the mental picture went on and Katherine had to cough to herself to rein in the tears that threatened. She couldn’t have someone coming in and finding her blubbing over someone who was supposedly just a servant.
Taking a deep breath she stood up, hovering over the bed for a second to see if there was any sign of anything from Anne. When there was no change in her expression Katherine bent lower to place her lips on Anne’s. They were dry and cracked but Katherine didn’t care - these were the lips she should be kissing.
It was with great reluctance and a heavy heart that she finally straightened up. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” As she placed a final parting kiss on Anne’s forehead, she hoped by then there might be some change in her condition. Suddenly all she wanted was for Anne to wake so they could leave and go home.
Father Martin waited until Katherine had turned round the end of the corridor before he emerged from his hiding spot and crept into Anne’s room. He was glad to see she was still unconscious. He’d left it a bit longer this time and had worried she might stir before he got back there. His fears only grew when he’d reached the door and heard Katherine’s voice from inside. He’d lingered at the door, pressing himself up against it to listen to her words. He’d waited long enough to verify that there was no reply from the woman in the bed before he’d disappeared into his hiding place.
Katherine’s one-sided conversation only confirmed what the priest already knew, but had scarcely believed – that the noble lady was in some sort of unnatural relationship with the peasant woman. As if the class difference wasn’t bad enough, Katherine dared to make a mockery of god with her liaison. If he’d felt in the slightest bit remorseful for his actions, he could comfort himself with the knowledge that it was god’s will he was enforcing as well as that of his masters. God would want to put a stop to such an abomination of a relationship.
It would only be a few more doses and then the young woman would be dead in a seemingly natural way. He would tell everyone how she had suddenly deteriorated, the fever returning and claiming her. No one would be any the wiser. Even if they were suspicious, and he thought particularly of Katherine, then they were hardly likely to accuse a man of God of any wrongdoing.
Father Martin took the bottle he was carrying over to the bedside table. He noticed his hands were shaking as he attempted to pour some of its green contents into the waiting glass. Surely he wasn’t anxious or guilty about this? It wasn’t his idea after all – they wanted him to do it. It wasn’t his place to question them.
Suddenly a hand shot out and latched onto his wrist. He yelped in shock and dropped the glass on the floor where it shattered across the floorboards.
“What are you doing to me?”
The voice from the bed was ragged. Father Martin looked down to see the woman’s blue eyes were upon him, staring up at him in a beseeching look. They were bloodshot and it looked like she was having trouble focussing on him.
The priest tried to compose himself. “Nothing,” he replied hoarsely. He licked his lips and tried again with more assurance. “I’m the doctor, I’m just trying to make you better.”
Her grip on his arm weakened. “You are?” She shook her head and closed her eyes as if she was trying to remember something. “No, this isn’t right…you….you…were forcing me to swallow something.” She rubbed at her temple having let go of him now.
“You must be confused.” He picked up the bottle. “It’s just medicine, to make you well again.”
Just as he got close to her lips with it, her eyes shot open again. They widened when she saw the bottle hovering close by, and she made a desperate grab for it. But she was weak from the illness and the poison. Father Martin managed to get hold of her arms with one of his hands. He forced them down and out of the way, kneeling on her chest at the same time to pin her to the bed. “It’s for your own good.” He brought the bottle to her lips. “Just swallow it like a good girl.”
The woman spat up a couple of mouthfuls as he tried to pour it down her throat. “No! Get off me!” Her head thrashed from side to side as she dodged his continued attempts.
Father Martin was getting angry. There was a mess all over the room and bed now and the longer he stayed, the more chance someone would come in and wonder what the hell was going on. He drew back his hand and slapped her hard across the face. That brought an abrupt halt to her swaying head.
Seizing the moment, Father Martin swiftly poured some more of the greeny liquid into her mouth and jammed her jaw shut. She gagged and wriggled a few times but he held on firmly. Finally she was forced to swallow. Then he was up off the bed and wiping the remnants of poison off his robes in disgust. The woman coughed and spluttered but it would do her no good. Already her eyes were starting to droop and in a couple more seconds she was still once more.
Katherine snuggled into the blankets wrapped around her shoulder, glad for the warmth after her earlier dunking in the river. There was still a touch of dampness in her hair as she ran her hand through it.
A pair of comforting hands came to rest on her shoulders. “Feeling warmer now?”
