March 16th, 1485, north of Bristol
Their journey from France had been long and arduous, so John Elder was grateful that the ride from Bristol was only a further ten miles. It appeared though that the road, however short, would not be without its troubles.
“I saw five, lord,” announced Conal, as he caught up with the others.
“And you’re sure they’re following us?” asked John.
“Yeh,” confirmed the Irishman. “As if you had to ask…”
A deserved criticism, thought John, for Conal’s judgement should not – could not – be questioned.
“And you think these same fellows have been behind us all the way from Bristol?” he asked.
“Might as well have been on the ship with us from France!” grumbled Conal.
“God’s Blood. So someone knew I was coming!” said John. “It’s just as we feared.”
He had nurtured the hope that, when his small band turned off the road to head for Iron Acton, the strangers would continue north towards Gloucester; but, since they had not, the next question was: who told them he was coming?
“Do you think Poyntz has set a trap for us then?” asked Will, John’s cousin and his best friend in all Christendom. Though that wasn’t saying much for John had few friends left anywhere – even fewer since he’d been outlawed in England.
“It’s possible, but why would Poyntz do it so close to home?” asked John. “He could have arranged for it to happen just outside Bristol; yet, according to his servant, we’re only two miles or so from the house.”
“As Sheriff of Gloucester, he could make a small ambush disappear though, if he wanted,” said Will.
“I suppose, in one way, it might aid our purpose,” said John. And it might, but he would rather not have to sacrifice all their lives to prove to Henry Tudor that Robert Poyntz was a traitor.
They were speaking in low voices lest their host’s servant, riding a little ahead, should overhear. John hated not knowing who to trust. By now, after two years of deceit and subterfuge on all sides, he should be used to it; but he yearned for a simpler life – or at least a more visible enemy. John Elder was a soldier at heart; too blunt to be a diplomat and too honest to be a spy, yet here he was, pretending to be both. He was still contemplating his miserable lot, when their guide was suddenly thrown from his horse.
“Oh, shit!” muttered Conal, dipping low in the saddle, for protruding from the fallen man’s chest was the tip of an ash shaft with a bodkin point.
“Dismount!” ordered John. “Alain, ready your bow!”
Having served John, like Conal, for the past three years or more, the Breton archer needed no telling. Tossing his arrow bag to the ground, he leapt from his mount and began stringing the bow.
For these men, who had fought together for so long, experience governed every move they made. Conal gathered the horses and hauled them away to one side of the track. Then, pulling out his cherished, narrow-bladed scian, he waited in the undergrowth, a grim smile of anticipation on his face.
Will and John squatted on either side of the track, one scanning ahead and the other behind, while Alain, keeping low, selected several sleek shafts from his arrow bag.
Of them all, only René de Merckes looked ill at ease, for though recent years had required him to demonstrate his proficiency with a sword, he was, above all, a seafarer and trader. John did not question René’s fighting abilities, having witnessed them for himself, but the Breton had only fought beside him once.
“Don’t get in the way,” John warned him.
The old track along which they were travelling was somewhat sunken and uneven – no doubt after the huge floods of a year or two earlier. It was perfect terrain for an ambush but they were lucky, John thought, that their opponents did not appear to have hand guns. Unreliable though they could be, a couple of those, aimed from the low trees and scrub, would probably have done for them. Even so, one archer could be nuisance enough.
“They’re not doing much,” observed Conal.
“Why don’t you stand up and see if they’re still there, Irish?” suggested René.
“Murdering pirates should keep their bogging mouths shut!” retorted Conal.
“They’re not trying yet,” said Will.
“No, they’re waiting for their five friends to come up behind us,” said John. “There’s most likely only one archer; just enough to make us dismount, so that the others can ride us down with ease.”
“What are we going to do then?” asked René.
By way of reply, John said: “Alain, go back along the track and be ready to give them a warm welcome. Conal, find that bastard archer for me.”
Will crawled forward to inspect the body of the servant, but turned to John at once with a shake of the head. It seemed they must finish their journey to Acton Court without a guide.
“Keep your heads down until Conal’s dealt with our friend, the archer,” advised John.
Drawing out his sword in readiness, he ordered: “None must escape, or all England will know we’re here – and we should keep one of them alive… if we can.”
While his comrades listened to the thunder of hooves, growing ever louder, some instinct made John peer up at the sky. Sure enough, there was the sun, besieged by hazy cloud as it had been all morning; but he could not shake off a strange feeling that something was different – a subtle change in the light perhaps. But that could not be, for it was only an hour or two past midday.
