The Lady Katherine Chronicles, Number 15
Lady Katherine And The Unholy Power
May 1192, Nottinghamshire, England
MercyCroft, Jay, Solise and MF for beta reading this for me :)
This is a work of fan fiction but uses characters that bear a striking resemblance to those that are copyright of Paramount Pictures. No infringement on their copyright is intended by the author in any way, shape or form - this is just a bit of fun. This story includes an all female relationship, so if you don’t like that then look away now.
Anne crouched in the undergrowth at the edge of Sherwood Forest. Her hands brushed lightly over the dry earth as she balanced herself, tense and ready to move at a moments notice. Caution was always first on her mind when she reached the boundaries of the outlaws’ world, ready to step beyond onto the lands of the Markham estate. She cast her eyes around the more exposed land in front of her, as she listened for anything out of the ordinary. There was a faint heat haze shimmering up off the shorter patches of grassland that covered the gently rolling hills, but no signs of any human activity to break the calm of the day. Her only companions were the natural dwellers of the forest and grassland. One of them had come close now, lulled by her degree of stillness. The squirrel sat up on its hind legs regarding her quizzically for a couple of seconds until she moved a fraction and it darted away.
Eventually Anne deemed it safe to proceed, and stepped from the cover of the trees. Immediately the heat from the sun hit her. It was only late May; yet already there were days when the nearness of summer was obvious. The sky up above was virtually pure blue, the odd wispy high cloud all that marred its perfection. Anne felt decidedly hot in her black outfit, even if she only wore a short-sleeved shirt loose over the top of her trousers. Despite its impracticalities for hot weather, black was her signature colour. She considered it would be somehow wrong to be caught wearing something else, at least in the forest when she was mingling with the other outlaws. She liked to think it made her seem more serious and imposing, and it suited her to have them think of her that way. It certainly wouldn’t do to have them realise that she had a softer side. That knowledge was reserved for only a select few people.
She knew she was early for her meeting with one of those select people; the height of the sun told her as much. Sweeping through a patch of thigh-length grass, Anne disturbed a few insects. They buzzed up round her until she swatted them away. Supposing it was safe to wait out in the open, Anne removed her bow, sword and bag and sat down near the large oak that marked their meeting spot. She avoided the shade cast by its wide branches, wanting to feel the sun on her skin. After a while she lay back on the green grass, flattening it around her to make a small nest within it.
The sun was warm and welcome against her face as she closed her eyes. She took a reflexive deep breath as it washed over her. Occasionally the early summer’s breeze would drift softly through the grass, picking at the odd loose hair that had worked its way out of her ponytail to tickle her face. Anne tried to let herself drift with the air, clear her mind of any conscious thought and allow herself to become as free as it was.
She wasn’t sure how long she simply lay there, waiting and hoping for something, but however long it was, it wasn’t long enough. There was nothing. There was no sense of nature filling her, no connection with her surroundings, no chatter from hidden animals. Nothing. Sighing to herself, Anne wondered if she was trying too hard. Ever since she’d thought she’d heard the forest ‘talking’ to her two weeks previously on the way back from Stratford, she’d been trying to rediscover her link with nature, but to no avail. She had to consider that maybe she had imagined it after all. That conclusion filled her with an odd feeling of loss.
Just when she was about to give up, Anne had the strangest sense that someone was watching her. She opened her eyes and sat up, but there was still no one else in sight as she scanned the landscape. She shook her head - now her mind was starting to play tricks on her!
A sudden squawk drew her eyes upwards. High up in the large oak, a pair of keen golden eyes were peering back down at her. Anne covered her own eyes against the glare of the sun and was able to identify the bird as a Goshawk. Its brown and white plumage was clearly visible now that the call had given away its location amongst the leaves.
Anne stood up, brushing the loose grass from her black trousers. “Hello there,” she called up to the bird which was still regarding her curiously. “And how long have you been watching?”
The bird tilted its head from side to side, but showed no inclination of moving from its perch. Intrigued by her observing friend, Anne emptied the contents of her bag onto the ground and made a makeshift glove out of it on her left arm. She then held it out, offering the Goshawk somewhere to land.
“Come on then,” she encouraged.
The bird still looked reluctant. However, when Anne picked up a piece of the bread that had been in her bag, she could see its eyes widening. It wasn’t exactly usual fare for a Goshawk, which was more likely to eat small rodents or even larger animals such as rabbits or hares, but it was obviously interested enough to investigate. The bird flapped its wings once and then glided gracefully down towards Anne. Even with the leather bag wrapped around her arm, she could feel the dig of its powerful claws into her skin as it came to settle on her outstretched arm.
“You’re certainly a beauty aren’t you,” she noted, stroking her right hand down its speckled white breast. The feathers were downy and soft as her fingers brushed over them. Anne also noticed the jessies tied around its feet and dangling loose over her arm, indicating that it was a bird used for falconry, rather than a wild one. “Now who do you belong to then?” she asked it.
She wasn’t expecting an answer, and yet she suddenly found herself being drawn into the amber gaze of the bird, like it was trying to tell her something. Once upon a time she could have shared a kind of silent communication with animals. It wasn’t like they would actually ‘talk’ to her as such, but she would be able to sense their feelings and desires. It was almost like the Goshawk was conversing with her that way now. Out of nowhere Anne got a vague vision of red hair and blue eyes.
She laughed to herself, breaking the spell. Obviously thoughts of Katherine were never far away and had encroached now, when she had been trying to clear her mind. Whatever it was the bird had been trying to impart was lost.
Anne stroked the bird again. “Well, whoever it is, your master must be wondering where you are.”
“Her mistress actually.”
Anne whirled round to see the same blue eyes from her vision moments before. Katherine was smiling down at her from atop Delta, and Anne wondered how she had managed to get so close without being heard. Had she really been so lost in ‘talking’ with the bird?
The Goshawk made its distinct ‘ca-ca-ca’ call as Katherine hopped down. Then suddenly it leapt off Anne’s arm. Katherine just about had enough time to get her own left arm up to allow it to land there. Katherine quickly tied the jessies around the thick leather glove she was wearing over the sleeve of her white shirt.
“She belongs to you?” asked Anne in surprise. She had never seen Katherine out with a hawk before.
“She certainly does,” confirmed Katherine, “Though sometimes I think I have trouble convincing her of that fact! Actually she reminds me of someone else with her tendency for wilful behaviour.”
Anne made a roll of her eyes to show exactly what she thought of the comparison. The bird seemed happy enough on Katherine’s arm now, looking like it was studying them both intently as they talked. “Well, you would pick a Goshawk,” Anne said to Katherine, “They’re notoriously stubborn and difficult to train. Most ladies tend to prefer the Sparrowhawk.”
“Though I’m not most ladies,” pointed out Katherine.
“That is true,” agreed Anne, “Are you sure you aren’t the one she sees as the kindred spirit?” she added.
Katherine laughed, causing the bird to give her a bemused glance and flap its brown wings a couple of times. The action stirred the ends of Katherine’s short auburn hair. “Is that why she keeps flying off?” asked Katherine ruefully as she calmed the bird again. “I’m just lucky you found her and she wasn’t poached by one of your colleagues.”
Anne did wonder at the coincidence. Of all the places the bird could have flown she had chosen to perch right above Anne’s head. And then there was the odd moment when Anne had thought she could almost read its mind. Had she really picked up the image of Katherine from the bird, or was it from her own thoughts? Again she wasn’t sure enough to mention it out loud.
“Is that why I’ve never seen you out with her before?” asked Anne instead.
“Partly, that and I don’t always have the time to train her. A few of the knights and their squires have had a go, but I think she’s even worse for them. Apparently she almost pecked poor young Isaac’s finger right off the other day.”
Anne reined in a laugh and addressed the bird, which looked wholly unapologetic. “That wasn’t very nice was it,” she scolded. The bird gave an indignant squawk.
“I think that’s her way of saying ‘I don’t care’” filled in Katherine.
Anne couldn’t help continuing to stroke the bird; she really was quite captivating. “Does she have a name?” she asked absently as she peered into the alert golden eyes that seemed to be observing you whatever way you looked.
Katherine looked a bit abashed. “It’s Diana.”
“Diana?” repeated Anne, “You called a bird Diana?”
“It wasn’t my choice,” said Katherine, “That was already her name, she was a gift from Lord Derby.”
“You could have changed it,” suggested Anne.
“I tried, but she was even less responsive then. I think Lord Derby might have been having a joke at my expense when he gave her to me. Anyway, apparently the name is after the Roman goddess of the hunt.”
Anne studied the bird, which appeared to be regally looking down its beak at them. “She certainly looks like she thinks she’s a goddess,” she noted, “So is the ‘goddess’ coming with us to Elkesley?”
“Whether she likes it or not,” answered Katherine, “Though actually she seems a lot calmer than normal, with you here. You didn’t say anything to her before I got here did you?”
“No.” Anne decided not to mention her suspicion about the unsaid communication. “Maybe she just likes me?”
Katherine smiled, a lop-sided half smile. Anne recognised it and felt the corresponding shiver skittering down her spine, despite the temperature. “Another woman you’ve won over, eh?” whispered Katherine. She was closer now, her chest almost touching Anne’s as she gazed up at the taller woman.
“Not jealous are we?” asked Anne in a gently teasing voice.
“Of course not.”
Anne wasn’t sure whether she had dipped her head automatically on seeing Katherine’s parted, inviting lips, but suddenly they were kissing. The moment was broken rather rudely by high-pitched squawking and the beat of wings against her head.
Katherine pulled back and looked at the bird still secured to her left arm. “I might not be jealous, but it seems someone might be.”
“Of you or me?” asked Anne, shooting the troublesome bird a glance.
A couple of hours later, Katherine came out of the church at Treswell into the bright sunlight of the afternoon. As her eyes adjusted, she could see that Anne was still under the yew tree where Katherine had left her in order to go and talk to the priest. The church was isolated enough that it was unlikely that anyone would happen past on a non worship day, and wonder who the young woman lounging in the church yard was. Anne was sitting cross-legged on the ground, with Diana perched haughtily on her left arm. The woman and the bird were facing one another, gold eyes fixed on blue. It almost looked like they were talking to one another. Both were engrossed and oblivious to their surroundings as a few flies buzzed around them in the heat. One thing was for sure, Katherine had never seen Diana quite so placid as she was in Anne’s presence. Smiling to herself, she edged closer.
“You two having a nice chat?”
Anne started, obviously having not noticed Katherine’s approach. Katherine considered that unusual for the normally alert young woman.
Anne appeared to clear her head as she turned her eyes up to Katherine. “Did you find anything?” she asked.
Katherine noticed how Anne hadn’t made a response to her comment, not even a sarcastic retort of some kind. Again she found the behaviour slightly odd, but didn’t question it for now. “No, another dead end,” she replied.
Anne clambered up off the ground, Diana showing no inclination to move and forcing Anne to keep her left arm extended the whole time. “That’s the third one today,” noted Anne glumly, “How many more churches are there in Nottinghamshire again?”
“Don’t ask!” replied Katherine. “It could be worse, if I hadn’t narrowed it down to this county, we might have been scouring the whole of England.”
“There is that,” conceded Anne, “And at least we know what we’re looking for this time – a candlestick. Are we going on to another church or is that it for today?”
Katherine glanced up at the sky to gauge the time. “I think I need to head back, it’s a good hours ride from here back to Sherwood, and then another hour or so home again. Ironically enough I’m meant to be meeting a contingent of the estate’s clergy for a monthly update on the liturgical state of affairs.”
“Maybe you could get them to check their candlesticks for you?” suggested Anne.
Katherine undid Delta’s reins from around the tree, pulling the young horse up from nibbling on the shaded grass. “A nice idea, but we are meant to be keeping this search as secret as possible.”
“I know, I was just joking. The clergy are the last people I’d trust after what happened at Stratford.” Anne came up to the horse’s flanks. “You don’t have to drop me off,” she offered as Katherine checked the fastenings on the saddle, “I can make my own way back from here.”
“On foot? It’ll take you ages.”
“I didn’t say anything about going by foot…”
Katherine made a small tutting noise, knowing exactly what Anne was suggesting. “If it’s all the same, I think I’d prefer the detour to having one of my knights complaining about a missing horse.”
Anne shrugged. “It’s up to you, I’m sure Philip Archer has enough that he wouldn’t miss one. I could return it later, if that would make you feel better?”
Katherine merely gave her another roll of the eyes. Philip Archer was the knight in charge of the northern fief of the estate that was centred on the nearby village. He was a loyal servant of the manor. “Just get on,” she instructed Anne, indicating Delta’s back.
On the way back to the edges of Sherwood Forest, Katherine made sure to take the offroad trails. Now they were back in Nottinghamshire after their recent travels, the chance that someone might recognise Anne was much more likely. The notices offering rewards for information on outlaws that were dotted along the main roads to and from Nottingham were testament to that fact. Most peasants would never even consider taking up the offer of the Sheriff’s money, but sometimes desperation got the better of principles. Anne was always quick to reassure her that even if someone did see them together and recognise her, then Katherine could use the excuse that Anne had kidnapped her. Katherine didn’t like that idea much, not when it was casting further aspersions on Anne’s character. She already had quite the reputation as the cunning female outlaw, though most people who knew of the infamous Seven probably wouldn’t actually know her by sight.
Katherine had heard a few tales around the manor house. Some of the more ridiculous descriptions of Anne couldn’t help but make Katherine laugh. She had heard Anne described as everything from a short, fat drunkard to a hideously scarred old crone who couldn’t show her face in public for fear of scaring small children. She realised it was in Anne’s interest to cultivate the confusing and contradictory reports, but sometimes Katherine got the urge to step in and correct those spreading such falsehoods. Then again, knowing she was one of the few that knew the real Anne made her feel privileged and it wasn’t something she wanted to share with anyone else. Let them think what they wanted, as long as she knew that underneath any cleverly constructed outlaw’s façade lay a kind, honest, caring woman, then that was all that mattered.
“You know, we could start dividing our effort, it would save time.”
Anne’s comment brought Katherine back to the present. She craned round to regard the young woman who was pressed up against her back.
“I suppose so,” she conceded, “Not that the Syndicate seem to be showing any signs of being on our trail.”
Anne pondered that for a second. Her brow furrowed slightly, crinkling up the small scar above her left eye. “That’s odd, don’t you think? We’ve not heard anything since we were at Stratford. They must know we have three of the objects and yet since we got back to Markham there’s been no sign of them. They’ve not tried to take them off us or anything like that.”
Katherine considered it. “Though they might not necessarily know what we have,” she eventually said, “Remember the priest killed himself before I found the dagger.”
“True, but I get this uneasy feeling, like we’re being played somehow.”
“In what way?”
“I don’t know. It all just seems a bit too easy.”
“Easy?” queried Katherine somewhat incredulously, “I would hardly call you almost being killed by Father Martin easy. Either way, until we find out anything, we can only second-guess what they might be doing. All we can do is concentrate on our own efforts and hope we find the objects before the Syndicate. We only have two more to find after all.”
Anne didn’t comment further, but Katherine could see she was pondering something. Whatever it was, it was creating a frown above her brilliant blue eyes. Katherine got the sense she was building up to something, and didn’t have to wait long to discover what.
