The unexpected invitation had come to Eleanor Elder by word of mouth – for only a fool would have risked putting it in writing. Its sudden arrival, after a year and a half of silence, had lifted all their spirits. And, of course, despite the dangers, she had to go – for what mother could pass up the chance to see her only son again after so long?
Yet, now that she was on the last stretch of the journey, a trace of apprehension was creeping into her head, for the risk she was taking was a mortal one. She already knew that the king’s principal servant, William Catesby, had someone watching her in Ludlow. Indeed he had kept his eye upon her since the ’83 revolt. Who was shadowing her, she did not know, only that he would be there. Eleanor Elder, like many others, was on some distant strand of Catesby’s great web of suspicion – and what she was doing right now was exactly the reason she was being watched.
As long as she remained in Ludlow, paying mind only to her vintner’s business, as a good widow should, she was safe. But by leaving the town, she was tugging so hard at the spider’s web that her watcher was certain to notice. Perhaps he was already following her, or was even now sending word to his master that Lady Eleanor Elder was on the move. That would be an event to mark because she had not strayed from Ludlow for an instant since arriving back there in November 1483. Catesby would know that the most likely reason for her to travel was to see one of the exiled members of her family.
She could have refused to go; and that would have been the more sensible course. But, where important decisions were concerned, Eleanor was not known for applying much common sense. And, as the weary months dragged by, Eleanor had come to believe that her scattered, diminishing family was all she had left and so, if there was a chance of seeing them again, she must take it.
Having ridden south to Gloucester yesterday, they set off again at dawn this morning, as soon as the town gate was open. Although well-cloaked to repel the chill of a clear March morning, Eleanor was already tired for she had rarely sat upon a horse since her return to Ludlow. On cold days like this, her shoulder, severely damaged during the rebellion, still troubled her and probably always would.
“Lady?” said Hal, reaching for her rein. “What ails you?”
“Why? Do I look ill?” snapped Eleanor.
“Er, no, lady,” conceded Hal, “but it’s… you’re wandering off the track.”
Though she saw that he was right, it was not her custom to admit a fault. “Why don’t you just look where you’re going,” grumbled Eleanor, “and leave me be?”
She didn’t mean to be so sharp, but then she never did – well, mostly… But she could talk thus to Hal, for he was family – not blood family, but he had seen her safe through more trouble than she cared to recall. The thought brought a wicked smile to her lips, remembering that Hal had seen her at her very worst: stripped of all decency, bloodied and hurt and, at the end of it all, he always came back for more. He had served her brother Ned for years and now he was like a brother to her.
heir company was small, for any more would have attracted too much attention; Eleanor and her niece, Meg were accompanied by Hal and Mary – husband and wife servants. Acting as their guide was the bearer of the invitation, Master William Crabber. Though there was a sixth person, Eleanor was doing her best to forget him: one Gilbert Tanner – known as ‘Gibb’. Wherever her niece, Meg, went, she attracted a certain sort of lad – that’s to say, a rough sort of lad; and Gibb was merely her most recent acquisition.
Gilbert was the son of a Ludlow tanner and thus carried with him the distinctive – and rather unpleasant – odour of the tanning fraternity. But Meg doted upon him – and Eleanor was prepared to concede that, since the shrewd Hal seemed to like the lad, he must possess some virtues – even if she had yet to discover what they might be.
She could easily see why any youth would want to be in the company of the fourteen year old Meg Elder, who had grown into a stunning, red-headed beauty; but she could not quite see it from Meg’s point of view. The trouble, of course, was that Meg was old beyond her years, taught at far too young an age, that life had an edge like a razor. She had grown up too fast – seen what no child should see and done what no child should do… In short, Meg had scarcely been a child at all.
The bitter experiences of her tortuous youth had shaped her into a self-assured woman to be reckoned with. It was something Eleanor understood for she had trodden a similar path during the desperate years of war, though she had to concede that Meg was wiser in the ways of the world than she had been as a girl. Only this one weakness afflicted Meg: the young men with whom she chose to spend her time. Sadly, it was a flaw that was certain to cause her much pain.
The sound of hooves on the track behind them startled Eleanor who, fearing they were being pursued, pulled her horse off into the brown bracken at the side of the track. When Master Gibb hurtled around a bend in the road towards them, she was greatly relieved. He had been told to drop back and watch for pursuers, though what he was to do if he saw any was not made entirely clear.
From the moment they had set off, his lack of horsemanship was exposed and he fell off his horse so frequently that Eleanor did not expect the lad to last the journey. Yet, here the fool was, still barely clinging on to his mount; surely this time he must be hurled from the saddle. Eleanor winced in expectation of a cry of alarm but, remarkably, Gibb did not fly off into the bracken and managed to wrestle his horse to a standstill.
“What’s amiss, Gibb?” Hal demanded. “Are we followed?”
“No, Master Hal!” cried Gibb. “This shit horse just got away from me a bit is all.”
“God’s teeth!” scolded Hal. “A baby could stay on that mare! Do I take it that you’ve not seen anyone following us?”
“No-one,” replied Gibb.
“That’s something then,” conceded Hal. “But mind how you treat that mount, or you’ll be walking. She’s worth a lot more than you are! Now hang back a ways again and keep watch.”
It was an appropriate moment perhaps, thought Eleanor, to start persuading Meg that Gibb might not be the young man of her dreams. But when she opened her mouth to speak, whatever words she intended to say vanished from her mind. Instead, she simply sat very still on her horse and lifted her eyes to the sky.
At first she thought she was imagining it, until Meg too began to look about her, face clouded by doubt. Then, like Eleanor, she turned her gaze upward where the sparkling afternoon sky seemed now a little less bright. As Eleanor watched, a sliver of shadow cut across the sun.
Not much frightened Eleanor Elder, but this unnatural sight sent a cold shiver straight through her. Perhaps, after all, it had been a mistake to leave Ludlow for surely, if the mighty sun could be carved into, then Eleanor Elder could not escape the blade. This could only be the dark hand of death reaching out for her…