Though her clothing was still damp and she was shivering with cold, Eleanor was grateful to have only a few cuts and bruises after her exploits thus far. All the same, night was never her best time, for it allowed all the grim spectres of her past to crowd in upon her. As she sat now, in almost complete darkness, on the rickety stool provided by her captors, it was hard to avoid some serious soul-searching.
Mercifully, they had left her alone and the nearest guards were on the floor below – preferring their own company to hers, it appeared. One of them she recognised as the sole survivor of those holding her at the cottage. His rough handling of her, when she was recaptured, revealed that he was all too aware what she had done to one of his comrades. She reckoned there were three men watching over her in all – and three seemed too many even for her. This time, escape was surely impossible.
The past few hours’ reflection reminded her of the exhilarating life she once led – a life lived on a knife’s keen edge – a life where death sat every hour upon her shoulder. In those uncertain times, she had never felt more alive; but such a life was gone for good. And now, what else beckoned for her – continuing to spend her days as a vintner in Ludlow and watching over her nieces? If she did that for the rest of her days, she would end up alone and her heart would wither along with her body. Was that a life for Eleanor Elder: lingering on as a wizened old crone, railing ever more bitterness at the world and his dog?
The prospect made her shudder with disgust and at that moment she resolved that there would be no meek surrender. A rueful smile played across her dry lips as she decided upon her course. If the traitors did not have her to trade for her beloved nephew, John then he need not surrender himself for her. Thus, in the end, whether she lived or died, John Elder – the child she had helped from his mother’s womb – would survive.
A sudden creak from the floor below warned her that a guard was ascending the stair and a sudden surge of anticipation gripped her. Since it must be perilously close to dawn, she would have to act now – if she was going to act at all. The appearance of the guard at the top of the steps provided the spark she needed to stir some cold, abandoned embers of resistance.
Holding out his torch to cast its stark glare upon her, he snarled: “What have you got to grin about?”
His brutal demeanour stoked a fire that was already coursing through every fibre of her body: wild, uncontrolled and merciless. Her fierce eyes gleamed back at him.
“I was wondering what I could offer you to persuade you to let me go,” she replied.
“Hah! Don’t forget, you old bitch,” growled her captor, “I know what you did to Blake.”
“Blake?” said Eleanor.
“The fellow you cut up at the cottage,” he growled. “His name was Blake – and you butchered him like a pig. But I’m no fool, lady. The same trick won’t work with me.”
“What’s your name then?” asked Eleanor, standing up.
“You don’t need to know, ‘cos soon you’ll be beyond all knowing,” he told her.
She hardly noticed the import of his words for she was beyond that now. Instead her eyes followed his right hand as it slowly drew out the knife from his belt.
“This isn’t going to be a slow end, lady,” he murmured.
“Let’s see how it turns out,” replied Eleanor, as she swung the chair at him, sweeping aside torch and man in one savage gesture of defiance.
Rocked backwards by the blow, he let fall the torch and only just stopped himself from falling down the steps. But he regained his balance and raised the knife.
“Not enough, lady! Have you got nothing else?” He spat the challenge at her.
Snatching up his fallen torch, Eleanor thrust the burning brand at his face. Though he lunged at her hand with his blade, the flame forced him to retreat down several steps. The more she brandished the torch, the more the fire licked at her own hand but, ignoring the singeing skin, she focussed only on the man now half-way down the stair. Of course, as soon as they reached the next floor, she would be in trouble for he would have room to move and the noise would almost certainly have alerted his comrades.
Just as she was beginning to doubt her courage, she tripped on a step and plunged down onto him. The fiery torch caught him full in the face and brought a scream of agony. Next moment, the impact of her body striking his, propelled them both down to the bottom of the stair. Eleanor lost her grip on the torch but had a softer landing than her opponent, whose scream was abruptly cut short. In the dying glimmer of the guttering torch, she stared at his fire-ravaged face twisted at an unnatural angle.
Just before the torch went out, she glimpsed a head and shoulders emerge on the stair from below.
As all was plunged into blackness again, the dead guard’s comrade cried out: “Meeks? What’s going on? Is she dead?”
No, she isn’t dead yet, thought Eleanor, as she fumbled her hands over Meeks’ warm corpse, but failed to find his knife. Concluding that he must have dropped it when she struck him, she crawled across the landing to retrieve it.
Footsteps retreated back down the stairs and she realised that the other guard must have gone to fetch another torch – and, no doubt, his comrade. Against two armed men who could see what they were doing, she would not last a minute. But, so be it; she had made her choice.