“So, talking of Stratford, have you heard from Robert since our visit?”
Katherine reined in a smile.
Anne stared at her. “What?”
“Sorry, I just wondered how long it would be before you asked about him.”
Anne pouted, obviously not liking being so transparent. Ever since their visit to Stratford, Robert had cropped up in conversation a few times and each instance was pre-empted by a similar dark look and accompanied by a far too forced nonchalant manner. Katherine realised Anne was jealous, even though any romantic relationship between her and Robert was long dead. Anne’s delirious dream about seeing Katherine and Robert kissing hadn’t helped foster good feelings either.
“Actually I did get a letter from him,” said Katherine, not pandering to Anne’s irrational unease, “It arrived this morning.”
Anne tried, and failed, to hide her scowl. “And what did he have to say?”
“The usual general news, plus he’s discovered a couple of other people with the Ares mark amongst his household.”
“Really?” Anne’s tone was obviously suspicious. “And what did he do with them, give them a pat on the back?”
“Robert is not in the Syndicate,” stated Katherine. She was starting to get fed up with having to re-iterate that point. “He’s got them locked up at the moment and says that if I’m going back that way, I’m more than welcome to come in and question them.”
“Right. More like he hasn’t captured anyone, and just wants to get you back there to try his luck again.”
Katherine bit her lip and exhaled slowly through her nose. She could see there was little point continuing to talk to Anne about Robert. She had made her mind up that he wasn’t to be trusted. Katherine only hoped that with time, her opinion of him might improve, though those hopes weren’t high.
They rode the remainder of the distance back to the boundaries of the forest in silence. When they did get there, Anne started to ease herself off the horse, still without speaking. Katherine shifted in the saddle so she could stall her with a hand on the arm.
“You really don’t have to be worried about Robert,” she began, “Or don’t you trust me?” Katherine didn’t really like playing the cheap emotional blackmail card, but she needed something to make Anne see sense.
At least the comment seemed to have hit home. Anne’s face softened as she sighed. “I do, it’s just…” She considered her words for a moment. “I know it seems like jealousy, and maybe it is to some extent, but there’s something else about him, something deep down I don’t like.”
“All right, I can respect that,” conceded Katherine, “We don’t have to like the same people, after all, but hopefully you can also respect that he’s my friend. A friend who’s gone out of his way to help us on this quest so far.”
Anne gave a reluctant nod. “Fine, I’ll try not to give you a hard time about him. It’s not like I ever have to see him again, unless you’re thinking of taking him up on his offer to go and question those men?”
“Not right now. Not when we’re getting closer to the fourth item. But maybe after that it might be worthwhile, particularly if we don’t get any further in discerning or locating the fifth. They might be able to shed some light on it for us, or give us information that leads us to the key or the weapon.”
“Though it’s unlikely they’d disclose such information freely,” pointed out Anne, “Just how far are you willing to go to get it and fulfil your father’s wishes?”
Katherine frowned. How far was she willing to go? It was obvious Anne was implying torture might be required. Many other lords and noblemen wouldn’t baulk at such a suggestion, and had probably engaged in such things with prisoners on many occasion. Such thoughts sickened Katherine, though. Not that she was soft. She was strict on criminal activity within the manor, and dealt harshly with those responsible. However, that didn’t extend to unnecessarily tormenting them for what was little more than sadistic pleasure.
“We’ll cross that bridge if and when we come to it,” said Katherine non-commitally.
“We’ll have to hope we decipher your mysterious diagram before it comes to that then,” remarked Anne. “So what do you think about splitting up to cover more ground in our tour of churches of Nottinghamshire?”
“I suppose it makes sense,” agreed Katherine, though something non-sensical was nagging at the back of her mind and telling her the opposite. She pushed it away. “If you go to Maplebeck Tomorrow, I can go to Clifton.” She edged closer on the saddle, her hand trailing absently up Anne’s thigh. “Then maybe you could drop by Markham in evening?”
Anne smiled. “Will you be leaving your window open?”
The weather was warm and close again the following day as Anne made her way over the southern part of the estate, keeping to rarely used tracks or staying hidden in the many patches of woodland that dotted the land. The oppressive feel to the atmosphere made her think there might be a storm on the way, and she hoped she would make it back to Markham before it arrived.
Those people she did see on the trail appeared to be feeling the weight of the heat too, trudging along, heads bowed. Out in the fields, many of the peasants were relaxing out of the sun, leaving their work for later in the day when it would be cooler. The heat was all very unseasonable and Anne hoped the impending storm would clear it away so things could go back to a normal May. Rain and more rain – that would be much more like it.
Anne wiped a line of sweat away from the nape of her neck as she stopped to take a last gulp of water from a stream on the outskirts of Maplebeck. As agreed with Katherine the day before, Anne was going there to investigate the church, look for any signs of the candlestick with the Ares markings that they were desperate to find. Realising she could hardly just swan in, wearing all black and armed to the hilt, Anne had foregone her usual attire for a loose summer dress. She’d worn her normal clothes until she’d left the forest, then made a quick change, once she was sure none of the outlaws might see her. She wasn’t sure they even knew she owned any dresses, and wasn’t ready for the teasing that seeing her in one might provoke. Her normal clothes were safely in the bag at her side, along with her shortest sword, just in case.
She adjusted the unfamiliar skirts about her legs, smoothing them into place so she would match the cover story she was about to give anyone she encountered in the church. As she approached she could see the building itself was fairly non-descript – like a dozen other small village churches. It sat on slightly raised ground at the end of the village, a grassy area dotted with headstones. The weathered stone walls had ivy crawling up it, creeping into the windows to obscure some of the natural light. There was no immediate sign of life and Anne was about to go on in when she heard the sound of a crowd gathered down in the village. She couldn’t quite make out the words, though there was one voice that seemed to be raised above the others at intervals.
Resting her hand on the solid wooden door of the church, Anne strained to hear. Eventually temptation got the better of her, and she turned to make her way the short distance through the village. The goats and sheep of the villagers ran loose across the street while their attendees were otherwise occupied.
Anne found the people gathered in the central area of the village. It was where all communal activity occurred, from trading to punishment. Anne could see that the stocks had been recently used, with some rotting vegetables still scattered round their base. Instinctively she hung back, not wanting to be the next one in there, especially since there were a few posters offering rewards for information on outlaws attached to the maypole that stood in the centre of the square. She realised that she probably had little to worry about – most peasants couldn’t read anyway, even if they were inclined to take the Sheriff’s coin. Anne deduced that his soldiers must have been encroaching onto Katherine’s land with their notices. Maplebeck was one of the closest villages to the border with the Sheriff’s estate and the tyrannical lord probably thought it fair game to act as if it was part of his domain. Anne made a mental note to mention it to Katherine later.
Anne jumped at the sudden loud word. For a second she thought it had been directed straight at her, or maybe that was just her guilty conscience. In fact the speaker was the person who was the focus of the villagers, the vehement word shouted to them all. Anne eased closer, blending into the crowd as she was used to doing.
“Repent your sin! Cast off unholy desires!”
It didn’t surprise Anne in the least to discover the fire and brimstone speaker was a priest, wearing the plain brown robes of the clergy. Anne didn’t recognise him, and from the attention he was generating, she guessed he was either new to the village or a passing preacher on his way to somewhere else.
“Do not fall to Lucifer’s temptations, however seductive they might be!”
He was really warming to his subject by this stage. There were several rivulets of sweat running down his forehead, trickling out from a receding sandy hairline. His eyes bulged with fervour as he delivered his words, fixing on a different person in the crowd with each sentence.
“I can see you do not believe me. You do not believe it can happen.” The woman he was looking at cowered back, shaking her head to indicate she wasn’t disagreeing in the slightest. He switched his attention to the next peasant, an elderly man. “And you?”
The man stood his ground unlike the woman before him. He’d probably seen a dozen preachers just like this one in his time. They tended to breeze into a village, scare the locals with hellfire and damnation and then move on. Anne had never really understood what exactly the appeal of the so-called Christian church was meant to be. Everything seemed to be a sin for which everyone was constantly meant to be repenting.
The old man dared to answer back. “It seems a bit unlikely,” he offered. The priest looked affronted, his pale brown eyes widening to expose the whites. The old man continued undeterred though. “Two men together like man and woman…well, how would it work? And as for two women…”
Anne had to hold her mouth tightly shut to stop the spluttering cough spilling forth. Instead she merely went red in the face as she choked. Fortunately the priest seemed too caught up with the old man to notice her gagging close by.
“Stop! Do not even speak of it!”
“But you did…” attempted the old man, but he was quickly drowned out by the ranting priest.
“To warn you! Beware! They are all around you! Unnatural, unclean ones who engage in such disgusting activities.”
The priest finally moved off from the old man, moving between the peasants in Anne’s direction as he continued to rant. She realised too late that she should have left the gathering sooner. Now she couldn’t ease away without drawing attention. The cleric was at the woman right next to Anne, grasping her arm as she spoke.
“They could be right next to you!”
Suddenly his fingers were on Anne’s own arm. She stiffened but tried not to display anything untoward on her face. There was no way he could know anything.
“They could be…”
As soon as his eyes met hers he stopped. Suddenly the garrulous priest was lost for words. Anne held his gaze, feeling the intense scrutiny of the man’s eyes as they remained fixed on her face while his hand still tightly gripped her right arm. Did he know something? Did he recognise her? How quickly could she draw her dagger?
These and a dozen other thoughts raced through her mind as the moment stretched on, unnerving, uncomfortable. Anne tried to maintain an implacable, even expression, but even she was finding it hard under the intensely creepy gaze. She couldn’t look away though. They were both caught in the moment, unmoving, staring at one another. She had no choice but to study his face. Only as she did, she began to realise that his reaction wasn’t what she had initially thought it was. Rather than revulsion as she had assumed, she could see it was more a sort of dumbstruck wonder that gripped him. His mouth dropped open slightly and his fingers slackened as he continued to just stare at her. What had brought it on, she couldn’t even begin to imagine.
“You are not from the village.” The voice was so different to the bombastic one of before that for a moment Anne didn’t even realise it had come from the priest. “Who are you?” he added in soft mystification.
Anne quickly recalled her cover story. “I’m with Lady Katherine’s household. She wanted me to come and get something from the church.”
“You are a…maid?” It sounded as if he didn’t believe it, or perhaps more like he didn’t want to.
Anne finally managed to tear her eyes from him, glancing around to see most of the villagers were also listening in. This wasn’t what she had intended. It was drawing far too much attention to herself. The priest’s sudden and obvious change in demeanour had them all intrigued. Anne realised she needed to extricate herself as soon as possible.
“I just stopped to listen for a moment to your…interesting sermon,” said Anne, “But I must be getting back, her ladyship will be expecting me.”
“I really should be going,” she insisted.
Shaking off the loose fingers she pulled back through the crowd, not looking back to see what the priest was doing or whether he was following. She didn’t look back even when she was well out of the village.
Elsewhere at the same time, Katherine eased Delta down into a sedate trot as the horse neared the outskirts of Clifton. She felt the arms around her loosen from their vice-like grip as their speed dropped. Holding back a smile, Katherine leant round.
“All right back there?”
A pair of wide green eyes stared back up at her. “Fine.” The look of near-terror on Natalie’s face contradicted her words. “But it sure is bumpy, isn’t it?”
Katherine grinned for a second, before schooling her features into a more sombre expression and nodding seriously. “I shall be sure to mention your concerns to Delta,” she noted.
Katherine turned back to face their direction of travel, needing to steer Delta around a few peasants on the road; it was getting busier on the track now they were near the village. Bringing Natalie with her had been a last minute decision, but the young girl had been clamouring to see more of the estate for a while. Katherine realised she could have sent the girl out with one of the patrols, but Katherine hadn’t had the chance to spend much time with the youngster since she had stowed away on the journey back from Yorkshire. The trip to Clifton seemed like the perfect opportunity.
With the young girl for company, Katherine certainly hadn’t lacked for entertainment on the ride. Natalie had bombarded her with a series of questions about the crops that were growing, the places they rode past or the people they saw. At least the young girl seemed keen to learn. Katherine just wished she showed a bit more enthusiasm for her formal lessons with the friar. Katherine wondered at the difference between the picture the friar painted of a distracted young girl and the one she was witness to.
“Can I ask you a question?”
Katherine didn’t turn round, merely grinning to herself. “I’m surprised you still need to ask,” she commented, “Of course you can, it’s good you want to learn.”
“Are you and Anne lovers?”
The first cough got stuck in Katherine’s throat. The second barrelled up right behind it, and the third cannoned into them both, sending them all spluttering out of Katherine’s mouth in one shocked go. Katherine was glad she had a firm grip of the reins, else she might have fallen off Delta’s back. “I really don’t think that’s a suitable question for someone of your age,” she eventually managed.
“But you just said…”
“There are limits!” Katherine swung round briefly to offer Natalie a stern look. “And that question is definitely beyond any of those.”
Natalie seemed oblivious to the stare. “Only you spend a lot of time together and…”
“Natalie!” Katherine’s sharp tone cut the girl off. “This topic is closed, and I sincerely hope you don’t say such things to other people round the manor house!”
Katherine swung back round, satisfied she had made her point. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea to be so open after all. Not that she had deliberately made Natalie aware of her and Anne’s relationship. An eight-year-old was the last person she would entrust with such a secret. Unfortunately it seemed the girl was remarkably perceptive, and when she had followed Katherine from the manor house one day and spied the two women kissing in Sherwood Forest it had cemented her suspicions with fact. Now Katherine just tried to avoid discussing it with the girl, though the fact she seemed to have a soft spot for Anne meant it often came up.
Katherine had never been more thankful to see the vista of Clifton church than she was right at that moment. Tethering Delta in a shady spot outside, she swept into the cool interior. Natalie was hot on her heels even if Katherine was ignoring her for the time being. Katherine had been hoping that the priest might be absent, tending some part of his parish, but he was there in the church. For a moment he didn’t sense their presence, busy reading from a book perched on a plain, unadorned lectern. Then his eyes flicked up, and a smile quickly spread across his wrinkled face.
“M’lady, to what do we owe this pleasure?”
Katherine politely returned the smile. “I was just in the area and though I’d drop in to see how things are going.” Katherine wondered how much penance she’d have to do for lying to a man of the cloth.
The priest closed up his weighty book with a resounding thump. “Then come through and join me for a drink, you must be thirsty after the ride from Markham.”
Katherine followed him through an archway to the back of the church, all the time keeping her eyes peeled for candlesticks. Meanwhile, Natalie was surprisingly quiet as they sat down in the small chamber. Katherine hoped that didn’t indicate she was building up to something. The priest busied himself, pouring some wine for the two adults, while Natalie was offered a mug of water that she mutely accepted. Katherine had to nudge her to extract a ‘thank you’.
Once they had all drank, the conversation descended into talk of the parish and who was doing what. The local priests always tended to be the best source of gossip. At appropriately spaced intervals, Katherine cast her eyes around the room, studying the ornaments stored there. The room was brimming with what she could only describe as junk, piled up high on shelves, bookcases and any other available surface. All of them were accumulating a fine layer of dust. Amongst the clutter there were a few candlesticks, but none with the Ares markings that she could see. However, she had to consider that any such inscription might be on the base. Katherine was pondering how she might pass off a sudden interest in the bottoms of candlesticks, when a voice from out in the church saved her the trouble. The friar excused himself and disappeared to greet whoever it was.
