The Lady Katherine Chronicles, Number 6
Lady Katherine And The Uninvited Guest
August 1191, Nottinghamshire, England
to MercyCroft and Jay 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.
Katherine continued to stare mutely in utter astonishment as Mark slowly walked up the aisle towards her and Kirby, his steps echoing off the stone floor and reverberating around the hushed room as he did. She felt like her world had been turned upside down and then thoroughly shaken for good measure. One minute she had been in despair at the prospect of her enforced marriage to Kirby and the next instant she was left completely flabbergasted, as her supposedly dead husband appeared to interrupt the ceremony. The sight of him caused a myriad of emotions to tumble chaotically through her mind, competing for dominance. On the one hand she was shocked to see him alive, while at the same time there was an element of relief and happiness at the realisation that he wasn’t dead after all. Somewhere kicking around her brain was also worry about what this would mean for her and Anne. That last thought reminded her that Anne was still being held in the back room by Kirby’s men, unaware of anything that was unfolding out here in the main part of the church.
As Mark got closer, Katherine found herself unable to tear her eyes away from him, such was the incongruity of seeing him here now. She knew she was probably staring in a most undignified fashion but couldn’t seem to help herself. Upon studying him, she could see that he had changed somewhat since she had last seen him the previous July, when he had left in a blaze of glory to embark on the crusades with King Richard. He had always been a tall and stout man, but now he was much thinner, almost gaunt looking, adding to the impression of him being something akin to a ghost breezing up the aisle. His shabby clothes hung off his body and where once his hair had been flecked with a few silver strands, now it was completely grey. She wondered what had happened to him over the previous year to cause such profound physical changes.
His eyes bored into her with searing intensity as he approached and for once in her life she was speechless as he finally came to a halt in front of her. The rest of the church was deathly quiet too, all eyes fixed on the returned lord of the manor, the faces of the congregation showing a united expression of surprise.
“Katherine, Charles,” said Mark, nodding at the pair of them, his voice loud against the silence that encompassed the large room.
“Mark,” said Katherine, managing to find her own voice, “Is it really you?” she added inanely, unable to think of anything more sensible at that moment.
“It certainly is,” he confirmed.
“W-we heard you were dead,” stammered Kirby from beside Katherine.
“As you can see, I am well and truly alive,” said Mark, stretching out his arms to demonstrate that he was no apparition.
“But, how?” asked Katherine, still too stunned to formulate any longer a sentence.
“It’s a long story,” replied Mark with a sigh, “One which I will tell you, but what I’d like to know now is - what exactly is going on here?”
Katherine’s eyes flicked to Kirby, who met her gaze uncertainly. What were they going to say? Katherine could hardly tell Mark she was being forced into it, since then she would have to reveal her relationship with Anne. Suddenly she had an idea of how to shift the responsibility of explaining the current situation while at the same time giving her the opportunity to aid Anne.
“Ohhh,” she groaned, stumbling slightly and bringing her hand up to her temple.
“What’s wrong?” asked Mark in concern, extending his arms to catch her.
Katherine noted with alarm how strange it felt to have his hands upon her, almost like those of a stranger, despite the fact that he had held her a thousand times before. Now it just didn’t seem right and she quickly removed herself from his gentle grip, avoiding looking into his eyes as she did, in case she revealed anything untoward in her gaze.
“I just felt a little faint,” she explained, injecting a slight tremor into her voice for good effect, “It must be a combination of the shock and joy of seeing you again after all this time.”
“Maybe you should go and sit down for a moment,” offered Mark, “I’m sure Charles can explain things to me.”
Katherine smiled to herself – she had guessed right that Mark’s chivalrous side was still there despite any physical changes to him. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Kirby’s look of annoyance at her antics, but he could hardly speak up and counter the lord of the manor’s suggestion since he was going to have enough trouble worming his way out of this situation as it was without angering Mark in any way. Katherine had little doubt that he would somehow wheedle his way out of it, though - Mark always seemed to have had a blind spot when it came to Kirby. She couldn’t concern herself with that right now, though, since she had more important things to attend to.
“Thank you,” said Katherine, offering Mark a quick smile, “Beatrice,” she called over to the young woman who was sitting at the front of the congregation, starting the dark-haired maid out of her stunned perusal of Mark.
“Could you give me a hand,” said Katherine, glancing at her and trying to indicate that she had some sort of plan with her facial movements.
“Er, yes, of course, m’lady,” replied Beatrice, leaping up and coming over to take her arm, though her eyes barely left Mark the whole time.
“We’ll be in the back room,” commented Katherine, noting Kirby’s sharp intake of breath at this statement.
They hastily headed to the door, leaving Kirby alone to begin his explanation of what was occurring. As they entered the small room Katherine took a quick glance over her shoulder and noted with some satisfaction that the two men were already deep in conversation. Hopefully she would have at least a few minutes. Closed the door behind them, Katherine straightened up, no longer needing to maintain the charade of feeling ill.
“You can leave now,” she confidently instructed the two guards who still held onto Anne.
Katherine was relieved to see that Anne was looking more alert now despite the blow to the head she had received from one of the guards prior to the ceremony.
“The ceremony is over,” she stated authoritatively as they looked at her dubiously, “And your master did say she was free to go once it was, or are you going to go against his wishes?”
The two men still looked slightly uncertain as to whether they should be taking her word for it or not, but grudgingly let Anne go, persuaded by Katherine’s unwavering stare.
“So you went through with it then,” said Anne bitterly, rubbing her bare arms where the men had been tightly gripping them.
Katherine waited for the two guards to depart the room before she replied, “No.”
“What?” said Anne, her eyes flicking up in surprise, “But you said…”
“…The ceremony was over,” finished Katherine, “And it is, but I didn’t get married. It got interrupted.”
“Well, that’s great!” exclaimed Anne, smiling and coming over to Katherine, her pale blue eyes peering warmly down on Katherine, who swallowed nervously, knowing what else she had to say.
“Isn’t it?” added Anne uncertainly, catching Katherine’s expression.
“Not…exactly…” said Katherine tentatively, “Beatrice, could you go and stand guard while I speak to Anne. If anyone tries to come in, stall them…loudly.”
Beatrice nodded her understanding and left the two women alone in the room to continue their conversation. Katherine turned her attention back to Anne, taking a brief moment to watch the way the sunlight from the small window to their side played across her smooth features, enhancing the contours of her face, dappling her full lips. She wanted to allow herself this small moment of pleasure amongst all the turmoil of the day, however fleeting it might be.
“So what happened?” asked Anne, breaking Katherine’s pleasant study.
“The ceremony was stopped…,” disclosed Katherine nervously, “…by Mark.”
Anne looked at her in confusion for a moment, her eyebrows crinkling together as she tried to place Katherine’s reference.
“My husband, Mark,” clarified Katherine.
“Y-your husband?” repeated Anne in shock, stumbling back dazedly from Katherine, “But…but I thought he was dead?”
“So did I!” noted Katherine ruefully, perturbed by the stray thought that crossed her mind wishing that he actually was.
“I…I can’t believe it,” said Anne, sitting down in the only chair and rubbing her temple while staring dumbfounded at the floor, “So what does this mean?” she asked in a small voice, not turning her head up as she spoke.
“I don’t know,” sighed Katherine, “It certainly makes things more complicated, if that were possible.”
“I meant for us,” whispered Anne.
“For us?” queried Katherine.
“Well, now Mark’s back…” began Anne before breaking off. She gazed up at Katherine who could see the worry etched in her features, her eyes looking imploringly at the older woman.
“What? You mean…me and him?” said Katherine, unsure if she understood correctly.
“You were married to him,” remarked Anne, “You are married to him. You loved him, maybe you still do. I mean, before you thought he was dead and now here he is…”
“Anne, stop,” interjected Katherine, kneeling down in front of the young woman, bunching up the skirt of her white dress as she did. She took Anne’s hands in her own, “It’s you I love, not Mark.”
Katherine maintained an intense regard of Anne, staring up at the young woman with all the love she felt deep within her heart on display in her eyes. Her breath caught as a small smile slowly crept across Anne’s face and the young woman started to rub her thumb across the back of Katherine’s hand where they remained entwined in Anne’s lap.
“Then come away with me now,” said Anne softly, “While we have the chance.”
“I…can’t,” said Katherine, glancing away, feeling the conflict tearing at her heart.
“You do still love him,” said Anne, her head bowing in resignation.
“No,” countered Katherine, emphatically, “But I feel I owe him something, an explanation at least, since he’s made it all the way back here from god knows where,” she tried to reason.
She reached out to tilt Anne’s head back up again so she could look her in the eye as she attempted to explain, leaving her fingers to cup her cheek as she spoke.
“I did love Mark once,” she began, maintaining eye contact with Anne the whole time, “But what I feel for you, now, is so much more than anything I ever felt for him. With Mark it was more like he was a companion, someone to share things with, but it was never a deep, passionate love like I feel with you. With you it feels like we were almost destined to be together, like my very soul is crying out to be with you. I know things have been difficult recently, with Kirby and his machinations, but I want you to know that those things I said to you in the forest were completely untrue. It tore me apart to have to say them, but all I could think of was protecting you from him. And seeing your face…”
Katherine trailed off as tears began to brim in her eyes upon recalling their conversation in the forest when she had been forced to tell Anne she didn’t love her.
“I’m so sorry,” she added, her voice thick with emotion, “I do love you, I’ve never stopped loving you and I will always love you.”
Anne’s fingers joined Katherine’s where they still rested on Anne’s face, before she took them in her hand and brought them round to her mouth to delicately kiss them.
“It’s all right,” insisted Anne, “I understand why you did it, that it must have been as painful for you as it was for me.”
“But can you forgive me?” asked Katherine uncertainly, her eyes searching Anne’s face.
“Of course,” said Anne simply and sincerely.
Katherine exhaled slowly and closed her eyes, relieved that she had managed to make her point to the young woman and that she had accepted it.
Moving her hand away from Anne’s mouth and back down to her lap, Katherine closed the small distance between them to place her lips softly against Anne’s own. As their mouths melded together in a sensuous kiss Katherine marvelled at how it felt so good to share this tenderness once more, after all the tension of the previous days, to finally be back where she was meant to be – with Anne.
When they finally parted, Katherine kept her fingers on Anne’s cheek, stroking the soft skin, to remind herself what it felt like. Even though it had only been just over a week since she had last been able to do so, that week had seemed like an eternity.
“Now, you have to get out of here for now,” said Katherine regretfully, “Before Kirby manages to extricate himself from Mark’s questioning and realises I’ve dismissed his guards.”
“What if he says something to Mark about us, though?” said Anne, “You could be in danger.”
“I don’t think he will,” noted Katherine with a shake of the head, “Knowing my secret is his one advantage as he sees it; his one little bit of power over me. I don’t think he’d be willing to readily share that, especially now his main plans have been thwarted.”
“I suppose you’re right, but I still don’t like the idea of leaving you here with him,” said Anne, concern edging her voice.
“I’ll be all right. Even if I don’t love him, I’m pretty sure Mark still cares for me and he wouldn’t let Kirby do anything to me,” explained Katherine, “Head up to the house and hide in the grain store – you shouldn’t have too much trouble with pretty much everyone being down here at the church allied with the confusion that is bound to erupt once Mark’s return becomes common knowledge. Come up to my room after dark, once I’ve had a chance to speak with Mark, to see how things lie. Though make sure you check first that I’m alone.”
“And you really think Mark might understand if you try and explain things to him?” asked Anne.
“Well, he always was a fair and reasonable man,” offered Katherine hopefully, though she thought he’d have to be more reasonable than god himself to accept that his wife was now in love with an outlaw woman instead of him.
Katherine was interrupted from saying anything further by the sound of Beatrice’s voice raised in argument outside the door. They both glanced frantically at it, before Katherine hastily got to her feet, pulling Anne up with her.
“Quick, you have to go now,” insisted Katherine.
Anne nodded and gave Katherine one last kiss before dashing out the back door. Katherine was smoothing down her skirt as the other door finally flew open to emit Mark and Kirby.
Katherine watched Kirby’s eyes quickly scanning the room before they shot to her. She responded with a not too subtle smug look and could see a muscle twitching in his jaw as he clamped it shut in impotent frustration.
“So did you explain things to Mark then?” she asked the tattooed knight nonchalantly.
“Yes,” replied Kirby through clenched teeth, “I told him how we were getting married to stabilise the manor. How unsettled things had been without a man at the head of the estate since his ‘death’.”
Katherine bristled slightly at that cavalier assessment of her time in charge - in fact Markham had never been better off - but she wasn’t going to question it right now. Instead she congratulated herself on her second piece of astute character observation of the day, having obviously been correct in her assumption that Kirby would have said nothing to Mark about Anne unless it was absolutely necessary.
“Indeed,” noted Katherine, rather enjoying watching Kirby squirm, “Thank goodness we had you to step into the breech, so to speak.”
“A good friend, for sure,” agreed Mark.
Katherine almost laughed out loud as she realised he was actually being sincere, whereas she had just intended sarcasm with her statement. It seemed time had done little to dim Mark’s questionable like of Kirby.
“Now, if you could leave us, Charles, I would like to speak to my wife,” said Mark.
“Of course, m’lord,” replied Kirby, bowing slightly as he exited back out into the church.
Now she was alone with Mark, Katherine felt decidedly nervous. It was ridiculous, she told herself, they had been married for seventeen years and spent plenty of time alone before. However, that was before she had thought him dead and fallen in love with someone else. Now she was worried about various things, not least of which was how she could ever tell him about Anne. Or, if she couldn’t, how could she stop him wanting to carry on where they had left off, as man and wife. Looking over at him, she noted he looked a bit unsure of himself too, maintaining a discrete distance, and shifting anxiously on his feet while avoiding making direct eye contact. She realised she was being uncharitable to not at least show him some affection - she did still care for him after all.
“It’s good to see you, Mark,” she said, crossing to him and kissing him lightly on the cheek before wrapping her arms around him to give him a hug. He perceptibly stiffened for a moment, before relaxing into the embrace.
“It’s good to see you, too, Kathy,” he said, pulling back to gaze at her, though she could sense he was still uncertain about something from the way his eyes were studying her face.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I was just wondering…you and Charles?” he enquired hesitantly.
“What about me and Charles?” she asked in reply, her brows knitting together in confusion.
“Do you…do you love him?” queried Mark.
Katherine couldn’t help herself at that moment. Before she’d had the chance to suppress it a laugh had erupted from her lips.
“No, no, I think I can categorically say that I do not love Charles Kirby,” she declared after the laughter had subsided.
“You don’t?” asked Mark again, obviously still unsure of where he stood, “You’re not just saying that because I’m the one asking?”
“No, I definitely do not love him,” she confirmed, “We were only getting married as an arrangement of sorts,” she added, skirting nicely around the truth, “But now you’re back there’s no need.”
“Well, good, great,” he said, a smile now spreading across his face, “I didn’t think Charles was really your type anyway.”
Katherine was just thinking to herself that Mark would probably be rather surprised as to what her type was, when he suddenly swept her back into his arms and pressed his lips to hers. She tried not to manifestly baulk at the kiss, though she would have liked nothing more than to push him off. She knew she had to try and maintain the illusion for the time being until she had figured out exactly what she was going to do about this whole messy situation. As if she needed any confirmation that she no longer felt anything for Mark in that way, then the lack of emotion she felt at the kiss was proof positive. She had to restrain herself from exhaling an audible sigh of relief as he finally broke away.