“John!” cried Will, dragging his attention back to the more pressing problem.
The riders were not far away now, no doubt giving their horses free rein. Soon they would gallop past Alain and attempt to sweep the rest of them aside. Yet, even as the horses pounded closer, John could not resist another glance upward and what he saw made him gasp.
Will, seeing his lord staring up when he should have been looking straight ahead, followed his gaze.
Both men regarded the sky, open-mouthed in shock; for the sun looked different somehow.
“What devilry is this,” snarled John, “when the night eats into the sun?”
“Well, it can’t mean anything good,” murmured his cousin. “That’s certain.”
It was as if a shadow was inexorably cutting the sun in half and, lingering there to feed off its light. Utterly bewildered by what he was seeing, John struggled to tear his eyes away, until a cry of alarm from Alain warned him that their pursuers were upon them.
The riders hurtled round a bend in the track, packed together in a tight wedge, until one of their number was plucked from his saddle by Alain’s first arrow. Careless of the ruinous surface of the track, the others came on at full pace, so that the Breton had no time to release a second shaft. When the leading horseman slashed down at him, Alain managed to scramble away to escape the blade as the riders flew past.
Springing to his feet, John darted to the far side of the track where an arrow narrowly missed his shoulder before burying itself in some dead bracken.
“Conal!” he roared. “By Christ, tell us when your work’s done!”
But there was no reply from Conal; which meant that he had not yet found his quarry.
As the four horsemen rushed towards them, René stood up, sword in one hand and knife in the other. He was setting himself to cut down the leading rider when an arrow sliced through his thigh. Dropping to his knees with a groan, he could only sit on his haunches staring, wild-eyed, at the rider in the centre of the oncoming group, who was heading straight for him.
Five yards short, the horseman suddenly gave a snarling cry and slumped forward, allowing his mount to veer to the side of the track. Alain had struck again and the remaining riders swept past René without laying a blade upon him.
“Conal!” bellowed John once more, as he evaded a savage slash.
“One dead archer, lord!” cried a thick, Irish accent from beyond the track.
Relieved, John stood tall to carve his sword across the last rider’s unprotected leg. In a breath, they were past him; but a dozen yards up the track, three of them fought to drag their horses to a halt. The fourth, skewered by Alain’s second arrow, slid from his mount and lay still. His comrades, undaunted, rode back at John and Will.
Having helped the limping René to the side of the track, Will set himself two yards apart from John.
With a reassuring glance at his cousin, John raised his sword in a high guard and shouted: “Alain! To your centre!”
From a standing start, their assailants’ second pass was going to be much slower, but still dangerous. As John waited, a bead of sweat ran down his nose onto his lip. They were almost upon him, but he forced himself to be still. When the rider in the middle was hurled backwards, he thanked God for his Breton archer. But two still remained and John’s eyes were fixed upon the mounted man who now singled him out. His opponent’s raised sword glinted in the sun as it flashed down at John, threatening to chop clean through his shoulder. But at the very last moment, John dodged sideways, aiming a lunge up his adversary. Though he evaded the blow, which barely grazed the cloth of his tunic, he could not get a clean strike at his opponent.
Wheeling his horse away, the rider sought to escape now south towards Bristol but, seeing Alain in his path nocking another arrow, he turned about and sped away in the opposite direction towards Iron Acton. Will’s opponent trotted away too, only for Conal to launch himself from the edge of the track and haul him from the saddle. Before John could stop him, the ferocious Irishman had plunged his razor sharp scian through his opponent’s leather jack, forcing the blade in to open up a raw gash in his flesh. Staggering backwards, the fellow reached out for his horse in vain, as blood poured from his ruined chest.
“Alain!” cried John. “Can you take down that last man?”
But, though Alain loosed another arrow, the rider was already too far away.
“Will! See to René,” ordered John, turning on his heel in frustration.
“Do we chase after the beggar?” enquired Conal.
John shook his head. “We’ll not catch him now. Where’s the archer?”
“Bleeding his life back into the soil…” muttered the Irishman.
“He’ll not be saying much then,” sighed John.
He glanced at René, who had, in the end, been fortunate. John had seen many a man swiftly bleed to death from an arrow in the thigh, but his wound, once bound up, seemed to have missed all vital parts.
“Could have been worse, I suppose…” he reflected.
Only then, did it occur to him to look skywards once more, but there was no longer a shadow across the sun. Whatever had occurred was over – for the time being; but surely such a strange sight could not be an omen of good fortune.