Quickly on her feet, Katherine started turning over each of the candlesticks before placing them carefully back in position. She could sense the bemused look from the still seated Natalie and it wasn’t long before the question came.
“What are you doing?”
Katherine continued with her search. “Just checking for something,” she replied dismissively.
“Why did you wait until the priest went out?”
Katherine looked to the heavens for a moment, wondering if God had deserted her because of her earlier white lies. She should have known that the young girl wouldn’t be so easily fobbed off. “I’d just rather he didn’t know that I was looking over his candlesticks.” She could see Natalie still looking suspicious. “You could consider it our little secret,” Katherine added.
That generated a smile from the youngster. “Right,” Natalie tapped her nose, “Say no more.”
Katherine ruefully shook her head and turned back to the shelves and alcoves, examining the remaining holders. She had just placed the last candlestick back down, having discovered nothing, when the priest breezed back into the room. He saw her standing by the shelves and looked faintly perplexed.
“Is there something you were after?” he asked.
Katherine made a show of placing her hands in the small of her back and arching it. “No, just stretching my legs.” That was her second lie to the priest; she’d be in the fiery pit before she knew it. Deciding she didn’t need to risk eternal damnation further, Katherine headed for the door. “Anyway, I can see you’re busy, and we need to be getting on. Thank you for your help.”
“Of course, if there’s ever anything else you need, then don’t hesitate to ask.”
The priest escorted them back out to the front of the church and Katherine was just offering her final smile of gratitude when a small voice piped up next to her.
“Actually, I have a question.”
Katherine resisted the urge to roll her eyes while the priest turned to Natalie, a look of fond indulgence on his face. “And what might that be, young lady?”
“It’s about what grown ups do when they’re together.”
The alarm bells started ringing immediately in Katherine’s mind.
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” said the bemused man.
“You know, kissing and all that stuff.”
The priest actually laughed. “Well, I wouldn’t know exactly,” he reminded her, “And I’m not sure this is really an appropriate topic for a young girl of you age.”
He gave Katherine a quick questioning glance. She shrugged in return, praying the conversation had faltered.
“Oh, I don’t mean that,” Natalie quickly added, dashing Katherine’s hopes, “I meant more about love and that.”
“Ahh,” noted the priest sagely, “And what would someone so young like to know about love?”
Katherine wished he wasn’t quite so patient, but he was a priest after all.
“What I wanted to know was…is love always between a man and a woman?”
Wondering if it was possible to die from embarrassment, Katherine kept her eyes fixed on an incredibly interesting spot on the wall. She didn’t dare catch the priest’s eye. She could have happily wrapped her hand around Natalie’s mouth and dragged her out of the church, but that would only draw more attention to the line of questioning.
The priest remained remarkably even toned still. “Not necessarily,” he answered, “There are all sorts of love. The love of a parent for a child, that between other family members or even just friends.”
Natalie shook her head. “No, I mean like between a husband and a wife, can you get that between two women?”
The priest’s brow furrowed with concern. “Where have you heard about such things?”
Katherine finally seized her chance to step in. “I’m sorry, father, I don’t know where she got such notions.”
He regarded her seriously. “Well, I would find out if I were you, someone is obviously corrupting her susceptible young mind with such idiocy.”
Natalie wasn’t about to let the two adults talk over her, though. “You can’t have that between two women then?” she pressed the priest.
Katherine tried to catch the young girl’s eye, to get her to drop the conversation, but Natalie was determinedly staring at the cleric, waiting for her answer.
He obviously decided it was up to him to put an end to it. “No, you can’t,” he stated, “That sort of love is a blessed gift from God between a man and a woman.”
Finally Natalie seemed stymied, pursing her lips in thought. Katherine wrapped a hand around her shoulder and started ushering her towards the door. “Thank you again, father,” she said over her shoulder as they made their swift exit.
Once they were outside Katherine strode over to Delta and undid his reins without looking at the young girl. She didn’t trust herself to speak to Natalie for the moment. Only when they were safely out of the village and back on the open road did she pull the horse up and hop off, guiding both horse and girl off the track into a nearby grassy field.
“Get down please,” she instructed Natalie.
For a second Natalie looked like she might retort, but she took the wiser course of obeying the order. As she slid off the back of the tall animal, Katherine fixed her with a fierce stare, watching her all the way down. Safely on the ground, Natalie quickly averted her eyes downwards in shame.
“Perhaps you might like to tell me what in god’s name you were thinking, asking the priest all those questions?” demanded Katherine, “I thought I already told you not to bring it up?”
Natalie’s eyes flicked up beseechingly. “I just want to understand,” she said, “Only everyone makes it out to be so bad, but I think you do love Anne and she loves you. I don’t understand why that’s wrong.”
Katherine sighed. It was difficult trying to maintain righteous indignation in the face of such a pleading look. Slowly she knelt down so she was at the young girl’s height, mulling over how much to say as she did. “You’re right, I do love Anne,” she eventually admitted, “And it’s not wrong.”
“But the priest, all those other people…”
“Have their own opinions,” interrupted Katherine gently, “What you have to realise in life is that you need to decide for yourself whether you agree with those opinions. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you should think or what you should feel. Just because it’s against what society or the church might accept doesn’t necessarily make something wrong. Not that I’m advocating rebelling against all the laws of society, some of them do make sense, but those that try to control our feelings and thoughts can only cause hurt and pain.”
Natalie considered the words for a moment. Katherine could almost see the thought process on her face as her eyebrows scrunched together. “So the church is wrong then?” Natalie asked tentatively after a good few seconds. “Why didn’t you say something when the priest said those things? He was saying that you and Anne being together isn’t right.”
Katherine exhaled slowly again, giving herself time to formulate her answer. “I’m not saying the church is necessarily wrong, it all depends on how you interpret things. And as for why I didn’t say anything…you have to learn to pick your battles, and that is one I have no hope of winning right now, maybe not ever. Unfortunately in their haste to condemn anything that might be seen as different or not conforming to the norms dictated to them, people forget that some of the main teachings of the church revolve around love, compassion, tolerance and forgiveness. Those things aren’t meant to be given conditionally, just as god doesn’t put conditions on his love for us. As I said before you should listen to your own heart and make up your own mind and don’t let anyone sway you with threats of eternal damnation. If you lead a good life, stay true to yourself and don’t hurt others then god will know. God loves us all, we are his children after all.”
“Do all parents love their children then?”
Katherine was taken aback by the sudden change in topic, thinking the question rather odd. Then she quickly recalled how Natalie’s parents had died when she was young and it made perfect sense. The girl was hanging on her words as if waiting for some great truth to be revealed to her. “I like to believe so yes,” Katherine replied, “They may not always show it, but the bond between a mother and a son or a father and a daughter is special, one that cannot be easily broken.”
“What were your father and mother like? Did you have a special relationship with them?”
Katherine cursed herself for leaving herself open to the question. She could hardly avoid it, not when Natalie was asking it out of genuine curiosity. Katherine felt she owed the young girl honesty in this case. Yet she just wasn’t sure she wanted to talk about her father right now, not when she wasn’t sure what she felt about him. The recent revelations about his past with the Ares Syndicate were still troubling her. So instead she launched into a rambling description of her childhood hoping to deflect the question. She peppered her account with plenty of references to her mother and sister and quickly glossed over anything to do with her father. However, Natalie was either so curious that she wanted to know more, or very perceptive, because when Katherine paused she was quickly in with another question.
“And what about your father? What was he like?”
Katherine took a deep breath. She’d pretty much avoided talking about him since finding his letter nearly two months ago. A few times Anne had tried to get her to open up with little success. It wasn’t that Katherine didn’t want to talk to her, she just didn’t want to talk to anyone while it was still so confusing in her own mind. So instead she’d basically ignored the questions that plagued her. Now here she was finally discussing it with an eight-year-old. It was funny how things turned out some times.
“He was a good man,” she began broadly, finding the words stuck in her throat. “A loving father,” she added. That particular comment was easier to get out and she followed on down that track. “Despite the fact that he was lord of the manor, he’d always find time for us, be it taking us out fishing, or reading to us, or just listening when we needed a shoulder to cry on. You just knew he would always be there for you, no matter what.”
As she continued to speak, she realised that what she said was the truth – he was a loving father. Whatever else he might have done, he had never done anything to hurt her. In a way her had been protecting her by keeping his other life a secret.
“I wish I had someone like that,” said Natalie wistfully.
“You have the people at the house, they all seem to love you,” Katherine offered, “And Anne and me of course.”
Natalie perked up at the last comment. “Do you mean that? You’re not going to send me back to Yorkshire when I become too much?”
Katherine’s brow furrowed in consternation. “What? No of course not, is that what you think?”
Natalie looked abashed by Katherine’s surprise. “Well, I wasn’t sure…”
Katherine placed a gentle hand on Natalie’s small shoulder. She could feel the tiny bones of it pressing through the rough fabric of her simple dress and made a mental note to check they were feeding her properly back at the house. “We love having you here,” she said softly, “And anyway how would I cope without my very own personal assistant?”
A smile flickered across Natalie’s face. “Is that like my proper title?”
Katherine laughed. “You’d like one would you?”
Natalie nodded enthusiastically, her curly brown hair bobbing about her shoulders. Katherine leaned in closer, pretending to check for anyone else who might be listening. “All right,” she whispered, “Just don’t tell Beatrice.”
Natalie attempted a wink, but only succeeded in scrunching both eyes shut at once. “And what are my duties as Lady of the Manor’s Personal Assistant?”
Katherine stroked her chin in thought. “Well obviously you’d have to accompany me on various outings round the estate.”
Natalie nodded. “Of course.”
“And help when we have guests at the house.”
“And study hard.”
Natalie was already nodding before she caught herself. “What?”
Katherine shrugged nonchalantly. “I can’t have an uneducated assistant now can I? What if you need to write something down for me?”
“Does that mean more lessons with the friar?”
“I’m afraid so. Tell you what, if you study hard and learn to write a complete sentence, I promise to take you somewhere of your choosing, just the two of us.”
“Can we go fishing?”
“Fishing? I thought maybe you might like to go see one of the large towns or estates, or maybe the sea. Have you ever seen the ocean?”
“No, but I’d rather go fishing in the river. You said your father used to take you.”
Katherine’s lips curved into a half smile. “Fishing it is then.”
By the time they reached Markham the sun was starting to dip beyond the western hills. Katherine immediately dispatched Natalie off to the kitchens to get something to eat while she took care of Delta. The stables were ripe with the myriad smells of horses as she entered, not all of them entirely pleasant. She realised she could have left Delta with one of the squires of stable boys, but she liked to perform at least some of his care herself when time allowed.
She was busy brushing down his coat when another figure entered the block, tethering his own horse by the water trough and starting to remove the saddle. With the sun setting over the manor walls behind him, she could see it was the young guard, Thomas, obviously just back from a patrol since he looked rather hot and bothered under his blue tabard and leather armour.
“Good evening, Thomas.”
The young man started, having not seen Katherine prior to her speaking. “Good evening, m’lady.” He recovered from his initial surprise quickly, looking over what she was doing. “You know I could do that for you?”
“No, it’s fine,” she said with a dismissive wave of the hand, “I like to do it, it enhances the bond with your horse don’t you think?”
Thomas gave his boyish grin. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve been known to talk to mine.”
Katherine smiled warmly in return. “Don’t worry your secret’s safe with me. I’ve been known to indulge in the odd bit of discourse with Delta too.” She looked up to the chestnut colt’s head. The young horse was peering round as if he knew they were talking about him. “Not that he’s a very good conversationalist,” she added, “But he’s one hell of a listener!”
Thomas joined in with her chuckles before they both returned to tending their horses. “How are things with you anyway,” asked Katherine conversationally, “Have you not made an honest woman of Beatrice yet?”
Thomas’ eyes darted to her. “What has she been saying?”
Katherine held up her hands at the fierce look. “Nothing, it was just a friendly question.”
Thomas shook his head. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. It’s just that she’s been going on at me about it too, asking when we’re going to get married.”
“And you don’t want to?”
“No, I do want to!” he cried vehemently. “I just want to make it special for her and provide for her. At the moment I live in the barracks with all the other guards. That’s hardly the home for newlyweds.”
“I’m sure we could arrange something,” Katherine offered, “Maybe some land of the estate for you. Though of course it would have to be close by, I don’t want to lose my favourite maid after all.” She paused before adding. “And a loyal guard too, of course.”
Thomas had stopped his brushing again. “You would do that for us?”
“Of course. The happiness of the people of Markham is important to me, especially those within these walls.” Katherine placed a friendly arm around his shoulders, thinking he was getting anxious about proposing now there were no obstacles. “So now you have no excuse not to go and pop that question.” She thought her suspicions were well-founded as the colour drained from his face. “Maybe you ought to go and have a few fortifying ales first?” she suggested.
“I think you might be right!”
Katherine was left laughing to herself as he darted from the stables in search of the nearest barrel.
There was still a faint light filtering through from outside as Katherine eventually entered her bed chamber some time later. She was pleased to see that Beatrice had anticipated her wishes and was in the process of preparing a bath. The hot water would go a long way to easing out the stiffness from a day spent in the saddle. The large oak tub that sat in the centre of the room was only half full at present, a few wisps of steam issuing up towards the ceiling. Katherine had only gotten as far as removing the belt around her waist when the door crashed open and Beatrice stumbled in carrying another steaming bucket.
“Ah, m’lady, you’re back,” noted Beatrice as she hefted the water over to the tub, sloshing some of it over the sides as she walked.
“Yes, I am,” agreed Katherine, continuing to remove her clothes. Beatrice didn’t bat an eyelid; she’d seen Katherine in varying states of undress plenty of times before. “By the way, have you seen Thomas this evening?” asked Katherine innocently.
Beatrice tipped the bucket up and poured its contents into the swirling waters. “No, why? What’s he done?”
Katherine smiled to herself. “Oh, nothing.”
The empty bucket clonked down onto the floorboards. “Tell me, what is it?”
Katherine turned away to fetch her robe. “Don’t worry,” she said over her shoulder, “It’s not bad, but I think he should be the one to talk to you.”
As Katherine swung back round, Beatrice gave her one last indignant look before heading out of the room to fetch the rest of the water.
Anne could feel the first few raindrops falling from the skies onto her head as she slipped silently over the wall of Markham Manor. Fortunately she had changed back into her normal attire; she wouldn’t have fancied the scrambling ascent while hindered by a skirt. Anne leapt down onto the grass below, crouching for a second in the crevices of the wall as she made a final check that is was safe to cross the yard at its closest point to the house. There was a far-off rumble from the impending storm as she waited. Finally she sprinted across, vaulting agilely onto the roof in one fluid motion. The tiles would soon be slippery with rain, but for now she had no problem negotiating them to Katherine’s window and clambering quietly inside.
The light was low in the room, though Anne hardly needed the aid of illumination to negotiate her way around it. She had been here enough times now to know it inside out. Certain parts more than others, she thought as she glanced over at the bed. There were a couple of candles set upon a table in the centre of the room that did provide what light there was. The wax pooling about their base looked fresh and Anne thought they probably hadn’t been alight long. Next to the table was Katherine’s bath that appeared to be full. There were no telltale wet footprints to indicate it had been utilised yet. All that was missing from the room was Katherine herself.