She craned her head round to see her father behind her. Fortunately he appeared to have calmed down completely now. The process had started not long after they’d left Robert to come home. Her father had started berating her again on the walk back to the house, but his anger soon evaporated when he saw how she was shivering and trying desperately to hide it.
He came round to sit next to her in front on the fire. He reflexively stuck out his own hands to warm them. She could tell he was building up to something.
“You need to be more careful,” he began slowly. Katherine steeled herself for the telling off. “You can’t beat the odds all the time – you need to pick your challenges and battles. And trying to best the River Avon is not a wise one.”
Katherine didn’t look him in the eye though she knew he was right. Still it was hard to admit her error.
“One day your stubborn streak is going to get you into real trouble,” he continued, “And you won’t always have someone around to save you like today.”
She exhaled slowly before finally looking to him. “I know, father. I am sorry. It was stupid of me to disregard you.”
He smiled, making a small rueful laugh behind his lips. “As long as you can admit your mistakes there’s hope for you yet. We all make them sometimes.”
Something in his tone piqued her interest. “Even you?”
He paused for a moment, his eyes drifting away to look out the dark window. She wondered what had bought on the contemplative look. Had he made some error of judgement in the past that he regretted?
“Even me,” he said quietly. He turned back to her. His eyes were full of sadness. “Perhaps more than you’ll ever know.”
Katherine felt slightly unnerved by the show of vulnerability for her father. If she didn’t know better, she would have sworn there were a few tears welling up in the corners of his eyes. What could be such a terrible mistake as to cause them? Before she could ponder it, or even ask, he had shaken it off, returning to the events of the day.
“I have to say I was impressed by your young friend, Robert. I think I may have misjudged him. He strikes me as a resourceful and upstanding boy.”
“Does that mean I can play with him more often?”
He laughed at her daring. Katherine was grateful he seemed to be back to his normal self. “I suppose so,” he allowed, “Though I was actually thinking I might put his talents to better and more focussed use.”
Katherine looked at him in bemusement.
“William needs a new squire, so I thought I might offer Robert the position. Give him something to concentrate his energies on.”
Katherine wasn’t sure she liked the idea. The squire’s life was a hard one – always running after their master, having to be up at the crack of dawn and work to the close of day. She would probably actually see less of Robert even if he was stationed at the manor house. Yet she had to concede it could be a rewarding life in the end, especially for someone from such lowly beginnings as Robert. If he carried out his duties well, he would be trained as a knight and eventually become one.
She set aside any of her personal misgivings. “I think it’s a great idea.”
Her father didn’t question the comment, though he looked as if he didn’t quite believe her. “Do you think he will accept the offer?” he asked instead.
Katherine knew Robert was intelligent and not a little ambitious. “I’m sure he will.”
“Good. I’ll speak to William tomorrow.” His face took on a softer look, the orange glow from the fire rippling across his strong features. “So has this put you off fishing then?”
“Of course not!” cried Katherine. “Next time I’ll just be sure to pick a better spot.”
The sound of his laughter seemed to fill up the whole of her room with more warmth than the fire could manage. “I should have known a near drowning wouldn’t have been enough to discourage you. I tell you what, if you promise to be careful, I’ll even let you have the knife next time.”
Katherine edged closer on her seat in excitement, the blanket slipping off her shoulders. “Really?”
Her father grinned at her eagerness. “Yes, really.”
He reached inside his thick vest and pulled out the item in question. “Why don’t you hang onto it for now, until our next trip?”
Katherine couldn’t quite believe he was letting her have his prized knife. She carefully took it from him, almost afraid to touch it in case she somehow damaged it. “I’ll take good care of it.”
“I’m sure you will.” He rose from his seat and leant forward to tenderly pull the blanket back up round her shoulders. He placed a small kiss on the top of her head. “I love you, Katherine.”
“I love you too, father.”
There was one final smile before he left the room. Katherine opened up the blanket again so she could look at the knife in her hands. Despite its deadly purpose it seemed somehow elegant. The ornate carving on the hilt only added to that sense and she looked closer at it now. She’d never held it long enough to study it before, but now she could see that the carving was actually writing of some kind. She tried to read it but it was in a language she didn’t recognise. It certainly wasn’t Latin or English, and she knew enough French already to know it wasn’t that either. The words spiralled round the handle and down to the base of the knife. Turning it over she could see that there was another carving there too – an odd five pointed pattern.
