As they waited on the bridge for the door to be opened, Conal stood beside the doorway, hidden by a stone pillar. In his left hand he carried Poyntz’ sword; while in his right he held his own naked scian.
From the shadows, the Irishman hissed a final reminder to Poyntz: “Remember, Master Robert: make sure you move damned slow over that threshold…”
How Poyntz reacted once he was inside, would determine whether Conal tossed him his sword or cut him down with it. In the darkness, the grizzled warrior permitted himself a sly grin. The months of exile had been hard, but at last he was back to doing what he did best.
Hearing the bar across the door grating as it was lifted up, Conal balanced himself on the balls of his feet, poised to follow close behind Poyntz. Whatever happened – indeed whatever Poyntz did – Conal was going through that door. Though of course, he had been in enough tight situations with John Elder to know that nothing ever went quite as it was supposed to.
When the door was pulled open, a wavering shaft of light was thrown onto the bridge.
“Legge!” cried Poyntz. “What in God’s name is going on?”
“Come, in Master Poyntz,” invited Legge, “and I’ll explain all.”
“But Legge,” protested Poyntz, as he lingered upon the threshold. “Has Acton Court been taken – or not?”
Conal was already moving as Poyntz stepped fully inside the door, but he cursed as he saw Poyntz drop to his knees. The door was already closing when the burly Irishman crashed into it, forcing it open just enough for him to pass through. Having done so, he almost fell over the prostrate form of Robert Poyntz, as the door slammed shut behind him.
As soon as he heard the door bar drop into its slots, Conal knew that, with Poyntz already down, he would have to fight for his life. Since there were three armed men crammed into the porch with the steward, the Irishman had little room to manoeuvre. Not a man to hesitate, Conal sliced his scian up through the nearest soldier’s throat before any man could turn a weapon upon him. With Poyntz’ sword, he parried a club aimed at his head.
“Meg Elder!” he roared and, rewarded with an answering cry from somewhere on the upper floor, he bellowed: “I’m coming for you, lady!”
But, despite his outward confidence, Conal’s immediate concern was to avoid being trapped in the narrow passage. If he was to survive, let alone reach Lady Meg, he must find a better place to fight – and fast. Since he had studied the layout of the house carefully, he knew that the north range, with its three entrances, offered the best chance of spreading his opponents more thinly.
Abandoning the unconscious Robert Poyntz, he carved his way along the screened passage, sending men reeling away as they tried to avoid his lethal scian. Though his blade cut into flesh once or twice, he doubted he had inflicted much damage. Since Poyntz’ blade was now an encumbrance, he hurled it at an approaching man at arms as he hurried out into the rear courtyard.
On the ground floor of the north range, there was a large store room beside which was the spiral stair to the upper chambers. In his haste to mount the steps, Conal almost lost his footing as he tried to escape the two men close behind him. At the top of the stair, he whirled around and punched his blade down at the first of his pursuers. His victim’s desperate attempt to turn aside proved his undoing, as it allowed the Irishman’s scian to slide past his breastplate and rip deep into his side. Wrenching free the bloodied blade, Conal pushed the dying man backwards so that he fell into his comrade coming up behind. As the latter tried in vain to bear the weight of the falling man, both tumbled back down the steps.
Though he congratulated himself on reducing the total of his enemies by one more, Conal was all too aware that they still had a considerable advantage. But, to trap him in the north range they would need to cover all the exits; so, if he was lucky, he would only have one, or at worst two adversaries to fight at once. Of course, if they took the bolder course of coming at him from all three entrances at once, he might have a rather bigger problem…