There was a faint swishing sound from behind her, probably inaudible to most people, but Anne’s senses were finely tuned. She allowed herself a small smile but didn’t turn round. Instead she let Katherine glide up behind her and slip her arms around the younger woman’s waist.
“Good evening,” whispered Katherine, her breath hot past Anne’s right ear.
Anne placed her hands over Katherine’s own. “Good evening,” she murmured back.
Katherine started running her lips teasingly over the back of Anne’s neck. “It looks like you got here just in time,” she noted absently.
There was another distant rumble from outside to make her point, accompanied by the sound of more persistent raindrops starting to plop into the courtyard.
Anne craned her head round. “I think I might be getting wetter inside your room than out in the rain.” She completed her turn so that her entire body was facing Katherine. “In more ways than one.”
Their lips met. It was a gentle caress, carrying promises of more yet to come. Anne’s fingers slid over the material of Katherine’s robe, down the contours of her back. A few crackles of static following them in the charged atmosphere. The little pinpricks were followed by a stronger tingling sensation working its way up the rest of Anne’s arms. The fine hairs on them were aroused to standing as the sensation carried on through the rest of her body, all the way down to her toes, which curled against the confines of her boots in anticipation.
Eventually Katherine pulled back from the kiss, still close, chest pressing urgently against Anne. “I think you might be slightly over-dressed.” She was already undoing Anne’s belt. It dropped to the floor, the sword banging noisily on the boards.
A smile tickled at Anne’s mouth. “In a hurry are we?”
Katherine gave an unapologetic shrug, now teasing Anne’s shirt up over her chest. “We wouldn’t want the water to get cold would we?”
Anne merely dipped her head slightly in acknowledgment before holding up her arms, allowing the black material to be eased over her head. More static crackled through her blond hair as Katherine tossed it aside. With Anne’s flesh revealed, the young woman could see Katherine’s blue eyes widening with desire in the flickering light. Anne felt the heat bubbling within herself as she was caught in the feral gaze. Then Katherine’s hands were back on Anne’s remaining clothes, untying her trousers and pushing them down over slender hips. They fell about her knees, the barrier of her calf-length boots preventing further progress.
Anne was just about to bend down and remove them when Katherine beat her to it. She slipped down Anne’s body, deliberately tracking her fingers down Anne’s still tingling thighs as she went into a kneeling position. The tingling was building rapidly, Anne’s whole body sensitive to the merest brush of skin now. Anne could only stand there, trying to breathe deeply and control her rapidly beating heart as Katherine knelt before her, undoing the boots with tormenting slowness. When she was finished and had removed Anne’s trousers too, Katherine re-traced her steps, fingers sliding up smooth thighs before her head followed. Halfway up Katherine paused. Anne could feel Katherine’s hot breath, tickling through her pubic hair, teasing her clitoris. Anne shuddered, sensing the rush of moisture between her legs. Yet Katherine didn’t touch her. She merely hovered there, breathing…breathing…breathing. Just when Anne thought she might go mad with the torment, Katherine finally straightened up, the wanton glint in her eye obvious as Anne stood gloriously naked before her. All she had left on was the small pendant she wore about her neck, the blue stone reflecting the flames of the candles. Anne made to take it off too, but Katherine caught her hand.
“You can keep that on.” The seductive purr in her voice left Anne in no doubt she should obey.
Having to deliberately still her trembling fingers, Anne reached up and hooked her fingers under the edges of Katherine’s robe. The thin material slid easily off her pale shoulders and down bare arms to pool at her feet. Anne knew her own eyes would be the ones widening now. Katherine was truly beautiful, exquisite.
Katherine’s husky voice interrupted her enraptured study. “After you,” she murmured, indicating the bath.
The water was piping hot as Anne’s toe touched it, almost too hot. She had to ease down slowly into the water, the surface tracking up smooth thighs, over tight stomach muscles and finally enveloping stiff nipples. Katherine quickly followed her in, also having to take her time. It gave Anne the chance to watch from her vantage point, resting against the back of the wooden tub. She couldn’t keep her eyes off the vision descending into the water in front of her like some glorious siren appearing through the steam. The heat was rising rapidly up from the water into Anne’s head, the blood pumping hard at her temple.
It took Anne a moment to realise Katherine was holding a cloth out to her. Anne took it and Katherine swivelled round in the water, pressing her back up against Anne’s breasts as the young woman’s legs automatically parted to allow her to. Anne trailed the cloth languidly across Katherine’s shoulder and down her arm, feeling the slight uneven area on her forearm. She frowned as she went back and forth over it a couple of times. It was where Alan had managed to cut Katherine, shortly before he met his end.
“It’s not going to wash off you know.”
Anne looked up, seeing Katherine regarding her over her shoulder with her familiar lop-sided smile. Noticing that Anne didn’t appear quite so amused, Katherine took the other woman’s hand, guiding the cloth back onto her body. “It’s healing fine,” she said as both their hands slid over her skin in unison. “And I have one to match yours now,” she added, brushing her thumb over the scar on Anne’s left palm, that one also courtesy of Alan.
Anne shook her head to try and shake off the feelings of regret. “It’s just a shame that bastard Barton got away.”
Anne could feel Katherine’s eyes on her once more and she looked up to find a look of concern.
“You’re not about to go after him or anything?” asked Katherine.
“No, why would I?”
“It’s just…never mind.”
Anne had an inkling what Katherine was thinking – that she might seek Barton out to exact some form of retribution or revenge. It had crossed her mind on occasion, but more as inner ranting than any serious intention. They had enough to worry about without her charging off on some personal vendetta. If Barton himself came calling then it would be another matter, but until then Anne was happy to forget about him. If only she could forget about Alan quite so easily. He was more problematical after death than he had been when he’d been alive. He’d already caused some heated words between the two of them, and Anne really didn’t want to end up going over that topic again. Not when there were much more interesting subjects to consider. Two were before her now, floating invitingly in the hot water.
Sweeping away thoughts of anyone else, Anne slipped her hand over the front of Katherine’s body to her chest. The white cloth wasn’t big enough to cover the whole area as Anne slowly massaged the soap into the skin, and ever-tightening nipples were revealed at intervals. Anne couldn’t resist reaching up with her free hand to tease one. Katherine let out a low moan, her head flopping back onto Anne’s shoulder. Her damp auburn hair splayed out over the white skin, trailing across it in a tickling path. Katherine’s eyes had slid shut as she continued to enjoy the sensations, small noises of pleasure randomly emanating from her lips.
The sounds caused another flutter of desire mingled with excitement somewhere down inside Anne. She found herself making corresponding ones subconsciously, small moans as she became enveloped in her task, lost to swirling patterns she was drawing across Katherine’s skin. Her hand slipped below the hot water, descending ever lower.
Katherine’s voice broke her out of her erotic trance for a moment. “You seem to have lost your cloth,” she whispered huskily. She hadn’t opened her eyes, her face still tipped up towards the roof.
“Have I?” asked Anne innocently, “I hadn’t noticed.”
She made no attempt to retrieve it now, her fingers continuing on without it. Anne had to lean forwards slightly as they descended, pushing her own breasts tighter to Katherine’s back, feeling the undulating bones of her spine rubbing against them. Anne sucked in a breath. Her fingers had reached as low as they were going to go, sliding in between slick skin before pushing gently upwards once more.
There was another groan from Katherine, followed by a contented murmur. Her head flopped loosely to the side, hot breath brushing out over Anne’s neck. Anne closed her own eyes, revelling in the sensations from her fingers, feeling every small variation of moisture and tension within Katherine. She explored deeper, stroking against soft walls. Every now and then Katherine would judder against her and gasp as Anne flicked over a particularly sensitive spot.
Anne lost track of time, carried away with the tender stroking, marvelling at each small reaction. Gradually her rhythm increased. Katherine’s head nuzzled tighter into Anne’s shoulder, and the young woman peeked to see Katherine’s arms had swept up out of the water to grip the sides of the tub. Meanwhile her feet were braced against the far side, allowing her to thrust back harder into Anne.
Anne was almost crushed against the side of the bath, but she didn’t care. She didn’t care about anything, couldn’t think about anything. Katherine’s groans were loud, abandoned; they drove all coherent thought from the young woman’s mind. Anne’s own breathing was short and fast now, and for a moment she thought she might climax herself, before even Katherine. Water sloshed out over the side of the bath as Katherine’s movements became more erratic until finally she wasn’t moving at all. She was perfectly still, Anne’s fingers gripped tight within her.
All of a sudden there was a cry bubbling up from Katherine’s throat from somewhere way down deep. Anne’s eyes shot open in wild-eyed wonder at the noise before she suddenly recalled their location. She clamped a hand over Katherine’s mouth just in time as the cry reached its noisy crescendo. Once it had escaped its confines, Katherine’s whole body relaxed, slumping backwards. Anne deemed it safe to remove her hand. Katherine’s breathing came in ragged gasps as she merely lay limply against Anne, resting her head. Eventually her eyes flickered open to gaze up at the younger woman. Her pupils were wide, almost entirely edging out the blue-grey of her irises. A soft smile spread across her lips.
Anne managed to bow her head enough to capture them with her own. They were swollen from the heat, soft and plump. When she pulled back she could see that Katherine’s smile had altered to a much more wicked one. From her hand dangled the long lost cloth. “My turn.”
Katherine placed the papers down on her desk and slowly rubbed at her temple, kneading the skin between her thumb and forefinger. She’d read the page three times now, but still the figures seemed to swim before her eyes and stubbornly refused to make any kind of sense. Then again she’d been perusing the latest tax reports for the last two hours, and that was more than enough for any sane person. Her concentration wasn’t helped by the persistent memories of the night before. How could she calculate taxes when images of Anne writhing around on her bed kept flitting past?
Deciding it was time for a break, Katherine rose and headed out the door of her chamber, intending to seek out some food and drink from the kitchens. No doubt Cook would be aghast that Katherine was making a personal appearance in the servants area; he had been on all the previous occasions. However, Katherine just didn’t see the point of summoning Beatrice when she had a perfectly good pair of legs herself. Legs that needed some exercise.
Katherine was nearing the foot of the back staircase when she caught the sound of running in the corridor below. Someone was approaching at speed. Katherine took care to avoid the person hurrying past as she stepped down the last stone step. Unfortunately she couldn’t avoid the object that was hurtling after them. A cloud of white engulfed her as something soft impacted the side of her head. Katherine coughed a few times as it settled, an empty flour bag becoming visible on the ground at her feet. As she started to brush the white powder from her dress, she was quickly joined by someone else patting her down fussily.
“I’m so sorry, m’lady, I didn’t see you there,” said the young page Isaac with profuse apology.
Katherine looked at him as he continued to clumsily try and clean her off. He seemed to get bigger every day – he now cleared her by a good few inches in height. Though he didn’t seem to have quite grown into his body, appearing all gangly arms and legs as he tried to dust her down. She deliberated for a moment over how much to tease him about the incident, but seeing how he already looked panic stricken enough, she settled on being magnanimous this time. She reached out to stop his hands. “It’s all right, Isaac.”
“But your dress, your hair…”
“It’s all right, no harm done,” she re-iterated. “Though you might want to tell me what exactly you’re doing flinging cook’s flour around the corridors.”
Isaac looked to his feet, giving Katherine a good view of the top of his dark head. “Nothing,” he answered in typical childlike avoidance.
Katherine placed her hands on her hips and gave him her best stare. “Really?”
He merely nodded his head, not daring to look up. Suddenly Katherine recalled the evasive action she’d been required to take on stepping into the corridor. She glanced back over her shoulder, catching sight of a curly mop of brown hair before it ducked out of sight.
Katherine swung back to Isaac. “So it was just you was it? Playing around on your own?”
Katherine nodded thoughtfully. “In that case I suppose I better let Tobias know, and he can handle your punishment.”
Katherine had reached two in her internal count when a small voice broke into the conversation from behind her.
“It wasn’t just Isaac, it was my idea too.”
“Now that is a surprise,” noted Katherine sarcastically as Natalie joined them. The young girl didn’t appear half as contrite as the blushing Isaac. “It seems you two don’t have enough to occupy you time,” noted Katherine, “I think maybe some extra lessons with the friar are in order.”
The groan from both of them was audible. “Can’t we do something else to occupy ourselves?” asked Natalie, “Like that fishing trip you promised?”
Katherine narrowed her eyes. Was the young girl actually trying to make her feel guilty? It had only been a day since she’d made the suggestion. “We will go on our fishing trip soon,” she assured the girl, “But I can’t just disregard my duties here to go gallivanting around the countryside any time I fancy.”
“Unless it’s to Sherwood Forest,” muttered the young girl.
The hush that descended over the corridor was painful. When Katherine did finally speak it was in a voice so low Natalie had to strain to hear it. “I will pretend you didn’t say that.” Katherine turned to the bemused young man at her side. “And you will do the same, Isaac.”
He quickly nodded emphatically. “Yes, m’lady, of course, m’lady.”
Katherine could only hope he wouldn’t mention Natalie’s careless words to anyone else. At least the young girl had fallen silent now, looking sheepishly down at her feet. “Now I suggest you both go and find something more productive to be getting on with,” continued Katherine, “Before I come up with a task for you, like cleaning the latrines.”
That was more than threat enough to send them scurrying away. Katherine shook her head ruefully, not knowing exactly when she had become nursemaid to two troublesome children. Dismissing such thoughts for the time being, she was reminded of her original course by a loud rumbling from her stomach. Unfortunately she had barely made it to the kitchen door when someone hailed her. It was one of the gate guards, his sword bashing against his leg as he hurried towards her.
“M’lady, there’s a priest requesting an audience with you,” he informed her as he quickly stood to attention. For some reason he couldn’t seem to stop himself repeatedly glancing at her, a curious look on his face.
Katherine ignored the odd perusal as she tried to recall making any appointments with members of the clergy, but nothing sprang to mind. “Where is he from?”
“He’s come from Maplebeck.”
Katherine had a vague recollection that he was a new priest to that parish. There had been mention of it in the last meeting with John Tanner, the knight in charge of that part of the estate. She considered that the priest had perhaps merely come to introduce himself, though it was a long journey if that was the case.
“All right,” conceded Katherine eventually, “Get him to wait in the great hall, I’ll be out shortly.”
The guard nodded and hurried off in the direction he had come. Katherine ducked into the kitchen for a moment. It was as busy as usual, the sounds and smells buffeting her as soon as she entered. There were so many different ones assaulting her senses that it was difficult to pin down a single one straight away. She could make out roasting meat, perhaps venison, a rather powerful eggy smell and closer by the more pleasant odour of fresh bread. It was that she homed in on, tearing a piece off the nearby loaf before Cook could spot her. He was busy in the far corner, berating one of the kitchen boys for some no doubt minor indiscretion. The telling off over, he turned and immediately caught sight of a guilty looking Katherine chewing a particularly large mouthful. Katherine could only offer a full-cheeked smile in response to the cook’s querying look. She swallowed and started backing out.
“Sorry, William, no time to stop and chat.”
“Sorry, I’ve got someone to see!”
