The sound of the men coming back up the stair was accompanied by a flickering glow. Knowing she had only moments, Eleanor scrambled across the floor until a sudden stab of pain shot up into her leg. But, despite her sore knee, she almost cried out in triumph for she had found the missing knife. Even armed with Meeks’ blade, her only hope would be to strike before both men reached the landing. Struggling to her feet with the knife in hand, she stumbled towards the stairwell, guided by the light of the torch.
With a silent curse, she saw that the first man up with the torch was holding a sword in his other hand. But there was no turning back now so, crouching low by the top of the steps, she waited for him to reach the landing and stabbed her knife up into his thigh. Often, she knew, such a wound could be mortal; but on this occasion, it was not. Her sudden attack only served to enrage her intended victim who swung his sword low where he expected her to be. Though Eleanor had hastily dropped flat, the blade still made slight contact, scoring across her back.
Before he could swing his weapon a second time, she leapt up at him, stabbing his torso several times before he caught her wrist and hurled her back across the landing. She had clearly hurt him, but not enough, for though his leather jack was now streaked with blood, he calmly handed the torch to his comrade behind him, near the top of the steps.
In the wavering light, the dead guard was plain for them to see, as was the figure of Eleanor, crouched back beside him once more. The wounded man glared at her with a shake of the head.
“That’s two of my friends you’ve killed now,” he said. “But you’re going to wish you hadn’t, before we’re done with you. Ralph, bring that torch a bit closer.”
He was not looking at Ralph, who was still behind him, but Eleanor was. She watched spellbound as he gave a slight shudder before letting out a sudden squeal. Then he just disappeared along with his torch, leaving his stunned comrade alone on the dark landing with Eleanor. Since she had no idea what had just happened, she reckoned that her adversary must be equally uncertain. The torch which had fallen below had clearly not been extinguished for a dull wavering light still showed upon the stair. But would her opponent go back down to investigate, or keep coming for her? A scraping noise on the stair persuaded him to do the former, edging back away from her to peer down the steps.
Eleanor tried to discern from his expression what he could see below, but all she saw was puzzlement. Clearly uncertain, he lingered at the top of the steps for several moments and then stared across the landing at her. Even in the low light, she could tell that he had made up his mind.
Standing up to face him, Eleanor thought that some hope remained. She still had the knife – and he was wounded and alone now. But there was no blood pouring from his chest and she realised that her knife thrusts had been too weak, too shallow to really hurt him. Now he had his eyes fixed upon her and took a pace forward to halve the distance between them.
Another sound upon the stair behind him caused him to pause once again but, perhaps unwilling to turn his back upon her, he raised his sword and pointed the tip of the blade at her breast.
“No more reprieves, lady,” he said.
But Eleanor was no longer looking at her nemesis; instead she was staring beyond him. If the shock registered on her face at all, he must have thought it some clever deception on her part. Only when her expression did not change, did he react, turning around sharply to find a gaunt figure limping towards him, sword clutched in a hand that hung by his side.
Without hesitation, the guard swept his sword at the newcomer who barely managed to raise his weapon in time to parry it. Driving him back, the guard sought a killing blow, until Eleanor plunged her knife hard into his side. Though he tried to push her away, this time blood was pumping from the wound and when he tried to face his new adversary, a sword punched through his chest to steal away his life. With a groan of despair, he dropped to his knees with the fatal sword still embedded in his breast.
“René!” shrieked Eleanor, crushing her saviour to her so hard that, weak as they both were, they collapsed in a heap on the landing floor.
“Thought you might have forgotten me,” he murmured.
“I thought, by the water, that I heard your voice,” she wept. “But I knew… it couldn’t be you.”
“Well, it is,” he said, getting up to retrieve his weapon.
“Are there any more of them below?” she asked.
“Not unless they’ve come since I started up – but then it’s taken me a while, lady.”
She smiled at him, astonished how pleased she was to see him.
“Come,” she said. “We have to get to my nephew.”
He nodded. “Slowly though, eh? I’m still recovering from making my up.”
“What happened to your leg?” she asked, wrapping an arm firmly around him.
“Stray arrow,” he grumbled. “It’ll heal.”
“If you don’t go up too many more steps,” she added, with a grin.
Together, they took their time to descend to the ground floor with Eleanor holding the torch and helping to bear as much of René’s weight as she could.
When they arrived back down at the house door, they giggled at each other like a pair of guilty children; until the door opened to reveal another armed guard upon the threshold.
“Oh, sweet Christ,” groaned Eleanor, as René pushed her aside to reach for his sword. But he was too slow and his opponent’s weapon was already in mid-air. But there the blade lingered and the arm that held it began to tremble as the dying man spent his final moments contemplating the sword point that protruded from his chest. When he fell, Eleanor cried out when she saw that it was her son, Will who was standing over the corpse.
“Good day, mother,” he greeted her, with a rueful smile. “How is it you always manage to get yourself into such trouble, I wonder?”