René hoped that Lady Eleanor’s cries would alert John Elder and the others but, wounded leg or not, he was not going to wait for anyone else. Eleanor would not be torn away from him again. He had only one chance to find her – and that was right now.
“Fetch Lord Elder!” he yelled at Hal, before plunging into the moat.
For René, who had spent almost his entire life aboard ship, a little water held no fears. Though his leg hampered him a little, he was a strong swimmer and ploughed across the moat in only a few seconds. Even so, by the time he climbed out of the water, he had only a general sense of the direction in which Eleanor had been taken. East, he reckoned; it had to be east – away from the house and away from those still searching in the deer park.
Standing still to listen for just a moment longer, his conjecture was confirmed by a rustle of dead bracken fronds, as bodies lashed through them. Setting off at once, he broke into an awkward run, heedless of the damage he was inflicting upon his thigh. Though the wound was quickly torn open, rage drove him on through a barrier of agony.
Once or twice, he caught a glimpse of moving shadows ahead of him – one man only, he reckoned, bearing the lady upon his shoulder. Just one man, who could not move very fast; but René’s leg was on fire and, in his deteriorating condition even one man would likely be more than a match for him. Still, the fellow must tire soon, so at least René would discover where she was being taken.
The answer came all too swiftly, for René was suddenly aware of a large, dark shape looming up over the trees ahead. When Eleanor’s captor stopped abruptly, René lurched behind a tree to keep out of sight. He recalled that, when they entered the Acton Court estate earlier, he had seen a stone tower in the distance jutting out above the trees. At the time he had not paid it much attention, but it seemed certain now that the building was going to be Eleanor’s prison.
When she was tossed down against a stone wall, he almost leapt out from his hiding place to rescue her. But he forced himself to wait – and observe. He was unable, in the dark to discern more than a simple outline of the building but noted a square tower which marked its highest point. From the top, René thought, one might see some distance, making it the ideal base for a group of traitors who needed to keep the house under observation.
While Eleanor’s captor was fiddling with the door, René decided that this was his best hope of freeing Eleanor. Hand on his sword hilt, he was about to step forward when the house door was flung open to reveal two more men. Uttering a silent curse, René slid back into the undergrowth and could only look on, helpless, while Eleanor was bundled inside.
Fuming, he stared at the house, watching as the flickering torchlight moved up to the first floor. But it did not stop there and continued on up to the second floor and then beyond to the third, close to the summit of the tower. How in God’s name could he climb so many steps to reach her? Then of course there were at least three men guarding her…
Somehow, it was not enough to console himself with the knowledge that at least he knew where the lady was being held. Perhaps his comrades would be able to track him down and then they would have the numbers to free her. When, a few moments later, two horsemen rode up, René thought for an instant it was John Elder; but it wasn’t. Rapping on the door, the newcomers exuded a worrying degree of confidence, bordering on arrogance. Whoever they were, they clearly felt very much at home there.
Creeping a little closer, René was able to hear some of their conversation.
“You have her secure again?” queried one of the newcomers.
“Yeh, she’s up the top,” replied one of the guards.
“Good. See you keep her secure then,” growled the man in command.
“When do we move her?” the guard asked.
“We don’t” replied his superior.
“For the trade, I mean,” explained the guard.
“There isn’t going to be a trade, you fool; there never was. At dawn, John Elder will come to Acton Court gates and we’ll take him. Lord Elder is all Master Catesby wants; he doesn’t care whether Eleanor Elder lives or dies. But it’s safer for us that she dies, eh?”
René struggled to believe what he was hearing; had he come all this way never to see the lady again? He was so stunned that he scarcely noticed the two horsemen ride away.
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