Katherine quickly closed the door behind her, not wishing to get involved in a long discussion with the cook at that moment. She knew that once he started talking, she’d be lucky to get out of their before supper. So she crossed to the door for the hall without waiting to see if the cook was following. It was reasonably quiet in the cavernous room since most of its usual inhabitants were off out in the fields. There were a few odd people cleaning, eating or carrying out other tasks, but her target was immediately obvious amongst the other familiar faces. He was a middle-aged man, the receding hairline testament to his age. Katherine couldn’t really see his face from her position, as he was sitting at one of the long tables, facing away from her and studying those around him intently. So much so that he didn’t spot Katherine until she was right on top of him.
“Good afternoon,” said Katherine, causing the man to jump.
He swiftly got up and turned round to make a small bow. “Good afternoon, m’lady.”
When his eyes came back up they widened as they took in Katherine for the first time. Katherine was fed up with people staring at her like she had two heads. First the guard and now the priest. Even cook had been giving her a weird look. “Is there something wrong?” she asked a touch more testily than she had intended.
“What?” He met her eye, seeing the challenge in it. “Er, no, nothing, he quickly added. Only…”
He didn’t seem to be able to continue, merely indicating upwards to the top of her head with his eyes. Katherine puzzled at the gesture for the briefest of moments before she realised the implication. She quickly ran her hands through her hair, dismayed to see the shower of flour that fell onto the floor. She sighed, “Sorry, a slight mishap in the kitchen.”
“Of course,” he said evenly.
If he saw any sort of funny side in her appearance, he didn’t show it, a dour expression remaining on his face as Katherine brushed the remnants of flour from her hair and took a seat. He followed her lead and proceeded to introduce himself as Joshua Cooper, the new parish priest at Maplebeck. The conversation continued onto the minutiae of parish business and at times Katherine had to struggle to keep her eyes open. She really couldn’t understand why the priest had come to see her in person. This was the sort of thing she had knights for. They provided someone to delegate some of the more tedious responsibilities of running the estate to. Yet she sensed the priest would really rather be talking about something else too, that all this was the polite preamble to what he really wanted to discuss. She wished he would get on with it, if that were the case.
The conversation faltered and his eyes started to drift around the room again. “I see your staff do a good job of keeping the hall spick and span,” he noted.
Katherine held back on sighing. How much more small talk could she take? Even the taxes seemed appealing now. “They do their best,” she replied flatly.
“I’ve met one of your maids already actually,” continued the priest, suddenly fixing his eyes back on her. They were more alert than they had been at any point during the conversation and something about the intent stare made Katherine perk up too.
“Oh yes?” she prompted.
“I didn’t catch her name,” he said, trying to be offhand and make out it was more of the same small talk. “She was in Maplebeck yesterday, a tall blond woman, blue eyes.”
Katherine knew immediately who he meant. It seemed Anne had neglected to mention her run in with the priest. Then again, they had been rather distracted the previous evening.
“I didn’t get it wrong did I?” asked the priest as Katherine hesitated, “She is one of your maids?”
“Yes, she is one of my maids,” Katherine confirmed falsely. Lying to priests was starting to become a bad habit.
“And is she around today?”
Katherine wondered at the question, especially as the man was looking round the hall expectantly, as if hoping to catch sight of Anne. “No,” Katherine answered, “She’s running an errand for me.” For some reason lying to this particular priest came easily.
The way his face fell caused a stronger stirring of anxiety in Katherine. Why was the man so interested in Anne? Did he have suspicions regarding her identity or was it something else? It now seemed obvious that seeking out Anne was the real reason he had come to Markham. Katherine felt even less inclined to be open with him than she had before, and swiftly managed to end the conversation claiming she had work to get back to.
As she climbed the stairs to her chamber she paused at one of the thin windows in the thick stone walls. She could see the priest back out in the courtyard, but not making any sign of immediately leaving. Instead he was talking with Tobias, maybe seeking out more details on Anne. Katherine knew she could trust Tobias to be suitably economical with the truth but still it worried her. Her anxiety only grew when she pushed open the door to her bedroom.
Instantly she knew something was wrong - things were out of place. Not many, but enough for her to know it wasn’t just her memory playing tricks on her. The lute that sat on the desk was pointing at a slightly different angle, the dress that had been lying over the edge of the bed was marginally higher up off the floor, the handle on the door to the wardrobe was slightly depressed. It was the last of these that grabbed her attention.
She dashed over and threw open the door, frantically pushing aside the hanging dresses to access the back wall. In her haste her fingers fumbled over the secret latch, but she eventually managed to pop it and draw out the box inside. Relief swept over her as she opened it and found the contents still there. There were three items in the plain wooden box – a goblet, an inkwell and a dagger. Individually they seemed innocuous, but in actuality they were part of a puzzle that led to a deadly weapon. When combined with two more objects and a mysterious key that neither Katherine nor Anne were yet to identify, they would provide the whereabouts and the means to retrieve the weapon belonging to the Ares Syndicate.
Katherine took out each one in turn, contemplating the markings that Anne had deciphered as she turned them over in her hands. Had the Syndicate sent someone to retrieve the items? If so why had they not taken them, or had they been disturbed before they could find them? There were many questions but few answers. Katherine wondered whether she should move the objects elsewhere. Just because whoever had been looking hadn’t found them this time, didn’t mean they wouldn’t be back. That was always assuming that the intruder had been after the Ares objects. Either way she realised she had a potential thief at Markham. It suddenly occurred to her that the timing of the attempted robbery with the priest’s visit might be more than coincidental. After all, they had encountered a priest in the Syndicate’s employ before. She considered that Friar Cooper’s appearance might have merely been a way to distract her, though his inordinate interest in Anne suggested otherwise. That was unless they were related. Maybe the priest knew why Anne had been in Maplebeck. With that troublesome thought playing on her mind, Katherine replaced the items for the time being and went back to her taxes.
Katherine’s suspicions regarding the priest were still close to the fore the following day as she stepped out of the door of Markham Manor to a full courtyard. The day was cool and breezy, a distinct change from the previous few, but that hadn’t deterred those attending the weekly market. People swarmed round the stalls that covered the yard like bees round their hives. The grass was quickly turning to mud after the recent rains and the footfalls across it. Katherine pulled her cloak round her shoulders and moved onwards taking care over the slippery ground. She nodded her acknowledgement to various people as she passed through the market. Not that she knew all of them personally, but it was only polite in her position as head of the estate. She was glad to see the market was humming with activity that day. She hoped that it marked a rise in the reputation of Markham as a good place to trade. If the diversity of the stalls was anything to go by, then that seemed to be the case. All the usual market stalls were there – shoemakers, coopers, blacksmiths, weavers – but dotted amongst them were those offering more unique and out of the ordinary fare such as foreign spices, fine cloths and exotic foodstuffs.
It was in front of one of these unusual stalls that Katherine found herself. The merchant behind it was dark-skinned, a moor. That was unusual in itself, since not many of them were seen outside of the large towns. Even there they were a rarity. Katherine had to remind herself that she saw one nearly every day, but then she had long ago stopped distinguishing Tobias by the colour of his skin. He was just Tobias, captain of the guard and an honest and loyal man. There was still the occasional guest to the manor house who was shocked or outraged that she would dare employ ‘one of them’, and in such a prominent position. showing just how ridiculous their prejudices were, those same people usually added remarks about fearing he was going to come and murder them in their sleep so he could drink their blood.
The Moor behind the stall didn’t seem to be having too much trouble because of his appearance, a brisk trade going on around him. Katherine gave him a quick smile before she turned her eyes towards the makeshift table. Draped over it was a deep red cloth embroidered with gold and laid on top of that were a number of small, ornately carved trinkets and boxes. Katherine was contemplating making a purchase when she sensed another customer hovering at her side. They were standing closer than was entirely appropriate, and Katherine gave them a cursory glance. Katherine’s eyes had made it all the way back to the table before they widened in recognition.
Her shocked eyes shot up again. Anne was standing there next to her in broad daylight, her head and face on display for all to see. In fact that wasn’t the only thing on display. Anne was wearing a dress of all things, and a very revealing one at that.
“Anne,” hissed Katherine, quickly taking her arm and guiding her to the quietest spot she could find, behind one of the stalls and close to the wall. “What the hell are you doing?”
“Visiting the market,” Anne informed her.
“But…but…” Katherine was thrown for a second by the incongruous sight of Anne in the dress. “What if someone recognised you?” she finally managed.
“Can’t you see my cunning disguise?” asked Anne innocently.
Katherine’s eyes swept over the young woman. “Disguise? But it’s a dress!”
“Precisely! No one would be expecting an outlaw to be wandering around so openly.”
Katherine frowned. “So your ‘disguise’ is actually not to have one at all?”
Anne merely smiled. “Basically, yes. Besides do you really think anyone will be studying my face while I’m wearing this dress?”
Despite herself, Katherine couldn’t stop her eyes drifting to the soft mounds of flesh so prominently raised and displayed. Her gaze lingered long enough to illicit a small knowing chuckle from Anne.
“See what I mean,” she said smugly.
Katherine cleared her throat and raised her eyes, trying to pretend she hadn’t been staring. However, as the conversation continued she found her eyes flicking downwards at random intervals, almost as if they had a mind of their own or were magnetically drawn that way.
“What are you doing here?” asked Katherine, “Besides visiting the market,” she quickly added as she saw Anne about to speak. She was still somewhat thrown by Anne’s sudden appearance, concern for both Anne and her own reputation causing an undercurrent of anxiety to flutter through her stomach. She glanced nervously around a few times, checking no one was watching. “I thought we were meeting later?” That hadn’t come out right, she thought, but it was too late to take it back now.
“We were,” admitted Anne, unphased by Katherine’s less than enthusiastic reaction to seeing her, “But I thought it was such a fine day I’d drop by. There are enough people on the road that it was easy to blend in.”
“Still, I don’t like you risking it,” continued Katherine, “Sneaking in here at night is one thing, blatantly strolling around in the day is quite another. Especially when there could be visiting knights or nobles whose actions I have no direct influence over. You may not be being as careful as you think.”
Anne’s brow furrowed in puzzlement.
“I had an interesting visit from a priest yesterday, a Father Cooper from Maplebeck,” Katherine clarified.
“Oh,” was all Anne said in reply.
“I understand you two met.”
Anne nodded. “Yes, he was giving a sermon in the village square which I listened into.”
“It seems you did more than listen.” There was a faint reproach in her tone that she hadn’t really intended. She could see that Anne had caught it and was frowning slightly. “You appeared to have made quite the impression since he was asking after you.”
That bit of information seemed to disturb Anne as much as it had Katherine the day before. “He was? I knew there was something off with him, beyond the bible-bashing rhetoric. He was giving this talk about sin and people of the same sex being together, and then he suddenly grabbed my arm and started staring at me. I thought he somehow knew about my own proclivities, but I don’t think that was it at all.”
Katherine didn’t like the sound of this at all. Why Anne couldn’t have just gone to Maplebeck and searched the church as planned she didn’t know. “What was it then?” she pressed, wanting to know the extent of the problem.
Anne sighed, shaking her head. “I don’t know. All I know is that it was creepy. I got out of there as soon as I could. Maybe it’s priests in general - I’ve never liked them, ever since the church decided they wanted to hunt down and eradicate pagans. And then there was our friend Father Martin at Stratford.”
Katherine didn’t need reminding of his actions. “Talking of priests with a connection to the Syndicate,” she said, “Someone paid a little visit to my quarters while I was talking to Father Cooper.”
“Someone was looking for the objects?” asked Anne in hushed tones. “Did they find them, did you disturb them, are you all right?”
“I’m fine, I didn’t disturb them and they didn’t find the objects.” Katherine quickly answered the tirade of questions. “I don’t have any proof they were after the Ares items, but that’s my gut instinct.”
Anne looked worried and with good cause. “We should move them.”
“We could, but where to?”
“I could take them to the forest,” offered Anne.
Katherine made a small scoffing noise. “And hide them with a bunch of outlaws? I don’t think so.”
“It’s probably safer than here with the supposed honest citizens,” pointed out Anne with a sarcastic edge to her voice. She glanced round, viewing those passing nearby with some disdain.
Katherine leapt to her people’s defence. “Not everyone is a thief,” she remarked, “Though I guess they are in your experience.” As soon as the snide comment slipped out, she wished she could yank it back. It seemed she couldn’t say anything right that day.
“In my experience?” echoed Anne, looking a mixture of shocked and affronted. “And of course all your friends and family are fine, upstanding members of the community. None of them have ever done anything against the law have they, like say…murder someone?”
Katherine felt the cold sting of the words. “I thought we’d put that behind us,” she said evenly.
“Like you’ve put my criminal past behind us you mean?” said Anne pointedly. “Anyway, I thought I’d fit right in with you associates, what with Mark and Kirby and of course not forgetting your father.”
Katherine felt like she had been slapped in the face. This was going all wrong. “He has nothing to do with this.”
“I think he has everything to do with this! Without him we wouldn’t be running round on this wild goose chase, watching our backs at every turn, just waiting for the Ares Syndicate to strike.”
Katherine was just opening her mouth to retort again, when someone barged into her, knocking her off balance and straight into Anne’s arms. There was a grunted apology before the man moved off, head bowed and shuffling into the crowd. Without speaking, Anne quickly righted Katherine and dashed off after him, leaving a bemused Katherine to hurriedly follow. She wound her way through the bodies, finally catching up when Anne had cornered the man round the back of a blacksmith’s stall. He was a scrawny specimen, his clothes grubby, his shoes well-worn. He also looked petrified, on his knees in front of Anne as she held him by the neck. Anne tossed something to Katherine with her free hand. “Still think everyone’s not a thief?”
Katherine looked down at her own purse that the man had obviously lifted from the pocket of her cloak.
Anne’s attention was back on the cowering man. “Who are you working for?” she demanded, raising a fist.
“No one!” he replied hoarsely. His eyes were wide with terror.
The crack was audible as Anne’s fist thudded into the side of the man’s head. “Who is it? Who sent you?”
“No one!” pleaded the man, blood trickling down his chin now.
Anne’s fist was up again, when Katherine caught it. “Anne! What are you doing?” she hissed, glancing anxiously around to see if they had garnered any onlookers. Fortunately they hadn’t so far.
Anne’s eyes flicked to her. “First someone breaks into your room and then someone pickpockets you? It’s them, they must have sent him.”
“Why would they want my purse?” Katherine tried to reason, recognising the early signs of paranoia. She had experienced them herself recently with all the watching shadows and expecting members of the Syndicate to hop out at any moment.
“I don’t know,” cried Anne, “Perhaps he was after something else, the pages of the book maybe, and he just bumped the wrong person.” She stared fiercely down at the man who was remaining silent, no doubt hoping they would forget he was there. “Was that it, did you mean to steal from me instead?”
“No, no,” he said plaintively, “I just wanted the purse.”
“A likely story,” muttered Anne.
Katherine could feel Anne’s arm tensing. She was intending to strike him again. Katherine tightened her hold. “Why does everything always have to end in violence?” she asked pointedly.
Anne’s eyes slowly swung to Katherine, the venom that was directed at the man still evident in them as she looked at Katherine. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Settling disagreements with your fists,” Katherine answered, letting go of the arm she held to make her point, “There are other ways. We’re not back at Barton’s camp now.”