Shrugging to herself Katherine got up and went over to her bed. She tucked the knife under her pillow and lowered herself onto the soft down, soon finding the world of sleep.
The sound of a bird twittering close to her window roused Katherine from her slumber earlier than she might have hoped. A quick glance outside revealed the offender to her. A starling was dancing merrily across the roof to the main hall, oblivious to the deathly look it was receiving from one of the windows above. The lowness of the sun over the roof confirmed it wasn’t much after dawn.
Katherine briefly contemplated trying to go back to sleep, but decided on a better use of her time. It was early enough that few people would be around and hopefully no one would see her visiting Anne’s room. She pulled on some clothes and carefully opened her door, knowing it had a tendency to creak if yanked open too swiftly. Her assessment of the likelihood of meeting someone proved correct, and she made it to Anne’s door without passing anyone else. However, she found the door itself was slightly ajar. Was someone else already here?
She wondered whether she should wait and see if anyone came out, or try and surreptitiously poke her head round the door. While she deliberated she caught the sound of a voice from inside.
“Just one more sip, come on.”
It was Father Martin. Katherine puzzled over the earliness of his visit. She knew he was taking a particular interest in Anne’s well-being but this was just a touch too dedicated.
“No! Let go!”
Anne’s frail, beseeching cries drilled into Katherine, seizing her heart in an icy grip. Katherine immediately flung the door open. The sound of it thumping into the wall caused the priest to swing round in surprise. A few drops of liquid spilled from the bottle he held close to Anne’s mouth. The young woman had her left hand on the father’s wrist, trying to hold him back. Her other arm was pinned under the man’s knee.
“What in god’s name do you think you’re doing?” demanded Katherine, her anger quickly flaring on seeing the sight and swamping her relief at seeing Anne was awake at last.
The priest glanced once from Katherine to Anne and then suddenly launched the bottle in Katherine’s direction. She dodged out the way and it smashed on the wall behind her. The cleric was already darting for the door by the time she looked back up. Katherine threw herself at him, catching the running man unawares and thumping him into the wall by the door. She grabbed the front of his robes in her fist and used her body weight to keep him in place. “Answer me! What was in that bottle?”
“I’m not telling you anything.” The priest had a condescending sneer on his face. It just made Katherine want to hurt him more than she already did, which was a lot.
“Was it poison?” Katherine jabbed him into the hard stone once again.
He laughed, Katherine assuming that was an affirmative. “You both disgust me.”
The out of place comment made Katherine start back. The priest seized upon the momentary opportunity and punched her in the stomach. Katherine doubled over as her breath spluttered from her lungs, letting go her grip on the man. He wasted no time running out the door.
Katherine hesitated, torn between chasing after him and going to check on Anne. The young woman caught her eye, a quick communication flashing between them. “Go on – get him!”
Katherine stalled for another second before she dashed from the room. She could still hear the man’s footfalls down the corridor and she sprinted after him, galvanised by a mounting desire to catch him and hurt him as he had obviously been hurting Anne. And here she had been thinking Anne had been ill all this time, when in fact the priest had been poisoning her under their noses.
She guessed he would be heading for the nearest exit and rather than following on down the stairs at the end of the passage, she ducked round a column and down the semi-hidden flight of steps there. With any luck she would beat him to the door this way. As she came barrelling out of the concealed entrance at the bottom she almost ran right into Robert.
She ignored him as she tried to gauge if she had beaten her quarry.
“What’s going on?” asked Robert.
Father Martin appeared at the end of the passageway and immediately saw them blocking his path. Katherine pointed him out to Robert. “He was trying to kill A…my maid.”
The priest confirmed his guilt by turning on his heel and running back the way he had come. Katherine was already off and running too as she called back the instructions. “No time to explain, just follow me!”
Katherine could see the cleric looking panicked up ahead now his exit and been cut off; he was frantically sizing up various doorways as options. Eventually he picked one and she allowed herself a small satisfied smile knowing there was no exit from the room he had chosen.
By the time they got there, it was obvious he had deduced as much too. He swung round wildly as Katherine and Robert appeared in the doorway.
“There’s nowhere to go,” said Katherine, edging forwards slowly, just in case he had a weapon of any kind. It was hard to restrain herself though. Part of her wanted to fly straight at him and tear him limb from limb for what he had done to Anne. Every time she looked at him she just saw him pinning Anne to the bed and trying to force the poison on her; it made Katherine’s blood boil.
