René de Merckes was out of sorts. His sole reason for accompanying John Elder on his clandestine visit to England was the hope of seeing Eleanor Elder again. Since the last occasion they had met, he had struggled to put the memory of her aside. For all he knew, she had long forgotten him – perhaps she even thought he was dead. Such was the nature of their tenuous connection: a few fleeting encounters and only one or two moments when their lives were truly intertwined.
Yet, she was not a woman easily forgotten – nor did he want to forget her. He had not come to revisit their past, but to offer her a future – if she wanted it. He was prepared for rejection – expected it perhaps – but, even if she ridiculed his advances, he was determined to try. What he was not prepared for was that she might be snatched away before he could even speak a word to her.
Had it not been for his cursed leg wound, he would have been scouring the estate for her – and, by God’s breath, he would have searched until he found her! But that task now fell to others and here he was, reduced to a halting cripple. He must content himself with the responsibility of defending the ladies of the house. Thus, he spent the late evening limping through the grounds that surrounded the inner moat of Acton Court, growing ever more frustrated that he could do nothing more to help.
When he heard someone approaching, through the low scrub that bordered the deer park, he assumed it was one of those who had ridden off earlier. But it was soon clear that this was a person on foot, so he began walking towards the sound of movement. Could it be one of Poyntz’s servants, skulking about; or perhaps one of the traitors returning to the house? Drawing out his sword, he readied himself to intercept, but then caught a glimpse of a cloaked shadow lurching erratically though the bushes. As he thrust out an arm to catch the dark, fleeing figure, she cried out and he hissed at her: “Eleanor! Is that you?”
“No, it sodding isn’t!” cried the woman. “Take your hands off me!”
“Your pardon, lady!” replied René.
“You sound like an alien to me,” she retorted, pulling her arm from his grasp.
“Are you in trouble?” he asked. “I’m René de Merckes – I’m with Lord Elder.”
For a moment the breathless woman remained silent then she said: “Now, that’s a name I do recall…”
“Who are you then?” he enquired gently, for she was still gasping for breath.
“I don’t believe we’ve ever met,” she told him. “I’m Mary Ford, Lady Eleanor’s servant.”
“So you’ve escaped!” he gasped. “Brave woman! Is your lady close by?”
At that, Mary slumped down onto the wet ground and began to sob. “I’ve lost her,” she wept. “I’ve lost my lady…”
“Lost her?” cried René. “No, no; she cannot be lost – not now!”
“We both ran out… and I thought she was following me…”
“And the devils killed her…” groaned René.
“I don’t know as they killed her,” murmured Mary, “but when I looked around, she just wasn’t there.”
“Ah.” René breathed a sigh of relief. “Lost, as in… lost. Come, Mary. I’ll take you to the house.”
“But what about my lady?” protested Mary.
“As soon as you’re safe inside, I’ll come straight back out to search for her,” he assured her. “And there are others already out there looking.”
Despite his calm reply, René was desperate to return to the search but, hampered by his leg, it took him some time to escort Mary back to the house. Leaving her with the two Lady Margarets, he set off again, with a flaming torch in hand, to search the deer park through which Mary had escaped. But he found no-one else – nor even the sound of anyone; and his previous encounters with Lady Eleanor persuaded him that, if she was there, she would certainly be noticed.
Lacking any familiarity with the estate, he realised after a while that he was wandering around in circles, but he could not allow himself to stop looking. When his aching leg obliged him to sit on a fallen oak to rest, a rustling close by caught his attention. But, before he could even stand, he found his arms pinned behind him and a gruff, angry voice snarled: “Who are you, damn you?”
Then, almost as swiftly, the grip on his arms was relaxed and Hal said: “Oh, it’s you, René; what are you doing out here?”
“Looking for Lady Eleanor,” confessed Rene miserably.
“Yeah,” grumbled Hal. “Me too – and my Mary!”
“Mary’s safe, Hal,” René told him.
“She’s safe?” cried Hal.
“I saw her into the house myself,” said René. “But she was not with her lady.”
“Christ’s blood!” said Hal. “Where’s Lady Eleanor gone then? I’ve been searching for ages.”
“You don’t look fit yourself, Hal. Why don’t you go to Mary and I’ll carry on looking for Lady Eleanor.”
“Yeah, I took a few blows,” conceded Hal. “But if I go to Mary without Lady Eleanor, she’ll land a few more on me! No, come on. Let’s go closer to the moat.”
“The moat, my friend, is by the house,” said René.
“The outer moat, my friend, is not,” corrected Hal.
“There’s another moat?” said René.
“Yeah, I just crossed the bridge over it.”
They made their way back through the deer park, desperate to call out Eleanor’s name, but fearful that others might hear her if she replied. But when they heard a woman cry out in alarm, both men abandoned all caution and shouted out her name.
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