Anne finally released the petty thief, who slumped onto the ground. Anne took a step back from both him and Katherine before she answered. “I see, it’s about that again is it?” She shook her head in disbelief. “Christ, you’d think someone would be grateful for having their life saved.”
“You killed a man!” Katherine reminded her.
“Who was trying to kill you!”
The argument was taking a well-worn path, yet Katherine still couldn’t seem to stop herself following it. Her mouth seemed intent on continuing on with its own malicious course as it had been doing so far that day. “You could have disabled him,” she suggested, “I know you’re aim is perfect enough to hit exactly what you want to hit – you were aiming for his heart.”
The thief had run off now, obviously sensing it wasn’t a good idea to stick around as the two women had words. Luckily the repeated sound of the blacksmith’s hammer on his anvil prevented their raised voices from carrying to anyone else.
“So what if I was,” shot back Anne, “He was aiming for your back. I couldn’t take the chance that a hit anywhere else would have stopped him.”
“But are you even remorseful?” There was another crash and a shower of sparks from close by. “You seem so…” Katherine searched for something to explain Anne’s attitude, “…blasé about it. All right, he was a bastard, but no one deserves to die.”
“Sometimes they do,” noted Anne menacingly. “Anyway, you know who I am, I’ve had to kill people before, it comes with the territory.”
“But it shouldn’t have to,” said Katherine, “At least not to the point where you don’t seem to care any more.”
“That’s not true, I do care,” insisted Anne, “But as you said Alan was a bastard, a bastard who tried to kill you twice.”
Katherine didn’t like the implication. “Are you saying you did it for me?”
Anne merely shrugged dismissively, turning her eyes away to study the work of the blacksmith. He was plunging his latest horseshoe into a tub of water, sending a cloud of steam rising above the awning of his stall.
Katherine grabbed Anne by the arm drawing her attention back to the topic at hand. “Anne, you can’t kill or beat up anyone who dares come near me.”
Anne’s voice was deceptively even when she answered. “I don’t…only those that threaten you.” The undercurrent of menace was obvious.
“Which seems to be everyone in your eyes,” noted Katherine, “Who’s next, Beatrice, Thomas, Tobias?”
Anne pulled her arm away. “Now you’re being ridiculous!”
“Fine! I’ll leave you to it then, shall I?” Anne started to walk away. “You can look after yourself!”
It was a last desperate attempt to rescue the situation, but it was too late. Katherine went to go after Anne, finding herself at the edge of the crowded marketplace. Anne could only have taken a few steps, yet she was nowhere to be seen. Katherine’s eyes desperately swung back and forth across the sea of heads, but Anne had melted into them as she had an unerring ability to do. Katherine was giving the throng one last sweep when something caught her attention. It wasn’t what she was looking for, and it was the briefest of flashes, but she thought she recognised a very distinctive and familiar tattoo.
“Excuse me!” Katherine barged through the peasants in the general direction of the head she thought she’d seen. Could it really be him? Would Charles Kirby dare to show his face in Markham again?
She shoved her way through the bodies, stopping a couple of times to try and locate him again. The ever-shifting masses made it hard to discern individual faces though. She tried to stand up on her tiptoes for a better look, but it was hopeless, whatever she might have seen was lost. She guessed it could well have been her mind playing tricks on her, seeing ghosts in the crowd after the discussion with Anne. Then suddenly it was there again, the barest of glimpses. She dashed off after it. There was a dark head up ahead and she fixed on it, gaining with each step. He was heading for the gate.
Suddenly she was knocked off course, a body barrelling into her and almost knocking her to her feet. “Sorry, m’lady!” Katherine turned to look at the exceedingly apologetic peasant woman, holding back on the curse that threatened.
Instead she set off towards the gate again, but she had lost Kirby, if it had in fact been him at all. Finally she came out of the crowd and marched through the gate. The only people on the other side were a few peasants arriving late to the market.
“Can I help you, m’lady?”
Katherine swung to the questioner, finding it was Tobias. He was on guard at the gate, wearing his light chain mail with blue and gold Johnson tabard over the top of it. “Did you see anyone come out the gate just before me?” she asked him.
“No, m’lady,” he replied instantly.
Katherine frowned. That had definitely been the way Kirby had been heading, or who she thought was Kirby. Either he had diverted his course when she had been knocked off balance or he had somehow slipped past Tobias. She considered the second of those to be so unlikely as to not even be worth considering.
“M’lady?” queried Tobias, seeing her contemplative look.
“I thought I saw Charles Kirby,” she informed him, “He might still be inside so I want you to double the guard and check everyone leaving the market.”
The tiny eyebrow flicker indicated Tobias was doubtful, but he wouldn’t openly question her decision. “Of course, m’lady.”
That settled, Katherine decided she wasn’t really in the mood for socialising anymore. The market would run fine without her for once. All she wanted was a stiff drink.
Anne continued to curse under her breath as she stomped along the road out of Markham, heading quickly for the safety of the forest. Who did Katherine think she was? What gave her the right to sit in judgement? Any reasonable person would be grateful for being saved, but not her!
In her ranting distraction it took her a moment to realise someone was calling out to her. Anne recognised the voice of Friar Tuck and ignored it, continuing to stride rapidly along the road. The man was persistent though, and she heard him running to catch up, eventually drawing alongside her.
“Didn’t you hear me calling?” he asked, out of breath from the short burst of speed. There was a sheen of sweat on his bald brow. “Nice dress, by the way,” he added when she failed to answer.
Anne merely grunted a response, but that didn’t deter the man who kept pace with her long strides with some difficulty. “Been to the market have you?” he pressed. “Looking for some more hints on the Syndicate, eh?”
Anne came to a sudden halt, catching the friar off guard. He had gone a couple of extra steps before he too pulled up and turned back to her. “How is your search going anyway? Are you making progress?”
Anne narrowed her eyes and stared at him. “And why are you so interested anyway?”
“Just curious,” he answered uncertainly in the face of her hostility.
Anne stepped towards him, and the friar flinched back as she loomed closer. “Are you with them?” she demanded. “Was it you searching Katherine’s room?”
“What are you talking about?”
Anne scanned his face but saw only confusion. She pulled back. “Just forget it!”
And with that she left the man standing on the road as she continued on to her forest home.
The last remnants of the dawn dew were still sparkling on the grass of the courtyard as Katherine made her way back across it. The moisture coated the dark leather of her boots, the odd droplet kicking up onto her riding breeches. She had hoped an early morning ride across the estate might help clear her mind, but instead it stubbornly kept replaying the events of the last few days and in particular her argument with Anne from the day before.
Ever since Barton’s camp they just seemed to keep going over and over it – Anne insisting she had to kill Alan, Katherine not able to reconcile that fact. No matter how hard she tried she just couldn’t forget Alan’s vacant, staring eyes as he lay on the forest floor, the dagger protruding from his chest. He looked so surprised as he gazed up to the heavens. In a way he hadn’t look dead at all with those wide open eyes. Yet he had been. Lifeless, his soul gone. And to know that it was Anne who had done that to him still caused an unpleasant knotting deep down in Katherine’s stomach.
Was Anne in any way remorseful? Or had she actually wanted to kill Alan? That’s what really bothered Katherine, the fear that the latter might be the truth.
On the other hand she had to consider that she might be being too harsh on Anne. Maybe Alan really would have killed her if Anne hadn’t intervened. Maybe he wouldn’t have done. No one would ever know now.
As it went round in her mind for the hundredth time, it occurred to Katherine that Anne hadn’t been the beneficiary of all this time to ponder back then. She’d had to act and quickly. It wasn’t as if it was pre-meditated, cold-blooded murder. It was in the heat of the moment and Katherine knew all about having to do unsavoury things in those circumstances. Even now Will Scarlett’s accusing eyes still haunted Katherine at night.
Katherine realised there was only one way she was going to get answers to her questions and it wasn’t by avoiding the one person who could give them to her. She led Delta into the stables, intending to give him a drink and then head straight back out before anyone cornered her to deal with any estate business. It was still early so she was surprised to find an obstacle thrown in the way of her plan in the form of Tobias. He was in the stables, though he didn’t immediately see her, seeming to be searching for something amongst the hay of what was normally Delta’s stall. Katherine considered quickly turning on her heel before he noticed her. If he saw she intended to go out alone he would only want to accompany her or send one of the other guards with her.
She deliberated too long, though. Tobias sensed he was no longer alone and straightened up to face her. “Good morning, m’lady.”
“Good morning, Tobias,” she answered, “Looking for something?”
“Just cleaning up,” he replied.
Katherine found the answer odd – it was hardly the job of the captain of the guard to do such things. Then again, as she had discussed with Thomas a few days previously, she herself liked to get her hands dirty sometimes, maybe Tobias was the same. Katherine certainly wasn’t about to pursue it, not when she was aiming to escape as quickly as possible.
“Don’t mind me,” she said, “You carry on. I just wanted to get some water for Delta.”
Katherine walked on by, guiding the chestnut colt to the trough and avoiding meeting Tobias’ eye. She could tell he was staring at her back.
“You intend to go riding?”
Katherine kept her own eyes resolutely on Delta’s bowed head. “Yes.”
She could almost feel the disapproval radiating into her back. “Yes.”
“You’ve been already.”
It was a deduction rather than a question, but Katherine swivelled round to answer anyway. “Yes, I have,” she said with an air of annoyance, softening her tone before she continued. “I know you’re only looking out for me, but I’m sure I can safely go for a ride on the estate without fear of being attacked or kidnapped by outlaws.”
“If that was really where you were going,” he added evenly, “Rather than to Sherwood Forest.”
Katherine pursed her lips and took a deep breath. He knew her far too well. “As I said I appreciate the concern,” she began diplomatically, “But you are the captain of my guard, Tobias, not my keeper. Where I go and who I choose to associate with are my business.”
She could see him making to speak but cut him off with an upheld hand. “I’ll be fine.” She knew it was merely concern for her well being that motivated him, but sometimes it could be stifling. “I’m just going to Robin’s camp, where I’ve been dozens of times before, then I’ll be straight back. If it makes you feel any better, I’ll take my bow all right?”
It seemed Tobias finally sensed he had lost this particular argument, reluctantly dipping his head in acknowledgement. “As you wish. Perhaps when you return we can discuss the dispatch from Chesterfield.”
Katherine didn’t know what he was talking about.
“It came yesterday,” he said, seeing her confusion, “I assumed you had seen it.”
“No, I was…busy yesterday. What was it concerning?”
“Nothing urgent, it was just news of the annual falconry festival, inviting you to attend.”
Katherine thought it an odd thing for Tobias to bring up at this moment in time; it was hardly urgent. Maybe it was his way of distracting her with business in a vain attempt to keep her there. “As you said we can discuss it when I get back,” she answered, wanting to be on her way.
Katherine pulled Delta up from his drink, the last few drops plopping down from his teeth into the still waters. As she made for the door, she couldn’t help recalling previous visits to the falconry festival. Lord Chesterfield was famous for it, drawing attendees from all across central England and even further afield. She had been several times with Mark in the past, though they hadn’t had an invite for a few years now, not since the unfortunate incident with the Lady Saskia. Katherine wondered why she had suddenly got one now, supposing it might be something to do with Mark no longer being around. She was almost back out the door when it hit her. She hadn’t even been actively thinking about it and all of a sudden the answer was right there in front of her, the meaning of the last picture on her father’s diagram.
She swung back round to Tobias. “When is the festival?”
He appeared unmoved by her sudden interest, but then nothing much did move him. “In three weeks time,” he answered.
“Then send word that I shall be attending.”
“I thought you wanted to discuss it further?”
Katherine was already up on Delta’s back as she replied. “Just send word please, Tobias.”
The stone took two skips and plopped down under surface of the lake. Anne viewed it with some consternation before picking up another one and trying again. When that one managed five before running out of momentum she was more satisfied. Satisfied enough to sit down at the water’s edge and simply flick the latest stone between her fingers, trying desperately not to think about what was really on her mind.
However, that remained almost impossible and soon thoughts of Katherine were invading every part of her waking mind and probably a good few other bits too. The argument of the day before rattled through her thoughts. Anne just wished that Katherine could understand that sometimes violence was necessary, but that didn’t mean Anne took pleasure in it. She supposed she had been rather dismissive about killing Alan a few weeks previously and not shown any remorse since. However, he had been about to put a dagger in Katherine’s back, she was hardly going to be sympathetic.
As far as Anne was concerned the need to take extreme actions in certain situations was just the way it was when you didn’t live a nice sheltered life behind the walls of a cosy manor house – you had to look out for those you loved and do anything to protect them against those who would hurt them. Anne certainly wasn’t about to let anyone take away what was most precious to her again.
Only now she had lost it anyway. Though in this case she could do something about it, not like before. Anne didn’t linger long on those thoughts from many years ago. Instead she turned her mind to the future and how she could make things up with Katherine.
She supposed an apology for her behaviour in the market might not go amiss, realising she had let her temper get the better of her to some extent. However, she wasn’t about to apologise for what happened at Barton’s camp. One way or another she was determined to make Katherine see it had been the right course of action. She ruefully considered it might take some time to convert the stubborn woman to her way of thinking.
Pondering the best way to engineer a meeting, Anne recalled the church she had failed to visit back in Maplebeck. She worked out that she could go there and then drop in on Markham on the way back, using the excuse of her search as the initial reason for being there. With any luck she might also find the Ares candlestick, but that was probably too much to hope for. Resolved to her course she tossed the final stone into the water and left her favourite thinking spot.
A few hours later Anne eased over the threshold of the church at Maplebeck, all the time looking out for any sign of the priest. The creepy cleric was the last person she wanted to meet. Fortunately the church appeared to be deserted and she crept up the aisle to the altar. The eerily quiet building made her uncharacteristically nervous, and she had to resist the temptation to pull out her sword. Even though she wasn’t a practicing Christian, it still somehow felt wrong to bring a weapon into the building, let alone draw it. It was a shame the Christian religion wasn’t quite so respectful of others.
By the time she reached the altar, the hairs on the back of her neck were pressing against her collar, standing stiffly to attention. She found herself taking a reflexive gulp, even though it was quite ridiculous to do so. Churches didn’t normally affect her in this way, but after the priest’s odd behaviour and the reminder of what had happened to her parents, Anne felt decidedly uncomfortable. She resolved to complete her search as quickly as possible.
She turned each of the candlesticks that were on display over in her hands, examining them for the mysterious Ares markings. None of them displayed the five-pointed pattern. Anne sighed as she resigned herself to searching more churches over the coming days.
A faint clink echoed round the room and Anne whirled round. The church was still deserted, the plain wooden seats devoid of occupants. She shook her head, annoyed at her own jumpiness. All she could think about now was getting out of there and back to Markham as quickly as she could. She turned back to the altar just in time to catch sight of an object hurtling at her head. She had no time to dodge, and it whacked right into her left temple, causing pain to flare instantly. She staggered backwards only to receive a second blow to the back of her skull. That one was enough to down her and the blackness quickly followed.
“God damn it!”
