The Lady Katherine Chronicles, Number 12
Lady Katherine And The Cryptic Trail
April 1192, Nottinghamshire, England
MercyCroft, 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.
Amos Fletcher was scared. He’d been scared for days now, constantly on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. Even eating and sleeping had become luxuries he could barely afford time for. He’d tried hiding in various shelters throughout Sherwood Forest to gain some sort of respite from the endless chase, hunkering down in one cold, damp spot after another. However, every time he thought he might be safe, he’d hear the telltale sign from his crude warning systems and he’d be on the run again. Only now he was starting to get tired with the evasion. He knew that sooner or later he would make a mistake and then the relentless pursuit would be over and he would be dead.
The rain splattered over the leaves of the forest as he sat now, shivering to himself in one of his boltholes. As was often the way with the weather in April the showers were never far away. Pulling his knees tight to his chest, Amos rued the day he had stumbled upon the noblemen having their secret meeting. He wished he had never crept close to them, never heard them plotting against the Lady Katherine. Yet he had and this was the consequence.
In the beginning he had considered going to her for refuge. However, that would have required leaving the forest and navigating several miles across far too exposed ground to the manor house at Markham. Even if he made it, it was highly unlikely Lady Katherine would believe him or give any credence to his story. In the end he had opted to try and evade the men, hoping they might get tired of chasing him. Only they hadn’t. He should have known better once he’d seen that one of them was Charles Kirby. The man was a renowned sadist and probably thought it was a bit of interesting sport to chase a frightened peasant through the Forest like an animal.
A faint jingling from his wind chimes broke Amos out of his morose ruminations. Someone was coming. Amos was on his feet in an instant, running in the opposite direction. He ploughed through the forest, not caring at the noise he was making only knowing the frantic urge to get away as quickly as possible. He could hear them behind him, slapping their way past the sodden branches and over the muddy ground on his trail. Amos risked a glance over his shoulder and it was then that he barrelled straight into an immovable object.
He staggered back, seeing that it was a man with his sword drawn. The rain trickled through his dark hair, down over the strange tattoo above his left eye.
The recognition of his barrier was not pleasant for Amos. “Please, Mr Kirby,” he said starting to back away slowly with his hands raised in supplication, “I won’t say anything.”
“I know you won’t.”
The faint flicker of hope rose in Amos. A sword to the gut swiftly destroyed it. Kirby twisted it a couple of times for good measure before Amos tumbled limply onto the wet leaves, as dead as they were.
Lady Katherine of Markham shook the rain off the hood of her cloak, the droplets tumbling onto the pine needles that littered the ground at her feet. Having deemed it was safe to proceed she finally pushed the dark cloth back over her head. The tree she was under just about protected her from the downpour. It was an evergreen and not sporting spring blossom like many of the others in Sherwood Forest.
It was times like this when she hated constantly having to meet Anne in secret. If they had been in any sort of normal relationship, it would be perfectly acceptable for the young woman to turn up at Markham Manor and there wouldn’t be any need for snatched meetings in wet forests. Yet she knew their relationship would never be normal, not while Anne was still an outlaw and still a woman. The first of those might change at some point, but the second was never going to. And it would never be socially acceptable for two women to be together, no matter how much they loved each other. That was the galling thing - she loved Anne more than she had ever loved any man, but she wasn’t free to express it, at least not in public.
Katherine tried to shake herself out of those dark thoughts, considering it might be the incessant dull weather that had caused her bad mood. Instead she consoled herself with the thought that at least she had Anne; at least she had that love in her life, even if it was a secret one.
From recent events it seemed she wasn’t the only one who possessed secrets in her family. While at her sister’s in Keighley, the knight Hugh Coleville had made some cryptic comments about her father. Katherine had become even more suspicious when she coupled that information with the fact that Coleville had been trying to steal a goblet of her father’s at the time, and had then killed himself rather than be caught and have to reveal why or who for. The final piece of the puzzle was the strange tattoo the man had – one that was identical to that of Charles Kirby. Each element left a mysterious trail that Katherine was determined to follow to its conclusion. Phillipa had been more than happy for Katherine to bring the goblet back to Markham to see what she could find out. Only, so far, that was precisely nothing.
A large drop of rain wormed it’s way through the natural umbrella at that point, falling onto her auburn hair and causing an unpleasant cold trickling over her scalp. Katherine ran her fingers through her hair, trying to rearrange it into some semblance of style. It had seemed like a good idea when her sister had suggested cutting it some four weeks previously, but sometimes she longed for the days when she could just tie it back and be done with it.
“It looks lovely.”
Katherine turned to her complimenter, seeing Anne joining her under the tree, pushing back her own hood to reveal her long golden hair that was neatly tied back. Katherine felt faintly jealous.
“But then it always does,” added Anne, moving close enough to run some appreciative fingers through it.
Katherine smiled, supposing the shorter style did have its benefits after all. Their lips met in a tender kiss that quickly dissolved into something much more passionate, caressing fingers joining in the celebration of intimacy.
Just when Katherine had completely forgotten all of the things that had been troubling her, Anne suddenly pulled back from the embrace, body tensing. “Did you hear something?” she asked, blue eyes scanning warily around the forest.
Katherine glanced round the trees surrounding them, listening intently at the same time. All she received back was the sound of the constant drum of the rain on the forest canopy. “No, you’re just being paranoid,” she said eventually.
However, Anne didn’t appear convinced. “Wait here a moment,” she said, fully disentangling herself from Katherine and disappearing stealthily into the trees.
Katherine was left on her own, with nothing to do but cross her arms and wait for Anne to return. She just about resisted the urge to tap her foot impatiently - today wasn’t the first time Anne had been convinced someone was watching them or following them. At times it seemed like she was more conscious of being caught in a compromising position than Katherine herself. No doubt it was just some poor squirrel that was about to get a shock when a tall blonde woman wielding a sword pounced on it.
Katherine was surprised when the sound of a scuffle broke the otherwise quiet forest - it seemed that for once Anne’s suspicions had been well-founded. There was a final startled yelp before a small body came tumbling out of the undergrowth to land at Katherine’s feet. Anne quickly followed, sword drawn and pointing at the eavesdropper.
As the person turned over on the ground it took Katherine a second to place where she had seen them before. Then it hit her – it was the servant girl from her sister’s house. Katherine didn’t know what the hell she was doing in Sherwood Forest or how she’d gotten there, but she did know the girl was currently cowering at the end of Anne’s sword. “Anne! Put that away,” chided Katherine, placing a restraining hand on her arm, “She’s just a small child!”
“A small child who was spying on us,” pointed out Anne.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean nothing,” pleaded the girl, looking terrified by the sharp point mere inches from her nose, “I was just interested where you was going,” she added to Katherine.
“You seem to have a nasty habit of following me around,” noted Anne, still looking sternly at the youngster without making any move to sheath her sword, “Who are you working for?”
“Anne!” Katherine injected even more command into her tone. “Don’t be ridiculous, she’s just a girl. I’m sure she’s not working for anyone.”
Anne’s eyes turned to Katherine. “But can you be certain?”
Katherine held her gaze showing she was certain enough. Eventually Anne sighed and relaxed her sword arm, putting the weapon away. “Fine, on your head be it if she goes blabbing to anyone.”
“I’m sure you won’t will you?” Katherine asked the girl gently.
“No, m’lady, of course not!” she replied, finally clambering to her feet, “I won’t tell no one you’re seeing an outlaw.”
Her hands swiftly flew up to her mouth as she realised her mistake. Katherine didn’t look at Anne. She didn’t need to in order to know she was rolling her eyes in exasperation.
“This is just great,” sighed the young woman, “How many more people are going to find out? You might as well pin a notice to the church door and be done with it.”
“I don’t know why you’re getting so upset,” Katherine said, “It’s not you who stands to lose if it becomes public knowledge.”
“It is,” insisted Anne, turning to her, “Because I care what happens to you.”
Seeing the look in Anne’s eyes, Katherine felt the familiar warm glow welling up somewhere deep inside. The look said that Katherine was the most important thing in the world to her. It gave Katherine a powerful sense of safety and belonging, like nothing could touch her whenever she was caught in the gaze of those crystal blue eyes. It seemed entirely natural to reach out and start stroking her fingers across Anne’s cheek, the young woman dipping her head into the touch. The sound of a tiny cough brought them out of their combined distraction before things got too far.
Katherine turned back to the girl, faintly amused by her show of impatience. “It’s Natalie isn’t it?” she asked, receiving a pleased nod in return. “What are you doing here, Natalie? Last I saw you, you were in Keighley, working for my sister.”
Natalie shifted uneasily on her feet, hands behind her back now. The stance was uncannily reminiscent of someone else not too far away. However, the girl failed miserably if her aim was to look innocent.
“You ran away didn’t you,” guessed Anne.
“Sort of…” replied Natalie, feet kicking at the loose pine needles.
“Sort of?” queried Katherine, raising an inquisitive eyebrow, “Was it that bad there? Surely Lord Peter and Lady Phillipa treated you well?”
“Oh yes, they did,” Natalie quickly agreed, “But it was…boring. And you,” she said glancing to Anne, “Both of you,” she added to Katherine, “You seemed more exciting. So I hid on one of your carts and followed you back here. I’ve been hiding out around your house ever since. No one tends to notice an extra child around the kitchens anyway, they just think you’re meant to be there.”
Katherine felt herself falling under the spell of the girl’s enthusiasm and cheeriness, and had to catch herself - the girl had deserted her responsibilities after all. “But you aren’t meant to be here are you?” she pointed out, “Did it ever occur to you that they might be concerned over your whereabouts in Keighley? You family are probably worried sick.”
“I don’t have a family.”
Katherine suddenly felt very foolish. A faint apologetic ‘oh’ was all that came from her lips as her eyes drifted momentarily to her feet. “What happened to them?” she asked gently after sheepishly studying her boots for a couple of seconds.
“I don’t know,” confessed Natalie, “They died when I was little. For as long as I can remember I’ve worked at the manor house. I suppose the people there are the closest thing I have to a family…”
“But not like the real thing.” It was Anne who had interrupted, though her voice had been uncharacteristically quiet.
Katherine glanced to her, seeing the slight pinching round the eyes where Anne was obviously trying to hold something in. She guessed that it was recollections of her own parents. They had been murdered in front of Anne when she was only a child.
“No,” agreed Natalie, drawing Katherine’s eyes back to her, “They weren’t bad to me there, it’s just…” she turned to look at Anne, “I liked you.”
Katherine was surprised to see more uncharacteristic behaviour from Anne, the young woman looking decidedly embarrassed by the girl’s confession, a slight redness colouring her cheeks. She supposed Anne didn’t get much chance to interact with children.
“And now?” queried Anne, seemingly intrigued by the girl, “After I threw you on the floor and threatened you?”
Natalie pursed her lips as if giving it considerable thought. “I might be able to forgive you,” she finally allowed, “If you let me stay.”
Katherine and Anne’s eyes met as Natalie waited expectantly before them. Katherine couldn’t quite tell if Anne was pleading for rescue from her new admirer, or whether the look in her eyes was a request to grant the girl’s wish. There was something rather adorable about the way Natalie had latched onto Anne, especially given Anne’s outward aversion to the concept. However, Katherine suspected that deep down Anne found it charming too, though she would probably never admit as much. Katherine herself had always liked children, though she had never had the pleasure, or perhaps curse, of having any of her own. That fact always caused a faint rumble of discontent in her.
“All right, you can stay…”
Natalie let out a small whoop of joy.
“…if Phillipa agrees it’s all right,” Katherine quickly added.
Natalie dashed towards her, wrapping herself around Katherine’s legs and hugging her tight. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she cried excitedly.
Anne was still looking bemusedly at the pair of them when suddenly Natalie released Katherine and ran for her, flinging herself directly at the young woman. Anne had no choice but to open her arms and catch the small body in them. Katherine couldn’t help smiling at the awkward way Anne’s arms closed around the girl, as if she was some sort of wild animal Anne wasn’t sure she should be handling.
Even when Anne released her hold, the girl seemed reluctant to let go, finally disentangling her arms from around Anne’s neck.
“I suppose I ought to get you back to the house,” remarked Katherine, “But I shall still expect you to work for your keep.”
“Absolutely,” agreed the girl. If she had been standing any more alert and upright Katherine might have thought she was about to salute.
“And you must never tell anyone about Anne,” Katherine added solemnly.
Katherine took Natalie’s small hand in her own, feeling an odd sense of responsibility for the girl. She had other young servants at the house but this seemed somehow different.
She glanced at Anne, offering an apologetic look for their curtailed meeting. “I’ll see you at the fair tomorrow?”
Anne nodded before Katherine pulled up her hood and ducked back out into the rain, taking her new charge with her.
The following day dawned fair over Markham, drawing out the crowds for the annual spring fair. The fair was bigger and grander than the weekly markets that were held at Markham during the non-winter months. It provided a greater diversity in terms of goods and entertainment with its multitude of stalls and tents sprawled out over the ground by the manor house. It was almost like a whole new town, latched onto the side of Markham for the day. With it came a whole new population too.
Amongst those making their way to the colourful show ground were two figures that had more reason to go unnoticed than the others. If anyone had been paying them attention they might have been able to see how the air of normality they exuded was actually a practiced art. But that was just it; no one gave them a second glance. They moved through the crowd appearing no different to the other peasants and traders flocking across the grass.
Anne made sure she kept her hood up over her head as she sauntered past some of the Markham troops and onto the fair ground. It was rather warm under the black cloth with the spring sunshine on it, despite the fact that Anne was only wearing one of her lighter cloaks. She had finally been able to put away her heavy winter one for the year now the weather was turning. Though it was pleasant to feel the warmth, as the summer got ever closer it became harder for Anne and her fellow outlaws to sneak around in public - someone with a hood covering their head would look rather suspicious in the heat of summer. It was generally all right to walk around uncovered in the more remote villages at any time, where they tended to support Robin anyway, but anywhere they were likely to bump into troops was problematical. Not that Anne would necessarily be recognised, even then, but it was always a risk.
Fortunately it was still just about acceptable to remain under a hood that day, with a few of the other attendees also covered in one way or another. There was still a tinge of winter in the breeze that rippled across the Nottinghamshire countryside, and it would be a few weeks yet before cloaks were completely discarded. Luckily the guards also seemed far more interested in looking smart in their blue and gold tabards and their specially polished armour than spotting any outlaws. No doubt some of them hoped to catch the eye of the many women that made up the crowd, and Anne could see the ones closest to her had attracted a few admirers already, a couple of young women plying them with drinks. Anne wondered if she should mention the lack of attention to duty of her troops to Katherine.
As they walked on, Anne’s companion kept his head even more resolutely hidden, but then again he was more likely to be recognised being the infamous Robin Hood. Anne had to admire his nerve; if he got caught a quick trip to the gallows would most likely be his reward. Not that she was likely to fare much better, the only thing that might save her neck being the fact that she was a woman.
She made sure she was sufficiently close so no one could overhear before she spoke to him. “You’re crazy, you know, coming somewhere so public,” she whispered.
Anne could just see the flash of a smile beneath the hood. “You know me, I like to live dangerously.”
“Especially when it’s for an attractive woman?”
Robin tilted his head up enough to catch her eye, a definite twinkle in it. “In which case we have something in common,” he noted with a knowing grin. “Anyway, I’m not going to be doing anything to stand out today, I just want to get something for Marion that’s all. I shall be like one of the crowd, blending in.”
Anne rolled her eyes, able to detect the hint of playfulness in Robin’s voice. “Somehow that doesn’t inspire me with confidence. I seem to recall another similar fair where you ended up trying to anonymously enter an archery contest when all we were meant to be doing was observing someone.”
“Bloody hell, that was nearly a year ago,” cried Robin as they continued to pass through the crowds, “I’m surprised you even remember there was a contest, given who it was we were watching at the time.”
Anne couldn’t help blushing - it had been Katherine they had been following that day in Nottingham. They had been looking to steal the Stone of Gaia off her, not knowing it wasn’t in her possession at that time. Anne hadn’t even spoken to Katherine at that point, their only interaction having been a brief interlude in Katherine’s bedroom at the castle. There had been no words on that occasion, Katherine almost impaling a masked Anne with a dagger instead. Yet even that day at the fair, when they had bumped into one another and looked fleetingly into each other eyes, Anne had somehow known that their fates would be inextricably linked.
“Have I done anything like that since?” asked Robin, breaking her recollections that were still as fresh as the day they had happened.
Anne merely stared incredulously at him, thinking he must have an incredibly short memory. That or a very selective one. The past twelve months had been littered with examples of close calls and needless risks.
Robin caught the look, holding up his hands. “All right, all right, but I promise – no funny business this time.”
“I hope not,” said Anne with obvious chastisement in her tone, “I don’t want to have to cut and run unnecessarily like that day in Nottingham.”
“Talking of which, I need to go and see a man about a dog,” Robin remarked.
Anne’s brow crinkled at the reference.
“I don’t know what it means either,” he confessed, “But it sounds suitably clandestine, don’t you think? I’ll see you back here in a moment.”
Robin disappeared into the crowd, quickly being swallowed up in the throng. Anne herself wandered in the direction of a stall she had spotted as they first came through the fair.