“It’s good to be home,” he commented, stroking his hand down her face.
Again she had to actively stop herself from flinching at the touch. She realised she needed to sort matters out soon, before her real feelings betrayed her and especially before Mark wanted to take things any further.
“So what happened to you?” she asked, trying to divert the conversation.
She thought she saw something dark flash across his face, before the smile quickly replaced it once more, “Come on,” he said, taking her hand, “Let’s head up to the house, we can talk about it there.”
Some hours later, after Katherine had listened attentively and in some amazement to Mark’s story of his time away from the manor, she eventually managed to extricate herself from his company and head upstairs to her bedroom. She left him talking to various members of the household. Having already gorged himself on some of the cook’s finest meats, which had been prepared especially on hearing of the lord of the manor’s miraculous return, he was now happily regaling the assembled throng with tales of his exploits. The impromptu celebration was lubricated with generous amounts of wine and ale, adding to the party atmosphere that filled the great hall. The servants and peasants all seem to be enthralled and she hoped they would keep him occupied for a good while yet.
Katherine was grateful to be able to slip away from the busy hall and try and collect her thoughts. Her mind had been racing ever since she had seen Mark in the church and she’d hardly had a second to herself since to reflect upon it. The multitude of people wanting to speak to, congratulate or express their best wishes to her and Mark had made everything a bit of a blur since their return to the manor house.
Night had now fallen and the servants had lit the candles that illuminated the bedroom after dark. Katherine didn’t have to wait long after entering the room before she was joined by Anne, clambering in through the back window as usual. Katherine swiftly crossed the room and flung her arms around Anne’s slim body, hugging her tightly. Anne seemed somewhat bemused by the sudden embrace, but quickly overcame any initial surprise and readily hugged her back, stroking Katherine’s hair as her head lay against Anne’s shoulder.
“Oh, Anne,” sighed Katherine, “What the hell am I going to do?”
“I don’t know,” replied Anne softly and with some regret, pulling back slightly so she could look down at Katherine, “I suppose you’ll have to leave the manor, unless you want to stay here with Mark.”
Katherine shook her head, “Anne, I meant what I said earlier, I love you, not Mark. I don’t want to stay here with him, at least not in that way.”
“And is there any other way you can stay?” asked Anne, “Is there anything I can do to help?” she added as Katherine thought for a moment.
“Not that I can think of,” said Katherine ruefully, stroking her hand absently down Anne’s back, “Though thank you for the offer.”
“You know I just want you to be happy, wherever that is,” insisted Anne, “I know the manor is important to you. It’s so unfair that Mark can come back and just take over everything you’ve accomplished.”
“I know, but unfortunately that’s the way things are,” said Katherine, letting out another sigh, “As a woman I am supposed to be subservient to my husband. I just can’t help feeling that it’s wrong to leave, though, to abandon my duty my responsibility to the people.”
“Well, they do have their lord back now,” commented Anne, “Though it is…unfortunate that he came back at all,”
“In a way, I suppose,” agreed Katherine, “Not that I would wish him dead,” she quickly added, “I am glad he’s alive and he did save me from Kirby too, don’t forget.”
“That’s true,” nodded Anne, “So what happened to him anyway, where has he been all this time?” she asked, sitting down on the bed where Katherine joined her, close enough to allow their thighs to touch.
“Well, as you know he left last July to begin the long journey across Europe to Jerusalem,” began Katherine, “Some time around October last year they reached the island of Sicily, just off Italy, where they got waylaid. Apparently there was something of a civil war going on, in which King Richard’s own sister, Joan, was caught up. She was being held prisoner by the forces of Tancred, a bit of a tyrant by all accounts. So Richard and his forces joined in the fighting to free her and restore order to the island.”
Katherine paused for breath and to check that Anne was keeping track of the story, before continuing.
“Richard’s forces were eventually victorious and they decided to stay for a few more weeks to make sure that everything remained peaceful. It was in that time that Mark was part of a patrol of the island that was ambushed. Everyone else in his party was killed and he was taken captive by the rebel forces. Perhaps they hoped to ransom him back to Richard or extract information out of him, I don’t know. He was rather reticent when it came to details of his imprisonment. I got the impression that they didn’t treat him very well.”
“You think they tortured him?” enquired Anne.
“Most likely,” nodded Katherine, “I don’t think they were happy about the English turning up and interfering with things.”
“Anyway,” continued Katherine, “The rest of the English forces assumed that the whole of Mark’s party had been killed, including Mark, which was when word was dispatched to us to that effect.”
“Though that word didn’t reach here until January,” remarked Anne, mentally working through the relevant dates.
“Right,” confirmed Katherine, “The message had to travel across Europe before making it back to Markham. Anyway, back in Sicily, Richard and his army finally left to continue their crusade, unknowingly leaving Mark behind. Of course, now the English had left, he was of no real use to his captors and they decided it was time to dispose of him. Luckily for him he managed to escape before they could kill him and then began his long journey back to England.”
“How come it took him so long?” asked Anne, “If he escaped at the end of last year, then, even if he walked the whole way, he should have been back here months ago.”
“Well, he had a few other mishaps on the way, dodging robbers and various other ne’erdowells,” explained Katherine, “He was a lone traveller, after all, with no money or possessions. And I have a sneaking suspicion that he didn’t actually know where he was going half the time, he never did have a very good sense of direction.”
“But eventually he made it back here,” noted Anne, finishing the story for Katherine.
“Yes,” replied Katherine, averting her eyes as she came to the tricky part of the tale. However, she was determined to tell the whole thing, considering the problems various secrets had caused recently.
“He said that there was one thing that kept him going the whole way back,” she said quietly.
“Oh yes?” said Anne, raising her left eyebrow in query.
“Yes,” said Katherine, a slight blush creeping up her face, “He said it was the thought of seeing me again.”
“Oh,” remarked Anne simply, her hand dropping from Katherine’s leg where it had been resting.
“Indeed,” said Katherine, exhaling slowly, “Though my feelings may have changed, it seems Mark’s have not.”
“He’s still in love with you,” stated Anne evenly, though Katherine could detect the hint of jealousy creeping into the tone.
“So it would seem,” confirmed Katherine.
“Then you have to leave,” said Anne, turning to face Katherine, “If he still loves you, then he’s hardly going to be receptive to the idea of you being with someone else, especially not me.”
“You’re right of course,” agreed Katherine, “I just can’t help feeling sorry for him. He battles all the way back here through goodness knows what, only for me to leave him when he finally makes it.”
“I’m sure he’ll get over it,” said Anne, with a dismissive shrug, “He’ll have the manor to keep him busy.”
“I don’t know,” ventured Katherine sceptically, “Though he’s putting a brave face on it, I think there are deeper scars from his time away, things he’s hiding. I’m not sure how he would cope with any shocking news at the moment.”
Anne reached up to tenderly stroke Katherine’s cheek as the older woman looked down at her hands, contemplating what to do, how to resolve the conflict within her between her heart, her head and her duty.
“It will be all right, Katherine,” said Anne, “And remember, whatever happens, I’ll always be here for you, beside you. But you have to think of yourself for once. I know it’s harsh, but you need to do what’s right for you, not for Mark or the manor.”
Katherine titled her head up to regard Anne, offering her a warm smile, which Anne returned. As Katherine gazed up into the deep blue of Anne’s eyes she found herself inexorably drawn to the young woman, unable to resist the powerful urge to close the small distance between them and fuse their lips together in a sensuous kiss. Katherine ran her fingers down Anne’s strong arms, brushing the soft hairs of her forearms, as they sat locked together in a moment of pure bliss on the bed. They allowed all the troubles of the day to drift away as their tongues slid against one another, performing a tantalising dance of passion.
Groaning, Katherine pulled away, “Let me write Mark a letter,” she suggested, “Trying to explain things, then we can go.”
“If you’re sure it’s what you want?” asked Anne.
“Yes, I don’t think we have any other option for now,” declared Katherine.
Anne merely nodded as Katherine rose to go over to the desk, drawing out her quill and parchment.
“I suppose you could look at it this way,” she remarked, looking over her shoulder at Anne, “Things could hardly get much more complicated. I mean what more could happen now?”
“Don’t say that,” said Anne rolling her eyes, “I thought you would have learned not to tempt fate by now?”
Anne’s word proved aptly prophetical as the door suddenly swung open allowing Mark to saunter into the room.
Katherine quickly leapt up from her desk, discarding her quill and started towards the door to head off her noticeably swaying husband.
“Mark, I wasn’t expecting you up here so soon,” she said, “I was just talking with my maid, Anne.”
She cast her hand to the side to indicate the young woman when she noticed that Anne was seemingly frozen to the spot. She had risen from the bed on Mark’s entrance, but now stood stock still, her eyes fixed on the lord. Even in the dim candlelight of the room, Katherine could see that Anne’s face was deathly white, all colour having drained from it.
“Anne, what is it?” asked Katherine in concern, placing a hand on the young woman’s tense shoulder and staring at her, her brow furrowed in confusion.
Anne showed absolutely no indication that she had even heard Katherine. Her eyes remained locked on Mark, who was still looking unsteady on the opposite side of the room, fumbling around with his sleeve, which he had caught on the door knob. Luckily it appeared his wits were dulled enough from drink for him not to question what Katherine and her supposed maid had been up to in her bedroom this late at night or why the young woman was so oddly dressed.
“Anne?” tried Katherine again, shaking her shoulder slightly to try and get her attention, by now exceedingly worried by the young woman’s extreme reaction to Mark’s entrance.
Anne’s head slowly tracked round to Katherine who stood at her side, though her body remained rigidly rooted to the spot. As her pale blue eyes settled on Katherine, the older woman felt her breath catch at the expression of complete and utter shock on display on her face.
Anne didn’t speak, looking like she had lost the power to do so for the moment, her mouth hanging slackly open. Instead she just maintained her intense gaze, her eyes piercing into Katherine and actually unnerving her with their wounded look. Katherine removed her hand from Anne’s shoulder, suddenly feeling that its presence was unwanted.
Anne’s expression suggested to Katherine that the young woman had just found out something truly awful about Katherine, something she was having trouble comprehending. Katherine felt a painful tightening around her chest in response to the dismay in Anne’s features. Anne looked like she had been hurt in a most terrible way, though Katherine was at a loss to know what way that might be. She had told Anne everything there was to know about Mark hadn’t she? So why was she now looking at Katherine like she had kept something appallingly vital to herself?
While the two women stared at each other, Mark had managed to gather himself enough to stumble in their direction.
“I say, are you all right,” he asked with a slight slur, putting his hand on Anne’s arm, “You look awfully pale?”
Katherine saw a small muscle in Anne’s cheek twitch as the fingers gripped her arm and the young woman’s eyes swivelled to where Mark’s hand rested on her skin with a look of loathing evident in them.
“Remove…your…hand,” said Anne slowly, enunciating each word through clenched teeth.
“I beg your pardon?” he replied incredulously, too stupefied to pick up on her threatening tone and follow the suggestion.
Anne refused to elaborate further, her eyes still fixed on the offending hand as if she could make it burst into flame just by staring at it. Katherine was bemused by Anne’s sudden hostility, knowing that Mark was going to get suspicious if she carried on the way she was. All they needed to do was get him back downstairs to join the party again and then they could make good their escape. Anne’s bizarre behaviour was jeopardising everything and Katherine knew they were really in trouble when she sensed the temperature in the room start to creep up too.
“You really have been letting the staff get ideas above their station while I’ve been away, Katherine,” noted Mark drunkenly, “You need to be firm with them, you know, put them in their place.”
He turned his glazed eyes back to Anne, “You do know who you’re talking to in that insolent tone, don’t you, girl?”
“Oh yes,” said Anne her voice low and menacing as her eyes flicked darkly up to his face, “ I know exactly who you are.”
Suddenly Anne flew into action, the movement surprising Katherine in its quickness since the young woman had been so still before. She pushed Mark away from her with a strong shove in the chest, sending him staggering backwards. She then swiftly delved down into her boot and whipped out a dagger, holding it high and lunging in Mark’s direction. Fortunately he was just about aware enough to dodge out of the way of the impending strike, though he stumbled over a chair as he did and crashed to the wooden floor in an ungainly sprawl. Anne’s own momentum carried her forwards and her dagger lodged in the door of the wardrobe behind where Mark had been standing with a resounding thud. She forcefully yanked it out and whirled round to where Mark lay on the floor.
“Anne!” cried Katherine, quickly moving in between them, “What the hell are you doing?!”
“Get out of my way, Katherine,” seethed Anne, her eyes still on the prone form of Mark behind Katherine’s legs.
“No,” stated Katherine stubbornly, gripping both Anne’s arms at her biceps to try and shake some sense into her, “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
“As if you don’t know?!” exclaimed Anne, her eyes switching angrily to Katherine for a moment, “Did you really think you could keep it a secret from me, that I wouldn’t see him eventually and recognise him?!”
Katherine was taken aback by the vehemence in Anne’s tone and the fierce look she had caught in her eyes before they moved back to Mark.
“You’re scaring me, Anne,” remarked Katherine, dropping her hands off Anne’s arms.
“You thought perhaps I might have forgotten?” added Anne scathingly, ignoring Katherine’s previous comment.
“Forgotten what?” asked Katherine in confusion, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Anne!”
Anne’s head tilted back to Katherine again, her eyes narrowing as she regarded her quizzically for a second. Taking in Katherine’s obvious bemusement, her expression softened slightly.
“I guess maybe you might not have known about it,” said Anne, uncertainty creeping into her tone.
“About what…?” prompted Katherine gently, trying to get to the bottom of whatever it was that had precipitated Anne’s violent outburst, sensing she was wavering from whatever course of action she had been planning.
“Why are we wasting time debating whatever this crazy girl is rambling on about,” ranted Mark, clambering up off the floor at last, “I’m getting the guards!”
“No! I’m not letting you go now!” yelled Anne leaping across to block his exit from the room, her dagger back up in front of her.
“Out of my way, girl,” he ordered with annoyance.
When she showed no sign of allowing him past, Mark made a darting grab for the hand that held the dagger, managing to wrap his hand around Anne’s wrist before she could react and yanking her towards him. As he made to punch her, she parried his fist with her free hand and grasped his wrist too, locking them in a tussle for supremacy. Anne tried to force the blade towards Mark’s face and he gritted his teeth with the strain of holding off the enraged woman. Anne was a couple of inches shorter than him, but they seemed evenly matched in strength as they grappled for a few moments, spinning round several times as Anne tried to wrench free her hand that held the dagger to allow her a clean strike. Finally Mark lost his hold, stumbling away from her.
“I’m not letting you leave this room alive!” growled Anne pointing the dagger at Mark as he leant against the upright of the bed breathing heavily.
“Anne!” exclaimed a horrified Katherine, “What are you saying? You can’t just kill him in cold blood? Why would you want to?”
“Why would I want to?!” spat Anne incredulously, turning to look at Katherine in disbelief. “Why would I want to?!” she cried once more, her eyes locked on the older woman, “I’ll tell you why - because he killed my parents!”
Katherine was floored by shock, the colour draining rapidly from her face as Anne’s words hit her with the force of a raging storm. She could barely breathe, staggering slightly and bracing herself on the wall as sickness enveloped her.
