At Acton Court, the silence between the two women, wary at first, was now companionable. But as Meg watched Lady Margaret finish her embroidery, she began to wonder whether she had overstepped the mark by placing some degree of trust in her hostess. She prayed she had not, for her brother would not thank her if Robert Poyntz turned out, after all, to be the traitor. But such thoughts were thrust aside when the peace of the house was shattered by a sudden hammering at the south door below them.
Meg and Margaret exchanged a nervous glance, all too aware of the absence of their menfolk. They waited for one of the servants – most likely the steward, Legge – to discover who was calling at Acton Court long after midnight. Soon, Meg thought, there would be raised voices: a challenge from the steward, answered by their visitor – whoever it was. But as they waited, no voices were heard, raised or not. Instead, a hesitant knock came at the parlour door.
“Yes, who is it?” gasped Lady Margaret.
The door opened to reveal Master Gibb upon the threshold, looking as out of place as a hat upon a horse.
“Lady Meg,” he began. “I mean, Lady Marg-” His words dried up as it dawned upon him that he was addressing a pair of Lady Margarets.
“What is it, Gibb?” enquired Meg, seeking to ease his discomfort. “Has Legge gone to the door?”
“No, lady, for Master Legge is nowhere to be found,” he replied, “and no-one else dare go.”
The hammering at the door commenced again which prompted Lady Margaret to cast aside her embroidery and get to her feet.
“Come, Meg,” she said. “It seems that we are on our own.”
Together they descended the stairs to the screened passage leading to the south porch, with Gibb scurrying in their wake.
While they waited inside the porch for the banging on the door to cease, Lady Margaret’s eyes widened at the sight of Meg drawing out a knife blade.
“Best to be prepared,” said Meg, grim-faced. “At least, that’s what my aunt would say.”
With a frown, Lady Margaret turned back to the door. “Who disturbs Acton Court at such an hour?” she demanded.
“John Bandy, my lady!” came the response. “Deputy to your husband, as Sheriff of this shire. You know me well enough.”
“Should we let him in?” breathed Meg.
“We can hardly deny him,” said Lady Margaret. “He must be on important business to come here at this hour.”
Meg gave Gibb a nod and he lifted up the heavy bar across the door. Outside on the bridge, shivering with cold, stood a small group of heavily-armed men. With a show of reluctance, Lady Margaret ushered Bandy into the house.
“My husband is not here, Master Bandy,” Lady Margaret told him. “But he is expected back very shortly.”
“I don’t doubt it,” said Bandy, “but if we could have some food and ale while we wait?”
“Your men can wait in the hall,” said Lady Margaret, leading Bandy up to the parlour. “The house is cold, I fear. Master Gibb, wake the servants for me, if you please. It seems we’ll need a fire in the hall – and some food and ale.”
Meg, before following Lady Margaret up the stairs, whispered to Gibb: “Keep a close watch on those soldiers.”
“But what has brought you here at so late an hour?” enquired Lady Margaret, when the three were settled in the parlour.
“I received word late this afternoon of a skirmish on the road south of here and when I went to investigate, I found half a dozen dead men – scarcely more than a mile or two from your door. Of course, I knew that Robert would want to be alerted at once.”
“He already knows,” replied Lady Margaret.
Something in her brisk answer must have attracted Bandy’s interest, for he remarked: “Surely he did not just leave the bodies there on the road to rot, my lady?”
Lady Margaret explained that Robert Poyntz had not yet had time to visit the site of the skirmish in person.
“He must be very busy indeed then,” observed Bandy. “Does he know who killed them?”
“You’ll have to ask him that.”
“It was a risk, wasn’t it, my lady,” said Bandy, “for Robert to leave you ladies all alone?”
“He had urgent manorial business to attend to,” said Lady Margaret.
“Urgent, you say,” murmured Bandy. “I’m sure it was. But you need not fear, for we will keep you safe – no-one will get into this house tonight. No-one.”
Turning to Meg for the first time, Bandy said: “And you have a new companion.”