Elsewhere in the fair someone else was also seeking a particular item among the many stalls. Friar Tuck rubbed at his bald head as he studied the books before him, looking for one that might help him in his quest. That had started a couple of weeks previously when Katherine had returned from Keighley with an inscribed goblet in her possession. Apparently it had belonged to her sister, and her father before that. Both of those facts were unremarkable, the more pertinent point being that a man had died trying to get his hands on it.
Even more intriguing was that said man had borne a tattoo on his arm that had a startling similarity to the one on the face of Charles Kirby. Having inspected the goblet at Katherine’s request the friar had discovered that the same pattern was also imbedded in the intricate carving upon it, along with some words in a language he didn’t recognise. Which bought him to the current stall in search of more information on both the significance of the tattoo and the meaning of the language.
Finally he spotted something of interest. Picking up the tome, he rubbed some dirt off the cover before opening it up to release a cloud of dust. He coughed a couple of times as he wafted it away.
“Not much interest in this one then?” he noted to the stallholder holding it up.
The merchant feigned indifference for a moment until he actually saw which book the wiry friar had selected. Then he was suddenly very interested, trying to reach over and take it back.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know how that one got there - it’s not for sale.”
The friar pulled the book back out of reach. “Really?” he said, leafing through a few more pages, “And why is that?”
“No reason, it just isn’t,” said the man, now coming round to the friar’s side in an attempt to reclaim it.
The friar could tell by his shifty demeanour that there was obviously a very good reason; he just wasn’t willing to say what it was.
The friar wrapped an arm round the nervous man’s shoulder, making sure to keep the book on his other side. “I can pay handsomely for it,” he whispered conspiratorially.
From the glint in the man’s eye, the friar knew he had mentioned the all important words. “How handsomely?”
The friar reached under his habit and pulled out a full purse. “Very handsomely.”
After a few more anxious glances the merchant gave in and accepted the payment. As the friar moved away with satisfaction he got the strangest sense that someone was watching him. He turned to scan the crowd but there was no obvious sign of anything untoward, just people milling about and enjoying the fair. Shaking his head he opened the book and read as he walked.
Anne’s eyes shifted over the musical instruments on display, not entirely sure what she was looking for. She picked up the nearest lute, and tunelessly plucked a few strings, quickly stilling the discordant vibrations with her hand. She was going to need some help selecting something appropriate she realised. The stallholder appeared to be busy, dealing with two other women who were also studying the wares on offer. They were both peasant women, wearing plain, rough-hewn dresses and carrying baskets overflowing with already purchased goods. Anne guessed they were somewhere in their thirties or forties, though one displayed a few more lines around the face than the other. It was the older one who spoke up first, teasing her companion.
“I don’t know why you’re bothering looking,” she said, “I told you months ago, you’re a whore, you’ll always be a whore. All these notions of being a bard are ridiculous.” Her voice was low and husky, almost rasping out to Anne’s ears.
“Would you stop using that word,” replied the other indignantly, putting on a fairly good impression of an upper class accent, though Anne could still detect the commoner’s twang underlying it, “I prefer to be known as a ‘lady of the night’”
“Hark at her,” cried the older woman, “Lady of the night! How many ladies do you know that spread their legs for every passing gent?”
“I don’t do it for all of them,” replied the second woman, looking most affronted.
“Just the ones that can pay.”
The second woman didn’t have an answer to that, instead lifting up her purse and chinking the coins in it noisily together. “At least I make a darn sight more than you with your doctoring.”
Now it was the raspy-voiced woman’s turn to be indignant. “Hey, I only lost four of my patients last week.”
“Out of how many?”
“Just shut up,” replied raspy-voice curtly.
“Very eloquent,” mocked the other woman.
“Let’s see how eloquent you are with my foot up your backside.”
The older woman made to kick her companion who dodged sideways, jostling into Anne.
“Beg your pardon, sir…” she began, glancing up to the be-hooded Anne, “Oh, I mean, miss,” she quickly corrected on seeing the young woman’s face for the first time.
The peasant woman quickly moved back over to her friend, giving her a playful punch on the arm in reproach for causing the incident. The conversation was more hushed as they glanced from one another back to Anne, but she could still make out some of it.
“I’m telling you it’s her,” said the one that had banged into Anne, “The one that started that fight in the inn in Cotgrave.”
Anne was tempted to butt in and make the correction that it was Katherine who had been drunk and started the fight in question, but decided it probably wouldn’t be a welcome interjection.
“Don’t be daft,” hissed her friend in reply, “What would she be doing here? All those stories you make up have gone to your head and you’ve lost all sense, unless you dropped it with your knickers that is.”
Anne’s laugh was quickly stifled with a hand, but not fast enough for the pair to miss it. They gave her one last dubious look before starting to move away from the stall.
“Come on, let’s go see how Amelia is getting on with her wheat stall,” said the husky voiced one, “I hear she’s doing a roaring trade - has some very inventive uses for it.”
“Maybe you could take that up too, rather than your doctoring?”
“Do I need to kick you again?”
The rest of their conversation was lost in the hubbub of the crowd, and Anne was finally able to get the attention of the stallholder now his other potential customers had gone. After a bit of deliberation and testing she settled on the item she wanted to buy at which point they entered into the convoluted bartering process. By the time they had finished, Anne couldn’t help feeling that she had been cheated or robbed in some way. It was an odd feeling since normally she would be the one doing the thieving. The merchant had just finished wrapping up her purchase when she sensed a presence by her shoulder, a quick glance verifying who it was.
“Did you find your dog?” Anne asked.
Robin patted a spot under his cloak. “Safely tucked away. You’ve been spending as well I see. For someone special is it?”
Before Anne could answer she felt the faint brush of something past her body, or to be more precise, past her bottom. The brush turned into a more defined stroke as a voice whispered out from behind her.
“There you are,” came Katherine’s husky voice. There was a full-on squeeze as she leant closer. Anne could feel the soft flesh of Katherine’s left breast pushing into her back. For a moment Anne forgot where she was, relaxing back into the welcome touch. The sounds of the fair penetrated her enraptured haze and she forced herself to turn round to face the other woman who was still looking seductively at her.
“I think I should be worried that you managed to spot me so easily,” said Anne trying to ignore Katherine’s amorous look, knowing she couldn’t do anything about it, “I am meant to be incognito.”
“You really think I wouldn’t be able to recognise you?” replied Katherine, sneaking closer again, “I know this body far too well…” Her hand crept out to run down Anne’s arm.
Anne glanced around, surprised and not a little nervous that Katherine would be quite so risqué in public. She caught the roving digits, surreptitiously stroking her own thumb over the back of Katherine’s hand as she lowered it between them.
“Have you been buying things?” asked Katherine out of the blue.
“What?” said Anne, having to mentally shake herself and take a moment to assess what Katherine was talking about. She saw Katherine was looking at the package in her other hand. “Er, no,” she replied, trying to quickly think of an excuse, “This is Robin’s.” Anne thrust her present into the outlaw chief’s hands.
Katherine looked to the side of Anne as if spotting her companion for the first time. “Ah, hello, Robin, I didn’t see you there.”
“Good afternoon, m’lady,” he greeted with a small nod of the head.
“I hope this visit is purely for pleasure?” Katherine’s tone was amiable but with a slight tinge of warning.
“Of course,” replied Robin, still smiling but knowing full well what she meant.
“Good,” nodded Katherine, “So I won’t need to set the troops on you then?”
“They’d have to catch me first, and your captain seems rather busy at the moment.”
Everyone glanced to see where Robin was indicating with his eyes. Anne caught sight of Tobias, a stern look on his face as he made his way through the crowd. Following his path to its intended destination, she spotted the young squire, Isaac, talking to a group of girls, which included Natalie. She suspected that idle chatter wasn’t what Isaac’s responsibilities for the day were meant to be, and that Tobias was going to make that exact point to Isaac very soon.
Katherine turned back to Robin. “I could always apprehend you myself,” she remarked, her tone verging towards humour though Anne thought Katherine would have given it a good go if she had been serious.
“Now that is a threat to be taken seriously,” said Robin with a wink, “But you don’t need to worry, all my items were honestly paid for. I wouldn’t want to be giving stolen goods as a present – Marion would kill me if she found out.”
“Marion? As in the maid Marion of Calverton?”
“Yes, that’s right, you know her?”
“Not well, we’ve met a couple of times at gatherings hosted by the Sheriff. You and she are…?”
Robin merely raised his eyebrows in acknowledgment.
“There must be something in the water,” Katherine remarked, “All these nobles and outlaws getting together.” Katherine cast a sideways look at Anne, favouring her with a soft smile.
Anne returned the gesture. “Perhaps it’s our rough charm that you find irresistible?” she offered.
“I can think of a few other things…,” commented Katherine, the slyly seductive look back on her face again. Anne wondered how long Katherine’s duties would keep her busy at the fair, or if there was somewhere they could sneak off together in the meantime.
“Anyway, I don’t want to outstay my welcome,” Robin said, “So I best be leaving, now I can see you’re in safe…hands.”
Anne shot him a stern look for the unsubtle innuendo, but the outlaw appeared unrepentant.
“I’m going straight to Calverton, by the way,” he added to Anne, “So John will be in charge for a few days. There won’t be any problems while I’m gone will there?”
“No, everything will be fine,” said Anne with assurance.
“In that case I bid you ladies good day.” Robin made a small bow. “Oh, can you take my present back to the camp for me,” he added handing Anne back her package with a knowing wink. With a final dip of the head he disappeared into the crowd once more.
Once the outlaw leader had gone, Katherine’s mind turned back to his parting remarks. “What did he mean by checking there wouldn’t be any problems?” she asked Anne, not a little concerned by the implication.
“It’s nothing,” said Anne, far too dismissively for Katherine to think that was entirely true, “There’s just a small faction of our group who aren’t too impressed by my association with you.”
“You’re not in any danger are you?” pressed Katherine. There was always part of her that was anxious when Anne left her to go back to the outlaw camp, though she tried to hide it as best she could. Yet inside she was unable to stop the protective instincts that welled up, causing her to worry that something might happen to Anne because of the dangerous life she led. To know that there were those who were supposedly on Anne’s side who might be less than supportive only added to her fears.
“Really, it’s nothing,” Anne assured her, “Just the discontented rumblings of a few individuals. They always want something to moan about and I’m just the target at the moment. It’s certainly nowhere near as bad as when Will was around stirring things.”
That brought the conversation to an abrupt halt. Katherine remained silent at the mention of the outlaw who had caused so much heartache to them the previous year. In the end she had been forced to kill Will in self defence. Katherine didn’t like to talk about it much, since she wasn’t exactly proud of the fact. Anne had tried to console her by saying that she was personally glad he was dead and that if anyone deserved it, it was him. Still, in Katherine’s mind it was wrong to kill anyone. Not that Anne went around killing people for the fun of it. Yet the fact of the matter was that Anne had killed people before, whereas Will was the first, and only, life that Katherine had taken. She hoped it would also be the last.
Perhaps sensing the dark cloud that had descended over the conversation, Anne encouraged Katherine over to one of the food stalls where they were roasting some chestnuts. They were a favourite of Katherine’s and their warmth along with that generated by the arm that snuck out to squeeze her shoulder pushed thoughts of dead outlaws to the back of her mind. Anne smiled across at her, not needing to say anything to show she understood what had been going through Katherine’s mind.
As she ate, Katherine watched the other people at the fair going about their business, a few of them giving her inquisitive glances back as they realised who she was. However, most of the local peasants were used to the fact that the lady of the manor liked to mingle with everyone else on such occasions and didn’t give her a second look. The fair seemed exceptionally busy and Katherine was pleased all her efforts in organising it had come to fruition. The good attendance also put paid to any lasting fears that people were avoiding Markham because she, as a woman, was in charge of the estate.
“Shall we go and have a look at the showground?” suggested Katherine, “I ought to put in an appearance and see if my judging services are required.”
Anne nodded, but they had barely taken two steps when a distracted figure cannoned into the pair of them.
Katherine smoothed down her dress as the man stepped back. “Good afternoon, Tobias,” she greeted.
“Good afternoon, m’lady,” he replied formally, “My apologies for bumping into you.” The captain of the guard also made a small nod of greeting in Anne’s direction. Katherine knew it went against Tobias’s principles and nature not to arrest Anne on the spot, and that it was only a mark of his respect for Katherine that he was willing to accept that he had to curb such instincts in this special case. What resulted was an uneasy truce whereby Tobias would just about acknowledge Anne’s presence, while basically pretending she didn’t exist the rest of the time.
“Did you catch up with your wayward page?” asked Katherine.
“No I did not.” It was obvious that did not please Tobias. At least it was obvious to Katherine. To the casual observer it would have been hard to determine one way or the other what Tobias felt since his face and voice betrayed little in the way of emotion.
Katherine nodded solemnly, though it was faintly amusing to think of a teenager running circles around Tobias. “How have his studies been going?” she asked conversationally.
“Not well, he appears to be too easily distracted,” Tobias answered, “I find it hard to impress upon him the need to study both intellectual pursuits as well as the more physical ones.”
Katherine too was finding herself easily distracted at that moment as Anne insisted on sneakily pinching her bottom out of sight of Tobias. She made a small, involuntary yelp, quickly covering it up by asking another question to ward off Tobias’ inquisitive raised eyebrow. “Is he still having tuition from the friar too? Perhaps he needs some company?” she mused, thinking as she went, “Maybe then they wouldn’t seem like some form of punishment or detention?”
Anne stepped into the conversation. “You have someone in mind?”
From the look she was receiving, Katherine could tell Anne knew as well as she did who she was thinking about.
Oblivious to the meaning of the look, Tobias had spotted something of interest close by. “Excuse me, m’lady,” he said, already moving away, “I think I see my quarry.”
Tobias moved quickly through the fair, Isaac not spotting him until there was a firm hand on his shoulder. Katherine could see the look of shock on the young man’s face when he turned and saw who the hand belonged to. The words of the conversation were lost to the crowd, but it was obvious what the content was. Isaac looked suitably ashamed as Tobias berated him before the pair of them disappeared in the opposite direction.
Now the young man had been practically dragged away by his ear, the girls he had been talking to dissipated as well. One of them glanced in Katherine’s direction and then immediately started bounding for her, brown wavy hair bouncing around her shoulders as she did.
Natalie had been readily accepted into the household when Katherine had returned with her from Sherwood Forest the day before. The women in the kitchens had fussed around the new addition to the staff as if she were their own daughter, giving her plenty to eat and drink and generally cooing over her. In fact Natalie had been desperately trying to refuse another offer of food when Katherine had left her there to attend to estate business.
The smile was big on her face as she reached them, though she held back from hugging Katherine this time, perhaps realising it wasn’t really proper for servants to be doing such a thing every time they saw their mistress. “Good afternoon, m’lady,” she said instead, making a small curtsey.
Katherine laughed at the gesture. “It’s all right, you don’t need to do that.” She didn’t really see why anyone should have to bow to anyone else, apart from the king of course.
Katherine thought it strange that Natalie hadn’t acknowledged Anne in anyway, but as she looked to the side she could see that the young woman’s head was bent more than normal so that her face was almost completely hidden by her hood. She was also standing slightly turned away, giving the impression she wasn’t with Katherine at all. Katherine sneakily stuck out a foot and jabbed Anne in the shins.
Her involuntary cry in response was enough to bring her head up and draw Natalie’s eyes to her. Instantly the smile was bigger on her face and she wasted no time in leaping at Anne. Once again Anne was forced into a hug that she didn’t look entirely comfortable with, though marginally less so than the day before. Natalie appeared oblivious to any such discomfort, happily gabbling on once she had let go.
“I forgot you were going to be here today, are you sneaking around again? Have you got any other outlaws here with you? Is Robin Hood here? What’s…”
Anne had to place a hand over the girl’s mouth to stop the stream of questions. “You really shouldn’t be asking such things, especially not quite so loudly.”
“Oops, right, mum’s the word!” said the girl, still looking so excited that she might burst.
Katherine chuckled to herself at the interaction before joining the conversation once more. “Natalie, when you were at Keighley, did you ever do any studies?”
Natalie’s brow creased. “Studies, m’lady?”
“Reading, writing, arithmetic, that sort of thing.”
“Oh no, m’lady,” replied the young girl, with a emphatic shake of the head, “Such things are beyond us simple peasant people.”
Katherine rolled her eyes. “What a load of rubbish. Anyone can do them if they’re taught, it’s just most peasants don’t see the point or have access to someone who could teach them. Would you like to learn?”
Natalie looked unsure. “I don’t know…” she began slowly, eyes drifting over to Anne. “Can you read?”
“Yes, I can,” answered Anne.
The affirmatives seemed to make Natalie’s mind up for her. “Then I would like to learn too,” she stated with assurance, folding her arms across her chest to show her determination.
“Good,” said Katherine, touched by the sudden eagerness when it was so obvious what the cause of it was, “I’ll speak to the friar, arrange when you can go.”
“The friar?” repeated Natalie, her smile quickly fading, “I thought one of you would be teaching me. The friar’s boring, and he has a wonky eye.”
Katherine had to stifle a laugh. “Wonky eye or not, he is a very good teacher.”
Natalie looked to Anne again. “But if I learn enough, we might be able to read together?”
Anne glanced to Katherine, as if she needed her permission for some reason. Katherine merely shrugged indicating it was up to Anne whether she wanted to or not. “Yes, I think that would be possible,” replied Anne after consideration.
Katherine allowed herself a small smile. Perhaps Anne’s frosty exterior to the girl was starting to fade. “Why don’t you go and enjoy the rest of the fair, I’ll let you know when your first lesson is.”