“No, no, it can’t be true,” gasped Katherine, her eyes flicking frantically from Mark to Anne and back again, “Mark?”
“The girl is obviously delusional,” he scoffed with a shrug, seemingly oblivious to Katherine’s distress due to his drunken state, “In case you’ve forgotten I’ve been out of the country for the last year and hardly had time to be going around killing the servant’s parents, even if I was so inclined.”
“It wasn’t this year,” snarled Anne, “It was fifteen years ago, at the shrine of Gaia,” she took a couple of steps towards him before adding with threatening clarity, “And it was you.”
“Fifteen years ago?” asked Mark stupidly, “Well, then you’re obviously confused, I’ve never even heard of this shrine place.”
“A green gemstone was kept there,” clarified Anne, looming ever closer to him, “Which you also stole! Ring any bells now?”
“Ah, I do remember a stone of that description,” he admitted, “Pretty thing, the Sheriff gave it to me I believe, though he neglected to mention its origin at the time.”
“No! You liar!” shouted Anne, her dagger hovering dangerously close to him now, “You took it – I saw you!”
“Anne,” said Katherine stepping over to intervene with her hands up, wishing she were somewhat taller in stature at times like these as the two potential combatants towered over her on either side. However, what she lacked in height she generally made up for in her confident and authoritative demeanour and she hoped she could inject some calmness to the situation now, since it seemed she was the only one who could with Anne being furiously angry and Mark somewhat inebriated. Inside she was in turmoil, though, not knowing which of them to believe. Anne seemed convinced of what she was saying, but Katherine just couldn’t comprehend that Mark would have done something so horrific and that she wouldn’t have known about it. One thing she did know was that they wouldn’t be able to determine anything if Mark was dead.
“Are you sure you’re not mistaken?” Katherine asked Anne, “It was a long time ago and I thought you said it was the Sheriff’s men who attacked the shrine.”
“Most of them were. I guess I must have assumed they all were,” admitted Anne, slight doubt crossing her face for a moment, before an expression of grim resolve settled on her features once more, “No, no, it was him,” she added determinedly, shaking her head to clear any residual doubts, “I told you that those faces were etched in my mind - he was the one who killed my parents.”
“I don’t have to listen to any more of this rubbish,” declared Mark heading for the door again, since Anne had dropped her guard whilst speaking to Katherine.
He didn’t get far before Anne lunged for him once more, slashing her blade across his arm and drawing blood.
“You little bitch!” he yelled, flinging himself at her, his judgement impaired by alcohol.
His uncoordinated actions were surprising enough to catch Anne off guard, his flailing form knocking her to the floor, with him landing heavily on top of her. They rolled over a couple of times, the dagger flashing between them as it remained the object of their struggle. Katherine realised she had to do something before one or both of them got hurt, intentionally or otherwise. In Mark’s current state, god knows what he might do, and as for Anne - Katherine had little doubt she sincerely wanted to kill Mark.
“Stop, both of you,” she shouted over the sound of the scuffle, trying to reach down to separate them.
Anne was back on top of Mark now and Katherine grabbed at the young woman’s arm, to stop her plunging the dagger downwards.
“Get off!” yelled Anne furiously, yanking her arm free
The momentum of the movement was enough for the dagger to slice across Katherine’s right hand as her fingers slipped from Anne’s arm. Katherine jerked back at the sudden pain in her palm, clutching her damaged hand to her as blood started to ooze from the clean cut.
“Katherine…,” said Anne as her eyes fell on Katherine’s hand, her voice trailing off.
Katherine’s eyes glanced up from their study of the wound in her hand to see the mortified look on Anne’s face. The young woman slowly clambered up off Mark, the bloodied dagger dropping listlessly from her fingers to clatter noisily on the floor, but she didn’t move towards Katherine, stepping uncertainly to the side instead.
Mark got up off the floor too, coming over to Katherine and gently taking her injured hand in his as concern etched his features.
“It’s all right,” said Katherine dismissively to him, trying to take her hand back, “It’s just a slight cut. It’s nothing, it doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it does!” exclaimed Mark angrily, “You’ll pay for this, girl!” he added, turning his attention to Anne.
“Guards!” he yelled in the direction of the door.
Anne didn’t move for a moment, dazedly looking at the pair of them. Katherine tried desperately to catch her eye, to try and impart to her that it was all right, that she knew Anne hadn’t meant to hurt her. However, Anne seemed too stunned to focus properly, in fact she was in danger of getting caught at any moment if she didn’t pull herself together and get out of there, thought Katherine. The sound of several pairs of feet dashing up the stairs appeared enough to remind her of the situation and she quickly turned and sprinted for the window, flinging herself out into the night air just as the guards thundered into the room with their swords drawn.
“Out the window!” instructed Mark, “Get her!”
A couple of the men obediently followed out the window, while the others went back out the door, no doubt to pursue from ground level, leaving Katherine and Mark alone once more.
“Well, I can’t say as I approve of your choice of maids,” remarked Mark, wearily rubbing his hand across the back of his neck, “I think I need another drink now!”
Katherine just stared dumbfoundedly at the window, as he stumbled back downstairs, trying to resolve in her mind all that had happened, the pain from her hand forgotten against her inner torment. One question remained pre-eminent in her mind - was she married to a murderer?
The questions from the night before remained unanswered the following day as Katherine awoke from her fitful sleep to see the sun’s rays filtering into her bedroom and lighting warmly on her cheek. She sat up in her bed and noted the sound of snoring that filled the room. Glancing over at the slumbering form next to her, she could see Mark’s mouth dangling open as he lay on his back, permitting the low rumbling noise to emanate from it. She studied him for a moment, trying to resolve the image Anne had painted of him as a ruthless killer against the one she possessed. No matter how hard she tried, though, she couldn’t reconcile the two disparate views. She just couldn’t see Mark as capable of such a thing as cold-blooded murder, or maybe she didn’t want to. There was a nasty little nagging thought prodding away at the back of her mind that if he had done it, then she herself was somehow culpable, by virtue of being married to him at the time. That maybe she should have known about it and stopped him somehow.
To the best of her knowledge, though, Mark had always been fair, kind and considerate. He had also permitted her to assist him in the running of the manor as an equal, which few other lords would have even considered let alone allowed.
And yet Anne had seemed totally convinced that Mark was the one who had killed her parents and Katherine could think of little reason why the young woman would make such a thing up. That just left the option that either Mark was lying or Anne was somehow mistaken in her identification of him as the killer. She guessed Anne could be confused - witnessing her parent’s murder had certainly been traumatic and perhaps her mind was playing tricks on her now after all these years. Though Katherine considered that her reaction upon seeing Mark had been instantaneous and nearly deadly, not really hinting at any doubts in her mind that she had the right man.
Katherine realised she wasn’t going to get any further sitting there and ruminating on it by herself. She needed to delve into what exactly had happened fifteen years ago and try and establish the truth. That meant she really needed to see Anne and talk to her. Luckily Anne had managed to make good her escape the night before, eluding the guards, but Katherine felt a sick fluttering sensation in her stomach as she thought of her, worrying over where she stood with the young woman. They had finally managed to resolve the issues surrounding Kirby when Mark had popped up and thrown them for another loop. From her initial reaction, it appeared Anne thought Katherine was somehow in league with Mark, that she had known all along about his killing her parents, if indeed he had. Of course, Katherine was actually completely in the dark, totally stunned by Anne’s accusations. She hoped that Anne had sensed that, she would hate for her to think that Katherine would be a willing party to such a secret.
A dull throbbing issuing from her right hand reminded her of the other result of last night’s altercation. The friar had bandaged the cut in her palm for her, since he had been in the hall with most of the other Markham residents at the time of the incident, but it still ached now. He’d informed her in his usual nonchalant way that he didn’t think there would be any lasting damage, though she wasn’t sure the same was true of her relationship with Anne.
She knew in her heart that it had been an accident - that Anne had been so intent in her pursuit of Mark that she barely realised what she was doing, her judgement clouded by the degree of hatred she felt for the him. Katherine could hardly blame her for that hate if her accusations were true. Seeing the man who killed your parents again after all that time, just casually wandering round the room acting like an oaf, would be enough to drive anyone over the edge. Not that Katherine herself believed in that sort of retribution - an eye for an eye - but it was a popular opinion amongst many other people and men were hanged for much less than murder.
Katherine thought that Anne had been more horrified by her getting inadvertently hurt than she herself, if the look on her face had been anything to go by. That was another reason why she had to see Anne soon, before the young woman beat herself up too much with guilt over what had happened.
“Good morning,” came a gruff voice from beside her suddenly, starting her out of her thoughts.
Mark was looking blearily up at her, a half smile on his craggy face. Fortunately he had been so drunk the night before that he had not attempted any repeat of the kiss he had given her at the church, merely collapsing onto the blankets and immediately falling into a sound sleep when he finally came back upstairs. She could smell the alcohol wafting up off him from where she sat and prayed that he wasn’t about to try anything now. It had been decidedly odd and not a little uncomfortable to have to share her bed with him and she had made sure she had put on her longest and least revealing nightgown to sleep in. Lying next to him had felt like a betrayal of Anne, even though Mark was the one she was actually married to.
“Good morning,” she replied, returning the smile as warmly as she could manage, “How do you feel?”
“Like a herd of cows trampled through my brain,” he sighed, gingerly rubbing his hand over his temple.
“Well, you did have rather a lot to drink,” she noted.
“Ah, come on, Kathy,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “It was a celebration of my miraculous return, it would have been rude not to, and after that little bit of trouble with your maid…”
“Yes,” she interjected quickly, “I don’t know what got into her.”
“All I can say is she better not show her face around here again,” he declared, “The damn cheek of it, accusing me of all sorts.”
“So it wasn’t true then?” asked Katherine, not really expecting him to make a sudden confession, but thinking she might just gauge his reaction.
“What, that I killed the poor unfortunate girls parents? Of course not!” he replied incredulously, “Total poppycock! I’ve never killed anyone in my life, apart from on the battlefield. Why, you didn’t believe it did you?”
“No, no, of course not,” Katherine assured him, “I was just wondering where she got the idea from.”
“Don’t ask me, she must have got me mixed up with someone else,” he said dismissively, “Or maybe she’s just insane. Anyway, enough about crazy maids, where’s the good morning kiss for the returned hero?”
Katherine groaned to herself as it appeared her prayers had gone unanswered. She bent down to lightly brush her lips against his, recoiling from the fumes originating from his mouth.
“Is that it?” he asked as she made to straighten up, “I’m sure you can do better.”
His arms shot up to envelop her and pull her back down on top of him, his mouth pressing hungrily against hers. She tried to lever herself away but he held her firmly to him, his tongue worming its way into her mouth. As her leg fell against his groin she suddenly felt another unwelcome reminder of his arousal and quickly shot up off him, managing to break his grip at last. She stumbled off the bed, trying to disguise her distaste as best she could with coyness.
“Oh Kathy, why are you teasing me so!” he cried desperately, making a great show of bringing his hands to his chest as if she had wounded him.
“I don’t want to wear you out, that’s all,” she lied, “You’ve had an extremely arduous journey back here, I want to make sure you’re fully recovered and yourself before taxing you too much.”
“True, true,” he agreed reluctantly, “We want to make sure I’m at my peak, eh?” he added with a sly wink.
She smiled falsely in return. She really needed find the answers to her questions soon - she wasn’t sure how much longer she could hold off his advances before he got suspicious and there was no way she wanted to surrender to them.
“So, how about a bit of breakfast and then you can show me the manor, so I can see how you’ve been keeping things?” he suggested.
“Sounds good to me,” she replied, relieved that he seemed to have dropped his amorous intentions for the time being.
A couple of hours later, Katherine and Mark exited the manor house into the warm sunshine to make the short walk across to the stables. They’d enjoyed more sumptuous food for breakfast and Katherine wondered where exactly cook had been hiding all these treats that he was suddenly producing now Mark was back. Some activity over by the guardhouse caught Katherine’s attention and she immediately spotted Tobias amongst the throng of knights.
“If you’ll excuse me for a minute, I just need to check on something,” she said to Mark, “I’ll join you over at the stables in a moment.”
“All right,” he replied, “Don’t be long.”
She hurried over to the gathering, relieved to see that Tobias was finally back from his trip to Cambridge. She had missed his counsel the past week or so, when she had desperately needed it, and hoped that he would be able to offer her the benefit of his wisdom now. Though she had to consider the possibility that, with Mark’s return, Tobias may not be as loyal to her as he once was. After all, the first duty of any knight was to the head of the estate and that was Mark right now. She knew that Tobias was a proud and honourable man and she didn’t want to place him in a difficult position or ask him to betray his principles.
“Tobias,” she said as she approached, “It’s good to see you back, I hope the trip went well.”
“Yes, m’lady,” he replied, “We procured everything we needed for the harvest.”
“Good,” she said, nodding distractedly, “Can I talk to you alone for a moment?” she added.
“Of course,” he replied, handing the box in his arms to one of the other knights and joining her as she walked with her hands behind her back across the courtyard, leading them out of the earshot of the other men.
“I presume you’ve heard about all that’s been going on since you left?” she asked
“I have,” he acknowledged with a barely perceptible nod, “A most unexpected turn of events.”
“Indeed,” she agreed.
“I admit I was rather…surprised to hear about you and Mr Kirby,” noted Tobias
Tobias was surprised? Katherine realised things were obviously bad if they were enough to surprise the normally unflappable knight.
“Well, there was a little more to that then most people know,” disclosed Katherine, “I don’t really have time to go into it all right now, though. There’s something else more important that I need to entrust you with.”
She stopped walking and turned to face him, his steps ceasing in time with hers.
“But I need to know something first,” she added, gazing up at the tall man with her blue-grey eyes, studying his darkly stoic face, “There’s a problem I need you to investigate for me, but it has to do with Mark. So I wanted to know whether asking for your assistance in this would place you in an awkward a position. It’s all right for you to decline, I shall understand that you are duty bound to follow the lord of the manor and we’ll say nothing more of it.”
“But this is important to you?” asked Tobias.
“Very much so,” she replied earnestly.
“Then I shall do whatever it is you ask of me,” he answered simply as if that was all he needed to know.
“Thank you,” she said, exhaling slowly in relief
“It was you who gave me the chance as captain of the guard,” he reminded her, “Without your backing of me, I doubt I would ever have made it out of the ranks of the regular troops. Though I could never do anything to actively go against the lord of the manor, know that my allegiance will always be to you first and foremost.”
“I am grateful to hear you say that,” she said, smiling at him, “It’s seemed like everyone has been against me this past week, that I didn’t have anyone I could call an ally here.”
“So what is this problem?” he enquired as they started walking again.
“Well, there’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll just come out with it,” she revealed, “Anne claims Mark is the one who killed her parents.”
“Really?” remarked Tobias, his eyebrows flickering upwards briefly.
“Yes, shocking, I know,” she agreed noting the just perceptible reaction, “The thing is, I’m not sure of the veracity of her claims. Of course he denies it, while she’s adamant that it’s true and I’m stuck in the middle not knowing which way to turn.”
“And you want me to look into it, find out who is telling the truth,” he deduced.
“Yes, I know you have a knack with these sorts of things, with that logical mind of yours,” she said, “I’m sure whatever the truth is, you’ll find it. The only problem is, it was so long ago.”