“You think you’ve won?” The man seemed far too happy for someone who had been cornered, in a slightly deranged way. “You have no idea! You can’t beat them – they’re everywhere!”
Katherine guessed he was talking about the Ares Syndicate. It appeared their influence extended into the clergy too. “But none of them are here to help you now are they?” she pointed out. She was almost in range to grab him now.
“You think not?” He produced something from his pocket and jammed it in his mouth.
Katherine lunged forward. “No!”
But it was too late; he had swallowed it. The foam quickly appeared on his lips. The froth slid out between his manically grinning teeth. Then his eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped to the floor.
Katherine averted her eyes from his dead form in a mixture of dismay and annoyance. “Dammit! That’s the second time that’s happened. What is it with these people? Are they really so scared that they’d rather die than be caught?”
Robert was kneeling by the dead man. “You think he was something to do with Coleville?”
“It sounds like it.” She bent down too and pulled up each of the dead man’s sleeves in turn. She found what she was looking for on his left arm. “And it looks like it too.” She showed the five-pointed tattoo to Robert. “This is their symbol.”
Robert looked at the design with the three spokes to the left and two downward strokes. “Who are they though? And why would they want to kill your maid?”
“I wish I could tell you, but I don’t really know much myself.” That was a slight diversion of the truth. She suspected they had been after Anne as a way to put them off the trail of the objects. That raised the possibility that the Syndicate knew about her and Anne. The thought sent a dagger of fear straight into Katherine’s heart. It also made her consider that it was all the more likely Kirby was involved, since he was one of the few people who knew their secret.
Robert was still shaking his head in disbelief as he stood up. “It seems I’m overrun with them, whoever they are - maybe I ought to check everyone for this mark!”
“Maybe you should,” agreed Katherine solemnly. She wasn’t sure if Robert was being serious, but it seemed the Ares Syndicate had infiltrated Stratford in more ways than one. She couldn’t believe she was thinking it, but she would be glad to get away from the place.
She cast a last look down at the dead priest, surprised at the degree of perverse satisfaction that filled her on seeing his lifeless body. It was rather scary to realise that the only thing she regretted was that he had taken his own life and robbed her of the chance.
Slightly unnerved by her own thoughts, Katherine went to leave the room and then she saw it – her father’s old bureau. It was tucked away in the corner, which was why she hadn’t seen it straight off. A whole host of images assaulted her mind, but one clawed its way to the front. This one was more important to her now. It was a recollection of searching through that very bureau looking for a fishing knife. She hadn’t found it at the time, but she had subsequently discovered that her father kept it in a secret compartment in one of the drawers. The memory was important now as she remembered something else about the knife – that it had possessed the markings of the Ares Syndicate.
As soon as she remembered it, she couldn’t believe it had slipped her mind in the first place. Especially not after they had visited the river the day before. Then again there had been a whole host of other things occupying her mind when they were there.
Robert looked on in bemusement as she wrenched open the appropriate draw, dumped it on the floor and broke the bottom of it with a single stamp. She pulled aside the splinters of wood, her heart rate increasing as she waited to see if it was still there. Fortunately the dark scabbard was plainly visible. Katherine hesitated for a second as more memories came surging up. There were visions of her father using the knife to gut a fish, of a late night chat by a fire, of her tucking the knife under her pillow. She shook her head ruefully and picked it out of the remnants of the drawer.
It felt odd to hold it, knowing what its real origins were. At the time she had been completely oblivious to her father’s secret life. Yet now her memories seemed tarnished in some way by the realisation of the truth. All that time she had thought him the devoted family man and father he had been leading a double life. Yet Katherine and he had shared their own secret life – ducking out behind her mother’s back - why should she have imagined he might not have others?
Did that make the time they had shared any the less important or genuine? She didn’t honestly know. She hoped not. For now she was sick of lies and deception. She wanted to be with the one person she could truly rely upon.
It took a moment for Anne to fully comprehend where she was as she opened her eyes. It was like she had been in some sort of dream state for days, not really knowing what was real and what wasn’t. People had come and gone in a blur while moments of wakefulness had slipped by far too quickly. However, now she was finally clear-headed enough to recognise the reassuring solidness of the ceiling and beams above her.