The curse came from Katherine, as she had to stop and unhook her bow from where it had become tangled in the undergrowth for the umpteenth time. A particularly curly piece of ivy had wound its way around the top of the slim piece of yew, and it took her a couple of minutes to pick off the sinuous strands. How the outlaws managed to negotiate the forest so quietly and easily she would never know. Anyone Katherine might have been trying to sneak up on would have been warned long ago and had plenty of time to flee. If they hadn’t heard her footfalls, then her repeated curses were a dead giveaway to her presence.
Fortunately stealth wasn’t her main concern as she continued on towards the outlaw camp. All she was interested in was getting there as quickly as possible. That was becoming increasingly unlikely with the hindrance of her bow and horse. Both of them seemed to be acting as a magnet to all things leafy, prickly and twisty and she had contemplated ditching the two of them. However, she didn’t like to think what might happen if Barton or one of his cronies came across Delta if she left him tethered somewhere. So instead the colt was being dragged reluctantly along through the tight trees. Katherine hoped that she was near her target. By her judgement she was close to the camp now, and as if on cue she heard a rustling and one of the outlaws plopped down from the tree above to block her way.
“Halt! Who goes there?”
Katherine rolled her eyes. The man knew full well who she was. She certainly recognised him, recalling he had been a friend of both Will and Alan in his time. Suddenly the reason for his combative attitude was clear.
“Don’t be an arse, Malcolm, just let me pass.”
Katherine made to go round him but he stepped across, blocking her path with the long staff he held in one meaty hand.
“What’s the password?”
Katherine creased her brow incredulously. “Password? Since when is there a password?”
“Since I decided.”
Katherine fixed her eyes on him in a steely stare to show exactly what she thought of his pathetic attempt to exert power. “I don’t know.” She made a show of thinking about what the password might be. “How about ‘idiotic outlaw’, or maybe ‘man with pea sized brain and even smaller balls’?” She let the comments hang for a second, the outlaw looking rather stupefied. “Now get out of the way, I don’t have time for this.”
She was just past him when he shot out his staff, jabbing it between her ankles and tripping her up. Katherine tumbled onto the ground, getting a mouthful of dry twigs. She could hear Malcolm sniggering to himself as she got up and dusted herself off. Delta was whinnying in protest at the treatment of his mistress and Katherine had to take a moment to calm him. Once she had flicked the last bits of stubborn detritus from the ends of her bobbed hair, she turned to walk towards the camp once again.
She had gotten about two steps when Malcolm repeated the trick, sending her flying for a second time. On the third occasion, Katherine decided it was all very well turning the other cheek, but sometimes people just needed a good slap. She stayed on the ground this time, waiting for him to come closer. Predictably his curiosity got the better of him and once he was in range, she shot out her hand, grabbed the staff off him and used it to lever the surprised man over onto his backside.
Katherine got to her feet playing with the staff in her hands in a vaguely threatening way. “Now if you’ve quite finished, I’ll be on my way.”
She lobbed the staff off into the forest, not trusting him to resist the temptation of repeating his stupid game one more time. Katherine kept one ear out for sounds of pursuit as she strode away, but there were none. She eventually got to the camp without any further trouble. Her eyes made a quick scan of the haphazard structures that sat under the leafy canopy, searching out a familiar blond head. She caught sight of a couple of outlaws sharpening swords, a single chicken looking rather lonely in a makeshift pen and a campfire on its last embers, but no sign of Anne.
“Katherine!” She swivelled to the caller of her name, seeing the jolly outlaw Nicholas bustling towards her, wiping his hands on a piece of cloth that she supposed had once been white. “To what do we owe this pleasure?” he asked when closer.
“I was looking for Anne.”
Nicholas let out his characteristic chortling laugh. “As if I couldn’t have guessed.” He added a small wink from under a bushy eyebrow. “She’s not around at the moment,” he informed her, “Would you like to wait?”
Katherine considered it for a minute. Now Nicholas had drawn attention to her presence by shouting her name, Katherine could see that a few of the other outlaws were out of their huts and eyeing her suspiciously. She had never really fit in amongst them, only making the effort to get on with them for Anne’s benefit. There were a few like Robin, Nicholas and Henry who were always welcoming and whom she might even consider as friends, but a good deal of the rest of them didn’t like or trust her. Not because they really knew her, just because of who she was and what she represented. Even after she had proved herself during her stay in the camp the year before, there had been an undercurrent of resentment, especially from those allied with Will. That had only grown worse after she had been forced to kill him.
“I have a new drink that you could try?” mentioned Nicholas, interrupting her thoughts, in an attempt to persuade her to stay.
Since waiting was her best chance of catching up with Anne, Katherine decided to take him up on his offer. “All right, I’ll wait for a bit.”
Katherine followed Nicholas over to the fading campfire, meeting the gazes of the staring outlaws with determination. Since she showed no signs of being perturbed by their perusal, they soon got bored of the show and disappeared back to what they were doing. Katherine tethered Delta and sat down. Nicholas meanwhile hadn’t noticed the reception, too caught up in stirring the battered pot that sat over the fire. Eventually he had mixed it to his satisfaction and ladled some of the liquid into a plain earthenware mug. It was pitch black.
Nicholas offered the cup. “Here you go, get that down you.”
Katherine warily took it, eyeing the dark contents the whole time as she brought it close. “What is it?”
“My original name for it was bean-ee, but Anne suggested that it might be more aptly referred to as cough-ee.”
“Really.” Katherine took a tentative sniff. “You’re not making it sound particularly appetizing.” She glanced up at him over the mug as the smell continued to waft up her nose – it was certainly distinctive. The closest comparison she could think of was roasted chestnuts, though there was an edge to it.
“Just give it a go,” suggested Nicholas, “I’ve made a couple of adjustments, refined my processing.”
Steeling herself Katherine took a hearty swig. She was prepared for anything, but was surprised when the warm liquid hit her taste buds and made them hum with pleasure. She took another draft and then another. Each time it slid down her throat she got a strange warm glow of satisfaction inside. “This is good,” she said in amazement, “Really good.”
Katherine didn’t think Nicholas could have smiled any more if someone had told him he had just been made king. “Would you like some more?” he asked.
Katherine automatically extended the mug before she’d even thought about it. “Thank you,” she acknowledged as he refilled it.
Nicholas also poured himself some and joined her. As they sat in silence savouring the drink, Katherine noticed that Nicholas pulled a slightly pained face every time he took a gulp. Katherine smiled to herself, wondering why he hadn’t made it more to his own taste. Still, she wasn’t about to suggest he changed the recipe.
He caught her expression and smiled back before suddenly reaching over to pluck something off the back of her tunic. “He held up a sprig of holly. Have some trouble getting here through the forest?” he asked, “Or just wanted a bit of it as a souvenir?”
“Partly,” she agreed, “And I got a less than pleasant reception from Malcolm on the edge of the camp too.” Nicholas looked concerned, so Katherine quickly added. “It was nothing, just a slight disagreement.”
Nicholas sighed, probably realising what a ‘slight disagreement’ was in outlaw terms. “Sorry about that,” he said, “Some of our guys are a little on edge. Barton has been causing trouble again. I don’t think he was too amused by what you two did to his profitable game, so he’s been stirring things up to try and recoup his losses.”
“Nothing too serious I hope?”
Nicholas made a dismissive wave of the hand. “No, no, nothing we can’t handle.”
Katherine nodded, though she sensed he wasn’t telling the whole truth. Barton was a ruthless and violent individual who was hardly likely to take what they’d done to him lightly. She wondered if there was anyway she could ease the threat he posed. Maybe she could speak to Tobias, up the bounty for information on the outlaw’s whereabouts. While she pondered over it, she sensed the arrival of someone else by the campfire. Glancing up she saw the young outlaw Henry, regarding her and her drink through his long, dark fringe.
“Oh god, he’s not making you drink that wretched cough-ee is he?”
Katherine grinned back. “I like it.”
Henry looked utterly dumbfounded. “You do? But it’s foul! It’s so bitter and nasty!”
“Maybe that’s just my cup of…” Katherine paused before finishing uncertainly “…cough-ee.” The stilted name just didn’t sound right, it needed to be a bit smoother to match the sensuous liquid.
“Each to their own,” noted Henry, ladling himself some water instead.
“Hey, Henry,” interrupted Nicholas, “You haven’t seen Anne around at all have you?”
Henry took a fresh gulp before answering. “Sure,” he said, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth, “She went to the church at Maplebeck, something about having to look for an item. He stopped for a second as something occurred to him. Though actually that was ages ago, I would have thought she would be back by now.”
The stab of fear was instant. It was like Katherine immediately knew something was wrong. It was more than just Henry’s words, somehow she just knew it in her bones. She leapt up, taking the other two by surprise. She was on Delta’s back in a flash and galloping out of the camp.
When Anne finally came to, she quickly deduced she wasn’t in the church anymore. She was in a dimly lit room that didn’t appear to have any windows, the only light coming from a couple of candles flickering close by on tall stands. The darkness pressed in on her, exacerbating the pounding in her head from where she had caught the earlier blows. She couldn’t believe she had been so stupid as to let someone sneak up on her, but that’s what happened when you got distracted.
As she tried to recall what had occurred and work out where she was, her thoughts refused to coalesce sensibly, remaining scattered and jumbled. She could tell she was on her back, though not on anything as soft as a bed. Even worse was that she appeared to be secured to whatever it was she was lying on. She was spread-eagled uncomfortably across it, tight restraints around her wrists and ankles, digging into her flesh and keeping her firmly in place. She flexed her arms a couple of times but the bindings weren’t budging. Her head started to throb again at the small effort.
Anne closed her eyes, trying to push the dull ache away but it was stubborn. Eventually she gave up and opened her eyes to crane her head round, trying to take in the rest of her surroundings. The candles provided poor illumination of the room. Peering into the darkness, she thought she could just make out some rocky walls. It felt like she was lying on rock too, she realised now she was more awake. It was hard and uneven as it dug into her back. As her eyes drifted back over the room, becoming accustomed to the low light, she suddenly noticed something on one of the candlesticks – the Ares mark. Anne could have laughed at the irony. She had finally found the elusive object but it was completely beyond her non-existent reach.
The sound of approaching steps broke her out of her rueful thoughts. They got closer and closer, echoing down steps in the darkness. They brought with a sense of impending dread until a figure appeared from the gloom. As soon as he stepped into the light, Anne recognised Father Cooper from the church. He wasn’t wearing his normal robes though, instead being dressed in all white and looking something akin to a druid. To complete the illusion he had painted some pagan symbols onto his face in dark colours, Anne recognising the markings for fire and earth. He didn’t speak as he approached with a small earthenware bowl in his hands. Once he reached her side he dipped his fingers into it and then bought them up to her face.
Anne immediately flinched back, unsure what the substance was. However, she didn’t have far to go, and his fingers quickly made contact with her skin. She realised it must be more of the paint that adorned his face as he proceeded to smear it round her cheeks in swirling patterns. Anne had some experience of pagan rituals, and knew that instances where things were tied to altars and then daubed in symbols didn’t often end well for the subject in question. She couldn’t see any obvious weapons around, but she had a fair idea what the priest’s intentions were. Her only option at that moment was to play for time and hope an opportunity presented itself.
“What the hell are you doing?” she demanded of the absorbed priest with more confidence than she felt. “Are you with them?”
He stopped his painting to regard her, though didn’t immediately speak. It was if he was determining whether she was worthy enough to warrant an answer.
“I insist you release me at once,” she added. When that still garnered nothing more than a blank stare she added more. “Lady Katherine will be most upset if she finds out that you’ve kidnapped one of her maids.”
That did generate a response. Laughter. “You’re not one of her maids,” he said coldly, “I know exactly who you are.”
Fear jabbed cold in her chest. “You do?”
“You’re the blessed one.”
That had not been the answer Anne was expecting. “The blessed one?” she repeated in confusion. She had assumed he was something to do with the Ares Syndicate, but it appeared she was mistaken.
“You have a special power,” clarified the priest, “One that I want.”
Realisation was beginning to dawn for Anne. “You mean my ability to harness nature, utilise its power?” she deduced with some relief. “I’m afraid you’re out of luck, I don’t have that ability any more.”
The priest’s eyes narrowed menacingly. “You lie.”
Anne’s relief was short-lived when she saw the look of evil intent he was giving her, but it was too late to bluff now. “No, I sacrificed it to return from the land of the dead, six months ago now.”
The cleric didn’t appear convinced. “No, it can’t be true, I sensed it in you, that day in the square.” His bony fingers reached out and caressed her bare arm, softly, almost like a lover. It made Anne’s skin crawl. Yet she couldn’t wrench her arm away like she wanted to. The priest closed his eyes for a moment as a look of quiet contemplation came across his face. “I sense it now,” he said wistfully, “I’ve been searching for one like you for so many years, I’d almost given up hope. When I first came across tales of an elemental power linked to nature I thought it was mere pagan fancy. But the more I studied their texts, the more I became convinced it was true. And now here you are – living proof.”
“I’m telling you, I gave up all my power.” Anne was beginning to lose her own conviction, though. Given other recent incidents, it seemed too much of a coincidence. Or was the priest just picking up on the residual energy of something long gone?
The priest’s eyes opened, fixing on her. “We will see, won’t we, once the ritual is complete.”
Stopping his stroking of her arm, he brought his hands together, steepling his fingers against one another. Then he started chanting. Anne recognised the words of an old Pagan text, though he recited it so quickly even she had trouble making out all the words. His eyes slid shut, as his words became more frantic and fevered, resounding around the room. Anne merely lay there. The lack of anything happening would have been amusing if she hadn’t been tied to the makeshift altar and at his mercy.
Eventually the priest stopped, his eyes flicking open and staring at her in confusion. “Why did nothing happen? I should feel it.” He was sweating from his exertions and he had to dab away the moisture from his brow using the sleeve of his robe.
Anne sighed. “I told you, didn’t I, I don’t have that power anymore.”
The swift backhand to her face came out of nowhere, whipping her head to the side with its force.
“No! No!” screamed the priest to himself. Obviously the failure of the ritual had not gone down well. He grabbed her by the scruff of her shirt, jamming his face up into hers. “It should have worked!”
His eyes were wide and manic. He was practically foaming at the mouth. A few flecks of spittle fell onto her face and dribbled over her still stinging cheek. Anne could tell there was no reasoning with the fanatical man, thinking she would be lucky to get out of there alive.
He released her, banging her head back into the hard stone. “We’ll try again,” he stated, “With a variation this time.”
Before Anne could even begin to contemplate what that meant, he produced a dagger. A nervous sweat started to prickle down her spine as he held it up, taunting her with it as he passed it back and forth in the candlelight. She met his eye, refusing to show any fear openly.
A nasty grin split his face. “Obviously we need to speed the ritual on its way with an extra sacrifice of blood.”
Anne desperately tried to think of some way to stall him. “Look, let me go now and we can forget all about this,” she attempted, “I can put in a good word for you with the lady of the manor, get you a posting somewhere else,” she offered.
He ignored the comment and brought the edge of the blade to her left forearm. Anne could feel the cool tip resting against the skin for a second. Then it was tearing into it. She gritted her teeth to stop from crying out, able to feel the warm trickle of blood ebbing over her arm and onto the stone.
The priest placed the dagger back down, tantalisingly close but just out of reach. “You will give me your power.” He stated with conviction before starting up his chanting again.