“This is a cousin of Robert’s,” said Lady Margaret, hastily attempting an introduction.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Bandy, with a smile. “I don’t believe that Robert is related to Lady Margaret Elder, is he?”
So there it was: Bandy already knew exactly who Meg was and suddenly all was clear to her. Bandy was their traitor and the escape of Eleanor and Mary must have forced him to seek another hostage. He would know, of course, that the menfolk were out searching the woods and he had taken a gamble. Whether her aunt, like Mary, had reached safety, Meg did not know; but it mattered little, for Bandy now had another two hostages.
“So, I fear we’ll be imposing further upon your hospitality,” he said.
Feeling Lady Margaret tense beside her, Meg gave her hand a gentle squeeze. Her hostess was not easily cowed and, though still white-faced with fear, she made a brave effort to recover her composure.
“I’ll have a chamber prepared for you, Master Bandy,” she said.
“No, my lady,” replied Bandy, “I’m sure I’ll be quite comfortable enough here.”
“Will you allow us to retire to our beds then?” asked Lady Margaret, standing up.
“I really don’t think so, my lady,” said Bandy. “I’d prefer that you two stay here with me. We can await the return of your husband together.”
The arrival of a trembling serving girl with the refreshments ended any further conversation and an awkward silence ensued while Bandy carved into a lump of cheese. When Meg heard the sound of boots echoing along the passages below them, she knew that Bandy’s soldiers were no longer in the hall. They were securing the house against any attempt at entry.
On the other hand, it appeared that she had discovered their traitor…
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.
At Acton Court Gibb had little trouble in persuading Bandy’s soldiers that he was a fool. He passed up no opportunity to stumble and then fell headlong when he brought in their food. Chunks of bread skittered across the hall floor while Gibb tripped several times as he attempted to retrieve them all.
“Get out, you worthless shit!” snarled one of the soldiers, kicking Gibb’s backside as he scampered away.
Outside the hall Gibb, grinning with satisfaction, hurried out into the yard and made his way swiftly to a small chamber by the north wall. There he paused for a moment to make sure that he was not being observed. Then, without knocking, he opened the door and crept into the dark chamber. Almost at once he crashed into a bed and tumbled over on top of its occupant.
The startled woman cried out and Gibb went very still as he felt ice-cold steel come to rest against his throat.
“It’s me – it’s Gibb,” he hissed. “It’s Gibb!”
“I know it’s you, Gibb,” replied a scornful voice, “because I can smell you! Now, are you getting off me, or am I ruining what’s left of your good looks?”
Only when Gibb backed away, did Mistress Mary Ford put up her blade.
“Gawd save us,” he grumbled. “You always sleep with a knife in yer ‘and?”
“I do when Hal’s not with me. It pays to, if you’re Eleanor Elder’s servant,” retorted Mary. “Now, what are you doing in my bed? Because, young tanner, it’ll be my Hal who does the skinning, if he finds you in here.”
“I’m sorry, mistress, but the ‘ouse is taken over and the ladies… well, I fink they’re in trouble.”
Mary Ford, he noted, accepted the devastating news as if he had told her there was a slight chance of rain.
“Go on then,” she said. “Tell me what you know.”
It did not take Gibb long to do so, since he knew very little.
“So,” Mary concluded, “the two ladies are with this Master Bandy, he’s got half a dozen men posted about the house and Lord John and Master Poyntz are still out somewhere on the estate.”
“That’s it,” said Gibb. “It’s as bad as it could be, ain’t it?”
“Hah, you’ve not been in Lady Eleanor’s service long enough, lad,” scoffed Mary. “Trust me; it’ll get a lot worse than this before it gets any better…”
“But what do we do, Mistress Ford?” cried Gibb.
“Do? We do what all good servants do, Gibb,” said Mary. “We use our wits to help get our ladies out of the shit they’ve landed in. Now, go and see if you can find the steward, Master Legge.”
“But can we trust him, mistress?”
“If this Master Bandy’s our traitor, then Legge isn’t, is he? So, find Legge; because he’ll have all the keys – and try not to be noticed.”