“Thank you, m’lady,” said Natalie, catching herself before she made another curtsey.
After she had gone, Katherine started for the showground again, only to find that she was walking alone. She stopped and turned to see Anne regarding her thoughtfully having not moved.
“How many of the other servants have you arranged private lessons for?” asked the young woman suspiciously.
Katherine stepped back closer, not wanting to draw undue attention. “None,” she replied honestly, “But it’s mainly to help Tobias with Isaac.”
Anne pursed her lips, nodding her head several times. “Of course it is,” she said in tones that implied she didn’t believe it for a second, “Nothing to do with you becoming rather attached to our new little friend.”
“I wasn’t the one offering to give extra reading lessons,” pointed out Katherine.
Now it was Anne’s turn to look abashed. “Yes, well,” she mumbled, “That’s to help her studies, since you arranged them for her.”
“Of course it is,” said Katherine, using the same tone Anne had employed moments before. “Talking of which…friar!”
Her call got the attention of the nearby bald-headed man, the cleric bustling excitedly over.
“Ah, Katherine, Anne, I’m glad I found you.”
The friar was one of the few people that ever called Katherine by her first name without title. If Katherine had been one of those all too common tyrannical nobles she would have taken him to task over it, but she thought that him knowing her for nearly eighteen years gave him a bit of leeway. That and the fact they were good friends. Though them being friends hadn’t extended to her knowing about his other ‘activities’ outside the church until a year ago. It had come as quite a shock to discover that he had secret links with Robin Hood’s outlaw band.
“You look rather flustered,” noted Katherine, seeing how he kept glancing over his shoulder, “Is everything all right?”
“What? Oh, yes,” he answered, focussing his attention on her, “I just had the oddest sense I was being followed. Must be going crazy in my old age. Anyway, I found something very interesting.”
He pulled an item out from somewhere under his brown robes. The clothes must have been much bigger than the man since the item was rather large.
Anne looked distinctly unimpressed as she stood at Katherine’s side. “An old book?”
“Not just any old book,” corrected the friar, “It contains information on that tattoo we’re all interested in. I haven’t had the chance to read it all yet, but the gist of it seems to be that the tattoo is worn by a group of men known as The Ares Syndicate. I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of this group is – I’ve come across a few cryptic mentions of power, money and knowledge so far. And there was also an interesting bit about some sort of weapon known only to this group.”
Katherine didn’t like the sound of that. “A weapon? What sort of weapon?”
“That I don’t know yet. The book is in a bastardised form of Latin, so it’s not exactly easy going. I have found some pointers on the language used in the inscription on the goblet though. I’m hoping it might provide the key to allow me to translate it. I’m going to take it back over to the church now to have a good look in peace and quiet, if you don’t mind?”
“No, you go ahead,” agreed Katherine, “I’ll try and pop by later to see how you’re getting on.”
With the friar gone, Katherine and Anne continued on their way to the open area at the centre of the fair. It was where there would be various displays and contests - a group of jugglers and jesters currently entertaining those watching. Seeing she wasn’t required for the time being, Katherine silently indicated for Anne to follow her to the far side of the showground. It was quieter in this part of the fair, with only the tents that the merchants had pitched to stay in overnight occupying the space rather than actual stalls. Katherine slowly moved the flap of one of them aside, gladly seeing it was empty. Taking Anne’s hand she pulled her inside.
As soon as the material flopped closed behind them, Katherine grabbed Anne around the waist, slipped the hood back off her head and hungrily pushed her lips to the slightly parted ones before her. Anne seemed momentarily taken aback by the suddenness of Katherine’s ardour before she too succumbed to it. Her fingers nestled into Katherine’s hair as she opened her mouth further, Katherine’s tongue quickly slipping inside.
It was only when she stumbled slightly, trying to push even closer, that Katherine broke the contact. She stared up at Anne, two dazzling pools of blue fixed on her in return. Katherine could feel the heat in her cheeks and body as she was caught in the gaze. “I’ve been wanting to do that all afternoon,” she remarked breathlessly.
A wry grin crept across Anne’s face. “I could tell.”
Katherine laughed. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s just something incredibly…arousing about being out together in public. About sharing a secret that no one else knows. I guess it’s the hint of danger that someone might see us and suddenly cry out – ‘look at those two women, did you see, she was touching her! It’s scandalous!’”
“I have to say you do seem to like to live a lot more dangerously these days – someone could well have spotted you pinching by bottom earlier.”
“Perhaps it’s that outlaw life rubbing off on me?”
Anne’s fingers crept teasingly down Katherine’s arm. “I certainly know where I’d like to rub.”
Katherine bit her lip as the hand tracked across her abdomen. When the fingers reached the sash tied round her waist she had to dart out her own hand and catch it.
“Maybe we should sit,” she noted, guiding Anne down onto the rough bedding that sat in the corner of the tent. She took a few breaths to still her racing heart, knowing she couldn’t let things get out of hand while they were still at the fair. However tempting it was, the risk that they might be caught was too great.
“That was interesting what the friar had to say,” remarked Katherine, attempting to steer the conversation to more mundane things.
Anne paused a moment before she answered, looking perplexed by the sudden cooling of the encounter. “Indeed,” she agreed eventually, “Though I’m not sure I like the sound of what the friar’s found out so far – some secret weapon that only people like Kirby and Coleville know about.”
“We don’t actually know Kirby’s involved – all we know is that he has the same tattoo as Coleville.”
Anne considered that. “True, I guess I shouldn’t make assumptions based on our past dealings. Just because he’s a complete bastard, doesn’t mean he’s wrapped up in this. So what about Coleville, have you found anything more out about him yet?”
“No, I wrote to Robert, but that was only a couple of weeks ago, when we got back.”
“Lord Robert of Stratford.”
Katherine still couldn’t quite get used to calling him that. He’d always been plain old Robert Ashdown when she had known him, but now people didn’t tend to use his surname. It was strange how that was one thing nobles and commoners shared. It was just those caught somewhere in between that decided to mark themselves out with an extra name. Commoners didn’t usually have a big enough circle of acquaintances to warrant one, and nobles tended to be known by where they were lord or lady of. Katherine herself had stopped using the Johnson surname she had inherited from Mark, reverting to being merely Lady Katherine of Markham.
“I’m sure I mentioned him in the past didn’t I?” added Katherine.
“Not really, no.” Anne’s words were short and clipped.
“He’s Lord of my old ancestral home at Stratford now, he took over from father when he died a few years ago,” explained Katherine, “Before that he was the captain of the guard there, having worked his way up from being a simple squire.”
“And?” Katherine felt like Anne could see right into her mind, beyond the bare facts she had given so far. She shifted uneasily, before deciding honesty was probably the best policy. “And we had a small thing, before I got married to Mark,” she added more quietly.
“A thing?” The words sounded much more sinister when repeated by Anne.
“Is there an echo in here?” replied Katherine, not liking being put on the spot. She wasn’t sure why she should be ashamed or embarrassed about her past relationships, yet Anne had the knack of making her feel that way. “Yes, a thing, a romantic liaison,” she clarified, “But I haven’t seen him in years, not since father died.”
“You might get to soon though,” noted Anne thoughtfully.
“Sorry?” asked Katherine, not quite understanding the meaning.
“Since Stratford is where the goblet originally came from and where Coleville was also based,” outlined Anne, “It seems to be the only lead we have at the moment in discovering what Coleville was up to. Unless the friar comes up with something in his book.”
“I suppose you’re right,” agreed Katherine, her thoughts drifting to images of the place where she had been born and grown up, “It’ll be odd going back there after all this time,” she remarked wistfully, “I wonder if it’s changed.”
“And whether he’s changed,” added Anne pointedly.
Katherine reached out to cup Anne’s chin with her hand so she could keep their eyes fixed on one another as she spoke. “Anne, jealousy is most unbecoming,” she said, “You don’t need to worry, I’m not about to try and rekindle some long dead romance. There’s only one person I’m interested in these days.”
Thinking a demonstration was in order of just who that was, she used her hand to pull Anne’s face towards her, their lips meeting once again in a moment of searing intensity. Katherine closed her eyes as Anne naturally leant towards her, bodies touching and pressing together. Katherine groaned as she felt Anne’s hand slipping down between her thighs and then it was all too much. Suddenly she was pushing the younger woman back, hands pulling and tugging at clothing in a frantic rush to get them off.
A voice outside the tent was a dash of cold water to Katherine’s passion, her eyes shooting to the flap as she froze where she was, a hand on Anne’s right breast. Anne was also staring at the opening before her eyes shot back to Katherine in a look of shock.
“I’ll see you later,” came the man’s voice, closer now, “I need to grab forty winks.”
Katherine quickly levered herself off Anne, eyes darting frantically around the enclosed space as she hastily fastened her loose clothing.
“Quick! Under here.” Anne was holding up the canvas at the back of the tent, obviously having rearranged her own clothes more quickly, and finding a way to uproot some of the stakes that held the tent in place at the same time.
Katherine scrabbled through the tight opening, thinking it rather undignified for the lady of the manor to be crawling around on the floor like she was. Thankfully there was no one around to see as she stood up and brushed some of the loose grass and earth from the front of her dress. Meanwhile, Anne wiggled out after her, taking Katherine’s elbow and guiding her away from the tent in a walk that was far too hasty to be entirely innocent.
“Perhaps we should find somewhere a little more private?” suggested Anne, as she glanced behind her to check there was no pursuit.
Katherine groaned. “I wish I could, but I need to be here, it is my fair after all.”
Anne muttered something inaudible to herself, though from her frustrated look Katherine guessed it was a curse of some kind. “I suppose I can wait to later,” she finally said out loud.
Katherine could tell it wasn’t what Anne really wanted to do. “They do say anticipation only adds to the passion,” she offered by way of consolation.
“In that case you had best prepare yourself for one hell of a night!”
Friar Tuck rubbed blearily at his eyes and levered himself from his seat. His body made a few odd clicking noises as joints popped back into place after hours spent in the same position. He hadn’t realised how late it had gotten. The time had flown by while he was engrossed in the book he’d bought at the fair. If Katherine had come as she’d suggested she might, then maybe he wouldn’t have been hunched over his desk quite so long. He wondered what had kept her, suspecting it was most likely to do with a certain blonde outlaw.
The book itself was proving hard going, the translation being pain-stakingly difficult. Closing the tome for now, he lit a candle and placed it onto a holder. Carrying it with him to the door, he decided it might be time to get some food to help his concentration.
It was nearly pitch black in the main area of the church, his solitary candle the only light. The friar was used to the eerie quiet of the building, and thought nothing of it as he wandered down the aisle in the direction of the larder. A tiny scraping noise halted him halfway down it.
He spun round on the spot, peering into the darkness. “Hello?” There was no answer. “This isn’t really normal church hours,” added the friar, convinced he wasn’t alone, “But if you have something you want to confess…?”
There was still no response, but the friar snuck back up the aisle, picking up a weightier candlestick on the way. For some reason he felt the need to return to the room at the back of the church, check that the book was still there. He was just passing the lectern when someone darted from the shadows, seeking to beat him to it.
The friar swung his candlestick, catching the hooded figure a glancing blow across the back of the head. The man staggered, turning slightly to see his attacker. The friar whacked him again, a resounding blow to the jaw. This time the man tumbled onto the floor.
“Who are you, what do you want?” demanded the cleric, looming over him with his makeshift weapon raised.
His nightime visitor remained silent, the friar unable to make out his face in the darkness.
“All right, if you won’t talk to me, maybe you’ll be more forthcoming for Tobias.”
Suddenly the man was up, running for the main door
instead. The friar gave chase, but his
robes flapped about his ankles slowing him down. By the time he got to the door and looked outside the mysterious
man was nowhere to be seen in the moonlit landscape. Sighing in frustration, the friar closed the solid oak door with
a resounding thud. Forgetting food, he
headed straight back to the book, thinking he better make use of it while he
“Thinking about the night of the fair?”
Anne started, realising she had become entirely too distracted as she walked along the forest path. That was what happened when you knew them so well and had more interesting things to think about. Things like a night two days ago and gorgeous naked bodies.
She turned to her companion, seeing the outlaw Nicholas looking at her with inquisitive eyes. She flushed slightly before she realised there was no way he could know about what had happened that night. He must have been idly speculating, extrapolating from the fact she had been away all of the night and that she had returned with a huge dopey grin on her face the following morning.
“No,” she lied, “I was contemplating what meal you might be cooking this evening from the supplies we picked up.”
Nicholas laughed out loud. “Now I know you’re lying – no one gets that pleased an expression when thinking about my cooking.”
“Perhaps I was just hoping for better things?”
Nicholas raised both of his shaggy red eyebrows in a look of suspicion. “I don’t know why you’re trying to hide it, we all know what goes on with you and Lady Katherine.”
“You might all know, but I don’t know if you all approve.”
“Does it matter whether we do or not?” asked Nicholas reasonably, “But for the record, I think it’s great. I mean, what’s not to like - two beautiful women together, not very many clothes…”
Anne fixed him with a stern look before he went any further down that particular track.
Nicholas squirmed slightly under the fierce gaze. “Ahem…well…yes…of course what I meant to say was that Katherine is a wonderful person,” he attempted, “As are you, and that you’re obviously very much in love, so why shouldn’t you be together?”
Anne dipped her head in acknowledgement at the much more welcome words. “Thank you, Nicholas.”
“But if you do ever feel like letting anyone watch…”
A swift clip round the ear prevented the cheeky question being fully formed. The good-natured Nicholas merely grinned back at her. Anne knew he was only teasing, that the jovial man was one of the good ones in the outlaw camp. They continued on in silence the rest of the way, carrying the food supplies they had just procured at the market in Mansfield. By the time they reached the camp the daylight was beginning to fade and the soft orange glow of the main fire could be seen filtering through the trees as they approached.
There were only a few men gathered round it at present, the rest of the band obviously elsewhere. They would all be back soon, though, before darkness came. Even outlaws weren’t too keen on spending time in the dark forest on their own.
As Anne and Nicholas reached the fire, one of the outlaws seated around it got up. He was a tall man, though not particularly well built. His clothes seemed a little too large for him, giving him a slightly scrawny appearance.
“Where have you two been?” he demanded, “We’re getting hungry.”
Anne’s eyes swung slowly and deliberately to him, her voice icy as she replied. “I don’t remember anyone putting you in charge, Alan.”
“Ah, see, that’s where you’re wrong,” replied the man cockily waving a finger at her, “John had to go see some of his family. Since there was no one else around, I volunteered to take care of things.”
Anne raised a single doubtful eyebrow. “You?”
“Do you have a problem with that, Seven?”
Anne didn’t hear her nickname used much these days. There was a time when she didn’t let anyone call her anything else, when it defined her status as an outlaw. However, since she’d met Katherine she didn’t feel the need to hide behind it as much, and wasn’t too bothered if the other outlaws called her by her real name. The way Alan had used it now gave her the distinct impression that he was mocking her.
She glanced down at the others sitting round the fire, seeing that all eyes were on the pair of them now. No doubt they were interested in how the power struggle would resolve itself. Anne considered that she could challenge Alan, to see who would come down on her side if nothing else. However, she wasn’t convinced that she would be the one that ended up with more backers, unsure how much her relationship with Katherine had diminished her standing amongst the outlaws. At one time there would have been no question about her loyalty, and Alan would never have dared confront her like he was. Most of the others still respected her abilities, and the fact that she was close to Robin almost placed her above reproach. However, at the same time she was certain there weren’t others beyond Alan who didn’t quite trust her anymore. She couldn’t blame them - she would probably feel the same in their position, if it were one of them who spent a good deal of their time away from camp in the company of a noble.
Given all that, she decided there wasn’t really any point causing trouble now. Robin or John would be back soon and then Alan’s moment in the sun would be over. She felt confident that she could let him enjoy the illusion of power while he had the chance.
“No, whatever,” she finally answered dismissively. She undid the clasp round her neck and took off her cloak, placing it on the ground so she could sit without getting a damp backside.
Nicholas remained on his feet, glancing questioningly down at her to check it was all right to leave her alone with the other men while he went to prepare dinner. Anne made a small nod to indicate it was. After he had gone Anne extended her hands to warm them, avoiding making eye contact with Alan or anyone else. There was a slight chill in the air despite the fact that she wore a thick black tunic and sleeveless jerkin over the top. Perhaps it was something to do with the atmosphere.
It was Alan who finally broke the uncomfortable silence. “I’ve been thinking…”
Alan ignored Anne’s sarcastic comment as he continued. “…I’ve been thinking we ought to take advantage of some of the wares that are on offer to us close by. I’ve heard that they’ve just collected the taxes at Ollerton, so I suggest we plan a little raid.”
Anne felt an instant twinge of anxiety. She tried to keep her voice even as she spoke. “Ollerton is on the Markham Estate,” she pointed out.
Anne stared back at him, convinced he knew exactly why she was questioning his suggestion despite his innocently bemused look. “You know as well as I do that we have a truce with the Markham Estate.”
Alan laughed. “A truce?” he queried. “Why don’t you stop beating around the bush, though I know how much you like that sort of thing…”
He paused for a moment to emphasise the disparaging intent of the remark. Anne kept her mouth shut, merely keeping her eyes trained on him in a withering look.
“…all this bollocks about a ‘truce’,” he continued, “The only reason we don’t go near Markham is because of your ‘special friend’, the Lady Katherine.”