She blinked a couple of times before her head flopped to the side on her pillow. Sitting next to her bed was Katherine, grinning broadly when she saw Anne was awake. Anne smiled weakly back, though her smile faded slightly when she saw Lord Robert hovering close behind Katherine.
“You fell asleep again while we were chasing Father Martin,” said Katherine softly.
Anne tried to pull together her jumbled recollections of the last few days. It sounded like the bit where the cleric had been trying to poison had been real. If any of her memories had been a delusion, she would have thought it would have been that one. Perhaps everything had actually been real after all. She looked at the two waiting people – Robert did seem to be standing awfully close to Katherine. “We?” queried Anne.
“Yes, Robert helped me apprehend him,” said Katherine, “At least he tried. Unfortunately the good father killed himself.”
Anne tried to sit up in bed as her thoughts continued to coalesce randomly. She let out a small, involuntary groan at the effort required from weak muscles.
“I’ll leave you to it.” Robert stepped forward to place a hand on Katherine’s shoulder. A familiar jealousy sparked in Anne and suddenly one of her other ‘memories’ came crashing to the fore. “I’ll speak to you later?”
Katherine glanced round at him. At the same time her hand came up to lightly touch his where it sat. Anne was starting to feel decidedly sick again.
“Yes, and thanks for your help.”
The ingratiating smile on Katherine’s face was returned by the Lord before he turned and left the room. As soon as he had gone Katherine’s hand went to stroke Anne’s arm. It was the same one that had been touching Lord Robert’s fingers moments before. Anne flinched back.
Katherine’s brow creased into a frown as she withdrew the hand. “Are you all right?” she asked, “Only you seem a bit…odd.”
“I’ve just had someone systematically poisoning me for several days, I think I’m entitled to be a little ‘odd’.”
Anne’s tone was harsh and Katherine’s frown deepened. “Are you sure that’s all it is?”
Anne wasn’t going to prevaricate, not when the thoughts were already insidiously eating away at her. “Been having fun while I was out of it have you?”
Katherine looked confused. “I beg your pardon?”
“He’s been very helpful,” said Katherine honestly. “She still appeared unsure as to the point of the conversation. But I’m not sure what else you’re implying.”
“Ha, that’s a good one! Helpful? Helpful by sticking his tongue down your throat!”
Katherine was plainly stunned. “What? What the hell are you talking about?”
Anne sat up further so she could properly look Katherine in the eye without feeling she was at a disadvantage. She determinedly ignored the soreness from her aching limbs as she glared accusingly at the other woman. “I saw you two kissing! You did it right here in this room. Thought I was comatose did you?”
Katherine tried to take Anne’s hand where it sat on the covers, but she whipped it away. So instead Katherine leant closer, blue eyes fixing onto the young woman, unwavering. “Anne, I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” she stated, “I haven’t kissed Robert in this room or any other for that matter.”
Anne searched Katherine’s face for a second but she knew immediately that the other woman was telling the truth. “You…haven’t?”
Anne rubbed roughly at her temple as she tried to bring back the image that had caused her anger. It was elusive though, fading into nothingness. “I was so sure it had happened,” she tried to explain, “But it must have been a paranoid delusion caused by the fever. It just seemed so…real.”
Anne allowed the hand that reached out to her this time. “Anne, I promise you, nothing like that has happened between Robert and me while we’ve been here. At least not exactly…”
Anne felt her chest tightening again. She hardly dared ask. “Not exactly…?”
“It’s nothing.” Katherine waved her hand dismissively, but the slight edge to her voice betrayed her nervousness at bringing whatever it was up. “I probably shouldn’t mention it, but I don’t want to hide anything from you.”
“What is it? Just damn well tell me!” Anne barely held onto her mounting agitation.
“Really, it’s not a problem. We went for a walk along the river yesterday and we were both thinking back to the old days and he sort of got a little too…’friendly’.”
“Too friendly?” repeated Anne incredulously. “What the hell does that mean? I’ll show him too bloody friendly!” She swung her bare legs out of the bed so she was perched on the edge. Her head spun alarmingly at the sudden movement.
Katherine reached out a stalling hand. “Anne! Where in god’s name are you going?”
“I knew he was after you, I just knew it!”
“He’s not after me,” insisted Katherine, “It was just shared memory and experience playing tricks on us. It was partly my fault too – I probably inadvertently encouraged him.” She quickly held up her hands as Anne went to interrupt again. “All that happened was that he leaned in to kiss me and I stopped him right away. He was gentlemanly enough to realise his mistake. We both know we’re just friends now and that’s all it is.”