“So, what now?” asked Will, also casting a wary eye at the heavens. The two cousins exchanged an awkward grin, neither man wanting to refer to what they had seen.
“We’ve no choice but to carry on to Acton Court,” replied John, putting the incident from his mind. “Conal, put the servant’s body across his mount.”
“Do you think Robert Poyntz was behind all this?” asked Will. “Because, if he was, we’ll be walking straight into another trap.”
“I wasn’t expecting such a direct attack,” said John. “And, since one of them’s escaped, we’re not going to be safe now – wherever we are.”
“But we’ve arranged for my mother-”
“I know, Will,” conceded John. “We’ve arranged to put our women at risk…”
“But this is terrible news, my lord!” cried Robert Poyntz, when he greeted John at Acton Court. “Did you capture any of them? Do you know who they are?”
John shook his head. “None were taken, Robert and I regret they killed one of your servants.”
“A good man, too,” replied Robert. “But I can’t believe that anyone here could have betrayed you.”
“Well perhaps, between us, we can discover that,” said John, who, from the moment of their arrival, had watched Poyntz very closely.
Studying his host’s face, he tried to gauge his reaction to their survival. But, if Poyntz had arranged the ambush, his expression betrayed no hint of it. That, of course, meant little, as John knew very well, after two years of dealing with a host of dissemblers and blackguards. How many times in those first months had he taken a man’s word on trust, only to be utterly deceived? Such a diet of poison had changed him in his very core – for now there were scarcely more than a dozen folk in all Christendom that he would trust with his life. Robert Poyntz had yet to earn a place in that very exclusive company.
He had never met Poyntz before, but several of the exiled knights with Henry Tudor had warned him to tread carefully in his dealings with the Sheriff of Gloucester. Poyntz had, like many of those exiles, including John himself, been part of the earlier rebellion against King Richard. But Poyntz had not escaped abroad to join Henry; instead he had taken sanctuary in Beaulieu Abbey, where King Richard himself had offered him a pardon. Though it was difficult to blame Poyntz for accepting the offer, the result was that his loyalty appeared suspect to many of those who had abandoned all to leave with the renegade, Henry Tudor. Hence the reason that John was back in England at all: to assess whether Poyntz could be trusted when the hour of need came – and that hour was creeping ever closer.
When the invasion came – which it certainly would sometime in the summer – Poyntz was in a vital position to aid, or mar, Tudor’s chances of success. The pretender needed men from the West Country to swell his army after it passed through Wales. As Sheriff of Gloucester, Poyntz would be a key figure in the mustering of the royal army. If he declared for Henry Tudor, it would embolden many others in the region whose loyalty to King Richard might be wavering; but, if Poyntz mustered for the king, it would have exactly the opposite effect.
In that respect, the ambush had changed nothing, for the sole purpose of John’s visit was still to test the allegiance of Poyntz. So, John must observe the fellow closely, in the knowledge that Poyntz might even now be devising a new plot to destroy him. Of course, if he was in fact loyal to Henry Tudor, then John would be doing Poyntz a grave disservice. But that was the world he lived in now: a place where trust must be written in blood.
He must confirm Poyntz as loyal, or remove him. ‘Remove’ was the word Henry had used in his instructions to John, but the word he meant to use was ‘kill’. He doubted whether the would-be king had ever killed anyone in his life, but then he didn’t have to, as long as he had men like John who, when the time came, would not hesitate for an instant.
Since Acton Court was a moated manor house, Poyntz could try to arrest John and keep him there until the agents of the king could be summoned. But John Elder’s comrades knew their business. He never went anywhere without either Will, or Conal; while the task of Alain and René was to ensure that there was always a way out should they need to leave in haste. Since the house had several exits across the moat that was not as difficult as it might appear. John took some comfort too from the knowledge that, when his aunt arrived, he would have another reliable man in Hal Ford and two of the cleverest women he knew to get the measure of Poyntz.
As if reading his thoughts, Poyntz asked: “Will your aunt still come?”
“It’s too late to stop her,” replied John, “for she’ll already have left Gloucester. So, aye, she’ll come.”
Despite his confident reply, at least a small part of John thought she might not answer his call. Last time they had spoken, in the bloody aftermath of the rebellion in the autumn of 1483, Eleanor had renounced all involvement in his treasonous activities against King Richard. After an untroubled year or more in the peace of Ludlow, would she really take the risk?
“Trust me, Lady Elder will come,” repeated John, but perhaps only to convince himself.