Anne remained silent. There wasn’t much she could say since he was partly right, and to argue would only draw more attention to that point.
“No answer?” he pressed, obviously trying to goad her into something. “That’s because you know it’s true,” he crowed. “Ever since we moved the camp north last year Markham has been the closest estate, it makes no sense that we shouldn’t profit from it.”
“Profit?” questioned Anne, feeling more assured on this subject, “In case you’ve forgotten we only steal what’s necessary to help the needy.”
“Yeah, and at the moment we’re needy.”
“Robin wouldn’t approve of this,” Anne reasoned, attempting to get more of the others on her side. They all held the outlaw chief in high regard, so the mention of his name was a powerful tool in an argument. “He only targets greedy lords and nobles who prey on their tenants, not decent people like Katherine.”
“Oh of course, Katherine is different,” repeated Alan sarcastically, making sure he emphasised the familiar way Anne had used the name without title. From the other tutting heads, Anne realised she had made a mistake. “Right!” continued Alan, “All nobles are the same! You’ve just been spending too much time with them – you’ve forgotten where your loyalties lie.”
Anne was up on her feet in a flash, knowing she had to make a stand now before she lost any more respect. Alan shot up too, standing nose to nose with her.
“You dare to question my commitment?” asked Anne, her words dripping with barely concealed malice, “When I’ve lived side by side with you all for over fifteen years?” She looked at the others around the fire too, receiving back a mixture of blank expressions and averted eyes. “Katherine even lived here too for a few months,” she said angrily to them, annoyed at their continued silence, “Helped us out on more than one occasion and this is how you want to repay her kindness?”
“She also killed one of our own,” Alan noted.
Anne swung her head back to him. “Ah, I see, this is about Will is it? He was a traitor,” she reminded him, “He betrayed us all to save his own skin.”
“So you say,” said Alan blithely, “All I know is that she killed him and next minute she’s safely holed up back in her big manor house.”
Anne could see she wasn’t going to change Alan’s mind in the slightest, and that the discussion would most likely only serve to bring more of the others round to his point of view. “This is ridiculous,” she said, dismissing the argument, “We’re not raiding Ollerton and that’s final.”
Without waiting for a reply she started walking away from the fire, knowing she might lose her cool if she carried on with the conversation; which was most likely what Alan wanted.
“See, she can’t handle it,” he called after her, “Running away like a coward.”
The hackles on the back of her neck stood up, but she resolutely kept walking. She didn’t care what Alan thought of her.
“It’s that fancy lady of hers, I tell ya, turned her soft.”
Despite herself Anne stopped in her tracks with her back to Alan. Now he had brought Katherine into it. She tensed as she waited to hear what he had to say next.
“Now if that was me, I wouldn’t be letting no noble tell me what to do.”
Anne seethed silently, somehow resisting the urge of defending her honour. Her fists were clenched tightly by her sides to keep the bubbling anger in.
“I’d be telling her what to do,” continued Alan unabated, “And showing her. That’s what the problem is here, that so-called noble lady needs a good man to put her in her place.”
There were a few assenting murmurs from the other men.
“What do you think lads?” Alan asked loudly, the suggestion obvious in his voice. “Am I up to the task? Shall I head up there and show her a good time? I quite fancy a bit of rich pussy.”
Anne whirled round and ran at Alan. There was no more conscious thought now; nothing in her mind apart from anger. She leapt at him and tackled him to the muddy ground before he could even think about dodging. The blood exploded from his nose as Anne’s fist drove into it.
“You touch one hair on her head and I’ll kill you!” yelled Anne furiously as she drew back her arm for another punch.
Alan managed to grapple ahold of her, preventing the blow. There was a sneer on his thin lips as he spoke. “Who said anything about her head?”
Anne let out another enraged cry, the sound somewhere between a growl and a scream. She tugged furiously to release herself, trying to hit him in any way she could. Alan merely laughed, the sound only seeking to drive Anne closer to the edge.
Anne punched and kicked wildly as they tumbled across the leafy forest floor in a jumble of limbs. She barely hit her mark once, but she didn’t care as long as she could inflict some damage. They grappled up into stranding, then were back down again as both tried to land a decent punch. Finally Alan managed to dart out a hand and latch onto Anne’s leg. With a swift tug she was deposited on her back, Alan quickly clambering to his feet.
“Is that the best you can do?” he noted, dabbing at his bloodied nose. “In that case I think I’ll be heading off to Markham now.”
Looking up at his gloating face, Anne’s anger crackled hotter than anything in the nearby fire. Somewhere deep down she knew she should resist the bait. She might have been able to if it was just her he was slandering. But it was Katherine he was talking about. No one talked about Katherine like that.
Alan turned to the other outlaws, making a suggestive motion with his hips. “Give Lady Katherine a good seeing to, eh?”
Anne launched herself from the ground and onto his back. Her weight and momentum carried them forwards, Alan staggering down the slope at the side of the clearing with Anne still resolutely attached. Then he had fallen and they were both rolling through the leaves, finally coming to a halt by the small river at the foot of the incline.
As she got to her feet, Anne caught sight of the rest of the outlaws making their way hurriedly down the slope. She knew they wouldn’t intervene since the fight was between her and Alan. They would merely watch eagerly until there was a victor, one way or another. There was a brief rational thought flashing through her mind that she could still walk away. That would certainly be one unexpected way to end it. Then something flashing bright in the forest drew her attention back to her opponent. Alan was holding up a pendent on a chain, admiring the deep blue stone embedded in it. Anne’s hand darted to her chest, already knowing she would find nothing there.
“Give that back!” she demanded. Any rational thought quickly disappearing again as she lunged for the necklace that had been a gift from Katherine.
Alan dodged out of the way, continuing to dangle it tauntingly before her. “Come and get it!”
Alan laughed as she grabbed and missed several times, her fury growing again with each passing second.
“Aw, did someone special give it to you?” taunted Alan, “Maybe Katherine will give me something too…after I’ve shown her a good time.”
Once more all Anne’s thoughts were on Alan and the desire to smash his face in. Hard. Her blind anger made her lunges wild, uncoordinated and easily avoidable. Eventually Alan got fed up of the game of cat and mouse, pocketing the jewellery and dashing for her instead. His straight forearm slammed into Anne’s neck, catapulting her backwards. Anne just managed to grab hold of his sleeve as she fell, pulling him with her and sending them both tumbling into the river.
Anne thrashed to her feet, wanting to attack before Alan could get in the first blow. His head was only just out of the water when she landed a punch to the side of it, sending him splashing back down into to churning froth. The force of it hurt her hand, but she didn’t care any more as she splashed towards where Alan had been carried, her sodden trousers tugging heavily at legs as she waded through the water. Bunching Alan’s shirt in her fist, she forced him back under the surface, holding him there for a few seconds as his legs kicked wildly. A flailing arm caught her a glancing blow across her right cheek but she determinedly held on, only relenting to pull him up for the briefest of moments before plunging him back down again.
When she had repeated this a few times, the resistance finally stopped, and she pulled him to his knees in the water. He was barely conscious. Her own breathing was fast and shallow as she tried to speak, pausing momentarily to compose herself and push her wet hair from her face.
“Let me make it clear,” she finally said, voice low and full of menace, “That if you ever go anywhere near Katherine, I won’t be letting you up next time.”
Thinking her point sufficiently made, she fished her necklace from his pocket and clambered out of the water, not bothering to look back for a reaction.
“What happened to your cheek?”
Anne had barely gotten in the window to the bedroom when Katherine spotted the mark that marred the pale skin.
Anne fingers immediately shot up to the damaged area, “Oh that, it’s nothing,” she answered, “I caught it on a branch.”
Katherine’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. She reached out to try and inspect it, despite Anne’s best efforts to turn away and hide that side of her face. In the end Katherine grabbed the young woman’s chin so she could turn Anne’s head. “That would be a fist shaped branch would it?” she offered, able to see the mark clearly in the candlelight now, “Who were you fighting with?”
Anne sighed, obviously realising there was no point denying it. “Just Alan,” she admitted, “It was stupid, one of these outlaw things that happens from time to time – sometimes you have to confirm your place with a small show of strength.”
Katherine suspected there was more to it. “And what was the cause of this altercation that required you to flex your muscles?” she pressed.
“Nothing, just a disagreement about where we should be focussing our efforts.”
“And it was nothing to do with us?”
Given Anne’s background, Katherine would have thought the young woman would have been better at deception, or maybe it was just Katherine she had a hard time lying to. “He was saying things about us wasn’t he?” guessed Katherine, “I know he’s an old friend of Will’s - was he giving you a hard time because of me?”
“Not exactly,” allowed Anne, “He just made some…comments I didn’t like.”
Anne’s nod was barely perceptible, the young woman now keeping her eyes trained on her black boots.
Katherine sighed loudly. “It’s like a bunch of children brawling in the street,” she said casting her hands up to the roof in despair and turning away.
“I know I shouldn’t react,” said Anne, depositing the object she had been carrying on a table and coming after Katherine as she paced away across the room, “But you should have heard him, going on about what he was going to do to you…”
Katherine stopped as Anne trailed off. Her eyes homed in on Anne, waiting for the details.
The younger woman looked uneasy at the recollection. “…well, I don’t want to repeat it,” she finally continued, “But it wasn’t nice.”
Katherine sighed again to let out some of her annoyance. Anne had only been trying to defend her honour after all. In a way it was comforting to know that she was so protective. At the same time Katherine wished such defence didn’t have to involve the use of her fists quite so often. “I’m sure it was all merely idle talk,” she said, her voice back to its normal calm level now, “And if not I can handle myself.”
“I know you can,” insisted Anne, “It’s just…” Anne’s tongue flicked out nervously across her lips as she struggled to find or express the words.
“Just what?” prompted Katherine.
Anne swallowed, Katherine sure she could hear the sound of the young woman forcing the gulp past the lump in her throat. “It’s just that when I hear someone threatening you it…scares me.” Her pale blue eyes were intently on Katherine now, in a look halfway between fear and desperation, “I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to you.”
All Katherine’s initial annoyance had subsided now, her heart melting as she saw the tiny tears that nestled in the corners of Anne’s eyes. Sometimes she forgot how fragile Anne’s feelings could be, especially when it came to those she loved. She was so strong and confident the rest of the time, that it was easy to assume the was impervious to such insecurities.
Katherine gently took Anne’s hands, sitting down on the bed and bringing the younger woman down to sit next to her. “I don’t know what I’d do without you either,” she said, “When I thought I’d lost you for those few minutes last year it was like I’d lost myself. But we can’t live in fear of what might happen, we have to live for the here and now. And here and now I can tell you with all certainty that I love you, Anne.”
One of the tears escaped its prison, slipping out onto Anne’s cheek. She quickly brushed it away with the back of her hand, sniffing loudly as she did. “God, it’s a good job Alan can’t see me now,” she said ruefully, with a glance to the heavens, “He’d have a field day!”
Katherine smiled at the comment, sensing it was Anne’s way to ease the tension of the moment. “So was it just Alan stirring things?”
“No, he has a few other cronies backing him. They wouldn’t normally openly challenge things, but Robin being away has given them a bit more courage than normal.”
Despite her noble words of moments before, Katherine couldn’t help the concern the answer caused. Sometimes it was easier to give advice than abide by it. “I have to say you’re not the only one with fears,” she admitted, “I don’t think I like the idea of you being out there with them.”
Anne shrugged. “I don’t have much other choice do I? It’ll be all right when Robin gets back,” she reassured Katherine, “Don’t worry about me, the other person definitely ended up worse off.”
“If he sparked your temper I’m sure he did,” Katherine agreed. “Are you sure that’s all right though?” she asked, hovering her fingers by Anne’s cheek, “Maybe the friar should take a look at it.”
“It’s fine, really,” insisted Anne, catching the hand and giving it a small kiss. “Talking of the friar, has he made any more progress translating the goblet or book?”
Katherine shook her head. “Unfortunately not, and he seems to have reached a bit of an impasse. I even brought them both back here to see if I could shed some light but it’s all gibberish to me.”
“Mind if I have a look?” asked Anne.
“Be my guest.”
Katherine directed Anne over to her writing table where the ancient book and artefact sat. She picked up the goblet first, eyes narrowing in study as she turned it over in her hands. It was made of gold, with a number of green gemstones embedded around the main body. Twirling between those was the strange writing that was baffling them all.
“He did say that he thought this passage was the important one in deciphering the inscription,” Katherine mentioned, leaning over to point out a piece of the text in the book.
Anne turned to that instead, scanning back and forth across the page. Katherine watched the deep look of concentration that settled over Anne’s face with no small fascination. Anne was completely oblivious to the perusal, so ensconced was she in the words. It had never occurred to Katherine that Anne may have more luck with the book or inscriptions than the friar, but then Anne did have some experience with ancient texts from her study of paganism, both as a child and more recently the year before. As far as Katherine knew she hadn’t continued with those studies once she had lost her special abilities, but she supposed that didn’t mean Anne had lost her ability with words, or her intelligence.
“Does it mean anything to you?” Katherine asked the down turned blond head.
Anne didn’t look up or speak, merely holding up a single digit to indicate Katherine should wait while she continued to read. Katherine folded her arms and tried to wait as patiently as she could manage. She hated waiting.
“All right, I think I have it,” Anne eventually said, still reading as she spoke. “According to the book there are a number of special objects that are needed to uncover a weapon of great power. These objects each contain a piece of a text that when put together lead to where the weapon is kept. Once the location is reached the objects have to be used to somehow gain access to the weapon. The goblet is one of those objects.”
“That’s all a bit vague,” commented Katherine, “Does it even say what this weapon is?”
“Not really, at least nothing that makes sense,” admitted Anne with a slight tinge of annoyance, “Unless I’m translating it wrong. I’m not even sure you’re meant to know until you assemble the objects and retrieve it.”
“And how many objects are there, where are they?”
“I’m not exactly sure there either.” Anne glanced up when she heard the sigh of exasperation from Katherine. “If you’d rather have a go at reading it…?” she offered.
“No, no, go on,” said Katherine with a wave of the hand. “So what about the inscription on the goblet.”
“Ah yes,” said Anne looking more confident, “The key to that is in the words of the book. It’s a code, not a language at all.” Anne took out the quill from Katherine’s inkwell, scribbling on a spare bit of parchment as the fingers of her left hand ran across the letters on the goblet. When she had finished she picked it up and read.
“Use these five items and the key
To open the Ares sanctuary”
Katherine waited for more, realising after a moment there was none. “What, that’s it?”
“As I said, the words of the inscription continue on the other items. At least we now know how many objects there are,” said Anne hopefully. “Though of course the goblet might not even be the first one, we could have a bit from the middle of the puzzle.”
Katherine rolled her eyes. “Great, so we know what we’re looking for, sort of, but no idea where to find it.”
“We are looking for these items then?” asked Anne, swiftly picking up on Katherine’s words.
“I think it’s wise don’t you?” agreed Katherine. “We don’t know if Coleville’s friends, presuming he has some, have any of the other objects. They might even have all of them and just need this one to uncover the weapon. Either way we can’t let them get there first, not if Coleville is an example of the sort of person in this Syndicate. Something tells me they don’t want this weapon for the good of humanity.”
Anne nodded in agreement. “So we’re just left with the Stratford lead,” she mused, “Unless you have anything here at Markham that might have some interesting writing and a five pointed symbol on it? Maybe something your father gave to you too?”
Katherine wasn’t entirely sure she liked the implication that her father was somehow caught up in whatever sinister plot they were on the verge of uncovering. However, Coleville had also intimated as much just before he died. Katherine cast her mind over the past, trying to recall ever receiving anything from her father that matched the vague description. It was hard when she didn’t know what it was she was looking for in the multitude of memories. As she reminisced, she couldn’t help wondering exactly what her father’s connection to these people was. Why had he been in possession of the goblet in the first place? Was he part of this Ares Syndicate? She couldn’t recall ever seeing a tattoo anywhere on his body.
After a while she shook her head. “I can’t think of anything,” she said.
Anne closed the book for the time being. “Maybe something will occur to you after a bit more thought. It’s funny how often these things just pop into our head when we’re not really thinking about them.”
Despite Anne’s suggestion, Katherine was having trouble not thinking about the goblet, the Syndicate and her father. It was unsettling to contemplate that there might have been something he had been hiding from his family all those years. She glanced around the room to try and distract herself. Her eyes alighted on the dinner table that had been set up over by the fire, Katherine suddenly recalling what it was doing there. She let out a rueful sigh, practically slapping a hand to her forehead.
“What is it?” queried Anne.
“I completely forgot - we have dinner,” she said, gesturing to the table.
“Is there some special occasion?” asked Anne innocently as she started walking in the opposite direction, back towards the window she had come in.
Katherine wondered where she was going, suddenly afraid she had offended Anne in some way and she was about to leave. Katherine followed her over, seeing that Anne had stopped at the table by the window. She was retrieving what she had been carrying when she first came in. When Anne turned round, Katherine was able to detect the smile being held in by Anne’s lips.
Katherine cocked her head to one side. The dinner by the fire had actually been prepared because today, the 12th April, was her birthday. “You know don’t you?” she surmised as she studied Anne’s resolutely innocent face.
Finally Anne’s expression dissolved into a grin. “You think I would forget?”
“I wasn’t sure,” admitted Katherine, “Were you making me stew after what I did to you on your birthday?”