Anne sagged back against the headboard. She knew she couldn’t have gone anywhere, even if she had wanted to. “You might know it, but can you vouch for him?”
“Does it really matter what he thinks?” Katherine moved from her chair to sit on the bed. Her weight depressed it enough that their thighs ended up resting against one another. Anne could feel heat radiating through the linen at the point of contact. However, she soon forgot about Katherine’s thigh when the other woman’s fingers lightly touched her face. They trailed down her cheek and came to a rest cupping her chin. “Even if he does still have feelings for me, it’s you I love and you I want to be with.” Katherine paused to emphasise the words. “I’m afraid Robert is going to have to find himself another lady because this one is well and truly taken.”
Anne found herself naturally shuffling forward into the enticing gaze from the blue-grey eyes. “I’m glad to hear it,” she had time to whisper before her lips met those of Katherine.
The soft caress was better than any medicine she might have had. Suddenly all her aches and pains were forgotten as she melted into the kiss. It was Katherine who eventually pulled back, perhaps aware that they could be disturbed at any moment.
She couldn’t stop herself continuing to gently stroke Anne’s face though. Katherine looked like she was almost on the verge of tears.
“Are you all right?” asked Anne, remembering that it had been Katherine who had been sick when they arrived. “Your fever...?”
“It was nothing, I recovered fine, unlike you.”
Katherine’s hand slipped from Anne’s face, her eyes also following it down onto the sheets as she struggled to continue. Anne slipped her own fingers into Katherine’s and squeezed them gently together. There were a couple of shuddering breaths from Katherine before she eventually looked up again. “You had me scared,” she said quietly.
“If it’s any consolation, I was scared silly too when you upped and collapsed on me by the river. However, it’s going to take more than some crazy priest to get rid of me,” Anne reassured Katherine. “Talking of which, do you have any idea why he was doing it, or did he just not like me?”
“As I mentioned before, he killed himself before we got the truth out of him but there was one interesting thing about Father Martin – he was in the Ares Syndicate.”
“You think he was doing it as some way to put us off the trail of the objects?”
“Quite possibly – who knows what their motivation is. If that was his intention, then it backfired on him.”
Katherine handed Anne a knife bound in a leather case. “I found this hidden in the room he died in.”
Anne slid out the weapon but it looked unremarkable. There were even a few tiny nicks that marred the cutting edge. She was about to ask what was so special about it when she noticed the handle. Her eyes widened as she took in the writing. “It’s an Ares object?”
“Indeed it is. It’s my father’s old fishing knife, though obviously it was actually a lot more than that.”
Anne studied it for a moment before something struck her. “My clothes!” She glanced anxiously around the room, seeing no sign of them. “The pages from the book!” she explained with dismay when Katherine looked perplexed by her sudden outburst.
Katherine sighed in relief. “Don’t worry, Robert got them back in the nick of time – they were about to burn them. They’re in the drawers.”
Katherine went over to fetch the black garments, handing them to Anne when she returned.
“Good old Robert, eh?” Anne couldn’t help the tiny snide remark.
Katherine’s eyes narrowed warningly. “Anne…”
“All right, all right,” said the young woman, “I won’t say anything more. He’s a good guy, I get the message.”
She found the pages that gave the translation key for the odd script where she had left them in her vest, and with a little effort she managed to work out the words without having to write them down first this time.
Past the watcher of Pompeii’s fate
Through the dipping of the gate
Anne thought the words through for a moment. “Pompeii?” she noted quizzically, “Isn’t that in Italy?”
Katherine looked impressed by her knowledge. Of course Anne had never been to the country – she’d never been beyond the shores of England. She’d just read it in a book once.
“Yes, that’s right,” confirmed Katherine, “I seem to recall it was buried under lava by an eruption from a volcano. Vesuvius I think was the name of it.”
“So we need to go to Italy to find this weapon?”
“Possibly, but we don’t know if this is a literal reference or not. It doesn’t really make much sense until we get all the parts and try to put them in order.”
“One step forward and two steps back then,” noted Anne, “Since we have no leads on either of the last two items.” She was still tired from her illness and all this was just making her feel more so. She laid back on the bed, rubbing at her eyes.