“When exactly was this supposed to have happened?” he asked.
“It was some time around March 1176, over fifteen years ago,” she explained, “I have to admit I have trouble remembering what I was doing then, so how much you’re going to be able to find out from anyone else I don’t know. I guess the first thing to try and determine is exactly what Mark’s movements were for that month.”
“I will do what I can,” he declared.
“Thank you, that’s all I can ask,” she sighed, “I’m sure I don’t need to impart on you the need for discretion in this matter.”
“No,” he confirmed, “I will be careful in my investigations.”
“Good, now I must be getting back to Mark,” she noted, “Let me know when you discover anything.”
Even the ride out across the estate did little to ease Katherine’s mind. She tried to pay attention and respond intelligently as Mark asked her various questions about the people and villages they saw as they went, but she kept finding her mind wandering to thoughts of Anne and what she had claimed. Fortunately Mark didn’t seem to notice her distraction, too caught up in the excitement of seeing his home again. She barely even noticed when he pulled his horse up, having spotted something of interest.
Suddenly he leapt down from his mount and started marching across the ground to the side of the track. Katherine quickly clambered down to follow him, almost having to run to keep up as they brushed through the stalks of the field. The wheat rippled gently as the warm summer’s breeze brushed over it, the sun adding the final ripening touches to the crop.
“Mark, what is it?” asked Katherine as she finally managed to catch up with him.
He ignored her query and continued to walk determinedly across the field stopping only when they came to a small clearing in the middle in which three peasants were sitting happily sunning themselves and quaffing ale. Katherine watched in astonishment as Mark grabbed the nearest man round the scruff of the neck and hauled him to his feet.
“What are you doing?” demanded Mark angrily of the man.
“M’lord…,” stammered the frightened man, “We..we…was just having a rest, m’lord.”
“A rest?!” cried Mark, “It looks more like a party to me. Enjoying yourselves were you?”
The other man and the woman with him nodded dumbly from where they sat on the flattened corn, too stupid to realise when sarcasm was being used on them.
“Not on my bloody time you don’t,” fumed Mark, flinging the man he held roughly to the ground and kicking the other man in the side.
“Get up and get back to work, you lazy bastards,” he shouted as they frantically scrabbled away from him, “That includes you,” he ordered, eyeing the woman who remained.
She seemed petrified and frozen to the spot, cowering as he loomed threateningly over her.
“Didn’t you hear me?” he exclaimed, his face now red from rage, “I said get up!”
Mark drew back his hand to strike her when Katherine quickly grabbed it to stall him. His eyes darted to her and for the briefest of moments she thought he was actually going to hit her instead before all the anger seemed to dissipate from his face and his arm went slack.
“Go on,” said Katherine gently to the scared woman, “Get after your menfolk.”
The woman didn’t need to be told twice, clambering up off the floor and hurrying after the two men who’d already made a hasty retreat.
Katherine turned her attention back to Mark who was breathing heavily and wiping the sweat from his brow.
“I’m sorry,” he said apologetically, rubbing his temple, “I don’t know what came over me. I spotted them lounging about and just saw red.”
“Are you all right, Mark?” she asked in genuine concern.
She had never seen him act like his towards the people on the land before, nor lose his temper so readily over such a small matter. And as for striking a defenceless woman - she was aghast that he had even been contemplating it.
“Yes, I’m fine,” he remarked with a dismissive wave of the hand, “I guess I’m a little out of sorts after my journey.”
“Perhaps we should head back to the manor,” she suggested, still rather taken aback by what she had just witnessed.
“Maybe that’s a good idea,” he agreed, turning to head back to the horses.
As Katherine followed she pondered over his odd behaviour, worried for his sanity. She wondered if it really was a side effect of his time away as he claimed. He certainly had been subjected to a harrowing ordeal, particularly his brutal imprisonment in Sicily, so goodness knows how that may have affected his mind. She considered that it was also possible that he had always had this dark side, though, but she had either never noticed it or deliberately ignored it.
Anne sat on the fallen log staring out over the lake, though its calm waters did nothing to settle the storm brewing in her mind as she contemplated the events of the night before, or more precisely contemplated who she had seen the night before. She had been utterly astounded when Mark had stumbled into the room and she had seen his face for the first time. Not in her wildest nightmares had she ever conceived that Katherine’s erstwhile husband might turn out to be the very man who had murdered her parents. The sight of him bumbling around that room had made her blood boil and when he had touched her…The very thought of his fingers upon her skin disgusted her and she shook off the shiver that passed over her as the image flashed through her mind. She was just sorry that she’d had to leave before she’d been able to finish him off, pay him back for all the pain he had caused her and give him what he deserved – a painful death. At least she had managed to cut him once before she left.
Thinking of that caused her mind to switch to what had happened shortly afterwards. She hadn’t meant to hurt Katherine, somehow the knife had just slipped in the tussle and accidentally caught her. When she had turned and seen what she had done, she had been horrified, feeling immediate remorse for her actions and a gnawing pain in the pit of her stomach that refused to go away, even now.
“Here you are,” noted a voice from behind her and she swivelled round to see Robin emerging from the trees of the forest and walking down to the lakeside to join her.
“I didn’t get the chance to talk to you yesterday when you got back – how did things go at the church?” he asked as he sat down, “I’m guessing not too well from the look on your face,” he added, noting her stony expression.
“Oh, it went all right at the church,” she admitted ruefully, “Well sort of…”
“Really?” enquired Robin raising his eyebrows as if to prompt for further details, “So you did sort things out with Katherine then?”
Anne sighed heavily and bowed her head, “Yes…no….oh, it’s all such a bloody mess!” she cried in exasperation, throwing up her hands.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened?” suggested Robin gently, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.
Anne stood up from the log to pace around in front of him as she tried to think where to begin, rubbing her brow anxiously as she did, while the outlaw chief waited patiently on the fallen tree for her to compose herself. Finally she stopped in front of him and launched into an explanation of all that had happened at the church with Katherine and Kirby, including how the wedding ceremony had been unexpectedly halted by Mark. She could see Robin itching to ask more about Mark, no doubt alerted to something untoward by the vicious tones Anne used when speaking of him, but Anne continued on with her story, not allowing him to interrupt. Eventually she got to the description of what had occurred in Katherine’s bedroom and watched the surprise flash across Robin’s face as she revealed that Mark was the one who had killed her parents.
“My god,” he commented, too stunned to say more.
“I know,” said Anne, “I couldn’t believe it, after all this time, there he was, standing right in front of me.”
“You don’t think Katherine knew do you?” asked Robin in bewilderment.
Anne regarded him for a moment, considering his question. It was one that had been bothering her too.
“No,” she finally announced after pondering over it for another minute, “At first I thought she must have known, but having seen her complete shock and dismay when I said it, I think she was just as surprised as I was.”
“So where is she now?” asked Robin, “She’s not still there with him is she?”
“Yes, she is,” said Anne, a hint of bitterness in her tone, “She may have been surprised, but she was also somewhat reluctant to believe me,” she revealed, “Though I was rather…angry and out of control at the time, and not my most lucid,” she confessed.
“Well, that’s understandable,” said Robin sympathetically, “But you are sure it was him?”
“Absolutely, there is no way I would ever forget that face, he may have got older, but it was him, Robin,” stated Anne earnestly.
“I believe you,” said Robin, his dark eyes soft as he looked up at her.
“I just wish Katherine would,” sighed Anne, “Maybe she does still have more allegiance to him than she claims.”
“And maybe you should give her a bit of time to let it sink in,” offered Robin, “Don’t forget, she’d already had the trauma of seeing her supposedly dead husband risen from the grave, not to mention the near wedding to Kirby. Then you come out with your revelation…well, it may have all been too much to take in at once.”
“I know, you’re right,” agreed Anne, “I just don’t like the thought of her being stuck there with that murdering bastard. Goodness knows what he’s capable of.”
“You don’t think he would hurt Katherine, though,” asked Robin.
“I don’t know,” admitted Anne, “But I don’t want to leave her there long enough to find out,” she declared adamantly, “I need to see her try and explain things more calmly, that is if she wants to see me,” she added warily.
“Why would she not?” queried Robin.
Anne averted her eyes from his, looking down at the ground as a fresh wave of guilt swept over her.
“Well, there was something else that happened last night,” revealed Anne tentatively, keeping her eyes trained downwards.
“Go on,” said Robin.
“During my fight with Mark, I…,” she took a deep breath to force the words out, “…I accidentally cut Katherine with the dagger.”
“Ah,” remarked Robin.
“It was an accident, I didn’t mean it!” implored Anne desperately.
“Oh, Anne, when are you going to learn to control that temper of yours?” sighed Robin, shaking his head.
“I couldn’t help it,” she insisted, “Seeing him - all I could think about was killing him!”
“Indeed,” noted Robin, “I understand how you want to pay him back for his crimes, but maybe you should consider exactly how you want to do that before you speak to Katherine.”
“What do you mean?” asked Anne, stopping from the agitated pacing she had resumed.
“Anne,” said Robin, motioning for her to sit down next to him again, “Even if she does believe you, I hardly think she is going to condone killing him as a valid form of justice,” he explained, turning to her, “Not everyone shares the outlaw’s black and white views on retribution, especially considering she was married to the man and no matter what he might have done she probably still has some residual feelings for him.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” admitted Anne, pursing her lips in thought, “Not that I was really thinking of much when I saw him. You’re right, of course, knowing Katherine she would want to consider less extreme forms of punishment.”
“So you need to ask yourself,” he remarked sagely, “Are you willing to consider those too?”
Anne stared at him as the question hung between them, realising she didn’t know the answer. She had waited so long for this opportunity to get revenge and finally ease the burden she had carried all these years. It had been the main driving force behind her life as an outlaw, after all, everything she had done seen as a small contribution towards the ultimate goal of avenging her parents. Her burning passion for retribution had actually grown stronger with the passing years as she had witnessed the many other injustices of the world. Only in the past few months had that been tempered somewhat, having met Katherine and finally allowed love back into her life. Now, however, she was at last being presented with that which she had desired for so long – a chance to kill the man responsible for her parents’ death - and she didn’t know if she could settle for anything less.
Charles Kirby stormed into his quarters at Ollerton and promptly slammed his sword down on the stout wooden table in frustration. How could it have all gone so wrong? he wailed to himself. He had been on the verge of victory, with Katherine about to become his bride and her outlaw friend safely under lock and key, when Mark had turned up and ruined everything. It had galled him no end to have to attend the welcome home celebration and watch Mark lording it over everyone when it should have been Kirby himself in that position by then.
He angrily swiped the papers from the top of the desk, sending the sheets flying haphazardly round the room, before grabbing a random ornament and flinging it at the wall where it shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. He finally slumped down into his chair, putting his head in his hands as he bemoaned his bad luck.
“Feeling better now?” came an accented voice from the corner of the room.
His eyes shot up to see Leon emerging from the shadows.
“No,” said Kirby bitterly, “I can’t believe that Mark turned up! Of all the things I thought might scupper my plans his return was not one of them. Why couldn’t he just stay dead, eh?”
“He could always be made dead again,” offered Leon.
Kirby looked at the man in shock - even he couldn’t contemplate killing his friend…could he?
“No, I couldn’t…” said Kirby, baulking at the idea.
“Very well,” said Leon as if it mattered little to him one way or the other, “Then I guess my services are no longer needed.”
“Maybe not,” noted Kirby cryptically
“You still have other plans, monsieur?” asked Leon, intrigued.
“Nothing concrete,” he admitted, “But I have a feeling that there is still more mileage to be had from Katherine and her association.”
“You wish me to continue my surveillance?” asked Leon with a hint of surprise.
“Yes,” confirmed the burly knight, “For the time being, until I decided exactly what I want to do about Katherine’s little secret. Though I’m thinking it may be getting near the time to share it.”
Katherine wandered out into the grassy expanse of the courtyard at Markham Manor, thankful that she had successfully diverted Mark onto another task once again. Somehow she’d managed to keep him sufficiently busy over the past two days since his return for him not to have attempted any more romantic overtures, though she figured her time was fast running out. She just hoped that Tobias had some news for her now as she headed over to the guardhouse on the opposite side of the yard.
She supposed it was a bit too much to wish for, that he would have uncovered anything so soon, but she prayed his investigations had turned up at least something of use. She knew she was playing a dangerous game remaining at the manor, especially if what Anne claimed turned out to be true. Not to mention the fact that Kirby may yet tell Mark about her and Anne. Despite all that, she just had to know the truth - the stubborn streak in her wouldn’t let her leave without knowing whether she had been fooled all these year into thinking Mark was something he wasn’t.
Entering the guardhouse her eyes adjusted to the gloom within the low-ceilinged room, the dimness contrasting sharply with the blazing sunshine that filled the yard. She observed Tobias in a corner, talking with his page Isaac, no doubt giving the lad his duties for the day. The young man listened in rapt attention and Katherine waited patiently for them to finish their conversation, maintaining a discrete distance. Finally Isaac hopped up and hurried out past her, making a hasty abashed bow upon realising she had been waiting there. Katherine went and took the young man’s place, sitting down next to Tobias, her eyes sweeping the room to check they were now alone.
“So, how are things?” she asked, turning to him and speaking in a low voice despite the fact that she had verified that they were indeed the only occupants of the room.
“I presume you are referring to my investigation of Mark?” he enquired in response.
She let out a small laugh, “There’s no preamble with you, is there?” she noted.
“Such things are inefficient,” he replied evenly.
“All right,” she conceded with a dip of the head, “So how are things with your investigation?”
“I have discovered that Mark did visit Nottingham Castle during the time in question,” he disclosed.
“Really,” she remarked, sucking in a breath.
“And he also joined several of the Sheriff’s parties that were carrying out tasks under the Sheriff’s direction, including the…religious purging that was going on at the time,” added Tobias.
Katherine nodded as she digested the information presented to her, though the idea of this “purging” was unpalatable.
“So it is possible that he was there,” she deduced, “At the shrine at the time in question.”
“Yes, it is possible,” he agreed, “Though we still do not have conclusive proof either way.”
“So basically we’re not much nearer the truth,” she concluded with a rueful sigh.
“Unfortunately not, though I do have other avenues to pursue,” he revealed.
“Hmm, though I’m not sure I can wait much longer,” noted Katherine, quickly trying to process the options available to her in her mind, “Have you noticed anything strange in Mark’s behaviour since he got back, by the way?”
“He does seem to be rather…volatile,” commented Tobias, choosing his last word carefully.
“I’d say that was an understatement,” claimed Katherine, “He seems to have changed so much while he’s been away and I don’t mean physically. I think something’s happened to his mind.”
“You think he has gone mad?” enquired Tobias sceptically.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it mad,” countered Katherine, “But he does strike me as somewhat deranged. Mark was always so calm and placid, but now it seems like the smallest thing can cause him to fly into a rage. I don’t know, maybe it’s a temporary thing as he adjusts to life back here.”
“Possibly,” allowed Tobias.
“Anyway,” said Katherine, “Getting back to the problem at hand - I need to see Anne, I can’t leave that any longer. I just hope she’s calmed down by now and is slightly more reasonable.”
She neglected to mention to Tobias that she also wanted to see Anne because she had been desperately missing her for the past two days. Katherine rose from her chair, relieved at having made some sort of decision even if she still didn’t have all the pertinent facts.