Anne laughed. “By making you think I’d completely forgotten so you became really miserable?”
Katherine cringed as she was reminded of her own actions the previous November. It had seemed like a good idea at the time to try and surprise Anne, and it had turned out all right in the end. She normally just tried to forget the other bits.
“No, I didn’t deliberately set out to do that,” Anne continued, “I had every intention of giving you this as soon as I came in, only you pounced on me before I got the chance.” Anne held out a package wrapped in some dark material. It was about two feet long, the shape not really giving any indication of the contents. “Happy birthday.”
Katherine felt inordinately touched that Anne had thought to get her something, having a strange impulse to squeal with delight. Of course she held back such childish urges. “You didn’t have to get me a present,” she said, carefully taking the item. “And it’s not like I want to celebrate much these days,” she added ruefully, “Not when it’s drawing attention to the fact that I’m almost forty.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being thirty-nine,” said Anne with admirable tact, “It’s a perfect age if you ask me.”
Katherine gave her a wry smile as she attempted to undo Anne’s tight knots. “I think I would prefer to be twenty-seven all the same,” she noted, referring to the younger woman’s own age.
“Well I wanted to get you something,” insisted Anne, “It’s just a small token, because nothing tangible could ever really express how much I love you.”
Katherine grinned, any more of this and her ego would be too big to get her head back out the door. Then she would just have to stay shut up in her room with Anne forever. As the image came to mind, she considered that maybe that wouldn’t be so bad after all. She continued to fumble with the wrapping, finally managing to slip off the string holding it bound. She peeled the cloth back to reveal the sight of fine, polished wood.
“Oh, Anne, it’s beautiful,” gushed Katherine as she removed the rest of the wrapping around the lute. It had some of the most exquisite craftsmanship she had ever seen. She was almost scared to touch the delicate instrument.
It was Anne’s turn to smile awkwardly at the compliment. “I just thought it appropriate after Keighley.”
Katherine turned it over, gently plucking a couple of strings. The notes floated softly from the instrument, reverberating off the high ceiling. “Indeed,” agreed Katherine, a sly, seductive smile working its way onto her lips, “And maybe you could sing me that song about the English Rose again?” she suggested.
Anne looked embarrassed by the recollection, though Katherine didn’t know why – Anne’s singing had been wonderful that night.
“After dinner?” offered Anne.
Katherine thought the diversion was just a way to get out of it. It was odd because Anne wasn’t normally slow about coming forward with her talents. Perhaps she just considered being good at singing as not in keeping with her tough outlaw image. Not that she maintained that much in front of Katherine these days, at least not when they were alone. At the same time Katherine couldn’t imagine that singing would impress the other outlaws too much, not unless the song revolved around ale or women of questionable moral fibre. They would much rather be wowed with prowess at drinking, gambling or fighting.
“Before it gets any colder,” added Anne as Katherine pondered.
Katherine finally dipped her head in agreement, making a mental note to get at least one song out of Anne before the night was over.
As they sat down to eat, Katherine couldn’t help but marvel at the chef’s efforts. Despite his usual moaning about not having enough time to prepare he had excelled himself and the desert was yet to come. While they ate, Katherine surreptitiously watched Anne, studying the way she cut her food, watching the way it eased up to her lips, noting how those lips closed over every tender piece of meat. It was mesmerising…
The sound of a fork clattering onto the table broke the calm, Katherine only realising it was hers when she flexed the fingers of her left hand over thin air. As Anne looked up Katherine quickly averted her eyes, realising she must have been staring quite inappropriately.
“Are you all right?” asked Anne with amusement, Katherine pretty sure she knew exactly what had been occurring. Katherine’s red face was probably a good indication for starters.
“Fine,” replied Katherine, picking up the dropped fork and finishing off the last few bits of her own meal. “How about some dessert?”
Anne leant back on her chair, rubbing at her stomach. “I’m not sure if I could manage it.”
Katherine grinned as she took the covering off the dish that sat to one side of the oak table. “I think you’ll agree that it’s worth a go.”
Anne’s eyes widened at the sight of the red fruit sitting in a bowl. “Cherries? How in god’s name did you get them at this time of year?”
“You would be amazed at what the chef can do.”
Anne tentatively reached out to take one, when suddenly Katherine pulled back the bowl. “Actually, perhaps I should give them to you, you are the guest after all.”
Anne quirked her eyebrow, obviously wondering at Katherine’s intent. Katherine considered that Anne knew her far too well. Undeterred, she selected a nice ripe specimen and dangled it up by its stalk. As she leant over the table, Anne automatically leant forwards too, lips parting slightly in expectant readiness. Then the cherry was upon those lips, bright red against the pink flesh. Anne slowly and deliberately eased the fruit between them, accepting it into her mouth. Katherine allowed her fingers to linger as Anne finally bit it off from the stalk, a single digit straying onto Anne’s now moist bottom lip and sliding enticingly along it.
A tiny drop of red juice appeared between the full lips, Katherine catching it on her finger and bringing it to her own mouth. With aching slowness she provocatively licked the juice off, licking her lips at the intoxicating taste and atmosphere. Anne appeared enraptured by the whole performance, her blue eyes never deviating from Katherine’s face.
Shaking herself out of it for a moment, Anne took one of the cherries, offering it up to Katherine. “Would you like to try a whole one, since you seemed rather taken by mine?”
Katherine could think of nothing she would rather do than devour the teasingly held fruit, dipping her head and closing her mouth over Anne’s fingers. She didn’t immediately take the fruit from them though, swirling her tongue around both fingers and cherry for a few moments. There was a small gasp from Anne. Then all of a sudden she had squeezed the fruit too much in her excitement and it burst, a few pieces spilling out over Katherine’s lips.
“I seem to have made a bit of a mess there,” noted Anne, removing her fingers and leaning closer across the table, “I think I need to clean it up.”
Her tongue snaked out and slipped delicately over Katherine’s lips, teasing away the remnants of the cherry. Katherine could only watch in fascination as Anne drew back and closed her eyes as she savoured the flavour of the small pieces. It was as if it was the most delightful thing she had ever tasted. The look of obvious pleasure was close to the sort of expression Katherine would only normally see at much more intimate moments. It did strange things to her insides.
She quickly picked up another cherry herself, but rather than putting it in Anne’s mouth she deliberately dragged it over the young woman’s cheek, crushing it on the skin and smearing it down over her jawline. As Anne’s eyes shot open in surprise Katherine merely grinned wickedly.
“Oh dear, it seems as though I’m the one with the butter fingers now.”
Katherine eased forwards, tongue sliding out across Anne’s cheek, licking at the squashed fruit that was dribbling slowly over the skin. By the time she got to the prominent jawline, the heat was rising fast within her. The table was really starting to get in the way now, Katherine thinking she was going to have to clamber over it in a minute, that or just throw it out of the way. Anne let out a low moan and then suddenly she was the one putting Katherine’s plan into action, unable to resist the temptation any longer.
The plates went flying off the tabletop as she crawled wantonly across it in Katherine’s direction, intent on her target. Snatching up a handful of cherries this time, Anne squashed them directly against the exposed skin at the top of Katherine’s chest. Then she leapt down off the table, hovering for a moment above the still seated woman’s lap. Katherine gazed up at the heavenly sight, Anne standing there with one leg either side of Katherine’s chair, her hair somehow having come undone on the way across the table. It looked like she was sizing up her prey as her blond mane fell about her face.
Katherine gulped, caught in the almost feral stare. The act only served to heave her chest up higher as she leant back in her seat. Anne seized the invite, head burying in Katherine’s bosom as she sucked at a mixture of fruit and flesh. Katherine gasped, tipping her head back on the chair, able to feel the warm tongue sliding over her skin, chasing the elusive pieces of cherry. She could feel a few odd bits slipping lower, trickling down below the line of her dress and between her breasts. Anne followed those ones too. At the same time her fingers wormed their way along Katherine’s collarbone and under the edge of her dress, easing it off over her shoulders and down her arms.
Katherine’s breath caught tight in her throat when Anne’s mouth closed over her now exposed nipple. Katherine’s hands gripped tight onto the seat of her chair, her eyes fixed on the ceiling. Her breathing came in short, fast gasps as the young woman drew the nipple between her teeth intent on enjoying the taste of it as much as the cherries.
Unable to stand the maddening temptation anymore, Katherine was suddenly up off her chair, pushing Anne back onto the table. Some more knives and forks clattered to the floor as Anne’s back hit the wooden surface. Katherine’s frenzied lust carried her up onto it too, straddling the lithe body beneath her. The remaining few pieces of cutlery were brushed unceremoniously to the floor by eager hands. Katherine yanked at Anne’s top, the young woman keen to help and out and shake off the black vest and shirt. Another batch of cherries were already a pulp in Katherine’s hand as she took them and smeared them all over the naked torso below her. The red streaked across Anne’s chest, dazzling in its brightness against the pale skin. It was certainly much more interesting than eating off plates.
There was one particularly large blob of fruit resting invitingly on Anne’s left breast. Their eyes met for a moment, both of them knowing what was going to happen next. Katherine deliberately held back, teasing out the moment, staring once again at the bloom of red on white as she waited. Then she had dipped her head and was licking it off, allowing her tongue to trail from there to flick over the erect nipple. There was plenty more to feast on, though, and Katherine made sure she got every last speck of fruit and juice as she licked a seductive path over the whole of Anne’s body. Even when she had gotten the last of it, she continued to kiss at the hot skin.
Eventually Anne arched up, pushing Katherine up into a sitting position on Anne’s lap. From somewhere she had found one more cherry. It was held delicately between her thumb and forefinger. “Now where could I put this last one?” she asked, raising her left eyebrow in a gesture that always sent shivers of arousal drilling right down through Katherine.
Then suddenly they were both up off the table, Katherine quickly wrapping her legs around Anne’s waist as the young woman carried her the short distance to the bed. Katherine’s dress was already halfway down her body, and she shrugged it the rest of the way off as Anne gently lowered her onto the blankets. Anne had also removed the rest of her clothes by the time she put the cherry to her own lips, holding it between her teeth for a moment. She deliberately held Katherine’s gaze as she crushed it between them, the juice dribbling over her already flushed and red lips.
Then those lips were down between Katherine’s legs, spreading the remnants of cherry up the inside of her thigh. When Anne reached the top, Katherine wasn’t sure if there was any cherry left or not. She didn’t really care if it had long since been devoured, though, not when Anne started to feast on something else entirely. Katherine clutched the blankets in her fists as she felt the gentle probing inside her.
The heat from the open fire rippled across Katherine’s skin, prickling at her achingly sensitive flesh. All her senses seemed to be heightened as the outward heat mingled with that which bubbled up within her. Anne swirled her tongue around, and in, and out, and in a hundred different directions, caught up in the fiery glow.
Just when Katherine thought she couldn’t bear it any more, when every fibre of her body was aching for its release, Anne’s tongue moved higher, sliding onto the hard nub amongst the wetness. Now Katherine really couldn’t hold back, the moan starting low in the back of her throat before it erupted from her lips in a cry of utter ecstasy. She arched up, body held rigid for a second in that perfect moment of pleasure. Then she was trembling and shaking as she plunged back onto the covers.
Katherine vaguely registered that Anne was by her side, arms wrapped around her, holding her close as the feelings subsided. The young woman’s breath was hot by Katherine’s ear as she whispered into it.
“I think we’ve run out of cherries.”
Katherine had to laugh at that moment. A warm, throaty laugh that encapsulated all her joy at what had just happened. She rolled over onto her side, seeing the amused apology in the ice blue eyes that met her gaze. Katherine merely raised a cocky eyebrow and then looked down between their naked bodies. “Are you sure?” she queried. “Because I think I can spot one down here…” A single finger trailed a path down between Anne’s breasts, heading lower. “Maybe I should just check?”
“Maybe you should,” agreed Anne, her voice starting to waver as Katherine’s finger slipped into blonde curls.
Katherine didn’t need to be invited twice. Her fingers slid effortlessly lower, gliding through the waiting wetness. As a single finger penetrated inside, Katherine captured Anne’s gasping lips in hungry kiss. When a second one joined it, Anne’s hands were on Katherine’s back, raking down her spine. Nails dug into the skin and Katherine bit back her cry of pain; it was wickedly pleasurable too.
Anne’s blonde hair flew out across the blankets as her head rocked from side to side in time with Katherine’s thrusting. Katherine watched with a mixture of awe and fascination as Anne’s eyes scrunched shut, her head tipping further back on the bed. It was a moment of pure abandon. There was nothing held back - it was real and naked emotion. It was also incredibly arousing. Katherine could feel the fresh surge of moisture between her own legs as her fingers curled up against the ever-tightening walls of soft flesh inside Anne.
And then she couldn’t move them anymore. They were held fast, locked inside. Anne called out Katherine’s name in a breathless, gasping cry as her orgasm swept through her. Katherine pulled her close, sweaty bodies sliding up against one another. Slowly Anne’s eyes came up to Katherine’s face. Her pupils were wide now, almost edging out the blue. “Did you manage to find the cherry?” she asked.
“No,” said Katherine, lips curving into a wicked smile, “I think we’ve both lost it.”
For the next couple of days Anne tried to avoid the argumentative outlaw Alan as much as possible. Even when he continued to favour her with dirty looks and snide comments she resolutely ignored him. Instead she busied herself with gathering supplies or reading – trying to find out more about the mysterious Syndicate that had once owned Katherine’s goblet. She was reading again now by the fire, warming herself in the chill morning air. As she did Anne sensed someone hovering beside her, and she wondered whether it was worth looking up or whether she should just pretend she was so engrossed she hadn’t noticed them.
When there was no comment from whoever it was, she assumed it wasn’t Alan or any of his friends. If it had been there would have been a jibe about her being too clever by half or something along those lines, only with fewer syllables and more swear words. She knew her ability to read and write was just another thing that grated on the nerves of some of the outlaws, most of whom were illiterate and uneducated.
Finally looking up, she saw that it was Nicholas, looking unsure as he held a couple of mugs.
“Can I join you?”
Anne gestured to the ground at her side and he carefully lowered himself, making sure not to spill his cargo. He held out one of the mugs once he was down. “Fancy a drink? It’s something new I’m developing, I like to call it bean-ee after what it’s made from.”
Anne took the cup and had a swig from it, immediately spitting the contents back out over the earth. She coughed a few times as the taste lingered unpleasantly at the back of her throat. “What the hell is that?” she cried, “It’s…it’s…”
“Delightful? Tasty?” offered Nicholas hopefully.
Nicholas looked at his own mug, swirling the contents around and taking a small sip. He tried hard not to wince, only succeeding in pulling an exceedingly pained and tight-lipped face. “Hmm, it’s made out of some beans I picked up at Mansfield market, but I guess it needs some refinement.”
“Refinement?” said Anne doubtfully, “I don’t think anything is going to save that drink unless you like the taste of old boots. Bean-ee after what it’s made from?” she asked repeating his earlier words, “More like cough-ee after what it does to you.”
“Cough-ee…” Nicholas mulled the name over with interest, “That has a kind of a ring to it…”
“I don’t care how much of a ring it has to it, as long as you don’t give me any more.”
Nicholas poked his tongue out. “Spoilsport! I’ll just have to find some other willing tasters.”
“Good luck!” laughed Anne, thinking she ought to warn any unsuspecting victims. “So was there something else, or did you just come over to inflict that on me?”
“I just wanted to see how you were after the other day,” he revealed, “Alan was bang out of order with what he said.”
Anne sucked in a thoughtful breath before replying. “You know that and I know that, but I’m not quite sure how many others would agree with you.”
“Perhaps more than you think,” remarked Nicholas cryptically.
Anne shook her head. “I don’t know, I’m beginning to feel more and more like an outsider.”
Nicholas considered that for a moment. “Well, you’ve always been a bit…different to the other around here,” he agreed after a moment, “There’s the woman thing and the fact that you can string more than two sentences together, but that doesn’t mean you’ve not been accepted. Everyone has always respected you and your abilities – I know there’s no one I’d rather have at my back in a crisis.”
Anne smiled, genuinely touched by the words. “Thanks, Nicholas, but I’m not sure everyone still believes in me as much as you, at least not any more. I think there’s some who think that my loyalties are split.” She shook her head ruefully again. “The thing is they’re right. In fact it’s not even that they’re even really split – if I had to choose between the outlaws and Katherine there would be no choice.”
“And that’s how it should be,” Nicholas insisted, “You love Katherine and I know you would do anything for her.”
“But you and Robin and everyone else, you’ve been my family for the last fifteen years and now it feels like I’m abandoning you, that I’m losing you.” Anne wasn’t sure she was expressing herself clearly. She hadn’t really thought about it much before, having always taken it for granted that this was her home. Now her place was threatened, she realised she might actually miss it if she was forced out.
“You’ll never lose us,” Nicholas stated with certainty, “We’ll always be your family, no matter where you go or what you do. I know Robin’s always thought of you like a little sister, and I guess I’m a bit like a kindly, slightly eccentric uncle. I know we’re not really related, but family is so much more than that, especially for those of us who have lost our blood relations. Family is all about who cares for you, who looks out for you - it’s all about people who love you. And we’re never going to stop doing that.”
