The search took far longer than John hoped and, in the end, it was all to no avail for both parties had lost the trail in the woods. It was hardly surprising, for only blind hope had persuaded him to even attempt to track the fleeing women.
“Let’s hope that both Lady Eleanor and Mary have managed to find their own way back to the house,” he said, as they set off to return to Acton Court.
It was a miserable ride during which no man said a word. John, given to brooding at the best of times, contemplated the fast-approaching dawn without any clear understanding of what it would bring. He had a few hours left, at most, to ensure that the abducted women were safe. After that, he would have to offer himself in exchange for his aunt. Whilst it was true that he could arrange for a hot pursuit to follow him, there was no guarantee of success and, most likely, his captors would kill him out of hand at the first sign of trouble. Though he was more valuable to Catesby alive – because of what he knew about Tudor’s impending invasion – even Catesby would reckon that a dead John Elder was better than an escaped John Elder.
As they neared the moated house, a figure darted out to intercept them. Robert Poyntz, riding at the front beside John, pulled up in alarm but quickly John recognised Hal Ford.
“Lord!” cried Hal. “There are men at the house!”
“Men? What men?” demanded Poyntz at once.
“Don’t know, Master Poyntz,” replied Hal. “I wasn’t here when they arrived; but I noticed them moving their horses through the east gate into the back courtyard. When I tried to get in, I found they’d barred all the gates.”
“But this is monstrous,” fumed Poyntz, “for someone to attack my own house.”
“God damn them, we shouldn’t have left the women so exposed,” groaned John. “Have you seen René, Hal?”
“He’s gone after Lady Eleanor,” explained Hal.
“She got back this far then,” said John, a little relieved.
“Almost got right to us, lord, till she was snatched away again by the villains,” growled Hal.
“Then they still have her,” murmured John.
“And now they have my wife and your sister,” added Robert bitterly.
“But you say René has gone after Lady Eleanor?” John asked Hal.
“Yes, lord but with his leg, I don’t know for how long.”
“And Mary?” asked John.
“She’s safe, thank the lord. Or, at least I thought she was, but now she’s trapped in the house with the ladies.”
“Who else is in there?” asked John.
“Just the servants and Gibb,” replied Hal.
“My steward, Legge, must be in there too,” said Robert. “Do you think he could be behind all this?”
With a shrug, John said: “At least we know that whoever holds the house is our traitor – whether it’s Legge, or not. So, we have to get in there, Robert.”
“Not you, my lord,” said Robert. “You can’t go in there; we don’t know who’s there or what they want. If the traitor is there, we can’t have you simply walking in to give yourself up to him, can we? I’ll go and see if they’ll allow me in.”
John had already reached the same conclusion, but since he was still by no means certain that Poyntz could be trusted, he could hardly let him enter the house alone. The capture of the house might simply be a ruse; in which case, Poyntz would be joining his own confederates there. Yet, what alternative was there?
“Very well,” he agreed. “You go and see if they’ll let you in; but take Conal and Alain with you. They can pose as men from your manor.”
“They look like cutthroats, my lord,” replied Poyntz. “No-one will believe for a moment they are men from my estate.”
“Perhaps,” John insisted, “but I need at least one man in there, so you’ll have Conal with you – and no argument, Robert.”
Conal would stand out, it was true, but John could not see anyone picking a quarrel with the Irishman and winning.
“Hal, you go after René with Will – and take one of the foresters with you.”
Will gave an eager nod of agreement and set off at once with Hal, no doubt anxious to find his mother.
With regret, John watched his two trusted comrades leave, for he might well have need of them in the coming hours. But freeing his aunt was more important than any other consideration.
He dismounted with the others and they left the horses in the trees with the remaining forester, fifty yards or so from the house. When Robert walked away towards the bridge across the moat, John drew Conal to him.
“Trust no-one, my friend – including Master Poyntz. If they open the door to him, you have to get inside too. Do all you can to get to Meg; she’s your sole concern. Keep her safe – and, if it comes to it, abandon all else.”
“What if it turns out that Poyntz is their leader?” asked Conal.
“Then, if you get the chance, kill him.”
Conal nodded, before hurrying to catch up with Poyntz who was already striding across the timber bridge. Was Poyntz so keen to join his fellow conspirators, John wondered or just desperate to ensure the safety of his wife?
Looking on in frustrated silence, he murmured to the one man remaining at his side: “Go to the east door, Alain – and be ready for anything.”
After contemplating the darkened house for a few more moments, he then turned to stare into the deep shadows of the nearby deer park. The only certainty was that as long as the traitors held either Lady Eleanor, or Meg, he must go to the gates alone at dawn.
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