“I’m going to see the friar now,” she informed Tobias, “To get him to arrange a meeting with Anne, you carry on with your investigations for the time being.”
He nodded as she left the guardhouse, immediately turning out the gate and heading through the village to the church. In her eagerness to see the friar she failed to spot the squat man following her the whole way.
The light of the day was beginning to fade as Katherine wound her way through the trunks of Sherwood Forest, leading Delta by his reins now the trees had become too thick to proceed on horseback. It was rather late to be meeting outside the manor walls, but she was just relieved the friar had been able to arrange things so quickly to worry unduly about that. She stumbled slightly in the gloom, peering ahead of her as she tried to determine the correct path to take. She could just make out the tall figure all in black standing in the clearing up ahead, her hood down so that her blond hair shone like a beacon in the dimness. Katherine noted that Anne was pacing anxiously across the ground and as Katherine stepped from the trees, the young woman quickly swung round to silently regard her, her bright blue eyes cutting through the darkness to bore into Katherine.
Katherine offered her a small smile as she tethered her horse, though for some reason she found herself suddenly nervous, unsure quite what to expect. Anne’s continued silence wasn’t helping matters and Katherine guessed it was up to her to start the conversation.
“I’ve been…” she began, just as Anne herself made to speak.
“Sorry,” laughed Katherine nervously, “You go first.”
Anne perceptibly swallowed before starting what she had been about to say again.
“I wanted to apologise,” she said quietly, “For the other night.”
She stepped closer to Katherine to gaze down on her, a sorrowful expression on her face “If you believe nothing else, you have to believe that I never meant to hurt you. I just got so angry when I saw Mark that it made me forget everything else for a moment.”
Katherine reached out to gently stroke Anne’s arm, “It’s all right,” she said huskily, “I understand.”
Anne captured Katherine’s hand where it lay on her arm. It was the one that had been damaged in the altercation with Mark and she brought it round to gently brush her fingers over the bandage that still adorned the palm, “Are you all right, though?” she asked in concern, “I could try to heal it for you if you like.”
“It’s fine, the friar patched me up,” replied Katherine dismissively, “It’s almost healed now, honestly. I don’t want you trying to use your mystic abilities when we still know so little about them and you don’t really know how to control them, especially not for a little scratch like this.”
“I’m sorry,” said Anne remorsefully, “I know I was rather irrational the other night.”
“I’m just glad you seem to have calmed down now,” noted Katherine.
“Yes, I’ve had a bit of time to cool off and think, but that still doesn’t change what I said,” said Anne earnestly, “I’m telling you, Mark did it, he killed my parents.”
Katherine closed her eyes and let out a long sigh. “Well, actually I’m beginning to think you may be right,” she admitted.
“You are?” asked Anne in surprise.
“I’ve been doing some investigating,” revealed Katherine, “And it points to Mark possibly being there. Add to that his strange behaviour the past couple of days and I’m starting to get somewhat suspicious.”
“Strange behaviour?” echoed Anne.
“It’s almost as if he’s a different man,” disclosed Katherine, “He’s been short tempered and prone to violent outbursts.”
“Not towards you?” Anne said suddenly, worry flashing across her face.
“No, no, not towards me luckily,” replied Katherine, deciding not to mention the incident in the field when Mark had so nearly hit her, “I don’t know if it’s just a side-effect of his experiences in Europe or a sign of something much deeper.”
“Well, there’s no way you can go back there now, either way,” remarked Anne.
“So where does that leave me?” asked Katherine.
“It leaves you here with me,” answered Anne, slipping her arms around Katherine’s body to pull her closer.
Looking up into Anne’s soft blue eyes, Katherine forgot all about anything else she might have been about to say and leant up to press her lips to Anne’s own inviting ones. The kiss quickly deepened as both women let the tension slip from them, caught up instead in the heat of the moment as their bodies pressed together, their tongues seeking out one another.
“Well, well, well,” came a voice from the side of the clearing, “If I hadn’t of seen it with my own eyes I would never have believed it.”
“Mark!” cried Katherine, breaking the kiss and twisting to stare at him in astonishment as he stepped from the darkness of the trees.
Suddenly Kirby leapt out and grabbed Anne from behind in a tight bear hug. She grunted as she struggled against his hold, but he had got the drop on her and had managed to lock his hands together to form a near unbreakable grip before she could do anything.
“Let her go!” ordered Katherine, shooting Kirby a deathly look.
“Now why would he want to do that?” scoffed Mark, walking up so he was standing in front of Katherine while Kirby kept his firm hold of Anne to her side.
“You know I couldn’t believe it when Charles told me about you and this woman,” he remarked, “I thought he’d gone stark raving mad. Yet here you are, cavorting with her in the forest,” he added with disdain in his voice, “What has become of you while I’ve been away, Kathy?” he asked, reaching out to stroke his fingers down her cheek.
Katherine couldn’t stop herself flinching away from the touch.
“What have you done to her?” demanded Mark, his voice getting louder in anger as he addressed Anne, “What have you done to my wife that she can’t even bear to be touched by me?”
“Everything you obviously couldn’t!” stated Anne emphatically.
Mark lunged angrily for Anne, but Katherine managed to quickly get hold of him before he could inflict any retribution for her scathing words. Katherine could almost feel the anger simmering off him as she tried to drag him back, away from Anne.
“Why would she want to be with you anyway, murderer!” spat Anne, seemingly unfazed by the threat.
“You’re not still on about that are you?” said Mark in exasperation.
“And you still deny it?” asked Anne in return, “I saw you, you killed my parents!”
Mark stared at her for a moment, the tension in the air palpable as their gazes remained lock, undisguised hatred evident on Anne’s face.
“I suppose there’s little point pretending now is there,” Mark finally said with a shrug of the shoulders, “All right, yes, I killed them,” he stated arrogantly, “And you know what, they deserved it - ungodly pagans and their sordid little religion!”
“You bastard!” screamed Anne, “I’ll kill you!”
Mark merely laughed pompously while Anne struggled unsuccessfully to free herself from Kirby’s grasp. As Mark turned back to Katherine, she looked at him in total dumbfounded horror.
“Oh, don’t look so shocked, Kathy,” he remarked, “After all, it’s all part of the lord’s duties to stamp out such things.”
“By murdering defenceless, innocent people?” she asked incredulously, barely able to believe the words that were issuing from his mouth.
“I would hardly call them innocent,” he said scornfully, “They worshipped devilish gods, practiced unholy rituals, I was merely protecting the community at large,” he added boastfully.
“I can’t believe it,” she said, shaking her head in disgust at his level of delusion, “How did you manage to fool me all this time? What other terrible things have you done in the name of the church or the king?”
“Don’t make out you’re innocent in all this,” he said nastily, leaning in closer to her, “You must have realised some of the more unsavoury things a lord needs to do when running a manor.”
“No, there’s no way I would ever have conceived of this,” Katherine replied, steadfastly refusing to entertain the idea that she could have known, “I thought you were a good man, Mark, but it seems I never really knew you at all.”
“And it seems I didn’t know you either,” he noted, glancing over in Anne’s direction to indicate to what he was referring, “You do realise the disgrace it would bring to me, the Johnson name and the manor if news of you and your association were ever to become public.”
“The disgrace I would bring?” she said disbelievingly, “I would say you are the one who has the monopoly in that area!”
“How dare you!” he fumed, angrily waving his finger at her, “I was carrying out the wishes of god! You’ve obviously grown far too independent in my absence - I think you should be showing your husband more respect.”
“Respect?” she repeated, looking at him as if he had gone mad, which she considered perhaps he had, “You want me to respect you? Don’t make me laugh - I despise you!”
Katherine didn’t realise she had gone too far until the hand impacted on her face, the resounding slap that Mark had delivered sending her crashing to the ground. As she reached round to wipe away the blood trickling from her lip where his ring had split the skin, he knelt down in front of her, gripping her thin top and dragging her up into a sitting position.
“I think someone needs to teach you a little lesson…,” he said menacingly, his face mere inches from hers, his eyes dark under his furrowed brow.
Suddenly he closed the short distance and pushed his mouth forcefully to hers, his teeth grating against her own. A stunned Katherine brought her hands up to try and push him off but he slapped them away before pushing her back down to the ground.
“No!” cried Anne desperately as she saw Mark shove Katherine to the floor and start pawing away at her clothes.
It was perfectly clear what his intentions were and Anne felt an overwhelming desire to protect Katherine. She had to get free! She had to help her! She had to hurt him!
Anne felt the rage building, crashing through her like an unstoppable wave. She allowed her mind to drift as she had done before when dealing with Bronwyn, reaching out to touch the power of the world around her. Amazing sensations flowed through her, infusing every fibre of her being and removing any last semblance of conscious thought, leaving only the burning desire to free herself and hurt the man in front of her.
She broke free of Kirby’s grip, surprising him with her sudden burst of strength. Whirling round she concentrated all her anger into a single punch of such ferocity that it left him unconscious on the forest floor. With a feral cry she dashed over to where Mark was trying to force himself on Katherine, grabbing a handful of his tunic and hauling him off in one swift movement, sending him flying a good few feet through the air as she did.
He scrabbled uncertainly to his feet, looking at her with a confounded expression on his face. The fire within her was out of control now, her mind dominated by thoughts of inflicting pain on this man for all he had done. Nature’s power cascaded through her enhancing those fiery emotions, obliterating everything else. She had lost all sense of reality and had only one focus – to kill him.
She drew back her fist and thumped it hard into his gut, doubling him over, before whipping it quickly up to crack him on the chin, a satisfying spurt of blood flying from his mouth as he tumbled backwards. Before he could retaliate, she aimed a kick at his head, more blood exploding from his nose as her boot made contact. She stamped on him a few more times for good measure until she was sure he wasn’t going to attempt to get up.
As he lay groaning in a heap on the floor, she slowly reached down and drew her dagger from her boot. Crouching down, she pulled him up slightly so he could see her face, see the face of the one who was about to repay him for his crimes. He blinked a few times as the blood streamed down his face, dripping into his eyes.
“This is for my parents,” seethed Anne, drawing the dagger back in readiness to deal the fatal blow.
Suddenly she felt fingers wrap round her wrist, impeding the daggers downward path. Staying focused on her target, she let out a frustrated snarl. Her heart pumped frenetically sending the blood pounding through her ears blocking out her surroundings. The intense rage that still fuelled her actions was telling her to break free and finish this, to ignore the hindrance to her goal. It was then that she heard it, a voice, faint against the fury that consumed her, but clear nonetheless.
Anne’s eyes flicked furiously to her side to see Katherine, desperately holding onto her wrist, before they switched once more to Mark. She had to do it, she had to kill him!
“Anne, please,” beseeched Katherine, “I realise it may be difficult for you, to contemplate any other option, but I want you to think what killing him would really mean.”
“It would mean he would be punished for his crimes!” cried Anne.
“It may seem like it will solve everything,” said Katherine, her voice soft and reasonable, “Relieve the burden that’s been preying on your mind all these years. But will it actually bring your parents back? And what will it cost you? If you kill him then that makes you little better than he is. Is that what you really want, to be a cold-blooded killer too? You’ve come so far, Anne, please don’t take this step backwards and use violence to try and solve this.”
“Sometimes violence is all that works, all some people understand,” insisted Anne, though her intense focus had been broken by Katherine’s intervention. She could already feel the extra power that had stoked her emotions fading away. Nevertheless, the desire to kill Mark was still there, prominent in her thoughts.
“Maybe,” conceded Katherine, “But killing him is the easy option. You know the stronger thing to do would be to show mercy. If you can show compassion to someone, even when they’re your bitter enemy, than that makes you a much greater person.”
Anne stared at Katherine for a moment, deliberating her words. Could she show compassion to this man, after all he had done?
“A single act of compassion can put you in touch with your own humanity,” continued Katherine, “I know you don’t want to do it, but I’m telling you, you won’t regret it in the end.”
Anne looked up into Katherine’s eyes, their blue-grey depths imploring her to reconsider. The intense look reached through her, pricking at her heart, and she could feel herself start to waver.
“Please, Anne, don’t do this,” said Katherine softly.
Anne’s eyes glanced down to Mark once more, looking pathetic and defeated in her grasp. They then travelled back up, taking in Katherine’s face once more before they went down to the dagger she gripped and Katherine’s hand resolutely holding onto her wrist. The sight of the result of her last attempt at using violence to resolve things, starkly evident in the bandage on Katherine’s hand, finally cut through any last vestiges of her murderous intent. Sighing heavily she relaxed her arm, signalling to Katherine that she was backing down. She dropped Mark from her other hand and he flopped to the ground.
“You better get out of here,” she instructed him, “Before I change my mind.”
He dazedly stumbled to his feet, glancing at Katherine as if for some sort of confirmation of the situation.
“Just go, Mark,” she advised him.
He seemed to sense that it was probably not a good time to try and push his luck by saying anything further, instead hastily going over and helping Kirby to his feet before hurrying into the trees in the direction of Markham.
Anne remained on the ground, breathing heavily with her head bowed as she tried to compose herself now the tumultuous emotions had died down and she could once again think straight. She felt a welcome pair of hands gently squeezing her shoulders as Katherine knelt down to wrap her arms around the young woman.
“I hope you’re right about everything,” noted Anne, turning her face up to meet Katherine’s gaze, “Because right now I feel like I’ve let a murderer get away.”
Katherine gently stroked her face and Anne closed her eyes, allowing the warm touch to calm her further.
“We’ll find a way to bring him to justice, somehow,” said Katherine with quiet resolve, “I promise you.”
Katherine followed Anne as they travelled deeper into the forest, pulling Delta along behind her. Now night had completely fallen, darkness enveloped them, though moonlight filtered through the trees above, lighting their path at intervals along the forest floor. Katherine stayed close to the young woman ahead since she had no idea where she was going, only previously having been shown one way to get to the outlaw camp and never having been that way after dark. She supposed she would have to start learning her way around the forest now, since it seemed she would be spending most of her time here for the foreseeable future. She certainly wouldn’t be welcome back at the manor or anywhere else in polite society once Mark made it known what had happened. Despite the fact that it meant she would be able to be with Anne all the time, she couldn’t help but feel a sense of trepidation at the prospect of leading a life as an outlaw. Her whole life had been geared to running the manor, being the lady of the manor and everything that entailed and she wasn’t sure if she could meet the challenge of this radical change.
“Penny for them?” remarked Anne, disturbing Katherine’s deliberations.
“Hmm?” replied Katherine distractedly.
“I just wondered what you were thinking about,” clarified Anne, “Though it looks like you have more like several shillings worth of thoughts on your mind.”
“I was thinking about the future,” explained Katherine, not really wanting to burden Anne with her worries at the moment while all the trauma of what they had just been through with Mark was still fresh in their minds.
“Anything you want to talk about?” asked Anne, stopping for a moment to look at Katherine in concern.
“Not now,” sighed Katherine, reassuringly stroking Anne’s arm, “I think we’ve had enough drama for one night, don’t you?”
“Enough for a lifetime, I’d say,” agreed Anne ruefully.
They started walking again, the only sounds that broke the silence that descended once more being the sounds of their footfalls through the twigs that littered the forest floor and the occasional scuffling from a nocturnal forest dweller somewhere out in the dark that surrounded them. Eventually it was Katherine who spoke up again, her mind having wandered back to the earlier encounter.