Anne was moved again that Nicholas felt able to say such things to her. This sort of discussion wasn’t normally one you had with anyone at the outlaw camp, not unless you wanted to be branded as some sort of sissy. “And I care for you all too,” she agreed quietly, “You and Robin and Henry and many of the others, you’ve all been here for me, especially at the start when…when I had no one else. But I just get this feeling of not quite knowing where I belong any more. For fifteen years I’ve been an outlaw and I’ve been sure of my course – helping those in need and fighting oppression – but now…” Anne trailed off – what was she doing now?
“Now you can still do those things,” Nicholas answered for her, “But you don’t necessarily have to be here to do it. Even if you’re not with our band, you don’t have to give up on who you are, what you feel, what you believe in. I’m sure you never would anyway, you’re not the sort to discard your principles. I can never see you becoming the sort of person that stands back and says it’s not their problem when they see someone in trouble. And you’ll always have a place to come back to here, if that’s what you want. To be truthful, though, I think your heart and your destiny lies elsewhere. You were never really meant to be an outlaw. Don’t get me wrong – you’ve made a damn fine one - but I’ve always thought you were meant for bigger and better things.”
Anne made a snorting, scoffing laugh. “You make me sound like some sort of saviour of the kingdom. I’m just a normal person like you.”
“Not exactly normal, you had those special abilities…”
Anne quickly interrupted. “Which I gave up, remember.”
“Maybe, but I’m not sure…” Nicholas didn’t continue, as if he’d thought better of it.
“Nothing, it doesn’t matter.”
Anne looked at him curiously, wondering whether to press since he had been about to say something about her pagan abilities. Considering he couldn’t really have much to add on a dead subject, she decided not to bother.
Nicholas seemed equally happy to change the subject too. “Hey, did you hear about old Amos Fletcher?”
Anne shook her head.
“He was found dead in the forest,” outlined Nicholas, “Murdered by all accounts.”
“Murdered? Amos Fletcher? Who would want to murder that old poacher?”
“Now that’s the question…”
The sun was pleasantly warm on Katherine’s head as she strode through Markham village, heading for the church that sat just up above it on a small hillock. The morning had been a trying one filled with taxes and tithes and she was glad to be out in the fresh air, even if it did still carry the underlying bite of the fading winter. She knew that things would only get busier on the estate now it was spring and that she should get used to mornings such as this one. The spring was when the land came to life again after its winter break. As she moved through the churchyard she could see the blossom on the trees as evidence of that, a sprinkling of pink and white against the blue sky.
On entering the church itself she was struck by how quiet it was. It was funny how the church was always like that - a small oasis of calm from the outside world, almost like it existed in its own little reality. Her steps echoed off the stone floor as she went up the short aisle to the lectern, heading for the small room at the back.
Katherine pondered knocking, but before she could, raised voices from inside shattered the calm illusion of the church.
“No, no, you’re holding it wrong!”
“Then why don’t you do it for me!”
“What would be the point in that, I’m here to teach you, not do your work for you.”
Resisting the urge to smile, Katherine quietly pushed the door open, slipping into the room unnoticed. Before her were Friar Tuck and Natalie, engaged in a lesson that wasn’t going too well by all appearances. Natalie was seated at a small desk, and a harassed-looking friar leant over her, a deep frown creasing his brow.
“But it’s making blobs all over my paper!” whined Natalie, holding up a dripping quill.
Katherine chuckled to herself as she was reminded of a similar scene from her own childhood. Only in her memory it wasn’t a friar trying to teach her to write, it was her father whose patience was being tested to the limit. Katherine knew she had been a difficult student – always wanting to get things right, annoyed when she couldn’t grasp something first time – but her father had remained patient. ‘Dip it in slowly, then draw it out over the lip…’ he had said while demonstrating. His strong hands had held that quill so gently, like it was something precious to be cherished. He had always loved books and writing, so Katherine had been touched when he had given her his favourite inkpot as a present when she left home. She wondered where it was now, that old ink-stained thing with the strange words inscribed on it. She had never been able to read them…
Her loud gasp was enough to draw the attention of both Natalie and the friar.
“Sorry,” cried Katherine, already dashing back out the door, “I just remembered something…I need to go!”
The light wind brushed over Anne’s face, tickling a lone strand of blonde hair across the skin of her cheek. The temptation to reach up and brush it away was almost irresistible, but she knew she couldn’t move. Not unless she wanted to lose her quarry. Instead she remained where she was, stock still in the undergrowth, watching the deer grazing a few hundred yards away.
There would have been a time not so long ago when Anne would have been able to reach out and touch the animal. Not in the physical sense, but through the underlying force that pervaded all nature and tied it together. Using her innate ability she would have been able to sense its heartbeat, understand its desires. And not just the deer, everything around her, like the forest itself was alive and chattering in a thousand different voices. She hadn’t even realised she was utilising the ability most of the time, it had just come naturally like any other sense. It was only when it was gone that she realised how powerful it had been.
It had certainly taken some getting used to in the beginning after she had come back from the dead that day back in November. It was like she had lost some vital part of herself, just as if she had lost one of her real senses. She’d had to readjust the way she did a few things, like hunting in particular. If Katherine hadn’t been there to help her through it, she wasn’t sure how she would have coped.
So now she just had to rely on her regular five senses like everyone else, having trained her mind not to expect that extra help. Of course she still missed it, but whenever she grew nostalgic she only had to remind herself why she had given up that part of herself to feel wholly vindicated. She would gladly give up everything to be with Katherine.
When Anne had awoken having been on an intermediate spirit plain, one look from Katherine’s pale blue eyes had been enough to confirm she had made the right decision. A familiar warm sensation settled somewhere deep inside her now as she pictured those eyes, along with inviting red lips, soft auburn hair…If Anne closed her own eyes she could almost feel her hands running through it, teasing the strands with her fingers…
There was a loud crunch in the undergrowth and Anne was brought resoundingly back to the present. She gave herself a quick mental shake and re-sighted the deer. As it ambled closer she gently eased back the string on her bow, taking great care not to let it creak and warn the animal. There were times when she was hunting that her prey would catch her eye and she felt the urge to offer an apologetic glance in reply before she loosed her arrow. This deer was completely oblivious to her presence though, unaware it was nibbling at its last bit of grass.
The gleaming tip of her arrow was aligned with the animal, all she had to do was wait for it to step just a bit closer…just a few more feet…
Anne jumped at the shout, firing her bolt harmlessly up into the blue sky. Across the clearing the deer also started. Its head was up, taking in the sight of the hunter hidden in the trees. Then it was speedily disappearing into the forest, leaving Anne to curse as she lowered her bow.
“Anne!” came the voice again, the young woman able to hear the sound of someone crashing noisily through the forest announcing their arrival before they became visible. She wondered how some of the outlaws avoided being caught sometimes.
Anne stood up, seeing Henry barrelling through the trees towards her. “I hope you like cabbage,” she noted as he reached her.
“Huh?” was his stupid response.
“Because that’s all you’re going to be eating tonight,” she outlined, “You scared off my quarry,” she added gesturing with her bow to where the deer had been.
“Never mind that,” he said, still out of breath and having to take a moment to gulp in some air. “It’s Alan, he’s gone to Ollerton.”
“What?” exclaimed Anne, quickly forgetting her annoyance at losing the deer. “When was this?”
“About an hour ago, he said it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Malcolm and Paul went with him.”
“Bloody idiots!” cursed Anne, shaking her head.
“It took me this long to find you,” Henry continued, “I might not have done if Nicholas hadn’t told me of your favourite hunting spots. So what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to go to Ollerton!”
Katherine descended the stairs of Ollerton Manor, her candle flickering in the faint breeze that drifted up from the dusty cellars below. She couldn’t believe that she had forgotten about the inkpot when she had been trying to remember if she had anything of her father’s with the five-pointed pattern on it. As soon as she had remembered she had changed into her riding clothes and been on Delta straight away, galloping across the fields to Ollerton where it was stored. She supposed that an inkpot did seem an unlikely item to be part of a secret trail to an ancient weapon, considering that the remaining three items might also be equally as obscure. You expected such things to be swords, or daggers or expensive jewellery, not old battered inkpots.
She had briefly spoken to the new knight of the manor to let him know she was around, before heading for the downstairs cellar. He had offered to help with the search, but she preferred to be alone with her memories.
The cellar was dark, Katherine’s single candle illuminating the edge of a dusty table as she got to the bottom of the stairs. Placing the candle down she examined the books that were piled up on it, wondering if any of them made reference to the mysterious Ares Syndicate. As she passed over each book in turn, a few of the names rang a vague bell in her memory; no doubt she had seen them in her father’s possession at one time or another. When he had died she had inherited many of his belongings, far too many to store at the already overflowing Markham Manor. So she had made use of the cellar at Ollerton, the manor house there being the second largest on the estate after Markham itself.
When she got to a small book with royal blue edging she had to pause and smile to herself. It had been one of her favourites, and as she held it now she could just picture her father opening it up as he sat on the end of her bed before he launched into a tale of myths and legends. Thinking she had plenty of time to look for the inkpot before she needed to ride back to Markham, Katherine unhooked her cloak and sat down on a rickety stool that she found under the table.
Opening the book, she ran her fingers over the picture that graced the first page – a picture of a dashing knight fighting a dragon. She smiled wistfully to herself as she recalled that even back then she had been dreaming of being the one with the sword battling the terrifying beast, rather than the damsel waiting rescue by her gallant saviour. Before she could start to read further there was a small sound from somewhere behind her.
Katherine put down the book and picked up the candle, holding it out into the darkness. “Hello? Is there someone there?”
There was no answer, Katherine thinking it must have been a mouse or some other dweller of musty corners. She turned back to the book, shaking away the chill that passed down her spine. The second scrape had her whirling back round, eyes darting around the gloomy room. Her candle provided poor illumination, its pall of light not reaching further than a few feet away. She tried to remain still as it flickered in her outstretched arm, listening for any more indications she was not alone. The sound of her own breathing was loud in the enclosed space, seeming to echo off the walls.
Slowly she made her way to one of the torches on the wall, thinking she should have lit them as soon as she came in. It was almost as if she was trying to scare herself by sitting in the dark. After a couple of goes it flared into life, the room now bathed in a soft orange glow. The light revealed nothing other than more wooden tables piled high with papers and other objects from across the years. It didn’t look like anyone had been down there for a while, such was the degree of dust on some of them.
Shaking her head at the ease with which she had allowed her own mind to put the feelings of dread into her, Katherine moved back to the first table. She was nearly there when suddenly there was movement in the shadows. A form reared up at her, knocking the candle from her hand. It clattered onto the stone floor, the light now rolling over the uneven cobbles.
The person barged into Katherine, who crashed into the nearest table. A cloud of dust and papers went up in the air as she tumbled over it, and then she was falling onto the hard floor as the documents fluttered down around her.
Her attacker loomed over her, silhouetted against the torch light.
“Well, well, well, it must be my lucky day,” came his gruff voice, “Blessed by a visit from her ladyship herself.”
Katherine’s fingers sought out the edge of the table to pull herself up, berating herself for not thinking to bring a weapon of any kind. She nearly always carried at least a dagger, but she had assumed that she would be safe at Ollerton. It appeared she had assumed wrong.
Once on her feet, the light from the torch threw the man’s features into relief, Katherine able to make out his craggy face. “I wish I could say it was a pleasure to see you again too, Alan,” she noted, recognising the outlaw.
He started to move towards her, not in an obviously threatening way, more like a sly creeping that exuded malice nonetheless.
“Now, don’t be like that m’lady,” he said, “I thought you liked outlaws?”
Katherine edged backwards, surreptitiously casting her eyes over the tables looking for anything she might be able to use against him. All the time she kept a wary watch of the man. His eyes were dark in the dim room, pinned on her in a look of grim intent.
Katherine allowed him to get close. She even allowed him to reach out and run his fingers down her cheek though it made her skin crawl to feel the rough digits upon her flesh. She resolutely held back the urge to shudder. It was all necessary so her fingers could close round their target on the table. Alan was still grinning like the cat that got the cream when the ink hit him in the face.
His hands shot to his eyes, the man crying out in pain as the blue liquid dribbled down his cheeks. Katherine didn’t stop to view her handiwork, immediately darting for the door. She hadn’t got far when she felt the hand grabbing at the back of her jerkin, hauling her back. Alan flung her smaller body across the room, Katherine haphazardly knocking over another table and sending the pots piled on top of it crashing to the floor.
Surely someone upstairs must be able to hear all this? She thought frantically as she dodged Alan’s latest lunge. Unless Alan had accomplices who had taken care of that. Grabbing one of the pots, she whacked it hard against the side of his face, feeling the jarring up her own arm. She had to get to the stairs, call for help.
Suddenly her foot was whipped from underneath her and Katherine fell face first onto the stone floor, banging her elbows and letting out a cry of pain. Katherine desperately kicked out from her prone position, catching Alan in the shins a couple of times as he bore down on her.
His hand was on her hair, tugging so hard she thought he was going to rip it clean out of her scalp. He yanked her over onto her back, Katherine gagging as a hand gripped her throat tight, banging her head against the hard floor. The only other thing she could feel was Alan’s knee digging into her chest as he leant on it, forcing the air from her lungs. She ineffectually slapped and clawed at him but he had the upper hand, easily batting away her futile resistance.
Then, just as suddenly, he was off her, tumbling across the floor and cannoning into one of the solid tables. Katherine rolled groggily onto her side, realising there was someone else in the room who was currently grappling with Alan. It was hard to make out the detail of what was happening as the spots danced past her eyes. She took a few deep rasping gasps of air that hurt her throat, blinking at the same time to clear her vision. The other person yanked Alan to his feet and shoved him back over one of the tables, the man doing an impressive unplanned backward flip before he careened into the wall.
Katherine instinctively flinched back as the second dark figure dashed towards her before kneeling down at her side. A vision of blond hair and blue eyes swam before Katherine’s eyes as she struggled to focus.
“Anne?” she guessed, the young woman’s face finally starting to take on its normal form. A reassuring hand on her arm, helping her up as she struggled into a sitting position, confirmed her assumption.
“Are you all right?”
Now the room had coalesced into something resembling normality Katherine could see the concern on Anne’s face as she asked the question, noticing the tiny tremor in the normally assured voice too.
Katherine rubbed ruefully at her throat. “Yes,” she said, coughing a couple of times at the attempt at speaking. “I was just getting reacquainted with one of your outlaw friends.”
“No friend of mine,” corrected Anne.
It all happened in a flash. Alan was there behind them. He was slashing with something. Anne had her hand up to protect them. There was a cry and then blood splattering over Katherine’s white shirt.
Katherine recoiled in shock as Anne fell back onto the floor next to her, clutching her damaged left hand close to her as Alan made to strike again. Not really thinking of the danger, Katherine lunged for his legs. Her momentum knocked him to the floor, the dagger spilling from his hand and shooting out across the stone. Katherine could see its blade catching the torchlight as it spun, the drops of Anne’s blood still fresh on it.
Alan kicked her away, Katherine tumbling backwards into an overturned stool. One of the legs poked sharply into her ribs, but there was no time to feel the pain now, he was coming at her again. Katherine rolled away as he tried to kick her, whipping up her own discarded cloak and throwing it up into his face. While he wrestled it out of the way, she threw herself across the floor in the direction of his dagger.
Katherine’s fingers closed over the hilt of it and in one swift motion she had turned and flung it across the room. It hurtled in Alan’s direction, sailing right past his ear and thumping into a wooden beam behind him. Katherine merely stared in consternation – that wasn’t supposed to happen. Alan started laughing at her poor marksmanship.
He was still laughing when the sound of feet echoed off the steps to the cellar.
“M’lady? Is everything all right down here?”
“No it’s not!” shouted back Katherine instantly, “You’re being bloody well robbed!”
The steps on the stairs turned into running, the light of torches appearing at the far end of the room. The sound of swords being drawn was distinct in the quiet space. Alan cast an angry look at Katherine before he dashed straight for the men. The surprise attack allowed him to knock the guards away enough to battle past them and start leaping up the stairs. Regaining their senses, two of them hurried up after him, leaving one in the cellar with Katherine. His eyes alighted on Anne, just clambering to her feet and still clutching her hand.
The guard held out his sword in her direction. “Now don’t you be giving me any gyp, missy. It’s best all round if you come quietly.”
“Hang on…” Katherine tried, but her words were lost as Anne darted for the man.
The struggle was brief, Anne obviously only wanting to incapacitate him enough to get out of the room. That was accomplished with a swift knee to the groin. As he doubled over Anne had just enough time to shoot Katherine an apologetic glance before she ran up the stairs.
“Ahh, bloody outlaws,” gasped the guard, straightening up but still looking pained, “I’ll go and get some extra troops, see of we can catch ‘em before they get back to the forest.”
“Right,” noted Katherine, “But you should know it wasn’t the woman that…”
The guard wasn’t really listening though as he started for the stairs, too caught up in his desire to apprehend his quarry. “Don’t worry m’lady we’ll catch them both,” he stated confidently.
“I’ve heard tales about this infamous female outlaw,” he added as he reached the foot of the stairs, pausing a moment to turn back to her. “Seven I think she’s called. Looks like we have a chance to apprehend her if we’re quick.”
Before she could raise any more objections the man had gone, leaving Katherine to pick up what she had come for and hope that Anne was quicker than the troops of Ollerton.