“It’s alright,” confided Gibb. “They fink I’m a fool.”
“So do I, at times, Gibb,” murmured Mary wearily. “So do I.”
“What am I asking Master Legge to do then?”
“Get him to let you out one of the postern gates so that you can warn Lord Elder what’s happened.”
“But what will you do, mistress?” he asked.
“I’ll go up to Lady Meg.”
“But they won’t let you, will they?”
“I have my own skills, Master Gibb – and don’t you forget it!”
Opening the chamber door a crack, Gibb peered out into the passage and, relieved to find it deserted, slipped out of the room and back down the steps to the yard. Ignoring the soldier shivering on the threshold of the screened passage, Gibb made to walk past him to the far side of the yard.
“Where are you going?” grumbled the deputy sheriff’s man.
“Kitchen,” mumbled Gibb.
With a sigh that seemed to encapsulate the fellow’s miserable night so far, he nodded and allowed Gibb to pass by him and on to the kitchen. It was soon apparent that the steward was not there – only two servant girls and the cook – the latter bemoaning his misfortune.
“I’d have been up baking the bread in an hour or so,” he complained. “So why did they have to wake me now?”
“Did Legge wake you?” enquired Gibb.
“Master Legge to you,” said the cook, “and yes the bastard did wake me – God rot him! But what’s that to do with you? You mind your place, lad.”
Gibb, who had shambled into the kitchen like a drunken jester, drew himself tall and declared: “I’ll tell you my place, master cook. I serve Lady Meg Elder and what I need to know to keep ‘er safe, I will know. Now, where’s Legge?”
“Last I saw him,” replied the disgruntled cook, “he was going to the hall to see what these fellows want.”
Without another word, Gibb turned on his heel and crossed the kitchen yard to the pantry to cut through to the hall, hoping to avoid the attention of Bandy’s guards. Even before he entered, he could hear two men arguing; and, once inside, he found the steward in angry dispute with one of the guards. When they saw Gibb, both men fell silent and the guard stormed out with the words: “If you don’t like it, then you can take it up with Master Bandy.”
“Trouble, Master Legge?” asked Gibb, adopting once more his role of obsequious dolt.
“The business of a steward, Gibb; so nothing for you to concern yourself with,” replied Legge, muttering, as he turned to go: “This invasion of my master’s house is a grave mistake, I fear…”
“Master Legge,” whispered Gibb. “I need to go for ‘elp – if you let me out one of the gates, I can fetch yer master and Lord Elder.”
Legge was a strange fellow, Gibb thought – one moment he was all kindness, but the next he could be snapping hard at your heels. You never knew where you were with him, which was one reason why he had always suspected Legge of being the traitor. But, as Mistress Ford said, it was a relief that they knew now who the real traitor was.
Legge stared at Gibb for a long moment before replying: “Alright then, lad. It’s a good idea. Come with me.”
Leading him into the screened passage adjacent to the hall, Legge passed the guard at the rear door and took Gibb out into the yard once more. When he hurried past the brew house to a store house against the outer wall, Gibb followed close behind.
Wrenching open the storehouse door, Legge said: “Wait in there.”
“But-” Gibb protested.
“You can’t be seen loitering about in the open, lad,” explained Legge. “Just wait in there until I can let you out of one of the gates.”
“Well enough, Master Steward,” agreed Gibb, squeezing into the small lean-to store. “But don’t be long!”
“One more thing, Gibb,” said Legge.
Gibb half-turned in time to see the steward’s fist, but too late to avoid it.
In the parlour Meg sat beside Lady Margaret, thinking through what she must do. Escape was uppermost in her mind for as long as Bandy held them hostage, John’s hands would be tied. She still had her knife blade for, as her aunt once pointed out to her, men rarely ever searched well-to-do ladies. It was as if they could not admit that a lady might be both willing, and able, to defend herself. Well, they would learn soon enough that Meg Elder had no such reservations.
Yet, blundering about with a knife blade by no means ensured a safe escape. She could only make her attempt when she reckoned there was an excellent chance of success. While they were alone with Bandy, Meg was confident that she could surprise him, but then what? No, she needed more of a plan than that.