“I wanted to say sorry for not believing you about Mark from the beginning,” she declared as they continued on their way, “I can’t believe he managed to fool me so completely.”
“It’s not your fault,” said Anne sympathetically, “He must have hidden it well to keep if from you.”
“I guess,” conceded Katherine doubtfully, “Or maybe I was too complacent in my life at the manor to notice. Anyway, listen to me wallowing in self-doubt after all you’ve had to cope with these past few days.”
“I can’t deny it’s been trying,” admitted Anne, exhaling slowly, “Coming face to face with Mark after all these years…” she revealed before trailing off, perhaps thinking back to earlier. Katherine wondered if she was regretting letting him go, “Anyway, it’s late; we’re both tired; we can talk about it more tomorrow.”
Katherine was about to respond, but caught herself, deciding not to probe further for now. Anne was right - they were tired and emotionally drained right now. It wasn’t as if they wouldn’t have plenty of time to talk over the days ahead, to discuss the ramifications of everything they’d been through.
They silently travelled the rest of the distance to the camp, the small fires that burnt within its clearing alerting them to its proximity before they actually reached it. Stepping into the camp Katherine watched as a number of eyes swivelled in her direction regarding her with a mixture of suspicion and dislike. Anne tried to quickly guide her and Delta through the camp but not before one of the outlaws decided he had something to say on Katherine’s unexpected appearance amongst them. Katherine didn’t recognise the swarthy man that blocked their path, though she was hardly on first name terms with the majority of the outlaws, she considered. For the most part she had met with Anne outside of the camp for the very reason that she was somewhat less than welcome in the eyes of many of them due to her privileged background.
“What do you think you’re doing, Seven, bringing one of her kind here?” asked the man, putting his hands on his hips and casting a disparaging look at Katherine.
“She’s with me,” replied Anne simply, as if that was enough of an explanation.
“Oh, and that’s meant to make it all right is it?” he scoffed, “It’s fine lads,” he added sarcastically, looking over his shoulder at the men by the nearest fire, “No need to worry, she’s Seven’s woman.”
“I don’t think I like your tone, Alan,” said Anne, stepping closer to him and matching his aggressive stance, her eyes boring into the man who was actually a couple of inches shorter than her, “I think you should just go and sit back down and get on with your drinking.”
He looked balefully up at her, no doubt considering whether it was worth the potential threat offered by Anne to continue with his resistance to Katherine’s presence. Anne’s gaze never wavered, resolutely fixed on him the whole time, and eventually he glanced away, losing the battle of wills.
“Fine, do whatever you want,” he said with a hint of annoyance, backing away from her.
Katherine heaved a small sigh of relief and joined Anne as they continued across the camp, everyone else turning back to whatever had occupied them after the brief interruption to their evening.
“I thought you were going to have to hit him,” whispered Katherine as she drew alongside Anne.
“On some occasions I might have had to,” admitted Anne.
“I can see outlaw life will take some getting used to,” noted Katherine warily, “I don’t think my usual diplomacy will get me very far with some of these men.”
“I’m afraid not,” agreed Anne, “Despite what happened earlier, you may find there are some situations when talking or compassion just don’t work.”
“Great, so I need to get my fists ready then?” asked Katherine ruefully.
“Well, I know you can use them,” remarked Anne off-handedly.
Katherine’s eyes flicked to Anne in surprise before she noticed the small smile on Anne’s lips, indicating she was actually teasing her. Katherine’s eyebrows crinkled together as she folded her arms and stared at the young woman who stopped and turned to her, having spotted Katherine’s bemused expression out of the corner of her eye.
“You certainly laid a good one on Bronwyn as I recall,” commented Anne, still smiling.
“Ah, yes,” recalled Katherine, “But she deserved it.”
Anne chuckled to herself, “See, now you’re getting it.”
“All joking aside, though,” added Anne, indicating that they should start walking again as she spoke, “You do need to stand up to some of these blokes. Most of the supposed ‘tough guys’ are just full of bluster. Face up to them, show no weakness and they’ll soon back down.”
“I’ll try to remember that,” noted Katherine, slightly unsure that this was all it would take for them to leave her alone.
“Most of the men are actually all right,” insisted Anne, sensing Katherine’s wariness, “They may be outlaws, but they’re not all ruthless killers or thieves. A lot of them are just ordinary men who are victims of circumstance.”
“Really?” enquired Katherine, realising she knew very little about the men that Anne spent most of her time with.
“Remember, not all lords are as benevolent as you might have been in your time in charge of Markham,” explained Anne, “Some of the men here have been forced into breaking the law just to survive or to feed their family. Not to mention the countless ridiculous laws that certain nobles have introduced to further subjugate the peasants on their land. After all, the lord is allowed to pretty much run his estate as he sees fit and often that means squeezing all he can out of the people on it. Your ‘friend’ the Sheriff is a prime example. Some people here have death sentences on their heads for little more than stealing a loaf of bread.”
“Does that include you?” asked Katherine.
“I am wanted over a number of manors for various ‘crimes’,” revealed Anne, skirting over exactly what these were and the question of whether that meant she would be executed if caught.
“Though Markham isn’t one of them,” noted Katherine, “Did you never carry out any activities on my estate?”
“No, we only target manors, lords and merchants that we feel are unjust or unfair in their dealings with the people,” disclosed Anne, “And we’d generally heard good things about what went on in Markham. We only want to redistribute the wealth, try in some small way to resolve the inequality inherent in society.”
“I suppose I should take that as a compliment then,” said Katherine with a shrug.
“Indeed,” agreed Anne, “Mind you, with you being so nice it’s a wonder we ever met.”
“I guess we have one thing to thank Mark for then,” stated Katherine grimly.
“I suppose you’re right,” remarked Anne with faint surprise, “I hadn’t thought of that. If he hadn’t taken the stone then we wouldn’t have had to steal it back off you.”
Katherine went quiet once more as Mark wormed his way back into her thoughts. An unwanted image of him striking down Anne’s parents and crowing over their dead bodies while holding the Stone of Gaia swam to the fore of her mind.
“We’ll get him somehow,” remarked Anne, as if sensing Katherine’s troubled thoughts.
“I know we will,” agreed Katherine, sighing regretfully as she tried to push those images away for the time being.
“Well, here we are,” stated Anne, indicating a hut with her hand, “Would you like me to carry you over the threshold?” she added breezily.
Katherine let out a small laugh, recognising that Anne was trying to lighten the mood.
“It sounds tempting, but hardly necessary. I have been here before after all,” Katherine reminded her as she tied Delta to a handy tree stump, the young colt letting out a small whinny of protest at the prospect of being left there on his own for the night.
“Mmm,” said Anne, pursing her lips thoughtfully, “Though we did hardly speak on that occasion after you accused me of still being romantically involved with Will.”
“Yes, well, perhaps we shouldn’t mention that,” noted Katherine, not wanting to linger on one of her less fine moments.
“But I suppose you are right,” continued Anne, “I should save any threshold carrying until our wedding day.”
“Now there’s something to look forward to,” said Katherine, returning Anne’s smile and adding a wink for good measure.
“After you then, m’lady,” said Anne, stretching out her hand and allowing Katherine to proceed inside.
The sound of birds twittering far off in the distance somewhere stirred Katherine from her slumber and her eyes flickered open lazily, blinking several times against the bright sunlight that shone into the room where she lay. She experienced a moment’s panic as she took in the unfamiliar surroundings before the warmth of the body pressed up against her reminded her of her location and company. Relaxing into Anne’s lanky form, Katherine could feel the young woman’s breath fluttering softly across the bare skin of her back as she slept on, oblivious to Katherine’s wakened state.
Taking care not to disturb the other woman, Katherine turned onto her back so she could take in the sight of her bed companion, whose arm remained draped carelessly across Katherine’s stomach. Anne made a slight snuffling noise at Katherine’s movement, but showed no other signs of waking allowing Katherine the opportunity to study her peacefully sleeping face. Absently Katherine reached out to brush at the strands of golden hair that fell about Anne’s face, loosened from their normal ponytail to cascade across the pillow.
They had both fallen almost immediately asleep on going to bed the night before, all the events of the past week or so finally catching up on them. Katherine had slept soundly, despite her worries, feeling safe and protected in Anne’s arms.
Sounds of voices filtered into the small hut from outside and Katherine’s nose twitched at the smell of cooking that shortly joined it. Her stomach rumbled in protest at the temptation and she rose to investigate, not having the heart to wake Anne for the time being.
Fishing her clothes up from off the floor, she pulled her cream-coloured shirt over her head, glad she had chosen her riding outfit to meet Anne the night before and not one of her unpractical dresses. She didn’t imagine she would be having much call for those during her time in the camp. Realising she would need more clothes from somewhere at some point caused her to wonder where and how exactly outlaws procured such things. Drawing on her trousers and fastening her boots she headed out into the morning sun, spotting the source of the conversation immediately.
She recognised the two outlaws standing by the fire as Henry and Nicholas, having met both of them the very first time she had been brought here. As far as she knew they were both two of the more amiable outlaws, the one called Nicholas having been one of the only ones to show any kindness to her captured party.
“Good morning,” remarked the short stocky man, having noticed her emergence from the hut.
Henry swivelled round too, his black hair flopping into his eyes as he did. He brushed it out the way and to her surprise actually offered her a smile, which she found herself automatically returning. He was by far the youngest of the men in the camp, looking extremely baby-faced amongst the other craggy outlaws.
“Good morning,” she replied cordially, “That smells good,” she added, casting her eyes at the pot suspended above the fire.
“You should be careful with those compliments,” commented Henry with a grin, “You’ll be Nicholas’ new best friend.”
“Be quiet, Henry,” tutted Nicholas, “The lady obviously knows good cooking when she smells it.”
“Or maybe she just has a defective nose,” teased Henry.
“Ignore him,” said Nicholas, poking Henry out of the way, coming over to Katherine and putting a gentle arm around her in order to guide her towards the fire, “Why don’t you come and try some.”
Tentatively she took the bowl proferred to her by Nicholas, the bearded man watching closely for her reaction to his cooking. Steeling herself she scooped some of the stew into her mouth, surprised when she found it actually tasted rather good.
“Very good,” she noted, spooning up some more of the food as he beamed at her compliment, “Very good indeed.”
“See, see,” crowed Nicholas to Henry, “You lot just obviously have uneducated palates.”
Henry merely rolled his eyes and Katherine had the good grace to offer him a small apologetic shrug when he glanced her way while she continued to eat.
“I was wondering,” said Katherine, in between mouthfuls, “Is there a source of fresh water close by?”
“There’s a small stream just through the trees in that direction,” Henry informed her, indicating where he meant, “It’s where we get the water for cooking and where some of the outlaws go to wash. Others don’t seem to think they need to bother,” he remarked, casting his eyes to Nicholas.
“What?” said Nicholas unrepentantly, “I prefer the natural smell and it drives the women wild.”
“More like drives them away,” noted Henry, wafting his hand in front of his nose.
Katherine smiled at their good-humoured banter before excusing herself to go down to the stream Henry had directed her to. Checking she was alone, she removed her shirt and knelt down to splash some of the water from the gently flowing stream over her body. She wasn’t about to completely strip off out here in the forest, but she wanted to wash-up as best she could.
Hearing a twig snapping behind her, she quickly snatched up her shirt and swivelled round, holding up the garment to protect her modesty. Standing behind her, his arms crossed across his chest as he leant against a tree was the outlaw, Alan, the one who had made such a fuss about her coming into the camp the night before. Seeing him in the daylight, she realised that she had met him before – he was the one who had killed her guard, Richard, when they had been ambushed on the forest track back in April. That recollection only enhanced her sense of unease at being surprised by him.
“Don’t let me disturb you,” he said leering suggestively, “I was enjoying the show.”
“I bet you were,” noted Katherine, shooting the outlaw a filthy look, “But I think I’ll be heading back now.”
As Katherine tried to walk off in the direction of the camp, the seedy man stepped across and placed his arm against a tree to block her.
“Do you mind?” she asked, injecting as much steel into her voice as she could muster, despite the fact that she felt rather exposed, not having had the opportunity to put her shirt on, still only holding it up to her chest. Anne’s words about standing up to the outlaws played in her mind and she guessed there was no time like the present to put them into action.
“You know,” he said, his beady eyes travelling up and down her body as he spoke, “As outlaws we like to share all the spoils of our efforts.”
“I hope that isn’t some sort of revolting suggestion that I fall under that category,” she remarked scornfully.
“Personally I think it’s a bit greedy of Seven to keep you all to herself,” he added with a nasty grin creeping across his face.
As he stepped closer towards her, Katherine realised the time for talking was over and swiftly kneed him in the groin instead, watching in satisfaction as he crumpled to the ground. Leaving him where he lay, whimpering to himself, she stepped over his prone form and walked back to the camp.
Anne was sitting by the fire with Nicholas and Henry when she somehow felt the presence that had entered the clearing. Her head came up to see Katherine wandering towards them and a warm smile spread across her face as their eyes met across the camp. She had been slightly disappointed to find Katherine gone when she awoke, Henry informing her of her whereabouts.
“You managed to entice some more people then,” Katherine remarked to Nicholas as she sat down next to Anne, surreptitiously brushing her fingers against her thigh as she did and sending tingles all the way up it.
“I think Nicholas is trying to impress someone,” whispered Anne, leaning closer to Katherine and allowing her own hand to stroke lightly across the other woman’s back, “His cooking isn’t normally this good.”
“Hey,” interjected Henry, squinting across the clearing, “Is that Alan limping over there?”
Anne and Nicholas followed his gaze, taking in the stumbling outlaw.
“He doesn’t look too clever does he,” noted Nicholas.
Beside her, Anne saw that Katherine seemed overly preoccupied with her bowl at that moment, and she turned to regard Katherine’s bowed head suspiciously.
“You wouldn’t have anything to do with his condition by any chance, would you?” she asked.
“Me?” enquired Katherine innocently, her eyes peering up from between the strands of her auburn hair.
“Only he seems to be heading in this direction with a rather thunderous look on his face,” noted Anne.
Katherine’s head poked around her in time to see Alan staggering up to them his face contorted in fury or perhaps pain, Anne wasn’t sure which.
“Would you like some breakfast, Alan,” asked Nicholas amiably, standing up to offer him a bowl.
“No, I would not like some bloody breakfast,” he replied angrily, swatting it away and sending the contents splashing over the ground, “I want to know why we suddenly have nobles swaning around our camp,” he cried, loud enough for the other outlaws in the vicinity to hear.
“She’s a guest here,” replied Nicholas calmly, “Do you have some sort of problem with that?”
“I do as it happens, she’s not one of us, she shouldn’t be here!” exclaimed Alan.
Anne noticed a few nods and mumbles of ascent from some of the other men that had gathered around their fire on hearing Alan’s protestations. It appeared that they were attracting quite a crowd.
“I agree with Alan,” came another voice from amongst them and Anne turned to see Will Scarlet emerging from the throng, “She’s nothing but trouble.”
Anne leapt to her feet at the sight of the man who had been a constant thorn in their sides, Katherine quickly following her up, perhaps sensing she may need to step in to stop a fight breaking out. The bruises were still evident on Will’s face from his last altercation with Anne only the week before.
“And what would you know about anything?” asked Henry, before Anne or Katherine could reply themselves, “You’re never around the camp anymore anyway.”