Alan staggered out of the outlaw camp and into the trees. It was dark now and the copious amounts of drink he’d consumed made it hard for him to navigate through them without tripping over the branches and logs. He’d needed a fair few ales to calm his nerves after narrowly avoiding being caught by the Ollerton guards. He’d not seen Anne since the cellar, hoping that she hadn’t been as lucky as him and was currently languishing in a dark, smelly jail cell somewhere. Hopefully there were rats too. Lots of them.
As he stumbled to a halt he found it difficult to undo his trousers to relieve himself. Finally he fumbled open the strings, letting out a long sigh as the urine squirted out over the undergrowth. He leant a hand against one of the trees as it went on, the last few drips splashing onto the bark.
His hand was still on himself when the tip of a sword bit into the side of his neck. He froze, feeling incredibly exposed with his trousers round his ankles.
“I warned you what would happen if you went near Katherine.”
Alan didn’t need the involuntary sideways look to know who held the blade. “Anne, can’t we talk about this like reasonable people?” he asked pleadingly.
“Reasonable people?” The sharp edge dug further into his skin. “I didn’t see you being very reasonable when you had Katherine on the floor.”
The blade eased away ever so slightly. “Turn around,” instructed Anne, “And for god’s sake do yourself up, I don’t need to see your pathetic manhood in all its ‘glory’.”
Able to tell she wasn’t in the mood to be argued with, Alan did as ordered, now fully facing the young woman. Her sword arm was strong and steady as it held the weapon raised in his direction. He could see the blood still dripping from her other hand, between the makeshift bandage that wrapped her palm. The injury didn’t seem to affect her in the slightest, and her blue eyes fixed on him in an icy stare that sent chills right through him like a winter’s morning.
“Please, Anne,” pleaded Alan, his voice stumbling over the words in his anxiety, “I won’t do anything like that again.”
“I know you won’t.”
Alan gulped, trying to back away from the menacing woman. It was entirely obvious what her intention was and he knew she was more than willing and capable of carrying it out. Only in his condition all he succeeded in doing was falling over his own feet, tumbling onto his backside on the ground. Anne slowly advanced, sword flashing in the moonlight.
“Please!” wailed Alan.
The blade was up. Alan closed his eyes in a vain attempt to ward off the inevitable.
Alan had never been more relieved to hear the voice of Robin Hood in his life. He risked a peak through a single clenched eyelid, seeing Anne still hovering with her sword up as the chief of the outlaw band approached.
Anne could feel the hilt of the sword beneath her hand, the metal digging into her palm as she held it tight. Her eyes never wavered from the prone form of Alan as the red mist floated before them.
“Anne, don’t do this.”
The grinding of her own teeth as she clamped her jaw shut was loud in her ears, her breathing heavy as it escaped from her nose in enraged bursts. Looking at Alan all she could see was him pinning Katherine to the floor, the repeated recollection bringing a fresh stab of pain and anger each time it flashed by.
Robin’s hand was on her tense shoulder, attempting to get her to relax and lower her weapon.
“He tried to hurt Katherine.”
It was all Anne needed to say by means of explanation, it was all that mattered to her.
“I understand,” said Robin, “But he’s not worth it. This is cold blooded murder, and I know you’re not a murderer.”
Finally Anne allowed her eyes to drift to the man at her side. She had known him since she was eleven years old; there was no one who knew her better save one. Yet even Robin didn’t seem to realise quite how far she would go for that other one. “Don’t be so sure.” The comment was barely audible.
Robin actually looked momentarily shocked before he schooled his features back into his normal calm expression, keeping it trained on her. He was daring her to proceed in front of him, to openly defy him.
Anne’s lips thinned as she sucked in another deep breath. “Fine,” she said, finally lowering her sword.
Alan quickly clambered to his feet, obviously hoping to get away before Anne changed her mind. He had already turned for the camp when she called him back.
Alan swung unsteadily round to be met by a fist square in the face. He howled in pain as bones shattered in a spray of blood. Another punch cannoned into the side of his head and his legs gave way, sending him tumbling back to the ground. He had no time to react or defend himself as Anne swiftly followed up with a sturdy kick to the downed man’s ribs. The force of it elicited another satisfying cry of pain. She managed to get in two more kicks before Robin leapt in and hauled her back. Alan was left moaning forlornly to himself on the ground.
Anne struggled in Robin’s grasp, still wanting to exact her revenge. “That’s just a small taste of what’ll happen if I ever see you again!” she spat furiously in Alan’s direction.
Alan raised his bloody face enough to nod at the barely constrained woman. He used one of the trees to drag himself to his feet before wobbling away into the night. Robin finally let go of Anne and placed his hand on her shoulder. She wasn’t sure if it was for comfort or restraint. Looking at the departing Alan, Anne wasn’t convinced she was satisfied with the outcome. It would have been better if Robin hadn’t shown up.
“Why don’t you go and see Katherine?” Robin suggested softly.
Anne bowed her head, trying to rein in her residual anger and forget murderous thoughts. “That’s if I can get anywhere near Markham,” she noted ruefully. “I was seen with Alan when he broke into the manor at Ollerton,” she explained when Robin gave her an inquisitive look, “I was lucky to avoid the troops and get back to the forest at all.”
“But surely Katherine wouldn’t allow them to incarcerate you?”
Anne shook her head. “She may be head of the estate, but she can hardly be seen to be allowing outlaws to be released if they’re caught, not if it’s a knight from one of the fief’s like Ollerton doing the catching. She might just be able to cover it up if I got caught around Markham itself, but elsewhere…” Anne trailed off, knowing that no matter how powerful Katherine might be, she couldn’t change the law of the land.
“Then I guess you best be careful.”
It hadn’t taken long for the questions to start cropping up in her mind when Katherine had gotten back to the manor. As she headed straight to her room they rattled incessantly around, as she went over and over the afternoon’s events.
Did people see her and Markham as an easy target? Is that why Alan had been at Ollerton? What had he been after? And more to the point why had Anne been there too? Was she actually in league with Alan? Had she been helping him rob the manor house? Wasn’t that what she did? Perhaps they just hadn’t expected Katherine to be there? Why would they after all?
Katherine sat on her bed as her mind spiralled through the possibilities, creating more and more elaborate and less and less rational scenarios.
It was dark outside now and the candles were flickering low in the room, their light barely touching some of the darker corners. Beatrice had stuck her head round the door once, but had deemed it wise to quickly retract it when Katherine shot her a deathly look. Katherine wasn’t in the mood for company.
There was a quiet clonking sound from the window as it was eased open, Katherine seeing the familiar black form easing silently through it. A faint anxiety skittered through Katherine - she hadn’t known whether to expect Anne or not after what had happened.
Anne walked over towards her as if nothing was different. “Sorry I’m a bit late, it took me longer than normal to slip past all the patrols.” She glanced back over her shoulder at the window. “There seem to be more than usual?” she said questioningly as her eyes returned to Katherine.
Katherine rose from the bed, making her way over to the table rather than going to Anne. With her back to the young woman she slowly and deliberately poured some water from the jug that sat there. She remained silent the whole time, and when she did eventually turn round she could see the confusion etched on Anne’s face.
“Yes, well, that’s the sort of thing that happens when you get some outlaw activity on your estate,” noted Katherine evenly, taking a measured sip from her cup.
Anne still looked bemused by Katherine’s behaviour. “That was just a one off incident,” Anne attempted, “A few stupid outlaws who got carried away with greed. It won’t happen again, especially not now Robin’s back.”
“I have only your word for that,” pointed out Katherine, the unspoken implication being that she didn’t set much stall by that. “What happens next time he takes a little trip somewhere? Who’s to say when another one of your merry band might take it upon themselves to attack one of my holdings again? I need to protect my land and people.”
There was a definite pause before Anne commented. Her stance became more defensive. “Including protecting them from me?” she eventually asked.
“That depends on whose side you’re on,” answered Katherine. There was an edge of hostility and challenge in the comment.
“I see, it’s come down to this has it?” asked Anne, the tone of her voice edging towards frustration, “I have to choose do I? Between you and my friends, my family.”
“They’re hardly your family.”
Katherine could see the comment had hit home, and she instantly regretted making it. What was she doing? Why was she saying these things? It was too late for recriminations now, though, the careless words had already escaped.
There was a mixture of anger and pain in Anne’s eyes as she came closer. It wasn’t a nice close though, Katherine feeling distinctly uncomfortable in the face of the other woman’s imposing stance. “No, that’s right,” said Anne accusingly, “I don’t have a proper family do I? Your husband murdered them!”
The silence was all engulfing, the far off clink of dishes in the kitchen the only thing breaking its oppression.
Katherine knew she could retort. Part of her wanted to, to continue the argument until they were screaming and shouting at one another. Maybe that would relieve some of her feelings of frustration and inadequacy. Fortunately such thoughts were quickly overtaken by the more sensible parts of her brain. She had started the mud slinging, so she could only expect to get a bit dirty in return. And it wasn’t what the argument was about either.
Katherine sighed, taking a step back to indicate that she was backing down.
“I’m sorry, Anne,” she began, “I know you’re close to some of the outlaws, Robin in particular. It was insensitive of me to say what I did.”
Anne still obstinately had her arms crossed, but Katherine could see the anger in her eyes subsiding as she listened to Katherine’s words.
“I guess I’m just a little shaken after what happened earlier,” Katherine tried to explain, “Maybe I got a little too comfortable, thinking we were safe from such things at Markham. I’ve been a bit too lax in terms of security, made some assumptions I probably shouldn’t have done. This has just given me a sharp dose of reality.”
Finally Anne relaxed too, uncrossing her arms. “I’m sorry about what happened as well. I tried to persuade Alan and his friends not to raid Ollerton, but they went ahead anyway. But it’s not part of some secret concerted plan to attack you and Markham, you know I would never be party to that. If you’re talking allegiances, then I thought it was obvious that my primary one has been and will always be to you. I would rather die than betray you.”
Katherine dropped her eyes, ashamed she had been so scathing when Anne had first come in, that she had let her thoughts be clouded so easily by anger. The bloodied bandage on Anne’s left hand was evidence of her words if Katherine needed any.
“Have you cleaned that properly?” she asked quietly, not quite able to bring her eyes up to meet Anne’s.
“No, not really, I had other things to attend to.”
Katherine didn’t ask what those were, though she suspected they involved Alan.
Anne could see Katherine was dying to ask what exactly she had been attending to, thankful that for once she held back her curiosity. Though part of her still wished she had killed Alan, Anne wasn’t sure she wanted to be admitting such murderous thoughts to Katherine.
“Here,” said Katherine, “I’ve got some water over here.”
Anne followed Katherine over to the bedside table, taking up a seat on the covers at the other woman’s direction. Katherine knelt down in front of her, carefully peeling the bloodied material away from the wound. The intake of breath was audible.
“Jesus Christ, he nearly cut right through your palm!”
“It’s not that bad, really,” insisted Anne, though in fact it hurt like hell and was now throbbing uncontrollably as it was exposed to fresh air.
Katherine merely tutted at the stoic response, getting up to retrieve some clean cloth which she used to start cleaning the wound. Anne winced as the cold water made contact with her damaged skin. “Right, not that bad,” Katherine said on seeing the reaction.
Katherine carefully dabbed at the hand, cleaning away the dried blood and other grime. As she worked she kept her eyes down, and Anne wondered if she was still thinking about what had been said before. Her ponderings were answered when Katherine finally glanced up.
“I know you wouldn’t do anything deliberately against me,” she said quietly, “It’s just hard sometimes to reconcile your life as an outlaw with mine as lady of the manor.”
“It’s difficult, for me too,” agreed Anne, “Particularly when idiots like Alan get stupid ideas in their heads. But we’ve managed so far haven’t we? Unless you’ve been harbouring secret urges about turning me over to the authorities?”
Katherine stopped her nursing for a moment. “Of course not!”
Anne smiled at the answer as Katherine started to re-bandage the wound. “I wish there were some way we could be properly together,” mused Anne, “Without these conflicts of interest. But we’ve already seen that I don’t do too well at blending in with the servants, not to mention the fact that my face is even more notorious now thanks to Alan. And I would never ask you to give up your life here to be with me. So that just leaves the highly unlikely event of me getting a pardon so I don’t have to hide out in the forest. Even if my crimes were pardonable, the fact that the king is currently off fighting pointless wars in the holy land is a slight obstacle.”
Katherine finished the bandage with a small, neat bow. “I have heard that the war’s not going too well,” she said, rising from her knees, “That it might be all over soon.”
“You mean we might have a proper king again rather than our current tyrant? Not that I’ll be holding my breath for a pardon if King Richard does make it back in one piece, I have committed a rather long line of offences.”
“But most of those were robbery, to help those in need?”
Anne could see the look of hope mingled with fear in Katherine’s eyes - hope that Anne wouldn’t contradict her, fear that she would. “Mainly, yes…” agreed Anne, not wanting to fan the fear but unable to lie, “But you know there have been other more…serious things that I’ve done.”
“Like killing people?”
The question hung in the air for a moment. They had talked about it before, so it wasn’t like the answer was going to be a surprise to Katherine. Still, Anne didn’t really like admitting to it. Though she herself had felt justified at the time on each occasion, she also knew of Katherine’s stance on the subject. She didn’t like to disappoint the other woman, feeling that she was somehow diminishing herself in Katherine’s eyes every time it came up.
“Yes,” she finally said, “But only ever to defend myself or those around me.” She felt it certainly wouldn’t be prudent to mention that she had nearly killed Alan earlier and probably would have done if Robin hadn’t turned up. “Anyway, that’s all in the past and I can’t change it,” she added, wanting to get off the subject fast, “Coming back to the present, what were you actually doing at Ollerton?”
Katherine looked bemused for a moment before realisation dawned. “Of course, I almost forgot with everything else that was going on!”
Katherine hurried over to a nearby cabinet, opening it up and retrieving something which she quickly brought back before Anne, holding it out for her to see.
Anne looked at Katherine like she had gone mad. Not only gone mad but started talking back to the voices in her head as well. “An old inkwell?”
Katherine frowned, thrusting it closer. “Not just any old inkwell, see the detail here?”
Anne’s eyes widened as she made out the faint markings. “This is one of the Ares objects?” she asked incredulously, turning it over a few times in amazement as she took it from Katherine. “Have you still got the book here?” she added after a moment.
Katherine nodded, Anne following her over to the table where it sat. The translation of the words was much quicker this time, Anne quickly writing them down now she knew what the key to the code was. She was glad that it wasn’t her right hand she had damaged, otherwise the writing might have proved problematical. Having finished she read the words out loud:
“Walk the watery path that turns to the sun
For a length close to that which has been won.”
Katherine’s brow furrowed. “What the hell does that mean?” she said shaking her head. “So at the moment we have…”
“Use these five items and the key
To open the Ares sanctuary
Walk the watery path that turns to the sun
For a length close to that which has been won”
Anne nodded. “Yes, but don’t forget we don’t know what order these words fit together in - there may be more in between those two parts, or they might not even come in that order.”
“Right…” nodded Katherine thoughtfully, “So in fact we’re still no closer.”
Anne turned back to the inkpot on the table, contemplating their next move. Suddenly she remembered something that had completely slipped her mind during Katherine’s frosty reception to her arrival. Anne reached into her vest and pulled out a well-folded piece of paper. There was a single name on the outside. She held it out to Katherine. “I think this is for you.”
“For me?” Katherine took it uncertainly and looked at the spidery black ink. “Where did this come from?”
“I found it in the cellar at Ollerton earlier when you tackled Alan. I think it must have been dislodged from one of the shattered tables or something. I thought it best to grab it before Alan saw it. I forgot I had it for a moment.”
“Have you read it?”
“Of course not,” said Anne a touch indignantly, “It’s addressed to you.”
Katherine continued to look at the parchment which had a few drops of Anne’s blood smeared on it. “It must have been in father’s desk since…” Her sentence was left unfinished as she opened the paper.
Anne could see the look of shock on Katherine’s face, the young woman standing up to put an arm round her shoulder as Katherine stared numbly at the words. “Is it from your father?” she asked gently.
Katherine made a small nod as she composed herself. “Hang on, I’ll read it to you.”
“You don’t have to if it’s personal…”
“It’s fine,” Katherine insisted, “Let’s sit.”
Once sitting on the bed, Katherine took a deep breath before starting to read from the yellowing parchment.
If you are reading this letter then it means I am no longer with you. Before I go on I want you to know that I have always loved you, your sister and your mother. That is important because everything I have done has only ever been to give you all a better life. Though you may question some of my reasons, morals or methods, I hope you will not judge me too harshly if you know it was only ever for you, for all of you.
The story I have to tell began when I came of age at eighteen. At that time, my father took me aside and told me how over the generations the members of our family had belonged to a secret society known as the Ares Syndicate. The syndicate had many interests, but its main purpose was the acquisition of wealth, knowledge and power for its members and their families. To a young man all this sounded fair enough and perfectly reasonable goals to attain. As time went on, I learnt differently.
The problem with the syndicate was that it did not care how it achieved those goals. By the time I realised the kind of thing they were willing to resort to I was already a member. I will not sully you with the details, but needless to say these are not pleasant men. For them robbery, deception and even murder are but small trifles. You may be asking yourself why I did not just leave, have nothing more to do with them, but by then it was too late. I was too far involved - to leave would have risked everything, maybe even our lives. You see unfortunately for me my father had been the Grand Arbiter, the head of the Syndicate in this country. On his death his mantle was passed to me.