“I do still have my diagram though,” Katherine reminded her, “I’m sure I’m going to decipher it sooner or later. Maybe the light will suddenly strike and it will all become clear in one sweeping go.”
Anne had to admire her optimism. Katherine had already been studying it for a couple of weeks without much luck. “And are we staying here while we wait for that light to strike?” Anne prayed the answer was no – it had hardly been a barrel of laughs so far.
“I doubt my father would have hidden two objects in the same place – much safer to spread them out. So no, I don’t see any need for us to remain here.”
Anne sensed a surprising degree of relief in Katherine’s voice, perhaps even more than her own. “You sound almost glad to be leaving,” she noted.
“To tell you the truth I will be,” confessed Katherine. “It’s been a pretty arduous trip, what with floods and fevers and assasins. Not to mention some memories that I’m not sure I can trust. Being here has made me realise once and for all that this isn’t my home anymore. I’ll never forget Stratford, but that time is gone. In a way maybe that place of my memories never even existed.”
Anne went to say something, sensing the undercurrent of sadness in Katherine’s voice, but Katherine held up a hand to stop her. “But that doesn’t matter. I don’t want to wallow in the past. My place now is in Markham…”
She paused, waiting for Anne to meet her eye before continuing.
Charles Kirby stepped into the deserted building and immediately tripped over something in the darkness. Cursing to himself he kicked out at whatever it was only to find solid rock in his path. He hopped up and down as the pain shot through his foot, cursing a few more times for good measure.
“If you’ve quite finished?”
Torchlight flared in the darkness, illuminating three other figures already standing amongst the dust and cobwebs. Kirby picked his way through the vines that had invaded the building to join them. “Remind me again why we’re meeting here?”
They had their hoods up over their heads, though Kirby didn’t know why. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know who they were. He had been staying with one of them for several months for a start.
A familiar voice addressed him now. It oozed a quiet power. “You would rather we meet in the forest like last time? In front of prying eyes?”
Kirby frowned. “I caught that snooping old bastard didn’t I?”
“Yes, but his passing has not gone unnoticed.”
Kirby didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. “So what? He was just some old peasant, who cares what some other peasants think about it.”
“It matters if those peasants have the ear of a certain lady.”
Kirby wasn’t about to be the only one accepting any blame. “We might have cut off that route of information if the priest had performed his task properly. I mean how hard is it to poison an already unconscious woman? I thought you said he was up to it?”
“I thought he was, obviously I was mistaken.” The Arbiter’s tone was steely enough for Kirby to decide against pushing it further. He knew the man didn’t like being wrong and would be castigating himself enough anyway without Kirby highlighting his error further. “No matter,” continued the man, “I’ve reconsidered what we should do in regards to the pair of them anyway. For now we’ll leave them to pursue this together – we want Lady Katherine to succeed to some extent after all. There’ll still plenty of time and opportunity to dispose of her ‘maid’ when the need arises.”
“Why do we have to dispose of anyone?”
Kirby had to hand it to the man who had spoken up – he didn’t think he had the balls to stand against the Arbiter. That or he was just stupid. When he continued to whine, Kirby decided it was the latter.
“I mean, I didn’t realise either of them were going to get hurt when I agreed to this.”
The Arbiter was surprisingly calm in the face of the challenge – Kirby had seen him kill men for less. Then again he always tended to have that calm exterior which was why he was so dangerous. You might think he was your friend right up until the moment the knife plunged into your back.
“It’s too late to get cold feet now,” said the Arbiter in his even tone, “And lest you forget we are paying you handsomely. So I would just stop your moaning and continue to watch them for us. They’ll be coming back to Markham soon, so we need you to keep us informed of exactly what their progress is – you are our eyes and ears there after all. Now they have three items we have to be on our guard for them finding the next two in short measure. Especially since the key is practically under their nose. Lucky for us they don’t know it, which gives us the final advantage.”
“And what if I don’t want to watch them anymore? What if I want out?”
Kirby hardly dared look. The man must have a deathwish.
The Arbiter was up in the other man’s face now. Kirby couldn’t see either of their expressions under their hoods, but he thought he detected a faint trembling coming from the body of the dissenter.
“There is only one way ‘out’ of the Syndicate.” The Arbiter’s tone was low and deadly. “And that’s the way of Coleville and Father Martin. So unless you want to follow them into the afterlife you’ll go back to Markham and await the return of the two women.”
Coming Soon: Lady Katherine and The Deadly Game