“Maybe not, but I am an outlaw. I have a right to be here, she doesn’t!” insisted Will, pointing his finger at Katherine and turning to the other men to gain their agreement.
“Yeah, if she wants to be one of us she needs to prove it,” joined in Alan, cutting off Anne again as she tried to speak up on Katherine’s behalf.
Anne realised things were degenerating fast as various raised voices chipped in on both sides of the argument, though not all that was being said was directly relevant to the subject at hand. The outlaws were a generally fractious bunch, with the men siding with their particular friends on any given issue. It took a strong individual like Robin to pull them all together for their common cause. However, when the chance arose, divisions were quick to appear and it seemed the discussion of Katherine was one such instance.
The one time Katherine had been here for any length of time previously, she had been laid up and out of sight most of the time. Now her presence was more obvious it appeared the men were polarised over the issue of whether she should be allowed in the camp or not. Anne was annoyed that those against her seemed to have forgotten the number of times Katherine had helped the outlaw band.
“All right,” said Katherine suddenly over the general hubbub that had erupted. Her voice was commanding enough to cause the multitude of individual arguments to cease, “What do I need to do to prove myself to you?”
“Katherine, what are you doing?” hissed Anne quietly.
“I’m standing up to them,” explained Katherine as if that was obvious.
“This isn’t quite what I had in mind,” declared Anne with a touch of exasperation.
“All right,” said Will, breaking into their private discussion, “A challenge then, to prove your credentials.”
“Fine, whatever you want,” replied Katherine resolutely, putting her hand on her hips, puffing out her chest and regarding Will with a steely gaze. Anne had to resist the urge to roll her eyes on seeing the physical evidence of Katherine’s stubborn streak all too prominently. She knew there was no diverting her from her intended course of action when she got that look in her eye.
“What’s going on?” came another strong voice from behind the gathering.
The men quickly parted to allow Robin Hood to step through them to where Katherine stood toe to toe with Will and Alan.
“Robin,” said Anne in relief, “Thank goodness, perhaps you can talk some sense into them.”
Robin allowed her to guide him off to the side of the group so she could explain the situation to him out of earshot of the others. Hopefully they wouldn’t think anything too untoward about it since Robin and Anne were known for being close confidants. Robin listened intently as Anne quickly filled him in on everything that had happened the night before and that morning, though she didn’t realise she was omitting the earlier incident by the stream.
“Well, maybe you should let her accept this challenge,” suggested Robin quietly, once Anne had finished.
“What?!” cried Anne incredulously, straining to keep her voice down so no-one else could hear, “You have to be joking?!”
“It can be something simple, like robbing someone on the forest track,” offered Robin, “I just think it might settle things once and for all and put paid to prolonged tension over this issue. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for all Katherine has done for us in the past and I have no doubts about her intentions, but not all of our band are quite so understanding.”
“You can’t be serious?” replied Anne, “Sending Katherine off to rob someone? I may have been teaching her how to use a sword, but she’s never been in a real fight that I know of.”
“Which is why you’re going to go with her, just as an ‘observer’ of course,” declared Robin, “And you can make sure that it’s an easy target, one of those fat merchants that frequent the path. They’ll hand over their money at the mere sight of a sword.”
Anne looked at him sceptically - she didn’t like this idea one little bit. Unfortunately, she suspected that Katherine herself would readily accept the challenge - she wasn’t one to back down from such things.
“Look, I know you’re concerned for her welfare,” said Robin softly, “And if you really want me to I’ll intervene and tell Will and Alan to leave it.”
“No,” sighed Anne, “Hopefully this will be enough to convince any doubters, though I’m not sure anything less than Katherine killing the Sheriff himself would be enough for Will.”
“Luckily I think most of the others will be more easily swayed,” remarked Robin as they turned back to the assembled throng, calling them to attention.
Robin outlined the challenge that Katherine was to perform and Anne watched for the reaction of the men as he spoke, satisfied that most of them appeared agreeable to what Robin was saying. She wasn’t surprised when Will was first to pipe up after Robin had finished.
“If Seven’s going along, I want to go too,” he stated, “Just to make sure there’s no cheating.”
“All right,” said Robin, “Henry, Nicholas, I want you to join them too. Now, the show’s over, the rest of you can get back to what you were doing.”
As the men trudged off, Anne was finally left alone with Katherine, rounding on her once she was satisfied no-one else would overhear their conversation.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” she said shaking her head to indicate her displeasure.
“You were the one who told me to ‘show no weakness’,” offered Katherine with just a touch of sarcasm.
“Indeed, I’m beginning to regret those words now,” admitted Anne.
“I know you’re worried about me, darling” said Katherine gently, stepping closer to Anne so she could take her hands, “And it’s lovely that you want to protect me, but sooner or later I have to stand up for myself.”
“But does it have to be so soon?” implored Anne, “I mean only yesterday you had to fight off your crazed husband and now you’re doing this. It’s not some sort of reaction to that is it?”
“Maybe a bit,” conceded Katherine, pursing her lips thoughtfully, “But I need to do this, Anne,” she insisted, her blue-grey eyes regarding Anne intently as she spoke.
“All right,” said Anne, exhaling slowly, unable to resist the persuasive power of Katherine’s eyes, “But I shall be watching you like a hawk the whole time.”
“There you go, with you to look out for me, what could go wrong,” announced Katherine.
Anne let out a small groan, “I really wish you wouldn’t keep saying that!”
Katherine shifted her position slightly and attempted to rub some life back into her rear, which had gone decidedly numb during the time they had been sitting in the undergrowth at the side of the track. It seemed like they had been there for hours, waiting for a prospective target to come by. Nervously she adjusted the thick leather belt that was slung around her waist for perhaps the hundredth time, unaccustomed to the weight that hung from it. She had only ever used a sword in practice fights with Anne before, and the prospect of using it against another human being was daunting and not a little bit scary. She just hoped it wouldn’t be necessary - that the threat of violence would be enough for her victim to give up their purse.
Absently she trailed her fingers round the hilt of the weapon, which had been donated to her by Anne. The young woman had insisted that it was her ‘lucky sword’, causing Katherine to wonder exactly how many she owned if they had different classifications. Anne had also leant her one of her sleeveless tunic tops, which possessed a hood in order to conceal her identity, just in case whoever came by was known to Katherine. Not that they would probably believe their eyes even if they could see her face, since the supposedly respectable lady of Markham Manor was hardly likely to be robbing them like some common crook. Katherine wore the black garment over her thin shirt, fastened in place by the belt, though the tunic dangled over Katherine’s knees, rather than the mid-thigh length it would have reached on Anne. She wore the hood down around her shoulders at the moment since it was another warm day and she didn’t need anything else to increase her already anxiety-heightened temperature.
“You’ll be fine,” whispered Anne from beside her, obviously having noted Katherine’s unease and her distracted fiddling with the sword.
“Aw, getting cold feet are we,” added Will with an evident sneer in his voice from his position just behind them.
Katherine shot him a disparaging look, but didn’t bother replying. That was another thing that was making the wait excruciating, that they had the obnoxious outlaw for company. She would rather have spent an afternoon shovelling dung than have to sit with Will, but unfortunately he had insisted on joining Katherine and Anne as they remained out of sight on one side of the road, while Nicholas and Henry were hidden away somewhere opposite them. The two women had quickly realised that there was little point trying to make conversation with Will present, since he’d felt the need to join in with sarcastic comments at every opportunity when they had tried. So they had passed most of the time in silence, allowing Katherine’s nerves free rein to build with each passing second. Anne was trying her best to keep her calm with reassuring looks and touches, but Katherine felt her heart hammering frenetically in her chest nonetheless.
Suddenly a disguised call from the far side of the track sent the three of them diving onto their stomachs on the dry ground, flattening themselves to it to make sure they were completely invisible to passers-by. Katherine peered through the foliage to get a glimpse of whoever was approaching, trying to ignore the various twigs that poked uncomfortably into her ribs. The sound of horses’ hooves reached her first, followed by the sight of two men on horseback trotting slowly towards them. They were still a good hundred yards down the track but Katherine let out an audible gasp as she identified one of them straight away. There was no mistaking the burly form of Charles Kirby perched atop a large black steed.
“Shit,” hissed Anne next to her, having recognised the rider too.
“Some sort of problem?” asked Will innocently, poking his head up off the ground.
“You don’t have to do this, Katherine,” said Anne quietly, turning her head away from Will to face her, “We’ll wait for someone else.”
“What are you talking about?” interrupted Will, “We’ve been here bloody ages already! Stop farting about and just get on with it.”
“Shut up, Will,” snapped Anne, “Robin said she was to rob a single traveller. I know counting is hard for you, but I would have thought even you could make it to two.”
“Fine,” he replied, “Then let’s make it a single traveller.”
Before either woman could stop him, Will got to his feet and pulled the bow from his back. Taking quick aim he loosed an arrow in the direction of the two men on horseback. Katherine watched in horror as the arrow thumped into the short stocky man at Kirby’s side, sending him crashing limply to the ground as he slid from his horse.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” asked Will impatiently, looking down at Katherine, “Best get out there while you still have some element of surprise.”
Katherine glared angrily up at him before hitching up her belt one last time and leaping from the trees, drawing the sword from its scabbard as she did and ignoring Anne’s despairing lunge to stop her.
Anne made a frantic leaping grab for Katherine but she was out of the bushes and off down the track as Anne came crashing down onto the ground, grasping at thin air. Trying to scrabble to her feet to follow her, she found herself pushed back down into the dirt as Will flung himself on her back.
“Get off me!” she cried, struggling to turn over and force him off as he held onto her arms.
“Now, now,” he said nastily, lowering his head so he was practically whispering in her ear, “You know the rules, she has to do it on her own.”
“We were supposed to be able to pick the target,” seethed Anne, “You can’t expect her to fight against a trained knight like him!”
“Oh, I’m sure she can fight,” remarked Will, “Whether she can survive is another matter.”
Katherine was surprised she could maintain her grasp on the sword as she approached Kirby, her hand was shaking so much on the hilt. She consciously tightened her hold, doing the same to her inner resolve. The hard metal of the handle pressed into her still bandaged right palm, causing her to wince slightly. She knew she could have taken Anne’s offer of waiting for someone else, and no doubt the young woman was annoyed at Katherine’s rash actions in jumping from cover to confront the knight, but Katherine couldn’t face waiting any longer. Part of her also wanted to prove to Anne as well as all the other outlaws that she was capable of doing this, of standing up for herself.
As Katherine walked up behind him, Kirby still hadn’t spotted her since he was too preoccupied with his fallen colleague, and she could hear him speaking the man’s name over and over trying to rouse him. However, it was obvious to Katherine that this ‘Leon’, whoever he was, was well and truly dead. Suddenly she remembered that she hadn’t bothered to put up the hood on her top in her rashness, but any thoughts of doing that now were quashed when Kirby’s head swung round to catch sight of her.
“You?!” he cried, his eyes widening in surprise and his mouth dropping open.
“Hello, Charles,” said Katherine with forced calmness.
Her knuckles were now white from where she was gripping her sword tightly in order to stop it from quivering as she held it out in his direction.
“You killed him?” he asked in amazement, rising from this kneeling position to face her.
“No, that wasn’t me,” she informed him.
“But you are going to kill me?” he ventured, his hand travelling downwards to rest on the hilt of his own sword, “So is this what you’ve become, a common outlaw?”
“For now maybe,” she admitted, stepping closer in case he went for his weapon, “You hardly left me with much option did you.”
“Ah, so this is revenge then?” he deduced.
“No,” she insisted, “I just need your money.”
“My money?” he repeated, unsure for a moment before he let out an incongruous laugh, “All right then,” he said with a shrug, “Come and get it.”
Kirby spread his arms wide offering her access to the money pouch he wore at his waist. Narrowing her eyes suspiciously, Katherine warily moved towards him, her sword still held high – surely he wouldn’t make things this easy for her? Sure enough, just as she made it within his reach he suddenly leapt back, pulling his sword swiftly from its scabbard as he did. As he lunged for her, Katherine barely reacted in time to get her sword up in defence and parry the blow, the jarring sensation from it shooting all the way up her arms and through her entire body.
Despite all her practice with Anne, Katherine felt decidedly unprepared for the reality of a proper sword fight as she desperately fought off his repeated swings and thrusts. Add to that the fact that she was conceding about half a foot in height and a good few pounds in weight and it seemed she was rather mis-matched up against the imposing knight. It was all she could do to fend him off, hardly having the opportunity to get in any kind of attacking moves herself.
Frantically Katherine tried to recall her instruction from Anne’s lessons - parry, feint, thrust, look for your enemy’s weak spot. That was all very well when you knew there was no real danger, she considered, but a whole different matter when you had fourteen stone of frenzied knight bearing down on you intent on cutting you to ribbons.
Finally Katherine managed to successfully dodge one of Kirby’s thrusts and drawing on all her strength she took the offensive, swinging her sword round at his momentarily unguarded side. The sight of the blade slicing through his tunic, along with the blood that followed its outward trajectory, mesmerised her for a moment – she had never inflicted such a wound on anyone. Her distraction was broken by the glint of the sun off Kirby’s blade as it flashed in her direction and she parried once more, noting the look of fury now evident on Kirby’s face, crinkling the tattoo above his left eye.
The dust flew up from the dry track as they danced across it, swords clashing, both of them now caught up in the heat of the battle. Katherine’s nerves were long forgotten as the blood pumped through her veins, adrenaline driving her on and controlling her actions. She could feel the sweat trickling down her back from the exertion of the fight and she grimaced in effort as she deflected yet another blow reined down on her.
A sudden flare of pain shot through her left arm as Kirby’s blade slashed across her skin and Katherine stumbled backwards. Fortunately Kirby stopped for a moment to survey his handiwork, giving her the chance to gather herself and regroup, trying to force from her mind the stinging sensations coming from her damaged arm and resolutely maintaining the double-handed grip on her sword instead.
“Someone has obviously been teaching you a thing or two,” he noted with a touch of admiration, “Unfortunately you fight way too fair.”
She was wondering at his comment when he swung his sword in her direction once more, her own blade flying up to deflect it. The attempted blow was only a diversion, though, as the sword was immediately followed by Kirby’s fist impacting into her jaw with a resounding thump. Katherine collapsed dazedly onto the dirt track, her sword spilling from her hand as Kirby laughed above her.
Still tussling with Will in the undergrowth, Anne’s heart clutched in her chest as she just caught Katherine crashing to the ground in her peripheral vision. The sight of Kirby standing menacingly over her downed lover was all the extra impetus Anne needed and with one last effort she managed to shove Will from her, sending him flying into some nearby brambles. She immediately leapt up and sprinted in the direction of the fight down the track, where Katherine was still looking shaken on the ground. Speeding up, Anne prayed she could get there before Kirby stopped gloating and struck Katherine again.
She was still a good few yards off when she saw Katherine’s hand closing around a clump of dirt from the track and suddenly swinging round to send the dust flying into Kirby’s eyes. As his hand darted up to try and brush away the distraction, Katherine rolled for her sword and used the hilt to whack Kirby firmly on his other hand, causing him to drop his own weapon. He howled out in pain, clutching at his injured hand, still blinking frantically at the dirt in his eyes. Katherine continued her momentum to take her up onto her feet, using her sword to deftly cut the belt at Kirby’s waist as she did. As he stumbled backwards, still pawing at his eyes, his trousers promptly fell to the ground, tripping him up and sending him tumbling to the ground on his backside. When he finally cleared his eyes he found the tip of Katherine’s sword pointing steadfastly at his throat.