Maybe I should have had more courage to stand up to them, but instead I kept the secrets of the Syndicate, tried to do as little as I needed to appear to be fulfilling my role. There were still things that I had to do, things I’m not proud of. And then I found out about the weapon.
It was in one of my father’s books, one of the ones he had inherited from the Syndicate. The book looked like it hadn’t been opened for years – god knows how old it actually was. It detailed an ancient weapon that was so deadly it could bring down entire societies with its power. And this weapon had once been in the Syndicate’s possession! However, at some point in the past even they had become scared by its power. Yet they couldn’t bring themselves to destroy it so they had hidden it away, scattering the means to retrieve it far and wide.
As I read about this I knew that I could never allow the Syndicate to get its hands on this weapon again. I was also aware that I may not be the only one with knowledge of its existence – other Arbiters in other countries may also have had access to the same information as I did.
So I set about trying to discover as much about it as I could, with the hope of finding it and destroying it. It took many years of painstaking study, but eventually I tracked down five of the items that were required to obtain the weapon. Only then I found myself stuck, unable to continue my quest. There was strange writing on the objects that I had no idea to the meaning of. I can only assume that it somehow gave the actual whereabouts of the weapon. Also, though I had five objects, from my readings I knew there was a mysterious sixth - a special key of some kind. Possessing neither the key nor the weapon’s location I could not retrieve it. Since there was still no indication that anyone else in the syndicate was aware of what I had discovered, I decided it was best for me to hide the objects again.
Should I have somehow destroyed them? Maybe I should have, but I think there was a part of me that secretly hoped I would one day solve the rest of the puzzle. I suppose if you are reading this I never managed it.
And so we come to now. In case something should happen to me, for whatever reason, this information cannot be lost forever. That is why I have written this letter to you. Hopefully you will never have to do anything with this knowledge, in fact I pray that you don’t, and I am sorry that I have had to introduce you to this murky world at all. At the same time, if ever you should discover that there is sudden interest in any of the objects you must act to protect them and the weapon from falling into the wrong hands.
Should you need to retrieve them, the other letter gives clues as to the whereabouts of the other objects. These clues have been written with you in mind, just in case this letter should fall into the wrong hands. You must not tell anyone else of the existence of these objects or their whereabouts – the Syndicate has spies everywhere and even your most trusted confidant is not above suspicion. In particular never, ever entrust anything to a man with a tattoo with five points, it is the symbol of the Syndicate and can only indicate evil.
If you are still reading you may be wondering why it is you I have left this letter and responsibility to. The answer to that is that I trust you and know you are capable of doing what must be done should the need arise. Phillipa is a good girl, but you were always the strong one. Some might say wilful, impetuous or headstrong – god knows enough of our visitors did - but I would say confident, courageous and above all not afraid to stand up for what is right. I wish that I had some of your convictions, then I may not be at this point. I only wish that there could have been some way that I could have left Stratford to you – something tells me it would have been in good hands.
With love always
Katherine had held herself together throughout the entire reading, her voice only flickering slightly at certain points. Now however, as her hand fell limply into her lap still clutching the letter, her face crumpled into a look Anne couldn’t quite identify – bewilderment, confusion and a trace of anger all warring for position on the normally composed face. Katherine’s words came out stiltingly, undercut by a deep pain.
“I can’t believe it…my father…head of this sinister syndicate…party to god knows what….an associate of the likes of Kirby and Coleville. I…I always thought he was a good honest man…”
Anne could sense the loss of something intangible in Katherine’s voice. “I’m sorry,” she said, the words so pathetically inadequate. She sought for something else to say, to give any form of comfort. “From his words, it sounds as if he was basically a decent man, that he just ended up in a difficult situation.”
Katherine didn’t appear to want to be comforted. She shook her head a couple of times, the shaking then seeming to pass down into the rest of her body, her hand crumpling the letter in her fist as it reached her extremities. “Decent?” she cried, voice suddenly loud and making Anne jump. Katherine’s eyes stared wildly at the young woman, “Then why didn’t he destroy the objects when he had the chance?”
Anne didn’t know what to say, and before she could answer Katherine leapt up from the bed and started rummaging underneath it. Anne had no idea what Katherine was doing, standing too to try and get a better look.
Katherine’s voice was slightly muffled as she continued to search. “Perhaps he was seduced by the idea of this weapon? Perhaps he actually wanted to find it and use it for himself!”
“Katherine, I don’t think….”
All of a sudden Katherine straightened up again, clutching a sword. Anne flinched back as it flashed by far too close for comfort. There was a manic glint in Katherine’s eyes as she hurried over to the table, Anne only able to watch in shock as the half-crazed woman whacked the inkpot with the blade, a resounding clang echoing around the room as metal hit metal.
Katherine ignored her, taking a bigger swing this time as she hit the small pot again. “We should destroy it now!” she cried, “It’s evil, dangerous!”
Anne was startled and not a little scared by Katherine’s erratic behaviour. She had never seen her lose it like this before. It seemed that for once Anne needed to be the voice of reason. When Katherine made to strike for a third time, Anne caught her wrist.
“No!” screamed Katherine, trying to wrench herself free. “We have to destroy it!”
Anne resolutely clung onto her arm, until Katherine’s eyes finally turned on her. There was something disturbingly deranged in them. “Are you working for them?” asked Katherine accusingly, “He said not to trust anyone!”
Anne let go, too stunned to even answer. Katherine snorted derisively and turned back to her target, thumping it once more. Or at least she tried to. Her blow bounced off the pot which skittered off the table and onto the floor. Anne pushed back her own feelings, reminding herself that Katherine was just upset by what she had read, she hadn’t meant it. Anne stepped in again, taking hold of both Katherine’s arms this time as the near-berserk woman struggled in her grasp.
“Let go of me!”
“Not until you calm down and stop trying to destroy the inkpot!”
“Katherine, just stop and think!” cried Anne, practically shaking the demented woman to get her attention. “These objects might not be the only way to get the weapon. Other Syndicate members may have other means to retrieve it. If we destroy the objects all we succeed in doing is destroying any chance we have of finding it. We need to find the weapon itself. Only then can we be sure it’s safely out of reach.”
Katherine stopped her wriggling, finally looking Anne in the eye. It was as if she had only now noticed her own actions, the unhinged look on her face fading to be replaced one of confusion as she took in the way Anne was gripping her arms.
“God, what am I doing?” she asked, amazed at her own behaviour.
Anne deemed it was safe to let go, Katherine sagging down onto the floor and dropping the sword. Her head fell into her hands as she continued to shake it, the edges of her auburn hair flopping over her fingers.
Anne knew Katherine must be badly hurt to react like this, and quickly followed her down, slipping her arm across slumped shoulders. “I know this is hard for you,” she said, “Discovering that your father wasn’t quite the man you thought he was.”
Katherine’s voice was small, lost. “I idolised him,” she mumbled into her hands, “Looked up to him, respected him.” Sad eyes swivelled up to Anne. “But I was worshipping a lie.”
As the anguish in Katherine’s eyes reached inside and wrenched at her own heart, Anne wished there was some way she could take away the pain. Part of her actually wanted to agree with Katherine, wanted to curse her father, because Anne hated him too at that moment for doing this to Katherine. Yet that wouldn’t be constructive; Katherine needed hope. “I know I didn’t know him,” Anne offered, “But from that letter I don’t think you were that wrong. Yes he was involved in things, very bad things, but at the same time he loved you. That much is obvious.”
“I just thought I knew him,” Katherine said hauntingly, “And maybe you’re right, maybe I did, but not all of him.”
Anne didn’t think there was much left to say, much left to do, but to pull Katherine close and hold her. Katherine seemed small in her arms. Of course she was smaller than Anne, but usually the immense power of her personality outweighed any physical concerns. Today however it was different.
Anne didn’t know how long they just sat there on the floor, Katherine’s head resting on her chest, tucked up against her chin. After a while Anne started absently brushing the fingers of her right hand through the auburn strands of Katherine’s hair, feeling the soft breathing out across her collarbone as she did.
Eventually Katherine turned her head up. “I’m sorry for…before.”
“It’s fine,” said Anne, “You’ve had to cope with enough of my bouts of temper. Though I have to say you can be pretty scary when you want to.”
Katherine made a small rueful laugh, reaching out to pick up the pot which had tumbled onto the floor in the final fracas. “I guess it’s just lucky this is resilient…or my sword is blunt!”
Anne was happy to join in the attempt to diffuse the situation with humour. “The lucky sword is never blunt,” she pointed out, “It obviously just didn’t want you to damage the pot.”
“Ah yes, of course,” nodded Katherine sagely, “The lucky sword and its mysterious ways.”
She finally removed herself from the warm cocoon of Anne’s embrace and got to her feet, Anne rising too and dusting herself off.
“So what are we going to do?” Anne asked, indicating the inkpot.
“I guess we’re going to do what we were going to do before we even found the letter – try and find these items and the weapon.”
Anne could see Katherine’s eyes travelling to the other sheet of paper that had come with the now crumpled letter. The wary look was obvious.
“Do you want me to read it?” offered Anne.
Katherine gave her a smile of thanks at the suggestion, but shook her head. “No, it’s addressed to me,” she said, “I’ll be all right.”
Anne watched the elegant fingers slowly opening up the page, a small frown appearing between Katherine’s eyes as she looked at it.
“What is it?” asked Anne.
Katherine turned the paper round so Anne could see; see the intricate set of pictures and symbols that had been drawn upon it. They didn’t signify anything obvious to Anne. “These are supposed to mean something?”
Katherine shrugged. “I suppose so. He did say that it would only be decipherable by me, but to be honest it looks like nothing more than a random load of pictures. They’re not even in any pattern.”
Anne peered at it some more, trying to make out some of the smaller drawings. “Is that a small brown mouse in the corner there?” she asked in bemusement.
Despite Anne’s incredulity, Katherine seemed interested in the discovery. “Where?” she asked, squinting by Anne’s shoulder. Anne pointed it out, Katherine taking the page back so she could look at it up close. “Yes, a dormouse,” agreed Katherine, suddenly laughing.
Now Anne was really perplexed. “What is it?”
“Dormouse was a nickname we used to have for Phillipa. It was ironic because she was anything but quiet like one.”
“So the dormouse on the picture, it represents her?” deduced Anne.
“Yes, I think so,” said Katherine, finger tracing over the page. “I guess something here must represent the goblet too, though I’m not quite sure what…something near or connected to the dormouse.”
Katherine let out another laugh, Anne just waiting this time until she looked up. “Here,” said Katherine, “The vixen, I think that’s meant to signify me.”
Anne raised her eyebrows as she looked at it. “I’m guessing that nickname wasn’t ironic.”
“Not exactly no,” agreed Katherine, with a wicked smile that proved the point. Turning back to the drawing, she examined it again. “I’m just not sure about the rest, it’s hard to work out what’s connected to what and what’s just there as red herrings. Hmm, the bear taking a dip in the river here, with two yew trees in the background - I think that’s meant to signify Stratford.”
Anne glanced at it in consternation. “And how is that exactly?”
“The bear is on the coat of arms of Warwickshire and obviously Stratford is famous for being on the river Avon. Plus Stratford has two identical yew trees in the churchyard.”
“Though I’m sure the same is true of lots of churchyards in England,” pointed out Anne. “However, since we already assumed there might be a connection with your old home, you’re probably right.”
“As for the rest of this,” continued Katherine the exasperation obvious in her voice, “I think it’s going to take some study and some serious wracking of my brain regarding the past. I know he wanted to make it impossible for anyone else to understand, but I’m not sure he realised how bloody difficult it would be for me too!”
“I’m sure you’ll work it out,” said Anne, giving her shoulder a squeeze of encouragement, “Eventually.”
Katherine let out another rueful laugh, folding the paper up for the time being, along with the letter and placing them both with the book required to decode the inscriptions.
“I wonder how much the Syndicate already knows,” pondered Anne as she did, “Given that Coleville was after the goblet, I can only assume they know something at least.”
“Or at least Coleville did,” remarked Katherine, “He must also have known about my father too, given his comments and his weird behaviour around me. There is the possibility that he was working on his own. Maybe he found out something and wanted to try and impress his fellow Syndicate members?”
“Possible,” allowed Anne, “But I doubt we’d be so lucky. It’s probably wise to assume that we could have others coming for these items. One thing that I don’t understand, if your father wrote you that letter to warn you about this weapon and the Syndicate, then why hide it? It’s only luck that we found it.”
Katherine looked equally uncertain. “I don’t know. Maybe he meant to tell me where it was before he died – his death was rather sudden. He and mother were already gone by the time I managed to make it back to Stratford from Markham.”
That fact caused a faint stirring of suspicion in Anne’s mind, the young woman favouring Katherine with a look to try and suggest what she thought without having to voice it out loud.
Katherine wasn’t slow to pick up on it. “What, you think…?” It seemed she didn’t want to say it out loud either – that someone might have killed her father on purpose.
Anne pressed on. “Well, it is a bit suspicious,” she suggested, “He uncovers some secret weapon and then the next minute he’s dead.”
Katherine shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. For a start it wasn’t the ‘next minute’ - my father wrote this letter nineteen years ago,” she said showing Anne the date of 1173 at the top of the page, “He only died nine years ago. And for another he and my mother died of natural causes, a quick illness that claimed them both.”
“Sorry, I guess I’m just getting too suspicious.”
“No, I think we need to be that way,” said Katherine, stroking Anne’s arm reassuringly as she did. It was one of her typical tactile gestures, “If this weapon is as powerful as he said. We need to watch our backs.”
Anne gazed at Katherine, thinking that they could be getting into a whole world of trouble, perhaps more than they could handle. She had come across plenty of thieves, robbers and even murderers in her time, but whole clandestine organisations…powerful clandestine organisations…that was something different. However, there was no way she was going to let Katherine face this alone. “I won’t take my eyes off yours,” she stated emphatically.
Katherine smiled, a small lop-sided grin. “Nor mine from yours.”
In that moment Anne knew that no matter how uncertain she was about some things in her life, there was always one thing she could rely on and it was standing right in front of her. “So, I guess we need to plan a trip to Stratford?”
Alan sat in the corner of the inn, nursing his mug of ale. It was his fifth, but he still wasn’t anywhere near drunk enough to forget his humiliation at the hands of Anne. In between swigs he would curse her name, thinking of ways that he could pay her back for making him look like a cowardly fool. It didn’t occur to him that he was one. His drunken mind wondered what time it was, thinking that his acquaintance was rather late whatever the hour. He was contemplating attracting the attention of the barmaid again, when the seat opposite him was finally taken.
“About bloody time,” he noted grumpily.
The hand was quick. Alan didn’t even see it before it was grabbing his where it sat on the table and painfully crushing it.
“You would do well not to be so disrespectful of your betters.”
“All right, all right, I’m sorry,” cried Alan pathetically, “You can let go!”
His hand was released and he quickly whipped it off the table and out of reach. The man opposite him kept his face hidden under a black hood, but Alan didn’t need to see it to know that there would be a sadistic sneer on Charles Kirby’s face.
“Did you complete your task?” asked Kirby, getting immediately to business.
“Yes, though there was one unexpected development.”
“Lady Katherine turned up at Ollerton while I was there making a mess as you instructed.”
Kirby leaned closer over the table, Alan just able to make out the dark eyes pinned on him from beneath the hood. “And what did you do?”
The hint of agitation in Kirby’s voice made Alan pause, unsure what it was Kirby wanted to hear. He decided it was best to stick to the truth for now. “I tried to shut her up.”
Alan was completely unprepared for the hand that shot out and grabbed him around the neck, hauling him half across the table as his chair went flying. “You did what?” demanded Kirby. His face was so close that Alan could feel his hot, sour breath on the skin of his cheeks.
“I tried to shut her up,” squeaked Alan, not knowing what else to say, despite the fact that Kirby appeared less than happy with his actions.
The fingers grew ever tighter on his windpipe. “Did you harm her in any way?”
“I roughed her up a little.” There was another painful squeeze. “But she was all right,” Alan frantically added, “Anne turned up before things got too far.”
Kirby finally released Alan, the shaken outlaw flopping back into his seat, coughing as he tried to force some air back into his lungs.
“It seems I have something to be grateful to Anne for,” noted Kirby, “An unpleasant development to say the least.”
“If you didn’t want me to hurt Lady Katherine you should have said,” Alan attempted.
The dark look from Kirby shut him up again, Alan making sure he stayed well back on his chair this time. “I didn’t think she would be there,” explained Kirby. “She must have determined the item’s location herself without the need for prompting,” he added more to himself than as part of the conversation.
Alan didn’t know what Kirby was talking about. He hadn’t asked too many questions when the knight had contacted him and offered him the chance to make some money for what wasn’t even a proper robbery. It seemed like too good an offer to pass up, especially when Robin had left and made it easy for Alan to cajole some of the other outlaws into helping him. “So…er…my money?” he prompted the thoughtful knight.
“I suppose we did achieve our goal in the end,” noted Kirby, “No thanks to you almost ruining everything.”
The bag of coins clattered noisily onto the table, Alan’s hand shooting out greedily to grab it. Before he could retract his hand, Kirby has caught it once more. “Remember,” he said in a menacing whisper, “If I hear you’ve been talking about this to anyone, I’ll make you wish you were dead before I actually kill you.”
Alan furiously nodded his head, knowing that Kirby could easily make good on his threat. Once the knight had departed, Alan took out a few of his ill-gotten coins and proceeded to get well and truly drunk.