“But her arrival might bring more unwanted attention upon us,” complained Poyntz. “And some of us have a great deal to lose, my lord.”
“Aye, and some of us have lost all already in this cause,” growled John. “So I’ll take no advice from you on that point.”
“I meant no offence, my lord,” said Poyntz hastily.
“You can be certain of my aunt’s discretion, Master Sheriff.”
“Lady Eleanor has a good man with her. They will take all care, I assure you.”
“But if you were followed from Bristol, she could easily be followed from Ludlow.”
“Perhaps, but only if the traitor knows of my aunt’s movements? Only a handful of folk have that knowledge, Robert and almost all of them are here at Acton Court. Are you suggesting that word might have… leaked out from your own house?”
“No, my lord, of course not,” replied Robert, his face grey with concern.
“What is certain, Robert is that I have been betrayed – and God help the man who has done it.”
In truth, the invitation to his aunt Eleanor had come about at the insistence of his cousin Will, her only son. Yet, despite that, personal incentives alone would never have led him to idly put her in danger. The truth was that he needed others to help him test the loyalty of Poyntz and one thing was certain: the arrival of Eleanor and his half-sister, Meg would shake up the Poyntz household. If there was treason here then, between them, that formidable pair would root it out.
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.
Their 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…
“Hal?” murmured Eleanor, for neither he, nor Master Crabber, appeared to have noticed anything amiss.
Hal pulled up. “My lady?”
“Is it a sign, aunt?” breathed Meg.
“If God wants to tell me something, my dear,” replied Eleanor, “He’s usually a little more direct about it.”
“It’s God frowning down upon us poor sinners,” muttered Hal, who at last had noticed the eerie light.
With an effort of will, Eleanor averted her gaze from the sky, looked into her niece’s bewildered, blue eyes and forced a smile to her lips. After all, she had seen omens before but here she was, still alive.
“Like all else, this unnatural shade will pass,” she told them. “So, let’s just ride on, shall we?”
With some reluctance, they continued along the road but, not long after, the curious light across the heavens faded away to leave the sun shining undiminished once again.
“Much fuss about nothing then, Meg,” declared Eleanor, summoning up as much assurance as she could. “How far now, Master Crabber?”
“A few more miles yet, my lady,” replied Crabber.
“You said that last time I asked,” groaned Eleanor.
“Which I think was only about a mile back, my lady,” said Crabber, with a nervous grin – for, as he very well knew – it was a brave man who risked crossing words with Lady Elder.
Yet, despite the confidence she exuded, the episode had unsettled Eleanor and every mile now seemed to last half a day. She was thus pleased when they turned off the road, down a narrower track and Master Crabber announced that they would shortly arrive at Acton Court.
“The Acton Court deer park,” Crabber informed them, as they entered a band of woodland.
Eleanor would have felt even more at ease but for the frowning Mary riding behind her. Poor Mary had not been best pleased by the news that they were risking such a journey and, being both a loyal, and outspoken, soul, Mary had wasted no time in chastising her mistress about it.
“You swore you weren’t going to be involved with your nephew’s schemes again, my lady!” she had complained.
Eleanor cringed to recall their argument – for how many ladies were obliged to justify their actions to their own servants? But, of course, Eleanor could never resist a challenge and the result was that passers-by in Ludlow’s Broad Street had been treated to a rather loud and unedifying, stand-up row between Lady Elder and her spirited servant.
Now, glancing back at Mary’s glum face, she grinned at the memory, and was rewarded with a pair of rolling eyes from the woman who had known her far, far too long.
“Nearly there, my lady,” announced Crabber.
Before anyone could even raise a cry of alarm, half a dozen riders ghosted out of the trees to surround them. Crabber was stabbed twice before he knew what was happening and brave Hal, desperate to shield both his wife and his lady, was bludgeoned to the ground before he could protect either. Mary wailed in anguish to see him lying in the dirt, bloodied and still. Though Eleanor drew out her knife, the sight of Meg with a blade at her throat forced her to toss the weapon to the ground in grim resignation.
While his confederates seized their reins, one of their captors addressed Eleanor.
“If you don’t struggle, no harm will come to you, lady. You must already know that it’s not you we really want.”
Raising his voice, he told the others: “When John Elder surrenders to us at the gates of Acton Court, your lady will be released! He has till dawn tomorrow.”
The moment he finished speaking, the kidnappers raced back into the woods, dragging both Eleanor and Mary’s mounts with them.
To be continued…