“Well, looks like you have everything under control,” commented Anne between pants as she came to a halt beside them. She was impressed that her services hadn’t been needed after all now Katherine had managed to turn the tables on the over-confident knight.
“Go on then, kill me!” snarled Kirby, trying to hide his embarrassment with bravado.
“I’m not going to kill you,” replied Katherine, “All I want is this,” she added, hooking his fallen purse with her sword and flicking it up into her hand.
“Now,” she continued, her voice full of confidence now, “Get out of here. Oh, and you can tell Mark that I’m not finished yet - the manor will be mine again.”
She took a couple of steps back, allowing him to clamber to his feet, unceremoniously pulling up his trousers as he did. Holding them up he quickly mounted his horse and galloped off down the track, obviously determining that retreat was the better part of valour in this instance.
As they watched the departing knight, Katherine’s eyes briefly flicked to Anne at which point Anne could no longer resist the urge to break out into laughter, recalling the sight of the humiliated knight bumbling around with his trousers round his ankles. Katherine couldn’t stop herself being infected by the laughs too and started loudly guffawing, with a certain amount of relief added into the merriment.
They were still giggling, by now resting against one another to stop themselves from falling down as the tears streamed from their eyes, when the other outlaws came out to join them. Anne had to restrain herself from launching into a fresh bout of laughter as she spotted Will gingerly picking some thorns from his rear and looking thoroughly disgruntled.
“I hope you’re satisfied now,” said Anne to him with a smug smile, “She beat him, all on her own.”
As Will scowled at them Katherine went over and thrust the stolen money into his hand, “I trust my dedication to the outlaws won’t be called into question again,” she noted, her steely eyes pining him in place.
All he could do was grunt his grudging agreement as the two women hooked their arms together and strode away.
“Ow!” cried Katherine, snatching her arm away from the source of her discomfort.
“If you’d just hold still, it would be over much more quickly,” sighed Anne, folding her arms across her chest and looking expectantly at Katherine.
“Did anyone ever tell you you’d make a great doctor?” asked Katherine, reluctantly offering up her arm once more.
“No,” replied Anne, turning her attention to cleaning the wound inflicted by Kirby.
“I’m not surprised,” commented Katherine.
Anne’s blue eyes briefly flicked up from their task, rolling skywards as they did, before she turned them back down again and started dabbing away the congealed blood with her dampened rag. They sat at the side of the outlaw camp, just inside the treeline, while Nicholas and Henry were busy regaling the other outlaws with the tale of how Katherine had taken on no less than a knight and beaten him single-handedly. From the animated actions that Katherine could see, she thought that the story was being embellished somewhat in the re-telling, but supposed that couldn’t hurt the overall aim of her gaining acceptance. Will didn’t appear to be around to contradict them either, having disappeared shortly after they returned to the camp, no doubt to sulk on his own somewhere.
“There you go, all done,” said Anne, finishing up with the bandage, “Would you like me to kiss it better for you as well?”
Katherine smiled as she considered for a moment, “Mm, I think I have another injury that needs treating actually,” she ventured.
“Oh, really, and where might that be?” asked Anne, quirking her left eyebrow as she noted the way Katherine’s features had softened into a seductive look.
“Right about here,” replied Katherine, placing a single finger on her lips.
Anne shifted position and crawled closer to Katherine, so that her face was poised a hair’s breadth from Katherine’s, her pale blue eyes making an intense study of Katherine’s lips and sending shivers of anticipation through the older woman.
“Ah, yes, I can see what you mean,” commented Anne nonchalantly, “That does look bad, it probably needs extra care and attention.”
Katherine’s anticipation exploded in a rush of arousal as Anne slowly brushed her lips across Katherine’s. The touch was delicate to begin with, teasing in its lightness, and Katherine had to resist the urge to grab Anne and pull her closer. Anne’s tongue slid softly across Katherine’s lips, moistening them but not probing any deeper for the moment. Katherine let out a groan at the maddening temptation of the kiss, not sure how much longer she could control her rapidly building desire.
Katherine made a small, frustrated whimper as Anne finally broke away, standing up and offering her hand to Katherine.
“So, want to come back to my place then?” she enquired.
“I thought you’d never ask,” replied Katherine with a grin, allowing Anne to pull her up from the ground.
As they entered Anne’s hut, any thoughts of slow, teasing, love-making evaporated as the desire that had built up over the past two weeks consumed them. Clothing was quickly discarded in a frantic rush of scrabbling hands before they sunk naked onto the bedding on the floor. Katherine moaned loudly as Anne’s mouth sought out her breast, her teeth closing over the hard nipple and tugging at it while her tongue flicked over its peak. Katherine’s hands tangled wantonly in Anne’s blond hair, as the young woman continued to feast on Katherine’s bosom, switching her attentions from one breast to the other.
After driving Katherine insane with her extensive ministrations, Anne came up to hover over her, her hair falling around her face as her blue eyes peered down on Katherine, a broad smile on her face. That was all the invite Katherine needed and she grabbed Anne’s head in both hands, dragging her down into a fevered kiss, hungrily seeking out her tongue as they rolled across the bedding, their bodies writhing together in a tangle of limbs.
Katherine could feel the obvious signs of Anne’s arousal as her thigh slipped between the young woman’s legs and was doused in a wave of moisture. She slid her hand down between them, brushing past the tangle of blond hair and into the wetness beyond, slipping first one and then another finger inside Anne who gasped in response, tipping her head back at the welcome invasion of her body.
Katherine dipped her head to trail her tongue across Anne’s collarbone, placing small kisses along its length as she did while her auburn hair tickled across the tanned flesh, eliciting shudders from the young woman. Continuing her upward path, Katherine nibbled up Anne’s neck, all the time tantalisingly sliding her fingers in and out of Anne’s heated sex. Reaching Anne’s ear, she gently bit down on her earlobe, sucking on the soft flesh and causing the young woman to emit another gasping cry.
Releasing the lobe, Katherine breathed hotly over Anne’s ear before circling her tongue deftly around it, making the body beneath her thrust up and slide against her own skin.
“Please…” gasped Anne.
“What was that?” asked Katherine huskily, her voice whispering out across Anne’s ear.
“Oh…” groaned Anne almost incoherently.
“Ah, like this?” asked Katherine, her mouth still hovering by Anne’s ear as she thrust up inside the young woman, pushing deep within her and flexing her fingers.
“Ahhh, yes, yes,” cried Anne.
“Or maybe like this?” offered Katherine, brushing her thumb across the hard nub at the apex of her sex, enjoying tormenting the young woman in this way.
Anne was unable to form any further words as she juddered at the merest touch upon her clitoris. Katherine pressed her head up against Anne’s so her lips were right by her ear now, meaning she could speak in her lowest, husky tones.
“Come for me, darling,” she breathed as she flicked her thumb once more while twisting and pumping her fingers within the slick walls.
Anne hardly needed the instruction in order to comply, long having lost any control of her body under Katherine’s relentless torment. Her back arched up, pushing her tight against Katherine while her hand grasped for something to hold onto, clutching up a handful of the fur blanket as spasms shook through her body. Finally she collapsed back down, breathing heavily as Katherine rested against her.
Lying her head against Anne’s chest, Katherine could hear the pounding of her heart beneath the sweaty, heated skin. Before she could let the sensation lull her to sleep, though, Anne suddenly rolled her over onto her back, pinning her arms up above her head as she did.
“Now, it’s my turn to make you beg,” she said, smiling wickedly before she dipped her tongue down to Katherine’s skin and trailed it ever lower.
Having eventually succeeded in her aim, by devouring Katherine with her mouth and tongue, Anne slinked back up Katherine’s trembling body to lie next to her. Wrapping her arms around Katherine’s smaller body, she closed her eyes and allowed Katherine to gently stroke her hair.
After countless moments enjoying the feel of the strands as they ghosted through her fingers, Katherine eventually spoke up.
“So how are you feeling, about everything?” she asked softly.
“You mean about Mark?” deduced Anne.
“Amongst other things, yes,” concurred Katherine.
“I’m still a bit in shock to tell you the truth,” admitted Anne with a sigh that fluttered out across Katherine’s shoulder, “I think deep down I probably thought that I would never see my parent’s killer again, so to actually come across him in that way after so many years was unsettling to say the least. And I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me that still wants to kill him.”
Katherine pulled back slightly so she could look at the younger woman, worried at the sentiment she was expressing.
“But I won’t,” added Anne, noting the look of concern, “I know you don’t approve of that method of justice.”
“I know it’s hard for you,” said Katherine, moving her hand from Anne’s hair to brush down her cheek, “But Mark will get his just deserts, somehow we’ll find a way to pay him back for everything he’s done.”
“It’s strange though,” ruminated Anne, “You know the thought of revenge was always at the back of my mind as a constant companion all these years and then I finally get my chance and I don’t take it. I’m not saying I regret letting him go necessarily, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it to be honest. It’s been there driving me on at least in some small way this whole time and now it’s not.”
She paused for a moment, as if trying to gather her thoughts to continue, a look of concentration passing across her features and furrowing her brow slightly.
“It’s hard for me to explain,” she confessed, “But it’s almost like showing him mercy changed something inside me, like it’s freed something within me, made me realise that I don’t have to let my anger control my actions.”
“Well, that’s good isn’t it?” offered Katherine.
“I suppose it is,” agreed Anne, “Though it may take some getting used to. And what about you?”
“Me?” repeated Katherine.
“Well, this must have all been pretty shocking for you too,” clarified Anne, “Not only does your husband suddenly come back from the dead but them you discover he’s a murderer and your whole life is turned upside down.”
“Yes, I don’t think I’ve really had a chance to stop and take stock of all that’s happened these past few days, everything has happened so quickly,” conceded Katherine with a rueful sigh, “Like you, I think I’m still reeling from it all, I’ve kind of been stumbling from one problem to the next. I think it’s going to take a while for it to sink in and for me to adjust to this new life.”
“Well, you’ve made a good impression so far!” noted Anne with a smile.
Katherine returned the smile, dropping her hand still further to caress the skin of Anne’s shoulder instead.
“I wanted to thank you again,” she said, looking up into Anne’s eyes, “For sticking by me through all this mess both with Kirby and Mark, I don’t think I could have got through it without you.”
“Katherine,” said Anne warmly, cupping her face with her hand, “I love you, where else would I be but by your side, whatever happens. What was it you said…”I’m not that easy to get rid of”? Well, that applies to me too – I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.”
“There’s no one I’d rather be stuck with!” insisted Katherine, before pressing her lips to Anne’s once more in a lingering kiss.
“We will find a way to get you back in that manor,” said Anne as Katherine pulled away again, “Kirby and Mark may have won for now, but I promise you, we will be the ultimate victors.”
“You make it sound like some kind of war!” noted Katherine with a laugh.
“Perhaps that’s what it is and it’s one I intend to win,” declared Anne sincerely.
“I have little doubt that you will,” replied Katherine, smiling at the confidence in Anne’s tone.
“Well, how can I fail with you on my side, especially wielding the ‘lucky sword’, they’ve got no hope!” added Anne.
“Anyway,” said Katherine, “Let’s stop talking about wars and battles for now shall we?”
“What would you rather talk about?” asked Anne, her eyebrows rising inquisitively.
“Well, I’m not sure I want to do any talking at all…” revealed Katherine, pulling Anne to her once more so their lips could meet in a slow, passionate kiss.
“Mmm,” remarked Anne when she got a brief chance, “I think I definitely prefer this non-verbal conversation.”
Their mouths pressed together once more, though the kiss was soft and exploring this time, unlike the fevered ones they had shared earlier when enveloped with intense need.
“Oh,” said Katherine suddenly, “Before I forget, I have something for you.”
Clambering up off Anne, she reached over for her discarded trousers, delving within the pockets for the item she was seeking. The blue gem of the necklace sparkled in the light as she withdrew it.
“I haven’t had a chance to get it fixed yet,” she explained, as the broken chain dangled from her hand, “But I’d still like you to have it, if you still want it, that is.”
“Of course I want it!” insisted Anne emphatically, rising up onto her knees on the bed, “I’m sorry that I threw it back at you before.”
“Forget about it,” said Katherine dismissively, “I did kind of force you into it. I’m just lucky you still came back for me, even then.”
“I guess I’ve learnt how to be stubborn from a good teacher,” noted Anne with a wink.
“And thank god you are,” agreed Katherine.
“I promise never to discard it again,” said Anne, opening her hand as Katherine dropped the pendant into it, “I shall keep it with me always.”
“And I promise no more lies,” stated Katherine, “Next time I’ll trust you to make your own choices and tell you everything.”
“Next time?!” exclaimed Anne, “I hope you’re not telling me you have any other crazed admirers or not-quite-dead husbands?” she asked half-jokingly.
“Not that I know of,” Katherine assured her with a chuckle.
“Thank goodness for that,” replied Anne, “I think we have enough of those to be going on with.”
“More than enough,” agreed Katherine, lying back down on the bed again and drawing Anne down with her into a warm embrace from which neither moved for a very long time.
Will Scarlet glanced nervously behind him as he made his way through the forest - he was pretty sure there was no one following, but in his anxiety he couldn’t help re-checking at frequent intervals. He hated the way that coming to this place always made him feel and yet he had to come here. To not come would be to risk the wrath of Bronwyn and that wasn’t something he was willing to do. He would rather cope with the nerves and fear that accompanied him whenever he came to this area within the forest than have the dark witch angry with him.
Not that she was particularly capable of doing anything to him at the moment, he mused, but the potential threat was always there. Ever since her showdown with Anne in the spirit realm Bronwyn had been trying to recover from her injuries. However, things were not going well and even now, some weeks later, the wound in her stomach was still glaringly obvious. He didn’t know much about magic but he had a sneaking suspicion that it was the reason for the lack of healing.
Passing the gloomy clearing with the four large standing stones arranged in a square, he came to the small makeshift hut where Bronwyn had been laid up since that fateful day. Dipping his head to enter he was immediately met by a pair of piercing green eyes.
“Where have you been,” demanded the pale witch angrily.
“I had things to attend to at the camp,” he explained, “I have to be careful, people are starting to notice my absences. Though, you might be interested to hear we have a new member of our outlaw band.”
“I really don’t care about the trivial goings on of your pathetic group of thieves,” she informed him.
“Not even if I tell you it’s Lady Katherine?” he asked.
“Really?” she noted, suddenly more attentive, her eyes boring into him once more.
“Indeed,” he confirmed, “It appears she’s been thrown out of the manor house.”
“Very interesting,” conceded Bronwyn with a small dip of the head, “At least someone else is experiencing troubles too.”
“You are still no better then?” he asked, kneeling down next to her where she lay.
“No,” she admitted, “I’m beginning to think I may have to try something else to get back on my feet.”
“You have something in mind?” he enquired, curious as to what her plans might be and how he may be called upon to aid them.
“Yes, I have a couple of ideas,” she ventured, pursing her lips as she thought, “And our good friend Anne should be able to help me out with them,” she added, a small, evil smile curving the sides of her mouth.
N.b. The Lady Katherine Chronicles were originally going to end after this installment, but she will be back after all in….
Lady Katherine and The Perilous Journey!