“It’s pointless,” tried Anne once more, but he was oblivious to her comments. “You won’t…”
The words were suddenly snatched from her lips, torn away by a cry of pain. Her cry of pain. It had come out of nowhere. Yet suddenly there was agony, ripping through her whole body.
Anne reflexively tensed, her spine arcing up off the stone as far as it could go. The pain was unrelenting as it shot through every muscle and sinew. Her cries continued to echo round the cavern as wave after wave of burning fire swept through her. Jamming her eyes shut, she clenched her teeth and grimaced as ragged breaths struggled between them. Through the haze of remorseless pain she could hear the priest still chanting. It sounded like a funereal rite. She tried to fix on it, anything to take away from the torment.
Then suddenly he had stopped and with it the pain. Anne flopped back down onto the stone, panting, gasping, merely grateful to be alive. She felt like she had just been trampled by a herd of stags.
“See, see!” cried the priest triumphantly, “There is something there, it just needs to be unlocked.”
Anne managed to force her eyes open and loll her head to the side to look at him, but speaking was beyond her at that moment.
“We just need more!” continued the priest manically. He raised his dagger high above her chest, clutching it with both hands. “We need more blood!”
The blade glinted in the candlelight as Anne’s life flashed before her. She wished she had done a hundred and one things, but most of all she wished that she could see Katherine just one more time and make that apology.
The cold sound of metal slicing through the air rang out.
Yet it wasn’t the cleric’s knife that made the noise. Instead an arrow thumped straight into his still raised hand. He screamed as it punctured his flesh, driving right through the back of his palm. The knife flew from his injured hand and clattered noisily to the floor. Anne’s eyes shot to where the arrow had come from. She could see a familiar red-headed figure stepping out of the darkness, bow raised high with another arrow notched and ready.
“The only other blood that’s going to be spilt today is yours,” said Katherine grimly to the priest. He was clutching his hand to himself with the arrow still lodged firmly in it. He made to move and Katherine tensed her fingers on the bowstring. “Don’t make me shoot you again,” she warned him in a low voice.
Either the priest was foolish or deaf to her words at that point, because he ignored them. He shot forwards, perhaps trying to catch her off guard. He’d gotten about two steps before a fresh arrow thumped into his shoulder. Katherine was so close to him that the force knocked him right off his feet. A third arrow was already in Katherine’s bow, but the priest finally appeared to realise she may well just kill him if he didn’t give up. He sagged defeated against the wall where he had fallen.
Katherine lowered her bow, but kept one eye on him the whole time as she warily approached the altar. Once she was closer the steely determination on her face crumpled. Her hand shot out to hover by Anne’s bloodied arm. She didn’t say anything, but the anger and concern warring across her face were obvious. Suddenly she snatched up the cleric’s own dagger and used it to hack at the bonds securing Anne to the stone. Once finished the dagger remained in her hand, as she stared down at the quietly moaning priest. There was an odd look of loathing on her face that Anne didn’t see very often.
Anne tried to move, finding her muscles were sore from the combination of the pain of the ritual and having been tied in one position for so long. An involuntary groan escaped her lips, one that immediately drew Katherine’s attention back to her. Quickly discarding the dagger, she helped Anne up into a sitting position on the stone. “Do you think you can walk?” she asked gently, still keeping a watchful hold of Anne lest she should tumble off.
Anne realised Katherine didn’t want to say much more in front of the priest, and nodded her assent. She shuffled forwards and hopped off her perch, leaning heavily against Katherine who remained firm despite her smaller stature. Anne could feel Katherine’s fingers gripping her tightly round the waist as they staggered towards the entrance.
“Wait,” said Anne suddenly, pulling up.
Katherine swayed momentarily at the loss of momentum before bracing herself once more. “What is it?”
“The candlestick,” was all Anne said, indicating it with her eyes.
“Is it…?” Katherine had no need to fully form the question.
Katherine swung them both round with some effort and went back to fetch it. Once she had taken it off its stand, Anne dumped the flickering candle out of it. The priest was still slumped close by and the candle hit his hand and made a soft hiss as it extinguished. His small whimper was the only indication he was still conscious.
Climbing the stairs from the underground room, Anne’s muscles gradually started to become used to moving freely again. By the time they reached the top and came out into the front of the empty church, she thought she might be able to walk unaided. Two steps on her own disproved that theory, and Katherine had to quickly catch her again and guide her to a seat in the front pew.
Anne rubbed at the back of her head, feeling a large lump. “He must have hit me harder than I thought.”
“He hit you too?” Katherine sounded like she was just about ready to go back downstairs and re-notch her third arrow.
“When I first got here,” Anne explained, faintly amused to see it was Katherine who was the one tempted to go and mete out revenge for once, “It’s just a small bump, really.”
Katherine looked unconvinced, but took up a seat next to Anne without making any more of it. She silently tore some material from her cloak and started to bind the superficial wound on Anne’s arm. While she worked Anne could sense Katherine’s eyes on her, sweeping over her to verify nothing else was wrong. The intensity of the gaze was too much to resist and Anne found herself naturally meeting it. Katherine’s eyes stopped their tracking movement and locked onto Anne’s.
Anne’s mouth had moved before she’d really thought about it, her subconscious acting on what had almost been her dying thought. “About the other day at the market…”
Katherine shook her head. “It’s all right it doesn’t matter now.”
“No, I wanted to say sorry,” insisted Anne, “For flying off the handle like that. I was being too aggressive with that man. It was obvious he was just a pickpocket, nothing more.”
Katherine sighed. Having finished tying the makeshift bandage, she placed a hand on Anne’s thigh, comforting, understanding. “I think we’re all on edge at the moment, she confessed, what with the Syndicate and…” She paused. Her fingers that had been absently stroking had ceased their movement. They both knew where she was heading.
“Alan,” Anne finished.
Katherine had retracted her hand, now sitting with them clasped in her lap as she regarded Anne. For a moment it appeared neither of them wanted to be the first to continue, perhaps waiting to see what the others intentions were. In the end it was Anne who took the plunge.
“I know we’ve disagreed about what happened at Barton’s camp,” she attempted. Her heart was thudding in her chest, but she carried on, hoping she had read the situation right, “And I’m willing to admit that part of me did want to kill Alan for what he did to you in back in Ollerton and in that arena. Maybe the old me would have done without too much concern.”
Katherine wasn’t interrupting with anything. She was merely keeping her eyes fixed on Anne. For once Anne found it hard to read the look in the blue-grey depths, but it was too late to go back now.
“I never told you before,” she continued, “But just after the incident at Ollerton, I caught up with Alan, cornered him in the forest and had him at my mercy. I could have killed him then, but I didn’t, I let him go. In hindsight it might not have been such a good decision, but I did let him go.”
“The point is,” she quickly added before Katherine could think too much about it, “That though I might have wanted to, I wouldn’t have killed him at Barton’s camp…if the situation hadn’t called for it. I really couldn’t be sure what might have happened if I hadn’t stopped him for good. If I’d been even slightly out in merely trying to disable him he would have killed you. I had a split second to aim and I couldn’t take that risk.”
Anne paused and held Katherine’s gaze for a moment, trying to impart that it was her concern for Katherine and not some innate bloodthirsty nature that had led to Alan’s death. In the silence that ensued there was a faint scurrying noise somewhere at the back of the church as a mouse darted across the stones. Otherwise the only sounds were of two sets of breathing.
Eventually Anne took a deeper breath and forged on. “So do I regret my actions? She asked herself, “Not really. Faced with the same decision again, I’d take the same course of action without hesitation. I’d rather I hadn’t been forced into it, but I was and I’m not about to spend too long crying over someone like Alan.”
Katherine seemed to be digesting her words, mulling them over thoughtfully. Anne supposed it was good that at least she was considering them, rather than dismissing Anne’s viewpoint outright as had been her stance before.
Seeking to further the debate Anne pressed on. “Can I ask you something?”
Katherine nodded absently, still caught up in her thoughts.
“If Father Cooper hadn’t stopped that third time…”
It didn’t take Katherine long to deduce what Anne was getting at. “Would I have killed him?” Katherine finished the question for Anne.
“Well, would you?”
Katherine paused for a moment. “I don’t know.”
Supposing that was as good an answer as she was going to get for now, though not entirely sure she was satisfied by it, Anne turned her eyes downwards to the candlestick they had been searching for. The Ares inscription spidered up the column of it, looking innocuous even though it held a deadly secret. It took her a moment to visualise the key to its decoding in her mind, before she read out the translation, calculating the correct words as she went.
In the North of Gaulish Land
Under the touch of Veliocasses hand
“Isn’t Gaul an old term for France?” queried Katherine.
“Yes,” confirmed Anne, “Though I’m not sure who or what Veliocasses is. Have you ever heard of the term?”
Katherine shook her head. “No, maybe we could find out with some research?”
“I’ll have a chat to the friar,” said Anne, “See if he can lay his hands on some books on France or French history. Maybe it’s a specific place or landmark.”
Katherine continued to ponder the words. “I wonder how this latest rhyme fits in with what we have already?”
Anne recalled the previous inscriptions from her accurate memory, trying to put them together. “You’d think there might have been an extra indication of what order the inscriptions went in,” she remarked, “They could really go any way if you think about it.”
A look of realisation flashed across Katherine’s face before she delved into the lining of her cloak and fished out the diagram that had been left to her by her father. She had taken to keeping it on her person at all times. “I didn’t really think anything of it before,” she said, showing it to Anne, “But I think these Roman numerals here are meant to indicate just what you said.”
Anne studied it for a moment, remembering which of the objects each combination of pictures was meant to represent, according to Katherine’s deductions. Having assembled the words into the right order in her head, she recited them.
Use these five items and the key
To open the Ares sanctuary
In the North of Gaulish Land
Under the touch of Veliocasses hand
Walk the watery path that turns to the sun
For a length close to that which has been won
Past the watcher of Pompeii’s fate
Through the dipping of the gate
“Plus there’s the last piece of the riddle,” concluded Anne, “On the item we don’t have yet.”
“But one whose location I think I know,” revealed Katherine. Anne looked quizzically at her before she continued. “Have you ever been to Chesterfield?”
Charles Kirby carefully negotiated his way down the steps in front of him, having to hold onto the stone wall with one hand while keeping his burning torch tightly gripped in the other. There was a musty smell of decay wafting up from below, and he wondered if the Arbiter deliberately picked more and more repellent locations for their meetings on purpose. When he reached the foot of the stairs he could see that the Arbiter and one other were already present, waiting amongst the tombs of the crypt.
The leader of the Syndicate turned to him, as always his face shrouded by his hood.
“So what news is there?” he asked straight away without any formal niceties.
“She’s going to Chesterfield,” answered Kirby succinctly.
Kirby guessed that the man was smiling at the news in the dark recesses of his hood. “Excellent. All is going to plan. Hopefully they’ll find the last object and then it’s only one more step to obtaining the weapon.”
The third man chipped in. “There’s something I don’t understand,” he said, “If we knew where all items were, why didn’t we just go and get them ourselves?”
The Arbiter swung slowly to him. “For a start that fool Coleville managed to lose the first one to Katherine,” he explained as if talking to a small child, “Not that we couldn’t have retrieved it from her if we’d wanted, but it’s served us to let her do all the work. Though we knew the rough location of each item, we didn’t have the precise details. Plus there is a more serious problem.”
The Arbiter produced a rough piece of paper that he unfolded and placed on top of one of the stone caskets.
The third man bent over to peer at it in the gloom. “What’s this?”
“It’s a rubbing of the inscription on the goblet, obtained for us by our man at Markham and retrieved by Charles. Though he almost managed to get himself caught by Katherine in the process.”
Kirby squirmed at the hint of reproach in the Arbiter’s voice. It was just typical of Katherine to be down amongst the common people when he’d chosen to meet his contact. Kirby had thought the market day the perfect opportunity to slip inside Markham’s walls. He resolved to be more careful next time.
The third man had finished studying the parchment. “But it’s gibberish,” he said in confusion.
“Exactly,” agreed the Arbiter. “It’s in code, one we don’t know how to decipher.”
“And you think Katherine knows how to translate this?”
“I don’t know for sure,” confessed the Arbiter in a rare show of doubt, “But I’m assuming she does. Her companion carries a page from a book with her, the book we failed to procure from the friar?” The third man nodded his understanding before the Arbiter continued. “It’s likely the page contains information on how to decode the inscription. Alternatively Katherine’s father may have left her information that we’re not privy to - how else would she know where to look for the items in the first place? We’ll know how much she knows soon enough if she takes a trip to France after finding the last object.”
There was a sigh from under the Arbiter’s hood. “Don’t you keep up with anything, or are you too busy drinking?” he admonished. “Yes, France. We know that’s where the final hiding place of the weapon is, though nothing more.”
“Hang on…what about the key?” pointed out the other man, “She’s not going to go anywhere if she doesn’t know what it is.”
“A good point.” The Arbiter turned to Kirby who had been keeping quiet, glad someone else was getting the force of the Arbiter’s ire for one. “Which is why Charles is going to pretend he has it.”
Kirby started. “I am?”
“You’re friendly with Lady Saskia at Chesterfield, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” said Kirby slowly, unsure what the Arbiter was going to ask of him.
“Then I’m sure you can use your powers of persuasion to get her to help us. A small hint to Katherine that you’ve gone on a trip to France to obtain something that you were very secretive about ought to do it. If Lady Saskia could somehow mention a key without being too obvious about it so much the better. Assuming Katherine can translate the inscriptions and works out that the final location is in France, I’m sure the coincidence will be too much for her to ignore. We’ll follow them to the final location and then make our move.”
The third man was doubtful, though. “This all sounds rather risky to me,” he remarked, “What if they don’t take the hint. What if they do know what the key is, and realise we’re setting them up? What if we lose them in France? They might get there before us.”
“You have a better plan?” The Arbiter’s voice was like ice.
It appeared the man did. “Once she gets the final object from Chesterfield, we should take all the objects and Katherine while they’re still in England, then make her tell us what the inscription means.”
The Arbiter’s shadowed face was fixed on the other man. “You mean torture her?” From his voice it sounded as if the Arbiter found that prospect distasteful. That surprised Kirby, he thought the man’s ruthlessness knew no bounds.
“If needs be, yes.”
“You really think she would give up the secret?” asked the Arbiter.
“There are ways to persuade people,” said the third man, warming to his subject, “Katherine is weakened by her compassion, we can use that against her. Her companion, the outlaw woman for instance…”
“No,” interjected the Arbiter abruptly, “We stick to the plan for now.”
“But even if she didn’t tell us,” continued the other man undeterred, “If we got this page from the book, we might be able to work out the inscription ourselves…”
“No!” The Arbiter was quickly in again, his voice echoing loudly round the underground room. “You think we haven’t tried? Our best scholars have been studying another copy of the book for the last month without success. We stick to the plan.”
Both Kirby and the other man could tell that was the final word for now. Kirby thought it a shame the Arbiter had dismissed the alternative plan, the prospect of getting Katherine alone in a dungeon and at his mercy had a certain appeal. Yet he allowed himself to be buoyed by the thought that there would still be plenty of time for retribution in the weeks ahead.
Coming Soon….Lady Katherine and The Secret Seduction