The knock at the door surprised them all and Bandy flung it open to reveal Mary Ford bearing a tray of drinks.
“What are you doing up here?” demanded Bandy. “I didn’t ask for more refreshment.”
“I serve the ladies, not you,” declared Mary, with a boldness which made Meg smile. “And they’ve not had so much as a drink for hours. So your men let me come up.”
For a fraction of a second, Bandy hesitated, but then relented. “My men are not paid to make decisions,” he grumbled. “Come in, damn you; but you can stay in here. I’m not having you wandering about the house as you please.”
Though Meg glanced across at her, Mary’s face betrayed nothing. When Mary handed her a cup of spiced wine, Meg said: “Thank you, Mary. You’re always so prepared aren’t you?”
Handing another cup to Lady Margaret, Mary replied: “Always ready to help, my lady.” Then, lowering her voice, she murmured: “Gibb’s gone for help.”
“Alright, alright,” interrupted Bandy. “Now you’ve served them, you can go and sit down over there on the floor – and stay there.”
After sipping some of her wine, Meg smiled at her captor. “Thank you, Master Bandy,” she said, in the meekest voice she could manage.
Mary’s confirmation that she was “ready to help” told Meg that Mistress Ford had come armed. But even if, between them, they succeeded in overpowering Bandy, they could still not escape past several more armed men. Though Gibb might get out and find her brother, she doubted that John could get in to rescue them. And if he could not, as dawn drew ever closer, how long dare she wait before she acted?
She was still pondering her decision when the steward, Master Legge walked in. Surprised that he was permitted to wander up at will, she soon understood when he engaged Bandy in a whispered conversation.
Lady Margaret, quiet until now, stood up at once. “Legge?” she cried. “Don’t tell me you are in league with this man?”
“Surprised, eh?” said Legge.
“But why?” breathed Lady Margaret. “Your father served as a loyal steward before you – why would you betray us?”
“Yes, my father, Walter served as steward,” said Legge, “but only after your husband’s father cheated him of his land. What choice did he have then? Service, or ruin? Robert Poyntz owes me some land, my lady. But, when I asked him about it, he told me to carry on serving as steward while he considered it. Well, Master Bandy here has found me a quicker way to get justice. Since your husband’s a traitor to the king and will be condemned for it. I’ll be granted my father’s lands – and, I dare say, a lot more besides.”
Lady Margaret, utterly bewildered by Legge’s accusations, crumpled back down onto her seat in despair.
“Drink some more wine, my dear,” consoled Meg.
“But we are lost,” muttered Lady Margaret.
“Yes, my lady, indeed you are,” agreed Bandy, “as all traitors should be.”
Meg met Bandy’s confident stare with one of her own. “The night’s not over yet, Master Bandy,” she said softly, before draining the rest of her wine.
Ignoring her riposte, Bandy opened the door and, leaving it ajar, carried on his privy exchange with Legge on the landing outside. It was a conversation, thought Meg that was not entirely without tension; so, perhaps all was not going too well for the traitors after all. She hoped it meant that Gibb had got out safely.
Meg thought they would probably only get one chance to escape – but was this it?Mary Ford had turned to face her, waiting only for a signal to move. Meg was bold enough to act but, unlike her Aunt Eleanor, she was not rash. Nothing had changed in the past few moments – indeed Legge’s involvement surely only weakened their chances. Thus, she gave a shake of the head to Mary, who turned away again, disconsolate, to face the wall.
A sudden banging on the main door below interrupted Legge and Bandy. Meg did not miss the worried look that passed between the two men.
“You go down,” Bandy told Legge.
Having despatched the steward to find out who was at the door, Bandy stood on the parlour threshold, watching down the stairs. Events were still moving, decided Meg, so the moment she needed might yet come.
“What are we to do,” whispered Lady Margaret.
“Wait,” said Meg.
“But how long for?” hissed her companion.
“Until I get a clear chance to kill Master Bandy,” replied Meg.
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…